A YEAR IN READING 2008.

C. Max Magee of The Millions has an annual tradition of asking people to talk about books they’ve read and enjoyed during the previous year, and he has gotten into the flattering habit of beginning the series with my contribution; here it is. (If anyone comes over from The Millions and is curious as to my final thoughts about Proust, here they are. More about Tolstoy, doubtless, to come in the months ahead!)

Comments

  1. AJP Crown says:

    Well, here it is 11.30 am and no one has written a word. What’s going on, everyone’s trying on hats? I’ll have to take over. That’s a wonderful piece you wrote on Proust and Joyce. I’ll have to think about it. Thanks for that, Language.

  2. It was worse than I thought: 4:11 pm. I suppose this one will say six.

  3. Good heavens Kron, it’s a national holiday here what with Cybor Monday and all that. Those of us who avoided being trampled to death in Walmart on Black Friday by shopping online, are now required to go outside shopping to avoid server crashes. After shoveling snow, of course.

  4. We had a light snow yesterday. My wife saved me from abject terror by reminding me of how pleasant it would be to watch the snow fall while enjoying the pleasant warmth of our new wood stove.

  5. AJP Crown says:

    Quite right, smart woman. Wood stoves are great, we have one too.

  6. AJP Crown says:

    I hadn’t heard of Black Friday before this year . Wiki says it may have something to do with retailers’ accounts being in the black for this part of the year only. And if that’s not true, what do you call a name or metaphor that conjures up an impression that is the opposite of the required (by retailers) one? Not a misnomer, something that’s more about irony…’Ironic misnomer’, I guess.

  7. Crown, A. J. P. says:

    “how pleasant it would be…”
    Was this a way to get you to light the stove? I have encountered this tactic. As I said, smart woman.

  8. I like how Hat, in the Proust post, calls Proust “a great writer” before complaining about him for some thousand words, and yet you know he means it, he just isn’t gonna pretend the guy’s God because he’s Proust. Most writers (let alone bloggers) will offer a reservation or a caveat either because they think it sounds good or because they’re not committed — i.e., haven’t really thought through what they’re saying. Somehow Hat means what he says and posts every day.
    (I write this while staring at an online resume template, which I’ve been working on since yesterday. “Objective”? What IS my objective?)

  9. AJP Crown says:

    The objective of the future is going to be laziness, but I’m not sure we’re ready for it; it’s going to take a lot of work.

  10. jamessal,
    I don’t envy you. I have here in front of me a document titled “Annual appraisal”. From what I can tell, I’m supposed to fill it out. It’s three pages, 8 points. The one with “objective” is number 7. I’m stuck at 3: what are my technical skills and strong and weak points?

  11. Bulbul: No, you’ve definitely got it worse than I do. “What are my strong and weak points?” would drive me fucking crazy. I think I’m gonna rent “Office Space” tonight.

  12. The objective of the future is going to be laziness, but I’m not sure we’re ready for it; it’s going to take a lot of work.
    “Alas, the time is coming when man will no longer give birth to a star. Alas, the time of the most despicable man is coming, he that is no longer able to despise himself. Behold, I show you the last man: ‘What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?’ thus asks the last man, and he blinks.”
    Me, I’m with Crown.

  13. “online resume template”? I bet I could write a better one. The last week of our teaching practicum we had an administrator from a language school talk to us about the job search process. She took about 25 resumes and started passing them around the class at about 30 second intervals, perhaps to make a point about how much time administrators have to spend on the selection process. Although we never read even one of the resumes from start to finish, we all picked the same few resumes to put on the list of people to call back. While I have different resumes for educational and other applications, I think listing an objective limits you when you need to be flexible or at least appear flexible.
    As far as weak points, that’s a trick question. While I am constantly trying to evaluate myself while in front of the class, the only weak point I would commit to paper is perhaps an excess of modesty about my glowing achievements and sterling character.
    I also managed to work in some stuff about Bloom’s Taxonomy that I found out about on a thread somewhere, which the school’s next higher administrator found quite impressive, and gave me something to talk about during the interview (having reviewed my resume beforehand of course in order to remember what I wrote).

  14. Oh, and when they printed up my appraisal and had it ready for me to sign and put in the files, I had been rated less than 100% on one area. So I asked some polite question about “oh, what is the policy for x,y, and x” and the person writing up the report (perhaps not wanting me to take my question to the next administrative level, or maybe not wanting to create a new issue among staff) told me it was a typo, and printed out a new one with the rating changed.
    It’s true, when you get older you do get smarter.

  15. “online resume template”?
    It was a fucking trick is what it was! I hadn’t even thought about a resume for four years (first, I had a job; then my book got published and I didn’t need one), so I was a little nervous about it, and I figured Hey, this looks easy — just answer the questions. Well, after I filled everything in and the online application made it look all pretty, I tried to print and I got this message saying I needed to PAY them for “full printing privileges.” Luckily I saved the text along the way (not so stupid), and now I’m making it look pretty myself.
    As for the “objective” section, I was planning on just changing it for each company I applied to. But maybe you’re right; it might be better to APPEAR flexible. It’s just that the next section, as per the swindling template, is “Major Accomplishments” — for which I have something about my memoir. Which, you’ll admit, is a strange thing to have at the top of your resume if you’re not applying for a writing job. Maybe I should just start over. I don’t want to.
    pongoresume.com — those are the bastards.

  16. Wood stoves–I wish I could still enjoy them and the smell of a fireplace or campfire. But years of smoking have taken their toll. On Thanksgiving I drove past several areas where there was an unmistakable smell of wood smoke coming from a group of houses–now inhaling even a trace of smoke sets off a sense of panic for me.

  17. the “objective” section
    If you have one page to put under someone’s nose for 30 seconds, what do you want them to see? That you know how to fill up a page with unimportant drivel? That you know so little about the field you have to depend on a standardized form written by someone who has no inkling about the job you are applying for?
    For teaching, the first thing is your education. If the resume goes first to a personnel department, that’s the only thing they know how to evaluate. They just have the power to screen you out and keep your resume out of the pile that gets handed to the decision maker.
    For my department you have to have a master’s degree. I think it’s union thing. But my MA isn’t in education/linguistics, so after listing my schools, I pile up all my special training and experience (leaving out any non-teaching jobs) so there is absolutely no doubt I fit their mold.
    Then what? They have to remember your name and contact you, that’s all. The more information you volunteer, the more opportunities for someone to find something they don’t like and get fussy. Better to let an interviewer ask the specific stuff they’re looking for in person–and size them up on the fly before phrasing the answer.
    There is also an “academic cv” which I googled to find a few tutorials, so now I’ve got one of those too. There is also an “idiots guide” to resumes which talks about teh interwebs, which I didn’t learn about as a teeniebopper. There’s some good books out there, but then you find yourself in the position of, was it Kron who pointed out “the fox and the hedgehog”? At some point your focus becomes getting more and more information instead of the job search.

  18. Yeah, you’re right. Short and to the point; “objectives” is gone. Thanks for the pep talk.

  19. I’m reading a book by David Sedaris, called When You Are Engulfed in Flames, that my mother gave me. It’s got a long piece about first taking up and then giving up (separately) drink, drugs and smoking. Very good, very funny, hardcover. The dog’s eaten everything but the main body of text.

  20. I love Sedaris, ever since Six to eight black men. I’ll get his latest as an audio book, it just wouldn’t be right to read his stuff.
    Anybody read Bickerton’s “Bastard Tongues”? The latest issue of Multilingual features a review and it does sound interesting, even the “part memoir” part.

  21. giving up (separately) drink, drugs and smoking.
    He’s made a huge a mistake.
    Sedaris can be funny, but you do know he LIED LIED LIED and therefore he should be beaten and kept from writing forever, don’t you? I jest, but really it does annoy me when people lie in their non-fiction. Call it fiction. This is funny, though: http://odeo.com/episodes/4475683 Text here: http://people.cornell.edu/pages/bs16/Christmas/6_to_8_black_men.txt

  22. Beat me to it!

  23. you’re right It’s not so much about being “right” as having a constantly evolving philosophy–that’s just this week’s version. Glad I was able to make you think about your own philosophy a little, though.

  24. Is that a joke?

  25. Is that a joke? Who, me? Of course it’s not a joke. Writing a resume is extremely personal and it’s all a judgment call. I happen to think I’ve got great judgment and while my resumes from a few years back I tend to rip up, when I look at my more recent ones, I’m amazed that I could even write them.
    There’s even more to it, like I want a job with health insurance and that means a government job and that means learning KSA’s, I think, unless it’s different now, so now I’ve got to figure that out.
    Even though I don’t know you, my impression is that you’re not a conventional sort of person and would not seek a job with a lot of convention, but that’s how you were presenting yourself with the resume.
    I think what I was trying to do was a caution against taking someone else as an authority, whether me or a preformatted resume program. You can listen to what other people think and google a lot of different formats, but in the end you have to take it and make it your own.
    Maybe I should be more prescriptionist in my pronouncements.

  26. Okay. I appreciate the advice. But offering advice on a resume is not the same as getting someone to think about their “philosophy” — and, frankly, if you insist on putting it in those (weird) terms, I don’t want the advice.

  27. “philosophy” is weird? I meant thinking about how you want to present yourself and actually having reasons behind what you decide to put on the page. BTW, there is actually a section in academic CV’s for “philosophy of teaching”, so I got myself one of those, too, since I wanted to disguise myself as a conventional person in order to get the job, but that’s not how I meant the word in that context.
    My advice is free. You can decide for yourself if it’s worth what you paid for it.

  28. marie-lucie says:

    When applying for an academic position you are asked to include a “cover letter” to go with your resume, which is usually in point form, according to some kind of template, with no comments. But in the cover letter (1 or 2 pages) you present yourself and highlight your qualifications, strong points and relevant experience in a few paragraphs and you can also mention some directions you could pursue in the job, making you a stronger asset to the institution. These days a statement of your “teaching philosophy” is also required. I am glad I did not have to produce one at the (now distant) time I applied for my job, as it is often an opportunity for writing jargon-filled platitudes, something I am not too good at.
    But the short “cover letter” (which does not have to be limited to the academic world) is really a useful exercise for applicants as it gives a better sense of their personality and potential fit with the job than just the listing of qualifications and previous experience, especially if the applicant has not followed a run of the mill career path and is an awkward fit with the template. When you are on a selection committee which is looking at dozens of applications, you only consult a point-by-point resume in detail if you are favorably impressed by the cover letter.

  29. Alas, the time is coming when man will no longer give birth to a star.
    God, I love Nietzsche. He was crazy as they come and had a bad influence on a lot of people, but shit, how many philosophers can write like that? And Sedaris, too, lying liar though he may be. Not always at the top of his game, but when he is, Katie (to quote a folksy saying I used to general acclaim in an earlier comment thread) bar the door.
    Sounds like Nijma has a pretty good handle on the resume/cv thing, but really, all anyone needs to do is mention my name as a reference and you’ll zip right to the head of the line.

  30. When you are on a selection committee which is looking at dozens of applications, you only consult a point-by-point resume in detail if you are favorably impressed by the cover letter.
    Oh-oh, I have no idea how to do a good cover letter although I did see a pretty extensive one, maybe two pages, written by a person they hired at my old job. Maybe that’s what you write after you get on the short list. Of course Adult Education is in its own world.
    Thanks for the vote of confidence, Hat. But if we mention your name, we won’t be anonymous any more, and then we won’t be able to say what we really think.
    Nietzsche…. He was crazyDied of syphilis, I understand. Fourth state syphilis definitely effects mentation. That would be the 4th (?) part of “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”, sort of put together posthumously.

  31. The moon, Jupiter and Venus from the Taj Mahal:
    http://deccanherald.com/UserFiles/DHGallery/Dec22008/up2.jpg
    There’s one from Boston here:
    http://riverdaughter.wordpress.com/2008/12/01/cosmic-connection-one-night-only/
    Last night was overcast, but it’s clearing; maybe something will be visible in the midwest tonight.

  32. marie-lucie,
    one of the first things I learned when I entered the job market was never to apply for a job somewhere where they request a cover letter with your CV. That screams ‘incompetent HR department’ and that does not bode well for the company in general.
    you can also mention some directions you could pursue in the job, making you a stronger asset to the institution
    And how would you know that beforehand, without ever having set foot in that institution? Whatever you may know or think you know about that institution, even if it’s accurate, it’s only about 10% of what you will learn once you start spending your working days there.
    When you are on a selection committee which is looking at dozens of applications, you only consult a point-by-point resume in detail if you are favorably impressed by the cover letter.
    That just don’t seem right. What’s the point of sending a resume, then? And aren’t resumes supposed to be max. 2 pages long? Also, if I were on a selection committee to pick a candidate for the position of someone I will be working with (that’s at least 40 hours a week, mind you), I’d certainly take the time to get all the information I can.

  33. marie-lucie says:

    bulbul,
    I appreciate your points, but I was talking about the North American academic world, more specifically in Canada, where customs are probably different from other places of employment. Usually individual departments place their own advertisements and form their own selection committee, even if the ads are sometimes grouped together for the whole university or at least faculty (eg Arts, Science, etc). The HR department looks after non-academic personnel. And a resume is not just 2 pages long, since the applicant has to list every paper they have presented, written and especially published. Unless the applicant is very young, the resume can run to quite a few pages. Also, the cover letter at least gives an idea of the writing ability of the applicant, something important for the job, even before the committee reads the papers included with the application. And as to potential contributions to the institution, every university publishes a catalogue of courses as well as information about their research work, so it is possible to get a good idea of where a department is at even in a lesser-known institution. I realize that many of these details don’t apply to industry, but I was writing with the idea that the prescribed template, which does not always fit one’s experience, may not be the only way to present oneself and that the cover letter can be a very useful complement. In my experience the cover letter rarely gives a very different impression from the resume, but it could be different in professions where there is not a lot of writing required. And it did not seem from our friend’s description of his difficulties with his resume that it would only come to 2 pages.

  34. AJP Crown says:

    m-l’s ‘Not good at writing jargon-filled platitudes’ might be suitable for ‘weak points’.

  35. AJP Crown says:

    Aren’t resumes supposed to be max. 2 pages long?
    I think it varies according conventions of job and age. I’ve seen physicians write a lot.

  36. AJP Crown says:

    Nijma, Nietzsche is a philosopher whose work, most of it, is easy to read. There’s a book called Human, All Too Human that has short pieces you might really enjoy reading, though you may not start out by agreeing with anything he says. I don’t think he was at all nuts before his tragic final ten-year illness; he asked profound questions, came up with credible answers that no one had ever considered before and acted on them very rationally. That, to me, is sort of the opposite of nuts.

  37. Gervais does this bit a lot better in his recent HBO stand-up, but it’s amusing here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JUH1H-b-N5o

  38. God, I love Nietzsche. He was crazy as they come and had a bad influence on a lot of people…
    I forgot to copy this with the link.

  39. AJP Crown says:

    I watched quite a lot of David Sedaris on youtube last night, thanks to bulbul and jamessal making those links. There are some — there’s one about a squirrel and a chipmunk — that aren’t autobiographical, but I didn’t think they worked half as well as the ones that originate in his diary or discuss his family when he was growing up, the ones written in the first-person, in other words. So I think he’s on to a good thing with this stuff. I couldn’t tell if it’s actually 100% true, but it SEEMS authentic. Isn’t that all that matters?

  40. “All Too Human” was the title of Stephanopolis’ book about the Clinton administration, I didn’t realize that was a reference to something else.
    I once got a negative comment in a margin for musing in some essay about whether Nietzsche’s usage of opiates after a war wound had any effect on his writing. The dementia symptoms thing came much later I think, a long time after Zarathustra, in the year right before his death. I’m not really that interested in philosophy by itself but more as a component of history–like when Nietzsche broke with Wagner, or how Heiddegger dealt with working under the Nazi regime.
    Not good at writing jargon-filled platitudes
    This was very easy. I googled Bloom’s taxonomy and after reading a dozen or so riffs on it, discovered I did indeed have a philosophy of education, which is maybe a little easier for language acquisition, but still pragmatic enough for me to write about with conviction, of course with a little help from the people have devoted far more time to thinking about it than I ever will. Sometimes it’s important to show people you share their core values; they probably had to get through writing one of those things too.
    A really interesting resume was when our graduate school got a new head, a Brit, and his resume was posted online. I didn’t think his was appropriate to what I wanted to do, but after reading it I did change mine drastically.

  41. AJP Crown says:

    There’s also All Too Human: Love Story of Jack and Jackie Kennedy, by Edward Klein.

  42. I know someone who actually has lived for a year in Reading, he’d much prefer to live in nearby Windsor.

  43. AJP Crown says:

    Apparently Ricky Gervais is from Reading. I only know the station, but my mother’s first cousin went to the university (B.Sc. in Agriculture, though he later became a Justice of the Peace).
    Jamessal? Where’s your argument? I’ve been looking forward to it for two days now.

  44. Crown, A. J. P. says:

    Oh well, I guess it’s only one day. Just seems like two.

  45. I couldn’t tell if it’s actually 100% true, but it SEEMS authentic. Isn’t that all that matters?
    Jamessal? Where’s your argument? I’ve been looking forward to it for two days now.
    This is one of those points of view that seems so on its face wrong to me that I never know where to start arguing against it. I mean, we have fiction and non-fiction. SEEMING authentic (on some level, any level, whatever level it’s working) is fiction’s job, not non-fiction’s. Fiction forgoes literal truth for artistic truth. Non-fiction conveys facts, opinions, real-world experiences, etc. That, ostensibly, is how it is. And I think it’s an arrangement worth keeping.
    Now obviously things can’t be demarcated quite so simply, especially when it comes to autobiographical writings. Many memoirists work from memory, and nobody’s memory is perfect; if you’re not writing scholarship, you can’t be expected to get everything right. You can, however, be expected to TRY to get everything right, and saying that someone bit you when they didn’t is not trying — it’s lying. (Actually, now that I think of it, up to this point the demarcation is still intact: telling people what you think happened on a certain day, with the implicit caveat that this is merely what you think, is non-fiction; making shit up is fiction.)
    It gets a little stickier when you think of examples of artistic truth in established non-fiction. I’m just now reading Nabokov’s “Speak, Memory,” and there’s a scene in which he’s describing his old home in Russia — his life then, and the life of his family — including the mushrooms his mother would bring home and how “a tiny looper caterpillar would be there, too, measuring, like a child’s finger and thumb, the rim of the table, and every now and then stretching upward to grope, in vain, for the shrub from which it had been dislodged.” This seems a bit of metaphoric foreshadowing (“seems” because I’m not much further in the book), and I don’t have any problem with it, as such, even if the caterpillar never did behave just so (I don’t want to strip artistic devices from non-fiction, in other words). The difference here, though, is that that by any standard of literal truth the event described is utterly trivial. Nobody cares what a caterpillar does. You’re not going to get book deal telling an editor that you saw a caterpillar doing something beautiful (unless, of course, you already have reputation as a skilled writer with a refined aesthetic — or, at least, that’s the way it should be). A mental patient biting your arm, on the other hand, is not only an event with real world consequences but a story that anyone would prick up their ears for — if, that is, the story’s supposed to be true. Essentially what I guess I’m saying is telling that story as though it’s true is lying on a personal level and cheating on a writer’s level.
    One last thing: the last time we talked about truth tolerances for writers on LH, Hat threw that line from “In Memory of WB Yeats” at me, and it shut me up, and for good reason. Writing is hard — hell, all living is hard — and nobody with any talent deserves to be condemned for the stuff we’re talking about. Just because we can be forgiving, though, doesn’t mean we should forget that an ideal exists. There were a bunch of times when I was writing my memoir that I had to rewrite whole sections because I remembered that I’d gotten something wrong; the story may not always have been better, but I don’t think the time was wasted

  46. AJP Crown says:

    ‘A funny thing happened to me on the way to the theatre tonight’ is an old cliché of standup comedy, as is ‘My wife went to the West-Indies’. Does the chat on The Letterman Show consist of pure, spontaneous banter, or is it possible David might be feeding his guest lines:’Tell me about the making of this film, was it fun?’.
    Woody Allen is an interesting example of a comedy writer telling it how it is. Pre-Mia Farrow, he developed his own technique of using the first person to generate and develop his material. It was never clear where Woody stopped and ‘Woody’ began — they both wore the plaid-and-corduroy outfit, they both fell in love with Annie Hall, after all, and both said the same things about Ingmar Bergman movies. It went on and on: both lived on the Upper East side, dined every night at Joe Allen’s and, yes, that was why the ‘scandal’ of his affair and his subsequent marriage was so confusing for his fans. Confusing Woody Allen fans may be a crime — or it may be a good thing — but saying he ought never to have made films where we didn’t know what was really ‘true’, that he hadn’t ever slept with his girlfriend’s adopted daughter in his movies, is cutting off your head to spite your face. David Sedaris is working in a comedic tradition. His books are different from, say, Condaleeza Rice’s memoirs. Were a former Secretary of State to make up an incident about a meeting in the Middle East the history of that area would become even more murky than it already is.
    Life is filled with chaotic events. There are areas where trying to clear up the chaos is useful, and the Middle East is one of these. But it can also help to mess things up a bit, to portray how chaotic the chaos is. Truth is hard to find, sometimes what gets called truth is just one person’s subjective view of events. We call that messy area ‘art’. And then, some people call it ‘science’, Werner Heisenberg wasn’t certain.

  47. AJP Crown says:

    I see now I’ve only made an argument that applies to writing comedy, and I don’t mean to imply that every other place you ought to write as if you are giving evidence in a courtroom. Even before Truman Capote, Christopher Isherwood had a good way out. He wrote novels: I am a Camera, Mr Norris Changes Trains, Lions and Shadows, lots more that were, because his autobiographical details were similar, thought by readers to be The Truth, the story of his life. But they were always presented as novels. You’ve only got yourself to blame as a reader if you’re shocked when some of the characters and events turn out to be fictitious (I was, of course).
    I could play my trump card in this list of examples, The Bible;
    but that gets into so many other questions of truth that I don’t think I’ll bother.
    Finally, in the case of your book, I am very glad to hear how much trouble you went to to get the story straight and as true to what happened as was possible. I agree that it was a worthwhile quest and it probably improved the book. More important for me as a reader is to hear you as the auther say, convincingly, that it is true because in this case the authenticity is important. This is because of the subject matter, drugs and low-life crime; it is such a staple of fiction that it’s refreshing to know that this isn’t just another invention from Hollywood.
    I just don’t think that has to be the case with all ‘non’-fiction.

  48. David Sedaris is working in a comedic tradition.
    Then call it comedy, not non-fiction. Of course, comedians blur the line between fact and fiction all the time — turning to the audience, “Now this is true, mind you” — but they do it within the context of a performance, acting as comedians. That’s not what Sedaris (or maybe his publisher, come to think of it) did.
    Life is filled with chaotic events. There are areas where trying to clear up the chaos is useful, and the Middle East is one of these. But it can also help to mess things up a bit, to portray how chaotic the chaos is. Truth is hard to find
    That’s why we have fiction, isn’t it? Precisely because literal truth is so precious and slippery that none of us should be so arrogant as to fuck with other peoples’ grasps on it for the sake of a vision. You wanna portray how chaotic the chaos is — you think you have something to say so pleasing or important you can’t be bothered with the truth — we’ve got labels for that. They’re not non-fiction.
    sometimes what gets called truth is just one person’s subjective view of events.
    I have no problem with subjective views, presented as such. But it isn’t Sedaris’s subjective view that a mental patient bit him; it’s a lie.
    We call that messy area ‘art’.
    Exactly. Let’s keep doing that.
    But they were always presented as novels. You’ve only got yourself to blame as a reader if you’re shocked when some of the characters and events turn out to be fictitious (I was, of course).
    Yes, when they’re presented within a novel, my point exactly. Not so when they’re presented as non-fiction. Why doesn’t Sedaris use Isherwood’s solution, as you call it? If he’s talented he should be able to draw you in without claiming that what he’s saying is literally true. Again, it’s a cheat.
    I agree that it was a worthwhile quest and it probably improved the book. More important for me as a reader is to hear you as the auther say, convincingly, that it is true because in this case the authenticity is important. This is because of the subject matter, drugs and low-life crime; it is such a staple of fiction that it’s refreshing to know that this isn’t just another invention from Hollywood.
    That’s a murky distinction you’re drawing there. When I pick up a book labeled non-fiction, I don’t want to have to start guessing based on the subject matter whether the author has told the truth to the best of his ability; I should already know.

  49. AJP Crown says:

    We call that messy area ‘art’.
    Exactly. Let’s keep doing that.

    I’m sure Sedaris is thinking his work is art, though, fiction or non-fiction. It adds to the story to think of it as true, just as it does with the stand-up guy.
    So let’s have a Government Health Warning: ‘This book may contain traces of events that aren’t really real.’ As for me, it doesn’t make any difference to me if Sedaris makes his books up. I’m not familiar with the mental patient bite story, but you’re implying (I think) that it’s giving readers a misleading view of a serious subject (mental illness), and you could be right. But that implies that other non-fiction writers, say psychiatrists, aren’t, and I don’t buy that. Every non-fiction writer is pushing some bias; whether it’s for comic effect or for medical reasons just depends on the book.
    When I pick up a book labeled non-fiction, I don’t want to have to start guessing based on the subject matter whether the author has told the truth to the best of his ability; I should already know.
    When you look at a book, you use tons of clues to decide whether to believe it or not: gossip, reviews, author’s reputation, shifty-eyed author photo. Only the most gullible reader is going to believe that a book is true based on it being in the non-fiction dept. of the bookshop.

  50. or maybe his publisher
    Certainly his publisher. You can pretty much assume that anything that appears on the outside of the book, from blurb to photo to quick-’n'-easy descriptor for the convenience of bookstore clerks, is the publisher’s responsibility. Let’s face it, literate people (among whom I think we can include authors) don’t use or care about “nonfiction” as a category; what sense does it make? Why not “nonpoetry” or “non-self-help”? People don’t go to the bookstore looking for a “nonfiction book,” they go looking for a history or a cookbook or whatever. I assure you, there’s no deep epistemological thought process at work here; some bored flunky at the publisher looked at it, said “It isn’t a novel, I don’t know what the hell it is, so it’s nonfiction,” and bang, there’s your label. No point getting cross with Sedaris.

  51. Not that I want to derail the deep epistemological thought going on in this thread. Carry on, disputants!

  52. I’m not familiar with the mental patient bite story, but you’re implying (I think) that it’s giving readers a misleading view of a serious subject (mental illness), and you could be right. But that implies that other non-fiction writers, say psychiatrists, aren’t, and I don’t buy that. Every non-fiction writer is pushing some bias; whether it’s for comic effect or for medical reasons just depends on the book.
    This kind of conflation between bias or subjective impressions and conscious falsehoods is exactly what I think we should seek to avoid by having labels like non-fiction mean something. It seems like you’re saying that because nobody has a complete grasp on the truth, we shouldn’t even aim for it. I think the opposite.
    It adds to the story to think of it as true
    I guess what I’m saying is — and either you buy this or you don’t — that by not issuing some sort of caveat (or public health warning), he’s adding to his story at the expense of others’ understanding of the real world. Of course I don’t think he’s doing much harm — I wouldn’t even go so far as to say he’s “giving readers a misleading view of a serious subject” — but neither is he adding much by having that non-fiction label on his book. I just believe in the principle.
    Only the most gullible reader is going to believe that a book is true based on it being in the non-fiction dept. of the bookshop.
    Okay. But should that be the case? Maybe if more people insisted that only books aiming for literal truth be labeled non-fiction, it wouldn’t be.
    No point getting cross with Sedaris.
    I’m fine being cross with the publisher rather than Sedaris, just so long as I get to be cross with somebody! I’m not sure I totally buy that everything from label to blurbs is entirely the responsibility of the publisher, though. I knew what my book was being published under before it came out, and I knew about all the blurbs beforehand too. If I saw something I didn’t think was kosher I could have said something. And with Sedaris, I’m guessing, the publisher might actually have listened! That’s just speculation, though. I’m happy to give Sedaris the benefit of the doubt and assume he was just “thinking” [of] his work [as] art…fiction or non-fiction.” Point, Crown, I suppose. Small point.

  53. It seems like you’re saying that because nobody has a complete grasp on the truth, we shouldn’t even aim for it.
    I’m sorry, that’s not fair. I should have said that “it seems like you’re saying that because nobody has a complete grasp on the truth, we shouldn’t even bother trying to make distinctions between fabrications and honest efforts to tell the truth.” I think we should try double-hard, precisely because truth is so shifty.

  54. AJP Crown says:

    Yeah, but it’s not just getting CROSS with Sedaris. Not Jamessal, obviously, but some people are setting out to judge him and ruin his reputation by implying that he was trying to deceive the public on purpose BY LYING, like he was Richard Nixon or something, like he had done something wrong ethically. Whereas I’m sure that was the last thing on his mind.

  55. What do you mean, “Not Jamessal, obviously”? Am I not capable of leading a lynch mob? I am, I tell you. I am!

  56. some people are setting out to judge him and ruin his reputation by implying that he was trying to deceive the public on purpose BY LYING, like he was Richard Nixon or something, like he had done something wrong ethically.
    No, that’s silly of course. I might wish he had been a little more conscientious about the way his stories were marketed, but I still think he’s decent fellow (and sometimes very funny writer).

  57. AJP Crown says:

    it seems like you’re saying that because nobody has a complete grasp on the truth, we shouldn’t even bother trying to make distinctions between fabrications and honest efforts to tell the truth.” I think we should try double-hard, precisely because truth is so shifty.
    Yes, that’s the point. The truth is so shifty. So if you’re going to tell me that everything on the right side of the aisle is true and everything on the left is lies, I’m just not willing to believe it. Of course I want to make distinctions between what’s true and what isn’t, it’s just that we have a history of being lied to: by Ford Motor Co that the Pinto was safe, by the tobacco companies, by the US President and just about every kind of authority figure, so in the end I want to be the judge of what I think is true and when the distinction between truth and lie is a real one.
    There will now be a short intermission while I make Christmas presents with my daughter.

  58. This was starting to sound very familiar to me, and I ransacked my archives and came up with an ancient post on this very subject. I weep to see that most of the links to the discussion I was trying to point to are now dead and whatever comments were made by my thoughtful and eloquent readership have been eaten by the Blogspot Demons (and I weep for the defunct Burningbird and Caveat Lector), but I’m glad I had the foresight (and egotism) to repost my own commentary on those blogs to LH. I’m happy to report that I stand by them today (and I suspect jamessal will approve heartily of them).
    N.b.: I do not actually weep. That is a lie or a figure of speech, take your pick.

  59. Well, one thing about Dorothea, who’s passionatly pro-truth: I don’t like her William Morris wallpaper.
    Alma’s gawn off riding in the snow, leaving me to photoshop the Christmas calenders. I’ll just take this opportunity to read the rest of that link…

  60. “…when I read his stories it’s irrelevant whether the events occured exactly as he describes them, I simply wish to surrender to his narrative voice.”
    But don’t you think it’s possible that it’s because of his commitment to truth that his narrative voice is so compelling?
    Posted by language hat

    You are just so gullible and romantic, Language! Since when was ‘compelling’ another word for truthful?
    Then there’s the woman who said that the truth is more interesting because it’s more quirky and unusual than made-up stuff. Well…I mean, Jesus…is THAT why we want to hear the truth, because it makes for a better STORY???

  61. marie-lucie,
    thank you for the explanation. And just to clarify, by ‘HR department’ I mean ‘any group of people tasked with selecting new personnel’. I understand that there is a certain difference between academia and industry and I agree that a structured resume as it is most often seen might not suit everyone. But then again, that’s why the Spaghetti Monster invented interviews. A request for a cover letter (or, as HR people call it here, ‘a motivational letter’) tells me that the person who made the request is not willing to consider my resume and all the information in it. To some extent, its quantity over quality. Instead of, say, googling me and my previous employers/clients and trying to get an idea of who I am and what I do, they just add another piece of paper to their file with a satisfied “there, I did a great job”. Please note that I’m not against providing additional information like references or a list of publications (which, by the way, is not considered a part of a CV here). It’s that additional content-free BS I refuse to touch. I’ve met many a HR specialists who invite you for an interview and the first thing out of their mouth is “Tell me about yourself” or, Lord Almighty spare us, “Give me a presentation of yourself”. Kiss my fat behind. If you can’t figure it out from all the information I provided, then you’re either stupid or incompetent and whatever the case, I don’t want to work somewhere where they put you in such an important position.
    Or, maybe I’m just cranky because of that stupid annual evaluation :)
    And as to potential contributions to the institution…
    That’s a good point, and a huge difference when compared to the private sector.

  62. and I suspect jamessal will approve heartily of them
    Definitely. I enjoyed that.
    Then there’s the woman who said that the truth is more interesting because it’s more quirky and unusual than made-up stuff. Well…I mean, Jesus…is THAT why we want to hear the truth, because it makes for a better STORY???
    Unless I’m the one misreading, Arthur, you just called Hat a woman. You better prepare for fist-a-cuffs!
    I actually like his argument myself. It reminds me of (and I realize this is a leap) a poem I posted on LH a while ago by Charles Wright:
    Homage to What’s-His-Name
    Ah, description, of all the arts the least appreciated.
    Well, it’s just this and it’s just that,
    someone will point out.
    Exactly. It’s just this and it’s just that and nothing other.
    From landscape to unsuppressed conjunction, it’s only itself.
    No missteps, no misreading.
    And what’s more metaphysical than that,
    The world in its proper posture, on all fours, drinking the sweet water?

    It’s often a lot harder to accurately describe something that actually happened than to tell a good yarn — also more rewarding. Though, clearly, this is straying from our original point of contention.
    So if you’re going to tell me that everything on the right side of the aisle is true and everything on the left is lies, I’m just not willing to believe it.
    My attitude as well. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t encourage the aisle-keepers to do their best.

  63. Though, clearly, this is straying from our original point of contention.
    You’re not kidding, I didn’t say I only like reading lies.

  64. Yeah, sorry about that. I just got back from a workout and should probably take in some sugar or I’ll be free-associating for the duration.

  65. you just called Hat a woman
    No, I meant this one by BurningBush, I believe he was a woman:

    Let me come at it from another angle. In textual criticism there’s a principle called “lectio difficilior potior”—the more difficult reading is the stronger. The idea is that the original text will have had odd, unpredictable words or phrases that tended to get smoothed out when the text was copied, so that if you have two versions, one with a dull, obvious word and one with a striking, unusual one, the latter is preferable (other things being equal). Similarly (if you buy my analogy), life deals us unique circumstances, events, reactions, that we could never have made up or predicted and that if recounted truthfully can strike new and resonant chords in the hearer; when we reinvent them, “improve” them, like those ancient scribes we are likely to introduce easier readings that make a duller text. Hew to the lectio difficilior, however difficult it may be for you, and you will be read and treasured.

  66. I *think* that was a post Hat made a on a blog called Burningbird.

  67. Damn, you’re right. So it’s fistacuffs at dawn, then. Sorry Language.

  68. AJP,
    is THAT why we want to hear the truth, because it makes for a better STORY???
    Indeed, why is it we want to hear the truth? And how important is it when compared to the pleasure we derive from a well-told story?
    Of course I want to make distinctions between what’s true and what isn’t, it’s just that we have a history of being lied to:
    I’d say there are two major differences between those lies and Sedaris’ lies: first, the consequences. Sedaris’ stories didn’t get anybody killed. Second, the motivation. There is a difference – perhaps only minute – between lying for profit and embellishing or stretching the truth for aesthetic purposes. Perhaps it’s in the implicit contracts between the parties involved and their expectations: I expect my government/bank/doctor to be completely honest with me*. I don’t have that same expectation of writers. As Hat says, it’s gotta be clear you’re telling stories.
    * Well, no, not really. I friggin’ know better.

  69. I don’t like her William Morris wallpaper.
    Looking at the wikipedia entry for Morris, it looks like he was responsible for the Morris chair. I’ll forgive him the wallpaper on account of the chair.

  70. One more thing about blogging. In the five years since that was written It’s become the convention (I think) that you don’t write about your experiences as a lion tamer unless you actually work for the circus. I don’t think that discussion is aktuel, as we say up North.
    Another topic. What about In Cold Blood? People’s lives were at stake there. Was Truman Capote a bad boy for writing it? I say …I’m not sure.
    Bul bul, I’ll get back to you, I have to pick up my daughter now.

  71. Of course I want to make distinctions between what’s true and what isn’t
    Then we have the opposite situation–a work that is labeled fiction, usually on a political or international subject–but with so much specific detail you *know* it has to be true. Inside the front cover there is a disclaimer that the characters do not portray real people living or dead, and inside that back cover is a biography of the author that mentions an official position that would give exposure to exactly the type of characters described in the book. I’m thinking of Graham Greene and Helen MacInnis, but there are others.

  72. So it’s fistacuffs at dawn, then.
    Why would anyone get upset about that? I mean if someone gets gender confusion seeing you face to face, it would be a bit weird, but how are you supposed to be able to tell by someone’s writing?

  73. AJP Crown says:

    Not to mention the Morris dancing and the Morris Minor.

  74. Why would anyone get upset about that? I mean if someone gets gender confusion seeing you face to face, it would be a bit weird, but how are you supposed to be able to tell by someone’s writing?
    It’s not being taken for a woman I mind—it used to happen with some frequency back in the early days of Languagehat, and I found it flattering if anything—it’s the failure to recognize my inimitable and impeccable prose style. Some things cannot be forgiven.

  75. AJP Crown says:

    It was the Latin what threw me. It’s mostly women who use it, nowadays. Much as I would love to imitate it it’s true that it is inimitable and impeccable. Peccavi.

  76. Just to clarify: I don’t think there is something wrong with Sedaris or whoever lying a little to tell the truth. It’s the purpose that matters. If your reason for misrepresenting the facts is the belief that this is the only way you can let me see what you have seen, fine. If embellishing a little or leaving something out makes your story funnier, more shocking, more heartbreaking – fine. Just as so long as your aim is aesthetic.
    However, if you’re purpose is different, then you’d better not be cavalier with the truth. Especially not if you’re trying to convince me of something or teach me something.
    Let me give you a perfect example: there’s this guy called Andy Andrews who is something between a stand-up comedian and a motivational speaker. He has a routine – usually told as a part of his autobiography – where illustrates the importance of commitment on a story he read as a young man. That story is of Hernán Cortés and how he burned his boats. Now I’m not sure if this is really happened, what I do know is that none of the shit Andrews adds to that story really did happen. He keeps going on about how Cortes was after some sort of mythical treasure, how many before him tried to take that treasure, how his approach was different because he trained his men and his only purpose – a point Andrews stresses – was to get treasure and so forth. Pure BS, all of it.
    Now I wouldn’t have minded if he told us this only as a story from his childhood. But this guy goes around the US (and possibly Canada) telling this story – i.e. a lie – to motivate, inspire and teach people. I don’t know how about you, but here I do feel cheated. This is the same way I feel about the “Atlas of True Names”. I know it’s not a scholarly work, but it does present itself as based on actual research. It might be fun, but there is too much questionable material in it. And that diminishes my enjoyment of it.

  77. AJP Crown says:

    But that’s like saying ‘there’s aesthetics, and then there’s the important stuff, where you’d better not be cavalier with the truth’. I know a lot of people still think that way, but it’s completely the opposite of what art is about — not that I’m hung up on aesthetics, they just aren’t considered a separate category these days.
    “If you value the truth you must know where to look for it.”*
    *The Wit and Wisdom of AJP Crown, (2nd Edition, 1985).

  78. John Emerson says:

    Bulbul: what would Hasek do?

  79. John Emerson says:

    Bulbul: what would Hasek do?

  80. I’ve only got the first edition of The Wit and Wisdom of AJP Crown. Is it worth upgrading?

  81. AJP,
    But that’s like saying ‘there’s aesthetics, and then there’s the important stuff…’
    I’m not sure it is, but if you want to phrase it that way, OK.
    I’d hate to judge the value of literary works, that’s why my incoherent ramblings are framed in terms of purpose or function.
    but it’s completely the opposite of what art is about
    I searched the index of my copy of “The Wit and Wisdom of AJP Crown” (2nd Edition, 1985), but somehow I can’t find that definition.
    John,
    what would Hasek do?
    Order another beer? Always a wise course of action…

  82. marie-lucie says:

    you don’t write about your experiences as a lion tamer unless you actually work for the circus.
    What about writing about the (imagined) experiences of your (actual) ancestor who worked for a circus! My grandfather’s grandfather (all in the male line) left a job as a bookkeeper in a small town in central France to join a circus, first as bookkeeper and as time went on, also as lion tamer. I could not believe my ears when I heard this from the lips of my grandmother (a person not given to flights of imagination), but his name is actually mentioned in a book about the history of the circus in France.

  83. AJP Crown says:

    This is your opening, create the lion-taming blog! You won’t get another chance like this.

  84. AJP Crown says:

    Is it worth upgrading?
    Is this a serious question?
    it’s completely the opposite of what art is about
    somehow I can’t find that definition.

    Then you need to read my book, “What It’s About” (Reprinted 2001).

  85. It was the Latin what threw me.
    Not just the Latin, but the biblical quotation in alliterated Hebrew, and the thing about throwing out the version with the more unusual word, so when I got to the LH signature on the post, I felt like I had been driving home on autopilot and suddenly didn’t know where I was. LH wouldn’t choose the easier word over the quirky one for sure. So I had to start over. Then somehow I got into metafilter, which I hadn’t played with before, and got lost in that maze. No, not characteristic writing style at all, except for the losing track of time part.

  86. it’s completely the opposite of what art is about
    So art is like mythology, it expresses a higher truth that has nothing to do with facts?

  87. Hernán Cortés and how he burned his boats. Now I’m not sure if this is really happened, what I do know is that none of the shit Andrews adds to that story really did happen.
    If Bernal Diaz says Cortez burned the boats, (to prevent mutiny) that’s good enough for me. Dias was a low-level priest and an eyewitness. He was quite troubled in this later life about the embellishments he saw being added to the story, and although he didn’t consider himself the appropriate person to write about the journey, he wanted to put a factual account out there, no matter how humble.
    The boats would have been at the shore though, on the east coast of Mexico, and Cortez had several days journey inland to get to Mexico City. Plus, the treasure, and it was indeed gold, was supposed to be for the Spanish crown for the war with England. So when the soldiers finally did kill Moctezuma and cart off the treasure, it was more of a mob action. Then they couldn’t cart it anywhere because they were surrounded on an island in a lake. Every time a few conquistdores would get out of the city, they would be captured and sacrificed in a spectacular manner. Finally they got out with an all out military effort and the ones who survived like Diaz were the ones who didn’t bring out any gold. The ones who tried to bring out gold were drowned trying to swim with it.
    Oh and there were no “other conquerors”, there was just a low level “war of the flowers” that went on year after year for the purpose of capturing warriors from the other tribe to sacrifice to their gods.
    If you already know what this Andrews guy is saying about the Aztecs is wrong, then I bet whatever he says about motivation is wrong too.
    Also, he should stand up straight.

  88. marie-lucie says:

    Nijma, Bulbul, back to resumes and cover letters:
    I just realized that perhaps I used “resume” when I should have said “CV”, hence the misunderstandings. For an academic job you present CV + one or two-page cover letter, besides other documents. The cover letter (perhaps for you that is a resume) is not (supposed to be) “BS” and “presenting yourself” is not an invitation to tell the story of your life or describe your engaging personality but to highlight the most relevant parts of your CV and add further details as they relate to the job and how you could fit with the department. A cover letter does not replace an interview or checking with references, but when you have people applying from all over the world it is not possible to interview too many candidates in person. The ones that make the short list do get an interview. In spite of what I may have implied earlier, no one would be hired just on the strength of their cover letter, or even their CV. Also, it is fair to assume that anyone applying for a job at Harvard would be extremely well qualified, but in a place with less reputation you get applications from sometimes pitifully underqualified people, and that is usually obvious right away. I should add also that I have not always been in the academic world.

  89. AJP Crown says:

    That’s right, so you mentioned. Which circus did you work at?

  90. Then somehow I got into metafilter, which I hadn’t played with before, and got lost in that maze.
    Proceed with caution—I’ve lost seven years to it now.

  91. Oh, come on, marie-lucie. Tell us about your days as a lion tamer. Do you still keep lions at home?

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