Tuesday, August 26, 2008


"But perhaps these offenses might have been overlooked, had not your pride been hurt by my honest confession of the scruples that had long prevented my forming any serious design. These bitter accusations might have been suppressed, had I, with greater policy, concealed my struggles, and flattered you into the belief of my being impelled by unqualified, unalloyed inclination …but disguise of every sort is my abhorrence."
- Pride and Prejudice

Fitzwilliam Darcy’s famously botched attempt at a marriage proposal to Elizabeth Bennett had the seeds of its ruin sown in his unwillingness to engage in certain niceties of conduct that some people mistake for manners. Darcy’s affection for Lizzie was real enough (as she was soon to discover) but he would not condescend to flatter, and especially not to someone whose character and countenance he admired so much, nor could he conceal certain — and by no means unreasonable — misgivings he had. Manners has sometimes been described as the quality of not giving offense unless you intend to. By this standard, admittedly, Darcy failed, but not so badly as Mr. Collins, who seldom opened his mouth except to give offense while trying to ingratiate himself to others. Darcy at the least had the virtue of understanding that false sentiment is far worse than the expression of no sentiment at all.

My argument is not with manners or politeness, of course, but with transparently false sentiment, which is ill-mannered and impolite. Having spent some time on the phone lately with various customer service departments (Bell Canada has crossed me for the last time) it's become obvious to me that the people in charge of such places hate their customers, or else they wouldn't force their hapless employees to close each call by reading from a prepared script telling us how much they like us and appreciate our business. How stupid do they think we are? And, more to the point, what goes on in their tiny, tiny brains that think that we would be moved by such transparently mass-produced sentiment?

I therefore find it distressing that so much of the advice extended to professors by experts in educational pedagogy concerns precisely that - the conveyance of transparently false sentiment. We are at every turn entreated to sooth, stroke, and coddle the allegedly delicate sensibilities of university students who are old enough to drive, vote, drink, marry, and be drafted. Nonetheless, the professor, we are told, must be the mouth of a continual stream of ever-flowing praise, regardless of whether or not it is deserved. I recently read an article that quite seriously advanced the view that praise must either be universal or else not be granted at all. Hence, a professor should never say, "good point" when a student makes a good point, lest those who did not receive similar praise feel slighted. Here the axiom I stated above is inversed: the expression of genuine sentiment is actually held to be worse than the expression of no sentiment at all.

I have a smallish collection of books on teaching (about twenty volumes in all) and subscribe to one teaching-related journal, and the more I read, the more convinced I am that most of what you need to know to be an effective teacher was known to Socrates. But that doesn't stop people from trying. Consider, for instance, Effective College and University Teaching: a Practical Guide (2006), a book that is about as interesting and original as its title. Again and again the claim is that all classroom problems, from student apathy to outright cheating, can be avoided through proper pedagogy. I trust that any students who are reading this are properly affronted, and see this claim for what it is: an extreme form of condescension, for in effect it states that they are not responsible for the consequences of the choices they make. Rather, in this view, their academic success is contingent upon what their professors do. One of the authors of the book writes that she asks her students to shake each other's hands on the last day of class. As a mildly reserved adult, I feel that I should have some choice in who I shake hands with, that any sentiment of recognition and respect should be sincerely given, not part of some half-baked feel-good exercise cooked up by a professor who probably enjoys team-building workshops; such a thing is to the hearty and heartfelt handclasp what kissing your grandmother is to hard-core making out.

Why are professors — who are supposed to be at the vanguard of the cultivation of the skeptical and critical intellect — so often asked to treat their students as if they were children? Allegedly it is to ease the transition of students to full maturity, but in reality the insincerity of praise where directness is required can only impede that process. "Always find something good to say," the leader of a teaching workshop I attended told us (before making us do a "role playing" exercise where we pretended to do just that.) Imagine our skepticism at the end of the workshop, however, when her effusions of commendation spewed forth; by praising uniformly and reflexively — like some sort of cheerleader — she deprived her praise of any value.

Anyone who is paying attention while reading Pride and Prejudice knows that the problem with pride was not Darcy's, but Lizzie's: only belated did she come to the realization that the person worth having was the one who was willing to give it to her straight. Students, too, would be well advised to bypass the teachers who fawn and flatter for the ones who are, when necessary, willing to be cruel to be kind.

Thursday, August 7, 2008


Last year I finished reading C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower novels for the second time, and my feelings were ones of joy mingled with regret. The regret came from knowing that no more of these splendid stories exist to be read. Then I learned that a writer named David Weber had written a series of science fiction novels that have been described as "Horatio Hornblower in space." Intrigued, I found the first in the series at a local used bookshop and sure enough, the author had dedicated it to Forester's memory.

This was a bad sign, and I should have taken it as such. Writers who are out of their moral and intellectual depth have a bad habit of referencing their betters, hoping perhaps to imbue themselves with some sort of respectability by association. At any rate I bought the first four novels and read the first three and half over the course of two weeks. I think that I had by then satisfied my duty to immerse myself in those particular waters. Any less, and I could be accused of not having read enough to make a judgment; any more, and people could reasonably ask why I read so much.

I know something of the world of publishing and understand that very few writers earn a living by writing alone. My collective earnings from all my published works, received at once, would sustain me in a very modest living for about a year. So I sympathise with Weber's evident desire to do well for himself and for his family - and this perhaps explains his prodigious output. Counted in sheer number of pages, he long ago exceeded the career output of his hero Forester, himself a prolific writer, but one whose taut little novels seldom exceeded 250 pages.

But it is entirely wrong to talk of these books as "Hornblower in space". They bear only the most superficial resemblance to Forester's masterpieces. Weber's literary moorings are not found in Forester - he is instead tethered firmly to Tom Clancy. He is more interested in technology, albeit sometimes cleverly imagined technology, than human beings - the foremost vice of science fiction writers. His characters have no personality. One villain is pretty much the same as the next; the subsidiary protagonists are interchangeable. Strangely the worst offender is his central character, Honor Harrington. Unlike the manic-depressive, tone-deaf, abstemious Hornblower, she has no internal life. She is a cardboard construct Weber uses to get ships to the point where they can hurl missiles at one another, and when the ships aren't doing that, Weber hasn't the slightest idea what to do. Forester could make a game of cards or a salvage operation or a funeral procession positively nail-biting. Weber can't do anything when the guns aren't blazing. The politics are dull, the romance is unmoving, such personal and professional tribulations as the central characters face are utterly uninteresting. In the first three novels I encountered not one memorable line of dialogue, not one time when I laughed out loud, not one time when I felt genuine sadness over the loss of a life.

Compare, by contrast, this passage from Forester's A Ship of the Line:

'Little Longley was at his side now, white-faced, miraculously alive after the fall of the mizzen topmast.
"I'm not frightened. I'm not frightened," the boy said; his jacket was torn clear across the breast and he was trying to hold it together as he denied the evidence of the tears in his eyes.
"No, sonny, of course you're not," said Hornblower.
Then Longley was dead, hands and breast smashed into a pulp.'

Now, there's nothing in any of Weber's battles to capture even a tenth of the horror and sorrow of that scene. Weber would have described Longley's death in five times the detail, told us where every last drop of blood flew, would have given us the technical specifications of the weapon that killed the boy, would have written the firing of that gun from the perspective of its crew, perhaps even written a little scene where the captain of the other vessel gives the order to fire. He would have taken perhaps three pages to write what Forester did in half of a paragraph, and he would have diminished it tenfold.

But the real roof of a hack is in the dialogue. Another novelist to whom Weber owes an unacknowledged debt is Forester's worthy successor, Patrick O'Brian. In the twenty novels of the extraordinary Aubrey-Maturin series (people who have read these are never the same again), O'Brian employs precisely two verbs to describe dialogue: "said" and "cried", and these are never modified. Nothing more is necessary, for the characters' speech carries its own weight. We know who is talking and how because O'Brian writes dialogue that we can hear. Weber, by contrast, has no ear for dialogue. The words spoken by one character are indistinguishable from those spoken by another. Engaging in conversation, Weber's characters suffer the most extreme physical reactions: their nostrils flare, they half rise from their chairs, their jaws drop, they glare moodily, they smile happily, they expostulate angrily, and, above all, they "snort". ("The massive Gryphon highlander snorted like a particularly irate boar and shook his head" reads a typical passage.) This vulgar little verb is one of Weber's favourite words, and his characters go about their snorting every other page or so. The decks of their ships must be positively green with goo.

Readers of this review might object that Harrington isn't supposed to be Hornblower and that Weber need not be Forester. As to the first point, I am compelled to observe that it was Weber himself who invited the comparisons — the central characters even have the same initials — and who consciously utilizes many of the conventions of the Napoleonic era seafaring genre. As to the second, the point is quite correct. Weber does not need to be Forester. What he does need to do is provide a literary experience that does something other than engage the imagination of his readers on the crudest possible level. I sensed, when reading On Basilisk Station, the first and best of the quartet that I read - that Weber might be capable of doing so. For some reason, he chooses not to.

Such is the price one pays for writing novels at a rate exceeding the ability of most people to read them. I have no doubt that Weber is crying all the way to the bank, and I have no doubt that he really does admire Forester. But he has learned none of the lessons about writing that his idol had to offer.