J. K. Rowling: on the importance of knowing authorship

Most of you probably know that J. K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame (I can’t say I’m a fan) recently published a book under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith: a detective novel called The Cuckoo’s Calling. Although the reviews were generally good (here’s one in the NY Times), the book barely sold: something on the order of only 500 copies were purchased in the U.S. since the book came out in April.

Then someone in a law firm who knew Galbraith’s real identity leaked her name and authorship to a friend, and the secret was out. The result, as the New York Times reports, was pandemonium: book sales skyrocketed and publishers are rushing to print hundreds of thousands of new copies:

. . . J. K. Rowling, easily one of the most bankable authors on the planet, admitted over the weekend to The Sunday Times of London that she — and not a male military veteran, as initial information from the publisher claimed — was the real author.

That has left the publisher and bookstores with an entirely different problem: getting copies of what has suddenly become the hottest book of the summer into the hands of Ms. Rowling’s impatient fans.

The publisher has also had to contend with the suspicion that Ms. Rowling’s camp was secretly responsible for leaking her identity. Speculation was rampant in the publishing world that the revelation was part of a big publicity ploy to help sell books — so much so that Ms. Rowling’s spokeswoman, Nicky Stonehill, was compelled to release a tightly worded statement denying it.

“We can confirm the story in The Sunday Times was correct, and it was not a leak or elaborate marketing campaign to boost sales,” she said in an e-mail on Tuesday. “We are not commenting any further.”

. . . Since then, Little, Brown & Company, her publisher, appears to have been scrambling to meet demand. Nicole Dewey, a spokeswoman for Little, Brown, said that on Monday the publisher began to print an additional 300,000 copies, a huge undertaking that takes several days. Ms. Dewey said the books are expected to start shipping some time this week. That isn’t soon enough for many bookstores, which are locked in a fierce competition with Amazon, and with the e-book, which, compared with hardcovers, is inexpensive and instantly available. (The hardcover list price of “The Cuckoo’s Calling” is $26; a Kindle or Nook edition is $9.99.)

Although another recent novel Rowling wrote under her own name, The Casual Vacancy, was not a critical success, I do believe her claim that this was a real, unintended leak,not a publicity stunt. I’m not sure why she’d use a pseudonym, unless to see how well her writing was judged by critics who didn’t know her name. Yet if that were the case, why wasn’t her earlier novel published pseudonymously? But at any rate, I have no reason to doubt that she and her spokeswoman are telling the truth.

But this does raise questions about sales versus merit, and the role of authorship.  The book was judged good by the critics, but didn’t sell—until the author’s name was revealed.  Clearly, intrinsic merit of a book isn’t perfectly correlated with how well it does.  Well, that isn’t a surprise: history is full of good books that were initially rejected, or didn’t sell well, only to become classics or best sellers later. Recent examples are The End of Faith by Sam Harris (rejected by more than a dozen publishers) and, of course, Rowling herself, who survived many rejections of the first Harry Potter book. The Great Gatsby, now seen as a classic (and one of my favorite novels) also sold poorly, as did the early books of John Cheever.

But I still feel slightly puzzled—and, to be honest, a bit contemptuous—at the phenomenon of people buying books based solely on who wrote them. The book got good reviews, and so should have sold well initially. But it didn’t until the author was revealed as J. K. Rowling. Now people are buying it in droves, for no reason other than their knowledge of the real author.  But that name is no guarantee of success, as judged by her earlier failed novel.

Perhaps I’m being uncharitable, but the novel is exactly as good as it is regardless of who writes it. But the power of a name trumps all.  I have to add that I, too, am victim of the “name” phenomenon, though more for nonfiction than for fiction. I’d pretty much buy anything written by Sam Harris or (if he were still alive) Christopher Hitchens, not to mention Robert Caro, just because they always have something interesting to say, and Caro has never failed to produce a masterpiece.

So here’s a conundrum for you, one that I’ve asked some of my artistic friends.  Imagine that Beethoven had never written his Fifth Symphony. But then, a few years ago, someone finds the score of that piece in a stack of old papers—written by someone other than Beethoven, say, one Gustav Biederstücker.  What would happen?

Well, that symphony would be exactly as good as Beethoven’s Fifth, because it is Beethoven’s Fifth!  It would, in theory, conjure up all the expressive romanticism of the original. It should be recognized as a lost masterpiece.

But it wouldn’t, because it was written by Biederstücker and not Beethoven. It would be ignored. Exactly the same thing would happen if some unknown nebbish wrote that symphony today. The critics would say “it is irrelevant because it was written out of the proper historical period.”

But does this make sense at all? People still flock to the concert halls to hear Beethoven’s Fifth, and get great satisfaction thereby, but the same people wouldn’t cross the street to hear the identical piece by Biederstücker. Why should that be?

Is the intrinsic (as opposed to the dollar) value of a work of art so dependent on who writes it, rather than on what it expresses? Apparently so. But to me that seems irrational.


  1. gbjames
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    I think you are mixing up two different things. One is the intrinsic quality of a work. The other is the willingness of a person to purchase a book from an unknown author. Given the vast number of well-reviewed new books that appear any given month, one well-reviewed book from an unknown has pretty much chance for purchase as any other well-reviewed book. In other words, a pretty small shot.

    But if a book comes out from an author who you have learned to appreciate from other works, then it almost doesn’t matter how well-reviewed it might be, you are likely to pick it up for the reasons you gave above for purchasing a new book from Harris or Hitchens (if he was still among us). I think contempt is misplaced.

    • Posted July 20, 2013 at 9:49 am | Permalink

      It’s important to note that the book’s sales were quite typical for well-reviewed hardback fiction. That is: approximately no-one actually buys non-genre fiction.

      • Bric
        Posted July 20, 2013 at 9:58 am | Permalink

        The thing is, it is genre fiction; I bought it because ‘Galbraith’ was mentioned as perhaps the new P D James, and as Dame Phyllis won’t be producing any more crime novels I need another source to feed that habit. Actually it’s more Ed McBain than P D James, and rather good.

      • Max
        Posted July 22, 2013 at 10:03 am | Permalink

        Not true. The Bible sells like hotcakes.

        • Stephen Barnard
          Posted July 22, 2013 at 10:17 am | Permalink

          Especially the autographed copies.

    • switchnode
      Posted July 20, 2013 at 10:06 am | Permalink

      Exactly what I came here to say.

    • Becca Stareyes
      Posted July 20, 2013 at 10:49 am | Permalink

      Yes, I know my book-shopping habits tend to weigh ‘I have read and enjoyed other things by the author’ more heavily than reviews. Though this is different enough from Harry Potter, I don’t know how I’d weigh that I’d read Harry Potter.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted July 20, 2013 at 11:06 am | Permalink

        Not as different as you might think. Linguistic analysis shows strong similarities to Rowling’s other work.

        This suggests that it’s not irrational to make buying choices based on authorship. If you like an author’s style of writing, you can be confident that that style will remain fairly consistent in other works by the same author.

        • Marella
          Posted July 20, 2013 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

          Very interesting. I have read all the Potter novels and when I started on Cuckoo’s Calling I felt very much at home.

    • Posted July 20, 2013 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      Yes, you’re correct. I will purchase Bach cantatas I’ve never heard from iTunes because Bach has demonstrated himself to be, well, incapable of writing anything inferior.

      But Dr. Coyne is also making another point about how value gets assigned to works of art in general. And let me just say, Dr. Coyne, thank you! This very phenomenon has frustrated me no end for a very long time. Far too few people are interested in evaluating content. Instead, they get mired in dealing with all sorts of philosophical, cultural, or in some other way extra-musical (using music as an example) stuff. I call this “stuff” “peripheralia”.

      It’s harder to gain real expertise and apply it in a discriminating evaluation of content than it is to follow trends and then confabulated a post hoc rationalization for the merit of said trend.

      I’d like to think I would defend the merit of “Biederstücker’s” symphony.

      This situation particularly frustrates me because I often compose in the “common practice” (think Bach/Mozart) style. But I have to resign myself to the fact that my work will go nowhere, despite it’s being quite good, even if I say so myself.

      (I also write in an updated harmonic style.)

      • Posted July 20, 2013 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

        Have you had the chance to try this out on a string orchestra yet?:- in memoriam: c e h

        I enjoyed it v. much ~ plangent is the best word I can come up with. You have a sub old bean.

        Also what’s the title of the Teasdale poem? I’ve never heard of her before.

        • Posted July 20, 2013 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

          No, haven’t been able to make the str orch happen.

          The poem is “Evening: New York”.

          She is a lesser known poet but did win a Pulitzer.

        • Posted July 20, 2013 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

          And thank you!

      • jwthomas
        Posted July 20, 2013 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

        Maybe a better example would be to use J S Bach as the composer. LvB was too famous in his time for any of his compositions to have escaped notice. “Old Bach” was a known by reputation as a talented predecessor to Haydn and Mozart, but no one thought much about performing his music. Beethoven was familiar with Bach’s keyboard music and sometimes played it for himself.

        But it was not until Felix Mendelssohn discovered the score of the St Matthew Passion buried among other mss in a shop, was impressed by it, and arranged for a performance, that J S Bach suddenly became !!JS BACH!!

        Nowadays anyone with good musical taste and no prejudice against religious music would buy a recording of Bach’s work without hesitation. The only issue would be determining which performance they’d most prefer. In this case the issue would be the conductor, the orchestra, the chorus, the soloists and even the record label. And this choice might be determined, likely as not, by prior experience with the key players on other recordings.

      • kuremmu
        Posted July 20, 2013 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

        about the fifth symphony thought experiment: do you think the composer would be hailed as a seminal genius or dismissed as ‘an obscure beethoven imitator’? i would bet on the latter.

        • Posted July 21, 2013 at 5:40 am | Permalink

          Possibly. That really goes to my whole complaint that too few people, including those in the biz, are interested in (capable of?) deeply informed evaluation of content.

          OTOH, the fifth symphony is such a towering achievement, full of absolutely the right moves, that it’s hard to imagine people not recognizing its significance, even if it weren’t Beethoven’s.

          Georg (Jiri) Benda, a contemporary of Mozart’s, is known as “The Bohemian Mozart” because of the similarity of their styles. But you hear Benda’s music performed now and then. I wouldn’t say he’s been “dismissed”.

  2. Posted July 20, 2013 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    “Perhaps I’m being uncharitable, but the novel is exactly as good as it is regardless of who writes it.”

    It depends. Context can in fact matter.

    • Posted July 20, 2013 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

      The extremely narrow context that is simply who wrote it?

  3. Posted July 20, 2013 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    The same, of course, is true for other forms of art.

    Suppose you’re in the lucky possession of a sketch by one of Rembrandt’s pupils! That’s probably worth quite a bit.
    But if enough ‘experts’, at some point, deem that very same sketch to have been by the master himself, it suddenly skyrockets in value.

    I like watching the Antique Roadshow, but am often amazed at how much certain items are worth (especially furniture) for, apparently, no other reason that it’s OLD and made by some guy who’d made a name for himself hundreds of years ago. (I noticed that the British version of the show usually prices items -that are often way older than the American items- at a far more ‘rational’ level).

    • Posted July 20, 2013 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

      I think legitimate evaluation in the arts can happen, and that there are real better/worse distinctions to be made.

      That writ, “better” often winds up being a rather arbitrary category. In this article: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/03/science/in-play-off-between-old-and-new-violins-stradivarius-lags.html?_r=1&,
      trained professionals were unable to hear a difference between Cremonese violins and mass-produced cheap violins.

      As a skeptic, I love to point out things like this to my more credulous artistic colleagues, but things like this are also frustrating because they can damage artistic credibility. Not every evaluation to be made in the arts is arbitrary.

      • Posted July 20, 2013 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

        I’m sure I must have related this anecdote before…but here goes again.

        Many moons ago, in the thick of the second Reagan administration, I went to a summer music festival just inland from Carmel, California. Charlie Schlueter was teaching the trumpet master class. One day he wanted to demonstrate something, but he had left his horns — including Monette serial number 4, the only Monette I’ve played on I’ve been impressed with (Wynton Marsalis plays a Monette, and they’re the most expensive trumpets you can buy) — where was I? Oh, yes — Charlie’s horns were back at the hotel, so he grabbed the closest one at hand. He played the passage, quickly looked askew at the horn before putting it down and continuing with whatever he was going to say.

        The rest of us couldn’t believe what we had just witnessed. That trumpet was and remains to this day the absolute worst instrument I had ever played on. It leaked like a sieve, sounded like it had a dirty gym sock stuck in the bell, and couldn’t be played in tune if your life depended on it.

        But Charlie…Charlie sounded just like Charlie, even with that piece of shit in his hands. A slight change in the character of the sound, and that was it.

        Though I intellectually learned the lesson that day — that if you don’t sound good on a lousy instrument you won’t sound good on any instrument — it still took me decades to truly figure it out. And, though I’m no Charlie Schlueter, I’ve surprised more than one person by still sounding like myself on any random instrument I pick up while they thought the instrument sucked. They were right, of course, but there’s no excuse for playing down to the level of the instrument.



        • Posted July 20, 2013 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

          Yes, there are a lot of factors that go into producing a beautiful sound on an instrument, of which the quality of the instrument is only one, and sometimes not even a very important one.

          Real virtuosos, like Charlie, have absolute control over their physical performing apparatus and can quickly adjust what they’re doing depending on the idiosyncrasies of the specific instrument upon which they’re playing. Such fine motor control is something I can only dream of.

          My teachers at Eastman (David Higgs (perhaps one of the worlds top 5 organists) and Hans Davidsson) would regularly make beautiful music on the tiny, worn-out, not well-built-to-begin-with practice organs in the practice rooms during lessons. It was jaw-dropping.

          • Posted July 20, 2013 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

            Real virtuosos, like Charlie, have absolute control over their physical performing apparatus and can quickly adjust what they’re doing depending on the idiosyncrasies of the specific instrument upon which they’re playing.

            Actually, it’s more a matter of not doing anything substantially different.

            Inexperienced musicians tend to play the instrument, let the instrument do all the work. The instrument is just a minor part of the equation. The key is playing and letting the instrument be itself. If you try to force the instrument to be something it isn’t, you’ll never get anything but noise out of it. But if you just let the instrument do what it will, your own true sound will carry through regardless of what the instrument tries to do to get in the way.

            Paradoxical, I know, and difficult to explain…maybe somebody with more experience than I and a better command of the language can do it justice.


            • Posted July 20, 2013 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

              I think I see what you’re saying.

              An over-wrought technique is certainly a liability. And one must be relaxed and at ease while playing. Trying too hard to do something and letting tension creep in won’t allow one to summon the fine motor control I mentioned above. Achieving this “relaxed but in control” state is the difficult thing.

              But talk about technique might not travel well between such disparate instruments as brass and keyboards. An organist must adjust for differences in onset, the point in the keyfall at which the pipe begins to speak, whether the instrument is tracker or electronic action…

              A pianist must adjust for regulation (how much force is required on each key to create a certain dynamic level).

              The virtuosos can make these adjustments seemingly effortlessly.

              • Posted July 20, 2013 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

                I don’t know much about keyboard technique, but I’d suspect that, whatever the virtuosi are doing, it’s not at an especially conscious level and therefore probably just as hard to describe….


              • Posted July 21, 2013 at 4:28 am | Permalink

                Not being a professional, or a virtuoso or anything (by my own measure — I hear nothing but my own gaffes), I do remember looking for some cheap, light, battery powered POS keyboard on the used market. Ended up at this guy’s house, and tried out what was probably the cheapest thing Yamaha ever produced. The guy was using it to try to learn piano.

                The wistful, sad look on his face was quite comical as he commented: “I don’t want to sell the keyboard anymore.” All it had was a modicum of touch sensitivity (speed sensitivity, really)… but it came down to speedy, unconscious adjustments making a difference. Just going with what was there.

                On that note, I bring you Benny Greb on a SpongeBob kit replete with squeaky pedal.

        • Posted July 21, 2013 at 5:02 am | Permalink

          Speaking of Wynton…

          It must have been ’83, and I convinced a bunch of my college buddies to check out this truly incredible trumpeter at the Blue Note in Boulder. Of course it was “Tain”, Kenny Kirkland, Branford, Wynton… I tried to explain how these guys were actually revitalizing “straight ahead” jazz at the time. Of course they didn’t understand what the hell I was talking about – why I was so goddamned excited. I could tell, even after hanging out in this place… amazed that they’d play a set, then just sidle up to the bar, chat with various people in the audience… I couldn’t believe it. I knew I was in the presence of gods.

          The people I was with were pretty much unamazed to a person, and probably wishing they were at a Neil Young or America concert.

          Later that year I saw them again at a “Jazz on the Rocks” at Red Rocks. Most people still had no clue who they were, and were there to see the “Jeff Lorber Fusion” and “Spyrogyra”. Yuppie box-wine smooth kind of pap IMHO. Betty Carter came out, and after she was done with one of the most amazing sets I had ever experienced in my life, the crowd was calling for Jeff Lorber to come out *again*. Insulting fucks.

          Wynton, Branford, Kirkland, Watts and Drummond – being the unknowns they were, were slated as the last act, after a long night. I of course was absolutely bowled over at the magic I was witnessing — but almost equally bowled over at the throngs of people crowding the aisles, jostling each other, trying to get to their cars as quickly as possible during the set, so as not to get stuck in the traffic jam.

          Now of course, these same assholes are probably shelling out $250 a ticket now that these people are famous. Case in point.

          • Posted July 21, 2013 at 6:05 am | Permalink

            I estimate about 3/4 of the entire (packed) Red Rocks stadium emptied out during Wynton’s set.

          • Posted July 21, 2013 at 6:14 am | Permalink

            Wynton Marsalis is, imo, one if the very few successful crossover artists – able to give convincing performances in both a variety of jazz styles and on the classical stage. Quite a talent.

            I had a similarly disheartening experience watching patrons leave the hall halfway through Bach’s Matthäuspassion. I would’ve stayed to listen to them repeat the entire thing.

            • Posted July 21, 2013 at 6:41 am | Permalink

              IMO, too. Clearly. Nothing “subjective” about it.

              BTW, here’s my bro’s “Services” page with “Sting’s sax player” top center, as I sardonically refer to him. He happened to be in Sterling in the middle of the night when bro Chris was out of cork grease that he needed to fix a lathe, and was freaked, wondering where the hell he would find some at midnight in Manhattan. Then he heard the strains of soprano sax coming out of a room down the hall. Sting’s sax player to the rescue. (he’s an audiophile, too)

            • Posted July 21, 2013 at 6:54 am | Permalink

              I should add I’m not referring to *him* sardonically, but rather to the situation he was in way back when. He was either Jay Leno’s sidekick, until it became pretty obvious that he wasn’t a good fit for chuckling at lame Tonight Show jokes on cue… or he was “Sting’s sax player” to most people. Again, another demonstration of how the unwashed masses tend to gravitate to fame by association, rather than having a clue about artistic merit.

            • Posted July 21, 2013 at 9:01 am | Permalink

              For a long time, Wynton was a wonderful classical soloist and just as wonderful a jazz musician.

              But it wasn’t until he gave up classical music that he became a great jazz musician.

              He clearly had to give up the one or the other; there’s no way to be great at both. And, frankly, I’m glad he chose jazz…we don’t need more recordings of the Haydn Trumpet Concerto, but Blood on the Fields is one of the great masterworks of the Twentieth Century, and I’m sure we wouldn’t have gotten it if Wynton was still distracting himself with classical music.


  4. Posted July 20, 2013 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    It is just the same with brands: a pair of sneaker with “Nike” on it, is sold for a higher price, and in larger numbers, than exact the same pair without the brand name.

    As far as writing under a pseudonym, the idea is that Rowling intended to write a book, without the pressure of the public. It’s perfectly understandable she wants to write in total freedom, and to be forced to admitt to the demands of others.

  5. Steve Reilly
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    But if you like some books by an author, then you’re likely to enjoy other books by the same author. Yes, it’s no guarantee of success, as you point out, but no book is guaranteed to be great. You might as well read the ones you think most likely to be enjoyable, and picking books by your favorite author is surely a good rule of thumb for that.

    Yes, if people read the book, didn’t like it, and then changed their minds about it when Rowling’s authorship was revealed, that’s silly. But here we’re talking about people not spending time and money on a book by an author they’d never heard of, and buying it and reading it when it’s revealed that the author is a favorite. Makes sense to me.

  6. Posted July 20, 2013 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    If it was a Pratchett novel I wouldn’t think twice and buy it immediately.
    The first commenter has a valid point.

    • Marella
      Posted July 20, 2013 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

      Yes and I have regretting doing this. I’ve read everything Pratchett has written and loved most of them but I couldn’t get through “Nation”, it was bloody awful IMNSHO.

      • Posted July 21, 2013 at 2:45 am | Permalink

        I loved Nation. They made a play out of it.
        Now Unseen Academicals…didn’t enjoy at all.
        “You’re all different. You’re all individuals.”
        “I’m not”
        (Life of Brian) 🙂

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted July 21, 2013 at 3:06 am | Permalink

        It (Nation) was different [from Pratchett’s Discworld novels]. I think he was deliberately trying to break away from them. I found it well worth reading (though I still like his Discworld novels better).

        And yes, I’d buy anything by Terry Pratchett, on the assumption that I like his writing style. On the other hand, there are well-known writers (quite a lot actually) who I’ve sampled one book from and won’t bother trying another because I found their style unappealing.

  7. NewEnglandBob
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    I start with the assumption that the average person (consumer) is a buffoon. Then I look for exceptions. I am rarely off the mark.

    My low opinion is not due to intelligence, but due to poor education and/or cultural immersion within cultures that reward bad/low behavior.

    • Mark Phillippi
      Posted July 20, 2013 at 10:14 am | Permalink

      That certainly helps to explain why so many copies of Bible sells have been sold.

      • Mark Phillippi
        Posted July 20, 2013 at 10:15 am | Permalink

        Poor editing on my part. Please ignore the word ‘sells’.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 20, 2013 at 10:48 am | Permalink

      It explains the popularity of Ann Coulter’s books and some of the poo on best sellers lists.

      • microraptor
        Posted July 20, 2013 at 10:50 am | Permalink

        When I was 19 I had a job at a book distributor. I never could figure out how some of the stuff ended up as best sellers.

    • Posted July 20, 2013 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      That’s essentially the way I see it, esp. with respect to music consumption. I have close family and friends in the high end of the industry, and friends of those folks are the most respected mixers, masterers and technicians in the world… all of them will attest that the success or failure of any given offering is a complete crapshoot. One notable exception I can think of is Paul McCartney, who can plunk a ukelele for 30 seconds and the sheep will go a-flockin’.

      If success was based on merit, then all a… say… trumpeter would have to do is study the hell out of their craft, develop one hell of an armature, learn how to read a zillion different clefs and instantly transpose anything in a heartbeat, and learn the nuances of interpretation… and then they would make a million times what a (perhaps somewhat gifted) musical illiterate makes.

      However this very rarely happens… (I wonder if any trumpeters slinging code around these parts can attest to this). There is much written recently on flocking behavior in mass media (now exemplified by Amazon rankings, movie sales, etc.) that attempts to explain this through network effects, tipping points, etc. But I would have to agree that most consumers are bozos on the bus.

      • Posted July 20, 2013 at 11:46 am | Permalink

        First, it’s “embouchure,” not “armature.” And only a handful of people transpose by imagining a different clef, even though most probably wish that was the way they learned to transpose.

        That aside…the big problem in the classical music world is the ratio of musicians to paying jobs. Each of the big public universities in the midwest has a music department. And each of those music departments has a trumpet studio with two or three professors, and each of those professors is graduating about as many trumpeters as there are job openings in any given year in the entire country.

        It’s not at all unusual or remarkable to go to an audition for a single opening and be one of hundreds, maybe even several hundred, applicants — and those’re the ones who made it past the tape screening. They’ll narrow it down to a few dozen for the second round, any of whom is good enough for the gig. Then maybe a half-dozen whose style they think would be a good fit…at which point it’s a crap shoot, really. Besides which they’re likely to give the guy who’s been subbing since the last guy left a bye straight to the finals, and he’s the one most likely to get the gig.

        So, yeah. Success in the world of classical musicians has fuck-all to do with talent or skill or dedication. We’re swimming in a sea of all of the above and more. None of that means shit. In the end it’s mostly who you know, what kind of luck you have, and what kind of luck you can manufacture for yourself.

        Persistance, too. Some people take dozens and dozens of auditions before landing a gig (at the expense of cross-country or even international airfare and accommodations — and this is for a job that might not even pay $30k) and simply keep playing the odds until that one throw of the dice lands on their square.


        • Posted July 20, 2013 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

          it’s “embouchure,” not “armature.”

          Somewhere I knew that… was thinking in terms of sax players, and using terminology that is now way outdated. Mixed up the words.

          Didn’t mean to imply that one somehow uses the clefs to transpose on the fly (that’s certainly not how I do it). Just that you read a huge number of clefs with more or less equal facility. (me being a pianist, and never a professional one [rarely working up vocal pieces, e.g.], has pretty much constrained me to reading a G-clef in the right and an F-clef in the left. So despite my sightreading and transposing skills, would consider myself nearly illiterate compared to thou.

          Interesting to hear how crowded the auditioning environment is, esp. in light of meager immediate payoffs for most. Points to the motivations having nothing to do with financial reward. (much like teaching, or my work in pubic health)

          I sure wish things were different in many ways, though… including the obscene amounts of resources thrown at celebrity worship and the world’s gladiator fetishists. I suspect this is the way it has always been, though, and see it not changing any time soon. (so I am merely farting in the breeze and should stop now)

          • Erik Verbruggen
            Posted July 20, 2013 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

            pubic health 🙂 sorry for that!

          • Posted July 20, 2013 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

            Hmmm…you might be thinking of trombones and clefs. I don’t think you have to take off your shoes to count the number of trumpet passages in something other than treble clef in the entire repertoire. Trombones, though, are frequently switching between bass, alto, and tenor clefs. Violas, too, I think frequently play in alto as well as treble clef.

            Trumpet players get stuck with all the transpositions. The common transpositions are A, Bb, C, D, Eb, E, and F…and you really need to be able to do any of those transpositions on either Bb or C trumpets…and lots of stuff you’ll play on D or Eb trumpet or A or Bb piccolo trumpet…when it comes right down to it, it’s quite rare to be playing something in the same key as the instrument you’re playing it on.

            Oh — and Wagner was something of a loose cannon. He’ll write passages for instruments that have never existed, such as trumpet in C# or Gb. Common consensus is that he started it to force his trumpeters to stop switching instruments / crooks and start transposing, and that he kept doing it just to piss everybody off. And, no, I’m not exaggerating — just a few weeks ago I played some excerpts from the Ring, and there were at least two passages for trumpet in Db.

            I don’t begrudge the rock or sports stars their insane incomes. Indeed, I cheer them for it.

            I just wish that the public would get as excited about some of the other talented people in the world as well. There’s easily enough good musicians in the Valley of the Sun to support at least three full-time professional symphony orchestras plus a couple opera and ballet companies, as well as at least a dozen chamber ensembles, with multiple concerts per day every day throughout the year. It’s just that nobody’s willing to pay us, so we’re stuck working day jobs and don’t have time to do what it takes to perform at that level.

            Same thing even with sports. I think it’d be neat if each city here had its own minor league baseball team…but the only one in the state is down in Tucson, a couple hours away. I’d cheerfully go to cheap minor league games in Tempe, but I’d be nuts to drive down there just for a game. But, believe me, there’re enough players at that level to have at least a half-dozen teams in the Valley plus a few more across the state. But nobody’s willing to pay them enough to train, and they, too, are stuck at their day jobs….



            • Posted July 20, 2013 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

              Ah, right… didn’t know that about trombonists (thought they were mostly stuck reading in C like pianists… tubas too). Never been in a conservatory environment except way early on in life in mediocre offerings scraped together in Alaska circa mid 70s.

              A trombonist joke comes to mind, though… like if you know the difference between a skunk splattered in the road and a trombonist splattered in the road? A: the skunk just *might* have been on his way to a gig. (the other less-funny punch line being that there are skid marks leading up to the skunk)

              Anyway, overpaid musical celebs are one of my bro’s bread and butter, but I also share your regret that other insanely talented people can’t make a decent living, despite their enormous chops (and the sheer amount of wealth in our country). We export so much talent it ain’t even funny.

              Seems to me it’s what people are comfortable with doing that counts, and that varies widely with the reasons for tuning in, in the first place. These reasons seem extremely varied, but are much different from the reasons the musicians I know listen to music. (i.e. not to get bored by it like an accomplished painter might get looking at wallpaper). For that reason, discussions claiming it’s all subjective tend to irritate me, as I have many objective reasons to preferring something over another (in addition to the subjective). Oh well.

              • Posted July 20, 2013 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

                (Most) trombones are C instruments, so they do “read in the key of C”, that is, if they see a C on the page, they play a C on their instrument; likewise for all the other pitches. Reading a different clef doesn’t change this. Sometimes trombone parts go high enough that staying in the bass clef would necessitate too many ledger lines. So the part shifts to the tenor clef. But a C on the page will still equal a C on the instrument.

                Ditto for tubas.

              • Posted July 20, 2013 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

                Actually, all “bass clef” instruments are “c instruments” in the sense you describe…but (virtually) all trombones are actually pitched in Bb. That is, first position (with the slide all the way in) is a Bb, just as a Bb trumpet with no valves depressed is a Bb.

                Most band tubas are in Bb, too. Most orchestral tubas are in C, and F tubas are very common where the C tuba would be overpowering (such as in brass quintets or other chamber settings). But the tubists don’t transpose; they learn a different set of fingerings.

                Horns — they’re actually German, not French — are generally pitched in both F and Bb, with two completely separate sets of tubing that’re switched between with a thumb valve. Orchestral horn parts also switch transpositions often, but not as bad as trumpets.

                A number of woodwinds are also transposing instruments, but the players rarely if ever have to do any on-the-fly transposing. The parts are almost always written out. And the instruments themselves generally aren’t interchangeable. A clarinetist may well own Bb, A, C, Eb, and bass clarinets as well as a basset horn, but she’ll only play the instrument matching what the composer wrote on the page. That’s in large part because there hasn’t been much evolution and innovation within the instrument. Trumpets, on the other hand, have seen near-constant refinement and technological advances over the course of their history…the instrument a modern musician would play Bach on is radically different from the one Bach wrote for. Even since Wagner’s time, there’s been a great deal of change. Hell, just in the last half-century we’ve seen lots of change…there’s at least as much difference between the early-40s Conn C trumpet I play on and what Monette is cranking out these days as there is between a trumpet and a cornet.

                I seem to be wandering far afield. I should probably shut up, now….


              • Posted July 20, 2013 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

                But interesting wandering. At least to me.

              • Posted July 20, 2013 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

                Thanks the both of yez… I plead fatigue and piano-centric use of language. All I knew is that if I was looking at a trombone, tuba or flute/piccolo part (or percussion) – and we are talking high-school level band, not Wagner or Harry Partch 😉 – then the clefs they were looking at AND the pitches they were playing matched what I was doing if the same note names are being called out. Actually reading a viola part, or a tenor/alto chorus part (i.e. shift the clef line around on me), and I might as well be on the moon. If I’m in a certain key (as spoken to a C-instrument reader) and someone tells me they’d like to take it down a tri-tone or something like that, then I’d at least latch onto the concept, and might even get the job done, unless the task involved cold sight-reading a zillion simultaneous notes. Reading a jazz chart, with typically a single-line melody and chords, with foreknowledge of how the thing sounded like generally, and I might be able to do it.

                The stuff that trained conservatory horn and orchestra players do as a matter of course snows me. And then I’ve heard some conservatory musicians complain that they cannot improvise anything to save their lives. I guess it comes down to practice, and the reasons for listening to / and playing what one does.

              • Posted July 20, 2013 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

                I’m one of those classically-trained musicians who’s quite at home (well, a bit ruffled but not much) sightreading a Wagner orchestral part that changes transposition every few measures…who can’t improvise to save his life.

                I know what I’d have to do to learn to improvise, and I may well take it upon myself to learn sometime before the decade is out. But it’s a skill I emphatically do not have today and that will take no small amount of effort to acquire.

                (Just to be clear: Arizona State University’s School of Music isn’t a conservatory, but only a handful of the music schools across the country are labeled as conservatories and about all that sets them apart is that they’re generally not affiliated with any other educational institution. Most music majors have university degrees that include general studies in liberal arts and sciences; conservatories are notoriously weak in such matters.)



                P.S. You do know what the trombonist says at the gig, assuming he ever makes it there? “Would you like fries with that?” b&

              • Posted July 20, 2013 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

                How do you know the pizza delivery guy is an aspiring drummer, even before you open the door?

                The knocking speeds up.

  8. Shwell Thanksh
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    It’s even worse for paintings. Why aren’t works indistinguishable from Rembrandts just as valuable?

  9. Bric
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    I glean this from the Paris Review –

    ‘A first edition of The Cuckoo’s Calling — signed by Robert Galbraith — has sold on AbeBooks for $4,453 (£2,950), and the remaining copy is listed for $6,193.24.’
    Literary merit had very little to do with it; J K Rowling has now signed two copies with both names, and given them to a children’s charity for an auction.

    Of course the name matters, just as it does in fashion, just as it does in painting: an anonymous painting may be interesting or charming, but when it is ‘authenticated’ as a Rembrandt or a Picasso it becomes part of an oeuvre (and incidentally worth millions rather than hundreds). This is the only authentic magic we have.

    • RFW
      Posted July 20, 2013 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      A somewhat distant analogy: the early works of Mozart. His juvenilia are charming, but lack the emotional power of his mature works, yet they are worth listening to because they give context to the later masterpieces.

      If they were by any other composer, Mozart’s juvenilia would still be gathering dust in archives, unheard, uncataloged, and neglected.

      • Bric
        Posted July 20, 2013 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

        It works by association too, who would have heard of Gregorio Allegri if it wasn’t for the legend of 14-year old Mozart writing out the Miserere Mei from memory?

      • Posted July 20, 2013 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

        Perhaps the context you speak of makes M’s juvenilia *worth listening to*, but they are not particularly worthwhile in and of themselves. There are two different categories there.

    • Gordon Hill
      Posted July 20, 2013 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

      Speaking of Anonymous, is that a pseudonym? 😉

  10. kevinj
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    Using a pseudo name for one and not the other makes certain sense. If she didnt release any books then the press etc would probably have started digging into what she was up to. Releasing one under her own name gives them something to focus on.

    As dutchdoc says paintings etc are an interesting example of this. Every now and again in the UK papers there is a story about how a painting brought for 5 quid at a car boot sale is identified as being painted by a master and becomes worth 50000 quid.

    For why buy her book now its known by her, it would be interesting to see how much influence the critics have. I suspect many people ignore the pure critics instead paying attention to Oprah book club etc.

  11. Greg Esres
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    You’ve probably seen a number of articles in the past few years pointing out that even experts often have trouble telling a good bottle of wine from a mediocre one. Our perceptions are definitely influenced by our expectations.

    I’ve personally never been impressed by Shakespeare and think pretty much no one else would either if they were to read his works today without knowing authorship.

    I read the first Harry Potter book right when it came out and liked it well enough, but I can’t say that it was leagues beyond any of the other fantasy books I’ve ever read. It was marketed very heavily right from the beginning, so it created something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    • JT
      Posted July 20, 2013 at 10:40 am | Permalink

      I cannot imagine not being impressed by Shakespeare. There’s a reason why, throughout history, the greatest and most independent minds, from Dr. Johnson to James Joyce, have worshiped the Bard. These men were not exactly the sort who would blindly follow received opinion. No, the admire him because, as Harold Bloom put it, Shakespeare is “the outward limit of human achievement.” I’ve got a degree in English literature (a mostly useless degree, I’ll admit), I’ve read widely and deeply in three languages, and I have yet to find any writer who can consistently match the brilliance of Shakespeare. Sometimes when you see smoke, there actually is a fire. In the case of Shakespeare, it’s an inferno.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted July 20, 2013 at 10:44 am | Permalink

        There’s no accounting for taste…it reminds me of this hilarious Family Guy scene, where Peter admits to his family that he doesn’t like The Godfather: http://youtu.be/BAR-GxoFwBI

        • MNb
          Posted July 20, 2013 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

          I am neither that impressed by Shakespeare nor by The Godfather.
          I vastly prefer Harold Pinter and La Dentelliere plus A Clockwork Orange plus Autumn Sonata.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted July 20, 2013 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

            Meh, that’s okay. I like The Terminator, Bladrunner and Firefly.

      • Greg Esres
        Posted July 20, 2013 at 11:04 am | Permalink

        “Sometimes when you see smoke, there actually is a fire. In the case of Shakespeare, it’s an inferno.”

        Shakespeare is almost incomprehensible to today’s audiences. You can’t even have an idea of what’s going on without copious footnotes.

        If you have to explain it, then it isn’t good. All those hours reading it line by line, analyzing, and then memorizing the famous lines…that’s how English teachers make kids hate reading.

        About the only benefit to me these days is whenever I drive by a local street named “McVay”, I chant to myself “Lay on McVay and damned be he who first cries, hold! enough!”

        • JT
          Posted July 20, 2013 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

          That’s just silly. Shakespeare was writing in early modern English. It’s not his fault that language evolves. Is Chaucer a terrible writer because his middle English is difficult for modern readers to understand?
          Also, Shakespeare was writing for one reason: to make money. His plays appealed to Elizabethan audiences and were not difficult for them to follow. If they were incomprehensible, then he’d have failed at his primary purpose. Sure, some of the nuances might have been lost on less discerning but, on the whole, his plays were wildly entertaining to his contemporaries. As for current audiences, the fact that his plays continue to be staged around the world and made into countless films proves you wrong. Obviously the plays still resonate and still fascinate modern audiences.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted July 20, 2013 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

          I find Shakespeare is much more accessible if you see it performed. The language gains much meaning from context, if it is acted well, and you do not need to wade through footnotes and glossaries to appreciate the drama, the tragedy, and the comedy. After you have seen the play, it’s far easier to read. Or better yet, read it, see it, then read it.

          I think the movie version of “Merchant of Venice” with Al Pacino is quite good. So is the Kenneth Branagh version (1993) of “Much Ado About Nothing”. Michael Keaton is hilarious as Dogberry, the foolish but well intentioned constable. And “Shakespeare In Love”, a fanciful variation on Romeo and Juliet, including speculation on what happened behind the scenes as the play is written and first performed, is high on my list of all time favorite movies.

          I read Hamlet in high school, but I was really too young and inexperienced to fully appreciate it. My teacher’s excitement met blank uncomprehending but polite smiles. In college I saw performances of Midsummer Night’s Dream (performed outdoors in a forest) and Comedy of Errors, and I was hooked. It gave me the motive to take on King Lear, Hamlet, Othello, MacBeth, and others.

          There is so much depth to the stories that you can see or read them many times and develop new appreciation and recognize what you missed before. They don’t grow old, they are so multi-faceted that every time you approach them there are new angles and surfaces to discover.

          I agree the language is a barrier, but getting past that barrier is richly rewarding. There is a reason people value his work, and it isn’t just a case of the emperor having no clothes. The emperor is fully clothed, but in a fashion perhaps a bit strange and out of date. But what is under those clothes, ahem, is timeless. You just have to put some work into undressing them. His works are rich with deep insight into human psychology and human nature, and the many perils and pitfalls of living, the foolish errors and the perennial weaknesses, and the true sadness and hilarious comedy, the ultimate futility and endless beauty of human endeavor and human existence.

          But sometimes it’s more relaxing to veg out and watch an action flick. No challenge, pure eye and brain candy, shit gets blown up. Pass the popcorn.

          • Posted July 20, 2013 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

            The way you kept going with that clothes analogy…lol!

          • Posted July 20, 2013 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

            I find Shakespeare is much more accessible if you see it performed.


            You don’t have to do any homework before seeing a production of Twelfth Night of the Living Dead in order to have a great time.

            (For the uninitiated, it’s exactly what you’re thinking of. Twelfth Night, with Shakespeare’s original script, staged as a zombie invasion. Complete with shambling brain-eating zombies spurting blood with decaying limbs flying off. And, yes. It really does work, and work very well.)


        • Nick
          Posted July 20, 2013 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

          Joking? Or is McVay the only Scots named street in your area? In my area I guess I’d have to misquote, “Lay on McAdams”.

    • microraptor
      Posted July 20, 2013 at 10:42 am | Permalink

      Yeah, the marketing can really make the book. Like that silly Eragon novel- I read it shortly after it first came out when it was this huge best seller and critics were falling over themselves gushing about it. The novel itself was, honestly, a great example of badly written cliches with flat dialog and a very dull plot. By the time I read it, I’d already read a dozen other fantasy novels that had been released that year that were much better written. But since none of them had received the same level of marketing that Eragon had, they didn’t have the same level of sales.

    • gbjames
      Posted July 20, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      In this case, I think you are wrong about the marketing. The first Harry Potter book was sold via Scholastic Books to school children in pretty much the same way as all of the other books sold by Scholastic, just one book in a newsprint catalog. At least that was the case here in the US. I remember it because my daughter was ten years old and bought it along with some other books. It was the way it captured the imagination of kids like her that got the snowball rolling, so to speak.

      She, and a lot of kids her age, grew up with the books. The stories tended to become “more grown-up” as they came out over the years, which kept that generation of readers hooked.

      I enjoyed reading them, too, but part of what kept me reading was to be connected a bit with my kid. I doubt that I’d have read them if I wasn’t a parent reading along.

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted July 20, 2013 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

        Ironically, I think it was the negative reaction from Christian conservatives, who denounced her work as glorifying witchcraft and satanism, that really helped launch her broader popularity. The Streisand effect. Apparently kids were already devouring her book at this time, but as a non-parent I hadn’t heard about her until the Christians tried to ban her books.

        So Christians are good for something. They help people know what is good to read by looking at all the things they hate.

    • Stephen Barnard
      Posted July 20, 2013 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

      I think the controversy over the authenticity of the Shakespeare’s writing is interesting. A case can be made that the actual author was Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, and several other possible authors have been suggested. I like the droll comment someone made to the effect that the works of Shakespeare weren’t written by William Shakespeare, but merely by someone who called himself William Shakespeare. 🙂

      If all of Shakespeare’s plays were lost and only his sonnets remained, he would still be known as The Poet.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted July 20, 2013 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

        Blech those sonnets are dreadful! Check out My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun (Sonnet 130)

        What the heck is going on there? Try to draw this poor woman!

        • stephen
          Posted July 20, 2013 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

          I fear you miss the point of the sonnet,Diana. The writer mocks a hyperbolic style of artificial flattery and declares he prefers his mistress just as she really is. What sort of poetry do you like?

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted July 20, 2013 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

            I’m a big fan of TS Eliot, especially The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock. One of my favourite excerpts:

            No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
            Am an attendant lord, one that will do
            To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
            Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
            Deferential, glad to be of use,
            Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
            Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
            At times, indeed, almost ridiculous–
            Almost, at times, the Fool.

            I grow old … I grow old …
            I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

            And The Hollow Men:

            We are the hollow men
            We are the stuffed men
            Leaning together
            Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
            Our dried voices, when
            We whisper together
            Are quiet and meaningless
            As wind in dry grass
            Or rats’ feet over broken glass
            In our dry cellar

            But I also like me some Ogden Nash, my favourite being The Cow:

            The cow is of the bovine ilk;
            One end is moo, the other, milk.

            I’ve loved some Atwood – I don’t remember the poem but it took the perspective of a girl drowned in water.

            I still like Romantic poetry, mostly Keats though Blake is interesting because of his struggles with the church.

            • stephen
              Posted July 20, 2013 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

              Well, I’m with you regarding Eliot and Ogden Nash -especially ” The Germ” and “The Common Cold”- less so ,nowadays, with the Romantics although “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” and “The Destruction Of Sennacherib” remain favourites. Have you come across Philip Larkin?

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 20, 2013 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

                No, I haven’t come across Larkin….

            • Posted July 20, 2013 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

              Nash is wonderful.

              I’d say my favorite poets are Poe, Carroll / Dodgson…and I’d have to say that Sagan and Dawkins are the greatest poets of the modern era, even though they’re technically prose. Cosmos, in particular, is the greatest epic poem in all of human history. It will not — cannot — be bested for many generations.


              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 20, 2013 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

                I have to say for epic poetry The Odyssey is my favourite. I’ve read many times and I’ve translated some of it from Greek and I never tire of it. I like the Roman equivalent with The Aeneid but The Odyssey is boss!

              • Posted July 20, 2013 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

                The Odyssey and Cosmos actually make wonderful bookends.

                Homer tells the story of a lone man’s journey through the imagined boundaries of the Iron Age world. Sagan takes his audience on an exploration of the actual boundaries of the real universe, and, in so doing, tells the story of all humanity.

                Perhaps my favorite setting of The Odyssey is O Brother, Where Art Thou? Homer himself would have cheered, I’m sure.


              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 20, 2013 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

                Pedantry: The Odyssey is a Bronze Age tale.

                I loved O Brother Where Art Thou? especially the John Goodman cyclops, the Tiresias rail road guy & just about anything Ulysses Everett McGill says. It’s hilarious when he calls Pete and Delmar “dumb as a bag of hammers” for believing all their crimes are forgiven after they’ve been baptized because, “even if it did put you square with the Lord, the State of Mississippi is more hardnosed.”

                I also like Everett’s comment to the fellow they pick up hitch hiking who says he sold his soul to the devil: “Well, ain’t it a small world, spiritually speaking. Pete and Delmar just been baptized and saved. I guess I’m the only one that remains unaffiliated.”

                Like the The Odyssey , I never tire of that movie!

              • Posted July 20, 2013 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

                Pedantry: The Odyssey is a Bronze Age tale.

                You sure about that?

                I mean, sure, the Trojan War was a Bronze Age event. But I though Homer himself was very solidly an Iron Age guy.

                One of the great things about O Brother is that it’s a musical without any weak numbers. The Foggy Bottom Boys are awesome; O Death is bone-chilling; and it’s got the sexiest lullaby I’ve ever heard.


              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 21, 2013 at 8:00 am | Permalink

                I was referring to the tale itself when I said Bronze age but who knows much about Homer…the poem was sung and a part of the oral tradition for so long and his dates are unknown (some say around the time of the tale itself & Herodotus says during the Greek Dark Ages)

                I need to go re-watch O Brother Where Art Thou after this conversation! I love that movie!

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted July 21, 2013 at 12:35 am | Permalink

                O Brother, Where Art Thou is great.

                It looks like the Odyssey is set in the very earliest Iron Age, and composed in the Iron Age (8th century BCE). According to Wikipedia, the Trojan War is dated by the Greeks to the 11th or 12th century BCE.

                Another movie that uses an Odyssey-like quest to return home from a war as it’s narrative theme is Cold Mountain. Very very good movie, if you haven’t seen it. It has some pretty nice music as well.

                I’m particularly fond of the Allison Krauss rendition of “The Scarlet Tide” and also “You Will Be My Ain True Love”.


              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted July 21, 2013 at 12:37 am | Permalink

                Oops, sorry about that big image.

                That link to Cold Mountain mp3 samples should have looked like this

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted July 21, 2013 at 12:46 am | Permalink

                Here is my other post, which seems to have been snagged in a bot filter…

                O Brother, Where Art Thou is great.

                It looks like the Odyssey is set in the very earliest Iron Age, and composed in the Iron Age (8th century BCE). According to Wikipedia, the Trojan War is dated by the Greeks to the 11th or 12th century BCE.

                Another movie that uses an Odyssey-like quest to return home from a war as it’s narrative theme is Cold Mountain. Very very good movie, if you haven’t seen it. It has some pretty nice music as well.

                I’m particularly fond of the Allison Krauss rendition of “The Scarlet Tide” and also “You Will Be My Ain True Love”.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 21, 2013 at 8:13 am | Permalink

                The Odyssey was set in the Greek Bronze age (so was the Iliad). Greeks liked this age and you know it’s the Bronze age by the description of their figure eight shields and their cool Bronze Age helmets (which looked
                this. The actual Greek is linguistically of that time as well (which makes it easier to translate if you are studying the hardest Greek, Classical Greek.

                And now you know all about The Odyssey to go read it because it’s awesome (especially the part with Circe).

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 21, 2013 at 8:14 am | Permalink

                Oops, link fail. Helmet here: http://www.thecityreview.com/f02san3.jpg

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted July 21, 2013 at 8:29 am | Permalink


                I’m just going by these Wikipedia links, that imply the Trojan War was believed by the Greeks to have taken place in the 11th or 12th century BCE, and that technically that seems to be in the very early Iron Age. Apparently what archeological evidence there is of Troy also puts it in the 11th century BCE. We don’t really know how “true” the Iliad is, but apparently there seems to be some historical kernel that inspired the tale.

                I suppose you could say it’s on the cusp between the Bronze and Iron Age. Certainly the deliniation of the ages isn’t an exact science. And certainly there would have still been bronze items in use at the beginning of the Iron Age. So it doesn’t seem as obvious that it was in the Bronze Age, as it would be if it had been in, say, the 20th century BCE for example. According to the definitions in Wikipedia, it is in the very earliest part of the Iron Age.

                So which age it was in seems very disputable, and Iron Age seems at least as credible as Bronze Age.



                If you have better sources, maybe you could edit the Wikipedia pages.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 21, 2013 at 9:13 am | Permalink

                Jeff, I think you are looking at the dates of the Trojan War vs. the dates of the content in the Odyssey which is set in the Heroic Age (idealized from the Iron Age perspective) which falls in the late Mycenaean Bronze Age. I like this timeline because it dates the pottery types and finds as well which puts things in a context: http://www.ancient-greece.org/resources/timeline.html

                It is debatable when Homer was as those poems were sung nearly into Classical Period but they take an Iron Age perspective of the idealized Greek Bronze Age. See excerpt from this wikipedia link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epic_Cycle

                The epic cycle was the distillation in literary form of an oral tradition that had developed during the Greek Dark Age, which was based in part on localised hero cults. The traditional material from which the literary epics were drawn treats of Mycenaean Bronze Age culture from the perspective of Iron Age and later Greece.

              • Posted July 21, 2013 at 9:05 am | Permalink


                Oh, my — doubly (at least!) phallic! Dickhead and dickface!

                I must admit, I’m surprised that Mel Brooks let himself be outdone by a bunch of Bronze Age Greeks!


              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 21, 2013 at 9:54 am | Permalink

                I never saw those helmets that way but the Greeks really did like their phalloi

              • Posted July 21, 2013 at 10:11 am | Permalink

                Hoi phalloi?


              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 21, 2013 at 10:17 am | Permalink

                Ha! Ben you now gave me something to say instead of hoi polloi in an Archie Bunker-esque way hoi phalloi & see if people believe me.

              • Posted July 21, 2013 at 10:35 am | Permalink

                Before getting to belief, you could start by first seeing if they even notice….


              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 21, 2013 at 10:37 am | Permalink

                Indeed! I can surreptitiously call them a bunch of dicks!

      • Tim Harris
        Posted July 21, 2013 at 5:19 am | Permalink

        No, a serious case cannot be made that Vere, Bacon, Marlowe or whoever wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Vere’s own poetry is very minor stuff, and the manner in which Marlowe and Bacon (who was not a poet), both of whom I revere, write is wholly unlike the manner in which Shakespeare wrote. The ‘Oxfordians’ et al are no better than those who see the Jews as being responsible for 9/11 – lovers of silly little conspiracy theories and not of truth.

        • Stephen Barnard
          Posted July 21, 2013 at 5:26 am | Permalink

          Well, that’s pretty severe. I see the controversy (to the extent taht there is one) over the authorship of Shakespeare’s works as an amusing literary and historical kerfuffle, hardly on a par with antisemitic conspiracy theories.

          • Tim Harris
            Posted July 21, 2013 at 7:22 am | Permalink

            Well then, try the supposd controversy over Obama’s birth, if anti-Semitic conspiracies don’t appeal. Yes, it is severe because much the same ignorance, credulity and unwillingness to examine evidence seriously are apparent in most, if not all, conspiracy theories, whether anti-Semitic or not. The ‘kerfuffle’ over whether Shakespeare actually wrote the works is neither literary nor historical, just as the ‘kerfuffle’ over whether the theory of evolution or creationism is true is not scientific.

            • Stephen Barnard
              Posted July 21, 2013 at 10:17 am | Permalink

              I’m an agnostic about the true authorship of Shakespeare’s work. Unlike evolution vs. creationism, or Obama’s birth place, I see no compelling evidence either way. In my opinion, it doesn’t matter — the work stands on its own, which is the relevance to Jerry’s post.

              • Tim Harris
                Posted July 21, 2013 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

                I doubt very much whether you have bothered to look at the evidence, and suspect that like the members of the British Marlowe Society (many of whom like to believe that Marlowe faked his death and fled to Italy where he penned Shaespeare’s plays, sending them back to England by courier), you feel sentimentally comfortable with calling an ignorant credulity ‘open-mindedness’. The American Marlowe Society, by the way, seems mercifully free from the kind of cranks who infest the British one. I suggest reading Stanley Wells or Brian Vickers on this shabby and uninteresting ‘controversy’, or looking at the account of it on Wikipedia. Of far more interest is, for example, that of who wrote the very good play ‘Arden of Faversham’, and the sad fact that because of Shakespeare’s prestige, the plays of his good and great contemporaries like Marlowe, Jonson, Middleton, Webster and Massinger are too seldom performed. Or the question of who wrote ‘Edward III’ (the fourth full production of ehich anywhere in the world I put on here in Japan) – the first half is indubitably, to me, by the young Shakespeare, and contains the earliest of his great temptation scenes.

              • Stephen Barnard
                Posted July 21, 2013 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

                I don’t seem to be able to reply to Tim Harris’s rather insulting reply — I suppose because the comment indenting went too deep — so I’m replying here.

                First of all, I don’t appreciate you speculating about motives, my education, and my “sentimentality.”

                Secondly, I don’t appreciate you putting “openmindedness” in quotes, as though I had used it, which I didn’t.

                Finally, I don’t give a shit who wrote Shakespeare’s plays (which was my point), and I find it both amusing and pathetic that someone could get so worked up about it.

                To compare this tempest-in-a-teapot controversy to antisemitic conspiracy theories is really something.

    • Tim Harris
      Posted July 21, 2013 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

      I am personally unimpressed by Greg Esres and what he supposes to be arguments…

      • Tim Harris
        Posted July 21, 2013 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

        And above that should be the fourth full production of Edward III anywhere in the world for 400 years… And incidentally the first ever in Japan.

      • Stephen Barnard
        Posted July 21, 2013 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

        “Personally” is redundant. “I” will do. Sometimes I hear people saying “Me, myself, personally …”

        • Tim Harris
          Posted July 21, 2013 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

          ‘I’ve personally never been impressed by Shakespeare and think pretty much no one else would either if they were to read his works today without knowing authorship.’ I suggest you direct your comment to Mr Esres whose words those are…

  12. Sagra
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    I tend to stick to my favorite authors because books require a large time investment — much longer than movies or music. If it’s bad, it takes 4 times as long to slog through.

    So yeah, when one of my favorite authors writes a new book, I jump on it.

  13. Posted July 20, 2013 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    I remember hearing about the author Doris Lessing trying this experiment. More recently, a friend of mine sent a recording of John Williams (the classical guitarist) to an independent record label under a pseudonym and was promptly rejected. Brand loyalty matters.

    • Posted July 20, 2013 at 11:03 am | Permalink

      That’s because artistic content has distressingly little to do with marketing. It’s a marketing lie of the content-packaging industries that what they deem marketable has very much to do with artistic quality.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted July 20, 2013 at 11:19 am | Permalink

        It’s kind of like when you realize that working hard isn’t going to get you promoted…you have to market yourself to the right people.

  14. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    I don’t think your music analogy holds. If I heard Biederstücker’s symphony on the radio or at a concert, and liked it, I would probably go out and buy a recording, even if I’d never heard of Biederstücker before.

    If your point is that I’d never get a chance to hear it because nobody would program it, I’m not sure I buy that premise. My impression is that orchestra directors are generally eager to bring obscure works of merit to the public’s attention (e.g. by pairing them with more popular works). But even if you’re right and it does not get programmed, then your contempt should be aimed at the gatekeepers and not at the listening public.

    Books, as others have pointed out, are an entirely different matter. Your time investment is greater, and you don’t get to try before you buy, so you have no choice but to use the author’s name as a proxy for quality.

    • RFW
      Posted July 20, 2013 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      “Books: you don’t get to try before you buy.”

      With Amazon, that’s very true. But brick’n’mortar bookstores have chairs for a reason: so you can sit and browse at length before deciding whether to buy or not.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted July 20, 2013 at 11:20 am | Permalink

        You can usually read an excerpt with ebooks as well. I usually read a sample of something before I buy it (online or in a store).

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted July 20, 2013 at 11:25 am | Permalink

        Fair enough. But “at length” is the key phrase there. If it takes 10 or 15 minutes to evaluate a book by an author I’m not familiar with, then even well-reviewed books are going to get passed over simply because I don’t have time for them all. In contrast, I can make a buying decision on a book by a familiar author in 30 seconds.

      • Bric
        Posted July 20, 2013 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

        And don’t forget libraries: I buy about 20% of the books I borrow

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted July 20, 2013 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      But there is the phenomenon of the acquired taste. We might not like Biederstücker at all when we first hear him, and we are perhaps a really big Justin Bieber fan (because that’s what all of our friends like). It doesn’t mean Biederstücker isn’t great, it means we don’t know how to appreciate his finer qualities.

      But then we learn that we are supposed to like Beethoven, that there is some status associated with it. This makes us curious to investigate and want to know what this strange unfamiliar thing is about. It’s like learning to drink wine, which usually tastes horrible when we are young and try it for the first time.

      There are some who actively try to seek out what everyone else doesn’t like. That’s me to some degree. When I was started high school, I didn’t want to listen to what everyone else was listening to. But what to choose? I somehow had the idea that Bob Dylan was cool (this was 1972-3, just before he reappeared on the music scene after his long post-motorcycle accident hiatus) so I was led to put some effort into listening and discovering what it was all about. During that process I became familiar, I understood some of his lyrics (but many I could not understand), and I developed an appreciation. But if I had accidentally heard “Bob Dylan’s Dream” or “Girl From the North Country” on the radio not knowing who it was, it might not have caught my attention particularly at that time. It’s only because I thought, as an adolescent, that there was some status value, a mystique associated with someone famous but not so popular, who sang political songs and wrote lyrics with social conscience, that I invested effort in learning about and developing a taste for his early to mid 60s music, his folk and early rock period. Oddly (or not so oddly) when he became a born again Christian I lost interest in his new music (no longer so new), but I still love his old music.

      It seems there is much more to taste than objective evaluation of intrinsic value. There is much that is unconscious and subjective, and much to do with human relations to social hierarchy.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted July 20, 2013 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

        It’s like learning to drink wine, which usually tastes horrible when we are young and try it for the first time.

        At least part of that is physiological. Taste buds continue to develop throughout childhood and into the late teens. So you really have to be an adult before things like wine, broccoli, and such begin to taste interesting.

        I’d also take issue with the claim that “we are supposed to like Beethoven, that there is some status associated with it.” Seems to me you could just as well argue that there’s status in being a contrarian and affecting a disdain for Beethoven.

        Personally, I take Beethoven’s popularity with musical cognoscenti as an indication that there may be something there worth investigating, rather than as a prescription for what I’m supposed to like. (Conversely, Justin Bieber’s popularity with 12-year-old girls is a good indication that he’s probably not my cup of tea.)

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted July 20, 2013 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

          There is a reason that 12 year old girls like Justin Bieber, and that mature adults like classical music, and it has as much to do with physiological development as acquiring the taste for wine and broccoli.

          I was really talking about what happens in adolescence when people adopt cultural preferences, which often has importance in people’s preferences later in life.

          The main point was the last paragraph, which I think is valid, that there is much more to our tastes than objective evaluation of intrinsic merits. That’s just the way we like to see it.

      • Posted July 20, 2013 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

        Some people get turned on by extra-musical considerations like “is this countercultural?”.

        Some don’t. Namely, me. Intrinsic quality is what excites me most, and I feel I’m on firm ground saying that is what should matter most. Otherwise why bother with art at all?

        It seems to me that acquiring a taste for a given piece of music (and I’m restricting my observation to music) more often than not is really just familiarization to the point of toleration, then adding some post hoc rationalization for why you came to “like” it. Not always, but often. Sometimes you do come across a piece later in life that you’d heard earlier without the information required to understand what is happening in the piece.

  15. Diana MacPherson
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    But to me that seems irrational

    ….and I think that’s your answer. Decisions to read something are probably not that rational for most and they rely on a more emotional, quicker way to make a decision in the same way as they choose a brand of toothpaste.

    In making this type of decision, superficial criteria may be used (like who wrote it vs. the subject matter vs. reviews), reflecting what we intrinsically value. It would be interesting to find out how long people ponder a purchase and what criteria they use to make their decision and a ranking of these criteria. I’m sure book sellers know these things. A Casual Vacancy was a critical success and zoomed to the number one spot on best sellers lists quickly so this would seem in line with my toothpaste idea.

    Yes, I too feel contemptuous that this seems to be the deal but what can I say? As a child I was asked what would I rather be, smart or pretty (because these are the deep thought experiments put to little girls) and I said smart because you’d be rich from being smart so you could then make yourself pretty. Hahahahaha! Like smart = rich. That is not what society values. Silly little girl!

    • gbjames
      Posted July 20, 2013 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

      I don’t understand why it is irrational to think that the chances of liking a book by an author whose other books you like are fairly high.

      What is better? Random selection? Picking a book because it is “about” something (witchcraft, crime, or romance)? Taking the word of a reviewer in The Guardian?

      Seems to me that using prior experience of an author’s work is extremely rational.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted July 20, 2013 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

        I didn’t say not that it’s not rational, I said that it’s not that rational to choose something based on who wrote it instead of what it is about (do you like the genre for instance – J.K. Rowling’s new books aren’t anything like the Harry Potter series so it may not appeal to someone who liked Harry Potter). Indeed, I recall initial reactions were of disappointment to the book when droves of fans rushed to buy it and realized it was nothing like Harry Potter!

        One may be weigh the decision to buy the book using the one criterion (I liked the author’s other books) but this one criterion is more superficial than delving into a deeper analysis by sampling the content and analyzing what others say (formally and informally) across various sites and among friends. I suspect people don’t want to spend a lot of time thinking about it and their decisions are made quickly which cannot accommodate the time required for deeper analysis.

        Also, I think people jump on the band wagon. They like to align themselves to a winner and where the crowd goes, they go….which is a valid criterion but again more superficial than making a more informed decision using various criteria.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted July 20, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

          I really did proof read too yet I find more errors now. I suck as a proof reader QED.

        • gbjames
          Posted July 20, 2013 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

          We all suck at proof reading on the web.

          As for “delving into a deeper analysis by sampling the content and analyzing what others say (formally and informally) across various sites and among friends”… This represents a significant investment that usually doesn’t make a lot of sense when deciding which book to pick up. When balancing the investments of time and money, I would put prior experience way higher. After all, we aren’t usually investing deeply at purchase time. (Especially if one uses libraries.) All of that analyzing and commenting among friends makes more sense to me after one has already made the purchase and invested time enough to able to comment sensibly.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted July 20, 2013 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

            ….and that’s what I said – because you don’t want to invest in that time, you use something more superficial. You engage in some form of rational selection but it’s flawed because you have constraints.

            Let’s see if I suck at proof reading this…

            • gbjames
              Posted July 20, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

              I guess it rubs me the wrong way when you say that prior experience is “more superficial”. It doesn’t seem superficial at all.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 20, 2013 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

                How about a synonym for superficial then, how about “cursory”?

                Another example – my parents used to show dogs (ugh boring, I hated being dragged their as a child but boy did I see what jerks people can be at a young age) and if a handler that was known took your dog into the show ring, you had a very high chance that the dog would achieve first place. If you yourself, as an unknown, took the dog into the ring, you wouldn’t place. Same dog, same judge but different person.

                The judge had a bias – I’ve seen this handler, this handler is a winner, I choose this handler’s dog.

                Same with someone buying the book – I know this author, this author is a winner, I choose this author’s book.

                Both are cursory/superficial because they certainly are not thorough.

              • gbjames
                Posted July 20, 2013 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

                But I don’t think that is a good analogy. We’re not talking about the opinion of a biased 3rd party judge. In this case you (or I) are/am the judge. And the information we use to make the judgement is prior experience of the work of some author. This is not superficial, nor is it cursory. It may, in fact, represent a substantial investment of time reading/analyzing/discussing prior works of the author. There is no better basis for deciding to buy a new book (or, if prior experience shows the author to be a twit, not buy the book).

                I don’t think the word “thorough” can even apply in the purchasing decision. What would a “thorough” process include? How much “thoroughness” would be needed to make this not a cursory/superficial decision? Why would any amount of what-ever this information be more thorough than one’s own experience of an author’s work?

                Maybe I’m just not understanding something important but I can’t see how what seems like the best reason to buy (or not buy) a book is somehow not as good as this amorphous other “thorough” secondary information.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 20, 2013 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

                I think you may be equating my characterization of the methods for choosing the book based on having read the author previously and enjoyed the author with ineffectiveness.

                I’m not saying this method is ineffective (I’ve achieved mixed results doing this), and for the record, I think with J.K. Rowling there is probably a little of choosing based on past likes and choosing based on popularity (picking the winner). Both criteria for making a choice to buy a book are most likely made in a way to reduce the risk that you will not like a book. However, it still doesn’t make them thorough decisions.

                You ask what would be thorough – probably reading passages, reading multiple reviews, asking (sucker :)) friends who you get to read the book before you and find out what they think. It may be an unrealistic method that I suspect most don’t apply (given how books sell) but it would be a more thorough one.

          • Posted July 20, 2013 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

            We all suck at proof reading on the web.

            Tpye fro yourselv. Me/ I’m prefect. Never make an eror. Not even oen.


            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted July 20, 2013 at 5:12 pm | Permalink


  16. Jim Sweeney
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    Here’s a counter-example: Bizet’s symphony was discovered long after his death. It’s a student work, highly derivative of a symphony by Gounod. The Bizet piece is now quite popular while Gounod’s is a curiosity. Sometimes, quality matters more than originality.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted July 20, 2013 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

      Balanchine may have had something to do with popularizing the Bizet by setting a dance to it in 1947, one that’s still widely performed today.

  17. Posted July 20, 2013 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    Exactly the same thing would happen if some unknown nebbish wrote that symphony today. The critics would say “it is irrelevant because it was written out of the proper historical period.”

    And the critics would be right.

    Beethoven’s symphonies are important for their novelty as much as for the craft of the composer.

    If you’d like a good example, take movie scores — and, in particular, battle scenes. Virtually every battle scene in a modern movie score is a not-at-all-veiled variation on Mars from Gustav Holst’s suite, The Planets. The original was noteworthy not just because it was damned good but because nobody had ever created a musical representation of war like that before. But all the knockoffs since then have become clichés more than anything else. True, some — especially John Williams — have put it to better effect than others. But though Holst himself could well have written most any of them, and even if some are technically superior to the original, none are anywhere near as significant.

    In a form and analysis class at Arizona State University, we had an assignment to write a thirteenth variation to Mozart’s K265. It was a fun assignment, but the challenge — for me, at least — was in writing something not uncharacteristic of the style that didn’t sound like Mozart could have written it.

    Brahms very famously faced a similar challenge. His first symphony is often referred to as Beethoven’s Tenth — and for good reason. Brahms was intimidated by Beethoven and took a long time to write the work. And it’s as much of an evolution from Beethoven’s Ninth as the Ninth was from the Eighth, which was itself an evolution from the Seventh, and so on. If Beethoven himself went back to writing works like the Fifth after he had written the Ninth, he too would have been rightly excoriated. (To get an idea of what Beethoven really was capable of, have a listen to his late string quartets. Mind-blowing, even today!)

    It’s not just music, either. There’re plenty of cameras today capable of “painting” with greater technical mastery than any of the Renaissance masters could have dreamed of. One of the projects I have in mind — though it may be years before I work my way that far down the list — is to re-create some of the masterworks, by duplicating the pose and light and staging and all the rest. Maybe not the costumes…I might go in a different direction for that. But though the results will be original and likely of comparable technical quality to those of the original, I wouldn’t presume to suggest that they’d even be remotely in the same league.



    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted July 20, 2013 at 11:48 am | Permalink

      I love the late string quartets. But I might never have stumbled on to them, and might not have made the effort to listen enough to appreciate them if I didn’t know they were from Beethoven, and if I hadn’t been recommended them by someone whose musical opinions I respect. I’m not a trained musician, and particularly the Grosse Fugue is challenging. But I’ve heard it enough that it has a comfortable familiarity to me. To me the themes seem to walk a razor thin edge between ecstatic passion and desperate agony, a plaintive crying out of a mind both brilliant and tortured. The themes echo and reflect, and I find the way at times they disappear and then reappear out of nowhere to be fascinating. I only wish I had a real music theory based appreciation of how it is composed. I wonder, was Beethoven effectively deaf when he composed this? It seems like a work that is written without any regard for what people think “sounds good” or is familiar, but more like something composed on a purely theoretical basis. Apparently the public booed this music when it premiered, because nobody understood it, and it didn’t sound like anything they had heard before, which brings us back to the topic of this thread.

      But I must say I prefer the Cavatina. To hear the Grosse Fugue is like surviving a musical storm in some ways, and the Cavatina right after it is like emerging from a storm of musical emotion onto a placid lake of clarity and tranquility.

      • Posted July 20, 2013 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

        If you like the late Beethoven quartets, you should also give Shostakovich’s and Bartok’s quartets a listen.

        And initial audience reaction is a notably unreliable indicator of how well a work will stand the test of time: witness the riot at the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

        Though much wonderful art is pretty and even beautiful, I’ve found that truly great art has no need of either. Berg’s Lulu, for example, is really quite horrific pretty much any way you might care to approach it. But it’s every bit as great a masterwork as a Mahler symphony or a Mozart opera — and much of Mahler is downright depressing and Mozart literally drags his characters into the pit of Hell.

        The Greeks figured this out, unsurprisingly. Comedies and trageties both had their place…and the more significant comedies are often quite tragic.


        • MNb
          Posted July 20, 2013 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

          If the Shostakovich quartets then performed by the Borodin Quartet. I own the box set. Never thought such music and such performances were possible.

        • Posted July 20, 2013 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

          Oh, I wouldn’t hesitate to call the tragic, even the extremely tragic, beautiful.

          • Posted July 20, 2013 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

            I think I understand what you’re suggesting, but “beautiful” doesn’t work as an appropriate word for me.

            Take Wozzeck, for example. There’s no beauty in Marie’s son singing, “Hopp, hopp! Hopp hopp!” at the end of the opera. It is, however, an unbelievably powerful and wrenching and moving scene.


      • Bric
        Posted July 20, 2013 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

        To take this round in a circle, I didn’t know the Beethoven piano trios at all, but Haruki Murakami talks a lot about them in his novel ‘Kafka on the Shore’, and I just had to hear them

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted July 20, 2013 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

        Here is the haunting Grosser Fugue

        And the sublime Cavatina

        Two of my favorite movements, and perhaps the most famous, from Beethoven’s Late String Quartets, for anyone interested in hearing them.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted July 20, 2013 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

          This has better sound and is a better performance of the Grosser Fugue but the creative video editing might be a bit distracting.

        • Posted July 20, 2013 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

          The sad thing is nobody really pushed tonality as hard as Beethoven did until Strauss — and, even then, Strauss didn’t have the courage to push it over the edge the way Schoenberg and the rest of the Second Viennese School finally did. And I think only Stravinsky and Hindemith and Bartok and Shostakovich really understood what to do with tonality and harmony after the Viennese shattered it and smashed it all to bits. Almost all the other composers basically retreated. To be sure, many — such as Copland and Bernstein and others — have created great works, but they really haven’t explored new frontiers; instead, they’ve filled in the blank spaces in territory whose outlines are already mapped.

          (See Tony Plog, whom I mentioned in an earlier thread, for a living composer who’s writing wonderful original music in the post-tonal / atonal world.)

          And then there’s all that minimalist dreck…don’t get me started….



          • Posted July 20, 2013 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

            Do you know what a minimalist composer does before taking a swig of champagne?

            Fill up glass.

            • Posted July 20, 2013 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

              Good one!

              I’ve already told my minimalism joke, so I won’t repeat myself. No, I would never repeat myself. Repetition is repetitive, and I would never be so repetitive as to repeat myself. But then, I repeat myself as I repeat myself.


              • Posted July 20, 2013 at 8:55 pm | Permalink


              • Posted July 20, 2013 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

                Cracking up at that knock, knocker. And the discussion of 4’33” brings to mind what to me would be a nightmare if I was one of the performers in that ensemble: being all tuxed up and ready to go and getting hit somewhere around the 4-minute mark by a severe case of gastrointestinal distress.

    • Posted July 20, 2013 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

      I think we’re back to the concept/content distinction. I’m of the opinion that a piece of music is good if its content is executed well, that is, with logic and coherence, even if it imitates an older style (concept). I don’t think “one and done” is a good heuristic to apply in evaluating art. Many of the fugues in the WTC are similar, but they are each worth their individual weight in gold.

      And although representing the astrological signs with symphonic tone poems is a pretty cool idea, I actually find much of The Planets clunky and not well-executed, from a “does it really make sense for these notes to lead to these other notes” perspective.

      Interesting aside: One of the things Beethoven was after in his late works (Missa Solemnis, quartets) was returning to older styles, ie, church modes. He (in)famously tried to compose in the Lydian mode by applying a sharp or natural (whichever would be required) to the fourth scale degree. Thing is, he invariably did so as part of an applied dominant, the V/V. So he never actually left traditional tonality.

      • Posted July 20, 2013 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

        Hmmm…I don’t think of the fugues in Das Wohltemperierte Klavier as separate works, but as individual elements of a single large work. Same with Die Kunst der Fuge. Each is a very thorough study of a single melody. And, in those two studies, the individual fugues are really just single statements, almost “merely” single phrases. And with that sort of “reaaaaaaaaaaaaaly big beat” perspective, there’s no more repetition in either work than there is in anything else Bach wrote — just enough for delineating the different phrases, really.

        (And I’ve performed many of the individual fugues in the Art of the Fugue with brass quintets…I’ve long wanted to do an entire concert of just that work, preferably with at least three and ideally twelve different ensembles. Everybody else thinks I’m nuts and that nobody would want to sit through anything like that.)

        I’ve done The Planets a couple times…but, to be honest, the one was single performance after one or two rehearsals, and the other was just a single run-through in a sightreading session. I wouldn’t say I’ve studied it…in those types of circumstances, it’s more of a “fasten your seatbelt and keep your head down” situation. Outside of that, it’s really only just been background on the radio — and I only ever hear the radio when I’m with somebody else. That writ, I’ve never noticed the kind of klunkiness you describe.


        • Posted July 20, 2013 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

          I would definitely sit through it.

          Can you recommend a good recording of KdF by a brass ensemble? I have a solo organ recording, but a performance on brass would be very, very nice. The final fugue is so powerful. (I listen to my recording of KdF while exercising!)

          I think the preludes and fugues in the WTC are separate enough. None of them use the same subject. They are often performed singly.

          But you could even say, for the purposes of my point, that other obviously separate works are similar, say, the Gloria from the B minor mass and the opening sinfonia from the Easter oratorio.

        • Posted July 20, 2013 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

          And clunkiness was perhaps not the precise adjective I was after. It just doesn’t have the flow or the organic nature of something by, say, Brahms.

          But that doesn’t keep me from rocking out to Mars or Jupiter from time to time.

          • Posted July 20, 2013 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

            Well, it’s certainly the case that Holst is no Brahms.

            But I wonder if your reservations might have as much to do with the performance as with the work itself. I’ve played Brahms symphonies with community orchestras where the work was every bit as disjointed and stilted and, frankly, incoherent as would be a gross exaggeration of how you described The Planets.

            “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing,” and that applies to Host and Brahms as much as to Bach and Ellington.

            (Reminds me of a tangent. Have you ever heard Ellington’s Nutcracker? Unquestionably the Tchaikovsky ballet yet thoroughly the Duke. Great work.)


            • Posted July 21, 2013 at 8:19 am | Permalink

              That’s a good point. The performance can certainly influence one’s judgment.

              My wife used to sing in a professional vocal ensemble, VocalEssence (Ensemble Singers), whose director is notorious for programming schlock. But after attending their first concert I remarked to her “a fine performance can make poor music tolerable”.

              But most of my judging happens away from any incarnation of the music – score, recording, whatever. Just thinking about it in the abstract.

              I don’t want to overburden Dr. Coyne’s site with technical musical tangents, so suffice it to say that most of the problems I find in tonal literature are of a contrapuntal nature. Brahms was able to conjure music every bit as dramatic and harmonically inventive as Holst or Wagner, while also maintaining a high contrapuntal standard.

              I know that my tastes are quite strict compared to just about everyone else. It often makes me wonder if I’m the one missing the boat. OTOH, if you can have drama AND logic, why not?! Why settle for one or the other?

  18. AdamK
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    I bought WEIT because I liked this website’s author’s style. So there. And yes, it is irrational. Some things are.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted July 20, 2013 at 11:21 am | Permalink

      There is a huge diffrerence between fiction and non- fiction. Style and content are important in non-fiction. The same thing over and over again in fiction is boring (e.g. see any US TV series)

  19. John
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    This phenomenon clearly demonstrates the Cult of Personality component of modern popular culture. Americans, in particular, have been obsessed with their celebrities to a greater extent, in recent decades, that ever before. Much of that is attributable to the media, particularly television, that promotes the cult for financial reasons. I think many people have their celebrity icons, even outside popular culture. I am an academic and, in my field, there are workers that I gravitate toward whenever they publish anything of interest. Of course I am aware that is foolishness and I read everything relevant, but I can’t stick my nose in the air and say I am immune to popularity. We all have our favorites, whether actors, authors, chefs, or scholars. For the latter, the imperative is to cover all the bases, whatever one’s preferences.

  20. Nikos Apostolakis
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    This reminds me of the piece Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote by the immitable Borges. It’s available here: http://www.coldbacon.com/writing/borges-quixote.html

    The last paragraph:

    Menard (perhaps without wanting to) has enriched, by means of a new technique, the hesitant and rudimentary art of reading: this new technique is one of deliberate anachronism and the erroneous attributions. This technique, whose applications are infinite, prompts us to go through the Odyssey as if it were posterior to the Aeneid and the book Le jardin du Centaure of Madame Henri Bachelier as if it were by Madame Henri Bachelier. This technique fills the most placid works with adventure. To attribute the Imitatio Christi to Louis Ferdinand Céline or to James Joyce, is this not a sufficient renovation of its tenuous spiritual indications?

  21. Gareth Price
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    I suspect this comment reveals my ignorance and lack of appreciation of art, but I can’t be the only person who has thought this: I sometimes look at a work of art hanging in a modern art gallery and wonder whether it has any value at all other than the fame of the artist who created it.

    • M Janello
      Posted July 20, 2013 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      One of my favorite modern-art stories is that there was a work in a museum which contained a plastic bag full of crumpled up paper and garbage (yeah, I know). So of course at night the custodial staff threw it out. HA HAHAHA


      • Suri
        Posted July 20, 2013 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

        “Tate Britain said the work “is made up of several elements, one of which is a rubbish bag included by the artist as an integral part of the installation”.”

        “It is not the first time such a mistake has been made. In 2001 a cleaner at a London’s Eyestorm Gallery gallery cleared away an installation by artist Damien Hirst, having mistaken it for a pile of rubbish.”

        Lol, priceless.

        Is it really that hard to find people with talent?
        I guess this takes us back to the ‘name and fame’ thing.

        • Gordon
          Posted July 20, 2013 at 3:18 pm | Permalink


      • Posted July 20, 2013 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

        A friend of mine removed her flip-flops and placed them in a conspicuous spot against a wall in the Walker Art Center, a modern art museum in Minneapolis.

        After a while she went to put them back in and was accosted by patrons who were sure she was destroying an installation.

        • Posted July 20, 2013 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

          Hmmm…makes me think of doing some guerrilla art at a contemporary art museum and seeing how long it takes to be discovered….


      • Posted July 20, 2013 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

        A similar bit in the musical vein (cannot remember the piece) involved a “prepared piano” (took a couple days to do it) and a custodian convinced he had chanced upon an act of vandalism… taking an hour out to restore the piano to good working order.

    • Suri
      Posted July 20, 2013 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

      Couldn’t agree more, modern art museums seem to be full of trash, really frustrating and boring.

      Anyone watched The documentary on Marina Abramovic’s pergormance @MoMA? Total crap, and a great example of how stupid people can be and how the word ‘art’ can really mean anything.

      • Suri
        Posted July 20, 2013 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

        Oops, performance.

  22. M Janello
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    There is a set of Haydn Quartets, Op. 3, that is now known to be written by someone else (Roman Hoffstetter), and a cellist colleague of mine was lamenting that they weren’t played much anymore, which was too bad as they are delightful pieces!

    The slow “Serenade” movement of this is very well-known (starts at 4.35 of the video). Note that this version calls it Haydn.

    Hoffstetter was a Haydn contemporary, an excellent musician, and he freely admitted he tried his hardest to write just like Haydn.

  23. Jeff Johnson
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    I think the Beethoven phenomenon makes sense in a few ways.

    From a scientific standpoint we look for invariant truths that are empirically verifiable, and this pretty much equates to what you are calling the intrinsic value. It is what we think the measurable qualities would be if judged in a blind test by experts in the field. It applies to literature and art and all kinds of things.

    But cultural value is much more subjective, for at least a couple of reasons I can think of. I think they boil down to familiarity, and they relate to how brand names function, whether the brand is a toothpaste or a fine artist such as Van Gogh or Pollock.

    People aren’t necessarily qualified to critically judge music and literature. I think there are lots of people who are afraid to say they like something if they think others, especially experts, might trash it. So for many people there is a safety in numbers kind of follower mentality.

    But also, people do know when they are enjoying reading something, and it has to do with how they connect with the writer’s voice, so it’s likely they will also like other books by the same author. All the better if lots of other people also think its good. Many people want to be in on what’s popular. Reading something without this brand name recognition is riskier.

    Another factor is sentimental memories. If you grow up with something, or have inherited something from cultural norms, it often has a fond place in the heart, regardless of its quality. Why the hell is the song “Happy Birthday” so popular around the world? I think the french “Bon Anniversaire” is a much nicer song. But it’s harder to sing than the boring Happy Birthday. It’s like the familiarity of it grew by accident and reached critical mass, and then it was here to stay. Kind of like the growth of Christianity, a product of historical accidents that made an inferior hodgepodge of borrowed mythologies into something that is value far beyond its intrinsic worth.

  24. Curt Nelson
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    There’s a false assumption I think, that books sell or don’t mainly as a function of their intrinsic quality, when other attention grabbing factors – like that the author is famous – can have so much to do with it. Maybe this second non Harry Potter book is actually quite good but it wasn’t recognized at first only because under an unknown author not many people gave it a chance. Some artists have proven track records so of course more people are going to buy their stuff based on reputation, which makes sense. Is that why some books, like The Great Gatsby, can be turned down and turned down and yet eventually be recognized as great? Finally, I am not a Harry Potter fan either.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 20, 2013 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      I once saw an interview with (I think) Steve Martin who was chatting with another comedian (I forget who) and he said that he can no longer tell if what he says is funny because people laugh at it anyway because he’s Steve Martin so he just can’t tell if anything he does is good anymore.

      I wish I could remember more about the interview because I think it fits with this topic.

  25. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    Perhaps it’s the ‘magic of contagion’? People will pay more for an unwashed sweater worn by a celebrity than a washed sweater, and still less for a sweater that was merely owned and not worn. There’s research on the web about this.

    People value meaningful things more and being ‘touched’ by famous person add to the value. So I guess a book by Robert Galbraith is fine, but with J. K. Rowling cooties all over it…

    • Bric
      Posted July 20, 2013 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

      Well indeed – a pair of 35in waist knickers, worn by Queen Victoria in the 1860s, sold at auction for £9,375 a couple of years ago. One assumes these were washed; I won’t speculate on whose unwashed knickers would fetch the highest price.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted July 20, 2013 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

      People value meaningful things

      It’s interesting how you used “meaning” here. Why should something have more meaning if it is touched by a famous person? Doesn’t an undiscovered brilliant work of literature contain more meaning than a famous widely read work of pulp fiction?

      But I agree with you, the way you used meaning is how people generally use it. This pretty much proves that things have no intrinsic meaning, but they only acquire meaning when they are encountered by a human mind, and human subjectivity invests it with meaning.

      This is one of the reasons why God had to be invented. All that is unknown, undiscovered, and not understood would be intrinsically meaningless, apparently an anxiety inducing state of affairs for the average person, unless the mind of God existed to make it meaningful. But this is only a projection of the human concern with meaning onto an indifferent universe. Christians go gaga for God’s cooties all over the place. They’re like frustrated paparazzi who’ve never been able to get a shot of their target subject.

      • DiscoveredJoys
        Posted July 21, 2013 at 6:27 am | Permalink

        Quite so. I have a (very loose) hypothesis that our brains are data exclusion and association devices – throwing away data about events that appear unimportant to our well being and linking significant events together into larger associations, like habits, or emotions, or quick and dirty responses to nearly familiar stimuli.

        In social animals some are seen as more significant than others – herd leaders, alpha males and females, parents, kin… and celebrities. Their significance is because their impact is more significant to each individual, and by loose association their ‘stuff’ inherits some of that additional significance. The additional significance is subjective rather than objective.

        Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes it is a cigar that Fidel Castro once smoked…

      • Posted July 22, 2013 at 10:34 am | Permalink

        I agree that is no “intrinsic meaning”.

        But the impossibility of objective evaluation doesn’t follow from this.

        If you accept a particular artistic paradigm, then you can talk about how well an artist has executed content according to the dictates of that paradigm.

        And paradigms themselves are not necessarily invented wholecloth, arbitrarily, and out of thin air. The good ones emerge and are refined over time, based on observation and experimentation with sound and how we humans perceive it.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted July 22, 2013 at 11:37 am | Permalink

          Agreed, I in no way wanted to imply that within the realm of human subjective meaning that there is no way to distinguish quality based on real merits.

          But an “objective” evaluation of a piece of music or a work of fine art requires skill, experience, and is ultimately a subjective process that operates in terms of human created values, even if this happens with an accurate awareness of certain objectively measurable distinctions.

          Most people don’t have the skills to make refined evaluations, so they go by their personal tastes, which may or may not be guided by the recomendations of an expert, or by the familiarity of an established “brand”, and may or may not conform to the opinions of experts.

          • Posted July 22, 2013 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

            Oh, I didn’t think you were making that implication. I just thought it was a relevant point worth making.

  26. Posted July 20, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    I trust my past experience much more than I trust reviews – personal tastes differ so much – so I think it makes a lot of sense.

  27. komponist1
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    It’s so refreshing to see so spirited a discussion of this kind of music, given the usually pop-oriented posts here. OK, I know that some of you are going to call me a snob, and maybe I am — but my pseudonym should give me away.

    And Ben, thanks so much for your comments on Berg’s Lulu — a towering masterwork if ever there were one. I’d also like to put in a word for Arnold Schoenberg, who IMNSHO is one of the truly great composers.

  28. lwcarrington
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Contextual significance vs contextual insignificance. People do not watch the Superbowl because of the quality of the game, they watch it for its contextual significance.

    The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith vs The Cuckoo’s Calling by J K Rowling:
    Quality is the same, contextual significance is greatly different.

  29. Hempenstein
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    Could the people who think the Satanic Verses would have sold just as well without the Ayatollah’s fatwah please form a line over here, and those who think it would have disappeared into obscurity but for the fatwah form a line over there?

  30. MNb
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    “stunt. I’m not sure why she’d use a pseudonym”
    In an interview she said that she wanted to be relieved from the pressure her fans put on her shoulders.

    “the novel is exactly as good as it is”
    Which is why I don’t care who leaked her name and what Rowlings intentions were.

    “What would happen?”
    Something like this happens all the time with paintings. Their value skyrocket if some experts declare say Rembrandt painted it iso some nameless guy.

    “It should be recognized as a lost masterpiece.”
    In fact this happens with music quite frequently. Mozart was largely forgotten in the first half of the 19th Century, until Schumann rediscovered him. The same with Mussorgsky, whose rediscovery has taken some 100 years. These days nobody performs Rimsky’s adaptation of the Boris anymore. The amazing thing is that Rimsky himself wrote he would be perfectly happy if this would happen!

  31. MNb
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    “Exactly the same thing would happen if some unknown nebbish wrote that symphony today.”This is a what-if scenario (and thus unscientific speculation) very unlikely to happen, exactly because such a composition cannott be created without the context of that historical period.
    You’re addressing a non-existing problem.

    “Is the intrinsic value of a work of art”
    Does a work of art have an intrinsic value? If yes, what method do you use to determine it?

  32. Stephen Barnard
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    Suppose someone pays $100 million for a van Gogh painting widely considered to be one of his finest. Then is it conclusively proven to be a fake and becomes worthless. Clearly, it wasn’t worth $100 million because of its artistic merit. It was worth $100 million to the buyer because of its rarity and the prestige it conferred.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted July 20, 2013 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

      It wouldn’t become worthless. It would still have collectible value as a fake so good it fooled the experts.

      • MNb
        Posted July 20, 2013 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, but people don’t pay as much for a Van Meegeren as they do for a Vermeer. And Van Meegeren managed to fool lots of experts way too long.

      • Stephen Barnard
        Posted July 20, 2013 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

        I knew someone would be pedantic. 🙂

      • Stephen Barnard
        Posted July 20, 2013 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

        Any tiny residual value the fake would have would not be due to its artistic merit, but to its notoriety.

      • Thanny
        Posted July 20, 2013 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

        There’s no shortage of fakes capable of fooling the “experts”.

        They use scientific techniques, such as dating the canvas, analyzing the paint composition, and the like.

  33. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    It may be worth noting that Rowling is not the first author who tried this.

    Isaac Asimov published the first three of his six “David Starr” novels under the name Paul French. (And after he starting using his own name he was able to introduce Asimovian positronic robots into the stories.)

    Agatha Christie wrote some romance novels as Mary Westmacott.

    Gore Vidal wrote several murder mysteries under the name Edgar Box.

    Stephen King published no less than four thrillers under the name Richard Bachman before being found out, one of which was even filmed with Bachman listed in the credits as the author of the source novel.

    The implication is that all these authors wanted to see if these books could sell on their own merits without the “name-brand” to sell them.

    • MNb
      Posted July 20, 2013 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

      But it might be a novelty that a famous author writes under her own name and under a pseudonym at about the same time, using the first as a decoy.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted July 20, 2013 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

        Not sure what you mean by a decoy, but Ruth Rendell alternated between her own name and the Barbara Vine pseudonym for several years before coming clean and admitting that she was Vine. And even then she continued publishing books as “Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine”. In her mind the Vine books represented a distinct genre from the Rendell books, and she didn’t want people confusing the two.

        In a similar vein, the recently deceased Iain Banks published his literary fiction as Iain Banks and his science fiction as Iain M. Banks just so everybody was clear which was which.

      • Gordon
        Posted July 20, 2013 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

        I thought one reason some authors use two names is not over-use the “brand” of the principal name. The one-novel a year principle.

  34. Chris Slaby
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    “Is the intrinsic (as opposed to the dollar) value of a work of art so dependent on who writes it, rather than on what it expresses?”

    To take “dependent on who writes it” to a much broader level (something like the entire context of a work), I think, makes us (me, at least) much more comfortable with the affirmative answer. I’m also not sure that I would express it as a dichotomy. Surely what’s being expressed is related to the person expressing it.

    I also have to put in a plug for cultural relativity. There is no such thing as an intrinsic value of a work of art, at least not a permanent and universal one. All of our experiences are mediated to some extent or another by who we are as individuals, by our time and culture, etc. The value of any piece of art is completely contingent on who is experiencing it, and likely to change over time. Given that, I think it makes more sense that people flock to an already famous/successful/well-liked artist. It might even be more of a comment on fame and how that relates to taste and “quality.” To what extent have previous claims of quality (and perhaps unexamined reproductions of such claims) been disproportionately affected by fame? I’m guessing a lot.

  35. kelskye
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    At the end of the day, there’s only so much time and effort one can put in to finding new things – we all have to be able to decide where our time and money goes, and we are all doing that in an ever-increasing range of items. I’m not surprised in the slightest that the book is now selling well once the author is revealed, what I find slightly disheartening is the gap between something that’s getting good reviews from an unknown and the sales once that unknown is revealed to be known.

    From memory, didn’t Stephen King do the same where he published under a pseudonym to see if it was really his name or his writing quality that sold books?

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 20, 2013 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

      It would seem effective ways of making choices for a reader does not always translate into fairness for those who are unknown.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted July 20, 2013 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

        “do not”, I mean “do not”, I really do know how to pair plural nouns/pronouns with plural verbs!

      • kelskye
        Posted July 20, 2013 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

        I think events like this give lie to the myth that there’s a direct correlation between quality and sales. The idea that the best rise to the top and get rewarded for quality – even in terms of having a wide appeal – is largely a matter of luck and contingency.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted July 20, 2013 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

          Absolutely! Sadly, I think this is observable in many areas.

  36. Marella
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    The minute I heard about the book I went and bought it. I’m a fan of detective novels and good ones are hard to find, but I didn’t hear about it until its author was uncovered. I read the reviews which were encouraging and I also felt, upon reflection, that since the Harry Potter books (I am a fan) were basically mysteries, that it was a genre Rowling would probably be good at. I never purchased Casual Vacancy because it got terrible reviews and didn’t sound like my sort of thing either.
    The thing is that without the name you don’t get the publicity. Finding good books amidst the endless crap is extremely difficult. I have purchased many books with good reviews that I hated, so when you have an author you feel you can rely on, it takes a degree of risk out of the proceedings.

    Cuckoo’s Calling is a very good detective novel. The characters are interesting and it’s well written. I am very much looking forward to the next one.

  37. Gordon Hill
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    I’m guessing she doesn’t have free will and had no choice… so, too, whevero outed her… 😉

    • Gordon Hill
      Posted July 20, 2013 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

      whoever… whatever… 😦

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted July 20, 2013 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

        Apparently her blabbermouth attorney told his wife’s best friend.

  38. Posted July 20, 2013 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    A good read on the subject of art, artists, and value is Don Thompson’s “The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art”. Much in it is devoted to the phenomenon of Damien Hirst, and a good piece on Charles Saatchi. Some excellent economic numbers re artists, incomes, etc. in the book.

    I bought a copy at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco, though I had no intention of buying a single thing (much less a book) on the visit.

    Browsing will do that.

  39. Jeff Chamberlain
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    I remember being impressed by a book on this subject by William Grampp, called Pricing the Priceless.

  40. Jim Sweeney
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

    Music is distinguishable from the visual arts in that it exists in repeated performances instead of a single original version. There is no unique Beethoven’s Fifth, only the one you are hearing now.

    Moreover, we encourage musical variations far more than we do visual variations. It’s expected that jazz or rock musicians perform distinctive variations on familiar compositions, whereas visual artists producing variations within familiar genres tend to be taken less seriously.

    The deleterious effects of the superstar focus in the visual arts is painfully obvious in any major museum. In the Uffizi I watched a tour group gather around a vague Michelangelo sketch, then blow through the next gallery, which held Titian’s iconic Urbino Venus. In the Vatican, I overheard an American looking at some of the world’s most famous frescoes; when told they were painted by Raphael, he said he didn’t care about that, he only wanted to see Michelangelo.

    You get the feeling that some people don’t enjoy art for its own sake.

  41. Sean
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    Kind of similar to the urban legend about Joshua Bell, the great violinist playing on the subway, and (almost) nobody stops / cares to give him a tip, because his performance is out of context


  42. Dawn Oz
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

    If Richard Dawkins writes a book – I will buy it as I respect the author. So, similar things happen in the fiction world. However evaluating fictional works and art is always fraught with psychological issues.

  43. Sioux
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 11:46 pm | Permalink

    This phenomenon is not confined to the literary world or the world of art. The notion of blind review used in academic publishing is meant to ensure that only works of merit are published regardless of who wrote them or which institution they work for. But in reality, the editor of the journal, who has access to author/s name/s, holds enormous power. She gets to decide if it is worth sending out for review in the first place and gets to make a decision in cases where the reviews are mixed. Big name professors will inevitably be more readily published than unknown newcomers.

  44. Geoff Irwin
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

    If I read a book by an author and enjoy it, I’m likely to seek out other books by that author, as I’m likely to enjoy those too. If one enjoys the Potter books they’d no doubt be keen to read more by the same writer. And if I enjoy works by Beethoven, I’d like to hear more by him. There isn’t time to listen to every composer, so unless it comes highly recommended I’d have no reason to go hear a piece by Biederstucker.

  45. Posted July 21, 2013 at 12:10 am | Permalink

    I do not think people buy books simply on name, since if they bought it, they probably will need to read it, otherwise it would be a waste of money. It is true that people who read the Harry Potter series and loved it would be more inclined to purchase the detective novel written by JK Rowling, but because they know it is good and the fact that they enjoyed her writing before.

  46. Bric
    Posted July 21, 2013 at 1:43 am | Permalink

    These questions of attribution and the value of authenticity are particularly fascinating in the field of traditional Chinese painting. There was a long tradition and practice of copying and ‘recreating’ masterpieces of the past for over 1200 years and Chinese and Japanese connoisseurship has traditionally not given ‘authenticity’ a major role in art appreciation.
    You can get a fascinating glance at the trouble this has caused for the New York Metropolitan Museum here:

  47. Tim Harris
    Posted July 21, 2013 at 5:01 am | Permalink

    This may spoil the party, but I honestly find the argument based on the possible existence of one Gustav Biederstücker whose dates we do not know, who seems to have made no impression whatsoever upon his contemporaries, whoever they were, and whose only work, it seems, was the symphony that is mistakenly attributed to Beethoven, to be ridiculous. No composer composes in a sort of aesthetic vacuum outside history, and any composer who composed something like the Fifth Symphony would, in order to have developed to the point where he was capable of composing it, have had to have composed a number of other works that gave him the technical skill to compose such a symphony and also to have displayed the kind of profound musical imagination that is displayed in that symphony; he would also have made at least some sort of impression upon his contemporaries. To suggest otherwise is surely to indulge in a sort of fantasy of art – to indulge in the sort of naive aestheticism that assumes that works of art exist outside any historical context, and that speaks too readily of the ‘timelessness’ of what is claimed to be good or great art.

    • Posted July 22, 2013 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

      Of course that’s true in practice, or, as the kids say, irl.

      But pointing this out misconstrues the purpose of the thought experiment. Thought experiments often are consigned to the realm of, well, thought, because of some practical impossibility.

      Dr. Coyne’s question about the assignation of value us a good one.

    • Posted July 22, 2013 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

      Upon further reflection, it’s really not as impossible a situation as you might think.

      Sure, a person with no background and corpus of work in music won’t spontaneously create something like B’s 5th.

      But it’s certainly possible that a manuscript of a piece by a lesser known composer mistakenly gets attributed to a more famous composer. Just this situation was realized when the 8 Short Preludes and Fugues for organ were attributed to Bach. We now attribute them to one or more of his students (although, to a discriminating ear, they really don’t sound much like Bach).

      • Posted July 22, 2013 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

        An even better example:

        There is some controversy over the authorship of a setting for organ of the Magnificat. For a long time it was attributed to Bach; some musicologists now think it’s by J. L. Krebs. The latter is a minority view, and I think they’re wrong. It sounds like Bach to me. But if incontrovertible proof was presented to show that it wasn’t Bach, my estimation of the work would not change. It is the work of a master, Bach or not.

        • Tim Harris
          Posted July 22, 2013 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

          I’m afraid I think you make my point. Krebs was a pupil of Bach, a very skilled contrapuntalist, and much respected by Bach. Some at least of his organ works are very highly regarded by those who know of him. He was not someone out of some aesthetic nowhere and notime. Were the Magnificat to be finally attributed to him rather than Bach, then I, for one, should be delighted, since Krebs was unfortunate in that he did not receive much recognition in his age.

          Let us say that a score of an putatively unknown symphony (which outside the thought experiment we are conducting is what we know as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony) is discovered. There would first of all be the evidence of the score – let us suppose it is not in Beethoven’s hand but in another’s hand (presumably it hasn’t been printed and made publicly available). The question arises as to when the the score was written out, and whether it is in the composer’s hand or in some copyist’s hand… Already there are historical questions we can be asking. Then there is the question of the nature of the symphony: for what forces is it written? Whose style does it most closely resemble? Could it be pre-Bach, pre-Haydn, pre-Mozart? Could it be post-Brahms? Or post-Mahler, post-Schoenberg, post-Stravinsky, post-Holmboe (who also wrote a splendid fifth symphony)? And surely the answer to these questions is ‘no’. Then when, roughly, can its date of composition be placed? If it has been attributed to one Gustav Biederstücker, then who was he, when did he live, what other works did he compose? And if there are other works of his extant, how good are they? Are they such that they show him capable of composing this particular symphony? If there are no other works extant and we cannot find any records of a composer named Gustav Biederstücker, then clearly we shall have to look elsewhere – as we shall also have to if what works of the man are extant are wholly different in nature from this symphony or thoroughly mediocre. I suspect that what would happen after a lot of discussion, and doubtless some disagreement, the consensus would come to be that the symphony could only have been written by a composer of the stature of Beethoven, and that its peculiar (by which I do not mean ‘strange’) qualities make it very probable that it was composed by Beethoven himself.

          • Tim Harris
            Posted July 23, 2013 at 1:53 am | Permalink

            I should also add that of course one can come across misattributed or doubtfully attributed works – works that are clearly good in themselves – or works of whose attribution we are unsure (the play Arden of Faversham comes to mind); and there are works whose worth has been recognised only after the artist’s death (the poems of John Clare, for instance, who was forgotten in his day and many poems of whose have only recently been published; or Flann O’Brien’s great novel ‘The Third Policeman’, which was turned down for publication and whose manuscript was discovered after the author’s death). Or you have the case of composers like Thomas Tallis and, in particular, William Byrd, whom some – among them Richard Taruskin, I think – now call the greatest English composer, and whose music has only come to be performed very recently (he was a Catholic and his greatest works were written for a church that had gone underground). Or you have the case of a novel like James Hogg’s ‘Confessions of a Justified Sinner’, which is one of the strangest and most terrifying novels in English and still, I feel, has not had its due… There are also artists who are ridiculously over-rated – the egregious Damien Hirst comes to mind, and certain musical minimalists… No-one, I think, seriously denies that value is independent of provenance (except perhaps a few on the wilder fringes of post-modernism, as well as philistines who have no feeling for the arts or interest in it). But works of art don’t come out of nowhere.

          • Posted July 23, 2013 at 5:26 am | Permalink

            I think Krebs is still sufficiently unknown, even among musicians, and many peoples’ judgment demonstrably swayed by the imprimatur of “The Name”, that I think my analogy is at least loosely apt.

            Quality is not as obvious a clue to authorship as you imply with your Biederstücker/Beethoven scenario. The 8 short P&F I mentioned earlier are, to my ears, obviously immature, inferior works, but many serious musicians took them to be by Bach for a long time. Even works we know Bach wrote early in his life (Capriccio sopra la lontananza…) are demonstrably better.

            But my main rebuttal would be to reiterate that Jerry’s OP is a thought experiment. It’s not meant to be completely realistic. It’s only meant to get us thinking about why society values some things but not others – even when the latter could be shown to have the same intrinsic quality as the former. For the purposes of the question we don’t need to worry about the possibility of the circumstances surrounding the “discovery”.

            I do see what you’re saying, however. Yes, in reality, if something like B’s 5th were shown to be by someone else, there would very, very probably be other works or at least some context to recommend that somebody else. And Beethoven is not a very imitatable composer. I just don’t think this undoes the point made by Jerry’s thought experiment.

  48. Tim Harris
    Posted July 21, 2013 at 5:40 am | Permalink

    I should add that science, like the arts, has a history, and that Faraday, Einstein et al could not have preceded Newton, who said himself that he stood on the shoulders of giants, just as every biologist today stands on Darwin’s shoulders.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted July 21, 2013 at 6:09 am | Permalink

      It’s funny you should mention Einstein because his name came to mind when I read your “party spoiler” post (#46).

      Einstein hit on the idea of Special Relativity, namely that light has the same velocity in all inertial reference frames, in part by visualizing how it would be to ride on a beam of light.

      It’s a good thing none of his physics teachers ever said “Albert, you can’t ride on a beam of light. It’s impossible, it can’t happen, therefore it will lead to nothing, so don’t ever imagine it.”

  49. Hayden Scott
    Posted July 21, 2013 at 6:25 am | Permalink

    Why would you think, essentially, that “reputation” is irrational?

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted July 21, 2013 at 7:47 am | Permalink

      Oh, I don’t know, is the reputation of Jesus rational?

      I guess it depends on how strictly we are using the world “irrational”.

      There is a certain rationality to using reputation as a short cut in making choices without much effort while still retaining some reasonable probability that a choice will be a good one (where “good one” is defined however you like).

      But it’s kind of the instince of science to not fully trust intuition, gut feeling, hearsay, and reputation, but to empirically verify using the genuine article and some rigorous tests based on objectively defined measures.

      There is a kind of freakonomics aspect to this; one wants to believe that the marketplace does not make mistakes and that crowd sourcing is wisdom, but there are any number of examples of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. We can be led into all kinds of cognitive errors by assuming others know what they are talking about. Take the recent housing bubble for example.

      But when it comes to music or art or even computers, it’s hard to create objective measures of quality. For example, why didn’t McIntosh and the graphical user interface wipe out MSDOS in the eighties, a decade before Microsoft was able to produce a half decent version of a GUI based system (Windows 95 was really the first worthwhile effort)? From a pure software design standpoint, and a user friendly standpoint, there are reasons to say that Mac was objectively better. But there is something more at work; MSDOS provided some utility that the Mac didn’t, which was a large base of applications that took Apple forever to catch up to, and the third party clone market made PC prices lower for everything from RAM, to monitors, disks, printers, etc. Also Microsoft had a lock on OEM licensing for PC computers: you couldn’t license DOS unless you agreed to purchase a license for every single compatible computer you shipped, even if the customer wanted to add a different operating system. So even if Apple had decided in the early eighties to port their OS to the PC platform, they would have had a natural disadvantage because of Microsoft’s unfair business practices.

      So reputation is fraught with pitfalls, and scientists stake their reputations on not falling into them, which is a bit of an irony.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted July 21, 2013 at 8:26 am | Permalink

        +1 for the explanation of using reputation as a short cut AND for the PC-Mac walk down memory lane. 🙂

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted July 21, 2013 at 8:44 am | Permalink

          Thanks for that! 🙂

          I kind of liked the ironic bit at the end about the reputations of scientists depending on not being taken in by mere reputation…hehe.

          • Jeff Johnson
            Posted July 21, 2013 at 8:47 am | Permalink

            Maybe now we are in the Ironic Age…lol.

            • Posted July 21, 2013 at 9:07 am | Permalink

              Can’t be. Nobody’s yet figured out how to make an irony meter that doesn’t explode on contact with a Creationist.

              Once that problem’s been solved, then the Ironic Age might finally get off the ground.



            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted July 21, 2013 at 9:14 am | Permalink


        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted July 21, 2013 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

          I was confused about the Iron Age/Bronze Age thing, but I think maybe I’ve sorted it out.

          My thinking was like this:
          1. The Trojan War was ~12th century BCE (maybe)
          2. The Iron Age began ~13th century BCE
          3. The Iliad narrates the trojan war, and the Odyssey follows the events in the Iliad.
          Therefore the Odyssey takes place in the Iron Age.

          But this thinking doesn’t take account of the actual content of the Iliad and Odyssey, and in a sense considers them (wrongly) to be historical narratives. They may contain traces of history, or inspiration from history, but they are mythological narratives, so we can’t date them like we might an historical narrative.

          There seems to be broad agreement that these works were composed sometime in the 8th century BCE, presumably by someone named Homer, but they were oral traditions for many centuries before they were ever written down, not by Homer himself.

          The author of these works didn’t necessarily have any conception of Bronze Age and Iron Age in the way that modern scholars define them, and since they aren’t pure historical narratives, and they were written at a time when the difference between mythology and historical narrative wasn’t even clearly understood, so to ask “When did it really happen?” is kind of a moot question.

          It seems that your point is based on the narratoogical conventions being consistent with the manner in which Greek culture at that time valorized the Heroic period of what we call the Bronze Age, and so in that sense, a non-historical mythology is clearly a Bronze Age narrative. In the minds of the people writing it, and in the understanding of the intended audience, the stories refer to the Heroic Period, regardless of the possibility that modern archeology might identify some events in the Iron Age that may or may not have influenced the stories.

          Is that consistent with how you are seeing this?

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted July 21, 2013 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

            Yes the content refers to Bronze Age society. The stories were probably sung during the Greek Dark Ages, through the Bronze Ages and into the Iron Age and not just by Homer since they were part of an oral tradition sung throughout Greece and throughout the ages but a guy called Homer put them together sometime which is not exactly known but probably before the first Olympic Games around the 770s BC.

  50. Max
    Posted July 22, 2013 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    Jerry, aren’t there bands that you like and are interested in new albums from? I like several bands (and composers, etc.) and if, say, I heard about a new Stones album I’d never heard of before because it flew under my radar (or was newly released), I’d definitely want to give it a listen. And I’m sure that word of a new Dawkins book holds more interest for you than a new book by Dennis Horgenswald. In fact, I know that’s true because you’ve written about upcoming Dawkins books here before, yet there are books by other authors published all the time yet go unmentioned here.

    Though temporally an adult (48), I enjoyed the Potter novels very much (don’t judge them by the movies, which are a totally different experience). Therefore, when Rowling comes out with a new “album,” I’m in.

    No one has time to read every book or listen to all music, therefore we give first priority to content creators we already enjoy. We do sample new things, for a variety of reasons, like a striking book/album cover, or word of mouth, or inadvertent sampling (radio, movie soundtracks, hold music, etc.), but priority is almost always given to our existing favorites. The same goes for food, by the way.

    For some reason, people have something against Rowlings. (Yes, I’m generalizing.) They see her as over hyped and merely the beneficiary of tremendous luck. So they see people who are now running out to buy the book (guilty as charged here) as sheep. Would they feel the same way about a newly discovered Shakespeare? (Just an analogy, I don’t put them in the same league.) Would they feel the same way if it was Roald Dahl? Stephen King? (Which of course, did happen.)

  51. Neunder
    Posted July 22, 2013 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, CNN has a pertinent story on the topic of your post here: the story of Chuck Ross:


  52. Posted July 23, 2013 at 5:16 am | Permalink

    The first book I read by David Baldacci was, for me personally, a shot in the dark. As it turned out, I really enjoyed the novel. So, of course, when I was in the store next looking for another novel to purchase his name was now on my mental list of “authors’ books to look out for”. (Lee Child is another one on my list, as is Linwood Barclay, etc.) There are also authors that I deliberately avoid, because I’ve given them a chance in the past and just didn’t like a book of theirs that I’ve tried out. And then, of course, there are the “unknowns”. (Unknown to me personally.) Of course, there are other factors, such as story types, and even types of story lines within types. So when I’m looking for a book to get, to spend money on, and then to spend time reading, clearly I’m looking to enhance the prospects that I will enjoy the book I get. Authorship is clearly an important factor in this process. In general economics, these same principles are apparent in regard to quality and preference facts. Reputation is important.

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