Thursday, December 14, 2017

Stephen R. Donaldson and Tolkien

Well, just finished my monster 12,000 article (14k with footnotes) on sexed/gender violence in Stephen R. Donaldson. Sent it off yesterday afternoon. I have high hopes for it, but it was exhausting to write -- not only 2 1/2 months of labor, but a very depressing subject matter. My final draft has the phrases "sexed violence," "rape," and "assault" appear 168 times, and my secondary reading wasn't no picnic either, as you might imagine.

But anyway, I started reading the 3rd book of The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and I got to think thinking about SRD and Tolkien himself. Perhaps I should preface this by saying -- and it kills me to do so, since I love SRD -- that The Last Chronicles are really, really, really bad. The first two books are perhaps mediocre; not awful, mind you, but not as fresh or captivating as either of the first two Covenant trilogies. Yet book 3, Against All Things Ending, is really a sucker punch to the soul. I tried reading it about three or four years ago, but couldn't make it past page 100. Very literally, almost nothing happens in those first 100 pages -- yet virtually every sentence is filled with heartache, anguish, and despair. Much like Patricia A. McKillip, Donaldson has always had a tendency toward melodrama and operatic extremity, but somehow in this book he has simply lost all restraint. Here's a sample paragraph from Pg 194:
Until that moment, Covenant had seemed preoccupied with pain, too hurt to react. Yet he heard her appeal. Meeting her gaze, he gave her a look of anguish, stricken and faltering, as if she had asked him to betray himself -- or her. His hair resembled a silver conflagration, as if his thoughts burned with shame.
That last bolded sentence is literally the dumbest thing I've ever read. (What does conflagration hair look like, really?). But the previous sentences are eye-roll-worthy as well. Every once in a while wouldn't have been bad, perhaps especially in a poignant moment in the narrative, but Donaldson goes on like that, paragraph after paragraph, page after page. Show, not tell!

So this combination of re-reading late Donaldson, plus my long essay, has also made me reflect on his relationship to Tolkien. For this, I'll make up a few categories and see how things go:

Sub-creation -- Donaldson or Tolkien?
Tolkien -- and it's not even close. As much as I love The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Donaldson clearly is borrowing all of Tolkien's plot structure. That's not a flaw, mind you, so long as you do it well, which Donaldson. But he doesn't really come into his own until The Second Chronicles. . . . alas, though, The Final Chronicles, in terms of subcreation, has squeezed the lemon dry. There just isn't very much interesting about his world by the third go-around.

Prose -- Donaldson or Tolkien?
Tie. Actually, I hate discussions about prose, since there isn't really a rigorous way to discuss it -- although writers clearly revise their sentences according to some theory of better/worse, critics most often mention prose only to disparage a work they dislike for other reasons. Both Donaldson and Tolkien have both been unfairly maligned for those prose styles; really, though, their styles are just fine.

Intellectual Daringness-- Donaldson or Tolkien?
Donaldson -- but this is tricky. Tolkien was a hell of a bright guy, and he certainly knew pre-modern  century English literature way better than Donaldson does. But he's not nearly as self-consciously literary as SRD. This may possible be a case of bias, since SRD's existentialism seems more far-ranging (although not necessarily more meaningful) than Tolkien's Catholicism, but I give the points to SRD here. 

Plotting-- Donaldson or Tolkien?
Donaldson, slightly, again with the caveat that his plot for the first Chronicles owes a lot to Tolkien. But Donaldson seems better able, in my able opinion, to stretch out a climax much longer than Tolkien. And SRD's greater prolificness gives him much more narrative space to write gripping stories.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Free laptop? Much love to you, U of A!

So, yes -- the University of Arizona just gave all its lecturers free laptops. This is part, I've been told, of their general effort to update the tech for all faculty, and it just so happens that lecturers are being considered faculty for the first time.

Anyway, although this move has apparently been in the works for months, we just got the announcement a few days ago. Just picked mine up, in fact. I've said it before, but it's worth saying again -- I absolutely lucked out in getting hired by such an awesome place. I mean, really . . . a free laptop.  And the exceptionally cool part is that I'd just been about to buy a new one; my current lappy is over four years old and running down.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Latest Tolkien Publication: Fastitocalon

Just received my contributor's copy of Fastitocalon, which is a European journal dedicated to "studies in fantasticism ancient to modern." The special issue is all about world-building & subcreation, and it allowed me to apply to possible worlds theory (as a branch of narrative theory) to the different editions of The Hobbit.

Basically, without delving into any gory details, I think the 1st edition of The Hobbit creates a distinct fictional world which requires study in its own right -- and this world is modally differentiated world from the fictional worlds created by the Revision Phrase (2nd edition text, 1951-1954) and the Assimilation Phase (post-Fellowship of the Ring).

Fun stuff . . . and I actually talked about submitting the original abstract on this blog little over a year ago, here.

Intriguingly, 5 of the 11 contributors were graduate students (two of the articles had dual authors). That number rises to 6 if you count myself, since I'd written my submission prior to defending the diss. 

All in all, it's a nice little volume, and I even recognize a few fellow Tolkien scholars (Robin Anne Reid, Thomas Honegger, Alan Turner, Anahit Behrooz). 

Now, shameful-secret time: I actually had no idea what a "fastitocalon" was, so some time ago I googled it only to realize that I should have known all about it already. It's a medieval sea monster that Tolkien wrote a poem about (published in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil). Kinda embarassing, I admit, that I totally glossed over the fastitocalon in my reading. Also, I belatedly realized, the monster also appears in several Final Fantasy games.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The U of A Writing Program Wins a Major National Award

Well, hot dog! A few days ago, I learned that our Writing Program has been awarded the 2017-18 CCCC Writing Program Certificate of Excellence. (The 4 Cs are the major U.S. rhet/comp organization, akin to MLA for literature people.) Since I'm such a recent addition to the university, this award leaves me feeling somewhat bemused -- especially since many lecturers, TT faculty, and administrators have been advocating hard for years to improve this program. Still, this is major, and I'm excited. Please let me gush for a moment.

Arizona's massive efforts to improve the working conditions and lives of its lecturers was a major deciding factor in the award, according to the notification we received. Really, I've been awed at the many initiatives our Writing Program has undertaken:

  • A major salary hike a few years ago,
  • Ongoing efforts for shared governance in the English Department (i.e., lecturers voting on departmental issues), a promotion plan, and three-year contracts
  • Just this year, an additional $1 million in WP funding to reduce class sizes to 19 students by hiring more lecturers -- a move that directly led to my hiring last summer.
There are a lot of other rhet/comp-y reasons for our program's being singled out, which I'll copy/paste below. (Since the announcement has already been made on the CCCC website, I'm pretty sure I'm not breaking any rules by posting this!) In all honesty, I couldn't have been more lucky to wind up in such a fabulous institution.

"The following are comments provided by the selection committee:
"The committee applauds the efforts within this program to establish meaningful, livable, stable non-tenure track positions with shared governance and opportunities for professional development. The first-year class sizes are 19. The scope of this program is huge, and even though it is largely FYW, it is FYW done well. Ongoing faculty self-assessment and required continued professional development help all instructors maintain an investment in FYW teaching. Courses that adhere around outcomes allow for different kinds of autonomy, even as careful assessment helps highlight how best to reach course goals. The program has integrated and modified many kinds of “best” practices in FYW teaching and learning, from reducing and extending support for less-confident or underprepared students to innovating with placement for all writers (including multilingual writers).
"Indeed, the committee believes that the University of Arizona serves as an exemplary model for peer institutions in a number of ways, including the following: 1) their revision of course content for the FYC sequence, beginning with a focus on a genre approach in the first semester with a focus on a WID approach in the second semester in order to improve students’ ability to transfer writing skills and abilities across contexts; 2) best practices in program placement through a DSP approach, which better responds to the needs of a diverse student body; 3) the different levels of support for a large faculty serving a large number of students, including the greatly improved working conditions of Lecturers and the both required and optional aspects of continued, annual reflective professional development opportunities; 4) the reliance on an outcomes-based approach through portfolio assessment at the course level and data-driven assessment at the program level in order to maintain continuity and quality across a large number of diverse course sections. Additionally, as a result of the number and quality of publications authored by faculty in the program, faculty in U of A’s Writing Program have proved themselves to be model teacher-scholars, not only for others at peer institutions but for the field more broadly."

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

White Male Bashing as Criticism -- the LARB review of Bladerunner 2049

So, I just finished reading the Los Angeles Review of Books review of Bladerunner 2049. For the record, I loved the film. The themes were intellectually engaging, the score impressive, and it handled its characters with intelligence and respect. All in all, I consider it an exemplary sequel.

The writer of the LARB review, alas, does not.

I should clarify that when I call this a "poor" review, I do not mean in the technical sense. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun clearly has a great grasp of film technique, and her actual writing is lucid and engaging. Instead, what I mean is the refusal to see the film on its own terms -- preferring, rather, to see in one's own ideological/political lens, and then drenching the film in invective. The discussion of BR2049 on the IAFA listserv actually made many of Chun's main points last month, but she assembled them into a single article, so I'll tackle the review here.

Her basic idea is to look for why the film has failed to connect with audiences and find huge box office returns. The obvious answer, of course, is that BR2049 is a slow, moody, atmospheric film with little action and no humor. Brilliant, but way too artsy and cerebral for mass appeal. Chun, though, comes up with a few alternative humdingers of answers that, shall we say, really grind my gears.

She pinpoints two major problems with the film. First, she loathes the film's major theme, i.e., the “obsession with and nostalgia for what is real.” In more detail, she states:
"This question of the real — one that haunts film scholars everywhere as they mourn the loss of celluloid with its alleged physical tie to events that really happened — is arguably one that audience members brought up on digital media simply don’t care about."
This objection doesn't merit much rebuttal, I don't think. The real-fake or real/illusionary binary is about as ancient as it gets, and iphones haven't changed that. Indeed, some postmodernists often speak as if the technological advances of the last few decades have superseded everything we know about humanity, but until a post-human possible future becomes a reality, human nature is still pretty much the same -- and the urge to separate what is real from what is fake ain't going nowhere. End verdict: BR2049's theme is still relevant.

The second objection requires that one be okey-dokey with excessive, blatant, and unapologetic white male bashing. Oh, like most savvy critics, she frames the bashing with progressive-sounding theory language. And, certainly, some points about the film are undeniable: there are no major non-white characters (although there aren't many major characters total), and the minority secondary characters are hardly enlightened representations (though they're not actually offensive). But, mostly, Chun's critique of the film can't be separated from generic white male bashing. A quote:
[W]ith the latest mass shootings and the rise of white supremacist male avenger, the wounded white male isn’t quite the sympathetic character he once was. What’s tired — or should become so — is the simultaneous invisibility of people of color as protagonists and their hyper-visibility as raced others.
Let's take her truly mind-blowing first sentence. First off, she's pooh-poohing the "wounded white male", aka Ryan Gosling's character K, in this film -- as if his character's existential state was rendered moot or unimportant by his ethnicity and gender. She's not critiquing his actions, mind you, which are no worse than any other noir detective's -- she's focusing her criticism entirely on his skin color and genitalia. She knows better than this, I'm sure. After all, she'd never dare describe a non-white character in a similar way.

Even worse, "latest mass shootings?" Seriously -- the hell? What do mass shootings have to do with ANYTHING in this film? Although most cases of domestic terrorism (and serial murderers!) are white males, K is neither a domestic terrorist, a serial murder, a WASP, a Wall Street-bourgeois, a redneck, a hipster, or anything else associated with "white male" you care to name. This isn't even film criticism. She's just railing against contemporary American culture, which, sure, fine, if that's what you want to do. Knock yourself out. But it's not film criticism.

As far as the second half of that extended quote goes . . . well, sigh. Look, of course Hollywood should be more diverse. No reason not to! Diversity is good for the culture, and it's aesthetically good for cinematic art in general. But you also sometimes just have to accept that art is HARD. No single piece of art will ever be everything to every one. The only thing that matters, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, is whether the art has been done well or poorly. Wilde, incidentally, had argued art for art's sake precisely because excessive Victorian moralism had castigated his own artistic productions. We applaud him because we are no longer Victorians, but we also have our own cultural blinders, political keywords, hot button issues, and such forth. BR2049, to my mind, seems like it was the best film it was capable of being. I didn't see any obvious places to insert diversity . . . and criticizing the film for transforming slavery into a "white-on-white" affair, as if that someone erases the history of real slavery, is just eye-roll-worthy.

Mainly, because art is difficult, I think critics should also acknowledge that films simply can't be all things to all viewers. Perhaps the writers and the director just didn't have the personal capacity or talent to be laudable multicultural AND tell the story they wanted to tell. Although BR2049 may not have been sufficiently progressive for some, to castigate the film -- and it's white male protagonist -- so thoroughly is really to miss the trees for the forest. A postcolonial and race critical perspective can certainly bring to light important problems, but a good critic should also open themselves up to the story the film wants to tell (rather than the story s/he wishes the film had told). I don't think Chun ever makes that effort.

Ironically, while making passing references to "numerous evocative and thought-provoking sequences," the only thing Chun truly seems to enjoy about BR2049 involves how the film itself seems to engage in white male bashing (in her view, at least.) "The desires to love, to be loved, and to be special are brutally and ironically undermined," she writes. "Is this the height of white, male individuality: being named a 'joe' by a holograph named Joi?"

I agree that the film "brutally and ironically" undermines the desires to love and be loved. Where I part ways is the seeming callousness with which the reviewer notes K's suffering. We already know that she has little sympathy for "wounded white males," cuz mass shootings. Still, Gosling's character is sympathetic, and anyone who doesn't recognize that is either a soulless jerk or a critic with a political axe to grind. I'll be nice and suggest that Chun is the latter. White males are bad -- okay, fine, we got it. But any insightful or useful criticism has to look at issues of good and evil, vice or virtue, kindness or cruelty. Gosling's character scores well on all these marks insofar as his programming lets him. To fail to recognize that because of the ethnicity/gender is to fail to recognize a good human being, K's most cherished ideal, when one sees it.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Lloyd Alexander -- the Translator of Jean-Paul Sartre?

As part of my Stephen R. Donaldson, I've been reading some Jean-Paul Sartre -- mostly Being and Nothingness and his novel, Nausea. I'm pretty familiar with Sartre in broad outlines, of course. My first semester in college, I went through a pretty big existentialist phase thanks to my Introduction to Philosophy course, which had a "Existentialism is a Humanism" as one of the optional readings in the back. What self-absorbed, rebellious 18-year-old atheist wouldn't be captivated by a philosophy marked by "anguish, despair, and forlornness?" I eventually got over that phase, partly because it seemed pretentious and partly because I couldn't (then) understand any of the harder philosophical works, but I still loved Donaldson (whose link to existential thought I hadn't then quite realized). 

Anyway, reading Nausea for the first time, and I noticed that it was translated by a "Lloyd Alexander." 

"Huh!" I thought.

So I checked this out, and it turns out to be true -- the guy who wrote The Chronicles of Prydain, a classic of children's fantasy, also translated perhaps the most important existentialist novel ever. He also translated Le Mur by Sartre and selected writings by Paul Eluard, a French surrealist. I'm not quite sure what to make of that. On one hand, you can kinda sorta see Taran as an existentialist hero; on the other hand, the the standard existentialist emotions aren't there at all. I'm sure some enterprising scholar of Alexander has already explored this link. I might have to delve into that sometime.

Incidentally, I hated Nausea. France just seemed to produce a lot of grotesque and depressing novels in the 1930s -- Jean Rhys's Good Morning, Midnight is set in Paris, and Djuna Barnes's Nightwood is also set there. Happy-go-luck fellas like myself really are tempermentally unsuited to novels like that.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Reviews Editor for Fafnir. (Also, the Baum Bugle!)

Well, a minor happy piece of personal news this Thanksgiving -- looks like I'll be the new Reviews Editor for Fafnir: A Nordic Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy Research. I actually applied for the open editor in chief position, which I also applied to last year, but I came in a narrow second. 

Still, luck was with me. The editorial board had already decided to expand their reviews section (monographs and dissertations both), and they decided to offer me the position before placing any open calls. Well, I love books reviews, so this is really quite good. Plus it won't be as time intensive as the full editor in chief position, so this will provide more time for personal research. It's a win-win situation here. I'm looking forward to starting. Fafnir publishes four times a year, so the current issue is now being laid out. I'll be starting officially in January 2018.

In other news, my friend Sarah H. is also about to assume the editor in chief position for The Baum Bugle. This publication has been around, literally, for decades, and Sarah -- as a lifelong L. Frank Baum fan -- has read virtually every issue of it. This is such a cool thing, and I'm pretty proud of her.

On the plus side, she already commissioned me to write a short piece on The Magic of Oz, which will get its 100-year centennial in 2019. Looking forward to that, too!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Mythlore 130 Received

Just got my order of Mythlore #130 (vol. 35, issue 2) in the mail last night. I've particularly proud of this one (the biggest single issue in the journal's history), as it contains both an article and a review of mine. The article, which I summarize here, is about why Tolkien might have co-nominated E.M. Forster for the Nobel Prize in 1954. The review is of a great biography about Angela Carter, the British fairy tale writer and postmodern feminist. 

Incidentally, this may be the first physical issue of Mythlore I've ever handled. All my prior experience with the journal has been through either an online database or through a pdf of an interlibrary loan. Nice looking volume, in all. 

Christopher Tolkien, semi-retired!

So, the big news last night is that Christopher Tolkien has resigned (retired, I suppose would be a better word) as the director the Tolkien Estate. He'll remain the literary executor, but still, this is pretty big news. This announcement also comes on the heels of the big news from a few days ago that Amazon just acquired the global t.v. rights for a prequel series to The Lord of the Rings, and it's hard to imagine that the two pieces of information are unrelated.

Anyway, though, as can be gleaned from the comments section in the above link, Christopher Tolkien's centrality to Tolkien Studies is about as high as you can possibly get, and his influence on the field as great as any scholar, just about, could make to their field. I certainly don't know any comps, especially as C. Tolkien started his work decades before Tolkien scholarship became as prolific as it has been. I wonder sometimes if the fact that he's the son of Tolkien Sr. has partially obscured his scholarship -- before I began my dissertation (I admit this to my embarrassment), I had the lurking cynical suspicion that the plethora of new posthumous editions of Tolkien's was just a money ploy. Of course I realize that's all nonsense. A literary executor can make or break the reputation of a great writer -- Franz Kafka had a great one, Edgar Allen Poe had an awful one. The still-strong popular reputation, and the booming critical reputation, of J. R.R. Tolkien just wouldn't have been possible without the decades of work C. Tolkien put into setting and correcting new textual editions.

If someone ever complied a list of the top literary scholars of the 20th- and 21st-centuries, I'd have to imagine that C. Tolkien would make the top-20.

About the new Amazon series of LOTR, I have high hopes. I never really liked the Peter Jackson films, even his critically acclaim
ed first trilogy, and this could be something good. Of course, there's no script or ideas for the prequels yet, but Amazon has the money and apparently has the willpower and daringness to emulate what HBO did for Game of Thrones. Martina and I watched the first episode of Amazon's adaptation of The Man in the High Castle, and it was quite competent. (Although, ultimately, we didn't continue the series; as a Czech, Martina usually refuses to watch anything involving Nazis or World War II.) So maybe they could work some magic for these new prequels.

Saturday, November 11, 2017


Well, actually, last Thursday night with Chomsky. In celebration of luring Noam Chomsky away from MIT, the U of A had a "discussion" with him at Centennial Hall. Tickets were $15 -- and I don't know if I was outraged they were charging for an academic event, or disappointed that someone at the very pinnacle of academia didn't bring in triple-digit ticket prices!

(Regardless, the ticketing website was the most convoluted thing imaginable. Despite that, a pretty nice crowd showed.)

Anyway, the discussion itself wasn't much -- just some normal observations about current politics, media, human rights, nuclear war, and the like. Nothing particularly insightful or amazing. Still, the wife and I went for the pleasure of seeing a genius, not any practical or academic benefit, so we were happy. Plus the discussion and following Q&A went about 2 hours long, so we certainly got our money's worth.

Afterwards, we went to Chipotle's. Apparently, one of my students works there, and she gave us free chips and quacamole. She only did it cuz she's fun (i.e., she probably does the same thing for all her friends), so only later did I realize that, technically, we may have been bribed. Whoops.