Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Good things at the TLS

Not particularly literary (except insofar as adolescence is one of literature's great topics), but Terri Apter's piece on teenagers and resilience is well worth a look (she's reviewing a number of different books, Out of the Woods: Tales of Resilient Teens is the one discussed below--oh, and if you click through on that Amazon link, just scroll down and read a very funny parodic review by the pseudonymous viktor_57--in fact, click through from that onto the "See all my reviews" button and proceed from there if you want to see a truly obsessive & very funny project of the kind that the internet has made peculiarly accessible--in the nineteenth century you would have had a much smaller audience for this kind of joke....):

As sceptical developmental psychologists, Hauser and Allen would not ordinarily have set much store by a talking cure; but they came to recognize personal narrative as a resource and a tool, a way of grasping how people create and maintain meaning over time. They analysed the interviews of their sixteen subjects - the nine resilient ones and the seven in the contrast group - and noted how they talked about change, about relationships, and about their developing ideas of themselves. They found that those who were able to process difficult material had richer and smoother narratives. They came to realize that the significant questions to ask were: does a speaker stick to generalizations, or can she see nuance within a situation? Is a story flexible and inclusive, or closed and static? Does the speaker welcome opportunities for change, or resist them? Are relationships tolerated, recruited, or rejected as threats? Can a speaker focus on emotionally taxing experiences or does she respond with vagueness, avoidance, confusion or by changing the subject? Does the speaker see herself as a force in the plot line, or as a bystander?

While the stories of the contrast group were structurally simple, flat and disorganized, those of the resilient teenagers were complex, vivid and clear. The teens whose stories lacked complexity faded out when asked why they did something or when asked to describe what they generally do when things don't go well; their lack of emotional awareness was frustrating, and these teens had a tendency to foment trouble as a distraction from their failure to understand their difficulties. The resilient teens did not always begin with complex, broad or coherent narratives, but they could shift ground.

Also (I must take a look at the Dirda book) Sophie Ratcliffe is horrified by Jane Smiley's writing advice and enchanted by Michael Dirda's and Michael Holroyd bemoans the contemporary preference for Shakespeare over Shaw.

(One reason Holroyd's Shaw biography is so much more interesting than his Lytton Strachey one--which I must confess I have never quite managed to get through--is because Shaw must be one of the most interesting people who ever lived. I really love Shaw, in fact if the schedule ever permits me to teach anything outside the requisite-although-of-course-also-beloved eighteenth-century stuff I am going to press for an undergraduate seminar on Shaw and Stoppard. I've really got a thing for Stoppard--John Lahr's New Yorker piece on Stoppard's latest gave me a terrible pang, although he does not think it's a very good production I really wish I could go to London to see it--Stoppard is my absolute favorite, one of my top five theater experiences of all time was seeing my particularly most favorite Jumpers in London a long time ago with Paul Eddington and Felicity Kendal--I haven't found the New York productions of Stoppard very reliable, I fell completely in love with Arcadia in London and then dragged a friend to see it again in New York and it was awful, all embarrassing fake English accents and leaden pacing and sanctimonious "we are seeing a play that is good for us"-ness; and I didn't like the Housman one much either when I saw it on Broadway a few years ago. Postscript: strange to say, Vaclav Havel is going to be in residence at Columbia this fall. I wonder if there is any chance to meet him and actually have a conversation, or whether he will be hived off with ceremoniousness? Hmmm--must investigate....)


  1. There was a great student production of Arcadia at CU when I was a first-year - probably the best student production I saw during all of college. What a fabulous play.

  2. 1) My mom was at the book party for that resilient teens book just a few weeks ago. There's an interesting story about authors, editors, copyright, and royalties behind it--hence the three authors (the first two are the psychiatrists; the third was originally hired as an editor).

    2) Did you see the Amazon reviews of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius when it first came out? (I'm pretty sure that was the book.) All the McSweeneys folk went nuts on it, and then random strangers started joining in. It was hilarious, but it only lasted about 48 hours, and then Amazon got wise to it and took them all down (though I never checked them again--I wonder if more went up).

  3. Those Amazon reviews were hilarious!

  4. Gautam: Yes, I am totally in love with ARCADIA....

    Becca: Next time I see you I will pester you for the backstory--and no, I didn't see the HWSG reviews, though I feel sure someone has archived them somewhere. I hope I am not drawing attention to this guy's prank, it is a wonderfully good project--I think he has got around potential problems by awarding five stars and glowing recommendations to all of the products he reviews!

    Dorothy: Yep--beautifully well executed too, eh? I have an irrationally strong feeling that they must be written by someone I know, but absolutely no basis for feeling this way! I want to read a novel by this guy!

  5. I read Out of the Woods, tales of resilient teens, and I also saw the post by "viktor_57 "viktor_57" on Amazon. Personally, I found the post to be offensive and disrespectful, and genuinely insensitive to who those kids really were and/or what they went through to survive and even overcome traumatic childhoods and serious mental illness. Mocking mental illness strikes me as awfully low humor.

    More significantly, I felt that the book offered hope for helping more damaged and/or brutalized kids to successfully navigate the paths of their fractured childhoods, and emerge as productive members of society, by tapping into and nurturing human resilience and its adaptive traits. This book is a positive testament to the critical importance of mental health care and behavioral science -- and their advocates -- in and for our society. I'm sorry that Viktor felt good about distracting from that message with short-sighted and insensitive wit.