Tag Archives: fiction

Three Musical Thoughts

I’ve been better lately about keeping my Google Reader clean (especially since I learned all the keyboard shortcuts!), which means that I keep finding more and more that I want to write about for hours. Instead, here are three goodies I’ve been saving up, all posts elsewhere that touch on music:

1) Greg Sandow’s post “Wrong Family” has been haunting me since I read it: it’s a response to the Philadelphia Orchestra’s upcoming free concert, labeled “An evening of favorite classics for the whole family!” Greg astutely wonders “what kind of family they had in mind,” which cuts right to the throat of the classical/popular music split–at least the one in my psyche.

I mean, Finlandia is on the bill, which I tend to think of as mystical and revolutionary, political and beautiful, etc. etc. “But,” I’m now telling myself, “that’s how it was heard in, like, 1910. A hundred. Years. Ago.” There is groundbreaking stuff out there that today’s families would rather hear–but they’re not hearing it. I’m not hearing it.

(And I know what my arts management wife would say: we’re not hearing it because programming contemporary music is wildly expensive, both for the music rental and for the number of players often required.)

2) Speaking of music that today’s families would want to hear, there’s a short post over at Zelda Informer on “What Makes Game Theme Songs Memorable?” It’s a response to a video (that I admittedly didn’t watch entirely) that deals in part with the comparative worth of 8-bit, NES-style game music and contemporary stuff. But the most interesting line in this post refers to Zelda fans’ hope that the upcoming Zelda title on the Wii will have orchestrated music on par with what’s been done in the beautiful scores for the Super Mario Galaxy titles. The post author, Nathanial Rumphol-Janc, writes, “Also, if Nintendo doesn’t give Skyward Sword orchestrated music, I’ll be the guy heading the lynch mob outside of Nintendo’s headquarters in Japan.”

It’s interesting to see how music that’s actually been recorded from real, live orchestral instruments, as opposed to fancy computerized fakeries, holds such a cultural status for game music fans. Like, if it were 1989 and I were writing a science fiction story about video game music in 2010, I would describe the music as a complex utilization of everything that highly evolved computers could do. As it is, there seems to be a sense of, “Whew! Finally game music can sound like typical film music–you know, Braveheart and all that!”

Which I love and am unsatisfied with, all at the same time.

3) Some quotes are worth reading from an intriguing piece by Jesse Willis at one of my favorite audiobook sites, SFFaudio, called “I Hate Music.” These are especially interesting given my thinking on the rhetoric of music lately, given his claim that . . . well, you can just read it:

If it isn’t funny, isn’t literary, if it isn’t connected to some emotional or visual memory already in me, I just refuse . . . .

Even though I don’t “hate music,” I absolutely see his point here: we respond to things when they pique some sort of existing interest/memory/experience in us. That changes the nature of the communication event (yes, I just used a noun as an adjective–and liked it!) and suggests a rhetorical technique for music composers: to purposefully refer to the old (which we all know is done in pretty much all music anyway). Jesse just seems more aware of this natural occurrence than many of us would.

He ends with, “This is probably one of the reasons I’m so passionate about audiobooks.” Intriguing to me because of a personal experience: I’ve been listening my way through all of Orson Scott Card’s Ender and Bean books. I just finished Shadow of the Hegemon, which had the most elevator-ishly bad “between sections” music I’ve ever heard–so when a post on an audiobook blog mentioned hating music, I expected that he would write about hating audiobook filler music. That’s not what he discussed–*but* it still touched on my listening, because Card ends each of these books with friendly, exclusive-feeling afterwards in his own voice. And in these audio-only afterwards (afterwords?) he often says that hearing his books read aloud is the ideal way to experience them.

So: a composer of words who prefers aural delivery of those words, but whose work is also associated (in my mind) with lousy music delivery. Huh.

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More on Rhetoric in Fiction

I wrote a few days ago about the rhetoric of fiction, musing about what kinds of expectations fiction authors create in readers, and the weird reactions that result when readers’ expectations aren’t met.

I’m thinking these days less about the rhetoric of fiction as a whole and more about examples of rhetorical appeals in fiction, as made by the characters. I think it would be fun to teach a course to English majors by using fiction (and TV shows and movies) to give examples of people persuading each other in all kinds of complex ways.

I’m writing this post because I’ve never really approved of using literature to teach rhetorical writing skills. That’s because it’s fairly common for graduate students in literature at my university to teach first-year composition for their first few years, and it seems to me that they often try to turn it into a literature class, not an introduction to rhetoric class. Like, I would rather spend my precious little class time with students’ writing as the focus of the class, not in an open-ended, interpretive, lit-class-style conversation about whatever novel or short story we were assigned to read. I’m partly passionate about this because I’ve been convinced by rhet/comp scholars who feel similarly, and partly because I see this as the biggest failure of my two years teaching high school English: I thought chatting about books would make students better writers, but it usually didn’t.

BUT. I’m increasingly interested in the idea of an advanced comp class, for folks who have already taken the required two comp courses, where we read examples of characters using persuasive appeals. Here’s where I would start:

  1. G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday (full text and excellent free audiobook): I would have students read the first three chapters, which are full of arguments between individuals, arguments given in speeches to a group, and identity-switches (which are necessarily ethos-switches). I don’t want to be too spoiler-y, but this stuff is begging to be analyzed rhetorically–and if students read the whole book, it could even be read from a big-picture angle too, as we question the big-picture argument that Chesterton makes in the novel about the nature of God.
  2. Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game: I want students to read the chapter where Ender’s story is put aside as we learn about the online rhetorical genius of Peter and Valentine as they literally change politics through disguised pseudonyms in a chat room. (I’ve written about this before.)
  3. The Constant,” a season-4 episode of Lost (and probably my favorite episode of the series): Desmond’s consciousness is traveling between his 1996 self and 2004 self, and he has to convince people that he’s telling the truth or he’s going to die. He relies on all sorts of persuasive appeals with increasing desperation–and (SPOILER ALERT) he’s saved when he finally finds his constant in both time frames–or perhaps it’s not a stretch to say he focuses on his thesis throughout his essay. Just sayin’. (I was honored to give a presentation on my efforts to teach this episode from this angle at the 2009 International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts.)
  4. Hippocratic Oath,” a season-4 episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, for very similar reasons: characters disagree with each other on really sticky ethical grounds, and they argue about it in all kinds of fascinating ways. And to DS9’s great credit, they refuse to cleanly resolve the issue. Love it.

What else?

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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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Delpit’s Question

In Fall 2006, I took a course that was co-listed with Georgetown’s English department and the Georgetown Law School. I admit I can’t remember what the course was called, but it had to do with understanding the legal angles of the failure of U.S. primary and secondary schools. As part of the course, we volunteered with reading and homework help at a nearby community center, and as prep for considering the politics of reading, we read a lot of children’s books and wrote one ourselves.

Mine was a sci-fi story about a boy raised on the moon going to Hogwarts school on an elite space station. The story is called Delpit’s Question, and I figure this blog is as good a place as any to post it–partly because I’m excited to see the kinds of things Scribd can do in a blog setting. We also wrote an explanatory essay about what we were trying to do in the story; here’s a blurb:

The central question of the book, however, revolves around Delpit’s interactions with his teachers.  This conflict of understanding is designed specifically to demonstrate the structural, legal barriers to students trying to learn the curriculum and social codes of power in an unfamiliar setting.  Delpit’s question (“What do I know?”) is a tool for me to bring these underlying legal issues to the surface in his first two days at School in the Stars (SIS).  After all, I don’t want readers to walk away from this story only annoyed at the teachers’ close-minded attitudes; the corporate and government sponsors of SIS structured the school as elite setting designed to train elite children, and such goals (though unspoken) result in teachers being hired with certain blinders.  For a teacher to survive at SIS, he or she needs to be either White (American or European) or non-White but steeped so thoroughly in academic discourse that he retains no sense of identification with the discourse of his home culture (as with Mr. Amalendu).  It’s only natural that the things Delpit knows (the science of colors, music, predictive logic, ways of interacting) aren’t in line with the knowledge his teachers expect him to have.  In her article (pdf), Lisa Delpit quotes a Black principal taking doctoral classes who expresses her frustration with teachers who, when hearing her descriptions of racial and cultural bias, will only “look and nod.  The more I try to explain, they just look and nod, just keep looking and nodding.  They don’t really hear me” (124).  Ms. Merino is the prime example of this “silenced dialogue” in Delpit’s Question: when Delpit first approaches her she answers glibly and “smile[s] as if she had solved all of his problems” (26).  After Delpit goes beyond his comfort zone to push for a better answer, she still does nothing but dismiss his problems.  “That just can’t be helped,” she says towards the end of their exchange, exclaiming, “They all started talking just like the rest of us in no time!  I’m sure you’ll be no different!” (28)  Not only is Delpit’s knowledge not accepted as worthwhile at SIS, his ability to question that fact is squelched by a discourse that doesn’t allow room for his participation.

Enjoy! (Maybe. I wrote this a while ago, so I’m not completely positive of its quality. But it’s worth sharing.)

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A Blog! (And W1N5T0N)

I figure it’s time to start a blog–for all the usual reasons a PhD student like me does:

  • To help me organize thoughts and responses to all the reading I’m doing for qualifying exams and an eventual dissertation
  • To set up a place to hear a mix of comments and conversations from my different communities (current and past student and faculty colleagues; scholars in the field; buddies who are interested in cool things)
  • To celebrate coolnesses worthy of celebration

Since I’m studying new media, intellectual property, remixing, fan fiction, information literacy, and delivery in classical rhetoric, you might find anything at all relating to those topics on here. But of course, I reserve the right to mention anything else that comes up as well.

For example:

Cory Doctorow’s site recently mentioned this exciting site, W1N5T0N, that posts the entirety of his novel Little Brother online in a format allowing users to make paragraph-level comments (powered by digress.it, a WordPress plug-in).

I’ve seen this concept used before for academic work (an undergrad thesis in Lost and a stellar CCCC 2009 panel, “On Making Waves without Falling Out of the Boat: The Experience of Composing an Electronic Dissertation”), but never for fiction.  It seems something like reading a fancy version of Shakespeare: lots of footnotes, half of which aren’t welcome and the other half of which are crucial insights that I’m glad I got. The difference, of course, is the people who are allowed to enter the conversation about the work: everyone, or only fancy, oft-published scholars.

There also seems that there’s a tension here: the best annotated works will be those that are popular enough to have a lot of people drop by to add annotations, but that eventually makes the novel that much slower to read as you pop back and forth between texts. (And it’s kind of sad, I imagine, to see a text formatted to allow comments that no one will comment on–something like passing a wonderfully small corner store that no one ever visits.) Doctorow’s work seems perfect in this respect: mid-level popularity with a dedicated (and, er, geeky) fan base that really believes in his copy-left agenda.

Now all we need is for the perfect ebook reader to come to pass–it seems to me that the more seamless the ability to add comments, the more services would offer it, and the more I would drool over it. In a recent Wired piece, Steven Levy describes Chris Anderson’s eventual dream for readers, which I think would fit nicely with the idea of the ever-annotated novel:

When I showed the DX to Wired‘s editor in chief, he rotated it to landscape mode to see whether it was wide enough to convey the experience of a magazine spread—it covered less than half the territory. Even the expanded screen could deliver only a shrunken facsimile. But then he took the leather binder that Amazon sells to cover the reader and flipped it open. The folio fit the open pages of Wired almost precisely. Imagine that binder crammed full of silicon and liquid crystal—that’s the form factor of the future periodical.

Drool, indeed!

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