Monday Morning Stepback: How women lawyers should dress, neuro lit crit, and plot vs. argument

The weekly (ahem) links, opinion, and misc post

1. Links of Interest

Did you know that, re: hoop earrings, “the bigger the hoop the bigger the ho?” I sure didn’t, and maybe that’s why, despite not being a lawyer, I was fascinated by this piece at Feministe on So What Exactly Should Female Attorneys Wear? Apparently there was a panel on this topic at the recent ABA meeting and

While it sounds like the panel attempted to be gender egalitarian, the advice for men boils down to “make sure your suit fits and is clean,” whereas the advice for women is 40-parts long, all detailing ways to not be trampy.

Roxanne St. Claire and other Space Coast authors are featured in a video and story for

Prompted by the kerfuffle to which I shall not link, Shiloh Walker is pondering Responsibility as a writer, responsibilities as a woman, responsibilities as a person:

I’m not shouldering the responsibility of perpetuating violence against women if/when I decide to write a book with forced seduction or a book with a rape fantasy. Because I have no responsibility in the violence committed against women unless I’m one of the ones who either turn a blind eye when I see (or am aware) of a woman being assaulted, or I’m the one doing the assaulting.

Over at History Hoydens, author Pam Rosenthal is talking about The Heroine’s Journey. Or not:

I don’t have any statistics here (and of course there are all sorts of variations and exceptions). But still, it seems to me central to the romance genre that its heroines very often embark upon journeys before they (literally and figuratively) find their ways home. In a genre that tells the story of its heroine’s quest for her self and simultaneously for her ultimate home in the world, very often that heroine has to leave home, abandon the familiar and the familial in order to see herself (and others, and of course most particularly the hero) outside the accustomed map of understandings she’s grown up with.

Emily Colette Wilkinson has a long essay on Ethical Vampires (Part 1) at The Millions.

The vampire of our cultural moment has become a “vegetarian” of sorts, a Whole Foods shopper–an individual who prefers humanely raised, sustainably farmed food. From the shimmering pâleur of the vampire radiates something new and hardly otherworldly: an aura of white liberal guilt. But maybe it’s only skin deep?

Author Rose Lerner offers up a list of her favorite Ten Angry Heroines.

Janet Mullany is asking How Literate Are You? over at Risky Regencies. More specifically:

How can someone who reads or writes romance have not read Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice?

I don’t think I have ever actually finished Jane Eyre, yet folks were arguing at PCA that it’s the Brontës, rather than Austen, from whom the romance genre descended in the US. Anybody want to read it with me?

Have you taken the Book Blogger Survey for Improving Blogger-Publisher Relations? If not, you have until 4/20 to do so:

This information will be useful in helping facilitate more effective communication between bloggers and publishers by giving all involved a more concrete idea of what to expect and how to measure and determine successful placement of books on book blogs. We also hope it will encourage book bloggers to be more transparent about their blogs’ statistics and to provide relevant data when communicating with publishers to request or arrange reviews.

Additionally, we have included questions intended to provide feedback to publishers about how they can better meet the needs of the book bloggers they work with.

Buried By Books is unhappy with author activism — at least within the pages of books:

I’m talking about when those beliefs make their way into their stories in book after book with all of the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Where readers are subjected to mini-lectures over and over every time they pick up a book by a particular author.

… Want another example? Nora Roberts and her fitness/healthy food crusade. It started way back in the 1990s with mentions of healthy living, running etc. The ‘lifestyle change’ crusade overwhelmed the narrative in parts of the Sign of Seven trilogy. To the point that I never finished the series.

2. Neuroscience Gets its Own Section Today

Notice how genre distinctions are assumed by the researchers, and, indeed, provide grounds for various hypotheses:

An Interview with neuroscientist Merlin Donald on digital books at Teleread (actually an excerpt from a longer interview here.)

The ebook may be best suited for fiction, or biography. But for anything that requires a lot of reflective thought, a printed book is so portable, handy, easy to notate, and flexible in its format, when compared with current electronic readers, that I would not see the latter as serious competitors yet.

The New York Times is wondering if neuroscience is the new lit crit:

Humans can comfortably keep track of three different mental states at a time, Ms. Zunshine said. For example, the proposition “Peter said that Paul believed that Mary liked chocolate” is not too hard to follow. Add a fourth level, though, and it’s suddenly more difficult. And experiments have shown that at the fifth level understanding drops off by 60 percent, Ms. Zunshine said. Modernist authors like Virginia Woolf are especially challenging because she asks readers to keep up with six different mental states, or what the scholars call levels of intentionality.

“We begin by assuming that there is a difference between the kind of reading that people do when they read Marcel Proust or Henry James and a newspaper, that there is a value added cognitively when we read complex literary texts,” said Michael Holquist, professor emeritus of comparative literature at Yale, who is leading the project.

And the Guardian gets in on the neuro lit crit act:

Later this year a group of 12 students in New England will be given a series of specially designed texts to read. Then they will be loaded into a hospital MRI machine and their brains scanned to map their neurological responses. The scans produced will measure blood flow to the firing synapses of their brain cells, allowing a united team of scientists and literature professors to study how and why human beings respond to complex fiction such as the works of Marcel Proust, Henry James or Virginia Woolf. …

[Researchers] have spent months designing their texts, or “vignettes”, and they have been specifically created to different levels of complexity based on the assumption that the brain reacts differently to great literature than to a newspaper or a Harry Potter book. The aim, Holquist says, is to provide a scientific basis for schemes to improve the reading skills of college-age students.

And another one from the Times: Can Neuro Lit Crit Save the Humanities? which asks authors and scholars to reflect on the above article. I liked this comment from author Elif Batuman , author of The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.

A literary theory should account for what’s special about literature — for the things literature does better than anything else. It doesn’t make sense to me that novels evolved in order to train us to have thoughts like “they don’t know that we know they know we know,” because such training is afforded by many other leisure activities (sports, newspapers, video games, the stock market).

…What does literature do better than anything else? It provides a detailed representation of the inner experience of being alive in a given time and place.

3. Is Plot to Literature as Argument is to Philosophy?

In a recent post at A Commonplace Blog, D.G. Myers writes:

Although an ingenious plot is not a logical structure, it serves the same purpose in fiction that argument serves in philosophy—and may even rival philosophical argument in brilliance. The trouble, or the glory, is that literary critics have never devised a notational system for reducing the plot to its necessary causal sequence. Indeed, critics have an allergy to reducing a novel to its plot. So much else about it seem so much more important!

But the plot is what gives the “so much else” its importance. And when it is airtight, the plot succeeds in establishing, I would hold, the validity of the novel’s central theme.

He proceeds to do just this for Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence (1920), claiming that “The novel is written to verify a ‘tragic view of marital duty.'”

In the comments, he adds:

The philosopher seeks to validate his central claim through argument; the novelist, through plot. In The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton does not build an intellectual case for the tragedy of marriage. She lays it out—by plots and errors moved. And in so doing, she puts on abundant and satisfying display how the greatest novelists think.

Dan Green’s reply to Myers:

If plot is not a logical structure, how can it serve the same purpose as argument? An argument depends on its logical structure. If plot has no logical structure, how can it be an argument at all, much less a brilliant one?

Myers’ reply to Green

Because argument is the organizing principle in philosophy. Logic is the method by which philosophical argument is conducted: it is peculiar to philosophy. Plot is (almost always) the method by which a novel’s “argument” is conducted. It is fiction’s answer to philosophy.

I confess, as a moral philosopher who has turned to literature to get away from abstract argument and a highly cognitive, conscious and non-naturalized take on moral judgment and experience, I found Myers’ assertions a little dismaying.  It’s not just that there are experimental novels that don’t fit the plot mold, as Green has pointed out. It’s that, unless “plot” is being defined include everything valuable about literature, in which case there’s nothing really new here, I don’t see that looking at literature as a sustained argument is really helpful in reading it as literature. Philosophers are very used to reading literature as fancified argument,  as “philosophy with bells and whistles”, of course, as textbooks like Nina Rosenstand’s and Peter and Renata Singer’s , which encourage students to extract moral premises and conclusions from various canonical works, attest, but I always thought that was a pretty reductive way to read even very plot driven fiction, such as genre fiction. I guess I am just not sure what the payoff is, while I can see dangers, for example, in artifiicially forcing the text into a defense of a thesis, creating the possibility of missing what’s secondary or what doesn’t fit. I realize that the claim isn’t that plot is argument, but I am not sure how else to read the premise by premise reduction of Wharton which ends with what looks to me like a garden variety conclusion, that no one had to slog though Age of Innocence to figure out.

And I’m not even sure the role of argument in philosophy is well captured by this, either. Of course, argument is a hallmark of philosophy, a crucial tool of the trade. But philosophers also use literary techniques, rhetoric, autobiography, etc., and there are lots of other things that are just as important to read philosophy for, such as a providing compelling sketches of a worldview which can’t — especially in the case of philosophers in the continental tradition like Nietzsche and Heidegger — be reduced to a series of premises and conclusions alone without losing a lot of its philosophical power. Never mind deconstructive readings like those to which Derrida subjects Plato and Irigaray subjects Spinoza and Levinas.

4. Personal

Author Crystal Jordan has pictures up from the PCA Conference and I am only linking to them because the one of me is actually pretty good. — that’s a joke. It’s a fun post. Check it out!

Speaking of which, my ego would like to whinge for a moment. I have 500 subscribers and that number again of regular daily visitors to this blog. And yet not ONE of you asked me to talk about my PCA paper presentation. The people who were actually present are excused. But what about the other 980 of you? Sheesh!

My first post-tenure review document is due Friday. Guess I’d better get started on that, eh?

Actually, April (and early May) are sheer hell in terms of workload. Not only is the semester winding up, which means loads of exams and paper to grade, as well as end of year awards and celebrations, but I am going to Texas in 2 weeks to give a 2 talks, one on neuroethics and one on feminist bioethics, for which I have to make final preparations.

My reading is down — way down — as the dearth of reviews might suggest. But I have also not been enjoying a lot of what I have been reading, and thus haven’t felt like blogging about it.

Happy Week!

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