Saturday, May 20, 2017

Patricia A. McKillip

I've always had a vexed relationship with Patricia A. McKillip -- I go back and forth on how much I admire her novels. Originally, I'd gotten into her because she's a favorite of Stephen R. Donaldson. Much as I love Donaldson, though, I could never quite make out what he saw in McKillip. Part of that, I think, is that McKillip works so much with emotional abstractions that it was hard for Young Me to get a handle on her. To date I've gone through:

  • The Riddle-Master trilogy (2 out of the 3)
  • The Cygnet series (on which I wrote a bad narrative theory paper during my MA program)
  • Fool's Run (loved it)
  • Winter Rose (couldn't finish it)
  • The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (intriguing)
  • several short stores (loved them all)
Actually, here's a story about my general cluelessness. I've known forever that McKillip had been a World Fantasy Award winner -- but I couldn't figure out which of her books had won the award. (And no, this was not in the pre-Google days, hence the cluelessness.) So I picked up The Riddle-Master trilogy thinking that it must have been the winer. Nope, which is just as well, since I couldn't finish the series. Just too over-wrought. Although clearly showing The Hobbit's influence, it didn't even have any riddles in it.

Finally, though, I've just read McKillip's World Fantasy Award-winning novel: The Forgotten Beasts of Eld. Now that I'm older and wiser, I can see what Stephen R. Donaldson liked about it -- both he and McKillip have intensely melodramatic imaginations. McKillip practically hits you over the head with an intense lyrical Romanticism that emphasizes the Self (at least certainly portions of the self) above just about all other concerns. Now, such melodrama doesn't always bother me, but it does perhaps explain why I wax hot and cold on McKillip. When it's working, the melodrama can be effective. When McKillip misses, well, ouch. 

Anyway, it works with Forgotten Beasts, but I'm more intrigued with something I only just realized about her work. She gravitates to the operatic like a moth to light but, while this opera-quality focuses on human emotions, she examines a very limited set of human emotions. The biggies, in other words: love, hate, death, fear. The first half of Forgotten Beasts examines change, the fear of change, and restlessness (which is an impetus to change). The second half of the novel focuses on Love and Hate, beauty and destructiveness being corollaries to these. Although McKillip finds a lot of nuance to examine within these biggies, her tendency to melodrama basically elevates these biggies to the status of Platonic Ideas. Heightened by the lush lyricism of her prose, these biggies overwhelm all the other elements of human experience that can't be rendered operatically -- basically, everything humdrum, quotidian, ambivalent, etc. 

Here's another thing Donaldson certainly likes about McKillip: they're both hardcore humanists in that the Individual is the highest good. In McKillip, as it is in Donaldson, politics or sociology or economics exist, but only as means of heightening the themes they wish to explore about the individual self. That used to be my taste until the late 2000s or so, but alas, no more.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Garth Nix and the Abhorsen trilogy

So, a bit ago while composing my fantasy syllabus, I was embarrassed that coming up with female protagonists for fantasy novels gave me such a hard time. Not that there's a whole lot out there, but still. Anyway, I took it upon myself to try correcting that particular hole in my fantasy literary knowledge. My first excursion was into Tamora Pierce's Alanna, a 1984 fantasy text. That experiment, shall we say, was not a success. The protagonist, Alanna, pretends to be a boy so that she could become a knight, but the plot (and characterization) was so dull and predictable that I could barely finish the novel.

Then I tried Garth Nix's Abhorsen trilogy. . . . 

Quite impressive, I must say. I wouldn't necessarily place it in the first rank of fantasy fiction (the series is almost all plot), but that plot is fantastic and captivating, the world-creation truly unique, and Nix's style is admirable. I read the first book, Sabriel, constanty surprised at how quickly it went; I think I loved the first half of Lirael, the series's second book, most of all.

A few notes:

  • One comment made by Edward James during his luncheon speech was that the best contemporary fantasy overwhelmingly comes from Australia, and Nix certainly fits that bill.
  • Nix has two kingdoms -- the Old Kingdom where magic works, and Ancelstierre where technology (about WWI level) works.
  • The magic systems is intriguing. Rather than spellbooks, the main vehicle for magic is spellcasting.
  • There's very little foreign policy -- a very marked contrast from, say, George R. R. Martin. The two kingdoms go about their business, and that's pretty much that.
  • The series doesn't have very many minor characters. As a result, the series gives off the impression that the main protagonists and/or antagonists are the only people who matter. Most of the subjects of either kingdom go unnamed, and they're entire purpose is usually to be murdered horribly by the Dead.
    • Speaking of that, the citizens of the Old Kingdom are so constantly being slaughtered by the dead that it's hard to imagine their country having any kind of economy.
  • Disreputable Dog and Moffet the cat are truly great characters -- loved every minute of them.
  • I did think that Nix has major skill as a stylist -- nothing flashy or obtrusive, but powerfully effective nonetheless. I like to tell my more elitist colleagues that you only notice the style in bad books, but I nonetheless caught myself trying to figure out how how Nix managed to write individual scenes or paragraphs with such precision.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

And now it's officially official -- Spring Graduation, 2017

Well, by graduating yesterday, I have now joined the ranks of the academically unaffiliated and the unemployed. This is actually the first graduation since high school that I've attended -- I skipped both my BA and MA graduations. All in all, the experience was cool. Thankfully, a few years back MTSU decided to separate graduate and undergraduate ceremonies, so we managed to get out of there within 90 minutes.

Anyway, pictures:

That's all four of our graduating doctoral students from the English Department. From left: Sarah Gray, Mo Li, Fadia Mereani, and of course yours truly.

Another one:

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Charles Williams -- the "Last Magician" or the "Third Inkling"?

I'm not a fan of Charles Williams, but Grevel Lindop's biography of him, Charles Williams:The Third Inkling, has been widely praised, even winning a Mythopoeic award for Inklings Studies last year. About the only criticism of Lindop's book I've seen concerned it's name. Tolkien scholar David Bratman, for example, has argued that calling CW "the third Inkling" unfairly puts CW into the shadow of Lewis and Tolkien, whereas people interested enough in CW to read a biography of him would undoubtedly rank him higher.

Thus I was startled to see a reference by Sorina Higgens in her edition of CW's verse drama, The Chapel of the Thorn, to Lindop's then-unpublished biograph: Charles Williams: The Last Magician

Off the top of my head, I suppose the name change came very late in the process, probably at the instigation of the publisher. A title linking CW to the Inklings, rather than to the occult, would probably sell a lot more copies. In terms of Lindop's own take on Williams, though, the "Magician" title indicates where Lindop's greater interests lay. As many have noted, the Inklings section in the biography is relatively brief, although it's hard to fault Lindop for that since Williams joined the Inklings pretty late in his life.

For my part, I was okay with The Third Inkling as a title, but the fact that it was apparently bestowed so late in the process is, I think, highly illuminating. I still have very little sympathy with any writer so fascinated in the occult, but Lindop's work certainly gave me a better appreciation of what Williams was trying to do.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Proofreading Party

The journal I edit, Scientia et Humanitas, had its annual "Proofreading Party" last evening. Three of our staff managed to make it, and together we did the proofs for all seven of our accepted articles. The thing was quite fun, actually, and it was the first time I'd ever met two of the three attendees in person. One of them, I was dismayed to learn, is 15-year-old college sophomore -- and he was pretty good at his proofs. Talk about making me feel like an underacheiver.

Our associate editor is now finishing the layout and the corrections. No set date for sending the final manuscript to the printers, but it should be soon. The only hold up is that we might get two extra articles added in last minute.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Roger C. Schlobin

I just learned that Dr. Roger C. Schlobin passed away a few days ago. He was an important early figure in science fiction and fantasy scholarship -- second president of the IAFA, a prolific bilbliographer and editor. When I was doing my first foray into fantasy scholarship, back during writing my senior thesis on Stephen R. Donaldson, Dr. Schlobin's name seemed to appear on every other source I consulted.

Anyway, I actually had the pleasure of corresponding with him once. This would have been back in 2011. I was looking to get into a doctoral program but had no idea where to go (sf&f is not a common field), and I hit upon the idea of cold e-mailing several fantasy scholars. One of them was Dr. Schlobin. He sent me a very friendly e-mail offering some advice, and he even cc'd a few scholarly friends of his for their opinions. As I grow old and wise in the ways of academe, I begin to appreciate more and more the generosity, goodwill, and dedication to the field of offering such a helping hand. The news of his passing saddens me, and the field of scholarship will miss him.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Reading sf versus reading literary realism

So, I'm reading a fun, if fannish, book about books by Jo Walton (an accomplished sf writer herself), and she made an intriguing remark.

She explains that she once had an on-line argument about whether a Anthony Trollope novel should have footnotes. The "for" crowd argued that Trollope's readers had a lot of basic cultural information that modern readers simply lack. Walton took the "against" position, and her reasons -- this is the interesting part -- had to do with her reading Trollope as she would science fiction. Science fiction, for example, often inserts crazy things into its stories, and the readers are simply expected to figure things from context clues or, just as likely, to continue reading without knowing what a retro-laser flibbertigibbet is.

Since I grew up on sf and fantasy (mostly fantasy), I know exactly what Walton means. I picked up that kind of reading habit with my mother's milk, so to speak. If something confuses you in a text, just plow forward recklessly -- it'll make sense eventually.

The danger, though, is that such a reading habit is gloriously awful for encouraging critical thinking. I used to obsess about this observation after my M.A. program, when I was spurred to endless self-reflection by the fact that my hard work didn't translate into a corresponding level of academic success. If you run into something confusing in science fiction, just plow forward. If you run into something confusing in Derrida or Foucault, though, plowing forward may not always be the best idea. All readers have a tendency to skip or skim; only inexperienced readers, for example, read every word in a sentence. When you run into a dense passage, the same principle applies -- sometimes it's easier to just skim or skip it, and this tendency actually corresponds to some good advice graduate students are often given about "it's impossible to read everything closely, so be selective."

Still, that tendency to skip or forge forward can be damaging. I think I"m especially aware of this about my teen-aged reading self, when -- I realize now -- I was extremely bad at critical thinking and the close reading of texts (both being skills which are acquired rather than in-born). Life is happier now, of course, but I wonder if a pedantic love of footnotes or reading a text like a scholar might not be a really good thing at times.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Tolkien and . . . Igor Stravinsky?

References to Tolkien come about in the oddest places. My most recent "huh?" reference comes from the personal diaries of a guy named Robert Craft, an American composer and writer who developed an intimate creative partnership with Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Tolkien comes up in three places.
  • December 23, 1955. Craft, W. H. Auden, and a fellow named Chester Kallman are chatting in Stravinsky's rooms (it's unclear if Stravinsky's present), and Craft notes that "Auden, bright as ever but didactic, says that as an undergraduate, Tolkien fell in love with the Phoenician language" (122).
That's the extent of the first reference, but Phoenician? Going out on a limb, let me suggest that Auden said "Finnish." Craft either misheard or misremembered.
  • October 27, 1961. Craft, accompanied by someone named Natasha Spender, describes a painfully awkward conversation with E. M. Forster in his rooms at King's College, Cambridge. Apparently completely at a lack of things to say to one another, Tolkien's name comes up for some reason, and Forster is reported to have said, "I dislike whimsicality and I cannot bear 'good' and 'evil' on such a scale. . . . To my surprise, I liked Thomas Mann's The Holy Sinner" (255).
That's just a random bit of gossip from someone not overly keenly on Christians -- C. S. Lewis once called him an "ass." (Forster's remark is also ironic because Tolkien, along with another Inkling David Cecil, would nominate Forster for the Nobel in 1954.) The third reference is as follows:
  • January 16, 1966. Stravinsky, Craft, and Auden are having dinner, and Auden apparently begins pontificating about books: "Books referred to include Auerbach's Literary Language; Tolkien's Silmarillion ('J.R.R. is 'in' with the teenage set, you know, and is no longer the exclusive property of dotty school teachers and elderly cranks'); In Cold Blood. . . . "
Now that's is an interesting remark. The Silmarillion, of course, wouldn't be published for 11 more years, and Tolkien's popularity stemmed from The Lord of the Rings. Yet Craft clearly didn't mishear this time, since it's unlikely that he would have heard of Silmarillion except that Auden brought it up. So what happened? I can only guess that Auden mentioned LOTR and S both but that Craft, writing later from memory, only remembered the name of the latter work. Why he would focus on S rather than LOTR, though I can't say. Auden's Tolkien reference seems to have been a relatively passing one in a long literary conversation, and Craft evidently found Auden's remarks on Truman Capote more memorable, considering that Craft devoted a whole paragraph to those. Still, it's intriguing that Auden was spreading the word in casual dinner conversations.

Craft, Robert. Stravinsky: Chronicle of a Friendship. Rev. and exp. ed. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt UP, 1994. Print.

My First Peer Review Solicitation!

Well, not really my first peer review solicitation. I've done about two dozen peer reviews for Scientia, and I also did some peer reviews for a collection of essays I was contributing to last year. Still, this morning is the first time that a journal ever contacted me out of the blue for a review. They knew because of a book review I did for them of Jamie Williamson's history of fantasy literature a few months back, and I (briefly) met their co-editor during the ICFA. Real nice that they thought of me for this . . . although, of course, once I'm a jaded and cynical old academic, I'll probably start rolling my eyes at these requests, but for the time being I'm tickled pink.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

C. S. Lewis's Poetry

Common consensus seems to be that Lewis's poetry couldn't hold a candle to his prose, so imagine my surprise when I randomly began reading several poems in The Collected Poems of C. S. Lewis: A Critical Edition and saw 3 absolute gems out of the first 4 poem I read. The three poems: "Heart-breaking School," "And After This They Sent Me to Another Place," and "Old Kirk, Like Father Time Himself." After that, I quickly began to see the rationale behind the common consensus, but I wanted to take a moment and discuss "Heart-breaking School" at least. Here is the poem (parts highlighted for emphasis:

    Heart-breaking school
Received me, where an ogre hearted man held rule,
Secret and irresponsible, out of the cll
Of men's reproach, like Cyclops in his savage hall:
For at his gate no neighbour went in, nor his own
Three fading daughters easily won out alone,
Nor if they did, dared wag their tongues, but, in a trice
Their errand done, whisked home again, three pattering mice,
Pale, busy, meek: more pitiable far than we
From whom he ground the bread of his adversity,
Himself a theme for pity: for within him boiled
The spirit of Gengis Khan or Timur, ever foiled
And forced back to the dogs-eared Virgil and the desk
To earn his food: ridiculous, old, poor, grotesque,
A man to be forgiven. Here let him pass, by me
Forgiven: and let the memory pass. Let me not see
Under the curled moustaches on the likerous, red,
Moist lips, the flat Assyrian smile we used to dread
When in the death-still room the weeping of one boy
Gave the starved dragon inklings of ancestral joy,
Antediluvian taste of blood.

  1. lines 1-2. I really liked the "heart-breaking school" / "ogre hearted man" pairing. Man, really nice.
  2. Really liked the disjunction between a schoolmaster's life and such figures, although I suppose might not strike someone more well-read in poetry as so original.
  3. "ancestral joy" -- again, I liked the effect.
It's easy enough to see C. S. Lewis as old-fashioned -- the theme of a cruel schoolmaster does seem 19th-century (although it's not), mixed with classical allusions and whatnot, but I appreciated this one, as well as the other poems mentioned above.