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Monday, May 21, 2012


New ground rule

Remember how, a while ago, I ruled that it was okay to include 'spoilers' in any comments because I was trying to write in a (hopefully approachable) academic style rather than the reviews or fan essays that are commoner on the Internet? Well, now I'm ruling something else:

If you have a nitpick, please try to be interesting about it. And if you have nothing interesting to say except a nitpick, seriously, consider just letting it go.

Here's the thing.

There's a reason why I started doing these pieces. I do them because I love books, I love art, I love the literary use of language ... and because places where you can talk about them on the Internet are in disappointingly short supply. You can find fan essays a-plenty, sure, but I'm talking about discussions from a different kind of culture, the culture of literary study, the culture I've spent my life in and that I love so much. Those are not common on the Internet, and they're certainly not common in a chatty, accessible form on the Internet. I keep hoping I'll find places where such conversations take place, but fate and my acquaintances have yet to point me towards one.

So I decided to be the change I wanted to see, and I'm working hard on that project.

Nitpicks are not part of it. Nor are they going to be. And when they take over discussions, they actively undermine it.

I'm not saying that I don't want to be disagreed with or to have a serious mistake pointed out. Amaryllis, for instance, pointed out a serious and rather silly mistake I'd made in my essay on Antonia White's Frost in May, and I was happy to discuss it with her - in fact, I rewrote a whole paragraph in the light of her new information. But her comment wasn't just a nitpick: it was a piece of cultural and linguistic information that was relevant to the point I was making and interesting in its own right - that is, a piece of information that conveyed education and enlightenment beyond the mere question 'Is Kit Whitfield technically accurate in everything she says?' Which is not an interesting question, because the answer, I can tell you right here and now, is no. I don't know everything, I write these essays in my spare time, which between writing and raising a child is very limited and does not always allow for all the research I could wish, and so sometimes I make mistakes. I try to be as accurate as I can, and if I realise I've made a mistake I'll often try to correct it, but I have a pram in the hall and no copy-editor and sometimes mistakes slip through.

But there's a difference between 'I think the conclusion you draw here is incorrect because of this new and interesting piece of information' and 'I've double-checked your mathematics and your sums are wrong.'

The latter kind of nitpick is very common in fan discussions and non-academic conversations on the Internet. Fine, if you like that kind of thing, knock yourselves out. The Net is not short of places where you can do it. But I do not like that kind of thing, and I started doing this series precisely because I don't like that kind of thing, and it seems to take over most discussions of books. So I'm not having it take over here. That's just entryism. I don't hang around mathematics blogs complaining that their phraseology could be more elegant, because I know that's not the point of what they're trying to do, and because I respect other people's disciplines enough to let them pursue whatever point they deem fit without trying to turn the discussion into something else entirely.

I'd like to be extended the same courtesy here.

The point about the study of literature of the kind that fascinates me is that you approach a book on its own terms. For instance: I don't really care for the discipline of semiotics. It was a burden to me to have to study it as an undergraduate, and it often irritates me. But I decided to do a piece on Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, and in order to do it properly, I had to enter into the spirit in which it was written, which is to say that I had to accept semiotics as a valid position for the duration of the piece. And you know, I learned a lot by doing that. Resenting the obligation to study semiotics didn't teach me anything. Having a go at presenting it and giving it a fair crack of the whip, on the other hand, taught me how to enjoy the semiotic dance, at least a little bit. It let me wear someone else's shoes for a while and try out a few steps, and that broadened my mind and increased my pleasure in life. If I had spent the piece scanning Eco for technical inaccuracies - well, I doubt I would have found any, Eco being far more accomplished and erudite than I am, but whether or not I found any, I would certainly not have learned as much about semiotics as I did by letting go and getting into the swing of things.

In other words: I brought my own understanding and personality to the piece, of course, but I also tried to set aside those aspects of both that would have been contrary to its spirit.

The spirit of these posts is to try to learn interesting things by close analysis of single sentences. I would like that to be equally respected.

I don't mind people pointing out I'm wrong if they have something interesting to say. But people who jump in early to make comments with nothing more interesting to say than 'I have a nitpick' are not respecting the spirit. It's not that I mind having mistakes pointed out - heck, I like learning new things. But what I don't want is for this blog to become the nth place for nitpicking literalism of the kind that will discourage analytic commenters and kill the possibility for more discursive conversations. I want to cultivate the roses of discourse, which means I don't want the bindweed of nitpicks, and so I'm making a rule:

Please try to contribute to discussions in a constructive way. Which means: please don't try to turn them into mere fact-checking. If you want to contribute to the discussion and you're not sure how, by all means ask questions. But please keep the bindweed to a minimum.

I really enjoy your first sentence essays, and if you don't mind a request: Could you do Little Men by Louisa May Alcott?
Seconding mathbard's request and adding some of my own.

Persuasion (Jane Austen)
The Old Wives' Tale (Arnold Bennett)
Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolf)
I Caudius (Robert Graves)
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
Vanity Fair (William Makepeace Thackeray)

and, this is the most unusual request,

The Illiad--the reading of which highlights the importance of different translations and the subtle (and not so subtle) differences that translations can bring to the text.

The Robert Fitzgerald translation begins:

Anger, be now your song, immortal one
Akhilleus' anger, doomed and ruinous,
that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss
and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,
leaving so many dead men--carrion
for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.

While the Robert Fagles translation beings:

Rage--Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless souls,
great fighters' souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feats for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.

To me the choice between beginning with "Rage" or "Anger" suggests a different reading/understanding of the story.

And makes me wish I could read it in the original.
Would people be satisfied with Little Women? I haven't read Little Men...

I shall apply myself to the others. :-)
Speaking for myself -- I would be very happy if you did Little Women.
You've got enough on your plate for now, so no suggestions.

It makes me sad that you hated semiotics, but not surprised (I loved them, of course). But I must say, no matter how much you disliked your dancing partner, your essay on Eco was certainly light on its feet.

(P.S. Someday I am going to collect all these captcha words, and use them as prompts in a fantasy drabble writing contest: "Forward!" screamed the roynish Ughdar horde, as one still figure surveyed their deadly assault from the distant On-Loge...")
I'm reading One Hundred Years of Solitude simply because of your very review of the first sentence! - I'm just about to start reading Life of Pi as well (unsure if you've already done a first sentence review of this or not...) - loving these reviews! they're original and involve zero a** kissing mush - love it!
The life of Pi is excellent, though I liked Martel's other book, Self, better.

I'd request Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach if you're interested in it. Opens with "It was morning, and the new sun sparkled gold across the ripples of a gentle sea."

Or maybe The Bean Trees? "I have been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw a tractor tire blow up and throw Newt Hardbine's father over the top of the Standard Oil sign." I love Kingsolver's voice. One sentence and this character is already alive and interesting and new.
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