Monthly Archives: March 2008

Freedom and Submission; or, the reading fetishist

One very big advantage of wireless networks. I can sit here and do this blog while I simultaneously watch American Idol. Yes, I am only partially ashamed to admit that I watch American Idol with my family every week. Listening to Simon disrespect singers for their “monumental lack of personality” is my great guilty pleasure.

Probably goes along with my general sense that we are too tenderfooted in declaring that some things are better than other things.

Thus, one way the net has it all over reading books. I mean I couldn’t sit here and read my new edition of War and Peace while listening to several people sing off key while displaying their lack of personality. Multi-tasking rules. (Who am I kidding; I don’t have a new edition of War and Peace or even an old one. I have no time.)

But today’s blog has nothing to do with that.

Ben Vershbow over at if:book posted a very interesting piece reviewing Hypertextopia, a free web space for writers wanting to explore the possibilities of hypertext for fiction. Says Vershbow:

 

The site is gorgeously done, applying a fresh coat of Web 2.0 paint to the creaky concepts of classical hypertext. I find myself strangely conflicted, though, as I browse through it. Design-wise, it is a triumph, and really gets my wheels spinning w/r/t the possibilities of online writing systems….

 

 

Lovely as it all is though, it doesn’t convince me that hypertext is any more viable a literary form now, on the Web, than it was back in the heyday of Eastgate and Storyspace. Outside its inner circle of devotees, hypertext has always been more interesting in concept than in practice. A necessary thought experiment on narrative’s deconstruction in a post-book future, but not the sort of thing you’d want to read for pleasure.

 

 

But those are the days I wish we could put the net back in the box and forget it ever happened. I get a bit of that feeling with literary hypertext — insofar as it reifies the theoretical notion of the death of the author, it is not necessarily doing the reader any favors.

Hypertext’s main offense is that it is boring, in the same way that Choose Your Own Adventure stories are fundamentally boring. I know that I’m meant to feel liberated by my increased agency as reader, but instead I feel burdened. What are offered as choices — possible pathways though the maze — soon start to weigh like chores. It feels like a gimmick, a cheap trick, like it doesn’t really matter which way you go (that the prose tends to be poor doesn’t help). There’s a reason hypertext never found an audience.

 

Hurrah! And Again. Hurrah. Vershbow has the courage to say that the king has no clothes.

That is, it’s not hip and cool to say, well, frankly, that this is all just a bit dull. But really, it is. It really, really is.

And hypertext fictions are boring in a way that the surfing the internet in general really isn’t. And the way old fashioned books are not. Almost as if the “planned” surprise or randomness or multiplicity of hypertext fictions are more controlling and in some fashion disrespectful of readers than traditional narratives ever were. And less surprising than the almost true randomness of the text or internet.

 

[Intertext I: Simon Cowell has just determined that the latest singer is “completely forgettable.” She is, she really, really is. Just like almost every hypertext fiction ever written.]

[Intertext II: I have definitely decided that Paula Abdul is irredeemably vapid. Not, I hope, like this post]

 

Vershbow is right to tie this to a peculiar failure of concept in postmodern views of reading and writing. I have to say that I love reading Roland Barthes. But his understanding of reading in “Death of an Author” completely misses the point of what is most pleasurable and imaginatively enlarging about the reading experience. That is, our self loss, our self-forgetfulness.

 

I don’t deny the general idea that reading is or can be a creative act. But Barthes tendency to turn every reader into a writer, every reading in to a writing, misses that the great glory of reading is transcendence of the self through loss, transcendence through the dissolution of the ego’s boundary, transcendence through the very submission of the imagination that Barthese hopes to forestall.

 

As if he were empowering readers by putting them in control. Perhaps he forgets that, as I learned on CSI, the passive partner in an S&M team is always the one who’s really in control, despite appearances.

Finally, equating freedom and creativity with control is….boring. Anyone who has written knows that the most exciting times aren’t those moments when you’re exercising authority over the text, but those when you aren’t. When the words say things you didn’t know or mean.

Reading as control is boring for the same reason hypertext fictions are boring. By giving the reader a job we’re confined by the randomness of our own choices, rather than freed and liberated from ourselves by the prisonhouse of someone else’s language.

 

Masochism, you say! So be it.

Submit yourselves to the discipline of the text…and be free.

Unless the grain of seed shall die. And so forth.

Fetishists of the text unite!

 

[Intertext III: Simon thought the last singer was “completely predictable,” but thought Brooke White was great. Paula Abdul says that Brooke White’s song was “really here.” What does that mean? What in the name of all that is good and true does that mean?]

 

Previews: I’ve gotten a lot of good responses to things lately that I just haven’t been able to get to. What I really hope to get to soon, but in case I don’t, just treat it like a movie that failed its test screening.

Sam Miller, one of my readers (that sounds pretentious, but I’ll say it anyway)has a new essay out at Conversational Quarterley that looks pretty good, but I need to read it more closely before I say more.

My good friend Julia Kasdorf has been up to her usual good stuff with reading and writing up at Penn State.

I’ve also managed to get the folks at MyAccess royally po’d. I think they’ve marshalled their hit squad of professional MyAccess users.

Also passed my two month anniversary as a blogger 3500+ page hits. And some of them are not even from the students I am paying to click through my pages (heh! heh!) Have got to talk about the compulsive addiction to write that is occasioned by anonymous readers.

But all that is for the future. After American Idol is over.

 

Boys and Their Toys

Mark Bauerlein, blogging for the Chronicle of Higher Education, posted some interesting reflections on boys and reading this past week . He’s reflecting on the iPulp Fiction Library, which is probably worth a blog in itself. The library, run by a friend of Bauerlein’s, exists to promote reading, especially though not exclusively for boys, by reinvigorating the tradition of the dime novel by providing free onlineipulp fiction.

A few excerpts from Bauerlein’s blog:

Five years ago I would have written back with something like, “C’mon, can’t we push a little Melville and Swift instead?”

Not anymore. Books of any kind compete with so many digital diversions that just about any fiction that encourages long reading hours is worth a look — pulp or sports or Western or murder mystery or classic novel. Reading researchers believe that sheer volume of reading plays a large role in the acquisition of basic literacy skills and vocabulary, and that print matter of even child-oriented books can be more verbally challenging than some of the best television shows. (Read this entire article and note its far-reaching findings.)

Furthermore, I believe, the boy reading problem is reflected in the growing achievement gap between girls and boys. Admissions officers see this every year. At my old school, UCLA, the entering class last year was 59 percent female. Across town at Cal State-LA, the undergraduate population is 63 percent female. And officials expect the discrepancy to increase.

===============

 

Real Men Don’t Read

Bauerlein is touching on one of my pet concerns, partly because I have a son who reads a great deal, while also trying to maintain his coolness quotient in being a basketball and soccer player. While being further concerned with enhancing his growing reputation as a lady killer. Lady killers not found in libraries as a general rule.

“Real Men Don’t Read” could probably be a slogan on a best-selling adolescent t-shirt, is my general guess. Boys learn mostly to impress girls by carrying their books, not by reading them. I also feel this poignant sense of protectiveness for the few men who wander in to my literature classrooms. Among English majors nationally, women outnumber men 3 to 1.

(Side note: a quick google search calls up 5180 pages with some version of the phrase Real Men Don’t’ Read. Fewer than I might have thought, but the idea is out there.)

So, I mostly agree with Bauerlein here. It is surely a truism by now in higher education that there’s a problem with young men and higher education. Indeed, it’s fair to say that more and more colleges are starting to treat them like an underrepresented minority.

(And, incidentally, I see more and more posts from women—including a response to Bauerlein’s blog–that, in a different context, would sound just like white people ridiculing the supposedly inherent inferiority of black people. Along the lines of “If boys weren’t so stupid, there wouldn’t be a problem.”).

The reports from the NEA emphasize just how drastic the non-reading problem is for men as opposed to women. This, in fact, is one of the main reasons I’m dubious of those defensive responses that suggest reading on the net is just as good as any other kind of reading. Studies used to suggest, at least, the higher levels of comfort boys had with the net and all things digital, but that is long past. Even if men are now spending all their time reading online, it apparently isn’t doing them any good. They score consistently far lower than women on all kinds of tests for reading comprehension and language abilities. Indeed, studies suggest that girls now spend more time online and post more written content than boys. Boys dominate in only one area—video content:

Girls continue to dominate most elements of content creation. Some 35% of all teen girls blog, compared with 20% of online boys, and 54% of wired girls post photos online compared with 40% of online boys. Boys, however, do dominate one area – posting of video content online. Online teen boys are nearly twice as likely as online girls (19% vs. 10%) to have posted a video online somewhere where someone else could see it.

All of this goes to show why my daughter thinks it’s weird that I blog, and my son ignores it entirely. I am, no doubt, working out of my feminine side, or perhaps my inner 17-year-old female child.

In any case, generally speaking, I have my doubts that boys are making up for their lack of reading books with a lot of reading and writing on the net.

==========

 

What Should Big Boys Read?

I think that not a lot of attention has been given to reading material especially for boys in schools. I’ve mentioned Jon Sciezka on this blog before, and I think the work he’s doing with boys’ reading is important. A colleague seemed flummoxed when I suggested to her that for a lot of boys, maybe most boys, The Great Gatsby is the equivalent of a chick flick, as is most of Shakespeare, Hawthorne, and most of the others we call greats. Generally speaking, though, I agree with the following post: “Why Hemingway is Chick Lit.” Among other things the post gives us the following completely unscientific but telling anecdote:

“When women stop reading, the novel will be dead,” declared Ian McEwan in the Guardian last year. The British novelist reached this rather dire conclusion after venturing into a nearby park in an attempt to give away free novels. The result?

Only one “sensitive male soul” took up his offer, while every woman he approached was “eager and grateful” to do the same.

We can talk about patriarchal power all we want, but in general patriarchal power is exercised on the playground by those boys who make fun of Shakespeare, not those who actually bothered to read something other than the Spark notes.

Still, I’m a little hesitant. It’s not clear to me that reading a lot of anything is by itself a great thing for reading or a great thing for boys. n+1 famously argued that we’re so obsessed with a reading crisis that we think we should praise everything that’s written and praise anyone who reads the morning paper. I’m not sure that reading a dime novel is in and of itself superior to a film or even a complex video game; better, probably, for developing vocabulary to some degree, but not better for other kinds of developments–assuming that a film and a video game develop different kinds of competencies and visual literacies. It would be important to understand reading on a continuum. What builds the habit of reading in boys, and what makes reading seem like just another drudge assignment?

===========

 

Can Reading Make You Cool?

More from Bauerlein’s blog

More leisure reading might help, and books like iPulp Fiction Library’s appeal to boys a lot more than the “problem stories” and identity narratives that fill Young Adult shelves in the libraries and bookstores. Back in high school, I remember boys passing around books as a kind of cool underground connection — including jocks and “stoners” (as they were called then). I was hit hard by The Brothers Karamazov and The Sound and the Fury when I was 18, but those didn’t catch on. What did was Ball Four, a knuckleballer’s diary of a season with the Seattle Pilots; North Dallas Forty, a novel about a receiver for an NFL team; Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (yes, really); and someone snagged a copy of The Happy Hooker, too.

Do these kinds of secret reading networks still exist? We have Harry Potter, of course, but that’s a different thing, a juggernaut of popularity. Also, there is little evidence that Harry Potter has made many teenage boys read a lot of other books besides Rowling’s. We read the books above not because everybody else did, but because they met a curiosity, or a need, or insecurity, or humor, or heroism that we felt inside, or wanted to. Some of them had some good writing in them, too.

Bauerlein looks like he must be about my age, and the list above confirms it. I never actually got around to Fear of Flying and The Happy Hooker. Much too repressed. On the other hand, Ball Four and North Dallas Forty…Yes, god, yes… Also the Brothers K. Must have been the in book with high school administrative poohbahs in the 70s.

I’ve reflected in the past on the idea that books function as signs to other readers as much or more than as stories that are to be read. The person that—in an earlier generation—carried Catcher in the Rye or On the Road in his hip pocket or who sat sullenly under a tree reading a book while dragging on a cigarette was making a kind of public statement.

To some degree I think this is still true, but I wonder if its been permanently displaced by digital culture. People make a statement by having old-fashioned books at all, not the specific texts that mark them off from readers of other books.

Of course, secret reading networks do exist. One wants to ask Bauerlein if he’s ever been online. But partly that’s the point. They exist facelessly on far flung digital networks rather than being part of the identity formation of groups within industrial-sized high schools.

Also, they have now mostly been displaced by video games. My son and his friends are sorted in two different ways: those who read books and those who don’t, and those who play Halo and those who don’t. The difference is important. Book readers are lumped together regardless of content of what they read—whereas in an earlier age of adolescene boys might have sorted themselves by whether they read Ken Kesey, Isaac Asimov, or Herman Melville. Gamers discriminate among themselves assiduously, marking themselves as belonging to different groups by the games they play and their competence at their choices.

To some degree I wonder how this works with e-book readers. The e-book itself shapes every text to a common and universal appearance. Thus, reading my e-book in the local coffeeshop, I can make a statement about myself as an e-book reader that will draw the attention of others and show my solidarity with others who are technologically sophisticated. But I can’t display the title of the individual book. The dividing line is not between Peyton Place and Moby Dick, but between digital and non-digital, with little room for specific self-display.

Nevertheless, none of this I think gainsays Bauerlein’s general opinion that iPulp is probably a very good thing in general. I browsed over the site. Not generally my cup of tea, but it should be right up the alley of the alienated middle schooler who likes that kind of thing. It looks to me that the site is set up for use on ipods and iphones, but I couldn’t figure out anyway to load to any other kind of reader or even to download to a computer.

Of course, that may itself be only a sign of my general unhip uncoolness when it comes to digital illiteracy. I’ll have to ask my 13 year old how to do it.

After he gets past teaching me how to play Call of Duty.

And Halo.

And Gears of War.

And…

Illuminations and Illustrations; Videowriting for the future

One thing that always struck me as a bit odd in the Harry Potter movies is the moving illustrations of books and newspapers. Odd because, set in the present, there’s a sense in which the internet is already a great deal more magical than that. As things go, indeed, Harry Potter is peculiarly a-chronic, living in the modern world as if he’s never seen a computer. Still, those video books are, in some sense, a continuation and enhancement of the tradition of illuminated manuscript–great textual form of the world of Gothic witches and warlocks.

The attached video I got in my email today reminded me of this, one of many announcements about writing contests that I get as an English professor. This one came with a twist since it’s promoting the use of YouTube as a resource and as a media for creative writing. I checked out the details as much as I could–writing contests are famously cash-cows for journals, requiring entrants to pay anywhere from a 10 to 50 dollar reading fee for what ends up being a one in a thousand chance of being published. Not a con exactly; just a grim fact of how literary culture has to support itself in our society. This looks decently legit, and no fees that I can find.

I’m struck by two things I see here. One is the idea of YouTube as a medium for or at least an enhancement William Blake illuminated manuscriptto traditional creative writing. I’m not much taken by the idea of embedding text in video format–I’ve seen work like this before on the net in multi-media forms of poetry. Touted as an “interactive” form of reading that values the reader, this kind of thing really ends up wresting a lot of control from the reader by controlling how and when the reader will see the text the reader sees.

On the other hand, I am taken by the idea of embedding video in stories. In literary circles we’ve traditionally seen books as opposed to film in some respects, with film usually inferior. But books traditionally have made great use of visuals as supplements to the text. Illuminated manuscripts, of course, but also extensive illustrations in nineteenth century novels. Graphic novels, of course, subordinate the text to the visual, so it’s not quite the same animal, but at least you could say that the exclusively alphabetic text absent all illustration is mostly a 20th century phenomenon.

So I’m wondering how video might make room for an new kind of illuminated text. The video commenting on and enhancing the text rather than being a redaction of it–as occurs so often in films about novels. I’m not familiar with anything like this, so if someone knows about stuff for me to look at, I’d love to see it. Again, one of my pet topics; the visuality of books.

The other thing that strikes me in this is the way that internet culture is changing the culture of books in general. I’ve lamented in the past–and still do lament, to be honest–the ways in which computer culture is gradually fracturing and dispossessing the traditional sites of book culture. Places where readers Uncle Tom’s Beatinggather are increasingly becoming places where computer users gather, clicking away in their separate universes.

On the other hand, it is the case that the internet creates new cultures for readers–and not only in chat rooms and forums devoted to literature. In online book clubs I can chat with authors–at least I assume I can; I’m always wondering if it’s the author on the other end or a poorly paid graduate student doing her best to imitate the voice and interests of the latest author plugged by Barnes and Nobles. Online readings don’t yet substitute for readings in person, but I can imagine them becoming the norm. Already as a department chair I’m seeking the permission of authors to record their readings for replay on our web site. The Lunch Poetry series at UC Berkley is a good example of this on the web. I don’t think it substitutes for the great pleasure of gathering together with other readers, but who could complain that this kind of thing exists.