Friday, May 13, 2005
On pens and ink and sealing wax
[I think Conscientious Objector has some valid points (and he’s good-looking, to boot, to judge by the photo on his site). Anyway, some of his remarks, and a post by Kieran Healy at Crooked Timber, prompted this post. A blog post, not an essay or an article:]
When I posted my little questionnaire some weeks back, I worried that it was too pointed. I thought, though, that it might seem innocuous enough, following as it did the pattern of two earlier quizzical posts, and so I went ahead. There went the neighbourhood.
While my questions about writing practices may strike some as not being much different from the general run of Quizilla fare, it was intended as a contribution to an ongoing discussion, or set of discussions, here at The Valve, about the relationship of writerly production, to product. (This may be a good place to apologize for revisiting issues that had finally seemed blessedly dormant. Feel free to move on to the next post.)
Still here? Good. Full disclosure: I was taught, at a tender, impressionable age, to always (always) pay attention to the way in which a text was produced. We even had a catchy name for it — the “Literary Mode of Production” — or “LMoP,” as I shortened it in my scribbled notes, and to this day I am constitutionally incapable of thinking of a literary text outside these parameters. The “Literary Mode of Production” is defined as the interplay between the production, distribution, exchange, and consumption of literary texts. Included are questions of genre, as well as other texts, as part of the field in which any given text is produced. And just to be clear: texts are read and understood as literature, not, or not only, as “information” (whatever that is). I don’t think having a materialist perspective precludes a nuanced understanding of literary language; it merely grounds that understanding. So that it doesn’t blow away.
Moving along: you may well be asking, what does this all have to do with asking people about what sort of pens they like to use?
I was making a point about our individual literary practices, in an attempt to connect, metaphorically at least, with larger issues of the concrete practices of literary production. Awhile back, Daniel Green asked, in a response to a comment of mine , why I should care how the pens and ink stones of Chinese scholar-poets were paid for. The answer is, that whether they worked their own fingers to the bone to pay for those precious commodities themselves, or whether they existed in a cloud of privilege, unsullied by the marketplace, would affect their writing. What they said and how they said it. What they could say. What they left out. Do ink stones just appear from mid-air, just when the deserving poet reaches for them? Is it that kind of world? Or does each brush represent many hours of labour, or a choice between writing and eating? So is it that kind of world?
(Both sorts of worlds employ metaphors &etc. Just to be clear.)
By asking whether or not using a computer has affected respondents’ writing, I was asking people to think about the interrelationship of technology, and material practice in general, with literary production. About how changes in technology in turn change texts.
Now, one could argue that I might have been more explicit, and one would have a very good point.
Anyway, it didn’t work. By and large, most of the respondents did not ponder the questions in just this way. But they were caught up with them, in that guilty-pleasure way in which we are so easily cajoled into talking about ourselves. (Which is the appeal of all those internet quizzes. Which is why Conscientious Objector is forgiven for lumping my post in with them.)
What I found really interesting — apart from the number of people who claim that composing on a computer has no appreciable effect on their writing compared with writing in long-hand (say what?) — was the investment people had in their answers. Not just in the comments to the original post — which are by and large friendly — but also in posts and comments on other blogs. Now one could just attribute this to the cussedness of people in general: if they aren’t arguing about just exactly how much of an oxymoron the term “Marxist literary criticism” really is, they are arguing about No. 2 pencils. And this is a persuasive position. People are cussed and argumentative, there is no denying. (Look around. Hell, read this post.)
But there is more to people’s interest in these questions than just the usual head-butting.
To some extent it would seem that we conflate our writing practices with our writing itself. Kieran Healy takes a swipe at those who regard the pen as superior to the computer, and defends the fetishization of the computer as just as worthy as a fixation on “Mont Blanc pens and heavy cream paper and mahogany bureaus.” (Or much cheaper pens and Ikea tables, in my case, I suppose). But at The Valve we “are all English professors or Comp Lit grad students or what have you,” and hence benighted users of Microsoft Word. Meaning, I suppose, our intellectual activities — seeing how many angels can pole-dance — are directly reflected in our material practices: playing silly buggers with fountain pens and getting our fingers stained and having to mop up our desks and never really writing anything useful because we keep ruining the paper and hey, that ink blot looks like Harold Bloom in his undershirt. But then Healy redeems himself with his closing: “But us mere mortals all face the same empty page, whether it’s on a sheet of paper or a screen. Technological distinctions between us are invidious. It’s the added dimension the tools bring to writing, in whatever form, that help us produce anything at all.”
I am trying to connect the fetishization of our creative tools, as one commentator at CT put it , with our fetishization of the book. Surely these are closely related pleasures? I think that we can all agree that blogging is self-reflexive, whether one blogs about one’s inner workings, or in the third person about books. This self-reflexivity conflates nicely with the fetishization of writing. Our own writing, and that of others. Look at all the books on the practice of writing, and the practice of reading. These are two of the most self-reflexive activities in human culture. We like to watch ourselves while we do either, and we like to watch writers, as well. We are exhibitionists and voyeurs. Think of all the coffee-table books about writers: their homes, their desks. Think of all the interviews with authors: what is your daily routine? Where do you write? Think of the emphasis on writing practise in most literary biographies. I’m sure I’m not the only one who can name half a dozen writers who composed standing up, for example; why on earth do I know this? It is obviously important to know that Flaubert revised ad infinitum and Kerouac didn’t (even once, it would seem), but do we need to know much more? Well I would argue that Flaubert’s pen and ink vs. Kerouac’s typewriter are also important. But whether they sat or stood? Legitimate enquiry blends into voyeurism before we can blink. This is part of our pleasure.
Here is a test: do you give a flying hoot about the desk/daily word count/writerly superstitions of authors who don’t interest you? Probably not. Could we learn something from knowing these things about uninteresting as well as interesting authors? Probably. Do we care to? Probably not.
A horrible thought: is all this concern about studies and typewriters merely a more middlebrow version of those magazine articles that feature “Homes of the Stars”? Surely not; even if we don’t need to know all such details in order to be able to discuss the “literary mode of production” — those who are inclined that way — I would argue that attention to writing practises is part of the pleasure of the text, part of the same pleasure we take in good design, handsome materials, the smell of paper, and all the rest. For mental activities, reading and writing are manifestly physical, and the aesthetics of that physicality are sometimes difficult to tease apart from the “purer” aesthetics of the Platonic text.
Which seems … to be floating … out the window …
1 Though Quizzilla has some good ones, like What kind of postmodernist are you? Me? I am “the Clark Kent of postmodernists.”
2 I don’t mean to dissuade anyone from reading the post and its delightful comments, because they are useful and enthusiastic and may get me tinkering around again with open-source text editors. Though I am very happy with Nisus, I have to say. Highly recommended. And nothing to do with Microsoft.
Legitimate enquiry blends into voyeurism before we can blink.
When isn’t it voyeurism? Responsible scholarship requires “useful voyeurism.” My wife, a medievalist, constantly thinks about the relationship between the formal properties of a work and the material circumstances both of its production and its consumption. Granted, she deals with extreme examples--anchoritic texts written in mudholes with poor light, terrible ventilation and no health plan--but the formal relationships between texts and the circumstances of their production aren’t limited to such extreme examples. Jonathan Auerbach’s Male Call details how Jack London’s obsession with the trials and tribulations of postal workers in his fiction corresponds to the period, well-documented in his private letters to Cloudesley Johns, in which he was obsessed with All Things Postal: stamps, letters sent, letters returned, letters received, the post office’s inner hierarchy, etc. The material circumstances in which London initially worked were responsible for a number of what would become his characteristic quirks. Not that those quirks are reducible to those circumstances, mind you, but they add to the complexity of his work. What I’m saying, needlessly, but at length, is that 1) I agree with you but 2) don’t think academic voyeurism deserves that name.
But at The Valve we “are all English professors or Comp Lit grad students or what have you,” and hence benighted users of Microsoft Word. Meaning, I suppose, our intellectual activities — seeing how many angels can pole-dance — are directly reflected in our material practices
That’s just about the exact opposite of what my post actually says. I guess they really _do_ teach you guys to interpret the hell out of things. No wonder so many eventually go on to law school. :-P
Great, now my ISP’s filtering software will block access to the Valve.
The only thing wrong with all this, Miriam, is that it evades the uncomfortable truth pointed out by the likes of John Bruce. The Bradley foundation is funneling untold piles of cash into our pockets, and he who pays the piper . . . Sitting, standing, pen, processor--what matters is that we’re the running dogs of the ultra wealthy.
Seriously, like A. Cephalous, I agree with you, and I don’t have anything against voyeurism or fetishism either. But if we really want attention to the literary mode of production to tell us something, doesn’t it have to include not just the forces of production (computer, pen, etc.) but the relations of production too? E.g., the reproduction of a pampered class of clerics with the leisure time to invest in developing skills, fetishizng tools, and jockeying for status?
Look, Miriam, I love your entries, both the intellectually demanding ones and the more playful goings around the room. But I just finished grading the work of more students than I’d ever had before, and responding in detail to emailed complaints from a couple of them, and am nursing a nasty cough. And I was hoping to get more sleep tonight than I’d had since Tuesday. And then I read
“ . . . that ink blot looks like Harold Bloom in his undershirt.”
So much for sleep.
A. Cephalous, I guess I was making a distinction between voyeuristic enquiry (right and good) and voyeurism (fun, but less useful. Except in that it’s fun, which has its own utility.) Oh, never mind. (Re. your spouse’s work: I teach a little Julian of Norich in my Writing by Women class, though not in much depth as it is a survey and she’s outside my area. I suppose that is a good example of voyeurism.)
Sean, I keep hearing about all this cash but I’m seeing none of it. It may be the exchange rate, but I suspect that Holbo is pocketing my share for some nefarious purpose, a hypertext edition of Nietzsche or something. And what you say about the relations of production: yes, absolutely.
Josh and gzombie: sorry.
Kieran: I’m too old for law school, so I guess I’m stuck misreading texts for the rest of my life. Could be worse. (Could be young enough for law school, for instance.)
The fetishy thingy - yes, we love paper and ink. I don’t like the fact that my poetry collection is going yellow because I am OLD and probably a bad housekeeper.’Nuff said.
Regarding the voyeuristic enquiry, bloody hell yes it is exactly like the magazine crap of which you complain. “Meet the new shit, same as the old shit..."(Apologies to The Who).
I was mildly irritated when Gunter Grass claimed he could pick a computer-written novel out of the pack, but I got over it. I am, however,sick to death of reading the pap in my local paper about writers - they have a horrible weekly column on “What’s on my bedside table right now” which is to barf for.
Yet I find in the careers section of my weekend paper today, an article on Australian literary festivals and marketing where the Melbourne Writers’ Festival organiser gives as an estimate that around $3 million of publicity for the festival is provided by the bookloving community of Melbourne, no less. This may be propaganda, as the rival city Sydney has a ‘bold and innovative’ publicity campaign funded by its State Government. So all this lifestyle crap courtesy of The Age( a tireless, year-round diet of interviews with writers of every hue and less inclusive persuasions) must be doing somebody some good! Publishers maybe??!!??
More anon on the voyeurism at CFN(or perhaps I’m just in a bad mood because I got mouldy old flowers for my 23rd wedding anniversary? Anyway...I’M off.)
You get flowers?!? Lucky cow.
Sorry,they weremouldy - lilies that fester don’t smell too crash hot.(I hope he’s not trying to tell me something?) Poor old things had been out in the frost I think, outside the shop and under the top cluster of blooms they were stuck together by a growth or two, supporting the rotten stems further down. Not great quality control, and a waste of my man’s $20 to boot.
WIth regard to my ‘serious’ remarks, however, I am sick to death of doe-eyed portrait shots of writers all over my weekend paper - even if said paper is a sponsor of the Writers’ Festival. Perhaps I should be keeping a log of the unknowns they profile during the year, to be completely fair.
I got flowers, once. Never had a chance to respond to the questionnaire, but I am also a fountain pen and ink girl—partially because I like the feel, apartially because I write more legibly with a fountain pen, and partially because I never learned ‘good’ notetaking habits. I never learned to use notecards, so I’m crap at notecard software (although anyone who wants to teach me will be provided with a good meal and beer, wine or whisky). And I do find that writing things out longhand at the beginning helps me to organize better.
From my standpoint, though, I think you’re probably right on the ‘homes of the stars’ quality—it’s kind of like acting students reading actor biographies, too. It might be true for historians (in fact, I’m pretty sure it is) but I can’t imagine caring about the habits of my seniors and betters—except if they are useful things I could do. And when I look at many of them in their 50s and up, especially the men, than the means of production really are different, so I think of those things, too. THe relatively low costs and easy job market that people who got their degrees in the 50s and 60s (at least in the UK and the US) encountered, and the relatively higher level of respect given to college professors at the time must have created a different environment than obtains for today’s grad students. I can think of at least two of my grad school professors whose wives did all their typing—or who had enough money to hire research assistants for their PhD theses! plus, most of these guys were able to research abroad and take their families with. Sorry. Think I lost my point somewhere ... long weekend!
I studied with someone—the one who stressed the LMoP (see above)—who was hired on the phone. And I don’t think that was too unusual, in the early 1960s.