Category Archives: Editors and editing

On a Guardian poetry blog, scenes from the crumbling old order

The Clash - Jakub Julian Ziolkowski

Much that is rotten about the social order collapsing in the dying age of print is obvious from what was cut when censors ran amok on – of all things – a supposedly liberal newspaper’s poetry blog, the subject of the last entry here. Readers who never saw the comments hacked out of that discussion have been curious about what they said, so I’m putting up a selection in another part of this site.

The Guardian purge is well worth revisiting, for connoisseurs of pattern recognition. Censorship itself started with religious authorities who had glimpsed the beginning of their end in Gutenberg’s printing press. As hard as it was for their 15th-century ancestors to keep up with the subversive literature of their day, the toil of today’s online censors is even more quixotic. Yet they bash on, against the popular will, the masters that they serve as hopelessly misguided as hierarchs of the past were in insisting on their entitlement to authority – banding together for reinforcement in much the way they did, and deploying similar tactics.

It was the very smallness and insignificance of the group of actors associated with the poetry blog that made watching old patterns play out in the bloodbath so entertaining – not merely horrifying.

Here are seven parallels that stood out:

1. The use of propaganda. After a hundred-odd comments were slashed – by the reckoning of several readers – a supporter of Carol Rumens, the lecturer and Poem-of-the-Week blogger enraged by attacks on academia’s effects on poetry, tried to justify the silencing of her opponents with this nonsensical post:

SCFMH
3 September 2010 3:47PM

An elegantly pruned blog, all excess foliage to the compost. These words of wisdom say it all: […]’Pruning grape vines is a basic principle that any grower, regardless of experience, must understand. Whenever you leave a vine unpruned, the first year you’ll have a massive big crop. Novice growers can feel delighted with their success and wonder what all the pruning fuss is about. […But …] when you actually prune a vine correctly, you remove as much as 95 to 98% of the previous season’s growth. […] The vine can’t produce enough energy to ripen an unregulated crop, and it’ll be poor quality.’

Propaganda is a branch of the art of persuasion. It nearly always relies on specious logic, like other kinds of communication that insult readers’ intelligence. Pruning a grapevine has absolutely nothing in common with suppressing free speech. Snipping leaves and branches serves a single, consistent aim – producing wine of a particular type. Not a bit like the right to free expression, which can serve as many aims as there are people expressing themselves, whose opinions can be diametrically opposed.

2. Defenders of the status quo are uniquely protected from criticism or reprisals – and on the public purse. SCFMH – whose posts are usually more intelligent — has revealed himself elsewhere on the net as Simon M. Hunter. Like Rumens, he appears to teach at a university. There is irony unbound in the reason why SCFMH can support a Rumens capable of calling her employers ‘you bastards’ without producing a single birth certificate blank where a father’s name should be – yet lecturing commenters not sitting in her classroom about their behaviour, and getting a few of them banned from the Guardian‘s site for no more than bracing, playful criticism. (I would place a large bet on no reader of or commenter on her blog’s ever having addressed an employer as she did, in full public view.)

That reason is called ‘tenure’. It was invented, as the Wikipedia says, ‘to guarantee the right to academic freedom: it protects teachers and researchers when they dissent from prevailing opinion, openly disagree with authorities of any sort, …’

Who pays the salaries of most university lecturers? Ah, in Britain and the US, that would be us, the unwashed public. Shouldn’t we be entitled to as least as much freedom as they have to speak out?

3. Blatant hypocrisy goes unchallenged. Like feudal serfs, most readers of the Rumens blog were stopped from objecting to her treatment of dissenting commenters by the censors’ threat: ‘This comment has been removed by a moderator. Replies may also be deleted.’ (And indeed, all attempts to support Rumens’ critics disappeared.)

4. Defunct, repressive authorities have collaborators, enablers and appeasers. . . among those who should know better, but fear that they stand to lose more than they gain from a revolution. Look at the posts left in place after the grand cull on the morning of September the 3rd and you’ll find fine samples of smug support for the triumphant status quo.

5. No right of appeal for those muzzled and expelled. ….The Guardian’s censors and moderators will only discuss deletions in private, by email. As anyone who can see why transparency is essential to justice knows, that amounts to, ‘We’ll brook no challenges and will suppress all evidence of our repression and mistakes’.

6. The powerful never stoop to an apology. Rumens showed that she understood that something of the kind was required of her when she said vaguely, the following week, ‘Milton may be above criticism, ATF, but , alas, I don’t think I am…’. .. A whole-hearted apology clearly linked to the censorfest might have won her some points. Most of all, she owed – still owes – her critics a respectful discussion of what academia has done to modern poetry; of the wider implications of both her and her featured poet being academics. … And she and the Guardian could have won the undying loyalty of many a reader by conceding that the censorship went too far, and above all, by restoring the censored posts.

7. Futile attempts to carry privileges from the old order into the new. Noting cracks in the joists and foundations of their fortresses, some members of the old guard are naively trying to set the rules for the new order. Anxious to be seen as egalitarian in spite of the mountain of evidence to the contrary, Rumens said in the cull’s aftermath that her ‘blog has to have comments – that’s the admirable nature of the beast. It’s not about soloists.’ … Ah, but that’s the beauty of online media: there are no such rules. There are no externally imposed‘ has to have’s, shoulds, or musts. Millions of wonderful blogs on the net have no comments at all, year after year; millions of others have huge and lively comments sections that read like transcripts of beer busts.

… Indeed, the old order changeth … And yet, as an old friend put it, ‘These dictators never learn, do they? They can’t help themselves.’

22 Comments

Filed under Censorship, Criticism, Editors and editing, Poetry, Social trends, The blogosphere, The Guardian

Mysteries of modern poetry: are poets still free spirits?

Off with their heads!

Drawing by John Tenniel

Continuing our inspection of censorship at the Guardian, here’s a surprising suppressor of free speech — that is, if you are used to thinking of poets and other artists as passionate believers in unfettered communication.

Could that honestly be said of Carol Rumens, a published poet, university lecturer and Poem-of-the-Week blogger for that newspaper? Her electronic column — when written by her predecessor in that space — was a quick, open-ended introduction to a poem chosen for discussion by all comers. Under Rumens, the blog has taken on a directive and teacherly tone that some of her readers enjoy.

This week, an extended argument with commenters keen to lift the dead hand of academic analysis from modern poetry – affecting not just its criticism but writing – grew intense. Guardian moderators slashed comments by Rumens’ opponents so wildly and in such quantities that at least one onlooker wondered about the possibility of unhinged combat rage (think My Lai and Green Berets.)

The butchery was justified on the grounds that commenters had been attacking a living poet – the author of this week’s poem, Vona Groarke. Actually – as is clear from careful inspection of the unexpurgated record, there were no personal attacks on the poet, with the exception of a childish remark about her name by someone notoriously infantile. It was the opinions and judgment of Rumens herself that came under fire and, in a scant few posts, the poem itself.

At the end of the cull, Rumens made an ominous announcement in her comments section:

[…] I have emailed the mods via Sarah […] and they will watching the blog extra carefully.

@Einsloth, a delightfully whimsical commenter known to be an accomplished poet himself, was singled out for a special rap on the knuckles. Why? Because he had begun his critique by referring to ‘this precious pearl of a poem’. Comparisons with other samples of acid wit in the annals of literary criticism would reveal that to be mild – as intended.

But Rumens said,

He begins with a sneer. That is NOT doing what we should all do here. [her caps.]

Should. Shouldn’t. … Hmm … Now, this particular Guardian blogger has been a teacher for decades. We must allow her the tics of the more dictatorial members of her profession. But what was a newspaper doing, denying its commenters their right to disagree with her?

This post on acciaccatura is aimed at those moderators and constructed to honour the old maxim, ‘Do as you would be done by.’ I would like to see the Guardian simply highlight all comments it finds questionable – except for libel – and let readers reflect on them and draw their own conclusions. How? Just as I’m setting out these excerpts from the blogs and comments-section remarks of Carol Rumens – neutrally, and in a spirit of enquiry.

LITERARY STYLE

Can a prose style like this, introducing poems, earn poetry more readers – and stimulate new interest in the most graceful literary form?

It’s a strong poem that inhabits a slightly uncharacteristic lyric angle, off-road to the central preoccupations of this septuagenarian poet’s spacious, modernist imagination. Yet I feel it reveals the emotional forces implicit in those preoccupations.

… when the same ideas could have been stated like this:

It’s a strong poem, with an uncharacteristic touch of lyricism, a departure from the usual preoccupations of this septuagenarian modernist. Yet, to me, it reveals the passion behind those preoccupations.

APPROACH TO CRITICISM

Is this a helpful interpretation of a cheerful short poem? Lines that describe an athletic woman diving into the sea?

In an understated way (provided we allow that the poet is the protagonist of her own poem) “Pier” seems a feminist work. Exposed in bathing-togs as she “flip-flops” past the fishermen, the woman here is untroubled about body-image. There’s no shrinking from either visibility or danger. Next time, in fact, she’ll claim even more visibility, and take a bigger risk: she’ll dive from the pier head-first, and she’ll shout. While not as blissfully at one with the environment as her project at first suggested, the speaker embraces the growing sense of power and liberation her risk-taking gains her. We might also infer that, where Church and state attempt to control women’s bodies, rebellious leaps and shouts may be fun but are also more significant politically than they may first appear.

N.B. A controller critical of controlling?

SELF-EXPRESSION

Should a blogger cooperating with censors of free speech be calling her own employers at her university ‘you bastards’ in public – on a Guardian blog? Carol Rumens was gently reprimanded by a kind commenter: shouldn’t she extend the same kind consideration to the impassioned comments of others?

CarolRumens
Comment No. 1200270
July 2 18:41

To my Employers (the National Institute for Excellence in the Creative Industries, University of Bangor)

Nasty
Idiotic
Emetic
Crap
Innit

Sorry but they are trying to get me to do some extra teaching that forces a younger colleague out of a job. Hope you’re reading this, you bastards.

stoneofsilence
Comment No. 1203154
July 4 8:57

Never slag off an employer on
Impulse, especially in forums
Everyone can be a voyeur on
Carol Rumens, Oh Carol Rumens
Ire will misfire- its – hire or fire

Seriously, Carol I think it is best that these matters be resolved using the appropriate channels. If you believe there is a case, then take it to the union or whoever represents you, and take it up with the boards. If it is a Dean or Director who has made this decision then go to the head of the college. If you have already exhausted those channels then you can use this blog to vent off your anger, but not until then. I do not personally think it is useful to make fun of your employer’s strategy which is one that is typical of all those humanities departments that had to reinvent themselves in the 1990’s so as to be more attractive to business. …

Readers, I’ll let you decide …

29 Comments

Filed under Censorship, Editors and editing, Poetry, The Guardian

Does comment moderation on newspaper sites make sense when no one is being libelled?

An early moderator: Savonarola (1452-1498) was known for book-burning and his hostility to the Renaissance

Readers of this blog are invited to consider three comments recently rescued from oblivion – to which they were consigned by censors at The Guardian. They are reproduced below. I hold no brief for or against the sentiments expressed in them, but would suggest weighing them against this question:

Censorship was invented with the printed book: does the death of print mean that it’s time for it, too, to disappear?

It was in Germany, where printing was pioneered, that censorship was first introduced. In 1475 the University of Cologne, jealous of the freelance expression of ideas, obtained from the Pope the right to grant licences for the publication of books and to punish those who published or read unauthorized ones.
[…]
By [1515] the flood of books and the realization that a new, less instructed and more excitable audience for them was being reached, moved a number of European secular authorities to insist on manuscripts being submitted to them before printing.
[…]
[By the late 1500s] books had come to be seen as potential threats to political and moral as well as to doctrinal values. So Machiavelli, as well as Luther, became a totally banned author. Bawdy books jostled occultist ones on the list …
[…]
[I]n spite of growing repression it was possible for determined readers with money and some courage to secure much of what they wanted […] There were never enough censors to deal thoroughly with manuscripts submitted for publication.
[…]
Inquisitors – another overworked corps of repressors – rarely showed more interest in convincing unimportant suspects of their doctrinal errors than in swiftly and if necessary cruelly extorting blanket vows of obedience …

from The Civilisation of Europe in the Renaissance, John Hale, 1994

Comments deleted by Guardian moderators in a single fortnight earlier this month, with links to the blogs where they were published fleetingly (… their gist is easy to grasp, so do not be distracted by references that will seem arcane to anyone who does not visit that site very often…):

This wickedly entertaining scrap of satire was written, like many of the commenter’s contributions, in the spirit of charivari. Those were once officially sanctioned ‘rites of excess’ all over Europe – so noisy that the Latin root for the word is caribaria, meaning ‘headache’. I’m quoting from the same book on Renaissance Europe with which this post begins. It mentions anarchic leaders of celebrations that released ‘the volatility which civility feared, even if some of its representatives enjoyed its licence’. Their names, ‘Abbot of Misrule’, ‘Bishop Meany’ ,‘Duke Kick-Ass’ and so on, could be screen names for the censored blogger, known elsewhere as Desmond Swords or Kevin Desmond.

His comments on the poem capture what many of us readers found regrettable – that although it is elegant, named for a famous piece of classical music and apparently written in its honour, it lacks any musicality. . . . Now, isn’t that a far less engaging way of saying what the censors snipped from here?

DesmondSwords19

2 Aug 2010, 12:22PM

EXPERIMENTAL RESPONSE.

Reading it aloud, one is struck by the lack of ..I mean abundence of rhythm and melody. Sweet cadence of a song singing softly, some sweet sibliant odour of it; roses on a tongue, oh sheer raw the passion one found on a playground in asphalt-city Islington, gang-turf where there be, to-be the poets of yesteryear moesying o’er thine ears like sweet the sound of lilacs and lavender lillies, breathing oh liddle foldero fee, bright spark Fiontan of moon-hawk, soon in June the losses felt what o’er thine seer like deep note of cherry, sits at table in Betterton Street, Forward Prize contendor in no way run bcuz of thine dayjob, liddle Fion, satyr and faun sporting in the water park at Brockley, Crouch End lido, Hampstead pond, dipping in prose the tenor of lemon and oranges, thine own banana in the spume blent, oh bright star no shoo-in, on talent alone thine ears and eyes make filidh trumpet of the goats at Syrius: stall not thine brilliance in this embodying essence of Schubert and his tinkly winkly music.
~
I really love this poem, because it captures the delicacy of Schubert’s String Quintet in C, D956, in such a way as to make thick pple want to go out and buy it because it in no way perpetuates the idea that poets are frosty keepers-out of culture or owt like that, Ms.

I am going to buy the book immediately and demand Fiona is awarded the prize that will broadcast tot he world what a democratic, open, warm, welcoming space British Intelligensia Poetry is to pple like me, an unpublished dabbler networking online, making the right noises and wanting only to be myself; a bitter begrudging hater of all things not to do with me, as per erm, I dunno.

The next deleted post supplies an instance of woeful inconsistency by moderators. Even those who consider moderation essential surely see that the fastest way to lose respect is by not sticking to your own rules – deduced partly from precedent. Yet after a string of posts in the identical tone from the same commenter, the moderators gave this one the chop. Why?

For any student of human behaviour, the spontaneous remarks we all make in the Blogosphere give us an incomparable laboratory – for studying, for instance, the legitimacy of old and new ideas about temperament. This particular blogger, @ artfarmer — or, as he insists elsewhere, Mishari al Adwani — often supplies illustrations of the sort of temperament once described as splenetic, about which the Wikipedia says, in part: ‘The connection between spleen (the organ) and melancholy (the temperament) comes from the humoral medicine of the ancient Greeks. One of the humours (body fluid) was the black bile, secreted by the spleen organ and associated with melancholy. […]. In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England, women in bad humour were said to be afflicted by the spleen, or the vapours of the spleen.’

artfarmer

14 Aug 2010, 10:28PM

Yeah, right: falling on your knees and asking favours of an invisible friend is an unmistakable sign of spirituality and ivariably leads to good art.

Actually, it’s a sign of cowardice and gullibility, a gullibility encouraged by shrill, screeching hysterics who love the human race but hate people.

Crap poem, by the way. I’ll bet you went to Sri Lanka and pontificated on their misery, self-righteous bourgeois voyeur that you are. Pinter wrote this kind of rubbish, too, but least he was a good playwright.

Unlike those other two samples of deletions by Guardian moderators, this egregiously repetitious one can hardly be said to have been written in the most literate voice.

But isn’t its contribution to the debate on the burkha question exactly what you’d want to see on a forum The Guardian named Comment is free? Doesn’t the commenter’s case for reaching beyond our prejudices and cultural conditioning deserve airing? Elsewhere on the net, others are making closely similar points – on blogcritics.org, for instance, where one poster reasonably suggests, ‘Maybe they can make the pope stop wearing that ridiculous hat.’?

MassSpectrometer

16 Aug 2010, 8:55AM

@minervahere, @Parisa, criticisin Dawkins fanaticism don’t mean havin a strong opinion bout burkqas one way or another. I mean, havin a personal opinion meself.

I suspect from the listenin I been doin that yeah, if lotsa Muslim gals sez n really means it they love the privacy the garment gives em and the thrill o’ sharin their undraped selves only with their old man and this is kinda thrillin for em (I read some Orthodox Jewish gal explain all that someplace bout coverin up *their* selves), then why not jest believe em?

I mean look at India n Pakistan. Benazeeer Bhutto n Indeara Ganndi wuz real powerful. Powerful enuff to make some suicidil fanatic mad enuff to snuff em. Yet they opted to wrap themselves every — or many a — mornin, in a whole nine yards o’ drapes never givin any indication o’ hatin saris which I know would give me ma and jest about any gal I know a conniption fit and a half if I or anyone no matter how much they lurved us had the gall to insist on em wearin em. Would think I was advocatin foot bindin.

Theres Hindu n Muslim Indian gals today with 3 degrees from places like Harvard n Cambridge runnin multinational corporations who sometimes or always dresses in their trad dress. Yer only have to look at em to know yer caint walk as freely as a western gal can in a saree leave alone run for a cab in Podunk or Manhattin. So whos to say millions o’ Muslim gals don’t consider the constrictin of their black nun-ny garment like lockin em in the county jail but instead, kinda sexy – or purifyin in a way they wanna be pure? Why not jest believe em?

Different o’course if theres intelligence says theres a real n present risk o’ terrorists secretin ‘emselves inside a burqa so if I wuz Sarko or Carla whichever of em’s really runnin France Id wanna make sure I also included nuns habits n muu-muus pinned out with detachable supersized hoodies the same law thats outlawin them boorkqas. I mean wouldn’t you in the interests of equity n all.

Has it bin passed yet? That law? Probably an academick question unless yer real quick cos the thread’s closin and this has to be so long until the next time.

Bisses.

If anything proves the pointlessness of repressive moderation on the net, surely it’s that anyone can so easily rescue victims of censorship?

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Filed under Censorship, Editors and editing, The blogosphere, The Guardian

Editors, editing and infant mortality … (part 2)

[ Editors, editing and infant mortality (part 1) can be read here. ]

THE MASTER

When Han Kan was summoned
to the imperial capital
it was suggested that he sit at the feet of
the illustrious senior court painter
to learn from him the refinements of the art.

‘No thank you,’ he replied,
‘I shall apprentice myself to the stables.’

And he installed himself and his brushes amid the dung and the flies,
and studied the horses – their bodies’ keen alertness –
eye-sparkle of one, another’s sensitive stance,
the way a third moved graceful in his build –

and painted at last the emperor’s favorite,
the charger named ‘Nightshining White,’

whose likeness after centuries still dazzles.

FREDERICK MORGAN

…and that’s my answer to this whinge in yesterday’s New York Times from a misnamed James Sunshine …:

‘…Your column [..] dealt with the standards of blogs, as though we all agreed on what a blog is and is not. I spent 45 years at The Providence Journal, and I still do not understand them. Nor do I like them.

Is a blog merely the private thoughts of the blogger, who has been given the privilege of saying what he happens to think at the moment without a qualified editor passing judgment on it for accuracy, taste, appropriateness and so on? …’

Don’t tell me what the dictionary says, even if it's the OED. The word twit means: someone (i) still insisting in 2010 that bloggers post nothing worthy of close reading or looking; (ii) rabbiting on about how the internet has killed serendipity; (iii) wailing that editors should be treated as protected species, under the delusion that they midwife more good literature than they stifle — in the womb.

First, serendipity … Yesterday I learnt that Yandex, Russia’s answer to Google, sent someone in Rumania to this site to look at Shawn Yu’s drawing of Bruce Chatwin — first published here. From that search result, I discovered – oh of course I read Russian, and with my eyes shut, who doesn’t? – that the Yu portrait has been chosen for nothing less than the home page of the site dedicated to the great nomad by Jonathan Chatwin, who is strangely not a relation, according to The Bibliophilic Blogger.

When I stumbled on the Yandex query, I happened to have been wondering what new work Yu and Harold Francis Bell, another artist lauded in this spot, might have put up on their sites lately. Bell appears to be in mid-redesign on his site, unless he has put painting aside to concentrate on his perceptive female-focused sculpture – if his slide show moving like a glimmering Chopin sonata is any guide. Yu’s blog says that he has just graduated from art school. It offers a fine self-portrait as compelling as Lang-Lang playing Beethoven, and a powerful nude in charcoal.

So much for serendipitous looking. As for reading, editors were on my mind when I checked the always stimulating blog of the novelist Helen DeWitt , whose reportedly brilliant The Last Samurai I have only failed to read because someone bossy, too close for comfort, keeps demanding that I do.

A brave – and much too rare – writer, she had the temerity to suggest last month that scribes submitting work to editors serving as gate-keepers and assayers should have ready access to information about those editors’ qualifications. She actually asked, in public, a question that – before the internet — could only have been put by one semi-inebriated writer to another in the darkest corner of a watering hole, and promptly forgotten about, for the security of both their careers:

Unlike the size of an advance, an editor’s intellectual strengths do not fluctuate with the economy or the sales of a writer’s last book. It would help to know what they were. […] It would be even more helpful if […] writers who had worked with an editor wrote brief accounts of their perception of the experience. […] This sort of suggestion seems to provoke suspicion if not down right hostility: wanting this kind of information was one of the reasons my last agent, Bill Clegg, had second thoughts about working with me.

[After that, she was understandably even angrier, as she explains here, in a saga that nearly had my eyes rolling out of their sockets.]

The first of two recent discoveries of bad editorial decisions revealed, about Simone de Beauvoir‘s seminal work of sexual politics, that …

Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier’s new translation of “The Second Sex” is the first English-language edition in almost 60 years, and the first to restore the material Parshley excised. In this passionate, awesomely erudite work, Beauvoir examines the reasons women have been forced to accept a place in society secondary to that of men, despite the fact that women constitute half the human race. Supporting her arguments with data from biology, physiology, ethnology, anthropology, mythology, folklore, philosophy and economics, she documents the status of women throughout history, from the age of hunter-gatherers to the mid-20th century. In one of her most interesting chapters, “The Married Woman” (a chapter Parshley particularly savaged), she offers numerous quotations from the novels and diaries of Virginia Woolf, Colette, Edith Wharton, Sophia Tolstoy and others.

Too bad that those were missing from the edition I read, years ago. As it was clear even from the hacked English edition that prolixity was characteristic of de Beauvoir’s warp and weft, why not leave well alone?

Regrettably, the work of David Foster Wallace has never lit the smallest flame under me — because I like the man who emerges in accounts of people who knew him, and have always been impressed by the huge numbers of discerning readers among his fans. Surely those admirers deserve not to have had to wait fourteen years to read this detailed, posthumous profile of him by David Lipsky that, we are now told, was spiked by editors in 1996, the year DFW’s Infinite Jest was published to wide acclaim:

[A]fter Lipsky spent five days with Wallace, staying as a guest in his house, driving and flying with him across the Midwest and interrogating him on increasingly personal subjects […] Rolling Stone killed the assignment, apparently concluding that its readers would not be interested in the author of a dense, challenging, wildly satiric, at times profoundly sad and gruesome 1,079-page novel after all.

Wallace took his own life in 2008, at the age of 46, devastating his loved ones and confounding a generation of readers and writers. The reputation of “Infinite Jest” still grows. Set in a near-future America fixated by its tools for chemical and electronic self-gratification, the novel seems more prescient with the rollout of every new compulsively entertaining digital device.

In this age of the Blogosphere, thank goodness, Lipsky could have put his rejected conversations with Wallace online in seconds and let us judge their merits ourselves.

By all means let’s have editors for the refinement of a small proportion of the finest of fine literary creations. Let them be like curators of museums guarding cultural treasures, or perhaps personal hair choppers-and-fluffers who travel with celebrities.

As for the rest of us … Every week, I seem to come across a new, unmediated, wonderful blog, delving into some subject I have always longed to know more about. I follow a few of these regularly. One-Way Street, for instance, which is mostly about architecture, has had some sharp posts on contemporary fiction, and last week offered the deftest evisceration by far – through excellent links — of the feeble responses of the Israeli government, and foreign public intellectuals defending it, to the outcry about the petrifying, unconscionable raid on the Mavi Marmara.

2 Comments

Filed under Editors and editing, The blogosphere, Visual art & artists

Anti-Atlanticism: the lynching of Ian McEwan and Tony Judt

The American War of Independence

Curiously regressive behaviour?

Tip-toeing in after an absence of a few months feels like becoming the ghost of un blog perdu. Haunting has a touch of the illicit about it, doesn’t it? — and I should be not here but scrabbling at the coal face. The same irresistible force behind my first comment on the net four years ago has put springs into these blog-tapping digits. It’s the hope of finding others who have noticed odd behaviour going unremarked in life offline, as far as I can tell.

Why has the Sunday book review section of The New York Times taken to attacking British writers with unique savagery? Discovering two particularly egregious examples in the same spring in which the phrase ‘anti-Atlanticist’ has gained traction in political commentary has me wondering which came first, a cooling ‘special relationship’ in diplomacy evolving into mutual disdain, or growing, widespread cultural friction reflected, now, in barbaric literary scalping?

The first review invites the question of whether the venerable NYT books section is trying to imitate very angry or deranged bloggers to sound younger and less stuffy. Its target was Ian McEwan. Assiduous hyping by his publishers has made this almost mathematically elegant, if uneven, writer the object of bloggers’ bile in direct proportion to the excessive praise lavished on his work by his promoters. But surely the NYT has a reputation for weighed words to protect?

In late April, a front-page critique in the Sunday review of McEwan’s new book, Solar, by the American novelist Walter Kirn read like the sort of baffling murder in which a victim is stabbed often and unnecessarily enough to become a mortuary reminder of Emmental cheese. Were the reviewer and his editors suffering from acute short-term memory lapses or desperate for some NoDoz when they failed to notice how redundant most of Kirn’s complaints were?

That might be obvious from a simple listing of metaphors he used — describing the book as (1) the work of a talented but dull architect; (2) a literary exam; (3) a corpse; (4) a crossword puzzle; (5) a diagram; (6) a culinary disaster wrought by an incompetent cook; (7) a lesson plan.

Here are some choice extracts:

… Instead of being awful yet absorbing, it’s impeccable yet numbing, achieving the sort of superbly wrought inertia of a Romanesque cathedral. There’s so little wrong with it that there’s nothing particularly right about it, either. It’s impressive to behold but something of a virtuous pain to read.

[…] What makes “Solar” such a noble nullity is that it answers these challenges so easily, with such a quotient of stress-free mastery that they feel less like challenges than like problems in a literary exam the author has devised as a means of proving his own prowess.

[…] Because a fictional character can exhibit only so much awareness of his own thematic utility, Beard [the novel’s protagonist] doesn’t notice any of this, merely regarding himself as a colorful eccentric. But readers will see him for what he is: a figure so stuffed with philosophical straw that he can barely simulate lifelike movement.

There’s little that’s lifelike about “Solar,” despite its relentless pretensions to relevance.

[…] The sequence occasions much calculated zaniness, none of it surprising or spontaneous, most of it as dreary as a diagram.

[…] Beard’s fall is at once so generic and so contrived that its climax feels neither inevitable nor cathartic but, rather, overbearing and schematic.

[…] This fine flourish of scatology is not only verbally overripe … but it doesn’t describe a smear of fecal matter.
In “Solar,” McEwan’s Cordon Bleu prose is like that: a buttery, rich sauce ladled onto overcooked, dry meat to help readers swallow an otherwise indigestible meal.

[…] The long-awaited disaster stands revealed as the last phase of a carefully crafted lesson plan.

I’m still trying to work out what ‘a quotient of stress-free mastery’ could mean, and whatever it does, what that might have to do with McEwan’s novel. Two protests from readers about Kirn’s hostility ran in the NYT’s books section the following week. ‘The tone was so venomous and vitriolic, it read as if a personal vendetta were taking place on the front page …,’ complained Elmera Goldberg from New York. Mary Vaughn Blake in Massachusetts said that in forty-eight years of reading the section ‘I don’t recall another [review] quite as hate-filled.’

Like McEwan’s American fans racing to his defence, supporters of a more vulnerable victim of the NYT’s book-vetters have expressed their distress about the treatment of Ill Fares the Land, a dissection of capitalism’s destructive effects on society by the superb British historian Tony Judt on May 2. At least half a dozen times in the last ten years I have guessed — correctly — that some old and famous writer in close touch with New York literati must be fatally ill from the startlingly uncritical and reverential, if not canonical, tone of an interview with, or assessment of a book by, that author. Far from any such consideration, the editors of the NYT books section sanctioned a clumsily personal blast at Judt, even after he revealed that he is gravely ill, too young, with ALS.

That review’s closing paragraph says,

Judt, the immigrant, should know. He has done better in America in terms of access and fame than an American of the same calibre would have done in Sweden or Germany. It is still easier to escape from the slums of America than from the banlieues of France.

But Judt did not come to the US as an impoverished immigrant. He is not American but British (as far as Wikipedia or I know) – simply, a British expatriate.

If he were an immigrant –as the reviewer and the NYT’s fact-checking department imagine – he would apparently have forfeited the right to criticise the staggering growth in income equality in the world’s richest country. Blogging at the Huffington Post, Don Agin said:

Who but the New York Times would assign a foreign conservative hack to review a new liberal anti-capitalism book by Tony Judt? The reviewer, Josef Joffe, is a former publisher-editor of the German newspaper Die Zeit. […] The choice […was…] unfortunate and silly […]. It may get the New York Times some attention, but it acts against the good of the public. Next time choose a centrist to review a book on the left or right.

[…]Joffe says Judt offers a very old idea: the “virtue of collective action for the collective good.”

Well, yes. But does the fact that it’s an “old idea” lessen its import? Joffe thinks so.

Judt is just as critical of Blighty as of the land of Uncle Sam. His book sets out some stunning numbers – of which the Walmart statistics are among the most obscene markers of inequality in the modern West that I have ever seen:

The greatest extremes of private privilege and public indifference have resurfaced in the US and the UK: epicenters of enthusiasm for deregulated market capitalism. Although countries as far apart as New Zealand and Denmark, France and Brazil have expressed periodic interest in deregulation, none has matched Britain or the United States in their unwavering thirty-year commitment to the unraveling of decades of social legislation and economic oversight.

In 2005, 21.2 percent of US national income accrued to just 1 percent of earners. Contrast 1968, when the CEO of General Motors took home, in pay and benefits, about sixty-six times the amount paid to a typical GM worker. Today the CEO of Wal-Mart earns nine hundred times the wages of his average employee. Indeed, the wealth of the Wal-Mart founder’s family in 2005 was estimated at about the same ($90 billion) as that of the bottom 40 percent of the US population: 120 million people.

The UK too is now more unequal—in incomes, wealth, health, education, and life chances—than at any time since the 1920s.

Now, that is an extract from the book that ran in the New York Review of Books, whose standing among New York intellectuals is far higher than the NYT’s, and understandably envied by the newspaper’s book editors. Joffe himself goes out of his way to remind us of that fact in his first paragraph:

But unless the reader belongs to the choir to which Tony Judt preaches — call it the Europhile liberal left, who would rather sell their Prius than forgo their New York Review of Books — …

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that the NYT reviewer and his prose doctors would rise above juvenile rivalry to give Judt the respect that a widely-admired scholar and public intellectual deserves – or at least, refrain from directing such a poorly argued screed at what could be his valedictory offering.

It would have been so easy for the editors to find a dozen reviewers with the credentials to write a measured, elegant and riveting assessment of Judt’s book that it’s hard not to suspect that something more powerful even than jealousy lay behind their choice of critic – and failure to demand a rewrite. Could that possibly be a reflection of ‘the anti-Britainism in Washington’ further north and east? Even supposing that the McEwan and Judt reviews were retaliation for the literary equivalent of latter-day redcoats eviscerating some American novelist — or novelists — dear to their hearts, couldn’t the skewering have been done gracefully, humanely, and with even the smallest thimbleful of wit?

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Filed under Criticism, Editors and editing

We few, we happy few … bloggers vs. The Guardian (which has a lesson to learn from computer geeks)

Old Media contemplating the leap into the New (Huma Mulji's 'High Rise'; Ozier Muhammad)

Old Media contemplating the leap into the New (Huma Mulji's 'High Rise'; Ozier Muhammad)


Dear Comrades
, including those of you who once blogged with me on the books site of The Guardian – whether or not we’re still on speaking terms,

…The signs point to a victory over Goliath. . . Yes, we few, we happy band of bloggers … have won, by refusing to let that newspaper shut us up — behaving just like Tony Benn resisting the BBC’s attempt to silence him in this riveting clip @Hazlitt posted here.

The incontrovertible proof of our triumph? That the moderators on that site can no longer openly ban us.

Because they couldn’t ban for instance, me, in the last half of August, they stooped to imitating Richard Nixon’s Dirty Tricks Department – remember Watergate? — to keep me out.

Why? Because we have taught the Guardian’s managers that a banned blogger quickly becomes a cause célèbre – not least because this site, with one or two others, initiated a tradition of publishing any comments censored by the newspaper’s trigger-happy moderators. (see Salvage Operation, part 1 and part 2.)

It would have been hard for The Guardian to ban me outright. Far from attacking or abusing anyone in my only two attempts at posting there as @wordnerd7 since last winter, I wrote a comment praising a piece on the newspaper’s site.

Before I tidy all that out of sight — and to ensure that the newspaper’s editors will never be able to dismiss the incidents as paranoid and imaginary — I’m summarising the sequence of happenings in this spot. On August 22, I had an automated message informing me that a comment warmly supporting an article by Aaron Akinyemi on the books blog had been siphoned off into ‘pre-moderation’. While I waited, mystified and with misgivings, I pasted in a draft of that comment on this site. On August 26, four days after it disappeared into the bowels of the online Guardian, it reappeared heavily edited – with links to two articles on this site agreeing with Aaron’s argument lopped off. Sentences of mine were slyly inserted under the screen name ‘@wordnerd’ – and not ‘@wordnerd7’, as they should have been. At the bottom of the butchered comment, a remark addressed to ‘@nuges’ was added to my words – a remark never made by me.

When I saw that on August 27, I immediately wrote a new comment, protesting about the censoring, blatant distortion and additions to my original comment — asking the Guardian’s moderators for an explanation. This attempt at posting also vanished into pre-moderation, never to be seen again. I put an exact replica of that post here.

Another wait. Then, on August 28, a comment of which I never wrote a single line appeared in the Akinyemi thread under ‘@wordnerd’. The post attributed to me amounts to a simple-minded and crass statement about racial differences at the furthest extreme from my own beliefs (……………as anyone interested will discover in reading these threads: Will Barack Obama bring back heroism? and A bit more on heroes: Barack Obama’s odyssey, part 2)

Just to be perfectly clear about what must be obvious, The Guardian has never answered my question about why the first post was censored and doctored – and it prevented my enquiry from ever appearing on its site. (I have a copy of the second pre-moderation notice.)

So that’s what I mean by ‘dirty tricks’, and I’m creating this careful record of the incidents for anyone else who might encounter the same behaviour by the authorities responsible for that site.

Now this, mark you, is a newspaper that has a whole segment of its website labelled Liberty Central, advertising the image it likes to project – and can sometimes justify, in other spheres – as a friend of freedom and the oppressed.

As I pointed out at the time, it’s clear that The Guardian is severely rattled by bloggers questioning its authority with substantive objections. There is other – constructive and heartening — proof of our arrows finding their mark. Over the last few weeks, there have been several articles on the Guardian’s books blog objecting to the commercialisation of book publishing – for instance, this one about promotional author-videos and another about Margaret Atwood.

They make a striking contrast with the prevailing opinion of the editors on that site two years ago, when they ran piece after piece endorsing book publishing’s increasing dominance by marketing executives (at the expense of literary quality) – starting with one titled Selling Yourself as a Writer. As recently as last November, strong – but politely worded — objections to that unbridled philistinism were deleted by Guardian moderators.

An entry in this blog spelling out those objections in detail seems to have been heeded: Since when was a newspaper strictly a mercantilist tool?

In effectively banning me in late August, though, the authorities concerned appeared to have had a fit of acute irrationality – spiced with malice.

Arbitrary and punishing authoritarianism is out of temper with the times, dear Guardian. We know how difficult it must be for Old Media to adjust to online publishing, which needs new rules for all sorts of processes and procedures, including the correction of errors, as I demonstrated last month.

Look to the technocrats who gave us these magnificent new communication tools to see how you should be making every facet of your modus operandi more egalitarian. Power structures are flattening out. You don’t seem to have noticed, but they aren’t shaped like pyramids any more. Last March, Scott Rosenberg, who has just published a history of blogging, Say Everything, received a grant of $335,000 from the American Knight Foundation to explore a system for correcting errors in the media that mimics the cheerfully collaborative spirit in which coders of open-source software have debugged each other’s work for decades.

Instead of getting huffy and defensive about the mistakes they make when these are pointed out by readers, in Rosenberg’s vision, newspapers and other media will respond with a collegial graciousness. As he has explained, about his test site:

We’re a place on the Web (independent and not-for-profit) where you can bring specific errors, issues and problems you’ve found in media coverage in your community and try to get them fixed.

[…]

Q: Why should I bother?

A: Because you know that good public information is the lifeblood of democracy. And that journalists are human beings who sometimes make mistakes. And that they work for institutions that don’t always respond to criticism. Instead of posting an angry rant on your blog or just shrugging your shoulders, MediaBugs will give you and those journalists a chance to have civil exchanges about the inevitable errors and problems that crop up in their work.

… As for my fellow-bloggers, with whom I began. Make sure that you have your own blog. I’d have been beside myself if I’d had no way to expose the behaviour of the Guardian’s moderators over the last two weeks. Get your own site, and think hard about commenting on newspaper articles there, not on the newspapers’ sites – to ensure that you will always own the words you write, and can make up your own rules about what you can and can’t say.

Withhold your clicks from their sites, if necessary, and put your weight behind the thrilling new democracy that the new communication technologies have brought us. And do not doubt for a second that our words are being read where it matters.

. . . We few, we happy few, we band of bloggers;
For we today who save our clicks for freedom
Shall e’er be comrades; be we ne’er so vile
Our band shall speed the media revolution:
And Grauniad moderators in their cups
Shall cry themselves a river they were so foul,
And took for monkeys commenters loyal and fair
Who looked for thanks and justice, all in vain.

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Filed under Book publishing, Censorship, Editors and editing, The blogosphere, The Guardian, Visual art & artists

Platform 9¾ at the media junction

[ with apologies to H. Potter and J.K. Rowling]

It’s been hot where I am, for most of the last week – blisteringly, sinfully, mind-numbingly hot. But is only weather to blame for the last thread here and its cousin on @ISA’s site seeming not merely Dali-esque but downright fantastic?

As I swelter, I’m up to no more than sharing three jottings related to those posts – what an old friend calls ‘perspective pills’:

1. The ideal of the Fourth Estate – especially as the exclusive preserve of print newspapers — is virtually dead.

I’ve discovered that that’s a forgone conclusion for the über word nerd William Safire (well, he does have an army of paid researchers doing his digging – and yes, they make me jealous). Mea culpa, for brandishing that once-noble phrase in an earlier post. Safire’s Political Dictionary says in the entry for ‘fourth estate’:

The press, a dated phrase now often used in sarcasm.
[…]
The phrase was used to put the press on an equal footing with the greatest powers in a nation; in the twentieth century it was taken up by many editors in descriptions of the importance of journalism. The phrase lost its vividness as the other ‘estates’ [clergy, nobility, commoners] faded from memory, and now has a musty connotation. In current use ‘the press’ usually carries with it the aura of ‘freedom of the press’ enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, while critics of the press usually label it with a sneer, ‘the media,’ originally popularised as an advertising term.

Safire and his researcher-moles have settled not on Burke — who usually gets the credit — but William Hazlitt (who might or mightn’t be related to our @Hazlitt on this site) as the coiner of the term. In an 1821 essay, the great contrarian and stylist described one William Cobbett — a pamphleteer with the heart and mind of a first-rate blogger — as follows:

His blows are as hard, and he himself is as impenetrable. One has no notion of him as making use of a fine pen, but a great mutton-fist; his style stuns his readers, and he ‘fillips the ear of the public with a three-man beetle.’ He is too much for any single newspaper antagonist; ‘lays waste’ a city orator or Member of Parliament, and bears hard upon the Government itself. He is a kind of fourth estate in the politics of the country.

2. No one seriously young has the faintest idea of why ‘Fourth Estate’ once made ink-stained hearts beat faster.

From a passing mention of a blogger making a splash in Manhattan – where you once went if bent on getting rich-and-famous in Old Media, and now do better even if you’re already thriving in New Media, according to the (of course wholly unbiased) New York Times:

“I would never get my company involved in a print product,” she said over a Prince song. “That is just a very expensive way of soothing your own ego and feeling important. I can’t see any value in that.”

3. Some stunning parallels – down to the precise words — between today’s shift in media power and the mid-20th-century transition from radio to TV

… in an exemplary, clear-eyed and whinge-free column by Terry Teachout. Confirming that Mary Dejevsky was wrong to laugh at American newspapers for losing money in digital media experiments ten years ago, he writes in ‘The New Media Crisis of 1949’:

Network TV lost vast amounts of money in its early years. It was only because the existing ­radio networks were willing to subsidize TV that it survived—leaving CBS and NBC at the top of the heap in the ’50s and ’60s, just as they had been in the ’30s and ’40s. The old media of today have a similar chance to prosper tomorrow if they can survive the heavy financial losses that they’re incurring while they develop workable new-media business models.

In that watershed year:

At year’s end, a survey of 400 TV owners in Washington, D.C., told the tale: Adult attendance at movies was down 72%, while 36.7% of TV owners attended fewer baseball games. Meanwhile, the average amount of time that these Washingtonians spent listening to radio each day had plummeted from three hours and 42 minutes to less than half an hour.
[…]
“Maybe we old people can’t adapt successfully to video,” said Jim Jordan, the star of “Fibber McGee and Molly.”

His conclusion:

Established radio performers […] flourished well into the ’60s. Everyone else— […] — vanished into the dumpster of entertainment history. The same fate awaits contemporary old-media figures unwilling to grapple with the challenge of the new media, no matter how popular they may be today.

… When I was sixteen, rows of ink on newsprint smelt as sweet as fields of lavender; a lilac bush in full bloom — or my vase of freesias on a hot day, like this one. Enough with the soppy sentiment, I tell myself: out with the old; in with the new.

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Filed under Editors and editing, The blogosphere, The Guardian