Friday, November 16, 2018

Writing inspiration from Jonathan Franzen

Figure 1. Jonathan Franzen on Lithub.
It's time to check in with our bird-lovin', Oprah-scornin', Edith Wharton-hatin' friend Jonathan Franzen again.

Franzen published 10 rules for writing on Lithub, and Twitter has been having, um, a little fun with them.

The rules themselves are not that bad. They're pretty sententious, like Franzen's fiction, and pretty humorless (ditto).  Here's one of them:

"It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction."

A couple of thoughts: 

1. "his workplace." Should we let it go? 
2. So Joyce Carol Oates isn't writing good fiction? 

I have a feeling that this is actually a burn against unseen adversaries, designed to make them feel, as the young folk say on Twitter, "seen." 

At least it's a list and not an endless paragraph in 6 volumes, and at least he isn't telling you to get rid of your dog if you want to be a great writer.  

The Guardian collected the responses to his list, and some of them are pretty funny. Not to be outdone, Lithub published a collection right after they published the list from Our Boy.

But how different are these, really, from the lists that we all make from time to time or that wend their way around Twitter? 

Does he deserve this level of mockery, or is it because he takes himself so seriously?

I'm not holding any brief for Jonathan Franzen. (I have read Jonathan Franzen.) But we put up with Captain Obvious statements all the time, including a fair number from literary theorists, and all we say is, "Yes, emperor, those clothes are stunning." 

My guess is that hating Jonathan Franzen is like a meme, and maybe like some others, he'd rather be hated and talked about if he has books (or a political persuasion) to sell than to be ignored. 

And he's not on Twitter. He's . . . writing. So even if his advice isn't inspiring, I stick by my guns that his example is.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

The correct way to Woman

The brilliant Rebecca Solnit, author of Men Explain Things to Me, called it "mansplaining," but there's more to it than that.

We all know what mansplaining is, and it includes things like asking "Can you tell me how to get some apples?" and having a chorus reply, "Oh, no no no, you're doing it all wrong; what you want for your pie is rhubarb" as if you don't know what you want the apples for and need instruction.

So it's not mansplaining, exactly. More and more these days, on listservs and in smaller emails, we're (or I am) being instructed on the correct way to Woman.

Is it since Trump or since Kavanaugh? Hard to tell. But it goes something like this:

"I, a white male, recognize your oppression and in solidarity, and to show my virtue, you must do X, Y, and Z and feel A, B, and C. You must operate in solidarity with other women, according to the rules I've set, and if you don't, you are complicit in the problem as I have defined it and are too stupid to recognize your own oppression, as I have explained at great length on this listserv. Kthxbai."

I can't imagine how infuriating this must be for men and women of color; it's plenty infuriating for me. I have been Womaning for some time now and think I've got it covered, thanks.

As it happens, I am in solidarity in fighting against problems and I do what I can do. But like most adult human beings, I resist being bossed around--resist it vigorously, in fact.

And men aren't the only ones who want to tell women how to Woman.

 I was thinking about this when looking again at the Salinger biography this morning (because it's not work).

Even without holding any particular brief for Maynard as a writer, you can see that what she's recounting in the early sections is the story of abuse, with herself as the object of it. Predictably, David Shields, Jonathan Yardley, etc., had no use for the story and Maynard's outing of The Great Man.

But neither did Cynthia Ozick, Larissa MacFarquhar, Elizabeth Gleick, Juliet Waters, and, famously, Maureen Dowd, who all had scathing and by-now-all-too-familiar things to say about a woman who speaks out about her abuse: She did it wrong and had no right to tell her story. Only Michiko Kakutani, Liza Schwarzbaum, Joyce Carol Oates, and Katha Pollitt were able to set apart the writing, which they weren't crazy about, from the person, whose experiences they understood as damaging.

Salerno's book came out in 2013, and many of the reviews were from 1998, after Maynard's memoir was published, both of which seem a lifetime ago. The reactions have shifted 180 degrees, so that's progress.

I guess there's no point that ties these two ideas together, except that one (Salinger) sparked me to think of the other one (how to Woman). I think, though, that especially when a majority party and its leader is telling delighted followers what the One Best Way is, we ought to think twice before taking the advice of anyone on the other side who's telling us what their idea of the One Best Way to Woman might be. Your ideology does not oblige me to behave in the ways you dictate to me, even if it's correct and not crazypants. 

Saturday, October 20, 2018

To those who do free stuff to make the world a better place: thank you.

When I was out walking yesterday, I saw that our neighborhood's Little Free Library had a sign up that Todd H. Bol, founder of the Little Free Libraries movement, had died. (See the obit at BoingBoing, the source of this picture.)

I don't have a Little Free Library because giving away books of literary criticism from rhymes-with-Luke-Luniversity-Fress isn't going to win many neighborhood hearts and minds, but still: farewell, R.I.P., and thank you, Todd H. Bol. You wanted to make the world a better place, and you did.

You might remember that last year the Radical Librarians were criticizing Little Free Libraries because they were just not quite correct enough and that they should cease to exist so that those who put them up could go advocate for more library funding--because obviously people who love books couldn't possibly do both. Obviously.

It's not an either/or with this or with other schemes for betterment.

Also, we ought to thank the people who make things for free.

For example, around the web (okay, on Twitter and comment boards) you'll see that someone has put up--for free--software on GitHub or a site that does something specific you need for research.

Let me emphasize: for free--not adware, not 30-day trials.

Most people say thanks, but a few are all "this sucks! Why doesn't it do X function that I need?"

Or "why doesn't this website have this thing I need for free?"

Or "why doesn't this transcription or site include all the metadata I need?"

Or--but you get the picture.

Now, big sites like Google Books have an obligation (says I) not to disable previously available functionality, like page numbers. Why have they done this for the preview function in many cases? No one knows. (Digression--sorry.)

Political action is important, and so is giving money. But so too is thanking the people who are trying to make the world a better place. It's not either/or.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Academic hoaxes: irritating waste of time or the most infuriating waste of time in a time of massive national lies?

A group of merry pranksters with a mean streak a mile wide and lots and lots of time on their hands perpetrated a hoax recently by submitting faked papers and getting a couple of them published. 

So whose time did they waste?

  • That of the journal editors, who are doing this for no pay.
  • That of the poor reviewers, who were forced to wade through the pretentious BS and try, in good faith, to say something not awful in case this was the misguided effort of a grad student.
  • That of all of us who have to look at this nonsense in the news at the Chronicle and everywhere else.
  • That of all in the humanities, who will now have to redouble their efforts to prove to skeptical legislators that the humanities are worth supporting. 

Academic hoaxers, or any kind of hoaxers (except Poe and Twain, because Poe and Twain) make me furious.

They abuse the trusting nature of human beings. It's a bullying move. It shows you have power over someone and that you're displaying it in front of an audience to humiliate your victim.

So you get to be a bully and make someone look like a fool. You do you. Happy now?

It's only one step away from the kind of bullying power trip that we saw in the news last week, and I don't have to say any more about that.

Abuse someone's trust. Trick them into believing one thing when you mean to hurt them. Carry out your plan and then laugh at your victims.

If you want to read more, here's some views from The Chronicle.

One of the people there said "Any academic who thinks hoaxing as such is unethical or nugatory is a dull and petty functionary."

Two points:

1. It IS unethical.
2. I'd rather be a dull and petty functionary than a jerk. 

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

The parable of the pies: how the sausage gets made

If you're in an academic department, and especially if you've held any kind of administrative position, you might recognize the truth of Bismarck's (or, as Wikipedia tells me, John Godfrey Saxe's) well-known apothegm, as paraphrased in one of my favorite Hamilton lyrics:
No one really knows how the game is played
The art of the trade
How the sausage gets made
We just assume that it happens
But no one else is in
The room where it happens.
 I'm not even close to the higher-up Northern Clime University "room where it happens," but at a lower level, I've had ample opportunities to see how the "art of the trade" happens in just about every set of decisions.

 But even assuming that everyone is nobly concerned with the best interests of the students and the university, differences of opinion happen while that sausage is getting made.

Let's say that your department wants ten apple pies and that the pies are not to fix something that is going horribly wrong.  You fill out the multitude of forms, talk to individuals, see the lay of the land, and then approach Admin with the request.

Admin says, "You must be joking! No pies for you."

You say, "But here are the reasons we need the pies to take better care of our students."

Admin says, " . . . "

You say, "And if you give us the pies, we can form a consortium, build partnerships, raise our standing among peer institutions, and be perceived as a local god."

Admin says, " . . . "

You say, "And we'll write a grant to get the matching funds and hope it gets funded."

Admin says,  "Well, we can see our way clear to give you five pies, four apple and one mince."

Jubilant at this success, you take this to your colleagues for the first time.

One group--let's call them the incrementalists, or Hillary voters--says, "It's a start! Let's get going on that grant. Do you think we could negotiate for two more pies?"

Another group--let's call them the ideologically pure, or Jill Stein voters--says, "You sellouts! Everyone hates mince! Why did you agree to this? We need ten apple pies, full stop.  This is untenable and ideologically impure. Ten pies or we dissolve this department! Burn it down!"

It seems to me that there can be good, sincere colleagues on both sides, but most people are probably more one than the other.

Incrementalists have some faith in change within the system--not all systems everywhere, but the specific little corner of the system that they can influence. This is sometimes true.

Ideological purists have faith that if they throw a cog in the machine or blow it up, something better will result. This is also sometimes true.

As an incrementalist who works to make things better ("bends toward justice"), I see the five pies as a glass half full. Not everyone would agree.

But I have become an ideologue in one respect: I am completely, totally, and utterly done with the loud virtue-signalling and vilification that ensues from people who haven't lifted a finger after some of us have worked our tails off to get those five pies.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Catching up on the week and some writing inspiration

I'm getting ready for something for which have to get the writing done--have to. I've been paralyzed with anxiety about writing. What worked the other day?

Sit down and time myself like Anthony Trollope. He used to write 250 words every 15 minutes for 3 hours a day, by the clock, before he went to work. Every day. Now, you can say what you want about the quality of Trollope's novels (most of them are pretty good), but you can never deny that they are done. 

So, with the help of this

  1. I wrote down the time in my trusty black notebook, giving myself 25 minutes (a Pomodoro) to write 200 words in Every time I got up from the desk or looked at email, I had to write it down. Pomodoro after pomodoro until the afternoon when I went for a walk. It worked! 
  2. I promised myself when I finished 2000 words for the day I could have chocolate. I didn't get to 2000, and I didn't get chocolate, but I got to 1300, which is more than I would have otherwise. 
  3. Writing before school isn't an option because I get up early and have a long commute, but if I leave at 2:30 the day is still relatively young and I can get some writing done after dinner sometimes. 
Other positive items:

1. Three weeks ago I gave up FB and advice columns, cold turkey, and I don't miss them. FB was making me miserable because everyone was finishing book proposals, book chapters, etc. and I was not. Deciding there was no need to torment myself, I hung a "gone fishin'" sign on the site and haven't been back--ditto for the advice columns.

2. One of my colleagues who never attends any kind of department meeting and is minimally on campus saw me the other day and said, "Where have you been? I haven't seen you around." I said, "right there in the office and around," and I did not strangle her, so victory is mine.

3. I'm really enjoying my classes. 

Monday, September 10, 2018

MLA Job List and some links

The MLA Job List opens today (September 10) at

Remember, this isn't the be-all and end-all that it used to be. As Jonathan Kramnick reminds us in "The Way We Hire Now" (
To get a grip on where things now stand, start with the fact that the MLA jobs list has lost its monopoly. The low cost and simplicity of doing things online has meant that advertisements now appear on any number of platforms, including The Chronicle, Interfolio, Higher Education Recruitment Consortium (HERC), HigherEdJobs, and well beyond.
Don't forget the jobs at, too.

If you're looking for information on historical trends (and the now-infamous rosy vision of the Bowen report), here are some links.

MLA Report on the JIL 2016-17 (chart is from this source):
At the Chronicle (paywalled but free with this link): On the Bowen report and what went wrong:

Some older posts from this blog about job letters, still maybe useful:

The art of the job letter:
The art of the job letter redux, part I:
The art of the job letter redux, part II:

Good luck, everyone!