June 19, 2009

Why the Economist works

There are two magazines that I regularly buy and read- the Economist and Private Eye. There are a selection of magazines- Prospect, the New Statesman, the Spectator, the Times Literary Supplement and London Review of Books that I often buy or consider buying- but my two staples are the Economist and Private Eye. I'm telling you this because of an article in the Atlantic monthly about the success the Economist has had in growing in an era when news magazines in general have been in decline. In part that growth ressembles that of the Financial Times in the Uk- the only paper to see its circulation continue to rise- and it may be due to the extension of a market- professionals with degrees- that the expansion of higher education in the last quarter century has acheived. But the Economist's success is interesting because I think it points to something else- and that is what we demand of magazines and why we read them.

One of the most important things to remember about any publication is that almost noone reads the entire thing- unless you are stuck in a hotel room in Milton Keynes with nothing else to do (an experience that sadly I have had) or on a long coach journey between Oxford and Cambridge (ditto- that journey last four hours and takes you through every byway in southern England) you are likely to read those bits of a magazine that attract you. So for example to take my own reading habits, foreign news, economics, politics of a certain type and book reviews of historical and literary tomes attract me, reporting about technology, scandal and disaster does not: you may have a different set of preferences, it does not really matter, the point is that you like me and like every other individual on the planet have a set of preferences about what you want to read and what you want to ignore.

The virtue of a magazine like the Economist in this context then- and the same is true of Private Eye- is not so much the quality of its reporting and writing as the content. A set of varied short articles (none more than a page and a bit long) allows a wide variety of readers to find something that they like regularly in the magazine. Compare that to Prospect or the New Yorker- often in those magazines you will find intelligent and thoughtful articles but if you don't like all three of the three main features, there isn't much point in buying the magazine. If you don't like the Economist's leaders, you have the rest of the paper. The same is true of the Spectator and New Statesman. The writer in the Atlantic says that the Economist in this sense mirrors the web- I'm not so sure about that, the Economist is more authoritative than many blogs for example. What is interesting is that the success of the magazine with a wide range points to a strength and a weakness of the web.

The strength is obvious: it is the heterodoxy of the internet. If you want provocative rightwing comment, here is the Corner, if you want magisterial analysis of the middle East, turn to Juan Cole, etc. What the internet lacks and one of the reasons that sites like Daily Kos and Liberal Conspiracy which begin to provide this demonstrates, is the editor. The problem with the internet is navigation and the weakness of the blogosphere as a product is its impenetrability to those who do not know it already. I find it difficult even to find blogs which say interesting and important things in a thoughtful way. A magazine in a sense does not have that problem- which is why something like the Economist that combines editorship with variety is a winning package and why entrepreunerially the challenge on the internet is to combine the virtues of variety found on the blogosphere with guides and platforms which allow people to assess it and find quality.

June 18, 2009

Anonymous Authors

This week's Times Literary Supplement was filled with articles which, though superficially about other themes, were really about one single issue- that of the relationship between authors and their works. Karl Orend for example argued that Louis Ferdinand Celine was an important figure in French literary history despite his collaboration with the Nazis and his anti-semitic conspiracy theories. Adam Zamoyski introduced a new biography of Adam Mickiewicz by demonstrating where Mickiewicz had been and what political movements and sexual piccadillos he had been attached to, but hardly mentioned the poetry for which Mickiewicz is justly famous. Peter Ghosh reminded us that in the world of ideas, 'Weber's extraordinary clear-sightedness in the analysis of major problems such as the epistemology of the social sciences and German foreign policy before 1914 is much more important than the torments he suffered because of insomnia and wet dreams'. This all strikes me as incredibly topical, given the fact that this week saw the exposure of an anonymous blogger in the UK and hence questions about the degree to which in order to know the work you have to understand the writer who wrote that work. If Peter Ghosh is right, and I happen to believe he is, then what use is it to know who wrote something- why do we want to know?

I think there are two reasons which are interesting for our curiosity in the lives of authors. The first is about credentials. As I browse my local bookstore I try and assess each of the books on the shelves- I pass over some and I purchase others. Obviously one thing that attracts me to a book is an interesting title and theme. Another thing which arouses my interest is my knowledge of the author's work- some authors (Orhan Pamuk and Chinua Achebe come to mind) are remarkably good and consistently so. A third thing though is the credentials and experience of the author. Someone who can demonstrate to me that they have published with a credible academic publisher, someone who can demonstrate that they have expertise in a subject (hold a post at a university or have received a doctorate) and someone who has a history of work in the area that they study is always going to interest me more than someone who does not. As I judge which pieces of information to examine more closely the identity of the person who created that information is a crucial piece in my analysis of whether it is worth my time to examine their work.

The second thing I think that is going on is described best by S here. What she suggests, correctly, is that there is a part of reading which involves making the author into your possession. In a sense in a fictional setting, you inhabit the author's imagination for a while, survey its circumference, distort it in your own image- but you are following his or her guide. It can happen in non-fiction too- for example Alexander Murray's recent history of medieval suicide is filled with the author's genial and gentle personality. The author in this sense is our guide through a journey, he is the Virgil to our Dante, and we are tempted to ask our guide, even as he stretches his hand out to the wonders he shows us, what he thinks of them and where they came to him from. In a sense therefore the curiosity that S displays about Salinger is a curiosity stimulated by the work- because learning about him allows her to learn why her guide selected this part of the country to view and not that. It does not alter the work as a perception of reality but it alters it her reasoning about why it was produced and where it flowed from.

Here we enter what historians of ideas have called illocution. Quentin Skinner and others have argued that if you are to assess a work of philosophy or history or literature, you have to assess it against a context. Its author meant that work to do something in the world as we know it: a work is supposed to fill a perceived gap, to persuade or show someone something. You can only understand it historically, in this view, if you understand the intentions of the author- and you can only understand those if you understand his or her point of view about their context. What were they trying to do- to get money to buy food, to impress a girl or boy, to change the world or just to fill the passing hour. In a sense the case of the anonymous blog is clearest about this: if I write about work, it is important to know whether I resent or like my colleagues and bosses, whether I enjoy what I do or hate it, and a thousand other considerations. There are good reasons to maintain anonymity, but as Skinner and others have suggested there are reasons as well to say that until you understand the context in which the author produced the work, you are unlikely to understand all of its meaning and purpose.

June 17, 2009

Fargo the relationship between love and money

In Fargo, a pregnant police officer hunts down a man who has paid some hitmen to try and kidnap his wife. That is the basic plot- and from that basic plot you could derive should you choose to most of what I am going to write in this article. For Fargo sets off against each other two relationships- one between the policewoman and her husband and the other between the kidnap organiser and his wife. Those two relationships are the central plot devices of the film but they are also important because they sketch out alternative moral universes in all sorts of ways which the film could contrast. Ultimately Fargo is about marriage- and about the way that marriage can become a mask of tradition or a genuine commitment- it is about in a sense the ways that words create relationships of power and relationships of trust.

The film opens with what might seem a traditional scene- a respectable man walks into a bar and orders a drink. Actually what he does is order some hitmen to go and kidnap his wife. Jerry Lundegard, the protagonist, asks the men to do this because he wants them to share the ransom that he presumes his rich father in law will pay with him. He wants the money to be able to set up an investment opportunity in Minnesota. Of course the kidnap goes wrong, the wife is taken but somehow the kidnappers end up committing murder and Jerry's lines of communication to them are sundered. More important though than that is the relationship that this presumes between Jerry and his wife- his consideration for her is secondary to his consideration for the money that he might receive through her ransom. In a sense we are allowed to wonder whether Jerry has always focussed on the millions in his father-in-law's bank account and not his wife.

Oppose that to Marge, the police officer, and her husband. Here the relationship is completely different- with Marge performing the traditional male role of bread winner and her husband being involved in his art. Through thier bedroom scenes you get the impression of mutual support but what is more the idea that money does not full their plans. Here the words of the marriage service are something that a relationship has grown out towards rather than grown backwards from: Marge is perfectly willing to praise her husband's triumph (getting a picture on a stamp) even though it has no pecuniary advantage. Indeed neither partner seems to see the other's triumphs and disasters as a threat because power is not at issue.

In a sense therefore when the film ends with Marge saying to one of the hitmen that she has no idea why he does what he does 'for a little bit of money' she voices the incomprehension that she from her relationship with her husband feels for Jerry. Marge comes across as a shrewd detective but this simple question reveals that though she has put the facts together, she has not understood the depths to which the characters she investigated have sunk/