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Posts Tagged ‘Charles Dickens’

Truly Trending: An Interview on Intensifiers

August 31, 2016 | by

William Blake, Geoffrey Chaucer.

William Blake, Geoffrey Chaucer.

Sali Tagliamonte is a linguist at the University of Toronto, where she studies language variation and change. Her latest book, Teen Talk: The Language of Adolescents, was published in June.

I called Tagliamonte because I’d noticed more and more people using the word truly. All of a sudden it seemed to be everywhere: in work e-mails and movie reviews, in headlines, on Twitter, on Twitter, and on Twitter. “It truly is up to us,” Hilary Clinton said this summer in her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. A week prior, in Cleveland, Trump had remembered his “truly great mother.”

Is truly trending? I couldn’t tell—Liane Moriarty’s book, Truly Madly Guilty, had just published. There had been that Savage Garden song in the nineties, and the Lionel Richie one in the eighties. I wanted to find out more, so I did what anyone with a linguistics question would do: I e-mailed Noam Chomsky. To my surprise, he wrote back within half an hour, suggesting I ask “an outstanding sociolinguist like William Labov.” So I did. Labov told me, “The person who has done the most work on intensifiers like truly is Prof. Sali Tagliamonte.” Read More »

Tension Minus the Genitals, and Other News

July 21, 2016 | by

From the cover of Exquisite Masochism.

  • If there exists, as Susan Sontag once insisted, a “terrible, mean American resentment toward a writer who tries to do many things,” nobody seems to have warned John Gruen. Born in France, in 1926, Gruen (né Jonas Grunberg) fled Hitler and then Mussolini before landing in New York in 1939, where he learned English by watching movies. Gruen, who died on Tuesday, spent his seventysomething years on this continent as a book buyer at Brentano’s, a publicity director at Grove Press, a composer, a photographer, and, in his words, a “writer, critic, journalist, bon vivant, gadfly, busybody, father, husband, queer, neurotic workaholic,” as well as a “handmaiden to the stars, reveler in reflected glory and needy intimate of the super-famous.” In a 2008 interview, he told Time Out: “One of the big problems is that I never really settled on one thing ... I kept them all going, like a juggler, but none of them really took hold in a way that would catapult me as this one creature.” At the same time, he said, “As Miss Piaf sang, ‘Je ne regrette rien.’ ”
  • I’ll claim any person who dies with “Renaissance Man” in the headline of his obituary as an instant culture hero. But after learning that Charles Dickens turned his deceased cat into a letter opener, I'm beginning to feel a terrible, mean American resentment toward artists who try to make their dead pets do too many things. I can believe, for instance, that Le Corbusier loved his schnauzer Pinceau, just as I can believe that he loved Cervantes’s Don Quixote with all his heart. What I cannot bring myself to believe is that the adequate response to both loves was to bind the latter book in the former’s tanned and hairy hide. And yet.
  • But what do I know? Love is strange like that. Sex is even stranger, especially in Victorian novels, where it often isn’t sex at all. In her new book, Exquisite Masochism, Claire Jarvis suggests that for many of the fictional characters who had the bad luck to be stuck in a Victorian marriage plot, “withholding sex … is a perverse way of having it. In a novelistic milieu where illegitimacy or adultery can be the motives for serious tragedy, a fully developed sexual life presents a frightening threat. By describing erotic life in ways that avoid depicting sexual intercourse in favor of nongenital tension or intensity, novelists can render the frisson of sexual desire without the attendant plot risks.”
  • Andrew O’Hagan, reporting from the Department of Overlaps, finds a shared lesson in Joyce’s Ulysses and The People vs. O.J. Simpson: “the tendency of reality to give way to the fiction-maker’s abuse.” And yet, he notes, that abuse is also the guarantee of a certain immortality (what was that about exquisite masochism?), which helps explain why “Dubliners lining up at Sylvia Beach’s shop in Paris in 1922 were desperate to see if they’d been included, or, Holy Mother of God, left out ... In a way, Ulysses is like the greatest ever newspaper—all that was fit and unfit to print in one day—and its abundance depends on the idea that nobody is nothing.”
  • If nobody is nothing, does that mean that everybody is something? And if so, what? Or better yet: Who? At New York, Lindsey Weber and Bobby Finger visit Whoville, a social-media limbo that often appears more insubstantial than the one Dante devised in the fourth canto of the Inferno: “Now that we’ve all been thrown together on—and get our news from—enormous social platforms with seamless, instantaneous sharing, it’s more likely than ever that we’ll be confronted with stories about people who sound made up. The traditional A-list-to-D-list hierarchy no longer makes sense when people whose names you’ve never heard before are trending on a social networks with hundreds of millions of users. Instead, the subjects of gossip coverage can be divided into two categories: Whos (as in: *furrows brow* Who?) and Thems (as in: ‘Oh, them.’)”

What Kind of Name Is That?

February 8, 2016 | by

How to name your fictional characters.

Characters in need of names.

To me the most embarrassing part of writing fiction, aside from telling people about it, is naming your characters. Of course, even “real” names are made up, but in life our names are things we can alter only with a great deal of paperwork; in fiction, writers can line up names and identities as they please, dropping or trading them on a whim. Contriving a name for a contrived person seems terribly precious to me, akin to naming a doll. You want your characters to have names that aren’t too convenient but still memorable and meaningful, which isn’t easy. I spent about a year with a manuscript populated by memorable characters like [[ROOMMATE]] and ???????’s dad, swapping dozens of potential monikers in pursuit of the perfectly natural, unforced, graceful name. After rupturing a few blood vessels that way, I tried to figure out what other writers were doing.

The question of what names mean, what they’re for, has been around in the West since at least 500 B.C., when the Pythagoreans developed a few rules of onomancy to divine human traits from things like the number of vowels in one’s name. (Even numbers signaled an imperfection in the left side of the body.) One of the earliest discussions about naming comes from Plato’s dialogue “Cratylus,” in which Socrates oversees a debate about whether a name is “an instrument of teaching and distinguishing natures” or whether it’s just a matter of “convention and agreement.” More recently, psychoanalysts like Wilhelm Stekel and Carl Jung posited that the “compulsion of the name” not only reflects but determines one’s future: that we’re all engaged, from birth, in a nominative determinism. (Anyone quick to dismiss this as Freudian bunk should look at the abundance of Shaquilles now entering professional sports.) Read More »

Beware the Mineshaft of Books, and Other News

July 14, 2015 | by


Susanna Hesselberg’s ominous library, in Denmark.

  • From 1859 to 1870, Dickens edited All the Year Round, a literary magazine that declined to identify its contributors. But a newly discovered twenty-volume set teeming with Dickens’s annotations threatens to blow everyone’s cover: in pencil, Dickens has noted the authors in each issue, including Elizabeth Gaskell, Wilkie Collins, Lewis Carroll, and Eliza Lynn Linton.
  • The Tale of Genji is a very long eleventh-century Japanese book by the noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu, often cited as the world’s first novel. A new English translation suggests that its stories can still captivate many centuries later, even if those stories were hell to translate. “Every page is sprinkled with poems or phrases pointing to Chinese and Japanese literary sources that an eleventh-century aesthete might have been proud to notice but are lost on most Japanese today, let alone the reader of an English translation … A literal translation of Genji would be unreadable. And the vagueness, so poetic in Japanese, would simply be unintelligible to the Western reader.”
  • Endurance lit—stories of extreme athletic feats in which one daring sportsman survives enormous hardship, et cetera to emerge on the other side a more thoughtful, ethical human being, et cetera—is a thriving subgenre, but what explains its appeal? “Here’s the most revealing facet of endurance lit: most of the best sellers in this genre are about self-imposed hardship. They are about sport, in its widest sense. True endurance is the kind shown by the sweatshop worker who arrives for her fourteen-hour shift, day after day, and is paid buttons … But books about sweatshop workers do not sell by the lorry load.”
  • Public-service announcement: there are libraries and then there are “libraries,” which—watch out—will sometimes turn out to be never-ending pits lined with bookshelves, like this one.
  • New York’s Brazenhead Books, a shop that’s more speakeasy than bookstore, faces an eviction notice, and its proprietor, Michael Seidenberg, is hoping for a billionaire donor. He may get his wish: since the threat of closure has begun to hover, “the secret store has become a ‘secret’ one, with much written about it. The New Yorker has a film crew documenting his exit, as the books begin to get boxed and moved, at least for now, in with his wife and dogs.”

Immoral Situations, and Other News

June 29, 2015 | by

Tess harassed by Alec D'Urberville, from the monthly serialization of Tess of the D’Urbervilles in The Graphic, 1891.

  • Ken Kalfus is on his way to the bookstore, and he’s not having a swell time—because how can you, anymore? “Bookstores have become places of regret and shame. We once enjoyed shopping in them or simply looking in their windows, back in the days when they were ordinary retail establishments. They were like stores that sold shoes or hats, but with more appealing merchandise. Now they’ve taken on moral significance. Buying a book and choosing the place to do so involve delicate and complicated considerations. You may fail to do the right thing.”
  • Philip Larkin will soon be honored with a flagstone at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey—a kind of rarefied Walk of Fame where he’ll join such august forebears as Chaucer, Dickens, and Ted Hughes. Asterisk: Larkin regarded his fellow flagstoners, to a one, as hacks. “We do not find any great striving towards artistic greatness,” he said of The Canterbury Tales; Dickens was “hectic, nervy, panic-stricken,” with “queer names, queer characters”; and Hughes he regarded as simply “no good at all.”
  • From the annals of censorship: Thomas Hardy’s original manuscript for Tess of the D’Urbervilles fell afoul of the morality police in strange ways. Macmillan’s Magazine, which rejected the novel for its “immoral situations,” thought Hardy overused the word succulent: “Perhaps I might say that the general impression left on me by reading your story … is one of rather too much succulence.” Another magazine, Graphic, wouldn’t serialize it until Hardy removed “references to characters traveling on a Sunday and to rewrite the scene in which Angel Clare carries Tess and her fellow milkmaids over a stream—one of the novel’s great moments of muted desire—so that he instead pushed her across in a wheelbarrow.”
  • Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs was a strange book when it appeared in 1995—it’s even stranger now. A novel based on a piece he’d reported for Wired, it endorses a kind of techno-utopia in which start-ups can give real meaning to life, but “the possibility that work within a capitalist system, no matter how creative and freeform and unlike what your parents did, might be fundamentally incompatible with self-actualization and spiritual fulfillment is not on the table.” And the Internet is only a glimmer, if not a mirage, on the horizon. “This highway,” one character asks of the Information Superhighway: “Is it a joke? You hear so much about it, but really, what is it … The media has gone berserk with Net-this and Net-that. It’s a bit much. The Net is cool, but not that cool.
  • Nonfiction publishing is full of middlebrow “talking-point books”: essentially swollen magazine pieces that hang shoddy scholarship on some banal marketing hook. “We have a flock of books arguing that the internet is either the answer to all our problems or the cause of them; we have scads of books telling us about the importance of mindfulness, or forgetfulness, or distraction, or stress. We have any number about what one recent press release called the ‘always topical’ debate between science and religion. We have a whole subcategory that concern themselves with ‘what it means to be human.’”

The Sam Weller Bump

April 14, 2015 | by

Dickens the authorpreneur.


Bigger than the Zuckerberg Bump, bigger even than the Colbert Bump or the Oprah Bump—arguably the most historic bump in English publishing is the Sam Weller Bump, triggered not by a tastemaker with a megaphone but a sharp-talking, warm-hearted servant.

In June 1836, Charles Dickens published the fourth installment of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, one of the many shilling monthlies that were the backbone of Victorian publishing. Printed on low-cost acidic paper and sold in pale green wrappers, they were aimed at the middle and newly literate working classes on the lookout for entertaining fare. But many of these readers had grown accustomed to the gobbets of melodrama offered by the cheap press—they were utterly uninterested, then, in the picaresque misadventures of Mr. Pickwick and his chums as they bowled through England collecting scientific information for the betterment of mankind. The first three installments of Pickwick barely sold four hundred copies.

But that June, sales began to grow by orders of magnitude: from four hundred to four thousand to an astounding forty thousand as the serialization drew to a close in November 1837. Everyone up and down the social ladder began to devour Pickwick, from butchers’ boys to John Ruskin, who read Pickwick so often he claimed to know it by heart. Copies were passed from hand to hand and read aloud as family entertainment. The critics effused with praise. Dickens, who was twenty-four and expecting his first child, had become a household name. Read More »