Posts Tagged ‘literature’

to hack or not to hack

To hack or not to hack, that is the question.

An article in the New York Times last month describes several start-up companies whose goals are “to do for books what Netflix did for movies and Spotify for music.”

As an incentive for authors and publishers to add their work to these online collections, the companies promise to deliver insights into reader behavior: how many finished the books or skipped to the end, which passages readers lingered over and which they skimmed, and so on.

The article goes on to question the viability of the business model, and quotes one writer who is both interested in seeing this reader data and worried that it might reduce her creativity or her willingness to take risks.

All in all, “E-Books are Reading You” was a good article. Thoroughly reported. Balanced in its considerations. And temperate.

This is more than I can say for the Letters to the Editors selected by the Times to publish in response to the article, under the headline “Writers Desperately Seeking Readers,” which are as neat a collection of vanity, arrogance, contempt, elitism, and reductionist thinking as you are likely to find on a mere one-eighth of a standard broadsheet.

From this description, you might think I didn’t like these letters. But I did. Because they encapsulate so many of things I find wrong with writers.

I’m not going to out the authors of these letters – they are quite easily found through Google with the information I’ve provided anyhow – I’ll simply provide my response to what they wrote. To wit:

Art is a supremely individual expression.

Yes, I agree with that.

It doesn’t ask permission; it doesn’t take an exit poll and adjust accordingly.

It doesn’t? You mean no artist has ever taken an audience’s reaction into account? How about the opinions of mentors, other artists, editors, agents, critics, friends, spouses, or lovers? Where does acting on feedback end and pandering begin? Or does the definition depend on the status of who is giving the feedback?

Artists say what they know … they have no choice in the matter.

Yes, I agree with that too. Unfortunately.

And it’s our privilege to be brought into their world.

Our privilege? I would like to decide for myself whether entering that world is a “privilege”. Many times it is. However, from my experience, when someone declares that my attention to their work is a “privilege” this is often a sign that it ain’t. In any case, I think an audience’s attention to a work of art is also a “privilege” that is earned by the artist, rather than something that is his or her natural right. Or something to be demanded in a fantasy-fascist world where the artist, self-proclaimed or otherwise, rules as a cult-of-personality dictator.

Once artists start asking how many “likes” they’ve garnered, or listening to customer-satisfaction surveys to increase their sales, they’re no longer making art: they’re moving product.

Okay, here we go. Did Shakespeare move “product”? Because we have a fair amount of evidence that he did, from his output and popularity, to his becoming one of the owners of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, to the records of his investments and property purchases including New Place in Stratford. Will didn’t start rich. But he ended up that way. And he did so while becoming, as it turns out, the immortal genius of literature in English.

Then we have the famous Robert Greene, who seems – with some scholarly doubt, but not too much — to be referring to Shakespeare in his comment about “an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers … [who] supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you.”

I have two points to make here. The first is that earning money from art, and earning it through popular success, is in no way incompatible with the highest artistic achievement; and the examples of this are so numerous and so decisive you would think there would be no need to have the discussion. Dickens. Bob Dylan. Heck, even Nabokov. I bet you can name plenty of your own. All these guys made serious coin. But not one of them ever once considered the satisfaction of their “customers”? (Well, I’ll give you Nabokov.) No real artist ever once bent to a requirement of a pope with gold or a publisher who could pay or to what people or a patron seemed to like? They never once took a commission? Really? Hum.

The second point is that a great number of the attitudes I’m spanking the hell out of here, possibly to my peril, are not really about art. They are about the vanity of people who want to be seen as artists and who jealously guard the elevated social status that perception confers.

This is where Greene comes in to play. Greene was a university-educated playwright who clearly believed Shakespeare was infringing on his turf. Where is Greene’s work now? Or consider where the reputation of Shakespeare’s two long “art” poems sit compared to his plays.

Another way to say it is that the intention to create art is no guarantee of artistic success just as the intention to please an audience is no guarantee of artistic failure. And these are just two of the many complex factors, complexly interacting, that actually drive the act of creation.

Writers such as these could be described as ‘tech savvy’ or known by an adjective that predates the digital age: hacks.

A variation on the theme here, but a couple points. First is the idea that a “hack” appears to be someone who acts on aggregate feedback from a large audience. The author of this letter describes himself as an editor. I assume that if a writer listens to his editorial feedback, he does not think this makes the writer a hack. But if so, I would like to know the reasons why acting on his advice is not pandering too.

Hovering around the fringes of these letters are two relevant ideas. The first is the genre fiction / literary fiction divide, in which the former is characterized by the low-quality pursuit of money and the latter by the high-quality pursuit of art. The second is that the categories are absolute. You are either Fifty Shades of Grey or you are The Waves; you are either a hack or you are not; you either listen to everybody or you listen to nobody but your own genius muse.

But there is actually a wide spectrum between these two poles and different artists, and different works by the same artist, fall all over the place between them. Some work that is perceived to pursue popularity and profit turns out to be art (Shakespeare again). Some work that is perceived to be art sinks into rightful oblivion. Some art is art and some crap is crap. Then there is a whole lot of mediocrity muddling around in the middle. It’s all incredibly hard to categorize, and the best we can do is begin with individual reactions to individual works.

I’d like to think that valuing integrity over popularity is fundamental to … writing books.

Ah, the idealism of youth (the writer identifies himself as 19). Actually, he seems like a nice fellow and I have no desire to criticize him. But question. Are integrity and popularity mutually exclusive?

Because by now, you know I don’t think they are and that most books are built, in part, from some combination of integrity and popularity: or if you will, the amount of work the reader performs to approach the author versus the amount of work the author performs to approach the reader. Also, popularity we can measure in all sorts of ways. How do we measure integrity?

Let’s keep going. Is integrity founded on intention or results? Let’s say for example – I don’t know this, but give it to me as a “for instance” – that E.L. James intended to write a good / high quality / literary book but her talent wasn’t up to the task of producing anything other than Fifty Shades of Grey. Does that mean the novel has integrity?

If Joyce wrote Ulysses in cynical bad faith, does that mean we should reject the book? And if Jonathan Livingston Seagull was written with total sincerity – which would make it even scarier in my opinion, but anyhow – does that mean we should embrace it?

In the end, I suppose I’m saying that it is the work that matters. The work is certainly much easier to access compared to the artist’s good or bad faith, in any case.

Well, that about wraps it up. Hope you have a good day. Now I have to get back to reading Count Fabio and the Sexy Pirate Queens on my Kindle. I’m skipping the dull parts.

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hollow crown henry iv part 1The 2012 BBC “Hollow Crown” production of Henry IV, Part 1 is the perfect public television adaptation of Shakespeare. It is superbly acted and directed, cleanly written, and briskly paced, without offering large innovations in staging or interpretation.

These kinds of productions of Shakespeare largely succeed or fail on the quality of the acting, and Eyre’s four core players deliver the goods in aplenty. Joe Armstrong’s Hotspur lives up to his name without the one-note shouting the role makes all too easy. Simon Russell Beale is superb as a panting Falstaff stripped by age of his vitality. Tom Hiddleston mines gold from a core of sadness in his appealing Prince Hal.  And the incomparable Jeremy Iron combines his delectable trademark world weariness with a relish for power as King Henry IV, convincing us we are watching a man who would seize, and keep, his crown at any price.

Richard Eyre’s understanding of the relationships between the characters is as good as his actors. Henry IV, Part 1 is a play of fathers and sons, or more accurately mismatched fathers and sons, with Eyre’s screenplay and direction emphasizing how much Henry IV believes Hotspur would make a better Prince of Wales than his own son – even saying as much to Prince Hal’s face. And yet, there is a foundation of love and respect between the two men which eases their reconciliation.

Eyre’s Falstaff is even more interesting. Falstaff’s behavior has always been objectively ugly: he is a drunkard, a liar, and a thief who will do anything to promote his own self interest regardless of the consequences to other people.

But Falstaff is usually played as a person who successfully hides his ugliness behind his enormous wit and affability as well as his genuine affection for Prince Hal. With Beale’s Falstaff, the ugliness shines through and we are left in doubt of his real affection for Prince Hal in every scene except one, when Falstaff asks Harry to “banish not him thy Harry’s company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.”

Harry does and will, of course. Harry often treats Falstaff with contempt and that Beale’s Falstaff is contemptible makes Harry’s rejection of him, and of the tavern life, easier to understand and accept. But not completely.

My major problem with Henry IV, Part 1 has always been Prince Hal’s sudden – I would say extremely sudden – transformation from antic to earnest. Shakespeare has Hal explain it this way:

So, when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.

But I’ve always found this explanation perverse, and particular, and not very convincing, and more, disappointing because  Shakespeare is a master of ambiguous characterization and this piece of exposition ain’t.

I like the idea much better that a young man, born to rule and expected to rule, might wish to hide from the role he ultimately can’t refuse, and that this would explain his behavior, and make him more sympathetic.

Hiddleston’s sad Prince Hal reaches toward this explanation.  His Harry is not antic and then earnest, but instead there is an earnestness beneath the antics that makes his performance particularly moving.

The “Hollow Crown” production of Henry IV, Part 1 zips along at a clean two hours and gives you a sense of the whole play while allowing each scene to breathe. Eyre does not make an effort to approach the play on terms other than its own. There are no striking modern parallels or contemporary topical relevance slapped on the drama. Instead, Eyre trusts – and trusts right – that a genius author, good actors, and the enduring universality of human nature are all the justification the performance needs.

Henry IV, Part 1’s production design, sets, and costumes will strike the modern non-specialist historian eye as consistent with how England in 1403 might well have looked, except for the smart, beautifully tailored leather jacket Hiddleston wears. (Tom gets to keep his movie star locks rather than submitting to the punishment of a bowl cut too.)

Those who have Branagh’s 1989 film version of Henry V fixed in their memory will find the Boars-Head Tavern a familiar place and Eyre’s Battle of Shrewsbury a close copy of Branagh’s Agincourt, except for the snow. But these are quibbles. This film is a fine achievement and well worth watching.

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the tempest christopher plummerDes McAnuff’s 2010 Stratford Shakespeare Festival production of The Tempest starring Christopher Plummer is less like a violent storm at sea than a warm spring shower that freshens the flowers.

Plummer delivers a pleasing, avuncular Prospero who is mostly good company and who finds the most comedy in the banished Duke of Milan’s lines. This allows Miranda (Trish Lindstrom) to be funnier, too; and the lightness extends through the whole production, especially into the exquisite and hilarious clowning of Trinculo (Bruce Dow) and Stephano (Geraint Wyn Davies).

These choices cause several problems, however. A post-anger Prospero, who has already chosen forgiveness over vengeance, drains the play of much of its drama. It also makes the character of Prospero make less sense. Prospero is a benevolent bully, and Shakespeare gives you plenty of examples of both benevolence and bullying throughout the play. When McAnuff underplays the bullying, it leaves the viewer feeling something is a little off.

This feeling is intensified by the casting of a white-skinned and red-haired Miranda, an African Caliban (Dion Johnstone), and an Indonesian Ariel (Julyana Soelistyo). I’m not a huge fan of “critique of colonialism” productions of The Tempest, but I can see their point, and McAnuff seems to have gone out of his way to emphasize the critique and then dismiss it.

On the plus side, Plummer is a delight throughout the production and gets to stretch his wings at the end of The Tempest, when he is renouncing his powers. The emotion of these scenes is intensified by the fact Plummer was 80 at the time, so that the actor and the role merged.

Finally, this is a filmed stage play, but it is a play filmed with great care. You never lose the sense you are watching a play, performed before a live audience, but at the same time you don’t feel that the camera work has been inhibited by the constraints of the theater’s physical space.

Overall, I liked this production of The Tempest and encourage you to seek it out. It is currently available on Netflix in the States.

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cropped-pgm-photo-02.jpgOn Thursday, the journal Science published a study (Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind) that found people scored better on tests measuring empathy, social perceptiveness, and emotional intelligence after they had read literary fiction than after they had read popular fiction or rigorous non-fiction.

This result cheered members of the literary community and confirmed an idea that I’ve long argued using anecdotal evidence, which is one of the most important functions of literature is to strengthen emotional intelligence.

This function also explains why literature is the only art included in core educational curriculums. The ability to accurately read the feelings of other people is perhaps the most essential skill for living in social groups, and living in well functioning social groups is one of our key adaptations as a species.

So all this is good news — which I greeted with considerable apprehension and unease.

Part of my unease comes from having observed that people who read literature don’t go about the business of becoming better people as often as they go about the business of bragging how they are better people because they read literature.

The Science study is likely to encourage the bragging folks to keep bragging about their exceptionalism; and exceptionalism is fundamentally at odds with the work of empathy, because exceptionalism encourages you to see yourself as different from others while empathy encourages you to see yourself as the same.

The Science study is also likely to reinforce certain class divisions that run right through the middle of literary reading, in which appreciation for literature is used to signal your membership in a high economic status group (ie, rich people read Shakespeare) or in a high social status group (ie, Bohemians read difficult or experimental fiction).

The use of literature as a signal of status is particularly pernicious because it actively works against the whole purpose of reading books, which is … reading books.

Instead, the status-signal readers are interested in reading “classes” of books. They read “literary” fiction not “genre” fiction or “popular” fiction, and so they look for books that conform in obvious and expected ways to these classes, in order to embrace them or reject them — even before they read them (if they ever read them).

In this world, “literary” is a synonym for “quality” and “genre” a synonym for “trash”. The problem with this is that a great deal of tedious, uninspired, self-important, plodding work is praised and a great deal of inspired, insightful, subversive work is ignored.

Now telling the difference between the two can be fiendishly difficult, especially because a truly original book is often indistinguishable from a hot mess on first encounter.

But it is the encounter that is essential: the active, engaged conversation between book and reader.

If the results of the Science study encourage more of this, all to the good. If the study just encourages more sniffing at cocktails parties, then the world will roll on much the same as before.

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UntitledLess than a week after it was released, Grand Theft Auto 5 has earned more than $1 billion in sales and reignited the debate about its rampant violence. The news coverage of the game’s more appalling details strikes me — a person whose reaction to the typical video game controller is confusion and boredom — as disturbing.

But my bigger question is this: What makes the violence in Grand Theft Auto 5 different from the violence in other works of the imagination?

For example, Breaking Bad is a cultural phenomenon which has millions of Americans rooting for a man who cooks meth, manipulates his friends and family, kills adults as well as a child, and is in possession of a machine gun which is likely to figure in the show’s finale.

Macbeth is a monument of English literature which draws audiences of refinement and taste to watch the slaughter of kings, friends, innocent women and children, and soldiers while somehow persuading them to suspend judgment of the man who is the agent of all this slaughter.

I suppose the great difference among these works, if you can establish the difference, is that Grand Theft Auto 5 celebrates violence for the purposes of entertainment, while Breaking Bad and Macbeth explore the nature of violence to demonstrate its consequences.

The point of the video game is to be a criminal and win, or at least escape any consequences for your bad behavior. Macbeth, of course, doesn’t escape consequences in the Scottish play. And we are guessing that Walter White, who already exists in a self-created hell, is likely to suffer more before the show finishes at the end of the month.

But I’m not entirely persuaded by this argument I’ve just made. Part of my doubt is that I’m not sure you can demonstrate that the violence in Grand Theft Auto 5 is of a different kind than Shakespeare’s.

Defenders of the game claim that it is a satire, which would turn the game into social commentary, although social commentary on the level of Brett Ellis’ American Psycho perhaps.

At this point, then, we are required to decide if Grand Theft Auto 5 is a satire done in good faith (ie, “we’re serious about our message”) or bad faith (ie, “we’re pornographers looking to protect our revenue”). And making that judgment is about as slippery a task as a critic could assign himself or herself without helpful emails provided by Edward Snowden.

I’m also not persuaded because of this question: Would Grand Theft Auto 5 or Breaking Bad or Macbeth be as popular as they are WITHOUT violence?

For example, would you really want to watch a play in which Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth talk about their frustrations with their lives and careers, while playing the polite host to King Duncan and making sure he likes the brie and that his room is comfortable? Not really.

The violence is an essential part of Macbeth‘s appeal: appealing, I think, to the dark impulses the human race all feels but which we as social animals need to suppress. These impulses also need an outlet however, and imaginary violence is a much better outlet than actual violence. Grand Theft Auto 5 is a more direct outlet than Macbeth, but this only makes it different in degree. Not different in kind.

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The twenty-one novels in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series are the greatest sustained work of English-language fiction written in the 20th century for the high craft of their characters, story lines, language, and themes, for the breadth of their erudition, and for the sheer stamina of O’Brian’s invention.

The series follows Jack Aubrey, a fighting captain in the British Navy, and his particular friend, Stephen Maturin, naturalist, naval surgeon, and intelligence officer, as they fight in the Napoleonic wars as well as the War of 1812.

The series begins with superlative novels that include the books in my best of O’Brian list below. Then, like the happiest of long-running marriages, the Aubrey-Maturin novels take a modest step down to the level of very good indeed; with my metaphorical marriage encompassing not only Jack and Stephen’s monumental friendship, but more importantly, the great devotion of O’Brian and his readers to each other.

I’ve listed my five personal favorites, in order of admiration, with notes and some spoilers. (I’ve included a complete list of the Aubrey-Maturin novels below these reviews for convenience.)

Post Captain (1972)

Post Captain - a best Aubrey-Maturin novel by O'BrianPatrick O’Brian’s magnificent sophomore work is the crown jewel of the series. The novel begins with O’Brian in full Jane Austen mode, following a young Jack Aubrey with prize money in his pocket and time on his hands because of an unfortunate lull in the Napoleonic wars, as he pursues his eventual wife, Sophie Williams.

Soon, fighting breaks out again but more significantly, Jack and Stephen’s friendship breaks down over a second woman (Stephen’s eventual wife, Diana Villiers) and they challenge each other to a duel. This is the only time in the series when the enduring friendship between the Aubrey and Maturin is shaken, and it makes for some of the most difficult and moving reading in the novels.

In Post Captain, O’Brian’s skill at writing complex, lucid, and compelling battle scenes emerges in all its glory, as does his humor, most especially when Jack is forced to escape suddenly hostile French territory by disguising himself as a dancing bear.

Unlike many of the later novels in the Aubrey-Maturin series, which don’t end as much as they simply stop, Post Captain concludes with a bang.

O’Brian places Jack in command of one of the four British ships that famously captured a Spanish treasure fleet bringing gold back from the New World to finance Spain’s entry into the war against England. Stephen, in his emerging role as an indispensable intelligence officer for the British, gathers the information that makes the capture possible.

HMS Surprise (1973)

hms surprise best aubrey maturin obrianIn HMS Surprise, the pace is faster, the action more exciting, the stakes higher, and the plot architecture tighter than in Post Captain, which it immediately follows in the series’ sequence.

For my money, HMS Surprise features the best set-piece in the entire series: Jack’s brilliant and daring rescue of Stephen, who has been captured as a spy by the French and is being tortured in the town of Port Mahon on one of the Balearic Islands. This is also the moment when the friendship between Jack and Stephen becomes stronger than death, and so the great and enduring heart of the Aubrey-Maturin novels begins to beat.

In HMS Surprise, both Jack and Stephen face down significant rivals. For Jack, it is the French Admiral Linois, who defeated him in the series’ first book, Master and Commander. For Stephen, it is a new contender for Diana’s affections, who he challenges to a duel that leads to another of the series’ most famous sequences, in which Stephen performs surgery on himself.

Finally, HMS Surprise launches two more of the novels’ great elements. The first is the theme of marriage’s problematic nature, as Jack looks forward to bliss with Sophie in the book’s final lines (Jack predicts the future will be “pure paradise”). The second is exotic locales. India features prominently in HMS Surprise, and future novels will take Jack and Stephen all around the world.

The Fortune of War (1979)

The Fortune of War - a best Aubrey Maturin novel O'BrianJack and Stephen are equal as friends, but Jack is more often the agent of action in the novels, partially because he is the captain of the frigates on which Stephen serves and partially because his appalling bad judgment in nearly every aspect of his life except as frigate captain is always getting him into trouble.

The Fortune of War is the single book in the Aubrey-Maturin series that truly belongs to Stephen. In it, he and Jack have been captured by the Americans during the war of 1812. Both are taken to Boston, where a severely wounded Jack is held prisoner, but Stephen walks about with considerable freedom, since the Americans believe him to be just a naval surgeon rather than a British agent.

French agents, also in Boston, know better however, and they engage Stephen in a deadly game of cat and mouse which transforms The Fortune of War into the series’ only true spy-thriller. Thrown in the mix are Diana Villiers, that brilliant complicator of Stephen’s life, and a hair’s breadth escape that wraps up the novel nicely.

Also in The Fortune of War, O’Brian brings the double nature of Stephen Maturin into sharp focus. In the novels to this point, we’ve known Stephen as an accomplished naturalist, a committed physician, and a talented spy – but only had hints of his deadly ruthlessness. Here, Stephen kills without hesitation or regret when driven by circumstances, and O’Brian creates another contrast with his great friend, Jack Aubrey.

Jack as a naval officer is personally responsible for far more deaths than Stephen, but Jack cheerfully regards war as the world’s greatest professional sport. The rewards are immense, the rules complicated and subtle, losing often deadly, but the players feel little actual animosity for their opponents as long as they adhere to the laws of the game. In Stephen’s war, there are no rules, the killing is vicious and personal, and grudges extend beyond declarations of peace. Another way to say it, of the two men, it is Stephen who has the soul of a killer.

The Far Side of the World (1984)

far side world best aubrey maturingAs the Aubrey-Maturin series progresses, the plots of the books become less discrete and the arcs of the stories flatten; so the novels transform into one continuous narrative that blossoms with asides, digressions, false starts, storms and accidents, sudden reversals, changes of mission caused by the whims of Jack’s superiors or shifting geopolitics, and the messy complexity of the characters most of all.

The Far Side of the World is a particularly rich example of these qualities. In the novel, Jack is sent in the HMS Surprise to prevent an American frigate from attacking British whalers in the South Seas, and almost nothing goes right. He is significantly delayed by a lightning storm off the coast of Brazil that damages his ship and requires significant repairs, which allows the Americans to slip into the Pacific and strike the whalers. Later, a typhoon nearly wreaks Jack’s frigate and destroys the American ship for him. The crew is unhappy with an aging, incompetent midshipman who they believe is back luck. Stephen is entangled in political intrigue while reveling in his opportunities to collect scientific specimens. And much more.

There is something existential in all this chaos, and without suggesting that O’Brian intended to write a philosophical novel – he has entirely too much sense and talent as an artist to bother with such stuff – the total vision of The Far Side of the World delivers exactly that.

Desolation Island (1978)

desolation island best aubrey maturin o'brianIf The Far Side of the World flirted with existentialism, Desolation Islands walks right up to this dreary philosophy and gives it a big wet kiss.

Jack accepts the command of the Leopard, an aging ship barely fit to navigate the English Channel, in a mission to transport prisoners to Australia. These prisoners attack and murder some of their guards. The ship is stuck in the doldrums and battered by storms. An epidemic kills most of the prisoners and much of the crew. The Leopard is chased and nearly destroyed by a vastly more powerful Dutch ship of the line. An iceberg damages the Leopard so severely that Jack makes a desperate landing on Desolation Island (one of many in the world at that time) where they are at risk of being marooned permanently.

Desolation Island contains two of my favorite extended set pieces. The first is the Dutch ship’s pursuit of the Leopard, which takes place in the Roaring Forties, where the waves are mountainous and O’Brian’s powers of description are superb. The second is the crew’s extended stay on the cold, bleak island of the novel’s title – which Stephen regards as a natural philosopher’s paradise he is in no hurry to leave. This is an example of O’Brian’s humor, of course. But it also suggests that joy and wonder can be found any place, if you just know how to look for it.

Complete List of Aubrey-Maturin Novels by Patrick O’Brian

Master and Commander (1970)

Post Captain (1972)

HMS Surprise (1973)

The Mauritius Command (1977)

Desolation Island (1978)

The Fortune of War (1979)

The Surgeon’s Mate (1980)

The Ionian Mission (1981)

Treason’s Harbour (1983)

The Far Side of the World (1984)

The Reverse of the Medal (1986)

The Letter of Marque (1988)

The Thirteen Gun Salute (1989)

The Nutmeg of Consolation (1991)

Clarissa Oakes or The Truelove (1992)

The Wine-Dark Sea (1993)

The Commodore (1995)

The Yellow Admiral (1996)

The Hundred Days (1998)

Blue at the Mizzen (1999)

Glossary of Nautical Terms

The Gunroom of the HMS Surprise site has a good glossary of nautical terms that come from the “Dictionary of Sea Terms” by R.H. Dana Jr., author of “Two Years Before the Mast.” These are particularly useful to new readers of the O’Brian series but helpful to everyone. Also useful is this openstax page on the principal parts and sails of 19th century ships.

Nautical Terms That Have Become Idiomatic

Idioms are phrases whose “figurative meaning is different from the literal meaning,” as the The Oxford companion to the English language nicely puts it. The OED online says idioms are “a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words (e.g. over the moon, see the light).”

Once you start reading Patrick O’Brian, you begin to realize just how may idioms in English derive from sailing ships. For example, a “loose cannon” is a wild unpredictable person liable to cause harm. This idiom comes from the guns of sailing ships which were mounted on wheeled carriages that absorbed the recoil and allowed the gun to be drawn inside the vessel for reloading. The guns and their carriages could easily weigh 3,000 pounds, and they were secured by heavy ropes. When a gun and its carriage got loose from its ropes, it could roll all over the deck from the motion of the ship injuring or killing men. Worse, the gun could plunge down a hatch and straight through the bottom of the hull, causing the ship to rapidly sink. The CrewSeekers website has an excellent list of idioms that come from sailing ships.

Tacking and Wearing a Sailing Ship

O’Brian describes the mechanics of sailing his ships in detail. This video of the Star of India shows what’s involved in tacking and wearing a sailing ship. In both tacking and wearing, the crew puts the ship about so the wind is shifted from one side of the vessel to the other. In tacking, the bow of the ship is turned through the wind. In wearing, the stern of the ship is turned. Tacking is the more difficult manuever because the crew is turning the ship into the wind while wearing involves turning the ship downwind.

 

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clive james dante's infernoThere are two fundamental questions for contemporary readers of Dante’s Inferno translated into English. The first is “What should we make of the story?” assuming we don’t want to pull on our scholar’s togs and get all 1300 CE. The second is “How should we judge our experience of the language?” considering Dante is famously difficult to translate.

I’ll address both questions within the context of Clive James’ new translation of Inferno published as part of The Divine Comedy earlier this year.

What the Hell is Up with Hell?

As you doubtless know if you bothered to click through to this post, the Inferno follows Dante Alighieri, a Florentine Italian born in the 13th century who has lost his way in middle age as he travels through hell accompanied by the poet Virgil in search of (ultimately) God’s love or, as it may be, the hottest platonic one-night stand in all of literary history with his dead and now angelic crush-for-eternity, Beatrice.

Dante’s excellent adventure will take him through Purgatory and finally to Heaven, but first he has to get past hell; and hell is a horrible place to live, although it is unbeatable as a destination if you are tourist, which is essentially what Dante is.

As a fictitious world – and since I am a liberal Christian, I am going to posit hell does not exist – Dante’s Inferno is an unparalleled feat of imagination. Hogwarts may be more fey and witty, Middle Earth may be more thoroughly worked out (though maybe not since Dante drags all of Italy and much of 1300 Europe into his poem). But for sheer originality and ummph-um-pa-pa, nothing comes close to Dante’s hell.

Nothing comes close to the Inferno in the category of high-class torture porn, either. And torture porn is something this monument of world literature doubtlessly is. Dante the poet, rather than Dante the character in the poem, revels in the sufferings he has dreamed up and canto after canto delivers stand-out horrifying and/or disgusting examples of the concept of “poetic justice”.

Hell is supposed to be the expression of divine retribution. Why then does it often feel closer to bloody-minded titillation? This question is probably familiar to anyone who has seen the frescos in medieval Italian churches or Albrecht Dürer‘s gorgeous engravings of the Inferno, but it is worth repeating.

Then there is the issue of just what kind of sins get you into hell and how much shit these sins get you into once you are there.

Dante’s hell starts off sensibly enough. We begin with the virtuous pagans: you were good guys, but you didn’t know Christ so sorry, you’re screwed. Then sins of appetite or emotion that follow along with many of the seven deadly ones: lust, gluttony, and wrath for example. Then heresy. We know medieval Christians were particular about people disagreeing with them, even on the small stuff, so okay fine, we’ll give Dante a pass on heresy. Then violence in the seventh circle – we’re right with you D, we definitely don’t like violence.

But then we get to the eighth circle of hell, where the fraudulent are punished, and here the head scratching of modern humanist readers begins.

Because the eighth circle is filled with panderers, flatterers, astrologists, simoniacs, corrupt politicians, thieves, counterfeiters – while Attila the Hun is rumored to be floating around a whole circle above.

How is it exactly that a guy who raped and killed his way across the Eastern and Western Roman Empires for twenty years is considered a little less bad than someone who made a living out of telling a dull king he was brilliant or proclaiming that since the moon was in the seventh house, now is a propitious moment to make the moves on your lady friend?

And speaking of rape, where are the rapists? Mixed in with the violent I guess, but they don’t merit a mention to all appearances. Where are those that hate? In the eighth circle, the only ones that truly deserve to be there by modern lights are the Sowers of Discord. Traitors are in the ninth and last circle, with Satan in the center of it all.

Dante Loves Him Some Dante

Another particular feature of the Inferno is just how highly Dante thinks of himself. It starts with the foundational premise of the whole Divine Comedy, namely that Beatrice in heaven has persuaded God to give Dante some special help.

Now I know God is all-knowing and all-powerful and his love has no bounds, etcetera; but there are plenty of people in heaven who have friends on earth, and God seems to have issued exactly one golden ticket for exactly one special tour of his magical damnation plus salvation factory, and that ticket went to you, Dante. And you didn’t even need to buy a Wonka Bar to get it.

Then there is the remarkable early canto where poets like Homer, Horace, and Ovid welcome Dante as a colleague and equal. Now I’m not saying they are wrong. Dante is their equal. But – dude – you write yourself into a scene where great dead poets of antiquity say you’re the bomb, and then you get all choked up and grateful about it? I ain’t buying.

It almost seems petty to note, beside these examples, that Dante the character also makes a habit in hell of telling various suffering souls he can make or break their reputations back on earth if they don’t play nice and answer his questions. Apparently, being God’s special project and an immortal poet ain’t enough for D. He has to make sure people know he’s the world’s best PR flak, too.

There’s also the whole Dante-Virgil bromance, or maybe it’s more accurate to call it a major man-crush Dante has on Virgil; and also the Dante getting to decide who goes to hell thing; but I will let these slide because other commentators have noted them and because I believe I might now be trying your patience with this line of criticism. If not my flipness.

The Clive James’ Translation of Dante’s Inferno

I should say before I go forward, offering small praise for great achievements, that Dante consistently writes scenes that are convincingly felt; that many of these scenes are compelling without understanding the background of the characters involved (but not always); and that the Inferno has incredible momentum – it reads fast and short, even with the volume of detail and people it contains.

This is especially remarkable considering that James’ translation of the Inferno is substantially longer than the original because he has woven into his work many explanations about characters and stories which Dante’s readers would not have required and which other translators typically place in footnotes.

I find this an odd choice because it is for just such information that God first invented footnotes and more recently, the tablet computer. I can’t blame James for ignoring this second invention, since he says he began work long before the iPad and Kindle Fire were invented; but these devices render the need for extensive notes obsolete. Honestly, most folks who are going to buy a copy of The Divine Comedy likely own mobile computers and can sit comfortably in bed with both James’ book and their tablet. I did. Worked beautifully.

As for James’ translation, I think it is as good as you can expect from the impossible task of translating Dante into English.

It’s not simply Dante’s famous ABA BCB terza rima that makes him difficult. English translators with any sense at all avoid it, and James uses an ABAB scheme and iambic pentameter with an AA rhyme at the end of each canto instead.

It’s also that Dante is justly celebrated for the vividness, precision, compactness, and music of his poetry. The little time I spent with a side by side translation of Dante makes me admire anyone brave enough to try it.

James is brave enough and often succeeds beautifully. You’ll find many sequences of lines where you’ll forget you are reading a translation or rhyming poetry at all.

But then, inevitably, you’ll also find lines where syntax or word choice (and so sense) are distorted to fit the poem’s scheme as well as filler words, stuck in to keep the pentameter or jury-rig a rhyme. This pops up during moments when, for example, Dante might ask a question and Virgil says before answering it, “You ask me so I’ll tell you.”

But I’ll apologize to James because these feel like quibbles, and offer what I hope is a compliment instead: your Inferno was so good it made me eager to read Purgatorio. I’ll let you all know how it went when I’m done.

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Breaking Bad season 05Since I am perpetually behind all trends in popular culture, I am just now discovering that Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad is as purely addictive as the crystal meth his anti-hero Walter White cooks on the show.

I’m also just discovering how Breaking Bad has so magnificently balanced its “entertaining” and “serious” elements, which is another way of saying – broadly – that it has succeeded as a narrative built on character and situation as well as a narrative based on plot.

Before I get around to solving the problem of how I’m going to watch Season Six when I don’t have cable, let me throw a few semi-organized thoughts at you.

Breaking Bad Season Five: Addicted to Story

All stories are driven by conflict. And to vastly over-simplify matters, these conflicts fall into two broad categories: interior conflicts, which tend to emphasize character, and exterior conflicts, which tend to emphasize plot.

In its early seasons, Breaking Bad placed greater emphasis on internal conflict. Walt is a high school chemistry teacher driven to cook crystal meth because he fears he will die of lung cancer and leave his family penniless; and while the mechanics of working in the drug business are explored, more time is devoted to the conflicts Walt’s illness and the lies he tells to hid his business cause in his family, and then to conflicts Walt’s wife’s discovery of his profession cause in their marriage.

This balance begins to shift in Season 3 as Walt’s involvement in the drug business deepens, and he is increasingly threatened by other criminals and by law enforcement agents. The latter half of season four delivers a rush of pure narrative delight as Walt scrambles to kill his former business partner, before he kills Walt and his family; and the story barrels into the shows of Season Five with Walt declaring he wants to build his own drug “empire”.

It would be hard to over-praise Breaking Bad for how beautifully it manages its story, like a thoroughbred running the best race of its life, hitting all the beats, managing the minor cliffhangers of a commercial break and the larger cliffhangers of each episode’s conclusion.

Add to this “the mob meets MacGyver” elements, as Walt applies his Mr. Science skills to eliminate one threat after another. And top it off with a question: how does Vince Gilligan make story lines that sound ridiculous when you describe them to your wife so convincing and affecting on screen?

Walter White: Lured by Vanity, Enthralled by Winning

One answer is Bryan Cranston’s Walter White, who Vince Gilligan describes as a person who begins as Mr. Chips and who ends as Scarface, but who I think is much more interesting than Scarface.

Walt doesn’t really want money, although he begins cooking meth as a way to pay his medical bills and provide money for his family after his death. What Walt really wants is agency and recognition.

This becomes evident fairly early in the show, because Walt quickly makes enough money to take care of his family, but he is more concerned about his image as a nice but feckless and impoverished cancer-stricken dweeb than by the practical problem of how he is going to launder a half million dollars in cash.

Walt craves success then, and even more importantly, the recognition and respect that come with success. This is one of the reasons he keeps getting lured back into the drug business, because only there is his success – as the well-paid maker of the world’s best crystal meth – recognized.

It is also in this world that Walt’s intelligence and (as it turns out) decisiveness is acknowledged. He’s driven in part by desperation. He has to kill his business associates before they kill him. He has to elude the DEA. But the more often he wins, the more he likes it and the more he doesn’t stop to count the bodies that are piling up on route to his next victory.

Only when his wife shows him the pile of money he’s amassed, literally as big as a Mini Cooper, that he retires – right at the end of season five. What was Walt chasing? What were all those deaths worth?

We’ve Been Seduced by the Monster Who Is Walter White

This is a popular opinion and it’s true. Walt is a monster. The list of murders he’s committed prove it. So why are we on his side?

Part of the answer is that Walt wants what most people want: to be self-sufficient and respected. Part is that we humans are social animals who chaff at the restraints our societies put on us even as we embrace them, and stories about criminals or seducers or other people who break the rules are a safe way to dream away our frustrations with society’s restraints.

But a greater part of the answer is perhaps the loveliest fact in all narrative art. The social purpose of story and character, the moral purpose of literature – regardless of medium – is to teaches us empathy.

Story asks us to inhabit the lives and experiences of the characters on which it turns its powers, and to understand them, even if we don’t like them – even if in the end we are right to condemn them. Macbeth, Milton’s Satan, Humbert Humbert, Walter White.

It’s a great paradox of narrative art that rooting for bad guys can make us better people. But it can. At least when the bad guys are creations as brilliant as Walter White.

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amazon is the devil?When a federal judge ruled that Apple was guilty of conspiring to fix the price of eBooks last week, the lamentations began.

Commentators declared this would lead to the destruction of the traditional publishers and the ascendance of Amazon as a monopolistic hegemon, which would use its vast market powers to homogenize and commoditize our reading culture. Also, frogs would rain down from the sky.

But I don’t think any such thing will happen. (Well, the frogs might.) Here’s why.

The Traditional Publishing Model Is Not Essential to Reading Culture

The traditional publishers think they are essential to reading culture because they were essential in the past and because (I’m quite sure) they are sincerely devoted to their craft.

But the only two actors who are essential to reading culture are writers and readers.  Publishers are … or were … a necessary intermediary between the writer and reader, back when printing books and getting them into the hands of readers were complicated, expensive operations.

Now these tasks aren’t necessarily complicated or expensive. There are plenty of new ways, many more than before, for writers and readers to connect. And as long as you have writers and readers, you’ll have a reading culture. Before I discuss why, however, let me make a semi-related point.

Good Books Have Always Been Bad Business

This is not to say you can’t make money from serious books or serious literature. You can. The problem is you can’t make enough money consistently to turn the proposition into a sustainable business.

This leaves publishers with two choices. The first is you have a huge company in which the blockbusters in popular genres subsidize the “serious” books. For publically traded companies, this is the only option because they will be punished by the markets if they lose money.

The second is you have a small company, privately held, in which the owners see themselves as patrons of and missionaries for writers as much as they see themselves as business people, and their financial goals don’t extend too much beyond avoiding bankruptcy.

The recent obituary for Arthur Rosenthal of Basic Books described this dynamic nicely when it said he “let his taste in nonfiction and his quasi indifference to profit margins guide him as a publisher”.

Now Amazon is making the lives of people who work within the huge company model a living hell. But it is making the small company model so easy that anyone with a computer and internet access can become a publisher.

Writers of Serious Books Are Adapting. Amazon Is Helping Them Do It

One of the assumptions in much of the recent wailing over Amazon’s victory is that only serious books are real books and only serious publishers are real publishers.

No one was fretting that the Dan Browns of the world would disappear because they knew they wouldn’t.  A hegemon Amazon would still publish Dan Brown because he makes a lot of money.

The commentators did worry that a hegemon Amazon would ignore the serious, unprofitable books. Well, maybe. But maybe not.  Amazon has demonstrated an almost pathological indifference to earning a profit over the years.  This would make them a perfect publisher for the Virginia Woolfs of the world. And perhaps they would like the prestige of a having such writers under their imprint?

But if not, Amazon has given writers the tools to directly publish and promote their own books. Amazon’s print-on-demand model allows small publishing companies to produce print books with very low overhead costs. Kindle Direct allows people to publish eBooks at basically no cost.

Everyone has a chance. Including the serious writers and important voices who are getting overlooked right now by those old gatekeepers of the reading culture, the traditional publishers.

The Government Doesn’t Just Punish Price Fixing. It Also Punishes Monopolies

Finally, remember that it is not only illegal to fix prices. It’s also illegal — not to become a monopoly, as it turns out talking to my FTC lawyer friend — but to use monopoly power to stifle competition. And the government departments that are aiding Amazon by ruling against Apple, so some people claim, are the same departments that would force Amazon to change its business practices or break up if it did.

We can’t risk that harm, you say? Well, under the legal system of the United States, you generally can’t punish companies because you think they will break the law. You have to wait until they actually do.

In the meantime, I encourage everyone to seize the new opportunities. They’re good fun. And you might make some art, or some cash, too.

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What’s the difference between an innovation and a gimmick in literature? An innovation expands the author’s vision while a gimmick tries to hide his lack of one. You’ll find excellent examples of both in George Saunders’ recent short story collection, Tenth of December.

When Saunders is good in this volume, he is very good indeed, and the elements he uses frequently throughout Tenth of December work well together to create resonant stories. These elements include …

  • language that is faulty or inadequate, usually because the narrative voice belongs to a person with whom Saunders has not shared his gifts as a writer.
  • characters who are teetering on the edge of economic / social / psychological / personal failure confronting other characters who enjoy extraordinary success (no one seems to occupy the middle ground).
  • the motif of fictional pharmaceuticals that can regulate every human characteristic.
  • strong satiric impulses balanced by great empathy for his characters.

tenth of december george saundersOne of the best stories in Tenth of December is “Escape from Spiderhead” in which Saunders slowly reveals to us that the narrator is being used as an unwilling test subject for powerful drugs because he has been convicted of murder. Here words are deformed by bureaucrats and scientists, who use technical language to obscure the horror of their actions, and Saunders deploys his innovative premise to deliver a knock-out meditation on free will, regret, and redemption.

Another excellent story is “Victory Lap” which tells the anxiety-provoking tale of a high school girl, the middle-aged man who attempts to kidnap her, and a high school boy who intervenes.  Saunders nails the voices of all three characters. The kidnapper narrates the pathetic execution of his pathetic fantasy to perfection, but it is the teenagers who really shine. Their words grasp at ideas and emotions without quite seizing hold of them, and you get the sense in the end that Saunders intends the triteness of their language to be a deliberate defense against the fear they experienced.

In these examples, the innovations – the science-fiction premise of “Spiderhead”, the conspicuously stylized narration of “Victory Lap” – work with the other elements to create stories that capture your mind, your heart, and your gut. But that’s not the case for every story in Tenth of December.

For example, “Exhortation” is a staff memo composed of inept motivational business-speak wrapped around the message that the department will all be fired unless performance measures improve. “My Chivalric Fiasco” is mostly about what happens when a worker at a Renaissance-Fair business takes a drug that makes him a highly articulate speaker of ersatz medieval dialect.

Other than admiring Saunders prose, or nodding in automatic agreement at the obvious lessons (offices are insane places in “Exhortation” and sexual harassment is bad in “Fiasco”), there is little for the reader to do. The gimmick of the style doesn’t hide the thinness of the story.

The longest piece in this collection, and I think the weakest, is “The Semplica Girl Diaries”. The story is told through the diary of a man who plunges his family from serious money problems to desperate money problems by making an expensive, impulsive, and useless purchase.

This purchase happens to be (as is eventually revealed to us) four young girls from poor countries who hire themselves out as living lawn ornaments.

As a big honking obvious metaphor for the exploitation of third-world labor by Americans, you would be hard pressed to find a metaphor bigger or more honking or more obvious. Once Saunders shows the metaphor to you, however, there is not much left. You can enjoy the gyrations of the story. I didn’t. You can admire his prose style. I did. But virtuosity alone is never enough to satisfy me. It has to be in the service of something other than itself.

Don’t let this stop you from reading Tenth of December. The rewards outweigh the frustrations, and your effort will be entirely redeemed by its best and shortest story, “Sticks,” in which a man tries to connect with his family by decorating a metal pole in their yard with clothes and words. Here Saunders does more in two pages than many writers can do in one hundred. And that’s neither innovation or gimmick. That’s  talent.

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