Sarah Hall Roundtable — Part Four

(This is the fourth of a five-part roundtable discussion of Sarah Hall’s How to Paint a Dead Man.)

Other Installments: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Five

More on Hall: “The Early Fiction of Sarah Hall” and a one hour radio interview I conducted with Hall in 2008.

Jenny Davidson writes:

hallrt4Ugh, I am feeling awful about this — I don’t like writing negative reviews, I’ve been dragging my heels on finishing the book and writing a few thoughts for your consideration – but now that I’ve finished reading it, I will have to say that I pretty strongly disliked it!  I found both of the Italian “voices” almost intolerably artificial/stereotypical feeling — I particularly loathed the Bottle Diaries, which seemed to me much more like a non-artist’s view of what an artist might think like than anything actually insightful or persuasive or striking about art, but I found the Annette chapters also overly fey and affected.

I had nothing against the second-person voice used for the Susan bits, and I am interested in novels about twins, but I realized that though I felt that voice does an effective job for the novel of establishing mood/sensibility, I would have had a higher tolerance for it had it been used to narrate, say, a thriller/mystery plot.  And the Peter chapters seemed to me the most successful on Hall’s own terms, with a more complex character and voice and narrative structure, only I found him singularly annoying as a character as well!

In short, I am clearly not the ideal reader for this book.  Hall is a very skilled crafter of sentences, of course, and yet there is nothing magical about them for me, they do not take off and become transcendent, there does not seem to be some insight motivating them or even just the sound of language in some striking new way.  Anyway, I’ll now just put together a pair of paragraphs, my least favorite and the one that I liked the best in the book, to show more concretely what I see these weaknesses as being.

A good example of what I really didn’t like about the Bottle Diaries chapter falls on p. 72, the two paragraphs beginning “The room has gained infamy with very little help from me.”  The diction, with its air of having been translated, seems to me portentous but bland; there is something smug or self-satisfied, to my ear, in this ostentatious pondering on art.

A good example of what I liked — a paragraph that definitely stood out to me, although I still don’t think that the sentences themselves (the diction, the style) are as distinctive as what I see in the writers I most enjoy (Peter Temple, for instance, who I have been reading again recently) — the description of Susan and her lover stripping wallpaper and accidentally dislodging an old wasps’ nest (p. 257):

It was a hot summer.  The windows were open and one or two wasps had been drilling about the place.  Then Tom found the grey, cindery pocket in a wall cavity, and, thinking it was disused, he began to chip between its seal and the plaster.  Suddenly the air was swarming.  For a moment he was paralysed as the insects rushed and scribbled above the nest.  Gesu Cristo!  He picked up a decorating sheet, threw it over the two of you, and you stumbled from the room,s lamming the door closed.  Are you stung? No.  Nor am I.  Underneath the sheet he smelled of sweat and dust.  You could hear the wasps as they flew against the other side of the door, rapping softly like fingertips.

Brian Francis Slattery writes:

Anna and Kathleen: Your posts made me wish that I’d been more careful when writing my first post, and made me rethink some of the points I made altogether.

Anna, when I read your post, I felt an instant camaraderie. Usually, I’m one of those readers for whom the writing style is everything: If the writing is superb, I don’t care about anything else. And I found myself nodding in agreement with everything you said, even as doing so contradicted what I’d already said. Also Kathleen, I agree with you re: plot as well (especially since I stumbled across Lev Grossman’s WSJ piece). Though I like plots as much as the next reader, I’m not a plotmonger the way Grossman appears to be, nor do I think books without them are necessarily somehow inferior. I also realized, as I thought about it more, that my idea of a plot is pretty minimal. Someone mentioned Virginia Woolf; I really like her and think the interpersonal relationships she develops are plot enough. And have y’all seen the movie The Straight Story? Old guy drives across Iowa and Wisconsin in a tractor, meets people. Or Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine? Guy rides escalator, thinks about stuff. That’s more than enough plot for me.

So why did I get fidgety? (Because I did, I can’t take that back.) Were I to start my post all over again, I would have foregone the concept of plot (which I ran with as far as I could in my caffeine-addled state) for the looser idea of movement. Which allows me to say a more concise thing about How to Paint a Dead Man than I managed to before.

In essence, Hall’s concept runs into a paraphrase of the old expression: Writing about painting is like dancing about architecture, and it has to do with the way you experience the two forms. You take in a painting, to some extent, all at once. Sure, you may linger over it, examine details, return to it later, but the experience of looking at a painting or photograph is basically one point in time. A novel, meanwhile, is stubbornly linear–you can’t see the whole all at once, and grasping the whole requires time–a lot more time than most people would spend looking at one painting. So using one to mimic the other is, conceptually speaking, pretty awkward (unlike, say, books about music–see the entire 33 1/3 series–or paintings about a specific moment in history). Put another way: What would a single painting that tried to mimic the experience of reading a novel look like?

I’m not saying anything profound here, and I imagine Hall thought about this a great deal as she set herself a kind of impossible task, intentionally picking up the wrong tool for the job, like grabbing a screwdriver when you need to bang in a nail. That she pulled it off at all is a real achievement; that she did it so cleanly is pretty miraculous. (I say this as someone who has actually used a screwdriver to bang in a nail; it’s not a good idea.) But still, the two concepts, writing and painting, are awkward bedfellows, and what made me fidgety, I understand now, was the lack not of plot, but of apparent movement. For so much of the book, the main characters are trapped–Peter literally so, others figuratively, and yeah, the tension definitely builds because of it. Hall does release us from it–in the final sections for each character, each one is freed from whatever has been trapping them–but perhaps the characters were stuck just a little too long for this particular reader.

That said, reading what I wrote, I realize that this is a small complaint about an otherwise quite impressive novel. And the more I hear what others say about the book–both positive and negative–the more HTPADM is growing on me. I suspect, too, that HTPADM is a book that would richly reward a second or third reading. For me, a second reading would be all about exploring the connections among the characters — a few of which I missed the first time (e.g., that Tom is Annette’s brother — that was a real “of course!” forehead-slapper for me when a couple people mentioned it)–and it’s quite possible that this kind of reading would reveal in HTPADM the sense of movement that I like when I read books.

P.S. Miracle, I love that you lumped Atlas Shrugged, Gravity’s Rainbow, and Battlefield Earth together. That’s a beautiful thing. Also, I can’t believe you don’t think Zep rules.

Michael Schaub writes:

While trying to figure out what to write about this, I kept going back to Ed’s suggestion that we all respond to books subjectively, and Brian’s great “ambitious little prick” moment (awesome) where his professor talked about the difference, such as it is, between admiration and love. (Which is not to say the two are mutually exclusive.) After I finished reading How to Paint a Dead Man, I realized that I’d have to read everything else I could find by Sarah Hall. I realized she was an undeniable talent and an extraordinarily gifted young writer. I admire her.

And I admire parts of this book. But I didn’t like it at all. I didn’t enjoy it, though there were parts I found interesting, and sections that were beautifully rendered. My reaction comes closest, I think, to Jenny’s – she and I were bothered by at least one of the same things: the chapters dealing with Annette and Giorgio, which we both found artificial. I did think that Hall did a great job in making Giorgio’s sections sound like English translated from the Italian, which has to be hard to pull off, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the reclusive master painter and the poor blind flower girl were stock characters in an Italy-romanticizing movie from the past. I actually wasn’t convinced at all that Giorgio and Annette were necessary as characters in this novel; they struck me as flat, especially compared to how well Suzie was rendered (and, to a lesser extent, Peter).

I loved, for the most part, Suzie’s chapters. Like Abigail, I wasn’t bothered by the second person – frankly, I didn’t even really notice it for a while – and I thought the conceit made sense given the questions of identity and twinhood (is that a word? It is now!) that the book raised. The most striking parts of Suzie’s installments, I thought, were the sex scenes – not for any licentious reasons; it’s hard to imagine colder, less prurient writing about sex than these. I loved them because they were cold -– I think that’s a word Miracle used, aptly, to describe the book. My problem with the book as a whole was that when it was cold, I wanted it to be colder. And when it was warm and sentimental, I missed the coldness.

I wonder if the book wouldn’t have worked better –- for me, anyway -– if Hall had stuck to just Suzie. Of course, this would have made it a different book entirely, so it’s not the most helpful criticism to make. Peter’s chapters almost worked for me; I lost him, though, when Raymie was introduced as a character, near the end. Raymie couldn’t have been more flat – she came across like the saddest character in the saddest Velvet Underground song ever written. The whole ‘60s reminiscing thing left me unconvinced.

But I want to get back to Ed’s point about judging this book subjectively. I have no doubt that at least 90% of my reaction to this book – both negative and positive – is purely subjective, purely personal. For a long time, I’ve been unable to read books, watch movies, even listen to songs that mention the death of a sibling. I haven’t been as unlucky as Suzie, but I came close, not long ago, and considering this kind of thing still unsettles me, nauseates me, makes me turn away.

Is that why I found the book off-putting? I have no idea. I’ve considered other possibilities, especially after reading the positive reactions from all the intimidatingly smart people taking part in this discussion. There are very few subjects about which I know less than visual art; I love it, but I’m as unlearned as you can possibly be on the subject and still be a high school graduate. I’m an American with a pitiful lack of knowledge of Europe. Did any of that make me miss something?

I don’t know. And I hate to keep saying that -– it sounds, to me, like a critical abdication, but it’s where I am as a reader right now. I wonder, though – to paraphrase the “eggshell skull” rule in law –- if authors and books have to take their readers as they find them, with all their blind spots and vulnerabilities and fields of ignorance.

I do know that Hall is gifted, and I do look forward to reading her other work. I’d love to see her indulge her sense of humor more (did anyone notice the reference to a misheard Stone Roses lyric in one of Peter’s chapters?), and I’d love to see her focus more –- I think my problems with the book stem from the fact that Hall, I’m guessing, thinks quickly, and thinks a lot, and the end result here wasn’t as tied together as I would have hoped.

Maybe, of course, the fractured nature of this book was supposed to be discomfiting. It reminds me of Annette’s mother reassuring her that no furniture would ever be moved in the house: “Nothing will be rearranged. There. Doesn’t that make you feel safe?” Safety, it turns out, isn’t really the point.

Amy Riley writes:

This discussion has been very interesting to read, as I’m fairly certain I would never have even considered the majority of the points raised if I had simply read this on my own.  To be completely honest,  I may not have even finished the book.

Which is not to say I didn’t like it.  There were times I actually looked forward to turning the page.  On a few occasions, I thought about skipping ahead to the next section of whichever narrative I was on, because from a plot standpoint I didn’t think it would make a lot of difference.  

The use of second person didn’t bother me but I don’t know if that’s because I found Suzie’s narrative one of the more tolerable ones to read or not!  It did make sense to use it for her…after all in her opening pages is a discussion of how people don’t use “I’ anymore because they “do not want to be involved in the desperate act of being.’  Suzie fits right into that in her grief she has lost her sense of self and connection.  She was only “I’ in relation to Danny, once Danny was gone who was Suzie?   I also looked forward to Annette’s sections, though I found her death bizarre.  The overall structure…the fact that the individual stories were only loosely linked and spanned years wouldn’t bother me on it’s own and in fact was one of the reasons I wanted to read the book. I am generally drawn to explorations of how our lives intersect and how our actions impact each other.  I suppose the very subtle nature of that in this book made it more realistic, but I felt I like I really had to work for it.  And perhaps the loneliness and the isolation were so extreme that the small ways these lives did affect one another never penetrated through that shield.

Looking at the book as moving from frame to frame or as a stillpoint in each character’s life was helpful to me in understanding the book or what it aims to be.  I don’t have much understanding of visual art so I do fear much of that went right by me.  While I appreciate the skill this book must have taken, I have to agree it’s not really for the casual reader.  In fact, when I told a friend who had read this book that I’d be participating in a roundtable discussion, she seemed uncertain about what we would actually discuss.

Traver Kauffman writes:

Hey, kids. I just finished the book ten minutes ago, and I’m now ready to make dumb jokes about it. See, I used to have this somewhat credible litblog, and then this and that happened, and now I write limericks and go for cheap laffs. Which is unfortunate, because this is a serious book, right down to the author photo.

Which I love, by the way. It’s standard practice, in some corners, to objectify the attractive lady author, but I’m just not going to do that. Still, and honestly, I’m a little in love with this photo. I want to buy fresh peaches at the farmer’s market, stay up until the wee hours peeling the skins, and bake them into a peach crisp so I can serve it with fresh bourbon whipped cream to my love, this photo. I want this photo to recline on a bed in a cheap motel and unroll its torn black stockings slowly whilst I read Bukowski to it in a cigarette voice. I want to reform the Stone Roses and take this photo to our first show, where I’ll dedicate “I Wanna Be A Dog”…er…I mean “I Wanna Be Adored” to it. Yes.

Is this a good book? Pretty good. Not the sort of thing I’d typically reach for, and something I probably would have tossed aside if not for guilt associated with skipping yet another Eddie Champ-curated roundtable. But it does pick up considerably around page 90 or 100–I believe I made a note about this in my thinkspace at page 99–and wasn’t much of a slog from that point forward.

Cheap and easy judgment: Susan is OK; Peter is better. And, yes, Peter is a man from central casting, in some respects, but he did benefit the most from the novel’s structure, in my view. That is, his character deepened and changed most–benefitted most–from the tellings of the other individuals (save Annette, but more about her later). From the “Fool on the Hill” sections I never would have pegged him as an iconclastic artist–more of your all-purpose crank–but by the time Susan and Giorgio are through telling him, it’s clear he’s a fellow of some (apparently well-earned) genius and prestige.

Susan seems like she could have been interesting, had she not been obscured in fancy prose clouds of florid fucking. Again, this is competently and perhaps well-written sex, depending on your politics, but transcendence-by-prick isn’t my thing. The second person didn’t bother me at all, even though it seems like a curious authorial choice. We’re meant to share in her experience most intimately, even as co-conspirators, and therefore most painfully? I dunno.

(At one point, I had a writing advisor who told me in no uncertain terms that reading second-person narration is like being cornered by a drunk. Of course, he was drunk at the time and I was backed into a corner at the Union Club in Missoula, Montana, so take that as you will.)

Giorgio and Annette: where to begin? I think others have touched on it, so there’s not much point in my running down these sections. Gorgeous writing? OK. But this genteel exoticism didn’t do it for me, especially in the Annette sections. Aside from the kind of relentless otherness (by way of stereotype, as others have noted), these bit in particular suffered from needless obscurity that doesn’t plague the other sections. By the end, I wasn’t sure what had transpired, and, apart from my lifelong stance against anyone being rudely violated by a beast of any sort, I couldn’t bring myself to care.

Boiled down, we have here a book with an interesting structure and a writer of some considerable gifts. I just didn’t love it as much as I love that photo.

I leave the floor to my fellow commentators, both more serious and more estimable than I.

Abigail Nussbaum writes:

Brian mentions plot, and specifically the recent Grossman fracas, which reminds me that I never talked about my own reaction to the book as a whole.  I tend to think of myself as someone who reads for plot, but then a novel like Remainder, or City of Saints and Madmen, or Light, comes along and reminds me that that’s not at all true.  It would probably be closer to the truth to say that I find it easier to read for plot, but I suspect that’s true of most people – a plot-oriented novel carries you along with it, whereas a plotless one requires you to navigate your own way through it.  Still, when I turn the last page of a novel my first response is often to ask what happened there, and if the answer is nothing or very little I often find myself without a handle on the work, which is why I’ve so enjoyed this discussion while fearing that I wouldn’t have much to contribute to it.

All of which is a prelude to saying that, like Michael, I admired How to Paint a Dead Man but didn’t love it.  As reviewer, the novels that I enjoy reading and writing about most are the ones that offer an angle of approach from which to engage with them – not necessarily plot, but some element that fires up my imagination.  I tend to think of if in terms of chinks in the surface, handholds and footholds.  HtPaDM feels very smooth (though it might not to others, and particularly those with a background in visual arts), which leaves me admiring it as an edifice, but unable to grasp its component pieces.  And without doing that, I can’t love it.

That said, I don’t think HtPaDM is a novel that wants to be loved.  As Michael says, this is a cold, cold book, and even those parts of it that might have appealed to sentiment — Giorgio and Annette’s narratives — never achieve enough life of their own to be more than sentimental.  Peter is puppyishly lovable, but his narrative is mainly concerned with describing the worst things he’s ever done, and there’s something almost deliberately off-putting about his predicament – he’s in physical distress and in need of assistance, but we’re encouraged to believe, as he does, that he’s not in mortal danger (in fact we know that he isn’t because he’s still alive and apparently recovered – though he walks with a limp – at the time of Susan’s narrative).  So instead of arousing tension and distress, Peter’s injury is aggravating and frustrating – he’s simply stuck.  Finally, there’s Susan, of all the characters the one who most resists emotional connection, with the readers as much as with the other characters.  The only aspect in which Hall seems to be courting the readers’ affection is with her prose, which is indeed quite beautiful (though she tends to fall flat when describing sex – I don’t have the book in front of me but there were a couple of metaphors for bodily fluids that seemed more than a little off).

All of which brings us back to HtPaDM as a painting in prose – capturing a moment, and attempting to engage the readers’ affection not through plot or character or theme but through beauty and superior technique.  It works, I think, though still in the sense that I can’t love HtPaDM the way I love other novels (it’s not just that I’m unschooled in visual arts but that they don’t appeal to me.  I’m all about narrative arts, and even music isn’t an abiding interest), and I find myself going back and forth about it.  On one hand, I admire Hall’s guts for even making the attempt to court a kind of love that her medium isn’t suited to, much less for having the skill to pull it off.  On the other hand, I’m not sure such a chilly trick ought to be celebrated – it’s brave, to be certain, but in the final accounting the result isn’t really a novel.

The Bat Segundo Show: Jenny Davidson

Jenny Davidson appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #230. Davidson is most recently the author of The Explosionist.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Investigating the veracity of explosions.

Author: Jenny Davidson

Subjects Discussed: Coincidental run-ins, the necessity of war, Edmund Burke, philosophical asides, a novelist’s use of argument, Agatha Christie novels, John Buchan, ending chapters on cliffhangers, early 20th century British adventure fiction, alternate universes, Tolstoy as theologian, research undertaken years in advance of writing a novel, forgetting things one makes up, world-building as you go along, Michael Moorcock’s Hawkmoon, thought experiments, rationality vs. emotions, historical plausibility exemplified by electric kitchens, junk science, lie detectors, spiritualism vs. organized religion, Arthur Conan Doyle, Herbert Sidgewick, radios talking to ghosts, post-9/11 sensibility, danger of terroristic attacks in public places, narrative serving the needs of the world, novels as problem-solving exercises, tradeoff between security and civil liberties, fiction as a means of addressing political issues, productive forgetting, contemplation hindering the creative process, the internal responsibility to finish a trilogy, Margo Rabb, YA and genre categorization, voracious and eclectic reading, the difficulties of writing a good book, John Banville, cynical motivations for writing genre novels, freedom afforded by academic institutions, meaningful distinctions between YA and adult fiction, Philip Pullman, Garth Nix, whether authors should worry about book marketing, leaving publishing concerns to the experts, Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows, James Baldwin’s Just Above My Head, Sigmund Freud broadcasting via pirate radio, possible references to The Man in the High Castle and Brave New World, suicide booth trope in Golden Age SF novels, inventions by Alfred Nobel’s father, seals trained to drag bombs on ships, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Sherlock Holmes, exclamation marks, italicized words, exclamations as metaphor for genre writing, cockamamie explanations in the exposition, nostalgia for British children’s literature, ratio for invention and ambiguity, classroom scenes as an acceptable setting for fiction, reclusiveness, the enthusiasm and passion of boy characters, tension between female school roommates, Muriel Spark as a “great novelist of a small group”, sociological interest in dynamics of schools and boarding houses, Scottish dialect, peculiarities of diction, willful delving into uncomfortable territory, standing by sentences, emotional ethical questions about truthfulness, relationship between style and ethics, when writing is “too showy”, Thomas Paine, self-pity as antithesis to good writing, blindness to self-justifying elements of prose, Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels, Ernest Hemingway’s style, David Foster Wallace as self-parody, David Copperfield, the purity of the unwritten sentence.


Correspondent: Well, going back to one of the many questions that I just asked you about the idea of concocting this alternative universe, was it a matter of working within a loose world here? I mean, in a way, this book reminded me very much of a Michael Moorcock alternative history, like the Hawkmoon books that he wrote, which have only a few existing elements which suggest what may have happened. But it’s largely an excuse. This particular book gave Moorcock the freedom to explore this notion of ideas that have spun off into other terribly mutated forms. And I wanted to ask how this idea of worldbuilding relates to this idea of exploring ideologies, of which I plan to ask you more about.

Davidson: I think that’s a really fair description. And I find in my academic writing, as well as in my fiction writing, I’m strongly right now in a counterfactual mode, where it’s the thought experiment appeal. If this was different, and the thing that you make different — like, in this case, what if 1930s Scotland was still really being run in a way that was consistent with the ideals of the Scottish Enlightenment. No swerve into the 19th century and these different snails of thought. What if we really went back to those core ideas of rationality and the emotions? That was my most fundamental counterfactual for this novel. The set of questions that came up around that. And what if you were a teenage girl growing up in a country that was being run along those principles? That was at the core of my interest in the topic and what made me want to write the book. So the other stuff is for fun, and the stuff that comes up around that once you start thinking that way. But I guess in a sense, I’m not so much writing alternate history as a novel of ideas type thing. Where the premise of altering something in the past allows me to get a clear grip on some idea like that. I mean, I don’t know. I don’t know how we categorize these different genres anyway.

Correspondent: So you’re saying in the end that where it’s set, or when it’s set, really does not matter because it is a novel of ideas? Is that what you’re suggesting here? And that the world, or the alternative universe, is more of a fun component towards entering the story?

Davidson: Well, I think the sense that you get — at least I hope the sense that you get — I’m clearly a writer who is in love with densely realized and realistic particulars that are historically plausible in some sense. So that, for instance, the storeroom with the electric kitchens, and all the sense that electricity is transformative and the way of future — that’s very realistic. I mean, that was a real feature. And a lot of the things in the novel that seem slightly fantastical, I drew from historical sources. I don’t mean so much to say that it’s a novel of ideas, as I mean to say it’s more like regular historical fiction than alternate history. Because, in fact, in very many particulars, the world of Sophie’s 1938 Scotland is like the world of real 1938 Scotland.

BSS #230: Jenny Davidson

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Sven Birkerts and the Frightening Fitzroya

Being wrong is wonderful! It’s a bit like accidentally walking into a fitzroya and suddenly realizing that there’s this large evergreen that you didn’t know about. Suddenly, you’re forced to alter your existence to account for the fitzroya. And when you ponder the fitzroya a bit — as Darwin did, dutifully naming it in honor of the HMS Beagle’s captain — you begin asking a few questions. How did the tree get there? Why does it have such a mammoth diameter? And how can all this be used in tandem with other shards of understanding?

I suspect that Sven Birkerts is a man terrified of the fitzroya.

On Friday afternoon, I entered a Columbia University classroom. Birkerts had come into town for a debate with Jenny Davidson, moderated by Andrew Delbanco, styled Blogging: Good or Bad for Literary Culture? “I can’t tell if we’re positioned at odds,” whispered Birkerts to Davidson before the proceedings started, a foreshadowing of the stalemate to come.

The audience was composed of approximately twenty-five nimble-minded students, many of whom offered interesting inquiries. I felt a tad displaced wearing my The Brain That Wouldn’t Die t-shirt, but sitting in the front row with this sartorial choice seemed the right thing to do. As one of the “reputedly intelligent” figures mentioned in Birkerts’s 2007 Boston Globe article, I thought I’d see what this reputedly intelligent man had to say. After all, our man Sven had called the litblogosphere “too fluid in its nature ever to focus on widely diverging cultural energies” and railed against us being “predatory on print.” (Never mind that Birkerts, as a literary critic, is likewise predatory on print whenever he writes an essay concerning books.)

It should be self-evident by now that I find the idea of one form of writing deemed inferior solely on the basis of appearing in a different medium — whether it be a blog, a hypertext novel, or what not — to be an utterly ridiculous tautology. Sven Birkerts, I’m afraid to report, is a man who specializes in tautologies. This is not to suggest that he isn’t a smart man. Nor is he entirely against blogs. But he is certainly a weary man, a self-described “gradually graying book reviewer with several decades in the trenches.”

He opened his remarks by reading thoughts from a slightly crumpled piece of paper, hoping that in tossing around cerebral softballs, he could perform some off-the-cuff binomial expansion. Here were some of his phrases:

“A whole new paradigm of transmission.”

“We bring forward a technology. It begins to fashion and inform us.”

“Like the car, it has conditioned us and bent us to its shape.”

“The size an scope of an idea. Within the book, ideas formed in certain ways. Exigencies on the thinking life.”

“Notions of authority and gatekeeping and accountability.”

“The technology intricately bound to our mentality. All of the premises associated that will change.”

“One specific development within a very large, vastly distributed tendency fueled by the possibilities of the Internet.”

“Eroding the notion of the single subjective author as the locus of authority.”

“Organization now lateral and associative based on the link.”

“Loss of centralized top-down structure.”

And so on. Birkerts was much better speaking off the cuff. But one sees within this shaky torrent of phrases the main problem with Birkerts’s position. His complaints are centered exclusively around his own perceptive hang-ups. He did not cite any specific examples to justify his line of thinking. I pointed out to him that his gripes were primarily perceptive and conceptual, and he seemed to agree. Birkerts’s position was further parroted by Delbanco, who expressed a mild sense of terror at participating in a Slate roundtable because this involved sending his thoughts off into the ether. He was, however, slightly more open-minded than Birkerts. Slightly. Delbanco’s terror also equated to being unfamiliar with the form. It struck me that writers over a century ago must have had the same fear of the Remington typewriter that these guys have of the Internet today.

By far, the most reasonable participant was Davidson, who advocated blogging, but pointed out that blogging could not directly replace newspaper criticism. She pointed to both the constraints of word count within newspapers, and simultaneously observed that there were certain advantages of concision within the short-format blog post. She pointed to Caleb Crain’s behind-the-scenes approach to blogging, Colleen Mondor‘s well-rounded perspective, and numerous other blogs. She pointed to certain advantages to the blog form, including the ability to quote more of a textual example — something that newspapers were increasingly not in the habit of doing. I did hope that Davidson would be a little more contrarian about blogging. But unlike Birkerts, she had solid examples for her position. Birkerts, by contrast, essentially parroted the same stolid points over and over again, sounding very much like a broken 78.

I do not believe Birkerts to be an entirely inflexible intellect. He did address my line of questioning, which, in Birkerts’s defense, involved excessively effusive delivery on my part. But he did appear quite bored to be sitting in a Columbia classroom. When I came up to him afterwards, he wanted to get the hell away from me as quickly as possible. But I gave him my card.

It has become evident that the biggest problem with this “debate” is the surfeit of stubborn souls unwilling to consider the alternative form, whether it’s the blogger who refuses to consider the virtues of editing or thinking through his post a bit or the print advocate so terrified of anarchic fun that he cannot find it within himself to trust his instinct from time to time. I’d like to think that this can be bridged. But in the meantime, where does this leave the wondrous fitzroya?

(For another take on the talk, go here.)