Conference Session Question

I was pleased to see this session in the conference program, organized around a topic to which I’ve dedicated much of my professional life, and I think you presenters have done a wonderful job to an extent. I think we all know what a labor of love organizing a conference session can be, especially when it is on a topic that is fairly complicated – a topic, perhaps, that only a handful of scholars have truly engaged and perhaps upon which only one or two have done any truly definitive work. The panel organizers might have thought to invite a central figure in this field to anchor the session, someone who has covered much of this ground already and is acknowledged to have done the first and still the best work on this question, but I’m told the organizers wanted fresh (as opposed to what, I don’t know!) voices and they invited some, well, emerging scholars to contribute. I think we’d all agree they did a fine job after a fashion; we hardly missed the usual contributors that often present papers on this topic.

But to return to my question – I promise there’s a question in here! – as I sat, rapt, listening to these fine presentations, I started wondering if the panelists were perhaps giving short shrift to some of the definitive findings on this topic that have proved quite sound and durable for almost two decades; I’m sure everyone in the room can tick off the titles of the groundbreaking publications that helped define this field – and, with all due respect, I began to suspect that some of the presenters were taking a rather … cavalier … direction, given the enduring centrality of those seminal works of scholarship with which all of us are familiar. So as I listened I began to formulate a response — we can’t all help but notice that a panel this good often cries out for a respondent, a prominent scholar to draw all the presentations together under the existing — and still quite valid — paradigm.

Thus my query, which should be prefaced with a reminder that in our discipline conference panels like this one ought to be informed by a thorough understanding of, if not respect for, the earlier work that created the very conditions that allow for the continued study of this issue. I hesitate to say "standing on the shoulders of giants," but I would hazard that some of the panel participants have failed to accommodate, much less cite – yes, I said cite – the key sources, which are as relevant today as they were when first published. At the risk of detracting from all this freshness, I can’t help put note that the papers I heard today can do no more than elaborate upon disciplinary principles already well established — footnotes to Plato and all that. And yet, certain experts went unmentioned. Certain still-relevant and available authorities could have spoken today, had one been invited to this session. My question, at last:

Don't you know who I am?

Daniel J. Ennis
Author's email: 

Daniel J. Ennis is a professor of English at Coastal Carolina University.

Hard Choices

No interviews at the MLA? It's a tough decision on whether to go, but if you do, you can make the meeting valuable, writes Teresa Mangum.

Hiring at 2-Year Colleges

Tom Hurley explains what you need to know about the application and review process.

Not a Consolation Prize

Community colleges need to be cautious before hiring Ph.D.s who haven’t been trained for teaching at two-year institutions, and unemployed doctorates shouldn’t assume they are prepared for such jobs, writes Kory Lawson Ching.

Resetting Priorities

Beyond looking for jobs, writes Monica F. Jacobe, new Ph.D.s need to ask themselves tough questions about what really matters.

Hypertext 101

It’s not always easy for professors to embrace technology. We find ourselves questioning everything from whether the transition to cyber-learning is really worth it to wondering how and when we will "master" working with computers. In a tenured profession, some think it’s better to stay in our safe, traditional worlds of literacy. Nevertheless, most of us realize that we cannot avoid our new century and the new pedagogical challenges created by its technological advances.

Having made that decision, more questions arise. If we change our courses, do we risk lowering the quality of our teaching because we are simultaneously learning how to teach with computers while also learning how to evaluate their effects? And even as we multi-task, writing e-mails to students while we surf the Web for the perfect text to teach tomorrow, can we ever keep up?

As we begin to realize the benefits and drawbacks of computerized writing, it may seem like there is an endless road of new learning challenges. As academics, we don’t often move as quickly as technology, and yet we also know that analyzing and reflecting on innovation is our ethical responsibility. Are professors today doing enough to use, improve, reflect and criticize our use of computers as tools to teach writing and support learning across the curriculum?

Despite the fears and uncertainties conveyed by these questions, it is beyond doubt that our students’ learning and literacies have changed because of the use of computers.  We must understand and adapt to computers, hypertext, and ultimately learn as much as possible about our disciplines’ experiences in cyberspace because our students demand it of us, and because language is always changing. Essentially, we must move to the point where we focus on ways to fuse academic discourse with our students’“netspeak.”

Since the 1980s, writing teachers have increasingly focused on the need for their teaching to reflect the ways technology and traditional literacies are converging. In her 1998 keynote address to the Conference on College Composition and Communication, Cynthia Selfe, an early adapter and leading authority on teaching writing with computers, remarked that we "have, as a culture, watched the twin strands of technology and literacy become woven into the fabric of our lives."

All college teachers, and particularly writing teachers, must now learn to avoid overly narrow, official, 20th century versions of literacy practices or skills if we are going to effectively reach our students as readers, writers, and thinkers. Whether we teach mathematics, biology, or literature, we all know that literacy skills are really the responsibility of all educators. It is no longer acceptable for professors to claim ignorance of using computers and the Internet while claiming to be literacy teachers in the 21st century.

Innovative thinkers like Selfe not only get at why we need to teach with technology, they make it clear that we need to offer concrete ways to use hypertext. Even "Web in a can" programs like Blackboard, Blogger and WebCT can be used effectively to get students and teachers reading, writing and thinking critically about all the literacies that are used in any college classroom. Through a blend of theory and practice, we want to encourage readers of Inside Higher Education to realize that just as our profession’s news has begun to move from paper to screen, we professors must make the same move too.

Computer technology has swiftly become our key writing tool but it’s too easy to imagine everyone "gets it." Just as we take writing samples to learn about the literacy levels of our students when we teach composition, we need to determine what computing skills our students bring to our classes because we need to teach students how to fuse traditional and online writing skill. For example, instructors of first-year college writing typically work with students to teach them how to do academic research and it has become increasingly clear that it no longer makes sense to shun the Internet for the "safe" confines of the library. However, research on the net means much more than typing a few words in to Google.  

A more sophisticated approach to teaching students how to do Internet research involves showing students some of the ways online searches use Boolean logic, and this is simply accomplished by visiting the Google Guide.

This self-teaching Google tutorial will sharpen awareness of how the search engine works, and it will also help students in their library research as well. Also, by using checklists and guides, we can help students to critically evaluate sources on the Internet -- not just accepting what is written as an alternate form of "the gospel." A good example of this can be seen in some checklists, created by Jan Alexander and Marsha Tate, that can easily be used with any research-based college assignment.  These checklists ask that students classify and validate Web sites, as well as help students think more carefully about the qualities of information that the Web sites present.

Of course it isn’t only students who have to think carefully and critically about computers, the way they convey information, and the way that they are perceived as learning tools.  Teachers have to do the same thing because computers have changed our writing and learning worlds, and as educators we can never take these changes for granted. Andrea Beaudin, a professor at Southern Connecticut State University who teaches in a wireless, laptop equipped classroom is constantly amused at the ways her students perceive the technology in the classroom. Recently, she recalled “being surprised during a writing lab when I asked students to take out paper to start jotting down ideas, and a student said, “now it’s a real English class.”

Andrea’s story reminds us that there will be times and places for other types of literate activities in a computerized classroom. Just as Andrea asked her students to use the “old” technology of paper and pen to do the work of learning because she practices hybrid notions of literacy, we will continue to work at what Cindy Selfe calls “multilayered literacy” -- a literate practice where people “function literately within computer-supported communication environments” by layering “conventions of the page and conventions of the screen.”

However, conventions of page and screen certainly converge more smoothly in theory than they ever do in practice. Something as simple as deciding to create a Web page, choosing Web weaving software, and learning it, can be a huge step for most teachers. Both of us have experienced working through steep learning curves while learning to use new Web technologies. Four years ago, Chris moved from using raw HTML code to working with Adobe GoLive and Photoshop. At times, he wanted to shot-put his monitor through any open window. However, the end result was a personal Web page that looks better, contains more useful information for students, and is much easier to update. Right now Will is working through learning DreamWeaver, and he has already started to see new possibilities for his page.

Our point here is that even techie teachers get technological blues. However, once we begin to figure a few things out, then interesting and good things begin to happen. We learn a new skill, our students get better Web resources, and both teacher and students have yet another new technology to think through practically and critically.

Professors and students both need to think critically about technology. As a key part of the critical thinking, teachers need to focus on pedagogy and how it is affected and changed by computers. Maybe some things haven’t changed -- traditional, academic literacy has always converged with new ways to use language -- though it’s fair to say that computers certainly seem to speed up an exciting convergence of language uses. We educators are working in an exciting point in literacy development and we can be more mindful of why and how to use our computers. As the traditional classroom adds cyberspace, we must work closely with students and teachers to ensure that we enter new learning spaces with critical awareness and pedagogical wisdom.

Will Hochman and Chris Dean
Author's email: 

Will Hochman is an associate professor of English and Christopher Dean is an assistant professor of English at Southern Connecticut State University.

The Writer's Writer

Ask almost any American writer today for a list of his or her literary idols, and Frank Conroy’s name usually rises near the top.

The author of one of the best books of our age, Stop-Time, published in 1967, as well as the director of the greatest incubator of literary talent ever assembled, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Conroy was as close to legend as any living writer gets.

Not to mention a Grammy winner—for best liner notes.

Despite a rough beginning, he made the most of a life that ended last week, when he died at age 69 of colon cancer.

Stop-Time slays everyone who reads it.

The poignant, tough and lean prose is every bit as great as J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye or Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. The literary establishment, from Norman Mailer to William Styron, fell before Frank’s wobbly 31-year-old knees when the effervescent memoir was published. Every shimmering word in Stop-Time seemed to detonate as Frank, from a teenager’s perspective, detailed the pain and legacy of an abusive, manic-depressive father and an absentee mother.

The book was the best kind of fiction because it was numbingly true.

It’s not "Genesis," but to many writers, the opening paragraphs of Stop-Time are the bible of literary beginnings:
My father stopped living with us when I was three or four. Most of his adult life was spent as a patient in various expensive rest homes for dipsomaniacs and victims of nervous collapse. …

I try to think of him as sane, yet it must be admitted he did some odd things. Forced to attend a rest-home dance for its therapeutic value, he combed his hair with urine and otherwise played it out like the Southern gentleman he was. He had a tendency to take off his trousers and throw them out the window. (I harbor some secret admiration for this.) At a moment’s notice he could blow a thousand dollars at Abercrombie and Fitch and disappear into the Northwest to become an outdoorsman. He spent an anxious few weeks convinced that I was fated to become a homosexual. I was six months old. And I remember visiting him at one of the rest homes when I was eight. We walked across a sloping lawn and he told me a story, which even then I recognized as a lie, about a man who sat down on the open blade of a penknife embedded in a park bench. (Why, for God’s sake would he tell a story like that to his eight-year-old son?)

Absent any sentimentality, Frank had created an instant classic, ultimately changing how we think of memoir and American literature, as well as how we perceive of the vulnerability of children and the passage each of us goes through to become an adult.

Premature adoration and fame can turn even the most humble of men and women into fools, but Frank seemed to manage. He used his writing to chronicle his personal struggles, publishing perfect-pitch short stories and novels, including Midair, Body and Soul and Dogs Bark but the Caravan Rolls On. His precision with language earned him the respect of legions of journalists, including David Halberstam and Russell Baker.

Unable to corral his prodigious creativity, Frank blossomed as a jazz pianist. He became director of the literature program at the National Endowment for the Arts in 1982. He arrived as director at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1987 and quickly developed a reputation as a no-nonsense teacher who lived and breathed writing.

Admiring From Afar

Frank was one of the most unpretentious writers I’ve ever known.

I came to the University of Iowa as an eager journalist wholly unfamiliar with the trappings of academic life. A great perk of my job as a journalism professor was living in the shadow of the Writers’ Workshop, known locally as "The Workshop."

Like many others in the business of putting words on paper for a living, I revered Frank from a distance.

I used to see him around town: nose in a book at Prairie Lights, the wonderful bookstore on Dubuque Street; hunched over a newspaper, his lanky legs and arms taking over a booth in the Chesapeake Bagel Company down the block, holding forth with Guinness in hand at The Mill on Burlington Street.
Frank and I shared at least one thing: The University of Iowa had hired us as full-time faculty members.

This was much less of an accomplishment for Frank than it was for me, but few universities then and now would consider hiring such undereducated writers. As far as I know, outside of an abstract painter in the Art School, Frank and I were the only full-time faculty members at the university with just bachelor's degrees.

Frank distrusted most academics, a healthy instinct for any writer. Many are long-winded and imprecise with language (a cardinal sin for Frank); they study memorable writing but seldom create writing that’s memorable.

When I got here in 1993, the Writers' Workshop was housed in the same dreary brick-and-concrete building as the English department. There was no love lost on either side when Frank was able to move the Workshop to a lovely renovated 19th Century home, high on a bluff overlooking the Iowa River.

He surrounded himself with wonderful writers who also were wonderful teachers of writing, including Marilynne Robinson (who just won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction), Jim McPherson (who won the Pulitzer in 1978) and Jorie Graham (who won for poetry in 1996).  Flannery O’Conner, Wallace Stegner, W.P. Kinsella, John Irving, Raymond Carver, T.C. Boyle and Jane Smiley cut their teeth as young writers at the Workshop.

Each year, Frank enrolled students who would go on to change the way we look at the written word. The Workshop is probably harder to get into than Harvard Law School: 800 applicants vie for 25 slots. Since its inception in 1936, 26 Pulitzer Prizes have been awarded to former Workshop students.

For all his facility with words, Frank was an anachronism, a technophobic dinosaur.

He didn’t do e-mail. He surrounded himself with felt-tipped pens, yellow pads and clipboards. He wrote lying in his bed, his back propped against pillows. Whenever he finished a draft, his wife (and best friend) Maggie, would type his longhand into a computer. Frank would then wildly mark up the printout and revise at a compuer.

While a tough teacher, he also was a generous one.

The coveted blurb

When I wrote a nonfiction book in 2000, like all authors, I slogged through the merciless business of trawling for blurbers. Blurbs are the pithy endorsements on the backs of book jackets that publishers hope will persuade otherwise clueless browsers to plunk down cash or credit card. Frank’s policy was not to blurb. Period. I think he probably felt that if he started blurbing, he’d surely never have a free moment for anything else.

At that time, I had not yet met Frank. Personal idols, particularly of the literary variety, are usually best left undisturbed, and I was satisfied to admire Frank and his work from a distance. But someone had handed him an advance copy of my book. Frank packed away the manuscript in his suitcase and took it to his summer house in Nantucket. "Don’t expect anything," I was told.

I blocked out what this great writer and teacher of writing could possibly say about my prose -- until word got back to me that Frank loved the book and was willing to say so. Blurb on the back cover, Frank’s endorsement probably didn’t carry much clout with the ordinary buyer at Barnes & Noble, but to me it meant the world.

We met finally at a reading shortly after the book came out. Frank had been playing piano for a local radio program that night and, just as the reading was winding down, this stranger/mentor arrived. He made a beeline for the podium and gave me a bear hug of congratulations.

Writers aren’t like that. They are morose, moody, competitive, gossips at heart who look askance instead of straight ahead.

Since that evening, Frank and I had often run into each other in this literary town among the cornfields. We talked about writing and politics, especially about our fears that our teenage sons might eventually get pulled into the widening war in Iraq.

Raising some eyebrows

The last time I saw Frank was right after he had caused some eyebrows to arch by accepting from President Bush the National Humanities Medal on behalf of the Workshop. It was the first time a university program had ever achieved such an accolade.

Frank was at Prairie Lights, the bookstore, and as we were both flipping dust covers, checking out too-serious visages of up-and-coming authors, I asked him about his experience at the White House.

And Frank, always the writer, always working, always trying to make sense of the world, said he enjoyed meeting Bush, despite their profound differences. Bush, he said, was caught up in the gears of some grinding machinery that couldn’t be shut down. The president might be at the switch, but he wasn’t in control. Bush, Frank said, really was a likable fellow but had become a victim, a hapless innocent.

And then I saw it once again, Frank turning generous, even magnanimous. But I could also see he was working. There was a magnificent story brewing here, and Frank was mapping out its plot.

Stephen G. Bloom
Author's email: 

Stephen G. Bloom, the author of "Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America," teaches narrative journalism at the University of Iowa.

Read This!

It isn't a prize or an award, exactly. But next month, the Litblog Co-op -- a consortium of 20 literary bloggers -- will announce the first novel it has selected for its quarterly "Read This" campaign. The participants will urge their audiences to buy the book, and will open discussions of it at their respective Web sites.

My impression from a conversation with Mark Sarvas in late December, when he was first rounding up collaborators on the project, is that the whole enterprise is a kind of laboratory experiment in literary sociology. Can a group of people frustrated with prevailing trends in the publishing industry (which is constantly on the lookout for the next Da Vinci Code, as if one weren't enough) and with mainstream media (where reviewing space shrinks constantly) win recognition for a worthy, but otherwise potentially overlooked, piece of fiction? Or, to put it another way: Do literary bloggers have any power? Considering  how many novels and short story collections they now publish, university presses may well want to monitor the results.

Members of the co-op will take turns serving on a five-person nominating committee, each member of which proposes a book. All members then read, debate and vote on the five titles. The winner will be announced on May 15. My efforts to get various people to leak the current slate of books underconsideration have come to nothing.

But on Friday, Daniel Green, who was until recently an adjunct instructor in English at the University of  Maine at Presque Isle, did agree to answer some questions by e-mail about the whole process. Green's blog The Reading Experience is part of the co-op. He also contributes to The Valve, sponsored by the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. (For a critical take on the ALSC's sponsorship, check this   out.)

(One passage in the transcript below perhaps requires clarification for readers not up to speed on contemporary cultural exotica. Green refers in passing to "ULA-type 'transgressive' fiction" -- an allusion to the Underground Literary Alliance, a group best known for denouncing all other writers as effete elitists who are terrified of the ULA's plebian manliness. Those not persuaded by the polemics note that all ULA fiction tends to resemble an uninspired imitation of Charles Bukowsi by some inebriated adolescent recently hit on the head with a bowling ball.)

Q:  I'm struck by the sense that the Litblog Co-op embodies a strong criticism of how mainstream book publishing and reviewing are organized, with a tiny percentage of new novels getting a strong push, and the rest being left to fend for themselves. At the same time, the fact that you will be urging readers to take a chance on a novel without much of a market presence seems to be a rejection of what we might call the Amazon algorithm -- the notion that if the reader enjoyed X and Y, then the next logical choice is Z. Was there a shared sense, implicit or explicit, of what is wrong with things as they now stand?

A:   I definitely see the whole enterprise as a repudiation of the status quo in book publishing. I've put up some posts on my blog expressing rather forcefully my dismay at the status quo. (For example, see this and this.) Most of the other members of the co-op are critical of contemporary publishing as well, but perhaps they're not as cynical as I am. I do think there was agreement that most of the "awards" being given out were designed to puff up the publishing industry, and had very little to do with identifying good books that serious readers might want to read. We wanted to fulfill this responsibility as much as we were able to, given that literary weblogs seem to be acquiring a little more "presence." There wasn't much talk about the Amazon syndrome, but obviously the spirit of the litblog co-op is opposed to the Amazon way of selling books.

Q: So what particular impact might this enterprise might have? It seems that some care has been taken to define it as other than an award -- as if the intent is as much to influence readers as to recognize authors. But do the people involved have any larger goal, in terms of influencing the larger literary culture?

A: You're right that the intent is to influence readers. Thus the "selection" is simply called "Read This." I think that all of the participants believe that litblogs have reached an untapped, or at least undertapped, source of readers for both contemporary fiction and (in my case, at least) the critical discussion of literature more broadly. I also think that most of us hope that our quarterly selection and, if it catches on, the popularity of same, will serve notice to publishers and to the editors of book reviews and magazines that this audience exists. I myself don't have any illusions that serious fiction of the sort we're promoting will suddenly become very popular, or that the litblog co-op will begin to wield enormous influence, but I would hope that our selections would bring additional attention to worthy books from smaller or less well-endowed presses. Probably everyone would agree that that is the main goal.

If writers, readers, editors, book columnists, etc. would pay more attention to litblogs and to the tastes in fiction we're expressing, that would be nice. Not because of the attention per se but because we're illustrating that there are serious readers of fiction in this country.

Q: How much of your internal discussion has been on the merits of any particular title, and how much on the overall standards for what books are worth considering?

A:  To some extent, the deliberations on merit are just beginning. We've yet to make the selection, and I don't really know how much contention there will be. The bloggers involved do have diverse interests, but a surprising number of us really do like books that are "off the beaten track." The nominating process was free of contention. The standards/criteria for eligible books were worked out during the listserv discussions, but they have been left pretty wide open. The real goal is to focus during the nominating process on books that aren't being well-promoted in the mainstream press.

Q:  You just referred to books that are "off the beaten path," and not served well by the status quo. Can you characterize things more precisely than that? Do the books now under consideration have anything in common at a literary (rather than publishing) level?

A:   I'm looking for fiction that takes risks, but that also has a sense of literary craftsmanship. I'm not looking for ULA-type "transgressive" fiction that doesn't really transgress anything except aesthetic sensibility. Although I look first for fiction that is interesting on a formal level, I don't by any means rule out books that also "say something" -- as long as it's not just the same stuff everybody else is saying. Some of the nominated books do these things, while, as far as I'm concerned, the jury's still out
(literally) on others. Speaking only for myself, I want to avoid a situation where we start looking for the "representative" -- so many from a certain gender, so many from a certain ethnicity, so many expressing a known point of view, etc. I want to identify books whose authors are committed first of all to extending what's possible in fiction as a literary mode. I think we will probably also be more open to genre fiction than other awards or book selections tend to be.

Q: Last week the Associated Writing Programs (the professional organization for creative writing professors) had its convention. That made me wonder about something. I don't know how many participants in the Litblog Co-op have graduated from MFA programs in creative writing, but at least a few did. Will that have any effect on the process?

A: My suspicion is that more than a few of the participating bloggers will actually look askance at books by authors from MFA programs -- or at least the high profile programs. A few others will consider such books as just as deserving of attention -- if they're good -- as any others. So far, MFAers have not been that welcoming to literary blogs, nor have many creative writing programs themselves taken much note of what's going on vis-a-vis blogs and their influence on reading tastes. To the extent that MFA programs are perceived as part of the "literary establishment," there will probably be some resistance among some co-opers to emphasizing writers who've come from them.

I just put up a post on creative writing, so most of what I think of it can be found there (also in an earlier essay). Some good writers go through creative writing programs, but there's an awful lot of stagnation as well.

Q:  You've seen the shaping "Read This" from the inside. Would you comment on how difficult this sort of thing is to organize? How practical would it be for academic bloggers to unite to do something comparable -- say, for nonfiction from university presses that might have a potential audience among nonspecialist readers?

A: From my point of view it didn't seem that difficult. But Mark probably would disagree. He contacted a lot of people -- publishers, editors, publicists, etc. Even now he's busy getting some media notice for the project. He's pretty committed to this, so perhaps he would say it's an effort worth the labor involved. But I'm sure there is labor involved. The listserv discussions were mostly productive, and the logistics were all worked out gradually. Again, Mark drafted the "charter," and then the rest of us made revision suggestions. To me, it seemed to be a group of people who were excited about what they were doing and thus worked things out relatively harmoniously. If a comparable group of academic bloggers wereable to approach things in a similar way, I'm sure it could be done. Academic egos being what they are, however....

I can't say I'm perfectly happy with every detail of the final product (no one else in the group would probably be able to, either), but, all in all, it was a worthwhile endeavor that, as we were putting it together, seemed enjoyable as much as anything else.

Q: Any final thoughts?

A: Only that I was flattered to be invited to be part of the original group of co-op bloggers, and that the amount of interest our "selection" seems to be gathering suggests that in its very short existence litblogging has managed to establish itself as a medium of some influence and potential value.

Scott McLemee
Author's email: 

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on (usually) Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Write On

Later this year, I'll give a paper at the annual convention of the American Political Science Association. For someone who is not a political scientist, this is a bizarre prospect -- like one of those dreams in which you must take a final exam in a course you’ve never actually taken. My topic involves tracing one strand of neoconservative ideology back to its source in a far-flung mutation of Marxist theory. I’ve been doing the research for about 20 years, off and on, without ever quite supposing that it would culminate in a presentation in front of a bunch of professors.

Then again, the matter is sufficiently esoteric that "bunch" may not be the exact word. Chances are there will be more than enough chairs.

In any case, a mass of old books and photocopies are now stacked up, to an unstable height, on my desk. And on top of the pile there is a notebook. The reading notes, the rough outline, the first draft or two ... all will be written there, in longhand.

My friends and colleagues are occasionally nonplussed to learn that someone trying to make a living as a writer actually spends the better part of his workday with pen in hand. (It’s probably comparable to finding out that your doctor grows blood-sucking leeches in the basement.) Like an interest in the fine distinctions made by the ancient Trotskyists, my writing habits are idiosyncratic, anachronistic, and more or less impossible to justify in terms making any sense given the state of 21st century American culture.

Yet the rut is now too deep to crawl out of it. I have my reasons. Or perhaps, to be more precise, my rationalizations. Not that they persuade anybody else, of course. It’s particularly awkward when an editor asks for a progress report. There is a certain uncomfortable silence when I say, "Well, the notebook is almost full...." 

Nowadays, the word "text" connotes an artifact that is "always already" digitized -- something to be fed into a streamlined apparatus for circulating information. But the word itself comes from the Latin root texere, to weave, as in "textile."

In my own experience, though, writing is not so much the crafting of paragraphs as it is a matter of laboriously unknotting the thread of any given idea. And the only way to do that is by hand. The process is messy and not terribly efficient.

Writing this column twice a week, for example, is a matter of juggling two legal pads of different sizes, plus anywhere from one to three notebooks. It is easy to detect which parts were written with a cup of coffee in one hand: The sentences are long, the handwriting spiky, the parentheses nestled one inside the next. By its penultimate phase, the draft is a puzzling array of arrows, boxes, Venn diagrams, and Roman numerals. (Also, as the case may require, whatever lower-case letters of the Greek alphabet I can still remember.)

The effect resembles the flow chart for a primitive computer program to be run on a wheezy old tube-driven UNIVAC.

Only as the deadline approaches is anything actually typed up, in a kind of spastic marathon. By that point, a certain passage from Walter Benjamin always comes to mind: "The work is a death mask of its conception."
Actually, with hindsight, it’s easy to see that Benjamin got me started on this erratic and circuitous course. In a collection of essays and fragments called One Way Street, he offers a set of aphorisms on writing, including the one just quoted. (First published in 1926, it is now available in the first of a four-volume edition of his work in English published by Harvard University Press.)

"Let no thought pass incognito," Benjamin insisted, "and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens." (A line that became more poignant after the Nazis came to power, forcing Benjamin to spend the rest of his life in exile.)

But one passage in particular made a huge impression on me. "Avoid haphazard writing materials," admonished Benjamin. "A pedantic adherence to certain papers, pens, inks is beneficial. No luxury, but an abundance of these utensils is indispensible."

As if to clinch it, there is an interview that Roland Barthes gave in 1973 that seems to ratify Benjamin’s point. Under the title "An Almost Obsessive Relation to Writing Instruments," it was  reprinted posthumously in a collection called The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962-1980, published by the University of California Press.  

In a gesture very typical of his structuralist penchant for creating categorical distinctions, Barthes notes that his own writing process goes through two stages: "First comes the moment when desire is invested in a graphic impulse," said Barthes. It was a phase of copying down "certain passages, moments, even words which have the power to move me," and of working out "the rhythm of a sentence" that gives shape to his own ideas. Only much later can the text be "prepared for the anonymous and collective consumption of others through transformation of into a typographical object" – a moment, according to Barthes, when the writing "is already beginning its commercialization."

Clearly the important phase is the one in which "desire is invested in a graphic impulse." And for that, you need the right tools. "I often switch from one pen to another just for the pleasure of it," Barthes told the interviewer. "As soon as I see a new one, I start craving it. I cannot keep myself from buying them."

The one exception was the Bic, which Barthes found disgusting: "I would even say, a bit nastily, that there is a 'Bic style,' which is really just for churning out copy...."

So the penchant for haunting stationery stores (and otherwise indulging a fetish for writing supplies) has the endorsement of  distinguished authorities. But my efficiency-cramping distaste for the computer keyboard is somewhat more difficult to rationalize.

Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes died long before word processors were available, of course. But a good excuse not to write first drafts that way comes from the poet Ted Hughes, in a passage quoted by Alice W. Flaherty in her fascinating book The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain.

In an account of judging in a contest for children’s writing, Hughes recalled that the entries once tended to be two or three pages long. "But in the early 1980s," he said, "we suddenly began to get seventy and eighty page works. These were usually space fiction, always very inventive and always extraordinarily fluent – a definite impression of a command of words and prose, but without exception strangely boring...."

In each case, the kid had composed the miniature magnum opus on a word processor.

"What’s happening," according to Hughes, "is that as the actual tools for getting words onto the page became more flexible and externalized, the writer [could] get down almost every thought or extension of thought. That ought to be an advantage. But in fact, in all these cases, it just extends everything slightly too much. Every sentence is too long. Everything is taken a bit too far, too attenuated."

Which sounds, come to think of it, somewhat like what Barthes called "Bic style." And quite a bit like the output of various academic presses it would be discrete leave unnamed.

Not that writers had to wait for the advent of the word processor to produce work that was (in Hughes’s terms) "extraordinarily fluent" yet "strangely boring."

Indeed, in the mid-1920s, Walter Benjamin gave practical tips to scholars who wanted both to impress their readers by clobbering them into a stupor. In a satiric chapter of One Way Street called "Principles of the Weighty Tome, or How to Write Fat Books," he laid out the principles that many still follow today.

"The whole composition must be permeated with a protracted and wordy exposition of the initial plan," Benjaim wrote. "Conceptual distinctions laboriously arrived at in the text are to be obliterated again in the relevant notes....Everything that is known a priori about an object is to be consolidated by an abundance of examples.... Numerous opponents who all share the same argument should each be refuted individually."

Benjamin himself never got an academic position, of course. Even so, good advice is timeless.  

Scott McLemee
Author's email: 

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Strangely Enough

Over the past few days, an essay by Paul Maliszewski in the latest issue of Bookforum has stirred up a discussion that has been sometimes passionate, if seldom particularly well-informed.

In it, Maliszewski, who teaches creative writing at George Washington University, takes a close look at a lecture that Michael Chabon has given several times in which the Pulitzer-winning novelist recounts his childhood friendship with C.B. Colby, the author of Strangely Enough! and similar works of paranormal hokum, and also (Chabon says) the author of a Holocaust memoir called The Book of Hell, published under his real name, Joseph Adler. Only that, too, was a pseudonum. In fact, “Adler” was Viktor Fischer – a Nazi journalist who, after the war, concealed his identity, even to the extent of having a concentration-camp serial number tattooed on his arm.

Maliszewski, who heard Chabon give the lecture a few times, reports that the audience listened with fascination and horror. "The only problem was," he writes, "the personal story Chabon was telling, while he may have presented it as an authentic portrait of the artist, just wasn't true. There was no Adler; and no Fischer either, for that matter. Nor does there exist a Holocaust memoir called The Book of Hell, nor an investigation by The Washington Post. There is a young-adult book titled Strangely Enough!, which is pretty much as Chabon describes it; and it is written by a man named Colby -- though he wasn't, it must be said, a Nazi journalist who disguised himself as a Jewish survivor and holed up in the Maryland suburbs, but rather a real author, based in New York City and residing in Westchester County, who served in the US Air Force Auxiliary after World War II. . . .”

While the essay has been in print for a few weeks, only a portion of it is available online.  It provoked little discussion until the appearance, on Monday, of a gossipy and curiously inane New York Times article suggesting that Maliszewsi’s article was itself something of a hoax.

The stakes of the discussion are high: they include the role of the Holocaust in American Jewish identity, the ethical dimension of storytelling, and the fine line between fantasy and the will to believe. But the terms of the argument have degenerated at impressive speed. People who haven’t bothered to read the essay are denouncing Bookforum for irresponsibility in publishing it, and attributing all sorts of interesting motives to Maliszewski. There is a certain vigor of hysteria that goes with confusing uninformed indignation with critical perspective.

The particulars of the case are not up for dispute. Maliszewski demonstrates that Chabon’s lecture is a fiction. A search of relevant databases confirms that no title called The Book of Hell by Joseph Adler exists, nor was there (as Chabon stated) an expose on the author’s true identity  in The Washington Post.

On Tuesday, I spoke by telephone with Eric Banks, the editor of Bookforum, who said, "We did due diligence with the article. There was no intention of scandalmongering. It’s not that kind of piece, in any way, shape, or form. You can argue about the extent to which Chabon drops hints that the lecture is meant to be understood as the product of an unreliable narrator. But our factchecker listened to a recording of Chabon’s lecture at least four times, and we felt like Maliszewski’s account of it is accurate."

The claim that Chabon meant his talk to be interpreted as a "tall tale" has been argued by Matthew Brogan,  the program director of the Jewish literary association Nextbook, which is making one version of Chabon’s lecture available online.

But what has really sent the dispute into the red zone of bitter conflict is Maliszewski’s admission that he has more than a casual interest in the question of hoaxes. In a series of essays for The Baffler, he recounts working as a business reporter during the economic boom of the late 1990s. Writing under a number of pseudonyms, he began submitting letters-to-the editor that mimicked what he found particularly obnoxious about the market-worshipping mentality of The Business Journal of Syracuse, New York, the publication where he worked.

During the Teamsters strike of 1998, for example, one Maliszewski persona wrote in to wonder why it was such a big deal that UPS had been fined $4 million dollars for more than 1600 violations of worker safety. After all, the company was very profitable. And think how much more money it could make if it had twice as many violations. They should just consider the fines an operating expense.

His exercises in crackpot punditry started appearing in print, and Maliszewski entered the ethical grey zone where satire and hoaxery meet. He is now writing a book on the topic, with the essay on Chabon as part of it. (For now, you can read some of his Baffler confessions here.

Given his first-hand experience of perpetrating a hoax, the Times article and parrots in the blogosphere have suggested that Maliszewski is disqualified from ever commenting on the phenomenon. That notion is every bit as rational as demanding that sex research be done by certified virgins.

But there is another, stronger, and even more dubious axiom just beneath the surface of the discussion. It is the implicit belief that (so to speak) all hoaxes are created equal. They are morally and epistemologically identical. In particular, it assumes that Stephen Glass or Jayson Blair provide a sort of key to everything -- that hoaxing is, in effect, just a way of parlaying the time-saving convenience of fabrication into social status and ready money.  

Well, things are not always quite that straightforward. Of course, some literary hoaxes of a purely mercenary inspiration, such as the phony Howard Hughes memoirs of the early 70s or the forged Hitler diaries 10 years later. But it can be a very different matter when the hoax is intended primarily to make a satirical point -- a category that includes the reductio ad absurdum of a pseudonymous letter to the editor suggesting that a company violate more OSHA regulations to increase its profitability.

Then there are the satirical hoaxes that go horribly wrong, as happened with Report From Iron Mountain, published at the height of the Vietnam War. A parody of what C. Wright Mills once called the “crackpot realism” of the Cold War era, the Report pretended to think the unthinkable -- namely, to imagine how society could still get the benefits of war preparations in the unfortunate event of world peace. The document suggested instituting “a modern, sophisticated form of slavery” and “socially oriented blood games,” as well as fabricating “an established and recognized extraterrestrial menace.” (All of this proposed in a near-perfect imitation of social-science and think-tank prose.)

Although prepared as a critique of the military-industrial complex by humor writer Leonard Lewin -- with advice from Nation editor Victor Navasky -- the bogus Report was rediscovered in the 1990s by the militia movement, whose leaders decided that it was the blueprint for the New World Order. It was reprinted by the Free Press in 1996, in an edition intended to debunk the militias' enthusiasm for it by revealing the hoax. It was an occasion for much chuckling at the pathetic yahoos. But during the 1960s and 70s, the hoax had been effective enough to fool at least some academic social scientists.

Finally, there are the hoaxes that seem to defy any simple explanation. A case very much in point (one that Maliszewski cites in his essay on Chabon) is the memoir Fragments, by Binjamin Wilkomirski, in which the author recounts his childhood in a Nazi death camp in Poland. It was published to favorable reviews and became an international best-seller. Researchers have shown that Wilkomirski actually grew up in Switzerland, where he was raised in a secure, middle-class home. But he appears to believe his own story. You can certainly call his book a hoax, though doing so raises far more questions than it answers.

Maliszewski’s essay in Bookforum is alive to such problems -- which is what makes it particularly disgraceful that so few people have bothered to weight its actual argument before denouncing its author. From the commentary, you might suppose that Maliszewski’s purpose is to trash Michael Chabon -- to call him out as a fraud, at best, or perhaps someone with the mental problems implied by Binjamin Wilkomirski’s fantasies of a childhood in hell.

If you take the time to read the essay, though, you find a nuanced and searching analysis of the relationships between author and audience, between memory and fantasy, between story-telling and truth-telling. Maliszewski’s point is less that Chabon intends to trick his audience than that (for a variety of reasons) his listeners want the story to be true.

Nor does the corrosive effect of that desire mitigated by dismissing Chabon’s lecture as a "tall tale." There was actually someone named C.B. Colby who published a book called Strangely Enough! He wasn’t a Holocaust survivor or a secret Nazi – just a volunteer fireman, library-board member, and author of children’s books. "Real life," writes Maliszewski, "apprantely requires exaggerated stakes – a few teaspoons of the Holocaust, say, or some other dramatic supplement to fortify the work’s seriousness."

I’ve been trying to figure out why it doesn’t shock me so much to find this point being made by someone who has himself been on the other side of the process of fabrication. Perhaps it is the realization that there is a pretty good precedent for serving as both hoaxer and debunker.

Edgar Allen Poe perpetrated his share of raids on the public’s gullibility, including a couple of bogus news stories involving balloon flight. But Poe also published essays deducing that a famous 19th century chess-playing robot actually had a midget inside. Either way, there is the same fascination with the mechanisms of the hoax – with the game of revelation and concealment, the careful balance of plausibility and outrageousness.

Perhaps it’s a good thing Poe isn’t around now. The Times would denounce him as a fraud, and the bloggers would go nuts. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that he might turn the whole situation to his own advantage. After all, when enough people feel entitled to form an opinion without the inconvenience of thinking very hard, the hoaxster’s work is already halfway done.

Full disclosure: I do not know Paul Maliszewski very well, but have met him on a couple of occasions, and have read some of his short stories and essays in various literary magazines. From a conversation, it appears that he shares my great fascination with the strange history of Report From Iron Mountain -- a factor which may have biased this column somewhat. His interest in literary hoaxes strikes me as, well, pluperfectly literary.

Be that as it may, it ought to be a prerequisite for any future commentary regarding his essay on Michael Chabon that the discussants have actually read it. It would also be useful to everyone if Chabon himself commented on the matter, which so far he has not done.

Scott McLemee
Author's email: 

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays.


Subscribe to RSS - English
Back to Top