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What we will miss when newspapers disappear

Watching “Irma La Douce” last night, after reading “Out of Print,” Eric Alterman’s New Yorker piece, on newspapers dying, we realized that Eric omitted what we will miss when discarded newspaper can no longer be found lying around the house.

 

In “Irma La Douce,” Jack Lemmon, playing Nestor, the defrocked, now homeless policeman, spending the night with Irma, hangs curtains, improvised from newspaper, across her bare windows to shield her from the possibility of being seen from the Paris street below. He has already described to Irma how he often inserted a folded newspaper under his uniform jacket to help keep warm on rainy beats. Dramatizing the practical uses of newspaper, Nestor reminded us of Red Skelton’s sleeping on the park bench skits, under and on blankets and mattresses of newspaper.

 

What else is throwaway newspaper good for? Wrapping for fish, and rolled newspapers, soaked in a tub of water, then dried, make efficient fireplace logs. The logs burn slowly and evenly with minimal smoke, stack and store neatly, and pack easily for camping trips. When we were kids, we copied the colorful Sunday comics onto pancakes of Silly Putty. Nowadays, we post our favorite comics, cut from the newspaper, onto the icebox. We rely on newspaper for kitty and puppy mishaps, bird cage lining, and party spills. Newspaper is an effective window wipe, for car and house, makes good fly swatters and fans, and comes in handy for arts and crafts, and for masking and painting jobs. We had an uncle who taught us how to make pirate hats from newspaper. Our spouse makes sensible use of newspaper coupons. The Op-Ed page, slipped unceremoniously under the commode door – bereft in a TP shortage, one wouldn’t treat even a week old New Yorker like that. In elementary school we used newspaper to cover our text books. Gone too, after newspapers die, the paper drive fundraiser.

 

Finally, we will miss the frap of the morning paper tossed onto the front porch, a reliable alarm clock, or sometimes we hear the paper sliding across the pavement of the drive, announcing rain (splat) or sun (long, dry skid). No doubt, others can add to our list of what will be missed with the dying of the newspaper, more mere memories added to the detritus of 20th century anthropological curiosities.

But newspaper is organic. It can be added to the compost bin, and after breaking down can be used as mulch to spread around the Web garden.  

Into the valley of rejection rode the 850

Having read Dana Goodyear’s “The Moneyed Muse” (New Yorker, February 19 & 26, 2007), we were surprised to hear that the Willesden Herald received only 850 entries in this year’s annual short story contest, then again surprised at the outcome, for into the valley of rejection rode the 850.

The follow up on the Willesden Herald site, including finalist judge Zadie Smith’s letter of explanation, is the interesting part of this story. The judges decided there will be no prize this year, all 850 of the entries failing the requisite “make it good.” Zadie says, “…we didn’t receive enough,” after the editors have already described an overdose reading experience. From Goodyear’s article, readers might recall: “At last count, several years ago, Poetry, which prints some three hundred poems a year, had to choose from among ninety thousand submissions.” One wonders how even a fraction of those get read – and how do they select which ones to read?

But Willesden Herald’s total rejection may have been a response informed by a pre-determined argument rather than a reader confronting any actual story. From Zadie’s letter: “Just like everybody, we at The Willesden Herald are concerned about the state of contemporary literature. We are depressed by the cookie-cutter process of contemporary publishing, the lack of truly challenging and original writing, and the small selection of pseudo-literary fictio-tainment that dominates our chain bookstores.” Does that describe the stories they received? We don’t know. And is there ample evidence to support that “everybody” is concerned? The number of those concerned is probably closer to nobody than to everybody.

It’s apparently no fun being a judge: “…by the start of November, all three short-listing judges started having to give up between 12 and 20 hours every week of their time to reading. Eventually, the volunteer that opened the envelopes and did the initial data entry was swamped and at one point, while keeping the entrants’ names secret to all the judges, SM had to help out with tedious data entry by staring at a spreadsheet through the night.” Perhaps a fresh crop of volunteer readers might have read things differently.

“No bird has the heart to sing in a thicket of questions,” Rene Char said, nor read in one, no doubt. While we have been struggling in the current reading crisis to identify a common reader, here is evidence of a common writer. How is it possible that the publication these writers are reading received not a single entry that matched the quality of what they publish, or would like to publish? How can the number of writers be growing while the number of readers is declining? Was the quality of writing really the issue, or is there a warrant in the Herald’s justification, an attempt not to devalue as much as revalue? What does the common reader (in this sentence defined as a reader who is not also a writer or a would be writer) want to read? What if next year they get 90,000 submissions; how will they handle that?

Good is that which suits its purpose. A good story is one that achieves its goals, even if we happen to dislike those goals. We don’t like horror films, but we’ve no doubt there are good ones. We go to Edmund Wilson, speaking of Flaubert and Baudelaire, who “exerted, in dealing with the materials supplied them by their imagination, a rigorous will to refrain; that their work might thus fortify their readers as well as entertain them…” Further, Wilson maintains, “…fine workmanship itself always contains an implicit moral… experimentation is necessary: one must allow a good deal of apparently gratuitous, and even empty or ridiculous work, if one wants to get masterpieces.” And, finally, Wilson: “…they may not be good for anything, but, on the other hand, they may be valuable – one has to wait and see what comes of them, what other writers may get out of them.”  

Perhaps the Herald should have spent the prize money to publish all 850 stories, thereby letting their readers decide. Or we may leave literature and go into social science, where we will find that a preference for a particular story is the result of class privilege, for taste is not a virtue; it is distilled.

Edmund Wilson quotes above taken from “Notes on Babbitt and More,” from Edmund Wilson, A Literary Chronicle: 1920-1950, Doubleday Anchor Books.

The amateur spirit in writing

We do not have the New Yorker DVD library (though we do have in the basement a stack of paper copies we regularly prune for mold), but we do have E. B. White’s “Writings from the New Yorker, 1927-1976,” edited by Rebecca M. Dale (HarperPerennial paperback edition published 1991).

The “Talk of the Town” pieces these days only occasionally reach White’s wit or brevity. He often captures a moment of his own time while gazing into some distance, foretelling. A case in point, his May 11, 1929 piece, where he writes: “’Writing is not an occupation,’ writes Sherwood Anderson. ‘When it becomes an occupation a certain amateur spirit is gone out of it. Who wants to lose that?’ Nobody does, replies this semi-pro, sitting here straining at his typewriter.”

Yet today, as the reading crisis spreads its tangential wings to include newspapers pruning peripheral departments, some semi-pro and pro writers are forced back into an amateur spirit.

Where will they go? Continued White: “Nobody does, yet few writers have the courage to buy a country newspaper, or even to quit a city writing job for anything at all. What Mr. Anderson says is pretty true. Some of the best writings of writers, it seems to us, were done before they actually thought of themselves as engaged in producing literature.”

Or before, in other words, they thought of themselves as real writers at all. One blogs in the hopes the amateur spirit will prevail, painfully aware that blogging also makes it easier, as White later said, “for persons who are not artists and writers to continue the happy pretence” (May 21, 1938).

But it’s not only to gain even amateur status that we might entertain the doubtful purposes of writing – for self or for others; it’s because even though we know full well we’ll never play right field for the Dodgers, we still enjoy shagging balls in the back-yard; we will still ride a skateboard down the hill, though of course we are no Tony Hawk, as our spouse reminds us, shouting she’s not taking us to emergency when we fall; and though we could never follow “Da Bull” into the big waves, when we’re back in El Porto, we’ll always paddle out for a small one.

Whatever happens to the pros, this amateur writing spirit hopefully encouraged and evidenced in the best blogging, whether pretence or preface, may enable those who agree that writing is learned while writing, and in no other way, to find a subject, knowing that subjects often reveal themselves only once we’ve made the commitment marked by a few hundred words.

More on the reading crisis

CQ Researcher has just published a study on the reading crisis. I’ve copied a summary below. Cross-reference to previous post regarding Caleb Crain’s December 24 New Yorker article, “Twilight of the Books: What will life be like if people stop reading?” Crain’s article is listed in the CQR bibliography. CQ Researcher can be accessed through most college library database services, or try your local county library (Multnomah provides CQR). Of particular interest are the opposing viewpoint articles at the end of the CQR report, by poet Dana Gioia and Games2Train CEO, Marc Prensky. 

Reading Crisis?” by Marcia Clemmitt, February 22, 2008  

Do today’s youth read less than past generations?

The number of Americans who read for pleasure has been dropping for decades, and now recent data show the lowest levels ever, especially among Americans ages 15 to 24. At the same time, reading scores among teenagers are dropping. Some literacy experts are declaring the situation a crisis. They warn that with fewer fluent, habitual readers, America may soon lack not only the skilled workers needed for an information-based economy but also the informed voters crucial to democracy. Others dismiss such views as alarmist, arguing the data don’t capture the large amount of online reading today, especially by young adults. Technology experts also note that computers and video may be simply changing the form of literacy needed today, just as the printing press and typewriter did in ages past. While book reading formed the core of 20th-century literacy, in the 21st century literacy is more likely to mean writing blogs and instant messages as well as skimming online video and audio, along with text, to gather information.

  • Do young people read less than in the past?
  • Is there a literacy crisis?
  • Will harm be done if new technologies crowd out traditional reading?

The way in is the far out

John Cage opened the windows of the music room. He incorporated unintended as well as intended but unconventional sounds into music composition, thus acknowledging a modern electrocution of music that alters the sensorium. Music became an extension of our wired ears. The way in was the far out.

Cage created performance lectures, utilizing a multi-media approach that combined sound, text, and oral lecture with non-linear arrangement and movement of ideas, words, sentences as musical phrases, and anecdotal asides (his short-short stories approximating the Zen koan). Bulleted lines, multiple columns, and a variety of font characteristics permeate the text versions. The lectures are collected in the books “Silence” (1961) and “A Year From Monday” (1967). Cage’s initial attempts were an effort to incorporate his musical ideas into different modes of argument, so that the listener could “experience what I had to say rather than just hear about it” (“Silence,” Foreword). The lectures are measured compositions. The composer provides time values, tempo markings, directions for rhythm and pitch, and textual arrangements serving as bars and measures. Chance and indeterminacy informed Cage’s composition process:

“At Black Mountain College in 1952, I organized an event that involved the paintings of Bob Rauschenberg, the dancing of Merce Cunningham, films, slides, phonograph records, radios, the poetries of Charles Olson and M. C. Richards recited from the tops of ladders, and the pianism of David Tudor, together with my Juilliard lecture…The audience was seated in the center of all this activity” (“Silence,” Foreword).

Not everyone in the audience may have enjoyed the attempt to rearrange their sensorium. Cage relates, of his “Lecture on Nothing,” “One of the structural divisions was the repetition, some fourteen times, of a single page in which occurred the refrain, ‘If anyone is sleepy let him go to sleep.’ Jeanne Reynal, I remember, stood up part way through, screamed, and then said, while I continued speaking, ‘John, I dearly love you, but I can’t bear another minute.’ She then walked out.”

We may feel a similar response to some of today’s pervasive PowerPoint presentations. They are not written, or composed, but put together, as in “I put together a PowerPoint for today’s meeting.” The use of PowerPoint is itself a value assumption (warrant). Yet for organization and presentation of an argument for today’s reader (who has not the time, inclination, or patience for linear modes – a reader now beyond the Guttenberg Galaxy, outside the margins of McLuhan’s marginal man, a mosaic man), the persuasive possibilities of the PowerPoint slide show are hard to beat.

For a consideration of the potential ill effects of PowerPoint, see Ian Parker, “Can a Software Package Edit Our Thoughts?” The New Yorker, May 28, 2001.

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.