May 03, 2006

Imaginary debates and stereotypical roles

I'm impressed by Andrew O'Hagan's achievement, as documented by Arnold Zwicky, in blowing a hyphen up into a catfight. O'Hagan spun the divergent spelling of two dictionary entries -- "bling-bling" in the Oxford Dictionary of English vs. "bling bling" in the Chambers Dictionary) into a whole Jerry Springer segment: "Out came the lipstick, out came the knives, as the great lexicographers of today rolled their eyes at one another and balanced their inky fingernails on their slender hips."

Concocted debates are an old journalistic technique, but usually there's at least a desultory attempt to lead the participants into saying things that can be quoted out of context to suggest a substantive disagreement. Back in the Bronze Age, when I was working at Bell Labs, a Radio Personality came to interview some of us for a story about something or other. The only thing I remember about the result is that I wound up participating, on the air, in a vivid debate with my friend and colleague Cecil Coker in which we appeared to disagree fairly sharply on a topic that in fact we mostly agreed in being uncertain about. And curiously, though the RP spent half a day interviewing a half a dozen of us at length, the interviews had all been individual.

Thinking back over the experience, we realized that the RP had approached us from opposite sides of the question, and then stitched together bits of our answers. The interview technique was roughly like this:

RP: So, in short, we can say that it's now apparent that EITHER?
Me: Well, the answer isn't clear. To be fair, there's quite a bit of evidence pointing toward OR, such as X, Y and Z. At least some people think that way, though I don't find the arguments very convincing myself; and P and Q do seem to point towards EITHER.

[ . . . ]

RP: As I understand it, a lot of people have concluded that OR.
Cecil: Well, some people think so, but I'm not convinced. EITHER seems much more likely to me, because of P and Q.

and the broadcast "conversation" then consisted of a series of "exchanges" like this:

Me: There's quite a bit of evidence pointing towards OR, such as X, Y and Z.
Cecil: Some people think so, but I'm not convinced. EITHER seems much more likely to me, because of P and Q.

This made for much more interesting radio. Well, maybe marginally more interesting radio -- I suspect that the RP was at his wits' end trying to figure out how to make all that rambling EITHER/OR stuff interesting for his listeners, and figured that embodying our uncertainty as a concocted debate would at least personify the alternatives. The resulting piece would still never have made anyone's "best of" list, I'm sure, though the RP has since gone from strength to strength, and regularly appeareth today towards the low end of the radio dial.

Anyhow, Andrew O'Hagan managed the same sort of trick without actually interviewing anyone, or even finding any quotable differences of propositional content. He did it all with a single little hyphen. I think this must be some kind of record for journalistic inventiveness.

Arnold Zwicky thinks that O'Hagan did this because of the "NYRB tradition of lapidary disparagement". I'm not so sure: many NYRB articles are more like Russell Baker's lovely review of Stephen Miller's "Conversation: A History of a Declining Art", which starts this way:

The conversation was good on the raft that carried Miss Watson's Jim and Huckleberry Finn down the Mississippi. With quiet evenings darkening over the river the talk drifted whimsically, as good conversation should. The earning power of kings was discussed, and the misfortune that required Frenchmen to talk in French. Social problems were explored: Wouldn't the racket of quarreling wives and colicky children in a fully populated harem make a husband's life intolerable?

A fine exercise in philosophical speculation took place when Jim challenged the received opinion about the wisdom of King Solomon. As Mark Twain tells it, Jim not only questioned the very nature of wisdom, a question worthy of Socrates, but also lightened this ponderous exchange with tongue-in-cheek raillery. Solomon's famous proposal to cut a child in two and give half to each of two women who claimed to be its mother was proof that Solomon lacked good sense, Jim said, for "what use is a half a chile?"

These discussions between two socially disreputable Americans—a runaway slave and a seldom-washed boy —may seem at first glance not at all what Stephen Miller has in mind in his meandering and entertaining essay on "the art of conversation." Miller lavishes a great deal of attention on Europeans of the powdered-wig era and this, combined with his frequent references to an "art" of conversation, may leave art-shy readers with the impression that good talk is strictly for the elite. Not so. Huck and Jim—and who could be less elite?—enjoy some of literature's memorable conversation by intuitively following principles laid down by masters of the art.

What a contrast.

Arnold has clearly identified O'Hagan's "organizing figure", namely that "lexicographers are unpleasantly feminine -- shrill and trivial if women, shrieking, prancing queens if men". However, I think that O'Hagan's decision to lead with this figure needs more explanation than "a tradition of lapidary disparagement". I'm reluctant to conclude that O'Hagan is a gratuitously nasty person, though British intellectuals sometimes seem that way to Americans. In my opinion, the blogger A White Bear (at Is There No Sin In It?) gets it right:

Zwicky concludes that O'Hagan was just trying to fit a superfluous stab into his review, since that's the way NYRB articles tend to start, but I think the problem is much older and more entrenched. This problem is made clear in the engraving that accompanies O'Hagan's review. It shows Apollo and the Muses, all young, sexy, and alluringly clad, whipping Dr. Johnson (old, oddly short, pale, fat, humiliatingly nude, wearing a dunce cap and looking unpleasant) around Parnassus.

Throughout modern culture, there are thousands of literary examples of the impotent, effeminate male scholar and the frigid, purse-lipped female scholar. The creative writer, however, whether male or female, is fertile, gregarious, sexually charged, and powerful (even if a total asshole). [. . .] Even Nabokov, who was himself quite a literary and entomological scholar, depicts all of his academic characters (Pnin, Humbert, Kinbote) as impotent, pedophilic, or homosexual, and often crazy, lonely, and unlovable, while his more creative characters (Shade, Quilty, etc.), even when evil, are potent, active, and surrounded by adoring friends and family.

In other words, O'Hagan felt compelled to frame his review in terms of the humanistic version of the stereotypic jock/nerd opposition. Was this because of some sort of secondary-school psychodynamics, in which the football team's equipment manager takes the lead in teasing what Stephen Colbert called "the brainiacs on the nerd patrol"? Was it because O'Hagan felt that what he had to say about lexicography would bore his readers if he didn't find a way to sex up the lead?

I'm not sure. But in the end, I'm not all that interested in finding out. I'd rather talk things over with Huck or Jim, or Arnold and the anonymous White Bear blogger. Our conversations might be virtual, but they've mostly got the characteristics that Russell Baker identifies as "classic conversational etiquette":

Both participants listen attentively to each other; neither tries to promote himself by pleasing the other; both are obviously enjoying an intellectual workout; neither spoils the evening's peaceable air by making a speech or letting disagreement flare into anger; they do not make tedious attempts to be witty.

The blogging format tends to encourage speechifying, I guess; but otherwise, the people that I respect come out pretty well according to this standard of evaluation.

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 3, 2006 08:08 AM