Saturday, March 14, 2015

More on John McPhee on "frames of reference"


Which of these is a "tetragrammatonic" mustache?

by Ken

Earlier today I began talking about a fascinating issue for writers raised by The New Yorker's legendary nonfiction scribe John McPhee, in the latest piece in his series of reflections on his chosen profession, "Frame of Reference: To illuminate -- or to irritate?"

Now, McPhee isn't a favorite writer of mine, and I might note that I usually find his exhaustive explorations of unexpected but vaguely interesting-sounding subjects, well, exhausting, not least because after a while I tend to find myself feeling stingily rewarded for the effort I'm putting in. Still, the word legendary seems utterly appropriate for John McPhee. He is certainly a favorite writer of a lot of serious and well-read people, and he's crafted an amazing career in terms of being able to write so extensively about highly specialized subjects that fascinate him, and make it all work economically.

And as I indicated in my earlier piece, John makes a genuinely persuasive point about the consideration writers need to give to the question of how likely readers are to be familiar with names and terms that are used to describe, explain, or illuminate points. After describing several such instances (including a couple from his own writing), which we'll come back to, he suggests that they're "points of reference that might just irritate, rather than illuminate, some readers," and adds, "Make that most readers." He ventures that --
we have come upon a topic of first importance in the making of a piece of writing: its frame of reference, the things and people you choose to allude to in order to advance its comprehensibility. Mention Beyoncé and everyone knows who she is. Mention Veronica Lake and you might as well be in the Quetico-Superior. Obviously, if you mention New York, you can count on most readers to know what that is and where. Mention Vernal Corners and you can’t. It’s upstate. What would you do with Scarsdale? Do you need to say where it is? Step van, Stanley Steamer, black-and-white unit, gooseneck trailer. If you know what a gooseneck trailer is, raise your hand.

One hand rises among thirty-two.

“Where are you from, Stacey?”

And he begins spooling out yards of examples of all sorts -- explaining, however, that "this is only to show how frames of reference operate, how quickly they evolve from currency to obsolescence." Nevertheless, he says,
The last thing I would ever suggest to young writers is that they consciously try to write for the ages. Oh, yik, disgusting. Nobody should ever be trying that.
"We should just be hoping," John goes on, "that our pieces aren’t obsolete before the editor sees them. If you look for allusions and images that have some durability, your choices will stabilize your piece of writing."

I think that's worth reading twice. As we've been reminded at the very top of his piece, John has for ages been teaching an undergraduate writing class at Princeton, and students who get advice like this sure seem to be getting their money's worth.

Hey, I didn't go to Princeton, and I didn't take John's class, and all the same, as I noted earlier today, he's got me thinking nervously about how to go about writing about Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest, as I'm edging toward doing, bearing in mind that it's an open question how many readers will have any context not just for the film but even for its director (and never mind that not so long ago his name was as familiar to moviegoers as that of anyone who had ever directed movies), and for that matter for its star, Cary Grant (and never mind that for a long time he was one of the most famous people in the country, and pretty darned well-known in a lot of other countries as well), and also the actor who coveted the role that went to Grant, Jimmy Stewart (who was awfully famous for an awfully long time as well).


It's a word that stumps him in a writing assignment turned in by a student of his, "sprezzatura," and his merry chase in attempting to track down what the hell it might mean.

Along the way we learn of the illustrious accomplishments of John's daughters. Let's see, there's Martha, "who has lived in Italy and co-translated John Paul II's Crossing the Threshold of Hope into English from the Vatican's Italian"; and Sarah, "a professor of art and architectural history at Emory, whose specialty is Baroque Rome"; and Jenny, "the other translator of the Pope's book," with whom by chance he happened that evening to be attending "a crowded reception at the New York Public Library"; not to mention Jenny's husband, Luca, "who was born, raised, and educated in Florence" but on the subject of sprezzatura refers John back to Jenny, who refers him to the "that couple over there" at the reception, a gentleman who's "in the Italian consulate," who bounces John to Mrs. In the Italian Consulate ("She is literary, I am not"), who says, "I'm very sorry. I have no idea."

The next day, we learn, John asks Abe, the student who wrote the piece, about the word! (Would you have thought of that?) And he gets an answer. But even the answer somehow winds up being one-upped by -- who else? -- one of the Magnificent McPhees.
Abe said he had picked up the word in Castiglione’s “The Courtier,” from 1528. “It means effortless grace, all easy, doing something cool without apparent effort.”

Soon after he left, I called Sarah again, and she picked up. She said Abe had it right, but the word “nonchalance” should be added to his definition. She said that Raphael carried the ideal of sprezzatura into painting. “He painted his friend Baldassare Castiglione as the ideal courtier, the embodiment of sprezzatura. It’s now in the Louvre.”
All of which is mildly amusing and mildly instructive, and unquestionably does make a point about "frame of reference." After all, if John with his vast and luminous network can't pin down sprezzatura, is there perhaps an issue here for the writer to ponder? It's not clear whether the student was encouraged to ponder it, because John is now off to other examples of possibly problematic references, this time his own.

(If it occurs to you that the "sprezzatura" episode smacks of having less to do with establishing the "frame of reference" issue than with parading the glorious accomplishments and connections of the charmed McPhee clan, well, you're not the only one. And it's not the last time in the course of the piece that such a question may occur to you.)

"Frames of reference," John tells us,
are like the constellation of lights, some of them blinking, on an airliner descending toward an airport at night. You see the lights. They imply a structure you can’t see. Inside that frame of reference -- those descending lights -- is a big airplane with its flaps down expecting a runway.
Um, huh? Did you get any of that?

What he says next is a little clearer:
You will never land smoothly on borrowed vividness. If you say someone looks like Tom Cruise -- and you let it go at that -- you are asking Tom Cruise to do your writing for you. Your description will fail when your reader doesn’t know who Tom Cruise is.
Ah, okay! Got that!

And John's off and running with quick-hit (or quickish-hit) examples of problematic frames of reference, though I think he picks unnecessarily on Maureen Dowd (imagine, me defending Mo!) for writing about Bill Clinton, in 2008: "Bill continues to howl at the moon. . . . He's starting to make King Lear look like Ryan Seacrest." C'mon, John, context matters, and this is a newspaper column. Yes, you have to trust that an adequate proportion of our Mo's readers in 2008 would have known who Ryan Seacrest was, but I don't think that's unreasonable.

References in a book may call for a higher standard of frame-of-reference alertness. By amazing coincidence, John cites two examples from writers for whom he has the highest regard, both of whom happen to have taken his class! Still, his points have merit. There are references by the great Washington Post science writer Joel Achenbach, in "his wonderful book Captured by Aliens," to "a nebula in space that looks like Abe Vigoda" and a Tufts professor who "looks a bit like Gene Wilder." John doesn't even seem to know who Gene Wilder is (ditto Wilford Brimley in an example from Mark Singer), which I'm thinking is his problem, but I'm also thinking that while for a newspaper column these might be okay, for a book maybe not so much? Ditto with Robert Wright, who wrote in his first book, Three Scientists and Their Gods: "The fact that Kenneth Boulding is a Quaker does not mean that he looks like the Quaker on the cartons of Quaker Oats."

(I guess if you taught a writing class and had had such futurely distinguished writers pass through it, you'd find a way to mention some of them too. Especially if you get to slap them down a little.)


When it comes to testing the inexorable obsolescence of frames of reference, John makes the point that he has the inestimable advantage of his students -- even if it takes him some more name-dropping to do it. The name in question is of a writer surely less famous than himself, but perhaps more Zeitgeist-y, and maybe it makes him feel less fogey-ish to be no more fogey than so much younger a writer.
The columnist Frank Bruni, writing in the Times in 2014, said, “If you . . . want to feel much, much older, teach a college course. I’m doing that now . . . and hardly a class goes by when I don’t make an allusion that prompts my students to stare at me as if I just dropped in from the Paleozoic era. . . . I once brought up Vanessa Redgrave. Blank stares. Greta Garbo. Ditto. We were a few minutes into a discussion of an essay that repeatedly invoked Proust’s madeleine when I realized that almost none of the students understood what the madeleine signified or, for that matter, who this Proust fellow was.”

As it happened, Frank Bruni was at Princeton teaching in the same program I teach in -- same classroom, same semester, different course, different day -- and if I had felt “much, much older” I would have been back in the Archean Eon. Frank wrote that he was wondering if all of us are losing what he felicitously called our “collective vocabulary.” He asked, “Are common points of reference dwindling? Has the personal niche supplanted the public square?”
John doesn't take this question as rhetorical.
My answer would be that the collective vocabulary and common points of reference are not only dwindling now but have been for centuries. The dwindling may have become speedier, but it is an old and continuous condition. I am forever testing my students to see what works and does not work in pieces of varying vintage.
And it's not just his own students whom John tests. He has a wonderful section where he reports the results of some testing done in a senior English class at Brooline High School, where one of the students happens to be one Isobel McPhee, "daughter of my daughter Laura." (Yikes, that's another McPhee daughter, isn't it? They're just all over the damned place.)

On Isobel's class John tries out a list "of about five dozen items," asking the students to "raise your hand if you recognize these names and places," starting with Woody Allen.
Nineteen hands went up. Everybody present in the class that day was aware of Woody Allen. As we went through my list, nineteen hands went up also for Muhammad Ali, Time magazine, Hallmark cards, Denver, Mexico, Princeton University, Winston Churchill, “Hamlet,” and Toronto. So those perfect scores reached around about fifteen per cent of the frame.

Sarah Palin, Omaha, Barbra Streisand, Rolls-Royce -- eighteen.
Paul Newman -- seventeen.
Heathrow -- sixteen.
Fort Knox -- fifteen.
Elizabeth Taylor, “My Fair Lady” -- eleven.
Cassius Clay -- eight.
Waterloo Bridge, Maggie Smith -- six.
Norman Rockwell, Truman Capote, Joan Baez -- five.
Rupert Murdoch -- three.
Hampstead, Mickey Rooney -- two.
Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh -- one.
“In England, would you know what a bobby is?” -- one.
Calabria, St. John’s Wood, Peckham Rye, Churchill Downs, the Old Vic, News of the World, Jackie Gleason, David Brower, Ralph Nelson, David Susskind, Jack Dempsey, Stephen Harper, Thomas P. F. Hoving, George Plimpton, J. Anthony Lukas, Bob Woodward, Norman Maclean, Henry Luce, Sophia Loren, Mort Sahl, Jean Kerr, James Boswell, Samuel Johnson -- zero.
Looking again at the list, I see that many of these names are too obviously agèd to be worthy of surprise. Still, I think there's some illumination here.


I'm more than a little troubled by the examples John offers of his own flirtations with referential obscurity. Like the time he slipped a "sincere" mustache past his New Yorker editor at the time, Robert Bingham.
This brought Bingham, manuscript in hand, out of his office and down the hall to mine, as I had hoped it would. A sincere mustache, Mr. McPhee, a sincere mustache? What does that mean? Was I implying that it is possible to have an insincere mustache?

I said I could not imagine anything said more plainly.
"The mustache made it into the magazine," we learn, "and caused me to feel self-established as The New Yorker’s nonfiction mustache specialist."
Across time, someone came along who had “a no-nonsense mustache,” and a Great Lakes ship captain who had “a gyroscopic mustache,” and a North Woodsman who had “a timber-cruiser’s guileless mustache.” A family practitioner in Maine had “an analgesic mustache,” another doctor “a soothing mustache,” and another a mustache that “seems medical, in that it spreads flat beyond the corners of his mouth and suggests no prognosis, positive or negative.”
Later there's a "tetragrammatonic" mustache, which prompted the observation:
A tetragrammatonic anything and a term that seems to have stalled in the Italian Renaissance are points of reference that might just irritate, rather than illuminate, some readers. Make that most readers. The perpetrator is the writer. Mea culpa.
Remember when he was talking to us about "the things and people you choose to allude to in order to advance its comprehensibility." Do any of these mustaches seem to you to qualify? Not to me, they don't. But wait! "Writing," John says, "has to be fun at least once in a pale blue moon."


Then there's the piece John did for Playboy about Wimbledon, where his editor, "the affable Arthur Kretchmer, who was soon to become Playboy’s editorial director, a position he held for thirty years," was stumped by this:
In the Members’ Enclosure, on the Members’ Lawn, members and their guests are sitting under white parasols, consuming best-end-of-lamb salad and strawberries in Devonshire cream. Around them are pools of goldfish. The goldfish are rented from Harrods. The members are rented from the uppermost upper middle class. Wimbledon is the annual convention of this stratum of English society, starboard out, starboard home.
"What does that mean?" the affable Arthur asks.
Assuming a tone of faintest surprise, I explained that when English people went out to India during the Raj, they went in unairconditioned ships. The most expensive staterooms were on the port side, away from the debilitating sun. When they sailed westward home, the most expensive staterooms were on the starboard side, for the same reason. And that is the actual or apocryphal but nonetheless commonplace etymology of the word “posh.” Those people in the All England Members’ Enclosure were one below Ascot: starboard out, starboard home.
I didn’t have a stopwatch with which to time the length of the silence on the other end of the line. I do remember what Kretchmer eventually said. He said, “Maybe one reader in ten thousand would get that.”

I said, “Look: you have bought thirteen thousand words about Wimbledon with no other complaint. I beg you to keep it as it is for that one reader.”

He said, “Sold!” 

Remember when it was a no-no to describe someone as looking like Tom Cruise, because not everyone knows what Tom Cruise looks like? Think back to the sterling McPhee formulation we encountered earlier: "If you look for allusions and images that have some durability, your choices will stabilize your piece of writing." And to "points of reference that might just irritate, rather than illuminate, some readers. Make that most readers."

Yeah, irritating. That's one word for it.



At 9:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, thanks for this. McPhee's self-indulgent and self-congratulatory essay made me so upset that I scoured the internet to see whether any other readers had had similar experiences. Glad to see I'm not alone.

At 4:54 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Glad to be of help. I guess those of us who aren't either (a) daughters or (b) former students of the Master have to turn to one another for such aid and comfort as we may be able to scrounge.


At 6:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I happen to like John McPhee very much and have read most of his works and yes there are references I do not understand, but what bothers me in the New YOrker piece is the question of his phrase "starboard out, starboard home" as a possible origin of "posh". Did he not mean to say port out starboard home?


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