Monday Stepback: Jennifer Egan, Andrew Shaffer, Josh Lanyon, Ana T.

The weekly links, opinion, and personal updates post

Links of interest (from the last 2 weeks):

I cannot recall how I found this one (thanks to whoever it was), but you must check out Sequential Crush, a blog devoted to romance comics. Here’s a Q&A with Michael Barson on his new book Agonizing Love: The Golden Era of Romance Comics. Earlier this month, Jacque had a phenomenal week on Ugly Duckling Romances. Check it out!

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The Art of Penguin Science Fiction (via @LauraCurtis). Very cool — all the covers from the past decades.

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As I prepare today to talk with undergraduate philosophy majors about graduate programs, something my colleague and I do every spring, I have been thinking a lot about Rohan Maitzen’s blog post on The PhD Conundrum. I find it harder every year to walk the line between practical wisdom and dream crushing. I agree completely with Rohan that the major backup arguments to the realization that there are very few tenure track jobs for PhDs in the humanities: (1) the skills argument (“You’ll gain skills you can use in nonacademic careers!”) and (2) the Zen argument (“It’s not the destination, but the journey!”) are both utter fails.

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Laura Vivanco reports on a psychological study of sexual behavior as portrayed in romance novels. There are some howlers. The best here:

The total number of sex scenes was surprisingly low, given the lay reputation of romance novels; several books published recently included no sex scenes at all. These results may indicate an increasing trend towards less explicit sexual content in romance novels.

How on earth, one asks, could anyone with even a passing knowledge of the romance genre conclude something so obviously false? By combining faulty assumptions (for example, that contemporary romance is more likely to have sex in it than historical romance), with ignorance (no knowledge that erotic romance even exists, thanks in part to relying on the conservative RITA awards as an indicator of the breadth of the genre). Commenter Liz diplomatically refers to this as “the perils of cross-disciplinary research.” Hm. One of the study authors weighs in at the end of the comment thread.

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Thomas MacAulay Millar on the dangers of mainstreaming parts of BDSM culture (via @anahcrow)

the rise of rough sex and sort of BDSM-by-any-other-name in gonzo porn wasn’t a good thing: that it brought with it the physical and psychological aspects of BDSM (I’m paraphrasing here) and popularized them with a mainstream audience, but didn’t normalize all the ethical tools of negotiation and communication that should always go with that stuff.

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I don’t care much for Gwyneth Paltrow. So I was thrilled to read this HuffPo takedown of her theory that “Everything in my life that’s good is because I worked my ass off to get it and to maintain it.”

In an age in which America’s class-divide is greater than it’s ever been, our patience has simply waned for the George W. Bushes and Gwyneth Paltrows of the world — people who were born on third base and act like they hit a triple.

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Over at Reviews by Jessewave, writer Josh Lanyon opines on reviewers:

[I'm] finding the role of this new brand of blogger-reviewer confusing. These days any goof with a computer and a credit card can call herself an Author, but so too can any goof with a computer and Internet access call herself a Reviewer. It’s all about the DIY. Way back when I first started publishing, reviews were formal affairs. Reviewers were paid professionals. Reviews appeared in newspapers and periodicals. They were flattering or unflattering, fair or unfair, but either way, they were most assuredly impersonal. … The Internet changed all that. Everyone who has a blog or an Amazon or Goodreads account is now a potential literary critic.

I found this comment quite odd, given that it was written by someone who publishes in the most maligned subgenre of the most despised genre of fiction. I’d be curious to know how much of the kind of erotic male/male romance novels Lanyon writes were reviewed by “paid reviewers” in “newspapers and periodicals” before this “new brand” of blogger-reviewer came along.

He goes on:

To further complicate the modern relationship between reviewers and writers — especially in this genre — many of our blogger-reviewers are themselves aspiring writers. It makes sense because one of the best tools for honing your craft is to learn to read analytically. But as we can all testify, there is no one more critical than the ambitious neophyte or the envious peer.

Are we back to this? Negative reviews are the result of professional jealousy and frustrated ambition?

After going on for a while about reason and logic, we have a couple of claims that, well, can’t both be true:

(1) “reviewing is subjective. … Most aspects of literature — up to and including various grammatical fine points — are a matter of taste and style.”

(2) “For a reviewer to have credibility he or she has to get it right most of the time.”

The first kind of comment takes a very deflationary attitude about the reviewer’s project. It seems to say: don’t bother getting it right, because there is nothing to get right. It’s opinion all the way down. The second kind of comment suggests the reverse: if you are going to review, you’d better hold to certain objective standards.

But what bothered me the most about this very long, rambling post was that I felt like I was reading a classic “reviewer-scolding” cloaked in a post which, on the surface advocates taking the high road and not reading or responding to reviews. This kind of thing really does show through, even to goof reviewers like me, with my computer and my internet connection.

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Ana of Aneca’s World has two incredibly adorable reasons for her blogging hiatus. For your biggest smile of the day, go forth and see.

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Andrew Shaffer’s Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love got reviewed pretty negatively at Literary Kicks by Levi Asher, who does philosophical posts on the weekends. Asher is right to correct Shaffer on small points, like where where Thoreau actually lived (not in the woods, although he visited often), and some larger ones (Plato). The main problem I have with this review is that Asher seems to be reviewing the book he wishes Shaffer had written rather than the one he in fact did, as this inapt comparison suggests:

This book feels like a quickie takeoff on Simon Critchley’s more thoroughly researched Book of Dead Philosophers (which is cited in the bibliography), and it suffers from the same major flaw: a tendency to turn great philosophers into cartoons, and to reach for the punchline instead of the substantial insight.

In The Book of Dead Philosophers, Critchley is using biography to do some serious philosophy. As serious as it gets, given the topic: death. In Great Philosophers, Shaffer is using biography to do comedy. That the subject is philosophers is almost beside the point, except for the irony-making fact that these people are supposed to be so wise.

As a person who makes her living in philosophy, I, too, bristled a bit at the concept and execution Shaffer’s book. For one thing, he defines philosophy much more broadly than most philosophers would. I doubt folks like Diderot, Swedenborg, or Tolstoy are taught in many philosophy 101 courses. But then I remembered that I am a feminist philosopher, and that my kind have been criticizing our tradition for decades for going desperately wrong on the topic of personal relations. Philosophers have gotten it all wrong about not just romantic love, but mothering, friendship, trust, empathy, dependency, and a host of other fixtures of most humans’ daily lives. The tradition has its sensitive exponents (Aristotle on friendship, Hume on the moral emotions) but it mostly just ignores personal relations. It’s about time philosophers took some flak for this attitude in the popular culture.

*Disclaimer: Shaffer sent me a copy of his book, gratis, which I enjoyed. Also, I may have followed Shaffer on Twitter and my gaze may have paused for a second more than was proper on one of the many Romantic Times convention photos of him wearing an Elvis wig, angel wings, and a fishnet wifebeater.

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The latest in plagiarism: in journalism, Ed Champion is a victim, and in m/m romance, it’s JL Langley.

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Literary v. Commercial Writers, part gazillion:

Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for A Visit from the Goon Squad. Then she said:

There was that scandal with the Harvard student who was found to have plagiarized. But she had plagiarized very derivative, banal stuff. This is your big first move? These are your models?

And the immediate backlash:

From Smart Bitch Sarah and her Bitchery, The Frisky, Blogher, and a quote from The Signature Thing:

If her point is that female writers shouldn’t feel like they’re only qualified to write about shopping and husband-hunting, and that they should, if they want to, tackle bigger, grander subjects—yes, absolutely, I support that. But I think her subtext is that there’s something wrong with women who choose to write about female friendships or motherhood or the search for love; that they’re backing away from a challenge, going the easy route, resigning themselves to a lesser literary genre.

This morning, the Millions weighs in, in What We Call What Women Write, defending Egan:

the offended parties lay claim to a genre ubiquitously referred to as “chick-lit”…  I don’t aim to scrutinize the content of the genre so much as the fact that the chick lit demographic has fully embraced the term. Ladies, it’s 2011. Who refers to women as “chicks” aside from Ed Hardy-wearing man-children? Uninspired as it may be, detractors calling the work “fluffy” can’t really be blamed—it’s built into the name, for god’s sake. It’s difficult to move forward in an argument about the sexist climate in publishing when a group that is supposedly trying to push for more equality has accepted and even defended a derogatory label. Granted, the term was probably coined by some marketing department somewhere, but authors of the genre stand by it unflinchingly (see Michele Gorman’s article in The Guardian). It’s no secret that the chick lit authors are outselling their literary fiction counterparts by far. What’s alarming is that the tremendous success of the genre is largely because it’s marketed to women who identify themselves “chicks.”

I think this argument is unfair. I doubt women who read chick lit “identify themselves as chicks”. And Drewis fails to consider the possibility that those who do use “chick” are using it ironically, or even politically reappropriating it, in the manner that terms like “bitches” and “geeks” have been reappropriated.

What kind of feminist movement condones a suppression of opinion on the basis that we should all be nice and stick together, because we’re girls? What Egan said wasn’t nice. It was honest. It reflected her opinion of a certain type of fiction. Publishing should strive to be a meritocracy (though whether it succeeds is a whole other issue,) and Egan’s comments are an acknowledgment of that. On the other hand, in the chick lit realm, amid the outrage and demand for more respect, there is, in fact cowering: observe Weiner selling herself short (and acknowledging a literary hierarchy) in an interview she gave to the Huffington Post: “Do I think I should be getting all of the attention that Jonathan “Genius” Franzen gets? Nope. Would I like to be taken at least as seriously as a Jonathan Tropper or a Nick Hornby? Absolutely.”

This one strikes closer to an uncomfortable truth that critics of Egan should face. And then there’s also the hypocrisy of taking to a blog to call out Egan for criticizing chick lit while at the same time complaining that all lit fic is dry and pretentious and boring.

And finally,

it does nothing for leveling the playing field if every time a woman author remarks on the quality of a work of fiction, hysteria ensues, she’s thought of as a catty bitch, and there’s a concerted effort to rally the troops against her.

This comment makes me uncomfortable. Any time someone calls women critics “hysterical”, images of dark attics and Freud’s pipe spring to mind. Sure, I saw some ill advised comments, but I did not see any hysteria. There were actual arguments — premises with conclusions —  in the blog posts I linked to above. Maybe Drewis should check them out.

Finally, in the interest of peacemaking, here’s this nice little meditation, Literary and Commercial Writers Should Lay Down their Arms, in The Guardian, by writer Sara Sheridan:

in the last year, I’ll have written an historical novel (of which I’m very proud), a poem, sundry websites, blogs and brochures, edited a non-fiction book on private commission, had a children’s book published in the UK and abroad and written mainstream journalism (sometimes under the cover of an assumed name!) I dread to think what the worthies will make of that but whatever they make of it, I rest assured that things are changing and increasingly writers can garner respect for their trade rather than their genre. We can learn so much looking outside our core field of expertise.

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Amazon to offer library books for Kindle. Woot! But wait. The Librarian in Black has some questions, among them:

1. Will Kindle delivery happen via Whispernet as it does for consumers, or use the existing Overdrive console? Overdrive’s user experience has been consistently poor. You know this if you’ve worked with users trying to download eBooks from them. It’s gotten better, but bad web design and bad process design have been unfortunate hallmarks.
2. Are we getting MARC records? They are essential to discovery for users, so I’d say this is a must and hope they’re forthcoming.
3. How are library users’ privacy rights protected (the bookmarks & notes archiving they’re doing)? Both press releases say they will be, but….how?

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If you are on Goodreads, and if you are a blogger who has ARCs you would like to swap, there is a new group for you to join.

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I thought things were bad enough in my state when LePage got elected. But no, now some Republican wants to pass a law so that a local transgender girl may be legally prevented from using male restrooms. As reported in the HuffPo.

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Personal:

Looking forward to eating leavened bread again. Last week of classes. Lots of grading. I’m moderating an 8th grade panel on genetics at a local town hall which should be fun. I’m also meeting a new Hospice friend. And, while I have no plans to get up at the crack of dawn to watch the royal wedding, I’m excited for the pictures and news footage on Friday.

On the blog … not sure. Stay tuned!

HAPPY WEEK!

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