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On the New Pragmatism September 13, 2009

Posted by randydeutsch in architect, architect types, fiction, function, pragmatism, transformation, transition.
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It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.

William Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963)

With summer unofficially over, school back in session, and the light of day dwindling we find that we have to be all the more observant of how we spend our time. We tell ourselves that we have to make everything we do, every activity, every task, matter – or it is out of our regiment, we don’t have time for it.

The marketing and advertising world has picked-up on this rather 21st century tick of ours – call it multi-tasking, call it our striving for meaning-over-money – by renaming otherwise familiar products in the name of function.

One example are the so-called functional­ foods  or “smart” foods and beverages that line grocery shelves containing “functional” ingredients touted to help protect your heart and vision, keep our gastrointestinal tract healthy, and even boost our immune system. Sales of these foods topped $25 billion last year despite not all health claims being substantiated.

Another example has crept up on the job hunters who are being forced to recreate their resumes. The functional resume format – one of several resume layouts including reverse chronological (listing all your experience from most to least recent) and functional, which lists experience in skills clusters. For those finding that they need to update their old resume – including those with very diverse experiences that don’t add up to a clear-cut career path – a functional format could be considered.

Form Follows Function

Ever since Louis Sullivan touted these words, architects have by turns been instructed to design buildings in the name of function [and of late finance.] We’ve been told that if you give your form – however subjective and intuitive, discretionary or ill-conceived – a purpose, a justification, a use – you can sell it and see it built. Whether real or fictional, function has been top of mind for architects – at least in their social interactions – for well over 100 years.

On this anniversary of 9/11 we recall a time soon after the attacks when irony was pronounced dead and fiction reading has dropped by double digits while nonfiction hung tough. People wanted their information and they wanted it straight. Sales of fiction suffered almost immediately after the attacks. Escapism and entertainment were thought to be secondary if not unnecessary distractions. We were living in a time of war and information was at a premium.

After 9/11 those who associated fiction with the frivolous fueled a unexpected resurgence for poems.   Readers still wanted their nonfiction piled on but kept Auden’s September 1, 1939 or Wislawa Szymberska’s Poems New and Collected by their night stand. Poetry was one exception for it soothed the soul and, perhaps ironically, kept us rooted in the moment.

If they read fiction at all – novels, short stories, drama – it had to be informative, informational, instructive in some way,. For our time was short at hand and the end perhaps all too near. Call it “functional fiction” –fiction that is useful – fiction you can use. Stories that if they entertained did so while providing nuggets of truths or at least truisms we could take with us to work in the morning. Tales, if they carried us away to distant lands, did so clearly spelling out the lay of the land, recommending places to stay and sights to see: novel as travelogue.

And poetry? Not just for your nightstand anymore, Poem in your Pocket – a book of 200 poems you can tear out one at a time and put in your pocket – is available for those who need the feeling of inner security not found in the outside world.  They’re available in bite size poems for your kids  as well.

NonfictionFiction

Which takes us to two novels – both current bestsellers – to help to illustrate this point.

In Nicholson Baker’s latest novel, The Anthologist, we meet Paul Chowder at a rather tough time in his life as he shares – in an often very funny stream of consciousness – his woes and his knowledge of poetry. While you are being amused and entertained – watch out – you will be left by book’s end with a veritable college education in poets, contemporary and classical, poetry writing and appreciation. The book will have you compulsively seeking out poets and poems as a music review has you do for songs on iTunes. While thoroughly enjoying yourself you will acquire an expert and splendid education in poetry writing and reading.

Such is also the case in fiction writer Lorrie Moore’s just-released novel, A Gate at the Stairs. One of the few short story and novel writers that continuously keeps readers in stitches, here she seems to have a keen sense of the need for fiction to function beyond the tasks of storytelling. As pointed out in a recent review in the New York Times, while the book has been called “heartbreaking” and her “masterpiece,” and while it is every bit as punny and funny as her other fictions, the intrusion of the real world – and by that I mean international affairs, wars and real-time events – leaves one with the feeling that in order too stay relevant – and read – the work had to allow nonfiction in. Strike it up to another example of NonfictionFiction.

How to Decide

It is hard not to feel that something has been lost in the translation – from a more or less pure fiction that purported to carry us away, to involve our imagination and fantasies and, yes, at times, allow us escape from the humdrum or overly demanding worlds we have come to know and be a part of. That everything must mean, and teach, and instruct, and deliver – puts not only an unnecessary demand on authors but on readers as well. It is as though too often fun has been left out of the stuff of fiction and been replaced by the news.

So how to decide – not only what to read – but what to include in your already overly crammed life and what to exclude? In lieu of function I suggest we turn to pragmatism. An enlightened Pragmatism. By asking yourself three inimitably essential questions of the choices you confront on a daily basis, you will find in time that your life is filled – not with trivia and facts – but with activities, occasions and opportunities that are physically, mentally and spiritually uplifting, supportive of who you are and want to become and life-enhancing.

These simple questions are potentially life-changing – so do add them to your arsenal now but only use them when you are ready to move forward with your life:

1. Is it nurturing?

2. Is it growth-promoting?

3. Does it work for me?

These three simple inquiries – when answered – have worked for me every time for well over twenty years. Do you have questions you ask yourself to help you make important decisions in your life?

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