Monthly Archives: April 2010

Dissertation Thoughts! In a Slideshow!

I find that when I try to explain to my friends and committee members what I’m thinking about for my dissertation, I wish I could draw pictures of what I’m thinking about. To that end, I whipped up a quick and dirty slideshow.

Please comment! I’m writing the prospectus this summer and I’d love help on shaping my direction!


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The Rhetoric of Fiction?

No, I haven’t read Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction, although it sits there on my office shelf looking at me, begging to be read.

(Random side-note: do books want to be read, or does it annoy them? Like, when I reach down and pick up Booth’s book, does it start silently squealing, “Yes, pick me! It fulfills my purpose to be read!” or is more of a, “I was sitting here, relaxing and enjoying myself, until YOU had to come along and start bending my spine, riffling my pages, all touchy and creepy”? And what about food–does it want to be eaten or left alone? Oh, I’m off-topic….)

In fact, I don’t really have a solid idea of what Booth’s book is about, exactly. But here’s an example of what his title makes me think about:

In my last post I brought up Jack McDevitt’s Time Travelers Never Die, which I’m listening to on my commutes to Tampa. I’m on CD 11 of 12, and I admit my excitement with it is rapidly dwindling. Here’s why:

I can’t figure out where McDevitt stands on any of it. Not that authorial intention/purpose is ultimately knowable or even to-be-searched-for in a text, I know. But on the level of tone, purpose, audience, I admit I’m confused about where he stands–what he wants to criticize, which characters’ actions and motives are ultimately laudable or laughable, where he hopes we’ll land on our (inevitable) judgments about how characters acted in given situations.

I bring up Booth because these seem like rhetorical issues to me. If McDevitt is trying to make points with this book, even the complex and ambiguous and undefinable points that abound in fiction and art, they’re largely not coming across to me. The communication that could be happening isn’t happening. And again, I’m not saying that I want every author to preach at me in crystal-clear terms, a la Robert Heinlein or something. But I’m not even quite sure what general areas I should contemplating.

The easiest example is the main characters themselves. Both of them are rather similar to each other, flattish guys in their 30s who are dissatisfied with life and hope to find it through adventure and women and money. I know I haven’t finished the book (which might force me to totally change my estimations here, I know), but I don’t have any grip at all on if there’s a general suggestion about the kinds of things that really do lead to satisfied lives, or if McDevitt agrees with the protagonists’ choices, or what.

It reminds me of when we watched Hustle & Flow in Dr. Pamela Fox’s course “Class Fictions” at Georgetown. She said something like this: “The first time I watched the movie and saw the prostitute sing, ‘It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,’ I figured it must be ironic. I mean, here’s this woman who is being oppressed by this man, singing about how hard life is for him! But then I watched the DVD commentary, and the director was like, ‘This is the heart of the whole movie. Women need to get behind their men and support them, just like she’s singing here.'”

In other words, she read a certain rhetorical message in the scene that the director, it turns out, didn’t mean to be there. The communication event didn’t happen.

So when I actually get around to reading Booth, I hope he has something to say about this kind of non-communication, about the rhetorical expectations readers have when they come to fiction, and what happens when those expectations lead to confusion.

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Faking Out Your Readers

I’ve been listening to Jack McDevitt‘s Time Travelers Never Die on the way to and from campus these days. (I was slogging through Thomas Cahill’s Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter, which I think would be an excellent book to read on paper but which wasn’t the best for listening.) McDevitt’s book so far, after listening to half it, is a fun romp, but I can’t quite tell yet if it’s more. But this morning I heard an interesting chapter that I wanted to think through here:

The time travelers have traveled to the library in Alexandria, hung out with Aristarchus, and scanned a few of Sophocles’ lost plays. When they return home to 2019, they send one to a scholar, who reads it to try to discover its authenticity–she knows nothing of the time travel. McDevitt summarizes the play, the Achilles, for his readers, but he doesn’t give any of the actual dialogue.

The layers of fiction here are intriguing, no? The scholar is reading the play trying to discover if it’s really by Sophocles, and as she does so we readers think, almost simultaneously,

  1. “Come on! The plot sounds so Sophoclean because it is Sophoclean! They really got it from the past, so it’s totally valid! Believe it!” And,
  2. “Wait, this play doesn’t actually exist in the real world–I almost forgot! It sounds real to us in summary, but that summary was carefully constructed by McDevitt to sound authentic as part of his novel.”

In other words, the summary sounds so much like Sophocles that we’re supposed to root for a character to believe that it’s real, even as we know that it isn’t real. We’re rooting for ourselves to be faked out by a forgery. And the fact that we’re carefully given a summary but no actual dialogue helps ensure that the summary will succeed in sounding valid; we’re given only so much information on which to judge.

Is there a connection here to teaching composition here? I’m not sure . . . but I’m reminded of Candace Spigelman’s “Teaching Expressive Writing as a Narrative Fiction,” which I read two or three years ago. She tackles the question of students inventing life stories when writing assigned personal narrative essays, reminding us that all personal narratives are constructed, dishonest in one sense or another. (I’m oversimplifying.)

So I find myself approving of McDevitt’s complex rhetorical move, wondering if there’s a lesson there about constructing layers of meaning and truth in writing of any genre, layering sources with reports about sources and my own narratives about sources in a way that constructs the reader’s understanding exactly as I want it to. And that’s something worth giving students practice in . . . somehow.

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That Freaking iPad

I swear. I don’t have any Apple products, but that’s more of a “I’d rather pay less for a less slick interface” decision than a political manifesto (though my wife has quite a different stance). But everywhere I turn I’m reading more about iPads (Twitter! Blogs! The issue of Wired in the basket on the toilet!) and, I admit, I’m drooling a bit at the possibilities, even as I grow sick of the hype.

Two worthwhile perspectives amidst the madness are:

Cory Doctorow’s “Why I won’t buy an iPad (and think you shouldn’t, either.” One quote:

The way you improve your iPad isn’t to figure out how it works and making it better. The way you improve the iPad is to buy iApps.

And Steven D. Krause’s descriptively titled “Anybody who says that the iPad is the end of user-generated content or the internet does not know what they are talking about.” One quote:

The iPad has some pretty cool apps for actually making content as it is. Pages and Keynote are both pretty slick, and when it comes to layout, the touchpad might make it easier for novice artists like me to move around images and stuff by just touching them instead of dragging them with a mouse.

Instead of actually writing commentary, here’s how I commented on Krause’s piece:

Great points, especially with the specifics of what people *can* create on the iPad.

You’ve probably seen Cory Doctorow’s piece on this issue? ( A lot of his problem is that the apps and software that let you create content all have to be produced by (or at least vetted by, sold by, distributed by, etc.) Apple. He’d rather see a tablet that encourages you to open it up both physically and in terms of software, so that anyone who wants can create new hardware to plug into it and anyone who wants can move beyond the App Store distribution model.

While I tend to agree with him about how exciting that model is, I also appreciate your reminder that we stay down-to-earth in our rhetoric about all this–that we not scoff at apps just because they come from the App Store. Thanks!

Meta-question: part of me likes that I tend so often to see a middle ground, and part of me is sick of that quality in myself. Thus: it’s both annoying and pleasant to see myself doing so again. Bleah/Yeah!

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