21 May 2015

Essence of Mannstyle: Blackhat


Mannstyle
No film director gets the sound of gunfire like Michael Mann. It's not just that he typically uses recordings of live fire; plenty of people do that. There's an alchemy he performs with his sound designers, a way of manipulating both the sound of the shots and the ambient sound to create a hyperreal effect. It's not the sound of gunfire. It's a sound that produces the effect of standing close to the sound of gunfire.


Mann is celebrated and derided for his visual style, a style so damn stylish that any Mann film is likely to get at least a few reviews saying, "All style, no substance." I can't empathize with such a view; for me, style is the substance of art, and if any object has value beyond the functional, that value is directly produced by style. (Which is not to say that Mann's style is above criticism. Not at all. But to say that it is "only" style, and that substance is something else, something that can be separated from style, seems nonsensical to me. You may prefer the style of an Eric Rohmer or Bela Tarr or a Steven Spielberg or just the general, conventionalized style of mainstream Hollywood or mainstream TV ... but it's still style, and it's still substance created and transmitted through style.)

07 May 2015

Secret Wonder Bondage Woman!

 
I recently read Jill Lepore's The Secret History of Wonder Woman alongside Noah Berlatsky's Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism, which had the bad luck to be published at nearly the same time. The two books complement each other well: Lepore is a historian and her interest is primarily in the biography of William Moulton Marston, the man who more or less invented Wonder Woman, while Berlatsky's primary interest is in analyzing the content of the various Wonder Woman comics from 1941-1948.

Lepore's book is a fun read, and it does an especially good job of showing the connections between late 19th-/early 20th-century feminism and the creation of Wonder Woman, particularly the influence of the birth control crusader and founder of what became Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger. The connection to Sanger, as well as much else that Lepore reports, only became publicly known within the last few decades, as more details of Marston's living arrangements emerged: he lived in a polyamorous relationship with his legal wife, Elizabeth, and with his former student, Sanger's niece Olive Byrne (who after Marston's death in 1948 lived together for the rest of their very long lives). Some of the most fascinating pages of Lepore's book are not about Wonder Woman at all, but about the various political/religious/philosophical movements that informed the lives of Marston and the women he lived with. She also spends a lot of time (too much for me; I skimmed a bit) on Marston's academic work on lie detection and his promotion of the lie detector he invented. As she chronicles his various struggles to find financial success and some sort of renown, Lepore's Marston seems both sympathetic and exasperating, a bit of a genius and a bit of a con man.

Because she had unprecedented access to the family archives, and is an apparently tenacious researcher in every other archive she could get access to, Lepore is able to provide a complex view not only of Marston and his era, but especially of the women in his life — the women who were quite literally the co-creators of Wonder Woman: Marjorie Wilkes Huntley, Elizabeth Marston, and Olive Byrne. She is especially careful to document the contributions of Joye Hummel, a 19-year-old student in one of Marston's psychology classes who, after Oliver Byrne graded her exam (which "proved so good she thought Marston could have written it") was brought in to help work on Wonder Woman. Originally, Marston thought he could use Hummel as a source of current slang, and to do some basic work around the very busy office. "At first," Lepore writes, "Hummel typed Marston's scripts. Soon, she was writing scripts of her own. This required some studying. To help Hummel understand the idea behind Wonder Woman, Olive Byrne gave her a present: a copy of Margaret Sanger's 1920 book, Woman and the New Race. She said it was all she'd need." When Marston became ill first with polio and then cancer, Hummel became the primary writer for many of the Wonder Woman stories. (Lepore provides a useful index of all the Marston-era Wonder Woman stories and who worked on them, as best can be determined now.)

Lou Rogers, 1912
H.G. Peter, 1943/44
Lepore also has a few pages on Harry G. Peter, the artist who brought Wonder Woman to life, and does a fine job of showing how Peter, who was about 60 when he got the Wonder Woman assignment, was also influenced by the iconography of the suffrage movement. He had been an illustrator for Judge alongside the far better known Lou Rogers, who created some of the most famous artwork of the later suffrage movement. Lepore writes: "To Wonder Woman he brought, among other things, experience drawing suffrage cartoons." (Not a lot seems to be known about Peter — Lepore has a note stating that "details about Peter's life are difficult to find, largely because, after his death in 1958, his estate fell into the hands of dealers, who have been selling off his papers and drawings, one by one, for years, to private collectors.")

Marston was hardly a perfect man or role model, and one of the things the story of his life and the lives of the women around him shows is the complexity of trying to live outside social norms. While Marston had some extremely progressive ideas not only for his own time but for ours as well, he was also very much a product of his era and location. That's no earth-shaking insight, but Lepore does a good job of reminding us that for all his liberalism and even libertinism, Marston still had many of the flaws of any man of his age, or of ours. He truly seemed to dislike masculinity, and yet lived at a time when it was difficult to imagine any way of living outside of it or its hierarchies, and his ways of analyzing the effect of masculinity and patriarchy were very much bound by his era's common notions of gender, biology, propriety, and race. Lepore does a fine job of showing not only how the assumptions and discourses of a particular time, place, and class situation shape notions of the possible in Marston's life, but also in the lives and politics of the early 20th century feminist movement.

04 May 2015

Previously Unpublished Stories by Robert Aickman to be Released by Tartarus Press



I just told Ray Russell at Tartarus Press that I think the impending release of The Strangers by Robert Aickman is the publishing event of the year. That's not hyperbole. Aickman's stories are among my favorite works of 20th century art, and I always thought the canon was complete. Indeed, I thought that once Tartarus had brought all of Aickman back into print that I was done with being insanely grateful to Tartarus. But no!
The Strangers and Other Writings includes previously unpublished and uncollected short fiction, non-fiction and poetry by Robert Aickman. Dating from the 1930s to 1980, the contents show his development as a writer. Six unpublished short stories, augmented by one written for broadcast, follow his fiction from the whimsical through the experimental to the ghostly, with ‘The Strangers’ a fully-formed, Aickmanesque strange tale. The non-fiction samples Aickman’s wide-ranging interests and erudition: from the supernatural to Oscar Wilde; from 1940s films to Delius; from politics to the theatre; from Animal Farm to the canals.
Included with the book is a DVD of the documentary film Robert Aickman, Author of Strange Tales:
Featuring rare film, photographs and audio recordings, the film sheds new light on Aickman’s role in the development of the ghost story, his interest in restoring the British canal system and his wider involvement with the arts. Jean Richardson and Heather and Graham Smith share their memories of Aickman’s friendship, and writers Jeremy Dyson and Reggie Oliver evaluate Aickman’s literary legacy. 

02 May 2015

Canonicity and an American Literature Survey Course


This term, I taught an American literature survey for the first time since I was a high school teacher, and since the demands of a college curriculum and schedule are quite different from those of a high school curriculum and schedule, it was a very new course for me. Indeed, I've never even taken such a course, as I was successful at avoiding all general surveys when I was an undergrad.

As someone who dislikes the nationalism endemic to the academic discipline of literature, I had a difficult time figuring out exactly what sort of approach to take to this course — American Literature 1865-present — when it was assigned to me. I wanted the course to be useful for students as they work their way toward other courses, but I didn't want to promote and strengthen the assumptions that separate literatures by national borders and promote it through nationalistic ideologies.

I decided that the best approach I could take would be to highlight the forces of canonicity and nationalism, to put the question of "American literature" at the forefront of the course. This would help with another problem endemic to surveys: that there is far more material available than can be covered in 15 weeks. The question of what we should read would become the substance of the course.

19 April 2015

Stuck Rubber Baby at 20


Before 1995, Howard Cruse was best known as an underground comix artist, first coming to prominence with Barefootz in the 1970s, with his editorship of Gay Comix in the early 1980s, and then hitting a real stride with the Wendel comics in The Advocate throughout the '80s. Wendel ended in 1989, though, and Cruse began a major new project, his first graphic novel, Stuck Rubber Baby, released by the DC Comics imprint Paradox Press. It gained notice and won awards, but never had the breakout success of something like Maus, Persepolis, or Fun Home, though I would argue that it is at least close to equal in merit.

Stuck Rubber Baby is a true graphic novel — unlike many other books that get that label, it was not conceived in pieces or published serially; it was always intended to be a long, unified narrative. It tells the story of a man named Toland Polk, mostly through his memories of growing up in Alabama during the early 1960s as a white guy who doesn't really know what he wants from the world or his life, coming to grips both with the civil rights movement and his own homosexuality. Partly in an attempt to try to cure his gay desires, he ends up in a relationship with a fiery college student, activist, and singer named Ginger, and she becomes pregnant. Meanwhile, protests against segregation and racism are growing more and more ferocious, and the white establishment fights back, with tragic, horrifying results. Throughout it all, Toland meets queer characters of various races and ages, and finally decides both that political action is necessary and that he can't pretend to be heterosexual any longer. This primary story is framed as the memories of Toland thirty years later, apparently in a stable relationship with a man, living a solidly bourgeois urban gay life, but still haunted by the past. Other characters' stories and fates are woven through Toland's memories, creating a complex view of this past and his remembering of it.

I've had a weird relationship with Stuck Rubber Baby over the course of its lifetime: I looked through it when it was first published and decided it wasn't for me; I read the whole book sometimes in the early 2000's and liked it but didn't really engage with it; I recently read it very carefully and closely, which led to something like awe. (The last time I had as powerful a reading experience was when I read J.M. Ledgard's Submergence over a year ago.)

30 March 2015

The Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction: Why American? Who American? What American?


Cambridge University Press recently released The Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction edited by Eric Carl Link and Gerry Canavan, a sequel, of sorts, to 2003's The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn. I bought the James and Mendlesohn volume at the first science fiction convention I ever attended, the Worldcon in Boston in 2004, and I think it's an admirable volume that mostly does its best to try for the impossible, which is to present a coherent overview of the history and scholarship of science fiction as a genre-thing (mostly in the Anglo-American mode). I have mixed feelings about the Cambridge Companion to... series, because the volumes often feel like grab-bags and pushmi-pullyus, a bit too specific for people looking for an introduction to the scholarship on a topic, a bit too general for people with knowledge of a topic. They often contain a few excellent individual chapters amidst many chapters that feel, to me at least, like they needed about 15 more pages. That's still, inevitably, the case with James and Mendlesohn's volume, but many of the chapters are impressively efficient, and as a guide for beginning scholars, the book as a whole is useful.

The new Link and Canavan book doesn't work quite as well for me, and it has a higher number of chapters that seem, frankly, shallow and, in a couple of cases, distortingly incomplete and sometimes flat-out inaccurate. With a topic limited to a particular geography, you'd think the editors and writers would be able to zero in a bit more. Some chapters do so quite well, but my experience of reading through the book was that it felt more diffuse and less precise than its predecessor, with annoying little mistakes like Darren Harris-Fain's statement that James Patrick Kelly's story "Think Like a Dinosaur" requires close reading to find its SF tropes (it's set on a space station and includes aliens; finding the SF tropes doesn't require close reading, just the most basic literacy). Despite the annoyance of little errors and the frustration of wild generalizations in many of the post-WWII chapters, I began to wonder if the big problem might be a matter of the volume's determination to focus on "American" science fiction, a determination that works very well for the chapters looking at pre-World War II fiction, but then becomes ... problematic.

The problem, though, might be me. I'm not at all the intended audience for the book, I have ideological/methodological hesitations about some of the framing, and I have a love/hate relationship with academic science fiction scholarship in general — feelings that are probably mostly prejudices unburdened by facts. (Sometimes, I have trouble shaking the feeling that SF criticism is still wearing training wheels.) At the same time, though, I'm also drawn to the idea of scholarship about science fiction and its related genres/modes/things/whatzits, because I am (for now) ensconced in academia and also have been reading SF of one sort of another all my life, off and on. I'm not particularly familiar with Eric Carl Link as a scholar (though I'm using his Norton Critical Edition of The Red Badge of Courage in a course I'm teaching right now), but I've been following Gerry Canavan's work for a few years and I think he's a force for good, someone who is trying to keep SF criticism moving into the 21st century. Indeed, I just got back from the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, where I heard Canavan deliver a truly interesting paper on posthumanism, Kim Stanley Robinson, eco-SF, etc.

In my more radical moments, I wonder if, to move into this century, we shouldn't just get rid of the whole idea of "American" science fiction, or at least the study of it as such. (Heck, in my most radical moments, I wonder if we shouldn't get rid of the whole idea of "science fiction", but that's a topic for another time...)

04 March 2015

Stay, Clute

Stay cover

Strange Horizons has now posted my review of John Clute's latest collection of materials, Stay. A taste:
Even a mere glance through Stay, John Clute’s latest collection of book reviews, short stories, and lexicon entries, (or through any of Clute's books, really) will convince you that you are in the presence of genius.

But a genius of what type? The type that can turn a million candy wrappers into a surprisingly convincing small-scale replica of a rocket ship, or the type that zips to the heart of a zeitgeist faster than the rest of us? Is this genius a fox, a hedgehog, an anorak? Does it sing in seemingly effortless perfect pitch, or is its singing, like that of a dog, remarkable simply for being at all?

The desire to taxonomize is inevitable after reading even a few pages of Clute. He is a wild literary Linnaeus: obsessively compulsed to categorize. As someone generally uninterested in taxonomy, I have struggled to learn to read Clute appreciatively. I used to want to shoot his clay pigeonholes, to mock his neologistic frenzies, to clothe the emperor. But then I realized I was enjoying his work too much to do so. Clute’s imperative to categorize is contagious. I’d passed through the portal and made my way into Cluteland.
This review marks ten years of my writing for Strange Horizons — I began as a columnist in February 2005 with a rather odd piece titled "Walls". I stopped as a columnist after writing fifty, since I felt like I'd done what I could do with the form for that audience, but I've continued occasionally to write reviews.

I don't do a lot with genre speculative fiction these days, since other things have taken me elsewhere, but it's nice to be back now and again at a publication that feels so much like home. I owe thanks to lots of people there, especially former editor-in-chief Susan Groppi, who first asked me to write for the magazine, current editor-in-chief (and the first, if I remember correctly, reviews editor) Niall Harrison, recent past reviews editor Abigail Nussbaum, new reviews senior editor Maureen Kincaid Speller, and book reviews editor Aishwarya Subramanian, who not only let me keep some of my bad puns and jokes, but even liked some of them! Strange Horizons remains a unique, wonderful place out there in the wide world of the web, and it has always been an honor to be associated with it.

23 February 2015

Could It Be ... SATAN?!


Press Play recently posted a new video essay I created on Satan in cinema along with a brief text essay.

Here's the beginning of the text essay, should you need some enticement...
The character of Satan seems far more appealing to filmmakers than the character of God. This may be for reasons of propriety: one should not, perhaps, make too many images of God. But since when has Hollywood cared about anything other than money and stardom? God isn’t any good for either. Omnipotence is just too boring.

There are devils in most films, because most films are melodramas of one sort of another, and no melodrama works very well without some embodiment of evil. But Satan himself (or herself or theirself or anyself — Satan, like every angel, fallen or not, is any gender and every gender) is a less common figure. One of the most powerful Satanic representations in film history wasn’t even technically of Satan: it was Mephistopheles in Murnau’s Faust, still one of the most visually interesting portrayals of satanic power. 

The problem with portraying Satan is that it is difficult to capture the full horror he is supposed to be capable of.
(Continue reading and viewing at Press Play.)

15 February 2015

The Elements of Academic Style by Eric Hayot




Dr. Parenti: We get the grant, we study the problem, we propose solutions. If they listen, they listen. If they don't, it still makes for great research. What we publish on this is gonna get a lot of attention.

Colvin: From who?

Dr. Parenti: From other researchers, academics.

Colvin: Academics?! What, they gonna study your study? [chuckles and shakes head] When do this shit change?

The Wire, Season 4, Episode 13, "Final Grades"

It is only within the last few years that I have reluctantly accepted that I deserve that noxious and disreputable label: an academic. Truly, I am doomed.

But then, I've yet to meet an academic who isn't keenly aware of the doom. My sentences keep going off in various directions toward what I'm sure would be an incoherent 10,000-word rant about my love/hate relationship with academia. I delete those sentences because I'm not here to rant about academia, but rather to praise a book that serves as both a writing guide and a (sometimes sly) philosophical statement about knowledge and the communication of knowledge. It's a book aimed directly at people like me, and yet I think at least a few of its chapters deserve a wider audience than the doomed weirdos of grad school.

The book is The Elements of Academic Style by Eric Hayot, author of On Literary Worlds, a book I found marvelously provocative. Elements is also marvelously provocative, and shares On Literary Worlds' desire to shake things up a bit within the academy, but it's also highly practical. It has much to say about the purpose and rhetoric of academic writing, and it does so from a position not only of deep knowledge of such writing, but deep appreciation for it — and that may be its most revolutionary element.

At its most basic level, Elements is a writing guide for graduate students in the humanities, with information about the differences, for instance, between conference papers and journal articles, between dissertations and books, between Chicago citational style and MLA style, etc. It offers the sorts of advice you can find in lots of different writing guides: advice about developing a writing practice, putting together a writing group, living through doubt and self-doubt and self-hatred, forcing yourself to submit for publication, and so on. All good stuff, and Hayot has some interesting ideas and opinions about it all, but it's not what the book is best at.

For me, the most compelling and valuable sections are about the rhetoric of academic communication. The book is broken into four parts, and it is part two that I spent the most time thinking about and working through. Hayot titles this section "Strategy" (the others are "Writing as Practice", "Tactics", and "Becoming") and in eleven mostly very short chapters he discusses the structure, rhythm, and conventions of good academic prose.

"Good academic prose!" you cry. "Surely, it's an oxymoron!" Not to Hayot.

01 February 2015

Anton Chekhov's Selected Stories: A Norton Critical Edition edited by Cathy Popkin


My name is Matthew and I am a Norton Critical Edition addict.

Hardly a term has gone by without my assigning students at least one NCE, both when I was a high school teacher and especially now that I'm teaching college students. (This term, it's The Red Badge of Courage.) I have been known to change syllabi each term just to try out new NCEs with students. I have bought NCEs for myself even of books that I already owned in multiple other editions. I have all four editions of the NCE of Heart of Darkness because the changes between them fascinate me. (I've been meaning to write a blog post or essay of some sort about those changes. I'll get to it one day.)

Anton Chekhov is my favorite writer, a writer whose work I've been reading and thinking about for all of my adult life. The Norton Critical Editions of Chekhov's stories and plays published in the late 1970s remained unchanged until Laurence Senelick's Selected Plays came out in 2004, and then, finally, last year Cathy Popkin's Selected Stories. Senelick's collection is good, and probably all that the average reader needs, though I'm more partial to Senelick's true masterpiece, the Complete Plays, which is awe-inspiring.

Popkin's Selected Stories is something more again, and easily the best single-volume collection of Chekhov in English. This is the place to start if you've never read Chekhov, and it's a great resource even for seasoned Chekhovians. I'll go further than that, actually: Because of the critical apparatus, this is a great resource for anyone interested in fiction, translation, and/or writing; and it is one of the most interesting Norton Critical Editions I know, almost as impressive as my favorite NCEs, Things Fall Apart and The English Bible.