Dan Visel (of The Institute for the Future of the Book, and I can’t help but wonder how Visel is pronounced: VYE-z’l? vi-ZELL?) has put online a long, fascinating, infuriating interview with that amazing writer Helen DeWitt, who should by rights have had a dozen or two books published by now but who instead has seen The Last Samurai on actual bookstore shelves and has sold a few pdf copies of Your Name Here (and gotten a review by Jenny Turner in the LRB). The whole thing is worth reading (and I don’t say that just because she has nice things to say about me), but what I thought I’d excerpt here is a section full of thought-provoking ideas about books and what they might be:

When Ilya and I were working on YNH, one thing that interested me was the way that a text is the result of all sorts of discussions and constraints that normally aren’t visible. Every single published book is governed by a contract, a text readers don’t see, and it is generally the result of an enormous amount of scurrying around behind the scenes. So I thought: how can we possibly assess the texts we see when we don’t know the contractual restraints on the author? when we don’t know whether the publisher was willing to respect the contract? when we don’t know whether the author had a powerful agent or a weak one, whether the published book was substantially what the author wanted or the result of a lot of arm-twisting off-stage? Editorial comments are never made public; why not?
So I thought, not that all this material should be included in a book, but that it would be interesting if all the background correspondence and the contracts and so on where available on a CD. For that matter, why not include earlier versions of the book, or at least significant earlier versions?
I like books, actual printed books, a lot. It seems to me, though, that the culture which produces the ones we see has some misplaced anxieties. We live in a culture where standards of ‘correctness’ and consistency are applied to the printed word, so that ‘properly’ published books are expected to eliminate the traces of composition. A text is not supposed to bear the marks of the circumstances of its writing. That seems to me to be an unnecessary concern – but you don’t really need the Internet to stop fretting about it.
There are some things you can do more easily if you can draw on the resources of Hypertext. You can write a text in several languages unselfconsciously, or maybe I mean, without obtrusive consciousness of the reader. You can just have a couple of characters speaking Spanish, or Arabic, or Japanese, and readers who can read the languages can read the text, but those who can’t can click through to a translation. So you can make use of the textures of those different languages without giving the primary text a lot of extra baggage – and still make it comprehensible to readers who need more in the way of explanation. This isn’t especially relevant to YNH, but it’s the sort of thing I think could more easily be done online or in an e-book than in print-on-paper. I came across a wonderful website a while back with graphics which enabled you to drill down on results of Grand Prix racers, if one did this in a work of fiction online one could have something very stylish whereas if one tried to do it in a book it would feel not just long but cumbersome and messy.

Why not package books the way Criterion does DVDs, with alternate takes and translations and commentary from the author and informed readers and… well, who knows what all? Why is a book expected to stand on its own (unless it’s a Classic, in which case it gets a solemn Classic Edition with obtrusive footnotes), while a movie is thought to benefit from as much auxiliary information as possible?
I won’t even get into what she has to say about the hell that is commercial publishing, with its ignorant editors and unkept promises, and the terrible financial pressure that makes writers stifle current work they’re excited about to try and sell long-finished work they’re bored or nauseated by, because it gets me too upset. Why do zillionaires give zillions to museums and operas and never think of, as she says, sponsoring an admired writer’s travel expenses or offering them six months’ writing time at a vacation home? If I were a zillionaire, that’s the kind of thing I’d want to do… but of course to become a zillionaire I’d have to care about money and the making of same in large quantities, and then I’d be a different person and probably never think about the problems of writers. It’s a conundrum.


  1. Pronunciation: my family in Illinois pronounced it VICE ull (or sometimes VYE-z’l, everyone there mispronounced it viss ull, where that comes from I have no idea. When I got to the East coast for college, everyone assumed that it was pronounced vi-ZELL. The name is German mangled at Ellis Island.

  2. A.J.P. Crown says

    But what about writers’ retreats, like Yaddo? And the MacArthur Grant. Actually, if I were recommending people for MacArthurs I would recommend Jamessal, you and John Emerson. But unfortunately I’m not.

  3. John Emerson says

    If you look at the history of American politics, a lot of political leaders started as printers. They self-published their own work in newspapers and pamphlets. Some fairly significant authors got their start that way, Benjamin Franklin being the only one I can think of off hand. They simply bypassed the publishers.
    A lot of people have a prejudice against self-published books — even people who might be quite aware of the problems with the corporate publishing industry. It’s regarded as tacky. I’ve become increasingly convinced that human liberation requires a much greater openness to tackiness.

  4. I don’t think you need hypertext to write a book in multiple languages. Tolstoj put French, German, and Italian in War and Peace, with translations in footnotes. I’m reading the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation right now, and they left the non-Russian text untranslated in the body and used footnotes for it, and it’s not that big of a deal.

  5. A.J.P. Crown says

    I like, “Where’s the suicide bomber?” “You’re standing in him.”

  6. John Emerson says

    Hypertext is more fun for people who know the languages.

  7. Your name Here
    ZOMG! I used to know Malkovich when he was at Steppenwolf theater in Chicago.

  8. Dan: Thanks very much! But you don’t make clear which is your own pronunciation; you say “my family in Illinois pronounced it VICE ull,” but is that how you say it?
    But what about writers’ retreats, like Yaddo?
    She says: “Writers spend a lot of time getting in each other’s way. There are a few places that offer residencies – normally, disruptively, places that have a lot of other writers and artists also in residence.” That always struck me when reading about those places: how the hell are you supposed to get work done when the place is crawling with other writers?

  9. A.J.P. Crown says

    Ok, we’ll just give you the money, then.

  10. A.J.P. Crown says

    But why is it infuriating?
    The whole publishing industry sounds horrible, but it’s just the same for musicians or artists or playwrights or architects (clients, you wouldn’t BELIEVE what clients are like). The internet is the only alternative, you just have to get money from elsewhere, Dunking Donuts, if necessary, but hopefully somewhere that doesn’t require so much physical in return.

  11. John Emerson says

    Also, builders of cruise liners. Horrible, HORRIBLE people!

  12. A.J.P. Crown says

    Actually, business people are mostly ok to deal with in architecture, just so long as they aren’t worried about getting fired. It’s the house clients who are the horrors, like I’m supposed to give a shit about how many linear feet they think they need to store their shoes. Ugh.

  13. This seemed curious: when she talks about pop-up language translations in the text she says “click through to a translation”. But when she describes particular software mouseover graphics she says they “enabled you to drill down on results of Grand Prix racers”. I’ve never thought of cyberspace as having direction–maybe more like expanding space like you’d blow up a balloon–but why is one through (sideways?) and the other down?

  14. A.J.P. Crown says

    Who knows (apart from MMcM) what the currency of Estonia is?
    It’s the Kroon.
    The Kroon was invented as you might expect by a Scotsman, called Williamson. It’s the Scottish pronunciation of Crown, or Kron-e, the Scandinavian currency. He was, according to Wiki, a financial expert at the League of Nations.

  15. Then there’s NaNoWriMo–you can meet or not meet other writers as you wish.

  16. John Emerson says

    “Drilling down” I think refers to getting increasing levels of detail while decreasing the scope of the query. For example, going from national election results to county-by-county election results for one state.
    Subject to correction.

  17. John Emerson says

    Man, that’s too fucking depressing to finish.

  18. Rolf Maurer says

    Helen DeWitt’s story of being traduced and abandoned by her publisher has been making the rounds of the Internet for quite some time now: if nothing else, she’s an effective self-promoter, which of course her publisher should appreciate.
    As a minor publisher myself — at the opposite end of the food-chain from the publisher that Ms DeWitt, understandably, wants — her version seems confused, as if she doesn’t actually know what it is that publishers do.
    First of all, publishing is just like country music: there’s some very good publishing, some very bad, most of it is in the fat middle. There are, of course, many excellent and discerning editors / publishers; but they tend to be bunched at my end of the food chain. I’m curious to know how many presses Ms DeWitt (or her agent) actually showed her manuscript to (“submitted” — and I suspect that this term points to some of Ms DeWitt’s issues). The fact that her first novel ended up with Miramax suggests that the trade was not canvassed widely enough. Or maybe it’s simply a matter that a small or medium-sized press couldn’t meet her expectations of the kind of attention and “distribution” (a euphemism for marketing muscle) she sees as her (book’s) due? Well, there IS a trade-off: you sign up with Disney, you get Disney, not Dalkey.
    Writers are scandalously underpaid and abused by publishers, there’s no doubt about it, and every half-way successful writer I know has enough ego / amour propre to withstand that and continue to write anyway. There’s no doubt that Ms DeWitt is sufficiently endowed in this department. However, a little nous goes a long way too.
    Believe me, an attitude that all publishers are thieves and / or incompetents is not conducive to a fruitful publisher-writer relationship. The idea that all her other projects must stop while her ten-year-old manuscript is seen through publication seems odd: why, exactly? If you (or your agent) have chosen your publisher well, you should be able to get on with your work while your publisher gets on with his/hers. Most publishers have issued hundreds of books. It’s not axiomatic that they would have a lot to learn about the process from a first-time author, no matter how good they are.

  19. Movies are distinguishable from written fiction in that they are always a co-operative venture among a group of people (hopefully, creative people)–unless you’re filming a monologue, you can’t do a one-man film. Therefore all the DVD stuff gives insight into the process and the individual contributions of all those people. Whereas a written fiction is the product of one person, and the final copy is, officially at least, what that person decided to be the best possible presentation of his/her idea. A DVD would simply provided the rejected drafts and the flotsam and jetsam of one writer’s efforts–which, since they did not make it into the final work, were presumably judged by the writer to be not wanted for public presentation. When we get to see the process it’s usually some scholarly endeavor at a variorum edition, or Christopher Tolkien publishing yet another installment of his father’s manuscripts.

  20. John Emerson says

    Go piss up a rope, Rolf. Some of your points may be good, but your tone is completely unacceptable.

  21. All writers have trouble with publishers. It’s nothing new, Helen. I have worked in some form of New York City publishing for 30 years–I’ve been a copyeditor, an editorial director, briefly as an acquisitions editor, and once briefly as an agent, and, of course, a writer. One boss I had said “Writers are a dime a dozen; authors are what I’m looking for.” I mean, do you know how many people in this world think they are writers! Yet, how many of these writers consider themselves authors? I worked for a vanity press one time and you’d be bowled over to know just how many crappy, lousy, mss that bunch of crooks used to receive–and they charged $30,000 each to publish most of these unreadable books–and they were a very successful company, too–yet only one of their thousands of published books, on the Jehovah’s Witnesses, ever made it to the NYTimes bestseller list–some mss were actually so unreadable they were uneditable.
    Most editors in publishing houses are wannabe writers themselves–so of course they are vicious when it comes to contracts and editing and proofreading–in an envious way–remember, an editor tried to “editorially correct” William Faulkner’s manuscript of Sanctuary–and Faulkner held out vehemently and won–and Sanctuary became his only “bestseller”–
    On the other hand, without editors like Max Perkins and daring publishers like Charlie Scribner (a publisher whose offices were in a bookstore on Fifth Avenue) we wouldn’t have had Tender Is the Night; The Great Gatsby; Look Homeward Angel; Hemingway’s Torrents of Spring, Miller’s Tropic books, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover, or John Rechy’s City of Night, etc.
    In 1970 I went to work as an copyeditor at Time-Life Books. I was in the office one day when a salesman from “upstairs” came down and complained he couldn’t promote what we were publishing (I was a promotional copywriter by then) and he thought the sales force should have more say in what was published. The term “shelf life” came into existence during this change in publishing–shelf life meant how long a book stayed on a bookstore shelf–the faster it sold the better it was as a book–the slower it sold it was doomed to end up in the discount bins. Thus, the sales force soon began to tell editors what books to publish. This became the end of the kindly old editor who took hours upon hours to bring overpopulated mss into readable shape–which is all an editor is supposed to do anyway.
    One problem with publishing that Helen is seemingly unaware of or maybe she is–the literary agent became a writer’s key to getting published during those years of publishing change–that has been true since houses stopped taking mss “over the transom.” A transom, by the way, was a window atop doors in the days of unair-conditioned air that you could open so air would circulate around your office–offices whose outside windows could be opened. A writer got his ms to a publisher by symbolically throwing it in over the transom (mailing your ms directly to a publisher–or an editor if you could get an editor’s name)–so they landed on an acquisition editor’s desk–we used to have tons of red books and literary publisher guides and small press guides and Writer’s Digest reference books–all of these were thrown to the winds when publishers quit accepting mss from writers–and AGENTS came into being–writers used to make their own negotiations. After the sales forces took over, that was the end of writers directly dealing with publishers and editors. Agents became bigshots and salesmen determined what sold and what didn’t sell. I wrote a wonderful novel about the Kennedy Assassination that was riddled with sexual content since I thought the assassination at the time was due to JFK’s need of unsaturated sex–a Simon & Shuster editor–a famous woman editor–wrote me a long letter explaining to me that SEX did not sell these days and besides, sex had nothing to do with the Kennedy assassination–how she knew that I didn’t have the right to know since I was a lowly writer and owed her respect as a high-class editor who held my publishing fate in her hands and mind–no retorts accepted–remember when novels were promoted as “unexpurgated”? and there were still daring publishers around up until the 70s, like the Crosbys (Black Sun), like the Olympia Press, like Black Swallow, like City Lights–those were your progressive publishers back in my day. If you were in San Francisco, you could just take your ms down to the City Lights Bookstore and show it to Lawrence Ferlinghetti in person–he could reject it right before your eyes.
    There are thousands upon thousands of writer wannabes out there now writing “books.” All writers believe the life of a writer is charming and rich and worldly–I’ve known some very successful writers from my days of hanging with my writer brother and his crowd–that included Larry McMurtry, who I was a couple of years behind in college (the University of North Texas–we also produced the great Bill Bramer), and guys like Larry King (The Littliest Whorehouse in Texas), and several great writers who never got published. Every one of these guys complained about publishers and contracts and this and that–same with musicians–same with artists of all types–
    All writers want attention. They want someone to read their wonderful writing. They want glory. But mainly, they want what we all want, wealth, celebrity. But most serious writers I know claim they seek isolation not fame and celebrity–most serious writers I know could care less about dealing with publishers. My solution: Hey, I now have a desktop publishing company right here in my computer! Digital book publishing is the future for writers–besides, digital books don’t need to kill tons of trees–you can publish digital books onto DVDs–and like some were saying, you can now EDIT, PUBLISH, and PROMOTE your own works–or you can write right on line–like on a blog–and show readers how you put a book together! You can be James Joyce and write your own Finnegan’s Wake. That’s amazing to me. Now I’m my own publisher–how ’bout that! As Will-I-Am the musician said recently, “I can film myself composing, I can then film myself rehearsing that composition, I can then film myself editing that composition, then film myself recording the composition, and then after the recording is a complete video, I can distribute it across the Internet to utterly millions of people instantaneously.” The arts have moved into the Internet world–forget about getting a real-time publisher to publish your book–AND THEN NOT PROMOTE YOU–and when that happens, you should know, some salesman has projected sales of your book–and maybe he’s got his thumb down on your particular masterpiece–thus delaying or even killing it’s publication perhaps even after it’s been accepted and you’ve gleaned an advance you now have to pay back. This goes for screenwriting, too–you’ve got to have an agent or industry connection–and agents are notoriously not very savvy when it comes to GOOD art. Check out your NYTimes bestseller list. How many of those books are truly great literature! How many are even well written?
    Ur fiend,

  22. Some of her comments about editorial comments, publication, etc. remind me of a remark of David Markson’s from an interview that is either (a) online where I can’t find it anymore (it’s not this one) or (b) in the volume of The Review of Contemporary Fiction co-dedicated to him, regarding Wittgenstein’s Mistress and the numerous publishers to which it was submitted. The interview that isn’t the one I’m thinking of does mention the incident: “And others wrote letters that sounded like Nobel Prize citations, but the kicker always was, “I can’t get it past the sales people.” but the one that I am thinking of goes on to describe his astonishment, not so much that this would be a consideration, but that the editor would be so unashamed about copping to it.

  23. A.J.P. Crown says

    ZOMG! I used to know Malkovich when he was at Steppenwolf theater in Chicago.
    That’s funny. He’s never mentioned you, Nidge.

  24. A.J.P. Crown says

    I like the idea of producing a novel blog entry by blog entry, sort of like Dickens wrote his books, or the person in the San Francisco Chronicle, whose name I can’t remember, who wrote about life in Marin. But it seems hard. You would have to commit to things that couldn’t be changed later on without a struggle.
    On the other hand, if you are starting with a blog, why try to jam your work into the form of a novel? You could use or create a form that works best with a blog; something where the sequence of events happens as in a diary, maybe, or/and using the graphic capability of a computer. Yes, I’m taking about !!!PHOTOSHOP!!!: drawings, photographs, animation, music. And other sounds: talking and noises. And links … you could have bits of your blog all over the place and link it all up: you could write some bits of it in Wikipedia if you did it carefully enough and didn’t mind it being erased. You could write small segments in the Comments section of the NY Times, if you felt compelled to do it that way.
    In short, screw the publishers. They have nothing to do with what you want to produce, except that they have (access to) money. You’re better off working at Dunking Donuts, as long as you don’t have to eat the stuff.

  25. A.J.P. Crown says

    Armested Morpin.

  26. Rolf Maurer: As a publisher, you don’t seem to have much of a grasp of who writers are and how they think. Here’s a clue: they’re not rationalists who plan out strategies to maximize their revenues; if they were, they wouldn’t have gone into writing. (We’re talking about real writers, obviously, not the creators of paint-by-number self-help books.) Your sneering reference to “Ms DeWitt’s issues” and your suggestion that “she doesn’t actually know what it is that publishers do” are not only despicable in themselves, they sort ill with your further suggestion that “she’s an effective self-promoter.” Make up your mind: is she a clueless patsy or a clever careerist?
    I suspect the clue lies in your “As a minor publisher myself — at the opposite end of the food-chain…” Your Heep-ish faux-humility suggests a poorly concealed jealousy of major publishers and the authors who sign with them rather than you. Save it for your fellow sufferers at the Minor Publishers’ Chowder Society.
    Note to thegrowlingwolf: She has an agent and is self-publishing her latest novel.

  27. A.J.P. Crown says

    You could narrate your blog-book on You tube. Now is a perfect time to reintroduce live storytelling.

  28. A.J.P. Crown says

    First of all, publishing is just like country music:
    I don’t mean to kick a man when he’s down, but I question this. In fact, it may be where you started to go wrong, Rolf.

  29. rootlesscosmo says

    Armested Morpin.
    Armistead Maupin published “Tales of the City” serially in the SF Chronicle; it was about San Francisco life, centering on a young single woman and including a number of gay characters. Earlier, Cyra McFadden wrote “Serial,” about life in Marin, which the Chron also published serially.

  30. A.J.P. Crown says

    Thank you, I was mixing them up. I used to read the Cyra McFadden one. It was funny; what happened to her?

  31. Here’s a clue: they’re not rationalists who plan out strategies to maximize their revenues; if they were, they wouldn’t have gone into writing.
    Well, that depends on how broad your definition of “writer” is, doesn’t it now? Dan Brown, Grisham, Clancy, Crichton – those guys probably do have strategies to maximize revenue.

  32. See next sentence: “We’re talking about real writers, obviously, not the creators of paint-by-number self-help books.” In the latter category I include the Dan Browns et al.

  33. John Emerson says

    Putting on my well-worn cursing-the-darkness hat, writing and literary culture have suffered from changes in book publishing, changes in periodical publishing, the public’s turn to film and TV and the resultant decline in readership, the utter stupidity of TV, countercultural anti-intellectualism, Christian anti-intellectualism, right-wing anti-intellectualism, the watering down of undergraduate education, and the takeover of the upper levels of the universities by specialists who despise the general reader.
    I don’t especially blame publishers, but them too. I think that when finance takes over anything cultural, degradation results.

  34. I don’t read any of the above writers, but I’m not going to criticize them until I can write a better potboiler myself. I do have to put in a word for self help books, though. When I used to sell used books online I could always sell stuff about ACOA–some of them are even written by scholars with degrees.

  35. A.J.P. Crown says

    Adult Children of Alcoholics?
    I like my scholars to have degrees.

  36. David Marjanović says

    The name is German mangled at Ellis Island.

    In that case, it could be Wiesel, which is (almost) pronounced VEE-sl (south) or VEE-zl (north).

  37. David Marjanović says

    …and of course means “weasel”.

  38. Yup, they’ve got whole alphabets after their names. The New World has tons of grass roots self help groups like AA, Al-anon, NA, and their endless spinoffs that you won’t find in Mother England, but Adult Children of Alcoholics actually has research and stuff.

  39. A.J.P. Crown says

    So weasel is wiesel,
    diesel is diesel and
    easel is… Staffelei?

  40. First of all, publishing is just like country music:
    I.e. going down the crapper ever since Garth Brooks stopped recording new stuff (and signed up with Walmart), Brad Paisley* took over and an American Idol winner is CMA vocalist of the year?
    Hm, that actually makes sense.
    * Sure sign of impending apocalypse #37: Brad Paisley doing a duet with Keith Urban.

  41. John Emerson says

    You Europeans! My beloved son’s country band has a following in Scandinavia. Hmph. I thought you had your own folk songs and folk dances and authenticity and shit over there, with colorful costumes and peasant girls. I guess the National Geographic lied to me.

  42. Artifex Amando says

    John Emerson: Well, the following Wikipedia link on my province of residence may not have the longest article on culture, but it has in deed a peasant girl depicted in glorious overpainted black and white photography!

  43. “some of them are even written by scholars with degrees.”
    I have a policy of not reading any book whose cover proclaims it was written by Joe Bloggs, Ph.D. Or, a fortiori, Joe Bloggs, M.D.

  44. A.J.P. Smith says

    I’d have to have a jolly good reason to read any book by someone who called themselves ‘Bloggs’, what a phony name.

  45. John Emerson says

    In general, peasant girls are expected to be more svelte than that. Perhaps the svelte ones were all off milking their cows, or being lewd.
    But it’s good to know that in Dalecarnia, the ancient death metal tradition still thrives.

  46. Artifex Amando says

    In Dalarna, the peasant girls are far from svelte, just click on the name Anders Zorn under the heading Notable Natives and you will see! Curvaceous!

  47. death metal tradition?
    Could this be some type of music worthy of Ø? I see in Dalecarnia they were the last to stop using the Dalecarnian Rune staves up to the 20th century to express their Elfdalian language. Now there’s language without unnecessary curves and right angle crossbars. All the symbols had to be capable of being carved in wood.

  48. Artifex Amando says

    Here’s a chronological table of the Dalrunes, if anyone wants to start a death metal band:
    Just add an Ø here and there in your band name and song titles, and you can start play.

  49. John Emerson says

    It’s a darn shame that medieval death metal left no record.

  50. JE: But it’s good to know that in Dalecarnia, the ancient death metal tradition still thrives.
    I don’t suppose you’re going to tell us where to get a recording.

  51. John Emerson says

    You have to go to the specialty shops and pay a pretty penny indeed.

  52. Okay, I’m going to say something on topic about this writer Hat is talking about and maybe some people will be annoyed with me and maybe not. Your Name Here sucks. There, I said it. And I’m probably the person to say it since I’m not in the literary industry and don’t have to pretend to be impressed by something just because it’s trendy. If someone doesn’t like what I said they can just dismiss it as the ignorance of a rube. But the fact is, I wouldn’t download it and read it even if it was free. It looks to me like a bunch of name-dropping, some cutesy dumbed down alphabet illustrations, and some free association that doesn’t go anywhere. Oh yeah, there’s supposed to be some technical doohickey about a story embedded in a story. Everyone reads Hamlet because it’s got a play within a play, right? Nope. They want to see a guy talk to a skull and say there is something rotten in Denmark.
    But the whole reason I read this blog is that it introduces me to stuff I wouldn’t discover on my own. I would never pick up something just because it was Russian, but looking at something Russian through Hat’s eyes, it becomes interesting because Hat loves Russian and can make the subject accessible for others. So when Hat describes picking up DeWitt’s first book The Last Samurai in a bookstore and being unable to put it down, I know exactly what he is talking about. But whatever it is, it isn’t in Dewitt’s latest book. So is she going to be a one hit wonder? Judging by the number of people in the above thread who have taken the trouble to write long remarks about the book industry, they care about her and her writing very much and probably want to read a sequel. But not this Your Name Here thing that is like Lemony Snicket without a plot.
    I am reminded of Sara Paretsky, who wrote some fun detective stories set in Chicago, then tried to write short stories. I grabbed that one off the new arrivals table on my way out of town and threw it in my suitcase to read in the Middle East–and left it there. She’s just not good at that format. Fortunately, by the time I returned, she had written a new detective novel and I was able to pick it up at a local book signing. On the other hand Kipling’s short stories in Tales From the Hills are still good, but his one attempt at a longer novel did not go well. His poems, like Gunga Din and the one about East is East and West is West he hated and considered to be doggerel and only did it for the money. But the public loved it. So maybe the sales department has been in control for longer than we would like to think.
    In the meantime I will keep a lookout for The Last Samurai. It sounds like it was written from the heart.

  53. Reminds me of some of the points Ian Stewart has made about mathematics – the example I’ll quote, an excerpt from “The Foundations of Mathematics”, just happens to be the best example from the first page of Google results.
    Mathematicians do not think in the orthodox way that a formal text seems to imply. The mathematical mind is inventive and intricate; it jumps to conclusons: it does not always proceed in a sequence of logical steps. Only when everything is understood does the pristine logical structure emerge. To show a student the finished edifice, without the scaffolding required for its construction, is to deprive him of the very facilities which are essential if he is to construct mathematical ideas of his own.

  54. You like zee novels in zee blogform, yes? This is hip and now in your eyes?
    Then you come and see the Yiddish blog novel! You like very much! You become zillionaire and pay for me to spend six months’ writing time at vacation home!
    I call novel Language Hatrack in zillionaire’s honor! And we are happy.

  55. A.J.P. Smith says

    Nidge, there are some good points in what you’ve written, but when it’s mixed up with phrases like ‘impressed by something just because it’s trendy‘ (that’s a lot of the people here, is it?), or ‘I wouldn’t download it and read it even if it was free. It looks to me like a bunch of name-dropping, some cutesy dumbed down…‘ you lose your audience. Your comment is the most convincing and readable where you accentuate the positive, as you partly do in the second & third paragraphs.

  56. I hope the tone of these comments will become decreasingly, rather than increasingly, nasty — and I mean on all sides. I’d hate to see Language Hat (the blog, not the eponymous author) go the way of so many other fora.

  57. A.J.P. Witness-Program says

    As long as Language keeps paying every week, my partners and I can foresee no serious problems…

  58. Fortunately, unpleasant visitors like Rolf don’t show up very often. Otherwise I’d have to hire a bouncer.

  59. AJP Chrønic, I am well aware that most people who read LH don’t have the same literary tastes that I do. I’m not by nature a very snarky person, so if I could think of more positive stuff, I would write it. I think the folks who make a living in this industry should just keep saying the emperor is fully clothed just to keep the author in the dark and feeling all warm and fuzzy. But there are probably more like me out there who are hoping this can not possibly be the writer’s best work. Okay, it’s interesting as a “concept” but the whole post of literary devices is to further the point of the work, not to stand on their own.
    I could change my mind though if someone would cross my palm with silver.

  60. I think what’s bothering AJP — it’s what’s bothering me, anyway — is your certainty that the emperor has no clothes, that the book “sucks.” Doesn’t it occur to you as even a faint possibility that you might not be appreciating what she’s doing even though it’s done well, especially since you haven’t actually read the book? Speaking your mind is one thing, smug self-confidence at the expense of someone greatly respected by people you presumably respect is another. Frankly, you sound like the proverbial philistine in the art gallery saying “They call that art? My five-year-old daughter could do better than that.”

  61. I suppose it’s not fair to criticize anything I haven’t actually read, but then who am I? Just an anonymous reader. Not a literary expert, that’s for sure. Based on the teaser though, I’m sure not gonna read it. If everyone else really likes it that much though, maybe I should forget The Last Samurai too. I’ve got some Graham Greene laying around here someplace I haven’t read yet.
    At least I didn’t say anything smug about Dan Brown, Grisham, Clancy, or Crichton–but I’m not planning to read them either.
    I like art galleries. All art galleries. I get lost in art galleries, almost as much as bookstores.

  62. Getting back for a moment to Helen DeWitt / languagehat / kishnevi’s Criterion DVD for books idea — I love it. Not just the various versions of the manuscript, the contract, the correspondence, but also the cover drafts (and discussion), the marketing plan, budgets and p&l’s, reviews, and so on. One thing that would emerge is a more nuanced view of a book, as being (like a movie) “a co-operative venture among a group of people (hopefully, creative people)”. As kishnevi goes on to say, “a written fiction is the product of one person … officially, at least”.
    The obvious fact that a novelist is the most important figure in such a co-operative venture sometimes obscures the very real, and very necessary, contribution of other people towards the success of a book: agents, editors, marketers, designers, typographers, sales people, warehouse staff, publicists, booksellers, and administrators (i.e., publishers). And while all those other skills might be a lot more common than the novelist’s, they’re also indispensible. Writers, and editors, who treat those people as if they’re the servants, when in fact they’re co-workers, do not do themselves any favours.
    When a writer chooses to self-publish, they are not bypassing the publisher, they are _becoming_ the publisher. Their success is going to be determined not just by their sensitive editorial approach, but by their ability to marshall all those other skills as well. It’s easy to fill your garage with books, rather more difficult to empty it again.
    To the question, “Who is this pipsqueak to speak about the Marchioness DeWitt in such disrespectful tones?” You know, I was at first very sympathetic to Ms DeWitt, having (like all of us) witnessed my share of mis- and malpublished books. It was not implausible that this author too had been abused. But after a certain point what became more plausible was that this writer enjoyed her story too much to want to change it. The fact that she has now chosen to self-publish — that _none_ of the thousands of publishers out there are good enough for her — only confirms this. Has anybody noticed that Ms DeWitt is consistently abusive towards anybody who shares my occupation? This is why I chose to speak out.
    As for the churlish and witless ad hominem attacks against the writer for holding these views, I will comment only on A.J.P. Crown’s, because he at least pretended to address himself to the substance of my comments. Unfortunately, in his rage, he forget to say whatever it is he wanted to say, and now I’ll never know whether he thinks country music is uniformly good, uniformly bad, or uniformly average. I will offer Mr Crown one bit of advice: the next time you go to kick a man, make sure he really is down.

  63. John Emerson says

    Go piss up another rope, Rolf, you whiner. We were all happily forgetting all about you, and now this.
    No one is required to be polite to annoying, surly intruders, or to speak reasonably to them.

  64. From time to time you hear stuff about different public figures, that they were angry with someone once or don’t play nicely with the other children. Unless you were actually there and witnessed it yourself, it’s impossible to know what’s true and what really happened. It becomes a matter of “he said, she said”, which is always pretty tedious to listen to if you don’t have a dog in that particular race. Unless there’s something really public that has happened, the people who spread stories like that usually end up looking as splattered as the ones they’re throwing the mud at. What’s the difference between slander and libel? I keep forgetting.

  65. Rolf Maurer says

    Nijma, slander and libel both refer to the same injury, which is defamation — to damage a person’s reputation by making false statements. Making them knowingly can be grounds for considering them malicious, which is an aggravating factor that usually increases damages awarded. Defamation is a “reverse tort” which means that you’re not presumed to be innocent unless proven guilty; instead, the onus is on the defendant to prove that no defamation has taken place. The term slander is usually used to describe a private communication (I write a letter to your boss, making false statements that cause you to lose your job); libel usually requires publication of some sort, and includes statements posted in public forums on the Internet.
    Mr Emerson, what’s your problem? I am being roundly abused here, yet I have not been the least bit abusive towards you, or anybody. Critical, yes; sarcastic even, sure. But not abusive. Unless you are Mr Hat, how am I any more of an intruder than you, or anybody else with an Internet connection and a browser? Until you can gain control of your emotions and converse in a more rational manner (I thought this was an intellectual forum), I would also ask that you refrain from calling me by my familiar; until then, to you I am Mr Maurer, thank you very much.

  66. Well, Rolf, can I call you Mr. Maurer? Do call me Ms. Camelsnose…You seem to know a whole lot about the letter of the law, but do you know anything about ethics and morals? If I may mix religions, here is a Moslem view of the difference between slander and backbiting.
    I am planning to write my first novel any day now. It’s going to have an Estonian currency conspiracy to devalue the Krøøn, some Dravidians, Philistines, and Dalecarnians, and a death metal band with umlauts. For the required nudity there will be lewd peasant boys from Dalarna. Everyone is embedding literary devices, so I will have paint-by-number self-help books within the novel that a dumpy middle-aged Canadian publisher is using to try to put his life back together after he has alienated everybody in his life and finds himself alone and unloved. He has become convinced that the turning point in his life was 20 years earlier when he was sitting quietly watching a rehearsal of Waiting for Lefty at the Steppenwolf Theater and John Malkovich, getting into character, turned around and said to his date, “I’ll suck your eyeballs out.” There’s more, but I don’t want anyone to steal it. You’ll have to download it to see how it ends. I was going to call it “The Hat Adventure” but changed my mind after Mr. Hat called me smug and a Philistine–I’m actually Danish. But you, Mr. Maurer, seem like a very crabby person, and I won’t be bringing my novel to you when it’s done either. Nyah. I wouldn’t poke at Mr. Emerson either. The last person who did that disappeared after an unpleasant experience with a Dravidian insurance agent. Just sayin’.

  67. Rolf, will you please ask him what he means by ‘go to piss up a rope’.

  68. AJP Du: Call me 'Sie' says

    ‘I have not been the least bit abusive’
    Your big mistake was that you were jolly rude about Helen Dewitt. She’s a very nice person as well as being a writer whose work a lot of us like quite a lot.

  69. Herr Doktor Professor Maurer: If I were the kind of person who went to somebody else’s house and insulted their friends, I would not pretend to be shocked when those around me didn’t react well (and I certainly wouldn’t claim that I had “not been the least bit abusive” when I patently had). To say nasty things about a writer in a venue that you are aware she visits, in the presence of people who like and respect her, is to demonstrate a belligerent unpleasantness that deserves all the rope-pissing responses it gets.
    You are free to hold whatever views you like and to insult whoever you want, but at least try to avoid the hypocrisy involved in whining when you get insults handed back to you.

  70. John Emerson says

    Rolf, you’re so cute when you’re mad.

  71. Did you know that Maurer, in addition to meaning bricklayer or whatever it is in German — mason, maybe, I’m sure David will put me right — but anyway, Maurer also means, in Norwegian, ANTS! So, Mr Ants, the tables are turned now!

  72. Just so you know, Nijma, Mr. Mauer’s description of defamation law is inaccurate, at least where I practice. “Slander” is spoken defamation, while “Libel” is written. The distinction between the two is rapidly eroding. The basic elements are (1) the spoken or written publication of a false statement of fact that exposes the plaintiff to public hatred, contempt, ridicule, or disgrace (rather than being merely offensive, embarrassing, unpleasant, or hurting someone’s feelings); (2) about the plaintiff; (3) to a third party by the defendant; (4) knowing the statement to be false at the time or in reckless disregard of the truth or falsity of the statement; and (5) causing the plaintiff to suffer financial loss. As with other torts, the burden of proof at all times lies with the person claiming injury. Truth is a complete defense, and statements of opinion are not actionable, except sometimes in a context that would suggest, falsely, that the speaker/writer is suggesting that s/he is privy to special information not available to the audience. This is by no means an exhaustive discussion of the subject, and doesn’t even touch on the distinction made between private figures and public figures under the First Amendment. This is not a solicitation for legal services, and none of you have a claim against each other as far as I can tell under the laws of my state. I haven’t yet read Ms. De Witt’s work, but it seems that her only alleged faults raised in this discussion are to have rarefied tastes and to suffer no fools. If her efforts have been ambitious, they can be applauded to some extent on that basis alone, whether or not they are completely successful. Refined tastes are not phony simply because others do not share them, and it takes a lot of courage to assert an aesthetic vision when everyone else insists you’re wrong. So while most people do benefit from constructive criticism during the creative process, it’s not always easy to find a collaborator with whom one sees eye to eye. I can easily imagine that in some cases it would be a one-in-a-million pairing or none at all.

  73. Just so you know, Nijma, Mr. Mauer’s …
    And just so YOU know, ‘Mr Mauer’ in Norwegian would be Mr Ant.
    Respond, Ant!

  74. John Emerson says

    In Minnesota around 1930 one Francis Shoemaker sent a letter addressed to “John Smith, Robber of Widows and Orphans, Anytown, Minnesota, USA”. He was prosecuted for liberl or slander and jailed, seemingly on the grounds that postal personnel saw the letter. After being released, he was elected to Congress, and almost immediately entered his version of the prosecution into the Congressional Record, where he had some degree of immunity. During his single term in the house he was arrested twice for assault.
    In another case an election was overturned because the leftist candidate had accused the Republican candidate, Rep. Volstead of the Volstead Act, of atheism. The leftist, one Kvale, eventually won and served many terms in office.
    This should illuminate the nature of libel and slander.

  75. Maurer
    German and Jewish (Ashkenazic): occupational name for a builder of walls of stone or brick, from an agent derivative of Middle High German mure, German Mauer ‘wall’ (from Latin murus ‘wall’, especially a city wall). In the Middle Ages the majority of dwellings were built of wood (or lath and plaster), and this term would have specifically denoted someone employed in building defensive walls, castles, churches, and other public buildings.
    Dictionary of American Family Names, Oxford University Press,

  76. SnowLeopard’s description of slander and libel sounds exactly right to me–at least that’s what a lawyer told me in a bar once. That would suggest to me that Mr. Wall-builder’s statements here are actionable.
    JE, there is a whole different standard for someone running for public office. You can say just about anything about a politician you want, true or not.
    You will also note how the comments on this thread have degenerated from creative to personal since The Wallbuilder’s arrival. How can someone whose personality stifles creativity be a book publisher?

  77. Just to keep you updated, Kvale means ‘strangle’ in Norwegian. No one can sue me for calling him an ant, can they? They’d never win here.

  78. Yes, Germans have Wand for interior-partition type walls and Mauer for brickish things like the Berlin Wall. I think it’s a good distinction, that we could use in English. Maybe we would build things less shoddily. (I say ‘we’ to be polite, Mr Ant).

  79. Actually, now I think about it, the German isn’t as simple as that. I remember an Aussteiffungswand, a stiffening wall, that was concrete and structurally very important. Don’t ask me why it wasn’t a Mauer. Perhaps because it was concrete? David, where are you?

  80. I think a Mauer must be built with what we now call ‘masonry units’, or brick-like things, piled on top of one another, whereas a Wand is built with 2x4s and sheetrock or with concrete or toothpaste.
    Yes, thank you for that, AJP. That was very a interesting diversion into German construction methods.

  81. Sooner or later every thread seems to end up on cementiers; it will have to be renamed “language, hats, and concrete”.

  82. It seems to me that Maurer was no more rude (in other words, sarcastic yet certainly not abusive) about DeWitt than she was about editors, publishers, etc. in her interview. So criticizing Maurer for the tone of the opinions he is expressing — rather than for their content, which is patently what you all actually object to — is extremely disingenuous.
    As far as the evaluation of Your Name Here’s quality goes, DeWitt herself certainly wouldn’t want anyone to assume the novel is poor simply because it includes images, foreign languages, and unconventional typography — but I don’t think she’d want anyone to assume the novel is excellent simply because it includes those things either. So if someone could advance a reading of the work which doesn’t deride it simply for using showy (“innovative”/”gimmicky”) formal devices or champion it simply for using such devices, that might be a form of progress.

  83. In the first place, ‘sarcastic yet certainly not abusive’ is no definition of not being rude.
    Secondly, I don’t understand your use of ‘so’. I found Rolf’s opinions to be well represented by the tone he used to express them and I didn’t like either, there’s nothing disingenuous.
    Thirdly, you are one the road to nowhere if you are going to automatically dismiss Helen Dewitt’s, or anyone else’s, use of ‘images, foreign languages, and unconventional typography’ because they are … oh, wait a minute, you aren’t. Never mind.
    Ok. Fourth, people are going to have to justify or deride ‘such devices’ any time someone calls what they’re doing ‘writing a novel’. That’s the thing about blogs, if you say you’re writing a blog you can avoid a century’s worth of baggage that comes with the word ‘novel’.
    Fifth, yes, i agree, why don’t you say something about the work, even if you have to call it ‘a reading’?

  84. It seems to me that Maurer was no more rude (in other words, sarcastic yet certainly not abusive) about DeWitt than she was about editors, publishers, etc. in her interview.
    Surely complaining about “editors, publishers, etc.” (aside from being a traditional occupation of writers) is very different from attacking one particular writer on a website she frequents.

  85. It seems to me that Maurer was no more rude (in other words, sarcastic yet certainly not abusive) about DeWitt than she was about editors, publishers, etc. in her interview.
    Dewitt’s interview wasn’t particularly vitriolic or personal. She just piles one detached description on top of another, in the tradition of the Norse saga, until you have your own picture of the writer’s dilemma in the publishing industry. Like drawing a picture of a horse without writing the word “horse” underneath it.
    Maurer’s got his claws out and he’s been in the litter box.
    So if someone could advance a reading of the work which doesn’t deride it simply for using showy (“innovative”/”gimmicky”) formal devices
    I suppose that would be me, since I was the only one who said anything negative. My negative reaction to the YNH excerpt had nothing to do with whether it had literary devices or whether they were unconventional. I’m not going to revisit the argument though, since The Hatted One has pointed out that this is his hangout and he wants his friends to feel comfortable here.

  86. Helen DeWitt does not strike me as someone who discourages or otherwise frowns upon legitimate intellectual debate. So even if this blog is determined not to do anything that Helen DeWitt would disapprove of, I don’t think a legitimate criticism of the work (which most of us can agree is not constituted by sneering at the pictures and typography) is something that we should discourage or frown upon.
    I didn’t find Maurer’s words vitriolic and personal. Nor did I find DeWitt’s always detached: at times they were quite personal. See what she says about Zadie Smith, for instance, or about her editor for The Last Samurai (initials J.B. … forget his name at the moment). If Maurer has “attacked” DeWitt, then surely she has “attacked” Smith and JB, even if the of her words is more dryly sarcastic or pretends to greater neutrality.
    I cannot give my own opinion on YNH at this point, since I have downloaded it (and printed all 580 pages out, by the way) but not yet read it. I did read The Last Samurai and enjoyed it, although, for what it’s worth, not as much as I enjoy her interviews and blog posts, which are often extremely thought- (and discussion-)provoking and informative.

  87. Well, so let us know what you think when you’re done …

  88. Helen DeWitt does not strike me as someone who discourages or otherwise frowns upon legitimate intellectual debate.
    Absolutely, and neither do I. I have no problem with informed criticism of her work or of her attitude to publishers. I do have a problem with personal attack, and unlike you, I found some of Rolf Maurer’s comments to fall under that category. But I’m quite interested to hear what you have to say about Your Name Here when you’ve read it.

  89. I also agree..

  90. I’ll get on with the reading in that case! Did I miss a post, or has anyone else here, having finished the novel, reviewed/responded to it? If not, then maybe I could have some company in the reading!

  91. John Emerson says

    I found Maurer’s tone insufferable, not merely because he was an outsider attacking one of us. He admits to having seen DeWitt’s argument before, and seemed to be working out some kind of personal grudge.
    To me the statements below are unforgivably sarcastic, condescending, and hostile:
    if nothing else, she’s an effective self-promoter
    (“submitted” — and I suspect that this term points to some of Ms DeWitt’s issues).
    Most publishers have issued hundreds of books. It’s not axiomatic that they would have a lot to learn about the process from a first-time author, no matter how good they are.

  92. A friend in the art business tells me artists get known for one thing, then everyone wants to buy something in that style, but when the artists want to expand, grow, take risks, and try different styles they have a hard time selling it to the public.
    I would be curious to know if YNH is anything at all like The Last Samurai, or if it is more experimental or in a different style. Also if you can tell the difference the collaboration makes–sometimes the tone is completely different when there are two authors and you can’t recognize the voice anymore.
    As far as “legitimate criticism of the work”, whatever “legitimate” is, I don’t really think of this as a “criticism” kind of place, it’s more about discovery–I think of it more as an extension of Hat’s living room. That’s probably why so many people like to come over and hang out. And if someone said they didn’t like something one of my favorite authors wrote, even if I knew all their books were not equally outstanding, I would probably be upset too. Loyalty is good. I like loyalty. BTW, I did enjoy the interview.
    Someone mentioned DeWitt’s blog; I thought the link was posted somewhere on the thread, but now I don’t see it.

  93. Nijma: YNH is very different (judging from the excerpt) from The Last Samurai, which is a much more traditional novel (despite the foreign languages). Her blog is Paperpools, linked in the blogroll.

  94. David Marjanović says

    Wand: cover term for all walls. Even the body wall, for example. Sounds more bureaucratic in cases where Mauer could also be used. Etymology: winden — wand — gewunden “wind — wound — wound”, from the times when house walls consisted mostly of plaited willow twigs with a layer of a loam-straw-horseshit mixture on either side.
    Mauer: made of stone, brick or concrete.
    And while I am at it… Wall also exists, but has retained the meaning of Latin vallum “elongate mound”.

  95. Thank you, that’s jolly interesting, as well as useful to know. Never got a straight answer when I lived in Germany.

  96. Yes, there’s a small street in the centre of Hamburg called Neuer Wall, I remember. i’d always thought it referred to a city wall.

  97. Refined tastes are not phony simply because others do not share them.
    Also, there’s the simple fact that everything isn’t for everybody. Philistinism among the educated seems to me associated with an autocratic insistence on being able to “get” everything. Some art depends on being spare — on hinting, with a brush stroke or rhythm or unusual modifier, at something fairly abstract, like a mood or experience, and then moving on. For the type of people who like to say silly things about an emperor having no clothes (not to single you out Nijma — I’m actually curious what you think about this), this type of art is only tolerable when the experience or mood hinted at is one they’ve had and is therefore immediately accessible to them; otherwise they need to find something WRONG with it, no middle-ground, no genuine, sophisticated intellectual and emotional life that also happens (for the moment at least) to be entirely foreign. (Likewise, if the work in question demands more education than these types have had, they call it “pretentious” or “academic.”)

  98. Actually, i wanted to say something to Nidge about ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, but then I forgot. It seems to me that the ideal place to make a comment about the Emperor’s new clothes would be in a discussion about religion, (but I’ve never come across one). Muslims, Jews , Christians, they’re all going on about this ‘thing’ that nobody can see and agreeing that of course it does exist and don’t-you-dare doubt it! It sounds exactly like the Emperor’s New Clothes to me.
    On the other hand, I have a hard time understanding why an artist/writer would spend their time trying to con the punters with crap when they could just as easily (or easier) be doing work that conforms to everybody’s taste and standard of what art is. Why would they do that? It doesn’t make any sense.

  99. So which is it Jamessal, I don’t appreciate Dewitt’s thingy because I’m so educated I’m having a temper tantrum or because her genius demands more education than I have had.
    The only way to defend myself against all these people piling on and insinuating I’m some sort of ogre would be to reopen the discussion about YNH which our host finds so distressing. If there is a thread somewhere else where people want to discuss the YNH excerpt, I would be happy to join it. Somewhere else. Not here.

  100. Didn’t mean to gang up on you, Nidge. I can’t see Lauren Bacall playing an ogre, even in the Christmas pantomime.

  101. (not to single you out Nijma — I’m actually curious what you think about this)
    I meant that sincerely, Nijma. In some earlier comments you did seem to evince some traits of the type of reader I described, but that doesn’t mean my comment was all about you. I was offering discussion, not calling you an ogre.
    So which is it Jamessal, I don’t appreciate Dewitt’s thingy because I’m so educated I’m having a temper tantrum or because her genius demands more education than I have had.
    There’s no inconsistency here. Someone of an autocratic temperament can be educated enough to feel entitled to have access to every artistic idea out there and also be irritated when a book demands more education than they’ve had. Again, though, I wasn’t talking about just you — or even, necessarily, you at all.

  102. I was offering discussion
    What part of “I’m not going to revisit the argument though, since The Hatted One has pointed out that this is his hangout and he wants his friends to feel comfortable here” do you not understand. I’m not willing to make Hat uncomfortable now that I know how he feels, and I don’t care for comments speculating on what kind of villainous traits I might evince that I am not permitted to respond to. It’s not a fair position to be in. Time for me to take a break. I’ll be back at my own blog, counting the languages of the spam comments in my Askimet filter.

  103. I don’t really see where you’re coming from, Nijma, on several fronts, but maybe I should have been clearer in my initial comment that I wasn’t speculating about you. Sorry for that.

  104. It is an interesting subject for me, yes, but I am unable to defend what I wrote or discuss my point of view AT ALL without making more negative remarks about what Hat’s favorite author wrote. I am not angry about what anyone is saying; I am angry that they seem to be trying to provoke me into making further statements, when that’s not what is on the menu.
    I need a break from this now. My union says I get a break. Do not mess with my union.

  105. John Cowan says

    Muslims, Jews , Christians, they’re all going on about this ‘thing’ that nobody can see and agreeing that of course it does exist and don’t-you-dare doubt it!

    That’s John Geoffrey Saxe and his six blind men fondling the elephant. But in fact the narrator, who thinks he does know what the elephant looks like, is the most arrogant of the lot. Life is hard.

    Do not mess with my union.

    Oh, you don’t scare me, I’m stickin’ with the union ….

  106. David Eddyshaw says

    The Strawbs (who I don’t think ever acknowledged their evident plagiarism here) seem to have meant this as an anti-union song, but it soon got adopted by the Forces of Good anyway. It’s a catchy number …

  107. @David Eddyshaw: According to the information here, the pro-union sentiment of the song was authentic. The audio of the program is unavailable to me, but maybe you can listen to it from a British IP address. However, the program information (under “Show more”) states:

    Although the lyrics could be read as satirical of the trade union movement, the band has frequently stated that that’s not the case at all. In fact the song was picked up by the trade unions and became something of an unofficial anthem for them.

    As to the “plagiarism,”* the Wikipedia article on the song does not mention that it’s a reworking of Woody Guthrie’s “Union Maid” (which itself used an old folk tune melody, apparently first popularized by Robert Schumann). However, YouTube was smart enough to suggest that after I listened to The Strawbs’ song, I might also like to hear a version of Woody’s.** Listening to both songs this morning with my daughter, we wondered whether the lyrics had been rewritten first (to set the union activity in Britain) and recorded that way, before The Strawbs had further redone it as disco.

    * You can’t really plagiarize Woody.

    This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright # 154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.

    ** There doesn’t seem to be a full version of Woody*** singing this on YouTube. But here it is performed by the second-most-famous of The Almanac Singers.

    *** Besides Woodrow Wilson Guthrie’s own known preference for being addressed just by his nickname, even by strangers, there is a pragmatic reason for not referring to him as “Guthrie” here: there is at least one version of his son Arlo Guthrie performing “Union Maid” on YouTube.

    (I have occasionally noted that when a principal character in a story is known primarily by their surname, it sometimes creates awkwardness for the author when other members of the principal’s family are present. One novel where I remember this happening is Cryptozoic!; when the protagonist, Bush, meets with his father, the elder Bush ends up being referred to mostly by his full name, “James Bush,” ot awkwardly as, “the dentist.” Both Jane Austen’s and E. M. Forster’s books also explicitly discussed the complexities of who got to be referred to just by title and last name under various social circumstances.)

  108. Trond Engen says

    the Forces of Good

    Is this where I boast that my lack of time the last few weeks have been due to my duties as a union representative?

    The employer is doing what employers do and is cutting costs in face of a market slowdown. I’m doing what union reps do (at least here) after the decision is made: fighting to keep the process fair, transparent and according to agreement, and helping individual members facing layoff to have their say.

  109. John Cowan says

    Never heard that version before. I find the melody rather boring compared to “Pretty Red Wing” as recycled by Woody Guthrie. Which turns out not to be too surprising, since PRW is in turn an adaptation of Schumann’s “Fröhlicher Landmann, von der Arbeit zurückkehrend” (Op. 68 No. 10). By their roots shall ye know them.

    I’ve never actually held a unionized job, alas. But I decided today, after 40+ years of stalling, to join the One Big Union, and I am now a card-carrying Wobbly as well as a member of the haut proletariat (as opposed to the petty bourgeoisie). I’m sure my parents would be happy. (When my mother decided she had to quit her union on a matter of principle — they were insisting on preserving tenure in times of retrenchment, which meant it was the adjunct faculty who got retrenched on, even though some huge fraction of the tenured faculty were no longer teaching because they had no students in their disciplines — she spent a whole day playing all her Almanac Singers records and then made the phone call.)

  110. David Eddyshaw says



  111. What DE said! The union forever!

  112. Trond Engen says

    I should rush to say that I’m a representative of the Norwegian union of engineering and science graduates (small letters since I don’t think it has an explanatory official English name), so we’re a privileged group. Its labor politics used to reflect that it typically represented a handful of well paid staffers close to the management. This was still noticeable among the old guard when I graduated in the mid-nineties. Now we’re workforce in large and often multi-national engineering and consulting companies (like mine), and the union finds itself defending the kind of rights that the declining traditional unions of industrial workers fought to establish, and to promote the kind of new arrangements and services that modern two-income families need.

  113. John Cowan says

    In onion (as we say in English) there is strength.

  114. Trond Engen says

    The national union just passed 100 000 members (~3% of the Norwegian workforce). I represent some 800 of those, or about half of the employees in the company. In the Norwegian system there’s no obligation to join the union(s) even if there’s a collective agreement. There can also be (and usually is) several unions with separate collective agreements in the same workplace, representing different segments of the workforce. In my company there are three. We work well together.

    I should also say that it’s not a full-time job (except in exceptional circumstances, like now). We are regular employees doing regular work. But I realize that the reason this is feasible is that even if I say we’re workforce in the company, as consulting engineers working for clients we have much autonomy over our workload and schedule.

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