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.

18 June 2015

Rhodesia and American Paramilitary Culture

When the suspect in the attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina was identified, the authorities circulated a photograph of him wearing a jacket adorned with the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and post-UDI Rhodesia.

The symbolism isn't subtle. Like the confederate flag that flies over the South Carolina capitol, these are flags of explicitly white supremacist governments.

Rhodesia plays a particular role within right-wing American militia culture, linking anti-communism and white supremacy. The downfall of white Rhodesia has its own sort of lost cause mythic power not just for avowed white supremacists, but for the paramilitarist wing of gun culture generally.

16 June 2015


It's possible that Sense8, the new Netflix series from the Wachowskis, is the worst thing ever to happen to humanity. I don't know, because from the second episode it put its hooks into me so deeply that my critical, skeptical mind could not keep up. Certain elements of this show appealed to me so deeply that I was overwhelmed and had no ability to keep critical distance. Those elements were all related to a kind of queer ethic and queer vision, an approach to life that I've been a sucker for for decades, but have hardly ever seen expressed in a mainstream pop culture item.

First, I should note that even in my soggy, sappy, besotted love affair with this show, I couldn't miss some of its more obvious weaknesses. The major one for me is its globalized Americanism, well critiqued by Claire Light at The Nerds of Color in a post I pretty much entirely agree with, especially regarding the lost opportunity of a truly global production — imagine if, instead of writing it all themselves with J. Michael Straczynski, the Wachowskis had worked more as showrunners and farmed out the writing and maybe even directing to people from the actual places they depicted. I appreciate, for instance, that they reportedly liked Nairobi Half Life (I did, too!) and so had one of its producers, Tom Tykwer, direct the Nairobi scenes. But what if they'd brought in the actual Kenyan residents who wrote and directed Nairobi Half Life instead of just the German director who supported it but didn't really have a lot to do with its production? (For that matter, why not at least help Nairobi Half Life get broader distribution? I was lucky enough to see it when it played for one night in a nearby theatre, but as far as I know it's not available for home viewing in any way in the U.S.) But no. Though Sense8 is remarkable in many ways, it's still a product of big money, big egos, and a traditional production process. An anti-hegemonic pose is a whole lot easier to achieve than actually doing something to undermine hegemony.

Despite all this, I still fell hard for Sense8, and a lot of that has to do with a thought I had during the first episode: "I'm watching a sci-fi action soap opera kind of thing with queer people in it," and then later, "I'm watching a sci-fi action soap opera kind of thing that actually has more than a whiff of queer ethos to it."

15 June 2015

On Christopher Lee

Over at Press Play, I have a brief text essay about and a video tribute to Christopher Lee, who died on June 7 at the age of 93. Here's the opening of the essay:
Christopher Lee was the definitive working actor. His career was long, and he appeared in more films than any major performer in the English-speaking world — over 250. What distinguishes him, though, and should make him a role model for anyone seeking a life on stage or screen, is not that he worked so much but that he worked so well. He took that work seriously as both job and art, even in the lightest or most ridiculous roles, and he gave far better, more committed performances than many, if not most, of his films deserved.
Read and view more at Press Play.

09 June 2015

Q&A on Open Educational Resources with Robin DeRosa

My friend and colleague (when I was adjuncting at Plymouth State University) Robin DeRosa has been spending a lot of time recently thinking about and working with "open educational resources" (OER), which Wikipedia (today) defines as "freely accessible, openly licensed documents and media that are useful for teaching, learning, and assessing as well as for research purposes." 

I've been following Robin's ideas about OER, and at a certain point realized I didn't really understand the conversation. Partly, this was because most of what I was reading was Twitter feeds and Twitter can be confusing, but as an outsider to the OER world, I also didn't know what sorts of assumptions advocates were working from. I was especially concerned when thinking about academic labor — all the talk of giving things away and making things free sounded to me like a wonderful idea that would in practice just devalue academic work and lead to further exploitation within the highly exploitative world of academia. At the same time, I'm strongly attracted to open resources of various sorts (I'm writing this on a blog, after all!), and so, thinking about it all, I felt befuddled.

The easiest way to get answers to my befuddlements and to allay (or stoke) my fears was, of course, to ask Robin some questions. So that's what I did. Originally, I intended this to be more of an interview, with me adding more questions after she answered a few, but her answers to my first set of questions were so comprehensive that I thought adding to it all would be a bit much. Better to get the conversation rolling, and let it play out in the comments section here and/or on Twitter, other websites, etc.

I can't say I'm not still a little befuddled. But Robin's replies to my queries did help clear up some of my primary fears and misconceptions.

And now, before we begin, an official bio:

Robin DeRosa is professor of English and chair of Interdisciplinary Studies at Plymouth State University, and she is also a consultant for the OER Ambassador Pilot at the University of New Hampshire.  Recently named as an editor of Hybrid Pedagogy (a digital journal of learning, teaching, and technology), in August 2015 she'll be be a Hybrid Pedagogy Fellow at the Digital Pedagogy Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Her essay "Selling the Story: From Salem Village to Witch City" was published by the open uneducational resource The Revelator in 2011.

You can find out more about Robin at her website or follow her on Twitter: @actualham.

Today, Tuesday 9 June, at 8pm EST, Robin will be moderating a Twitter discussion about OER via the hashtag #profchat. [Update:] The chat is over, but you can read it via Storify here.

Matthew Cheney: In the idea of open educational resources, what does open mean?

Robin DeRosa: Generally, OER practitioners tend to use the Hewlett Foundation definition of “Open Educational Resources:
OER are teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge.
Another way to think of “open” is to use the libre/gratis definitions of “free.”  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).  In addition, we generally think of open materials as allowing learners/teachers to do all of the 5 R’s with those materials: reuse, revise, remix, redistribute, and retain (these are David Wiley’s criteria; the fifth R was added more recently to contrast OER with “free” ebooks that disappear after a certain amount of time, or rental textbooks, etc.).  Key to all of this is the Creative Commons license, which is the general way that creators of OER make it easy to share materials.

07 June 2015

Commonwealth of Letters: British Literary Culture and the Emergence of Postcolonial Aesthetics by Peter J. Kalliney

It is unfortunate that, so far as I can tell, Oxford University Press has not yet released an affordable edition of Peter J. Kalliney's Commonwealth of Letters, a fascinating book that is filled with ideas and information and yet also written in an engaging, not especially academic, style. It could find a relatively large audience for a book of its type and subject matter, and yet its publisher has limited it to a very specific market. [Update 22 Nov 2015: Commonwealth of Letters is now, and newly, available in paperback! It's still somewhat expensive, but not by academic book prices, which means that those of us who really really need our own copy can perhaps afford it. I picked it up at the Modernist Studies Association conference this weekend (conference discounts are a nice perk), and told so many people about it that I think it sold out. Which might not have been my fault. Or maybe it was...]

I start with this complaint not only because I would like to be able to buy a copy for my own use that does not cost more than $50, but because one of the many things Kalliney does well is trace the ways decisions by publishers affect how books, writers, and ideas are received and distributed. A publisher's decision about the appropriate audience for a book can be a self-fulfilling prophecy (or an unmitigated disaster). OUP has clearly decided that the audience for Commonwealth of Letters is academic libraries and rich academics. That's unfortunate.

Modernism and postcolonialism have typically been seen (until recently) as separate endeavors, but Kalliney shows that, in the British context, at least, the overlap between modernist and (post)colonial writers was significant. Modernist literary institutions developed into postcolonial literary institutions, at least for a little while. (Kalliney shows also how this development was very specific to its time and places. After the early 1960s, things changed significantly, and by the early 1980s, the landscape was almost entirely different.)  Of course, writers on the history of colonial and post-colonial publishing have traced the effects of various publishing decisions (book design, marketing, etc.) before, especially with regard to how late colonial and early postcolonial writers were sold in the mid-20th century. Scholars have toiled in archives for a few decades to dig out exactly how the African Writers Series, for instance, distributed its wares. The great virtue of Kalliney's book is not that it does lots of new archival research (though there is some), but that it draws connections between other scholars' efforts, synthesizes a lot of previous scholarship, and interprets it all in often new and sometimes quite surprising ways.

03 June 2015

Living in a Time of Transition: Two Books by Bryher

Seeking something else, I came across this review I wrote in 2006 of Paris Press's editions of two books by the extraordinary Bryher. It was first published in the Fall 2006 issue of Rain Taxi. I don't think it's ever been put online, so I'm happy to release it into the wild here. (The quotation page numbers were included for copyediting and not in the published version, but I figure they might be useful, so I've kept them in. Also, for more samples from The Heart to Artemis, see this post.)

Living in a Time of Transition: Two Books by Bryher
by Matthew Cheney

Paris Press ($19.95)

Paris Press ($15.00)

"I found my study of history of great practical value," Bryher writes in The Heart to Artemis.  "It helped me to assess the future and to be aware of change."[118] Awareness of change runs through the veins of Bryher's body of work, and Paris Press deserves much praise for bringing some of that work back into print.  With the majority of her work now out of print, Bryher has been known, if she has been known at all, primarily for her long relationship with the poet H.D. and for her support of many of the major figures of the Modernist movement, but she was a fascinating writer herself, and one deeply deserving continued notice.

The daughter of a wealthy British industrialist, Bryher spent much of her childhood in Egypt, France, Greece, and elsewhere.  Her only experience of formal schooling came later, and left her mostly bitter about institutionalized education.  Again and again in The Heart to Artemis she states that the openness of her upbringing allowed her to develop an insatiable intellectual curiosity and an independent spirit in a society structured to prevent women from having either.  "The greatest gift parents can give their children," she writes, "is experience.  It is far more valuable than either care or money." [47] Experience, though, needs an environment in which it is meaningful: "How much more peaceful the world might be if there were fewer checks upon development imposed in childhood!  I do not mean licence, there must be discipline but to save ourselves trouble we do not let children work through the various stages of development at their own time and there is too much imposition of socially acceptable ideas upon a growing mind." [21]

The most vivid sections of The Heart to Artemis occur in the first half, as Bryher chronicles the experiences of her childhood and reflects on the changes in the world since the late Victorian era.  She was not entirely free from the imposition of socially acceptable ideas, but her experiences in different societies and cultures allowed few such ideas to sink unquestioned into her mind, and so when she began reading contemporary poetry in the early years of the twentieth century, she was particularly well prepared for the excitement of its innovations.

02 June 2015

The Perils of Citation

In my review of John Clute's collection Stay, I had some fun at Clute's expense with his passionate hatred of certain types of academic citation, and I pointed out that often the problem is not with the official citation format, which usually has some sort of logic (one specific, perhaps, to its discipline), but rather that the problem is in the failure to follow the guidelines and/or to adjust for clarity — I agreed that some of the citations used in Andrew Milner’s Locating Science Fiction are less than helpful or elegant, but the fault seemed to me to lie at least as much with Milner and Liverpool University Press as with the MLA or APA or University of Chicago Press or anybody else. Just because there are guidelines does not mean that people follow them.

I now have an example from an MLA publication itself, and it's pretty egregious, though I may only feel that way because it involves me.

The citation is in the book Approaches to Teaching Coetzee's Disgrace and Other Works edited by Laura Wright, Jane Poyner, and Elleke Boehmer, published by the MLA as part of their Approaches to Teaching World Literature series. It's a good series generally and it's a good book overall.

But in Patricia Merivale's essay "Who's Appropriating Whose Voice in Coetzee's Life & Times of Michael K", we see this passage on page 153:
Most Coetzee critics seem more committed to the "movements" [of the mind] than to the "form." Teachers of Coetzee should attempt to redress the balance, perhaps by following Michael Cheney's blogged example: "I realized that I was marking up my teaching copy of Michael K, as if I were marking up a poem ... lots of circled words, [and] 'cf.'s referring me to words and phrases in other parts of the book ... an overall tone-structure, a scaffold of utterance" (my emphasis).
The sentiment and some of the phrasing in that quotation seemed familiar to me, as did the writer's last name. Could there be a Michael Cheney out there writing about Coetzee? Sure. (I recently met Michael Chaney, a wonderful scholar at Dartmouth. We had fun trying to decide who's a doppelgänger of whom...) But I was suspicious. I looked at the Works Cited section of the book and found this:
Cheney, Michael. "Review of Life & Times of Michael K." J.M. Coetzee Watch #12. Matilda. Perry Middlemiss, 22 Oct 2008. Web. 21 Aug. 2009.
Apparently, there actually is a Michael Cheney out there writing about Coetzee. Good for him! But what is this J.M. Coetzee Watch? Sounds like something I'd be interested in. And Matilda? And Perry Middlemiss? Huh?

01 June 2015

Fassbinder at 70

Yesterday was the 70th birthday of my favorite filmmaker, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. He wasn't around to see it, having died at age 37, but I celebrated for him by watching Querelle again. (I was tempted to do a Berlin Alexanderplatz marathon today, but I do actually have to get some work done...)

I've written various things about Fassbinder over the years, so here's a roundup and then some 70th birthday thoughts:

In the US, the best access to Fassbinder's films is via Criterion's Hulu Plus channel, where there is access not only to the various films Criterion sells on DVD (with the exception of Berlin Alexanderplatz), but also to films currently unavailable otherwise in the US, including some masterpieces: Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, Fox and His Friends, Effi BriestMarriage of Maria Braun, Veronika Voss.

Fassbinder isn't around anymore to make some wishes on his birthday, so I'll make a few in his stead...