(Stanley) Fish Food for Thought: Aesthetic Reflections

Welcome to Part 3 of PUP’s Stanley Fish series, Fish Food for Thought. All selections are excerpted from Fish’s new book, Think Again: Contrarian Reflections on Life, Culture, Politics, Religion, Law, and Education.


Fish Food for Thought

Part 3: Aesthetic Reflections

2.1 Why Do Writers Write?writing

February 11, 2007

Fish on the internal satisfaction when writing.

If you’ve found something you really like to do — say write beautiful sentences — not because of the possible benefits to the world of doing it, but because doing it brings you the satisfaction and sense of completeness nothing else can, then do it at the highest level of performance you are capable of, and leave the world and its problems to others, (41)

2.4 The Ten Best American Movies

January 4, 2009

Fish on one of his favorite movies, 1980’s ‘Raging Bull.’

Most boxing movies trace the classic pattern of rise, fall, and redemption…or tell a moral tale about the corruption of the sport… or detail the corruption of the protagonist. Raging Bull offers no triumph and no moral. It just exhibits the self-destructiveness of its central figure again and again…the wonder is that Scorsese was able to make something lyrical out of a polluting self-destructiveness, but that is what he did, (55)

2.6 Larger than Life: Charlton Heston

April 13, 2008

Fish on former Hollywood star Charlton Heston.

The fact is that Heston’s size, his monumentality, was an obstacle he had to overcome in order to become the actor he wanted to be… Not only was Heston capable of playing a small man; the tension between the inner smallness he was portraying and his physical mass added strength and poignancy to the performance,(63)

2.8 Little Big Men

March 1, 2010

Fish on identifying with actors.

Seeing men you know to be small playing big on the silver screen is comforting, even though the comfort depends on a very suspect transference…But you take your comfort where you can get it, and for me, comfort at the highest level would be identifying with a short, tough guy who is also Jewish, (71-72)

2.13 Country RoadsThink Again jacket

July 1, 2007

Fish on the world of country music.

But if you enter, if only vicariously, into the country music culture, you have to swallow, along with your enjoyment, some stances and attitude that might you pause (or might not, depending on who you are). It’s a man’s world… It’s a Christian world… It’s a white world… It’s a patriotic world… And it is a world that knows everything I have just said about it, revels in it, and puts it all into the songs, (88-89)


(Stanley) Fish Food for Thought: Personal Reflections

Think Again jacketFrom 1995 to 2013, Stanley Fish’s provocative New York Times columns consistently generated passionate discussion and debate. In Think Again, he has assembled almost one hundred of his best columns into a thematically arranged collection with a substantial new introduction that explains his intention in writing these pieces and offers an analysis of why they provoked so much reaction. Welcome to the new weekly blog series,Fish Food for Thought. Each week, we will feature particularly memorable quotes and excerpts from  Think Again: Contrarian Reflections on Life, Culture, Politics, Religion, Law and Education. You can also check out his weekly opinion pieces in The Huffington Post.




Fish Food for Thought

Part 1: Personal Reflections

1.1 My Life Report

October 31, 2011

Fish on what he’s done well and what he’s learned along the way.

I was lucky, and that, I believe, made all the difference … So that’s what I did well. I arrived at places at the right time and had enough sense to seize the opportunities that were presented to me … even the opportunity to write for this newspaper [New York Times] … as usual, I didn’t have the slightest idea of what to do, but I said yes anyway to this newest piece of luck, (4)

1.2 ‘Tis the Season

December 21, 2009

Fish on feeling guilty giving to others during the Holiday season.

No deed a fallen man or woman might perform is free of what George Herbert called the ‘tincture of the private.’ Apparently selfless acts are always done in the service of the ego’s enhancement … In short, however much you try – indeed, because you try – you can’t be good or do good, (9)

1.5 My Life on the Court

March 22, 2009

Fish on the pleasures of playing basketball.

The marvel is that focused intensity can be achieved even in the act of failure, even by someone who knows what to do next but most of the time can’t quite do it … In those moments of surrender to the game, all one’s troubles, all one’s strivings, all one’s pretty irritations fall away. And if, occasionally, you actually do set the hard pick or deliver the perfect pass or make the improbable shot, well, that’s just icing on the cake,(20)

1.8 I am, Therefore I Pollute

August 3, 2008

Fish on being environmentally friendly.

I don’t want to save the planet. I just want to inhabit it as comfortably as possible for as long as I have… I am wholly persuaded by the arguments in support of the practices I resist. I believe that recycling is good and that disposable paper products are bad. I believe in global warming. I believe in Al Gore. But it is possible to believe something and still resist taking the actions your belief seems to require, (26-28)

1.11 Moving On

May 27, 2013

Fish on departing with all of his books.

What I saw on the shelves was work to which I would never return, the writings of fellow critics whom I will no longer engage, interpretive dilemmas someone else will have to address. The conversations I had participated in for decades have now gone in another direction (indeed, several other directions), and I have neither the time nor, if truth be told, the intellectual energy required to catch up. Farewell to all that. So long, it’s been good to know you. I’m sure you’ll do fine without me, (33)


A Letter From Your Publicist


Happy pub date to you, happy pub date….

Congratulations on your new book! Whether you’ve just put the finishing touches on your first book or have been down this road before, you’re probably eager to see what you can do to help to give your baby a proper send-off into the wild world of book critics and Amazon reviewers alike. Though I may not be your publicist, here’s hoping this guide can address the publicity questions you have, but were hesitant to ask.

Will you send my book out for review?

Absolutely! We are as invested in seeing your book land in the right hands as you are. Many months ago you should have filled out an Author Promotion Form (APF). Every press calls these forms something different, but this is an opportunity for you to share any suggestions for publications or special contacts that should receive a copy of your book. Didn’t fill it out? Don’t fear. You can contact your publicist at any time with leads for reviewers. Your publicist has also been familiarizing herself with your book and compiling a list of contacts that are just right for the target audience. Your book will be sent to a well-curated list. We also send out press releases and targeted email pitches.

My book is out and I haven’t seen any reviews in journals. What’s going on?

Don’t despair. Reviews in scholarly journals can happen at a glacial pace. Often they appear many months (or even a year) after publication date. This is also the case for major publications like the New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, and the Times Literary Supplement.

What can I do to help?

writingA lot. One of the best things you can do after writing a book is… write some more! If your book’s research can be leveraged to comment on current events and you’re able to write a short (750 words) piece with a definite argument, you can pen an op ed positioning yourself as an expert, mentioning your book in the byline. Your publicist can help you  to get this into the hands of the right people. Never written an op ed before? Start by reading them.

Notice they are free of jargon, written for a general audience, and feature a strong point of view. Here’s a good place to read about the dos and don’ts of op ed writing.

Take advantage of other writing opportunities too. Guest blog if you are asked. Respond quickly to reporters who solicit your expertise. Reach out to personal contacts and colleagues who may have an affinity with your work and be interested in covering it.

Should I promote my book on Facebook/Twitter? Something else?

If you’re already active on social media, get more active now. The three months following the publication of your book is no time for modesty. You can follow people working on or writing about similar topics, retweet your book’s reviews or your own opinion pieces, use twitter to engage with others on your topic, or simply tweet ‘thanks!’ at someone for sharing your piece. If you know of an organization or individual that might be interested in your book, you can tag them in tweets to let them know about it.  But whatever you do, make sure to use your twitter feed to do more than self promote. Pay attention to what others are writing and be generous. If you share someone else’s work, there’s a good chance they’ll pay attention to the next thing you write as well. Finally, don’t worry about jumping onto every social platform there is. Use whatever is most comfortable for you, and where you have a natural following.

Should my book have its own hash tag?

Probably not.  Instead, use a popular tag on a topic you cover (like #edchat or  #behavioraleconomics).

I’ve never used social media and feel silly tweeting. Do I have to?

dislike buttonThere is no pressure at all to engage in these activities. If you’re on the fence about social media, now might be a time to give it a whirl. But if social media use is painful for you, forcing yourself into that territory it isn’t likely to benefit you or your book. No need to worry. Your publicist and press’s social media manager will be pushing out posts on your book themselves. Just sit back and enjoy the show.

Can my university help?

Definitely leverage the power of your university. Be in touch with your communications office to see what resources or plans they may have to promote your book. Some will share special features on social media, put out a press release on your book, post interviews with you their own website, or even be willing to produce a video interview or book trailer. Make sure to keep your book publicist in the loop about any plans to avoid duplication of effort, and offer both your university and your publisher opportunities to cross post.

I was interviewed, but the reporter used my quote without mentioning my book. How can I make sure my book is mentioned next time?

Just ask. Most reporters are amenable to referring to you as ‘author of…’ when using your quote. Don’t be shy about making the request.

Help! My book got a bad review! Should I respond?

angry manSome reviewers may draw conclusions about your research that you think are off base; in rare cases, they may even write caustic takedowns. There is no absolute rule covering how or whether to respond, though in many cases, the best response is no response at all. At times, we may counsel authors to reply, especially in the New York Review of Books, which has a long tradition of spirited exchanges between reviewer and author in their “Letters” section. Above all, if you do respond, you should keep it respectful and stick, as much as possible, to correcting errors of fact. Avoid the polemics the reviewer may have engaged in. You’ll come off better if you take the high ground. Kill’em with kindness.

I still feel frustrated.

troll signCompletely understandable. Post the offending review to your personal Facebook wall if you’re inclined, where no doubt your friends and colleagues will rally to your cause. But don’t feel the need to reply to everything, rectify every misunderstanding, or haunt the comments section under your own op eds. Remember the old chestnut that even bad publicity is good publicity? It’s true. The interest of readers and other reviewers is likely to be piqued by the very controversy that has you steaming, and that can only be a good thing.

Thanks for the tips, but I wish I could talk to another author. Someone who’s traveled this road before.

Jane Austen, Game Theorist cover artYou’re in luck! For another perspective and more ideas on how you can get creative with book publicity, check out this post by Michael Chwe, whose exuberant, hands-on efforts helped his book, Jane Austen: Game Theorist, to garner widespread attention. This is a man who said he’d stop at nothing—not even Jane Austen kitten memes—to get his scholarly book out there.

If you’re not as proactively disposed as Chwe, don’t worry. Successful publicity campaigns come in many forms. Remember, too, that your book is supported by the collaborative efforts of multiple people and departments. Although every new author’s journey comes with a bit of anxiety, take a deep breath, set up a Google alert for your name, and raise a glass to yourself. Whatever you do, try to enjoy the ride.

Your Publicist




An interview with poet Fiona Sze-Lorrain on “The Ruined Elegance”

Sze-Lorrain, poet

© Dominique Nabokov, 2015, Paris

Fiona Sze-Lorrain is a poet, literary translator, editor, and zheng harpist. In her new collection—an intercultural journey that traces lives, encounters, exiles, and memories from France, America, and Asia—she offers a nuanced yet dynamic vision of humanity marked by perils, surprises, and transcendence. Recently she took the time to answer some questions about The Ruined Elegance.

Can you speak a little about your writing process or how these poems came about?

FS: Almost every poem in this collection behaved like a beast. I lost whenever I tried to fight it, until I realized how far I missed the mark. “To question the options of elegy, I’ve probably chosen the wrong epic.” [from the poem “Back from the Aegean Sea”] Several verses and their poetic narratives were deviating at the start, in part because I had tried to be clever about a “lyric/anti-lyric.” I wanted silence and music. What better paradox could there be?

It did feel like a crisis when I could only pick these poems up from their “ruins.” I censored words and images even before saying them out loud or putting them down on the page. Part of my illusion had to do with my folly of “writing to tame vulnerability and speechlessness” on the page. While finding ways to cope, I felt drawn to reading poems that were gentle yet could sustain a certain emotional rawness and moral jolt. To recenter myself, I walked — from one arrondissement to another.

The Ruined Elegance jacketWhat colors come to mind when you revisit the poems in The Ruined Elegance?

FS: Violet, vermillion, and shades of gray-green. No vintage “black and white.”

Why not?

FS: Because I hope to have the poems operate beyond witnessing, documenting or commenting about their socio-historical sources, even if some of the thematic concerns relate to specific political events — these poems believe in history, but they don’t live in the past.

Why poetry?  What would you like to be if you weren’t a poet, literary translator, or zheng harpist?

FS: I didn’t plan to “be a poet.”  Poems and Bach bring me as much joy as doubt, though sometimes not as much company as would horses and trees.

Why poetry — because it can still resist greed and social constructs.  Were I not a poet or musician, I would like to play bridge professionally or practice herbology and phytotherapy.

What are some of your poetic influences?

FS: Dickinson, Lowell, Rimbaud, Milosz, Lorca, Białoszewski, Montale… as well as translations of Buddhist scriptures and Latin texts.

 Please offer some reading recommendations for our readers.

FS: Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu: it is my perennial “drug” or ritual.

I also recommend C.G. Jung’s The Red Book, Aesop’s Fables, photography catalogues of Tina Modotti, Susan Stewart’s On Longing, Pico Iyer’s The Open Road, Mark Strand’s Collected Poems, Simone de Beauvoir’s Une mort très douce [A Very Easy Death], and photographs of the Baudelairian Paris by Eugène Atget.

An excerpt from The Ruined Elegance. Note, the first line is after the last verse of her translation “Mirror,” by contemporary Chinese poet Zhang Zao, forthcoming from Zephyr Press:

Poem excerpt
Chapter one is available here.

An interview with Jesse Zuba, author of “The First Book”

Literary debuts both launch and define careers, and have a unique impact on the literary marketplace. In The First Book, Jesse Zuba has written a cultural history and literary analysis of “first books”, focusing on poetic debuts, that will intrigue writers and publishers alike. Recently, Zuba spoke to PUP about his first book, The First Book:

The First Book jacket“First books” hold such a special place in the public imagination. How did you come up with the idea of writing about first books?

I was interested in how poets came to see themselves as poets, and be recognized as such by others, before they had anything more than their unpublished writing to show for their efforts, and at a cultural moment when poetry generally didn’t count for a whole lot. I tried to write a research paper about this in college. I remember checking out Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium and John Ashbery’s Some Trees from the library, and re-reading Gary Snyder’s Riprap. But I didn’t follow through. I was fascinated by Stevens’s “Earthy Anecdote,” but I didn’t have any idea what it meant, let alone how to link it to other debut poems.

Eventually I saw that my questions about vocation were exactly what poets usually brooded on as they began their careers. I also noticed the improbable amount of fuss made over debuts in reviews, essays, advertisements, and elsewhere, and I got curious. Four dozen annual first book prizes? For poetry? I liked that the topic gave me a chance to discuss a wide range of poets handling vocational anxieties in different ways, and also to talk about the first book as a complex artifact that is more central to the poetry scene than you might expect.

What does “The First Book” have to do with “Twentieth-Century Poetic Careers in America”?

The first book anticipates others to come. I couldn’t discuss it without placing it in the context of the poetic career. But what was that? Was the classic sequence of pastoral, georgic, and epic still relevant, or was it just a series of books? How did jobs, relationships, and receptions get factored in? And what about the oppositional bent of modern poetry, with its ambivalent relation to the very forms of success that conventional careers aim to achieve?

By focusing on the representation of career, I followed the lead of the poets themselves, who obsessively address questions of self-fashioning in their debuts. That they talk so much about it, both obliquely and sometimes quite explicitly, suits the occasion, since the poetic career – always precarious, and especially so in twentieth-century America – is bound to be radically uncertain at the outset, when it’s all still to do.

What were some of the challenges you faced as you worked on the book?

One challenge was the complexity of the career notion I just mentioned. Most of the criticism dealing with it comes out of Renaissance studies, which has only an indirect relevance to my project. I gradually found my way to books like Edward Said’s Beginnings, and sociological studies of art and professionalism, which helped me to find the handles on the issue. But in the early going, it was sometimes tough to work with a concept that was at once so hazy and yet so pervasive in literary criticism.

In a similar way, the idea of the first book itself proved more difficult to pin down than I expected. If Stevens’s Harmonium, published in 1923, was his first book, was the expanded 1931 edition of Harmonium his second book, or the definitive edition of his first? Was Observations Marianne Moore’s debut, or was Poems, which was published three years earlier by her friends, without her say-so? What about early publications whose authors later destroyed them, like Lyn Hejinian’s The Grreat Adventure, or omitted them from collected editions, like Robert Hayden’s Heart-Shape in the Dust? It was a while before I learned to look at examples like these as evidence of the interest poets and publishers have taken in debuts, which are often staged and re-staged in tellingly energetic ways.

In the book you list lots of debut titles that deal with beginning, from James Merrill’s First Poems and Amiri Baraka’s Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note to Eleni Sikelianos’s Earliest Worlds and Ken Chen’s Juvenilia. Is this part of the secret formula for getting published? Do poets write for prizes?

I don’t see much evidence of any formula, though there are some interesting similarities among first books, and I’m sure many poets have considered current trends and judges’ tastes in the hopes of increasing their odds. There are too many constantly-changing variables involved for a formula to be more than minimally effective, and the checklists you sometimes see in prize advertisements with qualities like “willingness to take risks” and “formal virtuosity” not only raise more questions than they answer, but are much more easily said than done: they might as well say “write like W. B. Yeats” or “write like Frank O’Hara.”

Only Chen’s book won a prize out of the titles you mentioned, and plenty of debuts are published and win prizes without drawing on the theme of beginning in their titles or elsewhere. I see the emphasis on beginning that pervades post-1945 poetic debuts as part of a complex response to the increasingly institutionalized environment in which poetry is often written, published, and read these days, not as a subtle advertisement of a poet’s promise, designed to win over editors.

What are you reading?

I just finished recording a reading of Emerson’s Nature for Librivox – a great volunteer organization that makes audio versions of public domain texts available online for free. At the moment I’m in the middle of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, Langdon Hammer’s James Merrill: Life and Art, A Bernadette Mayer Reader, and Gillian White’s Lyric Shame. I’m looking forward to James Richardson’s During and the newly translated early novels of Haruki Murakami. I’m always re-reading Philip Roth.

What’s next for you?

A new project dealing with what I think of as “the scandal of authorship” has roots in reading Roth. Why is the author seen as a bad guy in a novel like The Counterlife? How is it that fiction elicits such harsh judgments? What does it mean that writers sometimes take pains to forestall such judgments – by judging themselves guilty in advance, for example, or through sheer tact? I’m casting a fairly wide net for now: Roth, Raymond Carver, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Junot Diaz, Vladimir Nabokov. I’d like to explore tensions between social responsibility and the autonomy of the aesthetic in the post-1945 period, think some more about literary careers, and hopefully tell some good stories along the way.

Jesse Zuba is assistant professor of English at Delaware State University.

Read the introduction to The First Book here.

#WinnerWednesdays: Congratulations to our authors!

In the past couple of weeks, our authors have received an impressive number of honors:

Winner of the 2015 Legacy Award, Presidents and Executive Politics Section of the American Political Science Association

  • William G. Howell – Power without Persuasion: The Politics of Direct Presidential Action

“The Legacy Award will be given to a living author for a book, essay, or article, published at least 10 years prior to the award year that has made a continuing contribution to the intellectual development of the fields of presidency and executive politics.”

Check the website for additional information about the award.

Winner of the 2015 Otto Gründler Book Prize, The Medieval Institute of Western Michigan University

  • Robert Bartlett – Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation

The 2015 Otto Gründler Book Prize was awarded this month at the 50th International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan. It consists of an award of $1,000.00 to the author of a book or monograph in any area of medieval studies that is judged by the selection committee to be an outstanding contribution to its field.

According to James M. Murray, Director of the Medieval Institute, Bartlett’s book was “an easy choice from the more than 25 candidates.”

For information about the award, click here.

2015 Silver Medal Winner in the Independent Publisher Book Awards, World History category

  • Adrienne Mayor – The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World

2015 Bronze Medal Winner in the Independent Publisher Book Awards, World History category

  • Chris Walsh – Cowardice: A Brief History

The Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPY Awards) are sponsored by Jenkins Group Inc. & IndependentPublisher.com

“The ‘IPPY’ Awards were conceived as a broad-based, unaffiliated awards program open to all members of the independent publishing industry, and are open to authors and publishers worldwide who produce books written in English and intended for the North American market.”

The 2015 IPPY Awards announcement is here  (see category 57)

The awards ceremony to honor the medalists took place on May 27th in New York City.

Colm Tóibín, author of On Elizabeth Bishop, is one of seven writers who will be inducted into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame in 2015.

“The NYS Writers Hall of Fame was established in conjunction with the Empire State Center for the Book to highlight the rich literary heritage of New York State and to recognize the legacy of individual New York State writers.” The first Gala and Induction Ceremony into the NYS Writers Hall of Fame was held in 2010.

The seven New York State writers to be inducted at the Princeton Club in New York City on June 2nd are:  Isaac Asimov, Allen Ginsberg, Ezra Jack Keats, Dawn Powell, Francine Prose, David Remnick, and Colm Tóibín. Click here or here for more information.

Which of these 15 myths of digital-age English do you believe?

One Day in the Life of the English Language by Frank Cioffi, a new style guide that eschews memorization in favor of internalizing how sentences actually work, handily refutes these 15 myths of digital-age English. Think brevity is best? Swear by your default settings? Feel sure the internet is a “total latrine”? Try out this “True or False” test and see whether you’re the digital-age wordsmith you thought you were:

Myth 1 image1.  In the age of the tweet, short and concise is always the best.
True, true, short messages are often the best. But not always. Sometimes one needs to go on at some length. Sometimes it is necessary to provide a context, especially if one is trying to communicate more than just minimal information. And sometimes the very brevity or terseness of a tweet makes it impossible to understand.

2.  My word processing program doesn’t let me change margins, spacing, or other aspects of format.
Most word processing programs can be set up to accommodate any standard style; however, you need to use the program’s capabilities and not always accept default settings. In Microsoft Word, for example, many writers allow the program its silly default—to put an extra line space between paragraphs of the same format. This should be unselected as a default off the “paragraph” menu.

Myth 3 image3.  My word processing program will highlight and automatically fix any errors I make.
These automatic correction programs are notoriously unreliable, as they often “fix” writing that is in fact correct. For example, at first I thought one of my students had subject-verb agreement problems; then I noted that the program tried to get me to introduce such errors into my own work. You, not the program, are the mind behind the words. Don’t rely on your program to fix everything. Let it check—but you check too.

4.  “Logical punctuation” is the best option in most situations.
This idea usually refers to putting punctuation either inside or outside of quotation marks. The logicality of doing so or not doing so has been questioned by many. It’s probably best to follow conventions of a given style, unless you are not working within any particular field. In that case, you can invent new rules; just don’t expect others to understand or follow them.

5. People don’t really read anymore; they merely “scan a page for information.”
Gary Shteyngart brings up this idea in his 2011 novel Super Sad True Love Story. It’s interesting and has some truth to it: I agree that many people don’t read with a lot of care or seek to understand and internalize the written ideas they encounter. But some do. Think of that “some” as your audience. At the same time, consider the needs of an audience that just “scans the page.” Ask yourself, “Does this page I’ve just written include information worth scanning?”

Cioffi jacket6.  Anyone can publish written material nowadays, so what’s the value of Standard Written English?
With the Internet, it’s true that anyone can publish now. And many self-publishing options are open to any writer seeking to get work in print. Simply publishing something is now less a guarantee of its excellence or importance than it once was, but if you strive to have your work read—by more than family and friends—it will have to respect some standard forms and conventions. Or to put it another way, no matter what your publishing goals, if you want people to read your work, you will have to write with a high level of competence and lucidity.

7.  People are much less precise and exact than they used to be, now that they have computers to rely on.
This is clearly not the case in all situations. In fact, people must be much more careful now with details such as spelling, especially when entering passwords or usernames. In many digital contexts, attentiveness to language accuracy is obligatory. If you are inattentive, you often can’t even use the computer or the program. If you don’t respect the syntax of a program, it just won’t run.

8.  “Talking street” is what most people want to do anyway.
I think that most people have to use multiple forms of English. They might speak one way to their family, one way to their friends, one way on their jobs, and another way, perhaps, when they need to write a paper for a college course they are taking. People can and should become multilingual.

9.  Most grammatical stuff is of minor importance—kind of too boring and persnickety to bother with.
I agree that there are more important things in the world, but I have been making the argument throughout this book that in fact these “minor” matters do seem to make a difference to some people—and a major difference to a small minority. And writ large, they make a big difference in our society. Admittedly, there is a persnickety quality to some of the material, but isn’t specialization all about being persnickety?

10.  Someone else can “wordsmith” my ideas; I just generate them.
The line between the idea and the expression of it is very fine; that is, how you say something is often inextricable from what you say. You need to take charge of not just coming up with a basic idea or notion but also of how that idea gets expressed. If you have a stake in how an idea exists in its final form, you should take great care with its exact verbal formulation.

11.  Since so many “styles” (MLA, APA, Chicago . . .) are available and used by various specialties, it’s pointless to worry about this kind of superficial overlay.
There are a lot of forms and styles, to be sure. But you need to find the form that’s conventional in your professional field and use that. If you don’t, you almost automatically label yourself an “outsider” to that field, or perhaps even an interloper. And sometimes, just abiding by the conventions of a style gains you credibility in and of itself, allows entrée into a field.

12.  There’s no possibility of an original idea anymore: it’s all been said.
One certainly feels as though this might be possible, considering the ever-expanding scope of the Internet and the existence of over seven billion human minds on the planet. However, each of us has his or her own individual experience—which is unique. And out of that, I feel, originality can emerge. You must really want that originality to emerge, though, and resist succumbing to the pressure of the multitude to simply conform to what’s standard, acceptable, predictable, dull.

13.  If something is published on the Internet, it’s true.
I know that no one really believes this. But I want to emphasize that a great deal of material on the Internet is simply false—posted by people who are not reliable, well-informed, or even honest. Much Internet material that claims to be true is in fact only a form of advertising. And finally, do keep in mind that almost anyone can create websites and post content, whether they are sane or insane, children or adults, good or evil, informed or misinformed.

myth 4 image14.  The Internet is a total latrine.
A few years ago, I heard a well-known public intellectual give a talk for which this was the thesis. And there are certainly many things on the Internet and about the Internet that bear out such a judgment. However, there are also some amazing things, which prompt me to say that the Internet is the greatest accumulation of information and knowledge in the history of humankind. But you need to learn how to use it efficiently and effectively, and sort the good from the bad.

Myth 15 image

15.  I can cut and paste my way through any college paper assignment.
There are many opportunities to create what looks like your own work—cutting and pasting here, auto- summarizing there, adding a few transitional sentences, and mashing it all together. I don’t recommend this kind of work; it doesn’t really benefit you to create it. You want to write papers of your own, ones that express your own ideas and that use your own language. The cut-and-pasters are ultimately sacrificing their humanity, as they become people of the machine. And when they’re caught, the penalties can be severe.

How did you do?

Frank L. Cioffi is professor of English at Baruch College, City University of New York, and has taught writing at Princeton and Indiana universities and at Bard and Scripps colleges. He is the author of The Imaginative Argument: A Practical Manifesto for Writers (Princeton), among other books.

Graphics by Chris Ferrante

Writers on Writers Giveaway


We have a new giveaway! Enter for a chance to win the complete set of Writers on Writers, a series of brief, personal books by contemporary writers about an author, past or present, who has inspired or influenced them in some way.

Each book gives the reader a window into both the life and work of the chosen author and the mind of the writer. In On Elizabeth Bishop, Colm Tóibín highlights the parallels between his life and that of his subject, particularly in their experience of loss and exile. He traces her footsteps to Nova Scotia, Key West, and Brazil and shows the reader how her influence helped to shape him as a novelist. Compared to Tóibín’s measured, deeply personal account, Alexander McCall Smith’s contribution, What W.H. Auden Can Do For You, is a playful, charming take on the manifold ways that Auden has been a guiding force in his life. McCall Smith calls him one of the best guides on how to live. He shows us how he has been inspired by Auden and how each of us can benefit from his work.

One of the most famous nineteenth-century novelists, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has provided inspiration to many. On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling by Pulitzer-prize winning critic Michael Dirda is not only an engaging introduction to the author and his work, it is a rare glimpse into the best-known of all Sherlockian groups, the Baker Street Irregulars, of which Dirda is a member. Another famous nineteenth-century author, Walter Whitman, is the subject of Pulitzer-prize winning poet C.K. Williams. On Whitman explores the reasons why Leaves of Grass continues to inspire. Williams shows what Whitman had in common with other poets of his time and how his influence continues to be felt today.

Finally, renowned essayist Phillip Lopate describes Sontag as one of the “foremost interpreters of…our recent contemporary moment” in Notes on Sontag. While admiring her free-thinking originality, Lopate is critical of her tendency toward exaggeration, feeling that it undermines her common sense. Lopate provides a clever and enjoyable reflection on his chosen writer through a series of essays, a form used by Sontag herself.

Writers on Writers is necessary reading for anyone interested in the creative process and the often-complex relationship between writers. To enter for a chance to win the complete series, please follow the directions in the RaffleCopter box below. Winners will be selected on or around May 19, 2015.

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Poetry by Heart

For the final entry in this year’s National Poetry Month (#npm15) series, we have a special piece by Catherine Robson, author of Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem, on what changed her mind about the merits of poetry recitation.

Poetry By Heart
by Catherine Robson

Small-Blue-RGB-National-Poetry-Month-LogoLast month, the third annual final “Poetry By Heart”, a national recitation competition for British 14-18 year olds, was staged in Homerton College, Cambridge. Sitting there as one of the judges in the packed auditorium, I witnessed a series of magical transformations. Time and again, slightly awkward or diffident young people walked onto the stage, paused, and then became entirely different individuals altogether. When they started to speak the words they had committed to heart, they took possession not just of themselves and their poems, but of every other person in the room. I found it an exceptionally moving experience.Heart Beats

If you had told me ten years ago that I would volunteer to work on such a competition, I would have been very surprised. Back then, when I first began work on a book about the strange phenomenon of the memorized poem, I held few positive feelings about recitation. I knew that reciting poetry used to hold a privileged place in the elementary curricular programs of the past, but I didn’t know why or when the practice became mainstream, nor why and when we all stopped doing it. But I was sure that I was not a fan. Enforcing poetry on (or into) the unwilling brains and bodies of the young seemed to me a questionable activity at best. What happened, then, to change my mind?

For one thing, I discovered in the course of my researches that my negative opinion was entirely typical for one of my age and nationality. Born in Britain in 1962, I attended state primary and secondary schools that had no time for what was then regarded as an outmoded pedagogical endeavor, an endeavor likely to turn individuals against poetry for life. Today this is not the prevailing attitude in all quarters – for one thing, the British government, in addition to funding “Poetry By Heart,” now makes “reciting” a specified activity for the youngest children in state education – but the concept of compulsory mass recitation continues to make many of my countrymen uncomfortable. The idea of the memorized poem in Britain summons up thoughts of both a discredited instructional practice and a discredited educational formation – which is to say, learning by rote, and the Victorian elementary school, the institution which supposedly backed up that rote-learning with liberal applications of the rod.

Because I have now lived in the United States for over a quarter of a century, I know that Americans, by and large, are much more positive about poetry recitation. If the topic comes up in casual conversation or the media, it tends to generates not just polite interest, but passionate engagement. I’ve lost count of the number of times an octogenarian has launched into a performance of “Thanatopsis” or a bit of Longfellow for me, and I’ve heard individuals of a range of ages and from both sides of the political spectrum turn wistful, lamenting the passing of a time when all were seemingly united by a joint stock of poetic knowledge.

Digging into the rich and at times complicated story of the memorized poem’s progress in two sharply distinct public education systems has helped me to understand why it is that Britons and Americans today feel so differently about this pedagogical practice: the book I’ve written devotes its first half to this history, and its second to the recitational fortunes of three short poems that were once school classics on two sides of the Atlantic. Coming to terms with my own dismissive attitude towards the repetition of poetry has been another kind of project altogether.

It took me some time, but today I can draw a line between bad recitation and good.  I still think it’s important to notice that dismal experiences with poetry afflicted the lives of many children in less-than-ideal pedagogical environments in the past, but I no longer believe that this fact negates the value of the practice.  I now feel that in the right circumstances, and for certain kinds of people, the memorized poem carries an enormous potential charge.  Last month in Cambridge, its power took hold of us all.

An interview with Jeff Nunokawa, author of “Note Book”

Note BookEach morning since 2007, Jeff Nunokawa, English professor at Princeton University, logs onto Facebook and writes something. But unlike most of us who take part in this simple exercise in connection, Nunokawa is both effortlessly lyrical and impressively well-read, drawing in references from Henry James to Joni Mitchell.  Note Book, which compiles the 250 most striking of the brief, daily essays Nunokawa has shared on his “notes” page, resembles an extensive multimedia project, but retains a remarkable sense of intimacy.  Laura Kipnis compares his posts to “witty billets-doux from an astonishingly literate secret admirer”, and if you take a look at the way he writes, you’ll see why. Recently, Jeff was kind enough to indulge us with some personal insights into his writing process, motivations, and obsession with revision on the social media platform. It’s fascinating stuff:

What are you doing when you write these essays for Facebook, and why are you doing it?

JN: Well, I write these brief essays every morning, or sometimes in the middle of the night because I’m alone a lot and lonely and very talkative but being alone, there’s no one to talk to. But actually, I’m not really alone, even when I’m by myself. I’ve read a lot of books and they’re all around me. Mostly literature although other things as well: a fair amount of philosophy, for example, and every Eleanor Roosevelt biography and memoir I can get my hands on. Also, a picture of my mother’s dog and various soccer players and my feeling of the presence of all kinds of spirits. And when I’m quiet enough for a while, these things all speak to me, if I let them. And after that, if they let me, I write a little essay which conveys as best it can the courage and clarity and good humor of the above spirits—some of the above spirits can be incredibly witty! (you should hear what Eleanor Roosevelt has to say about JFK!)—to others who might be able to use it.

I guess what I’m trying to do is to put to use what I’ve learned over the course of a long, strange life reading and teaching and telling stories. I’m trying to make it useful to other people.


JN: Well, I think most people are like me, in at least one respect. I think everyone feels deeply in the dark, sometimes—sometimes, just lying in bed, wondering how they’re going to make it through the day. Sometimes it takes the best voices you’ve ever heard in your life just to get from horizontal to vertical. That’s where a lot of what I write tries to come in and give people a lift.

How has your writing changed over the course of the time you have been engaged in this project?

JN: Well, I think I used to be much more concerned with showing off when I started—showing off what I knew and how “knowing” I was. I think I’m less concerned now with showing off than I am with *showing*. I’ll put it this way: when I started out, my model was Walter Benjamin—a crazy beautiful German Philosopher-Mystic, who wrote these astonishing often very mysterious, fragmentary aphorisms. Now, I think, I’m a little more taken with example of the Reverend Paul Osumi.


JN: The Reverend Paul Osumi had a daily column in the Honolulu Advertiser when I was a kid. Actually, it wasn’t so much a column—it was one those “thought for the day” kind of deals: just these little daily inspirations to get through the day with as much light in your soul and your step as you could. I don’t remember a single thing he said, but I remember how important that column was for half of Honolulu. When I was a kid (like till about last year), I used to think he was some kind of shallow smiley-faced fool. Now he’s pretty much my role model.

Well aside from the Reverend Paul Osumi, do you have other role models that influence your writing?

JN: Sure: let’s see: lots of the big essayists of the 18th and 19th centuries—Hume, Johnson and Lamb and Pater, writers like that who were so concerned with using what they knew to try to help live better.

What about prose models—stylists whom you model yourself on? As you must know, your writing can be a little “quirky” as your editor calls it.

JN: Yeah, I know. Well, I’m really trying to be a little more mainstream and accessible—less Gerard Manley Hopkins and more E.B. White—but I’m always going to hear the call of “Pied Beauty” and all that gorgeous jazz that makes you cry and see the world more clearly through all the tears, all the Tears of this Beautiful Broken World. I don’t mean to sound all precious. Heck, I hear E. B. White wept whenever he read out loud and the passage in Charlotte’s Web where the spider dies.

The writing that you do on Facebook, you revise compulsively.  It’s ironic that the writing you do on Facebook, on a virtual platform of ephemerality, should be the site where you are most concerned with revising, so that you might produce something polished for the ages. What’s that about, I wonder?

JN: Good question. It may be that the answer would only be interesting to my therapist. Oh wait. I forgot. I don’t have a therapist. The writing itself is my only therapy, now. It used to be that I needed Therapy to write. Now writing is therapy. Funny how life turns out.

Anyway, to return to the question. I don’t know, except that the irony you’re touching on here informs the spirit and style of some of the greatest essayists and I’m happy to follow their lead: the impulse to put the realms of conversation—and what is the internet, if not a place where the live sense of ephemeral conversation crackles like an electric wire into contact with the realms of solid learning (“for the ages”). Hume says, on his essay on essay writing,

I cannot but consider myself as a Kind of Resident or Ambassador from the Dominions of Learning to those of Conversation

and by gum, what’s good enough for Hume is good enough for me.

Celebrate National Poetry Month with Colm Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop


Author photo by Phoebe

Author photo by Phoebe Ling

In the first entry in this month’s National Poetry Month (#npm15) blog series, we are proud to feature Colm Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop, the latest title in the Writers on Writers series. Irish novelist, critic, and playwright Tóibín is both a fan of and known as a master of subtle language (as evidenced by his selection of Henry James’s The Golden Bowl as current host of The Wall Street Journal Book Club), so it is apt that he considers the famously enigmatic American poet Bishop among one of his lasting literary influences.

Tóibín discovered Bishop in his teens and brought her Selected Poems in his suitcase to Barcelona (the setting of his first novels The South and Homage to Barcelona). He offers a personal and incisive introduction to Bishop’s life and work. Spanning her poetry, biography, letters, and prose works, Tóibín creates a beautiful and complex picture of Bishop while also revealing how her work has shaped his sensibility as a writer and how her experiences of loss and exile resonate with his own relationships to place, memory, and language.

Tampa Bay TiToibin_OnElizabethBishopmes book editor Colette Bancroft recently selected On Elizabeth Bishop as one of her notable prose books on poetry. Kirkus Reviews writes that Tóibín’s book is “[a]n admiring critical portrait of a great American poet and a master of subtlety….An inspiring appreciation from one writer to another.” A Starred Review in Publishers Weekly reads, “Novelist Tóibín gives an intimate and engaging look at Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry and its influence on his own work. . . . Whether one is familiar with Bishop’s life and work or is looking to Tóibín to learn more, this book will appeal to many readers.” At the Arts Fuse, Lloyd Schwartz calls it “a particularly welcome addition to the Princeton University Press Writers on Writers series. . . . [F]ew critics have dealt more revealingly than Tóibin with Bishop’s habitual illusion of ‘spontaneous’ self-correction, her process of thinking aloud on the page.” Across the pond, poet Eavan Boland writes in the Irish Times:

[C]ritical method at its best….Unorthodox, original and deeply effective….The close mesh between Tóibín’s growth as a writer and Bishop’s journey as a poet, the eloquent mirroring of place and displacement, and above all the openness to a poet’s language, a poet’s truth put this among the best books on poetry I have read in years. I have no doubt it will become an essential text on her work.

Read the first chapter of On Elizabeth Bishop on the PUP site. You can also read eleven of Bishop’s poems, including “One Art” and “The Fish,” at the Academy of American Poets site.

Don’t forget that this year’s Poem in Your Pocket Day is coming up at the end of the month (April 30; #pocketpoem). Which of Bishop’s poems would you want to carry around in your pocket to share with friends and family?

PUP celebrates National Poetry Month

Princeton University Press will be kicking off National Poetry Month by featuring a new poetry-related title each week on the blog, starting with Colm Tóibín’s deeply personal introduction to the life and work of Elizabeth Bishop. The first National Poetry Month was held in 1996, inspired in part by the success of Black History Month. Organized by the Academy of American Poets, this month-long April holiday has become a widespread way to bolster the appreciation of poetry. Poets.org offers a wealth of free educational resources and information on local poetry events, from PoemCity in Montpelier, VT, to Poetry & the Creative Mind in New York City.

In addition to retrospectives like Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop from our Writers on Writers series, and cultural histories like Catherine Robson’s on poetry recitation, Princeton University Press has long published the best of emerging and established poets in the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets, currently under the editorship of Princeton professor and former MacArthur Fellow Susan Stewart. Here are some poetry-related choices to enjoy this April:


On Elizabeth Bishop What W.H. Auden Can Do For You
The Complete Works of W.H. Auden Volume V The Complete Works of W.H. Auden Volume VI
Heart Beats The Eternal City: Poems