Thursday, April 27, 2006

Why I Didn't Get an MFA in Literature

Camille Paglia, in an interview on Bookslut (a blog), nails the reason I became a technical writer and refused to pursue an MFA in Literature:
I feel that post-structuralism has deadened not only the students, but the professors themselves, to literature. There’s been over 30 years of it now. Over 30 years. Where is the great work of criticism by any of these people? Where is the great critic? What have they produced? Nothing.

It’s just a bunch of gobbledygook, all reflecting each other. There’s no single great work that’s come out of criticism in the last 30 years, in the way Cleanth Brooks’ Well Wrought Urn has that kind of relationship, a book you could recommend to let someone know what’s happening in literary criticism. It is such a dead end, a terrible dead end, and what has happened is that talented people have fled the graduate schools. People have to wake up to this. The people at the top now, people from my generation, who are in the Ivy League, from coast to coast, to Berkeley, their work is mediocre. They have not done what they claim to do, and what they’ve done is driven out talented people.

I meet them everywhere, people who started graduate school and left it, OK? They’re in publishing, they’re in media, they’re in all kinds of jobs, because they couldn’t stand it. They wanted to study literature and art, but had every obstruction put in their paths. They not only had to read Lacan, Derrida and Foucault, who had nothing to do with literature, but they had to read critics talking about Lacan, Derrida and Foucault, none of whom are philosophically trained, okay?

I had professors telling me that I should pursue a degree in Lit. They would often select my essays and recommend them for scholarships, awards, readings. Even my fellow students enjoyed my work. There was great promise. But I wouldn't be a part of the nightmare that was Lit studies at the time. I'd seen enough of that as an undergrad. Following that path would have been suicide for me. (And anyone who knows my intense personality would understand that comment.)

If I ever become a successful fiction writer — and I fully intend to — it will be due to my own self-study and hard work. Sure, I could wish that I had been born during some other time, but unfortunately that's not reality. Instead, I just put my head down and drive on, and I know that I'm much happier for it.

I do hope, though, that I will live long enough to see some kind of rebirth in Literature, a vibrant new class of scholars, writers, and students flooding our universities with new blood. As my partner likes to tell me, "You just might be a part of that rebirth." That's a nice thought.

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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Paglia on The Death of Academia

Camille Paglia is one of the oddest ducks on planet earth. She's like a living, breathing Freudian slip, except that she seems to mean what she says. You never know what she's going to say next. Even so, I occasionally find myself agreeing with some of her arguments, especially when she takes on academia. Here's one good example, from Canada's Globe and Mail:
Paglia is not a huge fan of deconstructionism, the long-reigning gospel in academe. Western culture is in serious decline not only because it is being overrun by the Philistine armies of the entertainment industry, she says, but because on college campuses across the United States, political correctness has run amok.

"I was in Kansas City on my book tour and met this woman studying public administration, and she was complaining about having to study [poststructuralist French thinker Michel] Foucault. I mean, it's absolutely absurd. It's become doctrine. It's everywhere."

Consuming a force-fed diet of the French intellectual method of Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes and Jean Baudrillard, she adds, students emerge "passive to language, indifferent to fact, and arrogant towards culture."

Academic dissidents have been silenced.

"Philistine armies of the entertainment industry"? I have no idea what she's getting at there. But the rest is true to a word.

I am sure that most people today have no earthly idea just how unearthly the humanities, and literature in particular, have become. The quality of Lit studies has fallen so low that it simply can't go any lower. The problem is not merely that of graduating low-performing students or spending too much time on only one style of literature. It's even lower than that — much, much lower in some schools.

Ever more students seem to be reporting entire quarters spent in 100- and 200-level courses never once reading a book let alone writing an essay about one. They also report spending more time arguing in Lit class about current events and politics (full-time Bush bashing) than they ever spend doing that in their sociology or political science classes. And while not studying literature in a Literature class is bad enough, the situation is made worse by the fact that there's very, very little dissent. It's a wasteland. Any non- Far-Left point of view is snuffed out faster than you can say the words "narrow minded", usually by sneering ridicule from the professor.

I had the same experience myself. I remember hoping that my Lit classes were merely aberrations, but reports coming from other students demonstrated that they were not. Any hope that I did manage to retain was finally demolished some years later when I was invited to teach a writing course at my alma mater. After one term, I refused to consider taking a job in academia ever again. A person of integrity couldn't be a part of such a program.

Literature in American Universities is dead. It's been replaced by a grab-bag of so-called Postmodern doctrines: Structuralism/Post-structuralism/Marxist Dialectic Theory/Critical Theory. Together they all start from one fundamental premise: Reality doesn't exist and you can't know anything. They then proceed to the next phase of education, telling you exactly what you should know: You must accept all of my Leftist propaganda on faith or be cast out. And finally they gird up their newly created Leftist roboticons for going out into the real world: Now we'll show you how to restructure the way you use language so that you can make your enemies think you're smarter than them and at the same time help you believe that you're still being reasonable even when you're not. That's postmodernism in a nutshell.

Philosophically, who's to blame? I'm no philosopher, but I routinely encountered the names Paglia mentioned, especially Foucault and Derrida, and if you've read anything by these language whores, then you'll already know why Literature is dead.

In my view, these men (and Barthes) are so evil they almost make Ellsworth Toohey, the villain in The Fountainhead, look like an understatement. That so many professors in academia seem to revere these mind-destroying, deceitful bastards is one of the scariest aspects of our current world, scarier to me even than a born-again Christian being President, and that's pretty damn scary.

[Edit: Add Paul de Man to the list of witch doctors. I just remembered him.]

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Saturday, April 22, 2006

Moleskine Update II

I've only had my Moleskine for a few months (I blogged about it here), and now this: the bookmaker, Modo and Modo, announces that they're selling the business.

Damn it all. Could it really end so soon? I haven't even consumed a quarter of my first Moleskine. (Technically it's pronounced Mol-uh-skeen-uh, by the way, even though I intend to go on calling mine Mole-skin.)

There's a bright side to this story. From an article that appeared in The Telegraph (UK):
The Moleskine, named for its oilcloth cover, gained cult status after its relaunch in 1998 by Mario Beruzzi.

Last year, his company Modo & Modo sold 4.5m notebooks across the world, half of them in the United States. The company, with a staff of 13, had turnover of €12.7m (£9.1m) last year and profits of more than €2m. In the UK its classic notebook sells for upwards of £7.

Good for Mr. Beruzzi and his staff of thirteen. What a nice way to retire. I wish the man lots of happiness and good cheer in his 70s and beyond. (He's 69.)

But the real bright side for me is seeing in print what I suspected all along: that such a fine and carefully made product did not come from some mass-market notebook mill in China. I am not at all surprised that it's made by a small company. The Moleskine had to be designed, created, and carefully looked after during its production by someone who gave a damn about it.

I appreciate the free market for (at least) two reasons:
primarily because it allows large corporations to operate as efficiently as they know how to in order to provide goods and services to the widest numbers of people possible (mass production), and
secondarily, but just as importantly, because it allows individuals who don't wish to provide goods and services to the widest numbers of people to exist and to flourish, even if only on a staff of thirteen.

As much as some people like to scoff at mass production for its cookie-cutter and cost-reduced products, only in such a productive society could a staff of thirteen ever hope to turn a little notebook and other fine paper products into annual revenue exceeding $10 million. In the Middle Ages, without the benefits of mass production, no one but the tax-funded state or the church would have had the money to buy paper. Mr. Beruzzi would have been a pauper trying to sell his product to masses of people who had no income.

So thank you, Mr. Beruzzi, for what you made. If, by chance, you sell the Moleskine to someone who doesn't love it the way you did, I'll accept that fate. It's just how the wheels of change grind.


Thursday, April 20, 2006

I Interrupt This Programming

I interrupt the regularly scheduled programming on this blog to make the following unexpected announcement: I'm pregnant with twins! No, I'm not literally pregnant. I'm a guy. I mean I'm pregnant with twin stories.

How exciting! That means two sets of everything: strollers, blankets, bottles, and beds. No more sleep for weeks or months. I get to eat strange food. I'll get gifts. And what's really great is that one's a boy and one's a girl, blue and pink — and I mean that almost literally.

I've never had twins before. I've had plenty of story ideas that came to me when I was writing something else. When that happens, I just write down the idea as far as I can go with it in about an hour or two, maybe a day at most, then I go back to my working story. But I've never attempted to write two stories at the same time—until now.

And yeah, I'm having sleepless nights. A few nights ago, I went to bed only to find myself getting back up to work an hour later. Then I got up at 2:00 AM last night and worked for an hour or two. It's like my brain is on caffeine but without the caffeine.

Fortunately, unlike a real mother, I get to give birth separately. My second idea should be done soon. It's just a short story, while my other is a short novel. And I really like my short story. It's one of the best ideas I've ever had, and writing it has been great fun, not difficult at all. That's partly why I decided to just go ahead and do it now. I'll be interested to learn how this interruption will impact my other project. It might be good for it.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Don't Make Me Verbose

I overwrite when I'm annoyed. Obviously I'm not annoyed right now.

Just thought you'd like to know that.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

In A Word: Indescribable

By order of one opinionated author, and in the interest of preventing dimwit writers from hurting themselves, the word indescribable is officially forbidden from this day forward. Said word should be struck from all working drafts forthwith.

Hark! Writing about something that's truly indescribable is like saying that your protagonist is the smartest person who has ever lived.—Terrific! Now what in God's name are you supposed to make him say? — Take my advice: If it's indescribable, then keep it to yourself.

At the same time, if it really is describable then it really isn't indescribable, right?! Here's one from a submission at a writer's conference:
The situation was indescribable. You should have seen it. There were people everywhere, some wearing orange coats and all painted up with white and orange stripes on their faces, others wearing black and red and waving flags...
If you're incompetent, that's fine, but why hoist yourself by your own petard? No one needs to know about it.

And then there's this gem, which comes pretty close to being indescribable on its own:
Frustrated, [Winter] took an apple and kissed it with snow and laid it in her path. She ran over it with a sit-down snowplow. The result was indescribable. At the sight of this, Winter’s chest felt uncomfortably tight. His heart was nearly covered with a thick crust of ice.

Time was running out.
You think I made this up? No, unfortunately I didn't. Credit for this real, live, published marvel goes to a writer who "has [allegedly] seen 20 short stories in print in the UK, Australia, Canada and the USA....She currently lives in Houston, where she runs a home for stray snowflakes." (!!!)

I swear if I can't get published in this business...


Monday, April 10, 2006

Brick Wall

I said it could happen. Well, it definitely happened. I ran face-first into a brick wall.

On my first day of writing, I wrote two sentences and that was the end of it. I couldn't pen another word to save my life, at least not anything that anyone would want to read.

For the next two days, I was grumpy. Sometimes I was mad. Sometimes I was depressed. For sure I was hard to live with.

This is when the writer goes into crisis mode. He cancels appointments, foreswears sleep, tells his loved ones to make themselves scarce or maybe find a job to do outside for a few days, and engages in very vocal and highly dramatic conversations with himself. It's not pretty.

All of this antisocial behavior serves a purpose. In my case, I think it's a way of buckling down and getting deadly serious about my work, kind of like locking the door and telling yourself that you can't leave the room until you solve some dilemma.

For all of the emotions, though, my crisis days were mostly spent reading through my notes, consulting other novels and various guides to writing, and writing loads of essays on voice, characters, plot, and so on. I probably produced more content on the art of writing as it relates to my project in the last few days than I've written over the last several months combined.

My story has changed. I like it better now. It might actually be ready this time, but I suppose I won't know that for sure until I try penning those first words again.


Monday, April 03, 2006

Monument Light

If you love art, you should visit Monument Light. Art Historian Lee Sandstead has assembled an amazing photo gallery to display some of the Earth's finest painting, sculpture, and architecture. But unlike most such galleries, this one shows off the subjects with incredible attention to color, lighting, perspective, and focus. The result is gorgeous, intense, and dramatic. Well done, Mr. Sandstead.

[Update: Thanks to Nicholas Provenzo over at Rule of Reason for the tipoff. I couldn't remember where I first learned about Monument Light when I posted this yesterday, so here's some belated credit.]


It's About Time

The very first words of my next story are about to land on paper any minute now, and I'm totally stoked about it, even a little nervous. Seriously. I feel butterflies. I was beginning to wonder if this day would ever happen.

Assuming that I don't run into a mental brick wall right after starting, which sometimes does happen, then my neurotransmitters should stay occupied with this thing for quite a few months, so expect to see fewer posts here.