Thursday, March 5, 2009

let x = x

Andrew Gelman drew my attention to his latest post on different kinds of suspense. Wrote a looooooooong comment which turned out to have missed much that was key. Meanwhile things have gone horribly wrong between the editor formerly known as Mr Whitelist (Ed Park) and me. 2C2E.

Moving right along.

A friend who is a professional classicist tells me by e-mail that he was sent a promotional flyer about Lectrix a while back.

Anyway, it went ahead, and a couple of years ago I received an advance flyer about it, which gave a sample line with examples of their discussion and commentary - the sample line being Aeneid 9.9.  In order to demonstrate the value of their "dictionary/parser", they highlighted the word "sedemque" - and informed us that this came from "sedo, sedare, sedaui, sedatum: settle, allay; restrain; calm down", and the "parser" box accordingly parsed it as "sedemque: verb subjunctive present active 1st sing."

Now, anyone with a minimal knowledge of Latin can see that the word is not a verb, but a noun - from sedes, of course. But whoever had done the dictionary/parser did not have a minimal knowledge of Latin. I investigated further, and discovered that what they had done was simply stick "sedem" through a computer translator, and the computer came up with it being part of the word "sedare". I told X, in some amusement, and he contacted CUP, who explained that their computer dictionary wasn't yet complete, but that it would be complete before the final product went on sale; they also implied that the problem was that the word was "ambiguous", and that this ambiguity would be reflected in the final version. But this seemed to me to show the flaw in the whole enterprise, because "sedemque" in Aeneid 9.9 is not ambiguous at all if one actually knows Latin, instead of simply running word-forms through a computer.
So, well, hm. Note that the Perseus project, which also provides links to dictionary entries and grammatical help, is free (link in sidebar). It may be that Lectrix was substantially improved after the trial run. My guess is that this is what went on behind the scenes: people who actually knew the languages said you couldn't provide grammatical guidance using computer programs of the quality then available; a computer programmer who didn't know the languages said Piece of cake; and the rest is history. And a trial subscription to Lectrix is not available to individuals, because anyone who checked it out and found this level of elucidation of "sedemque" would decamp.

Languagehat had a post a couple of days ago on his bafflement over the verb " imitere" in the opening lines of Livy's Ab Urbe Condita. To a classicist, unsurprisingly, it's obvious what the verb is; LH went to the PDF commentary provided by the author, and all was revealed. This is, obviously, what someone who subscribes to a service like Lectrix is looking for; if I were eligible for a trial subscription I could see whether they're now providing it.


Mithridates said...

Gelman's piece was interesting, but I'm not sure your response missed much that was key.

I'm also not sure I want to live in a world where my only models are LeCarre, Updike, and O'Hara.

A friend told me when I sent him a revised and extended version of the penis post that I really should spend the first paragraph telling the reader who the narrator and his father are.

One sense that I have of the beginning of a piece is that it can be like the beginning of a musical piece. The establishing of a rhythm, a tone, a theme. And oftentimes certain pieces of information, or even certain sounds, don't fit into that effort. Using the beginning of the piece to the imparting of information that one would like to just get out of the way seems lacking in a sense of the story as whole as an aesthetic object, as a stylistic exertion from beginning to end. As does the conscientious application of descriptive tags ("John, a herpetologist from Skokie with a failing marriage, woke up one Tuesday morning to find that his wife, Jan, a tarot card reader, had finally left him. He might have seen it in the cards had he known how to read them. This is one time, he said to himself, petting his gecko Todd, I wish I didn't know so damn much about the branch of zoology dealing with reptiles and amphibians.")

Telling us what a character does for a living, now matter how specific we are about it, is a way of limiting that character, which is inevitable, I think, but it limits him a sort of depressing way. It's a way of saying, What this character does from here on out must be understood in relation to his job. I think it's a fallacy to assume that a character's profession is an adequate expression of who that character is. Some are totally immersed in their professions, most simply fell into their profession and feel quite detached, alienated from it. Most of us move in and out of a sense of ourselves as defined by our professions. Many of us secretly believe we're something other than what we've chosen to do for a living. If a story were written about me, for example, I don't think I'd recognize myself if I were described as a graduate student or a scholar or - God, no - a Victorianist.

But I actually don't want to make this sort of argument. the standard move is to ask, How is it in 'real life'? And I appear to be doing this, don't I? I really want to say that there are a variety of aesthetic choices for the writer to choose from, and that it's always bad to lay out prescriptions.

What I really want to say is that it's up to the author to decide what factors will be the boundaries of her characters. So I'm not sure that giving any information about the person's profession or whatever, no matter how specific, is necessarily a good aesthetic choice, no matter how comfortable and oriented it might make the reader feel. I don't remember what a lot of characters in fiction do for a living (especially in, say, a James novel, where most of them seem to do a lot of nothing), but this sort of information isn't really the knowledge one looks for; for me, anyway, the knowledge I look for is that which the author's style arrives at, that which the author uncovers in the act of writing her story.

But the question doesn't end simply with what a character does for a living. I mean, what really qualifies as basic information? Their profession? Their hair color? Their choice of clothing? Their family history? At what point will a reader no longer feel he's in the dark about a character? I'm able to live my life and interact with people without knowing much about them. (But here I go again, arguing from the idea of how things are in real life.) The question really is about when to stop accumulating information, about what to include and what not to include, and when to include what what you do include. When a writer reveals halfway through a story that a character is a vulcanologist, shouldn't we give her the benefit of the doubt and ask why she chose this moment to reveal this piece of information, why it might be placed here and not somewhere else? We wouldn't ask that a musician reorder his composition because it would've been clearer what the piece was trying to do if he put some phrase or whatever earlier in the piece.

Well, perhaps the analogy isn't quite right.

Anyway. I've also been thinking about Gelman's use of the term the "now-standard pattern." Really, we seem to be offered a choice: give explicit info about a character so we know where we are OR reveal it along the way, as if by accident or in the course of things. When you say that something is standard, you seem to imply that there are a variety of other nonstandard possibilities out there. It seems odd to me to criticize authors so heavily if they only have two options to choose from.

(Sorry. I probably should have commented on your post rather than your comment, and should have posted this comment on his blog, but, well, hm - what's that thing behind you?!)

Mithridates said...

P.S. It was unfair of me - and snide - to suggest that the only models of the kind of thing that Gelman likes are Updike, O'Hara, and LeCarre. I take that back. It's that these examples aren't particularly encouraging because they don't seem to hint at more interesting models. These examples aren't so different as to suggest family resemblances to a wide variety of writers. I don't see how Calvino, for example, could fit into this universe. Or Sterne or Krasznahoraki or Beckett.

Helen DeWitt said...

Well, I seem to remember a line in Invisible Cities: There's always some girl walking a puma for a whim. I.e., you see something that looks amazing, a girl walking a puma on a leash, but to someone else this is the norm.

I think I tried to gesture at your point by saying that someone might feel there was a gap between what could go on a CV and experience.

I haven't actually read any O'Hara, but my impression, from what I've heard, is that he would in fact have been acutely aware of the pressure to make a life conform to a CV.

Adrian said...

Amongst other things I design websites for a living, and until recently was working part-time in the website team of a computing service for a University in the UK. I left partially because of the fucking interminable meetings where people would have soul-destroying conversations whose difficulty was caused by the inherent ambiguity in human language - but, somehow lacking the ability to stand back and realise this, hours were spent constructing tortured sentences to send out as part of bulletins which no-one bothered to read. Those meetings felt an Inferno from the Internet age - the Infernet? - spending an eternity perfecting an email circular that no-one is ever going to read.

There was something in there about language and control - as if the perfect sentence was out there somewhere, and if it could only be found then people would pay attention and be excited to remember to sign out of the Intranet on shared computers. It's rather like Adam naming the animals. And, funnily enough, it's rather like people talking about Adam naming the animals. Read this exciting discussion piece, soon to be followed by an extended seminar on how many angels fit onto the head of a pin:

Well, that's perhaps rather a tangent - caused by the idea of the computerisation of language, except that in this case it was carried across into everyday meetings rather than translation dictionaries - I think some of the people I worked with thought that English should work like C++, and that people would do what you told them (or at least understand exactly why it was important to sign out of the Intranet) as long as you issued the correct series of commands. You know those tech support people who only give you an answer if you ask *exactly* the right question?

I'd rather be able to sue people for my time rather than money - time isn't money - I'd get quite few days of my life back if I could...

Andrew said...

Mithridates: I think what I was reacting to was the feeling I realized I'd had that the start-the-reader-in-the-dark style was the norm, and that it was my job as a reader to figure out who was who in these stories. It was a relief for me to think, No, maybe this style is not always so effective, in fact maybe in many cases it's a cheap trick to create suspense where none would otherwise exist.

I recognize that such a style does have its legitimate uses. But I suspect that in many cases this isn't happening, it's more that it's an accepted way to write a story that can be published in the New Yorker. Or maybe, as a blog commenter suggested, it's just a result of taking a fragment of a novel and publishing it as a stand-alone story.

I used Updike and O'Hara as examples because they are the quintessential New Yorker story writers, and, although their styles and subject matter are recognizably "New Yorker" and their stories certainly have their share of mysteries and revelations, they don't actually use the start-the-reader-in-the-dark style. So, my beef is not really with the New Yorker style but with something more specific.

Mithridates said...

Thanks, Andrew. I see your point. When a writer doesn't reveal basic things about characters, he's often being pointlessly obscure. I guess the New Yorker writers' consensus must be that beginning a story with information is mechanical and not 'life-like,' but the irony is that the other way of doing things becomes equally mechanical. Given a choice between clarity and pointless obscurity, it would be better to choose the former.

Not to hijack HD's glorious blog by using the comments section to talk about something other than what she posted - sorry, Helen - but the thing I noticed yesterday was that I find that the language in most short fiction, New Yorker or otherwise, is extremely uninteresting, uniformly plain. There's plainness and then there's plainness; Hemingway's plainness I find strange and interesting, when he's at his best, or Carver's/Lish's, but Joyce Carol Oates and Ford and Lahiri, I can't see what's enjoyable in them. I wonder if I could get some stylometry software and run their stories through them to see if there are any really interesting differences.

Perhaps my real problem is reading about American life, which no language seems capable of vivifying for me. I can't read about house hunting or strip malls or old-age homes or dates involving couples going to see a band. The drabness of subject matter seems to infect the language. DeLillo is the first person who comes to mind who does something very interesting with language when he's writing about all these horrible American realities - garbage dumps, supermarkets, "toxic air events," etc.

Excess and exuberance don't seem to be valued in the short story form. It's short and therefore should be clear and to the point. (Which, of course, doesn't mean that the information you'd like to have can't be provided in all the linguistic tumult.) It might be good for people to stop reading the standard New Yorker et al models of short fiction and start reading, say, Emerson and Whitman just so they can be reminded of what can be accomplished in the short form.

Andrew said...

I dunno, I think Richard Ford can be witty. And that Katherine Boo article in the New Yorker a few weeks ago was pretty funny. It was nonfiction but the same principles apply, I'm sure.