WordsDay: Literature

Gatsby IS Great…

Despite occasional detractors, The Great Gatsby remains a gold standard for American fiction…

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (image courtesy Goodreads)

Having read John Edward Williams’ magnificent novel Stoner a couple of weeks ago, I noticed that one reviewer referred to the novel as the “anti Gatsby.” That got me to do a little looking around – and I found some interesting things being said about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel (most in some way or another trying to tie in to the recent release of yet another attempt to make a film of what is damned near prose poetry). A couple of the more interesting essays I’ll mention here in the course of my own comments about the novel. And yes, I’ve gone off the reading list again to zip through Gatsby for the 20-something-th time. I wanted to read Fitzgerald while Williams was still relatively fresh in my mind.

Anyway, the talk about Gatsby - and the need reviewers and essayists felt to compare Stoner to The Great Gatsbywould lead one to conclude that there is some consensus that The Great Gatsby is the Great American Novel®.  This is, I admit, something of a surprise to me. I’d always assumed (and remember, friends, this is an English professor writing to you – oh, that’s right, credentials mean nothing on the Internet – never mind) that this book was the #1 contender for that amorphous (and perhaps dubious) distinction.

But it would seem I may be wrong and that West Egg’s gaudiest, gauchest gangster has supplanted the Mississippi’s most roguish and reflective rafter as the sweetheart of American literature. I don’t think that this is a good or bad thing. But I believe it may be of interest to consider why The Great Gatsby  now seems to hold a higher place in the American reader’s psyche than The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Continue reading

CATEGORY: WordsDay

John Edward Williams’ Stoner and the Glory of Realism…

John Edward William’s Stoner is proof that there’s life in tradition and the individual talent yet…

Stoner by John Williams (image courtesy Goodreads)

Modernism was a funny period. It fostered experimentation in every genre of the arts (about which I have written before) and brought us numerous “isms” – Dadaism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism. It also brought, as I have also noted, the “academicization” of the arts, particularly after World War II. Modernist works in every branch of art – music, visual art, literature – are most clearly characterized by difficulty posed to the listener/viewer/reader. Whether the dissonant 12 tone compositions of Schoenberg, the seemingly chaotic drip paintings of Pollock, or the stream-of consciousness narrative experiments of Joyce/Woolf/Faulkner, Modernist artists sought to force readers to be aware of their engagement with art – whether they appreciated that engagement or not.

The successor to Modernism’s rigorous challenge to the audience was, of course, PoMo, post-modernism, perhaps best exemplified in the attempted elevation of the popular and commercial as art. The problem with post-modernism is that its “anything can be art” ethos can be (and has been) easily abused. The expression of this in literature has been the elevation of popular genre fiction (science fiction, fantasy, detective works for example  - sometimes justifiably, sometimes unjustifiably) to the level of serious literature.

What has been lost in these shifting currents of artistic movement is a profound, enduring current that has been represented, especially in the PoMo period, probably best by the work of creative writing programs (a graduate of one myself, I have not been kind to them). That current is  realism. (Not that it hasn’t been represented elsewhere in the arts ever since its emergence as a movement – for every Pollock, there has been a Hopper; for every Schoenberg, a Copland; for every Faulkner, a Farrell.)

As we have recently discovered, and as the always insightful Wufnik has noted, for every Pynchon, there is a John Edward Williams. Williams’ Stoner is as superb an example of American realism as anything by Twain, Howells, or Henry James. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Tristan and Isolde: Gottfried von Strassburg is All About the Love…

 Gottfried reminds us that love is complicated – and, we can assume, chemical, too….

Tristan by Gottfried von Strassburg (image courtesy Goodreads)

Back to  the 2014 reading list again. After taking a break from heavier (and, in one case, more depressing) works to read a little about fly fishing in my home state, I’m back to the sort of “serious” literature you’ve come to know and be bored out of your skulls by that I, ever needing to scratch the scholarly itch, adore wading through. And so we return to medieval literature.

If you remember, the last time we visited this area was to discuss Christine de Pizan’s remarkable The Book of the City of Ladies, a tour de force of proto-feminist argumentation against the deplorable depiction of women in the late 4th-early 15th century (Pizan’s work was published in 1405).  For this essay we jump backwards a couple of hundred years to the early 13th century and look at one of the great courtly/chivalric romances, Tristan by Gottfried von Strassburg. Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman: the South’s stories, demagoguery, history…

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The Clansman by Thomas W. Dixon, Jr. (image courtesy Wikimedia)

We leave the 2014 reading list in this essay to consider a classic American novel of dubious repute that I read as a substitute last week when I was traveling and had forgotten my current book from the list.

Sometimes it is easiest – and wisest – to begin with a cliché. So here’s one about the place I am from and love with all my heart:

All Southerners are born storytellers….

This oft repeated claim has, as do all clichés and truisms, its basis in fact. Southerners seem to find in storytelling a needful way to explain the world and how it works. This is not to say that other regions of the United States do not feel this. But Southerners, more than people from any other region of America, are noted for their propensity to offer stories as explanations for “the way things are/were/will be/should be.” Leave it to Southerners, too, to take religion and make that all about storytelling. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

The Te of Piglet: High Concept Meets Philosophy

In which the Taoist nature of the Three Acre Wood is further explored – or not…

The Te of Piglet by Benjamin Hoff (image courtesy Goodreads)

As I make my way through Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (which has proven to be a slower read than I’d hoped), I offer here a review of one of the sort of books that proliferated beginning back in the 1980′s once the conglomerates got hold of publishing and began looking for “hits”: books that would find success through a clever writer’s ability to find “buzz.” That elusive quality called “buzz” has nothing to do with a book offering anything of value – it has everything to do with a book being able to capture cultural zeitgeist – and, as a result, generate big sales numbers. Because as we all know, the meaning of life is how much money anyone’s actions are capable of generating. Am I right?

Well, of course, I’m not. Sometimes a book captures the zeitgeist despite the fact that the elevator pitch might make a decision maker either a) shrug the shoulders in indifference or b) dismiss the pitch as “won’t generate revenue” or “already done.” Of course, there might be the rare occasion when response c) “intriguing – let’s run some numbers” occurs. Continue reading

Wired article gets basic probability wrong

It may seem like a small thing, but if you write for one of America’s premier tech magazines, you have a responsibility to understand how probability works.

Earlier today Wired published an article on how a new Quantum theory could explain the flow of time. Great stuff, and really interesting. Definitely give it a read.

But in the course of the article the writer makes a mistake that I see more often than I’d like. Here’s the graf, and I have boldfaced the problem section.

Consequently, a tepid cup of coffee does not spontaneously warm up. In principle, as the pure state of the room evolves, the coffee could suddenly become unmixed from the air and enter a pure state of its own. But there are so many more mixed states than pure states available to the coffee that this practically never happens — one would have to outlive the universe to witness it.

Continue reading

NCAA no longer accepting coursework from several virtual high schools

Academic performance by K12 Inc. somehow fails to measure up to rigorous big-money sports cartel standards.

The NCAA has announced it will no longer accept coursework from two dozen online charter high schools around the country. These schools employ a curriculum from a for-profit company called K12 Inc.

The move is understandable, I suppose. K12 has been heavily criticized for producing abysmal results. Continue reading

Big-Data

Nate Silver: Geek? Yes. Thoughtful journalist? Bigger yes.

FiveThirtyEight post on disputed climate change story signals commitment to transparency

Yesterday, after reading criticisms of Nate Silver’s revamped FiveThirtyEight, I thought: Denny, find out for yourself. After all, I am, at least historically, a geek. And, I thought, years of reading his New York Times blog showed me Nate is King Geek and FiveThirtyEight at ESPN would, no doubt, reflect that.

So I read “The Messy Truth Behind GDP Data.” Not bad. Classic FiveThirtyEight geeky on an important topic. But, even through so many pundits and politicos base analyses on flawed understandings of GDP, reading the post was akin to watching paint dry. I tried Harry Enten’s story about Hillary and polling. Egads: So. Many. Numbers. Unfamiliar terms. Headache ensues.

Continue reading

The Further Updated 2014 Reading List…

Well, as Sir Francis Bacon tells us, reading maketh a full person..

Even more books (image courtesy freedigitalphotos.net)

In spite of my avowal to finish my latest book and against the better judgment of my optometrist, yet again I’ve added to the 2014 reading list and the updated 2014 reading list. Some of these selections have come to me through meeting other writers at book festivals. Others have come through speaking to writers’ groups – and meeting other writers there. And then, of course, there’s my evidently incurable penchant for stopping by bookstores “just to look.”

As always, all of these new additions to the reading list will get their 15 minutes of fame/infamy/nonsense via essay. Sometimes I’ll write about the book; other times I may write about the culture that encourages such a book to exist. Always, I’ll try to offer, like the intro to my hometown radio station WLOE’s broadcast services for the Early Avenue Baptist Church used to say, “enlightenment and edification.” So, on to the additions: Continue reading

War

US war movie military policy: Baby Boomers grew up on films where battle was noble and Americans never died

America’s permanent war policy is a reflection of WWII movies, which offered an unrealistic vision of war’s motivations, consequences

My Depression-born parents raised me in a rural idyll during the Eisenhower years. As a child, I snuck into the Garden Theater to watch war movies. They enthralled me: Battle Cry, To Hell and Back, Away All Boats, D-Day the Sixth of June, The Wings of Eagles, Battle of the Coral Sea, and my favorites, the submarine movies: Run Silent Run Deep, The Enemy Below, and Up Periscope. I revered Steve McQueen in The Great Escape and John Wayne in Operation Pacific and The Flying Leathernecks. Later, I learned mediated definitions of traitorous betrayal in Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare. Continue reading

Education

Should your son join a fraternity? Read this. Right now.

Dear Parents: if your son goes to college, joins a fraternity and screws up, you could lose your home.

Do I have your attention yet?

How many times in my adult life have I heard this?

YOU were in a fraternity?

Doc Sammy, in another life.

Doc Sammy, in another life.

Yes I was. Theta Chi, Gamma Omicron chapter, Wake Forest University. I know, I don’t fit the stereotype. Neither did my chapter. Sure, we had parties. We drank, sometimes more than was strictly healthy. We were appropriately hormonal for a pack of 18-22 year-old guys. We were noisy and obnoxious and occasionally rude, especially when singing a rousing round of “Roll Out Your Mother” during Parents Weekend football games.

But consider this. Theta Chi, during Spring Rush of 1980, was the first place in my life I ever heard anyone talk about diversity. Today, of course, diversity is a critical concept in corporations, in schools, in government, everywhere. We are becoming a more diverse nation that promotes equal rights and standing for people of all races, for women, and finally for the LGBT community.

I’ve been paid by large corporations to develop diversity training, in fact, and what a wonderful irony that my first introduction to the importance of the concept came in a fraternity. Continue reading

CATEGORY: Journalism

The daily newspaper editorial: Make it weekly, please

Daily editorials, striving to not piss off anyone, have achieved ‘terminal neutrality’

Who — or what — killed the great American editorial? Wasn’t there a time when great newspaper editorials regularly thundered and whispered, sighed and screamed, were outraged or outraged others?

Paul Greenberg, the editorial-page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and a 1969 Pulitzer Prize winner, poses these questions on the website of the Association of Opinion Journalists.

Greenberg calls the forces that murdered the American newspaper editorial “as impersonal and characterless as many of the editorials themselves.” Among them are the goal of not pissing off anyone; “the stultifying editorial conference,” designed to drain life out of editorial positions; and hewing to “the party line or socio-economic fashion.” These forces produced, says Greenberg, “terminal neutrality.”

Although these forces had the daily newspaper editorial on its deathbed by the mid-1980s, Greenberg doesn’t reveal that I — yes, me! (gasp!) — pulled the plug on its life support. Yep, I pounded a few nails into the coffin of the daily newspaper editorial all by myself. Continue reading

CATEGORY: Education

Getting a PhD was the best decision I ever made. And the worst.

American businesses are anti-intellectual. American universities are anti-relevance. The gods help the overeducated schmuck stuck in the middle.

Hi. I’m Sam, and I’m a PhD.

Hi Sam!

CATEGORY: EducationFor those of you who don’t know me, I have a doctorate. Communication, University of Colorado, 1999. Some days it’s the thing I have done in life that I’m most proud of. Other days I think it’s the worst mistake I ever made in my life. There are days where I think both things more or less at the same time.

A couple of recent articles address my frustration and ambivalence. Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

Chris Bachelder’s Bear v. Shark: the culture of trivial spectacle…

Our culture of spectacle is awful, terrible, no-good, very bad – how’s that for a newsflash…?

Bear v. Shark by Chris Bachelder (image courtesy Goodreads)

 Chris Bachelder’s Bear v. Shark is one of those books that does what one of my teachers used to admonish his students to do: it articulates the obvious. In many cases that is a good thing, not a bad one, and this book is one of those cases. 

The subject of Bear v. Shark is the devolution of American culture, and Bachelder does a decent job of articulating the horror that is our descent into trivialized celebration of the meaningless with his overriding meme – a sensationalized “battle of the ages” between a bear (type never denoted) and a shark (type never denoted). Part of the charm of wading through Bachelder’s book is his constant evasion of answering this question: What kind of bear is going to fight what kind of shark – and why should I care? That he gets us to wonder about this instead of immediately responding “What a load of crap this is” says good things about his talent as a writer. But it doesn’t help this book, published in 2001, from feeling dated. Continue reading

CATEGORY: Education

Patti Adler wins reinstatement at University of Colorado, takes opportunity to stomp the balls off school administrators

Adler calls out her attackers. But winning a battle isn’t the same as winning the war.

I noted last month the latest in the University of Colorado administration’s ongoing campaign to completely destroy the school’s reputation, as it sought to fire Dr. Patti Adler for daring to teach deviance in her class on, well, deviance. There’s good news. The professional idiocrats who run the place backed down. Last week, Dr. Adler published a statement in the Boulder Daily Camera, and if you were expecting a display of mealy-mouthed diplomacy, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.

In short, Dr. Adler stomped the hell out of the administration. She begins by setting a clear tone. Continue reading

CATEGORY: WordsDay

WordsDay: Smithson’s gift to America, i.e., the know nothings: knowledge…

Do something smart in America and we’ll never put you on a piece of money…

The Stranger and the Statesman by Nina Burleigh (image courtesy Goodreads)

 The Stranger and the Statesman: James Smithson, John Quincy Adams, and the Making of America’s Greatest Museum is likely to cause many a thoughtful American  to spend some time wondering what in the hell America has ever been about, besides money and politics. This concise and highly readable book about the founding of the Smithsonian Institution takes on a puzzling and remarkable little piece of American history: why did the illegitimate son of an English duke who never married and whose career was spent as a “gentleman scientist” exploring obscure mineralogical questions, decide to donate his entire fortune (some $50 million in current money) to “the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of Knowledge among men.”

The truth is, he didn’t, exactly. Smithson’s bequest came to America because of “a series of unfortunate events” that included the unexpected and premature death of his sole heir, a nephew who was the illegitimate son of his brother, another illegitimate son of that same English duke and both James Smithson’s and his brother Henry Dickinson’s mother, one of the duke’s mistresses. Continue reading

Solving America’s education problem in one easy step

It just hit me.

Teachers are underpaid, undersupported and unrespected. As a result, our educational system is in the tank. If there were a simple way of increasing everybody’s respect for teachers and boosting their pay to a level commensurate with their value, American education would very quickly be number one in the world again.

The solution: Continue reading

By Rev. Dickie "Drive-By" Dixon Posted in Education
CATEGORY: ArtsLiterature2

Art by consent of the audience, kinda sorta…

Et tu, Big Data? Then fall, Muses…

Shakespeare, Shakespeare, and Shakespeare, LTD (image courtesy Wikipedia)

Laura Miller’s recent piece at Salon on how new reader “services” (I use the term loosely since it’s pretty frickin’ obvious that readers are the ones who will end up being used, as Miller’s article demonstrates) such as Oyster and Scrib’d  can be used to gather data on reader habits and preferences so that this information can be sold to “writers” (another term I may possibly be using loosely since Miller’s piece suggests the “new direction” will be “art” created by artist/audience interactions – you know, through beta tests and focus groups) so that they can tailor their works to “the marketplace” (a term now being applied to the relationship between artist and audience that means just what you think it means) is just as depressing as you’d want it to be – if you’re an old fogy like me and like your art “artistic.” Continue reading

CATEGORY: Education

The Patti Adler controversy: goddammit, University of Colorado, will you PLEASE stop embarrassing me?

CU shoots itself in the dick again, devaluing its reputation and my degree even more.

Oh, good. The University of Colorado is in the news again. There is, of course, disagreement over what exactly the school is and is not doing and what Professor Adler did and did not do. Since I wasn’t there, I can’t say for certain.

Here’s what I do know. CU has been a constant source of embarrassment over the past several years and this grad is getting about sick and tired of it. Do I believe the university? Not so much. See, it’s spent a long time cultivating a credibility problem. Continue reading

North Carolina prosecutor charges academic kingpin in UNC football scandal

Hopefully this will be an example to all those corrupt professors responsible for NCAA football cheating.

Our friend Otherwise called this one to my attention.

Former UNC professor charged

HILLSBOROUGH, N.C. — A former professor at the center of an academic scandal involving athletes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has been charged with a felony, accused of receiving $12,000 in payment for a lecture course in which he held no classes. Continue reading