Brave Writers

“[M]erely to write fiction is an optimistic gesture: pessimists don’t write novels. To write is to make a plea for some sort of human sympathy and communication. To write is to risk being rejected, ridiculed, misunderstood. To write is to make contact between the world out there and the world in here, both of them mysterious, perhaps ultimately unknowable.”

–Joyce Carol Oates from a 2003 interview with Stig BjorkmanJ_C_Oates

Aging Lotharios?

I know I’m not the only one: I read several novels at a time. One is usually in the kitchen; the other by my bed, a third in the living room (or even the bathroom, though magazines are more appropriate there since I need a pen or post its when I read).

By some odd coincidence, all 5 of the novels I am reading now or have just finished are quite similar: the narrator or one of the key characters is a man in his late 50s or 60s who is going through some sort of post divorce/relationship,  fear of death and aging/health crisis.  Maybe it’s just the usual midlife crisis, but happening later? 

These are not traditional man-caught-with-his-pants-down (and it’s all revealed in e-mail)  sort of stories, either. These men are portrayed quite sympathetically: their wives range from the bitch who left, to the bitch who is at the top of her professional career to more sympathetically but equally unavailable wives (one with incipient alzheimers; the other just growing in a different direction). 

This trend (if I may call it that: four of the  novels are fairly recent) provides an  interesting alternative perspective to the Sandra Tsing Loh article in the Atlantic.   Though I wouldn’t say it’s a call for passion either a la Cristina Nehring’s Vindication of Love.  The men in these novels are quite sexual or sexually frustrated or just plain horny:  In two novels, women’s butts figure prominently in  the plots; in 2 others, the male characters fantasize but don’t act; and in the fifth, well, I haven’t read far enough yet to know, so don’t tell me.

Basically, this is an in progress blog posting: I haven’t finished two of the novels yet, so I’m not sure if this “trend” I’m noticing will hold up, and I’m not so sure how new a trend it is.  Philip Roth’s characters immediately come to mind. But these men, well, they are different. 

If you’ve read any of these, let me know what you think:

  • Jim Harrison’s The English Major
  • Richard Russo’s Straight Man  AND Bridge of Sighs
  • Jim Lynch’s Border Songs
  • David Lodge’s Deaf Sentence

Summertime Blogging

The Academic Blogosphere (the blogging world in which I live) seems to go on semi-hiatus once classes end—or at least once they end for you semester system schools. We on the quarter system are still plugging away for 2 more weeks. Interestingly, I’ve found few community college instructors who are bloggers (as is also true with the academic novel—there are few that focus on community college faculty and students—another interesting gap to explore).

But I’m finding that the relatively light blog-reading the last few days has allowed me to get more done. I’m also less writerly these days myself: I have a list of blog ideas, but little time or inclination to pursue them right now. Instead I’m doing the usual end of term/start of summer chores:

  • Reading research paper drafts—in fact, this activity should take every waking moment of the next week despite the high attrition in those classes. Most intriguing fact from this term’s papers: I have THREE papers on “evil” and one intriguing paper on women who choose to be exotic dancers.
  • Reading my online literature class’s weekly postings—this week, they are on Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver, two of my favorite writers, so I’m looking forward to reading their postings. Yet, unlike the research paper classes, this class has no attrition, so I have 40 postings and responses to look forward to….so far, they seem to be getting O’Connor’s wicked sense of humor (and, as always, critiquing the hapless grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find”). So far, no one has taken me up on my prompt asking for an analysis of why “Everything That Rises Must Converge” appeared in the season finale of “Lost”.
  • Fine tuning the big speech I’m giving this weekend. I have the meat and bones nicely organized, but now I need to work on wording and delivery, and I should time myself, I suppose. Anyone know how long 1700 words should take to read in a New York-velocity accent?
  • Choosing textbooks for fall—yes, it’s ridiculously early to even think of such a thing, but I’m already a month late on my fall book orders.
  • Planning the summer vacation—this summer, it’s hubby’s turn to plan our vacation in August (itinerary, hotels, etc etc), but I suspect he’ll need a little pushing. Yes, I’m obviously the pushy one in this relationship….
  • Gearing up to teach two back to back online classes this summer—luckily, both are graduate level, small classes, focused on researched writing.
  • Training for two half ½ marathons in June
  • Assorted social gatherings every weekend for the next few weeks (funny how mostly introverted faculty start becoming social and extroverted as the term winds down). One gathering is a “Pure Romance” event: think Tupperware-type party with dildos and edible panties.
  • Still reading “light and uplifting” fiction each week in the endless task of finding a community read book. Has anyone read The Help by Kathryn Stockett? That was has been added to the list. Right now I’m reading Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout: a beautiful novel, not unlike Jewett’s The Country of Pointed Firs in terms of structure (each chapter focuses on a different character in this small Maine town), but so far, I wouldn’t call it “light” fiction.

I suspect in a few weeks, once the grades are submitted, the speech is done, and the gatherings are over that I will be able to do a few meaty blog postings. Till then, I’ll probably just do hit or miss links to interesting stories and sites, which I hope are at least mildly amusing (well, they are amusing to me, and perhaps that’s all that counts in the Daily Me world?).

Because Most People Stop With the Z

200px-on_beyond_zebraAt a packed house Easter sermon this morning, our pastor read from Dr. Seuss’ classic but lesser known work, On Beyond Zebra. Now, this didn’t surprise me, since as I’ve noted briefly before, he twitters ideas from the sermons he is working on each week. 

But I hadn’t read this particular work before so I wasn’t sure what theological bent it could possibly have.

But now I agree with our twittering pastor: this really is the Best. Easter. Story. Ever. 

This is possibly an ideal story to introduce the varieties of intepretation. It’s about possibility and hope.  It’s about imagination. It’s about the need to think outside the box. And, oh, yes, for all those pastors with a popular culture bent, it’s about the Christ who has risen indeed. 

Said Conrad Cornelius o”Donald o’Dell,
My very young friend who is learning to spell:
“The A is for Ape. And the B is for Bear.
The C is for camel. The H is for Hare.
The M is for Mouse. And the R is for Rat.
I know all the twenty-six letters like that.

“..through to Z is for Zebra.
I know the all well.”
Said Conrad Cornelius o’Donald o’Dell.
“So now I know everything anyone knows,
from beginning to end. From the start to the close.
Because Z is as far as the alphabet goes.”

Then he almost fell flat on his face on the floor
When I picked up the chalk and drew one letter more!
A letter he never had dreamed of before!
And I said, “You can stop, if you want, with the Z
Because most people stop with the Z
But not me!

“In the places I go there are things that I see
That I never could spell if I stopped with the Z.
I’m telling you this ’cause you’re one of my friends.
My alphabet starts where your alphabet ends!”

Why the Humanities Matter

Still grading analysis essays this Sunday (and they are, as they were last quarter as I’ve noted here, a joy to read for the most part since for many students, this is their first true understanding of how to do analysis and interpretation), so no new posting. But here are a few highlights from the week’s blogs/readings:

But here is a posting from the guest blogger, Jarrod Hayes,  at Tenured Radical that echoes some of the themes from the  Why Literature Matters talk I gave last December.

And here is a very amusing posting from Feministe linking to a video mocking skin care ads.

And Acadamnit’s query–am I a male blogger or a female blogger?–led to many an amusing comment earlier this week.

I laughed until I cried (sort of) watching these excerpts from SNL that were highlighted at

I am collecting articles on Facebook and blogging these days for a future project. Here is a recent one on the aging of Facebook friends. For those interested in a cultural analysis of blogging, check out Aaron Barlow’s book Blogging @merica: The New Public Sphere (Praeger 2008).

I finished reading Black Ships by Jo Graham this week, a novelization of the Aeneid, told from the perspective of the Sybil.  I enjoyed it: there’s romance, history (sort of), action, etc. It was a light read, but thoroughly entertaining. I see a Hollywood picture deal in its future…

Why Does Literature Matter?

My Oprah’s Book Club talk last week (discussed here) led to a 3-page conclusion on why her 12-year old book club encourages readers to address the question, why does literature matter?  I quoted Morris Dickstein’s recent essay (also posted here).  I always bring this question up in my literature classes (from introductory to senior seminars) and it almost always leads to wonderful discussions that re-emerge throughout the term and reappear, more thoughtfully, on final exams.  While it’s obvious that this question is one of those enduring ones, during a time when the percentage of people who read literature is falling, we who still believe in its value need to spread the word. Thus ended my talk.

This week’s Chronicle of Higher Education addresses that same question (though they phrase it in as “What Ails Literary Studies?”) in a trio of articles related to the question of why literature matters (and the e-mail newsletter also links to a 10 year old article on the same question). From the Newsletter, here are the links—my comments on each are below:

What Ails Literary Studies

The Joy of the Hoi Polloi

By Rita Felski

The Must-Read Recede

By Steven G. Kellman

The Elite Conceit

By Bruce Fleming

The 10-year old article is described below:


This week three scholars consider the imperiled state of literary studies. But bemoaning the field’s situation is a longstanding specialty of its own. In 1997, for instance, John M. Ellis lamented the discipline’s derangement in Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities. Michael Bérubé wrote a roundabout, cheeky Chronicle rejoinder to the book, and to Frank Kermode’s defense of it in The Atlantic Monthly.


Felski’s article, “The Joy of the Hoi Polloi”, most closely responds to my Why Does Literature Matter question. She argues that instead of trying to defend literature’s usefulness, “what literary studies sorely needs…is a nonutilitarian understanding of use.”   What she calls the “idea of recognition” –when the reader recognizes herself in a character—is affective reading: we need to encourage such a personal response to the literature, to use, as I remember fondly using, that old thesis-template phrasing we used in high school: “in literature as in [my] life”.  Felski even echoes the same metaphor I used in my talk (though she doesn’t apply it to Oprah): that literature professors need to build a bridge between theory and what she calls “common sense”—basically, non-academic reading.  I thoroughly enjoyed seeing some of the ideas I’ve been grappling with so eloquently and succinctly discussed in this essay.


Kellman’s essay,  “The Must-Read Recede”, examines another  idea I discussed in my talk last week: how reading the canon has been “sold” as a way for those without a college degree to become “middle class”—from Charles W. Eliot, the president of Harvard, to the Book of the Month Club to Mortimer Adler’s Great Books—all were appeals to the American need to continuous self improvement.  While he doesn’t mention Oprah’s Book Club (or the Book of the Month Club, actually) both aspire(d) to the same goal, just from a less lofty platform: Preaching the Gospel of Reading!


Fleming’s article, “The Elite Conceit”, beautifully dovetails with what I was trying to do in the Oprah talk—remind my colleagues why they went into literary studies to begin with and that when we deny students the opportunity to respond personally and passionately to the literary works, we are denying them the opportunity to fall in love, as we did. Fleming argues that literature professors are “killing that experience with the discipline of literary studies”: by focusing on theoretical approaches before personal connection to the literature, we’ve “made ourselves into a priestly caste.” Indirectly, he argues against survey classes in a singularly humorous line: “nowadays we teach literature as if we were giving a tour of a grocery store to Martians who’ve just touched down on Earth.”  [I must admit to actually having a final exam question to that affect.] His argument is beautifully illustrated in a Richard Russo’s short story “The Horseman” (from The Atlantic Monthly’s August 2006 issue)—just read it since my summary would not do it justice.


Finally, Michael Bérubé’s  wonderfully caustic (and just laugh-out-loud funny, in a dark humor sort of way) Chronicle article, “Defending Literary Studies Has Become a Lost Cause” [link is only available to subscribers], responds to Kermode’s Atlantic Monthly review of  John M. Ellis’  book, Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities:  


“ I think it’s about time we admitted that things in the academy are much, much worse than either Ellis or Kermode surmises. Over 70 per cent of women’s studies courses, for example, require their students to drink menstrual blood and engage in ritual witchcraft (in that order).”


Ah, brings back such memories of Intro to Women Studies, circa 1981.


Ending on a more serious note, Bérubé urges the current generation of literary critics (1997—oooh, me), to “refresh our culture’s collective memory as to why literature and criticism should matter to human affairs.”   


Ah, Bartleby.

Preaching the Gospel of Reading

Evan Agostini / Getty Images file
Evan Agostini / Getty Images file

I just finished doing a run through of my presentation on Oprah’s Book Club that I’ve titled “Preaching the Gospel of Reading” (not exactly an original title considering all the essays on OBC that use variations on that title), practicing for the Wednesday morning presentation.  I finally found a clear, and I hope, engaging focus, connecting my interest in Oprah’s Book Club with the question of Why Literature STILL Matters.  And while my significant other, who patiently listened to me practice, praised my delivery and gave me only a few excellent suggestions at tightening up some sections, I’m sure he is a little biased.  I’m nervous as hell: why is it that the thought of speaking to my colleagues (and remember it’s early in the morning, so my very under-caffeinated colleagues) makes me sweat tears?

Anyway, I need another day to focus on my presentation (and, at the same time, somehow grade final research papers) but I’m looking forward to distilling some of those ideas here for feedback. 
In the meantime, I’ve gotten several requests from students in my literature class (Books That Cook!) this term for reading lists so that they can continue reading fiction over winter break. First, let me say how much that pleases me, but second, I just love such requests. I’ve been mulling over what sort of list to create for this particular class: one that continues with the theme of food fiction and women writers, but also takes them further.   Don’t worry: I’ll be posting that list here, too, someday soon.

What a Long Strange Trip It Is

Well, since I finished reading most of the research paper drafts (see post below), I did some errands and surfed through my blogroll for a bit to catch up.  I must tell you about the following article I discovered:

It’s an article that, serendipitously, relates to a project I’m working on, and, at the same time, affects me more emotionally. A recent issue of Columbia Magazine published this thoughtful piece on why literature still matters. Morris Dickstein’s essay “The Undying Animal” is a mediation on why those who work with literature “love what we do.”  I simply must quote the first paragraph so you can hear his voice and his passion:

Caught up in the rush of our ongoing lives, we rarely get the chance to step back and reflect on why we do what we do or, more important, why we love what we do. Working with literature as scholars, editors, and critics can become as habitual as any other form of work. Our criticism grows procedural or theoretical, betraying the spirit of the writers we admire. Slipping out of routine into reflection is part of the discipline of literature itself, which pares away the casual and the incidental, the merely lifelike. Instead it concentrates impressions, ideas, and feelings into language that yields meaning. The poem is the poet’s way of suspending time and attending to the minute vibrations of the inner and outer world. The demands it makes on us as readers are personal, not professional, or personal before they are professional. At a time when literary study is on the defensive, even in universities that once nurtured it, we need to raise the question why literature matters, hoping this will illuminate why the collective work of an organization of writers and scholars matters as well.

The essay concludes by reminding us that we love literature because “it disquiets us, throws us off balance, unsettles our easy assumptions”–an idea that echoes so deeply within me but that is so challenging, for me, to explain in a classroom to students who see literature’s purpose as ultimately confirming their worldview.  Dickstein’s essay reminds me of Azar Nafasi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, her (not uncontroversial) memoir about the years she spent teaching American literature in Iran, where she, too, tries to explain that great literature is subversive:     

I explained that most great works of the imagination were meant to make you feel like a stranger in your own home. The best fiction always forced us to question what we took for granted. It questioned tradition and expectations when they seemed immutable. I told them I wanted them in their readings to consider in what ways these works unsettled them, made them feel uneasy, made them look around and consider the world, like Alice in Wonderland, through different eyes. (94)

Alice may have been confused and perhaps a little frightened, but oh, what a long, strange trip she had!