Sunday, April 26, 2009

Graduate Student's Literary Journalism

The issue of “relevance” is a constant concern among Humanities departments today, especially in these troubled economic times. How do you make literature interesting and important to a population that seems to be increasingly indifferent to, or perhaps simply too busy for, it? Third-year graduate student Dimiter Kenarov has some very strong opinions about questions like this one, and, as a freelance journalist and contributing editor to the Virginia Quarterly Review, he has put his thoughts into action. He has published an article on Milosevic's Serbia (Summer 2006) which was the co-winner of the Staige D. Blackford Prize for Nonfiction, a piece on the Roma in Bulgaria (Summer 2008), which was recently selected for the Best American Travel Writing of 2009, and an account of the double identity of Radovan Karadzic, the “Butcher of Bosnia” (Winter 2009). The blog recently sat down with Dimiter to find out more about the relationship between his academic work and his journalistic pursuits.

Dimiter is a native of Bulgaria where he began writing short stories, poetry and translations from a very young age. Attending an American high school, he developed his skills in English and found that the Anglo-American canon offered new and exciting ways to think about cultural figures. Rather than the mythologized writers of the Eastern European tradition, the Anglo-American writers had a certain “coolness,” Dimiter says, a kind of humanity that made literature matter to him in new ways. His ambition was evident early on: he once waited outside the door of Bulgaria’s most important literary magazine’s editor to offer his translations of some poems by the American poet Theodore Roethke. (They were published, to much praise.) When he went on to study as an undergraduate at Middlebury College, he eventually wrote a senior thesis that compared the poetics of Joseph Brodsky and W. H. Auden and showed the revitalizing influence that English poetic tradition was able to have on Russian poetry.

This kind of revitalizing crossing is exactly what is at play in Dimiter’s award-winning journalism. He emphasizes the similarities between the research he does for his academic writing and for his journalism. If the former investigates the context of a literary work, the latter consists of interviewing people – rather than reading books – as a way of learning about his subjects. He reports, though, that he uses the same kind of critical thinking, measured questioning and imaginative analysis in both endeavors.

These skills were especially helpful in his well-regarded piece on the Roma in Bulgaria. An ethnic minority that lives under almost apartheid like conditions, the Roma – also referred to as “gypsies” – make up 6-7% of Bulgaria’s population. Inspired by a course on African-American literature that he had taken at Middlebury, Dimiter wondered why he knew so very little about the culture and ways of life of the Roma. He thus proposed his piece to the editors of the Virginia Quarterly Review and set off to Bulgaria to explore a part of his home country that was eminently foreign. Aided by a guide, he crossed the barbed-wire border of the Roma ghetto and immediately found himself as the outsider. As a reporter, he says, he was very much the wayward, traveling gypsy that he had expected to be investigating. The tables had suddenly turned. His training in 18th century literature also helped him contextualize the situation of the Roma, however, since the latter are alternately romanticized as some kind of “noble savage” culture (we might think, perhaps, of the “Gypsy King” in Fielding’s Tom Jones) or completely demonized as a dirty, subaltern race to be scorned. Dimiter’s piece traced the lack of incentive that the Roma have to assimilate with larger Bulgarian society and the roadblocks that are put up on both side of the divide which seems to co-exist with the developing integration of Europe under the growth of the European Union.

Back now in Berkeley studying for his qualifying exams, Dimiter reports that he is delighted to be a part of a department that fosters this kind of thinking “outside the academic box.” He enjoys his peers and mentors who, along with their dedication to literary scholarship, make time for other interests like music, social justice work and other extra-academic pursuits. For all the talk of the insularity and isolation of the Humanities, Dimiter sees Berkeley’s Department as being particularly – if sometimes almost invisibly -- engaged with the world outside the walls of Wheeler Hall. He especially credits the administration and faculty of the department – particularly the support of the Graduate Affairs Officer Lee Parsons – who gave him the liberty and flexibility to pursue his interests, even if they didn’t seem, at very first glance, to line up with his specialization in 18th century literature.
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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Literary Links

John Pipkin's first novel Woodsburner brings to life an incident that Henry David Thoreau, America's greatest transcendentalist philospher/arsonist, left out of Walden, the time he accidentally burned down 300 acres of Maine birch and pine forest and earned the enmity of the locals. As Ron Charles writes in his review: "Over the course of this momentous day, Pipkin moves back in time and across the Atlantic, describing several other characters whose lives are lit by their own fires and altered by Thoreau's conflagration."

Thatcher's Britain through the eyes of the generation of 1979; Philip Hensher for The Guardian reads Durrell, Golding, Lessing, Greene, Pym, and Ballard.

Two hundred years after the birth of Edgar Allen Poe, Jill Lepore reflects on the economy of horror, the story of an author who never made much money at the genre he created, and died trying. "Poe didn't write "The Raven" to answer the exacting demands of a philosophic Art," she writes; but "in a world of banking collapse, financial panic, and grinding depression that had a particularly devastating effect on the publishing industry," he knew the value of good nightmare.

After five years as a colonial policeman, George Orwell "goes native in his own country" and discovers himself to be a writer: George Packer reads Down and Out in Paris and London in The New Yorker.

On the occasion of the author's 90th birthday, Tom Leonard confirms that J.D. Salinger is still pretty much the most reclusive famous author possible: "The man who stopped talking to the world more than 50 years ago doesn't intend to start now."
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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Professor Mitch Breitwieser wins Campus’s Highest Teaching Honor, the 2009 Distinguished Teaching Award

“When teaching, it’s tempting to make it seem as if one’s ideas came effortlessly, and to hide the truth, which is that coming up to a blind wall is a permanent feature of everyone’s intellectual life,” writes the English Department’s latest winner of the campus-wide Distinguished Teaching Award in his teaching philosophy. But,” as Mitch Breitwieser reflects, “such an apparent facility on the teacher’s part can reinforce a student’s feeling that, because he or she is struggling when those around seem not to be, there must be some intrinsic personal deficiency. And feeling that way greatly reduces the chance that the intellectual problem will be solved.” He therefore tells his students, both in class and in office hours, that “academic success depends upon properly understanding that encounter with difficulty”—because failure “most often comes not from a lack of intelligence or preparation, but from a wrong choice concerning how to respond to having come up against that wall.”

When it comes to ranging across subject matters, however, all walls come tumbling down. After thirty years on the English Department’s faculty, Breitwieser must surely hold the record for the greatest number of different areas represented by his teaching. His most frequently taught courses cover—at both the graduate and undergraduate levels—Early American Literature (i.e., of the 17th and 18th Centuries), 19th-Century American Literature, 20th-Century American Literature, 20th-Century British Literature, Critical Theory, Narrative and the Novel, and Literature and Religion. However, if you are thinking that four hundred years of American Literature and over a century of British Literature might suffice, think again. The list also includes Shakespeare, survey courses that cover 18th- and 19th –Century British Literature, plus some notably venturous seminar offerings entitled: “Contemporary Scottish Fiction,” “Detective Fiction,” “Film Noir,” “Science Fiction,” “British Suspense Fiction,” and “Hardboiled Fiction.” Even more remarkable, perhaps, is the fact that his scholarship mirrors that range. Breitwieser’s three published books illuminate all centuries of American Literature, and authors from the Puritan minister Cotton Mather to Graham Greene, the focus of his fourth book, to be finished this year. His recent volume on classic American Literature, entitled National Melancholy, has been hailed as one of the “small number of absolutely essential books on American literature written in the last decade.”

Yet, as the English Department Nominating Committee noted, his objective is not to “wow” students but to empower them. According to the Campus Committee on Teaching, which judges the award each year, this empowerment appears to be a longer-lasting “wow” after all. Student letters to the committee included the following comments, from recent or current undergraduates. One, who is a transfer/re-entry student, wrote that “the manner in which Professor Breitwieser conducted his seminar almost single-handedly convinced me that I had an individual place in the campus community.” Another transfer student, who arrived from the City College of San Francisco, reflected in these terms: “I am not only a better student because of him, I am a better thinker.” Moreover, his influence extends from incoming students in the Freshman Seminar Program (he takes on such seminars almost yearly in addition to his regular course load) and the Summer Research Opportunity Program, to graduate students at all levels, and, beyond that, to established scholars around the country. Former PhD students, now Professors at the University of Southern Carolina, the University of Washington, and Indiana University, sent the Committee long letters of support that remembered Breitwieser as a “legendary” mentor while they were here. One recalled with some envy his uncanny ability to speak “without notes for ninety minutes, in crystalline, perfectly composed paragraphs.” Another summarized very well Breitwieser’s characteristic form of sincere wowing: his lectures were “electrifying,” she wrote, but “the brilliance of Mitch’s persona is bound up in its seeming artlessness: there is no smoke and mirrors, not ‘star’ persona, just a remarkably gifted teacher who makes you listen and care when he talks.”

This department is very proud to hold the record, across the entire campus and its professional schools, for the greatest number of Distinguished Teaching Awards winners since the inception of the honor in 1959. Mitch Breitwieser now joins that group and will be honored, with this year’s other winners, at the Award Ceremony on April 22, 2009, at 5 p.m. at Zellerbach Playhouse. A reception will follow in the Zellerbach foyer. Please come, and join us in giving him your applause.
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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Looking Back at Literature

I had forgotten that The Atlantic had been around long enough to have reviewed books like Great Expectations, Adam Bede, and Vanity Fair when they were freshly published but they have. A selection of "classic" book reviews are re-printed here, and they're worth flipping through. My favorite was the blistering review of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, which hopefully predicted that the book would sell badly, such that "the chief damage done will be to the author himself, who thus dishonors his own physical nature; for imperfect though the race is, it still remains so much purer than the stained and distorted reflection of its animalism in Leaves of Grass."

As of April 16th, Strunk and White's The Elements of Style has been teaching us how to unsplice a comma for fifty years and a fiftieth anniversary edition has been published. Geoffrey K. Pullum, however, is deeply, deeply unimpressed; as he writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education, "The Elements of Style does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students' grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it." Whew!

Gabriel García Márquez's literary agent told a Chilean newspaper that she thought he was done writing, but a week later he was quick to correct the misapprehension. "Call me later, I'm writing," he said, tartly, when El Tiempo called him for a comment; "The only thing I do is write"

Ron Rosenbaum in Slate has no interest in the question of what Shakespeare looked like, but he thinks that the "controversy" over the new Shakespeare portrait reminds us of something important about the man who wrote those plays; as he puts it, "the fact that we now are faced with dual, or dueling, portraits, is that it reminds us that despite his singularity as literary genius, he was the supreme artist of ambiguity, sexual and poetic...whether or not the "new" portrait gives us another face of Shakespeare, the controversy over it reminds us that one of the things that makes his work so memorable is that it is so often, so deeply and profoundly, two-faced."

Hilton Als has a nice piece in The New Yorker on Katherine Anne Porter (with guest appearances by Truman Capote and Edna St. Vincent Millay. I'm not sure what to make, though, of the backhanded compliment that her only novel, Ship of Fools, is "interesting to read alongside her other work, if only because it confirms Porter's superiority as a writer in the short form."

Jane Austen plus zombies? How could it not be good? Well, Macy Halford is not amused and breaks down the math: "Eighty-five per cent Austen, fifteen per cent a television writer named Seth Grahame-Smith, and one hundred per cent terrible, the book effectively undermines the seriousness of, in the original, the Bennet sisters' matrimonial quest by suggesting a non-linear positive correlation between the number of zombies present during courtship and the degree of difficulty in obtaining a husband."

And some quick hits" Paul Freedman reviews a new translation of The Song of the Cid, Denis Donoghue reviews a new biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Marina Warner reviews Daniel Karlin's new edition of Edward FitzGerald's Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.

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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Calling All Readers!

In what follows, San Francisco native Lisa Riordan Seville, a 2006 graduate from the English department, with a second major in Art Practice, talks about the importance of “reading” for her. Lisa currently lives in New York where she is finishing up an internship at the literary magazine Lapham’s Quarterly and also works as the Communication Associate at the International Justice Network, an organization involved in litigation on behalf of detainees at Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan. Though, she reports, she does not plan to be a lawyer or a literature professor, she finds herself returning often to an eclectic mix of her favorite writers: Joan Didion, Herman Melville, John Milton. In doing so, she opens up the question of literature’s place in today’s world, more specifically: what does it mean to read? It is a question which we hope will not only interest the readers of this blog, but will spark some reactions that you will feel comfortable sharing with our online community.

Hers is thus a contribution, from her life outside the academy, to a debate going on inside it, namely the discussion over the practice of “close reading” (the meticulous attention to small verbal details of mostly canonical texts) vs. “distant reading” (a more globally historical view of the production of texts that ranges far outside of the canon and considers statistical matters like publication trends).


During my tenure as an undergraduate in the English department and in the two years since, I’ve struggled with the tension between reading critically and reading for pleasure. Though by no means mutually exclusive, there are moments in which the act of explaining words robs them of their meaning, or proves limiting. We so often claim to know; we point to our discoveries in symbols or syntax in order to stake a territory of truth. All the while, reading (and English as a discipline) depends upon the ability of words to elide those meanings and subvert our claims. Reading for truth is an elusive promise. Our forty acres and a mule.

Perhaps because I remain unsure of my relationship to the established notions of reading, I find myself setting out to make a place for a reading that walks a line between critical and I’ll call “emphatic” reading, an activity that gives a life to words on paper. I’m using that term tentatively, for I’m not sure what I mean by it. It’s slippery to attempt to talk about the more visceral, aesthetic, or essential relationship between reader and written, and that is why this is going to have to be a group effort.

That is, I mean this column to be a forum for talking about reading, one in which discussions use texts (and I’m taking advantage of the broad contemporary definition of that word) serve as starting points for a discussion of what it means to read, and be a reader, right now. Subjects might range from Lincoln’s inaugural to David Foster Wallace’s posthumous “Wiggle Room,” from Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” video to our understanding of the word “torture” -- because at the heart of each lie questions essential to people who care about words. At the same time, I want to think about when and if we must draw lines between reading literature and “reading” other kinds of “texts.” Is reading Shakespeare essentially and importantly different than reading the New York Times? Yes, I think it is. But why?

I hope to build a conversation, perhaps a series of posts on this topic treating particular pieces. Reading a blog, significantly, is an exceedingly fluid activity, and our collective energies can take this in almost any direction. That said, respondents should feel free to comment now, offer up their own readings of reading, or argue with others’ — all we ask that everyone remains mutually open and respectful. I hope that we can allow the conversations that take place within the hallowed halls of Wheeler Hall to permeate outwards, and those outside to seep in.
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Sunday, April 5, 2009

Graduate Exchange Student Flourishes at Berkeley

In what follows, Assistant Professor Nadia Ellis profiles graduate student GerShun Avilez, a PhD candidate in English at the Univeristy of Pennsylvania who has spent the last year at UC Berkeley participating in the Exchange Scholar Program. The program enables a graduate student enrolled in a doctoral program in one of the participating institutions to study at one of the other graduate schools for a limited period of time so as to take advantage of particular educational opportunities not available on the home campus.


Not long after the beginning of the semester last Fall, I got a lovely, if shy, email from GerShun Avilez, asking if we might meet up. I was a new professor in the Department and GerShun was a visiting graduate student, on the Exchange Program from his home institution at U Penn. I liked that we were two newbies to Berkeley, but we shared more than that in common. GerShun’s dissertation, which he completed while on his exchange this year at Berkeley, is about the relationship between literary history and aesthetics, a conjunction of abiding interest to me as well. Entitled “The Wake of Blackness: The Black Aesthetic and the Post-Black Arts Era,” GerShun’s dissertation re-examines the Black Arts Movement in light of contemporary African American literature and culture, filling in gaps in a genealogy of black American literature that might leap from, say, Ellison to Morrison without accounting for the period in between. The larger questions around literary history find concrete expression in GerShun’s interest in contemporary representations of space, sexuality, and concepts of whiteness and in how these resonate with, reflect upon, and contest earlier articulations in the Black Arts Movement.

GerShun, who grew up in Arkansas and attending Hendrix College as an undergrad and Temple University for an MA, developed some of the questions for his project early on in coursework at Penn. A graduate seminar led by Prof. Herman Beavers on contemporary African American writing, he notes, “produced so many questions….How do we think about the contemporary moment? What language do we use to describe the contemporary?” Meanwhile, coursework with Prof. Thadious Davis—who eventually became his dissertation advisor—allowed him to develop theoretical positions that inform the project. The project reads work by Samuel Delany, (Cal’s own) Darieck Scott, Jane Cortez, Sherley Ann Williams, and Audre Lorde. Its critical influences include Hortense Spiller, Michael Warner, Houston Baker, Phillip Brian Harper, and Robert Reid-Pharr, whose preoccupations in Conjugal Union: The Body, the House, and the Black American connect particularly closely with GerShun’s own. And this has been a busy year for GerShun: in between applying for fellowships, testing the job market, and completing the diss, he published his first article, “Housing the Black Body: Value, Domestic Space, and Segregation Narratives,” which appears in the current issue of African American Review (42.1).

When we last met up, I asked GerShun what it has meant for his life and work to spend this academic year on exchange at Berkeley. He reflected on the ways in which moving from East Coast to West, from Philadelphia to San Francisco, necessitated a spatial re-orientation for himself which, coincidentally or not, was happening at the same time as he wrote a chapter about urbanity and dwelling. He had been ensconced in Philadelphia for six years—experiencing himself to be “part of the architecture of Penn;” chairing the Education Committee of the annual Philadelphia Black Gay Pride events—and now he needed to re-imagine his life in a city, and a university, that were new to him. Things have gone well. Apart from the productivity that often accompanies distance from the familiar, GerShun has found that the initiative he has had to take in negotiating a new institution and forging new connections is great training for the impending transition from graduate student to academic job candidate. Also, in San Francisco he has been able to foster the balance between activism and academia that he valued in Philadelphia—GerShun volunteers at the San Francisco LGBT Community Center.

When I asked if GerShun would recommend the exchange program to other graduate students, he enthusiastically responded yes. His year at Cal delving deep into his dissertation and reaching out into the unfamiliar seems to be going very well.
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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Literature Today

Relations between Russia and Ukraine have deteriorated in recent years, but now we know the real root cause: on the 200th anniversary of literary giant Nikolai Gogol's birth, both countries are attempting to claim him. As Tom Parfitt reports in the London Guardian, "While the two countries sprang from a common east Slavic civilisation centred around the proto-state of Kievan Rus, Gogol's identity is contentious because he lived in a period when Ukrainian national consciousness was awakening. Vladimir Yavorivsky, a Ukrainian novelist and MP, said that if Gogol was a tree, "the crown was in Russia but the roots were in Ukraine".

From the London Times, the story of TS Eliot's "snort" of rejection for George Orwell's Animal Farm,which he turned down for publication because it was unconvincing: As he wrote, "your pigs are far more intelligent than the other animals, and therefore the best qualified to run the farm - in fact there couldn't have been an Animal Farm at all without them: so that what was needed (someone might argue) was not more communism but more public-spirited pigs."

At the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, an exhibit entitled To Sleep, Perchance to Dream explores "the nocturnal landscape of Elizabethan England, which "turns out to be a place in great flux, as new scientific and pseudoscientific ideas jangled with the old, haunted, superstitious ones." The Washington Post and The New York Times have some fascinating reviews.

The London Guardian reports that subversive cartoonist Robert Crumb has completed his long-awaited take on the book of Genesis. Crumb, working from the King James Bible and (Berkeley's own) Robert Alter's translation. In an interview at the New York Public Library recorded by Time magazine, Crumb talks about the difficulties of drawing God for the book: "He had considered, he said, drawing God as a black woman. 'But if you actually read the Old Testament he's just an old, cranky Jewish patriarch.'"

In Slate, Jesse Sheidlower reveals that the dirty pun in Britney spears' newest single is actually a intertextual reference to dirty punsters James Joyce and William Shakespeare, though neither have put out a new single in a while.

Finally, at Psychology Today, Satoshi Kanazawa asks the hard questions: "Is Aaron Sorkin better than Shakespeare?" Evolutionary psychologist Robin I. M. Dunbar "argues that good writers like Shakespeare are rare, because complex dramas like often require the writer to possess a fifth-order theory of mind (or sixth-order intentionality), which is beyond the cognitive capacity of most humans." And if that is the standard for literary quality, then the answer is apparently yes.

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