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.