MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Absolute Literary Materialism

james_kelman

In his recent New Yorker profile of the Scottish writer James Kelman, James Wood contends that the no-frills, “absolute materialism” of Kelman’s prose — which he likens to Karl Ove Knausgård’s obsessive detail over daily rituals — “is rarely boring”

… partly because, like Knausgård, he simply proceeds AS IF the subject matter were interesting; and partly because, in writing as in most areas, limitation increases focus, and tends to irradiate necessity as if it were a luxury. This is the principle of prison writing, both in the literal sense (“One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”) and in the figurative sense (Kafka’s allegories of imprisonment.

Filed under: aesthetics, literary criticism

Writing Biography in the Digital Age

handwritten-letter

Another letter found buried in the archives: think of how the discovery of a little slip of paper covered in a quirky scrawl can suddenly light fires and get a bevy of scholars toiling away to reconsider an already-much-dissected literary life. So how do biographers cope with the overload of information in this digital age of electronic communication?

Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin has published an interesting essay at The Millions, “You’ve Got Mail: On the New Age of Biography,” which takes up the issue of “the sudden digitization of the self, and the behavioral changes that have followed.”

How to decipher tone, often a challenge in conventional correspondence anyway, can require real virtuoso skill when it comes to the easily tossed-off exchanges of emails — particularly with a literary mind at work. “How does the rise of email change our understanding of great minds and great works. And why?” Ní Mhaoileoin ponders. Not to mention the data from social media — what a rabbit hole opens up when certain writers take to the Twittersphere…

But there’s also a loss:

The loss of handwriting, with all its eloquent untidiness, is a recurring anxiety for biographers and scholars, who have for so long relied on scratchings out, doodles, marginalia, and edits as clues to the author’s mind-set and process. Benjamin Moser described seeing in his subject’s handwriting, as one never could in an email, “how feverishly Sontag, given what looked like a death sentence when she was barely 40, sketched out the meditations on cancer that would become Illness as Metaphor.” Word processing, no matter how daring your font choice, erases individuality.

And the new data themselves aren’t necessarily as failsafe in “a digital fortress” as is often assumed: “[E]lectronic content actually faces far greater threats than traditional materials like diaries, files, and letters” from phenomena like “bit rot, unstable storage devices, technical failures, or systemic obsolescence…”

Ní Mhaoileoin once again turns to the example of Susan Sontag, noting the quirky tone she adopted in e-mails (sometimes sent with the subject line “Whassup?”). This apparently left her correspondents “unsure of how to interact with the iconic critic on such casual terms.” How should a potential biographer approach Sontag’s “playful, tender, slightly wacky” attitude when sorting through the evidence of her emails? Take them as confirmation of hints from her diaries — “that her intellect and reputation prevented her from receiving the love and tenderness she craved?”

The task of the biographer is to answer questions like these, with whatever sources are available. Lytton Strachey, who carried the genre from the stodgy tomes of the 19th century to the insightful explorations of the 20th, suggested in his preface to Eminent Victorians that the good biographer can “row over that great ocean of material, and lower down into it, here and there, a little bucket, which will bring up the light of day.” The rise of the e-mail may generate a host of practical and technical challenges, but the art of biography, as cherished by [Michael] Holroyd, need not suffer as a result.

Filed under: aesthetics, biography, literary criticism

Literary Criticism as Science?

Franco Moretti

Franco Moretti

Franco Moretti’s new collection of essays, Distant Reading, has been generating a lot of buzz. The National Book Critics Circle just honored it with its award for criticism last month (winning out over books by Jonathan Franzen and Janet Malcolm ).

Few critics, writes the Times Literary Supplement are “as hell-bent on rethinking the way we talk about literature.” Wired declares that “if his new methods catch on, they could change the way we look at literary history.” And Joshua Rothman recently offered this reflection on the revolutionary critic in The New Yorker:

Should literary criticism be an art or a science? A surprising amount depends on the answer to that question…. Almost no one…wants to answer the question definitively, because, for a critic, alternating between one’s artistic and scientific temperaments is fun—it’s like switching between the ocean and the sun at the beach. Franco Moretti, a professor at Stanford, fascinates critics in large part because he DOES want to answer the question definitively. He thinks that literary criticism ought to be a science.
[…]
Moretti’s impulses are inclusive and utopian. He wants critics to acknowledge all the books that they don’t study; he admires the collaborative practicality of scientific work. Viewed from Moretti’s statistical mountaintop, traditional literary criticism, with its idiosyncratic, personal focus on individual works, can seem self-indulgent, even frivolous.

Over at Nautilus, the science writer Dana Mackenzie considers Moretti’s approach of “distant reading” in the context of the “topic modeling” trend:

Topic modeling looks beyond the words to the context in which they are used. It can infer what topics are discussed in each book, revealing patterns in a body of literature that no human scholar could ever spot. Topic-modeling algorithms allow us to view literature as if through a telescope, scanning vast swaths of text and searching for constellations of meaning….

Other revolutionary aspects of topic modeling for humanities students, according to Mackenzie: it brings “quantitative arguments into the humanities,” allows scholars to “mine for new themes and topics,” and introduces the tool of falsifiability via statistical analysis.

Digital humanities technologies can help us see gradual changes, whether in literature or elsewhere. Humans have difficulty comprehending change that happens on the time scale of a human life, or longer. If Underwood’s hypothesis is correct, we need computers to help fill in our blind spot. Topic modeling does not overturn or replace our previous ways of seeing; it enhances them.

Filed under: book news, book recs, literary criticism

Walk on the Wilde Side

Wilde

Creating quite the stir was of course second nature to Oscar Wilde, and he set many tongues wagging throughout the course of his extensive North American tour in 1882. Nowadays we have complex PR machines. Back then it was Oscar giving interviews to the local papers to generate buzz for his series of lectures on “the science of the beautiful.” He set the tone immediately upon disembarking in New York after his less-than-pleasing encounter with the Atlantic Ocean by (allegedly) proclaiming to the customs agent: “I have nothing to declare except my genius.”

Wilde ended up making some 140 appearances at cities and towns across 15,000 miles of the continent, alighting in gilded age salons and mining town saloons alike. Anthony Paletta sums up some of the press reaction to his first lecture, in New York, billed as having something to do with the “English Renaissance”:

[It] seems to have faltered in its prepared elements and shone in its improvisational bits, attracting praise from some quarters (“The Cincinnati Enquirer”) and dismissal from others (“The Nation,” grumpy even in the 1880s, observed that Wilde “can hardly succeed in this country”). “The New York Times” commented on the “aesthetic and pallid young men in dress suits and banged hair” in the rear of the venue — banged-hair an attribution with some whiff of the homosexual demimonde at the time.

Caricature from the San Francisco Wasp, March 31, 1882.

Caricature from the San Francisco Wasp, March 31, 1882.

But no one quite matched the savage disdain penned by the journalist and short story writer Ambrose Bierce following Wilde’s first lecture at Platt’s Hall in San Francisco in March:

That sovereign of insufferables, Oscar Wilde has ensued with his opulence of twaddle and his penury of sense. He has mounted his hind legs and blown crass vapidities through the bowel of his neck, to the capital edification of circumjacent fools and foolesses, fooling with their foolers. He has tossed off the top of his head and uttered himself in copious overflows of ghastly bosh. The ineffable dunce has nothing to say and says it—says it with a liberal embellishment of bad delivery, embroidering it with reasonless vulgarities of attitude, gesture and attire. There never was an impostor so hateful, a blockhead so stupid, a crank so variously and offensively daft. Therefore is the she fool enamored of the feel of his tongue in her ear to tickle her understanding.

The limpid and spiritless vacuity of this intellectual jelly-fish is in ludicrous contrast with the rude but robust mental activities that he came to quicken and inspire. Not only has he no thought, but no thinker. His lecture is mere vebal ditchwater—meaningingless, trite and without coherence. It lacks even the nastiness that exalts and refines his verse. Moreover, it is obviously his own; he had not even the energy and independence to steal it. And so, with a knowledge that would equip and idiot to dispute with a cast-iron dog, and eloquence to qualify him for the duties of a caller on a hog-ranche, and an imagination adequate to the conception of a tom-cat, when fired by contemplation of a fiddle-string, this consummate and star-like youth, missing everything his heaven-appointed functions and offices, wanders about, posing as a statute of himself, and, like the sun-smitten image of Memnon, emitting meaningless murmurs in the blaze of women’s eyes. He makes me tired.

And this gawky gowk has the divine effrontery to link his name with those of Swinburne, Rossetti and Morris—this dunghill he-hen would fly with eagles. He dares to set his tongue to the honored name of Keats. He is the leader, quoth’a, of a renaissance in art, this man who cannot draw–of a revival of letters, this man who cannot write! This little and looniest of a brotherhood of simpletons, whom the wicked wits of London, haling him dazed from his obscurity, have crowned and crucified as King of the Cranks, has accepted the distinction in stupid good faith and our foolish people take him at his word. Mr. Wilde is pinnacled upon a dazzling eminence but the earth still trembles to the dull thunder of the kicks that set him up.

Today’s shock jocks have nothing on Ambrose Bierce. But just what stirred him to such an extremity of umbrage?

Filed under: literary criticism, literature

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

RSS Arts & Culture Stories from NPR