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.