Carmen McCain on the Politics of the Happy African Story

Messiah College had commencement today and it is always wonderful to see so many talented young people beginning their own journey in the world, making it, I am very sure, a better place than it would be without them.  I was glad in that context to get the latest blog from Carmen McCain, and to be directed to her latest article on African literature and culture at The Weekly Trust.  Carmen has a really strong meditation on the difficulties of writing about suffering in Africa, when suffering has been taken by so many in the West as being the only representative sign of African experience.

However, I admit that as I read Evaristo’s comments, I felt a tension between her impatient charge to “move on” past representations of suffering, and the context of currently living in northern Nigeria, where people leave their homes daily knowing that they could be blown up or shot at by unknown gunmen. Only two weeks ago in Kano, an attack on churches that met on Bayero University’s old campus killed dozens of university students and professors, the very cosmopolitan middle class often celebrated by writers abroad, and more bombs were found planted around campus. Suffering is not limited to bombs, as I was reminded when recently attending a church in Jos. Pointing to a dramatic decrease in tithes and offerings as evidence of hard times, an elder sought prayer for those who lost their livelihoods in the Plateau State’s demolition campaign of “illegal structures” and would lose more in the recently-announced motorcycle ban.

Kaduna-based writer Elnathan John wrote in a conversation with other African writers on Facebook (quoted by permission), “When I am told to tell a happy African story, I ask, why? Where I live, EVERYTHING is driven by fear of conflict, bomb blasts, and daylight assassinations unreported by the media. Every kilometer of road has a checkpoint like those in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Now, I am a writer writing my realities. […]Our problems in Africa will not disappear when we stop writing about them.”

via The Caine Prize, the Tragic Continent, and the Politics of the Happy African Story.

I’m reminded in this exchange of the tensions that surrounded and still surrounds the literature of African Americans.  During the Harlem Renaissance, the period that I’ve focused on the most in my scholarly work, there were profound debates between those who felt it was the responsibility of artists to present positive and uplifting stories of AFrican American experience and those who wanted to represent the lives of average African Americans that were not always that uplifting.  This was partially the nub of the debate between Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston, Hurston proclaiming that she was not tragically colored and Wright accusing Hurston or more or less writing minstrel shows for white people.

It would be presumptuous of me to try to define what an appropriate answer to this dilemma is.  I’m not sure the representation of suffering necessarily provokes people to change.  I think it was Susan Sontag who argued that the representation of suffering in war photography inured our sensibilities to that suffering and made us more likely to ignore the war that was going on.  Nor am I sure that presenting positive and happy tales of uplift wins friends and influences countrymen.  It may do as much to invite boredom.  Carmen’s own response is as follows, focusing on truth-telling of whatever kind, and on the ways that literature, even and perhaps especially the literature of suffering, can give people equipment for living, can model for people ways to live their lives:

So, by all means let us, as Evaristo appeals, have new genres, new styles, that are “as  diverse as, for example, European literature and its myriad manifestations” Let us have “thousands of disparate, published writers, with careers at every level and reaching every kind of reader.” But let us also be true, let us be relevant. And let us not, in pursuit of a global recognition, erase the voices of ordinary people, who so often bear up under immense suffering with grace and humour. For it is these stories of survival that give us the most direction in how to navigate an increasingly terrifying world.

Eloquent

(For any interested, Carmen blogs at A Tunanina)

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Is Twitter the future of fiction? Micro-prose in an age of ADD

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been struck by Alex Juhasz’s pronouncement at the Re:Humanities conference that we must learn what it means to write for an audience that is permanently distracted.  In response, I put up a Facebook post: “We need a rhetoric of the caption. A hermeneutic of the aphorism. Haiku as argument.”  My Provost at Messiah College–known for thorough and intricate argument–left a comment “I’m Doomed.”

Perhaps we all are, those of us who are more Faulkneresque than Carveresque in our stylistic leanings.  This latest from GalleyCat:

R.L. Stine, the author of the popular Goosebumps horror series for kids, gave his nearly 49,000 Twitter followers another free story this afternoon.To celebrate Friday the 13th, the novelist tweeted a mini-horror story called “The Brave One.” We’ve collected the posts below for your reading pleasure.

via R.L. Stine Publishes ‘The Brave Kid’ Horror Story on Twitter – GalleyCat.

Ok, I know it’s a silly reach to put Stine and Faulkner in the same paragraph, and to be honest I found Stine’s story trite.  On the other hand, I do think it’s obvious we’re  now in an age wherein shorter prose with bigger impact may be the necessity.  Flash fiction is growing, and we can witness the immense popularity of NPR’s three minute fiction contest.  These forms of fiction, of writing in general speak to the necessities of an art of the moment, rather than the art of immersion.  Literature, and prose in general, is ALWAYS responsive to material and cultural forms of its own moment, and I think prose that is short and explosive, or prose that pierces beneath the surface of the readers psyche in a moment only to spread and eat its way into the unconscious when the moment of reading is long forgotten, is mostly likely the prose that is the order of the day.

BUT…Stine certainly doesn’t do it for me.  I don’t know a lot about Twitter fiction.  Is there any really good stuff out there on twitter–as opposed to flash fiction written in a standard format which I know more about? Or is it all carney-style self-promotion or unrealized theory at the moment?

[And what, I wonder, does this mean for the future of academic prose as well?  I’m a late comer to Twitter myself, but I’ve been a little fascinated with the academic discourse that can occur, but more on that some other time.]

Tonguecat by Peter Verhelst

TonguecatTonguecat by Peter Verhelst

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I admire this book more than I like it. That is, I understand that Verhelst is pulling off a kind of writerly virtuosity and I applaud appropriately. But I feel about it like I feel about a good bit of contemporary music that appeals to the musical theorist rather than the musical ear. It’s possible to feel intellectually compelled, but viscerally unmoved; that’s kind of where I end up with Verhelst and his cast of characters. The book recounts fantastical and horrific events in the aftermath of the apocalyptic end of an empire, but the books surfaces are icy, a little like the frigid ice age that descends on the countryside as a major event of the novel. The characters are frozen and statuesque, a little like the frozen corpses that litter the landscape. They remain untouchable, and so untouched and untouching. As a result, Verhlest’s story works like an allegory, but one from which I remain mostly removed and uncaring. I’m not sorry I read the book, but why go back. Given that the book is at least in part about terror, terrorism, empire, and totalitarianism, I’m not sure this is a great way to feel

View all my reviews

Uncreative Writing: Kenneth Goldsmith and Liz Laribee on Originality in the Digital Age

Professors have endless angst over the new possibilities for plagiarism and other forms of intellectual property theft in the digital age.  But according to Kenneth Goldsmith in the Chronicle Review, such anxiety misses the point that we long entered a new age of uncreative creativity, a fact to be celebrated rather than lamented since it points to our having gotten beyond simplisitic and romantic or modernist notions of the creative individual.  Of course, Goldsmith is promoting his new book, which I guess he would to take to be some kind of act of creation and for which I’m guessing he will gain his portion of individual profits—though if he wants to share the profits with all those from whom his ideas derive in an uncreative fashion, I’m sure they will oblige.

My snarky comment aside, I think there’s something to Goldsmith’s ideas, encapsulated in his title “It’s Not Plagiarism. In the Digital Age, It’s ‘Repurposing.’”  As Goldsmith puts it.

The prominent literary critic Marjorie Perloff has recently begun using the term “unoriginal genius” to describe this tendency emerging in literature. Her idea is that, because of changes brought on by technology and the Internet, our notion of the genius—a romantic, isolated figure—is outdated. An updated notion of genius would have to center around one’s mastery of information and its dissemination. Perloff has coined another term, “moving information,” to signify both the act of pushing language around as well as the act of being emotionally moved by that process. She posits that today’s writer resembles more a programmer than a tortured genius, brilliantly conceptualizing, constructing, executing, and maintaining a writing machine.

Perloff’s notion of unoriginal genius should not be seen merely as a theoretical conceit but rather as a realized writing practice, one that dates back to the early part of the 20th century, embodying an ethos in which the construction or conception of a text is as important as what the text says or does. Think, for example, of the collated, note-taking practice of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project or the mathematically driven constraint-based works by Oulipo, a group of writers and mathematicians.

Today technology has exacerbated these mechanistic tendencies in writing (there are, for instance, several Web-based versions of Raymond Queneau’s 1961 laboriously hand-constructed Hundred Thousand Billion Poems), inciting younger writers to take their cues from the workings of technology and the Web as ways of constructing literature. As a result, writers are exploring ways of writing that have been thought, traditionally, to be outside the scope of literary practice: word processing, databasing, recycling, appropriation, intentional plagiarism, identity ciphering, and intensive programming, to name just a few.

I really do think there is something to this notion that there is a mark of “creativity”—sanitized or put under erasure (to use that hoary old theoretical term) by the quotation marks—in the ways in which we appropriate and redeploy sources from other areas on the internet.  We create personae through citation, quotation, sharing, and commentary rather than through creative acts that spring fully formed from our minds and imagination.  What we choose to cite and how we choose to comment on it, who we share it with, what other citations we assemble together with it in a kind of linguistic collage.  On one level this is old stuff, as Goldsmith points out, stretching back to a particular strand of modernism and even beyond.  Indeed, to go with a different reference to Benjamin, the figure of the storyteller is one who is best understood under the sign of repetition and appropriation, retelling stories that take on new meanings through their performance within particular contexts, rather than creating novel stories that exist on the page in the effort to create their own context.

Good behavior is the proper posture of the weak. (or, Jamaica Kincaid)

I’m reminded in this of some of the work of my friend and former student Liz Laribee, whose art I find visually provocative and surprisingly moving on an emotional scale, made up out of assemblage of leftovers.  About her work, Liz says the following:

My work almost always involves the repurposing of something else, and it’s in this process that I am trying to find meaning. Here, I used discarded bits and overlooked scraps of this bookstore to continue telling stories. The authors I’ve chosen are layered in my life in ways I can’t even quite tell you about. The dime novel poems force a new meaning to make room for a cheekier, sleuthier past

I’m not exactly sure what Liz means by a cheekier, sleuthier past, but what I take from it is that detritus, the schlocky stuff our commercial culture seems to vomit out and then shovel in to a corner is not something to be lamented so much as it is to be viewed as an opportunity, an occasion for a new kind of creativity that takes the vacuous surfaces of that commercial culture and creates a surprising visual and emotional depth.

Goldsmith thinks we are still too absolutely captive to old forms of doing things and thinks writing and literature has descended into irrelevance as a result.  He advocated for the development of a writing machine that moves us beyond the cult of personality and intended effect and into a realm of fortuitous and occasional affect.  Students need to be forced, he thinks, not to be original in the old sense, but to be repetitive and find whatever newness there is through this act of what Liz calls “repurposing.”

All this, of course, is technology-driven. When the students arrive in class, they are told that they must have their laptops open and connected. And so we have a glimpse into the future. And after seeing what the spectacular results of this are, how completely engaged and democratic the classroom is, I am more convinced that I can never go back to a traditional classroom pedagogy. I learn more from the students than they can ever learn from me. The role of the professor now is part party host, part traffic cop, full-time enabler.

The secret: the suppression of self-expression is impossible. Even when we do something as seemingly “uncreative” as retyping a few pages, we express ourselves in a variety of ways. The act of choosing and reframing tells us as much about ourselves as our story about our mother’s cancer operation. It’s just that we’ve never been taught to value such choices.

After a semester of my forcibly suppressing a student’s “creativity” by making her plagiarize and transcribe, she will tell me how disappointed she was because, in fact, what we had accomplished was not uncreative at all; by not being “creative,” she had produced the most creative body of work in her life. By taking an opposite approach to creativity—the most trite, overused, and ill-defined concept in a writer’s training—she had emerged renewed and rejuvenated, on fire and in love again with writing.

Having worked in advertising for many years as a “creative director,” I can tell you that, despite what cultural pundits might say, creativity—as it’s been defined by our culture, with its endless parade of formulaic novels, memoirs, and films—is the thing to flee from, not only as a member of the “creative class” but also as a member of the “artistic class.” At a time when technology is changing the rules of the game in every aspect of our lives, it’s time for us to question and tear down such clichés and reconstruct them into something new, something contemporary, something—finally—relevant.

I think there is something to this, although I doubt traditional novels and stories will disappear or should, any more than the writing of novels did away with storytelling in the old sense in any absolute way.  But I do think we need to think through, and not only in creative writing classes, what we might mean in encouraging our students to come up with their own original ideas, their personal arguments.

How might this notion change what we are doing, recognizing that we are in a period in which creative work, either artistic or academic, is primarily an act of redeploying, distributing, and remaking, rather than being original in the old sense of that word?

In Praise of Reviews, Reviewing, and Reviewers

I think if I was born again by the flesh and not the spirit, I might choose to become a book reviewer in my second life.  Perhaps this is “true confessions” since academics and novelists alike share their disdain for the review as a subordinate piece of work, and so the reviewer as a lowly creature to be scorned.  However, I love the review as a form, see it as a way of exercising creativity, rhetorical facility, and critical consciousness.  In other words, with reviews I feel like I bring together all the different parts of myself.  The creativity and the rhetorical facility I developed through and MFA, and the critical consciousness of my scholarly self developed in graduate school at Duke.  I developed my course on book-reviewing here at Messiah College precisely because I think it is one of the most  challenging forms to do well.  To write engagingly and persuasively for a generally educated audience while also with enough informed intelligence for an academic audience.

Like Jeffrey Wasserstrom in the  Chronicle Review, I also love reading book reviews, and often spend vacation days not catching up on the latest novel or theoretical tome, but on all the book reviews I’ve seen and collected on Instapaper.  Wasserstrom’s piece goes against the grain of a lot of our thinking about book reviews, even mine, and it strikes me that he’s absolutely right about a lot of what he says.  First, I often tell students that one of the primary purposes of book reviewers is to help sift wheat from chafe and tell other readers what out there is worth the reading.  This is true, but only partially so.

Another way my thinking diverges from Lutz’s relates to his emphasis on positive reviews’ influencing sales. Of course they can, especially if someone as influential as, say, Michiko Kakutani (whose New York Times reviews I often enjoy) or Margaret Atwood (whose New York Review of Books essays I never skip) is the one singing a book’s praises. When I write reviews, though, I often assume that most people reading me will not even consider buying the book I’m discussing, even if I enthuse. And as a reader, I gravitate toward reviews of books I don’t expect to buy, no matter how warmly they are praised.

Consider the most recent batch of TLS issues. As usual, I skipped the reviews of mysteries, even though these are precisely the works of fiction I tend to buy. And I read reviews of nonfiction books that I wasn’t contemplating purchasing. For instance, I relished a long essay by Toby Lichtig (whose TLS contributions I’d enjoyed in the past) that dealt with new books on vampires. Some people might have read the essay to help them decide which Dracula-related book to buy. Not me. I read it because I was curious to know what’s been written lately about vampires—but not curious enough to tackle any book on the topic.

What’s true regarding vampires is—I should perhaps be ashamed to say—true of some big fields of inquiry. Ancient Greece and Rome, for example. I like to know what’s being written about them but rarely read books about them. Instead, I just read Mary Beard’s lively TLS reviews of publications in her field.

Reviews do influence my book buying—just in a roundabout way. I’m sometimes inspired to buy books by authors whose reviews impress me. I don’t think Lichtig has a book out yet, but when he does, I’ll buy it. The last book on ancient Greece I purchased wasn’t one Mary Beard reviewed but one she wrote.

I can only say yes to this.  It’s very clear that I don’t just read book reviews in order to make decisions as a consumer.  I read book reviews because I like them for themselves, if they are well-done, but also just to keep some kind of finger on the pulse of what’s going on.  In other words, there’s a way in which I depend on good reviewers not to read in order to tell me what to buy, but to read in my place since I can’t possibly read everything.  I can remain very glad, though, that some very good reader-reviewers out there are reading the many good things that there are out there to read.  I need them so I have a larger sense of the cultural landscape than I could possibly achieve by trying to read everything on my own.

Wasserstrom also champions the short review, and speculates on the tweeted review and its possibilities:

I’ve even been musing lately about the potential for tweet-length reviews. I don’t want those to displace other kinds, especially because they can too easily seem like glorified blurbs. But the best nuggets of some reviews could work pretty well within Twitter’s haiku-like constraints. Take my assessment of Kissinger’s On China. When I reviewed it for the June 13 edition of Time’s Asian edition, I was happy that the editors gave me a full-page spread. Still, a pretty nifty Twitter-friendly version could have been built around the best line from the Time piece: “Skip bloated sections on Chinese culture, focus on parts about author’s time in China—a fat book w/ a better skinnier one trying to get out.”

The basic insight here is critical.  Longer is not always better.  I’m even tempted to say not often better, the usual length of posts to this blog notwithstanding.  My experiences on facebook suggest to me that we may be in a new era of the aphorism, as well as one that may exalt the wit of the 18th  century, in which the pithy riposte may be more telling than the blowsy dissertation.

A new challenge for my students in the next version of my book-reviewing class, write a review that is telling accurate and rhetorically effective in 160 characters or less.

Read two poems and call me in the morning

I freely admit that we literary types are wont to say everything comes back to story and that words can change the world.  (We are also given to words like “wont” but that is another matter).  This is mostly just the self-aggrandizement that accompanies any disciplinary passion.  But I also really think there is something serious to the idea that stories can make a big difference to hearts and minds, and therefore our bodies.  This might be that this is because my father was a practicing physician, but also a storyteller, and somehow it seemed to me that these things always fit together in my mind:   The well-told story fixed something, put something broken back together, almost as literally as my father set a bone or wrapped a cast.

Some of you know that I have a growing interest in what is sometimes called the medical humanities, and I have been deeply interested in how the literary arts have been used in healing practices in everything from psych wards to cancer wards to Alzheimer’s facilities.  The recent lovely piece from Kristin Sanner in the  Chronicle Review, “The Literature Cure” is not quite so officially about the medical humanities, but it gets at this idea that somehow literature can be involved in our healing and our wholeness, even in the midst of dying and disease.  A few notes from Sanner,  on how her battle with breast cancer both changed her sense of literature and on how her commitment to literature changed her understanding of and response to her disease.

English majors and reluctant students of literature in my general-education courses often ask me questions like: “What exactly can you do with a degree in English?” “Why read all of these books from the past?” Before my cancer diagnosis, I would answer the English majors with practical examples. You could go into publishing or journalism, I told them, or go to graduate or law school. To the general-education students, I would answer with a vague “literature enriches our lives and makes us more well-rounded individuals.”

After my cancer diagnosis, my responses changed, becoming more universal and less practical. We read and study literature, I told my students, because it helps us understand how to live and how to die. It shows us how to persevere in the face of adversity, how to reach into our personal depths and find both meaning and will. It reminds us of the dichotomous fragility and tenacity of earthly living. It also teaches us how to care for those who suffer.

At a time when colleges and universities are making unilateral cuts to humanities programs, these reasons seem pertinent. Each of us, unfortunately, will experience adversity at some point in our lives. Many of us will find ourselves facing a tragedy, a trauma, or a loss that cannot be explained in simple terms. Conventional medicine and science may help us cope in a practical, physical sense—they may even cure us of our illnesses and pain. Religious faith will temper the suffering for some. But it is our universal stories—written, oral, and visual—that help us navigate through these adversities with grace and courage. For many of us, stories give us the hope that we may be able to bear the burdens of our afflictions and live fully, even as we are dying. Stories teach us that suffering and perseverance unify us as humans in a way that transcends race, religion, and class.

…………………………………………….

Throughout my battle with cancer, I have turned to literature and writing to make sense of this miserable and mysterious disease. Books help me understand that human suffering is universal. They have also taught me empathy—how to reach out to others who suffer. In a world where spite and hatred mark the rhetoric of so many, such an intangible attribute should be a vital, required outcome of every student’s educational experience.

Indeed.

Borders fantasies

Book lovers have always turned a blind eye to the god Mammon, remembering only with regret the fact that the house they live in with their truest love was bought and paid for by the leering uncle down the street. Jonathan Gourlay took up that ill-begotten relationship in a nice personal essay on the demise of Borders. For Gourlay, Borders was an opportunity missed whose demise was figured long ago in it’s decision to skip a flirtation with the labor movement and bend the knee to a corporatist ethos.

“For Borders, which first opened in 1971, the end began when it was sold to K-Mart in 1992. By the time I got there, three years later, only a few of the stalwart Borders believers remained to try to change the store from within. Within a few months of my arrival, Neil gave up and retired to play in his band, The Human Rays. I don’t know if the band was real or Neil just thought it was amusing to retire and join The Human Rays. His friendly management style didn’t jibe with the new owners.

“Neil’s replacement was a guy named Doug. Doug had the personality of a pair of brown corduroy pants. We all hated Doug. We hated him because he was not Neil. Underneath that hatred was a hatred of what Doug represented: corporate masters and the loss of our own identity. With Neil we labored under the impression that we were cool. Under Doug we just labored.

This romantic vision may have a grain of truth.  But it’s worth remembering that scrolls and codexes(codices?) required immense amounts of money–and so wealthy patrons who had to be appeased–to produce. And at some level when you come down to it a book is a commodity as surely as a coke can. So we like to imagine ourselves as counter cultural in our love of texts, but that romantic ethos is purchased at a price like everything else.

The promise of the Internet is in part the idea of thinking and writing and reading without the necessary intervention of the dollar bill. But is that too just a romantic fancy?