Editing Analysis: J.D. Salinger’s “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period”

There is a solipsistic self-righteousness to Smith’s outlook on the people that surround him: he is insulted by M. Yoshoto’s proofreading assignments and by two of his pupil’s less-than-stellar bodies of work. Yet his adoration of Sister Irma becomes a vindication of his existence, and more materially his ego: through Irma’s accomplishments does this character gauge his own worth. This validation is much needed after his pessimistic interpretations of his relationship with the two Yoshotos.

Using advice from Renni Browne and Dave King’s “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers”, I explore the usage – and subversion – of typical editing techniques designed to produce more effective writing and easier-to-read prose.

Browne and King advise that when using the first-person point of view, the character must be distinct enough to keep the reader’s attention, but not eccentric enough to make readers “trapped inside his or her head.” This issue can be characterized as one of tempering alienation: if the reader must deal with being alienated by every action or sentence that the first-person narrative produces, then the act of reading becomes laborious. However, as we see in Salinger’s “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period”, alienating the reader can produce an unlikeable sincerity; between the lines of the main character’s cynicisms exists a nimble exploration of ego and perception.

This nimbleness exists in John Smith’s lively descriptions of his actions and dreams, especially after having sent a hugely caring letter to his star pupil, Sister Irma:

I would listen, listen, listen, with my head in my hands–till finally, unable to stand it any longer, I would each down into Mme. Yoshoto’s throat, take up her heart in my hand and warm it as I would a bird. Then, when all was put right, I would show Sister Irma’s work to the Yoshotos, and they would share my joy.

There is a solipsistic self-righteousness to Smith’s outlook on the people that surround him: he is insulted by M. Yoshoto’s proofreading assignments and by two of his pupil’s less-than-stellar bodies of work. Yet his adoration of Sister Irma becomes a vindication of his existence, and more materially his ego: through Irma’s accomplishments does this character gauge his own worth. This validation is much needed after his pessimistic interpretations of his relationship with the two Yoshotos:

I gave away a lulu of a Picasso story that had just reached me, one that I might have put aside for a rainy day. M. Yoshoto scarcely lowered his Japanese newspaper to listen to it, but Mme. Yoshoto seemed responsive, or, at least, not unresponsive.

The limitations of the first-person viewpoint enhances John Smith’s perceptions of the Yoshotos as passive indictments on his quality of person. Throughout the story, Smith seems to be surprised how much he could trick everyone around him to believe he is De Daumier-Smith, but tempers his success with the anxieties of being discovered by his hosts and student for his true nature. In his world, these characters are obstacles to realizing his wants and desires for something more.

However, events such as Irma leaving the school or the revelation that M. Yoshoto’s school was not even licensed reveals a much larger universe that exists outside of his control and intellect; the first-person viewpoint becomes a powerful tool for exploring the limitations of human experience. With enough descriptions from John Smith, these characters are filled with thought and emotions, but we are left with the sneering descriptions and clever insults from Salinger’s first-person narrative.

Without overt introspection, J.D. Salinger invites the reader into the very limited world of John Smith: limited in length (at only about fifteen pages long), limited in scope (about two or three main settings), and strongly limited in point of view, as the reader is stuck in the head of a 19-year-old protagonist, whose age may contribute to his lack of emotional intelligence and his bleak judgment on all those around him. But Salinger deliberately utilizes the first-person perspective to transform the broader world into an opaque glass that merely blinds the teenager instead of letting him peer in.

The Shower

The American shower is to partake in an accepted pleasure.

Kalinga’s showers were predominantly bucket-based, common for middle-class households in an outside of major Filipino cities. The city’s tap water flowed through the kitchen sink, the toilet, and a faucet located at knee-height in the shower room. The faucet, just like one found outside on American suburban homes, would quickly fill the multi-gallon bucket with – at best – lukewarm water; at worst, and mostly occurring in the lofty mountain village of Lubo, one would receive the chilly stream sourced from underneath the residents’ homes and farms.

The Philippine air was cool: at night one only needed a long-sleeve shirt, and day a light t-shirt. The showers may have been less of a stress if the morning picked up in temperatures more quickly; instead, an entirely apathetic breeze passed by as I entered the shower room with my bucket and towel, mentally bracing myself for the jolt of cold as I start with the top of my head, my face (I lean forward so the water won’t drip down and cool anything else), then down to my shins, closer to my privates, but always second-guessing the need to pour the bucket on my chest and tummy, which would jumpstart the beating of my heart and inevitably reach my nethers.

The act of showering via this method is defined by the thoughts of showering; I am undistracted by stray thoughts, and in other words, wholly distracted by showering as a process. The objective was to get in and out with as little trauma as possible.

Contrast this with the more distracted, passive act of the American shower, or in my case, the apartment-based shower (no water utility fees) with seemingly unlimited hot water – let alone the limitless water itself. Knowledgeable of this abundance (I have grown for two decades with America’s unending stream of warm water), the act of showering is modified. I am not seeking the end, but it’s prolongement; it is common to hear one say that the shower is the “one place” for tranquility. I can only agree by evaluating its functions: the nakedness, the wetness, the transition from “dirty” to “clean”; the American shower is ordained by its society as good but private, encouraged but hidden.

The American shower is to partake in an accepted pleasure.

And in its pleasure is one of thought. As the most typical configuration of shower schedule is to follow the morning’s waking up process (somehow the wetness, warmth, cleanliness is considered a way to activate one’s productivity during the day), the processing of dreams, stray thoughts, and tasks to be accomplished is initiated by the shower. The comforts of the shower not only encourages the pleasure of comfort but also a period of light processing before heading out the door. It should not be surprising that the term “Shower Thoughts” has been coined in the past few years as surprising ideas that stem from the idleness of the shower; mental associations unencumbered by external necessities may be explored to their logical conclusions. A feeling of accomplishment in mulling over minute details may be achieved; mental pleasure follows in its wake.

While I enjoy the prospects of the American shower, I cannot so much entertain its side effects of environmental unsustainability; the bucket showers accomplish their goal of the clean body, without the pleasure but also without wasted gallons. So my exploration of the American shower is to figure out its qualities, benefits and determine if they can be isolated beyond the shower; is it the water, in all its liminal symbology that allows one to come up with such creative processing? If not, then is there a way to achieve the meditative benefits of the shower without the water? Is there a modified form of reflexivity, understanding, awareness that we can employ in order to achieve a sustainable self-reflection?

For such a small part of our day, the shower defines so much of our culture, from sensuality, to cleanliness, health, privacy, aspirations, dreams, and spirituality. But it would be an important feat to decouple its benefits from the act itself, and be able to do the same acts anywhere, in any climate.

Editing Analysis: Jim Shepard’s “Minotaur”

Browne and King’s largest takeaway from the chapter “See How it Sounds” is that the rhythm and flow of both dialogue and narration is key to preventing the reader from being overly encumbered by the writing itself. Their idea of flow goes beyond “realistic dialogue” and instead into a type of literary conciseness that reads naturally, even if it isn’t fully grounded in reality. Jim Shepard takes this advice to heart by focusing on jilted dialogue as a centerpiece of a short story about miscommunication.

Using advice from Renni Browne and Dave King’s “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers”, I explore the usage – and subversion – of typical editing techniques designed to produce more effective writing and easier-to-read prose.

Browne and King’s largest takeaway from the chapter “See How it Sounds” is that the rhythm and flow of both dialogue and narration is key to preventing the reader from being overly encumbered by the writing itself. Their idea of flow goes beyond “realistic dialogue” and instead into a type of literary conciseness that reads naturally, even if it isn’t fully grounded in reality. Jim Shepard takes this advice to heart by focusing on jilted dialogue as a centerpiece of a short story about miscommunication:

“You know Latin?” He asked.

“Do you know how long I’ve been tired of this?” she told him.

“I don’t know Latin,” Celestine volunteered.

“Tastes Like Chicken,” he translated.

“Nice,” Carly told him.

“I don’t get it,” Celestine said.

“Neither does she,” he told her.

“Oooh. Snap,” Carly said.

It is a challenge to insert four characters at once into a conversation for basic reasons of clarity, but Shepard transitions the bottom half of this conversation into small bursts of speech punctuated by “said”, allowing for both clear speaker attributions and the opportunity to extend the scene without resorting to beats or exposition.

The small bits of confusion expressed by the characters harken back to the famed West Wing screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who was able to hybridize character exposition with dialogue by developing a sense of confusion for both the audience and the subjects speaking. Celestine’s “I don’t get it” coincides with the reader’s ignorance of Kenny’s patch, and Carly’s vocalizing of the patch allowed Kenny to explain to the characters and audience its existence in Shepard’s universe. We can already tell Carly’s curiosity about her husband’s work, Celestine’s ignorance, and Kenny’s matter-of-factness in just a few lines rather than paragraphs.

Carly’s motivation to acquire information is further explored through the lens of the first-person narrative of her husband, who was also able to gain character through informal narrative exposition. Words or phrases were italicized to emphasize the narrator’s personal thoughts his circumstances:

Not being able to tell the people you’re closest to anything about what you care about most?

Within this relatable informality, we are able to understand the perspective of narrator: content with his job’s acronyms and ardent separation from his home life, he is also content with being detached from the thoughts of his wife. The image he has created for Carly is based solely on her external expression rather than any kind of emotional intelligence; when she claims she is happy about her lack of knowledge about himself or his job, he takes it for face-value.

Similarly for the audience, we are limited to Kenny, Celestine, and Carly’s dialogue — and their direct interactions with the protagonist — to develop character images; the informality and confusion of the dialogue scenes relate to the main character’s limitation of perspective. He cannot understand why Kenny would sell him out for sharing his wife’s secrets, and by the end of the story repeats his face value interpretation of Carly when she accepts his apology. In other words, while the reader can enjoy Shepard’s command of natural rhythm and flow of wording within dialogue and exposition, we are also trapped by this flow, floating within the protagonist’s limited perception of the world.

Editing Analysis: Alexie Sherman’s “What You Pawn I Will Redeem”

Alexie Sherman’s “What You Pawn I will Redeem” adheres heavily to Browne and King’s established tenets of dialogue mechanics as emotion-based rather than description based. Typically avoiding any adverbs ending in “-ly” or verbs attempting to replace “said”, Sherman conveys emotion through a very minimalist use of action interwoven with dialogue.

Using advice from Renni Browne and Dave King’s “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers”, I explore the usage – and subversion – of typical editing techniques designed to produce more effective writing and easier-to-read prose.

Alexie Sherman’s “What You Pawn I will Redeem” adheres heavily to Browne and King’s established tenets of dialogue mechanics as emotion-based rather than description based. Typically avoiding any adverbs ending in “-ly” or verbs attempting to replace “said”, Sherman conveys emotion through a very minimalist use of action interwoven with dialogue.

Unlike some stories that would attempt to modify the flow of conversation with a beat, “What You Pawn” typically includes blocks of dialogue ended with “said”, and finally punctuate it with an isolated action. For example:

”Well, sometimes I think of it that way. And other times I think of it the way they want me to think of it. I get confused.”

She fed him morphine.

”Do you believe in heaven?” He asked.

”I’m talking about the Heaven where my legs are waiting for me.”

They laughed.

In Brechtian fashion, these character simply speak, then commit an action, then speak again. A more standard way of writing these actions may have been:

”Well, sometimes I think of it that way,” He said as she set up the morphine bag. “And other times I think of it the way they want me to think of it. I get confused. Do you believe in heaven?”

Similar to Saunders’ “Spiderhead” short story, we have a writing style that isolates dialogue within its space, bringing attention to a certain detachment the writer may want to convey to the reader.

But there may be some emotional reasons that may have motivated Sherman: “What You Pawn” is a generally melancholy story with bits of levity, and themes of lived alienation can be throughout. This alienation can be conveyed by also alienating the reader by slightly detaching description and action from dialogue, causing readers to read it without any deep emotions.

This leads into the second possible motivation: that Sherman’s isolation of dialogue can accentuate its content. The protagonist introduces himself with an admission that he has a tendency to keep quiet with white people, yet half of his dialogue exchanges involve those same white people. Sherman seems eager to explore this complicated relationship with dialogue rather than character action.

In one sense, Sherman’s dialogue without action and direct description could point to the author’s intent on using these characters as vessels for his own ideas about Native American identity and relationship with urban centers and white people. Like radio show hosts, these characters are more defined by what they say rather than what they do. With such deep focus on dialogue, the physical world in which they exist is not important to the ideas they portray.

With (seemingly over-) emphasis on dialogue mechanics, especially avoiding replacements for the traditional “said” and beats to break up lines of dialogue, Alexie Sherman looks to convey his tone of writing through style over “physical” substance. Jackson’s character study does not spend much time on his movements throughout the world, but instead places its efforts into the conversations he has with various Native Americans, authorities and store clerks. With small kindnesses occurring between dialogue scenes, we find a warm-hearted yet still alienating story touching on mental illness, cultural identity, and urbanization.

Editing Analysis: Rivka Galchen’s “The Region of Unlikeness”

Browne and King’s explanation of “proportion” warns of the issues of over-explaining scenes when they are not particularly relevant to the plot or theme. In a sense, “Unlikeness” does not overtly break this rule, with brisk but satisfying descriptions of the characters and their actions.

Using advice from Renni Browne and Dave King’s “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers”, I explore the usage – and subversion – of typical editing techniques designed to produce more effective writing and easier-to-read prose.

Rivka Galchen’s “The Region of Unlikeness” is an anti-romantic sci-fi tale that begins in the middle of three characters’ lives and ending just as abruptly. On various book blogs and story discussion boards, Galchen’s brief fiction piece commonly ends up with a shared conclusion: at times brilliant, at times playful, but the short story ultimately ends with a whimper. This disappointment seems to be deliberate: the main characters are found to be an unreliable bunch, appearing and disappearing at will throughout the story, much to the reader’s curiosity and consequently chagrin. Drama if defused by pedantry, romance challenged by frustration, and suspension of disbelief tempered by constant real-world references as if to remind the reader that they are simply reading a story written by a very self-conscious author.

Browne and King’s explanation of “proportion” warns of the issues of over-explaining scenes when they are not particularly relevant to the plot or theme. In a sense, “Unlikeness” does not overtly break this rule, with brisk but satisfying descriptions of the characters and their actions. However, the introduction of time travel as a possible factor for the disappearance of Ilan straddles the line between useful expository information and Galchen’s pet project to aestheticize her knowledge of the “grandfather paradox”.

Simply stated, the paradox is this: if travel to the past is possible—and much in physics suggests that it is—then what happens if you travel back in time and set out to murder your grandfather? If you succeed, then you will never be born, and therefore your grandfather won’t be murdered by you … The surprise is that, just as real circles can’t be squared and real moving matter doesn’t cross the barrier of the speed of light, the mathematical solutions to the billiard-ball wormhole scenario…

Time travel becomes as overwrought as Jacob’s explanation of Saint Augustine’s “unlikeness” parable, and both character and concept are interrupted by Galchen’s want of a “realist” fiction in which nothing is satisfying and everything — including time travel — is down to earth and part of some “human condition”. In other words, high concepts are brought into the light and then immediately silenced when the reader wants just a little more to achieve a more “complete” experience.

By the end of the story, Galchen writes away any need to give a strong ending by being haunted by the “predestination paradox”, where the main character’s avoidance of Jacob is simply part of her destiny. Possibly to a logician, this would be a satisfactory ending: just through theoretical concepts, one could concoct a love story or a story about friendship. However, given how undeveloped the protagonist’s relationship with Ilan and Jacob were, along with an ending paragraph that looks as if it could barely end the first act, Galchen’s detailed explanation of these paradoxes look more like cop-outs rather than profundity. Even if purposeful, other authors and artists have explored anti-romance and logic-laced stories in much more emotional and surprising ways.

Giving too much proportion to the details of the science fiction concepts referenced in “Unlikeness” and concluding without exploring these concepts mar an intricately crafted beginning to three characters that were surprisingly more compelling than the narrative they inhabit. Galchen’s short story seems to live in a sci-fi world where stories can effectively conclude with pessimistic conceptual handwaving.

Editing Analysis: Steven Millhauser’s “A Precursor of the Cinema”

One of Browne and King’s most critical pieces of advice for characteriziation and exposition is to cut narrative summary, otherwise known as the “telling” in the first chapter, and expand the “showing” of a protagonist’s psyche and attributes through actions. However, as with the previous analysis, these rules are made to modified and subverted in order to stimulate the reader’s interest.

Using advice from Renni Browne and Dave King’s “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers”, I explore the usage – and subversion – of typical editing techniques designed to produce more effective writing and easier-to-read prose.

One of Browne and King’s most critical pieces of advice for characteriziation and exposition is to cut narrative summary, otherwise known as the “telling” in the first chapter, and expand the “showing” of a protagonist’s psyche and attributes through actions. However, as with the previous analysis, these rules are made to modified and subverted in order to stimulate the reader’s interest.

Millhauser’s short story reveals that exploring a character’s opaque personality through almost exclusively narrative summary can bring about a wholly new way to characterize. In the case of protagonist Harlan Crane, we are able to glimpse his inner turmoil through his intricately detailed works and external interpretations developed by supporting characters and fictional newspaper publications alike. In a sense, we never truly get to understand Crane personally, but we expand what he might be like through the stories of others.

Viewers reported that, as they examined the dark painting, in the twilit niche, the prisoner stirred and looked about …. One journalist, who returned to observe the painting three days in succession, reported that the “escape” took place three or four times a day ….

Here we find that Millhauser abstains from describing a painting by Crane through a direct third-person omniscient perspective, but instead through the summary of “first-hand” sources. While in base terms this would be “telling” about the painting rather than “showing”, this painting could otherwise be interpreted as an indirect description of the painter’s own psyche or circumstances during its creation, and also “showing” that this man was never transparent enough for the author himself to describe directly.

Browne and King advise that one should avoid summing up characters in order to keep them unlimited in their characterization and development. Millhauser plays with this idea by hiding Crane’s inner thoughts from the reader and instead going into the intricate details of these paintings and subsequently making conclusions through audience and critic evaluations. One could interpret this narrative approach as a statement about critics “boxing in” creative works into its technical components or reductive themes. Whereas the author has summed up the paintings, Crane himself continues to be the real mystery.

Very little dialog is used throughout the story, and typically only occurred later when W. C. Curtis took up the responsibility to expound on his interactions with Crane. But even during dialog, a “scene” was not created to isolate from the usual narrative summary. This analysis finds that limiting the dialog maintains the stylistic choice to blend “telling” and “showing” together in order to include all elements of the story at symbolic character exposition.

In conclusion, the peculiar characterization of Harlan Crane can be derived from a type of fiction that is more in love with the aesthetics of its world than the protagonist. The detail in which Millhauser goes into the paintings of Crane and the reactions of the public are more nuanced and developed than that of any singular character. Perhaps the real “psyche” that was being explored in “A Precursor of the Cinema” was the late-19th century or a time period before huge media conglomerates, where legends were born out of word of mouth and titillating rumors.

Details about Millhauser’s short story here.

On Video Essays

In other words, the audience, or consumer, is incentivized to take in the content and its message rather than to synthesize it with their own values. As a result, a video essay can easily become more of a monolog, or a one-sided lecture rather than a dialogue of ideas. In moralistic terms, an unthinking audience is also one that will not dynamically absorb the essence of the film essay but rather simply its contents. The unthinking audience may as well have had a forgettable dream in the timespan of a video clip.

With recorded video and audio, the written word has diminished in responsibility and power. In a movie, a text can be read aloud or focused on by the camera for the audiences to glance over. In video games, text is part of ammunition counts, loading screens, and instructional content. But writers have resigned themselves in subservience to audio and visual delights, and we can see this within YouTube video essays.

The two most important aspects of text are accessibility and portability. Accessibility: unlike 100 years ago, it is a given that just about everyone in the United States is able to read and write text. Unlike 150 years ago, it is rather affordable to purchase the tools to write text. And unlike 200 years ago, it is trivial to print and disseminate that text for others to read. I will compare this with the video format later in the essay, whose timeline is much more recent and compressed. Portability: a contributing factor to the ease of disseminating text is that the format is highly portable. It can be transferred from the palm of the hand to a sheet of paper to a stone tablet. Now digitized, text is the medium upon which people, machines, and software programs run; portability means compatibility.

These two aspects of text contribute to one overarching idea: that the normal person is able to easily write their ideas and disseminate them among people. They have the ability and they have the means of production. This idea was realized in the late-90s through mid-2000s with online discussion boards and blogs. There didn’t seem like any reason for a person with internet to not write and share their ideas with others in textual form.

But we have seen in the last 2000 years that illiteracy brought a different form of idea-sharing and creativity: theatre was the visual-auditory alternative to text-driven entertainment and literature. In the last 150 years, printed photos and projected videos eclipsed the importance of theatre. In the last 100 years, recorded video and audio eclipsed live projection. In the last 20 years, digital video has now challenged the textual form as a primary means of idea-sharing. And evaluating each of these periods, the accessibility and portability of video leads to one question: why should anyone with internet not record and share their ideas in video form?

The question of this essay is whether or not the fall of the written word is coincidental or integral to the rise of inhabiting others’ copyrighted works — to relay criticism/exploration of themes or technicalities of that given work.

With YouTube, it was trivial to upload copyrighted materials, either audio or visual; for years YouTube was an asylum for free, copyrighted entertainment. At the same time, it was also trivial to record, edit and upload homemade videos, and this is where YouTube built its legacy: entertainment by the masses, for the masses, a role that was initially immortalized by text and its accessibility and portability.

But then something happened: the text-based critique of a movie, taken for granted by newspaper publications for a century, began to transport itself into the movies it critiqued. It was a match made in heaven: why would one not show the film’s weaknesses and strengths in order to make a more salient point? Here, in the intersection of homemade media and copyrighted, institutional entertainment media lies the video or film essay.

The video essay explains its concepts through visual and audio forms, infrequently interspersed with textual elements. With over a century of copyrighted but available visual and audio content, editors have found that expressing their ideas and themes through familiar images would increase the essay’s impact on the reader; instead of relying on the audience’s prior understanding of a given work, the essayist could display the excerpt in its entirety.

The excerpt is displayed without the context of the original intent: the essayist recontextualizes prefabricated content to fit their worldview or argument. To compare with text, the essayist must describe the idea of the excerpt and then recontextualize. The reader would have to access their own memories and ideas about that excerpt and then apply the essayists’ own interpretations on top. This may muddle the intended message of the original creator and the essayist, but it also encouraged an active “connecting the dots” within the reader’s mind. Thus, the reader provides the third context to a given work.

Issue Number One: The audiovisual medium is a medium that encourages passive consumption rather than active consumption.

In other words, the audience, or consumer, is incentivized to take in the content and its message rather than to synthesize it with their own values. As a result, a video essay can easily become more of a monolog, or a one-sided lecture rather than a dialogue of ideas. In moralistic terms, an unthinking audience is also one that will not dynamically absorb the essence of the film essay but rather simply its contents. The unthinking audience may as well have had a forgettable dream in the timespan of a video clip.

This is not to say that text does not have its own authoritarian pitfall: the finality of the textual statement appears as if it were fact, and would require aesthetic “waffling” words in order to reduce the perceived conviction of each sentence. The essayist assumes authority by way of simply having the reader’s attention, even if the writer shouldn’t deserve it.

Issue Number Two: The video essayist has given up the rights to their ideas by displaying the legally protected content of others.

Perhaps in the future, publishers will relinquish their right to harshly protect copyrighted content, but at the moment, sites like Vimeo and YouTube must actively work in accordance with the law and take down any videos that incorporate copyrighted material for monetary gain. This means that video essayists have given up their ideas and potential direct revenues in order to insert their ideas in the works of others. If the essay may go too far, if the law is slightly changed, or if the essayist receives money, the publisher can move to take the video essay down.

We arrive at a harsh reality: by relinquishing our ideas to the will of others, we also give up the right to protect these ideas, their accessibility, and their portability. To express oneself in the works of others is work within a system that seeks only to take and sell, rather than give and pay. The transience of YouTube as a website and the legislation of copyrights, paired with the proprietary nature of .MP4 versus .AVI or .MOV makes videos into a highly risky territory of sharing ideas.

In one sense, the audiovisual format inherently works against the preservation of creativity and thought-provocation. Another interpretation finds that video is a highly portable and accessible medium that zooms through the internet at the speed of light, and perhaps that makes it worth the ephemerality. But caution should be in the wind as one puts their blood, sweat, and tears into making video essays; our works should be thoroughly our own, and text continues to be key to such a reality.