Monday, August 14, 2017

First Day of Orientation at the U of A!!!

Actually, this was an optional meeting, but I wanted to acclimatize myself to the university as quickly as possible. The department textbooks advocates a genre-based, rather than a process-based, approach to writing, so that's a bit out of my comfort zone & I needed as much info as possible before composing my syllabus.  Anyway, a few observations:

  • 95% of the people there were GTAs -- only 5 new lecturers. Should have expected that, I suppose, but I didn't.
    • Speaking of the GTAs, they're quite the young pups. Given that my doctoral program had a slight higher average age for incoming grad students, I'd forgotten what 23 / 24 year old grad students looked like!
  • People are really friendly. I'm really going to enjoy here, I think. (But I already knew that!)
  • Much of the pedagogical and rhetorical information on which this writing program is based is familiar to me from MTSU's teacher training. So, while they're'll be a learning curve, it's going to go pretty quickly.
  • We have a nicely laid out, institution-wide attendance policy and late-work policy. I love when things are nicely laid out like that -- saves so much stress in case there's ever a grade challenge. (I've never had one, but it's a worry that comes with the job.)
  • Strangely enough, based on absences, faculty actually have the ability to drop students from their courses. It's a matter of managing enrollment, but I've never heard of something like that. There's a lot of wiggle room, too -- we may drop students based on attendance. Given that ambiguity, I'll be trying to avoid using this option as much as possible, except in cases of otherwise certain failure of the student.
I have another optional orientation meeting tomorrow, then the big mandatory one on Wednesday. Looking forward to both!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Tolkien and the 1954 Nomination of E. M. Forster for the Nobel Prize

Now that I've received the official word, I'm pleased to announce the appearance in the fall of Mythlore of my essay, "J.R.R. Tolkien and the 1954 Nomination of E. M. Forster for the Nobel Prize in Literature." 

As you can probably tell from the title, my theme is that mysterious case of why Tolkien would have nominated Forster -- whom we never knew he admired -- for literature's highest prize. To my knowledge, only two scholars have even discussed that situation at any length, both bloggers: Jason Fisher here and John D. Rateliff here.

Basically, I have two contentions. The first revolves around possible literary reasons for Tolkien's nomination. Verlyn Flieger has previously posited that Tolkien could have been influenced by Howards End, but I'm placing my money on A Passage to India. Although postcolonial issues did not occupy much attention in Tolkien's own writings, he certainly knew about such things himself (having been born in S. Africa), making him aware if nothing else of what colonialism did to subjects and rulers alike. He has a telling passage in one of his letters where he describes the English as quickly losing their "generous" sentiments when they reside in the colonies for any length of time, and that's basically a plot summary of A Passage to India. The second major factor, though, is Forster's awareness of the tension between the universal and the particular --i.e., a universal citizen with no overwhelming allegiance to any one country, and the citizen of one particular to the exclusion of other countries. Tolkien, like Forster, sympathized with the universal perspective.

I think my second contention, however, is even cooler. 

Basically, Tolkien didn't make his Nobel nomination in isolation. Two Oxford colleagues, F.P. Wilson and Lord David Cecil, joined him in nominating Forster. Analyzing the Nobel website suggests it was one nomination letter signed by all three individuals, so the question is, why did they collaborate on this? 

My hypothesis is that they were helping C.S. Lewis get elected to a professorship up in Cambridge, which was also happening in early 1954. Tolkien and Wilson, incidentally, were both electors for that chair, and we know that chair was being created specially for Lewis. I think their nomination of Forster, one of Cambridge's most prized writers, could have been a bargaining chip to help smooth the creation of that chair.*** Unfortunately, there's no hard evidence for my hypothesis, but I think I make a compelling case out of what information we do possess.

So, look for details of that in the next issue of Mythlore.

*** The title of my piece, incidentally, hits a slightly different angle from the one my wife wanted me to adopt: "Inklings Scandal Uncovered(!): The Old Boys' Network in Action."

Monday, August 7, 2017

A Memorial Post for a Valiant Backpack!

Backpacks and shoes live a hard life when they hook up with me. I'm murder on them, walking on average 30 miles a week and always carrying 20-40 pounds of stuff. Alas, it's time to retire my current faithful backpack with a commemorative post. He was originally a Christmas present from Martina seven years ago. Despite a lifetime guarantee, he's pretty beat up and close to falling apart, and it's time to find a new stuff-holding companion as I embark on my journey to Arizona. He's been quite a few places with me, including London & Barcelona & Paris & Prague, as well as all throughout my doctoral program, and he's held my stuff pretty much everyday since I got him. Old backpack, I salute you!!

Friday, August 4, 2017

Mary Shelley & The Last Man

The 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is coming up. In preparation for an article I'm hoping to write, I've been reading up on her. My main target thus far is her other science fiction novel, the apocalyptic The Last Man (1828). It's . . . . well, it's not that good. Part I describes the narrator's friends, clearly based on Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, plus all their tedious love affairs and marriages. That's to be expected from a novel from that period, I suppose. Part II describes some politics stuff, plus the beginnings of a vast plague. Part III is where the plague finally wipes everyone out.

Where the novel does well is:
  1. Nice portraits of Shelley and Byron. Unfortunately, that doesn't help The Last Man succeed as a novel.
  2. The trepidation of the plague as it begins to sweep over the world. Powerful sense of doom, only slightly ruined by the excessive verbiage in which Shelley likes to say things.
    1. On a related point, it was nice to see Shelley discussing, even if only briefly, Asia, North and South American, and even Africa. A couple times she notes with compassion the downfall of the Aztecs and the Incas. All that shows much more world-consciousness than I've come to expect from fiction of that period.
The flaws, though, are pretty numerous:
  • Ridiculous levels of showing, not telling. Stuff like, "I couldn't do full justice to the impassioned speech Raymond gave Parliament, so I'll just say it was magnificent and describe what happens as a result." So, so annoying -- and a missed opportunity by Shelley.
  • Lack of political drama. Don't get me wrong, tons of political events happen in this novel. It's just that, in line with the "showing not telling" strategy, they're all relegated to the background, a mere backdrop for the personalities of Adrian and Raymond and their love affairs, which are really the main narrative focus of the novel. Raymond's accomplishments, for example, make him a world-historical figure if ever there was one, but the world he affects is presented as so subordinate (in terms of interest) to his personal idiosyncrasies that Shelley simply wastes an opportunity for creating a gripping political novel of the first order. The downfall of aristocracy, after all, shouldn't be relegated to a footnote aimed at showing what a great guy Adrian (based on Percy Shelley) was.
  • Narrative structure. The Last Man is simply someone writing his memoirs -- Lionel Verney basically applies a 1st-person omniscient perspective. That's only a technical flaw, but it's worth noting because of the complicated framing device for Frankenstein.
The science fiction in the novel is also pretty bare.  The future has air travel by balloon, but otherwise Shelley simply takes early 19th-century England and extrapolates it unchanged into the late 21st-century. The future setting gives her greater scope for politics and, of course, the plague, but as mentioned the world Shelley creates takes a distant, distant backseat to the personalities of Raymond, Adrian, and all the endless page-filling love affairs.

Throughout it all, too, is the vague sense that you never quite know why events are happening as they are. Stuff just happens; there's nothing the characters are trying to accomplish from chapter to chapter. Hence there's a major sense of drift as you move along through The Last Man. Clearly, Shelley expects her character portraits and her intense imagery to sustain narrative interest, but that just doesn't quite work for me.  But one thing I thought rather poignant -- in fact, it's striking me pretty intensely just how deeply Mary Shelley was in love with her husband & how much his death traumatized her. It's really heart-breaking, and we can see that, for her as she was writing this novel, she was perfectly well sustained by her personal interest in the characters she was portraying. For example, this final passage, nominally from the "last man" left alive on earth, applies just as much to Mary Shelley herself:
“At first I thought only to speak of plague, of death, and last, of desertion; but I lingered fondly on my early years, and recorded with sacred zeal the virtues of my companions. They have been with me during the fulfillment of my task. I have brought it to an end—I lift my eyes from my paper—again they are lost to me. Again I feel that I am alone” (III.10 339).
Damn. Poor woman.

Anyway. All in all, I'm glad I read The Last Man, but I'm just as glad that I'm done reading it.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Middle Tennessee State U. -- An Appreciation

With my big move to the U of A in Tucson just over a week away, the MTSU nostalgia's starting to hit me pretty hard. It's odd -- I don't get particularly attached to places, and I don't have much "school spirit" for any of the institutions I've attended, at least with the exception of Lycoming College, where I spent three semesters immediately after high school. Still, I've been reminiscing how fortunate I've been in the opportunities given me by MTSU's doctoral program, and how little confidence I had in that program when I first arrived.

When I was applying to graduate programs in late 2011, I found MTSU entirely by accident -- unsure of where to go for a program that emphasized fantasy and science fiction, I browsed The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts looking for professors, and I found one that taught at MTSU, which I had never heard of before. Looking through their faculty page, I saw several professors had similar interests to me, so I instantly dubbed it my backup school. The knock against MTSU was that it had virtually no academic reputation, mostly because, as I later learned, its doctoral program had been in existence less than a decade. A couple other things also raised my suspicions. It had a cheap applications fee, which is awesome but also reeks of desperation,*** and it didn't even require a writing sample from prospectives PhDs. That was a red flag if anything else. Still, I applied anyway. At that time in my life, even a bad doctoral program was better than none, and that quickly turned out to be the right decision -- I lost my job at a bookstore when it shut down a few months later.

Five years later, I realize how many opportunities MTSU has really provided. So, the following list will be a list of awesome things it does. I'll leave off my great good fortune in finding David Lavery, my dissertation director, since that's not something any institution can plan for. (I.e., you can bring in famous and well-published faculty, but finding someone talented at helping his/her students succeed is more a shot in the dark.)

So, here are the program-specific things that, in my view, really helped build my academic skills and c.v.:

  • Rigorous and up-do-date pedagogical training.

  • One interview question I got this year was, "Who are the composition theorists who've influenced you?" The only reason I had an answer to that question was because of MTSU's mandatory course in rhet/comp theory. Sure, I grumbled when I took that class -- oh, how I grumbled, if only silently. Still, job ad after job ad asked about your pedagogical training, and that course helped me tailor my cover letters appropriately.

    The training went well beyond that one course, though. As beginning GTAs, we worked a full year in the writing center, and I learned what a wonderful thing writing centers actually are. Then, depending on good evaluations and so forth, we got to teach several different courses: two freshman composition courses, ENGL 1010 and 1020, and our sophomore-level Introduction of Literature course. Not many programs permit its graduate students to teach literature, but we got that extra experience. 

  • Dissertation Writing Fellowship

  • A full year's of funding for doing nothing but write one's dissertation is, needless to say, vastly important. These are competitive, so not all our grad students get one, and many schools offer something similar, but this fellowship was absolutely huge for enabling me to develop my ideas without distraction. And it also allowed me the leisure to publish a few peer-reviewed articles, which vastly increased my odds on the job market.

  • Scientia et Humanitas

  • Now, I dare say that very, very few other schools have something like Scientia et HumanitasScientia's awesome for two reasons. First, it gives graduate and undergraduate students a valuable introduction to academic writing and the peer review process. Second, for the staff members, it radically hones their academic skills. I served Scientia in every capacity possible, including editor in chief, and it did more for my writing and my critical evaluation than any course or set of courses I ever took in my graduate career.

  • Departmental Awards

  • One way to make your c.v. stand out among other recent doctoral graduates is to have awards and other marks of distinction. MTSU's program offered several: teaching awards, tutoring awards, writing awards, and merit awards. I was a bit shocked at how few of my peers actively sought out these things, but that betters my chances, I suppose. These awards also permitted us to earn more money directly for our academic writing than we probably ever would for rest of our careers!

  • Service Opportunities

  • An under appreciated aspect of c.v.-building. MTSU stressed this (in direct contrast to my MA institution), so I added several lines to my c.v. that way.

  • Conferences

  • I never went to a conference as a MA student because they terrified me (and my only interest was in studying anyway). And my first conference was only during my first semester at MTSU, meaning that I got accepted before I realized how much my program actually pushed them. On one hand, they liked to emphasize conferences because raises student professionalism without costing the department anything (funding is acquired through the College of Graduate Studies). On the other hand, though, their encouragement motivated to attend way more conferences than I otherwise would have. So, kudos to them for that.

Now, as something else that goes without saying, just because a doctoral program offers certain opportunities, that doesn't mean that all its students know about them, care about them, or have either the motivation or the talent to take advantage of them. Personally, I think I managed to squeeze the absolute maximum usefulness out of my program. There's a few other things I could have taken advantage of, but there's only so much time in the day, and I tried to be constantly proactive about my career. And there were several things that I just picked up on my own -- writing reviews, for instance, or joining professional societies.  But, as I reflect over the last five years, I realize that things could not have turned out much better than they did.


***Several years later, I learned that MTSU has a really high acceptance rate. Although we have rejected applications to our MA and doctoral programs in the past, we receive a very low number of applications in general, which means that some years there's a legitimate worry that we might have more assistantships to give than applicants to give them to.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Tolkien Journals Do It Better

The peer review process is infamously slow. Everyone knows the familiar slog: you poor blood, sweat, and tears into writing an article, send it off to a journal, and 4-6 months later (sometimes more!) you hear a response. In theory, there's no reason the process needs to take so long -- it's only a couple hours of work for the reviewer, maybe more if the submission's worth the effort. But peer review is a thing where very busy academics are doing volunteer labor that, in the grand scheme of things, does very little to advance their careers. Reviewing articles is a service to the field, but it's ridiculously easy to put one off when you're teaching, grading, writing, researching, serving on committees, attending conferences, and all the other hosts of things you must do as an academic.

Hence, you can only imagine how impressed I am with the speed with which I've gotten peer reviews from the various Tolkien journals. Thus far, I've offered submissions to Tolkien Studies, The Journal of Tolkien Research, and Mythlore. The response time? In order: 6 weeks, 2 weeks, and 3 weeks. Even the longest of those wait times, six weeks, is a breakneck pace in the tortoise-paced world of academia. I'm probably just getting lucky with this, but still, in the past I've waited four months for a response from other places. I've heard other journals taking upwards to a year to respond, although I've fortunately not encountered that myself.

All of which goes to show: Tolkienists do it better!

Saturday, July 22, 2017

My Productivity Record for Aug. 2016 to Aug. 2017

It sure would make sense to do these productivity reports for a calendar year, but the August-August timeline -- basically the academic year -- works just fine too, I suppose. In my previous yearly productivity report, I managed 63,000 words of writing, most of it publishable, and I expressed hopes that my upcoming year on a Writing Fellowship would see that output rise. I didn't quite make that, primarily because of job applications and the massive revisions my dissertation underwent during February and March, which meant that I couldn't accomplish any new work. But even if I wasn't quite convinced about the necessity of those revisions, at least the beast is done, and life's going good.

So, the output:

  • Essay on narrative theory and world construction in The Hobbit (under review) -- 6,000 words
  • Essay on J.R.R. Tolkien and why he nominated E.M. Forster for the 1954 Nobel Prize (forthcoming) -- 9,000 words
  • Essay on Glen Cook's Instrumentalities of the Night series (revise & resubmit) -- 7,000 words
  • Dissertation chapter 4 -- 20,000 words. (Yes, it was a long chapter!)
  • Dissertation introduction -- 11,000 words
  • Four book reviews
    • One on Fimi and Higgins (eds), A Secret Vice, 1500 words
    • One on Edmund Gordon's The Invention of Angela Carter, 1500 words
    • One on Jad Smith's Alfred Bester, 1500 words
    • One on Jamie Williamson's The Evolution of Modern Fantasy -- 1,000 words.
  • One conference paper on Glen Cook, 1500 words
Sum total: 60,000 words. 

Other big time sucks (besides the major last-minute revisions to my dissertation) included editing Scientia et Humanitas and -- oh god -- those god-awful job applications, which constitute a full-time job in themselves. 

One item worthy of note: I managed to write all my dissertation chapters within the single calendar year of 2016. Of course, February and March of 2017 saw me rewriting quite a bit of that, but since I liked my original versions slightly better, I think I can legitimately say that I wrote my dissertation in a single year.

Anyway, now that I'm about to teach full-time, next year's productivity report won't be as glitzy, but I'll keep chugging along anyway. 

The Travails of Traveling

Well, more like "The Travails of Moving," but then that wouldn't alliterate, would it? :)

So, I've done several big moves in my life, and while it's always stressful, I'm generally someone who travels light. No furniture, no big ticket items, just a couple (dozen) boxes of books which I usually sent via USPS and that's it. Marriage, though, has a way of helping you accumulate a whole lotta stuff, so our upcoming move to Arizona is proving trickier than any of my other previous ones.**

The challenge now is that, just yesterday, we nearly almost hired a scam moving company called Region Relocations. Thankfully, my ever diligent wife  Martina, the faithful checker of on-line reviews, checked out them out and saw loads of awful ratings. When I asked their customer rep about them, he hemmed and hawed and finally said, "Well, trust more than Yelp." So I said, "Okay, I'll check that out and call you back." Lo and behold, while they were definitely licensed and had valid insurance (as required by law), about 5 of the red flags listed for problematic movers applied to Region Relocations.

Incidentally, when I got off the phone with the rep, telling him that I'd call him back after checking the government website, he sounded VERY dejected -- like, Eeyore-levels dejected. That's red flag #6, if you're keeping track at home.

On the bright side, we got amazingly cheap plane tickets to Tucson. Apparently nobody is willing to fly to the desert during the hottest month of the year, the wusses.

** And that's saying something. When I moved from Athens, OH to Murfreesboro, TN five years ago, I couldn't move there directly because I spend the two months between the move in England visiting the then-fiancĂ©e. So I had to box everything up, sent half of it to Pennsylvania to reside with the grandparents, and asked a friend to store the other half and send it to me when I finally moved to the Murf. I got pretty lucky that worked out (and pretty lucky I had such a good friend!). I also arrived in the Murf a week before I could move into my apartment, but that's another story.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Joining the Legions of the Gainfully Employed

Okay. So, last Friday was a day of major ups and downs for me. I'll start off with the good news. I've been waiting until I got my official contract before I announced it, but . . . . I GOT A JOB!!!!!  It's a full-time lecturer position at . . . get this . . . the University of friggin' Arizona. I couldn't be more stoked to be joining a state flagship research institution. It's the ideal place for someone like me to land, and the wife and I have been googling the area, the city of Tucson, and the university like crazy since we got confirmation. My initial schedule is also awesome -- four classes, all MWF, and from 12 noon to 4 pm. 

What makes this job even sweeter is that, a month ago, I believed that I had completely struck out on this year's job market -- a whopping 0-90. UA put their job ad up on June 20th (cuz they hadn't had their budget finalized yet, as I later found out), and my interview a few weeks later went really well. The rigorous GTA training program from my doctoral institution really helps. 

Now, we're busily planning how to move cross-country in about 2 weeks time. Making the whole situation even more nail-biting is that our lease is up at the end of this month -- we hadn't been able to make ANY future plans until the whole job situation was settled. As it is, because of arcane leasing rules, we'll have to rent out our apartment 1-month past the lease (for August) while we're also paying rent for the place in Arizona. No help for it, though -- just one of the casualties of taking a cross-country academic job one month prior to the semester.

Last Friday, though, also had some bad news. My grandfather, James Wilson, passed away. He was the best man I ever knew, and he and my grandmother are the only reasons I was able to attend graduate school. I flew up to PA on Sunday, had the viewing Monday, and the funeral today. Both my brother and I offered eulogies. My great regret is that I couldn't tell him the good news I'd learned just that morning. He will be greatly missed.

Those crazy leftist professors and their Nobel-winning economists

So, yeah, the Wall Street Journal is crazy, but this article caught my eye. The gist is that not all "radical leftists" (aka, college professors) are "crazy." The reference is to center-left criticisms of a Duke professor touting a conspiracy theory about a Nobel-prize winning economist James Buchanan. At least the article writer makes it sound like a conspiracy theory -- this could simply be a normal academic discussion about a particular work, which strikes me as much more likely than a so-called conspiracy theory.

Anyway, what's especially interesting about this is James Buchanan. I've heard the name, but only because he's one of my graduate university's most favored sons -- he got his undergrad from Middle Tennessee State, and we have a nifty plaque of him on-campus. (It's about 1/50th the size of the status of the football coach for our completely unknown football program, though!)

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Cringe-worthy Academic Movie Reviews

So, I recently signed up to do an academic review of a Okja (2017), a film directed by South Korean director Joon-ho Bong, for Science Fiction Film & Television.  You know -- just as one of those things to be productive. Anyway, film's not exactly my wheelhouse, and I've never really seen academic reviews of films before, so I printed off some sample reviews from SFF&T

In the half dozen I sampled, I discovered two things:

A) unlike a blog or website review for a film, I'm going to have to try hard to be smart here. Which is to say, some of the reviews were damn good, so I'll have to stay on my toes to achieve that level of quality.

B) two of the sample reviews, however, waded into the area of "cringe-worthy." Well-written, but slanted to the point of unbelievability.

The first was of the film Ex Machina, which I loved.


Anyway, Ex Machina. The guy did a feminist review of the film, and his major contention is that the super likeable male protagonist, who is left to starve to death by the female robot with whom he fell in love, completely deserved to die that slow lingering death because . . . well, cuz patriarchy. Otherwise an insightful review, but that takeaway just left me shaking my head.

The other one, about Joss Whedon's The Avengers, was even rougher. I don't think I could summarize it with any justice, but the basic gist was that it allowed all its white male protagonists to silence and marginalize the major female and minority characters. That's certainly a possible against-the-grain interpretation of the film partially justified by certain scenes, but it's still a darn good movie at the end of the day with a lot of virtues that get ignored. To view it as fundamentally repressive or regressive is to view it through an excessively narrow ideological or critical lens.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Oh boy, Mickey Spillane

The tropes of hard-boiled detective, and particularly hard-boiled prose, have been so relentlessly parodied that it comes as a shock to see them in non-ironic contexts. I had a few Mickey Spillane books lying around and, although I almost never read detective fiction, I've been meaning to try him out because:

(A)  He was massively popular in his day, and I like to keep  my snobbishness at bay, and
(B) Ayn Rand, of all people, absolutely loved him.

Anyway, I'm only three chapters into a very short book, and it's already a struggle. The detective's name is Mike Hammer (HAMMER, for crying out loud) and he's so bitter, cynical, and sneering that I absolutely detest him already. But the prose, the prose! If you believe in gems of atrociousness, then I submit to you the following:

  • "Two drunks with a nickel between them were arguing over what to play on the juke box until a tomato in a dress that was too tight a year ago pushed the key that started off something noisy and hot" (5). This is the very first page of the book, mind you.
  • "[The picture] was a big shot of Marsha in a pre-Civil War dress that came up six inches above her waist before nature took over" (33). I can't be sure until I do some historical, OED-level research, but I think Mike Hammer may be talking about boobs.
  • "I let my hat drop and it stayed on the floor. My hands ran up her arms until my fingers were digging into her shoulders and I drew her in close. She was all woman, every bit of her. Her body was taut, her . . "  Well, I'll trail off here -- there could be children reading this. Suffice to say that "nature took over" very shortly thereafter. But seriously, she was all woman?!?!?!?!?

Spillane, Mickey. The Big Kill. New York: Signet, 1951.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Angel Carter gives me my come-uppance

Originally, I had wanted to title this entry "'Bums aloft!" (and other reasons not to read Angela Carter)," but, unfortunately, I'm afraid I'll have to eat goat on this one. The culprit is The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography by Edmund Gordon, a book for which I'm currently doing a review. Alas and alack, greater knowledge of Carter has led to a greater personal appreciation for her, forcing me to revise my earlier cutting opinions. This is why you shouldn't read stuff. I often tell me students, "If a little learning is a dangerous thing, think of how dangerous a lot of learning is -- and I don't want that on my conscience." In this case, however, it's too late for me.

Anyway, here's why I didn't like Carter -- as varied as her writing is (and I never denied the talent), I just loathe most postmodern books. Things like Kurt Vonnegut and Tim O'Brien are exceptions, but I really, really, really dislike that excessively self-conscious, metafictional, wink-wink-look-at-me-subverting-reading-norms type of fiction. The Crying of Lot 49 is a canonical culprit, as is Delilo's White Noise, but so is Carter's Nights at the Circus. On the opening page of that novel, in fact, Carter has a paragraph describing the winged protagonist, Fevvers, being lifted up into the air for an acrobatics act -- hence the "bums aloft" line.*** 

Now, I perfectly understand why some people go gaga over that kind of writing, but it just irritates the heck out of me. The subsequent narrative coyness doesn't help -- the constant suggests that you can't trust the narrator, that what you're reading isn't how things really are, etc. All of it's quite clever, but as a reader I need something more. Rather than being an organic part of the fiction, such as in the case of Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, such unreliability and metafictional cuteness just seems like mockery, making fun of the reader for wanting to enjoy a good book. Although the rest of Carter's writing often strikes a different tone, it's her sense of overly precious literariness that makes me want to throw her fiction across the room.

Sadly, though, after reading Gordon's biography, I found myself really liking Angela Carter as a person. Some of the random cool things about her:

  • She's really funny. Her letters to friends are sprinkled with gems such as the following: “I get a lot of stuff asking me to subscribe to anti-pornography groups, and others asking me to subscribe to pro-pornography groups, but very little actual pornography” (400).
  • She loves to exaggerate. Given my own sense of humor, I'm on-board with this.
  • She's not nearly as pretentious as I expected from her writing
  • She couldn't ride a bike or drive a car. Same here. Phew on you, late modernity!
  • She married a guy 15 years younger. My wife did the same -- although the current French president has us all beat.

In short, at the end of the book, I really wanted Angela Carter to be my friend. I'm never going to have any affection for her writing, but I think much better of it than I did before I finished Gordon's fantastic biography.

Gordon, Edmund. The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2016. Print.

*** Also, all that "Leda and the Swan" imagery. Fevvers combines the two because, see, she's a bird woman! But the actual myth is quite horrific -- as indicated by Yeats's poem of the same name. Of course, Carter is never one to shy away from a theme just because of a little bestiality, but it did put me off. For the sake of fairness, though, Carter also uses the Leda myth allusion in The Magic Toyshop, and I found that more effective and horrifying.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Reminiscences on the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter

So, twenty years ago yesterday, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was published. I've seen a few retrospectives of people dealing with their relationship to the series (one here and another here), so I thought I'd add mine. I have to warn you -- this is a True Believer as well as a Convert speaking. Back during my undergraduate days, I had sniffed haughtily at all the Pottermania surrounding me. In fact, I nearly punched the first person who ever called me a muggle: 

"What's a muggle, dear friend of mine whom I'd never punch under normal circumstances?" 

"You're a muggle."

Highbrow literary elitist that I imagined myself to be, I refused to read either children's books or popular books. That all changed during the fall of 2007 -- I remember because that's the year Cleveland came within two outs of reaching the World Series. Anyway, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows had just been published that summer and, while up in Kent for a friend's wedding, I browsed randomly through the Kent State bookstore and got two books just for giggles: Bill Reading's The University in Ruins and (you guessed it) J.K. Rowling's HP and the Sorcerer's Stone. This was nothing more than interesting side reading for me; I did a lot of side reading back then to stave off grad school burnout.

Well, the book stayed on my shelves a few months. That September, I read it over the course of a single afternoon. I remember thinking, "What a fun little book" -- clearly designed for younger readers, but fast-paced, inventive, and Rowling showed a clear talent for handling a narrative. The following weekend, I spent another pleasant afternoon reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Again, fun little book, if not anything exactly earth-shattering. The heroes were sufficiently charming, the villains sufficiently dastardly, and so forth.

Then, the next weekend, I read Harry Potter and the Prince of Azkaban.

I'm not sure when exactly I realized that I held the makings of a masterpiece in my hands, but it was definitely sometime during this book. It may have been near the end, just as Harry was realizing who had sent the stag Patronus against the Dementors. For the life of me, I could not remember the last time I had seen a writer bring together so many different plot threads so powerfully, so masterfully, in such a short time. And that was not even the end of my admiration; the denouement where Dumbledore explains things to Harry worked just as well as the culmination of the actual action. To weave a narrative that long without once letting it get away from you, to never strike a single wrong note when creating scenes back-to-back-to-back like that, all that takes an immense amount of craft. That's when Rowling hooked me.

Over the next two weeks or so, I basically put my Masters program on hold as I finished the series. I read Deathly Hallows in just one day -- from dawn to dusk, basically. I was no spring chicken, either -- I was 27 years old at the time, so none of that "you're too old to appreciate the books" argument for me. But let me tell you -- and I'll bench press the punk who makes fun of me for this -- but I still turn into an ole' blubber-face every time I even read a reference to Snape's "After all this time? / Always" scene.

That may be why, to this day, I grow immensely irritated when I hear someone explain -- however reasonably -- their dissatisfaction with the HP books. This is certainly a peculiar reaction for me, as no other book I admire causes that sort of reaction (not even the book I wrote my dissertation on!). But there it is. I'm just a HP partisan.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Life and Death of a Satellite & the Two Cultures

Recently been skimming through The Life and Death of a Satellite, a 1966 non-fiction work by Alfred Bester trying to popularize our space program. Bester's best known, of course, for being one of the giants of science fiction, but he dipped his oar into quite a few different waters. This particular book is really a "biography" of the OSO (Orbiting Solar Observatory) satellite, a project which was running concurrently in NASA with the manned spaceflight program. Two things lept out at me:

  1. Bester respects the Manned Spaceflight program, but in terms of science he considers it relatively useless -- it's where the public imagination is, but it's not very productive of genuine scientific knowledge.
  2. He takes his own swipes at the "Two Cultures" debate, C. P. Snow's famous notion that the sciences and the humanities lack any meaningful interaction between them. Bester has a "foot in each camp," as he says, and he reports that "it's the members of the humanities alone who are creating the hostility with fossil attitudes" (219).
Coming in the mid-1960s, I found his interest in defending the sciences pretty interesting. As late as the early 1900s, the humanities carried an much higher prestige than the sciences -- for example, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, very nearly didn't become a scientist at all (and throughout his life he felt comfortable quoting Dante and the Bhagavad Gita). By mid-century, people like Bester felt compelled to make a case for the sciences. 

Nowadays, of course, it's the humanities that are on the defensive. All the funding and the nifty new buildings go to scientists, and the public wonders what the heck we do. I remember a few years back when the Dean of Graduate Studies gave a short introductory speech to one of our English graduate research symposiums, and he -- a nuclear physicist, mind you -- admitted that he got into his field for the money and that, furthermore, he "had no idea what you guys actually do." He stayed for a few of our papers, which was extremely nice of him, but it didn't bestow a great deal of confidence about the university's general esteem for literary studies.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Job Market Woes: Rock and a Hard Place

Well, I'm officially 0 for 90 on this year's job market. I did have a few nibbles: a part-time lecturer position in PA, an nearby adjunct position, and a full-time position in Texas. Losing out on the Texas position was particularly hard -- spent three days of travel at my own expense for that interview. I can understand not being selected, but I'm disappointed they denied giving me a rationale after my explicit request for one. Their response was (and this is an almost exact paraphrase), "Our shortlisted candidates were highly impressive, and our committee faced a very difficult decision" -- a virtual masterpiece in non-information. Basically, such a statement can be interpreted in one of three ways:

  1. Sorry, pal, we can't be bothered to come up with a rationale.
  2. You lost the coin flip.
  3. You were nice, but unfortunately you weren't the internal candidate we already had in mind.

It kills me, though, that I passed up that lecturer position. True, Pennsylvania's a long way to move for a 1-year part-time position, and it was too early in the hiring season to commit to that. Still, it's more money than I made as a grad student, provided actual health insurance (which I've never had), and it would have given me more time to publish. Not to mention staving off homelessness for an additional year. 

But I'm really concerned about that adjuncting position. They offered it to me three days before I heard back from the Texas school; I asked them if they would mind me holding off confirmation until I heard back from that interview, and they said sure. Well, Texas didn't want me, so I e-mailed them back with my acceptance. That was a week ago, but I haven't heard back . . . and now I'm worried (adjuncting already being a tenuous proposition) that I lost out on that as well.

Depressing and depressing-er.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Marthon Final Proofreading Session for Scientia

Last night, Hillary Y. and I had one final 5-hour marathon proofreading session for Scientia et Humanitas. Since we had our "proofreading party" almost 6 weeks ago, I've been disappointing that we couldn't get Issue 7 out sooner. Alas, delays happen. Our marathon session last night, however, which was the first time I could personally delve into our InDesign software, went a long way to clearing up some of the lingering typesetting and proofreading issues we've been having. Hopefully we'll be able to go to press later this week, and I can completely call it quits on my MTSU career!

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Schizophrenic Short Story Reading

Returned home late last night. After 10 days of travel and nearly 3,000 miles, half by plane and half by bus, I can safely say that I'm exhausted. Nonetheless, these travel trips weren't the black hole of productivity that they normally are. I'm usually too motion sick to read in moving vehicles but, for whatever reason, I managed okay this time. Maybe I finally learned that I can survive if my books are (a) fiction, (b) relatively easy-to-read, and (c) good. My reading input -- about 1700 pages in total -- looked like this:
  • John O'Hara, The O'Hara Generation (22 short stories over his career)
  • Angela Carter, Fireworks and The Bloody Chambers (two short story collections)
  • Alfred Bester, The Star My Destination and The Demolished Man
  • Jim Butcher, Storm Front (book 1 of the Dresden Files)
  • Philip Roth, The Ghost Writer
The schizophrenic short story reading comes from O'Hara, Carter, and Bester. (Yes, yes, I know Bester's two books are technically novels, but older sf novels usually feel like short stories to me, maybe because the way they handle characterization and scene composition is often done in the highly abbreviated fashion of the best pulp short stories.)

What's interesting about these three writers -- and I hadn't thought of this until I'd gone through them -- is that, as short stories, they're all as different as different can be.

O'Hara: perfect example of literary realism. Simple plots. Finely nuanced psychological portraits constituting nearly the story's entire interest. Highly readable style. A strong concern with a regional group's (in this case, Eastern Pennsylvania) middle- and upper-classes.

Carter: postmodernist through the seams. Outrageous, over-the-top style. Highly symbolic and allusive. So "literary" that it's inaccessible to nearly everyone except English majors.

Bester: classic science fiction at its best. Great plots. Endless invention, both in terms of technology, new societies, and social groups. Rife with far-reaching ideas.

I may have liked the O'Hara best. Unlike Bester, he doesn't have far ranging ideas (or any ideas, really), but he has an extraordinary attention to detail and he creates wonderful character portraits. O'Hara is the one I successfully read over 32 hours of bus trip. After O'Hara comes Bester. His stuff's just really cool, and if there's a knock against him, it's that highly abbreviated short story style -- you get the feeling (as I do with many early sf novels) is that he's cutting corners to keep his novel under 60,000 words. That makes getting "in" to his novels pretty difficult. But for getting the reader to think outside the box of their own narrow experience, Bester is light years ahead of O'Hara.

But Angela Carter . . . alas, ye postmodernists! Carter's postmodernist foibles aggravate me to no end -- that wild prose, the pretentious symbolism, the alleged subversiveness of so-called shocking themes like sexual fetishes. Except for a few individual short stories like "The Bloody Chamber" (which I thought magnificent), most of her stories just made me roll my eyes and skim. Strangely enough, whereas O'Hara is nearly all dialogue, dialogue is very nearly absent in Carter. Also, when I felt clever after "getting" the symbolism behind her stories, I grew annoyed with myself because, when Carter' stories succeed, they do so largely because of that feeling of back-patting a reader gets when they realize they're smart enough to understand an Angela Carter story.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Travel Woes

Tomorrow's going to be a rough, rough day. We leave at 11:30 am for the airport, and we should touchdown in Nashville at 6:30 pm. That'll be fine, but I'll then head immediately for the Greyhound station. At 10 pm I'll embark on a 16-hour bus trip to Texas. At least I'll have one night to wash up and rest before the interview on Thursday.

On the plus die, I managed to read four (short) books during my week here in PA. I actually had to buy more books, since I didn't have enough for my trip to Texas. Efficiency, dear sirs, efficiency.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Busy, busy upcoming week

I flew up to Pennsylvania on Wednesday, half to see my family and half for my 20-year high school reunion. The reunion was last night; it was nice seeing everyone but also awkward, as anyone who's ever attended these things probably knows. I was extremely anti-social back then, so I don't quite have the experiences useful for making a reunion a memorable experience. As nice and mature as everyone is now, it's hard to come up with small talk after the standard "what have you been up to?" questions. The wife and I ended up leaving after a couple of hours. Glad I went, though.

Anyway, that's not where the busy week comes in. We're flying back to Nashville on Tuesday . . . and, Tuesday evening, I'll be taking a Greyhound to east Texas where I have a job interview. (The wife will head home directly.) So, I won't even have time to go home before I immediately start traveling again. It's a 32-hour round trip for a 1-hour interview, but this job looks like a pretty good fit for me, so the long trip is worth the risk, I hope. 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Patricia A. McKillip

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Garth Nix and the Abhorsen trilogy

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

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

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

A few notes:

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

Saturday, May 6, 2017

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

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

Anyway, pictures:

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

Another one:

Thursday, May 4, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Proofreading Party

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

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

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Roger C. Schlobin

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

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

Friday, April 21, 2017

Reading sf versus reading literary realism

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Tolkien and . . . Igor Stravinsky?

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

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

My First Peer Review Solicitation!

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

Saturday, April 8, 2017

C. S. Lewis's Poetry

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

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

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

Friday, April 7, 2017

ProQuest is a Scam

One of the institutional requirements for getting our degree here, as with most institutions of higher learning, is to submit our dissertations/theses through ProQuest. Nominally, this spreads our work so that others may read it. In practice, it's just another method by which graduate labor is often exploited.  Specifically, ProQuest does this:
  1. It sells access to dissertations/theses that it gets for free (often the fruits of years of hard labor by graduate students)
  2. It wants a fee of $95 dollars if you want your dissertation listed as "open access." Incidentally, the only argument against embargo or suppression of a diss/thesis is the alleged ideal of the free exchange of ideas.
  3. The option for embargo is deliberately confusing and deceptive. In fact, I wouldn't have been able to do it successfully if our helpful CGS staff member hadn't told me exactly what to watch out for.
  4. After selling access to your dissertation, ProQuest then offers to "protect" your work by securing a copyright for you -- for $55 dollars.
  5. As if all that wasn't enough, it then allows you to order copies of your dissertation or thesis. . . . basically selling you your own work for around $40 - $50 dollars a copy.

I put an embargo on my own dissertation because a small but growing number of publishers are considering ProQuest a form of prior publication. This is understandable; in an era of decreasing public money for libraries, libraries are increasingly unlikely to buy expensive academic books if they can get substantially the same content as part of their ProQuest subscription. Even if I didn't have such clear academic publication goals in mind, though, I probably would have embargo'd my work out of pure Yankee cussedness.

Friday, March 31, 2017

ICFA in Orlando, 2017

I meant to post this about this a few days ago, but academic work swamped me. Last Tuesday, I returned from a wonderful 6-day trip to the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts (ICFA). Two days were spent in travel, 3 in intense conferencing, and a final day was spent in Disney World -- our way of celebrating my dissertation defense. The conference itself was amazing. Highlights:

  • tons of free sf and fantasy books
  • a host of back issues from JFA
  • saw someone, completely unexpectedly, someone I had gone to my first undergrad college with -- way back in 1998.
  • heard a lot of fantastic papers. My favorites were both on one panel: G.P. Canavan proposed a new typology of fantasy texts, and Matthew Oliver wrote on 1st-person epic fantasy, which deserved kudos for mentioning Glen Cook
  • the panel I moderated on Robert E. Howard was a rousing success with a fantastic discussion afterward. Howard's got some major fans out there. My anecdote about reading Howard for the first time just as I was told I would be moderating the session was a big hit.
  • My own paper reading went quite well, although sadly only two people besides my wife heard it.
All in all, this was easily the most fun conference I've ever attended. Now, I just have to resubmit all my reimbursement paperwork to CGS (groan).

Sometimes half of life . . .

. . . is simply showing up, as they say.

Today marked the poster presentations for Scholars Week 2017 here at MTSU. My own poster (based off my dissertation, of course) managed to snag 2nd place. That's not quite the accomplishment it sounds, however -- there were only two graduate students from the Liberal Arts presenting, so I was simultaneously the 2nd best and absolute worst in my category. Still, the prize money remains quite hefty, setting me ever closer to my ultimate goal of acquiring Bill Gates-like wealth through academic labor. And it looks good for our English department, always a nice goal.

Monday, March 20, 2017

In Memoriam: Okla Elliot

I have sad news to report. A fella I knew from my MA program at Ohio State, Okla Elliot, passed away two night ago. That he was in his mid-30s is tragic enough, but he was also one of the most energetic intellectuals and academics I've ever known. Although he was around my age, here's a list of his accomplishments:

  • Ph.D. in Holocaust and Legal Studies
  • co-author (w/ Raul Clement) of a science fiction novel The Doors You Mark are Your Own
  • Published a book of short fiction called From the Crooked Timber
  • Published a book of poetry called The Cartographer's Ink
  • Published a translation of a book of poems by German author Jurgen Becker
  • Author of a well-received book on Bernie Sanders; Bernie Sanders: The Essential Guide
  • Just finished another book on Pope Francis: Pope Francis: The Essential Guide
  • Co-edited an on-line magazine, As It Ought To Be, to which I once submitted a short article
  • Published a host of poems in various prestigious literary magazines, plus tons of reviews of books. And he also wrote opinion pieces.
  • Oh, and he was also working on a second doctorate in theology, having recently become a Catholic after life-long atheism.
I knew him only slightly from OSU and, although I  kept up to date on his facebook books, I had only interacted with him only a few times after graduation. Nonetheless, he was someone I admired, and he'll be missed. Had he had lived a few more decades, he could have become a major figure of American letters.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Dissertation Defense: 3-17-2017

Passed, one dissertation defense: "Rage and Recognition in Middle-earth: The Political Conflict Between Ancient and Modern in J.R.R. Tolkien."

Much gratitude for all of those who came -- about 10 people besides my committee, faculty members and friends -- it meant a lot that so many people showed up.

All that's left is some tweaks and fixing up the formatting, then this puppy goes to the MTSU College of Graduate Studies!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A look at the Zaleski's THE FELLOWSHIP: Literary Lives of the Inklings

Biographies and I have a vexed relationship. On one hand, they're probably the most accessible types of scholarly writing out there. On the other hand, if you're already decently conversant in the subject of the biography, the ratio of "new facts" to "time invested" starts sinking rapidly. Thus, while I'd been hearing about The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Phillip and Carol Zaleski for a while, I've deliberately avoided it. I already know Tolkien pretty well, and the other Inklings aren't that vital to my research. (Plus, my brand of lit crit doesn't rate biography very highly, although I won't ignore it.)

Anyway, I picked it up, and it's pretty good -- well-written with lively prose and story-telling. I'd been worried at first after seeing some snide remarks in a few on-line commentaries, but the book is generally impressive. All the Zaleskis' other books have to do with spiritual matters, and they even dedicated their book to Stratford Caldecott, a very prolific Christian writer (who once, incidentally, did a book on Tolkien, which I own). As such, the Zaleskis have a very Christian-centric interpretation of the Inklings, which might seem like an obvious angle to take, but a lot of the good criticism -- on Tolkien, anyway -- tends to be less interested in that aspect of their thought, thus making this book a good corrective.

Structurally, it's organized chronologically, so that multiple Inklings appear in every chapter, which gives a strong sense of the Inklings as a group evolving over decades. I'd quibble with some of their interpretations of various works (like I said, they hit the Christian angle hard, which means they sometimes exclude other possible interpretations) and I detected a few misstatements, but nothing that really ruined the book for me. Their writing is peppered with gems, and here's one I particularly liked:

  • “One could imagine Dorothy Sayers as an Inkling, but Joy [Davidman] would have never passed muster: her sex, nationality, ethnicity, and impending divorce (finalized on August 5, 1954) made her a walking catalogue of disqualifications” (429).

Incidentally, I looked up several reviews on The Literary Lives of the Inklings. Most were positive, but I thought the following typical in that it dismisses the Inklings because their intellectual concerns do not match the reviewer's own. Granted, I'm rather far from sharing many of their viewpoints, but such disagreements are hardly grounds for dismissing them entirely.

Here's the review. Elizabeth Hand writes in an article for the Los Angeles Times:

  • "Still, in our own multicultural landscape, it's difficult to muster much enthusiasm for the Inklings' countless heated arguments on Catholicism versus Anglicanism or the critical head-butting with F.R. Leavis. Their scholarly machismo made it possible for Lewis to do a very public volte-face from heartfelt atheism back to Christianity but never entertain the thought of a female Inkling."
Now that's just depressing.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Syllabus for 20th-century Fantasy Literature

So,  yesterday, I was complaining about the endless hours consumed on bureaucratic tasks that, at best, have marginal value -- i.e., the creation of upper-division syllabi in the hopes that some search committee might, maybe, possibly think slightly better of your application.** Anyway, against my better judgment, I really got into the whole syllabus-creation thing . . . and I ended up creating another syllabus for a 15-week course in modern fantasy literature.

Now, what kind of books should go on such a thing? Well, I'll exclude the 19th-century people (Dunsany, Morris), although I'd probably include them in a more comprehensive survey-level course. I'd have to have a smattering of sword and sorcery texts, given its influence, plus a sampling of the relevant Inklings. After that, I'd have to go with the various responses to Tolkien's influence. Overall, though, I want to avoid the massive tomes that generally mark post-Tolkien fantasy -- there's only so much you can cover in 15 weeks, and I can't justify spending 3 weeks having them read Game of Thrones or The Wheel of Time

Here's what I came up with:
  1. Howard, Robert E. The Essential Conan. Ed. Karl Edward Wagner. 1998.
  2. Anderson, Poul. The Broken Sword. 1954.
  3. Lewis, C. S. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. 1950.
  4. Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. 1937.
  5. Beagle, Peter S. The Last Unicorn. 1968.
  6. Le Guin, Ursula. A Wizard of Earthsea. 1968. [Book 1 of The Earthsea Cycle]
  7. Lackey, Mercedes. Magic’s Pawn. 1989. [Book 1 of The Last Herald-Mage]
  8. Cook, Glen. The Black Company. 1984. [Book 1 of The Black Company series]
  9. Pratchett, Terry. Jingo. 1997. [A Discworld novel]
  10. Jemisin, N. K. The Fifth Season. 2015. [Book 1 of The Broken Earth Series]

Howard's essential not only for the S&S factor but because he lets me introduce the role of Weird Tales into the genre. Anderson's also follows up the S&S angle and, in addition, is a short work that cements the influence of northern heroic cultures on the genre.

Lewis and Tolkien are givens, and I picked their shortest representative works.

After that, though, you have to deal with how writers choose to respond to Tolkien. Beagle's work was a revelation of post-Tolkien fantasy, and Le Guin (besides being awesome) helps show the impact Tolkien had on children's fantasy. 

After that, my choices get a bit idiosyncratic. Lackey and Cook may not be considered "typical" or canonical fantasy authors, but they give the lie to the belief that 1980s fantasy was just Tolkien-clones. Lackey's book is about a non-straight male, so that let's us cover a Queer angle. (I also considered the feminism of Marion Zimmer Bradley, but I just never warmed to her books myself.) Cook might be an even odder choice, but he wrote gritty fantasy before Stephen Erikson and George R. R. Martin made it a thing. Plus, Cook's a lot more original than may be commonly recognized.

Pratchet, of course, is a must, and he's one of the few successful people to do comic fantasy. Jemisin's book is arguably not even fantasy (unlike her earlier One Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which I didn't care for), but she's destined to become a canonical writer and was the only non-white fantasy author I could think of. Her book also is the only one on the list with a female protagonist, which is surprisingly rare. (The Golden Compass, perhaps? But then I wished to avoid too much children's fantasy.)

Anyway, this seems like a fun list. I kinda want to take this course myself.

**Wait, did I say "complaining"? I meant that I, uh, was noting the truth of Max Weber's claims about bureaucracy and rational systems that actually create irrationality. See, it's not whining if a major German theorist can be invoked.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Tolkien Syllabus

When you're on the job market, one of the aggravating recommendations they give is to compose a number of upper-division syllabi for courses you might someday teach. In theory, having such syllabi makes you look more prepared. In reality, by the time you're ready to teach such classes (and assuming you ever get a job), you're probably older and wiser and have updated your pedagogy considerably. 

Anyway, regardless, I'm working on a Tolkien syllabus. There's a couple of good resources out there: a Waymeet for Tolkien Teachers website, as well as the recent book edited by Leslie Donovan, Approaches to Teaching Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.

There's any number of ways to do a course like this, but I decided on a single-author course that covers Tolkien's life and works. The major question is this: what works should one require in a 15-week course devoted to Tolkien? I came up with the following list:

  • Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary, One Vol. Edition, 2005. ISBN: 978-0618640157. (Any post-1994 edition acceptable.) 
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. 1967. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2012. ISBN: 978-0547928227. (Any 3rd edition acceptable.) 
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. Tree and Leaf: Including “Mythopoeia.” Boston: HarperCollins, 2001. ISBN: 978-0007105045. 
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. Smith of Wootton Major / Farmer Giles of Ham. New York: Del Rey, 1986. ISBN: 978-0345336064. 
  • Carpenter, Humphrey. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. ISBN: 978-0618057023. 
  • Shippey, Tom. The Road to Middle-earth: Rev. and Exp. Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003. ISBN: 978-0618257607

The Shippey book and the Carpenter biography seem like obvious choices to me, although I'd use them as supplements rather than spend on class time on them. Otherwise, my reason for the works by Tolkien are as follows:

LoTR and Hobbit are the obvious ones here. I'd skip The Silmarillion, not because it's not important, but mostly because it's not a very accessible text for undergraduates. Granted, Tolkien courses tend to attract Tolkien fans, but skipping S is my attempt at accommodating the newbies.

In terms of Tolkien's non-legendarium writings, "Leaf by Niggle," "Mythopoeia," "The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son," and Smith of Wootton Major all offer major pathways to Tolkien's life and way of thinking. (Plus, they're all relatively short.) My favorite non-legendarium text is actually Farmer Giles of Ham, but that's a bit harder to fit into the framework of Tolkien's life. (It might, however, potentially be an attractive way, given the mutual Oxford-connections, to introduce students what the heck Tolkien was thinking when he created Tom Bombadil.)

I'd skip Tolkien's major essays, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" and "On Fairy-stories," partly due to time constraints. (Even so, I think OFS is a bit over-rated in terms of practical literary criticism.) I'd also skip providing much in the way of Tolkien's medieval sources. For one thing, I'm not a medievalist, and a teacher has to play to their strengths. For another, reading and discussing such texts as they deserve would take too much class time. Nonetheless, I'd probably supplement Tolkien's works with handouts of certain medieval works. Pairing "Homecoming" with The Battle of Maldon is an obvious choice, as is the Earendil poem and the sections of Beowulf that Tolkien lifted for Aragorn et al's approach to the king of Rohan.