Okay. So we learned two things last night:
One: During the Super Bowl this year, Focus on the Family has purchased (probably for about $3 million) a 30-second commercial spot. This spot will consist of an ad starring Tim Tebow and his mum talking about how awesome it was that he wasn’t aborted, and that if you don’t abort your fetus, it’s likely they will go on to win the Heisman, too…or something. [Background–Tebow played for the Gators and often used his eye black to display his favorite bible verses. His mum is a Christian missionary who brainwashed home-schooled all her children, for religious reasons].
Two: Trijicon, the now sole provider of certain high-powered rifles to the United States marine corps and special forces, has been inscribing New Testament verses on the coding of all their rifles. This is even though the U.S. Military prohibits “proselytizing of any religion in Iraq or Afghanistan and (the rule was) drawn up in order to prevent criticism that the U.S. was embarked on a religious “Crusade” in its war against al Qaeda and Iraqi insurgents.” Some of these guns are then given to the Iraq and Afghan security forces, along with copies of the New Testament translated into their language. [But no, this isn’t a crusade!]
Both these stories are disturbing–both because each group (FotF and Trijicon) are foisting bible verses/religious talkingpoints on people in ways that they cannot really avoid. Obviously, #2 is much worse, seeing as they’re basically breaking military rules (even though the military awarded them a huge contract anyway). But both messaging methods are insidious, because they automatically turn whoever is using or watching these nonreligious materials/events into a user, an unbeknownst or otherwise promoter, or at the very least making them have an opinion or reaction to something in a very inappropriate context. Hey FotF–we’d love to have an intelligent, congenial conversation with you about how we feel about abortion, but can’t we just enjoy our beer, wings, and football in peace? Just because the Saints are playing, it doesn’t mean you get carte blanche to hem and haw about what might not get you into those pearly gates. And let’s remind you that Tim Tebow’s mum chose to keep her son. In the world you’re looking to create, she would have no choice–the choice would’ve been her doctor’s. You remember them? They’re the ones who told her she should abort the baby for fear she might be in severe, mortal peril should she carry Tim to term. And what’s that, FotF? You say that abortion should be illegal except in cases of extreme risk to the mother. So puzzle that one out for us.
Basically, m.snowe doesn’t mind that people want to speak about what they believe in, even if she absolutely disagrees with their viewpoint. But there are better times and places for this. And whenever you have to employ sneaky messaging, it’s like you’re sticking children’s medicine in applesauce–only this medicine might be poison. The examples above aren’t the right times or places. But if you’re going to play that way, m.snowe has a few new business ideas (if any of her readers are feeling philanthropic and want to be an investor for any of these ideas, please let m.snowe know):
–Condoms and Day After pills that have bible verses about the angel’s visitation to Mary printed on them.
–Communion wafers with the Planned Parenthood logo secretly stamped into the corners.
–Pro-Choice ads to run before all Disney animated features.
–Richard Dawkins quotes used as hangman answers on the back of Frosted Flakes cereal boxes.
Five Boroughs. Awesome. Why does only the one use the definite article? Why is it “The Bronx,” but not “The Brooklyn,” or “The Queens”? According to wikipedia, The Bronx is legally and colloquially referred to with the definite article. The United States Postal Service does not recognize “The” in front of Bronx, and “Bronx County” doesn’t either, but that’s it. Its vague historical origin suggests The Bronx was named after a settler or two, and also the subsequent river (and rivers more commonly employ definite articles).
So what other places use “the”? m.snowe is having a hard time thinking of cities or towns in the U.S. that use the definite article. Give me something, people. Or hell, make shit up. What cities would sound better (or funnier) with an article in front?
“This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing room.”
How is it that, years and years later, we still labor under the same critical bias? Too bold a claim? m.snowe would like to think so, but she cannot in good conscience. But let’s make this clear–critics, marketers, and to a large extent, general audiences relegate certain motifs to the fringe of “serious” exegesis. We don’t hold stories to the strictures of real life, so why do we paradoxically apply real-life measures of seriousness to our stories? Why does a story about war automatically receive more critical attention than a story where perhaps no one is physically battling, but grappling with perhaps something equally gripping, and perhaps closer to more of the reading population’s direct experience? And why do these disregarded (for the most part) stories seem to be written by, for or about women? And why are women so heavily praised when they “cross gender lines” and write about something traditionally masculine? Or direct a movie about it? (Aside: Is Bigelow only an Oscar contender because her skills were channeled to create a “A story about men and battle and the murderous highs of violence”?) And why, in the same vein, are men praised for writing “important, serious books,” as well as crossing into the traditionally feminine narratives about daily life and monotony? It would stand to reason that if the bifurcation of war and the drawing room does not stand for male writers, it should not for women either. Of course, reason isn’t standing here–reason is cowering in the corner, overshadowed by ego.
And if a lady writes in a militant way, but not about traditionally militant things? Watch out for that crazy bitch.
m.snowe is finishing up A Short History of Women, by Kate Walbert (look out for a blogged review shortly). Still don’t know whether to like it, or despise it. The questions above are obscuring my vision of how it should be seen. Because despite the realization that these critical biases exist, I was raised in the midst of them. Awareness is great, but it doesn’t eradicate engrained prejudice. It must be chipped away, page by page.
She lingers over a particularly intriguing painting, turn of the century. She leans in a bit closer. Often, standing on that yellow strip along the subway tracks, so very close to the edge, how simple it would be to trip, or suddenly decide to hurl oneself into the filthy gap between so many platforms. But that never happens. The inertia of a moment always pushes away from the speeding train, the blackened trench. In an instant, a new reality. Except this wasn’t a subway track, it was a Picasso, and she was tripping and breaking her fall by tearing the right-hand corner of an incredibly expensive piece of art. The paint was the brown water by the tracks, the canvas a soggy discarded box to break her fall, the people rats scurrying by and surrounding her inquisitively like freshly strewn refuse. Was it possible that just happened? The slightest application of pressure, and the canvas gave, as fragile as cheesecloth. Why would one create a lasting image on such a flimsy thing? A guilt at once preposterous (a swatch of canvas!), and simultaneously grave–this is a creature not limited to one life, not a murder or snuffing out of one breathing thing. A cessation of thousands of pondering stares, an empty wall to be visited by hundreds of mourners each day, for as long as the museum stands. A museum mausoleum created by one misstep (“Here used to lie the painting: removed for restoration.”). She has tossed the unfinished manuscript in the flames. Buried the sheet music of unheard symphony. Funny how one forgets that art is physical too, and at moments its legacy is on tenderhooks. She receives only, “the museum reports no physical injuries to the woman.” The painting was over six feet tall. Now it lays supine, in state, just as imposing.
Hey, check out this piece on memoir in The New Yorker by Mendelson, vaguely reviewing Ben Yagoda’s Memoir: A History. Sadly, critics have noted that Yagoda’s book does more “cataloging than philosophizing,” so if we want to understand the more nuanced questions about why we are drawn to and also so enraged by memoir/autobiography as a form, we’ll just have puzzle them out as we go. Mendelsohn, for his part, does present a more psychological bent to his reflection on the form of the memoir (he starts with Freud, after all).
Mendelsohn claims there is a new emergence of resistance to the “narcissism” of memoir, and that there is something inherently different in the way we as a culture look at and make value judgments about memoir, considering it has always existed (and for the most part flourished) for hundreds of years. If this is true, what is it about us that makes us so weary and on guard all of the sudden? Why do we gird our reading loins every time some new memoir makes claims that seem not-so-reliable? m.snowe would not claim we have any “evolved” or enlightened viewpoint—but instead–an obsession with reality, and a fear of fiction. This doesn’t mean people are worried Madame Bovary, or their copy of Jane Eyre will emerge from under their beds, stagger towards them, and smother them with pillows whilst they sleep. The fear is that somehow, these books will all re-arrange themselves, and the definitions that we so loosely use to categorize (“Fiction & Literature,” “Biography,” “Non-Fiction,”) will become obsolete. m.snowe has always hated this notion, and she doesn’t understand this fear. Because, categories, taken when evaluating book-by-book, are already obsolete. Ciaos, thy name is messy dewey decimal. Of course, m.snowe was taught to approach texts with disregard for external influence—not to care whether the author was male or female, young or old, etc. and so on, because, at the end of the day, a text must and can stand alone. It is not an appendage, not even a ghost limb, even if the author twitches with pain every now and then, realizing what part of themselves they detached in order to share with the reading world.
So many authors are doing so many different things to redefine the “genres” they are writing in. There’s metafiction, and neo-neo-realism, and new formats of delivery—(twitter?) you name it. While this is all exciting and great, one hypothesis might be that the instability of such genres in our current age has caused a reader backlash of sorts: the more writers have stretched the boundaries of what fiction, memoir , etc. can and should do, the more people have looked for safety and security in their original definitions. People want to feel comfortable, or at least know what the heck they’re reading. And perhaps memoir or autobiography is the easiest genre to attack (i.e. analyze in terms of definability and adherence to certain strictures)—by standard definition, it is a truth-telling exercise with “real-life” experience. Of course, then you run into the problem of truth (or more likely, fact) written down on paper; something happens to change the facts as they move from reality, through the writer’s mind, and then, most notably, translated on paper. Autobiography can never be reality (neither can fiction!)—even if it tries to capture real events and observations by the biographer. Even if that biographer gets them “right.” Memoir will always use the same writerly conventions that fiction writers use—and that tangled, beautiful mess of diction, metaphor, etc. is what makes memoir interesting, but also blurs the line, albeit an imaginary line that shifts like the virtual first down line superimposed on your television screen during football games. We may know if shifts and isn’t really on the field with the players. But we see it nonetheless.
Every now and then, it’s good to get all ontological.
Lately, m.snowe has given a lot of thought to time, passage of time, tenses (present, past, future), and what all that might possibly have to do with “realism” in general, and specifically in fiction.
Wood had some interesting things to say about “realism in fiction” in his book of criticism, How Fiction Works. Since quotes are not handy, let’s parse one interpretation of what Wood said about “realistic” fiction: Basically, Wood postulates that fiction doesn’t necessarily have to present a narrative that is absolutely believable in terms of “happening in real life”–it does not have to be entirely or even partially probable. The important part of fiction is whether or not it sheds some truth on the human condition, even if that means Gregor Samsa wakes up as a bug. It’s less about possibility or probability that something that happens to a character can happen to you as you walk down the street–it’s more about the truth of the story and how it is presented–the ability to allow the reader to feel or experience what the character in the book is feeling or experiencing–to be given a window, a transom, a shoot, a ladder. Not to inhabit that character, but get a sense of what something is “like.” For Wood, “Realism”–or whatever you want to call it–is about a mutually identified condition, a commiseration, and in some sense an apotheosis of reader and writer–a shared, elevated thought experience.
Of course, Wood goes on to explain that all the critics who say realism has to be written with strictures that adhere to the idea of real-life situational plausibility are kidding themselves, because there is no way that words on a page can ever be “real” experience. We cannnot hope to read the words of a novel and find them bleed out the margins and into our real-time lives. Thank goodness. (This isn’t Stranger Than Fiction). That doesn’t mean that the experience of reading isn’t a real and powerful thing. Language is always a signifier, and only theologians claim that someone has the ability to use language in order to create reality (“And god said, let there be light”!). But fiction can and does inform our decisions. Even lawyers, those most real and rationally argumentative of people, often rely on “legal fictions” to make cases that are decided and in turn effect the trajectory of people’s lives.
If you stretch Wood’s argument even wider, you can actually expand fiction into real life (as in, what we consider to be “reality” is actually always dilectically becoming fiction). If you define “reality” as real-life experience, the only thing that is real is what you are doing and thinking right now. Of course, we’ve all been “really” living since birth, but once a moment passes, though it was technically, for all intents and purposes “real” — it is no longer. It has passed away, and enters the shady, unreliable, unresurrectable realm of memory. And no memory is completely real. And neither is the future–the future is a fictional promise or hope. So we need fiction to live real life, and it informs and controls us in ways that no other being on earth can claim as fully–consciousness, memory, hope–all these are fiction. And realistically, we could not operate without them.
XXI BEOWULF spake, bairn of Ecgtheow:"Sorrow not, sage Ken! It beseems us better friends to avenge than fruitlessly mourn them. Each of us all must his end abide in the ways of the Barbie world; so win who may glory ere death! When his days are told, that is the warrior's worthiest doom. Rise, O realm-warder! Ride we anon, and mark the trail of the mother of Grendel, Barbie. No harbor shall hide Barbie or that litter of kidnapped Bratz Dolls -- heed my promise! -- enfolding of field or forested mountainor floor of the flood, let Barbie flee where she will, even her Dream House with working elevator! But thou this day endure in patience, as I ween thou wilt, thy woes each one. "Leaped up the graybeard: God he thanked, mighty Lord, for the man's brave words. For Hrothgar soon Barbie's Diamond Glitter horse was saddled wave-maned steed. The sovran wise in search of evil Princess Barbie stately rode on out of the Groom and Glam Stable; his shield-armed men followed in force. The footprints led along the woodland, widely seen,a path o'er the plain, where she passed in her magical balloon carriage, nd trod the murky moor; of men-at-arms she bore the bravest and best one, dead, him who with Hrothgar the homestead ruled. On then went the atheling-borno'er stone-cliffs steep and strait defiles, narrow passes and unknown ways past the Glamour Camper, headlands sheer, and the haunts of the Nicors. Foremost he fared, a few at his sideof the wiser men, the ways to scan,till he found in a flash the forested hill hanging over the hoary rock,a woful wood: the waves below were dyed in blood of the Bratz. The Danish men had sorrow of soul, and for Scyldings all,for many a hero, 'twas hard to bear,ill for earls, when Aeschere's head they found by the flood on the foreland there. Waves were welling, the warriors saw,hot with blood; but the horn sang oft battle-song bold. The band sat down,and watched on the water worm-like things, sea-dragons strange that sounded the deep, and nicors that lay on the ledge of the ness --such as oft essay at hour of morn on the road-of-sails their ruthless quest, --and sea-snakes and monsters and Fairy-tastic Kara Dolls. These started away, swollen and savage that song to hear,that war-horn's blast. The warden of Geats,with bolt from bow, then balked of life, of wave-work, one monster, amid its heart went the keen war-shaft; in water it seemed less doughty in swimming whom death had seized. Swift on the billows, with boar-spears well hooked and barbed, it was hard beset,done to death and dragged on the headland, wave-roamer wondrous. Warriors viewed the grisly guest sitting in her so-in-style vanity room. Then girt him Beowulf in martial fashion mail provided by Ken, nor mourned for his life. His breastplate broad and bright of hues as Ken liked it, woven by hand, should the waters try; well could it ward the warrior's body that battle should break on his breast in vain nor harm his heart by the hand of a foe the likes of Barbie. And the helmet white that his head protected was destined to dare the deeps of the flooded Glam Pool Playset, through wave-whirl win: 'twas wound with chains,decked with gold, as in days of yore the weapon-smith worked it wondrously,with swine-forms set it, that swords nowise,brandished in battle, could bite that helm .... Not first time this it was destined to do a daring task. For he bore not in mind, the bairn of Ecglaf sturdy and strong, that speech he had made, drunk with wine, now this weapon he lent to a stouter swordsman. Himself, though, durst not under welter of waters wager his life as loyal liegeman. So lost he his glory,honor of earls. With the other not so,who girded him now for the grim Barbie encounter.
James Wood says in “How Fiction Works” that the author is in constant battle to reconcile three separate yet intertwined languages/styles/perceptual equipment. Each voice is vying for victory over the other like a game of cutthroat, trying to sink their own set of numbered pool balls in order to win the reader’s attention. In m.snowe’s crazy extended metaphor, the 3 players would be assigned thus:
–The author’s own voice=high balls
–The character’s presumed voice=mid balls
–The larger world’s collective voice=low balls
Wood argues that all three of these voices can be amalgamated in free indirect style, so that the reader is simultaneously aware and unaware of all the voices working at once, jockeying, knocking into each other on the felt table of the story. Of course, somebody’s got to win or at least come out as the dominant voice, but sometimes you forget just who is supposed to sink 1-5, 6-10, or 11-15. Like any difficult game with multiple players, really, it’s all about strategy. And in the end, the author is the one making all the shots.
(From the final scene of Book X of Milton’s Paradise Lost)
He ended, and they both descend the Hill;
Descended across Flutter Valley, ADAM to the Pony Land Bowre where EVE
Lay sleeping ran before, but found her wak’t, brushing the crimson mane of Cherries Jubilee;
And thus with words not sad she him receav’d.
Whence thou returnst, & whither wentst with Fizzy and Whizzer, I know;
For God is also in sleep, and Dreams advise,
Which he hath sent propitious, some great good
Presaging, since with sorrow and hearts distress
Wearied I fell asleep in Dream Castle: but now lead on;
In mee is no delay; with thee to goe,
Is to stay here; without thee here to stay,
Is to go hence unwilling and be eaten by the Smooze released by evil Hydia; thou to mee
Art all things under Heav’n, all places thou,
Who for my wilful crime art banisht hence to this land of magical ponies most strange.
This further consolation yet secure
I carry hence; though all by mee is lost,
Such favour I unworthie am voutsaft,
By mee the Promis’d Seed shall all restore, or we shall Call Upon the Sea Ponies, as the immortal Meghan and Applejack, who went before us in their heavenly quest. Shoop-bee-doo-shoop-shoop-bee-doo!
So spake our Mother EVE, and ADAM heard
Well pleas’d, but answer’d not; for now too nigh amongst the neighing noises
Th’ Archangel stood, and from the other Hill near the My Little Pony Paradise Estate
To thir fixt Station and stalls, all in bright array of pink and dappled hues
The Cherubim descended; on the ground
Gliding meteorous on their pegasus ponies, as Ev’ning Mist
Ris’n from a River o’re the marish glides,
And gathers ground fast at the Labourers heel
Homeward returning. High in Front advanc’t,
The brandisht Sword of God before them blaz’d
Fierce as a Comet; which with torrid heat hotter than the Volcano of Doom,
And vapour as the LIBYAN Air adust,
Began to parch that temperate Clime; whereat
In either hand the hastning Angel caught
Our lingring Parents astride with Baby Lickety-Split, and to th’ Eastern Gate of Ponyville
Let them direct, and down the Cliff as fast
To the subjected Plaine they cantered; then disappeer’d.
They looking back, all th’ Eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late thir happie seat,
Wav’d over by that flaming Brand, the Gate
With dreadful Faces throng’d and fierie Armes and the minions of the Grundle King (voiced by Danny DeVito):
Som natural tears they drop’d, but wip’d them soon;
The World of Pony Land was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide, along with Honey-Suckle and Baby Tiddly-Winks:
They hand in hand, and horseshoe and horseshoe with wandring steps and slow,
Through EDEN towards Pony Land took thir solitarie way.
At the beginning, his urgings were gentle. … But I kept demurring despite his coaxing.
Finally, he insisted, pressing a fat, taut root vegetable into my hands. “Just take it and try it,” he said. “I’ll bet you anything you’ll be back for more.”
Thus began my new obsession…
Harlequin romance? The new bodice-ripping vampire novel? Nope. That would be an excerpt from “A Good Appetite,” a regular New York Times column about food, written by Melissa Clark. This particular piece is about the rutabaga, and titled “The Best Vegetable You’ve Never Tried.”
Thanks, Ms. Clark. We’ll be sure to pop our rutabaga cherry good and quick.