October 11, 2009 at 5:15 pm (books, education, philosophy)

In my last post I talked about literary theories and how sometimes it seems like literary criticism has little practical use. Here’s a perfect example of academics producing academia for other academics for the purpose of furthering academia. This quote comes from an essay by Seamus Deane entitled “Imperialism/Nationalism” in the book Critical Terms for Literary Study.

Culture is, indeed, an amorphous term, especially when it is routinely and with every appearance of benignity locked in with its comparably ill-defined cousin “tradition” in the ideological cell of nationalism. The subsequent isolation is deceptively pure for it breeds all sorts of promiscuous fantasies that are as formless as the natal pairing might lead us to expect. The consequence is that such enclosed and hermetic national formations actually become caricatures of the unawakened communal consciousness they replace.



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What is “learning” anyway?

October 10, 2009 at 11:28 am (education, philosophy, Writing)

I love my NKU (Northern Kentucky University) grad program. I really do. I’ve told everyone who will listen how great it is and how much benefit I’m getting from it.

I preface my post with that because I’m about to bring up a complaint, and I don’t want it to seem like I’m just grumpy about homework and research papers (I’m not – I actually LIKE doing the homework!). My concern has to do with the critical theories we’re learning about in my Intro. to Graduate Studies class. The class itself is a great overview and I’m thoroughly satisfied; it’s the theories themselves – and by extension English Studies in general – that seems flawed.

There are many ways in which literature is analyzed and interpreted: New Critical Theory, Feminist Theory, Structuralist Theory, Queer Theory, New Historical Theory, etc. Each one looks at literature in a different way and comes up with their own – sometimes widely separated – interpretation. Their own “take” or “point” you might say. Some theories don’t even care what the author had in mind when he wrote. Some care very much. Some theories look very carefully at the text (this is called “close reading”) and other put more value on the reader’s response to the text. And so on.

While there are plenty of problems with individual theories (I’ll save that for another day), an equally large problem is with the bigger picture: Most of these theories (and their theorists) do not claim to be correct. We’re not taught to search for the exclusively “right” way to interpret. Nor to look for what a text really means. The value in these approaches is the diversity of perspective that they bring. Such diversity is touted as beneficial for the variety of viewpoints it opens us up to, but after several weeks of this I get the impression that much of theory (and I’m not condemning theory, by the way, just how it’s carried out) is just an academic exercise or a way to push a certain agenda.

So what are we “learning?” If there is supposedly no “right” or “correct” way of reading a text, but just the benefit of a diverse perspective, then what truth or knowledge are we actually gaining. Diversity for the sake of diversity, variety for the sake of variety, and perspective for the sake of perspective seem empty if there is not hard truth to be found at some point.

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Literary or entertaining

October 5, 2009 at 7:55 am (education, Writing)

Had an interesting conversation in my Fiction Class about literary short stories and their popularity (or lack there of) with the general populace. Historically, some of the most popular and well-known short-fiction writers – Poe, Twain, O’Henry, and others – were enjoyed by those outside academia. Like novelists, they were well known and widely-read. Somewhere along the line, however, writers of “serious” fiction, those stories published in literary magazine and the like, seem to have increasingly left the mainstream and often circulate mainly in the world of academia. In class we’ve commented many times on the unique style of this modern, literary fiction: it often lacks a plot and/or action and leaves the reader with a very ambiguous taste in their mouth.

As I’ve thought about this, two things strike me. One is that it’s very unfortunate that the “best” of narrative fiction is so often unattractive to the common reader . It seems that many of these stories have forgotten what a “story” is. Human beings are enthralled by good stories, captivated by them, and when a work is so obtuse that only intellectuals can enjoy it – and I use “enjoy” fairly loosely here – it has wandered from the latent power of narrative fiction and has in some ways ceased to be a “story.”

Secondly, I have realized that I have little interest in writing this brand of literary fiction. In the past – recent past – I’ve been very intimidated by this “high-brow” writing and felt that my work was far below many of these literary publications. But I’ve realized that the reason I love writing, the thing that has drawn me from childhood to put stories down on paper, is just that: STORY! To create, imagine, to build. To enthrall my reader, to take them somewhere new. I want those who read my stories to love the characters and the plot; to be entertained on the surface and be caused to think about life – their life! – at a deeper level.

That’s why I love writing. And if I’m never published by those in academia, so be it.

NOTE: Obviously, I’m making some broad generalizations here about literary fiction. This post is meant more as an expression of what I’m learning and thinking through as a writer than as a real analysis and critique of literary short fiction.

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Literary Event

October 2, 2009 at 11:32 am (education, Writing)

Attended a literary event for one of my grad school classes. It was pretty interesting and very informative so I thought I’d post my review here.

Literary Event Review

Speaker, Jeanne Leiby, editor of the Southern Review

The first presentation of the NKU Honors Program Distinguished Speakers Series welcomed Jeanne Leiby, editor of the Southern Reiew, to give a talk entitled: “Straight-Shooting from the Top: Editing Literary Works in the Post-Feminist World and Bottom-Line Economy.”

Summary: Ms. Leiby gave a charismatic and informative talk that began with her background and wound its way naturally to the specifics of her job as editor of the Southern Review. She read a short selection from one of her own fiction pieces that gave a fictionalized account of her school years in Detroit and then moved on to describe her winding career path and the importance of a mentor in leading her to where she is – and who she is – today. The descriptions she gave about the realities of current editing and publication included the editorial and selection process current at the Southern Review, explanations on what editors are looking for in writing, and pitfalls – including plagiarism and inaccurate content – for the writer to avoid.

Reaction: I found this talk both very encouraging and – paradoxically – disheartening. On the discouraging side, Ms. Leiby pulled no punches in her description of the current state of fiction publication in America. It is driven not by quality writing as much as by market trends and, of course, profit. Publishers are interested in what sells  – right now! – and often engage in sloppy or nonexistent fact-checking on the manuscripts they approve for publication. She also described the overwhelming amount of competition in the fiction market, citing the 17,000 submissions that the Southern Review receives every year and the paltry 1-2% that are actually accepted. Her own short story, the one she read an excerpt from, was rejected over 60 times before finally being accepted and published.

However, it was not all doom-and-gloom. Especially if one applies a optimistic spin – one that would make the White House proud – to Ms. Leiby’s information and personal story.

For example: Her piece, a quality piece and worthy of publication, was rejected multiple times before someone finally saw its value. Translation: Just because a story I’ve submitted has been rejected by a few journals doesn’t mean its not good or won’t be accepted somewhere down the line. Press on! Keep trying!

Another example: Ms. Leiby has worked at a variety of jobs – including that of a horse groomer – and taken a rather winding road to get where she is today. Translation: Being a good writer, a successful writer, takes time and experience. You can’t expect immediate success. Press on! Keep trying!

One more: The fiction marketplace is filled with successful writers who plagiarize and use sloppy – or nonexistent – research in their work. Translation: I don’t plagiarize and can do great research. I can compete with these guys. I just need to press on! Keep trying!

You get the idea.

Aside from these rather emotional reactions, I found the practical information that she shared helpful as well. I didn’t know how important fact checking could be for a literary journal. Nor did I know much of the behind-the-scenes work that goes on at a literary publication.

Conclusion: This was a great night that combined good information with entertaining speaking and I’m very glad to have been in attendance. Bravo to the Honors Department and to Ms. Leiby for this beneficial event.

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Fabulous find!

September 9, 2009 at 8:41 am (education, published, Writing)

One of the frustrating and time-consuming tasks that constantly faces a writer – especially a new writer – is finding the right market for their work. You slave over a story, enduring countless edits and revisions, and end up with a polished manuscript. But who will buy it? Who will read it?

In the past, the Writer’s Market has been the go-to guide. It’s published every year with updated lists of journals, magazines, webzines, and publishers. Though it is certainly helpful, however, it has some serious drawbacks. By the time it comes out, some of its content is already out of date (journals close, for example, or change their submission guidelines). This can lead to lots of wasted time as you follow leads from the book only to find that they do not match your needs (or no longer exist!). Also, you really need a computer to make the Writer’s Market useful; you have to double check information on the specific market’s website. Plus, the book is pretty expensive.

I’ve found a better way. In one of my grad classes last week, the prof showed us a website that does everything the Writer’s Market does, but better. Duotrope’s Digest is like an online search engine for markets. You simply plug in your criteria (“I have a short story, of the mystery genre, and I want to be paid as a semi-pro.”) and it comes up with a list of current markets. On top of the information on submissions right there on Duotrope, you are obviously already on the computer and can very conveniently zip over to the specific website to get more detailed info. The best part is, I’ve been told that they update very frequently; no more waiting for a hardcopy publication that’s already out of date.

And it’s free!

I haven’t used it much yet (I only found out about it last week) but I’m looking forward to exploring it. Gotta love anything that saves time!

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Critique survived!

September 3, 2009 at 10:59 am (editing, education, Writing)

Last night was my first critique for the Advanced Fiction Workshop in my grad program. Wow! Talk about pressure and intimidation. There were several points leading up to the critique where I was just sure that everyone was going to hate – absolutely disdain – the story I had submitted. All these fellow graduate students, all literary and knowledgeable and high-brow, picking my piece apart. MY piece, that I had spent HOURS on, that I felt was one of the better works I’d done. The night was destined to end badly.

Ok, so I was a bit overly-concerned. But still, it was stressful.

In the end, the comments were both encouraging and helpful. They seemed to generally like the characters, flow, plot, and structure of the story. Some of their suggestions hit on things I hadn’t even thought about, but most of them will be quick fixes (as opposed to a full “scrap-and-start-over” revision). After all my worry, it ended up being a positive night.


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150 pages later…

August 31, 2009 at 7:49 am (education)

So, 150 pages of Critical Theory textbook reading later, I actually have some idea of what’s going on in my Intro. to Grad Studies class. All these theories about how to interpret literature is heady stuff. I didn’t even know this discipline existed before last week and now I’m waist deep in it.

Apparently, some critics think that when reading a text, its only the reader’s response that matters; in other words, the words on the page have no meaning until the reader gives it one based on his or her own response. It’s called – ironically – “Reader-response criticism.” My description is oversimplified in the extreme, of course, and there are lots of divisions even within this theory. Overall, though it seems to make some good points about outside influences that can affect our reading, I think it has quite a bit of bogus, post-modern mumbo-jumbo. Not a big fan.

New-critics were much better, though they at times actually focus too much on the text, ignoring salient points like the author’s background and intent.

While this is all very – sometimes very – interesting, it makes for lousy blog posts. I won’t worry too much about critical theory popping up here too often:-)

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Advanced fiction writing

August 27, 2009 at 7:11 am (education, spiritual growth, Writing)

Began Advanced Fiction Writing grad class last night. It’s going to be great! I did get to submit my story for critique – the first in the class – and I’m looking forward to hearing what people think of it. I’m feeling a strange mixture of “its so good they’re going to be blown away” and “its so terrible I’ll be humiliated for the next three months of class.” Yes, that would be pride and the fear of man, both rolled up into one. Looks like its going to be a spiritually stretching class as well:-)

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Back into academia

August 25, 2009 at 9:12 am (education, Writing)

The first class of ENG 600 Introduction to Graduate Studies was a head-first dive back into the world of academia. It was, however, a dive and not a belly-flop; I had prepared myself for the intimidating syllabus and large workload. Still, reading such enthralling titles as Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide, Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms and the ever present MLA Handbook will certainly be a challenge.

Thankfully, my second class this semester is Advanced Fiction Workshop so my creativity won’t be totally squelched beneath the weight of heady theory and fifty-dollar words. I’ve just prepared a story which I may actually be distributing the first day of class (this wednesday). I am both excited and nervous about the prospect of putting my hard work out for the critical eye of graduate students. I’m hoping that my bubble – however inflated – will not be totally burst. We shall see!

PS I love college campuses. Love them. But I have to admit that NKU’s campus is ugly. Every building is concrete, foundation to rooftop, like a great three dimensional parking lot. Not very inspiring.

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Grad School…

August 19, 2009 at 6:51 am (education)

Had orientation for my grad school program yesterday. I’ll be pursuing a Master’s of English at Northern Kentucky University with a focus on creative writing. Can’t wait to be back in the classroom! Can’t wait to be taking classes that I’m actually interested in; Advanced Fiction starts Wednesday!

Looking back on college, if I’d have known then what I know now, I would have gotten so much more out of my classes. Grad school’s going to be great!

Northern Kentucky University

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