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.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Problems of Watching Game of Thrones

Okay, so I'm already hooked on Game of Thrones. I knew I would be -- the books are great.

(Actually, funny story: I loathed the first two books, perhaps mostly because the first scene of the first book seemed to encapsulate a hoard of fantasy cliches, but I gave the series another chance when I read a plot summary of the third book -- and the Red Wedding. That was the only time a plot summary could legitimately be called jaw-dropping.)

Anyway, the missus and I are five episodes in, and we've run across a little problem. GoT, as even fans must admit, is a little gory, . . . and Martina just truly dislikes that sort of thing. It doesn't bother me at all, although I hardly consider it a major selling point, but working through this issue is getting tricky. I can't just not watch the series, since I both want to and need to for my field of study, and she doesn't want me watching 60+ hours of anything without her, so she's soldiering through. I do, however, have to put my hand over her eyes every time a gory scene comes up.

I think I can safely say that I never anticipated this problem before getting married. . . .

Friday, August 26, 2016

"It's all hegemony, bro!" and GoT

Walking down campus the other day when I heard this student, evidently some sort of Marxist frat brother, say to another, "It's all hegemony, bro! Everything! This university, everything!" Good gawd, it's day two of classes and I already have to hear about hegemony.

Also, last night, I had the Game of Thrones class I'm sitting in on. My director's teaching it, which is awesome, as is the number of friends I have in there. Now that I've been ABD for a year and a half, I'm getting kinda nostalgic for the classes. But I have to admit that not having to write anything makes the experience even better.

I'm also super pumped to start the HBO series. I've read the books but, obviously due to lack of a tv, have never seen the series. Last time I checked a few years ago, it wasn't available on-line. (I actually contacted HBO customer service to verify that.) Now, though, apparently there's a thing called "HBO Go." I'll give that a try.

Monday, August 22, 2016

First Day of Skool

 . . . is always loveliest.

Okay, okay, I'm neither taking nor teaching any classes this year -- one of the perks of the Writing Fellowship. But I still love the feel of fall and the excitement of first day. After four months of campus being a ghost town, seeing all the students on campus energizes me.

Although I'm not taking or teaching classes, I will be sitting in on my director's Game of Thrones this Thursday. Got a number of friends in it, and it'll be a nice way to stay in touch with the department. It's real easy, otherwise, to feel like you no longer belong.

Interesting tidbit: since Martina worked the admin side of academic, she always hated the beginning of the semester. Can't say I blame her, hearing her stories!

Glen Cook, Fantasy, & End of Summer

Finished the last Black Company book last night. Could have finished it a week ago, but I only had a 100 pages left and I needed a free night where I could savor it. All told, between nine BC books and portions of The Instrumentalities of the Night, I've gone through about 4,000 pages of his fiction this summer. That also includes a few forays into his Garret P.I. books, a series of hardboiled detective fiction set in a fantasyland. I don't really care for the hardboiled-ness (although they have the typical Cook flavor), so I didn't actually finish any of them.

My article on Instrumentalities should be ready shortly. I read somewhere that one should not submit anything in the first two or last two weeks of a semester, so I'll hold off until mid-September to send that off. Fingers crossed.

Cook, though, really is an unacknowledged master. The other day, I read an old New York Review of Science Fiction article by Steven Erickson, who writes in a similar mode of Gritty Fantasy as Cook. He was complaining, after reading through The Cambridge Companion of Fantasy, that fantasy scholars almost entirely ignore epic fantasy writers -- who are, really, the big names in the genre. I realized that he was absolutely right. Nearly every book I read on fantasy ignores the contemporary genre guys. Jamie Williamson stops at the "bestseller" people in the 1980s; even here, he lumps Stephen R. Donaldson into the very same category as the first book of Terry Brooks (who has seen grown as a writer since his blatant rip-off, The Sword of Shannara). Helen Young explicitly deals with popular fantasy but, as her topic is whiteness, of course she has never good to say about it. So, in a way, I think fantasy scholarship really does these writers a disservice.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Race and Popular Fantasy Literature (Helen Young)

So, I'm a few chapters in Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness, a recent book by Helen Young. It just came out, and I've been looking forward to it. Still not sure what I think of it -- Whiteness Studies as a field is not up my alley, but Young certainly seems to be handling her material relatively well.

Two things, though:

1. Eccentric and excessive capitalization. Skin colors such as White are consistently capitalized, as are the genres (Fantasy, Science Fiction, etc), but "eurocentric" is not. The latter sort of typographical cutesy-ness strikes me as more annoying than politically edgy. But the excessive capitalization gets on my nerves even more. If I'd wanted to read German, I'd actually bother learning German.

2. This may be the WORST proofread book I've ever read. Seriously, on nearly EVERY page there is a comma splice, a grammatical mistake, strange spacing, something. This book is from Routledge, for crying out loud. They should be ashamed.

Monday, August 15, 2016

More on Barkley's SRD Book . . .

Though it kills me to say so, since Prof. Barkley must have worked extremely hard on this book, this monograph is getting to be a train wreck. Combined with the highly questionable assertions, the chapters themselves are loose and unfocused. They usually begin via a comparison with some great modernist work (Proust, Hemingway, Joyce, etc), which I actually like. But then the tone seems to be, "Donaldson is talking on these same things, and he's doing it better." Barkley continually brings in references to popular and high culture, as well as current political events, trying to situate SRD in the "modern" (i.e., late 20th- and 21st-century context), but the discussions grow increasingly shallow. Really, there's only so much "timeless truths" types of commentary that one can stand. Worse, I found myself unable to find very many quotable or paraphrase-able ideas from any of her chapters.

Anyway, I took a little look-see through the bibliography.** It's shockingly short -- just a page and a half. In fact, if you discount the primary texts, and a handful of citations to other works of literature (Matthew Arnold, Keats, Yeats, etc.), there's almost no secondary scholarship cited. Although Barkley's preface clearly acknowledges the existence of other SRD scholarship, she cites none of it except W. A. Senior's quite good Variations on a Fantasy Tradition

And the citations she does include are . . . odd. She cites Gross and Levitt's Higher Superstition, a book that influenced Alan Sookal famous hoax, but not itself a work of literary criticism. She cites Roger Sale's 1968 essay on Tolkien but no other Tolkien scholarship. The bibliography also, perplexingly, fails to cite several sources cited both in-text and in the notes. 

What really piqued my interest, however, is that Barkley's introduction heavily relies (over-relies, actually) on some guy named Jeffrey Hart. Never heard of him -- although one of his big ideas, as related by Barkley, is the "Athens vs. Jerusalem" dichotomy. That made me go, "Huh! That's one of Leo Strauss's major themes!" 

Then Barkley quotes Hart quoting Paul A. Cantor, one of the few Strauss-influenced literary critics that I know of. (Actually, Barkley misspells his name "Canter," which is annoying.) That Cantor reference really got me going. Barkley doesn't pick up on this, but after googling Hart's work, I realized that hart IS a Straussian and that, therefore, Barkley's entire introduction is actually based on Straussian ideas! Barkley completely doesn't do anything with this, and her book hasn't created the impression that she is capable of doing anything with that (or many other philosophically minded ideas), but this just goes to show you: Strauss appears in the un-likeliest places.

** Okay, I admit it -- I wanted to know if she cited my essay on SRD. Not that she had to. The basic idea was simple and the writing bad -- after all, it came out of my undergrad thesis, but I was lucky enough to have an extremely generous thesis director who just happened to be co-editing a book on political science fiction.

Ouch -- just got the book on SRD

Michael D. C. Drout, my all-time favorite Tolkien scholar, once made a remark in one of his essays that a common reason articles get from Tolkien Studies is that they simply treat Tolkien as too perfect and infallible. That's something which makes a lot of sense to me -- the collateral damage of studying a major author is that you now know all the mean/rotten things that can be said about him or her. (I once took a class from a Hemingway scholar who told us not to worry about offending him if we hated Hemingway, since the prof  had already heard it all and could probably even help us out with mean things we hadn't even thought of yet.) Well, I think Christine Barkley's Stephen R. Donaldson and the Modern Epic Vision might be running afoul of some of those same problems of excessive praise Got the book this afternoon -- just 1/10th of the way through, and the book's still in the "Rah, rah, greatest author of all time" mode. Even worse, her clear passion for SRD is leading her into highly questionable assertions in nearly every paragraph.

To give a sense of what I mean, here's the first lines from her introduction:

"Stephen R. Donalson, in his 'Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever' series, stands at the pinnacle of 3,000 years of the best thought in Western civilization, poised to help modern literature out of its paralysis and back into purpose and meaning in the twenty-first century" (5).

Keep in mind, that's the first sentence in her introduction. A giant, broad, sweeping generalization about Western thought which culminates in SRD, who single-handedly is helping "modern literature" (another sweeping generalization) to recover purpose and meaning. Oh lawdy. I mean, I love SRD and all, but . . . . well.

Here's another:

"The willingness on our part to move away from a society based entirely on religion to one that embraces science and its resultant technological improvements is, in part, the cause of our economic success when compared to the rest of the world, especially those areas of the world still mired in either/or thinking" (7). 

Really now. HAVE we really actually moved away from a society based entirely on religion? That's a misstatement on the modern and the medieval periods both. And is she claiming that Africa's economic situation is the result of either/or thinking instead of, for example, a history of colonialism? And some of the most economically advanced countries of eastern Asia are heavily Taoist and Buddhist, which have beaten SRD to the punch of rejecting either/or thinking by a couple thousand years.

"Modern philosophy illustrated the power of changing a whole people's world view when Marx influenced our view of 'society' by lessening the importance of the individual and magnifying the supremacy of group dynamics" (15).

Well, the first modern philosopher is considered Descartes, not Marx, and Descartes is best known for introducing the subjective turn in philosophy -- which paves the way for modern individualism. And while Marx's importance cannot be overstated, his main field is economics -- and the 19th-century came up with a whole lot of other social sciences, few of which were directly influenced by Marx. Plus, why the hell is the world "society" is scare quotes?

I ordered this book really hoping to like it, since SRD really is a fantastic writer, but I'm no longer holding out much hope for this.


Other notes:

  • CB has a very author-centric approach. "This is what the author means, and that's what's important."
  • Correspondingly, a heavy reliance on SRD's Epic Fantasy in the Modern World, a short essay he wrote that basically outlines his authorial manifesto.
  • Also too easily accept's SRD's "eye of the paradox" idea, which CB often glosses as and/or types of thinking rather than either/or rationalistic types of thinking.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Snarkiest Style Sheet I've Ever Read

The honor for snarkiest style sheet would have to go to Philosophy and Literature. Their style sheet contains the following advice to authors:

"Many authors with whom the editors deal appear not to understand that Philosophy and Literature does not have house copy-editors whose sole job is to carry out mechanical or stylistic copy-editing of manuscripts. Where a manuscript is sloppily prepared, it is either the editors themselves or the author who must make it right. We urge authors to cooperate in careful manuscript preparation. It is frankly unfair to expect the editors to do the work of authors, and it will very likely result in delaying the appearance of a manuscript."

What astounds me is that a good, peer-reviewed journal like P&L still has to specifically tell potential contributors this. It reminds me of what I have to tell my students.

It gets better, though! After telling authors how much they hate automated footnoting in submissions, the editors say this: "Regretfully, we cannot publish articles that require us to extract notes from the text, disentangle them from some automated numbering system, and place them in the right order at the end of the article. The author — or the author’s secretary, spouse, manservant, or graduate-student slave — must get those notes into the form of normal text at the end of the article."

These editors also prove that they're after my own heart with their attitudes to jargon:

"And finally, jargon. The natural home for jargon is the natural sciences, where the need for technical language is undisputed. The farther we move into soft sciences and the humanities, the more does a reliance on jargon become a matter of trying to attain prestige by using big words."

Friday, August 12, 2016

And the REAL method by which knowledge grows is . . .

. . .  pissing around on the internet, obviously.

A few weeks back, I noticed that the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, the organization which publishes the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, has had a discussion listserv up for a few years. I only noticed it because that's where they post their calls for reviewers. Well, apparently the IAFA listserv is a veritable treasure trove of various other things as well, including CFPs for various book projects. Seems like there's a few every month or so, and it makes me wish I knew way more topics and had way more time.

And I also learned that, if I just "like" most of the scholarly journals that have facebook pages, you get tons of stuff that way as well.  The IAFA facebook just posted a CFP for Octavia Butler, which is here. I've only read Kindred, but I'm struck by what a good opportunity things such as this are.

A lot of times, even though grad students are immersed in academic life, the whole academic territory beyond taking classes and reading books and articles is much vaster than one might think. I learned about the two book project I've submitted to via such things: one via an academic twitter account, the other via an academic blog.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

New Book on Stephen R. Donaldson!!!

Definition of a nerd-out: you get excited that someone has written a new monograph on Stephen R. Donaldson.

The book is Stephen R. Donaldson and the Modern Epic Vision by Christine Barkley, from McFarland's Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy series of books. Alongside W. A. Senior's Stephen R. Donaldson, that makes this the second monograph on SRD that I know of. I remember Barkley from my senior thesis research on Donaldson, and, from what I can gather, took advantage of retirement to finally flesh out a long love of hers. I can't say how much this tickles me -- possibly because I love SRD, partly because it was just a nice surprise. I'm immediately ordering it from interlibrary loan!

Also, from the publisher's blurb, I think I'm going to like some of the chapter titles: "Ur-lord of the (white gold) ring," "Portrait of the artist as a young leper," "Remembrance of some things past."

David G. Hartwell

I learned recently that anthologist and editor David G. Hartwell passed away recently. I didn't know much of his work, although apparently he did a ton of things -- including founding the New York Times Review of Science Fiction.

The way I know him is through a book he edited co-edited with Kathryn Cramer in 1994 -- a collection of short stories called Masterpieces of Fantasy and Wonder. It was a beautiful green, leather-bound volume originally purchased from Walden Books at the local mall. This was highschool for me and, although I'd been reading fantasy for ages, I got this particular book because of that gorgeous cover. My love of the short story form begins there: Masterpieces first introduced me to Harlan Ellison, Graham Greene, William Morris, Patricia McKillip, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and a number of others. Now that I think of it, Masterpieces is the reason I first started writing short stories in the first pieces. (Prior to that I was trying to write a novel, since novels were all that I had been reading.)

Sadly, I lent that anthology to someone years ago and never got it back. I just might order, though.