Puget Sound English Department

September 12, 2010

More lists! We love the lists!

Filed under: Internet/Digital Technology,Literature — ATH @ 1:14 pm
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There’s something about the simultaneously reductive and celebratory nature of the “essential list”–of great books, popular celebrities, essential items to have on hand for the apocalypse, most repulsive recipes involving jello, etc.–that makes it eternally popular. We can discuss endlessly how any literary “best of” list is inevitably fraught with outrageous omissions and ludicrous inclusions, how its criteria are too broad, too narrow, too historically specific, too self-consciously universal. This list, for example, from Nashville Public Television, titles itself (ironically?) a list of “The thirteen novels every American should read,” although with a very few notable exceptions (Michael Chabon? Colum McCann? Sir Thomas Mallory?), it looks much more like a list of “the thirteen novels a bunch of Americans educated in public high schools in the 1960s and 70s remember and are proud of themselves for having read.”* It’s heavy on political allegory, fictionalized history, and civil rights era-fueled critique of the status quo. All of those are good things, indeed, but they reinforce my point: what any individual, generation, or set of readers identifies as “great” or “essential” literature likely has far more to do with its own historical moment, and its collective self-image, and what was being taught widely in high school, than with any sort of universal aesthetic criteria or pure literary merit. This is not, by any means, a suggestion that such lists are inaccurate, ill-intentioned, or useless; in fact, they are fascinating not only for the books they remind us to (re)read (I’ve not yet read Let the Great World Spin, and can’t even remember where my copy of Gulliver’s Travels has got to), but for the insight they provide into how we understand ourselves, our nation, our era.

*Edited, with thanks to our commenter, who reminds me that it’s unwise to write and post while under analgesia. I want to acknowledge that this list is very clearly introduced as personal and idiosyncratic–something not properly acknowledged in my original entry, which moved to reflecting about the nature of making such lists without clearly developing the context of this particular one. As Joe notes, such lists inevitably provoke reactions, and usually, outrage, over their omissions, unexamined biases. As with almost any contemporary discussions about literature and culture, they too often devolve into simplistic accusations–charges of “elitism” on one side, and “political correctness” on the other.


August 19, 2010

Thinking about grad school? Read this…

Every once in a while, The Chronicle of Higher Education takes a break from forecasting the demise of the Humanities, the corporatization of higher education, the evisceration of tenure, and the dire state of the academic job market (all of which are well worth bemoaning, of course), and offers something more tangibly useful. This time it’s offering a compendium of wisdom, entitled An Open Letter to New Graduate Students. As several commenters protest, and as the author(s) acknowledge, it’s a letter and set of advice tailored particularly towards those entering a full-time, conventional, PhD program, and is far less relevant to those undertaking professional degrees, terminal MAs, or non-traditional programs. But it’s pretty comprehensive and, based on my own rapidly receding experience, relatively accurate.

My off-the cuff (and, admittedly, somewhat tongue-in-cheek) responses to some of the items on their list follow [NOTE: this post does not reflect the official opinion of the English Department, or even very many of the members thereof. It’s offered merely in the spirit of dialogue. If you are seriously considering applying to graduate school in the humanities, please consult with faculty advisers you know and trust].

1. Don’t overdo the “networking” thing, especially in a traditional humanities field and especially when you are brand new at the game. Or, better, do make those connections to senior scholars and intellectual rockstars, but make them sincerely and sparingly, based on your real interests, reading, and scholarship. If you must be obvious that you are “playing the game,” do so with a dose of irony and a world-weary shrug: those of us committed enough to our discipline to pursue a degree that can take 9 years with only the slimmest chance of a viable career find such naked careerism annoying–especially when it’s unsupported by any proven excellence in research and/or teaching. We chose, all common sense to the contrary, to forsake the world of headhunters, year-end bonuses, and office Christmas parties, and we don’t want you turning our hallowed academic halls into some debased scholarly version of “The Apprentice.”

2. Internships? What’s that? The best preparation for a traditional academic career in the Humanities is traditional academic success: conference papers, publications (good ones), and proven teaching effectiveness or, more often, excellence. This is not to discourage you from creating your own path, or to suggest that for every faculty member who stuck to the straight and narrow there aren’t umpteen less direct, conventional routes. But if we’re talking basic Humanities faculty positions, there’s unlikely to be an “internship.” Two exceptions: first, the “preparing future faculty” program at most universities that allows grad students to teach at other institutions–even if you KNOW you are R-1 material, some Community College experience might be the best thing that ever happened to your pedagogy, or your career path. Second, an internship so intriguing that you can’t pass it up. No matter what it is. It might not help your academic job search, but it might save your soul, or identify a better route to a more viable career.

3. Keeping up with blogs and other contemporary media to the extent that these authors suggest is a sure way NOT to finish your dissertation. Yes, some of the most valuable and useful advice out there–and lots of community and support–is happening in the blogosphere. Inside Higher Ed has a set of terrific academic blogs and some great advice columns–especially for those about to go on the market. But there is invariably an inverse relationship between an ABD’s presence online (usually in lengthy responses to other bloggers) and his/her completed dissertation. Blogs and other online resources can be terrific, but use them like antibiotics: only by prescription, under professional supervision, and in recommended amounts. (Here the exception would be if your program/degree focuses on the nature or substance of electronic communication. At that point, it’s all data: Have at it!)

August 17, 2010

Assigned Reading, and a Reading

Just a reminder that today is the “official” release date for Professor Laurie Frankel’s The Atlas of Love.

The lovely and talented Professor Frankel will also read from and discuss her novel this Saturday, August 21, at the new Elliott Bay Book Company (in its new Capitol Hill location: 1521 10th Ave., Seattle 98122). The reading takes place at 4 p.m., and you can purchase your copy on site and have it signed. (My own pre-ordered copy is in transit, I am assured.) What better way to celebrate the end of summer and ease into the impending school year than by attending an event that features a faculty member as a source of reading for pleasure?

Updated to add: there’s a brief interview with Laurie Frankel about what she’s reading here. And if you can’t make it to Elliott Bay Books this Saturday, she’ll be discussing her book on the Puget Sound campus in September…more on that later.

August 16, 2010

David Foster Wallace: Intro to Lit

Filed under: Pedagogy — ATH @ 8:00 am
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Just in case you’ve wondered what it would be like to take an “ordinary” course from an “extraordinary” celebrity writer*, a former student of David Foster Wallace has posted a syllabus from an introductory literature course she took with him in 2005 [Her site has a link to a PDF of the entire thing, but including it here exceeds my technological expertise. You can view it one page at a time from her blog post]. The syllabus is fascinating, especially at a moment when all Puget Sound faculty are creating, revising, tweaking, refining, and otherwise preparing their own syllabi. Much of what he says on this syllabus is, despite his reputation as a literary iconoclast, utterly predictable: the workaday details of attendance, paper format, student responsibility (mandatory attendance, extensions negotiated in advance). His attempts to demystify his own professorial authority, too, are familiar in substance if not in rhetoric: one grading criterium is “presentation,” which he describes as “care, adult competence in written English, […] compassion for your reader.” Elsewhere he reminds students that without their participation, the class will devolve into a 90 minute “half-assed ad lib lecture” and explains that he expects them to read “every iota” of the assigned work.

His description of the course goals, too, reflect on current discussions about what makes an “English department” a coherent entity. As more programs divide themselves into discrete “tracks”–creative writing, literature, rhetoric, culture studies, film, media studies, creative non-fiction–they raise the question of what, exactly, holds those fields together. DFW offers an elegant description of the central task of his course: developing a “critical appreciation of literary art,” which he glosses as “having smart, sophisticated reasons for liking whatever literature you like, and being able to articulate those reasons for other people, especially in writing.” Such appreciation, he notes, must be grounded in “interpretation”; that is, “a cogent, interesting account of what a piece of lit means, what it’s trying to do for the reader, what technical choices the author’s made in order to try to achieve the effects she wants…”

The reading list for the course he describes as “boot camp” is remarkably familiar, featuring such works as Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.,” Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” Ann Beattie’s “Janus,” O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and Carver’s “Cathedral” alongside lessons in things like “point of view,” “setting,” “theme.” The syllabus is a fascinating snapshot of the state of introductory literature courses in the early 21st century, and reflects an underlying coherence to the larger discipline of literary studies that perhaps resonates with the larger question of what it means to “study” English now.

*Of course, here at Puget Sound, one could describe virtually every course in this way…right?

August 8, 2010

Sure to raise hackles…

Anis Shivani has an article at The Huffington Post on “The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers.” There’s someone on the list to offend everyone: it includes critical favorites like Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Diaz, and Jonathan Safran Foer, as well as beloved figures like Amy Tan. (There’s an accompanying survey feature that allows you to defend your mislabeled favorites from Shivani’s acid-penned critique.)

Shivani’s specific nominees for over-ratedness aside, he makes a relevant and thought-provoking larger point: while we can blame, to some extent, the overrated authors of the past on the failings of a set of familiar villains (those closed-minded canonical white guys who appear to have run darn near everything, up until the point where they didn’t), the guilt for mistaking chaff for cream is collective. He notes the lack of compelling and authoritative critical voices on par with Malcolm Cowley or Edmund Wilson, and the tendency of today’s reviewers, many of them authors themselves, and graduates of the same MFA programs, to retreat from asking hard questions of a work in deference to their shared professional network (or, he suggests, in a kind of critical quid pro quo that serves the authors, but not their readers). Given the besieged status of literary fiction in general and book publishing more broadly, “reviews” have also become increasingly indistinguishable from marketing.

Shivani joins a larger debate over the nature and value of professionalizing and “academicizing” creative writing, claiming that such programs “embody a philosophy of neutered multiculturalism/political correctness” and somewhat inevitably tend to reproduce and reward the “easily imitable” over genuine originality. [See, e.g., here, or here, or even here for a very light sampling of the debates over the preponderance–and value–of MFA programs.]

While Shivani’s selections will no doubt offend many of us (I was a bit taken aback to find a few of my personal favorites on his hit list), he argues, quite convincingly, that many of today’s most acclaimed writers substitute stylistic tics for nuance, solipsism for vision, and topical superficiality for the larger questions–or a greater variety of answers thereto–that have inspired the best authors of yesterday and today. And in his attempt to be intellectually provocative, he risks reanimating the discredited notion that great literature is “universal” (whose universe?). He’s particularly strident, for example, in dismissing the work of Amy Tan. I can’t say I disagree with his overall assessment of her work (or with his unfavorable comparison of Tan to John Okada). But his criticism of her–“Flattened politics and history to private angst in depiction of minority assimilation. Empowered other immigrant writers to make mountains out of the molehills of their minor adjustment struggles”–suggests an underlying bias against stories of (racial, ethnic, cultural) particularity as inherently less valuable than those works that take on broader general questions–universal questions?–like “mortality.” One can certainly criticize Tan’s depictions of cultural assimilation, racial identity, and “minor adjustment struggles” without suggesting (as Shivani does) that the struggles themselves are trivial or unworthy of literary treatment.

And don’t despair; he promises to publish a list of the most underrated American writers, coming soon.

August 4, 2010

Hear Professor Frankel read her new novel

As we eagerly await the August 17 publication date of Laurie Frankel’s The Atlas of Love (St. Martin’s Press, $23.99–or order your copy in advance here), news of several local and nearby opportunities to purchase a copy, have your copy signed, or simply enjoy an author’s reading by one of our favorite and most talented faculty members:

Elliott Bay Bookstore, Seattle
Sat. Aug 21
4 pm

Village Books, Bellingham, WA
Sun. Sept. 12
4 pm

Powell’s Books, Portland, OR
Fri. Sept 24
Time TBD

July 24, 2010

The Sound [of] the Fury

Filed under: Internet/Digital Technology,Literature — ATH @ 7:23 pm
Tags: ,

According to many scholars today, technology is slowly killing the written word, but it’s also keeping interest in it alive. The University of Virginia has created a new archive, Faulkner at Virginia, which compiles a series of lectures Faulkner gave on campus 1957-58. Those of us not quite ready to yield our grip on the intentional fallacy (in short, the notion that a work’s ‘meaning’ inheres in its author’s intentions) can pore over these audio files, seeking insight into the most ambivalent passages of one of the 20th century’s greatest American authors. The audio archive provides contextual information, as well as “search” and “browse” functions.

July 2, 2010

W.S. Merwin to be next Poet Laureate

Filed under: Creative Writing,Literature — ATH @ 7:26 am

Accomplished and multiply-honored poet W.S. Merwin will be the next U.S. Poet Laureate. Merwin is known for his tremendous productivity, the variety of his interventions into the language, and his extensive work with translation. At 83, Merwin is among the last of a bumper crop of U.S. poets (including John Ashbery, Allan Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, and Frank O’Hara) born in the late 1920s, and provides a direct link between American literary modernists like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and contemporary multicultural poets and writers. Merwin will travel from his home in Hawaii to deliver a poem at the Library of Congress on October 25.

June 29, 2010

Local Girl Writes Badly, Well

The local papers are reporting that a Seattleite is the proud winner of the 2010 Bulwer-Lytton prize for the Best in Truly Dreadful writing. Her prize winning entry makes clever, albeit revolting, use of those essential elements of great literature: passion, romance, small caged mammals, and their accessories.

Congratulations to Molly Ringle and the other writers whose prosodic efforts so richly deserve their dishonorable mentions.

April 29, 2010

National Poetry Month: Final Days

Filed under: Literature,Uncategorized — ATH @ 1:42 pm
Tags: ,

From Professor Lydia Fisher, on leave with her newborn, comes another e.e. cummings selection (what can we say? there’s just something about cummings, and spring, and April, and love, and babies….)

Professor Fisher says of her selection: “I never get tired of reading this poem. Its nursery rhyme rhythm and diction make it infinitely interesting in its layered meanings, and instinctively appealing to me.
And it’s about true love that outlasts death, glowing brilliantly in the hearts of two undervalued individuals, while the mindless masses go on with the productive, spiritless life of the crowd in a terrifyingly ‘pretty’ town.
It’s both cynical and shamelessly romantic. What more could you ask for?”

“anyone lived in a pretty how town” by e. e. cummings

anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did

Women and men(both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain

children guessed(but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
autumn winter spring summer)
that noone loved him more by more

when by now and tree by leaf
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone’s any was all to her

someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake hope and then)they
said their nevers they slept their dream

stars rain sun moon
(and only the snow can begin to explain
how children are apt to forget to remember
with up so floating many bells down)

one day anyone died i guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was

all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
wish by spirit and if by yes.

Women and men(both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain

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