When I think of literature I think of an older guy sporting a greying moustache, sipping a sherry, wearing a smoking jacket, seated in a library of leather-bound books in front of a simmering log fire. The guy speaks with an aristocratic English accent and expounds on the greatness of some book that other older men dressed like him, sitting in similar log-fire warmed libraries, also like to read when not shagging the maid.
Now clearly not everyone who reads literature fits this image. Some probably can’t even afford a maid to shag. But it does appear to be an image that people aspire toward, an image that informs what they deem literature, and thus what they deem worthy of reading. Rather than judging any written work based upon its lasting artistic merit – although that definition is so subjective as to be useless and ideal for starting pointless arguments…. (cough) – people seem intent on creating boundaries before a work is allowed to be judged. They must defend Fort Literature from the invading Lesser Works.
Normally I’d launch into a whinge about how speculative fiction is unfairly maligned, or how I’ve read crime fiction that has more artistic merit than most literary works. But instead I’m going to talk about graphic novels. In an article on The Conversation, Catherine Beavis explained how the graphic novel Maus came to be part of the literature curriculum.
Despite this explanation there was always going to be someone in the comments telling us how a graphic novel can’t be literature. I assume they wrote their comments whilst wearing a smoking jacket and taking a break from shagging the maid.
Well well……..so it’s art as literature.
Why not a more well-known comic (sorry graphic novel).
Not saying this isn’t a worthy addition to any curriculum, but more as social comment rather than literature.
Surely the novels of great Australian writers should be preferable – Winton, Malouf, Carey etc.
Let’s break these points apart one by one. As will be seen from further comments, the argument primarily revolves around the feelpinion that because graphic novels contain pictures they are art and thus not literature. A similar argument could be made for movies being TV shows and thus we could abolish the Oscars… actually, that isn’t a bad idea. Anyway, I guess we’d better break the news to the literature professors that Shakespeare’s plays need to be taken off of the curriculum.
The argument then moves to the “I haven’t heard of it, so it can’t be good” assertion. Maybe because they realise this isn’t a great argument, they immediately distance themselves from it. But we start to see the “worthy“ argument being formed. I’ve argued many times that “worthy“ is a great subjective argument put forward by people who think they are worthy.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a literary argument if someone didn’t cite some authors they deem worthy. For those unfamiliar with Winton, Malouf, and Carey, they are award-winning Aussie authors who write “interior histories” and about “people rebuilding their lives after catastrophe” and “people who experience death and will never be the same again”. None of those statements could be applied to a graphic novel about someone who survived the holocaust…. No sir.
Their list of worthy authors is as subjective as their comments about graphic novels and Maus. I could similarly ask why the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy isn’t on the curriculum. It has a lot to say about society and has entered the lexicon, which is more than can be said for any of the other authors mentioned nor the graphic novels being shunned. I could say the same again about Superman or Spiderman, which have implanted ideals and phrases of morality into society, regardless of whether people have read those graphic novels or not.
*Steps on soapbox*
I personally welcome any work into the class that will encourage kids to read, think and learn. And to anyone who derides graphic novels, they are clearly saying they don’t or haven’t read any.
*Steps down from soapbox*
The commenter responded to criticism of their subjective opinion:
That may be so, but my bigger point was that literature = words.
This is art with captions.
Not disputing that it may be hugely popular or good (even great)…
but literature it ain’t.
I think the appropriate response to this is a head shake. The problem is the black and white definition of what literature is, whilst ignoring the fact that the graphic novels fit the definition of literature. Pointing out the flaws in these opinions is as easy as saying that graphic novels, with very few exceptions, are composed of words. They also use graphics, but that is often a collaboration between the writer and the artists they work with. Thus, by the definition of “literature = words”, graphic novels are eligible to be classified as literature.
But anything to keep only the “worthy” books in contention as literature. Can’t have that kids stuff being called literary!
So I named three contemporary Australian writers – call me subjective.
I am not knocking the (art) form…just that it (to ME) is not literature.
Your opinion is obviously as valid as mine……don’t get huffy.
The last point here is one that irks me more than irksome irkers on an international irking junket. Opinions are not equally valid. That sort of subjectivism nonsense eats away at reality and suggests we “just don’t know, man”.
The commenter made a subjective list, so I put together some examples that were superior in quantifiable ways (impact on society, entering the lexicon, referenced by society) to show that the subjective claims were more worthless than a $9 note because clearly not much knowledge or thought was put into the claims.
There is also the idea of literary critique and argument, rather than stating feelpinions. I’ve stated an opinion and argued it, offering reasoning. The examples I countered with aren’t necessarily the best choices, but I have justified and quantified my argument, something you learn in high school literature class. Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer, so clearly someone in the literati agrees. And surely a Pulitzer prize winner is worthy of being on the curriculum. But of course all opinions are equally valid and “I’m entitled to my opinion”, dammit!
Surely the whole point of literature is that the reader has to imagine the scene described, the way words are spoken, the implications of what is said and much more. It’s all in the mind, which develops through reading.
A graphic novel presents the words and pictures with almost no imagining required. The number of words is hugely reduced to give way to often wasted space. In the example above there are 21 words, which if in normal lowercase type could be written in 10% of the space.
Sorry I’m not convinced graphic novels have any merit for senior students.
Shakespeare’s plays give stage directions and poetry is often deliberately obscure. So how do those examples fit this exclusionary definition of literature? I’m sure some artists would object to the idea that they aren’t conjuring a scene that develops in people’s minds. And is the idea to only allow readers to imagine a scene? Isn’t it about conveying ideas and emotions too? Isn’t this some great mental gymnastics to try to maintain Fort Literature from invasion by the Lesser Works?
The second paragraph is also exemplary of someone who hasn’t read many, if any, graphic novels. So of course this commenter wouldn’t be convinced that graphic novels are of any merit. First they’d have to know something. But that doesn’t hold them back from commenting.
While I’m in the mood for alienating folks, let me also say that this is a good example of dumbing down literature.
Give the kids a picture with limited words and maybe they’ll get the idea.
Don’t kids these days have the attention span to read a novel?
The last graphic novel I read was 480 pages long and took many hours to read. It covered sexual identity, morality, the greater good argument, do evil deeds make us evil, etc, as issues. The last “literature” novel I read was about a woman who manipulated people to get what she wanted. It was ~300 pages long and took many hours to read.*
This argument is typical of people who have a snobbish attitude to something based upon pure ignorance of the topic. Similar statements have been made throughout time, decrying the dumbing down or declining standards of today’s youth. Oddly enough it has been proven false again and again only to be spouted once more.
There is a similar article on The Spectator – a home for uninformed opinion – which argues that if we let graphic novels into literature we have to let in everything. They must defend Fort Literature from the invading Lesser Works. Maybe I’ll address that one at some stage when I’m feeling masochistic, but I’m going to leave it there. The maid has arrived.
*This comparison was true at the time of my original comments on The Conversation. I’ve read many graphic novels since, but no further literature novels.
Writers are very special people. We are so special that we have to have our own special terms instead of using the ones everyone else uses. For example, what everyone else calls procrastination is what a writer would term Writer’s Block. And because writers are so special, their procrastination isn’t just a time suck, it is THE WORST THING EVA!!!
Terrible Writing Advice has a terrific video to help understand this affliction.
Suffer no more.
I am 48 years old and want to write this novel I KNOW I have in me …..has anyone any suggestion? Thanks
There are plenty of ways to learn to write, the primary way being to write.
Most writers’ festivals have short half-day courses on aspects of writing that are worth attending.
Most states also have writers’ centres that run events and courses.
Several universities run creative writing courses. My friend and author,(read his books, they are great), teaches creative writing at in Western Australia. There are plenty of courses available via online.
Another option are centres like thewho run various courses year round. I’ve done a course with them myself. My friend and author, , also at the AWC.
But when all said and done, the primary way to learn to write is by doing it. But before you do remember the above sage piece of advice from the late, great, Christopher Hitchens.
More advice from some of the most prolific authors in this article from The Atlantic.
This post originally appeared on Quora.
The header image quote is discussed in more detail here.
I love creative writing and I’m good at university dissertations, but when I try to write a story, I struggle and the writing is often awkward. Yet I love doing it. What pratical guides or reading list would you recommend for people who wish to masted the art of writing and creative writing?
Creative writing is as much about practice as it is about any advice you can read in a book. Part of that practice is writing, part of it is editing your own work, and part of it is reading to see how others construct their prose.
Essentially, if you already know the mechanics of how to write, then the part that is missing is the hours and hours of practice and analysis of that practice.
That said, there are plenty of manuals on style and grammar that would be helpful. E.g. Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is regarded as a classic of writing.
I personally think Stephen King’s On Writing is a must read for any author.
This post originally appeared on Quora.
For some reason the world of writers is filled with technophobic troglodytes intent on proving that their old-fashioned way of doing things is better. I’ve written previously about how older people’s favourite hobby since the dawn of time has been complaining about kids these days. This is also true of changes in technology, with people intent on justifying not learning to use a computer or e-reader. Because cutting down trees is the future of communication!
Once again I’ve stumbled across another article that misrepresents scientific studies to try and convince people that we need to clear forests, pulp them, flatten them into paper, cover them in ink, and act as snooty as possible. This time they – the nebulous they: my nemesis!! – are trying to pretend that taking notes with a pen is better than using a keyboard.
When will people learn that paper isn’t the medium we should be promoting? We need to be going back to scratching on rocks and cave walls. When was the last time a paper book lasted more than a hundred years out in the rain, snow, and blazing sun? That doesn’t even begin to compete with the longevity of the 50,000 year old cave paintings. Data retention for rock far surpasses the much inferior paper.
This isn’t the first article I’ve seen on The Literacy Site misrepresenting science. Hopefully they will acquire come scientific literacy soon and overcome their biases. If I turn blue and pass-out, try to act concerned. Let’s dive in.
New Research Explains How The Pen Is Mightier Than The Keyboard
It’s great when articles improve on the titles of science papers. I mean, who wants to read the science paper The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking? Pity that both titles misrepresent the actual findings. Also, is 2014 still regarded as new?
In her graduate assistant days, psychological scientist Pam Mueller of Princeton University used to take notes just like everyone else in the modern age: with a computer. One day, Mueller forgot her laptop and had to take notes the old-fashioned way. Rather than being held back by pen and paper, Mueller left class feeling as if she’d retained far more information than usual on that day. She decided to create a case study that could prove her hunch that writing longhand was actually better for comprehension than typing.
This is actually a good little story and illustrates how a lot of hypotheses are formed in science. This is the anecdote or observation that scientists want to turn into a hypothesis to create actual knowledge. But remember, this is an anecdote, which has as much value as used Easter egg wrappers that have been stuffed between the couch cushions. Putting anecdotal stories at the start of an article can set the audience up to not think too hard about the rest of the article, as you have given them the conclusion in a nice little story.
The study she created, published in Psychological Science, indicated that taking notes by hand is a more effective method than typing them on a laptop when it comes to processing information conceptually.
And here we jump straight off the rails, over the side of the bridge, and careen into the waiting river below. Sure, The Literacy Site is just quoting the press release, but that is lazy. The study itself has this line in the abstract that show how this claim is a misrepresentation of the findings:
We show that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.
In other words, the findings were that people spend all their time typing and no time actually listening and comprehending the lectures. Because the pen is an archaic device that is unwieldy and slow compared to the keyboard, students using a pen only write down notes after they have listened, picked out the key points, and conceptualised that information into a note. But don’t take my word for it, the press release on the University of Michigan website has a few recommendations including:
- To interrupt verbatim note-taking on laptops, break up your lectures with short activities that encourage deeper processing of information.
- Have students use laptops or other technologies to process–not just record–information.
Now it is time to discuss the study details a little bit, because someone might be interested in the methods section. I’m sure those people exist. Somewhere. Interested is probably the wrong word.
In the first of a series of studies led by Mueller, 65 college students watched various TED Talks in small groups, and were provided with either pens and paper or laptops for taking notes. When the students were tested afterward, the results were overwhelming. While the groups performed equally on questions that involved recalling facts, those who had taken longhand notes did significantly better when it came to answering conceptual questions.
Sorry, I need to catch my breath. I’m so shocked at the massive sample size. This is definitely enough people to represent the rest of society. Conclude away I say!
Anyway, these overwhelming results are just a tad whelming.
As you can see the performance on retaining facts was the same, with error bars that suggest 65 people is probably not enough to draw conclusions from. Not that anyone would be trying to claim this study is proof of anything, right? The next thing you see is the benefits of using a pen…. as long as you ignore those error bars and just accept the p-value tells us something of value. Given that those error bars overlap for the two groups, I wouldn’t be drawing conclusions from a p-value. Also, I’m not exactly sure why an ANOVA was used when there were only two groups to compare. KISS principle applies to statistics as well.
Now the study realised that 65 people wasn’t enough, so they repeated the study with a few variations twice more. In the second and third tests they had 151 and 109 people take notes. Each test had the typists writing between 250 and 550 words, whilst the pen wielders wrote roughly 150 to 400 words. Interestingly the note takers were writing verbatim 12-14% with their laptop but the pen users only managed 4-9% verbatim. This shows why the conclusions I’ve quoted above were drawn.
Out of interest, here are the results from the other two tests that were more convincing for that conceptual finding.
The second test with 151 people were tested with pen, laptop, and laptop with a lecture from the tester about how they really should pay attention. With 50 people per group you’d hardly jump up and down about the significance of this test, but clearly telling people to pay attention doesn’t… hey look a squirrel.
The third test with 109 people again tested for pen vs keyboard, but this time they allowed revision of notes before being questioned. This makes the groups even smaller, and again I’d question the significance of such a small sample. But the researchers summed up the results with this erudite paragraph:
However, a more nuanced story can be told; the indirect effects differ for conceptual and factual questions. For conceptual questions, there were significant indirect effects on performance via both word count and verbatim overlap. The indirect effect of word count for factual questions was similar, but there was no significant indirect effect of verbatim overlap. Indeed, for factual questions, there was no significant direct effect of overlap on performance. As in Studies 1 and 2, the detriments caused by verbatim overlap occurred primarily for conceptual rather than for factual information, which aligns with previous literature showing that verbatim note taking is more problematic for conceptual items.
In other words, doing lots of writing, particularly just copying what was said verbatim, makes you suck at understanding what the hell is going on. Oh, and study before the test. Apparently it helps too. Made that mistake at university.
So back at The Literacy Site they are skipping the other tests and just heading to the conclusions:
Mueller found that this was the result of laptop users trying too hard to transcribe the lecture rather than listening for the most important information and writing it down by hand. It may be an era where computers have made handwriting seem useless, but Mueller isn’t the only believer in the importance of longhand.
Notice the nuanced difference that seeing all three tests provides? We could be led to believe that there was overwhelming evidence for the pen, but what we see is that note takers need to readdress their methods of taking notes. Or they could just wing it.
An article in TIME discusses Karin James, an Indiana University psychologist, who published a 2012 study indicating writing is particularly important in the cognitive development of pre-literate children five and under. While using a computer for note-taking in some situations makes sense, it’s important not to overlook the longhand method.
It’s great that the article tries to incorporate some extra research. Citing one study with a small sample size is hardly compelling, certainly not worth writing an article about. But again the research is being misrepresented:
…the benefits of writing: increased creativity, better critical thinking, boosted self confidence, and a correlated improvement in reading capability with writing prowess.
But are these benefits real? The short answer: Mostly not. “There’s lot of caveats in handwriting research,” says Karin James, a psychologist at Indiana University
Curse those damn caveats! Why can’t we have a control group of kids we don’t teach to read and write?!
Which brings me to a final point about these old technologies vs new technologies articles: stop jumping the gun! We’re in a transition phase. This isn’t 1970s velvet suits with platforms versus 2010s hipster atrocities. This is typewriter hipster texting on his phone. Technology is changing and we’re still learning how to use it properly. The studies that are cited in many of these articles have very limited scope, test very few people, and are comparing new and established things. Has anyone taught laptop users to take notes effectively for the new medium? Do you actually need to take written notes at all in this modern age? We need to see more science done on the changes taking place, and we need the articles discussing the science to do more than discuss (one study from) one paper, and highlight the limitations. Well, unless you have already made up your mind about a topic and just want some links to throw at people in an argument. Screw being right!
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Sometimes my worlds collide and produce awesome stuff. Today I present science smashing into writing and producing a revision of the periodic table of elements (did you know that the periodic table should actually be seen as cylindrical?).
Apparently this gem has been doing the rounds of the internet for at least a year, which shows you how out of touch with reality kids makes you. But recently the Periodic Table of Storytelling has become interactive, with James Robert Harris taking his design of storytelling tropes to the next level. Serial killer name aside, James has created a fun tool that is worth checking out.
James has also developed a few other narrative media that are worth checking out, such as the hero’s journey using Star Trek. See the rest of his webpage here: http://www.designthroughstorytelling.com/design-through-storytelling
Born to write? Born to be an athlete? Born to be a rocket scientist? People love to talk about “natural” ability or talent as the be all and end all of achievement. Since I actually own a genetics text book – it props up my DVD collection on the shelf – and once watched someone do manual labour, I feel qualified to comment on the talent vs. work debate.
Genetics is a big, complicated, topic, so I’m going to provide a facile overview of it. Genetics is that thing that means some people have higher baselines, are higher responders to training/learning, and are likely to achieve more (see this and read this for sports examples). For some the opposite is true, they have low baselines, don’t respond well to training/learning, and are likely to suck no matter what they do. There isn’t much you can do about your genetics, unless you happen to have a time machine and can play matchmaker to get better parents.
But that isn’t to say that you shouldn’t try to get good at stuff. Until you are tested and start training, you don’t really know what your “ability” is. And just because you might continue to suck, you will suck less than you did before, which means you will be better than those around you who didn’t even try. Take an example from sports – because people actually do science on athletes, the arts talk about their feelings too much – athletes tend to live longer than normal because they are more likely to be fitter, which lowers cardiovascular mortality. You don’t get fit sitting on a couch, watching TV, snacking on corn chips, in your underwear: you have to train.
So let’s take this into the writing field. You may have been born with a massive brain, nimble fingers, and an imagination that rivals college students tripping on acid, but that doesn’t mean much if you never learn to read, or write, or are too poor to have access to materials for writing, or the persistence to share that writing with the world. All that talent and ability counts for nothing if you don’t do something with it. You have to train. The difference between the talented individual and the untalented individual can often just be a lot of hard work by the untalented. I mean, who has sold more books: James Paterson or any of the Booker Prize winners?*
But let’s not get carried away. We have to acknowledge that any “talent” is a GxE interaction (genetics by environment interaction). Genetics, or that innate ability, is still a factor that we can’t dismiss, but so is the environment. So all of that skill development and training will come more easily, more quickly, and possibly progress further for some, but that isn’t an excuse for not doing the hard work.
* Not that I’m insinuating that winning a Booker Prize actually makes you a talented or good writer. I actually use those prize lists to figure out what not to read.
Recently I wrote about the TV shows that have been keeping me entertained, or at least giving my eyeballs some much-needed exercise. One of the TV shows I’d failed to get into was a little sci-fi on Fox called Almost Human. It appears that the reason I’d had trouble appreciating this new show is that Fox is up to its old tricks.
That’s right, Fox is airing the episodes of Almost Human out of order. And before you ask, I did check to see if Joss Whedon was in any way involved in the show: apparently not. So Fox can’t use the “we have to dick Joss’ show around” excuse, like they did with Firefly, Dollhouse, etc.
Obviously I’m not a highly paid TV executive, so my opinion on this topic is really inconsequential. Unless, of course, viewers of TV shows – that reason TV shows are made, aside from selling ad-space – are regarded as important in any way. Sure, I don’t have a degree in TV programming, but I would have thought airing a TV show in order would be the sensible thing to do. I’m not sure if the degree at MITV, the TV university located next to MIT, can be done online yet, but I would like to see their syllabus to get some idea of the inner workings of TV networks.
I know when I write a story I always like to start with the fifth chapter, then come back to the second chapter after I’ve written six or so chapters. I especially like to do this in a story which has a lot of new stuff in it, like sci-fi, and where there is any sort of story arc. This way you can really do your best to alienate readers and confuse them.
Not being privy to the inner workings of TV networks, it is hard to say exactly why they would do this, or how often they do this. With some TV shows you just wouldn’t notice. Take a formulaic story capsule like CSI Wherever. There isn’t usually an episode or season spanning story line; dead bodies show up, someone puts on glasses after making a pun, someone wears a lab coat near some magic ‘science’ boxes, they get the bad guy to confess during a flashback. So you would never know if they were aired out-of-order – which also raises the idea of them actually having an order to begin with. This is the sort of show you could just chop and change around to suit whatever excuse is used for butchering a show. But you can’t do this to a serialised TV show.
This isn’t just about annoying and confusing viewers. This isn’t about the disdain the TV executives are showing toward the show’s fanbase, you know, those people they need to sell stuff to. This is about a lack of respect for the creators of the show, especially the writers. Someone has gone to the trouble of crafting a story, an episodic story that needs to build upon previous instalments in order to continue to attract fans. Almost Human has enough of a “stand-alone” nature to the show to not be damaged too much by the lack of continuity (WTF is ‘the wall’??) but plenty of shows have been damaged or destroyed by these sorts of airing decisions.
Bring back Firefly!
Update: It appears that Fox has cancelled Almost Human, despite renewing The Following which had similar ratings. This shouldn’t be surprising since the network has essentially been trying to cancel the show since they first aired it. Fox didn’t make the show, so there is some chance a network like SyFy might pick it up.
Other articles on this:
There has been an interesting duo of videos by PBS’ Ideas Chanel. Mike discusses some interesting concepts surrounding fiction, like the fact that fiction is as much real as it is made-up and vice versa. Worth a watch.
The two videos cover a lot of ground, but one of the more important points I’d like to highlight is the idea that we can’t have fiction without reality. We need something to anchor our ideas and make-believe, shared experiences that allow us to understand and accept these fictions. There are plenty of examples of this, but one of the cooler examples is looking at depictions of the future at various stages throughout history. Compare what sci-fi movies of the 50s thought computers would look like now to what they actually look like, and you see a 1950s computer. Our imaginations actually suck a lot more than we think.
But here’s an idea about our inability to imagine the future: what if our imaginations don’t actually suck, but instead we ignore the outlandish imaginings that are actually more likely in favour of stuff we already know? Think about it. Or don’t, I’m not your boss.
Today was the start of the Perth Writers’ Festival, the local festival for my fellow pale, short-sighted, readers and writers. Once a year we gather together to fulfil our in-person social interaction requirements for the year.
Before I left the house, Libby Hellmann, Lee Goldberg, and Paul Levine had a Top Suspense Google+ Hangout. They discussed a number of issues around writing suspense stories. Funny how the title of the group and hangout gives away the topic. It was a good session and I highly recommend my fellow writing friends to have a watch of the embedded video below.