Print or electronic?

Another article in the aforementioned Times Books (Sat 4 Feb) was by Jeannette Winterson, who writes a regular column. I don’t like Winterson’s books because I don’t "get" them and feel intimidated by them. "Oranges are not the only fruit" was muddled and confused, I thought — or at least, I was, by the time I had struggled through to the end. I have tried a couple of others as people do rave about her, but I have not made it to the end of any of them. I can’t work out whether her books are pseudy (the science-related ones certainly seem to be, using the terminology of science and its concepts for superficial effect, rather than using them to try to say something, as Ian McEwan does for example ), or if it is just me being stupid. I also don’t like her columns very much, as they usually seem to be about casting herself in some favourable light. So I have stopped reading her. However, the header on today’s article stated "Let’s stop publishing books that don’t really need to be books", so naturally I read it. Turned out that she thinks "People who don’t really read don’t really need books — so let them have Jordan and Becks in lots of other ways" — audio, animated audio etc. (See what I mean about Winterton’s incredibly snobbish and elitist position? She doesn’t even consider that these books top the UK best-seller lists, so there is a demonstrable demand for them in the print medium. But this fact does not fit Winterson’s cultural prejudices, so she ignores it. ) Interestingly, she cites the scientist Susan Greenfield in support of her view — SG does not seem to have directly endorsed it but to have written something that Winterson thinks can be used to support her (Winterson’s) argument. Greenfield herself is not a "scientists’ scientist", and in any event I feel sure Winterson is giving one throw-away comment undue weight. Winterson’s basic point is that mass literacy did not occur until the 19th century, so "the way we read now has not been around for long and may not be the way forward". She thinks that celebrity books and academic research papers should be published online, and "proper" books in print. Her argument goes "The push from government for academics to go on producting pointless (!!!) research year in year out, whether or not to stay, has led to the present university library explosion. There is simply nowhere to put this stuff." On thinking about it, I think I’ll just categorise Jeannette Winterson with Julie Burchill, who (probably non-coincidentally) sometimes has a column in the same slot. There is a class of columnists who are long on opinion and bigotry, but short on facts or research, yet who sell newspapers becuase they create a lot of (empty) controversy. DBR (don’t bother reading). I love a bit of heated debate, but not when it is based on ignorance (and pride in ignorance). There is certainly plenty to be said about online publication of academic material, and plenty of interesting, informed, disparate and passionate views on the subject are easy to find. I would not say on the basis of her Times column that Jeanette Winterson is a source of useful information on the topic.

Saturday book review

Bearing in mind the discussion on Books, Inq. about stand-alone newspaper book-review supplements, I read Saturday’s Times with particular interest this week. The Books supplement started out badly with a cover picture of Jordan with a caption "model wife, model mother". However, what appeals to me about the stand-alone Books section, apart from the su doku and crossword, is the ecelcticism of it, so I just ignored the article with the header about how Jordan is "a real person who has made it on her own" (sack that sub). Other articles didn’t catch my fancy either, but a couple did. One was an article by the author John Irving about Kurt Vonnegut’s autobiography (if KV could write anything in a definable category, which I doubt). Surprisingly, Irving’s article seems to have been written de novo for the Times rather than having been reprinted from a US publication. The article was fascinating: how could it not be with such a subject? I have enjoyed a couple of John Irving’s books — Garp was so magnificently elegaic and almost unbearably tragic (or so I thought when I read it, a very long time ago), but nothing else I have read by him comes close. Rather like Vonnegut and Slaughterhouse 5, actually, but I am sure that similarity was not why Irving had been commissioned to write the piece. An article in a newspaper by an author about another author is usually a good bet, and this piece is no exception to the rule. Irving made great use of his 1000 words, and of course you don’t get many subjects like Vonnegut. The fact that KV had been a teacher of Irving gave the article authenticity (a bit like Lodge on Bradbury a week or two earlier). A journalist could have written a good article but it would have been different; the stand-alone books section provides an opportunity for weekend essays such as this, which aren’t really pieces of journalism, and perhaps don’t belong in daily newspapers when speed-reading is necessary. There was some lovely stuff about semi-colons (KV doesn’t believe in them), thoughtful vignettes about Hamlet, and a great line or two, for example the team of Martian anthropologists who have been studying Earth for 10 years and still do not understand things about American culture: "what can it possibly be about blowjobs and golf?". One section jarred significantly: Irving discusses some of KV’s thoughts about the six-day war, and adds what seems to be a gratuitous paragraph of his own, 100 per cent pro Israel and anti "Hamas" and the Palestinians. I’m not going to go there, except to say that Irving’s somewhat hysterical diatribe about refusal of Hamas to recognise the state of Israel, etc, should surely at least acknowledge that not a lot of people recognise Palestine either (it is always "Palenstinian Authority" in Internet dropdown menus for one thing). Nevertheless, KV is very funny on the six-day war, with Nassar and Hussein’s assertion that British and American aircraft must have helped the Israelis. Contemporary events bear out KV’s line: "The only way Israel could have lost the six-day war was with American and British assistance". Irving’s article epitomises why I like these supplements. I would never have come across the Vonnegut autobiography any other way. I may not buy it or read it, but I may. The article by Irving was well-argued (apart from "that" paragraph), thoughtful and interesting, with a touch of nostalgia for that "Slaughterhouse 5" discovery moment – it is one of those books that is just different.

Things to say, and Wordsworth & co.

Yesterday I felt as if I was the most boring person in the world and could never have anything else to write on this blog, which is pretty pathetic really as I am only writing it for myself — though if anyone is interested, that’s a real bonus. Today, I have lots to say – more to say than there is time, as I have to be out most of today helping my Dad celebrate his 80th birthday . Why is this? Why don’t I realise when I’m out of any "outward-looking" thought that I know I’ll recover pretty soon? At my age I should be more self-aware, surely, having been the rounds on this millions (literally) of times? Anyway, Malcolm is reading his way through Simon Scharma’s History of Britain and has got to vol 3. (Vol 1 covers a huge swathe of time, something like prehistoric to 1485; vol 2 about 400 years and vol 3 about 100 years — such is history, at least in Scharma’s view.) In this bit Malcolm has got to, Scharma is writing about Hazlitt’s disgust with Wordsworth and Coleridge for betraying their radical roots. Apparently Wordsworth is supporting the Tory government, producing stamps for Westmoreland (a sinecure) and supporting the rotten borough system/aristocracy. Hazlitt is bereating Wordsworth and Coleridge for these and other henious sins. I had a whole set of reactions to this information. First, I had no idea that W and C changed in this way, as I have rather a romantic view of them (in common with the rest of the world I imagine), so I felt pretty embarrassingly ignorant. This made me want to read Scharma’s book, hence I inwardly groaned becuase how the hell can I ever do that (Malcolm has been reading them on and off for what seems like 2 years)? Then I thought about Hazlitt’s views, and that what he was describing is human nature. Radicalism and idealism are essentially youthful. We can look around us at politicians and other people in public life who had radical pasts (many leading members of the UK Labour party for example), and see how far they have moved to the opposite view. I guess this process might be more marked in the UK than in the US, as over here you don’t have to be rich to get into public life, whereas there it is a pre-requisite. And if you start out rich, I think you are less likely to be a radical youth (more likely a spoiled youth). I digress (as usual). My point is, when people are young, they are "against" the established order, wanting to bring it down to create something better. As they get older, they acquire "responsibilities", children, mortgage, job with pension, etc. They fear that society won’t look after them or their family if they get sick and old, etc. So they become what they used to hate, and turn out like Wordsworth, issuing stamps for Westmoreland. Of course, many noble people don’t turn out like this. Noam Chomsky, John Pilger and many others remain wonderfully unreconstructed, becoming even more radical (and quite possibly, unrealistic) as they get older and witness more and more of the cruel events that can happen in this world. (All that Hazlitt stuff, I believe without having checked, reflected the upheaval of radical thinking and political extremism that surfaced in England in the light of the French Revolution. Attitudes in England among the "literary and radical thinkers" to events over the channel swung about wildly, especially when the aristocrats’ heads began tumbling.) I am naive and ignorant about politics. There is a wonderful collection of media articles on that most excellent and life-affirming site, Perceval Press (in "my favorite sites" on the right), on this type of topic, as well as a thoughtful collection of links to many fascinating sources.

AnnMarie Eldon said…

I’m reading you – got you through Books Inq
good to see a UKie

9:37 PM

Maxine said…

Thanks, Annmarie. I had a look at your blog, it is so creative. I also saw your poetry group blogs.
I will bookmark them so I can read them properly "one of these weekends".
Thanks again for your nice comment. I’ve not been called a UKie before but I like it!

8:55 PM