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Allen Mendenhall Interviews Anton Piatigorsky, Author of “Al-Tounsi”

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Criminal Law, Fiction, Humanities, Justice, Law, liberal arts, Literature, Novels, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Writing on October 4, 2017 at 6:45 am

AM: Thanks for discussing your debut novel with me, Anton.  It’s titled Al-Tounsi and involves U.S. Supreme Court justices who are laboring over a case about an Egyptian detainee held on a military base in the Philippines. How did you come up with this premise for a novel? 

AP:  I was interested in the intersection between contemporary legal and political issues and the personal lives of the justices. I was particularly impressed by the ways in which the writ of habeas corpus has been used (and suspended) throughout U.S. history.

The Great Writ is a heroic call to responsibility—a demand made by the judiciary for the executive to live up to its obligations to imprisoned individuals. While it has obvious political and social ramifications, it also has philosophical ones. It encourages moral and psychological reckoning: what are our responsibilities to others?

I was excited about writing a novel where two strains—the political and the personal—overlap and blend. I realized that if I fictionalized the important 2008 Guantanamo Bay case Boumediene vs. Bush—by changing key events, decisions and characters—I could use it as the basis for a novel about the Court that explores all my interests.

Anton Piatigorsky

AM: How did you decide to change directions and write about the law?  Did this case just jump out at you?  Your previous writings address a wide variety of subjects but not, that I can tell, law. 

AP:  I came to the law, strangely enough, through religion. I’ve long been interested in how religion functions, and especially in the ways that secular systems mimic religious ones. When I started reading about American law and the U.S. Supreme Court, I saw those institutions as a part of an Enlightenment era secular religion. From this perspective, law is a system of rituals, codes and writings that helps establish an identity for a community, a set of shared values and beliefs, and a way for people to function within the world. I found that fascinating. It inspired all sorts of questions.

What are the general beliefs about people and the world that lie beneath the American legal system? How are those beliefs enacted in cases, courts, and legal writings? How do they play out in the rituals of the Court?  How do the justices of the Supreme Court —who are, in some ways, high priests of the legal world — reconcile conflicts between their personal beliefs and the foundational beliefs of the legal system they guide?

The fictional stories I wanted to tell about justices’ lives grew out of these general questions. Those questions also led me into an investigation of the main case before them.

AM: One of the most fascinating parts of the book, to me, is the Afterword, which consists of the concurring opinion of the fictional Justice Rodney Sykes.

AP: I have always loved novels of ideas, when a character’s emotional journey overlaps with their complex thoughts and beliefs. Whenever that type of fiction really works — as it does with Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov — the character’s philosophy or worldview stands alone as a work of non-fiction. And so the novel becomes part fiction, part critical thought. It functions as a critique on ideas that circulate in the real world.

That’s what I hoped to achieve for Justice Rodney Sykes’s formal opinion in the novel’s Afterword. I wanted Rodney to reach a powerful critique of basic tenets of the American legal system. I wanted him to address what our responsibilities are (or aren’t) towards others in the legal system, and the problems with that system’s fundamental faith in individual actors. In his concurrence, Rodney takes an unorthodox and unlikely stance for a Supreme Court Justice, but that’s what makes it a work of fiction. A novel can be the perfect forum to discuss how a real person might come to a radical decision, and how that decision might revolutionize their thoughts and actions.

AM: Who are your favorite living writers?

AP:  I particularly admire J.M. Coetzee and Alice Munro. I think about their works often while I’m writing and editing my own.

Coetzee has written several fantastic “novels of ideas.” Both Diary of a Bad Year and Elizabeth Costello manage to incorporate far-reaching critiques into their larger stories about characters, and they do so while using imaginative formal techniques. I also love Coetzee’s cold and austere style in his less overtly intellectual books. They’re cleanly written, shockingly honest, and endlessly compelling.

Alice Munro—although it’s almost a cliché to praise her at this point—shows remarkable insight into her characters, gradually revealing their motivations, resentments and surprising decisions without ever erasing their fundamental mysteries as people. Her stories are complex formally, but in such a quiet way that I often don’t notice their structures until I’ve read them a few times. Her writing is a great model for how to show characters’ lives and decisions with efficiency and imagination while maintaining mystery.

AM: Do you intend to continue in the novel form in your own writing?

AP:  Absolutely. I would love to write more legal fiction, as well. I’ve spent years learning about the law, but know that I’ve barely scratched the surface. There are so many potentially interesting legal stories. I’m also at the early stages of a new novel, which is not explicitly about law, but does feel like an outgrowth of Al-Tounsi in certain ways.

AM: I worked for a state Supreme Court justice for over three years, and I agree: there are many interesting legal stories out there, and I’ve found that facts are often stranger than fiction.

AP:  It must be fascinating to work on the diverse cases that roll through a court. I can only imagine how many potential stories you and other lawyers, judges and court workers can recall—ideas for a million novels and movies and plays.

I think legal stories are particularly exciting for fiction because they distill big questions into concrete human situations and personalities. The giant subjects of guilt and innocence, love and betrayal, responsibilities towards others as opposed to ourselves, community or self-reliance, greed, jealousy and ambition all play out in specific facts and events, in the concrete details of a case. It’s just like in a novel. And since the American legal system is, in my mind, an application of an entire Enlightenment, philosophic worldview, these test cases and stories also pose huge philosophical, ethical and moral questions. It’s no coincidence some of the best novels ever written involve detailed legal plots.

AM:  That reminds me of something Justice Holmes once said: “Law opens a way to philosophy as well as anything else.”  But it sounds as if you and I would go further and say it might open a way better than many other things do.

AP:  Law is like applied philosophy; It puts general ideas to the test in the real world. If a philosophy remains theoretical it never really touches what it means to live it, inside it. The answers theoretical philosophy provides are always tentative.

A huge inspiration for my novel was the work of the late French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas. While Levinas’s writing is often arcane and difficult to get through, I find his thinking to be a powerful and searing indictment of basic Enlightenment principles. While I was writing Al-Tounsi, I used Levinas’s insights—directly—to help me construct Justice Sykes’s final concurrence. It was hugely inspiring to find a concrete way to use this philosophy I have long loved. All the questions and problems I was interested in exploring were present in this genuine legal situation, in the constitutional habeas corpus case, Boumediene vs. Bush, on which I based my fictional case of Al-Tounsi vs. Shaw.

So, yes, I completely agree with you and Justice Holmes!

AM:  So glad we had this opportunity to talk.  Let’s do it again.  

 

 

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Allen Mendenhall Interviews Paul Goldstein About His Latest Novel, “Legal Asylum”

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Law, Law School, Law-and-Literature, Literature, Novels, Teaching, The Academy, Writing on March 1, 2017 at 6:45 am

Paul Goldstein is an expert on intellectual property law and the Stella W. and Ira S. Lillick Professor of Law at Stanford Law School. He is the author of an influential four-volume treatise on U.S. copyright law and a one-volume treatise on international property. He has also authored ten books including five novels. Some of his other works include Copyright’s Highway: From Gutenberg to the Celestial Jukebox, a widely acclaimed book on the history and future of copyright, and Intellectual Property: The Tough New Realities That Could Make or Break Your Business. Havana Requiem, his third novel, won the 2013 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction.

Paul Goldstein

Paul Goldstein

AM:  Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. What has been your colleagues’ reaction to this satire? 

PG:  My colleagues are, by and large, a sturdy and good-natured lot, and most of the reactions I’ve received have been very positive. Several have told me that they actually found themselves laughing out loud while reading the book. Still, there are a couple of colleagues who I know have read the book, but who seem curiously silent, and avoid my glance in the hallways. Who knows what they’re thinking!

AM:  Were you afraid your colleagues might push back against the novel, seeing themselves in the characters?  

PG:  I decided at the outset not to make Legal Asylum a roman a clef—a genre that I find cowardly and mean-spirited, and that I put in the same category as practical jokes. At the same time, there are certainly recognizable types of legal academics in the book, and it’s been a good deal of fun talking with colleagues about which group they put themselves in—Poets, Quants or Bog Dwellers.

AM:  In an interview with Jon Malysiak, the director of Ankerwycke Books, you stated that you’d spent 50 years thinking about the absurd and eccentric features of legal education. What are some of these?

PG:  One absurdity of course is the grim-faced crusade of law school deans to secure for their institutions a higher and still higher slot in the US News law school rankings, or at least not to slip from their present perch. That’s the question that drives the story: Can a law school make it into the US News Top Five and lose its ABA accreditation, all in the same year? Another absurdity highlighted in Legal Asylum is that, where in other university departments academic advancement, including tenure, turns on publication in peer-reviewed journals, American law schools commit the credentialing function to second-year law students who run the law reviews.

AM:  Your book is funny.  Why is humor a powerful mode of critique?

PG:  I’m glad you found the book funny! As to why humor is such a powerful mode of critique, it is because, for humor to work, it has to surprise the reader. Wait…she said that! He did what! And it’s that surprise, that unexpected twist, that turns the reader’s angle of view a fraction of a degree—or if it’s a belly laugh, maybe a full degree—so that the subject of the lampoon suddenly appears in a different light. To discover, for example, that the emperor is wearing no clothes, is not only funny, but it’s also a powerful critique of a certain kind of political leader.

AM:  You’ve called your protagonist, Dean Elspeth Flowers, a hero.  Why?

PG:  For a literary hero to be at all interesting, she or he needs to be flawed—the deeper the flaw the better—because it is only character defects like pride, willfulness and grandiosity that will get the hero in trouble, and without trouble, what kind of story do you have? Several readers of Legal Asylum have told me how shocked they were to discover that, by the end of the book, they were truly rooting for Elspeth.

AM:  Is there anything good about the obsession with law-school rankings and the so-called “arms race” between law schools?

PG:  I’m sure there are some beneficiaries of the law school rankings game. The companies that publish all those glossy brochures touting law school achievements to prospective respondents in the US News polls certainly come out ahead. So do the airlines that fly admitted students to the law schools that are recruiting them like prized football prospects. And of course there’s US News itself, for which rankings must be a rare profit center in a bleak economic landscape for news media.

AM:  It’s interesting that the American Bar Association doesn’t dodge satire in the book, yet the ABA—or a division of it—published the book.

PG:  I have a wonderful and brave editor at Ankerwycke, and he didn’t once bat an eye at the parts of the story that poke fun at the A.B.A accreditation process.

AM:  Did you ever consider writing about lower-ranked law schools, or did you, a Stanford law professor, write from the perspective you knew—from a top-ranked law school?  I’m thinking now of Charlotte Law School and the troubles it’s been facing in light of the Department of Education’s decision to revoke federal funding there. It seems to me that law professors and administrators at these schools, who are in crisis mode, may not be in the mood for humor about legal education. 

PG:  My first law teaching job was at a state law school and, although this was long before the rankings game got underway, I can say that, like countless other schools today—state and private—that haven’t made it into the top tiers, it was preparing its students for the practice of law as effectively as any law school in the country. Are there law schools that shouldn’t be in business today? I expect that there are, and that has nothing to do with the US News hierarchy. But other schools have a legitimate grievance against rankings that pretend that their fine-grained hierarchical distinctions convey any useful information.

AM:  Why the noun “asylum” in the title of the book?  It’s provocative and suggestive.

PG:  I like book titles that are at once evocative and descriptive. It’s hard to beat Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, for example.  There is of course an asylum for the criminally insane that figures in the plot of Legal Asylum, but the book’s title also aims to evoke the sheltered craziness that passes for legal education at the state law school where the story takes place.

AM:  Thanks again for the interview.  Any closing comments about how readers can find your work?

PG:  It was a pleasure. Readers can buy the book at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, and Shop ABA.

Part Three: Allen Mendenhall Interviews Mark Zunac about his new edition, “Literature and the Conservative Ideal”

In Academia, America, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, British Literature, Conservatism, Fiction, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Politics, Postmodernism, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on November 23, 2016 at 6:45 am
Mark Zunac

Mark Zunac

Mark Zunac is associate professor in the Department of Languages and Literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.  Editor of Literature and the Conservative Ideal, he researches revolution, writing, and the rise of intellectual conservatism in Britain following the French Revolution. He received his Ph.D. from Marquette University in 2008.

 

AM:  James Seaton is a good friend.  He and I began corresponding roughly a decade ago, and we first met in person about six years ago at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal in Mecosta, Michigan.  His edition of Santayana had just come out with Yale University Press, and he was there to give a lecture on it.  Seaton opens his essay for your volume with the following sentence:  “Neither Henry James nor George Santayana were active participants in the politics of their time.”  Don’t you think there’s something inherently conservative in this very distance from one’s own cultural and political moment?  I’m thinking of Kirk’s admonition that conservatism is about the rejection of ideology. 

MZ:  It was actually James Seaton who, some time ago, in an innocuous but characteristically trenchant review of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism published in The Weekly Standard, provided for me the framework for thinking deeply about literature’s authenticity and its exploitation by postmodern criticism. I very regrettably lacked a lot of exposure to more traditional approaches to literature and, while I instinctively eschewed the most obscure theoretics, I remained unaware that the critic could do more than scamper around the edges of territory claimed by Jürgen Habermas and Paul de Man. To Kirk’s point, I think I had always rejected the ideology – I just wasn’t fully aware that there might be a viable alternative to it.

I do think there is something to be said for one’s distance from the cultural and political moment. The conservative disposition doesn’t really lend itself well to the act of politics, and this is perhaps why conservatives have been consistently rolled in nearly every public debate over culture for the last half-century. Being always on the defensive and lacking the language to explain the intuitive – Lee Harris calls this the “visceral code” – puts the conservative at a rhetorical, if not moral, disadvantage. For me, the everyday analogy to Seaton’s statement is the conservative tendency to focus on the admittedly prosaic underpinnings of civic life – largely the familial and the associational. As we are witnessing with the ever-increasing presence of the state in the daily lives of individuals, the absence of participation in politics by those whose disposition might be called “conservative” is conspicuous.

AM:  I remember where I was when I read Seaton’s review that you mention. In his book Cultural Conservatism, Political Liberalism, in the context of remarks about E. D. Hirsch, he says that “’[c]ultural literacy’ would be particularly valuable for those now termed the ‘culturally disadvantaged’ in achieving individual economic mobility,” and he adds that the “spread of cultural literacy would also promote political democracy, since discussion can only take place on the basis of at least some shared assumptions and common vocabulary.”  Do you agree with this?

 MZ: I would agree wholeheartedly. There has been much invested, however, in facilitating a kind of cultural amnesia. Some of it has been inadvertent, but much of it has not. As reflexive relativism has taken hold, any semblance of commonality has been superseded by historical moral equivalencies. Consequently, we are left with little more than recriminations and collective guilt. Western culture perhaps has much to atone for, but past transgressions cannot be the sole basis for self-definition. There just may be certain shared values and traditions that could serve as the basis for a common culture and a source of pride, but it is often more expedient to assign particular beliefs and behaviors to discrete and easily identifiable groups.

This may be cynical, but I think there is much to be gained politically – the recent election notwithstanding – from the veneration of difference. I’m not sure the individual is or ever has been truly dignified when human worth is either enhanced or degraded by how that individual is situated during any given cultural moment. It is difficult to argue that this is not what is happening now, at least to some degree. Perhaps by expanding our very narrow conceptions of diversity, we would have a much greater chance of constructive dialogue, which might then enact a more conscientious effort to promote this notion of cultural literacy. The deliberately false promise that multiculturalism is the surest path to unity and a common, mutual understanding has generated much confusion and it has, against its fundamental premise, created self-defeating forms of tribalism. The multiculturalist program has sought to validate rather than engage and evaluate global cultures, and its underside has been the raw factionalizing that consumes so much public discourse.

AM:  It is interesting and bothersome to see how multiculturalism has degenerated into a monolithic orthodoxy, which is by its very form and function against diversity, not for it.  I wonder what would happen if we exposed more students to political theory in the vein of Michael Polanyi of F. A. Hayek, thinkers whose intelligence and theoretical sophistication have to be taken seriously by those who study literary theory and criticism.  The forms of devolution and subsidiarity advocated by these men might provide challenges to the prevailing consensus among many students and teachers in English departments about the kind of ideas motivating certain figures on the right.

 MZ:  I do believe that radical multiculturalism militates against diversity, and in this regard the university has failed in one of its stated core missions. The failure to cultivate an inclusive campus community has been made evident not only by civil disobedience and other visible forms of unrest, but also by the imposition of predictable bureaucratic programs aimed at solving problems that the administrative bureaucracy has itself made worse. Obsessing about difference and instituting special privileges for certain groups, and then pontificating about equality just seems disingenuous. Current narratives on race as well as the devaluing of our common culture have been toxic for the university, as a lot of students, I think rightly, feel as though justice in this context is punitive. If there is any palpable hostility to the learning process or to intellectual climate on today’s typical campus, perhaps we as the academy should look inward rather than to historical prejudices that we can conveniently circle back to after having tried to address all of them through administrative means and a thoroughly politicized curriculum.

Moreover, as politics has regrettably become a proxy for character, even reasoned opposition to progressive ideals, particularly on the campus, is delegitimized and discounted as having been informed by sinister motives. I argue in the book that too often conservative ideas are either ignored by their critics or deliberately distorted so as to identify an enemy against which the social justice war may be fought. There is ample evidence of this, and I hesitate to identify any one event or episode to draw conclusions. Yet I recently find myself coming back to a video passed along to me that recorded the Young Americas Foundation at the University of Kansas being aggressively confronted at one of their meetings by protesters. What strikes me in that video is that the person behind the camera seems to be officiating the ensuing debate, commenting on and critiquing every gesture or utterance made by members of the YAF group, essentially flagging them for violations of rules to which they never agreed. The concept of civil discourse is applied so lopsidedly that only one set of ideas is allowed to prevail. I think this is by design, even though, as you suggest, a serious consideration of conservative ideas and philosophies would broaden minds and better prepare us all for the responsibilities of civic life.

AM:  Do you worry about our habits of reading in our technological and digital age?  I recall Harold Bloom once saying that we all read “against the clock.”  Readers of the Bible, he says, read with more urgency than, say, readers of Shakespeare, but there’s always the problem of the limitations of time: Life just isn’t long enough for us to read everything worth reading.  Thinking about that has sometimes led me into a feeling of existential angst, especially after I spent a few years on a self-imposed reading diet that included the consumption of a canonical work from Western Civilization per week.  When I finished the program each year, I was distraught at how little I’d actually read.  I’m concerned that we’re wasting a lot of precious time reading texts that just aren’t that fulfilling or edifying. 

MZ:  The reading project you describe is an ambitious one. I merely committed to reading a page of Waugh every day this year, and I couldn’t even do that. On a related note, a current depressing irony for me is that I have volume I of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time sitting on my shelf, and I have spent precious minutes staring at it, wondering if I could actually ever get through all 7 volumes. There are a lot of reasons for our society’s detachment from literature, and reading has definitely been made very difficult in the digital age. The sheer amount of available information is daunting, and it has led to a frenetic search for the quick, easy, and thereby ungratifying.

I think, though, that while the internet has shifted our ability to focus and perhaps even changed how our brains process information, it has also caused a loss of discipline. It appeals to human nature to swipe to the next task if something becomes intellectually difficult, and this is made almost compulsory by technology, especially for those young people who have been immersed in it almost literally from day 1. Maybe I’m just projecting, though. I struggle with it as well, and I also find myself often wondering, in this day and age of always needing to be busy, how much we all might benefit from slowing down and reading a little Austen.

AM:  This has been a fun interview for me.  One last question: are you working on any projects right now that readers should know about?

MZ:  Thanks, Allen, for the opportunity to talk with you. I have enjoyed it as well. I have shifted my research focus a bit from literature toward the state of the university more generally. Editing Literature and the Conservative Ideal prompted much thought about the future of higher education and the increasing importance of broad-mindedness on the campus.

I am currently editing a collection for Rowman & Littlefield tentatively titled Remaking the University: Liberal Learning, the West, and the Revival of American Higher Education. I am also in discussions to publish a separate volume entitled Defending the West: Finding Culture and Common Humanity in the Postmodern Age. Both books seek to build on a long tradition of support for free expression and the pursuit of truth as well as Western culture’s influence on both. After our discussion, though, I am realizing I might need to just be doing a bit more reading.

AM:  We all need that.  Thanks for the interview, Mark.

Part Two: Allen Mendenhall Interviews Mark Zunac about his new edition, “Literature and the Conservative Ideal”

In Academia, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, British Literature, Conservatism, Fiction, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Politics, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on November 16, 2016 at 7:00 am
Mark Zunac

Mark Zunac

Mark Zunac is associate professor in the Department of Languages and Literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.  Editor of Literature and the Conservative Ideal, he researches revolution, writing, and the rise of intellectual conservatism in Britain following the French Revolution. He received his Ph.D. from Marquette University in 2008.

AM:  In your essay “Conservatism, Liberal Education, and the Promise of the Humanities,” one of two essays you contributed to the edition, you state, “There is a broader philosophical conflict at hand between the very principle of academic freedom, encompassing the rights of individuals to engage in scholarly inquiry and espouse contrarian views, and policies currently governing campus discourse.”  What do you mean by this?

MZ: Quite simply, the state of campus discourse is, by its very essence, incompatible with the rights of faculty – and students themselves – to engage in the search for truth. When conduct, particularly verbal conduct, can be reported and penalized through mechanisms designed to “protect” students, we might sense that something much greater is afoot. If such fundamental rights as speech and due process are curtailed – as I feel they have systematically been on today’s campus – then we are no longer interested in educating an informed and responsible citizenry. The great irony in this is that even as faculty and administrators maintain the conceit that students must confront dissonant viewpoints, the viewpoints that qualify are limited and selective. Therefore, I think the fear of faculty to approach teaching or research from a conservative angle, or even to introduce conservative arguments in the context of intellectual debate, is very real. Some things are better left unsaid, especially when tenure, promotion, or funding are on the line.

On the other hand, the concept of academic freedom has been so narrowed as to apply almost exclusively to members of the faculty. The dearth of conservative faculty in the humanities and social sciences makes it difficult to determine the degree to which this privilege might be invoked as a defense against charges of offending progressive student sensibilities. The case of Marquette professor John McAdams that I discuss in the book is not promising. It is fortuitous that the demands of students to be protected from certain ideas are often in harmony with the ideological makeup of the faculty. Nevertheless, it can be argued that the freedom claimed by a largely progressive professoriate is not afforded to the student body, which labors more under the onerous regulations governing speech and conduct.

Aside from being able to report the utterance of harmful words, students have very little stake in academic freedom’s fundamental premise, and their rights have ceased to be part of the conversation on classroom conduct. I don’t count the imposition of trigger warnings and the creation of safe spaces as really striking a blow for freedom or the intellectual pursuit. Faculty might be able to proselytize under the banner of academic freedom, but students have little recourse when scholarly inquiry descends into partisan demagoguery. It speaks volumes that today’s campus will often charge conservative student groups for added security at their events in anticipation of disruption and unrest. The campus in this case is refusing to guarantee what is essentially the safety of free expression. It has been said that the greatest beneficiaries of a political and ideological monoculture are conservative students, who are consistently challenged to refine their arguments and confront opposing viewpoints. But that’s perhaps little compensation when those arguments are preemptively dismissed and delegitimized by an institution unwilling to entertain them. Some critics have been ambivalent about either the extent of curricular politicization that exists on today’s campus or its impact on students. I don’t think either can be overstated.

AM:  The question I hear a lot—and in different contexts—is “what can be done?”  Do you have an answer to that question in light of what you’ve just said? 

MZ:  To answer that important question I would probably qualify some rejections to otherwise bad ideas. Federal funding should not be tied to the amount of money students can be expected to earn upon graduation. However, at some point students must be expected to see some material returns from the meteoric rise of tuition and administrative costs. We have seen an intense regulatory push directed exclusively at for-profit colleges over the last eight years. The question of value in higher education is a good one, and perhaps it shouldn’t only be asked of these for-profits.

Also, while the idea has been floated, I do not believe in any kind of affirmative action for conservative professors. However, departments conspicuously lacking in conservative faculty members might take steps to acknowledge the intellectual costs of such insularity and promote viewpoint diversity, a concept propounded by groups like Heterodox Academy, the National Association of Scholars, and the John William Pope Center. These are not conservative organizations but rather ones that care deeply about the state of discourse on today’s campus and how it adversely affects learning.

Furthermore, while we must heed Michael Oakeshott’s warning not to “suspend conversationality for a politicizing counterrevolution,” a more robust rejection of identity’s preeminent place in in the classroom might restore some dignity to the learning process. It is not atypical for composition students, for example, to be assigned anthologies that are promoted as much for the racial, ethnic, and gender identifications of their authors as the dynamism of their prose or the enduring legacy of their ideas. No doubt many of the essays in these collections are worth modeling and are deserving of study, but not because of predetermined genetic variables. Having students read essays by Max Beerbohm, John Ruskin, or Evelyn Waugh – all the while ignoring their “privilege” – might inadvertently put the focus of the class on prose style, rhetoric, and stylistic precision.

Finally, it should remain up to students to choose their colleges carefully. There are a lot of alternative institutions that have placed the pursuit of knowledge above all else. The market for this kind of place is strong, and those charged with administering higher education could do very well to take notice.

AM:  At one point in the book you mention a “multicultural canon.”  I’m interested in this phrase because I’m interested in canonicity and the idea that there are certain works that are more influential and important than others within a given tradition, and even that certain traditions may produce works that are more influential and important than works produced by other traditions.  You often here people dismiss the idea of a canon but urge the reading of certain texts.  It seems that any support for a program of reading necessarily entails a view of the canon, however different that might be from prevailing consensus.  At a time when English departments are struggling to maintain stable and uniform curricula, and the notion of a canon has become unpopular, what does it mean for a work to be canonical? 

MZ:  While the idea of a canon has become unpopular, it still exists in every department that embraces the multicultural ethos of the university. And it is equally as narrow as the one it sought to replace and far more intransigent. Like so many revolutions, the spirit of canon reform was swept away by a radical zeal to destroy foundations necessary for, in this case, literature’s survival as part of a college curriculum. To me, literature is universal and it has the potential to speak to a common humanity. In short, it should be valued for its own sake and for its cultural status as an expression of artistic endeavor. It has intrinsic value, and its success lies in part on historical continuity – on its relationship to what came before it. In the book, I mention T.S. Eliot’s “historical sense,” the idea that tradition must be defended against forces that would destroy it out of hand. I think that in many ways this has happened. Today’s literature has become so balkanized as to render impossible the continuance of any sort of shared cultural value system. To that point, I would also argue that an English curriculum consisting predominantly of identity-based literature (African-American, Native American, Women’s, Latinx, etc.) can in no real way be considered diverse. As it is, those who might turn to literature for the truth it tells, for its contemplation of ideas, or for its linguistic execution have been in retreat.

I’m not sure anyone would make the case that the traditional canon was never fluid or that it hasn’t contained glaring omissions. It has, and they should be rectified. But whereas critics in the past denounced the traditional canon as the product of “institutional tastemaking,” today’s demands for courses that aim to represent some unique, singular experience are guilty of the same thing. A canon is necessarily foundational. It isn’t, however, necessarily exclusionary, and an inclusive canon should be exactly that. This is a very long way of saying that a canonical work might be one that embodies an idea or an epoch, or one that masterfully portrays the psychological depth of a character in crisis. There are many divergent opinions as to this question, and I don’t consider myself an authority. But my vision is this: surely others have treated the same subjects as, say, Edith Wharton, Ralph Ellison, and Saul Bellow. We just have to be able to say that few have perhaps done it better. The reader may take his (or her) pick as to what authors deserve special consideration. The point is that the literature’s function and its success as a work of art are what we consider first and foremost. I think that case can be made, and reinforcing the idea of great literature – asserting its very existence – may benefit our discipline greatly.

AM:  If a student were to ask you for 10 writers you believed every person must read before he or she dies, who would they be?

MZ:  This is a question every literature person longs for, and at the risk of inevitably short-changing some, here is my list, in absolutely no particular order: Ernest Hemingway, George Eliot, Martin Amis, Evelyn Waugh, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Thomas Hardy, Saul Bellow, and Vladamir Nabakov.

 

Part Three coming soon….

Part One: Allen Mendenhall Interviews Mark Zunac about his new edition, “Literature and the Conservative Ideal”

In Academia, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, British Literature, Conservatism, Creativity, Fiction, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Philosophy, Poetry, Politics, Postmodernism, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on November 9, 2016 at 6:45 am
Mark Zunac

Mark Zunac

Mark Zunac is associate professor in the Department of Languages and Literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.  Editor of Literature and the Conservative Ideal, he researches revolution, writing, and the rise of intellectual conservatism in Britain following the French Revolution. He received his Ph.D. from Marquette University in 2008.

 

AM:  Thank you for this interview, Mark.  Your recent edition is titled Literature and the Conservative Ideal.  What, in your view, is the conservative ideal?

MZ:  In my mind the conservative ideal reflects what Michael Oakeshott calls a “disposition” rather than something that can be expressed by a singular identifiable creed. Nevertheless, I would say that it is in many ways an intuitive and practical view of the world, one that privileges human freedom, acknowledges a common humanity, and maintains a healthy regard for the accumulated wisdom of ages.

In today’s context, it is also uniquely defined by what it is not, since the very idea of an intellectual conservatism is often met with condescension or, perhaps in some cases, preemptive disdain. This invariably reflects a reductive and fundamental – and often deliberate – misunderstanding. Contra its critics, the conservative ideal does not demand a blind allegiance to the status quo, nor does it entail uncritical nostalgia for some heroic past. Such willful obtuseness I think would have its present-day parallel in the relentless deconstruction of nearly everything that we as citizens in a liberal democracy have taken for granted.

It is too easy to characterize the conservative disposition as a product of an unenlightened past or, more nefariously, deep-rooted prejudices. The destruction of a civil order grown out of its past has become reflexive and impulsive, and there is seldom any careful reflection as to what, practically speaking, a society unmoored from its historical roots will look like. Thus, the conservative ideal is grounded in the enduring presence of civilizational standards that, while not immune to scrutiny or change, are nevertheless prerequisites for a stable and ordered society.

Of course, as an intellectual exercise, it is more difficult, or at least less exciting, to make a case against earthly utopias, particularly when they have been peddled as some moral zenith. In a word, the conservative ideal encompasses a respect for the past and a deep skepticism for any social innovations that might jeopardize its influence on what may rightly be called culture.

AM:  After the turf wars over canon and curriculum in the 1980s and 1990s, did any expositors of the conservative ideal come out alive? 

MZ:  There have indeed been some survivors, but the side was badly damaged. As English departments became wholly owned subsidiaries of the multicultural program, literature became simply one more vehicle through which victimization and oppression became the sole standard for assigning value.

The study of literature as an artistic endeavor, one subject to critical judgment and the recognition of a work’s place within literary history, was supplanted by the idea that value is situational and that any search for truth or beauty must necessarily be futile. The most significant casualties of the English turf wars have been works of the West, useful now only for their iteration of or complicity in historical cruelties.

Unfortunately, approaches to literature that privilege the text over the identity of its author or characters have become associated with political conservatism, itself a byproduct of the contemporary university’s tendency to hold politics as an individual’s highest calling. Thus, when it comes to literary criticism, a conservative ideal has less to do with promoting certain ideologies than with a dispassionate return to literature as a form of high art. Doubly unfortunate, and perhaps a bit ironic, is that as students of English literature continue to flock to other areas of study, we in the field have doubled-down on curricular approaches that are now not only stale but increasingly obsolete.

AM:  Can anything be done to save the field at this point, or is it doomed for failure? I realize these are strong words, and perhaps premature, but there do seem to be trends and data that suggest that at least English departments will face serious budgetary and enrollment problems in the years to come.

MZ:  Yes, I suppose we shouldn’t be too fatalistic at this point, even though in many cases the situation is nearing critical. I don’t much doubt that English departments will continue to exist, and perhaps even thrive, in the future. They just might have to take on a new identity, as it were. It might ultimately be fortuitous that as fewer people read, the less aptitude there seems to be for writing well. Thus, the rise of professional writing programs and the continuance of rudimentary instruction in composition may throw us a lifeline.

Departments have not, for the most part, adapted to the current climate. In some regard, there will always be a case for literature’s place within the educational landscape, and we should not stop making it. I completely sympathize with certain laments over the decline of literature and the humanities more broadly, indicated, as you suggest, by certain unpropitious trends. Many of them I will grant fall outside of our purview.

I think the liberal arts, even in their purest form, are threatened by the credentialist attitude currently infusing higher education. In addition, the heavy emphasis on STEM fields in primary and secondary education, combined with the turn toward “fact-based” texts, is both a capitulation to market demands and a nod to the reality that slow reading as an intrinsically rewarding enterprise can’t compete in the digital world.

So, despite our own malfeasance, there are certainly many other cultural trends causing our decline. Though I cannot help thinking how the complete dominance of Theory within literary criticism over the last number of decades has left would-be readers wondering how a text can possibly be relevant to their personal lives or how it might provide insights into the human condition. This is to say nothing of how that text might not be so predictably subservient to the social and cultural forces that informed it.

AM:  You mention this in your introduction, but for the sake of readers of the blog, I’ll ask how you chose the contributors to this edition.  

It wasn’t until well after graduate school that I encountered intellectual viewpoints from within my discipline that were congenial to both my own political predilections and my preferred approach to literature. The idea that these could coexist, or even work in concert, hadn’t really occurred to me. I remember feeling somewhat liberated by the presence of literary scholars in opinion and public affairs journals that I avidly read. I realized that while scholarship had its place, questions surrounding the study of literature and its implications for our culture deserved a place in a much wider realm of ideas. In a way, I found an intellectual home outside of the university, which, in my case, proved salutary.

The roster for Literature and the Conservative Ideal was assembled by individual cold calling. I had compiled a fairly short list of scholars whose work I had come across in these popular venues and who I thought might at least be able to consider conservatism’s role in literary study as well as its various formulations in selective literary works. The response to my initial proposal was very positive, and I remain infinitely grateful to the contributors for their generosity.

What I have come to understand over the years is that genuine concern over the state of literature today is not bounded by party affiliations or directed by a singular ideological framework. As I mention in the book, personal politics did not figure in discussions with contributors, nor did I harbor any assumptions about them. I think it is a testament to dispassionate scholarship and the contributors’ dedication to their craft that the volume came together the way that it did.

AM:  What critics do you consider representative of the conservative tradition?

MZ:  I think in this case it is once again useful to detach what might be considered a conservative approach to literature from the more freighted use of the term in a distinctly political context. In so doing, a critic such as Lionel Trilling, known for his oft-repeated equation of conservatism with “irritable mental gestures,” might be classified as an exemplar of a conservative literary tradition. His emphasis on literature as an embodiment of culture cut against the grain of scholarship that valued texts primarily for their reflection of bourgeois society. Close reading and moral judgment are at the center of Trilling’s critiques, and his skepticism of a literature that “pets and dandles its underprivileged characters” might be sustained as a rebuke to today’s critical environment.

Writing also in what might be called the conservative tradition is of course F.R. Leavis, whose concern for literature’s essential role within civilized life is discussed by Thomas Jeffers in the book. I would also include T.S. Eliot and other contributors to Scrutiny, a publication whose critical acumen and attention to literature’s artistic expression is in many ways lacking today. It is, however, still found in the pages of such eminent publications as Commentary, the Claremont Review of Books, The New Criterion, and others. So, as readers of The Literary Lawyer are keenly aware, the humanistic tradition, which stands athwart today’s prevailing postmodernist ethos, is very much alive. It just isn’t generally in vogue in those places where literature is taught.

 

Part Two coming soon….

Claire Hamner Matturro Reviews Robert Bailey’s “Between Black and White”

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Justice, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literature, Novels, Southern Literary Review, Southern Literature, The Novel, The South, Writing on June 15, 2016 at 6:45 am

ClaireHamnerMatturroforSoLitRev

Claire Hamner Matturro, a former lawyer and college teacher, is the author of four legal mysteries with a sense of humor. Her books are Skinny-Dipping (2004) (a BookSense pick, Romantic Times’ Best First Mystery, and nominated for a Barry Award); Wildcat Wine (2005) (nominated for a Georgia Writer of the Year Award); Bone Valley (2006) and Sweetheart Deal (2007) (winner of Romantic Times’ Toby Bromberg Award for Most Humorous Mystery), all published by William Morrow. She remains active in writers’ groups, teaches creative writing in adult education, and does some freelance editing. Visit her at www.clairematturro.com.

The review originally appeared here in Southern Literary Review.

Following the success of his powerful debut legal thriller, The Professor (Thomas & Mercer 2015), Bailey offers a second, stunning story in the series. In his novel Between Black and White (Thomas & Mercer March 2016), Bailey establishes beyond doubt that he is an author to be read and reckoned with.

Between Black and White is closely tied to Bailey’s first book and involves several of the same characters. In The Professor, readers were introduced to aging former law professor Tom McMurtrie, who returns to the courtroom after being forced out of his teaching position at The University of Alabama School of Law. Tom teams up with Rick Drake, an impetuous young attorney and his one-time student. Together, in The Professor, Tom and Rick pursue a tense and dangerous wrongful death lawsuit.

While Tom and Rick dominate The Professor, another lawyer—Bocephus Haynes, or Bo—steps into that story at critical times to boost and support Tom. Bo is a bigger than life black University of Alabama football star who blew out his knee and, instead of retreating into depression over the loss of a pro football career, goes to law school. Tom is one of his professors, and the two develop a close friendship.

As much as The Professor was Tom and Rick’s story, Between Black and White is Bo’s story. In the prologue, we meet Bo as a five-year-old who watches members of the Ku Klux Klan lynch his beloved father. From the opening pages of Chapter One—which finds a disheartened, angry Bo getting drunk on the anniversary of his father’s brutal lynching—to the shocking, violent conclusion, Bo leaps off the pages with boldness and spirit. But like all well-crafted fictional heroes, he is flawed, and his failings land him in a courtroom as the sole defendant in a capital murder case.

His near fatal flaw: hunger for revenge. Obsessed with punishing the man who lynched his father, Bo shapes his professional life around that goal. After graduating with honors from The University of Alabama School of Law, Bo turns down offers at prestigious law firms. He returns to his home town, Pulaski, Tennessee, to a solo law practice as the city’s only black attorney—and to pursue the man he holds responsible for his father’s death. Too many people in the city of Pulaski know Bo is driven by his fixation to punish the man he blames for his father’s lynching. His wife has even left him because his drive to avenge his father’s murder has endangered their two children.

Since Bo was five years-old, he has blamed Andrew Davis Walton, a powerful businessman in Pulaski, for his father’s death. Once the Imperial Wizard of the Tennessee Knights of the KKK, Walton shook off the robes of the Klan and made millions in the stock market. Known as the “the Warren Buffett of the South,” he tried to make amends for his Klan actions.

Yet people have a long memory when it comes to the Klan—and no one more than Bo. Though Walton was hooded the night five-year-old Bo witnessed the lynching, Bo recognized Walton’s voice. But no one in law enforcement was ever willing—then or later—to prosecute Walton on the testimony of a child claiming to identify a voice.

On the 45th anniversary of his father’s lynching, Bo gets drunks in a local bar. Walton and Maggie, Walton’s aging, beautiful wife and one of the local landed aristocracy, seemingly accidentally run into Bo in the bar. Face to face with Walton, Bo threatens him in front of witnesses by quoting the Old Testament’s “eye for an eye.”

After the bartender breaks up the confrontation, Walton steps outside. But before Bo leaves the bar, Maggie returns to tell him that Walton is dying. She asks that Bo leave her terminally ill husband alone. Bo staggers out, lamenting to himself that Andy Walton was going to die before he could bring him to justice.

That night, someone shoots Walton and stages a mock lynching at the site where Bo’s father was lynched four and a half decades before.

Physical evidence points directly at Bo. Everyone in the legal community knows he had the motive and opportunity. Even before Bo recovers from his hangover, he is in jail. The prosecutor, a fierce woman attorney who has butted heads with Bo in court before, decides to seek the death penalty.

Pulaski was the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, and many residents and officials in the city strive to live that down. So when the murder, with its roots in the old KKK lynching, puts Pulaski and its Klan heritage back in the spotlight of national media, city officials attempt to pressure Bo to plead guilty and avoid the further media circus of a trial.

Bo refuses. He is innocent of murdering Walton—or so he claims, though no one in law enforcement believes him. He calls on his former law professor and close friend, Tom, to defend him. Reluctantly, Tom agrees and retains local attorney Raymond “Ray Ray” Pickalew, another former U of A football player. Rick, who is now Tom’s law partner, is dragged into the case as well.

Though Tom and Rick sense a setup, they struggle against multiple roadblocks—and the overwhelming physical evidence of Bo’s guilt—to determine who had a motive to kill Andy Walton and frame Bo. During their quest, Tom is assaulted and sidelined by his injuries; Ray Ray is a drunk with an attitude, and young. Overwhelmed Rick is left to unravel the seemingly unrelated pieces of a complex, emotional puzzle. Villains from The Professor return to taunt and threaten Tom and Rick, adding further intricacy to the plot.

Thus, Bailey sets up the classic formula of a legal thriller. Mind you, formula is not used as a derogatory term here. Shakespeare’s sonnets were formula and critics do not dismiss them in disparaging terms. As used here, formula simply refers to the structure and elements that define a genre or a literary style. In a legal thriller where the focus is on a criminal defendant on trial for his or her life, readers expect the odds to be stacked against the defendant. They expect the defense attorneys to be complicated, troubled, overwhelmed and conflicted. And, owing perhaps to the Perry Mason standard, readers expect a surprise witness and revelation near the close of the trial which allows the defense attorneys to prevail and the defendant to be found not guilty.

There are, of course, notable exceptions to this basic formula. Lincoln Lawyer and A Time to Kill come to mind. Both of those legal thrillers had guilty defendants, yet with vastly differing twists at the end.

Given the formulaic elements at play in the genre, a successful legal thriller author has to avoid creating a stale, mechanical plot that reads like a written version of a paint-by-number canvas. Yet the author has to keep the plot within the confines of the genre or publishers will scratch their heads and throw the manuscript on the reject pile.

In other words, authors working within a prescribed genre face a kind of delicate yet vicious circle. On the one hand, they must write within the parameters of their chosen genre. But, on the other hand, they have to do something new, exciting and fresh. It’s kind of like saying: Color within the lines. But don’t color within the lines.

Within this catch-22, the author has to give the reader something more—and something different. This Bailey does, and does with a bang.

Yet, having said that much, to say much more about the surprising, original twists of Between Black and White risks spoiling the plot. Thus, this reviewer will only observe that per the Perry Mason/John Grisham model, an unexpected witness with a startling revelation does pop up at the end of the trial. But just when the reader settles back to relax and believe that justice has been achieved, something complicated, violent and utterly surprising happens.

It isn’t just that Bailey knows how to surprise us, but he also writes well. Very well. Make no mistake on that point. His sentences are clear, clean, distinctive, and when they need to hit with a punch, they do. His pacing is excellent—an edge-of-the-seat, can’t-put-it-down momentum fuels the storyline from the prologue to the climatic ending. His characters are well-drawn, his sense of place and world-building excellent. The plot is intricate, but believable. There is redemption for some characters, resolution for others—and those that deserve neither are left to flounder in their own hell. Justice is achieved, albeit in a confused, violent way.

In short, Bailey wrestles what in less talented hands could have been a formulaic story into something wholly fresh, engaging, and ultimately rich and satisfying. This is a book you want to own and read.

Paul H. Fry on “Who Doesn’t Hate Theory Now?”

In Academia, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, British Literature, Essays, Fiction, Historicism, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on April 13, 2016 at 6:45 am

Below is the next installment in the lecture series on literary theory and criticism by Paul H. Fry. The previous lectures are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here,here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

 

Paul H. Fry on “Post-Colonial Criticism”

In Arts & Letters, Books, Britain, British Literature, Eastern Civilizaton, Fiction, Historicism, History, Humanities, Law, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Politics, Rhetoric, Scholarship, Semiotics, Teaching, The Novel, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on February 24, 2016 at 8:45 am

Below is the next installment in the lecture series on literary theory and criticism by Paul H. Fry. The previous lectures are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

 

Allen Mendenhall Interviews Joyce Corrington

In American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Fiction, Film, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, Joyce Corrington, Literature, Novels, Screenwriting, Southern History, Southern Literature, Television, Television Writing, Writing on October 28, 2015 at 8:45 am
Photo by Robert Corrington

Photo by Robert Corrington

APM: Joyce, thanks for doing this interview. The last time we did one of these, I suggested that we might do another one day. I’m glad that day is here. I guess if there’s a particular occasion for the interview, it’s that you and your son Robert have recently finished your project of making the literary works of your late husband, John William “Bill” Corrington, available to the public. How did you do that?

JC: Bill began his literary career as a poet in the 1960s, publishing in the “little magazines” that were prevalent at that time and also publishing five collections of his poems. Then he largely switched to fiction and published pieces of short fiction in literary magazines and in three collections, which were themselves collected into a publication by the University of Missouri Press after Bill’s untimely death.  Finally he published four novels, the last of which, Shad Sentell, was published in 1984.  Since almost thirty years have passed since then, all of Bill’s works were out of print and available to the public only as rather expensive used books.  Our son Robert, who works for Microsoft and is very informed about IT matters, told me that Amazon and its subsidiary Create Space would accept digital manuscripts and publish them at no charge as eBooks or print on demand books that would be offered to the public on the Amazon.com/books website.  So we began a many years long project to make all of Bill’s literary work again available to the public in inexpensive editions.  The “many years” was due to the fact that we had no digital manuscripts.  I had to retype the poems, short stories and novels on my computer and then Robert edited the digital files and created original covers for the books in Photoshop.  Finally, with the recent publication of Shad Sentell, we are done!

APM: Having recently reread the entirety of Bill’s published works, what is your overall impression?

JC: It was interesting to read a lifetime of work in a relatively short period of time. I found that a sense of history permeates Bill’s work. Even many of his poems have historical themes and his first novel, And Wait for the Night, was concerned with the consequences of the Civil War, as were many of his short stories.  Also infusing the work is a strong sense of morality and religion.  This might surprise someone who casually reads The Upper Hand, which is about a priest who loses his faith and descends into the “hell” of the French Quarter.  Much of it seems sacrilegious and offensive to a person of religious sensibilities, but the first words of the novel are “God Almighty…” and the last are “the living the dead,” both phrases which appear in the Apostle’s Creed.  Bill’s novella The Rise’s Wife resulted from a deep study of Hinduism.  Of course, as many have noted, Bill’s taking a J.D. midway in his life resulted in many lawyers and judges becoming characters in his fiction.  This allowed Bill to explore the logos of a moral life.  Finally, and almost in contrast to all these other serious themes, Bill displayed an ironic and even black sense of humor in many of his poems, such as “Prayers for a Mass in the Vernacular,” in his short story “The Great Pumpkin,” and especially in his novel The Upper Hand.

APM: You’ve said that Shad Sentell is your favorite of Bill’s books. Why is that? 

JC: Mostly because the humor in Shad Sentell is farcical and not black.  It is a really fun read, if you are not prudish.  Shad, who is a “redneck” Don Giovanni, is likely one of the most carnal characters in literature and this, thirty years ago, was perhaps shocking to many readers.  I hope that today readers can see that this novel is (excuse my partiality) a work of genius that records for all time the character and language of the Southern redneck.  Bill shows he has a surprising depth of intelligence and sensibility that one would not suspect from his bluff and crass surface.

APM: Do you remember the circumstances under which Bill authored the book? In other words, do you have any memories of him writing it?

JC: Bill had been disappointed that his first three “serious” novels had received little critical acclaim.  He decided to write one aimed at what he thought was more to the taste of the general public.  In this I think he was far ahead of his time, but I hope Shad Sentell will eventually find its audience.

APM: I once read something that Lloyd Halliburton wrote about how you critiqued parts of Shad Sentell and caused Bill to rethink some passages. I can’t recall the details. Do you know what I’m referring to?

JC: I always acted as Bill’s sounding board and editor as he was writing a novel. We would sit over coffee in the morning or maybe a gin a tonic in the afternoon and discuss his ideas on what was to come next.  I thought he got carried away with the farcical fun of the Mardi Gras scenes and, when his agent agreed with me, he let me cut much of that material from the manuscript.  But likely the biggest change I suggested was the ending.  Bill’s first idea was to have Shad die in the climactic oil well explosion, but I told him I thought that was a wrong decision.  Despite his seeing Shad as a modern day Don Giovanni, Shad Sentell was a comedy, not a tragedy, and the hero survives in a comedy.  Bill went along with my suggestion.

APM: Where did the character Shad Sentell come from? Was he based on any one person?

JC: Bill had a very good friend, Sam Lachle, who shared many of Shad’s characteristics. During high school and college Bill played trumpet with local bands in the bars of Bossier City.  He had a very smart mouth and it would likely have gotten him into more trouble than it did if he had not hung out with two very large friends, Sam and Don Radcliff, who protected him.  Sam died of a stroke at an early age and Shad Sentell, which is dedicated to him, is to some degree a loving memorial.

APM: I assume the newly released version of the book that you and Robert have put together will be available on Amazon, right? What about your website?  Can readers find and purchase it there?

JC: My son Robert not only formatted the books but created a website, www.jcorrington.com, which lists all the books that are available on Amazon. There are also biographies and a menu of critical works.

APM: This changes the subject a bit, but you once mentioned, I think when I was visiting you in New Orleans a few years ago, that there was a graduate student writing a dissertation on Battle for the Planet of the Apes and that he was trying to read into the screenplay something that wasn’t there. Does this ring a bell? Am I remembering this correctly?

JC: Bill and I wrote six films, one of which was the last in the original Planet of the Apes series. Bill never took film writing seriously, which was probably for the best since as writers we never had any control over what was done with our scripts after turning them over to the producer who hired us to write them.  We were actually quite dismayed when the film Battle for the Planet of the Apes was released to find some elements had been dropped and others added (a crying statue, for heaven’s sake), but we wrote it off as “just an entertainment.”  Imagine my surprise when years later I received a phone call from a young man who was doing his Ph.D. dissertation on the Planet of the Apes series!  He asked for an interview which I was happy to grant.  I soon discovered that his thesis was that the films were really about racism in America in the 1960s.  I told him that I would not try to speak for the other films, but ours was actually a Cain and Abel story (the apes had previously been presented as innocent pacifists compared to warmongering humans and our story was of the first ape killing another ape).  The graduate student chose to ignore this and stick to his thesis.  He won his Ph.D. and even later published his dissertation work.

APM: I ask in part because the latest installment of the Battle for the Planet of the Apes series came out last year. That was Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which followed the 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes. What do you think about these latest films?

JC: I am afraid I did not bother to see it.

APM: Giuliana and I saw Rise of the Planet of the Apes in the theater, and we waited around after the film to see if you or Bill received any mention in the credits. I can’t remember if you did, but I’m inclined to say that you did not. Do you have any comment about that?

JC: I don’t think we did receive any credit because the Writer Guild of America would have sent me a notice to see if I wanted to dispute the credit.  They did this with the remake of our film Omega Man, which was titled I Am Legend.  I asked if there was any money involved and when the Guild said no, I replied that I did not really care what credit we received.  Subsequently a lot of friends were surprised to see a credit for us at the end of the new film and sent me emails about it.

APM: I’m now thinking these interviews should be an ongoing thing. I’d like to continue the conversation. What do you think? We could do one every now and then for the historical record.

JC: I would like that very much. I especially would like to have an opportunity to talk to you about the Collected Poems of John William Corrington and the Collected Short Fiction of John William Corrington.  These are also recently published and available on Amazon.com or through my website www.jcorrington.com.

APM: Thanks, Joyce, let’s do it again soon.

Learning What We Don’t Know

In American Literature, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, British Literature, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels on September 9, 2015 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here in The University Bookman.

I begin with a trigger warning. The following review contains references that could evoke strong feelings about the nature and purpose of literature, a manifestly dangerous field of human creativity consisting of stories about, and representations of, highly sensitive and potentially upsetting subjects, including but not limited to racism, rape, classism, war, sex, violence, imperialism, colonialism, religious persecution, suicide, and death. Those who find discussions or descriptions of such demonstrably timeless elements of human experience unpalatable or offensive should consult medical professionals before reading this review or the book it promotes. Readers are encouraged not to engage any aspect of this review, or the book under review, that might provoke hurtful memories, grave discomfort, or existential angst.

Reading is precarious enough as it is, without having to introduce concepts or narratives about complex perennial themes, fictional renderings of plausible and fantastic events, or the contingencies of everyday life. Therefore, if you feel you must avoid material that elicits a passionate or emotional response derived from the inevitably discomforting features of both lived and imagined experience, then you must not only bypass Robert P. Waxler’s The Risk of Reading but also lock yourself in a closet, plug your ears with your fingers, and shout la la la la la until you’re no longer aware of your subjective self and the sometimes painful, sometimes joyous ubiquity of reality.

Enough of that. If you’re still reading, you agree to hold harmless this reviewer, Robert Waxler, and the editors and publishers of this journal for any claims or damages resulting from serious discussions of literature. You’re hereby warned: reading is risky—hence the title of Waxler’s book.

Not just reading, but deep reading, is risky, according to Waxler, because it teaches us “about who we are and where we are located in the midst of complexities in the world.” Deep reading disturbs the satisfying complacency of both ignorance and certitude. It can make you unhappy, challenge your most cherished presuppositions, and force you to think rigorously and laboriously about the nature of human relations and our place in the world. A life without reading isn’t so risky, at least for those who prefer not to be bothered with inconvenient narrative or exposed to different points of view. Knowing you’re right without working for understanding is easy. Why get distraught? Why not simply “know” without having to exert yourself in contemplation, without exercising your imaginative powers?

My generation, the millennials, will take shameless offense at Waxler’s notion that we are situated, temporal beings with definite bounds and limitations, little insignificant persons in a vast web of human history, near-nothings within a cosmic totality who are destined to suffer the fate of every living thing. This may be overstating, if not misrepresenting, Waxler’s presiding themes, but the anti-egoist premise is implicit in his chapters. It is an irrefutable premise at odds with my generation’s prized assumption that the knowing self is fluid and permeable, subject to the malleable constructions of choice and chance, always appropriable and appropriated—never fixed, never closed, never immutable, never assigned.

For my generation, the anything-goes-except-standards generation, slow reading—deep reading—is anathema, the kind of tedious exercise rendered unnecessary by hypertext and the rhyzomatic Internet. A studied appreciation for nuanced story and linguistic narrative has been replaced by an insatiable craving for instant gratification, by trite sound bites and fragmented data, by graspable bullet points and ready access to reduced testimony. We’ve got information at our hands, this generation of mine, but no wisdom or knowledge in our heads.

Although he does not come right out and say so explicitly, Waxler seems to have my generation in mind. He portrays himself as “someone who grew up with books but now finds himself surrounded by screens, consumer sensation, data streams, [and] the spectacle of electronic circuitry masquerading as public transparency.” A child today cannot avoid these technological distractions. Waxler’s not an old fogey intent on bemoaning new media for the sake of the cozy familiar or Luddite quixotism; rather, he’s worried about what is happening to reading as much as to readers when the rhetorical medium incentivizes rank inattentiveness and scattered interest.

Reading properly, in Waxler’s view, teaches us how much we do not know, not how much we know, about our mysterious universe and human interaction. Consequently and paradoxically, he maintains, reading improves and expands our tacit knowledge about the quotidian things that shape our lives and inform our decisions, the subtle things we might overlook or misapprehend if we aren’t attentive. And we’re not attentive, most of the time—at least that’s what Waxler appears to mean by his emphasis on “the distraction of each flickering instant” in which “information and data pull us away from ourselves, set themselves up as sovereign, as if they are all-knowing gods.”

Having paid homage to deep reading in his introductory chapter, Waxler puts his deep reading, or the fruits of his deep reading, on display. He examines nine texts in as many chapters: Genesis (the creation account), Frankenstein, Alice in Wonderland, Heart of Darkness, The Old Man and the Sea, Catcher in the Rye, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Fight Club, and The Sense of an Ending. Then there’s a brief concluding chapter on the future of linguistic narrative—not a prediction or prophecy but a call to pensive action. These books have it all—sex, violence, death, sin, rebellion. They are risky.

Waxler encourages us to face our vulnerabilities and insecurities by reading deeply and widely, ever mindful of the nuances and possibilities of language and story. His subjects proceed chronologically, Genesis being the oldest text and The Sense of Ending, which was published just four years ago, the most recent. These subjects have little in common save for the high regard in which they’re held by a critical mass of readers. It’s premature to say whether some of these books are canonical—as in classics—but all of them are difficult and stirring: candidates for canonicity if they can prove their fitness over time.

All you need to know about Waxler’s thesis resides in his title—and subtitle. He submits that his subjects are “risky” or “dangerous”—terms laced with sarcasm and irony—because they help us to make sense of other people and our surroundings, which together amount to culture and experience. Understanding our concrete phenomenal surroundings, via literature, enables us to make sense of what Whitman called the “Me Myself,” or the “I” that was, for Descartes, the starting-point of metaphysics and epistemology—or so Waxler would have us believe.

Waxler’s thesis may be right—who can deny such broad claims?—but it doesn’t always play out as agreeably as it might in his analyses. Too much summary and synopsis presupposes a reader who hasn’t undertaken the primary text. Waxler’s local points are more interesting than his general conclusions about the worth of reading well and wisely—conclusions that, it must be said, are sufficiently apparent to go without saying, although they form the only discernable through-line in this exposition of disparate authors, texts, and time periods, and thus serve a vital function.

Waxler is not attempting to imbue his readers with cultural literacy; rather, he’s trying to teach them how to read deliberately. He echoes Kenneth Burke by suggesting that literature is equipment for living. We shouldn’t fail to recognize the skill with which Waxler dissects texts. The problem is that such dissection removes the strangeness of the reading experience, deprives the unseasoned reader of his chance to luxuriate in the sublime power of language and story. Waxler’s critical commentary simply cannot do what the literary works themselves do: provoke, inspire, move, awe, stimulate, anger, shock, and hurt. Therefore, a sense of repetition and banality settles over Waxler’s arguments: the biblical account of creation teaches truths regardless of whether it “happened”; Mary Shelley raises unanswerable questions about restraints on human ambition; Lewis Carroll’s Alice finds meaning in a meaningless world; Joseph Conrad’s Marlow and Kurtz help us “locate our own ongoing journey that defines us, each in our own way”; Hemingway’s portrayal of Santiago at sea instills understanding about “the truth of the achievement, the accomplishment, and the loss”; and so on. You get the gist: readers are vicarious participants in the stories they read; thus, the stories are instructive about the self. Again, unoriginal—but also undeniable.

Conservatives will be surprised at the manner in which Waxler enlists men of the left to make some traditionalist-seeming points. He mentions Lacan and Foucault—known in conservative circles for French Theory, poststructuralism, jargon, pseudoscience, and psychobabble, among other things—for the proposition that literature transmits virtues and values that constructively guide human activity and orient moral learning. Such references implicitly warn about the risk and short-sightedness of closing individuals within ideological boxes that can be stored away without consequence—or perhaps they demonstrate how creative thinkers can use just about anyone to make the points they want to make.

By all means read Waxler’s book. But, sooth to sayne, if you really want a risk, if you really want to live dangerously, which is to say, as a self-aware, contemplative being, then you should—trigger warning, trigger warning!—read the books Waxler discusses rather than Waxler himself. I’m confident the risky Waxler would urge the same course. He’s just that dangerous.

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