10 January 2011


Still bogged down by Life... but that doesn't prevent me from making link sausages out of the leftovers!

  • Sarah Weinman discusses the darker side of publishers and new authors, and — as dark as her portrait is — nonetheless finds some grounds for something resembling optimism.
  • Robert McCrum once again demonstrates that he's unable to distinguish between the baby and the bathwater with yet another sub rosa approval of a diatribe against publishing practices — this time copyright as a whole — based on exceptions. This is, unfortunately, the default practice for the entire argument (and bears a disturbing resemblance to the background of this weekend's violence in Arizona): If any part of copyright is less than optimal for any work, the entire regime must be thrown out, in some sort of Maoist "permanent revolution." On the other hand, if one looks closely at the problems that McCrum describes (and that Boyle focuses on in his academic work), one will find that almost without exception the problems arise from transferred copyrights that are no longer under the control of the natural persons who actually did the creative work... which implicates economics, finance, and the dubious concept of unquestioned inheritance more than it does copyright itself (or, for that matter, any conceivable replacement).
  • There's a fascinating article in the NYT that exposes an aspect of cultural imperialism that echoes Sarah Weinman's piece (and, for that matter, McCrum's): Who are the greatist composers of music? Note, though, the not-so-hidden assumption that this means Western European orchestral music in the "classical" tradition (despite the lip service paid to alternatives). There's no place for "folk" traditions, even though several of those composers (Chopin being the most obvious) based the core of their oeuvres on recasting folk music into the "classical" mold. Similarly, there's little place for solo instruments, although at least to my taste some of the greatest works of even these composers — with the possible exception, again, of Chopin, who at least drafted everything for piano — was for solo instruments and not overblown orchestral works for the upper classes. Most egregiously, there's no place for words or voice: Not one of these candidates was his/her own librettist for even the secondary and tertiary vocal works he composed. This is perhaps most obvious with Mozart's butchery of speech rhythms in Le nozze de Figaro and Don Juan, which get completely ignored by critics.

    Instead, this article is largely a mess... not so much because of its overt focus on "classical" composers as because it refuses to look outside the canon. At least the author isn't on a soapbox for Glück or some "unjustly neglected" other personal favorite!

* * *

Here's my unsolicited reaction to the various speculation and accusations of ill-will surrounding the Arizona shootings, remembering that radio and TV presentations are also other forms of "writing":

Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are:

(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc....

(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement....

(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

(iv) Political purpose — using the word "political" in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples' idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

It can be seen how these various impulses must war against one another, and how they must fluctuate from person to person and from time to time. By nature — taking your "nature" to be the state you have attained when you are first adult — I am a person in whom the first three motives would outweigh the fourth. In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties. As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer.

George Orwell, "Why I Write" (emphasis and ellipses added).

The greatest political writer of the twentieth century came to overtly political writing under the pressure of circumstances. The key point, though, is that Mr Blair did so consciously, preventing his prose from ever descending to the depths one finds on AM talk radio. He constantly examined his own motives and methods (with inconsistent success, albeit vastly greater than virtually any of his — or our — contemporaries). There's more than one lesson here...