James Russell Ament http://www.jamesrament.com Essays, Journals, Book Reviews, Commentary on Literature & Culture Tue, 28 Feb 2012 14:45:42 +0000 en hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v= ‘They’re, Like, Way Ahead of the Linguistic Currrrve’ http://www.jamesrament.com/theyre-like-way-ahead-of-the-linguistic-currrrve/ http://www.jamesrament.com/theyre-like-way-ahead-of-the-linguistic-currrrve/#comments Tue, 28 Feb 2012 14:45:42 +0000 James Ament http://www.jamesrament.com/?p=4551 Continue reading ]]> The New York Times just published an article with the above title that tries to convince the reader how young women are trendsetters in vocal patterns, pioneers in stylistic trends. How sad—we can now all speak like a valley girl.

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Audio Books http://www.jamesrament.com/audio-books/ http://www.jamesrament.com/audio-books/#comments Mon, 27 Feb 2012 13:53:46 +0000 James Ament http://www.jamesrament.com/?p=4548 Continue reading ]]> From n + 1, a thoughtful essay on “Listening to Books” by Maggie Gram. An excerpt:

Some authors still disdain audio books, too, although the extra income is hard to turn down. (Audio book sales account for somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of the total book publishing market, and authors stand to make real money from them.) And then for every anti-audio book novelist there are several anti-audio book critics. The essayist Sven Birkerts claims that all good reading involves self-mediation, effort, “collaboration” between the reader and the book, whereas audio books “determine” everything—“pace, timbre, inflection”—for the “captive listener.” The blogger and critic Scott Esposito is less careful to mask his snobbery: “Don’t go pretending like you’re some kind of big-time reader because you consumed the complete works of Balzac via mp3. No, you’re some guy who listened to an iPod while cooking dinner.” And when a New York Times reporter asked Harold Bloom a couple of years ago what he thought of audio books, the great Yale humanist told her that “deep reading really demands the inner ear as well as the outer ear.” It requires, he continued, the use of “that part of you which is open to wisdom. You need the text in front of you.” This sounds to me somewhat peculiar, but a lot of people basically agree with it. They believe that whatever part of you is “open to wisdom” is a part that can be activated only through the eyes.

Unless, of course, you are blind. In which case everything is obviously completely totally different.


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A New, Noisier Way of Writing http://www.jamesrament.com/a-new-noisier-way-of-writing/ http://www.jamesrament.com/a-new-noisier-way-of-writing/#comments Sun, 26 Feb 2012 14:15:20 +0000 James Ament http://www.jamesrament.com/?p=4541 Continue reading ]]> From The New York Times:

Like many writers, Jonathan Franzen is a serious believer in isolation. He has declared it “doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.” He has claimed to write behind soundproof walls and double-pane windows, lights off, blindfolded, earplugged and earmuffed.

This idea of the island writer — secluded, in but not of the world, aloofly authoritative — is old and enduring. And that endurance is remarkable, for in general these are dire times for remote priesthoods claiming special access to the Truth.

In field after field, the information authorities face disruption, with new equations of power replacing the old. Newspapers are learning to let readers talk back. Now that enthusiasts have made a reference work out of Wikipedia, encyclopedias are allowing their audience to write them. Companies are discovering that they must “engage” with their customers, not just advertise at them.

What do these new equations of influence — the shift from “power over” to “power with” others, as some describe it — mean for the writer? For in this and other ways, modern life challenges the picture of the writer-as-island.

For one thing, the writer is besieged by an ever more instantaneous culture. In our time, velocity has found a moral status once reserved for things like chastity. Google saves us seconds by completing our searches. Journalists must file for the Web fast, before they’ve had a minute to think. Cable pundits must respond at once to every little happening in public life.

The pressure of this culture is to burp out the thought you have right now — regardless of its quality, regardless of how it connects to your other thoughts.

The best writing, of course, is often the opposite of instantaneous. The transcendent illustration of this is Walt Whitman, who published “Leaves of Grass” over 26 years, tweaking and buffing and adding new poems until the end.

Some time ago, interviewing the writer V.S. Naipaul, I struggled to get him to do what writers are often asked to do: to apply published insights to new territory — in a way, to become a pundit. I realized, the more I struggled, that Mr. Naipaul, in refusing these prompts, was defending a notion of writing that is at war with instantaneousness.

“There are two ways of talking,” he said. “One is the easy way, where you talk lightly, and the other one is the considered way. The considered way is what I have put my name to. I wouldn’t put my name to the easy thoughts, because you can often have outrageous views, passionate views, and that’s the source of your thoughts, eventually. But when they occur, they are very rough and brutal. And so a lot of writers’ time is spent in working out or refining coarse thought.”

If the instantaneous culture threatens this idea of refined thoughts, so does the prevalence of feedback. The writer now moves in a world that not only expects speed, but also floods her with data on how she’s doing as she does it — from Amazon sales ranks to most-e-mailed lists to hashtagged reviews of books by readers who have just begun to read them.

Writers, like everyone else, relish feedback. But many will tell you that their art requires sequestration from feedback, for a time, to go into the creative wilds and let their minds roam freely — and then, when it’s time, return to the world and be judged. With no judgment at all, their art would die. But with always-on judgment, it may never reach the

status of art.

Feedback loops could make writing more of a meritocracy, just as YouTube makes it easier for gifted, off-the-grid singers to go viral and thus find a record deal. But if the writing world becomes just another segment of the market economy, with writers compelled, as they increasingly are, to be entrepreneurs and marketers, its essential character will change.

The digital age confronts the writer with the tyranny of numbers: you can know instantly exactly how many books you did sell, just as Web sites can measure page views and Twitter can identify trending words.

Along with this deluge of feedback is the new ethic of openness. From open-source software to OpenTable restaurant reservations to the open pastures of Creative Commons, modern life agitates against the closed-off and the exclusive.

And so writers are encouraged to open up, shed their mystique, reveal the innards of their craft. The best-selling Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho — more attuned than other writers, perhaps, to whatever is perceived as modern — has experimented by sharing glimpses of his writing life on Twitter, encouraging feedback from his readers and even broadcasting a live video of himself writing his next book.

“They used to see writers as wise men and women in an ivory tower, full of knowledge, and you cannot touch them,” Mr. Coelho recently told an interviewer. “The ivory tower does not exist anymore. If the reader doesn’t like something they’ll tell you. He’s not or she’s not someone that is isolated.”

This opening up of the process may fit the zeitgeist, but it terrifies many writers. Yet is Mr. Coelho right? Must the writer, like corporations and governments everywhere, accept a fundamental shift in what is kept open and what kept closed?

Some serious writers show a way forward. Teju Cole, the Nigerian writer and photographer, is an avid user of Twitter, using it not to expound on the Super Bowl, but to remix and rewrite Nigerian headlines in a deft, literary way. Salman Rushdie, a defender of Writing with a capital W, has found a way to balance that literary seriousness with new habits of launching tweet-wars, informing us where he is, and reviewing books in 140 characters, always with his trademark wit.

The question, perhaps, is this: As the writer surrenders to these new possibilities, what will be her role in the instantaneous, feedback-driven, open world? Will there be a place for those other, slower thoughts, ideas that take time and quiet to flower, truths that cannot be crowdsourced?

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A darned good upbringing… http://www.jamesrament.com/a-darned-good-upbringing/ http://www.jamesrament.com/a-darned-good-upbringing/#comments Sat, 25 Feb 2012 21:29:03 +0000 James Ament http://www.jamesrament.com/?p=4544 Continue reading ]]> Frank Wilson, of Books INQ. The Epilogue, used the above title in referencing an old blog post of mine called Originsan essay written years ago, then slightly updated in 2010, which reveals where some of the themes in my novel Waiting for Zoë originated.

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What does science fiction tell us about the future of reproductive rights? http://www.jamesrament.com/what-does-science-fiction-tell-us-about-the-future-of-reproductive-rights/ http://www.jamesrament.com/what-does-science-fiction-tell-us-about-the-future-of-reproductive-rights/#comments Sat, 25 Feb 2012 13:39:41 +0000 James Ament http://www.jamesrament.com/?p=4533 Continue reading ]]> From io9, State-controlled reproduction is a nightmare, with appropriate references to Margaret Atwood’s, The Handmaid’s Tale, a wonderful book I reviewed early last year, Brave New World, and Philip K. Dick‘s short story called, The Pre-Persons, that pro-choice activists hated. The piece briefly covers the issue of child-rearing and abortion, and while the author seems to have agenda, it’s a fascinating read. And of course, some of the commenters bring up China’s One Child Policy and population control.

My take on it? I refer to an old interview with Margaret Atwood, discussing The Handmaid’s Tale,

Any power structure will co-opt the views of its opponents, to sugarcoat the pill. The regime gives women some things the women’s movement says they want—control over birth, no pornography—but there’s a price. If you were going to put in a repressive regime, how would you do it?… Anyone who wants power will try to manipulate you by appealing to your desires and fears, and sometimes your best instincts. Women have to be a little cautious about that kind of appeal to them. What are we being asked to give up?

It’s a good question for us all: When we vote for some new government program that will supposedly benefit our lives, just what have we given up that was trivialized or that nobody even identified? Science fiction has a way of giving us hints to possible futures.

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E-books Can’t Burn http://www.jamesrament.com/e-books-cant-burn/ http://www.jamesrament.com/e-books-cant-burn/#comments Fri, 24 Feb 2012 13:51:03 +0000 James Ament http://www.jamesrament.com/?p=4523 Continue reading ]]> From the New York Review of Books, an article by Tim Parks:

Interviewed after winning England’s Costa Prize for Literature in late January, the distinguished novelist Andrew Miller remarked that while he assumed that soon most popular fiction would be read on screen, he believed and hoped that literary fiction would continue to be read on paper. In his Man Booker Prize acceptance speech last October, Julian Barnes made his own plea for the survival of printed books. Jonathan Franzen has also declared himself of the same faith. At the university where I work, certain professors, old and young, will react with disapproval at the notion that one is reading poetry on a Kindle. It is sacrilege.

Are they right?

It is clear when reading the entire article at the link, that the author likes e-books and some of the comments are quite passionate on the subject. My take is that it really isn’t something to either “love” or “hate.” I have a Kindle, read from it, and I have books and read them—both methods perfectly acceptable and rewarding.

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The Great American Novel http://www.jamesrament.com/the-great-american-novel/ http://www.jamesrament.com/the-great-american-novel/#comments Thu, 23 Feb 2012 13:34:33 +0000 James Ament http://www.jamesrament.com/?p=4496 Continue reading ]]> Roger Kimball’s essay sub-titled, Will there ever be another? had me intrigued since I recently published my first novel, Waiting for Zoë. Kimball’s piece is worth reading. I particularly enjoyed his reference to T.S. Eliot, Plato, Socrates, and that wonderful cynic, Schopenhauer. An example:

At the end of the Phaedrus, Plato has Socrates tell the story of the god Theuth, who, legend has it, invented the art of writing. When Theuth presented his new invention to the king of Egypt, he promised the king that it would make his people “wiser and improve their memories.” But the king disagreed, claiming that the habit of writing, far from improving memories, would “implant forgetfulness” by encouraging people to rely on external marks rather than “the living speech graven in the soul.” I think of Schopenhauer’s observation about the perils of excessive reading: Just as he who always rides gradually forgets how to walk, so he who reads constantly without pausing to reflect “gradually loses the capacity for thinking.”

“Such is the case,” said Schopenhauer, “with many scholars; they have read themselves stupid.”

Well, reading ourselves stupid is perhaps not our largest educational problem today. And in any case, none of us would wish to do without writing—or computers, come to that. Nor, I think, would Plato have wanted us to. (Though he would probably have been severe about television: That bane of intelligence could have been ordered up specially to illustrate Plato’s idea that most people inhabit a kind of existential “cave” in which they mistake flickering images for realities.) Plato’s indirect comments—through the mouth of Socrates recounting an old story he picked up somewhere—have less to do with writing (an art, after all, in which Plato excelled) than with the priority of immediate experience: the “living speech graven in the soul.” Plato may have been an idealist. But here as elsewhere he appears as an apostle of vital, firsthand experience: a realist in the deepest sense of the term.

It makes me think of the heroes in my book—people with a strong sense of who they are, and while some of them read books and write, they also knew about paying attention to living in the present moment and nurturing one’s soul.

(Hat tip: Instapundit)

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Less is Best http://www.jamesrament.com/less-is-best/ http://www.jamesrament.com/less-is-best/#comments Wed, 22 Feb 2012 12:56:36 +0000 James Ament http://www.jamesrament.com/?p=4468 Continue reading ]]> From The Chronicle of Higher Education, Giving and Getting Constructive Criticism, by Marybeth Gasman:

I’ve been thinking about constructive criticism–the kind we give to graduate students or mentees–and how they receive it. Over the past few years I’ve noticed a bit of push back from students and mentees. My faculty friends and colleagues have told me they get the same kind of push back. Now, don’t misunderstand me, there is nothing wrong with push back–you have to stand up for what you believe. However, I’ve watched individuals struggle and have difficulty with their job search while neglecting to follow any of the advice their mentors have given them. Sometimes these students are headstrong. Other times they are convinced that they know what is best and that they know how to build a faculty career. Here are a few examples:

I have had students and mentees who present at academic conferences on a regular basis but they don’t publish the resulting papers. Many times, I’ve attended their conference presentations and have been thoroughly impressed with their ideas and skill. I always follow up, asking them to revise the paper and send it to a journal. However, unlike their counterparts who follow my advice, these students put the paper away for months, sometimes years, and it is no longer relevant or others have already published similar work. When they receive feedback from prospective employers that questions their lack of publications, they are frustrated.

Other students and mentees are interested in everything and refuse to focus. I often tell these students that they have a lifetime to pursue their research interests and that focusing on one or two areas of research is advantageous. Still, they continue to be interested in everything. Again, there is nothing wrong with curiosity and a wide interest. However, focus leads to success in research. It’s better to finish one peer-reviewed article than to have started the introduction for 10. I’m not exaggerating. I’ve seen students do this.

Still other students and mentees over write, refusing to simplify. They think that bloated, complicated language makes them look smarter. Despite my constant “less is best” mantra, these students continue to use seven words when two are enough. They also continue to wonder why their work is critiqued by reviewers and not accepted in journals. The best writing is writing that can be understood by anyone.

Although it is important for students to maintain their voices in writing and research, it is also essential that they hone that voice and make it as clear as possible. It’s great to have ideas but even better to share one’s ideas and make a difference in people’s lives and beliefs. When I was a graduate student, one of my mentors told me to swallow my pride when it came to constructive criticism. He told me to back up my claims or perspectives if I felt strongly about them but to swallow my pride when appropriate. He also told me to listen to those with experience, to ask a lot of questions, and to be respectful of those who had gone before me. He encouraged me to carve out my own voice and research

agenda. I did so by following his lead. His great advice has paid off in that I have been able to pursue my goals.

When we are given the same constructive criticism over and over, it’s time to listen and listen closely. It is only then that we will begin to reach our goals.

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Writing Advice http://www.jamesrament.com/writing-advice/ http://www.jamesrament.com/writing-advice/#comments Tue, 21 Feb 2012 13:55:40 +0000 James Ament http://www.jamesrament.com/?p=4478 Continue reading ]]> From Frank Wilson, linking to Issa’s Untidy Hut: Advice for Aspiring Writers: Neil Gaiman Quoting Alan Watts and Reactions to Watts on Writing: a Reader Generated Post, with references to Charles Bukowski (“Don’t try”) in both.

Enjoyable reading, if you are a writer.

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‘Tools of Change’ http://www.jamesrament.com/tools-of-change/ http://www.jamesrament.com/tools-of-change/#comments Mon, 20 Feb 2012 13:50:42 +0000 James Ament http://www.jamesrament.com/?p=4464 Continue reading ]]> From NPR, an article called, At Last, They See: E-Books ‘Democratize’ Publishing. (Hat tip: Ann Althouse)

Not known as a hotbed of experimentation, the world of publishing has been slow to embrace the transition from print to e-books. This past week in New York, however, the Tools of Change digital publishing conference attracted entrepreneurs and innovators who are more excited by, rather than afraid of, the future.

It was the kind of crowd where some were more inclined to say “Steal my book!” than to argue over what that e-book should cost. These are people who see digital publishing not as a threat, but as an opportunity.

Joe Wikert of O’Reilly Media, which hosted the conference, says digital publishing is in its infancy but the potential is endless.

“If you come up with something new and exciting, you can change the playing field overnight,” Wikert says.

Read the whole thing at the above link.

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