30 August 2013

On fakes and scams

A few weeks ago, our slightly-more-elderly-than-me neighbour knocked on the door in near-panic. She had a phone call from someone claiming to be on a Windows helpdesk who had detected problems on her machine, and who was rather aggressively demanding her credit card details to sort it out... I took the call, and managed to sound as if I knew what I was talking about, and called the guy's bluster, which became obvious enough for her to recognise, and she put the phone down on him. But the incident has dented her confidence in online activity.

I checked out the scam on the brilliant snopes.com site, and it was there in all its sleazy glory.

And a couple of days ago, an unusually convincing note from my bank appeared in my gmail account. It was literate, for one thing. Rolling over the reply-to etc. addresses revealed straightforward plausible results. Except that I don't do on-line banking. I walk into town and get a little exercise instead. And Mr Google had already sent it to my spam folder: I don't trust him as much as I used to, but he's quite good at this. 

Of course, in these cases there is more or less a gold standard of what is genuine and what is fake, even if it is getting ever more difficult to find out what it is.

In the world of arts, literature and academe, it is getting more difficult. The wonderful Alan Sokal case exposed some fatuous post-modern rubbish over-reaching itself, but I have to concede that po-mo critique is occasionally interesting although the effort is disproportionate to the yield.

In the po-mo world, nothing is what it proclaims itself to be. The reader confers the meaning, and the reader must read through the lens of her cultural and "identity" context. (I know--it's no big deal. Arnold Kettle made 99% of the point in the 1950s, as I recall, when he complained as a marxist that Jane Austen could not count as literature because she did not tell stories about the working classes.)

And so to the point. At last!

Some of my most serendipitous book discoveries come for free--namely the obligation to pick up a "free" book to complete the 3 for 2 offer in a chain bookshop. I'm not risking anything, after all, except a little time to discover whether it is worth the investment of time to read it. After all, that is the true cost (and benefit) of a book*.

So it was that I picked up Robert MacFarlane's The Old Ways, intrigued by the idea of digging into the history of trails and roads. The paperback has just entered the Sunday Times bestseller lists. I was disappointed; as I commented on Amazon:
One quoted review ... includes, "Read this and it will be impossible to take an unremarkable walk again". I am a sucker for books which aspire to change one's perspective on something. Macfarlane does so aspire, and he is erudite and generally engaging and refreshing. To begin with I found the book easy and relaxing to read, ... But about half-way through, I realised why. It made no demands whatever. There is no argument to follow, there is no narrative to remember, ... It washes over one, a warm bath of smug celebration of superior sensitivity.
 (I did confess this dyspeptic review was a deliberate counterbalance to all the gushing rubbish in the others.  And maps would have helped, but I can imagine the arguments--leaving aside the financial consideration--between author and editor about how a graphic representation would undermine the meditative narrative or some such rubbish.)

But that prompted me actually to try the most notoriously enigmatic of these "travel writers"--I use quotation marks because they set out not to introduce the reader to new territory, but to expose the hidden stories/themes/issues in the supposedly familiar. It's a high-risk strategy; Bill Bryson (who has the advantage of not being British) and Joe Moran bring it off brilliantly, but not consistently. And I'll keep quiet about the disasters--save to note that they seem usually to have gained credibility with publishers through some other field/medium, and the "concept" must have seemed great at the time... Doesn't matter--the books sold on the name alone...

Sorry! Meanwhile, back at the ranch... This author was far from a celebrity spinoff--a German academic, who taught at the University of East Anglia, and wrote originally in German--W G Sebald. I sampled The Rings of Saturn (1995).

Is it a travel book (that is where I found it in Heffers**)? It reads very much like Macfarlane, apart from having inordinately long paragraphs, and interpolating occasional photos--which being inserted inline with the text are monochrome and lacking in contrast (which may well be intentional, of course). He takes a walking tour in East Anglia, stops at various locations and towns, and tells the back story of some of them, or other stories suggested by them. OK. So what? That's what travel writers do when they get beyond the guide-book.

Or is it fiction? That's the bait and switch. That is what pulls the rug from under one's feet. In a true po-mo fashion, there is no way of telling whether Susan Sontag has it right (OK, I know...):
[His books] combine memoir, fiction, travelogue, history, and biography in the crucible of his haunting prose style to create a strange new literary compound. Susan Sontag, in a 2000 essay in the Times Literary Supplement, asked whether “literary greatness [was] still possible.” She concluded that “one of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W. G. Sebald.” [Source]
...or this Amazon reviewer:
 WG Sebald's Rings of Saturn has a distinct whiff of the Emperor[']s New Clothes.[...] This curious (curiously boring) travelogue, part Cobett's Cottage Economy, part Bill Bryson's Small Island (stripped of the humour) and part appalling self-indulgence just doesn't convince.
It is at least fairly readable, in the sense that it does eschew active bullshit. But would he have won a Nobel had he lived? Was he really in the same league as Joyce?

(I write, incidentally on the death-day of Seamus Heaney, who was a Nobel Laureate in 1995, and generally acknowledged as the greatest Irish poet since Yeats.)

This post is not about Sebald. It's about judgement. It's about recognising fakes and scams and bullshit in the absence of clear criteria and efforts to subvert those criteria.

And without those clear and articulated criteria, you are exposing yourself when you make a judgement. ... Hence the judgement of the crowd on the Emperor's clothes.

* I went looking for Asa Briggs' book about Bletchley Park, and found it (new hardback) for 1p (+ 2.80 GBP postage) from a reseller while still on sale for £14 or so from the main site. I can't fathom the business model behind this, even if it had been remaindered. Sadly it was a disappointment and the post I hoped to base on it is currently abandoned.

** This poses an interesting point. Most movie or TV adaptations of classic literature attract passionate criticism; literature is largely about stimulating personal images of characters, allowing for individual interpretation. But even a theatrical representation necessitates the "collapse" of a field of possible representations into one definitive version.  Amazon--and other online retailers, of course--can "tag" books in many ways, all of which will find it in the warehouse. A physical bookshop will, on the whole, shelve it as either fiction or non-fiction/travel.

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