Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Life and Death of a Satellite & the Two Cultures

Recently been skimming through The Life and Death of a Satellite, a 1966 non-fiction work by Alfred Bester trying to popularize our space program. Bester's best known, of course, for being one of the giants of science fiction, but he dipped his oar into quite a few different waters. This particular book is really a "biography" of the OSO (Orbiting Solar Observatory) satellite, a project which was running concurrently in NASA with the manned spaceflight program. Two things lept out at me:

  1. Bester respects the Manned Spaceflight program, but in terms of science he considers it relatively useless -- it's where the public imagination is, but it's not very productive of genuine scientific knowledge.
  2. He takes his own swipes at the "Two Cultures" debate, C. P. Snow's famous notion that the sciences and the humanities lack any meaningful interaction between them. Bester has a "foot in each camp," as he says, and he reports that "it's the members of the humanities alone who are creating the hostility with fossil attitudes" (219).
Coming in the mid-1960s, I found his interest in defending the sciences pretty interesting. As late as the early 1900s, the humanities carried an much higher prestige than the sciences -- for example, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, very nearly didn't become a scientist at all (and throughout his life he felt comfortable quoting Dante and the Bhagavad Gita). By mid-century, people like Bester felt compelled to make a case for the sciences. 

Nowadays, of course, it's the humanities that are on the defensive. All the funding and the nifty new buildings go to scientists, and the public wonders what the heck we do. I remember a few years back when the Dean of Graduate Studies gave a short introductory speech to one of our English graduate research symposiums, and he -- a nuclear physicist, mind you -- admitted that he got into his field for the money and that, furthermore, he "had no idea what you guys actually do." He stayed for a few of our papers, which was extremely nice of him, but it didn't bestow a great deal of confidence about the university's general esteem for literary studies.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Job Market Woes: Rock and a Hard Place

Well, I'm officially 0 for 90 on this year's job market. I did have a few nibbles: a part-time lecturer position in PA, an nearby adjunct position, and a full-time position in Texas. Losing out on the Texas position was particularly hard -- spent three days of travel at my own expense for that interview. I can understand not being selected, but I'm disappointed they denied giving me a rationale after my explicit request for one. Their response was (and this is an almost exact paraphrase), "Our shortlisted candidates were highly impressive, and our committee faced a very difficult decision" -- a virtual masterpiece in non-information. Basically, such a statement can be interpreted in one of three ways:

  1. Sorry, pal, we can't be bothered to come up with a rationale.
  2. You lost the coin flip.
  3. You were nice, but unfortunately you weren't the internal candidate we already had in mind.

It kills me, though, that I passed up that lecturer position. True, Pennsylvania's a long way to move for a 1-year part-time position, and it was too early in the hiring season to commit to that. Still, it's more money than I made as a grad student, provided actual health insurance (which I've never had), and it would have given me more time to publish. Not to mention staving off homelessness for an additional year. 

But I'm really concerned about that adjuncting position. They offered it to me three days before I heard back from the Texas school; I asked them if they would mind me holding off confirmation until I heard back from that interview, and they said sure. Well, Texas didn't want me, so I e-mailed them back with my acceptance. That was a week ago, but I haven't heard back . . . and now I'm worried (adjuncting already being a tenuous proposition) that I lost out on that as well.

Depressing and depressing-er.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Marthon Final Proofreading Session for Scientia

Last night, Hillary Y. and I had one final 5-hour marathon proofreading session for Scientia et Humanitas. Since we had our "proofreading party" almost 6 weeks ago, I've been disappointing that we couldn't get Issue 7 out sooner. Alas, delays happen. Our marathon session last night, however, which was the first time I could personally delve into our InDesign software, went a long way to clearing up some of the lingering typesetting and proofreading issues we've been having. Hopefully we'll be able to go to press later this week, and I can completely call it quits on my MTSU career!

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Schizophrenic Short Story Reading

Returned home late last night. After 10 days of travel and nearly 3,000 miles, half by plane and half by bus, I can safely say that I'm exhausted. Nonetheless, these travel trips weren't the black hole of productivity that they normally are. I'm usually too motion sick to read in moving vehicles but, for whatever reason, I managed okay this time. Maybe I finally learned that I can survive if my books are (a) fiction, (b) relatively easy-to-read, and (c) good. My reading input -- about 1700 pages in total -- looked like this:
  • John O'Hara, The O'Hara Generation (22 short stories over his career)
  • Angela Carter, Fireworks and The Bloody Chambers (two short story collections)
  • Alfred Bester, The Star My Destination and The Demolished Man
  • Jim Butcher, Storm Front (book 1 of the Dresden Files)
  • Philip Roth, The Ghost Writer
The schizophrenic short story reading comes from O'Hara, Carter, and Bester. (Yes, yes, I know Bester's two books are technically novels, but older sf novels usually feel like short stories to me, maybe because the way they handle characterization and scene composition is often done in the highly abbreviated fashion of the best pulp short stories.)

What's interesting about these three writers -- and I hadn't thought of this until I'd gone through them -- is that, as short stories, they're all as different as different can be.

O'Hara: perfect example of literary realism. Simple plots. Finely nuanced psychological portraits constituting nearly the story's entire interest. Highly readable style. A strong concern with a regional group's (in this case, Eastern Pennsylvania) middle- and upper-classes.

Carter: postmodernist through the seams. Outrageous, over-the-top style. Highly symbolic and allusive. So "literary" that it's inaccessible to nearly everyone except English majors.

Bester: classic science fiction at its best. Great plots. Endless invention, both in terms of technology, new societies, and social groups. Rife with far-reaching ideas.

I may have liked the O'Hara best. Unlike Bester, he doesn't have far ranging ideas (or any ideas, really), but he has an extraordinary attention to detail and he creates wonderful character portraits. O'Hara is the one I successfully read over 32 hours of bus trip. After O'Hara comes Bester. His stuff's just really cool, and if there's a knock against him, it's that highly abbreviated short story style -- you get the feeling (as I do with many early sf novels) is that he's cutting corners to keep his novel under 60,000 words. That makes getting "in" to his novels pretty difficult. But for getting the reader to think outside the box of their own narrow experience, Bester is light years ahead of O'Hara.

But Angela Carter . . . alas, ye postmodernists! Carter's postmodernist foibles aggravate me to no end -- that wild prose, the pretentious symbolism, the alleged subversiveness of so-called shocking themes like sexual fetishes. Except for a few individual short stories like "The Bloody Chamber" (which I thought magnificent), most of her stories just made me roll my eyes and skim. Strangely enough, whereas O'Hara is nearly all dialogue, dialogue is very nearly absent in Carter. Also, when I felt clever after "getting" the symbolism behind her stories, I grew annoyed with myself because, when Carter' stories succeed, they do so largely because of that feeling of back-patting a reader gets when they realize they're smart enough to understand an Angela Carter story.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Travel Woes

Tomorrow's going to be a rough, rough day. We leave at 11:30 am for the airport, and we should touchdown in Nashville at 6:30 pm. That'll be fine, but I'll then head immediately for the Greyhound station. At 10 pm I'll embark on a 16-hour bus trip to Texas. At least I'll have one night to wash up and rest before the interview on Thursday.

On the plus die, I managed to read four (short) books during my week here in PA. I actually had to buy more books, since I didn't have enough for my trip to Texas. Efficiency, dear sirs, efficiency.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Busy, busy upcoming week

I flew up to Pennsylvania on Wednesday, half to see my family and half for my 20-year high school reunion. The reunion was last night; it was nice seeing everyone but also awkward, as anyone who's ever attended these things probably knows. I was extremely anti-social back then, so I don't quite have the experiences useful for making a reunion a memorable experience. As nice and mature as everyone is now, it's hard to come up with small talk after the standard "what have you been up to?" questions. The wife and I ended up leaving after a couple of hours. Glad I went, though.

Anyway, that's not where the busy week comes in. We're flying back to Nashville on Tuesday . . . and, Tuesday evening, I'll be taking a Greyhound to east Texas where I have a job interview. (The wife will head home directly.) So, I won't even have time to go home before I immediately start traveling again. It's a 32-hour round trip for a 1-hour interview, but this job looks like a pretty good fit for me, so the long trip is worth the risk, I hope. 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Patricia A. McKillip

I've always had a vexed relationship with Patricia A. McKillip -- I go back and forth on how much I admire her novels. Originally, I'd gotten into her because she's a favorite of Stephen R. Donaldson. Much as I love Donaldson, though, I could never quite make out what he saw in McKillip. Part of that, I think, is that McKillip works so much with emotional abstractions that it was hard for Young Me to get a handle on her. To date I've gone through:

  • The Riddle-Master trilogy (2 out of the 3)
  • The Cygnet series (on which I wrote a bad narrative theory paper during my MA program)
  • Fool's Run (loved it)
  • Winter Rose (couldn't finish it)
  • The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (intriguing)
  • several short stores (loved them all)
Actually, here's a story about my general cluelessness. I've known forever that McKillip had been a World Fantasy Award winner -- but I couldn't figure out which of her books had won the award. (And no, this was not in the pre-Google days, hence the cluelessness.) So I picked up The Riddle-Master trilogy thinking that it must have been the winer. Nope, which is just as well, since I couldn't finish the series. Just too over-wrought. Although clearly showing The Hobbit's influence, it didn't even have any riddles in it.

Finally, though, I've just read McKillip's World Fantasy Award-winning novel: The Forgotten Beasts of Eld. Now that I'm older and wiser, I can see what Stephen R. Donaldson liked about it -- both he and McKillip have intensely melodramatic imaginations. McKillip practically hits you over the head with an intense lyrical Romanticism that emphasizes the Self (at least certainly portions of the self) above just about all other concerns. Now, such melodrama doesn't always bother me, but it does perhaps explain why I wax hot and cold on McKillip. When it's working, the melodrama can be effective. When McKillip misses, well, ouch. 

Anyway, it works with Forgotten Beasts, but I'm more intrigued with something I only just realized about her work. She gravitates to the operatic like a moth to light but, while this opera-quality focuses on human emotions, she examines a very limited set of human emotions. The biggies, in other words: love, hate, death, fear. The first half of Forgotten Beasts examines change, the fear of change, and restlessness (which is an impetus to change). The second half of the novel focuses on Love and Hate, beauty and destructiveness being corollaries to these. Although McKillip finds a lot of nuance to examine within these biggies, her tendency to melodrama basically elevates these biggies to the status of Platonic Ideas. Heightened by the lush lyricism of her prose, these biggies overwhelm all the other elements of human experience that can't be rendered operatically -- basically, everything humdrum, quotidian, ambivalent, etc. 

Here's another thing Donaldson certainly likes about McKillip: they're both hardcore humanists in that the Individual is the highest good. In McKillip, as it is in Donaldson, politics or sociology or economics exist, but only as means of heightening the themes they wish to explore about the individual self. That used to be my taste until the late 2000s or so, but alas, no more.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Garth Nix and the Abhorsen trilogy

So, a bit ago while composing my fantasy syllabus, I was embarrassed that coming up with female protagonists for fantasy novels gave me such a hard time. Not that there's a whole lot out there, but still. Anyway, I took it upon myself to try correcting that particular hole in my fantasy literary knowledge. My first excursion was into Tamora Pierce's Alanna, a 1984 fantasy text. That experiment, shall we say, was not a success. The protagonist, Alanna, pretends to be a boy so that she could become a knight, but the plot (and characterization) was so dull and predictable that I could barely finish the novel.

Then I tried Garth Nix's Abhorsen trilogy. . . . 

Quite impressive, I must say. I wouldn't necessarily place it in the first rank of fantasy fiction (the series is almost all plot), but that plot is fantastic and captivating, the world-creation truly unique, and Nix's style is admirable. I read the first book, Sabriel, constanty surprised at how quickly it went; I think I loved the first half of Lirael, the series's second book, most of all.

A few notes:

  • One comment made by Edward James during his luncheon speech was that the best contemporary fantasy overwhelmingly comes from Australia, and Nix certainly fits that bill.
  • Nix has two kingdoms -- the Old Kingdom where magic works, and Ancelstierre where technology (about WWI level) works.
  • The magic systems is intriguing. Rather than spellbooks, the main vehicle for magic is spellcasting.
  • There's very little foreign policy -- a very marked contrast from, say, George R. R. Martin. The two kingdoms go about their business, and that's pretty much that.
  • The series doesn't have very many minor characters. As a result, the series gives off the impression that the main protagonists and/or antagonists are the only people who matter. Most of the subjects of either kingdom go unnamed, and they're entire purpose is usually to be murdered horribly by the Dead.
    • Speaking of that, the citizens of the Old Kingdom are so constantly being slaughtered by the dead that it's hard to imagine their country having any kind of economy.
  • Disreputable Dog and Moffet the cat are truly great characters -- loved every minute of them.
  • I did think that Nix has major skill as a stylist -- nothing flashy or obtrusive, but powerfully effective nonetheless. I like to tell my more elitist colleagues that you only notice the style in bad books, but I nonetheless caught myself trying to figure out how how Nix managed to write individual scenes or paragraphs with such precision.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

And now it's officially official -- Spring Graduation, 2017

Well, by graduating yesterday, I have now joined the ranks of the academically unaffiliated and the unemployed. This is actually the first graduation since high school that I've attended -- I skipped both my BA and MA graduations. All in all, the experience was cool. Thankfully, a few years back MTSU decided to separate graduate and undergraduate ceremonies, so we managed to get out of there within 90 minutes.

Anyway, pictures:

That's all four of our graduating doctoral students from the English Department. From left: Sarah Gray, Mo Li, Fadia Mereani, and of course yours truly.

Another one:

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Charles Williams -- the "Last Magician" or the "Third Inkling"?

I'm not a fan of Charles Williams, but Grevel Lindop's biography of him, Charles Williams:The Third Inkling, has been widely praised, even winning a Mythopoeic award for Inklings Studies last year. About the only criticism of Lindop's book I've seen concerned it's name. Tolkien scholar David Bratman, for example, has argued that calling CW "the third Inkling" unfairly puts CW into the shadow of Lewis and Tolkien, whereas people interested enough in CW to read a biography of him would undoubtedly rank him higher.

Thus I was startled to see a reference by Sorina Higgens in her edition of CW's verse drama, The Chapel of the Thorn, to Lindop's then-unpublished biograph: Charles Williams: The Last Magician

Off the top of my head, I suppose the name change came very late in the process, probably at the instigation of the publisher. A title linking CW to the Inklings, rather than to the occult, would probably sell a lot more copies. In terms of Lindop's own take on Williams, though, the "Magician" title indicates where Lindop's greater interests lay. As many have noted, the Inklings section in the biography is relatively brief, although it's hard to fault Lindop for that since Williams joined the Inklings pretty late in his life.

For my part, I was okay with The Third Inkling as a title, but the fact that it was apparently bestowed so late in the process is, I think, highly illuminating. I still have very little sympathy with any writer so fascinated in the occult, but Lindop's work certainly gave me a better appreciation of what Williams was trying to do.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Proofreading Party

The journal I edit, Scientia et Humanitas, had its annual "Proofreading Party" last evening. Three of our staff managed to make it, and together we did the proofs for all seven of our accepted articles. The thing was quite fun, actually, and it was the first time I'd ever met two of the three attendees in person. One of them, I was dismayed to learn, is 15-year-old college sophomore -- and he was pretty good at his proofs. Talk about making me feel like an underacheiver.

Our associate editor is now finishing the layout and the corrections. No set date for sending the final manuscript to the printers, but it should be soon. The only hold up is that we might get two extra articles added in last minute.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Roger C. Schlobin

I just learned that Dr. Roger C. Schlobin passed away a few days ago. He was an important early figure in science fiction and fantasy scholarship -- second president of the IAFA, a prolific bilbliographer and editor. When I was doing my first foray into fantasy scholarship, back during writing my senior thesis on Stephen R. Donaldson, Dr. Schlobin's name seemed to appear on every other source I consulted.

Anyway, I actually had the pleasure of corresponding with him once. This would have been back in 2011. I was looking to get into a doctoral program but had no idea where to go (sf&f is not a common field), and I hit upon the idea of cold e-mailing several fantasy scholars. One of them was Dr. Schlobin. He sent me a very friendly e-mail offering some advice, and he even cc'd a few scholarly friends of his for their opinions. As I grow old and wise in the ways of academe, I begin to appreciate more and more the generosity, goodwill, and dedication to the field of offering such a helping hand. The news of his passing saddens me, and the field of scholarship will miss him.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Reading sf versus reading literary realism

So, I'm reading a fun, if fannish, book about books by Jo Walton (an accomplished sf writer herself), and she made an intriguing remark.

She explains that she once had an on-line argument about whether a Anthony Trollope novel should have footnotes. The "for" crowd argued that Trollope's readers had a lot of basic cultural information that modern readers simply lack. Walton took the "against" position, and her reasons -- this is the interesting part -- had to do with her reading Trollope as she would science fiction. Science fiction, for example, often inserts crazy things into its stories, and the readers are simply expected to figure things from context clues or, just as likely, to continue reading without knowing what a retro-laser flibbertigibbet is.

Since I grew up on sf and fantasy (mostly fantasy), I know exactly what Walton means. I picked up that kind of reading habit with my mother's milk, so to speak. If something confuses you in a text, just plow forward recklessly -- it'll make sense eventually.

The danger, though, is that such a reading habit is gloriously awful for encouraging critical thinking. I used to obsess about this observation after my M.A. program, when I was spurred to endless self-reflection by the fact that my hard work didn't translate into a corresponding level of academic success. If you run into something confusing in science fiction, just plow forward. If you run into something confusing in Derrida or Foucault, though, plowing forward may not always be the best idea. All readers have a tendency to skip or skim; only inexperienced readers, for example, read every word in a sentence. When you run into a dense passage, the same principle applies -- sometimes it's easier to just skim or skip it, and this tendency actually corresponds to some good advice graduate students are often given about "it's impossible to read everything closely, so be selective."

Still, that tendency to skip or forge forward can be damaging. I think I"m especially aware of this about my teen-aged reading self, when -- I realize now -- I was extremely bad at critical thinking and the close reading of texts (both being skills which are acquired rather than in-born). Life is happier now, of course, but I wonder if a pedantic love of footnotes or reading a text like a scholar might not be a really good thing at times.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Tolkien and . . . Igor Stravinsky?

References to Tolkien come about in the oddest places. My most recent "huh?" reference comes from the personal diaries of a guy named Robert Craft, an American composer and writer who developed an intimate creative partnership with Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Tolkien comes up in three places.
  • December 23, 1955. Craft, W. H. Auden, and a fellow named Chester Kallman are chatting in Stravinsky's rooms (it's unclear if Stravinsky's present), and Craft notes that "Auden, bright as ever but didactic, says that as an undergraduate, Tolkien fell in love with the Phoenician language" (122).
That's the extent of the first reference, but Phoenician? Going out on a limb, let me suggest that Auden said "Finnish." Craft either misheard or misremembered.
  • October 27, 1961. Craft, accompanied by someone named Natasha Spender, describes a painfully awkward conversation with E. M. Forster in his rooms at King's College, Cambridge. Apparently completely at a lack of things to say to one another, Tolkien's name comes up for some reason, and Forster is reported to have said, "I dislike whimsicality and I cannot bear 'good' and 'evil' on such a scale. . . . To my surprise, I liked Thomas Mann's The Holy Sinner" (255).
That's just a random bit of gossip from someone not overly keenly on Christians -- C. S. Lewis once called him an "ass." (Forster's remark is also ironic because Tolkien, along with another Inkling David Cecil, would nominate Forster for the Nobel in 1954.) The third reference is as follows:
  • January 16, 1966. Stravinsky, Craft, and Auden are having dinner, and Auden apparently begins pontificating about books: "Books referred to include Auerbach's Literary Language; Tolkien's Silmarillion ('J.R.R. is 'in' with the teenage set, you know, and is no longer the exclusive property of dotty school teachers and elderly cranks'); In Cold Blood. . . . "
Now that's is an interesting remark. The Silmarillion, of course, wouldn't be published for 11 more years, and Tolkien's popularity stemmed from The Lord of the Rings. Yet Craft clearly didn't mishear this time, since it's unlikely that he would have heard of Silmarillion except that Auden brought it up. So what happened? I can only guess that Auden mentioned LOTR and S both but that Craft, writing later from memory, only remembered the name of the latter work. Why he would focus on S rather than LOTR, though I can't say. Auden's Tolkien reference seems to have been a relatively passing one in a long literary conversation, and Craft evidently found Auden's remarks on Truman Capote more memorable, considering that Craft devoted a whole paragraph to those. Still, it's intriguing that Auden was spreading the word in casual dinner conversations.

Craft, Robert. Stravinsky: Chronicle of a Friendship. Rev. and exp. ed. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt UP, 1994. Print.

My First Peer Review Solicitation!

Well, not really my first peer review solicitation. I've done about two dozen peer reviews for Scientia, and I also did some peer reviews for a collection of essays I was contributing to last year. Still, this morning is the first time that a journal ever contacted me out of the blue for a review. They knew because of a book review I did for them of Jamie Williamson's history of fantasy literature a few months back, and I (briefly) met their co-editor during the ICFA. Real nice that they thought of me for this . . . although, of course, once I'm a jaded and cynical old academic, I'll probably start rolling my eyes at these requests, but for the time being I'm tickled pink.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

C. S. Lewis's Poetry

Common consensus seems to be that Lewis's poetry couldn't hold a candle to his prose, so imagine my surprise when I randomly began reading several poems in The Collected Poems of C. S. Lewis: A Critical Edition and saw 3 absolute gems out of the first 4 poem I read. The three poems: "Heart-breaking School," "And After This They Sent Me to Another Place," and "Old Kirk, Like Father Time Himself." After that, I quickly began to see the rationale behind the common consensus, but I wanted to take a moment and discuss "Heart-breaking School" at least. Here is the poem (parts highlighted for emphasis:

    Heart-breaking school
Received me, where an ogre hearted man held rule,
Secret and irresponsible, out of the cll
Of men's reproach, like Cyclops in his savage hall:
For at his gate no neighbour went in, nor his own
Three fading daughters easily won out alone,
Nor if they did, dared wag their tongues, but, in a trice
Their errand done, whisked home again, three pattering mice,
Pale, busy, meek: more pitiable far than we
From whom he ground the bread of his adversity,
Himself a theme for pity: for within him boiled
The spirit of Gengis Khan or Timur, ever foiled
And forced back to the dogs-eared Virgil and the desk
To earn his food: ridiculous, old, poor, grotesque,
A man to be forgiven. Here let him pass, by me
Forgiven: and let the memory pass. Let me not see
Under the curled moustaches on the likerous, red,
Moist lips, the flat Assyrian smile we used to dread
When in the death-still room the weeping of one boy
Gave the starved dragon inklings of ancestral joy,
Antediluvian taste of blood.

  1. lines 1-2. I really liked the "heart-breaking school" / "ogre hearted man" pairing. Man, really nice.
  2. Really liked the disjunction between a schoolmaster's life and such figures, although I suppose might not strike someone more well-read in poetry as so original.
  3. "ancestral joy" -- again, I liked the effect.
It's easy enough to see C. S. Lewis as old-fashioned -- the theme of a cruel schoolmaster does seem 19th-century (although it's not), mixed with classical allusions and whatnot, but I appreciated this one, as well as the other poems mentioned above.

Friday, April 7, 2017

ProQuest is a Scam

One of the institutional requirements for getting our degree here, as with most institutions of higher learning, is to submit our dissertations/theses through ProQuest. Nominally, this spreads our work so that others may read it. In practice, it's just another method by which graduate labor is often exploited.  Specifically, ProQuest does this:
  1. It sells access to dissertations/theses that it gets for free (often the fruits of years of hard labor by graduate students)
  2. It wants a fee of $95 dollars if you want your dissertation listed as "open access." Incidentally, the only argument against embargo or suppression of a diss/thesis is the alleged ideal of the free exchange of ideas.
  3. The option for embargo is deliberately confusing and deceptive. In fact, I wouldn't have been able to do it successfully if our helpful CGS staff member hadn't told me exactly what to watch out for.
  4. After selling access to your dissertation, ProQuest then offers to "protect" your work by securing a copyright for you -- for $55 dollars.
  5. As if all that wasn't enough, it then allows you to order copies of your dissertation or thesis. . . . basically selling you your own work for around $40 - $50 dollars a copy.

I put an embargo on my own dissertation because a small but growing number of publishers are considering ProQuest a form of prior publication. This is understandable; in an era of decreasing public money for libraries, libraries are increasingly unlikely to buy expensive academic books if they can get substantially the same content as part of their ProQuest subscription. Even if I didn't have such clear academic publication goals in mind, though, I probably would have embargo'd my work out of pure Yankee cussedness.

Friday, March 31, 2017

ICFA in Orlando, 2017

I meant to post this about this a few days ago, but academic work swamped me. Last Tuesday, I returned from a wonderful 6-day trip to the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts (ICFA). Two days were spent in travel, 3 in intense conferencing, and a final day was spent in Disney World -- our way of celebrating my dissertation defense. The conference itself was amazing. Highlights:

  • tons of free sf and fantasy books
  • a host of back issues from JFA
  • saw someone, completely unexpectedly, someone I had gone to my first undergrad college with -- way back in 1998.
  • heard a lot of fantastic papers. My favorites were both on one panel: G.P. Canavan proposed a new typology of fantasy texts, and Matthew Oliver wrote on 1st-person epic fantasy, which deserved kudos for mentioning Glen Cook
  • the panel I moderated on Robert E. Howard was a rousing success with a fantastic discussion afterward. Howard's got some major fans out there. My anecdote about reading Howard for the first time just as I was told I would be moderating the session was a big hit.
  • My own paper reading went quite well, although sadly only two people besides my wife heard it.
All in all, this was easily the most fun conference I've ever attended. Now, I just have to resubmit all my reimbursement paperwork to CGS (groan).

Sometimes half of life . . .

. . . is simply showing up, as they say.

Today marked the poster presentations for Scholars Week 2017 here at MTSU. My own poster (based off my dissertation, of course) managed to snag 2nd place. That's not quite the accomplishment it sounds, however -- there were only two graduate students from the Liberal Arts presenting, so I was simultaneously the 2nd best and absolute worst in my category. Still, the prize money remains quite hefty, setting me ever closer to my ultimate goal of acquiring Bill Gates-like wealth through academic labor. And it looks good for our English department, always a nice goal.

Monday, March 20, 2017

In Memoriam: Okla Elliot

I have sad news to report. A fella I knew from my MA program at Ohio State, Okla Elliot, passed away two night ago. That he was in his mid-30s is tragic enough, but he was also one of the most energetic intellectuals and academics I've ever known. Although he was around my age, here's a list of his accomplishments:

  • Ph.D. in Holocaust and Legal Studies
  • co-author (w/ Raul Clement) of a science fiction novel The Doors You Mark are Your Own
  • Published a book of short fiction called From the Crooked Timber
  • Published a book of poetry called The Cartographer's Ink
  • Published a translation of a book of poems by German author Jurgen Becker
  • Author of a well-received book on Bernie Sanders; Bernie Sanders: The Essential Guide
  • Just finished another book on Pope Francis: Pope Francis: The Essential Guide
  • Co-edited an on-line magazine, As It Ought To Be, to which I once submitted a short article
  • Published a host of poems in various prestigious literary magazines, plus tons of reviews of books. And he also wrote opinion pieces.
  • Oh, and he was also working on a second doctorate in theology, having recently become a Catholic after life-long atheism.
I knew him only slightly from OSU and, although I  kept up to date on his facebook books, I had only interacted with him only a few times after graduation. Nonetheless, he was someone I admired, and he'll be missed. Had he had lived a few more decades, he could have become a major figure of American letters.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Dissertation Defense: 3-17-2017

Passed, one dissertation defense: "Rage and Recognition in Middle-earth: The Political Conflict Between Ancient and Modern in J.R.R. Tolkien."

Much gratitude for all of those who came -- about 10 people besides my committee, faculty members and friends -- it meant a lot that so many people showed up.

All that's left is some tweaks and fixing up the formatting, then this puppy goes to the MTSU College of Graduate Studies!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A look at the Zaleski's THE FELLOWSHIP: Literary Lives of the Inklings

Biographies and I have a vexed relationship. On one hand, they're probably the most accessible types of scholarly writing out there. On the other hand, if you're already decently conversant in the subject of the biography, the ratio of "new facts" to "time invested" starts sinking rapidly. Thus, while I'd been hearing about The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Phillip and Carol Zaleski for a while, I've deliberately avoided it. I already know Tolkien pretty well, and the other Inklings aren't that vital to my research. (Plus, my brand of lit crit doesn't rate biography very highly, although I won't ignore it.)

Anyway, I picked it up, and it's pretty good -- well-written with lively prose and story-telling. I'd been worried at first after seeing some snide remarks in a few on-line commentaries, but the book is generally impressive. All the Zaleskis' other books have to do with spiritual matters, and they even dedicated their book to Stratford Caldecott, a very prolific Christian writer (who once, incidentally, did a book on Tolkien, which I own). As such, the Zaleskis have a very Christian-centric interpretation of the Inklings, which might seem like an obvious angle to take, but a lot of the good criticism -- on Tolkien, anyway -- tends to be less interested in that aspect of their thought, thus making this book a good corrective.

Structurally, it's organized chronologically, so that multiple Inklings appear in every chapter, which gives a strong sense of the Inklings as a group evolving over decades. I'd quibble with some of their interpretations of various works (like I said, they hit the Christian angle hard, which means they sometimes exclude other possible interpretations) and I detected a few misstatements, but nothing that really ruined the book for me. Their writing is peppered with gems, and here's one I particularly liked:

  • “One could imagine Dorothy Sayers as an Inkling, but Joy [Davidman] would have never passed muster: her sex, nationality, ethnicity, and impending divorce (finalized on August 5, 1954) made her a walking catalogue of disqualifications” (429).

Incidentally, I looked up several reviews on The Literary Lives of the Inklings. Most were positive, but I thought the following typical in that it dismisses the Inklings because their intellectual concerns do not match the reviewer's own. Granted, I'm rather far from sharing many of their viewpoints, but such disagreements are hardly grounds for dismissing them entirely.

Here's the review. Elizabeth Hand writes in an article for the Los Angeles Times:

  • "Still, in our own multicultural landscape, it's difficult to muster much enthusiasm for the Inklings' countless heated arguments on Catholicism versus Anglicanism or the critical head-butting with F.R. Leavis. Their scholarly machismo made it possible for Lewis to do a very public volte-face from heartfelt atheism back to Christianity but never entertain the thought of a female Inkling."
Now that's just depressing.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Syllabus for 20th-century Fantasy Literature

So,  yesterday, I was complaining about the endless hours consumed on bureaucratic tasks that, at best, have marginal value -- i.e., the creation of upper-division syllabi in the hopes that some search committee might, maybe, possibly think slightly better of your application.** Anyway, against my better judgment, I really got into the whole syllabus-creation thing . . . and I ended up creating another syllabus for a 15-week course in modern fantasy literature.

Now, what kind of books should go on such a thing? Well, I'll exclude the 19th-century people (Dunsany, Morris), although I'd probably include them in a more comprehensive survey-level course. I'd have to have a smattering of sword and sorcery texts, given its influence, plus a sampling of the relevant Inklings. After that, I'd have to go with the various responses to Tolkien's influence. Overall, though, I want to avoid the massive tomes that generally mark post-Tolkien fantasy -- there's only so much you can cover in 15 weeks, and I can't justify spending 3 weeks having them read Game of Thrones or The Wheel of Time

Here's what I came up with:
  1. Howard, Robert E. The Essential Conan. Ed. Karl Edward Wagner. 1998.
  2. Anderson, Poul. The Broken Sword. 1954.
  3. Lewis, C. S. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. 1950.
  4. Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. 1937.
  5. Beagle, Peter S. The Last Unicorn. 1968.
  6. Le Guin, Ursula. A Wizard of Earthsea. 1968. [Book 1 of The Earthsea Cycle]
  7. Lackey, Mercedes. Magic’s Pawn. 1989. [Book 1 of The Last Herald-Mage]
  8. Cook, Glen. The Black Company. 1984. [Book 1 of The Black Company series]
  9. Pratchett, Terry. Jingo. 1997. [A Discworld novel]
  10. Jemisin, N. K. The Fifth Season. 2015. [Book 1 of The Broken Earth Series]

Howard's essential not only for the S&S factor but because he lets me introduce the role of Weird Tales into the genre. Anderson's also follows up the S&S angle and, in addition, is a short work that cements the influence of northern heroic cultures on the genre.

Lewis and Tolkien are givens, and I picked their shortest representative works.

After that, though, you have to deal with how writers choose to respond to Tolkien. Beagle's work was a revelation of post-Tolkien fantasy, and Le Guin (besides being awesome) helps show the impact Tolkien had on children's fantasy. 

After that, my choices get a bit idiosyncratic. Lackey and Cook may not be considered "typical" or canonical fantasy authors, but they give the lie to the belief that 1980s fantasy was just Tolkien-clones. Lackey's book is about a non-straight male, so that let's us cover a Queer angle. (I also considered the feminism of Marion Zimmer Bradley, but I just never warmed to her books myself.) Cook might be an even odder choice, but he wrote gritty fantasy before Stephen Erikson and George R. R. Martin made it a thing. Plus, Cook's a lot more original than may be commonly recognized.

Pratchet, of course, is a must, and he's one of the few successful people to do comic fantasy. Jemisin's book is arguably not even fantasy (unlike her earlier One Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which I didn't care for), but she's destined to become a canonical writer and was the only non-white fantasy author I could think of. Her book also is the only one on the list with a female protagonist, which is surprisingly rare. (The Golden Compass, perhaps? But then I wished to avoid too much children's fantasy.)

Anyway, this seems like a fun list. I kinda want to take this course myself.

**Wait, did I say "complaining"? I meant that I, uh, was noting the truth of Max Weber's claims about bureaucracy and rational systems that actually create irrationality. See, it's not whining if a major German theorist can be invoked.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Tolkien Syllabus

When you're on the job market, one of the aggravating recommendations they give is to compose a number of upper-division syllabi for courses you might someday teach. In theory, having such syllabi makes you look more prepared. In reality, by the time you're ready to teach such classes (and assuming you ever get a job), you're probably older and wiser and have updated your pedagogy considerably. 

Anyway, regardless, I'm working on a Tolkien syllabus. There's a couple of good resources out there: a Waymeet for Tolkien Teachers website, as well as the recent book edited by Leslie Donovan, Approaches to Teaching Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.

There's any number of ways to do a course like this, but I decided on a single-author course that covers Tolkien's life and works. The major question is this: what works should one require in a 15-week course devoted to Tolkien? I came up with the following list:

  • Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary, One Vol. Edition, 2005. ISBN: 978-0618640157. (Any post-1994 edition acceptable.) 
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. 1967. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2012. ISBN: 978-0547928227. (Any 3rd edition acceptable.) 
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. Tree and Leaf: Including “Mythopoeia.” Boston: HarperCollins, 2001. ISBN: 978-0007105045. 
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. Smith of Wootton Major / Farmer Giles of Ham. New York: Del Rey, 1986. ISBN: 978-0345336064. 
  • Carpenter, Humphrey. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. ISBN: 978-0618057023. 
  • Shippey, Tom. The Road to Middle-earth: Rev. and Exp. Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003. ISBN: 978-0618257607

The Shippey book and the Carpenter biography seem like obvious choices to me, although I'd use them as supplements rather than spend on class time on them. Otherwise, my reason for the works by Tolkien are as follows:

LoTR and Hobbit are the obvious ones here. I'd skip The Silmarillion, not because it's not important, but mostly because it's not a very accessible text for undergraduates. Granted, Tolkien courses tend to attract Tolkien fans, but skipping S is my attempt at accommodating the newbies.

In terms of Tolkien's non-legendarium writings, "Leaf by Niggle," "Mythopoeia," "The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son," and Smith of Wootton Major all offer major pathways to Tolkien's life and way of thinking. (Plus, they're all relatively short.) My favorite non-legendarium text is actually Farmer Giles of Ham, but that's a bit harder to fit into the framework of Tolkien's life. (It might, however, potentially be an attractive way, given the mutual Oxford-connections, to introduce students what the heck Tolkien was thinking when he created Tom Bombadil.)

I'd skip Tolkien's major essays, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" and "On Fairy-stories," partly due to time constraints. (Even so, I think OFS is a bit over-rated in terms of practical literary criticism.) I'd also skip providing much in the way of Tolkien's medieval sources. For one thing, I'm not a medievalist, and a teacher has to play to their strengths. For another, reading and discussing such texts as they deserve would take too much class time. Nonetheless, I'd probably supplement Tolkien's works with handouts of certain medieval works. Pairing "Homecoming" with The Battle of Maldon is an obvious choice, as is the Earendil poem and the sections of Beowulf that Tolkien lifted for Aragorn et al's approach to the king of Rohan.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Critical Theory (comics!) and LoTR

Came across an "existential comic" that focuses on critical theory and The Lord of the Rings. On one hand, the joke's pretty clever, so give them props for that. On the other hand, I think this is indicative of why scholars informed by critical theory have a tough time saying anything nice about Tolkien --the moral norms of the text, including all the social hierarchies, are precisely the kind of thing that motivated critical theorists to develop their theories (which, as you may have surmised, are critical of the status quo).

The comic may be found here: existential comics involving The Lord of the Rings.

Saturday, March 4, 2017


Furnish, Timothy R. High Towers and Strong Places: A Political History of Middle-earth. Oloris Publishing, 2016. Print.

I ordered this book off interlibrary loan, highly suspicious that it might be one of those vapid, dreary productions for a general audience, but Furnish only needed two pages to win me over with his intelligence, insight, and assiduous scouring of the secondary literature. His book is a "political history" of Middle-earth, which means that he examines the structure and organization of the various political entities that mark Middle-earth. Much of this information, of course, can already be found in Tolkien's texts and appendices, but Furnish collects them together and situates them inside a theoretical context provided by contemporary political science and international relations. The result is a highly accessible, highly enlightening examination of how wide and varied Tolkien's sub-created polities actually are.

Between the Elves, Dwarves, Men, and so forth, there are "some 50 or so polities on both the Good and Evil sides, across racial/species lines" (57). One of the more interesting distinctions made isbetween state, pre-state, and post-state peoples. The state-organization is most common -- all the various kingdoms, such as Gondor, and additional polities, such as the Shire. Several groups, however, are organized at the pre-state level -- such the Men in the First Age or the Wainriders. Post-state peoples are relatively rare (as in Primary World history), but the Dunedain can be categorized thus.

In terms of "types of governance," Furnish provides the classic division according to Rule by One, Rule by a Few, and Rule by Many. He hits upon one of the key features (at least for me) of government in Middle-earth: the unquestioned acceptance of monarchy. Monarchy is never questioned as the de facto best form of government (just think of the title of Tolkien's third book in LoTR), and Furnish says, the "system of monarchy is never really questioned; nor, for that matter, is the right of the descendants of Númenor to rule benevolently over all of Middle-earth. . . . Thus, the Sub-Creator’s approval of monarchy is clearly reflected in his creation” (90). Nonetheless, examples of absolute monarchy are relatively rare. Aragorn, for example, delays entering Gondor partly out of consideration of the people. Hence, although Tolkien polities never reach the level of true democracy, there does exist an element of accountability in his various leaders -- and accountability to the people is a thoroughly modern political principle.

I also greatly enjoyed Furnish's account of international relations in Middle-earth. He offers a great account of First Age politics, which he describes as the domination "by Morgoth’s hegemony, which the Noldor attempted to counter via a balance-of-power strategy” (93). Incidentally, here's a nice description of the Elven kingdoms during the First Age:

“In a certain sense, then, Beleriand south of Thangorodrim was under almost total Noldorin rule and can plausibly be seen in toto as Elven feudalism writ large, with the various Elf nobility ruling their own realms under the overall sovereignty of Fingolfin [the High King] (and Thingol existing as a separate, Sindarin power base). Alternatively, since Maedros was Fëanor’s eldest son, his brothers can be viewed as ruling realms that were feudal ancillaries to him” (78).

In terms of Third Age international relations, Gondor is the hegemonic power as well as the best bulwark against the aspiring hegemony of Mordor (94). Furnish supports the interpretation, first offered by Tom Shippey, that “Middle-earth’s history, in terms of international relations, seems more reminiscent of medieval and even early-modern Primary World history than of ancient times" (95).

Overall, this is a worthwhile contribution to Tolkien scholarship (despite its production design as a coffee table book, which is one of the things that initially made me skeptical of its value), and I'll certainly be checking out Furnish's follow-up volume on the military history of Middle-earth.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The MythSoc Scholarship Awards 2017

I volunteered to be one of the (many) judges for this years awards in two academic categories, and I'm really excited about the long lists. I can't give any details, but I doubt it would violate any ethical standards to note that everything on the lists looks fascinating. Interlibrary loan just got my first round of orders, and hopefully they'll get here soon -- dissertation schmissertation, I can't wait to have at 'em. I haven't read nearly as many of the books as I thought I would have, but that's just part of the fun.

Updates for Scientia et Humanitas, Issue 7

I meant to post about Scientia a while ago, but I'm looking through my February entries and realize it must have slipped my mind.

We had our Spring deadline for submissions on February 10th. I was quite pleased to see that we had 10 new submissions from a host of fields (biology, economics, political science) to go along with our usual concentration of English department contributions.** That brings our yearly total up to 24 submissions, which greatly exceeds last years total of 18 submissions . . . and the year prior to that, before I was at the helm, had only 10 submissions. So, our efforts over the last two years have paid off.

Following the Spring deadline, our staff also really stepped up, and we managed to get all submissions reviewed within two weeks. Given that the wait time on submissions for most academic journals is usually measured in months, I think the Scientia collective earns itself another gold star.

Out of our new submissions, quite a few got mentally marked as "promising." Considering that we already had three articles from last semester accepted, revised, and run through copyediting, it looks like Issue 7 will be a nice full issue. The acceptance rate for this year projects to be about 40%, although that may fluctuate depending on how well the authors manage their revisions.

All in all, things are looking good!

  • ** Given that our editors and most of our staff are English majors, it's inevitable we get over-saturated with English submissions -- much easier to plead, cajole, and threaten the people one sees everyday for contributions, doan y'know.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Link to Tolkien Scholars Writing Fantasy

Over at his blog, Douglas A. Anderson posted a list of Tolkien scholars who've written fantasy novels. Some quite surprising names there, and I'll check them out if I ever get the opportunity. The blog post can be found here.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Reasons for Liking Leo Strauss

As I'm nearing the end of my dissertation, I've begun reflecting on why Leo Strauss attracts me as a thinker. I've noticed a certain reluctance on my part to come and explain why to people, mostly because of the anti-egalitarian implications of his thought (see #A and #B), so I thought about simply writing about it.  The major ideas are these:

1. Strauss's concern with "virtue." This requires a vision of human nature where the "ends" of a human being can be uncovered through reason.

2. His concept of the "regime" and the "what is said."

3. I also appreciate Strauss's sense of the conflict between "ancient and modern," the very different sorts of questions and answers that either period is likely to ask and give. This may be the most personally illuminating aspect of Strauss's thought. When I was reading The Closing of the American Mind, there's an episode where a college-aged Allan Bloom asks his professor a question about Thucydides. The professor answered angrily, "Thucydides was a fool!" I didn't know who Thucydides was, but I immediately wanted to find out. I've always felt the romance of the long ago, and it may not be an exaggeration to say that my attraction to fantasy literature is because of the sense of the "long ago" that it gives.

4. Probably the most important thing about Strauss, though, is his reasoned argument for the supremacy of the life of the mind. He has clarified the longing for such a life much better than any other writer I have encountered.

What follows below is a list of likable things about Strauss, which encompasses the points I made above.

  • Okay, I just have to come out and admit this: I am an elitist. I'm an abashed (as opposed to an unabashed) elitist, but there it is. Elitism is as much a dirty word on the political right as it is on the political left, although the former tends to equate it with college educations and political insiders whereas the latter tends to equate it with anti-egalitarian thinking, but the viewpoint isn't all that odd or illiberal. W.E.B. Du Bois was a famous elitist who advocated "the talented tenth," and the Founding Fathers were all class elitists. The idea of elitism closely relates to hierarchical thinking and ideas of superiority/inferiority, but I think all these things are inescapable in practical everyday life. A carpenter is superior to me in the making of chairs; others are stronger, others are faster. Our own families are superior to other peoples' families (and if that idea makes you uncomfortable, then I suggest that this represents an example of egalitarian thinking running up against a radically inegalitarian social institution). At the highest levels, some ways of life are superior to other ways of life. I would never choose the life of a stock broker over the life of an academic, for example, because I believe that the life an academic is innately superior. Yet, fortunately, we live in a free society which accepts a heterogeneity of goods among its citizenry, and the stock broker and the academic have the freedom to live out their own lives as they please.
B. The Issue of Egalitarianism
  • One of the most captivating stories I ever read was "Harrison Burgeron" by Kurt Vonnegut -- the one where the titular character rebels against a radically egalitarian society. That it was written by an avowed socialist and champion of the poor, which I learned at a much later date, convinced me that a rebellion against the levelling tendencies of democratic society is not incompatible with social democracy, to which I am strongly committed. The issue of egalitarianism is important in Straussian thought because of its elitism (some modes of life are nobler than others) and the idea of an orientation to the highest possibility within the being of a human. Again, I see this view at odds with nearly all contemporary critical theory. The tendency within such thought is to re-think matters so that the thinking of difference is impossible. This might seem like an odd remark to make since deconstruction, for example, is all about linguistic meaning arising from the differences between words in the ever shifting unstable structure of language, but deconstruction is often applied rigidly to radically egalitarian goals. Such egalitarianism, it should be achieved, is worthwhile in itself and constitutes one of the crowning achievements of liberal thought. What I resist, however, is the infiltration of such thinking into all facets of life. Our personal lives are always filled with choosing between better and worse, and that requires the wisdom to know the difference between better and worse. 
  • To put it another way, radical egalitarianism often has the status of a prejudice -- something whose goodness we accept or assume without thinking. I appreciate that Strauss forces me to reflect upon this issue.
C. The Importance of Virtue
  • In The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom makes a point that has always stuck with me (one of several from that book). It goes something like this: "America students today are 'nice.' I use that word carefully. They're friendly and amiable, but this does not equate to what older writers would have called lives lived according to 'virtue.')
  • In the classical political philosophy of Strauss, he always orients himself to the possibility of what is "highest" in mankind, an orientation which requires a teleological conception of the being of humans, and what is "highest" is the acquisition of virtue. The content of this virtue may change. Strauss views the Socratic life, the life lived in pursuit of wisdom, as the highest possible life, an understanding congenial to my own intuitions, but he also emphasized the virtue of statesmen and citizens, and different writers (like Marcus Aurelius) have composed different lists of virtues. Because I do not think you can remove "the human factor" from politics, and because the strength of political institutions is at least partly constructed on the quality of those people who uphold them, I think that a concern with virtue is of paramount importance. Yet the discussion of virtue never appears in contemporary political discourse, and none of the critical theories rife within the academy give virtue serious consideration.
D. The Value of "What Is Said"
  • One of the dangers growing up reading nothing but fantasy fiction is that you develop a quite robust Manichean view of Good and Evil. I've largely, though not entirely, abandoned that conception as an adult, but what I retain is retained thanks to Strauss. Strauss's thought takes seriously the "what is said," the popular opinion about things, for the popular opinion about things is the starting point of philosophy. One of the historically most common beliefs in Western thinking is the belief in good and evil. Again, contemporary critical theory has no place for terms such as these within its thoughts, but, like religion, Strauss does. I suspect he does not believe in good and evil as any sort of transhistorical concept, but, by including them, his thought is more comprehensive than other approaches which I have seen.
  • Strauss's idea of the regime is a heavy factor in this. All regimes are constitutive of the sorts of citizens needed to maintain the regime.
E. The Possibility of Trans-historical Knowledge.
  • I occasionally hear the claim that different historical eras have ways of viewing or interpreting the world which are incommensurate with the ways common to other eras or periods. That is, we can't, as 20th/21st century people, judge the ways of people in the Renaissance and so forth. The problems or issues that obsessed people of that era are simply incomprehensible under our paradigms. The major modern theorists of this view are Nietzsche and Heidegger, who claimed that all thought is historical and which means that no transhistorical thought is possible. This view conflicts strongly with my universalistic intuitions, so I appreciate Strauss's claim that certain "permanent problems" of philosophic import are indeed transhistorical and accessible through the writings of philosophers.
F. The Difficulty of Historical Interpretation
  • This second problem is almost the opposite of the first. A basic contention of Straussian hermeneutics is that, when we read the writings of vastly older or different thinkers, we often cannot help "translating" or interpreting their ideas into modern idioms. Plato, or Lucretius, or Spinoza are vastly different thinkers than we give them credit for, because we read them under the weight of a tradition of a certain way of reading them. For example, it's very hard to read Plato without subconsciously adopting the lens of Neo-Platonism and the Christian appropriation of Plato's ideas. For a more personal example, when I was an undergraduate I remember often being unable to comprehend difficult philosophers (Sartre, Hegel, and the like) by reading their own writings, so I would often seek out commentaries or explanations of what they were saying. Even when I could grasp individual sentences or even individual chapters, I lacked the experience or the knowledge to see the "big picture" in such matters.
  • Strauss's hermeneutical method leads to some odd consequences, at least in that his commentaries are almost line-by-line readings of the original text and completely ignore all secondary scholarship. Still, his readings can nonetheless be fascinating and highly compelling. 
G. The Abstraction of Modern Terminology
  • This comes more from Allan Bloom (a student of Strauss's) than Strauss himself, but it remains one of the most fascinating intellectual discussions I've ever read. Basically, words like culture, creativity, personality, and charisma are all modern terms set to handle certain problems created by modernity. Naturally, given Bloom's liking for classical thought, he rejects many of these terms because he rejects the intellectual situations that gave rise to them. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Passing of Tzvetan Todorov

Surprised and a little saddened that Tzvetan Todorov, the literary theorist, passed away yesterday. In terms of fantasy criticism, he's obviously most widely known for The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, a foundational work on the subject (even if it's cited more often than it's employed). I always admired Todorov for the clarity of his style at a time when many literary theorists seemingly delighted in being obscure. No idea he was still around, although apparently he was only 77, which is a ripe old age but not that ripe of an old age. Anyway, shame to see him go.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Higher Ed and the travel ban

The Chronicle of Higher Education keeps posting articles related to Trump's ban of Muslims. This surprises me, not because his executive order doesn't have wide implications for education, but because it's a bit odd that the Chronicle is coming out with such a clear left-leaning orientation -- although, granted, a strong majority of academia tends to be left-leaning.

Anyway, the whole situation is a mess. My current department actually has a good many Middle Eastern students. Most of them are Saudi, so are safe from the ban, but we also have a Kurdish Syrian refugee who now can't risk leaving the US for any reason. One reason the ban is idiotic as well as mean-spirited is that this particular Syrian refugee is also a Fulbright Scholarship recipient. So it's likely that, even beyond the gratuitous level of spite that led to the exclusion of valid visa-holders, this ban is also keeping out truly productive individuals that any country would be glad to have . . . all for the sake of an imaginary increase in protection against terrorists.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Speak of the Devil (or the Aesir, in this case): Michael Moorcock

My copy of Michael Moorcock's Wizardry and Wild Romance arrived last night, a book which I originally read during undergrad but which I figured, well, might as well own it. And no sooner do I start reading then I see a very laudatory Guardian review of Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword, which I blogged about just yesterday morning. So, apparently the book is even less forgotten than I thought! Anyway, Moorcock claimed that Poul Anderson did Norse literature so well that it just about ruined Tolkien for him -- even beyond all the other infamous critiques he made of Tolkien.

Incidentally, my opinion of Wizardry and Wild Romance has apparently waned considerable since I first read it years ago. First, it's basically a survey of fantasy (romance) literature, which tend to be incredibly dull. The interspersed commentary is vivid and polemical but often head-scratching. Moorcock, furthermore, has a great obsession with style and influence. Influence tends to be a topic of overblown importance, and almost all discussions of style are hopeless for lack of a decent critical vocabulary.**  After all, so what if someone's prose "wants to make friends with you?" Even if it was true in Tolkien's case -- it isn't -- that's not all that great an issue, or at least it shouldn't. I quite liked Winnie the Pooh and couldn't quite figure why Moorcock hated it so much. Otherwise, I was heartily struck by the following irony: Moorcock's main theme is improving the quality of genre prose, but his own Elric book that I had read was as awful as other sword and sorcery I've been reading. 

China Mieville did a forward praising Moorcock for Wizardry, incidentally. Mieville is someone I think an absolutely fabulous writer, and apparently he truly appreciated Moorcock for explaining his own lackluster response to The Lord of the Rings.

** Off the top of my head, two particularly admirable essays on prose style:
Drout, Michael D.C. “Tolkien’s Prose Style and its Literary and Rhetorical Effects.” Tolkien Studies 1 (2004): 137-63. Web. Project Muse. 2 Jun 2015.

Rateliff, John D. “’A Kind of Elvish Craft’: Tolkien as Literary Craftsman.” Tolkien Studies 6 (2009): 1-21.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Forgotten Masterpiece? Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword

So, while I've been on this sword and sorcery kick, I came across Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword. It's often mentioned -- in passing -- in surveys of S&S, but I hadn't otherwise encountered it.  Reading it struck me with two things:

  1. Anderson's knows his Norse sagas and medieval literature. There's echoes of the Eddas, Kullervo, and Tristan and Iseult.  What's amazing to me about this is that Anderson wrote this book in 1954 -- and thus delved into this literature entirely independently of Tolkien's influence.
  2. This is good. The Broken Sword is perhaps the first swords and sorcery novel where I kept wondering, "What's going to happen next?" I mean, I knew it would be something bad -- you can tell just from the source material that tragedy is around the corner. But I was captivated by exactly how everyone's hopes and dreams would come to a crashing, crushing end.
It's also worth noting that The Broken Sword only tangentially belongs to classic sword and sorcery. Although Anderson was a founding member of the Swordsmen & Sorcerer's Guild of American (SAGA), his work is entirely unlike that of Howard, Leiber, Vance, or Moorcock. It's not just the endless parade of brawny heroes, evil magicians, and unpronounceable names -- the literary sources give Anderson's book a resonance and depth that those others simply lack. Still, unusually for a hack writer, even Anderson's style is impressive. I found myself giving a mental thumb's-up to the way he describes several of his scenes. 

I'm not sure exactly how "forgotten" this minor masterpiece is, though. On one hand, I never heard of it outside of a few references in survey essays. It did get reissued in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series edited by Lin Carter, but it doesn't seem to have made much impact on the field -- Howard and Leiber  get more play by far. On the other hand, though, my library copy of the book has been checked out about 15 times since 1971, which is about 15 times more than my library copy of John Dos Passos's Big Money has been checked since around the same period.** Fifteen isn't a whole lot of people, but it does indicate some interest.

**Here's a cautionary tale of literary fortunes, based on the Due Dates slip at the end of library books. Up until 1975, Big Money had been checked out forty times. After that? Zero. Nobody, absolutely nobody, has tried reading it. Dos Passos, thou art Ozymandias!

Sunday, January 22, 2017

A Historic Moment -- the Women's March

After the trauma of the election, I shut off from politics as much as possible. Mostly, I just couldn't afford the energy, not with my own precarious graduate student situation. I had a dissertation to finish and, even when I completed the first draft, there's the terrifying knowledge that my job prospects are statistically abysmal, that we're a single-income family whose income ends in April, and we're still not sure about *M immigration status, mostly due to bureaucratic incompetency. Not to mention all the c.v. building things I must do in the meantime. Plus, being ABD, I tend to be cut off from all human contact, so word of mouth filters down to me slowly. Even had I heard, though, my lack of car has, over the years, given me the tendency to block out events beyond a five-mile radius of my home.

So while a part of me realized that the Women's March yesterday would be big, I didn't quite realize how big it was.

All over the news and social media, I kept seeing images from the protesters and activists on-scene, not only in Washington D.C. but in satellite areas. It gave me an immense pride and respect to see all those people protesting what's currently happening, and I realized that not going at least to one of the satellite marches will be a big regret of mine.

And the administration reacted as we've come to expect -- ignoring the march, posting a bizarre press conference where the press secretary had an apoplectic fit about news organizations accurately reporting the size of Trump's inauguration crowd, Trump's himself ranting about crowd size while addressing the CIA before their Memorial Wall of Agency heroes, which is about as clueless and insulting a thing as I can imagine.

I really wish I could be more active in all this.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Winter is Coming . . .

. . . aaaaaaaaand it's over.

Winter break at MTSU has always been the most deadly boring part of the year for me. Library's closed, gym's closed, town's empty, and there ain't a whole lot to do. (Not even I can work all the time.) In the past, I've managed to visit *M in London once -- and of course we got married in New York last year -- but otherwise my only resort has been to putz around and eat horribly.

All that's done now, though, as this week opens up the start of MY VERY LAST SEMESTER AT MTSU

Less than 6 weeks before I defend the diss -- and, I gotta admit, the general situation is starting to make me nervous. The diss itself is fine, and I'm pretty proud of it. But I'm more than a little dismayed by the fact that, although two committee members have started reading my diss, no one has actually finished it, much less provided feedback. 

My current director, of course, had a remarkably late start, since she had to take over directing duties after Dr. Lavery's sudden passing last fall. She had originally earmarked this last month for devoting proper attention to reading it, but a major family situation in addition to a minor illness have delayed things awfully. Now, the prognosis is "comments in a few weeks." The third position on my committee is also in upheaval. Two days ago, one professor agreed to act as the fourth member of my committee -- and now he's the third member, since I received word this morning that my previous third committee member has been forced by unavoidable circumstances to drop out. 

The good news? I still have three committee members, which is what I need. The bad news? By the time everyone finishes reading Mister Diss, there's going to be virtually no turnaround time for me to actually make changes. If substantive revisions are required, there goes everything. Fortunately, and it might be premature to say this, but I think Ole Dissy is strong enough as stands that things will turn out all right. Still, this situation could easily have been a disaster for most people. Writing an entire dissertation without any professorial feedback whatsoever could have sunk quite a few. I know one girl, who like me was orphaned by Dr. L's passing, wrote her entire MA thesis last semester without guidance, but it was such a meandering mess that her new director wouldn't sign off on it. Hence she has to redo it and, by necessity, delay graduation.

Congratulations to Bagwell, Raines, and Rodriquez

The 2017 class of baseball Hall of Famers is now official: Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, and Ivan Rodriquez. All of them are highly deserving candidates, especially Raines -- it was a minor crime that it took the writers 10 years to elect the second greatest lead-off hitter of all time. He had a rough time because of admitted cocaine use and, of course, playing in the shadow of the greatest lead-off hitter of all time, Ricky Henderson.

Bagwell never made much impression on me, mostly because he played for the small market Houston Astros, but Pudge Rodriquez had one of the most amazing arms for a catcher I've ever seen.

Bonds and Clemens both fell short (because of the steroids, obviously), but this year both climbed over the 50% mark -- 75% needed for election. Clearly, they deserve in, and the allegations of steroid use never phased me a bit in regards to their monster stat lines.

Curt Schilling looks like he had a rough day, though, dipping below 50%. His stats are clearly Hall-worthy, but his recent tweets about lynching journalists, even more than his outspoken political views, have hurt him. Now, I always thought Schilling a loudmouth (and I laughed and laughed when he, in all seriousness, started talking about running against Elizabeth Warren for senator), but any baseball writer is clearly abusing his/her duty by invoking the "character clause" to justify not voting for Schilling. Not only do Schilling's stats bear up to scrutiny, but he won loads of various character-based awards during his playing days. About as hard-working a pitcher as you could imagine, just like Clemens.

It does seem as if, for some, expressing a few disrespectable opinion is a bigger "character" flaw than traditional virtues such as hard work, thrift, dedication, and doggedness. And then I think of Mark McGuire, who might not get into the Hall because of his steroid usage, but who was also the humblest, most self-effacing, and most dedicated baseball player I ever saw. If I had a kid, I wouldn't mind him growing up to be like Mark McGuire, PED-usage or no.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Conan -- the movie!!!!

One true sign that a movie has become outdated is when you look at its wikipedia page and can't begin the fathom how the debates that apparently swirled around a film applied to what you actually saw.

As part of my Robert E. Howard kick, I've looked up the youtube version of Conan the Barbarian (1982). One thing I noticed -- Aw-nold's accent has gotten a lot better over the years. But otherwise, except for a mildly cool scene in the Temple of Set, I couldn't see what all the fuss was about.

One big critique was its violence -- but it's cheesy 1980s violence. One critic lamented that it killed, on his count, about 50 people, which nearly made me laugh. Both the body counts and the special effects are exceeded twice-over in any one episode of Game of Thrones. And the film was also apparently critiqued for its flirtation with fascism? Now, I remember reading one article from JFA from the early 1980s claiming all German sword and sorcery was fascist, but I couldn't help rolling my eyes. Then, of course, there's the always ubiquitous "critique the audience we imagine is watching this." Although empirically most of the Conan fans are male, it's a bit more a leap to dub the film as merely wish-fulfillment from wimps. It reminds me of what gets said about every genre or genre-writer fan -- sometimes even by fans of other genres or genre writers.

About the film itself, a few things I noticed. First, great score. The score basically saved it, especially since the film seemed afraid to have its actors speak too much dialogue. Second, super slow pace. Considering that Howard's short stories are always high-tempo. I was amazed that the film's director spent so many lingering shots over people's faces. Conan wouldn't even qualify as an action film today, I don't think, since modern action films tend to be almost schizophrenic with their pacing. They took at all the sexism and racism out of the source material, which isn't surprising, but I couldn't believe that they took out most of the action.

The film Conan also bears almost no resemblance to Howard's Conan. It gives him truly cringe-worthy character motivations ("you killed my parents") but otherwise kept him as a dumb brute. Incidentally, there's no reason in the world to have that "killing my parents" scene last 30 minutes -- that's partly of what I mean about slow paced. Howard's Conan, however, would never have submitted to slavery, and he's a great deal more intelligent, occasionally even crafty. Nor do any of Howard's more acceptable themes, such as civilization vs. barbarism, shine through. And although film critics note the individualism presented in Conan, Howard's Conan is much more individualistic and John Wayne-ish than the film eventually made him.

Anyway, we'll chalk up this experiment to "I'm glad I watched it, but let's keep this movie in 1982 where it belongs."

Friday, January 6, 2017

Round Table Discussion (and adventure in the Murf)

Just discovered that Signum University (the place that hosts the Mythgard Institute) will be holding a Rogue One and Fantastic Beasts chat this evening at 7pm-9pm. Don't know if I'll participate, but I'll probably check out what they upload to youtube afterward.

Anyway, what makes that event post-worthy is that, on the Friday before Christmas, *M and I made an hazardous excursion to see precisely those two films. The theater's 5 miles away, neither of us drive, so we got a map and made the arduous, hazardous, monster-bedeviled hike. (See how adventurous it was?) Along the way we stopped at The Green Dragon, a Tolkien-themed pub here in town and virtually Murfreesboro's only source of culture -- I've been here for 5 years and never been, entirely because of the distance. Anyway, after a nice lunch, we finished the hike and watched Rogue One and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. (Just to add to the adventure, we snuck in to the latter film.) 

Rogue One is clearly the best Star Wars film since the originals, and Fantastic Beasts is fantastic without qualification. What I admire most about Rowling is how she keeps pressing themes she hasn't covered before -- in this case, child abuse and segregation. 

There's even a heroic Muggle!

Needless to say, however, we were too exhausted at the end of the day to hike back home, so after getting a couple of Christmas turkeys we hailed an Uber. Good day, though.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Conan the Barbarian, Feminism, and the ICFA

Well, spin me around and call me Sally. Just looking through the draft program of the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts (ICFA), and it turns out they selected me to chair a panel on the fiction of Robert E. Howard. The weird thing? I happen to be reading the Conan series for the very first time right now. Picked up a series of his Conan stories, edited by Karl Edward Wagner, some time back, and finally just got around to reading them.

Anyway, Howard's a peach. Although sword & sorcery (and adventure) stories aren't my thing, I'm liking the Conan stories a lot better than the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories by Leiber. Leiber had a tendency to get cutesy, but Howard just doesn't waste any time with nonsense like intrigue or plausibility before getting to the action.

And he has produced my new all-time favorite paragraph in literature. After Conan gets imprisoned by an evil magician, he's eventually set free by a beautiful young harem girl (of course). While protesting that she has no intention of betraying Conan, she offers the world the following gem:

"Cut me down without mercy if I play you false," she answered. "The very feel of your arm about me, even in menace, is as the fulfillment of a dream" (The Hour of the Dragon 58).

Ever since I read that, I've had to resist the urge to explain the wonders of Robert E. Howard to my feminist friends, since something tells me they'd find this less amusing than I did.*

*Of course, I told them anyway.  :)