|August 2012||December 2012||Now available!|
Oh God, grant me the power to delay the things I cannot change,
The PR budget to confuse the issue,
And a sweet job in a completely non-related industry before this all goes completely to Hell.
(Also applicable to politicians, football coaches, and skirt-chasing TV preachers.)
I shall probably never summer at the Vineyard or winter at Palm Beach, or do whatever season one does at Biarritz. But there are some pleasures that are still accessible to the chronically underfunded, and a few, thanks to ebooks and the Internet, that are more accessible than ever. One of these is the pleasure of being polybibulous. This is not a word you will find in the dictionaries, but it has a certain amount of currency online; it means, of course, the habit of reading more than one book at a time.
I have been polybibulous, perhaps, about since the time my father gave me my second book. I am very hard on books; I have a way of breaking the spines, thanks to my habit of generally leaving four or five of them lying about on various surfaces, with the spine up to keep them from shutting and losing my place. (Bookmarks have never been my friends. Give me a million bookmarks today, and by tomorrow week I will have lost every one of them and be marking my places with pencils or paper towels.) People who read only one book at a time, generally speaking, don’t leave their books lying open for days on end, and I suspect they are rather apt to wonder how my books wear out so quickly.
But there are compensations. No monobiblist can ever know the polybibulous delight of seeing two incongruously different texts collide in a brilliant shower of new ideas. You can learn, not twice, but ten times as much by reading two good books concurrently than by reading each one straight through in turn. The texts themselves will conduct a lively argument in your head, which may lead you to conclusions that neither author ever dreamed of.
One of the books I have on the go at the moment is How We Invented Freedom & Why It Matters, by the indefatigably right-wing British politician, Daniel Hannan. Hannan makes some good points, and some questionable ones, about the particularly English heritage of law and liberty. He is quite right, I think, to stress the importance of the idea, inherent in English common law, that anything not explicitly forbidden is permitted. In contrast to this, he writes about his experiences with the Eurocrats in Brussels, who seem to have the idea that any new activity is illegal until some official writes a set of regulations for it. This is good stuff, and makes one rather more sympathetic to the late Douglas Adams. In the original Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (the radio series), Adams informed us that of all the curse words in all the languages of our galaxy, the most obscene is ‘Belgium’.
On the other hand, Hannan makes, I think, too much of the specifically Protestant contribution to liberty. The English common law, the English Parliament, and the English jury system all flourished in the fourteenth century, when England was still a Catholic country. But the most important institution in the whole framework of English liberty, I believe, goes back to the almost unrecorded twilight of the seventh century. That is the English language itself. For English is a common-law language. [Read more...]
A preview of my new serial, now in progress. I posted a teaser (call it that, rather than a prologue) earlier.
The first snow fell on the fourth day out from Suranaya, just before midday, though the calendar insisted that it was still early autumn. Three men on sturdy bay horses rode slowly up the zig-zag road towards the northern mountains. A wintry mantle had already settled on the jagged peaks. In full daylight they would have been dazzling white, but they looked like tarnished silver under this livid and sunless sky.
The riders went single file, but drew up three abreast when the leader halted at a bend in the road. He pointed at a deep, narrow rift in the mountain range on the northern horizon. ‘Sai Jilon,’ he said in his own Anayan tongue, his voice as dull and grey as the clouds. Then, for the benefit of his companions, he translated it into the speech of the Commonwealth: ‘Cleft of Bones.’
The other riders looked up at the cleft uneasily. ‘Charming name,’ said the younger of the two, a lean, dark youth with close-cropped hair. He wore a plain woollen riding cloak with brown boots and gloves, and a cynical expression that fell just short of being a smirk. He looked like the sort of person that is always being told to take that look off his face.
‘Take that look off your face, Revel,’ said the third rider, throwing back his hood. He was dressed like the younger man, except for a bright blue sash round his waist, but there the resemblance ended. He was taller than his companion, broad-shouldered, with a wide, honest face that seemed equally ready for anger or laughter. Though he was no more than thirty, his hair was marked by two white streaks, running straight back from the corners of his forehead.
‘You take it off, Badger-brock. I’m not going up there till our friend tells us whose bones it’s named after.’
‘Not bones of men,’ said the Anayan. ‘Come. Dangerous to stop here.’ [Read more...]
Over at The Passive Voice, while Passive Guy is away, the guest bloggers have put up the sole surviving recording of the voice of Virginia Woolf. Talking of the poor state of the literature of England in her time, she makes this revealing remark:
Where are we to lay the blame? Not on our professors, not on our reviewers, not on our writers, but on words. Words are to blame.
There is a very old English saying, invented by people who had a far better instinct for the use of language than Virginia Woolf ever had: ‘It’s a poor craftsman that blames his tools.’ At the very time when Woolf (and a lot of other tired English littérateurs) complained about the exhaustion of the English language, a generation of mostly American and Irish writers were making those poor old words do wonderful new tricks, and breathed a whole new vigour into literature. (Then there were Welshmen like Dylan Thomas, and a few Scots. There may even have been a Canadian in there somewhere.)
Of course it was the Americans’ turn to slip into decadence half a century later, when it became fashionable for the darlings of American Lit to blame the failure of their books on the inadequacy of words to express their wonderful sublime ideas. B. R. Myers had a short way with such people, pointing out sarcastically that English words were good enough for ‘a piker like Shakespeare’.
What did the Americans, Irish, and Welsh have in Woolf’s time that Woolf and her English friends lacked? Part of the answer may perhaps be found when we hear Woolf’s accent. It is a very pure and correct ‘educated’ accent, an early form of ‘Received Pronunciation’, the chief purpose of which was to prove that the speaker did not belong to the despised working classes. It was a deracinated English, deliberately divorced from any regional dialect or demotic form of speech; it did not even have the vitality to generate a vivid slang of its own. George Orwell, who was brought up to to speak it, observed:
The ‘educated’ accent, of which the accent of BBC announcers is a sort of parody, has no asset except its intelligibility to English-speaking foreigners. In England, the minority to whom it is natural don’t particularly like it, while in the other three-quarters of the population it arouses an immediate class antagonism.
This is precisely Woolf’s accent; you can hear it in recordings by Noel Coward also, and any number of English politicians of the time. (Not Churchill; as Orwell points out, ‘Too old to have acquired the modern “educated” accent he speaks with the Edwardian upper-class twang which to the average man’s ear sounds ilke cockney.’ This gave Churchill a great advantage as a public speaker: people could hear him without hating him.) In documents of the period, it is often called a mincing accent; it would not be too much to say that it was seldom spoken without fear – fear of seeming ‘common’; fear of being mistaken for a member of the Lower Orders; fear of breaking the innumerable social taboos that ‘educated’ speakers were supposed to obey, and thus revealing (truly or falsely) that the accent was merely an act.
Great literature is not written by people who are afraid to speak freely. So the task devolved upon people like Hemingway, Faulkner, Thomas, and Eliot, who spoke and wrote in their own regional dialects and never felt any need to apologize for it. It is not the inadequacy of words that kills literature, but the fear of being seen to use them differently from other people.
Another birthday today; another year older and deeper in debt. But not much deeper, thanks to the generosity of my 3.6 Loyal Readers (and other helpful souls) in recent months; for which I am profoundly grateful.
I am claiming to be eleventy-five today, on the grounds that I was claiming to be 104 eleven years ago. That claim was based on a low, mean, degraded hankering for the praise of men. I undertook to lie about my age, not in the foolish way that some people do (mostly women, according to the stereotype, and I am sad to say that my experience does not contradict it), where one lies by pretending to be younger than one is so that one will not have to confess the mortal sin of being old. No: I decided to lie in the opposite direction, the sensible direction, so that people would compliment me on how young I looked for my age.
Sure enough, after only three years of trying, I got my reward. A young lady asked me my age, and I told her I was 107. She replied, ‘Go on! You don’t look a day over 104.’ And there was much rejoicing, but somehow not as much as I had been hoping for.
Alas, I no longer receive or merit that kind of flattery. Nowadays I fear that I resemble the character described by P. G. Wodehouse:
He was either a man of about a hundred and fifty who was rather young for his years, or a man of about a hundred and ten who had been aged by trouble.
But there we are. I am 115 today, according to my official calculations; and if anyone objects, I can defend my figures using the finest Whale Math, as practised by the publishing industry. Twice two is 11, and 5 from 9 leaves 34; and when 900 people sign the ‘Authors United’ petition demanding that Evil Amazon give poor defenceless Hachette Livre back its lollipop, those 900 are more people than the 9,000 or so who signed the counter-petition in support of Amazon and criticizing Hachette. I wish I had known about Whale Math when I was young, all those impossible centuries and aeons ago. Then I would have taken a degree in it, instead of squandering my talents on a worthless fribble like my doctorate in Non-Cognitive Philosophy.
But this life is a vale of tears, so it is, and we seldom do the right thing in it, whether we can count or not.
Paradox has been defined as ‘Truth standing on her head to get attention’. Paradox has been defended; on the ground that so many fashionable fallacies still stand firmly on their feet, because they have no heads to stand on. But it must be admitted that writers, like other mendicants and mountebanks, frequently do try to attract attention. They set out conspicuously, in a single line in a play, or at the head or tail of a paragraph, remarks of this challenging kind; as when Mr. Bernard Shaw wrote: ‘The Golden Rule is that there is no Golden Rule’; or Oscar Wilde observed: ‘I can resist everything except temptation’; or a duller scribe (not to be named with these and now doing penance for his earlier vices in the nobler toil of celebrating the virtues of Mr. Pond) said in defence of hobbies and amateurs and general duffers like himself: ‘If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.’ To these things do writers sink; and then the critics tell them that they ‘talk for effect’; and then the writers answer: ‘What the devil else should we talk for? Ineffectualness?’
—G. K. Chesterton, The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond
Access to books was lousy for anyone who lived in Podunk, because in the twentieth century (and the sixteenth, for that matter), keeping books in stock presented the same problem as keeping pots or shoes in stock. They had to be created in advance of demand and delivered someplace for sale. The limitations imposed by physicality and geography are so normal that people rarely mention them, but they create persistent barriers to access for anyone other than well-off urbanites.
It’s easy to see this as same old, same old, of course. Richer people in fancier cities have nicer things — surprise! — but given recent technology, those barriers could be lowered. Demand can now create supply, in the form of ebooks and print on demand. This turns books into a different sort of commodity. No book need ever be out of stock, or out of print, anywhere in the world. It used to be that if you were OK with people in Podunk having inferior access to books, you were just a realist about the difficulties of making and shipping physical stuff. Now if you’re OK with that, you’re kind of an asshole.
The lovely and talented L. Jagi Lamplighter, a.k.a. Mrs. John C. Wright, is starting a weekly series on Superversive Fiction on her blog. I have the honour of being chosen as the first guest blogger in this new series. Colour me bashful.
In this short essai, I explain the origin and intended meaning of the term ‘superversive’, particularly as it applies to fiction. I first came up with the term (in that meaning; others have used the neologism for different purposes, but it did not catch on) in a very old essay, ‘Superversive: The failure of subversion in imaginative literature’. This new piece covers some of the same ground, but with a different emphasis and a new twist in the conclusion.
Behold the Underminer! I am always beneath you, but nothing is beneath me!
For about a hundred years now, ever since the First World War broke the confidence of Western civilization, it has been fashionable to praise subversion. Art, music, and literature, as many of the critics tell us, are not supposed to go chasing after obsolete values like truth or beauty; they are supposed to shock, to wound, to épater les bourgeois – to subvert the values of society.
Joel Salomon, in a comment at According to Hoyt, observes:
Of course it is possible to tell a compelling story about a heroine without flaws….
Here is how the thing was done, by the inimitable H. H. Munro, better known as Saki.
It was a hot afternoon, and the railway carriage was correspondingly sultry, and the next stop was at Templecombe, nearly an hour ahead. The occupants of the carriage were a small girl, and a smaller girl, and a small boy. An aunt belonging to the children occupied one corner seat, and the further corner seat on the opposite side was occupied by a bachelor who was a stranger to their party, but the small girls and the small boy emphatically occupied the compartment. Both the aunt and the children were conversational in a limited, persistent way, reminding one of the attentions of a housefly that refuses to be discouraged. Most of the aunt’s remarks seemed to begin with ‘Don’t,’ and nearly all of the children’s remarks began with ‘Why?’ The bachelor said nothing out loud. ‘Don’t, Cyril, don’t,’ exclaimed the aunt, as the small boy began smacking the cushions of the seat, producing a cloud of dust at each blow.
‘Come and look out of the window,’ she added.
The child moved reluctantly to the window. ‘Why are those sheep being driven out of that field?’ he asked.
‘I expect they are being driven to another field where there is more grass,’ said the aunt weakly.
‘But there is lots of grass in that field,’ protested the boy; ‘there’s nothing else but grass there. Aunt, there’s lots of grass in that field.’
‘Perhaps the grass in the other field is better,’ suggested the aunt fatuously.
‘Why is it better?’ came the swift, inevitable question.
‘Oh, look at those cows!’ exclaimed the aunt. Nearly every field along the line had contained cows or bullocks, but she spoke as though she were drawing attention to a rarity.
‘Why is the grass in the other field better?’ persisted Cyril.
The frown on the bachelor’s face was deepening to a scowl. He was a hard, unsympathetic man, the aunt decided in her mind. She was utterly unable to come to any satisfactory decision about the grass in the other field.
The smaller girl created a diversion by beginning to recite ‘On the Road to Mandalay.’ She only knew the first line, but she put her limited knowledge to the fullest possible use. She repeated the line over and over again in a dreamy but resolute and very audible voice; it seemed to the bachelor as though some one had had a bet with her that she could not repeat the line aloud two thousand times without stopping. Whoever it was who had made the wager was likely to lose his bet.
‘Come over here and listen to a story,’ said the aunt, when the bachelor had looked twice at her and once at the communication cord. [Read more...]
The story has often been told of how Coleridge dreamt his “Kubla Khan” in an intoxication of opium, and of how, upon waking, he sat down to write it and was interrupted by “a person from Porlock,” thereby losing forever the conclusion to that extraordinary poem. Persons from Porlock are professionally employed by the publishing companies of the Anglo-Saxon world. A few are wise and ask questions that speed on the writing; a few distract; a few quibble away at the author’s vaporous confidence; a few destroy the work in mid-creation. All interfere, and it is this compulsive tinkering with someone else’s text that I have to question.
Without editors we are likely to have rambling, incoherent, repetitive, even offensive texts, full of characters whose eyes are green one day and black the next (like Madame Bovary); full of historical errors, like stout Cortez discovering the Pacific (as in Keats’s sonnet); full of badly strung-together episodes (as in Don Quixote); with a cobbled-together ending (as in Hamlet) or beginning (as in The Old Curiosity Shop). But with editors – with the constant and now unavoidable presence of editors without whose nihil obstat hardly a book can get published – we may perhaps be missing something fabulously new, something as incandescent as a phoenix and as unique, something impossible to describe because it has not yet been born but which, if it were, would admit no secret sharers in its creation.
—Alberto Manguel, ‘The Secret Sharer’
(collected in Into the Looking-Glass Wood)
My own comment:
The nihil obstat has been removed. The principal function of editors was never to edit books, but to reject them, and they rejected a lot of very good books because of their personal tastes, or their unsound judgement of what was and was not commercial, or simply because too many good books were submitted to them and they could not publish them all. Half the point of being independent authors is that when we write a good book, we can take it straight to the public without giving an intermediary the power to reject it. To replicate the editorial function of traditional publishing would not only be foolish, it would destroy our reason for doing business.