Jane Austen, Programming Languages, and Being “That Guy” in the Writing Class

Did you read the Buzzfeed piece that came out last month, about writing workshops and Pride and Prejudice, by Shannon Reed? “If Jane Austen Got Feedback From Some Guy In A Writing Workshop.”

1436878433_full.png

Photo credit: Buzzfeed and Dan Meth

You should. It’s very funny.

Dear Jane,
I don’t usually read chick lit, but I didn’t hate reading this draft of your novel, which you’re calling Pride and Prejudice. I really liked the part where Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle went on a road trip, which reminded me of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (also about a road trip — check it out!).

I won’t lie. I like to think I’m not as sexist and priggish as this guy. Still, parts of Reed’s piece made me cringe in self-recognition.

I winced.

In a writing workshop, it’s easy (easy at least for me) to develop the exact tone (superior, amused, hurried) that Reed satirises here. You’re drafting your response in a hurry, you feel like you grasp profoundly what the writer should have done differently, you have a clever theory about story-making that you want to recount… If only you just say it clearly, you think, your classmate will get it and the story will be so improved.

But you’re scribbling comments fast, just putting down ideas as they come.

So, a big question I have is “Why?” Why does Elizabeth do the things she does? Why does Mr. Darcy do the things he does? Why does Mrs. Bennet do the things she does? Have you read Hamlet?

Of course, Reed’s choice of Pride and Prejudice is particularly brilliant (as the subject of this dude’s ill-advised advice), because Pride and Prejudice is pretty much the perfect story. It can seemingly be translated into any other narrative medium — it can be re-told and re-shaped endlessly. Turn the book into a film or a comic book? Make Mr. Darcy a vampire? It still works.

1436802534_full.jpeg

Two hundred years ago, people in England did not have running water, or telephones, or passenger trains. Darwin and his theory of evolution was still fifty years in the future. Life in Austen’s time, in other words, was almost unimaginably different to our own. And yet, 200 years after Austen created him, Mr. Darcy is still sexy! We appear to respond to the novel’s characters exactly as Austen intended her own readers to. Pride and Prejudice is an awe-inspiring achievement.

The tragedy of Reed’s imaginary workshop guy is that he can’t see any of this. He is busy talking about motifs and motivations when he should be kneeling in awe. He has his own capacity and experience of writing fiction, and he assumes that everyone else shares it: he can’t imagine that he has encountered an infinitely more advanced model of writing. So he subjects it to his own limited take.

This is a general problem in teaching. One of the biggest difficulties in teaching writing is that, a lot of the time, students can’t see quality. Show them something objectively good, and often they remain unimpressed: “It just jumps all over the place.”

I’ve been lucky to teach undergraduates so brilliant that when I’ve showed a little of their work to published, MFA-ed writer friends, the table goes silent, my friend staring at the page in uneasy admiration; yet when that same story goes to workshop, some of the student’s fellow undergrads will launch irritated, blistering attacks on it, accusing the writer of the most basic, glaring errors.

It’s a peculiar thing.

The programmer and venture capitalist, Paul Graham, once talked about this same problem, using an imaginary programming language, “Blub,” as his example.

Graham starts from the premise that different programming languages have radically different capabilities.

Some are relatively close to actual machine code, and so, if you want to do anything truly complex with them, the work will be laborious and exhausting, while others (more abstract languages) can do more and do it quicker. Those “higher” languages can achieve more for the programmer who knows how to use them. Graham asserts (or asserted at the time of writing) that one language, Lisp, is the most powerful language of them all.

Graham then asks: if Lisp is indeed the most powerful language, why isn’t everyone using it? Surely all programmers would naturally specialise in the “best” language currently available, given that their careers depended on it? Not so. And it’s not simply the result of institutional pressures. If you came to work for an organisation where everyone else was writing in C++, it would certainly make sense that you would also choose to write in C++. Graham argues, however, that even when those pressures are absent, programmers will still not choose to learn and use more powerful languages. They don’t even see why they should.

The “blub paradox,” says Graham, is that while programmers can perceive the limitations in languages less powerful than the ones they know, they can’t even imagine the good qualities of a more powerful language.

Imagine, Graham proposes, a programmer who knows how to write Blub.

Blub falls right in the middle of the abstractness continuum. It is not the most powerful language, but it is more powerful than Cobol or machine language.

And in fact, our hypothetical Blub programmer wouldn’t use either of them. Of course he wouldn’t program in machine language. That’s what compilers are for. And as for Cobol, he doesn’t know how anyone can get anything done with it. It doesn’t even have x (Blub feature of your choice).

As long as our hypothetical Blub programmer is looking down the power continuum, he knows he’s looking down. Languages less powerful than Blub are obviously less powerful, because they’re missing some feature he’s used to. But when our hypothetical Blub programmer looks in the other direction, up the power continuum, he doesn’t realize he’s looking up. What he sees are merely weird languages. He probably considers them about equivalent in power to Blub, but with all this other hairy stuff thrown in as well. Blub is good enough for him, because he thinks in Blub.

Reed’s “some guy” in the writing workshop is like Graham’s Blub programmer. When that dude looks at Austen’s work, beholding a model of fiction far more advanced than his own, he doesn’t realise what he’s seeing. Not only is he an insecure sexist, and bothered by absurd, irrelevant issues, he simply drifts over what is so powerful and effective in Pride and Prejudice. He assumes Austen’s work must operate by the kind of rules he thinks he understands. He doesn’t see that the novel was produced by a fiction-writing language called “Austen,” one that can do far more than his own paltry craft.

Because he thinks in Blub.

(The situation in fiction is obviously more tricky than Graham’s example. There is no “code” version of Austen’s novel for us to look at in the way that there is the Lisp version of the shopping websites that Graham was building. We all read the same printed pages. But it does seem that reading a book as a reader and reading it as a writer are comparable to reading it for the outward experience and reading it as an attempt — however subconsciously — to peel back its layers, see how it works. We can discover something about “Austen” by examining the novel piece by piece, noticing how key scenes are designed, savouring the ways the narration operates, making mental notes on the prose style. Reading as a writer, in other words, can make us worse readers. We sometimes apply our own intellectual standards to a novel and succeed only in breaking it.)

This is one reason why true classroom learning, moments of intellectual breakthrough, feel less like the result of slow attendance and note-taking, and more like a sudden epiphany. Probably you had heard the teacher’s words many times before. Probably the idea itself was nothing new. But the breakthrough comes when you suddenly see the conception of writing that your teacher was trying to explain. You understand that there is a more advanced way of looking at the world than Blub.

And then you can’t explain what you just realised to your friends.

As a teacher and student of writing, this theory makes me nervous, for two reasons. Firstly: there is no reason that one great, famous writer is using the same “writing technology” as any other. If we think of Pride and Prejudice as a novel created by a fiction writing language called “Austen,” then it’s likely that only Austen knew that language, and that she developed it privately, more or less in secret, over years of practice, reading, and conversation. There are superficial aspects of “Austen” that anyone can discover and adopt. There is surely a fair bit of “Austen” in all those modern-day novels that recast Darcy as a vampire or a samurai lord.

But the real core of the writing technology called “Austen” requires immense work to uncover. And uncovering it does not imply that one has any more grasp of a different fiction writing technology, one such as “Toni Morrison” or “Don Delillo.”

Secondly, this suggests that one cannot attempt, even if one knew the language oneself, to teach “Austen” to students directly. Jane Austen, in fact, might be a terrible teacher of “Austen,” because she might not be able to imagine being as bad as writing it as her students were. She would never think to teach all the necessary steps, because she had forgotten learning them; all her best pronouncements might seem either obvious or mysterious.

If the average student is writing a prose version of “Blub,” then much of what it means to be a good writing teacher is one’s ability to teach one’s own version of “Blub +” — a writing language that is better than what they are writing, but not by too much. Blub + is like Blub, but more elegant, more efficient. It helps students avoid the worst errors of Blub. It is close to Blub, however, because it requires relatively few steps to make the transition.

Now, I love teaching writing of all kinds, levels, and genres. I would probably want to teach writing even if I wasn’t being paid to teach it.

But I still wonder if that too much time in the classroom leads one to forget the difference between “literature” and “Blub +”. One gets so used to speaking about “Blub +” that one starts to think it can be used to write a novel like Pride and Prejudice.

153 thoughts on “Jane Austen, Programming Languages, and Being “That Guy” in the Writing Class

  1. I think the basic argument that can be applied here is that taste is subjective. Yes, literary greatness can transcend eras, but each generation decides what is great literature to them. Considering the general attention span of the current crop of readers, the short-story or flash fiction model will become the standard and the ‘Austen Language’ will be considered outmoded. (I am not well versed–or versed at all, really–in computer languages. Would a Fortran reference be appropriately funny in this case?)

    I imagine Pride and Prejudice will be translated into a four-page scene in which women tweets her woes about the guy who cut in front of her in line at Starbucks and then snorts in derision about her choice of a chocolate-shaving dusted, caramel-topped Machiatto. Meanwhile, the guy will nurse his bold, Columbian blend Arabica bean latte and blog about how women just don’t get him. They, of course, are destined to fall in love…but it won’t work out because she loves a long-haired Persian cat and he has allergies. Probably would be retitled: Flamewars and Frappuccinos.

    Liked by 17 people

  2. Fascinating post! This raises all kinds of questions about subjectivity, voice, and whether great writing is teachable. It’s interesting to think about how so many great writers can manage to communicate to us in languages we seem to be capable of reading, but not of employing ourselves. Kind of reminds me of my medievalist days of deciphering ancient manuscripts and wondering, if some Anglo-Saxon marauder showed up, if I’d be able to understand a word he was saying.

    Liked by 11 people

  3. Nice post Daniel 👍 if you have Twitter I’d be happy to follow you. Please be sure to check out my blog here as well, I think you’ll enjoy it. Keep up the excellent work!

    Liked by 3 people

  4. This blurb paradox is a pretty good explanation of why so many great artists were completely unrecognized in their time. And I don’t think that the academicization of creative writing is helping much with the blurb+ to literature publication ratio, either. (To be fair, I’m about a big a fan of workshopping as Shannon is!)

    Liked by 8 people

  5. Austen teaching Austen has generated a random thought about how average athletes often make the better coaches because for them nothing was automatic or easy and they had to think about, dissect and repeat minute gestures over and over before getting them right.

    Liked by 11 people

    • Great neuroplasticity reference. Problem is: art ain’t baseball. I realize hundreds of Dodgers fans are lining me up in their crosshairs right now so I’ll be brief. You can teach (and learn) sports and computer coding straightforwardly because they are so logical and unequivocal in their form. It’s either a home run or it ain’t; the program either works or it doesn’t. It’s pretty binary out there in much of the world.

      But try to teach someone nuance, emotional influence, elegance, subtly, and beauty and you will fall flatter than a Kindle screen. Because those concepts aren’t binary, they aren’t uniformly universal. They are subjective and relative and a matter of opinion, even if it’s fightin’ words over a Frappuccino in your book club. You can render “perfect” writing and still churn out crap. How else do you explain the New York Times Bestsellers List?

      In a nutshell, even among the best of us (ahem) good writing is a matter of taste.

      Liked by 4 people

      • I agree.. I find it hard to accept that there’s a superior writing than another. Deciding a success of an art, I think ultimately rests on the people who like the work. However I think I can agree that we should be more open to new style or new kind of writing since while it might seem bizzare it could be the next big thing that can shape the world of writing for the better.

        In short, read more stuffs is good.

        Liked by 4 people

  6. Fearlessly journeying to a realm this article advises strongly against ever visiting….

    Have you read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?

    Seriously.

    Much like this monstrously wonderful article, it’s a book about Quality. Yes, capitalized. And much like you, its protagonist is a teacher, though of rhetoric.

    There’s a scene early in the book in which the teacher reads a pair of essays written by students and asks the class which is better, which has more Quality? Of course, the students nearly unanimously agree which is the better of the two. However, they all have a hard time explaining why.

    Sound familiar?

    Zen’s author, Robert M. Pirsig, argues that everyone knows what Quality is, but when it comes to objectively defining it, we are fundamentally at a loss.

    Your article delightfully shreds this notion, in fact, turns the entire book on its head.

    For one, the students might well differentiate Quality withing the realm of Blub, but if confronted with LISP (which, btw, I am the only programmer I know who has ever been paid to write programs with), they wouldn’t know quality if you push-pinned it to their forehead. (I love the bit in your article where colleagues bow in “we’re not worthy” awe over material fellow students mercilessly disparage). So, we don’t all know what Quality is.

    Moreover, Quality should never be measured by markers either absolute nor entirely objective. Quality for “Austen” is note entirely like the Quality of “Toni Morrison”.They are fundamentally different “qualities”.

    Love your article. It has Quality. 🙂

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thanks for writing this — very interesting! I have read Pirsig’s Zen, but so long ago I worry I don’t really remember much (just that Aristotle did not come off looking good.)
      It is troubling, as you say, to think there are realms of Quality which we cannot perceive, or which we might subconsciously choose to not see. I think that the role of vanity and ego (“motivated reasoning”) can never be overestimated in these matters. It’s so hard to be clear-sighted when one’s self-image / professional & emotional investments are at risk.
      It’s great that you’ve done work in LISP. Did you read Graham’s glowing write-up of the language, linked to in my post — do you agree with him?

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Hmm. A thought-provoking post. Reminds me of the saying that goes, “If you pay too much attention to the trees, you may completely overlook the forest.” Or something to that effect. I get upset when people pay waaay too much attention to grammar that they ultimately fail to realize that languages are fluid and ever-evolving and are not meant to be used rigidly. I’m all for accuracy, but communication is about more than that. This post reminded me of that as well. 🙂

    I like how you drove home your point by using the hypothetical language Blub. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  8. This post conjures the same indignant nodding, pencil-throwing, face palming, and snorting laughter in me that Blot the Skrip and Jar It: Confessions of a Creative Writing Teacher engendered in their post “The Top Ten Writing Mistakes Professors See Every Day.” My comment for them, which seems strangely apropos now, is below.
    ______________________________________
    Every time I read another essay on “good writing,” I chuckle bitterly, shake my head, and recall all the absolute pieces of crap I’ve been forced to read over the years for my literature degree. Every famous book or play ever shoehorned into a packed syllabus suffers from at least one of the above. Yet, they are worshiped at little altars by English writing professors who then turn around and say, “But, not you.”

    Why?

    A cursory glance at the last twenty years of the New York Times Bestsellers List would shatter any budding writer’s determination to write “well.” Crap sells, and how. Does James Michener stay up nights trying to reduce word counts? Does Danielle Steel rein in purple prose? Does Stephen King bite his hangnails over how much of himself he inserts into his characters? Answer: Ching, ching!

    I’m with you. No, really. I appreciate excellent writing and I laud it whenever I find it–especially on WordPress–but I feel like I’m in an educated minority. There’s an intellectual dichotomy out there in the world of peddling words. Superb writing skills that only a section of the population can even identify are just not what makes titles fly off the shelves at Barnes and Noble these days.

    No, it’s vampires, and, boy, does their dialogue suck.
    _____________________________________

    PS: I did my college thesis on Austen.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This reminds me of writing classes I’ve participated in. I always wondered if any classmates would go on to be highly renowned authors when we tore their works to pieces. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  10. It’s a special kind of magic which you teach. A true master of magic knows which components they can modify or even eschew and still – or thereby – weave a truly powerful spell, which the initiate or adept spellwright can’t comprehend.

    Your post in MERLIN 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Reblogged this on Ross McKinley and commented:
    The parallels drawn between Blub and the art of writing are inherently true, and much like the article suggests, can only be seen once they’re pointed out. Great read! 10/10 would read again.

    Like

  12. P&P set my mind in a whirl,
    Lady Jane’s fiction? Not quite a pearl.
    ‘Cause the Last time I checked
    (And this might be suspect,)
    Isn’t Darcy a name for a girl? 😜

    Liked by 3 people

  13. Reblogged this on Reviews, She Wrote and commented:
    If you haven’t read this, please do! I read the article that is the subject and basically had the same reaction as this blogger, but he puts it more eloquently as all I could say was and incredulous “Really?!” and an irritated ” What the F**k?!” Lol. Take a gander, it’s totally worth it!

    Like

  14. Reblogged this on Jukebox Oracle and commented:
    Taking writing and making a programming language analogy with it is both unique and refreshing in describing the concept of vastly different voices that are all excellent in their own way. Some of us just fail to grasp the truly great quality of these voices because we are stuck in a small narrow view of what we feel is great based on our own experiences.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Great perspective comparison with the Blub paradox. I’m wondering if this is a social / cultural issue we create to justify our own position, an attempt to remain in control whether cognitively or not. Fascinating!

    Liked by 2 people

      • In society, and among various cultures, there are inherent echelons, established or self-imposed, which guide how we behave and interact between strata. I believe that the Blub paradox, highlights a key behavior, which is justifying one’s position purely to satisfy one’s own comfort (or preservation of themselves within their echelon). For example, hierarchy within society (Japan perhaps), one may justify the status quo either because the hierarchy does not allow migration to another echelon, or to migrate to another is far too complex. Another example, if selling a product with incremental benefits, a buyer may scrutinizes all the aspects of the new incrementally better product when really they are uncomfortable with change. I’m sure if you looked at the majority, status quo is good and change uncomfortable. It is only the minority who opens up to worlds of opportunity where change is inevitable and they themselves are comfortable to be changed. (Thanks for the reply, which also helped be think deeper into this, rather than my snip-it on the train home)

        Liked by 1 person

  16. I’ve been (re) reading Pride and Prejudice since I was sixteen and now I have a sixteen year old granddaughter, oh my. It’s a comfort read these days.
    PS. The reason women still find Darcy sexy is because a woman created him. She obviously knew what she and possibly we wanted. (Lindsay Davis has an ancient Roman detective called Falco who I’d follow if he was on social media.)

    Liked by 2 people

  17. I ‘ve been reading all Jane Austen’s book, the deep impress for me is Pride and Prejudice. I read it again and again, is a romantic love story and reality. I don’t know Jane Austen when i read it the first time. After that I trying to known more about her life, her story then i know why she can write this, why so many people love this. http://www.syhdee.com/

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Thank you. My university creative writing professor taught blub, and had no clue what Jen is. The worst poem I ever wrote was his favorite. It’s taken nearly 20 years for me to want to write again and share it publicly through my blogs.

    Liked by 2 people

  19. Thank you. My university creative writing professor taught blub, and had no clue what Jen is. The worst poem I ever wrote was his favorite. It’s taken nearly 20 years for me to want to write again and share it publicly through my blogs.

    Like

  20. apparently, I’ve arrived at the party a little late…so I agree with all (ok, most) of the above. I will add that last time I visited Britain, I visited Jane Austen’s house, and village. Nothing spectacular there…except the scones in the cafe across the street from her house.

    Like

  21. Hi, I am a student from Brazil and I Would like to show you my blog 🙂 the title is : foco intercambio but I talk about a lot of things, like the Tragedy in Mariana, something really sad, and I am trying to translate my posts to english! So it Would help a lot if you could go there and see if it’s good

    Like

  22. “There are three rules for writing a good novel, unfortunately nobody knows what they are.” We can set structure and depth of character and events as much as we want, but there’s always a secret to each novel, a soul or part of the soul of its writer, which nobody can fully understand. Thanks for this article!

    Liked by 1 person

  23. I have been in these types of writing classes and I feel that I am a perfectly mediocre writer. About half the class is a better writer than me and half the class is a worse writer. But that does not mean that I do not have anything productive to tell my other classmates. And in one of my classes, I ran into a budding writer who was writing leaps and bounds above the rest of us in the class, and while I could not write the level of beautiful prose that he could, there were still areas in his writing that could be improved by my lackluster ability. But even then, the point of critiquing another writer’s work is not to improve their writing as much as it is to expose you to other styles of writing and allowing you to develop strategies for revising your own work.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Another aspect, that is not stated here, is that programming languages are a known set of rules. Whereas “Austen” is not. To teach how to write in “Austen” requires understanding what makes it work, what elevates it about the stock romance, what make a sentence lovely or unlovely, what makes something funny or clever, etc. These are all quite ethereal concepts that cannot be distilled into a set of rules. A programming language may or may not get adopted, but its rules are explicit and knowable. It is at least teachable.

    Still, an interesting, thought-provoking piece (coming from someone who has been both a software developer and fiction writer).

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Reblogged this on and commented:

    This writer provides insight that made me think about my own experience with writing classes, conferences, and critique partners. It’s so important to find a critique partner and beta readers who can read your language (be it Austen or Blub).

    Liked by 1 person

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s