The Bat Segundo Show: Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #432. He is most recently the author of The Fry Chronicles.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Basking in a pleasant tsunami of erudition.

Author: Stephen Fry

Subjects Discussed: Journalists who attack morally and spiritually, capitulating an iPhone, the number of gadgets that Fry carries on him, physical books vs. ebooks, high school physics lessons and vacillating ideas about the atom, books and mass, Anthony Powell’s Books Do Furnish a Room, technological developments and misunderstanding about replacement, ways in which technologies complement each other, the plight of newspapers, Page One, whether The New York Times is a trusted platform, accepting the fact that Gaddafi is dead, embedded journalists, Kickstarter campaigns and journalism, working for free in the post-Internet age, Fry’s presence on Twitter, Twitter vs. newspapers, not giving print interviews, the achievements of journalists, terrorists who rely on newspapers, the difficulties of not reporting serious changes to the Manhattan skyline, “cheating” on essays in school by writing them in advance, Fry’s ability to recall books by line number and specific edition, Shakespeare, hypothetical exam answers to Macbeth, the Wooly Willy, the pointlessness of exams, Fry’s love for technology, what education can learn from the ancient Greeks, the numerous intellectual trajectories which spring from coffee, Diderot, Secessionist Viennese coffeeshops, Gustav Klimt, the value of giving someone a single word to jump off from, Oscar Wilde’s “De Profundis,” Lord Alfred Douglas, the Oxford manner, education as “the ability to play gracefully with ideas,” intelligence rooted around connection, the No Child Left Behind Act, Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System, the etymology of “draconian,” vocational training, fruit trees, people who believe the Alps to be dull, those who blame teachers, having a busy schedule, Fry’s schedule vs. a politician’s schedule, not knowing things and greed, Fry’s shaky terpsichorean skills, humans and language, Steven Pinker, Guy Deutscher, how tenses imply futurity, animals and sex, the Phoenicians and writing, cuneiform and the alphabet, hip-hop, Fry’s rapping talent, forgetting to delight in the beauty of language, Wodehousian language rhythms and music, connections between Wodehouse, Cicero, and W.S. Gilbert, film adaptations of The Importance of Being Earnest, Jewish and gay identity, the linguistic roots of Shoah, 19th century anti-Semitism, meeting Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, playing Schumann’s Träumerei on the cello for Josef Mengele, when human beings are treated like machines, Hannah Arendt, Ring Lardner’s golden rule for screenwriting, political correctness, restrictions on the depictions of smoking in BBC documentaries and drama, Spooks, bizarre moral standards on British television, being exploited by Stephen Sondheim for a scavenger hunt, having a fax machine in the early days, Fry’s efforts to read Atlas Shrugged, the 1949 film adaptation of The Fountainhead, writing the book for Me and My Girl, the fine aural distinctions between a fax machine and a 56k modem, the 21st century audience for Ayn Rand, maniacal ideologies that don’t include joy or hope, the RAND Corporation, the Tea Party, reasonable addictions vs. extreme addictions, empathy, false categories when contemplating what it is to be human, Artistole’s “man is a political animal,” Kant’s symbolic logic, the behavioral thrust of David Hume, the readability of philosophers, TE Hulme’s influence on Pound and the modernists, moralists, Hulme’s “concrete flux of interpenetrating intensities,” humans being verbs rather than nouns, doctors and diagnosis-based language, referring to people by their condition, kindness and cheerfulness as essential virtues, eudaimonism, Mad cartoons, the “pay it forward” principle, Fry’s aborted career as a book reviewer, whether criticism is necessary, thick skins vs. thin skins, not wanting to hurt people’s feelings, Alec Guinness’s rude remarks to other actors, Paul Eddington, The Browning Version, Fry’s desire to play Crocker-Harris, pathetic efforts to be polite, Fry’s futile efforts to hawk his own book, teaching Aeschylus to inspire, cruelty, “Never presume to understand another man’s marriage,” ethics and absolute evil, Schindler’s Ark, the French Resistance bombing restaurants, Fry’s Apple zeal in relation to Foxconn abuses, suicides at Foxconn, Steve Jobs vs. Henry Ford, Brave New World, Godwin’s law, Apple’s business in China, overseas industrialization, Alms for Oblivion, and why Fry believes Simon Raven is better than Anthony Powell.


Correspondent: Tying these multifarious observations with what is in your book, I actually wanted to ask you about this intriguing period when you were at Cambridge. You describe how you were “cheating” on essays because you wrote all of the essays in advance in your head — to the point where you were able to cite chapter and verse.

Fry: Yes.

Correspondent: Specific lines down to the line number of Shakespeare. Specific critical reference works down to the publisher, the edition.

Fry: The review course.

Correspondent: Whether it was in trade or whether it was in hardcover. Rather extraordinary. And that you would actually tilt these essays in relation to the question that was asked of you.

Fry: That’s the point. Exactly. The point is: if you have an essay on Othello, if you have an essay on Anthony and Cleopatra — we’ll stick with Shakespeare just for the sake of a closed canon, so we can think about it — if you have an essay on Macbeth, you have a point of view. I know I can deliver 3,000 words very quickly on Macbeth if I know I can.

Correspondent: You have 45 minutes right now, man!

Fry: And the question is “The essence of Macbeth is the difference between the microcosm of Macbeth’s mind and the macrocosm of the real world,” say. Now that may not suit my thesis at all for Macbeth, which is actually to do with the way the poetry disintegrates as the play progresses. But I can make it exactly answer that question. You just have to polarize. You know, it’s like getting a magnet. Did you ever have it in — you probably were American. So I don’t know why I’m asking if you had them. Those little bald men with iron filings and a magnet and you used to make beards out of them.

Correspondent: That was, I think, before my time.

Fry: It probably was before your time. But that’s what you’re doing. You’re taking a magnet and you’re polarizing what you know. Now it’s kind of cheating. It’s not cheating really. Because I am passionate about Shakespeare. I love Shakespeare. But I’m very, very lazy when it comes to exams. And I also am aware that an examination is nothing other than the ability to pass an exam. And what use is that? You might as well say, “In order to qualify from Harvard University, you have to win a squash match. Or you have to do the best Lady Bracknell of your year. Then you’ll get your top degree.” But why is the ability to reproduce prepared pappy ideas about intellectual concepts on paper — why is that a good reason to give someone a job in a law firm, in Wall Street, or in a publishing company for that matter? And part of my love of technology, personally what I would love is, of course, to go all the way back to the days of ancient Greece where you had Aristotle and you had Plato and you had the Lyceum and you had the Academy. So you would actually have a master. And to me, this is how an ideal examination would go. It doesn’t matter what subject the person is reading, as we say in England, or studying, as you would say here. You would just say, “Coffee.” Now someone who’s reading history might just instantly start talking about the coffee shops and how they were banned by Charles II, how they then came back again under Queen Anne, and how they caused a movement with the coffee shops in Paris with Diderot and the Republic of Letters and Voltaire and the Enlightenment. Or they could talk about the Secessionist Viennese coffee shops of Mahler and Klimt and so on. And Stefan Zweig and the whole generation of intellectuals. Rilke and Kraus and so on. Or you could talk about coffee as: Is it an emulsion? Is it a solution? How is coffee grown? What is it as a cash crop? What is is politically? Ethically? That there are some countries who are not allowed to grow food that they can eat. They can only grow food that they can sell. Currency rates. It’s a geopolitical issue. You can talk about the history — here we are in a publisher’s office — about the coffee table book. You could talk about it as a medical student. You could talk about it as a stimulant. You could talk about caffeine.

Correspondent: Worker exploitation. Fair trade.

Fry: Yeah. Basically, what you want, if you’re examining someone, is just to give them a single word and watch them run with it. One of my absolutely favorite quotations — and I’ll try and get it right — is from “De Profundis,” the letter that Oscar Wilde wrote in prison to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. Bosie, as he nicknamed him. The man who basically destroyed his life. The boy who destroyed his life. And at one point, he’s talking about Oxford, and he’s saying, “The fact that you didn’t get a first-class degree is a disgrace. Many first-class minds never achieve first-class degrees. The fact that you didn’t get any degree at all is no disgrace. Many first-class minds never finish their course and get their degrees. But what to me, Bosie, is unforgivable is that you never achieved what I believe used to be called” — he put in inverted commas — “the Oxford manner.” And he then says, “Which I take to mean the ability to play gracefully with ideas.” Isn’t that the most beautiful definition of education you’ve ever heard? The ability to play gracefully with ideas! So whether the idea be coffee, whether it be paper, whether it be homosexuality, whether it be floorboards, it doesn’t matter. Because intelligence is about connection.

Correspondent: Yes!

Fry: So an exam question that just says, “Discuss Shakespeare’s use of imagery in Measure for Measure.” Well, gah! Come on.

Correspondent: But it’s actually much worse here in America. I’m sure you’re familiar with the No Child Left Behind Act, which is imposing these draconian standards and is absolutely convinced that all schools can offer 100% competence adhering to these standards. As a result — and there’s a great book by Diane Ravitch called The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

Fry: Oh yes. I’ve heard about it.

Correspondent: Which outlines exactly what’s been going on. Which means that if the school doesn’t meet these draconian standards, it gets sanctioned. It can fire teachers and administrators who are considered to be failures.

Fry: The pedant in me would say that Draco was a leader of the Greek Republic at a time when every single crime was punishable by death. Which is what “draconian” really means. And I’m sure it isn’t draconian in that sense. (laughs)

Correspondent: But when the Oxford manner is in opposition like this…

Fry: I know what you mean.

Correspondent: …it’s difficult.

Fry: And even more in opposition to that is the other group of people, which tend to be the right-wing industrial nexus. Whatever you might call them. Those who have influence over politics who say that education actually is irrelevant. What matters is vocational training. And so they want people with MBAs. They want people with apprenticeships. They want people who don’t have a wide, broad education and the ability to play with ideas, but who can do very specific things. Like training. It’s training. and think of that in terms of a tree. You know how you used to train a fruit tree against a wall. You straightened out its branches. [begins spreading arms] You stapled them to the wall. And that’s it. And it bears fruit very efficiently. Now we’re human beings. We’re not fruit trees. And we’re certainly not there to have ourselves straightened out to produce fruit for the state. We’re here to question, to wonder, to oppose.

Correspondent: But you are extending your arms very impressively, resembling a branch.

Fry: Thank you very much.

Correspondent: So I think that if you wanted to be a fruit tree, you could. You have a good line in that.

Fry: (laughs) I’ve certainly been a good fruit. Whether or not I’m a tree — well, of course, by their fruits, shall ye know them.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Fry: But the education point is a really interesting one. And I don’t know what the answer to it is. I think, oddly enough, if I am educated, if I have an education, it’s obviously one I’ve given myself. Because that’s what, by definition, what all educations are. You’re drawn out. Nothing’s put in. You’re not a bucket that is filled by a good teacher. And one of the saddest things is when people say, “Ah, well, Shakespeare was ruined for me at school. Because I had a terrible Shakespeare teacher.” I would say back to them, “Yeah. It’s the Alps for me. I had this awful geography teacher. I just find the Alps so dull. Because I had this awful geography teacher.” I mean, it’s ridiculous. I think it’s either beautiful or it isn’t. You can’t blame a teacher for not being able to communicate its beauty. I can look at the Alps and see that they’re beautiful. And if you can’t look at Shakespeare and see that it’s beautiful, don’t blame a teacher. Blame yourself for not looking hard enough. And I know people don’t want to hear that. But that’s the answer.

Correspondent: And you get into that in the book. And I actually wanted to discuss this further. I mean, I’m in agreement that, okay, we are in a world of riches. We have more information available to us than at any point in human history. But at the same time, learning about apple trees, Shakespeare, or what not, this requires time. And if you are someone who is working two jobs, who is raising a kid, how do you factor that into your dismissal of…

Fry: I like that. Because I’m a gay actor who doesn’t do much…

Correspondent: (laughs) No, no, no. It’s not that at all.

Fry: No. I know you weren’t. But it is funny. I have to say — and I don’t mean this in a boastful way, but I have yet to share diaries with someone who is busier than I am. Including politicians. I’ve had meetings recently. I’m trying to get…

Correspondent: (laughs) Including politicians? Like who?

Fry: Well, they always say that every single hour of every day is taken up by…

Correspondent: Even the bathroom breaks and all that.

Fry: Yeah. Etcetera. And, of course, they are to some extent. But they’re not busier than me. Because that’s actually all stuff that’s done. And then when it’s done, it’s done. If you’re a writer and you have other things, it’s never finished. And I am a very, very busy person. But you may notice I’m quite tubby. It’s because I’m greedy. And if people say they don’t know anything, it’s only because they’re not greedy. They’re not greedy for knowledge. Sometimes an image I give is — imagine that the Mayor of Washington was told when he was a child, “Go to London. Because the streets are paved with gold.” If he knew that in every city, the sidewalks, as you call them here — the pavements were piled high with gold coins and it made a noise. It made a kind of clashing noise as you shuffled your way through it. And it was terrible. And you bumped into a beggar standing with his hat out, saying, “Please. Please. Give me some money. I’m poor. I can’t eat.” You’d look at him and go, “What? Look around you! Just bend down and pick it up!” And that’s what I feel when people say, “Oh, it’s all right for you. You went to Cambridge and were taught things. Oh, why can’t I? I don’t know about this stuff.” I just want to say, “Bend down and pick it up.” It’s never been more available. All it takes is greed. Curiosity.

Correspondent: You are in a country where most Americans don’t have a passport. You are in a country where they actually don’t know these options. I’ll give you a perfect existential example of my own. So the New York Public Library — if you go in that marvelous reading room, it’s capacious. Tables. Everything. It’s like, “Of course! I’m going to study. Because this is an environment totally made to not slack off in any way.” Right? But if you try to find a seat at a coffeehouse now, every single table is completely filled up with people with their laptops. And there’s often people who sit down and they have this board meeting vernacular. And you can’t get anything done. I mean, it’s to the point where it’s almost a Trail of Tears-like situation for me and my friends.

Fry: (laughs)

Correspondent: We have to go to the next coffeehouse before they discover it! But you can pretty much almost always get a seat at the New York Public Library. And the question is: What do we do to restore the balance? To get people understanding that, yes, the streets are paved with informational gold if you go and reach down and pick it up. What do you think?

Fry: To me, this is simply prejudice. It’s prejudice that comes from the gifts that nature never gave me. And they were coordination and music. Although I love music and I’m passionate about music and I listen to music every day and I collect music. I have musical heroes that are distinct and different. You may know that I made a film about Richard Wagner, which is very important to me. Partly because as a Jewish person, Wagner is always going to be traumatic if you love him. Because he was such a bestial anti-Semite. Of course, that was not his fault. Because he died fifty years before — literally fifty years before Hitler became Vice-Chancellor of Germany, who of course adored Wagner too. So I do love music. But I can’t do it. I can’t perform it. I can’t sing. I can play the odd note on the piano.

Correspondent: But can you dance?

Fry: Absolutely cannot dance! I can’t even begin to put myself in a position.

Correspondent: Have you tried to take ballroom dance lessons?

Fry: I would hate it! I would loathe it!

Correspondent: Come on, Stephen! Pick it up! The dance is right there! (laughs)

Fry: If you read my book, you would know my physical self-consciousness is extreme.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Fry: But bad as this sounds, and this is no complaint, the fact that I was so incompetent, so uncoordinated physically, so ungifted musically, meant that all I had to give myself any pride was language. It’s all I had. And the odd thing is that’s all any of us have. It is the miracle of the human species.

The Bat Segundo Show #432: Stephen Fry (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Wayne Koestenbaum

Wayne Koestenbaum appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #423. He is most recently the author of Humiliation.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Fully considering the witnesses.

Author: Wayne Koestenbaum

Subjects Discussed: Whether a deliberate slander of a surname is a humiliation, the three components of humiliation (victim, abuser, and witness), the differences between recorded humiliation and experiential humiliation, spectacles of martyrdom, preexisting humiliation and statutes of limitation, edicts of instantaneous revocation, Koestenbaum’s use of triangles to uphold book concepts, itemizing shameful personal anecdotes, self-excavation as a writer, the pleasure of sentence making, being eons away from publication, rousing one’s self from stupor through stimulated memories, glimmerings that regurgitate and abreact, Koestenbaum’s obsession with a paddled third-grader, shifting personal anecdotes around to serve the narrative and whether this cheapens it, life as an experience of first times, Freud’s cathexis, cheapening vs. coarsening, what Koestenbaum doesn’t write about, Koestenbaum’s uncertainty in knowing whether or not he humiliates his own parents, growing up in a family where disclosure is normal, observing a large woman who urinates in the middle of a sidewalk, Edith Massey, Female Trouble, parodying Russ Meyer, John Waters as instigator of a cinematic spectacle, being simultaneously atrocious and radiant, Divine, fecal doppelgangers, honesty vs. humiliation, displaying one’s body, David Foster Wallace’s “Big Red Son,” the genuine facial expression of a person in orgasm, Anita Bryant being pied, pornography and humiliation, seeing the malevolent as human, the draw of Liza Minnelli videos, the human duty to understand multiple perspectives, an artificially polarized theater of affect, Freud and children getting beaten, being kind to the humiliated, finding Alec Baldwin sexually attractive, Alec Baldwin as a macho ego ideal, rejecting tabloid culture, the scapegoating culture, the London riots, privileged humiliation, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, the Jim Crow gaze, Abu Ghraib, Michael Jackson, whether Osama bin Laden was humiliated because America withheld the photo, Annie Leibovitz taking photos of Susan Sontag’s corpse, David Rieff, respecting evil historical figures, whether Shakespeare humiliated language, Basquiat striking out words in his paintings, Finnegans Wake, humiliation vs. a sense of wonder, radical muscularity within language, “Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang,” logocide, writing with physical pleasure, humiliation vs. sorting out thoughts, critiquing the sign system of American power, writing on paintings, wrongness as the new gold standard, Gertrude Stein, “maltitude,” well-done violent movies, John Woo, major human dynamics at stake, behavioral options when responding to assholes, Eleanor Roosevelt’s “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent” maxim, humiliation and consent, Freud’s anti-Semitic experiences, writerly failure, vengeance, TC Boyle’s “Bury your enemies,” and aggression in writing.


Correspondent: In “Catheter,” you write at the end, “I have a noble aim: to urge you to be kind when you see someone humiliated, even if you think that the shamed person deserves punishment.” When you find someone like Alec Baldwin sexually attractive and, in your own words, “wondering why I agree to occupy this role rather than refuse it by vowing to ignore the tabloid trade of trashing the stars,” I’m wondering if you are being kind to Alec Baldwin. If you don’t know the figure who is being humiliated, if you’ve never met them, can you always be kind? I’m curious about this.

Koestenbaum: You mean, is that like the tree falling in the forest thing? Like if I’m kind to Alec Baldwin by not reading a scandalous story about him, how will he know I’m being kind?

Correspondent: That, and also this compelling allure of participating in that culture. I mean, when that whole thing came out, I heard about it from friends. But I made a conscious choice not to participate in it. Because I just felt that it wasn’t worth my time. I’m only getting one side of the story. I don’t know Alec Baldwin. I like him as an actor, but, you know, what business is it of mine? You know what I mean? So as a result, it seems to me that you’re finding or you’re vacillating with “Should I participate?” To be or not to be.

Koestenbaum: Right. Okay, I will say that I totally get your point. That you’re talking about the kind of conscientious objection to or an abstaining from the gladiatorial carnival of consuming celebrity carrion.

Correspondent: Absolutely.

Koestenbaum: And I understand that. I would say that in my life, I have made a few golden exceptions to that rule because of deep libidinal and imaginative connections that I had. And so for example, having written a whole book about Jackie Onassis, that’s a case where I flagrantly did not abstain from the national profession of consuming images of Jackie. I indulged it. But that’s because I had deep unconscious motives. And I felt that much for me was personally at stake in pursuing that obsession. In the case that you’re mentioning, where you like Alec Baldwin as an actor but you don’t have strong feelings about him, it’s not a difficult thing for you to abstain. For me, like Alec Baldwin, I didn’t consume it as deeply originally as I did when I decided to write about it. But I do have a kind of long-standing crush on Alec Baldwin. I’ve interviewed him. I wrote about him in my book Cleavage a little. “My Evening with Alec Baldwin.” We’re the same age. He is a kind of weird hectoring ego ideal — hectoring isn’t the right word. I mean, he seems like a kind of bossy guy. He’s a kind of macho ego ideal for me. So I have — he’s a — I agreed, agree I have cast him in my drama, but, yeah, I’m using him as a teaching point.

Correspondent: But how can you be kind? I mean, I think you nailed it on the head there by pointing out and being fully candid about the fact that there’s an allure there. There’s a sexual attraction there. He forms an imaginary impulse for all sorts of things in your mind. Which is perfectly fine and that’s completely understandable. But at the same time, can you also be kind when you have that going on as well? It’s almost as if this is another instigation point for humiliation.

Koestenbaum; Right. No, no, no, I will say then that, toward Alec Baldwin, perhaps I have not been supremely kind. But I’m not alone. And I would like to think — maybe I’m dreaming — I would like to think that I’m placing the whole Alec Baldwin crease within a really large cultural context of these kinds of spectacles. And I’m reviewing, I’m saying on the one hand I get a sort of sadistic erotic relish from this. And then on the other hand, I wish to abstain from the process of scapegoating others. I’m never saying he’s a bad father. There’s never a moment where I pass judgment on him. I’m commenting instead on his use of the word “humiliating” in the thing to his daughter. It’s hard for me to really explain this, except to say that I’m not making judgments about Alec Baldwin. I’m making judgment about the star culture and the culture of scapegoating.

Correspondent: It can be argued that the London riots, which occurred a few days ago at the time of this conversation, that they arose because you have the poor, the young, the disenfranchised given no choice. Essentially they are humiliated. Thus, you have revolt from humiliation. You touch upon this very early in the book where you deal with revolt, activism, and uprising as a response to humiliation. You conclude that, “Choosing homicidal martyrdom as a response to historical humiliation, I become a suicide bomber.” What of this space in between which causes riots? Very often you have no progress but more of the same. How do you reconcile? What we’ve been talking about here is essentially privileged humiliation vs. an unprivileged humiliation in which it’s unrest or activism.

Koestenbaum: That’s a really — I mean, I don’t have profound or definitive things to say. That’s a moral conundrum for deeper minds than mine. Honestly. But in a way, it’s the question of a justified violence or of revolution, a violent revolution. And when it’s justified or it’s not. And who is to decide when it’s justified. That’s a big question. And I think it’s — I want to say case by case. I would hesitate to make any generalizations about revolution. I think I talk about what I call the Rosa Parks principle, where humiliation leads to uprising and activism or Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth. But let’s just call it the suicide bomber or the terrorist question. I don’t want to say pro-terrorist things. Because I don’t really feel very pro-terrorist.

Correspondent: But you are willing to confront what you call the Jim Crow gaze. That look where someone looks at another person as if there is nothing there. Complete invisibility. Entirely because of race and also often because of class or because of sexual orientation or what have you. It seems to me that this willingness on your part to tackle this difficult question doesn’t necessarily make your views on humiliation legitimate or transferable from this place of privilege and this place of media obsession to this really stark territory of “How do I get by when I don’t have any options on the streets?”

Koestenbaum: Right.

Correspondent: No thoughts in terms of the Jim Crow gaze in comparison to the Alec Baldwin stuff we were talking about before?

Koestenbaum: It’s a really — I mean, I talk about both things in the book. Because it seems that with the title and a subject like humiliation, I have a feeling I don’t want to write a book just about the Alec Baldwin things. That’s only one question that interests me. And I was just as much motivated to write this book by the Abu Ghraib things. But as I say, very honestly, there were three catalysts: Clinton, Michael Jackson, and Abu Ghraib. They have very little to do with each other. But there is a kind of spectrum where all three instances involve the United States, power, scandal, and sex. Or the sexualizing of — I don’t know. I don’t want to say glib or wrong things.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Koestenbaum: I try in this book through the use of these numbered fragments to keep as separate as possible some of these kinds of instances for exactly what you’re suggesting. That it’s not possible to map what you’re calling “privileged humiliations” or, as I describe on my own, having had a relatively humiliation-free and lucky life, nonetheless I could go into this litany of my humiliations. I don’t want to say that all suffering is the same.

Correspondent: Life is not a comparison of horrors. That kind of thing.

Koestenbaum: No.

Correspondent: Well, let me try to get on this from another angle. You had mentioned very early on — and I was actually going to bring this up too — the photos that Annie Leibovitz took of Susan Sontag. The Osama bin Laden execution. There was no photo of a dead body. Saddam Hussein’s execution, we do get to see him. Now you write of Leibovitz taking photos of Sontag’s corpse, as we said earlier, quoting David Rieff, who said that she was humiliated posthumously. So the question is, if one doesn’t have the choice of seeing the photos, is it still possible to humiliate the object or the person? Was the decision, for example, to not release the Osama photos a more respectful choice? Or was it possibly something — by not giving Americans the option to humiliate or to not humiliate, maybe it was almost a dishonest choice. What do you think about that?

Koestenbaum: Yeah. I mean, I don’t want to chicken out of a question But I can’t. I don’t know — do I really want to talk about the Osama bin Laden photos? It feels way beyond what I can speak about responsibly in a way.

Correspondent: Even if you were also simultaneously asking us to feel kindness for those who are absolutely terrible as well.

Koestenbaum: Yeah. I mean, the only reason I say I don’t want to — it just seems — just because I wrote this book, it doesn’t mean I feel that I’m an expert on the world’s atrocities or am some extraordinary moral barometer in a way. The question has a lot of responsibility tied into it. As if because I mentioned the Susan Sontag photos in the book, I’m automatically going to have an opinion about the Osama bin Laden photos. Which I don’t. I mean, basically, I don’t have a stand about “Yes, release all photos” or “No, don’t release all photos.” Maybe I don’t understand your question.

Correspondent: Maybe the direct question to ask you is: Is Osama worthy of the same respect if someone is being humiliated as David Rieff suggested of Sontag?

Koestenbaum: Well, is that then the question of, like, “Is it possible to imagine Hitler had a mother and that she loved him?” And that’s again a question way too complicated to know the answer to. Is it possible to include in the human family some of the worst people? And I do say in the book that when I imagine or see a serial killer led to his execution, whimpering, I feel clemency rise within me. Yeah, I have that impulse. I bet you do too, if you’re asking the question. Yeah, I do have that impulse.

The Bat Segundo Show #423: Wayne Koestenbaum (Download MP3)

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When the Flock Changed: David Foster Wallace & Maud Newton

In a recent piece for The New York Times, Maud Newton makes the suggestion that David Foster Wallace’s essays — more than Cheetos, beer, amusing cat videos, and Jolt Cola — are largely to blame for chatty Internet discourse. Newton suggests that Wallace’s “Tense Perfect” (a review of Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage collected in Consider the Lobster as “Authority and American Usage”) is “as manipulative in its recursive self-second-guessing as any more straightforward effort to persuade.” She tries pinning the mimetic transmission of Wallace’s syntax on “Dave Eggers’s literary magazine and publishing empire,” but doesn’t offer a single example (save for Eggers’s “Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of This Book,” a citation so overbroad that it can equally apply to the notice about shooting anyone in search of a plot at the head of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). Newton cites David Foster Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram” as the “ur-text of this movement,” but fails to establish much beyond cannibalizing a thoughtful Keith Gessen essay from eleven years ago (as well as its AO Scott antecedent). She then concludes that “the idea of writing is to provoke and persuade, not to soothe. And the best way to make an argument is to make it, honestly, passionately, without regard to whether people will like you afterward.”

It’s too bad that Newton lacks the logos and the level head to heed her own advice, and that she can’t level with us about her bilious biases. Conflation is not persuasion, nor is cleaving to one’s syntactic prejudices a reliable way of responding to an argument. Newton’s essay comes off as the work of a careless and needlessly furious blogger who has been given an unanticipated platform, not someone who takes the art of writing (and thinking about writing) seriously. There are numerous problems with her argument, as sloppy and as derivative in its thinking as the self-congratulatory folderol Newton claims to have abandoned during an apparent halcyon intellectual period sometime after the age of 20, where she “was forced to confront serious practical and ethical questions” in law school. (Those ethics took Newton a long way in 2008, when Newton was offered a paid junket trip to England by a publisher, and, by her own admission, accepted the quid pro quo “within a half-hour of receiving the offer.”)

Like any common and overworked lawyer massaging boilerplate from practice guides, much of Newton’s “argument” about Wallace’s regular guy schtick has been cribbed from this 2002 Languagehat post. Newton complains of the “I’m-just-a-supersincere-regular-guy-who-happens-to-have-written-a-book-on-infinity approach.” Languagehat’s Stephen Dodson complains that “[t]his sort of smarmy regular-guy rhetoric from someone who knows you know he’s a famous author and who is setting himself up as an all-knowing authority makes me sick.” Dodson, however, had the decency to be transparent about his fury, confining his gripes to the article in question. What’s especially striking is that Newton, cognizant that she is writing for The New York Times, adopts the self-same “regular gal schtick” for her piece. And it is with this simplistic stance that Newton reveals her reductionist stature as a thinker.

Instead of using specific examples to provide a helpful lexical lineage for her claims (citing, for example, the very blogs impaired with Wallace-inspired banter), Newton offers little more than unfounded and dimly ironic speculation that has nothing to do with Wallace:

I suppose it made sense, when blogging was new, that there was some confusion about voice. Was a blog more like writing or more like speech? Soon it became a contrived and shambling hybrid of the two. The “sort ofs” and “reallys” and “ums” and “you knows” that we use in conversation were codified as the central connectors in the blogger lexicon. We weren’t just mad, we were sort of enraged; no one was merely confused, but kind of totally mystified. That music blog we liked was really pretty much the only one that, um, you know, got it. Never before had “folks” been used so relentlessly and enthusiastically as a term of general address outside church suppers, chain restaurants and family reunions. It’s fascinating and dreadful in hindsight to realize how quickly these conventions took hold and how widely they spread. And! They have sort of mutated since to liberal and often sarcastic use of question marks? And exclamation points! “Oh, hi,” people say at the start of sentences on blogs, Twitter and Tumblr these days, both acknowledging and jokily feigning surprise at the presence of the readers who have turned up there.

Let’s do the work that Newton couldn’t be bothered to do. Because if you’re going to promulgate information about the methods and manner in which people use language, then it’s important to consider the whole larder.

One can spend a lifetime ruminating upon “uh” and “um,” which psychologists have recently suggested play roles as conversational managers. But what Newton is trying to peg here is speech disfluency — specifically, those fillers often emerging as one is deliberating over a thought. Fillers hardly originate with Wallace, nor are they confined to English. To offer one historical example, here’s some glorious dialogue from The City Wives’ Confederacy — a 1705 play written by Sir John Vanbrugh:

Cor. Let me read it, let me read it, let me read it, let me read it, I say. Um, um, um, — Cupid’s — um, um, um, — Darts, um, um, um, — Beauty, — um, — Charms, — um, um, um, — Angel, — um, — Goddess, — um, [Kissing the letter.] um, um, um, — truest Lover, — um, um — eternal Constancy, — um, um, um, — Cruel, — um, um, um, — Racks, — um, um, um — Tortures, — um, um, — fifty Daggers, — um, um, um, — bleeding Heart, — um, um, — dead Man, — Very well, a mighty civil letter, I promise you; not one smutty word in it: I’ll go lock it up in my comb-box.

For full effect, try reading that passage aloud. What sounds seemingly annoying in textual form becomes positively poetic as you’re saying it. But Vanbrugh didn’t stop there. We find this exchange in Scene II:

Mon. Um — a guinea, you know, Flippanta, is —
Flip. A thousand times genteeler; you are certainly in the right on’t; it shall be as you say — two hundred and thirty guineas.
Mon. Ho — Well, if it must be guineas — Let’s see — two hundred guineas —
Flip. And thirty; two hundred and thirty.

Now imagine that some snotty journalist or critic had told Vanbrugh that he couldn’t use “um” or “you know” or “let’s see” in his dialogue because, if he had published these words, they might be codified as the central connectors in the theatrical lexicon. If Vanbrugh’s dialogue had been scrubbed, how then might we have known — in a time before movies, gramophones, and computers — how people talked? One can hardly imagine reading masterpieces like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Finnegans Wake in anything other than their unique patois. Therefore, should one be so needlessly tendentious when it comes to blogs?

Newton’s feckless fig isn’t really about what Wallace (or any blogger) has to say. It’s about how they say it. As anyone who has waded through academic papers knows, there are often brilliant kernels contained inside dense and impenetrable style. But a person of true and eclectic intellectual rigor wouldn’t hold the thinker accountable based solely on the syntax.

Since Newton is unable to establish a clear connection between Wallace and “the stylized mess that is Gen-X-and-Y Internet syntax” (and unable to comprehend that many of these syntactical eccentricities have recirculated for centuries), we are therefore forced to conclude that Newton is needlessly hostile to any sentence that isn’t written in the plain and vanilla language that she holds so dear to her cold and humorless heart.

This is the position of a lexical reactionary, not just a Wallace hater. Because if Newton were genuinely interested in language or people or the often magical way that words are transmitted in our culture, she wouldn’t be so quick to condemn. She would actually do the legwork and use these findings to offer a persuasive argument instead of outsourcing it to her readership (“Visit some blogs…to see these tendencies writ large,” “The devices can be traced back to him, though…,”). Is that not persuasion? But Newton isn’t interested in listening to anything other than the sound of her own voice — the vitiated “plain question and plain answer” ideal plucked from Life on the Mississippi that, in Newton’s uncomprehending hands, becomes more inimical than imitable. She doesn’t understand that distinct writing can often be forged from imitation — as the many fresh talents who have mimicked Hemingway (Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, Hunter S. Thompson) can attest. And in telling New York Times readers that imitation and repetition are wrong or “dreadful in hindsight,” Newton reveals herself to be committed to the act of expressive conformity. The Newtonian ideal, rooted in misanthropic nihilism, leaves no room for prototypes or apprenticeship — even though, having shed the burden of “her own archives,” she cannot actually lodge a proper argument here. In short, Maud Newton has transformed into a cultural atavist who argues along the lines of Lee Siegel. You can respond to her argument, but only using the words and the terms that she has established. (And as Joe Winkler has argued, why should Wallace be judged by foreign standards?)

When contemplating the state of culture and language, it helps to view the reuse of expressive terminology through context. A helpful linguistic anthropology volume authored by Alessandro Duranti suggests that “Oh, hi!” has been in use — largely over the telephone or after an awkward social encounter — decades before Wallace published a single word. “Oh, hi!” is modeled on “Ah ciao!” “Oh” initially appeared before “hi” when the answerer awkwardly attempted to return a greeting without knowing the greeter’s name. So it makes sense that someone using Twitter or Tumblr, unaware of the sheer scale of readers, would start a post this way. (And to return to Gessen’s essay, this might very well reflect his humorous aside that “in the long run books are not written for the editors of prestigious magazines or the professors of fashionable theories.” In other words, speculating on a readership is best left to the crass and artless marketers.)

Newton is right to suggest that the intersection between writing and speech is what led to the early conversational feel of blogs, but she never considers the possibility that those who were sending their thoughts and feelings into the electronic ether truly had no idea who they were reaching. (On the “Oh, hi” question, she does concede midway through the piece that those who write this way may be simultaneously “acknowledging and jokily feigning surprise.” But observe the strange suspicion here. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. It’s telling that Newton’s article offers no space for sincerity, that the Newtonian ideal involves directness without nuance or irony.) She assumes that most of the early bloggers were readers of Wallace and Eggers, rather than those who may very well have left the house and conversed with fun and interesting people. It doesn’t occur to Newton that, in using words like “folks,” bloggers were using the very voices they might employ in everyday conversation. And just as we’ve seen in the Vanbrugh play, the Internet’s early days (at least, what we’ve been able to preserve of them) offer us an unprecedented treasure trove of how certain phrases and words made their way into our vernacular. Much as digital cameras have ushered in an age that is the most photographed in human history, digital conversation has afforded us an equally vast and limitless tapestry.

So Newton’s blinkered prohibition of “folks” outside of some implied Midwestern setting is not only needlessly condescending, but it suggests that writing in one’s voice is rooted almost exclusively in mimicking trendy magazine articles rather than responding to conversational cadences. This isn’t a question of being liked or craving admiration and appeal. It’s about speaking in terms that keep the conversation, whether contentious or conciliatory, alive.

Internet culture was built in large part by smart people being trapped in soul-sucking jobs and desiring to connect with others. In “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace identified television as “an absolute godsend for a human subspecies that loves to watch people but hates to be watched itself.” The time has certainly come to unpack some of these arguments into something that includes the Internet’s complexities. But Newton isn’t sharp enough to build from Wallace’s points, even as she disagrees with him. She cannot, for example, consider the obvious truth that, in an era of Twitter and Google Plus, the watchers have become the watched. Rather than serving up a plainspoken exemplar within her essay that articulates an original point and lives up to her declared ideal (or puts her on the line, as Zadie Smith did in her Facebook essay when confessing “not being liked is as bad as it gets”), the great irony here is that Newton herself has soothed her readership using the very methods that Wallace (and Newton in failed ironic mode) condemned. Newton, by publishing her essay at The New York Times instead of her blog, craves the very admiration and approval she dismisses as toxic. She wants to be read, but she is not especially interested in practicing the very intellectual rigor she champions. Because if she were, she would be crystal-clear in establishing her terms. She cannot identify even one of the many critics “making their arguments in this inherently self-undermining voice.” Who are these mysterious Wallacites wandering in the woods? Do they have axes and are they killing bitter attorneys who can’t finish their novels (and have an infuriating need to report constantly on this)? Does Newton really think so little of Wallace readers or bloggers that she cannot consider the possibility that they may very well be influenced by other authors? She thus undermines her own argument.

Newton’s spectacular failure to consider these subtleties may have something to do with not steeping herself in Wallace’s complete catalog. The phrases “plus, worse,” “pleonasm,” and “What this article hereby terms a ‘Democratic Spirit'” come from the very essay (“Tense Perfect”) she commends as “one of his best and most charming essays,” yet not from the same paragraph. “Totally hosed” comes from the famous 2005 Kenyon commencement. In other words, the only four Wallace texts that Newton has consulted for her piece are three essays: “E Unibus Pluram” (1993), “Authority and American Usage” (1999), “Big Red Son” (1998), and the Kenyon address. It seems to me that if you’re going to do a David Foster Wallace takedown, you should rely on a good deal more than the usual greatest hits. That’s a bit like writing about the Beach Boys when you’ve only heard “Good Vibrations” once.

Newton’s piece is less about offering a new argument or repudiating an old one, and more about expressing an uninformed position on Wallace and linguistics. It’s about standing against the possibilities of language and ideas. It’s about dictating the terms of how one should think while disingenuously suggesting that the reader can think for herself.

That’s a skill set that comes quite naturally to an embittered tax attorney. But it’s somewhat amazing that such a misleading and superficial approach would be welcomed by the ostensible Paper of Record.

UPDATE: Some additional responses:

(1) The New Inquiry‘s Matt Pearce, who notes that “Newton’s criticism obscures the fact that she and Wallace have more in common on intellectual honesty and integrity and straightforwardness than her essay lets on.”

(2) Callie Miller, who writes, “Life is short, wars are being fought, loved ones are dying every day…must we really be so intense about our books?” That’s a very good question.

(3) Alexander Chee, who agrees more with Maud Newton than I do, writes that Wallace “was a writer whose work gave back a vision of the world that pierced the scrim of the fear we were all feeling. If we imitated him, or imitated each other imitating him, really, I think we did it because of how we all wanted to find our way through. But it became like a game of telephone, but with style, and what had once been able to clarify something soon obscured them.”

(4) Glenn Kenny, who worked at Premiere when “Big Red Son” came in, clarifies what Wallace meant by the “sort of almost actually” fillers that Newton bemoans: “Each one, as we see, serves a different function, or I should say, implies a different state of mind, and each state is competing with the other. By the point in the essay at which the description of Goldstein arrives, the reader ought to have sussed out that Wallace has some very substantial problems with both pornography and the industry that produces it. But he’s also been bracingly honest about the attraction that walks hand in hand with his repulsion, and when he’s not going at his subject with something resembling all-out disgust (as in the passages about Paul Little, a.k.a. Max Hardcore), there’s a bracing and troubled honesty at work here, as in all of Wallace’s essayistic work, a desire to get at moral truth without being, well, moralistic; and a constant ambivalence.”

(5) CulturePulp’s Mike Wallace writes: “But for Maud Newton to also join a parade of lesser writers staking out lit-cred for themselves by throwing the freshly dead Wallace under the bus — and then to passive-aggressively blame him for all sorts of not-his-fault jackassery — is for me to sort of politely tell Maud Newton to piss off.”

(6) Matt Kiebus: “If Ms. Newton wants to live in a world where people make arguments ‘straightforwardly, honestly, passionately and without regard to whether people will like you afterward,’ that’s her choice. And although I think she may need a fucking time machine to find the world she’s looking for, I still respect her opinion.”

(7) The Oncoming Hope: “Newton seems to conflate unserious language with Southern dialectical norms, which is all the more surprising given how many times she’s blogged about the liveliness of Southern Texan vernacular.”

(8) Weeks later, the Huffington Post‘s Omer Rosen begins a multi-part offering (with Casey Michael Henry) on David Foster Wallace’s appropriation.

The Mysterious Origins of “Oh Snap!”

Is it possible that the 1910 children’s novel, The Bobbsey Twins at School, was a prescient influence on hip-hop?

“Oh, Snap! Snap!” cried Freddie. “Don’t go there!” But Snap kept on, and Freddie, afraid lest his pet dog be bitten, caught up a stone and threw it at the place.

Probably not. But “Oh snap!” and “Don’t go there!” were clearly phrases that begged to be loosened into the English language. And they both made their way into the American vernacular through hip-hop.

This article concerns “Oh snap!” — that handy phrase which accompanies a moment of consternation or a dutiful dissing. The phrase has seen more frequent use in mainstream media, and, in 2009, it is just about at the point where “My bad” was in 2004. Here again, we have two words that linger in popular culture well past their shelf life, a term that once populated the lingua franca of a minority subculture and that is now loosened from the lips of Caucasians who think they are in the know.

But where did “Oh snap!” came from? And why did it take two decades to establish itself prominently in mainstream culture?

I’ve become more than a tad obsessed with these questions, but I have developed a working theory.

Now if you’re interested in slang, you can take one of two positions. Get excited by it or get smug about it. The Indianapolis Monthly‘s Cara McDonald (writing in July 2004, no less, well after “Oh snap!” was in popular use) chose the former:

She sparkles and burbles, all oh my goshes and oh my goodnesses; when she forgets where she put her tracks and shouts, “Oh, snap!” — presumably a euphemism for “shit.”

And here’s what the linguists have to say. We are informed unhelpfully by The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English that “oh snap!” was “used as a mild oath.” But there appears to be no effort by Connie Elbe, the cited linguist who “discovered” the phrase in October 2002 and published the results as editor of UNC-CH Campus Slang, to track down its cultural references. (Elbe, incidentally, was thanked in the acknowledgments section in Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, which may explain why that novel’s campus patois is out-of-touch.)

In Alonzo Westbrook’s 2002 book, Hip Hoptionary, he identifies “Oh, snap” as either an “epiphany; to understand something, like a light turned on” or “a gesture where one literally snaps a finger after a statement to emphasize a point, like the period at the end of a sentence.”

But the first time I heard “Oh snap!” was in Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend.” (The usage is best observed in the above video at the 4:12 mark, so that one can get a sense of the timing preceding the “Oh snap!” moment.) This was in 1989. And “Oh snap!” was quickly picked up by many of the high school punkasses — including me — who were likewise amused by Markie’s deliberately awful singing.

Markie, however, was hardly the first. The earliest written trace I can find of “Oh snap!” is in William Hauck Watkins and Eric N. Franklin’s 1984 volume, Breakdance!:

I said, “Oh, snap, what’s that?” He said, “It’s the new style called breaking.” I said, “It looks like you’re going to break your body.”

Breaking did not quite survive. But “Oh snap!” certainly did. A hip-hop group by the name of Latin Empire used “Oh snap!” in a Spring 1991 interview published in Centro 3, 2. The first USENET use of the phrase was, not surprisingly, on November 7, 1997 on Even a rock fan by the name of Dwayne Lutchna used the phrase in a This Week in Rock segment that appeared on MTV. “Oh snap!” was making the rounds.

But it didn’t entirely stick. At least not in the way that it has today. For a while, it looked as if the phrase would disappear into the crevices with “Hells yeah!” and “getting jiggy with it.” But then comedians like Tracy Morgan and Dave Chappelle began using “Oh snap!” in their routines. Then it became fair game for everybody. (It is now used regularly by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.)

The big question is where Markie and his friends got the tip from. Is it possible that the phrase came from England?

From Norman Harrison’s Once a Miner (1954) — a hard depiction of Southeast English mining:

Oh, snap. All right; you’d better get yours if you want.

We see the phrase also in the 1994 film, Tom and Viv, which is interesting, considering that the film is a period piece. “Oh snap. I was in Lagos,” says Maurice Haigh-Wood.

From Peter Ackroyd’s novel, First Light (1996):

“Tell me,” he added, more comfortably, “what are you drinking?”

“Gin and it.”

“Oh snap. So am I. Isn’t it lovely?”

So we see a British usage of “Oh snap!” from four decades before that is quite similar to the American usage of “Oh snap!” in the 1980s and 1990s.

If “Oh snap!” did come across the Atlantic and make its way into the hip-hop community, one wonders how this happened. Was there some seminal moment in which “Oh snap!” was unfurled at a breakdancing showdown? A moment in which all witnessing the usage of “Oh snap!” felt compelled to remember it and cite it to their friends? Did “Oh snap!” serve as a response to “Snap out of it,” which was possibly considered a less definitive term?

These are questions that require an investigation in which it may not be possible to find the missing link. But assuming that “Oh snap!” crossed the Atlantic, the American and British forms prove that a phrase can evolve in two different nations and adopt an attitude specific to each, even when the phrase conveys the same meaning.

Syllables, Names, and Theory

There are some strange souls who loosen “France” from their lips, suspecting that there may be more to this country’s name than a word uttered in less than a second (presuming that you are not a soul who drawls out this word languorously, like the pleasant smoke emitted from a cheroot). Just as there remain a few vitiated greenhorns who cling stubbornly to the concept of freedom fries, some folks inherently distrust this name, perhaps because they are distressed by the country’s geographical proximity. Surely, a country separated by England through the thin aquatic sliver of the English Channel — indeed, one that maintains a rather prodigious cultural budget — would have more than one syllable. Or perhaps more than one identity. France is much larger than one syllable when we begin to think about it. And yet we must confine it into this established lingua franca.

Of course, “your theories” on this important subject, if we could ascribe such importance to a silly question, may be altogether different from mine. And that’s perfectly fine. But when one considers the syllable count of a name or a phrase, one realizes that a subject like this often passes for prodigious conversation in an academic environment. Theory, as we all know, is a risky intoxicant. And there are some who remain so determined to see things that are not necessarily there, because the promise remains vaguely plausible. Like that halo drifting above a church from a certain morning light suggesting metaphorical divinity, but that is really just a lovely visual image caused by natural intuitive elements. The pragmatic mind dismisses such a concern as “a steaming load of bullshit,” and it is remains the pragmatist’s right to hold onto this position.

But let us take these dabblings to their naturally absurdist level. When one looks at France’s one syllable, the amateur will certainly never state (if it could indeed talk directly to the country), “You have too much,” to France. In having one syllable, France clings to the most rudimentary requirements in language and time, and therefore presents itself to the mind as a country with a connotative perfect circle. Let us merely assign language a syllabic measure. For the latter (and possibly more important) element, let us consider the old idea of time being nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once — a quip attributed to Woody Allen, John Archibald Wheeler, and numerous other personages. (Indeed, who knows for sure where it came from?) In considering France’s syllabic count and the meaning of this syllabic count in relation to loftier matters, can we not define “time” as a natural medium that gnaws upon our existence? Perhaps it is a form of control that helpfully prevents us from wandering down unfruitful avenues.

Let us also take into account the fact that time is measured by a clock, an instrument composed of two hands. If time is one of those natural mediums which controls us, can we then declare time, by way of the clock’s elements, to keep us “on your hands” or otherwise enslaved to these basic language questions unfolding beyond comprehension in the present?

In this way (and many others), we are enslaved by theoretical constructs pertaining to really fun ideas. Small wonder then that so many with creative and intellectual promise can be seen from nine to five walking forlornly down Madison Avenue.

Word Count and Ancient Novels

From a letter to the New York Times editor, January 7, 1899:

Have you taken note of the fact that the majority of successful novels are long? I mention this fact because a few years ago — about the time The Prisoner of Zenda made such a hit — it was predicted that all the widely read novels of the future would be very short. Not long ago your own London correspondent W.L. Alden predicted that the novel of the future would be only 40,000 or 50,000 words long.

I have calculated very closely the length of the prominent novels of the last two or three years, and I find that Mrs. Steel’s On the Face of the Waters is 150,000 words, Ford’s Honorable Peter Stirling is 145,000, Hugh Wynne, 170,000; Corleone, 165,000; Quo Vadis, 210,000; The Landlord at Lion’s Head, 120,000; The Seats of the Mighty, 115,000; The Manxman, 220,000; The Christian, 210,000; The Gadfly, 105,000; A Soldier of Manhattan, 100,000. Against this list of long novels appears Soldiers of Fortune and The Choir Invisible, which are of medium length, about 75,000 words each, while in the 40,000 novel list we have only Hopkinson Smith’s Tom Grogan and John Fox’s Kenutuckians.

I have purposefully omitted the 1898 novels from the above, but when we come to the year just closing we find the tendency to length still more accentuated. Take the two best and most successful American historical novels of the present season — Mr. Altsheler’s A Herald of the West and Miss Johnston’s Prisoners of Hope — and we find that one is about 120,000 words and the other 130,000. Mr. Parker’s very successful Battle of the Strong is about 135,000 words; Mr. Page’s Red Rock, which is a study rather than a historical novel, is 140,000 words; David Harum is about 110,000 words; Helbeck of Bannisdale is 110,000 words; Ms. Crowninshield’s lively story of adventure, Latitude 19, is 145,000 words; Evelyn Innes, which many think the finest novel of 1898, is 175,000 words; Roden’s Corner is at least not a short novel, nor is The Red Axe. All these have passed the test of commercial success, which is the final arbiter in such matters. In view of these facts, does the reign of the very short novel seem to be at hand?


* * *

I know very few of the titles that the good C.T. Adams has kindly listed for us to investigate. But for those who find a 900-page book imposing, the above statistics are worth remembering. I have added links to the complete text of the books that Adams mentions. It is a great credit to our information age that only Manxman could not be located.* Adams is right to observe that George Moore’s Evelyn Innes is somewhat promising — that is, for those who like slightly florid, monosyllabic noun-heavy sentence constructions. (“Iron-grey hair hung in thick locks over his forehead, and, shining through their shadows, his eyes drew attention from the rest of his face, so that none noticed at first the small and firmly cut nose, nor the scanty growth of beard twisted to a point by a movement habitual to the weak, white hand,” reads one such sentence.) My current beard, such as it is, is not habitual to any movement by my hand. But I am very much taken with this image, and I’m wondering if men have, over the past century, resisted the impulse to tug and twist at their facial hair in such a matter. The time is ripe for a comeback.

There’s more from Moore: “The vague pathos of his grey face was met by the bright effusion of hers, and throwing her arms about him, she kissed him on the cheek.” Who knew pathos could be vague? But “vague pathos” is a wonderful idea. And I particularly like the antediluvian sentence construction.

I’m serious! The forgotten novels that people raved about a century ago are worth revisiting — if only for the odd and enjoyable syntax. (I’m afraid that Moore’s dialogue didn’t impress me as much as the sentences.) Can you imagine a novelist today getting away with a woman “regretting her tongue’s indiscretion?” A man named Sir Owen is “seemingly a tall man, certainly above the medium height,” which suggests that Moore isn’t certain. But then how often are any of us certain about how tall some people are? “Wall paper” has not yet been crammed into one word. An upper-class man in his thirties is described as “three-and-thirty,” and I’m considering adopting this manner of speech if anybody ever asks my age.

“The nakedness of the unfinished and undecorated church was hidden in the twilight of the approaching storm….” This is very old school, but I’m again strangely fond of this phrasing, even if I’m not inclined to use such a prepositional phrase in my own writing. If an MFA tried to write a sentence like this today, she’d be asked to revise the sentence read something like: “The undecorated church hid in the storm.” This isn’t nearly as interesting. And you can’t really make this sentence work without the past tense.

Don’t discount the old novels. There are quirky ideas here to be discovered, tinkered around with, and employed in your own writing.

* — UPDATE: The good Rory Ewins has pointed out that Manxman is available online. I had mistyped it “Maxman.” Thank you, Rory. And thank you, Internet!

A Supplemental Lexicon to Ross Raisin’s Fiction

Between reading Sarah Hall’s three novels earlier this year and Ross Raisin’s debut novel, I’ve found to my astonishment that I’ve become more than a bit obsessed with the Northern English dialect. One striking quality of Ross Raisin’s quite disturbing debut novel, God’s Own Country (known in the U.S. as Out Backward), is its reliance on very specific slang to advance the novel and to occlude the reality of what’s happening before us. I became so wonderfully caught up in the words that Raisin pulled a fast one on me, and I ended up abdicating my own common sense. The book’s nineteen-year-old first-person narrator, Sam Marsdyke, lives in a small town in Yorkshire and clings to a vernacular in an effort to assert his frequently misunderstood and often besmirched individualism. The effect becomes one in which the outside reader hopes to understand this troubled character, lest the reader be IDed by Marsdyke as one of the superficial “ramblers” (or tourists) invading his home turf. And the prose’s close association with the Northern England landscape creates a fascinating dilemma for anyone attempting to masticate upon this book on multiple levels.

The verb “gleg” is the neologism that is most frequently used throughout the book. “Gleg” is more commonly used as an adjective in Scotland and means “alert and quick to respond,” but, in Raisin’s hands, it’s often used as a gruff surrogate for “look.” To gleg is to retreat in some sense. But glegging also involves the only place where Marsdyke can maintain his identity. Glegging may be somewhat good for all of us, provided we do not glog in the process.

But because I had the reaction that I had, what follows is an effort to track the many interesting words throughout Raisin’s novel, which may prove of help to readers tackling this interesting novel. Standard British slang terms like “sod” and “tosspot” are ignored. I’m hoping to provide more additional information about specific words as I learn more about them. Page numbers refer to the American edition of the book. Readers are invited to comment upon any additional findings or clear up any etymological mishaps.

aflunters: Yorkshire term for “in a state of disorder.Usage in Book: “the ew was all aflunters” (95), “my head was too aflunters” (157)

bairn: Scottish term for “child.” Usage in Book: “When I was a barin I’d kept…” (28, ref. to Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore?) “a list of bairns, couplings and dead” (41), “I’d gave him that mug as a bairn” (99)

barmpot: A clumsy idiot. Var. of barmy. Usage in Book: “You barmpot, it’s the middle of the bleeding night.” (23), “laughing together like barmpots” (143)

babby: Often used in Northern dialect as a noun for baby or child, Raisin has his narrator sub in a noun for an adjective. Usage in Book: “a babby little feller” (10) “looking like a babby” (50), “I just lay there like a babby with my lids shut” (89), “feel for the babby” (95), “The ewe was licking at her babby” (114), “the rustle of a babby too full of dander to sleep” (123), “my babby, my babby, you’re alive” (126)

beltenger: A Hungarian term for enclosed or inland sea. Usage in Book: “a beltenger of a storm on the ocean” (33)

blatherskite: A Scottish noun for a noisy talker of blatant rubbish. The usage in the book sees Raisin again using a noun in verb form. Usage in Book: “and blatherskite about that rude Marysdyke boy” (66) Also, the local newspaper is referred to as The Blatherskites’ News.

bogtrotted: Originally, a bogtrotter was an offensive term for an Irishman. But it also means one who trots around bogs. Usage in Book: “to show all the places they’d bogtrotted over” (134), “gone off bogtrotting” (168)

brazzent: Yorkshire for “inadvisably generous.” Usage in Book: “a brazzent-looking farmer in a raggedy jacket” (149)

budgerigars: An Australian parakeet. (Perhaps the fact that Mum keeps many budgerigars in one of the farm’s rooms is a wry allusion to Australia’s origins as an English prison colony? Or does this have something to do with the budgerigar’s ability to survive in very dry parts of Australia?) Usage in Book: “That, or she was talking to the budgerigars.” (3) “She thought her buderigars were bonny and all” (47), “the buderigars chattering bollocks at each other” (99), “I was sure the budgerigars would start chattering” (127), “chattering away like budgerigars” (175)

buffit: Stool. Another term used in Wakefield. Usage in Book: “who’d take over his buffit in the corner” (29), “bar buffits reeking with fifty years of smoke” (102), “hunkered over on a metal buffit” (120), “using our bags as buffits” (153)

bummelkite: An obscure 19th century word for blackberry. From an 1895 article, “The Cumberland Dialect,” The Gentleman’s Magazine: “a very puzzling word, and the glossaries do not explain it. Some vocabularies treat it as a corruption of bramble-kite, only to make that darker which was dark enough before, because it leaves the final syllable unexplained.” Usage in Book: “The drone of the brummelkite filled my brain” (145)

charver: Var. of chava. Unruly youth. Usage in Book: “like my old charver on the pier” (193)

choiled up: Pent up, guarded. Don’t know precise etymology, but it’s definitely a Northern English term. Usage in Book: “She was proper choiled up a long while” (116)

chunter: to grumble or grouse mildly or tediously. (Again, like “gleg,” what’s striking is the way that Raisin often uses this verb as a noun.) Usage in Book: “a chunter of talk came through the door-crack” (4) “chuntering in his corner” (31), “chuntering to some old cloth-head at the counter” (57), “I heard him chuntering, fuck off, or something like that” (63), “leaves chuntering with the wind” (71), “She chuntered off to the cupboard with the tins” (92), “she was chuntering to herself” (98), “You’d hear the moles chuntering” (115), “I’d hear him chuntering” (149), “no lasses chundering in the deep-fat fryer” (164)

clog-poppers: Those who have recently died. (Related site.) Usage in Book: “But I marked toward the other end the paper, near the clog-poppers….” (42)

collywobbles: Stemming from the Latin term for cholera, usually in reference to a rumbling stomach. Colly is English dialect for dust. Usage in Book: “for she had the collywobbles” (82, which comes shortly after “a smudgy coal-cloud” seeps around the house)

crambazzled: A very specific Northern word for a man who is old before his time, generally due to illness or drink. Usage in Book: “I hadn’t crambazzled myself half to death with drink as yet.” (32)

crammocky: “Crammocky creel” is a Yorkshire term for a wooden framework hoisted to the ceiling, generally used for drying oatcakes or clothes. Usage in Book: “my joints all crammocky from lying still so long” (59), “I stood up and paced crammocky circles” (143)

crozzle: Yorkshire use. To dry out and become crispy due to burning heat. Usage in Book: “the skin underneath all crozzled with drowsiness” (176)

daffled: Baffled. You’ll probably remember this one from Bram Stoker’s “We aud folks that be daffled” in Dracula although I can’t seem to find a specific etymology. Usage in Book: “She looked daffled then” (104)

doylem: Yet another Yorkish word for idiot, of which there are quite a lot of in this book! Usage in Book: “Talk to her, you doylem…” (50), “for he was a doylem” (101)

ferntickle: A Northern dialect word for freckles. Comes from ME farntikylle — resembling the seed of the fern. Usage in Book: “I could see the little brown ferntickles speckling her nose and the tops of her cheek.” (14)

fizzogs: From “physiognomy.” Shorthand for face. Usage in Book: “some by the looks on your fizzogs” (33)

flowtered: Yorkish folk term for in being in a state of trepidation or nervousness. Usage in Book: “my brain had been flowtered by those gommerils in the car” (43), “No, I said, flowtered…” (57), “I didn’t know what they were so flowtered about” (73), “The ewe will start to get flowtered first” (94), “she got flowtered when she saw it” (124), “I got flowtered then” (138), “I started getting something flowtered” (164)

fratchen: Yorkshire. To argue. Usage in Book: “she didn’t fratchen with me” (153)

gawby: A baby, a dunce. (1913 Webster, provincial in some sense, but what province precisely?) Usage in Book: “If I’d not been such a gawby forgetting about maggots….” (17), “turned into a gawby” (188), “a herd of gawby sergeants” (194)

gleg: See introduction. Usage in Book: “I went for a gleg in the freezer….” (4) “a quick gleg past him” (11) “When I glegged in…” (27) “I glegged in at him…” (32) “A few of the other sheep glegged up.” (40) “I was itching for a gled across at her.” (51), “too far yet to gleg inside” (65), “I never got to gleg what he’d written” (92), “Father glegged up at her” (100), “I glegged an eye up” (103), “I was worried someone else might gleg the message” (113), “I glegged another look at my watch” (123), “I glegged round to see if she was watching” (125), “glegged up an instant from their crossword puzzle” (136), “glegging an eye at me over the top” (137), “He had a gleg round once” (142), “I glegged over the stump top” (144), “glegged me gaining” (172), “I glegged the four-by-four” (175), “I tried to gleg the entrance pool” (181), “He’d always gleg over at me” (202)

glishy: Sticky. And while there are many usages of this adjective which can be found on Google, I can’t seem to determine where the word originated from. A Verdurian term? Is Raisin an RPG enthusiast? (This may explain the many references to board games, including Monopoly and Scrabble, throughout the book.) Usage in Book: “glishy magazines of horse arses jumping over a fence” (10), “all bright and glishy like a piece of flesh with the skin torn off” (100), “the glishy black stones” (184)

gommeril: A fool. Dialectical, common to Yorkshire. Origin unknown. Usage in Book: “still red from before with the gommerils” (35), “my brain had been flowtered by those gommerils in the car” (43)

heart-slufffened: Heartbroken. Unknown origin, but spoken in the 1860s. Usage in Book: “she was so heart-sluffened” (154), “sat sluffened” (173)

hubbleshoo: A Yorkshire term for commotion that can be traced back to 1855. Usage in Book: “a hubbleshoo of noise” (24) “the hubbleshoo of small boys spewing out the bus” (42), “a hubbleshoo of bleats” (68), “a hubbleshoo of activity” (112), (189)

jarp: To strike or smash. More spec., to crack a hard-boiled egg with another. This is an Easter game. Durham & Tyneside dialect. Usage in Book: “My hands jarped off from the vibration.” (38), “Wetherill’s shout jarped my attention” (145)

jipping: From A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English: “staining (part of a horse) with India ink to conceal a blemish. Usage in Book: “My neck, bag and legs were all jipping from stones and heather tangles…” (129)

kecks: Variation of the Yorkshire “kegs” for trousers. Usage in Book: “Blotchy wiping his hand on his kecks” (76), “the band of my kecks” (150), “dragged my kecks” (200)

ligged out: Yorkish term for “laid out.” Usage in Book: “with the pup ligged out between” (58), “Sal was ligged out retching in the stable” (83), “ligged out on the slope of the hollow” (107), “one of the sheep ligged out between the wall and the back of the pen” (123), “I ligged out on my belly” (133)

lugger-bugger: Mover. Marsdyke is quite taken throughout the book with singsong hyphenated nouns that rhyme. See also “mother-smothering” on 6. Usage in Book: “as if they feared the lugger-buggers might set it in the vegetable plot” (5), (7)

mafted: Yorkshire. Very hot or breathless. Usage in Book: “I was mafted from walking so quick” (164), “a mafting hot afternoon” (168)

mardy: See H2G2 entry. Usage in Book: “she wasn’t mardy any more” (156), “she was mardy again” (169)

mawnging: “Mawngy” is a Yorkshire adjective for bad-tempered, but Raisin has appropriated it for use as a verb. Usage in Book: “there was nothing any of them could do about it but for mawnging” (29) Another hint: “a mawngy crow sat in a tree gawping into space.” (68), “didn’t mawnge about it” (153)

nazzart: North East dialect for rascal. Usage in Book: “the bone-idle nazzart” (100), “Get back here, you old nazzart” (140, 143), “my brain was in a nazzartly mood” (168)

nithering: To shiver or tremble with cold. Scottish and Northern English. Variation of “blithering.” Usage in Book: “A month on and you’d stil be nithering cold if you came up there without a coat.” (96)

nobbut: Yorkshire adverb for “only.” An homage to Alan Titchmarsh’s Nobbut a Lad? Usage in Book: (42)

panacalty: I’ve heard of the Northern English dish panacalty, but I haven’t tried it yet. Here’s a recipe. Usage in Book: “I’ve panacalty on the go” (112), “fried up their bacon and their panacalty” (147)

parkin: A kind of ginger cake originating in Northern England. Usage in Book: “She was making the Christmas parkin.” (79), “I bolted another piece of parkin.” (81)

powfagged: Lancashire term for “tired.” Usage in Book: “powfagged and sleepy-eyed from the walk” (58), “we were powfagged after our adventures” (142)

raggald: A Norse term for “villain” used in Calderdale. Usage in Book: “That raggald — he pushed me over the side!” (33)

ramblers: hikers wandering the English countryside. In the book, Marsdyke speaks perjoratively of the ramblers and, at one point, gets into a violent skirmish with them. Although the term can’t be found in this helpful British slang dictionary, it is used in this 2003 BBC News article. Usage in Book: (1), “bright enough the ramblers needed their sunglasses” (56), “Ramblers’ pub other side of Felton Top” (56), “ramblers arfing and barfing about cuckoos and the like” (72), “I hadn’t caught on it was her at first, I’d thought it was a rambler” (99), “We were proper ramblers now” (131), “He must’ve stole it off a rambler” (134), “Well, ramblers, it’s a gradely day for it” (169)

sarnie: sandwich. Usage in Book: “She threw another piece of sarnie.” (108), “She’d even made sarnies.” (132), “punnets of sarnies” (146), “munching us sarnies in quiet” (153), “ate the rest the sarnies” (157)

scarper: to flee or depart suddenly; esp. without having paid one’s bills. Usage in Book: “I waited for them to scarper…” (3) “The whelps were scarpering.” (20), “I kicked the fallen sarnie at him and scarpered” (150)

scran: Slang for rations. Usage in Book: “She had a scran with her and all” (99)

sile: To rain heavily. Yorkshire. Usage in Book: “listening to the rain sile down” (154), “siling down like this” (156)

skittled: Skittles is, of course, a game of ninepins involving a wooden ball or disc knocking down pins. Usage in Book: “It was a job to keep from laughing as they skittled about…” (2)
Related: Interestingly, Raisin has Marsdyke use “skitter” in reference to the girl he’s mad about on 5. “Skitter” is close to “skittle,” both in sound and definition. But it is a less parochial verb. (There is also “skiffling for her bag” at 107 and “it skiffled about in the straw” at 125.) Thus, is this Marsdyke’s attempt at understanding the new neighbors? Another variation is “upskittled”: “I had an upskittled frame of the whelps cowering under Father’s chair” (20), “I wasn’t mighty upskittled to hear she wasn’t helping” (65)

snicket: Known predominantly as the surname of Daniel Handler’s pen name, “snicket” is actually a Northern term for a narrow passageway between two houses or an alleyway. And knowing the precise definition makes Raisin’s usage of the word particularly fun. Usage in Book: “I saw a thin snicket between two books cocked against each other.” (13), “except for a snicket where it wasn’t drawn fully” (136). Also snickleway: “down a snickleway between a house and the back the station” (140), “a snickleway path through the yellow” (147)

snitter: Snitter is not only a village in Northumberland, but it’s the name of a character in Richard Adams’s The Plague Dogs. Snitter was a fox terrier sold to animal research after his master had died. In light of the book’s emphasis on dogs and whelps, this usage has multiple meanings. Usage in Book: “a snitter of talk” (42)

spiceloaf: Is Raisin a Star Wars geek? I can find no trace of the word, but it was used in Aaron Allston’s Star Wars novel, Betrayal as a food consisting of dense meat ground, spiced, and heated to order. Allston is a Texan. I do not know if Allston appropriated the term from Northern England or if Raisin caught sight of the word in the Star Wars novel or invented it on the fly. (Aha, it is a Yorkshire term for currant bread. So where did Allston get it?) Usage in Book: “a look in her eyes that said, I’m a loopy old spiceloaf” (65)

sump-pool: There are two British-specific definitions for “sump” in my unabridged dictionary: “4. Brit crankcase 5. Brit Dial. a swamp, bog or muddy pool.” The usage of “sump-pool” refers to the latter definition, but perhaps foreshadows Marsdyke’s perception as a crankcase by some within the small town he dwells in. Usage in Book: (1), “mud-sumps around the gate” (96)

tantled: Yorkshire for “to waste time, to dawdle.” Usage in Book: “I tantled near the entrance” (148)

Tesco: A British supermarket chain. Used to delineate the difference between ramblers and countrymen in a humorous context at the beginning of the book. Usage in Book: “That is such nice ham. / Isn’t it? Tesco, you know.” (2)

tidgy: Variation of twitchy, but Yorkshire specific? Usage in Book: “stumbling about the place on tidgy twig-legs.” (94), “picking tidgy wooden forks into cartons” (182)

trull: Trull is known to be an affluent area in Somerset. But the usage here is likely to involve the female prostitute or harlot definition used by Joyce and Kipling. Usage in Book: “the whiskery old trull” (22), “you daft trull” (171)

trunklements: This is actually an obscure and regional word of slang that specifies “any other items, not specified.” “Trunklements” appear to be associated with the West Yorkshire city of Wakefield. Usage in Book: “I fetched a basket, cloth, and some other trunklements…” (9), “pictures and trunklements off the walls” (101), “all manner of trunklements in the window” (141), “some feckless trunklement no one would ever buy” (181)

unsneck: To unlatch or unfasten. Found in A Glossary of Words Used in South-west Lincolnshire (1886). Usage in Book: (10) Also “sneck” in “I snecked open the gate to her garden.” (80), “a sneck-lifetr” (169), “unsnecking the cord” (188)