Where Flannery O’Connor meets Julia Roberts on Late Night Talk Shows

We watched some late night TV last night, after class and before getting back to work on a suspended sestina, flipping back and forth between the two format giants, Letterman and Leno. Polished Letterman is the APA stylist of the late night television talk show. His “Top 10” list, for example, is always delivered according to strict formatting rules. He doesn’t wait for the laugh, but interrupts himself after each number, announcing the next number, tossing each card away – it’s a throwaway joke. He could be reading from a menu announcing the evening specials at a swank restaurant. If Letterman is APA, Leno is MLA, and The Tonight Show proceeds with ethos borrowed from Johnny Carson, the original stylist. For both Letterman and Leno, strict formatting rules govern the fit of suits, the colors and knots of ties (the tie remains the essential costume piece, signifying a governing body) the buttoning and unbuttoning of jackets. They both must sit stage left, slightly elevated above their guest, protected by a faux desk, a prop, but note their desks are at opposite ends of the stage, a stylistic difference that conforms to the meaningless but self-sustaining differences between APA and MLA. Form and content merge into one smooth, purposeful style. Last night, both Letterman and Leno sported purple in their ties, surely an oblique reference to Flannery O’Connor’s use of color as an ecclesiastical prelude to sanctifying grace.

Letterman’s grace last night appeared in the form of Julia Roberts, introduced by Letterman with such gravity one expected the appearance of an angel, and in this the audience was not disappointed.

According to the Inland Register, in a review of Brad Gooch’s biography, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, Flannery appeared on The Tonight Show with Steve Allen, the original host, which would have put the appearance sometime in the mid-1950’s. We’ve not read the Gooch biography, but any reference to a TV sighting of Flannery on The Tonight Show should be rigorously pursued, cited, and referenced. We’ll see, but a few Google Books searches of other Flannery biographies found no references to Steve Allen or The Tonight Show. Who knows, maybe Flannery had her own TV talk show in a broadcast limited locally around Andalusia, live peacocks walking around the set instead of fake New York City night-lit backgrounds.

Meantime, it appears to be common knowledge that Conan O’Brien, briefly usurping Leno last year as MLA-Tonight Show host, wrote his Harvard thesis on Flannery O’Connor. According to the New York Times (para. 28), O’Brien’s thesis was on Flannery and Faulkner. We’re not sure if Flannery’s appearance on The Tonight Show with Steve Allen is an arcane piece of trivia or if it too, like O’Brien’s Harvard thesis, is common knowledge. In any case, it seems an irony that Flannery would appreciate, her admirer O’Brien hosting the same show on which she appeared, only to be yanked. O’Brien failed to secure the revision of The Tonight Show manual of style because of the cumulative effect of wearing the wrong tie each night.

Last night we took a look at “Good Country People,” later, watching TV, imagining Flannery chatting and laughing about her characters with Letterman (no idea at the time she actually had been on a talk show back in the 50’s), as Julia Roberts was doing, laughing for the audience, maintaining the stylistically approved appropriate authorial distance. Yet Julia commented, referring to the audience, “they want to be part of the experience,” and illustrated by gracefully acknowledging one like-minded woman in the audience who had commented on her running routine. But who wants to be part of a Flannery O’Connor experience? Maybe that’s why O’Brien failed. We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Ah, Flannery; ah, humanity!

APA Caution: Metaphor Crossing

We don’t find E. B. White adhering to APA guidelines. It’s more palatable monkeying with rats if one denies them human characteristics.

One rule that hasn’t changed in the new 6th edition APA manual concerns a warning against the use of metaphor, specifically anthropomorphic connotations (p. 69). One may not use metaphor; the question is, can one not.

Camus avoided metaphor in The Stranger, creating an anti-man. For McLuhan, technology is metaphor, extensions of the senses. For Norman O. Brown, in Love’s Body, language is metaphor; to avoid metaphor is to avoid language: “Metaphor is mistake or impropriety; a faux pas, or slip of the tongue; a little madness; petit mal; a little seizure or inspiration” (p. 244). It’s easy to see why the APA wants to avoid it. On the other hand, “Freedom is poetry, taking liberties with words, breaking the rules of normal speech, violating common sense” (p. 244), in short, jazz. But metaphor is ambiguous, and that’s what we must avoid: “Psychoanalysis, symbolic consciousness, leads from disguised to patent nonsense – Wittgenstein, surrealism, Finnegans Wake” (p. 245). In “VII” of Love’s Body, titled “Head,” Brown lights out for the territory, ahead of all the rest: “Psychoanalysis shows the sexual organization of the body physical to be a political organization; the body is a body politic…a political arrangement arrived at after stormy upheavals in the house of Oedipus…a well-organized tyranny” (pp. 126-127). And if one wants to avoid sex, of course, one may go in for the corporate body, where the head sits at the top, and gets dibs on the first parking space.

Metaphor begins with sound, and poetry begins with being tricked by sound: “…cuckoo(‘s)fool, maid(en, mate, the Wryneck, which arrives at or about the same time as the cuckoo” (OED, mate).

So, in the 6th edition of the APA manual, we find this: “Correct: Pairs of rats (cage mates) were allowed to forage together. Incorrect: Rat couples (cage mates) were allowed to forage together” (p. 69). But, first, pair is no better than couple. Since the 13th Century, at least, the OED gives us, pair has been used to describe a married couple; indeed, the denotative meaning of pair is couple. Second, the offensive word in the passage (taking the APA view of metaphor as something to be avoided), is not pairs or couples, but mates, for a mate is one of a pair, a partner in marriage, a lover. The denotative meaning of mate, from the OED, is “A companion, fellow, comrade, friend; a fellow worker or business partner,” and only an E. B. White can handle a rat as all of these.

The poor rats, coupled in their cage, denied by the APA their very coupling, for, again, as the OED gives us, couple means “That which unites two. 1. a. A brace or leash for holding two hounds together.” Alone, together; together, but separate: like humans, a condition that can only exist in some cage, in cagey logic.

And what of cage? From the OED: “I. Generally and non-technically. 1. A box or place of confinement for birds and other animals (or, in barbarous times, for human beings), made wholly or partly of wire, or with bars of metal or wood, so as to admit air and light, while preventing the creature’s escape.”

Note “in barbarous times” suggests time past, but no longer: we wish, for language is our cage, a pair of gloves with a missing mate, a decoupling of experience.

If we want to avoid metaphor in the APA example given on page 69, we suggest: Rats were allowed to forage together, in cages, separated two by two. Lovely, isn’t it? Then again, were the rats allowed out of their cages to forage? Can one forage in a cage? Perhaps rats can, but still, an even greater problem than pair, couple, or cage is found with the word forage, for a forager is a messenger, though one may forage for oneself. Do rats “plunder, pillage, ravage” (OED, for forage)? No, only humans forage, as we have done here, within the cage of our blog.

Styled Obsolescence: New Editions for APA and MLA

Style GuidesStudents often wonder aloud at the minutiae of publication manuals. New editions of both the APA and MLA classics were announced this summer. The APA sixth edition, trimmed to 272 pages, at least promises to lighten the backpack when compared to the heavyweight fifth edition, which weighed in at 439 pages – still no match though for our 1977 first edition, first printing copy of the MLA Handbook, a trim 163 pages. The new, 7th edition MLA Handbook is 292 pages. 

One looks for motive. MLA now suggests one space after a period ending a sentence, but one of the changes in the new APA manual returns us to two spaces after a period at the end of a sentence (pp. 87-88). 

There are of course other styles, but APA and MLA still appear to be the heavyweights, so when they announce a rematch, we want to be ringside. 

We learn to march in cadence; if what we want is a style of our own, one pervious to whimsy, we can always try poetry, the perfect antidote to the poison of style.