This Is Just A Great Story…

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Every once in awhile, in the literary world, a really fantastic book written by an “unknown” comes out of nowhere and knocks the “big-boy” books (the ones written by the famous authors, and promoted by the literary machines) out cold. That’s what happened this year with the Pulitzer in Literature when Paul Harding’s “Tinkers,” a novel published by Bellevue, a small Literary Press, took the Prize. The book almost didn’t get published at all (several large presses passed on it before an editor at Bellevue agreed to give it a look. The editor stayed up all night reading it, weeping at the loveliness of the prose, and agreed to give it an initial 500 copy run). It’s the first time a book by a small press has won the award in almost thirty years.

Harding is 42, this is his first book, and no one called him to tell him he’d won the Pulitzer. He found out by accident, after looking at the Pulitzer site to see who’d won. When the book got taken he and his family had been living off of unemployment and his wife’s small income. Now Random House has given him a lucrative contract for his next two books, he’s teaching at the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and “Tinkers” hit the NY Times Bestseller list. All due to word of mouth from small Independent Booksellers, who promoted the book to their customers and to each other. No reading tour, no big publicity machine, just enthusiastic readers excited about a book they read and loved.

I haven’t read the book yet. Last week I hit 3 different bookstores and no one had it in stock (!!! But all three stores had plenty of books by Stephanie Meyers, on her own end cap). So it’s on order from Amazon.

Here’s a great article about Paul Harding and his little book that could…

-Laura Kopchick

Published in:Laura Kopchick |on May 3rd, 2010 |1 Comment »

News Flash! Neuro Lit Crit is IT!

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I’m always a little wary when the media declares the next new thing in literary criticism. After all, journalists have delighted in the past in telling us that 1) literature is dead and 2) literary theory is really dead. Most of the major newspapers enjoy regaling their readers with articles that mock the absurdities of contemporary literary criticism — for example, in their annual “Can you believe they crazy things that professors talk about?” coverage of the Modern Language Association conference.  The general tone of such articles is: since we already know that literature is out of touch with our fast-paced digital age, the study of literature is the epitome of arcane self-indulgence.

Now, the NY Times tells us that that the newest “new thing” in lit crit is … well, I’ll let the journalist describe it:

Why human beings are equipped with this capacity and what particular brain functions enable them to do it are questions that have occupied primarily cognitive psychologists.

Now English professors and graduate students are asking them too. They say they’re convinced science not only offers unexpected insights into individual texts, but that it may help to answer fundamental questions about literature’s very existence: Why do we read fiction? Why do we care so passionately about nonexistent characters? What underlying mental processes are activated when we read?

And, why have scholars of literature turned towards neurology and cognitive science as tools for literary analysis?

At a time when university literature departments are confronting painful budget cuts, a moribund job market and pointed scrutiny about the purpose and value of an education in the humanities, the cross-pollination of English and psychology is providing a revitalizing lift.

This is a rather cynical argument, in my opinion. While there may, in fact, be scholars seeking to tap into the untold wealth of the sciences, to view this as the primary motivator for “science studies” doesn’t do justice to the important avenues opened up by literary and cultural studies scholars who are engaging with the material, the bodily, the biological. (I’m thinking here of the brilliant work of our colleagues Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman in their Material Feminisms; they might be surprised to know that they are due a cut of the UTA Biology Department’s budget.)

Nor is everyone embracing the idea that Neuro Lit Crit is going to save the humanities. In a series of articles titled “Can ‘Neuro Lit Crit’ Save the Humanities?,” scholars from several disciplines weigh in on this new approach. Of course, many of the commentators take issue, as I do here, with the “one ring to rule them all” conceit of the question itself. I really hope that science is not “the” cure for the problems facing the humanities these days — because then it wouldn’t be the humanities, would it?

– Desiree Henderson

Published in:Desiree Henderson |on April 12th, 2010 |1 Comment »

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 »

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 »

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)

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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 »

Hurrah and All That for Radio Four

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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 »

2009 Book Awards Roundup

‘Tis the season for book awards. Below is a list of the major awards, mostly for literatures in English. Where winners have been announced, I’ve included them, but the lists of award finalists are great places to find new avenues for reading.

• American Booksellers Association: Indies Choice Book Awards

Caldecott Medal

2009 Winner: The House in the Night by Susan Marie Swanson, illustrated by Beth Krommes (Houghton Mifflin Co.)

Commonwealth Writer’s Prize

2009 Regional Winners: Mandla Langa, The Lost Colours of the Chameleon (Africa); Marina Endicott, Good to a Fault (Canada and Caribbean); Jhumpa Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth (Europe and South Asia); Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap (East Asia and South Pacific)
• Man Asian Literary Prize: 2009 Finalists
2009 Winner: Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall
• National Book Award: 2009 Finalists
2009 winner: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Dave McKean (HarperCollins)

Nobel Prize

2009 winner: Herta Müller (See Tim Morris’ previous post on this selection.)

Pen/Faulkner Award

2009 winner: Joseph O’Neill, Netherland

Pulitzer Prize

2009 winners: Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge (Fiction); Lynn Nottage, Ruined (Drama); W.S. Merwin, The Shadow of Sirius (Poetry)

And, while not strictly a book award, I must add a link to one of my favorite sites: The Book Design Review, which surveys book covers and overall design. While they haven’t yet listed the best for 2009, you can examine the favorites for 2008 — amazing works of art!

– Desiree Henderson

Published in:Desiree Henderson |on October 26th, 2009 |1 Comment »

Whither the Nobel Prize in Literature?

muellerLast week, the German-speaking, Romanian-born novelist Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize in Literature. I had never heard of Herta Müller, which is not very surprising. If all the great world writers I’ve never heard of were laid end to end, they would reach from here to Romania.

But come to find that nobody I talked to that day had heard of Herta Müller, including our Europhile ENGL 3362 “History of World Lit II” instructors here at UTA. The UTA Library holds none of her works, only a couple of which are available in English translation even in the UK. My hopes of reading a few Herta Müller novels on the fly and composing a learned blog post on her achievement were dashed. This isn’t just a writer obscure to me; this is a writer obscure to everyone outside of a few corners of Europe.

euckenWell, that’s OK too. After all, the Swedish Academy kicked off the Literature Prize over a century ago by giving it to people like Rudolf Christian Eucken, when they could have given it to Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Leo Tolstoy, or Henrik Ibsen. Hey, Eucken, you just won the Nobel Prize! Think you could buy a hairbrush?

More troubling to red-blooded Americanists was that the Prize, for the 16th year in a row, eluded U.S. writers. Only three English-language writers from the U.S. have won the Nobel Prize in my lifetime (Toni Morrison, Saul Bellow, and John Steinbeck). Several American emigré writers (writing in European languages, naturally) have won it. But even at that, Vladimir Nabokov didn’t, possibly because he went too native in his adoptive United States.

The Academy is getting self-conscious about its Eurotrend. Chairman Peter Englund admitted that the Prize has become “Eurocentric”, reversing course from his predecessor Horace Engdahl, who disparaged American literature because American writers are “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture.” (Some of us would say that American writing becomes more valuable the more it engages our mass culture, but YMMV.)

harper_leeIs any living American writer really a major world literary figure? The two most durable living American classics are Harper Lee and J.D. Salinger, but the Prize is not likely to go to writers (a) known for a slim œuvre or (b) unlikely to turn up in Stockholm and make a nice acceptance speech.

albeeThe most widely-performed living American playwright is probably Edward Albee, who would be a respectable Nobelist. Our most distinguished living poet is perhaps Adrienne Rich, who would make Stockholm a bully pulpit; but one wonders if anyone in Scandinavia has ever heard of her. Our greatest living fiction writer . . . I might say Tim O’Brien, though the larger consensus would argue for Philip Roth. Again, I doubt anyone in Sweden has heard of O’Brien, but Roth is known worldwide and often touted for the Nobel Prize. I guess Roth’s problem is exactly what Horace Engdahl was talking about. Roth’s books are about (among other things) baseball, radio, pornography, stamp collecting, and in one notorious instance, an enormous human breast.

mosleyI’m tempted to make a Nobel case for Philip Roth just out of pop-culture solidarity, but my patience with his shtick is thin enough that I hesitate. Still less do I think that Joyce Carol Oates, the most prolific of highbrow U.S. novelists, has written anything prizeworthy. Louise Erdrich? One of her best books is called The Bingo Palace. I like Don DeLillo, but there you go again: football, baseball, the JFK assassination, paranoid fears of airborne toxic events. I would love to see the British-born emigré Oliver Sacks win the Prize, but authors of bestsellers made into Robin Williams movies are, sad to say, never going to be tapped. Nor can I imagine that Walter Mosley, a gifted writer in various modes, is ever going to win: no detective novelist need apply. And it goes without saying that Bob Dylan is not on the shortlist. Yucky mass culture!

haruki_murakamiPerhaps the Eurocentricity of the Nobel Prize has hurt no American writers. But it has kept the spotlight from African, Asian, and Latin American writers who richly deserve it. The next few Nobel Prizes should go to Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Haruki Murakami, Ma Jian, Salman Rushdie, Isabel Allende, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Carlos Fuentes, in whatever order seems to maximize their chances of staying alive till they’ve all won.

Barring that, I look forward to learning more about the obscurer writers of Central Europe.

—Tim Morris

Published in:Tim Morris |on October 15th, 2009 |4 Comments »

Your Brain On Literature

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Last week the New York Times reported a recent study on brain function published in the journal Psychological Science. This study, conducted by Travis Proulx from the University of California, Santa Barbara and Steven J. Heine from University of British Columbia, sought to examine how the brain responds to unusual, surprising, or disturbing experiences – the kind of experiences that would provoke sensations of shock, fear, or unease.

According to the New York Times,

Researchers have long known that people cling to their personal biases more tightly when feeling threatened. After thinking about their own inevitable death, they become more patriotic, more religious and less tolerant of outsiders, studies find. When insulted, they profess more loyalty to friends — and when told they’ve done poorly on a trivia test, they even identify more strongly with their school’s winning teams.

Proulx and Heine’s research suggests that the brain functions, in part, by turning disorder and danger into order and normalcy.

The brain evolved to predict, and it does so by identifying patterns. When those patterns break down — as when a hiker stumbles across an easy chair sitting deep in the woods, as if dropped from the sky — the brain gropes for something, anything that makes sense. It may retreat to a familiar ritual, like checking equipment. But it may also turn its attention outward, the researchers argue, and notice, say, a pattern in animal tracks that was previously hidden. The urge to find a coherent pattern makes it more likely that the brain will find one.

What’s interesting about this study was the mechanism that Proulx and Heine employed to test their theories. If you want to replicate, in a controlled environment, the experience of being destabilized, disturbed, shaken out of your sense of normalcy and complacency, where do you turn? To literature, of course.

Proulx and Heine’s study consisted of having college students read a particularly strange and challenging story, Franz Kafka’s “The Country Doctor.”

After the story, the students studied a series of 45 strings of 6 to 9 letters, like “X, M, X, R, T, V.” They later took a test on the letter strings, choosing those they thought they had seen before from a list of 60 such strings. In fact the letters were related, in a very subtle way, with some more likely to appear before or after others.
The test is a standard measure of what researchers call implicit learning: knowledge gained without awareness. The students had no idea what patterns their brain was sensing or how well they were performing.
But perform they did. They chose about 30 percent more of the letter strings, and were almost twice as accurate in their choices, than a comparison group of 20 students who had read a different short story, a coherent one.

In other words, as Proulx and Heine concluded, the experience of reading Kafka’s absurdist story had primed the student’s brains to make intuitive connections that would re-establish order to their worlds. (The researchers themselves wrote the “control story,” which they describe as a conventional version of Kafka’s story. Both stories are available online at:

http://www.psych.ubc.ca/~heine/ImplictLearningStoires.doc.)

Proulx and Heine’s findings will come as no surprise to students and teachers of literature, or to passionate readers and writers more generally. We have all had the experience of reading something that caught us completely by surprise, stirred us up, or awakened us to new ideas. But, I must quibble with two aspects of this study, based purely upon my own experience:

1) I disagree with the idea that it is only the “absurd” that would have this effect. Sometimes it does require works like Kafka’s or those by other modernist and post-modernist writers, to test our sense of the norms of literature and life. But, I am confident, it is not only these works that cause the reading brain to re-orient itself, to look for new patterns and meanings that were not visible before.

2) I also question the researchers’ conclusion that exposure to surprising, terrifying experiences inevitably causes us to recoil into a position of self-defense in which we “cling to [our] personal biases more tightly.” Rather, it seems equally probable (and, again, true to my own experience) that the reader would find something appealing or seductive about that which shocks and challenges. How else, I wonder, would we continue to develop new literatures, new forms of artistic expression, new identities, lifestyles, and politics, if we only retreated to the known when confronted with the unknown?

So, embrace the absurd, read something new, and watch those neural pathways grow.

– Desiree Henderson

Published in:Desiree Henderson |on October 11th, 2009 |No Comments »

Considering The Poetic Biopic

It’s a good time to be a dead poet with aspirations for movie fame. Apparently Hollywood has decided that nothing says “serious filmmaking” like biopics about famous poets. Movie studios appear to be hopeful that the combination of film and poetry will also result in a shower of awards – and, in some cases, they might be right and the awards well deserved.

Translating poets’ lives into dramatic film might not be an idea that immediately leaps to mind – after all, poetry is a quiet, contemplative business, not particularly engaging to the outside eye. But, the figure of the tortured, brooding poet still has enough cultural cache to be of interest. In lieu of explosions and car chases, one might expect alcoholism, broken hearts, sordid love affairs, and the thrilling drama of writer’s block.

In recent years, there has been a spurt of films about dead British poets, in particular:

  • Pandaemonium (2000), about Samuel Coleridge and William Wordsworth
  • Sylvia (2003), about Sylvia Plath (whose Britishness is debatable, I admit)
  • The Edge of Love (2008), about Dylan Thomas

None of these films were particularly well reviewed, and The Edge of Love was excoriated by critics.

The new film, Bright Star, directed by Jane Campion, about the relationship between John Keats and Fanny Brawne, appears to succeed where its predecessors have failed. This lovely film captures something about the beauty of Keats’ poems (and poetry as an art form) without becoming a didactic lesson on “why Keats matters.” Campion brings a light touch to the material and allows Keats’ counterpart, the fascinating Miss Brawne, to show as much depth of character and spirit as the poet himself. (View the trailer.)

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The internet is abuzz with rumors about another forthcoming poetic biopic: a film about Robert Burns, starring Gerald Butler.

And, in case the Americanists are feeling neglected, coming next year: a film titled Howl about Allen Ginsburg, starring James Franco.

While I continue to bemoan the lack of a great film about Walt Whitman (and have to make do with Levis’ commercials and films borrowing their titles from his poetry), there is a lot of interesting work being done to bring the lives of poets to life for the modern movie-watching audience.

For a much more thorough discussion of poets on film go to “Writers and Poets on Film” (2007) from GreenCine or Stacey Harwood’s Poetry in Movies: A Partial List” from Poetry.org.

– Desiree Henderson

Published in:Desiree Henderson |on September 27th, 2009 |No Comments »