Thursday, December 20, 2007

Canons II: How Do You Know That They're Loaded?

Continuing from the last post, why had no one heard of Susanna Centlivre when she was in regular repertory throughout the 19th C in England? When David Garrick had given his farewell performance in one of her plays? When she was known (until that time) as the second woman of the English stage?

This point, for those of you who have just tuned in, is certainly arcane. But it is a good example of the ways in which canons are constructed.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Virginia Woolf did women writers a great service by writing A Room of One's Own. In it, she created a space that has been broadened yearly for women to be recognized as artists equal to their male equivalents.

Women, Woolf says, require the same independence as men in order to create high art. How can anyone (man or woman) create anything of note if their time is divided among changing diapers and cooking meals -- without peace, quiet, and solitude to think?

All anyone needs, Woolf says, is 50 pounds and a room of one's own.

Not So Fast

If this were all, I'd be right behind Mme. Woolf. However, there is another requirement for women's art to rate. It must be transcendent.

Transcendence in Woolf's terms are really that of TS Eliot -- no everyday sorts of activities unless they are rendered symbolic in some way. That leaves 99% of women in history out of the ball game. Their lives were made up entirely of quotidien responsibilities, behaviors, and results.

In short, "transcendence" is gendered masculine here -- only those with particular educations and public lives could write about life outside the home.

An Example

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, a 17thC noblewoman, lived as public a life as was possible at that time. Only Aphra Behn, Restoration playwright and spy for Charles II, had a broader life. However, Behn's life made her notorious and Cavendish remained in society, even if she was considered a bit eccentric for her intellectual pursuits and writing.

Cavendish visited the Royal Society and saw Boyle do his experiments, and she made attempts at philosophy and poetry. However, her crowning achievement was a volume of 20 plays that are more modern than anything before the 20th century.

Cavendish's vision doesn't suit Woolf's. In fact, Woolf dismisses her in A Room of One's Own as the Mad Woman in the Attic.

In this way, Woolf buried Cavendish and her work for 4 and a half centuries. I wrote about her (and many other literary types who also saw the Virago volume) because she belongs in the history of remarkable women writers.

Soon, she'll be back in the canon. Officially. When a book comes out called The Great Book of Women Writers Through History or The Norton Reader of Women Writers -- or another such explicitly authoritative sort of name.

Well, people will say, it's in the book, so it must be true.

That's how canon's are fired.

And there's an even a more explicit example in the next post.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Taking a Shot at a Loaded Canon

I took a long walk with a good friend, and the subject came up of the ways in which canons are constructed. Is there such a thing as transendence in art -- some aesthetic representation that are universally moving?

TS Eliot certainly thought so. As it happens, so did my very famous and well-respected friend.

But is the rest of art more than a wasteland?

The Back Story

I wrote my dissertation on four playwrights that I had found in a volume published by Virago entirely by chance when I arrived early for a lunch appointment.

The playwrights are Susanna Centlivre, Mary Pix, Catherine Trotter, Mary Delariviere Manley, and Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle.

I had a feeling that if I hadn't heard of them, very few other people had either. So I decided to see what there was to know.

True But Not Clever

The short version is this:
Male critics had taken these women out of the cannon because of disdain for their sex, their plays, or both.

There was much more information from feminist critics. The problem is that they had also taken the playwrights out of context to lionize them. It was a mixed bag -- 19th C critics who had run out of road projected 19th C theories backward on the 18th and 17th centuries. Their history was bad, and the conclusions were just wrong. 20th C feminist critics projected contemporary literary theory on drama and drama history.

The whole thing was a mess. I decided to simply put these plays back in context to see what happened. Seemed so obvious, really.

Who Knew?

This work was full of surprises. One of the playwrights, Susanna Centlivre, had been performed in regular repertory in England until the end of the 19th C. David Garrick had done his farewell performance in one of her plays. She was a woman of letters yakking it up with the likes of Jonathan Swift.

Why hadn't anyone ever heard of her?

More in the next post.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Spelling: The Sequel

Dictionary Evangelist

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and entertaining conference speaker.

When first I encountered her two years ago at GEL, she began her talk by addressing a common misconceptions about her work.

"People often think that lexicographers prescribe meaning and keep the language as pure as possible. In fact, we research the way language is used -- in all sorts of media -- and we chart how language changes."

With this in mind, Erin's views on spelling are generous. See the last post for details on how to let yourself off the hook, regardless of how often others wince at the way you put letters together in writing

When Last We Saw Our Hero . . .

Erin is working as an independent assessor for CAGSE's Latin programs in primary school. The success of the pilot, running in 15 schools across London, will be measured both by her and by another independent assessor and former head of the Primary Trust, Peter Frost.

The first rule in business: If you haven't measured it, it never happened.

And So

Erin and I had supper at Carluccio's (for those of you who visit London occasionally -- there are quite a few, and the food is consistently good without being expensive).

I was interested to hear about her day in the schools.

We got on the subject of spelling and spell checks.

"Spell checks are terrible," said Erin, "and even if someone were to design a good one, people wouldn't use it anyway."

I asked why. She explained it thus:

It's very similar to the way a smoke alarm goes off every time you make toast. How many times has such a device been dismantled, never to be seen again?

The spell check is very much like a smoke alarm that demands attention every time one writes anything. It's annoying. So you ignore it.

Happens to be true for me, and I'm a lousy speller.

So Why Are Those of Us Not Blessed With the Spelling Gene So Bad At Catching Mistakes, Even When We Try?

Erin has given this a lot of thought. "Fixing your spelling requires that you know that you don't know how to spell a word (which means checking a lot of false positives from your spell checker) ... how often do you know that you don't know something, when it's something you're not good at in the first place?"

And the alternative?

"I think we need two things: better spell checkers (no false positives) and more leniency for typos/thinkos/spellos."

Leniency for Spellos. I'd vote for the person who ran for president on that ticket (Why do you hate freedom?).

So many jokes I could make about the thinkos of the White House's current inhabitant, but it's just too easy. I'm just not that kind of girl.

More in the next post on spelling, dictionaries, and the enlightenment.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

"A" is For Apple (And Also for Adapt)

Spelling it Out

There have been debates in education at least since the 1960's over whether or not demanding proper spelling will block children's creative impulses.

One side posits that children should write in whatever form they like without reference to grammatical or linguistic standards practiced by (some) adults. In what other time of life is it possible to be free to express feelings, thoughts, ideas without fear of censure from authority?

The other side of the argument says that without enforcing spelling rules, children don't learn self-discipline.

The Dictionary Evangelist

Erin McKean, Dictionary Evangelist -- and lexicographer for Oxford University Press -- feels that good spellers have made life unnecessarily uncomfortable for those without the same talent.

"It's genetic," she told me at dinner, "like being able to roll your tongue or bend your first knuckle back."

Erin's concern is that that those with this genetic gift -- or (worse) those who have beaten into submission without benefit of it -- have created an unrelenting sense of morality about getting words right. This peculiar zeal (and the opinion about spelling that is its source) are apparently only apparent for those who evangelize about English.

"There's a sense that if you misspell a word, you're being lazy or just don't care."

And how many of the seven deadly sins will then collect in such an atmosphere of sloth?

The demand for fortitude extends to moralizing about spell checks. Spell checks are dangerous because they encourage slovenliness of mind. They clean one's dirty laundry that would otherwise be hanging out for everyone to see. And we should clean our own laundry, by gum.

I couldn't help wondering if these puritans of metaphor had ever hired cleaners for their homes.

How consistent are these religious principles anyway?

Discipline Shmiscipline

Erin suggests that that spelling is really only one discipline among many. If good spellers took their argument to the logical conclusion, it would be absurd.

"Should we say shoes are immoral, too? That if we were just disciplined enough to toughen up our feet, we could all walk around barefoot?"

According to Erin, language changes as people need it to change. Dictionaries do not prescribe meaning but instead describe the ways in which words have transformed and are used every day.

So those who sniff at new and alternative spellings when they see them in their OED are simply hardened reactionaries, condemned to a life of mounting disappointment and increasing despair.

More in the next post.