30 July 2015

Of Purpose, Audience, and Language Guides

There are lots of reasons that the University of New Hampshire, where I'm currently working toward a Ph.D. in Literature, should be in the news. It's a great school, with oodles of marvelous faculty and students doing all sorts of interesting things. Like any large institution, it's got its problems (I personally think the English Department is underappreciated by the Powers That Be, and that the university as a whole is not paying nearly enough attention to the wonderful programs that don't fall under that godawful acronym-of-the-moment STEM, but of course I'm biased...) Whatever the problems, though, I've been very happy at the university, and I'm proud to be associated with it.

But Donald Trump and Fox News or somebody discovered a guide to inclusive language gathering dust in a corner of the UNH website and decided that this was worth denouncing as loudly as possible, and from there it spread all over the world. The UNH administration, of course, quickly distanced themselves from the web page and then today it was taken down. I expect they're being honest when they say they didn't know about the page. Most people didn't know about the page. The website has long been rhizomatic, and for a while just finding the academic calendar was a challenge because it was hidden in a forest of other stuff.

I, however, did know about the page. In fact, I used it with my students and until today had a link to it on my Proofreading Guidelines sheet. It led to some interesting conversations with students, so I found it a valuable teaching tool. I thought some of the recommendations in the guidelines were excellent and some were badly worded and some just seemed silly to me, like something more appropriate to an Onion article. ("People of advanced age" supposedly being way better than any other term for our elders reads like a banal parody of political correctness. Also, never ever ever ever call me a "person of advanced age" when I become old. Indeed, I would like to be known as an old fart. If I manage to achieve elderliness — and it is, seriously, a great accomplishment, as my amazing, 93-year-old grandmother [who calls herself "an old lady"] would, I hope, agree — if I somehow achieve that, then I will insist on being known as an old fart. But if you would rather be called a person of advanced age rather than a senior or an elder or an old fart, then I will respect your wishes.)

27 July 2015

"Anti-Fragile" by Nick Mamatas

As a little addendum to my post about the somewhat narrow aesthetics of Ben Marcus's New American Stories anthology, let me point you to Nick Mamatas's "Anti-Fragile", a story that does pretty much everything I was hoping to find somewhere in New American Stories and didn't.

On Twitter, I said:
And that about sums up my feelings.

Well, also: I may be partial, as I am an avowed and longstanding lover of long sentences, and this story is a wonderfully skilled, thrillingly long sentence. It's well worth reading and thinking about.

25 July 2015

Notes on the Aesthetics of New American Stories

Ben Marcus's 2004 anthology The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories is a wonderfully rich collection for a book of its type. I remember first reading it with all the excitement of discovery — even the stories I didn't like seemed somehow invigorating in the way they made me dislike them. I've used the book with a couple of classes I've taught, and I've recommended it to many people.

I was overjoyed, then, when I heard that Marcus was doing a follow up, and I got it as soon as I could: New American Stories. I started reading immediately.

Expectations can kill us. The primary emotion I felt while reading New American Stories was disappointment. It's not that the stories are bad — they aren't — but that the book as a whole felt a bit narrow, a bit repetitive. I skipped around from story to story, dashing in search of surprise, but it was rare. I tried to isolate the source of my disappointment, of my lack of surprise: Was it the subject matter? No, this isn't quite Best American Rich White People. Was it the structure of the stories? Maybe a little bit, generally, as even the handful of structurally adventurous stories here feel perfectly in line with the structurally adventurous stories of 50 years ago, and somewhat tame in comparison to the structurally adventurous stories of 80-100 years ago. But that wasn't really what was bothering me.

And then I realized: It was the style, the rhythm. The paragraphs and, especially, the sentences. It wasn't that each story had the same style as the one I'd just read, but that most (not all) of the stories felt like stylistic family members.

18 July 2015


Stephen Dixon:
Good advice for writers: Write very hard, keep the prose lively and original, never sell out, never overexcuse yourself why you're not writing, never let a word of yours be edited unless you think the editing is helping that work, never despair about not being published, not being recognized, not getting that grant, not getting reviewed or the attention you think you deserve. In fact, never think you deserve anything. Be thankful you are able to write and enjoy writing. What I also wouldn't do is show my unpublished work to my friends. Let agents and editors see it — people who can get you published —and maybe your best friend or spouse, if not letting them see it causes friction in your relationship. To just write and not worry too much about the perfect phrase and the right grammar unless the wrong grammar confuses the line, and to become the characters, and to live through, on the page, the experiences you're writing about. To involve yourself totally with your characters and situations and never be afraid of writing about anything. To never resort to cheap tricks, silly lines that you know are silly — pat endings, words, phrases, situations, and to turn the TV off and keep it off except if it's showing something as good as a good Ingmar Bergman movie. To keep reading, only the best works, carry a book with you everywhere, even in your car in case you get caught in some hours-long gridlock. To be totally honest about yourself in your writing and never take the shortest, fastest, easiest way out. To give up writing when it's given to you, or just rest when it dictates a need for resting; though to continue writing is you're still excited by writing. To be as generous as your time permits to young writers who have gone through the same thing as you (that is, once you become as old as I am now). To not write because you want to be an artist or to say you're a writer. And to be honest about the good stuff that other writers, old and your contemporaries, do too. 

10 July 2015

Gratis & Libre, or, Who Pays for Your Bandwidth?

via Philip Taylor, Flickr

In talking with Robin DeRosa about open educational resources (OER), a lot of my skepticism was focused on (and continues to be focused on) the question of who pays for it. If I'm not just skeptical but also cynical about a lot of the techno-utopian rhetoric that seems to fuel both the OER advocates and, even more so, people who associate themselves with the idea of Digital Humanities, it may be because I've been paying attention to what the internet has done to writers over the last couple decades. It's not all bad, by any means — this blog is one of example of that, I continue to try to write mainly for online venues so that my work can be relatively easily and broadly accessed, and I put most of my syllabi online. I can do that because I have other income and don't rely on this sort of writing to pay the bills. Thus, in my personal calculations, accessibility is more important than revenue.

But that freedom to choose accessibility over getting paid, or over doing work other than writing that would pay me, is a gigantic luxury. I can only make such a calculation because I have other revenue (the stipend from the PhD program I'm in and money saved from selling my father's business, which, though it's not enough to let me stop working, pays a bit over half of my basic expenses), and so the cost of my writing for free here on this blog, rather than doing remunerative work, is absorbed by that other revenue.

Further, aside from blog posts and some academic material, I usually won't write for free. Both because there are, in fact, people who will pay me, and also because I don't want to de-value the work of writing. Letting people have your work for free means they begin to expect that such work ought to be free. And while yes, in a post-capitalist utopia, I'd love for all work to be free ... we are, alas, not living in a post-capitalist utopia (as you might've noticed). Bills must still be paid. Printers and managers and bosses and technicians all get paid. And therefore writers should be paid.

In our Q&A, Robin said, "For materials to be 'open,' they need to be both free as in no-cost (gratis) and free as in free to repurpose and share (libre)."

It's that "no cost" that seems to me dangerous — the idea that there is no cost. Of course there's a cost. There's the cost of labor, first of all, with somebody working, either for free or not (and if for free then how are they paying their bills?). But then there are all the other things: the cost of bandwidth and of technological infrastructure, for instance.

Somebody is paying, even if it's not you.

30 June 2015

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara


I don't know a better word for Hanya Yanagihara's novel A Little Life, published earlier this year by Doubleday.

Heart-wrenching, yes. But more than that. Not just the heart. The brain, the stomach, all the organs and muscles. It is a full-body-wrenching experience, this book.

It's too early to say whether this is a Great Novel, whether it is a novel for the ages, a novel that will bear numerous re-readings and critical dissections and late-night litchat conversations; whether it will burn long or be a blip on the literary landscape. Who knows. It's not for me to say. What I can say, though, is that working through (sometimes rushing through) its 700 pages was one of the most powerful reading experiences of my life.

There are passages and situations in this book that many readers will not want to live with, will not want in their minds' eyes, and I can sympathize with that. Yanagihara's own editor said, "I initially found A Little Life so challenging and upsetting and long that I had to work my way through to appreciating it. ... (My private little descriptive tag for the book is 'miserabilist epic.')" Miserabilist isn't the right modifier for me, despite the many miseries in the book, but there's certainly an epic quality to the novel's expanse, at least in the everyday vernacular sense of epic. In a genre sense, though, A Little Life is seldom epic; indeed, it's often the opposite: instead of expanding across history and myth and fantasy, telling digressive and episodic tales of heroes and villains, it narrows the world, history, and myth into ahistorical psyches and bodies, constructing a world less of event than of feeling.

Return of the Sandman Meditations

Boomtron just published my latest Sandman Meditation, this one on Chapter Two of The Wake.

"Sandman Meditation?" you say. "That sounds ... vaguely familiar..."

In July 2010, I started writing a series of short pieces called Sandman Meditations in which I proceeded through each issue of Neil Gaiman's Sandman comic and offered whatever thoughts happened to come to mind. The idea was Jay Tomio's, and at first the Meditations were published on his Gestalt Mash site, then later Boomtron. The basic concept was that we'd see what happened when somebody without much background in comics, who'd never read Sandman before, spent time reading through it all.

I wrote 71 Meditations between July 2010 and June 2012, getting all the way up through the first installment of the last story in the regular series, The Wake. 75,000 words.

And then stopped. I read Chapter 2 of The Wake and had nothing to say. I tried writing through the lack of words, but the more I tried to write the more what I wrote nauseated me. I couldn't go on.

28 June 2015

Wedding Days

When the Supreme Court's decision on marriage equality was announced, a friend who'd just heard a snippet of news texted me: "Is it true?"

"Yes," I replied. "My mothers' marriage must now be recognized in all 50 states."

This is true and wonderful. As others have pointed out, the ruling lets marriage just be marriage, without the modifiers that have dominated the discourse of the last fifteen years or so — it is no longer gay marriage or same-sex marriage or traditional marriage, just marriage. (Although marriage between two people only. Polyamory is still mind-bending to the mainstream.)

Inevitably, and immediately, there were countless thinkpieces written, plus plenty of grandstanding and righteous gnashing by people who disagreed with the Court's majority decision. Also, and just as inevitably, there were the folks who see marriage of any sort as a tool of neoliberalism and oppression. It really takes a special sort of self-righteousness to pour contempt on millions of people's celebrations. And as political strategy it's pretty stupid, since standing off to the side being Comrade Grumbly McGrumblepuss is not likely to build much of a movement. (Responding to "We're so happy!" with "NO! You are not ideologically pure!" has rarely led to good revolutions.) But hey, each to their own. I will defend to the death your right to be a wet, mildewy blanket.

24 June 2015

What's in a Book

I recently bought a miscellaneous set of Virginia Woolf books, a collection that seems to have been put together by a scholar or (in Woolfian parlance) a common reader during the 1960s and 1970s. The set included some volumes useful for my research purposes, as well as all four of the old Collected Essays that I have long coveted because though they have been superceded by the six-volume Essays of Virginia Woolf, they are far more elegantly designed and produced (alas, copies in nice condition rarely seem to go up for sale at a price a normal person can afford, even on a splurge). At about $6 per book, it seemed like a deal I'd likely never see again.

One of the joys of giving books a new home is that they sometimes share glimpses of their history. This is for me the primary impetus to own an old book. They become tools for imagination, not only through the words on their pages, but through their physical presence. I have lived with books my whole life, and have come to imagine their writing, production, sale — what was it like to pick up this well-worn volume when it was bright and new, its binding still tight, its pages crisp? What led to this page being dog-eared, what caused this tear along the dust-jacket's edge? Who was the child who drew in crayon on the first pages? Most importantly: What did it feel like to read these words when they were first in this form?

20 June 2015

The Dylanologists by David Kinney

So when you ask some of your questions, you're asking them to a person who's long dead. You're asking them to a person that doesn't exist. But people make that mistake about me all the time. 
—Bob Dylan, 2012

If you've ever spent any time around any sort of fan community, most of the people you meet in The Dylanologists will be familiar types. There are the collectors, there are the hermeneuts, there are the true believers and the pilgrims. Some reviewers and readers have derided a lot of the people Kinney writes about as "crazy", but one of the virtues of the book is that it humanizes its subjects and shows that plenty of people who are superfans are not A.J. Weberman. They seem a little passionate, sure, and if you're not especially interested in their passion they may seem a bit weird, but how different are they, really, from denizens of more culturally dominant fandoms — say, devoted sports fans? (Indeed, the term "fan" as we think of it now dates back to 19th century American sports, at least according to the OED.)

Or how different are they from academics? That was the question that kept buzzing through my brain as I read the book. It's no surprise to me that one of the great Milton scholars of our time, Christopher Ricks, would have become a Dylanologist; the fights among the Dylan fans are at least the equal of the fights among the Miltonists, who can be a rather contentious lot... (Speaking of Miltonists, Stanley Fish's invaluable "What Makes an Interpretation Acceptable", a chapter from Is There a Text in This Class?, came to mind again and again as I read.) In so many ways — its esotericism, its gate-keeping, its initiation rites — academia is a collection of high-falutin' fandoms.

Given that I have spent most of my life studying written texts, it's probably predictable that the chapter I found most exciting in The Dylanologists is the one about Scott Warmuth and other researchers who have traced the vast web of references, quotations, echoes, allusions, shadows, and traces of other writings through Dylan's own, particularly in Dylan's work over the last 15 years or so. (See Warmuth's fascinating essay for the New Haven Review about Dylan's Chronicles: Vol. 1.) One of the things that makes Dylan so extraordinary is that he's like a human filter for particular strains of Americana and of musical and literary history. He's like a human cut-up machine. Puritanical squawkers may scream, "Plagiarism!", but for me the effect of, for instance, Warmuth's revelations about Chronicles is that I was in even more awe of Dylan's achievement — the book reveals itself to be not just a memoir, but a more readable cousin to Finnegans Wake. Dylan's references, allusions, echoes, riffs, cut-ups, and copies expand his work and connect it to networks of meaning.