Movies in Other Movies

For a year and a half or so, I’ve been writing a blog called Movies in Other Movies: about films and TV shows with scenes in which characters watch other films in TV shows. This has long been a strange obsession interest of mine, and it’s been fun to deeply dive into it. I view it as a sort of (unpaid) book in progress, with forty posts written so far and probably about the same number to go. (Once you start looking, you find almost no end of movie-in-movie scenes.) The blog has one advantage over an actual book. At the start, I made a rule that each post has to contain at least one viewable clip, and it’s also been satisfying to obtain the (modest) technical know-how to make this happen. Unfortunately, benyagoda.com doesn’t support video, so to see the clips, head on over to the movie site.

Here’s my latest post.

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017) is soaked, saturated, inundated with movie love and consciousness, pun definitely intended. The look of the underwater creature around whom the plot revolves, identified in the credits as “Amphibian Man,” is copied from The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). The beauty-and-the-beast story is a King Kong update. Amphibian Man and Elisa (Sally Hawkins), the heroine, do an imaginary (?) black-and-white dance number that’s based on the Astaire-Rogers “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” from Follow the Fleet. (The song they dance to, “You’ll Never Know,” first appeared in the 1943 musical Hello, Frisco, Hello and is more or less the theme song of Shape of Water.)

shapeofwater-dancegif
A gif of the big dance number, thanks to sixactstructure.com

Elisa’s close friend Giles (Richard Jenkins), an artist, has an in-progress drawing of Audrey Hepburn on an easel in his studio. He and Elisa live in apartments above The Orpheum cinema, and del Toro gives us to understand that the movies being projected seep through the floorboards and cast a spell on them.

As the film opens and the credits roll, we get a glimpse of one part of the double bill, the 1960 biblical epic The Story of Ruth (Shape of Water is set in 1962), playing to a near-empty house.

An article on the website Vox finds significance in the director’s choice of this film.

The most famous passage from the Book of Ruth is when Ruth, who is a Moabite, entreats her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi, to let her come to Israel with her, even after Ruth’s husband (Naomi’s son) has passed away. “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you,” Ruth says. “For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”

The words are spoken between a widow and her mother-in-law, but most people know the passage as a familiar reading at weddings. The devotion it expresses — love that transcends the speaker’s home, family, and beliefs about the world — is the purest distillation of what it is to fall in love and give oneself over to the commitment that entails.

It can’t be an accident that The Story of Ruth is invoked in The Shape of Water, a film about the kind of love in which we both abandon ourselves and discover our true selves in the same moment. And del Toro imbues that idea with an additional insight: To love another, we have to learn to see the ways they’re different from us as well as the ways we’re profoundly the same.

I can’t argue with any of that but I prefer to heed the filmmaker’s own words, regarding  all the films seen in The Shape of Water. That sizable list includes Mardi Gras (1958), a Pat Boone musical that makes an unlikely Orpheum double bill with Ruth, and four ’40s and ’30s musicals all seen at various times on Giles’s apparently never-turned-off television: That Night in Rio; Sun Valley Serenade; Hello, Frisco, Hello; Coney Island; and The Little Colonel, featuring yet another unlikely couple, Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. They inspire Elisa to do her own lovely impromptu dance.

Interviewed by Jason Garber shortly after the film’s release, del Toro said,

I spoke to [his friend director Alejandro Iñárritu] and he said to me I think it would be wise that the more obscure the movie, the better it is. The only one that is sort of famous is Little Colonel with Shirley Temple; the rest are really not well-known. Alejandro said that gives the movie a reality even in the fantasy. If everything is heightened, then tonally you’re screwed. I followed his advice and looked for specific movies that were in some instances kind of crappy, like the dancing horse number with Betty Grable or the beautiful but cheesy stuff in The Story of Ruth and the [truly goofy] bouncing giant ball in Mardi Gras.

In other words, sometimes a toga is just a toga. One more thing: Shape of Water was a Fox Searchlight production, and all the movies shown came from its predecessor company, Twentieth Century Fox, making it easier and cheaper to secure permissions.

There’s an interesting tension in The Shape of Water concerning screens. On one side is the big, enveloping one at the ornate Orpheum movie palace (actually the Elgin Theatre in Toronto), which never seems to have more than four or five patrons. On the other are comparatively tiny TV screens, which, when you look closely, are everywhere in this movie. As mentioned, Giles always has his set on, and so does the family of bad guy Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). At various times we see his kids watching the TV shows Hong Kong and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, and the 1959 animated Mr. Magoo comedy 1001 Arabian Nights. (How’s that for obscure and cheesy?)

But that’s not all. As Elisa walks to her bus shop, she passes a TV shop with what appear to be nine sets in the window, all showing different hot-button news events of the early 1960s: JFK speaking, civil rights marchers, Vietnam helicopters. Not only is del Toro collapsing time but the very presence of nine TVs with different content is anachronistic: in 1962 there were only three networks and two or three independent stations in a market like Baltimore (the film’s setting); and they would never all be running news at the same time. Of course, you don’t watch a movie like The Shape of Water expecting realism.

Screen Shot 2019-07-06 at 2.09.06 PM

Television turns malignant when the scene moves to the top-secret research center where Amphibian Man is being kept. Whenever we see Strickland in his office, behind him are banks of monitors on which he keeps watch on everything and everyone in the facility. In a film that’s not infrequently heavy-handed, this is a subtle nod to a future (ours) where the promise of privacy is more and more swiftly starting to recede.

John Hersey Book Book Review

51F3Bl8MpYL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_I wrote this review for the Wall Street Journal‘s April 27 edition. Since non-subscribers can’t read Journal articles, I’m posting it here.

Mr. Straight Arrow: The Career of John Hersey, Author of Hiroshima, by Jeremy Treglown.

It’s barely a quarter century since John Hersey died, at the age of 78, but already his life and his career as a writer feel so old-fashioned as to be antique. Hersey is of course best known as the author of Hiroshima—published as an issue-length article in The New Yorker in 1946 and as a book a year later, and never out of print since then—but he was an old-fashioned man of letters, whose body of work was as capacious and varied as that of an Emerson or a Disraeli. He wrote many other distinguished works of journalism in addition to his profile of six Hiroshima survivors; for example, The Algiers Motel Incident (1968), published when he was deep into his 50s, was a rigorously reported, deeply engaged and structurally inventive account of racial violence in Detroit. And he spoke out in essays, reports and speeches on the pressing issues of his day. Nonfiction was his strong suit, but his third book, the novel A Bell for Adano, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1945, and he always maintained the very 20th-century belief that novels were the gold standard of a writer’s output.

Hersey (1914-93) was also old-fashioned in what might best be described with the old-fashioned word “decency.” The late Gardner Botsford, an editor at The New Yorker, gently mocked him by dubbing him “Mr. Straight Arrow,” a designation borrowed by Jeremy Treglown for the title of his new book. (Botsford was comparing him to the cartoonist Charles Addams, who was a very curved arrow and to whom Hersey’s second wife was previously married.) Hersey came by his rectitude honestly. His parents were Protestant missionaries in China (he lived there till he was ten), and he inherited a reflexive urge to do good works and see the other fellow’s point of view. His civic engagement and high seriousness bore on his fiction, which took up weighty themes—sometimes weighing it down, critics often charged—and even on his reporting methodology. Treglown writes that interview subjects trusted Hersey because they picked up on his “imaginative sympathy . . . He was someone whose decency was recognized by other decent people, so they let him in.”

That Hersey belonged to a different era is also evident in the paper records, notes, and correspondence he accumulated and eventually donated to the library of his alma mater, Yale University. At one point, Treglown tells us, the Hersey archives took up 71 feet of shelving, and they have only grown since then. Even if one could imagine a current-day John Hersey, his collected papers would fit on an 8-gig flash drive.

Researchers fantasize about such a paper trail, but Mr. Straight Arrow frequently calls to mind the bromide “be careful what you wish for.” Biographers have always to be mindful of both big-picture forest and individuated trees; captivated by all this material, Treglown spends too much time examining bark. The book slows to a halt with extended discussions about the author’s photo and jacket copy for one of Hersey’s books; about whether Hersey did or didn’t name plants correctly in certain passages of Hiroshima; about negotiations with David Selznick about a never-to-be-realized movie version of the novel The Wall; and about the minutiae of the Yale English Department, of which Hersey was a product and to which he returned to teach from the late 1960s through the mid-’80s.

I’ve just referred to “biographers,” but the designation doesn’t apply to Treglown, at least not in this book. (A former editor of The Times Literary Supplement, he has published proper lives of V.S. Pritchett, Roald Dahl and Henry Green.) It is, he writes, “a study of John Hersey’s career, not a full biography.” I imagine all the manuscripts, royalty statements and editorial back-and-forths on offer at Yale led him to that decision, but it generated a torque that seems to have directed him to library stalls and away from the wider world, to the detriment of the book. Judging by the text, end notes and acknowledgments, Treglown appears to have conducted no more than a dozen on-the-record interviews in preparing Mr. Straight Arrow. Talking to Hersey’s children, to a good sample of his scores of former students (instead of just one), to his surviving friends and colleagues at Yale, The New Yorker and the publisher Alfred A. Knopf not only would have provided anecdotes but also would have helped the author with perspective, sometimes a problem for the book.

Broader reading beyond just the Hersey papers would have helped, too. This was most clear to me in the material relating to The New Yorker: Treglown, who is English, doesn’t have a strong sense of magazine’s unique editorial culture, conventions and procedures and how they shaped Hersey’s work for it, which included not only Hiroshima but dozens of contributions from 1944 till 1988. The founding editor, Harold Ross, had an idiosyncratic approach to journalism and writing more generally, which showed up in the lengthy “query sheets” he attached to drafts of articles. Ross wrote a voluminous query sheet for Hiroshima, bringing up many minor points and some major ones. An example of the latter was prompted by Hersey’s reference, in his first draft, to a fact his characters probably wouldn’t have been aware of. Ross wrote:

Touchy technical point here, and an important one. This is a story throughout of what people see first hand and (except for a few parenthetical remarks) only that. Did this woman see her dead husband and know it that way. If so should be told that way. If not, should be out, as getting ahead of the story.

Hersey cut the line out. And Treglown makes no reference to the query sheet.

The book could also use a fuller and more nuanced sense of Hersey’s place in and ambivalent attitude toward the so-called New Journalism. Hiroshima is often named as pioneering some of the techniques associated with the movement, like dialogue and omniscient narration, yet in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Hersey spoke out what he saw as insufficient regard for facts and excessive self-promotion in some New Journalists. Treglown doesn’t mention an important 1980 essay where he laid out his criticisms, “The Legend on the License.” (“There is one sacred rule of journalism,” Hersey said. “The writer must not invent. The legend on the license must read: NONE OF THIS WAS MADE UP.”) More seriously, he doesn’t seem to be aware that in a 1944 Hersey article about a damaged returning soldier, “Joe Is Home Now,” written in the style of a short story and cited by Tom Wolfe as a New Journalism precursor, “Joe” is a composite character, based on interviews with more than 40 veterans.

It’s annoying when reviewers say authors should have written a different book from the one they produced. But I can’t resist saying that if Treglown wasn’t going to do a full-scale biography he might have been better off writing a critical study of Hersey. His close readings of the author’s work are credible and smart, and he’s especially insightful on the way they reflect the author’s character. He writes of Hersey’s late novels, “Whatever parts of himself he was drawing on in these books, his puritanism encumbers them as fictional elements, and his reticence—surely part of the same apparatus—keeps them largely beyond biographical reach.”

That reticence, that rock-ribbed uprightness and uptightness, was an essential characteristic for John Hersey. It was part of what made him a great journalist, an ambitious and earnest but not first-rank novelist, and someone who, as the subject of this book, has proved frustratingly hard to pin down.

 

Flossing Your Prose

414dAZNKGoL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_

I was pleased to review Benjamin Dreyer’s new book, Dreyer’s English, for the Wall Street Journal. And I was also pleased to note that soon after the review was published, the book shot up to the number 2 spot at Amazon.com, behind only Michelle Obama’s autobiography. No connection, I’m sure.

Here’s the review (note that I call him “Mr. Dreyer” because that’s WSJ style).

I spy a trend: copy editors’ memoirs-cum-style guides. Four years ago, Mary Norris–a longtime copy editor for the New Yorker–published the splendid Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. Now comes the copy chief at Random House with the rather more grand-sounding Dreyer’s English.

I hasten to say that the grandness of Benjamin Dreyer’s title is at least half ironic and self-deprecating, as is his subtitle: “An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.” But the name of the book does accurately reflect its difference from Ms. Norris’s. Hers is three-quarters memoir, one-quarter guide, and his is roughly the opposite ratio.

And accordingly, Mr. Dreyer has a lot of useful information to impart. In the first sentence of this review, he guided me to lower-case the “c” in the word following the colon; write “editors’ ” rather than “editors” or “editors’s” (or, heaven forbid, “editor’s”); and use “cum” (Latin for “with”) to indicate a thing with two identities, without italics or fear of offending anyone’s sensibilities.

Writing in such an utterly correct way feels good, I must say. It reminds me of something Mr. Dreyer quotes an author friend as saying–being well copy-edited is like getting “a really thorough teeth cleaning.” The result may come off as just a trifle stilted, but I’m in sympathy with what Mr. Dreyer writes later on: “There’s a certain tautness in slightly stilted prose that I find almost viscerally thrilling.” (That post-colon “There’s” gets capitalized because it kicks off a complete sentence.)

One encounters wisdom and good sense on nearly every page of “Dreyer’s English.” The whole chapter on fiction should be bound and issued to all MFA students. But part of the fun of the book, for me, was silently yelling at Mr. Dreyer on this point or that and writing a big “NO!” in the margin. He:

  • says that as a past-tense form, ” ‘Sprung’ rather than ‘sprang’ is perfectly correct. Look it up.” I did look it up and found that the respected arbiter Bryan Garner calls “sprung” “erroneous.” In the court of published opinion (i.e., the Google Books database), “sprang” is still used about eight times more frequently.
  • favors “farmers” market as opposed to “farmers’ ” market. NO! Mr. Dreyer fails to understand that a possessive apostrophe can indicate association and is not limited to cases of ownership or other actual possession. Otherwise we would shop at the “Children Department.”
  • believes that “fortuitous” to mean “fortunate or favorable” is “universally acceptable so long as the good fortune or favor is accidental.” I’m not sure which universe he’s in on this point, but I inhabit another one.

An illuminating and distinctive feature of Dreyer’s English is the portrait it provides of the copy editor’s trade. This differs from teeth-cleaning in that the subject–the author of a to-be-published book–is not directed to lie back with his or her mouth open, but rather to be part of the process.

The way it works is that the copy editor corrects spelling, punctuation, grammar and the like on the manuscript and then writes marginal suggestions or “queries” for other matters. Judging from Mr. Dreyer’s examples, these can be pointed, sometimes bordering on passive aggressive. In his section on redundancy, the author recalls editing a book containing the sentence “He implied without quite saying.” He goes on: “I was so filled with delight on encountering that, I scarcely had the heart to cross out ‘without quite saying’ and to note in the margin, politely and succinctly, “BY DEF.’ ”

Redundant or not, if the book’s author had insisted on keeping the phrase, it would have stayed. Mr. Dreyer recounts a dispute with Richard Russo, who had included in his novel Straight Man a sentence along the lines of ” ‘Hello,’ he smiled.” Mr. Dreyer wanted to revise, pointing out, with justice, that one cannot “smile” an utterance. But Mr. Russo held his ground and Mr. Dreyer ultimately gave in for a simple reason: “It’s his book.”

Mr. Dreyer once taped on his office door a remark attributed to New Yorker editor Wolcott Gibbs: “Try to preserve an author’s style if he is an author and has a style.” Benjamin Dreyer has a style. It is playful, smart, self-conscious and personal, highlighted by admirable lines like “To ball [rather than bawl] one’s eyes out would be some sort of sporting or teabagging mishap.”

Sometimes, however, he crosses over into the Land of Twee. He thrice says particular usages make him “wrinkle my nose,” and he uses words and phrases like “matchy-matchy,” “a skosh later” and “his own devise.” He is fond of Britishisms like “post-university,” “that lot” and, especially, “bit,” once telling us, “a sentence’s introductory bit and its main bit need to fuse correctly.”

And he loves him some footnotes. Many a page is bottom-loaded with asterisk, dagger and double dagger, and one footnote has two footnotes of its own. On the footnote matter, Mr. Dreyer might have heeded his own advice (he was talking about overuse of parentheses): “One too many coy asides and you, in the person of your writing, will seem like a dandy in a Restoration comedy stepping down to the footlights and curling his hand around his mouth to confidentially address the audience. One rather needs a beauty mark and a peruke to get away with that sort of thing.”

If I were Mr. Dreyer’s copy editor, I would suggest losing a “bit” or two, and maybe a couple of dozen footnotes. But I’d hold my fire on the rest. After all, it’s his book.

Adieu, Lingua Franca

For seven and a half years, I had the pleasure and honor of writing a weekly post for the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s blog on language and writing, Lingua Franca. Alas, the blog has been discontinued, although I’d assured that the offerings of me and my colleagues will be available forever at the Lingua Franca site.

Here’s my final post:

I recently got an email from my friend Milena Davison in which she commented, “I find myself increasingly annoyed with the use of ‘redact’ and ‘redaction.’ I learned and sometimes even used these technical terms in connection with textual — mostly ancient — studies. When and why were they appropriated and substituted for ‘blacked out’ or ‘censored’?”

I immediately got onto the websites of The New York Times, Google Books, and the Oxford English Dictionary — as I do — in search of an answer. Fifteen or 20 minutes later, I wrote back to Milena:

Interesting on redact. The OED doesn’t have a distinct definition for this meaning, but rather includes it in a broader one: “To put (writing, text, etc.) in an appropriate form for publication; to edit.”
The first relevant citation is from a 1957 law journal: “Means should have been adopted to redact De Gennaro’s confession and admissions — before their introduction into evidence.”
And then this from 1994: “But most disturbing is a confidential memo Ickes sent to Hillary Clinton on the RTC, which has been redacted from 25 pages to just one paragraph.”
It appears to have started as a legal term of art: The New York Times in 1973 quotes a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling: “public disclosure of testimony given by him before a Federal grand jury in that district on Nov. 26, 1971, redacted so as not to reveal the names of other persons or businesses mentioned therein.” And a federal judge in 1980: “counsel for the defendants had grossly overstated the number of documents that had been released in redacted form by the C.I.A.”
Maybe the first political use in the Times is from a 1983 article with the word in quotation marks, indicating that it’s a fairly new usage: “The agreement provides that subcommittee members and staff can have copies of ”redacted,” or expurgated, copies of the documents that have been withheld, and can demand to see the full, unredacted copies in executive session.”

Having done that much research, I resolved to expand it into a Lingua Franca post. Then I remembered that after tomorrow, there aren’t going to be any more Lingua Franca posts. Quite the pity that the world will be deprived of my complete and unredacted thoughts on redact! And the same with a number of other ideas I’ve been mulling over or looking into. For what they’re worth, here are some of the items in my real, virtual, and mental notebooks:

  • Headline from The Athletic: “Schultz: Kirby Smart knows bowl games have lost their relevancy …” Seems that relevancy has been increasingly used over relevance, leniency over lenience, etc. What’s next — importancy?…
  • Choose-your-own pronouns: Do I dare touch it?…
  • The expression move the needle has definitely been moving the needle lately. Another one’s set it and forget it. Trace their rise to popularity …
  • Rachel Maddow always chooses pled over pleaded. A change in usage?…
  • People pronouncing milk and bank as melk and benk: Is this in fact on the rise, or am I just noticing it because it annoys me so much?…
  • Spend a day answering emails by choosing one of Gmail’s three sometimes eerily prescient and sometimes way-off suggestions …

33399

  • From a Bloomberg News story: “About 7 percent of tweets prominent women receive in government and journalism were found to be abusive or problematic.” In some circles, problematic has long been a popular euphemism for more direct terms like “abusive,” “racist,” “hateful,” or “offensive.” What’s its appeal, and is it going wider? …
  • “Black and brown people” seems to be gaining on “people of color” …
  • “Never such truer words”: a thing? …
  • Sharp-eyed Emily Gordon sends a quote from a Washington Post article: “‘I am a normy guy,’ Davis said.” Emily notes: “It’s a common slang word, but it’s misspelled. It should be ‘normie,’ meaning exceptionally or overly normal, square, vanilla, straight, non-alternative. … So, ‘He listens to all that normie music from the radio’ (snicker). Or ‘She’s one of those normie girls who just cares about good grades and getting into college.’” How different from basic? Worth looking in to? …
  • The superiority of “looking in to” over “looking into”…
  • Did the seemingly common pronunciation of Beto O’Rourke’s first name as “Bay-toe” rather than “Bay-doh” signal a decline in alveolar flapping in American English? …

For seven and a half years, the prospect of having to write a Lingua Franca post every week has concentrated my mind wonderfully. It’s forced me to turn random observations and notions such as the above into 700-1,000-word pieces, with what were meant to be cogent arguments, backed up with solid research and reasoning, and expressed in a reasonably precise and elegant manner. It’s given me the privilege of being on the same team as the sterling crew you see pictured to the right of this column, gently reminded of deadlines and deftly guided into print by Heidi Landecker and her colleagues Mitch Gerber and Carmen Mendoza, and read by a discerning group of readers, who rapidly pointed out our errors, engaged with our arguments, offered praise when appropriate, and, in my case at least, upped my game.

Hopefully I hope that when it came to discourse on language and writing, we moved the needle a little bit.

Tom Wolfe Essay–The Director’s Cut

I wrote an essay for the Wall Street Journal on Tom Wolfe, who died on May 14 at the age of 88. Then I followed up with a piece on his style for the Lingua Franca blog at the Chronicle of Higher Education. Here’s a mashup of the two pieces, with some additional thoughts.

One of the best passages in Tom Wolfe’s best book, The Right Stuff (1979), starts out:

Anyone who travels very much on airlines in the United States soon gets to know the voice of the airline pilot . . . coming over the intercom . . . with a particular drawl, a particular folksiness, a particular down-home calmness that is so exaggerated it begins to parody itself (nevertheless!—it’s reassuring) . . . the voice that tells you, as the airliner is caught in thunderheads and goes bolting up and down a thousand feet at a single gulp, to check your seat belts because ‘it might get a little choppy’ . . . the voice that tells you [. . .]: ‘Now, folks, uh . . . this is the captain . . . ummmm . . . We’ve got a little ol’ red light up here on the control panel that’s tryin’ to tell us that the landin’ gears’re not . . . uh . . . lockin’ into position when we lower ’em . . . Now . . . I don’t believe that little ol’ red light knows what it’s talkin’ about—I believe it’s that little ol’ red light that iddn’ workin’ right’ . . . faint chuckle, long pause, as if to say, I’m not even sure all this is worth going into—still, it may amuse you . . .

The rendition of the “drawlin’ and chucklin’ and driftin’ and lollygaggin’ ”—the style of speech even pilots from Massachusetts or Oregon universally affect, Wolfe says—goes on for another few hundred words, too long to quote here; I commend it to your attention. The voice, Wolfe ultimately tells us, originated from someone who picked it up in the mountains of West Virginia. Starting in the late 1940s, it drifted “into all phases of American aviation.” “It was the drawl,” he writes, “of the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff: Chuck Yeager.”

Like Yeager, Wolfe had an infectious voice. He revived or introduced into mainstream prose style the use of italics, ellipses, exclamation points, apostrophe (or direct address), the historical present tense, onomatopoeia, kooky spelling and repeated capitalized portentous phrases (“the Right Stuff,” “the Me Decade,” “Masters of the Universe”).  More generally, he wrote with by a verve and playfulness and wit that rammed a virtual alarm clock in the ear of what he once called the country’s “somnambulistic totem newspapers.” His style was pretty much the opposite of Ernest Hemingway’s, but the two men—who both were reporters in their youth—were the most influential American stylists of the 20th century. Every journalist with literary ambitions who came of age from the late 1960s through the ’80s either imitated Wolfe, imitated his imitators or had to make the deliberate decision to reject the Wolfean approach and find another way.

Take it from me; I was one of them.

Wolfe’s style was as original as it was influential, but innovations always have some ancestor or ancestors, however indirect.  The Wolfean literary forebears that come to mind, with one exception, were novelists—not surprising, considering that Wolfe championed journalism as a literary form.

John Updike’s Rabbit, Run was published to a great deal of attention in 1960, just as Wolfe was embarking on his experimentation and innovation. He surely noted that it was composed in the present tense—in recent times a commonplace, in 1960 a novelty. Wolfe also had to have been intimately familiar with the work of J.D. Salinger, a near-Hemingway-level influence on young American writers in the ’50s. Salinger was very big on italics, especially in dialogue, where he characteristically applied them to just one syllable of a word. An exchange from “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”:

“Muriel. My word of honor. Dr. Sivetski said Seymour may completely lose contr–”

“I just got here, Mother. This is the first vacation I’ve had in years, and I’m not going to just pack everything and leave.”

Next, Norman Mailer, who ventured into non-fiction in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. His coverage of the 1960 presidential conventions for Esquire not only had some of the stylistic much-ness of Wolfe but also—as in this bit from the piece on the Democrats’ Los Angeles—dealt with the same West Coast hot-rod ethos he would explore just a couple of years later:

And in this land of the pretty-pretty, the virility is in the barbarisms, the vulgarities, it is in the huge billboards, the screamers of the neon lighting, the shouting farm-utensil colors of the gas stations and monster drugstores, it is in the swing of the sports cars, hot rods, convertibles, Los Angeles is a city to drive in, the boulevards are wide, the traffic is nervous and fast, the radio stations play bouncing, blooping, rippling tunes, one digs the pop in a pop tune, no one of character would make love by it but the sound is good for swinging a car, electronic guitars and Hawaiian harps.

It may or may not have been a matter of what Harold Bloom called the anxiety of influence, but four decades later, Wolfe fomented a public feud with Updike, Mailer, and a third “literary” novelist, John Irving, whom he dubbed “My Three Stooges.”

The one nonliterary influence I’ll mention is advertising, which was probably the main bastion of enthusiasm in 1950s and early-’60s America; its characteristic utterance was the shout, juiced with real or implied exclamation points and italics. Raid Kills Bugs Dead! and all that. Mainstream culture had nothing but disdain for it. Like his contemporaries Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein in painting and Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in architecture, Wolfe appropriated a debased discourse and used it for his own ironic devices. Come to think of it, the Right Stuff and other Wolfean catchphrases may also have been influenced by Madison Avenue, which loves a good slogan.

Moving on, here’s the opening to Wolfe’s 1964 piece “The Girl of the Year”:

Bangs manes bouffants beehives Beatle caps butter face brush-on lashes decal eyes puffy sweaters French thrust bras flailing leather blue jeans stretch pants stretch jeans honeydew bottoms éclair shanks elf boots ballerinas Knight slippers, hundreds of them, these flaming little buds, bobbing and screaming, rocketing around inside the Academy of Music Theatre underneath that vast, old, moldering, cherub dome up there — aren’t they super-marvelous!

Now tell me that Wolfe could have come up with that sentence if James Joyce — the most original literary stylist of the century? — hadn’t written Ulysses.

Finally, here’s another passage from “The Girl of the Year,” which was a profile of “It Girl” Baby Jane Holzer:

That girl on the aisle, Baby Jane, is a fabulous girl. She comprehends what the Rolling Stones mean. Any columnist in New York could tell them who she is … a celebrity of New York’s new era of Wog Hip … Baby Jane Holzer. Jane Holzer in Vogue, Jane Holzer in Life, Jane Holzer in Andy Warhol’s underground movies, Jane Holzer in the world of High Camp, Jane Holzer at the rock and roll, Jane Holzer is … well, how can you put it into words? Jane Holzer is This Year’s Girl, at least, the New Celebrity, none of your old idea of sexpots, prima donnas, romantic tragediennes, she is the girl who knows … The Stones. …

In the deliberate repetition (the Greeks’ word for it was anaphora), in the rhetorical question, in the laser-eyed view of money and its baleful effects, in the long sentences and the voice dripping with irony, I spy the influence of the master of such set pieces, Charles Dickens. From Our Mutual Friend:

Mr and Mrs Veneering were bran-new people in a bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London. Everything about the Veneerings was spick and span new. All their furniture was new, all their friends were new, all their servants were new, their plate was new, their carriage was new, their harness was new, their horses were new, their pictures were new, they themselves were new, they were as newly married as was lawfully compatible with their having a bran-new baby, and if they had set up a great-grandfather, he would have come home in matting from the Pantechnicon, without a scratch upon him, French polished to the crown of his head.

Wolfe’s long career (his final book, The Kingdom of Speech, was published in 2016) had five overlapping but distinct stages. He started out on the academic track, entering the doctoral program in American Studies at Yale after graduating from Washington and Lee University in his native Virginia. His dissertation was turned down; one reader’s report (preserved in the Tom Wolfe Papers at the New York Public Library) observed that Wolfe had “written a piece of polemical journalism, in which he offers too many assertions that are not supported by evidence.” His second try was accepted but by that time he had already taken the hint and become a reporter, finally fetching up at the New York Herald Tribune in the early ’60s. The Trib was known as a writer’s paper, and while there Wolfe made forays beyond totemic somnambulism.

But he didn’t come into his own till the third phase of his career commenced, with a 1963 article for Esquire about the culture of custom cars. He called it “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhhh!) Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmmmmmmmmm) . . .” At the time there wasn’t a name for what he and other innovators, like Gay Talese and Jimmy Breslin, were doing. Wolfe found one in a long-forgotten phrase from 19th-century England: The New Journalism. Like so many of his other coinages, it stuck.

To me the best Wolfe was Wolfe the reporter, on display in several collections published in the ’60s and ’70s (the first had the foreshortened title The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby), in 1968’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (the book narrates a cross-country trip of writer Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters) and in The Right Stuff. Everything came together: his verbal skills, his satirical sensibility, his eye for what he called “status details,” his American Studies set pieces (he was big on applying the theories of Max Weber and Thorstein Veblen to the go-go ’60s) and, maybe least recognized, his shoe-leather reporting rigor. Wolfe was able to construct amazing interior monologues from the points of view of his characters because he spent so much time listening to and just watching them.

The accuracy of In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel,” was challenged pretty much from the day it came out in 1965. Wolfe, by contrast, rarely faced the charge of getting anything significant wrong.

(After my essay containing the previous paragraph was published in the Wall Street Journal, which has a circulation of some 2.3 million people, I was contacted by two people who demurred. My first correspondent commented, “As a pilot, Yeager was nuthin’ compared to say Bob Hoover, or Barney Olds.” He went on: “But the drawl thing … that is just about right.” The second, more serious, charge was that the members of a group of surfers and beachcombers Wolfe wrote about in “The Pump House Gang,” originally published in 1965, “made up stories about their antics at the Pump House by Windansea Beach in La Jolla, which Wolfe assumed were true.” Here’s an article that gets into some of the whys and wherefores.)

Wolfe’s fourth act was as a polemical essayist, starting with The Painted Word (1975) and From Bauhaus to Our House (1981), about modern art and architecture, respectively. They got attention in their time, and they pricked some art-criticism balloons that were ripe for pricking. But today, over all, they have a bit of the feel of a cranky uncle’s Grand Theory rant.

In his final guise, Wolfe became a novelist, aiming—in the tradition of Balzac, Zola and Dickens—to write narratively propulsive works that peeked into all layers of society. His four works of fiction were all best-sellers, and copies of the thick mass-market paperback editions still abound at any book sale you might happen to attend. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the novels sold 50 times as many copies, collectively, as his books of journalism.

But the public and I differ on this matter. While The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) was a tour de force—not coincidentally set in New York City, his adoptive home town, whose streets he had pounded for so many years—I wasn’t able to get through the three novels that followed it. The satire sometimes turned to meanness, and Wolfe’s racial perspective was an obstacle. He didn’t depict people of color (a term he surely loathed) as villains so much as irredeemably different and other. This myopia was apparent from the start of his career. His phrase “Wog Hip,” in the Baby Jane Holzer profile, uses a term as offensive in Britain as the n-word is in the U.S.  In the same piece, he says Mick Jagger sings “with the voice of a bull Negro.” Describing the Playboy mansion in the introduction to an early collection, he said it had “huge black guards or major-domos inside. Nubian slaves, I kept saying to myself. One of the blacks led me up a grand staircase . . .”  One of the blacks. I could go on. In a Facebook comment, the critic Gene Seymour, who is African-American, said, “Even when Wolfe did his own version of ‘bending over backwards’ to conceive African American characters who weren’t (in his view) annoying or over-the-top stereotypes, as in A Man In Full, they came across as stiff and blank.”

More generally, without the tennis net of fact, Wolfe had to rely on his imagination, which struck me as ever less Dickensian as the years went on.

The later Wolfe, it seems to me, became something of a comfortable prisoner of his early innovations. He had a bead on white Christian American men, but that, it became increasingly apparent, left out a lot of the world. Status, on which he was fixated, accounted for some human behavior, but  it’s only one of many factors that account for how we think and behave. And his voice! So fresh and right for a certain time and place! But that time ended and, not unlike Hemingway, Wolfe was locked into a style that sometimes seemed like self-parody or—worse—old-fashioned.

But the journalism he wrote in his prime will last. I have no doubt that a hundred years from now, someone who has never heard of Chuck Yeager, who only knows about airplanes from books, will read about that “little ol’ red light that iddn’ workin’ right.” And give a chuckle of recognition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gaming: The System

merlin_137394777_c810fe81-33cb-4fd6-a52a-11257ac8f684-superJumbo

Illustration by Jackie Ferrentino

Here’s the opening of a piece I recently wrote for the New York Times Review section.

I had to buy two items at CVS — a bottle of mouthwash for me and some red yeast rice pills for my wife. I plucked the Listermint from the shelf, took it to the cashier and gave her my phone number and a $10 bill. The 38 and 1/16th-inch-long receipt had just what I was hoping for: a coupon for $5 off a purchase of $15 or more, expiration date three days later.

I headed straight for the vitamin section, where the economy-size house-brand red yeast rice was on sale — buy one for $22.99, get one free. I brought my two containers to the same cashier, who took the coupon and unjudgingly charged me $17.99. But wait, there’s more. I’d get the equivalent of 2 percent of that price back in CVS Rewards bonuses for future purchases, and 1.75 percent in cash via my credit card rewards program, a total of 67 more cents to my name.

Am I pitiful or what? Don’t answer that question.

Or at least don’t answer it till you hear me out. My CVS behavior is just one data point suggesting that I’m the precise person for whom the marketing strategy of “gamification” is intended. That is, saving some money on vitamin supplements is nice, but that’s not really what brought me to the drugstore. I was there for the buzz, the shots of happy I got when the cash register spit out a receipt the length of a 4-year-old. It’s all in the game.

You can read the rest of the article here.

 

The Loneliness of Watching ‘Last Man on Earth’

I wrote a piece for Slate about my occasional feeling that I am the last man, or woman, on earth watching the Fox comedy Last Man on Earth–and about the fact that, despite its low ratings, the show keeps getting renewed.

Three days after my article appeared, the show was cancelled. However, some reports suggest that Hulu may pick it up for a final season.

In any case, if you’re interested in why I like the show, here’s my piece:

Sometimes I feel I am the last man on Earth watching The Last Man on Earth. The ratings of Fox’s post-apocalyptic sitcom, which aired the last episode of its fourth season on Sunday, started out low and then descended. This season it averaged about 1.97 million viewers per airing, worse than every single show on any network other than the CW, with the exception of its Fox stablemates Brooklyn Nine-Nine, New Girl, and The Exorcist.

Nor—in contrast to Brooklyn Nine-Nine, New Girl, and the CW bottom feeders Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend—does Last Man generate accolades or buzz. When it debuted in 2015, it got positive notices (which prompted me to start watching in the first place) and four Emmy nominations but no wins. The following year there was one nomination, for creator and star Will Forte; last year, nothing. Metacritic tallied up the best-shows-of-2017 lists of 125 publications, websites, and critics, from Adweek to Yahoo. Last Man appeared on exactly zero of them. Personally, since the early reviews, I haven’t encountered a single mention of the show, among critics, on social media, or in real life. (Admittedly, I don’t get out much.)

Adding to my sense of aloneness is the way I watch the showDVRing it on Sunday, then watching it later in the week, when everyone else in my house has gone to sleep.

The show is smart, goofy, attractively filmed, crammed with satisfying Easter eggs and callbacks, absolutely nonaspirational, superbly acted, sneak-up-on-you funny, and, most important, almost aggressively original.

Why have I and my 2 million-odd fellow Last Man fans kept watching? Speaking for myself, because the show is smart, goofy, attractively filmed, crammed with satisfying Easter eggs and callbacks, absolutely nonaspirational, superbly acted, sneak-up-on-you funny, and, most important, almost aggressively original. Sure, you could say the premise and story are a cross between Lost, The Walking Dead, and Gilligan’s Island. But that leaves out the tone and feel of the show, which are like nothing I’ve ever seen.

In the premiere, we meet Phil Miller (Forte), who has somehow survived a virus that killed everyone else on the planet. Reminiscent of Tom Hanks in Cast Away, his only company is a collection of sports balls on which he’s Sharpie’d faces, although he does consider striking up a relationship with a mannequin he finds in a shop window. Phil is all savage, hold the noble. The first line we hear him say is, “Dear God. Apologies for all the recent masturbation.” He amuses himself by bowling with fish tanks and demolishing cars. (Phil is watermelon-dropping David Letterman let loose on a vacant world.) He floats in a kiddie pool, sipping the mega-Margarita he’s filled it with, and when he needs to relieve himself, heads over to a bigger pool and squats over the hole he’s cut out in the diving board.

At the end of the first episode, Phil despairs and decides to kill himself, only to see a plume of smoke in the air. He follows it and discovers another survivor, Carol Pilbasian (Kristen Schaal). Much of the rest of the first season is animated by a running joke contradicting the title: Phil encounters other “last men,” and women, at the rate of roughly one every other week, usually in a closing cliffhanger.

A signal feature of the show, from the start, were what-crazy-twist-will-the-writers-come-up-with-this-time? storylines. Selected recaps from the show’s Wiki page give a bit of the flavor:

• “Phil parks in a handicapped parking spot, much to Carol’s dismay, but more arguing leads to Phil ramming the truck through the store entrance.”
• “Phil then heads to a jeweler with Carol for the rings, and gives her a hammer as a wedding gift to choose the ring she wants.”
• “The next day, the group continues to call Tandy by his embarrassing nickname [Skidmark], much to Tandy’s dismay, which then leads Tandy to show them his skidmark free underwear.” (In the second season, because another, more admirable guy named Phil has arrived, the group votes that Forte’s character has to be called by his middle name, Tandy.)
• “Tandy confides in Carol that Pat [a paranoid psychopath who intermittently bedevils the group] is really dead. They stage a fake fight between Tandy and a fake foam dummy of Pat.”

I have to admit I was touch and go about continuing with Last Man after Season 1. Forte’s all-in performance was amazing, but gross-out gags only go so far, and I was mainly unamused by the sex farce that took up a lot of the airtime, especially as it came partly at the expense of the marvelous Schaal: Phil’s lust for glamorous new arrivals (January Jones, Cleopatra Coleman, Mary Steenburgen) is constricted by his commitment to unglamorous Carol, made when he thought she was the only woman left alive. But I’d made enough of an investment, and was curious enough about what would happen next, to overcome my misgivings. I’m glad I did: the characters, relationships, and themes have gotten progressively deeper and more interesting.

And the wackiness remains. A running gag of the past three season is that A-listers like Will Ferrell, Jon Hamm, Jack Black, Laura Dern, and Martin Short turn up, only to quickly die, in ever more bizarre ways. An arc this season featured Fred Armisen, whose brilliant turn as a Hannibal Lecter–like serial killer/cannibal should win him a supporting-actor Emmy. (It won’t.) Ultimately, he was blown up by an exploding Rubik’s Cube that had been introduced early in the season and that, like Chekhov’s famous pistol, was destined to go off. (Jason Sudeikis, Kristen Wiig, and Chris Elliott have also made multiepisode appearances, though they haven’t been killed off. Yet.)

But mortality isn’t a gag for Last Man—or at least isn’t just a gag. Two regulars have died over the show’s run, and the emotion characters and audience feel is real, though no This Is Us–ean tears are ever, ever jerked. Indeed, maybe the most impressive thing about the show is that, while maintaining the element of wigged-out farce, it’s added layers of seriousness. The alcoholism of Gail (Steenburgen) and the firearms-obsessed psychosis of Melissa (Jones) are always on or just below the surface; all the other characters (with the exception of Coleman’s steady and dependable Erica) have their own particular mishegoss. More so than the buzzier but less original and funny The Good Place, the show has come to address issues of what it means to be alive, to be a good person, to commit to someone. (The other things the series have in common are similar go-to euphemisms. Last Man: “Oh, farts.” Good Place: “Oh, fork.”)

Spoiler alert: Sunday night’s season ender went big with its cliffhanger, as the group encountered more last people, and not just one or two. Will Fox renew the show so we can find out who they are? The ratings would appear to be just too low, but TV analysts give it a just better than even chance to stay alive. Why? Last Man does a bit better with the key 18–49 demographic than with the population at large. More important, it’s owned by the network it airs on, which means revenue for the company when the show has wrapped enough episodes to make a syndication deal, a number it would likely achieve in Season 5.

The decision should come down in the next couple of weeks. If it turns out to be negative, even though I’ve never met another Last Man fan, I’m pretty sure I can predict what the reaction of the entire hardy band will be.

Oh, farts.

Revisiting “Inappropriate”

[Note. This essay was first published in the Chronicle of Higher Education in May 1999. Now seems like a good time to revisit it. I’ve resisted the urge to tinker with it, other than to add a Google Ngram Viewer chart at the end.–BY]

When Bill Clinton, by way of apology, acknowledged last fall that he had had an “inappropriate relationship” with a White House intern, he was appropriating a term that has come to seem appropriate for a remarkably wide range of situations and purposes.

A quick Lexis-Nexis search for “inappropriate” yielded 198 hits in major newspapers just in the month of January 1999 (for the same month three years earlier there were 108). Scanning some of the headlines that came up offers a strikingly wide range of uses for the word:

“Survey finds pharmacies giving customers inappropriate advice” (The Herald, Glasgow).

“Niece as flower girl would be inappropriate in gay wedding” (Houston Post).

“Holmgren regrets outburst. Coach admits cursing at fan was inappropriate” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel).

“Enemas are inappropriate, dangerous as a weight-loss tool” (Chicago Sun-Times).

“Blindfold use in school ruled inappropriate” (South China Morning Post).

The meaning of the word in all of these uses is evident (respectively, “incorrect,” “in poor taste,” “inexcusable,” “insane,” and “barbaric”). But “inappropriate” has become such a catchall term that sometimes it’s impossible to figure out what it’s supposed to signify. A New York Times article on last year’s Thanksgiving Day parade reported, “Earlier this year, five balloons were permanently retired because they were too big, too awkward or, in the case of Cat in the Hat, inappropriate, as a Macy’s spokesman put it.” You want to run that by me again?

I hasten to point out that “inappropriate” is no piece of neologistic slang. The Oxford English Dictionary, which gives the definition “not appropriate; unsuitable to the particular case; unfitting, improper,” cites its first appearance in the early 19th century and quotes a use in Dickens’s Dombey and Son: “[He] invaded the grave silence with the singularly inappropriate air of ‘A cobbler there was.'” Its antonym and root, appropriate (“specially fitted or suitable, proper”), has an even longer pedigree, dating at least to 1546, when an edition of The Regiment of Lyfe referred to “remedies … appropriate to every membre throughout the body.”

Both words proceeded quietly along until the middle of this century, when they began to receive wide use in specific fields. Medical discourse acquired the habit of referring to procedures as “appropriate” or “inappropriate” for a particular patient — terminology that had a nicely scientific, non-judgmental feel. The new discipline of psychotherapy, in its many and varied forms, adopted this lingo to describe not the treatment but the patient (or client), no doubt in large part because it liked the idea of being a branch of medicine rather than religion. And so such phrases as “inappropriate affect” began to be heard in consulting rooms throughout the land. I asked some friends about their first awareness of “inappropriate,” and one of them told me by e-mail about working in a child-psychology clinic in the 1970s: “We were practically required to describe behavior as inappropriate, when what we really meant was (a) annoying, (b) obnoxious, or (c) crazy.”

But what propelled the words into the national consciousness, I believe, was E.F. Schumacher’s 1973 book, Small Is Beautiful, which extolled the virtues of “appropriate” — that is, small-scale — technology. A journal called Appropriate Technology began publication in 1974; my university library has six publications just from the years 1977 to 1979 whose titles begin with that phrase.

So the words were there for the taking, and they got taken — especially, as I started out by saying, “inappropriate.” While it is currently deployed to characterize virtually anything a writer or speaker finds unsatisfactory, its most common use is clearly as a euphemism for sexually explicit material, especially when this gets onto children’s radar screens, or (as with the President) forms of sexual behavior that for various reasons are not universally accepted.

That understanding of the term is so widely shared that an explanation is often seen as unnecessary. I found a citation for a 1998 article from The Journal of the American Dental Association called “The Inappropriate Patient.” This struck me as a fascinating concept. I looked up the abstract, only to find that the article is about dentists’ legal obligations when they or their employees are sexually harassed by patients. Similarly, a 1994 article from Nursing, called “Grieving Spouse: Inappropriate Behavior,” deals exclusively with what to do when the husband of a terminally ill patient makes what used to be called advances. (“It is recommended that the nurse should first redirect the man’s energies by asking him how he’s coping with his wife’s illness.”)

A number of reasons plausibly suggest themselves for this word’s ever-increasing popularity. The first is our old friend moral relativism. To call an action “inappropriate” is not to call it wrong, bad, shameful, reprehensible, or evil. To call a video “inappropriate” for a child is not to say that it will warp his or her mind or is an instrument of the devil. Use of the word may also subtly imply that those concepts are themselves inappropriately moralistic — that all behavior and expression are okay only as long as they are performed in the suitable or proper time and place. At first blush, that approach to the world has an appealing, vaguely Zen feel to it. But we live, inescapably, in a Judeo-Christian culture. As Sen. Joseph Lieberman said on the floor of the Senate, referring to Clinton’s antics, “Such behavior is not just inappropriate — it is immoral.”

A related explanation for the popularity of this and other euphemisms is personal or institutional timidity when making judgments about other people’s behavior. The perpetrator of “inappropriate” actions is pretty much off the hook, and so is not likely to take any actions — verbal, legal, or physical — against his or her accuser. Another friend, who used to work in college residence halls, told me that “inappropriate” was a “standard word in disciplinary letters I wrote or when talking with a student when you wanted to say ‘You screwed up’ in a nice way. No matter how minor (being caught with a beer) or major (trying to plug the exhaust pipe of my car), the behavior was not appropriate for a residence setting.”

Conversely, someone — say, the President — who admits to inappropriate behavior isn’t admitting to anything too terribly awful. It’s classic rhetoric for a non-apology apology.

Perhaps the most important explanation of the word is simple linguistic laziness: “Inappropriate” is such an easy way to avoid saying what you mean. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s proposed resolution to censure the President began: “Whereas William Jefferson Clinton, President of the United States, engaged in an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate employee in the White House, which was shameless, reckless and indefensible. …” Shameless, reckless, and indefensible are great words! Feinstein’s prose would have been so much stronger (and maybe her resolution would have passed) if she had scuttled the old and tired “inappropriate relationship” and let them shine.

The problem with the overuse of “inappropriate,” finally, is that it is fuzzy language and inevitably results in missed signals and squawky communication. Yet another friend recalls that when she was an intern at a high school in New York City, “I had to tell an Episcopal priest that his daughter had called the Spanish teacher a son of a bitch. I chose not to be explicit and explained to him that his daughter had used inappropriate language. He responded by asking, ‘What the hell do you mean by inappropriate?'”

Google Ngram Viewer chart showing frequency of “inappropriate” in English-language books. (Reliable data only goes through 2000.)

Screen Shot 2017-12-18 at 5.20.28 PM

Is a Lot of ‘Learnings’ a Dangerous Thing?

The other day I got an email from a colleague, Richard Gordon, which opened up:

I officially surrender on this one: “trainings” and “learnings” and other plural gerunds. …

Even academic papers now include the plural of gerunds:

“Expanding the Pipeline: Key Learnings on Retaining Underrepresented Minorities and Students with Disabilities in Computer Science  from CRA Bulletin”

Coincidentally, just a few days earlier, the same thing had come up on a Facebook thread about new words and phrases. A friend commented “the absolute worst is ‘Learnings.’ My brain needs a reboot every time I hear it, as in, ‘What were the learnings from the meeting?’”

I had to confess, learnings was a new one on me, but I quickly learned it’s definitely not a new one. While learning is traditionally a noncount or mass noun meaning the act of acquiring new knowledge, the Oxford English Dictionary has a definition of it as a count noun meaning “a lesson, instruction,” with citations dating back to Piers Plowman in 1362 and including this line from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline:  “The king … Puts to him all the Learnings that his time Could make him the receiuer of.” That is the final citation, and the definition has a dagger next to it, indicating obsolete status.

But the obsolete status is obsolete. Commenting on the Facebook thread, Mike Pope noted that that very day, the OED had responded to a question on the subject on Twitter:

Screen Shot 2017-12-07 at 9.43.29 AM

In fact, the revival of learnings seems to have started before that. This Google Ngram Viewer chart indicates a spike in use from about 1920 to 1960.

Screen Shot 2017-12-07 at 10.25.23 AM

Most of the uses in that period came from the field of education. A 1930 edition of a physical-education journal gave this report of a conference address:

He then made the following points: Learnings in character are subject to the same laws and principles as learnings in the ordinary intellectual fields. … Direct learning, however, will probably be the smallest part of the processes. Therefore concomitant learnings must be as carefully planned. …

Learnings seems to have made its move to the corporate world around the turn of the 21st century and shows no signs of letting up. In a November 14 New York Times Dealbook conference, Oscar Munoz, CEO of United Airlines, said,  “One of the key learnings that I project out to folks — because we all at some point in time could be affected by this — is that you have more time to respond than you think.

The first complaint about learnings I’ve found came in 2003. In 2004 someone wrote this complete blog post: “Attention, Masters of Business Administration of Corporate America: Quit using the word ‘learnings.’ It makes you sound really stupid. The word you really want is ‘lessons.’” More peeving came in 2009.

Currently, the use of the word in academe is robust, to say the least. A Google Scholar search for learnings in 2017 alone yields 5,620 hits. The first four:

  • “Building the capacity of early childhood educators to promote children’s mental health: Learnings from three new programs” –chapter in Health and Well Being in Childhood.
  • “The digital journey: Reflected learnings and emerging challenges” –International Journal of Management.
  • Review of LCA datasets in three emerging economies: a summary of learnings” –International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment.
  • “Review of LCA datasets in three emerging economies: a summary of learnings” –presentation, International Association for Energy Economics.

Was the 2004 blogger right? Does learnings make you sound stupidIt probably depends on the setting. No in a meeting on Madison Avenue, yes in the English department. It’s certainly not an affront against the English language, what with the Shakespeare pedigree and such parallel constructions as teachings, findings, leavings, and readings. Should you, as the blogger said, use lessons instead? I do discern a slight difference in connotation: lessons emphasize the data, person, or persons imparting the information, learnings the person or persons receiving it. Lessons also has a slight punitive feel, as in “learn your lesson.” (Another option is a a slightly less buzzy buzzword, takeaway.)

As for me, I would never use learnings. But that doesn’t mean a hill of beans in this world, as I learned long ago.

How Old Is Gaslighting’?

220px-gaslight-1944The American Dialect Society met in January and chose dumpster fire as Word of the Year. The winner in the “Most Useful/Likely to Succeed” category was gaslight, a verb is defined as  to “psychologically manipulate a person into questioning their own sanity.” (Of course linguists would use singular they.)

There was immediate pushback. On the ADS email list, John Baker asked, “What is the rationale for naming ‘gaslight’…? The word has been around for decades. Did it come to some special prominence in 2016?” Arnold Zwicky chimed in: “Over seven decades, in fact. The movie that’s the source of the expression came out in 1944.”

Similarly, when I posted the winners on Facebook, my friend Pat Raccio Hughes commented, “How is that on the list? Isn’t it supposed to be new stuff?” She added that she and her husband had been using it since 1990.

The society addressed this issue in its press release on the voting: “The words or phrases do not have to be brand-new, but they have to be newly prominent or notable in the past year.” So does that apply to gaslight?

Yes, I’d say. The new prominence came from Donald Trump’s habitual tendency to say “X,” and then, at some later date, indignantly declare, “I did not say ‘X.’ In fact, I would never dream of saying ‘X.’” As Ben Zimmer, chair of the ADS’s New Words Committee and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal, pointed out, The New Republic, Salon, CNN, The Texas Observer, and Teen Vogue (“Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America”) all used the metaphor as the basis for articles about Trump.

The New York Times first used the common gerund form, gaslighting, in 1995, in a Maureen Dowd column. But there were only nine additional uses through May of last year. From June 2016 through the end of the year, the Times used gaslighting 10 times, including a Susan Dominus essay called “The Reverse-Gaslighting of Donald Trump,” which riffed on Hillary Clinton’s line in a September debate: “Donald, I know you live in your own reality.”

As so often happens when you get a lot of language observers together, the discussion shifted: from whether gaslight was newly prominent to precisely how old its verb use is. The history begins with Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gas Light (known in the United States as Angel Street). It inspired a 1940 British film and the more famous 1944 American production, directed by George Cukor and starring Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, and Charles Boyer. (Spoiler alert.) The Boyer character tries to drive the Bergman character (his wife) crazy, notably by insisting that the gaslights in their house did not flicker, when in fact they did.

But there is no verb gaslight in Gaslight. As I noted on the ADS email list, in response to Baker and Zwicky, this use emerged some 20 years later, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Its first citation is a sentence from a 1965 article in the magazine The Reporter: “Some troubled persons having even gone so far as to charge malicious intent and premeditated ‘gaslighting.’” The quotation marks around the word are a sign that it was a recent coinage.

Jonathan Lighter, editor of The Historical Dictionary of American Slang, responded that he had noted in the book an oral use from 1956, by a 41-year-old woman, revealed to be none other than his mother. Lighter also said he has a strong memory of the verb’s being used in an episode of I Love Lucy the same year. That set Ben Zimmer to work. He posted:

There’s a 1956 I Love Lucy episode called “Lucy Meets Charles Boyer,” in which Ricky conspires with Charles Boyer to make Lucy think that Boyer is merely a lookalike. There are obvious parallels to Gaslight, but I watched the episode here and I didn’t hear anything about “gaslighting.”

Bill Mullins replied: “I vaguely recall an episode of the The Lucy Show [a later Lucille Ball sitcom] in which gaslighting is a plot element.” Mullins went to  Google and and found a web page titled “The Ten Best THE LUCY SHOW Episodes of Season Six” (perhaps proving that there is a web page for every conceivable topic). One of the 10 was “Lucy Gets Mooney Fired,” which aired in November 1967. The web page gives a plot summary and commentary:

Lucy inadvertently gets Mooney [Gale Gordon] fired after she covers up a bank shortage. To convince Cheever [the bank president] to give Mooney his job back, Lucy gives him the Gaslight treatment.

I love how kooky this episode is WITHOUT managing to insult its audience’s intelligence. Taking a cue from Gaslight (1944), Lucy decides to make Cheever think he has gone crazy, so that he’ll agree to rehire Mr. Mooney. The script itself isn’t that funny, but the bits Lucy does to make Cheever flip are great. This is, deservedly, a fan favorite.

The estimable Zimmer wasn’t done. Consulting with Josh Chetwynd, author of Totally Scripted: Idioms, Words, and Quotes From Hollywood to Broadway That Have Changed the English Language, which has an entry on gaslight, he located and watched a 1952 episode of The Burns and Allen Show called “Grace Buying Boat for George.” (It’s a tough job but somebody’s got to do it.) Zimmer wrote, “At 16:20 in the YouTube video, Harry (Fred Clark) says to Gracie, ‘Give him the gaslight treatment!’ and then explains what that means. A bit later you hear George say, ‘So they sold Gracie on the gaslight bit.’”

Still no verb, you’ll notice. Zimmer took care of that a few hours later:

Here’s an example of the verb “gaslight” in “The Grudge Match,” an episode of Gomer Pyle: USMC that aired on 12 Nov. 1965 (antedating OED’s 1969 cite for the verb, as well as the Dec. 1965 cite for the verbal noun).

Duke: You know, you guys, I’m wondering. Maybe if we can’t get through to the sarge we can get through to the chief.

Frankie: How do you mean?…

Duke: The old war on nerves. We’ll gaslight him.

Leading me to muse on the fascinating possibility that the writer of the Reporter piece heard the verb on Gomer Pyle and put it into print just a month later.

But then more detective work was done on the ADS list. Stephen Goranson discovered that an even earlier use of the verb far, in Anthony F.C. Wallace’s 1961 book, Culture and Personality:

It is also popularly believed to be possible to “gaslight” a perfectly healthy person into psychosis by interpreting his own behavior to him as symptomatic of serious mental illness. While “gaslighting” itself may be a mythical crime, there is no question that any social attitude which interprets a given behavior or experience as symptomatic of a generalized incompetence is a powerful creator of shame[….]

(The OED has the quote but credits it to a 1969 reprint.)

In any case, the term was picked up, especially in reference to abusers of spouses, partners, and children, and was commonplace by 1990, when Pat Hughes reports starting to use it. I myself first heard it the year before, when, on assigment for Rolling Stone, I interviewed the 19-year-old Uma Thurman for Rolling Stone, who used it in a context I don’t recall. The word was new to me, and I meant to look it up, but I never got around to it.