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The Mumpsimus

a blog by Matthew Cheney

Updated: 2018-03-19T15:18:35.705-04:00


BPM and The Young Karl Marx


BPM: Beats Per Minute (120 battements par minute) tells the story of AIDS activists with ACT UP Paris in the 1990s, and its scenes of ACT UP meetings are among the most compelling representations of everyday political planning and argument I know of other than the extraordinary land reform debate scene in Ken Loach's Land and Freedom. (There's also a powerful debate scene in Loach's later The Wind that Shakes the Barley, but Land and Freedom is even more remarkable in my eyes because it so patiently dramatizes a kind of conversation rarely even imagined by most of its likely viewers. Almost any other director would pare such scenes down to soundbites, but Campillo lets us watch discussions play out and doesn't simplify the arguments into pro/con battles. We see the characters react, think, respond.Even in a movie like Land and Freedom, the narrative starts with a focal character and brings us into the story via that focal character. One of the most revolutionary moves BPM makes is to flip this structure. We begin with the group, and only slowly get to know the two characters who will turn out to be the protagonists. It's a risky choice, because as audiences we're conditioned to latch on to individuals and to expect a story to be told through them, so a narrative that only slowly moves toward an individual story (or small set of parallel individual stories) may be frustrating, even bewildering. "Who should I root for?" the viewer asks. "What figure should I attach my sympathies to?"What BPM requires is that we first sympathize with the group and only later find our way toward individual stories. By doing so, we don't reduce the group's complexities to a few individual personalities, but instead, even when the film is heartwrenching within an individual story, we always have the larger context at the back of our mind. This is one solution to the Brechtian problem of what to do with the intellect when individual sentiment threatens to overwhelm knowledge of the larger field shaping the individual story: we don't need to be distanced from the individual story, nor does it need to be defamiliarized; instead, a narrative web needs to be woven carefully enough that the parts are never separate from the whole.BPM begins with shots of an ACT UP action that could as easily be from a verité-style documentary as from a fictional film, and it continues in that mode, but there's also always another style shadowing it, a more impressionistic style, one that lingers on molecules of light and later lets memories and realities merge.Immediately after the opening scene, the film cuts to that evening's weekly ACT UP meeting and the screen is now filled not with various people in the midst of disrupting an event but with one person explaining ACT UP to four newcomers, saying he expects they've seen some actions on TV. Yes, we have. The film is welcoming us into its world in the same way that new ACT UP members would be welcomed in, and it lets us get to know that world similarly -- no real explanation for the conversations and arguments that we're plunged into the midst of, and so we have to learn our way, figure out what we think, choose our own sides.One piece of knowledge the film helps us feel our way to is that newcomers quickly became veterans in ACT UP. Because so many members were HIV-positive, their ability to keep working as activists was often short. In that first meeting scene, one of the founders is memorialized, and a speaker says that many of the people in the room may not have known or may not remember him, since he stopped going to meetings as he got sicker. One of the four new members is pretty far along in his illness, and just as we get to know him, he dies and is memorialized with a march. This is early in the film, and it prepares us for the much longer road ahead as we settle in to the story of the protagonists, Sean (veteran activist) and Nathan (newcomer), who become lovers, one positive and the other not.Narrative time is manipulated through subtle editing (by Campillo, Stép[...]

Speculative Memoir


Electric Literature has now published a roundtable discussion between Sofia Samatar, Carmen Maria Machado, Rosalind Palermo Stevenson, and me about a thing we provisionally call "speculative memoir". This began when Sofia had separate conversations with us all over the last couple years about fiction in fact, the creative possibilities of nonfictional writing, the perils and possibilities of memoir, etc. She and I talked for a long time about it when I was first putting together ideas for my dissertation, and I've kept with quite a few of the ideas we originally discussed. (Perhaps no surprise, as my interest in the topic goes back a ways with one of the subjects of my dissertation, J.M. Coetzee.) And as someone who writes both fiction and nonfiction, the distinctions always interest me.

Sofia also has a new book out, Monstrous Portraits, "an uncanny and imaginative autobiography of otherness", with drawings by her brother Del. Seek it out!

Under the Lines


Sometimes I buy a book for its cover, and this is one, a 1979 Bantam edition of Andrew Holleran's classic Dancer from the Dance. The cover ... well, it speaks for itself.

Flipping through the book, I was at first annoyed to see some pages with underlining from a red felt-tipped marker. I find other people's annotations in books extremely distracting to the point where I usually can't even read a page with someone else's notes on it. (My own notes are fine. Its the imposition of someone else's reading experience — someone else's consciousness — that makes it impossible for me.) But then I was intrigued. Only two pages had underlining. Why only two? It wasn't like a textbook, where sometimes you'll find notes in some of the early pages and then nothing later, the student clearly having given up. No, these were pages 73 and 75. One sentence on each page.

First: "He fell in love with people he did not know how to meet."

Oh, I thought, that's good. I'd be tempted to underline that sentence myself.

Then: "Frankie had never gone to a bar, had never wanted to, had heard of Fire Island but considered it 'a bunch of queens' and lived a life that, save for the fact that he slept with Malone, was hardly homosexual."

That second sentence is not one I would have underlined myself (I like bunches of queens; what would keep me away from Fire Island would be the sunlight, sand, and water) — but reading it after the first sentence, I was overcome with a sense of this underliner's life, or at least his (I would be shocked if the underliner were not a he) sense of life in the moment of underlining. When did the underliner underline? Did he buy the book new, or had he, like me, picked it up for pennies and added his own underlining after another reader, finding its sentences less necessary, had tossed the book away? Was the urge to underline a passing one, the moment of connection with the text a momentary mood, or did those lines delineate a life?

The teacher in me now thinks about a writing exercise: From these underlined sentences, write a story about the underliner. The editor in me wants to put together an anthology of such stories. The writer in me wants to write one.

The human that I am just wants to say: Thank you. I have seen your lines, and I have dreamed of you, and wished you well.

A Sparkling Sentence


This year is Muriel Spark's centenary, and it's been fun to encounter the various tributes to her. I decided to reread The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, her most famous book, because I haven't read it in twenty years or so, though much of it remains vivid in my memory. It was my first Spark, and while I think I appreciated the sharpness of her language at the time, I valued other things in the book. Rereading it now, it is her sentences that amaze me most, because I've learned over the years that one of the greatest pleasures in reading Spark is the pleasure of watching her make complex linguistic acts look easy.Here's an example that I stand in awe of, a single sentence that is a short story unto itself:Even stupid Mary Macgregor amazed herself by understanding Caesar’s Gallic Wars which as yet made no demands on her defective imagination and the words of which were easier to her than English to spell and pronounce, until suddenly one day it appeared, from an essay she had been obliged to write, that she believed the document to date from the time of Samuel Pepys; and then Mary was established in the wrong again, being tortured with probing questions, and generally led on to confess to the mirth-shaken world her notion that Latin and shorthand were one.When I read this time, I was amused by the nasty humor at poor Mary's expense, but I also thought to myself, "Wait, was that one sentence?" I went back over it, and yes, just one sentence, complete. It felt like pages of portraiture, but read quickly and easily.The sentence tells an entire story, and it has the narrative balance of a perfectly set up joke, especially in its original context, a paragraph that tells of the girls' adjustments to life in the senior school: we assume that poor Mary Macgregor, about whom we have just read some of the characters' later regret in how badly they treated her, and who we know will die in her early twenties in a hotel fire -- we assume as we begin reading the sentence that Mary will have some triumph, some success, as Latin seems to work better for her than any other subject. Our hopes are dashed, though, with "until suddenly", after which the sentence moves like a freight train gathering steam, growing ever more specific. I laughed aloud when I reached the end of the sentence, and that effect is primarily, for me at least, an effect of structure rather than content. There's nothing laugh-out-loud funny about "her notion that Latin and shorthand were one", but the rhythm of that phrase at the end of the sentence, coupled with the lovely lyricism of "the mirth-shaken world", somehow produces hilarity. Read the sentence aloud and try to keep a straight face. (It reminds me of David Sedaris in some ways. Sedaris is a master of tone and balance used for humorous purposes, which is one reason why I find him most amusing when he reads his own work.)It is not a generous humor, but rather a humor that lets us laugh at the travails of a pathetic creature of our imagination, a humor that encourages us to feel a bit superior, even if we ourselves have no Latin at all, and might be hard-pressed to say exactly how far from each other were Caesar and Pepys (and thus we see something of what the book is up to, it seems to me; our nastiness is revealed to us).Equally impressive is just how compact the sentence is, despite its length. It gives us multiple times and multiple events, all of them wrapped around the figure of Mary. It tells us something about the senior school, something about the teachers and pupils.My obsession with sentences is longstanding — no other element of prose is more likely to affect my evaluation of a reading experience than the writer's sentence style — and Spark's writing is a treasure trove of marvelous sentences, something well worth celebrating as we party for her 100th birthday.[...]

Ursula Le Guin: In Your Dreams, In Your Ideas...


1.I am writing this on Virginia Woolf's 136th birthday. Ursula K. Le Guin, who died a few days ago, was a lifelong reader of Woolf's work, and the trace of Woolf's writing and thinking can be found not only throughout Le Guin's essays, but also in her fiction, different as it is in style and substance from Woolf's own. Le Guin not only read the famous novels, but she also cherished some of the works that get less notice these days, including Three Guineas, a fierce critique of patriarchy and militarism, the Woolf book that I think most deserves a revival in our cruel, murderous era.It's likely that I started reading Woolf because of Le Guin. I was probably 12 or 13 years old, I had heard that Le Guin was among the greatest of science fiction writers, so I sought out her work, and the library had some anthologies with her short stories in them (The Hugo Winners volumes, Again, Dangerous Visions, etc.) as well as her essay collection The Language of the Night, so I read that, hoping it might teach me something about SF. I was attracted to the essay "Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown" because I thought the title was odd, and so I read Le Guin's riff on Woolf's famous essay "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown", Le Guin's first sentence being: "Just about fifty years ago, a woman named Virginia Woolf sat down in a carriage in the train going from Richmond to Waterloo, across from another woman, whose name we don't know."I can't say I read Le Guin's essay patiently or with much comprehension. But one of the better qualities of my younger self was that he did not blame texts if he did not understand them; he blamed himself. Clearly, if I was going to appreciate this essay by the multi-award-winning, highly respected science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin, I needed to seek out "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown". Luckily, the library had a copy of The Virginia Woolf Reader, where I found Woolf's essay, which I discovered I understood even less than Le Guin's. Frustrated by this Woolf person, I read around in the book a bit more, and came upon its excerpt from Mrs. Dalloway, which for some reason entranced me. I didn't know you could write fiction like that. I'd glanced at Ulysses and even Finnegans Wake, so I had a vague and superficial idea that not all novels had to be like Johnny Tremain, but I'd never imagined that thought could be represented in the way Woolf did — instead of an ostentatious stream of consciousness, something more subtle and bewitching (which I would later learn is basically a version of what's called free indirect discourse, though Woolf puts her own spin on it). Soon after, at the local college bookstore, I saw a copy of Mrs. Dalloway in its Harvest/HBJ mass market paperback edition, and I bought it for $5.95, a high price for a mass market paperback in those days, a price that required me to save my money for a few weeks, in fact. I pored over the book, trying to learn its secrets. I still have that copy. Its binding broke long ago, its pages are all loose, its cover is battered but still bright yellow. I've got a bunch of other copies of Mrs. Dalloway now, ones in much better condition, but I hold this one most dear.I have all of the Ursula Le Guin books I got when I was a kid, too, most of which I picked up in used bookstores, though The Left Hand of Darkness was a Christmas present. Its binding somehow remains unbroken, but the cover is bent and scratched, the pages are faded, soft with wear. And then there is The Dispossessed in an old paperback that I picked up for pennies at a used bookstore in Concord, New Hampshire, a paperback that might be reinforced with steel, given how solid it still feels now, even after all the times I've read and re-read it. Indeed, I've read The Dispossessed at least as many times as any other novel.2.Ursula Le Guin died a few days ago and I am still casting about in darkness, reaching back to memory, grabbing at anything floating by as I a[...]

UW Struggle: When a State Attacks Its University by Chuck Rybak


If I had piles of money sitting around, I would buy tens of thousands of copies of Chuck Rybak's little book UW Struggle and send them to state legislatures, public university boards of trustees, university administrators, students, parents, reporters — everybody I could possibly think of who might have some effect on public education in the U.S., because the book is short, accessible, punchy, and gives a vivid picture of the many ways that public education is being systematically and deliberately destroyed.There are other books about higher education that provide a wider, more comprehensive view, but Rybak's purpose is different. His book is an in-the-moment, personal chronicle that also has much to say about the systems of economics and education in the U.S. To learn more about the origins and motivations of what's happening, it's good to read the work of people like Marc Bousquet, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Sara Goldrick-Rab (formerly of UW herself), Henry Giroux, Christopher Newfield, and, for an overview of the history and economics of neoliberalism (the fuel in the engine of this disaster), Philip Mirowski — but to know what this looks like on the ground, to feel the assault, there's nothing better than Rybak's gut punch.The book is a selection of Rybak's blog posts during the time when Gov. Scott Walker and his minions in the legislature and on the Board of Regents waged war against the state university system, cutting funding drastically, weakening shared governance, and eviscerating tenure. Much damage was done — the changes to tenure cost the University at least $9 million in funds they had to spend to retain some star faculty, and with a tenure system that now, in Rybak's words, "has as much weight as wearing a shirt that says 'tenure' on the front", the university will continue to struggle to compete for hiring and retention with other schools, and will have to continue to spend money on increasing salaries to balance out the effect of fake tenure. (This is happening now.) In the humanities, this will be less of a problem, since there are so few jobs and so many candidates that just about any offer providing even a barely living wage and some access to health and retirement benefits is a great offer, but in fields that university administrators and legislators actually care about (business, technology, certain narrowly vocational fields), it's a much tougher sell.While Rybak's book focuses on Wisconsin, it's a compelling, thought-provoking, and depressing read for anybody with an interest in higher ed because it is so easy to imagine it happening everywhere else. (Indeed, much of it is happening everywhere else, or nearly everywhere.) It's not giving anything away to share the final paragraph:If it hasn't already, this will be your state soon. All the fights that we thought belonged to the future are owned by the present. Without that fight, without our contributions to it, and without new coalitions, the unthinkable will arrive: there will be no public education to serve as a pathway to a brighter future.What all this made me think about (not for the first time) is that the war on universities is just another sign that we have lost any concept of the public good.I and members of my family have spent much of our lives working for or associated with the University System of New Hampshire (where I'm now finishing my doctorate). We're very familiar with low state funding here in the Granite State, because we've been near, or, most commonly, at the bottom of state funding of education for as long as I can remember. (Indeed, I remember in my first year or so of college at NYU reading an op-ed about education in a free New York weekly. It was written by a UNH professor who said in New Hampshire our university system is public in name only, given how little funding the state provides. That was more than twenty years ago.) We also have the high[...]

2017: Read, Seen, Heard


Dimond Library, University of New Hampshire, November 2017, photo by MCThe year has ended. Indeed, it ended a week and a half ago. People were publishing reflections on the best/worst/whatever of 2017 months before the end of the year, and so now, in the peculiar reality of internet time, reflecting on 2017 seems about as current as reflecting on 1857. But 1857 was an interesting year, and so was 2017. I happen to remember 2017 better than 1857, though, and I want to preserve some of that memory, particularly what was read and viewed and thought about. So here we are.First, I should say that I published less in 2017 than in any year since 2002 or so. I published no new fiction. For nonfiction, there was only an essay on John Keene's sentences for Emerging Writers' Network and two reviews for the print edition of Rain Taxi (of The World Broke In Two: Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, and The Year That Changed Literature by Bill Goldstein and Little Magazine, World Form by Eric Bulson).The lightness of my publishing this year was a direct result of longer projects I was working on. Thus, while I published less, I wrote more than I have in many years. Yesterday, I turned in a rough draft of a complete dissertation to my advisor. At the end of the summer, I completed a draft of a novel, which I'm currently revising. I finished a long article on Virginia Woolf's The Years, which will be published later this year by Woolf Studies Annual. And early in 2017 I wrote a novella-length narrative about Woolf and anti-fascism; because of its length and form (not quite academic, not quite not-academic), it's basically unpublishable, but it was enjoyable work and I've cannibalized a few small parts of it for my dissertation, so I'm not complaining.A highly productive year, then, but not one that was publicly productive.It was also a productive year for reading, for movie-viewing and music-listening and general culture-imbiding. Partly, this was because I currently have a Dissertation Year Fellowship from the University of New Hampshire, so I haven't had to work as a teacher since last spring. I miss the classroom, miss the daily contact with students and the challenge of designing and implementing a curriculum, but I'm also benefitting a lot from having a break.Here are some highlights, as I remember them. This chronicle is neither complete nor definitive, more a stream-of-consciousness meditation, and I have written it mostly for my own sake. In the interest particularly of bringing a sliver of attention to work that ought to get a lot more, I will perform this meditation in public, at the risk of making all my blind spots, bad taste, and human failures available to the masses. I live to serve.Books(Four books I enjoyed that are not noted here because I wrote full posts on them: Universal Harvester by John Darnielle, The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge, Why I Killed My Best Friend by Amanda Michalopoulou, and Age of Blight by Kristine Ong Muslim.)Naturally, my reading in 2017 was dominated by work for my dissertation on modernism and the works of Virginia Woolf, Samuel Delany, and J.M. Coetzee. Reading anything that was not dissertation-related was a treat. I even managed to re-read a book, the greatest of all treats: Jeff VanderMeer's Borne, which was released in 2017, but which I first read in a draft (mostly the same as the published book) in 2016. I had been busy when I got the draft and read it very quickly, so it was nice to have a bit more time to luxuriate a bit with it when the novel was released . It's a marvelous novel, both aesthetically and intellectually beautiful, and also a perfect entry for someone new to VanderWorld — when it comes out in paperback, I will be sorely tempted to buy a box of them to give away to people as gateway drugs. And its companion novella, "The Strange Bird", is a gobsmackin[...]

Land of Doubt by Sam Baker


Sam Baker's music is relatively new to me, and it has become an obsession. I first heard of him when I heard part of his Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross in 2014 while driving somewhere, and I was captivated, but for one reason or another, I didn't remember to seek out any of his albums. Then late this fall, looking for new stuff to listen to, I happened upon his recent album Land of Doubt, which wrapped itself around my consciousness and wouldn't let go. "Who is this guy?" I thought, imagining he was a grizzled old feller something like the Woodsman in Twin Peaks. I soon discovered he was the guy I'd heard on Fresh Air whose music I had wanted to listen to but then got distracted and didn't. Land of Doubt was different enough from my perception of his earlier music that I hadn't connected that musician, who had both a powerful personal story and a powerful talent as a singer-songwriter, with this one.It's rare that I write about music, because I don't feel any real ability to explain why I like what I like. (That's one of the things I value music for: its mysterious appeal.) Nor do I have any knowledge of the world of the music business, its production, promotion, distribution, etc. But I feel compelled to write a few words in praise of Land of Doubt because after I discovered it, I expected there must be lots of reviews of it, interviews with Baker about it, award nomination for it. Baker's previous album, Say Grace, got him on Fresh Air and landed as number 5 on Rolling Stone's list of Top 10 Country albums of 2013 (don't let that "country" appellation put you off — if he's country, it's in the manner of John Prine, Townes van Zandt, and Steve Earle, not Garth Brooks). But as far as I can tell, there were only a handful of reviews — Austin Chronicle, No Depression, Folk Radio UK — and while the reviews were positive, they didn't lead the album to be included on any best-of-the-year lists that I've found except for the marvelous, eclectic list from Ted Gioia. (If I were a musician, that would be one of the lists I would most aspire to be on, since the choices are always wide-ranging and thoughtful.)Given how much music is out there, it's hardly surprising that great work fails to get noticed. When the work is as compelling as Land of Doubt, though, that failure galls. Particularly for an audience that gravitates toward roots music, Americana, alt-country, Tom Waitsy grungefolk, whatever-you-want-to-call-it — for that audience, this album ought to be addictive. allow="encrypted-media" allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" gesture="media" height="315" src="" width="560">Each of Baker's previous albums is full of affecting, carefully-crafted songs, and the albums are all organized carefully. But even more than the others, Land of Doubt feels to me like an album in the old sense: a work that shows itself off best when its songs are not shuffled around, when the listener is able to move from one track to the next as if they are movements in a symphony. To a friend who bought the album on my recommendation, I said: "Listen to it loud. Alone. In a dark room." I said this not because it's a dark and depressing album that ought to be listened to in properly dark, depressing circumstances, but because there's a subtlety to its sonic details that can be cherished if the album is given full attention. I don't have a sense that many people take the time truly to listen to music anymore — I don't do it as often as I should — but rather that we have become accustomed to music as an accompaniment to other tasks, a background sound to fend off dreaded silence.One of the elements of Baker's singing and songwriting that I find captivating is the way he often emphasizes single words and notes. His songwriting has frequently been called "s[...]

Sentences Seeking, and Finding, Forms: On Some Passages in Barnaby Rudge


William Gass died a few days ago, and, as I do when a writer I value dies, I returned to his work. I read around in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, and then A Temple of Texts, where, in the essay "The Sentence Seeks Its Form", I read:Between Shakespeare and Joyce, there is no one but Dickens who has an equal command of the English language.This struck me because I hadn't ever particularly thought of Gass as a Dickens man. You won't find, for instance, a Dickens novel listed in the book's earlier essay on "Fifty Literary Pillars", nor has Gass written at length about Dickens in the way he has so many other writers. (But still, many of us have writers we cherish, or at least admire, about whom we've written little or nothing.) I found, going back through his essays, that Gass has scattered brief insights about Dickens throughout; not only is there the wonderful discussion of David Copperfield, Mr. Micawber, and details in "The Sentence Seeks Its Form", but in the essay "And" in Habitations of the Word we find mention of the "energetic mounding of ... the Dickens of Dombey [and Sons]", some analysis of a passage from Hard Times in "The Shut-In" in Fiction and the Figures of Life, and scattered, brief references elsewhere.That sentence from A Temple of Texts most struck me, though, because not long before reading it, I had just finished reading one of Dickens's least popular novels, Barnaby Rudge, and as always when reading Dickens, even when my interest in the events or characters lagged, I was thrilled by his sentences. From his earliest days, Dickens was among the most popular writers in English, and yet now, in an era when endless lines of bland prose scroll across our eyes, I can't help but wonder at the fact of his popularity, given that he wrote such marvelously rich, complex sentences. It is unthinkable today. Not only do few people want to luxuriate in complex sentences, but few readers even know how to read them. Today, popular writers must stick to “shorter, cleaner sentences, without unneeded words" ("unneeded" being a code always in need of deciphering, as, like "cleaner", it refers not to words but to assumptions and prejudices), and even the most valorized of American lit'ry writers tend toward the short, sharp, chopped.Reading Barnaby Rudge, I noted passage after passage that I wanted to savor and study. I won't go over them all here, but a few seem worthy of public mention.First, an aside: What of the novel as a whole? Its most remarkable quality beyond the sentences is what is most famous about it: The hundreds of pages detailing events during the Gordon Riots. One of the reasons Barnaby Rudge likely remains among Dickens's least-read novels is that its characters are not especially memorable. As characters in novels go, they're fine, but one of the things we read Dickens for is the rich, comic, emotionally affecting, often heightened qualities of his characters. For me, there is none of that in Barnaby Rudge. This makes sense when the novel's origin is considered: It was early in Dickens's career, and is, indeed, one of the earliest novels he conceived. What kept him thinking about it during all the years he wasn't writing it was not any one character, but rather the riots, and particularly the burning of Newgate prison. Those events obsessed him, and he researched them with energy and effort. This material is gripping and vivid, a truly great feat of narrative storytelling. That feat relies on a roving point of view. In his indispensible biography of Dickens as a writer, Michael Slater quotes from a letter Dickens wrote to a reader who complained that he had not focused enough on historical figures such as John Wilkes, a letter Slater says "shows [Dickens's] own awareness of that extraordinary quality much found in his writing that we have come[...]

Virginia Woolf Miscellany and a Remembrance of Jean Kennard


The Spring 2017 issue of Virginia Woolf Miscellany (issue 91) has been posted online as a free PDF. It includes a brief essay I wrote in remembrance of Jean Kennard, who taught a Woolf seminar twenty years ago that helped set me on a path I am still following.

Here's a taste:
We read all of the novels except Night and Day, plus Room, Three Guineas, and the essays in Michèle Barrett's Women & Writing anthology. I remember being so exhausted from reading that I could hardly keep up with my other classes, but it was a profoundly fulfilling exhaustion, because reading such a volume of Woolf made her words and images feel like a presence in my life, a sort of companion.

Notes on Blade Runner 2049


To write responsibly about Blade Runner 2049, I would need to see it again, and to explore what I want to explore I would need to watch Denis Villeneuve's previous film, Arrival, again (I last saw it on its theatrical release), and I would need to watch all of Villeneuve's previous films (a couple of which I've missed), and I would need to watch the original Blade Runner again (a film I cherish and have seen a dozen times, at least, though I'm always happy for an excuse for another viewing), and—I do not have time for any of this at the moment. But, before my thoughts disappear like — well, if wanted to insert an obvious and tacky allusion here, I'd say, like tears in rain, but you can fill in the simile yourself — before my thoughts disappear, I will jot down a few notes, on the off chance that they may be of use to you or somebody or me or nobody—For me, Blade Runner 2049 is a sometimes visually interesting movie and not much other than that. Among the people I know, mine is a strikingly minority opinion: via social media, I've seen that many people I know and respect not only enjoy the movie, but respond to it in a way I have no access to. This is always an intellectually interesting moment for me (frustrating, because I would rather have access to pleasure than be barred from it, but interesting). The situation raises aesthetic questions: What is it within this film that works powerfully on the mind and emotions of many people but not others?I saw Blade Runner 2049 in 3D, against my preferences. That's what was showing at the time I and my companions were at the theatre, and I'd driven an hour to meet my friends and have an outing, so it was the version we saw. I mostly find 3D distracting and annoying. Aside from shots where what was in the foreground was out of focus, I didn't mind it too much this time. I would never choose to see a film in 3D rather than 2D, but I've had vastly worse experiences with 3D than this movie. Some of the landscape gained interesting depth. Nonetheless, the 3D may have affected my experience. If the movie were not 3 hours long (and felt to me longer), and if I had more spare time at the moment, I would go see it in 2D to test my experience.Side note: I don't think Blade Runner 2049 is Roger Deakins's best work as cinematographer by any means, but it's darn good, as always, and he ought to get an Oscar finally, dammit.Side note: What is the purpose of Jared Leto's character? It seems like a storyline that got truncated, and while I am glad there wasn't more of him, Leto's scenes felt like a waste of time. And what about his character's replicant-assistant, whose performance seems to be from a different movie (maybe Karate Grrrrls From Outer Space)? The plot needed them, I suppose.My indifference to Blade Runner 2049 is surprising because I so highly value the original Blade Runner. Blade Runner 2049 extends much of the mood and style of the original film. As a passable simulacrum of Blade Runner, the new movie ought to be an exciting experience for me. It is not. The differences must be primarily stylistic, because I do not value the original Blade Runner for its plot, such as it is. I'm not a plot person. (I want an architecture to a movie or book, some organizing principle to engage me, which is a purpose plot often serves, but I don't care about plot as plot.) The similarities between Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 are easy to point to (and have already launched 1,000 thinkpieces and listicles), but working through the stylistic differences would be a more valuable project.My indifference to Blade Runner 2049 may be an extension of my feelings about the films of Denis Villeneuve. The first I saw was Incendies, parts of which I fou[...]

Beating the Bounds by Liz Ahl


Let me begin with disclaimer: This is not a review of Liz Ahl's first book-length collection of poems, Beating the Bounds. Liz is a longtime friend who sometimes writes about the place where I live and people I know, so anything I say about this book's qualities ought to be suspect. Further, I'm not very good at writing about poetry. I read a lot of poetry — well, "a lot" in comparison to most Americans, certainly, and probably in comparison to most writers who are not themselves poets — but have no facility for writing about poetry with much more insight than, "I like this line," or "Doesn't that sound nice?"What this post is, then, is not a review but a notice, plus quotations and anecdotes.Notice: Liz Ahl has published her first book-length collection of poems, Beating the Bounds. No book better captures what it looks like, smells like, sounds like, feels like to live in rural central New Hampshire than this book. That may sound like a little thing, but to me, who calls that world home, it is everything.It's all relative, of course, the late and the early,the patterns we imagine, the seasonal routine we embellish, and all the talk we make—("Talking About the Weather")Anecdotes: I first met Liz when she was a foreigner. It was nearly 20 years ago, and I was just back from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. Walking through the Plymouth State University Bookstore one day, I saw that a professor had assigned a class to buy Joel Brouwer's poetry collection Exactly What Happened. Joel Brouwer had been at Bread Loaf, and I had fallen in love with his poems. But they weren't exactly famous. Of all the thousands and thousands of poetry collections to assign to undergraduates ... that seemed a strange choice. A good choice, an excellent choice, but statistically odd. I wanted to know who this person was. The professor's name on the shelfcard in the bookstore was unfamiliar to me: L. Ahl.My mother worked at Plymouth State, and so I called her up. "Who is L. Ahl?" I said. She said it was the new teacher in the English department, a woman named Liz (a variation of my mother's own name, though Elizabeth my mother is Betsy, not Liz). My mother gave me Liz's email address and I wrote to her. I said something to the effect of: "Who are you and why do you know Joel Brouwer's book?" She replied, something to the effect of: "I am Liz Ahl, poet and teacher. I had friends at Bread Loaf this year, and somebody told me about Joel Brouwer, and I, too, love this book, as all sane and rational and poetic people do. We should have coffee sometime. Also, I think I live across the street from your father."You and I were neighborly, wavingas we swung out of our drivewaysor back into them. We commented on weather,checked in when power failed. You called me"Nebraska" because it's where I came from,and once or twice I visited you in the gun shopattached to your house. It surprised youthat I knew how to shoot; it surprised mehow you doted on those two barn cats.("Neighborly")If I remember correctly, at the time I was not in contact with my father. There was a more-or-less three year period where my sanity couldn't bear him. It had been some years since I'd been by the house I grew up in, though I lived just one exit down the highway, where I worked at a boarding school, my first job out of college. Liz and I met, and eventually I visited her at her house, a house she rented, a house I remember seeing built when I was very young. Eventually, I visited my father again. Eventually, he died, and I inherited the house and the gun shop, and I moved back to New Hampshire from away, and I sold off the gun shop and I kept the house, lived in it, because nothing else made financial sense, and I'm sitting in it now, writing these words while looking o[...]

The Shape of Water


Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water was the opening film of the mini-festival Telluride at Dartmouth, and so I got to see it a few months before it will be released generally. I love del Toro's work — even when it falls flat for me (Crimson Peak), it's nonetheless clearly the work of someone with his own vision and style. And when I am on the same wavelength as the film (The Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth, Pacific Rim), the experience is overwhelmingly beautiful and moving. Indeed, that for me is the hallmark of del Toro at his best: real, unbridled emotion coupled with a visual imagination that is lushly inventive, and a sense for color the equal of any other director today.Del Toro is also a master melodramatist, a common form not frequently mastered. In that sense, he's our Douglas Sirk, but without Sirk's irony. (Perhaps we could say that del Toro replaces Sirk's irony with fantasy: melding a classical sense of melodrama with the logic of fairy tales. Where irony both infuses and undercuts Sirk's realities, magic infuses and undercuts the basic reality in del Toro's worlds.) The Shape of Water may be his most classical melodrama yet. It's a beauty-and-the-beast (or fish & bird) love story set in the midst of Cold War America, and it's satisfying because it hits almost every plot point exactly as it seems it should. For anyone who's ever seen such movies, there's nothing particularly surprising in the plotting, and in this case that's a virtue, because you get to see the familiar performed by an expert with absolute confidence in his craft. It's a story about the little people, the marginalized and oppressed, seizing a chance to do some good in the world, and there's not a cynical note anywhere to be found. A fairy tale, yes, maybe, definitely; but one we sometimes need, one that is invigorating in a world that feels ever more filled with monsters. (I will never tire of Idris Elba's speech in Pacific Rim: "Today we face the monsters that are at our door...")It's inaccurate to say that del Toro is the only expert here making hugely difficult tasks look effortless. One of the joys of The Shape of Water is that he assembled a team of actors and crew who are among the best in the world at what they do. The production design, the cinematography, the costumes, the special effects, the editing, the music, the acting — all wondrous, and not wondrous only because they're created by highly skilled artists, but because those artists all seem to be working together with a unified sense of their project. Every element of the mise-en-scene is carefully designed and intentionally used, with themes and ideas wending across the light, sets, props, and visual effects. (For a movie called The Shape of Water, of course water imagery is important, but the inventiveness with which it's used is really something to see.) Alexandre Desplat's music, for instance, is perfect not just because it's Alexandre Desplat, an accomplished film composer, but because it's exactly right for this movie. It's a movie that relies on its music for certain effects. But that's true for every element — to give just one example, the editing is often elegant, but almost by definition that tends to go unnoticed; now and then, though, editing can provide its own overt effects, and in The Shape of Water there's one cut (involving cornflakes) that caused lots of happy laughter throughout the big audience at Dartmouth. Just a quick moment, a little burst of joy in amidst the flow of the story and images. That's mastery. allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="315" src="" width="560">Of course, the most visible members of a film's creative team are the actor[...]

A Convex Mirror: Twin Peaks


That is the tune but there are no words. The words are only speculation (From the Latin speculum, mirror): They seek and cannot find the meaning of the music. We see only postures of the dream, Riders of the motion that swings the face Into view under evening skies, with no False disarray as proof of authenticity. But it is life englobed. One would like to stick one's hand Out of the globe, but its dimension, What carries it, will not allow it.—John Ashbery1.John Ashbery died on the day that Twin Peaks: The Returned aired its final episode, a fact that will likely go unremarked in future Ashbery biographies and tomes of Twin Peaks exegesis, but I can't help coming back to it, not only because Ashbery and David Lynch are two of the most prominent surrealists in American culture (though of course no one term can sum up either, and I use it here as much as a gesture or a placeholder as I do anything else), but also because their prominence, which allowed them an audience and freedom unknown to most artists, was neither assured nor even entirely likely.It was more likely that Ashbery would find some prominence in the small world of poetry than that Lynch would become a household name as a filmmaker, but you only have to think of how many poets of great originality, insight, energy, seriousness, and talent never reached Ashbery's level of fame, never made it into The New Yorker, were not the first living poet to be collected by the Library of America, etc. to realize that Ashbery's position was singular. Dan Chiasson just called him the "greatest American poet of the last fifty years", and I expect other people will do the same, because in a certain way that's a fact, not an opinion: his ubiquity in anthologies, his many awards, his centrality to academic study of contemporary American poetry, his ability to have his poetry books published by major publishers and reviewed by the most prominent book review publications — all of these, and more, signal that Ashbery is by consensus filling the role of "greatest American poet of the last fifty years". Somebody has to. And this is no critique of Ashbery, whose work I have often enjoyed reading. He seemed as amused by his canonization as anybody.Nor is it a critique of David Lynch, whose work has meant a lot to me, to say he's one of the luckiest filmmakers in the history of cinema. Though his career and reputation have had plenty of highs and lows, how many other people are in a position to get a network like Showtime to spend millions and millions of dollars to make an 18-hour art movie — and by art movie, I don't mean just something that would play in arthouse cinemas, but something that as often as not shared more qualities with an art installation than with Dexter or Homeland. Sure, next to Andy Warhol's Empire, it's a thriller, but it's not next to Empire, it's next to Ray Donovan and boxing matches. (This is the one thing about Showtime's gamble that I don't get — clearly, their goal was to get people to sign up for Showtime, and it worked. It doesn't matter how many people watch a particular show, really; what matters is that people subscribe. But there's nothing particularly Twin Peaksy — even first-iteration Twin Peaksy — on Showtime, that I've found, so why would that audience stick around? I certainly see no reason to keep subscribing.) Lynch has been able to trade on the fluke success of the original Twin Peaks and his own reputation as a visionary director to do whatever the hell he wants, regardless of audience desires or studio executives' commands. And good for him! My only reservation about Lynch's unique posit[...]

My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye


Marie NDiaye's 2007 novel Mon coeur à l'étroit has now been translated by Jordan Stamp and published by Two Lines Press as My Heart Hemmed In. It is a strange, unsettling book, a tale told by a woman named Nadia whose husband receives a ghastly wound that he refuses to have treated, a woman who is being suddenly shunned not only by everyone she knows but apparently by everyone in the city of Bordeaux except for a famous writer she's never heard of, who appoints himself her husband's caretaker. She has an ex-husband who lives in destitution in their own apartment. She is estranged from her son, who once had a male lover (now a police inspector) whom Nadia might have been more in love with than her own child, and who then married a woman and had a daughter, Souhar, whose name Nadia detests.The novel's first paragraph is in many ways its guiding idea:Now and then, at first, I think I catch people scowling in my direction. They can't really mean me, can they?Much worse than scowls happen, showing Nadia that yes, they do mean her — but how do they interpret her? What she means to them is very different from what she means to herself.From the beginning, the narrative casts a spell because we want to know what is going on and why. Why are Nadia and her husband Ange so utterly loathed by everyone, and apparently so suddenly? Why is Nadia so oblivious to everything around her? Why does she get lost when walking around a city she's lived in for most of her life? Why won't Ange go to the doctor for his gaping wound? Is the famous writer a friend or foe?This is not, though, a book much interested in answering such questions. It feels to me like a mix of Kafka, Robert Aickman, and J.M. Coetzee's most recent novels. While reading, I suspected NDiaye was doing something with the idea of an unreliable narrator and that by the end we would see how our confinement to Nadia's point of view had warped our perception of what is going on outside that point of view. To some extent, we do get this — clearly, she is a person whose internalized shame and quest to escape her upbringing has caused her to behave terribly to many people who've been unlucky enough to come into contact with her. But it does not explain the book. Even if we assume that Nadia is somehow insane, the only way to explain much of what happens would be to assume almost nothing in the novel's narrative is "real". There is no point that I can think of, though, in assuming that the vast majority of a novel's incidents and encounters aren't meant to be read at some level of reality within the story if we don't have at least a few clear clues to how we are supposed to read between the lines. (And such reading between the lines can be a tremendously effective technique — it expands the story and our experience of it, creating an entire separate story within our imaginations. It's a technique I'm quite fond of.) Thus, we are left, in My Heart Hemmed In, able to assume at least some of the incidents are projections of Nadia's paranoia, but probably not all.At the end of a 2016 consideration of NDiaye's work, Jeffrey Zuckerman writes:When psychology and realism no longer suffice to encompass our world, then whatever goes into the forest can come back out, albeit in a different form. Whatever escapes the confines of the psychological novel will be a fantastical, new aspect of our world. And if this is so, then readers weary of the present-day literary landscape should take notice. By straddling the realistic and the fantastic, by touching on the needs of the present moment and presenting new answers to age-old dilemmas, NDiaye is writing a literature both innovative and incredi[...]

What Is To Be Done About The Social Novel?


Chernyshevsky in prison, painting by Gorovych (1953)The new issue of Harper's includes a review-essay by Jonathan Dee that asks a question summed up by the writer of the headline as "Does the social novel have a future?" Ultimately, though, the essay is not so much concerned with that question as with questions of imagination and representation.Dee reviews (or at least mentions) four recent books (three novels, one nonfiction account) which got him thinking about questions of what tends to be called "cultural appropriation" and the limits of fictionality. He admits he was skeptical of the idea of "cultural appropriation" until he read Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck and found himself thinking it's a good novel that also makes choices that he, when reading, grew uncomfortable with.I haven't read the books Dee writes about, but I expect I would generally agree with his assessment of them, and his description of Erpenbeck's book made me quite certain I would dislike it for all the reasons he offers, and probably more. (I've complained about similar problems of representation particularly with fiction by non-African writers about African people and places, for instance.) I share his discomfort with the term "cultural appropriation", but not his slow awakening to the phenomena it tries to name — my problem with the term is with the term itself, which seems to me vague and also unnecessary when plenty of other more specific and meaningful terms are available; further, I don't like the idea of culture as property, something with boundaries that can be legislated and policed, something one person can own and another cannot. Better to be specific, to talk of stereotyping, ignorance, and assumptions that reveal themselves in a text, and to show how they work, what they do (a fine model for this being Delany's essay "To Read The Dispossessed" in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, which shows exactly how Le Guin's assumptions about sexuality render her novel more narrow and less truthful than it might have been otherwise). Better to raise questions not of appropriation, but of power: of hegemonic speaking and subaltern silence.Dee starts with "the social novel", though. He defines the social novel as one "set in the present and meant to dramatize, with an edge of advocacy, a real-life economic or racial or political crisis". He quickly moves away from this specific definition to discuss novelistic practice more generally:For most of two centuries the novelist was able to believe in himself as a special surrogate, empathically capable of crossing the border to any experience and returning with its re-creation, thereby forcing his audience to acknowledge a contemporary injustice: Zola and the coal miners, Hugo and the urban poor, Sinclair and the industrial working class, Steinbeck and the dispossessed rural migrant.Here, Dee is stacking the deck so that he can make some arguments not about specific books but about The Novel as a phenomenon. All such endeavors will fail, because even at their best, they are generalizations for which exceptions abound. He is also, perhaps knowingly, telling a very male story — his exemplars are male, and he refers to the novelist over two centuries as "himself".His examples are interesting not just because they're men but also because their novels have not really stood the test of time well in comparison to other works. (Though, to be fair, they've done remarkably well in comparison to the piles of novels from their eras that nobody has even heard of anymore.) Hugo is best known as an inspiration to one of the most successful musicals of the last fifty years (the social novel turns out to metamorphose into [...]

"Grade Inflation" as a Path to Ungrading


Cat Sidh, FlickrAt Jacobin, Ed Burmila writes about grade inflation as a symptom of the neoliberalization of education, pointing out that there is no group within contemporary higher ed for whom there is much benefit to a lowering of grades, and, indeed, there are many groups for whom a lowering of grades is at best inconvenient and at worst utterly undesireable.This seems to me an accurate assessment, but it misses any sense of opportunity. Burmila laments the loss of meaning in grades and seems to yearn for a time when teachers were tough and gentlemen preferred Cs. There is an assumption within what he writes that grades and grade-point averages can be useful and meaningful.I don't entirely deny that grades can mean something. But what they mean is obscured by the simplification of a grade: one instructor's C is another's B is another's D. Grades provide an alibi for us, they let us pretend we're seeing an assessment when what we're seeing is something so simplistic and reductive that it has just as much chance of being a distortion as it has of being a reflection of a person's accomplishment, knowledge, skills, or abilities.Nobody wants to lie to students about their achievements or give them a false sense of accomplishment, and we should work hard to avoid doing so. Pretty much everybody wants students to build on their strengths and recognize their weaknesses so they can work on improving. In my experience, grades aren't a particularly effective tool for that. I've spent a lot of time and effort over the years trying to make grades meaningful, and I continue to do so, because grades are a fact of academic life for most students, teachers, and institutions. But again and again I find that the less I stress out about grading, and the less I think of grades as much of anything other than a very blunt, imprecise, summary measurement, the better I teach and the better my students learn.Students' anxiety about grades is, to me at least, a far greater impediment to learning than grade inflation. Indeed, one of the reasons I am now a passionate convert to the church of grading contracts is because it gets rid of that anxiety: "Do this, this, and this," the contract says, "and you are guaranteed a grade of X." I'm not an anything-goes teacher. You can't pass my class and do no work. (It's rare that a term goes by when at least one student doesn't get an F from me. I also feel utterly confident that just about any teacher on the planet would give an F to those students, unless it was the teacher's policy, as it is for some, to give a grade of  "incomplete" and let the student have more time. I don't believe in that model because it puts more work on the teacher, and anyone who is not salaried is volunteering to do unpaid labor later, so I insist on ending my class at the end of the term unless there are huge extenuating circumstances like medical emergencies, etc.) But I don't see any reason we shouldn't admit that grades are one of the least meaningful, least communicative ways of measuring accomplishment.The place we've gotten to now (in higher ed at least) is that lots of people inside and outside universities recognize that grades are hardly more accurate than astrology. Employers and grad schools recognize more and more that they can't use grades as meaningful summaries of years of work and study. (When 91% of Harvard students graduate with honors, those honors are decorative. And that's fine. It's nice to have decorations at graduation.) If you want to know if a graduate can communicate in writing, you have to look at that graduate's actual writing, not their grades. If you w[...]

Shetland: Attending to the Consequences of Violence


From now on, whenever someone argues that their story or tv episode or movie or whatever absolutely couldn't possibly work without a graphic rape scene, I will think of episode 5 of the third series of the BBC show Shetland. The episode includes the kidnapping and rape of a regular series character. But we don't even see the kidnapping, only the moments leading up to it and then other characters' growing concern over the disappearance. She reappears, walking barefoot to a Glasgow police station, and at first there is relief: She's safe and she doesn't seem harmed. And then she tells the series' main character, DI Perez, that evidence will need to be collected. The rest of the episode and much of the final episode pay careful attention to her and her colleagues' work to come to grips with the event. The drama plays out through dialogue and restrained, thoughtful acting.I tend to watch murder shows with dinner. I'm quite used to munching away amidst fictional gore. But as I watched this episode of Shetland, my dinner got cold. It was riveting, moving, and thought-provoking in a way more blood & guts shows are not. It grappled with the personal and legal consequences of sexual assault (and not just to this one character) in ways I don't remember seeing on tv before.Shetland began as an adaptation of some novels by Ann Cleeves (which I haven't read), but series 3 took a turn away from the established format of adapting a Cleeves novel into two hour-long episodes. I liked this format, which bucked so many tv trends of endlessly deferring the conclusions of stories (every conclusion becomes, instead of an ending, a cliffhanger kicking part of the plotline into the next episode or season). I held off on watching the third series because I worried that what I had enjoyed about the show was the relative efficiency of its storytelling, which I feared would be lost in a 6-episode series. I was pleased, then, to see how the writers used the extra time to both create a bit more breathing room and probe more deeply into the long- and short-term effects of violence on people. The kind of attention to detail and character development that made episode 5 work so well would not have been possible in the shorter format.Cleeves wrote an interesting appreciation of the episode for The Guardian, not having had a hand in the story herself. Here's some key information she shared:What made the episode of Shetland unusual was the approach of the team behind the script. They took their time over the story and they were determined to tell it from the woman’s point of view. Gaby Chiappe, the scriptwriter, Clare Batty, the script executive, and Elaine Collins, the executive producer, consulted Rape Crisis, not with a quick phone call, but by travelling to its HQ in Leeds and listening to the staff for several hours. They asked what they would ideally like to see and what they’d hate, and were told that any graphic portrayal of sex would be problematic. At Rape Crisis there’s clearly a dislike for scenes that appear to titillate or glamorise.Though the episode was not directed by a woman (the last three episodes of the series were directed by Jan Matthys), women were key members of the creative team, which especially in tv is at least as important as the director. They researched what they were representing, and they had an explicit goal of not contributing to harmful representations of rape in popular culture. They were careful and deliberate, and they scheduled the necessary time to make sure what they were doing was really what they wanted it to be.At the center [...]

Against Academic Conferences


There's a lot I love about academia — more than I dislike, or I wouldn't be about to start my 5th year toward a PhD — but it is an often vexing world, particularly to those of us who've spent a lot of time outside it. If you've never gotten outside the groves of academe, you're likely to internalize academic practices and not simply think that they're normal, but be utterly convinced that they're acceptable and even, perhaps, the only way to do things. Academic publishing, for instance, is even more whackadoodle bonkers and exploitative than trade publishing, and back in the days when I only knew the world of trade publishing, I wouldn't have thought such a thing was possible. Most academic publishing makes trade publishing look positively noble, generous, and big-hearted.A recent piece by Pamela L. Gay on "The Unacknowledged Costs of Academic Travel" got me thinking once again about one of the things I most dislike in academic life: traveling to conferences.Generally, the stuff I dislike about academia could fall into one of two (potentially overlapping) categories: neoliberalism and the logic of the winners. (I know the term neoliberalism is controversial, condemned as vague and meaningless, but it doesn't have to be vague and it certainly isn't meaningless. It is a bit clunky, though. Call the thing it points to whatever you want — rampant economism or the logic of the business class or arugula — I don't care, but there is a there there.) The logic of the winners is what I'll focus on here, because academic conferences are a perfect example of Things Winners Like So Much They Insist Everybody Must Like Them.Winners are people with academic jobs that pay a living wage, people with tenure, people with power over academic decision-making, people who sit on hiring committees and on promotion & tenure committees, people with travel budgets. They often don't feel like winners, because unless they're the president of Harvard or something like that, there's always a bigger winner up above them, but don't be fooled. If you have an academic job that covers all of your living expenses (if not your mound of student debt), you are a winner.I'm sure there are winners who don't like academic conferences, but lots of them do, or else conferences wouldn't be such a central part of academic life. In an age when we can instantly share our work with each other, when we can zap our video image across the world, when anybody with an internet connection can set up a website and publish just about anything, there's no great need for academics to get together and read papers at each other, as they do in my discipline. The scholarship can be shared and discussed otherwise.Some people might enjoy the social aspects of conferencing, and good for them. I'm not here to condemn them. If you've got the spare money to travel and you want to go have fun with your academic friends at some convention center somewhere, see a new city, splurge on a few nice dinners or a few too many overpriced cocktails, go for it! YOLO!But don't make it mandatory. Don't judge people's CVs by how many conference papers they've presented. Don't create an expectation that to be a good academic we must all join the jet set.In my experience, conferences are mostly a waste of time and money. I admit that might just be me, or mostly just me. I'm something of an introvert, I am often socially awkward, and I am usually anxious around people I don't know well. All bad things for a conference-goer, though not insurmountable challenges. If more conferences were de[...]

Why I Killed My Best Friend by Amanda Michalopoulou


A hazard of doing intense academic work all about novels and novelists and The Novel and the novelties of novelism, etc. etc. etc. ad noveleam, — as I have been doing for a few years now — is that you stop being able to enjoy novels. (Or maybe not you. Maybe this is just me. I long ago learned that I cannot binge on particular genres, whether novels or stories or poems or essays. After working as the series editor for the three Best American Fantasy anthologies, for instance, I hardly read any short fiction for a few years.)I didn't realize I wasn't enjoying novels until recently when, after not enjoying yet another book that had been highly praised and/or recommended by friends, I asked myself what the last novel I actually enjoyed was. I had to think long and hard. The answer: Universal Harvester by John Darnielle, from February. (Before that, Garth Greenwell's What Belongs to You, December 2016.) Not that long ago, but given how many novels I read or tried to read after Darnielle's, it felt like a looooong time. Sickness can mess up any sense of time, and when you're book-sick, days feel like weeks, months, years.Anyway, that's all over now, at least for the moment. After tossing one book after another aside, I more or less randomly picked up Why I Killed My Best Friend by Amanda Michalopoulou, translated by Karen Emmerich. I liked the bright pinkish-purple cover and the title, so I thought I'd give the first few pages a shot.Reader, I hardly put the book down until I was done with it.It's not that I thought it was the greatest novel ever written. I enjoyed it, admired much of it, but like many books, its later chapters can't live up to the promise of the earlier. The elements that unambiguously worked, though, really appealed to that readerly pleasure center, whatever it may be, and that's what I want to outline here. The parts of the book that didn't work for me were the final two chapters, and I didn't realize quite how much they didn't work for me until I'd made my way through them and could reflect on the novel as a whole. And by "not work" I don't mean they were terrrible; there's much of interest in them, but the feeling of disappointment and even frustration was acute because everything leading up to those last 50 pages felt just about perfect. In a mediocre book, those final chapters could have been the best things about it, but this is not a mediocre book.The concept of voice in writing is one I try to avoid because it too easily leads to mysticism — better, I think, to point to specific choices of language and structure. Yet, as a shorthand for the interplay of diction, tone, and style, there is an undeniable usefulness to talking about narrative voice with certain texts, and Why I Killed My Best Friend is one of them. There is a sprightliness that not only makes it an easy book to keep reading, but also contributes to an idea of the narrating character. This is one of the advantages of first-person narration for a certain type of writer (the easy access to characterization), but there are also pitfalls — while reading Why I Killed My Best Friend, I kept thinking of Nell Zink's The Wallcreeper, not only because it has a similarly lively and engaging narrative voice, but also because the comparison highlights some of the dangers of such writing: Zink's novel, too, falls apart in the end, unable in its substance to rise to the energy and invention of its voice. (Though I thought this was more of a fatal flaw in Zink's novel, which for me [...]

Watching Fassbinder Now


I've written a lot about Rainer Werner Fassbinder here at The Mumpsimus, and a few years ago created a video essay about his early films when Criterion released five of them as part of their (apparently discontinued) Eclipse series of bare-bones releases. I keep meaning to write more about RWF, to create new video essays (on Fassbinder and the recently deceased cinematographer Michael Ballhaus; on queer Fassbinder), and I will eventually, but for now I simply want to point out that U.S. viewers, at least, now have access to a big selection of Fassbinder films via TCM's new streaming site, Filmstruck, which replaced Hulu as the home to Criterion's streaming service.I'm giving Filmstruck a test ride, and so of course have delved into the Fassbinder titles. (And I'm not alone in that: here's a good new piece from Brandon Soderbergh on them.) There's quite a lot that hasn't been available in the U.S. for a while, most notably Querelle, which is streaming in a beautiful print that really conveys the vivid colors that are such a feature of the film's design. I've dreamed of a full Criterion edition of Querelle for years, as many of its home video releases have been of low quality. With luck, the availability of Querelle on Filmstruck signals a possible, eventual full Criterion release, which would be valuable simply for the addition of extra features, something Querelle really would benefit from, not only because it's a tremendously strange, even alienating movie, but because there's a documentary that makes a natural companion to it: Dieter Schidor's The Wizard of Babylon, made during Querelle's filming and including interviews with members of the cast and crew. (New essays, etc. would also be helpful — I would to see, for instance, Steve Shaviro write a new essay on the film, since his take on it in The Cinematic Body is so great, but he's moved beyond a lot of what he wrote in that book since.) Anyway, it's great to have Querelle available in all its vivid, languorous glory.Much about Fassbinder's work remains remarkable — his extraordinary productivity, the great number of masterpieces, the ingenuity — but what consistently amazes me is the force and immediacy of his best work. I have no way to tell whether his films feel as radical now as they did when they first appeared, but they very much feel radical now. They unsettle common-sensical aesthetics and assumptions (those ideas of what a movie should be and do, how actors should act, how sounds should sound, how images should be made), but more than that they utterly scoff at conservative values and liberal pieties both. Thomas Elsaesser writes well about this in Fassbinder's Germany: "Fassbinder's 'strong' female characters (Maria Braun, Willie in Lili Marleen, Lola, Veronika Voss) refuse victim thinking, not least because it presumes to create empathy at the price of exonerating them from a responsibility which no solidarity among victims can efface. But the status of victim also locks the subject into binary reciprocity, which ... Fassbinder's cinema constantly tries to break open, radicalize or displace. As a consequence, it may be possible to see the utopian dimension in Fassbinder's films about Germany not primarily, as [Kaja] Silverman argues for Berlin Alexanderplatz, in the ideal of masochistic ecstasy, but in the insistence — here true to the tradition of the anarcho-libertarian credo Fassbinder always professed — that the couple as a love relationship can only exist when it recognizes [...]

Notes on Theory of the Novel by Guido Mazzoni


I've spent the last couple of weeks reading — almost devouring — Guido Mazzoni's Theory of the Novel, recently translated by Zakiya Hanafi from the Italian (a very clear translation of a complex text; not reading Italian, I can't vouch for its accuracy, but it's one of the most readable works of academic theory I've ever encountered). I'm still working through where I agree and disagree with Mazzoni, but however my thinking evolves regarding his ideas, the book is unquestionably impressive and thought-provoking, and particularly valuable in how it develops and clarifies some of the classic concepts in the field from Bakhtin, Lukács, Erich Auerbach, and Ian Watt (among others). The only other recent book I've read that seems almost as clear and logical on similar topics is The Rhetoric of Fictionality by Richard Walsh, a less ambitious, less fulfilling, and less elegant book than Mazzoni's, but useful in filling in around some of Mazzoni's edges, since Mazzoni, like most writers and theorists, occasionally does a bit of hand waving to get around the paradoxes created by the concepts of fiction/nonfiction.For a good basic overview of Mazzoni's main ideas, see Alberto Comparini's review for the LA Review of Books and M.A. Orthoffer's review for The Complete Review. Here, I want to simply make some notes on things that stuck out for me on a first reading, and to offer a few quotations from the text. (I'll put page number citations in not from a desire to be all fancy-pants academic, but because it's tough to excerpt Mazzoni's ideas without doing some violence to them, and interested readers really should read the quotations in context.)image by Lin KristensenMazzoni's focus is more narrow than the book's title makes apparent. He's really writing about the literary novel in Europe, with occasional necessary forays to the British Isles and, in the later 20th century, to the U.S. This goes against the grain of some other recent writing on the novel, which tends toward a broader canvas. (See, for instance, Steven Moore's extraordinary [and extraordinarily idiosyncratic] two volumes, which in almost 2,000 pages only get up to the year 1800, or Michael Schmidt's 1,200-page The Novel: A Biography.) Mazzoni's knowledge seems to be of the novel in Italian, German, French, and English, and it is extraordinary rich knowledge, even if it rarely extends beyond Europe's borders — the key is that Mazzoni develops and exemplifies his ideas with works from the literary histories and traditions he knows intimately, and, unlike some other recent scholars, he doesn't pretend he can read all languages and know all cultures. This means he mostly writes about European novels by white men, and mostly the stuff canonized by undergraduate English classes over the last century or so — the novelistic Usual Suspects.Such an approach works well up to about 1940, because it allows Mazzoni to challenge and complicate a pretty settled (even dusty) academic discourse with its own most common examples, thus giving us a new view of a baby while flushing its slimy old bathwater down the drain. The approach is less convincing after 1940 partly because of the efflorescence of varieties of novels published since then (which Mazzoni admits), but also because after WWII literary conversation shows an ever-growing interest in novels not by white European guys. Couple that with the basic challenge of trying to figure out what the most meaningful works are in an era that's[...]

A Quiet Passion


Few cinematic genres are as consistently awful as the biopic. Many of the greatest filmmakers have avoided any temptation to enter that genre, and the ones that, for reasons of finances or temporary insanity, did give it a shot usually ended up creating some of their worst films. (Mike Leigh is one of the few great filmmakers to have also created great biopics with Topsy-Turvy and Mr. Turner.)Biopics of writers are especially hazardous. Most writers, after all, aren't as cinematic in their lives as Hunter S. Thompson or William S. Burroughs. Making the highly interior work of writing into something cinematically interesting is a nearly insuperable challenge, a challenge that usually results in Romantic cliché and general absurdity.Which brings me to Terence Davies' latest film, A Quiet Passion, a biopic of Emily Dickinson, a writer with perhaps the least cinematic life of them all. I am fascinated by Dickinson's poetry, but I'm not a Davies acolyte; I find his gauzy aesthetic generally uncompelling. However, I also think his adaptation of A House of Mirth is magnificent. Thus, I went to see A Quiet Passion wary but hopeful.Alas, I thought it was one of the worst movies I've ever seen. The script is stunningly bad, the acting animatronic, and the portrayal of Dickinson narrow.My opinion is among a small minority. Most critics have viewed the film positively, even rapturously. I won't try to explain this beyond saying it's obvious that I am just the wrong audience for Terence Davies movies. I will admit, though, a slight suspicion that if Davies' name were erased from the film, the criticism would be harsher. It's not just that once a filmmaker has become celebrated for a particular style and approach, lovers of that style and approach react in Pavlovian ways to it. I'm sure there's some of that, but there's also a sense of following a career, of watching the (beloved) style and approach develop with new material. In some ways, that's one of the better effects of auteurism: it allows us to appreciate a variety of works by a filmmaker we admire. I, for instance, am so besotted with David Lynch that I can even find things to praise in Dune. There ought to be sensible limits though. I'm certainly not going to try tell you that Dune is a good movie.I will be curious to see the response of Dickinson scholars to this movie. Most film critics probably don't know anything about Dickinson or her poetry, but that really doesn't matter: a dully accurate biopic is still a dull pic; an utterly inaccurate and thrilling work of art is still a thrilling work of art. What does matter, though, to at least a certain extent, is the kind of Dickinson that Davies chooses to portray. While I'm not especially concerned with the accuracy of a film, I am interested in the sorts of decisions filmmakers make about what to include and not include. To exclude, for instance, characters such as Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Otis Phillips Lord, is to choose to portray Dickinson's literary and emotional lives in a particular way — a way that matches Davies' interest in repression, but which creates an unnecessarily attenuated portrayal.The strongest negative reaction to the film that I have found is Joanna Drucker's at the LA Review of Books, a review that is somewhat slipshod, but nonetheless raises a few important points. Drucker's hatred for the film makes her careless ("Whoever wrote the script..." she says of a film where t[...]

Counternarratives by John Keene


John Keene's Counternarratives is one of the most impressive short story collections I've ever read from a living writer, and I was pleased to have the chance to write about it for my old blogosphere friend Dan Wickett, who does wonders celebrating short fiction via his Emerging Writers Network. Here's a taste:
The stories of John Keene provide an aesthetic to push against the power of the cultural forces that venerate quick, easy thinking; forces that reduce knowledge to soundbites and hottakes and quick! mustread! breaking! stories, enforcing a compulsory presentism that is little more than mass amnesia — and self-aggrandizing mass amnesia at that. It’s a prose aesthetic to fight against any impulse insisting life here and life now is the most, the best, the worst, the only. His 2015 collection Counternarratives — easily one of the most invigorating English-language story collections of the last 25 years — offers us a powerful contemporary toolbox of approaches to language and knowledge. I say contemporary because one of the great values of Keene’s prose is that he has studied and emulated the writing not only of writers older than himself, but writers long dead by the time he was born, recognizing what they might, in their very different ways, offer, and then building on the offerings. Such study seems to be rare in current American fiction.

Continue reading at Emerging Writers Network

Experiments with Feedback and Grading in a First-Year Writing Course


It's been a while since I last wrote here about teaching, for a simple reason: I've been teaching the same course, First-Year Writing, for a couple of years now, and haven't really had much to say about it. (Literature grad students at UNH used to be able to get some lit courses to teach after a required year of teaching what we colloquially call 401, but various forces related to lower enrollments made my cohort the last to get any lit courses [when I taught Literary Analysis and then an American lit survey], and so for the past two years I've taught nothing but 401).For the upcoming year, the university awarded me a Dissertation Year Fellowship, so I will not be teaching. Before all memory of the past few years leaves my mind, here are some reflections...This academic year, bored to death with my own teaching, I decided to experiment with the course a bit, and those experiments worked out well generally, so perhaps they are worth sharing here.Most of my experiments are stolen/adapted from other teachers. Last summer, I went back to the work of Peter Elbow, the single greatest influence on my teaching of writing. Elbow's books Everyone Can Write, Writing with Power, Writing without Teachers, and A Community of Writers were hugely influential on my teaching when I first encountered them as a young teacher, and I have returned to parts of each through the years to keep reminding myself of the basic principles of what I do.While Elbow provides the foundation for what I aim for with writing courses, my recent experiments have primarily been inspired by the experiments of my friend Robin DeRosa, the writings of John Warner at Inside Higher Ed and Arthur Chiaravalli's piece "Teachers Going Gradeless", as well as by the examples of some of my friends at UNH who tried out similar things and generously shared their thoughts and materials.The key changes in my teaching were the use of a "B Contract" and a portfolio system. These have worked so well that I plan to adapt them to as many courses that I teach in the future as I can.Of course, being an Elbow fan, I'd used portfolios before. I've always liked them in concept, but have often shied away from them because I struggled to find a system where reading and grading them did not overwhelm me in the time between when they were turned in and when grades were due to the registrar. For me, at least, there simply isn't time or energy to do a thorough, thoughtful reading of a portfolio at the end of a term. The B contract along with consistent self-evaluation assignments for the students help with that, and I no longer dread the final grading.If you want to see how all this plays out in policy and practice, my most recent syllabus is here. (Were I teaching in the fall, I would weed my syllabus. There's a lot of policies we're required to include, but the syllabus needs to be rewritten to be more manageable for students. Even I get lost in its brambles as it is!)The key problems I identified last summer as ones I wanted to solve this year were: 1.) The research papers are always the weakest of the term, and I generally don't enjoy reading and grading them or have much faith that students have learned a lot from the process; 2.) I needed to spend less time reading and grading student work generally, because I had become like a goldfish growing to fit its environment: I was devoting nearly the same amount of time to this one[...]