The implication is that nonfiction is a higher calling, that fiction is a frivolous pastime while nonfiction is a serious education. This has been a push-pull throughout the history of the novel, especially since early novels tended towards salacious or scandalous, more Danielle Steel than Ian McEwan.
Poet Samuel Coleridge, (1712 to 1835) stated his case thus:
I will run the risk of asserting that where the reading of novels prevails as a habit, it occasions in time the entire destruction of the powers of the mind: it is such an utter loss to the reader, that it is not so much to be called pass-time as kill-time. It…provokes no improvement of the intellect, but fills the mind with a mawkish and morbid sensibility, which is directly hostile to the cultivation, invigoration, and enlargement of the nobler powers of the understanding.
My brain must be a mawkish mess because I love a good novel (currently reading Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, thumbs up). I love nonfiction too, but the escape and emotional charge novels provide have always been preferable to me (unless we’re talking narrative nonfiction, like Erik Larson’s engaging histories or a book I recently read in practically one gulp, The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home).
So I was gratified to read this New York Times story about the neuroscience of reading fiction.
The current fracas over Rush Limbaugh’s unbelievably inappropriate sexist rant against Sandra Fluke brings this back to my mind
I’m going to use this opportunity to recommend a new documentary I’ve seen twice now and could easily sit through again. It’s called Miss Representation, and it’s all about how the media’s representation of women shapes our attitudes and contributes to women’s lack of power in this country.
Lack of power? The “feminazis”? Don’t be silly. We’re modern, liberated, in-charge women.
Consider this: Women are 51 percent of the population but only 17 percent of Congress. America ranks 90th in the world in women in legislature. Even China is more progressive than we are in that respect.
Women hold a whopping three percent of power positions in the media—and that includes TV, radio, publishing, online media—all of it. So this means that pretty much everything we (and, more importantly, our children) see in the media is filtered through the sensibilities of men—and that is not to our benefit.
Think about the Dowager Countess of Grantham, marvelous Maggie Smith. When she doesn’t like something, she gets a face like a cat that’s smelled something bad. And you get the message.
If you read authors like Edith Wharton and Jane Austin, you know there’s not a lot of bellowing and stomping around. Hearts are broken, fortunes lost, people became ill, or bereaved, despondent or angry, and through everything, they all use their inside voices.
Compare that to, say, the last week on this blog, in which the volume on everything was turned up to 11 (although the comments remained civil and I thank you all for that). Daughter had to rant in public to make her point, Dad had to shoot a computer to make his point, I had to “hate” Dad to make my point. And I’m not generally a hater. But I got swept into what seems a trend of our time: anger that becomes superheated, superfast.
It’s not necessarily just that America is getting less civil. For some reason these days, it seems we need the volume on all our emotions cranked way up. Even negative emotions. Maybe especially negative emotions. We need to watch screen violence that is increasingly extreme, we need to fight our battles publicly and with insults and vehemence, and we need to grieve extravagantly, where everyone can see us.
I popped off at Laptop Dad, like he popped off at his daughter, like his daughter popped off at him. Interesting, huh? See how that works? Chain of fools.
I regret the tone but stand behind the content of my last post. So here’s a voice of reason to say it all better. Today’s guest post is by my friend Dr. Lara Mayeux, a developmental psychologist who studies kids’ peer relations at the University of Oklahoma, and mother of two young daughters (read about her wishes for them here).
If you want to read original research into parenting styles and child outcomes, Lara suggests looking for Nina Mounts (parenting and peer relationships); Joan Grusec (parenting and social and emotional development); Robert Larzelere (discipline and research methodology); Laurence Steinberg (adolescent development). Diana Baumrind is one of the pioneers in the study of parenting styles; a lot of subsequent research has been based on her work.
By Lara Mayeux
I have to get this off my chest: I’m really, really tired of seeing parents celebrated for their bad parenting choices.
Parenting is hard. I get that — I have two kids under the age of five. And none of us is perfect, and we shouldn’t expect each other to be. But there’s a big difference between allowing parents some room to screw up, and actually cheering them on when they’ve made a mistake. And I’m telling you, this laptop-shooting dad—he made a mistake.
I love me some What Not To Wear —or any makeover show, for that matter. I get a kick out of watching Stacy and Clinton take frumpy dumpies and zazz them up into snazzy sassies. I don’t always agree with the styling (what is this obsession with flat irons?), but usually, the afters are lots better than the befores.
Women on these show who start out resistant to the makeover process often argue that what’s important is what’s inside, that appearances are superficial, and that people should respect them no matter how limp their hair or saggy-baggy their clothes.
I agree, in theory, but that’s not the world we live in. It’s not even the world animals live in—appearance counts for them, too. The peacock’s tail isn’t exactly practical, but the ladies love it.
Lots of research has shown that natural beauty is an advantage in life, and natural beauty would be considered a biological phenotype. You’re born that way (or not). But recent research looks at whether the “extended phenotype” has any benefits. In the nonhuman kingdom, extended phenotype would be “the spider’s web, the hermit crab’s shell, the bowerbird’s bower and the beaver’s dam,” the researchers write. In the human world—at least in America—the extended phenotype includes cosmetics.
Maybe you can’t judge a book by its cover, but apparently we try because it seems women wearing makeup are perceived as more competent.
In some ways, he’s right.
The Internet has laid waste to newspapers and threatens traditional publishing in all forms. It sucked the money out of the music industry. It’s killing off traditional bookstores–even the superstores that killed off the small independents.
New technology has opened up forms of expression to people who had been blocked by gatekeepers, but at the same time threatens to drag down the quality of that expression overall, because of the lack of those same gatekeepers. (If you saw some of the press releases I receive for self-published books, you would understand what I mean.) News operations struggle with the ever-increasing speed of the news cycle, trying to balance getting news out fast and getting it right.
What I wonder now is what the speed of technology is doing to creativity. And because we are taught to “write what you know,” I will write about writing. Specifically blogging.
I’ve recently started listening to audio books. The idea never appealed to me much because I’ve never liked being read to. Reading is a solitary experience for me and being read to always seemed a little icky, though I couldn’t tell you why.
Certainly being read to has a venerable history. At one time, all writing was meant to be read aloud, since few people could read. And reading aloud was family entertainment in the pre-radio, pre-TV days. And, of course, reading to children is both cozy and the first step towards their literacy.
So it’s not like listening to books is anything new. But downloadable audio books are increasingly popular (though the growing popularity of ebooks is the headline news in publishing.) Fans of audio books even have their own magazine.
The first audio book I listened to was Bossypants, which is read by Tina Fey herself. Now I’m listening to Never Let Me Go, by Kazua Ishiguro, which is beautifully read by Rosalyn Landor, who strikes a tone as wistful as the book and conveys changes of character with just the slightest change in her voice. Narration, I realize, is an art form unto itself.
But I’m still not sure how I feel about the audio book. It might be seducing me, but I worry about whether I’m having the experience of the book the author originally intended. Do we lose something of a novel when we don’t see the words spelled out in front of us? Is the medium integral to the message?
I’m sorry for anyone who isn’t following the World Series this year (and it’s the lowest rated ever) because boyhowdy it’s been exciting. Some people say it ranks as one of the greatest ever. And so tense! By the end of a game, Texas Rangers fans are nearly as exhausted as the players themselves. (I can’t speak for Cardinals fans but I can guess.)
Baseball can be incredibly slow, but it also can be extremely intense, especially in those moments of suspended animation, when batter and pitcher are face-to-face, poised before the wind-up.
These days, cameras put us right up in the players’ faces. In those moments between pitches, we see what focus looks like. Very few of us will ever experience that kind of pressure. Imagine trying to remain both relaxed and focused when you’re about to have a rock hurled at you at 95 mph. Imagine hurling that rock from 60 feet away into an area roughly the size of a microwave. Imagine keeping performance pressure at bay with 50,000 people chanting your name. (Na-po-li, Na-po-li.)
When a surprise invitation or opportunity appears, there’s a 50/50 chance I’ll pass it up. Maybe even 60/40. Maybe even more, but I don’t want to admit that to myself.
Spontaneity is a good thing. I know this because in romance movies, guys always dump their tightly-wound girlfriends for kooky, devil-may-care, spontaneous girls.
And I can see for myself that spontaneous people lead colorful lives full of surprise.
My life is pretty interesting, but it’s more a trip on a lazy river than a thrilling tumble down whitewater rapids.
Is that OK?
Since I wrote this post, Frank Warren has had to withdraw the Post Secret app because people just couldn’t play nicely.
When Frank Warren launched the Post Secret blog in 2004, it was a lark. “A creative prank,” he calls it. He gave out 3,000 postcards to strangers around Washington D.C., and asked each person to write a secret on it and mail it to him. And they did. And people still do.
To date, Warren has received more than half a million secrets. Enough to fill four bestselling books (and then some). Once a week, he posts a carefully curated selection on the blog. Sunday Secrets is a highlight of my week.
Some of the cards are scrawled, many are works of art. The secrets are sad, funny, shocking, about love and sex, loneliness and anger, moral slips and personal habits.