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.

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.)

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.