Archive for February, 2010

Myth-Busting Redux (Graduate Edition)

To follow my colleagues Laura, Desiree, and Jackie, who have lately been exploring myths about English departments, students, and faculty, I thought I would explore three myths about graduate study that I encounter as Graduate Advisor.

Myth #1: You Must Get Your Degrees from Different Places. Not that it’s a bad idea to get degrees from different places. If you get your BA, MA, and PhD from three different schools, or at least from two different schools, then you meet more people, you’re exposed to different ideas, you find different library collections to explore, you enjoy life more and become more cosmopolitan, and dozens of other advantages.

But the myth I’m talking about here is more like “nobody will hire me if my CV shows three degrees from the same place, because that’s an automatic resumé-killer.”

And really, it doesn’t work that way. If you’re applying for a teaching-heavy job, the first thing they look for is how much, how varied, and how strong your teaching experience is. (Unless it’s the 25th of August and the semester starts on the 26th, in which case they look for whether your breath will fog a mirror and you aren’t currently incarcerated.)

If you’re applying for a research-oriented job, they look to see how interesting your dissertation is, and what you’ve published to establish its high quality.

dr_nick

Somewhere down the line, the trivial matter of where you earned all your different degrees (always assuming none of them is from Dr Nick’s All-Nite Research University) might come up over drinks, but really, nobody uses that fact as a quick CV weeder.

Myth #2: I’ll Never Get a Teaching Job Because I’m Too Old / White / Anglo / Male. Because you’re right, there are hardly any old white Anglo males in this business. Hell, there’s only one in my office.

Age: first of all, the ideal job candidate nowadays is probably someone who’s 62 years old and will retire as soon as s/he earns tenure, saving their employer decades of seniority raises. Second, no, you will not go far in the profession if your idea of cutting-edge scholarship is Cleanth Brooks and your dissertation idea is “The Influence of Existentialism on the Beat Generation.” But aside from that, ageism in the academy, from all I can tell, is at a historical low.

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The same applies to worries over your various un-PC attributes: your whiteness, your native English, your maleness. The counterpart myth, “All the Jobs go to Young Black Disabled Lesbians,” is equally trite. They strike me as excuses. Yes, if you are an intellectual reactionary, if you come across as tacitly racist or with a chip on your shoulder about how beleaguered you are as a member of a majority group, you might not get much sympathy in a humanities department. If you, by contrast, keep an open mind and seek out new ideas, why wouldn’t you get a fair chance at any jobs that are going?

Myth #3: College Teaching in the Humanities is an Upper-Middle-Class Profession.

It’s not.

College English teachers can expect to make poverty-level salaries as adjuncts, working-class salaries as full-time untenured faculty, and skilled-trades salaries as tenured senior faculty.

bob_seger

Bob Seger had a song back when I was in high school:

I wanna be a lawyer
Doctor or professor
Member of the U.M.C.
I wanna drive a Lincoln,
Spend my evenings drinkin,
Have stock in GM and GE.

Lawyers and doctors, if they survive to senior levels in their professions, yes, they can aspire to such giddy circumstances. English professors? we drive ancient Hondas, spend our evenings grading papers, and the only coupons we clip are the ones that offer 40% off at Half Price Books.

William Pannapacker has recently made waves with a series of increasingly embittered attacks on the hypocrisy of graduate education in the humanities in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The myth of the academic meritocracy powerfully affects students from families that believe in education, that may or may not have attained a few undergraduate degrees, but do not have a lot of experience with how access to the professions is controlled. Their daughter goes to graduate school, earns a doctorate in comparative literature from an Ivy League university, everyone is proud of her, and then they are shocked when she struggles for years to earn more than the minimum wage.

“Graduate school in the humanities,” Pannapacker concludes, “is a trap. It is designed that way. It is structurally based on limiting the options of students and socializing them into believing that it is shameful to abandon ‘the life of the mind.’” Despite his histrionics, I tend to agree with Pannapacker. Not about the “trap” aspect, mind you, but about the myth that lots of advanced degrees will bring you luxury cars, single-malts, and bulging portfolios.

In fact, I very much doubt that teaching English ever entailed such things unless said English teachers had them already. Teaching English is a working-class occupation. We do not control the means of production; we do not possess independent capital. We are ill-paid. Thanks to an economic principle called the Baumol effect, we can’t become more productive over time, so the only way for a school to afford English teaching and its irreducible labor-intensiveness is to keep eroding our salaries in real terms. Basically, society doesn’t value what we do, and we’re paid accordingly.

coolhandluke

Pannapacker bemoans the lack of “real jobs” in the humanities, but lots and lots of us have real jobs. We keep them as real as possible by working for what prison guards or truck drivers make. And folks, that’s not as tragic as Pannapacker insists. Lots of prison guards and truck drivers, after all, own their own homes, have hobbies, and get out to see the occasional movie or NASCAR race. If it would mortify you to be seen at the Motor Speedway, well, the Fort Worth Opera has $20 tickets. Culture, precisely because it’s consumed by the underpaid, is often an excellent bargain. Reading is still pretty much free.

The most important thing for people to know about college teaching as they go into it is that it’s a working-class occupation. Some initial myth-busting on that score can save a world of grief later on.

— Tim Morris

Published in:Tim Morris |on February 26th, 2010 |16 Comments »

What’s in a Name?

roses

Your career choice, place of residence, and spouse, apparently.

I recently ran across the phenomenon known as “egotism” or sometimes “implicit egotism,” which is the statistical probability that the letters that form your name will in some way correspond to or predict what career you go into, where you will live, and who you will choose for a spouse or partner.

In a thumbnail: People named Dennis or Denise are very likely to become dentists. Dennis and Denise are also likely to live in Denver. And, they are also likely to marry someone with a surname that begins with the same letter as their own: a Smith would more likely marry a Sanchez than a Zelig.

The research on egotism was begun by U Buffalo psychologist Brett Pelham and you can read more about him on his homepage, as well as reading the initial study, which was published in 2002. Previous scholarship had posited the “name letter effect,” which holds that people have positive associations with the letters in their own names. Subsequent scholarship has pursued the implications for egotism on other “life choices,” such as a recent study that showed that names influenced people’s responses to disaster and charitable giving: someone named Katherine was more likely to donate to a Hurricane Katrina fund, for example.

This is all very interesting to those of us who study language and literature and who find ourselves often trying to make the case for the power of language and the constructedness of reality or identity. In ENGL 2350, I often struggle to explain the structuralist/deconstructionist idea that there is no reality outside of language/the text — my skeptical students are confident that they know reality as well as the difference between what’s real and what’s written, and they have a hard time embracing the proposition that what they know is shaped by the language system in which they exist. Maybe Pelham’s statistics can serve as more persuasive fodder for a discussion of these issues?

Of course, there are many out there who will recoil from the idea of name as destiny. In fact, we would scoff at a creative writer who constructed a character named Dennis who was a dentist who lived in Denver. What a lack of imagination!, we would say.

So what do you think? Has your name determined your life choices?

– Desiree Henderson

Published in:Desiree Henderson |on February 22nd, 2010 |3 Comments »

Texas Writers? Let’s start with Highsmith…

patricia-highsmith-1-thrillercafe-it

One of my favorite “guilty pleasure” writers to read (“guilty” in that enough of my creative writing professors rolled their eyes when I mentioned her name that I learned soon enough to keep my mouth shut about her) is Patricia Highsmith (writer of all the Ripley Books and Strangers on a Train). I’ve always been able to pick up stacks of her books at Half Price stores and library book sales for only a couple of bucks. And there are so many of them, too! All of them filled with morally corrupt characters who all seem incapable of any human feelings at all–and yet so determined to fake being human! Many of the stories, and novels, would be classified as suspense dramas, or maybe crime thrillers, but I really enjoyed them for the prose more than the plot. It’s as if Highsmith herself were incapable–like her characters–of describing human emotions. As a result, the characters wandered through exotic lands (a remote beach in Africa, a small town in Italy), often alone, meeting up with colorful locals (and awful American tourists) with usually catastrophic results (you can count on at least one dead body to pop up in a Highsmith story). The language just seems so stripped down in a Highsmith story. Like the characters just want to get themselves down on the page before someone has the chance to delete them. And they always end up rooting themselves in those exotic locales until they do enough damage that they have no other choice but to move on.

So imagine my surprise when, one day, after reading her stories for years, I happened upon Highsmith’s Wikipedia page. And where was this writer of stripped down killers who visit exotic locales from? Fort Worth, Texas. Yup, gateway to the West. City where cattle drives still take place daily. The same city where I live now. I’d seen dozens of author photos of her, of course. Most often black and white, usually a cigarette poised in one hand, a subdued cardigan sweater buttoned up to the neck. She just always looked so (forgive me, Jackie) British to me. Or maybe it was her characters’ adherence to proper social graces (and their willingness to kill in order to maintain a proper tea time, or to punish someone who wears the wrong kind of trousers with their cashmere blazer) that led me to think of her as British.

But a Texan? Really? Granted, it seems she high-tailed it out to NYC (and eventually to Europe) as soon as she reached adulthood. But there’s a good chance those years in Fort Worth made some sort of impression on her as a writer. And it’s made me wonder what sort of writer a Texas writer is. Is there a commonality that exists? Some linking characteristic?

Discuss.

– Laura Kopchick

Published in:Laura Kopchick |on February 21st, 2010 |1 Comment »

Further further adventures in myth-busting

Following Laura and Desiree’s discussion of myths associated with creative writers and English majors, it falls to me to discuss fables about that mythical beast, the English professor. I suppose that it is fitting for me to tackle this topic, since one of these myths involves the spurious authority that simply being English gives you as an English professor. Although there are lots of people in England who aren’t remotely professorial (like soccer hooligans and gameshow hosts), the feeling persists in some circles that the ideal English professor is an English English professor. As a colleague reported to me, an American student in her class complained that it was “unfair” for a visiting British student to be able to take History of British Literature, when she was so clearly at an advantage in the subject because she was British and would thus have an innate understanding of the intricacies of medieval drama and seventeenth-century poetry (the same apparently did not apply to the American students in History of American literature).

It is true that when I think about English professors in the abstract, my first point of reference is Michael Caine in the film Educating Rita. Caine plays Dr Frank Bryant, an English professor who is definitely phoning it in. Having taken on an Open University student to finance his serious drink problem, Bryant is profoundly changed by his encounter with Susan, a hairdresser turned ardent English major (actually, this film is also a touchstone for me when it comes to encounters with hairdressers). Who could forget Susan’s inspired early answer to a set question about the staging difficulties associated with Ibsen’s Peer Gynt?–“Do it on the radio.” Bryant, after training Susan to react and to write as an ideal student of English literature, bemoans the loss of the vibrant, untutored ingénue that she used to be, despising himself and his profession for its particular brand of conventionality. It’s a lovely, Pygmalionesque film about class, gender, and the effect of institutionalization on the study of literature, and it certainly wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t for the stereotype of the male, alcoholic, tweed-coat-with-leather-elbows-wearing, profoundly unhappy English professor.

The thinking behind such representations of the English professor seems to be that a lifetime spent largely on your own reading does not fit you for success in interpersonal communication. Years of contemplating love, death, the meaning of life, etc., will only buy you an addictive and self-destructive habit. Chain-smoking, or at least pipe-smoking, used to be a standard facet of the character set for an English-professor, but now not only is smoking banned in offices, but you can’t smoke within twenty feet of a building, and soon you will not be able to smoke on campus at all. In earlier times this would have decimated the intellectual ranks, but now it will barely make a dent in the sushi-eating, yoga-performing professorial phalanx. If the smoking hasn’t already done it, campus-wide smoking bans will finish off the stereotypical chain-smoking professor.

Another attribute of the mythical English professor is excessive facial hair. Within my particular discipline of Anglo-Saxon studies, a beard is so de rigeur that you still feel a little dressed down at conferences without one. Famous beards of the field include Frederick Furnivall’s. Furnivall was the, by all accounts not very good, second editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, and founder of the venerable and still pivotal, Early English Text Society. In his spare time he coached a women’s sculling team, and I think you can tell a lot about Furnivall from this photograph of him among the ladies.Furnivall “Boo-ya!” says his beard, “don’t question my knowledge of multiple dead languages.”

So much for the myth of the hard-drinking, smoking, tweedy, bearded male English professor. Perhaps you could share with us some of your favorite representations of professors, and whether, and in what ways, you find them to be true to life.

– Jackie Stodnik

Published in:Jackie Stodnick |on February 14th, 2010 |4 Comments »

Birth of a Meme

snowfall1

Let the record show: on the single snowiest day in the history of Dallas/Ft Worth, the University of Texas at Arlington was open for business as usual.

UTA usually closes at the hint of a flake in the wind, so faculty and staff were perplexed at finding themselves on campus yesterday. It was tough to drive, tougher to walk in from your car, and once you’d walked in, Thursday provided a ghost-town experience, classes and meetings mostly unattended by people who’d had the sense to stay home.

Among those who soldiered in, the questions bubbled up: why are we here? Why isn’t UTA closed? In the universal human struggle to make meaning, people asked themselves: why is this day not like other days? Since it apparently wasn’t Passover, people started scanning the UTA Events Calendar for something out of the ordinary.

magicjohnson1

Come to find that Earvin “Magic” Johnson was fixing to talk Thursday evening at Texas Hall. His topic was “32 Ways to Be a Champion in Business.” (As one wag put it, the first of the 32 is “Be a basketball Hall of Famer.”)

Critical thinking in the English Department quickly centered on a connection between Magic and the fact that we were tramping through a foot of slush to get to our depopulated classes. Or rather, a connection between somebody and the slush. Certain faculty opined that Michael Jordan was to blame. Others suspected Michael Irvin. But whoever they thought was speaking, suspicions ran high: they’re not closing UTA because they don’t want to cancel the sports guy.

F2F in offices and classrooms, on Facebook and Twitter among those who’d stayed toastily at home, we saw the birth of a meme: yeah, they’ll close this place at the first flurry, but if there’s any schmoozing with the stars scheduled for that evening, they’ll make us all drive in from Waxahachie.

Memes are fascinating things: in moments, they morph from snarky remark to common wisdom, with minimal pause for reflection in between. Because really, the “can’t close, Magic’s here” meme makes no logical sense whatsoever. Classes started at 8am; Magic was going to talk at 6pm. If it was important for Magic to speak at all costs, why not cancel daytime classes and announce that the University would open at 6pm? For that matter, why not announce that everything but Magic would be cancelled?

Worst case, the lecture itself would have to be cancelled. But reflect. Magic’s in town already. His speaker’s fee is a sunk cost. Instead of putting everybody through the ordeal of “32 Ways to Be a Champion in Business,” the great man could have proceeded directly to whatever upmarket watering hole the suits had picked out for his face time with the high rollers, sparing all concerned an hour of their lives and actually increasing the benefit to UTA.

mcqueen1

No, I gotta call nonsense on the Magic meme. And I don’t have any very good theory to offer in its place. To invoke Steve McQueen in The Magnificent Seven, “It seemed to be a good idea at the time.” When I got up at 6am on Thursday, there was snow on the lawn, but the paths and streets were clear. By 630, I remarked to my plus-one, “Could that be new snow on the walk?” By 8am, the new snow was ankle-deep, and we were splashing doggedly through it on our way to deliver quality instructional minutes.

No, I probably wouldn’t have closed UTA either. After all, when Magic Johnson and I (and 55,000 other people) were students at Michigan State in the 1970s, eleven inches of wet snow would have been just another school day. It wouldn’t have been one of my brightest decisions, but I’d have kept UTA open, and (as in the actual event) no real harm would have resulted.

But people crave order instead of randomness, key determining factors instead of “whatever,” and sinister motives instead of inertial forces. And always, everywhere, memes represent a collective distrust of authority that is salutary for a community.

UTA – like nearly every school, government, and corporation in the world – is in the business of producing hot air. Our leaders insist on branding us “Mavericks,” when we seem to be indistinguishable from any other large state university in the country. They loudly proclaim that we are moving toward “Tier One” status, when many faculty in the humanities are staggeringly overworked, and paid at near-poverty levels ($12,500 a semester to teach five classes is common). Neighbors of UTA get cheery mailings suggesting that UTA and Arlington are working together to make our city a real “college town,” although, in a city with a downtown so empty that every day seems like a snow day, a city famous for razing neighborhoods to put up stadiums with vast parking lots, UTA’s biggest new community initiative is . . . putting up a stadium with a vast parking lot.

Every institution in the world, I repeat, engages in such hollow rhetoric continuously. UTA is no worse than others, and is a pretty good place to work in lots of ways. But whenever there’s a high volume of white noise from officialdom, people stop listening pretty quickly. As a coping mechanism, they construct memes that cynically find hypocrisy at the heart of random, or even well-intentioned, behavior.

—Tim Morris

Published in:Tim Morris |on February 12th, 2010 |3 Comments »

English Majors vs. Park Benches, or Further Adventures in Myth Busting

In continuing the discussion initiated by Laura Kopchick on “myths” surrounding literary studies and writing, I turn my attention to myths about English majors.

English majors are, of course, the butt of many jokes in contemporary culture.

Q: What’s the difference between an English major and a park bench?

A: A park bench can support a family of four.

Storyteller Garrison Keillor has made jokes about English majors a staple in his weekly radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, including a running bit about the Professional Organization of English Majors (POEM). (You can get a taste of the humor here, sign up for the Facebook group here, and buy some paraphernalia here.)

Jim Harrison’s 2008 novel, The English Major, recounts the story of a 60-year-old former English major, then English teacher, then farmer, who embarks upon a cross-country trip in search of the meaning of life.

The Washington Post review of the book states: “In one of the more ludicrous scenes, Cliff meets a 21-year-old waitress who agrees to take off her clothes for $300, if he’ll keep a distance of at least 10 feet. ‘You might be a farmer,’ she says, ‘but I bet big money you were an English major in college.’” Apparently even in works of literature, English majors get played for laughs.*

The two most common myths – and fodder for humor – about English majors are, I believe:

English majors are only trained how to lay around and read novels, and therefore have no marketable skills and will never get good (read: high paying) jobs.

English majors are shy, socially inept individuals with few actual life experiences or any measure of street savvy, who tend to live only in their minds or the books they read, essentially disconnected from reality.

The first myth is easy enough to discount. There have been many studies about the fact that the critical thinking and careful reading skills that are cultivated in English classes (and, liberal arts courses more generally) are precisely the ones that employers look for. English majors reportedly do remarkably well in both law school and medical school because they know how to pay attention to details and put information in context. As digital media continues to expand as a viable career option, the composition, technical, and technological abilities that English majors have will also continue to be valued and sought out. And, while the stereotype is that English majors “only” have the skills to become teachers, being a teacher and particularly an English teacher is still a personally rewarding and socially important job to hold (says this English teacher).

It is true that, for the most part and against pressure from college administrations, English departments tend to treat the study of literature, composition, rhetoric, creative writing, and digital media as subjects in and of themselves – rather than skill sets designed to guarantee that students get jobs. But, that doesn’t mean the skills aren’t gained and then implemented in post-graduate employment. (Anyone interested in learning more about what UTA English majors do upon graduation should attend an event hosted by the English Department in Spring 2010, featuring some of our alums discussing their employment experiences.)

As for the myth that English majors are people whose inner lives are shaped by their reading and writing, who stand at a bit of a distance from the real world, and perhaps are more likely to relate to the characters in books than the people around them … well, I have to admit that I think it is a myth with some basis in reality. However, I’m not sure it is a problem. Instead, I believe that being capable of entering into a fictional world, or appreciating the complex imagery of a poem, or authoring your own original work of fiction or poetry, or identifying social themes in film, television, or theater … or any of the other abilities that English majors develop over the course of their undergraduate careers, bring their own rewards, not necessarily ones recognized by our contemporary society, but ones that the writers that we love have been celebrating and cultivating for centuries.

* The review is quoted on the Amazon page for the novel.

– Desiree Henderson

Published in:Desiree Henderson |on February 7th, 2010 |2 Comments »

As Soon As I Get Some Free Time, No Revision Necessary, and Other Myths About Creative Writing (and Writers)

It was my final semester in the MFA in Fiction program at the University of Michigan and I was meeting with my thesis advisor, Charles Baxter, in his near-empty office on campus (he wrote at home, in a lovely book-lined office above the garage in his Ann Arbor house). As he red-penned my stories, pausing every few minutes to complain about my obsession with first person narration and my lack of redemptive male characters, I imagined that he would rather have been at home, polishing up the final draft of Feast of Love. It was no secret that he taught because he had to (he often told us that all American writers taught because they had to–who could make enough money just selling books besides Stephen King?). After he finished with my manuscript, red pen finally exhausted, he sighed and looked out the window at the snow covered expanse of ground outside. Then he told me about going to the doctor that morning for a check-up. I imagined this great writer, a man I admired (and whose writing floored me) sitting on one of those doctor’s tables, blood pressure cup around his arm, making small talk with a doctor who probably didn’t have a clue about Baxter’s literary accomplishments.

“He asked me what I do for a living,” Charlie said, “and when I told him that I’m a writer he told me he has a book he’s going to write as soon as he retires and gets the time.” Then he launched into a fairly long complaint about how he should have shot back something about practicing medicine as soon as he got Feast of Love out of the way, because how difficult could surgery be, after all? We all watch television. We see doctors perform surgeries all the time these days. “As if just having time is all that’s required of a writer,” he said. “Can you imagine?”

This conversation has always stuck with me (along with some of his more memorable quotes on teaching students to write literary short fiction, such as “I can only help you to write stories about characters who live on planet Earth–you’re on your own with aliens”) because since becoming a teacher of creative writing I, too, have had people tell me pretty much the same thing–that they’d be able to write the next great American novel, too, if they only had the time. And who knows? Maybe they would be able to write a fantastic novel with no formal coursework in writing. In fact, the winner of this year’s Katherine Anne Porter Award in short fiction works with computers at Harvard–he’s not an MFA graduate (or, as far as I know, a formal student of writing at all). But this writer, like all writers I know, worked and reworked those stories, making sure that the narrative point of view was consistent and clear, the plots of the stories had clear catalysts, climax scenes, and resolutions, and the exposition balanced nicely with the dialogue and action. In short, he had read (and learned to work and revise) enough to create finely polished, wonderful stories with resonance. That doesn’t come merely with enough writing time, but with work and effort.

So, the first myth of creative writing would be that anyone can produce well-crafted fiction, if given enough time. And another myth would certainly be that writing is divinely inspired, and any revision ruins the original inspiration. I always think of Coleridge and his poem “Kubla Khan” when I think of this myth. My Modern Poetry Professor in grad school told us that Coleridge claimed the poem to be inspired by either God or opium, depending on the myth, and that he wrote the poem in one draft without revisions. As far as I know, he’s the only writer to claim to eschew revision. After his death, however, multiple drafts of this poem were found. Even divine inspiration, it seems, benefits from sober revisional practices.

I always try to end my creative writing classes with a quote a former professor told me. He told us “Be a producer rather than a consumer, and surround yourself with beauty that you create yourself.” I think that everyone should produce something that they’re proud of–and writing is certainly one way to create beauty in the world. But also students and aspiring writers should remember that writing is difficult, and has a tradition, and a set of expectations that readers demand (whether the writing is divinely inspired or not). Ben Marcus, another former professor of mine, once told me that “Writing should practically kill you.” I think he was joking, but I’ve found these words to ring true, especially when I find myself debating the means of perception in a story, or whether or not to let go of my obsession with first person and to go ahead and try a third person point of view. It’s certainly not easy, this business of writing, and even when you’ve finished with a draft of something you’re proud of there’s always an editor, or an agent, waiting to tell you all of the mistakes you’ve made. Even so, there’s nothing better than seeing a creation come to life, and knowing all of the terribly difficult effort that went into that creation.

Published in:Laura Kopchick |on February 5th, 2010 |No Comments »

21 days of Christmas, B and Bs, and Crime Queens

AC

21 days,

147 hours of light,

357 hours of darkness,

5 adults,

1 bathroom,

6 pounds of Quality Street,

1 large box of Cadbury’s éclairs,

1 box of Maltesers,

1 box of Ferrero Roche,

2 orders fish and chips,

3 roast dinners,

1 entire island covered in snow,

and 72 hours of traveling later,

I survived Christmas in England. Where was I? Torquay, Devon. A place perhaps best known as the setting for the enduringly popular 1970s TV series Fawlty Towers. Fawlty Towers, based on John Cleese’s bizarre experiences at the real Torquay guesthouse The Gleneagles Hotel, featured the fractious antics of hotelier Basil Fawlty, who divided his time about equally between cringing avoidance of his wife Sybil and physical abuse of his “Spanish” waiter Manuel. Having stayed at a number of Torquay bed and breakfasts myself over the years, I can testify to the veracity of Cleese’s experiences. One, which will remain unnamed (although it is no longer operational), springs particularly to mind. Upon waking, guests were forced to endure the excessive servility of the male proprietor, clad in a frilly apron, during breakfast—“Oh, what else could I get you? Oh please let me get you something else.” As anyone who has stayed at a bed and breakfast has probably noticed, the breakfast part is generally a ritual of almost religious intensity, which suburbanizes the niceties of nineteenth-century manorial dining. You are not the lord of the house, and these are not your servants (nor do you want them to be), but they sure act like they are, forcing you into the uncomfortable role of the landed gentry stepping upon the necks of the peasants. The culinary excesses of noble cuisine (sparrow roasted inside quail roasted inside partridge roasted inside duck roasted inside swan, and the like) endure not in B and B food, which is always basically the same workaday menu, but in the flourishing way that it is served as though it were haute cuisine. At the guesthouse in question, for instance, the host brought out a small thimble-sized glass of UHT-preserved orange juice to us on a silver tray, inviting us to quaff this elixir as though it were the finest of vintage wines rather than a thoroughly utilitarian (and in fact slightly below average since it wasn’t even fresh) beverage.

Anyway, enough of that. Torquay is also the birth-place and home of the crime writer, nay the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie, who would have been 120 years old this year. As a pre-teen, I used to snort down Agatha Christie novels like they were going out of fashion (which they certainly weren’t considering she is the best-selling author of all time). But, despite spending many years vacationing in Torquay–and moaning about it a good deal–I failed to notice just how embedded Christie’s fiction is in the Devon landscape.

Christie had an interesting start for an author. Denied formal education, she had to teach herself to read, since her mother had decided that she should not learn this skill until she was eight. She apparently had a full imaginative life as a child, inventing a frightening older sibling, known as “The Elder Sister,” who was mad and lived in a cave. She had a famously failed first marriage, which was probably connected to her eleven-day disappearance in 1926, a mystery that still remains unsolved–unlike those cases tackled by her detective creations, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple.

Christie’s writing process seems to have been refreshingly un-in-your-face. Her son-in-law apparently noted that, “You never saw her writing, she never shut herself away, like other writers do.” Anyone who has read her fiction will be unsurprised to learn that it was primarily based on meticulous observation of character and daily life. Despite the sensational and improbable nature of many Christie plots, the novels always ring true because the characters and the dialogue are rooted in the everyday. In this respect Christie seems to have been a practitioner of something I have always been very fond of myself: the Miss Marple microcosmic theory of human encounter. Miss Marple is so good at solving crime, despite the fact that she is a sheltered little old lady, because the diverse communities that she briefly enters are always populated with people that reminder her of someone back at home in the village of Saint Mary Mead. She is thus able to extrapolate the causes and agents of crime by comparing character traits. Of course, on one hand, this means that Miss Marple views the world as populated by types, the total number of which does not exceed the population of a small English village (yes, this is deeply imperialistic I know). A less negative interpretation, though, might celebrate the ways that Miss Marple suggests we are all familiar to each other–if not friends, than at least acquaintances before we have even met.

–Jackie Stodnick

Published in:Jackie Stodnick |on February 1st, 2010 |5 Comments »