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Toronto can’t be a great literary city….

March 8, 2010 Leave a comment

… according to Geoff Pevere, revealing the old Toronto-New York penis envy writing in the Toronto Star.

Of course, all kinds of places aren’t great literary cities; the list includes Wingham, Ontario, Great Falls, Montana, and Kidderminster, West Midlands. The desire to inhabit a great literary city belongs to people greatly enamored of their own navels.

And I was concerned, at first, that Pevere was going to tell me that the problem is that Toronto doesn’t spend enough time contemplating its own navel, which would be so obviously false as to set me off on another long, ill-tempered rant and further cement my reputation as Internet crank.

But no: the problem is that Toronto is too busy contemplating the present state of its navel to consider the history of its navel, and thus has no shared vision of the future of its navel.

That sounds plausible.

Last gasp

March 1, 2010 1 comment

Now that Rebecca Rosenblum has correctly pegged me as an Internet crank,* I’m almost afraid to post any further grumpy remarks regarding writing advice.

I don’t want to be ranting on and on or anything. But the most interesting bits of writing advice, and the most interesting ideas, are often the specious ones, because it’s in reacting against them that you start to really think, and perhaps reach some new insight.

It occurred to me (a phrase that I’m not supposed to use) that the one piece of writing advice I never see is perhaps the most valuable: challenge everything.

Reacting against ideas should become a habit of mind. Good art shakes things up, or so I’m told. It would seem, then, that good fiction can’t spring from accepting received wisdom or from drifting with the zeitgeist’s current. If all you intend to do is repeat the ideas of others, why write?

Besides, what’s the point of a conversation in which everyone agrees?

This brings me to my grumpy rant of the day — my last gasp on this topic of writing advice. I’m going to pick on something that didn’t bug me when I first read it, but really started to bug me when people started agreeing with it: Stacy May Fowles, at the Afterword.

Don’t dismiss pop culture as beneath you. Watching an episode of America’s Next Top Model can be just as useful in studying human strife and conflict as reading Tolstoy.  Especially now that André Leon Talley is a judge.

I wouldn’t say that pop culture is beneath anyone, but I can’t help think that people who love this idea just happen to love America’s Next Top Model, because it’s actually a pretty bad idea when you take it apart.

If you want to learn about chimpanzees, I suppose you could read National Geographic or watch Every Which Way but Loose. And this would be just fine if you just wanted to be able to talk about chimpanzees at dinner parties, should the topic ever arise — and who knows? One day, it might.

But if you wanted to write a paper on chimpanzees, you’d go and track them down and study them in their natural habitat, because behavioral ecology frowns on papers sourced from Clint Eastwood movies.

Similarly, the best way to understand human strife and conflict is not by watching conflicts manufactured to sell advertising to eyeballs glued to the television — which is like learning about human pair bonding by watching pornography — nor even by reading Tolstoy. It’s to study the human animal in its natural habitat: street, workplace, home. You go where the people are.

In short, you don’t need an excuse to watch America’s Next Top Model — but you do need an excuse for making that excuse.

(It occurs to me — with apologies to Russell Smith for the second occurrence of that phrase — that I’m going to have to read Reality Hunger.)

*I’m just kidding, Rebecca.

Thanks for your input, Sergeant. Now shut up.

February 25, 2010 Leave a comment

Those words were once spoken to me by the Regimental Gunnery Officer, and they come to mind today as I consider the latest contribution to the flood of writing advice with which we are now inundated: “A reader’s advice to writers” at Salon.com.

Of course, readers do know what makes a good book, according to their lights, but they know it from the reader’s side; this doesn’t imply that they can advise on the mechanics. When I flush the toilet, I know that various things, which for reasons of good taste I shall decline to name here, are supposed to absent themselves from my bathroom. That doesn’t mean I can tell the plumber if his work is up to code.

I’m not going to pick on the fact that almost everything in that article is contained in any of the numerous books on writing found at your local bookstore, that said books proliferate like fruit flies, this topic being (as Russell Smith observes in the Globe)  a sure-fire winner, and that those things are already, therefore, known to writers. Writing about writing is the oldest scam in the book. It’s the easy topic, what you do when you’re creatively bankrupt and have nothing else more interesting to write about.

Which is exactly why I’m doing it right now.

Moving on, then:

I am going to pick, without mercy, on the following remarkable statement: “You probably don’t go to movies to see the lighting and photography, and most readers don’t come to books in search of breathtaking sentences.”

Let me point out that if you don’t go to the movies to see lighting and photography, you’d better just close your eyes and listen to the soundtrack, because that’s all you’ll have left. Lighting and photography are what make movies movies; without them, you’ve got a blank screen. Lighting and photography are the entire medium of film. This is what defines the film experience and separates it from theatre.

You may not go to the movies and take note of the moody, high-contrast lighting, or reflect on the use of wide-angle lenses for dramatic effect, or the choice of camera angles, but these things nevertheless define your experience of the film. They affect the viewer in ways he may not consciously realize. Doing these things well won’t make a bad story good, but doing them badly can make a good story flat and uninteresting. It’s through lighting and photography, and in no other way, that the story is told.

Similarly, sentences, breathtaking or otherwise, are the entire medium of prose. The idea that you can carry a story without narrating it well is simply nonsense. People who subscribe to this notion should study comedy and ask themselves why some things are funny, and other things are not, and why the same joke can be very funny when Uncle Hank tells it but fails utterly coming from the mouth of cousin Ernest.

A good joke badly told is never funny.

It really is that simple.

O Chickenshit, I tire of thee

February 15, 2010 1 comment

I tire of chickenshit.

This announcement follows from my misfortune in reading David Ker Thomson’s noxious rant at Counterpunch.org, “Against Canada,” a piece so poorly thought out that, at whatever degree-granting institution it was that cheapened itself by granting this man a PhD, certain august professors can now only be shaking their heads in shame and muttering, “We sure shit the bed on that one, didn’t we?”

(It was Princeton; another nail buries itself in the notion of Ivy League quality. Piled higher and deeper, indeed.)

The problem with Thomson’s rant is that it is so wildly overstated, so polarized and blinkered in its world view. It is, frankly, ignorant. It is not that Thomson is ignorant of the fact that (for example) not every driver is a psychopath bent on killing pedestrians, but that he pretends to be, and asks us to join him in a comfortable state of wilful ignorance. Thomson does not insult our nationalism; he insults our intelligence.

Perhaps he’s trying to be funny, but a certain kind of drivel intervenes to suggest otherwise. Is this satire? It certainly reads that way. But why would Counterpunch satirize, well, Counterpunch? Judge for yourself:

At seewalk, the mostly invisible and hard-to-locate nowtopian nonviolent disorganization that lurks in the chinks of the empire (the technical name for a chink is ‘articulation’, the tight but open space between that makes sense of the whole), we refuse to recognize nation-states, which have been an unmitigated scourge on the planet.  We are ‘against’ nations in the prepositional sense, as a pre-position, a position of abutment, the way a piece of sand is up against the tread of a tire …  This light-and-lateral strategy is one mode in the repertoire of oppositional practices that nonviolent groups will have to increasingly adopt in this century as Canada and other radical and violent entities increase their capacity to molest citizens.  If you think there’s freedom of thought and speech in Canada, it’s because you haven’t thought anything worth thinking.

It’s worth noting here that Thompson is free to think, say, and even publish this nonsense, which suggests either that he hasn’t thought anything worth thinking (a proposition that seems entirely plausible in context), or alternatively, that he’s simply full of shit.

But the real problem here is one that has been getting on my nerves since the Olympics opened, and, indeed, before that: chickenshit.

Let us define chickenshit.

Chickenshit is that stance of facile negativity which we adopt as a shield against rebuke.

If you’re going to make a public statement, it’s far easier to speak against something than for something. If you speak in favour of something — if you advance any concrete idea — you open yourself to attack. If, however, you offer only negatives, you are safe; in doing so, you force your critics to take a stand, exposing their soft underparts to your waiting blade. This is the nature of chickenshit, and its attraction.

Here I recognize the irony: yes, I am doing little here but to attack chickenshit, an act that, in itself, might be construed as chickenshit.

Read Thomson’s rant, again, if you must; is there one single statement that advances any ideal? No. It consists of nothing but attacks on this and that, overstated in the moronic style of online discourse designed to defeat all possible rebuttal. It is a trap: by opposing ridiculous statement A, I allow myself to be positioned behind equally ridiculous opposing statement B.

You’re saying drivers aren’t pyschopaths? Why are you a planet-hating, pedestrian-killing climate-change-denier?

Then follows death by straw man.

I call for an end to chickenshit of all stripes and flavours. It’s time we stopped paying attention to chickenshit out of some mistaken notion that we should promote a diversity of opinion. A diversity of opinion is a wonderful thing — when it comes from people who write like adults. It’s time for grown-ups to start writing like grown-ups.

Categories: ill-considered rants

A partial retraction

February 7, 2010 Leave a comment

… well, a clarification, really — I wouldn’t want to come out and say I was ever wrong, per se, but it may have come to pass that I was less than perfectly correct.

Yesterday’s post may have given the impression that I don’t think there has been any deep engagement in the coverage of the Haitian earthquake. This would not be completely true. I was reminded of this when looking at Lynsey Addario’s photo essay on Haitian orphanages this morning.

The problem is not that photographers are unwilling to do this kind of work. The problem is that the outlets for that work are limited, and the public interest in those outlets is low.

Also, Damon Winter has an additional response to the NYT essay I linked to yesterday (scroll down). But when Winter tells us he does not see pack journalism in Haiti, I think it’s also notable that Michael Murphy, when calling for “a new photojournalism” at Foto8, singled Winter out as an exception to the rule.

“Rhetoric” on the ground

January 14, 2010 3 comments

Among my least favourite seasons is the season of year-end lists. And the year-end lists I like least are the lists of words to be retired from the language, obnoxious expressions, and so on.

“On the ground,” a couple of years back, is a good example. This expression was all the rage for a while, among journalists telling us what was going on in Iraq. Commanders “on the ground” said this, or the situation looked different “on the ground,” or whatever. It was everywhere.

Self-appointed guardians of the language singled this one out on their year end lists, with such penetrating questions as “where else would one be? In the air?”

The problem with buzzwords is not simply overuse; it’s overuse by people who don’t really know what they mean. Buzzwords don’t start out empty and meaningless. They usually have specific, concrete meanings; then they get adopted by people who don’t quite get them, weakened, diluted, neutered. And finally, they get “retired” by the aforementioned language guardians.

“On the ground” began life with a specific, useful meaning. In the military, and in any field that relies heavily on information gleaned from maps, you have the information you get from the map, and “the ground truth,” that is, the information you get from the terrain itself. Your map may imply that, from the top of that slope, you can see the intersection, but the ground truth may be otherwise. And that’s a critical distinction, obviously, if you’re setting up an observation post.

When an officer talks about the situation on the ground, he isn’t just spouting excess verbiage. He isn’t so dumb as not to understand that there is no other place to be. There is another place to be, the first place he goes when he receives orders: on the map.

The media seems to love finding buzzwords in the military, as it gives those reports from the front lines that certain frisson. (“Frisson,” I think, was on someone’s retirement list last year.) So it was with “on the ground.”

Our language guardians, I note, love to pick on three things: news reporting, the military, and business. Deservedly so, perhaps; all three are awash in buzzwords. But there’s one place they never look.

This came to mind when considering a couple of comments at Rebecca Rosenblum’s blog, in which people confessed that they weren’t entirely sure of the meaning of “rhetoric.”

Rhetoric, sez the good old Handbook to Literature, is “the art of persuasion”, but Webster’s online dictionary is less sure; according to that source, “rhetoric” means little more than “discourse.” And this is the very meaning of “buzzword”: a word with a specialized application that has become so overused that it has lost much of its original value.

“Discourse,” perhaps, is similarly meaningless. How about “narrative?” Or “trope?”

On the ground, these words have become rather empty. We know this because we’re no longer quite sure of their meanings. I use “rhetoric” to mean “persuasive language; persuasion.” Mostly. And secondarily, “cheap talk from people who prorogue when the going gets rough” (but I digress). But I know I’m not alone in finding that I’m not always certain what’s meant when I read that word. I know what I mean; what you mean is a whole nother problem.

Clearly, people who count themselves literate have a whole class of buzzwords all their own.

The fact is, we all use buzzwords; they’re a part of the living language. That self-proclaimed literate class, those people who claim to be so sensitive to language that the mere use of “paradigm shift” provokes nausea, seem to lack an awareness of their own sloppy usage. If the authors of those lists, and all those people amused by them, were really so sensitive to language, perhaps they’d pluck the timber out of their own eyes and pass it through the buzzword buzzsaw.

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