Thursday, July 21, 2016

Secret messages to contemporary fiction writers

As most of you have probably figured out from all those shout-outs to Mark Twain, Sinclair Lewis, and the rest, contemporary fiction isn't my area. For a promised article with an immediate deadline, though, I'm reading a lot of it--bearing in mind that contemporary for me is anything from about 1990 on.

Some of what I'm reading is brilliant. It's amazing. It's astonishing, and it's powerful. It deserves its status as a contemporary classic.

But some of it is less so, even within works by the same author. Some pieces are amazing, and others seem more like a bag of tricks.

  • Maybe you were told to write down striking images in your Moleskine and to save them up to use later. Maybe you were told to use figurative language like alliteration, too, to make the language memorable. But please use these sparingly, because reading some of these works is like sitting down to eat a big cereal bowl of chunky rocks. The words can barely make sense because the reader has to work so hard to find a verb. I'm not asking for easy, but it's possible to be literary, powerful, complex, and still enjoyable.  
  • A few really powerful and well-developed characters in a short story can work more magic than fifteen characters all competing for airtime.
  • This goes double if all the characters have been given highly eccentric names. 
  • If you put a character in a novel or story purely to illustrate a point--the Evils of Capitalism, say--the reader is likely to recognize that right away, say, "Got it, thanks," and be longing to skip some of the character's speeches.  

  • I recall from the Steinbeck East of Eden diaries that Steinbeck wasn't sure that readers would get his Big Symbol of Cain and Abel. By this he seems to mean the book's structure wherein the sons of Adam and Cathy (a Lilith figure) are twins, one good and one evil--get it? I like East of Eden, but that's not exactly a hidden symbol. You can trust your reader. 
  • There's an old rule in screenwriting that every scene has to do two out of three essential things: develop character and relationships, advance the plot, or articulate/deepen the themes. Fiction probably has to do more than this with each of its scenes, but it's not a bad rule to bear in mind.
  • Death, dismemberment, torture, loss, repression, and violence are not the only things that can evoke powerful emotions or make a good story, although they make a lot of good ones. 
  • And when does a conventional trope become a cliche? I know that all animals in a contemporary story will die, and I'm ready for that. (TVTropes hilariously calls this "death by Newbery Medal," but it happens in literary fiction, too.)

As I said, most of the fiction is really fine, but that's not to say Homer doesn't nod on occasion, as in the list above. 

Do you have any "bag of tricks" items that you've seen in current fiction? 

Friday, July 08, 2016

Open access: you go first. No, YOU go first.

Note: Published as a distraction from the unrelentingly grim national news. For thoughtful reflections on those events, see the recent posts by Historiann and What Now.

At the Chronicle, Paul Basken reports that despite a faculty vote to encourage open access publication, "only about 25 percent of professors systemwide are putting their papers into a state-created repository that allows free outside access."

The title of the article is "The U. of California’s Open-Access Promise Hits a Snag: The Faculty."

Like everyone else, I love the idea of open access in theory, but I have questions.

Is it "the Faculty," though? Read between the lines and you'll see a few other lightly mentioned or unmentioned snags:


  • "But publishers, predicted to be the primary obstacle, have proved surprisingly compliant: Only about 5 percent of publishers have made any attempt to ask faculty members to opt out, he said."  
    Comment: "Asking faculty members to opt out" is not the same as a publisher giving his/her/its/their blessing to publishing on a university site before publication. Many publishers will allow only uncorrected proofs to be archived, not the final version of an article. Others allow only the manuscript, or "preprint."  What use is that to scholars? How do you cite this, since there would be no final page numbers? What's the point of preprints in this case?
  • "Much of the open-access movement centers on efforts to persuade scientific journals to adopt revenue models that do not rely on subscription fees. A common alternative asks authors, or their institutions or funders, to pay a fee to cover the costs of reviewing, editing, and assembling their journals."
  • Comment: For a humanities journal, that gold access "fee" that the essay so blithely skips over can be $3500 to $4000.  
  • Would your university or department pay that? Mine would not.  
  • Humanities grants would not pay for this, as the scientific ones do. 
  • And what if one journal had a fee of $2500 and a more prestigious one had $4000? Wouldn't you feel pressured to publish where the fee is lower, even if the higher-ranked journal would accept your article? 
  • And wouldn't this fee-for-review model encourage the kind of scammy "International Journal of Everything under the Sun" solicitations that clog my mailbox every morning?
  • To get people to comply, "California has relied on automation, creating a computer system that looks for any article by a university faculty member. The system then sends an email to the author, offering a link that automatically puts the article into the state’s open-access repository. That approach has been key just to getting up to the 25-percent compliance rate, Mr. Kelty said."

  • Comment: This is a good idea, full stop. I'd do this with articles I have already published, wouldn't you? 
  • The push for open access is to create journals that will compete with regular $$$$ journals put out by Elsevier, etc., which have an unbeatable business model: pay the editors in nothing but prestige, the contributors ditto, and the reviewers not even prestige, since they're supposed to be anonymous, and rake in the profits. Cutting back on this business model is a worthy goal./b>
    • Comment: Will publishing only in open access journals result in a tenurable record at Harvard or at your institution, or will a faculty member still need to publish in Science, Nature, PMLA, Novel, or whatever other top-level journals are out there? Once again, the most prestigious schools have to take the lead on this. Apparently people at UCLA, Berkeley, and the other California schools don't think that they can accumulate a tenurable record based on open access, and until they do, I doubt that others would follow suit, however worthy the goal. 


    So, in short: it's not just about the faculty. It's about an entire academic system that is pushing the faculty to do things that are worthwhile but--surprise!--are not necessarily rewarded. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Writing inspiration: Why do you write like you're running out of time?

Hamilton was an exuberant genius who performed at a fiendish pace and must have produced the maximum number of words that a human being can scratch out in forty-nine years. 

--Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, p. 5.

 I came to Alexander Hamilton through two sources:

1. I am and have been for some time a huge fan of Ron Chernow, having read his Washington biography, all 35+ hours of it. I have Nancy Isenberg's Fallen Founder but haven't read it yet. These are for fun reading (not related to work) and there hasn't been a lot of time recently to do any.

2. At one point in my life, probably the mid-century males portion of it, I read and reread obsessively Gore Vidal's Burr and, to a lesser extent, 1876. 

Burr was the best piece of fiction that Vidal ever wrote, at least that I read: Washington, D. C., the supposed third volume in the trilogy, although it had been written much earlier, was too louche and decadent, and the other American historical novels (Lincoln, Empire) relied too heavily on a few stylistic tricks.  Vidal was much better as an essayist.  But Burr was exceptional in Vidal's canon, maybe because the acerbic wit that Vidal brought to it seemed temperamentally suited to discussing Burr.

So, knowing that Chernow had written Washington, I downloaded his bio Alexander Hamilton and got about halfway through it when I started hearing about a musical based on it.

Yes, that one. 

I bought the soundtrack and am now obsessed with it.  Quite apart from the amazing lyrics, though, it's a great piece of writing inspiration for the story it tells.  Hamilton writes his way out of the West Indies, writes as Washington's "right-hand man," writes 51 (or so) of The Federalist Papers, which I think I last had to read some of in high school, and writes writes writes for the rest of his life.

One thing that struck me forcefully this time: Burr was 48 at the time of the duel and Hamilton was 49 (if you accept Chernow's date of 1755 for his birth).  Middle-aged. Old enough to know better, which makes the whole thing more sad, somehow.

But still, an inspiration to writers.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Random bullets of so much travel, with a side order of Sinclair Lewis


  • Reason for blog absence: travel and conferences and more travel and more conferences. Paid for by the department or frequent flyer miles and savings? What do you think? 
  • Did I just fall asleep in my chair a minute ago? Yes, indeed. If I stretch out on the floor for 20 minutes, does that count as a nap (which I'm forbidding myself) or as, um, "yoga"? Yoga it is!
  • The hardest part is giving up the momentum I had on Thing One and Thing Two, which I was working on like a demon before having to quit and get ready for the conferences. Using the old rule--all right, my old rule--of having to spend at least one hour of wasting time and avoidance for each day you're away from the project, I think I'm ready to get started again. 
  • About the election: I used to think I was watching Berzelius T. Windrip (legally available here if you're in Australia), but now I think I am watching Dusty Rhodes, which is Andy Griffith at his most folksy and most terrifying.  
  • You all know by now I'm a Sinclair Lewis fan. Here's a section on Berzelius T. Windrip from Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here (1935), with some breaks, comments, and bolding added. Liberal editor Doremus Jessup is speaking first:
But wait till Windrip shows us how to say it with machine guns! . . .  On the whole, with scandalous exceptions, Democracy's given the ordinary worker more dignity than he ever had. That may be menaced now by Windrip--all the Windrips. All right! Maybe we'll have to fight paternal dictatorship with a little sound patricide--fight machine guns with machine guns. Wait till Buzz takes charge of us. A real Fascist dictatorship!"
"Nonsense! Nonsense!" snorted Tasbrough. "That couldn't happen here in America, not possibly! We're a country of freemen." 
 "The answer to that," suggested Doremus Jessup, "if Mr. Falck will forgive me, is 'the hell it can't!' Why, there's no country in the world that can get more hysterical--yes, or more obsequious!--than America. Look how Huey Long became absolute monarch over Louisiana, and how the Right Honorable Mr. Senator Berzelius Windrip owns his State. Listen to Bishop Prang and Father Coughlin on the radio--divine oracles, to millions.
Comment: Listen to AM radio, as I do during the long distances. Hasn't changed.
Remember how casually most Americans have accepted Tammany grafting and Chicago gangs and the crookedness of so many of President Harding's appointees? Could Hitler's bunch, or Windrip's, be worse? Remember the Kuklux Klan? Remember our war hysteria, when we called sauerkraut 'Liberty cabbage' and somebody actually proposed calling German measles 'Liberty measles'?
Comment: Remember "Freedom Fries"?
And wartime censorship of honest papers? Bad as Russia! Remember our kissing the--well, the feet of Billy Sunday, the million-dollar evangelist, and of Aimée McPherson, who swam from the Pacific Ocean clear into the Arizona desert and got away with it?
Comment: Check out the link for a recent endorsement.
Remember Voliva and Mother Eddy? . . . Remember our Red scares and our Catholic scares, when all well-informed people knew that the O.G.P.U. were hiding out in Oskaloosa, and the Republicans campaigning against Al Smith told the Carolina mountaineers that if Al won the Pope would illegitimatize their children?
Comment: Contemporary equivalents--we have them.
Remember Tom Heflin and Tom Dixon? Remember when the hick legislators in certain states, in obedience to William Jennings Bryan, who learned his biology from his pious old grandma, set up shop as scientific experts and made the whole world laugh itself sick by forbidding the teaching of evolution?
Comment: Still happening and still here.
. . . Remember the Kentucky night-riders? Remember how trainloads of people have gone to enjoy lynchings? Not happen here? Prohibition--shooting down people just because they might be transporting liquor--no, that couldn't happen in America! Why, where in all history has there ever been a people so ripe for a dictatorship as ours! We're ready to start on a Children's Crusade--only of adults--right now, and the Right Reverend Abbots Windrip and Prang are all ready to lead it!"
"Well, what if they are?" protested R. C. Crowley. "It might not be so bad. I don't like all these irresponsible attacks on us bankers all the time. Of course, Senator Windrip has to pretend publicly to bawl the banks out, but once he gets into power he'll give the banks their proper influence in the administration and take our expert financial advice. Yes. Why are you so afraid of the word 'Fascism,' Doremus? Just a word--just a word! And might not be so bad, with all the lazy bums we got panhandling relief nowadays, and living on my income tax and yours--not so worse to have a real Strong Man, like Hitler or Mussolini--like Napoleon or Bismarck in the good old days--and have 'em really run the country and make it efficient and prosperous again. '
Comment: Or "great again"?
Nother words, have a doctor who won't take any back-chat, but really boss the patient and make him get well whether he likes it or not!"
Comment: What do you think?


Thursday, May 19, 2016

Projecting power, gender edition

How do you project power--not arrogance, but power--through your speech and body language?

We've all seen the advice telling us not to say "sorry" or "just" in emails, and I did quit using these so much once I realized how much they tended to diminish the message. It's one thing to be polite, but when you use those words without a reason (i.e., reflexively, not if you've screwed up), you're putting yourself in a submissive position for no particular reason.

For example, if you've been charged with collecting a specific type of information, you can be polite but there's no need to couch your request in the form of some kind of huge personal favor.  You know the kind of message--and I've written plenty of them: "Sorry to bother you, and I know you're really, really busy, but could you just take a minute to fill this out for me?  I'd really appreciate it. Thanks so very, very much!" The studies say that this is a gendered thing (guilty as charged), so stopping the excesses of this kind of language is a start.

There's another way that we project power or fail to do so.  An example: I'm on campus today, and there's a big whoop-de-do type of meeting--Regents or something--happening as well as some other campus activities.  As I was going down the main staircase in one of the buildings, I passed by a woman who stared long and hard at me when I passed.  I did not have spinach on my teeth or a tinfoil hat on, so there was no reason for that.

Now, as a young female person in the world, many years ago, I had somehow internalized that the proper response to a stare like that was to drop your head and smile.  It was respectful, and somehow friendly, and, more to the point, it was just what you did.  What I realize now is that it's a posture of submission and that the dominant person in the exchange person will probably not do the same, though a person of roughly the same age/gender/status probably will.

But then I realized many years ago that the moms at the gym, the ones who worked the Stairmasters as though they were training for the Iditarod and bragged incessantly about their kids, always gave the cold hard stare. I learned to give the cold hard stare back, and boy, did it feel good.

Back to the staircase.  Instead of the "drop head, lower eyes, and smile," did I give the long, hard stare back?  Yes. Yes, I did.  Was it because I was saying to her "I'm a full professor at Northern Clime and you can back way, way the --- off before you give me that stare?"

Not exactly. What I was saying is "I'm a grown person in the world, and if you want to stare at me, I'll stare right back. The end."

This is the message we need to be sending. You can be polite, but when it comes to taking up space as a human being, you will meet people with the respect that they mete out to you.

And you won't. back. down. https://youtu.be/nvlTJrNJ5lA


Saturday, May 14, 2016

Productivity post: Time is on your side (yes, it is)

Two recent articles are making me think about how we conceptualize time as academics.

The first is Laura Vanderkam's "The Busy Person's Lies" in the New York Times. I knew her name from discussions over at nicoleandmaggie's place. Although I'm not a True Believer (because what she & Sheryl Sandberg seem to attribute to savvy management I see as having money enough to throw at problems), the information Vanderkam provides about where her time actually went is interesting.

Vanderkam's point is that we exaggerate the misery or the things we hate to do and that there's a lot of time wasted that we don't count. We don't work as long and as hard as we think we do, she says. Her estimates seem pretty reasonable except that she says she spends only 3 minutes a day logging her time every half hour, which seems very low.

According to Vanderkam, logging one's time leads to a feeling of abundance and gratitude as women realize that they aren't as busy as they think they are, #blessed.  Her honesty in this article, or what appears to be honesty, goes a long way toward supporting this point and toward giving me more respect for her ideas than I have had previously.

Still, not all hours of the day can be productive, or maybe "productive" in the way that can be quantified.  A recent article on time-logging mentioned that, for example, waiting by the side of a road when your car breaks down gets logged as "leisure," but it's not exactly a day at the beach.

Another example: Full-time care of young children is rewarding but also exhausting in ways that no productivity charts can measure, something Vanderkam may not realize because she has a nanny. If you go to a computer after a day with a 2 1/2 year old, you might just stare at it, too tired to move, let alone think.

And although I log some kinds of time (the writing spreadsheet and a to-do list system that's similar to some of the ones at Profhacker), I suspect that logging time every half hour would lead to a feeling more like #killmenow than #blessed.

The second is an article at IHE about The Slow Professor by Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber. It's clear that they're women after my own heart or entirely right (same thing). A few snippets (quoted from the article but broken up because who doesn't love a listicle?):

  1. [T]he discussion focuses on the links between time, commitments and personal stress, and emphasizes trying to achieve a sense of “flow” or “timelessness,” which presents as creativity (and productivity). How to get into the flow? Avoid or eliminate to the extent possible environmental factors that interfere with creativity, the book says. Protect “a time and a place for timeless time” and continually remind yourself “that this is not self-indulgent but rather crucial to intellectual work.”
  2. Slow Professor proposes getting off-line as much as possible and doing less by thinking of scheduling as eliminating commitment’s from one’s day, not taking them on. 
  3. Perhaps most importantly, it proposes leaving room in one’s schedule for regular “timeless time,” starting with some kind of relaxing, transitional ritual. Incorporate playfulness and shun those negative self-thoughts. And don’t forget leaving time to do nothing at all, the book says.
Maybe writing books based on some kinds of popular data (time management) only requires the 5-minute snippets that Vanderkam doesn't want us to waste. It's a convection oven for when regular heat just isn't fast enough, and it makes a palatable product.

The kind of books and articles that most academics write, though, can only be done with reflection and time not only for the "flow" experience but for knitting connections together in the brain. It's slowcoach writing  or maybe slow cooker writing, since the ideas have to simmer to break down the tough membranes of resistance between the ideas to bring out the flavor of the new and strange. 





Friday, April 29, 2016

Writing inspiration: Hemingway again

From David Brooks's column on Hemingway's house in Cuba, with commentary in italics (I know it's David Brooks, but give it a chance):

1. When you see how [Hemingway] did it, three things leap out. The first is the most mundane — the daily disciplines of the job. In the house, there is a small bed where he laid out his notes and a narrow shelf where he stood, stared at a blank wall and churned out his daily word count. Sometimes it seems to have been the structure of concrete behavior — the professional routines — that served as a lifeline when all else was crumbling.

Worth remembering, those "daily disciplines of the job." This has been a tough week at Northern Clime, but the routines--even writing when I could manage it--have helped. 

2. Second, there seem to have been moments of self-forgetting. Dorothy Sayers has an essay in which she notes it’s fashionable to say you do your work to serve the community. But if you do any line of work for the community, she argues, you’ll end up falsifying your work, because you’ll be angling it for applause. You’ll feel people owe you something for your work. But if you just try to serve the work — focusing on each concrete task and doing it the way it’s supposed to be done — then you’ll end up, obliquely, serving the community more. Sometimes the only way to be good at a job is to lose the self-consciousness embedded in the question, “How’m I doing?”

Dorothy L. Sayers has a good point. Ultimately, you have to write what you think or know or believe is true, which is what Hemingway always talked about--"the true gen." You have to do what's right and focus on the task at hand even if some necessary unhappiness results. "Serve the work."  You're not going to be applauded, but if you're protecting others, or your work, you need to keep going.  

And if others don't like what you're doing or writing, think about it: what's their perspective or interest? Where are they coming from? Is their opinion valid, relevant, and ethically in tune with what you're trying to do? Do they wish you and your work well, or do they have a different agenda in mind? 

Maya Angelou once said,  "When people show you who they are, believe them." Their response to your work or your actions is conditioned by who they are, just as yours is. Believe who they are, and consider whether the power you're giving them over your words or actions is warranted.  

3. Finally, there was the act of cutting out. When Hemingway was successful, he cut out his mannerisms and self-pity. Then in middle age, out of softness, laziness and self-approval, he indulged himself. But even then, even amid all the corruption, he had flashes when he could distinguish his own bluster from the good, true notes.

Flashes, yes, although there's still a lot of bluster and self-pity in some late Hemingway. What he seems to have hated is that for stretches he couldn't distinguish the false from the true or, even worse, when he knew what he was writing was false and couldn't write truly (a Hemingway phrase). Valerie Hemingway's Running with the Hemingways gives a good account of some of those last years, when it seems that no one dared to stand up to him. Standing up to Hemingway might have made him unhappy, but it might also have resulted in better and truer work.