Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Writing sample. Persuasion and how you do your job or play nice, or fail to play nice, with others. On the other hand, if you plan to read books and critique critics for a living, it's important to give some consideration to where you start, and with what assumptions.
I don't have an easy answer. As an undergraduate, I thought I should insulate myself from the pester of French criticism and its American apostles and give my mind a chance to deliberate on some of the questions that Derrida, Foucault, de Man, and Jameson seemed so eager to answer for me, particularly about the political dimension of literature. Tending to see the critical establishment as monolithic, I avoided it and chose a concentration where I could practice that comfortable, old-fashioned close reading and, as my rebellion, refused to discuss "texts"--just novels, books, and poems.
This changed once I began to study Russian and Russian literature. Early on I encountered Propp and Bakhtin, structuralists and formalists--that whole host of twentieth-century figures who took a step back from the Romantic view that literary criticism was an exertion of superior taste (yours over someone else's) and instead directed criticism to something external and objective: the ur-story, with all of its little plus-minus signs, charts, graphs, and varieties of dashed lines to indicate deviation and conformity.
And there's something deeply appealing about this, especially when you're about 23 and feel adrift in the literary history of the twentieth-century. Enough psychological research demonstrates that humans are pattern-seeking creatures for sound evolutionary biological reasons (although I've always wondered if our quest for what Gould called "just so stories" about the origins of man are merely another manifestation of pattern-seeking and therefore self-refuting). But this sort of system-building presumes a system, a flaw which Northrop Frye partially acknowledges when he opposes his own schematization of the poetic at the end of Anatomy of Criticism's introduction. But then again this reverts to a matter of personal taste, appreciation, the finer aesthetic sensibilities which contain in themselves no particular justification.
And maybe they don't need to--but then there's this inconvenient little trade called literary criticism, practiced primarily in English and literature departments across our fair land, which, like any trade, needs a central concept of itself to hire its faculty members, admit its graduate students, and teach the doe-eyed 18-year-olds placed in its care how to read a novel and a poem. "Notice the little details which first attracted your professor to the study of literature" is inadequate (and unjust) on multiple counts. Charts objectify the process, and one's mastery of them becomes, like in any hard science, a positive criterion, but the practice fails because it ignores those little details which first attracted your professor (and you) to the study of literature. Deconstructionism attempts to destroy the problem by dethroning the object of study entirely, but, as everyone realized, even throwing out literature qua literature leaves one with the question of its replacement. That sound you hear in English departments nowadays is nature abhorring the vacuum and looking for something, anything, to put in its place.
And, despite my love for Frye and my sympathy for his project, I can't quite bring myself to suggest structuralism. Its utter discontinuity with the practice of reading is only the first problem in a long chain leading to its imposition of scientific professionalism on a field that derives most of its weight and value from the unpredictability of the world and those who inhabit it. It seems that as a group, we English majors have to take refuge in a kind of paradox: writing about literature as if we believed what we said were true, but knowing that however extraordinary our interpretations, our books, our essays in PMLA, they provide no single or systematic answer. For me, at least, this is where the beauty and the terror of criticism lie: in roughly the same time, place, and aspect.
At this point, I haven't the faintest idea whether I'll get into graduate school, succeed there, and subsequently spend my life at this. It occurred to me the other day that while I'd always thought studying literature a good deal easier than creating it, I'm entirely wrong about that. Creation is an organic process that--no matter what our deconstructionists tell us--isn't fundamentally self-reflexive. Taking things apart is far greater cause for inward reflection--self-doubt, we might as well call it--about method. Both are about literature, but this is where their similarities end.
Monday, January 28, 2008who_got_in community, I know that some requests for interviews have gone out today. Generally believing the Internet (as I already put it in a comment on that community) to be a thriving black petri dish of speculation and rumor, I decided to call up Northwestern's English Department to get something approximating the truth. The very helpful graduate coordinator informed me that some requests had indeed gone out today, but seemed to think that not all of them had. And although this jibes well with the fact that only one person watching that board seems to have gotten a request, and that a scatter shot pattern of information manifested itself last year, with some hearing three or four days later than others, this announcement is forcing me to deal a little earlier than I wanted with the fact that plenty of clever people with test scores as good as mine or better don't get into graduate school. Like most Americans, and, if psychologists are to believed, most of the world, I tend to think that I'm better off than I really am, that the pieces of life will eventually arrange themselves into a coherent pattern if only I have the ability to discern it--that, in the final analysis, everything will be just hunkydorey. Lately I've had a lot of cause to question this, and as an aspiring critic and novelist find myself attracted to plots motivated by coincidence that looks like artifice only in the eyes of an observer. Which leads me to my back up plan, should it come to pass that I'm deemed unworthy of any PhD program in English: I'm going to write that novel.
Friday, January 25, 2008Lynx sailed into San Diego Bay, hoping to find easy prey among the soccer moms, real estate agents, and sundry stoned surfers of our fair city. We later came to suspect that its quarry was Hummer stroller, but when we and 20 or so other brave souls set out in the cutter Californian, we knew not that it planned to take from us that which we wished gone in the first place. We thought only to defend our patria against the incursions of the insidious evil to the north (Orange County).
Clouds in the bay presaged a storm, but luckily the day was fine for a gun battle and our comparably heavier size and larger guns put us at the advantage.
Our metal saviors.
'Twas truly a fine day.
The old girl did manage to fire at us once or twice.
Yes, those are tiny people way up on the mast.
But we bested her in the end. She cut tail and fled before we could do her in for good, but it was a successful campaign. The Hummer strollers and related goods of the people of San Diego were safe for another day, and another attack.
(In utter and complete seriousness, the volunteers who manned this incredibly complicated piece of non-digital, all-manual machinery--the official tall ship of the state of California, apparently--deserve some sort of alcoholic prize. Every five seconds they were scrambling around the deck to maneuver the sails, tie off things whose function I never quite understood, and stopping all the while to try to explain to one intensely stupid or very deaf old gentleman that he really did need to sit down when he was on the quarter deck. What I hadn't realized before now was how dangerous these ships really are, outside the usual hazard of tripping on something and ending up in the drink. On the quarter deck, you could also get slapped around by the mast and end up in the drink WITH a concussion. Or one of the little people who climb on the sails could fall on top of you, which would produce much the same effect. Or your knife could slip while you were cutting off some rope. Really. I've never been so grateful not to be a nineteenth-century seaman in my entire life.)
Controls. All well and fine, but notice the little sticker in the upper right corner. "Doesn't work."
I'm no expert on Russian naval instructions, or, for that matter, Russian, but I think these are instructions about what doors to close in various situations. "Water and fire" are the first two, but the last means "call" or "summons."
The Russian word for ketchup: "Ketchoop."
To recreate the real atmosphere of a sub, I asked my husband, who was conveniently wearing a leather jacket, to look like a Soviet submariner:
More can be found here.
Tuesday, January 22, 2008Original of Laura was still sitting in a Swiss vault. (Incidentally, I'm very proud of myself for resisting the temptation to call this the original of the Original of Laura.) The Slate piece on the subject isn't really worth a link, but I suppose I'll give it one, anyway. (It's an extended and whiny appeal, the contents of which you'll be able to guess later.) The basic plotline is this: Nabokov, in high literary dudgeon, left his final manuscript extant with orders for his wife to burn it. Apparently, she blinked, and left the task to their son Dmitri Nabokov instead. Dmitri, who seems to imagine himself a Nabokovian trickster, has issued a series of enigmatic statements about Laura, which situate it both within and without his father's literary legacy. It's now believed for various reasons that it'll be pyrotechnics for the manuscript, but he's also admitted to making a copy.
My initial reaction was along the lines of burn, baby, burn. The reason I like Nabokov is his insistence on the rights of the individual mind against the universe, his patent intolerance for determinism and any one who would deny our human ability to create and recreate our world. It seems an offense against the man's memory not to respect his last wishes, especially about his own novel.
And to some extent, this is still how I feel about it. But my bibliographic viscera are beginning to creep as I hear more about this story. I trust Nabokov to know what usually happens to writers' instructions after their deaths, and I have to wonder if this wasn't some sort of last puzzle, a final test for those who think they know Nabokov. Maybe the so-called Original of Laura is not a novel at all, but a roadmap for reading the other novels, or a final statement about what the hell really happened in Pale Fire, and all we have to do to get it in our grubby little hands is understand the joke.
Real prediction. Something else I've learned from bibliographic history: if there's one copy, there are five copies. Or possibly 10. D.V. Nabokov will die suddenly and at least one of these copies will reach the general public within a month. There will be the usual questions about the copy, whether it's a forgery, how closely it resembles the manuscript, and whether that letter there is an "a" or an "o" and an entire little factory of criticism will spring up over these questions and launch at least three or four careers. As an aspiring academic, it's hard to complain too much about this, although recording it this way doesn't put all of us in the best of lights, does it?
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
I should admit at the outset that I love grammar. She's my newfound joy and consolation, and all the lovelier for it, because American schools don't teach her. One tends to learn of her existence for the first time when studying a highly inflected language, like Latin or Russian, when word order ceases to matter and declensions are all. It's like being initiated into a secret cult: suddenly, you unlock that everlasting mystery about when to use "who" and "whom," and you know other initiates by their words and deeds. (I wonder what Derrida would have had to say about this.)
But she's a difficult mistress: capricious, tricky, and hard to satisfy. In Russian, unequivocally, the genitive case is the place where everyone gets tripped up. It's used with all sorts of expressions that are untranslatable into English, and in cases where the expression is translatable, but an English speaker, if she had to use case, would use a different one. Odd vowel insertions, zero endings, and words that don't seem to follow any rules other than the ones they make for themselves round out the challenge.
To our native speakers, this is unacceptable. They've heard their parents and grandparents speak Russian for years, and they know what they've heard: Russians tend to stick an "ов" on the end of all expressions requiring the genitive plural, and leave things at that. None of this tricksy "ей" or "ё" insertion. In a way, I see their point. Languages change over time, generally in the direction of greater grammatical simplicity, and much of literary Russian was itself invented by Karamzin around 1800, anyway. On the other hand, my purpose in the class is to learn that literary Russian, so I need to know why endings suddenly disappear on feminine nouns in the plural, or why you use the singular genitive after 2, 3, and 4, instead of the imminently more logical plural, or, for God's sakes, the nominative.
But then, as I was translating "White Nights," I noticed that Dostoevsky did the same thing to a feminine noun. Illusions shattered, I won't be quite so hard on our native speakers the next time that they claim that Russian was invented to screw with us and the only decent response is to screw her back.
Tuesday, January 15, 2008a chimp controlling a 200-lbs. robot from thousands of miles away with only the power of its mind is beyond cool.
Friday, January 11, 2008might have been consolidation, if not for the fact that "The Idiot" is 700 pages long. I've decided to either warm myself up or maybe stop with some of Dostoevsky's short stories. First up is белые ночи ("White Nights"). Whenever my husband wants to make fun of me for studying Russian literature, he points to this story and says, "Look! Look! See how Russian literature turns its aesthetic greatness to the purpose of proving, almost scientifically, that happiness on earth is impossible?" (Or something to that effect.) "White Nights" entered our peculiar marital lexicon as a moment of great happiness followed by wrist-slashing despair, usually over matters сентиментальный, as the subtitle would have it.
Enter the Internet. Amazon Wish Lists were probably good for telling us what people wanted to read (or wanted other people to think they wanted to read) but now facebook has an application that categorizes your books by what you've read, what you want to read, and what you liked or didn't. This links up to your friends' profiles and their friends profiles (and so on) to create a virtual web of books. You can click on a favorite book and instantly know who in your extended networks liked it. Standalone sites like Goodreads.com provide the same deal. LibraryThing reflects the entire content of your personal collection. Most of this is, of course, linked to other vital information about the reader: location, sex, education level, and social networks.
So I think that being a book historian about a hundred years from now will be an infinitely easier thing than it is now. As we all know, content on the Internet is indestructible. Google is an all-knowing, all-seeing deity with a long and vengeful memory. I remember one time my husband and I were experiencing some bizarre server problems that let us access just about every other website besides Google, and it took a couple of refreshes on the New York Times website to convince us that nuclear holocaust hadn't really come to a town near us.
Thursday, January 10, 2008
Ah, sweet, sweet freedom. It's kind of like being a second-semester senior all over again.
Wednesday, January 9, 2008
Classes for the quarter started on Monday. I'm taking Second-Year Russian, part two, along with a Dostoevsky single-author class. I've never been able to parse exactly how I feel about single-author classes, because I'm something of a New Critic at heart and it seems like exactly the sort of warm and ripe petri dish where you expect the intentional fallacy to grow and mutate. On the other hand, I'm ravenous for literary biography (have even considered writing a novel in the form of one, a la Sebastian Knight, taken to a greater extreme) and Dostoevsky's is, so far, not disappointing. I knew he'd been sent to Siberia, of course, but what I didn't realize is that they actually led him and his comrades out to the public square, lined them up, aimed their weapons, and were only interrupted when a messenger from the czar came riding up with a reprieve.
The kicker? The whole thing was staged, for the purposes of making the political prisoners believe that their lives were a gift from the czar. I'm having trouble imagining any example--literary or otherwise--of greater, more heinous psychological manipulation.
My own problems keep me from writing more today, but upcoming: Genette.
Monday, January 7, 2008
It's not a fair assessment of the book, which is actually fascinating, but I'm reading an anthropology text called Jane Austen and the Fiction of Culture to soothe the nagging school beast. I finally feel my eyelids descending, though, so maybe I'll try to get back to bed now.
Sunday, January 6, 2008
Which reminds me of one of the few reasons I like San Diego. If you can manage to overlook the provinciality of the suburbanites and the rows of Hummer strollers in every public place, and can make your peace with the sight of 40 Canyoneros bearing down on you should you possess the effrontery to cross a street on foot, you'll find yourself living in the world's largest botanical garden. Weird and lovely things grow here, even in the most improbable places (the side of the highway, the middle of the desert) and until I lived here, I'd never seen a bird of paradise anywhere but in a greenhouse.
My attention to the natural world is brought to you today by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas's The Old Way: The Story of the First People, my current audiobook and new favorite anthropology. Thomas's father, one of the founders of Raytheon, got it into his head one day that it might be fun to go seek out the Bushmen of the Kalahari and drag a small party along with him, including his wife and two teenaged children. So off they went, and became famous anthropologists of advocates for what evolutionary biologists believe to be the closest living ancestors of the first humans, residing in the then-unmapped Kalahari in something resembling the Paleolithic way. If Thomas's vivid prose and density of closely-observed details can be summarized at all, it's in the idea that modern society has lost its knowledge of the flora and fauna of our world. The Kalahari people of the 1950s could track prey based on the kind of beetle prints they saw superimposed on its tracks, and what time of day that beetle was known to appear aboveground. I think most of us (myself included) would have difficulty naming the kind of trees that grow on our own streets, if trees grow at all. It reminds me of one of Nabokov's characterizations of Kinbote in Pale Fire: unlike Shade, he has no interest in the natural world; in fact, his entire character is turned inward, towards his own paranoid and self-created universe. It reminds me to spend less time on graduate school messageboards in feverish comparison of my own vital stats to the vital stats of other applicants to the same schools (all of which I know aren't all that important anyway) and more time in the seat of my shiny red bicycle, which I purchased just before the fires here and haven't had much of a chance to ride.
So I guess that's as close as I come to a New Year's resolution. Alas, it's raining here, but I have a big stack of books to read and two little predators curled up next to me. Thomas's chapter on the Kalahari lions makes me see them in an entirely new way.
Friday, January 4, 2008
1. My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts
2. Hypertext 3.0: Critical Theory and New Media in an Era of Globalization
3. First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game
4. Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media
5. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace
6. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature
7. Narrative across Media: The Languages of Storytelling
8. The Language of New Media
9. The Digital Dialectic: New Essays on New Media
10. Writing Machines
I really wish I could construct a similar bibliography for literary forgery, but it seems that most of the books on the subject are gee-golly "did he really do that?" treatments of multiple forgeries without broader social or literary analysis.
Thursday, January 3, 2008
A classic dilemma. Now that my applications are finished (provided that the University of Chicago acknowledges that it did indeed receive my transcripts and writing sample, as it says in the nice FedEx tracking information) I'm the naugahyde-bound passenger, waiting to see whether my connection comes through or whether this office at UCSD is the closest thing to a university I'll ever inhabit. People keep asking "how things are going?" in this sort of tentative way, perhaps how you'd ask a cancer patient if the latest tumor excision was successful without REALLY asking. Of course, I've no bloody clue how things are going. I sent off my applications, I did what I could with my writing sample and statement of purpose, paid ETS's highway tolls in both money and effort, and now I sit on my hands and wait until a group of professors give me the thumbs up or thumbs down. In the meantime, I keep studying Russian, chip away at my reading lists, and maybe work on a book. This book is actually my lifeline, because if I'm rejected everywhere come March 15, I'll have to look on something as positive progress towards a discernible goal. Also, I will move to Europe, acquire a gross of black turtlenecks, and start smoking unfiltered cigarettes. In a way, that doesn't sound so bad.
In the meantime, I've decided--in the interests of my second favorite virtue, total transparency--not only to post everything that happens to me in the meantime, but to put my statement of purpose, writing sample, and everything else related to my applications in the miscellaneous section of my website (primarily so I don't have to redesign my homepage webmap) in hopes of passing along some useful information, and entertaining dross, to future applicants to English PhD programs. If this gets me in trouble with various admissions committees, I'll be sure to post that fact as well, so that everyone can learn from my mistakes. ("Hey kids! Ever heard of Google? Google will keep you from pursuing your dreams!")
So enjoy, learn, and talk to me if you need a toothbrush.
Tuesday, January 1, 2008
- It is. The job market in the humanities has never been particularly good. It probably never will be particularly good. What I object to in the above formulation is the tense of the verb "to die." In high school, one of my English teachers regaled us with the pseudoprofundity that we were all, young and old, healthy and tuberculosed, dying a little each day, and I'll choose to adapt it in this here context. Malaise is an integral part of the study of English literature, and only by its removal from the lives of graduate students and assistant professors could English literature really be deemed "dead." How's that for a reversal?
- Tenure is, counterintuitively, the problem. Just because one can sail by on the capital of a book published 15 years ago doesn't mean that one doesn't feel slightly guilty about it at department meetings. All those young scramblers bring one face to face with one's indolence, as well as one's outdated tendency to overuse the third person academic singular, and convince one that even if one's drive and vigor wasn't being spent on porn and fancy lobsters, one would have a hard time reinserting one's self back into a radically different field. Guilt. It's always what's for dinner.
English Department Sees Decline in Majors
by Jane Striver '11
For the fourth subsequent year, the English Department at St. Moldy's Technical College and/or University reports a record decline in St. Moldy's students choosing to major in English Studies, as the department renamed itself last year.
"This is terrible, terrible, terrible," said Julian Hollingsby IV, Professor Emeritus. "So terrible. Probably we will all go home and kill ourselves in the bath."
Other professors were more sanguine about the department's prospects for attracting St. Moldy's brightest and best. "Temporary reversal," said Emmeline Chow, current head of the department. "Next year, when we change our name to English and Diaspora Studies, the students of St. Moldy's and the federal government will begin recognizing our extraordinary relevance to contemporary culture. Then our coffers will flow with the cold, hard cash we need to fix that leak in the hallway."
But graduate students in the department put on a typical display of ennui and black turtlenecked-starvation. "No one should ever major in English, ever," said one student, on the condition of anonymity. "Especially anyone who might apply now for Fall 2008 admission and still manage to finish her dissertation before me."
Undergraduates had mixed feelings about the report. "Hey, do you know that girl? You know, the one with the long braid who wears the clogs all of the time? Is she an English major? If she is, I'm there, man," said Gregory Legacy '12, who is still undeclared. "I bet she is. She looks like the type."