All posts by Phil W

The Only Right Feeling Is Guilt

Writing from the British Isles, Brendan O’Neill describes an old man he remembers from his childhood neighborhood, one he says he in every neighborhood. One who is friendly and racist. What reminded him of this man is Lena Dunham’s support of an argument against sushi being prepared and served by white college kids. Because Asian food should not be made, served, or, I guess, eaten by non-Asian people due to the sin of cultural appropriation.

‘Barbecue is a form of cultural power’, says a writer for the Guardian (where else). It’s a tradition of ‘enslaved Africans’ and you insult those people when you peel the pork off a pig belly in some Hackney hangout. Eating, like everything else, is racism. Even tea is under attack. It’s a ‘boring, beige relic of our colonial past’, says Joel Golby, a writer for Vice, the bible of Shoreditch bores. You can’t even have a cuppa without being induced to feel colonial guilt.

(I wonder if Joel Golby is being honest there. He may just be griping over his own cup of tea.)

I was thinking that might leave us with a simple dietary rule: if your grandmother wouldn’t have made it, you can’t eat it. But even that doesn’t work. The sins of the past, if they cling to our food stuffs today, will never leave us.

There’s no logical end to this rationale. I saw Christophe Gans’s marvelous version of Beauty and the Beast this week. It’s a movie in the vein of Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella, though a step more edgy. If we apply to it this cultural appropriation logic, Gans was right to make his movie, because he’s and his actors are French and the original fairy tale was French, whereas Disney is a bunch of cultural thieves for making what may be the best animated movie ever and their new live-action edition is like a sushi taco.

I have a volume of the works of Chekhov behind me. It was printed in the US in 1929 by Black’s Readers Service Company. If I enjoy reading this book, am I guilty of taking from Chekhov’s culture? Is the publisher? Is the translator?

O’Neill’s point is that the old racist in his neighborhood is now the new racist in the college commons, both telling him not to eat that junk from another culture and stick with the meals his mama makes. And the old racist may being living by his creed, but the new one doesn’t have the time to think about it.  (via Prufrock News)

Don’t Talk About Your Book While Writing It

Nick Ripatrazone has released a book that he’s happy to talk about, but he won’t talk about whatever book he may be writing presently. He was advised not to many years ago and has experienced the life-sucking force of talking about his work since.

“Publishing is not writing. Writing is what you do at midnight. Writing is what you do, as William H. Gass says, ‘to entertain a toothache.'”

I’m sure this is a truism, but I think it’s one I need to follow. Talking about my barely formed ideas lets the air out of them before they have a chance to float, and I’m full of momentarily promising ideas that haven’t taken flight.

But I’m sure some writers are able to talk about some stories or ideas they are working on without killing them. What’s been your experience? (via Prufrock News)

Multitasking Doesn’t Go Deep

Multitasking is a great method for shallow work, but in order to do something thoughtful, something perceptive that will last a while, you need to focus. Author Cal Newport calls this “Deep Work.”  The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania examines some of Newport’s thinking. This idea, they say, may not apply to every line of work. Creative work would benefit the most. Social media is geared to work against your focus, attracting attention to itself constantly.

Interestingly, [Marshall] Meyer says he suspects there is a link between lack of focus, and the natural selection that has led to the kinds of leaders and leadership style favored today. “In the last 20 or 30 years, there’s been a lot of attention to leadership, and the two characteristics of leadership that stand out are charisma and positive mood affect,” he says. “And that’s contributed in my judgment to the dynamic we now have where people are up, outgoing, and are consistently swamped with information and don’t focus and don’t have the time to focus. No one has thought about historic changes in personal leadership styles, and no one has thought that maybe the person who is by nature introspective and even a little depressed might make the best decision.”

Enchanting Nancy

Marly Youmans has three evocative poems on Education & Culture today. I find “Nancy at the River” enchanting in the way of missing someone whom you have deeply loved, though this was perhaps not quite that. Though the subject may have been delighted in, she may not have been deeply loved. But perhaps I’m being overly relative.

all is mystery, so pure/ And secret like a mythic flower bride
Who fades and blooms, or like a poem rhymed/ With unknown words that aren’t yet ever were

Youmans blogs here. (via Prufrock News)

The Man Who Ruined English Lit

Stuart Hall, the man who apparently helped bind English departments with useless political ideology, doesn’t appear to have read anything written in previous generations. Christopher Bray reviews Hall’s autobiography.

Patently a decent man who wanted a better life for everyone, Hall genuinely believed that by alerting his students to the ideological subtexts of their favourite TV shows or pop songs (at one point he claims to be able to hear ‘the less chauvinistic bits’ of Elgar), they might liberate themselves from the hegemonic ‘master codes of the dominant culture’. In fact, by teaching kids that it’s enough to read or watch or listen to what already interests them, cultural studies has served only to trap them in the straitened cell of the self.

Mercy. Who will pull the bucket off our heads, if not our elders? And if our elders are the ones who trapped us in buckets in the first place, what hope do we have for any of us? Is there anyone apart from us who can teach us the truth? (via Prufrock News)

‘The most famous and pervasive lazy cheat in American dialogue about free speech’

Oliver Wendell Holmes gave us the phrase about shouting fire in a crowded theater. Most people are against such shouting, despite today’s audiences being more likely to look around with irritated curiosity than to panic. Pulling the fire alarm in a crowded theater would cause a problem, and this censorship of free expression is the law. (Why can’t you pull a fire alarm to express yourself? Why can’t you call 911 to talk to give your opinion? Is this 1984?)

Here’s what Justice Holmes actually wrote. “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”

He gave this opinion in support of the Supreme Court’s conviction of Charles Schenck, the Secretary of the Socialist Party of America, for writing a pamphlet in opposition to the WWI draft. Two similar cases came up that year and were decided the same way. Calls to “assert your rights” were compared to inciting panic in entertainment houses.

Back in 2012, Trevor Timm wrote about how abused the shouting-fire phrase has become and how much damage it has done to America’s concept of free speech. “Its advocates are tacitly endorsing one of the broadest censorship decisions ever brought down by the Court. It is quite simply, as Ken White calls it, ‘the most famous and pervasive lazy cheat in American dialogue about free speech.'”

NY Times Fires Public Editor, Plans to ‘Listen’

Listening to the wallWhen a much-praised reporter for the New York Times was found to have plagiarized and fabricated several reports, the newspaper that still holds a position in the public imagination as being “a paper of record” created its public editor position. The public editor is meant to be a visible face for journalistic ethics, a person who regularly criticized his employer for bias, editorializing the news, and other ethical slips.

Wednesday, the New York Times terminated its contract with Public Editor Liz Spayd for what National Review‘s Kyle Smith calls “resisting the Resistance.” For the foreseeable future, any public editing will be handled by the public in the comment section, about which Alan Jacobs tweeted:

I don’t think the @nytimes really plans to turn itself into a trollocracy; enabling comments is make-believe “listening to our readers.”

Smith offers several examples of fair-minded comments from Spayd, saying she “did her best to be even-handed in the eleven months she held the job. The angry Left could not forgive this.”

In a column entitled “Why Readers See the Times as Liberal,” she noted that many a liberal and centrist acolyte of the Times told her that they were seeking other outlets for balance. “A paper whose journalism appeals to only half the country has a dangerously severed public mission,” she said. That such a statement is now considered “controversial” does not reflect well on the media.

But maybe the Times doesn’t see a need for a public editor. Maybe it recognizes its innate fairness in every report it prints. I mean, look at the state of journalism today. These guys stick to the facts.

Autographing eBooks

In our last post, we looked at a new problem for Californian booksellers who hope to attract buyers with autographed editions. Though I didn’t say it then, the law appears to apply outside the state as well as inside, because it defines Californian dealers as being in or from the state. It’s like original sin. The stain of being born in California can never be removed in this life.

I don’t know whether the law applies to digital book editions, but if you’ve been thinking eBooks wouldn’t have this problem because they can’t be signed, allow me to open the door of enlightenment for you. Authors can sign eBooks.

Two sites allow authors to list their eBooks and offer them for signing. Autography.com allows customized signing pages in their cross-platform app. You can sign an eBook remotely or at a book signing. Autographed pages can even be shared on social media. Authorgraph.com offers a similar service with less customization. In fact, it doesn’t appear to be actually signing eBook, but a page associated with the it. Readers can request signatures from authors who are using the service and can buy books through the site.

Has anyone developed a digital autograph book for fans to collect signatures on iPads? I’d think there would be a market for it, except in California.

California Wraps Book Signings in Red Tape

A new law in California, if enforced, would make book signings at local bookstores extremely tedious on both readers and booksellers. A bookseller with three stores in the San Francisco area has filed a suit against the state this month to argue the law, which was promoted last year by actor Mark Hamill, will crush his stores. He’s capitalized on signed books and book signings over the last several years as a unique feature of his business. He hosts roughly 700 of these events each year.

In January, a state law went into effect that would require a record of many details related to a signature on any item sold for over $5. It’s not enough to stand before the author and watch him sign your book, nor can you go to the store the next day to buy a leftover signed copy. If the law were enforced (and so far I don’t know that it has been), a bookseller who sells an autographed book for a Lincoln plus will have to provide a certificate of authenticity with a description of the item signed, date, price, warranty, size of item, size for future editions, number of items signed, number of items intended to be signed in the future, state-issued serial number, and other details. Pawnbrokers are exempt as well as those who sign and sell their own stuff (because no fear of fraud there, obviously). These records will have to be kept for seven years.

One comic book dealer, who says they have authors sign every copy they have for later sale (and no markup for autographed copies), tells California Political Review, “To have to generate and track individual ‘Certificates of Authenticity’ for each and every book (let alone trying to identify potentially hundreds of existing items in our inventory) would make already break-even business even less tenable.”

The penalty for running afoul this law is 10x the value of the item sold plus legal fees.

The law doesn’t target booksellers. It apparently was intended to kill off expensive sales of fake signatures on sports and movie memorabilia. But the law says all autographed items sold for over $5, and once again lawmakers demonstrate that they slept through the course on unintended consequences.

The Handmaid’s Secular Theocracy

Ross Douthat contrasts the society of The Handmaid’s Tale with our current one.

But precisely because of the ways that Atwood’s novel plumbed and surfaced the specific anxieties of 1985, her story is necessarily time-bound and context-dependent and in certain ways more outdated than prophetic. So adapted for our later era, “The Handmaid’s Tale” feels like more like an alternate-history universe in the style of “The Man in the High Castle” than an exercise in futurism. Which should make the adaptation an opportunity to study the contrasts between our actual post-Reagan trajectory and Atwood’s imagined path to Gilead, and to see our own particularities afresh.

Discovering Early American Serials

Early American Serialized Novels is a project dedicated to publishing novels serialized in US newspapers and magazines from the 1780s to the 1820s. The project grows out of a graduate seminar on early American literature and the digital humanities at Idaho State University.

I have a heart for early America, though perhaps not enough patience, so an ongoing project like this appeals to me. They have seven stories now. The hosts explain the context in which these tales first appeared.

Novel installments were often printed without predetermined knowledge of how many weeks or months would be devoted to the story, thus requiring authors to adapt accordingly. In addition, readers were never assured that the novels would reach a resolution and therefore became accustomed to complex, dissonant texts in which narrative suspension was a defining feature.

(via Prufrock News)

Coffee Is Good, But How Do You Drink It?

Coffee

Many voices will tell you coffee is great for your health, your social life, and your faith, but nutritionists have a reputation of wanting to take all of that joy away from you.

“I don’t typically like to demonize one food and deem it horrible, because you can have a good relationship with [coffee],” Sarah Greenfield, an L.A.-based trainer and nutritionist, told Observer.com. “But if you’re using a stimulant to get energy and wake yourself up, you have to look back on your lifestyle and habits.”

Clearly a killjoy.

Coffee does have healthy benefits, like most foods that are not Hot Pockets and Pop Tarts, but we should watch out for too much caffeine. Drinking coffee along with cokes and energy drinks because we’re cramming too many responsibilities into one day or week could lead to such negative consequences as death. So don’t do that, but if you like coffee, feel free to enjoy it in moderation and gratitude. And if you’re drinking at a run-down Waffle House or Denny’s, please Instagram the moment.

The Process Behind Penny Books

Dan Nosowitz explores the threat and delight of selling cheap used books.

“At some point in the next two to three years, I predict that ‘Go Set a Watchman’ will be selling for a penny,” says Mike Ward, president of the Seattle-based used-book seller Thriftbooks, which sells 12 million books a year.

“We are taking garbage [and] running it through a very sophisticated salvage process in our warehouses, to create or find or discover products people want, and then we sell them at a very, very cheap price,” Ward explains. Garbage isn’t a value judgment: His company, along with several other enormous used-book-selling operations that have popped up online in the past decade, is literally buying garbage. Thrift stores like Goodwill receive many more donations than they can physically accommodate. Employees rifle through donations, pick out the stuff that is most likely to sell and send the rest to a landfill. The same thing happens at public libraries; they can take only as many donations as their space and storage will allow, so eventually they have to dispose of books, too. (For libraries, the process is a little more complicated; they can’t legally sell books, so they essentially launder them through groups with names like Friends of the Library, which sell the discards and donate the proceeds to the library.)

Operations like Thriftbooks step in and buy these landfill-bound books, sight unseen, for around 10 cents a pound.

I’ve still got too many books that aren’t selling on Amazon. It may be time they visit the landfill.

The Party of the ‘Aggressively Aggrieved’

Hal Niedzviecki was the editor of Write magazine, a quarterly published by The Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC), until the other day when The Controlling Party (operating this time under the name of TWUC Equity Task Force) forced him to resign. The pressure came in response to an editorial in which Niedzviecki argued that cultural appropriation isn’t really a thing, but on the other hand is kinda cool.  Perhaps there should be a prize to honor writers who successful write about cultures that aren’t their own.

But if you’re going to accuse someone of the worst and Nazism seems so yesterday, then cultural appropriation should be your go-to charge. Niedzviecki and a member of the editorial board, who “would have strongly objected to this piece had I seen it prior to publication,” resigned.

Christie Blatchford labeled all “this is the thuggish attempted takeover of a public (and publicly funded) organization by a single aggressively aggrieved group of activists.” And they will not stop until they have victimized everyone in the name of vindicating their own victimization.

This is not healthy culture; if anything, it’s cannibalism.

Marx Was a Racist

Karl Marx, blockhead“Few people who call themselves Marxists have ever even bothered to read Das Kapital,” writes professor Walter Williams. “If one did read it, he would see that people who call themselves Marxists have little in common with Marx.”

In a piece today, Williams says Karl Marx was a racist who would not be tolerated on Twitter, and yet many people who style themselves as his disciples would be outraged if a current public figure said things he said. Pulling from a book by ex-communist Nathaniel Weyl, Williams offers examples.

Marx didn’t think much of Mexicans. When the United States annexed California after the Mexican War, Marx sarcastically asked, “Is it a misfortune that magnificent California was seized from the lazy Mexicans who did not know what to do with it?”

Engels said similar things, such as writing that a political foe who had African heritage was suitable to represent the people living in a district that contained a zoo because he was biologically closer to the animals than other other men.

Of course, the question is not whether anyone from history said anything hateful or disagreeable to modern listeners. The question is whether such statements flow naturally from the speaker’s worldview. Given Communism’s bloody history, even its current practice, I don’t find Marx’s views of personal superiority surprising on any basis.