Helen DeWitt on Design, Boredom, and Possibility.

Mieke Chew interviews Helen DeWitt for BOMB:

One of the things I’m very interested in is the work of Edward Tufte. He’s this genius of information design. He’s sold over a million copies, but he self-publishes. He talks about the use of the page, which is not just about putting down words on the page. It’s also about things like small multiples. He’s talking about the rich use of the page and the complexity of information. […] Tufte hired people to work on his books. He hired a producer and designer at the top end of their fields. He’s a very smart guy, but the point is that he did not do this single-handed. He had very gifted people answering to him who made it possible. When I started these conversations with publishers in New York that’s what I was trying to get. I thought if I could talk to editors, if I could talk to agents, if I could show them the kinds of things you could do if you were making use of the page rather than just using words, then people would understand there has to be a way of approaching a book more like a film. With film, yes, you start out with a screenplay, but the director is given resources with which to realize that film. And everybody understands you can’t know from the beginning what that film is going to be in the end. You are not expected to submit an already completed film in order to get funding. But that is the way publishing works. It’s constrained by a specific restricted idea of what text is, which is this: text is word. You hand in your text, and then it’s handed over to the designer, but you have no contact with that person. The white space is theirs, the fonts are theirs; they just do whatever they want, and you have no discussion with them about how the presentation actually relates to what the text is about.
[. . .]

When I was in high school I was very bored all the time. I was a typical girl. You just did what you had to do to get good grades, then you could go to college and lead a life of the mind. Then it turned out college was the same. Halfway through my sophomore year, I took a leave of absence. I went away, and I was working as a chambermaid in Provincetown. Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu is one of the things I bought there. I’d studied French in school, so I thought: I can read Proust. I was able to do this precisely because I was not in college. There was such irony. The only way I could find time to read Proust was while working as a chambermaid. Or Pound. Or Eliot. Pound thought that if there was good poetry in a language, then you should learn enough of that language to read the poetry. Your typical language course is completely misguided. You go through all this stuff about what your hobbies are, and you are not interested in what people are doing, chatting amongst themselves about their jobs, their golf. No! You want to read the great poetry and start there. Pound was single-minded about that. And that was inspiring because surely if you want banality, you don’t have to go looking for it in another language—you have your mother tongue.

I did the entrance exams for Oxford and got in. I left Smith and life was not perfect, but it was better. It was a place language was taken seriously. The thing is that this realization had to come from a book—for me, from Pound. In school, we read books, but nobody ever said: obviously we’re reading this in English, but Greek is one of the great languages. Greek was never mentioned. You had to know for yourself. I mean, who are you going to trust, your twelfth-grade English teacher or Ezra Pound? He was nasty, but he was a genius.
[. . .]

Literary languages are something different. Natural languages have evolved. They have not normally been engineered for efficiency. They’re crazy in some ways, but they offer these possibilities of engaging with the world. It seems to me a travesty that you spend twelve years in school without one little hour in which someone introduces you to ancient Greek. But it’s a natural consequence of assuming that engaging with a literary text is the reward for a couple of years or so toiling at conversation and basic grammar. This country is so wealthy, in linguistic terms, but only French and Spanish are widely studied in school, with a scattering of others occasionally deemed worthy. Why not offer a taste, early on, of the best of not just of one or two languages, but of a very wide range? By all means offer Spanish, the language of Cervantes and Borges—but the first thing the student should do is read the “Lottery of Babylon,” which is such a wonderful piece. Why would you not start with that? Why wouldn’t you start with something that good in many languages, and then decide which you wanted to pursue? You go to Pittsburgh, and they celebrate diversity by putting Welcome to the neighborhood in different languages on the side of buses. I think we can do better.

I could keep quoting and quoting, but I’ll just send you over there to read the whole thing. DeWitt is so brilliant and has so many great ideas she can’t realize for lack of funding and support; will someone get this woman a MacArthur Fellowship already? (Via wood s lot.)

Comments

  1. For a poet, the white space is not theirs.

    It’s ours.

  2. How about a kickstarter? I got quite desperate for a third DeWitt novel at one point, and managed to find “Your Name Here” after some intense googling. (Having found it by dodgy means, I paypalled her to make up for it.) Looks like even the obscure link I found to it doesn’t exist anymore.

  3. Stefan Holm says:

    When I was in high school I was very bored all the time … Then it turned out college was the same … You go through all this stuff about what your hobbies are, and you are not interested in what people are doing, chatting amongst themselves about their jobs, their golf … Why wouldn’t you start with something that good in many languages, and then decide which you wanted to pursue?

    I’m all in! But is it realistically anything but wishing upon a star? Some sixty years ago this simple song from this wonderful lady addressed the same problem – and as far as I can tell, things haven’t advanced a millimeter. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2_2lGkEU4Xs

  4. Some fifty years ago, you mean: “‘Little Boxes‘ is a protest song written and composed by Malvina Reynolds in 1962, which became a hit for her friend Pete Seeger in 1963.” I’m sensitive to these things, being some sixty years old myself. (OK, OK, 63 if we’re counting.)

  5. Stefan Holm says:

    Well, I opened my blue myself on February 1. 1951, so I guess we share the same experiences. But facing the serious issue raised by Helen DeWitt, I don’t think it’s about the educational system per se. It is intensively debated in Sweden, since we’re descending rapidly in the international PISA measurements concerning student’s skills.

    The left wing says: Hire more teachers, pay them better, allow more creativity in the class room, let the modern electronical social media in. The right wing says: Give more authority to the teachers, pay them better, restore order and discipline in the class room.

    What neither of them realize is, that our educational system is a mirror of society and that its problems can’t be solved within the school system itself. Modern western society hails the freedom of the individual and that is of course what is reflected in the class room. You are a consumer who can make your own choices but not expected to be a citizen who after education is capable to decide what would be good to choose (for those who are not yet educated).

    The other classical from our younger years (and maybe actualized in Ferguson) may be:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VucczIg98Gw

  6. How about a kickstarter? I got quite desperate for a third DeWitt novel at one point, and managed to find “Your Name Here” after some intense googling. (Having found it by dodgy means, I paypalled her to make up for it.) Looks like even the obscure link I found to it doesn’t exist anymore.

  7. “the JavaScript of orthography”! I’m going to steal that.

  8. Rambling AJP Rumpo, "Green Grow My Nadgers O!" says:

    I am so with her on using the page. There are of course artists’ books and a few other people get to work on both the graphics and text: Maira Kalman, Rem Koolhaas, one or two graphic-designers’ own books and a bunch of children’s authors spring to mind . I’ve been disappointed by the graphic novels I’ve seen, they’re using a narrow range of drawing styles and the layout is only conventional. I hope self-publishing is the answer; if it is, then maybe in a few years we could see work as imaginative and skillful as the books the Futurists were creating a century ago. I blame Gutenberg. Bring back the illuminated manuscript.

  9. DeWitt got a nice shout out on Slate the other day. They are creating a list of great “second novels”.

    http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2014/12/slate_whiting_second_novel_list_helen_dewitt_s_lightning_rods.html

  10. That’s great, thanks for linking to it!

  11. Thanks, Malvina, wherever you are. (I was born in 1958.)

  12. Totally off topic, but I thought readers here may find interesting – transcripts of the 1964 trials of Joseph Brodsky:

    http://tvrain.ru/articles/a_vy_uchilis_etomu_stenogramma_suda_nad_iosifom_brodskim-378906/

    Судья: Лучше, Бродский, объясните суду, почему вы в перерывах между работами не трудились?

    Бродский: Я работал. Я писал стихи.

    Судья: Но это не мешало вам трудиться.

    Бродский: А я трудился. Я писал стихи.

    Судья: Но ведь есть люди, которые работают на заводе и пишут стихи. Что вам мешало так поступать?

    Бродский: Но ведь люди не похожи друг на друга. Даже цветом волос, выражением лица.

    Судья: Это не ваше открытие. Это всем известно. А лучше объясните, как расценить ваше участие в нашем великом поступательном движении к коммунизму?

    Бродский: Строительство коммунизма – это не только стояние у станка и пахота земли. Это и интеллигентный труд, который…

    Судья: Оставьте высокие фразы! Лучше ответьте, как вы думаете строить свою трудовую деятельность на будущее.

  13. J. W. Brewer says:

    “So how can it be that there are 20,000 restaurants and there isn’t one single place where, if you would like to read a passage of great poetry, to see what it’s like, you can just walk in off the street and do it. Why?” I am puzzled by why the multiple neighborhood public libraries located throughout New York City and its environs are not viewed as satisfying this request. Just looking online I can see that the teeny little outlying branch in the Bronx a short drive from my house has not only a bunch of middlebrow anthologies and “popular” names ranging from Billy Collins to Shel Silverstein but also volumes of poetry by such comparatively obscure modernist figures as Kenneth Fearing (currently checked out) and Luis Cernada (in facing-page translation so you can read the original if you’d like).

  14. J. W. Brewer says:

    And, speaking of Brodsky, his “Nativity Poems” (first title I decided to check) are available in English translation in a branch out in the wilds of Staten Island (currently checked out, but I imagine that if you walked in off the street with an open mind and just started perusing the shelves the same place would have something equally fine you hadn’t previously read) and in Russian in midtown Manhattan.

  15. “And everybody understands you can’t know from the beginning what that film is going to be in the end.”

    Beware of those who presume to speak for “everybody”. Can’t say I’ve ever heard of our brilliant novelist, the pride of the Provincetown Chambermaid Society and a self-satisfied member of the uber ubiquitous, “I was bored in high school” because nobody was smart enough to recognize my unique genius meme. The written equivalent of the I-centric, information age, adolescent selfie. Pass the chamber pot, please.

  16. Sir JCass says:

    Shouldn’t you be hard at work trying to steal Christmas, Hozho? Slacker.

  17. I haven’t a copy of the Urban slang dictionary at the ready. Slacker..is that anything like hacker?

    On a more uplifting topic, heartily enjoyed watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” last night. Why the networks show those classics weeks before the 25th is more than puzzling? Nonetheless, Charlie’s imperfect humanity never ceases to bring a knowing smile. Have a libatious eggnog on me, Cir Cass!

  18. “So how can it be that there are 20,000 restaurants and there isn’t one single place where, if you would like to read a passage of great poetry”

    Chipotle?

    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/17/business/media/chipotle-experiments-with-disposable-literature.html?_r=0

  19. David Marjanović says:

    Bring back the illuminated manuscript.

    This isn’t a manuscript, but it is illuminated!

  20. Steve, I loved the part about “who you gonna trust ” I certain he would laugh. It’s true though like imagining toms face when handed back the drafts “and this you cut?” Furrowed brow, twitchy squik tone about to usher forth something Hansom cab kolschoz.

    Your amazing sir luv
    Prabbu of Kopt

  21. Great to see you around these parts, Clav, and I’m glad you liked it!

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