Based on ‘Real Life’

In mid July of this year, we, as a collective human society, will have one more book to read by the novelist Harper Lee.  Written before her famous To Kill A Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchmen is a ‘sequel’ to the former, set twenty years later.  While the publication of this book has brought with it a renewed interest in her writing, it has also inspired a bit of scepticism about the legality, even morality, in publishing it (considered problematic given Lee’s presumed health issues).  Within the former category, a recent article in the New York Times caught my attention, particularly in how the author, Laura Tavares, makes use of To Kill a Mockingbird in a way that elevates it above the restrictions of mere aesthetic media.


As a contribution to the New York Times’ “The Learning Network Blog,” under the category of ‘Text to Text,’ a cross-textual discussion that links similar textual entities via shared interests, Tavare’s article associates Chapter 15 in Lee’s novel with an article on the recent Equal Justice Initiative’s report on Lynching in America: “History of Lynchings in the South Documents Nearly 4,000 Names.”

Her intention, as described at the beginning, is to elucidate for instructors (who might be reading the article for the sake of using it in their classrooms) how such a novel might ‘speak’ to ‘real life:’

To encourage students to make these important connections, we’ve chosen to pair an excerpt from Chapter 15 of the novel with The Times’s article on the Equal Justice Initiative report, “History of Lynchings in the South Documents Nearly 4,000 Names,” with the goal of helping students more deeply understand “Mockingbird,” the world of the novel, and our own world.


Here’s a ready example.  In his “The Author as Anthropologist: Some West Indian Lessons about the Relevance of Fiction for Anthropology,” in Eduardo P. Archetti’s Exploring the Written: Anthropology and the Multiplicity of Writing, Thomas Hylland Eriksen distinguishes between two ways in which the novel might function ‘as an ethnography:’

First, novels may serve as ethnographic sources and may to this effect rank with informant’s statements. At this level, the author—whether he is a Mittelholzer or a Naipaul—more or less unwittingly reveals aspects of his society. As Bakhtin and many others have reminded us, the author is a prisoner of his own time. The author, known through the novel, is here seen as an aspect of the production of society. 

[…]

Second, novels may be read as ethnographic descriptions; that is, the formation conveyed may be taken more or less at its face value, as a kind of ethnographic documentation. (191)

In this way, he continues, the novel and the ethnography are ‘relevant’ to each other, but they are not the same thing.  To further delineate his meaning here, he states:

[Novels] cannot be used as plain ethnography since they do not profess to represent the truth and because their relationship to social reality is ultimately uncertain. Besides, if they are to be exploited as ethnographic sources (and not as evidence), the reader must be familiar with the society at the outset of the reading. They cannot, therefore, replace the ethnographic footwork either. It therefore seems a paradox that some of the best anthropological writings extant on Trinidad are works of fiction (cf. Melhuus, infra, for a Mexican parallel). In order to asses their validity, a reader must have first-hand experience of the society. (190)

However, and though his distinction here between the ‘source’ and the ‘description’ is a useful one in determining the differences between the way fiction might ‘function’ in a way exclusive of its existence as an aesthetic piece of entertainment, I would argue that he is incorrect in his strict separation between the ethnography and the novel.  This is especially the case with his opening remarks about the ‘simple distinction’ between the two forms of writing:

Fictional accounts, then, present persons and events which have been invented by the writer. Anthropological texts try to present a few aspects of social reality as accurately as possible, taking account of the limitations entailed by fieldwork, ‘cultural translation’ (or, if one prefers, cultural reduction) and attempts at linguistic representations of society.  Lies and deliberate misrepresentations are banished from anthropological scholarship, which should additionally—unlike fictional writing—try to present empirical material systematically and comprehensively and distinguish between description and analysis so that the reader may draw his or her own theoretical conclusions. (168-169)

I would further argue that he is quite mistaken here, particularly concerning the difference between ‘fictional’ and ‘anthropological’ accounts.  Both are artifice, meaning both are designed and dictated by choice.  Likewise, both are the result of a textual process, a ‘storytelling’ wherein the author has tried to re-create a discourse in a way that represents his or her subject in a manner ‘true’ to his or her interpretation.  In fact, I would agree in many ways with Clifford (1986) that ethnography is, in fact, a type of ‘fiction:’

To call ethnographies fictions may raise empiricist hackles. But the word as commonly used in recent textual theory has lost its connotation of falsehood, of something merely opposed to truth. It suggests the partiality of cultural and historical truths, the ways they are systematic and exclusive. Ethnographic writings can properly be called fictions in the sense of ‘something made or fashioned,’ the principal burden of the word’s Latin root, fingere. But it is important to preserve the meaning not merely of making, but also of making up, of inventing things not actually real [emphasis in original]. (Clifford, “Introduction,” Writing Culture, 1986, 6)

Beyond mere etymological determination, I think Clifford is correct here mainly because I think any and all textual representations are ‘fictional’ by their inherent ‘artificial nature.’  Eriksen can argue all he wants that fiction represents ‘lies’ or ‘deliberate misrepresentations,’ but I would again contend that this is equally a problem for the ethnographer for no other reason than the fact that he or she is, as Malinowski stated, ‘creating’ or ‘describing’ his or her subjects.  As intermediaries between subject and reader, the ethnographer is just as much an author of ‘fiction’ as the novelist inventing his or her own subjects.


Which brings me back to Tavares and Eriksen.  In my opinion, the former’s use of Lee’s novel and the latter’s differentiation between the novel as a source or description of ethnographic ‘truth’ share the same DNA.  In fact, I’d even go so far as to state that they are both siblings of the parentage between Ethnography (texts designed to present a cultural or historical representation of a certain people, time, and place) and the novel (a text designed to present a fictional creation of an author intent on representing a particular individual or individuals in the certain time and place).

However, this also brings forth an issue that I believe is perfectly exemplified by the image I used for this weeks ‘feature image:’

Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 18.19.10

While I am quite willing to blatantly claim that all textual representations are fiction by means of their ‘artifice-ness,’ this of course brings us into a discourse where, like the notion of ‘everything is fiction,’ we get somewhat distracted by what might be ‘based on real life’ and what might be a story assumed by some as the same.  This is not equal, however, to a declaration that the story of Noah, which might be defined as both, either, or neither a myth and truth, is definitively one of these things.  Rather, my point of having it here, and the point of this post in general, is a reminder that when we declare ‘everything’ as fiction because of the role that artifice plays in the creation and presentation of interpreted ‘things,’ a movie about Noah and a movie about William Wallace are equally ‘based on real life.’  In other words, the distinction between what is ‘fact’ (quantitative data about lynchings in the US) and what is ‘fictional’ (Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird) might blur into a perception where they become equal representations of some type of ‘truth.’

I, for one, am ok with this.

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Cheaters never prosper. Well, that’s not true. Sometimes they do.

I like distractions.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’m an ‘emotional writer,’ meaning that I have, like many I know, a certain method to my madness.  One necessity that I require is a good distraction.  Too much time, effort, and focus on one thing makes, in my opinion at least, for too myopic of a perspective.  Distractions are fun, and they break up the monotony of doing research.  It’s helpful, and I think healthy, to look away from one’s work from time to time.

Right now, of course, distractions are the last thing I need (or want, for that matter).

However, I came across something recently that I needed to discuss, even if only briefly.


One of my random sources of distraction is the inane and ridiculous website, Reddit.com.  It’s not an easy thing to describe this website, what ‘up-voting’ means, or how it affects your ‘karma.’  So I won’t here.  The best way to understand what it is would be to just go there and make sense of it in your own way.

While browsing through the ‘all’ section, I came across this ‘meme:’

meme

To explain this for the uninitiated, this is what is called a ‘confession bear.’  When you want to confess something, such as was done here, you use this meme to do so.  I should also add that reddit is, if you want it to be, an anonymous website.

This meme also came with a discussion, like a forum.  For anyone interested in its context and contents, see here: http://www.reddit.com/r/AdviceAnimals/comments/32seka/my_mom_was_so_proud_she_made_me_oreo_pancakes_for/

In essence, this individual was admitting to having their PhD Thesis ‘ghostwritten’ for them.  While this is an interesting statement in itself, a good friend of mine sent me a link to an article (https://chronicle.com/article/The-Shadow-Scholar/125329/) written a few years ago by a gentleman who did this very thing for a living.

Published in the Chronicle for Higher Learning in November of 2010, it soon became one of, if not the most famous, articles ever published by The Chronicle.  In it, the author, who refers to himself as ‘Ed Dante,’ tells us about his job, citing the number of pages he tends to write during any regular work week, how he prepares his ‘research,’ and shares some personal insights about how he came to be a plagiarist for hire.  As well, throughout the article he repeatedly refers to his most recent client who has had the unfortunate circumstance of having an abstract that he wrote for her accepted, and who now needs him to write the dissertation.  The article is an engaging read, and likely (as it did) will inspire quite a flurry of emotional responses for those who read it.  It was so successful, that news agencies picked it up (like the ABC News clip below), and it was turned into a text, this time under the name, ‘Dave Tomar.’  Dave, if that is his real name, is now a ‘legitimate’ author.


My interest in Dave/Ed’s story is of course piqued by the notion that any sort of writing is ‘fictional’ in its ‘made-from-ness,’ as well as whether we should consider anything he says to be ‘true,’ because, like writers of both fiction and non-fiction, he lies for a living (“all constructed truths are made possible by powerful ‘lies’ of exclusion and rhetoric […] even the best ethnographic texts—seriously true fictions—are systems, or economies, of truth”[1]).  However, I’m also intrigued by the very nature of Dave/Ed’s description, and it’s here where I think I’ll conclude this brief distraction.

I think his story speaks to an amended version of what a colleague at last year’s British Association for the Study of Religions Conference called ‘indentured academia.’  Rather than an indentured perspective on ‘being’ an academic, I think it better speaks to the notion of ‘indebted academia,’ the idea that, because academia is becoming a ‘business,’ students have no choice but to treat their education like a transaction.

In this way, it begins to seem, at times at least, all about the money.  Alongside rising tuition costs, textbook costs, etc., Dave/Ed’s story appears very much like a product of that.  Of course, while I would immediately respond to my own argument here with the counter statement that even with this more ‘financial-based’ perspective, ‘cheating’ should never be an option worth considering, it’s still a discursive influence we can’t just ignore.

We might ask, then, as costs rise, and as academia becomes more and more of a business, does the ‘value’ somehow go down?  For me, that hasn’t been the case, and cheating isn’t anything new.  Yet, even if Dave/Ed’s story is a singular example, and even if it doesn’t account for the wider meaning of ‘academia,’ it is still something that I think must be considered when we begin to examine how ‘academia’ and ‘academics’ are perceived discursively within and without the context of ‘higher education.’

[1] James Clifford, “Introduction: Partial Truths” in James E. Clifford and George E. Marcus, eds., Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 7.

***I should mention that a good friend of mine, and pretty clever guy, Jonathan Tuckett just successfully defended his Thesis, and I swear this post is neither inspired by, nor is in reflection of, his achievement.  I swear.  Really.  Check him out, he writes fiction (the made-up kind, as well as the made-from)!***

Whose Story is it Anyway?

Ok.  So up at the wall Jon Snow is dealing with this election thing to decide who will be the new Lord Commander, cause the guy who was in charge before was killed at Craster’s and then Jon had to kill all those guys and get his wolf back.  Anyway, so there’s an election, and its between this one guy whose been there for like eighty years or something, and this other guy who was sort of in charge and was really mean to Jon Snow, and kept making sure everyone knew he was a bastard and hated him cause he knew Jon was a better fighter.  Just as they’re about to do the election, Samwell Tarly steps up and points out all the great things that Jon has done and all the other Night’s Watch guys cheer and agree so they add Jon’s name to the election.  When they finally do vote, it comes down to a tie between Jon and the mean guy who hates him, but it’s decided by the old blind guy that used to be a Targaryen prince or something and he votes for Jon so he becomes the new Lord Commander.  But, see now he has to deal with the fact that one of the people who thinks they’re the King, Stannis, is there, and he wants Jon to help him lead an army south to take back Winterfell, but Jon wants to stay at the wall.  And then there’s the Boltons who have moved into Winterfell, and in the book Ramsay, the son of the guy who killed Robb Stark, marries this girl who they disguise as Jon’s sister Arya, in order to create some sort of political claim to their ownership of Winterfell, but Arya is actually in Braavos learning to become an assassin.  But in the TV show they change that to Sansa to keep the actress in the show, cause the books haven’t gotten to that point.  So that’s why they’re changing all the plot-lines and stuff.  


The above is a paraphrased answer that I gave to someone yesterday who began our conversation with: “I’ve heard there’s a lot of changes between the books and the TV show, what’s a good example?”

Regrettably, for her, my explanation kept going for quite some time.

For those entirely ignorant of current popular culture, the television show Game of Thrones premiered the first episode of its fifth season on Sunday (or, for those who don’t mind pirating, the first four episodes, which were leaked online).  This season, as admitted by those producing and writing the series, differs more in content front the story-line in the books than the previous four seasons.  This means that a number of characters have been dropped, and that certain story-lines have been amended or altered, including the ‘Sansa’ details mentioned above.  This has, expectedly, raised the hackles of a number of fans, to the point that names like Lady Stoneheart and Coldhands have become signifiers of anger and rage-filled disappointment.

lady stone heartcoldhands

Here’s a good example: http://gotgifsandmusings.tumblr.com/post/115991793402/unabashed-book-snobbery-gots-10-worst

While not a devoted adherent to the idea that an adaptation must remain as accurate as possible to the source material, the conversations I’ve been having with friends and colleagues (including the illustrious Beth Singler, who quite helpfully pointed me in the direction of some of these sources), have indeed piqued my interests concerning the precarious notion of who gains ownership over stories, when those stories get told and re-told by different people in different ways.

This likewise brings me to a passage from Clifford Geertz’s Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author, that I think might make some sense of this issue:

But perhaps the most intense objection, coming from all quarters, and indeed rather general to intellectual life these days, is that concentrating our gaze on the ways in which knowledge claims are advanced undermines our capacity to take any of those claims seriously.  Somehow, attention to such matters as imagery, metaphor, phraseology, or voice is supposed to lead to a corrosive relativism in which everything is but a more or less clever expression of opinion.  Ethnography becomes, it is said, a mere game of words, as poems and novels are supposed to be.  Exposing how the thing is done is to suggest that, like the lady sawed in half, it isn’t done at all. (Geertz, Works and Lives, 2).

While Geertz’s argument here is pointed at the issues we might find ourselves confronted with were we to consider the ‘literary aspects’ of ethnographic construction (everything is fiction?), I think his statement also speaks to the issues some people are having with the choices being made by the creators of the TV show.

The show is an adaptation, which also means that it is an artifice of an artifice.  It’s the interpretation of two individuals designed for the purpose of presenting a story through an entirely different perspective.  Yet, this is not something unique to just the differences between the show and the books.  In fact, because each and every individual reading of Martin’s novels is in itself an adaptation, and since no two minds are mirrored images of each other, each time someone reads the texts (or watches the show), we get an innumerable number of adaptations.  This is demonstrated by my description above.  While in my mind I can see the episode, and remember the way the texts are designed, when I précis this into a description, I have adapted the story to suit my own story-telling purposes.

I would argue that this is like revealing the ‘magic’ of the magic trick involved in any sort of story-telling, from ethnography, to fiction, to the stories we tell each other about our day-to-day existence.  Seeing how the lady is sawed in half, or rather, seeing how the illusion makes it look as if she might be sawed in half, is the same as realising that all stories, by their inherent ‘artifice’ nature, are adaptations.  In this way, there is never, nor can there ever be, a genuine ‘truth,’ an original ‘source,’ or a ‘right’ way of telling a story.  This is perhaps even more apparent when a story is an adaptation of a story.

For these reasons, I would further argue that the adaptation provided by the TV show should be seen as nothing more than just another adaption, and therefore should not be understood as different from our individual readings of the novels.  The TV show is just another way of trying to tell Martin’s story, which is also just an adaptation of the story within his own mind.  While the TV show might look different than the novels, the novels likely look different than what’s in his mind, which is something we will never see.

This is a reminder.  It’s something that we can relate to when we consider the stories we hear from others about themselves, about others, the ones we tell about ourselves, and the ones we tell about them.  In a world where everything is fiction, or rather, where everything is artifice, the notion that an adaptation is telling a story incorrectly is rather moot.  Even when the ‘original’ author might agree.  In the end, all stories are adaptations, even when they are initially told.  Which also means that all stories, just like looking at the discourse that gives meaning to a word, rather than just defining it, are neither right, nor wrong, by the mere fact that all stories are nothing more than re-tellings of a story none of us will ever see.

Thank God for Book Reviews

Other than as an assignment for courses taken long ago, I had never written a book review.  Or rather, I had never written a review for the purposes of publication.  So when I volunteered my services for the Journal of Secularism and Nonreligion, I wasn’t entirely sure what the experience, or outcome, would be.  This post is a short story about that, with a specific emphasis on three aspects of that process that stand out in my memory.


Editing

I am no stranger to editing, and I hold no envy for those who do it.

I am also, by my own admission, what I call an ’emotional writer.’  This doesn’t mean that I get ’emotionally attached’ to my writing, or that my feelings get hurt when my writing is evaluated or edited.  Rather, my writing is ’emotional’ in the sense that for me the time and place when and where the writing gets done play a large part in how I ‘do’ the writing itself.

In this way, I’ve always been keenly interested in how writers write.  I love hearing about the process, how they establish a place to write, how they do it, whether they type or write by hand, what bizarre and personal little rituals they do.  I love that kind of stuff.  I also think it tells us something quite unique and specific about the character (perhaps even identity) of that person.

For example, Hemingway was notorious for writing while standing, as well as designing the writing process in such a way as to be inspired or influenced by his surroundings. hemingway-standing-deskLegend tells us that a number of his novels, such as The Sun Also Rises, and For Whom the Bells Toll were written in sections, in different countries, to convey a certain mood.

Likewise, my Thesis has been focused on certain novels by Ian McEwan, and I found myself giddily excited a few years back to find this video of him describing his writing process (with, interestingly, an embarrassed curiosity as to why people would be interested in that sort of thing).

See also this description:

When I wrote my review of Nick Spencer’s Atheists: The Origin of the Species, the writing process was divided into two parts: reading and writing.  It took a week or so to read the book, make notes, re-read sections, and formulate the structure of the review.  I made a list of important passages, as well as compiled an outline of the text itself, isolating what I thought was Spencer’s lead argument, and the basic criticisms and compliments I thought I should point out.  When I wrote the review, I created a number of drafts, making sure to return to the text to ensure my consensus was well designed.

A few weeks after submitting the draft I received the first round of edits and suggested changes.  This was an interesting experience.  Aside from my supervisor’s interaction with the Thesis, as well as suggestions and critiques made by lecturers over the years, I’d yet to have any sort of editorial suggestions made about something I had written for publication.

At first I found myself feeling defensive about the suggestions.  ‘Why,’ I thought arrogantly, ‘would there be suggestions?!’  ‘It’s perfect!’  I then reminded myself to grow up a bit.  In fact, and in retrospect, the editorial process was quite rewarding.  The individuals involved made very distinct arguments about structure and style, and in the end I think they truly helped in making the final draft feel much more coherent. However, there was one suggestion that kept appearing that I thought interesting, and it leads to my next aspect.


Capitalisation

For whatever reason, I have found myself over the years Capitalising words or terms that really don’t need it.  This occurs most often with research fields, like ‘Religious Studies’ or ‘Ethical Criticism.’  I’m usually quite open to amending this in my writing.  However, where I will stand-fast on capitalisation is in the title of things.

Throughout my research, and even throughout this blog, I have, and will, capitalise the terms ‘Atheism’ and ‘Atheist.’  As well, depending on the context, I will do the same with ‘Theism’ or ‘Theist.’  While the latter is done in direct reference to the former, it has become something that comes up time and again when people evaluate my writing.  My reasoning for capitalising the ‘A’ in Atheism is quite simple to explain.  In my research of the concept itself, I have adopted a particular methodology in order to study Atheism.  While I will likely discuss this in vivid detail in the near future, I can summarise this methodology here as follows:

rather than contribute to the present discourse on defining the term, and in that way avoid the precarious notion of stipulating what Atheism might mean to those individuals who identify themselves as ‘Atheists,’ I approach the term in a discursive manner.  What this means is that I am more interested in how individuals use the term, how it is constructed, what ‘agency’ they give to it, and how that then dictates the way it is given meaning.  I think of the term as an ’empty signifier,’ that is then ‘defined’ by the individual filling it with their particular meaning.  What this also means is that the term itself transmutes from a ‘defined thing’ into an ‘identity.’  In this way, just as we might capitalise terms like ‘Christian,’ ‘British,’ ‘American,’ or ‘Buddhist,’ so ‘Atheist’ receives the same treatment.  This likewise removes it from the category of ‘descriptive terminology’ like ‘blonde’ or ‘short.’  This does not mean, however, that I use the term in an apologetic or promotional manner.  That is, for me, capitalising the term ‘Atheism’ does not mean that I am making the argument that it is equal to ‘Christian’ in that ‘Atheist’ signifies the title of an individual who belongs to the ‘religion’ Atheism.  While that is an extremely interesting conversation I might take up (and likely will at some point), it is not my justification here.          


Copy Editing 

This brings me to my final aspect.  With the final draft submitted, and with my use of the capitalised ‘A’ in ‘Atheism’ accepted, I awaited final approval from the copy editors.

Now, as I have stated, the editorial process was a very rewarding experience, and I am truly indebted to those individuals involved.  The copy-edited alterations are another thing entirely.  Interestingly, a colleague was going through a similar experience around the same time.  For her, the final draft that she had submitted for a chapter in an encyclopaedia came back with a number of ‘re-written’ sections, including her lead argument, thus altogether changing what she had intended to say.  While my experience was in no way this drastic, it did offer an intriguing insight to the process itself.

For me, the changes that I found were mostly structure-based.  Sentences were re-written, and arguments were restructured.  Nothing was so drastic as my friend had found.  Still, it was a bit jarring to see something I had worked on re-designed.  A similar thing happened years ago on a group project I participated in on a course about American politics in the 1960s.  The four of us involved had each elected to write about a thousand words of a group essay, which we then sent off to our group leader, who compiled it all together.  After we got the paper back a few weeks later, we all noticed that our group leader had re-written each of our contributions.  While the grade we received was not as high as we had hoped, my greatest issue with this was that the work that was evaluated under my name was not, at that point, ‘my work.’

I felt a similar feeling with the copy-editor’s re-writes.  While my experiences with the editing process at the start were quite humbling about the benefits of other’s suggestions about my writing, this seemed different.  After all, since I was being critical of Spencer’s work, I felt it should be my writing, and wholly my writing, that did that.  Otherwise, I thought, it wouldn’t be fair to him.  Fortunately, when I returned the final draft with my original writing, there was no argument and the published version appeared as I had wished.  Which brings me to a conclusive point.


Conclusion

Writing this book review came at a very useful time for me.  I am quickly approaching the point where I need to submit the Thesis, and after roughly four years of working on one piece of writing, it was good to have a bit of a distraction (even though the topic was still on Atheism).  However, writing this review was not just a distraction from the Thesis, it was also a healthy reminder of some important things.

  • Now that I am reaching the end of the writing process, it is proving, perhaps for no other reason than anxiety, more and more difficult to accept criticisms about the writing.  My experience with editing the review helped with that.  It reminded me that another perspective is not only useful, but important.
  • Likewise, defending my capitalisation of ‘Atheism’ was a reminder of the methodology I had adopted for the Thesis, and seeing it written out as simplistically as possible in a brief defence helped me clarify my reasoning within the Thesis.
  • Lastly, seeing the copy-editor’s re-writes, and defending my original draft, was a reminder that the Thesis is my work.  While there have been a number of individuals who have played a major and important role in helping me get it done, when I defend it, it will be my writing and no one else’s.  Defending it as such, I would argue, is quite important.

In the end, then, writing this review helped me in a number of important ways, from distracting me from the anxieties of finishing and submitting the Thesis, to reminding me of the importance of taking advice, clarifying my argument, and defending my finished product.  For these reasons, I think it is perfectly fair to say: ‘thank God for that.’