Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Passing of Tzvetan Todorov

Surprised and a little saddened that Tzvetan Todorov, the literary theorist, passed away yesterday. In terms of fantasy criticism, he's obviously most widely known for The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, a foundational work on the subject (even if it's cited more often than it's employed). I always admired Todorov for the clarity of his style at a time when many literary theorists seemingly delighted in being obscure. No idea he was still around, although apparently he was only 77, which is a ripe old age but not that ripe of an old age. Anyway, shame to see him go.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Higher Ed and the travel ban

The Chronicle of Higher Education keeps posting articles related to Trump's ban of Muslims. This surprises me, not because his executive order doesn't have wide implications for education, but because it's a bit odd that the Chronicle is coming out with such a clear left-leaning orientation -- although, granted, a strong majority of academia tends to be left-leaning.

Anyway, the whole situation is a mess. My current department actually has a good many Middle Eastern students. Most of them are Saudi, so are safe from the ban, but we also have a Kurdish Syrian refugee who now can't risk leaving the US for any reason. One reason the ban is idiotic as well as mean-spirited is that this particular Syrian refugee is also a Fulbright Scholarship recipient. So it's likely that, even beyond the gratuitous level of spite that led to the exclusion of valid visa-holders, this ban is also keeping out truly productive individuals that any country would be glad to have . . . all for the sake of an imaginary increase in protection against terrorists.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Speak of the Devil (or the Aesir, in this case): Michael Moorcock

My copy of Michael Moorcock's Wizardry and Wild Romance arrived last night, a book which I originally read during undergrad but which I figured, well, might as well own it. And no sooner do I start reading then I see a very laudatory Guardian review of Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword, which I blogged about just yesterday morning. So, apparently the book is even less forgotten than I thought! Anyway, Moorcock claimed that Poul Anderson did Norse literature so well that it just about ruined Tolkien for him -- even beyond all the other infamous critiques he made of Tolkien.

Incidentally, my opinion of Wizardry and Wild Romance has apparently waned considerable since I first read it years ago. First, it's basically a survey of fantasy (romance) literature, which tend to be incredibly dull. The interspersed commentary is vivid and polemical but often head-scratching. Moorcock, furthermore, has a great obsession with style and influence. Influence tends to be a topic of overblown importance, and almost all discussions of style are hopeless for lack of a decent critical vocabulary.**  After all, so what if someone's prose "wants to make friends with you?" Even if it was true in Tolkien's case -- it isn't -- that's not all that great an issue, or at least it shouldn't. I quite liked Winnie the Pooh and couldn't quite figure why Moorcock hated it so much. Otherwise, I was heartily struck by the following irony: Moorcock's main theme is improving the quality of genre prose, but his own Elric book that I had read was as awful as other sword and sorcery I've been reading. 

China Mieville did a forward praising Moorcock for Wizardry, incidentally. Mieville is someone I think an absolutely fabulous writer, and apparently he truly appreciated Moorcock for explaining his own lackluster response to The Lord of the Rings.

** Off the top of my head, two particularly admirable essays on prose style:
Drout, Michael D.C. “Tolkien’s Prose Style and its Literary and Rhetorical Effects.” Tolkien Studies 1 (2004): 137-63. Web. Project Muse. 2 Jun 2015.

Rateliff, John D. “’A Kind of Elvish Craft’: Tolkien as Literary Craftsman.” Tolkien Studies 6 (2009): 1-21.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Forgotten Masterpiece? Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword

So, while I've been on this sword and sorcery kick, I came across Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword. It's often mentioned -- in passing -- in surveys of S&S, but I hadn't otherwise encountered it.  Reading it struck me with two things:

  1. Anderson's knows his Norse sagas and medieval literature. There's echoes of the Eddas, Kullervo, and Tristan and Iseult.  What's amazing to me about this is that Anderson wrote this book in 1954 -- and thus delved into this literature entirely independently of Tolkien's influence.
  2. This is good. The Broken Sword is perhaps the first swords and sorcery novel where I kept wondering, "What's going to happen next?" I mean, I knew it would be something bad -- you can tell just from the source material that tragedy is around the corner. But I was captivated by exactly how everyone's hopes and dreams would come to a crashing, crushing end.
It's also worth noting that The Broken Sword only tangentially belongs to classic sword and sorcery. Although Anderson was a founding member of the Swordsmen & Sorcerer's Guild of American (SAGA), his work is entirely unlike that of Howard, Leiber, Vance, or Moorcock. It's not just the endless parade of brawny heroes, evil magicians, and unpronounceable names -- the literary sources give Anderson's book a resonance and depth that those others simply lack. Still, unusually for a hack writer, even Anderson's style is impressive. I found myself giving a mental thumb's-up to the way he describes several of his scenes. 

I'm not sure exactly how "forgotten" this minor masterpiece is, though. On one hand, I never heard of it outside of a few references in survey essays. It did get reissued in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series edited by Lin Carter, but it doesn't seem to have made much impact on the field -- Howard and Leiber  get more play by far. On the other hand, though, my library copy of the book has been checked out about 15 times since 1971, which is about 15 times more than my library copy of John Dos Passos's Big Money has been checked since around the same period.** Fifteen isn't a whole lot of people, but it does indicate some interest.


**Here's a cautionary tale of literary fortunes, based on the Due Dates slip at the end of library books. Up until 1975, Big Money had been checked out forty times. After that? Zero. Nobody, absolutely nobody, has tried reading it. Dos Passos, thou art Ozymandias!

Sunday, January 22, 2017

A Historic Moment -- the Women's March

After the trauma of the election, I shut off from politics as much as possible. Mostly, I just couldn't afford the energy, not with my own precarious graduate student situation. I had a dissertation to finish and, even when I completed the first draft, there's the terrifying knowledge that my job prospects are statistically abysmal, that we're a single-income family whose income ends in April, and we're still not sure about *M immigration status, mostly due to bureaucratic incompetency. Not to mention all the c.v. building things I must do in the meantime. Plus, being ABD, I tend to be cut off from all human contact, so word of mouth filters down to me slowly. Even had I heard, though, my lack of car has, over the years, given me the tendency to block out events beyond a five-mile radius of my home.

So while a part of me realized that the Women's March yesterday would be big, I didn't quite realize how big it was.

All over the news and social media, I kept seeing images from the protesters and activists on-scene, not only in Washington D.C. but in satellite areas. It gave me an immense pride and respect to see all those people protesting what's currently happening, and I realized that not going at least to one of the satellite marches will be a big regret of mine.

And the administration reacted as we've come to expect -- ignoring the march, posting a bizarre press conference where the press secretary had an apoplectic fit about news organizations accurately reporting the size of Trump's inauguration crowd, Trump's himself ranting about crowd size while addressing the CIA before their Memorial Wall of Agency heroes, which is about as clueless and insulting a thing as I can imagine.

I really wish I could be more active in all this.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Winter is Coming . . .

. . . aaaaaaaaand it's over.

Winter break at MTSU has always been the most deadly boring part of the year for me. Library's closed, gym's closed, town's empty, and there ain't a whole lot to do. (Not even I can work all the time.) In the past, I've managed to visit *M in London once -- and of course we got married in New York last year -- but otherwise my only resort has been to putz around and eat horribly.

All that's done now, though, as this week opens up the start of MY VERY LAST SEMESTER AT MTSU

Less than 6 weeks before I defend the diss -- and, I gotta admit, the general situation is starting to make me nervous. The diss itself is fine, and I'm pretty proud of it. But I'm more than a little dismayed by the fact that, although two committee members have started reading my diss, no one has actually finished it, much less provided feedback. 

My current director, of course, had a remarkably late start, since she had to take over directing duties after Dr. Lavery's sudden passing last fall. She had originally earmarked this last month for devoting proper attention to reading it, but a major family situation in addition to a minor illness have delayed things awfully. Now, the prognosis is "comments in a few weeks." The third position on my committee is also in upheaval. Two days ago, one professor agreed to act as the fourth member of my committee -- and now he's the third member, since I received word this morning that my previous third committee member has been forced by unavoidable circumstances to drop out. 

The good news? I still have three committee members, which is what I need. The bad news? By the time everyone finishes reading Mister Diss, there's going to be virtually no turnaround time for me to actually make changes. If substantive revisions are required, there goes everything. Fortunately, and it might be premature to say this, but I think Ole Dissy is strong enough as stands that things will turn out all right. Still, this situation could easily have been a disaster for most people. Writing an entire dissertation without any professorial feedback whatsoever could have sunk quite a few. I know one girl, who like me was orphaned by Dr. L's passing, wrote her entire MA thesis last semester without guidance, but it was such a meandering mess that her new director wouldn't sign off on it. Hence she has to redo it and, by necessity, delay graduation.

Congratulations to Bagwell, Raines, and Rodriquez

The 2017 class of baseball Hall of Famers is now official: Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, and Ivan Rodriquez. All of them are highly deserving candidates, especially Raines -- it was a minor crime that it took the writers 10 years to elect the second greatest lead-off hitter of all time. He had a rough time because of admitted cocaine use and, of course, playing in the shadow of the greatest lead-off hitter of all time, Ricky Henderson.

Bagwell never made much impression on me, mostly because he played for the small market Houston Astros, but Pudge Rodriquez had one of the most amazing arms for a catcher I've ever seen.

Bonds and Clemens both fell short (because of the steroids, obviously), but this year both climbed over the 50% mark -- 75% needed for election. Clearly, they deserve in, and the allegations of steroid use never phased me a bit in regards to their monster stat lines.

Curt Schilling looks like he had a rough day, though, dipping below 50%. His stats are clearly Hall-worthy, but his recent tweets about lynching journalists, even more than his outspoken political views, have hurt him. Now, I always thought Schilling a loudmouth (and I laughed and laughed when he, in all seriousness, started talking about running against Elizabeth Warren for senator), but any baseball writer is clearly abusing his/her duty by invoking the "character clause" to justify not voting for Schilling. Not only do Schilling's stats bear up to scrutiny, but he won loads of various character-based awards during his playing days. About as hard-working a pitcher as you could imagine, just like Clemens.

It does seem as if, for some, expressing a few disrespectable opinion is a bigger "character" flaw than traditional virtues such as hard work, thrift, dedication, and doggedness. And then I think of Mark McGuire, who might not get into the Hall because of his steroid usage, but who was also the humblest, most self-effacing, and most dedicated baseball player I ever saw. If I had a kid, I wouldn't mind him growing up to be like Mark McGuire, PED-usage or no.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Conan -- the movie!!!!


One true sign that a movie has become outdated is when you look at its wikipedia page and can't begin the fathom how the debates that apparently swirled around a film applied to what you actually saw.

As part of my Robert E. Howard kick, I've looked up the youtube version of Conan the Barbarian (1982). One thing I noticed -- Aw-nold's accent has gotten a lot better over the years. But otherwise, except for a mildly cool scene in the Temple of Set, I couldn't see what all the fuss was about.

One big critique was its violence -- but it's cheesy 1980s violence. One critic lamented that it killed, on his count, about 50 people, which nearly made me laugh. Both the body counts and the special effects are exceeded twice-over in any one episode of Game of Thrones. And the film was also apparently critiqued for its flirtation with fascism? Now, I remember reading one article from JFA from the early 1980s claiming all German sword and sorcery was fascist, but I couldn't help rolling my eyes. Then, of course, there's the always ubiquitous "critique the audience we imagine is watching this." Although empirically most of the Conan fans are male, it's a bit more a leap to dub the film as merely wish-fulfillment from wimps. It reminds me of what gets said about every genre or genre-writer fan -- sometimes even by fans of other genres or genre writers.

About the film itself, a few things I noticed. First, great score. The score basically saved it, especially since the film seemed afraid to have its actors speak too much dialogue. Second, super slow pace. Considering that Howard's short stories are always high-tempo. I was amazed that the film's director spent so many lingering shots over people's faces. Conan wouldn't even qualify as an action film today, I don't think, since modern action films tend to be almost schizophrenic with their pacing. They took at all the sexism and racism out of the source material, which isn't surprising, but I couldn't believe that they took out most of the action.

The film Conan also bears almost no resemblance to Howard's Conan. It gives him truly cringe-worthy character motivations ("you killed my parents") but otherwise kept him as a dumb brute. Incidentally, there's no reason in the world to have that "killing my parents" scene last 30 minutes -- that's partly of what I mean about slow paced. Howard's Conan, however, would never have submitted to slavery, and he's a great deal more intelligent, occasionally even crafty. Nor do any of Howard's more acceptable themes, such as civilization vs. barbarism, shine through. And although film critics note the individualism presented in Conan, Howard's Conan is much more individualistic and John Wayne-ish than the film eventually made him.

Anyway, we'll chalk up this experiment to "I'm glad I watched it, but let's keep this movie in 1982 where it belongs."




Friday, January 6, 2017

Round Table Discussion (and adventure in the Murf)

Just discovered that Signum University (the place that hosts the Mythgard Institute) will be holding a Rogue One and Fantastic Beasts chat this evening at 7pm-9pm. Don't know if I'll participate, but I'll probably check out what they upload to youtube afterward.

Anyway, what makes that event post-worthy is that, on the Friday before Christmas, *M and I made an hazardous excursion to see precisely those two films. The theater's 5 miles away, neither of us drive, so we got a map and made the arduous, hazardous, monster-bedeviled hike. (See how adventurous it was?) Along the way we stopped at The Green Dragon, a Tolkien-themed pub here in town and virtually Murfreesboro's only source of culture -- I've been here for 5 years and never been, entirely because of the distance. Anyway, after a nice lunch, we finished the hike and watched Rogue One and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. (Just to add to the adventure, we snuck in to the latter film.) 

Rogue One is clearly the best Star Wars film since the originals, and Fantastic Beasts is fantastic without qualification. What I admire most about Rowling is how she keeps pressing themes she hasn't covered before -- in this case, child abuse and segregation. 

There's even a heroic Muggle!

Needless to say, however, we were too exhausted at the end of the day to hike back home, so after getting a couple of Christmas turkeys we hailed an Uber. Good day, though.