Sunday, January 13, 2008

Print and personality

As usual, I'm weeks (but no longer months!) behind in my magazine reading, and so only just got around to Caleb Crain's "Twilight of the Books" in the December 24 & 31 issue of The New Yorker. Although I feel I've read a half-dozen versions of this same article over the past year or two--and I'm dubious about some of Crain's conclusions--it was still a worthwhile read.

Nevertheless, I take issue with this statement, near the essay's close, about the difference between text and television:
Moving and talking images are much richer in information about a performer's appearance, manner, and tone of voice. . . . The viewer may not catch all of the details of a candidate's health-care plan, but he has a much more definite sense of her as a personality, and his response to her is therefore likely to be more full of emotion. There is nothing like this connection in print. A feeling for a writer never touches the fact of the writer herself, unless reader and writer happen to meet. In fact, from Shakespeare to Pynchon, the personalities of many writers have been mysterious.
The first two sentences are mostly unobjectionable, but the last three get my vote as the stupidest thing ever said about writing by someone who purports to be both a reader and a writer.

Yes, yes: we probably learn more about the average person and his personality from a video clip than we do from a paragraph of his prose (though God save me from having to scrutinize either). But when it's writers we're talking about, I'm not sure that anything conveys personality better than the written voice. Do we learn everything about a writer from his work? Not a chance. But we probably learn more from it, over time, than we do from seeing him at the supermarket every week or catching the occasional t.v. interview.

Writing isn't a transparent medium, and even autobiographical writing like that on this-here blog involves some masking or resculpting of reality in order to produce a prettier or simply more coherent self. But that's true of all public performances--whether they're enacted on the page, before a t.v. camera, or live and in person. I'm not sure that someone who wanders into a panel and sees me deliver a conference paper, or even someone who chats with me over coffee, knows me any better or any more authentically than someone who only knows me through my blog. The two people probably know different things about me, but the person who has only encountered me, casually, in person does not know more. Likely he knows less.

Maybe not everyone is attuned to writing in the same way, but I believe that diction, syntax, and sentence rhythms are profoundly revelatory. I've fallen in love with some people, and become convinced that I know them, through their writing, while absolutely hating others--and all in ways and for reasons that have less to do with the subject of their writing than with matters of style and rhetorical self-presentation.

I imagine there are many people in the blogosphere who have had similar experiences. And I can say that, although there's always a moment of surprise and readjustment when I meet a blogger in person for the first time, I've never yet been wrong about someone's personality based on our initial, purely textual encounters.


Betsy Willard said...

yeah--i thought that article was very interesting, but also oddly wrong-headed on some points. what about the part where he compares TV and print in terms of the kinds of thinking they foster? i think he says that in print, you can compare and analyze different parts of an argument, and look for inconsistencies, but you can't do that with video and tv. i just thought he was taking walter ong's thoughts about secondary orality way too seriously...

heu mihi said...

Hear hear!

I haven't read the article, but the quote you give here also suggests that he's ignoring the constructed nature of a television appearance or performance. The viewer might feel an emotional connection to the person on screen, but is that connection actually based on a more authentic impression of the person than what you get in her writing? As you suggest, live or televised exposure to a person doesn't necessarily give you more insight into her than her writing would, but he also seems to be making an implicit claim for the authenticity of the visual over the (distancing, constructed) written. Not knowing the context for the quote, I don't know whether this objection is relevant, but it seemed worth mentioning.

Flavia said...

Heu Mihi: yes, that's exactly what bugged me about that passage (which is a bit of a throw-away; there's not much more context than what I give here): it seems as wrong-headed and naive about the nature of live (or televised) performances as about textual ones. They just aren't as profoundly different as he implies--and the same kinds of skills are required to analyze either.

And Betsy: yes, that puzzled me, too. It wasn't clear whether he meant, simply, that with two texts you can compare them, literally, side-by-side--whereas with audio/visual performances you (usually) have to watch them sequentially and then compare them. . . or whether he was really saying that you can't compare two different performances or video clips. His language suggested the latter. But once again I think most people in media studies would disagree.

(And since when do you have a blog?? I'm thinking someone may have read even more Maude Lovelace as a kid than I did. . .)

meg said...

While I was at my mother's, she (a retired librarian and consummate book fetishist) kept pushing the article on me.

I resisted, though; I just knew it would send my blood pressure through the roof, like the other 10,000 articles, essays, and columns lamenting the demise of reading.

Glad I did.

Betsy Willard said...

flavia: i ask you, is betsy and joe *not* the greatest novel ever?

Flavia said...

Betsy: you know, I remember tons of details from those books, but not the shape of any one of them specifically. (Though I loved the high school and college-age ones best, from early on.) I may need to get my hands on a set at some point.

Oh, and I actually saw an awesome paper at MLA that was partly about secondary orality (in the Renaissance, natch). . . not your thing, I guess, but really interesting.