Tuesday, March 28, 2017

On the things I can say in 800 words

 Originally published at Overland

A writer has been asked to produce a romantic story for a magazine but, as the deadline approaches, finds himself 3000 words short of the required length. Luckily, he thinks of an expedient. He concludes the story with the following exchange between the two protagonists:
‘I love you.’
‘Oh, darling … say it again one thousand times!’

This old gag by Italian humourist Achille Campanile illustrates an apparent paradox: that we are so often asked to write not for as long as an idea or a story requires to be properly expressed, but to fill a given space, whether measured in words, pages or time. Campanile started his career in the age of the Futurists, who wrote plays such as Francesco Cangiullo’s Detonation (1915), in which a shot rings out across the empty stage, then the curtain falls: the spectators therefore would be left not only to reflect on the puzzling brevity of the performance, but also to find something else to do with the rest of their evening. (It is unclear whether the play was ever staged.)

Detonation underscores the fact that length is an aesthetic measurement: what you can do or say in a very short play is fundamentally different, not just in quantity but also in quality, from a play of more traditional duration. There is literally no entertainment if you don’t actually keep the audience occupied for a substantial amount of time. Conversely, Umberto Eco wrote memorably about the sublime prolixity of Alexandre Dumas, père, who got paid by the word and also based his commercial success on his ability to stretch his imagery to its breaking point.

Essays operate in a similar way. If we go back to the beginnings of the form, we find that Montaigne varied the time he spent on his subjects greatly. The average length of his 107 published essays is a little over 3000 words, but ranges from as little as 300 words (‘Of the Parsimony of the Ancients’) to a whopping 25,000 (‘Of Experience’). And although the essays tended to get longer over time, the overall pace of the three books is remarkably uniform, as if he really only devoted to each subject the attention it required, and length were wholly and exclusively a function of content.

Nowadays, mandated essay lengths balance the needs of publishers (or teachers) to have something substantial enough to publish (or assess), with the needs of writers to know the level of detail and depth of engagement required.

One can praise succinctness, and opine that more words don’t always equal better words. (Karl Kraus: ‘There are writers who can say in as few as twenty pages what it takes me as many as two lines to express.’) But what if you don’t have enough to say? The wikiHow page entitled ‘How to Make an Essay Appear Longer Than It Is’ contains many useful suggestions aimed at the US college student who has trouble completing an assignment, but its wisdom is more widely applicable and would have impressed old man Dumas himself.

Some of the suggestions are obvious enough. (Do not use contractions: just do not.) Others are more elaborate, such as encouraging the student to learn to use a highly formal, imagery-rich prose style, or to summarise the key point of each paragraph in a sentence before moving on to the next one (such signposting is almost a rule for good writing). But much greater heights are scaled by the typographical suggestions for the benefit of students who have to fill a certain number of pages, as opposed to reaching a certain number of words. These aren’t limited to the use of large titles, or remembering to mention the name of the instructor in the title page, or double-spacing the text, or using the maximum allowable font size, or even the biggest font for a given font size (it’s Lucida Sans Typewriter, in case you’re wondering, followed by Arial and Euphemia UCAS). The master trick is to make all full stops and commas a larger size than the rest of the text, which apparently can stretch a document a great deal while being scarcely noticeable.

‘Use bigger commas’ would be a terrific rallying cry for an advanced writing course, but we’re in the realm of the comic paradox again. In reality, the length of an essay usefully dictates its range of possible meanings. If I’m asked by Overland to write an 800-word column, as opposed to a 3000-word essay, it will affect not just my style but also my approach to the topic. In 800 words, I can only touch lightly upon a subject. Raise some questions but not fully articulate the answers. It is a length that is growing on me, as it were. And while it isn’t suited to all topics, it’s also true that not all topics that are suited to an 800-word column scale up well to a longer treatment.

With practice, naturally, you learn to pace yourself. Like an accomplished musician, you settle from the start on the right rhythm, which ensures you will never commit the cardinal sin of running out of words in the middle of a

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

On only reading old books

First published at Overland

‘A book changes by the fact that it does not change when the world changes.’ Roger Chartier wrote this in The Order of Books, although he knew it not to be entirely true: just a few pages earlier, he had remarked how the practice of dividing the Bible into chapter and verse, originating in the seventeenth century, ultimately modified its mode of interpretation, a fact that troubled the English philosopher John Locke at the time.

Books do change sometimes, as do texts when they migrate to new carriers. Yet they also stay the same. It’s this double nature – at once a physical artefact and, ultimately, a collection of sounds – that gives the book much of its aura and that contributes to it being an enduring unit of culture. Eternal, perhaps, at least as long as human societies exist – for haven’t the words survived? Don’t we talk of digital pages and electronic books, in spite of the radically altered nature of these new objects?

It’s the book’s capacity to resist, as well as to mark the passage of time, that draws me to it as a form, and pushes me back whenever I try to keep up with what is current and new, even to the point of frustration. I consume a fair number of contemporary articles and essays, as well as films and television shows, but when it comes to books, I struggle to muster the necessary interest in new titles. There are precious few novelists or nonfiction authors whose next work I await with genuine anticipation. And even when I dutifully buy the books I know I ought to be interested in – and that I will probably enjoy – they languish at the bottom of my reading pile, constantly fighting a losing battle against library borrowings (which, I tell myself, must be returned before the due date), or second-hand acquisitions, or much older purchases.

It’s as if I need to wait for the world to change around books, making them interesting in a new way. This may have something to do with the Italian education system and its obsession with studying the things that came before in order to properly understand the ones that came after. This pedantically chronological approach led me to encounter the ancient Egyptians and Phoenicians at every stage of my education (primary, intermediate and secondary), though my teachers never quite found the time to delve into the Second World War – an interesting omission for the country that gave birth to Fascism, I think you will agree.

With this in mind, I try to fight the ingrained habit. When, three years ago, I finally bought an ebook reader, I thought it would make me more inclined to purchase new books, especially ones I would have previously had to have shipped to New Zealand at extortionate prices. In reality, the exact opposite happened. Bamboozled and enraged by Amazon’s segregation of its international catalogues (theoretically requiring two separate Kindles, one for books published in Italy and one for those from the US), I discovered that my device unlocked vast repositories of out-of-copyright books – books I knew existed but never quite ventured into with my desktop computer. But in this new form, I could take them practically anywhere. So for some months I embarked on an apparent attempt to download the nineteenth century in its entirety. I found almost every single one of the books I plucked (almost at random) from these lists to be immensely fascinating, and a constant source of cues to pursue other readings.

I tell myself that I should change. That it’s in my professional interest, as a putative cultural critic, to be up to date in my readings, just as it was my explicit duty when I wrote my doctoral thesis. At that time, I dreaded new releases by scholars in my field, not out of jealousy or anxiety, but because they might force me to incorporate new lines of thinking into my nearly finished work. I also remind myself that old literature and criticism can be a refuge, an excuse not to engage with new, and newly challenging, ideas. All of which is true.

I am fond of an old joke of Fred Allen’s: ‘I can’t understand why a person will take a year or two to write a novel when he can easily buy one for a few dollars.’ The same could be said of new books generally. Why do we still bother? What do they say that hasn’t be said before? The answers will likely be interesting, and interestingly complicated. And while it pays to remember that it’s a joke – of course there is no retreating from culture, or pretending it is finished – the joke has some truth in it: there are millions of books in the world, all of them not changing while the world around them changes. And maybe it’s as simple as that, for me: I am not quite finished with the old books yet.

Speaking of things from magazines, my piece on the politics of fake news and post-truth in Berlusconi’s era is up on the New Humanist’s website.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Tony Alexander Doctrine, or 39 things to give up if you want to buy a home

(After BNZ economist Tony Alexander)

If you are a young person seeking first home ownership what do you do? Take courses in basic building and home maintenance skills, find a dunger or even a meth house to strip (you heard me), and do it up. Basically, be prepared to do what the Boomers did. Start out in a desolate new suburb of clay – or even Hamilton – or build and live in what will become your garage whilst building the rest of the house around you in the following few years. This is completely true. Every house you see around you was built by a Boomer on weekends.

And how to finance it? Go to cafes and spend as much on lattes, muffins, frappes, wraps, etc. as often as the Baby Boomers did. Get takeaway as often as they did and consume as much food beyond daily calorific requirements as they did. Because Boomers were lean, too, the sweat on their chiselled bodies glistening in the late afternoon sun as they endlessly built or repaired their homes after a day spent at the office, servicing the patriarchy.

Sorry. Where was I?

Mend clothes instead of buying replacements like they did. (Yes I know everything about the changed economics of the clothing industry.) Upgrade your electronics as often as the Boomers did. (Never mind that a television in the 1950s cost as much as a car today.) Subscribe to the same number of TV channels as they received. (Never mind that there was only one channel and everyone paid for it through tax.) Change your telephone as often as they did. Drink the same limited range of domestically produced non-boutique beer and wine as they did, at home, at the local motor lodge or working men’s club.

Did I just tell Millennial women to stay at home? So what if I did.

Hire as many gardeners, landscape designers, decoration consultants, plumbers, Feng Shui consultants, window washers, dog walkers, dog washers, cat whisperers and general handymen as they did.

You see, here at the Bank we are staunch opponents of the services industry and of consumer culture generally. We’re willing to put this in writing in the letter accompanying your complimentary, pre-approved credit card, which is in the mail.

Okay so my boss, Anthony Healy, emerged from the world of shadows in which he apparently dwells to point out the thing I wrote about the Boomers was offensive and stupid. But the point is that the world has changed and if purchasing a house is your goal then there is no shortage of things which those who already have purchased sacrificed as they built up their savings. Things people have cut out have included...

· Cafe visits.
· Going to restaurants and bars.
· Smoking. (It is well known that Boomers never smoked.)
· The latest telephones, games consoles, cars.
· Hired help like dog washers, landscape designers, etc. You may not believe that I am banging on this again, but I just did. Every day I see Millennials getting their dogs washed by liveried professionals, all within sight of the landscape gardener whom they keep on retainer in spite of the fact they don’t yet own a home, let alone a home and garden. This is folly.
· Weekend and evening leisure time because they took an extra part-time job.
· Privacy – by taking in flatmates or student boarders, or renting out space on Airbnb, or taking their showers by running naked in the rain.

Here are some other things.

· Yet more consultants like cat fondlers, gutter decorators, ant alphabetisers.
· Not only Feng Shui but also doors, windows and the very concept of indoor-outdoor flow. Go live in a box that opens from the top.
· Sky Television.
· Phrases with the word ‘sky’ in it.
· Looking at the sky, except when overcast.
· Netflix. Freeview. Any audiovisual content you're not getting paid to watch as part of a market research exercise.
· Flavoured rice.
· Potable water.
· Milk not purchased at a petrol station.
· Meat that isn’t shredded or minced.
· Meth, except on weekends.
· One half of all bodily organs that come in pairs.
· Music outside of public domain records on wax cylinders or vinyl that you have trained yourself to play in your head while licking the grooves, and whatever you can overhear by standing next to somebody wearing loud earphones on public transport, or by running alongside cars with very powerful stereos.
· Birthdays and other major anniversaries.
· The concept of human friendship.
· Coffee. If you need a shot of caffeine during your working day, smell the breath of an Italian.
· Store-bought candles or shoes. Learn to make your own instead. Once equipment and labour are factored in, this isn't going to save you any money, but it's going to keep you occupied so you don't take to the streets and set fire to my place of work.
· Any item of clothing not made of sack, or former barrels.
· Expensive holidays overseas.
· Even more expensive holidays under the sea.
· Smashed avocado on toast, which can cost upwards of $55,000 a portion.
· All lifestyles except for the paleo lifestyle – especially the part where you get to live nomadically in a series of rudimentary shacks.
· A full, expensive-to-maintain head of hair.
· Roofs, especially if they go by the more expensive spelling ‘rooves’.
· Bank economists.
· Car and burglar alarms. Replace these by training yourself to live in a constant state of alarm, like a meerkat.
· Any meals that aren't cooked from scratch. And I mean from scratch: I want to see you working that flint.
· The latest videogames. Your grandfather didn't need to play Call of Duty: World at War, because he fought in an actual war. Go fight in a war.
· Pitchforks. Effigies. Gasoline. (You see where I'm going with this.)
· Electric light. The night is surprisingly rich with sources of natural or otherwise free illumination. If you have trouble locating them, consider befriending a moth.
· All poetry except for found poetry.

Above all, remember: the reason why it has become so much harder for ordinary people to own their own home is that the world has changed – big, sweeping structural changes which us poor bankers have neither in any way contributed to or profited from.

The world has taken all the changes it can bear, and it cannot be changed any further.

Please do not try to change the world.

Thank you.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The cost of raising children

The cost of raising children is nothing but a statistical construct. As soon as you start reading into it, you discover is that rich children 'cost' more money to raise, but poor families spend a greater percentage of their income on raising their children than rich ones do. A child in a developing country 'costs' less than one thousand US dollars a year. An American child 'costs' over USD 16,000. Young children cost less. Teenage children cost more. Third and fourth children cost more than first and second ones.

In other words, the ‘cost of raising children’ is anything but. The measures, of which there are a plethora – from online calculators on bank websites to government booklets and reports, all ostensibly designed to help parents prepare for their impending financial ruin – only refer to the money that is spent on children, and almost always by the parents alone. They also invariably raise more questions than they answer.

For instance, I would be interested to know if families on low incomes who happen to live in high-income areas spend more money than those who don't – either because of social pressures or lack of availability of budget options. I say this because I'm reasonably certain that my partner and I would have spent a lot more money on our children had we raised them in Italy, both because second hand clothing shops are more common in New Zealand (to name one item of spending) and because it is more socially acceptable in New Zealand to clothe your children in second-hand garments.

(My mother, who was as working class as they come, had a strange obsession with buying Petit Bateau singlets and onesies for our small children – eye-wateringly expensive cotton numbers which I'm sure were of the highest quality, but it didn't matter very much because at their perfectly ordinary rate of growth they got to wear them for approximately twenty-five minutes each.)

The cost of raising children, then, should also account somehow for the cost of not raising them according to the prevailing norms and expectations.

Even more complex are the politics that all of these calculations subsume or conceal. In the United States, typical estimates begin with the privately borne costs of prenatal care and delivery (the latter ranging from USD 9,600 for a regular birth to USD 12,500 for a Caesarean section, although complications can push the price into the hundreds of thousands), and end with college tuition, making the family budget resemble that of a small autonomous state. In other countries, some or all of those items are heavily subsidised or free altogether, reducing the burden on the nuclear unit and thus inequality by birth. Moreover, non-monetary forms of social investment – call it the unpaid labour of caring, not just by parents but by the wider community – are also generally not captured.

And yet, in a world in which as many as a billion children live in poverty – 1 in 4 in the world’s richest countries – it pays to remind ourselves not just of the politics, but also of the crude economics of it all. It is in that spirit that I offer you the following satirical piece, whilst at the same time not being quite sure if it is entirely satirical.

Born in Munich in 1882, Karl Valentin was a giant of German cabaret who counted Bertolt Brecht among his collaborators. While he appeared in a number of silent films, his main talent was for verbal comedy, and he has left us a number of surreal dialogues, monologues and scenes which read as short stories. One of my favourites is the letter to his daughter Bertl, below, translated into English by me from a translation into Italian by Mara Fazio for her 1980 edition of Valentin’s collected writings.

Munich, 3 February 1932

Distinguished daughter,

With reference to our last meeting of 5 August 1931, I take the liberty of forwarding you an invoice for your existence, hoping that you will agree as to the amounts.

- Midwife’s honorarium, paid on 21 September 1910: DM 20.00
- 1 tin bath tub: DM 6.00
- Tepid water, for 6 years, at 10 pfennigs per day: DM 219.00
- Sponge consumption for 6 years, at 5 pfennigs per day: DM 108.50
- 1 baby changing units, plus equipment for a new born child : DM 100.00
- 1 litre of milk a day, for approx.. 6 years, plus breadcrumb-based gruel: DM 438.00
- Compensation for labour pains, estimated by your mother to the statutory minimum: DM 100.00

School years:
- Enrolment fee: DM 2.20
- School uniforms and clothing: DM 500.00
- Books: DM 90.00
- Mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks, incl. Saturday afternoons, for a total of 1,386 days: DM 29.00
- Lunch and dinner, at 1 mark per day, until 21 years of age: DM 6,550.00- Half a litre of beer per day, at 10 pfennigs per day, from the age of 10: DM 1,204.50
- Small expenses allowance, from the age of 7 to the age of 21: DM 1,000.00
- Photographic portraits (5),: DM 40.00
- Medical expenses and cauterisation of 16 and 1/2 verrucas on the right hand: DM 120.00
- Ecclesiastical fees: DM 200.00
- School fees: DM 150.00
- 1/5 litre of coffee per day, at 15 pfennigs per day: DM 1,120.00
- 12 litres of water per year - not accounted for: DM ,.–
- Shingle haircut: DM 5.00
- Shampoo for 6 years, at 3 marks per week: DM 936.00
- Cash expenses for movie theatres, dance halls, etc.: DM 3,570.00
- Clothing from the age of 14 to the age of 21, at 500 marks per year including underwear: DM 3,144.00
- French, English and literature lessons: DM 540,00
- Piano and guitar lessons: DM 700.00
- Trip to Königsberg: DM 83.00
- Stamps and phone calls to Königsberg: DM 150.00

Total: DM 24,625.20

In consideration of the fact that we are flesh and blood, I am pleased to offer you a 10% discount, or DM 2,462.50, for a final total DM 22,162.70.

This invoice is payable within eight days, or I shall be forced to refer the matter to a debt collection agency.

Sincere regards

Karl Valentin