Saturday, October 14, 2017

An wretchedly awful and completely bad psychoanalytic Kristevan interpretation

Currently, I've begun reading a psychoanalytic interpretation of Stephen R. Donaldson (cuz that's how I roll, baby). Although quite well-written, especially engaging with Julia Kristeva's theory, the incompetent literary analysis finally irritated me so much that, after a particularly egregious misreading, I wrote in the margins, "Jesus, no, this is just stupid!"

Since this was a library book, no less, I now have the difficult moral decision of whether to erase that remark when I return the book. On one hand, marginalia is technically vandalism. On the other, I feel a responsibility to warn all those fresh-eyed eager young undergrads, bedazzled by the complexities of Theory, who might be tempted to consider anything this particular book said seriously.

Anyway, in other news. After getting bored with writing a feminist analysis of Tolkien, I decided to write a feminist analysis of Donaldson (spurred by the enthusiasm I felt in writing the encyclopedia article about him and aliens). Anyway, I wrote something along the lines, "SRD hasn't received the critical attention that his status as a major modern writer of speculative fiction deserves." After a bit, though, I realized that this wasn't quite true. Although only a handful of academic articles have appeared on Donaldson, there are currently three monographs on him -- which ain't bad for a still-living fantasy writer who isn't Rowling or George Martin. 

The best Donaldson book, of course, is by William Senior. Another is . . .. well, let's just say that it doesn't much challenge Senior for title of "best book on Donaldson."  Then there's this Kristevan monstrosity.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Sejong wuvs me?

Open up my mailbox yesterday, and what do I see but a letter from the Sejong Cultural Society informing me about the "2018 Sejong Writing Competition." Needless to say, I haven't the foggiest notion how they found me or why they contacted me -- I recently did a movie review on South Korean film director Bong Joon-ho, but that's it (and that hasn't even been published yet).

Most ironic of all: the writing contest isn't even open to anyone over 25 years old!

Saturday, September 30, 2017

I've been cited!!! (sorta kinda maybe well not really)

Although I've now a decent among of published articles for an early career academic, considering the glacial pace of academic publishing, it takes quite a while for anyone's ideas to disseminate widely enough to be cited by other scholars. My only essay out long enough for citation is my first, an article on Stephen R. Donaldson and the idea of genre. By a stroke a great good fortune, the director of my undergraduate senior thesis, Dr. Donald "Mack" Hassler, was compiling a volume of essays with Clyde Wilcox called New Boundaries in Political Science Fiction and, well, to make a long story short, he threw a young protege a bone, and gave me my first publication.

Anyway, you can imagine my excitement when I recently saw that someone had cited me. Actually, tbh, I've been cited once before to my knowledge -- way back in 2011 or so, a scholar named Patricia Kennon quoted from me in a contribution to Irish Children's Literature and Culture: New Perspectives on Contemporary Writing (2011), quite the pleasant surprise when I found out a few years later.

Within the last few weeks, though, as I worked on my aliens article for SRD,  a new essay on Donaldson by someone named Emily Auger, Gothic Science Fiction: 1980-2010 (2011), came to my attention. It's a pretty decent article, too, pressing on Donaldson's aversion to posthuman identities (through the metaphor of ruined skin and the technology of genetic mutation in his Gap novels); although perhaps excessively theory-heavy, Donaldson deserves more discussion & this certainly fits the bill.

Anyway, the Works Cited quickly drew me like a moth to light, and voilà -- my 2008 article made the cut. "What part did she actually cite?" I wondered. So I read the article, and . ... well, apparently I didn't make the cut. 

Alas and alack, Dr. Auger made no reference to my article anywhere in hers, despite the WC reference. Seems as if she included the citation isolely for completeness's sake, but couldn't find any rational means of incorporating a direct quote or paraphrase. Technically in terms of MLA, that's a no-no, but can't say that I mind, honestly. Truth be told, I'm a bit embarrassed by my essay. Although Political Science Fiction came out in 2008, I mostly wrote the article in 2005, my final year of undergrad. I haven't read the essay since then, dead-sure that there'd be some absolute undergrad howlers in there, but the encounter with Dr. Auger's essay forced me to revisit the piece. Luckily, my library had a copy. And . . . .

. . . . well, it isn't as bad as I'd originally feared. Sure, there were a few howlers. For example, I had used the phrase "social construction of evil" despite (I easily see now) not knowing exact what that phrase meant. Also there were some truly cringe-worthy over-generalizations on what fantasy literature is and does. Plus several additional counterarguments that should have been rebutted, possibilities I just wouldn't have known enough about back then to counter. Still, all in all, it's not bad for someone in their first year of an MA (the period when I actually sent the final manuscript to Dr. Hassler). Nobody reading it today could realize that, of course, but so it goes.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Evangeline Walton, papers!!!

So, some random coolness.  Browsing through our U of A Special Collections, I realized that we have the papers for Evangeline Walton, a relatively well-known American fantasy writer, pre-Tolkien. She did a number of books based off Welsh legend and the Mabinogion trilogy. I bought a number of her books from a used bookstore last fall, intending to read her, but never quite got around to it. Anyway, apparently she spent the last part of her life in Tucson, so gave her papers to the university.

If I ever get some time or the opportunity, I might try taking advantage of that collection for an article, perhaps. 

Friday, September 22, 2017

Another weird Tolkien pop culture reference - the GANDALF trial

When I recently got the editorial comments back for my review of Okja (dir. Bong Joon-ho) for Science Fiction Film and Television, the only tweak they required was some clarification on the A.L.F. (Animal Liberation Front). My review, they said, made it sound as if Bong had simply created the group for the film, when in fact it is a very real, clandestine, leadership, world organization for animal rights.

Yeah well, er, um. . . . I won't admit this to THEM, but I actually had no idea that it was real. Somehow, despite all my background research on the film, it never once occurred to me that Bong might be using a real organization to help his protagonist. (*embarassed*) Anyway, after some quick googling, I tweaked the review accordingly. During the course of this googling, however, I stumbled upon something called "the GANDALF trial" from the U.K. in 1997. 

Now, no need to panic -- everyone's favorite wizard is by no means guilty of any high crimes or misdemeanors. Instead, GANDALF is the acronym -- and they tried really hard to make this work -- for Green Anarchist and A.L.F.. The wikipedia entry for this head-scratching event is here. In short, a number of animal rights activist were jailed for conspiracy to commit property damage. The acronym was the brainchild of their defense team, and it just goes to show how strong an environmentalist message could be read into The Lord of the Rings

A weird sidenote -- surely, methinks, I must have casually encountered information about this before, somewhere. Maybe I'll have a look through Patrick Curry's criticism again, since he's the best known environmentalist Tolkien critic, and he tends toward comprehensiveness. Still, this is the first time the GANDALF trial seems to have registered with me.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Oh, an encyclopedia article on aliens in Stephen R. Donaldson

So, Stephen R. Donaldson's one of my favorite writers, someone on whom I did my undergrad senior thesis. (I went to Kent State, where he got a MA, and they have a nifty SRD special collections.) Well, recently there was a volume asking for articles on the aliens in the work of various writers/tv shows/movies. The story of this volume is rather interesting. Mike Levy, a quite well-known sf and fantasy critic, tragically passed away recently, and his widow asked the fantasy scholar Farah Mendlesohn to take over this book he'd been contracted to write. (Together, Levy and Mendlesohn recently wrote a fantastic book on Children's fantasy literature; the cover itself should win an award.) Well, Dr. Mendlesohn wasn't that much familiar with aliens, according to her own admission, so she outsourced the writing of many of the essays and individual encyclopedia articles. I volunteered to write an article on aliens in SRD, and she just green lighted me.

I'm excited about this. Donaldson deserves to be more widely discussed than he is, and even here his sf Gap series is unfairly neglected in favor of his first two Covenant trilogies. Plus, I've always thought his Amnion were a super cool idea for aliens -- one of my personal favorites. Moreover, SRD's continuing concern for human nature  (and an alien species that runs counter to everything he imagines human nature to be) is a nice contrast to the many theorists, most often strangely enough in the humanities, who consistently deny the coherence or morality of any concept such as "human nature." As might be imagined, I'll be bringing up some notions of posthumanism to be on the discussion.

I already got a draft done, and it should be finished in a few days.

There but for the Grace of the Job Market Go I

If life is inherently random, the academic life is randomness squared. With parts of Texas (including half of Houston) underwater because of Hurricane Harvey, and the same with Floria due to Hurricane Irma, it's hard to avoid thinking about the fact that half the academic jobs for which I applied last year were in either Texas or Florida. I actually had two job interviews in Texas, one in Tyler and another in Houston. Had fate brought me to Houston in particular, I'd be an evacuee right now. As it is, in the desert it's been weeks since I've seen rain.

Best wishes to everyone weathering the storm(s).

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Scientia et Humanita Issue 7 has been published!!!

Okay, okay, technically, the print version of the journal came out several months ago. Yet, due to various technical foibles, the online open access version has just been put up here. Okay, technically, the print version has been up for a few weeks, at least the full pdf version and the individual articles . . . but lacking the editor's introduction. Now, though, everything's fine and dandy. Issue 7 can be found here.

I'm very excited about this issue. Not only was this my first tenure as editor in chief, overseeing all aspects of production, but we had a quite nice mix of authors this year -- see my editor's introduction here for more details. Included in this year's issue:

  • "Corpus Christi, Superstar? Decoding the Enigma of the York Mystery Cycle"
    • by Hillary K. Yeager, grad, English
  • "Self-Leadership Strategies and Performance Perspectives Within Student Aviation Teams"
    • by Christopher R. Bearden, undergrad, psychology
  • "Does Criminal History Impact Labor Force Participation of Prime-Age Men?" 
    • by Mary Ellsworth, grad, econcomics
  • "Playing Games as Cultural Expression: Mah Jong, Chess, and Bourré in the Works of Amy Tan and Tim Gautreaux"
    • by Sara Hays, grad, English
  • "Bram Stoker’s Anxieties Concerning the Emancipation of Women"
    • by Rebecca Clippard, undergrad, Japanese & Spanish
  • "The Impact of the HOPE Scholarship on High School Graduation in Georgia"
    • by Muhammad A. Yadudu, grad, economics
  • "Policy Analysis on Youth Aging Out of Foster Care"
    • by Calista Barberi, grad, social work
  • "An Analysis of Euroskepticism’s Influence on Britain’s Vote to Leave the European Union"
    • by Kayla McCrary, undergrad, international relations

We had a record number of submissions this year (25) but only accepted 8 articles, making this our most competitive issue yet. Nice mix of grad/undergrad  as well as mix of disciplines. It also may be our best looking issue yet, since  we did extensive proofreading and layout-checking.

Major innovations accomplished under my tenure:
  • re-vamped our main Scientia website.
  • re-builted our website
  • Composed a Scientia style guide
  • Developed criteria for accepted articles from the social sciences and natural sciences
  • Formalized my criteria for acceptance of articles, which'll be useful for future issues
  • instituted a new process of proofreading that sees both editorial, staff, and author proofs 

Fun stories:
  • One of authors, when I asked which citation style she was using, replied, "APA . . . I think." (Okay, that counts as a horror story.)
    • In fact, judging from this year's issue, APA is apparently the hardest citation style for anyone to get right.
  • When I asked our layout editor why, for her contribution to the issue, she wasn't using the hanging indent formatting for her works cited page, we both realized that, somehow, she never realized that function existed in Word. Instead, she did hanging indents by hitting "enter" and tapping the spacebar 5 times.
  • When we had one econ article unfortunately not make it past faculty review, our reviewer suggested Mary E. as a possible replacement. She revamped a class presentation into an awesome article in the few weeks just prior to us going to press.
  • Chris Bearden, our undergrad winner of the Deans' Distinguished Essay Award, also gets the informal award of "Most Improved Essay in Shortest Amount of Time." He managed to do an unholy amount of revision to his article in only 10 days. He's also a veteran who's just been accepted into the MA program for psychology at MTSU.
All in all, I'm extremely proud of all our authors and staff -- the amount of work everyone put in to make this a quality issue was immense. 

Monday, September 4, 2017

Heading to Kalamazoo!

Looks like my abstract has just been accepted for the 53rd International Congress in Medieval Studies, held in Kalamazoo, MI. Even though I'm not a medievalist, I'm super excited about this. This conference always has a large number of Tolkien panels, and I have the great good fortune to share panel honors with not one but two Tolkien scholars with whose work I'm familiar. First is Jane Chance, certainly in the top 5 of All-Time Tolkien scholars, and the person who's largely responsible, so I gather, for the large Tolkien presence in this conference over the years. The other is Andrew Higgins, who co-edited the scholarly edition of A Secret Vice with Dimitra Fimi -- a book that I reviewed for JFA not too long ago. My review was strongly positive, of course (they did a good job), but the expectation of meeting a person whose work I reviewed is somewhat nerve-wracking!

Anyway, this conference is still a good long ways away -- May 10th-13th, 2018. That'll just be after spring semester. I'm looking forward to it.

Friday, September 1, 2017

British Fantasy Novelist Joe Abercrombie . . . sigh.

So, a whiles back during the writing of an article on Glen Cook (a personal favorite), I realized that I just didn't know much about fantasy lit written post-1980s and -1990s. Which makes sense -- that's around when my reading habits greatly diversified. Still, it was hard to make a case for Cook's uniqueness when I hadn't read several of the most recent writers he's been compared to, so I recently made a foray into Joe Abercrombie, known for writing a "grimdark" type of military fantasy.

Anyway, reading Mr. Abercrombie has caused me a severe case of eye rolling.

I've read Before They are Hanged (2007), the second novel in his First Law trilogy, and half of The Heroes (2011), a stand-alone novel set in the same universe. That was enough for me to get a sense of his style and literary character. My thoughts:


Sometimes, a writer simply tries too hard to be sardonic, cynical, and world-wise, and that's the impression Abercrombie gives. There's tons of observations of the sort, "war is awful, terrible, horrific, pointless, wasteful, devastating" and so on, but also a simultaneous sense that war is the one arena of human experience that gives its participants a special insight into How Dark Things Really Are. Neither Glen Cook nor Steven Erikson, for example, ever succumb to that temptation, but Abercrombie's books seem to revel in it. 

That ethos gives off the strong sense that Abercrombie's First Law books appeal directly to teenage boys struggling to form an identity amid a nascent sense of masculinity. Not that there's anything wrong with that -- since roughly half the world's population has to go through the experience of being a male teenager, a category that includes myself, that sort of fiction is useful. The problem that emerges, however, is when someone outside that very narrow age window tries reading the book. Unlike Cook or Erikson, I just didn't see anything that could potentially appeal to full-grown adults.

In fact, Abercrombie reminded me, not of any other fantasist I know, but of a very popular writer of military historical fiction: Bernard Cornwell. I once read three of Cornwell's Sharpe series of books, which were well-written and well-researched but which all followed the exact same formula. Abercrombie isn't a formula writer in that sense, but he made the same appeals: the knowledgeable and competent military male who has to wage a constant struggle of incompetent or clueless military personnel.


Really nothing to write Middle-earth about here. Only about a half dozen countries with pretty clear real-world analogues, whose sole purpose seems to be constantly at war with one another. The plot,  as well as the characters if they appeal to you, are the only sources of interest here.

Also, the names tend to suck. Sometimes I suspect him of delving into various central and Eastern European languages for his names. For example, my wife says that Crown Prince Ladisla is actually a Czech name ("Ladislav"), and some of the others suggest similar connotations, but I'm unfamiliar enough with those languages to really say for sure. Regardless, many of the names also just seem made up out of the blue.

Another thing of note. Abercrombie has his "Northmen," a standard fantasy analogue of Vikings and berserkers and whatnot, but his major country, loosely based on Western Europe, is called "The Union," which is as jarring a name as I could imagine. If that name sounds weirdly modern (and the technology in Abercrombie is all medieval), that's probably because it is. The Union's major military figures talk and act straight out of 19th-century military history -- just think of "I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General." This may be entirely subjective, but Abercrombie's historical mishmash just constantly irritated me.


Once I got past all the irritating things, I did think quite well of Abercrombie's narrative skill. By the book's end, his literary mannerisms and cliched tropes still irritated, but Before They are Hanged is certainly not the slog it could have been. 

That said, you'd also have to accept that this book is all plot. Abercrombie doesn't seem to have anything interesting or worthwhile to say (or for a critic to write about), and I have a limited patience for reading plot-only novels. Hence reading 1 1/2 of his books seems enough for me -- if you've read one, I suspect, you've read them all, kinda like with Bernard Cornwell.

All in all, I can understand some of the popularity of Abercrombie's books, but he hardly seems to belong with the major modern fantasists.

Monday, August 28, 2017

A Look at Frederick Pohl

Frederick Pohl's one of those names in science fiction who's frequently referenced (he's a grandmaster, after all) but whom I know virtually nothing about. Recently, I gave him a try after reading his Huge-winning short story "Day Million," the awesomeness of which motivated me to try some of his other work.

First I tried The Space Merchants, one of sf classics that Pohl co-wrote with C.M. Kornbluth. It's clearly a riff on the rising of post-WWII American advertising and consumerism, and of course I kept making unfair comparisons to Mad Men. Even without that complications, however, I can't say that the novel itself impressed me too much. It had a nice premise (i.e, in a world dominated by advertisers, one company is tasked with getting colonists up to the inhospitible planet Mars), but it had that slapdash quality that marks so much early sf. The writing in the second half in particular had that hurry-up-and-let's-get-this novel-over-with quality that reeks "sub-par."

Second, I went for Heechee Rendevous, the third book in Pohl's Heechee Saga. (I should have started with Gateway, I know, but I didn't have that one around.)  Anyway, Heechee Rendevous didn't have the same slapdash quality as The Space Merchants, and I really liked the science fiction bits -- i.e., the human race has discovered a whole bunch of left-over technology from the far-advanced Heechee, who disappeared centuries ago, and humanity's finally going to meet them in this novel. The real problem, though, are all the non-sf bits. . . . meaning, of course, the 200 pages smack dab in the middle that blather on about the main character Robinette Broadhead's personal life. It wasn't bad writing, I suppose, but Pohl's character simply didn't have anything interesting to say or show. When Broadhead finally becomes a computer program in order to avoid death, a sf-idea that unfortunately had only tangential relevance to the drama of actually meeting the Heechee, I just kept hoping that someone would reboot the computer. Basically, Heechee Rendevous wasted about 2/3rds of its length as it delayed getting to the main source of narrative interest, the actual rendevous with the Heechee.

I'll probably try Gateway at some point, but I suspect Pohl will just be one of those classic sf writers whom I never warm to personally.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Orientation Complete -- Classes Tomorrow!!

Well, the first day of classes is tomorrow. Am I nervous? Not about the teaching, at least. Although it's been about a year and a half since I've been in the classroom, once you've done it enough, stage fright is no longer really a factor. Plus, I've done plenty of conferences and presentations (and dissertation defenses!) in the meantime. 

I'm actually more nervous that I've minded all the relevant Ps and Qs in my syllabus; the modern syllabus is akin to rocket science, and I keep frantically double-checking things to make sure all the required tidbits are there.

But I'm already half in love with my new program -- and, needless to say, we've just met. I hinted at this before, but the UA Writing Program is really doing some wonderful things. Many of the pedagogical practices they've incorporated, as might be expected, reflect some of the best current theories and practices of rhet/comp theorists. On a more nuts & bolts level, our college's provost just recently signed off on a new $1 million dollar allocation to reducing FYW course class size to 19. Nineteen! That's almost unbelievable for a state college. Ohio State's writing program fought and scratched to get its freshman comp courses to 24; Middle Tennessee State U capped class size at 22 but had a rough 5/5 load for lecturers. Here at Arizona, it's only 4 classes, meaning that we have less than 80 students to teach.

Of course, at that kind of funding, the university expects a quantifiable increase in the composition skills of students. That's exciting too, because I'd love to be apart of a project that might help universities re-evaluate the workload placed on writing instructors. There's a little bit of self-interest involved, too. Because of this new level of funding, the program managed to hire 22 new lecturers for this year -- including yours truly. The funding, however, isn't guaranteed. But I really think the experiment will work, and I can't wait to start.

Something else that gave me the warm fuzzies -- a few years back, the U of A was a major participant in National Adjunct Walk-out Day. After hearing that, what's not to love?  Go . . . wildcats? Okay, now that I've double-checked, that's definitely the right mascot, so . . . go wildcats!

Monday, August 14, 2017

First Day of Orientation at the U of A!!!

Actually, this was an optional meeting, but I wanted to acclimatize myself to the university as quickly as possible. The department textbooks advocates a genre-based, rather than a process-based, approach to writing, so that's a bit out of my comfort zone & I needed as much info as possible before composing my syllabus.  Anyway, a few observations:

  • 95% of the people there were GTAs -- only 5 new lecturers. Should have expected that, I suppose, but I didn't.
    • Speaking of the GTAs, they're quite the young pups. Given that my doctoral program had a slight higher average age for incoming grad students, I'd forgotten what 23 / 24 year old grad students looked like!
  • People are really friendly. I'm really going to enjoy here, I think. (But I already knew that!)
  • Much of the pedagogical and rhetorical information on which this writing program is based is familiar to me from MTSU's teacher training. So, while they're'll be a learning curve, it's going to go pretty quickly.
  • We have a nicely laid out, institution-wide attendance policy and late-work policy. I love when things are nicely laid out like that -- saves so much stress in case there's ever a grade challenge. (I've never had one, but it's a worry that comes with the job.)
  • Strangely enough, based on absences, faculty actually have the ability to drop students from their courses. It's a matter of managing enrollment, but I've never heard of something like that. There's a lot of wiggle room, too -- we may drop students based on attendance. Given that ambiguity, I'll be trying to avoid using this option as much as possible, except in cases of otherwise certain failure of the student.
I have another optional orientation meeting tomorrow, then the big mandatory one on Wednesday. Looking forward to both!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Tolkien and the 1954 Nomination of E. M. Forster for the Nobel Prize

Now that I've received the official word, I'm pleased to announce the appearance in the fall of Mythlore of my essay, "J.R.R. Tolkien and the 1954 Nomination of E. M. Forster for the Nobel Prize in Literature." 

As you can probably tell from the title, my theme is that mysterious case of why Tolkien would have nominated Forster -- whom we never knew he admired -- for literature's highest prize. To my knowledge, only two scholars have even discussed that situation at any length, both bloggers: Jason Fisher here and John D. Rateliff here.

Basically, I have two contentions. The first revolves around possible literary reasons for Tolkien's nomination. Verlyn Flieger has previously posited that Tolkien could have been influenced by Howards End, but I'm placing my money on A Passage to India. Although postcolonial issues did not occupy much attention in Tolkien's own writings, he certainly knew about such things himself (having been born in S. Africa), making him aware if nothing else of what colonialism did to subjects and rulers alike. He has a telling passage in one of his letters where he describes the English as quickly losing their "generous" sentiments when they reside in the colonies for any length of time, and that's basically a plot summary of A Passage to India. The second major factor, though, is Forster's awareness of the tension between the universal and the particular --i.e., a universal citizen with no overwhelming allegiance to any one country, and the citizen of one particular to the exclusion of other countries. Tolkien, like Forster, sympathized with the universal perspective.

I think my second contention, however, is even cooler. 

Basically, Tolkien didn't make his Nobel nomination in isolation. Two Oxford colleagues, F.P. Wilson and Lord David Cecil, joined him in nominating Forster. Analyzing the Nobel website suggests it was one nomination letter signed by all three individuals, so the question is, why did they collaborate on this? 

My hypothesis is that they were helping C.S. Lewis get elected to a professorship up in Cambridge, which was also happening in early 1954. Tolkien and Wilson, incidentally, were both electors for that chair, and we know that chair was being created specially for Lewis. I think their nomination of Forster, one of Cambridge's most prized writers, could have been a bargaining chip to help smooth the creation of that chair.*** Unfortunately, there's no hard evidence for my hypothesis, but I think I make a compelling case out of what information we do possess.

So, look for details of that in the next issue of Mythlore.

*** The title of my piece, incidentally, hits a slightly different angle from the one my wife wanted me to adopt: "Inklings Scandal Uncovered(!): The Old Boys' Network in Action."

Monday, August 7, 2017

A Memorial Post for a Valiant Backpack!

Backpacks and shoes live a hard life when they hook up with me. I'm murder on them, walking on average 30 miles a week and always carrying 20-40 pounds of stuff. Alas, it's time to retire my current faithful backpack with a commemorative post. He was originally a Christmas present from Martina seven years ago. Despite a lifetime guarantee, he's pretty beat up and close to falling apart, and it's time to find a new stuff-holding companion as I embark on my journey to Arizona. He's been quite a few places with me, including London & Barcelona & Paris & Prague, as well as all throughout my doctoral program, and he's held my stuff pretty much everyday since I got him. Old backpack, I salute you!!

Friday, August 4, 2017

Mary Shelley & The Last Man

The 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is coming up. In preparation for an article I'm hoping to write, I've been reading up on her. My main target thus far is her other science fiction novel, the apocalyptic The Last Man (1828). It's . . . . well, it's not that good. Part I describes the narrator's friends, clearly based on Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, plus all their tedious love affairs and marriages. That's to be expected from a novel from that period, I suppose. Part II describes some politics stuff, plus the beginnings of a vast plague. Part III is where the plague finally wipes everyone out.

Where the novel does well is:
  1. Nice portraits of Shelley and Byron. Unfortunately, that doesn't help The Last Man succeed as a novel.
  2. The trepidation of the plague as it begins to sweep over the world. Powerful sense of doom, only slightly ruined by the excessive verbiage in which Shelley likes to say things.
    1. On a related point, it was nice to see Shelley discussing, even if only briefly, Asia, North and South American, and even Africa. A couple times she notes with compassion the downfall of the Aztecs and the Incas. All that shows much more world-consciousness than I've come to expect from fiction of that period.
The flaws, though, are pretty numerous:
  • Ridiculous levels of showing, not telling. Stuff like, "I couldn't do full justice to the impassioned speech Raymond gave Parliament, so I'll just say it was magnificent and describe what happens as a result." So, so annoying -- and a missed opportunity by Shelley.
  • Lack of political drama. Don't get me wrong, tons of political events happen in this novel. It's just that, in line with the "showing not telling" strategy, they're all relegated to the background, a mere backdrop for the personalities of Adrian and Raymond and their love affairs, which are really the main narrative focus of the novel. Raymond's accomplishments, for example, make him a world-historical figure if ever there was one, but the world he affects is presented as so subordinate (in terms of interest) to his personal idiosyncrasies that Shelley simply wastes an opportunity for creating a gripping political novel of the first order. The downfall of aristocracy, after all, shouldn't be relegated to a footnote aimed at showing what a great guy Adrian (based on Percy Shelley) was.
  • Narrative structure. The Last Man is simply someone writing his memoirs -- Lionel Verney basically applies a 1st-person omniscient perspective. That's only a technical flaw, but it's worth noting because of the complicated framing device for Frankenstein.
The science fiction in the novel is also pretty bare.  The future has air travel by balloon, but otherwise Shelley simply takes early 19th-century England and extrapolates it unchanged into the late 21st-century. The future setting gives her greater scope for politics and, of course, the plague, but as mentioned the world Shelley creates takes a distant, distant backseat to the personalities of Raymond, Adrian, and all the endless page-filling love affairs.

Throughout it all, too, is the vague sense that you never quite know why events are happening as they are. Stuff just happens; there's nothing the characters are trying to accomplish from chapter to chapter. Hence there's a major sense of drift as you move along through The Last Man. Clearly, Shelley expects her character portraits and her intense imagery to sustain narrative interest, but that just doesn't quite work for me.  But one thing I thought rather poignant -- in fact, it's striking me pretty intensely just how deeply Mary Shelley was in love with her husband & how much his death traumatized her. It's really heart-breaking, and we can see that, for her as she was writing this novel, she was perfectly well sustained by her personal interest in the characters she was portraying. For example, this final passage, nominally from the "last man" left alive on earth, applies just as much to Mary Shelley herself:
“At first I thought only to speak of plague, of death, and last, of desertion; but I lingered fondly on my early years, and recorded with sacred zeal the virtues of my companions. They have been with me during the fulfillment of my task. I have brought it to an end—I lift my eyes from my paper—again they are lost to me. Again I feel that I am alone” (III.10 339).
Damn. Poor woman.

Anyway. All in all, I'm glad I read The Last Man, but I'm just as glad that I'm done reading it.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Middle Tennessee State U. -- An Appreciation

With my big move to the U of A in Tucson just over a week away, the MTSU nostalgia's starting to hit me pretty hard. It's odd -- I don't get particularly attached to places, and I don't have much "school spirit" for any of the institutions I've attended, at least with the exception of Lycoming College, where I spent three semesters immediately after high school. Still, I've been reminiscing how fortunate I've been in the opportunities given me by MTSU's doctoral program, and how little confidence I had in that program when I first arrived.

When I was applying to graduate programs in late 2011, I found MTSU entirely by accident -- unsure of where to go for a program that emphasized fantasy and science fiction, I browsed The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts looking for professors, and I found one that taught at MTSU, which I had never heard of before. Looking through their faculty page, I saw several professors had similar interests to me, so I instantly dubbed it my backup school. The knock against MTSU was that it had virtually no academic reputation, mostly because, as I later learned, its doctoral program had been in existence less than a decade. A couple other things also raised my suspicions. It had a cheap applications fee, which is awesome but also reeks of desperation,*** and it didn't even require a writing sample from prospectives PhDs. That was a red flag if anything else. Still, I applied anyway. At that time in my life, even a bad doctoral program was better than none, and that quickly turned out to be the right decision -- I lost my job at a bookstore when it shut down a few months later.

Five years later, I realize how many opportunities MTSU has really provided. So, the following list will be a list of awesome things it does. I'll leave off my great good fortune in finding David Lavery, my dissertation director, since that's not something any institution can plan for. (I.e., you can bring in famous and well-published faculty, but finding someone talented at helping his/her students succeed is more a shot in the dark.)

So, here are the program-specific things that, in my view, really helped build my academic skills and c.v.:

  • Rigorous and up-do-date pedagogical training.

  • One interview question I got this year was, "Who are the composition theorists who've influenced you?" The only reason I had an answer to that question was because of MTSU's mandatory course in rhet/comp theory. Sure, I grumbled when I took that class -- oh, how I grumbled, if only silently. Still, job ad after job ad asked about your pedagogical training, and that course helped me tailor my cover letters appropriately.

    The training went well beyond that one course, though. As beginning GTAs, we worked a full year in the writing center, and I learned what a wonderful thing writing centers actually are. Then, depending on good evaluations and so forth, we got to teach several different courses: two freshman composition courses, ENGL 1010 and 1020, and our sophomore-level Introduction of Literature course. Not many programs permit its graduate students to teach literature, but we got that extra experience. 

  • Dissertation Writing Fellowship

  • A full year's of funding for doing nothing but write one's dissertation is, needless to say, vastly important. These are competitive, so not all our grad students get one, and many schools offer something similar, but this fellowship was absolutely huge for enabling me to develop my ideas without distraction. And it also allowed me the leisure to publish a few peer-reviewed articles, which vastly increased my odds on the job market.

  • Scientia et Humanitas

  • Now, I dare say that very, very few other schools have something like Scientia et HumanitasScientia's awesome for two reasons. First, it gives graduate and undergraduate students a valuable introduction to academic writing and the peer review process. Second, for the staff members, it radically hones their academic skills. I served Scientia in every capacity possible, including editor in chief, and it did more for my writing and my critical evaluation than any course or set of courses I ever took in my graduate career.

  • Departmental Awards

  • One way to make your c.v. stand out among other recent doctoral graduates is to have awards and other marks of distinction. MTSU's program offered several: teaching awards, tutoring awards, writing awards, and merit awards. I was a bit shocked at how few of my peers actively sought out these things, but that betters my chances, I suppose. These awards also permitted us to earn more money directly for our academic writing than we probably ever would for rest of our careers!

  • Service Opportunities

  • An under appreciated aspect of c.v.-building. MTSU stressed this (in direct contrast to my MA institution), so I added several lines to my c.v. that way.

  • Conferences

  • I never went to a conference as a MA student because they terrified me (and my only interest was in studying anyway). And my first conference was only during my first semester at MTSU, meaning that I got accepted before I realized how much my program actually pushed them. On one hand, they liked to emphasize conferences because raises student professionalism without costing the department anything (funding is acquired through the College of Graduate Studies). On the other hand, though, their encouragement motivated to attend way more conferences than I otherwise would have. So, kudos to them for that.

Now, as something else that goes without saying, just because a doctoral program offers certain opportunities, that doesn't mean that all its students know about them, care about them, or have either the motivation or the talent to take advantage of them. Personally, I think I managed to squeeze the absolute maximum usefulness out of my program. There's a few other things I could have taken advantage of, but there's only so much time in the day, and I tried to be constantly proactive about my career. And there were several things that I just picked up on my own -- writing reviews, for instance, or joining professional societies.  But, as I reflect over the last five years, I realize that things could not have turned out much better than they did.


***Several years later, I learned that MTSU has a really high acceptance rate. Although we have rejected applications to our MA and doctoral programs in the past, we receive a very low number of applications in general, which means that some years there's a legitimate worry that we might have more assistantships to give than applicants to give them to.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Tolkien Journals Do It Better

The peer review process is infamously slow. Everyone knows the familiar slog: you poor blood, sweat, and tears into writing an article, send it off to a journal, and 4-6 months later (sometimes more!) you hear a response. In theory, there's no reason the process needs to take so long -- it's only a couple hours of work for the reviewer, maybe more if the submission's worth the effort. But peer review is a thing where very busy academics are doing volunteer labor that, in the grand scheme of things, does very little to advance their careers. Reviewing articles is a service to the field, but it's ridiculously easy to put one off when you're teaching, grading, writing, researching, serving on committees, attending conferences, and all the other hosts of things you must do as an academic.

Hence, you can only imagine how impressed I am with the speed with which I've gotten peer reviews from the various Tolkien journals. Thus far, I've offered submissions to Tolkien Studies, The Journal of Tolkien Research, and Mythlore. The response time? In order: 6 weeks, 2 weeks, and 3 weeks. Even the longest of those wait times, six weeks, is a breakneck pace in the tortoise-paced world of academia. I'm probably just getting lucky with this, but still, in the past I've waited four months for a response from other places. I've heard other journals taking upwards to a year to respond, although I've fortunately not encountered that myself.

All of which goes to show: Tolkienists do it better!

Saturday, July 22, 2017

My Productivity Record for Aug. 2016 to Aug. 2017

It sure would make sense to do these productivity reports for a calendar year, but the August-August timeline -- basically the academic year -- works just fine too, I suppose. In my previous yearly productivity report, I managed 63,000 words of writing, most of it publishable, and I expressed hopes that my upcoming year on a Writing Fellowship would see that output rise. I didn't quite make that, primarily because of job applications and the massive revisions my dissertation underwent during February and March, which meant that I couldn't accomplish any new work. But even if I wasn't quite convinced about the necessity of those revisions, at least the beast is done, and life's going good.

So, the output:

  • Essay on narrative theory and world construction in The Hobbit (under review) -- 6,000 words
  • Essay on J.R.R. Tolkien and why he nominated E.M. Forster for the 1954 Nobel Prize (forthcoming) -- 9,000 words
  • Essay on Glen Cook's Instrumentalities of the Night series (revise & resubmit) -- 7,000 words
  • Dissertation chapter 4 -- 20,000 words. (Yes, it was a long chapter!)
  • Dissertation introduction -- 11,000 words
  • Four book reviews
    • One on Fimi and Higgins (eds), A Secret Vice, 1500 words
    • One on Edmund Gordon's The Invention of Angela Carter, 1500 words
    • One on Jad Smith's Alfred Bester, 1500 words
    • One on Jamie Williamson's The Evolution of Modern Fantasy -- 1,000 words.
  • One conference paper on Glen Cook, 1500 words
Sum total: 60,000 words. 

Other big time sucks (besides the major last-minute revisions to my dissertation) included editing Scientia et Humanitas and -- oh god -- those god-awful job applications, which constitute a full-time job in themselves. 

One item worthy of note: I managed to write all my dissertation chapters within the single calendar year of 2016. Of course, February and March of 2017 saw me rewriting quite a bit of that, but since I liked my original versions slightly better, I think I can legitimately say that I wrote my dissertation in a single year.

Anyway, now that I'm about to teach full-time, next year's productivity report won't be as glitzy, but I'll keep chugging along anyway. 

The Travails of Traveling

Well, more like "The Travails of Moving," but then that wouldn't alliterate, would it? :)

So, I've done several big moves in my life, and while it's always stressful, I'm generally someone who travels light. No furniture, no big ticket items, just a couple (dozen) boxes of books which I usually sent via USPS and that's it. Marriage, though, has a way of helping you accumulate a whole lotta stuff, so our upcoming move to Arizona is proving trickier than any of my other previous ones.**

The challenge now is that, just yesterday, we nearly almost hired a scam moving company called Region Relocations. Thankfully, my ever diligent wife  Martina, the faithful checker of on-line reviews, checked out them out and saw loads of awful ratings. When I asked their customer rep about them, he hemmed and hawed and finally said, "Well, trust more than Yelp." So I said, "Okay, I'll check that out and call you back." Lo and behold, while they were definitely licensed and had valid insurance (as required by law), about 5 of the red flags listed for problematic movers applied to Region Relocations.

Incidentally, when I got off the phone with the rep, telling him that I'd call him back after checking the government website, he sounded VERY dejected -- like, Eeyore-levels dejected. That's red flag #6, if you're keeping track at home.

On the bright side, we got amazingly cheap plane tickets to Tucson. Apparently nobody is willing to fly to the desert during the hottest month of the year, the wusses.

** And that's saying something. When I moved from Athens, OH to Murfreesboro, TN five years ago, I couldn't move there directly because I spend the two months between the move in England visiting the then-fiancée. So I had to box everything up, sent half of it to Pennsylvania to reside with the grandparents, and asked a friend to store the other half and send it to me when I finally moved to the Murf. I got pretty lucky that worked out (and pretty lucky I had such a good friend!). I also arrived in the Murf a week before I could move into my apartment, but that's another story.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Joining the Legions of the Gainfully Employed

Okay. So, last Friday was a day of major ups and downs for me. I'll start off with the good news. I've been waiting until I got my official contract before I announced it, but . . . . I GOT A JOB!!!!!  It's a full-time lecturer position at . . . get this . . . the University of friggin' Arizona. I couldn't be more stoked to be joining a state flagship research institution. It's the ideal place for someone like me to land, and the wife and I have been googling the area, the city of Tucson, and the university like crazy since we got confirmation. My initial schedule is also awesome -- four classes, all MWF, and from 12 noon to 4 pm. 

What makes this job even sweeter is that, a month ago, I believed that I had completely struck out on this year's job market -- a whopping 0-90. UA put their job ad up on June 20th (cuz they hadn't had their budget finalized yet, as I later found out), and my interview a few weeks later went really well. The rigorous GTA training program from my doctoral institution really helps. 

Now, we're busily planning how to move cross-country in about 2 weeks time. Making the whole situation even more nail-biting is that our lease is up at the end of this month -- we hadn't been able to make ANY future plans until the whole job situation was settled. As it is, because of arcane leasing rules, we'll have to rent out our apartment 1-month past the lease (for August) while we're also paying rent for the place in Arizona. No help for it, though -- just one of the casualties of taking a cross-country academic job one month prior to the semester.

Last Friday, though, also had some bad news. My grandfather, James Wilson, passed away. He was the best man I ever knew, and he and my grandmother are the only reasons I was able to attend graduate school. I flew up to PA on Sunday, had the viewing Monday, and the funeral today. Both my brother and I offered eulogies. My great regret is that I couldn't tell him the good news I'd learned just that morning. He will be greatly missed.

Those crazy leftist professors and their Nobel-winning economists

So, yeah, the Wall Street Journal is crazy, but this article caught my eye. The gist is that not all "radical leftists" (aka, college professors) are "crazy." The reference is to center-left criticisms of a Duke professor touting a conspiracy theory about a Nobel-prize winning economist James Buchanan. At least the article writer makes it sound like a conspiracy theory -- this could simply be a normal academic discussion about a particular work, which strikes me as much more likely than a so-called conspiracy theory.

Anyway, what's especially interesting about this is James Buchanan. I've heard the name, but only because he's one of my graduate university's most favored sons -- he got his undergrad from Middle Tennessee State, and we have a nifty plaque of him on-campus. (It's about 1/50th the size of the status of the football coach for our completely unknown football program, though!)

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Cringe-worthy Academic Movie Reviews

So, I recently signed up to do an academic review of a Okja (2017), a film directed by South Korean director Joon-ho Bong, for Science Fiction Film & Television.  You know -- just as one of those things to be productive. Anyway, film's not exactly my wheelhouse, and I've never really seen academic reviews of films before, so I printed off some sample reviews from SFF&T

In the half dozen I sampled, I discovered two things:

A) unlike a blog or website review for a film, I'm going to have to try hard to be smart here. Which is to say, some of the reviews were damn good, so I'll have to stay on my toes to achieve that level of quality.

B) two of the sample reviews, however, waded into the area of "cringe-worthy." Well-written, but slanted to the point of unbelievability.

The first was of the film Ex Machina, which I loved.


Anyway, Ex Machina. The guy did a feminist review of the film, and his major contention is that the super likeable male protagonist, who is left to starve to death by the female robot with whom he fell in love, completely deserved to die that slow lingering death because . . . well, cuz patriarchy. Otherwise an insightful review, but that takeaway just left me shaking my head.

The other one, about Joss Whedon's The Avengers, was even rougher. I don't think I could summarize it with any justice, but the basic gist was that it allowed all its white male protagonists to silence and marginalize the major female and minority characters. That's certainly a possible against-the-grain interpretation of the film partially justified by certain scenes, but it's still a darn good movie at the end of the day with a lot of virtues that get ignored. To view it as fundamentally repressive or regressive is to view it through an excessively narrow ideological or critical lens.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Oh boy, Mickey Spillane

The tropes of hard-boiled detective, and particularly hard-boiled prose, have been so relentlessly parodied that it comes as a shock to see them in non-ironic contexts. I had a few Mickey Spillane books lying around and, although I almost never read detective fiction, I've been meaning to try him out because:

(A)  He was massively popular in his day, and I like to keep  my snobbishness at bay, and
(B) Ayn Rand, of all people, absolutely loved him.

Anyway, I'm only three chapters into a very short book, and it's already a struggle. The detective's name is Mike Hammer (HAMMER, for crying out loud) and he's so bitter, cynical, and sneering that I absolutely detest him already. But the prose, the prose! If you believe in gems of atrociousness, then I submit to you the following:

  • "Two drunks with a nickel between them were arguing over what to play on the juke box until a tomato in a dress that was too tight a year ago pushed the key that started off something noisy and hot" (5). This is the very first page of the book, mind you.
  • "[The picture] was a big shot of Marsha in a pre-Civil War dress that came up six inches above her waist before nature took over" (33). I can't be sure until I do some historical, OED-level research, but I think Mike Hammer may be talking about boobs.
  • "I let my hat drop and it stayed on the floor. My hands ran up her arms until my fingers were digging into her shoulders and I drew her in close. She was all woman, every bit of her. Her body was taut, her . . "  Well, I'll trail off here -- there could be children reading this. Suffice to say that "nature took over" very shortly thereafter. But seriously, she was all woman?!?!?!?!?

Spillane, Mickey. The Big Kill. New York: Signet, 1951.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Angel Carter gives me my come-uppance

Originally, I had wanted to title this entry "'Bums aloft!" (and other reasons not to read Angela Carter)," but, unfortunately, I'm afraid I'll have to eat goat on this one. The culprit is The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography by Edmund Gordon, a book for which I'm currently doing a review. Alas and alack, greater knowledge of Carter has led to a greater personal appreciation for her, forcing me to revise my earlier cutting opinions. This is why you shouldn't read stuff. I often tell me students, "If a little learning is a dangerous thing, think of how dangerous a lot of learning is -- and I don't want that on my conscience." In this case, however, it's too late for me.

Anyway, here's why I didn't like Carter -- as varied as her writing is (and I never denied the talent), I just loathe most postmodern books. Things like Kurt Vonnegut and Tim O'Brien are exceptions, but I really, really, really dislike that excessively self-conscious, metafictional, wink-wink-look-at-me-subverting-reading-norms type of fiction. The Crying of Lot 49 is a canonical culprit, as is Delilo's White Noise, but so is Carter's Nights at the Circus. On the opening page of that novel, in fact, Carter has a paragraph describing the winged protagonist, Fevvers, being lifted up into the air for an acrobatics act -- hence the "bums aloft" line.*** 

Now, I perfectly understand why some people go gaga over that kind of writing, but it just irritates the heck out of me. The subsequent narrative coyness doesn't help -- the constant suggests that you can't trust the narrator, that what you're reading isn't how things really are, etc. All of it's quite clever, but as a reader I need something more. Rather than being an organic part of the fiction, such as in the case of Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, such unreliability and metafictional cuteness just seems like mockery, making fun of the reader for wanting to enjoy a good book. Although the rest of Carter's writing often strikes a different tone, it's her sense of overly precious literariness that makes me want to throw her fiction across the room.

Sadly, though, after reading Gordon's biography, I found myself really liking Angela Carter as a person. Some of the random cool things about her:

  • She's really funny. Her letters to friends are sprinkled with gems such as the following: “I get a lot of stuff asking me to subscribe to anti-pornography groups, and others asking me to subscribe to pro-pornography groups, but very little actual pornography” (400).
  • She loves to exaggerate. Given my own sense of humor, I'm on-board with this.
  • She's not nearly as pretentious as I expected from her writing
  • She couldn't ride a bike or drive a car. Same here. Phew on you, late modernity!
  • She married a guy 15 years younger. My wife did the same -- although the current French president has us all beat.

In short, at the end of the book, I really wanted Angela Carter to be my friend. I'm never going to have any affection for her writing, but I think much better of it than I did before I finished Gordon's fantastic biography.

Gordon, Edmund. The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2016. Print.

*** Also, all that "Leda and the Swan" imagery. Fevvers combines the two because, see, she's a bird woman! But the actual myth is quite horrific -- as indicated by Yeats's poem of the same name. Of course, Carter is never one to shy away from a theme just because of a little bestiality, but it did put me off. For the sake of fairness, though, Carter also uses the Leda myth allusion in The Magic Toyshop, and I found that more effective and horrifying.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Reminiscences on the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter

So, twenty years ago yesterday, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was published. I've seen a few retrospectives of people dealing with their relationship to the series (one here and another here), so I thought I'd add mine. I have to warn you -- this is a True Believer as well as a Convert speaking. Back during my undergraduate days, I had sniffed haughtily at all the Pottermania surrounding me. In fact, I nearly punched the first person who ever called me a muggle: 

"What's a muggle, dear friend of mine whom I'd never punch under normal circumstances?" 

"You're a muggle."

Highbrow literary elitist that I imagined myself to be, I refused to read either children's books or popular books. That all changed during the fall of 2007 -- I remember because that's the year Cleveland came within two outs of reaching the World Series. Anyway, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows had just been published that summer and, while up in Kent for a friend's wedding, I browsed randomly through the Kent State bookstore and got two books just for giggles: Bill Reading's The University in Ruins and (you guessed it) J.K. Rowling's HP and the Sorcerer's Stone. This was nothing more than interesting side reading for me; I did a lot of side reading back then to stave off grad school burnout.

Well, the book stayed on my shelves a few months. That September, I read it over the course of a single afternoon. I remember thinking, "What a fun little book" -- clearly designed for younger readers, but fast-paced, inventive, and Rowling showed a clear talent for handling a narrative. The following weekend, I spent another pleasant afternoon reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Again, fun little book, if not anything exactly earth-shattering. The heroes were sufficiently charming, the villains sufficiently dastardly, and so forth.

Then, the next weekend, I read Harry Potter and the Prince of Azkaban.

I'm not sure when exactly I realized that I held the makings of a masterpiece in my hands, but it was definitely sometime during this book. It may have been near the end, just as Harry was realizing who had sent the stag Patronus against the Dementors. For the life of me, I could not remember the last time I had seen a writer bring together so many different plot threads so powerfully, so masterfully, in such a short time. And that was not even the end of my admiration; the denouement where Dumbledore explains things to Harry worked just as well as the culmination of the actual action. To weave a narrative that long without once letting it get away from you, to never strike a single wrong note when creating scenes back-to-back-to-back like that, all that takes an immense amount of craft. That's when Rowling hooked me.

Over the next two weeks or so, I basically put my Masters program on hold as I finished the series. I read Deathly Hallows in just one day -- from dawn to dusk, basically. I was no spring chicken, either -- I was 27 years old at the time, so none of that "you're too old to appreciate the books" argument for me. But let me tell you -- and I'll bench press the punk who makes fun of me for this -- but I still turn into an ole' blubber-face every time I even read a reference to Snape's "After all this time? / Always" scene.

That may be why, to this day, I grow immensely irritated when I hear someone explain -- however reasonably -- their dissatisfaction with the HP books. This is certainly a peculiar reaction for me, as no other book I admire causes that sort of reaction (not even the book I wrote my dissertation on!). But there it is. I'm just a HP partisan.

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: