Beginning a new feature: Fine writing from all over

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It's a curious paradox of the arithmetic of modern life. New creations — from films and books to paintings and plates — flourish via the absurdly simple creative equation: A + B = C. But if a creator is himself a chimera, a sum of a few parts, the same math doesn’t compute. Take James Franco, whose multifarious career paths seem to puzzle the most supposedly wide-open minds.

David Coleman, "A Turquoise Link to Willie Nelson," New York Times 12/19/10

I'm at a loss for a snapper here.

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33 Comments »

  1. Jonathan Lundell said,

    December 20, 2010 @ 12:16 am

    Of course you're at a loss. It's one of those curious paradoxes of the arithmetic of modern life. Deal with it.

  2. Jason said,

    December 20, 2010 @ 12:21 am

    As a good descriptivist, shouldn't you merely be interested in documenting the peculiar features of the written dialects of insufferably pretentious NY Times book reviewers, rather than getting all snarky about a proud yet oft-maligned and put upon American dialect?

  3. Vance Maverick said,

    December 20, 2010 @ 12:36 am

    Jonathan has the right approach — the writer essentially tells you up front not to read with any sort of attention. Why you should read at all is unclear.

  4. Xmun said,

    December 20, 2010 @ 1:00 am

    OK, so the throat-clearing is a bit off, but does he say anything interesting about James Franco? And what, if anything, is the link with Willie Nelson?

    Oh, I see. What on earth are you doing reading the fashion pages?

  5. Dan S said,

    December 20, 2010 @ 1:18 am

    I'm going to believe that this was machine-generated, an "inauthentic text". Or maybe it's a parody. But I'm not about to follow that link and find out. Why risk the horror of learning that this was in dead earnest?

  6. Vance Maverick said,

    December 20, 2010 @ 1:33 am

    I see that Wikipedia article ends,

    This brings up questions of, perhaps, meta-grammars that, while not explicit, play just as an important role in long written discourse providing meaning.

    which is just as suitable for meditation as the original post. To the extent I can discern a meaning glimmering under there, it suggests the (corporate) authors have never heard of rhetoric.

  7. Bob O'H said,

    December 20, 2010 @ 3:26 am

    Well, obviously A, B, and C are real numbers, whereas Franco is complex, with an imaginary part. Either that or he's just irrational.

  8. maidhc said,

    December 20, 2010 @ 5:32 am

    Ass + Byline = Creator!

    is the polite version

  9. maidhc said,

    December 20, 2010 @ 5:52 am

    I don't think he really knows what a "chimera" is. How could one be a "sum of a few parts"?

    "the most supposedly wide-open minds" is really awkward.

    I couldn't stand a whole article of such stuff. Is this what the NYT has to offer these days?

  10. Alex said,

    December 20, 2010 @ 6:40 am

    If that's all it takes for one to be called a "polymath," then I guess everybody's a polymath.

  11. Russell said,

    December 20, 2010 @ 6:45 am

    A terrifying hint that the alien invasion is about to begin, and that they executed it nearly flawlessly, taking over the media before we even noticed, and training some of their best to simulate human "writing." By posting this, I will likely be among the first to be "served." It's a cookbook!

  12. Dan Lufkin said,

    December 20, 2010 @ 8:47 am

    I once gave an after-dinner talk on language change (pedestrian treatment, largely based on McMahon & McWhorter) to a local literary group. "I'll have a little fun," I thought and ran the text of the talk through Mark V. Shaney a couple of times to produce a half-page handout summary that, superficially, almost made sense. I thought it would give me a chance to bring up Markov chains.

    The audience of about 50 dutifully read through the summary before (and during) the talk. In the discussion period there was not one single remark or question about the summary, just the usual prescriptivist complaints about how kids talk nowadays.

    I know these people fairly well but I've never really understood what went on there. Were they just being polite? Did they think they understood the summary? Did my joke come over as arrogant? I was a little ashamed of the whole thing and never brought the subject up with anyone. (Well, except for my wife, who thought it was stupid from the beginning.)

  13. An inconstant commenter said,

    December 20, 2010 @ 9:05 am

    I have no idea what, if anything, Coleman was getting at, and I'm afraid to find out what the "Turquoise link" might be, but this comment thread has me making very undignified sounds as I am allegedly proctoring my Final Exam.

  14. Dan K said,

    December 20, 2010 @ 9:52 am

    It's bad writing, sure, and he's making a stupid point. But at least it's clear what he means. Shouldn't we reserve the worst ridicule for people who can't communicate at all?

  15. Theophylact said,

    December 20, 2010 @ 9:59 am

    Dan K: OK, I'll bite. What does he mean, other than that Franco does lots of different things?

  16. Dan K said,

    December 20, 2010 @ 10:36 am

    @Theophylact, he's just saying that art made by combining things is viewed as cool, while artists that do different things are viewed as puzzling, and that this is somehow paradoxical. So the guy can't write and he doesn't have much insight into art or artists. But it's not unclear, it's just irritating. Anyone who singles this out for ridicule needs to read the sports pages for a few weeks.

  17. SJE said,

    December 20, 2010 @ 10:41 am

    I'm with Jason, above, in being a little put out and puzzled by the snarkiness here. I found the excerpt above understandable (not clear, but understandable). But I still haven't figured out what Geoff Nunberg was getting at in posting this.

    Maybe he was responding to the whole piece, which is a trainwreck, and thought this opening passage illustrated the problems of the piece. It doesn't though, since as I see it the problem of the piece is that every paragraph in it seems to be an excerpt from a different article.

    The first paragraph, by itself, is coherent. This is what I get out of it: There is a paradox. We accept that art combines different things to make something new. Yet we don't accept artists who combine different mediums or fields. For example, James Franco…

    There's a clear enough idea here. I don't think it is very carefully expressed, and I think the point about James Franco is bogus, but there is an idea here. The problem is that the rest of the article is not really about this idea. Nor is it about James Franco (or Willie Nelson, or turquoise). It's sort of about a designer/artist with a wide ranging career. Eventually we get that the article is about a ring that this artist owns.

    The problem with the piece may be one of genre or editing. If we expect a critical essay that makes some kind of argument then this piece doesn't work at all. But if it was clearer from the outset that this was supposed to be a meditation on a particular object then, maybe, the reader would have a little less frustration.

    But if the quoted excerpt by itself is supposed to be self-evidently bad, I'm not really seeing it.

  18. GeorgeW said,

    December 20, 2010 @ 11:06 am

    OK, for those who understand it, I am little confused by, "the absurdly simple creative equation: A + B = C."

  19. Dan K said,

    December 20, 2010 @ 11:49 am

    GeorgeW — A is something that's been used successfully in previous art, B is something else that's been used successfully in previous art, and C is the combination of the two that is miraculously successful as well, if all goes well. Science fiction westerns, cooking game shows, things like that. I think so-called reality television is the most shamlessly combinatorial art form going right now, although it's probably not the kind of art this guy had in mind. Someone with better taste in art can I'm sure come up with better examples. In my irrelevant opinion (IMIO?), new creations don't flourish via this equation (Coleman's terms), it just happens to be a popular formula.

    Combining arts (A=acting, B=writing), on the other hand, does not make for a well-regarded artist (so he claims). This point is mystifyingly illustrated with James Franco, who at a very young age has already been extremely successful as an actor and has had mixed reviews of his first book. The book may not have been uniformly well received, but he's gotten positive attention for having accomplishments beyond acting. I'm sure there are even better examples of artists who have flourished in part because they did more than one thing. Again IMIO, I don't think artists flourish or fail because they engage in more than one discipline, but it may seem like the equation doesn't work because except for people like James Franco (who would have found it harder to sell his book if he weren't a popular actor), success in art A is more independent of success in art B than we might expect.

  20. GeorgeW said,

    December 20, 2010 @ 12:21 pm

    @Dan K: Thanks for the explanation. I guess my problem is that this "absurdly simple equation" claims that creativity requires precisely two elements. Being a painter alone would not result in creativity. Being a musician, writer and dancer would also not result in creativity.

    Maybe I am being too literal.

  21. Mark P said,

    December 20, 2010 @ 2:49 pm

    It clearly kind of means what you kind of want it to mean, within some constraints that are not clearly defined for me.

  22. Faith said,

    December 20, 2010 @ 6:24 pm

    I did not understand a word of that paragraph until I read all the long explanations below. Honestly, I did not know what was being referenced by A, B and C, or what chimera meant in this context. Then I tried to remember who James Franco was to see if the example made the abstraction clearer. Failing that, I was glad to get the explanations from other readers. From my point of view, the writer failed to communicate the basic point, which is I think what Nunberg was after.

  23. ChrisK said,

    December 20, 2010 @ 6:55 pm

    It's a Piraha thing. You wouldn't understand.

  24. J Lee said,

    December 20, 2010 @ 7:19 pm

    "I really do find myself in situations thinking, I wonder how Willie would handle this.”

    No doubt with the same great judgement that comes with driving across the Mexican border with several ounces of weed in a reeking tour bus.

  25. Christopher said,

    December 21, 2010 @ 12:27 am

    the most supposedly wide-open minds.

    Shouldn't it be "the supposedly most wide-open minds?" Or should it? I'm tired and now neither sound right to me.

    If we're critiquing the style, I have to say I find it amazing that this is the opening paragraph. I thought for sure Mr. Coleman was talking about some metaphor he'd already explained, but no, he just throws that at you with no context, as though obviously everybody thinks of art as a mathematical equation, and explaining what those letters could possibly stand for would just be insulting to all of us.

    I'm okay with the use of 'chimera" here, since Lion + Goat + Snake + or – Bird = Chimera. It's the sum of disparate parts, Just like James Franco, who -little known fact- has the head of a toad growing out of his torso and feet made out of snarling hyenas.

  26. Jonathan said,

    December 21, 2010 @ 3:09 am

    To all those who say : "the point is clear, only the style is not." I tried in good faith several times to understand what the "absurdly simple equation" meant and and how new creations might "flourish via" it. I have come to a conclusion: it is nonsense.

    Some people in the comments have offered the interpretation : "new creations succeed if they combine previously known elements." Honestly, yes, it might mean that, but how the hell would we know? It certainly doesn't say that.

  27. Comwave said,

    December 21, 2010 @ 6:13 am

    I have no idea what the sentence – I'm at a loss for a snapper here. – means.

    Does Prof. Nunberg comment on the connection between the title of the cited article and the image in it? Or does he mention on the logic of the article content?

  28. andrew c said,

    December 21, 2010 @ 7:30 am

    Perhaps it means Mr Franco is both a dessert topping and a floor wax.

  29. AMM said,

    December 21, 2010 @ 12:16 pm

    My take on this is that the author doesn't have anything very impressive to say, and is covering this over with a layer of pretentious and intellectual-sounding language in the hope that his style will give him the status boost that the content (such as it is) could never do.

    I think the snarkiness is a response to the author's attempt to deceive the reader into thinking that there is more there than there is.

    It's one of the things that puts me off on most of what's in the NY Times: it's not all that bad a newspaper, but the way they constantly write as if they were the last word on everything — and the way that so many people in the NYC area quote it as if it were the word of God — makes their failings harder to take.

  30. Jay Livingston said,

    December 21, 2010 @ 3:22 pm

    Yeah, but the author has one gotcha back at you: not to go all prescriptivist or anything, but you did misspell his name.

  31. Bloix said,

    December 21, 2010 @ 3:45 pm

    This is the usual train wreck of mixed metaphors that substitutes for thought. We have arithmetic, mythological beasts, travel (along many paths simultaneously – nice trick), puzzles and paradoxes, and wide-open-ness. Since none of these metaphors have meaning in themselves, but only as substitutes for other things, the mixing of them makes it impossible to discern any actual underlying meaning. You can feed in a meaning if you want, just as you can see the man in the moon or a bunny in a cloud, but there's nothing there.

    It's a human tendency to try find meaning in a written text – see Dan Lufkin, above, who faced a whole roomful of people who did it – but other than "James Franco is a guy who does different things," this is gibberish.

  32. Chaon said,

    December 21, 2010 @ 9:27 pm

    I think we just got Markoff Chaneyed.

  33. baylink said,

    December 26, 2010 @ 8:31 am

    @maidhc: perhaps this is Dissociated Press, too.

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