April 8, 2008

Not the preferred nomenclature

Filed under: Dissertation, Funny Stuff, Literati and Cognoscenti — tomemos @ 9:59 pm

Sorry for the blog outage—that was my longest in a while, huh?  Mainly I’ve been working on my dissertation, and that doesn’t give me much blogging material: partly I don’t want to bore anyone, partly I don’t want to write anything twice if I can help it.  Plus, Acephalous casts a long shadow over anyone wanting to write something entertaining about their dissertation reading.  But enough throat-clearing, here I go already:

As I may or may not have mentioned, I’m writing about spy literature in the early twentieth century.  Some of what I’m reading is interesting in its own right, and some of it is just interesting as material for the project—it’s the laughing with/laughing at distinction, basically.  It turns out that some thrillers lose their ability to inspire over ninety or a hundred years.  In general, the appalling writing I’ve seen takes one of two forms.

The first is the “Tom Clancy Effect,” where the author abandons the pretense that what you’re reading is a novel, and just makes it an earnest argument for increased British military spending—imagine an episode of 24 that just consisted of Jack Bauer reading an article from Foreign Policy Magazine.  Here, from William Le Queux’s The Invasion of 1910 (1906), is an exchange between two young Englishmen following the shocking revelation of the German invasion of England:

“…to-day is surely the blackest day that England has ever known.”

“Yes, thanks to the pro-German policy of the Government and the false assurances of the Blue Water School.  They should have listened to Lord Roberts.”

The second type of bad writing masks its rhetoric and predictability with exotic characters and details.  The results at least look much more like what you expect from a thriller, except when, pardon the cliche, the author jumps the shark.  Late in E. Phillips Oppenheim’s The Mysterious Mister Sabin (1902), Mr. Sabin’s Chinese servant Foo Cha (who is introduced quite out of the blue 3/4 of the way through the book) reports some suspicious activity that he’s observed:

“Master, I was followed from the house of the German by a man, who drove fast after me in a two-wheeled cab. He lost me on the way, but there are others. I have been into the street, and I am sure of it. The house is being watched on all sides.”

Sabin tries to reassure him, but apparently doesn’t do a good job, because not only is Foo Cha still agitated, he forgets how to speak English:

“Me afraid,” he admitted frankly. “Strange men this end and that end of street. Me no like it. Ah!”

Michael Crichton, Dan Brown, if you were wondering what your books would look like a century from now, wonder no more.


December 7, 2007

Using ideas as my maps

Filed under: Blogs Themselves, Film and Video, Literati and Cognoscenti, Music — tomemos @ 2:12 pm

Attention, smart people: I think we should have some kind of symposium on the Todd Haynes film I’m Not There. Probably an online symposium, though honestly I’d like to get us all in a Mariott ballroom talking about it, as it’s a film where our disagreements are more important than our agreements. Because while I liked the movie overall—I’d say three stars on Netflix—it’s also the most disappointing movie I’ve seen in years; I didn’t love it by any means, and yet no one who loved it has said anything I’ve disagreed with. So I’d like to start us talking about how we could all be thinking such similar things about the film and coming to such different aesthetic conclusions.

Here’s what I’m going to say today: I’m Not There is a textbook example of why, in art, the conceptual is unsatisfying without effective practical execution. In fact, I used it in class a week ago to make that very point to my students. Somewhat like the other Todd Haynes films I’ve seen—Safe (which I saw while young, admittedly) and Far From Heaven—the movie is thoughtful and has interesting ideas, but does not actually feel interesting to watch. The disappointment of I’m Not There is so keen for me because the concept is especially good, while the execution is often mediocre and occasionally bad. (Spoilers follow from here on out.)

In fairness, I should note at the beginning that I experienced the film in a sub-optimal manner: some reels were shown out of order, so that (for instance) we first encountered Cate Blanchett’s Dylan before he had been properly introduced. Perturbed by the abrupt shifts in scene, we suggested to a theater employee that the reels might have been out of order, but he said he had arranged them correctly and added, “It’s what you call an extremely disjointed narrative.” It took a week to confirm that this was incorrect; the friend we checked with wondered at first if maybe we just didn’t understand avant-garde cinema. On the one hand, you could say that we would have enjoyed the movie more if we had seen it in order, and that’s probably true (though it wouldn’t have made any difference for the Richard Gere and Heath Ledger sequences, which had nothing redeeming for me). On the other hand, the fact that the projectionist couldn’t tell that the film was out of order isn’t exactly a point in its favor. (There weren’t a lot of audience members around us who shared our suspicions, either.) So, with that out of the way:

Joe Kugelmass, who initially disliked the movie, came to appreciate it by thinking of it as a statement on Dylan’s use of self-mythologizing: “For Haynes, Dylan is the sum of his fantasies—the fantasy of being black and young again, the fantasy of being a noble refugee with a history of violence.…” Uncomplicatedly, in a comment on that entry, agrees:

Everyone goes through successive reimaginings of themselves– which is part of what gives the film weight and resonance– but this is especially important for Dylan, who was bent on reimagining himself in defiance of people who wanted to hold onto the particular incarnation they had connected with.

This matches other opinions I’ve heard: the movie is intended to capture Dylan’s constant re-invention, both to the public and to himself, and the impossibility of settling on a “true” Dylan in light of this. This is made explicit in Richard Gere’s words near the end of the film: “Me, I can change in the course of a day. I wake up thinking I’m one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain I’m somebody else.”

Here’s the thing: I get all that. What’s more, I agree with all that. It’s what I understood Haynes’ object to be when I heard he was making a movie with six very different Dylans, and as someone who’s been a Dylan fan most of my life, it’s what made me excited to see it. And, despite some unfortunately literal uses of Dylan lyrics, Haynes’ use of this concept is exemplary, as he makes observations—criticism, really—about Dylan’s life and career that make intrinsic sense. My favorite of these is the way that Christian Bale’s Dylan, the early-sixties protest singer, resurfaces in the late seventies as a born-again preacher. It’s true that Dylan’s Christian period was in some ways a reprise of his protest period: he believed, again, that he could change people, save people, through song. I had never thought of it this way, but, thanks to Haynes, now I have.

My problem is that the enjoyment or fulfillment I got from watching these concepts in the movie was equal to that I got from reading about them in film reviews ahead of time: it was an intellectual enjoyment, not an aesthetic one. In other words, for the most part the concepts and ideas work only as concepts and ideas; aside from a few good scenes, almost all in the Bale or Blanchett sections of the movie, they are not actually executed in a way that gives pleasure beyond figuring them out or understanding them. And so the movie ended up for me as a noble failure, a smart but disappointing effort, rather than a comprehensively good film.

Of course, one could reasonably argue that you can’t judge a film fairly once you’ve spoiled it for yourself by reading reviews, and that if I had seen the film without prior knowledge I would have been able to achieve full enjoyment of its ideas. I would respond with two points:

1) The film’s own promotional materials made a point of explicitly selling, and explaining, these same concepts, running the same risk of spoilage as the reviews did. I’m not just talking about the trailer, although that’s part of it (the Gere quote from above is right there in the trailer); I’m also talking about “I’m Not There: The Official Guide to the Movie,” a six-page booklet, given to us with our movie tickets, which contains articles explaining what part of Dylan’s life and iconography each of the actors represents and what all the sources for the people, dialogue, clothes, etc. are. Now, obviously Haynes didn’t make the trailer or the booklet; he may abhor them. But it is relevant to me that the film was sold by giving the concepts away: it created my desire to see the movie that went along with those concepts, and that movie didn’t stand up. Moreover, I wouldn’t be too quick to say that this is separate from what Haynes himself does: in both the beginning and the end of the film, we see a rapid-fire display of snapshots of the six actors playing Dylan, which seems to be Haynes’ way of pushing the film’s central concept to the forefront.

2) More importantly, the film should stand on its own. This is true of any work of art: the intellectual or conceptual material is not less important than the practical execution of that material, but both halves need each other to thrive. A friend of mine disliked the novel Hannibal, until he found a website that claimed to find a system of oblique references (to what, I don’t remember) in the novel. Without weighing in on the plausibility of the references, or the quality of the book—I’m not familiar with either one—literature is not an Easter-egg-hunt; it’s not just about finding references, nor is it just about making points and developing ideas. Those references, points, and ideas have to be artistically presented to an audience. A boring or unconvincing novel is better with well-developed ideas than without them, but it remains boring and unconvincing either way.

Losing sight of this means losing sight of why we take the two hours to actually watch a film, rather than just talking about its ideas. When a film is all concept, it’s impossible to discuss it on any other grounds; every flaw is actually an essential part of the concept. The Richard Gere sequence in I’m Not There is derivative (basically a watered-down McCabe and Mrs. Miller with giraffes), but that’s okay, because Dylan’s vision of the West was itself derivative. The Heath Ledger/Charlotte Gainsbourg divorce scenes are boring, but that’s okay, because it shows us how flat and boring Dylan’s life felt to him during this time. On the other hand, I just watched a Sopranos episode (“House Arrest”) about Tony and everyone around him being bored and depressed, and it was compelling from beginning to end. Everyone who’s been in a writing workshop has heard someone say that a character is supposed to be annoying, or a scene is supposed to be frustrating. The fact is, good art is able to make all the emotions and experiences of life, even the banal ones, feel interesting and worthwhile (not to say pleasant or enjoyable) without making us think of justifications for their banality.

I would compare it to surprise endings. Obviously, a movie with a surprise ending is better when you don’t already know the ending, so that you don’t lose the surprise. At the same time, a good movie should be good independent of that surprise. The fact that The Crying Game doesn’t stand up when the twist (not actually at the end, I know) has been spoiled is a sign that it isn’t a very worthwhile film. On the other hand, I loved Citizen Kane, even though I had known what Rosebud was since I was seven. A concept, like a twist, is something one can know and understand independently from actually seeing the movie (or reading the book, etc.). Experiencing that concept or twist has to be worthwhile in and of itself.

I do admire Haynes for making such an ambitious and conceptual movie; I do enjoy thinking through what it has to say about Dylan and about identity in general. As it turns out, all of that doesn’t have much effect on my experience actually watching these people say those lines. “But then all this had somehow to be turned into art,” Martin Amis once wrote at the end of a book review; “that is where the real trouble started.”

October 22, 2007


Filed under: Literati and Cognoscenti — tomemos @ 4:02 pm

(Updated below/Updated again)

In a Q&A at Carnegie Hall two days ago, J.K. Rowling revealed that, in her view, Dumbledore was gay. The audience reacted with surprise and pleasure, and the chatter from her fans began immediately. “One more reason to love gay men,” read one particularly inane blog post.

I’m interested in this from two angles: as a supporter of gay rights, and as a literary critic. (My interest as a Harry Potter fan is basically negligible, for reasons I’ll get to.) From the standpoint of gay rights, was this a useful statement on Rowling’s part? On the whole, I’d have to say: sure. Any prominent figure speaking cavalierly about homosexuality does a little bit of good, and for the world’s most prominent children’s book author to do so about the world’s (arguably) second-favorite children’s book character is certainly beneficial, giving parents a good chance to talk about homosexuality and tolerance with their kids, and giving adolescents, sensitive to the prejudices of others, evidence that homosexuality is okay—especially useful for gay adolescents.

However, I also believe that it would have been more useful for Rowling to actually make Dumbledore gay. How do you make a character gay? The same way you make them Jewish, or freckled, or anything else: you put explicit or implicit signs in the work that the character is (gay, Jewish, freckled, etc.). You do not do it just by saying something plausible about a character after the fact. When Marge’s sister Patty came out of the closet in an episode of The Simpsons, it was plausible that she “had been gay all along,” as (unlike sister Selma) she hadn’t had any heterosexual relationships; however, she wasn’t a gay character until the show actually signaled this. By contrast, Smithers was/is a gay character almost from the beginning of the show, even though no character (to my knowledge) has ever explicitly said so. (“Something gay, no doubt?” doesn’t count.)

So the reader has to ask, not just “is it feasible that Dumbledore is gay?” but also, “In this text, is Dumbledore given to us as gay?” I went back and reread parts of Deathly Hallows following Rowling’s revelation, and I have to say, it just ain’t there. By my count, Dumbledore’s time with Grindelwald (the dark wizard with whom, according to Rowling, Dumbledore fell in love) is recounted four times—ranging from hagiography to muckracking biography—and none of the characters give any indication that there was anything between them besides intellectual admiration. If anyone can find a more definitive passage that I’m overlooking, by all means let me know. Interestingly, I see one or two phrases that could be stretched to imply a homosexual relationship between Dumbledore and his old, somewhat fatuous friend Elphias Doge, but nothing at all in the Grindelwald angle.

(For what it’s worth, I think Rowling was right to dissuade the screenwriter who gave Dumbledore an attraction to a girl in his past. It is significant that Dumbledore never had a romantic relationship that we know of, and giving him one in the film changes his character. But being a bachelor is different from being gay.)

Some might object that Rowling is not free to put a clearly gay character in the book, given the youth of her intended audience and the need to appeal to a broad readership. Yet in the same book it is implied that one character was raped or sexually molested; the event is simply put in vague enough terms that one wouldn’t have to confront a child with this traumatic idea. That kind of equivocation has a very distinguished history, and is different from the Dumbledore case, where there simply isn’t anything in the text to suggest what Rowling told her fans. In any case, Rowling seems to be trying to have it both ways by giving out information which isn’t available in the books, only to those in the know. One character expressed this well in a sarcastic comment on The West Wing: “Why not say that we’re against affirmative action and let on to our friends that we were just kidding?”

“That’s how I always saw Dumbledore,” Rowling told the crowd; however, it is obvious that her job isn’t just to see Dumbledore, it’s to make us see him. This is why I say that her “revelation” isn’t relevant to my views of Harry Potter: the text, and my interpretation of it, hasn’t changed at all, because it’s just as mum about Dumbledore’s sexuality as it was before. In a sense, Rowling outed Dumbledore in this Q&A, but in another sense she closeted him: turned him into a secret kept not only from the other characters but also from her readers. She’s free to do this, of course, but I don’t think it’s worthy of any particular admiration.

Update (10/23): This Salon article touches on the same subject and delves into the interesting question of whether it’s a good idea in general for an author to keep making pronouncements about a book after it’s concluded. The author, Rebecca Traister, buys the “gay Dumbledore” angle much more than I do—signs which I take as merely indicating friendship, like a picture of Dumbledore and Grindelwald ” “laughing immoderately with their arms around each other’s shoulders,” she takes as “clear” evidence of Dumbledore’s homosexuality—so I’d be curious to know what people think.

Update II (10/30): Kugelmass was kind enough to link to this post in a Valve discussion of this topic, which comes in the context of a number of other Valve conversations about author intentionality.  Valve readers: welcome.  Tomemos readers: visit the Valve post to see more opinions on this from Bill Benzon, Rich Puchalsky, Yours Truly, and others.

September 17, 2007

You people are the real thing

Filed under: Laws and Sausages, Literati and Cognoscenti — tomemos @ 11:43 am

Way to get mad, everybody:

UC Irvine Chancellor Michael V. Drake and Erwin Chemerinsky have reached an agreement that will return the liberal legal scholar to the dean’s post at the university’s new law school, the university announced this morning.

With the deal, they hope to end the controversy that erupted when Chemerinsky was dropped as the first dean of the Donald Bren School of Law.

Of course, to save face, UCI has to pretend like it was Chemerinsky’s fault for being so darned divisive:

Drake has insisted that Chemerinsky didn’t lose the dean’s position because of his politics, saying that it was only because he expressed himself in a polarizing way.

This would make sense if Chemerinsky had gone all Ward Churchill between being hired and being fired, but since he didn’t one would have to conclude that UCI hired him without actually knowing what he had said publicly and how he said it.  And can someone explain what was “polarizing” about Chemerinsky?  He expressed political opinions in a polarized political environment; that’s not the same as being inflammatory.  Did he tag up somebody’s house or something?

But whatever, I’ll let all that slide.  Kudos, UCI; I don’t mind spinelessness as long as it’s equal-opportunity.

September 12, 2007

Mad as hell

Filed under: Laws and Sausages, Literati and Cognoscenti — tomemos @ 9:11 pm

Update: Here’s an online petition from the UCI community to Drake.

In what can only be described as an act of humiliating cowardice, UCI’s chancellor, Michael Drake, fired Erwin Chemerinsky, the head of UCI’s new law school, out of concern that Chemerinsky’s left-wing views would cause too much controversy. Drake had to fly across the country to give Chemerinsky the news, because Chemerinsky hadn’t started the job yet. He only signed the contract last week; nonetheless, he had already started assembling his choices for the board of advisors, including a former Bush appointee. Chemerinsky did not say something shockingly controversial, or announce some radical plan for the law school—it was simply feared that conservatives might raise a stink about him.

I read that at Atrios a little more than seven hours ago. In the intervening time, quite a bit has developed: the LA Times picked up and verified the story; there was a discussion of it on my department listserv; conservative bloggers Hugh Hewitt and Instapundit, to their great credit, condemned the firing; and a left-wing UCI blogger dismissed out of hand the possibility that he, or any graduate student, could make any difference on this or any matter. So there’s a lot to consider here.

Here’s my thing, though. Why is it that you never hear about a candidate being withdrawn (scratch that: an employee being fired) because of fears of left-wing criticism? There aren’t more right-wingers than left-wingers in this country—certainly not in California—so obviously the reason is that left-wing partisans by and large won’t mount an organized campaign of criticism and complaint over ideological issues. Why should that be?

I understand that many on the left see equanimity as a matter of liberal principle (and what principle might that be—not wanting to be a bother?), but it is past time to see that this is disparity is absolutely killing the American left. In 2000, there weren’t Democratic staffers in Florida to face off with the Republican ones pounding on the windows of the Registrar of Voters. Given what the last six years have been like, can you say there shouldn’t have been? Despite Alberto Gonzales resigning in disgrace, despite his own lame-duck status, George Bush is once again trying to appoint a clear partisan to be Attorney General. He wouldn’t do it if he didn’t think he’d get away with it. And the reason he gets away with it is that we don’t have the backbone to get exercised about it. The left used to march in the streets while the right wing used to be the “silent majority”; what the hell happened?

I’m not advocating that we protest whenever a conservative gets hired to an academic position; I’ve known a number of intelligent and professional center-right professors who would be good on any faculty, and I teach conservative thinkers who I respect. But at minimum we have to reject attempts to dislodge qualified employees because they hold left-wing views. (Think about what I just wrote; is it 1947?) So to answer Scott Kaufman’s post (linked above): yes, write a complaint. Write complaints to everyone involved. Tell everyone you know to write a complaint. Get UCI—or whomever—to realize that the outrage it provokes from, horror of horrors, hiring liberal employees is nothing compared to the outrage it provokes from firing them out of fear before they’ve even stepped in the door.

It’s not a fun way to spend a Wednesday night. It involves working yourself up to a lather you may not really feel, a lather this single issue maybe doesn’t deserve. But it has to be done. Conservatives are winning the outrage war, and they’re not going to back off so we have to step up.

I am absolutely serious about all of the above.

Chancellor Drake’s e-mail address is

p.s. — Sorry for the cliché title. Honestly, it’s just because every time I see “Erwin Chemerinsky” I think “Paddy Chayefsky.” I had to indulge that impulse or lose my mind.

August 24, 2007

You’re different. So are we.

Filed under: Blogs Themselves, Literati and Cognoscenti — tomemos @ 12:35 am

Just before the wedding (which went great, by the way—more later, but see here and here in the meantime), I finished reading Jonathan Lethem’s novel Fortress of Solitude, and I’ve been talking about it ever since. Maybe I’m just deprived from not reading any contemporary fiction in the run-up to the exams, but it seemed like the sort of book that could get everyone talking. After a couple hundred pages I knew I was going to want to blog on it, but I couldn’t think of how to get beyond “this book is really interesting” and thus make it interesting to those (probably almost all of you) who hadn’t read the book. Luckily Joe Kugelmass called my attention to Timothy Burke’s proposal for a “Department of Everything Studies” (by posting his own excellent response to it), and I realized the way in: the novel intersects with a debate, bubbling especially over the last few years, over the juxtaposition of pop culture with high culture (or the outright substitution of the latter with the former), in art, in academia, and in society at large. Incidentally, feel free to put invisible quotation marks around “high culture,” but to a large extent I believe in the distinction so I’m leaving them out.

What I’ve written below is pretty sprawling, and I don’t pretend to have a particularly clear thesis—except insofar as, once again, I propose the Middle Path. Instead, I want to use the book to examine some of the issues that surround the interaction between pop culture and high culture, including the canon, race and class, and “nerds,” and look at how academics might resolve these. (A note to those who haven’t read the book: I’ll try to avoid spoilers here, but obviously a certain amount of reference to the events of the plot is inevitable.)


June 9, 2007

All-but-Dissertation Tucker Dummychuck

Filed under: General Me, Literati and Cognoscenti — tomemos @ 1:31 pm

(Before I forget: a lot of people were confounded by the title of my last entry, so I want to clear up this one: It’s #40 of John Hodgman’s 700 Hobo Names. The last title was from A Fish Called Wanda. Okay, on with the show.)

I was catching up with an old friend on the phone the other day, and, as often happens when I catch up with old friends, she asked me if I was about to finish my program. It’s a reasonable question—I’m finishing up my fourth year now, which is our standard “done with school” interval in this country—but I explained that, no, I wasn’t even close; I was about to take my qualifying exams, which would mean I was cleared to write the dissertation. That would take a couple years at least, and then I’d have the Ph.D.

“Well,” she said, “when you get your Ph.D., will you want people to start calling you ‘Doctor Tom’?”

“Maybe at first,” I said. “But eventually I’ll be more casual about it. People can call me ‘Doc Tom.'” Julie, overhearing this, had a stroke of pure inspiration and wrote in her notebook, “” When we got off the phone, we checked; unfortunately, though, “” is the website of a (now-deceased) doctor and advocate of self-care.

Maybe, once I get my Ph.D., I’ll check to see if that website is still being kept up, or maybe I’ll register “,” though I think the pause of the underscore may break up the phonetic effect. (My suggestion that we look into “” was met only with contempt.) Or maybe, most likely of all, I’ll let the idea float out of my head and do nothing at all. I’m actually only using this as a transparent segue to what I really want to talk about: I’m now one step closer to Doc Tom-dom (or, as I’ve passed my qualifying examinations.

They basically went fine. They caused me a lot of stress in the days leading up to them, of course; I’m used to the stress of having to do a lot of reading in a short span of time, but I honestly don’t know if I’ve felt fear like that since I took the GRE in Literature. (On the first question of that test, I completely forgot who Icarus was for about 75 seconds.) The fear was similar in both cases, since the goal of both tests was to prove my basic competence in my chosen field, but the stakes are obviously higher on the quals, not least because it is possible (though rare) to not only fail but also to be told, in essence, to abandon your academic career. As I got closer and closer to finishing my preparation, I entered an odd bipolar state where I alternated between feeling serene and confident about the exam, and feeling sick with anxiety, waking up at six in the morning gasping, etc.

The way it works in our department is, you have two days of written exams at four hours each, and then, if you pass those, you take a two-hour oral exam the following week. Initially, I was more nervous about the written section than about the oral section, because I talk a good game but feared putting something down on paper, where people could ponder my stupidity at their leisure. After I passed the writtens, though (they never actually told me that I passed, only that I should assume I passed), I became more scared of the orals, because on the writtens I could write about whatever books I wanted, whereas during the orals my examiners could ask me about the books they wanted me to talk about. Both of them were basically fine once I started, though; the salutary effect of these exams is to make you ask yourself, “Can I actually do this?” and then remind you, “Oh, right, I can.”

It helped that a few of my department friends (like this one and this one) were taking their exam around the same time, since we could sweat together and celebrate together. (Everybody passed.) In fact, as I talked with past exam-takers, looked through previous years of exam questions, and so forth, I got the feeling of being part of a long history of exam-takers. This feeling was reinforced by taking the writtens in the same office that a number of other people had taken theirs: their answers were saved on the computer and everything, just as mine are now. When I first went into the office, the department secretary gave me a Post-It note with her phone number on it, so I could call her during the exam if I needed to. When I reached the desk, I saw about six other identical Post-Its, from previous examinees, and was reminded of the scene in Silence of the Lambs, when Catherine Martin finds the fingernail in the wall of her prison and realizes … someone’s been here before. (On my last day I drew a “Kilroy was here” on one of them.)

On the second day of my writtens, Korean Campus Ministries was selling Korean barbecue for $5 down at street level. I know, because there were like six different people yelling “Korean barbecue!! Five dollars!!” right under the window of my exam. I fantasized about harming them.

Since I wrote my writtens on a computer with internet access and no supervision, I had to sign a paper saying that I wouldn’t use online material in preparing my exam. This led to some moral uncertainty when I wasn’t sure about the adjective form of “aporia.” I thought “aporic”; Word didn’t like it, but then it doesn’t like “aporia,” either. I wanted to look it up on, but I signed a paper swearing that I wouldn’t use online material in my exam, so maybe that would be against the rules. (NB: Turns out it’s “aporetic.” Oh well.)

Enough memories; it’s over, and it feels great that it’s over. I’m free to read whatever I want again, to return about thirty books to the library, and to not jump when I see one of my committee members in the halls. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a dissertation to write. (He does not move.)

May 21, 2007

Aristotle was not Belgian

Filed under: Literati and Cognoscenti — tomemos @ 8:37 am

Update (5/21, 11:40 a.m.): Welcome to readers coming from Althouse’s blog! I appreciate the link from commenter Dan, and below have linked to effective points he and others have made over there. (The permalinks aren’t working right now, so look for Trevor and Dan on the first post and Jonathan on the second.)

Update II (5/22, 11:00 a.m.): Ann points out on her blog that my statement “Althouse correctly notes that reading comprehension skills among high-school students are on the decline” is incorrect, since she never wrote that reading comprehension skills are on the decline.  I’ve changed the post to correct this, and I apologize for calling Althouse “correct.”

Mike Erganian: What is the subject of your book? Non-fiction?
Miles Raymond: Uh, no. It’s… it’s a novel. Fiction. Yes. Although there is quite a bit from my own life, so I suppose that, technically some of it is non-fiction.
Mike: Good. I like non-fiction. There is so much to know about this world. I think you read something somebody just invented—waste of time.

Sideways, 2004

Let me get right to it: Ann Althouse (a law professor and blogger) is one of my very least favorite people on the internet, for reasons I won’t get into. I’ve come close to responding to a couple of things she’s said, but found that I couldn’t find anything to add to the effective takedowns posted elsewhere. Here’s one I’m going to address, though.

In two entries—an initial argument and a follow-up—Althouse discusses the best ways to teach students readings skills, which I agree is a crucial question; tests show that reading comprehension is on the decline, to which anyone teaching critical reading to college freshmen will attest. She says that the answer is not to abandon No Child Left Behind (“quit bitching about No Child Left Behind”), but rather to teach reading by using nonfiction books. She doesn’t mean using nonfiction books in addition to fiction (which I imagine we’re already doing); she means, drop fiction from school curricula,* and teach reading exclusively using nonfiction.

*In her follow-up, she notes that she’s not against elective literature classes “that teach students how to analyze texts in some fairly deep way, as long as they don’t destroy the pleasure and love of art.”

Althouse’s argument is that we should kill two birds with one stone and teach reading comprehension while simultaneously teaching useful disciplines like history and science, instead of inefficiently bringing recreational reading into the classroom with no long-term benefit. Tell me if you think that’s an inaccurate reading of the following (pardon me for quoting at length):

Leave the storybooks for pleasure reading outside of school. They will be easier reading, and with well-developed reading skills, kids should feel pleasure curling up with a novel at home. But even if they don’t, why should any kind of a premium be placed on an interest in reading novels? It’s not tied to economic success in life and needn’t be inculcated any more than an interest in watching movies or listening to popular music. Leave kids alone to find out out what recreational activities enrich and satisfy them. Some may want to dance or play music or paint. Just because teachers tend to be the kind of people who love novels does not mean that this choice ought to be imposed on young people via compulsory education. Teach them about history, science, law, logic — something academic and substantive — and leave the fictional material for after hours.

Despite its lack of substance and low financial upside, Althouse is not against fiction. On the contrary, she thinks it’s delightful: throughout the discussion she mentions four times that kids, entirely on their own, love Harry Potter books. She sees this as evidence that fiction is best seen as “a leisure treat.” However, our kids are failing and triage must be performed: “I’m saying that [fiction] can be held for after hours pleasure reading.” In fact, this would be the best of both worlds, since fiction is more fun outside of that stuffy school environment: “Here’s this shelf of books that you can read when you finish your other work. You can take them home if you like. I think this would give them an aura of excitement.”

In her follow-up, Althouse responds to her outraged critics:

If you don’t like this idea, but can do nothing more than call it stupid, then I can’t respect your opinion.

Well, that’s fair. And I want to do more than call it stupid, though that seems like an important place to start. (A warning before I continue: Any arguments I make here may be suspect, since I have what Althouse calls “some conflicting interest in the publishing or education industry.” Obviously it’s mainly the latter conflict in my case, though I suppose since I’m about to be economically tied to a producer of fiction I’m laboring under the former conflict as well. So take all this with a grain of salt.)

What I find funny about this is that it is the exact inverse of a position I took in my column for my high school newspaper, sometime in late 1998. I argued that while the humanities and social sciences, and even mathematics, were important for our day-to-day lives (understanding the news, writing cogently, doing our taxes), the skills and knowledge taught by chemistry and biology were so specific (useful only to those working in the sciences, I said) that they should not be required for graduation from high school. Of course, I was wrong, and now believe that science should absolutely be required since, now more than ever, it is inextricably bound up with the question of who we are and what we can and should do. At age 17 I missed the same point Althouse misses: the purpose of elementary and secondary education, and even undergraduate education, is not to maximize our value to our Citibank accounts, but to teach us about ourselves and the worlds we live in, so we can be informed citizens regardless of our careers.

Obviously, some kids are autodidactic with literature, just as some are with music, or chemistry for that matter. But just as there is a difference between playing with a chemistry set and studying science in school, there is self-evidently a difference between reading fiction on your own time and being taught how to do so, and (what is more important) being taught to do so, being taught the value of doing so. Yes, many kids get this “on their own,” which is to say they get it from parents who read to them; others, generally from less privileged backgrounds, aren’t taught this by their parents and are let down by their schools, to the point that they say, as one girl said matter-of-factly to me in 10th grade English class, “I hate reading.” It is obvious that someone who hates reading is never going to acquire the reading comprehension skills that we’re talking about in the first place. (As to Harry Potter, I like those books, but the existence of a publishing fad has no bearing on whether kids are learning to love fiction in general, rather than just what all their friends are reading.)

In comments and in her follow-up, Althouse notes that she’s not talking about having students read dry textbooks all the time; she means engaging works of non-fiction, written with kids in mind. Fine, but do you think (as apparently she does) that topics like motive, psychological cause and effect, and irony—pretty important for the study of history—are innate? We learn these things by reading about fictional people acting in a realistic way. In fact, if you look at books for children about history, quite a few of them are written as fiction, with titles like Why Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George? Kids’ history books teach history as a narrative, but have to teach it simplistically in order to reach a 4th-grade audience (“Abraham Lincoln was very sad about slavery”). It seems obvious that there is more potential harm in this than in teaching explicitly fictional narratives and thus teaching children the nuances of interpreting actions and words. (To be clear, I’m not against kids’ history books like these, unless they’re taught without also teaching what fiction is and how we identify it.)

And anyway, does Althouse think that kids read fiction on their own, but can’t find the kids’ nonfiction section of the library without some kind of teacher guidance? Easily half of all my reading as a young child was nonfiction: history, science and technology, sports. I was interested in those subjects largely because I had come across them in works of fiction and wanted to learn more.

I could go on and on; some of her commenters already have. However, I have to confess that my first reaction to Althouse’s argument wasn’t incensed or defensive; it was exhaustion, and boredom. This is strange, since as a professional literature scholar the question of the value of teaching literature is pretty vital to me, but nonetheless I can’t get exercised about it here. Obviously, part of this is that I’m studying for my exams, but there’s something else: Althouse’s claims here have been made in one form or another dozens of times, and effectively refuted just as many times. Someone will always be there to write against fiction, or to write that fiction is all well and good but the State has more pressing needs right now; start with The Republic and go from there. I don’t know if Althouse, and the people like her, think that anything will come of this, but it’s a chance to re-marginalize the arts and re-assert the privilege of coming from a background where literacy, including fictional literacy, is assumed. It is a very old story.

So even though I’ve written a great deal on this already, ignore it as just prickled ranting. Let the body of my critique be the following words from Sir Philip Sidney’s “An Apology for Poetry,” in which Sidney describes the qualities that make literature as useful as the useful disciplines Althouse mentions—and not only useful, but morally essential:

So then the best of the historian is subject to the poet; for whatsoever action, or faction, whatsoever counsel, policy, or war strategem the historian is bound to recite, that may the poet (if he list) with his imitation make his own, beautifying it both for further teaching, and more delighting, as it pleaseth him, having all, from Dante’s heaven to his hell, under the authority of his pen.

May 9, 2007

I am going to make it through this year if it kills me

Filed under: Funny Stuff, General Me, Literati and Cognoscenti, Romance — tomemos @ 11:49 pm

I will now list similarities between getting married and taking my qualifying exams, until I run out of similarities or it becomes my birthday. Take it away, Don Pardo:

  • Both are about to occur in my life. (Exams: three weeks; wedding: three months.)
  • Both seem like huge impossibly huge projects from a distance, but as you start to hunker down and get things done, you realize that they’re surprisingly do-able.
  • However, as you get within a few weeks, you realize that, actually, they are impossibly huge projects, after all. (wedding: projected)
  • Both involve a great deal of research. (Exams: research into twentieth-century literature and narrative theory; wedding: research into wedding services, Jewish matrimonial traditions, and mailing addresses.)
  • Both are fun to plan and envision in the abstract.
  • Both require a large investment of money and time. (The exams are 90% time/10% money, where the wedding is about 75% money/25% time. Before you feel bad for me, though, I should guiltily admit that it’s someone else’s money in this case.)
  • Both feature long periods of idleness alternating with bursts of intense activity. (In the case of the exam, that’s due to simple procrastination rather than anything logistical.)
  • Most people want to put them both off for as long as possible, but you’re not getting any younger.
  • Despite this initial urge towards delay, once you start the process you become determined not to let anything derail or forestall the event.
  • Both involve answering difficult questions while under observation.
  • If successful, both result in jubilant celebration; if unsuccessful, depression and weeping.
  • Both of them require satisfying the arcane and sometimes incompatible preferences of a number of different people.
  • Those who haven’t gone through them have a vague idea that there’s a lot involved, but little sense of the scope.
  • Both of them are a brief gateway to a larger world (exams: the dissertation; wedding: a lifetime together), and thus seem merely symbolic in retrospect; however, in advance they seem sky-obstructing.

That’s that. Eleven minutes left; I yield the rest of my time.

February 22, 2007

Better call the calling-off off

Filed under: Literati and Cognoscenti, The Gray Lady — tomemos @ 1:43 am

File this under “Po-tay-to, Po-tah-to,” and also under “Requiring Little Comment”: the following letter to the New York Times from Wendy Stoll, a school librarian who (among others) decided not to stock a Newberry-winning children’s book because it contains the word “scrotum” :

As an elementary school librarian quoted in your article, I resent being portrayed as pledging “to ban the book.” There is no mention of serving our community.

I have not stocked the last three Newbery Medal winners because they are not appropriate for the patrons of my library, not because I am interested in banning books.

Hey kids! Bored on a rainy day? No good children’s literature in your library? Play Wendy Stoll Spins, the fun way to couch closed-mindedness in positive language! Here are a couple to get you started:

“I have not hired minorities to fill any of the positions because they are not appropriate for the patrons of my business, not because I am interested in being racist.”

“I have not allowed the man of a different religion to marry my daughter because he is not appropriate for my family, not because I am interested in discrimination.”

“I have not put my gay son in my will because he is not appropriate for the contents of my estate, not because I am interested in disowning him.”

Make your own! The only rule is imagination!

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