Wednesday, February 22, 2006

An interesting literary interview

Robert Birnbaum talks to Andrew Delbanco about his recent biography of Melville; here's a short excerpt:

AD: I have always been finicky about my prose. I just think-this sounds corny-I reached deeper into myself and found ways to express sensitive matters, and I had some nuance, and most of all, I think I gave the book some momentum, some drive. And that is really hard to do when you write about the sorts of topics I tend to write about. History of ideas and cultural history. Another editor whom I greatly respect and said something to me many years ago, when I told her I was writing a book about the theme of evil; she listened respectfully and she seemed to think that was OK, and then she said to me, 'How are you going to tell this as a story?'

RB: Right.

AD: And ever since she asked me that question, I realized I had been kind of groping for that insight into writing-that no matter what you're writing, you really have to find way to turn your subject into a story if you expect anyone to read it.

RB: Which is basic to having talented teachers present subjects-they bring those subjects alive with stories and their own passion.

AD: That's right. And there is a great hazard of academic life. I love the academic life in some ways, and I am very lucky to have a job that can't be taken away from me, but there is a temptation to just write for people who already know a lot about the subject and are going to read whatever you write because they need to, not because it's pleasurable or exciting. But that is not exactly writing. Writing is a form of communication that persuades people to keep on reading. So, I felt I did that better in this book than I had ever done, and I am not sure I could do it again to the same degree. But maybe I'm just feeling drained at the moment.

And here's the link if you want to buy the book at Amazon; Andy is my colleague at Columbia, I've got the book and it looks excellent and I am feeling rather remorseful for not having read it yet, but I think it is going to have to wait a while & then I will read it and use it as a prompt to reread Moby Dick, which is a novel I loved when I read it (I was like "How come nobody told me to read this book before?!?" I was twenty-three or -four and an obsessive & wide-ranging novel-reader who mistakenly thought it was some kind of a dull sea story and as soon as I actually picked it up and started reading--the summer after my first year of graduate school, out of the sense that as a graduate student in English literature this really was a book I should be ashamed not to have read--I was fuming that nobody told me how great it was!) but have only read once, and in this case once is clearly not enough.

Actually I have been having a yen to reread some other classics I don't know well from multiple rereadings (as opposed to the novelists like Austen and Dickens and Eliot and Trollope that I have read over and over again), especially Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Maybe this summer?


  1. Hello:

    I don't want to bother you but would you please tell what is like to teach at Columbia. I applied recently to do a Phd (in Comp Lit+film)although since i'm a pessimist i don't have high hopes.

    I really enjoy reading your journal.

  2. Oh by the way the name is Hugo Rios. Lucas Sexton is just a character from one of my books.

  3. Your tag is misleading! Well, Hugo, you're very welcome to e-mail me at jmd204 (at) columbia dot edu if you would like to know anything about the program. I really love Columbia, the grad students are wonderful and there's a great intellectual vibe; let me know if you have any more specific questions.

  4. I looked up Heredity on Amazon. Looks great-- I think I'll check it out. I recently discovered your site and enjoy it. Have you noticed that a much larger segment of female bloggers seem to include science fiction in their reading than the general population?

  5. Interesting point about the science fiction/female bloggers; I feel sure you're right about this, I've vaguely noticed it myself. Do you have a theory? The obvious thing is that blogging=comfort with computers=higher than average interest in science=science-fiction reader, but I don't know that this is the case (and soon enough, it may already be the case, blogging indicates nothing particular about your relationship with computers/internet and more about your relationship with writing or something like that). Anyway, I would be curious to hear your further thoughts...

  6. The whole computer literate/science orientation/ science fiction link is the most obvious one, and it's what I thought of first, too. I do have some thoughts as to other possibilities, although they may be complete bunk.

    Are you familiar with Jung's temperament/personality models? The MMPI was drawn from them, with certain adaptations, but I came to the Jungian model first and it works best for me. The primary distincions are between extroverts and introverts, which pretty much everyone knows about, and probably identifies with one or the other. First off, it seems to me that the internet is a prime place for introverts to express themselves, since in some sense, it doesn't involve other people. You can give expression to your rich inner life without all the stressors of being around actual human beings. You can make yourself known, which I think most people want, at some level or another. And the internet can level the playing field.

    The second thing in terms of Jung is how you are aligned around the four functions; Intuitive, sensate, thinking, and feeling. I'm an over the top introvert intuitive with thinking as a secondary function. I think the intuitive is where you start being attracted to science fiction, because it's all about possibility-- extrapolating out existing information to infinity. And that continues with the thinking function which aligns itself with facts, with ideas.

    My little theory (and you may have dropped off by now, or have correctly assumed that I live in the state of California) is that people of a certain temperament are drawn to expressing themselves on the internet, and that certain other people are drawn toward science or speculative fiction, and that those two sets overlap to some unknown degree.

    And of course this is horribly generalized (my bad, but I'm intuitive! It's what I do!), but it makes a certain sense to me. And, I hope to you, but I would love to hear any countering ideas.

  7. I am going to have to mull this one over; my only immediate response is that I find the extrovert-introvert distinction peculiarly puzzling. I agree with your comment about the appeal of blogging to introverts, and would on the whole describe myself as one; and yet I think that everyone who knows me in my real life (and surely they are right) has identified me as an extrovert. Not sure what to do with the contradiction. Or what it has to do with liking speculative fiction.

  8. I think that if you think you are an introvert you probably are-- the definitive difference between extroverts and introverts is how they recharge. Extroverts need to look outward, to be with people to energize and recharge themselves, while introverts tend to get worn out by ongoing contact with other people, and need to recharge their batteries by looking inward, by time to themselves. Being friendly and outgoing doesn't necessarily mean you're an extrovert-- it just means you're not shy, which is a whole nother ball of wax.

    And I'm not associating the quality of introversion with the speculative fiction thing--it just seems to me that there are probably a larger number of introverts on the internet than there are in the general poulation. I see the science fiction aspect as being linked to intuitive and thinking functions, or the N and T in the MMPI. And I think at least intuition is also overly represented on the internet.

    Anyway, as I said, this is all pretty reductive. It's just a thought.

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  10. Moby Dick is my Humiliation book. And everyone says exactly what you say: it's a great book. Must read it someday...

  11. Interesting debate, Martha and Jenny, about sci fi and blogging. I am an introvert (though people I meet casually and colleagues would be surprised at that label as I don't seem that way). I don't really read science fiction but I used to love it when a teenager. Why did I stop? I don't know, really, because although some of it is formulaic much of it isn't. I think it may be because I became an actual scientist (degree, PhD, postdoc). Then I switched to science publishing. You can only have so much on one theme in your life. (Though my journal, the august Nature, has run a weekly sci fi page for a couple of years now, called "Futures".)

    I love crime fiction (in the US often called mystery). Maybe this is the same "generically" as sci fi. Do the theories work if you substitute crime fiction (problem-solving, love of puzzles, plot often takes precedence over character though not in the best examples of the genre), etc?

    Would be interested to know your thoughts.

  12. I think, though, that the gender factor is different for crime fiction: i.e. that it's generally acknowledged that women read a lot of crime fiction (including dark/noir kind of stuff as well as the annoyingly named 'cosy'), whereas the stereotypical sf reader is definitely male. But the crime fiction reader/writer scene on the web is very active--those 'genre' readers and writers were doing a lot of stuff online (oh dear, I'm vague on the details, but usenet/listserv type stuff) long before the rest of us caught up with it. Just to throw another slightly counterintuitive thing into the mix--apparently the genre group that really made the internet work early was romance authors. Something to think about--I don't read many romances, but I like the way that goes against the (admittedly ill-informed) stereotype of a romance author being impractical and feminine.

  13. Thanks, Jenny.
    Your reply stimulated a couple of thoughts.
    First, before I discovered blogging I was on a list called DorothyL (for Sayers). Still very active. It is a longstanding discussion list and a great source of info, upcoming news of new books, and other stuff about the genre. However, you can only get it (I think) via email and it is a bit frustrating as of course there are always some people who post off-topic and others who are posting about things one is not particularly interested in (eg there are a lot of librarians on that list who tend to overspill from crime fiction into "librarians' stuff" -- interesting but not the focus of the list). Also it is hard to follow threads by this method.

    Second, re. crime fiction and sf, and romance which you threw in. This made me think of the Nora Roberts R J (?) Robb series "Death in....." which fuses exactly those three genres. Futuristic female NY police detective, married (romantically) to millionaire, each book is a crime to solve. Have you read these? Any opinion? Do you know of others that successfully fuse these genres?

    Off point: does Nora Roberts actually write all those books herself? It is hard to imagine. She produces 2 Robb novels a year and seems to produce at least 2 more per year under her own name.

    All best!