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.