Oh, Dunning-Kruger, you’re everywhere

12 04 2011

I think the internet has ruined us. Newsflash, right? Maybe I’m being nostalgic for a time that never was, but it just seems to me like there used to be a time in my life when most discussions developed into something larger, when there was a back and forth and endless clarifications and adjustments and analysis (often self-critical, like, HOLY SHIT, you can question yourself!) rather than just a snarky cheap shot across the bow and a reluctance to really engage another person intellectually. It’s not just anonymity. It’s a fear of losing something. It’s defensive. There’s an absence of trust.

If you study literature or film or, really, if you’re in the liberal arts and you go to grad school, you’re going to get hit in the face with a lot of Theory (capital T). There’s good reason that most undergraduates are spared this (I was) and it’s not because they’re too young or immature or even stupid to understand it, but because doing it requires a leap of faith and a buying-in that most aren’t quite ready to do just yet. They’re still taking courses outside their major and they’ve got a million things going on. When you’re in grad school, you think everyone in the world goes to college and it’s grad school that’s rare – I mention that as an aside because everyone everywhere sees the world as a fishbowl sometimes – but because of that perceived rarity, you’re willing to accept and be open to more ideas.

That first hit with Theory is huge, let me tell you. All of a sudden, you’re expected in short span to read Althusser, Marx, Freud, Lacan, de Saussure, Said, Bhabha, Butler, Kristeva, Derrida, Foucault, Benjamin, Adorno… this list could go on for quite a while and even conjuring these names up now, names I’ve not thought about in a long time, is engaging in nostalgia and feels like I’m just touching the edge of something immense. Anyway, the first criticism you always here at this time, and I’m pretty sure I said it myself so I’m not excusing anyone here, is that these writers are just masturbating. It’s said with a sense of self-assurance that is at once cocky and fearful. Because, after all, you’re the first person to have ever thought such a thing and boy aren’t you clever and if you’re standoffish enough, cross your arms hard enough and put your head back and look down the nose a little maybe nobody will notice how worried you are and my God! it just sucks being this awesome all the time, what a burden.

Anyhow, their writing is hard to read. Really, really hard. Deliberately hard and you sit there wondering why they’re such bad writers, as if that’s the right thing to be concentrating on. If you’ve never read deeply into philosophy, there’s a very steep barrier to entry. So, naturally, rather than take that climb, it’s a whole lot easier to diss the climb itself as unworthy. I’m not going to stroke their long dead white egos by seriously reading them. I’m going to just go ahead and point and declare that the emperor has no clothes on. I’m rebelling and I’m doing it by making the laziest argument of all.

Fortunately for me, I had a teacher who didn’t let me off the hook that easily and I’m very grateful to her and always will be. I ended up taking the leap of faith and decided that I wasn’t fit to judge until I had immersed myself in it. If you think about it, it’s a big risk to take. I most certainly did not enjoy myself at all when starting to read these critical works and they were just the tip of the iceberg. There’s an entire language and mode of thought there that, until you’re already in the middle of it, makes no sense. To get to that center, you spend a lot of time reading the same page over and over again for 30 minutes at a time, rubbing your eyes, wishing you could just skip to the end, but parataxis makes it impossible to skip at all. Your legs are broken and you drag yourself through it.

It’s hard to say if it’s worth it. It was for me. I think that once I began to understand how ideas were interrelated and how they described a different, sometimes much deeper understanding of everything in reality and in fiction at the same time, it opened up many directions of thought that I probably would otherwise never have. Mostly, I learned to apply a different mode of thinking to what I read and saw. I was good at interpreting literature before, but it did make me much better at it, especially once I learned to put down the theoretical lens again (it’s an occupational hazard that once you pick Theory up, you can’t put it down again – resisted, though, it can be enriching to remember the fundamentals of close readings and not let your favorites lead you by the nose).

The most important thing I learned, though, was to get past that cheap rejection of the entire enterprise. I learned that sometimes you do have to admit that you know too little to judge. That’s not always easy to accept or even recognize. And, unfortunately, I see that happening so often in conversations I have, not just on the internet, but everywhere.

In his essay “The Triumph of Stupidity,” Bertrand Russell once wrote that “the fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” I came to learn recently, in the light of various discussions, that this is also referred to as the Dunning-Kruger effect. In the study, the lowest performers always overestimate their ability and understanding, while the top performers never realize that they’re actually on top. In essence, the stupid people are too stupid to realize how stupid they are, while the smart folks are so critical of themselves, that they fail to see that they understand as much as they do. I’d say that sums up a lot of my experience: they more I’ve learned, the more I’ve come to realize that there’s just so much I do not know. So, I tend to waffle more than I should.

So, when I came across a recent article about the provost-elect at Kennesaw State in Georgia who drew fire for having cited Marx in an academic paper, it frightened me more than a little. Citing Marx isn’t at all uncommon and it doesn’t mean that you’re a communist or that you’re anti-capitalist or anything of that sort. Personally, I cite Freud a lot. It doesn’t mean that I’d consider it current practice in psychology; it means that his ideas might provide a model for understanding something else. Reading Marx and applying a Marxist reading to something sociological makes a person no more a Marxist rebel than applying Freud makes me a psychologist. Not that the public is going to understand that, though. The reason the Red Scare is scary is because it’s fueled by a great many people who don’t understand that they don’t understand. As an aside, there are many other things that might be questionable about this particular hire, in my view, including a few very shoddy articles that make too many broad, sweeping generalizations, and it might be a ham-handed application of theory to the criticism he’s attempting to level, but the truth is that the public saw the name Marx cited in a favorable context and that’s all they chose (or were able) to focus on. I’m all for public opinion, but not when it becomes a mob. Sometimes, the public just isn’t informed enough really to make the judgment it’s making, but there’s no telling them that.

And yet again, my point here has diverged from what I originally intended. I had meant to say that if we can get over that initial reluctance to engage and the easy, lazy dismissal of opinions different from our own, we can sometimes come to a better understanding and sometimes just have some really great interactions. I was fortunate enough to have had just one such conversation last night with my brother-in-law (Thanks, Dax!). There were a number of times when either one of us could (or even actually did) dismiss a perspective as unworthy too early, but every time, we recovered from that and, for my part, I came to several realizations I would not otherwise have had. It pays to stick to it and buy into the idea that there’s very likely something to be gained just for going through the process of discussion. There’s a reward that can come from understanding that there are all sorts of things we don’t understand.


On the other hand…

7 04 2011

Caught this much more optimistic interview in the Atlantic with Marjorie Garber, the author of The Use and Abuse of Literature:

I don’t believe there’s a necessary divide between highbrow and lowbrow or whatever. I think that the habit of reading is intensely pleasurable and it’s also hard. The pleasure of it is partly the pleasure of detection, the pleasure of recognition, the pleasure of response. I think you can probably tell from the book that I’m very optimistic actually about the future of literature and literary reading—I’m far from despairing and I don’t actually feel that there’s a crisis. What we need is to continue to show the power of reading, the pleasure of reading—and, again, more people experience that than we are sometimes aware of.

It’s nice to read something more up-beat and positive and focused on the act of reading of itself, as opposed to the publishing side of the discussion, which is sometimes so drenched with Kool-Aid on either side, one would think Congress has better chances of working together smoothly. Also, I think the last couple posts I’ve made have put me in the position of being a little snobby, but that’s not a position I really want or mean to take. I like to read for entertainment. I will buy every novel George R. R. Martin writes in the Song of Ice and Fire series without question (even though the 4th book just left me a little disappointed). I’m not saying that pleasure is all bad.

I do think, however, that truly meaningful works do more than just entertain. I think we can find those experiences in everything, but I do worry that left to just a mass-market, works with meaning and depth will be seen as “too hard” and will suffer diminished value to an even greater degree than they presently do. It’s the path of least resistance. In other news, people also don’t really go to see many independent and foreign films, they seldom go to art exhibits, and water is also wet. I find that a shame.

Garber’s focus on teaching “the power of reading” is what provides the ultimate glimmer of hope. That is, if it’s not neglected. It seems really important.

Bad Writing

4 04 2011

From the Self-Publishing Review:

At the risk of sounding like a snob: non-sophisticated readers will not care if writing is non-sophisticated, and there are a lot more non-sophisticated readers than sophisticated ones. That’s millions of potential readers.  Publishers might like to believe that they have the finger on the pulse of what sells – or what should sell – but when mediocre writing is becoming a bestseller, this pretty much renders the slush pile meaningless.

I couldn’t agree more, though many of the comments there correctly point out that bad writing makes its way through the publishing houses all the time. The difference, I suspect, is that in most of those cases, such as with Snooki or the various Tumbler to Book Deal conversions, these represent just a money grab for the publishers. You can’t really fault them for that. They need the money or they’ll go under like any other business. The more serious literary imprints and presses aren’t doing that and, consequently, they don’t bring in the big money, either.

I also saw the point made that great storytelling trumps great writing. I am not so sure. I’d even venture to say it’s impossible to have anything more than the barest kernel of what could potentially be a great idea for a story without having it written down and stories, my friends, are made in the telling of them. It might be a really grabbing concept, but it’s not done until it’s written and half-thought out ideas are compelling and worthless at the same time. I might have a really great idea for a painting that would knock your socks off. Unless, however, I somehow find the talent, dedication and time to put that image onto canvas, the idea isn’t worth anything. Technique and craft matter, at least as much and sometimes even more than raw gifts. What makes a great story is, frankly, a great story in all of its magnificence and splendor, a great idea perfectly massaged onto the page, be it pixels or paper. That’s inseparable from the writing.

One part of the math

30 03 2011
Cover of "To Kill a Mockingbird: 50th Ann...

Cover via Amazon

I dig Laura Miller so much. She’s rapidly becoming one of my favorite people in the book world.

Today she writes about the “particularly symmetrical bit of revolving door ballet” between the amazing self-publisher Amanda Hocking, who has signed on with St. Martin’s and Barry Eisler, who is leaving St. Martin’s to self-publish his own. Hocking sees the big houses as an opportunity to get a little help with the proofreading, editing, marketing and distribution of her works, thus giving her more time to write. Eisler sees the self-publishing route as a way to deal less with the hassles of big publishing and bring his novels more quickly to market, thus giving him more time to write. There’s plenty of Kool-Aid to drink on either side, by the way, but this little conundrum pops up and hits you in the jaw.

Meanwhile, Laura Miller raises the point that always resonates most with me:

With all due respect to Hocking and Eisler (and I’ve got plenty for both), I’d rather have “To Kill a Mockingbird” than any of their novels. Even though they are much better at interacting with their fans and orchestrating their careers than Harper Lee is, Lee (in my opinion, at least) is the better writer. Today’s conventional wisdom, in both traditional and indie publishing, decrees that someone like Lee might as well not bother; however good her book is, it won’t find an audience unless she’s willing and able to make hawking it at least a part-time job.

What this means for readers is troubling. Even if the next generation’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” gets published, the author’s inability to promote it effectively may prevent it from reaching the millions of readers who would otherwise embrace it. And while Harper Lee never published a second book, I want the writers whose work I admire to have as much time as possible to write as many books as they wish. As Hocking so astutely points out, the hours spent in self-promotion are hours spent not writing.

Miller is no doubt correct that this is a problem. One need look only at Jonathan Franzen’s non-trailer book trailer that was kind of about Freedom but mostly about how he hates book trailers to see shades of the disinclination and “profound discomfort” that some novelists have had towards the promotion and marketing business. I think that the artistically inspired and talent novelist’s reluctance to self-promote, which they’re obligated to do whether they self-publish or publish through a Big 6 house, is only part of that problem, however. The larger culprit : nobody will buy the good stuff. Good stuff isn’t commerically viable and the book market is a business. The market, on the whole, is not very good at picking quality. It’s very good at picking what provides the most entertainment value. These are not one in the same. Even when we have a Franzen moment (and no, I still haven’t read Freedom, but I swear I’ll get to it), I imagine that a part of the enthusiasm has less to do with Franzen himself and more to do with a nostalgia towards good writing.

This is where the division between a book market driven just by self-publishing (and its eventual king, Amazon) and one in which large houses still exist present very few good answers. Ideally, both remain viable on the long-term, but publishing houses at least put some of these works on the rolls and get them out in paper to sit on a library self until they’re discovered. I’m pretty concerned that the self-publishing, fast-to-market crowd will drown them entirely, but won’t even know it, presenting this curious, circular logic:

  1. The good stuff will rise to the top!
  2. So-and-so is a selling the most, so her stuff must be really good.
  3. How do you know it’s good? Because it’s selling the most.

The problem? So-and-so is going to be writing stories about vampires falling in love with werewolves for YA audiences and nothing more than endless variations on that theme. Just sayin’, if you want to sell books, that’s what does it. The idea that just writing better will result in these artistic works coming to the top, however, is a pipe-dream. The market just don’t play that way.

Oh to be fat and awesome again

29 03 2011

My brother-in-law and I were talking this morning about Kevin Smith’s Red State and how he’s going to have the chance to see it tonight with Kevin Smith there in Atlanta. I’m insanely jealous, because if you follow @ThatKevinSmith on twitter, you’d see that the promotion he’s been doing on tour just sounds like an experience not to be missed. Plus, damn it, it’s Kevin Smith. He’s awesome.

But, then, there’s the less awesome side. There’s crap like Cop Out. I’d include Zack and Miri Make a Porno, too. As my brother was saying, since Jersey Girl, Kevin Smith hasn’t done much that was like the old school Kevin Smith and we both miss that. I mean, you know that it’s never going to have broad commerical appeal, but that is the appeal for Kevin Smith lovers everywhere. He hits a range that is awesome in its own right, even if it doesn’t gross beeellions. He goes into that during his relatively recent Too Fat for 40 which you can find streaming on Netflix. Still, love the guy and I want to see Red State kick ass.

A minor update

28 03 2011

I’m very aware that I’ve taken a few weeks off from posting here and, for no reason other than my own desire to make a goal and stick to it, it’s no small source of guilt for me. Without going into too much detail, as I think there are some things best kept to myself and away from those nasty Internetses, but I’ve found work and I’ll soon be back to teaching in a very exciting environment and I’m extremely happy about it. This all happened pretty fast, so as my mind placed all available mental and emotional resources towards the good of the one opportunity, my thinking here suffered. Rightly so, I’ll add, but it doesn’t mean I don’t also miss thinking about books and find that, after a while, I’m drawn back to them.

Blogging hasn’t been the only thing to have suffered somewhat during this time. I’ve not been writing or even reading much, though that’s already changing.

My current pleasure geek read is A Feast for Crows, the last book in the Game of Thrones series and I plan on having that finished before the series airs on HBO on April 17. I’m extremely excited about that. My wife and I have been dying for a good show to watch since Boardwalk Empire ended and while Being Human on Syfy has temporarily fit the bill, I’m really just not feeling it just yet.

On the development side, I’ve just started reading Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions by Guy Kawasaki. I forget where I came across the title at all, to be honest and was surprised when I got the email from the library that my hold request was waiting for pick-up. It must’ve been from Seth Godin’s blog. This past year has had me reading so many things outside my standard areas of history and fiction. That’s a good thing.

Writing is, well, slow and intermittent.

Krapfen Montag!

7 03 2011
Berliner (pastry)

Image via Wikipedia

I was happy to see that our local Publix grocery store is stocking Pączki, a jelly doughnut type concotion that is more or less the same thing as German Krapfen. Traditionally, Krapfen start rolling out the Thursday before Lent, but our Publix has had them a bit longer than that. Regardless, it’s a fun thing to teach the kids a bit about German traditions and food and also an excuse to enjoy something that I really shouldn’t be eating.

The story behind the pastries varies quite a bit. The central idea is that people would eat them in order to bulk up before all of the fasting and abstinence of the Lenten season and to use up all of their leftover eggs and sugar. These are also the same as the famous Berliner doughnut of J.F.K. fame.

At any rate, we’re going to enjoy a few of these this evening, as my daughter’s birthday falls on Fat Tuesday (tomorrow) this year and we’ll be celebrating that instead.