Thursday, January 18, 2007

In the Penny Press! Heroes and Villains!

There's a horrible circular pattern that holds, stalled, over virtually all the major fiction outlets these days: the long-established names get published in their every jot and tittle, and everybody else must wait until physical infirmity or extreme decrepitude force openings in the calendar. Louise Erdrich getting a bowel-resection? Fine - let's look at the slush pile! Philip Roth's off-track betting covering his balloon payment this month? Fine - let's beat the workshop bushes!

It isn't fair, naturally, and it results in a frightful piling-up of jots and tittles. The unfairness stems from the fact that in a perfect world, EVERY SINGLE short story submitted to any major publishing venue would be read anonymously - not only so that every story would be read on its merits alone, but also so that literary dinosaurs wouldn't continue to view places like Harper's or the New Yorker as their private fiefdoms.

Two egregious examples this time around, one in the New Yorker and one in Harper's.

The case in the New Yorker is a short story called 'Bravado' by William Trevor. The title alone is warning enough: Trevor is approximately 115 years old and has never in his life written about anything closer to 'bravado' than the kitchen sink. But even so, we are trained by this damned wretched pattern to give every dog its day, and so we read 'the latest' by Alice Munro or John Updike, even though there's nothing any 'later' in them than the Crimean War.

That 'Bravado' is a shapeless, meandering mess of a thing will come as no shocking news to anybody who's watched Trevor's slow (and, it should be said, at times almost imperceptible) decline over the years. But what drew us up short, over and over, was the technical ineptitude creeping in at the edges.

Take one paragraph chosen at random:

"Less than half a mile away, the night was different. Young people prowled about outside the Star night club, it's band - Big City - taking a break. A late shop was still open, a watchful Indian at the door noting who came and went. A few cars drew away, but more remained. Then, with a thump of such suddenness that for a moment it might have been taken for a warning of emergency or disaster, music again burst from the Star night club."

Just counting up the infelicities in that single paragraph filled me with the urge to find some undergrad writing class and SUBMIT it, just to see what the smart ones would do to whip it into shape.

And it's not just the leaden repitition of 'the Star night club,' although there are at least ten ways to get around that. And maybe that 'late shop' (as opposed to 'shop open late') is some kind of UK colloquialism. And although that 'its band - Big City - taking a break,' the way it's written here, freezes the band forever on hiatus in the context of 'the night,' maybe Trevor was going for compression and just misstepped. But 'a watchful Indian at the door noting who came and went'? 'A few cars drew away, but more remained'? What are the redundant clarifications there, except sure signs of a) authorial laziness and b) an empty hole where an editor should be?

Over in Harper's we have our resident bete noir, Alice Munro, turning in yet another endless story in which two provincial female characters (usually, as in this case, the narrator and her sister - although this story intensifies the miasmic horror of it all by having the two women be identical twins... as if anybody would read a Munro story and think otherwise) natter on for 90 pages. For all we know here at Stevereads, they may natter on a good deal longer than that - 90 pages is the longest we've ever been able to subsist without light or air.

In this latest story, "Child's Play," there are no technical clunkers quite so bad as those littering Trevor's piece (at 75, Munro is, after all, 40 years younger). But she more than makes up for it by troweling on the sententious sentimentality until you're accidentally slopping it all over the coffee table:

"Every year, when you're a child, you become a different person. Generally it's in the fall, when you re-enter school, take your place in a higher grade, leave behind the muddle and lethargy of the summer vacation. That's when you register the change most sharply. Afterwards you are not sure of the month or year, but the changes go on, just the same. For a long while the past drops away from you easily and, it would seem, automatically, properly. Its scenes don't vanish so much as become irrelevant. And then there's a switchback, what's been all over and done with sprouting up fresh, wanting attention, even wanting you to do something about it, though it's plain there is not on this earth a thing to be done."

Nevermind the laziness here (that 'it would seem' is so quintessentially Munro, an author so devoid of emotion that she can't even wholly trust her reportage of it), or the contradictions (if you notice the timing of this self-changing in childhood and then afterwards don't, then those changes cleary don't go on 'just the same,' etc) - no, it's the dunderheaded weirdness of the passage, the alien wrong-notedness that has always characterized Munro's prose. Honestly, has anyone ever viscerally felt anything CLOSE to what this passage describes? (Bertrand, Beepy, kindly put your hands down, ya mewling tools - the question was rhetorical)

Fortunately, not all was likewise bleak and bloated in this installment of In the Penny Press! For instance, in the same issue of Harper's, Jonathan Lethem turns in a very good, very comprehensive look at the phenomenon of plagiarism (for which we might also recommend - though it pains us to do so - Judge Posner's new booklet, "The Little Book of Plagiarism"). Of course, Lethem being Lethem, he can't do the job without a clever twist - this time in the not-quite-as-original-as-he-seems-to-think form of documenting all the plagiarisms he committed in the writing of the article.

We've seen this particular trick before (it was rife in the wake of the 'Opal Mehta' flap), and although Lethem does it more entertainingly than anybody else, we're not sure we like the implications of the gimmick itself. By persnicketishly documenting every word and echo, the writers in question seem to be implying that ANY uproar about plagiarism is, well, much ado about nothing. That if 'we' all dug around enough, we'd find that ALL of us are filching stuff from EVERYBODY all the time, so why bother getting so worked up about it? Look what you originality-Nazis are making me do, the joke seems to say - OK, I've noted every little thing I lifted from somebody else, are you HAPPY now?

Still, the piece was fun.

Also a great deal of fun in this same Harper's issue was a column of excerpts from the Chicago Manual of Style's website - poor souls writing in for grammar and style usage-tips and getting some unexpectedly spry responses:

"Q: A friend and I were looking at a poster that read 'guys apartment.' I believe it should read 'guys' apartment.' She claims it should read 'guys's apartment' and that the CMOS specifically gives the example of 'guys's' to make 'guy' possessive. I looked through every section on possessives and did not find the word 'guys's' or any rule that would make this correct.

A: 'Guys's' is acceptable in the way that 'youse guys' is acceptable; that is, neither is yet recognized as standard prose, and if your friend can find it in CMOS, I'll eat my hat. And shame on your friend. It must make you wonder what else she's capable of.

Q: O English language gurus, is it ever proper to put a question mark and an exclamation mark at the end of a sentence in formal writing?

A: In formal writing, we allow both marks only in the event that the author was being physically assaulted while writing. Otherwise, no."

Hee. Grammar is so much fun!

And lastly, of course those of you who saw it will have guessed already our thorough-going approval of Robert Kaplan's piece in the latest Atlantic - he writes in praise of Herodotus, and although he shoe-horns in one or two too many references to the quaqmire in Iraq, his main point bears repeating: reading Herodotus is entirely more enjoyable than reading Thucydides.

Which gives us the perfect opportunity to close with an unabashed plug: currently featured at a Barnes & Noble near you is the 'Barnes & Noble Classics' version of Herodotus, and it's an extremely worthy candidate for your $7 (yep, a wopping $7). Not only is it a surprisingly well put-together volume, pleasingly hefty and prettily designed, but it features the sturdy, resonant G.C. Macaulay translation, here given a well-deserved second life.

But the best feature of this edition is the editorial presence of Donald Lateiner. By some happy chance, B&N got lucky in finding Professor Lateiner, and you get to share in that luck for less than the cost of lunch. Lateiner's introduction is that perfect kind of academic prose that's bright and conversational enough to appeal equally to students and experts alike, and his notes throughout are a marvel of unobtrusive lucidity.

Nobody's classics shelf can be without Aubrey de Selincourt's seminal edition of Herodotus, but this, what can fairly be called the Lateiner edition (pace Macaulay), is certainly the first runner-up and almost equally mandatory (since everybody should have at least two different translations of any ancient classic). Our good professor also masterfully annotated the B&N edition of Thucydides, but as Kaplan (and we here at Stevereads) has already pointed out, Herodotus is where the fun is.


Anna Storrien said...

We learned about this Herodotus guy in school. How he and President Taft fought against the Ming Dynasty at the Battle of Antietam (1920-1947). The best part was when we found out that our seventh president did all that while stuck in his bathtub.

School rulz! (but not as much as World of Warcraft)


Hippolyta said...

Oh my dear sweet Steve. When has Mary ever allowed you more than $7 for lunch??

Beepy said...

Steve - About Alice Munro. I happen to like gasbag writers who go on and on without actually going anywhere. You don't think that I come here every day merely to flirt with Kevin, do you?

Hippolyta said...

Ooh, zing!

Kevin Caron said...

Merely to flirt with Kevin?

Oh come now.

Beepy said...

I'm waiting for that much needed space to open. Until then, we'll all have to make due here.

Beepy said...

Steve - have you nothing to say to Anna Storrien? I worked so hard on it.

Hippolyta said...

beepy, maybe you should have said "skool ruls"