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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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1. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara



Wrenching.

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.

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2. Return of the Sandman Meditations


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.

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3. Wedding Days


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..."

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4. What's in a Book


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

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5. The Dylanologists by David Kinney


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.

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6. Rhodesia and American Paramilitary Culture


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. Warning: 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.

SoF 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 convention:
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.

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7. Sense8


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.

In Sense8, 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 was more 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 or Batman, 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.


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8. On Christopher Lee


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.

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9. Q&A on Open Educational Resources with Robin DeRosa


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.]

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10. Commonwealth of Letters: British Literary Culture and the Emergence of Postcolonial Aesthetics by Peter J. Kalliney


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" [126]). 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

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11. Living in a Time of Transition: Two Books by Bryher



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


Bryher
Paris Press ($19.95)

Bryher
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."[118] 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." [47] 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." [21]

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." [303]  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.

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12. The Perils of Citation


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 APA 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 got it).

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.

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13. Fassbinder at 70


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:

In the US, the best access to Fassbinder's films is via Criterion's Hulu Plus channel, where there is access not only to the various films Criterion sells on DVD (with the exception of Berlin Alexanderplatz), but also to films currently unavailable otherwise in the US, including some masterpieces: Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, Fox and His Friends, Effi BriestMarriage of Maria Braun, Veronika Voss.

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, and Querelle 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.

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14. David Beronä, In Memory


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

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15. News & Newsletter

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.

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16. Make-Believe Empire: A How-To Book

 

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.

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17. Essence of Mannstyle: Blackhat


Mannstyle
No film director gets the sound of gunfire like Michael Mann. It's not just that he typically uses recordings of live fire; plenty of people do that. There's an alchemy he performs with his sound designers, a way of manipulating both the sound of the shots and the ambient sound to create a hyperreal effect. It's not the sound of gunfire. It's a sound that produces the effect of standing close to the sound of gunfire.


Mann is celebrated and derided for his visual style, a style so damn stylish that any Mann film is likely to get at least a few reviews saying, "All style, no substance." I can't empathize with such a view; for me, style is the substance of art, and if any object has value beyond the functional, that value is directly produced by style. (Which is not to say that Mann's style is above criticism. Not at all. But to say that it is "only" style, and that substance is something else, something that can be separated from style, seems nonsensical to me. You may prefer the style of an Eric Rohmer or Bela Tarr or a Steven Spielberg or just the general, conventionalized style of mainstream Hollywood or mainstream TV ... but it's still style, and it's still substance created and transmitted through style.)




What generally goes unnoticed about Mann's style is how the aural and the visual work together. The visuals can be so ostentatious, so determinedly symmetrical (in his early work) or abstract (in the more recent films) or supersaturated or obscuringly dark, that the strangeness of the soundtrack remains unremarked. One of the most sensitive viewers of Mann, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, noted it, though, in his review of Blackhat, pointing out the "patchy sound mixes" and "sound design [that] is deliberately erratic, rendering a good fifth of the dialogue unintelligible..."


Yes, and more: since his first abstract-expressionist film, 2006's Miami Vice, Mann has cast non-Americans as American characters for some of the leading men (Colin Farrell, Christian Bale, Chris Hemsworth) and non-native speakers of English as the leading women (Gong Li, Marion Cotillard, Tang Wei). The men do a good job with their American accents, but it creates an extra level of artificiality for them to work through, an extra way for them to distance their everyday self from their character.


The women wrestle with English well, but their tones and rhythms are noticeably different from a native speaker's, and the effect is to further make the dialogue difficult to apprehend, to distance the words spoken from their meanings and heighten their aural qualities.


The dialogue in Mann's movies, regardless of whether he's the writer, is unmistakably the dialogue of a Michael Mann movie — there is Mannspeak just as there is Mametspeak. It's clipped, jargony, declarative, pulpy. It sometimes drives critics crazy ("laughable" and "ridiculous" are words I've frequently seen used to describe the dialogue in Mann's movies). The actors tend to fall into similar rhythms from film to film, and you could play a one or two minute clip of dialogue from any of Mann's films, particularly the ones of the last decade or so, and you'd know it was dialogue from a Mann film, just as you can easily identify clips of dialogue from the movies of Robert Altman, Woody Allen, and Terrence Malick. Couple the dialogue and how the actors speak it with a recording style that is more common to amateur documentaries, and the effect is odd and, if you're able to tune into it, intoxicating.


The ways we understand and get to know characters in these movies are also very different from the techniques of conventional Hollywood cinema. Mann's always presented psychology via action, but in his most popular films — that is, his films of the 1990s — there's a pretty standard approach to psychology. That all changes with Miami Vice, where a new distance is placed between viewer and character while at the same time the filmmaking heightens the sense of our subjectivity melding with theirs.


Now, the characters thoughts, feelings, and desires no longer inhere within the character, but are, instead, expressed through the light, colors, angles, and sounds of the world as it is conveyed to us. Mann's characters are no longer characters so much as they are figures in a landscape, and the landscape is an extension of those figures' feelings.


That's why it doesn't much matter whether you can understand all the dialogue. The dialogue is just sound, and it's how that sound fits with the images (the light, the color), and how those images and sounds flow together, that matters.


Odd and even alienating as Mann's style has become, there's a profound unity to its effect. More and more, he's come to make movies that feel not so much like dreams as like insomnia.


This style is not what we might expect from someone as concerned with verisimilitude as Mann. He prefers going to locations rather than building sets; he makes his actors do months of preparation; he hires numerous consultants to get all the details right. And then, shooting and editing the film, he obscures it all, swirls it, hollows it out, fragments it into collages of drift, burst, and glimpse until all that is real feels utterly artificial. Mann's ultimate aim seems to be affect: to evoke a feeling of the hyperfake real, of the deeply flattened surface, of a world rendered into electricity jumping across a flat plane of endless night.


Blackhat
Blackhat lost a lot of money. According to Box Office Mojo, it is Mann's least financially successful film since The Keep, a movie he's mostly disavowed. Produced for a reported $70 million, Blackhat has earned only 10% of that investment back and supposedly had the 11th worst opening for a film in 2,500 or more theatres since 1982. It is likely to end up being one of 2015's biggest flops, and that's saying something (for all the talk of Jupiter Ascending being a disaster, the Wachowski's film had some success in foreign markets and looks like it's made back its production budget, at least. Blackhat cannot say the same).


This is not especially surprising. Blackhat is marketed as a techno-thriller (the trailer, while hinting at Mannstyle, is pretty exciting), and its plot is, indeed, that of a techno-thriller. But anybody who goes into the movie expecting a techno-thriller is likely to be disappointed. "Boring" is a word commonly used in viewers' responses to the film.


The thrill is not in the movie's narrative, which gets subsumed and sublimed into Mannstyle. The thrill is in the movement, sound, and editing. Mann's affinities are more with Wong Kar-Wai than with any standard action filmmaker.


We could talk about the ideas in the movie, ideas about surveillance and punishment and information and reality. It's not for nothing that there are references to Foucault, Lyotard, and Derrida (The Animal That Therefore I Am) early on. But these ideas are not expressed as ideas that one can talk about and debate: they're ideas that are felt, sensed, whiffed, dreamed. They can't be separated from the mode of expression.


That's Mann's real accomplishment here. Ideas, like the books in Nick Hathaway's cell, get left behind.


The traces of those ideas, though, pulse through our circuits and burn across the night sky.


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18. Secret Wonder Bondage Woman!

 
I recently read Jill Lepore's The Secret History of Wonder Woman alongside Noah Berlatsky's Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism, which had the bad luck to be published at nearly the same time. The two books complement each other well: Lepore is a historian and her interest is primarily in the biography of William Moulton Marston, the man who more or less invented Wonder Woman, while Berlatsky's primary interest is in analyzing the content of the various Wonder Woman comics from 1941-1948.

Lepore's book is a fun read, and it does an especially good job of showing the connections between late 19th-/early 20th-century feminism and the creation of Wonder Woman, particularly the influence of the birth control crusader and founder of what became Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger. The connection to Sanger, as well as much else that Lepore reports, only became publicly known within the last few decades, as more details of Marston's living arrangements emerged: he lived in a polyamorous relationship with his legal wife, Elizabeth, and with his former student, Sanger's niece Olive Byrne (who after Marston's death in 1948 lived together for the rest of their very long lives). Some of the most fascinating pages of Lepore's book are not about Wonder Woman at all, but about the various political/religious/philosophical movements that informed the lives of Marston and the women he lived with. She also spends a lot of time (too much for me; I skimmed a bit) on Marston's academic work on lie detection and his promotion of the lie detector he invented. As she chronicles his various struggles to find financial success and some sort of renown, Lepore's Marston seems both sympathetic and exasperating, a bit of a genius and a bit of a con man.

Because she had unprecedented access to the family archives, and is an apparently tenacious researcher in every other archive she could get access to, Lepore is able to provide a complex view not only of Marston and his era, but especially of the women in his life — the women who were quite literally the co-creators of Wonder Woman: Marjorie Wilkes Huntley, Elizabeth Marston, and Olive Byrne. She is especially careful to document the contributions of Joye Hummel, a 19-year-old student in one of Marston's psychology classes who, after Oliver Byrne graded her exam (which "proved so good she thought Marston could have written it") was brought in to help work on Wonder Woman. Originally, Marston thought he could use Hummel as a source of current slang, and to do some basic work around the very busy office. "At first," Lepore writes, "Hummel typed Marston's scripts. Soon, she was writing scripts of her own. This required some studying. To help Hummel understand the idea behind Wonder Woman, Olive Byrne gave her a present: a copy of Margaret Sanger's 1920 book, Woman and the New Race. She said it was all she'd need." When Marston became ill first with polio and then cancer, Hummel became the primary writer for many of the Wonder Woman stories. (Lepore provides a useful index of all the Marston-era Wonder Woman stories and who worked on them, as best can be determined now.)

Lou Rogers, 1912
H.G. Peter, 1943/44
Lepore also has a few pages on Harry G. Peter, the artist who brought Wonder Woman to life, and does a fine job of showing how Peter, who was about 60 when he got the Wonder Woman assignment, was also influenced by the iconography of the suffrage movement. He had been an illustrator for Judge alongside the far better known Lou Rogers, who created some of the most famous artwork of the later suffrage movement. Lepore writes: "To Wonder Woman he brought, among other things, experience drawing suffrage cartoons." (Not a lot seems to be known about Peter — Lepore has a note stating that "details about Peter's life are difficult to find, largely because, after his death in 1958, his estate fell into the hands of dealers, who have been selling off his papers and drawings, one by one, for years, to private collectors.")

Marston was hardly a perfect man or role model, and one of the things the story of his life and the lives of the women around him shows is the complexity of trying to live outside social norms. While Marston had some extremely progressive ideas not only for his own time but for ours as well, he was also very much a product of his era and location. That's no earth-shaking insight, but Lepore does a good job of reminding us that for all his liberalism and even libertinism, Marston still had many of the flaws of any man of his age, or of ours. He truly seemed to dislike masculinity, and yet lived at a time when it was difficult to imagine any way of living outside of it or its hierarchies, and his ways of analyzing the effect of masculinity and patriarchy were very much bound by his era's common notions of gender, biology, propriety, and race. Lepore does a fine job of showing not only how the assumptions and discourses of a particular time, place, and class situation shape notions of the possible in Marston's life, but also in the lives and politics of the early 20th century feminist movement.



However, Lepore's book is seriously under-theorized, and that's where Berlatsky comes in. The Secret History of Wonder Woman is aimed at a general audience, and Lepore is a historian, not a theorist. This would be less of a problem if Marston's life and work didn't scream out for the insights of someone familiar both with feminist theory and, especially, queer theory. (Lepore actually seems quite uncomfortable with the sexual elements of the story, and even more so in an interview she did for NPR's Fresh Air, where she can't help giggling over it all.) Berlatsky makes the excellent choice to take the queer elements seriously. He organizes his book into three large chapters, the first focusing on feminism and bondage, the second on pacifism and violence, the third on queerness. A brief introduction gives background on the comic and its creators; the conclusion looks at Wonder Woman's (sad) fate after Marston's death.

Berlatsky's writing is accessible — he's perhaps best known for founding the Hooded Utilitarian blog, so he's used to writing for a non-academic audience. (The blog has tons of Wonder Woman material, including lots from before the book, so you can follow Berlatsky's thinking as it develops, get more information and imagery, and see Berlatsky in conversation with many thoughtful, informed commenters and guest bloggers.)  Though his prose is not heavily academic, Berlatsky is well-versed in comics scholarship and has some good knowledge of both feminist and queer theory, all of which he uses to fill a relatively short book with a real density of ideas. It helps that the early Wonder Woman comics are so strange and suggestive; even after Berlatsky's most thorough analyses, it still feels like there's plenty left to say. (Which is no slight to him.)


In the introduction, Berlatsky describes the 1941-1948 Wonder Woman comics as “…an endless ecstatic fever dream of dominance, submission, enslavement, and release.” His first chapter then offers various ideas about bondage and fantasy, with the majority of its pages devoted to a complex reading of Wonder Woman #16 (you can see Berlatsky first thinking about this issue in a 2009 post at HU that gives a good overview the plot and substance, as well as lots of samples of the art). Ultimately, Berlatsky argues that the story is a representation of, among other things, incest ... and I'm not sure I followed him there. Something about the analysis feels forced to me, though I don't have any good rebuttal to it.

Chapter Two was more convincing for me, as Berlatsky has some cogent insights about violence, maleness, and superheroes: "Looking at Spider-Man's origin makes clear, I think, that superhero violence is built on, and reliant on, masculinity." Is Wonder Woman different? "It is certainly true that, in Marston and Peter's initial conception, Wonder Woman, like other heroes, often solves problems in the quintessentially superhero manner. That is, she hits things." Wonder Woman also participated in World War II, as the first appearance of her character coincided with the US entry into the war. "It was natural that Wonder Woman's alter-ego, Diana Prince, worked as a secretary for army intelligence, just as it was natural for Wonder Woman herself to foil spy rings and Nazi plots. Superheroes and war went together as surely as did goodness and power." But Marston wanted Wonder Woman to be something other than just a fist-fighting warrior, thrilled to hit anybody she could find. She is a fighter, but, Berlatsky says, a pragmatic fighter for peace: "The Nazis embody war; therefore, fighting the Nazis is fighting on behalf of peace. Or, more broadly, masculinity embodies war; therefore, fighting on behalf of an America that Marston sees as feminine means fighting on behalf of peace."

Berlatsky then goes on to show how some of Marston's psychological and social theories (particularly about the force of love) find expression through the Wonder Woman stories. Coming off of Chapter One, I was a bit skeptical about all this, but by the end of Chapter Two, I'd pretty well been convinced. The evidence Berlatsky marshalls from Marston's writings, particularly his book Emotions of Normal People, is compelling. (Emotions of Normal People itself is a fascinating source. Lepore describes it thus: "Emotions of Normal People is, among other things, a defense of homosexuality, transvestitism, fetishism, and sadomasochism. Its chief argument is that much in emotional life that is generally regarded as abnormal…and is therefore commonly hidden and kept secret is actually not only normal but neuronal: it inheres within the very structure of the nervous system." Berlatsky uses it well in the second and third chapters to show where some of the oddest Wonder Woman moments derive from.)


Chapter Three is what really won me over, I will admit, particularly because Berlatsky brings in ideas from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Julia Serano to explore the implications of various situations and images throughout Wonder Woman. As it explores Marston's lesbophilia and the manifold queer implications of the Marston-era Wonder Woman comics, the chapter ranges across all sorts of subject matter, including, among other things, James Bond and Pussy Galore (from Goldfinger). Berlatsky notes that unlike Ian Fleming's women "Marston's women don't want the penis; rather, his men want the absence of a penis — a unique female power."

There's too much good stuff in this chapter for me to summarize, but one especially interesting bit involves the relationship of the vagina and penis in Marston's idea of sex. Berlatsky quotes Emotions of Normal People: "The [woman’s] captivation stimulus actually evokes changes in the male’s body designed to enable the woman’s body to capture it physically. …[During sex] the woman’s body by means of appropriate movements and vaginal contractions, continues to captivate the male body, which has altered its form precisely for that purpose." Berlatsky summarizes: "Penises don't defile Marston's vaginas; on the contrary, Marston's vaginas swallow up penises."

(If that sentence doesn't make you want to read this book, then there's really no hope for you!)


Berlatsky then shows how these ideas play out in Wonder Woman. "Men in Wonder Woman are never as disempowered and objectified as women in James Bond or gangsta rap or Gauguin — a couple thousand years of tropes don't just vanish because you have a vision of active vaginas. Thus, when Marston flips the binary from masculine/feminine to feminine/masculine, the result is not simple hierarchy inverted. Rather, it's heterosexuality inverted — which is another way of saying it's queer." He then develops this idea to show that "For Marston, essentialism and queerness are not in conflict. Instead, queerness is anchored in, and made possible by, an essentialist vision of femininity. Femininity for Marston doesn't just appear to be strong and love; it is strong and loving. Women for him capture men not just as metaphor but as scientific fact. And it is from those beliefs that you get [in Wonder Woman #41] Sleeping Beauty rescued/captured by a semisentient vagina, or men turning into women on Paradise Island. Femininity makes the world safe for polyamory. You can't have the second without the first."

It's these sorts of insights that would have brought more nuance and complexity to Lepore's portrayal of the role of early 20th-century feminism in Marston's creation of Wonder Woman, but we can be grateful that we can read the two books together.


I've only barely touched on Berlatsky's arguments here, and may have misrepresented them simply by trying to summarize, so if they seem especially bizarre or off-base, check the book. (They may still be bizarre, but to my thinking, at least, they're more often convincing than not.) It's an extremely difficult book to summarize because its ideas and arguments are carefully woven together, even as, in an initial reading, it all often feels quite off-the-cuff, like an improvised high-wire act.

Wonder Woman has suffered in popularity in comparison to male superheroes, and even in this age of wall-to-wall superhero media, a planned Wonder Woman movie has had all sorts of problems getting started. Of course, no Wonder Woman is going to be Marston's Wonder Woman, which is one reason why it's unfortunate that DC hasn't been able to finish re-releasing the 1941-1948 Wonder Woman stories — some, as far as I can tell, have never been reprinted at all, and the most comprehensive collection, part of the DC Archive Editions, petered out after seven volumes, ending with issues from 1946. (Wonder Woman: The Complete Newspaper Comics is quite good.) For the casual reader, the material in the Wonder Woman Chronicles, which got up to three volumes before apparently stopping in 2012, works well, though some of the best and craziest comics come later.  There just doesn't seem to be enough demand from readers, and so a trove of wondrously strange material remains generally unavailable.

Perhaps Lepore and Berlatsky's books will create enough new interest to spur DC at least to finish the Archive Edition releases. Personally, what I'd most like to see is a 300-400 page "Best of the Marston Years" collection edited by Berlatsky, because only the real die-hards need all of the various Wonder Woman stories, and it would be nice to have a one-volume edition of the most engaging and exemplary material.


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19. The Elements of Academic Style by Eric Hayot




Dr. Parenti: We get the grant, we study the problem, we propose solutions. If they listen, they listen. If they don't, it still makes for great research. What we publish on this is gonna get a lot of attention.

Colvin: From who?

Dr. Parenti: From other researchers, academics.

Colvin: Academics?! What, they gonna study your study? [chuckles and shakes head] When do this shit change?

The Wire, Season 4, Episode 13, "Final Grades"

It is only within the last few years that I have reluctantly accepted that I deserve that noxious and disreputable label: an academic. Truly, I am doomed.

But then, I've yet to meet an academic who isn't keenly aware of the doom. My sentences keep going off in various directions toward what I'm sure would be an incoherent 10,000-word rant about my love/hate relationship with academia. I delete those sentences because I'm not here to rant about academia, but rather to praise a book that serves as both a writing guide and a (sometimes sly) philosophical statement about knowledge and the communication of knowledge. It's a book aimed directly at people like me, and yet I think at least a few of its chapters deserve a wider audience than the doomed weirdos of grad school.

The book is The Elements of Academic Style by Eric Hayot, author of On Literary Worlds, a book I found marvelously provocative. Elements is also marvelously provocative, and shares On Literary Worlds' desire to shake things up a bit within the academy, but it's also highly practical. It has much to say about the purpose and rhetoric of academic writing, and it does so from a position not only of deep knowledge of such writing, but deep appreciation for it — and that may be its most revolutionary element.

At its most basic level, Elements is a writing guide for graduate students in the humanities, with information about the differences, for instance, between conference papers and journal articles, between dissertations and books, between Chicago citational style and MLA style, etc. It offers the sorts of advice you can find in lots of different writing guides: advice about developing a writing practice, putting together a writing group, living through doubt and self-doubt and self-hatred, forcing yourself to submit for publication, and so on. All good stuff, and Hayot has some interesting ideas and opinions about it all, but it's not what the book is best at.

For me, the most compelling and valuable sections are about the rhetoric of academic communication. The book is broken into four parts, and it is part two that I spent the most time thinking about and working through. Hayot titles this section "Strategy" (the others are "Writing as Practice", "Tactics", and "Becoming") and in eleven mostly very short chapters he discusses the structure, rhythm, and conventions of good academic prose.

"Good academic prose!" you cry. "Surely, it's an oxymoron!" Not to Hayot.

photo by Rick Elkin

As I was rereading this book to get ready to write about it and recommend it to the world, a friend told me about Hayot's recent Critical Inquiry essay, "Academic Writing, I Love You. Really, I Do" [JSTOR link]. It's a kind of companion piece, or perhaps preface, to Elements. While there's some overlap in their contents, the form and purpose are different (the essay is formally playful in a way the book is not), but their stance on how we in the academy communicate, and perhaps could communicate more effectively, is the same. "Academic Writing, I Love You" is just what it says: a paean to a type of writing lots of people disparage and hate — indeed, Hayot begins the essay with four pages of quotations from various writers who have said that academic writing is the most horrible thing on Earth and probably the whole reason Hitler ever existed.

Even academics hate academic writing! Or, at least, they claim to. (Self-hatred is one of the fundamental fuels of humanities departments, it seems.) Who ever steps up and says that, Bad Writing Contest aside, Judith Butler and Fredric Jameson are doing interesting things with prose and language? We say, rather, that we like them for their ideas, that their ideas are better than their sentences, that we know it's bad and jargony and impossible to read but yes actually there really is maybe something there worth thinking about or so somebody once told me and I need to say this for tenure I'm sorry I don't want to admit it I hate myself I'm an academic.

Hayot is different. In "Academic Writing, I Love You" he says:
To the producers of the immense amount of loathing and contempt governing much of the metadiscourse on academic writing, I affirm: you have not accounted for a writer or a reader like me, or indeed for the many writers and readers like me, who have a taste for writing that does not say everything that it does, and for whom Theodor W. Adorno or Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Jacques Lacan or Judith Butler have provided an immense amount of pleasure, not just at the level of the idea, but at the level of the sentence. When the metadiscourse isn’t ignoring such readers en- tirely—“everybody likes the other fellow’s prose plain” (except of course the people who don’t)—it is shaming them by accusing them of arrogance (“the demon of academic hubris inevitably lies in the shadows nearby”), insecurity (“they want to sound smart”), elitism (“if we thought more like carpenters, academic writers could find a route out of the trap of ego and vanity”), or perversion (“I have begun to characterize this psyche as sado-masochistic”).

Now, there is nothing wrong, let us agree, with being a masochist. Or a carpenter. But if you want to insist that scholarly writing is somehow fundamentally broken and off course you need to account for the large number of folks with their shoulders to the wheels, pushing happily as both writers and readers in what you think is the wrong direction. Excluding those people from consideration by insisting that their desires and pleasures are essentially pathological means that you will have, inevitably, an incomplete and therefore probably bad theory of what writing is and how it works.
When I read this, I nearly burst into the tears of joy that come when a long-held secret is finally released — when somebody says what you've always been afraid of saying because saying it only opens you up to ridicule, or so you think.

Actually, as with so many things, Samuel Delany got here first. He has often championed the pleasure of the complex text — whether Walter Pater or Jacques Derrida — and it was through early exposure to Delany's nonfiction and, especially, a few key interviews that I allowed myself to admit that there was something in the sentences and prose structures of Foucault and Derrida especially that, even when I had no ability to comprehend their ideas or no knowledge of the arguments they were entering or no familiarity with the sources they were building off of ... still, I could admire. (Later, I would add Butler to the list, as well as Gilles Deleuze. Unlike Hayot, I've never fallen in love with Fredric Jameson's writing, despite reading a lot of his work.)

Hayot admits that there's a lot of bad academic writing out there. But, of course, old Theodore Sturgeon famously told us there's a lot of bad everything out there. I'd actually be willing to bet most published academic writing is not so much bad as it is mediocre, and the reason is that structurally and often even philosophically it's very formulaic — in many ways, academic writing is even more genrefied and conventional than science fiction, and academic writers, particularly ones who aren't famous or highly cited, are often judged primarily on how well they hold to and replicate the conventions.

It is here that I think Elements is most wonderful — it doesn't assume that academic writing is, as a genre, hopelessly awful, and yet it very much understands the genrefication of academic writing, and so can hold out a hope that it is not especially difficult to make a higher percentage of that writing better through some thoughtful techniques and practices. 

Here the title of the book comes into play. One way to de-genrefy a writing practice is to complicate its possibilities of style and form. Academic writing is particularly stylistically bound: not just with the jargon, but with the actual expression and structure of ideas, the patterns for which are quite limited if you (especially as an early-career scholar) want your work to be recognizable as academic writing — and if you ever want to get even the most precarious job, you'd better have plenty of writing that is recognizable as academic.

Hayot analyzes a diverse selection of passages that he considers to be stylish and effective (as well as a few he considers less than stylish or less than effective) and shows why. Here, Hayot shows that what makes this writing good can be learned by any academic, and thus academic writing as a genre can be immensely improved. It's a utopian impulse. By improving academic writing as a genre, perhaps we could even improve academia.

Perhaps, the book suggests, we are not entirely doomed.

This is why the "Strategy" section is so compelling to me. It's very nuts and bolts, and I love that. (Hayot praises Joseph Williams's book Style, which is one of my touchstones, and is the most nuts-and-bolts book about nonfiction prose that I've ever encountered. I violate its principles all the time, particularly in blog posts like this, and I don't think clarity is the be all and end all for every type of prose, but still: Williams's Style is a holy book. No single book on writing ever taught me as much.) By demonstrating close analysis of how academic prose and arguments work, and how they can work best, Hayot achieves something useful both for the writer and the reader.

For instance, I love Hayot's proposal that effective academic argumentation benefits from a structure he calls "The Uneven U". This is one of the longest chapters in the book, and one of the best. The basic idea is this: "Imagine a system or a continuum that, across five levels, divides one major function of a piece of literary critical prose: its proximity to a piece of evidence." He names Level 5 as the most abstract and Level 1 as the most concrete (the pure evidence). Looking at how they work effectively in a paragraph, he comes up with the uneven U, because the paragraph begins with Level 4, continues downward until it puts Level 1 in the middle, and then moves upward toward Level 5. Hayot then says that this structure can be expanded to multiple paragraphs, to sections, to entire papers and books — that it can work fractally, with each paragraph an uneven U that contributes to sections that are themselves uneven U's that contribute to a whole that is, in its general structure, itself an uneven U.




Hayot provides lots of details, and it's a marvelous way to think about how to write effectively when writing this stuff we call academic prose.*  It's not the only way, by any means, but it's a really effective, practical strategy, and one I'm definitely going to try whenever it seems like my academic prose is not doing what I want it to do, despite my best efforts. (Which is a lot of the time.) Further, it helps make various assumptions transparent, and by offering one very clear form, it provides ways to think about adjusting it, riffing off it, exploding it.

Beyond the Uneven U structure, Hayot does a nice job laying out the different reasons for certain conventions. His approach is common-sensical: readers of anything have at least a few predictable desires and habits, and knowing about those desires and habits is useful for the writer, even if you decide not to satisfy some of those desires and not to cater to certain habits. That's an approach I know from the nonacademic world of writing (where, indeed, I often seek to frustrate desires and write against people's reading habits. You might have noticed that I am not an especially popular writer...) A lot of it was review for me at this point, but useful review, because I have not yet internalized the conventions of academic writing, and I still feel like a stranger in its realm.

His practical, materialist sense of why we write the way we do, and why conventions are what they are, opens up space for experiment and innovation. This is perhaps clearest in his discussion of titles:
As you almost certainly have noticed, the current standard format for most work in literature, history, or cultural studies is:

EVOCATIVE, OPAQUE TITLE: DESCRIPTIVE, THEMATIC SUBTITLE

Some examples: Telling It Slant: Avant Garde Poetics of the 1990s [...] Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects [...] Beautiful Circuits: Modernism and the Mediated Life [...]

If for whatever reason you're committed to avoiding this format, you will find another major cluster of titles that follow the following pattern:

A CONCRETE NOUN AND AN ABSTRACT NOUN

This structure is more common for article titles than for books. It gives you things like "Elizabeth Bishop and the Ethics of Correspondence" [...] or "Working-Class Writing and the Use Value of the Literary"[...] At some point all of these begin to resemble the descriptive, thematic subtitles that follow the colon in the more conventional form.
Hayot then discusses the ins and outs of these patterns, the better and worse ways to use them, all with plenty of examples. But he doesn't stop there — at the end of the chapter, he writes: "If you want to distance yourself from the herd, then you'll have to break the rules," and he offers five techniques "to play with the standard format": ways of changing the balance, eliminating some parts of the pattern, looking to older patterns of titling, etc.

The command to "learn the rules, break the rules!" carries through various parts of the book, and is perhaps most clearly stated at the end of a chapter on "Structure and Subordination" in a sidebar on "Descriptions and Norms":
The somewhat violent clarifications here aim to make the process of academic writing easier to understand. You should feel free to follow these lessons and rules as they were, for now, norms of some kind. But the final rule is ... break the rules! The best writing is the best because it upends standards in some way, either by enacting them with an opalescent, devastating skill (at the limit, the truest violation) or by carving new paths through the shady woods that separate what the reader understands from what the writer means. This is a book that wants you to surpass and destroy it. After which someone will write us all a new primer.
The are, of course, institutional limits to this, as Hayot I'm sure knows. I suspect that if I had written "Academic Writing, I Love You. Really, I Do", Critical Inquiry almost certainly would not have published it, or at least would have insisted that I tame its formal experiment. (Similarly, I suspect that Derrida could publish Glas and have it taken seriously by academic publishers because he was already Jacques Derrida.) And perhaps this is for the best. Perhaps we should have to demonstrate that we can color within the lines before we get to ignore the lines altogether and make our own art. I've had one professor tell a class I was in: "Make sure your first journal articles are conventional, that your dissertation is conventional, and that your first book is conventional. After that, maybe you'll have some freedom to play around. But even then it's risky."

And yet ... I really don't believe this. I certainly don't believe it for nonacademic writing, where I am very much with Carole Maso in asserting: Break Every Rule. Perhaps academic writing is different because it seeks to extend knowledge and even identify something resembling truth, and so it should be contained within recognizeable forms, but I'm with that good ol' dead white guy John Milton on this: "Truth is compar'd in Scripture to a streaming fountain; if her waters flow not in a perpetuall progression, they sick'n into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition." Too often, academia is not a bastion of truth and knowledge, but is instead Milton's muddy pool.

For scholars early in their careers, there are especially powerful incentives to slime ourselves all over with the mud of that pool. If you experiment with your writing — if you, in fact, risk failure — you will become a cause of much concern, you may have a hard time getting your dissertation committee to go along with your weirdness, you will likely have a harder time getting your work accepted for conferences or journals, your CV will suffer, and if you somehow manage to miraculously defeat all the forces working against you, including the statistics of the job market, and get a tenure-track job, your tenure review and evaluations will probably encourage you to be more conventional. Of course, there are exceptions to all of this, and I may be especially paranoid, but I've seen very little evidence otherwise, which is one of the reasons Hayot's book feels so fresh, even revolutionary, within this context.

Part of my own problem is that I came to academic writing and publishing from the world of nonacademic writing and publishing, which is very different in nearly every possible way. I've got plenty of experience as a teacher, so I have confidence there, and I feel somewhat prepared as a thinker at this level, but as a writer I feel at sea, and I buck against a lot of the conventions because I've been writing my own way for so long, in a system that, for all its many faults, I understand pretty well. But with academic writing (and academia in general), I keep finding myself thinking, when I encounter one convention or another that I haven't paid enough attention to, "You mean people really care about that?" Perhaps I find this book so valuable because while I often like reading good academic prose, when it comes to writing it, I often feel like there's some sort of secret conversation about what it should contain that I somehow have missed, despite reading a lot of it. Hayot helps make some of that secret conversation less secret.

Ultimately, of course, we can't just improve academic style in writing. But because humanities scholarship is so tied to writing and publishing, opening up new possibilities for writing and publishing may, in fact, open up new possibilities within the institution itself. To change attitudes toward academic style means changing practices in the training of graduate students (which Hayot addresses), changing the practices of conferences and publishers, changing the practices of hiring and tenure committees. It means experimenting. Every writer and thinker knows this, because to write and to think is to experiment — to try stuff out and risk failure. It's terrifying because in a very real sense this is about people's livelihoods. But given the state of higher education in the U.S., at least, there's little reason not to experiment, because it's only a minority of people who are making any sort of livelihood from this work, or who even have any hope of making a livelihood from it. American academia is a perfect embodiment of capitalism in the way that it wastes human beings: their knowledge, their potential, their good will. 

The rules are against us. Learning them is important, because we need to know the landscape, the architecture, the logic. But the rules do not like us, they do not want us, they do not have any use for us. Not breaking them is unconscionable.

This is a book that wants you to surpass and destroy it.

Let's get started.


--------------------------------
*I'm deliberately avoiding any argument about whether "academic prose" or "academic writing" are useful terms that describe actual things. This blog post is too jammed with stuff already. I will say this: I'm not entirely convinced that "academic prose" and "academic writing" are useful terms, but people generally seem to know what we mean when we use them, so I use them for now. Much like "science fiction", "academic writing" means that stuff I point to when I say, "academic writing", at least here.

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20. Could It Be ... SATAN?!


Press Play recently posted a new video essay I created on Satan in cinema along with a brief text essay.

Here's the beginning of the text essay, should you need some enticement...
The character of Satan seems far more appealing to filmmakers than the character of God. This may be for reasons of propriety: one should not, perhaps, make too many images of God. But since when has Hollywood cared about anything other than money and stardom? God isn’t any good for either. Omnipotence is just too boring.

There are devils in most films, because most films are melodramas of one sort of another, and no melodrama works very well without some embodiment of evil. But Satan himself (or herself or theirself or anyself — Satan, like every angel, fallen or not, is any gender and every gender) is a less common figure. One of the most powerful Satanic representations in film history wasn’t even technically of Satan: it was Mephistopheles in Murnau’s Faust, still one of the most visually interesting portrayals of satanic power. 

The problem with portraying Satan is that it is difficult to capture the full horror he is supposed to be capable of.
(Continue reading and viewing at Press Play.)

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21. Stay, Clute

Stay cover

Strange Horizons has now posted my review of John Clute's latest collection of materials, Stay. A taste:
Even a mere glance through Stay, John Clute’s latest collection of book reviews, short stories, and lexicon entries, (or through any of Clute's books, really) will convince you that you are in the presence of genius.

But a genius of what type? The type that can turn a million candy wrappers into a surprisingly convincing small-scale replica of a rocket ship, or the type that zips to the heart of a zeitgeist faster than the rest of us? Is this genius a fox, a hedgehog, an anorak? Does it sing in seemingly effortless perfect pitch, or is its singing, like that of a dog, remarkable simply for being at all?

The desire to taxonomize is inevitable after reading even a few pages of Clute. He is a wild literary Linnaeus: obsessively compulsed to categorize. As someone generally uninterested in taxonomy, I have struggled to learn to read Clute appreciatively. I used to want to shoot his clay pigeonholes, to mock his neologistic frenzies, to clothe the emperor. But then I realized I was enjoying his work too much to do so. Clute’s imperative to categorize is contagious. I’d passed through the portal and made my way into Cluteland.
This review marks ten years of my writing for Strange Horizons — I began as a columnist in February 2005 with a rather odd piece titled "Walls". I stopped as a columnist after writing fifty, since I felt like I'd done what I could do with the form for that audience, but I've continued occasionally to write reviews.

I don't do a lot with genre speculative fiction these days, since other things have taken me elsewhere, but it's nice to be back now and again at a publication that feels so much like home. I owe thanks to lots of people there, especially former editor-in-chief Susan Groppi, who first asked me to write for the magazine, current editor-in-chief (and the first, if I remember correctly, reviews editor) Niall Harrison, recent past reviews editor Abigail Nussbaum, new reviews senior editor Maureen Kincaid Speller, and book reviews editor Aishwarya Subramanian, who not only let me keep some of my bad puns and jokes, but even liked some of them! Strange Horizons remains a unique, wonderful place out there in the wide world of the web, and it has always been an honor to be associated with it.

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22. The Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction: Why American? Who American? What American?


Cambridge University Press recently released The Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction edited by Eric Carl Link and Gerry Canavan, a sequel, of sorts, to 2003's The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn. I bought the James and Mendlesohn volume at the first science fiction convention I ever attended, the Worldcon in Boston in 2004, and I think it's an admirable volume that mostly does its best to try for the impossible, which is to present a coherent overview of the history and scholarship of science fiction as a genre-thing (mostly in the Anglo-American mode). I have mixed feelings about the Cambridge Companion to... series, because the volumes often feel like grab-bags and pushmi-pullyus, a bit too specific for people looking for an introduction to the scholarship on a topic, a bit too general for people with knowledge of a topic. They often contain a few excellent individual chapters amidst many chapters that feel, to me at least, like they needed about 15 more pages. That's still, inevitably, the case with James and Mendlesohn's volume, but many of the chapters are impressively efficient, and as a guide for beginning scholars, the book as a whole is useful.

The new Link and Canavan book doesn't work quite as well for me, and it has a higher number of chapters that seem, frankly, shallow and, in a couple of cases, distortingly incomplete and sometimes flat-out inaccurate. With a topic limited to a particular geography, you'd think the editors and writers would be able to zero in a bit more. Some chapters do so quite well, but my experience of reading through the book was that it felt more diffuse and less precise than its predecessor, with annoying little mistakes like Darren Harris-Fain's statement that James Patrick Kelly's story "Think Like a Dinosaur" requires close reading to find its SF tropes (it's set on a space station and includes aliens; finding the SF tropes doesn't require close reading, just the most basic literacy). Despite the annoyance of little errors and the frustration of wild generalizations in many of the post-WWII chapters, I began to wonder if the big problem might be a matter of the volume's determination to focus on "American" science fiction, a determination that works very well for the chapters looking at pre-World War II fiction, but then becomes ... problematic.

The problem, though, might be me. I'm not at all the intended audience for the book, I have ideological/methodological hesitations about some of the framing, and I have a love/hate relationship with academic science fiction scholarship in general — feelings that are probably mostly prejudices unburdened by facts. (Sometimes, I have trouble shaking the feeling that SF criticism is still wearing training wheels.) At the same time, though, I'm also drawn to the idea of scholarship about science fiction and its related genres/modes/things/whatzits, because I am (for now) ensconced in academia and also have been reading SF of one sort of another all my life, off and on. I'm not particularly familiar with Eric Carl Link as a scholar (though I'm using his Norton Critical Edition of The Red Badge of Courage in a course I'm teaching right now), but I've been following Gerry Canavan's work for a few years and I think he's a force for good, someone who is trying to keep SF criticism moving into the 21st century. Indeed, I just got back from the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, where I heard Canavan deliver a truly interesting paper on posthumanism, Kim Stanley Robinson, eco-SF, etc.

In my more radical moments, I wonder if, to move into this century, we shouldn't just get rid of the whole idea of "American" science fiction, or at least the study of it as such. (Heck, in my most radical moments, I wonder if we shouldn't get rid of the whole idea of "science fiction", but that's a topic for another time...)



Let's look at the book, or at least its premise and introduction. (I'm not going to do a blow-by-blow review of each chapter. If you must know, the chapters that seem to me most worth the time it takes to read them are Lisa Yaszek's "Afrofuturism in American Science Fiction", John Rieder's "American Frontiers", Karen Hellekson's "Fandom and Fan Culture", and Priscilla Wald's "Science, Technology, and the Environment".) The introduction by the editors serves various purposes, and succeeds impressively in giving a concise overview of 19th century American science fiction. If you want to know where to begin with American proto-SF, you could do a lot worse than to read that section of this intro.

The most provocative part of the introduction is the part that seeks to justify the book's focus on science fiction from the United States (there's no Canada or Mexico, so this isn't North American SF, though Margaret Atwood gets some passing mentions; there's nothing about South American SF; this is United Statesian):
The simple premise of the present volume ... is that the science fictional imagination is so fundamental to the arc of history across the so-called American Century that we might productively talk about a specifically American SF. Many of the ideas, themes, and conventions of contemporary science fiction take their roots in a distinctly American cultural experience, and so SF in America serves as a provocative index to twentieth- and twenty-first-century American culture, reflecting America's hopes, desires, and fears. (4)
I am an avowed skeptic of canonical nationalism, and so my instincts are to tear into these statements, but at the same time there's a real truth to them: science fiction as a genre is deeply tied to origins in American pulp magazines and then in the paperback revolution of the 1950s, '60s, and 70s, as well as, to some extent or another, the dominance of blockbuster Hollywood over so much cultural production (although in some ways that also helps de-genrefy SF by absorbing the idea of the science fictional into whatever Hollywood product happens to be highly popular, whether Star Wars or The X-Files or superhero movies). Additionally, as this Cambridge Companion makes clear, USian mythmaking is a key component to a lot of the foundational works of what we think of as genre SF — myths of individualist heroism, myths of the frontier (John Rieder's chapter tackles this head-on, which is one reason why it's among the strongest chapters in the book). For a long time, what we USians might call SF in other countries was different from American SF, even as American SF was derived from primarily European writers of the 19th century, especially Wells and Verne. One of the major differences was that it was in the US that an immigrant from Luxembourg, Hugo Gernsback, successfully severed science fiction from other streams of fiction, distinguishing it not only from "literature", but also from all other types of popular and pulp fiction. The innovation was not simply a matter of definition or labelling, as that had been done plenty of times elsewhere, with terms like "scientific romance". Science fiction as a genre didn't need a definition, it needed a system. It was Gernsback who, in the late 1920s, not only gave SF its own magazine but also created ways for readers of that magazine to identify themselves as a discourse community — to be, in a word, fans. It was in the US, then, that the production, distribution, and reception of SF as a genre system successfully began, and that system soon allowed for the dissemination of the values constituting it, values that were often stereotypically "American".

After World War Two, things get awfully complex, however, as genre SF becomes quite productively transatlantic, and as the space race and the Cold War affect global perceptions of technology and the future. The New Wave, for instance, makes little sense from a purely US-centric standpoint, and yet the decade of the 1960s in literary SF — and all its repercussions — makes no sense without the New Wave. (Further, as Samuel Delany has pointed out multiple times, it should really be New Waves — Moorcock's New Wave was not Ellison's New Wave was not Merril's New Wave was not Cele Goldsmith's New Wave, etc. The way they diverge and overlap deserves attention.)

And yet, it's also true that American SF publishers and media producers have had more power and success overall than others, at least with English-language SF, and so their ideas of SF spread easily beyond US borders.

The hegemonic monster (hegemonster?) of US power in the second half of the 20th century deserves scrutiny, and science fiction could be a tool for such scrutiny, as I expect the editors of this book hoped to be able to at least begin to do, and as some of the chapters, do, indeed, pay attention to. We need, though, a Cultures of United States Imperialism for science fiction, or a study of Rick Perlstein's histories of US conservatism alongside a study of science fiction in the same era, or ... well, the possibilities are many, because science fiction is often a genre of power fantasies, and the United States is often a country fueled by such fantasies. (For all its messiness, Thomas Disch's The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of at least asked some useful questions.) Such an intervention isn't really what Cambridge Companions are about, however.

One of the dangers that the field of American Studies faces is the danger of re-centering American power just as we're beginning to de-center it in literary, cultural, and political studies. We can see the de-centering effort on a small scale with literary science fiction, where the rise of the internet has allowed a nascent movement of global SF to grow, and where there is a stronger awareness than ever of writers and audiences from around the world. There's a long way to go, but if the 20th century was an American century, and also a century of American science fiction, then perhaps the 21st can centered differently.


The editors of the Cambridge Companion hint toward this in their introduction. They are no American jingoists. But they also write: "The vast canon to which all contemporary creators of SF (in all media, forms, and genres) respond is thus (for better or worse) tightly linked to American ideas, experiences, cultural assumptions, and entertainment markets, as well as to distinctly American visions of what the future might be like" (5). I think that statement is false in one important way — I would say "most creators of anglophone, genrefied SF" rather than "all contemporary creators of SF (in all media...)" etc, because I think this rather all-encompassing generalization neglects certain tendencies in British SF that have been influential, and it completely wipes out non-US/UK SF. The result is an unfortunate and I expect unintentional valorizing of UScentricity, unless it is premised on a very narrow definition of SF, which it seems not to be. But this is the danger of nationalistic scholarship, especially when performed by scholars from within a particular nation — they remain blind to the world they cannot see, and so the map they create is one where the US is in the center and is bigger than any other area.

Americanness was, obviously, not quite so much of a problem for the James and Mendelsohn Cambridge Companion, where many of the contributors were not America. Nonetheless, it was very much not a Cambridge Companion to Global Science Fiction — a topic too big for the slim confines of any one book in the Cambridge Companion series. (To see some of the scope, look at the International tag at the SF Encyclopedia site.)

There is no denying the centrality of the US to science fiction in any way that science fiction makes sense as a label. (For better or worse, as Link and Canavan say.) But for myself, I wonder what it means to study American science fiction solely, much as I wonder what it means to study American literature solely, or American anything solely. Or to call it "American".

And yet to deny the centrality of a thing called "American literature" is foolish and distorting, even though, in my more idealistic and la-la-land moments, I might want to. We are not the world? We are the world? We are ... what?

As I think about the introduction to this book and my inchoate (if not incoherent) resistance to the American in American Science Fiction, I can't help but also think about a paragraph in Aaron Bady's recent, important Chronicle of Higher Education essay, "Academe's Willful Ignorance of African Literature", a paragraph that I have no answers for, and which nags at me:
I worry that as Americanists move into “World Anglophone” literature, the world outside of Britain and the United States gets included in theory, but will continue to be excluded in practice. As crass it might be to use “world literature” as a shorthand for “the rest of the world,” the alternative might be worse. I worry that the actual effect of rebranding English departments as “World Anglophone literature departments” would only normalize the status quo. Will their survey of Anglophone letters still consist of dozens of scholars working on British and American literatures and a single, token Africanist? That might be the best-case scenario. For all its flaws, at least the term “postcolonial literature” recognized on which side of the global color line it located its subject, and recognized how much work was yet to be done.
When thinking of "American science fiction", I can't help but think of all that that term doesn't encompass, and perhaps my struggle with this Cambridge Companion is that my own deepest interests are in what sits at the margins, what defies the definitions, what lurks beyond the scopes.

(I told you I'm not the audience for this book!)

I wonder, too, why there isn't more scholarly attention to things like Analog magazine and Baen Books. Neither appears in the index to The Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction, and the sorts of things published by Analog and Baen don't seem to get much discussed by SF scholars. And yet shouldn't a book about American science fiction provide more than just the most passing of passing mentions to Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven? The ascent of science fiction in the United States parallels the ascent of Reaganism and neoliberalism, and how is it that among the various references to Star Wars in this book there are none (that I found, at least) to Ronnie's own beloved version? This American Science Fiction needs more Amurrican science fiction, more Newt Gingrich, more Rapture culture, more survivalism. Too much academic SF criticism cherry-picks favorites to valorize, and since most academic lit critics are armchair leftists of some sort or another (myself included), we get lots of Left Hand of Darkness and not nearly enough Left Behind.

(I have no good transition between these paragraphs, so I hope you'll pardon me this momentary aside to admit it. Hi, how are you? Thanks for continuing to read this rambling post, even though I'm sure you have something better to do. We're almost done. Shall we get back to it?)

To set down scholarly stakes within a realm called The American not only risks valorizing an already highly valorized Americanicity, but it also risks seeing things in a narrower way than the creators of the works under study themselves did, and I firmly believe that criticism should add breadth and depth to material rather than narrowing it, should give us more techniques of reading rather than fewer. This is my problem with some versions of canonical nationalism: they are procrustean, and miss the ways writers, for instance, learn from a variety of materials that are not so geographically bound. Among scholars, there's been in recent decades more of a push for, for instance, a view of transatlantic writing and thinking — of the Black Atlantic, of transatlantic Romanticism and transatlantic Modernism(s).

"American" is not only geographical but ideological: the mythography of Americanism. Tracing the flows to and from that ideology is especially interesting to me, particularly as a way to try to interrupt those flows, or at least look at their edges, cracks, and pores. (The Cambridge Companion to Anti-American Science Fiction, anyone? No?) I like that Link and Canavan end the book with a chapter titled "After America", and though I have reservations about the chapter itself, which isn't nearly ambitious enough, the gesture seems necessary for this age: to at least imagine a move beyond the centrality of US power and US dominance, to change the perspective and shift our lenses. Certainly, as global warming threatens to eradicate most life on Earth, the moral imperative of our age is to move beyond any one nation, to perceive the planet entire, and to do what so much science fiction has aspired to do, even if it has almost always failed: to look at things from a broader perspective.

What if "After America" were to mean after the idea of America, after the dominance of the nation, after the discourse of Americanness? (America is just so 20th century, dude.) By ending with "After America", this Cambridge Companion includes the seeds of its own destruction. A worthwhile move, it seems to me. But then, I like books that want to destroy themselves.

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23. Stuck Rubber Baby at 20


Before 1995, Howard Cruse was best known as an underground comix artist, first coming to prominence with Barefootz in the 1970s, with his editorship of Gay Comix in the early 1980s, and then hitting a real stride with the Wendel comics in The Advocate throughout the '80s. Wendel ended in 1989, though, and Cruse began a major new project, his first graphic novel, Stuck Rubber Baby, released by the DC Comics imprint Paradox Press. It gained notice and won awards, but never had the breakout success of something like Maus, Persepolis, or Fun Home, though I would argue that it is at least close to equal in merit.

Stuck Rubber Baby is a true graphic novel — unlike many other books that get that label, it was not conceived in pieces or published serially; it was always intended to be a long, unified narrative. It tells the story of a man named Toland Polk, mostly through his memories of growing up in Alabama during the early 1960s as a white guy who doesn't really know what he wants from the world or his life, coming to grips both with the civil rights movement and his own homosexuality. Partly in an attempt to try to cure his gay desires, he ends up in a relationship with a fiery college student, activist, and singer named Ginger, and she becomes pregnant. Meanwhile, protests against segregation and racism are growing more and more ferocious, and the white establishment fights back, with tragic, horrifying results. Throughout it all, Toland meets queer characters of various races and ages, and finally decides both that political action is necessary and that he can't pretend to be heterosexual any longer. This primary story is framed as the memories of Toland thirty years later, apparently in a stable relationship with a man, living a solidly bourgeois urban gay life, but still haunted by the past. Other characters' stories and fates are woven through Toland's memories, creating a complex view of this past and his remembering of it.

I've had a weird relationship with Stuck Rubber Baby over the course of its lifetime: I looked through it when it was first published and decided it wasn't for me; I read the whole book sometimes in the early 2000's and liked it but didn't really engage with it; I recently read it very carefully and closely, which led to something like awe. (The last time I had as powerful a reading experience was when I read J.M. Ledgard's Submergence over a year ago.)




Many people I know — otherwise intelligent people of impeccably refined taste — don't like Stuck Rubber Baby. Some claim to appreciate it, but to be put off by its artwork, which they invariably describe as ugly or "just plain bad." The art is one thing that caused me to bounce off the book when I first tried to read it sometime in 1996 or 1997, when I saw it at the old Shakespeare & Co. bookstore on lower Broadway in Manhattan and spent some time reading through it. (I used to go there when I was bored, or wanted to get away from people, or just felt like hanging out in a bookstore. They were open till midnight and didn't seem to mind if I sat there and read without buying anything.) The images seemed to me then unappealing, cramped, dark. I was also put off by the story's historical setting — I didn't want to read about Alabama in the 1960s, I wanted to read about contemporary New York queers.

I returned to the book in the early 2000's when I found a used copy somewhere and was thinking about doing an essay on various literary representations of AIDS activism. Though not at all directly about AIDS activism, I suspected (rightly) that it was relevant to that topic. I never got far with what I was writing, though, as life and other projects intervened.

My most recent experience of reading Stuck Rubber Baby was for a course on graphic narratives that I'm taking for my Ph.D. (this is my final term of coursework). It may have been that context that helped open up the book for me, since it required me to read it carefully and deliberately, but I think the more significant factor is simply age. Much of what concerned Cruse when he wrote Stuck Rubber Baby is now of more concern to me than it was when I encountered the book earlier: questions of memory and experience, of looking back on youthful political awakening, of trying to save something of a younger self for the present age, of making sense of an upbringing in a place very different from New York City, of queer identity.

Queer, indeed. Something that struck me especially forcefully as I read the book this time is how well it captures the feeling of queerness in every sense of the word, even among friends and supportive family members, a feeling that is not only a matter of desire, but is also inflected by the pitfalls and obstacles of making sense of an individual identity within a group — knowing always that there will be something strange about you to anyone, no matter how similar they may seem in experiences or yearnings.

Perhaps that's why the art didn't bother me this time; indeed, for once the art seemed absolutely right for the material. The human figures look like mannequins or weird, plump wax sculptures. The pages are mostly cramped, the panels claustrophobic. (That effect is enhanced by the decision to print the book in a small format so that it would be displayed on bookstores' fiction shelves rather than in the humor section. I think the art suffers for this, and it would be nice to have a larger format edition, but the cramped feeling is certainly heightened.) The shading often makes it difficult to distinguish skin tones, a powerful effect in a book about the civil rights era, where race seems so obvious and incontrovertible to the characters. Cruse draws an off-kilter world, a sometimes disturbing world, a world where cartoonish figures must find some way to reconcile themselves to very uncartoonish violence and horror.

It's an extremely talky book. The few panels without text stand out, and their presence inevitably feels either like a relief or a shock. The characters are constantly trying to talk their way through things, to find the right words, and more often than not they fail. At the same time, other characters wield words as weapons, with deadly consequences. Again and again, the book returns to ideas of representation and performance, of how identity, performance, and memory can merge or split. Sometimes words help, but often they do not — they accumulate, obfuscate, crowd out action and sight. It's significant that the book becomes more quiet at the end, as Toland finds ways to reconcile himself to the past, to move forward while preserving memory, to admit his own failures and horrors and not simply reduce them to stories he tells over and over again. Music weaves through his memories, and it is music that accompanies him in the end — "There's something I wanna show ya," he says, and the panels open up, the music weaves through the images, and we are left with the silent peace of a city snow storm.

I was struck during this reading at how easily Stuck Rubber Baby moves through its characters' timelines, how well, for the most part, it prevents us from getting confused as stories are told within stories, memories within memories. The structure overall is basically linear for the major events, but within sequences (and sometimes even individual pages) the movement is more fluid and associational. We're set up for this structure right from the first page, which introduces many of the visual motifs that will reappear throughout the book: the Kennedys, protests, dead bodies... In the first three pages, we move from Toland as an adult in the mid-1990s to Toland as a child and young teenager to Toland and his sister shortly after their parents died in a car accident. The fourth and fifth pages then circle back to develop some of what was glimpsed earlier, then use this new information to bring in Ginger standing with Toland at the March on Washington, where she asks him, "Who're you lookin' at?" to which Toland replies, "Just someone I used to know." (Despite all their talking, what matters most often is what and how these characters look at the world. Also, what is shown and not shown: Cruse is very careful to depict some events and not depict others.) It's an exquisite moment, encapsulating so much of what the book wrestles with, giving poignance to a scene early in the story, and also beginning to develop the characters who will be central to the primary story.

One of the things that makes the Wendel comics so delightful is Cruse's almost infallible sense of short story form. He produced those comics very quickly, often right up against deadline, and yet more often than not they have a balance of elements that produces far more resonance than many longer works. Reading Stuck Rubber Baby, you would hardly know that Cruse had never before written any comic much longer than 10 pages, and he melds his short story skills to the longer form by allowing the flow of memory to guide the overall narrative, and so the various short sequences can all work separately on their own toward the larger goal, allowing the book as a whole to leave and return to sequences much as the Wendel comic did, though now when he wrote it, Cruse could edit both backwards and forwards in a way he could not do when publishing a new installment every couple weeks. Thus, Stuck Rubber Baby has a far more intentional, unified form than the Wendel collections. (That said, the Wendel collections are more fun — their improvisatory energy is, for me at least, pure delight.)

Cruse began the Wendel comics just as people began to recognize the full horror of the AIDS crisis, and reading Wendel in chronological order is a particularly powerful experience because what begins as a light, slice-of-life comedy can't help but reckon with life in an ever more terrifying world, a world of yuppies and Reagan and plague. There's a remarkable Wendel comic from the fall of 1987 in which Wendel and friends go to a big AIDS demonstration in Washington. The majority of the story is given over to a song by a character named Glenn, who has taken on the responsibility of entertaining everybody on the bus from NYC to DC, and who is, he says, wearing the same gown he wore during the night of the Stonewall riots. The comic ends thus:


Cruse doesn't typically use photographic images in his comics, but here reality invades in the form of the Reagan administration and its cronies. The place and date are specific, and the sense of historical continuity is strong — by having Glenn wear the clothes he wore during the Stonewall riots, Cruse insists on the importance of the current moment for gay history and gay liberation.

AIDS is not explicitly mentioned in Stuck Rubber Baby, but it's an integral context for the story. The book was published before the advent of the drug "cocktail" that helped make HIV, for some people, a chronic, manageable disease rather than a death sentence. Gay people of all backgrounds and beliefs had to come together for political action because their lives were on the line. Silence equals death. Cynicism equals death. Complaisance equals death. In Stuck Rubber Baby, Toland learns a similar lesson. The connection between Toland's world in the 1960s and his world 30 years later did not need to be spelled out to readers in 1995, and the only reference making the connection is a single, tiny, unobtrusive image in a small panel on page 207:


Behind the picture of Ginger holding the baby before it is given up for adoption hangs the iconic "Silence = Death" ACT UP poster.

Stuck Rubber Baby is, then, a story of political awakening, but it was written as a call to consciousness, not a comforting nostalgia trip. In the mid-'90s, it was hard to maintain hope. Bill Clinton did not seem to be a significant improvement over George Bush on AIDS policy or gay rights, the Catholic Church was still vehemently anti-gay and anti-safe-sex (I participated with ACT UP in a small protest against the Pope's visit to New York in, I think, 1996), and progress still seemed far off.

Coming of age queer for my generation meant assuming that you had a high risk of dying young. I think one of the reasons I found Stuck Rubber Baby so powerful when I read it this time was that Toland's struggle against his homosexual desires, his fear that they were not just aberrant but deadly, and his experience of people being killed because of those desires, connected with my own memories of coming to awareness of desires that in all likelihood would lead to a terminal disease. Because of the AIDS crisis and because of how that crisis was represented in the news media and spoken of by the people I knew, queer identity felt to me like a doomed fate. Though I still carry traces of that feeling, and will probably never shed it, given that that was how I first learned to see myself, it doesn't stand in the foreground the way it used to, it doesn't create as much of a sense of being inevitably besieged, of needing to live fatalistically, of forgetting about any future. There is a chasm between that mid-'90s world and now, even though so much of the mid-'90s feels to me like it was just a couple years ago. Toland seems to feel that way about the '60s: he carries its traces and hauntings inside himself, and it isn't until the end that he learns what to do with it all. I'm still learning, myself, what to do with a sense of lived history, when what feels like yesterday also feels like multiple lifetimes ago, and when the terrors of youth still sometimes scream out in the quiet night of adulthood.

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24. Canonicity and an American Literature Survey Course


This term, I taught an American literature survey for the first time since I was a high school teacher, and since the demands of a college curriculum and schedule are quite different from those of a high school curriculum and schedule, it was a very new course for me. Indeed, I've never even taken such a course, as I was successful at avoiding all general surveys when I was an undergrad.

As someone who dislikes the nationalism endemic to the academic discipline of literature, I had a difficult time figuring out exactly what sort of approach to take to this course — American Literature 1865-present — when it was assigned to me. I wanted the course to be useful for students as they work their way toward other courses, but I didn't want to promote and strengthen the assumptions that separate literatures by national borders and promote it through nationalistic ideologies.

I decided that the best approach I could take would be to highlight the forces of canonicity and nationalism, to put the question of "American literature" at the forefront of the course. This would help with another problem endemic to surveys: that there is far more material available than can be covered in 15 weeks. The question of what we should read would become the substance of the course.

http://cdn.wwnorton.com/cms/books/9780393934793_300.jpghttp://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3a/Princess_of_Mars_large.jpg

The first choice I made was to assign the appropriate volumes of the Norton Anthology of American Literature, not because it has the best selection, but because it is the most powerfully canonizing anthology for the discipline. Though the American canon of literature is not a list, the table of contents of the Norton Anthology is about as close as we can get to having that canon as a definable, concrete object.

Then I wanted to add a work that was highly influential and well known but also not part of the general, academic canon of American literature — something for contrast. For that, I picked A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs in the Library of America edition, which has an excellent, thorough introduction by Junot Díaz. I also wanted the students to see how critical writings can bolster canonicity, and so I added The Red Badge of Courage in the Norton Critical Edition. Next, I wanted something that would puzzle the students more, something not yet canonized but perhaps with the possibility of one day being so, and for that I chose Wild Seed by Octavia Butler (who is rapidly becoming an academic mainstay, particularly with her novel Kindred). Finally, I thought the Norton anthology's selection of plays was terrible, so I added Suzan-Lori Parks's Red Letter Plays, which are both in direct dialogue with the American literary canon and throwing a grenade at it.

The result was this syllabus. As with any first time teaching a course, I threw a lot against the wall to see what might stick. Overall, it worked pretty well, though if I teach the course again, I will change quite a bit.

The students seemed to like the idea of canonicity and exploring it, perhaps because half of them are English Teaching majors who may one day be arbiters of the canon in their own classrooms. Thinking about why we read what we read, and how we form opinions about the respectability of certain texts over others, was something they seemed to enjoy, and something most hadn't had a lot of opportunity to do in a classroom setting before.

Starting the course with three articles we could return to throughout the term was one of the best choices I made, and the three all worked well: Katha Pollitt's “Why We Read: Canon to the Right of Me” from The Nation and Reasonable Creatures; George E. Haggerty's “The Gay Canon” from American Literary History; and Arthur Krystal's “What We Lose If We Lose the Canon” from The Chronicle of Higher Education. We had to spend some real time working through the ideas in these essays, but they were excellent touchstones in that they each offered quite a different view of the canon and canonicity.

I structured the course in basically two halves: the first half was mostly prescriptive on my part: read this, this, and this and talk about it in class. It was a way to build up a common vocabulary, a common set of references. But the second half of the course was much more open. The group project, in which students researched and proposed a unit for an anthology of American literature of their own, worked particularly well because it forced them to make choices in ways they haven't had to make choices before, and to see the difficulty of it all. (One group that said their anthology unit was going to emphasize "diversity" ended up with a short story section of white men plus Zora Neale Hurston. "How are you defining diversity for this section?" I asked. They were befuddled. It was a good moment because it highlighted for them how easy it is to perpetuate the status quo if you don't pay close attention and actively try to work against that status quo [assuming that working against the status quo is what you want to do. I certainly didn't require it. They could've said their anthology was designed to uphold white supremacy; instead, they said their goal was to be diverse, by which they meant they wanted to include works by women and people of color.])

Originally, there were quite a few days at the end of the term listed on the schedule as TBA. We lost some of these because we had three classes cancelled for snow in the first half of the term, and I had to push a few things back. But there was still a bit of room for some choice of what to read at the end, even if my grand vision of the students discovering things through the group project that they'd like to spend more time on in class didn't quite pan out. I should have actually built that into the group project: Choose one thing from your anthology unit to assign to the whole class for one of our TBA days. The schedule just didn't work out, though, and so I fell back on asking for suggestions, which inevitably led to people saying they were happy to read anything but poetry. (They hate poetry, despite all my best efforts to show them how wonderful poetry can be. The poetry sections were uniformly the weakest parts of the proposed anthology units, and class discussions of even the most straightforward poems are painfully difficult. I love teaching poetry, so this makes me terribly sad. Next time I teach this course, I'm building even more poetry into it! Bwahahahahaaaa!) A couple of students are big fans of popular postmodernist writers (especially David Foster Wallace), so they wanted to make sure we read Pynchon's "Entropy" before the course ended, and we're doing that for our last day.

Though they haven't turned in their term papers, I've read their proposals, and it's interesting to see what captured their interest. Though we read around through a bunch of different things in the Norton anthology, at least half of the students are gravitating toward Red Badge of Courage, Wild Seed, or The Red Letter Plays. They have some great topics, but I was surprised to see that most didn't want to go farther afield, or to dig into one of the areas of the Norton that we hadn't spent much time on. Partly, this is probably the calculus of getting work done at the end of the term: go with what you are not only most interested in, but most confident you know what the person grading your paper thinks about the thing you're writing about. I suppose I could have required that their paper be about something we haven't read for class, but at the same time, I feel like we flew through everything and there's tons more to be discussed and investigated in any of the texts. They've come up with good topics and are doing good research on them all, so I'm really not going to complain.

In the future, I might be tempted to cut Wild Seed, even though the students liked it a lot, and it's a book I enjoy teaching. It just didn't fit closely enough into our discussions of canonicity to be worth spending the amount of time we spent on it, and in a course like this, with such a broad span of material and such a short amount of time to fit it all in, the readings should be ruthlessly focused. It would have been better to do the sort of "canon bootcamp" that Crane and Burroughs allowed and then apply the ideas we learned through those discussions to a bunch of different materials in the Norton. We did that to some extent, but with the snow days we got really off kilter. I especially wish we'd had more time to discuss two movements in particular: the Harlem Renaissance and Modernism. Each got one day, and that wasn't nearly enough. My hope was that the groups would investigate those movements (and others) more fully for their anthology projects, but they didn't.

One of our final readings was Delany's "Inside and Outside the Canon", which is dense and difficult for undergrads but well worth the time and effort. In fact, I'd be tempted to do it a week or so earlier if possible, because we needed time to apply some of its ideas more fully before students plunged into the term paper. I wonder, in fact, if it would be better as an ending to the first half of the course than the second... In any case, it's a keeper, but definitely needs time for discussion and working through.

If I teach the course again, I would certainly keep the Crane/Burroughs pairing. It worked beautifully, since the similarities and differences between the books, and between the writers of those books, were fruitful for discussion, and the Díaz intro to Princess of Mars is a gold mine. We could have benefitted from one more day with each book, in fact, since there was so much to talk about: constructions of masculinity, race, heroism; literary style; "realism"...

I would be tempted to add a graphic narrative of some sort to the course. The Norton anthology includes a few pages from Maus, but I would want a complete work. I'd need to think for a while about exactly what would be effective, but including comics of some sort would add another interesting twist to questions of canonicity and "literature".

Would I stick with the question of canonicity as a lens for a survey class in the future? Definitely. It's open enough to allow all sorts of ways of structuring the course, but it's focused enough to give some sense of coherence to a survey that could otherwise feel like a bunch of random texts strung together in chronological order for no apparent reason other than having been written by people somehow associated with the area of the planet currently called the United States of America.

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25. Previously Unpublished Stories by Robert Aickman to be Released by Tartarus Press




I just told Ray Russell at Tartarus Press that I think the impending release of The Strangers by Robert Aickman is the publishing event of the year. That's not hyperbole. Aickman's stories are among my favorite works of 20th century art, and I always thought the canon was complete. Indeed, I thought that once Tartarus had brought all of Aickman back into print that I was done with being insanely grateful to Tartarus. But no!
The Strangers and Other Writings includes previously unpublished and uncollected short fiction, non-fiction and poetry by Robert Aickman. Dating from the 1930s to 1980, the contents show his development as a writer. Six unpublished short stories, augmented by one written for broadcast, follow his fiction from the whimsical through the experimental to the ghostly, with ‘The Strangers’ a fully-formed, Aickmanesque strange tale. The non-fiction samples Aickman’s wide-ranging interests and erudition: from the supernatural to Oscar Wilde; from 1940s films to Delius; from politics to the theatre; from Animal Farm to the canals.
Included with the book is a DVD of the documentary film Robert Aickman, Author of Strange Tales:
Featuring rare film, photographs and audio recordings, the film sheds new light on Aickman’s role in the development of the ghost story, his interest in restoring the British canal system and his wider involvement with the arts. Jean Richardson and Heather and Graham Smith share their memories of Aickman’s friendship, and writers Jeremy Dyson and Reggie Oliver evaluate Aickman’s literary legacy. 

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