Archive for the genre wars Category

The Road: Cormac McCarthy's Guide for Helicopter Parents

Posted in books, eco anxiety, education, genre fiction, genre wars, science fiction, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2009 by katekanno

The film adaptation of The Road opens this weekend, perfect timing for post-Thanksgiving guilt and much easier than a long workout. I’ve never quite been able to take McCarthy seriously, which probably has much to do with an overabundance of road trips: the cowboy, sacred steer of middle class radio listeners was a common form of torture employed by my parents, who’d flip immediately to the Prairie Home Companion, or those utterly unfunny Cowboy Poets.

And then there’s McCarthy’s blatant misogyny. In the Road it comes through with the “Woman,” i.e. the bad mother, who kills herself – a sensible decision in this case – but before doing so spends two pages calling herself a whore: “You can think of me as a faithless slut if you like. I’ve taken a new lover. He can give me what you cannot. . Because I am done with my whorish heart and I have been for a long time.”

The Road’s sonorous prose and kiddy pool depth has also been a choice target in the genre wars: bald proof that literary fiction is at a loss for ideas as it rifles through the sci-fi candy bag, scarfing down undeserved critical acclaim. Once you realize there aren’t any actual ideas behind the chest beating, Bunsen burner cannibalism, and miraculous morels, you should rush out to read Canticle for Leibowitz or Parable of the Sower.

Ah, but there are! Maybe.

The popularity of McCarthy’s novel, you see, is not merely another sign that literary taste is a matter of conformity. Forget about climate change, meteor fears, or annihilation via nukes or Oprah, because that’s not what the book is about. It’s not about an archetypal father really either, but rather an archetypal helicopter parent: the “man,” who still finds the time and strength to sensitively minister to his son’s every physical and psychological need, despite starvation, cannibals, and an utter lack of hope. Just look at the guy, slavishly hovering over his child, lovingly scrounging for that Pepsi, and hacking up his lungs in bad weather rather than spending a few extra days in that food-stocked bomb shelter. The son — like two 18-year-old boys I saw being massaged by their mother at the library while they studied (creeped out yet?)  — does nary a lick of work in this bleak landscape.

Then there’s the pop psychology: “What you put in your head is there forever.” McCarthy plops this truism throughout the book, hoping it will magically gain weight, while the father, on top of the physical privation, still manages to shield his child from horror after horror, like some superhuman V-chip, although if he really wanted that kid to survive, he might want to own up to the frakked state of the world.

Leave it to those as naïve and jittery as a helicopter parents, who live in gated communities free from the terrors of working poor to believe it. Only those who trust the mantras of test scores and college resumes, who think that a prestigious degree means that one is “educated” would find depth in this misplaced nugget of therapy culture.

It all falls apart when one confronts the pesky reality outside the book, wherein millions of children in less cushy areas of the world live under not quite as awful conditions, but pretty damn close. Those children do not enjoy the luxury of such assiduous parenting in the form of covered eyes and stories about “carrying the fire.”  Much like kids in those generations muckraked by Dickens, they live and toil away in hellish conditions, without the luxury of someone worrying about what they put into their precious psyches.

There forever? I doubt it. And if so, so what? I much prefer a line from faux suburbanite Donald Draper — once again, TV trumps literary fiction: “It will amaze you how much it didn’t happen.”

I guess it’s not surprising that scads of terrified parents who’ve chosen to battle rather than to engage with their communities would find The Road appealing. The trials of The Road’s starved, embattled superdad provide the perfect ennobling reflection of their own daily squabbles with teachers, principals, and admissions officers, the piecemealing of academic resumes for their infantilized progeny. For as bleak as it gets, the book nevertheless  provides the delusion that even in such horrifying conditions, they might still micromanage our children’s lives, while in the real world protecting  them from the glaringly obvious fact that our progress on social and economic equality, not to mention that pesky climate, are in dire need of a reality check.


McCarthy’s book certainly isn’t one, but it’s popularity is just a sign that many have already given up trying. When I hear the term helicopter parent, the words overprotective and assertive rarely come to mind. Remember that helicopters after all, are a privileged means of escape.


Just watch any pre-Road apocalypse film. You’ll see.

On Tarzan and gender stereotypes– it's not what you think.

Posted in academic speak, books, gender, genre wars, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2009 by katekanno

Picture 7Today is the 97th anniversary of the publication of Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan of the Apes. In celebration, today’s L.A. Times has chosen to reprint Gore Vidal’s 1963 essay, which includes an accordingly Sterling Cooper style dismissal of the female genre fan.

“These books are clearly for men. I have yet to meet a woman who found Tarzan interesting: no identification, as they say in series-land.”

I’m not sure whether Mr. Vidal would still care to back up that statement, but as a female who’s read the books, and still keeps her supersized Joe Kubert comic adaptations in the closet, I’d like to have a word.

Sometime after I started elementary school my mother went back to college and enrolled in a survey on the adventure novel, lots of Tarzan, John Carter, and She Who Must Be Obeyed. She read them all to me, and while I’m thankful for every word, it was really the abandoned Lord Greystoke who provided my first model for discovery.

Strip Tarzan of its wild beasts and skimpy clothes, and it can no longer be reduced to a semi-pornographic tale of the colonial manly man, but rather a series of thrilling “aha!” moments: a boy realizing he’ll be a lot warmer in that panther’s pelt, teaching himself to read, learning French under Lieutenant D’Arnot, and finally immersing himself in an alien culture of starched collars and strictly observed tea times, only to reject that world and return to himself – a perfect metaphor for grad school and its discontents.

It was Edgar Rice Burroughs who first made me aware that the discovery one’s otherness can be a powerful catalyst for learning, and that, while we may encounter kindly French soldiers and beautiful women along the way, ultimately, we do it alone.

That Mr. Vidal thinks or thought that only men could identify with these novels is not surprising given the time period, but in dismissing the possibility of female identification, he also pooh-poohs the notion that women desire to learn, discover, and create. And while Vidal’s patrician background may have blindsided him, it is certain that, like Greystoke on his return to England, we all deal with those alienating signals from those who think learning is a class privilege.

What woman (or man) couldn’t identify with that?

Some thoughts on writers' workshops and today's ghost story

Posted in books, genre wars, ghost stories, literature, Uncategorized, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 14, 2009 by katekanno

IMG_1251I’ve been reading a lot about the value or lack of regarding creative writing workshops this year. Most focus on whether or not “writing can be taught” citing publications and famous coteries that existed at pricey and difficult to enter universities. Few mention workshops for those who lack funds, connections, or academic credentials.

I don’t know, but maybe skipping out on life for a few hours in order to attend to writing for writing’s sake shouldn’t be a mark of privilege.

I’m not slinging any nastiness toward people in MFA programs, if anything graduate success rates turn those who enter them without today’s prerequisites into brave individuals. It’s the encroachment of professionalization into every branch of the humanities that worries me more. Why are MFAs cited on the backs of more and more books? Why are some writing conferences even requiring them, as if you have to have a resume to create?

We used to be a culture of writers. Just look back at those letters written during the Civil War, or by your grandparents, and you’ll see that it wasn’t just the gilded who could turn a phrase.

And maybe when people participate in a writing group or sign up for NANOWRIMO, or scribble poetry in their notebooks, it’s just a matter of doing what comes naturally. Think about it. In a year when public rudeness is being both celebrated and lamented on a massive scale, shouldn’t we be happy that a few people are quietly trying to bring a little more integrity and accuracy to their self-expression?

That reason alone should be enough to show that yes, writing can be taught, not necessarily as a path to book contracts or publication, but to the communication skills we’re losing as a result of being time starved and painted in corporate happy face throughout most of our waking hours.

Therefore, if you are considering joining a writing group, don’ t think about publication or literary success. Understand instead that you will never have a better opportunity to see your work, and yourself through other people’s eyes. It isn’t therapy. It’s more honest than that. For a few hours each week you get to throw your own idiosyncratic and vulnerable self, your fumbling vowels, and screwed up punctuation before a group of total strangers and see how they land. Take it for what it is and relish it. It’s an increasingly rare opportunity.

On to today’s ghost story. Here is Bram Stoker’s “Dracula’s Guest”. Originally part of the novel, “Guest” was published as a prequel after Stoker’s death. It’s a fantastic story and if you live in nearby, the Orange County Museum Contemporary Art sells mini bound versions of it in their gift shop for less than two dollars.

It’s free here.

31/31 Day 5: "The Trapdoor" and "The Demon King"

Posted in genre wars, ghost stories, Halloween, old time radio, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on October 6, 2009 by katekanno

There are two stories I’d like to pass on tonight. The first called “The Trap Door” isn’t available on the web, but can be found in Great Ghost Stories by Chancellor Press. It’s a pub story. A man of nervous temperament goes on holiday, chooses the most out of the way inn in the country, and of course, allows his curiosity to get the best of him. It’s nothing earth shattering, but there’s a dryness to it I found interesting, particularly, after learning that its author was a theater censor.

Part of the motivation behind this project, along with enjoying some geeky favorites such as Lovecraft or James, is the chance of carrying out detective work on stories and writers I’ve never heard of. Thus far, it’s been successful, I’ve learned that Michael Arlen hobnobbed with film industry VIPs, and that A.J. Alan’s pseudonym was not a result of embarrassment for writing genre fiction, but his involvement with Enigma.

In the case of “Trapdoor’s” C.D. Heriot, however, I’ve been able to find very little other than that he (she?) was born in 1905 and lived until sometime in the early 1970s, and was a theater censor, an unforgiving one at that. It was Heriot , writing in the Reader’s Report, who would make recommendations to the Lord Chamberlain regarding which plays were fit for public consumption, often suggesting to cut or slash some bit or other for gruesome or otherwise naughty content. One target of Heriot’s wrath was John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. This brought an entirely new interpretation to the story’s title, it’s embittered characters, and not to mention the protagonist’s decision to burn a letter from the innkeeper explaining the haunting. “The Trapdoor” is the only story I can find listed for Heriot, so perhaps it reveals even more.

devildanceNow speaking of naughty bits, here’s another story that I could not find a text version of, but fortunately am able to link to an old time radio version. This is a superb adaptation of J.B. Priestley’s The Demon King in which the devil gets his due, and generously shares it with an an amateur theater company. I had the lucky experience of reading it for the first time before bed, and then listening to its adaptation with the lights out. This is the first time I’ve heard an adaptation for radio I’d not already seen on either a movie or television screen, and in doing so I was able to capture a bit of that anticipation felt by radio listeners who hadn’t had the option of the former mediums.

Knowingness vs. Knowing: 7 pointers on surviving academe if you're not an academic

Posted in academic speak, genre wars, ghost stories, shyness, writing with tags , , , , , , on September 30, 2009 by katekanno

This week there’s an article about inarticulate writers in the New York Times. I was pleased to see it, having struggled consistently to voice my opinions in groups, and because it reveals a very marked difference in how we assess intelligence today. Once it was fine to make a few, if not a lot of conversational fumbles. If you could write clearly and beautifully, all the better. Now, what is considered to be intelligent conversation is a blanc mange of overly mannered, dispassionate, and often chilly “discourse” that likes to claim moral high ground by disclaiming itself into a corner.

This situation is exacerbated by the university setting, a place where people are introduced at even social gatherings with their fields attached to them like gravy bibs — comp-lit, urban planning, art history. What you say or do later will most likely make no difference, you’re ranked before you say hello. It reminds me of Harold Brodkey’s New York where it’s agreed that a few clues, regarded with sophistication render “everything about one another’s lives knowable.”

When we first came here, I had a hard time with this. I deliberately avoided social functions. I was used to the instant and intense connections I’d had abroad, my strong friendships with people who were opposites, and who are still close. Here being open is a liability, and everyone assumes a cold veneer of abstraction that takes precedence over any enthusiasm they might harbor for their subject area. This situation is captured perfectly in the opening scene in Merrie Haskell’s Almanac for Alien Invaders, wherein a group of drunken academics, discussing a world crisis about which they too know nothing, slam a faculty spouse for daring to add to the conversation. Chalk one up for genre, again.

At any rate, here are a few things I took away from my experience here

1.If it’s something important, don’t dilute your meaning with awful grad school euphemisms such as problematic. Call a spade a spade. This tendency to speak in watered down, abstracted terms is partially at fault for neutering social progress in this country. No one, no matter how many degrees he or she has, has the right to cut you out of the conversation for not playing to an ultimately class-based and isolated conceit.

2.Don’t ever let what others think, particularly those terrified of what others think of them – and there is nowhere that this is more rampant than academe – keep you from speaking your mind.

3. There’s no need to disclaim every thought, sometimes you need to make a point. If you want you can go back and reevaluate, but it’s your character that is at stake here. This doesn’t mean don’t question yourself, but let your thoughts follow to their logical conclusions before stepping back. Some people have defined intelligence as halting mid-thought before coming to any meaningful end. This is not thought: it is a nimble form of gibberish.

4. When forced to attend one of these stilted gatherings, just remember that no matter how awkward you may seem, it is your conversation partner who should be pitied for not being able to handle a conversation with someone outside of his or her narrow field of study. Besides, they could probably use a little of your humanity.

5. Theory isn’t a bad thing, but nor is it a moral or intellectual high ground taking priority over literature and art. Paul de Man was a Nazi, and the great Derrida equivocated on his behalf until he was blue in the face. Furthermore, a professor here who often uses feminist and queer theory in his work, just laughed about the murder of a woman on campus, claiming that California custody laws drove her ex-husband to kill her. Theory did not make this misogynist a progressive or even a decent human being.

6. A lot of that studied nonchalance comes from money. Be happy that you’ll never take your books or travels for granted.

7. And if you hear anyone referring to those outside of graduate school as “common readers,” go ahead and toss a drink in that person’s face. Just make sure it isn’t a good one.