Thursday, November 26, 2015

Enjoyable, by a woman, modern literary classic: "critical walkback" says you can only pick two

Happy Thanksgiving!

I don't read much modern fiction (too much ancient stuff to unearth) and haven't read Jennifer Weiner, so I don't have a dog in this hunt, so to speak. But I did read The Goldfinch, which was really good for getting me through a bunch of delayed and canceled flights a couple of years ago, and what Weiner says in the article sounds right.

In "If you enjoyed a good book and you're a woman, the critics think you're wrong," , Weiner describes a "critical walkback" that happens--surprise, surprise!--if a new book by a woman, at first critically acclaimed, becomes too popular:

Call it “Goldfinching”, after Vanity Fair’s 2014 yes-but-is-it-art interrogation as to whether Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer prize-winning, mega-bestselling book The Goldfinch is or is not literature. It’s the process by which a popular and previously well-regarded novel and, more importantly, its readers, are taken to the woodshed, usually by a critic who won’t hesitate to congratulate himself on his courage, as if dismissing popular things that women like requires some special kind of bravery – as if it doesn’t happen all day, every day.
Weiner says that the same critical smackdown happened with Gone, Girl, The Lovely Bones, and some other books I haven't read. It's not just James Wood at the New Yorker, either: Mary Gaitskill took on Gone, Girl. 

Now, women aren't obliged to like books just because they're written by women. They're not obliged to like any books, and if you read Dorothy Parker, who hated about 80% of what she reviewed, and Mary McCarthy, who slapped down just about all of it, you'll see that the critical smackdown isn't the province of men.

But I'm intrigued by the idea that these works are considered bad only after they become popular. Why is that? Why is someone like Jonathan Franzen allowed to be popular and critically acclaimed?--which was the subject of another Weiner-Franzen controversy a few years back.

With some critics, you get a feeling for their prejudices and can take their recommendations with the appropriate grain of salt. Emily Nussbaum apparently only likes gross-out or transgressive horror, for example, and ranks television shows accordingly.  The New Yorker puts (or used to put) David Denby on movies if they're to be favorably reviewed and Adam Gopnik (always entertaining) if they want them to be ripped up, unless they're foreign films, which are always favorably reviewed.  You get the picture.

Yet are critics doing this critical walkback because they genuinely have second thoughts or because to be dismissive, even retroactively, gives you more critical standing as a Judge of High Art?

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Friday, November 20, 2015

Universal truths

  • If you get put on a new committee because of your new rank, they don't ask you when you can be there; they just tell you. If you're teaching at that time, too bad.  You get to burn a research day coming to campus so that you can meet with someone and get up to speed.
  • If you write a grant proposal, you will discover either an egregious typo or an unfinished sentence somewhere in the proposal--after the deadline and after you have turned it in. 
  • In this interview at the Chronicle, Camille Paglia has some good writing inspiration and some even better self-regard, with which she lights the paper and the interviewer on fire, I think.  But hey, writers should be confident, right?
  • Doodle polls have a "hidden" setting so that you can't see what other people have put in; did you know that? I wonder if it's so the person running the meeting can privately overturn the "most popular" date and time if it doesn't suit him or her or them. 
  • The best way to ensure a deluge of work is to sign up for something you want to do (the Iowa Writers Workshop MOOC), which will be entirely swept aside since you can barely keep up with what you are supposed to be doing. 
  • Too tired to work and in the mood for something with no thought to it at all? The Kitchenette's "Behind Closed Ovens" series has some funny stories and screens out anything disgusting.
  • The guy who invented NoMoRoBo is a god and should receive the Nobel Peace Prize for keeping those of us who still have land lines (because relatives) sane.
  • You can have a "no email on weekends" policy, but if more than 30 emails from your collaborators pile up in a day, you may have to break down and answer them. Never Weaken is a Harold Lloyd comedy, not a phrase to live by.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

I can't add anything to what's been said

Thinking of those in Paris and Lebanon and wishing them even more of the courage and the strength that they've shown to get past this nightmare, and hoping that other nations can band together to fight this scourge.

Image credit:

Monday, November 09, 2015

Random bullets of November

  • Flavia Fescue is right: "you should always ask."   In a quiet moment recently during an in-person exchange, I managed to ask an editor of a collection about an essay, tentatively accepted, that had me so stumped that I hadn't turned in the final version.  I wanted to ask "has that ship sailed?" but not in so many words.  Answer: no (hooray!).  I had been too chicken to ask via email, so this worked out well.
  • It's energizing as well as exhausting to see people at a conference, as I'm not the first to observe. Have you ever noticed that conferences (some of them, anyway) are among the few places where we can praise each other face-to-face for scholarship, whether we're acquainted or not? Think about it.  How many other places, except for an invited talk, do you get to hear applause for your words and kind words for your ideas? There's a glow of good fellowship, if that's still a word, that can make quite a difference in the most Novemberish of November moods.
  • On the other hand, you're always reminded that you can never work hard enough, fast enough, or long enough to get all the things done. To judge by the tone and number of emails that greeted me, I am pretty sure that some people never sleep and find you morally remiss if you don't email them from the plane on the way home.  This makes for a depressing return and a resumption of the feeling of hopelessness that has dogged me all semester. 
  • It's like this: When one of my kids was little, one unusually busy day I asked hir, "Have you done X? How about Y? Z is coming up," until ze said, "Stop chasing me!" and I apologized. Without going into specifics, that is exactly how I feel right now: Stop chasing me. 
  • But to end on a happier note: it will get done because it has to get done.  If it doesn't, people can be angry with me but unless they take to torchlight mobs and tumbrils, they can't actually hurt me.
  • And soon it will be Thanksgiving!

Friday, October 30, 2015

Florida CC asks faculty to bid for jobs: the English Department of the Future is here

Way back in 2008, in "English Department of the Future," I wrote this:

GA: "Hmm. That's not good. Those 5 deserve better for their tuition money; we have to keep the customers happy, you know. It's a good thing we don't have to rehire him in the spring. Do we still have the instructor bids from the fall?"

Minion: "Yes. Of the 350 applications we got, at least five or six of them offered to teach the class for very close to what Instructor X is teaching it for, although none of them offered to pay for all their own photocopying, as he did. I think we can get someone for around $2,000 to teach this course.

GA: "No benefits, of course?"

Minion: (Laughs) "Of course not!"

I was kidding. It was supposed to be satire. 

According to IHE, a Florida community college trustee thinks it's a great idea:

Putting a project out to bid is typically part of the public works process, since competitive bids tend to drive down the price and ensure fair opportunity for contracts. But should that process be applied to faculty hiring in public higher education? A member of the Board of Trustees for the State College of Florida at Manatee-Sarasota thinks so, and he’s set to brief the board on his proposal at an upcoming meeting. 
That was in September. Between then and now, Beruff was reportedly working on a second proposal that would ask potential college employees, including faculty members, to quote their fee for services on job applications. That information would then be used in the hiring decision.

I think I need a sign that reads "Professor Undine and her crystal ball predicting the future of higher education are available for a consulting fee.  The consulting fee is commensurate with what the top administration pays external consultants who give the same advice that faculty give them for free."

Friday, October 23, 2015

You're in the (almost) home stretch. Be good to yourself.

Figure 1. If you don't dress like this, maybe no one will notice your absence.
For reasons I don't at all understand, this has been an incredibly stressful semester. My colleagues are lovely, as always, so it may be just the feeling, possibly exaggerated, of being pulled in too many directions and failing at all of them (which is on me, not the work or the surroundings).

The copy-edited book is back at the press, and I've finished a couple of small writing projects. Yet the stress of not getting other things finished--the recalcitrant article manuscript, conference papers, etc.-- is causing anxiety and things like the flashing lights and obscured vision that are signs of a very bad headache. It doesn't progress if I can stretch out with my office door closed for half an hour.  I don't want to call it a migraine, but still: flashing lights.

So here's a list to pry me (us) off the ceiling at this point of the semester.

1. You're in the (almost) home stretch. Be good to yourself.

2. Try a cup of green tea.  Try a tall glass of water, which also combats fatigue.

3. Even better, try to get out for a run. Listen to a podcast or a book rather than the voices inside your head.

4. Your colleagues may forgive you for not showing up at the many events scheduled every week. (Maybe they are like Fie, who has some wise words about this in the comments to an earlier post.)

5. About #4: unless you stride around in a swirling cloak like Orson Welles, chances are good no one will even notice your absence, so stop worrying.

6. Eat good, simple food and make it a meal.  A handful of crackers or almonds wolfed down before someone's presentation is not the same as lunch or dinner.

7. Looking at a list of five pieces of writing, all equally important, all requiring lots of time and complex thought, is a good way to paralyze yourself into thinking "I should do X -- wait, Y is due sooner --no, here's another email about Z."

Pick one. If you find yourself sitting in front of a screen and unable to write, grade some papers, even if it does burn the sacred morning writing time.  At least you'll be doing something, and you'll feel better for it.

8. Remember the big picture.  We're not doing brain surgery here. With the exception of recommendation letters, which have to be in on time, and grant letters (ditto), you can only get done what you can get done, as quickly and as well as you can manage it.

9. Get some sleep.

10. Get some fresh air, even if it's just for five minutes.  Breathe deeply.  The air is a wonderful tonic, which I'm making up but sounds like something Emerson should have said.

What's your advice for de-stressing?