Is this the greatest novel in the English language?

Middlemarch, I mean.  Wikipedia tells me that this is the opinion of Martin Amis and Julian Barnes.  It also quotes Virginia Woolf, who calls it “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”

I first read it back in high school or college, when I read pretty much everything.  I doubt that it was assigned reading — it’s about a billion pages long.  So I probably spent a chunk of my spare time devouring it one summer.  This time around, almost out  of the blue, I decided to have my hero Walter Sands read it in the course of Where All the Ladders Start (coming soon to an ebook store near you!), and I decided I’d better take another look at it myself, to make sure the things I said about it were true.

It surely is a novel for grown-ups.  I can’t imagine subjecting a middle schooler to it, the way we make them read Oliver Twist.  I can’t imagine what I would have made of the book in high school.  A few more thoughts:

  • Middlemarch has its moments of rustic humor, but Eliot is never as funny with her rude mechanicals as Dickens is with his working-class folks.  And she even doesn’t try to be as funny as Jane Austen when it comes to relations between men and women.  That is serious business.
  • There’s a bit of social commentary in the novel.  I didn’t recall this from my first reading, but it’s actually a historical novel — written in the 1870s but taking place in the 1830s.  So we see the railroad about to make an appearance in the area, for example, and the Reform Bill is in the air.  But that material seemed fairly bland to me.
  • Where Eliot is great — and maybe unequaled — is when she deals with love and marriage, and the complexities of serious relationships in a serious world.  Dorothea and Casaubon, Dorothea and Will Ladislaw, Rosamond and Lydgate — by the end of the book, we are so deeply inside these characters’ heads that we seem to know them as well as we know ourselves.  That’s a pretty impressive achievement.

That is to say, I re-read the whole damn thing, which used up a large chunk of my reading time for the year.  It was worth it.

“Birdman” and Chekhov’s Gun

Birdman has gotten great reviews for its acting and its zippy direction.  Underneath the long tracking shots and the magic realism, though, it’s a pretty standard backstage drama, the kind that would not have seemed out of place in the 1930s.  There’s the aging movie star risking everything to gain legitimacy by directing and starring in a Broadway play.  There’s the backstage romantic tension.  There’s the jaded New York Times critic, writing her reviews in longhand on a barstool.  There’s the ex-wife, the rehabbing daughter, the long-suffering lawyer . . .

And there’s even a pretty straightforward example of Chekhov’s gun.

Spoiler alert, I guess.

In the final scene of the play that the movie star (Michael Keaton) is staging, he is supposed to aim a gun at another actor (Edward Norton).  At one of the preview performances, Norton, who is a talented jerk, complains to Keaton that the gun isn’t real enough; he can’t react appropriately to a toy gun.  End of scene.

Well, you can’t really have a character complain that a gun doesn’t look real enough without bringing this back into the plot in a big way, can you?

It’s opening night.  Norton has been sleeping with Michael Keaton’s daughter.  Keaton is being sued by an actor he dropped from the play. The Times critic has guaranteed to Keaton that she’s going to give the play a terrible review, no matter how good it is.   Things can’t get any worse for him.  We see him backstage before the final scene, loading a real gun . .

The plot device is hackneyed, but the movie actually does a clever job of playing against our expectations.  The thing worked for me, even as I said to myself: Ah, come on . . .

Actually, I’d have enjoyed the movie even without the tracking shots and Keaton flying through the air above Manhattan.

“Service is suspended due to a medical emergency”

Did you notice the grammatical atrocity in the title of this post?

Neither did our local transit authority, the MBTA, when it sent out a tweet like that after a person was struck and killed by a train.  Some people were worried about the victim, I suppose, but others were outraged about that “due to” in the tweet.

Huh?  I know the issue here, but I’d never heard the one about fiduciary responsibility.

I decided to find out what my cold-eyed editors at work have to say about “due to,” so I checked out our Writer’s Guide.  Here’s what they say:

“Due to” should only be used as an adjective, not a preposition.

Well, that certainly clears everything up.  Here’s how I understand this persnickety rule: Use “due to” when you can substitute “caused by” or “attributable to,” and not when you can substitute “because of.”  Which means, in effect, that it should only be used after a copulative verb like “is.”

At work we are responsible for an online help system containing well over two million words.  Apparently having nothing better to do, I did an online search to find out how many uses of “due to” we’ve got.  The result: 140.  Then I did a random check to see whether our highly experienced writers were following the editors’ persnickety rule.  The answer?  We’re a lot closer to the MBTA than to Mr. Stephen Wojnar.  Almost every “due to” in our Help system is a “because of,” not an “attributable to.”  What’s up with that?

My interpretation is that, even though our cold-eyed editors may know the rule, the “incorrect’ usage is so common that even they don’t spot it.

Bryan Garner in his Dictionary of Modern American Usage includes “due to” among his “skunked terms” — words so fraught with controversy that you’re better off just not using them, at least until the traditionalists die off.  Hopefully used to be the standard bearer for skunked terms, although by now the odor around that word has mostly disappeared.  I bet that, in a hundred years, “due to” will also smell just fine, and the MBTA will have won.

Amazon vs. Hachette — The Final Blog

Amazon and Hachette have finally settled.  Thank goodness.  The settlement appears to follow the outlines of Amazon’s recent agreement with Simon & Schuster — the publisher can set its own price for its ebooks, but they get better terms if the price is in the range Amazon likes.  This is exactly how it works with independent authors — we only get the lovely 70% royalty if we set our price between a dollar and $9.99.  Anything higher or lower, we only get 35%.

This all seems perfectly reasonable.  Clearly, Amazon wasn’t trying to put mainstream publishers out of business.  It wasn’t trying to destroy literature and “disappear” authors.  It was using its clout as a reseller to get ebook prices where it thought they ought to be, to maximize sales. Business as usual.

Hugh Howey sums it up:

Conflating our love of books with the virtuousness of those who package them is a very bad idea. Publishers belong to multi-national, multi-billion dollar corporations. They need to make profits. They do this by pushing prices up on readers and pushing wages down on writers. I don’t blame them for that (though I do try to pressure them to be more fair to both parties).

The people I blame are those who should do their homework, understand this business better, and get on the right side of these debates. The real damage has been done by those who refuse to fight for the little guys; the real damage has been done by the parties who seem to think that publishers can do no wrong and that Amazon can do no right.

This includes the New York Times and many other traditional media outlets. It includes The Authors Guild and Authors United. By waging a PR campaign without understanding the issues (often stating things that were patently untrue), these parties caused severe damage and helped to prolong this negotiation. They aligned themselves with a party that has broken the law to raise prices and refuses to pay authors a decent digital royalty. I don’t think this damage is done intentionally or with malice but by simple ignorance.

First sentences

I finally got around to starting my new novel today.  I wrote the first sentence, which goes like this:

I was standing in the snack-food aisle of the 7-11 when I saw her.

Pretty good, huh?

Let’s compare it to first lines of the top 20th century English-language novels, according to these guys.

Here’s Ulysses, which came in first:

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.

That’s fine, although it doesn’t stand by itself.  In second place is The Great Gatsby.

In my younger and more vulnerable days my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

Again it doesn’t stand by itself; you need to read on to find out what the advice was.  Next is A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo . . .

Well, first sentences just don’t get any better that.

Let’s try number 4, Lolita, skipping the hilarious foreword:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.

OK, that one’s great, too.  The whole first paragraph is incomparable.

Fifth place is Brave New World:

A squat gray building of only thirty-four stories.

Good but abrupt.  Like Lolita, missing a verb, and you need to read the entire (short) paragraph to get the point.

Anyway, I’ve been put in my place.  And now I want to re-read some novels.  Which I’d better not do, or I’ll never write the remaining ten thousand sentences.

Writers in movies: The Romantic Englishwoman

Another in a random series.

The Romantic Englishwoman is a 1975 movie with A-list credentials: it stars Michael Caine and Glenda Jackson, it’s co-written by Tom Stoppard, and it’s directed by Joseph Losey (who also directed Accident and The Go-Between).  I love Tom Stoppard, but I hated this movie.

Caine plays a successful novelist and screenwriter; Jackson is his do-nothing, dissatisfied wife.  They have a beautiful kid, a beautiful house, beautiful friends, a nanny, but, well, you know.  Jackson goes off to Baden Baden for reasons she can’t articulate.  Caine is insanely jealous.  She comes home and in turn is jealous of him and the nanny.  He decides to write a screenplay about all this.  He invites the good-looking drug dealer she met in Baden Baden (Helmut Berger) to stay with them, basically trying to stage-manage his screenplay.  There are complications.  Jackson runs off with the drug dealer; Caine goes in pursuit.  They get back together again, in an abrupt ending that neither my wife and I understood in the slightest.  But perhaps that’s because we had long since stopped caring.  (By the way, that sexy poster has nothing much to do with the movie, although Jackson does have a brief, weird nude scene.  It’s kind of depressing to think that she’s now 78.  We should all stay young and gorgeous forever!)

You can see that intelligent people were behind the movie.  It’s about fiction mirroring reality (or maybe vice versa), and it seems like half the shots in the film involve showing someone’s reflection in a window or a mirror.  The plot has the makings of a thriller (the drug dealer is being pursued by bad guys), but the movie shrugs this off in favor of baffling deep meanings.  (And the Caine character tells his producer that he doesn’t want to write a thriller.)  But the movie didn’t bother making anyone even slightly sympathetic, so I just wasn’t interested in the deep meanings.

Caine’s character isn’t particularly interesting.  He’s a selfish jerk, which is of course entirely accurate for a writer, but we don’t get any sense of why he’s so successful, what makes him tick, or how he writes.  I can think of a couple dozen Michael Caine movies that I enjoyed more.  And virtually anything else by Tom Stoppard.