Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Discipline Wars

Back when I was an MA student and unsure of the future direction of my academic study, I was obsessed with a perceived divide between literary studies and philosophy. Critical theory and cultural studies seemed like a lot of hocus pocus to me, where good old-fashioned analytic philosophy had the methodological rigor to get the truth out of real questions.

Well, that perceived divide is no longer a big issue with me (the value of one and the limitations of the other have become more apparent), so it's somewhat amusing to see disciplinary rancor when it crops up. I'm currently reading a book called Fame by a professor of philosophy named Mark Howlands. He's talking about the Protagorean view that "man is the measure," by which one understanding of the phrase is that truth claims such as the earth's roundness are always relative to the observer. This, however, "is a truly asinine doctrine," he says, "that can find a home only in university English and cultural studies departments" (33). 

And as much as I"m not a big believer in certain intellectual trends within cultural studies, nowadays it's hard to score polemics points with me . . . and I'm annoyed at such a bad paraphrase of a complicated set of ideas.

Friday, April 6, 2018

First (Solicited) Book Review

Well, this was a peach . . . . Other day, I received a random email from a well-known Tolkienist entitled, "Book on Tolkien for JTR." Immediately I think, Whoa, he wants to review for Fafnir! Just a few days before, I posted a CfR for Fafnir that had five Tolkien books as among the available titles. I was surprised because established scholars don't usually engage in reviewing all that much . . . it's more something for motivated early career academics.All five of those books had been grabbed up within the first 24 hours, incidentally, and I was worried that I'd have to explain how his book had already been given away!

Anyway, turns out that he was actually offering me a chance to review a book for Journal of Tolkien Research, which tickled me pink for all sorts of reasons. I've done tons of book reviews before, but usually after seeing a CfR or soliciting a reviews editor. This was the first time someone had solicited me. Moving on up, as George Jefferson would say.

And we even had a nice e-mail exchange afterward. Apparently, we'll both be at the International Congress in Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo in a month and, as someone who's had almost two decades of experience going to this conference, he told me all sorts of cool things about the conference. 

A Swi-IIIING and a Miss: Lit Crit Edition

So, in the wake of meeting Stephen R. Donaldson at the ICFA, he had -- as I mentioned -- given me his contact e-mail. I waited a week and a half or so before emailing him; since he seemed genuinely interested in my work, I also sent the longer version of my article on his feminism and the issue of gender violence, currently under the review. A very pleasant exchange followed, which warmed my cold bleak heart. I considered writing that article, at a time when I should have been transforming my dissertation into a book, as a sort of homage for a set of books that just haven't received enough of the right kind of attention, at least not for the virtues I've always seen in them. So it's quite nice that he appreciated my remarks. . . . although, granted, if he had been irked by anything, I suspect his natural courtesy would have prevented him from saying so.

Anyway, concerning this blog's title: Rollo May.

As I was doing background research, I did some reading on Rollo May, an American existential psychologist who was big around the 1960s an 1970s. In particular I was struck by the resonances between his 1972 book, Power and Innocense, and Lord Foul's Bane. I wondered, quite naturally, if there might have been some influence. Alas, it was not to be -- while SRD admitted to having heard the name, he had no idea why.

At any rate, just to preserve my brilliantly insightful (almost) connection for posterity, I'll include my May/SRD footnote here below:

As radical feminist therapist, Bonnie Burstow is in a good position to know. Among the social sciences, existentialism has seen its greatest influence in psychology—both emphasize the individual to an unusual degree. Indeed, when it comes to existential psychology, I suspect that the American psychologist Rollo May might have been a great unacknowledged influence on Donaldson. Although May’s best known for Love and Will (1969), his book Power and Innocence (1972) has a number of uncanny intellectual resemblances to Donaldson. Like Donaldson, May holds that power is “a fundamental aspect of the life process” (Power 20). Even more importantly, he critiques the notion, which he calls innocence and attributes to the Counterculture, that “removing all power and aggression from human behavior” would lead to a better society (39). As a Conscientious Objector who objected to the Vietnam War, May’s discussion of power and aggression would have greatly interested Donaldson. He employs May’s unusual definition of innocence, for example, in The Wounded Land, combining it with his own ideas on power and guilt. Speaking to Linden Avery, here is Dr. Berenford’s description of Thomas Covenant’s latest novel:

If you had a chance to read Or I Will Sell My Soul for Guilt, you'd find him arguing that innocence is a wonderful thing except for the fact that it’s impotent. Guilt is power. All effective people are guilty because the use of power is guilt, and only guilty people can be effective. Effective for good, mind you. Only the damned can be saved. (23)

Furthermore, May’s opening in Power and Innocence might have served as a mission statement for The Chronicles. “As a young man,” May says, “I held innocence in high esteem. I disliked power, both in theory and practice, and abhorred violence” (Power 13). Convalescing from tuberculosis, however, May explains that he soon realized from watching the “apparently innocent patients around me in the sanatorium that passively accepting their powerlessness in the face of the disease meant dying” (14). Ironically, Covenant initially learns powerlessness in a sanitorium—although his sanitorium treated leprosy rather than tuberculosis. Nonetheless, Covenant eventually comes to conclusions similar to May’s.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Browsing through the Evangeline Walton papers

So, a while back, I realized that the U of A had the papers of Evangeline Walton, who spend the last 2/3 of her life in Tucson, and I thought, rather randomly, that someday I might use them for an article or some such. Well, the other day, I discovered the existence of a journal known as the The Eaton Journal of Archival Research in Science Fiction, so I decided to take the plunge and see if anything interested me in those papers.

Alas, not muchthat I could find. There's a pretty lengthy correspondence from John Cowper Powys, with whom EW shared a strong interest in Celtic material, and a few letters from August Derleth of Arkham House (and publishing H. P. Lovecraft) fame. The rest of the materials were manuscripts for several of EW's novels.

I was really hoping that I could somehow tie EW to a writer whom I knew -- Tolkien after the 1950s, perhaps, or even the Greyhaven writers, a possibility I realized once I discovered that EW wrote the forward to Paul Edwin Zimmer's chapbook, Woman of the Elfmounds. (She also did a blurb for his second novel). Unless I was dedicated into reading into more of Powys,** though, there doesn't seem to be much I can use here.

**Random note, btw: apparently Cowys, who was sometimes called an atheist, told EW that he's really a polytheist -- a believer in God and the Goddess. That, of course, reminded me of the neo-paganism of the Greyhaven writers, but any connection there is probably too tenuous to delve into.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Getting free academic books . . . and giving them away again

So far, the strangest thing about being a reviews editor for Fafnir is how easy it is to get free books from publishers. You simply contact the publisher's publicity person, say, "Hey, I'm so-and-so, please give me this book for free," and by gum they send you the book. In fact, with about 18 books in the stockpile, not a single publisher has yet to tell me "no," which astonishes me greatly. I suppose they benefit from extra reviews (some academic libraries won't purchase a volume unless it's been reviewed), but still, I'm pleasantly surprised by the whole process.

Of course, the sad thing about getting all these free books is that I have to give them away again -- to the reviewers, of course. Cool fact, though: just found out that the U of A offers postage for books sent for academic purposes. That's quite a pleasant surprise as well. 

All in all, I'm loving the new position. I really missed editing Scientia et Humanitas, but this is so much more awesome -- and it's an immense help with realizing all the new SFF books being published by various presses.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Teaching Adventures

So, all my classes have major projects due on Wednesday, and so I had over 2 1/2 hours of discussion during office hours today. The last student was particularly having troubles with his literature review. We got through basic information like thesis and stuff, but he was stumped when it came to the author's methodology and evidence. I told him to work on it and we'd discuss what he found.

And you know what he found? He found a "peer reviewed" predatory journal article written --and, apparently, edited by -- non-native English speakers. He was confused by everything in the piece, so when I myself read the abstract, I instantly recognized that this was pay-for-publication journal and a complete load of crap. Of course, I didn't make the student get a new source (it was clearly marked "peer reviewed" in our library database), but I certainly never had a student encounter this problem before!

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Day 2: ICFA 2018 . . . and terror.

Day 2 was a little more eventful than Day 1. The first panel had two papers on George R. R. Martin, which was nice, and my second panel was chaired by yours truly. All three presenters were doctoral students who did a fantastic job offering feminist readings of fantasy texts. One of the books discussed was actually Jean Rhys's Wide Saragossa Sea, which isn't really a fantasy novel except that it talks about zombieism, and the other two books were Lois McMaster Bujold's Paladin of Souls and Marie Brennan's A Natural History of Dragons. I had high hopes of reading all three novels before ICFA began but, alas, only managed to get 80% of the way through Paladin of Souls. Still, the post-presentation discussion went great. Huzzah!

And then . . . 

And then -- then came my presentation on Stephen R. Donaldson's "Reave the Just." For months, a looming terror has filled my gut that SRD himself would actually appear, since I know he tends to be an ICFA regular . . . and, sure enough, he did. Honestly, I've given dozens of presentations, but never was I so nervous. As Bill Senior was giving his paper, my heart must've been going 110 bpm as I awaited my turn.

My paper was well-received, I think. There were several very complimentary remarks on Donaldson's (I am a fan, after all), and I didn't get too much push-back from my critiques of "Reave the Just."*** Mostly, the comments centered on a few helpful close-reading points that could have been additionally brought to bear -- nothing, intriguingly enough, on the larger idea of gender violence which was my presentation's subject. Overall, Martina assured me that I didn't embarrass myself.

Afterward, SRD himself spoke with me, and I must confess that that terrified me as well. Seriously, I haven't felt like such a 12-year-old since I actually was twelve. But Donaldson thanked me for discussing the feminism in his work, which has been a much neglected aspect in the secondary literature. He even gave me his business card (!) in case I continued working along these lines. Martina, who's also spent most of her life in academia, says I absolutely should contact him, but it seems so odd to me, writers and literary critics mixing.

Incidentally, the Great Author Himself wasn't the only terrifying personage present. Bill Senior is responsible for the best monograph on Donaldson to date, the first academic book I ever read for fun (back when I was an undergraduate at Kent State), and Senior's resume is further rounded out by stints as editor in chief of Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts and president of IAFA. Now, as you might imagine, I'm not a shrinking violet when it comes to academics, but my immediate impression of Dr. Senior was of an eagle-eyed close reader with extraordinarily high expectations. The first words I heard him speak were a remark to a colleague who'd asked about someone's paper. Said Senior, "She needed to cut out the first three pages. But the rest of the paper was fine. Donna Haraway did the same thing a few years ago -- a fantastic presentation preceded by an absolutely useless 15-minute review of the secondary literature." Daaamn. I also recognized C. W. Sullivan as present.

After that, as you might imagine, I was absolutely knackered. Martina and I went out to dinner -- I even waved to SRD as we were leaving the hotel. But then a further moment of terror transpired as, on our way to one of the local restaurants, we saw SRD and a group of scholars heading into the same general direction; they must have taken a short cut. I hope no one blames me if I describe how Martina and I immediately turned around and went the opposite direction -- it would have been just too awkward to wind up eating in the same place!

*** From interviews and previous commentary on the interwebz, I've gotten the impression that SRD is one of those ideals writers who, while highly interested the criticism produced on his work, nonetheless is quite willing to let all readers, critics and non-critics alike, interpret as they please.

Friday, March 16, 2018

DAY 1: ICFA 2018

Day 1 was intense -- four panels attended, and lots of interesting ideas heard. What's intriguing this year (as opposed to last) is how many papers are sticking to the conference theme of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which is celebrating it's 200th anniversary this year. There's around 2 panels devoted to her in nearly every time slot. What else is intriguing is how few presentations there are on fantasy fiction . . . a strange thing for a conference on the fantastic in the arts. Instead, there's a lot of science fiction, a lot of work on transmedia storytelling, and a lot of film and television criticism. While that's still all pretty important, however, it does mean that very few of the panels have been as directly related to my own research interests as the ones from last year. Last year, for example, there were a half dozen Tolkien papers, perhaps more, spread throughout the conference. This year there's only three, collected together in one panel.

Still, day 2 starts in less than an hour, and I pumped for it.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Laid out -- but still currently productive

So, speaking as someone who never gets sick, the last week has been a health catastrophe. First, last Monday, Martina and I went hiking to Bear Canyon. Great trek, but I tripped and banged the hell out of my quadriceps. No visible bruise, though it felt like a bruise deep inside, and it took me four days until I got full flexibility back.

But, that evening, I started coming down with something. Then the next day, Tuesday, the coming down got worse. Before you knew it, I had the flu -- laid me out for a full six days, and I didn't start better until Saturday night. No major interruptions in my normal activity, though, although I stopped going to the gym that week. Otherwise, my academic work kept up.

Through Sunday and yesterday, there was 36 hours of good health. But, after finishing my final Monday class, I started getting the shivers really bad. I trudged along home, knowing that I had some herculean work efforts ahead of me. My ENGL 102 returned their lit review rough drafts that afternoon, but my plane for the ICFA 2018 left the next morning at 6:30 am, so I basically had to comment on 60 papers in about an 8 hour span.

I almost made it . . . but I had a flu relapse. Although I don't know if "relapse" is the right word, since it was basically a short nuclear burst of flu-activity. Chills, insanely high fever (I had to use cold compresses), splitting headache. I went to bed at 7 pm, snoozed off and on until midnight . . . when, strangely, all the aches and pains and fevers stopped, except some night sweats. So, basically, a 10-hour bug. No idea if it was part of the old flu or maybe even a new strain I'd inadvertently picked up somehow.

Anyway, though, I did manage to finish that commenting this morning, although the last of it occurred during out Los Angeles airport layover. Now I'm ready for an exciting, exciting week.

Saturday, March 10, 2018


Just finished Paul Kierney's wonderfully detailed The Ten Thousand (2008), a fantasy-ish re-telling of the Greek writer Xenophon's famous Anabasis. The book left me feeling ambivalent -- so here's the good and the bad.


(1) Beautiful writing. Really, truly lovely. The following is a description of the Greek mercenaries on the mark:
These watched, amazed, from the highest of the crumbling escarpments, as now a great rash spread over the desert, a river of men, dark under the sun save where the light caught around them, a tawny, leaning giant, a toiling yellow storm bent on blotting out the western sky. It seemed a nation on the march, a whole people set on migrating to a better place. The sparse inhabitants of the Gadinai drew together, old feuds forgotten, and watched in wonder as the great column poured steadily onward, as unstoppable as the course of the sun. It was as grand as some harbinger of the world's end, a spectacle even the gods must see from their places amid the stars. So this, then, was the passage of an army.
(2) Kierney did his research. Oh hells yeah, he did. This book basically counts as military fantasy, and it is the best description of phalanx fighting I have ever seen. I'm no expert in ancient Greek warfare, but I know enough to realize when a writer has gotten his details right -- and not only details, but also the strange combination of sheer terror and workmanlike ploddingness that marked phalanx fighting. His descriptions of battle are some of the best I've ever seen.


(A) Is this fantasy? Okay, this isn't really bad, but the book's only marginally fantasy. There's no magic, for one thing, the plot's realistic, and the only real "fantasy" element is the lightweight armor called the Curse of God worn by some of the soldiers. Also there's some weird creatures named Qaf who appear briefly near the end. To be honest, The Ten Thousand might have made more sense of as a historical novel than a fantasy novel. Because . . . 

(B) Kearney follows Xenophon's story really closely. The wikipedia summary said this book was "loosely based" on the Anabasis, but that's hogwash. Kearney invents the characters and individualizes their motivations, but he follows Xenophon's plot almost exactly. Which is fine -- unless you happen to be intimately familiar with the Anabasis, in which case there's no suspense or surprises in this book.

Plus, the Anabasis isn't a novel -- it tells of exciting events, but there's no sense (as in novels) of a single plotline following a single thematic thread. "Suspense" isn't really a feature of ancient literature, but one has really come to expect it in modern fantasy novels. Thus the re-telling doesn't translate entirely well.

In addition, there's some rather hollow attempts to widen the interest of the book -- Kearney invents a pretty typical woman character who can be rescued by the love of one of the mercenaries, for example. But, really, the prime interest of this novel is Kearney's fantastic descriptions of battle. That won't work for many readers, and it only worked for me up to a point.

END VERDICT: Glad I read it, but I won't be attempting the other two books in the series . . . unless I plan future research on battle descriptions.