Wednesday, March 08, 2017

How Good Writing Raises Empathy, not Snobbery

George Saunders wrote a fascinating piece in Saturday's Guardian explaining "what writers really do when they write." You can read the whole article here. I just want to isolate a couple paragraphs because they do such a good job of explaining why a preference for so-called "good literature" can come from empathetic rather than elitist motivations. In the process of explaining his editing process, Saunders manages to show how the refining and revising of a sentence can really be an act of compassion and an expression of trust in the reader. Here are paragraphs 3 and 4 of Saunders' piece (which I've bleeped for wider sharing). See what you think (emphasis added).

Revising by the method described is a form of increasing the ambient intelligence of a piece of writing. This, in turn, communicates a sense of respect for your reader. As text is revised, it becomes more specific and embodied in the particular. It becomes more sane. It becomes less hyperbolic, sentimental, and misleading. It loses its ability to create a propagandistic fog. Falsehoods get squeezed out of it, lazy assertions stand up, naked and blushing, and rush out of the room. 
Is any of this relevant to our current political moment? 
Hoo, boy.  
When I write, “Bob was an a******,” and then, feeling this perhaps somewhat lacking in specificity, revise it to read, “Bob snapped impatiently at the barista,” then ask myself, seeking yet more specificity, why Bob might have done that, and revise to, “Bob snapped impatiently at the young barista, who reminded him of his dead wife,” and then pause and add, “who he missed so much, especially now, at Christmas,” – I didn’t make that series of changes because I wanted the story to be more compassionate. I did it because I wanted it to be less lame.  
But it is more compassionate. Bob has gone from “pure a******” to “grieving widower, so overcome with grief that he has behaved ungraciously to a young person, to whom, normally, he would have been nice”. Bob has changed. He started out a cartoon, on which we could heap scorn, but now he is closer to “me, on a different day”.  
How was this done? Via pursuit of specificity. I turned my attention to Bob and, under the pressure of trying not to suck, my prose moved in the direction of specificity, and in the process my gaze became more loving toward him (ie, more gentle, nuanced, complex), and you, dear reader, witnessing my gaze become more loving, might have found your own gaze becoming slightly more loving, and together (the two of us, assisted by that imaginary grouch) reminded ourselves that it is possible for one’s gaze to become more loving. 
Or we could just stick with “Bob was an a******,” and post it, and wait for the “likes”, and for the pro-Bob forces to rally, and the anti-barista trolls to anonymously weigh in – but, meanwhile, there’s poor Bob, grieving and misunderstood, and there’s our poor abused barista, feeling crappy and not exactly knowing why, incrementally more convinced that the world is irrationally cruel.  
What does an artist do, mostly? She tweaks that which she’s already done. There are those moments when we sit before a blank page, but mostly we’re adjusting that which is already there. The writer revises, the painter touches up, the director edits, the musician overdubs. I write, “Jane came into the room and sat down on the blue couch,” read that, wince, cross out “came into the room” and “down” and “blue” (Why does she have to come into the room? Can someone sit UP on a couch? Why do we care if it’s blue?) and the sentence becomes “Jane sat on the couch – ” and suddenly, it’s better (Hemingwayesque, even!), although … why is it meaningful for Jane to sit on a couch? Do we really need that? And soon we have arrived, simply, at “Jane”, which at least doesn’t suck, and has the virtue of brevity.  
But why did I make those changes? On what basis?  
On the basis that, if it’s better this new way for me, over here, now, it will be better for you, later, over there, when you read it. When I pull on this rope here, you lurch forward over there. 
This is a hopeful notion, because it implies that our minds are built on common architecture – that whatever is present in me might also be present in you. “I” might be a 19th-century Russian count, “you” a part-time Walmart clerk in 2017, in Boise, Idaho, but when you start crying at the end of my (Tolstoy’s) story “Master and Man”, you have proved that we have something in common, communicable across language and miles and time, and despite the fact that one of us is dead. 
Another reason you’re crying: you’ve just realised that Tolstoy thought well of you – he believed that his own notions about life here on earth would be discernible to you, and would move you.  
Tolstoy imagined you generously, you rose to the occasion. 
We often think that the empathetic function in fiction is accomplished via the writer’s relation to his characters, but it’s also accomplished via the writer’s relation to his reader. You make a rarefied place (rarefied in language, in form; perfected in many inarticulable beauties – the way two scenes abut; a certain formal device that self-escalates; the perfect place at which a chapter cuts off); and then welcome the reader in. She can’t believe that you believe in her that much; that you are so confident that the subtle nuances of the place will speak to her; she is flattered. And they do speak to her. This mode of revision, then, is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you, and that, to communicate intimately with her, you have to maintain the state, through revision, of generously imagining her. You revise your reader up, in your imagination, with every pass. You keep saying to yourself: “No, she’s smarter than that. Don’t dishonour her with that lazy prose or that easy notion.”  
And in revising your reader up, you revise yourself up too.

This is of course not to deny that literary-snobbishness is an actual thing, but it does help to bust through the caricatures and show some of what might be at stake in the finer points of literary appreciation.

George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo

Friday, December 30, 2016

For me the Novel, Film, and Album of the Year

In my early 30s I compiled lists of the novels, films, and albums which to that point had either become all-time favourites or left an indelible impression. Though now a less avid blogger, I've still been adding one more each year. So here they are for 2016, the year I turned 41.

NOVEL #41:

The book dates back to 2013 but my interest in its themes (aboriginal history and the missionary complicity in western conquest) goes back further than that. I'm very grateful to my sister-in-law Amy for recommending it. The story is gripping, the sense of place and time is strong, and the way it weaves in and out of the perspectives of its three main characters is beautiful.

Nick Cave, The Death of Bunny Munro (2009)
Cormac McCarthy, The Sunset Limited (2006)
Dave Eggers, You're Fathers, Where are They? (2014)
Stephen King, The Shining (1977)

This isn't exactly new -- here's what I wrote about it the first time 'round -- but on second viewing this year I fell in love with it.

In this spot I could and probably should have put We're All Gonna Die, since it was actually released in 2016. Truth be told, since I listened to all five Dawes albums non-stop this year, top billing could also have gone to Stories Don't End or North Hills. But, for me and for this year, this one is most representative. Every song is perfect.

I used to keep a list of favourite non-fiction as well but my reading in that department is pretty eccentric and chronologically erratic. For what it's worth, the non-fiction that got to me the strongest this year included Bonhoeffer's Creation and Fall, Wayne Morris's Theology Without Words, Elizabeth Johnson's Ask the Beasts, and Stephen Backhouse's Kierkegaard: A Single Life.

Needless to say, I recommend all of these highly.

Click the tabs in the blog-banner above for my full lists. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Readings in Race and The Christian Imagination

These days there's so much talk about ethnicity, culture, nationalism, race, and the church that I am increasingly drawn back to what I've learned from Willie James Jennings and J. Kameron Carter in this regard. Recalling that I had at one time shared excerpts and reflections from each of their works on this blog, I thought I would collect links to them in one place for future reference. Perhaps this may also serve as a primer for those who might be interested to look into these matters further.

Reflections on or related to Willie Jennings' The Christian Imagination:

Readings in J. Kameron Carter's "Race: A Theological Account"
  • Prelude

    "The ancient Gnostics thus ended up with a nonmaterial Christ ... lacking interhuman and interlinguistic Jewish flesh, flesh that was not embedded in the history of Israel.... [Here] I tell the story of how the loss of a Jewish-inflected account ... of Christian identity cleared the way for whiteness to function as a replacement doctrine of creation. Hence, the world was re-created from the colonial conquests from the late fifteenth century forward in the image of white dominance, where 'white' signifies not merely pigmentation but a regime of political and economic power for arranging the world."

Monday, November 21, 2016

Bonhoeffer on Truth-Speaking

Today I found this bit of Bonhoeffer both personally challenging and theologically illuminating. It calls for truth-speaking with attention to the particulars of the relationship rather than out of some kind of principled idealism that ends up being an evasive moral superiority.
"Where 'the truth is told' without regard for the person to whom it is said, there it has only the appearance of truth but not its essence.

The cynic is the one who, claiming to 'tell the truth' in all places and at all times and to every person in the same way, only puts on a display a dead idolatrous image of the truth. By putting a halo on his own head for being a zealot for the truth who can take no account of human weaknesses, he destroys the living truth between persons.

He violates shame, desecrates the mystery, breaks trust, betrays the community in which he lives, and smiles arrogantly over the havoc he has wrought and over the human weakness that 'can't bear the truth.'"

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (English) 16: 683.
In context Bonhoeffer seems to be suggesting that our approach to (or avoidance of) confrontation needs to be enfolded in a theology and actual practice of Christ-confession.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Kierkegaard: A Single Life

available here from Zondervan
A few months ago I realized I did not know Kierkegaard well enough. I'd read Fear and Trembling and Works of Love but I kept on picking up other volumes in used bookstores only to regrettably never quite get to them. All along there's been this nagging desire to go back and explore this nineteenth century thinker some more. Kierkegaard always seems to say something you haven't quite thought of that way before.

This brand new biography of Søren Kierkegaard by Stephen Backhouse hit the spot. It came to our door on Friday and I devoured it by Sunday night. It is immensely informative, insightful, and readable.

Rather than duplicate the denser intellectual biographies that already exist (on one hand), or offer up the life's story without reference to it's work (on the other), Backhouse gives us Kierkegaard in two parts: a telling of his story and an overview of his works. The first reads like a gripping novel, the second opens up inviting windows into texts both famous and unknown.

The 211-page 'life of Kierkegaard' which makes up the bulk of the book is nothing short of riveting. (And for those who wish to just do some beach reading, it could be happily left at that). The research that stands behind it is impeccable. Not only does Backhouse have a command of Kierkegaard's thought and of his historical context, he has also scoured the journals of Søren and his peers in order to give us a view of his life from inside-out and outside-in. This is sewn together not like a patchwork quilt or a dry historical treatise but almost like a psychological thriller. (Okay, 'thriller' might be too strong a word, but the drama of Søren's inner and public life is pretty intense).

Kierkegaard seems to have been hounded controversy. Just when it lets up he chases it again. One simultaneously admires his resolve and cringes at the pain he puts himself (and others) through. Backhouse gives a sympathetic account that does not cover up Soren's faults and quirks, but puts them in perspective and (thanks to his journals) reveals in them an intent that is better than many might have guessed. It would be easy to write Kierkegaard off as a controversialist, but through this insightful biography we see him as somewhat restrained given the burning of his conviction, the sincerity of his confession, and the sharpness of his vision.

Even though Backhouse highlights the work Kierkegaard was doing as it occurs in his life, I was thankful for the 54 page overview of his publications which rounds out the book. The pithy summaries have focused my understanding of books I have read, and given me a concise encapsulation of books which (let's face it) I probably never will.

More than that, Backhouse has put some books on my radar which need to go high on the reading list not just because they seem interesting, but because the thoughts expressed in them seem as important and challenging as ever. A few choice quotes (all Backhouse's words) will make this plain:

'The Romantics rightly accuse modernity of trapping people in a slavery of social customs, materialism, and shallow religiosity. Yet the Romantics also condemn people to a slavish devotion to their own subjective passions and immature whims. Irony, urges Kierkegaard, is a necessary moment on the way to exposing a lie.... Significantly, at the end of his life Søren would employ Socratic irony by claiming not to a Christian, thus exposing the Christianity of Christendom as no Christianity at all.' - on Concept of Irony
'The first-hand disciples faced the same challenge as did the second-hand disciples. The incarnation was as offensive to reason one second after it happened as it is thousands of years later.' - on Philosophical Fragments
'In an age overtaken by reflection, talking about doing something important replaces actually doing it. The crowd likes the appearance of decisiveness more than it tolerates the reality of it... Levelling is the process of abstraction, whereby decisive choices are stripped of their power by being morphed into "ideas" or "worldviews," and persons are subsumed into groups... One of the public's most potent weapons in the war to defend itself against individuals taking their existence seriously is an endless stream of celebrity gossip, manufactured ideological conflict, and opinion presented as facts no one owns but everyone has.' - on The Present Age
'In Kierkegaard's view, "discourses" denotes open-ended discussion whereas a "sermon" suggests the speaker is speaking "with authority." The book's four parts ... reflect Søren's deepening mistrust of Christendom's self-satisfaction.' - on Christian Discourses
'Christianity has forgotten this ['Come to me' from Matthew 11:28] is a hard saying, because the citizens of Christendom have forgotten to live in the present with Jesus ever before them.' - on Practice in Christianity
'The reformation betrays itself when it simply allows one form of anaemic cultural Christianity to replace another. Instead, authentic Christianity is ever new, reforming itself with every generation and every individual.' - on For Self-Examination
'The present age thinks the more people rally together about something the truer it is or becomes.' - on The Book on Adler
What comes to life in this book is not just the person of Søren Kierkegaard but the ethos of nineteenth century Copenhagen and its churches as well—an ethos not far off from our own. Read against the vividly painted backdrop of his context, one cannot help but feel Kierkegaard's work coming into clearer focus and still having lots to say.