Saturday, April 13, 2013

Gardening, cannon-braiding, editing, "magnificence and rats," advice from R. W. Emerson and James Wood

Anybody do any gardening this weekend?  I thought not!  As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in The Conduct of Life:

The genius of reading and of gardening are antagonistic, like resinous and vitreous electricity.  One is concentrative in sparks and shocks: the other is diffuse strength; so that each disqualifies its workman for the other’s duties.  (“Wealth”)

It is possible that Emerson is simply a prankster, and that some of his sentences are the equivalent of that time Charles Baudelaire dyed his hair green.  He just wants to see me sputter.  Or he is having some other kind of fun:

What would painter do, or what would poet or saint, but for crucifixions and hells?  And evermore in the world is this marvellous balance of beauty and disgust, magnificence and rats.

That is from the puzzlingly titled “Considerations by the Way.”  There is no denying that the last line is a good’un, and it would be well worth writing an entire diffusive essay just to use it.

Now this, from the same essay, is untrue in a different way, one useful to book bloggers:

Life brings to each his task, and, whatever art you select, algebra, planting, architecture, poems, commerce, politics,—all are attainable, even to the miraculous triumphs, on the same terms, of selecting that for which you are apt;—begin at the beginning, proceed in order, step by step.  ’Tis as easy to twist iron anchors, and braid cannons, as to braid straw, to boil granite as to boil water, if you take all the steps in order.

And literary criticism, in either its amateur or professional form, is much easier than braiding cannons.  It has fewer steps.  Read, think, write.  The pros re-write, or are at least re-written, as Robert Silvers, the founding editor of the New York Review of Books describes in this recent interview:

Aside from Barbara [Epstein], Lizzie [Hardwick] was the major influence.  I would send her reviews and she would say, “Oh, yes, this piece is very good. It just needs a little work.”  And then she would send it back half as long, with paragraph after paragraph cut or compressed.  She had no patience at all for what you would call tired language.

I have a great deal of use and therefore patience for tired language.  It is especially valuable when I am tired or in a hurry or lazy.  I am sometimes tempted to submit a piece somewhere for this single reason, that professional editing would be educational, that it would improve my writing.  Wake it up a little.

Otherwise, I have been unable to see an advantage of more formal publication.  This is James Wood, from a recent interview with Jonathan McAloon (longer version here):

Now my advice would be, try to write longer pieces wherever you can.  One thing that’s changed since I was freelancing is there’s space online to do that kind of thing.  You don’t get paid for it, largely, but there’s the chance to do something at length.

It is possible that Open Letters Monthly, say, would jump at a chance to publish a 9,000 word article on Adalbert Stifter and Austrian literary culture. Sorry, I need to double-check – three weeks = 15 days x 600 words a day.  Yes, so I wrote close to 10,000 words in a fifteen part series on that subject, likely the best thing I am going to write all year.

My great early book blogging insight, my correction to Wood, was that there is no reason to publish the longer piece as a single unit, that I can work with the understandable impatience of the online reader, and that there are in fact enormous benefits from letting readers see the cannon-braiding in progress.  Book blog readers are so knowledgeable and helpful.  They challenge my worst ideas and introduce me to new ones.  Taken as a whole, my pieces rarely end up where I had planned, partly due to the assistance I receive.  I am edited in public; the corrections appear the next day, or year.  This editing does not reduce my word count, and my bad ideas are not politely expunged, but rather remain visible as one of the many steps towards boiled granite.  But it works, in its own way it works.

Boiled granite is useful somehow, yes?  That is why Emerson mentioned it?


  1. One of the great things about the Internet is that it allows everyone who's interested to be a critic right out in public. And anyone can do it, although some bring more natural talent to the task than others, as with painting or politics (perhaps not with boiling granite.)

    I think of my own blogging as thinking out loud. My posts aren't my most polished or my final thoughts on what I read. Sometimes commenters refine my thoughts, and sometimes time does it. Professional editing would require me to refine my thoughts further, and I see value in that, but I appreciate blogging as a medium because I don't have to fit my thoughts to a particular publication's style. I can write in whatever way suits me at the time.

  2. Well, though I realize that you are actually (sort of) setting this aside as a desirable project, we would jump on it, of course. You could even publish it pseudonymously: as "Tom Reader", say. There are benefits to both forms, long and short (boiled and blanched?). Of course, different bloggers also use this form differently.

  3. More support for my point! The first two responses are from editors!

    The element of time Teresa mentions is the big difference - editing requires me to refine my thoughts now, which is good. Blogging allows me to refine my thoughts over time, which is also good.

    Rohan, I thought that Stifter business had a certain Steve Donoghue kind of appeal to it.

    Your classroom posts are a good model for me - the element of time is crucial. You want feedback right now. A polished semester-end summary, the unpublished week-by-week posts just serving as notes, would be an entirely different creature.

    So now it occurs to me that another advantage of blogging-as-form, but one that exists only for people who publish regularly, is that is serves as a record of the evolution of thought (and of abandoned projects, hideous errors, etc). A few critics (Wood is one) have achieved a position where this is possible through more formal publication. Not many, though. Wood addresses the subject in the interview.

  4. As for the first question... the answer is 'yes'. Beautiful weather, perfect for gardening.

  5. That may be a case where Emerson is not 100% trustworthy.

  6. The first question, Emerson had to have been having one on especially since he had a reportedly fantastic orchard he card for himself. The only reason I didn't garden over the weekend was because it was snowing. Bah.

    I like what you say about blogging and its advantages over long-form. There is place for both and perhaps after your Stifter posts have had time to settle a little you could work up a long piece out them that incorporates what you have learned thus far. :)

  7. Does raking up fallen magnolia petals count as gardening? If so, we gardened. We also spent time in the garden, reading.

  8. Just spreading mulch around counts. Looking at a bare patch of ground, wondering what you're going to plant, that counts.

    As far as I am concerned, the three-week Stifter thing is a long piece, the longest I ever conceived and completed in the blog. It was just published as a serial.

  9. At this time of year there are so many bare patches that one can "garden" a great deal in ones mind. And since they aren't actually bare, the fact that no planting is completed is of very little consequence.

    And I definitely think you should publish "the Stifter business" in another form as well.

  10. That is what I thought, that gardening has its own mental and imaginative component.