Thursday, November 29, 2012

Dictionary Cops, Literary Snobs, and Twitter Wrestles with Hercules

Not far from where I write this blog rests like a sturdy door stop Webster’s Third International Dictionary published in 1971 in the Philippines and given to me when I received a PhD in Philosophy a few years later.  Over the decades, I have opened this thirty-pounder usually when I wanted to get deep into etymology and learn whether a particular verb appeared in the subjunctive mood on Anglo Saxon riotous tongues.  These days such excursions over to the wild side of linguistic subtlety are few and far between, but I did pull out this old, respected and heavy beast during Hurricane Sandy, when we were reminded of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and what it really meant to be pinned down at the safety level.  Reading Webster under a hurricane lamp is no laughing matter.

Webster is already halfway out the door because all its utility, history and girth are available in a variety of apps.  This dictionary technology has always been something of a useful fiction, suggesting in its sheer tonnage that there is something exhaustive and final about the creation.  We know dictionaries also serve cultural and nationalistic ambitions.  The Guardian newspaper recently reported that the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in the 1970s and 1980s intentionally omitted some words with foreign origins, a curious, petty and racist stance from the man sitting in the high chair overseeing a language that has remained globally vibrant by embracing, at least since 1066 when the French came calling, all manner of words from the global language tree.

Over the last five years, I have given to charities and libraries at least five hundred books, many of them novels I had used in high school and university teaching as well as for academic research.  The sting is less than I thought.  William J. Lynch Jr., CEO of Barnes & Noble, has said he doesn’t really read physical books anymore, an odd thing for an executive to say when his company still generates most of its revenues from physical books.  But it is far more compelling to embrace the Nook in public rather than be seen flipping through a copy of The Old Man and the Sea.

I think it was the NPR program “On the Media” that suggested that the second disruption in the book business will be about entire book categories disappearing or shrinking badly, with literary fiction perhaps the most vulnerable.  The argument goes something like this.  Before America had universal education that would be in place, more or less, by the 1880s, Americans used the poetry and fiction of Hawthorne, Emerson, Whitman and others to forge a national identity.   I think there is truth to that.   I would add that it is in the language of Twain, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and H.L. Mencken, among others, that America found its voice, vernacular, humor, and language appropriate to the psychic terrain, the new geography, and national habits.

Not surprisingly, by the mid-20th century these writers and others had become enshrined in English departments across the country and literary criticism had become a teachable science with an army of adherents who decided to publish rather than perish.  I was a member of that brigade and that tribe.

Catch-22, The Naked and the Dead, Herzog, Rabbit, Run, Sophie’s Choice, Invisible Man and other favorites had a relationship to American culture that is hard to replicate.  This doesn’t mean current writers have less talent; I simply suggest that literary fiction early in the 21st century is a less important part of our culture and national psyche.  And that trend is likely to continue no matter what screen we are using.

This doesn’t mean fiction is going away, though literary agents will feel the squeeze.  Publishers will focus on their constituencies.  HarperCollins just announced its Harper Teen Imprint, which will publish short stories and novellas, priced from $0.99 to $2.99.  With books and increasingly with magazines, we can expect more unbundling of content that will be distributed in information chunks depending on the desires of the customer.   Atavist, fueled by investment from Barry Diller and Scot Rudin, tells stories through digital apps, ebooks, and magazines with subscription offers.  Ebooks, such as Deborah Blum’s Angel Killer, are under 20,000 words, have audio, video and social features, and are available on all platforms.

Simon & Schuster has teamed with Author Solutions, a self-publishing firm, and created Archway Publishing in part to keep an eye on which self-published authors are rising to the top.  Changes in media, culture, technology and attention span will make it increasingly difficult for writers of literary fiction to find a publisher.  This is a situation that I’m presently facing with “Bunker Kills: A Sea Story,” based on Vietnam experiences.  Since traditional publishers offer relatively little marketing help for literary fiction, it’s tempting to self-publish, particularly if the category is a vertical with an identifiable audience.  And a sailor never leaves the sea.

And a favorable wind helps.  America needs to take a more jaundiced viewing of its military.  General Petraeus has been an absolutely godsend.  We now have permission to say in public that the emperor has no clothes.

We know from our cultural and political history that what begins in tragedy often ends in farce.  For this reason, I’m pleased to learn that a British group aims to revive the classics, retelling one-hundred Greek myths in one-hundred tweets.  The group will also have a go at Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw.”

There’s a good chance Cliffs Notes will be disrupted.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Vertigo, Approval Whores and Mencken’s Sahara

A timely touch of vertigo spared me much of the eleventh-hour political electioneering and played nicely into my plan to avoid all political coverage for the final month.  Although it wasn’t Lent, I decided at the same time to uncouple from Twitter and start all over again by following only the Khan Academy.  At least once a day, my account manager at Twitter offers regular advice on how to grow my social universe.  I really do like Steve Martin but I just don’t want to follow him on Twitter.  After prayer and reflection, I did add Esther Dyson.

My Twitter-reboot task is not helped by the delicious piece by Jeff Bercovici at Forbes about how social media makes us all approval whores.  So beware the “humblebrag” who fishes for compliments but indemnifies himself against charges of fishing.  Or the “virtuebrag,” who seems to have come out in force after Hurricane Sandy.   I am getting hammered this morning, Veteran’s Day, for not reposting praises for our military on Facebook.  I guess my six years in the Navy wasn’t enough.

To get straight with the world again during this uncertain time, I decided to complete a novel, “Saturn Gets his Peter Back.”  The character is something of a phony esthete, a Baby Boomer, who thinks his life is literature and his abundant dreams provide a big data point for living.  Poor lad, he thinks a stint in Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital in New York is quite consistent with his internal compass.  Saturn, who floats somewhat out of orbit, suffers from a very common psychiatric malady: mistaking the Map for the Territory.   Saturn is a semanticist’s delight.  He confuses levels of abstractions, keeps discovering the “little man who wasn’t there,” and delights in over-verbalization or succumbing to the hypnotic effect of one’s own words.  My character has created a fantasyland with defined borders, rules of engagement, and secret handshakes.  Facts sit uneasily with this celestial body.

The first political piece I read after my novel sojourn was “Fantasyland” by Frank Rich, published in New York magazine, about the post-fact, post-science, and post-reality Republican Party living in a gated community.  “Freud couldn’t have imagined a clearer case of projection,” writes Rich.  Why is Rich writing my fiction?

Thanks to my growing Twitter universe, I discovered the Jezebel site and Floating Sheep, an online demographic firm that tracks the geography of racist tweets after the election.  According to the map posted by Jezebel, the bulk of these come from the South and really the Deep South, including Louisiana and Mississippi.  A lot of high school students were up late ranting. 

It is a hundred years between Frank Rich and H.L. Menken, the Baltimore essayist who wrote a scathing piece on the post-Civil War South in 1917 entitled “The Sahara of the Bozart,” but the descriptions of this region by these two writers are only different by degree.  Rich uses a scapel; Mencken a hammer. Example: “A Washington or a Jefferson dropped there by some act of God would be denounced as a scoundrel or jailed overnight.”  And: “It was in Virginia that they invented the device of searching for contraband whiskey in woman’s underwear.”

Mencken’s pen drips yellow journalism and reads today like a hyperbolic screed, containing enough racial rant to attract warning signs.  But he put his finger on the cultural, political, and religious forces that concocted a post-Civil War Southern fantasy that is alive and well and amplified by social media.

Soon after Mencken’s tirade, we saw the beginning of a remarkable Southern literature movement led by John Crowe Ransom, Alan Tate, Robert Penn Warren and, of course, William Faulkner. The original effort was termed ‘The Fugitive Movement,” an effort to find identity in the New South.  This has been the most important literary development in American history.  I explored the theme of religious sensibilities in some of these writers in a thesis and a dissertation.  One gets the sense that the South has lost touch with its own literature, where many of the present day demons have been visited and slayed.

Time Magazine blogger Joe Klein is more polite: “The South, though a more complex region than ever before, won’t rise again until it resolves the issues that have marked its differences with the rest of the country since the land was colonized.”

And that ain’t just whistling Dixie.  

Friday, November 9, 2012

The William Shatner App, Channeling Celebrity & the Future of Political Discourse

I can’t tell you how relieved I am to learn that on the day after the election William Shatner has introduced a new iPhone app, “Shatoetry” that lets users compose text and play it back in Shatner’s voice.  The options are endless.  It could be a bugger-off message to your ex-boss/lover/dog-sitter.  He told Fox Entertainment News that “I can say anything.  I can even break up with your boyfriend.  I’d be delighted to.”

Time Magazine’s Techland notes that for “dramatic pauses, users select ‘Space Bubbles.’  Different colored portraits of the celebrity can be chosen for the background of each ‘shatism.’  And to listen to the final product, users press ‘shat that!’ and then can trade messages with one another via the Create and Friends option.”

Shatner’s fingerprints and excremental whimsy are all over this offering created by Blindlight Apps, a company that brings Hollywood talent and celebrity to the gaming and app worlds.  Shatner, his launch claims to the contrary, might have been told about the urban belief that his fecal matter is said to possess mystical powers and businesses have been built around that fantasy.  The Urban Dictionary offers a full range of Shat Mugs and Shat shirts.  Nothing yet, as far as I know, for the original Old English “bescatan,” meaning “befowled,” but that word isn’t exactly duck soup.

There was a time when everybody knew that “shat” is the past tense and past participle of the much more current and popular “shit.”  Our political discourse would be so such better if the understanding of grammar and linguistics was more, say, 18th century.  I will acknowledge that there is no easy transition from this messy grammatical chatter to the long, tedious ordeal called a presidential campaign, except to add that a Shatner- inspired “shat that” button on all political discourse might have added some earthiness and brevity to the conversations.

In the press release, Shatner says that “People all over the world have been listening to my voice for so long, but they only heard what I wanted to say.  I wanted to give people a means to express their thoughts and ideas using my voice.”

Both political parties have become much more adept in using social media.  As the two camps raise their game, perhaps they should consider licensing this product from Shatner Enterprises.  Such a move would not only allow constituents to put a representative’s words in their individual mouths, but it would add a much needed degree of authenticity.

Shatner refers to his disciples as “Shatoetists” and I expect his site will do more to advance modern American poetry than all Ivy League English Departments put together.

The Shatoetry App provides a Word Tray of inspiring words that users select to compose a message. Captain Kirk knows something about speaking in tongues.  The religious implications are profound.

After a twelve month political campaign and $6 billion price tag, the Political Word Tray must be full of words, fitting, brief, and beautiful, worthy in every way to be on the lips of politicians of every stripe.