‘Stuff vs. Theory’: Types of history-writing

In a rather acid moment, my publisher once said that all my books could secretly be titled ‘Fun Stuff I Have Found Out’. He did not mean it unkindly, or at least I tell myself he didn’t. And up to a point it’s a fair cop, guv. I came to history-writing by the back door. I was writing a biography of four Victorian women, and to understand their own particular lives I felt I needed to know more about the lives most women of their background and time lived. My next four books, to a greater or lesser, extent focused on exactly that: how did the people of the time live; what did they do, what did they see, feel, smell; how did they amuse themselves, what was available to them on a day-to-day basis? If we don’t know about ordinary life, goes my brain, how can we understand what motivates the less ordinary?

The historian Robin Winks divided history into ‘three things: what happened in the past, what people believe happened in the past, and what historians say happened in the past’. This tripartite division is a good description of what history is. History-writing, however, can just as well divide into two schools: theory, and ‘stuff’. Stuff falls into Winks’ ‘what happened in the past’ category, while theory spills across the other two. But stuff encompasses more than just ‘what happened’. It is also ‘what was it like when it happened’.

Take urbanization, for example. Theory discusses the broad sweep of city growth and the socialization of populations. Stuff uncovers that, in the new cities, when traffic began to be segregated according to different types of transport, carts went in one lane, pedestrians and horses in another: the division was wheels vs. legs. Not an insight that alone will set the world on fire but one that, nonetheless, does indicate a mindset revealingly different to our own.

The source-materials for stuff are also pleasantly far-ranging. I would never take Tennyson’s description of ‘streaming London’s central roar’ as evidence of ‘what happened in the past’. It might mean the city was noisy, or it might be a flight of fantasy. Nor Dostoevsky calling London a city filled with ‘the screeching and howling of machines’ – he is hardly known as being the most even-keeled of writers. But then there is Dickens. Novel after novel abounds with throw-away lines like this from Our Mutual Friend, where one character asks another, ‘Would you object to turn aside into this place…[to one] where we can hear one another better than in the roaring street?’ Add in visitors’ reports of being unable to hear a sermon in St Clement Danes on a Sunday over the sound of the traffic in the Strand, or Jane Carlyle complaint of the ‘everlasting sound in my ears, of men, women, children, omnibuses, carriages, glass coaches, street coaches, waggons, carts, dog-carts, steeple bells, door bells, gentlemen-raps, twopenny post-raps, footmen-showers-of-raps, of the whole devil to pay…’ from her small by-street in Chelsea, and Tennyson and Dostoyevsky now appear to be merely reporting.

I do understand the qualms of the theory-ers, who question whether the experiences of individuals alone can be the basis on which to formulate more abstract ideas about society. Yet stuff allows us a mosaic-style formation of a picture. One tile tells us little: it is too highly coloured, or too pale; but combine the many, many tiles that make up stuff, and a vivid picture emerges. We can stop with these pictures – that may be all we ask of ‘what happened in the past’. But my view is that, carefully assessed and weighed, stuff can indeed lead more naturally to theory, to understanding how the people of the past thought about what happened.

It took me a phenomenally long time to discover exactly how a doorstep was whitened in the nineteenth century. Every household-management book assured its readers it had to be done daily, but detailed instructions were scanty, for the simple reason that it was done daily, and so everyone knew how. I was finally enlightened not by a book, but by my great-aunt (born 1905). The step was scrubbed down with boiling water. After it dried, a white paste was applied. (Details to be found in The Victorian House, should any of you kids decide to try this at home.) It was done first thing in the morning, she said, before they went to school, so she and her sister had to jump from the threshold to the path, because walking on the step would mark the white. How, I asked, wondering, did they get back in again after school? This was the revelation: ‘You could walk on it after eleven; everyone had seen it.’

This stuff therefore has two parts. First, the step was scrubbed before it was whitened; the whitening was not part of the cleaning process. And secondly, it was the very ephemerality of the white that was crucial. Whitening a doorstep was not about cleanliness, it was about respectability. The transient nature of the white indicated to others that you had it: you had cleaned that day, and would clean again the next. So here, stuff leads to theory. What happened, what people thought about it, and why.

For the book I am currently working on, an attempt to outline the development of the idea of home, I am by the nature of the subject dealing more with theory than I ever have before. For the first year, I felt like a cow in ice-skates: please let me have my stuff back, I cried. I can trace the development of artificial lighting with no trouble. I can do it with both arms tied behind my back. Please please please don’t make me write about why, as lighting became brighter, cheaper and more accessible, window-curtains moved from being rarities to being routine, or why the trends in decoration pronounced darkened rooms more aesthetically pleasing. (Although my stuff-nature leapt upon the nomenclature. In Germany in the late nineteenth century, one especially gloomy tendency was known as the braune Soße – gravy – style of interior decoration.)

Sometimes I think theory is like dealing with a particularly inquisitive five-year-old. Why was there an Industrial Revolution? Because of the consumer revolution. OK, so why was there a consumer revolution? Because of the… and we’re off, an endless series of ‘whys’ pushing each question further and further back.

At other times, I am amazed not so much by the material (although that is astonishing too), as by Winks’ second category: ‘what people think happened’. Or, in some cases, what they refuse to believe happened; we refuse to move from stuff to theory. Dutch academics have produced exceptional work on sixteenth-century inventories, comparing the paintings of the Golden Age to the actual design and contents of the houses supposedly depicted. There is, they show, little overlap – barely any houses had marble floors, brass chandeliers, carpets on tables or even owned musical instruments; meanwhile many items that were in common use, such as strip-matting on the floors, were rarely or barely ever painted. The Dutch of the sixteenth century knew these pictures did not depict reality; it is we, in the intervening centuries, who have lost sight of that.

But the fascinating thing is how little purchase this work has had, how rarely it has been incorporated into the mainstream of general knowledge, despite – or indeed because – of the popularity of the paintings. The reason for this obscurity, of course, moves us from stuff (the inventories) to theory. The curator and design-historian Peter Thornton knew of this work, but continued to argue for verisimilitude of Dutch golden age art: the departure from reality for artists ‘is never all that large’, he wrote. And how, he challenged, if there were no carpets in houses, could artists ‘find carpets on floors to depict so accurately’, taking for granted that artists paint only the world about them, that they do not own props, nor create staged settings to paint.

In part, Thornton’s rejection of the research may have been one of age. He had relied heavily on paintings and engravings for his great histories of interior decoration; to accept the heavily symbolic nature of supposedly realist works  which emerged as he reached his eighties would bring into question a lifetime’s work. But his refusal mirrors the seemingly inexplicable obscurity of such fascinating material.

His refusal is ours. We really don’t want to know that these paintings are not realistic. From their re-popularization in the nineteenth century, these paintings have been a major component in what we think of when we think of the word ‘home’. We want those tranquil, golden-lit rooms to have been real, to be, now, a place that once existed, and might therefore exist again. If we accept they are imaginary, we must accept that our own notions of home are, in part, imaginary too.

Is this theory correct? I don’t know. But what I do know is this: stuff doesn’t lie.

First published in The Author

Bad Writing at its Best

Oh, happy, happy day, the Bulwer-Lytton prize for the worst opening sentence in a novel has announced its 2012 winners (here). The prize has a long and proud history. Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton was a 19th-century novelist and friend of Dickens whose books have deservedly fallen out of favour. (Trust me, I’ve read a bunch for work; you don’t want to.) His novel Paul Clifford began with the sentence:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

This was then picked up by Snoopy, who used the first clause for his own always-under-construction masterwork. And then in 1982 the Bulwer-Lytton Prize, run by the English department at San Jose State University, was born.

The prize now has many categories — worst opening line for a children’s story, worst opening line for a detective story, fantasy fiction, historical fiction — in fact, worst opening line in almost every genre you’ve ever heard of.

A random selection of my favourites:

What shocked Juliette as she entered the room was not that there was an escaped convict under her coverlet snuggling with her best teddy bear, but that there was a knife through his back, “And who,” she wondered out loud, steadying herself against the faux-taffeta wallpaper, “would stab a teddy bear?” — Katie Alender, Studio City, CA



The tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife, not even a sharp knife, but a dull one from that set of cheap knives you received as a wedding gift in a faux wooden block; the one you told yourself you’d replace, but in the end, forgot about because your husband ran off with another man, that kind of knife. — Lisa Lindquist, Jackson, MI


It was a dark and stormy night – actually not all that dark, but more dusky or maybe cloudy, and to say “stormy” may be overstating things a bit, although the sidewalks were still wettish and smelled of ozone, and, truth be told, characterizing the time as night is a stretch as it was more in the late, late afternoon because I think Oprah was still on. — Gregory Snider, MD, Lexington, KY

Not all winners are of the convoluted, BL-type. This is simply perfectly terrible:

The day dawned much like any other day, except that the date was different. — Geoff Blackwell, Bundaberg , Queensland, Australia

But I think I should end with

It was a stark and dormy night – the kind of Friday night in the dorm where wistful women/girls without dates ovulated pointlessly and dreamed of steamy sex with bad boy/men in the backseat of a Corvette – like the one on Route 66, only a different color, though the color was hard to determine because the TV show was in black and white – if only Corvettes had back seats. — David Kay, Lake Charles, LA

mostly because I read a page of 50 Shades of Grey over someone’s shoulder on the tube yesterday and I was mesmerized by the following paragraph opening: ‘After our tasty and nutritious meal…’ After our tasty and nutritious meal? Really? Really? You can write that, and still have 12 million readers?

Maybe Bulwer-Lytton was on to something.

Robert Hughes: The art critic with a dash of the streetfighter

The passing of Gore Vidal and Robert Hughes within days of each other feels like the death of the Titans. Both were masters of the epigrammatic put-down, but while Vidal presented himself as the last aristocrat, Hughes’s image was that of a street-brawler, a thug. (His love of motorbikes, and his penchant for being photographed in leather jackets added to the persona.)

The Shock of the New, his television series and book, which traced modernism from the Impressionists to Andy Warhol, made him the only art critic even non-specialists might have heard of. But it was not the subject matter, it was how he approached it: he had no patience with restraint, or charm. He admired artists who wrestled, as he did, with questions of purpose, of ethics, of art as morality – and it was expressed in a hold-on-to-your-hats, take-no-prisoners style.

Hughes loved – liking was too sterile for him – such artists as Lucian Freud: Freud, he wrote, “takes nothing for granted and demands active engagement from the viewer”. Hughes, too, demanded active engagement. If you weren’t willing to fight it out, he wasn’t interested. This made him thrilling to read. It was exhilarating to watch him lash out, devastating the wastrels and slackers. An essay on Jean-Michel Basquiat was entitled “Requiem for a Featherweight”, while Julian Schnabel’s work – or was it Schnabel himself? – was dismissed as a Sylvester Stallone-like “lurching display of oily pectorals”.

This was enormous fun. It could also be destructive. The positive was that Hughes cared, deeply, passionately, and he was able to make his readers care too. Cézanne was his hero, the artist who created an art based on “the idea that doubt could be heroic”. Doubt is heroic, but Hughes had none himself. And in a way that corrupted him, because instead of writing great criticism to enable his readers to see better, to understand better, he began to write criticism to enable his readers to see that Robert Hughes was right.

Being a critic nowadays, he once said, was more “like being a piano-player in a whorehouse; you don’t have any control over the action going on upstairs”. This remark was both very funny and very revealing. For since when did critics have any “control” over the “action”? It is artists who have always been in control. A critic is merely a facilitator. A great critic – and Hughes on form was a very great critic indeed – is just like the man in the petrol-station who cleans the car’s windscreen. At his best, Hughes knew this. Curiosity in an artist was what he loved, and no one described better the work of artists who ventured, failed, who tried again and, in Samuel Beckett’s phrase, succeeded in failing better. As they did, Hughes was standing right there, making sure we could see it happen.

Early modernism, the art of the early 19th century, was filled with “ebullience, idealism, confidence”, and those qualities were what Hughes’s own writing conveyed so vividly. He had little interest in theory, which made him a welcome (if secret) relief to specialists, and a joy and delight to the general art-lover. Yet he had no tolerance at all for the un-nuanced – or, as he would have described it bluntly, the ignorant. You could trust your gut response, he told us, but only if your gut had been fed for decades, as his had, on a steady diet of looking at, and thinking about, art.

It might be that Hughes, Australian-born but a US resident for much of his adult life, found his perfect subject in American Visions, which starts when “the New World really was new”, at least to its conquerors and settlers, then goes on to explore the usually overlooked genre of social-utopian folk-art in the early 19th century, and yet ends, in bitterness for Hughes, with Andres Serrano’s notorious Piss Christ of 1987.

And maybe that is the clue. Hughes was, ultimately, an American in spirit, searching for that lost sense of manifest destiny, reading the art world as a morality tale, a replication of the fall of man, chafing restlessly as art stopped being about heroic struggle and became instead an entry to the market for buying and selling commodities. He yearned to recreate that “American power to make things up as you go along”.

He was, in fact, the 20th century’s Huck Finn, the great American archetype, who, at the end of his adventures, bids his readers farewell: “I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”

The Hughes of the thuggish put-down never mattered. Instead it is the Hughes who is constantly searching for new worlds, the writer who through his lucid, lambent prose carries us, oh so joyously, with him, who will survive, and be treasured.

Daily Telegraph, 8 August 2012

Belinda Jack: The Woman Reader

At the beginning of the 20th century, Virginia Woolf made a case for a “Room of One’s Own” for all women, without which they could not become writers.

Near the end of the century, Doris Lessing focused on readers. Libraries, she said, were the most democratic of institutions: there, no one can tell you what to read, or how to read, or what to think about what you have read.

In reality, both notions are utopian: people have always been told what, when and how to read, and libraries enforce this through acquisitions policies, whom they admit and when. For literacy is dangerous to those with power. Anything written down is beyond the control of its creators: reading is interpretation.

How we think about reading is also open to interpretation. Both men and women have historically been painted with books. For men, it indicated professional status, or scholarship, or a religious vocation; for women, the interpretative range is wider. Images of the Virgin Mary reading at the Annunciation began to appear in northern Europe in the 15th century. Three centuries later, a Rococo painting showed a woman reader in a reverie, one hand on her book, the other vanishing under her skirts – reading is no longer about devotion, or even mental stimulation, but suggests a worrying sexual self-sufficiency.

Belinda Jack sets herself the task of charting this vast subject, from early cave paintings (handprints establish that women as well as men were involved in their creation) through the classical world, when the literacy of women cast reflected glory on the wealth of their menfolk, and the Middle Ages, where reading revolved for the most part around religious communities and the courts.

The 16th century brought together improved technology, which reduced the price of books, more widespread education, which increased the number of readers, the Protestant Reformation, which encouraged individual Bible study without the mediation of a priest, and the rise of the middle classes. With the subsequent increase in literacy came, naturally, an increase in attempts to control reading, with the appearance of conduct books, telling women how to be good wives and mothers. By the 17th century, miscellanies, where women copied out their favourite passages, give us, for the first time, hard evidence of what was being read, rather than what ought to have been read. In the 19th and 20th centuries, novels became renowned – and denigrated – as women’s reading, and arguments for and against raged in the press and private correspondence, giving us an insight into readers’ responses.

As a subject, women’s reading is vast, yet it is also intensely private, and it has left little trace for most of history. Even in recent centuries, when readers’ views survive in diaries and letters, the narrow focus on reading is a slippery thing. And so Jack constantly finds herself sliding away from reading, ending up discussing writing, where she looks at the books women authors may have read, or education, concentrating on the books students were told they should read. Sometimes, no reading is involved at all: when the collection of one 17th-century bibliophile was sold, her books were found to have most of their pages uncut – she collected, but did not read.

And while for the most part Jack uses a bland, neutral language, her prejudices, when they peek out, can be startling: writers, she writes, “cash in” on women’s interests – in this case it is fashion she is discussing, but had it been art, or music, would she have chosen the same denigratory verb? Her views on what constitutes good reading are equally forthright. The 12th-century oral tradition, she tells us, was “full of redundant stylistic repetitions – rhymes, clichés and ornate but meaningless flourishes”. Really? Repetitions and flourishes like Homer’s “wine-dark sea”? Surely oral devices are different to written ones, not inferior to them. But no, for she goes on: Dickens, apparently, wrote for “chambermaids” rather than the “educated”.

With this division between high and low, or even middlebrow, it is perhaps not surprising that Jack disregards the power and reach of 18th-century circulating libraries, and barely mentions magazines, with only a single line on Addison and Steele’s widely read Tatler. In her discussion on the 19th century there is nothing on Gothic novels nor their successors, sensation fiction, supposedly a women’s genre, and just one lonely mention of penny dreadfuls and working-class Sunday newspapers.

Perhaps this is because the book is, essentially, about upper-class women. In the 19th century, Jack’s representative readers are Jane Austen, the journalist Harriet Martineau, Lady Louisa Stuart, and the wife of the philosopher Thomas Carlyle. To drive her class bias home, she adds that women were able to find employment “principally” as teachers, actors and writers – overlooking the millions of female servants, agricultural labourers and factory workers.

Yet these women too read, if not as often or as widely as their upper-class sisters. Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, wrote: “I have made a world of my own: for which nobody, I hope, will blame me, since it is in every one’s power to do the like.” It was indeed within their power, although that power was limited by social expectations. My great-grandmother, an immigrant to Britain from Eastern Europe, arrived with a “ladies’ prayer book”: on the right-hand pages were the Hebrew prayers; on the left were, not translations, but explanations, to suit lesser female minds. Facing the prayer for the dead it said, simply, “Here you cry.”

‘Either way I find you disgraceful’

Well, we’re back to ‘what/who are critics for’ this morning. I reviewed a new (excellent) production of Sweeney Todd on Tuesday night (here). I liked it a lot (the clue was in the five stars I gave it). There were elements I liked less, which I covered — mostly the casting of Michael Ball as Sweeney. I didn’t hate him, but didn’t think he was great either. I thought he did ‘well enough’, but wasn’t, ultimately, charismatic enough, or vocally strong enough, to carry this really heavy part.

So far, I would have thought, so uncontentious. Lord knows, I’ve given much more negative views with monotonous regularity. But apparently not. Hot on the heels of the review came this beautiful thought from [name suppressed to protect the very silly]:

Read your review of Sweeney Todd. Interesting to me that, when everyone else is praising Michael Ball, you chose to be negative. I am not sure whether you have some personal grudge or you are just in the wrong profession. Either way I find you disgraceful.

The immediate urge, naturally, was to respond, ‘Mum, I told you never to write to me at work!’ I heroically suppressed it, though with regret.

But this email continues my ongoing fascination with how we regard reviews, and critics, which seems to reflect on how we regard art itself.

First of all, it assumes that a general view (‘everyone else’) is by definition correct — that, indeed, there is a correct, and therefore an incorrect, view of any single performer. Then, even if I accepted that, which of course I don’t, it extrapolates to assume there are only two reasons for dissenting from the general view: personal animus, or incompetence.

I might, of course, indulge in both. I might nurture a secret hatred for Michael Ball because he hit me on the head with a Lego brick when we were in kindergarten. (Disclaimer: I was not in kindergarten with Michael Ball. To the best of my recollection, I have never been hit on the head with a Lego brick by anyone, although I think many have wanted to.) I might also be entirely unable to tell a good performance from a bad one. The former would be unacceptable, and I should rightly be unemployable if that were the case. (I mean, not about the Lego, you understand: the secret-hatred-disguised-as-a-review.) And I might be incompetent. Which should also make me unemployable.

But the odd thing about this email was that my reservations about Ball were a couple of lines in an otherwise rave review. I unilaterally declared Imelda Staunton a Living National Treasure (to be protected by legislation). I liked the direction, the set and the lighting. In that I was in agreement with most other reviewers. So does that mean the emailer thought I was only incompetent for one paragraph, and competent for the remainder? Did she wonder if I had a personal connection to Ms Staunton, or Messrs Kent, Ward and Henderson, which meant I was prejudiced in their favour, and thus ‘disgraceful’ once more?

I realize I’m attempting to make sense out of what makes no sense. But I’m interested because these views make no sense in a very common way: they suggest that there are absolutes in the arts, that things are either good or bad, and that collective wisdom can recognize this. Both elements of this idea are, to put it in academic critico-theoretical-speak, horseshit.

There. I feel better now. Bring on the Lego!



A curator, my kingdom for a curator

OK, can someone please explain to me (in words of one syllable, for the hard-of-thinking) this passion for the words ‘curator’ and ‘curating’? I mean, when did this happen? One minute, everyone is editing, or selecting, or choosing, or programming. I turn my back for a second, and they’re all curators.

In the Guardian (here) yesterday, Luke Jennings posted a piece about the Dave St-Pierre Dance Company (or, as they’ve become known, The Naked Canadians). There were lots of very silly responses, and a few thoughtful ones. One of the most intelligent and measured was by ‘riversutra’, who is clearly involved in the professional dance world. I know this, because in his/her very sensible comments s/he used the phrase ‘as someone who both produces and curates dance’. So, s/he programmes (a word s/he also used) — and? And what?

‘Curator’ seems to have evolved from ‘curate’, a clergyman who has the care of souls in his keeping. (It also, much to my surprise and pleasure, appears to be a tiered cake-stand, also known as a ‘curate’s comfort’, or ‘curate’s friend’, but I don’t think that’s what we’re talking about here.)

Instead, it is clear that the verb to curate is being used as a back-formation from the function of a museum curator, ‘The officer in charge of a museum, gallery of art, library, or the like; a keeper, custodian’.

But this is not what ‘riversutra’ meant — that s/he was in charge. Nor does Mike Shatzkin, in his interesting book blog (here). He talks about ‘The core challenge of bookselling’ being (horrible neologism alert!)  ‘curation’.

In a shop, that curation begins with what the store management puts on the shop shelves. The overwhelming majority of customers in a brick bookstore who buy something choose from what is in the store.

The second line of curation in a shop is in the details of the shelving itself. Is the book face out or spined? [Spined? Oh my God: this is worse than curation!] Is it at eye-level or ankle-level? Is it on a front table in a stack? Is it displayed in more than one section of the store, which would increase the likelihood it will be seen?

‘Curation’ (ick) here means ‘display’, or, if we want to stretch it, ‘looking after stuff’. But where do we stop? If ‘looking after’ is ‘curation’ (really ick), do people curate their stamp collections? Their dogs? When your socks need darning, do you ‘curate’ them?

I realize I’m being grumpily pedantic: if you want to curate your dog, why should old bossy-boots over here stop you? Now I mention it, I can’t actually come up with a reason why my own instinctive protest against the distortion of a word should count. So I’m registering it here, quietly; when you say you’re a curator, and you don’t work in a museum, I’ll try not to flinch.

Editathon-ing away, the Victorians rule the waves!

Well, that’s a Saturday spent usefully. No, I haven’t joined the Boy Scouts — although it’s a thought. Instead I spent the day at a seminar organized by the British Library in conjunction with Wikipedia. From the BL’s point of view, it was a way of promoting its special collections and areas of interest to a wider audience, and particularly to those who cannot travel to the library itself.

The group seemed to be mostly divided between computer-folk and Eng.Lit. people, with the odd sprinkling of historians (well, one, I think, me) and a classical music person, plus a table-ful of enthusiastic sci-fi-ers.  (Did you know it was a BL speciality? Well, now you do.) Plus Lauren Collins from the New Yorker, taking notes so as to write us all up, we assume as hopelessly comic characters.

We split up into groups to create pages highlighting different areas of the BL collection that we were interested in. The table I was on was Victorian, and we produced Wikipedia pages on Barry Ono, whose train-spotterishly vast collection of penny-dreadfuls is now owned by the BL; on Andrew Forrester, who wrote short-stories with one of the very first female detectives; on Ruth Traill, as far as I have determined, the first fictional female detective; and on a late Victorian novelist whose name I have shamefully forgotten.  I also added a bawdy 1830s song about the fire that destroyed the old Houses of Parliament to the Burning of Parliament page, just to lower the tone.

At lunchtime we broke off to find out what everyone else had been doing, and lo and behold, the Victorians had conquered the world — the sci-fi buffs had been working on Mary Shelley and the Brontë’s juvenilia; the poetry table on Victorian poets; and even those working on the BL table had focused on their 19th-century collections.

I’m sure there’s a lesson to be learned from this, although I’m damned if I know what it is. In the meantime, if you need a rude drinking song, check out Wikipedia’s Burning of Parliament page.

The Literary-Agent Hyphothesis

A great blog (here) by ‘The Contented Librarian’ (and a great blog-name!), listing 40 literary terms ‘you should know’. I’m not quite sure who the ‘you’ is, since the list seems to veer from the latinate rhetorical terms I was expecting from the title (meiosis) to what seem to me to be everyday common-or-garden speech for people who read (bowdlerize).

But of course a list, any list, is fun, and one where you can score yourself is even better. I didn’t know four, which I think is pretty good. The one I like best, however, is a new one on me: ‘the literary-agent hypothesis’. Contrary to my immediate Paranoid Author Response, this does not indicate that my agent is planning to sack me, or that all the literary agents in London are in a room, and they Are Laughing At Us, but is instead a lit. crit. concept that the author is only the agent for the characters, who are in fact writing the novel, or, as I feel certain the people who discuss this theory say, the ‘text’.

‘Purple prose’, I would have thought, didn’t need a definition. It’s like porn, and everyone knows it when they see it. (In my own case, it is easily identified by the fact that my eyeballs roll so far back in my head that I can see my tonsils whenever I stumble across some.) But perhaps the Contented Librarian’s definition is better: ‘Any text referring to eyes as “orbs” without any sort of irony is automatically guilty of this linguistic sometimes-offense. No matter what. No exceptions. Also, every romance novel ever written. Even if a long-lost manuscript attributed to Bukowski ever materialized and proved a romance novel, it would still be made of purple prose.’

Works for me.