Category Archives: Year of interesting things

Ghostwriting to pay the grad school bills

Amy Boesky has a lovely meditation in the Kenyon Review about ghostwriting, academia, and Sweet Valley High. Most of all, though, it’s a meditation on writing and authorship, and the creative and personal costs of academic work:

It took me five years to produce a 300-plus-page dissertation on early modern utopias and another five to turn it into a monograph that would eventually sell 487 copies. And yet, in a matter of a weekend morning, I could produce a chapter—a chapter!—of sparkling, exclamation-studded prose about those Wakefield girls. The Elizabeth in me loved the discipline, the reminder that while my twenties rolled on and I trudged back and forth from Eliot House to the library, lugging books in my arms like a woodcutter, I was producing pages—daily, weekly—that were being turned into actual books (OK, books with pastel covers, books without my name on them anywhere, but still!)—books that were selling, that were being translated (Hebrew, Danish, Dutch), that generated fan mail (OK, addressed to Francine and not to me). Books girls loved. The books I wrote as Kate William, the “author” name that came built in to the series, had readers.

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An Oscar-season reminder that Crash is the worst

Mallory Ortberg and Anne Helen Peterson are talking about Crash over at the Awl. In addition to re-capping all the reasons this movie, more than the many, many other mediocre Best Picture winners, deserves our continued condemnation, they make a good case for why we should still care about how bad Crash was. The whole conversation is worth a read, but Peterson concludes with a nod to the utility of popular art with questionable politics:

Because even when people stop renting Crash on Netflix, its legacy is still with us. It’s in The Blind Side, but it’s also very much in The Help. I’m actually surprised there isn’t a single “white people solve racism” film in this year’s Oscar bunch—it’s so incessant, so culturally assertive, so eager to be green-lighted by all manner of white execs who want to show that they’re willing to cast black actors so long as their salvation is rooted in the extravagances of white privilege. Crash hurts my soul—but it’s also an incredible teaching tool. When I’m talking about the mid-2000s in class, twenty years from now, I’ll be able to point to it as a perfect crystallization of all America wishes it was and all it was not. That’s a fucking tragedy, but that doesn’t mean I’m not glad this film exists. Traces matter, however repugnant.

Ortberg is less optimistic:

I think it’s wonderful that you think there will still be human teachers in American universities twenty years from now.

Hooking Americans on processed food

This bleak and fascinating New York Times magazine article on the science of addictive junk food is a must-read. It’s excerpted from Michael Moss’s forthcoming book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. Moss describes the incredible efforts of junk-food manufacturers to maximize the addictive qualities of their products–from mouth feel to bliss point. One of the most fascinating things is how quantifiable all that is; companies hire food scientists, sure, but also statisticians and mathematicians to break down the data in remarkable and fine-grained ways and pin-point the exact formula that brings the greatest returns at the lowest price.

All of which is incredibly intriguing, but what I love about this article is that it doesn’t bemoan individual eating habits. There’s no hand-wringing over laziness and lack of willpower. And the last anecdote, which focuses on attempts to get people who already drink a lot of Coke to drink even more, makes crystal clear the relationship between processed food manufacturers and the poor:

In his capacity, Dunn was making frequent trips to Brazil, where the company had recently begun a push to increase consumption of Coke among the many Brazilians living in favelas. The company’s strategy was to repackage Coke into smaller, more affordable 6.7-ounce bottles, just 20 cents each. Coke was not alone in seeing Brazil as a potential boon; Nestlé began deploying battalions of women to travel poor neighborhoods, hawking American-style processed foods door to door. But Coke was Dunn’s concern, and on one trip, as he walked through one of the impoverished areas, he had an epiphany. “A voice in my head says, ‘These people need a lot of things, but they don’t need a Coke.’ I almost threw up.”

Moss demonstrates again and again how junk-food corporations rely on fat, salt and sugar to hook consumers, and convenience to make it difficult for over-worked Americans to choose less-processed options. And while we often use addiction as a metaphor for problems Americans face–workaholics, rageaholics, etc.–Moss makes it clear that in the case of junk food, the language of addiction is not simply a convenient metaphor.

Downton Abbey’s unfulfilled potential

I gave up on Downton Abbey after two episodes this season: it was contrived and ludicrous, and when it wasn’t being silly, it was boring. And that’s coming from someone who has read more contrived and silly nineteenth-century novels than I can count.

But the other problem with Downton, a problem it’s had since the end of the first season, is that all of that fascinating revolutionary potential disappeared completely with the start of WWI. It was a very British sort of development–the Great War brings everyone together in British solidarity. I might even have bought that, if it hadn’t been quite so permanent. All the restlessness and class solidarity that seemed to be emerging downstairs in season one evaporated, never to return.

Over at the New Republic, Lili Loofbourow examines the ways the third season of Downton ran off the rails:

It lacks [Upstairs Downstairs’s] darkness, and if once upon a time Julian Fellowes’s decision to humanize the downstairs help seemed aimed at making viewers question an aristocratic institution, the show is now fully committed to making us root for Downton. Any notion that the estate is not a benevolent employer gainfully supporting hundreds of people—and an overall social good, if badly managed—is only acknowledged in passing. Back in the first season, Gwen the maid’s departure to be a typist seemed to herald broader horizons for the staff in a changing world. Gwen’s life was hard. We saw her getting up in the cold and struggling; life downstairs was unpleasant. That’s no longer the case. We don’t see the servants rising in the dark, or cleaning, or scrubbing. Instead, they’re waiting at table and doing ladies’ hair and eating together and having tea. Even their rooms seem less drab. When it comes to preserving Downton and the social order it represents, the servants and the family are literally on the same cricket team.

I might be able to forgive the politics and the melodrama if only it was fun melodrama. But I reached my limit for moping Bates and Matthew’s inexhaustible inheritance luck. And, though I haven’t seen the finale, I understand that likeable Irish revolutionary and former chauffeur Branson is now on his way to becoming a respectable capitalist. I give up.

More on Chinese SF

Science Fiction Studies has a special issue on Chinese science fiction, with several articles available online. In “‘Great Wall Planet’: Introducting Chinese Science Fiction,” Yan Wu expands on some of the issues raised in this Global Times article:

What makes Chinese sf unique? In the wake of these historical frustrations and reforms, it is becoming possible to identify some of the features that are unique to Chinese science fiction. In my judgment, its most significant characteristic is the frequent exploration of themes of liberation and release from old cultural, political, and institutional systems. Another significant element is to be found in the reactions of Chinese writers to Western science and culture in their pursuit of themes of liberation. This raises a series of key questions: what is science? is science specifically Western or is it a universal human pursuit? how can writers integrate scientific and local cultural traditions into new and vital forms? These are compelling questions for Chinese authors—and for Chinese readers as well. A third key element in Chinese sf is its concern for the future of China and of Chinese culture, which is among the oldest surviving human cultures. Can it be revived in the postmodern scientific age? Finally, we might argue that, whereas Western sf is focused on the opportunities and losses of technoscientific development, Chinese sf, although it examines similar ideas, is more focused on anxieties about cultural decline and the potential for revitalization.

Emotional labor and the future of the service industry

The New Republic has an absolutely fascinating article on the sandwich shop Pret a Manger and the increasing importance of “emotional” or “affective labor.” Convincing customers you care deeply for them may be, it seems, the future of the service industry.

Pret keeps its sales clerks in a state of enforced rapture through policies vaguely reminiscent of the old East German Stasi. A “mystery shopper” visits every Pret outlet once a week. If the employee who rings up the sale is appropriately ebullient, then everyone in the shop gets a bonus. If not, nobody does. This system turns peers into enthusiasm cops, further constricting any space for a reserved and private self.

Creepy.

MOOCs and the humanities

Maria Bustillos at the Awl has written a sort of primer on the MOOC debate for those outside of academia. I have to admit to being continually stunned that people–lots of people–seem to think MOOCs are anything other than a money-grabbing gimmick by people trying to get a piece of the ever-shrinking higher ed pie. Bustillos’s piece is worth reading in its entirety, so I won’t quote from it, but I do want to note that the case she lays out, and that the commenters further explore, seems to be resting on a couple of incompletely-examined assumptions.

The first is the equivocation between humanities and STEM instruction, which is to say, an equivocation between content and skills as the primary deliverables of a course. I’m certain there are a lot of good reasons that MOOCs are insufficient for science and math courses–primarily the absence of labs in which to put concepts into practice. But the fact remains that STEM courses, particularly entry-level courses, are in the content business, since students require a certain baseline of knowledge before they can move on.

I can teach wildly different content in my intro-level English class each semester, and students should still leave with the same set of skills. Skills they develop because I respond to their writing several times a week, help them strengthen their arguments over the course of multiple revisions, and engage with them and each other during discussion. We might not need to be sharing the same physical space to do all that, but it’s absolutely essential that my class be the opposite of “massive” so that I can provide the sort of attention necessary for students to make real gains in thinking and writing.

Which leads to the second problematic assumption of the piece–that humanities courses are largely useless because they don’t credential for specific, desirable jobs. The personalized attention my students receive, then, is a luxury having nothing to do with the necessary process of credentialing oneself for the marketplace. And I can see how someone could get to that assumptions, because a MOOC in which a student simply absorbed information about nineteenth-century American literature and culture probably wouldn’t be of much use on the job market. It would be all content, and that’s not content employers are all that eager to have access to.

I’m not going to get into the value of literary study from a content perspective, though there’s certainly an argument to be made. But what I teach are skills. Valuable skills that prepare students for higher-level thinking, difficult writing tasks, and the ability to consider and respond to a variety of positions. The humanities teaches the sort of skills that employers consistently rank high in their list of desirable traits. We in the humanities need to be more forceful about reminding people of that. And that’s why MOOCs are so dangerous for the humanities in particular: they imply that the important part of an education is content, and that the content delivered in the humanities is trivial.

MOOCs may not be going anywhere, but the humanities should not just make the most of what little MOOCs offer us. We should be looking for alternatives that democratize access to education while emphasizing the essential and tangible skills a humanities education provides.

Dean Young, “Poem Without Forgiveness”

Go read Dean Young’s “Poem Without Forgiveness” in the Paris Review. A few lines:

The husband wants to be taken back
into the family after behaving terribly,
but nothing can be taken back,
not the leaves by the trees, the rain
by the clouds. You want to take back
the ugly thing you said, but some shrapnel
remains in the wound, some mud.

More on “Girls” and race

Judy Berman at The Atlantic argues that Girls’ race problem is both currently insoluble and indicative of a much larger systemic issue:

The solution isn’t to prohibit white writers from depicting non-white characters, or to require them to do so. Along with holding these famous names accountable for offensive representations, the US cultural mainstream desperately needs to make more space for writers and directors of color. Arguably more troubling than any of Django’s content is the convincing case David Sirota made that a black director would not even have been allowed to make a big-budget film about a former slave slaughtering slave owners.

Ta-Nehisi Coates recently argued that Dunham would be better off sticking to her “authentic self” than adding non-white characters that aren’t true to her life. He may be right, and in a world where the wealthy, white, well-connected Lena Dunhams always seem to end up in the spotlight, those who aren’t part of her elite world shouldn’t have to rely on her for representation. They need the same platform to be their authentic selves that she’s been afforded. Until the divisions between races in America truly become meaningless, it’s the only way our pop culture will ever reflect our particular patchwork of people and experiences.

Berman’s point is particularly important because it applies to many of our national conversations about race. While it’s much easier to treat racism as an issue addressed in individual situations, governed by the particulars of any given scenario, problems of racial representation and misrepresentation are nearly always related to the broader systemic and institutional forces governing race in America. And questions of privilege and access are ultimately much more significant than individual instances like Dunham, but those conversations don’t make for the sort of easily debated controversy that comes from focusing Dunham in isolation from the system that enabled her limited viewpoint.

Cornel West on Dr. King’s legacy and the Obama inauguration

Cornel West gives a moving, impassioned defense of Dr. King’s legacy as much bigger than the political theater of the inauguration. He notes that Dr. King worked tirelessly for the poor and for an end to the Vietnam War, not just for desegregation. Today, when America still has a great and growing wealth gap, and when American drones are dropping bombs on civilians, West reminds us that Dr. King would likely still be speaking truth to power if he could. And, while West supports President Obama and is happy to see him inaugurated for a second time, he questions whether the use of Dr. King’s Bible is truly in keeping with the values King himself worked so tirelessly for.