A few weeks ago, Greil Marcus, cultural critic extraordinaire and the co-editor, with Werner Sollors, of our mammoth A New Literary History of America, delivered one of the keynote addresses at a conference on narrative at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, taking as his subject what he discovered about writing and editing during the making of A New Literary History of America. What the audience got was a kind of field report from the trenches of modern-day storytelling, and, more particularly, a set of reflections on what it was like to try and assemble, with the help of 220 other writers and editors, a narrative as complex and multifarious as the one that emerges from A New Literary History of America, a project whose audacity continues to provoke discussion, post-publication.When Greil shared his talk with us, we immediately thought it would make interesting reading for those of you interested in American culture, history, how to go about writing about those subjects, and how to go about writing more generally. What follows is part 1 of 5, in which we learn how the editor must turn epidemiologist in order that writers under his or her sway may avoid contracting the deadly "narrative disease" we know by the name of scare quotes.
Greil Marcus - Notes on the Making of A New Literary History of America
Adapted from a talk given at Case Western Reserve University on April 10, 2010
Part 1 - "Scare quotes are the enemy"
I’m going to talk about questions of narrative in a book I was lucky to co-edit with Werner Sollors—A New Literary History of America, published last year by Harvard University Press. And I’m going to start by talking about narrative and scare quotes.
The idea was to create a story made of pieces, of fragments—to tell the story of a country finding itself, creating itself, and ever after arguing over the meaning of that creation, over whether it was true or false, finished or unfinished, open or closed. Each essay—each 2,500-word piece in a chronological scheme of 220—had to clear and stake out its own ground, then build a house, identify its occupants, and then open the door—to proceed to tell the story of why and how what those people did was distinctive, why and how it was representative, and make room in that house both for the writer and the reader—and, if the implicit harmony the book was betting on was real, how that single house could stand for the country itself and all the twists and turns of its story.
Whether it was the slow fuse of the first appearance of the word “America” on a map, in 1507; whether it was the Declaration of Independence as written by Jefferson or the declaration of independence as written by Chuck Berry under the name “Roll Over Beethoven”; whether it was an imaginary meeting between Lily Bart of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and Carrie Meeber of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie;whether it was the serialization of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1851 or Frederick Douglass’s address to the wonderfully, today impossibly-named Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Sewing Society a year after that—somehow I can’t help thinking of the meeting of the Ladies Garden Club at the beginning of The Manchurian Candidate—in every case, the writer had to open that door wide enough that all of the country could pass through. To do that, you have to find the right words, and place your bets on them. And the enemy of that goal, we found, was scare quotes.
When we looked at all the essays together, we found a narrative disease. Somehow, through the writing of each piece, its editing by the member of the editorial board who had assigned it and reeled it in, then editing by a heroic copy editor, then by Werner, or myself, and finally by both of us, we found piece after piece littered with little typographical markings that like insect tracks were bleeding the life out of description, argument, dramatization. It was like a horror movie, when the demons that have previously appeared only in dreams and glimpses by a child that her parents ignored are suddenly everywhere, everywhere you look, and you can’t escape. Scare quotes.
You know how it works in lectures. The slow, sententious double double, accompanied by an expression of as we all know disdain—a way of saying, none of us are fooled—unlike those fools, not gathered here with us, who are fooled. Cooler still—the single double. In a sentence, any word can be in doubt, except maybe verbs like “is” or “are”—but really, it’s like trying to tell a story according to Mary McCarthy’s judgment on Lillian Hellman: “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”
“Fourscore and seven years ago, our “fathers”—with half the population excluded from the start—“brought forth”—with the dubious, always questionable assumption of “progress”—itself a value judgment about the meaning of history, which opens up the inherently dubious notion of “history” itself—“a “new” “nation”—a double double scare quote, with the claim of “new” at once instantly erasing the presence of all indigenous peoples and affirming the utterly questionable notion that anything can be qualitatively or authentically “new,” which again calls the very notion of “history” into question—and the word “nation” presupposing a commonality that may be nothing more than a kind of conspiracy of consent, a conglomeration of power meant to enrich the few and marginalize almost everyone else—“conceived”—privileging the idea that anything so questionable as a “nation” could be made up, as if out of nothing—“in “Liberty”—
Well, that’s just too much. We’re going to have to stop right here. We can’t even begin to get into “dedicated to the proposition”—we’ll let that pass—that “all”—“all”? Really? “men”—again—“are “created”—by whom? By what? For what purpose? To what end?—“equal.” Yes. Stop right here.
Scare quotes kill narrative. They kill story-telling. And it’s not a question of parsing, examining, analyzing, laying bare sacred texts. They are a writer’s assault on his or her own words.
They may seem to be a screen in which a writer pretends that he or she understands the inherently questionable nature of discourse itself—“when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean”—but in truth it’s a matter of a writer protecting himself or herself from whatever it is he or she is writing—protecting himself or herself from his or her peers, from his or her audience: You can’t believe I really meant that, can you? See the quotes? I’m not fooled—not even by myself! In 1933, in “The Notion of Expenditure,” Georges Bataille wrote of “the shame of a generation whose rebels are afraid of the noise of their own words,” and that’s part of the drama—the anti-drama—scare quotes are meant to enact.
I used to think the use of scare quotes was a matter of writers being too lazy to find the right word, to find the words that would say precisely what the writer meant. But editing this book made it clear that the real question is fear—people afraid of their own words, of opening themselves up to attack. So we went after scare quotes with the equivalent of Raid—that spray that carried the slogan, coined by the beat poet Bob Kaufman in his day job in advertising—“Raid Kills Bugs Dead.” And we found that in almost every case, when the scare quotes came off, what remained was what the writer was actually trying to say. And when we went to the writers, to ask for their consent—because no changes were made without the writer’s agreement—they said, over and over, yes. It was as if we were disarming them of a weapon they had aimed at themselves.Part 2 to follow in a day or two ...