Chris Offutt: The Definitive Taxonomy of Literary Terms

April 26, 2010 § 6 Comments

Thank goodness Chris Offutt came along and finally cleared up all of this genre confusion:

personal essay: Characterized by 51 percent or more of its sentences beginning with the personal pronoun “I”; traditional narrative strategy entails doing one thing while thinking about another.

literary essay: Akin to the personal essay, only with bigger words and more profound content intended to demonstrate that the essayist is smarter than all readers, writers, teachers, and Europeans.

lyric essay: An essay with pretty language.

nature essay: An essay written by a person claiming to have a closer relationship with the natural world than anyone else does; traditional subject matter is sex, death, and how everything was better in the past.

pop culture essay: An essay written by someone who prefers to shop or watch television.

academic essay: Alas, an unread form required for tenure.

experimental writing: The result of supreme artistic courage when a writer is willing to sacrifice structure, character, plot, insight, wisdom, social commentary, context, precedent, and punctuation.

Irony Hunger: Is There a Link to That?

March 26, 2010 § Leave a comment

Speaking of Reality Hunger (and the ideas contained therein), Sven Birkerts has a worth-the-read-as-always look at Reading in the Digital Age in the new American Scholar, wherein he posits:

“SUDDENLY IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO IMAGINE a world in which many interactions formerly dependent on print on paper happen screen to screen.”

Birkets is a great thinker and writer, but perhaps more fearful of technology than he need be.  Case in point: Over on Facebook, writers Steve Yarbrough, Chris Offutt, and Matt Roberts have an exchange, quotedbelow, which shows perhaps that the interactions and discussions “formerly dependent on print on paper” do “happen screen to screen,” and pretty quickly too.

There is some tongue-in-cheek here, but enjoy:

Steve Yarbrough was struck by the conclusion of Sven Birkerts’ fine essay “Reading in a Digital Age,” which appears in the current issue of THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR: “To achieve deep focus nowadays is also to have struck a blow against the dissipation of self; it is to have strengthened one’s essential position.”

Chris Offutt
Is there a link to that?

Steve Yarbrough
Here you go, Chris:

Matt Roberts
I think it is hilarious that you have posted on your Fb page about this essay, are then asked by another writer for a link to this essay, to which you readily reply so that he can read it online. That is, on a screen. Is it just me, or does that seem antithetical to Birkets’ point?

Or does this suggest that his point only applies to the novel, to fiction? That is, is nonfiction, the essay in particular, something that is well-suited to “the screen”? And, if so, then does that mean that the novel is a better environment for “losing oneself in” than the essay?

Chris Offutt
Thanks. that was intended as sort of a joke–the idea that “Reading in a Digital Age” would be online in American Scholar.

Guess as usual, I’m a day late and a dollar short when it comes to technology…

Matt Roberts
No, Chris. I got the joke. But then Steve complied (even though he likely got the joke, too). And now we’re talking about it. That is, time spent in front of the screen can produce an intellectual response in the reader in much the same way that time spent “losing oneself” in a book can. Don’t get me wrong. I love books and don’t think that  they should (or will) become extinct, but I get anxious about the antagonism toward the screen that is prevalent in this field.

I think the American Scholar is a good example of how something appearing onscreen isn’t the problem. It is how we think and feel about what is onscreen that matters. As long as the material being produced is of the same quality as that which appears in print, then what is the problem with the mode of delivery? That the act of reading is competing with easy online access and Fb? When I’m reading at home, that act is often competing with my kids’ requests, the dirty dishes piling up in the sink, and the urgent need to evacuate my bladder. (Although I should point out that at this point I am using Fb to avoid reading my students’ essays, so I should go get lost in reading…)

Steve Yarbrough
[Birkets] actually talks about Googling a Nabokov quote that he needed for the essay.

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