Archives for category: literary criticism

It took them long enough – I submitted on 1 August 2014 and didn’t get any response until 25 March 2015, which is almost eight months – but PMLA finally made a decision on my submission, “Arthur Hailey as Richard Nixon. Workplace Safety in Airport.”

They said no, but their reader reports were, by leaps and bounds, better than any reports I’ve ever received. The “reject” reports said nicer things than the reports I’ve had that say “publish.” It’s certainly the first time I felt better after reading the reasons for rejection.

On the one hand, that feeling comes from the praise they embed in the rejection (more on that soon enough). But what really makes the reader reports good is that it’s clear they read my shit carefully and then wrote a clear and considered set of critiques.

First of all, there’s nothing worth quoting out of the positive, “publish” response. It makes a few suggestions about re-organization and further contextualization (which I did before I sent a revised version to another journal). When you can just pass over the report that thinks you’re just fine in favour of the reports that aren’t convinced of your overall greatness, you know you’re onto something.

From the negative pile, there’s the nice bit, “The section on the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization is especially well developed and includes some useful sources. Finally, I think the writer does well to reflect on Hailey’s status as a best-selling, mass-market author and the place of his works in popular literature.” That’s a decent enough series of attaboys.

But the tie-breaking reader has some real gems that made me feel like I got rejected for good reasons: “This is a brisk, intelligent essay, and it has at its heart some very important “crux” issues….I learned a lot from this essay, and I came away pretty convinced on the third front — that there was a certain kind of ideological alignment or compatibility between Hailey and, if not Nixon (too large a figure to encapsulate this specific a commitment), at least a “Nixonian” approach to labor and, perhaps, workplace safety. The essay does a fine job reading the representations of labor, managerial stress, and well-being in Hailey’s fiction, and its political context is important and nicely sketched.” At this point in my first reading of the report, I double-checked that it indeed said, “reject.” But it did.

I particularly like the way in which my admittedly thin contextualization of the PATCO stuff gives the reviewer pause:

I think the economic and political historicizing of this essay is still a bit thin as well, in that the author works too much from inside-out: from PATCO to the debates over air traffic control and workplace safety, but without any broad scale contextualization of where capitalism or federalism are in the moment he or she is describing. Don’t get me wrong: the author has persuaded me the argument could be made. But to make a more convincing case about “hegemonic” thinking in the polity as a whole, one just would need a fuller sense of the moment, politically and ideologically

When I got to the “don’t get me wrong” part, I almost died of pleasure. I’d like to think it’s the briskness of my prose that carried this reader along, convincing her/him that I was on the right track. Maybe it was even the force of my rhetoric, limited as it was by my thin contextualization. But it’s plain that the reader liked but didn’t love the submission. For once I wish the readers weren’t anonymous so that I could thank them. I even like that it was just a rejection, and not a ticket for the revise-and-resubmit treadmill. I can’t name them, but at the very least these anonymous readers must be encouraged.

There’s a special issue of Modern Fiction Studies deadline coming up for an issue on infrastructuralism. Originally I had planned an article about Philip Reeves’ Mortal Engines series, something along the lines of “a city travels on its sewers.” But I changed my mind and went for zombies instead. It may or may not have had something to do with Bruce Robbins, one of the editors, writing about zombies.

This is the current version of the first paragraph (I’ve removed the footnotes):

In Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture, Annalee Newitz connects zombie narratives to, among other things, slavery, colonialism, and race relations. Her contention that, “Zombies, vampires, and mummies bear in their half-alive bodies the signs of great social injustice whose effects cannot ever be entirely extinguished” (Newitz 91) is true, but not exhaustive. Recent articles on zombies have read them in terms of, among other things, affect, AIDS, appetite, biopolitical governmentality, dehumanization, imperialism, military occupation, postcolonial hybridity, and precarity. This incomplete list points to how the figure of the zombie can combine social critique with sales. While this is another essay about zombies, it is not about zombies and race or gender or sexuality or class or biopolitical governmentality. At least not explicitly. Rather, it is an essay about zombie novels and infrastructure. If there’s a practical undercurrent to zombie apocalypse novels, it’s to be found in their engagement with the role and form of the infrastructure and planning in everyday life after the apocalypse. Novels like Max Brooks’s World War Z,Mira Grant’s zombie trilogy Feed, Deadline, and Blackout, and Colson Whitehead’s Zone One,imagine not just fighting the zombie horde, but also rebuilding after the zombie apocalypse. For these novels, arriving at something like zombie détente is a matter of public works. In other words, zombie apocalypses in early 21st century American literature stage the danger the crumbling US infrastructure – and the way of life it supports – poses to the nation getting about its everyday business, an ambient danger that practically precludes the collective action necessary to confront social injustices.

(In the Land of the Dead image a highway overpass has been turned into a defensive structure, not a roadway. In the Warm Bodies image the city has turned back to an ancient/Medieval city form, the walled city.)

I’ve decided now that I’ve left academia, my research exists to amuse me. Thus, I’m prepping articles on workplace safety in Arthur Hailey novels, urban design in Clive Cussler Dirk Pitt books, Disney’s 1960s output, and infrastructure in Philip Reeve YA novels. I’m wrapping up the Hailey piece, and it’s close to looking decent enough to send out for rejection notices that will, I hope, have good reader reports.

Here’s the last chunk of the introduction:

Gordon Hutner claims in What America Read: Taste, Class, and the Novel, 1920-1960 that soon-forgotten best seller novels are key to the project of literary criticism. Such books constitute “the merely ordinary, that is, the fiction against which academic tastemakers later needed to contradistinguish the best” (1). Arthur Hailey novels are not widely read in 2014, replaced by the newest iteration of popular fiction from Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer, Jodi Picoult. While Hailey’s novels certainly have an ordinary style, they also offer access to another species of ordinary: their status quo, make-no-waves hegemonic political thinking undergirded their contemporary mass appeal. In this manner, Airport represents a key document in the history of literature, culture, and labor politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Airport concentrates not on blue-collar workers who face physical dangers at work as a matter of routine, but on white collar managers and air traffic controllers finding their jobs’ psychological stresses exacerbated by an emergency. The middle-class airport-fiction-reading audience for best sellers like Airport could get behind Hailey’s workplace safety agenda precisely because it’s about them and their psychological well-being at the safe remove of disaster management rather than in the everyday dangers of manual labor. But in making the case for workplace safety that addresses managers’ and professionals’ stresses, Hailey implicitly accepts the importance of workplace expertise and safety for blue-collar laborers as well. In his attention to the stresses of the air traffic controller workplace, Hailey advocates for structures that demand that management operate with worker safety as their guide – first for white collar workers, but with the potential for blue-collar workers as well. In other words, Arthur Hailey is the Richard Nixon of novelists. Airport prepares Hailey’s readers to accept the Occupational Safety Act of 1970 as not just legitimate but necessary, even though it has little interest in the working-class people most likely to benefit from the Act.

Plus, jokes about Zizek’s fondness for toilets,  The Sarge in Airplane II: The Sequel, and plenty of Nixon-scorn.

Matt Jockers’ new book Macroanalysis: Digital Methods & Literary History is pretty fucking good. It balances number crunching explanations with a good sense of why they ought to matter. There’s also a consistent “step back from the edge” vibe that embraces the macro approach without losing sight of how important the micro/close reading approach.

One thing that Jockers mentions in passing a couple of times as he gets us up to speed is the importance of funding; in chapter 3, “Tradition” he notes that Canada’s system has put in the most money per capita to establish DH infrastructure. If I can be anecdotal about things, it’s a series of moments in the footnotes that reveal how much the “seek funding opportunities” approach functions as a key concern:

In 2008 I served on the inaugural panel reviewing applications for the jointly sponsored National Endowment for the Humanities and National Science Foundation “Digging into Data” grants. The expressed goals of the grant are to promote the development and deployment of innovative research techniques in large-scale data analysis (3).

In 2009 I was chair of the ADHO Bursary Awards committee. The prize is designed to encourage new scholars in the discipline (14).

From 2011 to 2012, I served as the project lead on “Phase Two” of the SEASR project. The work was generously funded by the Mellon Foundation (21).

During that time I was assisted by students enrolled in my Irish-American literature courses at Stanford and by graduate students employed as part of a grant I received from the Stanford Humanities Lab to fund the “Irish-American West” project (37).

The development and use of an adjective-based model for detecting sentiment alongside theme is a current idea of experimentation in a project of the Stanford Literary Lab that is funded by the Mellon Foundation (133).

In a work sponsored by the Mellon Foundation, this process was later formalized by Loretta Auvil and Boris Capitanu as a SEASR workflow (134).

Here comes the anecdotal part. If and when I read an academic piece of research, I tend to read the acknowledgments, the index, and the footnotes/notes more than the body. This makes me a kind of lazy reader, but if I want to make an anecdotal argument, it’s solid gold. While there’s always a mention or seven of funding in the acknowledgments, I can’t for the life of me recall seeing a mention, much less a half-dozen mentions of funding sources in the body of a book. It may well be that I’ve been reading Luddites who do things on the cheap and thus don’t need to bring up such things. But I’m intrigued by how (comparatively) frequently Jockers brings up where the funding comes from. The sense that DH is a surrender to the neoliberal project comes through most powerfully in these footnotes. Mind you, I’m not tarring Jockers with that; he is careful to note how important the usual arsenal of literary studies is as a companion to macroanalysis, and that macro cannot do the whole job. But it bears noting that there’s a consistent “gold in them thar hills” undercurrent to the footnotes – the place where messages to fellow academics tend to come through most clearly.

The poor quality of the video testifies to the major problem macroanalysis faces for schmucks like me: copyright issues on anything post-1923. Jockers’ final chapter is perhaps the best in the book in that it balances excitement for what macroanalysis offers with a sense of how many problems it faces from eternal copyright.

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.”

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.

A) The panel titles for the MLA Conference never get old. The longer the title, the greater the number of parens or slashes, the more fixing-Hartford the title, and (especially) the more “and its discontents”, the harder I laugh. I enjoy the three-concepts-plus-four-modifiers of “Fragmented Lives, Hybridity, and the Politics of Identity in South Asian Muslim Women’s Writing.” Who doesn’t enjoy chiasmus fighting for space with Twitter-trimmed author names a la “Naming character, characterizing names: Onomastic studies of M Twain, H Thrale and T Morrison”? On the other hand, short titles that pander to my baser instincts – “Pinter and booze” “Dirty Chaucer,” and “Early American Sex”  “Shame” – seem so much better, as if human beings would be involved.

B) I’m all of 5’6”, and I’ve been short my entire life. This is to be expected when your mother is 5’0”, your father is 5’8”. Add in a smoking family, parental unemployment, and the usual working-class environmental disadvantages, and there was really no way I was going to get near the average height for a white American male, 5’10”.

C) I ask in all seriousness: Why isn’t there a “short studies”? If I act like an asshole, there’s a pop-psych diagnosis: I have a Napoleon Complex. Let’s check on the definition Wikipedia provides: “characterized by overly-aggressive or domineering social behavior, and carries the implication that such behavior is compensatory for the subjects’ stature. The term is also used more generally to describe people who are driven by a perceived handicap to overcompensate in other aspects of their lives.” What’s terrifically odd about this is that the same behaviour from someone who is the same as me in every way but height (let’s imagine such a person exists) would not have a similar “[Person] Complex.” I guess there’s still the matter of compensation, but a taller person’s complexes have interior causes. A short person’s stuck with their physical state as their motivation. The prevalence of the Napoleon Complex as a shared heuristic seems to presume a lesser degree of psychological complexity.

Consider the role height plays in American politics: If you were to write a novel or make a film about a politician, their height would signify, more for a male politician than a female one, since female politicians have to fight against a whole phalanx of appearance-level shittinesses before getting to something as pedestrian as height. That is to say, height is an under-investigated social construction like so many others. Clearly, height swims in the gender/race/nation/sexuality stream (let me have my hypothetical), but I wonder if there’s a self-aware but still interesting MLA panel in it.
(updated to improve things and take out shitty things)

Barring some multimillion dollar windfall for UC, I won’t be teaching in the College of Arts next year. They’ve already cut travel funding for permanent staff, but as contract staff I didn’t have access to that fund anyway. But there’s a teaching-adaptations conference in Tasmania in February. I hope to schedule some away-from-the-uni time to check out some of the most incredible (usually green) architecture around. It’s also the home of the great fictional Aussie Rules player Geoff Hayward. I might even spot a Tasmanian wolf and make some coin. So I sent out an abstract about how I teach She’s the Man,which is perhaps the worst movie I have taught more than once. Note: The CINE 101 students who argue for Vigil are wrong. On to the abstract.

“The worse it is the better: On teaching sub-par film adaptations”

One of the problems with teaching film adaptations of canonical works of literature is that such adaptations are often used to illustrate the literature rather than to study film in its own right. The canon may have expanded in our lifetime, but it still consists of a limited number of texts with a presumed shared greatness – and our students know this. My paper outlines an approach that asks students to locate the rules that underwrite the canon. Assigning “bad” adaptations is one way to help students query canon formation by demanding a definition and defense of the canon.

I argue that we can teach “bad” adaptations “backwards”: the lecturer argues for the greatness of the “bad” film over, for example, Shakespeare, forcing students to articulate exactly what makes Shakespeare worthy of canonization. Such an approach locates the process of canon formation in the classroom and places the responsibility in student hands.

I use the 2006 Twelfth Night adaptation She’s the Man as my example. She’s the Man will never be accused of committing greatness to film. Teaching it seems like masochism at best, and sadism at worst. Yet, as my paper shows, teaching a “bad” adaptation makes the questions – and answers – about contemporary political and cultural life that adapting canonical works makes possible much more readily accessible. That is to say, if we reimagine She’s the Man’s many failures as virtues, and Twelfth Night’s many virtues as failures,we can not only articulate the boundaries and functions of the canon, but we can also address the problems and politics of canon formation in a way that affirms the role that literature plays in cultural life.


The UCD Clinton Institute 2012 gang. Not pictured: Bill Clinton.