Monday, July 21, 2014

How I Wrote Certain of My Books

When people ask me what I’m doing—especially if they ask in the summer, or when I’m on sabbatical, they run the risk of me telling them about what I’m writing.  And if I’m writing something large scale, like a book, they’re likely to hear about where I am in the process.  I’ve been asked, on a few occasions, to write about the process, usually because the person asking thinks it would have helped him or her back in the dissertation-writing days of grad school.  I’ve always hesitated, though.  I mean, Raymond Roussel could write “How I Wrote Certain of My Books,” and make it all sound interesting, but his books are weird and beautiful and idiosyncratic.  But critical or scholarly books?  Who in their right mind would want to read about that?  “Don’t assume,” said a pal to whom I raised my concerns, “that any audience you have is likely to be in its right mind.”  Point taken!  And so here, for those who might care: the method I’ve evolved over the years for putting together a book.

One starts, of course, with the primary materials: for me, this has meant poems, and I’ve generally read them pretty casually and non-systematically before I’ve even decided to write about them.  Before I made a decision to write Laureates and Heretics, for example, I’d already read most of the poems by the main figures in that book—and the same goes for the book I’m writing now, Making Nothing Happen.  Sometimes this is just because I’m a poetry reader, sometimes I’ve taught a course on the work.  Anyway, this is something that I’ve taken care of before I decide to write a book.

When I do decide to write a book, I generally write a chapter every summer (and, if I’m on sabbatical, a chapter per semester of the time I have off).  I find this, combined with smaller projects like reviewing or writing conference papers or maybe a critical article, is a nice pace.

The first part of the summer involves me, slumped in a big red chair, reading the secondary literature.  A ton of it.  And not just the recent stuff or the classic stuff: indeed, I find that the oldest, the weirdest, the most out-of-the way material you can get your hands on is the stuff more likely to spark ideas that lie outside of whatever the current consensus or debate is.  And reading the reviews that came out at the time the figure was writing is hugely helpful.  Also biographies, journals, interviews, collections of letters, books by people associated with the main figure (so, for Auden, a lot of Christopher Isherwood and Edward Upward and Stephen Spender; for Yeats, Madame Blavatsky, John Butler Yeats, novelists who wrote about the neighborhoods where Yeats lived, historians of Byzantine art, etc.).  Just as importantly, I read a bunch of things having to do with the milieu or context of the poet in question – history, sociology, books on topics adjacent to the main subject, and, crucially, things from outside of my own field.  I mean, I’m an English professor, and we tend to think that we’re fairly historicist nowadays, but compared to historians we’re ninnies when it comes to context.  We think we’re attentive to, say, the pressure of context on reception, but people in communications theory do it better than we do.  We think we know theory, but we know an excruciatingly narrow range of theory.  And it’s very good to have a look at where your subject’s work appeared in print.  I mean, I’d never have understood how W.H. Auden was taken to be much more of a red than he really was had I not noticed that poems we take as campy or ironic look quite different when published in left-wing journals full of earnest writing for the liberation of the workers.

But how to synthesize all of this material? How to stop it from slipping away or becoming a kind of general haze in the mind?  For me, this involves a particular kind of note taking.  I generally do this in the margins of the books, which I more or less destroy—but sometimes, when I’ve borrowed the book from a friend or (as a last resort) a library, in notebooks where I specify the page for each note.  Essentially, what I do is make a note of what kind of category I think the passage in question would fall into in my proto-outline (which I develop as I read).  So, when I was writing on Tennyson, I had a lot of passages marked “PUBMOR” (for those times when Tennyson was seen as, or acted as, a public moralist) or “AESTH” (when he was seen as, or acted as, an aesthete).  In most cases, I come up with about 20 different categories as I read, sometimes discarding them or fusing them together.  I’ve been reading up on John Ashbery in recent weeks, and categories include ARTWORLD, NONTOTALIZATION, LINES OF FLIGHT, ACADEMY, AESTHETE, ALIENATION, COTERIE, and about a dozen more.  Each note is accompanied by between one and (rarely) five stars, indicating how important I think the passage will be to the writing of my chapter—important as a matter of fact, as a critic’s insight, or whatever.  Quite often I'm not picking up on the main subject or argument of the thing I'm reading, but picking up something mentioned in passing.  And most of the time I don’t treat what a critic has to say as the truth so much as take it as a symptom of the method of reception for the poet.  So what Harold Bloom or Helen Vendler says about Ashbery becomes less a truth about Ashbery than it becomes a window on how Ashbery was received by a particular branch of the academy. 

After I’ve been reading for six or eight weeks, I start to see the shape of things—how all of these categories might be made into a narrative or an argument.  This is incredibly exciting, and I will actually heave myself up from my big red chair and pace around my secret backyard writing dojo, talking to myself and gesturing wildly, sometimes spilling coffee.  With this outline in mind, I do some more reading and marginal note taking, often of shorter things like scholarly articles, getting a clearer sense of how it all might come together.  I begin to treat the materials I read less and less as guides to where I might go, and more and more as sources of evidence for the case I want to make.

Then I have a few dull days, where I go back to everything I’ve read and make a kind of index for each piece of writing.  So, for example, I’ll go back to Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of W.H. Auden, look through it page by page, and then make note (generally in the back of the book) of everything I’ve marked.  “Pg. 12--★★★—PERFDOGMA,” for example, would indicate a semi-important passage on page 12 about how Auden learned, from an early age, to enjoy performing dogma, acting as if he believed in a grand systemic understanding of things and explaining it solemnly, even if he did not fully believe in what he was saying.  Some books will have pages and pages of indexed notes, some just a few.  In this stage I sit with a slowly shrinking pile of unindexed printouts and books on one side of me, a slowly growing pile of indexed books and printouts on the other side of me, and a constantly refilled cup of coffee in the middle, next to whatever I’m indexing.  I tend to listen to a lot of Led Zeppelin at this point of the process.

And then, when I rise in glory above the indexed materials, I make the Grand Outline (beta version).  A thesis, and a plan for where information on all of my sub-topics may go.  By now I’ve refamiliarized myself with everything I’ve read, and have a good sense of how it all fits together.  The back of my mind has been thinking about it while the front part was doing the grunt work and listening to Zeppelin.

At this point I cross-reference all of those indexed books and articles with the grand outline.  So, for example, when I’d outlined my chapter on Coleridge, which has a section on the clerisy, I’d find all references to the clerisy in all sources and note them in the outline. When this is done, I go back to the primary sources—the books of poems—and read them systematically, making exactly the kind of marginal notes, based on categories or topics and ranked in terms of stars, that I’d made on the secondary materials.  This makes for a few weeks of feverishly excited reading, and some heavily marked up books.  Then I index these, reference the indexes on my grand outline, make a revised grand outline, and I’m good to write.

And then there’s the drafting, my absolute favorite part of the process.  At first I write a paltry few hundred words a day, but with the outline in place, the materials at the ready, and everything referenced exactly, I soon hit a stride and can write thousands of words a day.  I get up in the morning excited to write, I go to bed wishing the night would pass faster so I could get back to it.  When I sit down to write I put music on, and I never notice when it stops.  I get deliriously lost in what I’m doing as it all comes together and I end up feeling like the vessel of forces larger than myself, like I’m taking dictation from the gods.  All I can talk about is my book and people either dig it or roll their eyes.

Of course everything needs revision, but that can wait until just before I start reading for the next chapter, when I re-read what I’d written weeks or months ago and it doesn’t wound me to slash and burn the thing.  I’ve learned from some good editors (especially Christopher Ricks) that cutting something down to half its prior size tends to make it stronger.

And then I start again, with a new chapter (or maybe a new book) and try to do the whole thing better than before.  This makes me happy, and I learn stuff.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Eden for Auden and Others

W.H. Auden once wrote out a description of Eden as he would wish it to be.  I've long wanted to go through his various categories of Edenic climate and culture and ask how I would like to see these things ordered.  Now, in an act undertaken to forestall the filling out of tax information forms, I've done it.  Auden's writing appears in Roman script, my own in italic beneath.


Limestone uplands like the Pennines plus a small region of igneous rocks with at least one extinct volcano. A precipitous and indented sea-coast.

Rolling hills, partially forested, with ravines carved by rivulets feeding into a large freshwater sea, across which are visible mountains.  In the uplands beyond the hills are great granite outcroppings, deciduous forests, and many smaller lakes suitable for canoeing and the landing of small pontoon aircraft.


Northern Californian.

Ethnic origin of inhabitants
Highly varied as in the United States, but with a slight nordic predominance.

I suspect this question is a bit more politicized than it was in Auden's day.  Anyway: highly mixed, more or less in the manner of San Francisco.

Of mixed origins like English, but highly inflected.

English, but everyone will speak several, so that there will be newsstands with papers in all manner of languages, dialects, and scripts fluttering in the breeze.

Weights & Measures
Irregular and complicated. No decimal system.

Metric, damn it.  I don't care what you say.  Metric for everything except for pints of beer.

Roman Catholic in an easygoing Mediterranean sort of way. Lots of local saints.

Syncretic, with public processions and statuary encouraged.  Enclaves of peaceful mystics and anchorites in the hills.

Size of Capital
Plato's ideal figure, 5040, about right.

123,900—the population of Cambridge, England.

Form of Government
Absolute monarchy, elected for life by lot.

New England style town hall meetings, which I do not have to attend but which nevertheless deliver results I find congenial.

Sources of Natural Power
Wind, water, peat, coal. No oil.

One agrees with Auden, with the codicil that solar power will substitute for coal.

Economic activities
Lead mining, coal mining, chemical factories, paper mills, sheep farming, truck farming, greenhouse horticulture.

Various sorts of non-industrialized farming, including vineyards. Fisheries, publishing, musical recording, brewing, and a disproportionate number of colleges and small universities at which are studied the liberal arts as well as engineering in the genius-boffin manner of Tesla and Buckminster Fuller.

Means of transport
Horses and horse-drawn vehicles, narrow-gauge railways, canal barges, balloons. No automobiles or airplanes.

Karmann Ghia, vintage motor-scooter, Dutch bicycle, light rail and—why not—balloon. Travel on the capital's many canals to be accomplished by punt and gondola. Travel to the world beyond to be accomplished by luxurious ocean liners of the style predominant c. 1900.

State: Baroque. Ecclesiastical: Romanesque or Byzantine. Domestic: Eighteenth-Century British or American Colonial.

State: Romanesque.  Ecclesiastical: Syncretic, with inspiration drawn from the Bahá'í tradition.  Domestic: What William Morris did.

Domestic Furniture and Equipment
Victorian except for kitchens and bathrooms which are as full of modern gadgets as possible.

Arts & Crafts; Mission; shabby genteel; 1920s bohemian.

Formal Dress
The fashions of Paris in the 1830's and '40's.

Think Wes Anderson movies.  The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom in particular.

Sources of Public Information
Gossip. Technical and learned periodicals but no newspapers.

Newspapers of many sizes on different colored paper (predominantly salmon, pale green, and oyster).  Thick quarterly journals containing long non-fiction essays.  Witty graffiti and Diego Rivera style public murals.

Public Statues
Confined to famous defunct chefs.

Many small ones, often tucked into wall niches or adorning fountains at the intersection of narrow cobblestone streets: the gods, the poets, the barroom raconteurs; the really good Facebook posters.

Public Entertainments
Religious Processions, Brass Bands, Opera, Classical Ballet. No movies, radio or television.

Religious Processions, Brass Bands, Opera, Classical Ballet, also movies, radio and television.  Movies projected outdoors, on the walls of buildings on the cathedral square will be popular.  The serial radio drama will be most popular of all, and the Foley artists of such dramas will attain celebrity status.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Who is a Writer?

When asked the question “what do you do?” who is entitled to reply “I’m a writer”?  That’s the question animating an essay by Tom Coyne in the most recent issue of Notre Dame Magazine.  There are many fine things in Coyne’s essay, but the most interesting part of the issue goes largely unexamined: it’s that strange misfit between the verb of the question—what do you do—and the verb in the answer—I am a writer.  We gloss over the slippage from doing to being, because we live in a society that largely equates work activity with identity, but that equation is not obvious everywhere.

One of my great touchtones, when it comes to how identity is defined, is a moment from a conference I attended years ago, in which the Tanzanian scholar Joseph Mbele rose up and asked the assembled scholars, who had been talking about identity, when we would consider the criteria for identity—family, clan, tribe—that applied in the world he came from.  One did not, in the village of his youth, define oneself through an occupational identity so much as through a kinship network.  Even in Western societies, the notion that one’s identity is primarily a matter of work activities is of fairly recent vintage.  The scholars Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, in their excellent study Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850, note that even in what was then the nation most advanced into modernity, England, it is only in the early to mid nineteenth century that work activity began to displace other forms of identity (such as “gentleman”) as primary terms of identity definition.  To a degree, this was because the economic conditions that drive us toward specialization had yet to become dominant.  As they put it,

 …tasks which are now specialized and seen only properly performed by experts, were then still vaguely defined.  The task or function was the focus, not a full professional identity.  People moved between activities and used a variety of ways to support their livelihood…. Both men and women had to balance their time and energy between a wide range of duties.

What is more, family identity was still, as far as official documents were concerned, more important than individual identity.  The census itself did not account for individuals, but for families, and from 1801 to 1821 “roughly categorized families as agricultural or in ‘trade manufacture.’”  But by 1831, “families were abandoned and adult males were divided into nine major occupational groups.”  If you were a man, you were starting to be defined by your work, and by 1851 it had become standard to equate “masculine identity with an occupation” (if you were a woman, there was some question as to just what you were—a question that animated a great deal of conversation and fuelled a great deal of activism).

So to answer the question “what do you do” with “I am a writer” (or dishwasher, or bond broker) is to already declare “I live in a gesellschaft rather than a gemeinschaft world,” a world of abstract economic relations rather than a world of concrete kinship bonds.  You live in a world where you are defined by your profession.

But is writing a profession?  For Coyne, the first answer seems to be “no,” if being a professional means living off the money earned by writing.  “[C]alling oneself a writer,” he declares, “has nothing to do with whether or not you have been paid as one” (one hears the poets of the world cheering in the background, their voices faint like those of the slain warriors Odysseus visits in the land of the dead).  But being a professional has always meant more than being paid.  As Burton J. Bledstein puts it in The Culture of Professionalism, a profession involves a certain kind of background and a certain ethos.  Traditionally, becoming a professional meant something like this:

During a fairly difficult and time-consuming process, a person mastered an esoteric but useful body of systematic knowledge, completed theoretical training before entering a practice or apprenticeship, and received a degree or license from a recognized institution.  A professional person in the role of practitioner insisted upon technical competence, superior skill, and a high quality of performance.  Moreover, a professional embraced an ethic of service which taught that dedication to a client’s interest took precedence over personal profit, when the two happened to come into conflict.

It’s an interesting mix of regulation and autonomy, isn’t it?  A self-policing entity, a profession maintains standards through institutions and certificates, and in so doing places itself above the standards of a marketplace—good medicine trumps good commerce, for the true professional (although this principle is sometimes, scandalously, in abeyance).  The thing about writing, though, is that for the vast majority of its history it has been extra-professional.  Indeed, one reason for the great growth in the numbers of writers in the nineteenth century is that, unlike many other paths through life, writing did not require any particular qualification or license, so it became a refuge for educated youth shut out of other fields (César Graña’s Bohemian vs. Bourgeois offers an excellent discussion of these issues).  Even now, when universities have made the MFA a credential for writing, and when many writers, including Coyne, work at universities that issue degrees in writing, the idea of the writer as a professional in the sense outlined by Bledstein has not become fully dominant.  The very title of a recent book on what it means to be a writer—MFA vs NYC—indicates that there are two prominent cultures of writing in contemporary America, only one of them close to the traditional idea of professionalism.

Coyne eschews the idea that one is a professional by virtue of being paid, and does not discuss the culture of professionalism as it is seen by social historians like Bledstein.  He does, however, distinguish the professional writer from the amateur by virtue of the professional’s attitude toward his or her writing.  “If you write when you don’t want to,” he says, “if you go back when it’s hard, if you pry open the laptop when you would rather be watching BBC America”—if you do these things, “you don’t just write.  You’re a writer.”  This is a bit of a grim picture: it’s almost as if to count as a writer, you have to be alienated from your labor, experiencing it not as fulfillment but as drudgery.  There’s certainly a work ethic here, but it seems to be imported from the more exploited forms of labor.  And it is through this ethic of drudgery that one earns the identity of the writer.

One wonders, though: if adopting this alienated attitude is the cost of claiming a writer’s identity, is the prize worth it?  Or might we borrow a page from Michel Foucault, who argued in History of Sexuality, Volume One, that it is possible to conceive of sexuality not as an identity, but as a set of activities?  Could we, when asked what we do, reply in terms of activity (the terms of the question, after all), rather than identity?  When asked “what do you do?” could we reply not “I am a writer” but “mostly, I write”?

Saturday, July 05, 2014

The Good Bad Poet: An Extinct Species?

George Orwell was many things—martyr, masochist, moralist, Etonian malcontent—but he was not a particularly scrupulous scholar.  So we should treat with caution his claim, in the 1945 essay “Good Bad Books,” that it was G.K. Chesterton who coined the phrase “good bad book” to describe “the kind of book that has no literary pretensions but which remains readable when more serious productions have perished.”  The attribution has been much-repeated, but attempts to track it down founder.  To the best of my knowledge, the closest Chesterton came to defining a “good bad book” was to write in defense of the then critically-despised popular forms such as the penny dreadful and the detective story in essays collected in his 1901 book The Defendant.  The term “good bad book,” as Orwell uses it, appears to be his own coinage, perhaps attributed to Chesterton unintentionally through the vagaries of memory.

Orwell divides the empire of the Good Bad Book into two principalities.  The first of these is comprised of the various forms of escapist literature (in which he includes the Sherlock Holmes stories, Booth Trakington’s Penrod stories, as well as some thrillers and comic writings).  The second is made up of books that, “attain sincerity partly because they are not inhibited by good taste.”  The authors of books in this latter category generally identify so fully with their characters and invite such complete sympathy from the readers that they lack critical distance from those characters—they inhabit the sensibility of their characters “with a kind of abandonment that cleverer people would find difficult to achieve.”  Lack of self-consciousness is important to this second kind of good bad book—the author of such a book “only partly grasps the pathetic vulgarity of the people he is writing about, and therefore does not despise them.”  In this sort of book we enter into full and uncritical sympathy with the sort of figure we would normally recoil from—but because the author himself lacks self-consciousness, we go along for the ride with Dionysian abandon.  We’re not talking about something clever like Nabokov’s Lolita, in which the author plays complex games of sympathy for the devil.  We’re talking about the unselfconscious reveling in an odious or limited or pathetic ethos that we find in, say, Norman Podhoretz’s Making It.  The sincerity is everything.

The melodramatic mawkishness of Uncle Tom’s Cabin makes it a bad book, says Orwell, yet he finds in it a kind of righteousness that is essentially true and moving, making it a good bad book that, he predicts, will outlast “the complete works of Virginia Woolf or George Moore.”  It has already outlived George Moore in the popular imagination.  Woolf? Well, we’ll have to wait and see.  And since Orwell gives no timeframe, we’ll never reach a point where we can say he was definitely wrong.

Orwell has precious little to say about poetry in “Good Bad Books,” except that there are some music hall songs that, while lacking in subtlety and conscious craftsmanship, nevertheless embody a real sincerity and power, as does this one:

Come where the booze is cheaper,
Come where the pots hold more,
Come where the boss is a bit of a sport, 
Come to the pub next door!

The sentiment may be little different from “Sometimes you want to go/where everybody knows your name/And they’re always glad you came” (that, for you young ‘uns, is from the theme song to the sitcom Cheers)—but simple and sentimental as that sentiment may be, it is sincere and endures.  Orwell tells us he would “far rather have written” a stanza like this than “The Blessed Damozel” or “Love in a Valley.”

If we’d like to refine our sense of what a good bad poet, we could do worse than to look to another of Orwell’s essays, “Rudyard Kipling,” written three years prior to “Good Bad Books.”  Here, Orwell assesses Kipling’s achievement by taking a look at what T.S. Eliot had said about the author of Barrack-Room Ballads.  “Mr. Eliot,” Orwell tells us, “says that what is held against [Kipling] is that he expressed unpopular views in a popular style.  This narrows the issue by assuming that ‘unpopular’ means unpopular with the intelligentsia…” At this point you probably think you know where Orwell’s going with this.  You probably think he’s going to say that Kipling expressed views that, while unpopular with the intelligentsia, were popular with the broad reading public.  But that’s not it!  Where we think Orwell’s going to zig, he zags, saying:

…but it is a fact that Kipling’s ‘message’ was one that the big public did not want, and, indeed, has never accepted.  The mass of people, in the ‘nineties as now, were anti-militarist, bored by the Empire, and only unconsciously patriotic.  Kipling’s official admirers are and were the “service” middle class… In the stupid early years of this century, the blimps, [i.e., the pompous reactionaries] having at last discovered someone who could be called a poet and who was on their side, set Kipling on a pedestal, and some of his more sententious poems, such as “If,” were given almost Biblical status.

This is fascinating stuff.  The reading public in Kipling’s day was both larger and less homogenous than it was in Tennyson’s heyday, and the poet could no longer presume to speak to, and for, the vast majority of the readership (this had huge implications for the development of poetry in the early twentieth century—it takes two chapters of the book I’ve been working on, Making Nothing Happen: Poetry in Society, Poetry for Itself, just to scratch the surface).  But for a part of that reading public, a part that felt itself misunderstood and taken for granted by the majority of the population, Kipling was a voice, a poet who articulated what they believed in and the codes by which they lived.  “The White Man’s Burden” expressed a bitter late-imperial sentiment that belonged more to them than to the British reading public as a whole.  

And this is where we can see Kipling as a good bad poet, in the sense of sincerely and unselfconsciously expressing an ethos that doesn’t stand up to enlightened examination.  To kidnap a phrase from Orwell’s other essay, Kipling, as poet, “only partly grasps the pathetic vulgarity of the people he is writing about, and therefore does not despise them.”  And we get to go along for the ride, because Kipling’s belief in the perspectives from which he writes is so sincere and heartfelt—he truly, madly, deeply loves the Empire!  He might not have been a good poet in a way that cultivated readers of poetry appreciate, but Kipling the poet resonated beyond the little valley of the literati where executives fear to tread.  He was a good bad poet.

But can we have another Kipling?  Can there be a good bad poet now?  The prospects for someone that serious poetry readers admire becoming truly popular are dim, and were already dim in the 1940s when Orwell wrote:

It is no use pretending in an age like our own, “good” poetry can have any genuine popularity.  It is, and must be, the cult of a very few people, the least tolerated of the arts.  Perhaps that statement needs a certain amount of qualification.  True poetry can sometimes be acceptable to the mass of people when it disguises itself as something else…. But in general ours is a civilization in which the very word ‘poetry evokes a hostile snigger.

But what about a poet the literati do not care for, except perhaps with a kind of asterisk attached, and a little footnote saying “guilty pleasure” or “there’s something about the sentiment, but this is not to be entirely admired”?  We’d need a poet who could articulate for a large class of people the sentiment they hold most dear, but at present those sentiment tend to be articulated elsewhere: by popular culture (in commercially mediated forms) and by the new popular culture of video clips and social media.  It seems unlikely that a good bad poet will emerge in the West in our time.

Of course the question of the good bad poet, such as Kipling, raises another question, that of the bad good poet.  But I don’t feel the urge to write about P.B. Shelley.