Thursday, November 24, 2005

Happy Thanksgiving!

Serve the LORD with gladness: come before his presence with singing.... Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name.

-- Psalm 100:2, 4

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Poem of the Day (Updated)

This is a long-time favorite of mine. It's from Stanislaw Lem's novel The Cyberiad, translated by Michael Kandel (pp. 50 - 51 of the Harcourt Brace paperback). In it, the robot inventor Klapaucius comes up with an assignment for his competitor Turl's new electronic bard...

The Assignment:

"Have it compose a poem -- a poem about a haircut! But lofty, noble, tragic, timeless, full of love, treachery, retribution, quiet heroism in the face of certain doom! Six lines, cleverly rhymed, and every word beginning with the letter s!"

The Solution:

Seduced, shaggy Samson snored.
She scissored short. Sorely shorn,
Soon shackled slave, Samson sighed,
Silently scheming,
Sightlessly seeking
Some savage, spectacular suicide.

Well, what do you say to that?

It's a marvelous poem, I think -- in itself, and particularly given the stipulations. But of course it is also an astonishing piece of translation: it is hard to believe it wasn't written in English. (Douglas Hofstadter talks about this aspect of Kandel's translations, though not that I recall in relation to this particular poem, in his delightful book about translation, Le Ton beau de Marot.) And a real question in my mind has always been what the original looks like. Alas, the Cornell library doesn't seem to have a copy of Cyberiada in the original Polish... (If anyone out there happens to know, do please leave a comment or email me!)

Incidentally, Googling around, I found that the opening of The Cyberiad, "How the World Was Saved" is available (in English) on Lem's web site. Check it out!

Update: Well, if I hadn't misspelled "Samson", my earlier Googling would have been more successful. It turns out that the Polish version of Lem's Cyberiada is online -- it appears in its entirety. At any rate, it gives us:

The Assignment in Polish:

Niech ułoży wiersz o cyberotyce! - rzekł nagle, rozjaśniony. - Żeby tam było najwyżej sześć linijek, a w nich o miłości i o zdradzie, o muzyce, o Murzynach, o wyższych sferach, o nieszczęściu, o kazirodztwie, do rymu i żeby wszystkie słowa były tylko na literę C!!

The Solution in Polish:

Cyprian cyberotoman, cynik, ceniąc czule
Czarnej córy cesarskiej cud ciemnego ciała,
Ciągle cytrą czarował. Czerwieniała cała,
Cicha, co dzień czekała, cierpiała, czuwała...
...Cyprian ciotkę całuje, cisnąwszy czarnulę!!
Now, I don't know a word of Polish. But even so it seemed pretty obvious that Kandel's version was an equivalent rather than a translation. (Note that that "d" in the third word of the fourth line is sic. I don't know what's up with that.) And the automated Polish-English translation program which I copied each into confirmed it (well, it produced a mishmash, especially of the poem -- but it was enough to show that the original was clearly something quite different than the translation.) So what does the original mean -- how would it translate literally?

Fortunately, it turns out that Michael Kandel himself has answered this question. Greg Keogh at the Nancy Street Network has a Stanislaw Lem page on which he describes emailing this question to Kandel. Kandel provided the following literal gloss on the Polish:

Cyprian the cyber sex fiend and a cynic, appreciating tenderly the miracle of the dark body of the Negro daughter of Caesar, constantly wove charms with a zither. She blushed all over, silent, waiting every day, suffering, watching ... Cyprian kisses her aunt, have abandoned the black beauty!

(Of course the paradigms given the machine are quite different.)
Unfortunately, Kandel didn't give a literal gloss on the Polish paradigms (the "assignment" as I've called it). But this gives a sense of what the original is like -- and hence what Kandel was up against.

I still think "Seduced, shaggy Sampson snored..." is a terrific little poem. The question is: given that it isn't really a translation of Lem's poem (but rather an English equivalent of it), but one that occurs in a translation of Lem's novel and wasn't offered for independent publication -- who should be credited as the author of the poem? Lem? Kandel? Lem as translated by Kandel? Both in collaboration?

Hirshman on the Home Front

Linda Hirshman's article, "Homeward Bound", in the American Prospect, is bound to create a lot of controversy. It's almost axiomatic: it's about gender relations which, along with sex and religion, is what controversy is largely about in the U.S. these days. (Though it hasn't yet. I rather thought that the feminist blogosphere would start in on the piece immediately; but checking around a few sites -- Pandagon, Alas, Feministe, Majikthise, Echidne, some of the sites that took the articles which Hirshman mentions early on to task -- I haven't seen anyone mention it yet, to complement it, critique it or any combination.) But it's coming, I'd think. Indeed, I rather suspect that the controversy will touch every bit of it as time goes on. For starters, then, here are a few off-the-cuff reactions to the article.

(Note: I won't be talking about every aspect of it. For example, I won't talk about the question of data and whether the phenomenon she is talking about is, contra the blogosphere's reaction to earlier articles on the topic, real or an anecdotal mirage. I won't be talking about it because I have neither knowledge on the matter nor the impulse to go get some. So these reactions are simply to things that caught my attention.)

What I liked in the article was the counter to the conservative it's-biology's-fault answer to the problem of female under-representation in the professions. I also liked one of her central replacement answers: ask more of men. I think that she's probably right that domestic relations remain unequal, that this has a big effect on women's careers, and that this is, ultimately, an unjust social situation that must be changed. And that to do this, men must take on childrearing and household duties to the same degree that women do.

There were things I didn't like. She acknowledges the elitism of the topic -- " most people aren’t rich and white and heterosexual, and they couldn’t quit working if they wanted to", she writes towards the article's end -- but I think it's a more central fact than she gives it credit for. Some of her suggestions (marry older? marry poorer?) make my skin crawl, if only at the sheer, relentless pragmatism they show. (I think her other answer -- marry someone with a raised conscience -- is a much better one; even better is one she doesn't raise -- make sure you raise the conscience of whomever you would otherwise marry (hard, to be sure -- but so are the other possibilities on offer.))

Even more, I didn't like her taking of the culture of elite work -- that elite work must demand extraordinary hours and a willingness to make everything else in one's life secondary if not tertiary or quaternary -- for granted. She writes as if this inevitable, and that the answer is (therefore) to negotiate around it. But I think that if we are going to set out to chance family life -- no small task! -- we should change our culture's insane notion of workplace expectations, too. Nor are these separate tasks: if enough men as well as women prioritized family, then workplaces would have to change, since they couldn't find people to fulfill their insane schedules.

As part of this, she has a brief section casting scorn on liberal arts degrees, encouraging women to pick their educations with career-goals in mind. Good for people's careers, maybe (although not definitely). Good for people's humanity, our society's sense of priorities -- not at all. I wish more people, men and women alike, majored in the liberal arts; I wish that our society valued things besides careers more.

And the same goes double for her suggestion that careers be evaluated on the money they pay since that is our society's currency. (And I have to say that, personally, I think the world would have been much better off if Condoleezza Rice had in fact been a pianist. And if George Bush had been the brink-of-bankruptcy used-car salesman he was clearly made to be. But that's another issue.)

Towards the end of her essay, Hirshman writes that "a good life for humans includes the classical standard of using one’s capacities for speech and reason in a prudent way, the liberal requirement of having enough autonomy to direct one’s own life, and the utilitarian test of doing more good than harm in the world." Well put. But a good life for humans requires keeping work in its place, evaluating life choices by standards besides monetary ones and learning for reasons apart from cold calculation (at least in societies and sub-cultures rich enough to afford these luxuries, which are clearly the ones Hirshman is discussing.

Hirshman argues that the home front must be for feminism what the workplace was in the 1960's and the vote in the 1920's, suggesting that this requires a more radical feminism than we have grown accustomed to. Fair enough. But I'd like to see a feminism (and a humanism) radical enough to challenge the workplace values that saturate our culture at the same time, too.

Preliminary thoughts, as I said. In any event, the article is interesting, and, agree or disagree, is well worth reading.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Dreams: A Darwinian View

Before December had been named,
Or wolves or fire been well tamed,
When Man was but a shivering ape
Caught by the glaciers with no escape,
The snowbound nights, and days, as well,
Were a veritable hell,
And of the trials he had to bear
The worst were time and dread and care.
He could not simply hibernate:
Each dawn he had to wake, and wait
Through all the hours of a day
That wishing could not wish away --
And so he dreamt, and in his dreams,
Abolished is, invented seems.
He passed the time, and time passed by,
And so may you, and so shall I.

-- Tom Disch

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Frost + 7 = Fruit

One Oulipian technique -- and in all honesty, I've always thought, one of the silliest -- is "n+7" which is defined by the Oulipo Compendium as follows:

Choose a text and a dictionary. Identify the nouns in the text and replace each one by counting seven nouns beyond it in the dictionary...
With classical poetry, meter and rhyme can be ignored or respected. In the latter case, one selects the first noun to satisfy the prosodic requirements of the original starting with the seventh noun listed in the chosen dictionary. The search for a suitable replacement may extend over several successive letters...

While some oulipians have denied that this is an aleatory technique, I think they are basically wrong. (I should explain that Oulipo is generally opposed to -- or at least, conducted in a different spirit than -- chance-based artistic movements.) While other Oulipian techniques involve trying to come up with the best artistic product given certain constraints (avoiding certain letters or whatever), the n+7 technique is essentially mechanical: once a text and a dictionary has been chosen, one applies it and sees what chance (in the form of the conjunction of the text & dictionary) produces.

The argument that n+7 is not chance based is that it is determined, i.e. that a certain, repeatable result will be obtained every time the same text is submitted to the n+7 method with the same dictionary. But this strikes me as, essentially, irrelevant. What makes n+7 an essentially aleatory technique is that the choices made are not (largely) artistic: the original text might be an artistic choice (although even here the chooser is acting more as an editor than an author), and to a lesser extent the dictionary might be too, but the artistic results are not chosen: they arise from chance conjunction. The fact that this chance conjunction is repeatable is irrelevant. (Sorting a list alphabetically is, in essence, random, despite its repeatability, because things' names have (generally) nothing to do with whatever purposes one sorts them for.) One might exercise artistic choice by picking one result to keep and others to discard -- but then this is true of all aleatory techniques.

So to my mind, n+7 is an aleatory technique, or at the very least operates under the same aesthetics as aleatory approaches. (Its pleasures and limitations are basically those produced by (other) aleatory techniques.) I suppose this is why I find it silly, compared to other oulipian techniques, as I am not a big fan of aleatory approaches to composition.

But it does share this with other oulipian techniques: it's tempting, even seductive. And so, a few days after receiving the new Compendium, I found myself trying an n+7 or two.

I discarded a few -- or, rather, failed to finish a few that after one or two substitutions seemed like they would be uninteresting. I found that using smaller dictionaries produces better results, as the words are more likely to be common ones (which then go in strange places) than simply obscure words, which are basically less fun. Similarly, using poetry rather than prose adds an additional level of weeding -- obscure words (e.g. long technical terms) tend not fit with the meter/rhyme scheme, while simpler ones do. (This isn't absolute, of course, but it's more true than not.)

So I found myself, finally, taking a famous Robert Frost poem and applying the N+7 technique to it. The dictionary I used was the English half of (an old edition of) Ultralingua's English-French dictionary. When it came to rhymes, I resorted to an online rhyming dictionary, taking the first meter-appropriate noun that appeared after the original; I was simply too lazy to actually count all the way through the dictionary for given one-syllable rhymes (which would have taken an enormous amount of time), and this seemed a reasonable substitute for it. Finally, I did the variation where, with repeated words, one does an additional +7 at each occurrence, rather than having the same substitute word stand in for every appearance of the word in the original.

Here's what I got:

Whose wools are these I think I know.
His howl is in the vineyard though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his works fill up with woe

My little hose must think it queer
To stop without a fasces near
Between the worm and frozen rake
The darkest evidence of the beer.

He gives his harvest bench a snake
To ask if there is some fruitcake.
The only other sow's the veep
Of easy wine and downy hake.

The wounds are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have properties to keep,
And milks to go before I sleep,
And mimes to go before I sleep.
(It's quite arguable that, even if I pick different substitutes the various appearances of 'woods', I ought to let the last two lines remain identical. If you feel that's better, the substitution is easy. I've put in the extra line because (if I'd given the two identical lines reading) the reverse is hardly true.)

If you're wondering why we got "fruitcake" from "mistake" -- cycling through the alphabet to Z and then back up to F -- the answer is that practically every two-syllable noun rhyming with "take" has its emphasis on the first syllable (e.g. namesake, newsbreak, pancake), while "mistake" has its emphasis on the second. "Fruitcake", to my ear, sounds about evenly emphasized -- so in it went. It's marginal, but there isn't really a better choice (not in the rhyming dictionary I used, anyway.)

The whole thing is, basically, nonsense -- the usual result of the n+7 technique. But some of it is interesting nonsense (as cunningly-produced nonsense often is). I like quite a few phrases in it (I can say this without boasting since, given my argument that it is essentially an aleatory technique, I don't think that the results are to my credit in any way). I think a few of the phrases are actually nice:

"His howl is in the vineyard though"
"To watch his works fill up with woe"
"The darkest evidence of the beer"
"The wounds are lovely, dark and deep"
"But I have properties to keep"

When I went through this at first, I got "But I have propensities to keep" for the antepenultimate line, which is nice in its own way; but of course it didn't scan, as I saw upon rereading it. And I like the new version too.

And given our current Torture Promoter, I think that

Thee only other sow's the veep
Of easy wine and downy hake.

-- is a nice bit of snark, although not a terribly accurate one (the president, not the veep, is probably better described as "of easy wine". (A hake, btw, is a type of fish; and while I'm at it, a fasces is a Roman symbol of rulership (its the root of "fascism".)) Actually, once the Veep is the subject, several of the other phrases -- "To watch his works fill up with woe" not to mention "The wounds are lovely, dark and deep,/But I have properties to keep" -- take on an appropriate resonance too.

But in sum, while the result produced some nice -- and nicely odd -- images, it certainly isn't a good poem.

Actually, the aesthetics of n+7 is essentially the same as that of mad-libs, which I (and I suspect many of you) used to do as a kid. The difference is that mad-libs are candidly meant as games, while oulipo is, as that middle "li" indicates, supposed to aim at literature. There's no question that some oulipian techniques have been successful in this. But on n+7, I'm still a skeptic -- at least as anything longer than phrases go: that good phrases have been produced is not a question (e.g. Harry Mathews' "I wandered lonely as a crowd..."); -- but it's also not, in the end, very impressive.

But. I said above that n+7 was like other oulipian techniques in being tempting. I fear it might also be like others in being addictive. (I was stuck on lipograms for weeks.) So perhaps I'll be doing more of them, after all. Compulsion rarely channels itself naturally along aesthetic lines; and good games are quite compelling...


One of the tiresome tasks for left-leaning political activists in the next few years (particularly in 2007 & 2008) will be battling the mythology that McCain has built up around himself as a maverick, an honest man, the type of Republican who might do a good job governing. As the disaster that has been the Bush administration becomes ever-more apparent, a lot of conservatives will (indeed, many already are) crying "Do-over!" They'll say that Bush wasn't really a conservative (true in a sense, but he is a fairly good representative of today's conservative movement, so it's not true in any sense that matters much in practical political terms); and try to push McCain forward as a substitute -- basically trying to undo the mistake that they made in letting Bush slime his way to his 2000 primary victory in South Carolina (and, hence, the nation).

Now, I don't want to push this point too far: McCain would certainly have been better than Bush. But he is a slightly spruced-up version of an essentially destructive thing, a movement conservative politician; and he will be bad, too. "Not quite as bad" simply should not be the reining standard here. Sure, McCain is doing very good work these days opposing making torture official U.S. policy (which shows how low we've gotten), and probably would have run the Iraq war more competently and perhaps even sold it in a less mendacious fashion. But he still would have invaded -- the primary mistake here. And it is important to remember that on literally thousands of other issues, Bush has been terrible -- and on many McCain would have been more or less the same, and on most he would have been almost even if not quite as bad.

McCain is Bush lite. Bush spruced up, given a bath and a new, cheap suit. And we need to do better than that. Much, much better than that.

Most of all, however, we need to work on combating McCain's undeserved reputation for honesty and straight-shooting. (Never forget that Bush got himself that reputation for long enough to win two elections with it.) McCain destroyed -- or should have destroyed -- that reputation in 2004 when he supported Bush. There was, simply, not honest way to do that (unless one was an open theocrat, or an open give-money-to-the-rich-and- the-rest-of-us-go-to-hell proponent). Bush's destructive policies, his murderous incompetence, his fundamental mendacity, were all clear by then. To support him was to support them. To talk endlessly about how terribly the war in Iraq was being run, and then go on to support Bush as if none of those things were true (and to oppose Kerry who -- never forget -- was promising a more competently run war, not an end to it) was to put political partisanship (and, in McCain's case, political ambition) ahead of any notion of what was good for the country. (The point here is not merely that he supported Bush, but that he supported Bush with full knowledge of the damage Bush was doing to the country. The former was merely stupid or crazy; the latter is what is malevolent.)

It was unforgivable. And it should not be forgiven.

(Not that his support for Bush was the only evidence of his willingness to be just another dishonest politician. There's plenty of other evidence for it. But with the disaster he supported running (and ruining) the country, it is perhaps the most pertinent point.)

All this by way of introducing the following version of what I've been saying here, which is from a long, impassioned and righteous (if rather rambling) blog post (via):

Yes, there is a difference between the McCain/Hagel Repubs and the neo-con/White House Iraq Group lunatics. But it's also good to remember: no matter what he does from here on out, McCain stood by the president, a man (and his machine) who smeared him viciously on the 2000 campaign trail, and then, at the GOP convention four years later, campaigned for him when we were well on to this disastrous course. And thinking men -- of which McCain is surely one -- knew the neo-cons were exploiting 9/11 for their hideous misadventure in Iraq, and knew this was an administration that would not allow photos of the dead. Etc. etc. etc. Every man who stood by Bush should be forced to answer for it.

Amen! Well-spoken. And the fact that the blogger who wrote those words was John Cusack -- yes, I mean that it was that John Cusack -- is, really, just icing on the cake.

Shorter John McCain:

'Nuff said.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Other Oubapian Works

Okay, maybe I was exaggerating when I wrote about the number of Oubapian works that there are. Derik Badman, in a post to the Oubapo-America message board, gently upbraids me:

There a few Oubapian works not in the 4 Oupuses (Oupi?). I should have a review of Trondheim and Menu's "Moins de quartre secondes a vivre" up at some point. Trondheim's Mister O is constrained, as is Ayroles "Jean qui rit Jean qui pleur". [Links added.]

And while these works are French in origin, I don't really have that excuse, since the latter two are, in fact, wordless. (I've even read Mister O!)

Derik goes on to mention a work which, while not by a member of the Oubapo, is (based on the description in his review) certainly under a Oubapian-style constraint, NogegoN by Luc & Francois Schuiten. He says of it that "It's technically well done but also a bit soulless, lacking in expressive emotion. All in all a very interesting example of a formally constrained comics work." And his review certainly makes it sound quite interesting.

For that matter, there's also some work in English which Derik didn't mention but which he might well have. For example, there's Kenneth Koch's The Art of the Possible: Comics Mainly Without Pictures, which I am only slightly familiar with, but which is certainly 'Oubapian' in spirit. (Derik's review of it is here.) In fact, one of Matt Madden's Exercises is a homage to Koch's book, so I really ought to have thought of it.

And while I have no reason to think he's ever heard of the Oubapo (though of course he might well have), a great deal of Alan Moore's work is formally inventive in ways which are Oubapian in spirit, from many of the chapters in V for Vendetta to much of his recent ABC work (particularly many different issues of Promethea, and his Eisner-award-nominated "How Things Work Out" from Tomorrow Stories #2).

And having mentioned all those, I suppose people will bombard me with questions about omitting all sorts of other people and books (Chris Ware? Art Speigleman? Will Eisner?), to say nothing of a large number of shorter Oubapian works. So I'd better quit while I'm behind, surrender, and say: I was wrong.

But while I am clearly guilty of intemperate phrasing -- chalk it up to extreme (but, I think, warranted) enthusiasm -- I think I was also getting at something. I'm not quite sure how to phrase it -- first self-consciously Oubapian masterpiece in English, perhaps? But Matt Madden has done something extraordinary, not only due to the quality of the work -- although because of that too, most importantly -- but because it is pathbreaking as well. So even if there are works I forgot, and others I am ignorant of, I nevertheless renew my suggestion that you check out Madden's new book.

99 Ways to Tell a Story is Out Now Too

'Tis the season: I just received my copy of another Oulipian book, Matt Madden's 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style. Actually, this book is not Oulipian but Oubapian: the Oubapo is to comics/graphic novels what the Oulipo is to text-only literature. Oubapo-America is an (unofficial, I believe) spin-off of the French group, and Matt Madden is one of its founders.

Madden's new book consists of variations on a theme, so it is fitting that it itself is a variation on a theme -- in this case, a theme by Raymond Queneau. Raymond Queneau (years before he co-founded the Oulipo) wrote a book called Exercices de Style. This involved 99 versions of a simple story, transformed in various ways: told in different tenses, different styles, made into a sonnet, told as a lipogram, retold in various slangs, etc. The link above is to a French text -- and I haven't checked systematically, but it looks like it's the entirety of the original book. (Queneau's book was translated into English by Barbara Wright.) Nabokov called it "one of the greatest stories in French literature."

Madden, essentially, did the same thing in comic form: took an incredibly simple tale, and did 99 variations (well, if you count the template) on it. The result is, actually, utterly spectacular. It may sound dull, but it actually makes enthralling reading.

Madden Mix 1a

I've actually been familiar with the project for some time. Madden has been posting a rotating series of samples on his web site for a while now. (Click over to get a sense of the project.) And he also included some versions by guest artists. The guest artists versions aren't included in the book, so even if you buy (or have bought) a copy (which you should -- it's just wonderful) you should check them out, because they're terrific too. I like them all, but some of my favorites are those by King, Palm, McKenna, Motley, Tanioc, Trahan (a flash animation!) and, above all, Pierre Menard's, whose contribution is so much better than Madden's original...

Inspired by this, I did a few myself, which Matt (if I may switch to the familiar form) was kind enough to host on his site. You should go read his samples first or mine won't make any sense (besides, they're so much better than mine!), but once you've done that, mine are here: there's one using (my own) photographs for the art, and four others using various images by other people: a cento (which I did before Madden did his own version, so I wasn't just copying him), a version which was also a solution to the Silent Running exercise (which will make no sense to you unless you go look at other people's solutions first); and two which were "reductions" of Madden's own exercises (a time-honored Oulipian technique): one systematically taking the first panel from the first, the second from the second, etc -- a version which was based on the original ordering, now altered, so that the current version is (alas) simply random, and one whimsically choosing some of my favorite panels (although I should emphasize that this was done when I'd only seen about a third of them -- I'd definitely do it differently now!)

So one might say that I am biased in the project's favor. But really I think it simply means I loved it based only a small sample -- loved it enough to try my hand at it (albeit in a small way). Nothing biased me towards it before I saw the site for the first time! It's just that I had already been won over before it was printed on dead trees.

Madden Mix 2a

Other people who have reviewed it have liked it too. All the reviews I've seen have been positive. (Although it occurs to me that if you're the sort of person who will read the book at all, you'll like it -- it's very well done -- while anyone who wouldn't like this sort of book just won't read (and therefore, hopefully, review) it.) Anyway, reviews have been published by the Complete Review and Derik Badman. Interviews with Madden can be found at MadInkBeard and Bookslut.

Oulipo has, by now, developed a small cannon of books written by its members, inspired by its method or simply in sympathy with its style. And there are a few acknowledged masterpieces among them -- of which the first, I think, was Queneau's Exercises in Style. Oubapo, to this point, has published far fewer books -- there are four official anthologies, and that's about it. (Its members have done many, but fairly few, so far as I know, have been deliberately done according to Oubapian techniques -- though there are a few, of course). This should all be taken with a lot of salt, since my French is pretty rudimentary, and it may well be that there's a lot of good stuff that hasn't been translated into English, or even sold on this side of the pond. (Update: And in fact I did some word-eating on this point here.) Nevertheless, I would make a distinction between collective anthologies and single works; and, given that, I think it's fair to say that -- so far as I know, and certainly in English -- Matt Madden has produced the first Oubapian masterpiece, the first book where the Oubapo can really strut its stuff in the way that the Oulipo has in a number of volumes. It's an extraordinary book, and everyone with any interest in comics, style, constraint or, hell, just sheer artistic playfulness should check it out.

One minor downside: I do think the decision to sell 99 Ways as, essentially, a writing textbook was... unfortunate. I can't blame the publisher: if that's how they think it will sell, then it makes sense for them to sell it that way, I guess. But it doesn't seem to me to be the book's strongest point -- and it means that other aspects will be overlooked. I suppose I'm just lamenting that that is how they thought the book would sell.

So far, in fact, everyone seems to share this lament. Ninth Art says* that "the cover... is so bland it could belong to a maths textbook. It barely hints at the fun of Madden's creation, and certainly wouldn't be the sort of thing that would urge me to pick up the title." Matt Chaney says that 99 Ways "has a strange blurb on the cover that makes it sound like some sort of touchy-feely how-to book... Well, maybe -- it certainly shows that there are no limits on how many ways a story can be conceived and structured, and that each choice changes the emphasis and effect. But there's much more here than a guide to digesting the artist within..." The Complete Review put the point this way:

It also has an off-putting cover -- all the more so with the odd sales-pitch on the front cover, advertising it as: "An exploration of storytelling that will amuse and delight you, and inspire your own creative work -- your novel, your comic, even your film." ... There might be something to this... but certainly this isn't anywhere near the top of the list of aspects of this book that make it so commendable. But you can't really blame the publisher: selling it as a graphic version of a Queneau idea certainly won't attract the mass of book buyers -- but selling it like this, indeed, possibly even stocking it in the self-help section (or at least the writers/artists/filmmakers how-to section) will certainly make for better sales. It goes for (almost) all books, but even more so for this one: don't judge it by its cover -- or the publicity material.
Note the "might be something to this" echoing the "well, maybe" of Chaney's comment.

Madden Mix 3a

Anyway, while this lament is widespread, it also is -- when push comes to shove -- unimportant. What's inside is what matters. It's a pity, but c'est la publishing business, I suppose. Don't let it put you off.


* In the spirit of honesty, Ninth Art also says the only other negative thing I've seen anyone say about the book, which is that Madden's art isn't always up to the project. (I disagree, but didn't want you think I'm hiding anything...)

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The New Edition of the Oulipo Compendium is Out

The Oulipo Compendium -- the best one-volume introduction to the French literary group the Oulipo and various related works and ideas -- which has been out of print for several years now, is back in print. It's been promised for some time, but I know it's really out since I received my copy today. The Oulipo Compendium is a wonderful book, a true joy, and I commend it to any of you interested in (quirky and experimental) literature. Below is a very brief explanation of what the Oulipo is, some information on the book, and links to online excerpts from the book.

The Ou-whatsis?

The Oulipo (an acronym of their full name, "Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle", which translates as "Workshop for Potential Literature") is a French literary group founded in 1960 by writer Raymond Queneau and mathematician François Le Lionnais; noteworthy members have included Italo Calvino, Georges Perec and Harry Mathews (the only American in the group and one its primary ambassadors to the English-speaking world). It is dedicated to the study of literary constraints and new literary techniques. Reviews of many Oulipian works can be found here. There seems to be fairly few good English-language introductory web sites on the Oulipo, but the wikipedia entry is a good place to start. If you read French, the group's official web home is here.

Information on the Book:

Oulipo Compendium 2005 3

The new edition is being published jointly by Atlas Press in the UK and Make Now Press in the US. The latter's web site is, unfortunately, still listing the book as "coming soon" with the price and ISBN unavailable. (Those at least I can help with: it's $36, and the ISBN is 0974355437.) Make Now seems to be a rather new, rather small press, and they are clearly a bit behind in their web presence. Atlas Press is an older, more established small press -- they published the first edition in 1998 -- and their web site is up and running. (And if your order from them before November 27, it's only £15 (although shipping from the UK is steep.)) Thus far the UK edition (ISBN 1900565188) seems to be available, while the US edition is not -- it's not listed on the US, for instance. (I got mine from an ebay auction offered by one of the people associated with Make Now Press -- I don't know why they auctioned off one copy but haven't yet started selling others.) Still, given that the US edition has been printed (and there's no question mine is the US edition, not the UK one), I can only presume that it too will be available in short order.

(Update: The U.S. publisher says in the comments: "The web site will be up and running in no time. You can not order the book from Atlas because they will direct you to me, As I hold the US/Canada sales rights.... The books are still on the sea, a week away from getting to me for sale.") (Further Update: The web site for Make Now Press has been updated, and you can now buy the new edition of the Oulipo Compendium from them directly (scroll down); it's unclear if it is being sold anywhere else.)

Oulipo Compendium 1998 2

There are informative reviews of the first edition by James Sallis, Warren Motte and the Complete Review; the third of these is the most comprehensive, and has links to more reviews and resources. A brief interview with the Alastair Brochie, one of the editors of the book (and one of the editors of Atlas Press) describing the new edition is here; the gist (from the "directions for use" in the new edition) is that "the factual parts (such as membership and bibliographies)" have been updated, while the "literary contents" are the same as in the first edition.

Selections, Excerpts and Included Texts Available Online:

While the book is wonderful, and I encourage you all to buy a copy, a generous number of selections, excerpts and included texts are online in various places. Here are some links.

There was a web site associated with the first edition ( which has online the introduction as well as a handful of abridged versions of some of the literature entries, including: N+7, Definitional Literature, Elementary Morality, Eye-Rhyme, Larding, Lipogram, Measures, Perverb, Poetic Redundancy, Rhetorical Repetition, Slenderizing, Univocalism. (A table of contents for these is here.) These are probably the best introduction to the tone and feel of the Compendium: if you like these, you'll probably enjoy the book.

The first item in the Compendium is Stanley Chapman's translation of Raymond Queneau's "Cent mille milliards de poèmes" ("A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems"); this is available online here, as are other translations by Bev Rowe (this site also has the French), an anonymous translator (another site with the French) and yet another anonymous translator. Of these versions, I think that Bev Rowe's site has the best layout/introduction to the concept, though Chapman's translation was approved by Queneau so might be preferred for that reason. This site only has the French text, but contains a good brief description of the work.

Ian Monk, a British member of the Oulipo, has a page of his Oulipian Writings online. Several of these are included in the Compendium, including his univocal translation of George Perec's "What a Man!" and his brief univocal essay, "Perec's Letterless Texts", which discusses three of Perec's works -- including La Disparition, a novel written entirely without the letter e, "The Exeter Text" a univocalism in e (which has been translated by Monk himself) and "What a Man!". This essay is a virtuoso performance; my favorite bit is where he quotes from La Disparition, transforming a passage which was a lipogram in e to a passage which is a univocalism in e. To give you a bit of the flavor, here is that passage in three forms:

On acquitta Rosa sous l'acclamation du public qui, par moult bravos bruyants, montra son approbation. Glupf s'avoua vaincu, mais jura qu'il aurait son tour, qu'un jour on allait voit qui commandait, qu'il vous foutrait tout ça à Auschwitz sitôt q'il aurait l'occasion.

(Georges Perec, La Disparition p. 294)

So, to a standing ovation, with a host of "hurrahs" and "bravos" and "attababys" from an approving public, Rosa is found not guilty. Poor Glupf admits to loosing -- promising, though, that only a fight and not a war is lost, that a day will dawn, a day on which Rosa will find out who is truly in command, a day on which Auschwitz will turn up its gas -- and strolls out whistling a military march.

(Trans. Gilbert Adair, A Void, p. 269)

Endless fevered cheers met Nell when she'd been freed. Glepf knew he'd been bested. He nevertheless yelled he'd be revenged. The bleeders'd see he led them. Whenever he felt he held the pretext, he'd see her sentenced then penned between Bergen-Belsen's cells.

(Univocalized by Ian Monk)

Also of note on Monk's site, although not in the Compendium, is "On G. Adair's A Void", Monk's lipogrammatic review of Gilbert Adair's lipogrammatic translation of Perec's lipogrammatic novel -- a basically negative review, which critiques it for insufficient accuracy (a critique which I can't judge, not knowing enough French, but which Monk makes a good case for.) Monk's English review was, in its turn, translated into lipogrammatic French here.

The Oulipo Papers:

One thing I am excited about is the announcement, in the new edition of the Compendium, of a series entitled the "Oulipo Papers". These will, apparently, be translations of various installments of the Oulipo's in-house pamphlet series, the Biblithèque oulipienne. These are limited edition pamphlets containing essays, poems, stories, etc, by members of the group. The French versions are collected and republished in facsimile editions, but so far English translations have been limited. Excerpts from some are translated in the Compendium. Atlas Press (the UK publisher of the Compendium) has also put out two volumes of translations, the Oulipo Laboratory, which contains a sample of six, and Winter Journeys*, which collect a series of variations on a short story by Georges Perec that various members of the Oulipo did which were published in the BO. But otherwise they've not been available. (I'm lucky insofar as the Cornell library subscribes to the series, and so has many (of the later ones) in their pamphlet form; but my French isn't really up to reading them (although a handful are actually in English, and I've read those.)) Details about the project are few; it's just mentioned briefly in the new edition (and here), but otherwise nothing seems to be released, not even on Atlas Press's web site. Still, something to look forward to!

* Perec's original story is online here; but the Atlas Press volume contains nine other stories by other members of the Oulipo too. Note that only the Atlas Press edition has the other stories: the Penguin Classics edition (which is called The Winter Journey, in the singular) contains just Perec's short story.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

A Few (of Other People's) Thoughts on France

I must admit that I don't know much about the current riots in France, and therefore don't have anything to say about them other than generic expressions of horror. But here are a few things that other people have said which strike me as sensible.

To understand what is going on in France requires keeping two or more contradictory thoughts in one’s head at the same time. The rioters are not freedom fighters, revolutionaries, or community activists. The chief instigators are the hoodlum elements that have long plagued these poor suburbs, making the lives of their own neighbors insecure and miserable. On the weekends, they plague public transportation, sometimes attacking passengers and otherwise making a nuisance of themselves. On the other hand, there are no hoodlum gangs in the wealthy districts of western Paris. When a young man has no job and no money, being a hoodlum and/or a drug dealer is pretty much all that is left as a vocation. So while the torching of cars, schools, and businesses is unacceptable and inexcusable, it is easily understandable.

The French youth who are burning automobiles are as French as Jennifer Lopez and Christopher Walken are American... The US brings 10 million immigrants every decade and one in 10 Americans is now foreign-born. Their children, born and bred here, have never known another home. All US citizens are Americans, including the present governor of California. "The immigrant" is always a political category.... A lot of the persons living in the urban outer cities (a better translation of cite than "suburb") are from subsaharan Africa. And there are lots of Eastern European immigrants. The riots were sparked by the deaths of African youths, not Muslims. Singling out the persons of Muslim heritage is just a form of bigotry. Moreover, French youth of European heritage rioted quite extensively in 1968. As they had in 1789. Rioting in the streets is not a foreign custom. It has a French genealogy and context. The young people from North African societies such as Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia are mostly only nominal Muslims. They frequently do not speak much Arabic, and don't have "proper" French, either. They frequently do not know much about Islam and most of them certainly don't practice it.... Beur culture can be compared a bit to hip-hop as a form of urban expression of marginality and self-assertion in a racist society. It is mostly secular.... The kind of riots we are seeing in France also have occurred in US cities (they sent Detroit into a tailspin from 1967). They are always produced by racial segregation, racist discrimination, spectacular unemployment, and lack of access to the mainstream economy.... The French do not have Jim Crow laws, but de facto residential segregation is a widespread and intractable problem.... The problem is economic and having to do with economic and residential exclusionism, not with an "unassimilable" "immigrant" minority.... On the other hand, would it be possible for the French Muslim youth to be pushed toward religious extremism if the French government does not address the underlying problems.... The solution? Recognizing that "Frenchness" is not monochrome, that France is a tapestry of cultures and always has been, and that sometimes some threads of the tapestry need some extra attention if it is not to fray and come apart.

France's approach to multiculturalism and race is essentially that of Ward Connerly you simply make it officially not exist. A couple years back Connerly pushed for a ballot measure in California which would've made it illegal for the state government, in most cases, to make any racial classifications by race. While I'm not entirely unsymapthetic to the notion that such classification systems are problematic for various reasons, the alternative is simply having no information at all about race. This is France's system. This is the conservative approach to race and society. This is what they've spent the last week mocking.

Don’t believe Fox News. France is not on the verge of a civil war, and what is happening in my country is not a jihad. The riots in the French “banlieues” are nevertheless very serious: they are one of the most serious social crises of the last 60 years. And they signal the death of our century-old “integration model,” one of the pillars of the modern French Republic.... The French have always cherished their model of integration, considered as an idealistic and almost mystical process. Its aim was generous: any immigrant, once he or she acquires French citizenship, becomes a citizen absolutely equal to any other. The “République Française” would proudly integrate her immigrants without any problems, thanks to her secular schools, her national institutions, her universal values... But during the riots of the past 13 days, Frenchmen have been confronted with the failures of this model, have watched it go up in flames... Most [rioters] are not immigrants themselves: they are French citizens, born in France, sometimes even born to parents who were born in France themselves. But they have not been integrated at all. Living in grim ghettos, without jobs, coping daily with discrimination and racism, they feel like they were abandoned by their country.... A national debate is now beginning. I’m pretty sure that “affirmative action” will soon be at the core of this debate... But my fear is that this debate will not go very far because of the deep conservatism of the French political elite.... I’m afraid that there will be only one beneficiary of the sad events of November 2005 : the sinister extreme right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. Yes, indeed, the Republic faces a moment of truth.

I have not been surprised by this tsunami of inchoate youth rebellion that is engulfing France. It is the result of thirty years of government neglect: of the failure of the French political classes -- of both right and left -- to make any serious effort to integrate its Muslim and black populations into the larger French economy and culture; and of the deep-seated, searing, soul-destroying racism that the unemployed and profoundly alienated young of the ghettos face every day of their lives, both from the police, and when trying to find a job or decent housing... France's other immigrant workers were warehoused in huge, high-rise low-income housing ghettos -- known as "cités" (Americans would say "the projects") -- specially built for them, and deliberately placed out of sight in the suburbs around most of France's major urban agglomerations, so that their darker-skinned inhabitants wouldn't pollute the center cities of Paris, Lyon, Toulouse, Lille, Nice and the others of white France's urban centers, today encircled by flame... these high-rise human warehouses in the isolated suburbs are today run-down, dilapidated, sinister places, with broken elevators that remain unrepaired, heating systems left dysfunctional in winter, dirt and dog-shit in the hallways, broken windows, and few commercial amenities -- shopping for basic necessities is often quite limited and difficult, while entertainment and recreational facilities for youth are truncated and totally inadequate when they're not non-existent. Both apartments and schools are over-crowded... the current rebellion has little to do with Islamic fundamentalism. It is the anguished scream of a lost generation in search of an identity, children caught between two cultures and belonging to neither -- a rebellion of kids who, born in France and often speaking little Arabic, don't know the country where their parents were born, but who feel excuded, marginalized and invisible in the country in which they live.... "Sarko" made headlines with his declarations that he would "karcherise" the ghettos of "la racaille"-- words the U.S. press, with glaring inadequaxcy, has translated to mean "clean" the ghettos of "scum." But these two words have an infinitely harsher and insulting flavor in French... To apply this term to young human beings and proffer it as a strategy is a verbally fascist insult and, as a policy proposed by an Interior Minister, is about as close as one can get to hollering "ethnic cleansing" without actually saying so. It implies raw police power and force used very aggressively, with little regard for human rights.... And a majority of the country, empoisoned even more by racism after the violence of the last ten days, seems willing to accept more and more repression: a poll released last night on France 2 public TV shows that 57% of the French support Nicolas Sarkozy's hard-line approach to the ghetto youths' rebellion, now spreading right across France... the barely-concealed racism of Sarko's demagogy may be working with the white electorate -- but it won't stop the violence, it will only increase it. And the violence will only further increase the racism among the French whose skins are white. So it is inevitable that what the French refer to as the "social fracture" will only get worse.

The prevailing opinion appears to be that the problem with the young French North Africans rioting in towns like Clichy-sur-Bois is that "they have not integrated into French society", or possibly that "French society has not been able to integrate them", depending on which cote of the rue you're looking from. What utter rot. These young men have got a political grievance, and they're expressing it by setting fire to things and smashing them up. What could be more stereotypically, characteristically French than that? Presumably they're setting fire to cars because they don't have any sheep and the nearest McDonalds is miles away. "French society is threatened by anarchy and lawlessness". I mean really. Everyone would do well to remember that this is France we're talking about, not Sweden or perhaps Canada. In forthcoming weeks, I shall be applying similar analytical techniques to topics like "root and branch corruption is threatening the essence of Italian democracy" and "Muslim immigrants cannot fit into British society because they are insular, bigoted and sexually repressed".

So we're still looking at a society with no affirmative action, where taboos on quotas and tokenism is much stronger than in America. This is, simply put, a recipe for having your social institutions regarded as illegitimate. Talk about inequality and economic deprivation obviously explains some of what's going on, but only a little. America is way more inegalitarian (and yes, Virginia, offers less social mobility) than France, and French poor people are better provided-for than are our poor people. People have complaints everywhere, but they usually don't turn violent unless they regard the institutions they're supposed to listen to as illegitimate, which is exactly what happens when you see such a large minority population so rigorously underrepresented in the ranks of the elite. The American military made this point pretty explicitly in the latest round of affirmative action litigation. Their enlisted soldiers are disproportionately black (whites are represented about evenly, Asians and people who didn't specify a race seem to be underrepresented) and the Army feels -- probably correctly -- that this means they need a healthy proportion of African-American officers to make things run smoothly.

I've edited each of these down (only a bit with Atrios); read the linked entries for their full views. Let's hope the violence ends soon -- and that (contrary to the pessimism of several of the above) solutions to the underlying problems are found.

Update: Quotes added.

Monday, November 07, 2005

James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction: a Google Tale

Note: I am no longer keeping this post up to date. For an up-to-date list of James Fenimore Cooper Prize winners, see here.

So this semester I'm teaching a seminar on Historical Fiction, and one of the books we're reading is Tim O'Brien's extraordinary work The Things They Carried.* This being the age of the internet and all, one of the things I did was to google Tim O'Brien and see what information was out there. Now, in O'Brien's standard author bio is the note that his later book, In the Lake of the Woods, "won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize from the society of American Historians"; one of the sites I hit mentioned that it was a prize for best historical novel. Now I was really interested: in preparing the course I had, of course, googled "historical novel" (see above re: age of the internet) but had never seen a page listing the winners. What was this prize? Who had won it?

Well, information is not ample, at least online. (And with all due respect towards those who worry that starting every search with google is destroying scholarship, I think we can all agree that at least some information is best kept online -- prize winners being a perfectly good example, I would have to say.) The prize is given by the Society of American Historians -- who don't seem to have a web page of their own, at least not one prominent in the googleverse. (Update: Since remedied) (It's not one of the major organizations for historians (which, in the U.S., are the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association, for historians of America and historians in America respectively.)) They give four prizes, of which the James Fenimore Cooper Prize is one. But if you google "James Fenimore Cooper Prize" you get mostly sites citing O'Brien's standard author bio! Heck, a Lexis/Nexis search for the last two years brings up precisely one reference (in this review; the reviewer calls the prize "undervalued" -- which I would have to say is probably an understatement.)

I began to wonder if the prize existed, but no, a few other places do mention it. The basic information is that the prize is for best historical novel and is given biennially. This site reports: "A prize of $2500 is given biennially for an historical novel on an American theme that "significantly advances the historical imagination." Publishers may submit novels published in 2003 or 2004 by January 31. There is no entry fee. Send an SASE or email for an application and complete guidelines." (See link for contact info.)

And one page even gives a complete listing for winners of the prize -- a listing on the personal page of one Larry Schwartz, the collection management librarian at Minnesota State University's Livingston Lord Library (he maintains a listing of prize-winning fiction the library has.) But even that page had a low google rank for the search "James Fenimore Cooper Prize". Way to get your prize recognized guys! So, in the interest of promoting this prize, I will repeat the information here.

James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction
Given by the Society of American Historians

1993 Shaman by Noah Gordon
1995 In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien
1997 The Cattle Killing by John Edgar Wideman
1999 Gain by Richard Powers
2001 A Dangerous Friend by Ward Just
Bone by Bone by Peter Matthiessen
2003 Paradise Alley by Kevin Baker
2005 The Plot Against America, Philip Roth

Update: I have heard an unconfirmed report that Thomas Mullen's novel The Last Town on Earth won the prize -- presumably for 2007? -- but can't find confirmation anywhere on line, even on the author's own web site, so I can't vouch for this.

(The link in each case is independent confirmation of the prize. Just to prove that Larry Schwartz and Tim O'Brien didn't cook this up in their back yard one evening.)

The information here seems to suggest that the 2005 award (covering the years 2003-2004) should have been given already; but I haven't found out who the winner is. If anyone knows, email me, and I'll put in an update. Now updated.

* The most useful site on The Things They Carried, incidentally, was an index prepared by the 2001-2002 Advanced Placement Literature class at Carmel High School in Mundelein, Il; I haven't used it extensively, but I've looked a few things up in it and it seems really good. Click on the title for the link.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

The Invasion of Grenada

From Stewart O'Nan's anthology The Vietnam Reader: the Definitive Collection of American Fiction and Nonfiction on the War (which is a very good collection, although "definitive" is probably overstating it; it collects basically fiction/nonfiction/poetry from after the war by Americans, which is very good in the range which it covers, but which of course leaves a lot of gaps for (say) teaching purposes -- no Vietnamese viewpoints (frustratingly hard to find in anthologies generally), few contemporary documents, whether government documents, journalism, etc.) comes the following poem (from p. 679):

The Invasion of Grenada

I didn't want a monument,
not even one as sober as that
vast black wall of broken lives.
I didn't want a postage stamp.
I didn't want a road beside the Delaware
River with a sign proclaiming:
"Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway."

What I wanted was a simple recognition
of the limits of our power as a nation
to inflict our will on others.
What I wanted was an understanding
that the world is neither black-and-white
nor ours.

What I wanted
was an end to monuments.

-- W. D. Ehrhart, 1984

What struck me most (should I add, "of course"?) was the second stanza: such a wonderful indictment of the currently reigning rationale for the war in Iraq. (I stress "currently reigning rationale" since I think it's crucial to remember that when we went to war the reason that was overwhelmingly stressed by the government (as opposed to the occasional pundit) was the dire threat from Iraq's WMDs; and that it is only after this became utterly unsupportable that the 'bring democracy and freedom' rationale, which until then had been distinctly tertiary, was brought forward as the reason for the war.) Even more apt against Iraq, I have to say, then against our Great Glorious War against Grenada.

So I thought it would share it with you.