Tuesday, August 25, 2009

9 1/2, i would say

American men like comparing -- height, weight, shoe size. Simply to see how we match up against one another.

Of course, we lie about two of those.

So do women -- but a different two -- and for different reasons.

Writers do the same thing. We say we read to learn. But we are always comparing. Just to see where we rank in the pecking order of hunters and peckers.

I have been reading Deja Reviews: Florence King All Over Again -- a collection of her essays and book reviews from the 1990s. That may not sound like a tantalising summary. But Florence King could write copy for toilet tissue covers, and I would guarantee that it would captivate you.

The woman knows her craft. In a 1997 review of Sylvia Morris's Rage for Fame: The Ascent of Clare Booth Luce, Miss King (as she insists on being addressed) noted that Clare Booth Luce's newspaper columns were successful because they "were models of the personal-essay form -- arresting opening paragraphs, strict adherence to a single topic, closely reasoned arguments leading to neatly turned conclusions."

She could have been writing about her own style. Perhaps, she was.

I decided to put together this post after reading one of her recent magazine columns. Columns require not only that the application of good writing principles, but that they be applied in a set amount of space. And Miss King is the master (because she was quail at "mistress") of the art.

In "Flowering Industry," she writes about how "community colleges are suddenly doing a land-office business" and that training is trumping education.

The entire piece is an exercise in the Lucian principles she described in her review. I found myself laughing through most of it. Thought I: I need to share some of this with my readers.

So, I lifted the paragraph that I enjoyed most. She compares her liberal education with what she now reads in community college course catalogs:

If I had known enough about real life to complain, someone would have said: "You might not make a living out of it, but it will make life worth living." This is what people say to poets. There's some truth in it, but not enough to make up for the misery I knew before I hit the writing jackpot, when I worked at Manpower office jobs. There is nothing worse than being surrounded by machines when you can define deus ex machina ("The Flowering of Greek Classical Drama").

It is witty. Just a bit sly.

But if you are puzzling over the paragraph, there is a good reason. Taking a paragraph out of a Florence King piece is like taking a panda from the wild and plopping it in the faculty lounge at Tulane.

That is because her pieces are so tightly written (what The Cosmo Girl, Helen Gurley Brown, herself called "warpy and woofy"), one paragraph cannot stand alone. It would be similar to cutting a corner off of the Bayeux tapestry, and asking someone to appreciate its beauty.

That parenthetical hanging at the end of her paragraph is a running gag about the courses she took in college. "I was a sucker for any lit course described as 'the flowering of,' or any history course about the era in which epaulets protected the shoulders from saber cuts."

But to explain the process is to lose its mastery. And she is a writer better read than analyzed -- the mark of a master craftsman.

I know I am taller than Miss King. I weigh more. My shoe size is larger.

But she can write circles around me. The best I can do is read -- and learn ("The Flowering of Greek Philosophy").


Anonymous said...

Zero comments on the "flowering of Greek philosophy"? Incomprehensible!

My old philosophy professor despairs about how the liberal arts college has now turned into a trade school, churning out workers for the economy that has no use for students, whether they have read Aristotle on the elements of tragedy or can assemble a copy machine blind-folded under enemy fire. The notion of how to live The Good Life, may be a thing of the past for students who must attend community and state colleges. Only tender sensitive Southern women, as one would find in a Flannery O'Connor short story would find herself taking a class that had only to do with the history of ideas and not how to climb the corporate ladder.

But I am guessing that there is a paucity of such women, and men, these days. One has to be quite well off to fritter away one's meager educational resources on insubstantial courses, courses that do not promise to deliver one to the land of pecuniary success and salvation.

My guess is that we as a culture are much less interested in what makes a life worth living and more in what makes a life economically possible to live. Even if ennui is the inevitable result of gaining great wealth and having no mind by which to enjoy it, the thinking is that at least you will be fed and housed as you crawl toward death, leading a meaningless existence filled with stuff and mindless entertainment.

Chris Hedges has a new book out on this called the Empire of Illiteracy. It is a difficult read, taking the reader into our cultural under-belly, which, I may add, needs a darn good scrubbing by someone's Victorian aunt.

Yes, Steve, you have hit the proverbial nail on the head. But so what? The nail isn't going into anything substantial.

Just thin air. Try building a culture on that.

A Nony Moose

Steve Cotton said...

A Nony Moose -- You know that a debater is getting to the bottom of the bag when de Touqueville pops out. But, here I go. Even he noted that the American education system was based on the underlying notion that people know more than authority. I once believed there was a time when well-educated folk sat around and discussed the subtle subtexts of Engels. I no longer do. When WASPS ruled, their idea of a high thought was which bridle to use on the next ride -- sometimes involving horses. The Thais seem to have it just about right. They believe that thinking is a form of madness. Based on the email that show up regularly in my inbox (WD-40 will chase away pigeons, pennies in water will frighten away flies and other Biblical pestulances), Americans may make very good Thais.

Anonymous said...

If no one else will say it, let The German Guy say it. I like your writing. You may not be a Florence King, but you write with the same principles.


Howard said...

Hi Steve:
PICKY, picky here. Your "And Miss King is the master (because she was quail at "mistress") of the art." sounded off key to my ear. I prefer "would quail" - I think that is the subjunctive in English. In fact I suspect a different choice of bird might be even better - "rail" for "quail" - as she does not sound very timid or retiring to me!

Just giving you something to consider over a cold one ....

Steve Cotton said...

Horst -- Why, thank you, Herr Doktor.

Howard -- I must confess to an idiosynchratic fascination with "quail." I had a constitutional law professor in law school, whose frame and mannerisms were litteraly avian. One day while talking about the holding in a case, she trilled: "I quail at the temerity of the court." A good portion of the class snickered. Miss King is not a quail. In fact, I would put her in the kestrel family -- a stylish raptor.

maria luz said...

Wonderfully written, Steve! Even with the quail. But yes, raptor is a better choice.

And, I am totally in the camp with Nony Moose. For me, the notion that the purpose of true education is to make one learn to use their brain for deeper thinking and formulation is a soapbox that I have trouble descending from. Without that experience in one's post high school education many, but not all, become mere technicians never developing a skill for the detailed analysis of thoughts or ideas. For many of the masses this is quickly becoming a lost art, if you will. Sadly, this also allows one's mind to become dry timber for the rantings of the fiery extremists from both sides of the political aisle.

Where will our future generations acquire this skill, the skill to provocatively entertain concepts and deal with truths on an intellectual level? Since virtually all of the public school curriculums of grades K-12 are now devoted to teaching to and for all of the achievement tests that are consuming our childrens minds, we will only continue to see more dumbing down of our populace. Our current cookbook educational methods are going to destroy this country, and ultimately our democracy. Ponder that for a while.

And that is a real tragedy, not to mention a complete waste of generations of human capital.

However, if you read Steve's post and understood it's content and the deeper nuances of it's theme, then you already have a major leg up on the competition.

I know you are saying, "Shut the woman up, please!" But this is so important. Parents please take note.


Charley said...

Quote-"There is nothing worse than being surrounded by machines when you can define deus ex machina"

I strongly disagree. I know the meaning of that little phrase and I'm surrounded by heavy equipment each and every day. I love my days, and my work and I don't dread Mondays. I'm a college graduate, but I fabricate and design and build for a living. I get hot, sweaty and dirty. It was popular after the great depression of the '30's for parents to urge their children to "use your brain not your brawn" and to "work smarter, not harder". Those little pat phrases don't tell the whole story. I can design it, fabricate it, market it, ship it, break it down, explain it, rebuild it and sell it again. That guy at the Jack Daniels plant, who died after 1 year of retirement, is my kind of guy. He packed more love and living in his 66 years than most retirees in Mexico. I bet he didn't die limp.

Anonymous said...

The idea of a classical education was always a luxury for the well-heeled who didn't have to worry that much about making a living, or who assumed they'd go to some kind of professional school to acquire skills. So I'm not sure we're all that much worse off than in days gone by.

My teen-aged nieces attend the same high school I graduated from in 1980, and it appears that educational standards have risen smartly in that time. Those girls are learning and thinking things that I only encountered in college.

Nationally? I have no idea.

But in my dealings with adults, many do everything possible to avoid really thinking about ideas. And if you push them to make a clear argument about why they believe what they believe, they get mad.

The examined life is truly a rare thing.

Thanks for sharing yours.

Kim G
Boston, MA
Where even in a city thick with universities and the people who run them, some pretty dumb things happen.

Steve Cotton said...

Maria, Charley, and Kim -- The three of you raise good complementary arguments. The goal is to develop skills that allow you to look at the world and develop the ability to see those things that transcend our daily existence. Formal schooling is not required, but it helps. White collar jobs are not required; the skills can be used whever we work. But far too many of the people we run into daily simply avoid thinking of ideas -- no matter what work they do. I have several friends who brag they have not read a book since they graduated from school.