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Editorial

The Age of the Essay 286

Posted by michael
from the 500-words-or-more dept.
bluFox writes "Paul Graham, has just published a new article on the English literature and role of Essays. It is not connected to lisp or languages or hackers for a change, but still feels like a continuation of his earlier articles."
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The Age of the Essay

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  • I care! (Score:4, Interesting)

    by ImaLamer (260199) <john.lamar@g[ ]l.com ['mai' in gap]> on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @03:38PM (#10181713) Homepage Journal
    Who cares about symbolism in Dickens? Dickens himself would be more interested in an essay about color or baseball.

    Mind you I've haven't read Dickens since middle/high-school but I care.

    It's not just the symbolism, it's the experience. I was watching some show on PBS and the host said something that I wish English teachers would have said to me. To paraphase; 'Reading a narrative is an exercise in building life experience. No one has written about that particular character at that place and time. Reading allows us to see the world through different eyes'

    It makes perfect sense too. Whether it's Dickens or Dick (Philip K.) you are getting a point of view out of the book. Looking at it that way is much more rewarding. The host went on to say that reading lets you know that other people have had similar experiences and no experience is completely new.

    Man, that would have helped in life. Not being a fan of fiction, I shunned most books that I was forced to read and never absorbed those experiences. Later in life I often wondered "why is this happening to me" or simply "I can't take this". I wish I would have read more as I was growing up and coming to maturity (Daniel Goleman [eiconsortium.org] says maturity ~ 15)

    I think the reason that we were supposed to write those essays on Dickens and company were to share our view of the books, and to have us look deeper than the plot. Maybe I'm wrong, I usually am, and maybe I'm crazy... that has been proven.


  • by ahfoo (223186) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @03:47PM (#10181833) Journal
    But I'm pleased in a way. I have an MA in Composition and Rhetoric and one of my many jobs is grading GRE practice essays. I did about fifty this afternoon in fact. See, that's why I'm a /. junky. Essays and arguments are my life's blood.
    However, I'd like to point something out to the author and it's something I see a lot of which is a misperception regarding what students are writing about in school.
    Especially when people think about testing they assume that essay topics are completely inane. Well perhaps this has been true in the past, but these days I see many essay topics that do focus on very broad personal issues and encourage the students to explore things using any creativity they can come up with. So the problem that he's discussing in his essay is somewhat contrived. In fact, students are encouraged to write about unusal, quirky and personal issues even in test settings. Not only that, but some of them come up with some really beautiful work even in the constrained environment of a test session. There are limits, but it's really not that bad.
    I'm trying to think of an example. Here, today I had some that were on the topic of living through a difficult experience. That's a very general topic that refers you specifically into your own personal life. I read some real beauties. Actually that wasn't GRE though. That was another class. I had a bunch of GMAT today, but that's another story as well. Those are fun in a different way.
    Anyhow, it's really not so bad and I always teach the students that if you get a lousy topic you can usually write your way around it.
    My MA was in Comp, but as an undergrad I did Creative Writing. Any MFAs in the house? Losers!
    There's no way you can tell me that these kinds of writing courses make writing boring. If anything they can get too edgey. We used to have all kinds of hardcore sexual stuff written about other people in the class and it was like who's going to say when? I guess it depends where you go to school.
    Well, I'm rambling at 4:50Am so let me just close up with this bit of writing advice. If you want to have good time as a writing major try San Diego State. They've got a sweet writing department. You won't get rich, but you probably won't regret it either.
  • Where's Arc, Paul? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by GCP (122438) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @03:49PM (#10181845)
    I enjoy reading Paul's various works, but I'd sure rather have Arc.

    After generating considerable excitement about Arc, a lot of discussion, and frequent updates to his Arc website, Paul simply went silent regarding Arc.

    Yes, it's true that he'll attend conferences to give keynotes. He'll be billed as the guy behind Arc, but then his talk won't so much as give a status report.

    Some have lamented that he has appparently chosen to take the cathedral approach instead of the bazaar with Arc, but I don't see any signs of a cathedral, either. For a language to stand some chance of success these days, it needs a lively developer community. I see no signs that Paul is even interested in hearing from anyone else, much less soliciting help. For the guy who built Yahoo Stores, putting up a discussion board for Arc discussion wouldn't be much of a challenge, but he's never done so.

    His site claims to solicit ideas, but that site has been a "cobweb site" for years now. The page on which he was collecting ideas stopped being updated a few weeks after it opened and hasn't been updated for years.

    I'd love to have something like Arc. So would a lot of people. It looks as though Paul has lost interest but doesn't want to say so.

    Instead, we get interesting essays, which is admittedly more that I deserve, but still less that a lot of us were hoping for.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @03:56PM (#10181933)
    "I write down things that surprise me in notebooks. I never actually get around to reading them and using what I've written, but I do tend to reproduce the same thoughts later. So the main value of notebooks may be what writing things down leaves in your head."
  • Good for you! ;-) (Score:4, Interesting)

    by PaulBu (473180) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @04:02PM (#10181997) Homepage
    I have a degree in English Literature. When I took my first job in IT, my boss told me that most IT people were an inch wide and a mile deep.

    In this case you surely have read this essay, but if not -- you'll enjoy it! ;-) [ucar.edu]

    To quite its epigraph: If there's nothing different about UNIX people, how come so many were liberal-arts majors?
    It's the love of words that makes UNIX stand out.


    Paul B.
  • by techsoldaten (309296) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @04:04PM (#10182023) Journal
    Having a degree in English literature, it is always strange to see the odd relationship technology people have with the written word.

    This essay reads like one of a hundred handouts I received in Intro to Lit classes. It makes the argument that you must make an argument, that there is structure to any argument, and that there is a historical tradition behind how an essay is constructed.

    There is an analagous relationship between the art of writing an essay and the discipline of an engineering discipline (in my case, constructing software). In both cases, there is a desire for internal consistency, overall clarity and optimal design. Structure tends to consist of a series of discreet statements put together so that the order has an affect on the overall outcome of the project.

    Many of the engineers and programmers I work with would be baffled to know this. For them, writing is a series of consise, actionable statements scribbled on sticky pads or in the margin of documents. They tend to think in terms of how something that is said contributes towards a goal rather than what it means or how it was stated. The idea that there is structure to how arguments are presented, that there are logical and rhetorical devices used in the same way as control structures in programming languages is lost on them. Which is a shame, because soem of the best engineers I know would be excellent essayists were they to write down their thoughts.

    M

  • by kafka93 (243640) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @04:18PM (#10182210)
    Where is the "misfortune" in, say, a good bad pun? In any number of Monty Python jokes, for those so inclined -- or, better yet, in half the League of Gentlemen sketches (which certainly do eke humour from other emotions, but rarely from a sense of misfortune)?

    Q: What's brown and sticky?
    A: A stick.

    Not everything is a "coping mechanism for dealing with bad things". Cheer up.
  • The Essay format (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Mateito (746185) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @04:27PM (#10182340) Homepage
    My fiancee is currently writing in the essay format, but she's a non-native english speaker who is preparing to take a TOEFL test.

    Basic essay format is 5 paragraphs: Introduction, 3 paragraphs with supporting points, conclusion. Each paragraph has rules, so essentially you don't need to think about structure when writing an essay.

    As a result, its stilted and hard to read.

    Essays are a very very basic overly structured way to introduce writing skills. They are probably appropriate for people new to stringing more a few sentences together... such as non-native speakers and 10 year olds.

    However, I've come across university professors who want assignments submitted in "strict essay format". I think this is more a sign of laziness on their behalf (read the introduction and the conclusion and briefly check that the intervening points see vaguely reasonable) than something that promotes good writing. At University level, taking one point of view and defending it blindly should be the exception, rather than the rule. At this stage one should be able to see that there are very few "black and whites", and appreciate the shades of grey and spectrums of colour.

    Np, I'm not writing a fucking conclusion.
  • by NerveGas (168686) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @04:50PM (#10182581)
    Either he went to a pretty odd school, or he just never managed to walk outside of the English department.

    Essays that I wrote in school weren't just about things like symbolism in Dickins, they were intended to give the student the choice about where he wanted to go with his paper. They were on a wide range of topics, anything from the career of your choice to what economic methods you favored. I only recall one teacher that gave out essays on virtually pre-decided topics, and I recall hearing about one or two others.

    I even wrote a paper once on why monkeys should rule the world - and gave enough convincing arguments that I ended up getting a few bonus points, putting me at something like 104 of 100.

    Even in English class, we were sometimes given room to really explore what we wanted. One year in high school, while our textbook served for the grammer and rhetoric assignments, the great bulk of our actual literature reading was up to us: We could read just about whatever we wanted, but we had to read at least something like 1,000 or 2,000 pages per quarter, and we had to talk to the class about what we read, and what we saw in it. Some of the romance novels that the girls were reading were enough to make the teacher pretty uncomfortable in discussing in front of a high-school class, but he still allowed it.

    Even in grade school, you were assigned days on which you had to bring in a couple of newspaper stories on current events, and had to talk about them. Because nobody wanted to have a "repeat" of the news story before them, everybody tried to stay away from just the easy, front-page stories.

    The part that astounds me is that I didn't go to any great school - it was just a small school in a small hick-town. While I haven't exactly tried to turn this into a well-written essay, even what I thought was a very poor essay on my part on with my college admissions got me into the class where you pass it, and your English and writing requirements are completely satisfied.
  • Re:Impact of Blogs (Score:3, Interesting)

    by iabervon (1971) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @05:02PM (#10182706) Homepage Journal
    It would be very interesting to see whether someone accustomed to reading blogs and IRC did better or worse than someone who only read published texts at understanding Chaucer. I would contend that the problem a lot of people have with Chaucer is that they have come to expect standardization in spelling which happened later. If that's true, then it shouldn't bother a blog reader nearly so much when Chaucer spells "scole", "ther", and "veray". Of "stil", "ful", and "wel", which are Chauser, and which are bloggers?
  • Re:Impact of Blogs (Score:3, Interesting)

    by dasmegabyte (267018) <das@OHNOWHATSTHISdasmegabyte.org> on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @05:08PM (#10182785) Homepage Journal
    What you mean to say, is that you've found an easy way to prove my point by disagreeing with me.

    Thank you, AC.

    Stream of consciousness writing is hardly evidence of poor debating skills -- Michael Herr's "Dispatches" is a good example of disjointed writing that illustrates important points. But mechanisms like the moderation system and the number of good writers willing to explain points in a different way serve to make disjointed viewpoints more accessible. Accessibility adds coherence to a good idea, because many people just aren't willing to read posts like yours. They take too much effort to parse, mentally, and so many readers rely on moderation and replies to show them what, subjectively, is worth reading. It would, indeed, be a good world where everybody would read everything regardless of style or content...but that's not going to happen.
  • Intellectualism (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @05:28PM (#10182970)
    But more importantly, in its purest form, nerd-dom is nothing more than socially maladjusted intellectualism.

    There's a word for "socially adjusted" intellectuals. We call them "posers". After all, any populist renderings of a subject sufficently complex to be worthy of study must needs become a vast oversimplification of the matter at hand.

    Furthermore, there are entire classes of people attempting to appear "intellectual" to be popular: parroting surface learning, but eschewing any real depth. They're socially adjusted in the extreme: they just don't really know anything of import. They can be found fluttering about universities of all sorts; the true intellectuals are hidden away in the research libraries, and look convincingly like "nerds". Perhaps there's a reason for that.
    --
    AC
  • English (Score:2, Interesting)

    by what!!!smd (756407) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @06:17PM (#10183583)
    As an English major I find this quite strange, I don't argue things that have little relevance to me. In some cases if I procrastinate I might end up writing something quite lame, though that will usually not recieve a very good grade, because it isn't any good. Usually though I try to find something in the text that I can connect to my life experiences or something of social importance. The mind is a muscle that improves as you challenge it, writing essays requires you to analyze the text more thoroughly. If I happened to turn in a five-paragraph essay similar to the ones most high school students typed I would also fail. An essay does not mean that I put forth some crazy idea and then went on to prove it. It is more like putting forth a hypothesis, after looking over the information at hand (the book) you come up with an idea. You do not have to prove that point, you can even conclude stating that you were wrong and it will still be a good paper. Your topic/hypothesis can change will you are writing the paper. Also people often edit their paper down to remove the meandering, because that will usually cause your audience to put the paper/essay down. Critical thinking in school does not always appear as self-evidently as learning how to program a computer, yet these skills are quite valuable beyond simply analyzing a novel.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @06:26PM (#10183714)
    Rand encourages us to focus on what we are good at. Unfortunately she ignored the advice herself and focussed on writing fiction. But it's still a good point. Arc may turn out to be good, and I'm a quarter of the way through Graham's first lisp book in anticipation of having to learn this new functional language. I want it too. But I believe that his essays are amongst the most insightful comments I have read from commentators of our time and if it's a choice between arc and essays I'd much rather have the latter.

    I laughed out loud at your opening line though :)

    AC because I'm ashamed to feel like a disciple.
  • Don't like it (Score:3, Interesting)

    by awol (98751) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @07:28PM (#10184392) Journal
    I cannot agree with the author. As with any comparison with history, he is reviewing the current state of the world with the distilled excellence of the historical essayists. His criticism of the essay form as it is used in education must be an American thing becuse it ain't my experience, Aus high school education and Economics and Law degrees at university with all the above requiring essays none of which really match the form described by the author. Several even presented diverse opportunity to offer interesting points of view. The best ones I ever wrote (in terms of the pleasure to write and the grade the mostly received) were the ones where original thought was possible.

    The death of the essayist is caused by the purpose of the esay being supplanted by several alternative media channels. In particular "non news" current affairs broadcasting (radio and TV) that provide the forum for the public discourse that was at the root of many of the essayists for the style of which the author appears to pine.

    $0.02
  • by GCP (122438) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @08:00PM (#10184693)
    That's part of the problem. Paul has a great reputation as an expert in Lisp. He has stated that he is in the middle of building Arc, with all sorts of improvements that many of us want.

    --His stated goals for Arc closely match what many of us want, including those that overcome both the shortcomings in non-Lisp languages and in all current Lisps

    --He has the technical knowledge of Lisp, including what has and hasn't worked out in practice

    --He has the practical experience of creating a large, successful software project using Lisp

    --He has the financial resources to do it without need to find corporate sponsors

    --He would appear to have the time

    --He has the reputation around which to form both a solid team of technical contributors and a passionate community of users

    --And he appeared, at least, to have the passion and committment to doing it

    With that to contend with, who is going to risk making a big committment of time and resources to starting another Arc with the knowledge that the real Arc could be released at any time?

    The only parties I can think of would be large corporations who could put a lot more resources into it than Graham and could own and control the results, but I don't see any that would be interested.

    If Graham would give us an update on his plans, it might break the stalemate. If he's not interested, he could say so, making it less risky for others to attempt. He could even post his design notes to help.

    If he's still interested, I can't help thinking that Arc would end up better if its design decisions were discussed publicly for a while before it's "too late to change it now". No matter how much of an expert he is, there are those with even more expertise in each of the thousands of little specialty areas that a good, modern, general-purpose language ought to handle well.

    No experienced developer is going to blame another one for eventually deciding to drop an exciting project that ended up being too time-consuming. But since we don't know what the story is with Arc, and he has posted "don't even ask for a status report", he has blocked both attempts to help him and attempts to compete with him. Ironically, this approach has ended up "FUDding" the New Lisp market with a vaporware campaign that Microsoft would be proud of.

  • Re:Impact of Blogs (Score:2, Interesting)

    by caino59 (313096) <jcaino.obscure[nospam]reality@net> on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @09:23PM (#10185318) Homepage
    but as the parent of your post pointed out, this is a rarity.

    sure, sometimes i make a post late into the release of an article, sometimes get modded up...but more often than not, it never happens.

    do i have nothing good to say? not up to me.

    but most* moderators just browse through and mod quickly.

    Whenever I have mod points, I use them on older articles...I may one to have bestowed mod points upon you late after an article has been forgotten about. heck, i know that sometimes I make a late post to an article...I bet most* of the time it doesn't even get read.

    as far as spelling goes - it takes a lot away from a blog/essay when things are misspelled and bad grammer is used. mostly, credibility.

    and i know slashdot suggest you browse at -1 when moderating...do you think most* people change their settings? probably not.

    *most used lightly - obviously there are always exceptions to the rule.

    yes, i didn't capitalize properly - oh well.
  • by bugbear (448726) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @09:46PM (#10185491) Homepage
    Well, you have something here, but not what you think. If I'm not sure of something, I don't publish it online.

    I spent about four days just researching the first English courses, and as I sit here writing this there is a nose-high stack of histories of various colleges on the desk next to me. So if I sound confident when writing about the topic, perhaps that's why.

    If you disagree with something I said, you'd be more convincing if you could provide a counterexample.
  • by bugbear (448726) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @10:02PM (#10185619) Homepage
    I did talk about what I was up to with Arc at the Lisp conference last summer. I just didn't put that talk online. What I've been doing most recently is working on growing the language from the smallest set of axioms I can, and continuing all the way through stuff like data types and I/O instead of stopping where McCarthy did.

    The main reason I don't talk much about Arc's status is because I don't want to feel like I have some kind of deadline I have to meet. The world has waited 45 years for a really good Lisp implementation. It's not going to make any difference if we have to wait 2 or even 10 more.
  • by bugbear (448726) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @10:07PM (#10185652) Homepage
    A language doesn't have to be Arc to be the new Lisp. There are a bunch of new Lisp dialects being developed at the moment, most notably Goo.
  • Grammar nazi post (Score:3, Interesting)

    by slamb (119285) * on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @11:47PM (#10186231) Homepage

    Hey, since we're discussing grammar, I'd thought I'd point out this minor flaw:

    The thing is, the people who are poor spellers, have poor grammar and who use poor organizational skills don't matter so much on the internet.

    Your list has what I've heard called "improper parallelism". There may be another name for it (anyone? what's it called?), but here's the idea: divide your list up into the words that are common between all the elements and the ones that are different. You should be able to follow the common part followed by any single element. In your sentence:

    the people who:

    1. are poor spellers
    2. have poor grammar
    3. who use poor organizational skills

    When combined with the prefix, each becomes:

    1. the people who are poor spellers
    2. the people who have poor grammar
    3. the people who who use poor organizational skills

    So you've got an extra "who" at the beginning of the third element. You can just take it out. ("The people who are poor spellers, have poor grammar, and use poor organizational skills") Or you can add a who to the middle one; then it would divide up differently:

    the people:
    1. who are poor spellers
    2. who have poor grammar
    3. who use poor organizational skills

    ("The people who are poor spellers, who have poor grammar, and who use poor organizational skills")

    For brevity, taking out the word is preferable to adding another. But either would be correct.

    Sorry for the long explanation of a single-word error, but I wanted to illustrate the more general principle. I see this error a lot, and it grates on me.

    (And now, someone will inevitably point out a grammar or spelling error in this post. Go ahead.)

  • My feelings... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by slamb (119285) * on Wednesday September 08, 2004 @12:33AM (#10186453) Homepage
    Seems like there are (at least) four major points in this article:
    1. Rhetorical skills should be taught independently of literature analysis.

      I agree. I've always felt this way, but one experience cemented this for me. In my first semester of college, I took Principles of Chemistry I and Accelerated Rhetoric simultaneously. In the rhetoric class, we wrote the mostly usual pointless essays about things no one cares about. I was struck with how little effect any of these essays had, as though they were called persuasive essays, they never advocated any real action, much less succeeded in persuading someone to undertake it. And even when we did write about a decent topic (one area was politics; I ripped apart some stupid Republican's campaign speech), we did it badly. Looking back on the revisions my rhetoric teacher forced me to do, my essay continued to get worse. Her obsession with the standardized format destroyed the terseness of my work.

      In contrast, I wrote a persuasive essay to the professors of the chemistry class. My thesis was that he software we used for homework assignments was no good and should be scrapped. It was one of the proudest moments of my college career, because I succeeded completely. They not only made these homework assignments optional mid-semester, but also forwarded my complaints to the designers of the software. (Who were surprisingly receptive.)

      I realized I had learned much more about persuasive writing from convincing the chemistry professors than I had from the rhetoric class.

    2. The format of a standard essay is overly constrictive.

      In general terms, I agree. He's right that the conclusion doesn't add much, except in a persuasive argument: stating the argument to a "jury" who may have half-forgotten what you were saying at that point. Another thing that specifically bothers me is that rhetoric teachers are violently opposed to non-prose elements. I like to intersperse lists of items into my work. Most people skim, not read. If you don't help them skim well, they just won't understand what you're saying.

    3. Essays should share a search for truth, rather than defending a pre-established position. (A refinement of #2.)

      I do not agree. A search for truth is an extremely valuable and underrepresented format, yes. But persuasive essays are valuable, too. Often in life, we write for someone who generally trusts us to make decisions but may have some additional input or at least know what's going on. I might write to my boss why I chose a particular software package. He's primarily interested in what I chose. The reasons are secondary. If he sees a priority of mine that's completely different than his, he'll mention it. That might lead him to contest the final choice. But generally, he'll go along with what I'd said. If he'd had time to follow all the permutations of my research, he would have done it himself. Thus, I often write in a sort of inverse pyramid structure. (As I learned in a journalism class long, long ago.)

    4. Write things which are surprising to you.

      I agree; these surprising insights lead to great writing. But I don't think you should exclusively do this. Many things which you do not find surprising still need to be said. If I'm writing for exposition (how to use a piece of software), I'll point out the normal as well as the weird. I might even give short treatment to the weird because I want people to know the basics before confusing them.

The ideal voice for radio may be defined as showing no substance, no sex, no owner, and a message of importance for every housewife. -- Harry V. Wade

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