Jane Austen's Persuasion: Random observations, current controversy, two questions and two finale scenes

This is a motley post about Persuasion, with mostly observations from other people. I make a couple of observations and ask two questions. At the end, I include the final scenes from the 1995 and 2007 adaptations, which make for an interesting contrast in interpretation.

1. In 2008, Sarah Frantz, an Austen scholar, reported on giving a paper on romance with several other romance scholars at the Jane Austen Society of North America. Among Sarah’s comments:

…for Janeites to disavow the romance label is, I think, at best disingenuous and at worst, willfully rewriting literary history.

This article, for instance, makes me crazy.

Of the new “chick-lit” style covers of Austen, Thompson argues: Of Persuasion: “Pure Mills & Boon, in fact; and sublimely inappropriate to the tone of this sad, shadowy novel.” Did she read the same novel I did? Persuasion is my favorite Austen novel because she takes a sad, autumnal tone and turns it into the most stunningly compelling expression of the power and optimism of romance you could ever hope to read: “You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope.” Indeed.

2. I enjoyed reading Nandrea, Lorri G. “DIFFERENCE AND REPETITION IN AUSTEN’S PERSUASION.” Studies in the Novel 39, no. 1 (Spring2007 2007): 48-64. Some quotes:

At the very beginning, Austen defies such a narrative structure by repeatedly assuring us that everything is already over. The “history and rise of the ancient and respectable [Elliot] family” has been told already and has reached its “finale”; the “very awkward history” of Elizabeth’s courtship has ended, as has Wentworth’s courtship of Anne: “this little history of sorrowful interest had reached its close”. No situation seems open to progress, complication, or development. Moreover, though most of the characters are in motion by the end of the fifth chapter, none seem to be moving toward anything.

Indeed, the plot of the novel will be composed of a complex series of repetitions.

Throughout this novel, Austen probes the relationship between foreseeable futures and unforeseeable events. The act of persuasion itself bears a special relationship to the future tense, often relying on the seductive articulation of a projected scenario.

Ultimately, the novel makes it possible to picture social hegemony itself as a continuously renegotiated product of persuasion, the result that obtains when many individuals are persuaded to share a particular point of view.

And yet the text also tells us that there is no such thing as too late. A sense of the ways in which present and future are underdetermined by the past works to preserve the chance of the future–especially its chance to differ from whatever has already happened–together with the revolutionary potential of every single “now.”

3. A controversy has arisen in recent weeks over Austen’s writing. From BBC News:

The elegant writing style of novelist Jane Austen may have been the work of her editor, an academic has claimed. Professor Kathryn Sutherland of Oxford University reached her conclusion while studying 1,100 original handwritten pages of Austen’s unpublished writings.

From Jane Austen Today, a good summary post of the recent brouhaha.

Sutherland is not new to controversy. In 2009 she accused another scholar of stealing her ideas:

Oxford academic and Austen authority Professor Kathryn Sutherland is claiming that a new book by award-winning biographer Claire Harman has copied her own radical ideas about the novelist, pulled together over 10 years of research and published by her in 2005.

“I have never accused anyone of using my material before,” said Sutherland this weekend, “but it feels a bit like identity theft. Claire has been very canny and she writes very well, but I am finding that I cannot write about my own research because people tell me it is too similar to the key arguments in Claire’s book.”

I liked what Jonathan Jones had to say at the Guardian books blog:

Jane Austen’s style is not a bit of polishing on the surface of her novels, it goes deep into their structure, which is why they are so satisfying. Elegant moral thought is embedded in the design of her characters, their comic voices, the ironies of her plots. At their most achieved, the effect is not just witty but profound. But they are not always perfectly achieved and that is significant. You can see evolution, improvement in her work and, some say, decline as well. It makes no sense to attribute her brilliance to the hand of a (male) editor when we can so clearly see her learning on the job, see her style grow. It is organic, it is not in fact a “style” but a voice. Jane Austen’s voice is special and it is unique.

It’s interesting to contrast Sutherland’s claims with the touching biographical notice of the author in Persuasion‘s preface her brother Henry:

The style of her familiar correspondence was in all respects the same as that of her novels. Every thing came finished from her pen; for on all subjects she had ideas as clear as her expressions were well chosen. It is not hazarding too much to say that she never dispatched a note or letter unworthy of publication.

4. “Austen’s triumph was to make everything connect” in “the kaleidoscope of her mind” (129) From Harris, Jocelyn. Jane Austen’s Art of Memory. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989.

5. Not about Persuasion, but this synopsis gave me a huge giggle:

JANE BITES BACK (Ballantine. 2009. ISBN 9780345513656. pap. $14), Michael Thomas Ford sends up both Austenmania and the vampire craze. Turned into a vampire in the 19th century, Jane today owns a small bookshop in upstate New York. She watches other people capitalize on her name while she attempts unsuccessfully to sell her unpublished manuscript. Complications include her fellow vampire Lord Byron and confrontations with Bronte fanatics.

–from Jerrit, Jessica. “No Persuasion Necessary: Jane Austen’s Eternal Appeal.” Library Journal 135, no. 15 (September 15, 2010): 107.)

6. My favorite negative review of Persuasion from Amazon.com:

I don’t know what all of you are talking about. I found this book to be boring, bourgeois and completely unsympathetic. I can not imagine anyone relating to any of these characters, unless you are extremely rich and live in 19th century England. It was, however, well written.

7. I was struck again in reading Persuasion what remarkable insight Jane Austen had, and more than that, the ability to express it. That’s my true joy in reading Jane Austen. For example, when describing Anne’s father, she writes,

Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity of person and of situation.

I think another writer would have ended her observation with “character”. But by adding “and of situation” Austen captures the way some people are born on third base and think they hit a triple.

Or when Anne is thinking about the Musgroves, and how happily married they are:

Anne always contemplated them as some of the happiest creatures of her acquaintance, but still, saved as we all are, by some comfortable feeling of superiority from wishing for the possibility of exchange, she would not have given up her own more elegant and cultivated mind for all their enjoyments…”

To me, the phrase “saved as we all are by some comfortable feeling of superiority…” elevates this into a very astute observation.

The early scene when Anne stays home with her injured nephew is one of my favorites, because of the way Austen captures the way people lie outlandishly to themselves for their own selfish ends. Anne’s sister convinces herself that she doesn’t need to stay home, that Anne should do it, because:

…I am of no use at home, am I? and it only harasses me. You, who have not a mother’s feelings, are a great deal the properest person.

See, being a mom makes you a poor choice to nurse your child … because you feel too much. That’s the ticket!

8. Everything about Chapter 23 is magic. I especially loved:

Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove any thing.

And of course, at that very moment, a man is writing something, that she allows to prove something very important.

9. A question: What do you make of Lady Russell?

10. And another one: Why did Captain Harville Wentworth say he had found Anne so altered?

11. There are many film adaptations of Persuasion. I watched the 1995 one with Ciarán Hinds, which I liked a lot. Here are two video clips of Anne and Captain Wentworth meeting after she reads his letter, the first from the 1995 version, and second from the 2007:

Although I think the 2007 Captain is better looking, I prefer Hinds in the role. how about you? Have a favorite (or least favorite) Persuasion adaptation?

A Nice Surprise, a DNF, and an Iron Duke

A Nice Surprise, a DNF, and an Iron Duke

1. A Nice Surprise

Sometimes those free Kindle books are really a great deal…

I recently read Compromising Positions, by Jenna Bayley-Burke (Samhain, 2009) and really enjoyed it. A fun, sexy, inventive contemporary romance with an absurd premise that somehow works: Sophie, a forensic accountant, is pinch hitting at her sister’s gym while big sis finishes out her pregnancy on bed rest. Sophie needs a partner for a very popular couples yoga class, “Sensational Sex”, which demonstrates Kama Sutra moves, and ends up with David, a lawyer who happens to work for Sophie’s brother-in-law’s international fitness empire. The scenes in which they are demonstrating the moves are actually pretty interesting. Sophie has had a crush on David forever, but she’s the type that forgoes dating in favor of taking care of her elderly parents, and he’s the type that prefers leggy blondes and no strings (Sophie is short and curvy, with dark curls).

In many ways, this is a very typical contemporary, with some really bizarre plots thrown in (add embezzling, business competition, a burgeoning fitness food empire, sibling rivalry, a sexual harassment lawsuit, and a possibly evil stepmother, and you’re half way there). And there were definitely some problems, like David’s tendency to use pejorative feminine terms to refer to things that threatened his masculinity (i.e. “girly”), Sophie’s not requiring him to wear a condom (it’s ok, she’s on the pill. *eye roll*), and her pathetic/stalkerish move of purchasing a huge king bed that will fit his body before they go on a single date. But somehow this book kept me hooked, and at times I was really impressed with the subtle ways the author showed the development of the relationship and the characters. David moves in a believable way from a commitment-phobic ladies man, to someone who truly doubts his ability to be the man Sophie deserves, to true love. In turn, Sophie gets over both her physical crush, and her opinion of David as purely superficial, and starts to appreciate him for who he really is. Despite starting out pretty uneven, their relationship becomes an even match quickly. This book kept surprising me, with realistic insight from the characters like the moment Sophie realizes “she could not handle a casual relationship with David” , and when David realizes “How wonderful life would be if he could just trust himself to be who she thought he was.” I enjoyed it, and I’m not the only one, as the 4.5 star rating at Amazon and a recent positive review from Laurie Gold, attest. It’s no longer free, but I think if you like sexy contemporaries and want something a bit different, this is a good bet.

2. A DNF

I rarely fail to finish a book I start. I envy my fellow readers who can abandon a book without looking back, but I’m just not there yet. So it killed me to put this one down, and it was especially hard given that I really enjoy Julie Ann Long’s books. She writes regencies that are, if not the most historically rich, very full of life, with really fun, likable characters. For me, they are rollicking good times. The Runaway Duke is the story of the son of a duke whose father has abused him so badly that he fakes his own Waterloo death and goes to work in the stables of the Tremaine family. He falls in love with their mischievous daughter, Rebecca, when he assists her in escaping a bad marriage.

What did it for me was Connor’s dialect. In fairness, Connor is a few years older than Rebecca, and he is also posing as Irish, but his constant references to her as “wee Becca”, not just occasionally, but EVERY TIME he addresses her, were impossible for me to move beyond. Add to that a hide bag full of “aye”s and “ye”s and “’tis”s and I’m done for. Connor first meets “wee Becca” when he has to get her down from a tree, and I appreciate the fact that this is a relationship that will probably grow from one in which Connor feels like an older brother into a more equal one, but it’s just too annoying to get from here to there. Just read this, and see if you can blame me:

Rebecca has stolen a rifle from her father. She says:

“Papa is away in St. Eccles today. And he didn’t lock it up or hide it.”

And Connor says:

“Well, he doesna lock ye into your room at night either, does he, and just look at the trouble that wee bit of oversight has caused.” Connor shook his head ruefully. “Your poor, trusting da. Wee Becca, a man is entitled to believe his muskets are safe from his daughters.”

As the Scottish say, “better to be a coward than a corpse”. So I quit.

3. An Iron Duke

I really, really enjoyed it. It’s just so unique and fun. For me, the great strengths were the detailed, imaginative, and compelling world building and the exciting, swashbuckling plot, both of which made the book impossible to put down. It seemed like around every corner (or passage) there was a new wonder to behold. Just a magical reading experience, really.  There are so many glowing reviews out there — an overwhelming number of  “A+” and “five star” reviews, from romance and nonromance readers alike —  that I don’t feel the need to write my own at this point, but in case you have been living under a rock, I suggest you click over to one of my favorites, by Nicola O. of Alpha Heroes.

One interesting aspect of the reception of this book is that a small minority of reviewers, (for example, Ron Hogan at Beatrice, reviewers like this one on Goodreads, and if I am interpreting the “painful lapses” comment correctly, Rike at All About Romance) who, despite absolutely loving The Iron Duke, consider it to contain one or two scenes of rape. I personally think that if The Iron Duke had been a regency romance or a contemporary, there would be a lot more debate about the nonconsensual sex in the book, but given the completely unique and unusual — and I mean truly mindblowing — setting, it’s low on the list of things to note. When I saw Ron Hogan’s  comments about rape, I thought perhaps this was a “new to the romance genre” attitude, but the AAR and Goodreads reviewers, and apparent agreement on Twitter from the likes of Avon editor Esi Sogah, crush that theory. It will be interesting to see what consensus emerges around Rhys and Mina’s first and last sexual encounters. My own experience reading the book is that the first sexual encounter is nonconsensual in a way that shocks both of them, i.e. unintentionally nonconsensual, and the last one is consensual. I had no problem with either one.

Have you had a good experience reading a freebie lately? Can you overlook dialect that bugs you? How about The Iron Duke? Is it on your list? And did you know that when I have no idea how to end a blog post, I ask questions?

Review: Bunnicula, by Deborah and James Howe

Review: Bunnicula, by Deborah and James Howe

Bunnicula (98 pages, NY: Simon & Schuster) was published in 1979. Since then, several more Bunnicula books have been published, and there are over 8 million in print. My eight year old son, Max, the better one (<—– Max added that), read it, and he asked me to read it too. I did, on a flight to San Diego. I laughed so hard that the flight attendant asked me if anything was the matter. It wasn’t. I was just enjoying an incredibly funny, heartwarming, and wise children’s story. Now that we’ve both read it, I’m going to ask Max a few questions:

Jessica: Ok, what is this book about?

Max: Vampire bunnies.

Jessica: Can you say more?

Max: No.

Jessica: MAX!!

Max: What?

Jessica: You have to tell people about a book if you are going to review it.

Max: Oh.

Jessica: So, tell me more about this book. What happens? Who is in it? That kind of stuff.

Max: One question at a time.

Jessica: *sighs* Okay, then. What happens in this book?

Max: A family finds a rabbit at a movie theater. They decide to bring it home and keep it. But the pets –Harold and Chester –think it is a vampire, and they want to get rid of it. Harold is a dog and Chester is a cat.

Jessica: What could possibly make them think that a cute little bunny rabbit is in fact a vampire?

Max: Fangs, sleeping at day, waking up at night, drinking juice out of vegetables…

Jessica: Drinking juice out of vegetables?

Max: Yes. The vegetable is white with two teeth marks in it.

Jessica: Can you tell us more about the other main characters, Harold and Chester?

Max: Chester the cat is really smart. He thinks of things immediately, He doesn’t give it a few minutes. Harold the dog is not that smart, but he still is a good pet. I mean, he doesn’t even know what a parrot is.

Jessica: What was your favorite part?

Max: When they try to put a sirloin steak through Bunnicula’s heart. Because Chester is reading a book about how to kill a vampire, and he confused “steak” and “stake.”

Jessica: What is Chester worried about? I mean, it’s just vegetables.

Max: But he says “Today vegetables … tomorrow the world.” He thinks Bunnicula will eat the whole family.

Jessica: Is this a scary book?

Max: Depends. It depends on what you think about the book. Do you think it is scary? Funny? Just a regular book?

Jessica: Well, what did you think?

Max: It was a good book. Three and a half stars out of five.

Jessica: Give me an example of a five star book.

Max: The Hoboken Chicken Emergency (we’ll review this one another time).

Jessica: Who do you think will like Bunnicula?

Max: I think anybody who likes to read will like this book.

******SPOILER ALERT*******

Jessica: Is Bunnicula really a vampire, in your opinion?

Max: Yes, because he still wakes up at night, has fangs, can get out of his cage without bending anything or opening any doors, and doesn’t like garlic.

******END SPOILER*******

Jessica: Thanks Max. Was this fun?

Max: Ayuh.


The little bunny had begun to move for the first time since he had been put in his cage. He lifted his tiny nose and inhaled deeply, as if gathering sustenance from the moonlight.

“He slicked his ears back close to his body, and for the first time,” Chester said, “I noticed the peculiar marking on his forehead. What had seemed an ordinary black spot between his ears took on a strange v-shape, which connected with the big black patch that covered his back and each side of his neck. It looked as if he was wearing a coat . . . no, more like a cape than a coat.”

Through the silence had drifted the strains of a remote and exotic music.

“I could have sworn it was a gypsy violin,” Chester told me. “I thought perhaps a caravan was passing by, so I ran to the window.”

I remembered my mother telling me something about caravans when I was a puppy. But for the life of me, I couldn’t remember what.

“What’s a caravan?” I asked, feeling a little stupid.

“A caravan is a band of gypsies traveling through the forest in their wagons,” Chester answered.

“Ah, yes.” It was coming back to me now. “Station wagons?”

“No, covered wagons! The gypsies travel all through the land, setting up camps around great bonfires, doing magical tricks, and sometimes, if you cross their palms with a piece of silver, they’ll tell your fortune.”

“You mean if I gave them a fork, they’d tell my fortune?” I asked, breathlessly.

Chester looked at me with disdain. “Save your silverware,” he said, “it wasn’t a caravan after all.”

I was disappointed. “What was it?” I asked.

Chester explained that when he looked out the window, he saw Professor Mickelwhite, our next door neighbor, playing the violin in hisliving room. He listened for a few moments to the haunting melody and sighed with relief. I’ve really got to stop reading these horror stories late at night, he thought, it’s beginning to affect my mind. He yawned and turned to go back to his chair and get some sleep. As he turned, however, he was startled by what he saw.

There in the moonlight, as the music filtered through the air, sat the bunny, his eyes intense and staring, an unearthly aura about them.

“Now, this is the part you won’t believe,” Chester said to me, “but as I watched, his lips parted in a hideous smile, and where a rabbit’s buck teeth should have been, two little pointed fangs glistened.”

I wasn’t sure what to make of Chester’s story, but the way he told it, it set my hair on end.

What do Vampires Have to Do With Bioethics?

A terrifyingly true account of giving the vampire paper to a room full of bioethicists…

No, no, I did not talk about the possibility that health care providers might be creatures of the night. In my paper, The Undead in Bioethics and Vampire Fiction, I claimed that cultural and literary criticisms of vampire fiction could benefit from the addition of some bioethicists to the discussion, and that narrative bioethics could benefit from looking a little more closely at commercial/mass market/genre fiction, especially vampire fiction.

This is an annual conference put on by the largest bioethics organization in the US. There are 420 sessions over 5 days, and with most of those having 3 speakers, so you can imagine what a big conference this is. Bioethics is many things: academic, clinical, political, public. And this conference brings together people who work in traditional academic settings, academic medical centers, medical centers of the nonacademic stripe, public policy and think tank folks, artists, advocates, community organizers, students, practitioners, etc etc etc.

My paper was one of six in the sub-area Arts, Literature and Cultural Studies, but unlike another multidisciplinary conference I attended this year, the Popular Culture Association, ASBH doesn’t organize the panels or conference with the sub-areas in mind at all. There are affinity group  meetings each evening, which you can attend to see others in your area. Tonight, I plan to attend the clinical ethics affinity group meeting, because we have a very controversial issue before us: the credentialing and licensure of ethics consultants.

So my fellow speakers were a philosopher who talked about existential suffering at the end of life, and a JD/PhD who discussed consent to cadaveric donation (like, when you give your body to science, do you mind if the US government straps an explosive device to it, and blows it to smithereens? Or if some of your tissues might be used to plump someone’s lips … or penis?). Our session took place in the ballroom, where the plenary sessions have been, which seats about 500 and has two giant screens for your power points, as well as a large raised stage. Of course, the room wasn’t full as there were many other sessions taking place, but I would guess we had about 150 people, which would not have been possible in the smaller conference rooms. So I guess the organizers knew what they were doing.

My paper made a point similar to the one I gave at PCA in April. Lots of bioethicists appreciate the fertile ground which fiction presents for our work, whether it’s used as a teaching tool, a clinical tool, or a site of investigation of important bioethical themes. But they tend to focus exclusively on literary fiction. When they do look at popular fiction — and here I cited recent essays which addressed the work of Jodi Picoult, Stephen King, and Robin Cook — the analysis tends to focus heavily on the possible negative (distorting, simplifying, upsetting) impact of this fiction on readers and on public discourse about bioethics generally. So the first half of my paper involved making some claims about readers of popular fiction, how actively we read, and how we don’t necessarily need the protection of others to save us from bad messages. I also talked a little bit about the ways genre fiction can be read — in terms of system, in addition to as an individual text — to note that if a bioethicist picks up one book by Stephen King and thinks she is getting all of the things out of it that a seasoned horror reader would, she is mistaken. For example, characters that look thin when reading one book in a series (Sookie Stackhouse, for example) flesh out once you appreciate the serialized nature of their narrative. And other points along these lines. So, basically, I argued that (a) popular fiction can fail to  fulfill its aims, while literary fiction can fail to fulfill its aims, and (b) there’s no way to make an invidious distinction between good and bad fiction based on how popular it is, unless you have a secret anterior dislike to genre, which you’ll have to substantiate.

I know this argument won’t please some readers of this blog. Perhaps I should have just claimed there is no difference AT ALL between popular fiction and literary fiction, neither in terms of quality, nor in any other terms. But my goal is to convince people that they need to turn theoretical attention to genre fiction. If I can do that while making a less controversial, more easily defensible claim, I will.

In the second half of the paper, I talked about vampire fiction, how ubiquitous it is (I made reference to it as a “category killer” and to the joke about a “vampire industrial average” in publishing). I showed lots of fun slides — never have I had so many non-textual slides in my life. I talked about literary and cultural criticism of vampire fiction, and noted that it tends not to spend much time looking at the obvious: that vampires are undead and that death figures prominently in any vampire story. Indeed, I have come to the conclusion that being undead — not blood sucking or day sleeping or even being alluring — is the one thread that ties together every vampire narrative I know. Maybe we need to get out of the deep end of the psychology pool and just think about the more obvious issues: this is the one place in our culture where people are reading and talking and thinking about death. About what it takes to be dead. About how we figure out who is dead.  About whether there are nearly dead states that are enough like true death to count. About organ and tissue donation. Etc.  Don’t bioethicsts have anything to contribute to this discussion?

Putting my feminist hat on, I talked briefly about the tendency to think that if a vampire narrative is about romance it is therefore not about anything else, and that everything in it is a metaphor for sex. I used the image of Bella’s dream about being an old lover to an eternally 17 year old Edward to suggest that questions about what happily ever after means in the context of immortal love might be one way that women think about death.

There are many other bioethical issues I could raise in this connection —  longevity research being the one that comes to mind first — but you get the point.

I had 20 minutes total for reading the paper and for discussion. I made sure to position myself openly as a reader and fan of the vampire fiction I was discussing, and had to roll my eyes inwardly as one of my copanelists snickered through the whole thing. The response from the audience was really terrific, and also from the editors of  two  journals in this subfield of bioethics, who approached me afterwards. I was especially gratified that one of them told me he agrees completely that we need to be working on popular fiction across the genres. A medical anthropologist asked me be an outside reader for one of her PhD students who is writing on vampire folklore and medicine, and a med school professor told me he now plans to begin his unit on death by discussing vampires. I couldn’t be more pleased with that response.

Monday Morning Stepback: Shopping at Borders for Amazon books

The weekly links, opinion, and personal updates post

Links of Interest: Lots of romance this week.

Tumperkin’s I Only Kill Bad People explores the genre convention of allowing serial killer heroes (in vampire or other form) as long as they are targeting the right victims.

Writer Jackie Barbosa has had it with being made to feel her writing method is inadequate.

Mandi at Smexy Books has a great post on Author Websites: Good and Bad.

Mandi’s post makes me wonder why people who are trying to sell something design a storefront that repels customers. Is it the fault of web designers who are eager to demonstrate the latest gizmo, and authors who are too busy to really think it through? Authors should really go through the process of interacting with their sites from the readers’ place, or get a friend unfamiliar with the site to do it. Start where a reader would, perhaps by Googling the author’s name. Imagine the reader wants to buy your latest book, find out when the next one is coming out, see the list of a series in order, or just contact you. How easy would it be? how many steps would it take? How many distracting obstacles are in the way?

In case you haven’t seen this: The Female Character Flow Chart (thanks to reader M.). Just read across the top — so true.

Over at Alien Romances, a review and discussion of Draculas (“a novel of terror”) by Blake Crouch, Jack Kilborn, Jeff Strand, and F. Paul Wilson. I actually assigned a Wilson short story (“The Wringer”) in a course a couple of years ago (to little student appreciation, IIRC). As the reviewer puts it,

These “Draculas” have the compassion of hornets, the dentition of sharks, the voracious appetites of shrews and no respect for garlic whatsoever. If you can contemplate a rabid, blood thirsty Edward Scissorteeth in a maternity or pediatric ward, using a severed artery as a drinking straw, or lashing out among the blind… go for it, but with your eyes open.

I found this interesting, since Slate announced in 2009 that bloodsucking is so yesterday (don’t read the article. It’s essentially a combination of right wing/quasi-feminist/elitist criticism of women who write vampires).

From Book Making, a blog about self-publishing to which Mrs. Giggles introduced me via one of her blog posts a while back, A Paragraph and A Blog I Never finished Reading. In it, the author makes a judgment about an author based on a misspelling of “you’re”. I confess to deep suspicion of the writing talent of authors who make these kinds of mistakes in their blogs. I wonder if this is unfair. I certainly wouldn’t want readers to make a judgment of my academic abilities based on the writing here (unless it’s a positive one, of course). On the other hand, if I were so worried about that, perhaps I should either write under a pseudonym or do a better job writing under my own identity.

For the second week in a row, Seekerville has a post I can’t help but think about and share. It’s an Interview with Dr. Stanley Williams, The Moral Premise Guy. Williams argues that by focusing on the moral core of their story, writers will both write more engaging books, and find a way to overcome certain kinds of writers block:

Stories will be more powerful and connect with audiences and readers on a profound level when all of your characters’ decisions, actions, and resulting consequences (psychological and physical ) focus on one set of values. By “set of values” I mean two naturally opposing motivations or moral constructs—virtue and a vice—e.g. selflessness vs. selfishness.

Or, take the conflict constructed by bitterness vs. forgiveness, two psychological values that generate physical consequences and thus drama. Characters with goals start off harboring bitterness and striving with each other over the attainment of said goals. As the conflict escalates, hopefully, someone will discover the opposite to bitterness and try forgiveness. Then redeeming consequences result. But understanding that bitterness is in conflict with forgiveness is the moral core of your story.

I admit to being skeptical, but so many writers seem to love his advice, so who am I to say? I wonder if this kind of advice could be useful for genres that don’t require moral heroism and happy endings.

Kenda of Lurv a la Mode is asking whether Negative Reviews are the Blogosphere’s Redheaded Stepchild (the answer is “yes”, in case you weren’t sure). Author Marta Acosta chimes in to suggest that this is a problem in romance both because romance readers are closer to authors, and because we’re mostly all women. I’m sure there’s a lot to that, but after seeing the blowback that The Book Smugglers get for negative reviews of other genre fiction, I am starting to think the main problem is the gender issue, not the genre one. Also, it is much worse when authors perceive your review to have any influence.

Lynne Connelly wrote an interesting post at TGTBTU on the new Mills & Boon titles and covers.

My profession has a new blog, What is it like to be a woman in philosophy? I’m really glad these stories are being told. As a woman who has been in philosophy for over twenty years, they ring very true to me. A teeny, illogical part of me almost wishes we weren’t being so honest about the situation, for fear of dissuading young women from entering the profession. The bigger part of me knows, though, that the profession itself does 99.9% of the dissuading (and outright expelling) all by itself. This one just about killed me:

I was teaching a large introductory class, doing the problem of evil. Hoping to make the problem vivid, I took my example of an apparently gratuitous evil from my own life: a time when my daughter, then 2 yrs old, had to endure a bone biopsy of her shin, a procedure for which there was no effective local anesthetic. After I described the case, I asked the class the stock questions: how could my daughter’s suffering be justified? what greater good was served? what lesson was learned? — at which point a student called out: “Maybe God was trying to tell you that you need to decide whether you want to be a philosophy professor or a mother” Thanks…..

Katha Pollitt in The Nation on older and younger feminists (Feminist Mothers, Flapper Daughters?). She has her criticisms of the youngsters (“I’m tired of ‘body issues’ getting so much more emphasis than economic and political ones, and the endless fetishizing of ‘choice’ where anything a woman wants to do is sacrosanct, including stripping, prostitution and porn, which are simultaneously obscurely troubling and perfectly OK!”), but the piece is overall balanced, as here:

The fact is, these same young women (some of whom are not even so young anymore—Rebecca Walker, founder of Third Wave Foundation and famous hater of her mother, Alice, is 40!) are doing a lot of activist work. They start abortion funds and scrappy groups like Hollaback!, which protests street harassment; they volunteer at rape crisis centers; they mentor teens; they organize conferences; they write books by the dozen and blogs by the hundreds. Faludi seems to take a dim view of blogging, but the Jezebel blogger Tracie Egan, a k a Slut Machine, who made light of date rape, is hardly representative. Sure, blogging can degenerate into its own little hothouse world—but sites like Jezebel and Feministing and Pandagon and Salon’s Broadsheet have introduced a lot of young women to feminist ideas and activism too. It’s how a lot of people, including me, keep up with the news on women.

Ethical Question of the Day: Should you buy a book from Amazon while you are shopping at Borders or Barnes and Noble?

Amazon’s Bar Code Scanner Takes Impulse Buying to a New Level (CNET)

The latest version of Amazon Mobile, 1.2.8, contains a bar code scanner in its search screen. As with bar code scanners in other mobile apps, Amazon Mobile uses your iPhone‘s camera to take in a product’s zebra-striped bar code. Amazon’s servers then find a match, and after you select the item, you can sign in to your account to purchase the product on the spot.

Since I got my Kindle, I strongly prefer to buy all my books in digital format at Amazon, due to selection, cost and ease (this is not to say Amazon always beats out its competitors on cost, of course). But I do visit my local Borders fairly often.

1. I have shopped at Borders for paper books (gifts, cookbooks, children’s books), wandered into the romance or literature sections, and made a a note of a book to purchase from Amazon later. Is that wrong?

2. Would it be wrong if I went to Borders for the express purpose of finding books to purchase from Amazon?

3. Does it matter how I make the purchase (bar code versus old fashioned search)?

4. Or what format I purchase (digital to be downloaded right now or paper to arrive in the mail in three days)?

5. Would it be ok if I first compared the print price at Borders with Amazon’s print price, and only bought from Amazon if they beat Borders somehow, say, on price or availability?

I have a hard time seeing how the (a) format (bar code versus search box, for example, or paper versus e), (b) or spatio-temporality (buy while in store versus buy in parking lot outside store) matters much, except in how you might feel about doing it. I mean, how much time is the “decent” amount to wait after you have exited the store? How far from the store should you be?

Do any of these practices harm Borders? If I don’t go into Borders at all, Borders makes no sale. If I do go in, there is a chance Borders will make a sale, perhaps not a book, but maybe some coffee or a bookmark or one of the many non-book items on the shelves these days. The Twilight lunch box looks good.

On the other hand, if customers see me making a purchase from another vendor, I may influence them to adopt my ways, causing some harm in lost sales.

It feels like a kind of bad faith or at least dishonesty to walk into a Borders knowing I won’t buy from them. If I am “using” their bricks and mortar, and perhaps their staff, their restrooms, their comfortable seating, etc., without planning to give anything in return, that seems unfair. It’s why I don’t do it. It’s not the “just looking” that’s the problem, it’s that I am not usually “just looking” — I will likely buy a book, and not from Borders.

Could I obviate the bad faith by honestly telling a salesperson or manager: “Dude, I’ve got my Kindle in my purse. I am not buying anything from you guys today.” Would I be asked to leave? I doubt it. Lots of people go into Borders just to be there. Or they go in to comparison shop with other book stores. Do they have to announce their intentions, too? I return to the point that it is better from Borders’ point of view to have me in the store than not.

Perhaps things would be different if I were in a local used book store, and on friendly terms with the proprietor? I know I would feel a hundred times worse. I haven’t even worked up the courage to show my Kindle to my favorite local UBS. But bad feelings don’t necessarily indicate a moral wrong.

Is this a new ethical dilemma technology has brought us? Or more of a manners question? What do you think?


I’m heading to San Diego Wednesday to give the (only) vampire paper at the national bioethics conference. Interestingly, there are a couple of sessions on fiction and bioethics, but I am in a paper session on death. I wonder what that says? I will post a little on it later this week, I hope. This is a great conference, but it’s extremely expensive (as is anything that gives education credits to physicians), so I can only afford to go about every 3 years. My annual travel budget from the department is $700, up from $600 last year, but only because we lost a faculty member who wasn’t replaced. As you can imagine, that barely covers the flight (er– flights. It will take 3 legs to get to San Diego) to California from Maine.


Monday Morning Stepback: Defending "Naive Reading", Gay Writes, Procrastination, Net Galley

The Links, Opinion, and Updates post, now with randomly fluctuating frequency. Yes, it’s long. No, I don’t think it’s too long for you.

Links of Interest:

Sarah Frantz, romance scholar and blogger, is interviewed by Laura Vivanco about glbt romance at Teach Me Tonight.

In honor of National Coming Out Day, Dear Author is launching its own Gay Writes campaign, including big book giveaways

And speaking of Laura Vivanco, she prompted a post about romance at On Fiction (an online magazine on the psychology of fiction). But I’m not sure that Laura is saying what sitemaster Oatley thinks she’s saying when he sums up thusly:

The womanly phantasy seems, thus, not only to be about achieving physiological effects on the man’s body, not just about achieving union because of what the man has got, but about achieving transformation of someone who, as well as being incomplete, is an insensitive bully.

Luckily Laura showed up to comment. Proving once again that gendered people studying gender is always a fraught enterprise.

And back to the theme of GLBT literature and its emancipatory effects, a big thank you to The Millions for digging up a 1984 essay by Nobel Prize winner Mario Varga Llosa, entitled “Is Fiction the Art of Living?”:

The Spanish Inquisition understood the danger. Leading lives through fiction that one does not live in reality is a source of anxiety, a maladjustment to existence that can turn into rebelliousness, an unsubmissive attitude toward the establishment. One can well understand why regimes that seek to exercise total control over life mistrust works of fiction and subject them to censorship. Emerging from one’s own self, being another, even in illusion, is a way of being less a slave and of experiencing the risks of freedom.

In the NYT’s The Stone, its forum for philosophy, Robert Pippin argues in favor of “naive reading”

Clearly, poems and novels and paintings were not produced as objects for future academic study; there is no a priori reason to think that they could be suitable objects of “research.” By and large they were produced for the pleasure and enlightenment of those who enjoyed them. But just as clearly, the teaching of literature in universities ─ especially after the 19th-century research model of Humboldt University of Berlin was widely copied ─ needed a justification consistent with the aims of that academic setting: that fact alone has always shaped the way vernacular literature has been taught.

Pippin goes on to identify two sources of tension between the academic approach to literature and literature itself:

First, literature and the arts have a dimension unique in the academy, not shared by the objects studied, or “researched” by our scientific brethren. They invite or invoke, at a kind of “first level,” an aesthetic experience that is by its nature resistant to restatement in more formalized, theoretical or generalizing language. This response can certainly be enriched by knowledge of context and history, but the objects express a first-person or subjective view of human concerns that is falsified if wholly transposed to a more “sideways on” or third person view. Indeed that is in a way the whole point of having the “arts.”

Likewise ─ and this is a much more controversial thesis ─ such works also can directly deliver a kind of practical knowledge and self-understanding not available from a third person or more general formulation of such knowledge. There is no reason to think that such knowledge — exemplified in what Aristotle said about the practically wise man (the phronimos)or in what Pascal meant by the difference between l’espirit géometrique and l’espirit de finesse — is any less knowledge because it cannot be so formalized or even taught as such. Call this a plea for a place for “naïve” reading, teaching and writing — an appreciation and discussion not mediated by a theoretical research question recognizable as such by the modern academy.

In case you are wondering, I LOVE this.

Rohan Maitzen, a professor in the Department of English at Dalhousie University (my neighbor to the north!) linked to her own old post on rereading Gone With the Wind, a favorite re-read from her youth, which adulthood and a PhD in English have forced her to rethink:

Reading Gone with the Wind today, then, I realize that it rejects precisely the qualities I had always celebrated in its heroine, while embracing her most loathsome values. Punishing Scarlett for rebelling against her identity as a “lady,” it endorses racism and romanticizes slavery. For all its undeniable narrative power, its passion, drama, and pathos, it is, morally, an appalling book.

For anyone who thinks she doesn’t deserve success, or feels like a fraud when she gets it, Bob Mayer wrote a great column at The Seekers, on “imposter syndrome” and his own tactic to deal with it, which he calls HALO, “High Altitude Low Opening” parachuting.

Ebooks: No Friends of Free Expression, a blog post by by Ted Striphas, an associate professor in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University, in which he links to several of his own pieces on the threats posed to literacy and free speech by digital reading (thanks to @jafurtado). Apparently, October 18 kicks off National Freedom of Speech Week.

Given the intimate tie that reading and free expression share with one another, it seems reasonable to wonder what will happen to our ability to communicate when the reading activities we’ve long counted on to be private suddenly go public. Indeed, the knowledge that someone is looking over our shoulders every time we open our e-books could lead us to censor which selections we make or how we choose to engage them. The far greater concern is that these initial acts of self-censorship could diminish our ability to communicate richly and openly with one another down the road, because there would be fewer communicative resources for us to confidently draw on.

Interesting dustup at The Guardian: First, columnist Helienne Lindvall chided “advocates of free” like Cory Doctorow for charging hefty speaking fees. Doctorow himself responded in The Real Cost of Free, in which he redirects her attention away from how much he earns and on to his concerns about digital rights, noting that much more is at stake here than a bit of pirating by cheap bastards with time on their hands:

In France, the HADOPI “three strikes” rule just went into effect; they’re sending out 10,000 legal threats a week now, and have promised 150,000 a week in short order. After three unsubstantiated accusations of infringement, your whole family is disconnected from the internet – from work, education, civic engagement, distant relatives, health information, community.

That scares me, and it’s not just because I like to watch You Tube videos of My So Called Life.

The Six meanest book reviews ever, picked by Huffington Post readers. I like this New Republic review by Dale Peck of The Black Veil:

Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation.

I apologize for the abruptness of this declaration, its lack of nuance, of any meaning besides the intuitive; but as I made my way through Moody’s oeuvre during the past few months I was unable to come up with any other starting point for a consideration of his accomplishment.

Let’s remember this the next time someone gets huffy over a negative romance review.

The end is nigh for Bitch PhD. Sybil Vane notes that she has to stop blogging because she is so content, and “You can imagine the tedium that kind of material would produce, as far as posts go.” Actually, no, I can’t. While I understand that a site called “Bitch PhD” might suffer an identity crisis when all the writers are happily employed in academia, I think a blogger can be engaged and interesting even when she is content. She can even be engaged and interesting about the things which make her content.

A recent edited collection by philosophers about procrastination is getting a boatload of press for some reason. Here, a link to The New Yorker review.

Most of the contributors to the new book agree that this peculiar irrationality stems from our relationship to time—in particular, from a tendency that economists call “hyperbolic discounting.” A two-stage experiment provides a classic illustration: In the first stage, people are offered the choice between a hundred dollars today or a hundred and ten dollars tomorrow; in the second stage, they choose between a hundred dollars a month from now or a hundred and ten dollars a month and a day from now. In substance, the two choices are identical: wait an extra day, get an extra ten bucks. Yet, in the first stage many people choose to take the smaller sum immediately, whereas in the second they prefer to wait one more day and get the extra ten bucks. In other words, hyperbolic discounters are able to make the rational choice when they’re thinking about the future, but, as the present gets closer, short-term considerations overwhelm their long-term goals. A similar phenomenon is at work in an experiment run by a group including the economist George Loewenstein, in which people were asked to pick one movie to watch that night and one to watch at a later date. Not surprisingly, for the movie they wanted to watch immediately, people tended to pick lowbrow comedies and blockbusters, but when asked what movie they wanted to watch later they were more likely to pick serious, important films. The problem, of course, is that when the time comes to watch the serious movie, another frothy one will often seem more appealing. This is why Netflix queues are filled with movies that never get watched: our responsible selves put “Hotel Rwanda” and “The Seventh Seal” in our queue, but when the time comes we end up in front of a rerun of “The Hangover.”

Of course, prior to the discovery of hyperbolic discounting, we had keen students of human nature like Plato, Aristotle and John Stuart Mill, who knew the score on the attraction of  “the nearer good”, in Mill’s lingo.

It’s in our uni library, and I plan to read it … someday.

Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches Trashy Books has announced that she is the keynote speaker at the 2011 Book Blogger Con, an event that occurs in conjunction with Book Expo America in May in New York City. I am glad the BBC folks, overwhelmingly female, chose a woman this year again, especially a woman who blogs about women’s fiction. Also, the BBC folks are looking for workshop ideas as they change to format to concurrent sessions.

Finally, it is technically, Columbus Day. And Racialicious is asking why.


I signed up for NetGalley, and downloaded a book to see what it is all about. The main objections I had with the old system of getting ARCs were that you (a) couldn’t choose what you wanted to read, except by saying no as requests came to you willy nilly, (b) you felt obligated to read and review the book (or at least I did) if you accepted it, and (c) you had to do so on someone else’s timeline. Netgalley obviates all of that. On the other hand, I have little motivation to use it because I’m not a blogger who strives to be on the cutting edge as far as reviews of upcoming releases goes (but I am glad others do it), and I don’t have much of a financial incentive, as book buying is not an expensive habit in my world (I am a slow reader and don’t buy many books).

As far as (d), the connection to industry which has always concerned me and still does, now that I have been blogging for 2.5 years, I understand more deeply the notion that free books are just one way a reviewer can be connected to publishing. Since I started the blog, I have made friends with authors, attended a genre conference, made romance reading part of my work profile, served as a beta reader, and just recently made a decision to write for a publisher for “pay” (pennies, but still … pennies). Feel free to ask me more about this last point, call me out, challenge me on it. etc.

I’ll let readers know whenever I review a free book. I may eat my words, but I don’t think it’ll happen often.


The kitchen is finished, but needs painting. No photos until that is done, even though I know you are dying for them. ;)

Soccer tourney this weekend in the southern part of the state. A certain U11 boys team went undefeated. Woot! And a certain U11 player who has been working on his curve scored from a free kick, giving the ball a wicked “bend” in game play for the first time. It was our family’s “crane kick” moment. (To relive the original Karate Kid ending, click here). All the usual fun was had by kids and parents alike: touch football on the beach, bedbugs in the hotel, fried clams and cheap beer, shin guards with hazardous odor levels, and lots and lots of Gatorade.

I continue to be extremely busy. I am trying to finish my vampire and bioethics paper for the conference next week, review an article for a journal, grade midterms, and write a proposal on lactation ethics. I did finish Persuasion, and plan to write a blog post on it this week. Luckily we are on fall break today and tomorrow.

In other vitally important news, I now hate the phrase “game changer” and all its equally offensive variations.

Finally, we are heading off to Treworgy Family Orchards today to get our pumpkins, pick apples, and get hopelessly lost in the corn maze. This year, the maze is the shape of a rabbit:

Wish us luck!

HaMPO: Help a Moral Philosopher Out — Illness in romance

It’s my turn to teach the senior seminar this spring. I was torn for the longest time between a course in genre fiction (read: romance) and a course in bioethics. I finally decided to combine them. The course is called “Narratives of Illness and Health”. We’ll read memoir, poetry, and literary fiction, interspersed with academic articles, but I was wondering if I could assign some genre fiction as well (read: romance). As some of you know, I have long been interested in narrative ethics, and ethics of fiction, and have recently been interested in the question of how genre fiction is positioned relative to those subfields.

In that spirit, I have a question for you: can you think of a romance novel which treats illness or disability in a particularly nuanced, evocative, challenging, or insightful way? Something that might repay sustained analysis in an academic context? All suggestions– but especially for in-print novels — are most welcome. Superficial accounts of post-Napoleanic war PTSD for the purpose of building sexual tension do not count.

By the way, in Googling around. I found a 1998 article in an online homeopathy journal in which a doctor described a patient, Mary, who has mild MR and who presents with a seizure disorder. The title of the article is “Seizures and Romance Novels“. Here is how part of the clinical encounter is described:

Mostly Mary reads romance novels. She has 3 bookcases full of paperback romance novels. I note that while I am putting symptoms into the computer and shift attention from her for a minute or two, she opens her romance novel and begins to read. She describes the novels as “very racy” and smiles. She denies masturbating.

Noting that “She had 3 book cases full of romance novels and although she claimed not to masturbate, there was certainly a romantic and sexual overtone to this major pastime”, here is how romance novel reading causes seizures, which exacerbate cognitive deficits, which increases loneliness, which in turn causes more romance novel reading in a futile attempt at connection:

Her own little world consisted mostly of the romance novels. There everything was beautiful, glamorous, and perfect. What pulled her out of this was her need to be with people, since she was so outgoing. Actually, she was trying to connect with someone, a special someone if you will, by reading the romance novel. However, that very try at connection was a solitary effort. It kept her more by herself and more alone. This led to eruptions; in this case tantrums and seizures, which made her more confused and slow.

If you click over, note that the seizures are controlled with medication, despite increased romance novel reading.

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