03 November 2017

Virginia Woolf Miscellany and a Remembrance of Jean Kennard



The Spring 2017 issue of Virginia Woolf Miscellany (issue 91) has been posted online as a free PDF. It includes a brief essay I wrote in remembrance of Jean Kennard, who taught a Woolf seminar twenty years ago that helped set me on a path I am still following.

Here's a taste:
We read all of the novels except Night and Day, plus Room, Three Guineas, and the essays in Michèle Barrett's Women & Writing anthology. I remember being so exhausted from reading that I could hardly keep up with my other classes, but it was a profoundly fulfilling exhaustion, because reading such a volume of Woolf made her words and images feel like a presence in my life, a sort of companion.

18 October 2017

Notes on Blade Runner 2049


To write responsibly about Blade Runner 2049, I would need to see it again, and to explore what I want to explore I would need to watch Denis Villeneuve's previous film, Arrival, again (I last saw it on its theatrical release), and I would need to watch all of Villeneuve's previous films (a couple of which I've missed), and I would need to watch the original Blade Runner again (a film I cherish and have seen a dozen times, at least, though I'm always happy for an excuse for another viewing), and—

I do not have time for any of this at the moment. But, before my thoughts disappear like — well, if wanted to insert an obvious and tacky allusion here, I'd say, like tears in rain, but you can fill in the simile yourself — before my thoughts disappear, I will jot down a few notes, on the off chance that they may be of use to you or somebody or me or nobody—

For me, Blade Runner 2049 is a sometimes visually interesting movie and not much other than that. Among the people I know, mine is a strikingly minority opinion: via social media, I've seen that many people I know and respect not only enjoy the movie, but respond to it in a way I have no access to. This is always an intellectually interesting moment for me (frustrating, because I would rather have access to pleasure than be barred from it, but interesting). The situation raises aesthetic questions: What is it within this film that works powerfully on the mind and emotions of many people but not others?

29 September 2017

Beating the Bounds by Liz Ahl


Let me begin with disclaimer: This is not a review of Liz Ahl's first book-length collection of poems, Beating the Bounds. Liz is a longtime friend who sometimes writes about the place where I live and people I know, so anything I say about this book's qualities ought to be suspect. Further, I'm not very good at writing about poetry. I read a lot of poetry — well, "a lot" in comparison to most Americans, certainly, and probably in comparison to most writers who are not themselves poets — but have no facility for writing about poetry with much more insight than, "I like this line," or "Doesn't that sound nice?"

What this post is, then, is not a review but a notice, plus quotations and anecdotes.

Notice: Liz Ahl has published her first book-length collection of poems, Beating the Bounds. No book better captures what it looks like, smells like, sounds like, feels like to live in rural central New Hampshire than this book. That may sound like a little thing, but to me, who calls that world home, it is everything.
It's all relative, of course, the late and the early,
the patterns we imagine, the seasonal routine 
we embellish, and all the talk we make—

("Talking About the Weather")
Anecdotes: I first met Liz when she was a foreigner. It was nearly 20 years ago, and I was just back from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. Walking through the Plymouth State University Bookstore one day, I saw that a professor had assigned a class to buy Joel Brouwer's poetry collection Exactly What Happened. Joel Brouwer had been at Bread Loaf, and I had fallen in love with his poems. But they weren't exactly famous. Of all the thousands and thousands of poetry collections to assign to undergraduates ... that seemed a strange choice. A good choice, an excellent choice, but statistically odd. I wanted to know who this person was. The professor's name on the shelfcard in the bookstore was unfamiliar to me: L. Ahl.

16 September 2017

The Shape of Water



Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water was the opening film of the mini-festival Telluride at Dartmouth, and so I got to see it a few months before it will be released generally. I love del Toro's work — even when it falls flat for me (Crimson Peak), it's nonetheless clearly the work of someone with his own vision and style. And when I am on the same wavelength as the film (The Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth, Pacific Rim), the experience is overwhelmingly beautiful and moving. Indeed, that for me is the hallmark of del Toro at his best: real, unbridled emotion coupled with a visual imagination that is lushly inventive, and a sense for color the equal of any other director today.

Del Toro is also a master melodramatist, a common form not frequently mastered. In that sense, he's our Douglas Sirk, but without Sirk's irony. (Perhaps we could say that del Toro replaces Sirk's irony with fantasy: melding a classical sense of melodrama with the logic of fairy tales. Where irony both infuses and undercuts Sirk's realities, magic infuses and undercuts the basic reality in del Toro's worlds.) The Shape of Water may be his most classical melodrama yet. It's a beauty-and-the-beast (or fish & bird) love story set in the midst of Cold War America, and it's satisfying because it hits almost every plot point exactly as it seems it should. For anyone who's ever seen such movies, there's nothing particularly surprising in the plotting, and in this case that's a virtue, because you get to see the familiar performed by an expert with absolute confidence in his craft. It's a story about the little people, the marginalized and oppressed, seizing a chance to do some good in the world, and there's not a cynical note anywhere to be found. A fairy tale, yes, maybe, definitely; but one we sometimes need, one that is invigorating in a world that feels ever more filled with monsters. (I will never tire of Idris Elba's speech in Pacific Rim: "Today we face the monsters that are at our door...")

It's inaccurate to say that del Toro is the only expert here making hugely difficult tasks look effortless. One of the joys of The Shape of Water is that he assembled a team of actors and crew who are among the best in the world at what they do. The production design, the cinematography, the costumes, the special effects, the editing, the music, the acting — all wondrous, and not wondrous only because they're created by highly skilled artists, but because those artists all seem to be working together with a unified sense of their project. Every element of the mise-en-scene is carefully designed and intentionally used, with themes and ideas wending across the light, sets, props, and visual effects. (For a movie called The Shape of Water, of course water imagery is important, but the inventiveness with which it's used is really something to see.) Alexandre Desplat's music, for instance, is perfect not just because it's Alexandre Desplat, an accomplished film composer, but because it's exactly right for this movie. It's a movie that relies on its music for certain effects. But that's true for every element — to give just one example, the editing is often elegant, but almost by definition that tends to go unnoticed; now and then, though, editing can provide its own overt effects, and in The Shape of Water there's one cut (involving cornflakes) that caused lots of happy laughter throughout the big audience at Dartmouth. Just a quick moment, a little burst of joy in amidst the flow of the story and images. That's mastery.

04 September 2017

A Convex Mirror: Twin Peaks


That is the tune but there are no words. 
The words are only speculation 
(From the Latin speculum, mirror): 
They seek and cannot find the meaning of the music. 
We see only postures of the dream, 
Riders of the motion that swings the face 
Into view under evening skies, with no 
False disarray as proof of authenticity. 
But it is life englobed. 
One would like to stick one's hand 
Out of the globe, but its dimension, 
What carries it, will not allow it.


1.
John Ashbery died on the day that Twin Peaks: The Returned aired its final episode, a fact that will likely go unremarked in future Ashbery biographies and tomes of Twin Peaks exegesis, but I can't help coming back to it, not only because Ashbery and David Lynch are two of the most prominent surrealists in American culture (though of course no one term can sum up either, and I use it here as much as a gesture or a placeholder as I do anything else), but also because their prominence, which allowed them an audience and freedom unknown to most artists, was neither assured nor even entirely likely.

It was more likely that Ashbery would find some prominence in the small world of poetry than that Lynch would become a household name as a filmmaker, but you only have to think of how many poets of great originality, insight, energy, seriousness, and talent never reached Ashbery's level of fame, never made it into The New Yorker, were not the first living poet to be collected by the Library of America, etc. to realize that Ashbery's position was singular. Dan Chiasson just called him the "greatest American poet of the last fifty years", and I expect other people will do the same, because in a certain way that's a fact, not an opinion: his ubiquity in anthologies, his many awards, his centrality to academic study of contemporary American poetry, his ability to have his poetry books published by major publishers and reviewed by the most prominent book review publications — all of these, and more, signal that Ashbery is by consensus filling the role of "greatest American poet of the last fifty years". Somebody has to. And this is no critique of Ashbery, whose work I have often enjoyed reading. He seemed as amused by his canonization as anybody.

Nor is it a critique of David Lynch, whose work has meant a lot to me, to say he's one of the luckiest filmmakers in the history of cinema. Though his career and reputation have had plenty of highs and lows, how many other people are in a position to get a network like Showtime to spend millions and millions of dollars to make an 18-hour art movie — and by art movie, I don't mean just something that would play in arthouse cinemas, but something that as often as not shared more qualities with an art installation than with Dexter or Homeland. Sure, next to Andy Warhol's Empire, it's a thriller, but it's not next to Empire, it's next to Ray Donovan and boxing matches. (This is the one thing about Showtime's gamble that I don't get — clearly, their goal was to get people to sign up for Showtime, and it worked. It doesn't matter how many people watch a particular show, really; what matters is that people subscribe. But there's nothing particularly Twin Peaksy — even first-iteration Twin Peaksy — on Showtime, that I've found, so why would that audience stick around? I certainly see no reason to keep subscribing.) Lynch has been able to trade on the fluke success of the original Twin Peaks and his own reputation as a visionary director to do whatever the hell he wants, regardless of audience desires or studio executives' commands. And good for him! My only reservation about Lynch's unique position, which is the same reservation I have about Ashbery's unique position, is that it's unique. I wish a wider variety of artists were similarly free.

02 September 2017

My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye


Marie NDiaye's 2007 novel Mon coeur à l'étroit has now been translated by Jordan Stamp and published by Two Lines Press as My Heart Hemmed In. It is a strange, unsettling book, a tale told by a woman named Nadia whose husband receives a ghastly wound that he refuses to have treated, a woman who is being suddenly shunned not only by everyone she knows but apparently by everyone in the city of Bordeaux except for a famous writer she's never heard of, who appoints himself her husband's caretaker. She has an ex-husband who lives in destitution in their own apartment. She is estranged from her son, who once had a male lover (now a police inspector) whom Nadia might have been more in love with than her own child, and who then married a woman and had a daughter, Souhar, whose name Nadia detests.

The novel's first paragraph is in many ways its guiding idea:
Now and then, at first, I think I catch people scowling in my direction. They can't really mean me, can they?
Much worse than scowls happen, showing Nadia that yes, they do mean her — but how do they interpret her? What she means to them is very different from what she means to herself.

From the beginning, the narrative casts a spell because we want to know what is going on and why. Why are Nadia and her husband Ange so utterly loathed by everyone, and apparently so suddenly? Why is Nadia so oblivious to everything around her? Why does she get lost when walking around a city she's lived in for most of her life? Why won't Ange go to the doctor for his gaping wound? Is the famous writer a friend or foe?

18 August 2017

What Is To Be Done About The Social Novel?

Chernyshevsky in prison, painting by Gorovych (1953)

The new issue of Harper's includes a review-essay by Jonathan Dee that asks a question summed up by the writer of the headline as "Does the social novel have a future?" Ultimately, though, the essay is not so much concerned with that question as with questions of imagination and representation.

Dee reviews (or at least mentions) four recent books (three novels, one nonfiction account) which got him thinking about questions of what tends to be called "cultural appropriation" and the limits of fictionality. He admits he was skeptical of the idea of "cultural appropriation" until he read Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck and found himself thinking it's a good novel that also makes choices that he, when reading, grew uncomfortable with.

I haven't read the books Dee writes about, but I expect I would generally agree with his assessment of them, and his description of Erpenbeck's book made me quite certain I would dislike it for all the reasons he offers, and probably more. (I've complained about similar problems of representation particularly with fiction by non-African writers about African people and places, for instance.) I share his discomfort with the term "cultural appropriation", but not his slow awakening to the phenomena it tries to name — my problem with the term is with the term itself, which seems to me vague and also unnecessary when plenty of other more specific and meaningful terms are available; further, I don't like the idea of culture as property, something with boundaries that can be legislated and policed, something one person can own and another cannot. Better to be specific, to talk of stereotyping, ignorance, and assumptions that reveal themselves in a text, and to show how they work, what they do (a fine model for this being Delany's essay "To Read The Dispossessed" in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, which shows exactly how Le Guin's assumptions about sexuality render her novel more narrow and less truthful than it might have been otherwise). Better to raise questions not of appropriation, but of power: of hegemonic speaking and subaltern silence.

05 August 2017

"Grade Inflation" as a Path to Ungrading

Cat Sidh, Flickr

At Jacobin, Ed Burmila writes about grade inflation as a symptom of the neoliberalization of education, pointing out that there is no group within contemporary higher ed for whom there is much benefit to a lowering of grades, and, indeed, there are many groups for whom a lowering of grades is at best inconvenient and at worst utterly undesireable.

This seems to me an accurate assessment, but it misses any sense of opportunity. Burmila laments the loss of meaning in grades and seems to yearn for a time when teachers were tough and gentlemen preferred Cs. There is an assumption within what he writes that grades and grade-point averages can be useful and meaningful.

I don't entirely deny that grades can mean something. But what they mean is obscured by the simplification of a grade: one instructor's C is another's B is another's D. Grades provide an alibi for us, they let us pretend we're seeing an assessment when what we're seeing is something so simplistic and reductive that it has just as much chance of being a distortion as it has of being a reflection of a person's accomplishment, knowledge, skills, or abilities.

Nobody wants to lie to students about their achievements or give them a false sense of accomplishment, and we should work hard to avoid doing so. Pretty much everybody wants students to build on their strengths and recognize their weaknesses so they can work on improving. In my experience, grades aren't a particularly effective tool for that. I've spent a lot of time and effort over the years trying to make grades meaningful, and I continue to do so, because grades are a fact of academic life for most students, teachers, and institutions. But again and again I find that the less I stress out about grading, and the less I think of grades as much of anything other than a very blunt, imprecise, summary measurement, the better I teach and the better my students learn.

31 July 2017

Shetland: Attending to the Consequences of Violence


From now on, whenever someone argues that their story or tv episode or movie or whatever absolutely couldn't possibly work without a graphic rape scene, I will think of episode 5 of the third series of the BBC show Shetland. The episode includes the kidnapping and rape of a regular series character. But we don't even see the kidnapping, only the moments leading up to it and then other characters' growing concern over the disappearance. She reappears, walking barefoot to a Glasgow police station, and at first there is relief: She's safe and she doesn't seem harmed. And then she tells the series' main character, DI Perez, that evidence will need to be collected. The rest of the episode and much of the final episode pay careful attention to her and her colleagues' work to come to grips with the event. The drama plays out through dialogue and restrained, thoughtful acting.

I tend to watch murder shows with dinner. I'm quite used to munching away amidst fictional gore. But as I watched this episode of Shetland, my dinner got cold. It was riveting, moving, and thought-provoking in a way more blood & guts shows are not. It grappled with the personal and legal consequences of sexual assault (and not just to this one character) in ways I don't remember seeing on tv before.

22 July 2017

Against Academic Conferences


There's a lot I love about academia — more than I dislike, or I wouldn't be about to start my 5th year toward a PhD — but it is an often vexing world, particularly to those of us who've spent a lot of time outside it. If you've never gotten outside the groves of academe, you're likely to internalize academic practices and not simply think that they're normal, but be utterly convinced that they're acceptable and even, perhaps, the only way to do things. Academic publishing, for instance, is even more whackadoodle bonkers and exploitative than trade publishing, and back in the days when I only knew the world of trade publishing, I wouldn't have thought such a thing was possible. Most academic publishing makes trade publishing look positively noble, generous, and big-hearted.

A recent piece by Pamela L. Gay on "The Unacknowledged Costs of Academic Travel" got me thinking once again about one of the things I most dislike in academic life: traveling to conferences.