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.

15 July 2017

Why I Killed My Best Friend by Amanda Michalopoulou


A hazard of doing intense academic work all about novels and novelists and The Novel and the novelties of novelism, etc. etc. etc. ad noveleam, — as I have been doing for a few years now — is that you stop being able to enjoy novels. (Or maybe not you. Maybe this is just me. I long ago learned that I cannot binge on particular genres, whether novels or stories or poems or essays. After working as the series editor for the three Best American Fantasy anthologies, for instance, I hardly read any short fiction for a few years.)

I didn't realize I wasn't enjoying novels until recently when, after not enjoying yet another book that had been highly praised and/or recommended by friends, I asked myself what the last novel I actually enjoyed was. I had to think long and hard. The answer: Universal Harvester by John Darnielle, from February. (Before that, Garth Greenwell's What Belongs to You, December 2016.) Not that long ago, but given how many novels I read or tried to read after Darnielle's, it felt like a looooong time. Sickness can mess up any sense of time, and when you're book-sick, days feel like weeks, months, years.

Anyway, that's all over now, at least for the moment. After tossing one book after another aside, I more or less randomly picked up Why I Killed My Best Friend by Amanda Michalopoulou, translated by Karen Emmerich. I liked the bright pinkish-purple cover and the title, so I thought I'd give the first few pages a shot.

Reader, I hardly put the book down until I was done with it.

It's not that I thought it was the greatest novel ever written. I enjoyed it, admired much of it, but like many books, its later chapters can't live up to the promise of the earlier. The elements that unambiguously worked, though, really appealed to that readerly pleasure center, whatever it may be, and that's what I want to outline here. The parts of the book that didn't work for me were the final two chapters, and I didn't realize quite how much they didn't work for me until I'd made my way through them and could reflect on the novel as a whole. And by "not work" I don't mean they were terrrible; there's much of interest in them, but the feeling of disappointment and even frustration was acute because everything leading up to those last 50 pages felt just about perfect. In a mediocre book, those final chapters could have been the best things about it, but this is not a mediocre book.

14 June 2017

Watching Fassbinder Now


I've written a lot about Rainer Werner Fassbinder here at The Mumpsimus, and a few years ago created a video essay about his early films when Criterion released five of them as part of their (apparently discontinued) Eclipse series of bare-bones releases. I keep meaning to write more about RWF, to create new video essays (on Fassbinder and the recently deceased cinematographer Michael Ballhaus; on queer Fassbinder), and I will eventually, but for now I simply want to point out that U.S. viewers, at least, now have access to a big selection of Fassbinder films via TCM's new streaming site, Filmstruck, which replaced Hulu as the home to Criterion's streaming service.

I'm giving Filmstruck a test ride, and so of course have delved into the Fassbinder titles. (And I'm not alone in that: here's a good new piece from Brandon Soderbergh on them.) There's quite a lot that hasn't been available in the U.S. for a while, most notably Querelle, which is streaming in a beautiful print that really conveys the vivid colors that are such a feature of the film's design. I've dreamed of a full Criterion edition of Querelle for years, as many of its home video releases have been of low quality. With luck, the availability of Querelle on Filmstruck signals a possible, eventual full Criterion release, which would be valuable simply for the addition of extra features, something Querelle really would benefit from, not only because it's a tremendously strange, even alienating movie, but because there's a documentary that makes a natural companion to it: Dieter Schidor's The Wizard of Babylon, made during Querelle's filming and including interviews with members of the cast and crew. (New essays, etc. would also be helpful — I would to see, for instance, Steve Shaviro write a new essay on the film, since his take on it in The Cinematic Body is so great, but he's moved beyond a lot of what he wrote in that book since.) Anyway, it's great to have Querelle available in all its vivid, languorous glory.

Much about Fassbinder's work remains remarkable — his extraordinary productivity, the great number of masterpieces, the ingenuity — but what consistently amazes me is the force and immediacy of his best work. I have no way to tell whether his films feel as radical now as they did when they first appeared, but they very much feel radical now. They unsettle common-sensical aesthetics and assumptions (those ideas of what a movie should be and do, how actors should act, how sounds should sound, how images should be made), but more than that they utterly scoff at conservative values and liberal pieties both. Thomas Elsaesser writes well about this in Fassbinder's Germany: "Fassbinder's 'strong' female characters (Maria Braun, Willie in Lili Marleen, Lola, Veronika Voss) refuse victim thinking, not least because it presumes to create empathy at the price of exonerating them from a responsibility which no solidarity among victims can efface. But the status of victim also locks the subject into binary reciprocity, which ... Fassbinder's cinema constantly tries to break open, radicalize or displace. As a consequence, it may be possible to see the utopian dimension in Fassbinder's films about Germany not primarily, as [Kaja] Silverman argues for Berlin Alexanderplatz, in the ideal of masochistic ecstasy, but in the insistence — here true to the tradition of the anarcho-libertarian credo Fassbinder always professed — that the couple as a love relationship can only exist when it recognizes its place in other circuits of exchange."

There is nothing safe when entering Fassbinder's oeuvre, nothing easy, nothing predictable. That, for me, is what makes it a worthwhile, necessary adventure. It's particularly valuable now; no filmmaker I know of so effectively dissects the ways that personal power and political power intersect, synergize, exploit, and oppress. That's an analysis the contemporary world needs more than it ever has. Fassbinder's work adds dramatic and aesthetic force to such an analysis, and in its structure puts us as the audience in the position of having to both think and feel our way through the problems he highlights. It's no surprise that Brecht was a significant influence on Fassbinder when he was young; his genius was to fuse Brecht with melodrama, the French New Wave, queer culture, and other influences, creating films that live long beyond their immediate moment.

Most of the movies I discussed in my post on where to begin with Fassbinder are available at Filmstruck. Though I wrote that five years ago, and have spent much more time with the films since, as well as seen various folks encounter them for the first time, I think the basic recommendations are still solid. Fear Eats the Soul, The Marriage of Maria Braun, and The Merchant of Four Seasons remain excellent starting places.

01 June 2017

Notes on Theory of the Novel by Guido Mazzoni


I've spent the last couple of weeks reading — almost devouring — Guido Mazzoni's Theory of the Novel, recently translated by Zakiya Hanafi from the Italian (a very clear translation of a complex text; not reading Italian, I can't vouch for its accuracy, but it's one of the most readable works of academic theory I've ever encountered). I'm still working through where I agree and disagree with Mazzoni, but however my thinking evolves regarding his ideas, the book is unquestionably impressive and thought-provoking, and particularly valuable in how it develops and clarifies some of the classic concepts in the field from Bakhtin, Lukács, Erich Auerbach, and Ian Watt (among others). The only other recent book I've read that seems almost as clear and logical on similar topics is The Rhetoric of Fictionality by Richard Walsh, a less ambitious, less fulfilling, and less elegant book than Mazzoni's, but useful in filling in around some of Mazzoni's edges, since Mazzoni, like most writers and theorists, occasionally does a bit of hand waving to get around the paradoxes created by the concepts of fiction/nonfiction.

For a good basic overview of Mazzoni's main ideas, see Alberto Comparini's review for the LA Review of Books and M.A. Orthoffer's review for The Complete Review. Here, I want to simply make some notes on things that stuck out for me on a first reading, and to offer a few quotations from the text. (I'll put page number citations in not from a desire to be all fancy-pants academic, but because it's tough to excerpt Mazzoni's ideas without doing some violence to them, and interested readers really should read the quotations in context.)

image by Lin Kristensen

Mazzoni's focus is more narrow than the book's title makes apparent. He's really writing about the literary novel in Europe, with occasional necessary forays to the British Isles and, in the later 20th century, to the U.S. This goes against the grain of some other recent writing on the novel, which tends toward a broader canvas. (See, for instance, Steven Moore's extraordinary [and extraordinarily idiosyncratic] two volumes, which in almost 2,000 pages only get up to the year 1800, or Michael Schmidt's 1,200-page The Novel: A Biography.) Mazzoni's knowledge seems to be of the novel in Italian, German, French, and English, and it is extraordinary rich knowledge, even if it rarely extends beyond Europe's borders — the key is that Mazzoni develops and exemplifies his ideas with works from the literary histories and traditions he knows intimately, and, unlike some other recent scholars, he doesn't pretend he can read all languages and know all cultures. This means he mostly writes about European novels by white men, and mostly the stuff canonized by undergraduate English classes over the last century or so — the novelistic Usual Suspects.

Such an approach works well up to about 1940, because it allows Mazzoni to challenge and complicate a pretty settled (even dusty) academic discourse with its own most common examples, thus giving us a new view of a baby while flushing its slimy old bathwater down the drain. The approach is less convincing after 1940 partly because of the efflorescence of varieties of novels published since then (which Mazzoni admits), but also because after WWII literary conversation shows an ever-growing interest in novels not by white European guys. Couple that with the basic challenge of trying to figure out what the most meaningful works are in an era that's still very much alive and changing, an era where the discourse is far from settled, and you get Mazzoni's least convincing, most cursory writing. I laughed out loud when he declared Philip Roth's American Pastoral, Michel Houellebecq's Elementary Particles, and Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones to be "three of the most significant works to appear in the past fifteen years" (204), a claim possible only for someone whose entire knowledge of recent fiction comes from the New York Review of Books.

Given the limits of his scope and knowledge, though, Mazzoni has lots to say of interest. I, not having much passion for ancient or medieval writings, skimmed through some of the stuff about pre-18th century narratives, but Mazzoni's fascinating on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with good insights not only into the various disruptions in novelistic conventions, but in the continuities. For instance, he says that in terms of technical changes and narrative possibilities, "the first generation of writers that are still contemporary is that of George Eliot, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy. The storehouse of available techniques was expanded by other devices after them, but the ways of constructing characters, plots, and narrators that these novelists invented or perfected still furnish solutions that twenty-first century novels continue to use today. Their greatest works are still somehow contemporary to our epoch, while those of Scott, Balzac, or Manzoni show signs of an era that no longer speaks to us" (341). (As always, readers could — should — question who is "us" in such a statement, but nonetheless I think Mazzoni's insight is generally valid for the expectations writers, publishers, and readers in the U.S., at least, place on novels today.) He makes an excellent point about the expectation from the early 19th century up to at least World War II (and certainly still strong for many types of fiction today) that the novel ought to be a realistic representation of everyday life: "The critical vocabulary that dominated during the years of modernism was very different from the critical lexicon used by the avant-garde movements of the 1950s and 1960s to justify their works. The basic reason was that, although conceived in different terms, a majority of modernist novelists remained faithful to the same project we find in the critical writings of the authors who were born around 1840 (Zola, James), and even before that in the critical writings of Balzac or Stendhal: to properly, realistically represent everyday life" (288).

As the novel (and discourse about the novel) began to develop consistent conventions, Mazzoni points out that the conventions developed were adapted from the theatre. This, he maintains, was Scott's great innovation — description in particular takes a leap forward as Scott assumes the reader of novels to be in a comparable position to the viewer of plays: "The reader of narrative fiction is placed in the position of spectator: we watch a scene unfold in front of us, described as if it were being seen for the first time. ...At the beginning of a play the spectators reconstruct a general sense of the story by interpreting the decor, costumes, gestures, and words they see and hear after the curtain draws open — hence the importantance of the sense of sight and its verbal equivalent: description" (238-239). In the 20th century, expectations and assumptions about such conventions changed: "The visual models condensed in the aesthetic unconscious of educated readers today appeal to a different visibility: one that is photographic and cinematographic in nature, quicker, more allusive, and more fragmented" (240). But the move away from the theatrical model affected more than just descriptive prose; it also affected ideas of plot and structure, ideas of what belongs in the foreground and background, and ideas of what readers need to know and what sorts of leaps they can make in their own imaginations. "The characters in contemporary novels spend much less time on stage than nineteenth-century characters did, as was also the case, for that matter, before the theatrical model gained its hegemony over third-person narrative fiction...the scenes are much shorter and there are fewer of them... This does not mean that they do not exist or that they are not important: far from it. ...But these dense spaces are surrounded by moments during which the intersubjective action in the present tense is restricted to summaries, passed over in silence because it lacks interest, or made the object of a nonfictional interpretation..." (243-244). He then notes that the sort of theatrical density found in most 19th century novels now survives primarily "in the subgenres of the contemporary romance: crime novels, noir fiction, or the fantastic" (244).


Mazzoni doesn't spend much more than a few sentences on what's come to be called genre fiction, acknowledging it long enough to note that it is mostly outside his purview. Much of what he has to say about the romance and its relationship to the novel would be of use to genre-fiction scholars, though, and offers a model of the relationship between genre fiction and literary fiction that is more nuanced than most. This paragraph, for instance, seems clearer, more efficient, and more insightful than most of what I've read from genre-fiction scholars:
The English gothic novel and the narrative fiction of German Romanticism expanded the territory of mimesis to imaginary universes that lay very distant from common sense. They ushered in the modern period of fantastic literature and created a new form of romance. Out of this there arose a tradition that would traverse the entire nineteenth century: from the gothic novel to Hoffmann, from Potocki to Mary Shelley, from Edgar Allan Poe to Nerval and Théophile Gautier, from Bram Stoker to Wilkie Collins. It was also practiced by the authors of novels who, starting from the 1830s, would be called “realistic”: from Balzac and Flaubert to Maupassant and Henry James. As heir to the premodern romance, the new unreal literature no longer sought legitimacy by claiming to describe the world according to the poetic order of the idea, namely, according to a public exemplarity given as an a priori, but rather as a creation of the subjective imagination. On the other hand, it also took up some of the descriptive traits that the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novel had developed to create a reality effect. In this way it revived the conception of the supernatural by rooting fantastic tales in the concreteness of the sensible and the everyday. (214)
Much could be extrapolated about genre fiction from Mazzoni's ideas about novels, didacticism, and class. He's hardly the first to note the ways the development and reputation of certain types of novels was (and is) attached to social prestige and cultural capital, nor is he the first to look at the development of the novel in relation to the development of the European bourgeoisie, but nonetheless he tells this story well and with nuance. What he's particularly good on is the different progressions made by the novel aimed at the general public and the novel aimed at the educated elite (the people with cultural capital and in most cases economic capital as well). Overtly didactic and moralistic writing survived in the novels (romances) aimed at the general public much longer than in novels aimed at the elite, where didacticism began to seem gauche — the educated upper-classes, after all, were not the ones needing instruction; they had been to the right schools and learned the right morality. The less educated lower classes were more suspect, and writers aiming for such an audience seemed to feel compelled to write more overtly didactic books. For the cultural elite, "art for art's sake" became a value that helped novelists escape didacticism; I suspect that for popular fiction "entertainment for entertainment's sake" served a similar function, while also preserving the street cred of distance from high falutin', hoity-toity high culture types.

Even when popular novels are not didactic, the basic values illustrated by their stories remain ones that do not challenge the ruling class of their era and that class's moral sensibility. It is not merely that general audiences like happy endings where villains are punished and noble heroes triumph, but that the ways villains are villainous and heroes are heroic support dominant values. When novels push too hard against such orthodoxies, they get into trouble (often by being unpublished or undistributed, since they don't fit with the common sense of the day, though sometimes by being somehow banned). Within the tradition of the literary novel, writers have often done just such pushing against orthodoxies, and Mazzoni does a good job of looking at how some of those moments worked, but his picture of the literary field is incomplete without attention to some of the ways such pushing happened in popular and lowbrow forms — the obvious example, for me, is the rise of hardboiled and noir fiction in the U.S. in the 1920s and 1930s, a fiction that had its own romantic and melodramatic conventions, but which offered writers some space to challenge and even shatter ruling-class assumptions in a way little other fiction of its time did.

Speaking of melodramatic conventions: Mazzoni is also excellent on the power and persistence of melodrama:
Melodrama survived the disciplining of the novel advocated by naturalism as well as by modernism and the avant-garde: the works of Zola and Conrad would be unimaginable without devices dating back to this mimetic mode. In the second half of the twentieth century, works like Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago or Elsa Morante’s History picked up on melodramatic techniques. Contemporary popular fiction, midcult fiction, and mainstream film are still based on the melodrama as well as the romance. (259)

…melodrama is a vestige of tragedy, from which it inherits its techniques and tones. But while histories and tragic heroes are grand and important by definition, the stories and protagonists of a novel are not. To hide this lacuna, melodrama creates a pathetic-sentimental version of the noble genres, shifting interest from the objective importance of the stories to the subjective intensity of the passions. The aim is to show that the protagonists’ feelings are universal, in spite of the work describing or portraying people in private situations. (265)
This ties in with one of Mazzoni's primary questions: How, during different eras and in different places, was the novel form affected by novelists' desire to capture and hold readers' interests? After all, novels don't last long if they don't find some way to appeal to readers, even if the appeal is limited and the readership small. As culture and attention change, so, too, do the ways that novels can be interesting. In the last few centuries, melodrama has been (and remains) one of the key tools for attaining and holding readers' interest. This is an obvious insight for popular fictions, but Mazzoni is especially smart about the ways that the melodramatic imagination (to steal Peter Brooks's term) is baked into the 19th century novel form that continues to dominate so much fiction and so many assumptions about what makes works of fiction successful or unsuccessful. (For more on melodrama, I'm partial to Eric Bentley's The Life of the Drama.) Further, the period of High Modernism can at least partly be seen as a time of experiment seeking to discover what novelistic effects were possible if melodrama were abjured or detourned.

Mazzoni's philosophical conclusion is a beautiful meditation on what today we get from reading novels, what we as readers expect, and what writers might seek to provide. I'll end with one of the sentences from that conclusion:
Only narrative fiction can show how particular beings are exposed to the world, and how their identity, happiness, and unhappiness depend on the way their paths cross with those of others, and the power of circumstances. (374)

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.

02 April 2017

Delany at 75

from The Polymath

Samuel R. Delany just celebrated his 75th birthday, an auspicious occasion.

I've been writing about Delany for over a decade now — I've written and published more about his work than about that of any other writer: introductions to new editions of The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, Starboard Wine, and The American Shore; on his early pornographic novel Equinox; on his recent novel Dark Reflections; an interview in 2009. I spent some time last summer researching in his archives at Boston University and expect to return this summer, as about a third of my doctoral dissertation (in progress...) is devoted to his work. I've given presentations about him at academic conferences, and all of my academic friends are probably quite tired of my invoking his name at every possible opportunity.

The simple fact is that I think Delany is one of the most important American writers, one who ought to be spoken of alongside any great American writer (however defined or identified) of the second half of the twentieth century. Though Delany readers disagree not only about their favorites among his works, but about what should be considered his major writings, the passion of the arguments indicates the range and richness of his oeuvre. As a novelist, he's more interesting than Updike, Mailer, Vidal, and other big white males who still so dominate the idea of post-World-War-II American lit; as a nonfiction writer, he's at least the equal of Sontag. And yet somehow he continues to get seen in very limited ways, ways that impoverish the reading of his works.

The limited view of Delany often seems to result from personal preferences for particular texts or types of texts, and with a writer as complex as Delany, that's a fatal flaw. In fact, one of the great lessons of Delany's project is to encourage us to think beyond personal taste, to recognize personal taste as only a first step, an entry point. We all have our individual interests and preferences. (Myself, I like some of the early work well enough, but had Delany published nothing after Nova, I wouldn't be interested in him; of the fiction, The Mad Man and Dark Reflections are my favorites, though I think Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand could plausibly be offered as the greatest science fiction novel ever written, and the Return to Nevèrÿon series is perhaps his most impressive sustained work. For all that focus on the fiction, though, I generally feel most excited and inspired when reading his nonfiction.) However, to assess Delany within any sort of literary history, to take stock of his aesthetic and intellectual achievements, to understand anything that he's up to, requires less solipsism. Such an anti-egoistic idea extends well beyond the realm of literature, and is itself present as a concept in virtually all of his books, whether Empire Star or Times Square Red, Times Square Blue or Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders.

The conviction that Delany's work must be seen in multifarious ways by multifarious audiences with multifarious tastes was what led me a few years ago to organize a quick alternative roundtable discussion of Delany to counter one that Locus created in honor of his inauguration as a Grand Master of Science Fiction. I knew even then that my effort was inadequate — despite my attempts to make things otherwise, we were all male, for one obvious inadequacy — but the goal was simply to show some of the possible ways of broadening how we discuss and value Delany's work, hoping to inspire others.

Of recent academic efforts, the special "Delany Lately" issue of African American Review (Fall 2015) and the symposium on Delany in the Winter 2012 issue of American Literary History are significant; the recent publication of volume one of Delany's Selected Journals in a gorgeous edition from Wesleyan University Press (brilliantly edited by Kenneth James) is monumental; and Wesleyan's commitment to Delany's work in general has been one of the most notable (even noble) commitments by an academic press in our era to a particular writer.

Naturally, I think it's not enough. For a writer of Delany's stature, there ought to be more, and it ought to be more various.

16 March 2017

The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge



When I heard, a few months ago, that Paul La Farge's new novel would be about H.P. Lovecraft, I groaned. For one thing, I don't care about Lovecraft (no, more than that: I actively dislike Lovecraft's writing, life, everything); for another, there's a boom in people writing about Lovecraft these days. Good writers, too! Not just the hacks of fandom churning out their unintentionally almost-funny imitations, not just cretins of the sort who bought Weird Tales because they would rather run it into the ground than have anybody taint its legacy with stories that aren't imitations of Lovecraft — no, I'm talking about good writers, interesting writers, original writers, and—

Ugh, I just don't get it. And then comes the announcement about Paul La Farge, a writer I've enjoyed for almost twenty years now, ever since a friend of mine spent some time at the MacDowell Colony when he was there and told me, "There's a guy here who writes weird surrealist stuff you'd like," and when I went to visit her we stopped by the Toadstool Bookstore in Peterborough and I picked up a copy of The Artist of the Missing, read it, liked it (a bit too closely imitative of Kafka/Calvino/Borges, but well done), then later bought his next novel, Haussmann, or, The Distinction, which felt really original to me at the time, almost vertiginously so, as I hardly knew how to get my bearings with it, mostly because it was about histories I knew nothing about, but it haunted me. And then The Facts of Winter, a beautiful book of shimmering weird dreamstuff, lovely and yet also insubstantial. (I missed Luminous Airplanes somehow.) There were also various fun essays and interesting short stories that I caught here or there.

Thus, for some time now, La Farge's name has been one of the few that will induce me to pick up a book or magazine on the strength of his byline alone. His writing and his perspective are singular.

But ... Lovecraft? What was going on? Was he tired of suffering the obscurity of the highly literate, esoteric writer, and now wanted to jump on the apparent gravy train of Lovecraftianity? Everybody's got to eat, so good for him, but what was I to do, I who wanted to read Paul La Farge's new novel but...? And it has such a great Lynd Ward-ish cover... And...

And then, out of the blue, a publicist from Penguin Press asked me if I wanted a copy. What could I say? It wouldn't cost me anything. I could take a look at the first 25 pages or so and if it was too Lovecrafty, I could just pass the book on to one of the many people I know who (inexplicably!) are fascinated by old HPL and find enjoyment in reading his fiction. Sure, I said. Send it along.