Recently I did something that many people would consider unthinkable, or at least perverse. Before going to see “Avengers: Infinity War,” I deliberately read a review that revealed all of the major plot points, from start to finish.
Don’t worry; I’m not going to share any of those spoilers here. Though I do think the aversion to spoilers – what The New York Times’ A.O. Scott recently lamented as “a phobic, hypersensitive taboo against public discussion of anything that happens onscreen” – is a bit overblown.
These cognitive tendencies help explain why plot twists can be so satisfying. But somewhat counterintuitively, they also explain why knowing about a plot twist ahead of time – the dreaded “spoiler” – doesn’t really spoil the experience at all.
The curse of knowledge
When you pick up a book for the first time, you usually want to have some sense of what you’re signing up for – cozy mysteries, for instance, aren’t supposed to feature graphic violence and sex. But you’re probably also hoping that what you read won’t be entirely predictable.
To some extent, the fear of spoilers is well-grounded. You only have one opportunity to learn something for the first time. Once you’ve learned it, that knowledge affects what you notice, what you anticipate – and even the limits of your imagination.
What we know trips us up in lots of ways, a general tendency known as the “curse of knowledge.”
For example, when we know the answer to a puzzle, that knowledge makes it harder for us to estimate how difficult that puzzle will be for someone else to solve: We’ll assume it’s easier than it really is.
When we know the resolution of an event – whether it’s a basketball game or an election – we tend to overestimate how likely that outcome was.
Information we encounter early on influences our estimation of what is possible later. It doesn’t matter whether we’re reading a story or negotiating a salary: Any initial starting point for our reasoning – however arbitrary or apparently irrelevant – “anchors” our analysis. In one study, legal experts given a hypothetical criminal case argued for longer sentences when presented with larger numbers on randomly rolled dice.
Plot twists pull everything together
Either consciously or intuitively, good writers know all of this.
An effective narrative works its magic, in part, by taking advantage of these, and other, predictable habits of thought. Red herrings, for example, are a type of anchor that set false expectations – and can make twists seem more surprising.
A major part of the pleasure of plot twists, too, comes not from the shock of surprise, but from looking back at the early bits of the narrative in light of the twist. The most satisfying surprises get their power from giving us a fresh, better way of making sense of the material that came before. This is another opportunity for stories to turn the curse of knowledge to their advantage.
Remember that once we know the answer to a puzzle, its clues can seem more transparent than they really were. When we revisit early parts of the story in light of that knowledge, well-constructed clues take on new, satisfying significance.
Consider “The Sixth Sense.” After unleashing its big plot twist – that Bruce Willis’ character has, all along, been one of the “dead people” that only the child protagonist can see – it presents a flash reprisal of scenes that make new sense in light of the surprise. We now see, for instance, that his wife (in fact, his widow) did not snatch up the check at a restaurant before he could take it out of pique. Instead it was because, as far as she knew, she was dining alone.
Even years after the film’s release, viewers take pleasure in this twist, savoring the degree to which it should be “obvious if you pay attention” to earlier parts the film.
The pluses and minuses of the spoiler
At the same time, studies show that even when people are certain of an outcome, they reliably experience suspense, surprise and emotion. Action sequences are still heart-pounding; jokes are still funny; and poignant moments can still make us cry.
In fact, when a major turn in a narrative is truly unanticipated, it can have a catastrophic effect on enjoyment – as many outraged “Infinity War” viewers can testify.
If you know the twist beforehand, the curse of knowledge has more time to work its magic. Early elements of the story will seem to presage the ending more clearly when you know what that ending is. This can make the work as a whole feel more coherent, unified and satisfying.
Of course, anticipation is a delicious pleasure in its own right. Learning plot twists ahead of time can reduce that excitement, even if the foreknowledge doesn’t ruin your enjoyment of the story itself.
Marketing experts know that what spoilers do spoil is the urgency of consumers’ desire to watch or read a story. People can even find themselves so sapped of interest and anticipation that they stay home, robbing themselves of the pleasure they would have had if they’d simply never learned of the outcome.
When I was researching and writing my new book, “The Gist of Reading,” I wanted to explore long-held assumptions about reading and how we process what we read.
Some of these assumptions have changed through time. For example, as novels became popular in the 18th century, many warned that they were dangerous and had the potential to cultivate ignorance and immorality in readers, especially female ones.
Today, many would consider that view antiquated. People probably think that reading a narrative – fiction or otherwise – might be able to influence a reader’s opinions or personal beliefs. But their prior knowledge of real-world facts should be safe.
For example, readers might read a story in which a character mentions in passing that Hillary Clinton, rather than Donald Trump, won the 2016 election. This shouldn’t influence readers’ ability to quickly respond that Trump was the real winner, right?
And yet I came across a substantial amount of psychology work that has demonstrated how reading stories – both nonfiction and fiction – has a powerful ability to distort readers’ prior knowledge.
Did George Washington really become president?
In psychologist Richard Gerrig’s 1989 study “Suspense in the Absence of Uncertainty,” Gerrig developed short, nonfictional narratives about well-known events, such as the election of George Washington as president of the United States, that he gave to participants.
Some participants read a version of the narrative that foregrounded facts that made it doubtful Washington would become the president; others read a narrative that made his presidency seem likely.
Readers who read the doubtful version took longer to verify that he had indeed become president (or to recognize that a sentence denying that he had become president was not true).
Even though they knew Washington eventually became president, simply reading a very short narrative had enough power to make readers significantly less sure of what they already knew.
While Gerrig’s experiment presented readers with nonfictional stories about real events, another study demonstrated that reading a short fictional story containing falsehoods presented as facts can make readers more likely to treat them as facts, even if readers have previously shown that they know the truth.
In the study, participants took an online survey that quizzed them on their world knowledge – for example, identifying the world’s largest ocean (the Pacific) – and then had them rate how confident they were in their answer.
Two weeks later, the same participants read two fictional stories and were warned that these stories might contain some false information. The stories actually contained inaccurate versions of the very facts that the readers had been tested on two weeks earlier. For example, in one story, a character (incorrectly) mentioned, in passing, that the Indian Ocean was the world’s largest.
After reading the stories, the participants took the same world knowledge test they had taken two weeks earlier. The inaccurate information turned out to have a serious effect: Readers did worse on the world knowledge test after reading the stories than they had done two weeks before. In particular, questions they had gotten right two weeks earlier they now got wrong – even for the questions that they had answered most confidently on the earlier test.
And remember: All of this happened despite the fact that readers had been explicitly told that the stories would contain inaccurate information.
Pushing back against misinformation
Given our struggle to discern misinformation from fiction, psychologists have been interested in exploring how it to combat it. It seems especially vital to develop strategies that make people smarter about what they are gleaning from what they read, and to encourage ways to become more skeptical.
In a 2016 article,
psychologist David N. Rapp outlines how to defeat, or at least reduce, the misinformation effect.
Rapp describes four key strategies that have proven especially effective.
First, when readers actively tag information as accurate or inaccurate while they read, inaccuracies lose much of their effect. It’s not enough to know that something you read is incorrect: Unless you actively tag it as wrong while reading it, you may suffer the misinformation effect.
Second, the further removed fiction is from everyday reality, the less vulnerable readers are to believe false facts that may be embedded in it. Rapp and his colleagues found that misinformation in fantasy stories had much less effect on readers’ knowledge than misinformation in more realistic stories. Rapp argues that this could mean readers are able to compartmentalize their response to fiction. Fantasy stories like “The Hobbit” probably have less of an ability to alter real-world knowledge than, say, a piece of historical fiction, like Philippa Gregory’s “The Other Boleyn Girl,” which is grounded in historical events but nonetheless riddled with historical inaccuracies.
Third, Rapp found that some inaccuracies are so flagrant that readers do notice them. They may be persuaded that St. Petersburg, rather than Moscow, is the capital of Russia. But it’s much harder to persuade them that Russia’s capital is Brasilia. Brasilia is just too different from anything that readers associate with Russia to make it a convincing capital.
Finally – and perhaps most importantly in today’s climate of “fake news” – readers may be sensitive to the authority of a source. False facts from a generally credible source seem to have more effect than false facts from a disreputable one. The challenge, of course, is that what counts as a credible source to one reader may count as the opposite to another reader.
I find all these psychological experiments telling precisely because they generally avoid having participants read about hot-button issues that may make them feel defensive or partisan.
The traditional suspicion of fiction arose from its ability to excite and engage. Yet the materials in these experiments are comparatively dry – and the fictional information was nonetheless able to cast a spell on the reader.
In other words, even without emotional appeals, by warping the most neutral of facts, readers can easily be persuaded to question or even reverse what they already know.
Such work underscores more than ever that suspicion of reading is not entirely ungrounded. Today, not only is the internet filled with dubious information but there are also deliberate attempts to spread misinformation via social media channels. In this era of “fake news,” scrutinizing the sources of our knowledge has become more critical than ever.
The book was launched at The Australian Museum. The blurb says:
Good writing about science can be moving, funny, exhilarating, or poetic, but it will always be honest and rigorous about the research that underlies it.
This is what we’re all about at The Conversation – making sure that all our articles are supported by evidence, and at the same time helping readers see the relevance, the importance, the nuances but also the joy of science and technology.
In Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, a collection of nine short stories about robotics, Asimov explores the possibilities of human-computer interaction. How can humans and computers co-exist? How can they work together to make a better world?
A research group from the Meertens Instituut in Amsterdam and the Antwerp Centre for Digital Humanities and Literary Criticism recently introduced a new digital creative writing system. Using a graphical interface, an author drafts a text sentence by sentence. Then, the system proposes its own sentences to continue the story. The human and the computer work together to create what the system’s developers call “synthetic literature”.
The paper detailing this project describes the text generation system as an attempt to:
Create a stimulating environment that fosters co-creation: ideally, the machine should output valuable suggestions, to which the author retains a significant stake within the creative process.
How to train your robot
To learn language and sentence structure, the system has been trained using the texts of 10,000 Dutch-language e-books. Additionally, the system was trained to mimic the literary styles of such renowned authors as Asimov and Dutch science fiction author Ronald Giphart by generating sentences that use similar words, phrases, and sentence structures as these authors.
As part of this year’s annual Nederland Leest (The Netherlands Reads) festival, Giphart has been trialling the co-creative writing system to write a tenth I, Robot story. Once Giphart’s story is completed it will be published at the end of a new Dutch edition of Asimov’s classic text. Throughout November, participating libraries throughout the Netherlands will be offering free copies of this edition to visitors to get people thinking about this year’s festival theme: Nederland Leest de Toekomst (The Netherlands Reads the Future).
As Giphart types new sentences into the system’s graphical interface, the system responds by generating a selection of sentences that could be used to continue the story. Giphart can select any of these sentences, or ignore the system’s recommendations altogether.
The point of the system, its developers explain, is to “provoke the human writer in the process of writing”. Giphart says he still considers himself “the boss, but [the system] does the work”. One article even described the system as being ideal “for those who have literary aspirations, but who lack talent”.
Can a computer be creative?
The “synthetic literature” referred to by this system’s developers implies a combined production effort of both human and computer. Of course, the human still guides production. As co-developer Folgert Karsdorp explained: “You have numerous buttons to make your own mix. If you want to mix Giphart and Asimov, you can do that too.” The system follows its user’s direction, responding by using its own capacity for creativity.
But can a computer ever be truly creative? This is a question that the field of computational creativity has been studying since computers were invented. The field generally accepts that a computer can be called creative if its output would be considered creative had it been produced by a human.
Computational creativity debates are all rooted in one underlying question: is the computer merely a tool for human creativity, or could it be considered a creative agent itself? In a discussion about computer-generated art, creativity scholar Margaret Boden noted that:
It is the computer artist [the developer] who decides what input a system will respond to, how the system will respond, how unpredictable the system’s output will be, and how transparent the system’s functionality will be to users.
Even the most unpredictable output, according to Boden, results from choices the computer artist has made. While a developer may not be able to predict a system’s exact output, the output nevertheless reflects the choices the developer has made while programming.
The co-creative writing system Giphart is using isn’t able to produce an entire book by itself, but it can produce paragraphs that continue Giphart’s story for him. Giphart, though, ultimately has the power to choose what computer output he uses.
But does this mean that Giphart alone will be credited as the author of his Ik, robot story, or will his computer be given credit as a co-author? It’s still unclear. Although it could be hotly debated whether the creative writing system is just a tool for Giphart’s vision or could be considered an agent itself, we won’t be seeing the demise of human authors any time soon.
One Nederland Leest blog post compares this new method of writing to the evolution of the electric guitar. It may have existed for nearly a century, but it wasn’t until Jimi Hendrix showed us how to really play the instrument that its potential was realised. Similarly, we still need to discover how to “play” this writing system to get the best results, whatever they might be.
So is synthetic literature the future? Maybe. Keep reading to find out.
A blackmailer steals a compromising letter from a woman of high standing. The police know he is keeping this letter in his home, but they cannot find it. Using the latest forensic tools they search every inch of the apartment, recording their efforts as follows:
We examined the rungs of every chair …. and, indeed, the jointings of every description of furniture, by the aid of a most powerful microscope. Had there been any traces of recent disturbance we should not have failed to detect it instantly.
A single grain of gimlet-dust, for example, would have been as obvious as an apple. Any disorder in the glueing – any unusual gaping in the joints – would have sufficed to insure [sic] detection.
Back in 1844, this description of the police using a powerful microscope with the promise of instant detection would have dazzled readers of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Purloined Letter. Yet this is not what solves the mystery. Instead the private investigator, Auguste Dupin, correctly surmises that the best place to hide such a letter is in plain sight. He finds it on the blackmailer’s mantelpiece.
The story is one of the earliest and best examples of crime fiction. It suggests that science and technology are sometimes not as powerful as empathy or intuition in solving crimes. Indeed, Poe queries science throughout his writings. In one poem he calls it a vulture that preys on the poet’s heart, replacing the magic of a writer’s imagination with its “dull realities”.
Try telling that to modern readers of crime fiction. These days, forensic scientists are one of the great staples of the genre. They are integral to everything from popular TV franchises like CSI and Line of Duty to blockbuster names like Patricia Cornwell and Jeffrey Deaver to many of the works showcasing at the Bloody Scotland festival in Stirling. There is also something about their incredible achievements that we often overlook: they are often a long way from the reality.
We love crime fiction because it is reassuring. Yes, human beings are capable of evil and cruel deeds, but criminals are always caught and usually punished. This formula, as WH Auden suggested in a 1948 essay on the genre, restores us to a “state of grace”. It helps us believe we are basically innocent and good, and that criminality is an aberration.
Forensic science amplifies this sense of comfort in crime fiction: it produces evidence that cannot lie; it brings the most cunning of criminals to justice. In a world with no god and no certainty, these fictional scientists fill a void. They let us think that our world can be examined, analysed and rendered legible. They are modern-day magicians whose wizardry reveals indisputable truths.
But does forensic science really hold all the answers? Sadly, no. Val McDermid, one of the big names appearing at Bloody Scotland, is one of the few authors who help us understand this. In Out of Bounds (2016) for example, the police are trying to determine whether a man was murdered or shot himself.
The amount of gunshot residue in his hand is inconclusive, we learn, and not inconsistent with a self-inflicted wound. How can scientific evidence be inconclusive? How come scientists talk of things being “not inconsistent”, rather than dealing in certainties?
This is where the trouble begins for forensic experts. Imagine a scientist giving evidence as a witness in court and having to explain the limitations of their field. Jurors are unlikely to appreciate that forensic evidence often relies on human interpretation; that blood spatter patterns or bite mark analysis do not tell a single, compelling and unambiguous story the way they do in books.
Yet the reality of the uncertainty of forensic science was recently laid bare in relation to the DNA laboratory of the office of New York City’s chief medical examiner. Seen as one of the most sophisticated forensics labs in the world, carrying out work for investigators across the US, certain scientists are now claiming some of its methods are unreliable. A group of prominent New York defence lawyers is calling for the inspections watchdog to carry out an investigation.
Meanwhile, America’s National Institute of Standards and Technology recently accused the forensics industry of lagging other professions when it comes to looking into and resolving errors. It said:
In recent years, high visibility errors have occurred at crime labs in almost every state. These have ranged from simple mistakes, such as mislabelling evidence, to testimony that overstates the scientific evidence, to criminal acts.
In thrillers, forensic evidence almost always leads the investigative team to a satisfying conclusion. We never finish a novel thinking the killer might be exonerated when the evidence is re-examined. Even when all is as it should be, forensic scientists have their work cut out trying to communicate the complexity of the evidence, while explaining how it might be both subjective and reliable at the same time.
To make their case, scientists need much more than hard facts. They need to make their expertise accessible by using similes, metaphors and narrative examples. In fact, they need to be a little like novelists – which is ironic given that they have to dispel some of the misconceptions created by novelists in the first place.
If there is a consolation in any of this, these experts can at least thank novelists for their public image. No matter how hard they have to work to seek and communicate knowledge, at least forensic scientists will always look glamorous while doing so. They might be the victims of our need for reassurance and certainty, but we don’t tend to treat them with the same hostility as Edgar Allan Poe.
Yet women still aren’t equal to men. And if we think in terms of intersectional feminism – the connections between different multi-layered facets of oppression such as gender, race, class, sexual orientation, ethnicity, ability or age – the invisibility of some groups of women is even more striking.
Some may well say that this inequality is to be more expected in traditional male domains, and that in areas like arts and culture, women are actually far more visible than men. For example, they might argue that a glance at what is available in libraries or bookshops shows that more women writers are being published today, both in the UK and worldwide.
Indeed, in 2015, the BBC surveyed international critics to find the greatest British novels. Their results showed women authors accounted for half of the top 20 titles chosen. However, the same piece also emphasised how these results “stand in stark contrast to most such polls over the past decade”.
Look further into the number of reviews of women writers’ work published in literary magazines, and into the amount of writing prizes awarded to women, however, and a dramatic gender imbalance emerges.
Different gender-specific initiatives attempt to address this problem, such as the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and organisations like VIDA, working to highlight the gender imbalance in publishing. But there’s still a great wealth of literature out there that is still consistently being overlooked: that of non-English women writers.
So what’s the problem? To begin with, very few books are being translated into English from other languages. In Britain, translated literature makes up only 3.5% of the market, but 7% of book sales.
To challenge this, ongoing work carried about by English PEN – more specifically PEN Translate, a network promoting translations into English of outstanding works in foreign languages – and other organisations such as Literary across Frontiers – a platform for literary exchange, translation and policy debate based in Wales, aimed at developing intercultural dialogue through translation – is undoubtedly crucial. However, still more must be done.
The thing is, within that small number of translated works, women writer’s books are consistently undervalued. But women read and women write. Even if it has been traditionally difficult for women writers to have their works published – with many resorting to male pen names to combat sexism – and even if the current publishing market still shows a clear gender bias, globally more fiction than ever before is being authored by women.
Yet, even those women authors who make the cut and become renowned writers in their home countries are not being translated for an English-speaking audience. There is a clear tendency to translate fewer women authors than men authors. Generalist publishers have been found to have obvious gender-biased attitudes when selecting titles for translation, and the work of women writers is far less often chosen for inclusion in translation anthologies, as shown in recent examples from Galician literature.
The tendency is even worse if we think about outstanding women authors from postcolonial, peripheral and non-hegemonic contexts. There are so many examples of Polish, Italian, Latin American, Czech, Arab, Balkan and Japanese women writers that aren’t translated into English.
Portuguese is one of the most widely spoken languages worldwide and yet there are barely any translations of women authored-literature into English. And that accounts for not only those coming from Portugal or Brazil, but also Angola, Cape Verde, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau or East Timor.
The fact that these women are being silenced in translation is not something trivial: in the age of transnational feminism, in which we want to promote truly cross-cultural understandings, we should be facilitating dialogues among women across the globe. And translation can certainly help us do that.
In an ideal world, women’s presence in literature and translation should not have to be ensured by gender-specific prizes, anthologies and supplements. Instead, their work should be placed in generalist and genderless ways alongside men’s. But in our still patriarchal world – in which, for example, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize has been awarded twice out of 21 times to women writers – corrective and positive action measures are indeed very much a necessity.
Supporting the translation of female writers, literary network The English Pen has recently announced a record number of women authors and translators won its annual translation awards. More than half of the 18 award winners were women, with books translated from 14 languages and 16 countries among those honoured. This is indeed a move in the right direction. As was this year’s Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, launched on International Women’s Day to promote foreign writers in English translation.
The future of feminism is in the transnational, and transnational links can only be made through translation. Women writers the world over should be given a voice, no matter what language they speak and what cultural background they come from. Surely, we all can benefit from this: to carry on denying British readers access to great literature simply because it is authored by women is beyond belief.
Writing in Meanjin, Frank Moorhouse proposed, among other measures, renewable ten-year “national contracts” for mid-to-late career writers. And in the Sydney Review of Books, Ben Eltham describes an initiative that he is working on that would aim to provide literary fellowships for fixed periods of three to four years.
Both writers make the valid point that, as fewer successful writers are able to sustain themselves via book sales and royalties, the role of public support becomes more important. They both argue for the need to radically expand the range of fellowships available to writers.
While more secure fellowships are certainly welcome ideas, there are other ways to support writing that address the current economics. So in the spirit of keeping the conversation going, here are a few thoughts.
The value of books
Moorhouse and Eltham both seem to be arguing for fellowships that might provide the long-term security that many working writers currently lack. This suggests a fundamental shift in the purpose of this kind of writing support.
Individual grants and fellowships have typically been provided as a short-term investment in a writer or author, with a duration ranging from a few months to a year. They are there, ideally, to encourage new projects and innovation – offering opportunities for a concentrated period of work, for research, for travel. The University of Melbourne Asialink arts residencies program is a strong example of this. It offers support to a range of Australian writers and artists to live and pursue creative projects in Asia for six weeks to three months.
Longer-term fellowships would certainly have many benefits for established writers. They help compensate them for cultural labour that is not always adequately rewarded in the literary marketplace. As Moorhouse observes, the value of a book often goes beyond its cover price. Books are read and reread, loaned to family members and friends, speculated upon and debated. They inspire insights, arguments and critical and creative forms of engagement. Singular sales and royalty payments cannot reflect this hidden or social value of a book.
However, the criteria that Moorhouse proposes for his ten-year contracts – multiple publications, international distribution, being the subject of academic research – could cluster a lot of funding around a small number of conventionally successful authors.
A particular kind of writing?
In his article, Eltham suggests that a lack of individual fellowships has contributed to the rising importance of literary prizes in Australia. According to Eltham, prizes have become “the closest thing to a fellowship most Australian writers can aspire to”. In the same vein as Ivor Indyk’s 2015 Sydney Review of Books article, he argues that “‘prize literature’ is now a discernible genre of its own, taken to represent a certain form of middlebrow that is accessible, appealing and safe.” The implication is that the exclusive pursuit of prizes results in stylistically homogenous literary fiction, and that more individual grants and fellowships would provide writers with more freedom to experiment and take risks.
However, shifting a writer’s focus from winning a literary prize to appeasing a grant committee or funding body will not necessarily result in more adventurous fiction. Writing in 1971 about the Commonwealth Literary Fund (which subsidised Australian writers from 1908 to 1973), Maurice Dunlevy reflected on the value of literary fellowships, observing that “the fund has yet to aid the birth of a genius” or even a “classic Australian novel”.
He went on to claim that “the overwhelming number of fellowships have been awarded to well-known mediocrities who have produced mediocre work.” I won’t pretend to know exactly how fair Dunlevy is being to the fellowship writers of this period. But his critique can easily be compared to some of the contemporary objections to Australian prize culture.
There are a number of questions any new fellowships would need to answer. What kinds of literary work and lives would they encourage writers to work towards? What kinds of writing would be eligible for this kind of support? Would it favour the writer who produces a steady output of moderately successful publications over a powerful single work? Or the traditional print-based author over a writer creating innovative material for digital platforms?
Meeting the world
I don’t want to argue against more fellowships for writers (especially since, given the state of arts funding, this would likely be an argument over imaginary money). But we should question whether fellowships of the length that Moorhouse and Eltham are proposing are sustainable or even desirable.
In his 1991 lecture, On Writing, the Canadian author Robertson Davies expressed some of his reservations about the culture of writing grants, noting that even as they seem to offer freedom for writers they also potentially isolate them. Davies argues that, for a writer, a job isn’t just a distraction from the serious business of their craft. It is also a valuable opportunity to “meet the world” in their own particular way, and to find a daily task that keeps them from “writing too much” to the point where “their talent has become diseased, hypertrophied because of the continual gross and indecent solicitation of the imagination”.
I can’t pretend to share Davies’s distain for writing grants, having been the grateful beneficiary of a couple myself. But I think that there is a spleeny contrarian wisdom to his critique that is worth considering.
Relatively few successful authors throughout history have lived professional lives that were focused solely on writing. For many, the kind of subsidy that Eltham and Moorhouse have proposed might not be particularly useful. Being able to focus solely on writing for three, four or ten years might offer some incredible benefits, but it also presents the possibility of isolation, insularity, and a continued dependence on this kind of funding that might be detrimental for a writer’s work in the long run. As Davies writes: “Nothing – including grants – is for nothing”. The kind of freedom they offer always comes at a cost.
On balance, individual funding might be more suited to providing opportunities for travel (like the brilliantly conceived Antarctic Arts Fellowship), cultural exchange, or residencies. These require engagement with the life and rhythms of unfamiliar institutions, offering both emerging and established writers new ways of meeting the world.
He is being replaced as head of the bank’s research arm after he demanded that his colleagues write succinct, clear, direct emails, presentations and reports in the active voice with a low proportion of “and’s”. Romer will remain the bank’s chief economist.
In fact, he had threatened not to publish the bank’s central publication, World Development Report, “if the frequency of ‘and’ exceeded 2.6 per cent”. He had also cancelled a regular publication that he believed had no clear purpose.
Why, you may ask, did the economists who work in the World Bank’s research department take exception to these strictures? Who wouldn’t want the corporate report that was a flagship publication of the bank to be narrow and “penetrate deeply like a knife”? Romer’s 600 colleagues, that’s who. But why?
It seems that, while he was encouraging his staff to avoid their customary convoluted “bankspeak” and consider their readers, he failed to follow his own advice. He was apparently curt, abrasive and combative. The troops refused to fall into line and he was ousted.
Such a shame, Professor Romer, because we need more pruning of the muddy prose that is endemic in so many institutions, particularly banks. We can only imagine how Australia’s four big banks are readying themselves to obfuscate their documents in response to the recent budget measures.
The various shades of pedantry
There are two kinds of people in this world: pedants and everybody else. Pedantry isn’t confined to grammar, of course. Pedantry can be found in architecture, cooking (for example, Julian Barnes’s lovely little book The Pedant in the Kitchen), geometry, music, philosophy, politics and science. Think Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory, the most popular show on American television.
Romer’s case, however, highlights the key dilemma of grammar pedants: how do you handle your pedantry so that you don’t lose your job? It depends on what kind of pedant you are.
Do you practise your pedantry privately by just “thinking” corrections at other people when they write “bunker” instead of “hunker” down? Or do you practise your pedantry publicly and thereby subject yourself to taunts of “peevish prescriptivist”, “nit-picking, hair-splitting pedant”, or the more arcane and colourful “pettifogging pedant”?
BBC journalist Jeremy Paxman was quoted in The Guardian in 2014 as saying:
People who care about grammar are regularly characterised as pedants. I say that those who don’t care about it shouldn’t be surprised if we pay no attention to anything they say — if indeed they are aware of what they’re trying to say.
I am a fervent believer that grammar provides writers with analytical tools to choose and combine words felicitously into English sentences to a set of professional standards that serve utilitarian needs and provide intellectual pleasure.
However, aware from long experience that it’s rare to be thanked for pointing out a solecism that has made me wince, I attempt to shield the newly minted graduates of my grammar course at The University of Queensland from the potential consequences of sharing their knowledge with those less grammatically alert. To this end, I lead a discussion about their stance on grammar in the final class of the semester.
To counter the negative connotations evoked by the term “grammar pedant” and to celebrate their pleasure in language, they invent playful monikers such as “grammartiste”, “grammagician”, “grammardian angel”, “grammar groover”, “grammartuoso” and “grammasseur”.
Anne Curzan, a grammar maven who contributes to the Lingua Franca blog on The Chronicle of Higher Education, favours “grammando”; I prefer the much less warlike “grammond” (modelled on gourmand, “one who has a refined palate for grammar and savours it at its best”).
That “linguifier” Stephen Fry begs us to abandon our pedantry, but he confines his admonition to non-professional contexts and admits: “It’s hard not to wince when someone aspirates the word ‘aitch’ and uses the genteelism of yourself and myself instead of you and me.”
Fry says that “context, convention and circumstance are all”. And this is what Professor Romer forgot. What we need to abandon is not pedantry. After all, its etymological origins are in teaching.
It is peevish, condescending and competitive pedantry that is the culprit. We could take a lesson from the Bristol engineer who has for 13 years used his specially designed long-handled apostrophiser and step-ladder to remove aberrant apostrophes and plant missing ones on buildings in Bristol and managed to remain anonymous.
It’s always pleasant to go carol-singing, or carols-singing, with the Pedants’ Association, formerly the Pedants Association, originally the Pedant’s Association. I first joined ten years ago with the long-term aim of attracting the requisite number of votes in order to change its title to The Association of Pedants, thus rendering the apostrophe redundant.
I’ll leave the uses and abuses of “and” aside for another day.
It’s a lean time for writers, as arts funding shrinks on all sides, journalists are laid off in droves, broadcasting budgets are slashed, and book publishing remains in a state of seemingly unceasing upheaval.
It often seems as if the age of living by the pen may be brought to a close by an increasingly rapacious approach to human affairs, interested only in hard numbers and bottom lines. Australian writers Frank Moorhouse and Ben Eltham have recently proposed several schemes to give writers a living wage to support their work.
And so it’s timely to reflect on some of the strange, desperate and occasionally dangerous ways in which writers have historically lived, if not always by their pens, then at least on their wits. Here’s twelve ways in which classics of western literature were written.
Unlike other activities, advertising continues to pay very well (though many writers fear they may be required to sell their soul).
English crime writer Dorothy Sayers had a top floor office at Benson’s advertising, where she invented the Mustard Club, a fictional mustard-loving entity with half a million real life subscribers in the UK, and also devised “Just think what Toucan do” for Guinness.
Peter Carey devised roof-tiling company Monier’s well-known jingle, “Top Cat in Roof Tiles”. Salman Rushdie spent many happy years at Ogilvy & Mather where he came up with “Look into the Mirror tomorrow – you’ll like what you see” for the Daily Mirror. Don Delillo was also employed at Ogilvy & Mather’s New York office, but doesn’t talk about it much.
Even F. Scott Fitzgerald did time at Barron Collier’s. Not only did he give us The Great Gatsby, he also produced – for the Muscatine Steam laundry in Muscatine, Iowa – “We keep you clean in Muscatine”.
2) Postal clerks
The postal service has provided a safe haven for many a writer. Anthony Trollope wrote his novels for three hours every morning before going off to his day job at the post office, which he kept for 33 years. Charles Bukowski also worked for the postal service, and kept his job for ten years. (His first novel was called Post Office and its protagonist was a postal clerk.)
William Faulkner was also a postmaster in Mississippi, but rather less good at holding his job. His resignation letter famously read,
As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.
Faulkner went on to work as a night manager in a power plant where he penned As I Lay Dying in six or eight weeks, writing between the hours of midnight and 4 am.
3) Janitors and pest exterminators
Ken Kesey was a night cleaner in a mental hospital. He also volunteered to be an experimental guinea pig in a CIA-backed mind control study conducted under the auspices of a front organisation at the Menlo Park facility. This experience gave us One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Stephen King also did time as a janitor in a high school. William S. Burroughs worked as a pest exterminator in Chicago. Jack Kerouac’s resume includes stints as a cotton picker, a dishwasher, a night guard, and gas station attendant.
4) Music transcription
Desperate writers, it seems, will do just about anything. Rousseau, with his books banned, and patrons running scared, transcribed an estimated 9,000 pages of music at six sols per page between 1770 and his death in 1778.
Jack London was famously an oyster poacher, though he preferred to call himself an “oyster pirate”. There’s also an apocryphal tale that Shakespeare was forced to flee Stratford when he was nabbed for poaching deer on the nearby Lucy estate, leading to a life-long feud with the local lord.
There’s no doubt that Shakespeare was adept at turning a guinea where he could. The Earl of Rutland paid no less than four pounds and eight shillings to Shakespeare and his lead actor Richard Burbage (who also moonlighted as a painter) to create a shield and write a motto so that Rutland could appear well dressed at a tournament.
Shakespeare sent his money home to his very clever wife in Stratford, who slowly bought up lots of farmland and cornered much of the local grain trade.
Many writers teach, but few do it for a career. David Lodge was Professor of English, back in the day when academics didn’t worry too much about things like Excellence in Research evaluation, or applying for research council grants. JRR Tolkien was Professor of Anglo Saxon at Oxford, producing definitive editions of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Beowulf as well as his novels.
Robert Frost taught at Amherst and Vladimir Nabokov was Professor of Russian Literature at Cornell. But not everybody agreed this was a good idea. When Nabokov was up for a chair in literature at Harvard, the distinguished linguist Roman Jakobson protested, “What’s next? Shall we appoint elephants to teach zoology?”
7) Butterfly curator
Nabokov’s first job on arrival in the United States was as the curator of Lepidoptera at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard. He stayed there for six years.
It’s surprising how many writers have ended up on the murky side of politics. John Buchan, perhaps most famously, earned 1,000 pounds a year as the Director of the Ministry of Information, closely aligned to the War Propaganda Bureau where H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, J.B. Priestly, and Ford Maddox Ford penned paid and unpaid articles, pamphlets and leaflets including Doyle’s To Arms! (1914) and Ford’s When Blood is Their Argument (1915). Arnold Bennett was head of British propaganda in France. Wells became Head of Enemy Propaganda until a strange series of events led to his spectacular resignation.
George Orwell, who spent much of his life scraping money from wherever he could, was employed in the service of the Imperial Police in Burma, an institution he despised. On returning to London, he worked as a paid propagandist at the BBC, broadcasting to India. It was the psychic pain of the arch enemy of mindless patriotism serving as a wartime propagandist that gave us 1984.
9) Doctors, lawyers and clergymen
Some writers have known from the start that there are better ways to make a living. Henry Fielding was a Magistrate, but by “refusing to take a shilling from a man who would undoubtedly not have had another one left” halved his portion of what he called “the dirtiest money on earth”.
Jonathan Swift was the vicar of Laracor – his congregation of just 15 leaving him plenty of time to write, which he did, for the most part, in the glittering clubs of London.
Anton Chekov, Somerset Maugham and Williams Carlos Williams were doctors. So too was Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle set up a not very successful medical practice in Portsmouth and famously penned A Study in Scarlet during the interminable wait times between patients. He later set up an ophthalmologist in Upper Wimpole St, London, but claims that he never secured so much as a single patient.
10) Cinema impressario
James Joyce scraped a living by teaching English in Trieste, while dreaming up wild moneymaking schemes. With the help of Italian friends he opened the Cinematograph Volta in Dublin, on Mary St, but couldn’t stick to it for more than seven months. He then planned to import Irish tweed to Trieste.
Ulysses would never have been written without the support of feminist publisher Harriet Shaw Weaver, who, in February 1917, shortly after she published Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in book form, gave Joyce an income of £200 a year to support his work. Later Weaver created a trust fund, the interest from which gave Joyce an income for life.
11) Airline ticketing clerk
Harper Lee worked as a reservation clerk for Eastern Air Lines and BOAC for more than eight years. This only changed in in 1956, when the Broadway composer Michael Brown and his wife Joy gave Lee a Christmas gift with a card that said, “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please.” Lee produced the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird within 12 months.
It’s hard to believe, but writers made nothing from their books until the invention of copyright in the 18th century. Instead, they relied on wealthy patrons to make a living.
This uneasy relationship led a frustrated Samuel Johnson to insert in 1755 a double-edged definition in his Dictionary. After the words, “Patron: One who countenances, supports and protects,” he added, “Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence and is paid with flattery.”
Shakespeare is said to have received an astonishing £1,000 for his flowery dedications to the Earl of Southampton (though it was more probably a still wildly generous £100). Hence he wrote, “The love I dedicate to your lordship is without end; whereof this pamphlet, without beginning, is but a superfluous moiety.”
But choosing a patron could be dangerous. The Earl of Southampton was later imprisoned by Queen Elizabeth I for his role in the Earl of Essex’s 1601 rebellion against the queen. Southampton had organised a special performance of Richard II. While there is no evidence Shakespeare was directly punished, he had good reason to be worried, with other writers tortured and even murdered in Elizabethan England.
Living by the pen
Of course, the preferred method of earning an income for writers has inevitably been journalism. Once patronage was replaced by the rise of the commercial press, writers were able to turn to the business of writing about real people. Samuel Richardson was a printer. Samuel Taylor Coleridge edited The Watchman and The Friend. Charles Dickens was a parliamentary reporter and then editor and publisher of Household Words.
Indeed, writing for periodicals was what allowed many women in the 19th century to secure an independent income. Jane Austen calculated that the life-long return on her novels was a mere 84 pounds and 13 shillings (works that made millions in the centuries that followed).
But Harriet Beecher Stowe was able to become the sole income earner for her family, penning not just Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but periodicals, gift books, textbooks and popular annuals. Margaret Fuller became the first female editor of the New York Tribune, and their first female foreign correspondent covering the Italian revolutions.
Today, the problem is that not only writers but also perhaps journalists could use an arts council grant.
History is a story about the past told by people who didn’t live there. Historical fiction and scholarly histories and biographies dominate the field, but a fresh approach, the literary nonfiction narrative of reflection, is making its presence felt.
As a writing genre, history is no spring chicken. Livy (59 BC – 17 AD) gave us the history of ancient Rome, while Australian histories have an even longer provenance, from the First Peoples’ Dreamtime narratives to Grace Karskens’ excellent scholarly account of European settlement in The Colony: A History of Early Sydney (2009). Historical novels are nothing new either, from Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814) to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2009).
A relative newcomer to the field is the literary nonfiction historical narrative, in which the archive serves as a springboard into a pool of reflection for a contemporary writer. The latest example, published this month, is Kerrie Davies’ A Wife’s Heart, published by University of Queensland Press, a book that retells the life of poet and short story writer Henry Lawson, from multiple viewpoints. Central to Davies’ narrative is a sadly damning affidavit filed by Lawson’s wife Bertha when she sued for divorce in 1903 alleging domestic violence.
When journalist and academic Davies emerged blinking from the archives and into the glare of publication and media interviews, she was greeted by headlines like “Henry Lawson, voice of a nation, larrikin, likely wife beater”.
My excitement reading that headline was due not just to the fact that Davies is a colleague and friend. I was simply happy to see that unorthodox approaches to history are welcomed, and can ignite and enrich our readings of our past.
History, as we know, is a political football. We struggle over the meaning of the past in order to control the game of present and future. A marriage like Henry Lawson’s that began in 1896 and ended seven years later can be hijacked by anyone with an agenda. Davies adopts a light touch. She moves among the many contemporaneous perspectives on Henry from friends and foes as a man who struggled with poverty, ambition, deafness, a failed marriage and alcoholism.
Bertha, who struggled to raise two children while coping with Henry’s ups and down, had her critics as well. She ended up doing a long stint in a mental institution for what today might be called manic depression. Their fraught marriage and messy divorce provides Davies with a ball of historical wool to untangle. She chases it through the archives and across the landscapes through which her subjects drifted, including a grinding stint in London. The affective impact of this pursuit turns the pond of reflection into a whirlpool, inexorably drawing the reader in.
Not everyone sees it that way. Though he has not commented on Davies’ book specifically, Sydney journalist and author David Marr recently disclosed his distaste for biographies in which authors share the personal reflections and experiences they have had while researching and writing their books.
For evidence of the correctness of his position, Marr conveniently points to his own writing, quoting from a scene in Patrick White: A Life in which he reports a medical emergency he witnessed at White’s home not long before the Nobel Laureate’s death in 1991. Marr was witnessing what could have been (but wasn’t) his venerable subject’s demise. Yet his own voice is detached. He expresses no personal emotion or reaction, acting instead as a fly on the wall observer.
I’m on the side of invisible biographers. I don’t give a damn about their happy thoughts as they tread in the footsteps of their subjects. Spare me their personal reflections on the Straits of Gibraltar or the old House of Reps. I’m not interested in their research triumphs. I want the life, not the homework.
In A Wife’s Heart, Kerrie Davies transgresses Marr’s “law”, sharing generously of her own life story while telling Henry and Bertha’s. Readers learn that, like Bertha, Davies is a single parent whose marriage has ended in divorce. The pressures are financial as well as emotional, just as they were for the Lawsons.
At first I found these personal references, which begin on page three of the book, jarring. I simply wasn’t ready to have the focus shifted so early in the story. However, as the book progresses the personal reflections merge with her subjects’ narratives. Conflicting accounts by the Lawsons’ friends and colleagues give the book the feel of a detective novel, a texture well suited to a story of marital failure in which there seems plenty of blame to go round.
Some readers no doubt share Marr’s views about biography, but there are good reasons why younger authors working in a less journalistic genre might profitably venture where Marr warns them not to go.
The distant voice of the “invisible” biographer – like the voice of God booming from above Mount Sinai – has a slightly anachronistic feel these days. To depart from this voice challenges readers who like being reassured by an authoritative tone, or perhaps, put less kindly, enjoy being told what to think. But others prefer more open, less conclusive arguments and reflections.
For some, Marr’s preference for invisibility is out of synch in a world in which readers routinely write back at authors, questioning their logic and exposing mistakes in the “comments section” that now follows most online articles. The invisible narrator’s biases are more implicit, or opaque. That may seem subversive in an era when transparency is valued.
Marr’s argument is that the reader is not well served by an introspective or performative narrator, and that is often true. Some of the worst nonfiction I’ve read in recent years was penned by authors who lost focus on their subject by sharing too much of themselves.
The changing economics of publishing are contributing to our evolving literary landscape. The ranks of subeditors patrolling the borders of mainstream media publications, beating the literary crap out of upstarts who dare to use the personal pronoun “I” are being depleted.
On the bright side, literary rules exist to be broken in the more diffuse structure of contemporary publishing. There never was a golden age.
The subjects of Marr’s early biographies, like White and former Attorney General Sir Garfield Barwick, were alive and highly influential when he started writing about them, good reasons for being careful and adopting an orthodox style. But for Davies, archival sources were all she had. No living witnesses of the trouble between Henry and Bertha survive. The author was left to curate documents. Personalising the narrative breathes life into documentary sources.
There are dangers in interpreting the facts of history. Historians grapple constantly with the problem, while historical novelists can choose whether to stick with the facts or alter them, sometimes radically. Literary nonfiction’s third path allows the juxtaposition of an author’s experience and perspective alongside the archival evidence. This might just reduce the temptation to invent or over egg.
Meanwhile, in the world outside the book, the world in which we live, marital violence is at epidemic levels, commanding our society and governments’ attentions. In that context, Davies’ personal story as a single parent acts as a footbridge connecting contemporary readers to the world of her subjects.
Beyond questions of literary technique, Davies’ academic writing on the Lawson story reveals that her literary reflection was catalysed by previous accounts by respected historians that favour Henry over Bertha.
The biographers of the iconic bush poet and writer – most notably Denton Prout (1963) Manning Clark (1978) and Colin Roderick (1982, 1991) – have all constructed a victim as hero narrative around Lawson’s life, blaming Bertha Lawson (nee Bredt) for his personal and creative decline. In their biographies, Lawson’s marriage breakdown and judicial separation from Bertha Lawson is narrated as a destructive turning point, with Bertha portrayed as a callous persecutor who “spun the wheel of retribution” … against her husband. The unanimous interpretation in these works is that Bertha Lawson in her legal claims disregarded Henry’s evident inability to pay child support, resulting in his imprisonment at Darlinghurst Gaol sporadically from 1905 to 1910.
Was Lawson a wife beater? Davies thinks so, but some who knew Bertha believed otherwise. We may never know, but it’s a worthwhile conversation in which all voices and literary styles are welcome.
Marr’s argument for invisibility is undermined somewhat by the fact – which he acknowledges – that he has previously put himself into his stories about others, including the White biography (in a note near the end of the book), and in essays on Kevin Rudd and the Bill Henson case. In all of these his narratives were better for it.
Kerrie Davies and David Marr will be speaking at separate events at next month’s Sydney Writers Festival.