Tossups about works

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Sir Thopas
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Tossups about works

Post by Sir Thopas »

While reading old literature questions in preparation for PACE, I noticed several appearances of a trend I really don't like: having a tossup about a work that leads in with a clue or two not about the work itself. Admittedly, this doesn't happen very often, but I'd like to make the point that it should happen never.

Let's take a look at a couple of tossups on everyone's favorite play, La Mandragola.
IO Lit packet 7, tossup 7 wrote:Theodore Sumberg’s “An Interpretation” of this play holds that it is an allegory of the author’s later work.  A priest named Frate Timoteo is not fooled by the central ruse of this work, and the protagonist must pay him off, and another character named Sostrata desires a grandchild.  The plot revolves around a beautiful Tuscan, whom the protagonist covets despite the fact that she is married to Nicia; the mischievous marriage-broker Ligurio is hired by that protagonist, Callimaco, to secure his moment with Lucrezia, which he does by claiming that the first man to sleep with Lucrezia will die from the title poisonous plant.  FTP, name this play that is often considered a comic parallel to The Prince, a comedy by Niccolo Machiavelli.
ANSWER: La Mandragola or The Mandrake (6) [AH]
ACF Nationals 2009 packet 18, tossup 11 wrote:11. The Prologue of this work notes that “Words are but air; the wise man will ignore / A monster whose existence is not sure,” implying that the prologue may have been originally performed by the lyre-playing centaur depicted on the cover of an early edition of this play.The password is “Saint Cuckoo,” the “most celebrated saint in France,” though that password is never actually used during the abduction of a beggar. Fra Timoteo’s question “What brings you here?” is answered, “Very well, thank you” by Nicia, whom the marriage broker Ligurio has instructed to act deaf. A fake doctor claims to be able to cure Lucrezia’s barrenness with the side effect that the first man to sleep with her after a potion takes effect will die within eight days. For 10 points, name this play in which Callimaco successfully schemes to sleep with Lucrezia, named after the titular ingredient in that potion and written by Niccolo Machiavelli.
ANSWER: Mandragola [or Mandrake Root]
The first of these tossups has, in my mind, an entirely worthless lead-in. Lead-ins, in my mind, should serve two purposes: being helpful for someone familiar in depth, and being interesting for everyone else. The Sumberg clue fails at both purposes, because he doesn't seem to be famous (around 4,000 hits on Google), and, without knowing the context of the answer, it's just boring words. Sure, in retrospect, you can look back and say that it's pretty cool, but when you're listening to it, it does nothing to grip the listener. With regards to the second tossup: the lead-in is fine, if kind of inane, because nobody will get it, but the part after that seems kind of useless. La Mandragola is long enough to have enough clues within the play itself without having to resort to clues on some cover of the play which nobody will get. As an example of a better tossup on the work, I submit this one, which I wrote right after reading it with the intend to submit to ACF Nationals, but never did:
One character in this work claims that the sea is more than seven times as big as the river running through his home city. At the end of act four, another asserts that the classical rules of comedy are not being violated by a night interruption because none of the characters offstage are sleeping. This play opens with the main character describing his twenty years in Paris to his servant, Siro; that protagonist later fulfills his desire by disguising himself as a drunk lutenist. One character’s mother, Sostrata, convinces her daughter to try the remedy suggested by the main character, as does her bribed confessional priest, Fra Timoteo. The main character hires Ligurio to help him get with Lucrezia, the wife of the foolish lawyer Nicia; that happens when that main character, Callimaco, pretends to be a doctor and offers a potion made from the title object as a cure for barrenness which will supposedly kill the first person to sleep with Lucrezia. For ten points, name this comic play by Niccolo Machiavelli.
ANSWER: La Mandragola
Whether or not the early clues are interesting is debatable, but I think they do a good job of ensuring that someone who is familiar with the play will get it early on.

Now, I have a couple of similar examples of interpretation/reference clues that I feel only hurt the tossup.
ACF Nationals 2009 packet 6, tossup 2 wrote:2. Gerald Guinness accused this of being an "unlikable poem" which uses the word "batten" when it should use "cause" and engages in phrases such as "colonel of carrion" for "reasons rather of sound than sense." This poem describes “brutish necessity” wiping its hands “upon the napkin of a dirty cause.” A worm in this poem urges no waste of compassion on “separate dead.” Its speaker claims that “statistics justify and scholars seize” policies that lead to a child being hacked in bed. Addressing similar themes as the author's "Ruins of a Great House," the speaker of this poem contrasts “a white dust of ibises” with men who “Dance to the tightened carcass of a drum.”This poem’s central conflict is compared to “The gorilla wrestling with the superman,” and the speaker wonders how to choose between the title place and “the English tongue I love.” The speaker wonders how he can “face such slaughter and be cool” before questioning “How can I turn from" the title place "and live?” For 10 points, name this poem about a continent by Derek Walcott.
ANSWER: “A Far Cry from Africa”
In general, I like this tossup. I'm quite a fan of this poem (as anyone who remembers my joke account a while ago will know), and I think it's awesome that it was tossed up. However, I greatly dislike the lead-in. Again, I don't know who Gerald Guinness is, and I don't particularly care. The dropping of "batten" here is a double-whammy, though: it's a pretty famous word, being in the second line of the poem, but since it's out of context, it's basically unbuzzable—one word isn't going to help much, even if you're familiar with the poem. Also, sure, "colonel of carrion" is cool, but I can't see anyone buzzing between there and "brutish necessity". It's a waste of words. Again, it's not like the poem has too little info to have a lead-in based on the poem proper, so I don't see any need to do it.
2006 ACF Nationals packet by Chicago A, tossup 20 wrote:In their essay "Against Theory," Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels imagine a scenario in which one of these writings appears on a beach in the wake of a receding wave. In one of these, the namesake figure is compared to a "mountain roe" whose feet "disperse the powdery snow / That rises up like smoke" and is tracked to a bridge. In another, the speaker eyes a "descending moon" while riding a horse to the namesake's "cot," and is struck by the "fond and wayward" thought that she may be dead. Another says that she "dwelt among th'untrodden ways / Beside the springs of Dove," while another notes that she is "rolled round in earth's diurnal course / With rocks and stones and trees." FTP, name this group of poems which includes "A slumber did my spirit seal" and "Strange fits of passion have I known," which deal with a mysterious and deceased young woman and were written by William Wordsworth.
ANSWER: the Lucy poems (accept "A slumber did my spirit seal" or prompt on "the poems of Wordsworth" before the second sentence)
This lead-in is boring and kind of worthless. Again, the poems have enough in there to have a lead-in on the poems themselves, not on some work based on them, so I don't see the point of it.

Sometimes a work is such that it doesn't really have a proper lead-in from the work alone. In such a case, if the tossup must, indeed, be written on that topic, extra care should be taken to make it buzzable and interesting. The ACF Regionals tossup, which I can't find at the moment, but was pilloried by Andrew Yaphe, is a good example of this. If I remember correctly, the tossup began with a clue like the following: "The poem has been the inspiration for at least three pieces of music: "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird", by Lukas Foss, Thirteen Ways, by Thomas Albert;[4] and Blackbirds, for Flute and Bassoon, Gregory Youtz.[5]" I would hope that, in the future, writers would take care to make such a lead-in helpful for people who have further studied the work, not just people who have read the same Wikipedia page as the question writer.
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Re: Tossups about works

Post by women, fire and dangerous things »

That "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" tossup was written by me, and I agree that the lead-in is terrible. I wanted to introduce a new clue since clues from the work itself have pretty much been used to death, but that was obviously a horrible way to do it, in retrospect (and cross-disciplinary, to boot). Nonetheless, I disagree that lead-ins including criticism about the work should never be used. Maybe in the examples you cite, they aren't done well, because people aren't familiar with the critics quoted.

Such a lead-in, though, can be useful as a tool for distinguishing between players (say, someone who has just read the work and thus can buzz on the first plot detail or quote, and someone who knows and loves the work to the extent that they are also familiar with the criticism on it). For example, if I remember correctly, I followed that crappy lead-in with a clue about Helen Vendler's interpretation of "Thirteen Ways..." Helen Vendler is certainly well-known, particularly for her work on Wallace Stevens, and I think a clue about her interpretation can help differentiate hardcore Stevens fans from someone who's just memorized the (brief) poem.
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Re: Tossups about works

Post by DumbJaques »

I don't really agree with the basic premise here. I think having some leadin clues about important criticism is a great way to incorporate lit crit into the lit distribution without producing "Irigary and You: the Home Game," and I don't think it's fair to see it reflects a poorer degree of knowledge than the answer itself. Knowing about key historical interpretations and consequences of an action is just as important as knowing the specific facts at hand (and in many ways more so). I do agree that many tossups - even many good tossups by pretty good writers - suffer from impossible leadins. Unimportant medical studies from 1998, some thoughts by a contemporary critic nobody has ever heard of, or clues so oblique they could refer to a thousand things (Mike Sorice was continually frustrated by this kind of clue, it seemed, when he encountered Emergency science Jerry had not had time to go over) are not part of a good tossup and just waste space. So yeah, if you use that kind of thing in your question, it's not ideal. I don't know why reading a work is the only kind of knowledge you should be able to have about it though - that seems silly, providing the knowledge is academically valid and non-trivial. I'd imagine this is particularly true in regard to poem tossups - I hear interpretation and analysis of poetry is fairly important even among those who perform this "reading" ritual I have heard (BUT NOT READ) about.
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Re: Tossups about works

Post by Mechanical Beasts »

So I think that these extra-textual leadins all have problems that aren't necessarily inherent to their extra-textuality. For example,
IO Lit packet 7, tossup 7 wrote:Theodore Sumberg’s “An Interpretation” of this play holds that it is an allegory of the author’s later work
might annoy you because it's not memorable (there are a lot of words, but the bit about it being an allegory of its author's later work is hard to buzz on, so it's mostly "Sumberg wrote an interpretation of this play"); similarly, it's (probably) silly to speculate about the cover of an early edition of a play as the Nationals tossup does. But that doesn't mean that a good clue about important criticism of La Mandragola or whatever isn't a good idea.

Similarly, you argue that
ACF Nationals 2009 packet 6, tossup 2 wrote:2. Gerald Guinness accused this of being an "unlikable poem" which uses the word "batten" when it should use "cause" and engages in phrases such as "colonel of carrion" for "reasons rather of sound than sense."
is a bad leadin because it's impossible to buzz on the word "batten" alone. Well, isn't that the point? If I wanted to write a lit crit Hamlet leadin, I wouldn't write "Ben Dover wrote some crap about the use of the phrase 'to be or not to be' "; indeed, that'd be a terrible idea. If you're saying that "batten" is an insignificant word choice on its own, too, and lit crit about that word isn't important, I'm not qualified to comment.

The strongest argument you can make here is precisely that the choice of Guinness is a poor one--I don't think the way this doesn't work actually can be extrapolated to all tossups including crit clues. I'm sure someone who actually knows things about literature can post examples of well-chosen crit clues.
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Re: Tossups about works

Post by at your pleasure »

While I agree that lit crit clues can be valuable, there's a strong risk of using useless clues. Writers who use crit clues should be especially careful that the clues are 1) about legitimately important criticism(say, the literary anlogue of Ruskin's work) and 2)well-known enough to be useful in their own right. In practice, this greatly restricts the variety of available criticism clues. I'll leave it to others to come up with good examples of well-chosen crit clues, althouh Coleridge's work on Shakspeare might produce some good stuff.
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Re: Tossups about works

Post by grapesmoker »

Generally when using criticism clues, I try to verify that the person being cited is at least somewhat relevant to the thing being asked. But in general, I disagree with Guy about such clues being just noise (the already useful example of Helen Vendler has already been brought up, and I've certainly heard of Walter Benn Michaels as well). As long as they're being used judiciously in the opening lines of a tossup, I don't see much problem with them and very often you learn something new from such clues.
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Re: Tossups about works

Post by Skepticism and Animal Feed »

In history tossups I will occasionally hear lead-ins that are just quotes about a historical event that some guy said. Like, during either CO 06 or William Wirt Open there was this Ems Dispatch tossup that began with "some dude said of this event that it waved the red cape in front of the Gallic bull". I generally find these clues unhelpful and annoying. But I am not willing to join Guy in a general condemnation of them. Sometimes meta commentary is famous if not important.
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Re: Tossups about works

Post by Auroni »

I'm not as quick to dismiss criticism clues as you are, but I do agree with you that some "theorist" getting 4000 hits on Google has no business being the leadin of an academic question on an academically important work.
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Re: Tossups about works

Post by Tower Monarch »

So I have this discussion with Evan Adams on a weekly basis. In general, I love well-thought-out criticism in a lead-in. Even with Mandragola, if you study the work in a critical context, you can't help finding the Sumberg essay. If it is widely read (as Sumberg's is not outside of UW-SP's Poli Sci 394), then I would say it should come up at above "regular" difficulty-- this is what is studied. You cannot major in plot summaries, you study analysis of works-- so testing knowledge of existing analyses is an effective measure of knowledge of the work. I will, however, recommend that ACF put in some sort of warning against using criticism unless you're an experienced writer as they do with elements and dynasties-- otherwise I'm going to do a google scholar search on every title that came up last year and start memorizing, and that is the last thing anybody wants...
EDIT: On another note, the essay seems pretty good (granted I've read only 3 paragraphs), as he effectively wants to prove that it is a significant play rather than a scheme for more money.
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Re: Tossups about works

Post by Matt Weiner »

Gerald Guinness is an English professor who wrote a book about Carribean literature from which I took that analysis. The reason I did so is because "A Far Cry From Africa" is, in fact, too short a poem to write a tossup on that consists solely of quotes, and tossups on poems that consist of nothing but quotes are boring anyway.

I am generally with you on opposing the use of too many criticism clues (I think there should be slightly less than 1 per packet) but I think the way I used that one was justified.
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Re: Tossups about works

Post by theMoMA »

One of my friends had to read that Sumberg essay in a theory class because it discusses how La Mandragola is an allegory for the view espoused in Discourses on Livy and The Prince. I think it's a good clue, and I don't really agree with the idea that criticism is misplaced in tossups or leadins (c.f. my tossup on Tender Buttons from last year's MO lit for a better example).
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Re: Tossups about works

Post by ValenciaQBowl »

People who take grad courses in lit theory will at some point or another read "Against Theory" (or at the very least hear it name-dropped a bunch), which is a very important essay, important enough to have been published as a stand-alone book with rebuttals and counter-rebuttals by people like Stanley Fish and Richard Rorty. And the metaphor of the writing in the sand is the central conceit in the essay. That lead-in rewards "specialists" in the field, which has been the point of the way most question-writing has changed since the 90s (and, personally, I think that clue is awesome)

We've had the arguments a million times about the importance of minor plot details in question writing, which I believe can usually be learned without reading the work in question as easily as not, and which thus don't necessarily always ensure (note the hedging!)that someone who's studied the work in question will beat someone who hasn't. Since we want to reward people who really work/study in the various disciplines, using actually well known clues from criticism is a good thing. But as in all question writing, it helps to know who is indeed "famous" and/or taught in the disciplines (Vendler and Benn Michaels for sure, in this instance) and who's not.
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Re: Tossups about works

Post by Mechanical Beasts »

Is it important that it's one of the Lucy poems that appears in the sand?
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Re: Tossups about works

Post by ValenciaQBowl »

For the sake of the argument being made about textuality and authorship, it could be any writing, but it does happen to be the writing mentioned, so I think it should be knowable to someone familiar with the text. I actually have a copy of the book containing the essay and related arguments (heck, it's actually in my car right now), but it would probably have taken me the next few clues to remember it was a Lucy poem written in the sand, though that says more about my aging memory than the question, I think. In any case, it's at least as valid as expecting someone to remember that the title figure is called a "mountain roe," a clue expecting a fairly recent reading or a near-encyclopedic memory to buzz on.

Science bio has been greatly phased out to reward real science knowledge and to keep frauds like me from getting questions on Farady from non-science knowledge; in a like manner, providing clues on (important!) critical commentary on works may more likely reward a lit major, as it's less likely for non-majors to read criticism (though, indeed, on this board I imagine that may not hold with many of you). But still, overall in the game, I think that's likely.
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Re: Tossups about works

Post by Mechanical Beasts »

I see: so this Lucy clue is, essentially, a "plot detail" that comes from crit (whereas a pure clue would be an essay about the Lucy poems or something). Fair enough.
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Re: Tossups about works

Post by Birdofredum Sawin »

I wrote the Lucy poems tossup. In fact, the first sentence contains clues which are of central importance in 20th-century literary criticism. "Against Theory" is a very important essay which people read and discuss widely; and they chose "A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal" because that poem was the central example in Wimsatt and Beardsley's (also very important) essay on the Intentional Fallacy.

I agree that these kind of clues should be intelligently selected, and that random critical essays by nobodies make bad lead-ins; but the same can be said of all kinds of tossups, not just lit ones. For instance, "Some Loser et al. wrote a 2008 paper [that nobody in quizbowl has read] about [some scientific thing]" is also a bad lead-in, whereas "Some important person et al. wrote a 2008 paper [which people in science can be expected to have heard of] about [some scientific thing]" is presumably a good lead-in. The only thing is, you have to know a lot about the subject in order to differentiate between lead-ins of the first and second kind.
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