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A blog about "displaced thoughts on misplaced literatures."
Matthew Cheney is a writer and teacher who lives in New Hampshire. His work has been published by English Journal, Strange Horizons, Failbetter.com, Ideomancer, Pindeldyboz, Rain Taxi, Locus, The Internet Review of Science Fiction and SF Site, among other places.
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|Littleton Opera House, Littleton, NH c.1900, a location in the story|
I have a new story — my first (but not last) of this year — now available on the Conjunctions
website— "The Last Vanishing Man"
This one's a bit of a departure for me, in that it is a serious story that will not, I'm told, make you want to kill yourself after you read it. In fact, one of my primary goals when writing it was to write something not entirely nihilistic. Various people have, over the years, gently suggested that perhaps I might try writing a ... well ... a nice
story now and then.
(I actually think I've only written one story that is not nice, "Patrimony" in Black Static last year
. And maybe "On the Government of the Living"
. Well, maybe "How Far to Englishman's Bay"
, too. And— okay, I get it...)
So "The Last Vanishing Man" is a story that has an (at least somewhat) uplifting ending, and the good people triumph, or at least survive, and the bad person is punished, or at least ... well, I won't go into details...
Here's the first paragraph, to whet your appetite:
I saw The Great Omega perform three or four times, including that final, strange show. I was ten years old then. It was the summer of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, a time when vaudeville and touring acts were quickly fading behind the glittering light of motion pictures and the crackling squawk of radios. What I remember of the performance is vivid, but I am wary of its vividness, as I suspect that vividness derives not from the original moment, but from how much effort I’ve put into remembering it. What is memory, what is reconstruction, what is misdirection?Continue reading at Conjunctions...
Alice Sheldon was born 100 years ago today, which means that in a certain sense, James Tiptree, Jr.
is 100, because Sheldon wrote under that name. Yet James Tiptree, Jr.
wasn't really born until 1968, when the first Tiptree story, "Birth of a Salesman", appeared
in the March issue of Analog
Nonetheless, we can and should celebrate Sheldon's centenary. She's primarily remembered for Tiptree, of course, but as Julie Phillips so deftly showed in her biography
, Sheldon's life was far more than just that byline.
I've written about Tiptree a lot over the years, though nothing recently, as other work has taken me in other directions. In honor of Alice Sheldon's birthday, here are some of the things I've written in the past—
- In "The Stories That Predict Us", I wrote about discovering Tiptree at an early age.
- I reviewed the selected Tiptree stories, Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, for SF Site in 2005. (It's a joint review with the first Tiptree Awards volume. I wish I'd just reviewed the Tiptree collection alone. That's the only part of the review worth reading now.)
- A very early post at this blog looked at "The Screwfly Solution", which was published under the other pseudonym, Raccoona Sheldon. (11+ years after writing that post, I still think the story's ending is ruined by its final sentence.)
- I wrote about Tiptree's first novel, Up the Walls of the World, in 2009.
- In 2006, I interviewed Tiptree's biographer, Julie Phillips.
If you're new to Tiptree, you can read two stories online at Lightspeed: "Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death"
and "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side"
It was time I had a website under my own name, and not just this here Mumpsimus. After all, I am more than a mumpsimus! Or so I tell myself.
Because my book of short stories is coming out in January, the focus of the site is my fiction more than anything else. At the moment, there's nothing there that isn't also here, aside from some pictures. But I'm sure I'll figure out something unique to host there in the coming weeks, months, years...
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By: Matthew Cheney,
Blog: The Mumpsimus
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, Duncan Grant
, Vanessa Bell
, Vera Brittain
, Add a tag
The universe has conspired to turn my research work this summer into mass culture — while I've been toiling away on a fellowship that has me investigating Virginia Woolf's reading in the 1930s and the literary culture of the decade, the mini-series Life in Squares,
about the Bloomsbury group and Woolf's family, played on the BBC and the film Testament of Youth
, based on Vera Brittain's 1933 memoir of her experiences during World War One, played in cinemas.
I've now seen both and have mixed feelings about them, though I enjoyed watching each. Life in Squares
offers some good acting and excellent production design, though it never really adds up to much; Testament of Youth
is powerful and well constructed, even as it falls into some clichés of the WWI movie genre, and it's well worth seeing for its lead performance.
The two productions got me thinking about what we want from biographical movies and tv shows, how we evaluate them, and how they're almost always destined to fail. (Of course, "what we want" is a rhetorical flourish, a bit of fiction that would more accurately be expressed as "what I think, on reflection, that I want, at least now, and what I imagine, which is to say guess, what somebody other than myself might want". For the sake of brevity, I shall continue occasionally to use the phrase "what we want".)Testament of Youth
is easier to discuss in this context, partly because it's a single feature film based (mostly) on one text and not a three-part mini-series depicting the lives of people about whom there are shelves and shelves of books. Though the filmmakers clearly read some of the biographies of Vera Brittain, as well as her diaries, and occasionally incorporate (or at least allude to) some of this material, the structure of the film of Testament of Youth
is pretty much the structure of the book, even though the screenplay takes some massive liberties. (I expect the 1979 mini-series
was able to be more faithful, since it had more time, but I haven't gotten around to watching it on YouTube
, which is pretty much the only place it seems still to be available, never having been released on DVD.)
For any 2-hour movie of Brittain's memoir, massive liberties are unavoidable, and overall I think the filmmakers found good choices for ways to streamline an unwieldy text — 650 pages or so, with countless characters who constantly bounce from one locale to another.
I should admit here that I don't much like Brittain's book. Some of the war parts are compelling, and it's certainly important as a historical document, but it seems to me at least twice as long as it needs to be, and Brittain simplified the main characters to such an extent that I find it hard to care about any of them. For instance, when Roland, the great love of her life, dies, it's all supposed to be terribly sad and devastating and I just thought, "Finally! No more of that insipid pining and those godawful letters back and forth and that hideous poetry!" (Which is not to say that I wanted more of the slog of the first 100+ pages of the book with all the details of Oxford University's entrance exams.) Someone could create an abridgement of Testament of Youth,
maybe reducing the book to 150 or 200 pages, and it would be vastly more interesting and compelling, because there really is some excellent material buried amidst it all. Concision was not among Brittain's writerly skills.
I am not the right reader for Testament of Youth
, however. None of us are, really. The book became a bestseller for a number of reasons, but one of them was that readers could fill in its thin parts with their own memories, experiences, and griefs. What the film of Testament of Youth
achieves is to evoke some semblance of the emotion that was, I expect, present in the book for its first readers, most of whom would have had memories of the war years, and many of whom would have suffered similar losses as those described by Brittain — losses both of loved ones and of a certain, more innocent, worldview.
The deaths in the film were, for me at least, far more powerful than the deaths in the book. One reason is the change in medium: the move from the words on a page to actors embodying roles. Deaths in books can be hugely powerful, of course (see A Little Life
for a recent example), but Brittain's ability as a writer was not up to the task, at least in a way that would transfer beyond the experiences of people for whom the First World War was still an event that had defined important portions of their lives. The characters in the film are less idealized than in the book, more human. The screenplay by Juliette Towhidi creates situations, moments, and dialogue that allow the characters to live a bit more than they do in Brittain's narrative, where the characters are more asserted by the writer than dramatized. The acting by the men is generally good, and Taron Egerton is especially effective as Brittain's brother Edward. (Kit Harrington struggles a bit in the role of Roland, but it's a nearly impossible role, since its primary requirement is for the actor to make poetic mooning somehow alluring.) But I think the real reason this film of Testament of Youth
ultimately succeeds at evoking some emotion and making us care about what we watch is that Alicia Vikander
is a truly extraordinary actor. Her portrayal of Brittain manages to convey the important overall arc of the character: from naive, idealistic girl to war-hardened woman shattered not only by the events of the war but also by the deaths of all the men she most loved.Life in Squares
might have been saved by its performances as well, given the talent of the actors in the show, but they never get a chance to do much. Writer Amanda Coe tries hard to give focus to the story she wants to tell, but she was unfortunately undone by the limitations of time — three episodes of not quite an hour in length is simply too little for what Coe and the other filmmakers attempt, and the result is mostly thin and unaffecting. Coe does some great things with the material, but there's just not much for the actors to work with, because the scenes move forward so quickly that there's no chance to build up anything. It's a real waste, unfortunately, because the lead actors in the first two episodes, James Norton (as Duncan Grant) and Phoebe Fox (as Vanessa Bell), capture some of the energy, attraction, and personality of young Bloomsbury in ways I've never seen before. The mise-en-scene is important, too, and marvelously rendered, giving a sense of the physical world through careful attention to the detail of sets, props, and, especially, costumes. But it's a mise-en-scene in service to ... well, not much.
For anyone who doesn't know the intricacies of the personal relationships among the "Bloomsberries", Life in Squares
must be terribly confusing, especially given the choice to have two sets of actors play the main characters: a younger group and an older one, with the older group seen in quick flashbacks in the first two episodes, then dominant in the third, which is set in the 1930s. (The BBC has a helpful guide to the characters on their website
.) With so many people coming and going through the show, and only a handful of characters given more than a few lines, it's difficult even for a knowledgeable viewer to know who is who.
The best decision the show makes is to focus primarily on Vanessa Bell
, a fascinating person who has too often been invisible in the pop culture shadow of her sister, Virginia Woolf, but who was really much more at the core of the Bloomsbury group than either Virginia or Leonard Woolf. Her life also exemplified the ideals and aspirations of the group — she was an artist, had an open marriage to Clive Bell
(with whom she had two children), and had a child with Duncan Grant
, who preferred sex with men but for whom Vanessa was about as close as a person can get to what might be thought of as a soul mate. Their lives included mistakes, prejudices, jealousies, and great grief, but nonetheless seem to me to have been quite beautiful.
The problem Life in Squares
fails to solve is the problem of showing entire lives over a long period of time. This was a problem Virginia Woolf knew well, and tackled again and again in her novels. But the problem of narrative time in a movie is very different from the problem of narrative time in a novel, because cinema's relationship to time is different from that of prose narratives, as lots of filmmakers and film theorists have known (Deleuze's second Cinema book
is subtitled "The Time-Image"). This is one of the big perils of biopics, since they seek to show the progression of a life, and yet cinema is usually at its best when taking a more focused, less expansive view. Some wonderful films have covered entire lives — Citizen Kane
comes to mind, as does 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould
— but most history-minded movies that take on such a large expanse end up feeling thin, especially if they try to tell the story in a fairly conventional way, as Life in Squares
does. (For comparison: The Imitation Game
can thrive in its utterly conventional, audience-pleasing form
because its narrative is relentlessly straightforward and the history is simplified to fit the linear movement of the plot and the characters' desires. Life in Squares
doesn't simplify the historical figures or events nearly so much, but it also doesn't find a form that fits what it seeks to depict.)
Actually, the problem for Life in Squares
is that it can't decide quite what approach it wants to take — will it be fragmentary and impressionistic, or will it try to string events together in a more linear structure? Linear becomes impossible because there's just so much material, and thus the show has to skip over all sorts of things, but it still retains an urge for linearity that sinks it. (How much better it would have been to, for instance, show us just three days in the lives of the characters. Or to take a page from Four Weddings and a Funeral
and base it on the weddings of Vanessa, Virginia, and Angelica and the days of the deaths of of Thoby Stephen, Lytton Strachey, Julian Bell, and Virginia. Or base it on particular art works. Or ... well, there are any number of possibilities.) Coe structures the story around the love lives of the characters, but there's too much else that she wants to throw in, and it all ends up a muddle that, sadly, too often domesticates people who, in reality, very much did not want to be domesticated.
What's worse, Life in Squares
ultimately fails to show anything much of what's important about Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and the people around them — their contributions to culture. We see paintings around, we see the artists working now and then, and there are a few brief moments when we hear talk of books (Woolf's first novel, The Voyage Out
, is, if I remember correctly, the only one we actually see, though there's some brief mention of The Years
being a bestseller in the third episode). If not for the significant contributions to art, literature, and politics (hello there John Maynard Keynes
, who gets maybe three lines in the whole show), these would not be especially noteworthy people, nor would there be much historical record of them. But more importantly, it's impossible to think of these people without
their contributions to art, literature, and politics, because they lived for art, literature, and politics. (Well, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant were less politically inclined than many of the others, but that's relative — the first biography of Leonard Woolf, for instance, was a political study
.) Life in Squares
does an admirable job of showing the truly radical sexual politics of the group, but it subordinates everything else to the personal relationships, which of course makes for easier drama, even if that drama is, as here, unfulfilling. But what it looks like and feels like and sounds like to devote your life to the things the Bloomsbury Group devoted their life to ... that isn't really here in a meaningful way.
(Is there a movie about a writer that gives a real sense of the writing life? Nothing comes immediately to mind. For artists, yes — Mr. Turner, Vincent & Theo
— but the making of art is itself visual action. Carrington
, which could almost be Life in Squares
Episode 2.5, was better because it focused very closely on its two protagonists and allowed Lytton Strachey to talk to Carrington about books and Carrington to work on, and discuss, her art. It's still pretty flat as a movie, but it's earnest and Jonathan Pryce and Emma Thompson are quite good in their roles.)
Which brings me back to the original question: What do we want from biopics? Why was I excited to see a new film of Testament of Youth
and a mini-series about the Bloomsbury Group? Why, even now, given all I've said especially about Life in Squares
, am I glad these exist?
Partly, there's a sense of validation. It's a powerful feeling when mass culture recognizes the perhaps strange or esoteric thing you yourself obsess over. I watched the first episode of Life in Squares
with a friend who only knows Virginia Woolf's name because he's seen her books around my house. He was bored by the show, but seemed amused by my ability to expound on the various relationships and histories of the characters flitting across the screen (and indistinguishable to him) — and in that moment, suddenly all of the work I've done this summer (not to mention the past twenty years of sometimes casually, sometimes obsessively reading in and around Woolf and her circle) felt somehow less ... hermetic. This
, I could say, is something the wider world cares about, too, at least a little, at least superficially, at least...
It's possible that Life in Squares
was a more fulfilling experience for me than for most viewers who know less about the characters and era. Not only could I figure out who was who, but I could also fill in the blanks that the show didn't have time or ability to dramatize. In that way, the show was, for me, pointillistic: my mind's eye filled in the space between the dots and extrapolated form from the individual moments of color.
Knowledge of the book of Testament of Youth
is not necessarily helpful for the movie, because the film takes so many (mostly necessary) liberties that it's likely the knowledgeable viewer will become distracted by thinking about where the book and movie diverge. Both Testament
and Life in Squares
suffer from common problems of biopics, particularly name-dropping and random, obligatory cameos. Characters in Life in Squares
constantly have to say each other's names because there are so many of them and they're all so quickly dealt with. Large historical moments must of course be alluded to in dialogue. And then important people must at least show up — there's a pointless moment with Vita Sackville-West
in Life in Squares
, for instance, and the presence of Winifred Holtby
in Testament of Youth
is only explicable because Holtby was so important in Brittain's life; but she gets so little time in the movie that she feels like she's been airdropped in at the last moment, and the portentousness of her announcing herself is never really dealt with. This brings me back, as ever, to the wonder that is Mr. Turner
— director/writer Mike Leigh in that film and in his other historical movie, Topsy Turvy
, avoids this sort of thing, because he knows that a movie is not a history book, and that what matters is not so much who people are as what they do and how they behave with each other.
What do we want to be accurate in our biopics ... and why? Does it matter if three minor characters are melded into one? Does it matter if chronologies are rearranged or simplified? Does it matter if people are put into places where they never were? "Well, it depends..." you say. Depends on what, though? I want to say that it depends on the ultimate goal, the effect, the meaning.
For me, the only changes that feel like betrayals are ones that distort the personality of characters I care about. Both Testament of Youth
and Life in Squares
do pretty well on that count, which is why, for all my grumbling, I was overall able to enjoy them and feel not great animosity toward them. I wish that the makers of each had been more imaginative, certainly — Life in Squares
needed more imagination in order to come alive and feel vital, while Testament
falls into too many clichés of the WWI story (plenty of which are directly from Brittain's text, which is why circumventing them requires significant imagination) and adds a couple of credibility-straining coincidences (particularly with Edward in France). If the Vera Brittain of the movie is a bit less naive and jingoistic at first than the real Vera Brittain was as a girl and the textual Vera Brittain is in the book, there is still a strong sense of her development in the film and, especially, in Vikander's performance, which begins with idealistic energy and ends with something far more profound.
In the end, I suppose what I want from biopics is a sense of the ordinary moments of extraordinary lives and the emotional realities of worlds gone by. This is something that drama in general can give us, and that cinema can give us especially well, with the camera-eye's ability to zoom and focus and linger and look. I got a sense of all that now and then in Life in Squares,
especially when it calmed down and didn't try to squeeze so much in — I got a sense (imaginary, of course, but real in the way only the imaginary can be) of why everybody who ever met him seems to have fallen in love with Duncan Grant, and why Vanessa Bell was such a bedrock of the group, and what, in some way, it maybe felt like to wander those rooms and landscapes when they were not museums but just the places these people lived.
Testament of Youth
offers a bit more, and also shows some other virtues of the historical or biographical film — it enlivened the material for me, and I returned to the book with a certain new appreciation, a new ability to find my way into it, to care about it and to imagine how its first readers cared about it.
The cinema fell upon its prey with immense rapacity, and to this moment largely subsists upon the body of its unfortunate victim. But the results are disastrous to both. The alliance is unnatural. Eye and brain are torn asunder ruthlessly as they try vainly to work in couples. The eye says: 'Here is Anna Karenina.' A voluptuous lady in black velvet wearing pearls comes before us. But the brain says: 'That is no more Anna Karenina than it is Queen Victoria.' For the brain knows Anna almost entirely by the inside of her mind -- her charm, her passion, her despair. All the emphasis is laid by the cinema upon her teeth, her pearls, and her velvet. Then 'Anna falls in love with Vronsky' -- that is to say, the lady in black velvet falls into the arms of a gentleman in uniform, and they kiss with enormous succulence, great deliberation, and infinite gesticulation on a sofa in an extremely well-appointed library, while a gardener incidentally mows the lawn. So we lurch and lumber through the most famous novels of the world. So we spell them out in words of one syllable written, too, in the scrawl of an illiterate schoolboy. A kiss is love. A broken cup is jealousy. A grin is happiness. Death is a hearse. None of these things has the least connection with the novel that Tolstoy wrote, and it is only when we give up trying to connect the pictures with the book that we guess from some accidental scene -- like the gardener mowing the lawn -- what the cinema might do if is were left to its own devices.
—Virginia Woolf, "The Cinema", 1926
|Vanessa Bell by Duncan Grant|
There are lots of reasons that the University of New Hampshire
, where I'm currently working toward a Ph.D. in Literature
, should be in the news. It's a great school, with oodles of marvelous faculty and students doing all sorts of interesting things. Like any large institution, it's got its problems (I personally think the English Department
is underappreciated by the Powers That Be, and that the university as a whole is not paying nearly enough attention to the wonderful programs that don't fall under that godawful acronym-of-the-moment STEM
, but of course I'm biased...) Whatever the problems, though, I've been very happy at the university, and I'm proud to be associated with it.
But Donald Trump and Fox News or somebody discovered a guide to inclusive language gathering dust in a corner of the UNH website and decided that this was worth denouncing as loudly as possible, and from there it spread all over the world
. The UNH administration, of course, quickly distanced themselves from the web page and then today it was taken down. I expect they're being honest when they say they didn't know about the page. Most people didn't know about the page. The website has long been rhizomatic, and for a while just finding the academic calendar was a challenge because it was hidden in a forest of other stuff.
I, however, did
know about the page. In fact, I used it with my students and until today had a link to it on my Proofreading Guidelines sheet
. It led to some interesting conversations with students, so I found it a valuable teaching tool. I thought some of the recommendations in the guidelines were excellent and some were badly worded and some just seemed silly to me, like something more appropriate to an Onion
article. ("People of advanced age" supposedly being way better than any other term for our elders reads like a banal parody of political correctness. Also, never ever ever ever call me a "person of advanced age" when I become old. Indeed, I would like to be known as an old fart
. If I manage to achieve elderliness — and it is, seriously, a great accomplishment, as my amazing, 93-year-old grandmother [who calls herself "an old lady"] would, I hope, agree — if I somehow achieve that, then I will insist on being known as an old fart. But if you would rather be called a person of advanced age rather than a senior or an elder or an old fart, then I will respect your wishes.)
The extremity of the guide was actually why I found it useful pedagogically. Inevitably, the students would find some of the ideas ridiculous, alienating, and even angering. That makes for good class discussion. In at least one class, we actually talked about the section that got Donald Trump and Fox and apparently everybody else so upset — the recommendation to be careful with the term "American". Typically, students responded to that recommendation with the same incredulity and incomprehension that Trump et al. did. Understandably so. We're surrounded by the idea that the word "American" equals "United States", and in much usage it does. I sometimes use it that way myself. It's difficult not to. But I also remember a Canadian acquaintance when I was in college saying, in response to my usage, "You know, the U.S. isn't the whole of North America. You just think you are." Ouch. And then when I was in Mexico for a summer of language study, at least one of our teachers made fun of us for saying something like, "Oh, no, I'm not from Mexico, I'm from America!"
We don't have another good noun/adjective for the country (United Statesian is so cumbersome!), and the Canadians can say Canadian and the Mexicans can say Mexican and so we kind of just fall back on American
. And have for centuries. So it goes. But it's worth being aware that some people don't like it, because then as a writer or speaker you can try to be sensitive to this dislike, if being sensitive to what people dislike is important to you.
This and other recommendations in the guidelines lead to valuable discussion with students because such discussion helps us think more clearly about words and language. The guide had some helpful guidance about other things that people might take offense to, whether the gentle, somewhat mocking offense of my Canadian acquaintance and Mexican teachers, or more serious, deeper offense over more serious, deeper issues.
It all comes down to the two things that govern so many writing tasks: purpose and audience. (When I'm teaching First-Year Composition, I always tell them on the first day that by the end of the course they'll be very tired of hearing the words purpose
.) If your purpose is to reach as wide an audience as possible, then it's best to try to avoid inadvertently offending that audience. Just ask anybody in PR or marketing who didn't realize their brilliant idea would alienate a big, or at least vocal, section of the audience for whatever they were supposed to sell. Ultimately, you can't avoid offending everybody — indeed, it's hardly desireable, as some people probably deserve to be offended — but what offends different people (and why) is useful knowledge, I think. In any case, it's much better to be offensive when you're trying to be offensive than when you're not trying to be and discover much to your surprise, embarrassment, and perhaps horror, that you actually are. (As we used to say [before we were people of advanced age]: been there, done that.)
Advice about inclusive language is similar to advice I give about grammar and spelling errors. All of my students should know by the time they've had me as a teacher that the prohibitions against such things as splitting infinitives or ending sentences with prepositions or starting sentences with conjunctions or any number of other silly rules are just that: silly. They often lead to bad writing, and their usefulness is questionable at best. However, I think every writer should know and understand all the old and generally silly prohibitions. Why? Because you will, at some point in your life, encounter someone who really, deeply cares. And you should be able to explain yourself, because the person who really, deeply cares might be somebody you want to impress or convince about something.
In fact, that's why I give my students my long and probably very boring proofreading guide. I want them to impress me, and I don't want my pet peeves about language and usage to get in the way. (No matter how anti-hierarchical we all might want to be, ultimately I'm the guy responsible for my students' grades, and so it's in their best interests to know what my pet peeves are.) They can dismiss my pet peeves as silly or irrelevant if they want, but they can't say they don't know what they are. Indeed, if I say to a student, "Why did you use 'he/she' when my proofreading guidelines specifically say I would prefer for you not to use that construction in my class," and they respond with a thoughtful answer, I may not be convinced by their logic, but I will be impressed that they gave it thought; if, on the other hand, they respond, "Oh, I didn't read that, even though you said it was important and could affect our grade," then I will not be impressed, and my not being impressed may not be a good thing for their grade. Such is life.
But really my purpose here was just to say that despite all the horrible things said about that poor little language guide, I will miss it. True, it shouldn't have looked so official if it were not (I, too, thought it was pretty official, though clearly it was not binding and was little read). The UNH statement is wrong, though, when it says, "Speech guides or codes have no place at any American university." I don't like the idea of speech codes much, either, because speech codes
sounds punitive and authoritarian, but guides
— well, I like guides. Guides can be useful, especially if you're feeling lost. As a university, we're a big place full of people who come from all over the country and the world, people who have vastly different experiences, people who use language in all sorts of different ways and have all sorts of different feelings about the languages we use. It can be helpful to know that somebody might consider something offensive that I've never even given a second thought to, and helpful to know why that is, so that I can assess how much effort I want to put into rethinking my own language use. The guide to inclusive language had its flaws, certainly, but it was a useful jumping off point for conversation and education. I'll continue to have similar conversations with students (my own proofreading guide has plenty in it to talk about and debate), and will continue to think such conversations are not about somehow curtailing speech, but are in fact about freeing it by empowering speakers to be more aware of what they say and how the words they use affect other people.
As a little addendum to my post
about the somewhat narrow aesthetics of Ben Marcus's New American Stories
anthology, let me point you to Nick Mamatas's "Anti-Fragile"
, a story that does pretty much everything I was hoping to find somewhere in New American Stories
On Twitter, I said:
And that about sums up my feelings.
Well, also: I may be partial, as I am an avowed and longstanding lover of long sentences
, and this story is a wonderfully skilled, thrillingly long sentence. It's well worth reading and thinking about.
Ben Marcus's 2004 anthology The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories
is a wonderfully rich collection for a book of its type. I remember first reading it with all the excitement of discovery — even the stories I didn't like seemed somehow invigorating in the way they made me dislike them. I've used the book with a couple of classes I've taught, and I've recommended it to many people.
I was overjoyed, then, when I heard that Marcus was doing a follow up, and I got it as soon as I could: New American Stories
. I started reading immediately.
Expectations can kill us. The primary emotion I felt while reading New American Stories
was disappointment. It's not that the stories are bad — they aren't — but that the book as a whole felt a bit narrow, a bit repetitive. I skipped around from story to story, dashing in search of surprise, but it was rare. I tried to isolate the source of my disappointment, of my lack of surprise: Was it the subject matter? No, this isn't quite Best American Rich White People
. Was it the structure of the stories? Maybe a little bit, generally, as even the handful of structurally adventurous stories here feel perfectly in line with the structurally adventurous stories of 50 years ago, and somewhat tame in comparison to the structurally adventurous stories of 80-100 years ago. But that wasn't really what was bothering me.
And then I realized: It was the style, the rhythm. The paragraphs and, especially, the sentences. It wasn't that each story had the same style as the one I'd just read, but that most (not all) of the stories felt like stylistic family members.
And then I thought: What this book really demonstrates is the deep, abiding, and highly dispersed influence of Gordon Lish
. Lish's shadow stretches across the majority of tales in Marcus's book, as it did the previous book, and understandably so: not only is Lish a good candidate for the title of the most influential editor of "literary" short fiction in the US in the second half of the twentieth century ... but Marcus was nurtured by him, with Lish publishing quite a bit of his early work in The Quarterly
and then publishing Marcus's first book, The Age of Wire and String
. (The title of both the Anchor Book
and New American Stories
is a bit of a give-away, too: the subtitle of Lish's The Quarterly
was "The Magazine of New American Writing".) The effect feels more repetitious in the new book, perhaps because I'm now a decade older and have all those more years of reading short stories behind me (including readings tons for the Best American Fantasy
anthologies); but also, I expect, because the new book is more than 200 pages longer, and so the opportunity for repetition is greater.
It's not that either the Anchor Book
or New American Stories
is an anthology of stuff from the School of Lish (as Sven Birkerts called it back in the '80s). Some of Lish's students are, indeed, in these books — in the new one, I know that Sam Lipsyte, Joy Williams, Christine Schutt, and Deb Olin Unferth all studied and/or were edited by him, and Don DeLillo is a good friend and admirer of him. Plenty of the writers in the book may never have even heard of Gordon Lish. The influence is easily picked up from the writers Lish not only guided or influenced directly, but venerated by publishing them or saying good things about them to the world. Lish didn't just teach people to write in a particular way; he taught them to value particular moves in texts.
The writers in New American Stories
are all different in their approaches and backgrounds, certainly, and at least a few of them are writers whose work Lish would not himself value, but there's a bit of an echo between them, the echo of the Lishian sentence (the best analysis of which is probably that of Jason Lucarelli in "The Consecution of Gordon Lish"
). These are stories that (overall) value straightforward diction, relatively simple sentence constructions, and conversational tones and syntax. They prefer the concrete and the active. Many are built with odd repetitions and quirky juxtapositions.
You can feel it in the first lines — Lish famously calls first sentences the "attack sentence" and reportedly tells
students, "Your attack sentence is a provoking sentence. You follow it with a series of provoking sentences."
Here are some opening sentences from New American Stories
(I'll identify the writers later):
1.) Davis called, told me he was dying.
2.) "What you got there, then?"
3.) "Just let me out of here, man," said Cora Booth. "I'm sick. I'm dying."
4.) Four of them were on one side of a dim room.
5.) Like in the old days, I came out of the dry creek behind the house and did my little tap on the kitchen window.
6.) "What are you doing?" a guy asked her.
7.) It was the day before his cousin's funeral and Del ended up at the Suds washing his black jeans at midnight.
8.) Once, for about a month or two, I decided I was going to be a different kind of guy.
9.) "I don't know why I committed us to any of those things," Otto said.
10.) The day I got my period, my mother and father took me to pick my madman.
11.) I know when people will die.
12.) Root canal is one fifty, give or take, depending on who's doing it to you.
The first six of those are the entire first paragraph of the story. All of the sentences are pretty short, with the longest being #5 at 24 words. (And #3 is actually 3 sentences.) The diction is simple, with most of the words being one or two syllables, and none more than three syllables. Four of the openings are direct dialogue, with implied dialogue in others (e.g. #1). All of the openings are about people. The word guy
appears more than once.
I chose these openings pretty much randomly by flipping through the book, and I only organized them to put the ones that are a paragraph unto themselves together. The 20 other stories that I have not sampled here would generally seem similar. From those 20 other stories, here are the opening sentences that, to my eyes and ears, seem most different from those above:
A.) Father comes home after many years of forgetting us, of not sending us money, of not loving us, not visiting us, not anything us, and parks in the shack, unable to move, unable to talk properly, unable to anything, vomiting and vomiting, Jesus, just vomiting and defecating on himself, and it smelling like something dead in there, dead and rotting, his body a black, terrible stick; I come in from playing Find bin Laden and he is there.
B.) Though alien to the world's ancient past, young blood runs similar circles.
C.) After they shot the body several times, they cut its throat with a scaling knife; after that, they pinched its nostrils and funneled sulfuric acid into its mouth; while some set to yanking the body's toenails out with a set of pliers, others fashioned a noose from a utility cord they had found in the trunk of their car.
A and C are longer than 1-12 (behold: semi-colons!), and B is not quite about a human being. Interestingly, they're all about bodies, bodily fluid, and, in the case of A and C, pain, death, suffering. A is notable for its lyricism, B for its weirdness, C for having the only 4-syllable word that I've noticed among any of these opening sentences ("utility"). These are, then, the most extreme and radical opening sentences in the book.
Most of the writers of all of these sentences, whether 1-12 or A-C, likely do not know Gordon Lish's commandments for writing attack sentences. But I suspect we see the influence of Lish in two ways here: first, in how Lish has influenced Marcus's taste, since the one thing we can say about all of these stories is that Ben Marcus valued them; second, in how Lish's protégés have gone on themselves to influence the perception of what is "good writing" in the lit world.
Let's look at who the writers are:
1.) Sam Lipsyte
2.) Zadie Smith
3.) Wells Tower
4.) Jesse Ball
5.) George Saunders
6.) Maureen McHugh
7.) Donald Ray Pollock
8.) Kelly Link
9.) Deborah Eisenberg
10.) Lucy Corin
11.) Deb Olin Unferth
12.) Charles Yu
A.) NoViolet Bulawayo
B.) Rachel B. Glaser
C.) Kyle Coma-Thompson
(It's amusing to note that the two writers whose opening sentences include the word "guy" are Maureen McHugh and Kelly Link — writers who admire each other, and Kelly Link's own Small Beer Press published McHugh's [excellent] story collections. There's nothing to say about this coincidence except that Ben Marcus apparently likes opening sentences that include the word guy
The only Lish students I know of among those writers are Lipsyte and Unferth. But sentences 1-12 seem to me more similar than different in their approach. To know how much of this is just Marcus's own taste selecting stories that have such sentences and how much is stylistic similarity between the writers generally, we would have to examine collections of each writers' stories and see if they tend to begin their stories in the same way. That work is more than I can do right now, but it would be an interesting research project.
Compared to most of the writers in New American Stories
, the writers of A-C have fewer books published by major publishers and fewer awards (though NoViolet Bulawayo won the Caine Prize and her book
, from which the story "Shhhh" is taken, has done very well — still, until recently she was not part of the big lit machine), and I think this matters. One of my disappointments with New American Stories
is how much it reprints writers who have been published by major publishers and won major prizes. I had had hopes that the book would be more eclectic and surprising than this. For all his attempts at variety, what Marcus has given us overall is a bunch of stories that are valued by the kinds of people who give out major literary awards. And they are good stories — I don't mean anything I say here to reflect badly on any of the individual stories, many of which are extraordinary and all of which are in some way or another interesting. But the range of stories in the book is more narrow than I had hoped for.
Coming back to Lish, what's interesting is how his taste has so defined what I think of as the establishment avant-garde. We should put "avant-garde" in quotes, though, because it's not really out in front, and it's not particularly innovative anymore — indeed, it's the establishment because its structures and rhythms are passed down through writing workshops, editorial decisions, and awards committees. You can see this in the case of somebody like Gary Lutz
, a Lishian who may not be well known to the general public, but who has had a significant influence on a lot of contemporary short story writers in the lit world, as well as on creative writing teachers, particularly through his essay/lecture "The Sentence Is a Lonely Place"
(which I've myself recommended to some advanced writing students because it demonstrates to an overwhelming degree the depth with which one can think about sentences).
The effect of all this is to create a relatively narrow range for what is recognizable as "quality" in a short story. The familiar replicates itself. What a discourse community can perceive as good and bad, effective and ineffective, quality and kitsch depends very much on what it has previously seen as good, bad, effective, ineffective, quality, kitsch. Sometimes, that can be liberatory — Charles Yu, Maureen McHugh, and Kelly Link might be dismissed as writers of genre fiction if their tone and style was not close enough to that of the other writers in the anthology to sound familiar and thus be recognizable as part of the family of quality. I love that they're part of this book, but to understand why they fit so well in it, we don't have to speculate about the growing acceptance of genre content in the lit world, but simply note the similarity of tone, syntax, and diction to what is also here.
There's a long history to the particular qualities celebrated by Marcus and most of the writers he likes, and it's a history that predates Lish — if these stories feel like they have a lot of family resemblances, then it may be because they are the stylistic grandchildren of Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. (Or, to make a different comparison, the music they seem to favor is that of chamber concerts and small indie rock bands, not jazz clubs. Indeed, the echoes I couldn't hear at all in these stories are the echoes of jazzier writers like Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. Maybe I'm tone deaf.)
So perhaps it is best to think of New American Stories
as a kind of family portrait, a reunion of the offspring (whether they know it or not) of Grandma Gertrude and Grandpapa Ernie by way of Daddy Gordon (and maybe Mama Amy Hempel
), along with a couple of kids who seem to have wandered in from the neighbor's house and who are nice to have around because they liven things up. New American Stories
is a good anthology, well worth reading, full of interesting stuff. It is not, though, a broad representation of what short stories can do or be, and for all its writers' concern with tone, resonance, and rhythm, the songs they play sound more alike than not.
Good advice for writers: Write very hard, keep the prose lively and original, never sell out, never overexcuse yourself why you're not writing, never let a word of yours be edited unless you think the editing is helping that work, never despair about not being published, not being recognized, not getting that grant, not getting reviewed or the attention you think you deserve. In fact, never think you deserve anything. Be thankful you are able to write and enjoy writing. What I also wouldn't do is show my unpublished work to my friends. Let agents and editors see it — people who can get you published —and maybe your best friend or spouse, if not letting them see it causes friction in your relationship. To just write and not worry too much about the perfect phrase and the right grammar unless the wrong grammar confuses the line, and to become the characters, and to live through, on the page, the experiences you're writing about. To involve yourself totally with your characters and situations and never be afraid of writing about anything. To never resort to cheap tricks, silly lines that you know are silly — pat endings, words, phrases, situations, and to turn the TV off and keep it off except if it's showing something as good as a good Ingmar Bergman movie. To keep reading, only the best works, carry a book with you everywhere, even in your car in case you get caught in some hours-long gridlock. To be totally honest about yourself in your writing and never take the shortest, fastest, easiest way out. To give up writing when it's given to you, or just rest when it dictates a need for resting; though to continue writing is you're still excited by writing. To be as generous as your time permits to young writers who have gone through the same thing as you (that is, once you become as old as I am now). To not write because you want to be an artist or to say you're a writer. And to be honest about the good stuff that other writers, old and your contemporaries, do too.
By: Matthew Cheney,
Blog: The Mumpsimus
(Login to Add to MyJacketFlap
, open educational resources
, Robin DeRosa
, Add a tag
In talking with Robin DeRosa about open educational resources
(OER), a lot of my skepticism was focused on (and continues to be focused on) the question of who pays for it. If I'm not just skeptical but also cynical about a lot of the techno-utopian rhetoric that seems to fuel both the OER advocates and, even more so, people who associate themselves with the idea of Digital Humanities
, it may be because I've been paying attention to what the internet has done to writers over the last couple decades. It's not all bad, by any means — this blog is one of example of that, I continue to try to write mainly for online venues so that my work can be relatively easily and broadly accessed, and I put most of my syllabi
online. I can do that because I have other income and don't rely on this sort of writing to pay the bills. Thus, in my personal calculations, accessibility is more important than revenue.
But that freedom to choose accessibility over getting paid, or over doing work other than writing that would pay me, is a gigantic luxury. I can only make such a calculation because I have other revenue (the stipend from the PhD program I'm in and money saved from selling my father's business, which, though it's not enough to let me stop working, pays a bit over half of my basic expenses), and so the cost of my writing for free here on this blog, rather than doing remunerative work, is absorbed by that other revenue.
Further, aside from blog posts and some academic material, I usually won't write for free. Both because there are, in fact, people who will pay me, and also because I don't want to de-value the work of writing. Letting people have your work for free means they begin to expect that such work ought
to be free. And while yes, in a post-capitalist utopia, I'd love for all work to be free ... we are, alas, not living in a post-capitalist utopia (as you might've noticed). Bills must still be paid. Printers and managers and bosses and technicians all get paid. And therefore writers should be paid
In our Q&A, Robin said, "For materials to be 'open,' they need to be both free as in no-cost (gratis) and free as in free to repurpose and share (libre)."
It's that "no cost" that seems to me dangerous — the idea that there is no cost. Of course there's a cost. There's the cost of labor, first of all, with somebody working, either for free or not (and if for free then how are they paying their bills?). But then there are all the other things: the cost of bandwidth and of technological infrastructure, for instance.
is paying, even if it's not you.
OER is not no-cost, it's a movement of cost from one place to another. And that may be exactly what's necessary: to move costs from a place that is less fair or sustainable to one that is more fair and sustainable. That's in many ways a central idea of academic research: the institution pays the researcher a salary so that the researcher doesn't have to live off of the profits of research, thus keeping the research from being tainted by the scramble for money and the Faustian bargains such a scramble entails. (Of course, in reality, research — especially expensive technical research — is full of Faustian bargains. As public money gets more and more replaced by private money, those bargains will only get worse.) (And this, as OER advocates, among others, have pointed out, has also led to plenty of exploitation by some academic publishers, who enrich themselves while using the unfortunate reality of "publish or perish" as an excuse to not pay writers, to steal their copyright, etc.)
OER must highlight its costs, because hiding costs tends to further the idea that something not only is
free, but should be
free — and it's that idea that has destroyed wages for so many writers and artists over the last couple decades. To combat this, I think teachers should tell students the reality, for instance by saying something like: "Your tuition dollars fund 80% of this school's activities, including the salaries of the faculty who have worked countless hours to create these materials that we are not charging you for, because you have effectively paid for them through tuition." Or even: "I created this material myself and am releasing it to the world for no cost, but of course there was a cost to me in time and effort, and when I'm paid $2,500 minus taxes to teach this class, that basically means I'm giving this away, though I hope it doesn't mean it has no value."
Robin brought up Joss Winn's
essay "Open Education: From the Freedom of Things to the Freedom of People"
, which is well worth reading for its critique of OER, but which stumbles when trying to offer a vision of another route — it ends up vague and, to my eyes, rather silly, because Winn has no practical way to prevent tools that are highly attractive to neoliberalism becoming tools for resistance to neoliberalism, and so concludes with little more than "and then a miracle occurs"
. (For the best commentary I've seen on the topic of resisting neoliberalism, see Steven Shaviro's No Speed Limit
.)Richard Hall asks huge, even overwhelming, but I think necessary questions about all this:
The issue is whether it is possible to use these forms of intellectual work as mass intellectuality, in order to reclaim the idea of the public, in the face of the crisis of value? Is it possible to reconsider pedagogically the relation between the concrete and the abstract as they are reproduced globally inside capitalism? Is it possible to liberate the democratic capability of academic labour, first as labour, and second as a transnational, collective activity inside open co-operatives, in order to reorient social production away from value and towards the possibility of governing and managing the production of everyday life in a participatory manner?
My immediate, perhaps knee-jerk answer to any of the "Is it possible?" questions here is: Not in American higher ed, at least as I've known it, and not without a massive transformation of labor relations within higher ed. The US government and US schools are too deeply entrenched in neoliberalism, and without radically reforming academic labor, reforming the products of that labor is likely to be exploitative. Cooperative governance, associational networks, open co-operatives
, etc. are all nice ideas, ones I in fact generally support and want to be part of, but such support comes with the awareness that if you're getting paid $70,000 a year and I'm getting paid $16,000 a year, our participation in those networks and co-operatives cannot be equal no matter how much you and I might agree that co-operatives and associational networks are better than the alternative. Further, if you were hired 20 years ago under vastly different conditions of hiring, your position is not my position. It's all well and good for you, Tenured Prof, to tell people they should publish in open access journals, but from where I sit, I don't trust that any hiring committee, never mind tenure and promotion, is going to value that in the way they value those highly paywalled journals. Hierarchies gonna hierarch.
OER advocates know this. They may know it better than anybody, in fact, since they're actively trying to bring hiring and tenure practices into the current century. One of the first pieces Robin edited when she was brought on board by Hybrid Pedagogy
was Lee Skallerup Bessette's important essay "Social Media, Service, and the Perils of Scholarly Affect"
, which includes the fact (among many others) that one can, through open publishing and social media, etc., actually become not only a highly-cited secondary source but an actual primary source ... and have no way to turn that into "scholarship" recognized by gatekeepers.
But again, even while knowing that OER advocates are some of the people most aware of these problems, I can't help but come back to the question of how OER work can prevent the immediate effect of devaluing academic labor — how can it avoid being co-opted by the forces of neoliberalism?
I also can't help thinking about what we might call the Dissolve
problem. The Dissolve
was a wonderful film website sponsored by Pitchfork. It published great material and paid its writers. It is recently dead, and its archives could soon be wiped away if Pitchfork decides it's too expensive to maintain (as happened with SciFiction
, the great online magazine sponsored by the Sci Fi Channel). Here's Matt Zoller Seitz on the end of The Dissolve
Anybody who's tried to make a go at supporting themselves through writing or editing or other journalism-related work—criticism especially — without a side gig that's actually the "real" job, or partner or parent who pays most of the bills, can read between the lines. Staring at a blank page every day, or several times a day, and trying to fill it with words you're proud of, on deadline, with few or no mistakes, and hopefully some wit and insight and humor, is hard enough when it's the only thing you do. The days when it was the only thing writers did seem to recede a bit more by the week. It's even harder to make a go at criticism in today's digital media era, now that audiences expect creative work (music, movies and TV as well as critical writing) to be free, and advertisers still tend to equate page views with success. These factors and others guarantee that writer and editor pay will continue to hover a step or two above "exposure," and that even the most widely read outlets won't pay all that much. Most veteran freelancers will tell you that they earn half to a quarter of what they made in the 1990s, when newspapers and magazines were king. I make the same money now, not adjusted for inflation, with two journalism jobs and various freelancing gigs as I made in 1995 with one staff writing job at a daily newspaper.
It's the trends that Matt highlights there that so concern me with OER, because I'm not sure how OER avoids perpetuating those trends. The ideals of no-cost are lovely. But the process of getting there can't be waved away with magic thinking. Free free free poof
More likely, poof
nobody makes money except the administrative class.
Could it be that OER advocates are like John Lennon imagining
there's no money ... when he's a gazillionaire? To which the necessary response is: "No money? Easy for you
to imagine, buster!"
Let's do a thought experiment, though, and imagine that OER advocates somehow square the circle of doing non-exploitative work in neoliberal institutions. (And already I'm speaking in terms of miracles occurring!) What happens to students who then go out into the world and continue to expect every creative and intellectual product to be free? Heck, they already do. And such assumptions contribute to the de-valuing of writers' and artists' labor as well as the de-valuing of academic labor.
That's why I think our job as educators should be to push against such assumptions rather than to encourage them, because encouraging the idea that creative and intellectual work should be free and has no costs just leads to the impoverishment of creative and intellectual workers.
Pushing against such assumptions wouldn't mean the need to give up or disparage OER, but rather to make the processes of its creation, dissemination, and funding as transparent as possible. Answer even the basic questions such as "Who pays for the bandwidth?"
Without such transparency, OER, I fear, will perpetuate not only the trends that have led to the adjunctification
of higher ed, and the trends that have brought on a catastrophic defunding of public education, but also the trends that destroyed The Dissolve.
Without helping people see that, in our economy, "free" really means a displacement of cost (somebody else paying ... or somebody not getting paid
), OER will perpetuate destructive illusions.
I don't know a better word for Hanya Yanagihara's novel A Little Life
, published earlier this year by Doubleday.Heart-wrenching
, yes. But more than that. Not just the heart. The brain, the stomach, all the organs and muscles. It is a full-body-wrenching experience, this book.
It's too early to say whether this is a Great Novel, whether it is a novel for the ages, a novel that will bear numerous re-readings and critical dissections and late-night litchat conversations; whether it will burn long or be a blip on the literary landscape. Who knows. It's not for me to say. What I can say, though, is that working through (sometimes rushing through) its 700 pages was one of the most powerful reading experiences of my life.
There are passages and situations in this book that many readers will not want to live with, will not want in their minds' eyes, and I can sympathize with that. Yanagihara's own editor said
, "I initially found A Little Life
so challenging and upsetting and long that I had to work my way through to appreciating it. ... (My private little descriptive tag for the book is 'miserabilist epic.')" Miserabilist
isn't the right modifier for me, despite the many miseries in the book, but there's certainly an epic quality to the novel's expanse, at least in the everyday vernacular sense of epic
. In a genre sense, though, A Little Life
is seldom epic; indeed, it's often the opposite: instead of expanding across history and myth and fantasy, telling digressive and episodic tales of heroes and villains, it narrows the world, history, and myth into ahistorical psyches and bodies, constructing a world less of event than of feeling.
The central character in the novel, Jude, suffers relentless, overwhelming abuse through his first fifteen years, and that abuse leaves him physically and psychologically mutilated for the rest of his life. We are not spared descriptions of what happened and of what its effects were.
I do not usually read detailed descriptions of child abuse. I can think of very few works that benefit from such descriptions, and too often they seem to me to be a cheap and morally dubious way for the writer to try to gain the reader's sympathy for characters — who, after all, is more sympathetic than a child?
Now and then, though, a story justifies the detailed pain it describes, and this is, I think, very much the case for A Little Life
. Without the detail, Jude's character would not make much sense. The events of the book are so extreme — extreme not only in pain, but in (occasional) joy — that to have the appropriate weight, the descriptions of violence done to Jude first by others and then to himself by himself must be vivid. And they are vivid. They serve to place us into Jude's body, to learn his world through his pain, which is the primary fact of his world.
In many ways, A Little Life
fits into the classical mold of the melodrama, though there is a kind of moralism to melodrama that is absent from A Little Life
. (Which is not to say that this novel lacks a moral or ethical vision — not remotely — but rather that it's not a book by Elizabeth Gaskell
.) But Jude's childhood, particularly, is straight out of melodrama: the villains are grotesquely villainous, the (very) occasional heroes are saintly, and Jude's sufferings are extreme. Indeed, the representation of Jude's childhood is not just melodramatic, but gothic, complete with a monastery teeming with horribly malevolent monks.
The gothicism reminds me of Joyce Carol Oates, but A Little Life
is more consistent and successful than any Oates novel I've read (and I've read quite a few, which is to say maybe 10% of her output). Oates's Wonderland
, for instance, has an extraordinarily vivid, gripping first section, and there are some similarities in the way Oates presents the psychological experience of violence to the way Yanagihara presents it. But Wonderland
falls apart after its beginning, unable to sustain or even really justify the intensity of its opening hundred pages or so. One of the many impressive qualities of A Little Life
is how consistent it is, how well it sustains and modulates its intensity through hundreds and hundreds of pages recounting fifty years of Jude's life.
Though it is focused on Jude throughout, A Little Life
is not only about him, but also about all the people who are important in his life, including three friends he met at college and who become his closest friends for life. Another of the impressive qualities of A Little Life
is its nuanced charting of a group of male friends through three decades or so of knowing each other. We see how they know each other differently, even as they know each other together: Jude's relationship to each of his friends is different, and their relationships to each other are equally different. We see the friends in good moments and bad, and we see especially how friends who have known each other a long time can also hurt each other deeper than anyone else — and how the bond still holds even as its intimacy metamorphoses. We see how Jude and his friends change over time as they become successful, as their lives gain new depths and contours, and as they suffer immense loss.
The relationships in A Little Life
are complex, too, in their flows of desire and sexuality. Garth Greenwell has suggested
that this may be "the great gay novel" that some
people have been calling for, and that may be true, but it's far more queer than gay: the relationships throughout the book shift from the sexual to the asexual, hetero to homo to bi to whatever. (No trans characters, alas.) Identities of every sort are slippery throughout the novel, and with Jude, two of the primary identity categories in contemporary American life, sexuality and race, remain ambiguous or unknown from first page to last. (In conversation, a character says of Jude, "...we never see him with anyone, we don’t know what race he is, we don’t know anything about him. Post-sexual, post-racial, post-identity, post-past. ...The post-man. Jude the Postman.”) At one point, an apparently heterosexual character's thoughts are presented to us as he considers the limits of his heterosexuality: "he’d had sex with men before, everyone he knew had, and in college, he and JB had drunkenly made out one night out of boredom and curiosity". The most important relationship in the book is one where the characters are described as "inventing their own type of relationship, one that wasn’t officially recognized by history or immortalized in poetry or song, but which felt truer and less constraining."
One interesting, risky choice Yanagihara made was to set A Little Life
in a timeless New York City. Though the book spans decades, its New York doesn't really change, and there are no references to any identifiable historical events or to buildings and places that have significantly changed over time. There are few, if any, references to any sort of technological details that would fix a scene in a particular time. This is a world without Giuliani, without gentrification, without 9/11. It is not just a novel that doesn't really concern itself with political or social history, but rather a novel that goes out of its way to erase political and social history from its universe.
This should make me hate the book. But much as I like some political and social history in my fiction, what I like more than that is fiction that takes risks and strives for unique effects and vision. The risk Yanagihara takes in A Little Life
is to make its setting obviously a fantasy, but not a fantasy like a big fat trilogy full of orcs and mages. That sort of fantasy lives and dies by its "worldbuilding"; A Little Life
does the opposite: it builds its world not from references to culture, history, politics, etc. but through the psychic life of its characters. It is filled with the physical world, but the physical world it is filled with is Jude's, and what overwhelms Jude's physical world, to the point of nearly obliterating time and space, is his body. Jude's nervous system is to A Little Life
what the Shire and Mordor are to The Lord of the Rings
We are not, though, plunged into a psyche and its sensorium in the way that we are in, say, Woolf's The Waves
. The narration in A Little Life
is not stream of consciousness, but instead a fairly close third person limited point of view sprinkled with free indirect discourse. The point of view characters can change from chapter to chapter, but the perspective is still close. There are also a few important first-person chapters. The writing style is neither avant-garde nor especially "difficult" — indeed, if the book holds your attention, you'll likely find it to be frequently a page-turner.
The risk of setting the book in a rather blank world, a world of place names more than places, ends up paying off in spectacular and surprising ways. It produces some of the effects of stream of consciousness without being stream of consciousness because the way it presents its world is the way its focal character seems to perceive that world. Jude, unlike some of the other characters, is staunchly apolitical and apparently uninterested in history. He is (as we are) haunted by his personal history, but not a history of the world. In the monastery, he was only able to think about his immediate reality, and that habit of thinking goes unbroken for the rest of his life. He carries the monastery with him forever. Though his friends seem mostly to be conventionally liberal, and he has a strong desire for what he thinks of as justice, he holds no apparent political opinions, and enjoys working his way up in a corporate law office, a place other characters consider soulless and evil, but which is the only place Jude consistently can escape his terrors — it's a different kind of monastery for him, one that is comforting rather than scarring.
Yanagihara chose to make all of the characters successful in their professions and wealthy. This is another important part of the fantasy. They came from a variety of backgrounds (including racial backgrounds), but after college they all fairly quickly find professional and economic success. This is not, though, a book about the wonderful glamour of wealth. It's also not a book about the corruptions of wealth. The wealth of the characters seems primarily to be a plot device, as denuded of actual economics as the setting is denuded of actual history. The book's most determined (and determining) goal is to follow the effects of almost unfathomable childhood abuse on Jude throughout his life, to see how pain shapes him physically and mentally, and that goal would get messier without the ease of travel and association that wealth, power, and fame provide the characters.
In that way, A Little Life
is not so much like a melodrama as it is like a classical tragedy, where the focus on royalty allows a kind of world-historical gravitas even when the world and history aren't really the work's concern.
And in truth, if Jude and his friends hadn't been as wealthy and successful as Yanagihara allowed them to be, there probably wouldn't have been as many pages to the book, because Jude would not have lived very long. It's hard to imagine him as a high school teacher, for instance, or a retail clerk; hard to imagine him making it through a life where he didn't have access to world-class health care and where he couldn't call in favors from well-connected friends and family. Jude has, as he acknowledges, an extraordinary life as an adult. That his struggles are still so painful, so unbearable, heightens the tragedy. We weep not because the pains of the rich and powerful are more painful than our own, but because we can extrapolate back to ourselves: we, without private drivers and personal assistants, without doctors at our 24-hour beck and call, without the means to fly across the world at any moment, without the ability to wrangle the press in our favor or to summon gaggles of lawyers and lawmakers — we would be crushed. As readers, we bear the pain alongside Jude, we feel our way along with him, but we only make it through because he can.
(Perhaps there is, then, a kind of political subtext to the book: To survive the kind of childhood Jude had, or even one more ordinarily traumatic, you'd have to be brilliant, highly successful, and wealthy. That most of us aren't even one of those things, never mind all three, allows some perspective on the cruelties of our systems.)
The world as these characters experience it is huge, punishing, and vertiginous: "They all ... sought comfort, something that was theirs alone, something to hold off the terrifying largeness, the impossibility, of the world, of the relentlessness of its minutes, its hours, its days." Here is one of the meanings of the novel's title: To survive, these characters must find ways to make life little, to bring it down to a comprehensible size, because otherwise they are lost. The struggle is all-consuming and agonizing, often unsuccessful, but the few and fleeting successes feel worth fighting for, worth fighting toward.
Why follow Jude's struggles, why subject ourselves to his pain and suffering? What pleasure is there in reading a book that fundamentally asks, "How much can a person bear? What sort of childhood can't be escaped?" Why keep turning the pages?
I don't have a simple, clear, or even perhaps convincing answer for that, but I will say this: I've read few novels with such vivid characters. I'm not a particularly immersive reader, and I suspect I resist imagining characters in novels as flesh and blood people more than many readers do. And yet the characters in A Little Life
, particularly Jude and Willem, seemed to me alive both while I read about them and after. I could imagine them outside the stories that the novel tells. I could think about a "Jude-type person" or a "Willem-type person". I would have vehement opinions about who could play them in a movie adaptation.
How Yanagihara achieved this effect? I'm not entirely sure. The magical alchemy of fiction. It is far more than the sum of the words on the page. Partly, such an effect relies on what we bring to the words from our own experience. Even though my own life has been and is very different from that of the characters, I still felt, again and again, that the novel expressed something very deep within myself. It unlocked and unleashed emotions I hardly knew I had. And that, too, is part of its purpose: to extend imagination, to help us think and feel our way toward sympathy. In one of the first-person chapters, a character says, "Most people are easy: their unhappinesses are our unhappinesses, their sorrows are understandable, their bouts of self-loathing are fast-moving and negotiable. But his were not. We didn’t know how to help him because we lacked the imagination needed to diagnose the problems." In that sense, A Little Life
is a pedagogical novel, a novel that seeks to teach us — or at least to exhort us — to open up our imagination so that perhaps we might better help each other somehow, somewhere. And so that we ourselves might be able to be helped.
I sweated through this book, I wept through it, I felt excitement and joy for the characters, pity and fear. Some days, I had to set it aside because it was all too much to bear. But I went back, always, until finally I reached the last pages, which were heartbreaking and beautiful, indescribably sad and also somehow liberating, even life-affirming, but not in some shallow, Hallmark way — instead, in delineating all the ways that even the most privileged life can go wrong, and showing when letting go of life is, if not acceptable, then certainly understandable, A Little Life
illuminates the dignity in its title: these lives, some of them cut short, some of them filled with suffering, feel, in the end, immense.
He knew it was the price of enjoying life, that if he was to be alert to the things he now found pleasure in, he would have to accept its cost as well. Because as assaultive as his memories were, his life coming back to him in pieces, he knew he would endure them if it meant he could also have friends, if he kept being granted the ability to take comfort in others.
Boomtron just published my latest Sandman Meditation, this one on Chapter Two of The Wake.
"Sandman Meditation?" you say. "That sounds ... vaguely familiar..."
In July 2010, I started writing a series of short pieces called Sandman Meditations
in which I proceeded through each issue of Neil Gaiman's Sandman
comic and offered whatever thoughts happened to come to mind. The idea was Jay Tomio's, and at first the Meditations were published on his Gestalt Mash site, then later Boomtron
. The basic concept was that we'd see what happened when somebody without much background in comics, who'd never read Sandman
before, spent time reading through it all.
I wrote 71 Meditations between July 2010 and June 2012, getting all the way up through the first installment of the last story in the regular series, The Wake
. 75,000 words.
And then stopped. I read Chapter 2 of The Wake
and had nothing to say. I tried writing through the lack of words, but the more I tried to write the more what I wrote nauseated me. I couldn't go on.
I got through 71 Meditations by only looking back once — in the piece on "Ramadan"
, I misread a word (yes, one word) and completely misunderstood the story. When Neil gently brought the mistake to our attention, I was shocked. So I went back and re-read "Ramadan" and what I'd written about it. Though in the immediate moment, I felt like a total idiot with entire chicken farms of egg on my face, I've come to cherish that mistake, because it showed just how carefully and subtly constructed so much of Sandman
is, and how a simple slip in reading can make a text flip all around. It gave me a certain freedom, too. I'd always been terrified of making some dumb, obvious mistake in my reading of Sandman
, because I know it's so well known by its passionate fans, and I didn't want to either let them down or annoy them. Once I made that big mistake, I felt somehow freer to go wrong, and that kind of freedom is necessary for writing. I went forward, trying hard not to think about whether I was writing well or terribly, thinking well or thinking badly, reading well or reading as if I'd never learned to read at all.
But by the 71st installment, my confidence fell apart. I was terrified that I'd written nothing but drivel, and the weight of that fear pulled me back. Why should anybody want to waste time reading what I've got to say about this?
I wondered. This is a beloved series of comics, a beloved story full of beloved characters, an intricately woven tale that I'm just blundering through blindly.
I couldn't do it.
Eric Schaller kept bugging me. "So are you ever going to finish your Sandman
stuff?" he'd ask, and I'd change the subject.
I figured as more time passed, everybody would forget about my crazy reading experiment.
Jay Tomio remembered. I felt terrible for letting him down. He'd been so supportive, and I'd failed in the end. But he never seemed to hold it against me; he seemed to understand. It had been a long run. Boomtron went through some changes. The Meditations disappeared for a while. Then Jay started reconstructing, and so out of the blue one day I got a note: "Any chance you'd like to continue?" he asked.
I was terrified. A lot had changed. What would it mean to continue?But continue I did, and continue I will.
(I'll finish The Wake
in the coming weeks, then continue on to Endless Nights
. If all goes well, I think it would be fun to finish up with the recent Overture
, to return full circle back to the beginning. Fingers crossed.)
As you'll see from the new piece, I thought of David Beronä
, and I knew exactly what he'd say if he were here for me to ask about it. "Use the time you have," he'd say. "Do it now."
It's nice to be back.
When the Supreme Court's decision
on marriage equality was announced, a friend who'd just heard a snippet of news texted me: "Is it true?"
"Yes," I replied. "My mothers' marriage must now be recognized in all 50 states."
This is true and wonderful. As others have pointed out, the ruling lets marriage just be marriage, without the modifiers that have dominated the discourse of the last fifteen years or so — it is no longer gay marriage or same-sex marriage or traditional marriage, just marriage. (Although marriage between two people only. Polyamory is still mind-bending to the mainstream.)
Inevitably, and immediately, there were countless thinkpieces written, plus plenty of grandstanding and righteous gnashing by people who disagreed with the Court's majority decision. Also, and just as inevitably, there were the folks
who see marriage of any sort as a tool of neoliberalism and oppression. It really takes a special sort of self-righteousness to pour contempt on millions of people's celebrations. And as political strategy it's pretty stupid, since standing off to the side being Comrade Grumbly McGrumblepuss is not likely to build much of a movement. (Responding to "We're so happy!" with "NO! You are not ideologically pure!" has rarely led to good revolutions.) But hey, each to their own. I will defend to the death your right to be a wet, mildewy blanket.
But I get it, too. I have quite a few friends in committed relationships who have no desire to get married. (Now they can get harassed about their unmarried status in all the states unmarried straight couples can get harassed in!) And as much as I celebrated the ruling, because it has significant positive material consequences in the lives of so many people I know and love, as a contentedly single person I was unsettled by what Richard Kim called
the "sentimental, barfy, single-shaming kicker" at the end of Justice Kennedy's written decision, in which Kennedy and the co-signing justices (one of whom, Elena Kagan, has never married) extol marriage as embodying "the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family", etc. Rebecca Traister writes:
This will come as news to the millions of people who aim their love, fidelity, sacrifice, and devotion high, but in directions other than at a spouse. “In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than they once were,” Kennedy continues, just hammering it home: Married partnership, according to the Supreme Court, is not only a terrific institution into which we rightly should welcome all loving and willing entrants, it is an arrangement which apparently improves the individuals who enter it, that makes them greater than they were on their own. Those who have previously not been allowed to marry, Kennedy avers, should not be “condemned to live in loneliness,” as if the opposite of marriage must surely be a life sentence of abject misery.
As Traister goes on to say, plenty of married people are lonely and plenty unmarried people are not. The freedom to marry must also include the freedom not to marry. Marriage isn't everything. But it's also not nothing.
I am thrilled for my mothers' marriage (which began as a civil partnership when that became legal in New Hampshire, and then turned into a marriage when the law changed) because it's a relationship that works well for them in all sorts of different ways, including the very real benefits it provides for taxes, health care, etc. It's what they need and what they want.
I don't ever expect to be married myself. I never have expected to. Even if I met somebody I wanted to settle down with (an alien idea to me at this point), I have a hard time imagining my personality changing enough to want the kind of celebration a wedding involves. I can imagine that at a certain point the legal and financial benefits become worthwhile, even if it's unfortunate that they must be codified in this particular institution, but wedding ceremonies are ... well, I'll just say it's okay if you don't invite me to your wedding and I hope you won't mind if I just send a card or gift or something instead of attending. But that's me. You should be happy in the ways you can be happy.
When the Supreme Court first agreed to hear Obergefell v. Hodges
, my mother and I were driving somewhere and she asked, "Did you ever think this sort of thing would happen in your lifetime?" and I thought for a moment and replied, "I don't really remember what I expected, but I know I didn't expect it would be marriage
When I was a college student in New York in the mid-'90s, just getting acquainted with queer politics and activism, I vividly remember how much I loathed Andrew Sullivan and his book Virtually Normal
. Sullivan was all respectability politics all the time, and he was exactly the sort of blithely bourgeois conservative queer I would have rather died than become. His vision was a powerful one, though, because he recognized that a lot of gay people, perhaps the majority, really really wanted
to be respectable, really really wanted to enter into mainstream institutions, really really wanted not to revolutionize society but to be able to participate more equally in it. One hugely meaningful path toward mainstream respectability is marriage, which carries immense symbolic weight. More importantly, marriage is something so common to the traditions of everyday society that it is entirely legible and normalizing. To speak of someone as my husband
or my wife
is to add a whole set of immediately clear meanings to a relationship, even as those meanings shift over time. While people may be used to thinking of the husband or wife as the "opposite sex", it's not all that hard to begin to adjust, because the meaning of the words is so well established.
You'll still have to pry my copy of Michael Warner's The Trouble with Normal
out of my cold, dead hands, but these days I better value the ways that normal can be reconstituted, the ways a million tiny revolutions can lead to something big. Giving a commencement speech
at RISD recently, self-declared "filth elder" John Waters said, "I
didn’t change. Society did." A worthy goal. Don't change yourself, change your world. Even if that change is incremental, even if it doesn't right all the economic and social wrongs of our ever so violently wrong economy and society.
I've just begun reading A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E.M. Forster
by Wendy Moffat, which begins with a prologue telling the story of Christopher Isherwood's
receipt of the manuscript of Maurice
shortly after Forster died in 1970 at the age of 91. Isherwood had first read the manuscript in 1933, and for decades had encouraged Forster to publish it, but the best he could do was convince Forster to allow publication after his death. That was why he received a typescript of Maurice
and some of Forster's unpublished homoerotic stories, which he immediately shared with John Lehmann
, (an old friend who'd encouraged Leonard and Virginia Woolf to publish Isherwood's first novel, The Memorial
The typescript was weighed down by the care so many had taken to preserve it for so long. It was heavy with a history of stealth. For six decades Forster had nurtured it in secret, painstakingly revising and adding chapters. He commissioned two wondrously named lady typists — Mrs. Jones and Mrs. Snatchfold — to copy the contraband manuscript in pieces, to protect them from the novel's secrets. He carefully kept track of each copy of the typescript, requesting that the chosen reader return it to a safely neutral location... Late in old age, when he was almost eighty-five, Forster reflected on the cost of this lifetime effort: "How annoyed I am with Society for wasting my time by making homosexuality criminal. The subterfuges, the self-consciousness that might have been avoided."Heavy with a history of stealth
More and more, that destructive, terrible need for stealth can be relegated to history, and the effort of bearing that history will be shared and thus less painful, less difficult. More and more, the energy necessary to survive in a world of hate, the energy that fueled subterfuges and self-consciousness, can be dispensed with or repurposed toward healthier, and perhaps even revolutionary, goals.
And we do still need those goals. Marriage equality is not queer liberation. Marriage equality is not economic justice. Marriage equality is not the end of racism, the end of transphobia, the end of violence. It is not universal health care, it is not a guaranteed living wage, it is not the abolition of police violence or the end of the New Jim Crow
or a reconfiguration of how we think about punishment and mercy or any number of social changes that I, at least, desire.
But it is not nothing.
Nationalism and homonationalism
reared up after the Supreme Court's ruling, perhaps most vividly with the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, D.C. singing
the paean to war that is the U.S. national anthem, and with the video
of a conservative pundit proclaiming the marrying kind to be patriots, and with much else — but even as I resist it I'm still embroiled in our patriotic mythology, and I hope these sentiments can be put to good use. Seeing the pictures of the White House lit as a rainbow
never fails to move me, and looking at newspaper front pages from every state declaring the decision
was breathtaking — so many pictures of happy people embracing each other, kissing each other — across the country — images that not long ago would have been assumed to be somehow disgusting or even pornographic, presented alongside stories seething with superciliousness — but now so much of the superciliousness is gone, and the stories share the celebration — across the country—
Twenty years ago, did I ever think this sort of thing would happen in my lifetime? No, I can't say that I did. Were I to go back in a time machine and take some of those newspaper front pages to my self in the 1990s, what would that self say?
"Imagine that," he might say, shaking his head, bemused and perhaps a bit awed. "Imagine that..."
I recently bought a miscellaneous set of Virginia Woolf books, a collection that seems to have been put together by a scholar or (in Woolfian parlance) a common reader during the 1960s and 1970s. The set included some volumes useful for my research purposes, as well as all four of the old Collected Essays
that I have long coveted because though they have been superceded by the six-volume Essays of Virginia Woolf
, they are far more elegantly designed and produced (alas, copies in nice condition rarely seem to go up for sale at a price a normal person can afford, even on a splurge). At about $6 per book, it seemed like a deal I'd likely never see again.
One of the joys of giving books a new home is that they sometimes share glimpses of their history. This is for me the primary impetus to own an old book. They become tools for imagination, not only through the words on their pages, but through their physical presence. I have lived with books my whole life, and have come to imagine their writing, production, sale — what was it like to pick up this well-worn volume when it was bright and new, its binding still tight, its pages crisp? What led to this
page being dog-eared, what caused this
tear along the dust-jacket's edge? Who was the child who drew in crayon on the first pages? Most importantly: What did it feel like to read these words when they were first in this form?
...is it not possible — I often wonder — that things we have felt with great intensity have an existence independent of our minds; are in fact still in existence? And if so, will it not be possible, in time, that some device will be invented by which we can tap them? I see it — the past — as an avenue lying behind; a long ribbon of scenes, emotions...
—Moments of Being
Sometimes an old book provides more. I once picked up an old copy of Ibsen's play Rosmersholm
at a library book sale for maybe 50 cents, and discovered inside some newspaper clippings: a review of a production of the play in the early 20th century, and an obituary for Ibsen from 1906. (I later gave the book and clippings to a friend who got her PhD studying Ibsen's work.) Such items allow a sense of time traveling: What might it have been like to know only what was known on that day in 1906 when Ibsen's obituary appeared?
This set of Woolf books provided a similar surprise. In the front of a nice hardcover copy of Between the Acts
, Woolf's final novel, sat this:
I caught my breath when I saw the clipping. What a strange feeling it provoked — to go back not just to the moment of Virginia Woolf's death, but to the moment before it was known quite what had happened to her, the moment before her body was found.
We live now in a time when Woolf's struggles against depression and mental illness are in many ways better known than her work, and yet in that moment in 1941, I imagine it was quite a shock to many ordinary readers that this very successful woman, whose novel The Years
had been a genuine bestseller, whose face had been on the cover of Time
magazine, would have her life end this way.
It was 74 years ago, and yet, in the moment I held that bit of yellowed newsprint taken from a book printed only a few months later, it was now
— and I couldn't breathe, and I closed my eyes, because Virginia Woolf was gone.
And then I breathed in, and I opened my eyes, put the clipping back in its book, and looked at the words there on the pages ... and Woolf was with us again.
What is meant by "reality"? It would seem to be something very erratic, very undependable—now to be found in a dusty road, now in a scrap of newspaper in the street, now a daffodil in the sun. It lights up a group in a room and stamps some casual saying. It overwhelms one walking home beneath the stars and makes the silent world more real than the world of speech—and then there it is again in an omnibus in the uproar of Piccadilly. Sometimes, too, it seems to dwell in shapes too far away for us to discern what their nature is. But whatever it touches, it fixes and makes permanent. That is what remains over when the skin of the day has been cast into the hedge; that is what is left of past time and of our loves and hates.
—A Room of One's Own
So when you ask some of your questions, you're asking them to a person who's long dead. You're asking them to a person that doesn't exist. But people make that mistake about me all the time.
—Bob Dylan, 2012
If you've ever spent any time around any sort of fan community, most of the people you meet in The Dylanologists
will be familiar types. There are the collectors, there are the hermeneuts, there are the true believers and the pilgrims. Some reviewers and readers have derided a lot of the people Kinney writes about as "crazy
", but one of the virtues of the book is that it humanizes its subjects and shows that plenty of people who are superfans are not A.J. Weberman
. They seem a little passionate, sure, and if you're not especially interested in their passion they may seem a bit weird, but how different are they, really, from denizens of more culturally dominant fandoms — say, devoted sports fans? (Indeed, the term "fan" as we think of it now dates back to 19th century American sports, at least according to the OED.)
Or how different are they from academics? That was the question that kept buzzing through my brain as I read the book. It's no surprise to me that one of the great Milton scholars of our time, Christopher Ricks
, would have become a Dylanologist; the fights among the Dylan fans are at least the equal of the fights among the Miltonists, who can be a rather contentious lot... (Speaking of Miltonists, Stanley Fish's invaluable "What Makes an Interpretation Acceptable", a chapter from Is There a Text in This Class?
, came to mind again and again as I read.) In so many ways — its esotericism, its gate-keeping, its initiation rites — academia is a collection of high-falutin' fandoms.
Given that I have spent most of my life studying written texts, it's probably predictable that the chapter I found most exciting in The Dylanologists
is the one about Scott Warmuth
and other researchers who have traced the vast web of references, quotations, echoes, allusions, shadows, and traces of other writings through Dylan's own, particularly in Dylan's work over the last 15 years or so. (See Warmuth's fascinating essay for the New Haven Review
about Dylan's Chronicles: Vol. 1
.) One of the things that makes Dylan so extraordinary is that he's like a human filter for particular strains of Americana and of musical and literary history. He's like a human cut-up machine
. Puritanical squawkers may scream, "Plagiarism!", but for me the effect of, for instance, Warmuth's revelations about Chronicles
is that I was in even more awe of Dylan's achievement — the book reveals itself to be not just a memoir, but a more readable cousin to Finnegans Wake
. Dylan's references, allusions, echoes, riffs, cut-ups, and copies expand his work and connect it to networks of meaning.
|Don Hunstein; Bob Dylan, New York, 1963|
(It's worth noting, tangentially, that these references, allusions, echoes, etc. are most effective at the level of language and music. While Dylan certainly has written songs and even entire albums that are explorations of what in fandom get called tropes
, he's too great an artist to exert most of his energies at that level.)
(It's also worth noting that there are inevitably differences of power in how such references, allusions, echoes, etc. are perceived and the effect they have, especially in a culture of white supremacy. Dylan's not always great about this, but he's also not always bad, and to castigate him for "appropriation", as some people do, seems to me too reductive to be useful. At the same time, as I pointed out in a review of a book
about Charley Patton
and Jimmie Rodgers
for Rain Taxi's most recent print issue
, racism shaped what was possible for even the most talented artists, and the popularity of Patton and Rodgers, for instance, can't be said to be parallel: "The nature of their popularity was significantly different, and no small bit of that difference must be the result of race — both the race of the musicians and the racialized marketing of record companies that offered one set of music to black (and mostly Southern) audiences and another to white (and nation-wide) audiences." Both men were significant to the history of American music, both were hugely talented, and both drew from and played off of similar influences. But Jimmie Rodgers got rich and Charley Patton didn't, even though today it's Patton's name — partly due to Dylan's advocacy and homage
— that is probably more likely to be recognized.)
Masks are easy to pick up and just as easy to discard. He's a man of masks, the man of thin wild mercury
— the Dylan we know, the Dylan we can
know, is a performance. The original image that was sold of Dylan — the earnest protest singer — has been resilient, and people still seem shocked when Dylan does something like a TV commercial. But Dylan was never pure, and it drives purists crazy. Dylan is all poses, all artifice, and he always was. He's not, though, a postmodern ironizer; his earnestness is in the earnestness of his artifice. (His art is real for as long as he performs it.) Many fans fall in love with the earnestness, but hate the artifice.
Fans tend to be both passionate and possessive. This is a bad recipe for Dylan fans, because he seems to take a certain joy in pushing against whatever expectations are set up for him. The history of Dylan fandom is a history of fans denouncing him at every juncture. The "real" Dylan is Dylan before he went electric, Dylan before he went country, Dylan before he went gospel, Dylan before the doldrums of the '80s, Dylan before he did a Victoria's Secret ad
, Dylan before... Kinney does a good job of showing the ways that great passion can also lead to great disillusionment and even great hatred. The relationship between fans and celebrities can be pathological and destructive. One of the strengths of Kinney's book is that it shows various ways that pathology may manifest, from the benign to the fatal.
There's a kind of Harry Potter syndrome to a lot of fandom, well expressed by one of Dylan's die-hard followers, an expert at getting to the front of the admission line at concerts. Kinney asked him if he wanted to meet Dylan (not all fans do). Charlie said yes. "I think he would think I was funny. I really believe I could be the one guy who could talk to him without bullshit."I really believe I could be the one guy
— the one guy who understands, the one guy who knows the beloved's soul, the one guy who really gets it. The true fan. Another fan says late in the book:
"He and I have been through a lot together and he doesn't know it," she said. "He doesn't know I exist. Can you see how that would be frustrating? I don't have any grandiose idea that because he's affected me he's going to care. I just think it's not fair that it's a one-way relationship." She wasn't delusional. She didn't think he was going to ask her out on a date, or invite her to his home. But if he did she would have to drop everything and go. "I don't think he's Jesus, I don't think he's the messiah. He's just a human being. But he's filled with poetry."
Or another fan, one that Dylan seemed to occasionally pay some attention to:
"I think it's a wonder he shook my hand. I don't want to speculate," he said. But a few minutes later he stopped midsentence and looked me in the eye. "I take that back. I do have a theory, and I happen to think it's right. I don't think it, I know it. I think he's got a problem similar to my problem: being misunderstood, being misjudged. People take me the wrong way. I suspect it's because they don't listen to the words I say."
Fans may want to distance themselves from religious fanatics, but theirs is still a religious position — fan as worshiper, artist as God — and as various people have pointed out over the years, there's a secular religiosity that such fervent fandom satisfies. The fan is created in the god's image, the god in the fan's. I could be the one guy; He and I have been through a lot together; I think he's got a problem similar to mine.
Throughout its history, the word fanatic
possesses a religious connotation, and a fan
, of course, is a type of fanatic. We don't worship gods that seem alien to us.
I don't say all this to scoff. Personal identification is a fundamental part of any artistic appreciation. It's hard for such identification not to slip toward certain types of fantasy, dreams of contact. I'm a huge fan of some things, and so is Bob Dylan: Kinney tells the story of Dylan's visit to John Lennon's childhood home, and the experience described is that of a fan. Even in academia, at least in my field of literature, one of the things that motivates some of our work (now and then, here and there) is the sense that we can understand a particular text or writer in a way that nobody else can.
And then there are relics. Kinney tells various tales of collectors: people who not only listen to the music, or collect rare recordings, but seek out physical objects somehow related to the singer. As I was most intellectually interested in the hermenauts close reading Dylan's texts, so I felt most sympathy for the people whose lives have been in many ways hindered by their quests for Dylan's stuff
. I inherited a collector's
personality from my father, though I hope I've also learned from his negative example, because for all the pleasure it sometimes brought him, his quest for the stuff
(in his case, militaria, guns, etc.) in so many more ways limited his life. On the other hand, like so much else in fandom, collecting seems to have given the Dylan collectors a sense of purpose as well as a sense of community.
Relics are also religious, a kind of objective correlative for the zeal of worship. The Benjaminian aura
becomes for some people even more important in the age of mechanical reproduction. Is anybody who really cares about a work of art impervious to this? I was recently at the Rosenbach Museum and Library
in Philadelphia, where a friend works, and getting to see and even hold so many unique items of literary history was overwhelming. "I now know what people mean by 'religious experience'," I said. I understand the impulse to buy the windows of Dylan's childhood home, even as I recognize that such an impulse is absurd. Kinney's book conveys both the attractions of the impulse and the absurdity.
This paragraph toward the end of the final chapter is especially revealing of the complexities that Kinney is able to find in the subject of Dylan and his most passionate fans:
What must it be like to be Dylan, the music writer Paul Williams once wondered, and carry around "the half-formed dreams of millions on your back"? Dylan always had been afraid of his followers, and Williams could understand why. "Their relationship with him is so intense, they expect so much, and more than once over the years they've turned really nasty when he chose to deliver something other than their notion of who 'Bob Dylan' should be." Williams wrote that in the aftermath of the first gospel concerts in 1979, but he just as easily could have said it after Another Side in 1964, Newport in 1966, Nashville Skyline in 1969, Live Aid in 1985, or London in 2009. So many controversies. So much disappointment. Dylan acted entirely unfazed: "Oh, I let you down? Big deal," he said once. "Find somebody else." More than one fan really did wish he had died in the motorcycle wreck in 1966. It would have been better that way. He'd have been frozen in his glory. Instead he got old. He kept putting out new records and doing shows. He kept confounding.
One of the effective choices Kinney makes is to set the book up as a kind of biography. It generally, though not slavishly, follows Dylan's career from the early days to later. The Dylanologists become a kind of cast of characters, moving in and out of the narrative. These two structural choices sometimes can be frustrating or feel a bit strained, but nevertheless give the book a unity and sense of narrative momentum that wouldn't otherwise be available. I expect readers' interests will ebb and flow depending on which types of Dylanologists they themselves find most interesting, and it's also likely lots of people will want to know more about particular people and less about others, making it difficult to say the book is entirely satisfying, but Kinney's interest is not so much in individual manifestations of Dylanology, but in how the idea of Bob Dylan gets kaleidoscoped through the many different ways of hearing him, seeing him, loving him, and hating him. I'm Not There
did something similar in a more abstract way, and it might make a good companion piece with The Dylanologists
, certainly more so than any conventional biography, which can really only tell us so much, and very little of what truly illuminates the work. Whether The Dylanologists
can illuminate the work depends on what you desire for illumination. Certainly, it illuminates the quest for illumination.
By: Matthew Cheney,
Blog: The Mumpsimus
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When the suspect in the attack
on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina was identified, the authorities circulated a photograph of him wearing a jacket adorned with the flags of apartheid-era South Africa
and post-UDI Rhodesia
The symbolism isn't subtle. Like the confederate flag
that flies over the South Carolina capitol, these are flags of explicitly white supremacist governments.
Rhodesia plays a particular role within right-wing American militia culture, linking anti-communism and white supremacy. The downfall of white Rhodesia has its own sort of lost cause mythic power not just for avowed white supremacists, but for the paramilitarist wing of gun culture generally.
The power of Rhodesia for paramilitarists is evident throughout the history of Soldier of Fortune
magazine, a magazine that in the 1980s especially achieved real prominence. The first issue of SoF
was published in the summer of 1975, and its cover story, titled "American Mercenaries in Africa", was publisher Robert K. Brown's
tale of his visit to Rhodesia in the spring of 1974. (You can see the whole issue here on Scribd
: There's a gruesome and disturbing picture of a corpse with a head wound accompanying the article.) For Brown's perspective on his time in Rhodesia, see this post at Ammoland
continued to publish articles on Rhodesia throughout the 1970s and into the early 1980s. They also published articles about South Africa. Here's a two-page spread from the August 1985 anniversary issue (click to enlarge):
The introduction to the first article states:
SOF made quite a reputation in the early years of publication for fearless, firsthand reporting from the bloody battlefields of Rhodesia. Our efforts in that ill-fated African nation and our support of the Rhodesian government in operations against communist insurgents gained us two unfortunate, undeserved labels: racists and mercenaries. We are neither. On the other hand, we have never avoided consorting with genuine mercs to insure readers get the look and feel of Third World battlefields.
It's true that anti-communism was the primary ideology of SoF
in the 1970s and 1980s and that they would take the side of anyone they considered anti-communist regardless of their race or nationality — they published countless articles supporting the mujahideen in Afghanistan, the Karen rebels
in Burma (heroes of Rambo 4
), and the contras in Nicaragua. (Ronald Reagan, he of the Iran-Contra scandal, supported white Rhodesia even longer than Henry Kissinger, causing them to have their first public disagreement. See Rick Perlstein's The Invisible Bridge
pp. 671-673.) But the kind of anti-communism that supported Ian Smith's
Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa was an anti-communism that supported white supremacist government.
The second page there begins an article written by a veteran of the South African anti-insurgency campaigns, and it sings the praises of the brutal Koevoet
(crowbar) unit in Namibia. Here's a passage from the next page: "It doesn't pay to play insurgency games with Koevoet. SWAPO
had felt the force of the crowbar designed to pry them out of Ovamboland."
It's no great mystery why such campaigns would appeal to white supremacist groups, and why white supremacists would use the examples of Rhodesia and South Africa to stoke the fears and passions of their followers.
Consider the Greensboro massacre
of November 1979. Tensions between the Communist Workers Party and the Ku Klux Klan led to the Klan and the American Nazi Party killing 5 activists. The neo-Nazi and Klan members accused of the crimes were acquitted. The head of the North Carolina chapter of the National Socialist (Nazi) Party of America in 1979 was Harold Covington, who was implicated in the massacre but never faced criminal charges. Covington loved to brag that he'd been a mercenary in Rhodesia, though his brother claimed
that wasn't quite accurate:
I suppose he wanted to move someplace where everything was white and bright, so after a yearlong stint at the Nazi Party headquarters, he wound up going to Rhodesia, and he joined the Rhodesian Army. In different blogs and writings, he was always bragging, "Oh, I was a mercenary in Rhodesia and I went out and did all this fighting." But to the best of my knowledge, according to the letters he wrote to my parents, he was a file clerk. He certainly never fired a shot in anger. He started agitating over there, and the [white-led] Ian Smith government said, "We have problems enough without this nutcase," and they bounced him.
The myth of the lost white land of Rhodesia has proved resilient for the paramilitary right. It plays into macho adventure fantasies as well as terror fantasies of black hordes wiping out virtuous white minorities. Rhodesia sits comfortably among the other icons of militia culture, as James William Gibson showed in his 1994 book Warrior Dreams,
in which he described a visit to a Soldier of Fortune
All the T-shirts had their poster equivalent, but much else was available, too. John Wayne showed up in poses ranging from his Western classics to The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) and The Green Berets (1968). Robocop and Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry decorated many a vendor's stall. An old Rhodesian Army recruiting poster with the invitation "Be a Man Among Men" hung alongside a "combat art" poster showing a helicopter door gunner whose wolf eyes stared out from under his helmet; heavy body armor and twin machine gun mounts hid his mortal flesh. (157-158)
Anti-communism doesn't have much resonance these days, and so the support of Rhodesia or apartheid South Africa can no longer be couched in any terms other than ones of white supremacy — terms that were previously always at least in the shadows. Militarism, machismo, and white supremacy have no objection to hanging out together, and the result of their association is often deadly.See also: "The connection between terrorist Dylann Roof and white-supremacist regimes in Africa runs through the heart of US conservatism" from Africa as a Country.
It's possible that Sense8
, the new Netflix series from the Wachowskis, is the worst thing ever to happen to humanity. I don't know, because from the second episode it put its hooks into me so deeply that my critical, skeptical mind could not keep up. Certain elements of this show appealed to me so deeply that I was overwhelmed and had no ability to keep critical distance. Those elements were all related to a kind of queer ethic and queer vision, an approach to life that I've been a sucker for for decades, but have hardly ever seen expressed in a mainstream pop culture item.
First, I should note that even in my soggy, sappy, besotted love affair with this show, I couldn't miss some of its more obvious weaknesses. The major one for me is its globalized Americanism, well critiqued by Claire Light at The Nerds of Color
in a post I pretty much entirely agree with, especially regarding the lost opportunity of a truly global production — imagine if, instead of writing it all themselves with J. Michael Straczynski, the Wachowskis had worked more as showrunners and farmed out the writing and maybe even directing to people from the actual places they depicted. I appreciate, for instance, that they reportedly liked Nairobi Half Life
(I did, too!) and so had one of its producers, Tom Tykwer, direct the Nairobi scenes. But what if they'd brought in the actual Kenyan residents who wrote and directed Nairobi Half Life
instead of just the German director who supported it but didn't really have a lot to do with its production
? (For that matter, why not at least help Nairobi Half Life
get broader distribution? I was lucky enough to see it when it played for one night in a nearby theatre, but as far as I know it's not available for home viewing in any way in the U.S.) But no. Though Sense8
is remarkable in many ways, it's still a product of big money, big egos, and a traditional production process. An anti-hegemonic pose is a whole lot easier to achieve than actually doing something to undermine hegemony.
Despite all this, I still fell hard for Sense8
, and a lot of that has to do with a thought I had during the first episode: "I'm watching a sci-fi action soap opera kind of thing with queer people in it," and then later, "I'm watching a sci-fi action soap opera kind of thing that actually has more than a whiff of queer ethos to it."
That got me thinking about representation. I'm so used to seeing major media depict the world not as I know it, but as it is supposed to be known by a narrow norm, that when something like a pop cultured representation of something like what I know does make it into the mainstream, the gob smacks. It's not just about what I know of the world, however, because pop culture isn't really about the realistic representation of anything. It's more like a realistic representation of what we dream and hope for, a representation of yearnings and desires that are familiar and fitted into the whizzbang and weep of melodrama
Halfway through my viewing of Sense8
, I took a break and watched the documentary Vito
, about Vito Russo
, author of The Celluloid Closet
and an important gay rights activist. The documentary is effective, though hagiographic — The Celluloid Closet
may be historically important in having reached a large audience, but it's awful as film criticism
, and the material in the movie about the gay liberation and AIDS struggles gets terribly simplified (a perhaps inevitable consequence of a focus on one person). Nonetheless, Vito
was interesting to watch while in the midst of Sense8
because it's a powerful story and because it does a good job of showing the importance of chosen families and chosen communities for queer people, even ones who have, as Russo did, a supportive biological family.
That's one of the great attractions of Sense8
: it is very interested in communities, especially chosen ones. The sensates themselves have no choice about being part of their group (and I wonder what they'll do if they ever get tired of each other!), but the show does an excellent job of presenting good and bad families, chosen families, biological families, and communities of support. This stands in fierce opposition to mainstream family values, where biological family ties are sacred and uplifting. That's a story many queer people have no ability to participate in, and an important emphasis in a lot of queer culture is on the creation of intentional families and chosen communities.
, for instance, Nomi's mother is horrible: she misgenders her, and she is complicit in torture of her. It might be nice and affirming and optimistic if they could reconcile, as they would in a mainstream show. Her mother would then learn to see Nomi as she wants to be seen and blah blah blah. But no. There's no redemption for her, nor should there be. She's no better than Wolfgang's abusive father was. We don't necessarily want Nomi's mother to be killed, but there's no need for Nomi to put effort into keeping this dreadful woman in her life. Call it a queer commandment: Thou shalt not put effort into maintaining a relationship with a family member who doesn't recognize you as you, or who doesn't respect your humanity.
I've never seen a mainstream movie or show that so well embraces the differences of queerness within a general ethic of common humanity. The mainstream liberal impulse these days is to take the queer out of queerness and extend the umbrella of normality. (Even your racist, sexist, bullying old uncle is welcome to the gay tent if he's willing to stop calling us faggots! Hooray for progress!) It's a message that appeals to Gay, Inc.
, allowing the mainstream to celebrate gayness alongside white supremacy, militarism, neoliberalism, etc. And certainly there's some of that in Sense8
, but there's also an attention to details of sexual difference and oppression that Richard Dyer was writing about way back in the late '70s
in a piece that's a bit dated (obviously) but still useful:
Now it may be true that we are still at the stage where we need to assert, to others and to ourselves, that we are part of the human race. But such assumptions assume that there is no real difference between being gay and being straight. Yet, from a materialist standpoint, gayness is different physically, emotionally, and socially from heterosexuality. It is physically different not in the sense of involving different genetic factors (the equivalent sexist argument for the fascist arguments of behavioral psychology) but in the sense of being a different physical activity—two women in bed together is not the same as a man and a woman together or two men. It is different emotionally because it involves two people who have received broadly the same socialization (being both the same gender) and have thus formed their personalities in relation to the same pressures and experiences. It is socially different because it is oppressed. ...
What this boils down to in terms of films is that if you are representing sexual and emotional relationships on screen, it does make a difference whether they are gay or straight. One will not do as a metaphor for the other. Neither will either do as general metaphors for human sexuality and relationships.
The various relationships in Sense8
— gay, straight, trans, poly — are represented as the same in the sense of filled with love and capable of love and defined by love. (The Wachowskis are, in terms of their sensibilities, hippies.) But these relationships are not materially the same either to each other or to heterosexual relationships, and there's some good attention paid to exactly what Dyer pointed to: the physical, emotional, and social differences.
This is announced with a wonderful shot early on in the show where, after sex with Nomi (Jamie Clayton), Amanita (Freema Agyeman) drops a wet strap-on to the floor — a gauntlet plopped right into the center of the viewer's field of vision.Sense 8
is definitely explicit (including full frontal Max Riemelt
, which I would never complain about), and so it attends to the basic material, physical reality of queer sex in ways that movies and shows that don't have any explicit scenes do not. If anything, I wish Sense8
explicit, particularly in the Lito scenes (but the filmmakers probably pushed the actors as far as they were comfortable, and some viewers are already saying the show is porn, so...). Emotionally, Sense8
keeps the queer in queerness primarily through the affinity and comfort the sensates feel with each other, which seemed to me like the experience of first being in a space with other people whose emotions and desires are similar to yours — the first experience not only of a liberatory queer space, but also of, say, a particular fan community or any other place where your marginalized pleasures and enthusiasms are shared. This experience is sexualized in the sensate orgy scene, which wonderfully shows the erotic currents within that feeling of being around people who get you as you. (There's a certain Stranger in a Stranger Land
element to it, too.) That the orgy is centered around Will (Brian J. Smith), the working class cop who's pretty darn hetero, is a great touch — instead of the queer being welcomed by and into the norm, the norm is brought into the queer. Late in the season, when Will and Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) first encounter each other, Will says something like, "Have we met?" and Lito responds, "Yes, we had sex," and the look on Will's face is perfect: right there, we see him come to grips with the queer within himself.
It's socially that Sense8
really fits into Dyer's rubric, particularly through the experiences of Nomi and Lito. The Wachowskis and Straczynski found a pulpy but effective way to make clear the emotional stakes in Lito's life as a closeted movie heartthrob — if you can sit through some of the later episodes without screaming out at him, "Come out! It'll be okay! Come out, Lito!" then you are stronger than I.
One of the reasons I typically prefer melodrama to verité drama is that I'm not especially interested in "rounded" characters — "roundedness" is a construction that depends on particular conventions and ideologies that I generally find boring and/or exhausted. Dyer gets at how this relates to queer subject matter:
Inscribed in the concept of the well-rounded character is the ideology of individualism, the belief that an individual is above all important in and for himself, rather than a belief in the importance of the individual for her or his class, community, or sisters and brothers. This cardinal precept of bourgeois ideology as against feudal or socialist ideology is built right into the notion of the "rounded character," who may well feel some pulls of allegiance to groups with whom she or he identifies, but who is ultimately seen as distinct and separate from the group, and in many cases, antagonistic to it. Rounded characterization is then far from ideal when you need (as we do) expressions of solidarity, common cause, class consciousness, fraternity and sorority.Sense8
doesn't give us well-rounded characters, at least not in the way Dyer means, though the characterizations have some depth. They're still types, sometimes even clichés. This is melodrama, after all. The ways the actors and writers work with the expectations and possibilities offered by the types and clichés is what's interesting, and the ultimate effect of the show is indeed toward "expressions of solidarity, common cause, class consciousness, fraternity and sorority".
In some obvious ways, Sense8
draws on superhero stories, but the superhero stories it draws on are ones like The X-Men
and Fantastic Four
rather than Superman
, and the kinds of superheroes it gives us are not ones with extraordinary, alien superpowers (beyond the psychic powers), but rather people with specific, relatively human skills who are able to benefit from each other. It is, then, a story of mutual aid.
The premise of people with special psychic powers and particular connections to each other pre-dates superhero stories, and the familiarity of that premise is, I think, actually a virtue of the series. What's innovative is not the basic idea, but the way that idea is developed. The entire first season of twelve episodes (each roughly an hour each) is, in traditional terms, basically set-up. What almost any other series would dispense with in an episode or two, Sense8
spends the season on: the characters discovering their abilities and each other, learning a bit about the malevolent forces that seemingly want to destroy them (but by the end of the season we learn hardly anything about this malevolent force), wandering around. It's a triumph of subplots with the main plot only becoming clearer by the end when the sensates realize they need to band together to protect each other. This allows us to spend a lot of time seeing their circumstances — meeting not just each major character, but developing an understanding of the various minor characters who are the people of their lives. It's a wonderfully humane structure, even if it denies some viewers the sort of plot-driven arc they'd prefer.
I could go on and on about various details I appreciated, including the exquisite use of the divine Jean-Claude van Damme and the sometimes goofy but amazingly powerful use of such familiar songs as "Mad World" and "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" (in the haunting Antony & the Johnsons version
; very well chosen for all sorts of reasons) and, especially, "What's Goin' On" ... but I won't go on. You can make up your own mind. For all the ways Sense8
falls short, for all its faults and even failures, its virtues overwhelmed me, and I'm grateful this show exists, grateful it was made, grateful to have watched it.
By: Matthew Cheney,
Blog: The Mumpsimus
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Over at Press Play, I have a brief text essay about and a video tribute to Christopher Lee
, who died on June 7 at the age of 93. Here's the opening of the essay:
Christopher Lee was the definitive working actor. His career was long, and he appeared in more films than any major performer in the English-speaking world — over 250. What distinguishes him, though, and should make him a role model for anyone seeking a life on stage or screen, is not that he worked so much but that he worked so well. He took that work seriously as both job and art, even in the lightest or most ridiculous roles, and he gave far better, more committed performances than many, if not most, of his films deserved.Read and view more at Press Play.
My friend and colleague (when I was adjuncting at Plymouth State University) Robin DeRosa has been spending a lot of time recently thinking about and working with "open educational resources" (OER), which Wikipedia (today) defines as "freely accessible, openly licensed documents and media that are useful for teaching, learning, and assessing as well as for research purposes."
I've been following Robin's ideas about OER, and at a certain point realized I didn't really understand the conversation. Partly, this was because most of what I was reading was Twitter feeds and Twitter can be confusing, but as an outsider to the OER world, I also didn't know what sorts of assumptions advocates were working from. I was especially concerned when thinking about academic labor — all the talk of giving things away and making things free sounded to me like a wonderful idea that would in practice just devalue academic work and lead to further exploitation within the highly exploitative world of academia. At the same time, I'm strongly attracted to open resources of various sorts (I'm writing this on a blog, after all!), and so, thinking about it all, I felt befuddled.
The easiest way to get answers to my befuddlements and to allay (or stoke) my fears was, of course, to ask Robin some questions. So that's what I did. Originally, I intended this to be more of an interview, with me adding more questions after she answered a few, but her answers to my first set of questions were so comprehensive that I thought adding to it all would be a bit much. Better to get the conversation rolling, and let it play out in the comments section here and/or on Twitter, other websites, etc.
I can't say I'm not still a little befuddled. But Robin's replies to my queries did help clear up some of my primary fears and misconceptions.
And now, before we begin, an official bio:
Robin DeRosa is professor of English and chair of Interdisciplinary Studies at Plymouth State University, and she is also a consultant for the OER Ambassador Pilot at the University of New Hampshire. Recently named as an editor of Hybrid Pedagogy (a digital journal of learning, teaching, and technology), in August 2015 she'll be be a Hybrid Pedagogy Fellow at the Digital Pedagogy Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her essay "Selling the Story: From Salem Village to Witch City" was published by the open uneducational resource The Revelator in 2011.
You can find out more about Robin at her website or follow her on Twitter: @actualham.
Today, Tuesday 9 June, at 8pm EST, Robin will be moderating a Twitter discussion about OER via the hashtag #profchat.
Matthew Cheney: In the idea of open educational resources, what does open mean?
Robin DeRosa: Generally, OER practitioners tend to use the Hewlett Foundation definition of “Open Educational Resources:
OER are teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge.
Another way to think of “open” is to use the libre/gratis definitions of “free.” For materials to be “open,” they need to be both free as in no-cost (gratis) and free as in free to repurpose and share (libre). In addition, we generally think of open materials as allowing learners/teachers to do all of the 5 R’s with those materials: reuse, revise, remix, redistribute, and retain (these are David Wiley’s criteria; the fifth R was added more recently to contrast OER with “free” ebooks that disappear after a certain amount of time, or rental textbooks, etc.). Key to all of this is the Creative Commons license, which is the general way that creators of OER make it easy to share materials. MC: I’ve seen OER offered as a solution to high textbook prices, and that both gives me hope and gives me fear. On the one hand, I’m all for anything that reduces the cost of some of the ridiculous textbook prices out there — I didn’t assign a (pretty good) book on writing about film to my film classes because it was a little paperback that would sell for maybe $12 if it were a trade book but instead retails for almost $2/page. That’s just robbery. I would have loved a website like the Purdue OWL for writing about film. Instead, I made do with a melange of materials.
On the other hand, not all textbooks are the same. Some are actually a good deal for the buyer (The Craft of Research, which I use when I teach first-year composition, is full of great information and is pretty cheap), but more importantly, I think especially in English classes there’s a value to the book as material object, an extraordinary technology of its own, and I don’t want to lose that. (I came to this discipline because I like books! And now I have to get rid of my books?!) Further, I fear the message sent: books should be cheap or free, they shouldn’t have value, paying money for books is a bad thing. That message seems to me disastrous in a bunch of different ways. Schools require students to pay a lot of money in fees for all sorts of things that are not as central to education as books are. Why devalue books?
Before I really jump in on this, I will first state the obvious: much OER has little in common with “books.” OER includes video lectures, podcasts, PPTs, problem sets, simulations, interactive games, quizzes, etc etc etc. But let’s just stay focused on your question, which is about books.
There are so many tendrils that one could follow in responding to this, and I will pick out a few to chew on, but I don’t expect it all to add up to an answer that completes the conversation. Obviously the importance of “the book” in culture is just a terrifically rich site for debate right now, particular amongst those who are interested in the future of the library (or, as we are fond of calling it at my own institution, “the learning commons.” Hey! We are not just about books anymore!). So without touching too much of that, I might suggest a few things. First, I think the end goal of a program without books is a misguided application of OER. Some programs, like Tidewater Community College’s “Z Degree” (in which the “Z” stands for “zero”—hmmm), are garnering huge press over complete degree programs that have no costs for learning materials…which does most likely mean no conventional books. While there may be certain kinds of programs that can thrive intellectually without books, I know that no program in which I currently teach could do that. So I think with OER, it’s very important to really define what we mean by “book.”
I think the definition changes quite a lot from case to case. If a book is just writing that is on paper and bound, then a technical manual on electrical wiring, a biology textbook, a poetry chapbook, and a phone book all qualify. I love a good smelling Borzoi novel, and I don’t think I’d equate the pleasure of reading it to the experience of reading the Grainger industrial catalog (though my partner would actually totally counter me on this). I just offer this to suggest that we might not always know what we mean—and we might not always agree with each other about what we mean—when we say that we “like books.” I think, then, it falls to OER practitioners to determine what the purpose of the book is in the educational process. For example, if the materials are created solely to help students learn (the project for most textbooks, I would imagine), then as a believer in public education, I think those materials should be free to students. The growing availability of OER in most fields is clearly demonstrating that we do not need to pay 3rd-party vendors enormous sums of money to curate and distribute these materials; most open pedagogues actually believe that static, unchanging, single-author, non-collaborative textbooks are generally not as useful as the kinds of materials that generate over time when the materials can be revised by users. So I think where textbooks are concerned, no-cost is a no-brainer, and openly-licensed is in the best interest of the community that textbooks intend to serve.
For other kinds of “books,” open might not make sense. While the public domain license on Shakespeare plays allows for cool remixing, we also do want to read Hamlet in its original and protected form. I think if a book is functioning as an “artifact,” meaning that its stability in its physical form is part of where its value inheres, then that might be more like a commodity, and something to pay for; for this reason, my English courses still often require students to buy novels and other literary texts. Basically, I think every adoption needs to be set into its pedagogical context, and then it should be easier for faculty to make decisions: always choose the text that works best for the learning that’s happening in your course. For textbooks, I think the other benefits that “open” affords (customizing, remixing, collaborating, students shifting from consumers to producers, etc.) make the no-cost condition the least of what’s awesome about choosing OER. In other cases, a book that we pay for may be absolutely perfect (if students can afford it).
I also want to add here that I think there is too much silence amongst OER practitioners about what it means to transfer from a reader of print to a reader of digital materials. While students clearly spend many, many hours a day reading off screens, there is lots of research (please, don’t quote it to me) that suggests that we aren’t processing information the same way when we read digitally. Leaving aside for a minute my own melancholia (manufactured for you, Matthew, since I don’t know if I really have it) about losing “books,” I certainly think that teachers should spend time thinking about what pedagogical work needs to be done if we move a course from print to digital. Most OER has print-on-demand options that allow us to make digital materials look pretty much like conventional books (without the smell and feel and such…I know, I know). But what do we lose when we reify these dynamic materials this way?
My colleague, Scott Robison, who directs my university’s Learning Technologies office, once remarked how interesting it was to browse the materials at a site like Open Stax and see that the OER is organized into what are called “books” (and they look like pictures of books…even though many of them will never exist in three-dimensional printed form). Scott has also raised the question of whether we should talk about the “quality” of OER in the same way that we talk about the “quality” of a textbook (this is a rich debate in the field right now, stemming from a post by David Wiley); OER is only really OER (inasmuch as it depends on its openness) if it is a process, in movement, embedded in pedagogy, and deeply engaged in a reciprocal relationship with its users. I would advocate that we not think about OER as a replacement for books, but think of it as a process, which should be theorized differently from the way that we theorize “books.” The bottom line in terms of practicality here, though, is that I also believe that we need to do better to identify the challenges in digital reading and annotation, so we can begin to create better pedagogical tools to help work through those challenges; in this way, we can fully capitalize on the potential of open materials, a potential which does so often depend on their digital format.
MC: How can OER and an understanding of academic labor as labor work together? Since we don’t (yet) live in a utopian society, we’re stuck in a neoliberal/capitalist system of exploitation, and academia is at least as exploitative as every other institution. How can OER avoid further devaluing academic labor? And not just devalue academic labor, but avoid further expanding the huge divide between the academic haves and have-nots — it’s one thing for a tenured Ivy League professor to give their work away, but what about the adjunct who makes $20,000 a year and has no health insurance or retirement or anything, and who is vastly more typical of today’s professoriate than the tenured Ivy League prof is?
RD: If we think of OER as just free stuff, then we do see some of the same problems inherent in the production of OER as we see with the production of regular textbooks. While it may seem that an adjunct could make out better by publishing a conventional textbook for which they could be paid royalties or even an advance, writing a textbook still takes “free” time, and getting it published still often takes the cred of having a full-time institutional affiliation. For the last collection I published (before I figured out that I really have no interest in publishing this way anymore), I had to switch from one academic press to another because the first one would not take the collection unless I decreased the ratio of non-tenure-track folks (grad students, adjuncts, independent scholars, and non-academics) to tenure-track folks; they requested this after accepting the proposal but before reading any of the content, so this was not about the quality of the work. Academic publishing is a mess right now, and I always want to make sure that when we critique the problems with open publishing, we do that in a way that sets those problems in conversation with the problems in conventional publishing, which are many (I am not enumerating them here).
So OER may be no worse than conventional publishing in terms of the ways that it can exclude contingent labor, but I know there are fears that OER can exploit contingent labor in a particular way. For example, if an adjunct creates some kick-ass OER, is it possible that it might get co-opted by the institution for which she works, and used to dramatically increase revenues by contributing to the production of course shells that are pre-packaged, assigned to very low-cost labor (or maybe, ultimately, used in a course with virtually no teacher at all)? Should an adjunct give away their intellectual property to an institution that doesn’t even pay them a living wage, thereby strengthening the institution and perhaps further devaluing their own importance within it? I don’t want to pretend this isn’t a valid or real concern, but I might offer some other ways to think about OER that are more liberatory, ways that resist rhetoric like “co-opt,” “property,” and “production.”
First, I might suggest that OER is value-less without teachers and students. In other words, you can’t “steal” someone’s OER, because it is not a product with a stable existence that can exist in a constant way outside of how it is situated into a course and engaged with by learners. OER is just free stuff (there’s lots of that all over the internet) if it’s treated this way. But for us to understand the true potential of “open,” we need to help faculty see OER in a more complicated and process-oriented way. Joss Winn and Richard Hall are the two people I look to for help in thinking this through. Winn argues that OER misses the mark by attending to the “freedom of things” rather than the “freedom of people.” He suggests—after problematizing open ed philosophies that fail to critique the private and corporate qualities of university institutions that sustain most open ed work right now – that we should insist on open education as a transformative tool to help us build cooperative forms of higher education. In “Open education and the emancipation of academic labour,” he envisions a post-capitalist model (wasn’t it Whitman who wrote, “Am I a Marxist? Very well, then I am a Marxist”), and he argues that CC licenses should be revised so that they work in concert with a public “commons”; openly licensed materials should be free for non-profits, but for-profit companies would have to contribute back to the commons or else pay a fee to use the materials (more about this proposal can be found in Michel Bauwens’ post on cooperativism in the peer-to-peer age). Basically, the idea here is that education must be for the public good, and that OER is a step toward rethinking where the real value actually is in the educational system (with the people, not with the institutions). This, ultimately, could open us up to a radical restructuring of higher ed, where those who teach and contribute are not exploited by institutions that do little but mediate and discipline academic labor.
Richard Hall really pushes these ideas into territory that excites me, and he’s also been nice enough to talk with me about where to start with some of the good questions you have asked. Hall calls for open, participatory publics and co-ops that firmly situate the value of education within the community. He thinks about MOOCs as spaces that could potentially resist neoliberal projects to control and commodify sites of learning. The pitfalls here are many, as he points out. I myself have given my fair share of OER-related pitches at the administrative level in which I have demonstrated (accurately, I believe) that most institutions stand to make significant financial gains by implementing OER initiatives, even as their students save money and faculty develop new and exciting pedagogies. It sounds like a win-win-win. Many schools use MOOCs to advertise and then sell their closed content and credentials. Again it seems like a win-win: students can study for free, and the institution only gets stronger for it. But if we use “open” as just another marketing tool, we strengthen an educational system that is deeply corrupt. So personally, I have challenged myself to think of “open” as a tool for true transformation, in which we move away from a commodities-driven market and towards a community-oriented conversation. This may not directly produce a living wage for adjunct faculty, or bring them economic gain from their intellectual property. But by focusing on the public good, by shifting intellectual “property” to the intellectual commons, by thinking less about courses, credentials, and copyrights and more about communities, access, and sharing, I think we will ultimately build a higher education landscape that is less exploitive of both students and contingent faculty. Hall notes that this would “abolish the present state of things.” So I realize that lurking throughout this, there is a revolution that would deeply upset many careers and livelihoods, my own included. It’s not a simple path to equity or security, for sure. But for me, open education has some promising foundational philosophy for those of us who are disgusted by the current exploitation in higher ed. I’m sick of being stuck with it, so I am heading this way, walking gingerly and trying to avoid the sly ways that institutional power can co-opt subversive movements and use them as a marketing advantage.
[The discussion continues this evening via the Twitter hashtag #profchat.]
Back in the United States, writers could secretly imagine the same imminent fate for themselves: that when the revolution came in America, they would become its heroes—or even its leaders.
This grandiosity helps explain why apparently intelligent writers would sign on to a project so manifestly unintelligent as America’s invasion of Iraq, confident it would go exactly as planned. We find a clue in a children’s book published in 1982 by Paul Berman, The Nation’s
onetime theater critic, who went on to a career as a self-described “liberal” booster of Dick Cheney’s adventure in Iraq, framing it as an existential struggle against Islamic fascism. It was called Make-Believe Empire: A How-To Book,
and it is described by the Library of Congress as “A fantasy-craft book which tells how to construct a capital city and an imperial navy…. Provides instructions for writing laws, decrees, proclamations, treaties, and imperial odes.”
Left or right, it doesn’t much matter: it sure is a bracing feeling for the chair-bound intellectual to imagine himself the drivetrain in the engine of history. Or at the very least a prophet, standing on the correct side of history and looking down upon moral midgets who insist the world is more complicated than all that.
|sitting in my office, contemplating what to write...|
I've been wanting to try out TinyLetter
for a little while now, having subscribed to a few newsletters that use it, and so I took some time to create a newsletter aimed at sending out information, musings, etc. about my upcoming collection, Blood: Stories
, which Black Lawrence Press will release in January.
Why create such a thing when I've already got this here blog? Because I think of this blog as a more general thing, not really a newsletter. I will put all important information about Blood
here (as well as on Twitter
, and I'll make a Facebook author page one of these days), but the newsletter will have more in-depth material, such as details of the publishing process, background on the stories, etc. There will be some exclusive content and probably even some give-aways, etc. I probably should have titled it Etc., in fact... And it's not all limited to Blood
— if you take a look at the first letter
, you'll see some of the range I'm aiming for. That letter is public, and some of the future ones will be, too, but for the most part I expect to keep the letters private for subscribers only. (I've always wanted to be part of a cabal, and now I've started my own!)
One of the things I note in that first letter is that Mike Allen is running a Kickstarter
to raise funds for his fifth Clockwork Phoenix
anthology, and all backers can now read a 2006 story of mine that Mike first published, "In Exile"
. This is, as far as I remember, the only story I've ever published set in the typical fantasy world of elves and wizards and all that. (To learn why, read the newsletter!) Mike made an editorial suggestion for the manuscript that completely fixed a major problem with the story, so I've always been tremendously grateful to him, and I'm thrilled that it's now available to backers of this very worthy Kickstarter.
It is with tremendous sadness that I share news I received this morning from my friend David Beronä's family: David passed away peacefully at home last night. He'd been fighting a brain tumor for about a year and a half, and so while the news is not quite a surprise, it is a blow.
I interviewed David
for Colleen Lindsay's blog The Swivet
in 2009, where we talked about his Wordless Books: The Original Graphic Novels
, which had recently been published by Abrams. I knew very little about graphic narratives before meeting David, and he gave me an extraordinary education over the years, as his knowledge was vast and his passion was thrilling.
Eric Schaller and I had the honor of publishing what David told us was the last piece of writing that he completed before getting sick, the essay "Franz Masereel's Picture Books Against War"
, which appeared in last year's issue of our magazine The Revelator
. David, Eric, and I did a bunch of work together, beginning with the Illustrating VanderMeer
exhibit at Plymouth State University, where, until he got sick, David was Dean of Library and Academic Support Services.
The last time I saw David was at a retirement reception for him where the University dedicated a gallery wall of the library in his name. It was a bittersweet moment — so nice to see David being celebrated, so sad to have to say goodbye. Soon, he and his wife moved to Ohio to be closer to David's family. I didn't do a good job of keeping in touch, though I've thought of David frequently since he moved (which is no excuse for not being a better friend, but is the truth).
This past term, my last term of classes as a PhD student, I took a marvelous seminar on graphic narratives, and so David was constantly on my mind, and again and again I found myself returning to things he'd taught me, writers and artists whose work he'd introduced me to, ideas he had shared. I presented at the Dartmouth Illustration, Comics, and Animation Conference
, a conference David always attended when he could. That I had any confidence at all presenting in front of a bunch of comics scholars and enthusiasts was very much because I'd been able to talk about so much with David over the years. It would have been fun to have been there with him.
In the short notes he was able to send out to friends after beginning treatment, written against the aphasia the tumor imposed, David exhorted us to cherish our health, and especially our brains. (His life had changed completely over the course of a single weekend.) He spoke of the anger he felt at first when he realized how much he'd lost, and then the peace he found in accepting the vagaries of life, the good and bad, the love of friends and family, the little things and the everyday moments — the things that, in the end, linger longest. (The irony was, I'm sure, not lost on him that he was a man who'd written much about wordless books, and then had lost his words.) He returned to painting, and he was glad to find a good comics shop in the town he moved to in Ohio. He went for long walks in the woods. He spent his last year with family, and he knew that he had friends around the country and, indeed, around the world who were thinking of him.
He lives on in the knowledge he shared with us and the joy that he inspired. My life has been tremendously enriched by all he taught me, but, more than any of that, what I will carry as a memory of him forever is the memory of his smile. He never lost some of the wonder of childhood, and you could see it in his smile.
It's hard to smile today, but for David, I will try.
|Lynd Ward, from God's Man|
Yesterday was the 70th birthday of my favorite filmmaker, Rainer Werner Fassbinder
. He wasn't around to see it, having died at age 37, but I celebrated for him by watching Querelle
again. (I was tempted to do a Berlin Alexanderplatz
marathon today, but I do actually have to get some work done...)
I've written various things about Fassbinder over the years, so here's a roundup and then some 70th birthday thoughts:
Fassbinder isn't around anymore to make some wishes on his birthday, so I'll make a few in his stead...
Of course, my primary wish is for everybody on Earth to recognize and celebrate Fassbinder's genius. But I can be more specific:
My greatest wish is for a release of Eight Hours Don't Make a Day
. As far as I can tell, it's never been released on home video anywhere, and has hardly ever been shown since its premiere on German television in the early '70s.
Criterion is doing a good job of putting together excellent home video versions of many of the films. With luck, they'll solve whatever rights problems led them to put their wonderful BRD Trilogy set
out of print, and will continue releasing extra-features-rich versions of the major films, as they recently have with The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant
and The Merchant of Four Seasons
. I hope, given that they've been able to stream them on Hulu, Effi Briest, Fox and His Friends,
and Mother Küsters
are in line for similar treatment. I'd love to see a "Queer Fassbinder" set: Fox, In a Year of 13 Moons,
together, preferably with good commentaries and essays to help viewers work through the wonderful challenges those films offer.
Finally, we need someone to write a good, comprehensive biography. There are a few good Fassbinder books out there (my favorites of Thomas Elsaesser's Fassbinder's Germany
and Wallace Steadman Watson's Understanding Rainer Werner Fassbinder
, along with Juliane Lorenz's collection Chaos as Usual: Conversations About Rainer Werner Fassbinder
), but there's no good biography that I'm aware of. (Robert Katz's 1989 biography is an atrocity and shall not be spoken of.) Telling the story of Fassbinder's life day by day would be a tremendous, perhaps impossible, challenge, but the attempt would be worthwhile because it's so difficult to get a sense of how those days fit together — he would work on a film while also working on stage plays and radio plays, writing new scripts, getting financing for upcoming works, traveling to festivals — it's dizzying just to think about.
Fassbinder continues to offer riches to us even now. I wish, of course, that he'd made it to the age of an elder statesman (I'd trade significant portions of my anatomy to see what he would have done with digital cameras), but he lived so fast, so productively, and so brilliantly that though he died young, we're still working through his oeuvre in a way we aren't with even great filmmakers who lived to ripe old age. So happy birthday, RWF. We're celebrating even in your absence.
In my review of John Clute's collection Stay,
I had some fun at Clute's expense with his passionate hatred of certain types of academic citation, and I pointed out that often the problem is not with the official citation format, which usually has some sort of logic (one specific, perhaps, to its discipline), but rather that the problem is in the failure to follow the guidelines and/or to adjust for clarity — I agreed that some of the citations used in Andrew Milner’s Locating Science Fiction
are less than helpful or elegant, but the fault seemed to me to lie at least as much with Milner and Liverpool University Press as with the MLA
or University of Chicago Press
or anybody else. Just because there are guidelines does not mean that people follow them.
I now have an example from an MLA publication itself, and it's pretty egregious, though I may only feel that way because it involves me.
The citation is in the book Approaches to Teaching Coetzee's Disgrace and Other Works
edited by Laura Wright, Jane Poyner, and Elleke Boehmer, published by the MLA as part of their Approaches to Teaching World Literature series
. It's a good series generally and it's a good book overall.
But in Patricia Merivale's essay "Who's Appropriating Whose Voice in Coetzee's Life & Times of Michael K
", we see this passage on page 153:
Most Coetzee critics seem more committed to the "movements" [of the mind] than to the "form." Teachers of Coetzee should attempt to redress the balance, perhaps by following Michael Cheney's blogged example: "I realized that I was marking up my teaching copy of Michael K, as if I were marking up a poem ... lots of circled words, [and] 'cf.'s referring me to words and phrases in other parts of the book ... an overall tone-structure, a scaffold of utterance" (my emphasis).
The sentiment and some of the phrasing in that quotation seemed familiar to me, as did the writer's last name. Could there be a Michael Cheney out there writing about Coetzee? Sure. (I recently met Michael Chaney
, a wonderful scholar at Dartmouth. We had fun trying to decide who's a doppelgänger of whom...) But I was suspicious. I looked at the Works Cited section of the book and found this:
Cheney, Michael. "Review of Life & Times of Michael K." J.M. Coetzee Watch #12. Matilda. Perry Middlemiss, 22 Oct 2008. Web. 21 Aug. 2009.
Apparently, there actually is a Michael Cheney out there writing about Coetzee. Good for him! But what is this J.M. Coetzee Watch
? Sounds like something I'd be interested in. And Matilda
? And Perry Middlemiss? Huh?
After a few Google searches, I found the source. It is this: A blog called Matilda
run by Perry Middlemiss, with a series of linkdump posts titled "J.M. Coetzee Watch". In "J.M. Coetzee Watch #12"
, we find this paragraph:
Review of Life and Times of Michael K.
Michael Cheney, whose "The Mumpsimus" weblog is one of the best litblogs around, has been teaching Life and Times of Michael K. for his course on Outsiders, considers what appeals to him about Coetzee: "As I read Michael K. this time, I tried to think about what it is in Coetzee's work that so appeals to me. It's no individual quality, really, because there are people who have particular skills that exceed Coetzee's. There are many writers who are more eloquent, writers with more complex and evocative structures, writers of greater imagination...And then I realized that I was marking up my teaching copy of Michael K. as if I were marking up a poem. I looked, then, at my teaching copy of Disgrace, from when I used it in a class a few years ago. The same thing. Lots of circled words, lots of 'cf.'s referring me to words and phrases in other parts of the book. Lots of sounds building on sounds, rhythms on rhythms in a way that isn't particularly meaningful in itself, but that contributes to an overall tone-structure, a scaffold of utterance to hold up the shifting meanings of the story and characters."
Well, golly. Michael Cheney is me! Thank you, Perry Middlemiss, for the kind words. I don't even especially care that my name is wrong there, because at least the post includes a link so that readers can follow it back to my own post "Scattered Thoughts on Michael K. [sic] and Others"
. (I've added that [sic]
there to point out my own mistake of adding a period to the title of Life and Times of Michael K
, which I unthinkingly did back then. Merivale changed at least one of those periods to a comma when [mis]quoting me. Mistakes upon mistakes upon mistakes...) Michael K, Michael Cheney — easy to see how such a mistake could be made. People make mistakes in blog posts; it goes with the territory of writing quickly, sometimes haphazardly, without an editor.
But I'm less forgiving of Patricia Merivale's mistake, because hers is not in a blog post but rather a book — a book published by the
major professional organization for our discipline — and it's a mistake that would have been at least ameliorated if she had taken the minor effort of actually following the link back to its source. Which is what you are supposed to do, especially if you are a scholar. ("Whenever you can, take material from the original source, not a secondhand one." MLA Guideline 6.4.7, both 6th and 7th editions of the MLA Handbook
.) I make first-year undergraduates do this, and they whine and complain, but the value is clear. Trace the source back to its origin if at all possible, because if you don't, the chance of replicating somebody else's mistakes, or at least their assumptions, is much greater.
If Patricia Merivale had made the tiny effort of clicking on that link and tracing the source back to its origin, she would have discovered that 1.) my name is Matthew Cheney, not Michael Cheney; and 2.) it's not a book review, it's an informal, scattered blog post that I happened to write on my birthday in 2008.
Even though the MLA guidelines for citation of electronic sources changed a bit just as Merivale was writing her essay (the 7th edition of the MLA Handbook
came out in 2009), Merivale's citation is wrong in multiple ways under any version of the MLA guidelines — she didn't go back to the original source, she mistakes a subheading for a title in Middlemiss's post, she italicizes the name of the post (should be in quotes, with the title of the site italicized), she throws in Middlemiss's name without indicating why (at the least it should be "Matilda.
Ed. Perry Middlemiss." — though that would be nonstandard, it at least would be clearer). And though the current guidelines for MLA do not require that a URL be included, it's allowed (see 5.6.1 or the Purdue OWL
), and in this case it would have been helpful — I tell students that if they're struggling to figure out what to do with a web citation, to include the URL just for good measure, since it may save a reader time in tracking down the source, even if the URL changes (because maybe the Wayback Machine
Anyway, the point is: Merivale's citation is unambiguously, absolutely wrong.
And it got into an MLA publication. Mistakes happen, and in a book like this one with 20 pages of Works Cited, mistakes are almost inevitable. Merivale's original citation is a disaster, and more careful editors would have caught it because it is nonstandard and can't be parsed according to any MLA guidelines I know.
Does it matter? Not much. Sure, I'd like my name to be known correctly. I'd also like as many citations as I can get, since in academia, highly-cited writers have far more success than less-cited writers. But there's no way that one blog post being cited in one article in one book in a large series of books is going to have a big effect on my life or career.
But it's annoying. And it's disappointing. Scholars should be better than this. We should be especially careful with our citations, because we all know that we live and die by citation. Merivale's and the editors' failures here were easily preventable. That citation is flat-out wrong because nobody took the time to do it right, and doing it right would not have required a lot of effort or even special knowledge.
Trace your sources back to their origin if at all possible, double-check people's names, follow the basic guidelines in the MLA Handbook
Here, for the record, is a better version of that citation:
Cheney, Matthew. “Scattered Thoughts on Michael K. and Others.” The Mumpsimus. 17 Oct. 2008. Web. 2 June 2015.
Seeking something else, I came across this review I wrote in 2006 of Paris Press's
editions of two books by the extraordinary Bryher. It was first published in the Fall 2006 issue of Rain Taxi
. I don't think it's ever been put online, so I'm happy to release it into the wild here. (The quotation page numbers were included for copyediting and not in the published version, but I figure they might be useful, so I've kept them in. Also, for more samples from The Heart to Artemis
, see this post
Living in a Time of Transition: Two Books by Bryher
by Matthew Cheney
Paris Press ($15.00)
"I found my study of history of great practical value," Bryher writes in The Heart to Artemis. "It helped me to assess the future and to be aware of change." Awareness of change runs through the veins of Bryher's body of work, and Paris Press deserves much praise for bringing some of that work back into print. With the majority of her work now out of print, Bryher has been known, if she has been known at all, primarily for her long relationship with the poet H.D. and for her support of many of the major figures of the Modernist movement, but she was a fascinating writer herself, and one deeply deserving continued notice.
The daughter of a wealthy British industrialist, Bryher spent much of her childhood in Egypt, France, Greece, and elsewhere.
Her only experience of formal schooling came later, and left her mostly bitter about institutionalized education.
Again and again in The Heart to Artemis
she states that the openness of her upbringing allowed her to develop an insatiable intellectual curiosity and an independent spirit in a society structured to prevent women from having either.
"The greatest gift parents can give their children," she writes, "is experience.
It is far more valuable than either care or money."  Experience, though, needs an environment in which it is meaningful: "How much more peaceful the world might be if there were fewer checks upon development imposed in childhood!
I do not mean licence, there must be discipline but to save ourselves trouble we do not let children work through the various stages of development at their own time and there is too much imposition of socially acceptable ideas upon a growing mind." 
The most vivid sections of The Heart to Artemis
occur in the first half, as Bryher chronicles the experiences of her childhood and reflects on the changes in the world since the late Victorian era.
She was not entirely free from the imposition of socially acceptable ideas, but her experiences in different societies and cultures allowed few such ideas to sink unquestioned into her mind, and so when she began reading contemporary poetry in the early years of the twentieth century, she was particularly well prepared for the excitement of its innovations.
Surprisingly, the least memorable scenes in The Heart to Artemis
involve the many well-known writers and artists Bryher knew in her adulthood.
After the extraordinary chapters about her childhood, in which every detail is fresh and suggestive, the quicker pace and more fragmentary nature of the later scenes is a bit of a disappointment.
Though Bryher's eye in the later scenes remains sharp, she staunchly avoids writing about the intimate details of the lives of the people she knew, which makes many of the passages feel thin.
The final chapters, though, regain the richness of the first chapters, because Bryher early on recognized the dangers posed by the Nazis in Germany and the Fascists in Italy, and she became a brave and tireless activist for refugees.
She writes gracefully about her activities, conveying a sense of both moral duty and adventure, and her compassion for the people she helped is clear in the care with which she chronicles their experiences.
She ends the book with the beginning of World War Two, and the last paragraphs brilliantly and devastatingly evoke the anxiety and terror of that time.
History was Bryher's favorite subject, and most of her novels are set in the past. The Player's Boy is an odd and unsettling book about England from 1605 to 1626, the story of an apprentice to the theatre named James Sands—a boy whose masters die before they can ever train him properly, a man whose uncertainty in life reflects the uncertainties of his era. Each of the five chapters of The Player's Boy tells a mostly self-contained story of one particular time in James Sands's life, often through the stories characters relate to each other. The language is lightly Elizabethan (the Elizabethan dramatists being particular favorites of Bryher), but not in a stilted way; through careful attention to diction and to particular details of scenery, Bryher efficiently evokes the setting and circumstances of the novel, creating in a little more than two hundred pages what a less subtle and skilled writer could not do at twice the length. Because of this efficiency, The Player's Boy does not benefit from hasty reading; it requires the reader to slow down and let each sentence live.
Reading the two books together is a particularly rewarding experience, because The Heart to Artemis expands upon many of the ideas and emotions The Player's Boy suggests —most effectively, the experience of living in a time of transition. James Sands never comes to terms with the shifts in his society, he never finds a foundation for himself, and he ends up dissatisfied with life and the world. Bryher escaped this fate herself, perhaps because of her awareness of the forces of history. While she is careful to show how much she loved and needed the innovative art and artists of her time, she is also remarkably clear-eyed about the delusions artists can hold about themselves: "'It's got to be new,' we chanted because old forms were saturated with the war memories that both former soldiers and civilians wanted to forget. We were too savage, too contemptuous, but would you have had us be prudent? We did not realise at the time that it was not the concepts themselves that were at fault but the way that they had been used."  Such a willingness to accept the new, while also demanding honesty in its use, distinguishes all of Bryher's work, and the truth of her commitments reveals itself in the remarkably contemporary feel of her writing.
By: Matthew Cheney,
Blog: The Mumpsimus
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It is unfortunate that, so far as I can tell, Oxford University Press
has not yet released an affordable edition of Peter J. Kalliney's Commonwealth of Letters
, a fascinating book that is filled with ideas and information and yet also written in an engaging, not especially academic, style. It could find a relatively large audience for a book of its type and subject matter, and yet its publisher has limited it to a very specific market.
I start with this complaint not only because I would like to be able to buy a copy for my own use that does not cost more than $50, but because one of the many things Kalliney does well is trace the ways decisions by publishers affect how books, writers, and ideas are received and distributed. A publisher's decision about the appropriate audience for a book can be a self-fulfilling prophecy (or an unmitigated disaster). OUP has clearly decided that the audience for Commonwealth of Letters
is academic libraries and rich academics. That's unfortunate.
Modernism and postcolonialism have typically been seen (until recently) as separate endeavors, but Kalliney shows that, in the British context, at least, the overlap between modernist and (post)colonial writers was significant. Modernist literary institutions developed into postcolonial literary institutions, at least for a little while. (Kalliney shows also how this development was very specific to its time and places. After the early 1960s, things changed significantly, and by the early 1980s, the landscape was almost entirely different.) Of course, writers on the history of colonial and post-colonial publishing have traced the effects of various publishing decisions (book design, marketing, etc.) before, especially with regard to how late colonial and early postcolonial writers were sold in the mid-20th century. Scholars have toiled in archives for a few decades to dig out exactly how the African Writers Series
, for instance, distributed its wares. The great virtue of Kalliney's book is not that it does lots of new archival research (though there is some), but that it draws connections between other scholars' efforts, synthesizes a lot of previous scholarship, and interprets it all in often new and sometimes quite surprising ways.
Another of the virtues of the book is that though it has a central thesis, there is enough density of ideas that you could, I expect, reject the central thesis and still find value in a lot of what Kalliney presents. That primary argument is (to reduce it to its most basic form) that the high modernist insistence on aesthetic autonomy was both attractive and useful for late colonial and early postcolonial writers.
Undoubtedly, late colonial and early postcolonial writers attacked imperialism in both their creative and expository work. But this tendency to politicize their texts was complemented by the countervailing and even more potent demand to be recognized simply as artists, not as artists circumscribed by the pernicious logic of racial difference. the prospect of aesthetic autonomy — in particular, the idea that a work of art exists, and could circulate, without a specifically racialized character — would be used as a lever by late colonial and early postcolonial writers to challenge racial segregation in the fields of cultural production. (6)
Kalliney is able to develop this idea in a way that portrays colonial and postcolonial writers as thoughtful, complex people, not just dupes of the maybe-well-intentioned-but-probably-exploitive modernists. In Kalliney's portrait, writers such as Claude McKay and Ayi Kwei Armah demonstrate a sympathy for certain tenets of modernism (and its institutions) as well as the shrewdness to recognize what within modernist ideas was useful. Such shrewdness allowed them not only to get published and recognized, but also to reconfigure modernist methods for their own purposes and circumstances.
Kalliney's approach is at odds with many past histories of modernism, colonial writers, and postcolonialism, as he notes: "In the not-too-distant past, it was possible to write about white and black modernism — and white and black aesthetic traditions — as if they were completely separate, even antagonistic, ventures" (7). But attention to writers' actual practices and communication, as well as to the behavior of various publishing institutions, shows complex networks and affiliations that influenced world literatures for decades:
...late colonial and early postcolonial writers, by making a strong case for the continuing relevance of aesthetic autonomy, became some of high modernism's most faithful and innovative readers from the 1930s forward. The relative lateness of the time period in this book — the years 1930-1970 being relatively late in the modernist game — will be a significant feature of my method, for it was during this period that high modernist principles were institutionalized on a global scale. Late colonial and early postcolonial intellectuals were instrumental in this process. (10)
And it wasn't just that modernist techniques and concepts proved useful for writers from outside the (white) metropolis. The general sense among the London literati after World War II that English literature was now bereft of originality and vision opened a space for anglophone colonial writers to be, for a brief time, sought out and celebrated not merely as examples of an exotic other, but as purveyors of fresh aesthetics.
This is especially clear in Kalliney's discussion of Amos Tutuola (one of the best explorations of Tutuola's work that I've read). Tutuola's Palm Wine Drinkard
was published by Faber & Faber, where T.S. Eliot was on the board, and the book's early reception in Britain — including a laudatory review by Dylan Thomas — celebrated the book as "linguistically spontaneous and imaginatively unprecedented. In short, they read his early texts as a self-standing project, quite unencumbered by literary precedents, owing little to the accomplishments of other writers" (149). This was heightened by Faber's choices in packaging and marketing the book, "reflecting a tension between the novel as an ethnographic curiosity and as a creatively original literary object" (160). They included a facsimile of a page from Tutuola's handwritten manuscript with some copyedits in the margins, which simultaneously encouraged a kind of ethnographic reading of the book and asserted the authenticity of the book's unconventional style. But they also did not provide an introduction by a famous white writer or provide any biographical information about Tutuola, and so allowed a certain autonomy for the text itself. (Later books would come with introductions and biographical information, as Faber tried to explain/control how to make sense of Tutuola's technique.)
Kalliney is skilled at setting up (admittedly schematic) comparisons to show the complexities and continuities of literary history. In some cases, his material is so well chosen and structured that he doesn't have to spell out the comparisons. For instance, by placing his chapter about Tutuola next to a chapter about the African Writers Series, Kalliney sets us up to compare the policies and proclivities of Faber & Faber with those of Heinemann, who published the AWS. Faber had no interest in "Africanness" or in anti-colonial politics, really. They didn't publish Tutuola because he was African or because his work offered opposition to colonialism — indeed, one of the persistent criticisms of Tutuola has been that his writing is too politically disengaged. Faber was attracted to Tutuola because he wasn't like any of their other writers, and so they could fit him into a general modernist critical frame that privileged novelty over all else. "Make it new" was holy writ. (What could be perceived as valuably "new" was, of course, culturally mediated, but that's a conversation for another day.) That holy writ would harm Tutuola later, though, as he wasn't seen to be developing from book to book but rather repeating himself, a cardinal sin.
The African Writers Series (AWS) was founded in 1962 by Heinemann Educational Books, and Kalliney does a fine job of showing how the AWS from its beginning relied on African teachers and schools for its success — not only were the sales figures for AWS titles until the early 1980s many times greater in Africa, and particularly Nigeria, than in Britain or the U.S., but the books themselves frequently portrayed students and schools within their narratives. Heinemann was able to expand the series by capitalizing on its already-existing infrastructure for textbooks. The effect was striking and continues to this day, even though the AWS doesn't really exist anymore and the height of its influence was forty years ago. Nonetheless, because of its unique position and resources, the AWS defined the idea of "African literature", for good or ill, and its most successful books remain the most prominent on high school and college syllabi throughout the English-speaking world, even as many of those books are now housed at different publishers.Commonwealth of Letters
begins with a discussion of "Modernist Networks and Late Colonial Intellectuals", then continues to a chapter on Nancy Cunard's Negro
anthology and the place of anthologies as tools within both modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Because it ranges far and wide, this chapter is somewhat less satisfying than others, but it's a good starting place because it shows just how complex the various modernist networks were, and how distorting it can be to try to generalize about ideologies and affiliations. Kalliney begins with Cunard, then moves on to the ways Negro
differs from other anthologies in its structure and content, then to modernist skepticism of anthologizing, to Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, and Ezra Pound. The breadth of the chapter reflects the breadth of Cunard's anthology (which is so huge it's hardly ever been reprinted in its complete form), and Kalliney does a good job of bringing the various strands back to Cunard — but an entire book could be written about the topic, so the chapter feels like an appetizer for what's to come, which in some ways it is. (It makes an interesting supplement to Jane Marcus's discussion of Cunard in Hearts of Darkness
, a book that could stand as a kind of shadow companion to much that's in the first chapters of Commonwealth of Letters
Chapter 3 is in some ways the most provocative and eye-opening, mostly in how it re-situates F.R. Leavis
. Yes, Leavis. Mr. Great Tradition. The title of the chapter is "For Continuity: FR Leavis, Kamau Braithwaite, and Ngugi wa Thiong'o", and Kalliney shares information from letters he discovered from 1953 between Kamau Brathwaite
and Henry Swanzy, director of the BBC program Caribbean Voices:
Brathwaite was studying history at Cambridge, where Leavis taught most of his career, reaching perhaps the height of his influence in the years Brathwaite spent there. The young historian and aspiring poet had won an island scholarship in 1950, coincidentally going to England in the same year as George Lamming, VS Naipaul, and Sam Selvon. In the first note, Swanzy disagrees with some of Brathwaite's opinions about Caribbean literature, saying that Brathwaite's position was too derivative of IA Richards and FR Leavis.... In response to Swanzy, Brathwaite disputes the idea that Richards and Leavis could be lumped together, calling them "incompatible" figures. Apparently, Brathwaite had been supplementing his training in history by attending Leavis's lectures, going on to say, "I am Dr. Leavis' man — for the very good reason that he fell like manna to my search. Because in him I found a road to run my attitude to literature on." (76-77)
Kalliney goes on to say that we might be tempted, as he was, to write this off as youthful enthusiasm, not something that had any long-lasting effect on Brathwaite's established critical approach, an approach which may seem like a flat-out rejection of Leavisite principles. But Kalliney thinks that, though of course Brathwaite was not an uncritical follower of Leavis, the traces are clear: both shared a strong interest in the world of T.S. Eliot, for instance. But far more importantly: "Postcolonial analysis of the English department would ultimately take its cue from Leavisite ambivalence about the proper function and chronic malfunctioning of disciplinary institutions. Postcolonial literature and literary criticism inherited Leavisite attitudes about the pleasures and unpleasantness associated with English departments" (77). Further:
With important modifications, Brathwaite and Ngugi both adopt the Leavisite stance toward capitalism. More important, both accept the basic Leavisite position on the value of folk culture and a living language. ... In fact, both Brathwaite and Ngugi urge other postcolonial writers to emulate the examples of Shakespeare and Wordsworth, doing for their own languages and cultures what members of the great tradition had done for metropolitan English. If they ultimately dispute the relevance of the great tradition, it is because the English literary canon, as it was taught in actually existing universities, is not Leavisite enough — that is, not sufficiently responsive to the living languages and culture of emergent postcolonial societies. (80)
The fourth chapter, "Metropolitan Modernism and Its West Indian Interlocutors" is another chapter that ranges across so much material that the effect of reading it is vertiginous, though Kalliney does an especially fine job here of keeping markers in place and reiterating his central argument. Page after page offers insights, revelations, and revisions of received wisdom (e.g. "It is striking how often members of the 1950s literary establishment deemed West Indian intellectuals insiders, peers, and proteges rather than inferiors, hacks, or intruders" ). Again and again, Kalliney shows how, despite racism and colonialist assumptions, the literati felt a kind of common outsiderness (mostly aesthetic, but to some extent social as well) with writers from Africa and the Caribbean. This feeling could often be paternalistic, but it also proved quite useful to the young (post)colonial writers, especially the writers of the Windrush generation
Despite its many valuable insights, this chapter needed more, it seems to me, on C.L.R. James
. Kalliney offers a useful reading of James's cricket book, Beyond a Boundary
, in the first chapter, and here in the fourth he notes the influence of James's novel Minty Alley,
but there's so much more that could and, in my view, should be said about James in this particular context. But I suppose the same could be said about lots of things in any of these chapters, given the breadth of what Kalliney is discussing. But still, in a book about influences and the transition from modernism to postcolonialism, James seems to me to scream out for more attention.
Kalliney's penultimate chapter looks at the work of Jean Rhys, particularly her 1934 novel Voyage in the Dark
(which she said she'd based at least partly on diaries from 20 years earlier), some of her short stories, and her final novel, Wide Sargasso Sea.
There remains ... a fine difference between Rhys and other white modernists on the question of a cross-racial imagination. In Voyage in the Dark, as in Rhys's memoirs, we encounter a young white woman who sympathizes with black feelings of alienation and even wants to be black — but realizes that she cannot swap her racial identity, either in real life or in her fiction. This marks a subtle but important difference from other interwar writers such as TS Eliot or Ezra Pound, who are liable to interject black vernacular speech into their work when it suits them. On the whole, white modernist writers tend to be far less relexive than Rhys in their cross-racial fantasies and in their use of black vernacular, rarely stopping to consider how black people might respond to their minstrelsy. With Rhys, we have a protagonist who wants to be black but finds herself blocked — perhaps a more transparent and ultimately more devastating rendition of the cross-racial imagination available to white modernist writers. This difference, subtle as it may be, reminds us that the early Rhys is not quite indistinguishable from Left Bank colleagues where racial attitudes are concerned. (233)
That paragraph gives a good overview of Kalliney's view of Rhys, which is nuanced and even a bit conflicted, although that conflictedness is as much Rhys's as Kalliney's, for as he notes, her personal views of colonialism were similar to William Faulkner's views of Southern racism and segregation: a sense of horror at the injustices mixed with nostalgia for elements of the old white order, and ultimately a terror of revolution. Like Faulkner's, though, Rhys's fiction was more complex and intelligent than her own socio-political analysis, and Kalliney is mostly sensitive to the ways that her fiction transcended her personal limitations, especially later in life. It would have been interesting to see him address some of the ideas Delia Konzett offers regarding Rhys in Ethnic Modernisms: Anzia Yezierska, Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Rhys, and the Aesthetics of Dislocation
, where Rhys is read a bit more sympathetically as a writer who ethnicizes whiteness, but Kalliney does a good job of exploring a lot of the Rhys scholarship while also fitting her work into his overall argument quite effectively. (And in any case, I'm biased toward Konzett's book because she's at my university, on my Ph.D. exam committee, and discusses in some depth my favorite Rhys novel, Good Morning, Midnight
"Why Rhys?" one might ask of Kalliney's choice to devote an entire chapter to this particular writer. Obviously, Rhys is a great bridge between modernism and post-colonialism, being a white woman born in the Caribbean, whose first literary identification was with the Left Bank of Paris in the late '20s and through the '30s. She was first championed by the über modernist Ford Maddox Ford
(who named her and helped her figure out how to turn her writings into fiction), associated with various modernist circles, and then effectively disappeared — when the actress Selma Vaz Diaz wanted to adapt Good Morning, Midnight
for the BBC in 1949, she had to take out a newspaper ad in search of Rhys. The legend of Jean Rhys was useful for marketing, however: "If Jean Rhys of the 1930s might appear blissfully unaware of herself as a commercial entity, Jean Rhys of the 1960s is a product of a carefully designed marketing strategy" (226-227). In Kalliney's telling, Rhys benefited significantly from the interest in postcolonial writers and postcolonial reading strategies, and Wide Sargasso Sea
was especially attractive to white liberals in the metropolis who could feel perhaps more sympathy for the gently anti-imperial implications of the novel than for some of the more radical work of other, younger Caribbean writers of the era. Rhys was a cultural anti-imperialist, but not at all comfortable with nationalisms that rejected, and revolted against, the colonial order.
In many ways, the end of this chapter serves as a conclusion to Commonwealth of Letters
, with the chapter that is labeled the conclusion being a kind of addendum. At the end of the chapter on Rhys, Kalliney again sums up his argument, beginning from the assertion that "postcolonial literature has been instrumental in reaffirming and redefining the status of experimentation in literature" (242). Rhys serves not only as a human link between modernism and postcolonialism, but also as beacon of changes to come. "Looking forward, the particularities of her career anticipate the institutional fracture of postwar anglophone literature" (243) — a fracture that Kalliney identifies as between politically radical work supported and published by small institutions and work that could be more easily accepted and promoted by major metropolitan institutions.
His concluding chapter offers a provocative comparison that shows the changes in the British and postcolonial literary landscape from the 1970s to now. The comparison is between the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM)
and the Booker Prize
. The two endeavors contrast significantly, and Kalliney uses them to show the development of his main argument:
The example of CAM shows how the modernist doctrine of aesthetic autonomy — especially the idea that the arts should be relatively independent of material considerations and instrumental politics — had become, by the last decades of the century, closely associated with minority arts initiatives. By contrast, the example of the Booker Prize shows how a belated effort to affirm cultural bonds across the commonwealth could turn the racial competitiveness of literary culture to lasting commercial use. In the process, it would help attenuate the claims of autonomy so often projected by members of the literary professions at midcentury. (247)
In discussing the Booker, Kalliney looks closely John Berger's controversial
acceptance speech in 1972, when Berger both stood up for aesthetic autonomy and highlighted the prize sponsors' connections to, and profits from, imperialism. This controversy, Kalliney says, strengthened the prize's public image by making it seem like something worth fighting over, and later controversies only helped to increase its apparent cultural importance and to assert the importance of London to literary culture.
Each Booker winner is immediately hailed as a national asset, every victorious novel seen to enhance the cultural prestige of the winner's place of origin. Moreover, the annual award ceremony provides a convenient platform for critics to ponder the state of metropolitan fiction. Not surprisingly, these annual meditations often rehearse arguments that have been in place for half a century or more: metropolitan writing is bland and timid, and yet there is hope that it will be reinvigorated by its encounter with the fresh, adventurous writing arriving yearly to challenge the place of the former imperial masters. (256)
The ending of the book feels a bit rushed, because in trying to show how things have changed since the mid-20th century, Kalliney can only gesture toward the many forces affecting writing and its distribution and reception. It's too bad, for instance, that Kalliney doesn't have the space to extend his discussion to the Caine Prize for African Writing
or to the Norton Anthology of English Literature
, or, well, any thousand other topics. But of course that's not the purpose of the book or of this final chapter, which exists to help us see how Kalliney's argument can be extended.
Though this post has become vastly longer than I expected or intended, I have really only touched the surface of Kalliney's arguments, and have quoted from him as much as possible to try to reduce the inevitable distortion of those arguments through summary. Commonwealth of Letters
seems to me to make an excellent contribution to our understanding of modernist, colonial, and postcolonial literatures. Its insistence on highlighting complexities only shows how impossible it is to encapsulate these literatures in one study; Kalliney's book can't, and shouldn't, stand alone — it needs to be read alongside such books as Romance, Diaspora, and Black Atlantic Literatures
by Yogita Goyal, C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain
by Christian Høgsbjerg, various works by Anna Snaith
, and all sorts of others.
But that's partly Kalliney's point: reducing such large, complex, contradictory history to offhand critical clichés just won't work anymore. As his own book strains against the limits of its argument, it shows the (perhaps necessary, unavoidable) dangers of imposing an argument onto the messy material of cultural history. Cultural history has been not only created, but lived, and lives are slippery. Somewhere around halfway through reading Commonwealth of Letters
, I stopped trying to decide whether I agreed or disagreed with Kalliney's argument, and instead read that argument as a template, as one lens to see some of the landscape. It's a provocative, productive way of seeing, and it brings continuities into view that have not been visible before. No vantage point is omniscient; nor should we expect it to be.
My life, which seems so simple and monotonous, is really a complicated affair of cafés where they like me and cafés where they don't, streets that are friendly, streets that aren't, rooms where I might be happy, rooms where I shall never be, looking-glasses I look nice in, looking-glasses I don't, dresses that will be lucky, dresses that won't, and so on.
—Rhys, Good Morning, Midnight