Writing Like a Pro

In my brief career as a used-book store clerk I became familiar with the names of a great many authors who had somehow escaped mention in my college literature classes. A plurality of these new names were to be found in the crime-mystery-detective section of the store, and one of the longest expanses of shelf space there was occupied by the works of James Patterson.

I was never tempted to dip into that oeuvre. For a time I was distracted by the “Left Behind” books, which were so extremely popular as to pique my curiosity. Since then I have thought that my perverse taste for the truly awful had been sated by those ridiculous exploitations of the religious ignorami. But just lately I discovered a Patterson book lurking in the corner and, in a weak moment, opened it.

It must be conceded that this particular book, titled Unlucky 13, is not pure Patterson. It has a coauthor named Maxine Paetro. But I think it likely that her role was chiefly to provide the paragraphs describing clothing and jewelry and probably those in which the four members of the “women’s murder club” meet to hug and weep and share unhealthy foods.

Long story short, this is one of the worst pieces of writing I have ever encountered. There are three separate and unrelated plot lines, two of which are left unresolved. Were there any more murders by cheeseburger? Were the two persons suspected of those crimes actually convicted? And who were those domestic terrorists who hijacked an Alaska cruise liner? Only the psychopathic young woman who travels from Wisconsin to San Francisco, intent on killing one of the main characters, is brought to a satisfactory end, where “satisfactory” does not necessarily mean non-absurd.

The writing is flat-footed enough to bring peace to all the world’s armies and padded out with repetition and pointless detail enough to stun any quantity of restless bulls. The only times the central characters are not uninteresting is when they are being incredibly stupid. Whenever the authors feel that the atmosphere of suspense they have been working so hard to sustain may be faltering, they resort to italics.

Thus, at the end of Chapter 106 (of 110, God help us):

          She had been crossing Lake when her image imprinted itself in my mind. Now
          she had her back to me and was closing the letter slot on the mailbox. It made
        a dull, metallic clang.

          I was on high alert, but I was just scaring myself.

          Mackie Morales didn’t dress like that.

          That couldn’t be her.

No reader could possibly guess what happens next. Until the next page.


Cheese Geology

I learned something quite interesting at the grocery store yesterday. We are having company this weekend and we were all out of those individually wrapped slices of Velveeta. As I looked for them in the cheese section of the store I noticed a great many other sorts of cheese that were labelled “artesian.”

This took me a bit aback for a moment, and then I reflected that it made sense after all. I’ve spend a fair amount of time in Wisconsin over the years and I’ve long been acquainted with the old wells from which small quantities of Wensleydale can still be fetched. And I still remember the first time I saw one of the open-pit cheese mines there. The glacial deposits of Jarlsberg and muenster under the moraines have been exploited since the days of the earliest European settlers (the early Asian settlers, or Native Americans as we nowadays call them, somehow never thought to try the stuff). Later the cheddar cliffs in the Black River valley were discovered. Eventually Eastern investors brought in heavy equipment and developed the deep shaft mines that yielded up provolone and parmesan, among other varieties. In the 1920s and early ‘30s, largely owing to Chicago mobsters escaping to remote lodges in the north woods, an unregulated trade in strip-mined Camembert prospered. It was, I believe, Elliot Ness who finally shut that down.

Still, it was news to me that there are artesian cheese springs. These would, of course, have to be producing the softer cheeses -- your brie, your mascarpone, your Philadelphia cream. I’m no geologist, but I can’t help wondering how long the extraction of the relatively easy cheeses can be sustained. When will we begin hearing proposals for fracking for the deep-mantle feta and the fontina? And what will the critics say? (There are always critics in the subhead.)


Style and Taste

One day when I was in eighth grade I decided to be cool. As an emblem of my decision and my newly assumed quality, I turned up my shirt collar in the back. About five minutes after I got to school a truly cool guy made a remark that combined compassion and satire. I turned the collar back down, and I have never since imagined that I could be cool. But I have remained an interested observer of how people choose to present themselves to the world.

Why do certain boys and men wear their ball caps backwards? Apart from those wearing a catcher’s mask and what must be very rare cases of individuals whose napes are extraordinarily sensitive to sunlight, there can be no practical value in doing so. Instead, we are in the realm of style, of symbolism. But of what? Beyond a bland and banal sort of conventional unconventionality, I myself don’t get any message. It just looks silly to me, and even worse indoors and at table.

The fellows with big Texas-style hats are also sending a message, but I think I get a little more of it. They’re saying “Step aside. I’m from Texas, or I wish I were, and I’d like you to treat me with extra awe and respect simply on that account.” Depending on my mood, my reaction is usually to bristle or to laugh.

Imagine a man’s face. Now imagine a goatee on his chin and a beret on his head. Voilà! A beatnik, probably a poet. Sort of a poet, anyway. Signal becomes symbol becomes stereotype.

Tattoos, on the other hand, just baffle me. Tattoos on middle-aged women baffle and sadden me. That’s all I can say about that.


That Damnable Flag

When the subject of the War Between the States first arose in my childhood home (how it may have arisen I have no idea) my father carefully explained that the war was fought over something called “states’ rights,” which he had difficulty explaining further. He had learned that in school in southern Missouri, just as, before his time and after, millions of other schoolboys and schoolgirls had been taught across the states of the neoconfederacy.

Putting the best possible construction on it, let us say that they were so taught because they were innocents and it was thought desirable to preserve their innocence. But of course it was balderdash. It was a rewriting of history, an ex post facto justification of the unjustifiable. As historical analysis went, it was not only not correct; it was, to borrow a famous phrase from the history of physics, not even wrong.

I am wary of memory these days, but I think that I felt at the time that it seemed an inadequate reason for war. What I may (or may not) have intuited but been unable to articulate is that one does not really go to war over abstractions like “states’ rights.” For those one goes to court. War requires very great and very material stakes. Many millions of dollars worth of property in human beings and their labor qualifies.

The transformation of a devastating war to preserve human slavery into a noble struggle to defend an abstraction was a remarkable accomplishment, one that was possible only with the wholehearted support of an entire population. Thus developed a culture that found glory in defeat and, protected by the freedoms that America celebrates, consolation in waving the symbols and relics of their “cause” endlessly before the rest of us. “The past is not dead,” Faulkner wrote of that culture, “It’s not even past.”

It’s now 150 years since the end of that war. The last veteran died 60 years ago. It’s 50 years since the Civil Rights Movement finally erased most of the structure of legal discrimination that had been built to protect the losers from the consequences. Yet only now has a portion of the ruling class of the South begun to consider that the Confederate battle flag may not be their best face.

It would be an irony of major proportions if an end of Confederate flag-waving actually did arise out of an evil deed by a victim of that very culture. And while I do not begin to expect it, it would be an even greater irony if somehow the end of the Civil War cult were to begin in, of all places, South Carolina.

For any who might be interested, here are links to my posts on the run-up to the sesquicentennial of that horrible time:

Sen. DeMint Ignores His State’s History (Dec. 17, 2010)

Countdown (Dec. 24, 2010)

Countdown, cont’d (Jan. 19 2011)

Countdown, Part 3 (Feb. 4, 2011)

Countdown, Part 4; or, Madmen and Poetry (Feb. 8, 2011)

Countdown, Part 5: Surrender in Texas (Feb. 16, 2011)

Countdown, Part 6 (Feb. 18, 2011)

Farce to Tragedy and Back Again (Feb. 25, 2011)

Countdown, Part 7 (March 2, 2011)

Countdown, Part 8 (March 4, 2011)

Countdown: Interlude (March 14, 2011)

Countdown: Interlude 2 (March 22, 2011)

Countdown: Interlude 3 (April 2, 2011)

Of Course You Realize This Means War! (April 12, 2011)

Sumter Surrenders (April 14, 2011)

Robert E. Lee (April 20, 2011)

Jefferson Davis Wrings a Tear (April 29, 2011)

Justifying Civil War (June 25, 2011)


The Late Three R's

The linguist John McWhorter, a certified public intellectual, suggests in the Daily Beast that our culture is rapidly becoming one of oral rather than written expression and that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Hardly anyone reads books, he notes, and yet we’re doing OK. Or anyway, OKish.

He reminds us of the beautifully expressive and deeply moving letters written by ordinary soldiers in the Civil War, such as those that Ken Burns incorporated into his television series. He neglects to allow for the filtering effect of time and taste. No doubt there were other sorts of letters. “Dere Ma, I shot me a  yanky yestidy, Luv Festus” is not so likely to have survived or, if it had, to be quoted.

The two exemplars McWhorter uses to illustrate his thesis about a new orality are Kim Kardashian and Cornell West. Not surprisingly, the editors of the Beast chose to illustrate McWhorter’s essay with only a photo of Kardashian; I infer that West lacks the eye-catching cleavage. Also not surprising, though a good deal less in our collective face, is that McWhorter expresses his thesis and provides evidence and argument for it in the form of a 2,400-word written essay, which people who find the subject interesting are obliged to read.

What McWhorter seems to be endorsing is the abandonment of the kind of consecutive thought and meaningful debate that careful writing and reading permit. Certainly there are no grounds on which to suspect Kardashian of any such capability, and West has long since found a way into a comfortable cocoon where he need not bother. But there remain in the world matters meriting serious discussion. Oddly, McWhorter suggests that in this new age of orality

       ...a public intellectual’s main work could...consist of a series of 15-minute
      podcasts...displaying solid command of serious literature and ideas

but he fails to explain just where that literature and those ideas are to come from if not from a thinking and writing class.

And why would they bother, anyway? McWhorter wonders whether everyone needs to be taught how to write an essay. He does not consider that the answer might be, No, not everyone, just anyone who might need to be able to understand one when he or she encounters it. McWhorter suggests a new emphasis on teaching oral rather than written expression, reminding us that the Greeks were very good at instructing their young in the “oratorical skills of rhetoric and persuasion.”

“Toastmasters,” he says, “trains legions in the art of making an argument orally: upon what grounds do we reject that approach as inherently unscholarly or logically unsophisticated?” Well, for one thing there is the matter of reviewing what someone has said for accuracy or consistency and then reflecting on the merits of his case; one does not, cannot, do this on the fly, while the speaker is speaking. One awaits the printed version.

Certainly we recall scattered phrases from famous speeches:  “Here I stand; I can do no other!” “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!” “You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold!” “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” “Ich bin ein Berliner!” Every one a rallying cry, a carefully crafted -- on paper, after much thought -- appeal to emotion. Premise, argument, demonstration -- not so much.

But the fact is that the 19th century that McWhorter holds up as the high point of finely crafted writing is also recalled by many as a great age of oratory. It is almost as though the two modes of language were interdependent. It is as though Abraham Lincoln had schooled himself by reading the King James Bible, Pilgrim’s Progress, Robinson Crusoe, and the Arabian Nights, then become one of the finest prose writers of his century, then composed and delivered some of the greatest orations in history. And if that is true, then perhaps it is both forms of expression that mysteriously have declined down to our sad day.

Your tweet, your instant message, your blog comment -- what do they convey? The impression of a moment, the stray thought, the unconsidered response to some random stimulus. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, at 272 words, nowadays could be compassed in a dozen tweets. Yet he worked over his draft for hours to attain just the effect he intended. It may be that he thought the occasion just that important, or that he respected his audience just that much.

Fifty years ago the student newspaper at the University of Michigan serialized War and Peace -- three or four lines a day, in the classified-ad section. That was meant as a joke.