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Literature and History: A Response

A recent post at Pinky's Paperhaus entitled "The backwards academic," muses critically on the backward-looking focus of the GRE subject exam in English literature, required for applicants to English department Ph.D. programs, and, in Pinky's case, Ph.D. programs in Creative Writing.Having cited the breakdown of the GRE subject exam in English Literature (pasted in below from the post):- Continental, Classical, and Comparative Literature through 1925 - 5-10%- British Literature to 1660 (including Milton) - 25-30%- British Literature 1660-1925 - 25-35%- American Literature through 1925 - 15-25%- American, British, and World Literatures after 1925 - 20-30%Pinky expresses some concerns - both personal and philosophical:To sum this up, 70-80% of the exam focuses on work before 1925. 25-30% of the entire exam will be on BRITISH LIT BEFORE 1600. What concerns me isn't that I can't possibly do well on the test (I can't. I was terrible at recognizing poets from excerpts when I learned them more than a decade ago, and I don't know a caesura from a sestina) but what this focus indicates. The discipline, as it appears through the lens of this exam, is inherently colonial, still trying to prove to big bad monarch daddy that we deserve his love, we do, we really really do, because we can appreciate him and study his dirty bards and his pious poets and his sarcastic essayists and his metaphysical poets and his beowulf, thank you very much, and since we've been so good, may we please have some more moors, please?The essence of Pinky's concern, is the exam's historical focus - What about, she wonders, contemporary fiction, blogs, the effect of the internet on reading? All of these, she suggests, seem the relevant questions - not Milton, sestinas, and Beowulf.I have a few thoughts on these questions, both practically and philosophically speaking, as someone whose taken this exam, and is now entrenched in the academy. Practically speaking, the only way to do well is to spend a few months studying Norton anthologies: No one, even with a freshly minted B.A. in English, is ready for this exam without putting in some time. Also, it's a multiple choice exam: How, realistically, could they ask questions about the amorphous world of the blogosphere (Name the contributors of certain blogs? Pick traits of a blog essay?) or the yet to be determined effects of things like Google Books and Project Gutenberg on reading practices? Exams have genres too and multiple choice exams cannot help us explore abstract and emergent fields.Philosophically speaking, it seems to me that the desire to get a Ph.D. implies a desire for a deep understanding of a field, and a deep understanding means history. If you just want to contemplate the effects of the internet on literature and read contemporary novels, blogging and book-reviewing will certainly suit you. The doctorate in literature (and, I presume, Creative Writing, since faculty in CW do end up teaching literature quite often), for better or for worse, means theory, the history of forms, the evolution of genres, methodical consideration of allusion and borrowing.Someone with an interest in the internet's effects on literature and the rise of the blogosphere might naturally appreciate the 18th century English pioneers of the newspaper and essay (Addison and Steel's The Spectator, for one) and maybe read a little bit of Jurgen Habermas' Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, which resemble nothing so much as the ultimate fulfillment of quintessentially 18th century ideas about the periodical press as a virtual space for rational debate on subjects of public interest, a space in which all who desired to participate, regardless of class, were allowed. The rise of the periodical press and its role in facilitating writing as a profession for middle-class people was revolutionary - and we're still enjoying it today as we write our blog posts. Again, to read examples of the early "essai" as practiced by Montaigne - coiner of the genre's name - (or by Sir Thomas Browne or Francis Bacon) is to be delighted to discover that the rambling, loose essay format that blogging allows and sometimes seems to encourage is nothing so much as a return to the essay's generic origins. In sum, feelings about how a new technology impacts literature are only broadened by knowledge of literature's history.And a final philosophical point: The best modern and contemporary writers draw from the literature of the past. Joyce and Pound's titanic knowledge of the history of forms, T.S. Eliot's profound reliance on Shakespeare's The Tempest, Antony and Cleopatra and Tourneur's The Revenger's Tragedy in The Waste Land, Virginia Woolf's delightful literary critical essays, and her respectful appreciation of Aphra Behn and Jane Austen in A Room of One's Own for the help they'd inevitably given her as a woman writer. More recently, I offer J.M. Coetzee's Foe as a re-reading of Robinson Crusoe, his Disgrace as a reading of Clarissa (this reading is Blakey Vermeule's), Zadie Smith's On Beauty as a reading of Howard's End. Frank Miller's 300 as a rereading of Herodotus.I am also generally horrified by how little I know, how little my peers know, how little my students know or care about history. And I find myself thinking about the affable but fraudulent academic hero of Don Delillo's White Noise, a professor of Hitler studies who doesn't know German. Shortchanging history when studying literature inevitably leaves a similarly gaping hole.

The Most Anticipated Literary Adaptations of 2007

Since several others have covered the most anticipated books of 2007, I thought I'd fill everybody in on which of their favorite books are going to be ruined by Hollywood in the coming year. Since almost every movie made is based on some previously existing material (can we count Spider Man 3 as an adaptation?), I thought I'd separate the kids movies and the horror/comic adaptations from the "literary" adaptations. Feel free to point out the movies I missed.Kids flicks. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (IMDb) will dominate the box office in July. The latest installment of the juggernaut will feature a script by Michael Goldenberg (who is also penning the adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are (IMDb)) and direction by David Yates, who is best known for his HBO movie The Girl in the Cafe. I've never read a Harry Potter book, and I've never seen any of the movies either. It's safe to say the phenomenon has completely passed me by, so I leave it to you to decide whether this movie will be better than the ones that Chris Columbus directed.His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass (IMDb), which has been discussed before on this blog, will no doubt own the holiday season. After some turbulence during development and production, the first part of Phillip Pullman's trilogy will hit theaters on December 7.Finally, Bridge to Terabithia (IMDb) will get a new coat of paint, courtesy of Rugrats veteran Gabor Csupo. It's a live action version of the book, starring Zooey Deschanel, Robert Patrick, and a bunch of child actors with whom I am not familiar. No telling whether this will replace the vaunted 1985 TV adaptation as the definitive Terabithia for the screen.Gore filled fun-fests. Dominic West, better known as hard-drinking detective Jimmy McNulty on the greatest show ever to air on television, has a hand in two bloody adaptations this year. In Hannibal Rising (IMDb), he'll be playing Inspector. I can only assume that this Inspector is a hard-drinking Eastern European detective, but not having read the book, I can't say. The folks over at Slow Match are debating the merits of Thomas Harris' latest this month. Maybe they have the answer.In 300 (IMDb), adapted from a Frank Miller graphic novel, West will play Theron, the hard-drinking Spartan warrior. I wasn't that excited about either of these films before I found out West was in them. Now I'm planning on camping out, Star Wars-style for tickets.Mainstream Literary Adaptations. Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake (IMDb), directed by Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Vanity Fair) will debut in March. Kal Penn, of Harold and Kumar go to White Castle fame, has the lead role. Here's hoping he has more lines than he did in Superman Returns.April will bring us showers, a new baseball season, and The Nanny Diaries (IMDb), starring Scarlett Johanson, Laura Linney, and Paul Giamatti. I'm sure the studio is hoping to hit the same market that made The Devil Wears Prada a huge success, but I'm skeptical. DWP had a tour de force performance from Meryl Streep (Don't you just get the feeling she's going to get snubbed for the Oscar, by the way?) and a generally likable cast. The Nanny Diaries has ScarJo, who I detest. Tough call.Also in April comes Atonement (IMDb). Directed by Joe Wright, whose version of Pride & Prejudice was almost universally lauded, Atonement features a bit of controversial casting. Yes, traditional English heavyweights Brenda Blethyn and Vanessa Redgrave have parts, but the lead role of Cecilia will be played by the skeletal remains of Keira Knightly. Fans of the book are less than pleased.In September, I will certainly be seeing Feast of Love (IMDb), adapted from the Charles Baxter novel. The cast features Selma Blair, Morgan Freeman, and Greg Kinnear (Tangent: Isn't Greg Kinnear having one of the most sneaky-successful careers of the last ten years? Who would've predicted it during his "Talk Soup" days?). It's an odd choice for an adaption. I've read the book, and while I thoroughly enjoyed it, it didn't strike me as terribly cinematic.November will see John Burnham Schwartz's novel Reservation Road (IMDb) adapted starring Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo, and Jennifer Connelly. This is the prototypical small-ish novel adaptation, along the lines of The Ice Storm. It could go either way, turning into another In the Bedroom or another We Don't Live Here Anymore.Also in November comes the granddaddy of all literary adaptations, Beowolf (IMDb). Robert Zemeckis directs a script from Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery. Beowolf features my favorite bit of casting for the year - Crispin Glover as Grendel. How perfect is that?And finally, in late December, comes Charlie Wilson's War (IMDb), starring Tom Hanks as the eponymous Texas congressman. Julia Roberts, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams are also aboard for this spy drama of which much is expected. Mike Nichols directs a rare film script from Aaron Sorkin, which means there will be lots of walking-and-talking scenes and probably too much pontificating, but hopefully no sketch comedy.Several literary adaptations of note, including the highly anticipated The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (IMDb), The Corrections (IMDb), and Motherless Brooklyn (IMDb) are all slated for release in 2007. My advice is don't hold your breath for any of them. Until I see an actual release date, I'm not buying it. 2008 sounds about right for all of those. Until then, you'll have to settle for Rush Hour 3, Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer, and Ocean's 13: The Baker's Dozen.
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