Category Archives: literature for literary folk

June 14, 2009, 6:51 pm

Mother Jones and the National Review on the dubious quality of Sotomayor’s prose: “This apple’s the worst orange I’ve ever tasted.”

This past week, the attacks on Sotomayor have turned from what she’s said to how she’s said it.  Conservatives began by hammering away at the “weird, unidiomatic constructions and errors of punctuation and grammar [in] her infamous 2001 ‘Wise Latina’ speech.”  Now, I advocate writing conference papers that “contain few expensive words and no Faulknerian feats of subordination” on the grounds that no human being—not even the academic ones—can parse grammatically complex arrangements of jargon on the fly, so I’m more attuned than most to the fact that what passes for grammatical in English as she is spoke doesn’t pass muster in English as she is wrote.  You can imagine, then, why I chafed at Heather McDonald’s criticism of Sotomayor’s unscripted speeches for containing errors endemic to spoken language.  Just because an unscripted speech is transcribed after the fact doesn’t…

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April 27, 2009, 7:22 pm

Concerning the inherent superiority of printed text to irresponsible online drivel.

Is it absolutely necessary for the image gracing the cover of the most recent issue of the official mouthpiece of my professional organization to depict something that, when seen on my desk by a colleague from another department, compelled her to ask where a viper fish would even get a detachable penis to whack off against a shrimp-wielding toucan? Do other departments not laugh at us literary folk enough already?

Why does this same issue contain a write-up of a forum from the 2007 MLA convention? Did it really take two years and change to transform that panel into something print-worthy? So I take it the first sentence is supposed to read:

In contributions to this 2007 panel of the division on Comparative Studies in Romanticism and the Nineteenth Century, titled “Untiming the Nineteenth-Century: Temporality and Periodization,” periodization, a venerable mainstay of comparative…

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April 13, 2009, 5:45 pm

Enemies made or enemies born?

On this day in history, two men—one of whom would say that the other’s life work represented “the utmost human degradation[:] an idiot’s vegetative existence”—were born. In 1885, the author of that statement, Marxist literary critic Georg Lukács, dewombed in Budapest. Often cited as the founder of Western (or philosophical) Marxism, Lukács can be considered the grandfather of the armchair academic activists who fought the radical fight from tenured positions at illustrious institutions. I only half-kid here: his claim in The Historical Novel (1937) that the role of the literary critic was to examine “the relation between ideology (in the sense of Weltanschauung) and artistic creation” (147) allowed otherwise sedentary scholars to label as revolutionary action an exegesis on Dickensian realism.  Anyone whose work analyzed critical or socialist realism, i.e. literature which…

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April 10, 2009, 10:25 am

“You’ve read my books, haven’t you? Remember?”

This day in 1925 was publication day for The Great Gatsby, whose author F. Scott Fitzgerald—amazingly, hopefully, ridiculously, immediately—cabled Maxwell Perkins to ask if there were any news yet of how the book was going over. The news when it came was good, but not good enough for Fitzgerald, who mourned that of the happy reviewers “not one had the slightest idea what the book was about.”

And that appears still to be true. Whatever the book is about it obviously isn’t about how well America treats arriviste strivers. But is it about the myth of the classless society? Certainly, but not in the boring way that Dreiser’s books are about that.

I do like the suggestion that what’s most important in the book is

its realization of the fluidity of American lives, the perception being Tom Buchanan’s wistful drifting here and there, “wherever people played polo and were rich…

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March 10, 2009, 5:59 pm

Watching Watchmen: How unfilmable novels become unwatchable films.

(This beast began as the post I promised last week.  Now that I’ve played hooky all my points about the uniqueness of Watchmen‘s narrative mode seem more salient in light of their absence from the film.  So I decided to fold my review into the half-composed post.  But for the record I still never get around to discussing my larger theory of Manhattan as readerly proxy.)

Some books teach you how to read them: Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, JR, and Infinite Jest spring first to mind.  From a purely formal perspective Watchmen belongs in their company.  It does to the conventions of comic narrative what Joyce did to realism, Pynchon did to pulp, Gaddis did to dialogue and Foster Wallace did to sentiment.  All the techniques discussed in the following had been used in comics before—there is nothing new under the oxen of the sun—but never in the service of creating a new breed of read…

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January 23, 2009, 11:45 pm

after all, a place for the genuine

Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem has drawn generally negative reviews (though the Facebook fan club has attracted 500-some members). My feelings about it are mixed — but reading the discussion at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ place here and here I felt torn, defensive, even protective. So many readers seem to be beating up on Alexander almost personally, rather than trying to read the poems well. (Adam Kirsch and Rudolph Delson address broader tendencies which they see or imagine in Alexander. Margaret Soltan attacks from the aesthetic right, and Ron Silliman indirectly from the left. Etc.) She hardly needs my defense (being not only a grownup but a lit professor), but I still want to try to draw out the virtues of the poem, to show it’s worth not scorning.

To begin with, I’ll acknowledge that the poem was written for the eye. The verse is syllabic, composed in lines of about 10 syllables each…

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January 3, 2009, 4:57 pm

It’s always already been the end of epic film.

Whether he knows it or not—and “he” being Adam Kotsko, I’ll bet he knows it—this Weblog post is less about the formal fit between epic and the television serial than the relation of film to the episodic form.  I know that sounds backwards—what with MOVIES! being PRESENTED! on SCREENS! the SIZE! of WYOMING!—but the compounded facts of run time and the modern American attention span necessitate we consider film the proper realm of the self-contained episode.  Even films which promise sequels announce their completion in terms of whatever -ology they embrace. 

Films should be about something in the original, locative sense of the word.  They should surround some subject matter, be “on every side” “wholly or partially,” as per the OED.  They should be self-contained.  Not that they shouldn’t be sweeping—you can frame Guernica or a sublimely panoramic view of the Hudson River and…

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December 19, 2008, 11:38 am

Who says what to whom now?

Mark Helprin—author of my favorite novel when I was a naive fourteen—published another well-written, ur-conservative editorials in the Wall Street Journal today.  You can (and will) disagree with the sentiment, but you must admit that the man can control his clauses:

The pity is that the war could have been successful and this equilibrium sustained had we struck immediately, preserving the link with September 11th; had we disciplined our objective to forcing upon regimes that nurture terrorism the choice of routing it out with their ruthless secret services or suffering the destruction of the means to power for which they live; had we husbanded our forces in the highly developed military areas of northern Saudi Arabia after deposing Saddam Hussein, where as a fleet in being they would suffer no casualties and remain at the ready to reach Baghdad, Damascus, or Riyadh in three days; a…

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October 8, 2008, 7:42 pm

“This Nicholas Sandworm anon let flee a fart, as gret as it hadde ben a thundir dent.”

On this day in 1920, Frank Herbert Jr. was born. Herbert devoted six years to “researching” what would become the most popular science fiction novel of all time. I’ve always wondered what counts as “research” when writing a novel. I can understand the need for writers of hard science fiction to familiarize themselves with the ins and outs of a particular field, but for someone like Herbert, wouldn’t “world-building” more accurately describe his efforts? I say this because Herbert describes a world in which the mysticism and magic have replaced science and technology.

This time I am lifting from Adam Robert‘s excellent History of Science Fiction, in which he claims “one of the book’s greatest strengths is its detailed and plausible rendering of the political context” (236). What Herbert spent six years “researching,” then, was the complex political environs of the interplanetary…

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October 2, 2008, 12:22 pm

When am I not reading early modern poetry?

Am I the only one who thinks Glenn Reynolds only knew this quotation because it’s the name of a popular science fiction trilogy?  Because it certainly doesn’t mean what he thinks it means, as William Graham Sumner—one of the three people on whom the label “social Darwinist” can be pinned in good faith—noted in 1877:

Fluctuations in the measure of value are as inconvenient and fatal as fluctuations in the measure of length and bulk . . . . Business is turned into a guess, or a game of hazard, where the prevailing anarchy is overruled by accident:—

“Chaos umpire sits
And by decision more embroils the fray
By which he reigns; next him high arbiter
Chance governs all.”

In such a condition of things the gamblers have the advantage.  The stock exchange becomes little better than a faro bank . . . . The temptation of excessive gains leads from the beaten path of business.  Speculation …

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June 9, 2008, 10:55 pm

Dear John Carlos Rowe: SHUT UP!

Some of us don’t have tenure yet. This is completely uncalled for:

In Connecticut Yankee, Twain warns the reader that the United States is already following the lead of the European imperial powers, a message he would repeat with growing volubility in his anti-imperialist writings from 1898 to 1905, most of which require little interpretation. (Literary Culture and U.S. Imperialism, 139, emphasis mine.)

You are an evil liar, John Carlos Rowe. You may have total recall. You may be right charming. I may even respect you mightily. That changes nothing. This is beyond the pale. Don’t believe me? Ask anyone without tenure and brace yourself for a brutal what for. Fact:

Everything requires loads of interpretation. All of it. (Even that.)

Just because you have tenure doesn’t mean you can give up the gig. Some of us still have to slog through six sets a night.

(X-posted to my…

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