Thursday, September 26, 2013

Southwest Williamsburg

-Williamsburg - sorry, North Williamsburg - is being ruined by visitors from New Jersey. Guilty as charged. For some of us car-possessing interlopers from what I will now start calling Southwest Williamsburg, it's just cheaper and easier to get there than to lower Manhattan.

-Thank you, Gawker, for bringing this story to our attention. A Canadian professor insists on teaching only "serious" literature, which by his definition must come from straight, white, middle-aged men. And he hasn't, it seems, been misquoted (although, condensed and edited...), nor, more surprisingly, is he some creation of the left. It's actually more interesting than the gaffe-ness of it all may first seem. If nothing else, he more or less confirms what everyone suspects, namely that the reason for diversity among professors is precisely that people do gravitate towards writers/stories they identify with for boring demographic reasons. And thus that there isn't something objectively superior about the literary production of this one demographic category.

-It is my hope/prediction that "Into The Gloss" will have a Lena Dunham "Top Shelf" in the near future. (They've profiled the fashion designer who's her boyfriend's sister. We're getting there.) Until then, a slideshow of an unknown actress named Gwyneth somethingorother. Who now smokes one cigarette a day, or whoever wrote that post didn't do proper fact-checking on this most important matter.


Andrew Stevens said...

And thus that there isn't something objectively superior about the literary production of this one demographic category.

Well, there is volume. If we're talking about English language literature, then of course it's going to be dominated by white people since white people have historically always been the very large majority of (native) English speakers. When we're talking about sex, well, it's only recently that women have started making very large contributions to English literature. In 200 years, the canon may very well be (in fact, I will go out on a limb and say it will probably be) majority female, but if you say it already is, then I have to conclude that your perspective just might be a little bit biased. And, for better or worse, middle-aged people write better than young people or old people and that's something that no amount of wishing it were otherwise is going to change.

So certainly there is nothing objectively superior about the literary output of white middle-aged men (or at least not anything specific to whiteness or maleness), but it's hardly shocking that that particular group has still written the lion's share of the great works of English literature. This is changing (that demographic is not any longer the majority of quality literary works being created today), but they are still, from an historical perspective, the demographic group to be reckoned with.

Phoebe said...

What you say is fair if we're talking all-of-literature. And the idea that literary studies should involve adhering to contemporary standards, i.e. looking for what would count as 'diverse' in the contemporary U.S. from authors in 17th C England, may have had a trendy moment, but no one is ever suggesting this these days, at least not in the left-leaning academic circles I've moved in.

But if we're talking about recent writing - and Philip Roth's output as a middle-aged man (what this prof considers Great) certainly counts - things look different. It's not bias, it's context. But yes, I might have spelled out that context for you the readers.

"And, for better or worse, middle-aged people write better than young people or old people and that's something that no amount of wishing it were otherwise is going to change."

This is often a topic you return to, in different forms. But here... what about the lifespans of people back in the day? Didn't all kinds of great geniuses (and ordinary people) die at the start of, or before reaching, middle age? They may have produced great works in the middle of their own lifespans, which is something else.

fourtinefork said...

There's some stuff happening over on Crooked Timber, re reading white dudes and the like. This is great (infuriating, actually, due to some awesome mansplaining and as she is forced to clarify things, like actually reading books):

Andrew Stevens said...

Just to clarify, though I believe you have already surmised this, I am talking about when any given writer is likely to have his or her best output. I am not at all saying that someone who is young or old is a worse writer than any old cretin who just happens to be 45.

Keats and Shelley both died before turning 30 and both produced truly great works before they died. My argument is that they, in all probability (though certainly not 100% probability) would likely have gone on to create even greater works had they survived to middle age. This is distinct from, say, mathematics where, if you haven't produced great work before you're 30, then you're simply never going to. (I can think, with some difficulty, of mathematicians who produced their greatest work after 30, but all of those had already produced great works before they were 30.)

There is a lot of confusion about life expectancy in the past. The real problem was infant mortality. In the Middle Ages, if you lived to age 21, you could expect (on average) to live another 43 years to age 64. (Obviously this figure should not be regarded as being too precise. It's a best guess.) The average life expectancy at birth was only 30, but that was due to ferocious child mortality.

So even in the past, great works were typically written in an author's middle age. Take Virginia Woolf, the only female writer Professor Fatuous thinks is worth reading. Everybody agrees, I think, that her best works were written from 43 to 47. The plays which form the bulk of Shakespeare's reputation were written from ages 35 to 45 and he was dead at 52. But don't take my word for it - make your own list of the writers you admire and try to find the peaks of their careers. I took Professor Fatuous's list and the only one I could find who didn't clearly fit the pattern was F. Scott Fitzgerald who published Gatsby at 29, but personally I think Fitzgerald probably lost what would have been his best years to a disorganized personal life. (I admit that's highly speculative, though.)

Petey said...

books, books, books, books

1) As a member of the NYC Realtor Fake Neighborhood Trade Group™, I'd like to make you aware of a few things. Faux "Williamsburg" names were officially retired after the successful effort to hipsterize Bushwich as "East Williamsburg" succeeded a few years back. North and South Williamsburg are non-faux neighborhoods. Next on the faux-front, we're thinking of rebranding Staten Island as "South Red Bank".

2) As a member of the NYC Realtor Fake Neighborhood Trade Group™, I would like you to remind you to Immediately Cease And Desist from renaming your own non-NYC community from an actual NYC neighborhood. May I suggest a choice between "South Bayonne" and "East Elkhart"?

3) You are quite behind on your Gwynethology. Yes, she smokes one cigarette per day now. But she only shoots up krokodil once a week. Which is why she doesn't have to wear sunscreen.

Petey said...

I mean, seriously, the Greatest Living Novelist is Margaret Atwood. That's progress. Even if most of the rest of the list is male. And there are lots of trolls with tenure. And the whole support system is mostly male.

Women novelists need to lean in.