Thursday, November 20, 2014

779 Research, Week 11

I'm going to be sharing some notes here from my research into literary utopias and dystopias for coursework I'm working on at UW-M for my PhD. Why? Because it's the 21st century, baby, and otherwise all of this will just rattle off of the inside of my head or the walls of the library as I mumble words like "exegesis" and "hegemony" between the occasional forlorn, wordless wail. So gather 'round. Trust me, there's nothing out there in the rest of the internet except cat posters and Facebook invitations to parties in cities you don't live in.

Week 11: Daring to be Uncritical

I finished Caesar's Column shortly after I posted my last update, and I immediately tweeted something to the effect that even though I enjoy utopias (eutopias), it's dystopias that my heart truly beats for. I realized distantly that in doing so I was committing the cardinal sin of PhD coursework: I was approaching a text uncritically. I "liked it" in other words, a characteristic which is next-door to anathema in academic terms. Liking something implies that it has penetrated your consciousness in a way that has bypassed your critical gaze, a sort of defensive/intrusive contagion-like metaphorical figuration which weirdly blames the like-er in a condescending, almost pitying, way.

I spent some time thinking about this while I was driving home this evening and what it meant. I can't deny I've adopted and mostly internalized the "always-on, broad-spectrum, critical gaze toward nearly everything" that the program seems to demand of me, but despite some embarrassing over-identifications with this approach (being too eager to criticize things I didn't yet completely understand just out of pure reflex), and how dour, off-putting, and tiresome it can sometimes make my coursework seem, I have somehow managed to retain the capacity to occasionally enjoy something.

Caesar's Column was one of these things. The film Her, and the novel and film of The Wall were three more. And while I immediately wanted to discuss them, I found myself wanting to almost mentally shelter these "texts" from my ever-sharpening critical gaze. Unlike other texts I've slogged through this term, I didn't immediately look up reviews, articles, or other critical impressions of them to compare my own impressions to. In fact, I made a point of avoiding them. 

Earlier this week I was part of a group that subjected Cormack McCarthy's No Country for Old Men to this treatment in an excoriating, viciously-critical, three-hour roundtable about every potential or glaring weakness of what I had considered easily one of the two or three strongest and most effective novel-reading experiences I've had in the past year. I left the class vaguely hating the novel, firmly hating the pedagogical format, and sharply hating the disintegrating effect that I perceived the critical gaze had on the text. I became immediately protective of my other favorite recent textual discoveries. Instead of wanting to say Hey, did you guys see Her? What did you think? I wanted to say, If you saw Her, I don't want to hear about it; I desperately want to know that there's a piece of literature or a movie or an idea out there that I can admire for more than ten seconds without someone pointing out how it manifests some abstract philosophical bias. I felt, in short, incredibly defensive of my prerogative to subject a text to critical analysis when and how I choose instead of uniformly, habitually, and compulsively.

So how do I reconcile this? Scholarship is about critical thought. Scholarship may even, on a reductive level, be critical thought. I'm not here to "like" things, which I could do for free with a decent library card and a lot of free time, I'm here to study them. Is there any benefit to uncritical approach toward texts in the greater effort to parse, examine, and explain them? I think the answer to this is yes, but how does one use an uncritical approach in a scholarly fashion? 

I often wonder what it means that I was a creative writer first and an academic second. My primary interaction with literature before graduate school was a wide, self-directed reading list which was shaped almost wholly by what I "liked." I would give texts that didn't speak to me a chance if someone urged me, but aside from that my aesthetic and critical gaze were one in the same for decades before I ever separated them and sheepishly stuffed the former into a sock drawer for the duration of my degrees. I gained a new perspective on the texts I didn't like, for sure. I can read and evaluate almost anything now, with some degree of clinically-detached critical success, and I have access to a toolbox of analytical ideas that I had only the barest skeleton of before. But I feel like I lost something when that change happened, too, and if possible I'd like to get it back. When I look at the authors whose work I most admire--George Saunders might be a prime example--I can't imagine him subjecting every text or phenomena or idea he encounters to a withering battery of critical analysis. I suspect, like I used to, that he uses aesthetics as his guide far more than academia suggests is healthy for creative writers who are also academics.

I want to find a place for this sort of evaluation of texts among the new strategies I'm being constantly nudged to deploy. I want to believe that some toys are best left unbroken, at least for a while, even if you can see how they work when you break them.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

779 Research, Weeks 9 &10

I'm going to be sharing some notes here from my research into literary utopias and dystopias for coursework I'm working on at UW-M for my PhD. Why? Because it's the 21st century, baby, and otherwise all of this will just rattle off of the inside of my head or the walls of the library as I mumble words like "exegesis" and "hegemony" between the occasional forlorn, wordless wail. So gather 'round. Trust me, there's nothing out there in the rest of the internet except cat posters and Facebook invitations to parties in cities you don't live in.

Weeks 9 and 10: How Do I Even Finish This?

Until last week I was working under a cloud of pretty thick anxiety about how I was even going to be able to successfully complete the coursework left for the term in the time I had left. This term has gone by blindingly fast, despite the relentless workload, and the closer we rocket toward the term's end, the more panicky I had become about being able to execute two large term-projects in the remaining five weeks of class. 

Let me back up: there are a couple of factors at play here. 

1) I am a terrible multi-tasker. I can listen to an audiobook of a text while I commute or while I play video games with my son in order to accelerate my reading of a text or to keep using my brain while my body is required for things like washing dishes or folding laundry, but this is about the extent of what I can do. I can't, for example, write a lesson plan and listen to an audiobook at the same time, or read more than one text or draft more than one paper. I can't, for example, be listening to an audiobook of one text on my commute while reading a physical copy of a different text once I get where I'm going. The crosstalk is just too much; I lose focus instantly and details start to blend together. I've always been aware that I learn best when I could focus on a single task at a time.

2) I'm an incorrigible perfectionist and completist. I abhor "skimming" or "speed reading" texts, and I'd prefer foregoing meals or sleep in order to be assured that I haven't missed some important element of a text I'm supposed to read and understand. This is something new for graduate school. I was not like this in undergrad.

3) PhD coursework is fundamentally incompatible with these two characteristics. It frequently utilizes texts that are multi-dimensional, methodologically dense, and abstract. These texts defy a "complete" reading, in other words, and often repeated readings only further expose how impossible they are to encapsulate. Also, the texts we encounter are typically from a very different historical period than my own, and their interpretive history is often as deep and conflicted as their meaning. These texts are set into a reading schedule with a tempo that borders on the absurd. I've read, for example, five entire books in the last ten days, and half again as many loose theoretical and critical texts in the form of printed one-off articles. This is about as fast as my body will allow me to read, and I cannot do it indefinitely. Eye strain, postural stiffness and pain, and sheer exhaustion from too little sleep, too much driving, and too much caffeine will eventually catch up with me. But now I'm getting away from the point, which is simply this: the course readings aren't meant to be read in a binge-y, completist way and the format favors skimmers and multi-taskers, neither of which describe me as a scholar.

So what am I supposed to do? Crawl into the floor of my closet and pretend the end of the term isn't barreling at me faster than I can keep up? Okay, done. NOW what am I supposed to do?

Fortunately, one of my instructors took pity on us poor hopeless scholars and saw fit to remove a book from the reading list we had left, and I knew, before class was even over, how I was going to make all of this work. There were five books remaining between both classes for the rest of the term. Which I wouldn't even blink at normally, but were plenty worrisome considering I was expected to read them while also writing and creating two extensive research projects that need to be started as soon as possible. I knew that if I postponed my research for one more week I could buy myself enough time to finish all five novels and their associated critical readings in one week-long binge. Unhealthy? You should see the bags under my eyes. Sub-optimal learning experience? Eh, to some extent. Bellamy's Looking Backward and Wharton's House of Mirth didn't stick very hard in my consciousness, but it's difficult to say whether it's because I was reading them the way competitive eaters inhale hotdogs or because they just weren't all that memorable or relevant to my work. In either case, I've made my play to "defeat the reading list," which I'm coming to realize is a standard unspoken structural hurdle PhD students are expected to clear each term, and now I've got most of five weeks left to complete the two projects I'm working on. This still terrifies me, make no mistake: I'm very nervous that I've waited too long to start them and I probably couldn't do these subjects adequate justice if I had ten weeks left to work on them, but at least now I can see some path to the end of this sequence of coursework.

(On a related note, this is my 700th blog post! Holy smokes!)

Friday, October 24, 2014

779 Research Weeks 7 & 8

I'm going to be sharing some notes here from my research into literary utopias and dystopias for coursework I'm working on at UW-M for my PhD. Why? Because it's the 21st century, baby, and otherwise all of this will just rattle off of the inside of my head or the walls of the library as I mumble words like "exegesis" and "hegemony" between the occasional forlorn, wordless wail. So gather 'round. Trust me, there's nothing out there in the rest of the internet except cat posters and Facebook invitations to parties in cities you don't live in.

Weeks 7 and 8: Hawthorne Malaise, Pirated Study Time, and The Wall

This is the part of the term where I start to inwardly rebel against the coursework. It isn't just that there's so much of it, or that I'm exhausted from the forced march of reading and writing (there is, and I am), but this is the point, about halfway, where I start to discover tangential things to research and learn about that seem suddenly very tempting to spend time on rather than the material with due dates and grades attached. This is an enormously challenging phase to get through because books like Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty First Century and Marlen Haushofer's Die Wand seem to come out of nowhere and beckon to me right at the point where my ability to read, integrate, and respond to texts has been honed by the semester to its keenest point.

This wouldn't be as big of a problem if I had a less airtight schedule for work completion that could tolerate 10 or 20 extra hours of work on something of my own choosing, or if it coincided with equally entrancing coursework like Frank Norris' McTeague or Herman Melville's Typee, but every once in a while I find myself trying to focus on more difficult texts like Frank Norris' The Pit or Nathaniel Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance and I cave.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century, as fascinating as it promises to be, is a doorstop of a book, so I decided to put that one off for now after reading just the introduction and part of the first chapter, and I allowed myself to read Marlen Haushofer's Die Wand and watch the 2012 film adaptation. Both of these, as my mentor Pete Sands pointed out, are absolutely worth your time if you haven't read/watched them.

The novel has a very simple premise: a woman goes to visit friends and stay the night in their cabin atop a mountain in Austria. She awakes to discover that the mountaintop has been surrounded by an unbreakable transparent wall. The wall doesn't seem to prevent air or water from passing through it, but all of the other physical things, including her and a mountain's worth of domesticated and wild animals, are trapped inside. Outside, the world has apparently ended. There is no apocalyptic destruction or wasteland, only a stark, crystalline stillness. People in nearby homes and villages (which she can see through binoculars) are frozen in whatever position they were in when the cataclysm occurred. Not only is the wall transparent, but it almost seems to make the narrator's vision of the outside world sharper. She can see far-distant buildings and birds which fell frozen from the sky lying on the ground in mid-wing-flap. The grass continues to grow, and weather continues to fluctuate, but there is no sign of any other living thing outside the wall. The narrator explores the rather large area enclosed by the wall and collects a series of animals, a dog, a cow, and a cat, and progresses to write a diary for several years while doing everything she can think of to stay alive and keep her animals alive.

Most of the book is concerned with slow meditations on what all of this means, and what sorts of emotional challenges the narrator faces during various phases of grief and acceptance of her new life. She becomes quite close to the animals and dependent on them to survive, and she battles constant emotional and physical exhaustion that threaten to overwhelm her. She begins to lose track of time and her memories of the world before the wall start to blend together, heightening the sense of estrangement she attains from the world, though she is ironically more intimately tied to the physical world for survival than ever in her life. Without ruining the ending, it's worth mentioning that the entire narrative builds, I thought quite brilliantly, to a single question that she poses the reader--a reader that she is not certain will ever encounter her diary. And here I am, four days later still mulling over that question and trying to piece together what it, and the rest of the book, means.

I finished the film last night as well. While a visual and auditory treat, and harrowing in its own way, was a more or less straightforward and faithful adaptation of the novel. Which is to say that it didn't, I felt, substantially improve on or remediate the narrative. The photography and sound design are both haunting and spectacular, and it plays with motion and texture like very few films I’ve seen from the last ten years. I could have done without the voiceover, and especially the constant intercuts back to the diary-writing present, but the Wall itself and the mountain, and the animals, and Martina Gedeck's performance, were all great. The novel is so meditative at times in the naturalist tradition that I think some part of my brain was looking for a film treatment similar to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford or There Will Be Blood. Instead of one particular slow-motion scene with a violin overture, I was expecting something distressingly quieter, and aesthetically blunter and more profound somehow. I’m not sure the film captured how frail and fragile the narrator seems for most of the novel, being constantly hungry and sick and exhausted to the point of immobility, and it doesn’t quite capture how intimately dependent she is on the animals the way a film like, say Into the Wild does. But these are minor complaints, it’s still easily better than 95% of the 21st century speculative fiction films I’ve seen, and aside from the intercuts and that slo-mo scene it seems as unwilling to indulge itself in formal tropes as the novel, which I loved.

I’m also feeling a little conflicted about the film because the more I ponder the novel, the more I think it has something to tell us about emotion in the years when generatively (motherhood, fatherhood, housekeeping, family-making, etc) starts to wane and reveal a less-satisfying second phase of life. The argument could be made that the narrator is variously a divorcee, a spinster, or especially an empty-nester, but I think these are all overly-simplistic readings. No one talks about this but a lot of people, even young people, go through acute phases where parenting and family-making become a deep, searing, un-shareable, and shame-inducing disappointment. They realize that they’re not as good parents as they thought they’d be, or that once their children are no longer helpless babies that they’re not as interested in them, or they may even secretly think at various times that their own children are despicable. I think there’s a special intense sort of estrangement that happens when the narrator admits that she has an affinity for birth and some varieties of care-taking, but that when things grow she starts to care less about them. She goes on at great lengths about the personalities of the random pets she accumulates over the course of the novel, but admits that she did not like or care for her own children and cannot remember much about them beyond the fact that they grew into difficult and unrewarding elements of a life she'd rather forget. I found this to be a highly complex and powerful psychological character study and the film doesn't touch on it at all, and that's a shame because I think if I had to say critically what the novel is "about," this estrangement is at the very heart of it.

She never says so, but I think it's clear that this disconnect causes the narrator unendurable pain, so much so that she transfers what passes for a stewardship instinct onto Bella (her cow) and especially Lynx (her dog). Is she making a bid for a second chance at motherhood? I don’t think that’s exactly it, and nor do I think she’s trying to anthropomorphize the dog, necessarily. The note at the end of the novel from the filmmaker mentioned the narrative keenly describes clinical depression, but I don’t think that’s precisely it, either. I think the crystalline “outside” is the key to it all somehow; that the novel is trying to emotionally dramatize the moment of realization that the first phases, the generative phases, of one’s life are over, and that a new, existentially distressing phase has begun, where boundaries permanently solidify in a way that seems unfair and abrupt, and during which many of the promises and hopes of the first phase are pushed beyond these boundaries where one cannot reach them but can only watch them persist and slowly decay in wrenching distance but tantalizing clarity.

And now, as you are very right to remind me, it's time to stop dallying around with The Wall and get back to Hawthorne and my other research.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

779 Research Week 6

I'm going to be sharing some notes here from my research into literary utopias and dystopias for coursework I'm working on at UW-M for my PhD. Why? Because it's the 21st century, baby, and otherwise all of this will just rattle off of the inside of my head or the walls of the library as I mumble words like "exegesis" and "hegemony" between the occasional forlorn, wordless wail. So gather 'round. Trust me, there's nothing out there in the rest of the internet except cat posters and Facebook invitations to parties in cities you don't live in.

Week 6: Never Forget how Lucky You Are

A friend and former DePaul colleague asked me the other night to talk to him about pursuing a PhD. He had applied to a number of programs, including the program I’m in, and wanted to know more about what my experiences have been. I was honest and fair with both him and myself, and I tried to give him a balanced description of what the challenges and rewards of a PhD are. This was an interesting exercise in and of itself because as I was describing the process of beginning a PhD I realized just how many things had to break my way in order for me to find myself where I am right now. There was a complex 100+ page application to complete, scarce and uncertain funding to secure, an innocuous but secretly terrifying academic review to successfully pass, a new community of intimidatingly brilliant colleagues to join, a family to continue to be a part of, bills to attempt to pay, teaching to become familiar with, writing-career work of my own which pre-dated school to continue and, as we’ve seen here on this blog, mountains of research to complete and shape into original scholarship.

In the broadest sense these things are continually and sometimes oppressively daunting, but even on the scale of the completion of a week’s or day’s work, they depend more heavily on luck than I usually prefer think about. For example, Typee the novel we read this week for ENG779, happened to be available in a free and high-quality audiobook. This allowed me to read ahead by about ten days on the course calendar, off-setting Frank Norris’ The Pit and the second half of Siegfried Kracaur’s The Mass Ornament which I also had to read and for which there exist no audiobooks. Last week, we read Norris’ McTeague and Poe’s A Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, both of which were available on audiobook. By using the 30+ hours I spent in the car over those last few weeks, along with the time I spent washing dishes, driving to and from my teaching job in Chicago, folding laundry, and the two or three hours each night after my wife fell asleep, I was able to gain just enough ground on the relentless reading schedule of this term to carve out six or seven hours of time the week before last for research and again today to work on the first draft of my paper. These blocks of time were incredibly contingent; if even one minor thing had gone wrong, I could have easily lost my best (and maybe only) chance to spend a significant chunk of time accomplishing these critical and tricky tasks. If my son got sick, or if my phone died in the middle of a book, or if my computer crashed, or if we happened to hit a week in which none of the books were available as audiobooks, it could have had serious consequences to my workflow.

On an even smaller scale, just a single day, luck has to be on my side for me to succeed. I’ve been struggling with headaches, eye strain, and back pain since about the third week of class from all the sitting, driving, and reading, and lately they’ve been particularly acute. I’ve had to change my contacts regularly, rest my eyes as much as possible, use hot and cold packs on my back, stretch on a yoga ball, and consume a never-ending stream of caffeine and anti-inflammatories to power through the avalanche of reading and writing and the endless commuting. Even with today’s six or seven hours on offer, if I’d had a nasty episode of back pain that drove me to my couch or away from my computer, I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish as much as I did (which turned out to be quite a lot—an entire draft, in fact). If some emergency at my teaching job had pulled me away or some other pressing thing intruded—if anything happened to go wrong today—I’d be in trouble. But somehow, nothing did. Somehow I continue to live a just-charmed-enough life that I can continue to plow ahead with this program and make it happen.

This is the sort of thing you can’t explain to someone when they ask you what PhD research and coursework is like. It’s like becoming a parent, full of pride and wonder and self-growth bookended with grinding work and random outbreaks of panic, but it also involves a difficult-to-fathom quotient of luck that I try to remain continually thankful for and conscientious of in the moments when the workload threatens to overwhelm.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

779 Research Week 5

I'm going to be sharing some notes here from my research into literary utopias and dystopias for coursework I'm working on at UW-M for my PhD. Why? Because it's the 21st century, baby, and otherwise all of this will just rattle off of the inside of my head or the walls of the library as I mumble words like "exegesis" and "hegemony" between the occasional forlorn, wordless wail. So gather 'round. Trust me, there's nothing out there in the rest of the internet except cat posters and Facebook invitations to parties in cities you don't live in.

Week 5: Contemplating the Limits of Sharing Research Via Social Media

So initially I was very encouraged by my social media networks' response to my Tweets and Facebook posts about research. So much so that I started working in posts here and there about my other class and the research I'm doing for it as well. I found that my networks, particularly a nucleus of about 20 colleagues or like-minded intellectual-types seemed very into it at first, and gave me plenty of opportunity to post and respond and involve them in my thought process, which I had to admit was qualitatively improved by their interaction and participation. In short, I was easily sold on the idea of public, social-media-enabled research.

But now a month or so into the process, I've noticed that I get almost no feedback, comments, reposts, or even "likes" on the posts anymore. My frequency and tone hasn't changed much, though I suppose I ask fewer questions and try to make more comment-type posts. I feel if anything I've gotten more adept at compressing thoughts and conversation-bait into 140 characters over the last month. But I've hit a definite "wall" in terms of interaction and I spent some time considering what this meant. Here are some tentative conclusions:

1) Like advertising, people will rapidly tune out anything formulaic and periodic. Which means it's not enough to just ask questions, or just make pithy comments, or link to larger explorations of a topic; all of these become very rapidly monotonous and transparent to your audience, and your audience is 21st-century-good at mentally filtering self-promotion out of their information streams. This means two things: (a) your posts and tweets about research had better be full of variation, charm, and carefully calibrated to maintain attention, and (b) you will probably have a much easier time of doing so if you attach your research to your online persona rather than the other way around. A social-media "friend" who posts only research-related material on their information stream is not a friend, he or she is much more akin to a single-topic news source at best, or an advertiser (or the more pernicious variety of creative self-promoting spammer) at worst, and should expect to be ignored as such.

2) Twitter is a lousy platform for research sharing. It just is. Not only does it have a well-documented tendency to devolve into anti-social mayhem, but as many users have noted, the 140 character limit almost demands pithy, snarky, superficial, and ineloquent dialogue. It's also unnecessarily restrictive to use for serious thought. Trying to condense a meaningful research question into 140 characters is akin to those infuriating exercises in condensing a four-month-long research project into a 500-word document just for the sake of "economy of prose." Look, I'm a college instructor and I am buried under reading material for most of the school year, but I've always thought the "economy of prose at all costs" obsession to be spurious anti-intellectual nonsense, and the Twitter version is the same thing only writ ad absurdum. I get that a major complaint about research (or maybe even "literature" in general) is its volume and verbosity, but saying you'd love to read research if only it was more succinct is like saying you'd listen to classical concertos if only they had a sweet electric guitar solo in the middle. 140 characters is perfect for sharing weather updates or recommending restaurants, but it's ill-suited to serious scholarship. Trying to shoehorn it into prose that economical both cheapens the value of the research and plays toward that toxic, pervasive 21st century attitude that nothing anyone has to say is worth more than ten words of someone else's time. Some things are worth it, and research is one of those things.

3) Then again Twitter isn't much worse than Facebook, Linked In, and any other social media outlet I can think of. None of them are all that great, and each is plagued by its own problematic features. Mostly, though, Twitter fails because at some point, in order to overcome the saturation malaise that will rapidly occur, you'll need to incorporate some features that Twitter doesn't handle very well, like audio, video, and especially images. When I studied digital publishing for my M.A., I spent a lot of time learning how people read online content, and the research seems pretty clear that text-only platforms are the very worst at getting and maintaining readership. Twitter has some image functionality, but something much more visually rich would have better impact for a wide audience. Which brings me to my next point...

4) We need to incorporate multimedia into our posts if we're to have any hope of maintaining our audience's attention. And ideally the multimedia we choose should have a combination of sensational and educational aspects. By this I mean, an Instagram feed that has photos of what high-level research, scholarship, and academia looks like (mountains of books, oceans of coffee), bolstered with an interactive info graphic on Prezi so your audience can follow the concepts you're referencing, and finished off with historical images (like an exploding steamboat) that will capture the imagination. But this also poses a big problem because, in addition to the tool learning curve involved and the extra work this entails...

5) In effect, the effort to share research with the wider world via social media can (and must, if you want it to maintain attention) rapidly become like managing your own full-time entertainment franchise, dedicated to providing "content," for free, to platforms that will, in the very best case, make money off of your hard work that you will not share in. And that's the best case scenario. The worst case scenario is that you'll do all of that work and be met with deafening silence as your audience skims past your neato research to read about which celebrity's personal nude selfies have been hacked and disseminated.

In short, sharing research via social media is a great idea with a lot of potential, but there are upper limits to what it can accomplish. When it comes to sharing research with colleagues, it's replicating (perhaps usefully) the existing system of academic conferences and journals already in place, and for a broader audience its efficacy has more to do with personality and showmanship than the merit of the work, and the platforms that exist for disseminating it are inadequate and parasitical.

So where does that leave the 21st century researcher who wants to tap into digital tools for research sharing? Is this a gloom-and-doom evaluation, or am I missing something crucial here?

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Mark R. Brand Recommends: Frank Norris' McTeague

The good folks at The Next Best Book Blog featured my pick, Frank Norris' McTeague in Writers Recommend this week. Do you like brutish dentists, sexually-frustrated lottery-winning wives, lovesick elderly neighbors, crazy junk collecting alley-dwellers, and kleptomaniac housekeepers? If so, this book may have been (however improbably) written just for you. Check it out, it's like 19th century Quentin Tarantino, I promise.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

779 Research: Week 4

I'm going to be sharing some notes here from my research into literary utopias and dystopias for coursework I'm working on at UW-M for my PhD. Why? Because it's the 21st century, baby, and otherwise all of this will just rattle off of the inside of my head or the walls of the library as I mumble words like "exegesis" and "hegemony" between the occasional forlorn, wordless wail. So gather 'round. Trust me, there's nothing out there in the rest of the internet except cat posters and Facebook invitations to parties in cities you don't live in.

Week 3: Genre Saturation and Mizora

As I finished my reading of Mary E. Bradley Lane’s Mizora: a Prophecy this week I started to feel my first real sense of fatigue with the utopian genre. If you read enough of anything in a particular style or approach, this will inevitably happen; the conventions of utopian fiction start to feel formulaic and predictable, even though this is more a function of exhausting your own critical eye, not necessarily an inherent feature of the text. With this sense of fatigue, I yawned and fired up the audiobook The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym on my iPhone during my commute and noticed that I was almost immediately looking for the expected twists and turns. To Poe’s credit, I’m halfway through the book and he’s sticking doggedly to his own designs on the structure, pulling us through enough frame story that it isn’t really “frame” any more, it’s the actual story.

But Poe’s deviation from the usual pattern (minor frame => uncanny event => utopian immersion => utopian explanation => expulsion from utopia, closure of frame) notwithstanding, I started to wonder if the readers of this type of fiction during this era also became saturated (or just bored) with the genre. I forget the actual numbers, but there was an absolute explosion of utopian fiction in the last two decades of the 19th century, which saw the publication of hundreds of stories that were either frankly utopian or had utopian features. Wouldn’t this have been dreadfully stale among reading audiences by 1900? It reminds me of trends in speculative fiction like the flood of militaristic “space marine” stories in the post-Vietnam War period from about 1975-1990, or the nauseatingly-pervasive vampire fiction explosion from 2000-2010. By the end of these trends, the initial catalyst stories for the trends were rarely improved upon, and usually the opposite was true: they became caricatures of themselves.

Did this happen, I wonder, with this utopian fiction trend of the late 19th century? Did everyone roll their eyes and think to themselves Oh great, another one trying to rehash Bellamy’s Looking Backward… *yawn*. Get me another cordial of whiskey while I sleep through this… Or, more likely, as we saw in the 80’s, did everyone who at first took the space marine genre seriously with texts like Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Haldeman’s The Forever War recognize the derivative nature of the texts that followed and relegate them to the status of “junk literature”, or “enjoyment reading, not serious stuff?”

This brings me back to one of the chief difficulties I’ve had with this entire topic this term. The 19th century utopia is a fascinating period of the genre to study, but I feel like I’m missing a huge chunk of its significance because I have little conception of how these stories acted as artifacts. How were they published? Who published them? What were the general public opinions of both the writers and publishers of these sorts of stories? How would they be marketed? How would someone hear about a new utopian story or novel? Were newspapers, reviewers, etc, involved? If so, aren’t these secondary pieces of primary data equally important to situate the novel historically? Sometimes I get the feeling I’m spending time studying a piece of vaunted literature, and other times, as with Mizora I get the feeling I’m looking with a very academic, scholarly, critical eye at the 19th century version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’m not certain, though, and that bothers me.