Sunday, September 13, 2009

Effective Feminine Voice

I just read a blog by an anonymous Ph. D student where the words "a wee bit" were used. Since there was no name given, I thought, "This must be a girl." Like the bubble handwriting that every popular girl has in high school (which turns into an interior designer sort of block handwriting in college), there are writing quirks that give away a girl just as easily on the screen or in print.

"Wee bit" and other cutisms (cutesy words) can be found on the facebook pages and chat windows of young men as well, though somehow I doubt a man would allow a cutism to slip into his more serious writing (if he has such a thing at all). And my real beef isn't with the cutisms anyway.

What I've really been thinking about are the other tell-tale feminine writing habits and voices that make reading women hard for me sometimes. Some I can ignore when the writing flows. Others cause a passing cringe that I can shake off when the story is good. But there are still others that turn me away completely -- and by extension I end up believing that these feminine literary trespasses are a shared malaise among all the soft-focus-photo-covered, moody looking novels on the shelves at the store, all the journalists' articles by women on women, and all the girl band albums at the record store.

The modern woman writer's biggest problem is the moodiness. I don't mean PMS either. I mean the constant need to communicate something emotive and deep and poignant. It's quite depressing actually. It all starts with a plot that unavoidably leads this direction, but the writing style is the curdled icing on the burnt fiction cake.

Here's an excerpt from Jodi Picoult, who doesn't use as much flowery stuff but manages to get in some straightforward, purposeful heart-jabbing. I highlighted the most annoying parts and I don't think I need to do a "close reading" to explain why they're annoying:

"Swallowing, I pull the locket out of the pocket of my jeans. The heart falls on the glass counter in a pool of its own chain. "It's fourteen-karat gold," I pitch. "Hardly ever worn." This is a lie; until this morning, I haven't taken it off in seven years. My father gave it to me when I was six after the bone marrow harvest, because he said anyone who was giving her sister such a major present deserved one of her own. Seeing it there, on the counter, my neck feels shivery and naked."

This is written in the voice of a 13 year old girl, so the style is a little different from Picoult's own narrative voice, but not much (her writing sometimes reminds me of stuff my friends and I wrote as teens). We're on the first page of the book and we're already being made to feel sad, about the present and the past, and meeting a sad girl who pawns jewelry given to her by her father. This might be a hook for bored housewives. It's a real bummer for me (that is if I ever got past the cover of two girls leaning against each other's backs in near-silhouette).

The author had just switched from some expository rambling to the present tense, which is also very annoying. I don't think men use the present tense as often. I'll have to look into that -- I'm speaking mostly from "writers' group" experience throughout this post. But perhaps men feel as if their masculine presence makes their past tense writing "present" enough, and women feel as if the present tense helps them to be more intense.

Unfortunately I don't have a ton of girly passages to post as examples because I don't buy the stuff or wish to be seen checking these books out from the library (which may lead to a check-out desk conversation wherein I must pretend to like the sap-infused books or risk offending the librarian, the book expert, who loves them). That said, I do have some wonderful counter examples!

But first I'll go the middle road. Here is a passage from a new novel by Kim Echlin that I really enjoyed, but I did not get through it without the occasional eye twitch.

"I went to the university and studied languages. I was seduced by the shapes of words in my mouth and when I wrote them on the page they were raw and muscled and shining like a man who performs on stage. I needed memory and hope and since I could find them nowhere else, I looked for them in the declensions of verbs. Words swallowed me like a deep river. I dreamed false etymologies. I dreamed I discovered the beginning of the world in the sound of the adjective vraiment: vrai for truth and ment-ir for lie."

Jeez, I better not do this or I might not like the book as much! But here goes. The first sentence is too full of sexy, masculine stuff. "Memory and hope" are just lame and vague attempts to strike a nerve. "Swallowed me like a river" is like some over-emotional kid's high school poetry. The last couple of sentences I just love, though. Over the top, but successful, because any word lover can relate. I wouldn't say that my relationship with words is any less passionate than the one described here, I just think the writing could have been less intense while still carrying an intense message. The novel works well enough, despite the lapses into girl-anguish. Plus, this is the exact excerpt sent to me by a friend that got me to read the book!

For examples of twitch-free, smoothly-delivered writing, I will of course fall back on my favorites -- George Eliot and Virginia Woolf probably have some of the most ungirly yet uniquely feminine prose. Jane Austen is never hard to read either , even though she has a touch of girlishness in her lines. It might be a naive girlishness that pops up here and there for Austen and for the Charlotte Bronte, but I heartily welcome naivete in writing over clueless writing that tries far too hard to achieve some desired effect. Naivete, at least, believes it is being sincere. (Ok, let's drop all discussions on "sincerity" for now.)

What I notice most as I'm trying to go through these novels to show you some examples, is that it's hard to find just one short example. Here's the thing: What makes these women great writers is that they write not in one voice but in many voices! You can hear them shaping the words of their characters, for sure, but they do such a good job of bantering back and forth between Clarissa Dalloway and Peter Walsh, or between Mr. Brooke and Mrs. Cadwallader, between Dorothea and Casaubon, and even between the layered narrative voices of Ellen and Lockwood.

In between the dialog and inner thoughts written in these characters voices, the good writer often comes through speaking on her own. But she doesn't consciously do it to put her own opinion or mood into the text, the way Picoult and Echlin seem to do. All of their words are their own, and serve their own purposes it seems. And it gets tiresome to hear the same person talking for hundreds of pages.

Here is Mrs. Dalloway having strange and poetic thoughts while sewing:

"... collected the green folds together ... So on a summer's day waves collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying 'that is all' more and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body which lies in the sun on the beach says too, That is all. . . [and so on]"

Then into "greeting a visitor" mode, when she hears the doorbell and snaps into girlishness:

"'How heavenly is it to see you!" she exclaimed. He had his knife out. That's so like him, she thought."

Then Peter's inner response:

"Here she is mending her dress; mending her dress as usual, he though; here she's been sitting all the time I've been in India; mending her dress; playing about; going to parties . . . he thought, growing more and more irritated, more and more agitated, for there's nothing in the world so bad for some women as marriage . . ."

In this short section Woolf gets a little intense and emotive on us with the sewing, but reels it in for the dialog scene, and writes a nice, frantic, boyish reaction from Peter, who despite his agitation describes the sound of his name on Clarissa's lips as "delicious." There is also a varied tempo on these pages, which keeps Mrs. Dalloway's sometime inner-monologue style from totally settling in for us yet. Woolf's use of the semi-colon is frustrating at first, but it really helps her to be a champ at writing her characters' "stream of consciousness" at just the right beat. And as I've mentioned before, she's the only writer whose elipses I can stand.

I should really dig out more examples but I'm reading many things, and I have been putting of publishing this for weeks. So here it is. If you don't believe me, try to plow through some Picoult, then go pick up Wuthering Heights or Middlemarch to cure the literary malaise what will certainly ail ye.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Video Dating and Radio Timelessness


No, I don't mean some web-cam assisted dating service.

Today I was thinking about the way songs get ruined by their awful, dated music videos. Some even get ruined by good music videos. And songs pre-music video can sometimes get ruined by their album cover art. So why is the visual so dating and the aural so timeless?

Music styles change dramatically over time, just like what color schemes are popular (avocado and harvest gold...), what kind of jean wash is coolest (acid or stone?), or what kind of mythology we currently happen to favor in our popular culture (vampires?). Every music lover can tell new sounds from the old, and those of us who wear out the grooves in the vinyl can tell you what year a technique came into use, what kinds of influences were coming back to the fore, and a few musical anecdotes from that year.

So we can hear all the changes in our music, but they don't bother us. We don't think (unless we're 16 years old maybe) "Ugh! This sounds so seventies!" or anything like that. If someone tried to imitate the old sounds, and did it successfully, we'd probably like it.

I think before I go further I have to set the earlier seventies aside, because they're far enough removed that they're cool, in style and color and dress and everything. The later seventies are when some embarrassing things start to happen, like terrible clothes, the debut of spandex being a particularly troubling example. Album covers started to get shiny and sport space-ships and other futuristic stuff. By the eighties, they were spray-painted with graffiti, showed off red lips and roller skates, or worse. Looking at some of these albums you wonder how what's inside the package came from the same culture as what's on the outside.

The '80s also had a few new waves of music that we can place very easily in their '80s time slot. Some of it can be annoying, and like any decade there was plenty of bad to go with the good. But the good stuff, however over-synthesized or over-guitar-soloed it may be, could never make us cringe the way squiggly lines and triangles moving to the beat can.

So yeah, along came the music video, which makes this problem especially bad for the eighties. Some songs that will never live their videos down are Devo's "Whip It," Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer," and The Police's "Don't Stand so Close to Me."

"Sledgehammer" defined and influenced the '80s special-effects video look and won a million awards. But the video is too goddamn literal! I think Peter Gabriel is great at times, and I really try to listen to this song when it comes on the radio. I can't hear it though, because I just see claymation clouds floating across his face and claymation hammers smashing other clay junk. I can't separate the video from the song, and the music is less enjoyable because of that. This is a unique example of the problem since "Sledgehammer" is the most played music video of all time, but there's no denying how terribly '80s and dated it looks, and that this has an effect on how we hear the song.

"Whip It" doesn't really work at all without the visual, but it's an example of music catering to the video industry rather than the other way round.

"Don't Stand so Close to Me," despite all the juicy shots of Sting, is also way too literal for a video, and naturally those images get plugged right in as I hear the lyrics, making the song harder to enjoy. Of course this song is mostly meant to be taken literally, but some things are better left to the imagination. The teacher we're supposed to be hot for (confusing, since we should be angry with him right?), is very '80s conventional good-looking and all the high schoolers' hairdos are out of this world '80s yearbook photoesque. I try to just think of Sting. 1980 Sting.

Another example of dating problems I have had (haha) with '80s tunes was my initial fear of Talking Heads. I didn't want to like them, because they just seemed so "then." What fixed me? I watched a live DVD of them that was basically unplaceable in time. In "Stop Making Sense," no one wears any clothing that is dateable. There are no funky video effects. It's just the band playing and doing what they do. So then I started liking Talking Heads.

So why are these visual indicators of time so distasteful to us, while the musical indicators of time are not only tolerated but often welcome and exhilarating? When we look back at the '80s and decide we like something -- a color scheme or a hairdo -- we like it for the kitsch. But if we like an '80s song it's because we truly like it!

The same is true even with the '70s. I genuinely love the '70s, but some people just like them because it's funny to like them. They even had their own show. But the one thing they didn't make fun of on that show was the music.

I don't think video killed the radio star, but it sure made it a lot more complicated to appreciate the radio star without thinking about what he/she was wearing or what kinds of squigglies and special effects his or her video directors were into.

I just watched the video for Bowie's "Modern Love," because I'd never seen it. Big mistake.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

From Critics, to Theorists, to ?


In Peter Barry's Beginning Theory the first chapter lays out the ten tenets of liberal humanism (a lump term for criticism before theory) and contrasts these with a few basic qualities of literary theory. This simple compare and contrast exercise put a million questions and uncertainties to rest for me, but it also raised a few new, possibly bigger ones.

Barry, like the professor leading this seminar and like many in English studies, has a bias. He favors theory over liberal humanism. For theorists, theory is the resolution of many of the contradictory positions and methods held and used by liberal humanists (who it's important to note never called themselves that -- it's a term coined for them by the theorists). Obviously, for Barry, theory is an advancement from earlier types of criticism, and it builds upon them while fixing their problems and beefing up their inadequacies. In some cases it completely discounts earlier methods and approaches, labeling them naive or not practically useful.

Some of the less desirable ideas held by the early critics (less desirable as I see it that is -- I think Barry finds them all undesirable) are that literature's purpose is "the enhancement of life and propagation of human values," that "continuity in literature is more important than innovation," and that "human nature is essentially unchanging," and, perhaps most egregiously because it is itself a theoretical sort of claim, that "a theoretical account of the nature of reading. . . isn't useful in criticism."

These cause a lot of nose-wrinkling for me, the first three claims because they seem to suggest that literature is a tool for upholding the status quo, whatever that may be, yet at the same time professing that literature cannot be didactic. And the last claim is awful because it anticipates a branch of theory yet negates it before even finding out what it might have led to. Some of the early critics are notorious for not explaining how they arrive at their conclusions or apply their methods.

Some of the other tenets of "liberal humanism" (which is sort of roughly interchangeable with New Criticism) don't really rub me the wrong way as much as they appear to for Barry and Dr. Dunn. There are useful things in that list. Here are some of my favorite "outdated" liberal humanist, pre-theory ideas and why I've "favorited" them --

-- The organic nature of literature (something I always try to require!), specifically requiring content and form to be interrelated and build upon one another. I write vaguely about the organic in literature (and criticism) all the time, but this helped me put a finger on some things.

-- Literary sincerity (which I'd love to write a huge hulking paper on, preferably one that leads to more questions), specifically holding that the locus of sincerity is in the language of the text and its truth to itself, not in the authors intent or in whether he is writing like himself. I so often read things I find unsincere, and it (almost) all has to do with the text, not with what I think of Jodi Picoult or whoever. I'm simplifying this in my head right now, but it could get insanely complicated and rich when brought into the light of theory. (Yes, I still think it's a light...)

-- Separating the text from its context in order to better understand it. Some theorists do this for part of their method, and even if they eventually re-insert the text into its timeline or continent, they do benefit by extracting it for a bit. This method is championed by the pre-theory critic Cleanth Brooks, and while it cannot be used to exhaust the possibilities of studying a poem or other work, it offers a fun and challenging plunge into extremely close reading, which, as even Barry will admit, is the foundation or at least an important building block of many methods of theoretical practice. That, and I just really like Brooks, and I loved writing two papers using his "ancient" method (though it was required) last semester.

-- Showing not telling in literature. Every writers' group veteran knows this one. It's simple. But I wonder how much of it is stylistic and how much of it has to do with the core of what literature is or should be (and of course the l.h. crowd was occupied with getting at this essential pith). I haven't read Leavis' take on it ("The Enactment Fallacy"), but I will.

Now what does theory have to offer that the New Critics didn't? Barry doesn't devote as much space to spelling it out, as the rest of the book focuses on different theories in detail. He gives five main points:

1- Politics is pervasive
2- Language is constitutive
3- Truth is provisional
4- Meaning is contingent
5- Human nature is a myth

I think I buy a few of these in their distilled form. #2, 3, and 4 come in part from theorists that I have read and for the most part "believe" if you could call it that. I have a problem with #1, and I take #5 with a grain of salt. I don't think anyone, pre- or post-theory has figured out human nature, nor can they hope to do so through literature alone.

My problem with #1 comes from my heavy leaning toward the close reading and from my own reading habits. First, I do like to separate the text sometimes. Separate it from a socio-political sphere,and the politics can't get in quite as easily. Second, I have read enough that I watch myself read, and even as a student who is aware of politics' pervasiveness I don't require it to make good sense of what I read or to write what I think is good criticism. Third, I often read for and write about style and less concrete qualities of literature, like imagery and emotive qualities.***

*** (I said essentially the same thing aloud in class after writing this, and my professor tells me I am speaking like a true New Critic. Well, so be it, for now anyway.)

Politics, next to more intuitively all-encompassing words like language, truth, and meaning, seems like such a specific lens to put over every book, like it is so limiting, and even has nothing to do with some aspects of a text. I could even say that meaning has nothing to do with some aspects of a text. So why should politics always have a say?

So my new questions and problems arise from my love (possibly naive love) for some of the outdated critical ideas, and my urge to get all polemical on the blanket detractors of these ideas. I also run into confusion because I recognize that theory has corrected many problems and solved some contradictions associated with pre-theory methods and ideas, I love reading it, yet I refuse to give over to theory completely. Theory itself is not free from contradiction nor can it tackle every literary "problem" (although the fact that I can think of a work of literature as possibly having a "problem" in it must come from theory).

Today we are supposedly post-theory. I understand why, based on my own current problems with it. But we're enough post-theory (in the nineties it was "too soon!") that we can think back on it and that it gets studied as important literary history and as something we should all learn how to use. I am just a little taken aback that the early critics are getting such a bad rap because we've gone beyond them, yet the theorists, who have supposedly been similarly outmoded, are still sitting high on their pedestals and handing puzzle boxes down to us while we are told by voices in the crowd to look up at them in awe.

At least Dr. Dunn makes fun of them when he can.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Introductory Exercise

This Beginning Theory book has exercises in it, and that I was very excited about. Barry wants us to do some theory for ourselves, because it's not "some kind of spectator sport only played by superstars," so to continue his analogy, hopefully kicking the ball around a little will make the action less daunting, even if we can't play a full-on game just yet.

The first of the exercises is disappointingly general, but perhaps that makes it more challenging. It is supposed to make us "feel the need" for theory.

1. What first made you decide to study English, what did you hope to gain from doing so, and was that hope realized?

I always liked to write, and I've always found solace in books. I first made English my college major after a few years of art school and getting Cs on art projects. Once I got a C on a paper I wrote about an Eric Fischl painting. I was convinced that the prof was a jerk, because I didn't feel like I should ever get a C on my writing! Why didn't I feel that way about my paintings? It was then that I realized I can do a whole lot more with words than with oil paints, and that maybe I could understand them better too.

I hoped to do what I am good at, so that it comes easily and can be enjoyable when translated into some kind of career. I had trouble figuring out how this would happen at first, since English majors always get told to go into business, or to go to law school, or to teach children. Those things are not enjoyable. I finally figured out that I should just stay in school forever (which is fun and easy-ish and thought-provoking) by getting a PhD and then teaching the stuff to semi-adults. So yeah, my hope is on the way to being realized.

2. Which books and authors were chosen and what things did they have in common?

White folks were chosen; white American dudes for most of my secondary education. Twain, Hawthorne, Vonnegut, Steinbeck, Hemingway, etc. I did get some Wharton and even Ayn Rand when I briefly went to private school, and they're kind of outsiders. But for some reason, the English folk who wrote in English were not the main attraction. I think I read one thing each by Dickens and Shakespeare in 10th grade, and some short stories of a British persuasion, but that was it.

By college (some years later...) there was weirder stuff, by Arab women, by Mexican women, by Native American women. The high school books and the college books may have had different agendas, but most of them were spoon fed to us. It seems they used to teach us about some unchanging grain of humanity, and now they teach us about an almost violent diversity of humanity.

3. Which books and authors now seem conspicuously absent?

Most of the old faces are still around. I've reread many of those Americans in film courses (oooh, intertextuality?) and English courses. Curiously, I've still remained unexposed to many Brits except by my own diligent application to their works. I've taken a class or two in them, but those were dedicated Brit Lit courses, and not required. They refused to pop up in my genre classes, film as literature, or even intro to lit.

4. What, in general terms, has your previous study taught you?

It has taught me that there is some grain of humanity that can be accessed through literature across the ages, that literature is not a standalone product of an isolated mind (well, we can treat it that way for a little while, but then we have to backpedal), that doing what you love is so much better than doing what makes money, and that literature can indeed both "instruct and delight."

Luckily my professor is a funny guy who isn't expecting something more formal, 'cause this is it. I want to hear what others have to say tomorrow, and then I'll come back and add to this.

Idea-Induced Nausea


I needed a break from my reading. I'm poring over the first chapters of Beginning Theory by Peter Barry, to make sure I don't miss a thing (as suggested by the book itself). But then I come to the parts about Matthew Arnold and the Touchstones. No, it's not a doo-wop band. It's a nineteenth century literary figure and his coined term.

I can't stand this idea. Notwithstanding the fact that I don't really understand it, it still makes my stomach churn. The guy's motives are sickening enough (he's one of those that supposes literature can help us uphold our morals and keep us from trying to buck tradition), but the Touchstone (is is capitalized) is the clincher.

I might come back to this and explain the Touchstones some more when I have a better grip on them (perchance you may be equally nauseated!), but that's not the point of this little ramble.

The point is that I haven't been so turned off by something I'm reading in a long time. Especially something about literature. Fiction and poems can occasionally be disappointing, but usually criticism and theories just keep me reading, even if I disagree with what's being said. So it was really weird to just want to throw a book. It's not even the book's fault. Barry is just telling us what's happened in theory, not defending Arnold. So my squirmy chair repositioning and my eyes darting away on their own felt strange indeed.

Barry tells us that as beginners we should be patient with theory, and warns us against thinking that it is impossibly difficult because of:

A) our own intellectual shortcomings
B) shortcomings in our education prior to this course/book
C) the language of theory being rather difficult to read.

I do let "A" freak me out once in a while, but I am not concerned about "B" (I've been inundating myself in this stuff for a little while). "C" has never been an issue as I'm a fan of tough reading, and as many words as are needed to get something across precisely are OK with me.

After ticking off this list, Barry does tell us, however, not to be endlessly patient with the theorists. We should require theory "to be clear, and expect it, in the longer term, to deliver something solid." I can sort of go along with that, though I don't know if I always expect absolute clarity and solidity in theories. But I do expect to not be strung along, and to not be nauseated. A temporary challenge, discomfort, or apparent brain "impass" is welcome and stimulating. But a challenge for the sake of a challenge is not comfortable, and not productive.

Maybe I will get comfortable with Arnold, or maybe I will be able to figure out what is wrong with him and relieve the nausea by explaining it away. Why does his name come up so many times in the chapter?! For me, someone who always likes ideas, and even the chance to find the flaws in bad ideas, this period of extreme discomfort is not normal.

I have to finish the chapter now, and I will try to come back to those sections and reread them in a day or so. Maybe I'll bring Arnold up in class tomorrow (with less intense language of course, and I might not mention the puke factor or my urge to commit violence against printed materials). As for the other sections, I have soaked up a whole bunch of new names (not totally new, but unread by me so far), like I.A. Richards, F.R. Leavis, and a few other people who like to go by their first two initials.

-- R. N. Byrd