December 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

…to my new site.

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Why You Should Stop Worrying And Start Using Emoticons

December 1, 2011 § 5 Comments

I used to be anti-emoticon. For years, I thought of smiley faces as the mark of an immature writer, the type who punctuates a sentence with seven exclamation points. Then one day,  I was composing a sentence. I wanted to make very sure the reader knew was a joke. I was worried she would not. And I did it. I committed 🙂

Slowly, those little guys crept into my emails. I became enamored of the more clever ones, and still cannot help but smile when I see the sad monkey face: (:@

A punctuation purist would claim that emoticons are debased ways to signal tone and voice, something a good writer should be able to indicate with words. But the contrary is true: The history of punctuation is precisely the history of using symbols to denote tone and voice. Seen in this way, emoticons are simply the latest comma or quotation mark. And despite the oft-repeated story that Carnegie Mellon professor Scott Fahlman invented the smiley and the frown face  in 1982, the history of emoticons goes back much further.

In 1887, Ambrose Bierce wrote an essay, “For Brevity and Clarity,” suggesting ways to alter punctuation to better represent tone. He proposed a single bracket flipped horizontally for wry smiles, “to be appended, with the full stop, to every jocular or ironical sentence.”

Then in 1969, Vladimir Nabokov was interviewed by The New York Times, which asked him how he ranks himself among living writers and those of the immediate past. “I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile—some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket, which I would now like to trace in reply to your question,” he said.

So are emoticons okay to use in writing?  Absolutely. Why? Because they are a form of punctuation. Punctuation helps writers and readers understand each other. If 🙂 does that for you, use it. (But carefully: see below)

Let’s think a bit more about the history of punctuation. Originally, writing had no punctuation at all. Usually, authors dictated their words to scribes, and their words were  recordings of their speech. The scribes were simply transcribers, and had no license to add anything not heard by the speaker. So they did not use punctuation marks. (Then, no one read silently: all writing was read aloud.)

There were no spaces then, either: remember, a space is a punctuation mark, too. So people wrote using scripta continua, which, as you may guessed, meant therewerenospacesbetweenwords. As more people began reading, itbecamehardertoreadthedamnedmanuscripts. Punctuation marks were invented to ease reading aloud.

Punctuation was invented! It always has been–and will continue to be so.

The earliest marks indicated how a speaker’s voice should adjust to reflect the tone of the words. Punctus interrogativus is a precursor to today’s question mark, and it indicates that the reader should raise his voice to indicate inquisitiveness. Tone and voice were literal in those days: Punctuation told the speaker how to express the words he was reading out loud to his audience, or to himself. A question mark, a comma, a space between two words: These are symbols that denote written tone and voice for a primarily literate—as opposed to oral—culture.

There is no significant difference between question marks  and emoticons. Both attempt to capture oral tone through a written symbol.

It’s true, some people are going overboard, cluttering their writing with silly waving hands and kissy faces. But this is part of the excitement of having new punctuation to play with!!!! The same outpouring occurred in the Middle Ages, too, when the old hoary punctuation marks—the ones we now teach 5th graders—were new and exciting!!!!!!  By the first millennium, manuscripts were overrun with unintelligible marks thought up by too-clever scribes. Then the novelty wore off, and a few hundred years later, everyone tired of all the chaos. Punctuation marks became more codified, streamlined, and fewer in number. Centuries later, the marks left standing were awarded a prized place on the typewriter keyboard, leaving scads of now forgotten /// and {>+ inside the type drawers of printing presses. Today, your computer keyboard still has a only a few doo-dads to supplement the letters.

And so it goes again. We start to play. We come up with a chaotic overabundance of new punctuation marks to better express ourselves. Some will take hold; others will disappear. Given the pace of things, I’d say we have another decade or so before a few emoticons make it into grammar books and become teacher-approved. The SAT 2020 may test you on your proficiency on the rules of  😦

Meanwhile, as we are in a transitional period in punctuation history, here are a few tips:

Writing to friends? Do whatever you like. Have fun with punctuation.

Emailing for work? Scatter one of the “new official” punctuation marks now and again–:) or 😦 — if you feel it improves what you have written and you have seen others do the same in their emails. Just be aware that some people consider emoticons as a sign of poor writing. 

Writing a Professional Document? Keep them out (wait another 10 years or so you may be able to sneak them in)
(an earlier version of this was published here:)

Know Your Audience: Writing In the 21st Century

December 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

 The other day I was talking with some businesspeople about the writing on their website. They were asking me how it might be improved. My first question to them was, “Who is your audience?” “We are just starting out,” they answered. “We have not asked the question of audience yet.”

That was their mistake. Audience should be the first thing you consider when writing text for a website. It is the first thing you should consider when writing any piece of writing.

Think about the various writing you do over the course of a day. An email to a friend has a clear audience. You know your friend, can imagine her reading your email. You tailor your words to her. A text to your daughter has an audience that you know well, too. You probably use different words and shift your tone when you write to her. If you make to-do lists or keep a diary, you write to yourself, and use the words you like to read.

Likely, you do not struggle over these types of writing. You do not ask yourself if a word is appropriate or a paragraph is focused. Why? Because you are comfortable with your audience and you understand their expectations.

You also know how to shift your writing to different audiences. When you write a direct and firm “come home now!” text to your daughter, you are employing writing devices you know (or hope!) will be effective. When you ask your friend if her cold is better and if she had fun at the movies the other night, you are using writing appropriate for a good friend, asking her questions and offering support.

It is when we have to shift our writing to an unfamiliar audience that trouble sets in. Some people who write very effective texts (their daughters open up the front door minutes after hearing from them) and whose emails cheer their friends (“thanks so much for thinking of me!”) call themselves “poor writers” when faced with something new to write—or someone new to write to. Why? Because they find office memos torture, or they get poor grades on their school papers, or their websites do not attract traffic.

Business plans, for instance, frustrate many a start-up entrepreneur who struggles to describe the benefits of her product. The real culprit is often the audience. Or, the lack of one. Like the business managers who did not think about the audience for their website, she does not imagine a person reading what she is writing. She does not know the possible investors like she knows her friends and daughter. She forgets to picture those busy executives scanning documents over coffee, trying to decide where to put their money.

But if the writer pictures an audience—even if it is “generic executive”—on the other side of the screen, the writing comes easier.

Writing is always an act of communication, and the more concrete understanding you have of whom you are communicating with, the better your writing will be.

The new forms of writing borne in the 21st century all have built-in and specific audiences. On Facebook, your friends are your audience. On Twitter, it’s your followers. Blogs are written for specific audiences, too: fellow LEGO enthusiasts, or your extended family, or newshounds. The best blogs speak directly to their readers (“What do you think of this? Send me comments!”). Websites target particular groups, be it consumers you hope to attract, your neighbors or mothers of two year olds who do not sleep through the night. They include their audience in their words, too (“Regular readers will remember our story from last week…”).

One effect these new forms have had on all writing is to break down artificial boundaries separating writers from readers. New writing forms do not try to speak to everyone and for all time, as you might have been taught to do in your school papers. That was always a myth (only the teacher read them!). I bid the myth of the “objective, universal” audience farewell. I welcome new forms of writing that invite writers and their audiences to interact with one another. They make most of us more comfortable expressing ourselves.

Writer’s Block is what happens when you do not have a clear idea of your audience, or are scared by your audience. There is no difference between texts to daughters, emails to friends, blog posts to subscribers and business plans to investors when it comes to audience: each has one.


Always start writing by imagining your audience. Who do you want to visit your website? If you are writing an email to your boss, use what you know about him to craft your sentences, just like you do when you email your friend.

 Tailor your words to what you know about your audience. Do not pretend you are writing for everybody or some objective, timeless “reader.”

 If you are writing for a large group, use what you know about this group generally. Are they concerned about the economy? Do they watch network TV? Do they buy a lot of tech gadgets? Do they live in your town? Do they understand specialized language in your field of expertise? Adapt your tone and voice accordingly, as you would in a text to a friend.

If you are suffering from “writer’s block,” it might be because your audience is intimidating. In this case, imagine a different, less intimidating audience to get you unblocked. Imagine you are writing that business plan for your sick friend. Imagine that description of your book is a text to your daughter. Change your imagined audience and the words might rush out of you. From there, you can adjust your writing to your “actual” audience.


Why Tweet? (And How To Do It)

November 30, 2011 § 22 Comments

About once a week I have this conversation: A friend says to me, “I really should get on to twitter.” She usually says it wearily, in the same tone she would use to say, “I really need to clean my bathroom.” To which I respond: “You don’t have to get on to twitter. It’s not a duty. It’s not like cleaning the bathroom!” The friend responds, “But everyone says I should for my business/social life/visibility. Also, you do it all the time.” “Yes,” I say. “I do it. And I think it probably helps my business/social life/visibility. But that is not why I like to tweet. I do it because it is fun, and social, and I learn from it. Plus, it helps my writing. If I thought I should tweet, I would never do it. Have you seen my bathroom lately?”

Why is my attitude towards twitter different than that of my friends’? Because my friends have been told they “should” tweet. Their bosses suggest it will help their companies; their mentors advise them to tweet to further their careers. So even though it is called social media, to them twitter sounds like work.Do not tweet because you have been told to, or because you feel you “should.” If you do, you will not help your company, nor further your career. And you certainly will not enjoy it.

Twitter is a like huge, successful cocktail party. Groups of people are chatting about different things in different parts of the room. Some are laughing together, some are noting down an interesting book title the person next to them mentioned. One group may be commiserating with someone who just received some bad news, and another is congratulating a guest’s good fortune. You are never the first to arrive nor the last to leave. But when you do leave, you might do so with a few new numbers in your smartphone and a book you want to read.

We have all been to parties with a guest who has come only to advance his agenda. He wants a job or to sell something. He zones out when you start talking and turns the conversation back to himself. He might be loud AND TALK IN ALL CAPS.

He is a bad guest, and twitter does not need more like him. But if you are want to hear what others have to say and add your thoughts to ongoing conversations, do not be afraid.

Here is another conversation I have about twitter. A friend or a student tells me he wants to improve his writing. I say: “You might get on twitter. It is a great way to become a clearer, more concise writer, because it forces you to choose your words carefully.” The friend looks at me as if I were crazy. Twitter can improve one’s writing? Isn’t twitter the most obvious example of how writing has gone downhill?

Au contraire. There is a reason authors and book publishers were some of twitter’s earliest adopters and remain some of its best practitioners. Effective tweeting requires effective writing.  The short form—each tweet is 140 characters or less—requires discipline. Tweets reward clarity, wit and concision. You could train yourself to be a better writer by using twitter effectively. It hones your focus on the sentence level, and the sentence is the most important unit of composition.

Once, I asked a group of students to take an essay they had written for class and tweet it, sentence by sentence. By forcing them to fit each sentence into that white box, I was asking them to analyze every word they used and to consider how they constructed the clauses in the sentence. They were furious with me: they hated the exercise. But they all agreed they thought about their sentences more than they had when they first wrote the paper.

Twitter helps my writing. The other day, I was tweeting back and forth in an elaborate joke about a friend, Matt, presenting a paper at a conference inappropriately attired. In the twitter box where one answers the question “What’s happening?” I retweeted someone else’s comment (see glossary below if you do not know what a retweet it). I wanted to add a comment, so I wrote:  “I can’t wait to see you with your shirt off!”  But I could not publish this tweet because it was too long. So I revised my comment to read “I can’t wait to see you without your shirt!” As soon as I finished, I thought: Duh! There is an even clearer way to put this! I revised once again and wrote: “I can’t wait to see you shirtless.” I had taken away excess letters (and words) and written more concisely.

Admittedly, that shirtless comment is not an example of great prose. But it is an example of how having to be economical leads to better prose. “Shirtless” is preferable to “without your shirt on.”  One word is better than four.  Twitter forces me to remember this, and to edit, edit, and edit again.


I have broken down effective tweets into four categories: headline, questions, self-contained quips and comments.


Many tweets are informative: they are passing on articles, blogs and videos, and they contain links to what they are telling followers about. Writing informative tweets can be as simple as typing “Check this out” or “This is interesting” and pasting a link. But a much better way to pass on this information is to tell your followers what the link is about and entice them to click. Give the link your own headline or title and you will seduce more people into clicking while honing your writing skills.

Good titles and headlines do three things: they explain the topic, they provide a sense of the thesis, and they “hook” the reader. Here is a tweet from @PoetryFound, the foundation that publishes Poetry magazine:

What’s in the People’s Library on Wall Street” [link]

This is a good headline tweet. In nine words, @PoetryFound conveys the topic (the People’s Library on Wall Street), the main idea (the contents of that library), and hooks the reader by piquing curiosity (what is in that library?).

Here is another headline tweet, this one from Maria Popova, the woman behind @brainpicker, a blog that picks up dozens of interesting tidbits each day: 

Because everything is a canvas for creativity – portraits from the World Beard & Mustache Championships [link]

This tweet tells us what the link contains—portraits of facial hair. @Brainpicker prefaces the topic with a comment about what she thinks about the portraits: “everything is a canvas of creativity.”

Here are a few more headline tweets:

Doctors protest too much—and it’s eroding the entire profession’s credibility. [Link]

The topic is doctors protesting, and the thesis is that these protests are bad for doctors.

Killer cantaloupes—What you need to know about the listeria outbreak [link]

Here, a purely informative link is enlivened by the hook: a funny (or scary) image of killer cantaloupes.

Writing a good headline is hard. If you ever struggled to write a title for a paper in school, you know what I am talking about. Writing headlines is also fantastic writing practice. You need use good verbs like “protest” and “eroding.” You need specific people or entities doing those actions, like  “doctors,” “cantaloupes,” “People’s Library” and “Wall Street”. And you have to infuse your words with tone and voice—“everything is a canvas for creativity,” or “killer.” Finally, you must have a solid understanding of the contents of your link to summarize it. Quickly.

If you are new to twitter and want to improve your writing, start writing headline tweets. Find some webpages you want to get the word out about.  Then do the following:

1.) Ask Yourself: Who Is The Subject? Who Is Doing Something? Choose A Concrete Noun.

—Concrete nouns are specific. The more specific, the better. Instead of  “rock star,” write “Lady Gaga.” Instead of  “They”’ write “The Tea Party.”

2.) Ask Yourself: What Is The Subject Doing? Choose An Active Verb.

—Make Lady Gaga or The Tea Party do something. Instead of Lady Gaga “is,” write “Lady Gaga amuses.” Instead of the Tea Party “has,” write

“The Tea Party invites.”

3.) Hook Your Reader

—”Lady Gaga Amuses Little Monster—But Not Me” gives your readers your perspective. “The Tea Party Invites….Obama?”  gives your headline a tone with just three little dots (called ellipses).


Twitter can be a great way to get more information on a topic or to solicit opinions. Just ask! The more specific your question the better. For example, the other day one person I follow asked a question about patent law in 18th-century America. Now that’s specific! I did not know the answer, but I follow a few American historians. So I sent the question to them—and they answered my friend. Twitter is a goldmine for exchanging information. If you have a specialized area of interest—from patent law to school bake sales to software engineering—find like-minded tweeps (a term for people on twitter), follow them and ask them questions.


Many tweets are self-contained. They do not need explanation or refer to something someone else wrote, nor do they send you someplace else on the web with a link. They can be comments, jokes, observations. Self-contained tweets are often what people are referring to when they decry twitter as a mundane waste of time (“Do we really care what you had for lunch?” is a favorite line of naysayers, referring to tweets like “I had a great sandwich for lunch.”)

The best self-contained tweets are only one-tweet long. (It is tempting to draw them out over several, but usually this ruins the effect.) They are quips—pithy, quick and funny. The first thing I tweeted today was a quip: “That’s it. There’s too much stuff. I declare a moratorium on stuff.” I wrote this after spending 20 minutes on a blog about sidewalk art, and I was feeling overwhelmed by the internet. I wrote this off-the-cuff, ephemeral comment only to make a few people chuckle.

Here are more, better examples of quips:

I’m a mess. Not in the “beautiful mess” way. In the “you dropped an omelette all over the floor then stepped in it” way.

Started weight training yesterday. My peccaries are squealing. Or whatever they’re called. I’m in no shape to pick up that dictionary.

Just had honest talk with self. Not a bad fellow, knows a lot about me. Should consult him more often.

Notice these tweets follow a pattern. The first sentence starts with a cliché  (“I’m a mess”) or a mundane comment (“started weight training”). The second sentence qualifies the first one, setting up the joke. (“Not a bad fellow,” “my peccaries”). The final sentence is the punch line.

Some quips make a point beyond a joke, like this one:

Used a fax machine today. Join us next time as I contract the Black Death and test-drive a “horseless carriage!”

This writer transformed what could have been a boring, “I used a fax machine for the first time in years” comment into something witty. She also makes a point with her quip: what were once sparkly new technologies become obsolete.


Many tweets begin with the handle of someone else. (@araqueltrubek, or @BarackObama). These tweets are written in response to the person or people named. By adding your two cents to someone else’s tweet, you are engaging in a conversation. They may respond, and you will carry on more back-and-forth chatter. Someone else might jump in, and offer his or her perspective. Conversations like this are the heart of twitter. They are what transform it from simply a place to forward links (headline) or to talk about what a mess you are (self-contained quips).

I follow many people whose opinions I am eager to hear. If news breaks about Egypt, I look to see what those more knowledgeable than I about the Middle East are saying. I also follow people who are interested in the same topics I am. If a story comes out about how students are learning to write, for instance, I often talk about it at length with other writing professors on twitter. I have changed my mind and had intense intellectual debates on twitter. The shortness of each utterance—each point must be made quickly—helps us focus on the most important points. The ephemerality of the form—few people read tweets sent one day earlier, for example—makes it less intimidating to try out ideas, suggest strong opinions and think out loud.

As I am talking with three or four people about an article in a magazine, some people may be reading my tweets without understanding them. I do realize I am hogging their time and screen-space when I start having focused conversations with just a few others, but everybody does it. However, these sorts of tweets can confuse people just starting on twitter.

Do not try to understand everything you read on twitter—sometimes the tweet is really not meant for you, even if it appears on your screen.  You might be able to figure it out by reading backwards to an initial tweet, but sometimes people are referring to long-running inside jokes. It can be annoying. “Why have this conversation in public? Why not just email or phone each other?”

It can be cliquey or off-putting, but it also may be a convenient or fun way to communicate. But do not write too many “inside” tweets or twitter will become a less interesting place to hang out.


To get started on twitter, create a handle (your name or a variation thereof).  Then find people to follow. You might consider a focus for your twitter account at first, and follow people involved in one certain area, such as a hobby (birders), news interest (the Middle East, the upcoming presidential campaign), profession (dentists) or form of entertainment (movie reviews).

Look up who your first followers follow—you might find some of interest and start following them, too.

Spend some time lurking, or reading the tweets of those you have started following. Then, start tweeting. To get your feet wet, join in a conversation by replying to someone else’s tweet. For instance, if one person you follow tweeted a review of a movie you saw, reply to that tweet by offering your opinion, or retweet their review and add your own headline for your followers.

As you start following people and tweeting, people will start following you. If someone follows you who you do not follow, it is up to you whether or not you want to follow them back. Some people follow everyone who follows them; others are more discriminate. (I choose to follow people whose tweets I think will enrich my twitter experience, and I only follow “real people” and never follow companies).  There are many “spambots” on twitter. You can usually spot a spam account if it has no information in its profile or if the account follows thousands of people but has only a few followers.

[After I wrote that paragraph, I published this tweet: “way too many “followers” and “following” in this chapter I am writing. Describing twitter is like describing a leaderless cult.”]


RT (Retweet) If you want to forward someone’s tweet to your followers, put RT in front of it. Your followers will know who wrote the original tweet. It is a form of citation.

@  The @ symbol is placed in front of the handle (or twitter name) for everyone on twitter. If you want one person to see your tweet, put @ in front of his or her name. (For instance, you might tweet: Hey @araqueltrubek, I disagree with your twitter types. You forgot to mention the whatchmacallit!)

# The # symbol indicates a hashtag. A hashtag on twitter is an informal way to group certain tweets together. For instance, if your tweet has something to do with the Super Bowl, you might use #Superbowl. Anyone wanting to read all the Super Bowl tweets can search for “#Superbowl.”

Many people make up hashtags to make a comment on what they have just tweeted. For instance, the other day I tweeted “Time to pick up the brisket. #RoshHashana” It was just a funny way to invent a hashtag to help explain the tweet (which is a great example of a mundane, “who cares what you had for lunch?” tweet! Not all of mine are masterpieces.)

Followers are people who follow you on twitter. (Unlike facebook, twitter allows for you to follow people who do not follow you, and for people to follow you without you following them back.)

Following: People you follow on twitter. (Unlike facebook, twitter allows for you to follow people who do not follow you, and for people to follow you without you following them back.)

Lists: You can group those you follow into lists. (For example, “celebrities” “relatives” or “software geeks).

Mentions: Whenever someone tweets your handle (@yourname) it will appear in “mentions”.

DMs. Direct messages are sent from between two people. Both people have to follow each other to use direct messages. So if you follow Taylor Swift but she does not follow you back, you cannot send her a direct message.


What if you’re an introvert and don’t feel comfortable sharing details of your daily life with hundreds of people (I have the same problem with Facebook)? Can you still have fun with/make good use of Twitter?

Yes. Some of the best tweeters focus on headline tweets and have conversations about news, professional ideas and links without telling us about their girlfriends.

How do you use Twitter yet keep it from being a time suck? I’m easily distracted and once I get on social media I get caught up in everything and suddenly hours have passed.

Well, I can give you advice but it’s the same anyone would–give yourself limits, boundaries, etc. I tweet at night a lot, instead of watching TV. I find that if I am going to have a time-suck, twitter is a great one, because it is social rather than isolating, usually funny, and always informative.



(Some of the) Best Book Reviewers of 2011

November 29, 2011 § 3 Comments

I transform hobbies into jobs.  I grew up loving fiction, so I got a PhD in English. While plowing through graduate work and junior faculty-dom, reading lots of LITeratuuuure (that’s mean saying it all fancy-like), I shifted my bedside matter to magazines and non-fiction. Then, upon receiving tenure, I started writing magazine articles and non-fiction. (So one might surmise I read novels at night again, which is true, but it gets complicated–see below–it might just be that now I read my twitter feed at night …)

I have concluded, based upon this sample of three (a trend!) that I am happiest when I see position myself as a neophyte. I keep tackling new writing genres so I can feel free from insecurity and pressure–hey! I’m new at this! It’s a game! I have only up to go! 

One splendid byproduct of this pose is that I can make my  “work reading” into “studying people who are better than me” at whatever genre I happen to tackling. These days, the genre has been book reviewing. I’ve been writing them for a few years, true, but I am still warming up (okay, I did some interval training now and again–I’ve written some reviews I’m really proud of). So if it is 11:00 am and I have other deadlines it is fine to take a bath and read Bookforum  because I am studying.

I have some favorites, it is true, among reviewers currently on the job.  I thought I’d make a list. I am terrible at the “best books” of the year rigamarole, for lots of reasons (see previous posts) but also because I simply have not read enough novels or biographies or whatevers to stake a claim on bestest. However, I have read lots of book reviews over the year, so I can offer some notes to that effect.

Here are four faves.. I have crushes on a few more reviewers–stay tuned—

Sam Anderson

Since Anderson left New York for The New York Times Magazine I’ve been feeling bereft. Anderson is the reviewer I read when I want to think about WORDS in reviews. Words–individual, carefully chosen–are what make book reviews, for me, a challenge. Careful usage of nouns and verbs make reviews more  craft-y, more writing workshop “techniquey” than, say, larger critical essays.

(This blog, by the way, is a study in careless usage of words. I seem incapable of really arguing any point–I just point shit out–or crafting good sentences–I just spew–in this very young blog. Alas.) Okay back to Anderson:  you don’t have a lot of space in a review. Reviews have form, a shape. No free verse here, you have to summarize plot, frame the book, contextualize, strew in quotes, point out weaknesses in a positive review and strengths in a negative one. Adjectives, adverbial phrases, figuration–these are the bits you get to play with. I’m no poet (see me throw words against the refrigerator of the text window) but when I write a review, I feel kinda lyrical.

Look how the words Anderson chooses in his summary here (no easy book to summarize):

Nox is a brilliantly curated heap of scraps. It’s both an elegy and a meta-elegy, a touching portrait of a dead brother and a declaration of the impossibility of creating portraits of dead brothers. The book opens with a puzzle: a wrinkled square of yellow paper containing a ten-line Latin poem—untranslated, unattributed, and unlabeled save for the Roman numeral CI. Anyone who is not (as Carson is) a classical scholar will most likely be stymied. But, right away, Nox begins to help. Its next page offers a dictionary definition of the poem’s first word, multas (“numerous, many …”), and this continues as the book moves forward: Most of Nox’s left-hand pages give dictionary entries that lead us, word by word, through the poem. It’s like an ancient linguistic detective story, or Latin 101.

And check out the WORDS (active verbs, concrete subjects) in this sentence:

One of the pleasures of reading Carson is the way she applies the habits of classical scholarship—the linguistic rigor, the relentless search for evidence, the jigsaw approach to scattered facts—to the trivia of contemporary private life.

William Deresiewicz:

In my mind, he is William Derewhatsiwizgig, which is really a terrible thing to admit.  Deresiewicz was a professor before going commando, whereas I am a professor on unpaid leave, not sure if I will return or not, so I like to project him into some more-geographically-footloose-maybe-he-has-a-trust-fund-or-rich-spouse-though? future-me). When I read his Professing Literature In 2008 I felt like I had found a kindred spirit (don’t tell him: he doesn’t know) and may have –really, I can’t remember exactly, it’s been so long–riffed on a few of his lines in some of my own work.  He and I share interests–in abiding questions and particular authors  (we disagree on Richard Powers but we are both think about him a lot)–and we come at contemporary literature with the dust of office hours still clinging to our prose. Dereciewicz is wicked smart, and he plays with rhythm and emphasis in his sentences. He has range, covering referential octaves with great clip (ses “bathos and bullshit” below).  He is unafraid to go negative yet keeps safely this side of cynicism.

With The Anatomy of Influence, Harold Bloom has promised us his “swan song” as a critic. Fat chance. After some thirty original books and hundreds of edited volumes; after more than fifty years of brilliance, boldness, bombast, bathos, and bullshit; after Shelley, Blake, Yeats, and Stevens; anxiety, misreading, repression, and revision; Orphism, gnosis, Lucretius, and the Kabbalah; Shakespeare, genius, the canon, and the Book of J; after evidence of a logorrhea so Niagaran even death will be hard-put to shut it off, there is little possibility that Bloom has given us his “final reflection upon the influence process”—which in Bloomspeak means his final reflection full stop, since everything he writes is wrapped around that fixed idea. The Anatomy of Influence is not only not his last book, it’s not even his last one this year. Already in September came an appreciation of the King James Bible, billed, inevitably, as the book that Bloom had been writing “all my long life” (or at least since his agents noticed that 2011 marks the translation’s four-hundredth anniversary). “The culmination of a life’s work”: is that the last one or the latest one? Neither: it’s the one he published thirteen years ago. The Harold Bloom Show, we can rest assured, is good for many seasons yet.

Ruth Franklin: 

I was at a dinner party a few weeks ago filled with people around retirement age who, it became clear, took all their cues–social, literary, artistic, foodie-from the New York Times. Read an article and then opine at length over dinner was their basic m.o. If I had to choose a critic whose views I would read and then mouth at dinner parties when I had not read the book or knew of what I was talking, it would be Ruth Franklin. Because, well, she’s usually right. And she spells out her right-ness the right way: she’s after what the book is after, asking of each title: what is its purpose? what is it trying to say?  (unlike, say, James Woods, who privileges close reading over idea)

Recent fave graf (in lieu of it full text, which seems to be now password protected, I’ll repost the best bits that The Atlantic picked out:

Franzen [is] “all mirror and no lamp.” Realism should not just be “a transcription of reality … The task of the novel,” is still “not to show us how we live but to help us figure out how to live.” At this task, Freedom fails, “substitut[ing] the details for the big picture, a hyper-realistic portraiture for genuine psychological insight.  … Instead of an epic, Franzen has created a soap opera.”


And finally, that commonly cited favorite, Dwight Garner, because he makes me laugh, chooses under-the-radar non-fiction, and never seems to let his piercing intelligence get in the way of his commitment to knocking down pretention.

Recent fave graf: 

All of this is a way of saying that these essays have split ends and burnt edges. This fact makes you vaguely dread Mr. Sullivan’s inevitable hiring by The New Yorker as a staff writer. You don’t want to see any of the edges buffed away.


Thinking About Reading The Stranger’s Child (full of spoilers)

November 25, 2011 § 1 Comment

A year ago, I went to Dublin, and upon the suggestion of a friend, took Alan Hollinghurst’s A Line Of Beauty with me. It was gorgeous, traveling with that book, that thickly settled Thatcherite novel of manners. So how perfect was it that this November would find me again traveling internationally, and again with a Hollingshurst title to keep me company.

So in window seat 38A and in the hotel room, jetlagged, and then, as I become absorbed, even in the lobby when I should have been sightseeing, I gobbled up A Stranger’s Child. Two-thirds of the way through, I started wondering what I was reading for–it could not simply be evidence of Cecil Valence’s homosexuality, could it? After all, we readers knew the answer, since we had been there in those first 100 hundred pages (probably, for those of us who love a British period piece, made then or now, the best pages). And we knew Hollingshurst’s m.o. by now: normalize homosexuality, make of it no big deal. He was writing the Jamesian novel about men in love without having to yell “HEY! THIS IS ABOUT MEN IN LOVE! GAYS! I’M MAKING A STATEMENT.”


So there had to be something else, I thought, in the bathtub in Cascais, on the edge of Europe, as I neared the end. Some big reveal, some surprising plot twist. Something other than whether or not Paul would get that crucial bit of information. Since, after all, we knew the answer and the book was getting on in pages.

But: no.

Then,, I decided what Hollingshurst was doing was something very clever: he was mimicking the experience of us reading those first 100 pages. Not mimicking exactly– performing it? commenting on it? externalizing it through Paul et. al. They asked the questions we readers had asked back in the boarding area waiting for the flight to be called, when we were reading about George and Two Acres and all. What happened to George after that weekend? What did Daphne do in the days and years after Cecil attacked/seduced her? How did George recover from Cecil’s courting of Daphne? These questions–the questions Hollingshurst puts in the readers mind at the beginning–paralleling the questions Paul keeps asking of Daphne, George, etc.–were what the end was really about–the reading experience, the experience of reading, wondering, trying to fill in the blanks, the missing pieces. Just like Paul! We are Paul! How smart and clever and Oh! I thought.

But you know what? I’m not sure that’s what Hollingshurst was after. The book ended without a wink in that direction, at least not one I caught.  Did I miss it? Or did I project this meta-, more interesting purpose onto the novel in lieu of anything more compelling from the author or plot?

I left my copy of the book on the pillow of my hotel room in Portugal, along with a few euros, for the maids. A hardback, you see, so no point lugging it home. So I cannot re-thumb through to think through this theory-ette of mine. I read James Wood’s review in the New Yorker, and, phooey, he did not decide the book was about the experience of reading the book. Just Paul and the gang trying to find out if Cecil really did things with boys or not.

No, there is no reveal at the end of this blog post, either. No big point to send you off thinking more about thinking about reading. But if any of you have read the book (and good god I hope if you’ve read this post you’ve read the book), and have some thoughts about the above (or about Portuguese hotel rooms, and what one should leave as tip), let me know.

Eugenides is Alive, so He Might As Well Act Like It

November 4, 2011 § 9 Comments

I still have not read the reviews for Eugenides The Marriage Plot.  I read the book happily, enjoying it, and then thought who I might give my copy to.  It’s very readable, but not great.

The first section, when the characters were at Brown studying literary theory, were too close yet comfortable. I was that girl, I went out with that boy. In the summer of my sophomore year, someone gave me a collection on semiotics, On Signs, and the next two years were all about post-structuralism and deconstruction. The only difference without a difference would be my slightly younger age, which meant Foucault was sprinkled all about my seminars and late night talks. Too bad Eugenides graduated earlier: Foucauldian puns would have made great fun. Plus, Foucault is cool because his adjective changes the “t” to the “d”

And then I did that thing: I kept on, going to graduate school in English, becoming a professor, writing overwrought articles on the death of the author. But enough about me and the similarities. They are many, and I spent many hours remembering my younger days while reading the novel.

I get what Eugenides is doing in this novel, and I like him for doing it. A conventional novel, the question of the suitor. But I wanted him to answer more questions than who Madeline would choose, or why David Foster Wallace struggled so with life. In the end, the novel lacks both gravitas and enough humor to offset its lightness. Were it written by a woman, it would be scuttled off to the “smart chick lit” shelf, where many people would read and enjoy the book but at which critics would not linger. Readable but not great.

But here’s the thing that most unsettles me about The Marriage Plot: the facebook post Eugenides wrote the other day.

Here it is:

So this is his pose? My publisher made this page? (i.e. “I’m not one of those pandering, pleading, social media-obsessed authors desperate for buyers”). I don’t usually do this stuff? (i.e. “I am an Author, important and mysterious.” ).


The author, ultimately, is beside the point?

That is a very Modernist pose. It undercuts your own novel. I get your Barthesian pose here, but for Barthes the point was that the reader makes meaning. And now your readers can talk to you about the meaning they made. You can ask them questions directly, they can ask you questions. A good semotician author should relish and exploit the new channels of communication between author and reader, not retreat.

This is my problem with the “Great Novelists” my age, the Franzen, Eugenides, Lethem crowd. They are stuck in an older model of authorship, of the writer/reader relationship, Throw away Barthes — who you are really following is the T. S. Eliot of the “Intentional Fallacy,” and who wants to do that?

Social media has changed literary authorship. The gap between writer and reader is narrrowing. Get on twitter (and without the “oh now I have to do this because the publicist is making me” pose). Get over yourself, and come into the fray. There is a new energy and charge amongst the small group of folks who know the names of the “Great Novelists” I name above. It is a small world. Most people don’t know your name. And posterity? Pffft. No one knows. You have all the critiques on canonicity anyway. So put that aside too. Forget the authorship models of the  past.

There is such a thing as a literary community, and to  assume it is dirty to join  (and self-righteously proclaim you have unhooked your computer from the internet) is a sign of your coming irrelevance. Enough with the absent/present pose (and enough with the domestic realist novels of love triangles, but that’s another post).

Excise the models of Great Novelists from your minds, boys, and you might find your writing invigorated. You might find yourself commenting on the world we live in today instead of writing about the insides of your head and your memories. Be more ambitious by lowering yourself into the fray.