Playing Favorites

In the previous post, Jackie Stodnick stated that the most common question she’s asked is how she ended up working on what she works on. I’m rarely asked this question — probably because I work on American literature — and I’m American — and women’s writing — and I’m a woman. I think people presume that my identity perfectly explains my area of expertise — and there may be some truth to that.

Instead, the question I am more likely to be asked is, “Who is your favorite writer?”

This is a perplexing question and, I think most literary scholars or avid readers would agree, unanswerable. To use a food analogy: Being asked to choose one favorite writer is like being asked to pick one kind of food that you will eat at every meal and enjoy equally under any circumstance. What food could possibly satisfy those criteria? Even something as delectable as hot-out-of-the-oven chocolate chip cookies — which are great under most circumstances — would become revolting if that is all you ever ate. Even something hearty and good-for-you like oatmeal — which I dutifully eat for breakfast every day — would not be satisfying as lunch and dinner. So too with literature: one needs a well-rounded diet with some vitamin-rich, intellectually stimulating fare, as well as some fun, sugary treats thrown in.

I have favorite authors and works in several categories:

FAVORITES TO TEACH: There are numerous works that I love to teach that are not necessarily works I would pick up and read for personal enjoyment. For example, I love teaching Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative. In fact, I’ve never met an American literature prof who didn’t enjoy teaching Rowlandson because her account of her captivity by Indians is so fascinating and rich, and enables the kinds of discussions about gender, race, religion, colonization, and self-construction that we teachers want our students to have. But, I can say I thoroughly enjoy teaching Rowlandson while simultaneously acknowledging that her prose is challenging and often dry, that I would never carry a copy of her narrative to the beach with me, and that I profoundly disagree with many of her value-laden conclusions about her experiences. Is she still a favorite? Absolutely.

FAVORITES TO WRITE ABOUT: There are works of literature that I write about and read scholarship on that, again, would not constitute pleasure reading for me. For example, I’ve written before about my current passion for the eighteenth-century American novelist Susanna Rowson. I’ve spent the past few years working on Rowson, reading a large number of her works, and the more I learn about her, the more fascinating and significant she seems to me. In this case, there is some overlap with the previous category, because I also love teaching Rowson — as many of my students can attest. But, there are other writers that I have published on (or will publish on) who I have never taught and probably will never teach — but they still constitute “favorite” topics for rumination and reflection.

FAVORITES TO READ FOR PLEASURE: Yes, I prefer some authors and books but, even here I would find it almost impossible to pick one — or even to pick one category. I read contemporary fiction, young adult fiction, sci-fi/fantasy novels, mysteries, graphic novels and comic books, blogs and online publications, and even some poetry. I enjoy all these genres for different reasons at different times — so “favorites” just doesn’t work for me.

Sometimes the “favorite writer” question is posed in the form of the desert island scenario: “If you were stranded on a desert island and could only take one book, what would it be?” This question conjures up terror in my heart — not just because I would be alone and likely starving to death on a desert island — but because of the prospect of ONLY ONE BOOK. All I can say is: I hope it would be long and complex, to keep me occupied as I waited for help to arrive.

How do you answer the “favorite author” question?

Published in:Desiree Henderson |on April 28th, 2010 |6 Comments »

Texas Writers? Let’s start with Highsmith…

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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 »

Thanksgiving Poem

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This is Thanksgiving Week — and what better than a poem that inspires the deepest gratitude? This is one of my favorite poems and certainly a poem of thanksgiving, but it describes a very simple, quiet, solitary day — a day very unlike the busy, noisy, bustling one that most of us will be having this Thursday. Yet, in the midst of the feast, between football games or puzzles, during all the tumult of laughter and conversation, take a minute to remember that it could have been otherwise.

Otherwise by Jane Kenyon

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

Published in:Desiree Henderson |on November 22nd, 2009 |No Comments »

Libraries: An Argument

Suzanne E. Thorin, dean of libraries at Syracuse University, made the news last week when she declared “Let’s face it: the library, as a place, is dead … Kaput. Finito. And we need to move on to a new concept of what the academic library is.”

Thorin made these startling comments at the 2009 Educause Conference, sparking a lively debate amongst the conference participants that has now been taken up across the web, as many commentators have begun to weigh in on the question of whether the library is, in fact, dead — or whether there is still life in the old brick-and-mortar receptacle for books.

It seems to me that there are many excellent and compelling arguments to be made for why libraries are still necessary, if not urgent. However, I want to enter into this debate by putting forward what is probably the least substantive argument in favor of the continuing value of libraries: aesthetics.

I love libraries. I think they are beautiful, aesthetically pleasing places. I can think of few human-designed environments that are as appealing as libraries. There is something about the balance between symmetry and order, and the wide diversity of textures, colors, physical and spatial forms that produces, in me, a sense of serenity and reflection. I have spent many hours in many libraries – some ultra modern, built out of steel and glass – others historic, located in old, restored brick or stone buildings. I’ve been in libraries that were kept too cold, or were too loud, or were disorganized, or too dark, or that looked like they could be the setting for a serial killer flick. But, the ones I remember the most are the beautiful libraries – those with large windows, big tables, comfy chairs, and that certain indefinable feeling that comes from being surrounded by more knowledge than one person can contain.

My favorite library is the American Antiquarian Society, which is an elegant and lovely space, with the clearest light and sense of openness that I ever have encountered in a historic library. (Photo: the AAS Reading Room)

aas-photo

Of course, it helps that the AAS is one of the most important archives of early American history and literature (my particular scholarly interest) and that the librarians there are incredibly helpful and kind. My days doing research there were a delight on a number of levels, not the least of which was the opportunity to just sit and soak up the environment.

I’m not the only one who takes their love of libraries to the level of aesthetic appreciation. The wonderful website, Librophiliac Love Letter: A Compendium of Beautiful Libraries, includes pictures of some of the most extraordinary, breath-taking libraries that I have ever seen, and only dream of seeing in real life.

So, in rebuttal to Dr. Thornin’s rather too hasty declaration of the death of libraries: What’s your favorite library, and why?

– Desiree Henderson

Photo source: HistoryGradGuy on Flicker

Published in:Desiree Henderson |on November 8th, 2009 |1 Comment »

Online Voyeurism

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Okay, I have a confession. I’m addicted to these new(ish) online confessional culture projects (Postsecret, Six-word Memoirs, Mortified), where people (often anonymously) admit (often embarrassing)  personal information that, not too long ago, would have only been revealed to a best friend after one too many glasses of pinot noir.  I caught the fever about seven years ago when I discovered Found magazine on the shelf at Shaman Drum bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  The cover of the magazine featured what appeared to be a senior prom photo from the 1970s, complete with awkward boy in tinted oversize glasses and girl with impressively feathered hair.  Inside I found a slew of photocopied handwritten notes, love letters, post cards, photographs, all found by readers on street corners and alleys and dumpsters around the world.  The little grocery shopping lists seemed particularly heartbreaking–one shopper made a note to buy a single red rose and also reminded himself to refill his Valium prescription.  A love letter asked the recipient to check a box at the bottom of the page if he did, indeed, want to go to the prom with her and “get it on” afterwards in the backseat of his Camaro. I flipped through the pages of the magazine and imagined the lives of the people who had written these random notes (did the writer of the “prom” note ever receive a response? I imagined a girl in a bubblegum pink organza dress, waiting anxiously on the bench next to the doors of her high school gym, a wrist corsage bothering the skin of her arm, wondering why Bobby never returned the note to her locker like she’d asked). So much information about the lives behind these scraps of paper was conveyed in such a small amount of space, and I was reminded of Charles Simic’s quote about poetry, which states: “Little said, much meant, is what poetry is all about.”  I did, indeed, feel as if I’d found a sort of poetry in Found Magazine.

Although Davy Rothbart, creator of Found Magazine, isn’t planning a trip to the UTA campus anytime soon, we can look forward to PostSecret creator Frank Warren, who is coming to the Bluebonnet Ballroom on November 11 at 7:00 pm.  I’m looking forward to heartbreaking postcards with scribbled confessions on them and that sugary feeling I get in my veins when I get a glimpse into the private world of strangers. See you there!

-Laura Kopchick

Published in:Laura Kopchick |on November 6th, 2009 |No Comments »

Hurrah and All That for Radio Four

radio4

Before I begin I should make it clear that this post is not about to turn into one of those “isn’t everything about England great” rants. Lots of things about England aren’t great—like overcrowded roads, telephone boxes that smell of urine, Christmas cake, and the tiny sizes that deodorants come in (ok, those tiny deodorants are really quite cute). But something to be duly celebrated about England is BBC Radio Four.

Radio Four provides the soundtrack for my trips home, echoing through our house on three different radios, one of which always used to play at a slightly different pace than the others because it wasn’t digital. Radio Four is like NPR minus the pledge drive, the local phone-in shows with poor telephone reception, and the repeats, and plus oodles and oodles of literature. I mean no criticism of NPR—because, really, what would life be without it? But, apart from on the weekend (when NPR loosens its tie a little bit, and possibly changes from suit pants to neatly pressed chinos), it offers quite a serious bill of fare. Don’t get me wrong, Radio Four is deeply serious too, catering to the same demographic in England that NPR appeals to in America. But Radio Four wears literature like a jewel in its crown, instead of relegating it to 7.30 on a Sunday (or whenever it is that Selected Shorts is on). So if you need a little slice of drama, poetry, literature or comedy during your week, you should consume a little Radio Four.

For instance, Radio Four has a forty-five minute afternoon play every day and, since you can allow yourself an extra fifteen minutes of drama because it’s the weekend, a sixty minute play on Saturdays. Woman’s Hour, on every day of the week and not just for women, also includes a fifteen minute play. Sundays are particularly decadent, featuring an hour-long dramatization from the Classic Serial. Several times a week we can tune in for the Afternoon Reading, a fifteen minute extract from a novel or a short story. Every day we can catch a fifteen-minute portion from the Book of the Week, a serialized reading from a wide variety of genres. But my favorite has to be Book at Bedtime, a fifteen minute reading from a classic or a new work that airs at 10.45p.m. GMT. Because, really, where else outside of the nursery and creative writing events can a respectable adult get a bedtime story these days? (Although of course it would only be 4.45pm here in Texas, which is not an appropriate time to retire–but because you can listen again online, you can go to bed whenever you want and still have your Book at Bedtime).

If you like the soapy type of drama, or just want a bizarre listening experience, you should check out The Archers. This show began in 1950 as a vehicle to encourage farmers to do the work that would feed a Britain still under food rationing; the 15674th episode was broadcast on January 1st of this year. The content? Impossible to describe. It’s basically a soap set in a fictional village called Ambridge and features characters with an improbable set of regional accents struggling with such hot-button issues as who will star in the panto and what to plant in the top field.

If you prefer verse, you can tune in for Poetry Please, which, I have just discovered, has been running almost as long as The Archers at three decades.

Those who would rather hear books being discussed than being read should try A Good Read, Bookclub, With Great Pleasure, Off the Page and Open Book. This latter brings me to the second subject of my post: the Neglected Classics poll currently being run by Open Book. As the website reads, Open Book, with the help of ten lauded contemporary authors, is unearthing “books that have been overlooked or become inexplicably out of vogue.” Each author has nominated one book for consideration and, following an online audience vote, the winner will be dramatized on Radio Four next year. Fortuitously, this endeavor seemed to combine the subject of the last two posts by Desiree and Tim: prize-winning books and (perhaps justifiably) forgotten classics. Unfortunately we won’t be able to participate in the vote, since it closed at midnight GMT today. But we can still read the books and have our own poll of sorts. So I invite you to read with me and let the English Matters community know what you think. Or, if you have a neglected classic in mind that doesn’t appear on the list, tell us about it. The ten authors and their selections are as follows:

William Boyd The Polyglots by William Gerhardie

Susan Hill The Rector’s Daughter by F M Mayor

Hari Kunzru A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov

Ruth Rendell Many Dimensions by Charles Williams

Colm Toibin Esther Waters by George Moore

Beryl Bainbridge The Quest for Corvo by A J A Symons

Howard Jacobson Rasselas by Samuel Johnson

Val McDermid Carol by Patricia Highsmith

Michael Morpurgo The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico

Joanna Trollope Miss Mackenzie by Anthony Trollope

Happy reading!

–Jackie Stodnick

Published in:Jackie Stodnick |on November 3rd, 2009 |No Comments »

Halloween

My favorite Halloween poem by one of my favorite poets:

All Saints Eve
- Bruce Bond

Here where the last of October tears
at the tiny hinges of its great machine,
where all the ten thousand TV’s stare
dazed as clear stones, lit with some bad dream
or other, some gang hit or dilapidated
condo, the fatal rubble of a ground floor,
we dress up our children like the dead,
though no one in particular, and scatter
them down the dark street. It’s all a bit
too exciting, the shakiness of the dear
earth beneath them. You can see them skip
with pure white greed, expectant. It’s nearly
criminal, this heaven—ah, to be young
and dead again. Go on, let your TV flicker
behind you. With every hungry bag they open,
a few sins fall in, the sweets they die for.

-Laura Kopchick

Published in:Laura Kopchick |on October 23rd, 2009 |No Comments »

The New Fabulists

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Does even the idea of reading one of those contemporary, New Yorker-ish short stories about yet another middle-aged couple with a wounded relationship make your eyes close and your snoring begin? Well what if a UFO suddenly landed in the pristinely-landscaped front yard of that middle-aged couple’s suburban New Jersey house? Or if a ghost suddenly turned up and impregnated the mild-mannered wife while the husband, unaware, kept right on sleeping? Or perhaps this family struggles through their marriage in a post-apocalyptic world where their slightly charred Colonial two- story is the only one left standing on their tree-lined block?

If reading genre gets you to stop snoring, but if (as a respectable literary type) you’ve always kept your hankering for aliens and zombies closeted, then maybe the new wave of “Fabulist” fiction is for you. The term comes from Bradford Morrow, novelist and editor of the literary journal “Conjunctions,” which has published stories by Robert Coover, William Gass, and Ben Marcus. “Fabulist Fiction” is a nod to the New-Wave science fiction movement of the 1960s and 1970s, where experimentalism in writing sought to create a new literary landscape. As Morrow puts it, “A new wave fabulist is a writer who has transcended the conventions of sci-fi and fantasy fiction, lifting the traditional genre form into a new literary realm. Any effort to narrow down the category much further than that would be like trying to nail a raindrop to the wall.”

As a fan of George Saunders, Angela Carter, Aimee Bender, Cormac McCarthy, and many other writers who have been blurring the line between literary fiction and genre fiction for many years now, I don’t quite know what makes this new “wave” different from the old wave (maybe the snazzy label?). Still, I’m thrilled to see all of the new anthologies coming out. Currently I’m reading McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, edited by Michael Chabon, and then I’ll probably move on to Kelly Link’s collection Magic For Beginners. There is also, apparently, an anthology of Caribbean Fabulist Fiction (Whispers From the Cotton Tree Root) and a Jewish mid rash collection (On Moonflowers and Magic).

Like many writing instructors, I’ve always steered my students away from genre fiction because each genre requires its own set of rules and methodologies.  But inspired by this new enthusiasm for genre-bending literary writing,  I have recently begun to allow genre stories in workshop because (I have finally realized) the rules seem to be the same for a fabulist short story as for a good ole, New Yorker-ish, taditional literary short story. Give me  precise prose, an interesting main character, and a compelling plot.  I don’t care what you call it.

-Laura Kopchick

Published in:Laura Kopchick |on October 8th, 2009 |1 Comment »