Saturday, January 20, 2018

Woman of the Elfmounds (Paul Edwin Zimmer)

As part of my research on Paul Edwin Zimmer, whose Dark Border was my favorite book as a teenager before encountering The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, I've been tracking down all his published writings. Much of this isn't easy, Decades have lapsed since much of it last saw print, but Amazon is brilliant for finding out-of-the-way short stories collections and novels. This entry, though, is about the miracles of interlibrary loan.

Zimmer's first published solo prose work was a chapbook called Woman of the Elfmounds (1979). After an unusual several week delay, the U of A library got it for me just the other day, and I quickly saw what took so long. Basically, they had to import it from Canada -- the University of Alberta, to be precise).

Well, Elfmounds was published by Triskell Press in a series edited by the Canadian paragon of urban fantasy, Charles de Lint. According to the front matter, Woman was actually Triskell's first book in that series. Nice little volume, actually, with Celtic illustrations -- the story tells of a culture class between culture clash between barbaric man and highly civilized elves, the Tuatha Dé Danann or elves of Irish folklore, although they're never named as such in the text. The Tolkien influence is strong; one of the Elves references sailing off to the lands of the "Ever-Living," and it's worth noting that the group of writers associated with Zimmer, the Greyhaven writers that included Zimmer's sister Marion Zimmer Bradley, named their communal house Greyhaven in honor of Tolkien. The Tolkien-esque theme of mortality and immortality also plays a significant role in this chapbook, not to mention his other writings. Woman ends with a powerful image of a semi-delusional men chasing an image of his own death.

Also interesting in this Triskell Press chapbook is its introduction by Evangeline Walton -- perhaps more noteworthy in showing Walton's friendship with Zimmer (she also did a blurb for The Dark Border) than anything she actually says, which like most intros by other authors is more courtesy than illuminating. Since the U of A actually has her papers -- like Barbara Kingsolver, Walton was a long-time Tucson resident -- I may have found another avenue for potential information on Zimmer and other Greyhaven writers. It might fulfil an idle day of library research, anyway.

But back to Zimmer.

Eighteen years after the Woman of the Elfmounds chapook, Zimmer revised it for publication in Elf Magic, a 1997 collection of stories edited by Martin H. Greenburg. I'd originally thought, before reading the Triskell version, that this later revision belonged to the Dark Border corpus -- the hero's name, Conn Mac Cathla, has a similar structure to names in A Gathering of Heroes. The Triskell version, however, convinced me otherwise. While the name is suggestive, the Elves in both Woman of the Elfmounds stories lack the same qualities as his Dark Border Elves -- no references to "elf-shock" and so forth, although the elves' special antagonism with wolves remains.

Zimmer's revisions are themselves focused only on style and length. Remaining the same is the plot and the special inventions (names, items, spellings) remain exactly the same. 

For the most part, I actually like the prose better in the original version, but the revised version generally had well-chosen deletions. Some of those excisions may have been been editorial demands by Greenburg for Zimmer to meet a maximum wordcount, and some were usual -- for example, Zimmer removed all but one reference to "Druids," and I'm not sure why. More importantly, though, Zimmer excised the section concerning the Elves' motivation in meeting Conn Mac Cathla, creating more uncertainty about the Elves and giving greater credence to the claims by Conn's tribe about them -- just enough, in fact, that the reader shares Conn's hesitation as he's caught between two worlds, heightening the tragedy of the ending.

Getting Ready for ICFA 2018

Egads. Well, just spent an obscene amount of money for my upcoming trip to the 2018 ICFA (International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts). I went last year and had one of my best times ever at an academic event; it came one week after my dissertation defense, and Martina and I capped it off with the trip to Disney World.

This year, though, I'm a bit floored by the sticker shock. Part of that is that I no longer qualify for student registration rates -- another part that U of A grants no funding to lecturers for conference travel, which surprises me. A third part, admittedly, is that M. and I are splurging a bit. This year we're spending two nights at the conference hotel, which is about twice as pricey as the hotel we got last year, just three miles away. The hike, though, is a bit much for Martina; she's also had a rough year so deserves a bit of pampering. All that, combined with a few other odds & ends, means this might be my last ICFA for a while. These conferences don't help me as a lecturer (outside my job description as a writing instructor, doan y'know), and adding a few more national/international conferences to the c.v. really won't bestow any added benefits in my search for a permanent TT job. 

Still, I am immensely excited about the ICFA this year -- not only because it rocked so hard last year, but get this: on my panel is a scholar named W. A. Senior. My paper's on Stephen R. Donaldson, and Senior's wrote far and away the best monograph on Tolkien to date. His critical study's actually one of the first works of literary criticism I, way back as an undergrad at Kent State, ever read for fun. So it'll be a treat to present my paper alongside him.

Monday, January 15, 2018

First Week of Spring 2018: Completed!

After working manically on research and writing over Winter Break (more on that in a later post), the start of the spring semester really took me by surprise. I was originally assigned 3 sections of English 102, our research- & argument-orientated class in the sequence, but ended up accepting another English 101 because of some unexpected student demand. 

Have to say that, while the extra income will certainly be useful (and I still think of money in impoverished "grad student" terms), I was looking forward to the reduced workload, especially with all my writing projects in the pipeline. Still, given the general insecurity of living year-to-year on one-year contracts, I couldn't in good conscience refuse. Plus, I still do have an ideal schedule -- all four of my classes are back-to-back on a MWF.

So anyway, given that the semester snuck up on me -- and that I got that 4th class two days before the semester started -- you could imagine how I've been scrambling. So far, although I still need to tweak my major assignments for that 4th class I accepted last minute, I'm caught up.

I'm more than a little sad, though -- my students from last semester were really memorable, and part of me wishes they were still around. C'est la vie.

Incidentally, got my Student Course Evaluations from last semester. Pretty good, overall. Really good, actually, or at least so I think -- strangely enough, I don't think U of A does departmental- or university-wide comparisons like MTSU, so my data is somewhat de-contextualized. Nonetheless, judging from the quantitative and qualitative parts of the evaluations, most of my students seemed really happy. One of the skills I've especially worked on last semester was giving bad news, usually in terms of a grade, and that seems to have paid off -- I almost entirely avoided those grade-embittered students who have tended to drag my evaluation scores down in the past.. 

Thursday, January 11, 2018

A Scholarly Interview (sorta)

One of my students from last semester just e-mailed me, asking if I could be his "scholar interview" that he needs for ENGL 102 (i.e., the course he has to take after passing mine). I was, of course, happy to oblige. On the off chance any of my answers might be interesting, I post them here. -

What kinds of writing do scholars in your field do?
Writing in my field (English literature) can be split into "scholarship" and "literary criticism." Scholarship is largely concerned with finding out new historical, biographical, or textual facts about a particular author or literary movements. (By "textual facts" I mean new critical editions of a work, and so forth.) Literary criticism is mostly what I do -- it's concerned with reading authors in new ways and coming up with new interpretations of authors and literary movements.


What writing conventions are specific to and important to your field? How did you learn those conventions?Probably the most basic convention is MLA style -- that's relatively unique to literary scholars and critics. Other conventions include the type of evidence we can use. As a field within the humanities, obviously testing hypotheses or acquiring data -- with some notable exceptions -- is outside our purview. Instead, we are expected to read an author's complete works, possibly reading things that may have influenced him, and of course exhaustively explore the relevant scholarship on that author.

Strangely enough, scholars in my field aren't generally actually trained in our conventions. Graduate students are largely expected to absorb those conventions through osmosis. For my part, although I've always been a good writer, I didn't properly internalize my field's conventions until during my dissertation research when I read (literally) hundreds of articles.


What was your first experience of writing a scholarly article like? What did you learn through that experience?
Well, my first published scholarly article took either 1-month or years to write, depending on how you count. The actual draft took only 1 month of manic writing. In the month prior to that, however, I had presented my topic to a conference in Leeds, England, and that experience helped me realize what needed excising from my argument and what deserved elaboration.

Even that, though, was hardly my first attempt to write the article. Two years prior to 2016, I had written -- and submitted for peer review -- a previous version of my argument. My reviewers were kind, mostly, but quite firm that the article wasn't up to snuff. Well, I then spend the next two years thinking about my argument until, after knowing the secondary literature much better in 2016 than I did in 2014, I finally wrote the finished article in August 2016. Only about 5% of the original 2014 text, by the way, survived into that final 2016 published version.

What I learned from the experience, as you might imagine, is the importance of dogged perseverance.


What kinds of writing do you most often in your work?
Literary criticism for peer-reviewed academic journals, largely. However, I did just do two semi-scholarly articles for The Baum Bugle, the official magazine for the International Wizard of Oz society. That kind of writing is fun because it allows me to address a different (read: non-academic) audience. Academics can be stuffy, y'know.


What expectations do you have for students who are learning to write in your field?
For undergrads, I mostly expect two things: (1) some original thought, and (2) close reading of the text. If you can make interesting claims while using evidence from the text and anticipating the most likely counter-arguments, you're well on your way in my book.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

My Hometown Made National News (for a sad reason)

The Washington Post did a story on my hometown . . . except the story could have made a unicorn depressed. Nationwide, 2017 was the year of the "retail apocalypse," with over 500 retail outlets closing down,*** and the WP thought my hometown mall made a pretty good example of that larger trend.

When I last visited Hermitage in May for my high school reunion, the mall's state shocked me -- about half of it stood empty. That mall used to be the main thing about Hermitage. We're one-third of three interconnected cities in Western Pennsylvania -- Sharon and Farrell being the other two. (There's two smaller connected towns, Sharpsvile and Wheatland, but the latter is basically only a steel mill -- doesn't even have its own post office.) Between the three of us, Hermitage has always been the wealthiest by virtue of its high property values and, of course, the mall. Sharon at least has a downtown, but never competed with the Hermitage mall in any serious way. As a result, our school system was the most well-funded in the district, which benefited me directly as a wee lad growing up there.
As the article explains, though, that's nearly all gone. Most of the mall is abandoned, and local residents are worried about a corresponding decrease in property values. Of course, this decline has been happening for decades. The loss of Amerian manufacturing had always hit Sharon and Farrell harder than Hermitage but, even growing up in the 1990s, I understood that the great number of new funeral homes being built in the area didn't bode well. The whole region had a drastically aging population, and there were no jobs around to keep young people from staying and raising families . Even now, during my home visits when I go to Panera Bread for the wifi, there's a stark contrast: the teenagers working behind the counter, and the roughly dozen customers there all over the age of 60.

****Incidentally, the Kmart mentioned in the article was where I had my second job ever; I worked there two different times, once for a year and another time for about four months.

Sunday, December 31, 2017


So, I already do this productivity reports in August (i.e., the anniversary of me getting an academic blog), which may be found both here and here, but I decided that a "Calendar Year Productivity Report" would not only be fun but fun -- you know, give myself a sense of achievement that occurs twice as frequently as Christmas, despite the overlap in materials.

Of course, I'll only include things written within this calendar year, although some of it has been fortunate enough to be published rather quickly.

So, without further ado, here's the report:

Everything from January-July 2017
  • "Unraveling The Hobbit's Strange Publication History: A Look at Possible Worlds, Modality, and Accessibility Relations" -- now published in Fastitocalon, 6000 words
  • "J.R.R. Tolkien and 1954 Nomination of E.M. Forster for the Nobel Prize" -- now published by Mythlore, 9000 words
  • Book review of Edmund Gordon's The Invention of Angela Carter, now published in Mythlore, 1500 words
  • Book review of Jad Smith's Alfred Bester, now published in Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, 1500 words 
  • One conference paper on Glen Cook, 1500 words 

 Everything from August-December 2017
  • Essay on Gender/Sexed Violence in Stephen R. Donaldson -- article under review, 14000 words
  • "PRYZQXGL: Or, How to Do Things with Magics Words" -- forthcoming article in The Baum Bugle, 5000 words
  • "Donaldson's Amnion and the Dangers of a Posthuman Future" -- encyclopedia article, forthcoming, 1000 words
  • "Review of Okja by Bong Joon-ho" -- film review forthcoming in Science Fiction Film and Television, 1500 words
Grand total? Four articles written (3 of which will be peer-reviewed), three book reviews, one encyclopedia entry, one conference paper. All of which have been wedged in between my dissertation defense and revisions, moving cross-country to Arizona, and teaching 4 classes for the first time in the fall.

Total publishable words written: 41,000.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Books that Didn't Age Well: L. Frank Baum's Life & Adventures of Santa Claus

The title says it all. I've been reading a lot of Baum books lately in prep for my short article, and I was recommended The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1902) as a good introduction to many of Baum's fairy creatures. Well, the book's a bit dull and much too cloyingly sweet, but just imagine my horror when I discovered that Baum, with his customary flair for whimsy, decided to just up and insert genocide, racism, and a rationalization  for environmental destruction!


Yep, straight up genocide -- although, of course, it wasn't called that. Claus gets kidnapped by a race of evil creatures called Angwas. He escapes, but Claus's friend Ak, the Master Huntsman, visits the Angwas and tells them to stop. His reasoning? "We immortals, no less than mortals like Claus, are superior to you. Do as I say!" The king of the Angwas, naturally enough, refuses, so all the immortals decide to wipe out this race of "evil" creatures from the face of the earth. And it only takes a single short chapter!

Of course, this book appeared well before the Holocaust and even the Armenian genocide of 1919, so clearly we can cut Baum some slack here. But still -- that's why it called "not aging well."

Oh yes, the racism, this time against Native Americans. It's nothing that unusual for the time period, mind you, but it's still enough to make me wince.  For example, Santa Claus decides to bring toys to "three little children who lived beneath of rude tent of skins," and their "parents were ignorant people who neglected them sadly" (167). Baum never once mentions the word "Indians," but the pictures make the connection pretty clear. Anyway, Baum gives these kids a Christmas tree, which makes them immensely happy for the first time, cuz there's absolutely nothing offensive about that.

This last one is actually pretty innocent compared to the first two (ignoring, if you will, the whole end-of-the-inhabitable-world thing). Men start chopping down all the forests in the world, which you think would irritate the Master Woodman, but never fear: "I have but guarded the forests until men needed them for their use" (194).

A major premise of modern environmentalists, of course, is that the idea that nature exists for human use is immensely destructive.

None of these, mind you, are called "evil." You know what Baum does call "one [last] evil following in the path of civilization" (196)? Stoves. You heard me right. Apparently, the then-modern prevalence of stoves was causing people to build fewer chimneys, which was making Claus's job of entering households much more difficult. Luckily, Claus has some helper fairies. Glad we got that cleared up!

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Stephen R. Donaldson and Tolkien

Well, just finished my monster 12,000 article (14k with footnotes) on sexed/gender violence in Stephen R. Donaldson. Sent it off yesterday afternoon. I have high hopes for it, but it was exhausting to write -- not only 2 1/2 months of labor, but a very depressing subject matter. My final draft has the phrases "sexed violence," "rape," and "assault" appear 168 times, and my secondary reading wasn't no picnic either, as you might imagine.

But anyway, I started reading the 3rd book of The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and I got to think thinking about SRD and Tolkien himself. Perhaps I should preface this by saying -- and it kills me to do so, since I love SRD -- that The Last Chronicles are really, really, really bad. The first two books are perhaps mediocre; not awful, mind you, but not as fresh or captivating as either of the first two Covenant trilogies. Yet book 3, Against All Things Ending, is really a sucker punch to the soul. I tried reading it about three or four years ago, but couldn't make it past page 100. Very literally, almost nothing happens in those first 100 pages -- yet virtually every sentence is filled with heartache, anguish, and despair. Much like Patricia A. McKillip, Donaldson has always had a tendency toward melodrama and operatic extremity, but somehow in this book he has simply lost all restraint. Here's a sample paragraph from Pg 194:
Until that moment, Covenant had seemed preoccupied with pain, too hurt to react. Yet he heard her appeal. Meeting her gaze, he gave her a look of anguish, stricken and faltering, as if she had asked him to betray himself -- or her. His hair resembled a silver conflagration, as if his thoughts burned with shame.
That last bolded sentence is literally the dumbest thing I've ever read. (What does conflagration hair look like, really?). But the previous sentences are eye-roll-worthy as well. Every once in a while wouldn't have been bad, perhaps especially in a poignant moment in the narrative, but Donaldson goes on like that, paragraph after paragraph, page after page. Show, not tell!

So this combination of re-reading late Donaldson, plus my long essay, has also made me reflect on his relationship to Tolkien. For this, I'll make up a few categories and see how things go:

Sub-creation -- Donaldson or Tolkien?
Tolkien -- and it's not even close. As much as I love The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Donaldson clearly is borrowing all of Tolkien's plot structure. That's not a flaw, mind you, so long as you do it well, which Donaldson. But he doesn't really come into his own until The Second Chronicles. . . . alas, though, The Final Chronicles, in terms of subcreation, has squeezed the lemon dry. There just isn't very much interesting about his world by the third go-around.

Prose -- Donaldson or Tolkien?
Tie. Actually, I hate discussions about prose, since there isn't really a rigorous way to discuss it -- although writers clearly revise their sentences according to some theory of better/worse, critics most often mention prose only to disparage a work they dislike for other reasons. Both Donaldson and Tolkien have both been unfairly maligned for those prose styles; really, though, their styles are just fine.

Intellectual Daringness-- Donaldson or Tolkien?
Donaldson -- but this is tricky. Tolkien was a hell of a bright guy, and he certainly knew pre-modern  century English literature way better than Donaldson does. But he's not nearly as self-consciously literary as SRD. This may possible be a case of bias, since SRD's existentialism seems more far-ranging (although not necessarily more meaningful) than Tolkien's Catholicism, but I give the points to SRD here. 

Plotting-- Donaldson or Tolkien?
Donaldson, slightly, again with the caveat that his plot for the first Chronicles owes a lot to Tolkien. But Donaldson seems better able, in my able opinion, to stretch out a climax much longer than Tolkien. And SRD's greater prolificness gives him much more narrative space to write gripping stories.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Free laptop? Much love to you, U of A!

So, yes -- the University of Arizona just gave all its lecturers free laptops. This is part, I've been told, of their general effort to update the tech for all faculty, and it just so happens that lecturers are being considered faculty for the first time.

Anyway, although this move has apparently been in the works for months, we just got the announcement a few days ago. Just picked mine up, in fact. I've said it before, but it's worth saying again -- I absolutely lucked out in getting hired by such an awesome place. I mean, really . . . a free laptop.  And the exceptionally cool part is that I'd just been about to buy a new one; my current lappy is over four years old and running down.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Latest Tolkien Publication: Fastitocalon

Just received my contributor's copy of Fastitocalon, which is a European journal dedicated to "studies in fantasticism ancient to modern." The special issue is all about world-building & subcreation, and it allowed me to apply to possible worlds theory (as a branch of narrative theory) to the different editions of The Hobbit.

Basically, without delving into any gory details, I think the 1st edition of The Hobbit creates a distinct fictional world which requires study in its own right -- and this world is modally differentiated world from the fictional worlds created by the Revision Phrase (2nd edition text, 1951-1954) and the Assimilation Phase (post-Fellowship of the Ring).

Fun stuff . . . and I actually talked about submitting the original abstract on this blog little over a year ago, here.

Intriguingly, 5 of the 11 contributors were graduate students (two of the articles had dual authors). That number rises to 6 if you count myself, since I'd written my submission prior to defending the diss. 

All in all, it's a nice little volume, and I even recognize a few fellow Tolkien scholars (Robin Anne Reid, Thomas Honegger, Alan Turner, Anahit Behrooz). 

Now, shameful-secret time: I actually had no idea what a "fastitocalon" was, so some time ago I googled it only to realize that I should have known all about it already. It's a medieval sea monster that Tolkien wrote a poem about (published in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil). Kinda embarassing, I admit, that I totally glossed over the fastitocalon in my reading. Also, I belatedly realized, the monster also appears in several Final Fantasy games.