10 January 2004

Literary Cancer Patients
There must be some cancer patients taking advantage of a secret medical-marijuana law running the New York Times book section and Book Review this week. That's the only explanation I can come up with for these two items.

First, the absurdly pompous Frank Rich mentions a book's name and then tries to show how much more clever than everyone else who writes about cinema he is. Like that's a surprise to anyone who has to put up with his reviews; it's sort of like having to pay attention to a blowhard member of the School Board because that member has been around forever and nobody can organize a campaign against him or her.

Cold Mountain will no doubt be promoted, in ace Miramax fashion, into the Oscars sweepstakes. But this is a new era when even the Oscar show, no longer the automatic mass draw it once was, has had to switch its date and retool itself to fend off the Golden Globes. As John Dunne would be the first to point out, however, an Oscar was never an unalloyed blessing. After it hit the jackpot with Chicago last year, Miramax went out and acquired the rights to three more musicals (Guys and Dolls, Pippin and Damn Yankees), in uncanny, if presumably unconscious, emulation of the misguided Zanucks all those Hollywoods ago.

Frank Rich, "Bullies Are Not What Ails Hollywood" (Jan. 11, 2004) (typography corrected for clarity).

The headline writer either has no understanding of irony or understands it all too well (and doesn't like Mr. Rich). What is most interesting about this quotation is that it is the last paragraph of the "review"—and it doesn't mention the book, its subject, or even the author of the book that is purportedly being reviewed. This is typical of Mr. Rich's film reviews, so I shouldn't be too surprised. This is just plain bad writing that wasn't edited, possibly so that Mr. Rich wouldn't be offended by some wet-behind-the-ears editor pointing out that he hadn't written about the stated topic. (This should sound exactly like what has happened with Certain Overrated Bestselling Authors as they have gotten farther along in their publishing careers.) Mr. Rich's review makes no sense in any event, because it both states nothing that is not already common coin to potential readers of the book—anybody who really wants to know what's wrong with Hollywood has probably already formed an opinion and knows the particular anecdotes (or parallel ones)—and fails to evaluate the book under consideration. Perhaps that points out who is the real bully here.

Then, on the other hand, we have something that might have been pulled from a bad parody of the bad parody mentioned early in Dead Poets' Society (the "J. Evans Pritchard, PhD" preface to the poetry textbook).

Mr. Moretti cheerfully acknowledged that his ideas were controversial. But that has not dampened his enthusiasm. "After Christmas, I'm going to teach a class on electronic data in which we will work on 8,000 titles from the mid-18th century to the 19th century," he said, eagerly elaborating his vision of what he called "literature without texts." "My little dream," he added wistfully, "is of a literary class that would look more like a lab than a Platonic academy."

Emily Eakin, "Studying Literature by the Numbers" (Jan. 10, 2004) (fake paragraphing removed for clarity). Professor Moretti, who teaches at Stanford, has a case of academic penis envy for the more-numerically oriented branches of learning. The absurdity of his work should be readily apparent to anyone with real scientific training who understands the difference between epidemiology (which is all that he's doing) and empiricism. Epidemiology—post hoc statistical study of surface characteristics—allows one only to correlate events, such as purported correlations between the phase of the moon and stock market activity. The key is that epidemiology does not of itself require any attention to what is being studied, or to actual causation. It ignores both reflexive (one event within the field influencing the results of later events) and external (a common cause not within the field) causality. It can be useful in pointing toward areas for further study; but that is all.

In this instance, Professor Moretti's work (I've read a little bit, but not the particular article mentioned in Ms. Eakin's piece) fails to account for the prominence and internal influence of "seminal" works within literature and for completely nonliterary causation of his data. Consider, for example, the problem of "women authors" he mentions. At least within English literature, several outside factors (such as the prevalence and nature of education offered to women, which has historically been at least different from that offered to men) are massive influences. Then there's the whole issue of the often-flawed works that open doors for later writers; one obvious example is Virginia Woolf's "To the Lighthouse." But one can discern these kinds of things only by actually reading the works—not to mention that accurate characterization of the works requires reading them in the first place. What is really frightening is that this puts me in agreement with Harold Bloom, whose closed mind and closed canon stand for much of what is wrong with literary scholarship in the first place. Or, in a legal context, it is as if we are to discern something significant about the law itself from counting West keynotes and graphing them—forgetting all along that keynotes are inherently reflexive.

So, where can I get some of what they're smokin' at the editorial desk? It sure sounds more entertaining than single-digit weather on the Silicon Prairie…