30 June 2014

Notes on Teaching First-Year Composition as a Film & Media Course

It appears that next year I won't be teaching any first-year composition classes at UNH, which will put on hold an experiment I began this past term with FYC. (I'm teaching Literary Analysis this fall and probably a survey course in the spring.) I'll record here some thoughts on that experiment, both for my own future use and in case they are of use or interest to anyone else...

27 June 2014

Guy Davenport on Writing and Reading

Guy Davenport, illustration from Apples & Pears

I've just begun reading Andre Furlani's Guy Davenport: Postmodern and After, a magnificent book (so far), and went to track down one of the items cited there, a 2002 interview by B. Renner for the website Elimae. Alas, the site seems to have died, but god bless the Wayback Machine: here it is, cached.

The interview is not as meaty as some others, for instance Davenport's Paris Review interview, but it's always interesting, and I was particularly struck by this:
DAVENPORT: At Duke I took Prof Blackburn's Creative Writing course (Bill Styron and Mac Hyman were in the class) and got the wrong impression that writing is an effusion of genius and talent.  Also, that writing fiction is Expression of significant and deep inner emotion.  It took me years to shake off all this.  Writing is making a construct, and what's in the story is what's important.  And style: in what words and phrases the story is told.  (William Blackburn, the full name.  His guiding us all toward autobiographical, confessional, "emotional" writing is -- in reaction -- why I write about concrete objectivities that are fairly remote from my own experiences.  I like to imagine how other people feel in a world different from my own.)
ELIMAE: Almost none of your stories take place in the U.S. or involve American characters. Is there a particular reason for this? Are Americans and the U.S. less noteworthy than other peoples and places, especially Europeans and Europe, or is it as simple as a matter of going to subject matter that hasn't already been done to death by other American writers? 

DAVENPORT: A clever critic might note that they are all set in the USA.  "Tatlin!" is a fable about totalitarian governments strangling creativity, not always blatantly and openly.  At the time I was lecturing on Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil, the classic study in our time of Government and The Poet.  Vladimir Tatlin's genius suffocated by Stalin seemed to me to be paradigmatic and timely.  I learned from Kafka's Amerika that you don't have to have a realistic knowledge of a place, and from Nabokov that "realism" is simply a fashionable mode.

We are still immigrants.  Culture imports and exports.  There was a great anxiety that European culture would be obliterated twice in the 20th century.  I became interested in "Europe" through Whistler's etchings.
And then there's a Davenport desert island list!
ELIMAE: Here's my version of the "desert island" question: if you could select any six books (besides your own) originally written in your lifetime, and be the author of those books, which six would they be?  

DAVENPORT: Your 6 books question is diabolical!  I couldn't have written any of 'em.
    Eudora Welty, The Golden Apples
    P. Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower
    Michel Tournier, Les Meteores
    Isak Dinesen, Anecdotes of Destiny
    Mann, Doktor Faustus
    Beckett, Molloy
Finally, I also found an interesting mention of Davenport in this interview with John Jeremiah Sullivan, whose whole response about the connection of writing and reading is great, but here's the Davenport part:
That said, how do you get to be a better reader? I asked Guy Davenport this question one time, because talking to him could really make a person despair; he just knew so much, he’d read so much in many languages, but not in a pedantic or scholastic way, in a really passionate way. He gave me what I thought was very solid advice, which was: first of all, start reading and don’t stop. The other thing is to follow your interest. He said there ought to be a phrase, “falling into interest,” to go with falling in love.

Follow your interest; follow the writers who energize you, not the ones who exert a sense of obligation on you. The books that do the one or the other will change, as time gone on. The landscape shifts. Don’t adhere to systems unless that feels good.

25 June 2014

The Narrative Arcade: On Vikram Chandra's "Artha"

Vikram Chandra's collection of interconnected stories, Love and Longing in Bombay, is a book I had thought of writing about in some detail, but I'm afraid time is not on my side with that, and a number of other writing projects need attention. One story I managed to make some notes on is "Artha", and here are those notes, in case some thoughts on the story are useful to someone else...

In thinking about Love and Longing in Bombay, I’m going to start by grasping some tiny pieces within the wholes, and see what I can do with them.

First, a single story, and a single page of that story, and not the words but the blank space.

The story: “Artha”. The page: 165 of the 1998 Back Bay Books paperback edition.

The two blank spaces between narrators and their narratives.

18 June 2014

We Are Living in a First-Draft World

The late David Markson did not have a computer. In March 2004, Laura Sims told him that there were things written about him on blogs. He replied:
NO, I've no idea what a Blog is. BLOG?
Sims sent him print-outs:
Hey, thank you for all that blog stuff but forgive me if after a nine-minute glance I have torn it all up. I bless your furry little heart, but please don't send any more. In spite of the lost conveniences, I am all the more glad I don't have a computer.


They make a statement about my background, there's an error in it. They quote from a book, and they leave out a key line. They repudiate a statement of fact I've made, without checking, ergo announcing I'm a fake when the statement is 100% correct. Etc., etc., etc. Gawd.

I have just taken the sheets out of the trash basket & torn them into even smaller pieces.
 From the wonderful little book Fare Forward: Letters from David Markson, edited by Laura Sims.

09 June 2014

The Church of Science Fiction

Back in January, having imbibed too many book reviews and flame wars, I spouted on Twitter: "Most critical writing could be summed up as, 'My god is an awesome god! Your god sucks.'" That especially seems to be the case with so much writing about science fiction, which is less rigorously analytical than it is theological.

Let's look at two examples.

Adam Roberts's new Guardian essay on science fiction and politics reminded me of a provocative essay in the current issue of Science Fiction Studies, "Fascism and Science Fiction" (JSTOR) by Aaron Santesso.

Here, I'm not going to wrestle with their arguments so much as speculate (perhaps irresponsibly, erroneously, ridiculously) on what itch such arguments scratch, because though I am skeptical of the overall thrust of both pieces, I don't find either to be especially bothersome. As I read each, I realized that I didn't understand the desires and assumptions that motivated them, because they are the desires and assumptions of a religious denomination I don't adhere to. I've explored and dabbled with various sects of the church of science fiction since childhood, and a part of me still very much wants to be a believer, but I just can't make the proper leaps of faith. Call me Doubting Matthew.

03 June 2014

Interfictions Online: The Indiegogo Campaign

Interfictions Online is doing some crowdfunding so that they can continue to pay contributors and not charge readers. Not only am I in favor of paying contributors and keeping material free for readers, I'm also a fan of Interfictions in all its various incarnations, since many of my friends and writers I admire have appeared there, are editors there, etc. And I'm not entirely selfless in passing on the appeal: I had a story in the first Interfictions anthology, and I've got a story coming out in a future issue of Interfictions Online.

You don't have to be selfless, either, though, because there are various items offered to people who give money, including a great set of new e-book anthologies.

02 June 2014

The Memory Garden by Mary Rickert

I reviewed Mary Rickert's novel The Memory Garden for the Los Angeles Review of Books.I loved the book, but it was a difficult review to write because it's just about impossible to say anything about this novel without ruining a significant effect of the last quarter of it. I'm not a fan of spoiler warnings, and generally think such things give way too much emphasis to plot, but in this case I think it is a book that needs some sort of warning before you read anything about it, because the effect of the last quarter is just so powerful and so much more than merely about the plot. So I said that in the review. Which in and of itself is almost saying too much.

Here's a better review of The Memory Garden: Go read this book!

01 June 2014

Jay Lake (1964-2014)

© 2009 Mari Kurisato

We knew this day was coming, but that doesn't really make it easier.

After years of struggling with cancer, Jay Lake has died.

Jay leaves a legacy of family, of friendships, of writing, and of science. He had his genome sequenced, and he submitted himself to grueling experimental trials. He could have gone more quietly into this good night; he chose instead to try to help the people of a future that has been denied to him. One of his greatest legacies may be to have helped, in some small or large way, to move us closer to a cure for cancer.

In place of eulogy, here's something I wrote when Jay could read it.

Farewell, friend.