Friday, January 4, 2013

Literary Equivalents of Fastfoods

"I didn't come here to argue with you."

"Then why are you leaning on my desk, invading my work space?  If that isn't argumentative,it sure is aggressive."

"You really like that, don't you, making every gesture seem hostile?  Isn't that taking defensiveness to an entire new level?"

"Look,you've even left sweat marks from your hands.  I'd say that's aggressive."

"I suppose you, spilling coffee in the lounge this morning, was an unfortunate accident."

"As a matter of fact, it was.  I made the mistake of waving my hand in enthusiasm."

"Some in the department would see it as anything but enthusiasm. Some would see it as a threat."

"Now that you mention it, yes, I take pride in being known as the department anarchist."

"Sorry to break up your conversation, but I need you both in my office, now."

This exchange could have taken place in any number of settings, which is part of the pleasure you take in dialogue.  The attitudes seem to define and articulate the parts of the individuals just under the surface, taut, bristling, speaking to pecking orders, attitudes, past events, suspicions, defense mechanisms.

The code word for you in the exchange is "department," because department conveys to you two of the venues with which you have the most direct experience, the publishing company and the university.  When you put them together in reality, you get the scholarly publishing venue, where two particular exchanges, both involving you, still resonate.

The first exchange began with:

"How do you rationalize wearing a striped tie with a houndstooth jacket?"

To which you replied, "First of all, it isn't houndstooth, it's a Prince of Wales pattern, and in the second place, I don't rationalize my choices, I choose them from instinct."

The second exchange was one you initiated at an editorial meeting, in which you were listing reasons for declining a particular manuscript.  "The manuscript is as ripe with passive voice as Roquefort cheese is veined with mold."

The immediate rejoinder was, "But those of us in history expect you English majors to cope with that sort of thing."

Your intention here is not to suggest that scholarly publishing or academia are snarky battlegrounds or even mine fields of rancor.  Rather, your suggestion is that collegial exchanges, by the nature of their collegiality, are memorable only in the pleasant haze of agreeable discourse and conversation, you might also add accommodation.

Department politics anywhere are prone to agendas and, you believe, should be.  Democracy without agendas borders on violating the intended principles of the democratic process,suggesting the unseen hand of behind-the-scenes control, the threat of totalitarianism.

Smooth, even-flowing event is episodic at best; it is not story.  When you read such material for long, you find yourself being lulled into the near dream-like state you entered last night after a splendid meal of pasta cooked to the exact degree of firmness you prefer, dressed in a fruity olive oil with abundant presence of black morels, fresh crayfish, and New Zealand mussels.  Too much accord and you drift.  You want to be aware of competing agendas, of undercurrents, of specific flavors contesting for prominence.

You have become used to undercurrents clamoring within yourself for a few moments at the lectern to hold forth on some subject that will be sure to draw a countering argument.  Only last night, on your evening walk, you were so engrossed in such a debate that you nearly forced another walker to step around you, out of his own intended path, barely able to call out a hasty "Pardon me."

There are selves who are not comfortable with themselves.  You do not believe you are such a person, rather a living ensemble of friends, family, and mentors, all of whom you felt free to have passionate debates and discussions, where the results were similar to the feeling after a fine meal, not because agreement was of necessity achieved, but because each was able to come away with a grander sense of having plucked some small sense of validity and reason for being out of the exchange.

You have no problems with, say, pasta dressed with tomato sauce.  Any number of your shirts have had to be laundered accordingly.  Your preference would be oil and the likes of clams or kale or broccoli, an olive or two, but you are no stranger to the tang of a tomato and basil, with a hint of balsamic vinegar.

Just as the institutions in which participants engage become universal to you because of your own particular experiences and regional literature becomes open and agreeable to you whether you have ever been to the region or not, the tension and dialectic of story is your true diet.  Episode, undifferentiated event, and a lack of detail to the seasoning are the literary equivalents of fast food.

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