From the archives: Literature

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Oprah, Oona: the miseries of Franzenfreude

Wednesday, 1 June 2011 — 5:29pm | Comics, Literature, Television

There’s a passage in Generosity: An Enchancement, Richard Powers’ novel about genetics and creative writing, that transports us to a prominent talk show from Chicago:

It’s less a show than a sovereign multinational charter. And its host is, by any measure, the most influential woman in the world. Her own story is a remarkable mix of motifs from American creative fiction, from Alger to Zelazny. Say only that she has grown from an impoverished, abused child into an adult who gives away more money than most industrialized nations. She has the power to create instant celebrities, sell hundreds of millions of books, make or break entire consumer industries, expose frauds, marshal mammoth relief efforts, and change the spoken language. All this by being tough, warm, vulnerable, and empathetic enough to get almost any other human being to disclose the most personal secrets on international television. If she didn’t exist, allegory would have to invent her.

Powers calls his daytime doyenne Oona, but we all know he’s talking about Oprah. Here we find our scientific-literary novelist in the fine, familiar predicament of engaging with an outside world where corporate global brands are king. Allegories of real folks are tacky things, but when you pen a Chicago novel about finding the genetic basis of happiness in the anaesthetized age of mass media, there’s no detour around the Oprah problem: you’re writing her into your damned book.

(I’m not sure how well it goes. Generosity is eminently likable, and its Clarke Award nomination earlier this year is one of many reasons why you should pay attention to the Clarke Awards, but there’s an overall sense of Richard Powers for Beginners about it next to the depth of his earlier work.)

Here in the telly-impervious literary fortress of Nick’s Café Canadien, we don’t pay much attention to Ms Winfrey. My impression of Oprah has never been terribly positive: as a consumerist behemoth that uncritically promotes junk science and bad medicine while throwing its financial weight behind the overweening cult of self-help, it has often come off to me as a malignant alien presence from another world. I’m reliably informed, however, that as of last week the twenty-five-year gravity well of The Oprah Winfrey Show has finally pocketed itself into its own precious singularity.

Days earlier, Jonathan Franzen delivered a commencement address at Kenyon College that has since appeared in The New York Times (best read alongside Edward Champion’s notes on the abridgment), the latest variation on Literary Man’s perpetual anxiety over technology’s commodification of human passions. Franzen’s argument—that the casual comforts of the Facebook “like” and the easy requital of our device relationships have inoculated us from experiencing true and hurtful love—came bundled with the delicious irony that we’ve come to expect from everything involving the reluctant superstar of American letters. Scarcely a month ago, The New Yorker ran a magisterial essay of his about scattering the ashes of David Foster Wallace on the island of Robinson Crusoe only to hold it hostage behind the paywall. “Like” The New Yorker on Facebook, said the ransom note—or else.

The timing may be coincidental, but the parallel—rather, the perpendicularity—isn’t lost on those of us who absorbed everything about the Winfrey-Franzen feud of 2001 with unhealthy fascination. Here’s the story: ten years ago, Oprah Winfrey selected Franzen’s outstanding novel The Corrections for the Book Club segment of her programme, something that even her most bitter critics have to admit has been a marvel for moving volumes of contemporary fiction. Shortly after, Franzen voiced his discomfort with being marketed under the Oprah sticker, leading Winfrey to rescind the book selection along with Franzen’s invitation to the show.

You can imagine the media frenzy. High-profile literary scuffles are like classical music riots: we don’t see enough of them these days, and when we do, it’s comical yet reassuring to discover that other people care about this stuff. And here we had, in one corner, an inspirational figure of tremendous accomplishment and national renown; in the other corner—well, Oprah Winfrey.

Continued »

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Here Be Cartographers: Reading the Fantasy Map

Monday, 18 April 2011 — 11:14pm | J.R.R. Tolkien, Literary theory, Literature

It is hard to imagine a world without maps.

Now stop—and diagram that sentence. Break its syntax apart. You can parse it in at least two valid and meaningful ways:

  • It is hard | to imagine | a world without maps. The use of maps is so embedded in our daily lives, so essential to our normal functioning, that the idea of a pre-cartographic society is as alien as the thought of a pre-literate one. On top of this, our idea of what it means to be a mapped society is itself confined to our familiarized expectations of what maps are like. How did people get by without maps—or rather, without the sorts of maps we know and understand?

  • It is hard | to imagine a world | without maps. Maps govern the way we think about space, and that extends to imaginary or hypothetical spaces. Without a graphic representation on paper or in our heads, our plans for things not yet built—homes, roads, electric circuits—may be cloudy and ambiguous. They may lack precision in the same way we have trouble with describing things that are outside our linguistic abilities. This is a negative definition of maps as a form of language: to be without a map is to be without language, and it impedes us from communicating ideas in the mind—to others, yes, but also to ourselves.

In both of these senses, maps of fictional places are remarkably challenging texts.

One of my chief interests in fiction, along with art in general, is how it presents itself as evidence of the way people receive the existing cultural data around them before they process it and spit it back out. (In literary criticism you will encounter words like allusion and intertextuality, but I think of them as subtypes of a broader cognitive activity.) When an author plans out a story’s setting in place, or when a reader attempts to reconstruct it from the words alone, the maps they produce tell us not only how they imagine the depicted geography, but also how they imagine the idea of maps. Furthermore, the author/audience distinction isn’t always sharp: some privileged readers, such as the illustrators at a publishing house or manuscript historians like Christopher Tolkien, participate in the interpretive stage as well as the official construction of the space for everyone else.

So when we open up a novel to find a map, we can think of the map as an act of narration. But what kind of narration? Is it reliable narration or a deliberate misdirection? Is it omniscient knowledge, a complete (or strategically obscured) presentation of the world as the author knows it? Or is the map available to the characters in the text? If it is, then who drew up the map, and how did they have access to the information used to compose it? If it isn’t, then through what resources do the characters orient themselves in their own world? And finally, does anyone even bother to think about these questions before they sit down to place their woodlands and forts?

In the post that follows, I am going to informally sketch out a theory of fictional maps, which is to say that I will put up a lot of pretty pictures from novels and talk about why they are neat. There is likely some academic work on this somewhere—I would be astonished if there weren’t—but I’m not aware of any, and certainly nothing that has accounted for modern critical approaches to the history of cartography. Map history and the comparative study of commercial genre literature are niches within niches as it stands, and my aim is to entwine them together.

Continued »

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Dotting the eyes, crossing the tease

Wednesday, 9 March 2011 — 4:06am | Animation, Film, Insights, Literature, Michael Chabon

When I was very young, I heard a legend about a Chinese muralist who painted the most vivid and lifelike dragons but refused to fill in their eyes, lest the dragons come alive and fly away. I tried to track it down four or five years ago for a fragment I was writing at the time, but on that occasion I never found it. Today it occurred to me to make another attempt, and for reasons of n-grammatic potentia that shall remain mysterious, Google was far more helpful this time around.

As with any old story, mutations abound, but the preponderance of them involve the painter Zhang Seng-You (張僧繇) from the period of the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589 AD). Depending on who’s telling the story, Zhang Seng-You is asked to fill in the eyes by a bystander, the abbot who commissioned the monastery mural, or the Emperor himself (who, in this case, must have been Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty). The ending is always the same: the painter finishes the eyes and the dragons bolt away from the mural in a flash of lightning and thunder.

The wonderful thing about fables is the discordance of what they say—typically a blunt moral lesson, delivered as the payload of a cruise-missile punch line like a Feghoot minus the funny—versus what they do, which is leave innumerable gaps for diverse interpretations to take root and flourish. Stories are not reducible to definite lessons. Fiction is a space for debate, and a fable is an open meadow for all and sundry to frolic. (“I don’t believe in stories with morals,” says the man with the childish fantasy of teaching Lolita in schools.)

So what can we make of the tale of the painted dragons?

Continued »

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Constance Naden’s deep Darwinian lays

Friday, 7 January 2011 — 5:57pm | Literature, Science

Given my longstanding interest in the use of scientific and mathematical language in literature, it may come as a surprise that I have only recently discovered the poetry of Constance Naden. Naden died very young in 1889 at only 31 years of age, hence her relative obscurity, but she was nevertheless extremely prolific throughout the 1880s as a poet, philosopher, and scientist. Her work was significant enough to elicit the praise of William Gladstone, who dubbed her one of the eight finest women poets of the nineteenth century, alongside such luminaries as Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Emily Brontë.

You can find Naden’s writings online in the posthumously published The Complete Poetical Works of Constance Naden (1894), a volume that includes translations of Schiller and Goethe, among others. It seems as though she was something of a polymath.

My introduction to Naden’s work came by way of this audio podcast of a lecture delivered by John Holmes at the Royal Society, who spoke on Charles Darwin’s influence on the ideas and concerns of Victorian English poets. (This is the subject of Holmes’ recent book, Darwin’s Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution.) In the lecture, Holmes speaks briefly on “Natural Selection”, a playful comic poem about a palaeontologist who is scientifically delighted to find that his beloved has been whisked away by an all-singing, all-dancing “idealess lad”. This poem belongs to a quartet entitled Evolutional Erotics (1887), in which Naden explores the collision of love and the scientific mind. Another poem in the set, “Scientific Wooing”, brings science into the register of high romance in a manner that might be construed as ironic (but then again, might not be):

At this I’ll aim, for this I’ll toil,
And this I’ll reach—I will, by Boyle,
By Avogadro, and by Davy!
When every science lends a trope
To feed my love, to fire my hope,
Her maiden pride must cry is “Peccavi!

I’ll sing a deep Darwinian lay
Of little birds with plumage gay,
Who solved by courtship Life’s enigma;
I’ll teach her how the wild‐flowers love,
And why the trembling stamens move,
And how the anthers kiss the stigma.

I am reminded here of the tensor algebra pastoral from one of the great masterworks of science fiction, Stanislaw Lem’s The Cyberiad:

For what did Cauchy know, or Christoffel,
Or Fourier, or any Boole or Euler,
Wielding their compasses, their pens and rulers,
Of thy supernal sinusoidal spell?

Cancel me not – for what then shall remain?
Abscissas some mantissas, modules, modes,
A root or two, a torus and a node:
The inverse of my verse, a null domain.

Continued »

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Suggested reading, resuscitative edition

Thursday, 30 September 2010 — 4:44pm | Assorted links, J.R.R. Tolkien, Journalism, Literature, Music, Science, Video games

This space has suffered the longest drought of real and substantial content in its brief history, and I find it encouraging that several of my readers have seen fit to remind me of the fact. I could lay the blame upon the drain on my verbal facilities known as my masters dissertation, or perhaps my summertime adventures sans ordinateur, but the truth is a far more familiar one: the articles I’ve sketched out in my head are too big to write down. They will show up someday, if only in unfinished fragments pretending to stand alone; so keep an eye on the RSS feed and when they arrive, we may promptly rejoice together.

Link-dumping has never been an adequate stand-in for commentary of my own, and if you want to read what I read you are better off checking Twitter (the only circumstance where that is ever the case). Nevertheless, here is a slice of the pileup.

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Suggested reading, spine-tingling edition

Monday, 19 April 2010 — 12:38pm | Assorted links, Film, Harry Potter, Journalism, Literature, Mathematics, Science

Last week here in the United Kingdom was Chiropractic Awareness Week, so let’s all be aware of the good news: the British Chiropractic Association has finally dropped the battering ram of its libel action against science writer Simon Singh, who had the nerve to call some of their purported treatments bogus. (I guess you could say the BCA backed out.) The lawsuit specifically targeted Mr Singh (as opposed to The Guardian, which published the contested article) in order to drain his resources with the abetment of Britain’s libel laws, and the case has become a cause célèbre exposing this country’s need for libel reform. Be sure to read Singh’s reaction to the news and Ben Goldacre’s column on the wider problem.

Elsewhere:

  • J.K. Rowling, writing in the capacity of a former single mother living on welfare, isn’t buying what David Cameron is selling. In a somewhat frivolous response, Toby Young leaps on the Tory nostalgia of the Harry Potter books, pointing to Hogwarts’ Etonian idyll while somehow neglecting to mention the conspicuously nuclear families; but anyone who paid attention to Rowling’s finer points (which doesn’t include Mr Young, I’m afraid) knows full well her politics aren’t what he thinks they are.

  • Film editor Todd Miro savages Hollywood colour grading for taking us into a nightmare world of orange and teal.

  • Roger Ebert articulates his controversial belief that video games can never be art—not for the first time, though it’s nice to finally see him elaborate on it in one place. I’m of the opinion that the entire semantic quagmire is easily evaded if we adopt an instrumental definition of art. Regardless of whether video games are even theoretically comparable to the great works of other media, our only way of getting at qualitative findings about creativity and beauty in game design is to borrow from the language of art, so we may as well consider them as such.

  • While on the subject of aesthetics: over at Gödel’s Lost Letter, R.J. Lipton’s fantastic computing science blog, are some germinal sketches of how one might study great mathematical proofs as great art.

  • The International Spy Museum briefs us on Josephine Baker, the actress-heroine of the French Resistance.

  • Paul Wells visits the Canadian forces in Kandahar and reports on the shift in the tone and strategy of their counterinsurgency efforts. This is one of the best pieces of journalism I’ve read on the present state of the war in Afghanistan and I can’t recommend it enough.

  • Strange Maps documents two wonderful specimens of literary cartography: back covers of mystery paperbacks, and a poster for a Shakespeare conference in France depicting a town that looks like the Bard.

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Suggested reading, abcdelmrs deiinot

Monday, 12 April 2010 — 11:12pm | Assorted links, Classical, Computing, Debate, Journalism, Literature, Music, Scrabble

Until last week I had been out of touch with tournament Scrabble for well over a year and a half, having taken a hiatus from playing at any events. In the meantime the organizational politics in North America have drastically transformed: Hasbro decided to redirect the National Scrabble Association toward developing the game in schools and ceased to support the tournament scene, which spun off into a non-profit licensed to use the Scrabble name and a rebel organization that isn’t. The best thing to have come out of competitive Scrabble going unofficial, though, is The Last Word, a model community newsletter that improves on the NSA’s old snail-mail Scrabble News in most respects (although it noticeably lacks annotations of high-level games). If you are inclined to read about Scrabble squabbles, Ted Gest has written in the latest issue about the NASPA/WGPO split.

And now for something completely different:

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