Mythical Numbers and Their Role in Politics

In last night’s presidential debate, there were many often contradictory facts and figures thrown out by both candidates. With so many numbers being presented to the public, it is sometimes hard to distinguish what is fact, what is fiction, and how to critically think about the issues. Is That a Fact author Mark Battersby brings this up in Chapter 5 in his discussion on mythical numbers and the dangers of misinformation.

Politics and Mythical Numbers

Numbers play a powerful role in public debate and governmental decision making and are often given a degree of credibility and significance that they simply do not deserve. While it is commendable to attempt to base decisions on “facts,” one should not rely on mythical or even “soft” numbers as if they were well-established facts.

A current example of a debate centring on a “mythical number” is the controversy over whether individuals in third-world countries are receiving any benefit from globalization. Globalization skeptics often mention that the per-capita income of people in impoverished countries is about a dollar day, while some economists argue that it is closer to two dollars a day. [1] My first reaction is that this is a difference not worth arguing about—either amount is terrible.

Though the misery of much of the third world is undeniable, the quality of income data cannot support such debates about precise numbers. Deeply impoverished countries, whose governments are often in disarray, do not have the necessary means or inclination to collect reliable data. And even with reliable data, the comparisons across cultures and differing monetary regimes would make the comparisons daunting. As Reddy and Pogge note in the abstract to a recent article,

[The World Bank] … employs a concept of purchasing power “equivalence” that is neither well defined nor appropriate for poverty assessment. These difficulties are inherent in the Bank’s “money-metric” approach and cannot be credibly overcome without dispensing with this approach altogether. In addition, the Bank extrapolates incorrectly from limited data and thereby creates an appearance of precision that masks the high probable error of its estimates. [2]

While it is understandable that the World Bank and other world institutions would like to put precise values on the state of the world, they should recognize the real limitation of their ability to do so. Once we start using these
numbers as if they were precise measurements, we have slipped into the world of mythical numbers.

Nevertheless, many significant political decisions are based on unreliable data. A well-known example is the CIA’s use of very misleading economic data from the former Soviet Union, which led the CIA to miss the impending economic collapse of that country. This misinformation was used to encourage military spending to defend against the (collapsing) Soviet “menace.” [3]

[1] Benjamin Friedman, “Globalization: Stiglitz’s Case,” The New York Review of Books, August 15,2002, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/15630.

[2] Sanjay Reddy and Thomas Pogge, “How Not to Count the Poor,” in Joseph Stiglitz, Sudhir Anand, and Paul Segal (eds.), Debates on the Measurement of Global Poverty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 42–85.

[3] Paul Craig Roberts, “My Time with Soviet Economics,” The Independent Review 7.2 (2002): 259–64, http://www.independent.org/pdf/tir/tir_07_2_roberts.pdf.

An Extended Stay at The Grand Babylon Hotel: My thoughts on editing Arnold Bennett’s fantasia

salomanblogpostRandi Saloman at the 2006 Arnold Bennett Society Conference at Staffordshire University, holding an Arnold Bennett figurine gifted by the Society, with then Lord Mayor of Stoke-on-Trent Jean Edwards in the background.

[This summer we were excited to publish an edition of The Grand Babylon Hotel.  Our editor, Randi Saloman, wanted to share some thoughts on her journey with the text and the importance of having a scholarly edition of Bennett.]

Editing Arnold Bennett’s The Grand Babylon Hotel (1902) was unquestionably a labor of love for me—the kind of opportunity that one imagines, early on in an academic career, will be a regular occurrence, but is in actuality quite rare. My immediate impetus for taking up the task was a simple one. I had begun teaching Bennett’s novel in my first-year literature courses with great success, but without a reliable in-print edition. Instead, the university bookstore repeatedly supplied my classes with a low-quality, print-on-demand text, which comically identified the novel as “The Grand Babylong Hotel” on its spine and (less comically) was rife with typos and mis-set passages. Bennett himself had deemed his novel a “fantasia,” a term he used to designate the light-hearted serial works he produced for profit rather than literary fulfilment, and publishers had taken him at his word. Even the more acceptable out-of-print versions I could find in used condition came without useful introductions or critical apparatus appropriate to the classroom. Bennett may well have been the most popular writer in England in the early years of the 20th century. But his very fame worked against him when it came to assessment by his contemporaries, or serious critical or scholarly attention. Decades after the publication of The Grand Babylon Hotel, Bennett’s first novel to garner widespread attention from reviewers, Virginia Woolf would judge her fellow author to be “a materialist,” hopelessly out of step with the times, declaring in “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown” (1924), that “to go to [Bennett and his fellow ‘Edwardians’] and ask them to teach you how to write a novel— how to create characters that are real—is precisely like going to a bootmaker and asking him to teach you how to make a watch.” Bennett’s work has largely disappeared from publisher’ lists in recent decades. Even the few books that are still occasionally read or taught—and generally accepted as having literary merit—The Old Wives’ Tale (1908) or Anna of the Five Towns (1902), perhaps Riceyman Steps (1923)—struggle to stay in-print and available. More popular romps such as The Grand Babylon Hotel, which most readers have joined Bennett in declaring amusing but ephemeral, stand almost no chance.

All of which is to say, in wanting to show that this book was something more than one of the numerous entertaining serials that filled early 20th-century daily papers, I was largely on my own. I remember traveling to the UK for The Arnold Bennett Society Conference at Staffordshire University in 2006 to present my initial thoughts on this book and having no clue how I, or my work, would be received. I suspect it was having the good fortune to give my talk to the one audience that knew the book and Bennett well enough to understand and take seriously the claims I was beginning to make that gave me the motivation to continue. [That the Society had the graciousness to seat both me and keynote speaker Robert Squillace, the two visiting Americans, with the then Lord Mayor of Stoke-on-Trent and her consort—explaining to us that she was, in fact, designated as Lord Mayor, her husband as consort, the terms being gender neutral so far as the position was concerned—did not hurt either!] I wanted to share some of the magic that a young Bennett found in hotels. When the Society and the Edwardian Cultural Network co-hosted a symposium on “Arnold Bennett and His Circle” eight years later, I was still thinking (and speaking) about The Grand Babylon Hotel—this time with the edition well underway and numerous questions to pose to my fellow Bennett enthusiasts.

I began teaching The Grand Babylon Hotel regularly in 2009, and I was gratified to watch my students engage with the same questions and conundrums in Bennett that I did. But none of us could get past the all-around awfulness of our actual text. Bennett deserved better, we thought, and so did this novel I had come to feel responsible for, in one way or another. A readable and accurate edition, yes. But more than that, there were whole areas of the novel that required more explanation and reflection than was possible without the kinds of explanations and context I aimed to provide in class. How was the Grand Babylon derived from Bennett’s own knowledge of London’s Savoy Hotel, upon which it was based? How did it compare with his later treatments of hotels in his fiction—and particularly with his final novel, Imperial Palace (1930), a far longer and more realistic novel also set in a fictionalized Savoy Hotel? What was Bennett doing with the fantastical “Ruritanian” genre he was taking up–a genre named for Anthony Hope’s Prisoner of Zenda (1894), which featured the imaginary minor kingdom of Ruritania, and the rescue of its embattled king by a commoner? How, finally, did we read the positive cosmopolitan vision of the novel? The wealthy Americans who come to England determined to buy everything and everyone they like both learn from and teach those around them about the benefit and interest of different ways of thinking and being. Wealth is celebrated in ways that make clear that time is running out for the older models of aristocracy. When the impoverished Prince Eugen is denied the loan he requires by “Court Pawnbroker” Sampson Levi, the tone allows for tinges of nostalgia and classism, but is above all committed to the inevitability—and the new possibilities for romance—of a modern world:

It was a scene characteristic of the end of the nineteenth century – an overfed, commonplace, pursy little man who had been born in a Brixton semi-detached villa, and whose highest idea of pleasure was a Sunday up the river in an expensive electric launch, confronting and utterly routing, in a hotel belonging to an American millionaire, the representative of a race of men who had fingered every page of European history for centuries, and who still, in their native castles, were surrounded with every outward circumstance of pomp and power. (GBH, 174)

Money is the unapologetic solution to all problems that are posed. Nonetheless, one feels the concerns are broader than Bennett’s readers—and Bennett himself—gave the work credit for.

Bennett’s novel had never been footnoted or annotated in a scholarly way. As a result, designing a Broadview edition was both an extraordinary privilege and a wide-open challenge. It would be impossible to quantify just how much I learned in the course of my editing. From basic facts that shed entirely new light on a given sentence or scene (that “Don’t split!”—Racksole’s imperative to Nella after purchasing the hotel, is not, as I had long assumed, a demand that she remain calm, but a request that she keep the news to herself; that Consommé Britannia is not a simple English-style soup that Nella is being a bit childish to reject as unsuitable for a summer night, but a stomach-turningly heavy and elaborately prepared concoction of forcemeat, lobster, chicken broth, and assorted other ingredients) to a more nuanced sense of Bennett’s fascination with the hotel’s hierarchy and operation—the sheer joy he takes in describing the operations of the kitchen or the stock of the wine cellars, for example.

While Bennett’s novel likely needed few footnotes for the English audience that read it in installments in the first decade of the 20th century, the same cannot be said for 21st-century readers, particularly those in America or other parts of the world. Much that might have been self-evident about London geography or public transport or customary dress or behavior to the ordinary English reader in 1902 is not so to the reader of 2016, and particularly to the North American or other non-English reader, and it was my goal to demystify such factual information as well as to reflect on the less obvious relevance of such material where appropriate. The Savoy Hotel of London, the model for the Grand Babylon, has its own extraordinary history which helps one to appreciate what Bennett has taken for his own fictional version—and what he has added of his own to the picture. There are many differences between the Savoy of 1902 and today’s hotel and between Bennett’s Grand Babylon and the then only decades-old establishment. But all go to revealing new and exciting entryways into the novel. Susan Scott at the Savoy went above and beyond the call of duty multiple times in locating archival photos for me, many of which I was able to include in my edition. Like the cover image, these images give some sense of the world Bennett imagined—and played with—in this novel. The Grand Babylon Hotel is among Bennett’s earliest works, so while later on in his career there are many pictures and photographs of the author, I am most pleased at some of the less well-known and some of the earliest images that I was able to include from the Potteries Museum, the New York Public Library, and from the University of Illinois collection.

I can’t say enough good things about the people at Broadview—from Marjorie Mather, who took on the project, to managing editor Tara Lowes, series editor Martin Boyne, and copy editor Michel Pharand, all of whom pushed me to make the book and its footnotes as strong as it could be. Perhaps what I love most about Bennett’s “fantasia” is that in so many ways one would expect it to be hopelessly dated, yet it never seems so in the reading. A wealthy American at a British grand hotel, the culture shock of the two nations coming to a head at the entrance of mysterious royals from a tiny fictionalized German province. The characters are lightly and fancifully drawn, the possession of money is seen as an unapologetic good when legitimately obtained and rightly used. Meetings across class and culture are made with ease, and there is excitement and anticipation rather than fear at thoughts of the new and different. This perhaps, sadly, is the one way in which the novel does show its age. To read of Theodore and Nella Racksole’s adventures abroad is to be taken back to a time—perhaps not so long ago as it feels—when it was still possible to see the world as a place of exploration, its many cultures and civilizations offering variety and experience, rather than fear. It is my hope that this edition will allow both students and general readers to explore these broader questions and to engage anew with Arnold Bennett.

On Editing James Joyce’s Dubliners

[This summer we were excited to publish a new edition of Dubliners.  Below our editor Keri Walsh shares some thoughts on the process of editing James Joyce.]

Why edit Joyce? In retrospect, I think it was to repair my relationship with him. My previous project had been editing the correspondence of his publisher Sylvia Beach, the charismatic American who had run the Shakespeare and Company bookstore on Paris’s Left Bank from 1919 to 1941. Ten years after she published Joyce’s modernist epic Ulysses in 1922, Beach and Joyce had a falling out when he sold the novel’s rights to the American publisher Random House, sharing none of the proceeds with her. Beach had spent a decade of her life fighting for his book, taking legal and financial risks on its behalf, and even going so far as to have Ernest Hemingway smuggle copies into America when it was declared illegal as obscenity there. Joyce’s treatment of Beach wasn’t his finest moment. But he certainly had his own reasons and problems, and even Beach could understand them (she said that after all, a book ultimately belonged to its author). She took the high ground and absorbed the emotional and financial hit, but she and Joyce were never close again. He moved on to a new circle of friends and supporters.

After The Letters of Sylvia Beach came out, I did a few readings at independent bookstores, sharing some of the highlights of Beach’s correspondence. In my presentations, I saved for last a particularly telling “unsent letter” of 1927—it was a letter Beach drafted to Joyce one day in a moment of exasperation. He had asked for holiday funds for himself and his family, and his request reached her just as she was staggering under more than £200 of unpaid bills from English publishers. “When you are absent,” she chided, “every word I receive from you is an order. The reward for my unceasing labour on your behalf is to see you tie yourself into a bowknot and hear you complain. (I am poor and tired too).” But she never got up the courage to send it. That was the nature of their relationship.

I was interested in returning to the story of Joyce’s life and work from his own point of view, in shifting my perspective so that I saw where he was coming from and how he ended up being the person he was later. I wanted to get to know Joyce better on his own terms, beginning with his first important work, the short story collection Dubliners. In the end, the sheer artistry of Dubliners and the emotional maturity it contained allowed me to love Joyce again. I marvelled at the fact that he had written it in his twenties. I was reminded of what great odds this writer had beaten to make his voice heard, and just what a beautiful voice it was.

These days, Joyce feels like a friend, and a friend whom I know quite well. In revisiting the biographers on his youth, I was especially moved by the accounts from his college friends Padraic and Mary Colum in their memoir Our Friend James Joyce. They present a sketch of Joyce as a rather slovenly but still sympathetic youth kicking around Dublin after the death of his mother, alternating between lassitude and fierce, ambitious energy (if you’ve read Portrait of the Artist or Ulysses, you’ll recognize these elements in Stephen Dedalus). I borrowed the spirit of their portrait of Joyce in writing my introduction to the edition. Meanwhile, in my teaching I paid special attention to how my students responded to the stories in Dubliners, trying to get a feel for what North American undergraduates needed in a first encounter with Joyce. I aimed to give a deep enough history of Ireland and Irish literature, and then of modernism and Europe in the early twentieth century, so that students could understand the achievements of Joyce within the contexts of late-Victorian empire, Irish cultural nationalism, and the literary experimentation that accompanied the First World War and its aftermath (Dubliners was published in the first year of the war, 1914, though it had been written a few years earlier). I scoured the previous editions, I roamed the shelves of Joyce criticism, and so too did I roam the streets of Dublin, getting a feel for the particular gritty fascination of its Parnellian north side. I spent a night in the Gresham Hotel, the setting of the final story in Dubliners, seeing if I could learn something about its protagonists, Gretta and Gabriel Conroy.

That closing tale of the collection, “The Dead,” was my favorite to edit, just as it is my favorite to read. Nothing quite compares to the mood it develops—crisp, funny, satirical, and tragic all at once. There is such sincerity in this story which Joyce wrote from Rome while thinking back on Dublin’s foibles and charms. As I annotated “The Dead” I especially appreciated the depth of its musical references and judgements, and the way it contrasts different kinds of music loved for different reasons. The history of the singers and cultural institutions of the Dublin performance world of the late nineteenth century is mesmerizing. My favorite anecdote in the story is the one “of how the gallery boys would sometimes in their enthusiasm unyoke the horses from the carriage of some great prima donna and pull her themselves through the streets to her hotel.” The gallery boys were the ones in the cheap seats, presumably young and impressionable. To show how transported they had been by the music, these giddy young men transported the singer home.

A few people have asked me which of Joyce’s stories was the trickiest to annotate. I had expected that “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” Joyce’s elegy for the fallen political hero Charles Stewart Parnell, would be the most challenging, with its turn-of-the-century slang, large cast of characters, and in-jokes about local politicians and their hangers-on. But it was nothing compared to “Grace.” In this story, a group of Dubliners gather for an intervention for one of their friends who has lost control of his drinking. But someone brings alcohol to the intervention. As they drink in the drunkard’s bedroom, they air their knowledge of Catholic doctrine and history, which it seems they’ve acquired through a drunken game of Telephone. From the circumstances surrounding the declaration of papal infallibility to the reduction of the pope’s temporal powers as a result of the gains of Italian nationalism, they get just about all of it wrong. I ended up having to write footnotes explaining not just the facts but also all the ways in which these mixed-up characters keep mangling them. Some of my footnotes for this story are pretty labyrinthine. Joyce had researched the facts himself by visiting the Vatican library in Rome, and the more I pursued his references and the fictional uses to which he put them, the funnier I found his humor of misinformation. You have to respect a writer who buries his jokes like that. But you also have to stay on your toes to keep up with what he’s doing.

Editing Joyce, like reading Joyce, is never a straightforward affair. One runs into many diversions that lead to unexpected research quests, and soon it seems that Joyce has you seeking out musical, religious, political, linguistic, and historical arcana alongside him. You look up and realize how he’s gotten you hooked on his own fascinations. Luckily, each diversion teaches something new and increases our interest in the work as a whole, drawing our attention to its subtle, recurring patterns. I suspect that this will be as true for students and readers as it was for me as an editor. Though Broadview’s series editor Martin Boyne and I may have disagreed about whether the word “Irishman” still passes muster (or indeed, whether the phrase “passes muster” needs a footnote), I know that this Dubliners is much the stronger for the energy and passion that he and all of the staff at Broadview put into curating it. I hope it proves useful in the classroom and that a new generation of college readers can experience Joyce’s first masterpiece as a work that meets them where they are, and then takes them to places they’ve never been.

Broadview’s Conference Schedule for Fall 2016

Broadview will be exhibiting at the following conferences this season. For those attending, be sure to stop by the book display to say hello!

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OCTOBER:

Rocky Mountain MLA
October 11-13 in Boulder, CO

Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies
October 26-30 in Kingston, ON

NOVEMBER:

North American Victorian Studies Association
November 2-5 in Phoenix, AZ

Midwest MLA
November 10-13 in St. Louis, MO

National Council of Teachers of English
November 17-20 in Atlanta, GA

Modernist Studies Association
November 17-20 in Pasadena, CA

 

Test your knowledge in Bioethics!

Our recently published Bioethics in Context covers a wide range of topics, including: appropriate measures one should take to obtain informed consent and to protect patient privacy, dealing with patients who exhibit signs of mental illness, responding to sensitive cultural and religious concerns, and balancing the needs of medical researchers with those of patients participating in clinical trials. The book is uniquely up-to-date in its discussion of health care law, and unpacks the complex web of American policies, including the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, so as to make it intelligible to those without legal expertise. Useful case studies and examples are embedded throughout, and a companion website offers a thorough curated database of relevant legal precedents as well as additional case studies and other resources.

We’ve included one of the case studies from the extensive website component below.  Test your prowess at Bioethics by attempting the discussion questions – can you get them all right?

Patient Accepts One Treatment but Under Surgery Needs Additional Procedure

Sally Violet is a 21 year old woman who has faced a series of difficult medical interventions. Kidney failure, pulmonary obstruction, and liver disease are among her problems. Due to her circumstances, she is not likely to live for more than 10 years. However, she is beginning to resist medical intervention. Her parents talked her into one more surgery. She reluctantly agreed, but in return received a promise from her parents that they will not pressure her into any other intervention after this one. This surgery, she insists, will be the last intrusive procedure she will undergo. “It isn’t worth it anymore,” she said. Her doctors, including her surgeon, Dr. Stoer, know about Sally’s attitude, and believe it to be unfortunate. Who knows what medical advances may help Sally during the next 10 years? She might live longer than anyone thought.

Sally undergoes surgery, but during the surgery Dr. Stoer unexpectedly discovered what appears to be a malignant growth. Malignant or not, it needed to be removed because it could become life threatening. Given that Sally may reject another surgery, Dr. Stoer decides to seek permission from Sally’s parents to remove the tumor, rather than wait until Sally wakes up and recovers. Although potentially malignant, there is no urgent need to resect it at this time. In fact, the standard procedure would have been to close, give limited radiation, then resect or debulk the tumor. Sally’s parents agreed to the extension of the surgery, as Dr. Stoer predicted they would. 

After the surgery Sally feels betrayed. She believes that she might have a battery claim against Dr. Stoer because he fully understood she did not want any additional procedures. Given that Sally is dependent on her parents financially and as caretakers, she doesn’t think she will go forward with a lawsuit, but wishes she could. She doesn’t blame her parents, because she understands their desire for her to live. But a professional, she says, should know better than to deny a person informed consent.

Discussion Questions

Instructional Treatise from A Book for Governesses

The Half-Caste

Half-Caste, The

The following is an excerpt from Appendix C of our recently published The Half-Caste by Dinah Mulock Craik, edited by Melissa Edmundson.

[volume editor’s note] The social and financial status of the Victorian governess was a topic of debate throughout the nineteenth century…Emily Peart’s A Book for Governesses (1868) provides an example of the many instructional treatises designed to prepare young women for life as governesses, especially women who unexpectedly found themselves seeking employment due to financial obligations or other family misfortune.

From Emily Peart’s A Book for Governesses (Edinburgh: W. Oliphant, [1868])

It is not specially for those who have been brought up and educated with a view to their being governesses, and who, consequently, have accepted the occupation as their natural work, that these pages have been written; they are rather intended for those who, by sudden strokes of adverse fortune, or by change in one shape or another, are brought down from ease and wealth to a state of dependence upon work for their daily bread.

Work is a noble and a glorious thing—a blessing and a boon. In one way or another, it is the happy lot of all; for rank and riches exempt no one from work of some kind. But sometimes the sudden shock, which reveals so unexpected a fact as poverty, has scarcely passed, before the truth presses on the heart and brain of the sufferer, “Henceforth, for the hitherto unnoticed needs of daily life, I have none but myself to look to.” Imagine for a moment, cherished daughter of a happy home, what the feeling is that you have no right to utter the sweet words, “My home;”—imagine what it is to be away from friends, companions, the associates of your youth, to have to bear the coldness of strangers, the exactions of employers, the patronage of inferiors; to be measured exactly for how much you are worth in a business-like and financial point of view; your capabilities questioned, your acquirements displayed, your appearance criticised; your manners, your deportment, your dress commented upon; and all to be added up and decided, and their sum total to be told out in £, s. d. Think of the same routine of work day by day—work, not to be rewarded by a mother’s kiss, a father’s smile, and the joy of the evening gathering round the family hearth, —and you will have pictured to yourself the lot of hundreds of your sisters; on many of whom it has fallen as a sudden blight. Let such remember that it is not by smothering sorrow, or by trying to keep it down, as if it did not exist, that it is to be conquered; but by bravely facing it and dealing with it. It is there in its intensity; let them realize it, and then set about the best way of bearing it. […]

There is an excess of sensitiveness in the feelings of a girl who has lost the shelter of a home, when she knows for the first time her position, which must be felt to be in the least understood. She is suffering, and suffering makes her weak. It is not to the always poor, but to the suddenly-made poor, that the slight, meant or unmeant, comes with keen meaning. In sound health you never feel a hundred influences, which in weakness and sickness affect you most painfully. Actions, which before would have passed unnoticed, are misconstrued; favours, which before would have been joyfully accepted, are now refused with a morbid shrinking; words, which before would have been unheeded, are full of new and stinging meaning; eyes washed with hot tears are quick to see things which do not really exist. The shock sustained, and the bewilderment accompanying it, absorb, and cannot but absorb, for a time, every thought and feeling; and the breaking heart finds utterance in the helpless question: “What can I do?” Well, then, in the first place, you can be silent; then you can be patient; and then you can be brave. […]

Be willing to be questioned,—not impertinently questioned, as to family affairs and plans; but as to everything pertaining to your new duties shrink from no questioning, painful as it may and will be. Your accomplishments are not now to be the theme of loving friends and admiring acquaintances, but the means of an honourable independence and of obtaining money. Face the real truth; they are simply to be calculated at trade value; and “the value of a thing is just as much as it will bring.” Do not too confidently say you are sure you can do so and so—you are perfectly equal to that— you are not in the least afraid, and so forth. If you are not afraid, you ought to be with a right fear. Say simply what your education has been, what you believe you most excel in, and your determination to do your best. Far rather risk losing a good situation by stating truthfully only what you can do, than for a moment profess to do what you cannot. […]

Try not to decide as to the merits of your situation until you have been in it for six months. You will give a very different verdict at the end of this time from that which you would have given at the beginning. Do not fill your letters to your friends with accounts which at the end of a year you may wish had never been written. Again and again consider you have all to learn; and the first lesson to you, as to all others, is the most difficult.

Why Write? An Excerpt from Nancy Pagh’s Write Moves

Write Moves

[Nancy Pagh’s new creative writing guide (with readings) is shaped around the idea that creative writing exists to move us. In the excerpt below, from the chapter “Why Write?”, Pagh discusses some of the impulses and experiences that lead creative writers to put words on the page.]

Language That Is Our Own

Creative writers are sometimes stereotyped as sad and solitary figures, but writing is an expression of hope and connection. We need to communicate—to announce we’re here, we exist, we matter. We wouldn’t try to express ourselves if we felt hopeless about the possibility of connection. Even writing in private, just for ourselves, we hope to mean and understand something. No matter what subjects you choose to explore as you push your cursor across the field of the page, understand: as a new writer, you’re not signing up to suffer or to isolate yourself. You’re joining a community of people who write because we hope our words can add up to something that will surprise us, change us, move us and our readers.

The urge to write is a close relative to the urge a sculptor has to dig her hands in clay, the urge of a painter to stretch a canvas and move paint around, the urge of a composer to arrange silences between notes. We experience the urge to write for all sorts of different reasons and at different stages in life. Some of us are storytellers from the moment we can talk—we want to invent narratives before we can grip a yellow pencil. Some begin to write the first time we fall in love. New Mexico poet Jimmy Santiago Baca discovered writing poetry as an adult, in a maximum-security prison, as an alternative to violence. Emily Carr wrote in her journals to understand what she was trying to paint in the forests of British Columbia. Neurologist Oliver Sacks began writing at age fourteen: “My journals are not written for others, nor do I usually look at them myself, but they are a special, indispensable form of talking to myself.” My friend Paul started writing poems in his sixties, after his wife Susan died of cancer. Paul was a professor of philosophy, the author of many scholarly essays about medical ethics. But he felt he needed to say and discover something in his grief; although he’d never written a poem before, poetry was the shape his impressions had to make.

In Raymond Carver’s story “A Small, Good Thing,” a character named Ann experiences shock and grief over her young son. In a hospital, she shakes her head and tries to speak meaningfully with her husband and their doctor:

“No, no,” she said. “I can’t leave him here, no.” She heard herself say that and thought    how unfair it was that the only words that came out were the sort of words used on TV   shows where people were stunned by violent or sudden deaths. She wanted her words to be her own.

How rare it is, and yet how necessary it sometimes feels, to have the ability to use authentic language that is our own. Words surround and interrupt us almost constantly, usually written with the intent to sell, manipulate, or distract us. We learn to tune them out—and when we do listen, it’s with a healthy dose of skepticism. What we say, write, and even think tends to adopt the qualities of this bombarding, synthetic language. But when something really matters to us, we want to get outside the superficiality and sameness of that language, using words to dig someplace deep, explicit, and true. Although it is not “therapy,” creative writing is (in Richard Hugo’s words) “a slow, accumulative way of accepting one’s life as valid.”

Hanging Together from Introducing Philosophy

The following excerpt is from our forthcoming Introducing Philosophy: Knowledge and Reality, which is written by Jack S. Crumley II.

Introducing Philosophy image jpg

When a belief of ours fits with, or “hangs with,” other beliefs, we are no doubt inclined to give greater epistemic weight or credibility to that belief. It is not very difficult to see why. Recall this feature of beliefs: They provide a picture of or a representation of the world. That’s just what it means to talk about the content of a belief—it’s a little bit of information (about the world). Indeed, that’s why theorists are inclined to talk about beliefs as representational. Of course, for various reasons we might have doubts about whether to trust any particular bit of information. We are understandably encouraged to “trust” some particular belief if we find that its particular information fits with other pieces of information—other beliefs—in our possession. The more the belief fits, the greater our trust. A single belief is a bit like a piece of jigsaw puzzle. By itself, a single piece of the puzzle does not make a lot of sense. Yet once we see how the piece fits together with other pieces, once we see the way it interlocks with other pieces, we understand where the piece fits in and why we need it. The pieces “hang together.” Similarly, as some particular belief content fits with more and more other contents—other beliefs—the more inclined we are to trust that first belief. That is, if some bit of “belief information” can be seen as a piece of a larger picture presented by our other beliefs, then we are more inclined to see that belief as epistemically trustworthy.

Ezra Pound on Dubliners

Our edition of Dubliners, edited by Keri Walsh, is now available! We’d like to share an excerpt from Appendix A of our new edition.

For more information on the text, visit our website at broadviewpress.com.
Dubliners2
From Ezra Pound, “Dubliners and Mr. James Joyce,” The Egoist (15 July 1914)

Freedom from sloppiness is so rare in contemporary English prose that one might well say simply, “Mr Joyce’s book of short stories is prose free from sloppiness,” and leave the intelligent reader ready to run from his study, immediately to spend three and sixpence on the volume.

Unfortunately, one’s credit as a critic is insufficient to produce this result.

The readers of The Egoist, having had Mr Joyce under their eyes for some months, will scarcely need to have his qualities pointed out to them. Both they and the paper have been very fortunate in his collaboration.

Mr. Joyce writes a clear hard prose. He deals with subjective things, but he presents them with such clarity of outline that he might be dealing with locomotives or with builders’ specifications. For that reason one can read Mr. Joyce without feeling that one is conferring a favour. I must put this thing my own way. I know about 168 authors. About once a year I read something contemporary without feeling that I am softening the path for poor Jones or poor Fulano de Tal.

I can lay down a good piece of French writing and pick up a piece of writing by Mr. Joyce without feeling as if my head were being stuffed through a cushion. There are still impressionists about and I dare say they claim Mr. Joyce. I admire impressionist writers. English prose writers who haven’t got as far as impressionism (that is to say, 95 per cent of English writers of prose and verse) are a bore.

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Mr. Joyce’s merit, I will not say his chief merit but his most engaging merit, is that he carefully avoids telling you a lot that you don’t want to know. He presents his people swiftly and vividly, he does not sentimentalize over them, he does not weave convolutions. He is a realist. He does not believe “life” would be all right if we stopped vivisection or if we instituted a new sort of “economics.” He gives the thing as it is. He is not bound by the tiresome convention that any part of life, to be interesting, must be shaped into the conventional form of a “story.” Since De Maupassant we have had so many people trying to write ‘stories’ and so few people presenting life. Life for the most part does not happen in neat little diagrams and nothing is more tiresome than the continual pretence that it does.

Mr. Joyce’s “Araby,” for instance, is much better than a “story,” it is a vivid writing.

It is surprising that Mr. Joyce is Irish. One is so tired of the Irish or “Celtic” imagination (or “phantasy” as I think they now call it) flopping about. Mr. Joyce does not flop about. He defines. He is not an institution for the promotion of Irish peasant industries. He accepts an international standard of prose writing and lives up to it.

He gives us Dublin as it presumably is. He does not descend to farce. He does not rely on Dickensian caricature. He gives us things as they are, not only for Dublin, but for every city. Erase the local names and a few specifically local allusions, and a few historic events of the past, and substitute a few different local names, allusions and events, and these stories could be retold of any town.

That is to say, the author is quite capable of dealing with things about him, and dealing directly, yet these details do not engross him, he is capable of getting at the universal element beneath them.

[…]

I think that he excels most of the impressionist writers because of his more rigorous selection, because of his exclusion of all unnecessary detail.

There is a very clear demarcation between unnecessary detail and irrelevant detail. An impressionist friend of mine talks to me a good deal about “preparing effects,” and on that score he justifies much unnecessary detail, which is not “irrelevant,” but which ends by being wearisome and by putting one out of conceit with his narrative.

Mr. Joyce’s more rigorous selection of the presented detail marks him, I think, as belonging to my own generation, that is, to “nine-teen-tens,” not to the decade between “the ‘nineties” and to-day.

Lenore Keeshig [Tobias], “Stop Stealing Native Stories”

The following is an excerpt from our recently published Introduction to Indigenous Literary Criticism in Canada, edited by Heather Macfarlane and Armand Garnet Ruffo.

Indigenous Literary Criticism

Lenore Keeshig [Tobias], Anishinaabekwe, was born on Neyaashiinigmiing (the Cape Croker Reserve) on the Saugeen Peninsula in Ontario. An Ojibway journalist, storyteller, poet, children’s author and activist, she is a founding member—along with Daniel David Moses and Tomson Highway—of the influential literary group “The Committee to Reestablish the Trickster,” Keeshig [Tobias] fought actively to promote Indigenous voice and writing throughout the 1980s, and into the 1990s—at a time when many Indigenous writers found themselves shut out of the publishing industry. Keeshig [Tobias] became one of the most influential spokespeople of the appropriation of voice controversy which started in the Writer’s Union of Canada, when she asked non-Natives to “stop stealing Native stories” …

“Stop Stealing Native Stories” appeared in the Globe and Mail in 1990 and is revolutionary for its condemnation of appropriation of voice. The article appeared as part of a larger debate that condemned the critics of those speaking in the voice of others, accusing them of censorship … Overlooked by non-Indigenous critics focusing on the censorship question, the related issues of retention and promotion of Indigenous language and cultural sovereignty are at the heart of Keeshig’s [Tobias] concerns.

Keeshig [Tobias], Lenore. “Stop Stealing Native Stories.” Globe and Mail (26 January 1990): A7.

Stop Stealing Native Stories

AAA-III-EEE Y-AAh!
Clear the way.
In a sacred manner I come.
The stories are mine!

—Ojibway war song

Critics of non-native writers who borrow from the native experience have been dismissed as advocates of censorship and accused of trying to shackle artistic imagination, but their objections are prompted by something much more.

Where the Spirit Lives may be a bad film. Bone Bird by Calgary novelist Darlene Barry Quaife may oversimplify native spirituality.(1) W.P. Kinsella’s Hobbema stories(2) may be insulting. But the real problem Is that they amount to culture theft, the theft of voice.

Canada’s francophones have a strong and unique voice in North America. Why? Because they have fought to ensure that their language remains intact. Language is the conveyor of culture. It carries the ideas by which a nation defines itself as a people. It gives voice to a nation’s stories, its mythos.

How do Canadians feel about the US mythos defining them and their country? This is quickly becoming a reality, I fear, because Canadians have been too quick to hand over their voice and their stories to Americans.

Stories, you see, are not just entertainment. Stories are power. They reflect the deepest, the most intimate perceptions, relationships and attitudes of a people. Stories show how a people, a culture, thinks. Such wonderful offerings are seldom reproduced by outsiders.

This is the root of the problem with Where the Spirit Lives, which deals with the treatment of native students in government-sponsored residential schools during the 1930s. The film has been shown on the CBC and TVOntario and as part of Canada Day at the recent festival in Palm Springs, Calif.(3)

So what is it all about, anyway? In the end, a little Indian girl and her brother ride off into the vast, uninhabited wilderness (Anne Shirley goes west?). They ride right out of the sentimentalized Canadian consciousness—stoic child warriors noble in defeat, marching home with Bible in hand. (A book of truth, perhaps, but whose?)

Native people were not involved in any creative aspect of the film. Their voice was heard only through cultural consultants hired to provide the nuances and insights lacked by the movie’s writer and producers.

Cultural insight, nuance, metaphor and symbols give a book or film the ring of truth, but their essence—the thing that gives stories universal appeal, that allows true empathy and shared emotion—is missing from Where the Spirit Lives, as it is from most “native” writing by non-natives.

Canadians all too often use native stories, symbols and history to sell things—cars, tobacco or movies. But why hasn’t Basil Johnston’s Indian School Days become a bestseller? Why hasn’t Half Breed by Marla Campbell been reprinted?(4) (Why, for that matter, has Ms Campbell, as one of Canada’s “celebrated” authors, never received a writer’s grant?)

Where the Spirit Lives, after having squeezed out the native version of what happened in the residential schools, turns around and tells natives to make their own movies. How can we? Even if we had access to financial backers, they would say: “Residential schools? It’s been done.”

With native people struggling for justice with land claims and in education, what makes Canadians think they have equality in the film industry? In publishing? With agencies that make arts grants? In the arts themselves?

Instead, the Canadian cultural industry is stealing—unconsciously, perhaps, but with the same devastating results—native stories as surely as the missionaries stole our religion and the politicians stole our land and the residential schools stole our language. As Leslie Marmon Silko writes in Ceremony,(5) stories “are all we have, you see—all we have to fight off illness and death.” As a storyteller I was once advised by an elder that there is a season for storytelling—winter. “Blackflies, mosquitoes and other creatures like those stories,” she cautioned.

How quaint, I thought. Nonetheless, I respected her advice and, as time went on, I began to understand it. If storytellers sit around all summer telling stories, then surely they’ll become the feast of blackflies and mosquitoes. My elder was telling me that these stories are meant for certain ears only—and native ears.

So potent are stories that, in native culture, one storyteller cannot tell another’s story without permission.

But why are Canadians so obsessed with native stories anyway? Why the urge to “write Indian”? Have Canadians run out of stories of their own? Or are their renderings just nostalgia for a simpler, more “at one with nature” stage of human development? There’s a cliché for you.

Maybe Canadian stories about native people are some form of exorcism. Are they trying to atone for the horrible reality or native-Canadian relations? Or maybe they just know a good story when they find one and are willing to take it, without permission, just as archaeologists used to rob our graves for museums.

What about the quest for native spirituality? It is mostly escapist, and people such as Ms. Quaife would rather look to an ideal native living in never-never land than confront the reality of what being native means in Canadian society.

For example, residential-school survivors tell of children being forced to eat their own vomit when their stomachs could no longer hold down the sour porridge. They tell of broken knuckles from fingers being rapped. Some even tell of having pins stuck through their tongues as punishment for speaking their own language. (Now, that’s censorship.)
And what about the teacher who was removed from one residential school for abusing children? He was simply sent to another, more remote school.

It’s not that these stories have never been told; Canadians just haven’t heard them. Nor does it mean our writers and storytellers are incompetent and inexperienced, as Mr. Kinsella seems to suggest.
It means our voices have been marginalized. Imagine, Canadians telling native stories because their government outlawed native languages, native culture.

However, as Ms Campbell said on CBC Radio’s Morningside, “If you want to write our stories, then be prepared to live with us.” And not just for a few months.

Hear the voices of the wilderness. Be there with the Lubicon, the Innu. Be there with the Teme-Augama Anishnabi on the Red Squirrel Road. The Saugeen Ojibway. If you want these stories, fight for them. I dare you.

(1)Darlene Barry Quaife, Bone Bird (Turnstone P, 1989), winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book.
(2)William Patrick (W.P.) Kinsella is the prolific and controversial author of what he calls his “Indian stories,” set on the Hobbema Reserve in central Alberta. These books include Dance Me Outside (1977), also a feature film, The Fencepost Chronicles, winner of the 1987 Stephen Leacock Medal, Brother Frank’s Gospel Hour (1994), and The Secret of the Northern Lights (1998).
(3)Where the Spirit Lives is a dramatic film about Aboriginal children in Canada residential schools. Written by Keith Ross Leckie and directed by Bruce Pittman, it aired on CBC Television in 1989 and released in the USA in 1990. It was screened at numerous film festivals, including the Palms Springs International Film Festival.
(4)Maria Campbell, Halfbreed (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1973).
(5)Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony (New York: Viking Penguin, 1977).