28 November 2015

Thinking Back with Our Foremothers: For Jane Marcus

It is far too early to tear down the barricades. Dancing shoes will not do. We still need our heavy boots and mine detectors.
—Jane Marcus, "Storming the Toolshed"
1. Seeking Refuge in Feminist Revolutions in Modernism
Last week, I spent two days at the Modernist Studies Association conference in Boston. I hadn't really been sure that I was going to go. I hemmed and hawed. I'd missed the call for papers, so hadn't even had a chance to possibly get on a panel or into a seminar. Conferences bring out about 742 different social anxieties that make their home in my backbrain. I would only know one or maybe two people there. Should I really spend the money on conference fees for a conference I was highly ambivalent about? I hemmed. I hawed.

In the end, though, I went, mostly because my advisor would be part of a seminar session honoring the late Jane Marcus, who had been her advisor. (I think of Marcus now as my grandadvisor, for multiple reasons, as will become clear soon.) The session was titled "Thinking Back Through Our Mothers: Feminist Revolutions in Modernism", the title being an homage to Marcus's essay "Thinking Back Through Our Mothers" from the 1981 anthology New Feminist Essays on Virginia Woolf, itself an homage to the phrase in Woolf's A Room of One's Own. Various former students and colleagues of Marcus would circulate papers among themselves, then discuss them together at the seminar. Because of the mechanics of seminars, participants need to sign up fairly early, and I'd only registered for the conference itself a few days before it began, so there wasn't even any guarantee I'd been able to observe; outside participation is at the discretion of the seminar leader. Thankfully, the seminar leader allowed three of us to join as observers. (I'm trying not to use any names here, simply because of the nature of a seminar. I haven't asked anybody if I can talk about them, and seminars are not public, though the participants are listed in the conference program.)

Marcus was a socialist feminist who was very concerned with bringing people to the table, whether metaphorical or literal, and so of course nobody in the seminar would put up with the auditors being out on the margins, and they insisted that we sit at the table and introduce ourselves. Without knowing it, I sat next to a senior scholar in the field whose work has been central to my own. I'd never seen a picture of her, and to my eyes she looked young enough to be a grad student (the older I get, the younger everybody else gets!). When she introduced herself, I became little more than a fanboy for a moment, and it took all the self-control I could muster not to blurt out some ridiculousness like, "I just love you!" Thankfully, the seminar got started and then there was too much to think about for my inner fanboy to unleash himself. (I did tell her afterwards how useful her work has been to me, because that just seemed polite. Even senior scholars spend a lot of hours working in solitude and obscurity, wondering if their often esoteric efforts will ever be of any use to anybody. I wanted her to know that hers had.) It soon became the single best event I've ever attended at an academic conference.

24 November 2015

On Teaching Writing

Jan Steen, School Class with a Sleeping Schoolmaster

A writer recently wrote a blog post about how he's quitting teaching writing. I'm not going to link to it because though it made me want to write this post of my own, I'm not planning either to praise or disparage the post or its author, whom I don't know and whose work I haven't read (though I've heard good things about it). Reading the post, I was simply struck by how different his experience is from my own experience, and I wondered why, and I began to think about what I value in teaching writing, and why I've been doing it in one form or another — mostly to students without much background or interest in writing — for almost twenty years.

I don't know where the quitting teacher works or the circumstances, other than that he was working as an adjunct professor, as I did for five years, and was teaching introductory level classes, as I continue to do now that I'm a PhD student. (And in some ways did back when I was a high school teacher, if we want to consider high school classes as introductory to college.) So, again, this is not about him, because I know nothing about his students' backgrounds, his institution's expectations or requirements, his training, etc. If he doesn't like teaching writing where he's currently employed, he shouldn't do it, for his own sake and for that of his students. It's certainly nothing you're going to get rich from, so really, you're doing no-one any good by staying in a job like that, and you may be doing harm (to yourself and others).

Most of the quitting teacher's complaints boil down to, "I don't like teaching unmotivated students." I think it's important to recognize, though, that there are lots of different levels of "unmotivated". Flat-out resistant and recalcitrant are the ultimate in unmotivated, and I also rarely find joy in working with such students, because I'm not very good at it. I've done it, but have not stayed with jobs where that felt like all there was. One year at a particular high school felt like facing nothing but 100 resistant and recalcitrant students every single day, and though the job paid quite well (and, for reasons I can't fathom, the administration wanted me to stay), I fled quickly. I was useless to most of those students and they were sending me toward a nervous breakdown.  I've seen people who work miracles with such students. I wasn't the right person for that job.

But then there are the students who, for whatever reason, just haven't bought in to what you're up to. It's not their thing. I don't blame them. Put me in a math or science class, and that's me. Heck, put me in a Medieval lit class and that's me. But again and again, talented teachers have welcomed me into their world, and because of those teachers, I've been able to find a way to care and to learn about things I didn't initially care about in the least. That's the sort of teacher I aspire to be, and, for all my fumbling, seem occasionally to have succeeded at being.

It's nice to teach courses where everybody arrives on Day 1 with passion for the subject. I've taught such classes a few times. It can be fun. It's certainly more immediately fulfilling than the more common sort of classes where the students are a bit less instrinsically motivated to be there. But I honestly don't care about those advanced/magical classes as much. Such students are going to be fine with or without me. At a teaching seminar I attended 15 years ago, the instructor described such students as the ones for whom it doesn't matter if you're a person or a stalk of asparagus, because they'll do well no matter what. I don't aspire to be a stalk of asparagus.

There's another problem, too, and that's the problem of pedagogy. Many colleges and universities are terrible at providing training for teachers. There's an unspoken assumption that teaching is something anybody with an advanced degree can do. This despite the fact that anybody who's spent more than a few days in a college or university knows there are plenty of people with advanced degrees, people who may be brilliant at all sorts of other things, who can't teach at all.

Teaching writing is a particular skill, especially when teaching unmotivated students. I'm lucky to have spent some undergrad time and now some PhD time at the University of New Hampshire, where the teaching of writing is taken really seriously because writing teachers at UNH have long been interested not only in writing, but in the art of its teaching. The ghosts of Donald Murray, Donald Graves, and Robert Connors still haunt our halls. I continue to draw on things I learned in a Teaching Writing course in my last semester of undergrad. In my early years of teaching, I read every pedagogy book I could get my hands on. I still pick them up now and then, because I'm still learning to teach.

10 November 2015

Let's Do the Twist: How to Be Both by Ali Smith

I've been meaning to catch up with Ali Smith's novels for a while now, having previously only read Hotel World, and so when it came time this summer to formulate reading lists for my PhD qualifying exams, I stuck How to Be Both on the fiction section for the Queer Studies list. (This also explains why I was writing about The Invaders recently...)

How to Be Both turns out to be even more appropriate to my Queer Studies studies than I'd suspected from reading reviews, and it shows how the structures of fiction can be at least as provocative and productive as certain types of social and political philosophy. How to Be Both is generally a very readable, enjoyable book — in some ways deceptively so. In that, it reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut's best books, which manage to play with some complex ideas in light, entertaining ways. (Smith's novel would make a marvelous companion to Vonnegut's Mother Night in a course on the novel and history...) How to Be Both does quite a lot to challenge ideas of time, history, language, and various normativities, but it does so without collapsing into vagueness, abstraction, or pedantry; quite the opposite. It bears its own paradoxes far better than many works of vaunted critical theory, which end up, at their worst, sputtering out in abstraction and self-parody, like a Mad Libs version of an Oscar Wilde epigram.

Over the last ten years or so, there's been discussion among Queer Studies folks of queer temporality and historicism — the effect of contemporary vocabulary ("queer", "gay", "lesbian", "homosexual", "transgender") on a past that used different words and ideas; the relationship of past behaviors and ideas to present ones; the political power of the past for the present; the similarity or difference of past worlds to our own; how we express such similarity/difference; the experience of history as a queer person; etc. (Of course, the roots of this conversation go way back, but there have been particular spins on it recently.)

In 2013, Valerie Traub published a significant response to some of the more prominent discussions of these ideas, particularly among Renaissance scholars: "The New Unhistoricism in Queer Studies" (to which there was more response later), which is a relatively accessible entry point to some strands of discussion. Here's a bit of Traub:
Rather than practice “queer theory as that which challenges all categorization” ... there remain ample reasons to practice a queer historicism dedicated to showing how categories, however mythic, phantasmic, and incoherent, came to be. To understand the arbitrary nature of coincidence and convergence, of sequence and consequence, and to follow them through to the entirely contingent outcomes to which they contributed: this is not a historicism that creates categories of identity or presumes their inevitability; it is one that seeks to explain such categories’ constitutive, pervasive, and persistent force. Resisting unwarranted teleologies while accounting for resonances and change will bring us closer to achieving the dificult and delicate balance of apprehending historical sameness and difference, continuism and alterity, that the past, as past, presents to us. The more we honor this balance, the more complex and circumspect will be our comprehension of the relative incoherence and relative power of past and present conceptual categories, as well as of the dynamic relations among subjectivity, sexuality, and historiography.
Ali Smith's novel explores and even embodies this discussion, and does so in many ways that both the unhistoricists and the historicists seek to valorize. And it's more fun to read than their essays.

28 October 2015

I Can Give You Anything But Love by Gary Indiana

One reason I Can Give You Anything But Love is marvelous is that Gary Indiana plays the role of the Bitchy Queen with aplomb. It's the sort of thing he enjoys in the diaries of Richard Burton, who, he says, "cuts brilliantly through the grease in his desultory observations." The same could be said of Indiana, though we'd have to add that he's even better than Burton:
"His self-involvement was hermetic and vaguely reptilian. ... He was boastful, stupid, pathetically narcissistic, and sad, but such a deluded asshole it was impossible to feel sorry for him. I liked how he liked how I looked looking at him, that was literally all we shared."

"If the Tom of Finland types aren't stupid as boiled okra, they give that impression in conversation."

"I made the mistake of ferrying a frowzy, unlovely couple named Joni and Hank to Ralphs several times, creating the false impression that I enjoyed their company. They described themselves as sex addicts. Soon they considered me their friend. They began suggesting nauseating three-ways while piling giant bags of Cheez Doodles and cases of Coca-Cola into their shopping cart. They had a trailer park greasiness I associated with Charles Manson. Joni and Hank's dream was to 'break into show business,' a dream so remote from plausibility that it might have been touching, if they had been less needy and mentally dim."

"Notable figures graced our lobby. Anjelica Huston. Tony Perkins. I sometimes asked for their autographs on dispenser napkins, then took somewhat childish pleasure in using the napkins to mop up Coke spills."
Each chapter is filled with such passages. But if that were all, this would be one of those books you read just to feel superior to most of humanity (a useful antidote for self-hatred and depression, but cheap and nasty porn is more noble).

What makes I Can Give You Anything But Love more than merely marvelous is that Gary Indiana isn't just the Bitchy Queen. Indeed, by the end of the book I began to suspect that he, like so many, assumes that role as protection against the pain of being alive. That we see both the role and the pain — as well as the fierce intelligence framing both — is what is so special here.

25 October 2015

The Invaders by William Plomer

I mentioned William Plomer in passing when discussing my summer research on Virginia Woolf. Thanks to the wonders of Interlibrary Loan, I was recently able to read his fourth, and perhaps least-read (which is saying something!) novel, The Invaders. It's an odd book, one that sometimes feels a bit under-cooked, with an ending that seems to me perfunctory, forced, and utterly unsatisfying. Yet there are also moments of real artistry and interest, and I've found myself thinking about it continuously since I finished it a week ago.  

The Invaders is, among other things, a gay novel, but it doesn't get noted in even some of the most comprehensive studies of gay fiction, and Plomer deserves to be generally better known by scholars of queer literatures. He was not as talented or accomplished a fiction writer as many of his friends in the London literary scene, but his point of view was unique among them, because though he was mostly educated in England, his home until he was in his 20s was South Africa, and then he moved to Japan for a few years, before finally settling in London (though with many excursions elsewhere, particularly Greece). After The Invaders, he wrote only one more novel (and that 18 years later), but he published numerous volumes of poetry, biography, autobiography, etc. Fiction seemed to defeat him eventually. It's unfortunate, because there's a lot in The Invaders to suggest that if he had let down his guard a bit, if he had trusted the characters and stories more, if he had not been so seduced by English propriety, he might have been able to rekindle the creative fury that propelled him originally.

08 October 2015

Anecdotes on Literary Popularity and Difficulty

When interviewed by a reporter from the Wall Street Journal regarding Thomas Ligotti, Jeff VanderMeer was asked: "Can Ligotti’s work find a broader audience, such as with people who tend to read more pop horror such as Stephen King?" His response was, it seems to me, accurate:
Ligotti tells a damn fine tale and a creepy one at that. You can find traditional chills to enjoy in his work or you can find more esoteric delights. I think his mastery of a sense of unease in the modern world, a sense of things not being quite what they’re portrayed to be, isn’t just relevant to our times but also very relatable. But he’s one of those writers who finds a broader audience because he changes your brain when you read him—like Roberto Bolano. I’d put him in that camp too—the Bolano of 2666. That’s a rare feat these days.
This reminded me of a few moments from past conversations I've had about the difficulty of modernist texts and their ability to find audiences. I have often fallen into the assumption that difficulty precludes any sort of popularity, and that popularity signals shallowness of writing, even though I know numerous examples that disprove this assumption.

When I was an undergraduate at NYU, I took a truly life-changing seminar on Faulkner and Hemingway with the late Ilse Dusoir Lind, a great Faulknerian. Faulkner was a revelation for me, total love at first sight, and I plunged in with gusto. Dr. Lind thought I was amusing, and we talked a lot and corresponded a bit later, and she wrote me a recommendation letter when I was applying to full-time jobs for the first time. (I really need to write something about her. She was a marvel.) Anyway, we got to talking once about the difficulty of Faulkner's best work, and she said that she had recently (this would be 1995 or so) had a conversation with somebody high up at Random House who said that Faulkner was their most consistent seller, and their bestselling writer across the years. I don't know if this is true or not, or if I remember the details accurately, or if Dr. Lind heard the details accurately, but I can believe it, especially given how common Faulkner's work is in schools.

And this was ten years before the Oprah Book Club's "Summer of Faulkner". I love something Meghan O'Rourke wrote in her chronicle of trying to read Faulkner with Oprah:
Going online in search of help, I worried about what I might find. What if no one liked Faulkner, or—worse—the message boards were full of politically correct protests of his attitude toward women, or rife with therapeutic platitudes inspired by the incest and suicide that underpin the book? But on the boards, which I found after clicking past a headline about transvestites who break up families, I discovered scores of thoughtful posts that were bracingly enthusiastic about Faulkner. Even the grumpy readers—and there were some, of course—seemed to want to discover what everyone else was excited about. What I liked best was that people were busy addressing something no one talks about much these days: the actual experience of reading, the nuts and bolts of it.
We often underestimate the common reader.

06 October 2015

"Yes, We Really Do Want to Take Your Guns"

"In other words, yes, we really do want to take your guns. Maybe not all of them. But a lot of them."
—Josh Marshall, Talking Points Memo

Okay. All I've got's an antique rifle that would likely explode if fired, so no big deal to me. I would love to live in a country with far, far fewer guns. One of the reasons I think the NRA should be considered complicit with murder is their careful collusion over the last few decades with gun manufacturers to keep a flooded market profitable by using every scare tactic they could imagine to encourage people to keep buying. (I've written about all this, and other aspects of gun culture, plenty of times before.) I'm quite comfortable around guns, since I grew up with them as an everyday object (everything from .22 pistols to fully-automatic machine guns), and I have many friends who are gun owners, even gun nuts. But though I sometimes find guns attractive, even fascinating, I don't like them and I wish there were vastly fewer. The Oregon shooting happened at a place I'm familiar with, half an hour from the home of one of my best, most beloved friends. The present reality of mass shootings in the US is grotesque, and the easy availability of guns is a major part of the problem.

But I think Josh Marshall is delusional. No matter how much you wish for it, the guns in the United States are not going to be confiscated, and not just because of a lack of political will. The NRA sells the fear of confiscation to gun nuts all the time, but it is not just unlikely and not just politically difficult — given the amount of guns in the US, it is as close to impossible to achieve as any such thing could be. The horse left the barn at least forty years ago.

Certainly, it's valuable for activists to come out and say what they want rather than to lie or, at best, hedge their commentary to appear less radical. I like radicals, especially nonviolent ones, so I'm all for being openly radical. Own your radicalism!

And the idealism in Marshall's blog post is nice. I understand the feeling. But it's fairy-tale utopian. You want to think big, to be honest about your ultimate goals, and so you want to stop talking about things like universal background checks and maybe some restrictions on certain sizes of magazines and certain styles of rifles, things that might be possible to accomplish but are clearly small measures. I get it. I would like to stop talking about how I'll pay next month's bills and instead dream about winning the lottery.

But at a certain point you have to explain how you want to go about achieving your dream. What are the actual mechanics? What are the mechanisms that would bring your dream to reality? The fact is, I have a vastly better chance of winning the lottery than the US has any chance of significant gun confiscation.

Let's pretend we live in a fairy land where somehow the government would pass laws like the ones Australia famously passed. For basic background on that and how it worked, here's an overview from Vox. There are a bunch of things in there that are pretty much politically inconceivable in the US, even if they would likely survive challenge in the courts. But we're playing Let's Pretend.

05 October 2015

Collected Fiction by Leena Krohn

The most peculiar property of language is its symbolic function. The writer exchanges meanings for marks, while the reader performs the opposite task. There are no meanings outside us, or if there are, we do not know them. Personal meanings are made with our own hands. Their preparation is a kind of alchemy. Everything that we call rationality demands imagination, and if we did not have the capacity to imagine, we could not even speak morality or conscience.

—Leena Krohn, "Afterword: When the Viewer Vanishes"
Ann and Jeff VanderMeer have done wonders for the availability of contemporary Finnish writing in English with their Cheeky Frawg press, and in December they will release their greatest book yet: Collected Fiction by Leena Krohn. [Update: Now available via Amazon and Book Depository.]

I've been a passionate fan of Leena Krohn's work ever since I first read her book Tainaron ten years ago. I sought out the only other translation of her writings in English available at the time, Doña Quixote & Gold of Ophir, and was further impressed. I read Datura when Cheeky Frawg published it in 2013. It's all remarkable work.

Collected Fiction brings together all of those books, plus more: The Pelican's New Clothes (children's fiction from the 1970s, just as entrancing as her adult work later), Pereat Mundus (which I've yearned to read ever since Krohn mentioned it when I interviewed her), some excerpts and stories from various books published over the last 25 years, essays by others (including me) that give some perspective on her career, and an afterword by Leena Krohn herself.

This book is as important a publishing event in its own way as New Directions' release earlier this year of Clarice Lispector's Complete Stories. It's a similarly large book (850 pages), and though not Krohn's complete stories, it gives a real overview of her career and provides immeasurable pleasure.

04 October 2015

Zombie Boy

People often ask me, "What do you do to pass the time up there in New Hampshire?"

Well, when we're not cavorting with moose, celebrating the glories of our granite, and generally living free before we die, some of us make silly movies.

One that I was involved with is called Zombie Boy, which was written and directed by my friend Jamie Sharps. Against all odds, it now has distribution via MVD Media. It should be coming to various streaming platforms soon, and you can order the DVD from most of the places online where you'd order DVDs. (Here's the Amazon link, for instance.) There are even rumors of it showing up in some brick-and-mortar stores.

It's a spaghetti-western-style comic adventure involving people who've been zombified by a green serum. It's not a B movie, it's (intentionally) a Z movie. ("Z for zombie, yeah!" I hear somebody say...) We didn't have much money, and it took a couple years to get it all filmed and then another year to do post-production.

And yes, I am Zombie Boy. 

17 September 2015

Blood: Stories Now Available for Pre-Order

You can now order my upcoming collection Blood: Stories from the publisher, Black Lawrence Press. The book will be released in January 2016, and BLP is offering it for a bit of a discount before the publication date (it's a big book — 100,000 words — so will retail for $18.95).

Should you pre-order it? I don't know. Yes, of course, I would like you to. And if you're going to order it online, this is a good way to do it, because you'll get it pretty quickly and a larger percentage of your money will go to BLP, so you'll help a small publisher stay solvent. Once the book is published, you'll also be able to buy it from bookstores, and since I support people spending as much money as possible in local bookstores, that's a great way to get it as well.

Actually, you should probably both pre-order it and buy it from bookstores, because why would you want only one copy? You need to be able to give them away to friends — or, if you don't like the book, to enemies...