Posts Tagged ‘John Milton’

Orwell Watch #24: And the prize goes to … Stanley Fish!

Tuesday, June 25th, 2013
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stanley-fishAm I the only one dispirited by current conversation about “defending” the humanities?  Apparently, Stanley Fish feels exactly the same way – he talks about it in the New York Times here.  He takes aim at a report recently published by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences titled “The Heart of the Matter.”  He starts his attack with some of the fluffy verbiage surrounding the claims the report makes for the humanities:

“The humanities and social sciences provide an intellectual framework and context for understanding and thriving in a complex world.”

“A thorough grounding in these subjects allows citizens to participate meaningfully in the democratic process.”

The humanities and social sciences “enable us to participate in a global economy that requires understanding of diverse cultures and sensitivity to different perspectives.”

No wonder I get depressed.  Fish does, too:

In each of these sentences, and many others that might be instanced, the key words — “framework,” “context,” “complex,” “meaningfully,” “understanding,” “diverse,” “sensitivity,” “perspectives” — are spectacularly empty; just where specificity is needed, sonorous abstraction blunts the edge of what is being asserted, rendering it unexceptionable (no one’s against understanding, complexity and meaningfulness) and without bite.

Then the Milton scholar tackles the equally empty recommendations:

The eternal skeptic on the side of the...

The eternal skeptic on the side of the…

“Increase NEH funding.” Fine idea, but only political efforts of a kind not mentioned here will do that trick. College teachers should “reach out” to their colleagues in K-12. Sure, let’s have a joint bake sale or a dance. “Embrace the chance to connect with the larger community.” What exactly does “connect with” mean and where does the “chance” reside? “Deepen knowledge of other cultures.” Add “deepen” to the list of words that say nothing. Develop “intercultural skills.” First tell me what they are and how they differ from mono-cultural skills. “Expand the pool of qualified teachers.” Wait a moment while I wave my magic wand. “Promote Language Learning.” Yes, that’s something we could and should do, but it will take money, and money has systematically been withdrawn from public higher education for decades.

The report alludes to this unhappy fact, but doesn’t take it up. Nor does it take up the converging factors that accelerate the rush to vocationalism and short-term payoffs — the mania for online education, unsupportable student debt, rising costs in every area of a college’s operation, the Internet’s preference for chunked-up bits of information, the elimination or radical downsizing of French, Russian, German, religious studies, theater and other programs because they cannot be justified under zero-based budgeting assumptions.

Da Man

Somewhere he’s smiling.

The wish to make humanities “relevant,” and apply it to “the great challenges of the era” is part of the problem, he thinks, turning away from the notion of the humanities “as a cloistered and separate area in which inquiry is engaged in for its own sake and not because it yields useful results,” he writes. “It is the rejection of this contemplative ideal in favor of various forms of instrumentalism that underlies the turn away from the humanist curriculum. The rhetoric of the report puts its authors on the side of that ideal, but when push comes to shove, they are all too ready to dilute it in the name of some large abstraction — democracy, culture, social progress, whatever. They are, in short, all too ready to depart from the heart of the matter.”

Might we add that a central concern of the humanities is the use of language itself – for truth, understanding, or simply pleasure?  As opposed to language used to muddy, distract, and hide.  The way our gummint uses it, for example.  Somehow, language has been taken hostage by the marketing and public relations people, as well as government bureaucracies, and we have to get it back.

birthday cakeRead the rest of Fish’s piece here.  Fish has had a chunk of my own heart since, during a lonely wander through the Stanford Bookstore, I stumbled upon one of his hefty volumes on John Milton, and bought it.  It fit the moment perfectly.

Postscript:  Apologies, Mr. Orwell!  We didn’t realize that today is your 110th b’day!  No wonder he’s smiling.  Here’s a cake we baked.

 

“A durable sense of joy”: Master Miltonist Martin Evans (1935-2013)

Friday, February 15th, 2013
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A great scholar, perhaps an even greater man. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Martin Evans died Monday morning at his home.  It’s a great loss for Stanford, and a great loss for Milton studies.  My obituary is here.

One of the intellectual highpoints of recent years at Stanford (and there has no shortage of them) was the 400th birthday celebration for John Milton, including the 10-hour marathon reading of Paradise Lost.  The event became a very intense baptism into the brilliant world of Milton studies – a world whose most eminent scholars include Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis, Stanley Fish, and others.  And, of course, Martin Evans, too.

Stanford’s Jennifer Summit, Canada’s Liz Pentland looking on. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Martin, my genial host for the event, insisted that John Milton was the most learned poet in the English language, bar none.  No surprise that  I was so inspired by the caliber of minds I met at the event – and by Martin, most especially – that I attended his classes for a quarter to hear the master-teacher firsthand.  I was not disappointed.

From the obituary:

Evans coined the phrase “Miltonic moment” to describe the point of crisis just before the action changes dramatically, looking at once backward to a past that is about to be transcended or repudiated, and forward to a future that immediately begins to unfold.

His first reading of Milton marked a Miltonic moment of his own: “I fell hopelessly in love with the poetry. It was the most exciting thing I’d ever read,” Evans said.

Yet Evans is remembered for being a powerful mentor as well as a revered scholar.

The poet and scholar Linda Gregerson of the University of Michigan, his student in the late 1970s, recalled, “He was immensely generous, both personally and intellectually, able to convey deep learning with extraordinary clarity. He always took a deep delight in ideas, and was just opinionated enough to make things fun.”

Poet and Miltonist Gregerson

She recalled him as “impish, with a brilliant, irreverent sense of humor.”

“He converted many of us to a lifelong inhabitation in the world of Milton studies. It’s a formidable world in many respects, not nearly so genial as the world of Shakespeare studies, for example. But Martin imbued it, and us, with a durable sense of joy.”

It made me almost regret not being a Roundhead, and left me wishing I did not feel quite so strongly for Charles I.

Back to the 400th birthday party, when I wrote (you can read about the whole thing here, with Humble Moi at half off the lefthand side of the screen at the tale-end of this video, here, to prove I did, really attend the event):

Canadian Miltonist John Leonard made a convincing Satan. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

“Although those attending the event were invited to wear costumes, none did. And there was no prelapsarian nudity. ‘Everyone will be wearing clothes,’ promised English lecturer Alice Staveley, another organizer of the event. ‘We’re all fallen readers.’

“It’s another decision Milton would have approved. He was, after all, a Puritan. In America, however, the word ‘Puritan’ carries a lot of cargo. Evans insisted that English Puritans bear little resemblance to their dour American counterparts. For one thing, Milton ‘loved music, loved wine,’ Evans said. ‘Puritanism,’ in the American sense, is one of Milton’s many bum raps.

“The influential novelist, poet and critic Charles Williams ticked off the charges leveled at the purportedly proud and scornful Milton, rebutting his foes who maintained ‘the pride of his Satan was his own pride, and he approved it.

‘They argued over his Arianism or his Calvinism. They confined his instrument to the organ. They denied him cheerfulness and laughter (he who, it is said, used to sing while he had the gout!). They gloomed over him, as (they supposed) he, in his arrogant self-respect, gloomed over the world,’ Williams wrote in The English Poems of John Milton (1940).

“But in today’s world, so far from Bread Street and the blind prophet, Milton has few champions as unflagging as the redoubtable Evans.”

A half-century Milton legacy. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

While speaking with his former students in the last few days, one story impressed me, in particular.  I met Angelica Duran at the event several years ago, but I didn’t know her backstory until I spoke with her several days ago.  She was a first-generation Chicana graduate student when she was at Stanford, from 1994-2000, and also a single mom of two very young children.  At one point, she was going to drop out for a quarter because she was in a tailspin over her conflicting duties and overwhelming workload.  Martin told her if she took time off, she most probably wouldn’t be coming back.  “Let’s look at your schedule,” he told her.  He inspired her with his own stories about growing up in hardship as a child in Wales. She went on to become director of religious studies and associate professor of English at Purdue University and editor of the Concise Companion to Milton. Oh, and she’s still a mom, too.

Well, as his former student Dennis Danielson of the University of British Columbia, who is editor of the Cambridge Companion to Milton, Martin Evans was “not ashamed of his affections.”  Here’s part of the talk Danielson gave when the Milton Society of America named Martin as a prestigious “honored scholar” for lifetime achievement – part tribute, part roast, “that’s the way he liked it,” said Danielson.

Near the end of the quarter, after we had all got our sea legs, we had some excellent discussions, and there was a moment at which Martin expressed a magisterially-delivered opinion about the beginning of Book 11 of Paradise Lost—with which I found myself in serious disagreement. What could I do? I decided to take a big risk, and what I did was to write my final paper on the very issue about which we disagreed, explaining why I disagreed—in the form of irrefragable scholarly argument, of course.

A week later as I walked out of the quad on my way home I waved a cheerful, slightly nervous hello to Martin, who was riding by in the opposite direction on his bicycle and had no I idea how anxious I was about having stated my disagreement with him. He sailed past me, but then he turned his bike around and rode back to where I was. As usual, he wasted no words, but told me that he appreciated my paper very much, thought I should publish it, and also thought it would form the basis of a good PhD thesis. Then he turned again and without further ceremony pedaled off into the quad. It was a moment I’ll never forget, and I see it as typifying the man’s forthrightness, unselfishness, and magnanimity. What I don’t remember is whether I carried on back to my apartment on the ground or through the air.

He will be missed.  He is already.

Tolkien, Auden, and an evening of mushrooms and Elvish

Friday, December 21st, 2012
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Fond of Elvish…

Lovely piece in the New Yorker about J.R.R. Tolkien‘s Lord of the Rings, and just in time for the current hubbub about Peter Jackson‘s adaptation of The Hobbit, the movie.  I’ve never understood the Tolkien craze – I took an unsuccessful stab at The Hobbit as a teenager, and indulged in a weekend binge of the movies a few years back just to get the hang of it – but Erin Overbey goes some way to explaining the devotion to me:

We love to think about the dorky minutiae: how Hobbits invented the art of smoking pipe-weed, why trolls speak with Cockney accents, whether Middle-Earth is spherical. These elements aren’t distractions; they’re the magical details that elevate Tolkien’s books. People may come to Tolkien for the Milton-esque struggle between good and evil, but they stay for the fresh mushrooms and the Elvish.

Apparently, so did W.H. Auden, one of Tolkien’s early champions and defenders.  In 1926, he heard Tolkien reading from Beowulf so beautiful that he decided on the spot that Anglo-Saxon was worth pursuing – it shows in Auden’s poetry.  He also became a close friend of the Oxford professor.  Thirty years later, he wrote in the New York Times about The Return of the King, the third installment of the Lord of the Rings cycle:

I rarely remember a book about which I have had such violent arguments. Nobody seems to have a moderate opinion: either, like myself, people find it a masterpiece of its genre or they cannot abide it, and among the hostile there are some, I must confess, for whose literary judgment I have great respect. A few of these may have been put off by the first forty pages of the first chapter of the first volume in which the daily life of the hobbits is described; this is light comedy and light comedy is not Mr. Tolkien’s forte. In most cases, however, the objection must go far deeper. I can only suppose that some people object to Heroic Quests and Imaginary Worlds on principle; such, they feel, cannot be anything but light “escapist” reading. That a man like Mr. Tolkien, the English philologist who teaches at Oxford, should lavish such incredible pains upon a genre which is, for them, trifling by definition, is, therefore, very shocking.

Perhaps the most memorable bit of Overbey’s piece is her description of Auden’s invitation to speak at a Brooklyn Tolkien Society in the 1960s.  He looked, according to a witness, remarkably like “a Tolkienish wizard surrounded by a crowd of young and eager Hobbits.”  Overbey writes:

So was he.

He began by talking about his personal relationship with Tolkien and the major influence his former professor had had on his life. Tolkien, he said, had originally fallen in love with the Finnish language, which has affinities with Elvish, because it has “fifteen or sixteen cases.” (“Fifteen!” one of the young attendees exclaimed.) Auden went on to tell the group how Tolkien had often admitted that he really had no idea where The Lord of the Rings was going when he first started the trilogy. In fact, Auden said, he wasn’t even sure how the pivotal character of Strider would develop as the narrative grew. Auden also let his rapt audience in on Tolkien’s fascination with “the whole Northern thing.” For Tolkien, Auden said, north is “a sacred direction.”

The nerdy group of lawyers, students, businessmen and military men snacked on unspiked eggnog and non-alcoholic cider – and also on fresh mushrooms, a preferred Hobbit dish.  “The discussion spanned a variety of Tolkien-related topics: the correct method of writing in Elvish, the best way to assemble an accurate cosmological model of Middle-Earth.”

Read the whole New Yorker piece here – or Auden’s New York Times piece here.  Or watch the trailer for the movie below.  I might even make it to a theater before the New Year chimes in.
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“The best writer alive, in verse or in prose”: Sir Geoffrey Hill turns 80 today

Monday, June 18th, 2012
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Difficult? Who says so?

It’s Sir Geoffrey Hill‘s 80th birthday today.  How shall we celebrate?

At first I noticed two appearances in the day’s newspapers – well, in fact, both were in The Telegraph.  In the first, U.K. Education Secretary Michael Gove hails Hill as “our greatest living poet” in the Commons. “Our” being… the U.K.?  Or the English-speaking world?  A.N. Wilson went further, calling him “the best writer alive, in verse or in prose.” That takes geography out of it.

The second is an article of dire prognostication,  “Dithering Europe is heading for the democratic dark ages”:  “However complacent we may be,” in the words of the poet Geoffrey Hill, “Tragedy has us under regard”.

Well, not much to celebrate there.

I turned instead to the Paris Review interview of a dozen years ago, conducted by one of his former students at Boston University, Carl Phillips, which begins with a description of the poet’s outwardly unassuming home in Brookline, Massachusetts:

To step into it, though, was to enter a number of seemingly disparate worlds: one part literal menagerie (two dogs, along with seven cats of varying degrees of forwardness); one part a kind of gallery—in the form of photographs on sideboards, walls, and mantles—of what is clearly central to Hill: family, ancestry, the need for the relationship between the living and the dead to be an active and ongoing one. Hill gave me a tour through them, now pointing out an infant cousin circa 1917, now his own parents, now his wife Alice Goodman, and their daughter Alberta, and now a friend riding her tractor through the Lancashire village streets.

When I first arrived, I was greeted by Alice (herself an intriguing mixture: the librettist for Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, a translator of The Magic Flute for the Glyndebourne Opera, and a soon-to-be ordained Anglican priest). She led me into the living room where Hill arrived shortly, seating himself beside a life-sized dollhouse. We met in front of the fireplace, over whose mantle hung an amusing wedding gift: a copy of Hogarth’s The Distressed Poet. No way to explain it, exactly: I knew all would go well.

The sensual Milton

Then Phillips asked the inevitably question:  “What comes up often in reviews of your work is the idea of an overly intellectual bent; in recent reviews of The Triumph of Love, often the word difficult comes up. People mention that it’s worth going through or it isn’t worth going through.”

Hill replied:

Like a Victorian wedding night, yes. Let’s take difficulty first. We are difficult. Human beings are difficult. We’re difficult to ourselves, we’re difficult to each other. And we are mysteries to ourselves, we are mysteries to each other. One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most “intellectual” piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are? Why does music, why does poetry have to address us in simplified terms, when if such simplification were applied to a description of our own inner selves we would find it demeaning? I think art has a right—not an obligation—to be difficult if it wishes. And, since people generally go on from this to talk about elitism versus democracy, I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification. This thought does not originate with me, it’s been far better expressed by others. I think immediately of the German classicist and Kierkegaardian scholar Theodor Haecker, who went into what was called “inner exile” in the Nazi period, and kept a very fine notebook throughout that period, which miraculously survived, though his house was destroyed by Allied bombing. Haecker argues, with specific reference to the Nazis, that one of the things the tyrant most cunningly engineers is the gross oversimplification of language, because propaganda requires that the minds of the collective respond primitively to slogans of incitement. And any complexity of language, any ambiguity, any ambivalence implies intelligence. Maybe an intelligence under threat, maybe an intelligence that is afraid of consequences, but nonetheless an intelligence working in qualifications and revelations . . . resisting, therefore, tyrannical simplification.

So much for difficulty. Now let’s take the other aspect—overintellectuality. I have said, almost to the point of boring myself and others, that I am as a poet simple, sensuous, and passionate. I’m quoting words of Milton, which were rediscovered and developed by Coleridge. Now, of course, in naming Milton and Coleridge, we were naming two interested parties, poets, thinkers, polemicists who are equally strong on sense and intellect. I would say confidently of Milton, slightly less confidently of Coleridge, that they recreate the sensuous intellect. The idea that the intellect is somehow alien to sensuousness, or vice versa, is one that I have never been able to connect with. I can accept that it is a prevalent belief, but it seems to me, nonetheless, a false notion. Ezra Pound defines logopaeia as “the dance of the intellect among words.” But elsewhere he changes intellect to intelligence. Logopaeia is the dance of the intelligence among words. I prefer intelligence to intellect here.  …

Read the whole magnificent thing here.  Or listen to Hill lecture on “Milton as Muse,” on the occasion of Milton’s 400th birthday,  here.  And pop open some champagne while you’re up.

“Evil is not good’s absence but gravity’s
everlasting bedrock and its fatal chains
inert, violent, the suffrage of our days.” – Geoffrey Hill,  Canaan

Gwyneth Lewis on John Milton and The Twilight Saga

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012
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Gwyneth (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Who matches John Milton in modern letters today – at least in tracing the “drama of democracy right back to its first theological principles?” Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis nominates Stephanie Meyers, author of the Twilight Saga, and Philip Pullman. The Welsh poet Gwyneth finds the Saga to be “a profound meditation on incarnation and its hazards as well as a moving love story.”  A stretch, perhaps.  Can’t say I’ve watched the Twilight Saga, but I find it hard to believe it’s any kind of match for Milton, even in a moment of whimsy.

Gwyneth studied Milton with Geoffrey Hill, and the 17th-century bard became her hero, once she’d read his Paradise Lost: “No one ever lobbied more eloquently for permissiveness combined with the moral discipline not to be deceived by facsimiles of the good.” She marveled at the way he “melded theology with politics and human psychology.”

Her “Letter to Milton” was published in the online summer edition of the U.K.’s Poetry Review. While Milton is “not fashionable at the moment and neither is the epic,” she thinks he’d have much to say about political discourse today, and has a few questions to ask:

Would Milton turn over in his grave? And would that be entirely appropriate?

“You would be interested in the way religion has become a contentious issue at the centre of intellectual debate. I’d like to see your arguments contra Dawkins and, equally, against advocates of Intelligent Design. As Marilynne Robinson (a Calvinistic novelist) has written, ‘Creationism is the best thing that could have happened to Darwinism.’ Your moral clarity on the pitfalls of loose thinking would be of great value to us now.

“So, you’re not forgotten. And if you could speak to us from the dead, I’d have one other question to ask, aside from guidance about contemporary attacks on religious faith, free speech and democracy.This one’s personal: you were married three times and, though an advocate of divorce, you were widowed twice. How does the wife thing work in the afterlife? I’d love to know.”

Read it all here.

Literary pilgrimages here and there, and Sylvia Plath in Chalcot Square

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011
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Mells, Somerset

Okay. I’ll admit it’s a habit. When I travel, I often check out literary landmarks — the place where a favorite author was born, died, wrote, or was buried.  I’ve seen Mikhail Bulgakov‘s digs in Kiev, Elizabeth Bishop‘s glorious hideaway outside Samambaia, C.P. Cavafy‘s modestly exotic flat in Alexandria, Siegried Sassoon‘s grave in Somerset — I even visited Boris Pasternak‘s idyllic dacha in Peredelkino.

Milton scholar Martin Evans shares my enthusiasm.

His journeys to London are sometimes literary pilgrimages — he’s intrigued by the fact that his beloved John Milton and (my beloved) John Donne were both born on Bread Street.  He wants to show you these and more literary coincidences for your next trip.  Hence his new website,  Authorial London.  Please, do not be daunted.  It’s not complicated at all.  It’s  a really easy site.  And if you’d rather read about it than look at it, try Corrie Goldman‘s description of the site and how it came about here.

One passage intrigued me:

Nice man, odd habit (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Readers may be surprised to learn that Sylvia Plath once lived in the same modest house in Primrose Hill in which W.B.Yeats lived many years earlier. In Plath’s time, it was a working class area beset with blue-collar workers and struggling artists. These days, glamorous socialites like Kate Moss and Sienna Miller have been dubbed by the British tabloids as the “Primrose Hill set.”

The website explains that Plath’s apartment consisted of a small bedroom, a kitchen, a living room and a bath. “Plath loved it, at least at the beginning,” the website explains. Here, Plath wrote her great social commentary of mental illness, The Bell Jar.

I was among the readers not surprised by this revelation — in fact, Plath moved to this flat precisely because Yeats had been a previous tenant.

I remember a trip to London — oh, over a decade ago — when I was writing a piece for the San Jose Mercury on the British reception of Sylvia Plath (a bare-bones, unillustrated version of it is here; the August 20, 2000 piece has disappeared from the Mercury‘s website).

The article opened:

Yeats lived here, too

IN THE Primrose Hill area of London, where Gloucester Road and Prince of Wales Road wind back on each other in a hopeless bend, one arrives at 3 Chalcot Square, a turquoise door on a five-story building painted the color of raspberry sorbet.This summer, a simple plaque was added to the building’s facade:

Sylvia Plath
1932-1963
Poet
lived here 1960-1961

Question: Why has it taken Britain nearly 40 years to offer this first, minimalist postmortem recognition for the American poet who spent her last five years in London?

One answer: The British hardly see the need for it. When it comes to Plath, one of America’s most celebrated female poets, the British just don’t get it.

Alas, since the painting of the building has disappeared over the years, we are left with these newer images.  The torquoise door remains — but raspberry sorbet?  I think not.

John Milton: Architect of authors’ rights?

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011
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In 1727, Voltaire fixed an image of the hardscrabble John Milton that would prove hard to dislodge: he wrote that the poet “remained poor and without glory; his name must be added to the list of great geniuses persecuted by fortune.”

A few days ago, I mentioned Milton’s famous — nay, notorious — contract giving him for £5 for Paradise Lost. Preeminent Miltonist Martin Evans had told me something about this contract a couple years back, and I wrote him to refresh my memory.  Almost by return email, he pointed me to a December 2010 article by his former student, Kerry MacLennan, on precisely this topic in the Milton Quarterly.  It’s online here.

Far from being a patsy, MacLennon insists that “Milton was an expert navigator in the capitalist landscape around him.”

What’s known:  the contract, signed on April 27, 1667, with printer Samuel Simmons, awarded Milton £5 on signature, and £5 on later retail sale for each of three contemplated editions of 1,300 copies each.  Hence, the real value of the transaction was £20.

Still small potatoes, right?

There’s more:  According to MacLennan, “For a writer to be paid in cash at all by a publisher was not customary at the time: seventeenth-century authors typically provided manuscripts to their printers in exchange for a small number of complimentary copies of the published work.”

This was not a royal work commissioned for an aristocratic audience.  Paradise Lost was a “risky speculative venture,” dependent upon “small press runs on speculation, displayed in bookshop windows, and awaiting discovery by readers with the interest, impulse, and either the cash or credit to buy them.”  In short, this contract marks the beginning of the decline of the aristocratic patronage system, to be replaced by a capitalistic, republican framework for writers.

MacLennon reviews Milton’s contact and determines that Milton was entitled to a share of the epic’s earnings — nearly two centuries, remember, before the advent of the term “royalty.”  She finds that while £20 might be slim pickings for the poem canonized as the most famous single poem in English, “recharacterizing the payment as a royalty of between 2.6% and 5.1% should extinguish any lingering indignation on Milton’s behalf.”

“I propose that we consider the likelihood that Milton was the architect, indeed the author, of the contract for Paradise Lost, as much as he was the creator of its poetry … Milton’s father’s professional skills as a scrivener may have directed him how to anticipate, and circumvent, contractual loopholes and trapdoors.”

She concludes:

The contract for Paradise Lost champions and models the rights of artists to manage and control the commercial aspects of their creative production. But rather than writing a pamphlet on the rights of authors, Milton’s polymath mind instead invented, and left us, a template.

(Paradise Lost images provided, of course, courtesy Gustav Doré.)

Hey writers, you’re one in a million! Literally!

Saturday, February 12th, 2011
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Working for peanuts

For writers, the subject of remuneration for our humble services is always a subject of endless fascination, at least for us.  So I was naturally intrigued by an interesting article in on the McSweeney’s website, written by a young colleague.

The article reminds me of what a great career I might have made by, say, becoming an airline stewardess.  Or perhaps an insurance actuary.  Or even an aromatherapist.  The upshot:  writers don’t make much money.  As the article reminds us, “never have, never will.”

The statistics it cites make me wonder:  Do the numbers mean anything?  And who collects these little suckers anyway?

The witness in the dock appears to be the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  And they get their numbers … where?  Nobody talked to me.  One obvious source might be IRS reports.  But the professional identifications on the IRS forms are not supported by anyone else:  for example, are there any penalties for identifying yourself as a writer on your IRS form if 75 percent of your income in fact comes from waitressing tips?  And does the bureau’s statistics for writers include, say, advertising copywriters?  Does the category for authors include faculty members, who constitute a substantial percentage of today’s authors, yet are likely to list their profession as “professor” rather than author?  In any case “authors and writers” are not interchangeable – many writers are not authors, and vice versa (cookbook authors, for one).

According to the bureau, as of 2005, 185,276 out of 216.3 million American adults claimed those titles.  That makes us less than one out of a million.  I can’t believe that.  I, personally, believe I know more than 185,276 writers.  Look at my Facebook page.

Here’s another reason why I question what the bureau’s numbers:

In May 2009, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found the median annual wage for authors and writers had risen to $53,900, up $3,100 from the medium income average for the past decade. In 2008, 70 percent of writers and authors were self-employed and in 2009, the upper quartile of writers earned $75,740 or more.

But technical writers might be making a whole lot more than this; a starving poet considerably less.  For every Dan Brown there’s a hundred self-published authors writing on their lunch breaks at Costco.  Again, who calls themselves a writer?  Who an author?

Moreover, many, many writers are supported by a spouse or a family income.  A low level of income may not reflect their penury, but rather that they have the freedom to write what they please on their own timing.

The Census Bureau also has  some dismaying news:  it estimates the number of writers and authors will increase by 20,000 by 2018.  With reservations, I concur with Nicolás Gómez Dávila that “literature does not die because nobody writes, but when everybody writes.”

In any case, when everyone writes, no one will make any money doing it. Tim Rutten has already panicked about the influence of the HuffPo/AOL acquisition and the effect that “the merger will push more journalists more deeply into the tragically expanding low-wage sector of our increasingly brutal economy.” As Frank Wilson writes over at Books Inc., what we really need are plumbers.  Really.

As for John Milton’s famous £5 for the first edition of Paradise Lost, I remember that there’s a story behind that.  Can’t recall what it is.  Martin Evans told me, and perhaps I will check back with him.

In any case, check out the intriguing article at McSweeney’s here.