George Marsden on “Mere Christianity” and the conversion of C.S. Lewis

marsden jacketMere Christianity, C. S. Lewis’s eloquent and winsome defense of the Christian faith, has a rather dramatic origin story. Recently George Marsden took some time to talk about C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, his investigation of the story of the extraordinary life and afterlife of this influential book.

Do we need another book on C. S. Lewis?

GM: That’s a great question. There are lots of insightful books about Lewis, but this one is not about simply about Lewis but is a “biography” of his most influential non-fiction book. So it comes at Lewis from a fresh angle and amplifies dimensions of something that a lot of people have appreciated, but may have not thought through exactly why. It’s like the difference between a book about Beethoven and a book about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It takes something that is familiar and accessible and tries to bring to life the story behind its appeal. In this case Mere Christianity is not just popular, it has also been extraordinarily important to many people. You might be surprised at how many will say that reading it was even life changing. And many others will say it was one of the truly illuminating books that they have read. A couple of years ago during “March Madness,” the Emerging Scholars Network associated with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship held playoff rounds of voting for sixty-four nominees for “the best Christian book of all time.” Mere Christianity finished second, only behind Augustine’s Confessions. So lots of such people should be interested in the story behind Lewis’s book.

What are the highlights of that story?

GM: That’s one of the great things about writing about Mere Christianity. The story of its origins is pretty dramatic. It’s not like most books where the beginning of the story is that the author decided to write on such and such a subject and two years later he had a book manuscript. Mere Christianity originated in the midst of one of the most stressful times in British history—during the bleak early years of World War Two. When the project was begun it was at a time when there were still fears of a Nazi invasion and the Blitz bombing was taking devastating tolls every night. And one of the things that is remarkable is when he began Lewis did not think he was writing a book. Rather he agreed to present a very brief series of radio broadcasts on the BBC. Eventually it became four series of broadcasts. As he went along he had these published in separate little booklets, but he had not planned them as a single book. It was only a decade later, in 1952, that he gathered these together into one book and called them Mere Christianity.

So how did a book that was not even planned to be a book become so influential?

GM: That’s one of the most fascinating parts of the story. Lewis’s works were already quite popular in 1952. He was best known as the author of The Screwtape Letters, and was a very well known Christian author during a time of religious revival in both Great Britain and the United States. So even though Mere Christianity as a single volume came on the scene with no fanfare or reviews, it always sold reasonably well during Lewis’s lifetime, though not as well as Screwtape or the Narnia tales. But here’s what’s really remarkable about the life of this book. In the first fifteen years of the twenty-first century it has sold more than it did in its first fifteen years. Not long before Lewis died in 1963 he expressed the opinion that his books would soon be forgotten. By 1967 other commentators were saying much the same thing. But it turns out that since 2001, Mere Christianity has sold more than three and a half million copies just in English alone. Almost any other book you might think of has a very different trajectory. It makes an initial splash but then its ripples fade, even if for some classics the ripples may extend indefinitely. This book is, by contrast, is selling more than when it was originally published.

So what happened between 1967 and 2001 to make it so popular?

GM: It is hard to track the story exactly, but by the 1970s it was becoming the book to give to someone who was inquiring about Christian faith. Celebrity conversions helped. One turning point was Chuck Colson’s Born Again which came out the same week in 1976 that Jimmy Carter was explaining to reporters that he was born again. Colson presents Mere Christianity as central to his conversion. A more recent case is the noted scientist Francis Collins, highlights Mere Christianity in his The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. Most fans of Mere Christianity are, broadly speaking, evangelicals. But there many Catholic fans as well, and Eastern Orthodox, and even some Mormons. It is most popular in the United States but also is a standard work throughout the English-speaking world. It ha been translated into many languages. Interestingly one place where it has become most influential is among intellectual Chinese Christian.

How do you account for what you described as bucking the using trends in the lives of books in actually growing rather than gradually fading in popularity?

GM: That is another good question and in fact that is one of the central questions that the book tries to answer. What is the genius of Mere Christianity? What accounts for its “life” in the sense of its ongoing “vitality.”? How is it that Lewis could seemingly toss off these occasional broadcasts in a wartime setting and come up with a seemingly unified masterpiece that has such lasting appeals?

So how do you answer that question?

GM: Well there are quite a few reasons. I’ll just give you a sample. One reason why the book lasts is that Lewis very consciously looked for perennial truths about human experience and the human condition. So he warned people of the danger of being taken in by the “latest” thought of their own time. As a student of literature and history he realized that every era has its own peculiar ideas and that most of these soon pass and look very quaint a generation or two later. So in part because he is looking for ideas that last, many of his ideas have lasted.

The most obvious example is the idea of “Mere Christianity” itself. Lewis was trying to present the beliefs that have been “common to nearly all Christians at all times.” By carefully trying to stick to those common beliefs, he produced a work that has a wide appeal to all sorts of Christians. As I said, that’s just a sample of how to answer that question. There are still quite a few other dimensions to the genius of the book that have contributed to its lasting vitality. But perhaps I can leave them for those who want to delve into the book itself.

George M. Marsden is the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame. His books include Fundamentalism and American Culture, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, and The Soul of the American University. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

 

University Press Week Blog Tour Day 5: Author Conversations

thanks to authorsThe final day of the University Press Week blog tour focuses on presses in conversation with their authors. Here at Princeton we would like to take a moment to thank all of our wonderful authors across many disciplines, without whom our esteemed publishing program could not exist. In the past year, PUP has been fortunate enough to publish multiple Nobel Prize winners, up-and-coming stars, renowned scholars and cultural critics. Our authors range from game theorists to astrophysicists, from art historians to professional ornithologists.

Each week on the PUP blog, we feature conversations with our authors about our books. These conversations, such as this one with n+1 co-founder Mark Greif, this one with classics professor Josiah Ober, or this one with biologists and bee experts Olivia Messinger Carril and Joseph Wilson, always provide wonderful behind-the-scenes glimpses of the writing process the origins of our authors’ research.

Today, these university presses share conversations with their own authors:

Temple University Press
Columbia University Press
University of Virginia Press
Beacon Press
University of Illinois Press
Southern Illinois University Press
University Press of Kansas
Oregon State University Press
Liverpool University Press
University of Toronto Press

The New Yorker’s Fall Reading List; Cioffi’s “One Day in the Life of the English Language”

Unsure of what to add to your Fall Reading List? Refer to New Yorker‘s Mary Norris.

One Day in the Life jacketMary “comma queen” Norris, contributor and proofreader for the New Yorker,  likes to keep up-to-date on the latest and greatest books about English grammar, language and writing. In a recent New Yorker piece, “What We’re Reading this Fall”, Norris writes, “People might expect that, as a copy editor, I’d be absorbed in the new usage manual by Frank L. Cioffi, ‘One Day in the Life of the English Language,’… They wouldn’t be that far off.”

While she continues to admit her current absorption in a fiction work about a proofreader, One Day in the Life of the English Language: A Microcosmic Usage Handbook, by Frank L. Cioffi, is certainly on her mind and surely listed on her Fall Reading List.

Using real-life examples to debunk myths of digital-age English and emphasize the inevitable evolution of the English language, this one-of-a-kind anti-handbook handbook convinces and motivates readers to use correct and effective grammar in their day-to-day lives.

Join Norris by adding One Day in the Life of the English Language to your own Fall Reading List and discover the significance of grammar in today’s world and why the ways of words matter.

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.

(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

book

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.

Sincerely,
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

writersonwriters

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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An interview with Frank Cioffi, author of One Day in the Life of the English Language

This week we had the opportunity to ask Frank Cioffi questions about his new book, One Day in the Life of the English Language, which was recently featured in Inside Higher Ed. Cioffi offers insights on the “ethics” of usage, why grammar is “not just a set of rules”, and why students often readily grasp proper usage in exercises, but struggle with their own prose.

What was the inspiration for this book?Cioffi jacket

FC: Here is what I wrote in my five-year diary on 12/28/08: “millions of sentences are uttered and written. . . Most float off into a void, never to be heard of or recalled again. Most are ‘ungrammatical,’ no doubt unable to pass the scrutiny of a gimlet-eyed grammarian. But these sentences, and those of the previous days, and those of the next ones, make up our lives. They help to form the dense linguistic net of which we are all a part. And this book seeks to both represent that net and to show how you as a writer might well make a small, a human scale, a molecule-level, improvement of it.”

In what way or ways does your handbook differentiate itself from the thousand or so English handbooks already out on the market?

FC: I guess I am trying to persuade readers that Standard Written English (SWE) matters; it’s not just something to be memorized, like how to factor polynomials or the quadratic equation, but has a real impact on how we live and function as human beings. For example, using SWE usually improves one’s capacity for communicating to a wide and varied audience. More people will understand you if you use SWE than if you use, say, a dialect or an argot.

In addition, when you don’t use SWE you run the risk of stigmatizing yourself, of giving your audience the excuse to ignore what you say (“He can’t be saying anything of any importance—he’s clearly uneducated and dumb”). Now that’s not the right response, I know, and I emphasize in my book that we should not stigmatize people because their English is unpolished or somewhat far from the “standard,” but it still happens, so people need to learn SWE in order not to be stigmatized.

For many decades now I’ve been teaching English at the college level, and I have seen a lot of handbooks. None of them, I felt, had a sufficiently human voice. Most books say, “Here it is: learn it.” I say, “Here it is, and here is why it’s important to learn it.” Fred Crews’s Random House Handbook was something of an exception, but it’s now out of print. It is also not a compact book, which mine attempts to be.

Tell us a bit more about the “voice” of a handbook.

FC: Grammar books have multiple voices: the author who is lecturing, the author who is commenting on samples of English, and the sample sentences, often also by the author. I thought there was something wrong with all of these as they exist in current texts. In particular, I wanted the sentences to come from a real world, not the one of “Dick and Jane” books.

Here is the paradox I saw: students could do worksheets or exercises very readily, but their own prose didn’t reflect the lessons of those exercises. For example, my students did a worksheet on comma splices, but comma splices still marred their writing. We did a worksheet on apostrophes, but apostrophes were still a major problem in the formal papers. Why is that?

It seemed to me that maybe in our handbooks, workbooks, and even lectures, we tended to simplify example sentences too much. We tended to make them spare and simple so as to illustrate a grammatical point. But that point is easy to understand with simple sentences. As complexity grows, the capacity for error enlarges.

At the same time, students might think, “Only a total dummy would make a mistake like this sample sentence!” or maybe “That’s not me!”Or they might think, “This book is totally condescending.”

So I wanted sample sentences that were complex.

But the problem here was that making up sentences in the sample sentence genre suddenly grew difficult, since their lack of content becomes much more apparent as they grow in elaborateness. This made me wonder about the “world” depicted in the example sentences. It’s a made-up world. a world of nonevents, a world where nothing scary or awful or threatening or sexy happens. It’s the same world that the Educational Testing Service depicts in the “fairness guidelines” that they give to test preparers, which in some ways makes sense. We don’t want to distract students from the grammatical issue at hand.

Yet the world of these sample sentences has the interesting effect of making grammar somehow disembodied, disconnected from a real world. Its sentences emerge from a world where nothing is really happening, and where nothing really matters. What message does that send to our students or to our readers?

That’s when I decided to go for real-world sentences.

These come from the “one day,” then, of your title?

FC: Yes. I didn’t want to make these the culled variety we see in Strunk and White, or Robert Graves and Alan Hodge’s book The Reader over Your Shoulder. No. I just wanted them to be from a single day, since that would show how we all make mistakes, how language is really tricky even for professionals to get just right.

So I combed magazines and newspapers published on December 29, 2008, and I tried to find examples of good sentences, elegant sentences, let’s say, as well as of sentences whose grammar struck me as “dubious,” as one of my colleagues likes to say. I came up with almost 300 of these sentences, so the book is at once a grammar handbook and a curious snapshot of history, on a day that is not particularly historical. And oddly enough, even though it’s more than six years later now, a lot of the sentences still resonate with current events.

What about the “rules” of Standard Written English: don’t you feel these need to be hammered home?

FC: As far as “learning grammar” goes, I didn’t want to provide just a set of rules, though of course I do emphasize what’s SWE and what is not. I instead argue that students and readers need to internalize the pattern and form of English sentences, really need to get inside them in a profound way, need to become, in a way, linguists themselves, in order to express themselves more fully.

In addition, I wanted to be honest. The rules of English are not apodictic: they are constantly being debated by professors; they are under constant pressure. Think of the problems with pronoun reference. Think of the “acceptable” comma splice. There are borderlands of acceptability in English that are becoming increasingly large.

And too we need to recognize that not all English needs to be SWE. We need to allow our students their own language in many situations, just as editors allowed that in the papers and magazines I looked at. One of the things we want to keep in mind is that so much of the success of one’s English has to do with accurately gauging what’s appropriate to a given situation, with assessing the audience for one’s words.

Your book also emphasizes the “ethics” of usage. Can you elaborate on this?

FC: I also suggest that grammaticality or accuracy is something that has an ethical component, since lives, careers, futures—our future—can hinge on the accuracy of English. At the same time, SWE often allows people to better express their ideas to a wider audience—people can get heard “when it matters,” if they properly gauge their audience and if they are able to be agile enough with their language to move from one register to the next, and to assume SWE when it’s needed and abandon it when it might be counterproductive, when it might sound stilted or stuffy or supercilious to use it.

What surprised you about writing and publishing this book?

FC: I was surprised by how hard it was to get published. It came close to being accepted by a couple of textbook houses, but it didn’t make the grade. One time, after three very positive outside reviews, I thought the book was as good as accepted. I was to meet with the editor soon and we were to work out the details. But then at the last minute the editor canceled our meeting and said the book could not be published by her press.

“Why not?” I wondered. Then it occurred to me that if I am writing a book that challenges the value of standard handbooks, then a publisher that has 100 such handbooks on its list isn’t likely to publish mine! This also clued me in to why it is that all the handbooks out there are so similar.

It’s as if there is a weird monopoly of ideas—we can’t rock the boat too much with new ideas or approaches, since we’re making a ton of money off of the old ones!

When I was teaching in Poland a few years ago, it was communist days, and I was complaining about censorship. One of my colleagues, though, challenged me on this: “You have censorship in America, too, you know, and it’s as repressive of new ideas as ours is, maybe more: books that aren’t deemed salesworthy are simply not published. That silences all sorts of voices.” So a book might be itself salesworthy, but might drag down the sales of the other books published by a press, so that book won’t see print, at least not by them.

So do you think your book might change the way that college writing is taught?

FC: My book attempts to get writing instructors to grapple on an ongoing basis with the complexities of English usage and grammar, and to work with students as they try to plumb these issues together. It’s not a quick fix. It’s a course of instruction in what, for many students, is a new language altogether. If we really want to change the quality of the work our students produce, we need to reimagine how the college composition course is structured, staffed, and funded.

How did you come up with the title of the book, which is a play on Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich?

FC: I was going to call it “One Day’s Sentences in America,” but I wasn’t all that happy with that title. One day, though, my wife, Kathleen Cioffi, said, “Hey, why not call the book ‘One Day in the Life of the English Language’?” Bingo.

What are you reading right now?

FC: Right now I am reading a collection of short stories by Alberto Moravia. He is a marvelous and, I think, neglected Italian writer. His stories examine the minutiae of daily life; they explore the psychological menace and poignancy of the ordinary. In some ways they are stories about a lack of communication between people and the effects of that.

What are your next writing projects?

FC: I have several going on right now. Probably I have too many. I have three completed book manuscripts: one is about teaching entitled Beyond Zombie Pedagogy. I’ve also written a biography of my late uncle, the philosopher Frank Cioffi. And I kept a detailed diary of my life in communist Poland. The diary is maybe 700,000 words, though—I kept it for three years—so I need to cut it down and turn it into a narrative/analysis of life in Poland in the waning days of communism. Still waiting for publishers and contracts for these three books—!

I also have a volume of poetry that I’ve culled from the hundreds of poems I’ve written over the last three decades.

Really? Poetry? Perhaps you could give us a short poem?

FC:

Ok, here is a villanelle, “Noisome T. Rex”:

 

Fuse frayed synapses, hurt to reinvent.

Smooth feelings blunt as a plastic doll’s sex,

scrub brain raw of all, all that you repent.

 

Moving ‘midst throngs swarm-clogging the pavement,

lumb’ring dumb-monstrous as noisome T. Rex,

fuse frayed synapses, hurt to reinvent.

 

Pointless to think of her lips or prevent

recall of their blood-damp cling pre/post-X.

Scrub brain raw of all, all that you repent.

 

Don’t look directly—no, keep that gaze bent,

as eyes switchblade your so vulner’ble neck .

Fuse frayed synapses, hurt to reinvent.

 

Its fluid-flow blocked, mind needing a stent

or swift amputation—painless, unvex’d—

scrub brain raw of all, all that you repent.

 

Violate space through some vocal event.

Stall devolution, and fight your thrawn hex.

Scrub brain raw of all, all that you repent.

Fuse frayed synapses, hurt to reinvent.

 

Be sure to read the introduction here.