Week 36 Links: A Jane Austen Education, what Facebook is like, The Longform.org Guide to the Porn Industry, A Game of Thrones as comedy, and more

Who put a bikini on this poor statue?

* Reading this review of William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education is bizarre because it’s like reading about myself, right down to the love for Madame Bovary:

In 1990, William Deresiewicz was on his way to gaining a Ph.D. in English literature at Columbia University. Describing that time in the opening pages of his sharp, endearingly self-effacing new book, “A Jane Austen Education,” Deresiewicz explains that he faced one crucial obstacle. He loathed not just Jane Austen but the entire gang of 19th-century British novelists: Hardy, Dickens, Eliot . . . the lot.

At 26, Deresiewicz wasn’t experiencing the hatred born of surfeit that Mark Twain described when he told a friend, “Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shinbone.” What Deresiewicz (who has considerable fun at the expense of his pompous younger self) was going through was the rebel phase in which Dostoyevsky rules Planet Gloom, that stage during which the best available image of marriage is a prison gate.

Sardonic students do not, as Deresiewicz points out, make suitable shrine-­tenders for a female novelist whose books, while short on wedding scenes, never skimp on proposals. Emma Bovary fulfilled all the young scholar’s expectations of literary culture at its finest; Emma Woodhouse left him cold. “Her life,” he lamented, “was impossibly narrow.” Her story, such as it was, “seemed to consist of nothing more than a lot of chitchat among a bunch of commonplace characters in a country village.” Hypochondriacal Mr. Woodhouse, garrulous Miss Bates — weren’t these just the sort of bores Deresiewicz had spent his college years struggling to avoid? Maybe, he describes himself conceding, the sole redeeming feature of smug Miss Woodhouse was that she seemed to share his distaste for the dull society of Highbury.

The major difference is that I’m 27 and he describes himself at 26.

* A description of Facebook: “It seemed too much like tv, in reverse. Everybody transmits and nobody watches.” This is why I read Hacker News comments.

* Slate.com posted “The Longform.org Guide to the Porn Industry, which has a bunch of fascinating essays that are safe for work in the sense that they don’t have explicit photos on them. None are quite as good as David Foster Wallace’s “Big Red Sun” in Consider the Lobster, but that’s like accusing a basketball player of not being Michael Jordan. As I read the essays, I kept thinking of Philip K. Dick in some inchoate, ill-defined fashion—perhaps because he’s done so much to shape my thinking about reality and unreality.

Anyway, the next couple links stem from the Slate links:

* “Larry Flynt used to defend Hustler by calling the nude photo layouts “art.” I would come to joke that the porn video is indigenous Southern California folk art. The cheesy aesthetic — shag-carpet backdrops, tanning-salon chic, bad music, worse hairdos — and the everyman approach to exhibitionism are honest expressions of life in the land of mini-malls, vanity plates and instant stardom.” Evan Wright.

* “Those who enjoy whatever private pleasure is to be gained from receiving physical pain publicly would appear not to overlap at all with those who enjoy whatever private pleasure is to be gained from inflicting shame collectively.” From an article nominally about Sasha Grey and the porn industry, but really about expectations in cultural narratives of shame and redemption.

* “I’d call your right now, but I think you’re attending a retrograde ceremony for the artificial binding of two people in a legal contract regarding their sexual and financial behavior. I hope said ceremony at least has an open bar.”

* “Publishing—at least in general, and at least below the very top echelons of management—is not a fast-paced business, and the sense of urgency and desire for efficiency you might find in the offices of an investment bank or law firm don’t generally exist, simply because publishing doesn’t generally attract the sorts of people you often find in those fields.” This may bode ill for the future of the industry as it exists now.

* “I don’t know exactly what the future [of publishing] will look like, but I’m not too worried about it. This sort of change tends to create as many good things as it kills. Indeed, the really interesting question is not what will happen to existing forms, but what new forms will appear.”

* This is pretty funny: “A Game of Thrones” (the TV show) as a buddy comedy.

Effi Briest — Theodore Fontane, with a side of James Wood and Samuel Delany's Paris Review interview

Despite what I wrote in this post, I got a copy of Effi Briest. And you know what? I couldn’t finish it. There were some great lines—my favorite is Effi’s father saying, “There’s nothing so good for one as a wedding, provided of course it isn’t one’s own”—but I couldn’t take the rest, even though I stopped reading the very nice introduction by Helen Chambers after realizing it was prejudicing me against the book:

The sexual dimensions of the age gap [between Effi and her husband] remain beneath the surface of this discreet and allusive novel. They are suggested, as is much that is vital in the inner action, by the symbolic texture of the narrative. Effi’s sexual inexperience at the beginning of the novel is beyond question, and the premature loss of her virginity is prefigured by the twins calling her back to the garden through a window framed by Virginia Creeper

This explains why little seems to happen, since “remain beneath the surface” feels like another phrase for “buried so deeply that you need an even dirtier mind than mine to excavate it. In a Paris Review interview, Robertson Davies says:

I do not respond quite so immediately and warmly to writers in the United States, because their concerns are different from mine and their approach to them is different from mine. They seem to be infinitely concerned with very subtle details of feeling and life. I find this exemplified, for instance, in many stories in The New Yorker where whether the family will have pumpkin pie or something else on Thanksgiving Day is a decision with infinite psychological and sexual repercussions. I take this quite seriously. I admire their subtlety—but I get so sick of it. I wish they would deal with larger themes.

With enough subtlety, substance disappears, and I love his characterization of American Thanksgivings as portrayed in stories. Anyway, Chambers also says of Effi’s husband, “It seems that after years of self-discipline and mortification of the flesh Innstetten has regulated his natural urges into a state of atrophy.” In the margin I wrote, “Yawn,” a judgment that still seems reasonable a week later. Practically the entire text of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach could fit between the end of the wedding scene on page 26 and the next paragraph, which begins, “The day after the wedding was a bright October day,” as if one of the presumably major events of Effi’s life hadn’t just happened. And I’m not talking about the wedding.

I was thinking about Effi Briest when I read Samuel Delany’s Paris Review interview in the Summer 2011 issue. He talks about two characters in his work Nova who almost have an incestuous relationship. The interviewer begins this exchange:

Did you intentionally want to make something the reader could only speculate about, rather than be certain of?

Delany: Certainly as far as the incest goes. Suggestion is a literary strategy. But when, in 1968, works like Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Black Spring and Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover were legal to publish and sell in this country, the age of innuendo and the coyly placed line of white space, as the hero envelops the heroine in his arms, ended. Fifteen years later, AIDS rendered them permanently obsolete.

Today, I watch seminar rooms full of graduate students misread both [Alfred] Bester and [Joseph] Conrad, because they no longer have to wonder about the possibility of such illegal elements occurring in the story and the compensating possibility of suggestion as a writerly strategy for representing sex and violence.

I am one of those graduate students, and I evidently don’t have the exquisitely tuned sex detector that pre-’68 readers might have developed. This became especially clear in a seminar on Henry James’ The Golden Bowl, when one of my professors at the University of Arizona began to point out the many euphemisms and double entendres left by James, beginning with the name “Assingham” and proceeding from there. I mostly wondered what the big fuss was about, given the modesty of the phrases in questions, but I didn’t realize how generational my readings were until I discovered the Delany interview an hour ago.

Delany is right—I don’t have a lot of tolerance of “innuendo and the coyly placed line of white space.” That doesn’t mean I want every novel to be wildly explicit, or that I want pornography to merge with literary fiction, but it does mean that a lot of older books seem coy. Like Effi Briest. Today, when McEwan’s aforementioned novel takes those white spaces and turns them into entire works of their own, it’s hard to accept the white space, or an extraordinarily “discreet and allusive novel” where Virginia Creepers (or pumpkin pie) have “infinite psychological and sexual repercussions”

I didn’t expect to have my malady so accurately and suddenly diagnosed, however, and it wasn’t until I read Delany that I was able to write this post. He makes me want to be a more careful and considerate reader. Or maybe novels do have a sense of technological progression, or something like progress, or even progress itself. James Wood speculates on the subject in his review of Chang-Rae Lee’s The Surrendered:

Does literature progress, like medicine or engineering? Nabokov seems to have thought so, and pointed out that Tolstoy, unlike Homer, was able to describe childbirth in convincing detail. Yet you could argue the opposite view; after all, no novelist strikes the modern reader as more Homeric than Tolstoy. [. . .] Perhaps it is as absurd to talk about progress in literature as it is to talk about progress in electricity—both are natural resources awaiting different forms of activation. The novel is peculiar in this respect, because while anyone painting today exactly like Courbet, or composing music exactly like Brahms, would be accounted a fraud or a forger, much contemporary fiction borrows the codes and conventions—the basic narrative grammar—of Flaubert or Balzac without essential alteration.

If literature progresses technologically, it still doesn’t do so in quite the same way as technology: no one would use a camera from 1925 unless they were a masochist, had a historical fetish, or were trying to achieve some very peculiar artistic effect. The rest of us use digital cameras manufactured in the last five years, or phones, given the obvious advantages of convenience. But many writers from 1925 still feel quite modern—Fitzgerald, most obviously, but many others too. Yet I don’t find that much 19th Century fiction really moves me (exceptions: Moby-Dick, The Scarlet Letter). Contemporary writers have a greater and perhaps infinite rein to express what they need to express, and by contrast older writers do seem coy, even if this is an unfair judgment on my part—or the kind of judgment that might be tempered by age. The more I think about the idea, the more I see how others have considered it. For example, this review of William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education is bizarre because it’s like reading about myself, right down to the love for Madame Bovary:

In 1990, William Deresiewicz was on his way to gaining a Ph.D. in English literature at Columbia University. Describing that time in the opening pages of his sharp, endearingly self-effacing new book, “A Jane Austen Education,” Deresiewicz explains that he faced one crucial obstacle. He loathed not just Jane Austen but the entire gang of 19th-century British novelists: Hardy, Dickens, Eliot . . . the lot.

At 26, Deresiewicz wasn’t experiencing the hatred born of surfeit that Mark Twain described when he told a friend, “Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shinbone.” What Deresiewicz (who has considerable fun at the expense of his pompous younger self) was going through was the rebel phase in which Dostoyevsky rules Planet Gloom, that stage during which the best available image of marriage is a prison gate.

Sardonic students do not, as Deresiewicz points out, make suitable shrine-­tenders for a female novelist whose books, while short on wedding scenes, never skimp on proposals. Emma Bovary fulfilled all the young scholar’s expectations of literary culture at its finest; Emma Woodhouse left him cold. “Her life,” he lamented, “was impossibly narrow.” Her story, such as it was, “seemed to consist of nothing more than a lot of chitchat among a bunch of commonplace characters in a country village.” Hypochondriacal Mr. Woodhouse, garrulous Miss Bates — weren’t these just the sort of bores Deresiewicz had spent his college years struggling to avoid? Maybe, he describes himself conceding, the sole redeeming feature of smug Miss Woodhouse was that she seemed to share his distaste for the dull society of Highbury.

I’m 27. Maybe I’ll have considerable fun at the expense of my pompous younger self one day.

I bought A Jane Austen Education, which shouldn’t be surprising given my feelings about Deresiewicz. Maybe he will teach me to read Austen more kindly, more attentively (Wood has succeeded at least somewhat in that respect: his discussion of free indirect speech in How Fiction Works finally gave me the tools to figure out why people like Austen). I’m still not sure that it will bring Effi Briest to life, and even if it does, it might be more like reanimating a corpse (which, as genre fiction teaches us, is replete with dangers) than interacting with a live person.

Effi Briest — Theodore Fontane, with a side of James Wood and Samuel Delany’s Paris Review interview

Despite what I wrote in this post, I got a copy of Effi Briest. And you know what? I couldn’t finish it. There were some great lines—my favorite is Effi’s father saying, “There’s nothing so good for one as a wedding, provided of course it isn’t one’s own”—but I couldn’t take the rest, even though I stopped reading the very nice introduction by Helen Chambers after realizing it was prejudicing me against the book:

The sexual dimensions of the age gap [between Effi and her husband] remain beneath the surface of this discreet and allusive novel. They are suggested, as is much that is vital in the inner action, by the symbolic texture of the narrative. Effi’s sexual inexperience at the beginning of the novel is beyond question, and the premature loss of her virginity is prefigured by the twins calling her back to the garden through a window framed by Virginia Creeper

This explains why little seems to happen, since “remain beneath the surface” feels like another phrase for “buried so deeply that you need an even dirtier mind than mine to excavate it. In a Paris Review interview, Robertson Davies says:

I do not respond quite so immediately and warmly to writers in the United States, because their concerns are different from mine and their approach to them is different from mine. They seem to be infinitely concerned with very subtle details of feeling and life. I find this exemplified, for instance, in many stories in The New Yorker where whether the family will have pumpkin pie or something else on Thanksgiving Day is a decision with infinite psychological and sexual repercussions. I take this quite seriously. I admire their subtlety—but I get so sick of it. I wish they would deal with larger themes.

With enough subtlety, substance disappears, and I love his characterization of American Thanksgivings as portrayed in stories. Anyway, Chambers also says of Effi’s husband, “It seems that after years of self-discipline and mortification of the flesh Innstetten has regulated his natural urges into a state of atrophy.” In the margin I wrote, “Yawn,” a judgment that still seems reasonable a week later. Practically the entire text of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach could fit between the end of the wedding scene on page 26 and the next paragraph, which begins, “The day after the wedding was a bright October day,” as if one of the presumably major events of Effi’s life hadn’t just happened. And I’m not talking about the wedding.

I was thinking about Effi Briest when I read Samuel Delany’s Paris Review interview in the Summer 2011 issue. He talks about two characters in his work Nova who almost have an incestuous relationship. The interviewer begins this exchange:

Did you intentionally want to make something the reader could only speculate about, rather than be certain of?

Delany: Certainly as far as the incest goes. Suggestion is a literary strategy. But when, in 1968, works like Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Black Spring and Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover were legal to publish and sell in this country, the age of innuendo and the coyly placed line of white space, as the hero envelops the heroine in his arms, ended. Fifteen years later, AIDS rendered them permanently obsolete.

Today, I watch seminar rooms full of graduate students misread both [Alfred] Bester and [Joseph] Conrad, because they no longer have to wonder about the possibility of such illegal elements occurring in the story and the compensating possibility of suggestion as a writerly strategy for representing sex and violence.

I am one of those graduate students, and I evidently don’t have the exquisitely tuned sex detector that pre-’68 readers might have developed. This became especially clear in a seminar on Henry James’ The Golden Bowl, when one of my professors at the University of Arizona began to point out the many euphemisms and double entendres left by James, beginning with the name “Assingham” and proceeding from there. I mostly wondered what the big fuss was about, given the modesty of the phrases in questions, but I didn’t realize how generational my readings were until I discovered the Delany interview an hour ago.

Delany is right—I don’t have a lot of tolerance of “innuendo and the coyly placed line of white space.” That doesn’t mean I want every novel to be wildly explicit, or that I want pornography to merge with literary fiction, but it does mean that a lot of older books seem coy. Like Effi Briest. Today, when McEwan’s aforementioned novel takes those white spaces and turns them into entire works of their own, it’s hard to accept the white space, or an extraordinarily “discreet and allusive novel” where Virginia Creepers (or pumpkin pie) have “infinite psychological and sexual repercussions”

I didn’t expect to have my malady so accurately and suddenly diagnosed, however, and it wasn’t until I read Delany that I was able to write this post. He makes me want to be a more careful and considerate reader. Or maybe novels do have a sense of technological progression, or something like progress, or even progress itself. James Wood speculates on the subject in his review of Chang-Rae Lee’s The Surrendered:

Does literature progress, like medicine or engineering? Nabokov seems to have thought so, and pointed out that Tolstoy, unlike Homer, was able to describe childbirth in convincing detail. Yet you could argue the opposite view; after all, no novelist strikes the modern reader as more Homeric than Tolstoy. [. . .] Perhaps it is as absurd to talk about progress in literature as it is to talk about progress in electricity—both are natural resources awaiting different forms of activation. The novel is peculiar in this respect, because while anyone painting today exactly like Courbet, or composing music exactly like Brahms, would be accounted a fraud or a forger, much contemporary fiction borrows the codes and conventions—the basic narrative grammar—of Flaubert or Balzac without essential alteration.

If literature progresses technologically, it still doesn’t do so in quite the same way as technology: no one would use a camera from 1925 unless they were a masochist, had a historical fetish, or were trying to achieve some very peculiar artistic effect. The rest of us use digital cameras manufactured in the last five years, or phones, given the obvious advantages of convenience. But many writers from 1925 still feel quite modern—Fitzgerald, most obviously, but many others too. Yet I don’t find that much 19th Century fiction really moves me (exceptions: Moby-Dick, The Scarlet Letter). Contemporary writers have a greater and perhaps infinite rein to express what they need to express, and by contrast older writers do seem coy, even if this is an unfair judgment on my part—or the kind of judgment that might be tempered by age. The more I think about the idea, the more I see how others have considered it. For example, this review of William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education is bizarre because it’s like reading about myself, right down to the love for Madame Bovary:

In 1990, William Deresiewicz was on his way to gaining a Ph.D. in English literature at Columbia University. Describing that time in the opening pages of his sharp, endearingly self-effacing new book, “A Jane Austen Education,” Deresiewicz explains that he faced one crucial obstacle. He loathed not just Jane Austen but the entire gang of 19th-century British novelists: Hardy, Dickens, Eliot . . . the lot.

At 26, Deresiewicz wasn’t experiencing the hatred born of surfeit that Mark Twain described when he told a friend, “Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shinbone.” What Deresiewicz (who has considerable fun at the expense of his pompous younger self) was going through was the rebel phase in which Dostoyevsky rules Planet Gloom, that stage during which the best available image of marriage is a prison gate.

Sardonic students do not, as Deresiewicz points out, make suitable shrine-­tenders for a female novelist whose books, while short on wedding scenes, never skimp on proposals. Emma Bovary fulfilled all the young scholar’s expectations of literary culture at its finest; Emma Woodhouse left him cold. “Her life,” he lamented, “was impossibly narrow.” Her story, such as it was, “seemed to consist of nothing more than a lot of chitchat among a bunch of commonplace characters in a country village.” Hypochondriacal Mr. Woodhouse, garrulous Miss Bates — weren’t these just the sort of bores Deresiewicz had spent his college years struggling to avoid? Maybe, he describes himself conceding, the sole redeeming feature of smug Miss Woodhouse was that she seemed to share his distaste for the dull society of Highbury.

I’m 27. Maybe I’ll have considerable fun at the expense of my pompous younger self one day.

I bought A Jane Austen Education, which shouldn’t be surprising given my feelings about Deresiewicz. Maybe he will teach me to read Austen more kindly, more attentively (Wood has succeeded at least somewhat in that respect: his discussion of free indirect speech in How Fiction Works finally gave me the tools to figure out why people like Austen). I’m still not sure that it will bring Effi Briest to life, and even if it does, it might be more like reanimating a corpse (which, as genre fiction teaches us, is replete with dangers) than interacting with a live person.

How should teenage characters speak? Engaging Janet Reid, Gossip Girl, and 90210

In a query letter critique, Janet Reid says:

If you’re writing a 14-year old character, you need to know how they talk: “Threatening us with violence” sounds like a sociologist; “told us he’d mess us up” sounds like what the kids on my corner say to each other.

This might be true in many instances, but I’m reminded of something this Salon.com review of “Gossip Girl” and “90210” says:

Where Blair and Serena’s lines snap, crackle and pop with wit and cleverness, the soggy stars of “90210” stumble over one cliché after another. “Awkward!” Annie blurts at Ethan after they encounter Ethan’s ex Naomi, then Annie does her best impression of the cynical teenage eye roll, as Ethan mutters, “Good times!” Oof.

But every scene is filled with such teen-bot tripe: “Whatever works for you.” “Helloo-ooo?” “Shut up!” “Me and Ethan? Not so much.” Maybe real teens sound like that, but real teens are repellent and worthless, remember? Plus, nothing’s worse than shoving such drivel into the mouths of a bunch of airbrushed anorexics and overgrown child actors.”90210’s” Annie has more in common with Broadway’s Annie than a real human being. Putting teen lingo in her mouth is like dressing a cat in a little nurse outfit. It’s sort of cute at first, but then it just gets sad.

“Repellant and worthless” is overstatement, very. The characters from “Gossip Girl” are more interesting because they don’t speak like teenagers, or like regular ones. If they did, they’d be boring (or, depending on your view, more boring than they already are). I suspect that’s why so many teen narrators are “precocious.” The alternative is dull. If you have a normal 15-year old, even 15-year olds will find them boring and insipid on the page. So you need a precocious 15-year old who adults can tolerate, and perhaps enjoy, while 15-year olds will imagine themselves to be equally witty even if they’re probably not. But your precocious 15-year-old still probably shouldn’t sound like Umberto Eco. That’s the challenge: giving a character enough of a voice and enough intelligence to make them interesting while not overwriting them. This challenge might explain why so many books starring teenagers are told from a distant, adult future recalling events from the past.

The first season of Gossip Girl, by the way, is pretty funny. I referenced it in class one day because, being a West Coaster, I had no idea what “cotillion” was until an episode featured it. That allusion elicited shock from students. Apparently I come across as a very hard core literary type. Which, of course, I am. A friend and I watched a few episodes and the last one from the second season, but it was so repetitive that we gave up.

On another note, the rest of Reid’s advice on the query letter is typically accurate. If you’ve ever wanted to try and get a literary agent or publisher to read your manuscript, take a couple hours to look through Query Shark first.

Nine and a Half Weeks: A Memoir of a Love Affair — Elizabeth Mcneill

Most novels (and memoirs) leave you with a sense of distance, a sense of being at a comfortable remove. Nine and a Half Weeks doesn’t: it’s too graphic, too immediate, too flat. One sees this effect in the first sentences, without any preamble as to who these people are and how they came to be: “The first time we were in bed together he held my hands pinned down above my head. I liked it. I liked him. He was moody in a way that struck me as romantic; he was funny, bright, interesting to talk to; and he gave me pleasure.” One senses quickening thoughts and pulses in those short sentences, and even in the long one, where semicolons could be periods, and the last descriptor—”he gave me pleasure”—is the really important one. You don’t get the very ironic tone of a book like Alain de Botton’s On Love, letting us see that love is irrational but really understandably so. Alain, the narrator of On Love is basically a needy, endearing, neurotic weakling; his self-consciousness contrasts so much with the man in Nine and a Half Weeks that they’re practically different species.

There are clever phrases in the memoir, as when the narrator says of her lover, “His face turns attractive when he talks;” I like the strange word choice, as if the head is physically turning, or as if he has two, or multiple, faces. A few moments are archaic—the man describes a friend or rival coming over as “This dope” (emphasis in original), which hasn’t been currently slang in decades and stands out in a book that otherwise stands out for not being part of any particular time. The prose holds up, and the narrator has an eye for tedious rituals, as when she tells of a “statistical tale,” where the contrast of statistics and narrative stands out:

In the middle of the statistical tale he’s requested from me—brothers and sisters and parents and grandparents, hometown, schools, jobs—I stop and close my eyes . . . please, I think, inarticulate even in my own mind, unable to turn to him and make the first move, please . . .

There’s a pervasive fear of dullness running through the memoir. The narrator notes that she and her lover looked like “An attractive, well-educated couple in New York City, average, middle-class, civilized.” That contrasts with what came before and will come after. Or does it? The memoir teases us by making us wonder if the the narrator isn’t so unusual as public discourse would make her out to be. I think the story’s flatness, the unwillingness to engage in direct commentary on what’s happening, points us in this direction, as when the narrator says, “I am standing, nearly on tiptoes, across the room from him, my arms raised above my head. My hands are tied to the hook on the wall on which his one large painting hangs during the day.” She’s hung like a painting and enjoys it. There is no further morality or analysis. Sixty Minutes plays in the background, a reminder of the middle America the narrator feels like she’s leaving behind even when she imagines it as a foil to her own actions.

Images repeat through the memoir. Scarves reappear. The words “like” and “love” are reconfigured like body parts. One senses Nabokovian echoes in the prose that one distantly hears on the first read but can’t make out. The narrator also feels her internal sense of self discombobulating, like a washing machine that shakes itself apart from within. She knows this is happening and imagines the reactions of otherwise course, until she writes of her experience.

We don’t know what the narrator wants beyond the obvious: sexual satisfaction. That she might only want the obvious might be the most frightening thing of all. What if everything else she has—a job, presumed communal respect, literary and political opinions—don’t matter very much? What if your real self isn’t those frontal cortex developments, but something deeper, more primal? I find posing the questions unsettling. The answers implied by Nine and a Half Weeks are more so. The patina of everyday experience conceals so much, especially in the realm of inchoate desire that social life is designed to channel. What happens when the channeling breaks? What happens when we want it to break? I’m reminded of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which also features the discarding of the mind in pursuit of a mental state or feeling very unlike the one most of us presumably inhabit most of the time—the mental state worried about how much money we have, what other people think about us, whether we’ll get the job / life partner / degree / accommodates of our dreams.

The narrator likes the man’s dominance above all other traits, which derive from that dominance. He says of a friend or rival, “he’s got no guts whatsoever.” Note what she likes in the contrast he offers by comparison. He shows mastery by reading Gide in French and Kafka in German, both implying continental expertise and sexuality. Some moments are obvious, as when the narrator reads with “his thick pen solid and comfortable in my hand.” One doesn’t need to be Freud to imagine that the pen is not just a pen. In the same scene, the narrator says, “I write the letter (‘. . . met this man a few days ago, nice start, very different from Gerry, who’s more than happy with Harriett these day, you remember her . . .’)” (sic). The dig at her ex-boyfriend is subtle but present: he isn’t dominant, won’t tie her up, and presumably has settled with a lesser woman.

He demonstrates great knowledge too: “[. . .] whatever else he may do [in] it, this man clearly does read his original-language books in bed; why would anyone want to miss out on one of the most satisfying pleasures available? All he’d need is a better bulb, a few more pillows, and a reading lamp. . . .” The room sounds sad and denuded, but it doesn’t matter much, even if the narrator is right about beds, which are good for more than just sleeping and that other thing. He offers commands, as when the narrator says:

He guides my hands between my legs and says, ‘I’d like to watch you make yourself come.’

He is sitting idly, comfortably, one leg crossed over the other, the creases sharp in the freshly cleaned suit. I do not try to move my hands. He waits. ‘You don’t understand.’ My voice cracks. ‘I never . . .’ He is silent. ‘I’ve never done that in front of anybody. It embarrasses me.’ “

She does, of course. That it embarrasses her is part of the point. What embarrasses her in the moment becomes the fodder for memoir, even under a pseudonym, long after. She likes giving power to him, which she does by letting him watch her masturbate. She also does by repeating how much she loves him, but I don’t think he ever says it back. It’s like he doesn’t need to, and by withholding the confirmation of his love he creates a neurotic fear in her. Only at one moment does he crack, when “All at once he is a decade my junior, a very young man asking me to have a drink with him, expecting to be refused.” But that doesn’t last long. Little does in this memoir, including their relationship, whose duration is given away by the title. But the narrator learns a lot in a short period. She says, “If you’ve never screamed, out of control, you can’t imagine how it feels. Now I know how it feels, it’s like coming.” She never goes the Biblical or mythological root and thinks there are things we shouldn’t know. For her, all knowledge is knowledge.

You can see that McNeill’s memoir doesn’t sit well with current ideals of equality and mutual respect in all fields. As Laura Kipnis says in “Off Limits: Should students be allowed to hook up with professors?” for Slate.com, “Feminism has taught us to recognize the power dynamics in these kinds of relationships, and this has evolved into a dominant paradigm, the new propriety.” Feminism has taught us to recognize power dynamics, but it should also teach us to recognize points of view. The narrator gets this; she thinks the man’s room is “too plain to be called plain. It’s austere, if you want to be charitable, or chic, if you want to be snide, or boring, if you want to be honest. It is not, in any event, a room you’d call cozy” {McNeill “Love”@9}. So the narrator is aware of angles, points of view, possibilities. I’ve been told I use “or” a lot in my own writing. It’s a useful word for people who perceive many ways of describing things, and here it betrays an openness to experience that the memoir exploits. She has a strong theory of mind that weakens as she awakens to herself.

I should point out that I call the narrator “the narrator” as opposed to “McNeill” or something more conventional because she feels like a fictional person more than a real person (which is strange, given how many fictional characters seem real, but that’s a topic for another time). Elizabeth McNeill is itself a pseudonym. We don’t know who the real author is. The man is never given a name—he’s only given traits, like his penchant for Brooks Brothers and sadomasochism (sometimes, especially when it comes to belts, simultaneously). So I don’t entirely know what to call them, or what to call their madness, if it is indeed madness. Can we find pleasure in madness? The narrator’s point is that many of these normally distinct categories eventually blur. I think that’s one of Tartt’s points in The Secret History too. There is more to be written about the book—its strange tenses, leaping from past to present to future, to what extent we should indulge in or avoid attempting to apply universal lessons—but this gives flavor of it and why its merits still show.

Thoughts on J. J. Abrams’ movie Super 8

1) It’s surprisingly good. I say “surprisingly” because most heavily advertised summer blockbusters are terrible. See it in the theater if you can, ideally on an IMAX screen. I did.

2) The movie is very good at conveying a lot in a small space—the cluttered domestic scenes set up family tension. Details proliferate at the edge of the movie. Watch for video cameras and film-related objects.

3) I identify with the fat kid because he’s the artist. He’s not the hero and doesn’t get the girl. When mysterious things begin happening, he’s the one who still cares most about getting the shot. Good for him. Intense focus on “production values!” (his rallying cry) never hurts.

4) Like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, this text speaks to other texts. For some reason, I always love the scenes where animals run away while doofus humans tarry. Someone says, “You heard what old man Woodward said,” as if the movie was a Scooby Do variant.

5) Super 8 feels like one the 12-year-old Abrams would’ve liked to make, if he’d had the skill; now he does. It’s nice to see adolescent dreams rise.

6) Ignore the plot holes and implausibilities, which are numerous.

7) Anything that disrupts electricity and electrical devices is scary. If you’re writing a novel with any kind of supernatural element, remember this. We’re still afraid of the dark, and we’re dependent on an electrical grid few of us understand.

8) Embrace the impetus to explore.

9) This is a kids’ movie primarily because there weren’t real consequences; I will leave that statement ambiguous for those who haven’t seen the movie.

EDIT: Even if you don’t normally read the comments, see those left by Jason Fisher.

Summary Judgement: In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of An Accidental Academic — Professor X

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower is fun, filled with anecdotes, and describes many of the feelings I’ve had in the higher education sausage mill, but you’re better off reading the eponymous Atlantic article from which it sprang. You’ll get 80% of the content with 20% of the time. Still, I especially like this bit from the book because nearly the same thing happened to me four weeks ago:

On the first night, I ask a few questions. How many of you took this class because of an abiding love of literature? No hands go up, ever—they are honest, I will give them that. How many of you are taking this class only because you have to? Now all hands shoot up, to the accompaniment of some self-conscious laughter.

I taught a technical writing course to a room full of public health, nutritional science, and engineering majors and asked how many were in the class because they want to learn more about the great and mysterious power of the English language. No hands. How many were taking it because they had to? All the hands. More of my students could write coherent sentences than Professor X’s students, probably because they’re juniors and seniors who’ve been through a fair number of classes, but “more” is not the same as “all.” Few of them cared. I want to imagine that I imparted real skills through longer and more difficult writing assignments than most of them had faced, but I’m not sure I did. It’s not easy to interest people in a topic when they lack intrinsic interest and don’t see it as valuable to their careers.

Professor X is a good writer (note too that his name is a pseudonym, and he isn’t, to my knowledge, claiming to the leader of the X-Men); he says, for instance, that his students “lack rudimentary study skills; in some cases, they are not even functionally literate. Many of them are so dispossessed of context that every bit of new information simply raises more questions.” Notice that phrase, “dispossessed of context,” which I’ve never thought of in that way before, and yet it fits: the Oxford American Dictionary says that dispossessed means to “deprive (someone) of something that they own, typically land or property,” and one gets the sense that educational system have failed Professor X’s students as much as they have failed the systems (note that there is plenty of blame to go around, and I don’t wish to sling it in this post). There are many moments like this, when unexpected artistry arrives.

This sense of the unexpected extends to Professor X’s grasp of the larger institutional and societal forces at work; he notes that college is supposed to be for everyone even when we’re supposed to have high standards. These two ideals seldom leave unbloodied when they meet in the real world. But he doesn’t have a lot of answers to problems, which is okay because a) large, complex problems often don’t have answers and b) he’s trying to tell his own story, not write a polemic. If you know someone of questionable literacy attempting to go to college and frustrated by the experience, you should recommend this book to them. They probably won’t read it, but if they did, they’d know more. I get the sense that Professor X is working more at the individual than societal level. That might also be what makes his book fun.

Some of the responses to his Atlantic article are bizarre, written by people who seem to have no idea what’s happening on the ground. Some of the later material drags. I like the book but would only recommend it to specialists; I read it because I’m working on my own academic work related to university novels. If it weren’t for that, I don’t think I would’ve gotten enough from it, beyond the Atlantic article, to justify reading.

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