Day 27: Seth Godin gets all wabi-sabi

I’m grateful every day for the nearly invisible perfect things that I count on. My car starts every single time. The water in my tap doesn’t make me sick, ever. The thing in the jar is the same thing that was in the jar the last time I bought it… but, and I feel spoiled to say this, I take the perfect for granted. I’m way more interested, and spend far more time and money on the imperfect things, the things that might not work, the ideas and services and products that dance around the edges. If you’re going to offer something that’s imperfect, by all means, make it as good as you possibly can, but embrace the fact that you’re not selling perfect. You’re selling interesting. You’re selling possibility. You’re selling connection.

Seth Godin's reaction on learning that the first 250 pages of his new book shipped with some of the pages bound upside down.

Wabi-sabi: Only vaguely definable, the Japanese appreciation of the aesthetic of the imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete, of the humbly unconventional. Leonard Koren 1 has written two commendable books about it, Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, and Wabi-Sabi: Further Thoughts.

1 Leonard Koren's website may be found here.


Yesterday’s mindmap

Day 22: Jane Smiley

Bouncing off yesterday's post about Orwell, this from Jane Smiley:

Every piece of writing puts forth some logical argument and some theory of cause and effect for the simple reason that words, especially prose words, are sequential. The author and the reader both know that if the author doesn’t provide the logic, the reader will. But the logic of events and people as they exist in the world isn’t self-evident, and narrators of fiction and narrators of nonfiction have different ways of putting together their logical systems.

The promise of nonfiction is that it is accurate, and therefore, like an archeological site, incomplete—here are the stone walls, here is part of a mosaic, here are two goblets. My theory concerns what these objects might mean, how they might be connected to an earthquake for which there is evidence, but I cannot go too far toward completeness or the reader, who might otherwise enjoy my narrative, will cease to be willing to suspend disbelief in its accuracy.

But the history of literature shows that listeners and readers want to know not only what happened, but also how it looked, sounded, smelled, felt, and also what it meant then and what it means now. They want to know but also to experience, and therefore they seek completeness, and so they willingly suspend disbelief in fiction (The Odyssey, the Book of Genesis, Waverley, Flashman).

I am much taken with Smiley's idea that nonfiction, that is, nonfiction rigorous in its adherence to only what can be documented, measured, accurately recorded, is inherently incomplete and we turn to fiction for theories of the missing parts.

Day 21: Stories too good to fact-check

Julian Barnes, writing about George Orwell in The New York Review of Books, 03.12.2009:

Eric Blair’s passport photo, complete with unfortunate mustache.

Eric Blair’s passport photo, complete with unfortunate mustache.

One small moment of literary history at which many Orwellians would like to have been present was an encounter in Bertorelli’s restaurant in London between Orwell’s biographer Bernard Crick and Orwell’s widow, Sonia. Crick dared to doubt the utter truthfulness of one of Orwell’s most celebrated pieces of reportage, “Shooting an Ele-phant.” Sonia, “to the delight of other clients,” according to Crick, “screamed” at him across the table, “Of course he shot a fucking elephant. He said he did. Why do you always doubt his fucking word!” The widow, you feel, was screaming for England. Because what England wants to believe about Orwell is that, having seen through the dogma and false words of political ideologies, he refuted the notion that facts are relative, flexible, or purpose-serving; further, he taught us that even if 100 percent truth is unobtainable, then 67 percent is and always will be better than 66 percent, and that even such a small percentage point is a morally nonnegotiable unit.

At least two of Orwell's biographers, including the aforementioned Mr. Crick, believe he did not. Shoot the elephant, that is. To me, a more interesting question now is, Does it matter? Orwell never purported to be documenting elephantcide in the colonies for the historical record. If he was claiming the authority of the honest, diligent journalist all the while inventing some or all of the story, that dishonesty does him dishonor.

But at this point and in this case, I think nothing matters but the quality of the prose, which is high indeed. I do not defend anyone who tries to pass off invention as reportage, especially when accuracy and fidelity to actual events is essential to the moment and situation. But whether or not Eric Blair pulled that trigger is now a mere academic argument.

It's odd, perhaps, but I"m less concerned with the veracity of Orwell's account than I am with the story of the Crick-Sonia confrontation. I very much want for that to have happened.

Day 20: Wham!

I am in New York City today, so the day's post will be succinct, but nicely astringent.

John Dos Passos, after reading Ernest Hemingway's Across the River and Into the Trees: "Hemingway's story (the parts I read) brought out the goosepimples in a different way. How can a man in his senses leave such bullshit on the page?"


Much more about the writers' relationship can be found in Clara Juncker's "Friends, Enemies, Writers: Dos Passos and Hemingway"