Sunday, July 24, 2011

this fall's booklist

Here's Dan Chaon, who teaches fiction writing at Oberlin:
Occasionally, I have students who want to be rock stars. They have started a band, and they are spending their weekends and off hours writing songs and practicing. Without fail, these kids know everything there is to know about new music. They are listening all the time—they can discourse on Bob Dylan as easily as they can talk about the new e.p. from a new band from Little Rock, Arkansas, or wherever, and they have a whole hard drive full of demos from obscure artists that they have downloaded from the internet.

I wish that my students who want to be fiction writers were similarly engaged. But when I ask them what they’ve read recently, they frequently only manage to cough up the most obvious, high profile examples. What if my rock star students had only heard of …um….The Beatles? We listened to them in my Rock Music Class in high school. And…. And Justin Timberlake? And, uh, yeah, there’s that one band, My Chemical Romance, I heard one of their songs once.
On the first day of my undergraduate poetry workshops, I usually hand out a info sheet for the students to fill out – name, e-mail, major, interests, etc. One of the question is who their favorite poets are. Often they name Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman; Shakespeare; Keats; there's inevitably more than a couple people for whom Poe is a telltale heartthrob. Only very occasionally does Billy Collins, Maya Angelou, or Mary Oliver show up. Now I know what you're thinking – it's obvious that Shakespeare & Keats & Dickinson are better than anyone in the last 150 years, so it's only fair that my well-read students should make them their favorite. But the fact of the matter, I suspect, is that they simply don't know any poets post-whatever-they-read-in-high-school.

My graduate students are clearly a different case, but while I know they've read more poetry, it's hard to tell precisely what they've read. When I did my own MFA back in the Dark Ages (the days of the Clone – er, Theory – Wars), one of the great challenges of the workshops was the fact that everyone seemed to be writing out of their own personal canon, their own set of inspirations & models. Now that's always the case to some extent, I'd stipulate: but what struck me again & again was the incommensurability of some of those canons. In grad school I wrote deeply under the influence of Michael Palmer, Edmond Jabès, Susan Howe, & LZ; how was I to judge the poems of someone whose tutelary deities were Robert Frost, Robert Lowell, Sharon Olds, and Mary Oliver? What did that person make of mine?

There's no way to enforce an aesthetic uniformity upon an MFA program, especially when there's little aesthetic uniformity among its faculty. That's probably a good thing. But one thing I've been doing over the last decade, a practice fairly common in workshops these days, but unheard of back in the Dark Ages on Campus on the Hill, is to assign a selection of recent books that've grabbed me. Students present on them, we talk about them, we think about them as barometers of the state of the art (for better or worse), we mine them for strategies. So here's the booklist for this fall's graduate workshop:
Rae Armantrout, Money Shot
Caroline Bergvall, Meddle English
Martin Corless-Smith, English Fragments: A Brief History of the Soul
Susan Howe, That This
Joseph Lease, Testify
Jena Osman, The Network
Lisa Robertson, R's Boat
Rosmarie Waldrop, Driven to Abstraction

Friday, July 22, 2011

catty editors, part 439

[William Holman Hunt, The Light of the World (1854)]

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” Revelation 3:20
Always refreshing to hear what a critic really thinks of an artist. Casting about earlier today for a copy of Rossetti's poem "Jenny," I dug out (from the bottom of a really obscure stack of library sale acquisitions) a copy of Cecil Y. Lang's 1968 Riverside anthology, The Pre-Raphaelites and Their Circle. Lang I didn't know – tho it's obvious I should. He prepared highly-regarded editions of the letters of Swinburne, Tennyson, and Arnold. He held a named chair at the University of Virginia. According to his obituary (2003) in the Independent, he was "sometimes spoken of as the highest-paid English professor in the land."

The Pre-Raphaelites and Their Circle is a more than solid collection of poems by the Rossettis, Morris, Meredith, and Swinburne, along with Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat (presumably included because of its "rescue" by Rossetti from the remainder stacks after having fallen into oblivion on its first publication). Lang also includes a gallery of early (mostly pencil) portraits of the poets and artists associated with the movement, and a section of (unfortunately) black & white reproductions of paintings. But thus far the best thing about the edition is Lang's delightfully cranky remark about the paintings he's chosen to represent:
And I am aware that as there are people who like folk dancing and "good" jazz there are people who like Holman Hunt. So I have done the best I could by him, but fastidiousness requires me to record that my own response is merely a discrimination among revulsions. The recent appearance on B.B.C. television of his "Light of the World," "in which the mouth of the picture spoke words advertising paraffin" (The Times, February 17, 1967, p. 2) perfectly expresses my own feeling.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

opsimath's notes

[Walter Pater]

Reading Walter Pater's The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry this morning, I came across the lovely word opsimathy, or late learning. (Guy Davenport, I am reminded by his essay "On Reading," found the word in Pater as well.) Pater quotes Winckelmann: "I am one of those the Greeks call opsimatheis – I have come into the world and into Italy too late."

I am feeling very much opsimatheis – the opsimath – these days, striving to acquaint myself with the Victorians at this late date in life. So much to read, and so much of it so rich and rewarding. Who would have thought an academic who began by writing on Louis Zukofsky & the fortunes of late 20th-century avant-garde poetry would be transfixed by George Eliot's Scenes of Clerical Life, or riveted to John Ruskin's yearly review pamphlets of the Royal Academy exhibitions?

At times I feel like I'm going at it with diminished resources. However more well-read I am now than I was two decades ago, or whatever bits of grace my prose style may have accrued, I find it more difficult to summon the hour-upon-hour concentration of grad school days, & my memory is no longer the reliably sturdy storage-&-retrieval unit it once was.
Sometimes it still makes connections, if only serendipitously. This morning I was also reading William Hurrell Mallock. Those who follow contemporary poetry and culture know Mallock, if they know him at all, as the author of A Human Document, the 1892 novel from which Tom Phillips has been quarrying successive versions of his artwork A Humument. But I'm reading Mallock's The New Republic (1877), a satirical novel of ideas Mallock began during his Oxford days earlier in the decade.

It's a bit of a hoot. Mallock essentially throws together, in an English country house, a selection of immediately recognizable caricatures of leading intellectual and cultural figures of his day, and sets them talking to one another. There are versions of Ruskin, of Benjamin Jowett, of Thomas Huxley, of Arnold, and – best of all – of Walter Pater. Pater is a "pale creature, with great moustache... He is Mr. Rose, the pre-Raphaelite," explains one character; "He always speaks in an undertone, and his two topics are self-indulgence and art."

In one hilarious moment, Rose/Pater explains what "success in life" consists in, closely echoing but parodying the famous "decadent" Conclusion to the first edition of The Renaissance: it consists
'in the consciousness of exquisite living – in the making our own each highest thrill of joy that the moment offers us – be it some touch of colour on the sea or on the mountains, the early dew in the crimson shadows of a rose, the shining of a woman's limbs in clear water, or –'

Here unfortunately a sound of 'Sh' broke softly from several mouths.
The passage that most struck me, however, comes from Mr. Herbert, a clear stand-in for Ruskin, Mallock's own intellectual mentor:
in that in most of my opinions and feelings I am singular, is a fact fraught for me with the most ominous significance. yet, how could I – who think that health is more than wealth, and who hold it a more important thing to separate right from wrong than to identify men with monkeys – how could I hope to be anything but singular in a generation that deliberately, and with its eyes open, prefers a cotton-mill to a Titian?
Where, thought I, instantly sitting up straight, had I read that before? It was not singled out in John Lucas's introduction to the 1975 Leicester University Press photo-reprint of The New Republic that I was reading; nor was it in Denis Donohue's book on Pater, the pages of which I had been turning over. Then it struck me – Ruskin himself. In Ruskin's 1875 Academy Notes, as part of a withering attack on "The Deserted Garden" by his erstwhile friend John Everett Millais, whom Ruskin had championed in his early pre-Raphaelite days, and who had married Ruskin's ex-wife Effie in 1855, Ruskin writes,
But if you think that the four-petalled rose, the sprinkle of hips looking like ill-drawn heather, the sun-dial looking like an ill-drawn fountain, the dirty birch tree, and rest – whatever it is meant for – of the inarticulate brown scrabble, are not likely to efface in the eyes of future generations, the fame of Venice and Etruria, you have always the heroic consolation given you in the exclamation of the Spectator: "If we must choose between a Titian and a Lancashire cotton-mill, give us the cotton-mill."
Ruskin refers to an August 1870 review in the Spectator of his Oxford Lectures on Art, and will quote the offending passage again in Fors Clavigera #7. I had read it, it turns out, at least twice.

So I now have a hard & fast annotation, if only written in the margin of my photo-reprint copy of The New Republic. I'm not concerned as to whether the editor of the only annotated edition of the novel (University of Florida P, 1950) caught that (a Google Books search leads me to suspect not), only pleased that the internal scholarly apparatus is still working, even at a reduced level.

The editor of that 1950 edition, by the way, is J. Max Patrick, who edited the Anchor edition of The Prose of John Milton on my shelf. He also seems to have done extensive work on Herrick and Bacon, in addition to his foray in Mallock-editing. There were days when polymaths – rather than opsimaths – walked the earth.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Kindle canon

I'm back – at least I'm back in Boca, which doesn't seem appreciably warmer than DC, where we spent the last week of our vacation. The girls are in camp this week & the next, which makes the fact that J. is in Prague (Prague!) for a Shakespeare conference a bit less galling. I am weary, & depressed looking at the stack of mail – bills, notices, letters from lawyers & life insurance companies – on the dining room table. But happy to be unpacking the various crates of books we mailed back from points north; coming home from a long vacation is always a bit like Christmas.
The Kindle canon, the people at Amazon would have you believe, is more or less coextensive with whatever's out there to be read. Right. That doesn't seem a point worth debunking; what I'm interested in is the implicit canon the device itself presents to its owner, in the form of the "sleep-mode" screensavers that pop up whenever you shut it off.

So far as I can tell, the Kindle is something of a hybrid between an active storage/search system and a passive display screen. It's never really "on," except when you have the wireless engaged and are downloading content. Instead, it just rearranges the electronic "ink" of its display (like an Etch-a-Sketch, as innumerable commenters explain). When you've finished reading & put the thing to sleep, the page you're reading disappears & is replaced with a "sleep" screen, a graphic that the people at Amazon have designed to give the device an air of "culture" – to give you, or the person peering over your shoulder in the subway, the sense that you're actually reading a book, rather than mouth-breathing your way thru Glenn Beck's latest or Sarah Palin's autobiography.

There are 23 of these screens, & the Kindle cycles thru them so far as I can tell in the same order every time. The first is the Kindle/Amazon "logo," as it were, a figure reading under a tree; the last pictures some archaic bit of printing equipment & gives an email address & website for comments on the device. Of the remaining 21 screens, 10 are what I think of as "cultural wallpaper" – antique architectural & zoological drawings, a page of the Book of Kells, portraits of St. Jerome (Dürer) and Erasmus (Holbein – see above). And the final 11 are pictures of writers, so signaled by their names captioned in chunky Kindle font. These writers are what I designate the "Kindle Canon."

In alphabetical order, they are:
Jane Austen
Charlotte Brontë
Agatha Christie
Emily Dickinson
Alexandre Dumas (père)
Ralph Ellison
John Steinbeck
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Mark Twain
Jules Verne
Virginia Woolf
(Since the Kindle doesn't caption Erasmus or St. Jerome, I'm betting they're assuming we won't be using the device to actually read those worthies.) A pretty anodyne list, you're thinking. Here's some breakdowns:
female writers: 6 | male writers: 5
American: 5 | English: 4 | French: 2
20th-century writers: 4 | 19th-century writers: 7
novelists: 10 | poet: 1
Alas poor Emily Dickinson! Not merely is she the only poet in the lot, but (despite what the Amazon website says) neither the Franklin nor the Johnson editions of her poems are actually available on the Kindle, leaving only the problematic earlier versions, and to top it all off she's presented in the goofily-retouched version of her sole portrait photograph, with ares of white ruffles and an incongruous Farah Fawcett-like sweeping hairdo.

So – keeping in mind that Amazon is doing this on the cheap – the images seem to all be public domain, while portraits of Stieg Larsson or Billy Collins are probably copyrighted – what does this selection say about what Kindle readers read? Or perhaps more accurately, what Amazon thinks Kindle readers want to think of themselves reading?

1) Kindlers read novels, rather than poetry, short stories, or nonfiction. They like big, extended narratives full of fascinating characters (Austen, Woolf) or in which lots of exciting stuff happens (Verne, Dumas, Christie); sometimes both (Ellison).

2) Kindlers are as likely (or a bit more likely) to be women as men.

3) Kindlers spend a lot of time with what they read in High School, or at least their reading tastes haven't noticeably progressed much beyond there (Steinbeck, Twain, Dickinson, Verne).

Now, I'm not one to talk. I've been using my Kindle over the past 2 1/2 weeks mostly to read Jules Verne, HG Wells, and (my highbrow moment) George Eliot. But as a Kindle reader (if not yet a confirmed Kindle reader), this list leaves me feeling more or less insulted. Golly, folks – can't you even show the imagination of Barnes & Noble, who've gotten tons of mileage out of those engraving-style caricatures of a rather more interesting gang of literati? Sure, all of the above suspects, but they throw in Joyce, George Eliot, Wilde, James Baldwin, Dante, etc. It's the same principle of assumed cultural capital, but at least it's not a continual middlebrow assault. When I turn the damned thing off and get that dreamy picture of John Steinbeck, I never want to turn it on again.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

vacation reading ii

What is this 300-gram lump of plastic good for? Certainly not serious reading, during which I find myself reaching repeatedly for the pen or pencil to underline, marginalize. It's good for free downloads of public-domain novels. Five read in the last week, all in a rush, basking in the sun or rattling on the subway – Jules Verne's Centre of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues, The Mysterious Island, Wells's War of the Worlds and The Time Machine. Books I'm not sure I've ever read before (Wells, probably, Verne, perhaps) but know every detail of, thanks to Classics Illustrated.

They say Verne was badly translated in the 19th century, which I can believe – I know franglais when I read it, & recognize a hasty, sloppy translation. But then again, porcine ears rarely produce haute couture handbags: how do you gracefully translate the vast, exhausting data-dumps of zoological, geological, botanical, chemical material he foists upon you? Centre of the Earth is Ruskin's geology without the lyricism; Twenty Thousand Leagues is Moby-Dick's ichthyology without the humor. At a pinch, if you were on a desert island The Mysterious Island could teach you how to puddle iron, mill flour, distill sulfuric acid, manufacture nitrogylcerin, and dress a bullet wound thru the chest.

Always one feels the pressure of sheer knowledge that Verne wants to convey: admittedly, to a young audience, teenaged readers who honestly hunger for basic facts – and who I suppose don't blink at the fact that his is a world entirely without women. The five castaways on the Mysterious Island, by the time the volcano blows their high-tech Swiss-Family-Robinson-civilization to bits, have all of their needs met in overplus by the end of their first or second year there; their robust homosociality seems entirely to obviate any needs of the "flesh" (tho the relationship of the sailor Pencroft to his ward Herbert seems quite "spoony" to a 21st century reader). In contrast, Wells's waif Weena (Time Machine) and the unseen but yearned-for "wife" of War seem to present a positively rounded, "progressive" picture of the human race.