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Friday, 06 July 2007


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Jonathan Dresner

I like it: the contrast comes through quite strongly. You could heighten it by lengthening it, I suppose, including more of the build-up, but I don't know that you want it longer.

Karl Steel

Works for me.


It's quite good, Scott. But there are a few f'd up things.

1) This sentence is messed up:

"Orestes’ name had once been of equal stature to men who biographies only mention him in passing as “the friend of Emerson” or “the correspondent of Hawthorne” (262).

The "him" is wrong. But I think more work should be done even beyond the deletion of "him."

2) this isn't quite right:

"and echoes Corby’s confusion"

No, she's not echoing Corby. He is frustrated and she doesn't understand why, if only momentarily. Right?

3) Look, this is terrific writing. But when you come to publishing it, I'd follow through a explain the punchline for the sake of the distracted reader. It's a good punchline. But people don't expect good punchlines anymore, so you might need to telegraph a bit.

In general, yes, I'd love to see this kind of writing from my grad students. (Ha! What rank pulling on my part! Sorry!)


It's lovely, but long. (and you _have_ looked at the dissertations in your library to see what a "good enough as long as it's done" dissertation looks like? I don't think any of ours I've read are quite so ... lapidary. But, carry on, carry on --- you know what your people want better than I do.)

I would agree with CR that you need to have a resounding punchline come after this for the benefit of the distracted reader, and also a little _more_ elaboration right before that with "she falters" ... something needs to be clearer right there but I can't tell what exactly needs fixing.


Jonathan, that's my concern here: it'd work better if longer, but as an introduction, it's tough to justify it being any longer than is. As Sisyphus notes, it's already too long as is -- which is why the pay off has to work.

CR, as per #1, you're right: his name wasn't of stature, he was. I'll rework that. Your #2 makes me think I haven't set it up right: she's confused because she thinks he's talking about her grandfather's metaphysical work, whereas he's confused because he has no idea what she could be talking about ... so I suppose she's not echoing his confusion so much as being similarly befuddled. And yes, the next paragraph explains the punchline:

Her perplexity mirrors that of the reader. Wharton describes the house and in its inhabitants in explicitly religious terms: Paulina’s aunts are “pious scavengers,” visitors “literary pilgrims,” Paulina herself “the guardian of the family temple” (256). Descriptions of Orestes befit his name: he belonged to an “Olympian group” (260) whose opponents none dare “Parthian shots” (263). Corby’s scientific jargon explodes the menacingly quaint atmosphere Wharton had crafted: where before Paulina feels as if “she had been walled alive into a tomb hung with the effigies of dead ideas” (264), she now remembers that before his attention had been diverted to “super-sensual problems,” he had written of anatomy, and that those pages “revealed a spontaneity, a freshness of feeling somehow absent from his lucubrations—as though this one emotion had reached him directly, the others through some intervening medium” (268). The “intervening medium” is nothing less than the philosophical tradition to which Orestes submitted his intellect with such success years earlier ...

Sisyphus, actually, I think you're properly confused there, inasmuch as I want the reader to think, "What, fish, what?" As for "good enough as long as it's done," I try, damn it, I try. Too many years spent teaching literary journalism, I suppose.


It worked for me on the second reading, but not on the first. I had no idea what you were talking about the first time through. This was, I think, equal parts the lack of a topic/intro sentence and the disorienting effect of your use of the present progressive. Besides being something that historians generally just don't do (and so, personally, disorienting for me to have to adjust for), it's confusing to follow as events move unevenly forward and backward in time in the narrative you represent.


It's beautifully written, but I can feel some tension between the desire to replicate the effect of the narrative and the need for exposition (as we say in LA, Exposition Boulevard!) I think the flow of the narrative is hindered a bit by the way some of the quotes are broken up: for instance, the quote beginning "But how did they know" gets us excited for dramatic revelation in direct reportage, but then we return to paraphrase at the end of the sentence ("was never published"). I think either mode works very well on its own (the next sentence, "Paulina sees," is lovely and wonderfully effective) but the work of switching back and forth somewhat undermines the effect you're going for. And I think a "hey, folks, here's the punchline" intro before the "amphioxus" line would be effective--this is one moment where the back-to-back quotations don't seem quite forceful enough.

Also, is a noun missing between "a place of worship" and "a man whose thought scaled “the cloudy heights of metaphysic” (255)."?

Makes me want to read the story, though, which is never a bad effect for criticism to achieve.


MDB, if you want to read it, you can! It's not her best, I warn you. Her best -- at least, my current favorite -- is "The Touchstone." That said, you're correct about the desire to quote: when writing on someone like Wharton, it's difficult not to use her turns of phrase. (This isn't a difficulty I encountered working on Jack London or Silas Weir Mitchell.) The "but how did they know" sentence is particularly tricky:

Miss Anson sighed. "People used to say that when I was young," she murmured. "But now -- "

Her visitor stared. "When you were young? But how did they know -- when the thing hung fire as it did? When the whole edition was thrown back on his hands?"

"The whole edition -- what edition?" It was Miss Anson's turn to stare.

"Why, of his pamphlet -- the pamphlet -- the one thing that counts, that survives, that makes him what he is! For heaven's sake," he tragically adjured her, "don't tell me there isn't a copy of it left!"

I don't want to increase the confusion by throwing in talk of hung fires and editions. Streamlining requires some omission, but if you can figure a cleaner way to keep that going, I'm all ears. I want to preserve as much as the to-and-fro as possible, because I like opening essays with scenes instead of exposition. (Granted, scenes require exposition, but only enough to make the dialogue dance, which is what I'm aiming at.)

JPool, I have a thing for in media res, because I want to thrust the reader into a situation in which the topics I address were alive and debatable. The present progressive is part of this, but it's also common enough in literary studies i.e. the moment being narrated is treated in the present, especially if you want to show a developing theme. As for the condensation of the narrative, it's difficult to show the reader Orestes' importance and its wane while moving the narrative forward in a single paragraph. I find these graphs are usually the most difficult to write, in that they're almost translations of the narratives themselves.


They would have to be some kind of translations if you describe them in present tense and they're written in the past tense. Yeah, I thought that this might be partly a matter of disciplinary convention, so my problems reading it the first time through may also be in some large part my failure to adjust. I think, however, that there is also a more structural issue here.
I'm all for in media res, and tend to use some version of it in much of my own work, partly for the scene setting effect and partly because it gets me past dicking around with the inroduction that I'll have to rewrite later anyway. My problem in this case, I think, is that the moment you jump into the middle of is not really the one that you want to talk about, so you treat it as over almost as soon as it begins. The "Which train..." sentence that then introduces the moment that you do want to talk about is a mix of present progressive and future signifiers. (I find the "later arrives" particularly troublsome and I think if you can get rid of that "later" then most of the problem will have been fixed.) Plus we then have to wander away to some context setting stuff before coming back to that moment.
I should note that your language mostly comes across really nicely, and I'm only pushing this a little because the one thing you don't want in an introduction is confusion.


Nice piece of writing. I also believe some more guidance on how we are supposed to tag these different discursive worlds would be helpful, like possibly an adjective along the lines of "scientifically minded", but see no reason why this should not come in the next par. You intro the nerdy fan as a "young man" - maybe a more substantial epithet at this point would give some orientation.

But really all that was a McGuffin for the following piece of pedantry: if you're in the present tense, shdn't the past perfect in the first sentence be a present perfect: "that she _has_ written"? I feel like there's quite a lot of information in that first sentence and any mis-cues are troublesome. In the same obnoxious vein, it's just in plain old present tense more than "progressive present" isn't it?

Anyway, I would want to continue reading this introduction.


John is, of course, right that I was wrong to describe it as present progressive. My only defense, besides my aforementioned shock and disorientation, is that the non-Western language I kind of speak doesn't have a simple present tense, really, but only a stative (by which I mean a generally performed action; I'm sure there's a more technical term for this, but I don't know it) and a present progressive, though it also has an emphatic "right now" kind of clause for especially immediate actions.

I stand by all my other blather, however.


Scott, this is very good. (Much better, for instance, than the stuff I'll be copy editing all day today--and those people get paid for every word.) One suggestion I have for better insuring the sucker-punch effect is to break up the dialogue by speaker, as is usually done in fiction. It might not fit the typographical conventions you're working in, but it would certainly clarify things for your readers, and would also add that slight delay before Paulina's fish line that I think you want.

As for other things, I see a few places you can smooth out tenses, etc. I like John's "she has spent ten years writing." JPool's striking of "later" in Corby's intro is good, too.

For the "stature" line, here's a possibility: "Orestes' name was once of equal stature with those of men whose biographies now only mention him in passing..." I think if you're going to go with the present tense, you need to carry it through even in the places where it starts to sound a little...invested in the factual truth of the text.

After "a place of worship," you need at least "of," but I'm guessing it should probably be something like "the home of."

"Public desire ... flags in the years after Orestes' death, as Paulina learns when she pitches his biography."

If you want little fiddly corrections, you've got two comma splices ("'Believe in him,' Corby cries, 'Why'" and "he asks, clearly confused, 'But'"). As for the pamphlet bit, it might help a lot if you just stuck a question mark after "never published." Also, you probably want a comma inside the brackets there: "'But how did they know[, when] his pamphlet..."

And that's...more than I should have said, probably. When I like a piece of writing, I like to do what I can to help make it better.


Good advice, all! If I follow through with my plan at the bottom of the next post -- to publish everything, graph-by-graph, I may turn in the best chapter ever (or at least, the best written). Sadly, I have until Wednesday to write ... 28? 29? 30 pages. 'Gads man, but I'm up that creek sans paddle. (hyperventilates, then remembers how many pages of notes he has, calms down, hyperventilates, rinses, repeats, &c.)


Is this a grammatical joke?


No, why, does it sound like one?

Adam Stephanides

It didn't knock the wind out of me. Part of the reason, I think, is that the sentence "Which train they took becomes apparent when a young man, George Corby, later arrives at Anson House..." telegraphs the joke: whatever Corby admires Orestes for, you know it won't be his philosophy. (And you're cheating a little here, aren't you? As far as I can see, there's nothing in the story that suggests that it's evolutionary thought which supplanted Orestes in the public's interest.) But then, it didn't knock the wind out me in Wharton's story either, possibly because I knew what an amphioxus was, thanks to the song. So I don't know how relevant my opinion is.

As for general writing suggestions: like Jpool, I found it jarring that after introducing Corby, you "cut away" from him for three sentences before mentioning him again. And Corby's having a hard time finding Orestes' house is an unnecessary and distracting detail. (It reinforces the eclipse of Orestes' reputation, but the connection isn't obvious on first reading.)

If you want to shorten the intro, or make room for more exposition, I think you could cut the scene at the publisher's altogether. If you're going to open in media res, I think it would be more effective to open in the middle of Corby's conversation with Pauline, then supply the background, then return to the conversation.

To be even more pedantic, "she has spent ten years writing" seems wrong to me: it implies that she is still writing at the time of her meeting with the publisher, which isn't the case. Why not just "she spent ten years writing"?


No, no, present perfect signifies an action that has ended - either just ended, as in "I've finished my homework!" - or else a completed action with salient consequences for the present moment - as in "I have taught too much grammar to non-English speakers", or"He stares numbly at the screen. He has spent far too long trying to think of a funny sample sentence."

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