Why Trigger Warnings Threaten Free Speech, Original Voices, and Thoughtful Discourse

“Don’t be so gloomy. After all, it’s not that awful. You know what the fellow said. In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed. But they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love. They had five hundred years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” — The Third Man

On February 26, 2014, a UC Santa Barbara student named Bailey Loverin pushed “A Resolution to Mandate Warnings for Triggering Content in Academic Settings” through the Associated Students Senate. The resolution called on professors to issue “trigger warnings” for students on “materials with mature content” taught in the classroom — whether it be a difficult film shown for context, material assigned for reading, or even a casual conversation on a tough issue. Loverin cited her own discomfort sitting through a film, one which she has refused to identify, depicting sexual assault. The class’s unnamed professor, according to Loverin, provided no warning before the film. Loverin claimed that it was harder for her to walk out of the movie, because doing so in the dark would apparently draw attention. (I have consulted other interviews with Loverin to establish the facts. Loverin did not return my emails for comment.)

Loverin has stated that she’s a survivor of sexual abuse, but she has not suffered from PTSD — the chief reason proffered for the “trigger warning” resolution. In an interview with Reason TV, Loverin said, “We were watching a film. And there were several scenes of sexual assault and, finally, a very drawn out rape scene. It did not trigger me. I recognized the potential for it to be very triggering.”

Loverin is not a psychologist, a sociologist, or a medical authority of any kind. She is a second-year literature major who has become an unlikely figure in a debate that threatens to diminish the future of free speech. Yet Loverin isn’t nearly as extreme in her views as the trigger warning acolytes at other universities.

Rutgers’s Philip Wythe has claimed that trigger warnings are needed for Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (for students suffering from self-harm) and for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (apparently a literary gorefest on the level of an episode of The Walking Dead). Oberlin threatened to issue trigger warnings over such traumatic issues as “heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of oppression,” before the policy was sensibly pulled for further reconsideration.

Loverin claimed in an opinion roundtable for the New York Times that the UCSB resolution “only applies to in-class content like screenings or planned lectures and doesn’t ban the content or excuse students from learning it.” The resolution offers a suggested list of “rape, sexual assault, abuse, self-injurious behavior, suicide, graphic violence, pornography, kidnapping, and graphic depictions of gore” as trigger warning options. Students who feel that they “have a negative emotional response” (note that it is any “negative emotional response,” not necessarily PTSD) “to such content, including distressing flashbacks or memories, should be allowed to leave the classroom or skip class altogether without being penalized.” And while there certainly isn’t any direct prohibition, there is still the unsettling possibility of professors forced to soften their materials, which leads one to wonder how they can adequately teach war, genocide, slavery, or imperial conquest in the classroom. Another question, one that has remained unconsidered by trigger warning boosters, is whether or not skipping class over material that easily offends will be used as a catch-all excuse for students to shirk their scholarly duties.

In the Reason TV interview, Loverin said, “Being uncomfortable, being upset, being even a little offended is different than having a panic attack, blacking out, hyperventillating, screaming in a classroom, feeling like you’re under such physical threat, whether its real or perceived, that you act out violently in front of other people.” It certainly is. Yet there is no evidence to support Loverin’s claim that there is a widespread epidemic of students acting out violently in class over a movie. The PTSD Foundation of America observes that 7.8% of Americans will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. But most people who experience PTSD are children under the age of 10 or war veterans. Furthermore, an NCBI publication reveals that intimate group support among fellow trauma victims (CISD) and rigorous pre-trauma training (CISM) are effective methods for helping the PTSD victim to move forward in her life.

There are some connections between media and PTSD, such as a study published last December which observed that some Americans who watched more than six hours of media coverage about the Boston Marathon bombings experienced more powerful stress reactions than those who refrained from watching the news or who were directly there. Another UC Irvine study found that 38% of Boston-area veterans who suffer from PTSD and other mental disorders experienced some emotional distress one week after the bombing. But these studies point to (a) people who already suffer from PTSD, (b) PTSD victims being exposed to media for a lengthy duration, and (c) PTSD victims in close proximity to a recent attack.

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It is certainly reasonable for a professor to ask her class if any student suffers from PTSD, but the trigger warning approach is uncomfortably similar to the Comics Magazine Association of America’s crackdown on comic books over gory content in 1954, which led Charles F. Murphy to wrongfully conclude that reading violent comics leads to juvenile delinquency. As Saladin Ahmed recently pointed out at BuzzFeed, Murphy’s Puritanical Comics Code — a kind of self-regulated and equally self-righteous “trigger warning” system of the time — forced a black astronaut to be made white in order for Al Feldstein and Joe Orlando’s “Judgment Day” to run. (Before the Comics Code, the story would have appeared without a problem.) The pro-trigger warning crowd also refuses to consider the benefits of confronting trauma. If Steve Kandell hadn’t possessed the courage to visit the 9/11 Memorial Museum 13 years after his sister was killed in the attacks, then we would not have learned more about that tourist attraction’s crass spectacle and its deeply visceral effect on victims. There was no trigger warning at the head of his essay.

Discouraging students from confronting challenging topics because of “a negative emotional response” may also result in missed opportunities for humanism. In her thoughtful volume A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit examines numerous instances of people reacting to disasters. Contrary to the reports of doom and gloom presumed to follow a disaster, people more often react with joy and a desire to reforge social community. Those distanced from disaster tend to become more paralyzed with fright. No less a literary personage than Henry James, who read sensationalistic accounts of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, imagined that his brother William underwent some perdition: “I feel that I have collapsed, simply, with the tension of all these dismal days,” he wrote in a letter. “I should have told you that I have shared every pulse of your nightmare with you if I didn’t hold you quite capable of telling me that it hasn’t been a nightmare.” But William. who was impressed with the rapid manner in which San Francisco came together, replied, “We never reckoned on this extremity of anxiety on your part.”

Only a week after Loverin’s resolution was passed, a group of anti-abortion activists had one of its banners, which featured a bloody picture of an aborted fetus, plucked by professor Mireille Miller-Young. A YouTube video capturing this incident features the professor pushing Joan Short, one of the Christian activists and the person operating the camera, after she attempts to retrieve her sign from an elevator. At the 2:46 mark, Miiller-Young can be seen kicking Short’s shoe out of the elevator bank.

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The police report, which I obtained from the Santa Barbara Independent‘s Tyler Hayden (the PDF can be viewed here), cites “triggering” as one motivations for Miller-Young’s actions. Miller-Young asked the Christian activists to remove the sign. They refused. Miller-Young grabbed the sign and destroyed it in her “safe space” with scissors. “I’m stronger,” said Miller-Young, “so I was able to take the poster.”

As a hard progressive and free speech advocate who is strongly pro-choice and as someone who finds gory pictures of aborted fetuses to be a repugnant response to civility, I am nevertheless appalled that a supposedly enlightened figure of authority like Miller-Young would use “trigger warnings” as an excuse to not only shut down another person’s perspective, but to completely destroy the sign used to present it. These activists were not harassing young women outside of an abortion clinic, yet Miller-Young claims in the police report that “she felt that the activists did not have the right to be there.”

Many ostensible liberals have attempted to paint “trigger warnings” as something harmless, yet they refuse to see how appending a precautionary warning can lead to a chilling curb of free speech. And like Miller-Young, in their rush to condemn, it becomes clear that they are less interested in comforting those who are sensitive and more concerned with painting anyone who disagrees with them as either “a jerk” or someone who delights in the suffering from others. On Twitter, two privileged white male writers with high follower counts revealed their commitment to petty despotism when opining on the trigger warning issue:

We have seen recent literary debates about unlikable characters, an essential part of truthfully depicting an experience. But if an artist or a professor has to consider the way her audience feels at all times, how can she be expected to pursue the truths of being alive? How can a student understand World War I without feeling the then unprecedented horror of trench warfare and poison gas and burying bodies (a daily existence that caused some of the bravest soldiers to crack and get shot for cowardice if they displayed anything close to the PTSD that they felt every minute)? How can one understand rape’s full hurt and humiliation if one does not wish to become familiar with its baleful emotions? How can any student comprehend climate change if the default response is to ignore the news and play a distracting cat video that will amuse her for two minutes?

I realize that the trigger warning police mean well, but human beings are made of more resilience and intelligence than these unlived undergraduates understand. Hashtag activism may work in a virtual world of impulsive 140 character dispatches, but it cannot ever convey the imbricated complexities of the human spirit, which are too important to be stifled and diminished by a censorious menagerie of self-righteous kids, including middle-aged genre writers who can’t push their worldview past adolescent posturing that’s as preposterous as Jerry Falwell claiming emotional distress over a parody.

The Bat Segundo Show: Agnieszka Holland

Agnieszka Holland appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #433. She is most recently the director of In Darkness, which has been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award and opens in limited release on Febraury 10, 2012.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Fumbling in the dark for the Zippo.

Guest: Agnieszka Holland

Subjects Discussed: Creating cinematic environments, how to design a sewer system for a Holocaust movie, the sewer as metaphor, the difficulty of locating the right sewer, Polish sewers, technical limitations on location, managing 60 to 70 people in a tight location, the differences between canalization sewers and sanitation sewers, finding sewer experts, Montreal, Phantasm, Andrzej Wajda’s Kanal, The Third Man, cinematographic efforts to avoid the beauty of the sewers, darkness as a false beauty, avoiding candles, directing actors in real darkness, making a movie which containing numerous languages, linguistic training and actors, ovepreparing actors, the Balak Polish dialect, working with Ed Harris, importing Method acting ideas into the Polish acting community, Jennifer Jason Leigh, finding the right actors, Polish theatrical training, Holocaust fatigue, developing behavioral quirks to overcome tropes, the Downfall meme, Olivier Olivier, Holland’s experience with identity emerging as a theme in her films, Zelig, being identified as the “literary culture” director during the 1990s, Total Eclipse, The Secret Garden as Holland’s favorite book as a kid, being faithful to Henry James, Washington Square vs. The Heiress, and efforts to determine why David Simon paired Holland up with Richard Price-penned scripts on The Wire.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: This actually came up in a conversation I had a few weeks ago with the Australian novelist Elliot Perlman. We were talking about the notion of Holocaust fatigue and how some books or films that deal with the Holocaust have to now face this dilemma. I was looking at some of the reviews and some of the write-ups of this film and I noticed, for example, that A.O. Scott suggested that “the Holocaust movie has become a genre in its own right.” And in Tablet, you have Daphne Merkin suggesting that “the audience for Holocaust films is even smaller than the audience for Ukranian imports.” But on the other hand, I think one of the things I appreciated about this film, and also Europa Europa, is that you have characters who are committing adultery, who are shooting up, who are masturbating, and as a result you have behavioral quirks that almost defy these labels. So what do you do, when you’re making a Holocaust narrative of any kind, to get away from these tropes? Does it really come down to these behavioral quirks or what?

Holland: Well, you know, I think that the Holocaust is such an important event in the human history, the border point of the humanity, that I don’t think it will disappear as a subject. Even for the next generation. I think what happens really — it was too many of pretty superficial and not very good treatments of this period and of this subject, which change it to some kind of the moralistic sentimental kitsch and I think really — yeah, this kind of treatment, people have enough. It means, in the first, it was educationally important and work up some kind of knowledge and curiosity. But after, it became some kind of cliche. For me, it’s important that it’s not like, that you cannot label this as the Holocaust. It is not really Holocaust film or it’s not the film of the Polish/Jewish relationship. It’s a film about the human condition and the particular circumstances. And what you know of the human nature is able to give, to deliver the best and the worst. And that is the universal question which you can also translate to another sensitivity and another times. I think personally that the only thing which is important: if it’s artistically successful and if it’s honest. Humanly speaking and psychologically speaking and historically speaking. If it’s dishonest or bad, it’s bad. If it’s really powerful and goes straight to the heart of the people, you know, yes. I think that we, of course, had the ambition to shot into the heart of the people and the brain comes later, you know? And if after it wakes up the reflection, what it was, how it was possible, when was my nation in that, how I will act in those circumstances, that is a bonus.

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, I agree with you. But on the other hand, you as a filmmaker are competing with, for example, the Downfall meme on the Internet. Where they take that scene and put different subtitles with Hitler. “Hitler has learned this.” As a result, any serious consideration of the Holocaust now has to compete with these caricatures. Although, oddly enough, I guess you were sort of ahead of the trend with the Hitler who’s in Europa Europa.

Holland: Right.

Correspondent: But how do you deal with this? Does it really come down to creating subcultures? Behavioral quirks along these lines that defy all tropes?

Holland: Well, you know, it’s where we are today. And anyway, you know, the Internet. And you think of the artifacts and the pieces of art on the Internet and the cut-and-glue, you know, kind. It exists. You cannot do anything about it. And of course, you can answer the question, “How long the regular dramatic narrative will survive?” And if it will change to something different. Some kind of interactive games or something like that. I don’t know. By now, it still exists and you still can touch a pretty amazing amount of people with that.

Correspondent: I was always curious. I’ve been wanting to ask you this. Why are you so interested in frauds and swindlers and those who have secret identities or who are pretending to be somebody else? I mean, even in this film, you’ve got con men. There’s the pretense with the cash. Olivier Olivier — is the boy real or not? Things like that. Is this, I suppose, the result of growing up in pre-Solidarity Poland? This natural curiosity? Or is it just good for narrative?

Holland: Probably. Probably. In Polish Jewish family also, where, you know, I had to change those hearts depending upon who I am talking to. So in some way, part is my own experience. And being woman in a man’s world. And in general, I think that the people are wearing the masks all the time. So that is like the basic human problem. Who we are really in the depth of our identity and what we pretend if that real identity really exists or is just the function of the circumstances. If it’s something like the true, true, you know, true myself — someplace — and the rest is just some kind of the appearances, the true myself doesn’t exist. Everything is appearances. The question is asked in Europa Europa in a very vivid way. Because the guy had been like the Zelig — changing identities, depending.

Correspondent: And very flute-based as well.

Holland: Right. And in Europa Europa, it was paradoxical. It was that his identity was his circumcised penis. If he wasn’t circumcised, probably he will become someone else totally. And that he had to remember.

Correspondent: No greater physicality than that. (laughs)

The Bat Segundo Show #433: Agnieszka Holland (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Cynthia Ozick II

Cynthia Ozick recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #368. Ms. Ozick is most recently the author of Foreign Bodies. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #210.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering why Henry James forces him to have alarming dreams.

Author: Cynthia Ozick

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Ozick: The joy of dialogue. Oh, dialogue! It took me such a long time how to learn how to do dialogue. And I think I learned it from a single book. Which is Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter. Which I actually studied to see how he made it concise and dramatic. And I think once you know the character, you have the voice. I suppose you could say that once you have the voice, you have the character. But I don’t think it works like that for me. Once you know the character, you can hear the character speak. And of course, they all speak in their own voices. I don’t know if that’s really related to music. I think that’s more related to seeing. Because you see the character. And if you see visually the character, then if I am looking at you, the voice that comes out of you is naturally yours. Because I see you. Whereas music is this mystery of mathematics. Including Confucius, music and math go together. And that’s a wonder about E.M. Forster. He’s one of the few writers who was very musical. I mean, seriously musical. And that’s in his writing as well. But I think the link with writing is more painting. We see this. It’s so interesting. John Updike had the ability to draw and write. So did Thackeray. Kipling. There are others. I can’t think of them now, but they’re so many linkages in writing and art. In other words, the pen and the eye. Whereas music is abstract math. So that’s where the voices come from. From the eye, I think.

Correspondent: It’s interesting that you mention Greene. Because of course, we know him for the colon. And in terms of looking at your dialogue in this book, what is rather interesting is that sometimes you have almost a Marianne Wiggins-like dash. And sometimes you have the quotes. I’m curious to the methodology behind that. How that developed.

Ozick: Well, that was pretty simple. I needed to have a dialogue in the historic present, so to speak. And dialogue before then. So for the earlier dialogue, I used the dash to distinguish it from the dialogue that’s occurring in the now. Even though the now is in the past tense. Because I have to confess. I have a lot of trouble with our common currency of present tense. Despite those great books of Rabbit [Angstrom]. I was once standing in a group of writers and was so humiliated. Because I mentioned my prejudice against writing in the present tense. And Updike was standing at my right elbow and said, “Well, my Rabbit books are in the present tense.” That was not a good moment. (laughs)

Correspondent: Well, why the aversion specifically to present tense? It’s used a lot more, I think, now than it was thirty years ago.

Ozick: Absolutely. It’s ubiquitous. I don’t know. It just seems that it spoils storytelling. Because it escapes from the magical “Once upon a time.” This happened once. If it’s happening now, then there’s almost no history in it. It destroys the past. And, of course, you see that writers who write in the present tense have to go back and deal with the past. You see that they then have to revert to past tense anyway. And it has a kind of inconsistency. And it’s simply unpleasant to me.

Correspondent: You’re saying that a novel really should present itself almost as a sense of history.

Ozick: Exactly. It’s a story that happened. Not a story that’s happening. And I guess that really needs to be explored. Why should a story that happened be better than a story that’s happening? I don’t know. Help me. Why?

Correspondent: Well, I think when you have a situation like — there was a book by Elliot Perlman called Seven Types of Ambiguity. Named, of course, after the great text. I mean, I like the book. But it has this really absurd situation because it’s written in the present tense. And the narrator’s going, “He’s hitting me.”* When I read this, I thought, “This is just utterly preposterous.” It immediately takes you out of the story.

Ozick: (laughs) Right!

Correspondent: If he “hit” him, right. But “He’s hitting me.” It’s like — wait a minute.

Ozick: Then how can you be writing?

Correspondent: How can I be participating in this? But with the past tense, you can feel a greater sense of participation in the activity.

Ozick: You can believe in it!

Correspondent: Yes!

Ozick: You can believe in it. I mean, it really helps the suspension of disbelief if you present it as a history. And isn’t this the beginning of the modern novel? My Man Friday?

Correspondent: (laughs)

Ozick: We’re supposed to believe that.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Ozick: And we do. Because it’s written like a history. No, I think you hit it when you said it has to do with history. And maybe that is a problem — if there is a problem — with much of American writing today. That it is rather amnesiac.

* — In all fairness to Mr. Perlman, I feel compelled to issue a slight correction. I told Ms. Ozick that I remembered the phrase “He’s hitting me” from Elliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity. It has been a good six years since I read Mr. Perlman’s book — sent to me with a handwritten note by Ami Greko, one of the few publicists back in the day to grasp the litblog medium that is now simultaneously ubiquitous and passe. But I can find no indication of the phrase “He’s hitting me” within Perlman’s book. Yet the specific passage I was trying to remember when Ms. Ozick put me on the spot, presented below and written in the present tense, does indeed reveal how the reader can be thrown off when violent gerunds are involved. It still reads as absurd and remains just as applicable to the conversation at hand. This funny little episode also reveals how a fatal expressive error can be misremembered years later, perhaps subject to the same “rather amnesiac” problem with American writing that Ms. Ozick mentions. Authors, take heed when using the present tense!

“I’m going to fucking kill you!” I scream at him. I am punching his face repeatedly, left then right again and again against the smooth stone paving and I am going to kill him. He is squeezing tighter. I am killing him. I am trying to kill him as Anna is pulling me off. She has her arms around my shoulders. She uses all her strength to drag me off him. (80, U.S. hardcover)

(Image: Zugoli Lany)

The Bat Segundo Show #368: Cynthia Ozick II (Download MP3)

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Superficial Reading: Cynthia Ozick and Critical Pygmies

When Zadie Smith reworked E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End* into her excellent novel, On Beauty, few reviewers expressed dismay at her creative methodology. Frank Rich, who raved about Smith’s novel in The New York Times, noted “the blunt declaration of Smith’s intention to pay homage” in Smith’s first sentence. The Washington Post‘s Michael Dirda, who was even more effusive than Rich, called Smith’s novel “subtly laced with learned allusions” — which was something of an understatement. Similarly, Jonathan Lethem’s “The Ecstasy of Influence” was also celebrated for appropriating numerous texts — even included in the 2008 edition of The Best American Essays.

In an age where Girl Talk and Creative Commons are as mainstream as Johnny Mathis, remixing and repurposing is clearly the usual, something to be celebrated among our greatest literary practitioners. Yet it is rather extraordinary that a few reviewers — all conspicuously out-of-touch with this present temperament — have seen fit to punish an author, one who has pretty much earned the right to do anything she wants, for reworking a novel considered to be a classic. What is most interesting about these feeble hatchet men is how little they comprehend the text they wish to feed to the dogs.

Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies has been bitchslapped by The Los Angeles Times‘s David Ulin, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s Mike Fischer, and The Seattle Times‘s Michael Upchurch for a novel that is, respectively, “more schematic than engaged,” “doesn’t have the texture or plumb the depths that anchor James’ metaphor-rich prose,” and “a great premise — disappointingly handled.”

Upchurch’s indolent 300 word review — indistinguishable from a cranky Goodreads capsule banged out by a drunk in a matter of minutes — can be easily dispensed with. All Upchurch manages is a chickenheaded concatenation of pusillanimous modifiers (“crude,” “thin,” “choppy,” “baffling,” and so forth) for Ozick’s latest. He guzzles down his precious column inches praising James, as if desiring some librarian to pin a gold star to his lapel for dutiful reading, and he writes that Ozick “introduces [a] bracing, brutal twist without really developing it” without bothering to explain why. (This is not dissimilar Ulin’s sloppy pronouncement that Foreign Bodies “remains curiously unsatisfying.” More on Ulin in a mite.)

When one explores the Goodreads page for Ozick’s book, one discovers that even the reviewers who didn’t care for the book have more clarity and plenitude than Upchurch:

She is really a wonderful writer with a unique presentation and style. However I did not rate this higher as I liked none of the characters, not at all or even a little bit. They all had significant flaws and I found the reading experience unpleasant as they were just all so annoying. I did not care really what happened to any of them although I was curious enough to finish the rather short book and had hopes that they would change a little or something other than what they were throughout.

That comes from a Goodreads user named Allyson. Writing in her spare time, Allyson offers a more valuable negative review than Upchurch. She articulates — in fewer words than Upchurch — that she didn’t care for any of the characters, but notes that she was attracted to the style. And she also seems genuinely taken aback — certainly more than the newspaper naysayers. By contrast, Upchurch writes, “We also get prose that too often flails hyperbolically as it paints its grotesques.” Like Allyson, Upchurch doesn’t really expand on his observation. But Allyson is not so quick to condemn. The outside observer, curious about the balance between style and characters, is more interested in Allyson’s review. Therefore, why would any news outlet pay Upchurch money when we can get the same material for free? I understand that Upchurch has had his space cut. But Upchurch, in sticking with the superficial in his review, offers us no reasonable justification for his professional existence. He is as joyful as a starving urchin in Calcutta. One desperately wishes to feed him.

Of Foreign Bodies, David Ulin claims “there are no overt references to the novel, other than a few puns and one-liners.” Yet even in Ozick’s second chapter (the first after a letter), one encounters quite a number of Jamesian references.

In The Ambassadors, James’s Paris is often quite cold. Chad’s house, formed from “the complexion of the stone, a cold fair grey, warmed and polished a little by life,” takes “all the March sun.” Strether is led into “the rather cold and blank little studio.” Madame de Vionnet leads Strether into an antechamber that’s “a little cold and slippery even in summer.” By contrast, Ozick’s postwar Paris is piping hot, the victim of “a ferocious heat wave assault[ing] Europe.” Bea walks “through the roasting miasma of late afternoon” and in search of nonexistent air-conditioners. A superficial reader may view such an inversion to be merely the “mirror image” that Ulin claims it to be. But if Foreign Bodies is simply swapping the twin taps, why then would Bea also encounter a “visionary living robot” at a department store, which also has the “familiar” consolation of “cold air?” Ozick isn’t simply reversing The Ambassadors. She’s studying how French-American cultural relationships have developed over the fifty years since The Ambassadors. Ozick’s ravaged version of postwar Paris is quite different than the cultural mecca that enticed Strether, yet she daringly suggests that the new Paris appeals to Americans who are “vigorous, ambitious, cheerful, and given to drink” — “literary tourists” who are hoping to “summon the past.” From The Ambassadors:

Nothing could have been odder than Strether’s sense of himself as at that moment launched in something of which the sense would be quite disconnected from the sense of his past and which was literally beginning there and then.

Ulin declares Ozick’s novel as merely “a counterpart” and “a mirror image, James’s story turned around.” But this lazy thesis fails to account for the Suite Eyre spa in California, featured near the end of Ozick’s novel, which serves almost as an wry answer to Thomas Mann’s European spas. Where The National Post‘s Philip Marchand rightfully observes that “not every character in Ozick’s novel is based on Henry James,” for Ulin, Foreign Bodies “seems more schematic than engaged.” By contrast, The Barnes and Noble Review‘s Tom LeClair is more daring (and interesting) in his suggestion that Ozick is responding in a way to a particularly callow interviewer who began his conversation by telling Ozick that her work was cut off from contemporary culture (and who then got his ass handed to him). Evidence for LeClair’s theory can be found within the novel, which concerns itself with sexual candor, abortion, and several other subjects that occupy our present time. But LeClair, in attempting to pursue “the physical revulsion and spleen that circulate through the novel,” offers a more curious and less turgid investigation than Ulin. Ulin’s inability to see Lili as little more than a refugee who marries Julian suggests very highly that Ulin skimmed (if that) the book’s last 100 pages, which offer quite a bit more with a figure named Kleinman.

Ulin’s miserly efforts to corral Ozick’s novel against another are matched by Mike Fischer’s impoverished interpretation. Fischer lauds one Ozick passage that “James could have written” and notes that Foreign Bodies “is filled with similarly uncanny echoes of the Master’s voice.” But he is too much of an incurious James fanboy to consider Ozick’s book on its own terms. He is blindsided by how closely Foreign Bodies aligns with The Ambassadors. And like Ulin, he too seems to have skimmed the final 100 pages. Fischer observes “the washed-out watercolors of Marvin’s two maddeningly inconsistent children,” which isn’t so much a cogent observation but an inept attempt at wit. Fischer likewise doesn’t have the acumen to consider Margaret’s vital presence as anything more than a sketch representing “narrative neglect.” (Never mind that Ozick, imbuing Margaret with a pebble in her heel, is exploring the symbolic possibilities of spousal neglect cast against an American backdrop.) Fischer makes no mention of the book’s careful concerns with the corporeal. And there’s one vital clue for Fischer’s doddering take in this “narrative neglect.” Near the end of Fischer’s review, Fischer claims that Ozick’s readers “stumble in the dark,” because “we’re not given an object lesson on the moral ambiguity that is central to understanding James.” This is no doubt a reference to James’s “The Art of Fiction,” in which the Master threw a famous fit over Walter Besant’s “conscious moral purpose.” But “conscious moral purpose” (or even James’s “air of reality”) isn’t the sole reason to read a novel. (Indeed, this is precisely what James was arguing.) Only a precocious child would ascribe such a singular criteria when assessing a book. But Fischer — “a Milwaukee lawyer and writer” and, quite possibly, a moribund Grisham aspirant — wishes to fish with a puny pole that will never hit the sediment.

It’s bad enough that Upchurch, Ulin, and Fischer’s conservative-minded deference for the original text prevents this bubble gum chewing trio from appreciating what Ozick is trying to do. Updike’s first Rule for Reviewing — “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt” — has clearly been tossed out the window. But what makes these three reviews especially troubling is the instant drift to the superficial. This is especially dishonorable with a novel embedded with all manner of treasures. Not one of these three men proved capable of observing the canny way that Ozick closes the book at the turn of the year. Not one of these three men proved capable of understanding composer Leo Coopersmith’s role in the narrative, much less paying close attention to the way Ozick describes voices and musical instruments. (An opportunity to explore what Ozick’s novel in music might have been welcomed in a newspaper. But why attempt serious criticism when you’re firing blank bons mot?)

Robert Birnbaum, writing about Ozick in The San Francisco Chronicle, is quite right in suggesting that “the enterprise of book reviewing has become degraded.” When critical pygmies wish to denigrate an author that they lack the time or the curiosity to comprehend, one wonders why such infants aren’t devoting their pens to matters more suited to their collective ken: perhaps snarky synopses of television episodes or vapid profiles of Hollywood celebrities. If these are the hollow considerations we’re getting, then the death of newspapers couldn’t arrive any faster.

* — One fun fact: Forster, rather famously, didn’t care much for Henry James. Of The Ambassadors, Forster wrote:

The James novels are a unique possession and the reader who cannot accept his premises misses some valuable and exquisite sensations. But I do not want more of his novels, especially when they are written by some one else, just as I do not want the art of Akhenathon to extend into the reign of Tutankhamen.

The Bat Segundo Show: Azar Nafisi

Azar Nafisi recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #260.

Azar Nafisi is most recently the author of Things I’ve Been Silent About, as well as Reading Lolita in Tehran.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Reliving transcendent memories.

Author: Azar Nafisi

Subjects Discussed: Authenticity, W.G. Sebald, photographs and text, Iranian birth certificates, being true to the story when writing a memoir, accuracy and memoirs, the extraordinary nature of the ordinary, “A Memoir in Books,” constructs within constructs, Emily Dickinson, dreams that are tainted by reality, The Great Gatsby, Nafisi’s mother creating a dream out of a frozen past, unhappy marriages, presenting a cardboard version of yourself, frankness, books vs. reality, Dorothy Sayers, Henry James and World War I, asserting life in totalitarianism, Italian neorealists, great things that come from limitations, Samira Makhmalbaf’s The Apple, Czslew Milosz vs. Witold Gombrovich, Ferdowski, The Prince, and others as frameworks to understand 20th century Iran, human beings and the creative impulse, writing a book of literary criticism on Nabokov that resonates with the Islamic Republic, prying mothers and outrage, personal connections and subjective viewpoints in relation to books, collection vs. hording in relation to storytelling, feeling regret, the commercial shadow of Reading Lolita, avoiding the Iran categorization, subconscious Nabokovian themes, the memoir as betrayal, Muriel Spark, Speak, Memory, and self-consciousness.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

nafisiCorrespondent: Fariba’s birth certificate is fake, you note later on in the book.

Nafisi: Yes.

Correspondent: And also the marriage of your parents was built, as you say, on a lie. So you have this scenario throughout your life in which you have the most authoritative text, being a birth certificate, being unreliable. So this brings me back to the question of the pictures and the text.

Nafisi: Definitely. I mean, authenticity itself is such a dubious word, isn’t it? Authentic to whom? And at what point in your life? Authenticity itself changes. But definitely. And especially in regards to my life in Iran and with my mother. The question of what appeared and what people claimed to be real. And what one discovered to be the truth. Those two were running parallel to one another. Seldom meeting, actually.

Correspondent: I guess the question though is: How can you, who specializes in books throughout your life — I mean, that’s your living!

Nafisi: (laughs)

Correspondent: So here you have this unreliable relationship with text that your life is predicated upon. How you can even trust text if there is this lack of authenticity?

Nafisi: Well, you have to trust the story. Because if you want the story to be good, quote unquote, you have to be true to the story. And it takes you places where sometimes you don’t want to go. It forces you to reveal things that you don’t want to reveal. But if you’re focused on the story, you realize that the story will take its revenge if you don’t give it what it needs. So that is why I think so many authors, or so many people keep saying — like Vita Sackville-West, in terms of her diaries. She says that, “I am writing because of truth. Because there’s so many pieces of the truth. And you reveal your truth.” It is not because you have hold of the truth, but because the process of storytelling reveals the truth both to you and hopefully to the readers.

Correspondent: Does it matter then if you don’t quite have the exact truth? I mean, there’s a lot of controversy — here in America, in particular — about what a memoir really should be and how accurate it needs to be.

Nafisi: Well, there’s two thins I need to say about that. One is when you deliberately fabricate something. And unfortunately, a lot of times, in terms of the recent events, it is to sell. I tried to very much — actually, the scandalous parts of my book are very much buried. This was a test for me. Can you write a memoir? Which is a family memoir. Which doesn’t come out with fireworks. And it can still attract people. Because what is extraordinary to me is what we call the ordinary. You know, nothing is ordinary. That was what I was trying to investigate. So if you deliberately fabricate, I think then that we are entering a different world.

But a memoir, because its a narrative and its a story, by nature, it’s a construct. I think we should admit that at the outset. That it is a construct. You try and remain true to facts. But what are facts? From whose point of view? And one thing that I discovered — which is very obvious now to me, but it wasn’t then — is how much you select. There were people in my life who were very central to my life. Like my brother, whom I love and we’ve had many, many experiences together. But he was not necessarily central to the story. So you cut-and-paste, according to the themes that your story demands. And so how can you say that a memoir is not a construct?

(Photo credit: wip_partnership)

BSS #260: Azar Nafisi (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Cynthia Ozick

Cynthia Ozick appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #210. Ozick is most recently the author of Dictation.

Condition of the Show: Overtaken by a tyrannical dictator.

Author: Cynthia Ozick

Subjects Discussed: Balancing two authors, two secretaries and other stylistic repetitions that evoke typewriters in “Dictation,” purloining language from Henry James and Joseph Conrad’s letters, Henry James’s “forgotten umbrella,” “Literary Entrails,” parallels between the last two turns of the century, feeling like Queen Victoria, the language GNU within “What Happened to the Baby?” and open source GNU, crosswords in “Actors,” agonizing over every particular sentence, the slowness of sentences, auctorial fingerprints, John Updike, not wanting to be a writer of drafts, a lost manuscript by Lionel Trilling, whether postwar critics are being suitably remembered, those who mock Trilling for his moral seriousness, the origin of names, fiction as a pack of lies, being a stickler for the details vs. sustaining ambiguity, contradicting yourself in essays, when essays are unduly compared with fiction, John Barth’s “The Literature of Exhaustion,” the current literary critical environment, E.M. Forster, descriptive references to necks, on not leaving the house, not writing stories set in the present day, getting lost in one’s head, re-rereading Sense and Sensibility, how much Ozick has to think about a book before writing it, the reputation of America over the past fifty years, defining a “contemporary” novel, the dangers of writing in the present moment, clinging to brand names, books that rethink a particular epoch, religious identity in “At Fumicaro,” pretending about pretending, literary impersonation and multiple personalities, and anchoring fiction with reality.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to ask you about “Dictation,” the title story. This was very interesting to me for a number of reasons. Because here you have two writers, Henry James and Joseph Conrad, two secretaries of Henry James and Joseph Conrad, and then on top of that, you have a number of repetitions throughout the story, as if to echo or beckon the typewriter. Like in the very beginning, when you have Henry James describing Almayer’s Folly, you kept saying, “He saw. He saw.” And there’s a number of interesting things you are doing in the syntax of the story that almost echoes the typewriter. So I wanted to ask how this particular stylistic device came about. I know you spend a lot of time on your sentences. So you had to have been at least somewhat aware of this.

Ozick: Well not so much of the repetition in consonance with the typewriter, no. I wasn’t aware of that at all. And I’m rather taken aback by hearing you say, “Have you actually seen this or heard this?” I have not. (laughs) I have not. I’m sorry to disappoint. That is not what I had in mind. What I had in mind really was the joy of the mischief when it occurred to me. And the stylistic aspect had to do more not with the sounds — if that’s what you’re getting at — but with the tones and styles of speech of these people in that era. Particularly with the formality of the young ladies, who must call each other “Miss.” To venture into a first name is really quite forward and not to be countenanced by polite society at first. And also the great pleasure of, I suppose, my parodying of James and Conrad. Though, here’s a confession, and having very much to do with style. I purloined certain phrases directly from the letters of James and Conrad. So there are sentences buried in there which are absolutely authentic. Because they’re stolen directly. Not full sentences, but phrases here and there. So that gave me a lot of joy too. Because it was a kind of imitation, mimicry, reflection of what these two amanuenses were up to in their mischievous plan.

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