Elephants for Bookends

April 23, 2012

It is with great pleasure that I announce a new blog. My lovely wife, Cate, and I have started a book blog together. It is called Elephants for Bookends.

The new blog will have all the book content I’ve been posting to this blog and plenty of other stuff. The Winesburg Eagle isn’t gong away, though. Instead, it will just have more posts about parenting and teaching and music and other things in my life.

Levon Helm

April 19, 2012

Levon Helm died today. He is the third member of the original lineup of The Band to die and the final vocalist.

There’s a chance, maybe a good chance, that you don’t know who The Band was.  Like everyone from the sixties who isn’t the Beatles or Jimi Hendrix, they are largely forgotten outside the musical community. They were giant. The Band is one of those groups who have had so much influence that it’s hard to realize there was an originator of that sound. But if you’ve heard Springsteen or The Counting Crows or The Arcade Fire or lord knows how many other bands, you’ve heard a little bit of The Band.

I don’t remember exactly when I came across The Band. They were one of those groups who permeated my childhood. There sound, to me, is original and primordial (many would call their sound that anyway). I don’t know life without it.

I do know that I came to them seriously in college. First, I was drawn to the guitar playing of Robbie Robertson, but it didn’t take long until the songs Levon sang became my favorite. For someone who was as hard into the blues and heavy guitar playing as I was then, I think it’s fair to credit the band for widening my horizons to country and folk and Americana and the beautiful way they blended those together with a sort of Marvin Gaye funk element that just made it all swing so good. Their cover of Don’t Do It, which Helm sung most of is as transcendent as anything they ever did, and that’s saying something.

I know next to nothing about Levon Helm beyond his music. I know he wrote a well-regarded autobiography that has been on my to-read list for a long time and that he had some issues with Robbie Robertson about who, exactly, wrote all those songs. I know that I have never heard a bad word about him from any corner. Sweet, I think, is the dominant adjective. It’s something you can see in the interview footage of him inThe Last Waltz. The shy blue eyes. The embarrassment talking about girls and other things that happened on the road.

He died, but he left a pretty good legacy. A lot of great music and a long line of people who seem to have loved the man as much as the voice. That’s not bad. That’s not bad at all.

I just wish we could all hear him sing again.

Lately, there’s been some Jonathan Franzen-related kerfuffle going around. Most notably, as regards a misguided essay he wrote about Edith Wharton for The New Yorker. Just as this was going on, I was working my way through his most recent novel, Freedom. If you read last month’s book log, you know I was less than impressed.

At the same time, there are a lot of people – A LOT – who regard him as something like America’s greatest living writer. It does not seem to matter to the dominant reviewers that his treatment of women is so lacking. This, of course, is because most of the important reviewers and editors are men.

The vast, vast, vast majority of fiction writers are women and that isn’t going to change. My writing classes are overwhelmingly filled with girls. More than 80 percent of my students in those classes are girls.

You are, I hope, seeing the disconnect with this. I played with numbers in my last post a bit, and I feel the need to point out that it is impossible for the majority of great writers to be men right now. But, you know, this is a long tradition. Most great writers have always been men (this is entirely because women haven’t been allowed to learn to read or taken seriously when they do write something), but I don’t think it can last much longer.

The most ridiculous part of this is that a woman who wrote like Franzen or maybe Cormac McCarthy and marginalized men the way they marginalize women would never be called great. The women writers who do ascend to the canon almost all have to show they understand male and female perspectives. Men just have to show they understand the world of men.

But that can’t last forever, not in a world where women are most of the readers and most of the writers and where they’re held to a higher standard. The canon of the future is a female canon

In baseball, there is a concept in advanced statistics known as VORP or Value Over Replacement Player. It is used to describe how good a player is relative to another player who could be had, more or less, for free. How this is measured isn’t as important as the concept.

You see, for a very long time, the numbers in baseball have gotten less gaudy. Oh sure, someone will have a ridiculous season every now and then, but in general, the best players have a much lower VORP now than they did in the 60s or the 30s or the 20s. There’s a pretty basic reason behind this – the bottom level players are much better now than they were 80 or 100 years ago. The population sending players to the majors is much larger than it was then.

That doesn’t mean great players from the past weren’t great. It just means they look better than they were because the competition wasn’t as stiff. Babe Ruth would probably still be a wonderful player if he played today, but he might not be BABE RUTH, if you get my point.

This has been a lengthy introduction about baseball, but this isn’t really about baseball. Instead, I wanted to introduce the concept to you. Now, I want to you participate in a mental exercise I am borrowing from Virginia Woolf.

Imagine Shakespeare’s siblings. He had seven, but three died very young. Imagine they had lived. Now imagine he had more. Hundreds even. And imagine that many of them were just as talented as he was. They, too, were slaving away, writing great plays and poems. But their brother published first and became famous and so maybe they publish a little thing here or there, but in general, the public isn’t interested because they already have one Shakespeare and don’t need another.

Obviously, the numbers vary over the course of his lifetime, but a good estimate for the population of England when Shakespeare was alive is 4 million people. The literacy rate for men was about 30% (I can’t find the exact rate for women, but it was significantly lower). So, of the two million men kicking around England with Shakespeare, there were 600,000 who could at least write their names. If you like, we can guess at a 20% literacy rate for women and call it an even million literate people. Shakespeare was one in a million! Neat! And that seems right, doesn’t it?

There are more than 60 million people in the modern UK.

There are more than 300 million people in the modern US.

There are more than 30 million people in Canada.

There are more than 20 million people in Australia

Those are the four largest nations in the world where English is the primary language. 410 million people. If Shakespeare was one in a million, there should be about 410 of him running around right now.

Add to that this piece of information: Last year, there were over one million books published. That’s more books than there were people to write them in Shakespearean England.

There is a quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson’s memoir, The Sky Is Not theLimit that he takes from an 5000-year-old Assyrian tablet. It says:

“The earth is degenerating these days. Bribery and corruption abound. Children no longer mind their parents… and it is evident that the end of the world is approaching fast.”

The implication, obviously, is that people have always been romanticizing the past. Things today are never as good as they once were. Shakespeare. Dickens. Wharton. Austen. Steinbeck. Hemingway. These are the Great Writers and we will never see others like them.

This is almost certainly wrong. It’s wrong for the same reasons it’s wrong to assume that Babe Ruth was better than any of today’s players. Sheer numbers argue that there must be many more great writers today than there were then. The difference, mostly, is that the 50th best writer now is much closer to the best writer than the 50th best writer was two hundred years ago. That is, artists today suffer by comparison, just as baseball players do.

I don’t think that’s all of it, though. Humanity also tends to give extra credit to originators. Roger Ebert recently had a post about his list of the best films ever. They are almost all old, but many of them are also innovative. Innovation requires two things. Creativity, obviously, but also opportunity. You can’t discover something that’s already been found. Even if you figure something out on your own, it doesn’t count if someone else has done it.

Of course, discovery and innovation become increasingly difficult as time passes and as population increases. This is why there is an entire literary movement (post-modernism) built around the discovery that you can tell a story without thinking about the reader. There simply aren’t that many places left to go.

All of this means that today’s artists have a very low Value Over Replacement Artist (VORA). I recently started Lauren Groff’s new book. I didn’t care for it. I found the language overwrought and pretentious. I put it down. I had really been looking forward to the new book because I had really enjoyed her first two, but I didn’t think twice about moving on to something else. Why? There are wonderful books in uncountable numbers that I haven’t read. Why waste time on one I’m not enjoying when I can simply move on? This kind of thinking makes it difficult to anoint new “greats.” We have so many choices that we pick nits instead of trying to recognize someone as a great artist who is, at times, less great.

But there are bigger consequences because we do, eventually, choose those who represent our generation. Time is a wonderful filter. The larger consequences come because a society only needs so many books, so many musicians, so many athletes, and so many artists.

I want to return to one of the numbers I mentioned earlier. There were over a million books published last year. Do you really believe there aren’t a lifetime of classics there? Cate is the most avid reader I know. She routinely blows past a hundred books a year, but over the course of her life how many books can she read? Six thousand? Seven? Maybe eight? That’s less than one percent of all the books published in one year.

Humans, many of us at least, are inherently creative people. We interact with the world through creative expression. Often, this is its own reward, but it’s hard to create as much as you’d like when you have to worry about other things like paying the bills. And the bigger your society is, the more truly wonderful artists go through life utterly ignored and unappreciated. This is a tragedy.

It’s one of the reasons I occasionally pluck a book off the shelf at random when I’m in the bookstore or the library. But how many manuscripts are out there that never get published? Harper Lee walked into a publishing house and handed them her book. You can’t do that today. Publishing almost always requires getting and agent. Getting an agent almost always requires being published. It’s a vicious cycle.

And no one is to blame. Because there is a torrent. Manuscripts, I know, come in by the hundreds, but only so many can be published. We live in a big world and the bigger the world gets, the less the artist matters because there is always another one behind the next door who is just as good as the person they are replacing.

Stories (Opening Day)

April 5, 2012

On a yearly basis, baseball fans are obsessed with winning the World Series. Or with getting back to the playoffs as a stepping stone to winning the World Series. Or with having a winning season so that in a year or two they can maybe go back to the playoffs and then maybe win the World Series. These are the things our day to day conversations, as fans, revolve around.

But that is not why we are fans. Not those of us who really love the game. There are thirty teams. You can expect, on average, to see your team win the World Series once every 30 years (every 29 years if you take the Cubs out of the equation). Yet the Cubs, in this instance, are illustrative. They have fans everywhere. Aggravating fans to be sure, but fans. Why? The Cubs are a good story.

In May of 2009, my wife and I went to Cincinnati for a couple of games. Our first child would be born soon and it was our last trip as a childless couple. The Reds had scuffled to start the year, but lately they’d been coming on. They handled St. Louis easily the first day we were there, a very satisfying 8-3 win. But that’s not the game I really remember. I remember the next day. I remember the game they lost.

It was a back and forth game and tense all the way through – the Reds and Cardinals already didn’t like each other. The Cards scored one in the first, the Reds tied it in the second. The Cards scored three more in the third, the Reds scored two and then tied it with another run in the fourth. They never led, though, and by the bottom of the ninth, they were down 7-5. Hairston went long to make it 7-6 and then, a few batters later, with two outs, no less. The Reds sent Micah Owings – a pitcher – to pinch hit. I can still remember it. I can still see it. There was a full count and Owings got a hold of one and the crowd held it’s breath. It was hit hard and deep,  but you couldn’t tell if it had enough. It just snuck over the wall in left-center. The game was tied. At that moment, it felt certain. The Reds would win the game. They would take first soon and go on to the playoffs. This was a good team.

It didn’t happen that way. The Reds lost in 10. A few days later, they did touch first place for a day, but that was all they would see of it that year. Owings’ homer was, in many ways, the high point of a lost season. And I remember it. I remember because I was there, but also because it is a good story.

This year, a big part of the story is going to be whether or not the Reds can make the playoffs and maybe even win the World Series. That’s going to be a fun story to watch and be a part of, but there’s another story as well.

Joey Votto is going to be a Red for the rest of his career. This is the story we have been handed and it has the potential to be a good story. Think about Albert Pujols. He left St. Louis and went to Anaheim and his story is changed. The world will not remember him as fondly as if he had remained a Cardinal. In Anaheim, he will decline, and they will probably not be tolerant because they did not get the early years and so are not as willing to forgive the vast outlay of money.

I don’t know what will happen with Joey Votto. He will probably be a great player for a few years, then a good player, then an average player. It won’t be surprising if he’s a liability for a year or two at the end of that deal. He might get hurt, like Griffey, and everything could turn bad, and that would not be an especially nice story to experience.

But it might go well. The Reds might win a World Series or two. In 17 or 18 years, my family might be making a pilgrimage to Cooperstown so our kids can see the player they grew up watching go into the hall of fame. My daughter will probably be in college then, my son just graduating from high school. They have a chance now to feel about Votto the way some of us feel about Larkin. That kind of pure affection is something you only get in childhood and when you think back on it, it transcends the other stuff. Because you can’t win every year. But, if you stick around, and pay attention and get a little lucky, you can end up with a good story.

Happy baseball season, everybody.