Kittens and Twitterature

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The results of last Friday’s adorable cats poll are in, and it’s looking like a landslide for Professor Spraggles, Futurecat, who took a whopping 47% of the vote. Truly, that cat is the future of cuteness. Of course, we might have tipped the odds in the Professor’s favor by singling him out with a still photo (and an amazing name), but what choice did we have? He was unavailable for filming at the time of the video shoot. Second place was Lo with a respectable 21% of the vote, and last place, with a heartrending 0%, was Mia. Will no one love you, little Mia? We think you’re adorable. Yes we do. Thanks to everyone who voted; the next poll will have a movie theme in honor of our 80 Years of the Oscar volume—and a contest to go along with it!

One final Friday note: we are now officially on Twitter, having realized that just about the entire publishing community (and much of the general reading community) was there already. To be honest, we find the entire concept of “microblogging” slightly absurd, and the word itself teeth-grindingly annoying. The real answer to Twitter’s famous prompt, “What are you doing right now?” is always the same—”Sitting at my computer, posting on Twitter”—forcing the Twitterer to ask serious questions about his or her life that one might otherwise wish to avoid. Still, there’s no arguing with popularity in this business, and our Twitterary offerings will at least keep our readers exceedingly well informed about upcoming Abbeville events, noteworthy posts on this site, and so on. Now if you’ll excuse us, having finished blogging about Twitter, we are about to go Twitter about blogging. And then go stare in the mirror and sigh.

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Marginalia: BridgemanArt.com

 bridgeman

Some months ago we wrote about the party thrown at the Museum of Sex by the Bridgeman Art Library to celebrate the launch of their revamped website. This gave us an opportunity for plenty of puerile humor, but we never followed up afterward to let you know: how did the site turn out, anyway?

Very well, we are pleased to report; a tour of the new BridgemanArt.com has left us thoroughly satisfied with its handsome design and improved usability. The homepage is dominated by a large-scale slide show of images from the collection, all quite striking (the opening image was originally Collier’s Lady Godiva, as though in continuation of the “Sex in Art” theme of their party; we hope they’ll rotate that one back in at some point, as it made for a stirring first impression). The site is noticeably easier to navigate than its former incarnation, and the collection itself, as always, is superb. We think both will be of great practical use to authors and publishers looking to stock their books with beautiful and difficult-to-find old pictures; certainly we have turned to Bridgeman for numerous projects in the past, and will continue to do so.

Oh, and the article we wrote on the MoSex party, with its jokes about deer ménages à trois and dirty monkey videos? They found it—and liked it, enough so that they offered to mention it in their “News & Features” section. We’re flattered, but they should know this will only encourage us. On the other hand, maybe this means we’ll be invited as officially tolerated, lovable scalawags to all their future events?

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Blagojevich and Poetry

 blagojevich1
“Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.”

We saw this item on GalleyCat last week and couldn’t let it pass without comment. It seems disgraced Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, having infamously quoted Kipling’s “If” in a defiant press conference after scandal erupted around him, has quoted yet another poem in his post-impeachment press conference—this time Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” Evidently no longer content to rust unburnished in the dreary confines of Chicago, he is launching forth into new conquests on the high seas of life, determined “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” Though he did not say so explicitly, we can presume that he is doing this not because he has become a laughingstock and a pariah but because his spirit is “yearning with desire / To follow knowledge like a sinking star / Beyond the utmost bounds of human thought.”

For his literary pretensions Blagojevich has of course been roundly mocked, and yet…as this ludicrous popinjay exits the stage to the jeers of the masses, we have to admit that there is a certain literary quality about him, a kind of hilarious anti-grandeur reminiscent of Shakespeare’s or Dickens’s petty fops and tyrants. There’s something marvelous about a man who, as has been widely reported, is so vain about his poofy coiffure that his aides refer to his hairbrush as “the football”—i.e., a nuclear football that must under no circumstances be let out of sight—and at the same time imagines his implication in a squalid corruption scandal as a tragic circumstance worthy of Lord Tennyson. Even the name “Rod Blagojevich” is somehow perfect, its homely syllables comically clashing with the fame he sought for it (and also, like his accent, suggesting humble origins for which his poetic bombast may be an attempt to compensate).

And so, even though Mr. Blagojevich deserves whatever punishment he gets, we’re almost sorry to see him go. We’re also nagged by the feeling that there’s an exact analogue for him somewhere in literature: a minor comic character in a nineteenth-century novel, or even a fairy-tale villain, or something…readers, help us out? If you can think of a literary personality or a short passage of poetry that Blago reminds you of, leave a note in the Comments section. We’ll pick the best suggestion next Monday and name its contributor our Stylish Reader of the Week, with all possible attendant fanfare (including a featured website recommendation). Good luck—and thanks for helping secure ex-Governor Blagojevich the literary immortality he so desperately craves.

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The Life of Publishing

Reports of the death of publishing are so ubiquitous that readers may be surprised to look around in 2009 and still see books on the shelves. André Bernard recently composed another elegy for the book business in The Washington Post, invoking Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Artes” to describe the falling Icarus of literary culture. Publishing legend Jason Epstein, conducting an “autopsy” of his industry in The Daily Beast, identifies the future of books in kiosks that will print and bind e-texts on demand—and has put his money where his mouth is by investing in them. Meanwhile, surveys of public reading habits show a seemingly inexorable trend downward into non-literacy (or so we are told in news item after news item, although the latest statistics appear to tell a different story).

Though closely related and often confused, the supposed death of publishing, of books, and of reading are separate matters; thus there is some debate among the gloom-and-doom crowd as to what, exactly, the dark future holds. A few believe that only large trade publishers will die out, having banked too heavily on an unwieldy or outdated business model. Others believe that the traditional book will be replaced entirely by the e-text (or printouts thereof), much as the CD and its predecessors are being eradicated by digital music. And some believe that book-length, un-hyperlinked literature itself—as an art form or mode of expression—is nearing its end. (Philip Roth is among the latter crowd, as this sad interview demonstrates.) What unites all these prophecies is a general sense of apprehension and loss.

We dissent. Without being Pollyannaish, and while conceding that the book industry will undergo many changes—some painful—in the coming years, we think there is plenty of life in this business and medium yet. In order to make this case, we will lay out a set of four simple principles designed to serve as guideposts in the storm of commentary and speculation. We will address the outlook for literature, for the print book, and for publishers in turn, circling back to the first subject at the end.

1) Books, whether print or electronic, are irreplaceable.

Prophets of the decline of reading often claim that books are in danger of being overtaken completely by newer, flashier, predominantly visual media. Some blame this supposedly irreversible trend on some inherent flaw in the older medium, as though books, with their plain black-and-white texts, were becoming “obsolete.” Yet such smug or fearful prophecies are as old as the nickelodeon, and they reflect nothing but the bias, natural and even healthy in a capitalist society, against the old in favor of the new. The new must be better somehow, because it is what we are being sold this season.

But remember: unlike science, art and communication are not progressive. We’re not necessarily better at either than our grandparents were, nor will our grandkids necessarily be better than we are. The advent of a fashionable new medium does nothing to change this iron law. Jeffrey Katzenberg can make a thousand 3-D or even 10-D movies and never produce a more aesthetically satisfying spectacle than The Canterbury Tales. In fact, as we rush to create new and gaudier visual spectacles, our art often seems to lose, not gain, dimensions.

On the other hand, art and communication are seldom completely regressive at any one time. That’s because, in a healthy market (which we hope we’ll have again soon), there will always be a demand for steak as well as hamburger—and suppliers eager to meet that demand by outdoing their more populist rivals. In other words, the mediocrity factory of popular culture can and does, by its very mediocrity, light a fire under talented artists, designers, and producers to create works of true value. For such dogged recusants, books—with their well-earned reputation as a thinking person’s medium—are unlikely to lose their appeal. Also, while genres occasionally fall out of favor, whole branches of the arts almost never do. Language is a fundamental, perhaps the fundamental, feature of the human mind; the use of it to conjure up imaginary worlds, advance arguments in their purest form, play verbal games too subtle to be fully appreciated by the ear, etc., probably won’t grind to a halt anytime soon. As the record of these activities, books will be around for a while.

But won’t they, like everything else, inevitably move online?

2) Books in their traditional form are only partially replaceable by electronic texts, and so are likely to survive alongside them, if only as “luxury” items for gift-givers and connoisseurs.

The great selling point of the e-book, indeed the computer itself as a reading device, is that it contains practically limitless texts. Conversely, one of the great virtues of the traditional book—to our way of thinking—is that it doesn’t: it can hold just one text, or a limited number of related texts, and so becomes a distinctive object unto itself. Elsewhere on this site we’ve compared the traditional book to “a little theater, with the author the performer and the publisher the producer”:

There’s something disappointing about the idea of publishers having to tear down the beautiful trappings of the set (cover, illustrations, jacket blurbs, etc.) and authors having to share the stage with many other authors and their works. For both performer and producer, the digitized product feels less “theirs”…even as [readers, we] think digitized booksif they consituted the bulk of [our] librarywould start to feel less personal, less treasured, less [“ours”] as well.

More broadly, what the e-book will always be hard-pressed to duplicate is aesthetic appeal. The book as tangible object, with heft, texture, fragrance, jacket illustration, and informative jacket copy, is a small masterpiece of design. Some commentators have called these sensuous qualities expendable and any attachment to them sentimental; but for many publishers (not just those within our own, heavily design-oriented niche), they are an integral part of the product. In fact, sentimental attachment to books as objects—as keepsakes and trophies of intellectual achievement—explains the impulse to buy certain books at all instead of borrowing them from the library. (Who really needs to have Tolstoy on hand at all times?) The tangible beauty of books also explains their appeal as gifts. No matter how accessible the e-text or how large the digital image bank that accompanies it, it is unlikely to equal a traditional book as a Christmas present or collector’s item.

Accordingly, we predict that the more intimate traditional presentation will continue to hold value for certain readers, ourselves included, for many years to come. It will become a kind of luxury option, though only by comparison to the extreme cheapness of the e-text. Jeff Barry at the SoroDesign blog recently wrote a forecast of the diverging paths of book design that doubles as a sensible forecast of the future of books themselves. The fifth path on his list corresponds to the “luxury option,” and as an art book publisher Abbeville will undoubtedly follow it; but we wouldn’t be surprised if it’s not just arty, high-end volumes that readers continue to prefer in this format.

And yet, like anything else, print books will vanish if no effort whatsoever is put into saving them…

3) As unique presentations of an irreplaceable art form, books will endure only if authors and publishers strive to take full advantage of the possibilities of the medium—and if critics and professors speak eloquently in defense of those who succeed.

A common charge among the prophets of doom is that publishing has undermined itself by following the Hollywood blockbuster model, i.e., by throwing large sums of money at celebrity authors and overhyped white elephant projects. This argument is limited in force because it applies far more to large trade publishers than to smaller, independent houses (as has already been pointed out by commenters on Epstein’s article in the Beast). But to the extent that it holds, it is a valuable reminder that books are books, not movies or TV shows—and that this should be a proudly trumpeted marketing angle, not a source of shame to hide under gaudy packaging. Books as we know them will not survive without an industry—and a wider culture—that celebrates them, justly and robustly.

This will entail nothing less than a return to good old-fashioned aesthetic snobbery. Too often, literature professors today condescend to students by “relating” great books to pop culture fluff, rather than extolling those works above such fluff and encouraging a diet weighted toward the former rather than the latter. Too often, reviewers are loath to criticize a bad book by a good author, as if fearing that they’ll turn people away from that author—or to criticize a bad, yet popular book, as if fearing that they’ll turn people away from reading altogether. (Nonsense: heated literary arguments are vital and entertaining; it’s uniform, bland overpraise, including incessant logrolling among authors, that discourages readers from ever picking up a book.) And too often, publishers pander to their readers’ assumed tastes rather than cultivating a reputation for exceptional quality, both in content and production…yes, we repeat ourselves here, and no, we don’t exclude ourselves from the critique.

It’s time to rediscover the virtues (and joys) of elitism in its highest sense. Many people have said as much lately with regard to politics, but few with regard to the arts. It should go without saying that books are much, much older than movies and TV and the Internet, and if only for this reason have produced far more work of lasting quality. They are, in fact, the stuff on which most films, TV shows, and websites derivatively feed. It should go without saying, but it doesn’t—because to judge from present-day college course requirements, arts review sections, etc., the person who is versed in The Sopranos and not Shakespeare is at least as literate as the person whose expertise runs opposite. Thus, it’s incumbent upon arts critics to stand up and say that this is not so; to affirm that (for example) The Sopranos was an unusually good TV show, but that it was not the equal of the best plays and novels in terms of dialogue, characterization, and a dozen other criteria; and to be able to explain why. It’s also incumbent upon universities to demand, and adequately test, genuine literacy in their students. (We find it hard to square reports of declining reading habits among young people with reports of ever-intensifying competition for top colleges.) Finally, it’s incumbent upon publishers to keep leading the way and producing books that work beautifully as books, not as TV show adjuncts or planned film adaptations. (This should be true even of books whose subject is film or TV; when properly handled, text and illustrations can always be made to speak in ways that the moving image can’t.)

Does this mean that publishers should snobbishly ignore new media altogether? Absolutely not.

4) The Web has a vital role to play in keeping books alive, and publishers must embrace it.

The Web is the world’s largest and most accessible publishing platform; who better to contribute to it than publishers? And yet publishers’ websites can’t just be used as free advertising space; they must become reader forums and sources of high-quality content in their own right. Increasingly, in all industries, consumers judge what a company sells by what it provides online for free. Since publishers are in the business of words and images, it is in our best interest to supplement the words and images we charge money for with ones that we do not—and to make the taste and sensibility that inform the latter our best advertisement for the former.

But the need for publishers to establish a strong Web presence does not imply that they will die out unless they merge their entire business, and all of their life forces, into the vast cyborganism of the future. Online and e-book publishing will have its place, perhaps a dominant place. Jason Epstein’s print-and-bind vending machines may yet hit it big, particularly among college kids who want hard copies of texts quickly and cheaply. Most likely, however, both of these formats will be able to coexist with the book as traditionally printed and published, even if the latter takes on a diminished role.

As for literature itself, it won’t become obsolete until humans do. Even in today’s screen-dominated world, almost everything important that we say to each other, whether in the classroom, in the political arena, at weddings or funerals, or in our ordinary figures of speech, originated in a book somewhere. As Wallace Stevens wrote, we are all “made out of words.” It’s time for readers, writers, and publishers to reclaim that legacy, and to take pride in it.

Happy 2009. The book is back. Spread the word.

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Abbeville Gallery: Florida

Recently Arbiter of Style Lauren traveled to southwest Florida to do community service work with Harvest For Humanity, taking her camera and her slightly melancholy photographer’s eye along for the trip. She has brought us back the following images:

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When winter comes to south Florida, blueberries perish. (From the Harvest For Humanity farm.)

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An ivy-covered gazebo, with chairs on the roof, at a hostel near the Everglades.

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Birds at a fruit stand.

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A view of the Everglades. The astute viewer will spot an alligator lolling in the foreground.

Thanks again to our trusty lenssmith Lauren, and stay tuned in the coming weeks for our next Abbeville Gallery exhibit, in which we will present images from Arbiter of Style Michaelann’s travels in the Old World.

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Poll: Adorable Cats

Well, we did give you fair warning: our last poll, about dead architects, didn’t exactly rake in the votes, so we vowed to make the next one a crowd-pleaser. Besides, we can’t write about highfalutin art and literary stuff all the time. Besides that, it’s Friday. Besides that, GalleyCat recently spent a whole week showing cat photos. And on top of everything, this gives us a golden excuse to replay our Cats Up Close video from last year.

Now that you’ve heard our self-justification, please watch the following footage of cats belonging to Briana, Michaelann, and associated roommates…

And consider the following photo, of Austin’s roommate’s former cat…

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Professor Spraggles, Futurecat

…And then answer the following question:

Thank you for your time.

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On "The Painted Word"

tomwolfe

Image courtesy tomwolfe.com

Note: We are discarding the editorial/royal “we” for today’s post.

As a bit of remedial vacation reading, I finally got around last week to reading Tom Wolfe’s 1975 classic The Painted Word. A brief book with a simple yet devastating thesis, it chronicles the process by which, according to Wolfe, modern art from 1950 through 1975 discarded not only realism and representation but also “lines, colors, forms, and contours…frames, walls, galleries, museums” and “disappeared up its own fundamental aperture” to become “Art Theory pure and simple…literature undefiled by vision.” In this new order of things, prominent art critics such as Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, and later, Leo Steinberg ascended to reign supreme, while the artists they championed, from Pollock to the Conceptualists and beyond, soon became the servants of the critics’ pet ideas.

Throughout The Painted Word, Wolfe carefully avoids taking aim at modern art per se, which he disparages only indirectly or by implication. (“As for the paintings—de gustibus non disputandum est. But the theories, I insist, were beautiful.”) Despite his famously dandyish suits, Wolfe is not an aesthete but a social satirist first and foremost, and the real subject  of his book is the incestuous art community, which he estimates (in 1975, but perhaps little has changed since then) to comprise no more than 10,000 members worldwide. Having dubbed this community Cultureburg (a weak pun on the surnames of the critics mentioned), Wolfe skewers it by tracing the way in which idiosyncratic, often half-baked theories spread throughout it—”virally,” as we would now say—to become unquestioned dogma. Thus The Painted Word is a study in what Orwell called “smelly little orthodoxies.”

As such, it succeeds wonderfully; the apoplectic reactions it received from artists and critics upon its publication testified to the nerve it had struck. An especially ripe target of Wolfe’s scorn is Greenberg’s concept of flatness, i.e., the discarding of all three-dimensional effects such that a painting does not violate “the integrity of the picture plane.” In theory, a recipe for an interesting mode of representation, but in practice, an increasingly absurd dogma that sent artists scrambling to achieve “purity” by ridding their art of all “illusions”—and finally, of any content whatsoever. Following this madness through Wolfe’s jaundiced eye is heady fun, and tends to confirm the worst suspicions of those who, like me, are skeptical of much modern art to begin with.

At the same time, there are some obvious flaws in the argument Wolfe advances, even if the nature of the book makes these somewhat unavoidable. He doesn’t quote the criticism of Greenberg, et al. at length, allowing them to “defend themselves” properly; he savages them rather than engaging with them. But of course, to engage at length would slow the pace of the satire, and the interested reader is free to read these critics’ lucubrations in full if he or she dares. Likewise, Wolfe doesn’t advance any aesthetic values of his own to counter those he mocks—but again, he is interested in social observation, not art criticism, and would have undercut his own detached perspective by posturing as a rival Clement Greenberg. If this approach occasionally causes him to underrate some worthwhile artists—such as Roy Lichtenstein, whose wit and technical skill Wolfe can’t quite bring himself to denounce entirely—then the sacrifice seems necessary to a case that, at the time, was crying out to be made.

In the end, the most serious failure of the book is one of prophecy. Like many a satirist—Kurt Vonnegut comes to mind—Wolfe has a keen eye for the past and present and virtually no insight into the future. At the close of The Painted Word, he imagines enlightened 21st-century art scholars looking back with “sniggers, laughter, and good-humored amazement” at the follies of their forebears. In reality, of course, we have plenty of our own follies to contend with: a contemporary art market facing a dangerous speculative bubble (this can’t be too surprising to the author of The Bonfire of the Vanities); contemporary art that often strives simply to feed that market; and a critical landscape that is still overrun with Theory, less and less of it “literate” in any sense. New voices are needed to satirize these new absurdities, since Wolfe, whose prose in 1975 was already problematic (Oh, exclamation point! How quickly you ruin otherwise decent sarcasm!) and has steadily degenerated since, is no longer the man for the job. Neither is the author of this post, but I hold out hope that the ultimate peanut gallery, the blogosphere, will eventually produce someone capable of filling Wolfe’s shoes—and that the art scene will eventually produce more of the only real cure for bad theory: good art.

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On “The Painted Word”

tomwolfe

Image courtesy tomwolfe.com

Note: We are discarding the editorial/royal “we” for today’s post.

As a bit of remedial vacation reading, I finally got around last week to reading Tom Wolfe’s 1975 classic The Painted Word. A brief book with a simple yet devastating thesis, it chronicles the process by which, according to Wolfe, modern art from 1950 through 1975 discarded not only realism and representation but also “lines, colors, forms, and contours…frames, walls, galleries, museums” and “disappeared up its own fundamental aperture” to become “Art Theory pure and simple…literature undefiled by vision.” In this new order of things, prominent art critics such as Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, and later, Leo Steinberg ascended to reign supreme, while the artists they championed, from Pollock to the Conceptualists and beyond, soon became the servants of the critics’ pet ideas.

Throughout The Painted Word, Wolfe carefully avoids taking aim at modern art per se, which he disparages only indirectly or by implication. (“As for the paintings—de gustibus non disputandum est. But the theories, I insist, were beautiful.”) Despite his famously dandyish suits, Wolfe is not an aesthete but a social satirist first and foremost, and the real subject  of his book is the incestuous art community, which he estimates (in 1975, but perhaps little has changed since then) to comprise no more than 10,000 members worldwide. Having dubbed this community Cultureburg (a weak pun on the surnames of the critics mentioned), Wolfe skewers it by tracing the way in which idiosyncratic, often half-baked theories spread throughout it—”virally,” as we would now say—to become unquestioned dogma. Thus The Painted Word is a study in what Orwell called “smelly little orthodoxies.”

As such, it succeeds wonderfully; the apoplectic reactions it received from artists and critics upon its publication testified to the nerve it had struck. An especially ripe target of Wolfe’s scorn is Greenberg’s concept of flatness, i.e., the discarding of all three-dimensional effects such that a painting does not violate “the integrity of the picture plane.” In theory, a recipe for an interesting mode of representation, but in practice, an increasingly absurd dogma that sent artists scrambling to achieve “purity” by ridding their art of all “illusions”—and finally, of any content whatsoever. Following this madness through Wolfe’s jaundiced eye is heady fun, and tends to confirm the worst suspicions of those who, like me, are skeptical of much modern art to begin with.

At the same time, there are some obvious flaws in the argument Wolfe advances, even if the nature of the book makes these somewhat unavoidable. He doesn’t quote the criticism of Greenberg, et al. at length, allowing them to “defend themselves” properly; he savages them rather than engaging with them. But of course, to engage at length would slow the pace of the satire, and the interested reader is free to read these critics’ lucubrations in full if he or she dares. Likewise, Wolfe doesn’t advance any aesthetic values of his own to counter those he mocks—but again, he is interested in social observation, not art criticism, and would have undercut his own detached perspective by posturing as a rival Clement Greenberg. If this approach occasionally causes him to underrate some worthwhile artists—such as Roy Lichtenstein, whose wit and technical skill Wolfe can’t quite bring himself to denounce entirely—then the sacrifice seems necessary to a case that, at the time, was crying out to be made.

In the end, the most serious failure of the book is one of prophecy. Like many a satirist—Kurt Vonnegut comes to mind—Wolfe has a keen eye for the past and present and virtually no insight into the future. At the close of The Painted Word, he imagines enlightened 21st-century art scholars looking back with “sniggers, laughter, and good-humored amazement” at the follies of their forebears. In reality, of course, we have plenty of our own follies to contend with: a contemporary art market facing a dangerous speculative bubble (this can’t be too surprising to the author of The Bonfire of the Vanities); contemporary art that often strives simply to feed that market; and a critical landscape that is still overrun with Theory, less and less of it “literate” in any sense. New voices are needed to satirize these new absurdities, since Wolfe, whose prose in 1975 was already problematic (Oh, exclamation point! How quickly you ruin otherwise decent sarcasm!) and has steadily degenerated since, is no longer the man for the job. Neither is the author of this post, but I hold out hope that the ultimate peanut gallery, the blogosphere, will eventually produce someone capable of filling Wolfe’s shoes—and that the art scene will eventually produce more of the only real cure for bad theory: good art.

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Marginalia: The Reading Experience

Its title is straightforward and its site design strictly no-frills, but Daniel Green’s The Reading Experience is, bar none, the best literary discussion site on the Web. Ostensibly focused on “contemporary literature and criticism,” it actually ranges over the whole of literary history, as any good discussion of books ultimately does. We wanted to single out TRE for praise because, while any number of book blogs have become popular in the past 10 years—many deservedly so—Green’s site seems to us the most erudite, the most passionate, and the most consistently engaging. Even its kooky, ranting commenters (every site has a few) are impossibly high-toned:

“What’s with the ‘Thus’ etc [sic]? You need to understand that using Latinate words and formulations from the last century does not make you the next Ruskin.

Your general thrust is that the choice is either convention or this, another convention, the psuedo-man [sic] of knowledge, armed with a fistful of thuses, railing against the gods of commerce that rule the format and depth of typical book reviews.”

Latinate words and archaic formulations don’t make you the next Ruskin? Nuts, we may have to rethink our whole purpose in life.

Green’s own response to this screed (of which we have excerpted only a fraction) was measured and eloquent, as is all his prose. And it must be said that the majority of commenters on his site know more about literature than most book bloggers and many professional book reviewers. Thus, if you are a serious reader yourself, you will want to start immersing yourself in The Reading Experience immediately.

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Style Points: Public Editing

Ambling around the Upper West Side on New Year’s Day, two of our Arbiters of Style happened upon an unusual road sign. Unfortunately, we neglected to snap a photo, but perhaps some of our readers have seen it as well. Orange and mounted close to street level, it reads, “DRIVER’S IDLING FOR MORE THAN 30 MIN. PROHIBITED.” It also contains, above the apostrophe in the first word, an indignantly scrawled graffito: “PLURAL NOT POSSESSIVE.”

Now, as editors in a city full of misspelled, mispunctuated, and otherwise misguided signs and advertisements, we certainly understand the impulse to draw one’s pen and unleash furious proofreading marks all over the offending words. But there’s a difference between impulse and action: once you actually whip out that pen, you’re walking a fine line between respect for the language and pedantic boobery. If you want to avoid crossing that line, you’d better at least make sure your “correction” is correct.

Needless to say, our vandal’s wasn’t. He or she assumed that the only valid reading of the abridged sentence was: “DRIVERS [WHO ARE] IDLING FOR MORE THAN 30 MIN. [ARE] PROHIBITED.” In fact, an equally valid, if slightly more awkward, reading would be: “[A] DRIVER’S IDLING FOR MORE THAN 30 MIN. [IS] PROHIBITED.” Since the second reading conveys the intended meaning as well as the first, the apostrophe is entirely justifed—and smug, anonymous criticisms are not.

A sobering lesson in the dangers of vigilante editing—and perhaps, since we spotted the graffito near a stretch of popular bars (Jake’s Dilemma, etc.) on New Year’s Day, in the dangers of drunken editing as well. We’re guessing someone in his cups began fancying himself God’s chosen avenger against grammatical sins, only to discover in the cold light of morning that he was no more an editor than the gin-soaked sorority sister riding a mechanical bull is a cowgirl.

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