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The Mumpsimus

a blog by Matthew Cheney

Updated: 2017-04-26T09:50:59.772-04:00


Delany at 75


from The PolymathSamuel R. Delany just celebrated his 75th birthday, an auspicious occasion.I've been writing about Delany for over a decade now — I've written and published more about his work than about that of any other writer: introductions to new editions of The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, Starboard Wine, and The American Shore; on his early pornographic novel Equinox; on his recent novel Dark Reflections; an interview in 2009. I spent some time last summer researching in his archives at Boston University and expect to return this summer, as about a third of my doctoral dissertation (in progress...) is devoted to his work. I've given presentations about him at academic conferences, and all of my academic friends are probably quite tired of my invoking his name at every possible opportunity.The simple fact is that I think Delany is one of the most important American writers, one who ought to be spoken of alongside any great American writer (however defined or identified) of the second half of the twentieth century. Though Delany readers disagree not only about their favorites among his works, but about what should be considered his major writings, the passion of the arguments indicates the range and richness of his oeuvre. As a novelist, he's more interesting than Updike, Mailer, Vidal, and other big white males who still so dominate the idea of post-World-War-II American lit; as a nonfiction writer, he's at least the equal of Sontag. And yet somehow he continues to get seen in very limited ways, ways that impoverish the reading of his works.The limited view of Delany often seems to result from personal preferences for particular texts or types of texts, and with a writer as complex as Delany, that's a fatal flaw. In fact, one of the great lessons of Delany's project is to encourage us to think beyond personal taste, to recognize personal taste as only a first step, an entry point. We all have our individual interests and preferences. (Myself, I like some of the early work well enough, but had Delany published nothing after Nova, I wouldn't be interested in him; of the fiction, The Mad Man and Dark Reflections are my favorites, though I think Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand could plausibly be offered as the greatest science fiction novel ever written, and the Return to Nevèrÿon series is perhaps his most impressive sustained work. For all that focus on the fiction, though, I generally feel most excited and inspired when reading his nonfiction.) However, to assess Delany within any sort of literary history, to take stock of his aesthetic and intellectual achievements, to understand anything that he's up to, requires less solipsism. Such an anti-egoistic idea extends well beyond the realm of literature, and is itself present as a concept in virtually all of his books, whether Empire Star or Times Square Red, Times Square Blue or Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders.The conviction that Delany's work must be seen in multifarious ways by multifarious audiences with multifarious tastes was what led me a few years ago to organize a quick alternative roundtable discussion of Delany to counter one that Locus created in honor of his inauguration as a Grand Master of Science Fiction. I knew even then that my effort was inadequate — despite my attempts to make things otherwise, we were all male, for one obvious inadequacy — but the goal was simply to show some of the possible ways of broadening how we discuss and value Delany's work, hoping to inspire others.Of recent academic efforts, the special "Delany Lately" issue of African American Review (Fall 2015) and the symposium on Delany in the Winter 2012 issue of American Literary History are significant; the recent publication of volume one of Delany's Selected Journals in a gorgeous edition from Wesleyan University Press (brilliantly edited by Kenneth James) is monumental; and Wesleyan's commitment to Delany's work in general has been one of the most notable (even noble) commitments by an academic press in our era[...]

The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge


When I heard, a few months ago, that Paul La Farge's new novel would be about H.P. Lovecraft, I groaned. For one thing, I don't care about Lovecraft (no, more than that: I actively dislike Lovecraft's writing, life, everything); for another, there's a boom in people writing about Lovecraft these days. Good writers, too! Not just the hacks of fandom churning out their unintentionally almost-funny imitations, not just cretins of the sort who bought Weird Tales because they would rather run it into the ground than have anybody taint its legacy with stories that aren't imitations of Lovecraft — no, I'm talking about good writers, interesting writers, original writers, and—Ugh, I just don't get it. And then comes the announcement about Paul La Farge, a writer I've enjoyed for almost twenty years now, ever since a friend of mine spent some time at the MacDowell Colony when he was there and told me, "There's a guy here who writes weird surrealist stuff you'd like," and when I went to visit her we stopped by the Toadstool Bookstore in Peterborough and I picked up a copy of The Artist of the Missing, read it, liked it (a bit too closely imitative of Kafka/Calvino/Borges, but well done), then later bought his next novel, Haussmann, or, The Distinction, which felt really original to me at the time, almost vertiginously so, as I hardly knew how to get my bearings with it, mostly because it was about histories I knew nothing about, but it haunted me. And then The Facts of Winter, a beautiful book of shimmering weird dreamstuff, lovely and yet also insubstantial. (I missed Luminous Airplanes somehow.) There were also various fun essays and interesting short stories that I caught here or there.Thus, for some time now, La Farge's name has been one of the few that will induce me to pick up a book or magazine on the strength of his byline alone. His writing and his perspective are singular.But ... Lovecraft? What was going on? Was he tired of suffering the obscurity of the highly literate, esoteric writer, and now wanted to jump on the apparent gravy train of Lovecraftianity? Everybody's got to eat, so good for him, but what was I to do, I who wanted to read Paul La Farge's new novel but...? And it has such a great Lynd Ward-ish cover... And...And then, out of the blue, a publicist from Penguin Press asked me if I wanted a copy. What could I say? It wouldn't cost me anything. I could take a look at the first 25 pages or so and if it was too Lovecrafty, I could just pass the book on to one of the many people I know who (inexplicably!) are fascinated by old HPL and find enjoyment in reading his fiction. Sure, I said. Send it along.The book arrived and the physical object itself was very nice. The cover is even better on the book than in pictures. The interior design is pleasant. I flipped through the novel a bit, not really having time to read it, hoping to be put off by a bunch of C'fyungpwyeevgghhhhhh and Shollllblagghhhwrryudddppt-Tupthe'yop and eldritch prose so I could then without any feeling of guilt put the book away and move on to work I really needed to do.Instead of being put off, though, I soon discovered I had read the first few chapters and my other work could wait.I have many words of praise of the other La Farge books I've read, but gripping is not one that first comes to mind. It's an accurate word, though, for most of The Night Ocean. (There were ten or twenty pages I thought could have used a bit of trimming. [I think that about most novels.] In some ways, that testifies to the grip the book had for me: I wanted it to stop piddling around in details and get moving again. This is a danger for reality effects hitching a ride from vehicles of suspense.) I don't think of the grip as a high value for a book, since plenty of pedestrian, forgettable novels are gripping and many (most?) of the best reading experiences of my life have been with books I sometimes had to drag myself through, but I also think The Night Ocean is a significant a[...]

Selecting Woolf's Essays


It is time for a capacious, authoritative one-volume selection of Virginia Woolf's essays and journalism. (Perhaps one is in preparation. I don't know.) The sixth and final volume of her collected essays was released in 2011. It is wondrous, as are all of the volumes in the series, but though it's a goldmine for scholars, the series isn't really aimed at the everyday reader; each volume is relatively expensive (though not to the extent of an academic volume, e.g. the Cambridge Editions), and plenty of the material is ephemeral, repetitive, or esoteric.A one-volume Selected Essays does exist, edited by David Bradshaw and published by Oxford World's Classics. It's better than nothing, but it's small and missing many of Woolf's best essays — including perhaps her single most-frequently-reprinted essay, "The Death of the Moth". Bradshaw also slights Woolf's literary essays, perhaps because the two Common Reader volumes remain in print. Also in print is Michèle Barnett's Women and Writing, and it's a pretty good selection, but as the title suggests, the focus is specific. (And in any case the selection was made in 1979, and Woolf scholarship has developed a lot since then. The authoritative Essays volumes didn't even start appearing until 1986.)In 1993, Penguin published a two-volume selection of the essays edited by Rachel Bowlby. For what I assume were reasons of copyright, it was only released in the UK. It's a very good selection of 55 essays total (25 more than Bradshaw), though each volume was a little under 200 pages in length, so it could easily have been a single book.I've been thinking about what it would be useful to have in a new Selected Essays, one built from the now complete Essays volumes. It deserves to be bigger than any of the selections so far, though not so gigantic that it's unwieldy. After all, it's drawing from thousands of pages of material. I would lean toward a length of 400-500 pages, say 150,000 words or so.Any imagined table of contents I create must be highly provisional at best, subject to the vagaries of memory and personal taste, but as I think about it, I realize I do have some thought about what would be useful for students and, perhaps most importantly, for ordinary readers to have as a collection of Woolf's essays.Of course, the first priority of such a collection would be to include examples of Woolf's best writing. But beyond that, there's a need to see the development of her thinking and the development of her aesthetic, so we would want the earliest pieces from 1904 ("'The Son of Royal Langbrith'" and "Haworth, November 1904"), as well as thoughtful selections from 1905, the first year with a substantial body of work to choose from. I would err toward inclusion in the early essays, especially since they're mostly quite short. The two essay drafts left unfinished at Woolf's death, "Anon" and "The Reader", would end the book well, particularly since the last sentence of "The Reader" is "We are in a world where nothing is concluded." Additionally, it would be helpful to have a few sets of essays on topics and writers she explored throughout her life. (Bradshaw does a good job of this with his "Women and Fiction" section.) There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of ways to do this, and everyone will have their individual preferences. My own desire would be to make sure there are — in addition to obvious topics such as contemporary writers, English literary classics, women writers, etc. — substantial selections of Woolf's writings on biography, memoir, and autobiography (which she wrote about throughout her career, and which is a topic central to her feminism); on art's relation to politics (a topic that becomes more and more important to her); and on Russian writers (given that she read some of the earliest translations of Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, etc., that she learned some Russian to be able to collaborate on translations, and that the influence of the 19th century Russian novelists on her a[...]

45 Years


Andrew Haigh wrote and directed one of my favorite films of the century so far, Weekend, and his 2015 movie 45 Years is based on David Constantine's breathtaking short story "In Another Country" — as rich and perfect a story as you're ever likely to read.For these reasons, I put off seeing the movie for a long time, because I feared it could not live up to my hopes and expectations for it.And no, it couldn't live up to my hopes and expectations, and my hopes and expectations did, indeed, get in the way — but it's still an impressive film. In particular, the performances and the cinematography are magnificent.The plot of 45 Years is simple, and starts right from the second scene: An older couple, Kate and Geoff, are getting ready to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary, having not been able to celebrate their 40th because of Geoff's heart bypass surgery. That week, Geoff receives an official letter letting him know that a body has been found encased in a melting glacier: the body of Katya, his girlfriend before he met Kate. He and Katya were hiking in Switzerland in 1962 when Katya fell into a crevasse. Kate knew this story, but hasn't thought about it in many years. Geoff explains to Kate that to make their traveling easier, he and Katya had told people they were married, and thus he was the next of kin, a detail Kate claims she never knew. The rest of the film is about the tension that then enters Kate and Geoff's relationship because of this new knowledge. Geoff can't stop obsessing about his past with Katya, and Kate is somehow deeply threatened and hurt by it all.The problem I encountered after a first viewing of 45 Years was that I just didn't buy the premise. This is strange, because it's the same premise as the short story. But Constantine's emphases are rather different from those of the movie — his concern in the story, and in much of his writing, is at least as much with the passing of time and the power of memory as it is in the characters' relationship. The ending is entirely different (very powerful, very sad).Haigh is relatively young (he's a few years older than me — very young!) and his interest is less in memory and time than in the relationship. This is a somewhat more dramatic interest, anyway, and thus a good one for a narrative film. But it puts an awful lot of burden on Kate's reaction to the letter Geoff receives and his reaction to it. After first watching the film, I couldn't help wondering why she cared so much. After all, she's had 45 years with this guy. He's clearly a bit doddery. What is the big deal? How could they have gotten through 45 years together if she had such a fragile sense of their relationship that it could be threatened by a woman who'd been dead for half a century?I had a sense that there was an answer to this buried in a couple of quick moments, but I feared I was perhaps imposing my own reading on the material, so I went back and reviewed them. I think my reading, while hardly the only possible one, is supported by the evidence, and that made me appreciate the film's subtleties much more.The scene where Kate climbs into the attic and views old slides of Katya is obviously one of the key moments in the film, beautifully shot and acted, a truly great moment of cinema. It is also the key to my interpretation of Kate's character: She sees that Katya was pregnant, yes, but she also sees (or imagines she sees) other things that shake her world to the core.In a very brief conversation with Geoff, she says that all of the choices of their lives, even the biggest (whether to have children) have been affected by Katya — what kind of dog to get, for instance. Geoff denies it, and the scene moves on. But this is the moment that makes Kate's character believeable to me. Her experience of their marriage for 45 years has been that it is an authentic relationship based on her own personal qualities. But now she suspects that in some crucial way it's all bee[...]

"We must remain readers..."


photo by Black Cat Books

Virginia Woolf, from "How Should One Read a Book":
We must remain readers; we shall not put on the further glory that belongs to those rare beings who are also critics. But still we have our responsibilities as readers and even our importance. The standards we raise and the judgments we pass steal into the air and become part of the atmosphere which writers breathe as they work. An influence is created which tells upon them even if it never finds its way into print. And that influence, if it were well instructed, vigorous and individual and sincere, might be of great value now when criticism is necessarily in abeyance; when books pass in review like the procession of animals in a shooting gallery, and the critic has only one second in which to load and aim and shoot and may well be pardoned if he mistakes rabbits for tigers, eagles for barndoor fowls, or misses altogether and wastes his shot upon some peaceful cow grazing in a further field. If behind the erratic gunfire of the press the author felt that there was another kind of criticism, the opinion of people reading for the love of reading, slowly and unprofessionally, and judging with great sympathy and yet with great severity, might this not improve the quality of his work? And if by our means books were to become stronger, richer, and more varied, that would be an end worth reaching.

Yet who reads to bring about an end, however desirable? Are there not some pursuits that we practise because they are good in themselves, and some pleasures that are final? And is not this among them? I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards — their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble — the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when he sees us coming with our books under our arms, “Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.”

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle


John Darnielle's first novel (after the uncategorizable critical novella Black Sabbath's Master of Reality), Wolf in White Van, got a lot of attention and made the longlist for the 2014 National Book Awards. I read it when it came out, since I adore Darnielle's work as singer-songwriter for The Mountain Goats, and thought maybe he'd be okay at writing novels, too, though I tried not to get my hopes up. After a few pages, I was entranced, and read the book quickly, almost in a fugue state, stopping only because at times I found it emotionally overwhelming. I never wrote about it because I didn't know how to do so in any way other than to say, "Go read this." To explain what made the book such a rich reading experience for myself would require delving into a lot of weirdnesses of personal response, useless to anybody else, and to talk much about the plot and structure would be to give away part of the novel's magic. I am not at all a spoiler alerter — quite the opposite, in fact, and I generally feel that any book or movie requiring a spoiler alert is a book or movie without much of interest beyond its plot machinations — but there are always exceptions, and the elegance with which Wolf shuffles and deals its information is such a carefully controlled performance that even to speak of the story's premise felt to me like a violation. (And it's not about Big Surprises. It doesn't take long to guess the big stuff; it's the way the information accumulates that is so powerful, so masterful.)Universal Harvester is even more narratively tricksy than Wolf in White Van, but it seems to me much less harmed by description and analysis, and so I will offer here a few preliminary notes about the novel, with the assumption that you haven't read it but are, for whatever reason, nonetheless curious about its structure and by Tony WebsterWolf is a monologue, and that's part of its power. There aren't many characters or events, relatively speaking, and so it is able to circle back again and again, until at the end what we have is a more-or-less complete picture of a few crucial moments in the narrator's life. It moves backwards in chronology, though not in a strictly linear way. (No coincidence that digging a hole is a central image in the book. Narratively, it digs deeper and deeper toward the one moment that changed everything in the narrator's life. Is there treasure there? is the question.)Universal Harvester is not exactly a monologue. It seems to be a limited third-person narration, but it moves between various characters, and the limits of that third-person narration seem less and less certain as the pages turn. Then suddenly there's a first-person moment. It's jarring, though also easy to miss. Later, there are more, until slowly we realize we're not reading a third-person narrative, but a first-person one. The narrator is telling us a story, and they know they are. They offer us other possible storylines, even. Some readers may interpret the first-person moments to be insertions into what is otherwise a third-person text, and I think that interpretation can work, but I prefer to think of the whole as a story being told by this narrator, with their apparent omniscience being not actual omniscience, but the omniscience of anyone telling a story. I may be particularly inclined to such an interpretation from own interests in storytelling and narration (I've been known to gobble Bakhtin's essays like Sean in Wolf in White Van eats candy), but nonetheless the text justifies it and it feels right, giving us a way to understand a character who is, it turns out, central to the story but who is otherwise little more than a shadow. By assuming every word of the book is told to us by this narrator, we can, on a second reading or careful reflection, extrapolate a much fuller character than we could otherwise. The stories we tell, and the choices we make in telling[...]

Elements of Style for the Age of Blight


IntroductoryAs the world burns away in political crises and ecological catastrophe, writers strain against meaninglessness, against the sense that their work is nothing more than a few grains of confectionary sugar tossed to a howling wind. What forms might fit our time, what stories might we tell against a future of no-one left to listen to stories?No other label for where we are and where we’re going as a world seems quite so accurate as the one Kristine Ong Muslim has used for her recent collection of stories, The Age of Blight. It is a book of glimpses, shards, and lost myths; it works like a nightmare recollected during the day before you know the nightmare will return and sleep cannot be kept at bay indefinitely.The Age of Blight and a thousand books like it will not forestall our own Age of Blight, but Muslim offers strategies for storytelling as the blasted era blightens. Her techniques for writing fiction are ones that make demands on the reader, but they're not the demands made by, for instance, a doorstopper novel flooded by streams of consciousness.Elementary Rules of UsageFor all the enormity of its subject matter, Muslim’s book is tiny. It gathers 16 short stories in 103 pages (some of which are blank). The effect of reading it is similar to what it might be like to look at snapshots of crumbling insane asylums and quick sketches of endless, festering swamps. Much feels like it’s missing, but we don’t miss it, because it’s easy to imagine what is left out.And imagination is key here, because imagination may be the only possible way to save ourselves, to find some way to live a good life even as the blight spreads in and outside the text. Solutions are few and far between; beauty rots; but still, we can dream.∅ Elements of Style for the Age of Blight: Omit needless by Gerd LudwigMuslim sections her stories into four groups: Animals, Children, Instead of Human, and The Age of Blight. Some of the stories seem loosely connected by the repetition of place names (particularly Bardenstan and Outerbridge) and by vague references to disasters. A note at the beginning of the book says, “Bardenstan is a suburb. In 2115, something will happen that will put Bardenstan on the map. It will be known throughout history as the site closest to the epicenter of the fallout. Outerbridge, on the other hand, remains the only part of America where plants are still grown in soil.”We may assume, then, that we are in the territory of science fiction, but the stories themselves are more like poetic fragments of myth and nightmare than straightforward extrapolation. While a writer like Paolo Bacigalupi creates at least quasi-believable future scenarios (scenarios of resource scarcity, war, misery), Muslim seeks something else, something more visionary than speculative. At the same time, though, these stories feel like they come from a place of terror: terror at the shape of the real future we most likely will provide for this planet and its inhabitants, human and other-than-human.It is the other-than-human characters that Muslim writes best, in fact. The stories in the first section of the book, devoted to animals, are evocative and unpredictable, unnerving; their images linger long in the imagination. Consider this first paragraph of the first story, “Leviathan”:It was the day the ancient sea beast finally reached your shore and died there. Unable to resurrect your sole prize after trawling the ocean floor for eighteen years, you secretly wired a pair of artificial gills inside it. And how the makeshift gills hissed telltale breathing at the rate of two intakes per minute! How the cameramen captured the triumphant moment when you presented the creature long believed to have become extinct during the Silurian Period. The cameramen filmed you as you supervised the lowering of your fine catch into a temperature-controlled water tank. T[...]

What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell


Garth Greenwell's debut novel What Belongs to You is one of the most celebrated and successful gay novels of 2016. Its success seems to me both odd and gratifying. It is a book that garnered the attention of the literati, and not just the gay literati, though it certainly has that (Edmund White blessed it with a blurb). It received praiseful notice from nearly all the major literary institutions in the U.S. (and elsewhere).It is a remarkable novel, but were I a literary agent or publisher, much of what makes the novel remarkable would have caused me to assume it would not sell very well and would find, at best, a niche audience. (This is perhaps reason #28,302 that it's good I'm neither a publisher nor an agent!) I don't know the sales figures for What Belongs to You, but it hit the LA Times bestseller list for a couple weeks, got tremendous review coverage, and often seemed to be among the books of the moment — I traveled a lot during 2016, and nearly everywhere I went, somebody mentioned it (perhaps because they knew it was a book I would like). Despite being on New York Times critic Dwight Garner's top 10 list, it didn't make the Times list of 100 Notable Books (nor was it one of their 10 Best Books), it did make LitHub's "Baffling Omissions from the NY Times’ 100 Notable Books List" list, which is good for street cred.It is, in the Delanyan sense, a book that has accrued an impressive set of literary markers.I would love to talk with Greenwell's agent, editors, and his publicists at FSG to learn why and how this book worked for them. It gives me a little bit of hope about the future of literature that this debut novel by a writer without a big literary footprint was able to find such a good home. A "good home" for a book is not necessarily about big sales and big awards, nice as they are; it's about finding the right audience for that book, the audience that will appreciate and value it most fully. (And hopefully not cause major losses for the writer, publisher, booksellers....) FSG and Greenwell's foreign publishers seem to have done an excellent job at that, a job that other writers, agents, and publishers could learn from. As a reader, I want to live in a world where such successes are not surprising.(Now, I should note here that Greenwell was not a complete unknown when What Belongs to You was published. His pedigree is quite fine: he has graduate degrees from Harvard and from Iowa; the first section of the novel was originally published [in somewhat different form] when it won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and then went on to be a finalist for the Edmund White Debut Fiction Prize and a Lambda Award; he landed a story in The Paris Review in 2014; and in 2015 he was writing occasionally for The New Yorker's Page Turner blog and The Atlantic, though these I expect were the result of his having a book under contract with FSG [and thus also a way of getting Greenwell's name out there in prestigious places before the novel was published]. It helps, too, that he's a white male whose author photo makes him look sensitive and alluring. The world of literary fiction is still easier to debut in as a white guy than anything else, partly because of how seriously the Serious Books get taken — a deep, tenacious prejudice still assumes white guys write more seriously Serious Serious Books about Major Topics than do other types of humans. It's absurd, but it keeps up lots of free publicity for the David Foster Jonathan Foerzens of the world and keep publishers aching for the next Big Serious White Male Thing like that of Garth Risk Hallberg. [I rush to add: This is not about such writers themselves, but rather about the expectations and discourse around them.] The sad fact is, if Garth Greenwell were, say, a black lesbian writing about black lesbian sex and experience, [...]

Coetzee: The Life of Writing, The Good Story


This piece first appeared in the Winter 2015 print edition of Rain Taxi Review of Books.J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face-to-face with Timeby David AttwellViking ($27.95)The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction, and Psychotherapyby J.M. Coetzee and Arabella KurtzViking ($27.95)In 1977, J.M. Coetzee struggled while beginning the novel Waiting for the Barbarians, because, he wrote in his notebook, he had failed in “the creation of a credible beloved you.” David Attwell explains this mysterious statement as a manifestation of Coetzee’s disaffection with illusionary realism, the kind of writing that pretends textual figures are real. A week later, Coetzee wrote: “I have no interest in telling stories; it is the process of storytelling that interests me. This man MM, as a ‘he’ living in the world, bores me. ‘Creating’ an illusionistic reality in which he moves depresses me. Hence the exhausted quality of the writing.”Any fiction writer could sympathize with the feeling of frustration when beginning a difficult story, one that seems rich with possibility, but which the writer has not yet found a productive structure for. Coetzee’s frustration was heightened by his disaffection with the most common techniques of fiction. One of the many virtues of Attwell’s  J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing, the first book to explore Coetzee’s manuscripts in depth, is that it shows how Coetzee’s novels serve to unite interests and challenges that are sometimes at direct odds with each other.Waiting for the Barbarians began as an aesthetic challenge, but the challenge was conquered when the world outside the text refused to stay outside, for just as Coetzee was beginning work on the novel, the anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko was arrested, tortured, and killed. The inquest was held in open court, and received international attention. Coetzee kept press clippings about it. Attwell writes that “Biko’s torture and death gave Coetzee the minotaur’s lair, the ‘habitation for desire’ that he was looking for… The novel’s emergence took the form of a simultaneous, seemingly contradictory, two-way process: both a distancing—into an unspecified empire at an unspecified moment in history—and a homecoming into the violence of apartheid in the period of its climactic self-destruction.”Attwell shows over and over that the tensions inherent within this two-way process, the dance of world and text, fuels much of Coetzee’s writing, often providing the animating force for his work.J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing is not a comprehensive biography (for that we have J.C. Kannemeyer’s J.M. Coetzee: A Life in Writing, which Attwell’s title echoes, perhaps confusingly), nor is it a comprehensive study of Coetzee’s manuscripts (archived at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin), as Attwell only spent five weeks with them and is more than aware that the wealth of papers will keep scholars busy for a very long time. Instead, Attwell’s book is a collection of glimpses and reflections. It provides detailed looks at the composition of some of Coetzee’s most famous novels, Life and Times of Michael K and Waiting for the Barbarians, and intervenes in some of the controversies over Coetzee’s work: the presence or lack of political commitment; the place of South African history and landscape in the novels; the purpose of metafictional moves (especially in Foe and The Master of Petersburg);  the relationship of his most famous novel, Disgrace, to post-apartheid South Africa; the connection of his recent work, written after he moved to Australia, to the rest of his oeuvre.Though Attwell is a professor and an eminent scholar, J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing is not aimed at an academic audience, nor does it make much reference to the massive body of Co[...]

Shirley Jackson at 100


Today is Shirley Jackson's 100th birthday, and as I think about her marvelous body of writing, I can't help also thinking of the changes in her reputation over the last few decades, or, rather, my perception of the changes in her reputation. For me, she was always a model and a master, but there was a time when that opinion felt lonely, indeed.I discovered her as so many people discover her: by reading "The Lottery" in school. (Middle school or early high school, I don't remember which.) I loved the story, of course, but it wasn't until I got David Hartwell's extraordinary anthology The Dark Descent for Christmas one year that I really paid attention to Jackson's name, because the book includes the stories "The Summer People" and "The Beautiful Stranger", both of which I read again and again. Around the same time, I read Richard Lupoff's anthology What If? and thus encountered what would become one of my favorite short stories by anyone: "One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts". After that, I sought out Jackson's work wherever I could find it.But it was not easy to find Jackson's books. This was the late 1980s, early 1990s. When I first started looking, nothing seemed to be in print. I got an omnibus edition of her most famous books, The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and The Lottery and other Stories (which ISFDB says was published in 1991; I expect I got it a year or two later). From one of the local libraries (which had hardly anything by Jackson, including the local college library) I was able to read The Magic of Shirley Jackson, which included some of her short stories, The Bird's Nest, and her two collections of humorous family stories (which I didn't pay much attention to). At some point, I got a battered and water-damaged old paperback of The Bird's Nest. I read the library's copy of Judy Oppenheimer's biography.And that was it. I tried for years to find copies of novels I'd only read descriptions of, particularly Hangsaman and The Sundial, but they seemed not to exist except as expensive listings in used book catalogues.Jackson was seen as a minor writer. While bookstore shelves filled to bursting with the endless emissions of Updike, Mailer, and their ilk, Jackson was perceived, at least by the literary mainstream, as the weird lady who wrote that story about the village where people stone each other to death ... and that horror novel that they made into a really creepy movie ... and wasn't there something about a castle?By the end of the 1990s, though, a change was afoot. A new generation of American writers who had read "The Lottery" in school and thought not "Ewww! Weird!" but "Hooray! Weird!" began publishing their own work. (Think Kelly Link and Jonathan Lethem, just to choose two of the most currently prominent, and two who explicitly cite Jackson as a literary hero.) The moment when things felt like they were changing — that is to say, the moment I really noticed a change in Jackson's status — was in early 1997 with the publication of Just an Ordinary Day, a collection of previously uncollected and unpublished stories. Jonathan Lethem's review of the book for Salon gives a snapshot of just how much about Jackson had to be introduced to readers back then.In the summer of 1999, a big-budget remake of The Haunting was released in theatres, bringing the novel back to prominence. In July of 2000, a Modern Library hardcover edition of The Lottery was released. (Around this time, too, I remember seeing the Penguin edition of We Have Always Lived in the Castle in stores with the cover that ISFDB says is of the 1984 version. I don't know if it was technically out of print between 1984 and the late 1990s/early 2000s, but it was definitely scarce.) In 2008, the first Shirley Jackson Awards were presented. In [...]

"Perverse and Uncommercial"


Since my book came out, lots of people have asked me to describe my writing. I'm not good at this. However, having now seen my writing described by reviewers and by common readers, I've got a few ideas about how other people describe it. "Not nice", "disturbing", "bewildering", etc. After a while, I found myself responding with the same two words when people asked what my writing is like. "Perverse and uncommercial," I heard myself say now and again. (I'm sure I have some rejection slips around somewhere that call my writing exactly that.)

I don't know if those terms are exactly true, but they seem to set up the right expectations in readers.

My friend Jeremy John Parker overheard my self-description. Being not only an excellent writer and discerning editor but also a talented designer, he decided there should be clothing, tote bags, mugs, etc. with "perverse and uncommercial" on them. And so there now are.

There are black t-shirts with white lettering and white everythings with grey lettering, should you desire one of your own.

Once I received the shirt I'd ordered (because how could I not order such a shirt?), I decided it was time for a new publicity photo, as seen above.

The Return of David R. Bunch


In the earliest days of this blog, I declared David R. Bunch to be "unjustly neglected". This was true back then, but not nearly as true as it is today, when all his books are out of print and usually sell for high prices on the secondary market (if you can find them).After I wrote that post in 2004, Jeff VanderMeer and I started talking about ways to get Bunch back into print. I sought out every stray Bunch story I could find. I tracked down the rightsholder. I typed up a section of Bunch's novel-in-linked-stories Moderan before tendonitis forced me to stop typing much of anything for a few months, and made the thought of returning to typing up Moderan painful. Various obstacles presented themselves. (I started a master's degree. I became series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies. I moved to New Jersey. My father died. I moved back to New Hampshire. Etc.) In amidst it all, I couldn't follow up on the idea of reprinting Bunch, though it was never forgotten by me and a few other folks, at least.Jeff and Ann VanderMeer moved from one success to another, in terms of Jeff's writing, Ann's editing, and their joint anthology projects. As they began putting together The Big Book of Science Fiction, they thought of Bunch, ultimately reprinting three of his Moderan stories, the first time any Bunch had been reprinted in almost 20 years. And then they wondered if maybe they could find a way to do what we'd dreamed of doing more than a decade ago: Bringing Bunch back into print.Their tremendous efforts have now paid off. New York Review of Books Classics will publish a new edition of Bunch's Moderan, possibly with some previously uncollected and/or unpublished Moderan stories (Bunch kept writing about Moderan after the book was published, and always dreamed of a complete Moderan volume. It's too early to say whether this edition will be able to be that).Jeff and Ann are generous in crediting me with some of this, but the truth is that they picked up a ball I'd dropped and ran with it farther than I ever dreamed possible. My greatest hopes a decade ago were to bring some of Bunch's work back into print either via print-on-demand technology or through a small press that would do a limited edition for collectors. He's such an odd, esoteric writer that I didn't think more would be possible. And more might not have been possible then — the literary world has changed a lot in the last ten years, and it seems to me far more hospitable now to the sorts of things Bunch did than it was then. In many ways, our current era has finally caught up to David Bunch.It's important, I think, to note that Bunch's work was very close to being forgotten. He never had a large audience, despite publishing many short stories over a period of nearly 50 years, and getting enthusiastic support from such influential writers and editors as Harlan Ellison and Judith Merril. (Indeed, he not only didn't have a big audience, but many readers actively loathed him. The few editors willing to publish his work inevitably got letters from outraged readers who complained that Bunch's stories and vignettes didn't have plots, weren't written in good English, and were much too weird.) The original edition of Moderan was a paperback published without fanfare in 1971. His later books came from tiny presses. He died in 2000, almost completely out of print. Until The Big Book of SF, the most recent reprinting of a Bunch story that I know of is "2064, or Thereabouts" in Bruce Coville's Strange Worlds (the story had previously been included in 1993's The Norton Book of Science Fiction, probably the most recent Bunch anthologization before that).But now at least some of that work will be saved, and Bunch's words will be r[...]

Against the Chill


Hopefully, someday my contribution to peaceWill help just a bit to turn the tideAnd perhaps I can tell my children sixAnd later on their own childrenThat at least in the future they need not be silentWhen they are asked, "Where was your mother, when?" —Pete Seeger, "My Name Is Lisa Kalvelage"Faculty and grad students at my university are being targeted by right-wing groups who publicize their names and contact information because these faculty and students have criticized racist and sexist acts on campus. The Women's Studies department in particular has been attacked in the state newspaper for the crime of offering supplies to students who were participating in a protest against Donald Trump. The president of our university just sent out an email giving staff and students information about what to do if they are attacked. Numerous students have reported being harassed, spat upon, told they'd be deported, etc.The right wing detests many segments of academia. The basic idea of women's studies programs, ethnic studies programs, queer studies programs, etc. are anathema to them, but right-wing vitriol is not limited to the humanities — ask a climate scientist what life is like these days.These trends are not new, but they are emboldened and concentrated by the success of Donald Trump and the nazis, klansmen, and various troglodytes associated with him. Hate crimes are on the rise. The media, trapped in the ideology of false equivalence, terrified of losing access to people in power, besotted by celebrity, makes white supremacists look like GQ models and ends up running headlines questioning if Jews are people. Things will only get worse.The chilling effect is already strong.Within the last few days, I've heard from a number of academics (some with tenure) who say they are being very careful. They're changing their social media habits (in some cases, deleting their social media accounts altogether), making themselves less accessible, being careful not to show any political partiality around their students. They need their jobs, after all. They have bills to pay, kids to support, lives to live. Just yesterday, one of my friends was called in to a meeting with a dean to discuss a Tweet from her personal account, a Tweet I had to read three times before I could figure out what in it might ever be construed as "misrepresenting the university". She's got tenure, at least, so she might be safe for now. For now.This is not to say that anti-Trump or left-leaning faculty ought to be celebrated as always correct and perfect. They're as capable of being incoherent, punitive, and authoritarian in their views as Trump is, and a few of the things some of my friends and colleagues said are things I completely disagree with. But they're human beings at a highly anxious moment expressing their views. They're not sending hate mail or harassing people, yet now they are targets of hate and harassment campaigns and many have pulled back, hidden, or deleted whatever they could of their public presence. These are wonderful people, teachers, and scholars. We need to hear their voices. We need them not to be strangled by fear. But they're scared.Most teaching faculty in the U.S. don't have tenure, and tenure is often weak. The neoliberalization of academia has seen to that, and there's little reason to believe things will get better. The Wisconsin model is one the Republicans hope to make national, and with control of all levels of federal government and a majority of state governments, that goal is within their reach.The series of moral panics that have been spreading through academia — and spreading even more in the discourse around and about academia — is effective in its work, and it is especially effe[...]

BLP, Blood, and the ACLU


My publisher, Black Lawrence Press, has announced that for every book they sell through their website from now through the end of the year, they will donate $1 to the American Civil Liberties Union.

I will match this for my own book, Blood: Stories, meaning that every copy sold through the BLP website will also send $2 to the ACLU.

I'm an ACLU member, and pleased with this choice of an organization to support because so many of BLP's authors are among the groups targeted by harassment, civil rights violations, and hate crimes — all of which are on the rise and likely to continue rising.

Out of the Past


In the archives of the New York Times, materials about Germany and the rise of the Nazis to power are vast. It would take days to read through it all. Though it would be an informative experience, I don't have the time to do so at the moment, but I was curious to see the general progression of news and opinion as it all happened.Here are a few items that stuck out to me as I skimmed around:19327 February10 March29 May12 June19338 February9 February29 February5 March7 March11 March12 March13 March16 March19 March22 March[...]

On Robert Aickman


Electric Literature has published an essay I wrote about Robert Aickman, one of the greatest of the 20th century's short story writers:
Thirty-five years after his death, Robert Aickman is beginning to receive the attention he deserves as one of the great 20th century writers of short fiction. For the first time, new editions of his books are plentiful, making this a golden age for readers who appreciate the uniquely unsettling effect of his work.

Unsettling is a key description for Aickman’s writing, not merely in the sense of creating anxiety, but in the sense of undoing what has been settled: his stories unsettle the ideas you bring to them about how fictional reality and consensus reality should fit together. The supernatural is never far from the surreal. He was drawn to ghost stories because they provided him with conventions for unmaking the conventional world, but he was about as much of a traditional ghost story writer as Salvador Dalí was a typical designer of pocket watches.
Continue reading at Electric Literature.

For more of me on Aickman, see this post about my favorite of his stories, "The Stains".

The Penny Poet of Portsmouth by Katherine Towler


     Dawn again,and I switch off the light.On the table a tattered mothshrugs its wings.     I agree.Nothing is ever quitewhat we expect it to be.—Robert DunnKatherine Towler's deeply affecting and thoughtful portrait of Robert Dunn is subtitled "A Memoir of Place, Solitude, and Friendship". It's an accurate label, but one of the things that makes the book such a rewarding reading experience is that it's a memoir of struggles with place, solitude, and friendship — struggles that do not lead to a simple Hallmark card conclusion, but rather something far more complex. This is a story that could have been told superficially, sentimentally, and with cheap "messages" strewn like sugarcubes through its pages. Instead, it is a book that honors mysteries.You are probably not familiar with the poetry of Robert Dunn, nor even his name, unless you happen to live or have lived in or around Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Even then, you may not have noticed him. He was Portsmouth's second poet laureate, and an important figure within the Portsmouth poetry scene from the late 1970s to his death in 2008. But he only published a handful of poems in literary journals, and his chapbooks were printed and distributed only locally — and when he sold them himself, he charged 1 cent. (Towler tells a story of trying to pay him more, which proved impossible.) He was insistently local, insistently uncommercial.Robert DunnDunn was also about as devoted to his writing as a person could be. When Towler met him in the early '90s, he lived in a single room in an old house, owned almost nothing, and made what little money he made from working part-time at the Portsmouth Athenaeum. He seemed to live on cigarettes and coffee. When Towler first saw him around town, she, like probably many other people, thought he was homeless.If a person could start a conversation with Dunn, which wasn't always easy, they would discover that he was very well read and eloquent. He was not, though, effusive, and he was deeply private. It was only late in his life, wracked with lung disease, that he opened up to anyone, and the person he seems to have opened up most to is Towler, though even then, she was able to learn very little about his past.Towler got to know him because she was a neighbor, because she was intrigued by him, and because she was a writer on a different career track, with different ambitions. Dunn certainly wanted his poems to be read — he wouldn't have made chapbooks and sold them (even if only for a penny) if not — but he didn't want to subject himself to the quest-for-fame machine, he didn't want to do what everybody now says you must do if you want to have a successful writing career: become a "brand". He didn't bother with any sort of copyright, and Towler quotes a disclaimer from one of his books: "1983 and no nonsense about copyright. When I wrote these things they belonged to me. When you read them they belong to you. And perhaps one other." In 1999, he told a reporter from the Boston Globe, "It just feels kind of silly posting no trespassing signs on my poems."His motto, written on slips of paper he occasionally gave to people, was "Minor poets have more fun."When Towler met him, she was struggling with writing a novel. She had lived peripatetically for a while, but had recently gotten married. She wanted to be published far and wide, and in her most honest moments she probably would have admitted that she would have liked to sell millions of copies of her books, get a great movie deal or two, get interviewed by Terry Gross and Charlie Rose, win a Pulitzer and a National Book Award an[...]

A Long and Narrow Way


And if my thought-dreams could be seen They’d probably put my head in a guillotine —"It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)" First, some axioms. Points. Nodes. Notes. (After which, a few fragments.)From Alfred Nobel's will: "The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction..."Even if every winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature were universally acclaimed as worthy, there would still be more worthy people who had not won the Prize than who had. Thus, the Nobel Prize in Literature will always be disappointing. The history of the Nobel Prize in Literature is a history of constant, repeated disappointment.The Nobel Prize in Literature's purpose is not to recognize the unrecognized, nor to provide wealth to the unwealthy, nor to celebrate literary translation, nor to bring attention to small publishers. Occasionally, it does one or more of these things, and doing so is good. It would be nice if any or all of those were its purpose. I'm not sure what purpose it does serve except as a sort of Hall of Fame thing, which reminds me of what Tom Waits said at his induction to the Rocknroll Hall of Fame: "Thank you very much. This has been very encouraging."As with many things, Coetzee probably got it most right: "Why must our mothers be 99 and long in the grave before we can come running home with a prize that will make up for all the trouble we have been to them?""Ballad of a Thin Man" via Sotheby'sMy personal pick for a Nobel Literature laureate among the writers who seem like plausible candidates — that is, among the small group of writers whose names continue to be mentioned, year after year — is Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Among such American writers, I guess I'd pick Pynchon (not just for the early work — Mason & Dixon is a wonder, and Against the Day continues to seem to me to be the best science fiction novel of the 21st century), though I doubt they'd give it to him because he's pretty much guaranteed not to show up for the ceremonies. Among writers never/seldom spoken of for the Prize, I can hardly come up with a list without narrowing it somehow; for instance, U.S. writers I would like to see in contention include Ursula Le Guin and Samuel R. Delany, as well as countless poets, various nonfiction writers, a playwright or two (Wallace Shawn! Suzan-Lori Parks!), and maybe some unclassifiable weirdos. (I certainly feel no excitement for the idea of Philip Roth or Joyce Carol Oates winning, the two Americans typically mentioned.) We live in a very rich time for literature of all sorts, whether popular or elite.But — brace yourself — hard as it is to believe, my personal desires are irrelevant to the Nobel Prize in Literature. I'm not even Swedish!Anyway, I'm quite happy with Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature because I like Bob Dylan's songs. Thus, the Prize as such seems to reflect well on my taste, and I want to defend it because my taste is mine and therefore I like it. If the Prize went, as it sometimes has, to a writer I don't especially care about, or whose work I don't especially like, I would feel annoyed, because isn't the job of prizes to flatter my taste?I suppose this is how people who have passions for corporate sports teams feel when their favorite corporate sports team wins the corporate sports team tournament.I adore Dylan and thus I agree with the Nobel Prize Committee. Their referees this year have made good calls, generally, though[...]

Reflections on Samuel Delany's Dark Reflections


At the Los Angeles Review of Books, I have a new essay about Samuel R. Delany's 2007 novel Dark Reflections, which is about to be released in a new and slightly revised edition by Dover Books. Here's a taste:In many ways, Dark Reflections is a narrative companion to Delany’s 2006 collection of essays, letters, and interviews, About Writing. In the introduction to that book, Delany says that its varied texts share common ideas, primary among them ideas about the art of writing fiction, the structure of the writer’s socio-aesthetic world both in the present and past, and “the way literary reputations grow — and how, today, they don’t grow.” The book is mainly, though not exclusively, aimed at aspiring writers. It provides some advice on craft, but it circles back most insistently to questions of value, and especially to questions of the difference between good writing and talented writing — and what it means, practically and materially, for a writer to shape a life around an aspiration toward the highest levels of achievement. While About Writing poses and explores these questions, Dark Reflections dramatizes them.Read more at LARB[...]

The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee: Preliminary Notes


Whenever I write about a new Coetzee book, I am wary. I think back to what I wrote in 2005 about Slow Man when it was new, and I cringe. On the one hand, I'm glad to have this record of a first encounter; on the other, the inadequacies of a first encounter with a new Coetzee novel are immense. (With Slow Man, I learned this vividly a few months later after the book wouldn't stop haunting me, and I reread it, and it was a different book, one I had learned to read only after reading it.) The first sentence of my 2008 Diary of a Bad Year post is: "This is a book that will need to be reread." For the next book, Summertime (2009), I didn't write anything until I could spend time thinking and re-thinking it, particularly as it was the final part of a trilogy of fictionalish autobiographies; I first wrote about it in my Conversational Reading essay on Coetzee and autobiography.For The Childhood of Jesus (2013), I returned to recording my initial impressions, but clearly labeled them as such. I will do the same here, with Childhood's sequel, recently released in the UK and Australia (it's scheduled for release early next year in the US).Some preliminary, inadequate notes on The Schooldays of Jesus after a first reading:There will be debate about whether it's possible to read The Schooldays of Jesus without having read The Childhood of Jesus. I think you could have a good, or at least adequate, experience of Schooldays without Childhood. They don't rely on each other for plot. What the novels together gain is resonance.Reading The Childhood of Jesus the first time through was for me a profoundly disorienting experience, because right through the last page I just didn't know what Coetzee was up to. (It was much like the experience of first reading Elizabeth Costello.) Reading Schooldays was far less disorienting because the territory felt at least a little bit familiar. I was ready for the enigmas. I had learned how to read.There is no dedication. Childhood was dedicated "For D.K.C." — David Coetzee. In place of the dedication there is an epigraph from Don Quixote, a book highly important to Childhood but much less present in Schooldays: "Algunos dicen: Nunca segundas partes fueron buenas." Here's the context of that sentence in Edith Grossman's translation:“And by any chance,” said Don Quixote, “does the author promise a second part?”“Yes, he does,” responded Sansón, “but he says he hasn’t found it and doesn’t know who has it, and so we don’t know if it will be published or not; for this reason, and because some people say: ‘Second parts were never very good,’ and others say: ‘What’s been written about Don Quixote is enough,’ there is some doubt there will be a second part; but certain people who are more jovial than saturnine say: ‘Let’s have more quixoticies: let Don Quixote go charging and Sancho Panza keep talking, and whatever else happens, that will make us happy.’”The first chapter of Schooldays is a perfect short story. Coetzee almost never writes short stories, and the various segments of his novels typically rely on each other, but I had the feeling after reading this first chapter that even if the rest of the book were a dud, these twelve pages were rich enough to satisfy me.Dogs are, once again, everywhere. Dogs as creatures wandering through the book, yes, but also dogs as metaphors and figures of speech. There will one day be entire Ph.D. dissertations devoted to Coetzee's dogs.[...]

Of Moral Panics, Education, Culture Wars, and Unanswerable Holes


via Wikimedia CommonsI demonstrate hope.Or the hope for hope. Or just more unanswerable holes.—Mary Biddinger, "Beatitudes"(I keep writing and rewriting this post.)I thought I knew what I felt about the academic controversy du jour (a letter sent by a University of Chicago dean to incoming students, telling them not to expect trigger warnings, that academia is not a safe space, that open discussion requires them to listen to speakers they disagree with, etc.) — but I kept writing and rewriting, conversing and re-conversing with friends, and every time I didn't know more than I knew before.Overall, I don't think this controversy is about trigger warnings, safe spaces, etc. Overall, I think it is about power and access to power. But then, overall I think most controversies are about power and access to power.Overall—The questions around trigger warnings, safe spaces, and campus speakers are complicated, and specific situations must be paid attention to, because universal, general statements are too distorting to be useful.(I keep writing and rewriting this post.)Perhaps headings will help:Academic FreedomI want academic freedom for everyone at educational institutions: faculty, students, staff. That said, as philosophers have shown for ages, defining what constitutes freedom requires argument, negotiation, even compromise, because one person's freedom may be another person's restriction.PowerThe University of Chicago dean's letter is primarily an expression of power and only secondarily about trigger warnings, safe spaces, and campus speakers. Though vastly more minor, it rhymes with the actions of the Long Island University Brooklyn administration, who locked out all members of the faculty union. Both are signs of things to come. The LIU action was union busting to consolidate administrative power; the UC dean's letter was the deployment of moral panic to consolidate administrative power.Moral PanicFor the most part, the controversy over trigger warnings, safe spaces, etc. seems to me right now to be a moral panic, and much of the discourse around these things is highly charged not because of the specific policies and actual events — or not only because of the specific policies and actual events — but because of what they stand for in our minds.Culture WarThis moral panic plays into a larger culture war, one not limited to university campuses (indeed, the rise of Donald Trump as a political candidate also seems to me part of that larger war — and "war" is not too strong a word for it).Tough Love and Hard RealityEver since I was in high school (at the latest) I have vehemently disliked the rhetoric of "tough love pedagogy" and "hard reality" that infuses current discussions of "coddled" students. I said on Twitter that such rhetoric seems to me arrogant, aggressive, and noxiously macho. I have not yet seen someone who advocates such policies and pedagogies do anything to get out of their own comfort zones, for instance by giving away their power and wealth and actively undermining whatever privilege they hold. I would take their position more seriously if they did so.Comfort/DiscomfortThat said, I think it's important to recognize that "comfort" and "discomfort" are broad terms with many meanings, and that students will, indeed, feel a kind of discomfort when encountering material that is new to them, that presents a worldview different from their own, etc. That seems healthy to me and entirely to be desired. (Perhaps we are trying to fit too much into the comfort/disco[...]

Of Moral Panics, Education, Culture Wars, and Unanswerable Holes


via Wikimedia CommonsI demonstrate hope.Or the hope for hope. Or just more unanswerable holes.—Mary Biddinger, "Beatitudes"(I keep writing and rewriting this post.)I thought I knew what I felt about the academic controversy du jour (a letter sent by a University of Chicago dean to incoming students, telling them not to expect trigger warnings, that academia is not a safe space, that open discussion requires them to listen to speakers they disagree with, etc.) — but I kept writing and rewriting, conversing and re-conversing with friends, and every time I didn't know more than I knew before.Overall, I don't think this controversy is about trigger warnings, safe spaces, etc. Overall, I think it is about power and access to power. But then, overall I think most controversies are about power and access to power.Overall—The questions around trigger warnings, safe spaces, and campus speakers are complicated, and specific situations must be paid attention to, because universal, general statements are too distorting to be useful.(I keep writing and rewriting this post.)Perhaps headings will help:Academic FreedomI want academic freedom for everyone at educational institutions: faculty, students, staff. That said, as philosophers have shown for ages, defining what constitutes freedom requires argument, negotiation, even compromise, because one person's freedom may be another person's restriction.PowerThe University of Chicago dean's letter is primarily an expression of power and only secondarily about trigger warnings, safe spaces, and campus speakers. Though vastly more minor, it rhymes with the actions of the Long Island University Brooklyn administration, who locked out all members of the faculty union. Both are signs of things to come. The LIU action was union busting to consolidate administrative power; the UC dean's letter was the deployment of moral panic to consolidate administrative power.Moral PanicFor the most part, the controversy over trigger warnings, safe spaces, etc. seems to me right now to be a moral panic, and much of the discourse around these things is highly charged not because of the specific policies and actual events — or not only because of the specific policies and actual events — but because of what they stand for in our minds.Culture WarThis moral panic plays into a larger culture war, one not limited to university campuses (indeed, the rise of Donald Trump as a political candidate also seems to me part of that larger war — and "war" is not too strong a word for it).Tough Love and Hard RealityEver since I was in high school (at the latest) I have vehemently disliked the rhetoric of "tough love pedagogy" and "hard reality" that infuses current discussions of "coddled" students. I said on Twitter that such rhetoric seems to me arrogant, aggressive, and noxiously macho. I have not yet seen someone who advocates such policies and pedagogies do anything to get out of their own comfort zones, for instance by giving away their power and wealth and actively undermining whatever privilege they hold. I would take their position more seriously if they did so.Comfort/DiscomfortThat said, I think it's important to recognize that "comfort" and "discomfort" are broad terms with many meanings, and that students will, indeed, feel a kind of discomfort when encountering material that is new to them, that presents a worldview different from their own, etc. That seems healthy to me and entirely to be desired. (Perhaps we are trying to fit too [...]

Why I Am Not a Poet


I have a brief new essay up at The Story Prize Blog, "Why I Am Not a Poet". Here's a taste:
I care about words, structures, rhythms, resonances, patterns, allusions, borrowings, sentences, images, emotions, voices, dreams, realities, fears, anxieties, failures, yearnings, and much more, but I don't really care about telling stories. The story is a kind of vehicle, or maybe an excuse, or maybe an alibi. The conventions of the story can be followed and forsaken in ways that get me to the other things, the things I care about.

All of those things I care about are things common to poetry — some more common to poetry than to prose, I'd bet — and that is why I read poetry, but even though I read poetry, I write prose because I just don't know how to do those things unless I'm writing prose.

(I think I would rather be a poet, but I am not.)

The Pleasure of the (Queer) Text


I returned to the WROTE Podcast recently for a 2-part discussion of reading and writing queerly with Dena Hankins, SA "Baz" Collins, and moderator Vance Bastian. (Previously, I did a solo conversation there.)The strength of the discussion is also what makes it sometimes awkward and even contentious: we all have utterly different tastes, touchstones, and experiences. I'm not a natural fit for such a conversation, as I don't think of myself as a "consumer of queer content", but rather as a reader/writer who sometimes reads/writes queer stuff. I hardly ever seek out a book only because it's about a queer topic or has queer characters, and I only ever set out to write such a thing if I'm writing for a specifically queer market, which rarely happens.As I say in the program, if a book's not trying to do something new and different, and if it's not aesthetically interesting to me, I'm unlikely to read it. Why bother? I've got more books than I have time to read already, and I'd rather read an innovative and thought-provoking hetero book than a familiar, conventional queer book.Barthes gets at this in The Pleasure of the Text, presenting a fairly familiar Modernist case, one that describes well my own textual pleasures and (very occasional) moments of bliss:The New is not a fashion, it is a value, the basis of all criticism.... There is only one way left to escape the alienation of present-day society: to retreat ahead of it: every old language becomes old once it is repeated. Now, encratic language (the language produced and spread under the protection of power) is statutorily a language of repetition; all official institutions of language are repeating machines: school, sports, advertising, popular songs, news, all continually repeat the same structure, the same meaning, often the same words: the stereotype is a political fact, the major figure of ideology. Confronting it, the New is bliss (Freud: "In the adult, novelty always constitutes the condition for orgasm")....The bastard form of mass culture is humiliated repetition: content, ideological schema, the blurring of contradictions — these are repeated, but the superficial forms are varied: always new books, new programs, new films, news items, but always the same meaning. [trans. by Richard Miller]This is not, of course, what most readers want, and what is New to one is not New to another. My pleasure is your boredom, my bliss your pain. Nonetheless, I wish more queer writers today were more interested in finding new forms and shapes and styles. I mention in one of the episodes Dale Peck's new anthology, The Soho Press Book of '80s Short Fiction, which is queer in that it is not heteronormative in its selections, putting Dorothy Allison, Robert Glück, and Essex Hemphill alongside Raymond Carver in a way no other anthology I'm aware of has done. What the anthology also does is show that many American queer writers were, once upon a time, interested in a truly wide range of aesthetics. Peck's anthology can only gesture toward those aesthetics, since it has to fit many different purposes between two covers, but it made me think about the ways that queer artists have for so long been the ones to embrace vanguards. (Queer Modernism is often the most interesting Modernism, for instance.) To be queer is to be outside the norm, and thus to be outside the norm's language and forms.I ended the first episode with a point that right now see[...]

Reality Affects


Bonnie Nadzam's recent essay at Literary Hub, "What Should Fiction Do?", is well worth reading, despite the title. (The only accurate answer to the question in the title [which may not be Nadzam's] is: "Lots of stuff, including what it hasn't done yet...") What resonates for me in the essay is Nadzam's attention to the ways reality effects intersect with questions of identity — indeed, with the ways that fictional texts produce ideas about identity and reality. I especially loved Nadzam's discussion of how she teaches writing with such ideas in mind.Nadzam starts right off with a bang:An artistic practice that perpetually reinforces my sense of self is not, in my mind, an artistic practice. I’m not talking about rejecting memoir or characters “based on me.” What I mean is I don’t have the stomach for art that purports to “hold up a mirror to nature,” or for what this implies, philosophically, about selfhood and the world in which we live.This is a statement that avant-gardes have been making since at least the beginning of the 20th century — it is the anti-mimetic school of art, a school at which I have long been a happy pupil. Ronald Sukenick, whose purposes are somewhat different to Nadzam's, wrote in Narralogues that "fiction is a matter of argument rather than of dramatic representation" and "it is the mutability of consciousness through time rather than representation that is the essential element of fiction." Sukenick proposes that all fiction, whether opaquely innovative or blockbuster entertainment, "raises issues, examines situations, meditates solutions, reflects on outcomes" and so is a sort of reasoning and reflection. "The question," he writes, "is only whether a story reflects thoughtfully, or robotically reflects the status quo with no illuminating angle of vision of its own."Magritte, "The Human Condition", 1933Sukenick, too, disparages the "mirror to reality" or "mirror to nature" idea: "Once the 'mirror of reality' argument for fiction crumbles, possibilities long submerged in our tradition open up, and in fact a new rationale for fiction becomes necessary."Nadzam's essay provides some possibilities for remembering what has been submerged in the tradition of fiction and for creating new rationales for fiction's necessity:I want fiction to bend, for its structure not to mirror the reality I think I see, but for its form and structure to help me peel back and question the way reality seems. The way I seem. I love working with the English language precisely because it fails. Even the most perfect word or phrase or narrative can at best shadow and haunt the phenomena of the world. Words and stories offer a way of experiencing being that is in their most perfect articulation a beat removed from direct experience. And so have I long mistrusted those works in which representation and words function without a hiccup, creating a story that is meant to be utterly believed.Again, not at all new, but necessary because these ideas so push against dominant assumptions about fiction (and reality) today.An example of one strain of dominant assumptions: Some readers struggle to separate characters from writers. On Twitter recently, my friend Andrew Mitchell, a writer and editor, expressed frustration with this tendency, saying: "EVERYTHING a character says/does in a story reflects EXACTLY what the writer believes, right? Based on the comments I just read: YES!"[...]