Sunday, July 01, 2007

Canon to the left of them

I'm still musing over the responses to my last CiF piece. It's not so much the accusations of plagiarism; they can be rebutted quite easily, although very little is truly original any more, so it hardly seems worth it (but thanks, Annie Rhiannon, for coming to my defence).

No, it's more the assumption that I must have read Freakonomics, as if it forms the core of some sort of 21st-century factual-cum-polemical canon along with, presumably, Blink and The Tipping Point and The Wisdom of Crowds and Everything Bad Is Good For You and The Long Tail (although the last one seems to argue, in a consumer universe of unlimited choice, against the existence of such a concentrated canon, which just adds to the paradoxical fun of a best-seller arguing against the significance of best-sellers - rather akin to Douglas Adams's inversion of the intelligent design concept to disprove the existence of God).

Tom McCarthy recently suggested that, in the publishing world at least, the old canon has definitely given up the ghost, as part of a depressing epidemic of d*mb*ng d*wn that affects writers and commissioning editors alike. People have been yowling about this for years, blaming trendy lefty education theorists in the 60s and 70s, and/or their successors, utilitarian Thatcherites who know the cost of Chaucer and the value of an MBA, but little else. I mean, who among you spotted the defiantly old-fashioned poetic reference in the blog header? (Although, I just did a quick Google, and it turns out that somebody made the same joke in 1991, so it looks as if I'm a plagiarist again; a perception reinforced by the above image of a relaxed Dr Levitt, taken before the recent spate of photos of reclining bloggers reading a certain pop-related tome. Ho hum.)

What's replaced the Dead White Males of poetry, drama and fiction is a selection of literate but non-literary social science tomes, more accessible than standard academic texts, less fluffy and inane than Paulo Coelho's Little Book of Chicken Soup or whatever it's called. And I feel as if it's completely passed me by. What do you think? Should I have read these, in the way that McCarthy expects his fellow authors to have read Sterne and Cervantes?

(And talking of things passing me by, this may show me up as a real Johnny-Ramone-come-lately but is Bono Must Die not the best name for a beat combo, like, ever, or what?)

14 comments:

Pisces Iscariot said...

You should definitely NOT read Paulo Coelho -I read The Alchemist with great anticipation of something profound, what I found was peurile wish-fulfilment without recouse to any style or insight. Philosophy for those 'adults' who read Harry Potter.

patroclus said...

To be fair to Chris Anderson, in The Long Tail he doesn't argue against the significance of bestsellers so much as argue for the equal significance of niche sellers.

He says the internet makes it possible for people to build viable businesses selling niche products (like e.g. WTTM), which in turn means that people have a lot more choice of reading matter than they used to.

The Long Tail book itself is pretty lightweight, you only really need to read the original Wired article to apprehend his argument, which is pretty simple. I haven't read any of the other books so I can't advise.

I should add that I really don't think that explaining scientific/cultural/economic phenomena in a readable way is 'dumbing down'. I think it takes a lot of effort to make arcane subjects intelligible to people who haven't studied that particular discipline. In fact I think it takes more intellectual effort to explain something complicated in simple terms than it does to use the jargon and conventions and shorthand that are generally used inside the discipline.

But then I would say that, because that's what I do for a living.

Tim Footman said...

Read about 20 pages of Coelho, Pisces. Can't remember which one. Did strike me that it seems to be targeted at people who aren't quite imaginative or motivated enough to join a religious cult.

It was McCarthy who mentioned dumbing down, Patroclus, with regard to literary fiction. I've got nothing against these soc. sci. blockbusters, and as I said, I've only read the one; I'm just surprised that they've captured the collective imagination so quickly that people are expected to have read them. Do they get discussed at dinner parties?

bye bye bellulah said...

Have read all of these, and more of the same. I found them entertaining train books, would say that you're not a Left Behind.
Heard Alain de Botton say about the Architecture of Happiness that his 200 page book was distilled into 4 pages of script to make the accompanying TV programme - that's what these feel like in reverse.

I think it's the genre that's taken a place on the required reading list, not the titles. Suddenly we/ordinary people are not jobs for life people or specialists any more, we have to have transferable skills and knowledge, and perhaps for the first or second generation, some knowledge (of this type) at all. Now we all have to appear to be the last man to know About everything and hey presto.

I discovered I'm interested in pop science. A text book on astrophysics would prop up the wobbly table leg, but Michio Kaku pre-filters for me, entertains me and gives me just enough understanding not to get lost in everyday conversation. For a scientist my knowledge would be next to useless, but I want to know enough that I can follow the world around me.
Sociology, psych and econ are different because we all engage in them everyday by default of being human and feel more confident in expressing our views as semi-experts, and perhaps more challenged by someone who comes up with independent thought that happens to coincide with the only other 'expert' contact with the topic that we've had, ie Freakonomics.

dh said...

Time for you to curl up with 'Why do bad things happen to good people?' I think Tim. You'll find all the answers in there.

patroclus said...

Sorry Tim, I didn't mean to imply that I thought it was you who'd made the reference to dumbing-down; it's just that whenever I see that phrase I get quite angry.

I don't have any explanation for why the popular science books are so, er, popular. Perhaps just due to people's natural intellectual curiosity? I'd far rather see stuff like The Tipping Point in the bestseller chart than Jordan's autobiography ('Now With The Story Of My Love For Peter!') .

K.W.Wan said...

I thought your post title was a reference to a Stealers Wheel song...

Annie Rhiannon said...

The Alchemist just made me umwhat. It's like trying to read the Bible.

Chris said...

I always thought 'canon' meant 'Sherlock Holmes stories written by Conan Doyle':

http://www.sherlockian.net/canon/

patroclus said...

Ooh, The Musgrave Ritual - that's a scary story.

Tim Footman said...

How do train books differ from plane books, BBB? I'll make sure to pack one for my next long journey by any means of transportation, although this might break my current "female authors only" rule.

I know why God lets bad things happen to good people, dh. He's really pissed off that he doesn't exist. (Although I think setting fire to that Glaswegian car bomber was taking it a bit far.)

No worries, P. But give Jordan a break. She's got a fat, blind, mental baby. But enough about Peter...

It was, K.W. Didn't you know Tennyson played bass for the Stealers?

"Umwhat"!!! Better than "ridick". Stick it in the Wiki, before they expunge you, Annie.

Oh, you blimmin Holmes freaks. The concept of canon was actually invented by Dr Who fans, but Conan Doyle came through a time slip to steal it from some gay nerd in about 1974.

Murph said...

Wasn't this accusation of dumbing down known as "The Charge of the Lite Brigade"?

Annie Rhiannon said...

I can't stick anything in my Wiki. You're not allowed to use it to write about yourself. Otherwise it'd be full of all my glorious acheivements by now.

llewtrah said...

Back in 2001 I wrote and published an article on the web. A couple of months ago I got an email condemning me for paraphrasing a book on the same topic. The book in question was published a whole year after my article and is published in the US (which means I didn't even know it existed until I was accused of plagiarising it). The loon then wrongly accused me of not citing my sources (presumably because the book I'd never heard of wasn't mentioned anywhere). The emailer didn't bother responding to my reply pointing these out.

The problem is that there are only so many ways you can arrange words into a treatise on a specialist topic with specialist vocabulary; especially if you're using the same limited pool of source material as other researchers (a problem I had with 2 more articles, both researched from source material and both facing claims from authors that I'd ripped off their publications in spite of the sources being cited).

Bottom line - pretty much everything has already been written already so unless you're writing about some totally new discoverey that only you know about, it's pretty certain that someone will claim you got your content from something you've never read and possibly never even heard of.