Archives for the month of: March, 2013

I have a hell of a time finding shoes that fit. I’m a US size 6 (men’s), which rivals the moa in terms of its rarity in New Zealand and the Sasquatch in the US. My feet quit growing more than twenty years ago, and my main solution to this problem has been Doc Martens, which are essentially unisex. When it comes to my soccer shoes, I once took a pair of adidas copas as hand-me-downs from a 12-year-old (I was 17 at the time). The pair of Puma King screw-ins that I bought with driveway shovelling and lawn-mowing money in 1991 lasted me until last year, when three of my teammates (and most of the strikers I marked) were younger than my boots. Those Pumas were old enough to have been made in Germany. My other solution has been to wear women’s shoes, including my current pair of pink-and-slime (not green) adidas predators and whatever running shoes I take as a hand-me-down from Jennifer (the joys of marriage).

As below so above: in intellectual pursuits like MLA panels I am also of an awkward size. Here are the responses from the five rejections I have received so far:

Thank you for your submission to the MLA panel on “Topic.” Many excellent abstracts came in. In the end, I could only accept three for the panel at the Chicago convention. I am sorry to say that I could not accept yours, despite its fine quality.

Thanks for your submission.  I received many good proposals for the MLA panel and I picked the ones that went together the best. Sorry, I did not select yours.  Best of luck to you in your endeavors.

I’m sorry to tell you that we didn’t choose your submission for the panel. We had around 30 submissions and could only select 4.  There were many excellent submissions we had to pass up (and we also had to think about “fit” here in making our selections: putting together a panel with some coherence).

I have reviewed all the proposals for the 2014 MLA session, “[Topic],” and read your abstract with interest.  Unfortunately, your paper was not selected for this panel.  We had a number of strong proposals and the decision was to some degree based on how well the papers would fit together as a group.

Thank you very much for submitting your abstract to the [Topic] panel proposed for MLA 2014. I received a very large number of submissions, so the choice was difficult. In the end I tried to put together a panel from abstracts that shared a narrower focus on [Topic] and subjectivity, and I’m afraid yours was not one of the final three included.

Four out of five were explicit about the importance of fit. Or, as I would describe it, doing the same thing with a different text. I don’t want to rage too hard against these five rejections,  they included very nice invitations to submit to upcoming special issues and edited collections, and the failure studies panel (perhaps predictably) was the flat-out nicest rejection notice I’ve ever received. But I find the academic mad lib of lots of good submissions/applicants, tough decision, and fit a little boring.

So far I’m 0-for-5. I’m fairly sure I’ll go a perfect 0-for-10 on my MLA proposals. My sincerest hope is that one of the rejections says, “we would have picked yours, but the coin landed on tails. Sorry.” I would buy that person a drink or three at the next MLA, provided I can get a paper accepted.

Every so often I come across a student essay that has one of those “I bet you don’t even read our essays” sentences that I do, in fact, read. I have never been averse to this very approach, something I was reminded of today, when I dusted off a piece of research. I distinctly recall Cecelia Tichi insisting that I identify the critics I used. Hence, no more “Catherine Jurca“, but instead, “literary critic Catherine Jurca“. This demand led to sentences like this one: “As non-scumbag suburban planners like Peter Calthorpe, Renee Chow, and Barrie Greenbie note, a horizontal-to-vertical  ratio of approximately four to one generates a comforting sense of enclosure.”

This John Lanchester piece in the Guardian does the business. I want to point to two paragraphs in particular, one about literature and one about film.

First, literature:

I’ve never seen a film or television programme about the importance of commuting in Londoners’ lives; if it comes to that, I’ve never read a novel that captures it either. The centrality of London’s underground to Londoners – the fact that it made the city historically, and makes it what it is today, and is woven in a detailed way into the lives of most of its citizens on a daily basis – is strangely underrepresented in fiction about the city, and especially in drama. More than 1bn underground journeys take place every year – 1.1bn in 2011, and 2012 will certainly post a larger number still. That’s an average of nearly 3m journeys every day. At its busiest, there are about 600,000 people on the network simultaneously, which means that, if the network at rush hour were a city in itself, rather than an entity inside London, it would have the same population as Glasgow, the fourth biggest city in the UK. The District line alone carries about 600,000 people every day, which means that it, too, is a version of Glasgow.

Second, film:

Orson Welles once said that the only two things that could not be filmed were sexual intercourse and prayer. I take him to mean that they were the two human activities whose significance was entirely internal: they were happening to the people who were experiencing them in a manner that could only be experienced, and not depicted. The underground is like that – not exactly like that, because there are significant differences between travelling on it and either having sex or praying, but it is on the same continuum, because its significance for us is internal. It’s a going in, a turning in, not exactly a mystical state, but one that we know deep down inside ourselves is not an ordinary or routine condition. We escape it with distractions, or we try to switch off, but we can’t entirely hide from it. That internal state, central to tube travel, is very hard to put on TV.

When it comes to literature, there are some interesting moments of commuting (I have a dissertation rattling around an old laptop that testifies to that) but not many, if any, extended novel-length (heck, chapter-length) engagements with it. For film it is much the same. But must the focus be on commuting for it to exercise itself on our brains? Part of what makes the commute for deadening is its sameness – the same route every day, at the same time. While that could work, it’s too ritualized (both narratively and formally); and ritual is another trait prayer and sex share.

I dabble in BritLit, but not contemporary BritLit. But any time there’s a chance to do something about blockbusters, I have to give it a try. My very scientific method of picking a topic was to find the best-selling book in England in 1975. The rest followed. In much the same way I would ask students to rewrite The Da Vinci Code (should I ever have to teach a creative writing class project), I think there has to be something literarily interesting in The Eagle Has Landed, even if that interest takes the form of “writing like Dan Brown”.

The Eagle Has Landed may have sold fifty million copies but no one I know owns a copy”

The best-selling book in England the year I was born was The Eagle Has Landed, by Jack Higgins. It was also the best selling book of the entire decade, enjoying The Da Vinci Code-level sales. However, MLA searches of “Jack Higgins” and “The Eagle Has Landed,” predictably, turn up zero hits. The novel did spur an almost-immediate film adaptation starring Michael Caine, Donald Sutherland, Robert Duvall, and Donald Pleasance. As Gordon Hutner begins What America Read: Taste, Class, and the Novel, 1920-1960, soon-forgotten best sellers are key to the project of literary criticism. Such books, he argues, constitute “the merely ordinary, that is, the fiction against which academic tastemakers later needed to contradistinguish the best” (1). My paper will locate not only the merely ordinary traits of style and form in The Eagle Has Landed, but also the differently-ordinary, those moments that make the novel not so much an important piece of literature, but rather a key document in the history of literature, culture, and politics in the 1970s.

Hutner, Gordon. What America Read: Taste, Class, and the Novel, 1920-1960. Chapel

Hill, UNC Press, 2009.

I was stoked to see this panel, and a special issue of Modern Fiction Studies sounds like something positive to emerge out of it. Since almost everything I have in my pile of current research is about film, I had to dive into the pleasure reading pile for ideas.

“The Critical Function of Infrastructure, Suitable for Young Adult Readers: Philip Reeve’s Predator Cities Quartet

In the popular steampunk young-adult novels that make up the Predator Cities Quartet (2001-2008), Traction Cities, tiered cities made mobile by massive treads, such as London roam the post-apocalyptic earth looking for smaller cities. This vision of urban life changes both the neoliberal economic order and its effect on the physical form of cities in late capitalism into an predator-prey relationship. Two concepts are key to the series: Municipal Darwinism and the importance of a city’s infrastructure to survival and success. The ideology at the centre of the novels’ conflicts, Municipal Darwinism, explains a world in which cities hunt and eat other, using the materials they salvage from the dead city as fuel and as capital, literalizing the ways in which some cities increase their wealth and power at the cost of other cities.

The strangeness of Predator Cities Quartet’s dystopian future rests on bringing the invisible underpinnings of contemporary life and civilization – infrastructure – into the foreground. The Predator Cities Quartet represents traction cities as intensely vertical cities, with the leader at the topmost level of the city, the technical professionals at the observation level, and the workers near the engine rooms and waste-handling facilities at the literal bottom of the pile. In addition to giving concrete expression to social hierarchy, the city’s physical form also expresses the series’ larger political message: that a livable city, be it a Traction City gobbling up other cities or a town rooted on the earth, can only go as far as its power generation, waste-handling, and transportation facilities can take it.