Saturday, February 4, 2012

my poor head

While I was in New York I went to a film screening at the apartment of my agent, Edward Orloff. I did not really want to go but I thought I should get OUT and MEET PEOPLE while I was in New York, so I trekked down from the Upper East Side to a bit of Brooklyn whose closest subway stop was on the G line, which turned out to mean it was necessary to leap into a taxi at the last minute because the relevant stretch of the subway was closed. On the doorstep I met a couple of very nice people with whom I exchanged idle chitchat while we waited for Edward to come down (the bell did not work, but one of these nice people had a cellphone).  We went upstairs and continued to chat and at some point the awful truth dawned.  One of these nice people was Caleb Crain.  And at some point, maddened by circumstances that had nothing whatsoever to do with Caleb Crain, I had written some scathing comments in a post about something nice Caleb Crain had said about Alain de Botton's book on work. (I THINK I have now consigned this post to the drafts folder, but to tell the truth I hardly dare look to ascertain.)

Anyway, I stood in a small group of pleasantly chatting people and felt more and more awkward, but no, the only decent thing to do was fess up and apologize. Which I duly did.  And Crain, needless to say, was unbelievably nice about it.  And I, needless to say, resolved to be more temperate in future and not seize on things said online and--

So, oh dear. I now come upon a pronouncement by Jonathan Franzen on the subject of books in print and the value, to those who care about literature, of permanence.  And I contemplate the fact that Mr Franzen is, to the best of my knowledge, a very nice man. One day I might run into this nice man at a party in New York.  I don't want to hang my head in shame and admit, at last, that I am the terrible person who said all those terrible things on a blog.  But-- someone is WRONG on the Internet!!!!!!!

Franzen is 52. I am 54. Two years would not normally suffice to place the older of the two in the class of REALLY OLD fogeys, as opposed to the class of the merely old--but I am a classicist.  No classicist can take this view of the sanctity of print; one mark of the serious scholar is, of course, a preference for the printed text that comes with an apparatus criticus, that is, one which publishes important variants from the manuscript at the foot of the page.  Which is to say, of course, that we are trained to be aware of the errors that creep in during transmission; we are trained to regard corrupt texts with horror. And when we are confronted with the process through which a modern text comes to print, we see it as a battle: a battle in which those publishing the book do their best to smuggle corruptions into print, against more or less effective opposition from the person who had the misfortune to write it.

It is an unhappy fact that the relation between what the author wrote and the published text depends, to a very great degree, on the power of the author and his/her representation.  When one reads books that have made it into print, the author may well have thought long and hard about what the text should be; the extent to which this is reflected in the text varies according to the strength of the author's position.  This somewhat brutal class system is ubiquitous in the realm of printed texts, and is, of course, virtually unknown online.  In the blogosphere, the authors of webcomics put up whatever they choose; Steve Dodson of LanguageHat writes what he likes; Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution writes what he likes; Cosma Shalizi of Three-Toed Sloth, Andrew Gelman of Statistical Modeling ...., Jenny Davidson of Light Reading, Tired Dad of Tired Dad, all are on an absolutely equal footing when it comes to presenting to the public what they happen to want to say.

I have a Kindle; I would like to have an iPad;  I also very much like printed books.  I am working on various programming languages; despite the wealth of material online, I also have a table piled high with reference books, which I find enormously helpful.  I have about 3000 books in my apartment, come to think of it; I could get a cheaper apartment, no doubt, if they were all on my Kindle, but I like having them available for reference in this form. But there are trade-offs which I can't ignore. If I read Syme's Roman Revolution, I am struck by the idiosyncratic English, English like nothing any other writer in the language would think to perpetrate, English influenced by the Latin of Sallust and Tacitus-- English which the typical anglophone editor would fight long and hard to 'correct'. In our fallen times we have access to a range of usage closer to the range one finds in Greek, in Latin, when we go online; the publishers of our printed texts do their very best to give us Wonderbread, Kraft's  Processed Cheese, Skippy's Smooth Peanut Butter, Welch's Grape Jelly. A Thucydides, a Tacitus might certainly get into print -- wealth permitting.

I wish it were not so; I merely state publicly what has been said to me in private many times by editors and agents over the years.  But I hope I have not said this in a way that will leave me embarrassed and tongue-tied if I meet Mr Franzen one of these days at a party.

No comments: