Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Poetry, voice, and discourse analysis

"Language and Creativity: the art of common talk" by Ronald Carter (Routledge, 2004) analyses fragments of dialogue from various contexts to show how conversationalists are creative at a linguistic level - one example provided is

A: Yes, he must have a bob or two.
B: Whatever he does he makes money out of it, just like that.
C: Bob's your uncle.
B: He's quite a lot of money erm tied up in property and things. He's got a finger in all kinds of pies and houses and stuff
(p.2)

Carter points out that "the most frequent forms of linguistic creativity include: speaker displacement of fixedness, particularly of idioms and formulaic phrases; metaphor extension; morphological inventiveness; verbal play, punning and parody through overlapping forms and meanings; 'echoing' by repetition, including echoing by means of allusion and phonological echoes" (p.109).

This creativity performs many functions, amongst them "to give pleasure, to establish both harmony and convergence as well as disruption and critique, to express identities and to evoke alternative fictional worlds which are recreational and which recreate the familiar world in new ways" (p.82). It can be performative, competitive, figurative, space-filling, or for fun. Situations which are less concerned with information transfer (e.g. banter) give more scope for creativity. Often on "the surface and to the outsider (though not to the participants) there is much divergence, disconnection and incoherence. Beneath the surface there is, however, much convergence and coherence marked in a distinctive range of pattern-reinforcing linguistic features, especially repetition" (p.101), and that "how what is said is as significant, if not more so, than what is talked about" (p.105).

This "Common talk has continuities with and exists along clines [aka gradients] with forms that are valued by societies as art. The values which are attached to the art of common talk will vary according to context, time and place" (p.210). The author suggests that "Speakers also often wish to give a more affective contour to what they or others are saying. It is hypothesised here that there are three essential expressive options open to them: the expression of intimacy, the expression of intensity and the expression of evaluation" (p.117). All of these features tend to be increased in informal situations. Shifts along these dimensions are significant and often signposted - e.g. "proverbs appear at a discourse boundary, as if functioning to close down a conversation by summarising an attitude or by indicating a particular stance towards what has been said or to allow a smooth transition from one topic to another" (p.134).

I think we're alert (often subconsciously) to these nuances of register change - to how they're signalled and what their purpose is. At an appointment between a GP and a patient for example, a patient will react to the doctor's invitation to informality, seeing it perhaps as an indication that there's nothing seriously wrong. The GP on the other hand might be trying to extract a less inhibited description of the symptoms from the patient. Friends in discussion are also sensitive to the significance of these switches, or at least they sense the undercurrents that these shifts and switches create.

At a 2014 poetry workshop run with Emily Berry, Jack Underwood said he thought that poetry nowadays was more about voice and less about comparisons. He suggested that participants could try suppressing explicit narrative, using juxtaposition (of registers, tone, etc) to create distances for the reader to travel. The sample poems were mostly by Americans. Here are extracts from 2 of them

  • There are about 35,000 elk.

    But I should be studying for my exam.
    I wonder if Dean will celebrate with me tonight,
    assuming I pass. Finnish Literature

    really came alive in the 1860s.
    Here, in Cambridge Massachusetts,
    no one cares that I am a Finn.

    They've never even heard of Frans Eeemil Sillanpää,
    winner of the 1939 Nobel Prize in Literature.
    As a Finn, this infuriates me.
    ("I Am a Finn" by James Tate)
  • It's a travesty of hand-stitching, a decapitation.

    Whose cotton limb? It dangles from my thumb
    and forefinger. The universe slackens in its shadow
    ("Ruminations on 25mm of Cotton" by Heather Phillipson)

There are rapid changes of register (changes of intimacy, intensity and evaluation are evident). Both are presented as if from a single persona, but in general the distinction between this and polyphony isn't clear - polyphony can be flattened into monologue. In Eliot's notes for "The Wasteland" he writes "Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a 'character,' is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest. Just as the one-eyed merchant, seller of currants, melts into the Phoenician Sailor, and the latter is not wholly distinct from Ferdinand Prince of Naples, so all the women are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias. What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem". Sections of the Wasteland read as dialogue even if they're not - "Do/ You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember/ Nothing?"/ I remember/ Those are pearls that were his eyes./ "Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?"/ But/ O O O O that Shakesperian Rag—" or

Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the archduke’s,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish?

There's little simile and narrative in these extracts. But need the interplay of registers be at the expense of narrative and form? In the past I think there are many type of poetry capable of exhibiting contrasting registers - the cubist idea of fusing different viewpoints and the use of collage are early 20th century discoveries, but the use of a Fool, a mad person or a cacophonous crowd to depict polyphony go back much further. Many have retained some kind of plot. And what about sound? Poets of many types have suggested that the form and sonics of their poems create a constantly changing, parallel effect to the meaning, that an even-handed dialogue is possible between sound and "meaning".

  • "The chief use of the 'meaning' of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be ... to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him.", T.S. Eliot
  • "The sounds, acting together with the measure, are a kind of extended onomatopoeia - i.e., they imitate, not the sounds of an experience ... but the feeling of an experience, its emotional tone, its texture", Denise Levertov
  • "sound enacts meaning as much as designates something meant", Charles Bernstein
  • "sound in its due place is as much true as knowledge (and all that mere claptrap about information and learning). Rhyme is the public truth of language, sound paced out in the shared place", J.H. Prynne
  • "Bunting would say that you should hear the 'meaning' of the poetry purely in the sound ... Word patterns which may at first appear dense and complicated on the page become articulated and clarified, resonating across the poems' structure. The subtleties and echoes of language which hold a poem together are revealed by the process of sounding it", Richard Caddel
  • "The ear is satisfied when the metre is balanced and the rhyme struck, but the sentence is incomplete and the mind seeks its satisfaction in resolution of the sense... By the counterpoint - a kind of suspense - created between the arrangement of sounds and the construing of sense, a pace builds and a drama develops", Michael Schmidt
  • "The classic prejudice persists, however, that sound is secondary to meaning. The prejudice has been challenged by John Hollander, who, seeking to show the relation between sound and poetic meaning, discovers that sound pattern can play the role of an allegory or metaphor of the poem's content the role of sound in language becomes clear only when expression becomes artistic, so that language exceeds its purely representational function", Anca Rosu

Because discourse-based poems emulate speech, they tend not to use sound effects (regular ones, at least). These new-style poems exploit readers' conversational skills, using their reactions as the pivots that articulate the movement within a poem in preference to using their ear for music. The tasks performed in the past by sound can be simulated by register changes -

  • Particular sounds were thought to be invested with particular meaning (within the context of a particular poem, at least). For example an "oo" sound might signify sadness. In discourse-based poems there's a corresponding way to trigger emotion - for instance the switch to an impersonal standard phrase might denote cold-shouldering or distancing.
  • An earlier phrase can be alluded to by use of rhyme. In discourse-based poems, sudden formality might remind the reader of the previous formality.

Older poems might be analysed by counting beats and identifying constellations of sounds. W.G. Shepherd for example, quoting "Bellflowers, seldom seen now, stellar, trim. by Peter Dale, remarked "Note the triple statement of the el(l) sound counterpointed against the duple m; the narrowing of el(l)'s vowel to ee and i - boldly interrupted by recapitulation of ow; and the modulation of s through st to t". I've seen descriptions of how discourse-based poems work using terms like "shifting planes", "tectonic plates colliding", "slippery", "tonal juxtapositions", "shimmering surfaces", etc. Narrative is compared to melody, and discourse-based poems to atonality. I think that one can be less impressionistic than this. The poems might be studied by

  • re-casting as a multi-voice poems.
  • identifying the direction and magnitude of each jump.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Elizabeth Baines and Innovation

Often with authors whose writing I like I wonder why they're not better known. Elizabeth Baines is no exception. But I think she's had a good few months. Recently her work has

  • appeared in "Unthology 5"
  • appeared in "Best Short Stories 2014"
  • won 2nd prize in the Short Fiction magazine's competition

My awareness of her work goes back a long time. When I read "New Stories I" (an anthology edited by Giles Gordon and David Hughes, I think, published around 1990) there was a short piece that I like so much I copied it by hand. Also I was a regular reader of Metropolitan an A4 glossy magazine of short stories that she edited with Ailsa Cox. It ceased publication in 1997 after 10 issues. I guess I didn't see her name around for a few years after that. Then came blogs and the publisher Salt, and I saw her name again.

Her publications are

  • A collection of short stories, "Balancing on the Edge of the World" (Salt, 2007). A story from there, "Compass and Torch" is on a GCSE course.
  • A novella, "Too Many Magpies" (Salt, 2009)
  • Her first novel, "The Birth Machine", published by "The Women’s Press" in 1983 and reprinted in 2010 by Salt
  • A novel, "Body Cuts" (Pandora, 1988)

Perhaps she hasn't published as many short-story collections as her peers (though she's won prizes for her stories and plays including a Giles Cooper Best Radio Play Award and received Sony radio nominations). Maybe that's because her career coincides with a downturn in the UK short-story's fortunes. Or maybe people have trouble pinning down her style. Short story writers like Jackie Kay seem to get more attention than her. I don't know why.

Innovative is a catch-all term. It's common for authors to think that they're more innovative than they really are. So much has been done before (sometimes by the authors themselves - Ali Smith's stories are beginning to re-use the same tricks). Novelty for the sake of it soon wears off. Importing something into novels that's already used in another field (diary entries, etc) is a rather weak form of innovation (though it may lead to useful work). Some stories that appear innovative to most of us are mimetic to others. Drugs and mental illness may lead to altered states of mind that are captured by a type of Realism that didn't used to fit well inside literature. Nowadays it's almost as if there's a literary genre for each malady - see for example Madness and Modernism by Louis A. Sass.

Baines is the author of the chapter ‘Innovative Fiction and the Novel’ in the "Creative Writing Handbook", ed John Singleton and Mary Luckhurst (Macmillan) so her take on novelty is worth attending to. Over 30 pages long, the chapter includes about 20 pages about collaborative exercises to encourage innovation. She points out that

  • "If our view of ourselves and our world radically changes, then it might be expected that the stories we tell about ourselves will also change, and the way that we tell them" (p.129)
  • "there is this sense now in the West that things are different from how they've ever been before" (p.131)

She suggests that instead of omniscience there's often nowadays a "literature of voices", and that there "has been a concern to expose the constructed nature of both history ... and fiction itself". I think that describes some of her own stories. Elsewhere too she's voiced concerns with language and style -

  • From The Real Thing - "when I pick up a novel that doesn't stretch the form or do exciting things with language, I am overcome by a claustrophobic sense of unreality, the sense of being half awake and unable to shake off an old, recurring, stifling dream. When I read a good novel that does the opposite, overturns my narrative expectations or uses language in new ways, then all at once I feel in touch with something true about our human condition and the nature of the fluid, changing, fragmentary world in which we live. I feel in touch with reality. I feel alive. I tell you, it's the real thing"
  • From an interview - "I’d say that a big aspect of writing for me is the tension between pushing the boundaries and pleasing readers who, in my experience, are generally more comfortable with the conventional. Being inventive with language and structure is what I find exciting … sometimes it’s only by finding new or different ways of telling stories that you can show the truth as you see it. However, I’ve become increasingly aware of the need to find ways of doing this without alienating too many readers."

That final point is something that I (and some of my friends) empathize with. The pieces I like most from her story collection are "Leaf Memory", "A Glossary of Bread" (based around definitions of words for "roll"), and "Going Back" (shades of Woolf). Within these texts is the world recognisably this world? Yes. Are there characters? Yes. Can one identify with them? Yes. Is there a fixed sequence in which to read the pieces? Yes.
It's not language-based Formalism, or chance-based. She doesn't write pieces like Lydia Davis, Beckett, or like Guy Ware's "All Downhill from Here", or like many of Jon McGregor's pieces in "This Isn't The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You". But neither are they mainstream. Here are summaries of 3 stories that aren't in her book

  • In "Falling" (East of the Web) the character falls 3 times. The falls seem to relate to feelings of insecurity - doubts about her boyfriend and her self. After the 3rd, she wonders of she'd died after the 1st, whether she was dreaming. Or maybe she'd died after the 2nd fall. Or maybe she died in the the 3rd episode, an observer not wanting to see a death, wondering if he was dreaming.
  • In "Tides or how Stories do or don't get told" (East of the Web) there's much reflexive comment - "And I can't yet see how to tell the story, or where to go from that moment ... I could pick the time he betrayed me. ... I could tell that story, the time it ended between us. I could make it a feminist re-telling of a fairy tale ... once ... he nearly died. I could tell that last too, as a complete and rounded story ... Would I mention my sense then that nothing had meaning and that my life after all was no story, or would I lie, since he recovered, and make those symbols fit a narrative arc with a happy ending? ... We joined hands in the dark, in the oncoming rush of all the possible stories". There's confusion about feeling when recalling an event and feeling at the time of the event.
  • In "Used to Be" (Carve magazine) two middle-aged sisters are on their way to an amateur film-set. "I used to be a writer who decided for her characters what they were thinking. ... I used to write in measured sentences ... I used to hide behind the third person ... I no longer trust metaphors ... I used to believe in plots". The author/narrator is also a reader, having to assess the veracity of her sister's stories, and of her own story - "in spite of what narrative so often tells us, nothing, including our personalities, is stable, but fluid". The journey of bridges and missed turnings becomes a metaphor ("And flashing past with the bridges are all my selves") then becomes another story to tell when they arrive at the set. Her sister suddenly takes her role seriously, identifying with the part - "the tyranny of stories, the way they take you over with their own internal logic and their pull towards drama, you say one thing and the story turns it into something else".

In each of these pieces, betrayal by a partner (or suspicion of it) comes to echo a distrust of reality. Selective memories are used in the construction of self. As psychologists have shown (see for example Mind, Brain and Narrative by Anthony J. Sanford and Catherine Emmott (CUP, 2012)), similar mechanisms are used when comprehending a story - its shape, its message, its characters. Narratology becomes tantamount to self-analysis. Storylines are reconstructed, exploiting defects in memory and awareness. In this sense, her stories' structural novelties are character-based. The epicentre of disruption is inside a character even if it manifests itself as perturbed language, or as linguistic certainties of definition contrasting with the willed vaguaries of recall. I think this emphasis helps her avoid alienating too many readers. Even when she's not being innovative she's good at depicting characters.

She's well aware of how commercial pressures affect works - she thinks of her "The Birth Machine" as being in 2 forms, the differing structures targeted towards certain audiences. In her Unthank interview she says that "I guess there's a current popularity for weird and quirky stories, and flash fiction is certainly having a moment". As far as I know she doesn't do much Flash, and she's not devoted to the weird. In "Balancing on the Edge of the World" middle class people dominate, usually in English urban settings. Separated parents with children are often depicted using a female PoV. Early on in the stories we're introduced to all the cast. There are few loners or loonies. There's little about death - no first loves, no punchlines. The originality's in the form, the language.

The major publishers may not welcome innovative novels, but there's room in magazines for non-standard stories. It can't do any harm that Nicholas Royle, who trawls the magazines for "Best Short Stories" material, has had an innovative novel published. On her Other work page she writes "My advice to anyone thinking of starting up a print lit mag is, Don't, unless, like me, you've got an unstoppable compulsion to do so and you're a workaholic. And do it for a limited period only, unless you've got a private income (you don't get paid to do it) and nothing else to do with your life.". Though she's no longer a magazine editor, she's well aware of the magazine scene, not least the online ones - "East of the Web", "The View from here", etc. Perhaps it's in these publications, rather than in novels, where we should look for innovation. See her short story page for a list of what might be in her next book.

Further reading

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Organising a poetry collection

There aren't many lessons to learn from how I put my poetry collection together. Mainly I picked twice as many poems as were needed, and let the editor do the rest. I started with a poem about birth, ended with a poem about death, and tried not to jump around too much in the middle.

Below are some more comprehensive notes. They all suggest that the first and final poems matter. Some suggest breaking the book into sections. All suggest that linking devices should be used - character, theme, setting, imagery, form or even contrast. Levine suggests that if poems are "written more or less in the same creative period", they might work well in a sequence. For some poets, books have more cohesion than that. Fiona Sampson said that "Really I write books of poetry; I don't write individual poems. ... It's only really when I'm over the brow of the book that I can see what kind of collection it is that I'm writing. Then I can rewrite it all", ("The Next Review", No.5, p.13). For the final sequencing, people often suggest printing a poem per page and laying them out on the floor.

The article from the Iowa Review (you might not have access to the online version) looks at structuring ideas from many published books. The others are more practically oriented.

The Poetry School offer for a few pounds a downloadable Towards a collection course by Pascale Petit. Clare Pollard's Putting a pamphlet together is free. There's even a book - Ordering the Storm: How to Put Together a Book of Poems edited by Susan Grimm.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Reading strategies: when top-down meets bottom-up

Reading took evolution by surprize. Various regions of the brain had to be co-opted to provide the necessary skills. The way we use and coordinate these functions varies according to the language and circumstances. Experienced readers of novels will read a chunk of words at a time, recognising words by their shape, but infants learning English build words up letter by letter, sound by sound. That childhood strategy isn't lost as we develop, it's brought into play when there are new words, misspellings, etc. Sometimes sounds matter too, activating other brain regions.

With some texts, eye-movement won't be regular - they'll be some forward and backward jumping. Physically it's not just our eyes that are involved in reading. People who sub-vocalise will struggle with tongue-twisters, and the body sometimes mirrors activities that are read about - if a character wriggles their toes, readers are likely to.

Poetry can exploit these low-level, often dormant possibilities. It can also stretch experienced readers in the top-down direction too. Seeing a text for the first time, they might assess quickly whether it's a love letter, a maths proof or a phone directory, and begin reading accordingly. Within broad genres there are sub-genres - knowing that a novel is literary SF might lead them to read in a different way to when reading a "Mills and Boon" or Harlequin novel. That initial assumption may prove misguided or unhelpful (indeed, the author may deliberately subvert the genre) but readers have to start somewhere. The assumption helps readers decide how fast to read, whether to read linearly, whether to look for irony, and whether to laugh or cry. As well as being aware of genres and subgenres, experienced poetry readers are likely to have a collection of templates in mind - "the list poem", "the Naming of Parts poem", etc.

Poetry and prose are often thought to encourage different reading modes. Reading "poetry", people tend not to expect plot, and the persona's more likely to be conflated with the author. Bottom-up processing is likely to matter more - low-level features like sound may convey meaning. But the prose and poetry genres, like many others, overlap. Readers needs to remain flexible.

There can be clashes. For example

  • Sometimes the assumed genre (or template) has such a hold on the reader that subsequent counter-indications have no effect. The shopping list or note on the fridge never becomes a love letter, or a text read in a poetry magazine may continue be read as a poem despite its content.
  • Sometimes people take in the music of a poem without reading the words one at a time. Bottom-up interpretation clashes with the top-down, impressionistic feel. For example, reading a poem called "Mirror" the close-reader may see that the poet is contrasting themselves with a passive mirror, whereas the top-downer might assume that the poet's identifying with the mirror (perhaps they misread "I am looking at a mirror" as "I am a mirror" to make it fit their assumptions, or they missed a significant "not"). Is the top-downer "wrong"? Maybe not; despite the words, the top-downer's interpretation may be the more valid one, the persona in denial perhaps.

I think an experienced reader is likely to negotiate between top-down and bottom-up strategies, especially when reading poetry. The experience of reading one way informs the other. Poets subconsciously or otherwise can exploit this. In "Tears in the fence" No.59 Spring 2014, Mark Goodwin has some poems. Here's the start of "Mind Will"

wind th    rives in sky's grasp the   wind
ing of cloth pulls   the sky's hear   t open

and takes the p   ush of clouds & distant
land into the text   ure of corn's matt talk

The gaps allow a little Joycean wordplay, bringing out new meanings, though the effect's rather muted. It's more like disruption, stopping the reader using a standard novel-reading method of processing - letters rather than words need to be processed, and the 2nd line's "ing" will cause most readers to backtrack. In the 4th line, readers are likely to sense "text of [the] talk" and "corn stalk". The next poems in the magazine are by Chris Hall. Here's the end of "Five Surrealist Paintings"

th rose in th orangery
purpl turtl
th writing on the carapace
th blood on the flagstone

no fish

Dialect? As with Hall's piece, prose processing is impeded, but this time some lower level aural as well as visual processing needs to be adopted. If nothing else, reading will be slower. Hall ends his selection of poems with an author's note

My poetry is expressed on the page in an unusual verbal form. This is note because of any particular lexical experiment or linguistic virtuosity on my part. Rather, it is an attempt to force readers into 'voicing' the content in their own head, as the poems are intended to be experienced aurally as much as visually, and usually emerge for the first time in public readings rather than in print.

Poets don't often leave such notes for the reader. The intent's laudable, though maybe phonetic spelling could have been used throughout?

For some types of texts (maths, but also some poetry) each symbol matters, and readers may benefit from being made to read in a non-prose mode. In The secret life of fluency Daniel Oppenheimer wrote that for some exercises, "participants were significantly more likely to detect the error when the question was written in a difficult-to-read font. This suggests that they were adopting a more systematic processing method and attending more carefully to the details of the question". It's possible that the painstaking reading strategy that dyslexics are forced into may even be of benefit to them in some subjects. Perhaps poetry is one of them.

See also

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Trains in literature

Like many other writers, I find trains useful. They feature in 5 of the 8 stories in my collection, and in Paradox, a poem from my pamphlet. There's the departure (leaving the old life behind) and the arrival (a new start) but the mode of transport has useful features too - a combination of constraint (tracks and timetables) and freedom; of aloneness and being in a crowd. And they have a rhythm.

Journeys are traditionally quests, but train journeys can be outside space and time. One of AL Kennedy's characters says "You can relax here - this isn't anywhere. What ever happens outside, there's nothing we can do about it right now". Kaye Mitchell says that for Kennedy's character trains are "free of the expectations and judgements of others, a space in which to meditate freely on the past and her possible future". One needn't devote a whole poem to them as Auden did with "Night Mail", mention of them's enough to be evocative - Carol Ann Duffy's "Prayer" includes "a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth/ in the distant Latin chanting of a train."

Trains have an underworld - the Tube - a nightlife of couchettes, and they breed nostalgia in the form of steam locomotives. In this picture I was trying to do something clever - having the train move while the people's reflections in the train were static. Didn't quite work.

Of course, there are many books and essays on the use of trains in literature and film. Some places to start are

Monday, 5 May 2014

Classifying - prose and cons

Why?

Why do people classify? It's partly to make storage and retrieval efficient. If you know where to put something, you'll be able to find it again. However, there are many ways to classify. For example, where should you keep dinner forks? In a cupboard where you keep all things whose name begins with F? Or along with garden forks? If they have red handles you could store them with other red items. Using any of these strategies the forks would be easy to find. Usually however they're kept by things with a similar function (i.e. cutlery), where they're most often needed (the kitchen), and in appropriate conditions.

Classifying is also descriptive, aiding understanding. Once you know that something is classified as cutlery, you know its purpose. Another advantage of keeping cutlery together is that you may find a more suitable item than the one you were initially looking for. Classifying brings into play other issues -

  • Partitioning - some classifications segregate, splitting items into non-overlapping sets - an item in one class can't be in another. Classifying all humans into "male" or "female", or all texts in "fiction" or "non-fiction" is problematic, though there may be good reasons for such a restrictive classification (in law or for sport, for example).
  • Primary/Secondary qualities - Knowing that E.coli is a bacterium tells you much about it. On the other hand, that my hair is brown is contingent, not central to identity.
  • Noun/Adjective - Adjectives are less threatening than nouns when classifying; roughly equivalent to secondary effects. They tend to be less segregational. Describing something as "a poem" isn't the same as describing it as "poetic" - a poem can't be a painting, but a painting can be poetic.

Classifying can become a habit, but much of the time it has a purpose. In the UK, the law says that you have to be at least 17 years old to drive. This isn't descriptive - it's not claiming at on their 17th birthday people suddenly become responsible enough to drive. Putting tomatoes in the supermarket's vegetable section isn't asserting that tomatoes are vegetables, any more than finding "By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept" in the poetry section of a library means that it's poetry.

How to classify

In statistics there are some techniques to help with classification. The basic ideas are worth knowing about. Let's start with a simple case. How could you train an alien or a computer to distinguish between dogs and family cars? The tried and trusted method is to take measurements (age, max speed, height, weight, etc) of known samples, then see which of those factors best discriminate between the 2 types of objects. In this situation perhaps one factor - weight - suffices. Anything weighing more than a certain amount is a car.

In fact, it's not necessary to "train" the system on already-classified samples. Factor analysis will be able to notice that there are 2 families of items, and it will identify the best discriminating factor(s). A more complex situation is determining whether a human face looks male or female. It's more complex partly because

  • it's unclear which easily measurable factors might be important - humans don't consciously analyse faces very much.
  • unlike the dog/car situation, the faces don't form 2 disjoint sets.

But the methodology used in the first example can still be applied here. First, decide on what to measure - it's best to play safe and measure many features whether you think they're relevant or not. Then get some humans to assess the gender of the faces. Having done that, the factors can be analysed automatically. Some factors can be eliminated as irrelevant, or because they duplicate information. Other factors might be only slightly skewed towards one gender. By taking a weighted combination of factors, a single number can be determined which optimally reflects the femininity of the face. In the image presented here, from InTech, 2 factors are being used, and the green line shows the axis along which the red and blue samples are most clearly separated.

Why bother with all this? Well, just as our eyes are limited (we need microscopes and telescopes to see nature the way other creatures do), so our ability to perceive patterns is limited.

  • Factor analysis might reveal the importance of factors that humans didn't think was important.
  • The analysis might reveal hidden factors (perhaps the distance between the eyes compared to the distance between the ears) that are significant.
  • The analysis might identify clumps of similar samples that humans missed.

Importantly, this process of identifying the factors useful for classifying can be automated and can deal with dozens of factors. See Wikipedia's Factor analysis page for details. Reducing variation to a single number is sometimes over-reductionist - it rather depends on the context, and the maths will tell us how reductionist our choice of parameters is. Other problems are to do with interpretation. In the example above -

  • "femininity" is in the eye of the beholder and changes according to fashion. That's not a problem for the method, which is merely trying to efficiently emulate the human's classifications - it's not trying to determine the Idealized notion of gender or beauty.
  • In the list of measurements taken, some significant metrics might have been left out. It's safer to take too many measurements and leave it to the methodology to eliminate the redundant values.
  • The results might be abused - males with (according to this method) very feminine faces might be picked on, for example.

In practise, humans classify lazily. They don't perform an in-depth study then classify. More often they try to make do with a glance. If that doesn't suffice, then they have another, longer (or more targeted) look.

Poetry and Prose

All that's a prequel to the discussion of poetry versus prose. I think authors are well advised to be aware of how readers are likely to process their texts. Faced with a text that looks like (or is described as) poetry, readers are likely to adopt a different initial reading strategy to the one they use for prose. In the course of reading the text they might switch strategies, in particular regarding reading-speed and linearity of reading. Such switches might be part of the writers plans, though they might well irritate readers.

Sometimes - e.g. in a general literary magazine - readers will quickly identify the recommended reading mode of a text without the aid of classification. But most of the time the classification matters a lot. I know many avid prose readers who never go near poetry, and want libraries to have segregated "Fiction" and "Poetry" sections. If they have to read a paragraph of an unclassified book before discarding it as "poetry" they'll become grumpy.

An automated classification of texts can be performed by taking many measurements (number of words, frequency of line-breaks, frequency of adjectives, etc), and various sets of judges can be asked to classify the texts. If a text scores highly as "poetic" it may nevertheless contain some very unpoetic features, but the text probably won't be a newspaper article. I suspect that the resulting classification of texts into prose or poetry would be plausible - better than many a human could achieve (they're likely to try to make do with a glance), and probably no more prone to "misjudgements" than would be a human. Even a quick, lazy classification would work pretty well. For example, to a first approximation, literary readers will treat short texts as poems, and anything with line-breaks as poems.

Disadvantages

If the poetry/prose classification is a user-friendly description for the customer's benefit, why do writers complain about being their work being "pigeonholed"?

  • Misunderstanding the purpose of the classification can, like many other aspects of marketing, lead to difficulties.
  • If the classification partitions in a situation where it's unnecessary, it's restrictive. It may polarise in a way that affects production of texts - people won't write in genres that won't be bought or read. Prose-poems and penseés may suffer.
  • If classification promotes a secondary characteristic to a primary one, impressions may become distorted and out-of-date. Maybe line-breaks are becoming a secondary characteristic for some audiences.
  • Descriptions aren't neutral. Describing someone as "a woman poet", or a piece of work as "gay" rather than a love-story is more than mere description.

If an author's supposedly prose book goes in the poetry section of the library, what are the consequences? I presume there'll be fewer people browsing its spine. Describing an author's putative poem as "prose with line-breaks" is sometimes offered as adverse criticism, but the writer needn't receive it that way. It may indicate that public opinion is shifting, that genre-identification has become more reader-centred. If that leads to the piece being presented alongside other prose pieces, maybe it will read by far more people than before.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Death and Resurrection of the Short Story

What do George Sanders (Folio Prize, 2014), Alice Munro (Nobel, 2013) and Lydia Davis (Man Booker International Prize 2013) have in common? They're all short story specialists. In the informative and interesting The Short Story is Dead! Long Live the Short Story! published on the Thresholds site, Chris Power of the Guardian points out that many articles and reviews in the wake of these successes (and before) start by charting the decline of the short story then suggest a book or movement that's going to save it.

The irresistible rise of the short story (Sam Baker, The Telegraph) is rather like that, and I recall reading some similar US articles. See for example the New York Times' Good Fit for Today’s Little Screens: Short Stories and Clifford Garstang's response. Charles May's why some short story writers don't want to write novels is worth a read too. The points they make are that

  • Novelists new and established are now producing collections
  • Specialists like George Saunders are gaining respect
  • The way that the internet killed the music album has helped people accept the short story (Kindle Singles).

But then Salon published Sorry, the short story boom is bogus. See also Charles E. May's comments.

Chris Power writes that "People often hark back to the days of the Saturday Evening Post, when F.Scott Fitzgerald might earn $4,000 a story (around $60,000 today)" and quotes Robert McCrum - "After a period of prosperity and tranquillity for British fiction  that ran for about a generation (circa 1980 to 2007), writers are now being confronted  with the hardship of literary artists through the ages".

When did the reading public turn against the short story? HE Bates in 1941 wrote "the reading public, not only in Britain and America, but also on the continent, shows no disposition to revise its age-­old prejudice against reading short stories in volume form."

McCrum aligns himself with the latter 2 quotes, looking upon any periods of short-story popularity as blips. He goes on to say that "Of the many writers producing short stories today, ... most will work hard for a small readership and very little money. This will be what happens because this, outside of the 1920s and ’30s, is what has always happened". He views the "Golden Age" view as unhelpful, making it seem that short stories are in decline. He suggests that some reviewers "don’t normally read short­‐story collections and therefore interpret their personal awakening to what the form can offer (their epiphany, so to speak) as a more general uptick of engagement". He doesn't think that short-stories are more suited to modern reading styles (novels are easier to read interruptedly - stories are more like poems than novels in that way), nor does he think that the idea of seeing a short story as a short novel helps - it blurs an important distinction.

I think I agree with all his main points, though it depends rather how one defines "short story". Factors that he doesn't mention (though they don't affect his main argument) include the rise of Flash and segregated-genre fiction, the popularity of episodic TV series, and the tendency for story collections to be disguised as novels ("Welcome to the Goon Squad", etc), all of which help to weaken the mainstream short story. I suppose that one could take the poetry and short-story parallel further. Both, in their more literary forms were (and will be) only of minority interest, generating sales only sporadically, and budding off more popular, (often disowned) offspring (rap; SF). Supposed saviours of the forms (T.S.Eliot, etc) may gain temporary fame, but soon fall back into their niche. That said, the borders are porous, and although examplars may be mentioned more than they're read, their influence may be more general.

In 2002 "fewer than 25 books of short stories were produced by mainstream UK publishers. And two thirds were by writers from abroad" (Debbie Taylor, Mslexia, Spring 2003). The situation then wasn't as dire as it sounds because small presses were producing books. That said, I've seen few signs of "recovery" in the UK since then. The National short story award doesn't help a whole lot - no trickle-down. I'm glad that Salt is producing a Best British Stories anthology each year, and that Flash is making inroads (e.g. there's a Bridport prize for it).