24 May 2017

A Quiet Passion


Few cinematic genres are as consistently awful as the biopic. Many of the greatest filmmakers have avoided any temptation to enter that genre, and the ones that, for reasons of finances or temporary insanity, did give it a shot usually ended up creating some of their worst films. (Mike Leigh is one of the few great filmmakers to have also created great biopics with Topsy-Turvy and Mr. Turner.)

Biopics of writers are especially hazardous. Most writers, after all, aren't as cinematic in their lives as Hunter S. Thompson or William S. Burroughs. Making the highly interior work of writing into something cinematically interesting is a nearly insuperable challenge, a challenge that usually results in Romantic cliché and general absurdity.

Which brings me to Terence Davies' latest film, A Quiet Passion, a biopic of Emily Dickinson, a writer with perhaps the least cinematic life of them all. I am fascinated by Dickinson's poetry, but I'm not a Davies acolyte; I find his gauzy aesthetic generally uncompelling. However, I also think his adaptation of A House of Mirth is magnificent. Thus, I went to see A Quiet Passion wary but hopeful.

Alas, I thought it was one of the worst movies I've ever seen. The script is stunningly bad, the acting animatronic, and the portrayal of Dickinson narrow.

My opinion is among a small minority. Most critics have viewed the film positively, even rapturously. I won't try to explain this beyond saying it's obvious that I am just the wrong audience for Terence Davies movies. I will admit, though, a slight suspicion that if Davies' name were erased from the film, the criticism would be harsher. It's not just that once a filmmaker has become celebrated for a particular style and approach, lovers of that style and approach react in Pavlovian ways to it. I'm sure there's some of that, but there's also a sense of following a career, of watching the (beloved) style and approach develop with new material. In some ways, that's one of the better effects of auteurism: it allows us to appreciate a variety of works by a filmmaker we admire. I, for instance, am so besotted with David Lynch that I can even find things to praise in Dune. There ought to be sensible limits though. I'm certainly not going to try tell you that Dune is a good movie.

I will be curious to see the response of Dickinson scholars to this movie. Most film critics probably don't know anything about Dickinson or her poetry, but that really doesn't matter: a dully accurate biopic is still a dull pic; an utterly inaccurate and thrilling work of art is still a thrilling work of art. 

What does matter, though, to at least a certain extent, is the kind of Dickinson that Davies chooses to portray. While I'm not especially concerned with the accuracy of a film, I am interested in the sorts of decisions filmmakers make about what to include and not include. To exclude, for instance, characters such as Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Otis Phillips Lord, is to choose to portray Dickinson's literary and emotional lives in a particular way — a way that matches Davies' interest in repression, but which creates an unnecessarily attenuated portrayal.

17 May 2017

Counternarratives by John Keene


John Keene's Counternarratives is one of the most impressive short story collections I've ever read from a living writer, and I was pleased to have the chance to write about it for my old blogosphere friend Dan Wickett, who does wonders celebrating short fiction via his Emerging Writers Network. Here's a taste:
The stories of John Keene provide an aesthetic to push against the power of the cultural forces that venerate quick, easy thinking; forces that reduce knowledge to soundbites and hottakes and quick! mustread! breaking! stories, enforcing a compulsory presentism that is little more than mass amnesia — and self-aggrandizing mass amnesia at that. It’s a prose aesthetic to fight against any impulse insisting life here and life now is the most, the best, the worst, the only. His 2015 collection Counternarratives — easily one of the most invigorating English-language story collections of the last 25 years — offers us a powerful contemporary toolbox of approaches to language and knowledge. I say contemporary because one of the great values of Keene’s prose is that he has studied and emulated the writing not only of writers older than himself, but writers long dead by the time he was born, recognizing what they might, in their very different ways, offer, and then building on the offerings. Such study seems to be rare in current American fiction.

Continue reading at Emerging Writers Network

11 May 2017

Experiments with Feedback and Grading in a First-Year Writing Course


It's been a while since I last wrote here about teaching, for a simple reason: I've been teaching the same course, First-Year Writing, for a couple of years now, and haven't really had much to say about it. (Literature grad students at UNH used to be able to get some lit courses to teach after a required year of teaching what we colloquially call 401, but various forces related to lower enrollments made my cohort the last to get any lit courses [when I taught Literary Analysis and then an American lit survey], and so for the past two years I've taught nothing but 401).

For the upcoming year, the university awarded me a Dissertation Year Fellowship, so I will not be teaching. Before all memory of the past few years leaves my mind, here are some reflections...

This academic year, bored to death with my own teaching, I decided to experiment with the course a bit, and those experiments worked out well generally, so perhaps they are worth sharing here.

Most of my experiments are stolen/adapted from other teachers. Last summer, I went back to the work of Peter Elbow, the single greatest influence on my teaching of writing. Elbow's books Everyone Can Write, Writing with Power, Writing without Teachers, and A Community of Writers were hugely influential on my teaching when I first encountered them as a young teacher, and I have returned to parts of each through the years to keep reminding myself of the basic principles of what I do.

While Elbow provides the foundation for what I aim for with writing courses, my recent experiments have primarily been inspired by the experiments of my friend Robin DeRosathe writings of John Warner at Inside Higher Ed and Arthur Chiaravalli's piece "Teachers Going Gradeless", as well as by the examples of some of my friends at UNH who tried out similar things and generously shared their thoughts and materials.

The key changes in my teaching were the use of a "B Contract" and a portfolio system. These have worked so well that I plan to adapt them to as many courses that I teach in the future as I can.

09 May 2017

wood s lot


I am just coming to the news that Mark Woods, who ran the wood s lot site, died in February.

I'd not been reading wood s lot regularly for a while — life got complex, internet reading more fragmented, and wood s lot was just too rich, too full, too much: I hated skimming it, because it was material that needed to be absorbed more fully, more thoughtfully. I regret that, and am glad that the archives survive.

I can't overstate the effect of wood s lot on me in the early days of blogging here. (The consistent quality of the site is awe-inspiring. I look back through my own archives here and mostly think I'm looking at the doodles of a child. Read through the archives of wood s lot and from the beginning you'll perceive a sharp mind arranging the signs and sights of the universe.) In the scrappy days before social networks and corporate bloggers, Mark Woods' site and David Auerbach's Waggish offered a literary seriousness that made online writing seem meaningful and worthwhile — another way of saying, I suppose, that I learned a lot from reading such sites, and they helped broaden an education that had prioritized too many American writers and too many highly familiar and famous artists. I admired and learned a lot from Mark Woods' range of references, certainly, but what I was in awe of was his productivity. Even when I was reading it more regularly, I just couldn't keep up with the richness wood s lot offered.

Woods had a genius for collage. He didn't just find good stuff, he arranged it, sifting and shaping the driftwood of the internet into a vast polyphony instead of cacophony. The site is fundamentally a collection of quotes and links, and yet from them a strong sense of personality comes through, a sense of purpose, arrangement, intention, vision, and joy.

But what is this desire to keep up? One of the lessons I take from wood s lot is to think beyond the cult of contemporaneity. This is not the say he was uninterested in contemporary literature, philosophy, and art — obviously not — but rather that the site never felt, to me at least, obsessed with staying absolutely up to the minute in the way that even the best of other sites do. No clickbait here, no hot takes. Even though we rarely encountered Woods' own words on the site, there was a consistent tone to how he put posts together, a tone of seriousness and contemplation, never a tone of up-to-the-minute rushing to get something out in time to catch a wave of hype. This is one reason why the site remains of interest now, nearly a year after the last post, and will remain so as long as it is available.

It's pointless to try to describe what can be apprehended and appreciated most easily by spending time looking through the site. My words here feel inadequate, but reading the archives, spending time thinking about the words and images Mark Woods selected and presented for us, seems a fitting memorial.