Writing Inventions

Writing strategy textbooks often move us quickly through the rhetorical modes before introducing argument, where we are invited to pick a topic of interest, something we’re passionate about, but then are asked to write a research paper, as opposed to a personal essay, presumably to distinguish between mere opinion and rigorous discourse, where claims are backed by reasoned evidence and assumptions are explained. Hot topic items are sometimes suggested: abortion, immigration, addiction, gun control, health care, same sex marriage, legalizing marijuana. Following a research paper rubric, we search for articles for and against our stance. Thus the project begins in dichotomy, seemingly necessary to building an arguable thesis. But we usually go into the research topic with preconceived convictions and deep-rooted assumptions, and we don’t learn much about the topic, writing, or ourselves in the assignment process. It’s an exercise in frustration and futility, for the canon of hot topics has been worked over like road kill squirrel picked clean by hungry birds. And writing instructors, hungry for something new to read and talk about, but finding the trite and stale canned paper, can only respond to the mechanics of the research paper rubrics, issuing tickets for standard English violations, citations for lousy references, deductions for technicalities – as they scan the paper highway for plagiarism. Instructive readers will at least be able to comment on how effectively we have blended references into our discussion, but the standard research paper is doomed from the start to what has become an up or down vote, the proofs multiple choices from an existing canon, the conclusion an echo of something that’s already been said. The result is too often a laboriously boring displeasure for writer and reader.

We are in no position to tell others what they want, or even what they should want, while we all may value things that are not necessarily good for us. We need to invent, but to invent a solution, we must first see a problem. If we don’t see problems, we are not thinking. We are numb to our environment, unable to find the source of our limits. We must invent if we expect to think. But how can we uncover problems if we don’t know what we want? If we don’t know what we want, we’re unaware of specific antagonists creating obstacles. But how do we know what we want?

We lament that we are growing into a culture of non-readers, for reading is the [supposed] old way of learning what we want, but while The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a great novel, did Huck ever read one? Tom Sawyer, Huck’s good buddy, is the middle class boy who covets pirate book fantasies, the expert who has done his research. But Huck’s genius is that he thinks for himself. He’s able to think for himself because he knows what he wants, and because he knows what he wants, he correctly identifies his antagonists, and because he knows what’s in his way, he’s able to invent solutions. But what happens to Huck when he winds up in a research paper writing class? Tom skates through while Huck suffers the fantods.

Why is research so important to academic progress and success? One answer is specialization, but specialization leads, as Fuller explained, to extinction. And academics are becoming extinct, the ones who teach writing, anyway, as their peers in competing disciplines begin to teach their own writing processes, better suited to their own needs, better suited to specialization and funding requirements. In English class, the topic seems almost not to matter anymore. The topic of the English class used to be literature, the essay, language. But the contemporary English class seems to have no topic of its own, thus the importance of picking one, passionately freewheeling. Consider the following, from a recent Chronicle article, suggesting the research paper should be abandoned:

“‘After all, students exhibit the same kinds of mistakes at the end of their first-year composition courses as they do at the beginning, regardless of the type of institution or whether the course is taught by a full-time faculty member or an adjunct,’ Ms. Jamieson said. ‘Part of the problem, she added, is the expectation that faculty members trained in composition have expertise in the subject being researched, whether it is abortion, the death penalty, or gun control [and there you have it, the canon’s greatest hits]: Unless it’s in your field, you don’t know what a good source is and what isn’t’” (“Freshman Composition is Not Teaching Key Skills in Analysis, Researchers Argue,” Chronicle of Higher Education, March 21, 2012). (Also see: “Skimming the Surface”; The Citation Project.)

But the problem as described seems to relate to topic, which we assume is specialized, for why can’t an experienced, general interest reader tell a good reference from a bad one, particularly in a “Freshman Composition” class? In any case, we don’t always start our writing with a topic. We begin with reading and taking notes as we read. As our notes begin to develop into thoughts, reflective, evaluative comments on what we are reading, our topic emerges. The research paper writing assignment, as it’s usually rubriced (red chalked – it’s where the English teachers got the idea to correct using red ink), teaches a way of writing that few writers actually use. It’s not the way we write. We don’t begin with topics. We begin with reading, and we discover what we want to say as we attempt to join the discussion, the conversation of a particular community, and we know who’s working in the community, and what they’ve said. We know where to find them, and how they talk. We don’t need to apply the credibility and reliability tests. That’s done through the process of peer review – so the myth goes.

Does specialization in the academy prohibit a common reader response, disallow generalized thinking? But not even English teachers can read everything, and perhaps it’s because they haven’t read everything that they might be quick to dismiss Wiki, blogs, et al., and insist, instead, on scholarly journal references, never mind the nonsense that also goes on in that arena (I’m reminded of “The Music Man”: “Just a minute, Professor [Hill], we want to see your credentials!”). Lack of experiential reading might also be why some insist on writing or grammar “Handbooks,” prescriptive and expensive tomes that become their own justification.

Claims are supposed to be debatable, to invite argument. Argument is a good. But specialization and the consequences of funding seem to be putting unusual pressure on the hallowed process of academic discourse and peer review. Three recent examples illustrate: “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science,” from the November, 2010 Atlantic, exposes fraud in the medical journal peer review process, and funding appears to be a significant source of the problem; “Kin and Kind: A fight about the genetics of altruism,” from the March 5th New Yorker, describes another debate, this one focussed on E. O. Wilson’s recent reversal of his prior stance on the explanations of altruistic behavior, a change of mind which has earned him the scorn of his peers – and, again, funding would seem to underlie much of the critical response; and “Angry Words,” from the March 20th Chronicle, summarizes the ongoing brouhaha in language study, and Geoffrey Pullum followed up, also in the  Chronicle, with “The Rise and Fall of a Venomous Dispute” – the title alone might sound surprising to the general interest reader of academic research papers. The three examples taken together don’t inspire much confidence in the processes at work, yet the comment discussion following Pullum’s short article is instructive in a number of ways. It appears that specialists and scholars engage in writing inventions of all kinds and don’t appear to have the market on credibility and reliability cornered. But it’s enlightening and heartening, and, perhaps, entertaining, to see that they are human and given to the human foibles inherent in argument and opinion, in the fight for truth, justice, and the Academic way.

Related:

Trilling’s “The Meaning of a Literary Idea”; or, the Essay as Argument: Why The Research Paper Should be Abolished

Opening the Patient in Open Access Week; or, the Great Research Hoax

Honor and Shame: Born Again Off Maggie’s Farm

When Huck decides to help Jim at the end of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he really does believe he’ll go to hell for his actions. Yet he’s awakening from a cultured sleep; he’s being reborn. First, he’s accepted the responsibility of a decision; he must act: “I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell.’” Huck was born into a culture that passed on as a value the idea that to help a runaway slave was a crime and a sin. It’s a culture informed by codes of honor and shame. “It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming.” And at the end of the book, when Huck decides to “light out for the territory,” he’s saying that he ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more. The orphaned Huck has been born again.

This same sense of honor and shame opens Crossan’s discussion of Mediterranean cultures in his “The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. Honor and shame are cultural core values, but more, they become the very persona of the culture: “Honor and shame, then, could be defined as the ideology of small, discrete, and unstable groups competing permanently for basic resources that are attained insecurely and maintained precariously but where conflict must be reluctantly transposed into cooperation for the most precious resource of all, marriageable women” (p. 15). But like Huck, Jesus ain’t gonna work on this Maggie’s farm no more, either. It’s clear that honor and shame, as enculturated values, become emotions enabling control, and one must be born again to escape the enculturated entrapments.

We see both examples come together in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, where the culture described in Huck Finn finally plays itself out, and Quentin’s suicide, prompted, among other things, by his worrying over his sister Caddy’s reputation, will continue forever his argument with his father who has told him that virginity as a value is a man-made tool to control women, the same explanation Crossan argues: “Boys. Men. They lie about it. Because it means less to women, Father said. He said it was men invented virginity not women” (p. 96). But Quentin can’t stomach the irony: “And Father said it’s because you are a virgin: don’t you see? Women are never virgins. Purity is a negative state and therefore contrary to nature. It’s nature is hurting you not Caddy and I said That’s just words and he said So is virginity and I said you dont know. You cant know and he said Yes. On the instant when we come to realise that tragedy is second-hand” (p. 143).

An example of the controls at work can be seen in Joseph Campbell’s “Tales of Love and Marriage,” from his The Power of Myth. We’re now in medieval Catholic culture, where marriages are arranged, but Tristan and Isolde decide they are, absurdly, in love, in romantic love. Isolde’s nurse delivers the warning, but Tristan, too, has had enough of Maggie’s farm: “And if by my death, you mean the eternal punishment in the fires of hell, I accept that, too” (p. 190).

A culture’s core values, what it desires, finds expression not necessarily in ideology but in personality, in the masks individuals wear to get along with their neighbors. The existential decision to be born again shucks the mask. James Joyce leaves Ireland and the oppression of the church’s values of honor and shame, its sanctioned hierarchy of rich and poor, ecclesiastical and secular, its discriminations of right and wrong. And Samuel Beckett ain’t gonna work for the text, no more, ripping off the mask with the inside out eyes, the mask that conditions us to see ourselves as others see us, and to find there outside acceptance and respect. Everyone working on Maggie’s farm must wear the same mask.

How we vote is also probably an enculturated core value. Louis Menand, in “The Unpolitical Animal: How political science understands voters (New Yorker, August 30, 2004), argues that “Voters go into the booth carrying the imprint of the hopes and fears, the prejudices and assumptions of their family, their friends, and their neighbors. For most people, voting may be more meaningful and more understandable as a social act than as a political act.”

“I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm, no more” is an existential decision, like Huck’s, and announces a rebirth, affirming that one’s existence precedes one’s essence, and that one has taken individual responsibility for one’s own essence.

Hank Williams sings Huck Finn

“At the center of liberal education,” Northrop Frye gives us in “Ethical Criticism,” the second essay in “Anatomy of Criticism,” an attempt to create a science of literary theory, “something surely ought to get liberated” (p. 93). So what gets liberated?

“Poetry can only be made out of other poems; novels out of other novels,” Frye says. “Literature shapes itself, and is not shaped externally: the forms of literature can no more exist outside literature than the forms of sonata and fugue and rondo can exist outside music” (p. 97). The writer is not alone, after all. In fact, “the real difference between the original and the imitative poet is simply that the former is more profoundly imitative” (p. 97).

Not being alone means belonging to a community. Frye calls this “social aspect” of poetry archetype, by which he means “a typical or recurring image…which connects one poem with another and thereby helps to unify and integrate our literary experience. And as the archetype is the communicable symbol, archetypal criticism is primarily concerned with literature as a social fact and as a mode of communication. By the study of conventions and genres, it attempts to fit poems into the body of poetry as a whole” (p. 99).

We find a working example of Frye’s subject in “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” a hit song by Hank Williams, written in 1949, and since covered by numerous musicians across the musical spectrum, the original lyrics often amplified, or augmented, (the great jazz guitarist Bill Frisell has recorded instrumental versions on “Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, and Paul Motian”; and “Ghost Town”).

But what has all this got to do with Huckleberry Finn? In chapter I of Mark Twain’s novel, we find Huck, worn out by the parlor room evening with the widow and Miss Watson, alone in his room, trying “to think of something cheerful, but it warn’t no use. I felt so lonesome I most wished I was dead. The stars was shining, and the leaves rustled in the woods ever so mournful; and I heard an owl, away off, who-whooing about somebody that was dead, and a whippowill and a dog crying about somebody that was going to die, and the wind was trying to whisper something to me and I couldn’t make out what it was, and so it made the cold shivers run over me.” Hank removes Huck’s superstition and softens the tone, but the sentiment remains: “Hear that lonesome whippoorwill.”

So what’s so liberating? The knowledge that you are not alone, for one thing. We are encouraged by Borges, in his essay “Kafka and his Precursors,” to suggest both that Huck is a precursor to Hank, and that Hank changes our reading of Huck: “…the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; …not all of them resemble each other. This second fact is the more significant. In each of these texts we find Kafka’s idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist. The poem ‘Fears and Scruples’ by Browning foretells Kafka’s work, but our reading of Kafka perceptibly sharpens and deflects our reading of the poem. Browning did not read it as we do now. …The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future” (Labyrinths, p. 201).