Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The LEGENDS series, edited by Robert Silverberg

When Legends: Short Novels by the Masters of Modern Fantasy appeared in 1998, edited by Robert Silverberg, I remember seeing it in bookstores, but otherwise didn't pay it much mind. Mostly, the novella by Robert Jordan caught my eye. Well, during my final read of Brandon Sanderson's completion of The Wheel of Time, I was waiting around for my amazon copy of the final book to arrive and decided to give that Jordan novella a shot. So I went down to Bookman's, got it (in 3 volumes for the paperback edition), and breezed through the eleven stories.

The quality of these novellas, however, varied so widely that I'm now going to grade them for fun. The only novella I skipped was King's, since I'd like to read The Dark Tower first. Otherwise, here goes:
  1. Stephen King: "The Little Sisters of Eluria" (The Dark Tower)
    • skipped.
  2. Terry Goodkind: "Debt of Bones" (The Sword of Truth)
    • Grade: C+ 
    • Commentary: Not awful, I suppose, but too slick and shallow for my taste. Reminds me why I only got through half the first book of Goodkind's Sword of Truth.
  3. Orson Scott Card: "Grinning Man" (The Tales of Alvin Maker)
    • Grade: B
    • Commentary: Nice little story -- and, while not quite my thing, the ending is a classic American tall tale. Never read this series before, but it does seem amusing, at least.
  4. Robert Silverberg: "The Seventh Shrine" (Majipoor)
    • Grade: B 
    • Commentary: Another competent story -- though hardly ambitious -- from a series I hadn't previously encountered. Okay, overall.
  5. Ursula K. Le Guin: "Dragonfly" (Earthsea)
    • Grade: A+
    • Commentary: Wonderful; powerful; evocative. Le Guin at her best, as always.
  6. Raymond E. Feist: "The Wood Boy" (The Riftwar Cycle)
    • Grade: C-
    • Commentary: I've read a lot of Feist, but only when younger, and I'm wondering if all his work was similarly ham-handed. Some negative points for the "bitch woman" theme I remember from his The Serpentwar Saga.
  7. Terry Pratchett: "The Sea and Little Fishes" (Discworld)
    • Grade: B
    • Commentary: Pratchett's great . . . but it's also hard for me to distinguish his stuff from each other. All of it is so consistently, well, Pratchett.
  8. George R. R. Martin: "The Hedge Knight" (A Song of Ice and Fire)
    • Grade: A+
    • Commentary: Along with Le Guin's "Dragonfly," this novella was the pinnacle of this collection. Martin at his best. If I ever teach Martin in a fantasy class, I'd probably use this short work as indicative of everything that Martin does well for the fantasy genre.
  9. Tad Williams: "The Burning Man" (Memory, Sorrow and Thorn)
    • Grade: A-
    • Commentary: Got through the first two books of this series, but somehow never finished the third. This novella gets bonus points for some genuine emotional depth.
  10. Anne McCaffrey: "Runner of Pern" (Dragonriders of Pern)
    • Grade: D-
    • Commentary: The sheer awfulness of this story is what first gave me the idea to grade these things. Again, I've read a lot of Pern books, but not since my teenage years. Somehow, I'm doubting that they would've held up well.
  11. Robert Jordan: "New Spring" (The Wheel of Time)
    • Grade: B-
    • Commentary: As a story  . . .  this was okay. It just didn't seem about anything important; though; just some random fleshing-out backstory for The Wheel of Time that we didn't really need. It does contain the cool nugget that Moiraine thinks Cadsuane is a Darkfriend, and for the life of me I can't remember if that's mentioned in WoT.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

H.P. Lovecraft research fellowship

Huh -- new research fellowship for H. P. Lovecraft. Copied below:


The John Hay Library at Brown University invites applications for its 2019-2020 S.T. Joshi Endowed Research Fellowship for research relating to H.P. Lovecraft, his associates, and literary heirs. The application deadline is March 15, 2019.

The Hay Library is home to the largest collection of H. P. Lovecraft materials in the world, and also holds the archives of Clark Ashton Smith, Karl Edward Wagner, Manly Wade Wellman, Analog magazine, Caitlín Kiernan, and others. The Joshi Fellowship, established by The Aeroflex Foundation and Hippocampus Press, is intended to promote scholarly research using the world-renowned resources on H. P. Lovecraft, science fiction, and horror at the John Hay Library. The Fellowship provides a monthly stipend of $1,500 for up to two months of research at the library between July 2019 and June 2020. The fellowship is open to individuals engaged in pre- and post-doctoral, or independent research. 

For more information and to apply, please visit https://library.brown.edu/joshi/.

Please direct questions to Heather Cole, Curator, Literary & Popular Culture Collections, heather_cole@brown.edu.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Reading Robert Jordan's WHEEL OF TIME -- Part II

This post celebrates and honors Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time, which I've just completed after 27 years. Part I had focused on my reading timeline; Part II here focuses more on reflection.

Reading a massive series over 27 years produces strange consequences. I began the books as a 13-year-old kid for whom all fantasy was new; I finished as a 39-year-old married college professor trained in literary criticism. 

One important thing of note: a lifetime of the life of the mind has done nothing to impair my ability to enjoy or appreciate fantasy. Quite the opposite, actually. Anyway, you know the old criticism; we've all heard complaints about how over-analysis (or even any analysis) kills the pure love of reading. For my part, though, the same things that thrilled me about Wheel of Time , not to mention fantasy in general, as an adolescent still thrill me as a world-weary cynical old adult -- the scope of fantasy, the weightiness of events, the sense of a world; amazement as things come together. 

Yet, though my love for the genre remains undiminished, I'm personally almost completely different from when I was a kid. My life situation has changed drastically, and that cannot but help affect my reactions to what I read. Being happily married, for one thing, seems to make a big difference. Although I've never read for "escapism" (whatever that means), epic fantasy certainly let me feel things as a lonely teenager that I otherwise couldn't feel. Today, though, books simply don't have that same surrogate-role in my life. The difference isn't one of maturity but of situation -- 27 years ago, I would read a fantasy masterpiece, and feel as if I was the only person in the universe who truly understood. Now, I finish the book and, despite its power, go back to my regular life, my wife and my cat and my fulfilling career. Neither reading situation is better or worse; just different.

But now I'm also a savvier, more knowledgeable reader. For example, considering that I hadn't read The Lord of the Rings until my early 20s, I had never quite understood the typical charge of genre fantasy as "formulaic."  Only now do Jordan's similarities to Tolkien stand out. Rand, Mat, and Perrin are basically hobbits who leave their Shire-like Two Rivers, under the tutelage of Moirane (i.e. Gandalf in a skirt), to defeat the typical fantasy Dark Lord and his Ringerbearer-like Forsaken. Moiraine, for gosh sakes, even "dies" and returns. Other similarities are too numerous to mention . . . but there are deep differences, too. The idea of reincarnation would have horrified Tolkien as a Catholic, and Jordan furthermore does a lot of different other things as well, too numerous to mention -- although he's much more quintessentially American, for one thing, and more egalitarian, and so forth.

But my general cultural and literary knowledge has also increased dramatically. Hence, things that leap up at me that I've never previously noticed. I kept marking up my copy of The Gathering Storm, for example, just as I would any novel I was "studying;" the themes and motifs, including narrative and stylistic quirks, jump out in a way they never had previously.*** The depth of Jordan's borrowing from the Western tradition also flew right past me. For example, I vaguely realized that his names for characters like Gawyn and Galad were taken from Arthurian knights, but I had a face-palm moment when I connected the Amyrlin Seat with "a-MERLIN". Likewise, while the Children of the Light clearly fit the Spanish Inquisition, only now do I recognize how clearly Matrim Cauthon has been modeled on Odin.

All in all, my enthusiasm for The Wheel of Time doesn't quite extend to calling it a great work of fantasy literature -- what greatness it has (and which it has undeniably) lies in its breath-taking size and sheer awe-inspiring world-building coherence. But because it lacks the thematic ambition of the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant or, more recently, The Broken Earth trilogy, better adjectives might be extremely good rather than great, plus also important, plus also impressive -- something, certainly, worthy of more academic study, if only good and talented critics would decide to produce high quality work on genre fantasy. Alas, that doesn't now seem to be the case outside biggies like Tolkien or Lewis.

*** The harmless but clear-cut sexism of the Jordan books, though, was obvious to me even as a teenager.

Reading Robert Jordan's WHEEL OF TIME -- Part I

This post celebrates and honors Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time, which I've just completed after 27 years. Part I here focuses simply on my reading timeline; Part II is one post up.

Back in 1992, my mother brought home from The Bookrack (our local used bookstore that closed a few years back) three fantasy novels by someone named Robert Jordan: The Wheel of Time, The Great Hunt, and The Dragon Reborn. They blew us both away. Clearly, though, the series wasn't finished. That's when we saw that the fourth book, The Shadow Rising, had just appeared in hardcover.

Under normal circumstances, we'd -- well, mom -- would never pay hardcover prices, but we couldn't resist. "Surely," we said, "this will be the last book in the series, so maybe just this once."

We used that same logic when book 5, The Fires of Heaven, came out, and the same logic for books 6 and 7. I'm not sure when the pattern broke** . . . possibly for the ninth book, Winter's Heart, which emerged after I had dropped out of college and no longer kept up with fantasy or even reading.

Anyway, I do remember reading books 10 and 11, Crossroads of Twilight and Knife of Dreams, in the summer of 2006 -- right after I graduated Kent State, just prior to beginning Ohio State. They were . . . okay. The common consensus has been that, beginning with book 7 or so, Jordan's pacing for the series began to lag (although this impression may have been boosted by readerly frustration with an apparently never-ending set of books).

But then Robert Jordan died, and some writer of whom I never heard took over, and in general life intervened. I finished my Master's and, feeling frustrated with formal graduate study, took a 4-year hiatus, longer than I had intended, before beginning my PhD in 2011.  A few years later I vaguely heard that Brandon Sanderson had completed the series, but what doctoral student has time for 3,000 pages of independent reading?**** 

Anyway, fast forward to a few weeks ago, right at the start of the new year. I was walking through Bookmans and, spur of the moment, purchased two of the Sanderson books, then ordered the third off Amazon. Despite comprising about a million words (or about twice Tolkien's LotR), I devoured the books in just over two weeks.

Final verdict?


Towers of Midnight dragged somewhat (I've always found Perrin Aybara a bit dull), but man, I was shocked and impressed by how well Sanderson ties things up. The attack on Tar Valon in The Gathering Storm held me riveted, way up past my bedtime, much as Jordan's earlier books had done. (This must have been late 1993 or so, but I remember staying up all night until 5 a.m. to finish The Fires of Heaven.) Likewise, The Memory of Light lived up to every expectation I had -- the Last Battle itself is a masterpiece of fantasy writing.  I finished the book two nights ago, but I'm still processing things. It's also hard to avoid concluding that Jordan got extremely lucky when his widow choose Sanderson as the heir to Jordan's series. 

The second part of this entry will offer a bit more reflective commentary on the WoT books.

** Pun unintentional.
**** I actually made a point to always insert "fun" reading into every academic semester as a doctoral student, but the Wheel of Time just wasn't a priority then, not even for fun reading.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Addendum to the previous post. . . .

As an addendum to my last post about the academic popularity of mainstream fantasy, I just recollected some further authors:

1--Dave Duncan (0, 1, 0)
2--David Gemmell (1, 1, 0)
1--David Drake (1, 0, 0)
0--Simon R. Green (0, 0, 0)
0--Raymond E. Feist (0, 0, 0)
0--Jennifer Roberson (0, 0, 0)
0--Sara Douglass (0, 0, 0)
0--Jacqueline Lichtenberg (0, 0, 0)
4--Diana L. Paxson (1, 3, 0)

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Fantasy Authors & Academic Popularity: A Tale of Haves and Have Nots

While admiring Brandon Sanderson's handling of Robert Jordan's material in the Wheel of Time series, which I'm finally reading, I grew curious about whom among modern fantasists tend to get the most academic attention. My hunch was that fantasy writers of the 1980s and 1990s -- or basically the guys who got me hooked on fantasy literature as a kid -- would come off poorly. (I was right). Overall, I've long suspected that the common narrative of doorstopper Tolkien-clone epic fantasy has led to academics treating some wonderful writers incredibly unfairly.

So, as a way of testing my hypothesis, I searched through the MLA International Bibliography. I did a basic search on an author's name, then looked at "peer-reviewed articles," "book chapters," and "books." For most of the less popular writers, I excluded things like encyclopedia entries, which tended to inflate hits.

This method, of course, isn't scientifically rigorous . . . but it does give a sense of how individual authors "rank" in terms of academic popularity. One thing that struck me: yeah, academics have clearly snubbed many of the "big name" fantasists of the 1980s and 1990s. The second thing that struck me, though, was the discrepancy between the "haves" and "have nots". Tolkien and Lewis have had mind-numbingly prodigious amounts of scholarship done on them.

Part of that simply stems from their relatively age. Their major works appeared in the 1950s, although the academic Tolkien boom didn't properly come until 2000. The weight of all this academic scholarship, though, does give a very lop-sided view of fantasy literature's post-Tolkien literary history. Makes me think that we desperately need something like a Journal of Popular Fantasy Literature Studies . . . something that has a more narrow focus than Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts.
Anyway, the results:
KEY: TOTAL -- AUTHOR -- (peer-reviewed articles / book chapters / books)

Fantasy authors of the 1980s and 1990s -- the HAVE NOTs
15—Anne McCaffrey (8, 6, 1)
13—Stephen R. Donaldson (4, 5, 4)
6—Guy Gavriel Kay (3, 2, 1)
3—Tad Williams (2, 1, 0)
3—Robert Jordan (1, 2, 0,).
3—David Eddings (2, 1, 0)
3—Brandon Sanderson (1, 1, 1)
3—Mercedes Lackey (3, 0, 0)

2--David Gemmell (1, 1, 0) 
1--Dave Duncan (0, 1, 0)
1—Robin Hobb (1, 0, 0)
1—Steven Brust (1, 0, 0)
0—Terry Goodkind (0, 0, 0)
0—Terry Brooks (0, 0, 0)
0—Glen Cook (0, 0, 0)

 Fantasy authors  -- the HAVEs
1,766—J. R. R. Tolkien (712, 877, 177)
1,271—C. S. Lewis (673, 450, 158)
724—J. K. Rowling (280, 402, 42)
463—Ursula K. Le Guin (248, 178, 41)
168—Philip Pullman (69, 88, 11)
122—George R. R. Martin (31, 85, 6)
115—Roger Zelazy (15, 98, 2)
70—Terry Pratchett (40, 27, 3).
41—Marion Zimmer Bradley (15, 23, 3)

Other Fantasy authors of note
4--Diana L. Paxson (1, 3, 0) 
3—Stephen King—Dark Tower (2, 1, 0)
1—N. K. Jemisin (1, 0, 0)
4—Steven Erikson (3, 1, 0)
3—Joe Abercrombie (0, 3, 0)
0—Tracy Hickman & Margaret Weiss (0, 0, 0)
0—R. A. Salvatore (0, 0, 0)
1—Fiona McIntosh (1, 0, 0)
0—Patrick Rothfuss (0, 0, 0)
0—Robert Aspirin (0, 0, 0)

0--Simon R. Green (0, 0, 0)
0--Jennifer Roberson (0, 0, 0)
0--Sara Douglass (0, 0, 0)
0--Jacqueline Lichtenberg (0, 0, 0)

Oddities of Note:
  • I’m shocked Steven King’s Dark Tower only had 3 hits.
  • Not quite sure why Anne McCaffrey has so many more hits (relatively speaking) than Mercedes Lackey.
  • Incidentally, I've written before how Stephen R. Donaldson hasn't gotten much love from academic critics. Well, turns out he's actually one of the more popular of the "have not" writers . . . and four academic monographs do handle his work in detail, which is significantly better than many, many others.
  • Likewise, I've also wondered why Marion Zimmer Bradley hasn't received more attention. Well, according to this, she's also doing relatively well.
  • The love for Zelazny surprised me. . . but he's also somewhat older and more well-established, too.
  • No surprise that the best known shared-world D&D authors (Hickman & Weiss, Salvatore) have been ignored.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Good News for U of A Online

So, last year, our Writing Program won a top award from the CCCC -- and that was awesome, of course. Since then, I have myself gotten my Certificate in Online Teaching, mostly so I could teach summer courses -- but then got conscripted for our Online Writing Program. I certainly don't mind that. I'm a "Stick me where ever you want" kind of guy, after all. Still, the following news is certainly awesome: apparently, after only four years of existence, Arizona Online now ranks in the top 10% of programs nation-wide. (See the full story here.) The article references mostly our online graduate technology programs but, obviously, first-year composition is a major part of any undergraduate online experience. So, major kudos to us.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

My Literary Kryptonite

The wife and I just finished both seasons of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel -- a fantastic, fast-paced show, and another creation of Amy Sherman-Palladino, whom I knew only by reputation as the creator of Gilmore Girls (which neither of us has ever seen).

Anyway, the show reminded me of something I already know -- that is, my one storytelling kryptonite.

I mean, I've always had the ability to watch or read almost anything. Murder, torture, sexual violence, bloodshed, sad endings, none of that bothers me. As long as something is well-crafted and well-written, nothing actually forces me to leave the room or book. "Oh, Reek is actually Theon Greyjoy? La de da, moving along . . . "

As you may have guessed, though, Mrs. Maisel has my one exception in abundance: characters publicly embarrassing themselves. This is true. If someone does something utterly cringe-worthy and dorky in public, I just can't watch it -- when the nerd kid in About a Boy sings "Killing me Softly with His Song" for his mother at his grade school talent show, I almost died. And, in Mrs. Maisel, as you might expect, there's lots of times when Midge -- a would-be stand-up comic -- completely just bombs on stage in the most cringe-worthy embarrassing way possible. I. Just. Can't. Have to leave every time . . . I'll only come back when the wife tells me it's safe.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Apparently, I can be of some service.

Part of my job description is service -- specifically, service activities are 20% of what an U of A lecturer should be doing with their time. Well, I've just finished putting together my 2018 APR (Annual Performance Review), including the service component. I ended up with a score of 38. To put that number into context, the score range is 1 through 5 -- a five being "exceptional." So I think I got service covered here.

Incidentally, since there's no official research component to my job, my research technically counts as "service" -- hence the score. At any rate, I'm including my list here for the morbidly curious.

Service points earned: ___38____________

(3) Article: “Paul Edwin Zimmer’s Alliterative Style: A Metrical Legacy of J. R. R. Tolkien and Poul Anderson.” Mythlore, vol. 37, no. 1, 2018, pp. 183-201, 2018.
(3) Article: “Identity, Time, and Faerie in Pig Tale and The Inn at Corbies’ Caww: An Unexpected Convergence of Realms.” A Wilderness of Dragons: Essays in Honor of Verlyn Flieger, edited by John D. Rateliff, Gabbro Head, pp. 412-27.
(1) Review: “The Return of the Ring, volumes 1 & 2, edited by Lynn Forest-Hill. Journal of Tolkien Research, vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 1-14.
(1) Encyclopedia entry: Stephen R. Donaldson.” The Literary Encyclopedia, www.litencyc.com. First published 9 October 2018.
(1) Encyclopedia entry: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.” The Literary Encyclopedia, www.litencyc.com. First published 9 October 2018.

Editorial boards
(3)    Reviews editor, Fafnir: Nordic Journal of Science Fiction & Fantasy Research

Conference Presentations
(3)    53rd International Congress on Medieval Studies. “‘Sing, Muse, the Wrath of Boromir, Denethor’s Son’: Thumos and Lofgeornost in J.R.R. Tolkien.” Kalamazoo, MI.
(3)    International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts (ICFA). “Gender Violence and Feminist Thought in Stephen R. Donaldson’s ‘Reave the Just.’” Orlando, FL.

Evaluating Article Manuscript
(2) One peer review for Extrapolation (a science fiction journal)

Contest Judge

(2) Volunteer Judge—MythSoc Awards, one category
(2) Volunteer Judge—MythSoc Awards, one category

Departmental Committee Work
(4) Hiring committee: WPA Assistant Writing Director (May 2018)

Community service related to professional expertise
(2) Media appearance: Wildcat Crime (local podcast; interview): “The Myths, Legends, and Crimes Behind the Haunting of Maricopa Hall” & “Violence and Ghost Stories

(1)   Brown Bag Workshop: Contract Grading (November 2018)
(1) Classroom Teaching Observation for fellow faculty member (Oct 10th)U of A
(1) English Departmental Retreat: full-day departmental faculty event (Aug 17th)U of A
(1)(x5): attendance at lecturer meetings