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.

08 March 2017

Selecting Woolf's Essays


It is time for a capacious, authoritative one-volume selection of Virginia Woolf's essays and journalism. (Perhaps one is in preparation. I don't know.) The sixth and final volume of her collected essays was released in 2011. It is wondrous, as are all of the volumes in the series, but though it's a goldmine for scholars, the series isn't really aimed at the everyday reader; each volume is relatively expensive (though not to the extent of an academic volume, e.g. the Cambridge Editions), and plenty of the material is ephemeral, repetitive, or esoteric.

A one-volume Selected Essays does exist, edited by David Bradshaw and published by Oxford World's Classics. It's better than nothing, but it's small and missing many of Woolf's best essays — including perhaps her single most-frequently-reprinted essay, "The Death of the Moth". Bradshaw also slights Woolf's literary essays, perhaps because the two Common Reader volumes remain in print. Also in print is Michèle Barnett's Women and Writing, and it's a pretty good selection, but as the title suggests, the focus is specific. (And in any case the selection was made in 1979, and Woolf scholarship has developed a lot since then. The authoritative Essays volumes didn't even start appearing until 1986.)

In 1993, Penguin published a two-volume selection of the essays edited by Rachel Bowlby. For what I assume were reasons of copyright, it was only released in the UK. It's a very good selection of 55 essays total (25 more than Bradshaw), though each volume was a little under 200 pages in length, so it could easily have been a single book.

I've been thinking about what it would be useful to have in a new Selected Essays, one built from the now complete Essays volumes. It deserves to be bigger than any of the selections so far, though not so gigantic that it's unwieldy. After all, it's drawing from thousands of pages of material. I would lean toward a length of 400-500 pages, say 150,000 words or so.

Any imagined table of contents I create must be highly provisional at best, subject to the vagaries of memory and personal taste, but as I think about it, I realize I do have some thought about what would be useful for students and, perhaps most importantly, for ordinary readers to have as a collection of Woolf's essays.

07 March 2017

45 Years


Andrew Haigh wrote and directed one of my favorite films of the century so far, Weekend, and his 2015 movie 45 Years is based on David Constantine's breathtaking short story "In Another Country" — as rich and perfect a story as you're ever likely to read.

For these reasons, I put off seeing the movie for a long time, because I feared it could not live up to my hopes and expectations for it.

And no, it couldn't live up to my hopes and expectations, and my hopes and expectations did, indeed, get in the way — but it's still an impressive film. In particular, the performances and the cinematography are magnificent.

The plot of 45 Years is simple, and starts right from the second scene: An older couple, Kate and Geoff, are getting ready to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary, having not been able to celebrate their 40th because of Geoff's heart bypass surgery. That week, Geoff receives an official letter letting him know that a body has been found encased in a melting glacier: the body of Katya, his girlfriend before he met Kate. He and Katya were hiking in Switzerland in 1962 when Katya fell into a crevasse. Kate knew this story, but hasn't thought about it in many years. Geoff explains to Kate that to make their traveling easier, he and Katya had told people they were married, and thus he was the next of kin, a detail Kate claims she never knew. The rest of the film is about the tension that then enters Kate and Geoff's relationship because of this new knowledge. Geoff can't stop obsessing about his past with Katya, and Kate is somehow deeply threatened and hurt by it all.

The problem I encountered after a first viewing of 45 Years was that I just didn't buy the premise. This is strange, because it's the same premise as the short story. But Constantine's emphases are rather different from those of the movie — his concern in the story, and in much of his writing, is at least as much with the passing of time and the power of memory as it is in the characters' relationship. The ending is entirely different (very powerful, very sad).

28 February 2017

"We must remain readers..."

photo by Black Cat Books


Virginia Woolf, from "How Should One Read a Book":
We must remain readers; we shall not put on the further glory that belongs to those rare beings who are also critics. But still we have our responsibilities as readers and even our importance. The standards we raise and the judgments we pass steal into the air and become part of the atmosphere which writers breathe as they work. An influence is created which tells upon them even if it never finds its way into print. And that influence, if it were well instructed, vigorous and individual and sincere, might be of great value now when criticism is necessarily in abeyance; when books pass in review like the procession of animals in a shooting gallery, and the critic has only one second in which to load and aim and shoot and may well be pardoned if he mistakes rabbits for tigers, eagles for barndoor fowls, or misses altogether and wastes his shot upon some peaceful cow grazing in a further field. If behind the erratic gunfire of the press the author felt that there was another kind of criticism, the opinion of people reading for the love of reading, slowly and unprofessionally, and judging with great sympathy and yet with great severity, might this not improve the quality of his work? And if by our means books were to become stronger, richer, and more varied, that would be an end worth reaching.

Yet who reads to bring about an end, however desirable? Are there not some pursuits that we practise because they are good in themselves, and some pleasures that are final? And is not this among them? I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards — their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble — the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when he sees us coming with our books under our arms, “Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.”

03 February 2017

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle


John Darnielle's first novel (after the uncategorizable critical novella Black Sabbath's Master of Reality), Wolf in White Van, got a lot of attention and made the longlist for the 2014 National Book Awards. I read it when it came out, since I adore Darnielle's work as singer-songwriter for The Mountain Goats, and thought maybe he'd be okay at writing novels, too, though I tried not to get my hopes up. After a few pages, I was entranced, and read the book quickly, almost in a fugue state, stopping only because at times I found it emotionally overwhelming. I never wrote about it because I didn't know how to do so in any way other than to say, "Go read this." To explain what made the book such a rich reading experience for myself would require delving into a lot of weirdnesses of personal response, useless to anybody else, and to talk much about the plot and structure would be to give away part of the novel's magic. I am not at all a spoiler alerter — quite the opposite, in fact, and I generally feel that any book or movie requiring a spoiler alert is a book or movie without much of interest beyond its plot machinations — but there are always exceptions, and the elegance with which Wolf shuffles and deals its information is such a carefully controlled performance that even to speak of the story's premise felt to me like a violation. (And it's not about Big Surprises. It doesn't take long to guess the big stuff; it's the way the information accumulates that is so powerful, so masterful.)

Universal Harvester is even more narratively tricksy than Wolf in White Van, but it seems to me much less harmed by description and analysis, and so I will offer here a few preliminary notes about the novel, with the assumption that you haven't read it but are, for whatever reason, nonetheless curious about its structure and effect.

18 January 2017

Elements of Style for the Age of Blight


Introductory
As the world burns away in political crises and ecological catastrophe, writers strain against meaninglessness, against the sense that their work is nothing more than a few grains of confectionary sugar tossed to a howling wind. What forms might fit our time, what stories might we tell against a future of no-one left to listen to stories?

No other label for where we are and where we’re going as a world seems quite so accurate as the one Kristine Ong Muslim has used for her recent collection of stories, The Age of Blight. It is a book of glimpses, shards, and lost myths; it works like a nightmare recollected during the day before you know the nightmare will return and sleep cannot be kept at bay indefinitely.

The Age of Blight and a thousand books like it will not forestall our own Age of Blight, but Muslim offers strategies for storytelling as the blasted era blightens. Her techniques for writing fiction are ones that make demands on the reader, but they're not the demands made by, for instance, a doorstopper novel flooded by streams of consciousness.




Elementary Rules of Usage
For all the enormity of its subject matter, Muslim’s book is tiny. It gathers 16 short stories in 103 pages (some of which are blank). The effect of reading it is similar to what it might be like to look at snapshots of crumbling insane asylums and quick sketches of endless, festering swamps. Much feels like it’s missing, but we don’t miss it, because it’s easy to imagine what is left out.

And imagination is key here, because imagination may be the only possible way to save ourselves, to find some way to live a good life even as the blight spreads in and outside the text. Solutions are few and far between; beauty rots; but still, we can dream.

Elements of Style for the Age of Blight: 
Omit needless words.