Writing

“Not Being Talked About”

31742378An article in Book Riot summarizing the recent spate of books on Oscar Wilde ended with a footnote.

*Two more books related to Wilde came out in 2018, Oscar’s Ghost by Laura Lee and In Praise of Disobedience: The Soul of Man Under Socialism and Other Writings, an anthology edited by Neil Bartlett. I do not know enough about them to discuss them.

The article began with the old Wilde chestnut “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

It has got me thinking about what makes a book worth talking about and what makes one worth mentioning in a footnote. It can’t be the quality or contents. You have to read a book to dismiss it for that. Is it the status of the publisher or the author? Is it the promotion budget? It’s a nut I haven’t been able to crack.

Let me just take a moment to tell you why I thought the story in Oscar’s Ghost was fascinating enough to spend a number of years on. One of the great literary feuds in history took place in the wake of Oscar Wilde’s disgrace and early death. By following the events in the bitter conflict over his prison work De Profundis you see how a writer who had a confusing public image and professional reputation in his time was transformed into the mythic figure we know today.

Put another way, it charts how Wilde came to enjoy “a wonderful posthumous life, portrayed as a tragic hero who fell victim of Britain’s anti-homosexuality laws and sentiments.” (To quote the Book Riot article.)

Also, some of the things that happened in the course of the feud are hard to believe.

Anyway, that’s why I thought it was worth writing, and that’s all I can say on why it might be worth reading.

 

Quote of the Day: On Archive Research

Working an archive—like working a coal seam—is a physical exercise that calls for stamina. Stamina against fatigue, first of all, when handling ledgers that weigh over twenty pounds, gigantic folio volumes that can only be read standing up; and stamina against the dust, which invades everything with steely determination and winds up giving the researcher an illusion that, as in transubstantiation, she is becoming parchment herself. And stamina with respect to endless hesitations and misunderstandings caused by the handwriting—all those upstrokes and downstrokes of another era, those spellings that only slowly if steadily become standardized—until the intended meaning of a text could be determined through its details. Stamina, finally, to resist the tempting interpretations, the inevitable preconceptions built on personal history; in short, to resist haste. Woe to the impatient—a group to which I permanently belong. When in a hurry to discover, you have to be careful to wait, sometimes at length, recopying endlessly like a donkey until a coherent picture emerges, until statistics cohere, until a problematic emerges. It can be long and tough, yet gratifying.

-Laure Murat, The Man Who Thought He Was Napoleon 

Biography and the Art of Interpretation

Lives don’t tell stories. People tell stories. Lives are made up of events, some connected, some random. Some possibilities are explored, some are averted. It is only in retrospect that a person can go back and make a story out of those events. This necessarily involves interpretation.

I was reading Matthew Sturgis’ “Oscar: A Life” today and I came across an interesting example. A single observation in a letter written by Robert Ross in Sturgis’s book is presented with an almost opposite meaning as it is in my own. The quote is from the period shortly after Wilde and Douglas were forced to give up living together in Naples after Wilde’s release from prison. Here is how it appears in Sturgis:

But the all-consuming intimacy of the past was not recovered. And without the distorting lens of love, Bosie’s selfishness became all too apparent. As Ross reported to Smithers, after a visit to Paris, Douglas ‘is less interested in other people than ever before, especially Oscar, so I really think that alliance will die a natural death’.

The fact that Douglas is said to be less interested in other people, especially Oscar, here is evidence of Douglas’s selfishness. I saw it, instead, as evidence that Douglas became depressed after being forced to separate from Oscar Wilde. After having weathered so much to be together, both suffered from depression when that period of their relationship came to an end. (Oscar Wilde told a friend he considered suicide at that time.) Clinical depression manifests in a lack of interest in things you once enjoyed. Depressed people often withdraw from social interaction. For a number of reasons, which I spell out in the book, I suspect that Lord Alfred Douglas suffered from mental illness and so “losing interest in other people” immediately appeared to me as a symptom of depression. You can follow my reasoning in the book and decide for yourself.

The reason I wanted to write about this quote is that I think it serves as an excellent example of the way a bit of biographical material is put into context, and the many layers of interpretation that go into understanding one line. There are many things a historian must decide. Is Robert Ross’s report accurate? Had Douglas indeed “lost interest in other people, especially Oscar”? Does the fact that the witness was Ross color how Douglas might have behaved? Could he have been specifically uninterested in talking to Robbie about other people (Oscar in particular)? (I can think of a number of reasons why this might be the case.)

Of course a biographer doesn’t interpret one letter in isolation. He or she decides the answer to those questions based on other material uncovered. Sturgis has good reason to read the line as evidence of selfishness. Wilde often describes Douglas in that light in letters to Robert Ross. There is also the small matter of the story Wilde tells in De Profundis.

What are we to make of these sources? How historically accurate was De Profundis? How did the unique context of its creation effect what ended up on the page and how Wilde interpreted the events of his life at that moment?  Was his description of Douglas in his letters to Ross consistent with how he spoke about him in the period to others? Was there something about his relationship with Ross that might have colored how he spoke about Douglas to him specifically? I came to certain conclusions about this, but others will form different opinions.

Generally speaking, the only people who read about Lord Alfred Douglas do so because they have an interest in Oscar Wilde. This creates a certain framing. You can assume that anyone with an interest in Wilde would have read De Profundis before reading any of Douglas’s accounts of their relationship. De Profundis creates a powerful first impression. There have been a number of studies that show that once we form an idea about someone, it is very hard to change, even with new information.

Having read De Profundis, and then reading Douglas’s own accounts, you see the traits that Wilde described. “There’s that selfishness he was talking about.” “There’s that moodiness.”

Of course those traits were there. There is no denying that Douglas had a strong sense of entitlement. He was a snob and was often selfish. The De Profundis account may not have been totally accurate or fair, but neither was it entirely inaccurate or unfair. Would the traits that Wilde criticized in Douglas jump out as much as they do if we weren’t already primed to focus on them and see them as his defining traits?  It’s hard to know, but it is a bias that I think it is worth trying to correct for.

In the end, I can’t say with certainty whether Douglas “lost interest in people” at that moment because he was too full of himself to be bothered with them, or because he had just been forced to separate from his lover, had an argument with him over it, and was depressed. The latter explanation feels more right to me. Read it as you will.

 

 

 

 

 

A Duty to Do Something Frivolous

I use Evernote to save various clips and thoughts. One of my files is called “For Further Reflection.” The things is, I rarely go back and reflect further. What is more, I forget just what further thoughts I was contemplating at the time I clipped the snippet. I have decided to do some idea housecleaning and revisit these. Here’s one I clipped in October 2014.

10185538Engaging in a Vice Can Stimulate Creativity… If It’s Framed as a Duty

Hong Kong found that people experience increased vitality and show greater creativity after being directed to do something — specifically, engage in a (very mild) vice. Participants who were assigned to buy a celebrity photo album (that’s the vice), as opposed to a computer-programming tutoring book, and then asked to write an ad for a bike were judged to show better creative performance than those who had been given free choice or assigned to buy the computer book (6.42 versus 5.54 and 5.72 on average, respectively, on an 11-point creativity scale), say doctoral student Fangyuan Chen and Jaideep Sengupta of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Framing a pleasure as a requirement reduces the guilt associated with it — thus the increased creativity and sense of well-being, the researchers say.

This is one of those studies where researchers found a pattern, and they can tell you it exists, but they can only speculate as to why it exists. They assume that being free of guilt is a more creative state. This doesn’t make intuitive sense to me.

Putting aside the question of just how much of a vice buying a celebrity photo album is for the moment, I would like to offer an alternative explanation.  The essence of creativity is novelty. A paradox or a shift in usual values gives a person a new way of looking at things. If you want to spark your imagination, you put things together that do not often go together. Being given an assignment to buy a computer programming book is not particularly novel, but it is novel to make it a duty to do something frivolous.

That’s all I’ve got in terms of further reflections, but perhaps I can make this into a challenge to the would-be creatives reading this. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to put frivolity on your to do list.

 

 

 

It’s OK Not to Excel and Other Pep Talks

There is a well known writer who has lately been getting a lot of attention on twitter posting threads about how you’re a “real writer” regardless of what you write, regardless of whether it is published or read or has any kind of public recognition or success. She has moved on now to posting about how you’re “a real reader” no matter what kind of book  you read.  “Whatever you read you are a real reader, no exceptions.”

This has been annoying me, and I have spent some time trying to figure out why.

I agree that there are too many artificial hierarchies in literature. I am someone who has excelled in writing books that are considered “unserious” from The Pocket Encyclopedia to the Elvis Impersonation Kit. I know that they take skill, and that humor is not a lesser talent. I also recognize that the concept of “seriousness” is too often used to degrade work by and for women. I agree that you should like what you like and shouldn’t apologize for your tastes. While vampire romances are not something I prefer to read, I am certain there are good examples an bad examples of the genre.

Not all reading leads to great epiphanies, and there is nothing wrong with pure pleasure reading. Not all art has to aspire to immortality or greatness. Entertainment is just fine. And there are a lot of scholars who find a lot to explore in “low culture.”

So why does the statement that you’re a “real reader” no matter what you read stick in my craw?

First of all, it is a tautology. Yes, if you define “reader” as one who can read, then if you can decipher text on a cereal box you’re a reader, but then, so what? What do you get from calling yourself a “real reader?” You must view it as an honorific if you’re hung up on being one. I don’t hear people reassuring anyone that she is a “real TV viewer” regardless of what she watches, or a “real music listener…”

Focusing on whether you can claim to be a “real reader” is strange to me as it focuses on the personal identity of the person holding the book rather than the value of the contents of the book. It is a symptom of a culture in which how one brands herself–how she is seen by others– matters more than who she is when no one is watching.

Of course the quality of literature matters, or what are we doing here?

The author in question said that she was getting a lot of replies from men who said they never use the expression “guilty pleasure.” This is a gendered concept.

Women talk about romance novels being a “guilty pleasure” whereas men discuss the merits of the various authors in their pulp genres like sci fi and westerns.

If guilty pleasures are gendered, then so too must be the reassuring response that you’re a “real reader.”

Here is what I hear in the expression “guilty pleasure.” If you feel “guilt,” it means you aspire to something better.

When I read that the idea of a “guilty pleasure” was somewhat foreign to men, a lightbulb went off. The problem that I have with the expressions about “real writers” and “real readers” is that they are person praise not process praise. In other words, instead of praising people for achievements, it praises them for their inherent qualities which are seen to be immutable.

Person praise says “you’re a real reader.” (Regardless of what you read.)
Process praise says “congratulations on reading Remembrance of Things Past.”

I’ve written about this concept quite often here. Here’s an excerpt from a previous article:

Back in May, I posted an article called Unstoppable! Self-Esteem, Boy and Girl Style.  In the article I took a self-esteem program aimed at young women and flipped the genders to see how the encouragement felt when aimed at boys.

At the beginning of this article, I asked you to think about what an empowerment or self-esteem program for boys might consist of. You probably imagined something like the Boy Scouts or Outward Bound.  Young men test their limits, practice a sport, enjoy the outdoors, discover skills they didn’t know they had.  In short, they do.

When we try to “empower” girls we tell them to think positive and feel pretty.  If it is “empowerment” it is a strange use of the word “power” because it is entirely passive. The program focuses entirely personal qualities that make one attractive, not achievements and actions.

Today I was reading the BPS Research Digest and I came across a study that bolsters my subjective point of view.

Laboratory research pioneered by psychologist Carol Dweck has shown the short-term benefits of praising children for their efforts rather than their inherent traits. Doing so leads children to adopt a so-called ‘incremental mindset’ – seeing ability as malleable and challenges as an opportunity to learn. Now a new study co-authored by Dweck and led by Elizabeth Gunderson has made the first ever attempt to monitor how parents praise their young children in real-life situations, and to see how their style of praise is related to the children’s mindset five years later…The key finding was the more parents tended to praise their pre-school age children for effort (known as process praise, as in “good job”), the more likely it was that those children had a “incremental attitude” towards intelligence and morality when they were aged seven to eight. This mindset was revealed by their seeing intelligence and moral attributes as malleable. For example, such children tended to agree that people can get smarter if they try harder, and disagree with the idea that a naughty child with always be naughty…Finally, the study revealed that parents tend to use more person praise with girls and more process praise with boys, echoing similar results in earlier research. In turn, later on, boys tended to express an incremental mindset more often than girls. This tallies with the picture painted in the developmental literature that girls more than boys attribute failure to lack of ability, especially in maths and science.

Person praise values self-esteem over achievement.

To go back to the example of reading, a girl who felt “guilty” about not reading good literature sets to work to feel better about herself. A boy who feels bad that he is not well-read sets himself a goal of reading better literature.

As I pointed out in another post:

There is nothing wrong with loving yourself just as you are, of course. But when this message is given to only one gender, you end up with a constantly re-enforced dual message. Men achieve, women need to learn to be content while not achieving.

The study that I cited earlier notes that when children are given process praise they perceive of the challenge as learnable, improvable, masterable. They keep trying. It is not that they have failed because of an inherent quality, it is because they have not yet mastered the task. Children who receive person praise on the other hand, internalize everything. “I couldn’t build the tower because I am not good at that.” Personal qualities are seen as inherent and less changeable. If you are not a good builder, there is little reason to try. Those who receive person praise rather than process praise are more likely to give up.

After a lifetime of process praise for boys and person praise for girls, men and women react to rejection differently. Men tend to think, “I have not yet mastered this process, I need to keep trying.” Women tend to think, “Maybe I am not good enough.”

 
When I get into a writer funk, as I do from time to time, there is one thing you should never do to try to cheer me up: and that is to say that I am a “real writer” whether I achieve anything or not. That does not make me feel better, it is like pouring salt in the wound. Why? Because I am ambitious, and I’m tired of feeling that I should apologize for being upset when I fail to reach goals I set for myself. Don’t tell me that it’s OK that my book didn’t get reviews, or that I couldn’t find a publisher for my novel, because I don’t want to feel OK about that. I want to be dissatisfied with that. It hurts when you fail to live up to your ambitions, but feelings pass. The solution is not to pretend that the ambitions don’t matter. The solution is to get back up and keep working, to regroup, find another route, and keep trying. You may not get there, but you are taking the steps. If you want to get me out of a writer funk, remind me of things I have achieved. Get me fired up about what I can do next. Don’t tell me that I’m beautiful just as I am.

I want to see women succeed, and I think a good first step is to stop giving each other these “It’s ok not to excel” pep talks.

Books and Ballet

I am on a ballet tour, but I am not a dancer.

My primary career is writer, and my other job is ballet master class tour producer. It is not a “day job” it is a five months of the year job. Twice a year– two months in winter and three in summer– I bring over a Russian ballet dancer and we travel the country. He teaches classical ballet classes. I do the bookings, the driving. I play the music. Five months of driving across 47 U.S. states. Five months of plotting tour routes, checking in and out of hotels, keeping track of class times. The dancer is the star of the show. In Hollywood, I bought a t-shirt that has “crew” written on the front as an inside joke about my apparent role in things.  I’ve been called Mr. Lantratov’s helper a number of times. His assistant more often than I can count. One student said “it sounds like you’re his slave.” In reality I am the manager.

For a writer, it is a fragmented life. Ideas that come behind the wheel get written on hotel scratch pads and stowed away until I get home and have time to make them into novels, research, or book proposals. (Although I do some writing on the road as well when the situation warrants it. Parts of Oscar’s Ghost were written in a hotel in Dallas, most of the revisions of The Pocket Encyclopedia of Aggravation were written in Cincinnati.)

Years ago, in a draft for an abandoned novel about a performance tour, I wrote:

Ballet, especially every day road ballet, is an endurance sport. The principal dancers glide effortlessly on stage, but once they’ve crossed the threshold of the curtain into the wings, they put their hands on their knees and bend forward, their chests and stomachs pumping in and out with every labored breath. They are sweaty, of course, and a little dazed from the rush of adrenalin and hormones. And after a few moments, they capture their breath, and leap on the stage again, looking, for all the world, like they are suspended by wires and need no energy at all to perform the feat.

That’s performing. I don’t know if it applies to what I do: writing. Having a front row seat to my partner’s work as a ballet master teacher, I find that while they are both arts, writing and ballet do not have much in common. In many ways, they seem to be opposite arts: the verbal and the non-verbal, motion and stillness.

They are, however, both old forms of expression that seem a bit antiquated in a modern digital world. There is something pleasingly quixotic in trying to preserve and pass along these arts to a new generation.

Touring involves both constant novelty and the constant familiarity of hotel and road life. It informs the imagination and produces its own kind of creativity, but opportunities to sit for a while in solitude and just write are few and far between. I come to find that writing in a state of flow is a bit like a drug. You crave it when it is missing.

I started reading ballet dancer David Hallberg’s memoir A Body of Work. He is the only author listed on the cover, no “as told to.” So if he had no ghost writer (authors always wonder about such things) he has a writing talent. He writes about the memory of being in an artistic state of flow, and missing it when he is away from the stage.

I remember what it feels like to dance. To move so freely that my body releases ad creative intuition takes over, leading me beyond the worry of executing technique to a realm where nothing exists but the movement, the music, the emotions… Moments like this are worth it all. The doubt. The sacrifice. The injuries. The scrutiny. The burden of expectation. Those moments of living so intensely and fully on the stage are why I danced. Now, each day, I face one towering question: will I ever experience that euphoria again?

Flow is common to artists. It is why we persist in ridiculous careers. Yet as with most things ballet and writing, the process is inverted. For the dancer, the moment of flow is a culmination. For a writer, flow is that moment of inspiration. The writing that comes before the hard work, the revising, the attempts to get published. It all happens long before there is an audience.

The downside for the performer is that he needs the audience to have that moment. The writer can sit down and write no matter what, a lack of an audience is no barrier to achieving the state of flow. The downside for the writer is that this results in a constant lack of closure. By the time a book gets to its audience, it is disconnected from the writer, there is no great sense of culmination. The only soothing balm is to go back and write and start that process again.

 

Now I need to check out of this hotel and get on the road…