Utopian Foresight

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Last week, I had a short essay published in Slate that discusses the failure of recent popular science fiction to imagine Socioeconomically Less Awful Futures. This failure is, in many ways, understandable, given how Socioeconomically Awful the present is, but I suggest that it might be interesting to conceive of science fiction as a genre with a special power to help us think rigorously about what kind of future we’d prefer to live in. There are a few examples of recent fiction in this vein, but I think we need more — and more ambitious — efforts at Utopian foresight.

I wrote the piece as part of a series of posts by Future Tense promoting the release of Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer. It’s an anthology that tries to imagine such positive futures, though there are a variety of themes and political perspectives in the anthology (not all of which correspond to my own). I contributed a story called “Johnny Appledrone vs. the FAA.” The story’s not exactly about economic inequality, but it responds to the Pretty Awful socioeconomic world imagined in my first novel, Pop Apocalypse.

On the whole, the story’s a bit less dystopian, and a bit less satirical, than Pop Apocalypse, but it’s also a kind of mini-sequel in that the story imagines a possible tactic that might help overcome centralized control and surveillance of the Internet (what I call the mediasphere).

Infinite Wallace / Wallace infini

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I’m going to be participating in the Infinite Wallace / Wallace infinite conference in Paris next month (Sept. 11-13). The conference features a cool-looking lineup of talks. My own talk is entitled “What is a turdnagel?” and will, as the title makes apparent, be a preliminary effort to answer this very important — and woefully understudied — question for David Foster Wallace Studies. If you’re in or around Paris, come check us out.

Nealon, Amis, Eggers, Wallace, Pynchon

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I’ve published a few pieces since I last blogged.

1. Over the summer, my review of Jeffrey T. Nealon’s Post-Postmodernism; or, The Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism came out in Contemporary Literature. My review is mixed. Post-Postmodernism is an engaging book, sometimes even fun to read (a rarity for academic prose), but it’s ultimately too beholden to Fredric Jameson’s account of postmodernism.

2. In October, I wrote a review saying a few nice things about two novels by Kingsley Amis, The Green Man and The Alteration, and arguing that it might be appropriate to think of him as a sort of New Wave science fiction writer.

3. I wrote a review of Dave Eggers’s novel, The Circle, for The American Prospect. I was not a fan, though it has a few compelling moments, especially in its representation of office work.

4. In boundary 2, I published an academic essay called “The World of David Foster Wallace.” I make a few comments on the “worldliness” of Wallace’s novella “The Suffering Channel,” and consider charges that American fiction is parochial.

5. In the Winter 2013/2014 Iowa Review, just out now, I review Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge. It’s arguably Pynchon Lite, but I’m a sucker for Pynchon. My review is not available online, but you can see the TOC of the issue here.

Review of Lethem’s “Dissident Gardens”

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Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Review of Books ran my review of Jonathan Lethem’s newest novel, Dissident Gardens.

IN 2004, The New York Times reported on the effort of the borough of Queens to find a replacement for Hal Sirowitz, its departing poet laureate, “one of those rare New York writers who is willing — eager, in fact — to identify himself with the borough.” The qualifications for the position were simple: “The winner must be someone who has lived in Queens for at least five years and has written, in English, ‘poetry inspired by the borough.’” But finding someone who met both criteria proved more difficult than expected. Compared to other boroughs — especially Manhattan and Brooklyn — the Times concluded that “[t]he muse has been less kind to Queens.” Submissions ranged from poems celebrating the fact that the city’s two airports were housed in the borough to odes to those felled on Queens Boulevard, America’s premiere Boulevard of Death.

With Dissident Gardens, Jonathan Lethem — now, inconveniently for official purposes, a resident of California — makes a belated bid for the job of the borough’s poet laureate. Lethem’s longstanding willingness to traverse borders, whether of culture, race, or genre, carries him away from his beloved Brooklyn into what his narrator calls “that impossible homeland of steaming stacks and tombstones.” Dissident Gardens suggests that if you can overcome what Lethem calls “Boroughphobia,” you might find in Queens the makings of something like Utopia, a word often hard for American tongues to pronounce without irony.

It’s a book that takes a hard, often uncomfortable, look at the legacy of the left. You can read the rest here.

A MOOC Roundtable

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(From Arcade.)

MOOC is, let’s face it, an ugly acronym. As almost everyone in the world of higher education learned this past academic year, it stands for Massive Open Online Course. 

Despite its inelegance, the word has gained a life of its own — a (not always positive) conjuring power on the lips of pundits, administrators, and activists. The MOOCs are coming! They’re threatening to pillage the faculty club, or promising to liberate our students from non-superstar local faculty (who in her right mind could bear to take a course on Justice not taught by Michael Sandel?), or giving everyone the tools to do more interesting things in the classroom, thereby increasing the efficiency of university instruction. It depends who you ask.

The Rise of the MOOC has become an occasion for the continuation of a far larger, in my view more important debate: about the future of affordable, high-quality public education, the imperiled working conditions of faculty, the unhappy job prospects of graduate students and contingent labor, and the purpose of higher education in a winner-take-all market economy, (not to mention the justification for the massive debt students take on to acquire this education).

The Los Angeles Review of Books has just posted two parts of a roundtable on MOOCs and the humanities (part one is here and part two is here), featuring thoughtful contributions by Al Filreis, Cathy Davidson, Ray Schroeder, and Ian Bogost. (It includes a brief introduction by Yours Truly.)

Our goal in organizing the debate was to focus special attention on how MOOCs — and online learning more broadly — might affect the humanities. What special opportunities or problems arise in online classes that teach literature, the arts, or other humanistic subjects? How should we understand the forces that are pushing for the rapid adoption of MOOCs? Are MOOCs in any serious sense a "tsunami” or a perfectly ordinary, practically dull question, easily addressed by thoughtful faculty governance? What relation, if any, can we discern between particular online classes and the what Aaron Bady has called “the MOOC phenomenon.” How might online teaching democratize knowledge or commodify it?

We’ve already succeeded in drawing interesting comments, including a number from David Palumbo-Liu (who is going to be offering a collaborative course with Cathy Davidson at Duke). I invite you to visit the LARB’s site, to contribute to the debate, or to comment here.

New Reviews and Blog Posts

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Since I last blogged here, a lot of new writing by me has appeared online.

1. #OccupyGaddis

I’ve written a number of posts related to this past summer’s Big Read, #OccupyGaddis. Here’s the complete lineup (which repeat some I listed below) in chronological order:

There are also some great posts on the LARB blog by Sonia Johnson (here, here, and here) and Joseph Tabbi (here, here, and here). #OccupyGaddis was, on the whole, a tremendous experience. If you haven’t yet, read J R.

2. Reviews

I’ve also been pretty busy writing reviews over the last few months, most of them at LARB.

3. Other Blog Posts

Over at Stanford’s Arcade, I’ve posted a follow-up reflection on John Thompson’s great sociological study of the publishing industry, Merchants of Culture. It’s called “Another Publishing Field is Possible,” and starts this way:

“In order to transform publishing into a less crisis-bound, short-term-oriented system, we must end capitalism,” according to Andrew Goldstone’s – and my – friend, Colin Gillis, a member of the staff collective at the radical co-op, Rainbow Bookstore, located in Madison, WI. Ending capitalism to fix publishing: this is a tall order indeed, but the decisiveness of Colin’s claim gets us thinking in the right direction. For as I suggested in a previous Arcade post, the problems that plague trade publishing are, by John Thompson’s fascinating sociological account in Merchants of Culture, larger than any individual editor, imprint, or company. Many people of good faith – with excellent intentions and impeccable taste – work in the field, but sort-termism, the increasing emphasis on frontlists at the expense of backlists, the escalating allocation of marketing resources to unproven Big Books over myriad worthy Medium-Sized and Small Books by established authors: the forces compelling these changes are now built into the very fabric of how the Big Six do business.

You can read the rest here.

#OccupyGaddis Begins

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Over at the LARBlog, I’ve written a pair of posts announcing the start of #OccupyGaddis, a collective summer reading of William Gaddis’s monumental 1975 novel, J R. From my original post:

First, get yourself a copy of the J R, either at your local bookstore, your local megachain, online, an unusually literate yard sale, or–you’d better hurry, before it’s privatized–your local public library.

J R is a long book — 725 dense pages — but our pace will be relaxed. If you read an average of 10 pages a day, you’ll finish by August 30. Here goes the tentative schedule I’ve set for myself:

June 29: pp. 150

July 15: pp. 300

July 31: pp. 460

August 15: pp. 610

August 26: done!

Easy, right? That’s only 75 pp. a week, which’ll leave you plenty of time to enjoy the summer weather, take a vacation, watch the new season of Breaking Bad and recover from the season finales of Girls, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones. As you read, you can refer to these annotations of J R, which will clarify who is speaking in the scenes we’re reading, and explicate what’s going on.

Today, a second blog post has gone up about William Gaddis’s relationship to failure. A snippet:

Gaddis may still be our most important unread novelist. He’s widely considered a master of American fiction (he won two National Book Awards and a MacArthur “Genius Grant”), is frequently namechecked as a foundational postmodernist writer, but is rarely discussed at length. Even literary scholars, those lovers of the abstruse and the difficult, hardly talk about him. A 2007 edited collection on Gaddis, Paper Empire: William Gaddis and the World System, has only been cited a few times since its publication, and the number of hits Gaddis’s name brings up on the MLA International Database is an order of magnitude lower than what one finds when searching for his peers, like Thomas Pynchon.

Hope you can get on board. If you don’t have a copy of J R you can read the first ten pages for free online while you dig yourself up a paper or electronic copy.

The Mystery of Big Books

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(Crossposted from Arcade.)

“Must literary studies confine itself to the margins of the publishing field?” asks Andrew Goldstone in the first of what promises to be an important series of blog posts on John B. Thompson’s Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century.

Noting that Thompsons’s amazing account of the publishing field omits readers and writers from its model–and does so by design–Andrew seems to conclude that the answer is “yes,” finding himself “oddly but emphatically at sea about how to appropriate his work for literary scholarship." Indeed, the “world of writers,” Thompson repeatedly argues, is very different from the world of publishers: “for them [writers] it is another world, located somewhere else and largely mysterious in the way it works, an object of wonder, dismay or simply incomphrenension depending on the writer’s experiences of it” (383). And yet the exogenous position of writers and readers to the publishing field need not deter the literary critic. The reason is simple: the objects of literary study aren’t necessarily writers and readers, but books. The death of the author, which literary criticism treats as a theoretical position, is in the publishing field something more like an operational principle. Editors fall in love with books, not writers. And about books, Thompson has a lot to teach us, giving literary critics new ways of talking about the relationship between the inside and the outside of books.

For the most mysterious and central aspect of the publishing field is the fetish of “big books.”

So what are big books, exactly? Simple, you might think: big books are bestsellers. Intuitively plausible though that may seem, in fact it is wrong. Big books are not bestsellers for the simple reason that, for most big books…, at the time when they are being sent out by agents and bought by publishers and are being treated by both as big books, they have not yet been published and no one knows whether they will actually become bestsellers. ‘We don’t know, we just don’t know.’ So big books cannot be bestsellers. At most they are hoped-for bestsellers, which is not at all the same thing. The difference between a big book and a bestseller is the difference between aspiration and reality. (194)

Given the temporal gap between hopes and reality, what convinces actors in the publishing field that they have a big book on their hands? The answer is perhaps just as mysterious as the big book itself: the answer is “buzz,” which Thompson defines as “a performative utterance, a type of speech act,” where “the recipients of hype respond with affirmative talk backed up by money.” Buzz is “a web of collective belief," what happens when hype pulls out its checkbook (194).

Here, the rubber of the literary field meets the road of the publishing field. In consecrating a manuscript with the title of a “big book,” members of the publishing field read together, interpret together, joining a money-minded version of what Stanley Fish once long ago called an interpretive community. Sociologically minded literary scholars might attempt to model how the publishing field chooses big books (or any books for that matter). After all, not all manuscripts get published; not every book becomes "big." At every stage of the publishing chain, agents, editors, publishers, bookbuyers, and ultimately consumers make choices. Some potential-books get knocked out of circulation and others move further down the chain. Some forthcoming books become big, drawing in the publisher’s marketing resources and attention. Others fall by the wayside. By design, the institutions of publishing are designed to manage the problem of scarcity–scarcity of resources and attention. What are the filters, norms, expectations, and constraints that distingiush the unpublishable from the publishable? What practices, rituals, beliefs, and values put some books on the fast track, while holding others back, especially among large consolidated corporate publishers?

It’s possible that what gets chosen by the publishing field is essentially random–there is some fascinating research that suggests that buzz might be allocated without rhyme or rhythm–but it seems that we shouldn’t begin from the assumption that building buzz depends on the random initial allocation of attention and resources. There are a number of important filters already discussed in Thompson’s book that can help us think about the relationship between the outside and the inside of a big book. I’ll name just a few here (some already mentioned in Andrew’s initial post):

  • Voice: “‘To me it’s always about voice basically,’ said a senior editor who acquires both fiction and non-fiction for one of the imprints of a large publishing corporation… ‘Even if it’s fairly analytical or something, it still has to be an author who you feel like you’re kind of in good hands with, and they have this, whatever, special spark of genius that you want to be stuck with for 300 pages” (195). This ineffable quality of the writing itself, so often described in terms of "voice," was analyzed at considerable length in Mark McGurl’s The Program Era. Writers in MFA programs are asked to find their voices, and the publishing field is there to commodify those voices once discovered. Is “voice” the same in both fields? Formally speaking, what sort of sentences have "voice"? Which don’t?
  • Comps: Comps are simply comparable books, books that can plausibly be said to resemble the manuscript under consideration, both in terms of content and in terms of possible future sales record. To be publishable, it helps to be legible to actors in the publishing field in terms of what has already been published. This act of imagination and scenario-building drives the creation of hype and buzz. But as Thompson points out, there is a logic of plausibility that must ground comps. You want to comp a manuscript not to a major bestseller but a more modest but promising success. The question for literary sociology is: what are the horizons of the imaginable? What are known frames of reference in the world of publishing? How do top-ten lists, prizes, syllabi, and other factors, both intrinsic and extrinsic to the publishing field, shape this horizon?
  • Track: this is the author’s history of sales, as recorded on services like Neilson BookScan. Here, the filter is the marketplace itself, as represented though sales data, which then gets interpreted among members of the field. If an author is on a declining or stagnant tragectory in the market her capacity to sell manuscripts will diminish. Editors and publishers will have a harder time convincing bookbuyers to stock what they publish. Here, one could imagine more work being done on studying the relationship–and balance–between market performance and other factors in determining which books publishers select. As Thompson points out, unpublished authors often have an advantage over published authors, because their lack of a track record allows buzz to float free of inconvenient data.
  • Platform: This is “the position from which an author speaks–a combination of their credentials, visibility and promotibility, especially through the media. It is those traits and accomplishments of the author that establish a pre-existing audience for their work, and that a publisher can leverage in teh attempt to find a market for their book” (87). Platform is especially important for nonfiction, and can explain why a book like Christian Lander’s Stuff White People Like could earn a six-figure advance on the basis of nothing more than a popular blog. When investing the concept of a platform, we might try to figure out how different platforms accrue cultural capital, how the dynamics of different platforms shape the broader media environment, and so on. Given the proliferation of platforms online, there is a lot of work to do looking at how platforms affect books, and–as authors increasingly realize the potential to build audiences through other means–books affect platforms. 

These are just some filtering and sorting mechanisms visible in Thompsons’s account. Other filters–cultural, political, material–also certainly must play a role in shaping the literary and publishing fields. My interest, like Andrew’s, is in finding the points of contact between literary sociology and the sort of work that more traditionally occurs in literature departments, however we might want to define that work. Fortunately, as this post argues, I would answer Andrew’s question with a resounding “No.”

Literary critics need not confine themselves to the margins of the publishing field; instead, they should sharpen their harpoons and hunt the publishing field’s great unstudied white whale: the big book.

A short essay on “Watchmen” and platform studies at “ebr”

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I wrote a riposte to Stuart Moulthrop’s essay, “See the Strings: Watchmen and the Under-Language of Media,” in the electronic book review.


Halfway through “Fearful Symmetry,” the fifth issue of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s classic graphic narrative Watchmen, an assassin tries to kill the world’s smartest man. Adrian Veidt, the Watchman formerly known as Ozymandias, is walking through the lobby of the headquarters of Veidt Enterprises with his assistant, discussing Egyptian views of death. On the thirteenth page of the issue, in the seventh panel, a man in a green trench coat appears. In the last panel, he draws a gun. “Oh, God!” Veidt’s assistant screams. “Oh, God. Look out, he’s …” (V.13.9). We anxiously flip the page and confront a dramatic scene: one of the few double-page spreads in Watchmen. On these two pages, there are seven panels: a huge vertical panel that crosses the crease and a series of three roughly square panels on each side of the central tableau. In a violent, wordless sequence, the assassin kills the assistant and is finally subdued by Veidt; the Veidt Method of body training, it turns out, works remarkably well.

If you’re hungry for more, click here (warning: it’s a bit academicish).

Review of Ben Marcus’s “The Flame Alphabet”

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I’ve written yet another LARB book review, this time on Ben Marcus’s fascinating The Flame Alphabet.

In his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes announced the revolutionary overthrow of the writer by the reader. Building on the idea that “it is language which speaks, not the author,” Barthes argued that a ceaseless proliferation of meaning always piles around every sentence, always exceeding the intention of its particular “scriptor,” thus enthroning the reader as the ultimate arbiter of meaning. This newly empowered reader — a figure engaged in a “truly revolutionary” and “anti-theological activity” — was, Barthes thought, “that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted.”

Forty-five years later, what may seem most revolutionary about Barthes’s essay is what it takes for granted: that there are readers at all for literary fiction, let alone that there’s a “someone” interested in doing the hard work of holding all these traces together inside her head. In an era where everyone has a novel waiting to come out, authors are legion; it’s the reader who seems, well, dead. If anything threatens to kill the author today, it’s not that the reader might interpret her work in subversive ways — if only we were so lucky! — but that the reader might not care enough to try in the first place. What to do in this situation has been the subject of what we might as well call a debate between Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus, waged for about a decade on the pages of The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Harper’s. It’s also the backdrop against which we must understand the successes and occasional fumbles of Marcus’s disturbing and remarkable new novel, The Flame Alphabet.

For, at first blush, The Flame Alphabet seems as if it’s perfectly pleased with the death of the reader, as if it hopes for nothing more than to murder those very few remaining who bother to buy books at all, throttling them with a suffusion of pus-covered words and sentences. The Flame Alphabet is a pointedly disgusting book that will tickle your gag reflex with its bony, sore-covered finger. Reading Marcus’s fetid prose will clog your nostrils, enflame your throat, jam your every orifice with a thick and soupy, cold and gloppy, not to mention barbed and burning, meal of unpalatable, oddly shaped sentences.

Jonathan Franzen might regard this as a problem.

And yet, if I properly understand the aims of The Flame Alphabet, my description should not count as an insult, but as deep praise. The Flame Alphabet deforms language in dazzling new ways, frequently surpassing Marcus’s previous books — The Age of Wire and String, The Father Costume, and Notable American Women — at the level of the sentence. Quite strangely, though, at the same time that Marcus expertly smothers the reader under a lovely barbed pillow, he whispers sweet compliments into his victim’s ear. That is, for all its gorgeous rankness, The Flame Alphabet is not quite as successful as it might be. In adopting the literary form of the post-apocalyptic thriller, a form emphasized by all of the novel’s packaging — from its blurbs to its book trailer — it concedes too much to Franzen. Better a clean death, I say. Better the dignity of silent asphyxiation.

There’s more where that came from, here.