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Why Oh Why Can’t We Have More Economically Literate English Majors?

16 Oct

I find myself scratching my head at this Kenyon Review blog post about the online presence of literary journals and the value of literary commodities. It starts out with a discussion on the end of Times Select:

Now let me say, I’ve never taken an economics class, but I get the principle here. As the New York Times recently found in the failure of their online subscription service, people will pay for a hard copy of a newspaper, but not its online equivalent. This partly reflects our sense of the internet as a free space, not only in the sense of the free-flow of ideas, but a place where everything is free. But it also reflects the fact that we live in a commodity culture: we value the object — the book — more than its contents.

The demise of the Times paywall is the wrong analogy. The problem wasn’t that people would pay for an actual paper in lieu of an online copy, but that future advertising revenue was likely to outstrip online subscriptions. The New York Times, and now the Financial Times (with the WSJ likely to follow) went full-access (mostly) because, as Felix Salmon noted, they were losing potential pageviews from Google because their content was behind a subscriber firewall. Attention is the big value on the internet (and in “old media,” if you can attract advertisers), thus, less attention meant less revenue. Everything isn’t “free,” it’s just that it’s being paid for in a different way: advertisers instead of subscribers.

Lobanov-Rostovsky is right when he suggests we often “value the object–the book–more than its content.” Books are a type of “symbolic good,” (PDF) which we as consumers buy because of the way it makes us feel about ourselves or as a way to signal to other people that we are educated and cultured. This is less true of writers and literature lovers, who are looking for the content inside the pages, but the basic observation that people will buy books less for what they contain then for their “cultural aura” is correct.

But then Lobanov-Rostovsky makes an argument I’ve read before, but still doesn’t make any sense:

Still, I find this concept surprising when we apply it to literature. I’ve always assumed that one thing we can all agree on is that a literary text can’t be reduced to a commodity. I’m thinking here of Lewis Hyde’s view of literature as a kind of gift economy, in which the intellectual and spiritual labor that goes into the making of a literary text far exceeds anything that the poet or novelist can expect to receive in return, except in the pleasure of reading other literary texts. In a sense, the value of a literary text far exceeds its cost, but only to those who already share a common set of cultural values.

I have no idea why a literary text can’t be reduced to a commodity. Perhaps one would argue it shouldn’t be, but that is a separate argument. A quick look inside the local Barnes and Nobles, Borders–even a college bookstore or small press–suggests that a text can definitely be a commodity. Books are discrete, excludable goods that you have to pay for and can carry around. And although no one can “own” ideas, creative works–while not physical commodities–are protected under intellectual property rights. We can’t quantify the “spiritual labor” that goes into a work, so we can’t compensate someone for that; we can only measure opportunity cost in the form of forgone productive labor. But that is irrelevant, because we can’t quantify the spiritual labor for anyone–doctors, lawyers, teachers, or poets.

I think this conceptual breakdown occurs because Lobanov-Rostovsky, like many others in the literary community, sees market value imputed by something like the “labor theory of value.” But as Brad DeLong put it, “[n]obody who ventured into the labor theory of value has ever emerged.” This is where the occasional economics class might help to clarify things–or at least make for more economically sensible blog posts.

In Praise of Charitable Deductions

1 Oct

Perhaps I’m misreading what’s intended as a narrow critique of a sub-set of charitable giving, but I think Ezra Klein’s support for this Robert Reich article is mistaken, as Reich’s proposal goes too far in his desire to support “real” charitable donations, not to mention that it would result in Very Bad Things for arts funding in America. I’m also surprised that Megan McArdle didn’t highlight some of the consequences to universities and the arts if Reich’s proposal of limiting tax deductions for non-poverty related non-profits to 50% of the donation was implemented (I assume she’s read her friend Tyler Cowen’s Good and Plenty).

Klein and McArdle rightly focus on the spectacle of Manhattan charity galas, which give patrons a chance to throw back some vintage wine and imported champagne with artists and celebrities–and then write an expensive party off as a government endorsed contribution–but I think this is as far as the critique can be taken, for two reasons. The first is that deductions are an indirect subsidy to lots of people who aren’t rich, including the middle class, artists, and those that benefit from the research done by universities, which might end up including poor people. The second is that if we eliminate these indirect subsidies (or make them costlier), some of the slack is going to be picked up by demands for direct subsidies, which would be bad for the arts.

Although rich folks may donate to universities to get their C average son or daughter into an elite institution, that money also helps kids whose families earn less than $40,000 receive free tuition from Harvard (and reduced tuition for those earning between $40,000-$60,000), which means greater social mobility for talented but financially strapped students. Not all of the donations are of the “now name an arts building after me” variety (and if major enrollment is any indication, most alumni are likely to fork over money for a science building or simply contribute to a project the university or college has already proposed).

The greater problem is that in place of the funding supplied by private donations, people might start demanding that those funds be replaced by direct subsidies like the NEA or some other centralized entity (actually, the NEA doles out its funds in the form of institutional grants–having done away with direct grants–but I’m worried about a general trend) which would choose the artistic winners, making for a less diverse artistic market.  For all you poets out there¹, imagine asking your parents or non-poet friends to describe a poem for you.  It sounds like some terrible cross between 19th century Romantic verse and tortured love poems as read by a sentimental teenager at a coffee-house open mike, right? Okay, now imagine those same people have to vote for officials whose job is to determine the head of this centralized agency.  Result: Dr. Seuss becomes your Poet Laureate², and the local dandy/Victorian literature enthusiast gets a $20,000 grant to write poems about the “the love o’er which I swoon/ and moves the heart betwixt my ribs”. Yikes.

In short, you’d be eliminating a lot of good donations provided by people who know a thing or two about the field to which they’re donating (e.g. the arts or research for a particular disease) or things people might actually be interested in using (thus matching supply with demand).  Though only 10% of donations go directly to the poor, I’d bet the other 90% benefit the poor (in terms of education and scientific research) by subsidizing public goods.

¹ Hey Keith.

² Though much beloved, he is, unfortunately, dead.

Canon Talk, Now With 20% More 80s References

24 Sep

Michael Bérubé, he with the best-named-endowed-professorship (366 career wins!), applies his nuclear-force Humanities intellect to the Debate That Won’t Die (sorry Mike), and calls Ross Douthat out in the process:

Perhaps the sorry state of contemporary canon-commentary is best exemplified by Ross Douthat, who picks up the NAS study and writes, “obviously, having Morrison and to a lesser extent Woolf in that group is somewhat depressing.” Obviously, you just gotta love the “obviously.” In a stroke, five of the most accomplished novels from the high-modernist era—Jacob’s Room, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, The Waves—have now been so pwned by Ross Douthat!

If you read the whole thing, you can essentially skip all of your English classes¹ for the next week; you become that much smarter.

¹ Except of course, my class. Aw, who am I kidding, you weren’t planning on showing up anyway.

Canon Fight! or What Became of the Epic Poem

20 Sep

I’m more than a bit tardy to the literary canon back-and-forth between young Zeitlin and Mike Meginnis, but I was busy with things associated with a graduate program focused on literature and writing (he said knowingly, suggesting actual expertise–for once).

A couple quick points about literary forms to set the stage, suggest some problems, then onto my central argument. First, it’s interesting that both discuss the evolution of the novel next to the largely defunct epic poem. The biggest factor in the demise of the latter was the introduction of the former; as literature progressed, people became more accepting of “mere prose” as a literary genre. Realistic novels began to supplant poetry as the medium for communicating narratives, as the Romantic tradition pushed poetry to the more introspective lyric mode, a mode which tends to dominate poetry today. We don’t read epic poems today because we’ve made a greater distinction between poetry and prose than was made in the past.

From the Greeks we received the idea of poetry as the essential mode of literature–prose was for newspapers and pamphlets. But this turn is as much cultural and aesthetic as it utilitarian; I don’t want to belabor the invention of the novel as an “evolutionary” step in narrative. Strictly speaking, one can write a narrative as easily understood in poetry as one could in prose (it just wouldn’t rhyme as much and would be less recognizable to readers today). The complicated category of prose-poetry comes to mind here, and demonstrates how hard it can be at times to list criteria that makes a work “definitely a poem” or “definitely prose.” But I don’t want to stray too far the core debate. Continue reading

Your (Not So) Daily Poetry Fix: Keith Montesano…Again

16 Sep


Picking up the “promoting the work of people I know” theme and running with it, I give you three poems from Keith Montesano in the current issue of Story South.  Though you may not be published, at least you can bask in the literary splendor of Story South without actually having to live in the south, unlike Mr. Montesasno. 

New Fiction

16 Sep


Have you ordered your three copies of Kerry Neville Bakken’s Necessary Lies yet?  You can do so now at Amazon.  Its a small run from BkMk press, so there may be some lag time in your delivery.  Well worth the wait.

Want to read excerpts, reviews, or see where the author will be reading?  The book–of course–has its own blog