Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Cultivating Athletes, Cultivating Writers

Sabermetrician Bill James contrasts how America cultivates athletic talent with how it cultivates writerly talent:

American society could and should take lessons from the world of sports as to how to develop talent. How is it that we have become so phenomenally good, in our society, at developing athletes?

First, we give them the opportunity to compete at a young age.

Second, we recognize and identify ability at a young age.

Third, we celebrate athletes' success constantly. We show up at their games and cheer. We give them trophies. When they get to be teenagers, if they're still good, we put their names in the newspaper once in a while.

Fourth, we pay them for potential, rather than simply paying them once they get to be among the best in the world.

The average city the size of Topeka produces a major league player every 10 or 15 years. If we did the same things for young writers, every city would produce a Shakespeare or a Dickens or at least a Graham Greene every 10 or 15 years. Instead, we tell the young writers that they should work on their craft for 20 or 25 years, get to be really, really good—among the best in the world—and then we'll give them a little bit of recognition.

What Literature Teaches

From a fine review of what sounds like a good book by Marjorie Garber (whose Shakespeare After All is a worthy companion to the Bard's complete works):

"The absence of answers or determinate meanings" is exactly the set of "qualities that make a passage or a work literary." Literary works have no single meaning, whatever the author intended. Indeed, Garber points out, "one of the key features of what might be called the literary unconscious is a tendency on the part of the text to outwit or to confound the activity of closing or ending."

This is not relativism. This is not deconstruction. People have been saying things like this about literature since Horace - and indeed, Horace's ancient dictum (that literature should both teach and delight) is, I believe, one of the underlying themes of Garber's book. It's just that what Garber thinks literature teaches is not a set of univocal moral truths but rather a habit of mind: a way of questioning the world, a way of understanding just how hard it is to make decisions, fall in love, express desire, worship, rule and serve.

We read books often to learn how others do these things - and often to learn how others failed to do them. We read books to be pleasured, too, into an admiration for a writer's choice of words or for an author's command of our emotions.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Barry Bonds and Black Manhood

One well-known theme of the African-American quest for civil rights and justice is manhood. In Toni Morrison's Beloved, for instance, one white slaveowner likes to flatter his own sense of mastery by referring to his slaves as men, a practice that draws disapproval from his peers. Continuing into the era of neo-slavery commonly known as Jim Crow, black men were still routinely referred to as "boys," and the lynchings of black men often included ritual castration. It's common knowledge that black jazz musicians slyly fought back by casually referring to each other as "man," a form of address that, like so many originally black locutions, has made its way into the wider (and whiter) American vernacular. More recently, on Kanye West's 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the controversial hip-hop artist defiantly asserts his manhood in response to his critics:

... the same people that tried to blackball me
Forgot about two things: my black balls.

In popular culture, black masculinity is often contested in the arena of sports. Think of Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali—two powerful black male athletes whose assertions of self, sexuality, and political independence brought them into direct conflict with the U.S. government. Or think of Hank Aaron, whose pursuit of Babe Ruth's venerable homerun record brought him piles of racist hate mail.

All of this history sprang to mind for my yesterday when I read an article in the New York Times about the ongoing Barry Bonds trial. Bonds, who long since passed up both Ruth and Aaron as the career leader in homeruns, is on trial for perjury, accused of lying to a grand jury in 2003 about whether or not he ever used steroids.

I don't listen to a lot of sports talk radio or talk much about sports myself, but even from my rather distant perspective, I'm aware that there are a lot of white people in America who revile Bonds in much the same way that many whites in the past reviled Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali. I also get the sense that many of them are licking their chops at the prospect of Bonds' getting cut down to size in this trial.

There's something unseemly about it—this white desire to see a black man punished for getting too big, literally—that puts me in mind of a fatalistic comment made by the poor black sharecropper Trueblood in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man: "no matter how biggity a nigguh gits, the white folks can always cut him down."

Kanye's lyrics notwithstanding, the people who are going after this black ballplayer have not forgotten about his black balls, whose size may soon become a piece of forensic evidence in the trial, according to the Times article:

Jeffrey Nedrow, an assistant United States attorney, asked (Larry) Bowers, the chief science director of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, how steroid use could affect a man’s testicles.

“It’s been well documented that you could have testicular atrophy,” Bowers said, before putting it simply. “They will shrink” ...

While listening to that testimony, some jurors knitted their brows or even giggled. When they return to court Monday, though, they will learn the relevance of that information.

Kimberly Bell, Bonds’s girlfriend from 1994 to 2003, is expected to testify that she noticed a marked decrease in the size of Bonds’s testicles while they were dating.

This is surely one of the more absurd turns in recent American jurisprudence. At the same time, it's hard not to see it as merely the latest variation on the well-rehearsed theme of America's uncomfortable relationship with black manhood.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Find Some Occupation

Reading this wonderful Garry Wills essay today, delighting in its discussion of a favorite passage of mine from the Odyssey, it occurred to me that, in selecting one's "desert island" books, one would be best served by selecting books like the Odyssey—huge books that strive to contain all of life within them. A few others occurred to me: Middlemarch, the complete works of Shakespeare (if that's not cheating), Moby-Dick (despite that book's seemingly circumscribed milieu, in its psychological and philosophical range it seems to fit on the list), and War and Peace, which I'm currently making my way through, and in which I just read this great passage:

Sometimes Pierre remembered stories he had heard about how soldiers at war, taking cover under enemy fire, when there is nothing to do, try to find some occupation for themselves so as to endure the danger more easily. And to Pierre all people seemed to be such soldiers, saving themselves from life: some with ambition, some with cards, some with drafting laws, some with women, some with playthings, some with horses, some with politics, some with hunting, some with wine, some with affairs of state. "Nothing is either trivial or important, it's all the same; only save yourself from it as best you can!" thought Pierre. "Only not to see
it, that dreadful it!"

I guess the whole idea of "desert island" books itself is an example of what Pierre is talking about: the occupation you'd need to ward off insanity or suicide if you were stranded alone on a desert island.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Pale King Begins

Over at The Millions they've got an exclusive look at the opening sentence of Wallace's forthcoming posthumous novel The Pale King.

At first glance, it seems to me to have echoes of the beginnings of Joyce's Finnegans Wake and, especially, Cormac McCarthy's Suttree, of which we know DFW was a fan.

Epstein and Envelopes

I don't necessarily agree with everything Joseph Epstein writes in this piece about the recent dust-up in the human sexuality course at Northwestern, but I've always admired Epstein's writing. I particularly like this tart little sentence, in which Epstein refreshes a contemporary cliche:

A man with a penchant for smashing taboos, Professor Bailey enjoys pushing the envelope, but, like many another radical academic, prefers not to pay the postage.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Reversing the Great Migration

From Ta-Nehisi Coates, an interesting reflection on why some African Americans move back to the South, particularly Atlanta, in a kind of reverse of the Great Migration:

The fact is that, in Atlanta, you can live in a neighborhood with a sprawling lawn, a two-car garage, four bathrooms, and see nothing but other black people around you. Moreover, you can enjoy a lifestyle—a range of food, a way of speaking, a particular bearing—which many of us experienced as children going South in the summer, and now think back on wistfully. And many of us with no such direct memories, lived around people who told such stories, and thus have shared in the collective memory.

The point here is that it's important, not simply to consider the number of people returning, but their thinking as they return. African-Americans moving South are returning to the place where much of their collective identity was formed. They're often returning to places where they still have kinship ties, or where large swaths of people share in their culture. This is different, and specific to black people. "The South" means something to Northern African-Americans with Southern roots (which is to say a lot of us) that it just doesn't mean for Northern whites. The black folks who return there are not simply returning for a good job, they are, in large measure, returning to something ancestral....