Monthly Archives: December 2009

The blockbuster in America

I attended two holiday  movies, Avatar and Up In the Air, both of which delivered the promised shock and awe but which on balance provoked in me a quiet despair. And this felt bad. So, I’m out of step. But there’s a great article, “A World of Hits,” in The Economist that chases my blues with the insight that, hey, such a reaction may be a small downside of living in a blessed wealthy mass-consuming Democracy—tyranny of the majority and all that—that rewards blockbuster movies and best-selling books.

An excerpt:

“Although you might expect people who seek out obscure products to derive more pleasure from their discoveries than those who simply trudge off to see the occasional blockbuster, the opposite is true. Tom Tan and Serguei Netessine of Wharton Business School have analysed reviews on Netflix, a popular American outfit that dispatches DVDs by post and asks subscribers to rate the films they have rented. They find that blockbusters get better ratings from the people who have watched them than more obscure ones do. Even the critically loathed Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is awarded four stars out of five.

“Perhaps the best explanation of why this might be so was offered in 1963. In Formal Theories of Mass Behaviour, William McPhee noted that a disproportionate share of the audience for a hit was made up of people who consumed few products of that type. (Many other studies have since reached the same conclusion.) A lot of the people who read a bestselling novel, for example, do not read much other fiction. By contrast, the audience for an obscure novel is largely composed of people who read a lot. That means the least popular books are judged by people who have the highest standards, while the most popular are judged by people who literally do not know any better. An American who read just one book this year was disproportionately likely to have read The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown. He almost certainly liked it.

“This explains why bestselling books, or blockbuster films, occasionally seem to grow not just more quickly than products which are merely very popular, but also in a wholly different way. As a media product moves from the pool of frequent consumers into the ocean of occasional consumers, the prevailing attitude to it—what Hollywood folk call word of mouth—can become less critical. The hit is carried along by a wave of ill-informed goodwill.”

You can read the whole article here.

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Almost Christmas at the coffee shop

Middle-aged men, two to four in the group, one talking loudly at a time:

“You need to read more books!”

“How are we going to solve the health care problem if . . .”

“What gets me is these Republicans who say—”

“This isn’t partisan—the Democrats . . . Obama . . . ”

“We go to Wal-Mart and we buy this crap, and we don’t care where the shit comes from, as long as it’s cheap.”

“No, I’m for a stronger military because I want to protect me.”

“You know your problem?”

“I’m reading Thomas Friedman—do you know who he is?”

“We’re destroyed the middle class in this country.”

“This country is becoming . . .”

“I’m just saying that . . .”

“For once, I’d like to see—”

“If you could admit . . .”

“No!”

“I gotta go.”

“Next time I see you, I hope you’ve read something intelligent.”

About ten o’clock the men leave, leaning forward into the December gloom, gripping their refillable coffee mugs like clubs, taking with them their staccato bursts. The shop’s human sound burbles and murmurs. The corner table is taken by women, five or six of them. Sometimes they talk together and sometimes they split into sidebars, two with two or three:

“I think that was the start of my insomnia . . . My husband, I could set him on fire and he wouldn’t wake up. But the dogs, I thought . . .”

“But I said, ‘We don’t even know where we’re going.’ He wanted to use MapQuest. ‘Don’t we have to know who we’re going to visit first?’ ”

“They have a heavier down—they’re made for travel.”

“They were taxing on unrealized gains. When they sell it you pay, but . . .”

“And my maternal grandmother . . .”

“If I’d known that I would have—”

“Embellished?”

Laughter.

“She has such a Lab personality.”

“Oh, she is part Lab?”

“So she opens the door and pulls him in! I’d only been dating about a month. I went inside and they were all sitting at the table.”

“She’s so controlling. I’ve told her, ‘Either it changes or I’m done.’ I was telling someone my mother in law stories . . . She’s emasculated him horribly . . . And until that point, I always felt sorry for her . . . He drove for eight hours, and I said, ‘That’s it.’ The whole trip I drove for two and a half hours. She had the GPS in back, and it kept saying ‘You have arrived.’ She said . . . I just gave her a dirty look.”

“Last year he wouldn’t come because I wouldn’t let him bring the dog.”

“What kind of dog is it?”

“Last year the dog peed on our floor because it was so excited. I took the dog for a half-mile walk because the thing was crazy.”

“What kind of dog is it?”

“Spaniels? I don’t know any spaniels that . . .”

“There’s a nice side to her, I like her but . . .”

“The half brothers were raised by a different mother, and they’re normal.”

“He’s going to be a real man of God one day, but he’s only nineteen.”

Worker interrupting: “Ladies, you are having too much fun!”

Laughter.

“They’ll be working twice as hard for the same money.”

“This is depressing.”

“This is reality.”

“I’m leaving!”

“Have a nice trip!”

“I’ll probably talk to you later today.”

“I’m going to come back in a really nice mood, not mad at anyone.”

“Merry Christmas!”

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A few more words

I own a few sacred words, words of such beauty I desire to be worthy of them. I adore these watery two: lacustrine, of or pertaining to a lake, and pelagic, of or pertaining to the open seas or oceans. The oceans are mighty places, you know, and pelagic fishes must swim faster than their lacustrine kin.

We try to capture our feelings with words, and we think more precisely and deeply with them. Therefore knowing the meaning of bumptious serves well. Yes, we might call someone “pushy,” but bumptious has a hapless and comic, yet grating, quality.

I couldn’t make some of my pet distinctions without existential, which makes me wonder if, as feared English teachers of old implied, a big vocabulary is demonstrably a good thing. Existential holds resonance and romance for me because I struggled through Being and Nothingness (in fear and trembling) in college.

But when we learn others’ beloved words we may spend our whole lives unable to forget them but unable or unwilling to use them. Exhibit A is pusillanimous: cowardly or timid. Mostly the word seems good for humorous applications. Didn’t the Wizard, or was it the Cowardly Lion himself, use it in The Wizard of Oz?

Per existential: some love ontology or ontological—“the branch of metaphysics that studies the nature of existence or being as such,” says Dictionary.com; but I can seldom remember the meaning of ontology no matter how many times I look it up. My new digital Oxford English Dictionary adds “essence” helpfully to its definition: “the being or essence of things.”

So when your car tire is flat you have an existential problem to solve, but how you think about that problem may well be ontological. I guess. And we all know the essence of existence is one damn thing after another, to paraphrase Winston Churchill.

Then there are words like risible, which I always think means offensive, when instead it means causing or capable of causing laughter. Attenuated, which I associate with “bloated,” means to weaken; so does vitiate. I can never remember that saturnine means slow and gloomy when lugubrious means mournful, dismal, or gloomy—doesn’t it seem that one of these words is unnecessary? I suppose one man is saturnine while another is lugubrious (and, possibly, he’s bumptious as well). My mind flails at such slight differences: there’s insuperable—incapable of being surmounted; an “insuperable barrier”—and ineluctable: incapable of being evaded; inescapable.

An intelligent friend—he earned a doctorate in genetics—doesn’t like writers who use “big words,” he told me recently over lunch. I wonder about the tension there, for both writers and readers. Must a writer hold himself back, not use the precise term because most readers won’t know it? Then I think of David Foster Wallace, who was lavish with hard words; in one of his essays he used piacular, a rare adjective meaning “making or requiring atonement.”

Sometimes it does me good when I’m writing and struggling to open and read part of a book I’ve admired to see how plain most of the language is, how common the words. Like many readers and writers, I presume, I think of the great beauty and emotional effect of a work as a whole, and judge my partial and ongoing efforts harshly in comparison. Literature is made mostly of common material, but precisely used, in new or uncommon combinations.

Still, I’ve got my own lengthening list of interesting words I’d like to use, written down and defined. I review the document sometimes, examine at a word like otiose (serving no practical purpose) and wonder about using it, not to disparage someone’s excuse-making verbiage but to describe a piece of farm machinery, say. Two punchy, colloquial words I’ve admired but not yet used: skeevy—meaning disgusting or sleazy—and pawky, a British adjective meaning shrewd and cunning, often used in a humorous way.

My life mostly lived—I’m middle-aged, which doesn’t really mean “in the middle of life” but “neither young nor old,” on the way to, but not quite identifiable as, elderly—and I’m making lists of toothsome words like a precocious child trying to better himself or like a conceited adolescent hoping to one-up the competition. In a phase where I look up words compulsively in almost everything I read, and then paste their meanings into my personal list, I realize with a certain horror that I’m simply recreating a dictionary. My document is up to twelve pages, but at least it’s customized, a record of my own admiration and yearning.

Surely we’re impoverished without lovely and exact words; perhaps our culture’s coarseness stems in part from its narrowed vocabulary. We use monikers like input and monetize, while better and more beautiful words languish, and some beloved by our educated forebears disappear. Whole worlds of knowledge disappear. It’s bell wether, not weather: a wether, a neutered male sheep, was tame and led the flock, wearing a tinkling brass bell, behind the shepherd. I used to know the nautical definition of chine—where a boat’s bottom meets the side of its hull—without realizing, until I looked it up, perplexed by a writer’s phrase “like a chine of meat,” that it means an animal’s backbone and can also mean a ridge of land.

In an interview with the Paris Review in 1999, William Styron said a writer must love language, implicitly defending his own free use of unusual words. “You have to have a vocabulary,” he added. “So many writers who disappoint me don’t have a vocabulary—they don’t seem to have much feeling for words.”

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A writer’s words

The more I consider words, the more beautiful and useful and strange they seem individually and in combination: What does “hopelessly endearing,” used in a recent New Yorker review to describe an actor’s smile, literally mean? Yet the phrase captures a doofus charm, and I can picture George Clooney pulling it off.

I got frustrated with my own writing vocabulary when I felt I’d strung together about a dozen words to build a book-length manuscript. And it came to perplex me how often I’d reach for a pedestrian word when another, more precise or pleasing—not necessarily fancy—word was at hand. (In my youth I listened to a teacher disparage the inept use of thesauruses, but the tool doesn’t inevitably result in the use of a fifty-cent word; it can remind the writer of a simpler, stronger one.)

For instance, once when I depicted my farm’s hired hand I said he “worked stubbornly” at a hateful task. Stubborn he surely was, but what I wanted, especially because I was drawing a parallel between him and our tagalong terrier, was dogged. Everyone knows its meaning—right there in its letters—and yet it didn’t occur to me until a friend asked a question implying I should strengthen the comparison between man and canine. Even assiduously was an unconsidered option. (Oddly, sedulous means the same thing as assiduous—diligent, persevering—though, to me, it feels negative, probably because it sounds like credulous, which means gullible.) Dogged took the day because of its sound, connotations, our dog, and the word’s vernacular wallop.

Later I wrote that my worker, like our terrier chasing a rat, was pertinacious: holding firmly to an opinion or a course of action; determined, tenacious, persistent, persevering, purposeful, resolute, dogged, indefatigable, insistent, single-minded, unrelenting, relentless, tireless, unshakable; stubborn, obstinate, inflexible, unbending.

So pertinacious implies a manic vibe.

The glory of words lies not just in their gross meanings of course—the huge differences between feminine, effeminate, womanly, and ladylike—but in even finer shadings. The connotations words carry are those of other words, and often words physically carry other words: the pert in pertinacious adds a comic tint. And the sounds within words hit evocative notes: Is someone placid or is he insouciant (more gay than unperturbed—and with a grin)? I’ll likely never use effulgent—shining forth brilliantly; radiant—because it carries for me in its sound the sense of fulsome or maybe even effluent: “The foul effluent emerging from the illegal septic pipe shone effulgently in the moonlight.”

A term I like but have never written is occlude: to stop up. Maybe it’s one of those words only writers ever use, like inchoate: not yet completed, rudimentary. For some reason, decades ago, I learned crenellated (those toothy battlements at the tops of castle turrets) and have never deployed it. Recently I came across castellated, which means built like a castle or, more evocatively, describes a countryside filled with castles. Consider the efficiency and beauty—and strangeness of origin—in being able to describe a region as castellated rather than saying, “Man, there sure were a lot of castles in that country.”

Palimpsest seems somewhat pretentious—“a parchment or the like from which writing has been partially or completely erased to make room for another text,” says Dictionary.com—even though it’s specific and useful where needed. Liminal is likewise awfully writerly, but at least it’s lovely. And who uses crepuscular but writers? It means “like twilight” or “dim” and usually it’s employed as a highfalutin description of the light at dusk. But Dictionary.com supplies this arresting sentence fragment (from the Wall Street Journal) which shows the metaphorical and tonal richness possible with well-chosen, uncommon words: “. . . the period’s crepuscular charm and a waning of the intense francophilia that used to shape the art market.”

For some reason, Annie Dillard loves quondam (former) and catenary (a type of curve); she used them often in her books. Which is different from waiting a lifetime to use the perfect word and having an editor strike it out. I recall a Chicago newspaper editor saying, years ago at a conference, how a crusty old reporter who loved the poetry of words defended his description of highways after a snowstorm as “reliquaries of abandoned cars.” She wanted to substitute “graveyards,” of course, but he desired to convey his awe at seeing a road turned into a “receptacle, such as a coffer or shrine, for keeping or displaying sacred relics” (Dictionary.com).

Reliquary is truly gorgeous—and its metaphorical richness delights; with reliquary, the reporter showed prosaic streets transformed by snow into display cases for our culture’s indeed sacred mode of transportation. No wonder he glared at his kid editor whose “graveyard” was mundane by comparison—a dead metaphor—merely comparing stalled cars to carcasses.

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Filed under aesthetics, audience, diction or vocabulary, Dillard—Saint Annie, reading

For the well-read writer . . .

If there’s a writer of any stripe on your holiday gift list, you could do worse than to buy The Paris Review Interviews, Vols. 1-4, a new boxed set that collects the journal’s fifty years of interviews with famous and emerging writers. (Take note, Claire and Tom!)

E.B. White (1899–1985), gifted essayist and author of immortal children’s books, sat down for his interview with The Paris Review in 1969. The New Yorker’s great stylist, candid to the point of self-effacement, revealed that he didn’t usually consume classic literature; in fact he wasn’t much of a reader at all.

Seven years later, despite this heresy, John Updike—a writer at the opposite pole of erudition—gave an affectionate review in his book Hugging the Shore to White’s collected letters. Updike was a fan of the wordsmith and seemed charmed by White’s modesty and originality. While noting White’s lack of bookishness, Updike called him “a diffident-appearing but at heart highly determined literary pilgrim.” He placed White’s colloquial and aphoristic style “in the manner of the eighteenth-century journalist-philosophers and of Thoreau.”

White’s One Man’s Meat is a classic work of nonfiction, funny and keen, yet comforting as a pot-bellied stove. His tales of raising livestock on his Maine farm, written originally for Harper’s, were charming but underneath lay a rigor because White was really producing food, not just doing a little something to wax philosophic. He was passionate about farming, and at the same time saw its ridiculous difficulty and his own efforts as comedic. One of the funniest things I’ve ever read is his account of catching himself wandering around his barnyard clutching a paper napkin and imitating cockerels learning to crow.

An excerpt of White’s Paris Review remarks:

“I was never a voracious reader and, in fact, have done little reading in my life. There are too many other things I would rather do than read. In my youth I read animal stories—William J. Long and Ernest Seton Thompson. I have read a great many books about small boat voyages—they fascinate me even though they usually have no merit. In the twenties, I read the newspaper columns . . . In order to read, one must sit down, usually indoors. I am restless and would rather sail a boat than crack a book. I’ve never had a very lively literary curiosity, and it has sometimes seemed to me that I am not really a literary fellow at all. Except that I write for a living.”

“It is a matter of some embarrassment to me that I have never read Joyce and a dozen other writers who have changed the face of literature. But there you are. I picked up Ulysses the other evening, when my eye lit on it, and gave it a go. I stayed with it only for about twenty minutes, then was off and away. It takes more than a genius to keep me reading a book. . . . I enjoyed Speak, Memory by Nabokov when I read it—a fine example of remembering. . . . I have no special interest in any of the other arts. I know nothing of music or of painting or of sculpture or of the dance. I would rather watch the circus or a ball game than ballet.”

“There are two faces to discipline. If a man (who writes) feels like going to a zoo, he should by all means go to a zoo. . . . The other face of discipline is that zoo or no zoo, diversion or no diversion, in the end a man must sit down and get the words on paper, and against great odds. This takes stamina and resolution. Having got them on paper, he must still have the discipline to discard them if they fail to measure up; he must view them with a jaundiced eye and do the whole thing over as many times as is necessary to achieve excellence, or as close to excellence as he can get. This varies from one time to maybe twenty. . . . I do think the ability to evaluate one’s own stuff with reasonable accuracy is a helpful piece of equipment. I’ve known good writers who had it, and I’ve known good writers who’ve not.”

“Children are game for anything. I throw them hard words, and they backhand them over the net. They love words that give them a hard time, provided they are in a context that absorbs their attention. I’m lucky again: my own vocabulary is small, compared to most writers, and I tend to use the short words. So it’s no problem for me to write for children. We have a lot in common.”

The Paris Review website has the full interview available for download as a pdf. (Thanks to Elizabeth at Fog City Writer for pointing this out.)

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Visual art by Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard, having announced her retirement from writing, now paints and draws. That’s her  “Long Cloud,” above; to the right, her self portrait.

Her web site offers fine prints at $350; there’s a limit of ten to be sold of each. Proceeds go to Partners in Health, which provides medical services for the poor in developing countries. I stumbled across her artwork and have no idea whether these pieces are still available, but she lists a dealer to contact.

I’m unfit to evaluate visual art. But I know what I like, and I like Dillard’s images. A lot. And she’s priced them modestly.

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Life as a constant essayist

Sam Pickering, on the English faculty at the University of Connecticut, was the model for Robin Williams’s character in the sentimental hit movie Dead Poets Society and is the author of eighteen books, fifteen of them lighthearted essay collections describing his “doings.” Sometimes he alternates with humorous stories about fictionalized characters from his Tennessee hometown. He publishes mostly with university presses—everyone gets a turn: when I was at Ohio University Press we published Deprived of Unhappiness, his tenth volume of essays. He says he hasn’t made money, but he appears to have had a good time and concentrated his experience, focused himself on making a kind of sense from his happily ordinary existence.

His most recent book is Letters to a Teacher, essays focused on the art and craft of interacting with students. Pickering was made famous by a movie and Letters to a Teacher indicates his fame (and any emoluments appertaining thereto) was well and truly earned. Like most good teachers, he emphasizes sensitivity and gentleness, irreverence and humor. When he worked at the prep school, Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, he taught a class while under his desk, belting out Thoreau; he also stood on his desk, declaiming, a la the movie, and crawled out a window. These gimmicks worked; he got students’ attention.

“Perhaps the asinine has greater effects than the inspirational,” he writes in Letters to a Teacher, “at least in the classroom. Indeed when I see the word inspirational, I read carefully. . . . Teachers should banish inspiration from their minds and labor to be competent and kind.”

Janie Franz interviewed Sam Pickering for Critique Magazine. Some excerpts:

“I write by hand [in ballpoint pen, generally on yellow pads] because I can revise a lot easier. I’m starting to revise on the computer again, and again, and again. After I write it out by hand, I type it out on the computer. I keep revising on the computer because it certainly helps that. . . . I do some composing on the computer—because sometimes the words come a little easier. Also, I have a bad back, so generally I do most of my writing by hand … It’s not a philosophic thing. [laughs] There’s nothing philosophic in anything I do. It just happens to work that way.

“I gather, gather, gather, until I’m ready to write something. And sometimes people will ask me to write something, but that doesn’t happen very often. The trouble with the kind of thing I write, the essays. People want essays—they kind of want essays to be on things like liberty; they never want them to be on toenails or something like that. So, I just sort of write about, I tie all kinds of things together because I like to drift. That’s the way life is. Some folks don’t like that. . . . I had a physical a while back. After poking and prodding me for forty-five minutes, the doctor said, ‘Now, Sam, we just have to maintain you.’ That’s what they call maintenance. [laughs] The point is that it’s going to be pretty damn hard to maintain me. So, that’s where it really comes from. Most of the ideas come from little stories. Somebody will do something or I’ll see something. I’d think wouldn’t that make a nice essay. Then I have to sort of throw things in.”

“I once tried poetry, but I was terrible. I admire the people who can sit down and write a novel. But I don’t have that endurance and, in part, I think I’m going to be dead within a week. I always think that. If I start a novel, wouldn’t it be terrible to die before it’s finished. But with an essay, I think I can probably get this finished before death comes visiting. [laughs] It’s something that I can see the beginning and the end. That’s nice. I like that. . . . I don’t have a lot of advice for young people…. There’s an old country expression which you probably know, and I maybe even had said to you last time. ‘Words are nice, but chickens lay eggs.’ Do things in life. There’s another good old expression, ‘Genius is diligence.’ It’s just hard work. Have some hard work, but still have some fun. Don’t take it too seriously. Remember Hamlet’s, ‘Words, words, words.’ People shouldn’t take words too seriously.”

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