Esther’s Space- journey through my life

February 27, 2008

No way I’m betting on that horse

Filed under: ENG 597: Literature in the Information Age — estherspace @ 9:47 am

I’ve decided that I cannot buy the idea that Richard Powers is commenting on the ethics of transcribing people you know into characters in one’s fiction. This issue seems to break into a number of pieces. Here’s what I aim to prove:

  1. Historically, there is precedence for the transcription of real individuals into fictional characters.
  2. The characterization of an individual does not have the power to destroy that individual or to control the choices that individual makes
  3. Readers generally do not care about who the character is based on
  4. Rather than being concerned about the ethics of writing, Powers is actually concerned about the existence of writers skilled enough to record characters in order to preserve some aspect of society that is being lost, or the readers skilled enough to utilize such writing.

The first issue- creating characters based on real individuals is not a new phenomenon. We have The Iliad and The Aeneid. We have the Bible, for goodness sake. In my opinion, all fiction is a transcription of reality into entertaining, cohesive storytelling. A writer cannot create a new and unique character without some level of modelling from things that he/she has seen before.

Secondly, how can a characterization of an individual destroy that individual? I’m not talking about public libel here, but situations where the character created might be based on an individual, but does not claim to be that individual. For example, in Power’s Galatea 2.2, C. is C., not “my ex-girlfriend Christine Carpenter.” The characterization of an individual, as soon as it is created, becomes separate from the individual. Because characters cannot possess the depth of individuality and are created and represented from one individuals perspective, they begin to exist in their own space, the space of the fiction that they have been employed for.

This leads into the third point, readers don’t necessarily care who the character is based on. I just read Emma by Jane Austen. I don’t care who Emma is based on, I only care about Emma to the extent of her position in the novel. As time passes, the importance of the model decreases significantly, especially after the original model has passed away and all that is left is pieces of their life that can be put together into a story. Powers suggests as much when he contemplates Taylor’s place in the world upon his death. He writes, “I could give back nothing to Taylor, I, who couldn’t even find a way to tell him what he had given me. All I could do for Taylor now was to turn him into character.” (204) This suggests that when the individual is gone, it is almost like a gift of the writer to turn him into a character, so that he might live on through literature. For us as readers, who Taylor ‘really’ was is a mild point of interest, but ultimately his importance for us lies in his role in the novel.

Earlier, Powers stated:

That book was no more than a structured pastiche of every report I’d ever heard, from C. or abroad. All a patchwork to delight and distract her. One that by accident ate her alive….The lens does not have the last word, nor does the glance of the viewer, nor does the look of those boys, out over the shoulder of the photographer, back behind the lens. The dominant tense was now. The point of stories was what you did with them. (108)

With this statement, Powers is illustrating his awareness that no matter how he as a writer tries to control a story, it is ultimately out of his power to control how an individual reader gives meaning to it. He wrote C.’s stories in order to preserve them (and therefore her), but also to give her the gift of representation that she could not achieve by herself. He did not give meaning to those stories, instead it is the readers that read the characters however they want. By relinquishing this control, Powers is relinquishing responsibility for C.’s accidental consumption by the stories.

While I don’t particularly like the way the relationship between C. and Powers operates, they both have made the choice to maintain those power dynamics.  C. could have been A.  She could have refused to let Powers characterize her in the way he wanted to.  But she did not.

In an attempt to touch on the last point I wanted to make, Powers sees himself as almost morally compelled to write, as if it is his duty to record these stories before they are lost.  It is the ego of the writer, an ego that must naturally occur in order to have writing.  The world will always have fodder for characters, but, I think the point that Powers is making is that without writers capable of transcribing these characters, they will be lost forever, with no way to live on without stories.  A necessary aspect to this, as well, is the readers.  Books cannot live in an eternal present if they’re not being read.  If the canon is not read, it is effectively dead, because those characters can only live when they’re being consumed.  With this reading, I can have a little bit of sympathy for Powers’s position on the importance of the canon.  But, by focusing solely on the canon, he is already excluding those diverse voices that also deserve to be heard.  I’m just saying.

February 25, 2008

The Quixotic Quest of the Writer

Filed under: ENG 597: Literature in the Information Age — estherspace @ 8:40 am

While many critics compare writing to a quixotic quest, both Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Richard Powers have explicitly drawn the connections between the the text and concepts of Don Quixote and the role or position of the novelist.

In the Introduction to her book, The Anxiety of Obsolescence, Fitpatrick writes:

The book and its main champion, the writer, are repeatedly represented as latter-day Quixotes, tilting at the windmills of mind-numbing, dehumanizing, overpoweringly visual forms of entertainment and communication. (“Introduction” can be accessed here)

And later, in Chapter 1, she makes a comparison between modern novelists and the quixotic ambition, specifically a Don Delillo novel, saying:

We follow Gray on his delirious reenactment of the Quixotic quest, stepping into the light of day in a world he has not lived in for thirty years, attempting to save a political prisoner, and the connections in our minds are almost laughably absurd: Thomas Pynchon riding to the rescue of Salman Rushdie. But ridiculous as this quest may sound, translated into the terms of our own literary figures, it appears to be the only way for Gray, and thus for the novelist as novelist, to reassert his own preeminence in the age of television. (from”The Postmodern Writer,” which can be accessed here)

Both statements allude to the enormous task novelists face in their attempts to fight against the windmills of revolutionary technology and new forms of media. And, Don Quixote is a universally loved literary character, with numerous other characters being modeled after him. What is not addressed, but must be brought into the discussion, is the fact that after his delirious chivalric quest, Don Quixote is returned home, melancholicly sane, to die unhappy.

Fitzpatrick is suggesting that, despite the almost certain failure, the only way that novelists can advocate for their culturally valuable position as novelists is by engaging in a written battle with those giants/windmills that are new media. In Galatea 2.2, Richard Powers (character and author) is involved in such an engagement.

In a world where educated individuals ask, “who is this Milton fellow to me, anyway?” (45), and “science looked a lot like literary criticism, from across the room” (38), there is still engagement with Don Quixote.  But, even Powers, a man well-versed in the particulars of an English literature education, is thrown by Don Quixote:

Diana pulled out her Portable Cervantes and read aloud the random sentence that fell under her bookmark.  An illustration of the futility that this abrasive man and I were about to embark on.  I can’t remember the sentence.  Out of context, I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. (Powers 48)

Through using comparisons such as the act of reading Don Quixote and Lentz’s nickname for Powers, Marcel, perhaps referring to Marcel Proust, Richard Powers the author begins to reveal his absolute terror at his loss of cultural value as a novelist.  When he compares the humanities department to the science Center, the differences become clear.

However, at the end of the novel, through a series of backflips and other gymnastic endeavors, Powers (the author and the character) seem to suggest that he is able to be successful even in a world that is hostile to the written word.  In the last few pages of the novel, Powers has created a machine that is, apparently, in love with him, therefore illustrating “the quality of cognition we’d shot for from the start” (326), and Powers discovers “Each metaphor already modeled the modeler who pasted it together.  It seemed I might have another fiction in my after all” (328).   Because of his ability to write, Lentz needs Powers to tell the story that he cannot tell, thereby validating Powers position as a writer, as well as his own as a scientist.

In a number of ways, the conclusion to this novel is a prime example of Fitzpatrick’s argument against the death of the novel and the need or reality of the novel and technology co-existing, though with some retained level of anxiety.   Where it all falls apart for me, however, is the interdisciplinary training that characters seem to need in order to be successful in this world.  Without a very healthy knowledge of what the other does, neither Lentz nor Powers would have the respect for the other’s disciplines in order to respect the individual carrying out his particular intellectual endeavors.  In contemporary novels, I see an increasing level of anxiety of obsolescence that forces writers to hold even more tightly to their humanities ties (such as Special Topics in Calamity Physics), rather than explore new avenues in incorporating fiction and technology.  Granted, the science fiction genre does take on such a task, but it is not generally what I would consider mainstream fiction.  Perhaps things will change in the future, and Galatea 2.2 is Richard Powers’s happy fiction of a interdisciplinary world where he, as novelist, is still essential.

February 23, 2008

Guns & the Erotic

Filed under: Rant — estherspace @ 4:35 pm

So, true story. My partner in crime was playing a game that involved protecting your compound from invading zombies for 20 days and 20 night. This information alone should be enough to imply a terrible end to the story. While shooting zombies, a player of said game might often finds weapons that the deceased (?) zombies have left behind. The final weapon that one acquires (because he b-e-a-t the game, of course) is a .50 caliber Barrett sniper rifle. This gun is apparently capable of destroying two zombies with a single shot.

After beating the zombie invasion, G. wanted more.  So, he proceeded to take me on a tour of the Wikipedia entry on said gun, and then, over to youtube for videos of the gun being shot.  At this point, numerous comments ensued from me equating pornographic videos and videos of large guns being shot.  So, for the piece de resistance, he found this:

It’s not my thing, but, there’s a market for it.

February 19, 2008

You are rubber

Filed under: ENG 597: Literature in the Information Age — estherspace @ 11:04 pm

I’m going to apologize right from the start. I am using you. This class blog is unfortunately (for you) also going to act as a sounding board for my ideas re: the final research essay. Not totally inane, being that the class and the final paper should be able to be related.

Anyhow, in class today we were discussing the future of literature. Imagine that. But, Kim suggested that one quandary we might have to face in the future (though I’d argue it’s taking place now, and has been for the history of the novel) is the question of whether it is better to have a small group of individuals who are educated in terms of the way that literature should be read and are capable of engaging deeply and thoroughly with the text, or, is it better to have a larger literate population, who might not be as invested in reading deeply or analyzing the text as thoroughly. This polarization is directly related to the issue of democratization of literature verses the protected space of literature.

This brings me to my current topic of interest, the urban novel, and more specifically, Sister Souljah‘s The Coldest Winter Ever. If you’ve never read the novel, the Wikipedia entry provides a good summary here. Clearly, TCWE is part of the democratization of literature. It is a hugely popular book, but not one that you’re likely to find on any St. Rose curriculum. MLA bibliography only lists one journal article and a solitary dissertation abstract on it. Though, fascinatingly, there is another journal article that investigates the rhetorical problem of establishing ethos in relation to Sister Souljah and Harriet Jacobs’s texts.

However, Sister Souljah is interested in using this book as a powerful tool aimed at inspiring young blacks in America to rise above their positions of servitude and oppression in order to become strong black men and women. As her website proffers, Sister Souljah “offers cultural, spiritual, political, economical, practical analysis and constructive solutions with the precision of a surgeon.” In the “Ask the Author” section at the back of the book, Sister Souljah describes how she began to read books in an effort to understand her family and the things around her when she was young, but the books “were not really about the world I lived in” (433). In writing TCWE, Souljah is invested in both chronicling the environment of drugs and their effects on community, as well as writing a cautionary tale for the “teenage ghetto female” that is seemingly trapped in this downward-spiralling environment. Conveniently, she even includes a list of the things she hoped to achieve with her novel:

  1. put drug use out of style
  2. put drug dealing out of style
  3. get youth to recognize their talents and convert them into business
  4. to get youth to use their time wisely
  5. to recapture the black male identity
  6. to redesign the black female identity
  7. to put the black family back together again
  8. to expose how the American economy is fueled by drug dealing and drug money

But, while it is important to notice what the author is saying, it is equally important to investigate what the readers are hearing. Similar to Special Topics in Calamity Physics, The Coldest Winter Ever can easily be read as a simple, entertaining book. Often, the experience of reading it has been compared to watching a movie.

The problem that arises for me is that the novel, in the task of imparting Souljah’s message of re-visioning of the black in America, TCWE has largely failed. Amazon.com boasts 1,125 reviews of the novel, from both self-confessed avid readers and rarely-caught-reading readers. The majority of the reviews focus on the high-energy action of sex, drugs, and law-evasion that pushes the narrative on a basic level. One such reviewer recommends the novel by saying, “If you enjoy urban stories, tales from the hood about the fast life and the spicy young girl who have the life of the gangaster girl…this is it” (Shawntavia Rush). More seldomly, reviewers comment on the cautionary message that Souljah claims to have intended, and often, recognizing the cautionary tale embedded in the story, the readers are inspired to recommend the book to others they know, to give copies as gifts, and very often, to look forward to their daughters being old enough to read it, so that they can learn the lesson as well.

So, this book is in a position faced (I’m sure) by many novels; many of the readers don’t have the skills or training to recognize the ‘true’ message of the novel. Such readers then misread the book as a testament to the glory and excitement of being the daughter of a successful drug dealer and a ‘bad bitch’ (the goal of the females in the community of the novel). Those readers that are able to engage deeper with the novel learn a very different lesson from Winter’s (the main character) experiences with drugs, sex, and homelessness.

This brings me to my questions phase. Is it possible to have only an educated readership? Would an author such as Souljah (who sees herself largely as an activist) want a readership that has already been trained in a particular academic system? If this novel was written with less excitement designed to draw the reader in, would it be successful in reaching the audience it has?  What are the implications of so many readers taking the novel as a largely positive testament to the experience of growing up rich-through-drug-money in the ghetto?  If literature was reserved for a small group of educated readers, would this novel have been written/published?  Is it ‘bad’ that readers aren’t reading this novel critically?  (who put out the memo that they had to?)

Obviously, I haven’t been able to work out my position on the democratization vs. protected space of literature problem.  I want to say that literature is (a) free for all, but, at the same time, I want to believe that the act of reading well is a skill that is important to have.  It is likely that the answer lies in some sort of combination of both forms of literary interaction, much like we have today.  But, will the two ever be able to work happily separate from each other?  There seems to be some natural antagonism between the two approaches.  And, as usual, the difficult part is in finding the proper place to draw the line between the two poles, as well as figuring out who has the right to deem one worthier than the other.

February 16, 2008

The Blue-Pessl Connection

Filed under: ENG 597: Literature in the Information Age — estherspace @ 1:49 pm

Thinking about Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics in the way that Kathleen Fitzpatrick wants us to think about postmodern fiction and the anxiety of obsolescence proved particularly challenging for me, mostly because there is so much to think about within the novel (and outside of it), so focusing on one single thread of thought was nearly impossible.

I think that Fitzpatrick makes some fascinating arguments regarding the anxiety of obsolescence, ones that make me consider my own position as an academic. When thinking about Pessl’s novel, I began by thinking about the character of Blue’s dad. He is a quintessential representation of a old, white, man whose position is ostensibly being undermined by the proliferation of new technology. As a professor, he is forced to teach students who “emerge from the womb predestined for Grand Theft Auto Vice City” (11), a man who is engaged in a life-long love affair with books and the written word.

However, Gareth van Meer is not the one chosen to narrate the novel. Instead, it is his daughter, Blue, part of the generation of writers who are born after the 1950s, a generation that has always had television. For this reason, Blue is caught in an uncomfortable position between the ‘old order’ she knows from growing up with her father, and the current habits of the teens surrounding her. For much of her life, Blue is able to remain separate from her peers, having to move often with her father, and this refusal “to interact with the surrounding culture” (Fitzpatrick 52) puts Blue in a position, according to her father, where she will “have no choice but to go down in history” (Pessl 24).

But what might Pessl be saying when she writes Blue as she does? In this article on Bookslut.com, Pessl admits that there is only a little bit of herself in the character of Blue van Meer, but that she does have a similar love affair with literature. (and that is literature, not just books). In chapter 5, Fitzpatrick cites her goal task as:

examine the ways in which the novelists…mobilize popular and theoretical discourses about contemporary culture in formulating their own responses to television and other forms of electronic media. (201)

In doing this, Fitzpatrick argues, the text will reveal the anxieties of displacement the writer feels, and that the anxiety itself is being used by the author as a writing strategy. With this in mind, I see a number of connections between Blue and Pessl. For Blue, and ostensibly, Pessl, the safety and truth of any situation lies in its references. Behind every argument, there must be supporting details for it to be valid, hence the plethora of citations on every page. For fiction writers, as well, it is impossible to write a novel without acknowledging the centuries of writing tradition that have preceded the writer (and STiCP is hailed as intensely Nabokov-ian).  As Blue begins to discover herself within the world of normal teen interaction, she takes on a variety of teen characters, trying to find her ‘real’ individual self.  Her problem ends up being that this search for her true individuality is accomplished through being a version of a stereotype that ultimately masses all teens together. And, in the end, she must revert back to her training in careful research in order to solve the mystery of Hannah Schneider.

For Pessl, the character of Gareth van Meer represents the death of academia. He lives in his own world, marginally successful, and completely inflexible. However, when Blue attempts to break away from the tradition her father is a part of, she quickly begins to lose her valuable quality of uniqueness; she becomes an American teenager, despite her father’s analogy that “American teenagers are to a weightless vacuum as seat cushions are to polyurethane foam” (Pessl 115).  Important to note is that it is only through being ostracized by her American teenager ‘friends’ that Blue is able to solve the mystery.  However, solving the mystery also means losing her father.  Pessl’s message:  the American author must be a tortured, lonely soul.

The piece of the puzzle that really confuses me: Why does Gareth decide to only teach at very small colleges? Is it an ego, big fish/small pond thing?  And, please, please, will someone talk about the relationship between Gareth van Meer, PoliSci Professor and Socrates, Nightwatchmen HR guy, it’s good stuff.

P.S. If you want to get a little bit of a feel for Marisha Pessl’s personality, here is a video of her describing the plot of the novel.

February 11, 2008

Many, many, many special topics

Filed under: ENG 597: Literature in the Information Age — estherspace @ 10:48 pm

Reading Special Topics in Calamity Physics made me think about the act of reading, the way of reading, myself as a reader, the other readers that inhabit the world, who is reading this novel, and the reading the author has already done in order to write this novel.  Just to begin.

I believe this novel is what they call an “academic novel” as in, it is done in an academic style that appeals to academic readers.  I like to think of myself as an ‘academic’ if for no other reason than I have been studying for years now to learn to read appropriately/correctly/intelligently/efficiently, and whatever other goals an English degree aspires to in terms of reading.  But, this book is more than a little saturated with references to texts real and fictional.  The references to books or stories I had read truly enhanced the reading experience, because it added a richness and added depth to the fairly light coming-of-age story.  The obviously author-engineered references (such as “see “Martian 14,”  Profiling Little Green Men:  Sketches of Aliens from Eyewitness Accounts, Diller, 1989, p. 115″) (p 154) could have been left out.  Because, as one reviewer noted, “Much of it was dense academic blathering–in character, to be sure, but still very annoying to read.” (from Amazon book reviews)

Why did Pessl need seven citations per page?  What did they bring to the book that it would not have had without it?  And, what does the average (non-English Major, normal individual not asking these questions) reader do with this format?

In academia, the citation is meant to bring authority to an individual’s argument.  I like to think of it as the pieces of different puzzles that the academic writer collects and fits carefully together to create a new, (hopefully) beautiful puzzle.  But, if not all of the references are referencing actual work, it  begins to break down the authority of that practice.  In many ways, this fictional work seems to be mocking the tradition of the academic citation. 

And what about the reader that has read few of the remaining ‘real’ references?  From the reviews that I have read online, the citations seem to only get in the way.  The same reviewer as I mentioned above faults the author for her intense use of metaphors and clever references.  She writes:

But much as I love the TV show “Lost,” but have no interest in the ongoing “Lost Experience” on the web, I am resigned to accepting that I may never unravel the knot that still lies at the heart of “Special Topics in Calamity Physics.” Writing a master’s thesis on Nabokov would be a good place to start, but I think we’d all agree that’s asking a great deal of one’s readers.

Certainly readers cannot be expected to undergo an intense English education or to write a thesis on Nabokov, so is this then a novel designed specifically for the ‘trained’ reader?  That theory breaks down as well, since the book is not teeming with as much traditional “literary value” that would endear it to generations of readers. 

I haven’t figured this out.  I have figured out that Pessl’s novel is different from the ‘average’ novel, be it academic or mass-market.  But I haven’t figured out what audience it is so well suited for.  Perhaps that indicates my belief that the future of the novel involves drastic polarization between the ‘literary’ novel and the ‘popular’ novel.  Yet, Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a NY Times Bestselling book.  Boy, I can’t wait to get to class and hear what everyone else has to say. 

Side Note:  Pessl has a website designed a la J.K. Rowling and Dawson’s Desktop-obnoxious, but the most obnoxious of all- the ‘spoiler’ is designed to look like a cliff notes booklet, but all it says inside is “in life there are no shortcuts”  It seems strangely arrogant to me, because I’m not sure that there is as much depth to the novel as many presume, but, in the mode of postmodern fiction, it is not what the novel says, but what it does, that the interest lies.

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