Thursday, July 21, 2016

Secret messages to contemporary fiction writers

As most of you have probably figured out from all those shout-outs to Mark Twain, Sinclair Lewis, and the rest, contemporary fiction isn't my area. For a promised article with an immediate deadline, though, I'm reading a lot of it--bearing in mind that contemporary for me is anything from about 1990 on.

Some of what I'm reading is brilliant. It's amazing. It's astonishing, and it's powerful. It deserves its status as a contemporary classic.

But some of it is less so, even within works by the same author. Some pieces are amazing, and others seem more like a bag of tricks.

  • Maybe you were told to write down striking images in your Moleskine and to save them up to use later. Maybe you were told to use figurative language like alliteration, too, to make the language memorable. But please use these sparingly, because reading some of these works is like sitting down to eat a big cereal bowl of chunky rocks. The words can barely make sense because the reader has to work so hard to find a verb. I'm not asking for easy, but it's possible to be literary, powerful, complex, and still enjoyable.  
  • A few really powerful and well-developed characters in a short story can work more magic than fifteen characters all competing for airtime.
  • This goes double if all the characters have been given highly eccentric names. 
  • If you put a character in a novel or story purely to illustrate a point--the Evils of Capitalism, say--the reader is likely to recognize that right away, say, "Got it, thanks," and be longing to skip some of the character's speeches.  

  • I recall from the Steinbeck East of Eden diaries that Steinbeck wasn't sure that readers would get his Big Symbol of Cain and Abel. By this he seems to mean the book's structure wherein the sons of Adam and Cathy (a Lilith figure) are twins, one good and one evil--get it? I like East of Eden, but that's not exactly a hidden symbol. You can trust your reader. 
  • There's an old rule in screenwriting that every scene has to do two out of three essential things: develop character and relationships, advance the plot, or articulate/deepen the themes. Fiction probably has to do more than this with each of its scenes, but it's not a bad rule to bear in mind.
  • Death, dismemberment, torture, loss, repression, and violence are not the only things that can evoke powerful emotions or make a good story, although they make a lot of good ones. 
  • And when does a conventional trope become a cliche? I know that all animals in a contemporary story will die, and I'm ready for that. (TVTropes hilariously calls this "death by Newbery Medal," but it happens in literary fiction, too.)

As I said, most of the fiction is really fine, but that's not to say Homer doesn't nod on occasion, as in the list above. 

Do you have any "bag of tricks" items that you've seen in current fiction? 

Friday, July 08, 2016

Open access: you go first. No, YOU go first.

Note: Published as a distraction from the unrelentingly grim national news. For thoughtful reflections on those events, see the recent posts by Historiann and What Now.

At the Chronicle, Paul Basken reports that despite a faculty vote to encourage open access publication, "only about 25 percent of professors systemwide are putting their papers into a state-created repository that allows free outside access."

The title of the article is "The U. of California’s Open-Access Promise Hits a Snag: The Faculty."

Like everyone else, I love the idea of open access in theory, but I have questions.

Is it "the Faculty," though? Read between the lines and you'll see a few other lightly mentioned or unmentioned snags:

  • "But publishers, predicted to be the primary obstacle, have proved surprisingly compliant: Only about 5 percent of publishers have made any attempt to ask faculty members to opt out, he said."  
    Comment: "Asking faculty members to opt out" is not the same as a publisher giving his/her/its/their blessing to publishing on a university site before publication. Many publishers will allow only uncorrected proofs to be archived, not the final version of an article. Others allow only the manuscript, or "preprint."  What use is that to scholars? How do you cite this, since there would be no final page numbers? What's the point of preprints in this case?
  • "Much of the open-access movement centers on efforts to persuade scientific journals to adopt revenue models that do not rely on subscription fees. A common alternative asks authors, or their institutions or funders, to pay a fee to cover the costs of reviewing, editing, and assembling their journals."
  • Comment: For a humanities journal, that gold access "fee" that the essay so blithely skips over can be $3500 to $4000.  For ONE article.
  • Would your university or department pay that? Mine would not.  
  • Humanities grants would not pay for this, as the scientific ones do. 
  • And what if one journal had a fee of $2500 and a more prestigious one had $4000? Wouldn't you feel pressured to publish where the fee is lower, even if the higher-ranked journal would accept your article? 
  • And wouldn't this fee-for-review model encourage the kind of scammy "International Journal of Everything under the Sun" solicitations that clog my mailbox every morning?
  • To get people to comply, "California has relied on automation, creating a computer system that looks for any article by a university faculty member. The system then sends an email to the author, offering a link that automatically puts the article into the state’s open-access repository. That approach has been key just to getting up to the 25-percent compliance rate, Mr. Kelty said."

  • Comment: This is a good idea, full stop. I'd do this with articles I have already published, wouldn't you? 
  • The push for open access is to create journals that will compete with regular $$$$ journals put out by Elsevier, etc., which have an unbeatable business model: pay the editors in nothing but prestige, the contributors ditto, and the reviewers not even prestige, since they're supposed to be anonymous, and rake in the profits. Cutting back on this business model is a worthy goal./b>
    • Comment: Will publishing only in open access journals result in a tenurable record at Harvard or at your institution, or will a faculty member still need to publish in Science, Nature, PMLA, Novel, or whatever other top-level journals are out there? Once again, the most prestigious schools have to take the lead on this. Apparently people at UCLA, Berkeley, and the other California schools don't think that they can accumulate a tenurable record based on open access, and until they do, I doubt that others would follow suit, however worthy the goal. 

    So, in short: it's not just about the faculty. It's about an entire academic system that is pushing the faculty to do things that are worthwhile but--surprise!--are not necessarily rewarded.