Friday, December 23, 2016

And the newest issue of Tolkien Studies is out!

My two contributor's copies arrived yesterday, and I'm just tickled pink. As my first major professional publication, I've been waiting for this quite a while -- I finished the article by August 2015, had it accepted by October 2015, and now (sixteen months later) it's finally hit the world.

This is also the first actual copy of Tolkien Studies I've ever owned. Since my library offers free printing, I've just printed out all the essays that I've needed. In fact, I didn't even realize that TS came out as a book (rather than as a journal) until about a year ago.

I haven't had time to do more than skim through things, but I'm pretty excited about a lot of the contributions. And I'm always delighted by the "Year's Work in Tolkien Studies" section, which was perhaps the single most useful thing for my dissertation that I found.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

MTSU makes the Chronicle of Higher Education

Indeed, the title says it all. The article (which is about relations between the town and the Muslim community) may be found here. When I first came to the university in 2011, someone told me about the mosque controversy, and I said, "What, that was here?!?!?" It made national headlines -- a group of locals were protesting the building of a mosque here, claiming that Islam didn't fall under the protection of the first amendment because it was an ideology rather than a religion. I remember hearing about it, but the name of the town never registered -- until I actually started living here.

As an added bonus, the article even quotes from one of my professors.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Reading Mr. Fritz Leiber

One of the fruits of my expedition to Grump's Book Peddlers this past semester is that I managed to get all seven books of Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series for the bargain basement price of 14 bucks. These were the original 1960s Ace paperbacks, by the way, which came with its own surprises -- the 6th book, for example, has a full page ad for Newport cigarettes, which is the most Mad Men thing I can imagine in a fantasy collection.

Anyway, I was clued in to Leiber, not only because he's a pretty major figure who I knew little about, but because my work with Glen Cook this summer made me realize that I don't have a strong grasp of sword and sorcery as a genre -- and it's fair to say that, prior to Tolkien, S&S was the major single outlet for fantasy in the popular market. While I knew the basics of S&S, I hadn't consciously read much in it. What worried me slightly is that I read Jack Vance's A Dying Earth a few months ago and was appalled at how bad it was. It basically encapsulated every stereotype I had about S&S -- sexist, brainless adventure with a host of unpronounceable names and eye-roll-worthy history.

So I was pleasantly surprised by Leiber -- sure, he has all of the above and more, but he has a real skill in weaving together plot and incident, and he comes up with some cool things. I'm not sure if I"ll ever be a fan of Leiber. After all, the sexism is pretty atrocious, and I'm not a fan of picaresque plots; also, I usually like things of more psychological depth. Nonetheless, Leiber does have a fair amount of literary skill, and that impressed me. And for basically a collection of interrelated short stories, Leiber does manage to give his books a pretty fair climax.

For the record, I only read three of the seven -- #3, #5 (my favorite), and #6. Random things of interest:

  • Nehwon is just one world in a multiverse, and the heroes occasionally hang out on earth. (In Book #5, a German riding a two-headed dragon even makes an completely not-relevant-to-the-plot appearances!) That always strikes me as strange; I can't get past the feeling that the earth-world de-privileges events and characters in the other world.
  • Mouser's the clever southerner (and a Loki-figure!), Fafhrd is the brawny northern beserker barbarian (and an Odin-figure!). Keeping those tropes alive!
  • Metaphysics: Nehwon is a giant bubble floating through the ocean of eternity. Strange, captivating image, a little like Pratchett's Discworld in its implausibility, but it does contribute to the sense that you can't quite take Nehwon seriously as a world.
  • Leiber seems relatively multicultural (Fafhrd once dates a female ghoul) and relatively atheistic (certainly irreverent), but the sexism is pretty hardcore. It wouldn't bothered me at all when I was younger, and even now I can live with it, but I shudder to think what some of my less forgiving colleagues might do with it.
  • Leiber certainly populates his work with wonders and marvels -- some of the stuff is quite cool.
At any rate, out of curiosity, I looked to see what the scholarship on Leiber is like. Surprisingly, there isn't much. Perhaps that's a niche to be filled, although I don't quite know if I like Leiber enough to do it myself. Time will tell.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

A look at S. T. Joshi and "Junk Fiction"

I've been seeing the name "S. T. Joshi" everywhere lately, so after doing some scholar stalking, I was impressed by just how energetic and prolific he's been, not only in speculative fiction scholarship, but in a host of other matters as well. The productivity listed on his bio page is amazing. Then I got hooked on a book of his called Junk Fiction: America's Obsession with Bestsellers.*** Intrigued by that theme, I tried ordering it on Amazon, but it's over $60 bucks. I didn't feel like ordering yet another book of interlibrary loan, so I just looked at Googlebooks. Sure enough, parts of it are there. And I was quickly struck by a lingering oddness in his introduction.

So, first thing. Joshi distinguishes between "good elitism" and "bad elitism" (8)**, by which he means that the former category judges books based on their quality whereas the latter category simply dismisses entire swathes of literature because of their nominal genre-affiliation. For my part, I largely agree with this distinction. I certainly bring some hard standards to bear on books, but I have little patience for those who summarily dismiss books based on pre-conceptions (and I have less patience for those who, when they do read those books, do so in light of those pre-conceptions).

But then things get a little thornier, and that brings me to my major question mark. Joshi, of course, is a huge Lovecraft fan, and he spends some time explaining why "literary" writers like Lovecraft, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and so forth felt compelled to publish in the pulps. (Hint: money.) All well and good. But, Joshi then explains his dislike of the paperweight bestsellers through the following:

  1. "What genre fiction, even more than popular fiction of a more 'mainstream' sort, appears to do is to enhance the reader' wish-fulfillment fantasies. . . . I think those frenzied defenders of popular culture would be better off if they ceased to deny that this effect is widely prevalent in popular writing of all sorts" (25).
Basically, when he's castigating books on the bestseller list as sub-literary, he does so on the grounds that they're wish-fulfillment. And this is what makes me pause. No one, I think, would argue that Danielle Steele or Robert Ludlow are sub-literary. Joshi's right on the mark there. But is their fault "wish fulfilment"? It seems hard for a genre admirer like Joshi (and myself) to come out against wish-fulfillment when that's precisely the claim often made against horror, science fiction, fantasy, or weird fiction. To put the matter somewhat facetiously, he's appropriating the arguments of the enemy and wielding them againt a new enemy.

Now, sadly, much of the rest of his book wasn't available on googlebooks, so I couldn't read his analysis of Stephen King, whom I quite like, and who strikes me as quite as good -- if not better -- than Joshi's own beloved Lovecraft. 

So, alas, I'll have to leave my question to the day when I have a full copy of his book on hand.

***Joshi, S. T. Junk Fiction: America's Obsession with Bestsellers. Bordo P, 2009. Web. Googlebooks.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Golden Opportunity Nearly Missed (But Nonetheless Flubbed)

So, after enjoying Stefan Ekman's monograph on fantasy maps, I did a little entirely-normal-and-not-at-all creepy "scholar stalking," Well, I found his CV and saw to my surprise that his most recent publication was in Fafnir: A Nordic Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy Research.

"Huh!" I thought. "That's weird -- I just published a review of Jamie Williamson's book there."

Turns out that I'd been so busy with job applications and finishing my dissertation chapter that I never had the chance to look through the issue properly. Well, I did -- and discovered that, at the end of the journal's title page, was an advertisement for a new co-editor in chief position!

Now, I'm already currently editor in chief for Scientia et Humanitas, MTSU's journal of peer reviewed student research, but I graduate this May and know I'll miss being a part of academic publishing. And working with Fafnir would not only have been good for professionalization reasons, but it would also have allowed me to employ my editorial skills for the academic field in which I actually do research in. Only problem? I saw this advertisement four days after the deadline for applications had passed.

So, keeping my fingers crossed, I e-mailed the guy, and he said that the board hadn't met yet and I could still submit. Counting my lucky stars, then, I did. Alas and alack! We got the decision two days ago and, while apparently I had been shortlisted as one of three finalists, they eventually gave the position to a talented scholar of Bengali science fiction. 

Still, it was nice to have been considered. I'll just have to keep my eye out for further opportunities.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

REVIEW: Stefan Ekman's Here Be Dragons

Just finished Stefan Ekman's Here Be Dragon: Exploring Fantasy Maps and Settings. Without beating around the bush, this is a truly innovative book with an insightful approach, and it took a perspective I'm not instinctively attracted to -- i.e., a non-human-centric ecocritical approach -- and managed to produce some valid insights within popular fantasy literature.***  Indeed, unlike some other recent books on popular fantasy, Ekman's insights didn't make it sound as if he hated fantasy literature -- always a positive! All in all, quite a book book.

(***As a teenager, I loved maps and songs in fantasy novels. Over the maps in particular I would study for hours -- the one I remember being most fascinated by was the map for David Eddings's Belgariad. Now, I tend to skip both the maps and the songs in fantasy songs. Older and wiser? Who's to say?)

Anyway, here's an annotation interspersed with commentary. Enjoy!

Ekman, Stefan. Here Be Dragons: Exploring Fantasy Maps and Settings. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2013. Print.

Rather than argue for a topofocal (or placed-focused) definition of fantasy, Ekman argues for topofocal readings of fantasy (2)—he’s skeptical of “the assumption that characters are more important than setting and people more important than place” (214). Basically working as an ecocritic, someone whose literary analysis focuses on the intersection between literature and the physical environment, his “object of study” here are fantasy text that falls close to LOTR in the fantasy “fuzzy” set. As an ecocritic, Ekman’s also a fan of the “stewardship” theory of LOTR.
The second chapter works with maps-- although I thought the fourth chapter about cities and the "nature-culture" sliding scale most theoretically interesting, I think most readers will find this section about maps the most useful. Ekman distinguishes between
  • maps as paratextual
  • maps as docemes,a clear part of an overall document or documenting process. 

Thinking of fantasy maps as docemes puts a stronger emphasis on the relations between text and map—like the treasure map in Treasure Island or Thror’s map. Ekman thinks “fantasy maps can be fruitfully interpreted as both paratexts and docemes” (22). 

Standard features of fantasy maps: most maps depict a secondary world or part of it, rather than a city (5%) or building or building complexes (2%). Fantasy “maps largely follow the modern convention of placing north at the top” (25) so tend not to reflect alien forms of mapmaking. Unmappable portions on maps, like a circumfluent world-ocean, are relatively uncommon. Only 1/3 of maps in the sample clearly set in northern or southern hemispheres, the former being more common. Very few have anything to say about projection. Common topographical elements include mountains, coastlines, and rivers; less common are distinctions between villages, towns, and cities. Inns and rest stops almost non-existent. Also, much fewer political maps than topographical maps. Intriguingly, the signs used for mountains and hills (hill signs) “offer a useful litmus test in relating the fictional map to maps of actual historical periods” (39); medieval and Renaissance signs tend to dominate, pursuing “a pre-Enlightenment aesthetic” (41).

“Fantasy, especially high fantasy, offers a chance to break with the conventions of the actual world and invent new rules for mapmaking (or return to previous ones), but such inventiveness is actually very rare” (42).

But what makes this section really good is that Ekman produces a pretty good reading of Tolkien's Shire based only on the map of that place -- really, I hadn't ever considered analyzing maps quite like this before. Because the Shire map does not admit the presence of anything outside of it, Ekman says it suggests “the insular mentality of the Shire hobbits” (44). It’s also both a fictional map in a fiction Red Book and an actual doceme in LOTR. Roads also dominate in the map, emphasizing the Shire’s accessibility, and that it’s also a “landscape tamed” (47)—in general, Ekman credits Tolkien for privileging tamed nature over feral nature. “The control of the landscape is particularly apparent in the division of the land into four administrative areas: the north, east, west, and south farthings” (47). Also, by cutting out elements that could be dated (like cut-down trees), “the map’s tense is not just the present, but a constant present” (49). Map features also tend to run to the modern rather than the medieval. Tolkien’s other maps offer different stories, though: “according to the larger map, Middle-earth is a wilder, older place, and the map is much more explicitly made to serve the story” (55).

The following chapters then borrow Lubomir Doležel’s notion of domains, which are things “in which contrary modal conditions reign” (9). Chapter 3 does geographically-divided worlds, Chapter 4 does nature–culture divided worlds, and Chapter 5 does myth–mundanity divisions. I particularly liked the fourth chapter. Ekman looks at cities, human creations that seem to exist -- depending on the author's viewpoint -- on the slide scale between nature and culture. Tolkien emphasizes tame nature over culture as well as feral nature in Minas Tirith. Charle de Lint's Newford has little bubbles of wild nature disrupting the "hegemonic" culture of Newford, whereas China Mieville completely deconstructs the nature-culture binary.

Friday, December 2, 2016

3 1/2 Straussian readings of Tolkien!!!!

A while back I wrote that I've encountered three Leo Strauss-influenced articles on Tolkien. Well, looks like I've found another 1/2 of Strauss-influenced article. The "half" comes due to the fact that the author, Mary Keyes, isn't really a Straussian, at least not in any obvious way. She doesn't use any of the standard terminology (except the phrase "one's own") or ways of framing questions that appear frequently among Straussians, but there's a few half-clues.

  • She was a fellow presenter at the Tolkien and Political Science conference from 2003, where the keynote speaker was clearly a Straussian. (He's one of the people I mention in the link above.) So, some chance that Keyes has at least encountered Strauss.
  • She cites Allan Bloom's translation of The Republic and Harvey Mansfield's and Delba Winthrop's translation of Tocqueville; both Bloom and Mansfield are prominent Straussians.

How is Keyes's article? Well, let's just say that when political scientists delve into literary criticism, us English majors don't have to worry about finding new day jobs. That's not a slight on Keyes but simply a recognition that writing quality literary criticism is actually a pretty tough endeavor. For what it's worth, here's my (slightly edited) annotated of Keyes's article.

Keys, Mary M. “J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Or, There and Back Again: Recovering a Platonic-Aristotelian Politics of Friendship in Liberal Democracy.” Homer Simpson Ponders Politics: Popular Culture as Political Theory. Ed. Joseph J. Foy and Timothy M. Dale. Lexington, KY: U of Kentucky P, 2013. 203-232. Print.

Keys’s basic thesis is the “possibilities and problems of justice and friendship,” maybe even emphasizing the latter in the realm of politics in The Hobbit (203). Unfortunately, Keys falls short on making significant claims. The first half of the essay tries to answer why political science should concern itself with “fairy tales" (see footnote). These aren't actually real problems, imho, but she gets 10 pages out of them, and I suppose they might vaguely be of more interest to potentially skeptical political scientists than to people like me. Still, her responses to these questions overly rely on Tolkien's "On Fairy-stories," which is hardly likely to warm my heart. Tolkien's essay has a lot of virtues and it's certainly a must-read, but I've found it to be virtually useless in helping produce decent lit crit, so there's that. 

The middle section reflects "on Tolkien’s portrayal of property, justice, and friendship in The Hobbit” (204), but this simply amounts to noting where instances of these issues appear in the text—indeed, the hard question is how these broad issues could not appear in any text, given just a little ingenuity. Furthermore, she tends to simply italicize words to indicate that they have a relationship of some sort to political science.

The final section reflects on what the “recovery” of these issues could mean for liberal democracy. This is the section with the most potential -- but only lasts about 2 pages. She quotes Tocqueville to the effect that reading Greek and Latin literature, which is aristocratic in spirit, is healthy for a democracy (225). “Tocqueville likewise contrasts the tendency of aristocratic historians to focus on the roles of individual persons in shaping the course of events, on the one hand, with the common bent of democratic history to gloss over human agency and responsibility and identify the causes of particular events in mass movements, material processes, and sweeping social currents, on the other hand” (225). That's good stuff, and it's just led to me to buy Mansfield's translation of Tocqueville, but Keyes unfortunately doesn't expand on this topic any further. 

Some similarities and differences, though: “Both Tolkien and Tocqueville perceive humanity in terms of its potencies for greatness and for misery; moreover, both share in a fiery passion for human greatness” (226) but Tolkien is more apt to love common people like hobbits.

[1] I.e., it’s children’s literature, it’s about imaginary principalities, it’s a mental and emotional relaxation and escapism, and Tolkien himself seems apolitical.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Reading Lewis's Space Trilogy

 . . . and by "reading" Lewis's Space Trilogy, I mean I sure as heck tried to read his Space trilogy. I got through  1 1/2 of the books. You see, I'd made the conscious decision a few months back to work my way through the Inklings besides Tolkien. My Charles Williams project didn't go very well (except maybe for War in Heaven), so I was hoping to redeem myself with my Lewis project. I've actually read the Narnia series twice. I remember enjoying it during my first stint in grad school, back in 2007 or thereabouts, although I don't recall quite picking up on all the religious elements. They darn well punched me in the face during my second go-around, though. I re-read the series last winter break, and Lewis's didacticism and brazen certainly just got to me. But I get it -- I'm not the target audience.

Well, it was more of the same with his Space trilogy.

I did get through this one in its entirely, and it had some definite selling points. There's the Robinson Crusoe theme of Elwin Ransom being on the planet trying to survive. He meets some strange species, and so on, and so forth. Rather typical sf stuff, actually, but his final confrontation with Weston -- where he tries to "translate" grandiose notions of human space travel into the language of Malacandra -- is a minor comic masterpiece. I also tried to cut Lewis some slack on basic Mars conditions, since he was just using the known science at the time, but the dating certainly doesn't help. Still, the familiarity of the Crusoe theme means that OSP just wasn't that captivating -- although kudos for trying.

Oh gawd. First couple of chapters are intriguing, but the book goes downhill from there. Endless pages of description about anything are never good, and using them to describe an alleged paradise like Perelandra just exasperated me. Worse, the narrative action of the book centers on Ransom trying to refute a Devil-Weston through argumentation. According to wikipedia (which actually finished the book), apparently there's some chasing Weston around the planet stuff and whatnot towards the end, but reading straight-up theology would be more interesting than this thinly-disguised lighter fair. I mean, I appreciated some of  the arguments and questions Lewis tried to tackle, and he certainly made a noble effort in trying to make this sort of thing narratively interesting, but it's a bit like seeing Plato's dialogues performed as actual dramas -- it just doesn't work.

Final opinion on Perelandra: this sums it up.

Anyway, John Rateliff has some interesting comments on the Space Trilogy over on his blog, mostly about the proper reading order (in his view), so I'll link that here. Ironically, he posted that just when I was beginning my Lewis experiment, and it basically convinced me not to even bother trying That Hideous Strength.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016 is full of Rainbows and Puppies

So, meant to post this a month ago, but it slipped my mind. After I published my essay on Saruman, Thrasymachus, and rhetoric, I also posted it to Then I forgot about it.

Well, I opened the site back up in late October, and two messages were awaiting me. One guy -- someone from the London School of Economics, no less -- complimented me on my "beautiful writing," which warms my heart. I certainly try, y'know. Another was from a faculty member in classics and world religions who thought my essay's introduction would be a great way to introduce Gen. Ed. students to standard issues from philosophy and rhetoric.

Pretty awesome.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Grumpy's Book Peddlers

Well, on this happy Gobble Day, I'm where I always am -- Starbucks, working on the dissertation. A few days ago, I helped my friend Sarah get a load of P.G. Wodehouse books she'd put on layaway at a used bookstore called Grumpy's. Apparently, she got quite a deal -- 40 Wodehouse (pronounced "wood-house," I was told quite vehemently ) books in hardcover, at 8 bucks apiece but 20% off.  So, mission happily accomplished.

What made the encounter intriguing, however, was how thoroughly it proved to me that I lived in a red state. The guy had a "Trump" sticker on his front door (this is a business, mind you!) and a "Jesus is Lord" sticker as well. That actually reminded me of another business in town that has had "Obama did not build this" painted prominently on the side of its outside wall. Well, I walked into the bookshop to the sound of Christian talk radio, which is unsurprising enough, but then I saw that Mr. Grumpy himself was doing an open-carry. Ayup -- a big ole' holstered pistol at his left hip. I'm not sure if used bookstore get robbed at a higher rate than liquor stores, but yeah, there it is.

Later, when I told Martina about the open-carry gun, she was mad that I didn't point it out to her when she was in the store. (She's European, you see, and the American love of guns is a source of both horror and fascination.) Apparently she wanted me to nudge and point and snicker like it was rhinoceros or giant turtle caught in a compromising position at the zoo.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Deconstruction running amok!

Came across this facebook post I did about a year ago, well before I began the blog here. It's about one of the deconstructive postcolonial articles*** in the special issue done by Modern Fiction Studies back in 2004 or so. I was amused:

Oh, bother. I'm reading a postcolonial/deconstructive critique of LOTR, and I came across this sentence: "Thus, any critical 'naming' of Tolkien's work that this analysis may arrive at, if such a naming is indeed possible, will be double-voiced, traced with echoes, shadows, and split subjects."

Translation: "Read through the next 20 pages, and I double-dog dare you to find one single assertion in the whole piece. Seriously, just one proposition -- I'll give you a million dollars. If this entire article doesn't waste your life, then I've wasted my time in stringing together all these unrelated words and sentences."


The rest of the article actually turned out decently -- but only because the author didn't hold true to these initial qualifiying statements and actually came out with pretty clear position.

*** For the sake of the morbidly curious, the article is:
Battis, Jes. "Gazing upon Sauron: Hobbits, Elves, and the Queering of the Postcolonial Optic." J.R.R. Tolkien. Spec. issue of Modern Fiction Studies 50.4 (2004): 908-926. Web. Academic Search Premier. 22 May 2015.

Monday, November 14, 2016

REVIEW (Part II): Special Issue of Journal of Tolkien Research 3.3

This is the second part of my review of JTR's special issue on "Authorizing Tolkien" -- the first part can be found here. Not to keep anyone in suspense, but let me say that I really liked what this issue is doing. The following are all high quality articles and, although I have a special place in my heart for the piece by Thumma-Walls, every following piece certainly deserves a perusal.

Reid, Robin A., and Michael D. Elam. “Authorizing Tolkien: Control, Adaptation, and Dissemination of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Works.” Authorizing Tolkien. Spec. issue of Journal of Tolkien Research 3.3 (2016): 1-10. Web.

The editors' introduction. The issue of “adapting” a work, especially when the themes of that adaptation differ from the original author’s, is a highly vexed question. The editors argue that “one needn’t be alarmed by adaptations” (2) because we should see the act of “borrowing as one that has analogies—even if not perfect—in a long view of literary history” (2). The “translation paradigm” of adaptation which posits faithfulness to the original as the highest virtue is inadequate (5). Early work on Tolkien often tried to distinguish between fandom and Serious Literature, and the editors think this a mistake, especially as fans are the most important adapters. I certainly agree.

Young, Helen. “Digital Gaming and Tolkien, 1976-2015.” Authorizing Tolkien. Spec. issue of Journal of Tolkien Research 3.3 (2016): 1-22. Web.

This one's a straight-forward look at gaming in Tolkien. Although post-2000 discussion of digital gaming is common, “[g]aming and Middle-earth have been entangled in since the mid-1970s” (2 [sic]). Like 21st- century game connecting “their products with existing movie franchises,” 20th-century gaming did the same (5). “The Lego digital games and brick sets are illustrative of an overall shift in the franchise towards the family market which was initially marked by LOTR: Aragorn’s Quest (2010)” (14), a move into the children’s and family market which Young thinks “makes commercial sense” (14). Middle-earth was a great setting for these game because “the complexities of Tolkien’s world brought depth and meaning to games that either entirely lacked or had only very rudimentary graphics to help players’ imaginations” (19). Overall, Young's piece is a great example of "I would never write this, but it sure is nice that someone else did" genre of academic work, and it's a valuable reference for anyone interested in this subject

Brown, Adam and Deb Waterhouse-Watson. “Playing with the History of Middle-Earth: Board Games, Transmedia Storytelling, and The Lord of the Rings.” Authorizing Tolkien. Spec. issue of Journal of Tolkien Research 3.3 (2016): 1-32. Web.

Specifically concentrating on board games, these authors note that “a once relatively isolated hobby has become a globalized subculture” (1). Tolkien, the games, and Jackson have all given “rise to complex transmedia processes of narrative construction and gamer identification" (2). The major objects of study here for a“close analysis of the transmedia intertextualities” are two major board games, Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings (2000) and the war strategy game War of the Ring (2000, 2004).

The authors' central claim is that although the new narratives created during the course of game-playing never become canon, they nonetheless "offer different means to engage with aspects of the storyworld, from perspectives often not offered in more ‘conventional’ narrative modes” (25). For example, “[t]ransmedia storytelling facilitates considerably more diverse, flexible, and interactive frameworks within which textual meanings are generated than traditional notions of ‘adaptation’ have typically allowed (3). The major issue in the transmedia experience is how “board games are (pre-)constructed and players are positioned to identify with (or against) the characters within these narratives” (6). I found it interesting that the authors upheld the notion that an "implied reader" or "ideal recipient" is necessary in order to theorize about “gamer identification” (8) -- that's a classic component (and source of critique for) basic reader response theory. Also noteworthy, a significant conflict exists between the game controlling the gamer’s experience and allowing the gamer freedom to do what they like—which often leads to non-canonical things like elves fighting dwarfs. Indeed, the principle of cooperation exemplified by the Fellowship often gets undermined in competitive tabletop games. Knizia, for example, encourages cooperation, but other games do not.

I don’t play such games myself but, again, well-done piece.

Alberto, Maria. “‘The Effort to Translate’: Fan Film Culture and the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien.” Authorizing Tolkien. Spec. issue of Journal of Tolkien Research 3.3 (2016): 1-40. Web.

Alberto takes up the issue of fan-produced films -- and, considering the attitude of the Tolkien Estate towards fan works, I was surprised that there were any fan films. Alberto argues that fan “films are made primarily for the kudos of fannish audiences where commercial films are made primarily to generate cash, or revenue, for parent corporations” (28). That is to say, fan films want the respect of fan community, and they do not have the burdens of making profit or generating revenues—indeed, in order to stay within copyright, they highlight their lack of financial compensation. Fan films are better at direct “translation” of the source texts, meaning that they aim most often for fidelity, whereas commercial films “adapt” films because they must incorporate or delete those elements that could put their bottom lines at risk. (Tellingly, Alberto doesn’t claim that this necessarily makes fan films better, although it does earn her admiration.) “[F]an films are free to pursue the kudos approach of putting Middle-earth on film in a way that commercial films cannot” (8). Alberto specifically discusses the fan films Born of Hope (Kate Madison 2009), Hunt for Gollum (Chris Bouchard 2009), and The Hobbit (TolkienEditor 2015)—which is especially notable by simply paring down Jackson’s film trilogy to a single four-hour film.

One issue that Alberto might have pursued is the recent kerfluffle between Star Trek copyright and Trekkie fan films -- I would have been interested to see how those issues played out with Tolkien fan films. Still, I can't complain -- I certainly learned more than I ever thought I would about fan films!

Saturday, November 12, 2016

REVIEW (Part 1): Special Issue of Journal of Tolkien Research 3.3

Still reeling from the shock and horror of last Tuesday, but academic blogs, as they say, go on. Issue 3.3 of The Journal of Tolkien Research was a special issue dedicated to adaptations (primarily game and popular culture adaptations) of Tolkien's work. I gotta say, I really liked the general concept of the special issue. Although I myself have very little interest in ever writing an article on popular culture, it is still something that can tell us a lot about audiences and how those audiences look at and view Tolkien. It's a very new area of research and maybe might help define the identity of JTR, carving out a critical space that Tolkien Studies seems unlikely to delve into.

Any critical comments I might have are very minor, and they relate to typos and some inconsistent citation.  (JTR's style guide for citation seems both crazy and unhelpful.) But I would like to start this review on what may be one of the best -- if not the best -- article on Tolkien written this year, although with the obvious caveat that the 2016 issue of Tolkien Studies has not come out yet. Because the article is so fantastic, I'll spend a lot of space on it.

Walls-Thumma, Dawn M. “Attainable Vistas: Historical Bias in Tolkien’s Legendarium as a Motive for Transformative Fanworks.” Authorizing Tolkien. Spec. issue of Journal of Tolkien Research 3.3 (2016): 1-61. Web.

One of the important unexplored areas of criticism on Tolkien, I believe, centers on examining Tolkien's use of historiography. My upcoming article in TS looks at this issue, and it looks like Walls-Thumma has had the exact same idea, although she attacks it from a completely different angle. The first half of her essay is the most intellectually stimulating -- DWT looks at the issue of historiography in the published Silmarillion in-depth, ultimately claiming that most of the extant text gets filtered through Pengolodh's perspective. 

The second half is less relevant for my own research interests, but nonetheless well-thought-out and significant. Here, DWT looks at how fan fiction responds to the issue of historical bias. The correlation -- using real honest to goodness empirical evidence! -- isn't as strong as DWT hoped, but it's still there. Perhaps the most surprisingly revelation to me was that 85% of fan fiction is produced and consumed by female fans.

First Half

Walls-Thumma begins by quoting E. H. Carr’s well-known statement that the first question history readers should ask themselves “should not be with the facts it contains but with the historian who write it” (qtd. in 1). What comes next is a systematic analysis of historical bias in Tolkien’s legendarium followed by a discussion of fan fiction, which often attempts to handle this bias. 

For the fans, the big question is the degree to which they’re free to deviate from the published authorized texts, with people taking the range of options from absolute freedom to nearly none. The central question is one of authority, and “Tolkien fan fiction writers differ in the amount of deviation from the source text they are willing to tolerate in a successful Tolkien-based fan fiction” (3), which affects the forums in which they can share their work on-line.

For my money, the best discussion comes about historiography. As in ancient sources, the pseudohistory of The Silmarillion ascribes single causes to events (4), and these “singular causes mimic the approach taken to history by ancient writers and indicate the possibility of historical bias” (4). Her method for detecting bias is as follows:

  • (A) Subjects either lavishly treated or skipped over entirely suggest positive or negative bias, respectively.
  • (B) Descriptions of characters or events that defy credibility, either due to lack of first-hand knowledge or positive/negative emotional coloring. In such cases, “the historian has not achieved the level of objectivity needed to rise above his personal and cultural preferences and is using historiography to manipulate readers’ perceptions of those subjects to better align with his own” (4).
    • (Incidentally, I employ both these methods in my own article on The Silmarillion.)

 In particular, although Alex Lewis argues for the House of Elrond as a source of bias, DWT argues for Pengolodh from Gondolin as offering the primary vantage point. Considering that Tolkien alternately ascribed various texts to Rúmil or Pengolodh, this shows “that Tolkien deliberately considered and assigned which loremaster was most appropriate for each text in his pseudohistory” (6). As a man in a hidden, xenophobic realm, Pengolodh must have come by his sources second-hand, usually through oral tradition. Since he also relied on a relatively autocratic ruler like Turgon, he likely favored Turgon’s points of view — hence, “Turgon’s staunch hatred of the House of Fëanor would have created an intellectual climate that did not exactly encourage looking too sympathetically upon the motives and actions of the Fëanorians,” and it’s doubtful that Pengolodh would have risen high “in Turgon’s esteem for challenging the status quo” (11). 

Thus, also, “Living in an isolated community that was highly partisan on the subject of certain people, Pengolodh was steeped in a worldview that attributed many of the struggles of the First Age to the greed and pride of Feanor and his sons and the downfall of Gondolin to a series of unwise and malicious decisions by Aredhel, Eöl, and Maeglin” (11). We are thus “left to conclude that most of that history was compiled by a loremaster who directly witnessed almost none of it and relied upon sources who corroborated his deep cultural bias” (12).

Next, DWT counts the number of times characters get mentioned by name in the text -- again, a great means of detecting bias in my opinion. She finds that only “one of those top ten slots is held by a member of the House of Fëanor: Fëanor himself” (13). She agrees with Lewis's observation about Fingon's deeds that the “surprisingly small amount of attention [given to him] in the texts” is due to his close affiliation with the House of Feanor. Pengolodh also gives overwhelming attention to “the three hidden realms: Gondolin, Doriath, and Nargothrond” (15) and also Nevrast, which is only surprising until we recall that that is Pengolodh’s birthplace. 

Also, although the text makes clear that the Fëanorians took the most dangerous lands of Beleriand, the ones most likely to be invaded by Melkor, the “[h]idden cities that Pengolodh could not have visited himself earn sumptuous descriptive detail while Fëanorian realms that admitted high levels of traffic go unrepresented” (16). 

“For the sons of Fëanor in particular, the blank space in the text that represents much of their existence in the history of the First Age only serves to throw into relief their malicious deeds at the end of the First Age . . . and nullify their positive contributions to the history of the First Age” (16).

Second Half

Fan fiction, therefore, tends to incorporate significant point of view shifts. DWT looked specifically at Silmarillion-based fan fiction, and then she conducted a survey of Tolkien fan fiction readers (yes, real empirical research!) (1,052 total valid participants). The most astounding discovery, at least for me, was that 88.5% of these readers identified as women. According to the information, few identified “correcting [negative] historical bias” as a motive, but she found a like-motive expressed in the answering of other survey questions. “That three archives—including the two archives between the most Silmarillion-base fan fiction—showed moderate correlations between historical bias and a character’s popularity suggests that, while certainly not a universal for all Tolkien fan fiction writers and communities, historical bias does motivate the creation of fan fiction for many writers” (34).

“David Carr’s exhortation to use historiography to give voice to people marginalized or erased by history is very similar to the use many Tolkien fan fiction writers make of historical bias as an entry point for their stories” (36). Henry “Jenkins’ theories presented fanworks not as an act of trespass but of shifting authority from the author alone to including readers and fans as well” (36). Given the gender composition of fan fic writers, many of these writers tend to be aware of gender bias most of all. “When a male characters garners the favor of the narrator, fan fiction writers tend to lose interest in his character. This is not true of women characters" (40). Overall, “the presence of historical bias in the texts sanctions the shift of authority from the author (and his fallible narrator) to the fan” (41).

All in all, a brilliant essay.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Tolkien and Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha

Recently read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha (1855), mostly for reasons of the (distant) Tolkien connection. Tolkien read it, and liked it, and apparently Longfellow earned some inspiration from the meter -- trochaic tetrameter -- of the Finnish Kalavala. John Garth, after noticing the similarities between the death of Smaug and the death of Megissogwon, already did a nice piece on the connections,** and I don't really hope to add anything major beyond a few observations.

In the Letters, the only reference to Longfellow is indirect -- when Tolkien compared his philology to Lewis Carroll's fascination with math, he makes an interesting remark. With characteristic self-deprecation, he says that "this stuff of mine is really more comparable to Dodgson's amateur photography, and his song of Hiawatha's failure than to Alice" (Letters 22). The poem Tolkien is referring to is Carroll's "Hiawatha's Photographing," a comic little poem that Carroll deliberately modeled after Longfellow' poem. There's no real reason why Hiawatha is the main speaker, though -- perhaps the image just struck Carroll as amusing? Anyway, Tolkien evidently didn't like the poem, and it isn't great poetry, but I thought it was fun, if light.

Anyhow, back to The Song of Hiawatha.

It's actually quite boring -- I read it for several nights in a row just before going to sleep, and it worked like a charm. Things I liked:

  • the trochic tetrameter is quite melodious, as well as the well-placed use of anaphora (beginning consecutive sentences with the same word). It's like reading two hundred pages of a babbling brook.
  • I enjoyed the Native American names much less than Tolkien did (a bit too alien), but I did quite appreciate all the little tidbits of material culture (wampum, deer-skin) and nature (birch, cedar, sandstone, squirrel, rabbit) that Longfellow worked into the poem. 
But here comes the hammer:
  • It's basically a series of loosely-connected legends which, beyond their Native American subject matter, are quite unremarkable. I.e., we get Hiawatha's miraculous birth, his famous deeds, descriptions of his famous friends, the courtship of his wife and her eventual death, and so on. No one scene is all that memorable.
    • By the way, Longfellow did brag that he could give chapter and verse for all these legends, but I couldn't help feeling that this poem was much more American than it was Native American -- as might be expected from a cultural outsider writing about a different culture which he knew only through books and interviews. The poem ends with Hiawatha getting Christianized, for Pete's sake.
    • Likewise, it seems that the criticism that Longfellow cemented the "noble savage" stereotype in the American imagination is pretty sound.
  • No truly memorable lines -- nothing that leaps up as quotable. 
  • Longfellow's interest in psychology is sadly lacking. This is entirely a "plot-only" poem. The major interests here are the legends, the names, nature, and Native American material culture. A number of myths (this is why this is such-and-such) round out the picture. 
  • Oftentimes, Longfellow's use of imagery can be quite abstract. That is, we get generalized meadows and waterfalls, but nothing that suggests from he derives his detail from places he ever visited

All in all, I'm glad I read it, but I'm also glad I'm finished with it. :)

** Summary of Garth's key points. (A) A similarity in the two death scenes. (B) the name Wanōna used by Tolkien in his translation of the Kalavala is similar to Longfellow's name for Hiawatha's mother, Wenonah. Both have similar personal qualities. (C) Loved the strange names in Longfellow, (D) As an undergraduate at Oxford in 1912, there was a play performed called The Death of Minnehaha, who was Hiawatha's wife, so Tolkien probably encountered parts of the poem performed live.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Poor Lost Soul . . .

Currently reading Fantasy, Politics, Postmodernity: Pratchett, Pullman, Mieville and Stories of the Eye by Andrew Rayment.

Smart book, but he's much too heavily enamored -- as might be expected of the title -- of poststructuralist theory. He loves needlessly arcane terminology, even inventing it where none already exists (hence his distinction between Pragmatikos and Allos), and his style has all the weaknessess, obscurities, wordiness, and puns we've come to expect that that style of academic writing.***

And he's absolutely in love with Slavoj Zizek, whom Rayment is clearly imitating. As I'm reading this, I can't help thinking, "You poor fool -- you never had a chance." Zizek should be considered a poor of abuse for undergraduate and graduate students.

***Examples of the style:

  • “Crucial to this notion of opening up is the way in which representation of both the ‘real’-world elements and the domain at one step removed in an in-existent space un-located in historical space or time allows for their transformation, a change that marks the critical edge of these texts” (24). The first half of the sentence is merely wordy, but it becomes a true piece of work once it gets to the hyphenated phrase. Things get even worse when he starts putting pieces of words into parentheses.
  • There is no reason to privilege the way something seems to a were-person over the way it seems to an unawere-person” (119, emphasis original). Groan. Groan. Groan. Groan.

Friday, October 21, 2016

REVIEW: J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and the Birth of Modern Fantasy by Deke Parsons

One probably ought not review a book for which you didn't read past page 45 (and even then only skimmed), but for things like this was the internet made. Still, sometimes the character of a particular book makes itself very clear, very quickly. Judging by the title, Deke Parsons's J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard and the Birth of Modern Fantasy (2015) looks like a fascinating text. The problem starts once you begin reading. The introductory chapter -- a scant 2 pages -- is not an introduction. There's no hint of a thesis. Instead, Parsons gives us . . . well, I don't know. A 2-paragraph biographical statement on Tolkien, Howard, and the creator of Superman, Jerry Siegel, followed by a final "concluding" paragraph. Seven paragraphs total. Outside of all his writers living in the 1930s (and he doesn't even mention the Great Depression until the 7th paragraph), Parsons does not even present transitions or segways when switching from Tolkien, Howard, and Siegel. Transitions, for crying out loud. Those are just a basic principle of competent writing.

I kept on reading, hoping to find a thesis at some point, but alas. The rest of the book seems to follow the same structure as Parsons's introduction -- 2 chapters on Tolkien, 2 chapters on Howard, 1 chapter on Siegel (switching things up there!), and a final 6-page chapter "discussing" their inheritors. The so-called "Conclusion" of the book is literally only a paragraph long and says nothing substantive. Worse, the individual chapters are either biography (no original research, btw) or plot summary, interspersed with the occasional comment or citation.

Given that the title is the only hint of a thesis, let's look at the problems that offers:

  • Parsons actually focuses on three writers, not two, as the title implies.
  • The title mentions the birth of modern fantasy, which sounds promising, but Parsons makes absolutely no case for why he picked these three writers as the birth of modern fantasy but not others. His major seems to be, "These are major writers of the 1930s," fitting Tolkien into that decade because he conceived LOTR during that period. But there's no mention of Wm. Morris or Lord Dunsany, or those critics who locate the origins of fantasy in the 19th-century Romantic movement of the 18th-century theories of the sublime or antiquarianism. He mentions Lin Carter once without noting his contribution to the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series, which might be the real birth of "modern" fantasy.
The book is still too new to have gotten any reviews, but I'll be interested to see what is thought by people who forced themselves to go through the whole thing carefully.

Off the top of my head, this is the second book I remember reading in the Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy series by McFarlane publishers, and it is the second book in that series that has left me feeling distinctly underwhelmed.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Sabermetics and English majoring

I was recently nominated for a departmental award, and part of the application process is a short (<500 word) essay. Given the inanity of the two essay topics, I thought the committee is basically using this as a writing sample. Anyway, since I actually had to put some thought into this, I decided to re-post my response here.

It involves sabermetrics and baseball. Additional, since my hometown team, the Cleveland Indians, just made the World Series, I thought this extra appropriate.

PROMPT: Or, what is the one thing outside of the academic world that you are currently learning? Why? How do you think your experience as an English major has contributed and will contribute to that desire and pursuit?

  Academic life allows little time for hobbies, but perhaps my most important non-academic obsession is baseball. This obsession goes well beyond community league softball or keeping tabs on the playoffs (go Cleveland!). Instead, my passion for the game has led me into the field of sabermetrics. Baseball tends to be the most history-minded of the four major American sports, and statistics play a large part in that historical consciousness. Briefly defined, sabermetrics is the advanced study of sports statistics. For example, sabermetricians have found that traditional baseball stats—batting average, RBIs, pitcher wins, and the like—are actually poor indicators of a player’s individual skill level. New sabermetric stats, however arcane they look to the average fan (especially insofar as they often require complicated formulas), have nevertheless been so successful in analyzing the in-game activities of baseball that all Major League front offices now employ a sabermetrics department. I have found that studying sabermetrics allows me to express the analytical, mathematical side of me that tends to go unused in my academic studies.

Strange as it might seem, my experience as an English major actually goes a long way to increasing my appreciation of sabermetrics. One minor way is the whole “nerds vs. jocks” debate, which no longer appears much in popular culture but which remains alive and well in the world of sports—advocates of traditional stats often display their resentment of new statistics by attributing their creation to “nerds.” Considering that academic work might be considered a “nerd” activity, my familiarity with this baseball debate has exposed me to a range of strong responses. A more important influence from my English studies, however, is the way they have opened me to the possibility of studying baseball in non-traditional ways. Literature is itself an activity that helps people think creatively and outside the standard modes of thinking; it opens one’s worldview to ideas and cultures not otherwise accessible. Sabermetrics initially appealed to me because it seemed like a highly creative way to approach well-worn problems in analyzing baseball. Most mathematicians, after all, assert that math is a highly creative activity, and I was overjoyed to learn how baseball fans were developing new and exciting formulas to explain things happening in the physical world. Indeed, the influence of my academic studies on my love of baseball can be seen via an analogy: sabermetrics is to baseball is what literary theory in the 1980s was to literary criticism. Even if your own literary criticism does not follow one of the newer theoretical approaches, those approaches raise questions and concerns that had otherwise remained hidden. 

Thursday, October 13, 2016

REVIEW: Jamie Williamson's The Evolution of Modern Fantasy

My review of Jamie Williamson's exemplary literary history of fantasy, recent winner of a Mythopoeic Society award, has just been posted on-line by the journal Fafnir: A Nordic Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy Research. Anyone interested can check it out here.

Bob . . . Dylan?

Well, apparently writing literature is no longer a requirement for receiving a Nobel Prize for Literature.

Call me an old-fashioned curmudgeon if you will, but this news about Bob Dylan genuinely surprises. Sure, he's a pop culture / protest icon. Sure, give him a lifetime achievement award at the Grammys. Give him two! But the most prestigious prize for literature?  I've had arguments about this before, but singing/songwriting just doesn't qualify as "literature" (however arbitrarily you define that term) -- it's not even on the same boat. Song lyrics, bereft of their music, just aren't as good line-for-line as lyric poetry . . .  and lyric poetry is itself an inferior art to epic poetry or prose forms of literature. (Yes, William Wordsworth, I'm telling you that you can just go to hell.) No one can really say much of anything important in a few stanzas. And having lyrics bolstered by music makes writing them so much easier. You can get away with comparatively a lot more than with traditional poetry. It's the difference between sculpture and building with Legos. Some pretty amazing things can be done with legos, but sculpture takes a lot more skill.

About the only comparable incident I can recall is Neil Gaiman winning the World Fantasy Award for short story for Sandman #19. Nominating a graphic novel as a short story is kinda of silly (and a disservice to real short stories), but I'd still say that graphic novels and short stories are in the same ballpark. Giving a songwriter a Nobel Prize in Literature doesn't even belong on the same planet.

EDIT: Because I'm getting a lot of flak about this on other forums, let me clarify. In my own personal use, I define "literature" quite broadly -- any priveleging of the written word. This includes poetry (lyric, epic), drama, short stories, novels, and hybrids forms.

Because the words-element of Dylan (i.e,, his lyrics) is so obviously inferior to the best of anything produced in the above genres, there's no way he should have won a Nobel Prize. Of course, Dylan's skill as an artist is not limited to his lyrics on their own -- you can't separate that from his music. But then you get an artform that should no longer fall under the umbrella term of "literature."

Another argument I heard, which is I absolutely agree with: "Song-writing is an extremely financially lucrative artform with a high level of cultural capital, and it's wrong that a singer-songwriter, by winning the Nobel, is taking away the financial compensation and cultural capital of an artform that is much more undervalued by the bulk of society."

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

First round of job apps -- DONE!!!

Well, there it is -- 22 applications done and submitted. As might be expected, I built up steam as I went along, especially once I got all the basic materials written. Also, I picked up the knack of tailoring the cover letters to the institution without re-writing the whole darn thing.

But, all told, I've spent the last two weeks gathering my relevant documents, writing my materials, and filling out the often tedious applications. (Thank god for auto-fill.) I'm so mentally exhausted that I'm actually looking forward to picking up Mr. Dissertation again; actually, going two weeks without working on its makes me quite uneasy and uncomfortable. Now I just have to wait until I start hearing back (or not) from the institutions . . . and feel guilty about all the time-consuming work my poor letter writers have to go through.

Alas and alack, round two of these job applications is just around the corner as well. I've heard that December/January is the big season. So I'll have to do all this again before too long.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

So, um . .. thank goodness for national disasters?

So . . . yeah, my brother. I saw him briefly last December at my wedding but, prior to that, I haven't seen him in a few years. We get along great, though -- we're just awful at keeping in touch.

So I got a surprise phone call this afternoon from Nick of all people. He asks me, "How big is your apartment?" After duly telling him that it's larger than a breadbox, I inquired for the specific reason of his query.

"Well, yeah, you heard about about Hurricane Matthew?"

"Yes, but that's in Florida!"

"Yeah, but go google a weather map. Savannah [Georgia] is going to get hit hard too. My work just closed down, and we got the order to evacuate. So we're looking for somewhere to go."

Hot diggity damn, I told him. To make a long story short, my brother, his fiance, and their two dogs are coming for a visit. See, national disasters are great!

An Itchy Red Pen Finger

Got the page proofs for my essay in Tolkien Studies a few days ago. It took me a bit to figure out how to mark up a pdf (apparently you use Adobe -- I feel like a grown-up!) but, as I got going, I got the lurking suspicion that I'm going to irritate someone at the publishers. Only minor revisions are advisable at the page proofs stage; really, you're supposed to look only for typos. I did find two legitimate typos, and I also cleaned up a few passages where the proofreader disapproved of my original syntax but had made the corrected version much clumsier. I also fixed a number of references -- my original manuscript used the Houghton Mifflin paperback edition of The Silmarillion (second edition), having not realized that the pagination differs from the hardcover edition. The TS editors (bless 'em!) made most of those corrections, but a few of the more obscure references had been missed. So I borrowed a hardcover edition from the library and fixed that.

But that's only a bit over half the changes. For the rest, I slightly modified the wordings of a number of sentences. That's what I suspect may annoy the guy at the publisher responsible for doing the changes. Still, I try to console myself with the knowledge that Tolkien did that sort of thing all the time -- actually, he couldn't help himself, although he always remained conscious of the extra work he was adding to those poor publishers.

Monday, October 3, 2016

And let the bloodbath begin!

And my "bloodbath" I mean the academic job market, of course.

Just went through the MLA Job Information List, creating a spreadsheet for all "possibilities." I have 15 on there, although realistically only about 3-5 of those really seem like a possibility. (I.e., my academic interests are tangential, or the job is located in India, which I suspect the wife might not be too keen on.)

All in all -- not too good, but I knew that going in. I do have the consolation of thinking my c.v. is pretty good for an all-but-dissertation doctoral student. Still, we'll see how things go.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Paul Edwin Zimmer

As a kid, few fantasy book made as much of an impact on me as Paul Edwin Zimmer's two 1983 Dark Border books, The Dark Border and King Chondos's Ride. It was the first series of book that I "got" for the themes it was invoking, rather than just its plot.

I started thinking about Zimmer recently when a trip to the bookstore uncovered A Gathering of Heroes, a clear sword and sorcery novel that I'd heard of but could never find. All Zimmer's works are decades out of print, sadly enough. He seems like one of those writers whose good novels have gotten lost in the bulk of fantasy bestsellers in the 1980s, the fate of many mainstream "literary" novelists

At the very least, I've never seen Zimmer discussed in any literary or academic context. There's no academic work on him (although he himself once wrote an article on Tolkien's verse for Mythlore). He has quite a decent wikipedia page, though, apparently both for his contributions to the Society of Creative Anachronism and because of his more famous sister, Marion Zimmer Bradley.

But the neglect of Zimmer seems sad, especially given how good those two Dark Border books were. (I didn't care for the novel he co-write with his sister, The Survivors, and A Gathering of Heroes seems pretty ho-hum, although I'm only halfway through . His other books are all out-of-print and hard to find, although the miracles of Amazon makes thing easier.) I'm thinking I might like to do something on him -- an article, perhaps. In one sense, an academic is no different from a fan, dedicated to bringing one's pet loves into larger conversations.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Readers beware of Cambridge!

Not feeling like working on the diss, so I just did a few library searches for recent books on fantasy literature. Came across two books from "Cambridge Scholars Publishers." Name rang a bell, so I did a quick google search. No sooner did I type "is Cambridge Schol--" than google auto-filled the query to "is Cambridge Scholars publishers a good publisher".  Guess that answers my question.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Tolkien and Sidney on Rhetoric?

Given that I just published an entire essay on Tolkien and rhetoric in JTR, I was a bit surprised to recently discover an article on just that topic. (Almost) The piece is "Is Tolkien a Renaissance Man?" by Tanya Caroline Wood, an essay in Tolkien and His Literary Resonances, edited by Clark and Timmons. Although admitting that there's no evidence that Tolkien ever read Sidney's Defense of Poesy, she does a hardcore rhetorical comparison between Sidney's essay and Tolkien's "On Fairy-stories." 

Basically, both pieces mix the genres of encomium (which praises and elevates its subject) with the defense (vindicates an accused subject). The rest of the essay simply pinpoints mutual uses of classical rhetorical devices such as refutatio. There's no real "so what?" answer, and the piece never rises above bare comparison, but I was simply intrigued that there have been attempts to link Tolkien to classical (or, in this case, Renaissance) rhetoric, however misguided.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Fiddlesticks and Confound It

So, alas, the panel at the international Kalamazoo conference was full, so my abstract got kicked back for consideration to the General Session. All of which is cool. But then I got an e-mail from the panel organizer asking if I'd be willing to moderate. I said I'd happily moderate the session, but I couldn't give a definitive "yes" until I'd heard back from the General Sessions selection people. He replied, "Oh fiddlesticks, of course I should have thought of that." That tickled me pink.

In other news, the wife and I arrived home yesterday from visiting family in PA. Visiting family is always nice, but I always get twitchy when I go a full day -- much less a week -- without doing substantive academic work. But I'm back in the grind at Starbucks this morning!

Friday, September 16, 2016

N.K. Jemisin

So, given that N.K. Jemisin is the hot new thing in recent years, I decided to give her another chance. I read the first book of her Inheritance trilogy, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and wasn't greatly impressed. It started off new and terrifying, a young woman meeting a god -- and who can trust a god when that god explains about the beginnings of time and reality? But then the novel turned into a straight political narrative involving humans and gods. The gods, who initially seemed terrifying, ended up having motivations and grudges and clear comprehensible motives just like everyone else, and I never bothered to finish the trilogy.

However, I can't say the same about The Fifth Season, the first book in Jemisin's The Broken Earth series. This is book f-a-n-t-a-s-t-i-c. The quality leaps right off the page from the very beginning, which is refreshing since the last few series I've tried and quit had quite pedestrian prose -- workmanlike, usually clear, but somewhat plodding. Her created world is strange and new, something I've seen much more often from science fiction than fantasy. (In fact, although she explicitly calls her novel a fantasy, it could just as easily be called sf and no one would truly know.)

While I'm on the topic of fantasy lit, though, I do feel somewhat guilty for being so bored by Aliette de Bodard's fantasy-mystery book. I called it "relentlessly mediocre" even though I praised its historical research. I should clarify that I meant her prose and her ability to write scenes. With the prose, I kept wanting to cross out (using a red pen) sentence after sentence that was too expository or too "telling, not showing." The scenes tended to lack any emotional depth. But, in literary aesthetic terms, I was impressed by her plotting, which was both intelligent and talented. Servant of the Underworld is a book that would have looked phenomenal in its outline. It's the actual execution that falls short.

Monday, September 12, 2016

It Must Be Abstract!

The title of this post, of course, is a reference to Wallace Stevens's "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction." (Ha, look at me saying "of course" there.)

Yesterday I wrote not one -- not two -- but three abstracts for three different potential pieces. Two will go to conferences, one will go to a special issue being put out by a journal.

I'm half-crossing my fingers that not all of them get accepted. The conferences will be expensive, and I'll probably only get funding for one; as for the journal article, well, I'd have to write the article from scratch, and I am working on a dissertation, after all. For the moment, though, the opportunities do seem too good to pass up.

The conferences, btw, are the big medievalism conference up in Kalamazoo (which has three Tolkien-specific panels), and the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts, which just looks ultra fun.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Odd Coincidences: Aliette de Bodard

So, the discussion forum for the International Association of the Fantastic in the Arts (a mouthful, ain't it?) recently had a discussion of Vietnamese literature and Vietnamese writers. Someone mentioned the French-Vietnamese writer Aliette de Bodard. What makes this so odd is that I'm reading her at this very moment. I had seen that she'd done a fantasy trilogy influenced by the Aztec empire and, since the Aztecs are a special interest of mine and don't get a lot of play in Western literature, I decided to check her out.

Halfway through the book, my judgment is halfway between "surprisingly competent" and "relentlessly mediocre." On one hand, when you hear "fantasy trilogy based on the Aztecs," things can so horrendously wrong, but de Bodard has clearly done her research. The weirdest thing is that she's writing detective fiction -- not epic fantasy -- in the Aztec world (i.e., the actual Aztecs, not just an invented secondary world influenced by Aztec culture). What primarily differentiates de Bodard's fantasy-mystery from a historical-fiction-mystery (like The Name of the Rose) is that magic actually works. Okay, that's fine, but to waste the Aztecs on a mystery novel seems odd. Still, as I said, de Bodard -- besides some quirks like oaths such as "Huitzilopochtli take him!" -- handles her source material decently well, so kudos to her.

On the other hand, she's just not a very good writer. A little too much exposition, the characterization a little too banal. The prose is rather pedestrian (which is forgiveable if the story or the characters were better). This might be my last foray into de Bodard, I think.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Memorial Service for Prof. David Lavery

His memorial service -- a "Celebration of Life" -- was held yesterday morning, as well as a reception afterward. There must have been a few hundred people there -- friends, family, colleagues, students, and so forth. His absence has truly left a big hole.

I only attended the Celebration, as the reception was too far away for the wife and I to walk, but it was very well done. Four colleges, four former and current students, and two family members all spoke. The basic theme not only perfectly described Dr. Lavery, it was something he would have loved to hear about himself: "Relentlessly generous with his time, a great scholar, a great human being." Rhonda Wilcox, the co-founder of Whedon Studies alongside Dr. Lavery, had a story which I thought quintessential Lavery. Some years ago, Lavery had been invited to give the keynote address for the very first Joss Whedon conference, which was being held in England. He could have gone, of course, but he said, "Do you know Rhonda Wilcox? You should give her a try." Not only was that her first ever keynote presentation, it was also the first time she'd ever been to England -- she would never she said, have been able to afford the airfare if the conference hadn't paid that for her. 

So I loved that story. That's who David Lavery was: someone immensely proud of his own accomplishments, but even prouder of all the students and scholars whose careers he could help.

Lavery's daughter, Rachel, ended the Celebration of Life with a clip from Mad Men -- one of the best scenes, in Lavery's opinion, from one of the best shows ever to be produced on television. It's Draper's "carousel" pitch about nostalgia, "the pain of an old wound." It was a powerful ending to a powerful memorial service. The clip may be found below:

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Dr. David Lavery, co-founder of Whedon Studies

Some very sad news to report. My dissertation director, Dr. David Lavery, passed away yesterday morning. The whole English department is in shock. I saw him last just last Thursday, and he seemed in good humor, high energy, and the best of health. He had dozens of projects in the works -- including maybe organizing an academic sub-conference forthe upcoming "Con of Thrones" being held in Nashville next year. The reality of his passing has yet to set in. He was a great colleague and friend, and, while I always knew he had something of a cult following among the graduate students, even I have been surprised by how devastated so many people have been. For my part, I always intensely admired him. He genuinely enjoyed the life of the mind, and he loved popular culture, and he was relentless in helping not only his graduate students but all graduate students succeed.

I remember, about a year before I ever took a class with him, watching him and Dr. Hixon give a publications workshop . . . and he quite literally bragged about his three recent graduate students who just had their dissertations published. Far from putting me off, I loved that. And he always loved to talk about his own work -- again, that never put me off at all. He had a justified pride in all his accomplishments. He'd done over 20 books (written or edited or co-edited), organized tons of conferences, published tons of papers, co-founded the journal Slayage, everything you could imagine. Just a few weeks ago, NPR invited him to talk about Joss Whedon  . .  and, somehow, got Joss Whedon himself to come on the show at the last minute, meaning that Dr. Lavery got the chance to meet his favorite artistic figure. How can you beat that?

And he had so many projects in the works. He's been threatening retirement for years, and then he was going to finish his Wallace Stevens book, his novel, and who knows what else. Even as much as his presence, all that is a great loss for the intellectual world.

He will be missed.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Workers Rights and Academia

Back during my first orientation at my current university, the Dean of the College of Graduate Studies gave us a "pep talk." He gave us the standard "4-year plan" information, but he also said something else interesting -- enraging, actually. "Graduate school is a pretty good deal," he said, "which is why you get the salary you do. If it was any higher, you'd never want to graduate." He said it jokingly, but he was serious, too. He also called our graduate stipend "beer and pizza" money, not something we are meant to live on. (Given that I do 60 hours per week, I assume he wanted us to take out unpayable student loans.) When another friend of mine questioned him on our lack of health care coverage, he brought out that "not supposed to live on your stipend" line.

I started thinking about that moment again after two recent incidents.

First, a friend of mine recently had someone hit&run on her rental car. She had a rental because of a manufacturer's recall on her primary vehicle, but she also couldn't afford the $17 dollar rental insurance, so she went without. Thus she got hit with a $800 bill which her regular insurance wouldn't cover -- an amount, she emphasized, which constituted 72% of her monthly salary. She was understandably both enraged and despairing.

Then I also recently saw a facebook discussion of library fines from some of my old M.A. cohort people. Because of an issue too long to get into, the OSU library would deliver books to its students from a location far from campus. This was fine if you didn't mind waiting a few days for books, but it also created situations where the system said you had books you returned or which they lost or they forgot to check in when they were returned. Whatever the reason, my colleague had been hit with a few hundred dollars worth of fines for "lost" books.

Her fb comment was heart-breaking: "Screw the osu library. Between that and other bullshit undeserved fines they wouldn't waive, pointless research cost me more than just my time and youth. Not that I'm bitter or anything." Heres the thing: it's been nine years, and *A never got her Ph.D. She's never GOING to get her Ph.D. She could never break free of the stress of trying to write the diss, and anyway she has a tenure-track in a community college that doesn't care about research.

Half the people who start a Ph.D. never finish. Of those half that finish, 9 years is the average time to defense. That's across all the academic disciplines And then, in the humanities especially, add the poverty-level wages, only slightly better than adjuncts (who too frequently become eligible for food stamps). All of that in a high-stress, high-workload environment. Sometimes the lack of affordable health-insurance. The vast uncertainty of job prospects in a market that produces -- intentionally -- drastically more ph.d.s than the market warrants.

And that doesn't take into account all the nickel and dime-ing the new corporate university does to its employees (which it refuses to call us, since that we grant us greater legal rights) -- all the extra fees, the strange accounting practices, the extra ways of squeezing more money out of us.

So . . . yeah. Mental breakdowns in graduate school are not that uncommon, so when the dean of CGS talks about what a great life this is -- well, it's galling, I suppose. I just feel for all the people I know suffering through this. Graduate school has been good for me (as in, "fish in water" good), but my experience has been drastically different from many of those I've known.