Monday, December 13, 2010

Only Two American Literary Cultures?

In the recent article MFA vs NYC,Chad Harbach discusses what he sees as two distinct literary camps or directions in contemporary American fiction. (I link to a short version in Slate while the full version is in N+1.)
Harbach begins with a nod to Mark McGurl's 2009 study, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, which analyzes the role of writing programs in postwar American fiction. McGurl's book posits that writing programs have "generated a complex and evolving constellation of aesthetic problems that have been explored with energy and at times brilliance by authors ranging from Flannery O’Connor to Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Roth, Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, and Toni Morrison" (that's from Amazon's product description; I have yet to read the book itself). I hope McGurl doesn't really claim that Nabokov was a product of American creative writing programs, but we'll let that pass.
Harbach himself argues that there exists a self-perpetuating MFA-writer culture centered on short stories written by MFA-grads and published in literary journals, and that the successful MFA-grad becomes a professor in yet another MFA program, thus permanently bypassing any need to earn a living by writing. This type of fiction writer lives in a different world, and publishes for a different audience, than what Harbach calls the NYC writer--the presumably equally serious fiction writer who publishes novels with mainstream New York publishers and (according to him) usually lives in New York.
Harbach doesn't really praise one camp over the other, and maybe that's not so surprising, as Harbach is an MFA-grad and an editor at the literary magazine N+1, yet now belongs to the NYC world as in February his first novel was sold at auction for "about $650,000." While the MFA writers are busy writing short stories that are read mainly by other MFA writers, the NYC writers are cranking out novels that must hook the reader on the first page or so and that the entire book-reading population must find easily digestible. On the other hand, the (few) most successful MFA-writer stories are anthologized repeatedly, whereas novels published by mainstream presses have a short lifespan these days. In other words, either route has its plusses and minuses. If you're a successful MFA writer, you have a secure income from your teaching and your stories appear in various journals read by writers scoping out whether those journals might publish them. If you're a successful NYC writer, you have an insecure income, but more people read you when you bring out a new book.
This neat binary doesn't, of course, entirely describe the world of fiction writers. It has nothing to say about commercial fiction, or about genre fiction of a more literary bent. Writers in those categories seem to live all over the US but either publish with mainstream NY presses or in small, independent, magazines.
As a writer who hasn't fit into any of these camps or categories, I'm not wild about how anything about the American literary world functions. I've published in the same literary journals as the MFA people (although it was probably harder for me back when the MFA world was gaga over dirty realism), and I've published in small genre magazines (although not much of my work qualifies as genre fiction). I write novels that aren't about New York and I've never wanted to live there. Furthermore, now I'm in the convenient position of making a living in academia without teaching in a writing program. This has the advantage of feeding my imagination in ways that don't involve a steady diet of student fiction, but the disadvantage that my job requires a lot of work, which takes time away from writing fiction. Well--while I'd like my fiction to count toward tenure, which it won't, I like having to think about other things academically.
Some writers prefer short fiction, others prefer novels. In the latter 20th century, novelists usually first published some short fiction as a means of developing skill, but they knew there was no longer any money in the short stuff. Today, in a literary world where novels published by established houses are supposed to make an immediate splash or die, there is almost an opposite pressure: a competent writer will find at least a few journals willing to take on the short fiction, but agents and publishers are no longer as open to novels that can't be hyped and rapidly sold to a fairly large public. Harbach seems to conclude that we should all write short fiction for one another, yet isn't that a rather odd conclusion from a writer who spent nine years writing his first novel and then had the good fortune to sell it for a big price? We are not all going to settle down to teach writing to undergrads who want "undemanding classes," and while I agree with him that being a professor is a cushy job in comparison to freelance copyediting (something we have both done for a living), he seems strangely unaware of how few people these days actually get tenure-track jobs.
Ah well. Back to my day's course-prep labors, so that I can feel free to write fiction tonight, or perhaps send out a few query letters.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

This Season's Exam Oddities

I realize that I have been lax in posting... anything... of late. That's what happens to busy assistant professors, I'm afraid. However, exams always provide a regrettable amount of humorous material, so here we have a selection of the most peculiar. In defense of my students, who actually (despite the following evidence to the contrary) put in some hard work and generally seem to have learned a lot this quarter, I must say that many of them seem to have gotten through high school with a level of spelling and historical knowledge somewhere around what I had achieved by the end of fourth grade. They're smart people and they do learn, but they're not what we might call well prepared.

The intro class exams really had lots of intelligent and interesting things to say about the Etruscan sarcophagus from Cerveteri... until the exam that identified it as "Iktinos and Kallikrates, the Parthenon, on the Akropolis, Athens, marble, 447-432 BCE." HUH? Mindboggling...

On the topic of misidentification, let's get it straight that the Taj Mahal is not Greek, and the Hagia Sophia is not Etruscan. OK?

I was also disturbed by the number of students identifying the Parthenon as "Roman, in Athens." On the subject of the Parthenon, which was paired with the Roman Temple of Portunus (aka Fortuna Virilis), we learn that ‎"Both of the buidings are almost cemetricall to themselves..." and "The Parthenon is regarded often by scholars as being the endearment of the classical doric style." Furthermore, ‎"The Parthenon was one of many parts of a surrounding 'kingdom' like area and was a temple used to celebrate battles won. The goddess athena is well known in mentioning the Parthenon. The Pantheon [Temple of Portunus] no longer exists." Hmmm.

My students remembered quite a bit about the purse clasp from Sutton Hoo, although a remarkable number of them claimed it includes emeralds (to the best of my knowledge it does not, but it has garnets and enamel). However, my lecture remarks about the Celts' and Anglo-Saxons' westward movement returned to haunt me in the form of "The scott-saxhen was a culture that was being push farthier back into the islands of which is now Great Brittan, by the Roman Empire."

Last fall's class had some odd things to say about the Augustus of Primaporta, and this class did too:
"His bear feet again refect divinative and solidarity. He is antipostal and marble, the matirial which made Roman sculpture what it is."

"He does not have a hateful look on his face but one of a normal man."

‎"In Roman culture, normally men with power had robes on." (As opposed to powerless men, who went about naked?) "He is 'cute'."

"He was strong, powerful and had Love on his side."

As an "unknown" work to discuss (one they have not previously seen but which is similar to some that they have), I provided an Early Medieval manuscript illustration from the British Isles. Usually students do pretty well on unknowns, since I'm mainly looking for visual analysis and reasoning, but this one prompted some sad evidence of historical and religious confusion:
‎"...the book the man is holding looks like it could be a bible. The abstract features suggest it is of an earlier time period in BCE. The man [...] looks as though he is portrayed to be Jesus..." If he's Jesus, he's not BCE. Logic, logic, logic?

‎"This could also be the cross that is seen on the ceilings of some Jewish synagogues with Jesus in the center." ?!@%! Since when do synagogues have pictures of Jesus anywhere?

‎"This peice seems very similar to that Roman, Islamic style of priests and saints." And what on earth style is that?

Finally, on a late paper from the same class: "Eros embraces his mother softly with his feathers and humbly near her gastrocnemius." ???

Friday, October 29, 2010

Writer Personalities.

It's being a busy fall and I've got about 70 papers to grade in addition to a conference paper to write, lectures to prepare, and all the rest of it. But I ran across this rather clever blog post by Lydia Sharp at Writers Unboxed, on categorizing writers according to the personality of their working methods. I'll just say that I am definitely the candlestick maker.

Now if only I really had time to devote to those projects instead of having to grade 70 papers (even though so far they are looking like pretty good papers)!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Publishers Weekly and the Self-Published

Publishers Weekly recently announced its plan to begin quarterly coverage of self-published books, stating that in the past twenty years self-publishing has "produced an explosion of new authors and new books." According to PW, "Nearly 800,000 books were produced in the U.S. last year and were characterized by Bowker as 'nontraditional.' Much of this was self-published and POD." Since "They are books and that is what PW cares about," PW is launching PW Select, "a quarterly supplement announcing self-published titles and reviewing those we believe are most deserving of a critical assessment."
The first supplement will appear in December 2010. The supplements will list all self-published books submitted to PW during the quarter, and 25 (or more) of those titles will be reviewed. There will also be discussion of publishing trends and resources for the self-publisher.
Well, this is an interesting development, and comments from self-publishers have already made for two opposing camps, divided by reactions to the fact that these listings and reviews won't be free--PW charges $149 for a listing and doesn't guarantee a review.
The authors who excoriate PW for charging to be listed (and not guaranteeing reviews) regard this as a huge ripoff, yet another sign that PW is part of the publishing establishment and has no genuine interest in self-published books. Well, I don't think PW would ever argue that they aren't part of the establishment. A review in PW, even a bad one, is pretty much a guarantee that the book will sell. If it's a badly written celebrity book with an unrealistically large advance, it might not earn out its advance, but it's still going to sell. Yet the move to cover self-published titles indicates that PW does have a genuine interest in books from outside the mega-conglomerates. A financial interest in them? A perception that this could be a cash cow? That's harder to say.
It's well known among savvy writers that there are people and organizations out there that make plenty of money out of writing contests. Most writing contests do charge an entry fee, and the fees range from nominal to not-so-nominal. Some of the contests are highly respected and some are just machines bilking the naive. My point here is that the fact that a contest charges an entrance fee is not in itself unethical, it's how the contest is run.
Now, if last year's figure of 800,000 books published in the US is any kind of average, it ain't rocket science that PW has no way of reviewing them all, whether listings are paid or free. PW does not review all that many books in its regular weekly issues, it mainly lists the books. PW is a hefty trade publication and I doubt that most subscribers have time to read all its articles, let alone sift through all the individual listings.
As a writer who may at some point choose to self-publish, my reaction to a $149 processing fee to be listed in PW (which, incidentally, includes a 6-month subscription to the digital version of PW) is that sure, it's burdensome. Many writers don't have much money. But the poorest writers are not self-publishing on paper. If they're self-publishing, they're likely to be doing e-books, which aren't currently eligible to be listed anyway (why not, I'd like to know?). Someone who is self-publishing a traditional physical bound book is spending much more than $149 in production costs. If you're going to put money into producing the physical objects, which will then have to be housed somewhere (your living room?), you'd better be willing to put some additional money into marketing them. Paying $149 to be listed in the industry's major organ may or may not prompt anyone to notice the book, but if you're serious about your work, isn't it a sensible gamble? The face of publishing is changing, in some ways unpleasantly but in other ways perhaps for the good. In some ways writers have less control and fewer options than in the past, and in other ways they have more control and many more options. When it comes to book publishing, the author who opts for self-publication has to make many choices, and the choices that fit one person's work may be unsuitable for another's. It's my guess that some types of book will never benefit much from exposure in PW, but in general it seems to me that self-publishers should not be penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Gmail Wants to Prioritize My Mail?

Too much email? Google wants to start prioritizing our Gmail for us.
As a person who gets far more email than I can reasonably read, let alone make sense of, I had to take a look at this, albeit with a feeling of deep skepticism. Google says:
"Priority Inbox can help save you time if you’re overwhelmed with the amount of email you get. It attempts to automatically identify your important incoming messages and separates them out from everything else. Gmail uses a variety of signals to prioritize your incoming messages, including who you emailed most frequently and which messages you’ve recently opened as opposed to which messages you’ve deleted.

When you click the Priority Inbox navigation link on the left-hand side of your mail, you’ll see messages grouped in three sections: Important and unread, Starred, and Everything else. This is the default setup, but you may customize your sections on the Priority Inbox in Settings.

If Priority Inbox mistakes an email as important or doesn’t flag one that’s important to you, you can teach it to make better selections. Just select the message in question, and click the “mark as important” or “mark as not important” button; they’re the buttons with plus and minus icons just to the left of the Move to and Labels drop-down menus. "

Sound good? Well, I'm not so sure. It's going to prioritize people I email most frequently? Well, that sounds okay--obviously they must be important to me for some reason--but wait a minute, isn't it often more important to hear from people I rarely exchange email with? Friends I usually talk to on the phone or in person; relatives emailing to let me know someone's in the hospital; people I care about but lost touch with before email was available; journal editors and literary agents I might later have lots of contact with; genealogists who want to let me know I've made an error in my family tree... the list goes on.
How's it going to use opening email versus deleting as a signal? I often open email just because it's easier to get at the delete button from an open email. Or because I know I can quickly glance at it and file or delete it, whereas something more important has to wait because I know I'll need time to think about it.
I get a lot of mail from several academic email lists. I want to get this email--I subscribed to these lists, after all--but not all lists are equally interesting or equally urgent. Moreover, not all mail from a given list is equally important. I delete announcements about conferences happening two days from now in Germany, but I sometimes want to know about British conferences happening in two days, even though I can't go. I'm not going to propose a paper for next year's conference on Renaissance or Japanese art, but I might forward the announcement to someone who would. I don't see how Gmail is going to make very good decisions based on what I happen to open from my academic and software email lists.
Supposedly this prioritization process is going to be most helpful to people who get lots of email (I think yes for some, no for others), and for the email-bombarded who are willing to spend a lot of time upfront marking what's important to them. Hmm. I use voice-recognition software for certain projects, and that's something you certainly have to train in order for it to work well, but voice recognition software trains by becoming more familiar with the user's voice and by being corrected when it misrecognizes words. This mostly works pretty well for me because my voice doesn't vary hugely in dictation and because I dictate on projects that have a large but relatively consistent vocabulary. I avoid dictating on projects that involve a lot of foreign words and names, such as transcriptions of old lecture notes, because when I've tried that I spend too much time correcting words I'm only ever going to dictate once or twice, versus merely occasional use of foreign words. I think my incoming email is probably too much of a weird conglomeration of types of things to be effectively filtered for anything but spam.
On the other hand, I'd like to see Gmail develop better ways to filter incoming mail by topic. It does have labels, which I use a little bit; it doesn't have folders, which I'd use if it would only admit that labels aren't a substitute for folders. It needs more robust ways of searching for unread mail. I need, for example, ways to search for all those genealogical inquiries that came in on days when I had way too many other things to do; I'm interested in answering those people and at the same time those usually aren't quick emails to handle so they tend to get left till later and rapidly forgotten.
I'll be curious to hear whether people who start using the priority inbox find it works for them.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Defining the Quiet Novel

Every now and then I've seen the term "quiet novel." Not all that often, because I don't read huge numbers of book reviews or much literary criticism, but from time to time people will describe a book thus. I never thought about it--it seemed like an ordinary enough way of referring to a book, just as one might call a book "lively" or "rumbustious."
Awhile ago an agent commented to me that quiet novels aren't selling well these days. I was a little dubious about that because only a given percentage of the novel-reading population prefers books that are filled with adventure, excitement, and car chases, and the book to which the agent referred didn't strike me as terribly quiet. It featured sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, tears, accusations, theft, and theater. I granted, however, that agents are more in touch with the publishing world than I am these days. In any case, I still took the term "quiet novels" as a simple descriptor.
But then my friend Betty referred to "two very quiet 'portrait' novels" that she felt were similar in tone to one of my projects. More references to quietness? (Let's not get into "portrait" since presumably any reasonably reflective novel revolving around one character could be considered a portrait.) I began to wonder whether "quiet novel" was a genre rather than a mere subjective description. I did a Google search.
Most uses of the term that came up seemed subjective, although fairly congruent with one another.
An Amazon customer review of Anita Shreve's Sea Glass begins "Anita Shreve's latest book, "Sea Glass," is a quiet novel that deals with the universal themes of life, love, loss, hope, beauty, tragedy and death." The fairly in-depth, very positive review ends by saying that the book has "no great surprises and no great suspense. It doesn't delve too deeply into the minds and hearts of the characters involved, but then, we don't always want something that's earthshaking."
In "The Virtue of Quiet: "Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn," Dan Hartland writes, "Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn is a quiet novel. [...] very quiet." He mentions, on the whole very favorably, "the book’s peculiarities: a focus on the internal, a modesty of style and of ambition, and a dry, sardonic humour." He notes that while the book's moderation and passivity mirror those of the protagonist, this unity is intentional and the book is, in fact, full of incident. So it's not a book where nothing happens and everything revolves around the protagonist's navel.
Hilari Bell, discussing suitable and less suitable ways of writing of novel climaxes, refers to books in which "The climax doesn't match the story. You see this most commonly in a quiet novel about tangled relationships...that ends with a car crash (or a kidnapping, or a natural disaster) and the protagonist suddenly finds herself struggling for survival."
Lynne Griffin's blog post "Literary Lingo Recap," which nicely defines various current buzzwords used by agents, simply defines a "quiet novel" as a literary novel, especially one without a strong plot. (She defines literary novels as usually being more character-driven than plot-driven, and more about the writing than the story, which is a common definition of literary novels in texts geared toward commercial fiction. There are, however, many books fitting that description that more "literary" readers would simply call mainstream novels.) While I think that overall Griffin's definitions are useful, this one just doesn't cut it for me. Lots of literary novels would never be called quiet, including some that aren't terribly strong on plot. A picaresque literary novel, for instance, is unlikely to be either quiet or (by definition) plot-driven. Literary novels cover a lot of ground, after all. There are literary novels with strong plots, nonexistent plots; with experimental narration and with traditional narration; with deep characterization and without much focus on character; the main thing is that a literary novel is not a commercial novel, although occasionally one may belong, to some extent, to one of the genres typical of commercial fiction, and of course every now and then a literary novel is a commercial success. Should we distinguish between a genre called the literary novel (which might be mainly quiet novels) and what's known as literature (Moby Dick, Tristram Shandy, Wuthering Heights) when we're not using the term literature to mean sales brochures ("I'll leave you some littachur") or academic writing ("the literature")?
The blog post Shantaram & the idea of a Noisy Novel mentions the quiet novel somewhat as a foil to noisiness. The blogger opens with a conversation had with a novelist friend: "We were talking about what it was that publishers might be wanting at the moment, and she told me that the days of the quiet novel were largely over." The blogger continues, "I take the quiet novel to mean a beautifully written, often short-ish narrative in which not much happens. Stylism is the quiet novel's main event: plotting is barely perceptible, characterisation is but a ripple on the surface on the writer's prose. The focus is often on transactions of a personal, intimate nature between a small group of people living within a softly-spoken coo-ee of each other." (She then discusses noisiness and hyperrealism, mainly in the context of the Australian novel.) This prompts some good reader comments on quiet versus noisy, and the blogger's response that "Jane Austen and Jeanette W[interson] weren't exactly what I had in mind as examples of the quiet novel, tho the quiet novel has links with a tradition of quietism focusing on the personal, domestic, intimate life etc. However, both JA and JW feature strong characterisation and elements of social or aesthetic analysis. Also -- most of JA's novels *are* strongly plotted. [...] Whereas the quiet novel, at worst, is often more like a collection of loosely-related scenes." After a few more reader comments, she says "I think the point is just simply to do with strong vs weak narrativisation, and whether it's time for a revival of strong narrative, which is possibly more allied with pulp fiction and film at present." So for this well-read and intelligent blogger, a quiet novel is likely to be a dull and poorly plotted thing that by definition doesn't really grab the reader. This is not someone who equates "quiet novel" with "literary novel;" rather, she wants lively, strongly plotted novels that are better written than Shantaram, a book about which she has mixed feelings.
Confused by so many different, even if somewhat related, uses of the term "quiet novel," I asked Betty what she thought. Was it a genre or a subjective evaluation? What was her personal understanding of the term? Even if it wasn't going to be clear exactly what everyone else might mean, at least I could find out what Betty meant in relation to my own project. Betty responds:
Quiet novels to me are those written with emotional and intellectual constraint. A quiet novel keeps the reader on an even keel because the style tends toward calmness. Events may be very dramatic, but they're described with restrained prose so that the reader isn't feeling emotionally pulled. Stimulating and challenging questions may arise, but because they're written with understatement, the reader doesn't feel stirred up intellectually. In quiet novel, I as a reader, feel more like an observer. This doesn't mean I'm not drawn into the story or that I don't emotionally connect with the characters, but rather that I'm not experiencing it with great dramatic pulls. I feel compassion for characters, but the writing doesn't make my pulse race or my body twitch. My heart doesn't break although I understand the heartbreak the character is feeling.

Betty cites some comments on specific quiet novels: "[Peter] Taylor as always writes in the most measured, calm manner, so that the surprises and the humbling human understanding he so effortlessly throws in seem barely to ruffle the surface." (Kirkus Review)
"A Summons to Memphis is like a leisurely port wine sipped slowly and with pleasure beneath a blackjack oak." (The Philadelphia Inquirer)
"Serious, beautiful and affecting, what makes Stoner so impressive is the contained intensity the author and character share." (Irving Howe) ". . .[T]he passion of the writing [in Stoner is] masked by coolness and clarity of intelligence." (John McGahern)
Betty concludes:
I hope that gives you some idea of what I mean by a quiet novel. It's no doubt true that unless you're already a well established literary personage, then getting quiet novels published today is likely more difficult than getting "less restrained" work accepted for publication. Wolf Hall, for example, pushes and pulls the reader emotionally and intellectually. There's nothing subtle about Mantel's writing. She writes with visceral descriptions that can make you ache from the pain she's inflicted on a character. The opening scene is extremely dramatic, steeped in physical cruelty. This, I think, is what the publishing world is saying the public wants.
I, of course, don't think that's necessarily so.
There are likely many variations on how to understand what quiet means, but I hope this gives you a better idea of what I was referring to.

And yes, that gives me a better idea what at least one reader has in mind. Whether Betty will continue to think the tale is quiet, and whether others will think so, remains unknown.

Monday, September 6, 2010

More on Novels and the World of Work

Awhile back I posted some ruminations on whether recent literary fiction has much to say about work. It wasn't my own observation that literary fiction tends to bypass work, and I hadn't previously thought much about it, but my literary friends are showing a tendency to disagree with the notion that literary fiction does not deal with work. Betty Dietz, for example, writes:
I'm not so sure that work has fallen out of favor in novels over the past twenty years. I think the opposite is true. I think that in literature now more characters are engaged in specific jobs and that their employment is used as theme, for character development or, at the least, as an important point of reference on which the story is built. Off the top of my head and from the stack of most recently read novels, I've thought of several books that use work as an integral part of their character and/or thematic development. In Stoner, John Williams immerses his protagonists in academia (the University of Missouri in Columbia). A Summons to Memphis, by Peter Taylor, is the story about a rare book collector and editor who is the son of a lawyer, and the brother of two sisters who are real estate managers. In Summertime, by J.M. Coetzee, the story is told by a biographer researching a book about the writer John Coetzee who has died--it's a fictional autobiography. The researcher interviews five people and each of these people have specific jobs that are relevant to the telling of the story. Coetzee's Disgrace is about an academic who loses his job because of a scandal involving one of his students. The Stain by Phillip Roth is also about an academic. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel is about Thomas Cromwell, a lawyer who worked his way up from being the son of a blacksmith to being the chief adviser to Henry VIII. The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer is about a businessman who spends his weekends and holidays being a gentleman farmer in South Africa. A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry drags us through the trenches with a WWI soldier.

I could think of more, but that's enough. Work, I think, is an important component of contemporary literature[...]

It must be confessed that I have not read a single one of these novels; I am hoping that I'll have somewhat more time to read fiction in the coming years, given that graduate school is over. The fact that Betty has read these is a recommendation in itself. In any case, perhaps the essay upon which I originally commented drew on an idiosyncratic pool of novels. Further thoughts from readers are encouraged.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

And Where Did They Go?

Most of my home gardening this summer has involved pulling weeds in the back yard and attempting to keep the container plants watered, but today's temperatures miraculously dipped to the 50s and 60s, so I was able to spend several hours in the yard without either heatstroke or death by mosquitos.
I had the pleasure of finding two of these in the front garden:

Since they were eating a vine rather than milkweed, I assumed they were Swallowtail caterpillars rather than Monarchs, and since there are numerous types of Swallowtail, that's not impossible, but this Wikipedia photo of a Monarch caterpillar looks more like my guests than any of the Swallowtail photos. The plant, they were devouring, honeyvine (Cynanchum laeve), is apparently one of the few non-milkweeds Monarchs will eat.

I was going to photograph my striped tenants in their full glory, but when I returned with the camera an hour or so later, they were gone. I hope they were merely napping out of sight and not eaten by birds.
Speaking of birds, a hummingbird came by around the same time to check out the blossoms on a coleus I had just repotted. The other day I saw a bright yellow bird of finch-like shape in the back yard (I have no idea what it was).
And there are many types of butterfly and bee visible in the yard at any given time.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Still Not at all Dead

Can it be this long since anything new has gone onto the blog? Shocking, just shocking. Well, the house has been bought and moved into, more or less, although very few of the books have been unpacked and there are various projects to be undertaken before the upstairs gets much use. The usual summer trip to California has been made, and will result in about 160 boxes plus miscellaneous furniture being shipped here, probably arriving just in time for school. Ah well, life is a project.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Garden Tour

My new neighborhood does a biannual garden tour, so as I didn't yet have keys to the house, I spent my Saturday looking at gardens and introducing myself to yet more neighbors. Most of the gardens are relatively small--from a few feet wide to about the size of my future back yard--but considerable care and imagination went into them.

The tour included, for an extra $5, a restful tea break at the local mansion. And when I say mansion, it genuinely is one, but a mansion rehabbed just like everything else in the neighborhood. We have tiny cottages, medium-sized houses, and a mansion or two.

It's been hinted that I should prepare my garden for the next tour. Since I'll have two years to get ready, I suppose I might manage it. We'll see.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

St. Anne's Hill Trash-N-Treasure

On Thursday I closed on my new house, and Saturday was the annual neighborhood sale in my new area. St. Anne's Hill is fairly famous for the quality of its neighborhood sale, so I was eager to see what I might find for the new house. My current neighborhood had had its sale a couple of weeks earlier, and while I hadn't seen much activity there (and had also promised to take a colleague to the Cincinnati airport), I had nonetheless managed to pick up an antique table and chair, some wooden cigar boxes, and a stack of 1950s magazines for well under $150. Who knew what wonders might await me at the much larger St. Anne's sale?
I was over at St. Anne's, coffee in hand, at the very start of the sale, but unfortunately it had begun to rain while I was picking up the coffee, so for the first hour or so everyone was tarping their wares. That is, everyone except those selling out of a garage, porch, or living room. But most of what I saw to start out was under a tarp. This made it tricky. I didn't see anything I wanted in the first hour or so.
On the other hand, it was also my mission to introduce myself to my new neighbors. The historic districts have very active neighborhood associations, so it made sense to make myself known. This part of the morning went very well. Everyone was welcoming, and many of them were familiar with my house. Some of them had even already heard of me. I heard (not for the first time, but it's a good story) all about how the man who renovated the house back in the early 1980s ordered wallpaper specially from England for it. It's probably still something of a challenge to order wallpaper from England, but let's keep in mind that there was no email or internet then. The wallpaper in my downstairs is part of the city's historic house lore. The house is also one that people are very fond of. Even the various home inspectors and roofers went into ecstasies over it, which I am sure they cannot bring themselves to do over every house they see.
As the weather began to clear, I began to find things I actually wanted. Some had already sold, but mostly not. I could also have gotten a beautiful 1920s stove-and-oven for free had I had a means of carting it away (the owner said it was free to whoever could carry it away first)--I don't actually need a stove-and-oven, but I would have used it as a decorative piece in the dining room (the white Hoosier cabinet there is departing). However, I knew I had no way of carting it, and another enthusiast, who has a store on 3rd and thinks he can fix the recently defunct oven, arrived with a truck while I was chatting with the owner.
I am not entirely sure what-all I got, as it is nearly all sitting in the car, but the haul included two mirrors, one large rug, a Czech perfume bottle by my favorite glass manufacturer (whose name I can never recall), a lamp, a batch of Celtic and jazz CDs, seven plants, a wicker chair, some tins, and a sack of excellent homemade tamales. I met up with three members of my department in the course of my wanderings, and they too acquired exciting items. We were very pleased with ourselves by the time we parted in the early afternoon.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Yellow Springs Street Fair

Last week's Yellow Springs Street Fair experienced considerable rain early in the day, but fortunately things dried off by noon or so. It was similar today at the Saint Anne's Hill neighborhood sale.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Warning: Characters at Work

Subsequent to my post on fictional characters and their ways of earning a living, I find that my mind keeps meandering back to this topic. Whether in any productive way, I'm not entirely certain. But it's seeming like an important thing to think about.
This may, of course, simply be the result of my own history of earning a living in numerous ways. It would be a fine thing if I had forced myself to take notes on the minutiae of all the different jobs I've had, but of course that always seemed just intolerable at the time, even when I recognized that I ought to be noting the peculiarities for future reference. So often, one's gainful employment is largely a matter of getting through the day and getting the paycheck, even when one has taken on less than appealing jobs in order to benefit one's fiction. Besides, I am one of those people who isn't really very good at taking detailed notes, because I only jot down the most vital ideas, or else only what strikes me as new information. This means, among other things, that I don't have vast quantities of notes to draw upon when preparing art history lectures, but it also has its effect on my recall of how the various offices and factories of my working life operated.
All the same, my recall is probably sufficient, aided by spots of internet and library research, to provide convincing employment for some of my characters. It's important to get into that mysterious trance-like state where things float to the surface, and I'm pretty good at telling my conscious mind to go play somewhere else while I encourage things to come together. I'm all in favor of whatever works.
In the meantime, Wikipedia has done a fine job of educating me on the workings of the diesel engine and other things that I never really understood very well.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Titles from Hell

It being near the end of the school year, my students and I would all like to be let loose. That and the hot weather are probably responsible for my spewing forth yet more book titles that do not correspond to any book I ever hope to write. (It's so much harder coming up with titles for books one actually does want to see in print.)

Downcast and Dreary
The Damned are Among Us
Saints and Their Specialties
Does Your Dog Talk?
Why Do Fish Sing?
Clouds Over the Hill Fort
Sands of Destruction
James and the Salubrious Bat
How to Build Your Own Ziggurat
The Big Book of Interfaith Baptismal Rituals
Cannibals for Supper
The Land that Freud Forgot
You Will Go to the South Pole
Of Dreams and Dadaists
Rodchenko Photographs a Dam
Why Is Your Child Deranged?
Insignificant Others
Love in the Age of Big Oil
Of Monopolies and Mutants
Raising Vipers in Your Own Home

Monday, May 31, 2010

Further Perverse Titles

Some of us can never let well enough alone, so after my rediscovery of so many silly imaginary titles from so long ago, I could not rest without inventing more.
I do not claim that they are actually any good. In fact, I am sure they are not. Some of them, however, were inspired by actual titles on my shelf. (Special bonus points to readers who can point out those inspired by Roman Jakobson titles.)
Land of Oblivion
Oblivion for Fun and Profit
Profit Will make You Fat
The Joy of Fat
File Clerks of the French Revolution
Significant Chasms
What Is Sex For?
The Meaning and Wonder of Modernism
Symbolic Slovakia
Balkanization for Medical Practitioners
Decades of Doom
Recognizing Global Catastrophes
Tears in Literature
My Futurist Anxieties
Utopian Territories
The Power of Euphemism
Aircraft Carriers I Have Known

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Perverse New Titles

Rummaging through a very, very old folder, I ran across a list of titles for imaginary books. I'm not sure what was on my mind when I invented them, but they include the following:
Geese Before the Tide
Depression in the Andes
Foxtails in My Heart
Buzzards in the Snow
Fame and Loathing in Xanadu
The Magic Eraser
Shards of Tranquility
Cathedrals In Space
Arachnid Enteritis
Forgotten Are the Fallen Few
Fewmets in my Tea
Martine Goes Shopping
Famine Comes on Wednesday
Meditation for Money
The Menhir in the Moon
No Time for Noodles
Tantalus in Turkey
...and a boxed set:
Good Titles I Have Known
Good Titles I Have Written
Good Titles I Have Forgotten

Monday, May 10, 2010

Why We Have Little to Say

Just in case anyone was wondering (we have ways of knowing), things have been excessively busy around here of late, what with about 80 midterms to grade, project proposals to comment on, lectures to prepare, and an unhappy rabbit who's supposed to have ear drops three times a day. The ears are allegedly getting worse instead of better, so now she has to accompany her human to school twice a week in order to be sure of proper dosing on school days.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

An Old Photo

I just (without even looking!) discovered this on the National Historic Register's Flickr site. Unfortunately I don't have a date for the photo, but if you click on the link you can read about the neighborhood's history.

Update: the National Historic Register reports that the photo is from 1985.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Front and Side

There has been a desire on the part of some readers to see the front of the house. I think I have finally gotten some satisfactory photos, although there always seems to be one car or another parked in front.

The next photo shows a glimpse of the front yard. The said front yard is not big,but it does have some nice plants started.

This is the view from the side yard looking across the street.

At this point, my life is mainly centered on grading and other school-related tasks (plus giving Ms. Spots ear drops every day), since there is not much for me to do house-wise until nearer to closing.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Modernist Housing

The students in my 1850-Present course have turned in proposals for their modern house projects, in which they invent a client or clients who commissions a spiffy house.
We have:
An Art Nouveau house probably situated in Brussels
A house in Barcelona inspired by Gaudi's Park Guell
An Arts & Crafts house in Dayton, Ohio
A Prairie School house in Springfield, Illinois by Frank Lloyd Wright
A Prairie School house in Springfield, Ohio for the son of former governor Asa S. Bushnell (whose mansion is nearby)
A Prairie School house in Albany, New York, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright
A Cubist house (group is large, may need to split and do two houses)
A 1950s Southern California house for a wealthy bachelor, complete with music room
A mid-century house in Pacific Palisades (also Southern California) influenced by the work of Craig Ellwood, Pierre Koenig, and Charles & Ray Eames
A mid-century house in Greenwich, Connecticut for a French fashion designer
This sounds good to me, although I am sorry not to see any Art Deco in the mix.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Relaxed Alertness

I made an offer on the recently pictured house and accepted the counter-offer. Mortgage stuff now underway and inspections scheduled. Meanwhile:

LEO (July 23-Aug. 22): I have compiled a set of four affirmations that I think will keep you on the right track in the coming weeks. Try saying them at least twice a day. 1. "I am cultivating Relaxed Alertness, because that will make me receptive to high-quality clues about how to proceed." 2. "I am expressing Casual Perfectionism, because that way I will thoroughly enjoy being excellent, and not stress about it." 3. "I am full of Diligent Indifference, working hard out of love for the work and not being attached to the outcome." 4. "I am practicing Serene Debauchery, because if I'm not manically obsessed with looking for opportunities to cut loose, those opportunities will present themselves to me with grace and frequency." (via Freewill Astrology)

While I try to live like this in general, I think a little more Serene Debauchery could be beneficial. Ms. Spots is the most skilled practitioner in the household and has Orion and me wrapped around her little toes. All she has to do is lie down and someone is likely to rush over and fulfill her wishes. Admittedly, at times she gives one or the other of us a special come-hither look. But she doesn't have to in order to get her message across. On the other hand, when it comes to Relaxed Alertness, Ms. Spots excels at Relaxed while Orion excels at Alertness. The full weight of Casual Perfectionism and Diligent Indifference is on me, since the rabbits don't work.

Friday, April 16, 2010

More Photos

Readers have expressed much interest in the house pictures, although mostly not via the blog. This afternoon I had another opportunity to photograph the said house (we are preparing the offer), so here are some of the better photos.
Below, the front parlor fireplace.

The front parlor has two sets of pocket doors.

View from the bathroom into the kitchen:

The anaglypta ceiling in the kitchen:

A corner of the dining room:

Dining room cupboards:

The back stairs and pantry door:

The laundry area:

West upstairs room:

East upstairs room:

The lilacs and dogwood in the back yard:

The garage:

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Strong Possibility

The house-hunting game is nearing its end, or so we hope. There are three or four top candidates, each structurally sound (as far as can be ascertained pre-inspection) and each with many appealing features. None of them looks much like any of the others beyond being two-storey and having a yard of some sort.
I have not succeeded in getting many photos, as my camera batteries have been unreliable--evidently the rechargeables are nearing the end of their rechargeability, and I suppose I've recharged them quite a few times by now. Still, I do have at least a few passable pictures of one of the houses, although not of every room.
The photo below shows the first room one enters. While I sort of like the wallpaper, I think it is a pattern better suited to a smaller space, and if I bought the house I think I would do something else, although not necessarily right away. I am more a paint person than a wallpaper person, but I'm open to new possibilities.

The wallpaper seen below, in the front parlor, is wallpaper I expect I would keep. I would never have thought of doing it myself, but the forest of exotic birds has considerable charm. The front windows (facing east) let in pretty good light and so the main question is whether to lighten up the ceiling. Both rooms seem like fine places to put bookcases and pictures and the piano I intend to get. Note the area with couch seen through the door in the second photo: it leads to the stairwell and the couch is under a window, making a potentially good spot to sit and read. I wouldn't object to having a little couch like that, assuming it was comfortable. I would change the color in the stairwell but it should continue to draw the eye.

The kitchen, below, is small but seems very well laid out. I like the cabinetry, which is ample and at good heights for me to reach. There is a window over the sink and everything seems convenient. A window to the left of the sink provides somewhat of a view of the magnolia tree in back, if I remember correctly. The kitchen also has a very fine white anaglypta ceiling.

The dining room, which was the original kitchen, provides additional storage space and if I should embark on making piecrust I would probably do it there. The south windows provide good light and look out onto the side yard and the neighbor's garden. I would put in an anaglypta ceiling to match the kitchen's and ask if the cabinet in the corner could stay.

At the back of the house one finds a utility room with washer, dryer, and plenty of space for rabbit gear. It is a sunny and pleasant room suitable for starting seedlings and lying around petting recumbent rabbits. (Any seedlings would have to be out of reach of the rabbits, obviously.) While I am not a big fan of yellow walls, they work well with white trim and I think I would keep the current color scheme and only perhaps do a lighter shade.

The upstairs was, except for one room (not shown), originally attic space but now has three rooms plus walk-in closets. One of the closets would need to become a bathroom, but I understand that there is sufficient space for the conversion. The bedroom has its enchantments and could accommodate some bookcases, but I am unsure what I would do with the color scheme. Fortunately the current colors would be acceptable for a start.

The eastern upstairs room is not ideal for bookcases, or at least tall ones, but other than that it could be a very pleasant place to work. The yellow patterned wallpaper, while not something I would ever have chosen on my own, actually works well in the room and I might keep it.

Not shown: the downstairs guest bedroom, the bathroom, the upstairs west room (potentially a fine place to read or watch films), the basement, and the yard. The front yard, typical in the historic districts, is very small and mainly has flowers and some shrubs. The side yard has a walkway and some plantings, and the back yard has a small patio, a larger grassy area, a big magnolia tree, several white lilacs, some roses, and miscellaneous other plants. It has space for fruits and vegetables and composting.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

My Students in Action

At least three of my students (possibly more?) were creating art for everyone to watch during last night's big arts fundraiser. I was impressed with their work, less impressed with the results from my cell phone camera. Maybe I really do need a pocket-sized digital camera too. There was no way I was going to take my big camera to something like that.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Things We Like (and Don't)

Since I've now signed a contract for tenure-track employment, it's house-hunting time. After all, if I want to get that $8000 first-time buyer tax credit, I've got to sign a house contract by the end of the month.
Real estate is plentiful around here, and it's pretty affordable as real estate goes. While I gather that McMansions in the suburbs are wildly expensive, those are of no interest to me anyway. An interesting house with a yard, within walking distance of places to eat and other useful businesses, is what I have in mind. Proximity to a bus stop and/or freeway is also good.
Books and articles about real estate always talk about what sorts of renovations and upgrades add value to a house. I find I am only in partial agreement with the prevailing wisdom. I do agree that it is wise for the seller to make some cosmetic fixes that make a place look appealing. But I'd rather see things like freshly planted annuals than a remodeled kitchen or bathroom. While I'm not likely to be drawn to something that looks like a wreck, I'm also not likely to buy something that's just been fixed up with whatever someone regards as the latest decorating trend, whether it is low-end or high-end.
What would I like to see as far as updates? Well, I am all in favor of good insulation. I did not enjoy seeing my heating bills this past winter, especially since I spent most of my hours at home either wrapped in an alpaca cape or wearing layers under three insufficiently warm blankets. I would also be all in favor of a European-style tankless water heater. And I would be happy to see some solar panels even though this isn't the sunniest part of the country.
What don't I want to see? I certainly don't want to see new carpeting. If the carpeting is cheap, I'm just going to want to rip it out, and if it's expensive, I'm still going to want to rip it out but I'll feel like I have to use it for years first. I have no objection to buying a house with old and ugly carpet, because rabbits like carpet and they can enjoy racing around on a nasty carpet while I figure out whether the flooring underneath is desirable. Carpeting, in my view, is basically a magnet for dust, fur, and moths. It's also never in a color I want on my floor. It may be an inoffensive color, but it is still never in a color I really want. Rugs are the solution here. I will pick out my own rugs, thank you.
I have alluded to my general desire not to see remodeled kitchens and bathrooms. As far as I'm concerned, they can have plumbing and cabinetry from 1890, 1920, or 1950, so long as the plumbing actually functions. I will then have the option of keeping it or updating it according to my own preferences. I grant that one does see some very appealing updates, and at times I respond favorably, but very often my reaction is "That's nice, but I don't want it." I cannot count the number of elegant bathrooms I've seen lately, all of which have brown tile. The first couple of times I saw this, I was impressed, because admittedly it's good-quality tile, and furthermore, I wasn't used to seeing brown bathrooms, so it had a certain novelty value. I've now realized that every bathroom in this city remodeled within the past five years apparently has the same brown tile. Designers in this city have a thing for brown, in general. I do not. None of my towels go with brown. Brown is not a color I'm anxious to see first thing in the morning. I've concluded that while I could go for a brown-and-black half-bath off my living room, I don't want a shower lined with this ubiquitous expensive brown tile. I can get my brown bathroom fix every time I stay in a conference hotel or go to the local restaurants and cafes. I mean, some years back I complained because my apartment had pink tile, circa 1960. Yet it was surprisingly easy to make the pink tile work, since it didn't clash with most of my towels or with my shower curtain or with either black or white. I will be perfectly content to deal with pink, blue, green, lavender, or even (possibly) daffodil yellow tile in my bathroom. Black or white tile is also acceptable. Just say no to the trendy brown bathroom, please. I do not want to see any more of those, any more than I want to see any more household objects or clothes that combine brown with blue, with pink, or with turquoise. By 2007 I was thinking "ugh, that's so last year" and I am not inclined to that kind of dismissive thinking.
In the same way, I'm concluding that there are certain styles of kitchen cabinetry that, despite being perfectly nice in themselves, are just far too ubiquitous. Unpainted wood cabinetry is attractive when new, but it does not do well with moisture. I do not want to spend my life checking for water stains on my lower kitchen cabinetry. Nor do I want to have exactly the same millwork as everyone else has installed since 1990 or so. Thus, do not install new cabinetry to sell your house to me, unless you are magically on my wavelength. Nor should the prospective buyer put in new countertops or backsplashes unless these are just unusually exciting. Even then, my reaction may well be "Great workmanship. Hate the color."
In sum, if the house dates to 1890 and the exterior and fireplaces are lovely examples of that era, I just do not want my kitchen and bathroom to scream "2000" or "2010." They need not look precisely 1890-ish, but they should not look as though 1890 and 2010 have been mysteriously grafted together and the fruit of the two will be 2010. Let the building give some sense of having a gradual development from 1890 to 2010, or else of being the result of the efforts of a person with a strong personal sense of design.
I can tolerate the trendy of decades past (at least temporarily); I do not want the trendy of today haunting me until it's decrepit enough to justify replacement.
Now: while we're at it, I have not been excited by any of the child-centered decorating I've seen either, since it distracts me from envisioning what I might want to do with the child's bedroom. That's not a major issue because all I'd really have to do is tear off the decals and repaint, but I'll point out that I've only seen one example of a child's room that really took my fancy. A friend of mine bought a house with beautifully done Beatrix Potter characters painted in one room. I'm not sure children are ever allowed near, but it's a divine guest bedroom. I'd hire that painter. Maybe I'll need Beatrix Potter characters on my own bedroom walls.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Another Czech Art Course Begins

It's Spring Quarter and that means (among other things) that the Czech Modernism class is underway again. Last year it was an advanced seminar designed to teach students how to write research papers. This year it's a lecture class with fewer readings but weekly Discussion Board postings and a design-an-exhibition project. And 30 students instead of 6.
Libuše, 1893, by Karel Vítězslav Mašek (1865-1927)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Rabbits Wonder About Their Human, As Usual

Ms. Spots and Orion would like to point out that their human has been pretty unreliable and sleepy of late and has made many strangely enthusiastic remarks about grading and how much better the students have done than last quarter, and especially about how stunningly they did on the design-a-cathedral-or-mosque project. Ms. Spots and Orion feel that the human's time would be much better spent paying attention to whether there are enough greens in the refrigerator, although Orion was pretty excited this evening to discover that the human was too mentally deficient to realize she had poured tasty pellets into the litterbox instead of litter.
Ms. Spots and Orion have also gathered that the human has been offered a permanent sort of job and that instead of moving to climes unknown this coming summer, the plan is to move somewhere within a mile or two that will offer space to compost all that used litter and grow lettuce and cilantro. Given the looming deadline to file for the first-time home-buyer tax credit, the human has had to take up house-hunting as well as all those other time-wasting, non-lapine-oriented activities. Fortunately there are some photos to be had from this insanity.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Publish, Perish, or ....?

This just came in the mail. Looks like a step in the right direction. Since when does quantity equal quality?

ERIH and Art History - a joint resolution of RIHA

RIHA, the International Association of Research Institutes in the History of Art, sharply criticizes the clandestine way in which the European Science Foundation (ESF) has developed and monitored the European Reference Index for the Humanities (ERIH) since 2001, and is extremely concerned about its present and future application.


Following discussions at the General Assemblies in Rome (Nov. 6-8, 2008) and Ljubljana (Nov. 6-7, 2009), RIHA has adopted the following resolution on November 7, 2009:

1. The qualities of scholarly work in the humanities cannot be assessed in simple numbers or metrics; principles which were developed in the context of the natural sciences cannot be transferred to or employed in the humanities, since these work differently, in particular with regard to the relevance of research for different audiences or readerships, and its impact on these constituencies.

2. RIHA strongly opposes the idea that, in the field of art history, the place of a publication (in a journal that has been assigned to category A, B, or C) is indicative of the quality of the individual article or contribution.

3. The categorization of journals does not reflect the needs of scholars. RIHA will not deliver data to ERIH or to any similar quantitative indices of research quality that can be used for assessing the quality of individual scholars, departments, or institutions.

4. RIHA strongly opposes the idea that a specific number of articles in any journal can serve as a means to establish the scholarly potential of a candidate for career promotion (as practised, e.g., in Poland).

5. RIHA strongly deplores the current practice of linking directly the funding of a research institute to the number of articles published by the staff of that institute. RIHA considers this practice to be meaningless with regard to the quality and impact of an institute's daily work.

6. All RIHA member institutes hereby declare that they will never use ERIH data for assessing the quality of applications for grants and fellowships, research projects, or for temporary or permanent positions as staff members. Rather, they will rely on specific criteria appropriate to the individual case.

7. RIHA strongly urges all European art historical institutions (museums, galleries, universities, cultural heritage organizations etc.) not to use ERIH, and to lobby their respective ministries to ensure that ERIH is not employed at local, regional, federal, or national level.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

How Do Fictional Characters Earn a Living, Anyway?

The author John Lanchester observes that very little fiction these days deals with work. Back in the nineteenth century, on the other hand, quite a bit of fiction did. Lanchester notes that the oeuvres of Dickens, Melville, Tolstoy, Mark Twain, and other writers of the time have a great deal to say about the working lives of the characters, whereas today one mainly gets a sense of characters' work in police procedurals and women's popular fiction.

This intrigued me. I hadn't really thought about it, other than to occasionally ponder my own characters' relationship with work, which has largely had to do with whether their work (if mentioned at all) was personally meaningful or merely a means of support. This is similar to how Lanchester describes women's popular fiction, despite my not being a writer of that (rather broad) genre. Is this because I'm female? Surely women aren't more concerned than men about whether their work is meaningful. Still, I've never thrown work and employment into fiction purely on the grounds that nearly everyone 16-70 or so works in some fashion (paid or not) unless unable to. It has to bear some relation to the story.

Lanchester thinks that the general lack of literary fiction dealing with work is due to the complex nature of so much of what we do for a living these days. He says:

"Television can give us a cartoon version of a barrister’s work, or a forensic scientist’s work, or a doctor’s work; for a fuller and more real version, the writer would have to do a huge amount of explanation of the complex realities of their different working lives. But you can’t explain in fiction, not like that and not at the necessary length."

There's some truth to that. We don't generally want great big long explanations about much of anything in our fiction these days; we don't even usually want descriptions of rooms or scenery to go on for more than a sentence or two. Yet people do like to learn about things and to find out details. To quote Lanchester again,

"I’d been reading about how most countries used to drive on the left, because it’s the logical side to get on a horse for right-handed people, and about how almost all the countries that still drive on the left had a strong British influence and are islands. I was mulling over these things and then it struck me: this couldn’t go in a novel. A novel with a disquisition on the difference between driving on the left and on the right would be… well, let’s just say I wouldn’t be in a hurry to read it."

Here, I think Lanchester isn't reckoning on the ways in which a crafty novelist could incorporate the said disquisition. It could be done quite interestingly, given the right story and characters. Someone like Jaroslav Hašek's Švejk could have discoursed on it most amusingly. Hašek wasn't exactly the average modern novelist, but I'll bet you that I too could get a character to expound on the topic without boring readers to tears. (All right, I don't think I'm the average novelist either.) I think that a major reason we don't have many literary novels today dealing with people's working lives is that writers are hesitant to write about either work they've actually done themselves or work they've had no personal experience of. I don't think fiction is really devoid of descriptions of the kinds of entry-level jobs most of us have had, but we don't usually (I think) write about our office jobs, factory jobs, or academic jobs. If we're still in those jobs, we tend to worry what might happen to us if the book is a success (if it's a short story, there's little cause to worry since no one from work is likely to discover it, but short fiction offers less scope for writing about work). Christina Stead's House of All Nations was, if I remember correctly, written while she was working in banking but not published until later. I don't think most people would have the nerve to publish something like that while relying on a paycheck from the source of the material.

Lanchester states:

"The world is full of interesting things that don’t fit inside traditional fictional forms. That is because a novel has to seem true. It doesn’t have to be factually or literally true and the kind of truth it seeks can be fantastical, wild, unearthly, illogical, dreamlike, incoherent, even mad — but it does have to feel true."

This is indeed the case, but I think that usually one has to have a good (often current) sense of a job or workplace in order to convey that feeling of truth. I suspect writers often block out the wonderful weird details of our recollections of jobs past because, of course, we feel that writing is our real job.

Friday, January 22, 2010


The first quiz of the quarter indicates that my survey students nearly all studied and paid attention in class, although of course not to an equal degree. That's not to say they scored remarkably well, but it was clear that most of them had a pretty good grip on things even if many people got the Annunciation confused with the Visitation and that sort of thing.
I'm afraid, however, that most of them do not know much geography, despite my showing maps and pointing out where things are. This was glaringly obvious in the two most geographically oriented questions.
It was not so terrible in the case of the question of which Tuscan city-state, rival to Florence, was the home of the painter Duccio. While few people correctly filled in Siena, most of the answers were Italy-related: Venice, Rome, Assisi, Pisa, and Milan were popular choices. Not correct, but not bizarre. The answers Italy and Tuscany were more strange, indicating that those people weren't clear on the concept of a city-state versus a country or region. When I saw "Vienna" and "Bohemia," however, I was perturbed.
I suppose it was stupid of me to include a question (hey, I got these from the textbook publisher, and I tried to pick questions I thought my students could reasonably answer) that involved filling in the capital of Bohemia, home of Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. But I was thinking that we did cover art from Bohemia, and that Prague is a famous city.
Well, I did give half credit to the person who put Karlštejn, because we examined the chapel and paintings there and it's just south of Prague. But nearly the whole class gave answers that included Constantinople, Dijon, "Broche" (I think this was a misspelling of Bruges), Cannes, Florence, Tuscany, Paris, "Crucia" (?), Avignon, and finally the Czech Republic.
This kind of thing makes me think I need to give map quizzes like we used to have in my 7th-grade geography class. The problem with that idea is that if they don't know where modern cities and countries are, it doesn't seem wise to confuse the issue too much with placement of the likes of Burgundy (capital: Dijon) and the Holy Roman Empire. I mean, I'll be content if they have a reasonable notion of these things and stop saying Paris and Constantinople were the capital of Bohemia.
It kind of reminds me of Neville Chamberlain's infamous 1938 remark about Czechoslovakia being a faraway land about which we know little.
On the plus side, most of my students seem clear on flying buttresses, rose windows, the purpose of the Palazzo Vecchia, and the fact that lead is used to hold stained glass windows together. This makes me happy.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Off to a Good Start

Since a significant number of my students are art majors rather than art history, I'm trying to give some assignments that aren't purely writing-oriented. This quarter I'm trying one that looks very promising--the survey students (learning about Gothic to 1850) are designing cathedrals and a mosque. (We aren't covering Islamic art this quarter, but we did last quarter, and I didn't want the assignment to force them into a specific religious outlook.)
How does it work? Well, without going into too much detail, they're in groups of 3-5 (mostly 4) and have a combination of group and individual things to turn in. Each group was instructed to choose a style and period, a geographic location, and various other details. The groups have just turned in their preliminary proposals, which are subject to change and development, and these are pretty exciting. The majority are Gothic, since that's what we've covered in class thus far, but other periods have also been chosen--one Renaissance, three Baroque, and a Mughal mosque.
French Gothic "The outer layer will be in stone + many rose windows with stained glass to accompany it. The structure will be airy + will have a high Gothic vaulting system..."

French Gothic "Stone cathedral. Started 1185. Finished 1230. 130 ft tall. Not a pilgrimage church. At least 2 rose windows. Holds approx. 3,000-4,000."

"13th century Paris. We're going to focus on the Virgin Mary for all our interior design. Our church will feature many rose windows + an ornate alterpiece."

Italian Gothic "It isn't a pilgrimage church. The patron saint is undecided still. Saint Clare or Saint Francis are our options."

Late Gothic in Monaco "The church... has both French and Italian influences throughout its exterior and interior design due to its geographic location... There will be usage of flying buttresses and other common gothic elements..."

"13th-14th century Italian Gothic. This cathedral takes its inspirations from the Siena's Duomo. Since the Duomo was the highlight of construction around this time and was looking close to impossible to finish, some of Nicola Pisano's favorite workers moved on to smaller projects... In the design marble would be throughout. The cathedral would feel more open when walking through its structure. The façade would mimick some ideas of other cathedrals in the area. Silver and mosaics would be abundant."

Renaissance (this may need to change due to England and Ireland's particular versions for the Renaissance) "It will be in honor of St. Patrick who converted the Celts to Catholicism... This cathedral will house some relics from Saints and pieces of the original cross as well."

"The location of our cathedral is the city of Genoa, Italy. It is dedicated to St. Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510)... It will be primarily in the baroque style, but as Genoa is a significant port city it may draw elements from other styles..."

A German baroque cathedral is also in the works.

Mosque in India "The main structure constructed entirely of marble sits upon a high plinth that can be reached from walk ways from the North, South, and West each leading to the three iwan, arch-shaped doorways... Four minarets frame the outer walls, one at each corner of the plinth... There is a fountain in the center of garden courtyard with paths leading to the Main dome area which begins just past the North-South axis..."

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Publishing Industry Still Mostly Going to Hell

I've mostly been prepping courses over the last few weeks, although I wouldn't say that that was always where my mind was. But I don't think anyone really wants to hear more about course prep right now. (I'm not wrong about that, am I?) So instead I'd like to post portions of an interesting blog post on the publishing industry, which may not surprise or shock some of the writers of my acquaintance, but might disturb the rest of you.
Martin Shepard of Permanent Press, who blogs about books and publishing at The Cockeyed Pessimist, opens with some background from André Schiffrin’s The Business of Books: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read, which was published in 2000--ten years ago, which is to say that the events and trends Schiffrin described ought to be old news but unfortunately are not. As Shepard summarizes,
publishing changed, from the mid fifties when a plethora of small but prestigious houses that valued ideas and content as much as profit were transformed into five behemoths that by 2000 wound up sharing 80% of the market. The early acquisitions started innocently enough when the founders aged, fell ill, or died, as when Bennett Cerf at Random House acquired Alfred A. Knopf in 1960 because of Knopf’s deteriorating health. With that merger, Random House did not even control 1% of the market. Nor was it very different when, a year later, Cerf acquired Pantheon, after Andre’s father—a co-founder of Pantheon—passed away and the other partners fell into disagreements. By then André was asked to join this growing conglomerate and, for the next 30 years, as a corporate insider, witnessed the changes.

In other words, the publishing world that people my age and older grew up with began to change in the 1960s, but few observers would have noticed that this was a trend until the 1970s or even the early 1980s.
More amalgamations followed which were then swallowed by even larger media corporations. Random House, taken over by RCA in 1965, was later sold to Si Newhouse, who demanded an increase in sales and circulation by appealing to a wider, more common audience. Newhouse arranged for Random House to pay Nancy Reagan a three million dollar advance for her memoir.

Why anyone in their right mind would want to read a ghost-written memoir by Nancy Reagan is beyond me, but this sort of celebrity book became more and more common, losing publishers millions of dollars since many of these books never earned enough to pay for their huge advances. Many authors, meanwhile, were getting advances in the low thousands (not millions) if they got advances at all. But people like Newhouse figured that the answer was to get even more celebrity titles, while (contradictorily) insisting that every book published should earn back its advance. (Here I could discourse on some of the ways bookstore chains and the Thor Power Tools court decision about warehousing inventory ensured that books would have trouble earning back advances, but that's another, though related, story.)
Random House was not, of course, the only house in pursuit of celebrities.

By 2000 Rupert Murdoch and his News Corporation, having purchased HarperCollins in 1987, went the same route. Commercial books were linked to Murdoch’s entertainment holdings and his conservative political beliefs. Harpers changed when the new non fiction lists, written by the likes of Oliver North, Newt Gingrich, and other figures who shared Murdoch’s conservative political beliefs, made their appearance.

Simon & Schuster, meanwhile, grew increasingly entertainment-industry driven when it was acquired by Viacom, owned by Paramount pictures. As Shepard observes,
By then the publishing world had largely rid itself of literary people from its golden age and replaced them with business men. Mass culture replaced literature and profit was paramount. Now every title was expected to make a significant contribution to both corporate overhead, profit, and growth leading everyone to seek the same “successful titles.”

Schiffrin said that by 2000, these corporate publishers had pretty much decided that if they couldn’t see themselves selling a base of 20,000 copies, it did not pay for them to take on a book. As he pointed out, when Pantheon introduced Franz Kafka to American audiences, it had a first printing of only 800 copies. As for Bertolt Brecht’s first work, only 600 copies were sold. In today’s market place, neither of these renowned writers would ever have seen the light of day in America.

Let's keep in mind that last time I was keeping close track of the industry, which was some years ago, first print runs for many books were in the 2000-5000 copy range. 600-800 was not usually regarded as cost-effective; 20,000 was pretty close to best-seller status.
Shepard notes that by 2009, publishers were not just acquiring celebrity books but had begun to devote entire imprints to popular culture, and quotes a HarperCollins press release:
HarperCollinsPublishers, one of the largest English-language publishers in the world, today announced the launch of It Books, a new popular culture imprint dedicated to entertainment, music, fashion, design, and sports. [...] "It Books will be a new way for us to reach readers like us--people with an endless appetite for pop culture, who live for music and film and art and fashion and the Internet," said Carrie Kania. "An It book should be fun. It should be interesting. It should be cool. It should look great."

Now, I'm not personally opposed to coverage of popular culture. I think it has its place, and moreover that interesting and intelligent things can be said about it. But I don't think it ought to take over the publishing world. Furthermore, I find the title of the HarperCollins imprint pretty funny. "So-and-So is an It," we used to say scathingly when I was in sixth grade. This was not so much intended as a gender comment as a suggestion that the person wasn't even animate. It's true that back in the 1920s, "It" referred to sex appeal, and Clara Bow was the "It" Girl, but I doubt many people will make that connection.
Well, Janet Maslin's first review of an It Book has prompted Martin Shepard to create The Donkey Awards, to be given critics for the “Best Abuse of Space for the Least Deserving Book,” and the call is out for nominations (Maslin's review is the first nominee).
Novels of any sort are reviewed less and less often (we knew that, didn't we?), and especially literary novels, and most especially those from small presses that don't have the money to advertise in The New York Times. Shepard points out that you can spend $45,000 for a full-page color ad there--assuming, of course, that you have that kind of money to throw around, which most publishers focusing on literature (rather than pop culture and journalistic nonfiction) don't.
I like Shepard's comparison of the book reviews in The New York Times with the same paper's restaurant reviews. He says that while Culture Desk editor Jon Landman asserts they seek a balance between "popular" and more serious books,
so far this has not been in evidence. In their restaurant reviews, the Times covers the good ones—large as well as small. When it comes to cooking as an art form, their reviewers appreciate good taste. If they decided it was more important to cover the most popular eateries in this country, good taste would go out the window and they would be writing about Burger King, McDonald’s, KFC, Jack in the Box and IHOP.

You can read Shepard's full post at The Donkey Awards.