Category Archives: writing

Meetings on M 4/22

Here’s the schedule for meetings on M 4/22:
11:00 Reid
11:20 Laura
11:40 Karen
3:00 Valerie
3:20 Anne
3:40 Rebecca
4:00 Sequoia
4:20 Perrin
4:40 Jenn
5:00 Julia
5:20 Alejandro
5:40 Sara
I’ll ask everyone how your research question has evolved and where your argument stands now, but this meeting is really for you: to think through ideas, troubleshoot writing and research issues, plan your presentation, &c.
The blog is still live but no longer required. Feel free to use it to try out paper ideas and discuss writing concerns. If you’re using it, I’ll let others know so that they check the blog occasionally and comment.


To open, I wanted to vent a genre-related concern… What else? In response to some previously enumerated concerns, I think Shteyngart isn’t writing romance or necessarily just satire. I think he’s writing really competent (possibly good) science fiction.

It is the duty of science fiction to show us how our world would change in the face of technological/scientific alterations. Sometimes these alterations are sharply noticeable and immense (e.g. faster-than-light space travel, sentient nonhumanoid races, multiverses, etc.) and other times, they’re just probable extensions of the technologies and sciences available to us today (e.g. cloning, genetic engineering, electronic communications, etc.). Super Sad True Love Story falls into the second category, and the only thing holding me back from calling Shteyngart’s novel good science fiction is purely personal: Lenny Abramov gets on my nerves something awful. What’s worse—I think that’s a sign of solid writing.

Let me explain.

Sequoia brings up the element of race in the book, something I also noticed, specifically in reference to Latinos, those who Lenny might refer to as the “vaguely Hispanish” (80). As I can remember, the first inkling we get of any sort of Spanish-speaking people or Lenny’s awareness of them does not come in the form of an actual person or community; it comes in the form of “a poster showing a plucky little otter in a sombrero trying to jump onto a crammed dinghy under the tagline ‘The Boat Is Full, Amigo” (7). This “Mexican otter” immediately sets the tone for Lenny’s own perception of various minorities in the world of äppäräts and chemical immortality and credit poles. Latinos, though physically present in the neighborhoods that Lenny’s parents drove through to feel better when he was a boy, are essentially in a state of para-invisibility. This effect is furthered by Noah Weinberg’s repeated use of Spanish slang during his webcast; much like the movie Blade Runner, the English of the urban future contains elements of various languages. This change, amusingly enough, doesn’t denote any kind of improvement in race relations. It’s just an aggressive form of appropriation for profit–in this case, the rendering cooler of Noah Weinberg through hip-sounding slang.

This para-invisibility that Latinos and blacks and other minorities have in Super Sad True Love Story is, in my opinion, the rather impressive manifestation of Shteyngart trying to write with a sort of futuristic verisimilitude. In the world that Lenny inhabits, he doesn’t have to deal with groups disenfranchised by the privatized surveillance state he works for. Does that make sense?

Abramov’s racism has even stronger ties to the privatized system of government that he supports, but I’m running out of room in this post, so I’ll save those observations for class, but I’ll list them briefly below:

  • The commodification of abuse (e.g. Lenny’s history of dating abused women, the abused woman running a multimedia broadcast of her abuse flashbacks)
  • The racialized commodification/diminution of the Asian female body (e.g. Lenny makes a point of repeatedly describing Eunice as small, he does the same for Vishnu’s girlfriend, Grace)

Week of 4/1

April is nigh, and you’re off on your projects. I’m reading the proposals now and will return e-documents with my comments at the end of the week.

In the meantime, you’ll get your colleagues’ feedback. For class tomorrow, read Fun Home and, if time allows, Cvetkovich’s chapter. As I said, the latter is more to open a conversation about genres of academic writing. It’s lower priority than Bechdel and reading the proposals+annotations. We’ll do peer review the last 30-45min of class, and I’ll also open the floor to conversation about the research and writing process. Bring questions/concerns, especially regarding the stage of the project you’re in now: research, reading, thinking, and annotating.

Finally, a reminder that Lauren Berlant is giving a talk tomorrow (M 4/1) at noon.

Proposal & Workshop

By noon on F 3/29, email your proposal + annotations/plan to Heather & your colleagues:

Jenn, Rebecca, Alejandro
Laura, Karen, Sara
Anne, Valerie, Reid
Julia, Sequoia, Perrin

For class on M 4/1, write a brief letter in response to each partner’s project. Guidelines for that letter are here.

“A good sermon is one side of a passionate conversation” (45).

Methinks this is easily the most ostensibly postmodern book we’ve read all semester. At least, Gilead is definitely the most self-conscious, and I mean that in a good way. Ames the narrator claims “It is actually hard for me to remember how mortal I am these days,” and later mentions having “strayed a little from [his] subject… from [his son’s] begats” (74-75). The text of Gilead seems to be a character in and of itself. The work functions just as much as a genealogy as it does a memoir. It’s person-as-memoir or preacher-as-sermon, the literal condensation of one man’s thoughts, meditations, and history into a text.

Ames/Robinson frequently leaves us hanging with moments of textual self-awareness: It seems that the Ames line of preachers places a high premium on texts in general. Ames the narrator bemoans the loss of his friend Boughton’s sermons, saying they “were remarkable, but he never wrote them out. He didn’t even keep his notes. So that is all gone” (40). Later on, Ames writes about the moon: “Light within light. It seems like a metaphor for something. So much does” (119). Did I miss a specific reference to something earlier in the text here, or is Ames merely admitting his own weakness as a narrator? There’s strong emphasis on Ames being aware of his textual temporality as well, when he addresses his son about Jack Boughton:

And you know, from living out years I cannot foresee, whether you must forgive me for warning you, or forgive me for failing to warn you, or indeed if none of it turned out to matter at all. This is a grave question for me. (125)

Robinson seems to align preachers with textual critics, as both have occupations (vocations seems a bit strong, here) depending upon interpretation. I suppose my main question, which is a bit broad, is this: What do we make of this level of textual self-consciousness?


I think Sequoia’s metaphor for race (the horse in the road, covered by a tent) is really an apt descriptor of how race appears in this novel. The longest anecdote about the Negro church comes in the form of a lengthy parenthetical on pages 36 and 37 of the first Picador edition, 2006. Della never once appears, nor does Robert; both are motionless in the photo and entirely bound by Jack’s narrative.

Does this sidelining of race tie into the self-consciousness of Gilead as a text? It seems like race is a purely parenthetical topic here.


(Image: Observation Point, Zoe Leonard)

Some Threads:

  1. I am not quite finished yet with Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, and I am not sure—at a little over halfway—just how I feel about it. I would tend, so far, to agree with Sequoia that something about its distance (and particularly insofar as the mode of writing especially seems to distance the reader from lived realities connected to race) makes me feel somewhat uneasy. Again, is this an uneasiness that others feel? I think the question of just how affecting (or not affecting) the book proves is also a compelling one. How does Gilead affect (or not affect) us as readers, especially if we are thinking about it as a sermon, a confession, an epistolary novel, a diary, etc.?
  2. Somewhat connectedly, perhaps, I have been thinking a lot lately about the questions of presence/speed/communication in contemporary culture. In Professor Cvetkovich’s keynote talk yesterday for the CWGS graduate student conference (entitled “The Feeling Body—Feeling the Body”), she spoke at length about different projects by artists that she sees as encouraging a kind of slowing down process, or that call for a more present attention to everyday sensorial experiences. (One such project that she named and discussed is Zoe Leonard’s Camera Obscura work; check out an interview with the artist here.)What I am wondering then, in connection to Gilead, is something, I think, about cadence. I find Robinson’s (or John Ames’s) writing to be slowing—maybe especially in the beginning, but also as the novel progresses. The sentences are often short and crisp, the text is often blocked off in relatively small sections, and there is a noticeable amount of repetition. Of course, to be fair, there are some longer sentences, too, and some sections of text that go on for several pages. But do those not feel somewhat exceptional?

Here is what I hope will be a useful example for what I am trying to describe:

I was struck by the way the light felt that afternoon. I have paid a good deal of attention to light, but no one could begin to do it justice. There was the feeling of a weight of light—pressing the damp out of the grass and pressing the smell of soup old sap out of the boards on the porch floor and burdening even the trees a little as a late snow would do. It was the kind of light that rests on your shoulder the way a cat lies on your lap. So familiar. Old Soapy was lying in the sun, plastered to the sidewalk. You remember Soapy. I don’t really know why you should. She is a very unremarkable animal. I’ll take a picture of her. (51-52)

Notice: the short sentences that sandwich the unusually long one that tells of the weight of light, the repeated words, the reverential tone, and (to turn to content and away from form) the attention to details of the everyday.

Does the meditative quality of the writing in Gilead then translate to the reader? My instinct is yes, but I am curious to hear what other people think. (Also, any sense of Robinson’s writing as similar in this way to Carver’s? Just curious.) Also, quite broadly: what kinds of writing (or descriptive modes) offer, like Zoe Leonard’s work, an opportunity for slowness?


Does Robinson ambivalently write race, or is it just me?

After stepping away from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, I’m ambivalent about so many things… I’m not even sure I liked the novel—for the most part I was unaffected by it, a rare experience for me as I tend towards emotional extremes when invested in a fictional world. To be honest, I think I might appreciate this novel when I’m older and perhaps more interested in delving into spirituality and “the meaning of it all,” but currently, the oscillation between confessional and sermon, intimacy and aloofness (an aloofness I found particularly noticeable around her treatment of race) was alienating for me—I didn’t seem to be a target member of Robinson’s audience.

The novel takes place in 1956: two years after the Supreme Court ruled to desegregate public schools in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, during the times of Negro Church bombings and bus boycotts, a year after Emmett Till is murdered in Mississippi, and just one year before nine African American students would step foot in Central High in Little Rock. I say all this to underscore the importance of race and the particular and peculiar violences of Jim Crow and the system’s dismantling. Robinson takes an interesting look at this time of extreme racial tension through the lens of a small family battling its own evils in Iowa and although race play does a pivotal role in the entire plot—the narrator’s militantly abolitionist-grandfather, Boughton’s secret black family and the narrator’s mistrust/misreading of him—I feel like Robinson’s treatment of race was used a device to illuminate (im)morality and filial piety in a lineage of men I felt very disconnected from. I’m a little disturbed that the morality and faith of Christian men are tested through black figures who do not move and talk freely in this world, they are bodies remembered or told of, but they have no active part in Robinson’s story (for instance, we see John Brown in a fragmented, hazy way as the narrator recounts a story told to him by his father).

I hoping I’m making some sense here, I’m finding this feeling I have about the novel hard to capture—but its as if race is everywhere in the novel but only in the background, looming and oppressive but still out of sight. For instance, when the reader is first introduced to the Negro church, it is mentioned in passing as the narrator states he “didn’t know the Negro pastor well myself, but he said his father knew my grandfather” (37). Keeping in mind the author chose to write in such a style as to distance the narrator from the events of racial conflict partially retold in the novel, I have to wonder about the consequences of writing in such a way. The very ordinary lives of the town of Gilead are impacted by race relations, the town itself serves as a spot on the underground railroad, but I feel like the treatment of race within the novel is buried (Ironically, I’m thinking of the scene with the horse that gets stuck in the middle of the road—like the specter of race in this novel, everyone can see the horse, but they just stick a tent over—hidden in plain sight). Do you guys agree or am I just being hypercritical?

Also, what to make of this ending and what I interpreted as a reference to Langston Hughes’ “Harlem”?

“This whole town does look like whatever hope becomes after it begins to weary a little, then weary a little more. But hope deferred is still hope” (247).

Explorations of Style

As you enter paper-writing season (or continue with your MA reports), I want to bring Explorations of Style to your attention. It’s a blog on academic writing that tackles everything from the emotional (“Shouldn’t I already know how to write?”) to the practical (How to write an introduction for a thesis). It approaches the difficulties of academic writing and the problems with it without cynicism. If you don’t want to read all of the posts, you can examine her 3 Key Principles.

Whitehead Meets Pynchon in “The Big Skyscraper”

Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist is a perfect successor to the postmodern mystery throne, previously held (in our class’s canon) by Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.

While Pynchon’s novel sort of engaged modernism’s epistemological shift to postmodernism’s ontological focus, Whitehead does it better—as well as crafting a world that cleverly straddles the borders of genre and literary fiction. Unlike Oedipa, who was a perfect model of out-of-touch whiteness in the turbulent 60s, Whitehead’s Lila Mae manages to be more relevant while inhabiting a pre-60s (or, at the very least, earlier 60s) world. While Oedipa was more of a cipher where readers could project questions and anxieties, Lila Mae is a character with her own, who we have no choice but to follow. I don’t know if I’d be audacious enough to call this novel a flat-out response to Pynchon’s novel, but it sure as hell reads like one.

It also seems like Whitehead’s use of pop culture references are more structured than those we’ve encountered in past novels. The semi-fictionalized New York City setting (“…the most famous city in the world… The Big Skyscraper” is as close as we get) descends from the Isola of Ed McBain’s 87th precinct novels. Sly reporter Ben Urich and fumbling thug Jim Corrigan receive their names from a reporter in Marvel Comics’s Daredevil and a cop/thug/ghostly detective in DC Comics’s The Spectre, respectively. Both the names suit the characters too perfectly for these to be acts of coincidental naming. Whitehead wrote a great article for the New Yorker on his own background in the world of genre fiction that makes an interesting companion piece to The Intuitionist.

The significance of these references, for me as a geeky reader, is that they add to the novel’s reaction to/resistance of Pynchon’s work in The Crying of Lot 49. Whitehead does give us a slew of genre references wrapped in a narrative that operates (VERY self-consciously) within the bounds of a noir-era mystery, but the presence of these tropes and allusions doesn’t eclipse his deconstruction of race. Instead, the tropes and allusions work as a sort of meta-construction! Whitehead has to contend with literary/genre divide legacies, as well as expectations of a minority author, while Lila Mae must contend with a Kafkaesque racial-political bureaucracy in the novel.

Write Betterer

With the first writing assignment due Friday, some words of wisdom on the writing process from McSweeney’s. The first morsel of advice is hilarious and true. Another favorite that took me too long to learn:


It’s so easy to hide in your little bubble, typing your little words with your little fingers on your little laptop from the comfort of your tiny chair in your miniature little house. I’m taking this tone to illustrate the importance of developing a thick skin. Remember, the only kind of criticism that doesn’t make you a better writer is dishonest criticism. That, and someone telling you that you have weird shoulders.