By the numbers…

I’ll be staying with a friend for a few days in Paris later this summer. To thank her for her hospitality I decided to treat her to dinner at a Michelin rated three-star restaurant (where three is the maximum accolade). My first choice for over-the-top insanely wonderful (and expensive) food in a luxurious (but understated) atmosphere was Taillevent, a restaurant I’ve eaten at a few times over the years, always with great pleasure. I was shocked to learn that the restaurant had lost one of its precious stars in 2007. I was not only disappointed but also embarrassed to be so out of date. My second shock was to discover (how could I have forgotten) that the annual August closing of restaurants often begins in July. So, no Taillevent. On to the next. My next choice was Arpège, where I’ve never been, but has had dithyrambic reviews (and 3 stars) for as long as I can remember reading restaurant reviews. I was shocked (I’m easily shocked) that diners―on a separate ranking system–had given the three-star restaurant only 4 stars out of 5. And some positively hated the place. I’m waiting to hear back from them, though I suspect that they too will begin August on July 28―the last day I will be in Paris.

What does it mean that enough diners felt they did not have a 5-star experience in a 3-star restaurant? Or that they had a bad enough experience to bring the rating down to 4? Is it the restaurant or the eaters? Or the unpredictable encounter of an eater and her food? (Décor and service are part of the 3 stars, and how can one rank those except by “liking?” Pace de gustibus.)

Law-of-Large-Numbers-1024x640Anyway, I immediately and myopically analogized these restaurant rankings to Amazon rankings. My recent memoir has just lost ½ a star, down from 4 and ½ to 4. The readers who hate the book (or me) have dragged down the  readers who are fans from 5-4. I don’t know how the folk at Taillevent feel about their demotion, but I am vexed. I survived the review process at Kirkus and Publishers Weekly only to be demoted by a bored or irritated reader. And yet the readers who were not amused end up in a position to influence negatively any future reader. It makes no difference what the grouchy reader’s/eater’s palette is, the numbers―the stars―occupy the high ground.

Why does this bother me so much, beyond any author’s narcissistic pride?

The numbers and the stars always bring me back to a childhood memory. It’s specific but also unverifiable as so many childhood memories are. I must have been seven or eight―at whatever age girls (in that era) began to compare ourselves to other girls and figure out who is pretty and who is not. Mirror mirror on the wall.

One day, feeling that I was not as pretty as the popular girls in my class, I asked my father (the family consoler) whether I was pretty. My father hesitated and then answered with lawyerly precision: “Well, you are prettier than six out of nine girls.” I can still remember trying to figure out what those numbers meant. I could tell, but I already knew, that he meant that I was not the prettiest. He was trying to say, I thought then and still do now that he wanted to say that I was OK―neither the best nor the worst, somewhere in the middle. Six out of nine?

More and more our lives are ruled by numbers and not just metrics of appearance.
How many Facebook friends? How many Twitter followers?

I’m beyond old enough to know how dumb it is to count happiness by numbers. But I still do it.

Rereading oneself

Spinning My Wheels

Procrastination: Take Three.

photo by Gregory Phillips

photo by Gregory Phillips

Failing to progress on my summer projects, I reread the work where I left it last year. Although rereading literature can be an amazing and even exhilarating experience, rereading oneself is, well, not. As I started thinking that rereading one’s own work would be my theme for the week (I’m already behind on my posting schedule) I had a feeling that Roland Barthes had already nailed the experience. Indeed, I find in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (rereading him is always a treat), an entry that captures my sense of activity with no achievement. This entry is called “La Papillonne” (in the English translation), which is to say butterfly―in the feminine. I set aside the fact that Barthes is a man, a gay French man, and a world-famous writer nicely settled in his country house for a summer of leisure outside the city. Oh, and let me set the stage: the previous entry Doxa/Paradoxa ends with a sigh of weariness: “Where to go next? That is where I am now.”

Here’s RB:

Crazy, the power of distraction a man has who is bored, intimidated, or embarrassed by his work (my emphasis): working in the country (at what? at rereading myself, alas! [my emphasis, Barthes’s parenthesis]), here is the list of distractions I incur every five minutes: spray a mosquito, cut my nails, eat a plum, take a piss, check the faucet to see if the water is still muddy (there was a breakdown in the plumbing today), go to the drugstore, walk down to the garden to see how many nectarines have ripened on the tree, look at the radio-program listings, rig up a stand to hold my papers, etc.: I am cruising (emphasis, Roland Barthes).

And all that before email.

What captivates me is less the list of potentially infinite distractions (we all can imagine our own), as much as the notion that rereading one’s work is somehow inherently embarrassing. Why is it embarrassing to reread one’s work? Barthes almost shrugs it off with his “alas,” but that’s just what interests me. And know I’m not alone. Still, it’s not as if one was rereading juvenilia. No, just yesterday’s prose.

I look at what I take to be the last draft of a piece I was working on (of course reading through drafts to figure out which is the latest one is a great distraction in itself) about friendship and loss. I see some nice lines. But I also see paragraphs lacking transitions, sentences bordering on cliché, fudged emotion, and a confused relationship to potential readers. Ew. No wonder I abandoned the essay. Still I saved it for future reworking and I’m not all that different from the author circa 2013.

So, onward into the abyss.