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Monday, February 27, 2006

Okay, so I've switched over to livejournal, though I'm keeping this account open to comment on other blogs. The link to my journal is:

http://folklorefanatic.livejournal.com

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Ding dong, the witch is gone!

Larry Summers is quitting Harvard University at the end of the year.

More's the pity I wasn't there in Harvard Yard to see it firsthand (like I should have been for my senior year, but that's a story for another time). I was so happy when I heard that I bounced around the room during the newscast (no small feat in our cluttered home, I assure you). Hey, there have to be SOME things worth celebrating in these dark days, right? Right?

Summers sucked. I wish I could say it more scientifically and professionally, but I'm sure that somewhere, somehow, someone else already did.

Back in January 2005, George F. Will of the Washington Post wrote a misleading article praising Summers for fostering a sense of 'diversity' in opinions on campus. It was unusually tongue-in-cheek and sassy, so I replied in turn. ;) I don't have an electronic copy of his editorial, but I do have the reply that I sent to him:

1.27.05

It appears that many people are under the mistaken impression that Larry Summers, president of Harvard University, has endured aninquisition of intellectual scorn unparalleled since the days of the Salem Witch Trials. By using the word 'hysteric' to describe Prof. Nancy Hopkins and other outraged participants at the conference in question, detractors of the feminist movement hope to paint those offended by Summers' myopic framing of his puzzlement at the deficit of females with tenure at Harvard as mere left-wing reactionaries who seek to stifle dissent on an "ultra-liberal campus." Of course, the truth is far more complicated. I have little doubt that it was not the question itself that raised so much ire as the way in which Summers structured it — and as a former student at Harvard on Larry's proverbial clock, I can safely say that this fiasco is indicative of the underlying problems surrounding our president's tenuous relationship with his students. Perhaps Mr. Summers would have better served his attempt at drawing out a reaction from his colleagues if he had chosen his words more carefully: "Why do we currently enroll just as many women as men in our college and in many graduate schools but fail to hire a proportional amount of female professors?" Or perhaps, "Why does unequal treatment of boys and girls in adolescent education have such an impact on choice of careers in higher education?" Better still: "It boggles the mind that more women than men earn college degrees in the United States, yet the vast majority of all executive, managerial, tenured or otherwise top positions in all aspects of our society continue to be dominated bymales, despite marked decreases in this trend by countries far less industrialized than ours. Why is the American bureaucratic mindset mired in sexist hiring practices?"

It is all in how you phrase the question.

There is nothing wrong with debating the differences between male and female anatomy, physiology, or biological predispositions. Healthy debate is necessary for higher learning to progress and evolve. Mr. Summers, however, constructed his question to preempt any possibility that the lack of tenured women at Harvard is the fault of anyone but women themselves. America is making significant progress to close the gender gap and will continue to do so, as long as crimes like unequal wages for female managers inspire boycotts of corporations like Wal-Mart until the practices die out. In order for women to enter the corridors of power, unfortunately, the men who already occupy the space there will have to open the door for them. As it is painfully clear, the environment breeds the endgame.

Alas, this issue is not the only exercise in power that Summers has misused. This is not the first time Mr. Summers has stifled discussion in a brash attempt to provoke it. In the fall of 2001, I was privileged enough to enroll in Intro to African-American Studies, during which Prof. Cornell West taught an unprecedented 636 students in the basement of St. Paul's Church with his notoriously un-orthodox, bold, and interactive lecturing style. We broke fire regulations on campus with the crowds and had to transfer out of Harvard Yard in order to accommodate everyone; finding a seat was a biweekly, fearsome, and selfish battle. I learned more about philosophy, religious convergences, and racism than I had in all my previous years of education. I am someone siding with Summers would conclude that human nature has predisposed many of us to react better to one way of teaching and that, inevitably, on some intangible and minute physiological scale, certain types of teaching are bound to failure. Larry Summers certainly seemed to think so. In the guise of "returning intellectualism to its traditional roots," he criticized and denigrated West's teaching methods, and the ensuing war of words sent the professor in question and a second valued instructor in the AfAm Department packing off the Princeton. While I cannot deny that Cornell West is not always as receptive to criticism as perhaps he ought to be, Summers took West and his unconventional, innovative methods away from Harvard, denying many future students an experience that was, to me, one of few enlightening times that had the power to renew one's enthusiasm for learning and instill a sense of faith in higher education in those who may make the grade in typical lecture, take-notes-silently type courses but pass through them half asleep, their minds tuned out to the enthusiasm for—and profound meaning behind—the subjects that they study.

Then there was the ominous, blatantly partisan, and autocratic warning to the college community in the fall of 2002 that those students and professors who supported the petition for campus divestment from the Israeli economy because of the United States' continuing financial support of the military exacerbation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were being "anti-Semitic in effect, if not intent." If I recall correctly, the participants in the divestment campaign were concerned that our country has given more military aid to Israel than to any other country ever, save Iraq during the current war, which was not taken into account at the time. It was not a condemnation of Israelis in general, nor was it a protest of Israel's right to exist or the equal rights of Jewish people; it was a criticism of U.S. foreign aid that they believed was, in effect, escalating the violence in the Middle East. Since that speech, every single disagreement on the Harvard campus with Israel's current administration has met with accusations of anti-Semitism. I have born witness to numerous instances of this happening, including "witch hunts" against many progressive activists, and none of them predate Larry Summers' speech. As you can imagine, the campus political mood under our current leadership suffers from a plethora of maladies, not the least of which is a phobia of dissent. Talk about overreactions to imagined slights!

From my observations of Larry Summers, I can only conclude that he is as mired in an outdated system of thinking as he is in his beliefs concerning the values of a diverse education. He repeatedly falls into an "indignation industry" of his own making, and if that makes him a victim of an ideological crucible, so be it.

I guess it would have been suffice to say that the subject was 'tetchy,' huh? :D

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

I knew the explosion of fandom would hit the publishing world...

...I just didn't expect the response to be so vitriolic.

I'm not a romance writer per se, but from an authorial standpoint, this negative reaction to one of the most basic (and largely unavoidable) cliches [why doesn't LJ let me use accents? Argh] in fantasy, especially YA fantasy, makes me twinge.

Yes, I am sure if I were an agent and had 7000 queries in my inbox, I would also reject all queries with the most common thread to save time. I think Kristin made a sound decision. People who can't even write well using someone else's world and plots aren't going to fare better when they have to invent their own. I'm sure that thousands upon thousands of fans of Tolkien, Rowling and Lewis think they can write well enough for publication when it simply isn't the case.

That being said, transporting teenagers into an alternate world through some kind of portal/device is one of the few ways authors can tie our reality with another. It's the reason why The Chronicles Of Narnia are so successful--the concept of escapism, the possibility of the unknown existing in sync with our world represents that cluster of grapes that hang just above our fingertips, tantalizingly out of reach. It encompasses much of science fiction as well.

One ubiquitous similarity between various plots with portals is the problem of the two incongruous worlds merging in the future. The underlying threat that transcends the Harry Potter books isn't merely the evil ambitions of a singular power; it's the foreseeable calamity that would arise from the 'normal' world were it to become cognizant of the hidden one. What would it take to convince an outsider to believe? What might happen if the common inhabitants of one world decided to finally throw caution to the wind and wreak havoc on the other world? How would the control of politics work if each side publicly ignores and/or conceals the existence of an alternate life?

Another addition that alternate realities make to YA fantasies is the inclusion of the familiar struggles of adolescence. I think this is perhaps the most vital aspect of YA fantasy (and YA lit in general): how teens struggle with everyday concerns on top of the mess in which they've landed themselves. I know some might say that I' missing the point of Ya literature, because all of certainly doesn't need to be about teenagers, but I know that if I'm going to choose between a YA version of historical fiction and an adult version, the YA version had damn well better have characters near my age in it. Mary Sues, especially Mary Sues in fan fiction, survive and thrive because there is a market for 'ordinary teen falls through portal into vast, dangerous, unknown land and now has incredible obligations.' As for how many writers can flesh out this idea and do it well, I doubt the number is large, but I certainly don't believe it is zero, either.

Thus we come round to the central foundation of storytelling, a fact that both assists and inhibits the creative process -- that cliches are cliches not because no good writer ever uses them, but because they work.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Butt In Chair

Well, I did manage to break 1,400 words today. I wrote half of a short story and another page or two on a novel. Yeay me!

It was difficult to acknowledge that writer's block doesn't really exist, but I think I've finally slapped myself hard enough now that I actually get it.

Crap. Sleep attack. Well, it is late, but I woke up late today, so I shouldn't be tired until...argh...

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Plodding Along & Pat Walsh

It's slow going for my novel on narcolepsy, but I'm going to finish. I decided to shelve Bad Apples for a later date, as I don't want it to be the first book I submit to publishers and I'm not as excited about it as I should be.

My current project is a fictionalized (openly--I'm looking at YOU, Frey!) semi-autobiographical account in 1st person past. I tried writing it as 3rd limited, but the POV stilted my progress and obstructed my authentic voice, the voice that I want to tell this story.

Julie Worth at AbsoluteWrite posted a review of Pat Walsh's 78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Published & 14 Reasons Why It Just Might. Granting the endless title, I have to disagree with her opinion of it.

It must be personal taste that turns some of Walsh's readers off, because I thought it was a fantastic book for writers who've written something but who have yet to publish it, and perhaps it's a great read for those who haven't finished their first book as well. Contrary to finding his voice patronizing and superior, I found him self-effacing and humorous. Never underestimate the extent of an artist's potential reaction to his/her prospective middleman telling it to them like it is.

Pat Walsh doesn't sugarcoat it. At all. I LIKE brutal honesty. Time and time again, professionals in the publishing industry and authorial heivyweights have emphasized that the toughest criticism to stomach is often the most useful, and that's what 78 & 14 is: straight-forward, blunt discouragement to any wannabe who is writing for the wrong reasons, thinks s/he's hot shit when s/he's really lukewarm runs, and/or refuses to live in a state of mind we like to call Reality.

Maybe it's because I've already endured having some of the brightest minds of my generation call a lot of my work crap, or maybe it's because the past five years have been, more or less, a living nightmare for me that his words don't devastate me emotionally. I certainly didn't grow up with alligoator skin, and I definitely don't enjoy criticism of my strongest talent. But while several of Walsh's points hit home, I took them in stride like he intended, and I think (hope) that critics of his style will go back and reread the parts that were the hardest for them to take personally. That's the way we improve as writers.

Success as a writer depends not only on one's understanding the many facets of the creative rocess and perfecting them but also on the recognition that there are two faces of writing: artistic creation and the business model that sustains publication. The creative aspect of writing has no real stopping point, because one constantly edits and revises throughout the journey to publication. There is, however, a definite point when the business aspect kicks into gear, and many writers seem to forget that.

Which leads nicely into my upcoming post...