Quantification and power

There’s a great piece by Richard Denniss over at The Monthly, on the uses of economic modelling in policy debates. I don’t agree with everything Denniss says, but this is a great read.

I think a lot of it has to do with power (which is pervasive in politics), but also with quantification, and how we think about things that are quantified (there’s a discussion here at The Guardian, although I don’t think it quite articulates the issue right).

This is an important one, but I don’t think I’ve seen the underlying problem clearly articulated yet.

EDIT: Also worth a glance at this piece over at The Age; sad that to be taken seriously, things have to be valued in economic terms. It’s worth recognising, I think, that while economics is a useful discipline, it’s limited in many ways. Putting a value on things that aren’t traded in a market is an area of weakness. And there are many valuable things which aren’t traded in a market; quite often for good reasons.


The Casual Vacancy

Like many others, I imagine, I read The Casual Vacancy because it was Rowling’s foray into adult literature, her first piece after the Potter saga.

It was a good read. It’s been a while since I’ve read the Potter books, so it’s hard to compare them in terms of writing. The Casual Vacancy does well at evoking a particular setting, and at telling a complex story from a dozen different angles. There are some areas I was less sure of; but overall it was a well put together piece.

The setting is important in The Casual Vacancy. It’s essentially, in some form, a story about a place, and a particular kind of place – a small, English village. I’ve never spent more than a few days in one, so it’s hard for me to know how much is stereotype and how much truth, but it certainly felt real in that regard. It’s about the conflict and change and turmoil within that place, as part of the character of the town.

And it’s this second part where I think the novel is exceptional. It tells the story from a dozen different angles, and there are several things here that Rowling does impressively. She moves between the viewpoint of different characters in a way that feels natural, but somehow genuinely gives a different angle each time. So that we may see different perspectives on the same incident or encounter, and each can feel authentic because they’re seen through the prism of a particular character’s concerns, fears, and hopes. At the same time she manages to make the characters relatable – those that would be likeable in real life, are reasonably likeable, and those that are shits, are still sympathetic simply because we are hearing their story (more on this in a moment). While doing this, Rowling manages to keep the narrative flowing smoothly, giving us enough information but not overdoing it.

I mention the issue of viewpoint because I think it’s an interesting one. Booth argues that seeing through a particular point of view makes us sympathetic to that character, even if their views or decisions are fundamentally bad or stupid. There’s one particular character in the novel – Gavin- who I think of as a … a poor human being, poor at communicating effectively, and at making good decisions. But she manages to make the reader’s sympathy flicker even to him and his shortcomings.

A final issue that I was less certain of how was Rowling tells the story of Krystal, a young girl struggling with a few different challenges. I say this because Krystal in the story is very clearly the poor person, living on the wrong side of the tracks. I don’t have enough first-hand knowledge to know if this was a fair portrayal, or a reasonable story, for someone like Krystal. I’d be interested to hear any thoughts on that.

So, overall, it’s well-written, and if you enjoy complex narrative and British towns, worth a look (although it is not Middlemarch). It’s not a surprise I suppose that it’s being turned into a TV show – the trailer’s up on online.

The Handmaid’s Tale

I read The Handmaid’s Tale for a book club, and I’m really glad I did. It’s a great read – intense, but brilliant. The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of a woman living in a  (fictitious) religious, totalitarian state, both of how she came to be where she is, and her struggle for freedom.

There’s a lot to unpack in the story. A few things that I found particularly striking were the religious theme, the patriarchy, and the lateral surveillance.

The religious theme I found interesting, primarily because it wasn’t something I’d read in a dystopian fiction for a while. It was striking to me too, that a book published before I was born could still feel so topical.

The patriarchal element was part of what made this book remarkable. There is a particular passage where, after her bank account is frozen, her husband is commiserating with her, telling her that he’ll buy whatever she needs. And she has a sudden realisation, that for him, in some sense, this is an increase in the power that he has.

There’s much more in the novel, and it’s excellent, but that was one moment that leapt out at me. Another thing I found fascinating was the lateral surveillance; the regime depends on people, terrified into reporting on each other, providing a degree of enforcement that a central body could never hope to match. It’s a scary feeling; and in some ways this books feels better rendered than 1984, as it felt more oppressive reading. It was, actually, read quickly in a day or two (which I did), a dark experience.

Finally, I think it’s interesting to think about the narrative arc in the book. Having recently finished Robert McKee’s Story, one of the questions that I’ve been thinking about in relation to books is: What challenges are the characters struggling (internally or externally) to overcome? What are they winning or losing?

I think the main struggle in the narrative is a somewhat internal one, a struggle for freedom. It’s not expressed in many overt actions, except in one major one towards the end – in some senses the character is a passive one, largely acted upon in a physical sense (this is very much Atwood’s theme). But throughout we see through her eyes, understand the world through her voice. And the struggle is, essentially, for freedom, simplistic as it may sound. The simple things of struggling to find a friend, of gaining hope, of learning what’s happened to her loved ones, of expressing love, or gaining control in a situation – these are all struggles that are enormously significant, and we see them all play out.

It’s a brilliant read – I highly recommend it.

Oh, and I should mention – there was a movie. You can read a review here.

UPDATE: Following the book club, I’ve looked up a reference somebody mentioned. The full article by Margaret Atwood is here, but one of the salient points – apparently most of the social actions that occurred in The Handmaid’s Tale had ‘precedents’. Tragically, that seems entirely plausible to me.

Light Between Oceans

I put The Light Between Oceans on my ‘to-read’ list, because it came up on a few ‘best of the year’ lists. It was a mistake.

The book starts with a mildly interesting premise, but then doesn’t really live up to that potential. One of the metrics I’ve started using (although it’s not definitive, and doesn’t need to be the only way to think about a book) is ‘how did the characters change? What decisions did they make?’. In relation to that, The Light Between Oceans felt underwhelming. There are two or three major decision points, but they don’t feel fleshed out; as a reader I felt as though I was external to the action, just seeing it happen randomly without quite fully understanding why it had happened, or how a character had reached a particular decision.

Which is fine, except that most of the book is about emotions, feelings and decisions, but in a kind of vague way. You can see the book trailer here, and I feel like it perfectly reflects the intense, dramatic, feel-y feel of the book. If the tag-line ‘They followed their hearts, and broke the rules. What happened next, will break yours’ is something that grabs you, this may be the book for you. Otherwise, it may not live up to its potential.

The story follows a couple living on a light-house. There is a child involved, and a tragic loss occurs for various characters. Which is all fine, and interesting, and a very important premise that’s full of potential. It’s just that I felt as though by the end, I didn’t really understand how the characters had changed; they’d just been very emotional, and significant, and had their emotions reflected in the natural surroundings they moved through.

I did find it moving at times, but I felt as though I resented the author at the same time. As though the emotion they’d wrung out of the situation was because of the story they’d chosen, rather than their ability to work with it. In the same way that someone holding up a picture of a crying child can make you feel bad, even though they haven’t really connected with you emotionally.

Might be worth if it there’s nothing else in the holiday home on a long weekend.

Consider the Tea Cosy is pretty great

I regularly read Consider the Tea Cosywhile I don’t agree with everything, I find it interesting and though provoking.

There’s a recent post up by Aoife on the gay marriage referendum currently on in Ireland. There’s two points that I find particularly interesting.

The first is that although the referendum is inevitably about gay marriage, that doesn’t mean it’s the only front on which the debate is had:

We could do that. Alternatively? We could take back the framing of this year’s events. We could make a decision that this time we as a community show respect for the very diversity that we’re supposed to celebrate. We could take that platform that we have, and decide that we say what we use it for.

You see, if we do that then we’re taking ownership of that platform that we’ve spent so many years building up. Now that we have the ears of the country, we’re using them for our purposes and on our terms.

Marriage equality is important, yes, and we continue to advocate for that. But we do so without erasing queer lives, and we do so while still shouting about the non-marriage-related injustices that we face all the damn time. 

They might be right. That might lose us a few middle-Ireland votes. But it might not. And if we do that- if we campaign in a way that doesn’t shove many of our community back under carpets and into closets- we will be forcing this society to not only tolerate us, but to genuinely respect and celebrate us.

This is a really interesting point. In some senses a tactical consideration that cuts to the heart of a lot of difficult political questions, but I think a hugely important one.

The other thing I found interesting is the first subsection Aiofe addresses – ‘A thing feeling inevitable doesn’t make it okay’. This is Hume’s ‘Is-ought‘ problem – the relationship between what we see in the world, and how we then arrive at a normative system. In various conversations I’ve been surprised by the number of people who’ve not maintained the distinction.

I haven’t read as much as I’d like on the topic, but I’m hoping to do some more this year – particularly on some of Gewirth’s work. But more of that to come in future posts.

Showing and telling

There’s an old adage in relation to writing – ‘show, don’t tell’. Which it’s interesting to reflect on, having recently finished The Rhetoric of Fiction. While it’s not his central point, Booth does discuss whether ‘show, don’t tell’ is a useful rule, and what it means.

His argument, essentially, is that when it comes to fiction, there is only telling; all fiction is telling in some form. He also argues quite persuasively that excellent fiction can involve a lot of telling, which can be a more efficient way of communicating than what we might think of as ‘showing’, which is still intentional communication (not simply a random observation).

So I was thinking about why is it that we’re told to show, not tell? There’s probably a lot of reasons – I’m not sure where the original saying came from. Based purely on conjecture, though, it seems plausible that people (readers, writers, critics) reacted against telling not because of the method, but because it was done poorly.

I think it’s quite possible that when telling is done poorly (obvious, intrusive commentary), it’s also often correlated with poor conceptualising of characters. Poor writing not in how it’s communicated, but the structure of the narrative – the psychology, if you will, of how characters react to events, how they process situations.

If that is the case, then rather than saying ‘show, don’t tell’, we should encourage good writing – what Robert McKee calls ‘from the inside out’. Writing that tells a plausible story about realistic characters (while still, as Booth would put it, having a rhetoric in the story). We should encourage people to tell the story in whatever way works, but to tell meaningful stories – to think about what it is that makes a story in terms of detailed character observation, in terms of development and character arcs.


Books on story

This year I’ve been doing pretty well getting through my reading list. Particularly, I’ve just knocked off two of the books I had on my list on writing and fiction; Lisa Zunshine’s Why we read fiction, and Wayne C. Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction.  

Lisa Zunshine’s Why we read fiction

I started reading Zunshine’s Why we read fiction several years ago; while I was in Mongolia, in fact. I’m just getting around to finishing it now.

Zunshine’s book is essentially an exploration of how humanity’s ability to have a theory of mind (ToM) interacts with fiction. ToM is a fascinating concept, and I think a hugely important tool. But I also don’t want to try and unpack it here; as a start, the Wikipedia page has some material, and this explanation of the smarties test is probably a helpful introduction to a simple practical example.

Zunshine unpacks that idea in her book, and then explores how it relates to fiction. Her central thesis is essentially that:

Theory of Mind is a cluster of cognitive adaptations that allows us to navigate our social world and also structures that world. Intensely social species that we are, we thus read fiction because it engages, in a variety of particularly focused ways, our Theory of Mind. 

She spends the first third of the book essentially looking at what that means, practically, in relation to a given piece of fiction, and its interaction with the reader. As part of that, essentially has an interesting exploration of narrators – reliable and unreliable – and how it is that information gets to the reader from the writer, and the role that ToM plays in that transfer.

The second part relates to what she describes as ‘meta-representationality’. This is an idea that she introduces – of the importance of tagging the source of (and potentially other attributes about) information. As a simple example, if we hear that there is a wolf in the town, we will note the source, and interact with the information differently if we hear it from an authoritative newspaper or town crier, rather than from a boy who’s already falsely cried ‘Wolf’ twice.

The third and final section relates to ToM in the detective novel. As someone who doesn’t read detective novels often, I found this interesting but not gripping.

Overall, Why we read fiction is quite a good read. I think it does a good job of unpacking the relationship between ToM and fiction. I felt at points as though it relied a little too much on someone with a background in literary criticism interpreting a body of research in the psychology discipline. In some ways that was good, but the book might have benefitted from a co-author who was a psychology researcher (particularly in the ToM area).

But for all that, if you’re interested in the interaction between psychology and reading, or how the reading process works, it’s worth a look. And it’s a much better read than The Storytelling Animal.

Wayne C. Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction

Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction is a slightly dense book. I’ve been reading it on and off for a while, and only really buckled down this year, when I put it on my reading list. And now that I come to the end of it, I find that I have very mixed feelings.

On the one hand, there’s a lot to like in The Rhetoric of Fiction. Booth is someone who loves stories and good writing, and that shows in his analysis. He carefully explores a whole range of examples, and prepares lists of different aspects of storytelling, that are interesting, and worth thinking about. Different narrative techniques, different authorial voices. At his best, it’s a pleasure to listen to him unpack different ideas, and look at how different approaches are used in different stories.

He also talks about some interesting ideas in relation to writing, and his conception of fiction as rhetoric is a very helpful one. What is it that authors are trying to persuade us of? And how do the different techniques they use serve that end?

For all that, though, I find myself somewhat frustrated at the book as a whole. In  part, this is possibly because of how I read it. The Rhetoric of Fiction is a somewhat dense piece, and Booth has a tendency to wander. Dipping in and out of it as I did over the space of several months, and not taking notes as I was going, weren’t the most effective way to read it. But for all that, Booth isn’t the clearest writer. While he helpfully signposts headings, he has a slight tendency to wander off-topic (for example, from a particular literary technique to a broader question about ethics in art), and in one case I noticed he started by noting there were three main points; and then listing the first and third.

It’s interesting, too, reading both the original book (published in 1960), and a subsequent afterward for the second printing (1983). Booth’s central argument, in 1960, is that all fiction is in some sense rhetorical. Authors are trying – deliberately – to persuade us of something. He talks about this in some length in relation to authorial technique, in particular critiquing the focus of the then pre-eminent realist schools; arguing both that there is a cost to impersonal narration (some things are easier for a narrator to simply tell, rather than show), and that universal rules are often too general to be helpful.

In his afterward, he reflects on the earlier book he’s written, and its reception. To some extent it’s frustrating to plough through 400+ pages of (slightly meandering) text, only to have the author repudiate them. It feels sloppy. None the less, it is helpful to see him step away from some of the more specific statements. He acknowledges that while a critique of realism was relevant at the time, the more fundamental point was that fiction should be seen as rhetoric, and I think that’s still a useful way of thinking about writing.

Booth covers a multitude of technical points; if you care about how writing works, and which techniques cause particular effects, you’ll probably enjoy this. I found it thought-provoking, but at the same time felt that it lacked a larger framework. Because Booth didn’t clearly articulate a theory of communication (drawn from either psychology or linguistics), it felt as though some of his categories and analyses were somewhat subjective; you could have easily heard someone argue the other side, and left undecided. But for all that, I think it reflects well on Booth in that this is one of those pieces of literary criticism that leaves you more excited about reading good writing, rather than less – there is always a danger that lit. crit. ends up crippling that which it tries to understand, by focusing on the mechanics without seeing the vital force within.

A final, and quite important part of Booth’s thinking, relates to morality. In arguing that fiction is rhetorical, he subsequently argues that inherently, then, every piece of fiction must have an ethical component. In turn, then (he argues), how we respond to a piece of fiction can and will be different depending on the ethical standards it incorporates and espouses. I’m still thinking about this aspect. At times Booth can come across as a cantankerous lecturer, waving a cane from the front of a dusty lecture hall at ‘the young ‘uns’. But I think his fundamental point isn’t so easily dismissed. I want to do more thinking on this.

In the conclusion of his afterward, Booth adopts a stance which I found frustrating at other points in the book. Essentially, having spoken at length for some time, and developed quite detailed categories and systems, he then goes on to say that ‘we students of literature can never become as scientific as our forebears hoped … in what sense can we be said to progress? We seem, instead, to move in circles … ‘the state of the art’ … is permanently unfixed in our art …. I had an exhilarating hour once, talking with my son’s fellow fourth-graders about the rhetoric of fiction. “How do you tell the good guys from the bad guys?” I asked, and the kids were off and running’.

While I’m all for making material accessible to children, this isn’t a book that is accessible to everyone, by any means. Instead, this is a stance Booth takes at other points; refusing to reach a conclusion, to commit to a clear articulation of a useful theory. As a reader, it’s intensely frustrating to wade through material, only to find that the person writing isn’t themselves convinced of what they’re spouting.

This isn’t the piece I’d put at the top of a reading list, even for people who care about literary criticism. It’s interesting and thought provoking, but it takes time to wade through; and reading literary criticism from 1960 it’s hard to forget, when a particularly sententious statement goes past, that there are literally decades of debate that have been missed. This might be worth a read if you’re interested in his particular framework of fiction as rhetoric, or want to think about different types of narration; but definitely check what else is out there first.