Saturday, January 31, 2015

Stepping it up

I know the first week of the semester isn't always predicative, but damn, I had a good one.

The greatest surprise was my M.A. class. It's a small group (though, fortunately, not this small), and I'd never met most of them. I also assigned a lot of reading before our first class--too much, probably. Last weekend I was plagued with visions of how badly things might go: what if half the class didn't get my email or didn't do it? What if three people decided to drop? What if they were just annoyed or confused?

Instead everyone showed up with the reading done and digested. They were eager to talk about it and had smart things to say. And if that weren't enough, two of them had also read an entire 450-page book I hadn't assigned (a recent biography of Donne) just because they thought it would be useful and interesting.

Okay, class: game on.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Angry pretty girls

Because the amount of fiction reading I do is directly proportional to the amount of time I spend at the gym--and because the gym is not the place for complicated, experimental fiction--I've been whipping through novels lately. The one I finished most recently is Gillian Flynn's debut novel, Sharp Objects which I picked up after having read and loved Gone Girl a couple of years back.

Sharp Objects isn't as strong of a novel, though it's very good. Suspense/mystery/crime isn't my preferred genre, but both Gone Girl and Sharp Objects have stuck with me for reasons that are only loosely connected to genre. I guess the easiest way of putting it is that I can't stop thinking about Flynn's women. Both novels are narrated by the kind of women who are familiar from crime fiction, but who usually aren't given the chance to speak for themselves. You know: tough, beautiful, damaged, and dangerous to themselves or others. The kind of woman the male hero gets entangled with--and usually tries but fails to save.

But the women in Flynn's novels get to be more than just enigmas or objects of fascination; they show us heterosexual femininity under pressure. Some of her female characters are monstrous (Sharp Objects has a lot of these, from country-club backstabbers to suffocating mothers to mean-girl tweens), but even their monstrosity seems just a twisted and exaggerated version of types we all know. We know those types, because we live in a world where many women feel the pressures of femininity. And so they have coercive sex at 13; shun and shame other women for fear of losing status; transform themselves into perfect homemakers and spend their days shopping and decorating and drinking themselves into stupefaction.

Flynn's women are not tragic victims and they're far from feminist heroes. But in indirect and often self-serving ways, they make a feminist point about our social scripts for women. The famous "cool girl speech" from Gone Girl may have been delivered by an extremely unreliable narrator, but as its popularity suggests, it's a sentiment a lot of women relate to. As someone who was an awfully angry teen and twentysomething (though quiet and almost entirely unrebellious), I tend to believe there's a lot more female rage out there than we talk about. In Gillian Flynn, the fury of the pretty girl and the hostility of the good girl are all right there. It's a reality I appreciate seeing depicted.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Library privatization

Over the past week I spent a few hundred dollars on books. That's a lot of money, but the expenditure itself isn't so remarkable; I might easily spend two hundred at a conference or at a used bookstore in a town I pass through only seasonally. What's giving me a bit of a twinge this time is that the books I bought are substitutes for things that in another life I might have expected to be held by my university library: one is a major Miltonic reference work and two are facsimile editions of early Donne volumes.

Now, I'm not complaining about my college library; we have a decent acquisitions budget and everything I've ever asked for has been acquired, including pricey multi-volume sets. It's possible that if I'd asked for these--all long since out of print but available on the used market--the library staff might have been able to acquire them. (Though they certainly couldn't have acquired original copies of the Donne volumes, which run more than $50,0000.)

And maybe I'd have wanted these books even if RU had copies of its own; in grad school, I splurged on some complete sets and reference works even though I lived a ten-minute walk from one of the greatest research libraries in the country. I'm not as much of a bibliomane as some people, but I'm definitely on the acquisitive end of the readerly spectrum: cost permitting, I buy just about every book I read and every book I come across that seems like it might be useful in the future. Apart from the pleasure of ownership and the efficiency of having everything I want in a single location, I also like feeling I'm doing my small part to prop up the academic publishing economy--one $95 book at a time.

But though I don't regret the money I spend on books, in light of the limitations of my institutional library (and the similar, if not greater, limitations at the library of my future employer), building a private scholarly library sometimes feels like hoarding treasure for my personal use--or at least like a retreat from a commitment to institutional libraries as the cornerstone of the intellectual community.

And yes, I know that building a private library needn't mean neglecting institutional ones: in the nine years that I've been at RU, I've helped build up our early modern collection to the tune of a few hundred volumes and many thousands of dollars. I've ordered copies of things I already own, things too expensive for me to buy, things I don't need for my own research but that I imagine as valuable for future faculty and students. But knowing what I now know about acquisitions and deaccessioning policies, I realize that if I don't use a book I ordered, it's possible that no one else will--and in five years it could be gone.

So it's hard not to feel that building my personal library is, in fact, a hedge against disaster: not just a compensation for all the things I don't have access to now, but a preemptive move against the further destruction and degradation of whatever libraries I'll be associated with in the future. Straitened acquisitions budgets, deaccessioning, the move to more-easily-stored-but-less-easily-used digital formats, and the decision to warehouse books off-site (in order to turn libraries into student lounges, computer workspaces, or similar) all mean that I can't be sure I'll ever again have the same library experience I had in college or grad school. Ergo, the private library.

I like tending my own garden, and it makes me happy to be able to share it with my students and colleagues. But it's no substitute for those that are open and available to all.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A well-wrought urn

I don't want to brag or anything, but not only have I completed the most complicated syllabus of my entire life (a ground-up revision of my graduate Donne class, now structured so it's also a sort of methods class and a sort of review of 20th-century literary studies), but I've written all the assignments, too.

This is something I've never done before. I mean, sure: my syllabi always say what the assignments will consist of--a presentation, a close-reading paper, a research paper, a midterm, whatever--and I have a decent idea what they'll probably entail. But write them? No. Usually I do that at the last possible minute, either when a student asks whether they might be getting the assignment sheet soon or when I happen to glance at the syllabus and realize, shit! that thing is due in two weeks! I need to write it immediatamente!

But because this class is so complicated and the assignments build on each other, involve an interlocking set of skills, will overlap in time, and are largely unlike any assignments I've designed before, I felt I had to come up with detailed instructions now, just so I could get everything clear in my own head and make reasonable decisions about how to schedule their component parts. So with my syllabus doc and four other files all open, I moved back and forth among them, composing, revising, changing due dates, and altering the particulars in innumerable ways. Finally I arrived at a sequence that seems doable and makes sense.

Parts will still fail, I'm sure, and I'll undoubtedly have to make at least medium-sized changes between this instantiation of the class and the next one. But for now it all looks like a perfect and beautiful whole, complete, unshakable and enduring.

Now, if only I'd spent half as much energy on my writing projects. . .

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Benefactors, fairy godmothers, and others

The other day, completing my winter blitz through piles of unread periodicals, I encountered the latest in Jenny Diski's series of essays about her extraordinary relationship with Doris Lessing--which began when Lessing, a virtual stranger, took in the fifteen-year-old Diski after the latter's homelife exploded and she was sent to a mental institution.

Reading Diski's account of her anxious and uneasy adjustment to her new home--why had Lessing taken her in? would Diski ever be clever enough to join Lessing and her friends in convesation?--I found myself fumbling to dredge up details from the previous essay: Diski had nicknamed Lessing "Benny," right, for "The Benefactor?" No: that was what Gary Shteyngart called his quasi-parental figure in Little Failure. And was it Diski who described her fear of seeming stupid in front of her boyfriends and their political and academic families? No: that was the fictional Elena Greco, in Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels.

It is, I suppose, a coincidence that several of the things I'm reading right now have some overlapping themes and plotlines. But it isn't such a coincidence that three different accounts of intellectual and artistic self-fashioning should involve similar figures and similar anxieties--even though these stories take place in three different countries and two different generations.

On the surface, Diski's experience seems to be an extraordinary outlier: how amazing for an aspiring writer to be literally (if not quite legally) adopted by a famous novelist! But the young Shteyngart has a similarly complicated relationship with a t.v. writer friend-of-a-friend who takes an interest in him and his work; and though Elena has no single comparable figure, Ferrante's novels show her fixating on various teachers, boyfriends, and classmates as models for the kind of intellectual and public figure she'd like to become.

Indeed, aspects of all three experiences are probably familiar to anyone who has struggled to become anything: how does any of us learn to inhabit a new self, if not in response to others?

Most of us don't have a mentor or a patron, but take our models from among our peers. I sure did: in college, in grad school, and in the interstitial years between the two, I fixated on the people I thought of as truly smart--literary, cultured, whatever--and how they talked about things and moved through the world. I was attracted to but abashed by those who spoke well, who had opinions, who knew stuff about stuff. It amazed me that my peers had things to say (circa 1995, circa age 20) about what Tina Brown had done to The New Yorker, or the politics of senators from states other than their own, or the fortunes of American musical theater over the past twenty years. I studied them carefully and tended to have crushes on the men--perhaps feeling that though I didn't have the requisite talents, maybe I could date my way in.

Self-fashioning is always a complicated and anxious process, but if there's any lesson to be drawn from Diski, Shteyngart, and Ferrante's accounts, it's that it isn't any easier with a fairy godmother (Diski's semi-ironic name for Lessing), or a Benefactor, or any other singular mentor or maestro; the people we model ourselves on are also those we struggle to diminish and separate ourselves from: the erstwhile idol becomes only a t.v. writer or only a high school teacher; not really an original thinker--or simply judgmental, unkind, or limited in all the ways that human beings inevitably are limited.

I was never really friends with any of the people I took as my aspirational models, and I'm not friends with any of them now. They were useful projections and fantasies, but equally useful to be able to outgrow.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

New Year's Meme

(Eighth in a series.)

1. What did you do in 2014 that you'd never done before?
*Had a book published
*Received my second tenure-track job offer
*Solved the two-body problem
*Got an EU passport

2. Did anyone close to you give birth?
Yes: two good friends had their first, one her second, another her third--and one lucky lady had her first and her second (twins).

3. Did anyone close to you die?
One of the children mentioned above did not survive.

4. What countries did you visit?

5. What would you like to have in 2015 that you lacked in 2014?
I'd like to have more of a sense of excitement and adventure, both of which seemed in shorter supply than usual.

6. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
This was a big year for achievements. But the one that feels the most like an achievement was finally placing the Article of Eternal Return.

If we're talking about achievements in a less end-driven or goal-oriented way, though, I'm most happy with how I spent my leisure time this year. I probably read more novels in a 12-month period than I have since my twenties; pursued a more aggressive gym routine; kept studying Italian; and managed to meet friends for drinks every week.

7. What was your biggest failure?
Lots of little failures. No big ones.

8. Did you suffer illness or injury?
Nothing serious.

9. What was the best thing you bought?
I've been gradually replacing items in my wardrobe, and I really love the shape it's taking. There's not one particular item I'd single out, but I bought several dresses that make me very happy.

10. Whose behavior merited celebration?
I'm not sure "celebration" is appropriate for anything anyone did this year--though I'm certainly grateful for many people's kindnesses and gestures of support.

11. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?
This was a grim fucking year, nationally and internationally. So the list is long.

12. Where did most of your money go?
Clothes and books. But I've been spending money almost nonstop since October, after a year of deferred purchases during my sabbatical.

13. Compared to this time last year, are you: a) happier or sadder? b) thinner or fatter? c) richer or poorer?
a) Tough call. A lot of good things happened this year, but there's also been a lot of upheaval
b) Thinner. I returned from sabbatical heavier than I've ever been, but since August have lost it all (and then some)
c) Probably a wash.

14. What do you wish you'd done more of?
Is my answer to this question always a wish to have written more, done more research, made more progress? Probably. And it remains true.

15. What do you wish you'd done less of?
Sat around paralyzed with anxiety, frustration, and dread.

16. What was the best book you read?
Best re-read: James Baldwin, Another Country.

Best new read: either Marilynn Robinson's Home (which I liked better than Lila) or Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend.

17. What was your favorite film of the year?
So many good movies this year! But I'd say Ida.

18. What was your favorite album of the year?
I'm not sure I bought an album that came out this year. But I like what I've heard of Taylor Swift's 1989 and D'Angelo's Black Messiah.

19. What was the best play you saw?
Best new play: Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play (Almeida)

Best revival (if that's the word I want): Tamburlaine (TFANA)

20. What kept you sane?
Being back in our house.

21. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2014.
Shit's never going to work out exactly the way you want, on exactly the terms you want. Get over it. Only then can you recognize your abundant good fortune, your own hard work, and the generosity of others.

Wishing everyone a good 2015--may it bring you all you deserve or desire!