Monthly Archives: February 2015
One of the standard criticisms of the Great Books approach is that nearly all of the texts are written by “dead white guys” and therefore have less resonance with members of other groups. This is especially true of women who, despite making up more than half of the population of Western Civilization, are noticeably absent from most Great Books reading lists. I have already mentioned Y, the (probably) female editor of the first four books of the Torah. The books of Ruth and Proverbs were also quite possibly written by women. Overall, though, very few women prior to the nineteenth century had the sort of educational background to produce a Great Book. Of these, even fewer had the wherewithal to get their work published. Nor were the male scribes of of the middle ages as interested in copying and preserving the work of women. The result is that the writings of the few women we know of who might be included–Sappho of Lesbos, for example, are either completely lost or exist only in a few fragments.
While regrettable, this situation would be less of a problem if the male authors of the Great Books had written more about women, their issues, and their experiences. In general, though, they did not do a good job at this. It has been observed by many people in modern times that, while most female fiction writers are adept at writing male characters, relatively few male writers can write believable female characters. This seems to have also been true in the ancient world. Our first two Greek authors, Homer and Aeschylus, betrayed a rather shallow understanding of women. Their female characters exist as prizes to be fought over or are on stage only to react to the words and actions of the male characters. Even Aeschylus’ Electra, one of the great tragic heroines of all time, is almost painfully under developed. This treatment is interesting since we know that the women of ancient Greece were actually fairly outspoken and aggressive compared to their contemporaries in the ancient world. It is hard to reconcile the scared and fawning female choruses of The Supplicant Maidens or Seven Against Thebes with the angry female lynch mobs who occasionally tore men limb-from-limb or stabbed them to death with their broach pins. Homer’s Penelope, waiting patiently for Odysseus to return and rescue her bears little comparison to Queen Artemisia, the Greek commander of a Persian Trireme squadron, whom Herodotus describes as deliberately ramming an allied ship in the straits of Eripus, then receiving a commendation from Xerxes after convincing him it was actually an enemy vessel.
Sophocles is different from Homer and Aeschylus in that he did write strong female characters. His Antigone, Electra, and Deianira are all different portraits of an ideal woman: brave, principled, and loyal. All are internally conflicted between their perceived duty and emotional needs. His Tecmessa (Ajax’s concubine) is a much more vulnerable and submissive character, yet still completely believable, torn between her loyalty to Ajax and her awareness that if he dies or is disgraced there will be no protection for herself or her son from the other Greek soldiers.
There are still deficiencies in the way Sophocles dealt with women. Not one of his plays actually passes the modern Bechdel Test, a measure of female inclusion in a script–although the some of Antigone-Ismene scenes come close. Then again, relatively few modern screenplays pass the Bechdel Test. Overall, however, his writing does a better job of representing women than most in the Great Books.
I am myself a white male. As a writer in the 21st century, however, I can not get away with writing stories about white males for consumption for other white males. Aside from the fact that I would be frightfully boring, , white males make up an ever smaller share of the market. Besides, our pluralistic society demands a literature that conveys the experiences of many different genders, ethnicities, and backgrounds. This begs the question, then, “Why am I spending all this time studying a canon of works that were written by white males?” One answer would be that I am heir to, and continue to write in a particular literary tradition and it isn’t my fault that the authorship lacks diversity. A better answer is that Western Civilization’s Great Books contain timeless and universal ideas. My challenge as a writer is to adapt them from their original context and make them accessible to everyone.
This morning I read a fascinating blog article by Shane Snow in which he used two measures of reading level to rank a large number of books, both fiction and non fiction. His main contention was that many of the most successful books, at least in modern times, are comparatively easy to read. This makes sense; not many people are going to slog through a novel if the reading level is too challenging for them. He also drew the inference that blog articles with a lower reading level are much more likely to be shared on social media. Obviously, these insights are of great interest to me as a writer. Because the article piqued my interest, and because I’m at the point in writing my own book where I am happy to jump at any distraction, I decided to extend his analysis a bit on my own.
It only took a minute or two to find an open source Java app that calculates the Flesh-Kinkaid Grade Level and Flesh Reading Ease Level of any text or PDF file. The former gives the number of years of education required to comprehend the writing. The later is a similar measure, in which a higher score indicates that the work is easier to read.
The first thing I did was to run it on several manuscripts which I have on my laptop. These included my recently published monograph, the current draft of the nonfiction book I’m writing, and a novel manuscript and three short stories which I am currently trying to sell. I also ran it on all four of my blogs.
|My Own Writing|
|Nonfiction||Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level||Flesh Reading Ease Level|
|Current Book Project(1)||12.91||43.67|
|Handyman Kevin Companion Blog||7.97||70.46|
|Angry Transportation Rants (Dormant)||7.69||68.43|
|Old School Essays (Dormant)||8.26||60.16|
|(1) First draft, about 6% complete|
|(2) Body text is nearly identical to my MBA thesis|
|(3) Unpublished manuscripts from my current “slush pile”|
Since raw numbers aren’t that intuitive, I plotted a chart. Notice how the different pieces of writing cluster quite neatly by type.
I was happy to see that both my fiction and my current nonfiction project are in same zones that Snow found for these types of writing. This is quite important from a marketability standpoint, since any editor I send them to would be instantly turned off if the reading level were too high or low.
My blogs fall in the middle, which makes sense since they are basically nonfiction, but are written more casually than a nonfiction book. However, going by Snow’s article, they are probably written at too high a reading level to be shared much. In fact, I don’t get many shares compared to other bloggers. I think I can live with that, since I tend to target my blogging towards my fellow writers. I suspect that you people are comfortable reading at a higher level than the general public.
My monograph, Freight Forwarding Cost Estimation: An Analogy Based Approach, appears to be nearly unreadable to anyone without a graduate degree in operations research. I suppose that explains why sales haven’t exactly skyrocketed. It is what it is, though–an adaptation of my master’s thesis. My committee loved it.
I think there is real benefit to a writer knowing that the reading level of his work is appropriate to the target audience.
Of course, being a Great Books fan, my next move was to run the app on all the Great Books that I have written about so far on this blog, as well as the next few I plan to cover.
|Selected Great Books|
|Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level||Flesh Reading Ease Level|
|Hebrew Bible (1)||7.57||76.51|
|House of Atreus||2.23||90.86|
|Apology, Crito & Phaedo||8.03||70.01|
|Leaves of Grass||12.26||58.00|
|(1) King James Version|
Again, when I plotted the points, they clustered nicely by type.
These results held a few surprises. First was the fact that Homer and the Greek dramas are actually written at a very low reading level, at least in terms of sentence and word length. I believe this is because these works were intended to be recited or performed orally. Spoken language is always simpler than written language. Also, these reading level metrics don’t take vocabulary into account. Epic poetry and Greek drama tend to use a much wider range of words than a novel, for example. Examining this factor would require some sort of word frequency analysis. Unfortunately, I didn’t have an “off the shelf” app to conduct a frequency analysis. I’m sure I could have kludged up a Python script in a couple hours, but that would have been more time than I wanted to spend.
Another surprise was that Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which I would have expected to show up close to Homer’s epics, is actually a much tougher read. It graphs down closer to the serious Greek philosophical works. As I’ve stated before, though, Leaves of Grass is a rather unique work.
The biggest surprise, however, is that the Great Books are written at a lower reading level, on average, than my own work. Granted, these sample sizes are pretty small. I suspect, however, that I have stumbled upon another of the factors that contribute to a book being Great: the authors manage to convey complicated ideas in simple, readable language.
So, besides being a good way to check the appropriateness of my manuscripts for the target audience, does any of this have a practical application? Well, the fact that books cluster by type means that reading level could be a good way to sort them. It would be quite simple to modify the Java app into a data mining tool to sort a collection of books into categories like fiction, nonfiction, plays, etc. I can easily see situations where this could be useful for anyone who has a large collection of e-books with incomplete meta-information. Project Gutenberg and Internet Archive, I’m looking at you.
This month I continue my survey of the Great Books by reading the theatrical works of Aeschylus, earliest of the three great Greek tragedians. Seven of Aeschylus’ plays have come down to us, although four of them are parts of now lost trilogies and the authorship of one of those, Prometheus Bound, is often questioned. When I read these plays in order I realized what a powerful transformative influence Aeschylus must have been on the art form by seeing how much his own work changed over time.
At the beginning of Aeschylus’ career, Greek tragedy was already at least a couple of generations old. It grew out of an older tradition of bards called rhapsodies reciting religious poetry at festivals. The first Greek playwright, Thespis had created an entirely new genre when he started writing pieces in which the Rhapsody played actual characters instead of just narrating. He also backed him up with a chorus which could interact with the character, giving the audience cues about how they should react, and probably also enriching the piece with dance, chanting, and simple sound effects.
Greek playwrights didn’t use stage directions. However, in his earlier plays like The Supplicant Maidens and The Persians there is the definitive sense that the actors spend much of their time standing in one place talking to the chorus, much as they must have done in Thespis’ plays. Aeschylus is famous for being the first to have multiple actors in his plays, but in the early works he seems to still be working out the possibilities. The dialogue between actors is limited, and there is no physical interaction between the characters. The emphasis is on the language in their speeches. In point of fact, Aeschylus is usually considered to be the best straight-up poet among the big three tragic playwrights.
By Prometheus Bound, one of the latest plays, he has overcome any inhibitions about interactions between the characters. The first scene is a masterfully written three-way dialogue between the gods Prometheus, Hephaestus, and Kratos (Strength) while Hephaestus chains Prometheus and rivets him to the side of a mountain. Not only is there plenty more expository dialogue as the play goes on, there are enough (implied) special effects to keep a modern CGI studio busy for weeks: the chorus arriving in winged cars and hovering before dismounting, a god riding a Hippogriff, a woman who has been turned half-way into a cow, and of course the entire mountain collapsing at the end of the play after it has been struck by a thunderbolt. One can only imagine the look on the stage manager’s face when Aeschylus showed him the script.
As I said earlier, many scholars debate whether Aeschylus actually wrote Prometheus Bound. However, the actual writer was probably either his son or another of his close associates, who would have been trained and influenced by him; the work represents an evolutionary end point of his art, whether or not he penned it personally. The fact that the play contains so much more interaction and visual interest than the earlier works is particularly noteworthy when we recall that the main character spends his time chained to a rock and can’t move.
Aeschylus was a writer who spent his career pushing to enlarge and improve his art. We modern writers would do well to adopt him as a role model. The reason Aeschylus is remembered after 25 centuries is he wasn’t afraid to push the envelope in his genre and “break the rules” if it would improve the end product. And he was successful enough at it that other writers began imitating him.
These days I think many authors, particularly new authors, are afraid to take creative risks. Following established formats and creating a mystery novel or epic fantasy (or what have you) that is just like all the others on the market is a recipe for forgettable writing. If you want to be like Aeschylus, you need to come up with a way to innovate and do something to make it your own, not just follow the established conventions of your chosen genre.
Last week I finished up my study of the Hebrew Bible. I am currently working my way through the works of Aeschylus, so by next week I should be ready to blog about Greek Tragedy. right now, however, I would like to introduce the concept of a glove box book. A glove box book is one that you keep in the car in case you get stuck somewhere and need to kill time. To work, it needs to be something you can read over and over and which you can start reading at any spot and still enjoy, even if you haven’t looked at it for a few months.
My own glove box book is Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman. Technically, I don’t have a glove box, since I gave up driving a few years ago. I have thought of it by that name, though, since an old family friend introduced me to the concept. His own glove box contains Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, another good choice. He tells me he has worn out at least two previous copies. My copies of Leaves of Grass live in the bag I carry when I walk into town and next to the chair where I smoke my briar pipe in the evenings.
Those of you who watched the television series Breaking Bad (and if you didn’t, you should) probably remember the rather pivotal role that Walter White’s copy of Leaves of Grass, kept on the back of his toilet, played in the plot of the show. Apparently Mr. White, and the writers of the show, have the same high opinion of the book that I do.
Walt Whitman was a genius, the human bridge between the transcendental and realistic movements. Leaves of Grass is a distillation of years of careful observation of every facet of American life into free verse. The book was Whitman’s life’s work; he kept returning to it and creating new editions to make it even better. Although most would classify the work as lyric poetry, Whitman thought of the work as an “American epic”, rooted in the classical tradition, yet distinctly tied to the country he loved,
Come Muse migrate from Greece and Ionia,
Cross out please those immensely overpaid accounts,
That matter of Troy and Achilles’ wrath, and AEneas’, Odysseus’ wanderings,
Placard “Removed” and “To Let” on the rocks of your snowy Parnassus,
Repeat at Jerusalem, place the notice high on jaffa’s gate and on Mount Moriah,
The same on the walls of your German, French and Spanish castles, and Italian collections,
For know a better, fresher, busier sphere, a wide, untried domain awaits, demands you.
And yet, it is clear that he chose to deliberately depart from the epic model in more than just structure. Classic epics glorify violence and elevate heroes, but such themes held little appeal for Whitman, who had seen far too much of them as a volunteer nurse in the Civil War,
Away with themes of war! away with war itself!
Hence from my shuddering sight to never more return that show of blacken’d, mutilated corpses!
That hell unpent and raid of blood, fit for wild tigers or for lop-tongued wolves, not reasoning men,
And in its stead speed industry’s campaigns, With thy undaunted armies, engineering,
Thy pennants labor, loosen’d to the breeze, Thy bugles sounding loud and clear.
Away with old romance!
Instead, he chose to focus on and glorify the common working people whom he saw building America,
…I raise a voice for far superber themes for poets and for art, To exalt the present and the real,
To teach the average man the glory of his daily walk and trade,
To sing in songs how exercise and chemical life are never to be baffled,
To manual work for each and all, to plough, hoe, dig,
To plant and tend the tree, the berry, vegetables, flowers,
For every man to see to it that he really do something, for every woman too;
But while his themes were different Whitman resembles Homer in his gift for painting a series of beautiful, vivid word pictures which brings to life in 19th century America just as effectively as Homer’s did for ancient Greece.
Besides being a masterpiece of poetry, Leaves of Grass is ideal as a glove box book because it is a collection of smaller poems; I can easily pick a section which is the right length for whichever line I need to wait in, and there are enough of them that I can choose one I haven’t read in a while.
If you don’t have a glove box book of your own, I suggest you find one that works for you. Hopefully, you will chose one of the Great Books. I suspect, though, that most of the criteria for a good glove box book are the same as those for a Great Book, so the odds are good that you will.