Tag Archives: books

10 of the best books I read in 2020

In chronological order (of when I read them):

  1. Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year
  2. James S.A. Corey, The Expanse (series)
  3. Ursula K. Leguin, The Lathe of Heaven
  4. Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad
  5. Natalee Caple, Love in the Chthulucene (Cthulhucene)
  6. Shirley Jackson, Novels & Stories
  7. Dionne Brand, Luce Ostinata / Tenacious Light
  8. Joshua Whitehead, Full-Metal Indigiqueer
  9. Jeffrey Weinstock, ed., The Monster Theory Reader
  10. Philip Pullman, The Book Of Dust (series)

New book: Shape Your Eyes By Shutting Them

It’s a delight to announce the publication of my debut book of poems, Shape Your Eyes By Shutting Them, from Athabasca University Press. At the link you can buy a print copy or download a free, open-access PDF copy. I’m a firm believer that open access doesn’t mean losing sales, it means gaining audience, and the audience for poetry (which has grown significantly of late) can always use broadening. Open access publishing with AU Press lets me extend a web-wide invitation to #OpenPoetry.

I’m surprised and honoured by the early praise given the book by two major Canadian writers. Di Brandt (author of Glitter & Fall) calls the book “a brilliant, crazy, deliciously carnivalesque romp through the surreal landscape of our times”; and Douglas Barbour (author of Listen. If) calls it “a wild mixtape of literary forms.” I’m inexpressibly grateful for these authors’ kind, generous words.

The book uses Surrealist techniques, like cut-up, juxtaposition, and détournement, in a fugue of poetic forms (centos, science fiction, sonnets, etc.) to tackle subjects ranging from love and work to anxiety disorders and ecological crisis. Moving from eroticism to the macabre and from transformative quotation to the individual idiom, the book enacts Northrop Frye’s claim that “poems can only be made from other poems,” and shows how citation is integral to creativity; authors need fair dealing too.

To give a sense of my work’s debts to others, I’ve created a mixtape of the songs that the book quotes, alludes to, or otherwise references. This mix sequences songs in the order in which their excerpts appear in the book. (Some poems quote no music, and some poems quote more than one song.) The mix includes all songs listed in the book’s Acknowledgments, and other songs from which the book uses short excerpts like titles or very short phrases. More than just further acknowledgment, this mix also means remuneration: Mixcloud pays royalties (to labels at least, and hopefully to artists too). And many artists featured in this mix are Canadian. (Support Can con!)

Whether you #OpenPoetry in print or digitally, I hope you like what you find. Thanks for reading.

Track list

00:00 Peter Gabriel, “Gethsemane”
01:36 Karyn Levitt, “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life”
03:28 Heart, “These Dreams”
07:46 The Bee Gees, “More Than a Woman”
11:03 Shania Twain, “Man! I Feel Like a Woman”
14:51 The Zombies, “She’s Not There”
17:25 Wu-Tang Clan, “Da Mystery of Chessboxin'”
22:08 R.E.M., “So. Central Rain”
25:34 R.E.M., “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”
29:12 The Tragically Hip, “New Orleans is Sinking”
33:13 Paul Robeson, “Ol’ Man River”
37:50 Michael Jackson, “Thriller”
43:47 The Jesus and Mary Chain, “April Skies”
47:44 Bob Geldof, “Thinking Voyager 2 Type Things”
55:54 Stevie Wonder, “Heaven Help Us All”
59:24 The Muppet Show cast, “Why Can’t We Be Friends”
1:01:35 The Boys Next Door, “Shivers”
1:06:20 Brewer and Shipley, “One Toke Over the Line”
1:09:43 The Velvet Underground, “Sister Ray”
1:27:05 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “Breathless”
1:30:11 Kate Bush, “Wuthering Heights”
1:34:48 Erasure, “Blue Savannah”
1:38:59 Sarah McLachlan, “O Canada”
1:40:39 Louis Armstrong, “I Guess I’ll Get The Papers and Go Home”
1:43:08 Tori Amos, “Tear In Your Hand”
1:48:06 The English Beat, “Mirror In the Bathroom”
1:50:55 Aphrodite, “Tower Bass”
1:56:24 The Spoons, “Romantic Traffic”
1:59:50 Enigma, “Mea Culpa”
2:04:21 Cowboy Junkies, “‘Cause Cheap is How I Feel”

It’s alive. IT’S ALIVE!

Here’s one way to mark the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818: I’m delighted to announce the publication of my new book The Medium Is the Monster: Canadian Adaptations of Frankenstein and the Discourse of Technology. It’s published by Athabasca University Press, and it’s available in hardcover, paperback, and open-access PDF.

To order, see Indigo, Amazon, or UBC Press (AUP’s distributor).

To read the open-access PDF, see AU Press’ webpage for the book and click the Free PDF tab.

Briefly, the book argues, first, that Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein effectively reinvented the meaning of the word “technology” for modern English; and, second, that Marshall McLuhan’s media theory and its adaptations in Canadian pop culture (by icons like David Cronenberg, William Gibson, Margaret Atwood, and Deadmau5) have popularized this Frankensteinian sense of technology.


“Happy Birthday, Frankenstein!”

Athabasca University Press’ Open Book Blog has a new post about the Frankenstein bicentennial: “Happy Birthday, Frankenstein!” 
The post curates a sampling of links to just a few of the Canadian Frankenstein adaptations discussed in my book #TheMediumIsTheMonster: from Larissa Lai’s writing and Matt MacFadzean’s playwriting, to the music of Deadmau5 and more.

This blog posts makes a great multimedia supplement to the book, for readers who may not know of some of these works.

Romanticism versus repetitive beats: On Levitin’s This is your brain on music, part 2

If I was an old-school fifty-pound boombox
Would you hold me on your shoulder wherever you walk?
Would you turn my volume up in front of the cops
And crank it higher every time they told you to stop?
(Gym Class Heroes)

In my first post about Levitin’s book This is your brain on music, I described it as engaging and problematic; this post takes up the problematic part. Levitin’s study is problematic for a couple of reasons that both might be described as symptoms of Romanticism. In Levitin’s emphasis on emotion and his bias against automation, the discourse and ideology of Romanticism informs the premises and some of the specific arguments of this book.

A recurring claim in the book is the idea that music is primarily an emotional experience. “The essence of music performance is being able to convey emotion,” Levitin writes of musicianship (204); in the same chapter, he broadens the claim from the context of production to encompass reception as well: “What most of us turn to music for is an emotional experience” (208). Levitin links this emphasis on emotion to a related emphasis on expression; reflecting on the research and teaching of music, he asks “at what point in the curriculum is [sic] emotion and expressivity taught?” (208): the question is ultimately rhetorical, in his finding that the teaching of music and the research of musicianship are not focused on “the emotional” but rather on “the technical” (209). The opposition here between the emotional and the technical relates to the contrasts and conjunctions that Levitin finds between music and language, in the context of evolution:

As a tool for activation of specific thoughts, music is not as good as language. As a tool for arousing feelings and emotions, music is better than language. (267)

I’m not disputing Levitin’s scientific point here about music, language, emotion, and cognition; I’m observing how the opposition between emotion and technique in the context of music production resonates with that between emotion and thought in the context of human evolution, reinforcing western culture’s long-standing division of the faculties – the affective and the cognitive, the expressive and the intellectual, the heart and the mind – in a way that music itself has taken a role in problematizing and critiquing, as documented in work on electronic dance music (EDM) by British scholars Jeremy Gilbert and Ewan Pearson, and in work on black Atlantic music by Kodwo Eshun and Paul Gilroy, among others. For Eshun, Afro-Futurist music is as much a practice of multimedia theorizing, narrating, and knowledge production as it is a practice of moving and being moved; for Gilroy, black diasporic music represents a complex articulation of class and racialization according to discourses of gender and sexuality – and, furthermore, bears witness to the continuing fallout of Atlantic slavery. Surveying such work, Angela McRobbie summarizes:

It has been up to black writers in Britain, such as Paul Gilroy, to demonstrate just how much thinking there is in black music. Such music can hardly contain the investment of artistry, politics, history, and literary voice, so that as an aesthetic it is, by definition, spilling out and overflowing, excessive, a first destination for social commentary, dialogue, and rap that leaves those of us still caught in the prison of language far behind. (43-4)

Eshun’s work, for its part, explores how Afro-Futurist music challenges and reconfigures the western division of the faculties, arguing that knowledge can be produced somatically and kinaesthetically, that theory can happen deep in the grooves of an acetate dubplate. That work like his does so with reference to music that is now largely if not exclusively electronic brings me to the second symptom of Romanticism in Levitin’s work: the bias against automation and the corresponding fetishization of “liveness” (as Philip Auslander calls it). This bias only crystallizes in one passage of Levitin’s book, but its implications resonate throughout his discussions of music production and reception, composition and expectation. In chapter six, Levitin turns to the subject of “groove”: “the way in which beat divisions create a strong momentum … that quality that moves the song forward, the musical equivalent to a book you can’t put down” (170). Levitin’s example of great groove – and it’s indisputably a great example – is Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” (a track no DJ should be without). For Levitin, Wonder’s drumming in the opening bars of “Superstition” exemplify groove in terms of the musician’s exploitation of the listener’s expectations: how “he keeps us on our mental toes by changing aspects of the pattern every time he plays it, holding just enough of it the same to keep us grounded and oriented” (171). So far, so good. We know what groove is now, and we hear it, mentally, in his sampling of Wonder. But where Levitin takes the discussion of groove next is less to science than to Romanticism, in a passage reminiscent of Theodor Adorno’s hostility to “mechanical” music:

Musicians generally agree that groove works best when it is not strictly metronomic – that is, when it is not perfectly machinelike. Although some danceable songs have been made with drum machines (Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up,” for example), the gold standard of groove is usually a drummer who changes the tempo slightly according to aesthetic and emotional nuances of the music; we say then that the rhythm track, that the drums, “breathe.” (171-72)

In the space of two sentences, Levitin invokes Romantic assumptions – expressivity, spontaneity, organicism, and liveness (embodied presence, “being there”) – to amplify the mystique of traditional, non-technologically mediated musicianship, and all at the expense of the most globally popular and aesthetically significant music forms since the 1970s: dub and dancehall reggae, rap, disco, and its EDM successors, from Chicago house to dubstep. From the perspective of popular music studies, the concession that “some danceable songs have been made with drum machines” has got to be the understatement of the century.

This is as live as it gets

This is not at all to suggest anything as simplistic as the notion that drumming musicianship is obsolete; it is, rather, to show that the idea of drumming evoked here makes a specific and very narrow assumption about musicianship, an assumption that is reminiscent of the interwar Musicians’ Union lobbying against recorded music on behalf of “live” bands (Thornton 38-39). And the assumption becomes all the stranger in its contrast to Levitin’s arguments, elsewhere in the book, against rarefied professional specialization and for democratized participation as the more natural milieu for human music-making. Some drum machines and digital music software require specialized expertise, but the prevailing trend in their use has been to open up and democratize music-making and song recording.

What Levitin overlooks in this brief but revealing statement is, broadly speaking, nothing less than the globally transformative contribution of black Atlantic culture to popular music since roughly the postwar period; and what he overlooks more specifically is this culture’s creative adaptation of recording technologies and music automations – turntablism, tape splicing, synthesizers, digital sampling, timestretching, and so on – in the service of breathing new life into rhythm tracks and finding new ways for rhythm tracks to breathe: both expanding the total lung capacity of music – and giving it gills too. Black Atlantic music-makers, more than any others, have amply succeeded in redefining groove not against mechanical regularity but through it, from Afrika Bambaaata’s bass-quaking electro remix of Kraftwerk in “Planet Rock” and the dystopian drumscapes of Detroit techno, to the digital dicing of old funk breaks and splicing of drum machine patterns in the funky-frenetic rinse-outs of drum & bass, and the baleful bass drops of its dubstep progeny.

Derrick May has famously compared the sound of Detroit techno to the city itself as “a complete mistake. It’s like George Clinton and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator” (qtd. in Sicko, 26). What black Atlantic music-makers before and after May have repeatedly demonstrated, though, is that you can clear everybody out of that elevator and sample and sequence its machine sounds, metronome sounds, unmusical sounds to make music that will fill a dancefloor, will leave the crowd breathless. In the kyriarchically related context of black diasporic music, Ben Williams argues that “becoming robots was, for African American musicians, a subliminally political act […] a form of self-empowerment” (“Black Secret Technology” 161). In the kyriarchically and subculturally related context of queer dance, Walter Hughes calls it a kind of liberatory, “technological identification”:

The fearful paradox of the technological age, that machines created as artificial slaves will somehow enslave and even mechanize human beings, is ritually enacted at the discotheque. (151-2)

“Music is organized sound,” Levitin continues (citing Edgard Varèse’s definition), “but the organization has to involve some element of the unexpected or it is emotionally flat and robotic. Too much organization may technically still be music, but it would be music that on one wants to listen to” (173). As an elaboration of the previously quoted statement and its explicit Romantic organicism, this latter passage forecloses on the ways in which Afro-Futurist music and EDM amplify rather than mute a “robotic” and “emotionally flat” aesthetic to exploit listener expectation and anticipation, and to reconfigure music’s effects beyond just affect. In its very early days, Chicago house music was widely dismissed by music critics for being too robotic and too repetitious – for some (according to telling associations of taste and bigotry), it was also too gay and too black. For house music’s initially queer, minoritized audience, its robotic and repetitious characteristics of the music were a big part of the music’s attraction: they made it a potent dancefloor analogue and accompaniment to sexual practices, and – just as importantly – they produced a sound alien and abrasive enough to function as a gatekeeper, keeping out wider audiences and thus keeping spaces like the Warehouse and the Paradise Garage safe for queer night life.

Come on let’s work it to the bone
Let’s work it to the bone bone bone
Let’s work
To the bone bone bone

Following the massive popularization of techno and raves in the 1990s, the criticism that the music was too robotic and repetitious came from a much more insidious source: the British government itself, whose 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act criminalized raves by expressly prohibiting gatherings of ten or more people in scenes featuring dance music, which the Act notoriously defines as “sounds wholly or predominantly characterized by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats” (qtd. in McKay 164). Since then, despite further regulatory pressures and moral panics, the culture of EDM has gone from strength to strength in entrenching its global popularity and influencing the direction and aesthetics of popular music. For Levitin’s popular science book to reinscribe the bias against robotic and repetitive music on behalf of Romantic investments in authenticity and aura is to lend a dangerous veneer of scientific authority to the wider-reaching socio-political beatdowns that have historically met music scenes characterized by a succession of repetitive beats.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. “On the fetish character in music and the regression of listening.” The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture. Ed. J. M. Bernstein. London: Routledge, 1991. 26-52.

Auslander, Philip. Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Eshun, Kodwo. More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction. London: Quartet, 1998.

Gilroy, Paul. “There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack”: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.

Gym Class Heroes feat. Adam Levine. “Stereo Hearts.” Warner Bros., 2011.

Hughes, Walter. “In the Empire of the Beat.” Microphone Fiends: Youth Music & Youth Culture. Ed. Andrew Ross and Tricia Rose. New York: Routledge, 1994. 147-57.

Levitin, Daniel. This is your brain on music: The science of a human obsession. New York: Penguin Plume, 2007.

LNR. “Work it to the bone.” House Jam, 1987.

McKay, George. Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance since the Sixties. London: Verso, 1996.

McRobbie, Angela. “Thinking with Music.” Stars Don’t Stand Still in the Sky: Music and Myth. Ed. Karen Kelly and Evelyn McDonell. New York: New York UP, 1999. 37-49.

Reynolds, Simon. “How Rave Music Conquered America.” The Guardian 2 Aug. 2012.

Thornton, Sarah. Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1996.

Williams, Ben. “Black Secret Technology: Detroit Techno and the Information Age.” Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life. Ed. Alondra Nelson and Thuy Linh N. Tu. New York: New York UP, 2001. 154-76.

On Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain On Music (1)

Part 1 of 2: Music and memory

“Do you remember rock & roll radio?” – The Ramones

This summer I read Daniel Levitin’s bestselling This is your brain on music (2006), a book about music in neuroscientific and psychological contexts. This is the first of two posts detailing my critical responses to this engaging and problematic book.

The book is an absorbing introduction to the study of music according to these fields, and it begins with a crash course in the basics of music theory (e.g. what terms like pitch, timbre, and interval mean; what scales and octaves are) that I found especially welcome and informative, as a reader with no background in that area beyond an eighth-grade strings class of which I’ve lamentably since forgotten anything I learned.

The book teems with startling observations and suggestive arguments. Here are a couple of the points I found most interesting:

  • That the same clusters of neurons are used in remembering a given experience as in perceiving it in the first place; and
  • That, in an evolutionary perspective, music ability in humans may have developed before – and thus conditioned – linguistic ability, rather than vice versa; in other words, that music may be the basis of speech, not the other way around – a resonant theory to contemplate, with far-reaching implications.

A recurring focus of the book is memory and its relationships with music appreciation, cognition, and performance. As cultural activity that commands a conspicuously large and diversified proportion of corresponding neural activity (one of the book’s main claims), music is intimately involved in many ways with memory. Levitin argues, for instance, that an adult remains deeply attached to the music one listened to as a teen because of neural developments specific to young adulthood, and that more generally, a powerful musical experience becomes profoundly associated in memory with the recollection not just of its moment but also of the broader subjective context of that moment. Like smell, music is a potent trigger of vivid remembrance.

This insight is one of several in the book that got me thinking of further interdisciplinary directions in which to take it. In this case, the ability of music to mark a given time invites a corresponding investigation of changes in technologies of music production and consumption. Since the advent of the iPod in particular, something I have thought from time to time is how this kind of digital playback device – in synch with the shifting of recorded music’s format from analogue media to digital files, and the sheer ubiquity of music in social contexts – has a “flattening” effect on the interface between music and memory. That is, the detachment of songs from analogue media enables a dramatic “shuffling” of how they can be listened to, mixed, mashed up, or otherwise appreciated. In principle, the analogue cassette tape provided the same capacity to shuffle and flatten – to customize and recontextualize – the listening experience, as Glenn Gould mused in his radio documentary “Dialogue on the prospects of recording,” and as the early history of hip hop demonstrates, in do-it-yourself repurposings of consumer tech like mixtapes and boombox pause-button cuts. What the digital file and playback device enable in terms of this shuffling and flattening thus differs in degree rather than kind.

But the degree seems the determining factor here: in the digital environment, I can create a playlist that draws as readily from the music I listened to as a teen, as from the music I listen to now, or from music I’ve never heard before, whether ancient or contemporary. Or I can chance to hear a song I liked as a youth while at a bar or a shop. The scale and ubiquity of digital music’s affordances for shuffling the music listening experience represent a labour and logic of repetition, one of the effect of which is a flattening of a given song’s relationship to memory. For example, one composition I have enjoyed consistently since my teen years is Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. For the first few years I listened to it – as one or both of the CDs in which format it had been given to me, or in one-off tracks I put on mixtapes – I may well have associated it with a specific memory, whether of the first listening experience or of my larger subjective state at the time. But I have listened to it so regularly and constantly through the years (er, decades), in whole or in part, that hearing it now – as I write this in fact – doesn’t prompt any specific memory by association. In contrast, last year I rediscovered a box of mixtapes I’d made as a teen, mixes of songs dubbed from radio broadcasts. Listening afresh to these old tapes, I encountered some songs that had stayed with me through the years – but I also encountered some that I hadn’t heard since maybe the year or the week that I’d first made them. Hearing OMD’s “Forever (live and die)” for the first time in twenty-something years instantly flashed me back to grey dawns riding the TTC to highschool, absorbed in Walkman listening. Between these two scenarios, there’s an intervening third: repeat listening that supplants an initial associated memory with a subsequent associated memory. The first time I heard Madame Zu and Jon Doe’s “999 Matrix” was at a Toronto rave circa 1999, the association with which scene stayed with my subsequent listening of the track, until I sampled it for a grad student conference paper I presented in 2003, its association with which moment stayed with the track until, most recently, I included it in a DJ mix I now listen to when I go for a run – the somatic labour and muscle memory of which now help associate the track with images of my usual neighbourhood run.

If you clicked on either of the preceding links to listen to the songs mentioned, and if you didn’t previously know them, will the click-through establish a new music-memory association for you? If you did know them, does the listening anew, or even just the reference, trigger an already established association? Or even augment it? The experience of digital music listening, at least in my anecdotal experience, seems dramatically to elasticize and decontextualize the relationship between music and memory. With more music – from the whole history of recording – now available on demand than has ever been available before, via a myriad vehicles and platforms, one of the emerging implications of digital media for the experience of music is an attenuation or deracination – a kind of flattening – of the listener’s psychological relationship between reception and remembrance.

Footnote to “Frankenstein as a figure of globalization”: corporate monstrosity in The Grapes of Wrath

In my latest article on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I write that “the Depression prompted … Frankensteinian representations of corporate business” that resonate today, amidst an economic crisis that has prompted references to the Depression. To identify scenes and tropes as Frankensteinian, I rely on Chris Baldick’s theory of Frankenstein’s “skeleton story” as the core of the story’s innumerable popular adaptations, of its status as what Baldick calls a paradoxically “modern myth” (tk). The “skeleton story” consists essentially of just two complementary plot points: 1) a man makes a creature; 2) the creature revolts and runs amok. For evidence of Frankensteinian representations of corporate business in the Depression era, I cited one example, a 1930 piece of journalism called “Frankenstein, Inc.” But I have more recently found a highly significant literary example – one I wished I had known about before the article went to press (hence this footnote) – it’s none other than John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, the major literary statement on the Depression, a novel I’m only now reading for the first time.

20120812-162645.jpgThe novel tells the Depression-era story of the Joad family’s forced exodus from Oklahoma to California, and tells this story in a pointedly dialectical form, alternating between chapters about the Joads’ specific scenes and doings, and chapters about the general contexts and crises that condition the Joads’ particular story. The fifth chapter – a general chapter – describes the manouevres, manipulations, and machinations used by the “owner men” to get the “tenant men” off their lands in the process of mechanizing and automating agriculture – turning it into agribusiness. Steinbeck describes the owner men talking about the eviction of the tenants, and the reclamation of the land, with reference to figures of monstrosity that mystify the relations of corporate production and absolve the owner men of responsibility:

If a bank or a finance company owned the land, the owner man said, the Bank – or the Company – needs – wants – insists – must have – as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. … And the owner men explained the workings and the thinkings of the monster that was stronger than they were. … these creatures don’t breathe air, don’t eat side-meat. They breathe profits; they eat the interest on money. (41)

When the tenant men counter that “the bank is only made of men,” the owner men tell them they’re wrong: “No, you’re wrong there – quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. … The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it” (43, my emphasis).

Following this scene of the owner men rationalizing (and reifying) corporate business – relieving them of responsibility for its cruel externalities – Steinbeck describes an encounter between a soon-to-be-evicted tenant and the driver of a company tractor that is the specific instrument of the “monstrous” corporate reclamation of the farmlands from the tenants: “The man sitting in the iron seat did not look like a man; gloved, goggled, rubber dust mask over nose and mouth, he was part of the monster, a robot in the seat. … The driver could not control it” (45). The tenant who talks to this driver fails to persuade him of his inhuman betrayal of the families he’s mechanically displaced, but ultimately vows, “There’s some way to stop this. It’s not like lightning or earthquakes. We’ve got a bad thing made by men, and by God that’s something we can change” (50, my emphasis).

The chapter thus adapts the “skeleton story” of Frankenstein as one of the premises for Steinbeck’s novel: in both the unsuccessfully reassuring words of the owner men and the horrified reactions of the tenant men, the corporate business model is a destructive, superhuman monster – made by humans, but now beyond humans’ control, running amok and wreaking havoc, economic and environmental. This certainly isn’t the only cultural or intertextual premise of Steinbeck’s stern and sweeping saga, but it is a conspicuous and telling one, eatablished very early in the plot of one of America’s definitive critical accounts of the corporate-dominated market society, the robber barons accountable for it, and the multitudes of workers exploited and abandoned by by it.

Works Cited
Baldick, Chris. In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-Century Writing. Oxford: Clarendon, 1987.
McCutcheon, Mark A. “Frankenstein as a figure of globalization in Canada’s popular culture.” Continuum 25.5 (2011): 731-42.
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath (1939). New York: Penguin, 1976.

A very short review of Zone One

@colsonwhitehead’s Zone One astonishes; it feasts on zombie apocalypse tradition with gusto. Even its epigraphs index its originality (ironically): they sample Benjamin, and Pound – and Public Enemy.

Zone One is to the zombie apocalypse genre a bit like what Battlestar Galactica is to space opera, in that I see myself recommending it to others with a pitch like “it’s not like regular zombie apocalypse novels – just read it.” It is as literary a take on the genre as you will find south of Pontypool, to which it merits some comparison on this basis. But these novels evince the literary – not to mention the critical and theoretical – in very different ways. Burgess’ Pontypool Changes Everything trafficks in surreal détournement; Whitehead’s Zone, in epic realism. They complement each other aptly (and, in the process, represent telling national-cultural contrasts).

On the error-riddled writing of The Hunger Games

Amidst the hype over Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, a trilogy of young-adult dystopian novels that one blogger hails as “the future of writing,” a subtle but crucial detail of the novels themselves – the writing – has gone largely unremarked (not just because the novels are now being eclipsed by the movie and the media juggernaut that lumbers around after any and every egg laid by Hollywood, golden or otherwise).

The writing in The Hunger Games isn’t going entirely unremarked: a perceptive Goodreads user has placed the novel on a shelf aptly titled “Gawd get a copy editor.” But given the pervasive extent of the trilogy’s basic composition errors, and the popularity of the books with young readers, more attention to these errors is warranted. They make for an eminently teachable moment.

Reading the trilogy, I first wondered whether maybe the author is deliberately trying to adopt the voice of a teenager. But I’m unsure about this hypothesis; the writing errors are both too technical and too numerous to represent any kind of stylistic strategy or symbolic substance. They’re just mistakes. And lots of them: misplaced or dangling modifiers; singular-plural errors; punctuation errors; awkward or simply misspelled words.

Take this sentence, from early in Chapter 1 of the first novel:

My bow is a rarity, crafted by my father along with a few others that I keep well hidden in the woods.

The sentence means to say that Katniss’ bow, made by her dad, is hidden with other weapons, presumably also bows, in the woods. What the sentence actually says, on account of the modifier error, is that her bow is a rarity, and that she keeps her father with “a few others” in the woods. (Who else is Katniss keeping in the woods?)

Shortly after this, in the same chapter, we read:

Being the mayor’s daughter, you’d expect her to be a snob, but she’s all right.

The sentence means to say that the mayor’s daughter might be expected to be a snob. But what it actually says, via the misplaced modifier, is that the reader – the “you” to whom Katniss addresses her story – is the mayor’s daughter.

In chapter 4, Katniss recounts a previous forest expedition:

But I retrieved the small bow and arrows he’d made me from a hollow tree.

Katniss’ father may have made the archery set from a hollow tree, but the sentence means to say that Katniss had hidden the set in the tree – a meaning lost in the distance between the predicate (retrieved) and its modifier (from a hollow tree).

Returning to chapter 1, in describing the Games, Katniss explains:

The last tribute alive receives a life of ease back home, and their district will be showered with prizes, largely consisting of food.

The use of the plural pronoun their to refer to the singular antecedent tribute arguably reads like everyday speech – but so would using the correct pronoun, her or his.

Similarly, in chapter 2, Katniss reflects:

I couldn’t go home. Because at home was my mother with her dead eyes and my little sister, with her hollow cheeks and cracked lips.

Here the singular verb conjugation was conflicts with its plural subject, the mother and sister. This singular-plural error reads much less like everyday speech than the prior example.

These and other technical but irritating grammar errors pervade the series:

To this day, I can never shake the connection between this boy, Peeta Mellark, and the bread that gave me hope, and the dandelion that reminded me that I was not doomed.

A common enough error, the misuse of between to represent more than two entities needs correcting here (in the first book’s second chapter) as among. This error also recurs throughout the series, as in this sentence in the third book:

For the next sixty minutes, the Capitol feed alternates between the standard afternoon broadcast, Finnick, and attempts to black it all out.

Punctuation is also a pervasive problem. One of my students, a published author herself, points out the trilogy’s pervasive “crimes against commas.” For example:

In some districts, in which winning the reaping is such a great honor, people are eager to risk their lives, the volunteering is complicated.

Were the comma between honor and people replaced with the word that, the long clause that details the opening modifier would read more clearly as one sustained digression. Here’s another example of comma overload, from the start of chapter 4:

Obviously Haymitch isn’t much, but Effie trinket is right about one thing, once we’re in the arena he’s all we’ve got.

This sentence places the second comma where a colon should appear, and it omits a comma after arena, where it could mark a natural pause.

More egregious than comma splices, however, is the use of / in punctuation; the “slash,” as I have discussed in a previous post, almost always marks the spot where a firmer decision about wording needs to be made. It’s not a creative liberty being taken with punctuation; it’s just an occasion for closer editing.

The ride lasts about twenty minutes and ends up at the City Circle, where they will welcome us, play the anthem, and escort us into the Training Center, which will be our home/prison until the Games begin.

The slash returns in the second chapter of Mockingjay:

I linger in the doorway of Command, the high-tech meeting/war council room complete with computerized talking walls, electronic maps showing the troop movements in various districts, and a giant rectangular table with control panels I’m not supposed to touch.

As we read the story told to us by Katniss, how are we supposed to “hear” the slash in her voice? If the abundance of commas is ostensibly a means to simplify punctuation for young readers (whose heads would evidently explode on trying to parse a semicolon), why does the monstrosity of the slash get to stay?

Misused, misspelled, and awkwardly chosen words represent a third major pattern of composition errors.

Katniss calls the container for her arrows a “sheath.” What’s wrong with “quiver” (which is not nearly as often used)? Does she mean to make it sound like her arrows are stored in a condom?

There are a lot of references to microphones in the books, but the text spells the short form incorrectly, as “mike.” The correct abbreviation of “microphone” is “mic.” Four out of four Beastie Boys would agree with me about this (including Mixmaster Mike).

I know this may sound like pedantic nitpicking. But whether The Hunger Games either desperately needed a copy editor before reaching print or – worse – was deliberately edited this way according to assumptions about its young readership, the fact of its consistently error-riddled text is an insult to all readers. And it reflects rather poorly on a publisher that brands itself as an educational publisher for children and young readers, and as a corporate friend of public education. The fact that Scholastic sent The Hunger Games to press with such sloppy copy should concern young readers, and the parents and teachers who nurture their love of reading, as well as aspiring writers, to whom the success of such technically unpolished prose sends decidedly mixed signals. This fact is also a sizeable elephant in the room now rammed with fans, commentators, critics, and others party to the hype machine Hollywood has built up around the books.