gall and gumption

Monday, April 30, 2007

Ole Higue

When my mother read this story from Caribbean Net News, she said, "In addition to global warming, I do believe we also have global darkening."

Woman believed to be blood sucking spirit beaten to death in Guyana
Published on Monday, April 30, 2007

BGordon French
Caribbean Net News Guyana Correspondent

GEORGETOWN, Guyana: A woman yet to be identified was beaten to death during a bizarre incident in a small village in eastern Guyana on Saturday, because villagers believed she was an evil spirit, similar to a vampire, which sucks the blood of people.

Police are not buying the villagers version and have arrested two persons from the village of Bare Root, which is located some 14 miles from Georgetown.

It all started at the crack of dawn when two villagers called out to the woman, who reportedly responded with an animal-like snarl. They became suspicious and summoned other villagers who responded promptly with mythical objects to fight off the suspected spirit.

Villagers told Caribbean Net News that the woman appeared to be a dark ball with an occasional flicker of fire, traits associated with an "Ole Higue," as told in Guyanese folklore.

According to the folklore, the Ole-Higue lives during the day among other villagers, but at night this seemingly harmless old woman removes her skin, places it gently in a calabash and travels across the sky as a ball of fire heading to the home of her intended victim. To enter the home she shrinks herself and enters through the keyhole.

According to a police statement, officers found the body, which bore several marks of violence, and near to it, a quantity of rice, a manicole broom and three pieces of wood.

It is believed that the easiest way to catch an Ole Higue is to spill rice grains on the floor in front of your front door. As the Ole Higue enters the house, she will be compelled to count every rice grain. When the home owner awakes the next morning they should find a tired Ole Higue. According to folklore, at this point in time she must be beaten to death with a special broom.

Police said they will perform an autopsy on the woman's body.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Reverse Deja Vu

That's the effect of reading "The Great Crash."

Galbraith seems like he was the sort of person who could sit across the breakfast table from you and read bits of the Wall Street Journal in a completely deadpan voice and have you weeping with laughter. Here he reports the booming optimism of 1928:

Observing this group [of corporations] as a whole, Professor Dice was especially struck by their "vision for the future and boundless hope and optimism." He noted that "they did not come into the market hampered by the heavy armor of tradition." In recounting their effect on the market, Professor Dice obviously found the English language verging on inadequacy. "Led by these mighty knights of the automobile industry, the steel industry, the radio industry..." he said, "and after much sackcloth and ashes, had caught this vision of progress, the Coolidge market had gone forward like the phalanxes of Cyrus, parasang upon parasang and again parasang upon parasang..." [Section break] In June of 1928 the market retreated a parasang or two...

His chapter on the proliferation of "investment trusts" somehow evokes memories of the tech boom, the housing boom, and Enron:

As usual at some point in the growth of a boom all aspects of property ownershop become irrelevant except the prospect for an early rise in price. Income from the property, or enjoyment of its use, or even the long-run worth is now academic. As in the case of the more repulsive Florida lots, these usufructs may be non-existent or even negative. What is important is that tomorrow or next week market values will rise -- as they did yesterday or last week -- and a profit will be realized.

People, it seems, haven't changed.

That much of what was repeated about the market -- then as now -- bore no relation to reality is important, but not remarkable. Between human beings there is a type of intercourse which proceeds not from knowledge or even from lack of knowledge, but from failure to know what isn't known. This was true of much of the discourse on the market.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Undergraduate Bibles

I read Slaughterhouse-5 for the first time when I was 14, and for about the next three years after that if you had asked me who my favorite author was I would have said Kurt Vonnegut.

His books were not the first grownup literature I had read, but his were the first that didn’t make me feel that I was eavesdropping.

When I arrived at college in California three years later I found that there were all these people who had had the same experience with Vonnegut. The feeling that here was an adult who you could trust, who wrote about tragic things in a funny way that made you feel even more how ironic they were. The reason I didn't have this collective experience was that I hadn't lived in the States till I got to college, and my reading of these books was a little out of context. I had, for example, almost no acquaintance with rock music. Most of the cultural things that interested a suburban U.S. teenager were quite remote from a suburban Jamaican teenager. Vonnegut was one point of contact (there really did seem to be a copy of Breakfast of Champions or Slaughterhouse 5 in every backpack) but it wasn't much of a point of contact. All those discussions, for example, of who had "sold out" and who hadn't "sold out" might as well have been in a foreign language. By the 1980s in California everyone had sold out anyway.

Well, the irony in Vonnegut's books was one of the first things that began to lose its charm. By the time I was 19 I was so over Vonnegut. It was right about then, I think, that I fell for Tolstoy, and discovered a whole new level of artistry. And I was totally spellbound. There was no going back from that point.

I was in Creative Studies then, and this was when they still had student-conducted seminars. For that first couple of years in the late 1970s some literature major was always teaching a seminar in “Undergraduate Bibles,” as we called them.

You probably can guess the list.

The Catcher in the Rye
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
On the Road

I know I've left some out. Come on! Sing along! Put your offerings in the comments!

Oh God, people, if you think I am a literary snob now you should have met me then. But I still feel the same way about this as I did then: why “teach” a class in this stuff that everybody was reading anyway? It wasn’t as though anybody who had lived through adolescence needed to have the wretched Catcher in the Rye explained to them. By Larry. I couldn’t understand why people were still looking for profundity there when there was all this other stuff that we hadn’t even read yet.

But of course they weren’t looking for anything there, except possibly their own settled convictions about experience, reaffirmed by the authors they trusted. This is an adolescent thing to do. One’s expectations of a writer like Vonnegut were very high. He had to be right about everything. I made the same demand of Tolstoy as I did of Vonnegut. I had advanced in taste, but not a whole lot in self-awareness. When writers weren’t “right” I was impatiently dismissive of them. It was a dogmatic attitude. There are some writers who will yield nothing to that attitude, and if you lock up your mind in your own (even very enlightened) prejudices, you won’t do them justice. That’s true of the English Renaissance poets, for instance. It took me a little longer to see that the dogmatic attitude doesn’t do justice to what you like, either.

It was years later, catching little bits of interviews or profiles of Vonnegut here and there, and his own articles, that I noticed what a good man he was. Here was a man who had achieved a really iconic status – as a writer, no less, not even as a rock musician – among the searching youth of the 1960s and 1970s. And you do not find in his interviews or in his writings a trace, a hint of the demagogue. I think he himself knew the measure of his own literary gift and did not take himself seriously beyond that. Surely no science fiction writer ever wrote with more warmth of human feeling. And this in spite of being fearfully pessimistic. He preached the homeliest of virtues. It wasn’t a spaceship that was going to save us from ourselves, it was kindness, loyal affection and friendship, an appreciation of pleasure, justice, prevention of suffering, and abstention from cruelty and dishonesty, not taking yourself too seriously. These were such moderate values; they would go over without offense at a Rotary breakfast. The parts of Slaughterhouse-5 that still resonate for me are those passages where he mentions these long-lasting friendships, the duties of the heart, these connections with good people. He was so grateful for good people, for friends, for people who taught him things, so grateful for the pleasure of their affection. He could have been an asshole on a colossal scale, and he would have retained a fan base that would have sagely approved of anything he did on the grounds that he was so profound and if you didn’t like him you weren’t cool. That is, young people were quite ready to crown him the überadolescent, if he had wanted that role. Instead, he was just good. And this is something that I could only appreciate a little later, I think, when I forgave him for not being D.H. Lawrence.

Vonnegut had his highest reputation at a time when a fiction writer was supposed to be like a prophet. For years the poor guy kept having to write “The Next Great Vonnegut Novel.” A genius at fiction, someone like Kleist, Pushkin, Lawrence, or Tolstoy, might have been able to combine the prophetic and the intimate. But Vonnegut wasn’t that kind of writer. In Slaughterhouse-5, which I think is his most serious book, he keeps beating and beating against the waste, pointlessness, and cruelty of war, as a human problem, and he can’t get anywhere, except for finding a multitude of small ironies among the events that still haunted him. But the small ironies don’t add up to a big irony. They do have the effect of pervading the whole book with a tone of unspecific irony, as in that repeated catchphrase, “So it goes.” Vonnegut utters these catchphrases because he doesn’t know what to say. (Lawrence would have charged in there and said something, even if it was wrong-headed.) It was a breakdown of thinking around this very specific, dreadful experience, and he kept working on it, as if he had to rebuild his moral insides. But that weak irony was, for teenage radicals (and all teenagers are radicals, as Eric Hoffer said) a grand statement of repudiation, of irony without a target.

One of the effects of war on a society – and it’s one that never seems to occur to its planners and promoters – is the questioning of values that occurs as people seek to understand what has happened. There’s a sense in which war, if it goes on long enough, radicalizes everybody. I’m sure you’ve all heard that Greek tragedy is all about hubris (does that idea bore you as much as it bores me?). Look at some of the Greek plays as an inquiry into violence and violent passions: Agammemnon, The Bacchantes, Medea, Hecuba, for example. They get really interesting. Or Andrew Marvell’s meditations on war in “Upon Appleton House” and in his “Horatian Ode” on Cromwell.

You still find these odd folk who say that the modernist writers, painters, and composers after the First World War repudiated earlier artistic values, broke with tradition, dispensed with it. And the non-artists, the young, followed them because it was cool and fashionable. But it was the war that had dispensed with tradition. The war was where European society immolated its own ideals in a long orgy of slaughter; that was not the work of a few artists and poets that nobody had ever heard of.

Vonnegut’s wartime experience of the bombing of Dresden is a very weird reversal: by becoming part of a target in that type of warfare he became indistinguishable from the enemy. I mean, you’d think that you’d make a target out of the enemy and not the other way around.

Slaughterhouse-5 is asking the question, “How the hell did we get there?” The book came out 20 years after World War II, just in time for the Vietnam War. No sane person, least of all Vonnegut, would have doubted the necessity of fighting the Nazis, but the strange and terrible thing is that even when war is in a good cause it uncorks chaos. “How the hell did we get here? How the hell do we get out of here?” He’s hardly the first writer to explore this question. Odysseus took 10 years to get home from Troy. It was, as we might say nowadays, an “adjustment period.”

Tolstoy, Stendhal, and Thackeray all wrote about the Napoleonic wars. Writing about these things required agility, quickness and subtleness of movment through different points of view and narrative distance. Sometimes Tolstoy is peering over the armrest of God’s throne, then he’s inside the mind of General Kutuzov or one of his fictional characters. Tolstoy’s ability to stay in the consciousness of characters very different from himself is one of the reasons to read Tolstoy, for that rich sense of life lived by others. Stendhal manages to get inside of the head of one character who doesn’t know what is going on and is wandering around a battlefield trying to find out. He only finds out afterwards – it’s the battle of Waterloo. Somehow Fabrice del Dongo's tedious wanderings are more effective than anything that I can imagine at giving some idea of the scale of the battle. In other words, to present something of the reality of these experiences, imagination and observation have to be working together at a pretty high level. (If you haven’t yet, you should read the opening chapters of The Charterhouse of Parma.) It doesn’t seem right to leave Goya out just because he was a painter, either. What is that voice that writes those commentaries to “Los Desastres?” Like a graffiti artist’s scribble at the scene.

Vonnegut’s omniscient narrator is embarrassed to be in the novel at all, and the deus ex machina of Slaughterhouse-5 is a bunch of space aliens who look like toilet plungers with hands.

Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim has no help from any broader perspective. He’s locked into his subjective experience; meaning is constructed later – if you happen to survive – and Pilgrim isn’t even interested in meaning, then or later. The belief that cluelessness equals innocence and innocence equals virtue (and, conversely, that consciousness is guilt) has a long tradition in American literature.

Subjectivism is not bad if you’re innocent. But nobody is innocent; people will fight like street dogs to claim the high ground, or to insist that someone else doesn’t have the right to it. I remember once someone said to me at Columbia that Rosa Parks was not all that much of a hero because she was already a member of the NAACP when she refused to sit at the back of the bus.

This history is not hidden. But the Times' obituary describes Parks' arrest nonetheless as an event which "turned a very private woman into a reluctant symbol and torchbearer..." Parks was certainly reluctant to see too personal valoration of her as heroine distract from the broader movement. But she was not private about her politics. And her refusal to give up her bus seat was nothing new for her. As she would later tell an interviewer, "My resistance to being mistreated on the buses and anywhere else was just a regular thing with me and not just that day."

The myth of Parks as a pre-political seamstress who was too physically worn out to move has such staying power not because there's any factual basis but because it appeals to an all-too popular narrative about how social change happens in America: When things get bad enough, an individual steps up alone, unsupported and unmediated, and spontaneously resists. And then an equally spontaneous movement follows. Such a myth makes good TV, but it's poor history.

He’s right, but I’d be much meaner about it myself. It’s not only that this myth makes good TV, it flatters a certain segment of the audience (may I say, the stupid segment? Thank you.) that they are giving charity to Parks as a sort of holy fool -- as opposed to having justice aqand respect pried loose from the death grip of their wretched, mean-spirited sense of entitlement, by a woman who had taken their measure and knew exactly what she was doing.

You pity Billy Pilgrim, and enjoy a certain glow of pride at your fine feelings. “I must be one of the good innocent people too!” you conclude, because nobody understands you, either. (I had a friend in high school who was convinced that Barry Manilow would understand her feelings, if she could just talk to him.) And isn’t it awful how nobody understands you. And pretty soon you are hogging up all the pity for yourself. Then, you know, you begin to suspect that other people are appropriating pity that you should have. And how easy it is to have contempt, while you are congratulating yourself on being such a moral person who cares. Irony is strange stuff. What a horribly Vonnegut-style irony it is that so many of the children of his first generation of readers should, in their time of intellectual exploration, favor the works of the appalling Ayn Rand. People go into that stuff and they never seem to come back out. It’s like they become upstanding members of the Be a Shit For Life Club. Oh dear, am I harrumphing? Pardon me!

But I can’t blame Vonnegut for this. It’s one of the creepier features of American life, in my opinion, and I, for one, will be dancing in the streets when that particular bargain with the devil is paid off. Vonnegut as a fiction writer got stuck there too; he couldn’t write his way past the corrupt guilty and the pure innocent, even though every observation he made about real life indicated that he was aware of how much more complicated and interesting people, and life, were. He didn't quite manage to save us from ourselves, but I don't know who could, really.

Monday, April 23, 2007

If You're Going

Tonight I was eating dinner while my Dad was watching a bit of The American Experience on PBS. It made me think of a lot of things including all the lovely people who I still miss in Sebastopol. Especially Eric who was there, at "Ground Zero" of the Summer of Love. I was too young for that whole adventure -- undoubtedly a good thing as it turns out. But still, when: I hear that song my eyes just tear up, I get a lump in my throat. Yes, pathetic. Guilty as charged.

Sunday, April 22, 2007


My cousin lives near here and her daughter attends this rather swanky girls' school in Bethesda. Each spring the school has a big book sale -- a huge book sale. I went yesterday and made a complete pig of myself. Here's what I got:

William L. Shirer -- The Collapse of the Third Republic Had my eye on this for a long time, as sort of the end of that strange period of French history that began with oh, I dunno, Talleyrand and Napoleon.
Barbara W. Tuchman -- The March of Folly Read something somewhere months ago that made me want to take a look.
Azar Nafisi -- Reading Lolita in Tehran Met the writer last fall and was embarrassed that I hadn't read the book. I only met her for a second, introduced by a friend who translates medieval Persian poetry, but I always feel a bit of an idiot when I meet the author of a book that everybody has read except me.
Charles Mackay -- Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds It only cost a dollar.
Ludwig Bemelmans -- Tell Them It Was Wonderful Years ago Max Schott told me he liked this guy.
Alan Bennett -- Writing Home I love all of Alan Bennett's non-play writings. Especially especially The Lady in the Van. Yes, I've read this one before but lost my copy or gave it away in one of my many moments of evangelism (I was giving out Delacroix's Journals like Gideon Bibles for a while). Bennett writes wonderfully about people.
Jean Rhys -- Wide Sargasso Sea For a little project I'm working on.
Harold Nicolson -- Benjamin Constant Because everything I have ever read about Benjamin Constant is interesting. And also because of the interest in 19th century France mentioned above.
Philip Larkin -- Collected Poems Because I couldn't remember whether I had a copy and when I peeked into it the poems are so good.
Victoria Glendinning -- Rebecca West: A Life Curious about everything about Rebecca West, and also because Glendinning gave L. at Glittering Generalities 10 reasons to adore Anthony Trollope.
Aleksander Wat -- My Century: The Odyssey of a Polish Intellectual Couldn't walk away from it for some reason.
John Kenneth Galbraith -- The Great Crash of 1929 Tried this years ago, but now that I have been following the housing and credit fiasco I might get more of what he's talking about.
Robert Hughes -- The Shock of the New The man who wrote
Goya, being neither madman nor masochist, had no taste for martyrdom. But he sometimes was heroic, particularly in his conflicted relations with the last Bourbon monarch he served, the odious and arbitrarily cruel Fernando VII. His work asserted that men and women should be free from tyranny and superstition; that torture, rape, despoliation, and massacre, those prennial props of power in both the civil and the religious arena, were intolerable; and those who condoned or employed them were not to be trusted, no matter how seductive the bugle calls and the searing of allegiance might seem. At fifteen, to find this voice -- so finely wrought and yet so raw, public and yet strangely private--speaking to me with such insistence and urgency from a remote time and country I'd never been to, of whose language I spoke not a word, was no small thing. It had the feeling of a message transmitted with terrible urgency, mouth to ear: this is the truth, you must know this, I have been through it. Or, as Goya scratched at the bottom of his copperplates in Los desastres de la guerra: "Yo la vi," "I saw it." Italics by Hughes

about his feeling for Goya and his feeling for painting will have something interesting to say about Modern Art too. That's my hope anyway.
Frederick S. Wight -- Hans Hofmann The great color man of the 20th century. This has a long essay by Hofmann in it.
Hereward Lister Cooke -- Painting Techniques of the Great Masters It was only after I got it home that I realized that the author was curator of painting at the National Gallery here in D.C. and that means I can go look at the paintings.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Now That You're Here...

...and I've got nothing new of my own to offer just at the moment you might as well share the fruits of my idleness.

Stop by Judging Crimes and read this, or some of the other stuff. You know it's good for you.

This piece (via Sideshow should probably be retitled "A Day Late and a Dollar Short."

Metafilter was one of the first blogs I ever used to visit. Then I sort of forgot about it. Recently I've been going back there again; now I'm wondering if it might not work out as a dating site. Or maybe I should put more into my relationship with my dog.

See if there's anything interesting here. I wonder if anybody will actually work their way through some of these.

I heard Ezra Pound on old scratchy tapes in Donald Pearce's Modernist Poetry class at UCSB. We'd listen to that gravelly garbelly voice reciting "The Seafarer," strange and haunting and haunted, and then Pearce, who knew him personally, would sigh, "He was a wonderful, wonderful man."

Oh, and here's probably the last word on Imus, if you still care. I mean, personally I never cared whether the old windbag kept or lost his job.

The Cliff House is online now, Bob. via wood_s_lot.

In case you were wondering what church I belong to. Plep, as usual, has many marvelous things.

B., via email, sends me this link to a what she says is a "Chinese pas de deux from Swan Lake." The music isn't Swan Lake, and the dancing isn't Swan Lake either, but there is something weirdly Swan Lakey about it. Aside from its just generally being weird. Watch it to the end.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


Some of you may or may not know that my present gig is with de gummint. There are some extremely aggravating things about it and others that I like. One of the things I like is it's an old building with a lot of marble. There are fossils in the marble. I have so far found two. Alas, it is not the sort of place where a person can enjoy herself wandering about looking for fossils. It is maybe not maximum gummint paranoia kind of place but there's quite enough of that sort of thing. So I have to look for my fossils on the sly, wishfully, with a brief prayer to the God of Fossils to give me a sign, a sighting. They have to come as a gift. Which is fine. Another virtue of the age of the building is that it is divided into offices not cubicles. Offices. With doors. Where you can walk around the desk. Where people knock. Mind you, cubicle culture seems to have migrated in anyhow. A man came into my office one day and helped himself to the lightbulb in my desk lamp. Did I mention that the desk is a desk, made of wood, with drawers and brass drawer pulls? And the desk lamp is brass, with a shade and an incandescent bulb? Since the lamp was not switched on he assumed I didn't need the bulb. I was so completely without presence of mind that I just said, "Sure." Little things like these are pleasing. But here is a good thing I have learned. The mere act of walking down a hallway with a piece of paper somehow conveys the impression that you are a busy and serious person. I'm getting a kick out of this. I frequenly have to walk down the hall with papers in my hand and feel frightfully official and busy. The thing is I am actually busy. But the impression of business is a slightly different thing. Especially when I'm wearing heels.

Sunday, April 08, 2007


So my browser crapped out on me this weekend, a thing I have never experienced before. I am a Mac user and I've just been happily using Safari, the Apple in-house browser that came with this machine. Internet Explorer came along, but I never used it. Except that then this weekend my Safari browser started doing a weird thing. Whenever I would try to type in a form field (such as for instance the box where I might log in to my Blogger account or try to write an email message or where I'd type some search terms) Safari would crash, usually with that little spinning rainbow thingie that in my mind is mostly bad news. It happened over and over again. So in order to try to produce something for my small but select readers I opened Internet Explorer. The version I had was so old (this Mac is two years old almost to the day) that the "Create Post" page on the new blogger didn't show the "publish" button. Not only that but IE would freeze about half the time I tried to check my mail. I could read it my mail in Safari but not write any, and I suppose I could write in IE if I could get it to actually open the mailbox.

The timing of this was great as I was feeling particularly stupid and in the "what-is-the-point-of-my-existence-again?" mode. No, I'm not being ironic. It was good. It got me away from the computer for a while. Of course, I got out of the house, for life drawing, for my weekly trip to T.J. Maxx seeking creative and non-hideous Storage Solutions for various odds and ends that now reside on the dining room table, and the Dog Adventure. Swain's Lock which is even nicer than Riley's Lock. Wrestling with Misha about half the time because as soon as she had stepped out of the car and had a pee, she was ready to go back in the car. And every time I stopped to look at something (is that another beaver?, etc.) she took that as the indication that she must lead her back to the car. There weren't very many people there today as it was cold, miserably cold for April. I expect about the time it gets nice enough to go paint there it will be full of people and bugs. But not to worry: I have my iPod.

So I got home to night unable to communicate with the rest of the world. And so in a sort of panic I downloaded a third browser, Opera, and what a nice surprise! Other than the fact that it works, it also displays all these little blogger-related features like the buttons on the "Compose" page that I was resigned to not having on my Mac.

But I still feel rather stupid.

I've actually had to take a time out from some of my other little writing projects because, well, I think I might have just gotten to the point where I don't know what I'm doing. So it seems best not to do anything for a little while. Or maybe I am becoming stupid. I'm just saying I feel stupid, I'm not saying I'm stupid so you'll run to assure me I'm not! I can go longer and longer intervals without that kind of juice, you know.

What I think it is is that I feel overwhelmed. I suppose I ought to try to get some control over things.

Is It Lies Or Is It Fiction?

I have been searching for over a week for the issue of The New Republic with the piece about David Sedaris in it. Why can I not find one? Via Romenesko I find this Jack Shafer piece at Slate. It seems, according to TNR writer Alex Heard, that Sedaris has been making up stuff for his true stories. (I’m reserving judgment on the piece until I can get hold of a copy of TNR.) The part about Sedaris is on page 2, if you want to skip the story of the soldier who made up some war experiences.

But then you’d miss the socko opening.

If you've never embellished an anecdote to get a bigger laugh from your drinking companions, please stand up. If you've never lifted an emotional story from your kid brother's life or from a book you've read and then plugged it into your own narrative, you can stand up, too.
If you're still sitting, stand up and join the other liars. Everybody embellishes and steals a little, and some of us do it a lot.
Why do we lie? When talking about our own histories, we lie because we fear—quite rightly—that unadorned our autobiographies are too dull to interest anybody. Plus, the true lies we tell around life's campfires are mostly harmless. So what if I sharpened a punch line or boosted the pathos a little at a dinner party? Social listeners don't demand the Associated Press' high standards of accuracy from storytellers. If anything, they expect a little fiction marbled into the facts.

"If you're still sitting, stand up and join the other liars." Oh yeah? Well fuck you too! What? Oh sorry I didn't get the joke, hahaha he's a liar too so if this isn't true it's because he's a liar and what am I doing calling him a liar when I’m just another liar -- if I say I’m not a liar I’m lying hahaha! So we all find ourselves wallowing together in the mud hole, what fun. Now what do they call that little bit of editorial jiu-jitsu? Journalism? Humor?

That “quite rightly” is a nice touch. You poor, pathetic, pedestrian dullards.

I’ll tell you what really annoys me about this song and dance about the AP reporter’s high standards of truth. All storytelling is fictive. The driest AP business story – a summary of United Widget’s unremarkable annual report -- is fictive. The form of a straight news story is prescribed for a number of perfectly sound practical purposes: economy of space, speed (pressure of deadline or pressure of events), avoidance of ambiguity in matters of fact, avoidance of appearance of bias about facts, because it’s part of the record. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, as you can see whenever you read a piece of well-executed objective reporting. The journalist selects and edits, leaves out facts, makes all sorts of judgments that are not visible on the page. Some of these formal judgments are made for the journalist beforehand, and some judgments are made later in the process, for other reasons (Thanky, Tom.). Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they haven’t been made. Yes, I’m deliberately making the best possible case for straight news reporting here. For the worst case, watch CNN for about half an hour. Shafer’s AP reporter – any news reporter -- is really only accountable to one standard: the accuracy of his factual assertions. But where is the accountability for all those other judgments? There isn’t any. Not that there’s all that much of any other kind of accountability either, come to think of it, as Glenn Greenwald points out yet again.

“The lies we tell around life’s campfires are quite harmless.” This statement is, if you will pardon the expression, not true.

You’ve all I’m sure encountered the sort of long maudlin human-interest newspaper and magazine story, the one where the writer has worked his way up to the privilege of using techniques like irony and “dramatization.” From a literary perspective, they’re unbelievably bad. Because they too work with a narrow range of permitted literary devices. And these literary devices are all clichés. I remember at J-school the reverence with which people would cite that one Gay Talese story about Joe DiMaggio, the one where Talese never actually talks to DiMaggio, as if this were an unparalleled act of literary daring, permitted only to the most seasoned and proven professional with years under his belt. From imbecilities like this, you see, you get to Sedaris. The Talese story uses fictional techniques to jazz up facts but only in the approved way, that is, with a sort of hard-boiled sentimentality that falsifies not facts but feeling.

There’s a beautiful symmetry to all of this when it is now alleged that Sedaris has been using claims of fact to jazz up his fiction.

Another public storyteller whose personal recollections don't jibe with reality is David Sedaris. Alex Heard's examination of Sedaris' nonfiction in the March 19 New Republic reveals the humorist taking broad and routine liberties with the facts in pursuit of laughs.

Sedaris' stories derive their punch from the fact that they're supposed to be true, a standard he embraces in the introduction to his 1997 collection Naked. "The events described in these stories are real," Sedaris writes. Even so, nobody expects a humorist to apply the absolute faithfulness to characters, dialogue, and events in his stories that an AP reporter brings to a congressional-hearing dispatch. No scold, Heard bends like a contortionist to accommodate Sedaris, writing that it's OK for a "humorist to recreate dialogue that captures the general spirit of how a conversation unfolded But this artistic license doesn't give humorists the right to remember their stories more vividly than they actually happened and still call them real. If humorists pipe lines of dialogue like a playwright (as we now know Sedaris does) or remold scenes from life like a novelist (as we also know he does), they're basically writing fiction and should cop to it. If we label Sedaris' pieces fiction, are they as hilarious? I think not, and I think Sedaris knows that, and I think that's why he presents them as nonfiction.

Does Shafer think that it’s Sedaris or fiction in general that suffers from the lack of “punch?” I can’t tell. But I do remember that the disgraced James Frey had the same story when he was found out: that his fabrications would make more of an impression on his readers if he said they were true. So I start to wonder if this bizarre notion has taken hold in some way in some of the murkier corners of the publishing industry. “It’s a great story but it’ll have more punch if it’s true!” The word “true” now discounted to meaning something slightly less than “authentic.”

Without having read the TNR piece, but with memories of a couple of Sedaris’ books, I’m not surprised to hear of these questions. I find that Sedaris’ books just fit so neatly into a certain school of “memoir” writing, there seemed to be a whole outbreak of them in the mid- to late 1990s. I read these stories and can imagine a lot of clever people sitting around slightly tipsy and laughing (Shafer’s drinking buddies, I suppose), and I’m also thinking that the stories are well-worn, stereotypical, told too often, slick. They lack any sense of exploration or discovery, any sense that these writers might happen across an experience whose meaning they can’t snap up with their know-it-all cleverness.

If you stroll through Borders Books on a Sunday afternoon and come out of there feeling vaguely depressed, it might be because of the sight of all those “Mommy has quit her publishing job, married and moved to the suburbs to take care of little Chesterfield and Davenport while Daddy works in the city ” books. (Sedaris at least spares us that!) The campy covers of the fiction ones look exactly like the campy covers of the nonfiction ones.

Sedaris is as good at this sort of thing as it’s possible to get. He’s a genial writer, certainly. But the kinds of faults I’m describing are internal, unrelated to with any external condition of fact: they are problems of attitude. If something fails as fiction you can’t save it by suddenly attaching the label “True!” to it. Truth can save bad writing in journalism (and only a narrow spectrum of journalism, at that). But it can’t save fiction; here’s the amazing thing. It can’t even save most badly written things that are true. (I remember once when I was teaching writing at UCSB this big guy showed up silent and sort of glowering through each meeting of the class. About midway through the quarter he turned in a story about a guy who had broken his leg. I read it to the class, anonymously, and people began to find fault with the writing, which was shrill, pretentious, and violent. Predictably when these faults were pointed out the writer blew up at me and told me I couldn’t possibly understand his writing because I had never had a broken leg. Well, you know, I shouldn’t need to have a broken leg to be able to judge a piece of writing. Did he bring the story in the hopes that maybe I had had a broken leg somewhere in my past? What about all those people who haven’t been murdered who are reading murder mysteries?)

Compare any of these books with, say, Diana Athill’s Instead of a Letter, published more than 50 years ago. Athill could easily have been one of these people. She, too, was a bright, witty, attractive young woman who went into publishing, except her fiancé dumped her and – because she really loved him – it very nearly broke her spirit. For years afterwards, she just never felt all right, she was carrying a deep sadness. Whenever I think of this story I wonder if she was aware, when she was writing this book, of her own courage in having lived through it so uncomplainingly. She just kept going, limping along with this injury, not always, apparently, completely conscious of how much it had hurt her. It’s almost as though she wrote the book to inquire into this defining experience and the long shadow it cast over her youth. The difference between Athill and the AP reporter is that Athill has all the editorial leeway that the AP reporter doesn’t have. But Athill isn’t using this leeway to jazz up the facts and impress her friends; she’s using it to discover the truth.

The lies we tell around the campfires of life aren’t any less lies because they haven’t been collected into a book. That’s ridiculous. The harm they do is this: they make it harder for us to know what the truth looks and feels like. Which is hard enough as it is.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

It's Those Little Touches

I laughed today when I read this story about the return home of the 14 British sailors and marines. So because there isn't much to laugh at out there, from where I sit (I mean, I'm sure there is -- hope springs eternal in the human breast etc, (which should get me a few more hits from the boob-googlers) but there is so much more to be angry about), that I felt compelled to share.

The lingering standoff, which saw Britain go to the UN security council for support, ended suddenly yesterday when the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, announced he was freeing the captives as a "gift" to Britain.

The news came in a sudden PR flourish by Mr Ahmadinejad following a 90-minute monologue on regional history and global politics at a news conference.

This morning, before taking their business class seats on the scheduled BA flight, the crew were handed gift bags from Mr Ahmadinejad, with which they posed for a final round of photographs, the 14 male captives again wearing the grey suits provided by their captors.

It's those little touches, as they say in the bed-and-breakfast business, that really set Ahmedinejad apart. I expect he's a complete loony but this is just brilliant. Maybe we could settle this whole business by getting some big PR firm over here to hire him for boatloads of money. Gift bags!