Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Letters to/from a young writer (3/4)


Dear George,

I suppose anything you can do I can do better, eh?  But in all seriousness, my apologies for the two month delay. I've been waiting for the nature of a few circumstances to sort themselves out before I respond (one of those being a story I ended up stalling on long enough to move onto something else). 

For instance (additionally), my adviser in the Economics department has finally convinced me looking at the ebook industry at this point is akin to getting trigger happy in a game of charades; something's happening alright, but a study will give the exact same information as just waiting a little bit. As far as that project is concerned now, it seems I'll be looking at the socioeconomic impacts of charter schools.

I would like to thank you for the articles though. The Amazon discussion has been a fascinating story (said with just a tint of cynicism), and we briefly covered it in my Industrial Organization class starting with their suing of Apple for predatory actions and then turning around to do the same with collecting authors. Sigh, Multi-Million Dollar Corporations these days, am I right?

The Environmental Economics project was a bit more cut and dry. An abstract of sorts: The Slabside Pearlymussel, a breed of mussel only found in the Cumberland region (just west of the Great Smokey Mountains) in Tennessee, has disappeared from 80% of the rivers it once occupied, mostly due to pollutants from coal plants and other factories along the waterways. The question: Economically speaking, should it be on the endangered species list? Would the value society gets from saving this species outweigh the cost to the factories changing their practices?

There are three monetary values assigned to the mussel in this case: a biodiversity value (the more species that remain in an ecosystem, the more stable it is, in theory), a replacement value (this breed isn't harvested, but a cousin is to make pearl seeds out of its shell, and should the cousin go extinct, this kind could be used for the same purpose; this number turns out to be minuscule as the cousin is not in any danger), and an indicator-species value (the pollutants causing its population to decline are heavy metals also harmful to humans, so the population acts as a running litmus test).

Additionally, these pollutants are being dumped despite Tennessee laws preventing this given amount of said pollutants, but the government has not actively reprimanded the companies. Making this mussel endangered would give organizations like the Sierra Club and other activist organizations leverage to rope them in, as anyone could sue on behalf of the newly endangered species. ..... That's all a very long way of saying we should protect this species and get the factories to stop polluting.
On to things less science.

Back to the discussion of realism, I guess my confusion essentially stems from differentiating litfic and literature. I suppose in my head, the differentiation is: Literature is a tested 'classic,' a book still receiving considerable demand after its initial stint in the limelight, whenever that might be; literary fiction I find to be the blank slate, the unmarked norm, the Private to Literature's Lieutenant Colonel, and devoid of qualities giving it a discernible category, as one of the genre fiction genres, or postmodern, (an entirely different question I've had of late: if something is written in the literary style of modernism, but is written in the postmodern (or post-postmodern) age, where does it fall? I read through the first few chapters of Zadie Smith's NW while waiting for a friend at a bookstore, and to me it seems distinctly modern in style), or avant-garde, surreal, etc.

Because of this mental filing system, I have to ask "Can literature really push out any qualities?" If it is to push out genre fiction categories then Orwell and Huxley must be removed from the canon immediately, and to push out qualities of Literary Fiction is to pull its foundations out from under it. 
It can, I think, reorganize itself, and that's why I'm inclined to agree with Smith (all critiquing her definition of avant-garde aside, which, by the way, I completely agree with after reading that article and taking a second look).

Once in the confines of capital "L" literature, there is a group of works that contain little other signifiers.  You have the capital "R" Realists, the Utopian/Dystopian fiction, the Romantics and Gothic, but there's a whole slew of works that only fall under period names: the Modernists, the Beats, even some Victorian authors. This is where I feel the concept of lyrical Realism becomes useful rather than a panicky push for market share.

Madame Bovary is considered realist literature, but The Beautiful and the Damned is Modernist, but after reading both this past semester, I couldn't help but feeling: had they been published in the same period, they would be categorized together. They both share the same stylistic qualities, the chief of these being the "lilting musicality" you mentioned (a term I've found apropos on a number of occasions).

Yes, Modernism focuses internally while Realism focuses externally on society, but you can argue the source of Madame Bovary's plight comes from either way, and do the same for Anthony Patch's.  Furthermore, Flaubert works with more flamboyant descriptions than other Realists, say Tolstoy, and some of Fitzgerald's work, along with other Modernists like D.H. Lawrence, don't contain quite the economy or style innovation attributed to other Modernists like Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce, etc. 

That's where I think this idea of lyrical Realism could aid literary discussions, as well as give a point of reference in discussing authors like Jefferey Eugenides or Marilynne Robinson (who's doing an open forum at my Uni in March on Gilead, followed by Banville, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Aleksander Hemon, and then Nicole Krauss) other than the broad, null, and relatively all-inclusive "Literary Fiction."

Of course, I realize most of this is subjective and nit-picky.  As "Thomas Pynchon" put it (in a spot-on parody piece, hence the quotes around the name [the original post since vanished - GT]: the academic/critical circle jerk, and category dissection means little when getting down to actual writing and actual reading, but as long as the radio's playing I might as well sing a harmony. And you can always let me know when I'm off-key.

Again, I understand there's a lot here, and that you're doing a lot there, and I certain took my sweet time with this, so no rush to response and only address what you feel needs addressing, and I appreciate anything along with your time.

Ryan Celley



Dear Ryan,

Well, looks like the margin is shrinking. I'm supposed to be making my PhD chapter 1 notes intelligible, which seems the perfect opportunity to catch up on the more rewarding store of unreplied-to emails.

Your supervisor is absolutely right about the ebook issue. It's developing so rapidly that it's a little bit redundant to make any claims at this stage. There's a wider debate emerging over copyright, intellectual property, enclosures and so on - Lewis Hyde's Common as Air which I still haven't read.

Saw a crazy story just this morning about a company called DEFCAD, which is being media-tagged as 'Pirate Bay for 3D weapons printing'. The owner, Cody Wilson, uses a combination of very scary survivalist/pro-gun lobby rhetoric with a wider pro-Marxist/socialist rhetoric of decentring 3D blueprinting intellectual property out of corporate hands. Like, WTF?

The mussel abstract sounds fantastic. I'm very much enamoured of Jason W. Moore's theory of world ecology=world economy right now and what you've said speaks straight to that. Problems inherent in only thinking of the economic value of the mussel - even in the environmentalist ambition to sue the fuck out of the corporations ('scuse me French, as they say on Blackadder).

Not sure if I've already mentioned the Millennium Assessment Group's Ecosystems Services report? Again, trying to position the ecological within an economic framework, thinking of biodiversity indicators as part of the 'services' which enable the resource services of food, oil, water, etc. that power structures around agriculture traditionally thinks of as important in land use.

What about the food chain sustained by the mussels? The value in cleaning/filtering, or the threat of absorption of heavy metals and magnification in mammalian and bird predators, which climbs into human diet? Don't get me wrong, it's not about substituting economic frameworks for ecological ones, but that they're one and the same thing.

You should check out things like 'Wall Street is a Way of Organizing Nature' - an interview on Moore's website. He's heavily technical in his language, but also inspirational in how he applies this new methodology to give fresh insight into historical, geographical, colonial and (although he's less good on it) cultural developments.

The litfic/literary debate is a good line of inquiry, at least for writers. The main risk when it goes beyond creative thinking is that it falls too easily in to the trap of marketing. And what you say about literature 'standing the test of time' is an interesting one: much of the stuff we read today as 'classic' sold next to nothing when first published. Kafka (most notably), Eliot, Pound, etc.

Rarely do you get immediate popularity with this stuff. Dickens, arguably, used particular dissemination techniques to reach wide audiences - Shakespeare also. But the cult comes after, primarily. Other writers, like John Clare, come and go in fashion, popular at first, then abandoned for having been popular, then rediscovered much later in a new context.

The danger with talking about what literature can be is that it falls into fixed patterns - look at Bloom's mad attempts at it, which amounts to isolating himself in an ivory tower (population: 1), and opening himself up to all manner of discrediting, counter examples, etc.

Alternatively, I stumbled across an interesting project at a conference recently, about Natsume Soseki's theory of literature. Applying a principle of early psychological study - using rational scientific discourse to understanding the irrationality of storytelling - is a fruitful one, although just one perspective. But he has some kind of formula: f(F), which denotes the smaller idea of intellectual endeavour delivered with the greater idea of emotional impact, as a requisite of literature's quality. All very complex, and probably I didn't understand it fully, but he said something great about something being "like washing blood with blood", which makes me think he knew what he was talking about.

I think you're right with your example of Flaubert/Fitzgerald: the idea of qualifying Literature beyond its most abstract definition (as Soseki attempts), has to be historically contingent. Which is why the study of literature isn't going to disappear any time soon, despite an instrumentalised governmental agenda, or increasing global corporatism.

Sure, you can parody the fruitlessness of that, but isn't that perspective (and the Salon's parody) simply contingent in its own way to the economic rationality of our current society? And isn't literature a way of deconstructing these habits and working out what a better society might look like, even if the best ideas will always be hijacked to speak for power, rather than truth to power?

Creative writing is, for me, a utopian endeavour, couched in the problems Jameson points out, but still, we need optimism more than ever these days. At least writing poetry keeps you from refreshing your share prices on the stock market pages every five minutes, right?

But at heart, if you hadn't guessed it, I'm an imagination-fundamentalist, which in itself has been enabled by the current economic rationalism. Or something. Problems within problems within problems, but unlike capitalism, there's an infinity of imaginative frontiers to exploit, but only limited commodity frontiers before the world eats itself.

More thinking out loud - have you finished that story draft yet?


Final part tomorrow.

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