Friday, April 10, 2009

Jessica Papin on "Nostalgia"

A few evenings ago I was talking with an editor who described, quite beautifully, the plot of a novel that he had recently acquired. In doing so, he used the word "reify," which is a wonderful word, but one that seldom shows up in flap copy--usual suspects being adjectives like "luminous," "compelling," "masterful," etc. I said as much, and he laughed good-naturedly, and said that as an assistant (at a venerable and highly serious house, mind you) a marketing director had nixed his use of the adjective "Swiftian" in a book description. I could relate. My first week of work as an editorial assistant, I marveled at the erudition of the editors around me who described the project under discussion, a proposal for a book on meditation, as "very much in the vein of Thomas More." Impressive. In the meeting minutes, which I was taking, I carefully noted the comparison title was the political tract Utopia by the sixteenth century English saint/statesman, which (fortuitously!) I had had to read in service of a survey course. And not, however, Care of the Soul, the New York Times bestseller published a year or so earlier by super-successful spirituality author Thomas Moore. This entry on the widely-circulated minutes earned me some funny looks from my colleagues, plus a gentle but firm recommendation from my boss that I should start updating my comp title frame of reference. Fast.

This was, in fact, not the only moment in which I suspected I might be ill-served by my alternate life as a graduate student in literature. When I had first interviewed for the position assisting an editor who managed the women’s fiction list, I had earnestly expounded on my favorite feminist writers; I cited a veritable Norton anthology of names, which grew longer and more frantic as I noted the editor’s increasingly bemused expression. When she explained that the kind of women’s fiction she was talking about was mostly romance and romantic suspense, I believe I may have mumbled something about reading Gone with the Wind, but probably retreated into stricken silence. How it was that she hired me, I’m not sure. In any case, working in women’s fiction was as good a starting point as any to discover that the business of acquiring books and the business of studying them, did not, apparently, have much to do with one another. As it became obvious that what I had thought would be a felicitous overlap in interdependent fields were in fact two divergent career paths, I took a semester off from the doctoral program, cast my lot with Thomas Moore, and never looked back. Until, that is, the other evening when the editor with whom I was talking used the word "reify."

Whenever I run across it, in a reaction either Proustian or Pavlovian, I am instantly transported back to the days when, as a distraction from wrestling with the works of theorists whose books appeared to be in English but were not, I kept a running list of words that seldom occur outside of graduate school. My favorite was "reify," but others included "problematic" when used as a noun, or "problemetize" (a verb); "vexed" (usually describing an idea), e.g."The narrative is a vexed one…" foreground" but only as a verb, as in "I’d like to foreground the problematic…"and "fraught" but only when unaccompanied by "with," as in "The text is fraught."

Proust had his madeleine cakes and I have my grad-school word list. I wonder if anyone else out there has such nostalgic associations with particular words–if so, I’d love to hear them.

Speaking of nostalgia, I just read Joanna Smith Rakoff’s wonderful debut novel, A Fortunate Age. The book, published by Scribner, is an updating of and homage to Mary McCathy’s The Group, set against the rise and resounding "pop" of the dot com bubble in New York–an era when 24-year-old new media millionaires were poster children for an economy freed from antiquated, mellow-harshing rules, and Williamsburg Brooklyn was the locus of a self-conscious hipsterism and attendant abuse of trucker hats. She captures a time and place I remember well with dead-on accuracy. I’m curious to know if folks reading this have their own nominees for books that capture the zeitgeist of a particular time and place.


  1. So glad I'm not the only one to note the schism between genuinely popular literature and the stuff academia wants us to *think* was popular literature back in the day!

    I am determined to make this the subject of my dissertation--this unwillingness of academia to accept that what's loved by the masses isn't all bad, for what were the Illiad and the Odyssey if not the blockbusters of their own day?

    The words I love most but cannot use as an author are "about" (rather than "around"), "before" (rather than"in front of"), and "perhaps" (rather than "maybe").

    Then there's "rather than" in the place of "isntead of" that my proofreaders are always nixing from my manuscripts, since YA's aren't expected to understand such archaic phrasing. But---like you--as a grad student of English lit, this is the language I speak, alas. :)

  2. I lack the college education in literature that you obtained, but when I was young, most of the reading material I checked out of the library was by Brits long dead and as a result, I would often blurt out a word in daily conversation that I did not know had not been used in a hundred years -- and get a round of funny looks from adults who thought I was making words up again.

  3. I had Talshannon's experience: the books we read as kids tended to be the fusty old classics my grandparents left us, which we read over and over whenever we'd finished our library books. They were great, too -- not at all fusty -- but the language was hardly contemporary. This has wreaked havoc with my idiolect; I couldn't write a trendy book if you put a gun to my head. So it's probably better that I write for geeks and nerds.

    I love 'vexed', but 'reify' is a new one. Great word, though.

  4. Vexed immediately brings me to deep inside a Jane Austen novel- a lovely place to be.

  5. I wouldn't call my feeling toward words like "problematize" and "reconceptualize" nostalgia, more like - guilty conscious? I've presented (read) a few papers at academic conferences, and I was very aware that I was imitating – mouthing – aping is the unattractive word for it – the language favored by academics, in particular, feminist academics. Just as I imitated John Steinbeck or tried my hand at Amy Tan-flavored reminiscence, so I wrote conference papers! Since such conferences are "pay to play" affairs, I wonder if they really didn't care what I wrote, as long as I was paying the conference fee...kind of like vanity publishing, in a way? :)

    I've also had the experience of standing in the hallway outside an academic conference, giving away free crafty-whimsical items to passers-by – I remember one beautifully coiffed and attired conference attendee hardly even looking at me, while the young female hotel staff were happy to get a freebie, and peppered me with questions. Which was a bit weird, because according to academic feminists who attend conferences, young women blah blah objectified blah blah shame blah internalized – and here right out in the hotel hallway, I was "collecting raw data" that contradicted that. Strange, very strange.

    I would offer War and Peace as a zeitgeist-capturing tome, except as a "comp title frame of reference" it is admittedly outdated! Instead I'll go with Toby Barlow's Sharp Teeth set in LA. A great read for Michiganders in January.

  6. Less collecting a list of words, I found myself collecting a list of complications related to pregnancy, while completing my physician assistant degree ten years ago. Personally horrified at the thought of pregnancy, I firmly attached a running list to the back of my note-taking clipboard. Every time an instructor would mention a gestational complication or pregnancy-related side effect (gestational diabetes, rashes associated with pregnancy, uterine prolapse after pushing a few puppies out...) I'd frantically make a notation on my list. If my husband were to approach me any time soon with the idea of starting a family, by God, I'd have all the evidence I needed to convince him otherwise.

    Funny how, back then, I never could have imagined I'd be the mother of three children, teaching childbirth education classes and writing in my spare time...

  7. Judy Schneider14/4/09 9:05 AM

    As a research chemist-turned-writer, I love when non-science writers/readers use words like "equilibrium" and "concerted" to describe character relationships, for example. When I hear those terms (and others), I have to shake images of beakers of bubbling solutions and condensors housing hopefully balanced chemical reactions. :)

  8. I had to look "concerted" up:

    "In chemistry, a concerted reaction is a chemical reaction in which all bond breaking and bond making occurs in a single step"

    Having done so, I kind of forget what the non-chemistry sense of "concerted" was, so I had to look that up too:

    "Planned or accomplished together; combined: We made a concerted effort to solve the problem."


    There are such things as text message novels - maybe a chemist could write a novel as a series of chemical reactions - or just a short story.