The Perils of Point-of-View in Writing Biographies

On this blog, I’ve dedicated a lot of energy to dissecting bits of what I consider to be solid writing, in posts where I’ve highlighted the literary techniques contained within a passage or a poem and argued that they are what make the piece a success. But there’s an important caveat to that sort of discussion that I don’t think I’ve addressed before: there are no intrinsically good techniques, only techniques that are good in some context. If this blog is to be at all useful in exploring writing, I believe it needs to acknowledge that, sometimes, writing can be sterling in the abstract but flawed in a given situation.

To that end, I’d like to look at a passage from the first volume of Blanche Wiesen Cook’s biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, a book which in general is written in a perfectly fine if utilitarian manner, but at one dramatic moment adopts a far more lyrical prose style. The moment in question comes after Eleanor confronts her husband Franklin about his affair with her former secretary, Lucy Mercer, and offers him a divorce. It’s one the emotional low points in Eleanor’s life, so it’s perhaps no surprise that Cook would choose this part of her subject’s narrative to indulge in some rhetorical flair:

He made promises, provided explanations. This “golden boy,” this vibrant “apollo” who charmed everyone he met, now directed all his influence and charm toward his wife. He would never see Lucy Mercer again. Did he apologize? Did he explain? Had he been engaged in a long-overdue emotional rebellion—against being a mama’s boy who always did the right and proper thing; who condemned all departures from the proprieties of his class and culture; who had mocked his half-brother’s son’s love for a socially unacceptable woman and blamed Taddie for his father’s death; who at the young age of twenty-three had taken on the responsibilities of a wife and home? Well, he had erred. Washington was so full of temptations; he had been trying out his new power, his new independence, for the first time in his life. It was a flamboyant, fatuous time. And it was over. He cared about his wife; he loved her. He was sorry he had hurt her. There was so much at stake—so much to do, and to do together. (p. 231)

If you put this passage in a bottle, if you consider it in isolation, it’s rather impressive. In fact, you could probably give this paragraph to an AP Language and Composition class and have the students tear it apart as an exercise. The aim of the passage is to place the reader in FDR’s mind as realizes that his affair has been exposed, and every device that Cook uses serves that goal. There’s the mixture of short paratactic questions (“Did he apologize? Did he explain?”) with looping hypotactic ones (“Had he been engaged…”), both of which highlight Franklin’s excited mental state. The use of anaphora (“who had always…who condemned…who had mocked…who…had taken…”) calls to mind the great persuasive speeches of history, only here it’s directed inward, as though FDR wishes to convince himself of his good nature. Even the insertion of a discourse marker (“Well, he had erred”) is indicative of a mind at work. These devices are not especially advanced or obscure, but there are undeniably effective at achieving Cook’s end here.

But that only raises the question: is that an end worth achieving?

Let’s talk about point-of-view for a bit. We’re perhaps more accustomed to thinking about point-of-view in fiction. Fiction writers, after all, have a great deal of freedom in choosing a POV for their stories. They can use an omniscient narrator, moving from one character’s perspective to another’s, or even describing events outside of anyone’s perspective. They can adopt a quasi-objective, reportorial stance, as in Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” Or they can restrict themselves to a single character’s POV, whether in first person or a limited third person. As long as the writer is consistent with regards to POV, they have almost limitless options.

The reason that fiction writers have such freedom is that fictional worlds are entirely of their own creation. In George Eliot’s Middlemarch, for example, the narrator can spend one chapter in Dorothea’s mind, then one in Lydgate’s, then one in Mr. Casaubon’s, and so on, without fear of being inaccurate to the facts of the narrative, because there are no narrative facts as such. The whole story exists as it does solely because George Eliot wrote it that way. But imagine if Middlemarch were literally, as the subtitle has it, a study of provincial life? Suddenly the narrator’s movement from one person’s mind to the next would seem a bit more suspect. The reader would be compelled to ask, “How does she know any of this?”

In Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, Ursula K. Le Guin notes that improper shifts in point-of-view are the problem that she encounters most often in unpublished (and even published) writing. That fact on its own did not surprise me when I first read Steering the Craft a few years ago, as it lined up with my own experience in writing workshops. What did surprise me was that Le Guin had found that the problem extended beyond novels and short stories:

It’s a problem even in nonfiction, when the author starts telling the reader what Aunt Jane was thinking and why Uncle Fred swallowed the grommet. A memoirist doesn’t have the right to do this without clearly indicating that Aunt Jane’s thoughts and Uncle Fred’s motives aren’t known facts but the author’s guesswork, opinion, or interpretation. Memoirists can’t be omniscient, even for a moment. (p. 70)

Le Guin frames this defective handling of POV in essentially moral terms: “A memoirist doesn’t have the right to do this.” If a fiction writer mishandles POV, the result is simply a weaker, more confusing story. If a nonfiction writer mishandles POV, the result may be straight-up dishonesty. “To use limited third person in factual narrative,” Le Guin goes on to say, “is to trespass, pretending you know what a real person thought and felt” (p. 71).

Cook isn’t writing a memoir, of course, but I think it’s fair to say that she has the same responsibilities that Le Guin assigns to memoirists. In fact, in her case those responsibilities may be even more pressing. When we read a memoir, we know that we’re getting a personal, edited account of real-life events, that we’re getting only one perspective on the complications of life. But when we read a biography, we expect the author to maintain objectivity, to follow where the facts lead and not to step beyond them.

Reread that passage from the Eleanor Roosevelt biography in this light, and you’ll start to see places where Cook strains against the limits of what can be known about FDR’s mental state after Eleanor’s offer of divorce. The rhetorical questions, which before sounded like an attempt to imagine FDR’s thought process, now sound like a way of sneaking in unfounded speculations without fully committing to them. They suggest that FDR may “have been engaged in a long-overdue emotional rebellion” without providing concrete evidence to support that claim; indeed, Cook follows it up with just further suppositions. In this brief digression into FDR’s mind, Cook has breached the biographer’s contract with the reader.

Yet, in all honesty, I can’t condemn Cook wholeheartedly for this trespass. See, FDR’s affair with Lucy Mercer is a momentous event in Eleanor Roosevelt’s life, as any discovery of infidelity would be, but it’s an event lacking much in the way of documentation. Cook says that Eleanor “wrote of that time only obliquely, and in code” (p. 232). References to the affair in her correspondence are scant to say the least, and her memoir devotes just a passing thought to the moment of discovery described above. (Even memoirs with consistent POVs, it is worth remembering, are not 100% factual accounts, either.)

This leaves Cook in a quandary regarding the Lucy Mercer affair. She can either stick to what the documentary record and interviews with Eleanor’s surviving acquaintances reveal, and say less than what the affair would appear to deserve; or she can speculate beyond what those limited sources have to say, sacrificing strict accuracy in the hopes of obtaining a perhaps unobtainable truth. This is not a choice that I find enviable, but is the choice that a writer in Cook’s position must make. I think either decision could be justified, but one must accept the consequences in either case.


But what do you think? Are there any cases you can think of where a biography has benefited from the sort of POV shift we talked about here? Is it ethical for a biographer to make such a shift in the first place? Let me know in the comments!

If you’re in the mood for something more thought on biography, here’s a piece I wrote last month about Frank Brady’s biography of Bobby Fischer, which looks into the duties we owe to abjectly awful people. Or, if you’re looking for more on point-of-view, here’s a post on Luisa Valenzuela’s “The Sin of the Apple,” a story that can teach us how to write from the POV of inanimate objects.

And, as always, thanks for reading!

Recent Publication: Review of “Not Elegy, But Eros” by Nausheen Eusuf (The Hopkins Review)

Eusuf Review

I’m happy to announce that my review of Nausheen Eusuf’s debut poetry collection Not Elegy, But Eros (NYQ Books, 2017) has just been published in the most recent issue (11.3) of The Hopkins Review.

Special thanks must go to David Yezzi, for encouraging me to try my hand at a poetry review; to Katherine Sharpe, for her patience as an editor; and, of course, to Nausheen Eusuf, for writing this wonderful collection.

Rather than leaving you with an excerpt of the review, I’ll quote the beginning of “Selfie,” one of my favorite pieces in Eusuf’s book that, alas, I did not have the space to talk about in the piece itself. I hope this will encourage you to give Not Elegy, But Eros a read.

excerpt from “Selfie”

If self’s the man, she’s the wife
who follows, shadow-faithful
through your twilight haunts
and midnight jaunts, who knows
your revels and your despair,
your zits and your stomach pits…

Not Elegy, But Eros is available through the publisher, NYQ Books, as well as through Barnes & Noble and Amazon. If you’d like to read my full review of it, you can subscribe to The Hopkins Review.

Play the Hits, But Play Them Slant: On Steven Hyden’s “Twilight of the Gods”

I used to read a lot of Steven Hyden columns when I was in high school and undergrad. I’d look forward every month to him and Genevieve Koski debating the merits of various Hot 100 songs for The A.V. Club’s “This Was Pop” feature, and I immensely enjoyed some of the essay series he authored, such as Whatever Happened to Alternative Nation? (The A.V. Club, 2010) and The Winners’ History of Rock and Roll (Grantland, 2013). The way Hyden gracefully ties together basic rock history with his personal experiences, growing up in small-town Wisconsin and developing a fascination with classic rock, always appealed to me. After all, I felt I could relate to that story. I, too, was from a kid from the boondocks who became infatuated with the culture of the recent past.

However, I stopped keeping up with his work after Grantland, where he was a staff writer, ceased publication in 2015, and so I wasn’t aware that Hyden was still writing until I came across Brooke’s review of Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock (Dey Street, 2018). Seeing that review triggered some warm memories for me, and I immediately put the book on my to-read list.

HydenStill, I went into Twilight of the Gods with an uncertain feeling, not because I didn’t know what to expect, but because I was fairly sure that I did. How much of the book, I thought to myself, would be brand new (or at least, new-to-me) insights and arguments, and how much would be reworded or repeated versions of past columns, ones that I had already read for free? That’s really something one must keep in mind when reading any book by a columnist: the possibility that you’ve literally read this all before.

Reprinting older material in a new format is, I want to stress, not necessarily a bad impulse. A contemporary short story collection may consist entirely of pieces first published in The New Yorker, but having a single volume of stories is certainly less cumbersome than tracking down a dozen random back issues of a magazine. And the ways an author orders and revises those stories may illuminate certain themes or connections among them that reading the stories in isolation would never reveal. Twilight of the Gods, I felt the need to remind myself, could do much the same for Hyden’s music writing.

With that as preamble, I’m going to ask two questions of this book. First: to what extent is Twilight of the Gods a rehashing of Hyden’s previous work? Second: in what ways does Hyden repackage that material, and do those methods improve the experience of reading it?

Question 1: What Have We Seen Before?

According to the book’s copyright page, four of its nineteen chapters contain direct reprintings of previously published material: three from The A.V. Club and one from Uproxx (which comes from that period after I’d lost touch with Hyden). That was actually less than I’d expected, and I only noticed one of them during my read-through: the chapter entitled “Keep On Loving You,” on 1970s and 1980s “corporate rock,” which reuses a large portion of his essay on REO Speedwagon’s 1981 album Hi Infidelity. I might use this as evidence that Hyden has good taste in his own work, as I’d rank that article among the best pieces he’s written. If Twilight of the Gods accomplished nothing else, I would still be glad that it helped preserve a solid piece of writing.

Of course, a writer can repeat themselves without doing so verbatim. Some sections are technically new pieces of writing but bare striking resemblances to earlier works. A good example is the Aerosmith section of the drugged-out rocker chapter, “Draw the Line,” which reads like a slightly condensed version of the band’s part in The Winners’ History of Rock and Roll. The two versions hit all the same beats: Aerosmith starts as a band famous for their party-ready music and their drugged-fueled creative process, who fall off for several years before they embrace sobriety and professional songwriters and attain even greater commercial success, serving as an exemplar of society’s changing attitudes towards drug use and artistry. Both versions even go out of their way to mention how getting Aerosmith concert tickets is a plot point in Dazed and Confused. The expression of the ideas differs, but the substance is mostly the same.

Beyond arguments and insights, Hyden has a habit of reusing anecdotes outside their original context. For example, that Hi Infidelity article mentioned above opens with a bit about Hyden’s mother excitedly confusing R.E.M. with REO Speedwagon, but that doesn’t appear in the corporate rock chapter. Instead, it’s included as an aside-within-an-aside in the chapter about live albums, “Hello There (Live at Budokan).” The book is peppered with moments like that: brief flashes which would only draw attention if, like me, you had no life seven years ago and reread Hyden’s columns like they were about to go sour.

From all the above, I’d say that, to someone familiar with Hyden’s previous work, Twilight of the Gods will definitely sound familiar, but the experience of reading it won’t be completely redundant. Whether that’s enough to make the book worth a read is up to you—and if you’ve never read Hyden, I suspect it’s wholly irrelevant.

With that out of the way, let’s turn to the more interesting question.

Question 2: How Has It Been Repackaged?

Let’s start this section off with the macro-level, and get the book’s major misstep out of the way. Hyden structures these otherwise loosely-connected essays around Joseph Campbell’s notion of the monomyth, or hero’s journey. The book is broken up into four parts, each of which is named for a section of the hero’s journey, from the start of their quest to their moment of transcendence. In practical terms, this means that each section’s essays roughly touch on the same theme: one section will talk about the roots of the classic rock, another about the decadence and corruption associated with it, another with the format’s decline in popularity, etc.

For the record, I tend to find the popular usage of Campbell to be rather tedious in the best of times, but in the case of Twilight of the Gods it actively weakens the book by asking the reader to look for a progression that doesn’t exist. Hyden knows that explaining classic rock is too messy a subject to fit into this sort of straitjacket, and for all the personal moments in the book, they’re not focused enough for the collection to be a work of self-revelation. It is true that Hyden often wants to highlight the quasi-spiritual aspects of being a classic rock fan, saying he was drawn to “the mythology of it, which satisfied the part of my psyche that demanded connection to a vast, awe-inspiring reality.” But there would simpler ways of conveying that notion than halfheartedly gesturing towards some hero’s journey.

I think Hyden would have done better to keep the connective tissue linking the essays to a minimum, because his quiet callbacks to earlier pieces can be pretty powerful. The best example is from “Keep On Loving You,” right as he closes out the REO Speedwagon section, where he refers back to earlier essays about his teenage passion for the classic rock staples in a moment of empathy with his mother:

My mom would never describe Hi Infidelity in these terms, but I think REO Speedwagon for her represented a more down-to-earth version of the rock mythos. As a kid, I was attracted to larger-than-life rock stars with exaggerated personas rooted in decadent mysticism. I longed to go on a misty mountain hop and venture all the way to the dark side of the moon. But my mother was too experienced to buy into those silly, pie-in-the-sky fantasies. What she longed for was more mundane but in a way no less fanciful—a decent guy who was earnest about love. That’s why Hi Infidelity made her heart sing. Her notes might have been off-key, but they were true.

Importantly, this closing paragraph is not part of the original piece of Hi Infidelity. It’s the sort of insight that Hyden probably had previously come to, but which didn’t fit in with that first conception of the piece. In the context of a broader account of classic rock, though, Hyden has a justification for making that link between mother and son in the text itself.

Even within individual essays, Hyden finds ways to refine points he has previously mulled over, finding new significance for them in the context of classic rock’s complete story. The most explicit instance is in “So Bad,” in which Hyden directly quotes his essay on the “five-albums test.” In a long parenthetical to that essay, he also defines the concept of a “good ‘bad’ album,” an album from a genius-level artist which is interesting precisely because of its relative badness. (As a long time fan of Neil Young, I am overly acquainted with this sort of record.)

Twilight of the Gods isn’t the first time that Hyden has returned to the “good ‘bad’ album” concept; he ran with it a bit further when discussing The Rolling Stones’ 1981 album Tattoo You. But in both those earlier articles, one can sense Hyden feels stymied. He has this idea about “good ‘bad’ albums,” but hasn’t yet figured out why anyone should care about it. (Indeed, the Tattoo You piece starts with Hyden expressing surprise that no one had latched onto the idea in the comments for the five-albums test article.) It’s not until he gets to this book, this personal history of classic rock, that he finds the importance behind this pet concept of his—it’s central to being a younger fan of older music:

It’s the only way to discover “new” music if you’re into classic rock—you must dig into the albums that people tell you that you won’t like, and you must listen to them many, many times until you find a way to like them. Because you will inevitably tire of Pet Sounds, and when that happens you will come around to Love You and marvel over the daffy synth sounds in “Johnny Carson,” and speculate over whether Brian Wilson’s state of mind makes this song an intentional classic or an act of unintentional “outsider art” brilliance. Over time, you might even convince yourself that Love You is better than Pet Soundsbut, really, it’s just that liking Love You is more interesting, because music critics haven’t told you how to feel about it for fifty years. Love You doesn’t contain better music than Pet Sounds, but it does offer more in the way of discovery and surprises.

As a writer, this is the sort of thing I wish every big project would give me. Putting together a collection should not merely be a means of presenting previously written material. It should be a means of figuring out what the author wanted to write in the first-place, but couldn’t figure out until now. That Hyden is able to do so in Twilight of the Gods makes me both envious and hopeful.

On the whole, Twilight of the Gods isn’t a revelation for someone who has previously read Hyden’s work, but, lackluster superstructure aside, it’s a chance to see Hyden’s writing as the best version of itself, a place to see thoughts which were still works-in-progress or presented incompletely as the tight statements on music they were meant to be. It’s like listening to a bunch of Fleetwood Mac demos, and then hearing their polished versions on Rumours. They may ultimately be the same songs, but the compiling and revising has made them sparkle just a bit more.

*          *          *

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this and want to read more pieces which straddle the line between review and analysis, you might like to read my thoughts on A Journey Through Tudor England by Suzannah Lipscomb.

On Paratext: An Essay Near Knowing

Note: This post is an imitation of the style of essay found in Brian Blanchfield’s book Proxies: Essays Near Knowing (Nightboat, 2016).

On Paratext

Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source

The first context in which I heard the word “paratext” spoken aloud was, of all things, a speedrun. For his contribution to Summer Games Done Quick 2018, FoldableHuman (a.k.a. Dan Olson) played through the notoriously bad survival-horror game Amy. Whereas most speedrunners, based on the limited sample of such runs I’ve watched, focus their commentary on the mechanical aspects of playing the game quickly, FoldableHuman made his run a presentation on the narrative and thematic aspects of the work. Notably, during a tedious-to-play-through segment of Chapter 3, he took the time to discuss how the game’s title character, a young girl who the player-character must shepherd through a sudden zombie apocalypse, is coded as being on the autism spectrum. Amy’s autism is not explicitly mentioned in the game itself, though her in-game behavior may suggest it. Rather, one finds evidence in the game’s paratext.

Paratext—that which is around the text, above and beyond it—refers to the collection of ancillary texts which frames the main text, which attracts and transitions the audience into it. Sometimes the paratext is attached to the text itself, as in the title of a poem, or a video game’s packaging. Other times it’s disconnected, obscure, even private: an advertisement, say, or the artist’s personal correspondence. In the case of the Amy speedrun, FoldableHuman cites the existence of marketing materials and interviews with the developers as evidence that the title character should be understood as being on the autism spectrum. As such, it is fair to criticize the game for how it depicts people in that community—its paratext invites that discussion.

Since watching that speedrun, the word “paratext” has been on my tongue a great deal. There are two reasons for this, I suspect. The first is that I find “paratext” to be a fun word, a word which at the same time evokes the fantastical and the mundane. On the one hand, it calls to mind such words as “paranormal” and “parapsychology,” terms which suggests worlds and ways of knowing beyond everyday experience. After all, one must often dig beyond the naked text to find the paratext. On the other hand, paratext has a certain “parenthetical” quality to it. A phrase enclosed by parentheses is implied to be digressive, expendable, interesting as trivia but not essential to the main argument. The oddity (the paradox?) of parentheses is that, by their visual appearance, they call attention to what they’re supposed to close off. We are told not to judge a book by its cover, but if covers were pointless would publishers bother including them?

The second is that I want to write an imitation of the style of essay found in Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies: Essays Near Knowing. Among the devices which Blanchfield uses frequently, especially at the beginning of essays, is meditating on a word, discussing its etymology and drawing out its implications. I feel that to write a successful Blanchfield imitation, I need a suitable word, and “paratext” is the best that I’ve come up with. It’s semi-obscure, and even better, I think that acknowledging paratext would have some thematic resonance with Blanchfield’s book.

To start with the title, that omnipresent example of paratext, the book is called Proxies and subtitled Essays Near Knowing, both of which suggest something that can only be approached indirectly, or partially. “This book will be exploratory,” the title tells us, and we may see the paratext surrounding it as a guidebook, a map, for that exploration. Moving to the book as a physical object, we find a rather minimalist display: the title and the author’s name in white text, printed on a black field. No cover image, no exciting typeface—this is a book where language, and by that I mean pure language, has primacy over the visual, or the visual rendered through text. (I’ve been tempted to include some visuals in this blog post—a picture of the book, an embed of the archived Amy speedrun—but to do so, I believe, would violate the spirit of Blanchfield’s work.)

Turning Proxies over to the back cover, we find the kind of paratext I most associate with poetry collections and literary prose: the blurb. Blurbs from critics or established writers are a standard part of book marketing, but my preferred genres raise the blurb to a vacuous artform. The literary blurb attempts to canonize a given book through sheer grandiosity, as though every collection were the First Folio and every friend and former teacher tasked with writing one, Ben Jonson. My senior year of undergrad, I complained to my thesis advisor about the blurb-industrial complex, and as a result he lent me a copy of Nick Demske’s self-titled collection of quasi-sonnets, whose sole blurb is a generic commendatory letter from Paul Ryan, Desmke’s representative in Congress, on winning a poetry prize. I have to assume Ryan never read the book, though most blurbs are so generic, who’s to say that’s not the case from writers as well?

Personally, I’ve stopped reading the content of blurbs. I merely skip to the attribution line now, and use my knowledge of the blurb-writers’ own works as a proxy for what the text in question will be like. If Brenda Shaughnessy likes a book, my thought process goes, I might enjoy the book; if Graham Foust likes it, I should stay away. In the case of Proxies, Blanchfield received a blurb from Claudia Rankine, the poet behind Citizen: An American Lyric, which I first read for an informal book club while at Johns Hopkins; Maggie Nelson, whom I have heard of but have never read; and two others whose names were wholly foreign to me. Not the ideal line-up of writers for me to make a judgment, but Rankine’s name may have sold me on Proxies had I come to the text naively. Whereas the cover design draws my attention to the book’s language, Rankine’s endorsement primes me for a book of social engagement, one which will be sympathetic to or in the voice of marginalized groups.

Further down the back cover, one finds the name of the publisher: Nightboat Books. For a giant publishing house, the presence of the name means very little to the reader; it’s hard to say what exactly the HarperCollins brand means. For small presses, though, there’s more often a distinct house “style.” In the case of Nightboat, the name signifies a level of formal inventiveness and academic density. I’ve had a mixed history with Nightboat’s catalog. On the one hand, I greatly admired Jill Magi’s Labor, which combined poetry with prose narratives and instruction manuals to comment on the contemporary state of the academic worker. It was a book I pulled at random from the Hopkins library stacks, and I’ve considered finding it to be among my happiest accidents. On the other hand, I found Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue to be needlessly opaque, a work whose whole text reads more like paratext. I read it for the same book club for which I read Citizen, and I contributed nothing to that particular discussion. I’m certain that had I done so, it would have come out as little more than frustrated rage.

At certain moments, in hindsight, I suspect my hostile reaction to Kapil’s work was grounded less in aesthetics than in my own insecurities. I was the youngest member of our cohort at Johns Hopkins, the one person who came straight from undergrad, and I feared at the book club that I was also the person least versed in contemporary developments in poetics. While I had read some late 20th- and 21st-century poetry in writing workshops, almost all the poetry I had studied in a critical context was early modern: Chaucer, the Renaissance dramatists. Kapil’s book demanded a fundamentally different background to understand it, perhaps, and it is so much easier for readers to blame the book than themselves.

Nightboat tends to publish authors who the Johns Hopkins English Department would invite to give poetry readings. I was a student in the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, whose taste in poetry is traditional, canonical, formalist. The English Department, on the other hand, prefers that which is contemporary, subversive, experimental. At least, so go the stereotypes. I’m told that there is a rivalry, if not outright hostility, between the two departments, although just about every interaction I had with the English department, faculty and students both, was at least cordial and oftentimes friendly. Indeed, I knew one of the English doctoral candidates from my time at Carnegie Mellon. (To a certain, the grad students in both departments had to get along, as we shared a common workspace.)

It was at one of the English Department poetry readings that I first became aware of Proxies. In effect, if not in fact, this was the primary paratext that brought me to Blanchfield’s work. It was a Friday in late October 2016, right after our readings class for the week had let out. (Indeed, my colleagues and I had to hustle downstairs and down the hall to make in on time, because our class ran long.) The room was pretty packed compared to the other readings in the series, and in my opinion the crowd’s presence was more than justified. Blanchfield’s presentation was engaging, but natural, never self-consciously performative. His choice of essay to read showcased the breadth of his powers as a writer, offering something to audience members of all aesthetic stripes. I dare say it was the best reading I saw while at Hopkins, certainly the best out of the English Department.

In one crucial sense, though, the reading was a disappointment. The event was advertised as being a poetry reading—even reading the text comes with paratext—but it seems the people in charge of booking writers for the series neglected to tell Blanchfield that. He did what writers are wont to do at such events: read from the book he was trying to promote. To the extent that was his goal, it worked. In the parlance of the book blogging world, Proxies immediately went onto my TBR afterwards. Had I been a fan of his verse, I may well have been put out by that turn of events. But then again, if what is delivered is engaging, who cares about the packaging? Paratext is merely suggestion, not a contract, right?

The place where the concept of “paratext,” as I’ve been discussing it, feels most relevant to Proxies is also the place where I’m least certain the term applies: the introduction laying out the project. The conceit, or less charitably the gimmick, of Blanchfield’s book is that all the information presented in each essay is based solely on his memory. He makes no use of search engines to find facts; he doesn’t return to books to verify how he paraphrases their points. (To paraphrase, that is, to speak around what has been said.) Instead, he includes a lengthy section at the back of the book called “Correction,” where he corrects whatever mistakes he subsequently finds in the essays, for instance, how he attributes Plato’s mistrust of poets to Aristotle.

Is that introduction paratext? I’m not certain. An introduction does constitute part of a book’s front matter, alongside (para-) such elements as dedications, epigraphs, and the table of contents: all clear instances of paratext. But that page-and-a-half of preamble is so integral to understanding the essays as a collection that deeming it above, beyond or around the main text doesn’t capture its significance. Or is the correction section the truly integral part of the text, and the introduction merely the explanatory link between the essays and the corrections? I’m alas a poet, and one not especially fluent in literary theory. I’m not qualified to discuss these topics. I have just used the format of Blanchfield’s essays to give myself permission to do so.

In fairness, I’d argue that’s also what Blanchfield’s essays do for the author himself. From their titles, their paratext, one might assume his essays are technical and detached. They have names like “On Propositionizing,” “On Abstraction,” “On the Leave.” And, true, many start out that way. But those high-minded concepts are really entry points, permission, to discuss more intimate matters. “On Frottage,” the piece he read at Johns Hopkins, begins with an exploration of queer sexual terminology before transitioning to his life as a gay man in 1990s New York, during the height of the AIDS epidemic. “On Peripersonal Space,” my pick for the collection’s best essay, uses the title concept as a metaphor for Blanchfield’s formerly tight, now strained relationship with his mother.

I’ve done nothing quite so bold or naked here, though I believe thinking through this piece has allowed me to reflect on my time at Johns Hopkins. I find myself at a transitional point in my professional life, and I’m still unsure of how to process everything that has happened in the past few years. (Certainly “On Dossiers” has scared me off of pursuing academia, at least in the near term.) Perhaps I have latched onto paratext over text because it represents the point before commitment, the last experience before actual experience. It is the perfect element for someone who is only “near knowing” at time of composition.

Correction.

In FoldableHuman’s Amy commentary, he does not use the exact word “paratext,” but rather its adjectival form: “There is no direct reference to autism in the game, but there are paratextual references to it. It was used in interviews, in promotional materials for the game. The developers did highlight this aspect of it.”

In addition to the title, subtitle, and author’s name, the front cover of Proxies also includes, in small print and curly brackets, the phrase “a reckoning.” Neither the other paratextual elements nor Nightboat’s website indicate that this phrase is an additional subtitle. Rather, it appears to serve a similar function as the phrase “Poems” or “A Novel”—identifying the genre of a work while suggesting it possesses an aura of literary quality, the sort of paratext that brings not the reader, but a particular kind of reader, to the text.

According to Goodreads, I first placed Proxies on my to-read shelf on October 7, 2016, which would hardly qualify as “late” in the month.

Recommended Author: Álvaro Enrigue

Álvaro Enrigue first came to my attention while I was assembling materials for my sports literature course. I was looking for a strong piece of fiction to round out the week on tennis, and came across Pooja Makhijani’s list of recommended tennis books at Electric Literature. Both the brief plot description and the strikingly simple cover of Enrique’s novel Sudden Death (trans. Natasha Wimmers, Riverhead, 2016) immediately caught my eye, and as luck would have it the JHU library had a copy in its collection. I checked it out, and was soon transfixed.

Sudden DeathSudden Death is, by design, a difficult novel. The central action of Sudden Death is a fictional tennis match between the Spanish poet Quevedo and the Italian painter Caravaggio. Although, when I say “tennis,” I don’t mean the modern form of the game, the sort we associate with Roger Federer and Serena Williams, but rather the much older game of real tennis, which only passingly resembles the current version of the sport. A major challenge of the novel is figuring out the rules of real tennis; for example, serves had to bound off the roof of the spectator’s gallery to be valid. This fact makes the match itself difficult to follow, but also gives the proceedings the manic energy of a duel—which, we learn as the novel progresses, is exactly what this tennis match is.

But the duel between Quevedo and Caravaggio is really a mechanism for framing various digressions into history and politics, from the execution of Anne Boleyn to Spanish colonial administration in the Americas. It’s a novel that deliberately blurs the boundary between fact and fiction: presenting actual contemporary documents alongside fabricated ones, slowly stretching historical anecdotes before one starts questioning their veracity. For instance, it is true that Jean Rombaud was the executioner summoned from France to behead Anne Boleyn, but it is not true that he had tennis balls made from Anne Boleyn’s hair.

I will admit that, while I admire Sudden Death greatly, it’s a difficult novel to love. The research (and the “research”) can overwhelm the book at points, and the narration tends to distance the reader from the characters. It’s the sort of novel that will inspire you to write a thesis, but it’s not as likely to give you an emotionally transcendent experience. Fortunately, for those wanting a smidgen of sentiment with their stories, a new essay by Enrique will have you covered.

Recently published on ESPN’s website, Enrique’s latest piece explores his ever-changing relationship with baseball, from his childhood in Mexico, when he roots for the Cafeteros de Córdoba but can never see them play at their home park, to his adulthood in the United States, where he takes his son to as many Baltimore Orioles games as possible. While Enrique’s love of baseball never leaves him, what the game means to him evolves as he goes through life. It’s a wonderfully thoughtful exploration of sports fandom.

Though certainly not to the extent as in Sudden Death, history and politics play a role in his newest essay as well. His family’s support of the Cafeteros mark them as provincials in the more cosmopolitan Mexico City, and economic crises compel him to leave Mexico, and Mexican baseball, behind. But in this piece, personal reflections reign supreme, even when they take on some philosophical significance. Consider this passage on the sports fan’s greatest virtue, loyalty:

I think it’s impossible to change teams once one has made a decision: You can admire some generation of players or develop a deep respect or even some care for a franchise, but your team is your team because it becomes fixed in your brain at an age when small things are huge. Once, talking about soccer, the late Argentine writer Ricardo Piglia—an unbiased, philosophical, and quiet man—told me in an unexpected rapture of passion: “Only perverts change teams.”

Or take the essay’s conclusion, after Enrique and his son go to their last O’s game before the latter goes off to college:

Childhood is a planet with a population of one person, but on a very few lucky days, our memories and those of our children cross paths, like in an eclipse. That day I came out of Camden Yards understanding something that took me years to grasp: that loyalty to a team can be a two-direction road. We inherit objects of devotion from our parents, but sons and daughters leave a legacy for us too. The Coffee Drinkers stand untouched in the crystal box of my memory, but the Baltimore Orioles are my team. They are the unexpected bequest of my son.

Erudite and perceptive, bold and direct, Enrigue is a writer I’m glad to have found, and I eagerly await more of his work. I hope this short piece will encourage you to check him out, too.

If, after looking up Enrigue, you want more reading recommendations, I recently discussed Stephen King’s 1990 essay “Head Down,” which, coincidentally, is also about children and baseball.

A Journey Through Tudor England: A Brief Review

A Journey Through Tudor EnglandWritten by Tudor historian Suzannah Lipscomb and published by Pegasus in 2013, A Journey Through Tudor England positions itself as part general-audience history, part travel guide. Covering fifty sites of interest from West Sussex to West Yorkshire, Lipscomb uses each site as jumping-off point to discuss various people and events of the Tudor era.

A Journey Through Tudor England is a book with multiple audiences in mind. In the introduction, Lipscomb says her book “is designed to be a companion both to the visitor to these fifty sites, and to the historical visitor to the Tudor period” (p. 3). The back cover, meanwhile, declares this a work for “the armchair traveler or for those looking to take a trip back to the colorful time of Henry VIII and Thomas More.” Based on these descriptions, I can see three intended readerships:

  1. People with a general interest in Tudor history
  2. People planning a visit to various Tudor sites
  3. People who would like to visit those sites but are unable to do so

Each group will want different things from the text. The history buffs will want to hear about the significance of each site, the stories of the people who were there, etc. The vacation planners will want to know what to look for when they make their trip. And the “armchair travelers” will want some sense of what experiencing these sites is like. (These groups are not mutually exclusive, of course; people hoping to see historical sites presumably have some interest in history.)

Three readerships can be difficult to balance, and some of Lipscomb’s descriptions do a better job of it than others. On the positive side, the beginning of her section on Broad Street in Oxford is exemplary:

In the centre of Broad Street in Oxford, outside Balliol College, an unceremonious small cross of cobblestones set in the middle of the tarmac road marks the site of the 1555 and 1556 burnings of the ‘Oxford martyrs’: Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer, formerly the bishops of Worcester and London, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. This inconspicuous reminder, together with the doors of Balliol College that were scorched by the fire and that now hang between the front and garden quadrangles, testify to the ugly side of the revival of Roman Catholicism in England when Mary I came to the throne. (p. 113)

This brief passage serves the needs of all three intended readerships. It establishes the historical significance of the site, which the rest of the section elaborates on: the executions of three prominent Protestant clergymen. It also draws attention to the particular items of interest: the cobblestone cross and the flame-licked doors. A visitor to Broad Street, after reading this paragraph, would know what to look for and why it matters.

As for the armchair traveler, Lipscomb manages to give the reader the sense of experiencing the site. Her prose emphasizes movement through the location. It begins with a general location, situating the reader in space: on Broad Street, outside Balliol College. The author then directs the reader’s gaze further into the site, down to the cobblestone cross. This is the exact manner in which one would experience such a simple memorial, coming across it while walking by. Then, once the mind has taken in the cross (and absorbed its import), it moves up and away from the street, to the scorched doors. It’s not quite a virtual tour, but it’s still an effective description.

What I most admire in the above passage is its efficiency. Lipscomb hits all her marks (history, handbook, and description) in just over 100 words, and both sentences serve multiple purposes. Even the listing of the martyrs, which is purely historical information, finishes the sentence introducing the cobblestone cross. The whole paragraph is a whirlwind to read, with all three elements swirling at once. Other than a brief mention of the Victorian-era monument to the martyrs nearby, the rest of the section is entirely devoted to history. But that first paragraph is so dense, every kind of reader can leave satisfied.

Alas, not every section is so successful. More typical is the section on the City of London’s Guildhall, which begins thusly:

Guildhall, which is situated at the centre of the City’s square mile on the site of an old Roman amphitheatre, is one of London’s great survivors. It was the only secular building to escape the Great Fire of London in 1666 and it survived the Blitz in 1940, though in both instances it lost its roof and windows. In the fifteenth century, it was the second largest edifice in London, after the Old St Paul’s Cathedral, and the formidable Great Hall and undercroft date from that period. It is now on its fifth roof designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott to recreate what the medieval roof may have looked like, but everything beneath window-height is to the design of the original master mason, John Croxton, who built the Great Hall between 1411 and 1430. It is Gothic perpendicular in style, and an impressive 151 feet long, 48 feet wide and 89 feet high. The five-foot-thick walls may partially explain its durability. (p. 39)

This opening paragraph is longer than the one introducing Oxford’s Broad Street, yet it doesn’t accomplish as much. The history of the building comes through, albeit in a somewhat scattered fashioned, and the text does mention the highlights of the building. But as for giving the reader a sense of experiencing the building, it falls short. For one thing, the spatial movement implied here is odd, going from exterior (“lost its roof and windows”) to interior (“Great Hall and undercroft”), then back to exterior (the restored roof) and then back to interior (the Great Hall, again). For another, the details are either too general (“Gothic perpendicular” describes rather many buildings) or just not evocative (the Great Hall’s dimensions, which are difficult to scale in the mind).

Further, this first paragraph doesn’t even mention the main piece of history Lipscomb wishes to discuss: the life of Lady Jane Grey. Guildhall has clear significance in her life, as it was the site of her trial (as well as, by coincidence, Thomas Cranmer’s trial). But whereas Broad Street was central to the Oxford martyr’s story, with Lipscomb devoting many paragraphs to the events at that site, Guildhall feels tangential to Lady Jane’s ordeal. It reads as though the author just needed to discuss Lady Jane somewhere in book, rather than needing to tell the reader about Guildhall.

So where does all this leave a potential reader? Well, it goes back to the three intended audiences. A Journey Through Tudor England does an adequate job addressing the needs of the history buff and the vacation planner, but I think drops the ball as far as the armchair traveler is concerned. So ask yourself: “Which audience am I a part of?”

N.B. This book was originally published in the UK under the title A Visitor’s Companion to Tudor England.