Category Archives: cultural comment

What is Science Fiction Good For?

An excellent question that I attempt to answer in my debut post as a blogger for the Huffington Post:

The New Yorker just released its first special issue devoted to science fiction, including contributions from genre giants like Ursula K. Le Guin and Ray Bradbury as well as rising “literary fiction” stars like Junot Díaz and Karen Russell. As writers at Wiredand io9 have noted, the issue marks a new level of mainstream interest in science fiction, giving a whole cadre of New-Yorker-obsessed “serious readers” license to take genre fiction, well, seriously. But what about science fiction in universities? In her contribution to the new issue, Ursula K. Le Guin argues that in the past “quite a few science-fiction writers accepted exile from the Republic of Letters to the ghetto of genre, perhaps because ghettos, like all gated communities, give the illusion of safety.”
In fact, science fiction has been sneaking into all sorts of new neighborhoods. The U.K.-based New Scientist has launched Arc, “a new magazine about the future,” while the venerable MITTechnology Review released a special issue of science fiction featuring Cory Doctorow, Joe Haldeman, and others. Ridley Scott’s television series Prophets of Science Fiction explores the power of fiction to both advance and complicate our ideas about the future, and Stephen Hawking is hosting the Science Channel’s Stephen Hawking’s Sci-Fi Masters.

Science Fiction as the Conscience of Science

My review of Ridley Scott’s Prophets of Science Fiction ran on Slate’s Future Tense channel today! Here’s a teaser:
Science fiction’s reputation for appealing to the nerdy and anti-social has long suggested that it has more to do with escapism than the real world.

Yet as Ridley Scott’s new Discovery Science show, Prophets of Science Fiction, chronicles, the genre deserves to be taken seriously for its ability to tease out the ethical and moral issues that accompany technological progress. Upon first hearing about Prophets, I expected the director of Alien and Blade Runner to get completely lost in space while discussing Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, and Philip K. Dick and how their work “foreshadowed” current technologies. Despite the name (we’ll get to that later), I am happy to report that Scott delivered this concept just as efficiently as he delivered that alien baby to the screen: The show successfully brings science fiction and fact into conversation with one another. 

Culturomics: Not Quite Yet

Well, it’s time to stick my oar in on the Google Ngrams discussion. While a number of computational linguistics scholars have pointed out the pitfalls of Google’s latest toy, I think I have a unique perspective to offer on the issue. I understand what the Ngrams creators were trying to do, because I’m trying to exactly the same thing: get some things cooking. My research on contemporary literary reception is not exhaustive or dependent on highly complex statistical models. That’s because literary reception is a huge, multiply mediated field ranging from café conversations to book reviews, and my access to data is limited. But where I have adopted a “core sample” model, choosing a few accessible data sources to make some robust but limited generalizations about readers and reading culture, Google has gone for the moon shot. By creating an opaque front-end to their 5 million book archive, they offer the illusion of a truly global Ngram search—and they emphasize the scale of their ambition by claiming their tool isn’t merely a corpus search mechanism but the portal to a new science of “culturomics.”

As my colleague Matthew Jockers noted in his own oar-insertion post, “To call these charts representations of ‘culture’ is, I think, a dangerous move.” He goes on to suggest it “may be,” but I have to go a bit farther and say “definitely not.” Here’s the problem: we can’t get reasonable, arguable claims about things like culture or literary history unless the limitations of the corpus are acknowledged and dealt with from the outset. Typically, projects like this limit themselves either by going too small or too big, and Google has gone way big. Let me explain what I mean.

Too Small:

The opposite example would be a research project on a small, meticulously tended patch of texts. Classic humanities research, really, but of limited usefulness for making grounded claims about larger literary-historical or cultural issues (at least until enough such small projects emerge with commensurable results that we can begin to construct some causal chains). Traditional humanities as a whole is full of projects that are “too small” for making broad cultural claims because they are limited to a small data footprint. The walled garden of closely tended results is fascinating and lovely to explore, but it’s difficult or impossible to compare the work to anything outside.

Too big:

Google, by contrast, flies off the macro end of the scale by trying to do too much and claim too much. The corpus is amazing, but nevertheless limited and contingent in many ways. As others have pointed out, the OCR is problematic; the metadata is sloppy; the text distribution almost certainly has a number of biases (how could it not? What is the gender, historical and language distribution of the world’s universal library supposed to be anyway?). By choosing to obscure these limitations instead of illuminating them, Google turns “culturomics” into a toy, not a tool.

Fortunately, the data is all there, and these problems can be fixed. Google loves a good algorithm and will presumably figure out solutions to the various technical problems. With luck (and the persistence of its academic research partners) the Ngrams team will also come to acknowledge and reveal the limitations on its data. Once that happens, we can really get cooking and make a clear case for when this vast corpus really does reveal broad cultural trends.

For now, Ngrams is a blunt object but it still has some value as a tool. I’ll post some examples next time.

Franzen on Oprah

As a follow-up to my last post I was planning to talk a little more about the images I posted there. But before I get to that, I need to digest the latest wrinkle in this canon conflict–Franzen’s Freedom has been named the latest Oprah’s Book Club pick! (Of course I learned of this from a Barnes and Noble email.) This is a bit shocking because of the awkward kerfuffle that happened last time Oprah picked a Franzen novel, when the author said some disparaging things about the whole idea and got himself uninvited.

According to Reuters: “This time, Winfrey said she sent Franzen a note asking for his permission to feature his latest novel ‘because we have a little history.'” I wonder if that means Franzen will appear on the show? If so, it’s interesting to speculate what’s changed in the literary world since 2001. My off-the-cuff guess would be that we’re seeing a kind of flattening of the literary universe as professional critics thin their ranks and the publishing industry struggles to adapt to new realities. But on the other hand, it’s entirely possible that Franzen won’t go on the show, and that Oprah’s taking the high road (as in both moral and -brow) on her own.

All of this circles back to the ‘Franzenfreude’ debate. The same things that presumably attracted Oprah to the book: its themes of American families, love and the struggle for a new domesticity (or so I hear, not having read it yet) are the same things that make the novel appealing to more than just the ‘male readers’ Franzen was so worried about losing during his previous Oprah spat. And of course these themes would (so critics argue) condemn Franzen to chick-lit middlebrow status if he happened to be a woman.

What we can glean from the images I posted previously is that Franzen really is successful at breaking out of the ‘challenging young novelist’ box. Unlike, say, David Foster Wallace (whom I’m working on right now), Franzen’s books are avenues of exchange for readers of Jane Smiley, Jennifer Egan, David Mitchell, and a host of other writers of both sexes (though, it must be said, more men than women). Oprah’s latest pick proves what we see in the images below: Franzen has managed to snag the ring of elite literary prestige while still appealing to diverse audiences. His books lead readers to varied literary clusters, not just to more Franzen. And his links to the canon-spanning roster of previous Oprah selections will only proliferate in the coming months.

Gender Bias in Reviews

I was fascinated to read an analysis Slate‘s DoubleX staff ran yesterday about gender bias in New York Times book reviews. They discovered that there is a significant slant towards men getting reviewed (and men doing the reviewing), particularly for authors who get the coveted double-coverage treatment (a review in the newspaper as well as one in the weekend Book Review).

One question they pose is about contextualizing writers—would Nick Hornby be a chick-lit writer if he was female? They say: “Our tools are not fine-tuned enough to answer these questions.”

As a former Slatester myself and a current grad student who’s working in precisely this area (not on gender, per se, but on reviews, how writers become famous and how books live their own lives online), I have some tools I can bring to the table.

One of the reasons this stuff is hard to pin down is that the literary marketplace is vast, fluid, and poorly documented. The New York Times bestseller list is something of a black box itself, so why not take a look inside some other black boxes to see what distinguishes authors? This is the logic that has led me to spend some serious time looking at Amazon (after all, the world’s largest bookseller) to see how authors get contextualized there. I decided to see what the gender breakdown is for books that are recommended1 from the main subjects of the Slate article: Franzen, Hornby, Weiner and Picoult (who kicked off the debate with an angry comment about Franzen’s rave in the Times, if I recall correctly).

The results are shocking. See below: boys in blue, girls in yellow (click on the thumbnails to see larger images).2 Yes, Franzen and Hornby are linked to a lot more men than women—not too surprising. Weiner is linked almost exclusively to women—again, not a huge surprise. But take a look at Picoult—she is a literary island unto herself, according to the Amazon recommendation engines. This is very rare in my research, and I think indicates an author who’s distinctive in a stylistically interior way—her books lead readers to more of her books, not to things outside the Picoult universe.

I did this quickly so I might have gotten a gender wrong somewhere or messed up a book network somehow, but as a quick sketch of the differences between Franzen, Hornby, Weiner and Picoult, I think this is quite interesting. (Or at least the perceived differences, which in the literary world are more or less the whole of reality anyway). I don’t have a strong opinion in the debate; it seems clear that more men than women are reviewed in the Times, while it’s almost certainly true that many more women than men read novels. But as some comments on the Slate article pointed out, gender bias doesn’t happen in a vacuum–readers, authors and critics are all players in the same complicated literary game.

1. I look at these recommendations because I think they’re one of our best models for what books people actually buy together. In practice books connected this way tend to jump the boring categories like genre and author and link together in much more idiosyncratic ways. Obviously Amazon plays with these results…but they’re always trying to sell more books, and they’re pretty good at it, so I use the recommendations as a best approximation of the marketplace.

2. “What am I looking at?” The nodes here are books on Amazon, and the arrows connecting them are recommendations from one book page to another. These results represent the first ten “Customers who bought X also bought Y” recommendations for each book, starting with each writer’s most recent fiction publication (Freedom, Juliet, Naked, Fly Away Home and House Rules, respectively).

Author Soundtrack

I feel like the soundtrack has changed recently around here from the mellow tunes of summer so something more purposeful, something with an actual beat. This is good news for the dissertation project, which has taken on steam again after a summer of revising, paper-pushing and sustained attention to the vodka-sequestering properties of watermelon lemonade.

With soundtracks in mind I was delighted to come across a reference on the Pynchon-L mailing list, wherein I occasionally lurk, to this. Music plays a big role in Pynchon’s work, and he took the delightful step of writing up a playlist to go along with his new novel, Inherent Vice. The list mingles real 1960s artists with a few of his own creations, like Carmine and the Cal-Zones.

Tripping down the shuffle soon, I hope: A return to Infinite Jest and Infinite Summer; some pithy definitions of postmodernism (not mine); and an update on networks both allusive and recommendational.

Genre Fiction & The Relentless Undead

One of the interesting questions at play in my dissertation is the way treat genre writers differently from “real” writers. Authors like Michael Chabon, Thomas Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy straddle the boundaries between “literary” fiction and different genre styles in interesting ways. There’s a great article in this weeks Sunday Times Magazine discussing Jack Vance, an apparently seminal genre writer whom I never read in all my years as a genre bookworm. According to the article Vance (and many other genre writers, I think) approached fiction as a job and a career as much as an art form. Vance and his wife would travel to exotic places, find a cheap hotel, and draft a new novel together. Nice life! That kind of commercial focus is much less acceptable among “serious” novelists.

While we’re on the subject, I will now publicly admit that I recently read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, probably the most violent fictional assault to date on the barriers dividing highbrow and pulp. My wife quite accurately calls it an “abomination.” I think she’s serious, but when I repeat it, I mean it in a good way. I would like to share my favorite paragraph here. See if you can tell what was changed from the original Austen:

But why Mr. Darcy came so often to the Parsonage, it was more difficult to understand. It could not be for society, as he frequently sat there ten minutes together without opening his lips; and when he did speak, it seemed the effect of necessity rather than of choice. He seldom appeared really animated, even at the sight of Mrs. Collins gnawing upon her own hand. What remained of Charlotte would liked to have believed this change the effect of love, and the object of that love her friend Eliza. She watched him whenever they were at Rosings, and whenever he came to Hunsford; but without much success, for her thoughts often wandered to other subjects, such as the warm, succulent sensation of biting into a fresh brain. Mr. Darcy certainly looked at her friend a great deal, but the expression of that look was disputable. It was an earnest, steadfast gaze, but she often doubted whether there were much admiration in it, and sometimes it seemed nothing but absence of mind. And upon imagining Mr. Darcy’s mind, her thoughts would again turn to the subject of chewing on his salty, cauliflower-like brain.

Reading on the Rise

The National Endowment for the Arts has announced a reversal in the decades-long downward trend of American reading habits. The last time they published a major study on reading the hue and cry was great and unabating. Naturally I’d like to attribute this to the grand textual revitalization that the Internet (broadly speaking) has brought about. The dominance of television ended sometime in the late 1990s, a fact we can be sure about because it experienced its golden age just as the empire was crumbling.

Now we’ve got billions of screens–yes, of course, video hasn’t gone away, but we’re also doing much, much more reading and even some writing. The blog explosion minted millions of new authors, and whether they stuck with it or not, they all got to experience the thrill of publication in some way. The enduring power of the keyboard in mobile devices and email in all sorts of places is a testament to the fact that we are once again word people. I have no evidence to connect this with the fact that more people are reading fiction (assuming that it’s even true, that this isn’t a statistical blip). But I’d like to think our enhanced communication landscape is retraining us to appreciate the pleasures of literature.

Finding the Poetry in the Desert of the Real

You’ve got to love that Slavoj Žižek. I developed a fondness for his inspired/crazed lacanian readings of popular culture when I put together a course on the Matrix trilogy a couple of summers ago. So I think the author of Welcome to the Desert of the Real might have some interesting things to say about the clip below. Fortunately it’s my blog so I’m going to say some interesting things instead. But go ahead and watch it first.

What I love about this is the way the creator finds poetry in the many wasted moments of our blasted media landscape. I mean no insult to Charlie Rose, but I love the way the quirks, gaps and nuances that usually speed by too quickly for thought are captured here like fireflies in a jar. The shaggy, lurching bizarreness that makes us human lurks behind even the most poised and professional mask, and I think this clip helps bring it out.

Thanks to friend Dan at Open Culture for posting this!