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Poems and Pomegranates, Fictive Figs

I already loved pomegranates when I found out that they’re great for your health. But if it turned out that each seed you eat knocks a month off your life (see the myth of Persephone), I wouldn’t give a fig.

Last October, the journal Science published the results of a study suggesting that reading literary fiction–the primary example they give is Chekhov–improves your ability to read social cues and to empathize with other people; what they call “popular fiction,” by contrast, has no such effect.

I’d keep reading my Chekhov even if the results had shown the opposite; but I’m glad they didn’t.

The study is published in the October 18, 2013 issue of Science, but for the general message, you can read the New York Times blog’s version.

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The science of narrative

My sister has just forwarded me a link, which anyone interested in narrative, storytelling or the heights that geekdom can reach should check out now. As silly as this may seem at first glance, it is a pretty good model for how structural narratology and other formal approaches to narrative work.

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Prose poetry

In tutorial, we tried turning a paragraph from Jon McGregor’s If nobody speaks of remarkable things from prose into poetry. Each group of two chose where to break the lines, and then we reviewed some of the choices and what differences each choice could make to the meaning of the same passage.

Here is the paragraph:

He wonders how so much water can resist the pull of so much gravity for the time it takes such pregnant clouds to form, he wonders about the moment the rain begins, the turn from forming to falling, that slight silent pause in the physics of the sky as the critical mass is reached, the hesitation before the first swollen drop hurtles fatly and effortlessly to the ground. He thinks about this, and the rain begins to fall. (Jon McGregor. If nobody speaks of remarkable things. London: Bloomsbury, 2003.)

Here is my own “poem”:

He wonders how so much water can resist
the pull of so much gravity
for the time it takes such pregnant clouds
to form, he wonders about the moment
the rain begins, the turn from forming
to falling, that slight silent pause
in the physics of the sky as the critical mass
is reached, the hesitation before
the first swollen drop hurtles fatly
and effortlessly to the ground. He thinks
about this, and the rain begins to fall.

Immediately you can see my penchant for lives of about 10 syllables; I didn’t do it on purpose, but that’s just the way I read, I guess.

Here are some of the students’ poems:

He wonders how so much water can resist
the pull of so much gravity
for the time it takes such pregnant clouds to form,
he wonders about the moment
the rain begins, the turn
from forming to falling,
that slight silent pause
in the physics of the sky
as the critical mass is reached,
the hesitation
before the first swollen drop
hurtles fatly and effortlessly
to the ground.
He thinks about this, and
the rain begins to fall.

 

He wonders how so much
water can resist the pull of so much
gravity for the time it takes such
pregnant clouds to form, he wonders
about the moment the rain begins,
the turn from forming
to falling, that slight silent pause
in the physics of the sky
as the critical mass is reached, the hesitation
before the first swollen drop hurtles
fatly and effortlessly to the ground.
He thinks about this,
and the rain begins to fall.

 

He wonders
how so much water can resist the pull
of so much gravity
for the time it takes such pregnant clouds to form,
he wonders
about the moment the rain begins,
the turn from forming to falling,
that slight silent pause in the physics of the sky
as the critical mass is reached,
the hesitation
before the first swollen drop hurtles
fatly and effortlessly to the ground.
He thinks about this,
and the rain begins to fall.

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Let’s start at the very beginning…

We were talking about how beginnings work, how they grab our attentions like a hook, how they shape our expectations, introduce us to themes, character traits, features of fictional worlds like ours or not like ours. Consider George Orwell’s 1984 (publ. 1949): “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” How much of that novel is packed into that unexpected last word–the different yet similar story world, the ominous associations of the number 13….

It’s no wonder novels and films are often remembered for their first lines and opening sequences. I’m thinking of Lolita, or Mrs Dalloway, or Moby-Dick, or Catcher in the Rye, or Their Eyes Were Watching God….

Novels start in many ways, but their beginnings are never arbitrary, despite what Maurice Bendrix says in the first line of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair (1951):

“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”

The 1999 film adaptation of this novel, scripted by Neil Jordan, begins with the rather more vigorous “This is a diary of hate,” smashed out on paper by the keys of a typewriter. For a lavish, expensive film production, that was probably a wise but not necessarily good move.

George Eliot, a more philosophical novelist than Greene, is more correct in saying the beginning is not chosen arbitrarily but rather as an act of make-believe, as she writes in the opening of Daniel Deronda (1876):

“Men can do nothing without the make-believe of a beginning. Even Science, the strict measurer, is obliged to start with a make-believe unit, and must fix on a point in the stars’ unceasing journey when his sidereal clock shall pretend that time is at Nought. His less accurate grandmother Poetry has always been understood to start in the middle; but on reflection it appears that her proceeding is not very different from his; since Science, too, reckons backwards as well as forwards, divides his unit into billions, and with his clock-finger at Nought really sets off in medias res. No retrospect will take us to the true beginning; and whether our prologue be in heaven or on earth, it is but a fraction of that all-presupposing fact with which our story sets out.”

Both Eliot and Greene self-reflexively begin their novels with reflections about the beginnings of stories. But some novelists, especially postmodern ones, can take that self-reflexivity into crazy directions:

“Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression. I reflected on the subject of my spare-time literary activities. One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with. A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author, or for that matter one hundred times as many endings.” (Flann O’Brien. At Swim-Two-Birds. 1939)

And of course O’Brien’s narrator goes on to give us three different beginnings.

Beginnings can, and usually do, perform their function not with self-consciousness but with special efforts of intrigue (like 1984, above) or beauty, like John Banville’s opening to The Infinities (2009), which is narrated by Hermes, who is just one Greek God among others who watch and influence the lives of the novel’s characters:

“Of the things we fashioned for them that they might be comforted, dawn is the one that works.”

Of course, endings are just as important, and though they don’t need to catch our attention, they have the heavy task of making everything we’ve read retrospectively richer or different than we have assumed. For endings, just think of The Usual Suspects, whose ending basically forces you to re-watch the entire movie in your head. Or Lolita (again), whose ending builds to a back-tingling tour-de-force of poetry and underhanded psychological manipulation. Perhaps a long-winded joke is the best example of the work an ending has to do: if the punch line works, then the long joke was worth the telling; if not, we’ve been tricked. Because endings have so much influence over the novel (or film etc), over our memory of it and our holistic sense of its value, no wonder authors put so much work into these as well. Here is the famous last paragraph of James Joyce’s long short story “The Dead,” from his collection Dubliners (1914):

“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

And a less famous and less gorgeous but perhaps more honest ending, from Lydia Davis’s novel The End of the Story (1995).

“And since all along there had been too many ends to the story, and since they did not end anything, but only continued something, something not formed into any story, I needed an act of ceremony to end the story.”

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How great it is to have a word for such things…

This Friday in class I introduced the term Schadenfreude, a German compound-word that brings together “Harm” and “Joy” (yes, Sigmund Freud’s last name means “Joy,” as does James Joyce’s). Schadenfreude, sometimes anglicized as “schadenfreude” (I mean, why not?). Anyway, the term fills the need for a word for that common situation when you derive pleasure or joy from someone else’s pain or misfortune. It is especially relevant to such situations as romantic relationships, circles of friends, politics, sports and… well, I guess there’s a place for it everywhere.

While we’re at it, how about Schwangerschaftverhütungsmittel? Not sure that one will catch on…. probably because there’s already an English equivalent: “contraceptive.”

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This anti-nominalization movement is starting to display momentum!

I’ve just learned about this very effective TED Ed video on “zombie nouns”–more commonly known as nominalizations (see Joseph Williams’ great book Style: Toward Clarity and Grace for all you need to know about these and how to avoid them). Learn about ’em and avoid ’em when you can!

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An excellent guide for writing strong essays

Here is an excellent guide for writing strong essays in English courses, written by Professors Jeannine DeLombard and Dan White in the UofT English Department.

It is short and non-technical and offers very helpful step-by-step procedures for developing thesis statements and writing strong, effective prose.

We’ll be discussing some of these ideas in Friday’s tutorial, but nothing beats the full treatment this resource offers.

A quicker read, but also useful, is “Getting an A on an English Paper,” by Jack Lynch at Rutgers University. Very helpful especially for delineating what makes a good thesis statement.

 

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