Archive for March, 2010

Bad Books

Recently The American Book Review released an article titled “Top 40 Bad Books,” in which a host of literary critics were invited to identify “bad books.”

Some of the contributors went with the obvious: Bonnie Wheeler (SMU) listed Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code – which seems just a little bit too easy. Marc Bousquet (Santa Clara) listed David Horowitz’s right-wing screed, One Party Classroom, and Liedeke Plate (Radboud Universiteit) Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – and, again, the reader wonders whether it is even worth the ink to identify these works as bad?

Other choices appeared to deliberately court controversy: Christine Granados (Texas A&M) named Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses; Kim Herzinger (U Houston-Victoria) Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; and Tom LeClair (U Cincinnati) called Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby the “worst novel in American literature.” Shocking stuff.

(If you are wondering why there are so many professors from Texas represented on the list – I was too.)

As a scholar whose stock-in-trade are authors and books that have traditionally been deemed “bad” – as most early American women writers and their writings were – and conscious of the fact that literary “goodness” and “badness” are historically contingent categories usually employed to keep marginalized individuals, voices, and opinions on the margins, ABR’s entire project struck me as suspect. Most of the scholars and writers who participated in the experiment were as suspicious as I am – and many of them speak to precisely these issues: several celebrate the “bad book” as a culturally meaningful artifact and a great object of study in the classroom; others call into question whether “good” and “bad” even have any meaning in our pluralistic society. The article is worth reading because it offers such a wide range of responses to the issue of literary “badness.”

Having stated that I think the categories are vexed, the terms virtually meaningless, and the exercise contradictory to the work I do in my classes and writing … I’m plunging in …

Here’s my nomination for a really bad book – a book I couldn’t stand – a book about which I can talk extensively, detailing all the reasons I think it stinks: Geraldine Brooks’ March.

Is this the only bad book I could name? No.

Is this the worst book ever? Not even close.

Is there something about passionately disliking a book, that makes a reader wed to it in a way that is not unlike the relationship a reader develops with a really good book? Absolutely.

So, go ahead: name a bad book. You know you want to.

– Desiree Henderson

Published in:Desiree Henderson |on March 29th, 2010 |5 Comments »

It’s English, but not as we know it

butterflyAt some point in every semester, I give my students a really difficult assignment that I am not sure they are capable of completing. I’ve been to assessment workshops, and I know that when you issue an assignment, you are supposed to have a clear vision of what you will receive in return—visualize a butterfly, I think the metaphor was, and if you can’t, don’t complain when you get beetles or cockroaches in return. My philosophy in crafting assignments, on the other hand, is more like, “Wow! That’s interesting. Let’s see if the students can do it.” In my graduate class this semester, for instance, I thought it would be intriguing and informative to require the students to work firsthand with archaeological reports. Thus I issued them in groups of two with their four hundred page (and those are 8 ½ by 11 pages, mark you) behemoths, and asked them to discover what this data suggested about early medieval attitudes to the body. It might seem easy enough, but bear in mind that these reports contain lengthy sections on, for example, “Post-holes and hollows not obviously associated with ditches,” “Tabby weaves,” and “Dental pathology”–all fascinating topics, I concede, but not the usual fare for students in an English department. Nevertheless, my students took it all in their stride, and gave beautiful presentations where they bandied around grave numbers and stratigraphic information like they were archaeologists who hadn’t changed their socks for the past three months. Because I always use the student work itself to set a grading benchmark, no one is harmed in the process of conducting these experiments, and I am always pleasantly surprised by the shape of the “butterflies” I receive come the due date.

While my graduate students were poring over their archaeological reports, my undergraduate students from History of British Literature were busy using the Middle English Dictionary to translate the thirteenth-century lyric poem “Love is Sofft”–for those of you who haven’t spend a decade specializing in medieval languages, that would be “Love is Soft.” This assignment is complex first because of the Middle English Dictionary itself, which has to be coaxed and cajoled into revealing word meanings like it was a recalcitrant but extremely smart goat. Much of the problem is, of course, that it is hard to organize a dictionary for a language lacking standardized spelling. Yes, there are mani, manie, manige, mane, magnie, maniȝ, mange, monie, monei, mone, moniȝ, menie, myny, mainie, meine, manes, maniȝes, mones, monne, maniȝe, moniȝe, monien, mænige, manes, maniȝum ways to spell a single word in Middle English. As a consequence, entering a word as it is spelled in the poem will likely bring up three or four different entries in the dictionary (or none at all, which is even more frustrating), requiring the students to make reasonable deductions about which is the “right” one based on context. Even a brief perusal of contemporary translations of this poem, however, shows that some lines seem to have stumped even the most venerable of editors.

Take these lines, for example:

Love is hap wo hit haveþ, hon forto hete;
Love is wis, love is war and willful an sete.

Elaine Treharne glosses “hon forto hete” as “one to inflame,” and “willful an sete” with “willful (one); suitable (one),” yielding a translation something like,

Love is good luck for whoever has it, one to inflame;
Love is wise, love is wary and willful and suitable,

which makes sense after a fashion. Brian Stone, on the other hand, translates these lines as,

Love by chance brings misery inflamed with fever heat;
Love is wise and love is wary, wants its way complete.

Wait a minute, is this the same poem? The problem is that wo in the first line could be woe or who; an could be one or and; and sete could be all manner of things including suitable, arrow or set. It’s not just the meaning of the words that is at issue, then, it’s also what part of speech they are.

When even major editors offer such divergent translations, how do undergraduate students get on with this assignment? Actually those who spend a long time with the dictionary measure up quite well, producing credible translations of their own. And clearly this is an assignment with a number of right answers, in which the translation itself is a means to an end. After slaving over their version of the poem, the students find that “Love is Sofft” is a far from profound poem–more of the Justin Timberlake than the Tennyson ilk—that sauces its basic message that “love is good, love is bad” with a soupcon of misogyny in its final line. What I think that every student learns, however, is how much work goes into any translation of a medieval poem, and how aware we should always be of the distance between the original and the version that we read.

–Jackie Stodnick

Published in:Jackie Stodnick |on March 26th, 2010 |No Comments »

Is This What You’re Looking For?

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There’s one question I hear from students more than any other. Before a big essay is due, or a poetry portfolio or short story, students tend to wander into my office, rough draft in hand, a nervous shiftiness in their eyes as they slide the pages across the desk to me. “What is it, exactly, you want my help with?” I’ll ask. And the answer is almost always, “I just want to know if this is what you’re looking for.” And I never know quite how to answer this question. Yes, we spend several class sessions discussing what goes into a well-written short story (a well developed character with believable dialogue, attention to detail in setting, a clear catalyst, a plot that consists of distinct scenes that build in tension to a clear climax scene where the protagonist finally acts–rather than reacts–and makes a decision from which he/she can’t turn back). And we read chapters in a textbook that also talk about these elements of good fiction (or poetry, or essays). And these textbooks aren’t written by me (the text I use for Introduction to Creative Writing was written by Stephen Minot, for example, and I’ve never had a student come into my office and ask “Is this what Minot is looking for in a short story?”). But there seems to be this idea that what makes up good writing is unique to each individual instructor, and if the student can just manage to puzzle together what that “something” is that each instructor believes to be good writing than the student can ace the essay (or short story, or poem).

I think this is also why, in the hallways between classes in Preston Hall, I’ll often overhear a distraught student complain to a friend, “Professor ____________ just doesn’t like my writing!” There’s something so personal about that comment. It seems to imply that some students believe that writing professors grade in an arbitrary, subjective way (and I imagine the professor in her office, red pen in hand, complaining about how well structured the essay is, and how clear the thesis statement is, but *dang it* the writer uses too many adverbs for the professor’s liking and, so, the essay must fail!).

Granted, those of us who grade writing can not simply go down a page and look to see if the equations add up properly. We can’t run a form through a scan tron machine to tabulate a grade. But I would argue that most instructors of writing are probably going to be able to pick out the weaknesses in any essay, and will (in turn) be in the same ballpark with the final grade for the essay. There is an objectivity to how we grade, even if some of the students prefer to shift the blame of a poor grade on an essay off of themselves and onto the professor. In other words, some students believe that the grade they received was not the one that they earned, but rather the one that was given to them. And another professor–if they could just find the right one!–would give them the “A” they so justly deserve.

When I was in graduate school, those of us about to teach composition for the first time were required to attend a series of “teaching prep” classes, many of which concerned grading procedures. A tenured professor had us read a small pile of student essays and we had to grade these essays (privately, on our own) and then come back to the class and announce the grade we had given each essay and why. We spent hours going over each essay (taking off a certain number of points for a poor thesis, more points for unclear topic sentences, etc.) and by the end of the training–amazingly–the thirty or so of us in the room had come within a half-letter grade of each other. It’s not that we didn’t all understand going into the training what to look for in the writing, we just weren’t sure how many points to take off for each lacking element. And maybe this is that loophole that leads some students to believe that if they could only find the professor that *likes* their writing then they’d be set.

I’m usually suspect of a student that comes to me after receiving a “C” on an essay and complains that they’ve always received “A’s” on their essays before. I find it hard to believe that any two writing professors, when confronted with the same piece of writing, wouldn’t at least come up with roughly the same letter grade. I find it very hard to believe that student can be an “A” writer for one instructor and a “C” writer for another (and I’m not talking about those anomalies where a traditionally “good” writer turns in an uncharacteristically poor essay. Life happens, kids get sick, or midterm pressures pile on, and so they whip something out the night before the essay is due and they don’t look the professor in the eye when they hand the thing in. And I’ve found that these students are aware of the poor writing they’ve done and take responsibility for the poor grade).

But this business of grading isn’t easy. Just the other day, I had a colleague ask if I find grading creative writing assignments more difficult than grading academic essays. And the truth is that I really don’t find a difference. There are still quantifiable, objective elements that I’m looking for. What’s difficult for me is knowing that, on “paper handback” days, a lot of students will leave class disappointed with their grades, and rather than accepting responsibility for the grade that they’ve earned, they’ll find a friend in the hallway after class and will wail, “Professor Kopchick just doesn’t like my writing!”

-Laura Kopchick

Published in:Laura Kopchick, Uncategorized |on March 13th, 2010 |No Comments »

Publish or Publish

In a recent essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, David Alpaugh bewails the proliferation of poetry in America. He notes that, at a conservative estimate, American journals, print or on-line, will publish 100,000 poems this year, and that’s a bit much. Like, about 99,900 poems much.

My first reaction to Alpaugh’s thesis was: OK, let’s also crack down on the millions of Americans who play musical instruments. Some of them really should be stopped. And while we’re at it, there are way more than 100,000 Americans painting in watercolors or tempera or oils. Surely they could do with a little reining in.

But Alpaugh isn’t steamed about people merely practicing an art.

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Like golf, poetry is becoming a sport that multitudes pursue and enjoy—and if it were simply a matter of more and more men and women writing poetry, I would be cheering. . . . Exercising language at its highest level is an absolute good, and (Plato be damned) in an ideal society everyone would write poetry.

But there’s a difference between writing and publishing. Golf, after all, has an agreed-upon scoring system that lets every player know his or her standing, stroke by stroke, game by game. Mediocre amateurs cannot deceive themselves (or be assured by pros) that they are contenders.

And that, for Alpaugh, is the rub. Lots of poetry = good. Lots of poetry getting published = very, very bad.

Alpaugh is anxious about bad stuff getting published, good stuff getting lost in the welter of bad stuff, and the impossibility of sorting the good from the bad. At the heart of his anxiety is the notion that getting a poem published should be like breaking 80 from the championship tees. After all, when you pick up a publication, you are reading something published, and “published” implies a certain hallmark of quality, like the gallo nero on a bottle of Chianti.

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People take the notion of “being published” very, very seriously indeed. Several times a month, I get a phone call from some prospective graduate student who confides that they “are published.” They suggest an aura somewhere between being “a made guy” and being “washed in the blood of the Lamb.” Personal investment in the mystique of publication is tremendous. Publishing just any old thing, we feel, would be like giving the Congressional Medal of Honor to anybody who shows up at a recruiting office.

It’s easy for me to snark, because, after all, I too am published. It’s true: every morning, I rise, admire the publications on my bookshelf, and then scrape up $1.89 for a Tall Decaf. I don’t mean to mock writers’ ambitions, or editors’ dreams, or readers’ appreciation of published writing. I just think that every writer and reader, from David Alpaugh to the most print-thirsty novice in a neighborhood writers’ group, should get a little perspective on the issue. And so, I’ll propose a principle that might make everyone less anxious:

Publication Does Not Guarantee, and Has Never Guaranteed, That a Piece of Writing Is Any Good. Even aside from the vexed question of telling what’s good from what’s bad. Let’s say we can. Fact is, bad poetry has been published ever since some stonemason gave in to nagging and carved his brother-in-law’s fan-fiction sequel to Gilgamesh onto a temple wall. Bad poetry filled the bookstalls of Elizabethan London and the salons of the Sun King and the chapbooks of Beat-Generation San Francisco.

Take The New Yorker, synonymous in the U.S. with literary “publication,” because it is the only magazine on most newsstands that publishes poetry and stories (as against 50 magazines that advise how to publish poetry and stories). Well, here’s an open secret: the poetry in The New Yorker has always been bad. Not that a good poem has never appeared there – what would be the odds of that – but that nearly every poem there is bad. There have been whole identifiable eras in the badness of New Yorker poetry, from the 1980s/90s “Dull poem that mentions a summer resort that Upper-East-Siders frequent” era to the current “Drab poem that self-consciously mentions something plebian” era.

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It is OK to say things like this, by the way. It’s not sourly grapish. Even if you’ve gotten six or eight rejections from The New Yorker. It’s even OK to knock New Yorker poems if you can’t produce a line of poetry yourself. As Samuel Johnson pointed out, “You may scold a carpenter who has made you a bad table, though you cannot make a table.” You may even scold the magazine that features it as Table of the Year. And you know what? It doesn’t matter. The world is not falling apart because the most prestigious American magazine publishes bad poetry.

If we step back a bit from the fetish of being “published,” we can perhaps be more sanguine about the fact that 100,000 poems are published each year. Very many of them are bad. No appreciably higher percentage of the ones that appear in prestige venues are good than those that appear wherever, and that’s been the case forever. Poems are not chosen for publication because of any replicable standard of quality. Poems get into print because editors, with widely different subjectivities and attention spans, actually like them, or just have pages to fill, or are inveigled by their authors’ names, their provenance, the pretty stamps on their return envelopes, who knows. Some of these poems are good, and due to their sheer volume, perhaps more of them are good today than ever before.

Which brings us to another of Alpaugh’s fears: how can we know which ones are good? The world of American poetry is a lot more decentered than it was 50, 100, or 150 years ago. But that’s another post, perhaps, and another principle to discover.

Published in:Tim Morris |on March 11th, 2010 |3 Comments »

Bidding for Books

This weekend I had a new experience: bidding on Ebay for an antiquarian book. One of my graduate students informed me that a book by the eighteenth-century author, Susanna Rowson, was for sale on Ebay. I was amazed! True, Rowson is not well known outside of academic circles and, as a result, does not have the cultural cache of her contemporaries Benjamin Franklin, Washington Irving, or others. But, surely an eighteenth-century book – any eighteenth-century book! – has a more rarified existence than to be bid upon by the likes of me.

mentoria-am-title-page

While I have read many eighteenth-century books – and handled a few in special collections or archives – I don’t own any. (I only own modern reproductions.) Nor do I have much experience with antiquarian books or booksellers, despite the historical focus of my research. This is another piece of evidence to support Tim Morris’ recent statement that being a professor is a working-class job: once upon a time, there may have been academics who could afford to indulge in collecting old books, but I suspect those days are over. Few of us have those floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with leather-bound, antique books that Hollywood likes to portray as the norm for academics. (Not to mention the smoking jackets, pipes, and personal valets that seem to go along with them.)

Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist the chance to possess a book by an author who I’ve been studying intently over the past few years. So, with equal parts trepidation and excitement, I entered the bidding …

Unfortunately, this anecdote does not end triumphantly for me. I was significantly outbid and will not be the owner of Rowson’s Mentoria, circa 1794. However, the selling price of $400 – while too rich for me – is surprisingly low, compared to other books from the same time period. (The same Ebay bookseller sells many works from the same period or earlier, ranging from $9,000 to $35,000.)

This experience made me think, though, about the curious gap in our culture between those who study antiquarian books and those who buy/own them. While it may be true that the new owner of Rowson’s Mentoria is another Rowson-mad scholar like myself (and I certainly hope s/he is!), I am willing to bet that it was instead a collector, maybe even another bookseller, who doesn’t really know who she was or why many of us are so inspired by her life and writing. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a scholarship that enabled scholars to “own” (permanently or temporarily) the materials on which they work? The system would be similar to the one in place for virtuoso violinists that sponsors their access to exquisite Stradivariuses. As I understand it, this system is built around the premise that a talented violinist deserves the best possible instrument on which to play, and that the violin itself deserves to be played – indeed, was designed to be played – by the most talented musician that can be found. Not to belabor this comparison, but surely books are similar? Don’t they deserve to be in the possession of the readers who will really appreciate them?

Or … I guess that is what libraries are for.

– Desiree Henderson

Published in:Desiree Henderson |on March 9th, 2010 |2 Comments »

“The Likelihood of Feeling Lonely Scale”

In response to Tim’s last post, one person mentioned the phenomenon of “celebrity scholars,” and how they, alone among English professors, are able to finance lavish and jet-setting lifestyles. Although surely not all celebrity scholars are bad (I’m afraid that I can’t say here that some of my best friends are celebrity scholars), I have taken a class with one and it involved neither a syllabus nor the learning of a single student’s name, which meant that very little learning of any kind happened. Thinking about celebrity scholars, though, made me wonder in what ways these superstars of academia compare to other types of celebrity. These scholars have been able—because their work transcends niche publishing markets—to turn themselves into desirable commodities within a market that is otherwise stacked in favor of the academic institution. Such scholars can move around from university to university apparently at will, garnering well-paid temporary contracts during the term of which they may or may not do very much work, and landing up at prestigious institutions of higher learning where all they have to endure are the glowering looks of their colleagues and their possible appearance in an academic satire.

Any affinity with general celebrity culture is short-lived, however. For good or ill, celebrity culture is obsessed by physical appearance, forcing those who would maintain their place within its ranks to endure a punishing routine of exercise, dieting, teeth-whitening, hair-dyeing, and couture-following. One would expect, given the shiny desirability of their names, that celebrity scholars would be positively Barbie-and-Ken-esque in their plasticky-ness. Not so. They are likely to be as cardigan-ny as the next English professor (if not a little more so, since they need to assert membership in a community of the oppressed). Not all of them, of course. Some wear expensive sport coats and look like they just came from lunch at the country club. In either case, though, it’s hard not to feel a sense of dislocation on meeting a “name” in person.

This phenomenon is not restricted, though, to celebrity scholars; it’s simply more pronounced for them because we are so over-exposed to their work and names. Every time you meet a scholar whose work you have previously read, you experience the disconcerting sense that they “don’t look anything like their book.” Yes, we can read oodles of post-structuralist theory that explains all this, but however much we know about author functions and implied readers and narrative voice etc. etc., upon being confronted with the physical form of an author whose books we love or hate (or have just spent a lot of time with), we are still going to think, “Ooh, I thought he would be fatter/better looking/more elegant/hairier/a woman.” It just can’t be helped. Prose has a personality; it has a shape.

And then there’s the fact that you, the reader, feel that you know this person, the author, because you’ve spent so much time hanging out together in coffee bars and libraries respectively annotating and being annotated. Meanwhile the author doesn’t know you from Adam. It’s a phenomenon similar to the type of “social surrogacy” that researchers at SUNY Buffalo and Miami-Ohio have recently demonstrated results from watching your favorite TV shows. This study–one section of which, “The Likelihood of Feeling Lonely Scale,” gave me the title for this post—finds that “thinking about valued television programs appears to yield the experience of belongingness.” Watching Friends, in other words, makes you feel like you have friends, even if you don’t (which you probably don’t if you spend your whole time, well, watching Friends). Reading academic books, especially those you return to repeatedly, makes you feel as though you know, in some sense, their authors. In reality, however, even the authors themselves don’t know the version of themselves that you know, since they actually wrote the book you have been reading long ago, have moved on to other projects by now, and can’t remember for the life of them what they wrote on page 251 or what chapter four was about.

Anyway, it’s always exciting to go to a conference and get the chance to talk with those scholars who wrote the books that excite your interest in your field. If you liked their books, you’ll probably like them too. And until then, you have shelves full of “friends” (OK, and some acquaintances and, let’s be frank, some total strangers) waiting for you.

–Jackie Stodnick

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