Wednesday, August 26, 2015

THE GRAMMAR OF POWER

Some years back, Joe Schwartz interviewed  Daphne Athas for a Chapel Hill newspaper when her memoir, Chapel Hill in Plain Sight: Notes From the Other Side of the Tracks, which covers the Depression, World War II, McCarthyism and the present was released. She knows a good story, even before she knows she'll write it. "I just knew I knew things that other people didn't know," she said of her last book. Schwartz described her as being “treasured by her creative writing students at UNC for her wit and creative idiosyncrasies and noted for Entering Ephesus, a Chapel Hill-inspired novel originally published by Viking Press in 1971. It was hailed by the critics, made  Time Magazine’s Ten Best Fiction List, won the Sir Walter Raleigh Award for fiction in 1972, and was published in England that year by Chatham and Windus to equal acclaim.

This tale about three school-aged sisters was republished buy us in 1971 under our Second Chance Press imprint, with Publishers Weekly calling it “a big book in every sense of the word, glorious, fascinating and holding up perfectly in the 20 years since its first publication. Written in nearly mesmerizing language, it’s an unforgettable story.”  And it is still in print with us.

Daphne’s other titles were Crumbs for the Boogie Man, a book of poetry, and Gram-o-Rama, a textbook of modern-day grammar exercises.

I’ve always been so impressed by her, still on the faculty of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill where she began teaching six decades ago, and still, at age 92, a remarkable writer who has her own blog. What follows comes from her own posting on July 13th, THE GRAMMAR OF POWER.

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“I’m sitting in a fishing town on the south coast of Crete on the weekend of June 19th and 20th with nothing to read but my Kindle stoked with Victorian novels and ancient Greeks: Aristotle, Thucydides, Herodotus. Non-evanescent reading. My only alternative: the International New York Times, which used to be the International Herald Tribune.

“To vie in silent awe with the inspiring mass of night sky, stars, and the lick of the Libyan sea, I read the headlines: Taylor Swift has just yanked her album 1989 from Apple’s new three month trial period free streaming. When in doubt as to who wields power over who, check financial pages.

“She did it on Sunday, day of rest posting on tumblr.com, her letter of reaction to Apple’s plan to stream pop artists and singer-song-writers free. No royalty payout. She wrote: ‘To Apple, With Love, Taylor’ telling them their announcement was ‘shocking,’ ‘disappointing,’ and uncharacteristic of a company she deemed the most historically progressive in the world.

“ ‘We don’t ask you for free iPhones. Please don’t ask us to provide you with music for nothing,’ the INTNYT quotes her as saying.

“She used the respectful ‘Please’ despite the huge TV mug shot of her painted doll-face, tarted-up lipstick and eye liner looming over her tiny dancing onstage body, expressing in naked, possibly self-demeaning words the emotion: ‘Why is it fair to ask artists and pay them nothing?’ She tells them casually she speaks for other artists, and it’s true; lots of them asked her to.

“You could feel Apple on the receiving end as if it were a person not a corporation or a fruit. Even the Supreme Court judges corporations the same as individual citizens. You could feel Taylor’s raw hurt like Dear Johns, and Hurt Parents whose children have betrayed the family love, smarts, and trust. Betrayal!

“You feel her moral justification like boiling blood, but it’s really ice-cold.

“Apple, the smartest, most loveable company in history? Like Google and other smart, progressive, successful companies, Apple deals politics of self-righteousness. Self-righteousness begets self righteousness. But Group think is not Individual Think.

“Like Google’s weekly cute film cartoons, Google the Gentle Giant Teacher encourages people to better themselves. ‘Read, Exercise, Love’. Six months ago I refused to click the Google cartoon of a bearded old man wagging his head above my incoming mail, suspecting it might be Tolstoy. But my curiosity won. I clicked, and yes, it was Tolstoy.

“Why is Google giving me my lesson on Life Values on Tolstoy’s back? Why should I give it my respect? This was not Taylor’s first nose-thumb to the corporate. She’d dumped Spotify in the past.

“Within twenty-four hours a man named Eddie Cue, Senior Vice President of Internet Software and Services caved. ‘When I woke up this morning and read Taylor’s note,’ he is quoted, ‘it really solidified that we need to make a change.’ Apple thenceforward offered a different plan: three months with more than full payment for the artists.

“ ‘Thank you,’ Taylor wrote back. ‘I am elated and relieved. Thank you for your words of support today. They listened to us.’ Who is ‘They?’ Did she mean Eddie’s pressuring peers? Did she mean her ravenous fans? (Did she tweet or did she email?) Who did she address it to? Her sole antecedent is: ‘Words’ but words don’t have ears. Only humans do. Words have effects. I had a teacher long ago who attacked students justifying themselves with ‘But they all do it!’ The old teacher attacked History too: ‘History proves this that or the other. Who is History?’ he asked ‘Is History a person? Can History speak?’ Why did Taylor change from treating Apple like a person, and introduce us to the shadowy pronoun ‘They’? Is her unhinged writing the fault of INTNYT? Did they leave her antecedent by mistake? All we’ve got is muddled writing.

“In the 50s Carson McCullers wrote a best seller, Member of the Wedding, and with Tennessee Williams, transformed it into a popular play and movie. Frankie, the adolescent girl, is in love with her older brother, but he’s getting married, and she faces abandonment forever. The plot shows her struggle to reconcile the separation of male and females selves in her own psyche. Only when she realizes the bride will become a part of her does she discover her mantra: ‘They are the We of Me.’

“Taylor may be swift but she’s been tailored to be. She knows how to bifurcate a plural pronoun and switch from relief and elation to secret codes of corporate usage. At least she is the They of She. Who is Apple the They of?

“The only info we get is Eddie cueing us (or Taylor) in. Eddie uses the impersonal construction: ‘It’ solidifies for ‘It’ signifies. Sounds more like a loose bowel movement turning into a firm deposit.

“In case anybody thinks I meant my title to mean The Power of Grammar instead of The Grammar of Power they’re wrong. There are clues to codes passing themselves off as Aesopian Morals. ‘Learn Grammar. Understand Better. Be Smarter.’ That’s inspirational. Gram-O-Rama doesn’t aim for Inspirational Ick; it doesn’t promise Money. It wants the challenge of Fun.

“About the second ‘who’ of the question in the second paragraph of this blog: I deliberately omitted the letter ‘m’ on the second ‘who’. Who wants to be an Object? I’d rather be colloquial.”

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This entry was posted under The Grammar Guru Speaks. You can get in touch with Daphne directly by email daphne.athas@gmail, or by posting a comment here. You can also email me at shepard@thepermanentpress.com

COMING NEXT WEEK is a perfect follow-up from Karen Owen, THE BOOK DOCTOR, who continues this discussion, Be sure to stay tuned for next Wednesday’s posting.

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