Friday, May 29, 2009

How to Use Fallacies and Influence People

(Ed. Note: Shout out to Anonymous!)

An ethicist might argue that it is wrong to use fallacies to influence people, but what that ethicist is forgetting is that there's very little difference between sophistication and sophistry. In addition, no one wants to look like an idiot in front of others.

For example, here is a list of authors whose work I have never read who occasionally pop up in everyday conversation: Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, Salman Rushdie, Amy Tan (unless one chapter of The Bonesetter's Daughter counts), and John Updike. On more than one occasion, I've had to dodge these authors in conversation like speeding bullets. Here's an example of a rather clumsy diversionary tactic:

A: "So what do you think of John Updike?"
B: "What do you mean, what do I think of him? What, are we dating and now we have to hold hands and talk about our feelings and thoughts and Updike? Jeez, get a life, man!"

While this may change the topic of conversation, it may also convince your listener that you should be heavily medicated. Other diversionary tactics that should probably be avoided are pulling the fire alarm and veering deliberately into on-coming traffic. Here is a list of safer (and somewhat easier) logical fallacies that can be used to hijack the conversation back to safer ground. You're welcome.

1) Guilt by Association
A typical guilt-by-association diversion would go like this:

A: "Didn't you love A Handmaid's Tale?"
B: "No, but do you know who did? Osama bin Laden."

And there you have it. Quick, simple, and easy to remember.
2) Appeal to Flattery

This is fairly easy to pull off, especially if you know something (anything) about the author in question. For example, I was speaking to someone last week who mentioned that Cormac McCarthy was her favorite author. I replied, "McCarthy? Ah, The Road," in a knowing voice, and, before she could ask if I had read it, said, "You know, it's funny, but a lot of people I really admire enjoy his books. It doesn't surprise me that you do, too." We then discussed other authors she had read, moving on to writers with whom I had some familiarity. Reputation preserved!
3) Ad Hominem Attack
This is perhaps the least-subtle of the diversionary tactics available in your repertoire, but a successful ad hominem attack is sometimes your last resort. For example:

A: "I finally finished Midnight's Children last week. Have you read it?"
B: "No, I'm not a philistine, unlike some people I know. I try to read good books. Have you ever actually read a good book?"

He or she will then fumble to prove that he or she has, indeed, read a good book... or he or she will write you off as an asshat.
4) Shifting the Onus of Proof
This one is most useful if you have tried to fib your way through a literary discussion and potentially flubbed it:

A: ... and that's why I think Amy Tan is the best African-American writer today.
B: Amy Tan isn't African American.
A: Oh, yeah? Prove it!

Stick to your guns, and as long as the person you're arguing with doesn't have internet access on their cell phone, you should be good to go. If he/she does have internet access and attempts to prove you wrong by providing the requested proof, get out the ol' Red Herring tactic and accuse them of being one of those extremely annoying people who has to flaunt their iPhone in every conversation. (Those people are the worst.)

"Banality on all Sides"

Hugh Laurie on the Twitter phenomenon: "As I look around my friends' tweets I see banality on all sides. I don't understand the purpose of it. [...] I think if people were able to take these 140 characters (allowed in each post) and develop a poetic Western form - a haiku of our own in which all human existence could be compressed into those 140 characters - that would be a satisfying thing, but that's not what I see when I read them."

I don't "tweet" for this very reason. My "tweets" would read something like this:

"Didn't do laundry, have nothing to wear / But on Fridays I just don't care. / Coffee on skirt on the way to work, / God, some days I feel like a jerk."

I really don't see how this fad holds interest for anyone. My advice for the tweeters out there: don't write if you have nothing to say.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Great Debate: Marginalia

One reason I like to buy books I'm sure I'll like and possibly re-read is that I can write in the margins--I generally scribble reflections, literary sources, possible allusions. I underline on-going themes so I can flip through the book and see how the author manipulates those themes throughout the story.

Little did I know that there is an "official" term for this: marginalia. It is also used to refer to medieval scribblings and pictures in books and was coined by Samuel Coleridge in the 19th century. Despite the impressive-sounding name, however, marginalia is highly controversial. While there are academics who specialize in marginalia, tracing readers' reactions to works throughout the centuries, there also seem to be academics who specialize in mocking those who specialize in marginalia.

In addition, there is a difference between eighteenth- and nineteenth-century marginalia and 21st-century marginalia. Ask anyone who has ever bought a used textbook from a university--they are generally wrapped in an environmentally-lethal plastic wrap to prevent the student from flipping through them to see how much writing and/or highlighting a particular book may contain, thus making the purchase of used books an often-disappointing crap shoot. The more highlighting or notes, the less thrilled the student. People generally want to be the first to write in their books, if they want to at all.

For example, take a look at the debate on this blog--both sides of the argument (to write or not to write in books) are extremely passionate about their views. Those who believe that writing in books is heretical accuse those who do so of being short-sighted and selfish, not thinking of those who might own the book in the future. While in some ways I can see where this argument is coming from (especially considering the trees that are sacrificed to make the books in the first place), I think that there is already a strong economic motivation not to write in books for those who are likely to pass their books on to others, mainly the inability to re-sell books that have been written in. For those of us who hold on to books forever and a day, it will likely be years before anyone else ever has the chance to own the books, so this argument holds less validity.

Those who are against writing in books also argue that it is a form of narcissism--that those of us who do write in books do so out of a desire to somehow make our own imprint on works of genius. I completely disagree with this--the books that I write in, I do so out of admiration for the author. I generally feel unequal to the task of absorbing all that s/he has to say without taking notes (for my own benefit) along the way. It is not a way of trying to change the work, or make my own contribution. It is a sign of reverence and admiration, and it should be viewed as such.

P.S. Anyone who uses the word "real" in the following sense is an idiot: "Most of us real book lovers are disgusted by the site [sic] of someone else's hackneyed, fading, poorly-handwriten [sic], shaky ink notes in the precious (used) books we buy."

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Short Review: Water for Elephants: A Novel, by Sara Gruen

Having finally gotten around to reading one of the bestsellers of 2008 a year late, I tried to reserve judgment on the book as long as humanly possible. Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants potentially has a lot going for it, exploring as it does the world of a Depression-era circus. Gruen's attention to detail is superb, immersing the reader in the vernacular of 1930s carnival workers with all of the cardboard pomp one would expect without going overboard to the point of ridiculousness.

Gruen's understanding of humanity, however, doesn't sparkle; her characterizations are flat and her prose is merely passable. The grand love affair between Jacob Jankowski, the circus' veterinarian, and Marlena, the menagerie director's wife, is never thoroughly felt by the reader, despite Gruen's assertions of emotion. While this is merely a hindrance to the fairly-entertaining circus storyline, however, there is another story arc following Jacaob's life as a "90 or 93"-year-old man in a nursing home. Here he is an angry old man whose motivations and thoughts are not clearly explored--he is simply "angry" and expresses determination to maintain his anger despite the suffocating nature of the nursing home. His story merely proves to be a hindrance to the novel.

While the book is interesting from a historical standpoint, it is not fantastic. I'd give it a C+.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Metabloggery Quote of the Day

Stumbled across this and was frankly horrified:

"Felix Salmon, who writes Portfolio's excellent finance blog Market Movers, puts it this way: 'Quantity is more important than quality. Don't be scared of being wrong, or inelegant; you have much less of an idea what your readers are going to like than you possibly imagine. So jump right in, put yourself out there." Nearly every blogger I spoke to agreed with this sentiment. If you're trying to gain an audience, you can't afford to worry over every sentence as if it were ... see, I was going to spend 15 minutes thinking of a hilarious and deeply insightful simile there, but, damn it, I'm in blogging mode and need to move on.'"

I've always sort of thought that quality was more important than quantity in all aspects of life. I would rather read one good blog post than a load of shit. Is my naivete showing?

Metabloggery and Authority

au-thor-i-ty: the power to determine, adjudicate, or otherwise settle issues or disputes; jurisdiction; the right to control, command, or determine.

There are ways a blogger can gain authority on-line (most of them including linking to other blogs, posting insightful comments, as well as other things resembling effort which I am too lazy to put in), and there are ways to measure on-line authority. One such form of measurement is technorati.com, which tracks the number of sites which link to a blog to determine how well-respected that blog is on-line.

Well, lo and behold, without any effort on my part, I currently have an authority rating of 1 (which is not good, but not as bad as my former rating of zero, haha) thanks to two "responses" to my blog. One was from In Bronte Country, which briefly linked to my review of the film Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. (In all honesty, I would have preferred them to link to my review of the novel Wuthering Heights, if only so that my rant could get the attention it deserves, as well as to stir up a few feathers... because I'm contrary like that.)

The other link was from Buzz Newsroom, which apparently thought my post, "Can A Book Be A Deal Breaker?" was in response to something about Bill O'Reilly. As much as I am honored to have been considered an authority by a site which currently features the headline, "Mary-Louise Parker Doesn't Like Showing Off Her Big Nipples," I cannot help but feel that the link was undeserved as I wasn't actually responding to Bill O'Reilly, I just used him as an example of things I don't like others to read.

Anyway, my point is this: on-line authority is bogus. It is random, unreliable, and somewhat unstable. It is for this reason that, while I am pleasantly surprised to have an authority rating at all, I probably will not go to any great lengths to make that number rise.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

There Be Pirates in This Net

There are two things that stand out about this article by Peter Wayner, "A Book Author Wonders How to Fight Piracy" from The New York Times: 1) It has pirates, and 2) It makes a victim of piracy look a bit like a self-righteous a-hole, apparently inadvertently.

The point of the article is that on-line piracy has now jumped medias and includes books on-line--specifically (Wayner's case) books about technology that caters to those who would theoretically be the first to jump onto the information piracy bandwagon because of their increased understanding of information access and use. The assumption is that it is only a matter of time before other genres are affected and sales plummet, ending life as we know it.

Those around Wayner take a decidedly humorous approach to the problem:

"Many of my friends from universities tend to take a vaguely Marxist approach to the piracy, perhaps because the bursar’s office shields them from the trauma of commerce. One person told me all of this theft was a compliment: I should enjoy the fact that my book was selected to be a part of the pirated file, 'Great Science Textbooks,' and indeed, some of my fellow victims are very famous."
To me, however, the part that stood out the most was this one: "I’m not going to write more books if the revenues will be wiped out by pirates. While authors like Cory Doctorow like to argue that the author’s real enemy is obscurity, there was no real uptick in the sales of my book when these pirated versions appeared." He sees no value in his books other than the income and therefore does not plan to write anymore if the problem persists.

First of all, we've heard this argument before, circa 1999 when Napster was big. The music industry didn't plummet to its death, so it may be a bit early to begin assuming the worst will happen. On the other hand, however, the publishing industry as a whole is undergoing a massive earthquake and it is unclear how the situation will be resolved, though doomsday proclamations abound.

Perhaps, however, this is merely a test of the idea of laissez faire and capitalism. If there is no economic incentive to produce a book, what will happen to writers? Maybe they will continue to write but will take advantage of the all-for-one-and-one-for-all nature of free publication on-line. It will be more difficult to gain attention, but the nightmare of publishing and marketing books conventionally will be a thing of the past. Maybe the cream will rise to the top and those who produce things genuinely worth reading will gain attention on-line despite the lack of economic impetus. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

Or maybe it will be revealed that e-books are simply priced too high, a problem which the free market will rectify by lowering demand. The thing about online information is that the supply is endless, so the traditional free-trade ebb-and-flow no longer holds true. Rather than fighting the information revolution, writers will need to figure out how to harness it and profit from it through innovation, not fight it by refusing to take part in it.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Defining Definitions, or, Splitting Hairs

Oh, let's split hairs. Please? Pretty please?
The following is the first of a short list of terms that I've decided it would be helpful to define, if only to nail down what is to be from now on considered the "official" definitions within the realm of Not-So-Gentle-Reader. I'm open to the interpretations of others, however, because I'm cool like that.

To Read

Yes, my friends, some people don't know when it is appropriate to use the words "to read." Rather than quibble over its exact meaning, however, allow me to simply eliminate the times when this word is not appropriate: when one looked at only the first sentence in every paragraph (which is also known as "skimming" a book); when one studied a subject or a book in class but didn't actually crack it open; when one cracked it open but didn't actually get past the first chapter; when one listens to a book on tape; when one hears about an article or a book but hasn't actually seen it; and, finally, when one has only glanced at the Sparknotes.

In my head, I also differentiate between reading a book casually and doing so more formally. For example, I read Gilead fairly casually because I was so awe-struck by its beauty that I just wanted to soak it in, but I did a very close reading of Oil! because I didn't want to miss any nuances of the point that Sinclair was making. In my own head, I call these two reading and reading, but I feel like the distinction may be lost in everyday conversation.

Light Reading

I never would have suspected that this term needed to be defined, but about six months ago I discovered that there are, indeed, different uses for this term. A co-worker was asking me my opinions on a short list of books she had been recommended, one of which happened to be Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton (which is an excellent book, by the way).

When I told her what I thought of the items on the list, she replied, "Oh, good, I was hoping to find some light reading for over Christmas vacation."

I hesitated and said, "Light reading? I wouldn't exactly call a book about the South African apartheid 'light reading'."

She answered, "Well, normally I like reading vampire series, but I was hoping to find something a little happier to read." For this woman, "light" reading is synonymous with "happy" reading, while "light" reading for me is something I don't have to think about overly. Cry, the Beloved Country is not light reading in my opinion, while a vampire series is most definitely "light reading," for all that it is dark.

Writing Style

This one is a bit more difficult to define, but it's worth the effort if only to enlighten others who might not know exactly what "writing style" is. In my opinion, writing style is a writer's tone, rhetoric, and approach to story-telling. It is not characterization, setting, or plot. The reason I point this out is that I came across a forum on-line in which a commenter recommended the novels of Julia Quinn, stating that the author "has obviously studied the writing style of Jane Austen, because her novels feel like Jane Austen novels," or something to that effect.

Curious, I picked up a Julia Quinn novel from the library entitled, Mr. Cavendish, I Presume? Both the title and the cover should have made it pretty evident that this was not a Jane Austen pastiche. The strongest clue, however, was the opening line:

"It was a crime that Amelia Willoughby was not married."

Pretty good for an opening line, as far as these things go. It is sufficiently dramatic and attention-grabbing as to "hook" the audience, which is the whole point of opening lines. Now compare it to the opening line of Pride and Prejudice:

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."

While both have similar subjects, the two lines have very little in common beyond that point. This is because Julia Quinn's writing style is nothing like Jane Austen's. Setting: similar. Subject matter: essentially the same with some modern additions. Writing style: entirely different. Julia Quinn uses short sentences and is fairly to the point (a trait that extends throughout her book, although not to the point of ridiculousness). Jane Austen, on the other hand, could be fairly long-winded, as all 19th-Century writers seem to have been. Final Verdict: Not. The. Same.

So there we are. I hope this clears up a few misunderstandings.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Not-So-Gentle Eavesdropper: Overheard at the Library

Overheard a gentleman in his 60s wearing a suit saying (and I quote):

"I hardly watch any television anymore. It's like T.S. Eliot's 'The Wasteland' out there."

I think that dude rocks. For those of you who haven't had the (I hesitate to say) pleasure of reading "The Wasteland," here's a brief exerpt of it:

If there were water
And no rock
If there were rock
And also water
And water
A spring
A pool among the rock
If there were the sound of water only
Not the cicada
And dry grass singing
But sound of water over a rock
Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees
Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop
But there is no water

Monday, May 11, 2009

And, To Make A Long Story Short...

...too late!

Has anyone else ever really enjoyed a book but found it to be too unbearably looooong? I'm talking about a book that has the potential to be life-changing, and so you want to read every single word on every single page, but the book just drags on and on and you're praying that you can finish it before the year is up so that you can move on to something else?

I'm currently about 500 pages into Middlemarch, by George Eliot, and it's an excellent book. Her characterizations are superb, and I'm enjoying the book for the most part, but it's 800 freaking pages long! Honestly, it's like three great novels crammed between two covers trying to masquerade as one story and it's absolutely killing me. At the same time, however, I want to have read it (if that makes any sense), but I've been steadily plowing through it for the last two months. She apparently never heard that "brevity is the soul of wit"... or at least, she apparently never believed it.

I've experienced this particular phenomenon of a good-book-gone-terribly-long only twice before: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (I ended up skipping the John Galt speech at the end because I felt she had already made her point tolerably well and I really didn't need to read "Capitalism is gerrr-reat!" one more time) and The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles, in which I virtually skipped through the chapters right before the climax of the novel.

I'm sure this says something about the attention span of modern readers (of which I've read numerous articles), but I'm not sure it's as negative as many of those articles argue. My time is valuable, so I'm therefore hesitant to spend it reading things that aren't really doing anything for me. Either way, I'll be damn sure never to write a book that exceeds four hundred pages in length.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Ellipses

(Ed. note: There may be too many metaphors in the following post, but I was personally invested in them all and couldn't bear to part with even a single one.)

"Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly." --Proverb

I recently realized that I may use ellipses more than the average bear. It is a punctuation mark that is full of possibilities and it implies a thoughtfulness that lasts beyond the end of the sentence in question, both of which appeal to me both as a writer and a person. In my head, there are very few thoughts that end with an exclamation point or a period, as most streams-of-consciousness are connected by three little dots that are so simple and yet say so much.

I feel much the same way about the seasons of the year. For some reason, the winter season is like my ellipsis, a time when I withdraw and become more pensive than usual, generally while suffering from some sort of SAD symptoms. It is not unlike Aristotle's description of catharisis in Poetics:

"Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions."

Throughout the winter, I've been waiting with bated breath for the turn-around, for the moment when the curtain drops and the catharsis kicks in for the audience, bringing a sense of relief and euphoria. No tragedy is the true end, it is merely followed by an ellipsis that leads to the next story. It is a cycle of seasons, of tragedy-comedy-tragedy, of fall-winter-spring.

My point is this: I'm glad it's spring. The "purgation of these emotions" for which I've been waiting finally seems to be just around the corner.

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