Enlarged to Show Texture: A Response to Jason Guriel’s “Case against Reading Everything”

© Daniel Aureliano Newman 2018

Jason Guriel’s essay “The Case against Reading Everything” (The Walrus, 13 Dec. 2017)  argues provocatively against “reading widely.” This nearly universal piece of advice is “wrong,” writes Guriel: it’s what fashionable posers do, not writers “worth reading.” This stance is not as elitist as it sounds. Though openly scornful of writers who bounce “between high and low, between Mina Loy and Mini-Wheats boxes,” it is really an insult to all writers equally.

My typical reaction to such an essay is to emit annoyance privately, then get over it. But this one demands an actual response, even if it puts me on the side of “practically scripture.” It’s not that “reading widely” needs a defence, but that Guriel’s type of argument is frivolous to the point of recklessness. His article is yet another manifestation of that suddenly ubiquitous contrarianism we see in our politics and in our social media, a naysaying whose claim to authority rests on the putative bravery of saying what no one else dares say.

Under the rubric of “some real talk”—a chilling echo of telling it like it is?—Guriel lays nuggets of wisdom like this: “most writing isn’t worth consuming.” Who could disagree? But, then, what does this have to do with reading widely?

Guriel positions himself against Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen King, naming these two particularly prolific authors among the many others who advocate reading widely. He claims, rather dubiously, that real authors do not, in fact, follow their own advice. Real authors read deep, not wide!

Really, though?

James Joyce, hardly a hack, read almost everything. Ulysses sparkles with fragments of advertising slogans, popular songs and romance novels that Joyce consumed along with his Shakespeare and Yeats. Faulkner prescribed a mixed diet of “classics” and “trash.” The shameless snob Nabokov devoured comics and mystery novels. In one week in 1932, Samuel Beckett read Vanity Fair, The Origin of Species, Moby-Dick and Point Counter Point—and perhaps some cricket news. Virginia Woolf favoured the Novel for its ability to “lick up with its long glutinous tongue the most minute fragments of fact and mass them into the most subtle labyrinths.” It is a “cannibal” genre, she writes, able to use any and all information, high and low, to “clasp to its breast the precious prerogatives of the democratic art of prose.” And that’s just a few dead masters.

For William James, genius arises from spontaneous combination of thoughts that jostle in the human mind.  The “highest order of minds” are creative not because they are sparsely furnished but because they are “a seething caldron of ideas, where everything is fizzling and bobbing about in a state of bewildering activity, where partnerships can be joined or loosened in an instant … and the unexpected seems the only law.”

Marianne Moore poached material from all over, including the post-game broadcast of a Yankees–Tigers game. In “Poetry” she spells it out:

nor is it valid
to discriminate against “business documents and

school-books”; all these phenomena are important.

But a poem, Moore continues, is not just the sum of its sources:

One must
make a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets,
the result is not poetry.

It’s not your sources, it’s how you use ‘em. Missing this point, Guriel dubiously implies that wide reading makes for careless writing. What would Flaubert say?

Sloppy writing has many causes, but I’ll bet a limited range of reference is worse than broad horizons. I once met a would-be writer who boasted he read only Hemingway. Predictably his writing was awful; also, it was nothing like Hemingway. Guriel praises “devotion and obsession” to a single author or genre, but you can’t learn to write like Hemingway by reading nothing else. What makes him Hemingway is in large part the fact he isn’t Joseph Conrad, or Nella Larsen, or Henry James. And the most distinctly Hemingwayan features of his writing are, to a great extent, just modified Flaubert, Sherman Andersen, Gertrude Stein and journalistic prose. “Devotion and obsession” lead out as well as in.

This brings me to the contentious claim that “the real problem with telling young writers to fan out across genres and forms is that it doesn’t help them find a voice. If anything, it’s antivoice.” What is “voice,” anyway? It’s a metaphor, and a misleading one. If there is a problem with how “young writers” are taught the craft, it’s that they’re told to “find a voice.” It means nothing, unless it means find your niche and stay there. That’s fine branding advice, but literature is not an ad campaign. Did Auden have “a voice”? Does Edna O’Brien? Jennifer Egan? Zadie Smith?

Guriel likes his writing advice “thrillingly precise,” but writing is not like following a recipe for tap-water. The last and most important item in George Orwell’s rules of writing was “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” “Use fewer em dashes” is good advice for writers who abuse them—but bad advice for me!

Stephen King slags adverbs, Kurt Vonnegut dismisses semicolons, but most writers prefer broad advice about work habits over commandments about style. F. Scott Fitzgerald: don’t drink and write (really!). Martha Southgate: learn from TV. Steven Heighton: embrace boredom. Henry James: “be one of those on whom nothing is lost.” Almost everyone who would know: read widely.

Which is, by the way, precise. It means precisely this: don’t read just one thing. For such a fan of precision Guriel is maddeningly vague about the nature of his beef. Is it writing about trivial things he deplores, or is it mixing “high and low”? How is reducing your use of semicolons related to “shutter[ing] your ear against mediocrity?” How does “reading the many, many new releases of middling poetry and fiction” result in “a failure to make judgments”? There’s a lot of questionable causality being bandied about in Guriel’s article, but most of it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Finally, how is his bogey the act of reading widely rather than, say, the fact of constant distraction? Ah, but the anti-distraction argument isn’t new!

Surely Guriel knows this. He’s the writer he is because he read widely at some point in his apprenticeship. So what motivates his article?

The generous answer: Guriel found a peaceful teapot, blew in some hot air. Maybe he hoped to replicate the hoopla caused by Jonathan Franzen’s “Mr. Difficult.” But unlike Franzen’s essay, “The Case against Reading Everything” is facile, cynically contrarian.

The less generous alternative is to take Guriel at his word. If his article is not (to quote Mike Spry) “pure lit-clickbait,” then it’s a puritanical assault on artistic curiosity, exploration and experiment. Its implication: what is good is what’s already known. To the old chestnut “Write what you know,” it appends “—and limit your knowledge.” The article wears the cloak of intellectualism but it’s deeply anti-intellectual. It upholds a fossilized ideal of high culture at the expense of the “seething caldron” of differences that makes culture a living thing. It grants indulgences to those who read only Marilynne Robinson—or only Rupi Kaur.

It’s irresponsible for a successful poet to promise “real talk” that justifies lazy provincialism.

Guriel’s animus against stuff “not worth reading” is inconceivable in a poet who productively references pop culture (the Beatles, Rubik’s Cubes) and whose poetry includes these lines:

                    a trifle’s potential—
its capacity for alchemy, actually—
can leave you longing
for lead.

To my eye, this lovely passage devastates Guriel’s case against “toggling between high and low.” A cereal-box may be read for prophecy or revelation, but the poet finds the value of its immanent being, trivial as it may be. “Most writing isn’t worth consuming,” says Guriel, and “that includes cereal boxes.” What if you’re at the supermarket, wanting to know whether Fruit Loops are as nutritious as they look? More seriously, what if the world is full of accidental poetry and subtle beauty–if you look where you don’t expect to find poetry and beauty. Chances are, the box of cereal will not inspire your next great poem; but who’s to say it can’t?

“The significant moments of one’s life are ‘insignificant’ to other people,” writes Hanif Kureishi, who adds that “art” is about “showing how and why they are significant and also why they may seem absurd.” I thought I agreed with Guriel on one point at least: that cereal labels offer little in the way of inspiration. But then I actually looked at a box of Cheerios, and who could deny the potential poetry in its disclaimer: “Enlarged to show texture”?

The injunction not to read widely is the writer’s prerogative, of course. But it doesn’t seem conducive with one of literature’s greatest powers: to enlarge minute aspects of the world and our lives, to give them texture.

Quoted

Beckett, Samuel. The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume I: 1929–1940, ed. George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn and Lois More Overbeck. Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Guriel, Jason. “Alchemy.” Poetry (July/August 2008).

Guriel, Jason. “The Case Against Reading Everything.” The Walrus (13 Dec. 2017),

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. Penguin, 1985.

Kureishi, Hanif. “Something Given: Reflections on Literature.” Collected Essays. Faber and Faber, 2011.

Moore, Marianne. “Poetry.” Complete Poems. Penguin, 1994.

Spry, Mike. CanLit Accountable. 8 Jan. 2018. http://canlitaccountable.com/, accessed 16 Feb. 2018.

Woolf, Virginia. “Poetry, Fiction and the Novel.” The Essays of Virginia Woolf IV: 1925–1928, edited by Andrew McNeillie. Hogarth Press, 1994.

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Mimesis

Abbotts sphinx caterpillar

At first sighting as shocking as a tiny dinosaur, this Abbott’s sphinx (Sphecodina abbottii) caterpillar was hidden among the Virginia creeper on my back porch. Turns out the adult of this species is a bumble bee mimic, not only because it’s colouring is dark and yellow but because it buzzes in flight too.

The larva feeds on members of the grape family, which has led some biologists to speculate that the green patterning is mimicry too–of grapes. Nabokov would be pleased. I always find it amazing to find such colourful and strange creatures right in the city.

My background, which is about 15′ X 13′, has yielded a jungle-worth of insect life. All it takes, it seems, is a few native plants (including Virginia creeper and a whole lot of milkweeds and cone flowers). The tiny monarch caterpillars I found on my milkweeds were hardly bigger than a nail-clipping, but perfectly formed. I’m sorry to report that all eleven of them were killed by ants. Next summer I’ll find a way to enclose them for their protection. My Queen Anne’s lace have been popular with swallowtail butterfly caterpillars, which also look like some kind of strange prehistoric monster.

 

The Jamesian Style and “The Horror! The Horror!” of uncertainty

(originally posted on the blog for my film adaptation course, November 2, 2013)

No one could accuse Henry James of never beating around the bush. This, of course, is my own lame approximation of a Jamesian sentence, at least an attempt to using multiple negatives as productively as he does. Only Joseph Conrad, who was profoundly influenced by James, used “not,” “no,” “never” and “nothing” as fruitfully as James, who wrote, in his great novel What Maisie Knew (1897), of his young heroine Maisie Farangue, this:

Nothing was less new to Maisie than the art of not thinking singly…

I defy anyone to paraphrase this statement in less than 10 seconds. Is he saying that Maisie is now just learning to see the complexity of things, as I would have initially read it? Is he saying that she does see the world in simple terms, even though her situation–to be passed around between divorced parents like a badminton shuttlecock–is anything but simple? My reading, after some slow, careful reading is closer to this: that Maisie has always had to see the world in its complexity: that “thinking singly” is something she, unlike many children, has never had the luxury of being able to enjoy. But the difficulty of reading this passage’s sense, and the many false possibilities, also forces us not to think singly about what is, after all, a terribly confusing problem for a 12-year-old girl.

Why would James ask so much of his reader? Why not simply say what I have just said, in relatively straightforward language? The reason that makes most sense to me is that James wants us to experience Maisie’s (or, in the case of The Turn of the Screw, the governess’s) uncertainty, the shades of grey in her thinking, the complexity and hesitancy. This is something James cultivated carefully. Even when he revised his novels for each new edition, he would get into the text and further complicate it. Here are two examples from the first edition of What Maisie Knew (1897) and the “New York” edition of 1907:

It glimmered back to her indeed that she [Maisie] must have failed quite dreadfully to seem responsive and polite…. (1897)

It glimmered back to her indeed that she [Maisie] must have failed quite dreadfully to seem ideally other than rude… (1907)

This was a new tone … and it could strike a perceptive person as the upshot of a relation that had taken on a new character. (1897)

This was a new tone … and it could strike a young person with a sharpened sense for latent meanings as the upshot of a relation that had taken on a new character. (1907)

(Henry James. What Maisie Knew. Ed. Adrian Poole. Toronto: Oxford UP, 2008. 292-93.)

This is a style designed to force nuance onto the reader, which is perhaps why James is so good at both psychology and horror–psychological horror, that is. It’s hard work reading James, especially his longer, later novels, where the style becomes, effectively, the substance and, in a sense, the plot. Not everyone agrees that the work pays off.

Incidentally, I just watched the recent film adaptation of What Maisie Knew (dir. Scott McGehee and David Segal, 2012), starring Julianne Moore, the ever-awesome Steve Coogan, and the little Onata Aprile as Maisie. A very fair review in The Guardian can be found here. It was well received as an adaptation of a difficult text, though at least one critic, the novelist Francine Prose (what other career could she have, with that name!), found that it failed to capture the scandalous nature of Maisie’s situation in the novel–the fact that divorce in 1897 would have made Maisie predicament socially as horrible as the governess’s predicament is psychologically in The Turn of the Screw–and the fact that adultery in James’s novel immediately marks some characters as at least partly shady, while it’s not at all a moral issue in the film. That is, that the film failed to update this situation for the 2010s, when divorce and adultery are hardly scandalous, and that it has found nothing to take their place as shockers of the moral imagination. The upshot, then, according to Prose’s excellent and insightful review, is that by failing to update the scandal the film fails to capture the pathos and complexity of little Maisie’s situation.

I agree that the film doesn’t capture the complexity of Maisie’s experience of the situation, something James can do thanks to his command of the third-person subjective voice and his subtle use of free indirect discourse. But I’m not sure I agree with Prose about this being a failure: a simplification, yes, but this does not mean the directors have betrayed the novel. This is a way of thinking we’re trying to challenge in this course. I’m not saying this is a perfect movie, because it isn’t. (Among other problems, the freakish beauty of everything: Manhattan is clean enough to eat off of–weird–and the people are all so good looking and stylish you can’t help suspect they’re saying something bad about you by implication.)

Nor am I saying that the directors simplify because film must simplify, because that’s not true. Arguably, Maisie’s parents in the film are less scandalous for being divorced, but they nevertheless approximate James’s supremely self-involved and cynical Mama and Papa. How? Precisely because the film has them treat Maisie with such carelessness that it borders on abuse and criminal neglect–without ever quite unambiguously crossing that line. And if anything in our day is as scandalous–without being criminal–as divorce was for James, it is forgetting one’s child, not noticing that she notices so much, ignoring the fact that she knows something–what that something is, or whether it is accurate, is less important than the fact that she knows something is up, that it involves her somehow, and that she is playing some kind of role in a drama she’s too young to understand. Perhaps the best scene in the film is when Maisie’s father Beale (Coogan) takes her out to breakfast and thoughtlessly suggests she move to London with him permanently, only to realize once Maisie agrees while asking if her mother could come too, that he didn’t really mean it. More than the neglect and self-involvement, then, it is the parents’ good intentions and cliched expressions of endless love that supply the scandal, for these only survive until the next incoming call on the cellphone, or the first inkling of having to compromise their grown-up priorities. If James was responding to a disturbing social change in his time, the film of What Maisie Knew applies the same (more or less) plot to the use of children as fashion accessories, something to be paraded out once in a while, but inconveniently taking up time and space at other times. It’s immensely hard to watch Julianne Moore suggesting to the little girl that they should “hang out” some time.

In short, it’s worth seeing as a movie, and it’s worth watching closely as an adaptation. Francine Prose is right, I think, in everything she says, except her conclusion that her criticisms reveal a failure of adaptation. If anything, these differences help us see what the novel was saying over a hundred years ago, and which has become so hard to see as James’s audience would have read it.

On “Pseudo-“

Daniel Aureliano Newman © 2007

Pseudo‘s got staying power. And this staying power, illustrating one of the many similarities between language and biological evolution, is the paradoxical product of remarkable conservatism on one hand, and on the other extreme flexibility. Pseudo- (or pseud-) has been with us a long time, originating from the Ancient Greek ψευδο- (or ψευδ-). Like its Latin spelling, pseudo-’s original sense of “false, pretended, counterfeit, spurious, or sham” has been conserved in many languages, including English. It’s really one of our most remarkable words, and a powerful communicator of scorn and insult.

Its first record in English dates from the 15th century, when Wyclif adapted ‘pseudo-’ words from the Latin Bible and from Greek. Writers began tagging pseudo- onto native English nouns in the 16th century (pseudo-prophet), and adjectives in the 17th century (pseudo-religious). During the Enlightenment, pseudo- was imported into scientific language, meaning “apparently but not really.” In such usage, pseudo- loses its derogatory implication; instead of revealing deceit or falsity, it draws attention to analogical resemblance (pseudopodia, the temporary limb-like extensions of amoebae), to relatedness (pseudelephant, the original term for mastodon), or to illusory similarity (pseudoreplication of sampling units in experimental design).

In most of its popular and specialized uses, pseudo- fills a semantic niche unoccupied by other affixes (like “non-”) or adjectives (like “fake”) that denote falsity or deceit.  In popular usage, it often implies “almost, but not quite.”  Hence a pseudo-conversation is a verbal exchange falling short of a certain standard. But unlike “quasi-”, itself a good prefix, pseudo- implies dishonesty or pretense. In scientific language, it allows analogical relationships to be made evident without implying actual homologies; for example, pseudoparasite clearly advertises itself as referring to something that may be mistaken for a parasite. (We’ve all met such people, those who appear to be using you but turn out to be perfectly harmless and nice, even helpful… but then of course there are those of the opposite persuasion, the pseudo-charitable.) Anyway, the prefix helps avoid a needless proliferation of new terms. Of course, usage rules are not without complications:  pseudoparthenogenesis actually refers to a form of parthenogenesis.

Early written uses of pseudo- are primarily religious, but satirists, critics, and polemicists seem to have recognized its potential quickly. Almost infinitely promiscuous, it affixes itself seamlessly to native English words and loanwords from almost any language. The OED lists over 200 entries prefixed with pseudo-, not counting dozens listed under the prefix’s own entry. It can be attached to adjectives (pseudoperpetual) and to nouns both concrete (pseudovolcano) and abstract (pseudoexistence). It may be used with words denoting a person, his personality type, his actions, or his possessions: thus an attention-seeking pseudo-martyr might resort to pseudocide (“a purposely failed suicide attempt”) with a sharpened pseudo-phallus, but his troubles are only beginning if his analyst turns out to be a pseudo-Freud.

Like the suffix –ism, pseudo- seems to have inspired English speakers; perhaps the ageless need for terms of debasement has guaranteed its popularity. The nature of the words it is affixed to may reflect trends in popular anxieties: pseudo-apostle had its heyday in the 15th century; pseudonymuncle (“a petty or insignificant person who writes under a pseudonym”) in 1875; pseudo-communist in the 1940s and ‘50s. Today’s climate calls for pseudoscience or pseudopundit.

Pseudo- probably owes some of its popularity to a long history in English, which makes it a failsafe tool (compare trendy but easily misused prefixes like ‘über’) and a good candidate for innovative affixation. The interactive online lexicon, http://www.pseudodictionary.com, attests to this prefix’s transmissibility, listing creative constructions such as pseudoklepto (“someone who ‘steals’ things intending to return them later”) and pseudold-school (“old idea or design, remarketed as new, such as the VW New Beetle”). Though many of these are silly or unwieldy, some could actually catch on. A Google search yields additional idiolectic and specialized constructions—some simple (pseudofascist, pseudophat) and others simply superb (pseudo-random quanta, pseudopseudohyperparathyroidism).

It is hardly surprising that such a prolific affix would adopt an independent meaning.  In relation to false claims of divinity, pseudo has been recorded in English since the 15th century, and has since expanded to mark affectation or insincerity in general. Since the 1960s, pseud (adj. and n.), pseudish (adj.), and pseudy (adj.) have become established as well. Novelty being such a crucial element for effective insults, the semantic niche of a deprecating term is rarely filled, and remains open to further innovation. Hence pseudocool, pseudoanarchistic or pseudostud.

 Works cited and consulted

 Hurlbert, Stuart H. Pseudoreplication and the Design of Ecological Field Experiments.Ecological Monographs 54.2 (1984): 187-211

“pseud, adj. & n. OED Online. September 2007. Oxford University Press. 27 Sept. 2007. http://dictionary.oed.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/cgi/entry/50191406.

“pseudish, adj. OED Online. September 2007. Oxford University Press. 27 Sept. 2007. http://dictionary.oed.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/cgi/entry/ 50191419.

“pseudo-, comb. form. OED Online. September 2007. Oxford University Press. 27 Sept. 2007. http://dictionary.oed.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/cgi/entry/50191423.

“pseudo, adj. & n. OED Online. September 2007. Oxford University Press. 27 Sept. 2007. http://dictionary.oed.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/cgi/entry/50191422.

“pseudo*.” Lexicons of Early Modern English. Ed. Ian Lancashire. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Library and University of Toronto Press, 2007. Date consulted: 27 Sept. 2007. URL: leme.library.utoronto.ca.

“pseudocide, n1.OED Online. September 2007. Oxford University Press. 27 Sept. 2007. http://dictionary.oed.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/cgi/entry/50191436.

“pseudoklepto.” Pseudodictionary.com. Date consulted:  27 Sept. 2007. http://www.pseudodictionary.com/search.php?letter=p&browsestart=1520.

“pseudold-school.” Pseudodictionary.com. Date consulted:  27 Sept. 2007. http://www.pseudodictionary.com/search.php?letter=p&browsestart=1520.

“pseudonymuncle, n.” September 2007. Oxford University Press. 27 Sept. 2007. http://dictionary.oed.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/cgi/entry/50191476.

“pseudy, adj. OED Online. September 2007. Oxford University Press. 27 Sept. 2007. http://dictionary.oed.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/cgi/entry/30008380.

Rudin, Norah.  Dictionary of Modern Biology. Hauppauge, NY: Barron’s, 1997.