17 August 2009

I Don't Vouch for the Chunks in These Sausages

Monday. Again.

  • An academic study on the whys, wherefores, hows — and flaws — of alternate and secret histories is just mindbogglingly reflexive in its own implications for a secret history of books reviews. And that's only part of the fun!
  • What's next in the continuation-of-the-"classics" meme (and I don't just mean alternate histories)? Now we're seeing complaints that style matters, and that what makes Austen worth reading is inconsistent with the modern tendency to say/show everything (an odd interpretation, given that Austen's heroines have a tendency to get themselves in trouble, marriage-wise, by saying too much). I suppose that Sense and Sensibility and Lawyers is not a realistic possibility, then?

    This points out the dubious theoretical position of the "derivative works" doctrine in copyright law. In many — arguably most — respects, protection of elements of a literary1 works, such as a character (e.g., "Rusty" Sabich) or setting (e.g., Scott Turow's alternate/secret history construct of Kindle County) ends up "looking" a lot more like trademark law than it does copyright law. This is probably as it should be, as what we're really considering is the validity of the referent — in overly legalistic terms, the propriety of designation of origin — and not the actual expression copied. On the other hand, the elements of characters, and to a slightly lesser extent setting, are both themselves substantially more dependent on the quality, manner, and nature of expression in the underlying work for their potential value to a copier in the first place, meaning that more of the language (expression) will implicitly get copied, even if it's just rhythm and sentence structure. The less said about who really owns these marks, the happier the industrial interests will be.

    From a more literary-theory perspective, though, there's another problem: The difference between honoring (and learning from) and emulating. I enjoyed reading Jane Austen's novels (I am, after all, someone who reads Göthe, Schiller, Pynchon, and Gaddis for fun). My picture is in a leading dictionary next to "obsessive reader".2 I wouldn't even dream of emulating Austen; we've learned an awful lot about how prose works (and doesn't), and how storytelling works (and doesn't), since her time. Austen is worthy of respect, and writers should learn from her. She is not an appropriate model for emulation, however; and there's a lot of explanation of why in some of the better-written literary theory that is available in book form.

    While it may be a universal truth that an author with a blank sheet in front of her is always in pursuit of a manuscript, that does not mean that she must of necessity marry her efforts to the first gentlememe that crosses her path. Many of those most attractive gentlememes will prove to be impecunious, or vainglorious, or worst of all already being courted — even married, perhaps, or for some other reason not truly eligible. Young Mister Caulfield, for example, has a notoriously overbearing father who will not give permission for authors to do more than dance a bit with him, not to mention that he has a truly vile and callow personality and far less money than society ascribes to him.

  • The two preceding items, in their own ways, concern mythmaking in modern society. To see mythmaking in action, look no farther than advice on nutrition... or, in this wonderfully titled piece dripping with multiple levels of irony, e-book evangelism.
  • Jay Lake attempts to diagnose the conservative movement's problems with healthcare reform. I think it's a good thing that Jay wears Hawaiian-print shirts by preference, so he can't be mistaken for a doctor... because the problem is simultaneously much, much simpler and much more profound than his diagnosis.

    The American conservative movement rejects Rawls's preconditions for justice. It really is that simple.

    This is not to say that Rawls is some kind of gospel that cannot be criticized; for one thing, his hypothesis ignores some biological imperatives toward giving one's offspring advantages. However, what the conservative movement forgets is that the original position and its corollary, the veil of ignorance, must always be considered in developing an appropriate system. They are not, themselves, determinative, though — and that is the problem the conservative movement has, because it is unable to distinguish between "consider" and "determine."

    In the context of the healthcare debate, the conservative movement's position is that the original position of its members reflects not just the ideal to which we must aspire, but the original position of society. A tour of any Third World major city would quickly disabuse them of that notion, with the endemic communicable disease. The obvious rejoinder — that's them, not the great and good U S of A — could be refuted with a trip through Appalachia or the east side of Houston, but that's not going to do much good, either... because, ultimately, the conservative position is not fact-based, but doctrine-based. It may be a pathetic, internally inconsistent doctrine, but it's what they've got.

  1. This is not to say that nonliterary forms of copyright don't matter; it is only to say that their nature makes it a lot harder to succinctly state the theoretical argument. Since this is not a law review article (yet) — for one thing, there should already be at least ten footnotes preceding this one — I won't make this any harder than it needs to be. Especially on a Monday morning.
  2. Or it should be. In some secret, or alternate, history, it certainly is.