BSS #152: Richard Russo


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Spending the days sighing.

Author: Richard Russo

Subjects Discussed: The origins of Bridge of Sighs‘s dual narrative, writing a long novel without an end in sight, Byron, characters who approach Lucy’s elbows, a protagonist’s blind spots, Marconi — the character and the telegraph, the American dream in post-World War II, hidden niches and the architecture of Thomaston, Gabriel Mock and his fence, the influence of Mark Twain, the chasm between the working class and the middle class, narrative dichotomies, the benefits of computers for ambitious novels, writing novels vs. screenplays, how Russo figured out corner market psychology, how operating schemes provide heft to narrative, Richard Ford’s realty knowledge, the origins of the “wrong end of the telescope” passage, teaching metaphors, dialogue and uptalking, John P. Marquand, a narrator setting down a story without awareness, the urge to tell a story, literary antecedents and unreliable narrators, writing in the dark, contending with massive topography and multiple characters, on being a natural propagator, the benefits of routine, violence and fights, Kitty Genovese, eccentric small-town teachers, Charles Baxter’s “Griffin,” howling, and using “gizzard” in dialogue.


Correspondent: I’m curious as to where that moment, which seems to me your American Pastoral moment, came from exactly. How that came to be laid down.

Russo: You know, it’s funny. That particular metaphor of doors, of walking through doors closed behind you, and then having fewer doors to walk through and choose between, was the metaphor that I used to use when I was teaching to describe how plot worked.

Correspondent: Interesting.

Russo: When I was teaching my undergraduate and especially my graduate students. Plot is a very difficult — they say, how do you come up with a story? How do you know what happens first? What happens next? All of that. And I was trying to explain to them that the best stories, the best plots, are the ones that end up kind of paradoxically, you want to be surprised. But after the surprise, you want a sense of inevitability. Like that’s the only place the story could have gone. Those two things, that’s why a lot of books are disappointing. Because that’s a very hard effect to achieve. How can you surprise somebody even as, after they register the surprise, they say, “Oh, of course. This is the only way it can go. This is the only way it could have gone.” Those two things are antithetical. And yet the best books always have that. That coming together. So I was always looking for a metaphor to explain that to people. To my students. And I’d say, all right. Think of it this way. You’ve got a thousand doors. You choose one. You walk through it. Now you’ve got five hundred doors. You walk through that. You’ve got two hundred and fifty doors. Every time I started explaining that to students, that there were fewer and fewer doors, that was going to provide the inevitability. But there was still the surprise. You didn’t know. Every time a character makes a decision, it seems that there are so many other possibilities. So it’s a series of surprises that ends up with a sense of inevitability. But as I explained that to my students, and as I was writing this book, it occurred to me that’s also a description of life and destiny.

BSS #151: Oliver Sacks


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Dwelling upon the rotten fruit that comes from musical relationships.

Author: Oliver Sacks

Subjects Discussed: Musicophilia, emotional responses in patients with dementia and Tourette’s, an amazing musical rendition from Alzheimer’s patient Woody Geist played by Dr. Sacks on his CD player, the relationship between music and the auditory cortex, the memory of performance, responding to rhythm, the overpotent stimulant qualities of music, earworms, music as “advertisements for toothpaste,” being bombarded with tunes in interior environments, the dangers of iPods, neurological speculation upon having a “soundtrack to one’s life,” musical hallucinations vs. brainworms, musical perception and “intercranial jukeboxes,” musical dreams and the hypnopompic state, the dangers of being oversaturated with sounds, pattern recognition, blind children and absolute pitch, famous blind musicians, septo-optic dysplasia, amnesia and the case of Clive Wearing, Chomsky and speculation upon a hypothetical innate musical theory, congenital amusia and those who sing out-of-tune, associating a song with a sound, and recent developments in melodic intonation therapy and the right hemisphere.


Correspondent: Really, what’s the difference between, for example, this innate idea of music and the kind of cognition in Clive’s head?

Sacks: Say that again.

Correspondent: I’m sorry. The difference between the innate rules of music versus the cognitive processes that cause him to sing and perform quite well. What causes him to perform as well as he does?

Sacks: It is memory. It’s procedural memory. The memory of how to do things. And that — I don’t know if one needs to bring Chomsky into this.

Correspondent: You mentioned “anticipation is not possible with music from a very different culture or tradition.” So I didn’t know if you were making a comparison to Chomsky with this kind of proviso of…

Sacks: Listen, I think this Chomsky thing is a red herring. And I don’t know how to answer it properly.

Correspondent: Okay, no problem. We’ll…

Sacks: So let’s — and I think the business of Chomsky and implicit rules doesn’t have anything obvious to do with Clive’s memory.

Correspondent: Okay.

Sacks: You know, otherwise we will get into a knot from which we cannot explicate ourselves.

“Spaced” To Be Remade, Dumbed Down for U.S.

Edgar Wright: “I can confirm too, that Simon was never contacted either. I don’t really want to get involved at all, but it infuriates me that they would a) never bother to get in touch but still b) splash me and Simon’s names all over the trade announcements and infer that we’re involved in the same way Ricky & Steve were with The Office.”

Even worse, McG is involved in this remake. Which is entirely unnecessary.

Joe Meno’s Next Book

From Publishers Lunch:

Nelson Algren Literary Award winner and author of HAIRSTYLES OF THE DAMNED Joe Meno’s THE GREAT PERHAPS, the story of an eccentric family in the weeks leading up to the 2004 presidential election: two bumbling professors, two strange daughters, and a grandfather limiting himself to thirteen words a day, then twelve, then eleven — one less each day until he will speak no more, to Tom Mayer at Norton, by Maria Massie at Lippincott Massie McQuilkin (NA).

The Impact of the Writers Strike

Variety; “The canaries in TV’s creative coal mine are latenight hosts such as David Letterman and Jay Leno, whose monologues and sketches are dependent on union writers. If history is any guide, both shows will almost instantly go dark, as would ‘Saturday Night Live.’ Comedy Central’s latenight stalwarts ‘The Daily Show With Jon Stewart’ and ‘The Colbert Report’ would also likely switch to repeats in the immediate aftermath of a strike.”

It’s 1988 all over again. And there’s a part of me quite curious about how long it will go on, how patient audiences will be for reruns, and whether the late-night television titans might at long last be revealed as mimetic melonheads desperately reliant they are upon their writers.

The difference this time is that this WGA strike is going down in the Internet age, with the largest possible depository of non-union talent showing off their wares at YouTube.

Sure, 95% of everything is crap. But what if the networks and the WGA can’t come to an agreement? Let’s say that the strike ends up going on for longer than six months, which would surely make the promised spate of sixteen uninterrupted episodes of Lost impossible and piss off the fans. That’s certainly sticking it to the man. But is it possible that a spate of enterprising nonunion talent, shut out by the WGA system, might drastically court the networks during this strike? And if they do not approach the networks or the networks do not approach them in scab-like manner, then perhaps television audiences, desperately searching for new material, might be drawn to either the Internet or reading books to find new stories.

In other word, this WGA strike couldn’t have happened at a better time. As the relationship between old media and new media remains transcendent and ever-evolving, I’m wondering if we won’t see some serious shock waves if the WGA strike isn’t resolved within two months. Unless, of course, the WGA strike proves the inevitable: that current television audiences are quite happy to get their reality TV fix. Which would be considerably ironic, given that this was precisely what the WGA has gone to the mat for.

A Letter Sent to the Pabst Brewing Company

Bernard Orsi
121 Interpark Blvd., Ste. 300
San Antonio, TX 78216-1852

Dear Mr. Orsi:

I write to you because I am beginning to have doubts about your beer. You see, in a moment of weakness, several months ago, I enjoyed Pabst Blue Ribbon with the famed editor of a literary journal based in San Francisco. However, since I have moved to Brooklyn, I have, at the urging of a few of my readers (I am a writer whose work appears in newspapers and strange magazines, as well as one of these hip new blogs that all the kids are talking about), started to realize that I may have been led astray in my beverage drinking decisions. The famed editor in question now refers to me as “a PBR addict” and I have begun to have strange dreams involving your tall cans. In my dreams, the cans talk to me and are, indeed, taller than me. And at six foot two, I’m a pretty tall guy. So this is somewhat traumatic. The cans tell me that I must drink the beer inside their cans or recite Rod McKuen’s poetry. Of course, I always select the former decision. After all, wouldn’t you?

Well, of course, you would. You’re the chairman of the Pabst Brewing Company. But think of me: a casual and overly imaginative consumer of beer. Put yourself in my place!

Because of this, I’m under a certain phantasmagoric duress. Your crazy old-school “blue ribbon” logo doesn’t help matters. It makes me think that I’ve won something, when the victory is likely yours. I’ve always thought that America is the place where everyone’s a winner. But how am I winning, Bernard, when I drink a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon? Please tell me.

And so, Bernard, we now find ourselves at an impasse. I need some additional faith from you, your company, and your beer — if I am to carry on drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Now I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt here. Perhaps there have been a few bad cans. Perhaps I have been too trusting of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Perhaps I have been drinking it the wrong way.

But I need to know that you mean business. Which is why I am suggesting that you send me a large package, gratis, containing the finest specimens of your beer, so that I might better comprehend your product and possibly rediscover the Pabst magic. I promise to refrigerate whatever you send me, Bernard. And if you give me additional drinking instructions, I’ll follow them to the letter.

I have every faith that the two of us can come to some arrangement along these lines which might allow me to better understand your beer. But for now, I must place any future Pabst drinking in abeyance, unless you can offer a compelling reason (or exemplar) for me to carry on through the long and lonely nights.

Very truly yours,

Edward Champion

Clarifying the PBR Rumors

pbrcan.jpgIt is important that I respond to recent provocative claims made by Howard Junker before the rumors get out of hand. Junker declares me “a PBR addict.” While it is true that Junker and I enjoyed one enchanting moment in the evening drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon together, I wish to point out that it is largely economic circumstances that determine whether I imbibe a particular beer. When the difference rests between a $3 can of PBR and a $7 Guinness, as it did last week at Happy Endings, well then PBR is certainly the drink of choice. Further, last week, I imbibed two cans of PBR to offer my drinking solidarity with one Ami Greko, who I suspect was thinking along similar lines. I am not one to blow a billfold on alcohol.

Do I have anything against PBR? Not really, although I would prefer other beers. Indeed, I welcome PBR over such lesser beers as MGD, Budweiser, and Coor’s. But PBR and Foster’s (and even Tecate) is as low as I will go. There are, after all, certain standards. Of course, if a lesser beer is the only affordable offering on the menu, then I’m not likely to be particularly stingy. Beer is certainly one of Western society’s great beverages, and I do enjoy it. I do not doubt that I am a beer enthusiast, generally titling my palate towards Pilsner Urquell and Guinness, and Heineken, when it is hot and humid. But the word “addict” comes loaded with a certain febrile advocacy, if not the outright suggestion that I should check into rehab. I am sure that Mr. Junker was having his particular revenge with this characterization, and he has succeeded in making me quite curious about the Park Slope literary bar, Pacific Standard. So perhaps the last laugh is upon me.

Of course, if any of the beer brewers mentioned on this post (or, indeed, any others) wish to impute that their particular beer is better than the competitors, then by all means send your crates to 315 Flatbush Avenue, #231, Brooklyn, NY 11217 for consideration, and I would be happy to offer lengthy thoughts on how the ales in question affect my palate. I make no promises of endorsement, but I will give your brew a fair shot. If Pabst Blue Ribbon wishes to redeem itself from the “low” rating it has received here, it is likewise open to send crates my way purely in the interest of critical reassessment.

Defying the Ominous Ghosts of Death-O-Meters in the Morning

A spate of posts is forthcoming. But for the nonce, I’m pleased to report that Shauny (now an author!) is every bit as kind and glorious in person as she is in print. I’m ashamed to report that I overslept and sprinted (well, intermittently; athletic prowess is not one of my best qualities) down Seventh Avenue in an effort to meet up with her without she and Gareth falling victims to the Godot scenario.

deathometer.jpgAfter breakfast, I found myself offering an impromptu historical tour of Brooklyn, learning in media res that Grand Army Plaza at one point had a “Death-O-Meter” (pictured right) installed during the 1920s to report the number of pedestrians massacred by automobiles traversing the dangerous circle. In homage to the dangers of eighty years ago, we all daringly jayran across one end of the elliptical perimeter, thankfully not losing our lives in the process. Why Death-O-Meters aren’t installed at various intersections around New York is a mystery I’ll never know. But it is possible to live dangerously if you consider the historical record.

Joe Queenan: Incurious Harbinger of Death

Pity Joe Queenan, who with his sad, bitter, and predictable essays has secured his position as the Bobby Slayton (or perhaps, more appositely, the Bobby Slayton knockoff) of the literary world. The amaroidal (or perhaps hemorrhoidal?) lout actually thinks he’s being funny with this smug piece that pillories Henry Petroski for having the effrontery to dwell at length upon the history of the toothpick. Who knew that those reckless microhistorians were the true brutes of our world? Forget sexism, racism, or even the Bush Administration. As far as Queenan is concerned, the true wrongs of the world are being perpetuated by the good professors at Duke University, the secret cabal no doubt headed with clandestine memos dispatched by Petroski and the handshake known only to a handpicked few. If you’ve ever wondered what it must be like to live such a myopic life, or to abdicate curiosity for the everyday objects that do indeed possess a hidden historical trajectory, then Queenan’s essay represents a fascinating specimen of oafish hubris and, above all, a restless determination to flaunt a presbyopic pestilence that slides across his saggy body as smoothly as a comfy counterpane clutched in desperation.

I suspect that Queenan doesn’t like ice cream very much. Much less anything at all.

This is the work of a man who is no more curious about the world than a agoraphobic reality TV show junkie. He neither addresses Petroski’s scholarship nor his shortcomings. Queenan simply declares, “So what?” Queenan is not one to ask why, nor can he tilt his pig’s head even one degree in the direction of what Petroski might be fired up about. He merely cites one passage — no more, no less — and declares the book dead, without even casual expatiation. That’ll teach those academic upstarts!

There once was a time when Queenan wrote funny and subversive pieces for Spy, but that was before he moved to Tarrytown, where 63% of households make $50,000 or more a year. Which makes you wonder about a man who is best known for the lackluster volume, Balsamic Dreams: A Short But Self-Important History of the Baby Boomer Generation, which even Curtis White had to conclude a few years ago was “one of the nastiest books I’ve read in some time.” Here is a small sample:

I was, if nothing else, being true to the ethos of my generation. When faced with unsettling developments like death, Baby Boomers always react in the same way: We sign up for self-improvement classes. A Baby Boomer par excellence, a prototypical product of the Me Decade, I only knew how to respond to the world insofar as it responded to moi. Everything I had ever learned as a Baby Boomer had oriented me in a single direction: further into myself. Now I had to face the ugly truth, not only about me, but about us: We were appalling. We had appalling values. We had appalling taste. And one of the most appalling things about us was that we liked to use appalling words like “appalling.”

No hope then for looser and more lissome definitions, a la those found within the Chambers Dictionary, much less a receptive ear upturned to stirs outside Queenan’s immediate taxonomy. What do we make of such a man? Is this guy guided by inveterate self-loathing for the tool he has become? Or maybe it’s just Queenan’s begrudging acceptance that he’s no less a part of the Establishment than Pat Boone.

Joe Queenan is a life lesson for any young critic or satirist. Be very careful about the targets you place into your crosshairs. If you are not careful, you will see everything in bitter and reckless terms and you will grow up to be another Joe Queenan, a flaccid hack devoid of joy and enthusiasm. I suppose that, as far as Tanenhaus and company are concerned, Queenan is the kind of purposeless and prehistoric piss-and-vinegar that apparently represents the intellectual discourse of our time.

BSS #150: James Lipton


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Stepping away to preserve his dubious legacy.

Author: James Lipton

Subjects Discussed: Lipton’s balance between writing about Inside the Actors Studio and writing about himself, throwing actors out of the Actors Studio, whether or not Lipton is still perfecting aspects about the show, the 1970s talk show environment of tables and chairs vs. the contemporary environment of desks separating interview from guest, scraping the set together in Inside‘s early days, why blue cards are used, training with Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, cross-examination and interviewing, sense memory, the emotional unpredictability of interviews, preparing for an interview, the imposition of talking points, comedians possessed of genius, Robin Williams’s five minutes of improvisation, James Lipton the interviewer vs. James Lipton the actor, being mocked by comedy shows, Will Farrell, Conan O’Brian, Lipton living to mock himself, working on Bewitched, screenplays and John Cusack, whether actors exploit Lipton to get recognition and win Oscars, booking major celebrities at the expense of character actors, how actors are booked, the built-in audience of Inside the Actors Studio, the public coming to see stars, the practice of Bravo green-lighting guests, Bob Kerrey’s assault on the Actors Studio, the overarching (and overreaching?) common theme of parental loss among guests, the relationship between academics and television, staggering into things, self-consciousness, and whether Lipton cares about what other people think.


Correspondent: I’m also curious as to why you’re fond of describing throwing many of these people out. I think I counted at least ten times where you describe throwing Spielberg out, throwing Hopkins out. That kind of thing. Do you get a sort of perverse pleasure from throwing people out?

Lipton: No! What I was trying to demonstrate at that point was that this school, and the forum, the seminar that the public knows as Inside the Actors Studio is nothing more nor less than a course in the masters degree program of the Actors Studio Drama School, and that these people generously come. They get paid nothing. They’re not there to plug a movie. They come there solely because I say in my letter, “Will you come and teach our students?” And that is such a hypnotic experience for them. Such a mesmerizing experience. To be face-to-face with those masters degree candidates, who are very smart. Who have been picked by us out of thousands of candidates and come from all over the world. ‘Cause we’re in 125 countries with the show. That they become so obsessed with the process of teaching the students. That’s the last part of each show. That’s the last part of each evening. For an hour or two, the students ask questions and the guests answer them. And all I was trying to demonstrate was that they are with me for five or six hours and that, literally, if we would let them, they would stay all night. And of course, the students would too. Wouldn’t you? To be with Barbra Streisand for a long, long time. Or Spielberg. Or Billy Joel. Or Tony Hopkins. Or Dustin Hoffman. All of whom just kept going. Until finally at 12:30 in the morning, I said, “Look, these kids have to go to class in a few hours. Get the hell out of here.” And this wasn’t — there was no perverse pleasure in throwing them out. It wasn’t trying to exercise any authority, or command over them. On the contrary, I’d just stay there all night if we could have. But there were limits!

BSS #149: David Michaelis


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Heckled for peanuts.

Author: David Michaelis

Subjects Discussed: The connection between Charles Schulz’s emotional reticence and his Minnesota childhood, Peanuts characters who aren’t explicitly reflected through Schulz’s life, the connection between Lucy and Schulz’s first wife, names borrowed for Peanuts characters, balancing probing into Schulz’s life and examining the comic strip, the kite-eating tree and the psychiatric booth, Bill Watterson’s review, the difficulties of compressing biography, exploring happiness, the connection between Jefferson Airplane and Peanuts, Peanuts as a prism for all ideologies to see their messages represented, Robert Short’s The Gospel According to Peanuts, conditions set by United Media, Charlie Brown’s hurt stomach, Michaelis’s intuition and conjecture in drawing conclusions about Schulz, Charlie Brown’s head shaped like a baseball, deflating myths about Schulz, why Michaelis’s endnotes were not clear for the reader, the Tracey Claudius affair and Michaelis’s reliance upon Claudius’s subjective veracity, the Fantagraphic books, and Schulz’s late efforts to lay down a legacy.


Michaelis: This is a guy who was terrified of what’s happening, and happened, in the world. Baseballs aren’t baseballs anymore. Ice cream cones aren’t ice cream cones. There’s something wrong. And that’s a recapitulation to me of that whole period of Charles Schulz’s life in the early 1940s where his mother died and he went off to war. Is that Charles Schulz’s idea when he drew it? I can’t say. But I do know that when he talked about those strips and that particular sequence, he always identified it as being his favorite, and that came out of somewhere. He never would say where. But there was something important about it, and he indicated its significance.

Correspondent: All this is fair enough. But you were mentioning earlier about this being conjecture. And yet this has received a good deal — you’ve been actually on a lot of fire by the Schulz family. You told New York Times reporter Patricia Cohen, “Did I get the story right? Absolutely. No question.” And so what I’m wondering is is what is the difference between ferreting out or confirming a fact, and this kind of more speculative approach. I mean…

Michaelis: Well, I bring the speculative into an intuitive sense of what the art is saying, and sometimes one has to merely place dates beside the strips to see and recognize how they’re related to the life. I’m absolutely scrupulous about the facts as I can — near as I can get them. There’s going to be a mistake here and there. I have noticed one or two since the book was published, which pains me no end. A misspellings here, a misunderstanding there. There’s no question that a book will be corrected in its final months before. I tried very hard to make sure things were right. I do feel in a very strong sense that the story, and the point I was making to Patricia Cohen, of which there was only a quote that remained, was that a biography has two points at which accuracy are vital. It’s vital to be accurate about the facts, as close as you can be. It’s also vital to be accurate about the story. And that’s what I mean by “Did I get the story right?”

BSS #148: Naomi Wolf


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Contemplating the end of The Bat Segundo Show.

Author: Naomi Wolf

Subjects Discussed: James Madison’s prescient statement about the American republic in 1829, the end of America, despotic blueprints, on the prospect of Americans taking up arms against the government, closed societies, the staging of “Mission Accomplished,” the efficacy of protesting, Nancy Pelosi’s ineptitude, the American Freedom Campaign’s failure to adopt impeachment as a position, Andrew Meyer and John Kerry’s failure to react, paramilitary forces crushing democracy, Blackwater, the Defense Authorization Act of 2007, the failure to restore habeas corpus, enemy combatants, what’s coming six months from now, the TSA watchlist and citizen intimidation at airports, Andrew Meyer remixes, the confiscation of cameras and laptops, fear and denial, Victor Klemperer, father metaphors for the President, the justification of torture, Page Six libel, Abu Ghraib, the PATRIOT Act and Barbara Lee, the possibilities of a transparent election in 2008, Hillary Clinton’s waffling, the assault on lawyers, whether progressives and the Daily Kos adequately question the Democratic Party, the abdication of paper ballots, and the Democrats raising the war debt ceiling.


Wolf: It is so important for us to look at this blueprint, because when we see all these pieces fitting together, we realize that we are in an extraordinary crisis point where we have to rise up. I would not say rise up with arms, but certainly take to the streets and press representatives and confront the abusers, like other democracy movements.

Correspondent: I suggest the rise up in arms with a certain degree of hyperbole. Because people are going to Washington. They’ve gone there to protest the last couple of weeks about the war. And there are people getting arrested for reading the Constitution on public property, on a place where they are supposed to have freedom of assembly. So given this, and given the fact that, well frankly, Nancy Pelosi isn’t going to proceed impeachment actions against Bush, so what then can we do?

Wolf: What can we do? You know, this is a very sad conversation in a way, although it will end hopefully. Because I’ll reach the answer in a minute. When I wrote this book, I thought it would be very controversial and that people would be saying, “Come on. Not America.” On the contrary. What I’m finding is that Americans across the political spectrum are already there. They know something very serious and dangerous is going on. And they’re saying what you’re saying, which is: We tried it all. We tried democracy already. We tried the marching. We tried emailing our Congress people. Things are shifting into overdrive. And you’re right to notice that. I mean, there’s this horrible phase in a closing democracy, when leaders and citizens still think it’s a democracy, but the people who have already started to close it are kind of drumming their fingers waiting for everybody to realize that that’s not the dance anymore.

BSS #147: Steven Pinker


Condition of Mr. Segundo: He knows his first name is not Steven.

Author: Steven Pinker

Subjects Discussed: The Starbucks coffee cup size hierarchy, L.A. Story, “divorce project” and unusual noun phrase connotations, perceptive illusions in language, connotation and denotation, polysemy, campus slang and being hip, euphemisms, the unpredictable nature of words and terminology, the origins of “spam,” the absence of specific terms, locative elements of verbs, meanings and brute memorization, “giggle” vs. “Google,” profanity, offensive language, the difficulties of the surname “Koch,” groups adopting pejorative terms, Lenny Bruce’s infamous routines, dysphemisms, whether the Internet truly reflects language, Overheard in New York, William Safire’s columns, linguists being forever behind the language curve, the origins of “not” (from Wayne’s World) and “my bad,” Jerry Fodor’s extreme nativism vs. reductionism, cultural colloquies vs. cultural status, George Lakoff and language as metaphor, the inevitability of metaphor within certain occupations, language and politics, the brain as a computer, the Declaration of Independence, syntactical memes just under the radar, spatial elements and morphemes, memorization, rigid designators and Saul Kripke, given names that are already in the human continuum, and causation within language.


Correspondent: You respond to many of Jerry Fodor’s cognitive theories and you compare his approach to a trampoline. And you respond to his extreme nativism by observing that language can be arranged in more reductive units than he actually allows for. But actually, I wanted to ask you how reductive can one get with language? Does it go back to suffixes? Letters? I mean, is there a point where one can get too small? Or what?

Pinker: Well, you can’t just keep going, uncovering layer after layer after layer. And eventually I think you reach some sort of bedrock. We do know that language thrives on combinations. Like the Starbucks coffees again. Where sentences are composed of phrases, are composed of words. Words are composed of vowels and consonants — well, first, of morphemes, which are composed of vowels and consonants. Vowels and consonants are composed of features, like voicing. The difference between /s/ and /z/. Voicing probably relates to features of motor control. That is, whether you raise the root of your tongue, whether you start your vocal chords buzzing. So that would be pretty much as low as you could get while still finding something lawful in language. Now we’ve known that for a long time. The question is: Can you do the same thing with meaning? Are there meaning elements in the same way that there are sound elements. Namely phonological features. In the book, I argue, contra my former colleague Jerry Fodor, who argued that there are no meaning elements. Basically, every word is a meaning element. So the meaning of “kill” is kill. The meaning of “carburetor” is carburetor. The meaning of “trombone” is trombone. But there aren’t constituents or components of a word that are basic elements like features in pronunciation. I argue against him and say that there is evidence for meaning elements like “cause,” “change,” “goal,” “act,” “be,” “place,” and that many verb meanings can be decomposed or analyzed in terms of these more basic atoms of meaning.

BSS #146: Danica McKellar


[PROGRAM NOTE: For background on this podcast, see this post.]

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Contemplating mathematical positions.

Author: Danica McKellar

Subjects Discussed: Whether the relationship between prime numbers and monkeys is equitable, metaphorical criteria, factor trees, teenage girls and shopping, “fun and friendly” math, relying upon teenage memories and teen magazines to communicate with girls, testimonials as a form of empowerment, the Chayes-McKellar-Winn theorem and its mathematical applicability, settling upon middle-school girls as a reading audience, middle-school “confidence,” speaking in front of Congress, promotion vs. education, the “proof” that math makes you smarter, textbooks vs. magazines, being “happier while you’re looking fabulous,” the conflation of sexy and smart and “pendulums,” comparing the preparation for a math test with a bikini wax, hair issues, writing a “populist” book, Lawrence Summers’s remarks on women, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, jewelry and makeup as a “universal” quality for women, and feminists and Nazis.


Correspondent: I’m curious, would you call yourself a feminist?

McKelalr: Different people have different interpretations of that word. In terms of the interpretation that says, I believe in equality of men and women, of course, absolutely.

Correspondent: What definitions would you quibble with?

McKellar: Well, there’s so-called Nazi feminists out there that give them that name. That try to say that, you know, women are better than men. And there’s just some of that out there. It’s the good old pendulum they’re trying to swing the other direction.

Correspondent: Well…

McKellar: I really think that men and women are completely fabulous creatures in their own right and very different from each other.

Correspondent: Who are these Nazi feminists? I mean, Rush Limbaugh, of course, coined the term “feminazi.” I’m curious as to who would fall into that particular camp.

McKellar: That’s not what we’re going to talk about.

Unhappy Endings

But there’s another reason he never finishes, if he’s honest with himself. He’s afraid of being disappointed by the endings, which is the reason he stopped reading fiction. He’d read Great Expectations at Rikers and had loved it — this story of a criminal secretly sponsoring some poor kid’s life — until the jail librarian pointed out that Dickens had written two endings. When he found the original ending Vince felt betrayed by the entire idea of narrative fiction. This story he’d carried around in his head had two endings? A book, like a life, should have only one ending. Either the adult Pip and Estella walk off holding hands, or they don’t. For him, the ending of that book rendered it entirely moot, five hundred pages of moot. Every novel moot.

So he only reads the beginnings now. And it’s not bad. He’s even begun to think of this as a more effective approach, to sample only the beginnings of things. After all, a book can only end of one of two ways: truthfully or artfully. If it ends artfully, then it never feels quite right. It feels forced, manipulated. If it ends truthfully, then the story ends badly, in death. It’s the reason most theories and religions and economic systems break down before you get too far into them — and the reason Buddhism and the Beach Boys make sense to teenagers, because they’re too young to know what life really is: a frantic struggle that always ends the same way. The only thing that varies is the beginning and the middle. Life itself always ends badly. If you’ve seen someone die, you don’t need to read to the end of some book to learn that.

— Jess Walter, Citizen Vince

Cowards Killing Castro

The San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau City and County of San Francisco, apparently, is proud to announce that “There will be NO Halloween celebration in the Castro in 2007,” which is akin to telling a martinet-minded headmaster telling a bunch of eager students that there is no Santa Claus. If this isn’t a sign of how frightened the United States of America is, I don’t know what is. The campaign has been launched because last year, a few assholes proceeded to stab people, despite vigorous police protection.

I cannot believe that my former hometown, committed to celebrating craziness and diversity, is supporting this bullshit campaign. In early October 2001, when I returned to San Francisco after a five week stay in Hamburg, I was extremely worried about the state of my country. But when I went to the Castro on Halloween night, and I saw San Francisco’s determination to have fun and the people dressed in all sorts of crazy costumes, I knew that everything would be okay.

That San Francisco is now determined to wilt in the sunshine of a long-standing tradition, that it cannot defiantly celebrate Halloween in the Castro and tell those who committed the violence that its spirit cannot be stopped, is a sign that San Francisco would rather embrace fear than fearlessness. Stopping Halloween is not the answer. It gives credence to those who were committed to destroying the annual party. It enables the hoodlums. And it demonstrates that Gavin Newsom is a coward who does not reflect the San Francisco I proudly witnessed six years ago.

I certainly hope that the good citizens of San Francisco resist this PR bullshit, and celebrate anyway. Life is too short to give into the bad apples.

[UPDATE: A guy named Joe points out that this campaign is being sponsored by the City of San Francisco, as opposed to the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau. Which, in a sense, is a good deal worse.]

Quick Spottings

Not only does Carolyn have a piece in today’s Los Angeles Times, but Dan Wickett has made Wired! It seems that some of these litbloggers don’t seem to be spending much of their time in Terre Haute these days.

Speaking of Mr. Wickett, I have unimpeachable evidence that he’s in New York right now. Roy Kesey, an author who has published two books with Dzanc, will be appearing tonight as part of the Happy Ending Music and Reading Series. The bar’s at 302 Broome Street. The show begins at 8:00 PM, and also features Benjamin Percy, Min Jin Lee, and music from Max Gabriel. Several bloggers (including me) should be there. So do swing by and say hello!


  • There are more Beatles books now than at any other point in human history. And this considerable sum shall likewise continue to accrue so long as pop music is heralded worthy of discussion. Two months from now, there will be even more Beatles books than there are now. Two years from now, who knows how many people will probe inside George Harrison’s solitude or give John Lennon’s assassination yet another dissection? USA Today‘s Anthony DeBarros says that the secret ingredient is context. But how much context do we need? What hasn’t been investigated elsewhere? I say this not as someone who dismisses the Beatles, but as someone who is drastically concerned about easily spending a good year trying to read the three hundred Beatles books that have come out in the past two years. The Beatles’s many niceties are now almost as difficult to keep track as a major war. One must, as a matter of course, become a pop music historian. So much has been written about them and so many volumes have been produced that I’m almost hoping for a book about Beatles books, or perhaps something that breaks everything down. Because I don’t have enough time in my life to read yet another Beatles book. Unless you grant me a sinecure somewhere.
  • The ebullient Jason Boog has singled me out again, and I shall address his question shortly after my head explodes.
  • They aren’t all elitist assholes who don’t believe that New York is the center of the universe in Manhattan. Having had some experience in the jungle, I can assure you that Manhattan wildlife does not always sneer at the good people of Cleveland. Besides, we all know how the bugs chomped at the Yankees.
  • More controversial words from Doris Lessing.
  • I’m about as skillful at balancing as I am at ballet dancing, although I’ve been told that I possess a certain savoir faire when wearing women’s clothing. (Don’t ask, but I am not wrong about this sort of thing.) One of these days, I will master my equilibrium. Indeed, I have so much faith in my innate physical ineptitude that I will master it the same day that I win the Nobel Prize. For now, there are these words to consider. (via Gwenda)
  • Saddlebums interviews Ed Gorman.
  • Callie Miller has been quite busy. In addition to interviewing Mark Danielewski for the LAist, she’s offered another of her award-winning reading reports — this time, of Junot Diaz.
  • A reconsideration of the late G.K. Chesterton — an underrated writer who more people should be aware of. (via Hot Stuff Esposito)
  • Jay McInerney: proving once again that he writes unconvincingly about human anatomy. (via Bestill My Swooning Heart Sarvas)
  • Attention all Vegas pimps: a new advertising market opened up! Pop open the champagne! Newspapers are getting as desperate as your johns! Regrettably, the Vegas edition of the PennySaver remains closed to licentious solicitations. A proud salute then for the PennySaver‘s stalwart holdouts, who would rather inundate you with ads for $25 television sets and lonely personal ads from the incarcerated than the smut that the lonely are too willing to pay for.
  • Finally, I regret that I have not set foot in Chowchilla, California. Not only does Kim reveal this town’s apparent dark past, but let us consider pragmatics. Why not walk around right now and say “Chowchilla, California” over and over again. I just walked around the apartment saying “Chowchilla, California” twenty-six times and, already, I feel energized! I’m ready to file a small claims suit on flimsy pretext! Or to speak loving words to an abandoned dog on Flatbush Avenue! And it’s all because of these two magnificent words! You think I’m prevaricating here, but I assure you that it is highly doubtful I will encounter two words more pleasant than “Chowchilla, California” before the sun sets over the landscape and the abandoned dog in question is revealed to be a rabid runt prepared to tear out your throat because nobody’s bothered to feed him and the last thing he saw on his doggie dish was a gizzard.

Edmund Wilson, Incompetent Genre Snob

In between books I have to read for work, I’ve sneaked in a few pages of the two-volume Edmund Wilson set recently put out by the Library of America. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that, when not defending Hemingway against his political critics or concluding that Intruder in the Dust “contains a kind of counterblast to the anti-lynching bill and to the civil-rights plank in the Democratic platform,” the man was a bit of a douchebag. And I say this as someone who enjoys some of his literary criticism. What’s particularly surprising is how dismissive Wilson is of mysteries.

edmundwilson.jpgStarting with the obnoxious essay, “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?,” Wilson declares, “I got bored with the Thinking Machine and dropped him.” He dismisses two Nero Wolfe books “sketchy and skimpy” and writes of The League of Frightened Men “the solution of the mystery was not usually either fanciful of unexpected,” failing to consider the idea that a good mystery may not be about the destination, but the journey. He declares Agatha Christie’s writing “of a mawkishness and banality which seem to me literally impossible to read,” but fails to cite several specific examples, before concluding:

You cannot read such a book, you run through it to see the problem worked out; and you cannot become interested in the characters, because they never can be allowed an existence of their own even in a flat two dimensions but have always to be contrived so that they can seem either reliable or sinister, depending on which quarter, at the moment, is to be baited for the reader’s suspicion.

If Wilson protests the detective story so much (as he points out, T.S. Eliot and Paul Elmer More were enchanted by the form), why did he bother to write about it at all? Should not an erudite and ethical critic recuse himself when he loathes a particular form?

It gets worse. If caddish generalizations along these lines weren’t enough, he returns to the mystery subject in the essay, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?,” written in response to many letters that had poured in from readers hoping to set Wilson straight. He dismisses Dorothy Sanders’s The Nine Tailors, openly confessing:

I skipped a good deal of this, and found myself skipping, also, a large section of the conversations between conventional English villa characters: “Oh, here’s Hinkins with the aspidistras. People may say what they like about aspidistras, but they do go on all the year round and make a background,” etc.

Aside from the fact that Wilson, in failing to read the whole of the book, didn’t do his job properly, it never occurs to Wilson that Sayers may have been faithfully transcribing the specific manner in which people spoke or that there may actually be something to these “English village characters.” Here’s the full quote from page 57 of Dorothy Sayers’s The Nine Tailors:

“Oh, here’s Hinkins with the aspidistras. People may say what they like about aspidistras, but they do go on all the year round and make a background. That’s right, Hinkins. Six in front of this tomb and six the other side — and have you brought those big pickle-jars? They’ll do splendidly for the narcissi….”

In other words, what Wilson has conveniently omitted from his takedown is Sayers pinpointing something very specific about how everyday routine, a fundamental working class component that seems lost upon Wilson despite his Marxism, leads one to disregard the fact that someone has died. Thus, there is a purpose to this conversation.

Yet this is the man being lauded on the back cover of the Library of America volumes as “wide-ranging in his interests.”

Wilson read mysteries for the wrong reasons. He saw trash only because it was what he wanted to see. Wilson’s incompetence is a fine lesson for contemporary readers. A book should be read on its own terms, and it is a critic’s job to try and understand a book as much as she is able to, reserving judgment only when she has fully read the book and after there has been some time to masticate upon the reading experience.

I disagree with Adam Kirsch’s recent assessment that “The best critics, like the best imaginative writers, are not right or wrong — they simply, powerfully are.” A critic, like any other human being, is often wrong, particularly when approaching a book with prejudgment or a fixed notion, such as Wilson did, of a mystery merely being about whodunnit. To avoid being wrong in this way, and to simply exert one’s opinion at the time of reading, requires as much careful reading and accuracy as possible, lest a great novel be thoroughly misperceived. It requires acceptable context and supportive examples. Wilson could not do this with mysteries and, if he is to be lionized, one should be aware that, when it came to Dorothy Sayers, he was no better than Lee Siegel in his tepid reading comprehension.