Tag Archives: literature

New MA course in literary studies: Gothic Transformations

My new Literary Studies course for Athabasca U’s MA program is now open for enrollment.

Illustration from 1897 edition of Marsh's The Beetle. (Public domain image via British Library.)

Illustration from 1897 edition of Marsh’s The Beetle. (Public domain image via British Library.)

The 19th-Century Novel: Gothic Transformations assigns readings in major English novels like Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1818), Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1860), and Richard Marsh’s The Beetle (1897) and explores how British fiction in the nineteenth century both was influenced by and also adapted Gothic themes and elements, like supernatural horror and psychological suspense.

Gothic fictions and those that adapt the Gothic represent important cultural mediations of the social, political, and economic issues and transformations that characterize Britain during the rise of industrial capital and the global expansion of England’s empire: the transformation of literary production (e.g. serialization, copyright change, circulating library distribution); the advent of public education, industrialization and class conflict; imperial expansion; feminism (e.g. the “New Woman” discourse); and developments in science and technology (e.g. new recording media).

SF: so many corporate dystopias, so few unions.

A couple of years ago, during a break in a faculty association meeting, my Athabasca U colleague Bob Barnetson and I got to talking science fiction, and he casually observed that for all its depictions of big business, the genre’s oddly lacking in corresponding images of unions. I told Bob there was a paper in his idea, and voilà, in the current issue of TOPIA, Canada’s journal of cultural studies, you can read the interdisciplinary article we co-wrote on the subject: “Resistance is futile: on the under-representation of unions in science fiction.” Here’s the abstract:

“This article surveys science fiction (SF) since 1980, and queries the conspicuous under-representation of recognizable images of unions in popular SF, which includes, in contrast, numerous images and narratives of corporate business. According to theories of unionism, science fiction studies and Mark Fisher’s theory of ‘capitalist realism,’ the co-authors theorize this pattern of under-representation, and, in the process, identify and analyze a very small but diverse body of SF works from this period that do include images of unions, in ways that range from the symptomatic to the radically suggestive.”

We gave 1980 as a start date for our study because that was about when corporate elite rule (a.k.a. neoliberalism) started to take off, and because that’s why tweets like this make sense:

Research is integrally intertwined with teaching, but it’s not as often that we in academia get to link research as closely with service. This collaboration has been one such welcome opportunity. (And it’s involved our students, too: we’re specifically indebted to the insights and references shared by AU alumna and SF author Heather Clitheroe, who’s reminded me I need check out The Expanse for more evidence of unions in SF.)

On a point unrelated to our subject matter, I also like that our article appears in an issue that both a) marks the debut of Dr. Rinaldo Walcott as TOPIA‘s new editor, and b) pays tribute to the great, late Canadian writer Austin Clarke.

Lastly, if you’re interested in the article, but you or your institution don’t subscribe to TOPIA, you can e-mail me at academicalism[at]gmail[dot]com to request a single copy (because Canada’s educational fair dealing provision in copyright law allows for individual sharing like this).

Two poems just published

I’m pleased to see two of my poems reach print.

mccutcheon_existere2016pic1. “Here Is Where”:

Existere, the long-running literary journal based at York University, has published my poem “Here Is Where Was” in its current Spring-Summer issue (35.2). The poem appears without its Works Cited list: I know poems tend not to attach such things; and I guess the editors get to make that call; and I’ve read some compelling arguments, like David Shield’s, for borrowing without citing. But, unreconstructed scholar that I am, I still feel obliged to cite credit where it’s due:

“Here Is Where” Works Cited

  • Brand, Dionne. No Language is Neutral. Coach House P, 1990, p. 22.
  • Frye, Northrop. “Conclusion to the First Edition of Literary History of Canada” (1965). Northrop Frye on Canada, vol. 12, edited by Jean O’Grady and David Staines, U of Toronto P, 2003, p. 346.
  • Johnston, Basil. The Manitous: The Spiritual World of the Ojibway. Minnesota Historical Society P, 2001, p. 221.

screen-shot-2016-09-07-at-8-50-38-am2. “Lunar Sonata”:

Tigershark is a small-press British e-zine that publishes theme-based issues by subscription. My poem “Lunar Sonata” appears in Tigershark 11, the science and technology issue. “Lunar Sonata” is a cento, a found poem composed wholly of selected excerpts from a news article, “Audio recordings document ‘weird music’ heard by Apollo astronauts on far side of moon,” by Lee Speigel; his story ran in the Huffington Post on Feb. 20, 2016.
Issues of Tigershark can be requested by emailing the editor, DS Davidson, at tigersharkpublishing@hotmail.co.uk.

New MA course on Canadian prairie poetry & drama at Athabasca U

Athabasca University’s MA in Integrated Studies program is pleased to offer a new group-study* course for the coming fall semester: Poetry and Drama of the Canadian Prairies (MAIS 752).
The course is open to enrollment by students not just in Athabasca U’s MA program, but also in other Canadian and international graduate programs that recognize and transfer AU course credits.  Interested grad students can e-mail AU’s MA program office at cis@athabascau.ca for more information or to enroll. (Enrollment deadline: Aug. 15.)


Highway 13 sign pointing to the town of Forget, Saskatchewan.

* “Group study”: Some of AU’s graduate programs use an online grouped study format. Students in these courses augment their studies with online group discussions and learning activities. Online grouped study courses are usually 13 weeks long and start in May, September or January. There are no extensions for these courses.

The Main Thing Students in Literary Studies Need to Understand: “Talk About the Writing”

In this post I want to try to explain, as clearly as I can, two things: 1) the proper focus of academic essays on literature (or other cultural texts, like plays or songs); and 2) how to achieve that focus in essays of comparison and contrast among two or more texts.

1. In your essays, talk about the writing.

The proper subject of an essay in literary criticism (here meaning criticism of any textual form) is the writing: the text as a composition of significant elements of form and style. (The analysis of how these elements work together to achieve artistic effects and cultural functions is what we call close reading, and it’s the core methodology, the critical practice of literary studies.) It’s a common mistake for students new to English studies to treat a text like a “window” rather than a “painting,” as U Penn’s Prof Jack Lynch puts it, in his excellent, short guide to Getting an A on an English Paper – a guide that I would advise as an absolute must-read for every student in English literary studies.

in an English paper, don’t talk about the “real world.” Talk about the writing … don’t assume literature is a transparent window that shows us the real world — it’s not something we can reliably look through. Often it’s more like a painting than a window, and instead of looking through it we should learn to look at it. … this doesn’t mean you can’t be interested in the real world behind the text. … Just remember that you don’t have any direct access to that real world, only representations of it. Never lose sight of that fact.

If an English paper is about these representations, then its thesis is the reader’s interpretation – that is, your interpretation – of how a given play constructs these representations, using dramatic techniques, literary devices, and other elements of form. Lynch describes some of these elements at http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/EngPaper/close.html – for instance, diction, word order, metaphors. The seven-point list of categories of dramatic form posted for Athabasca University’s Engl 303 world drama course assignment in scene analysis assignment is another useful catalogue of dramatic techniques; I’ve also posted a similar list of Categories for Textual Analysis of works in various media, including drama.

2. Compare texts, then, on grounds of common elements of form.

The key to writing effective English essays of comparison and contrast lies in identifying which such dramatic techniques or elements of literary form furnish the most interesting or distinctive grounds on which to compare two plays, and thereby to argue your own distinctive interpretation of these plays.

As well as “writing about the ‘real world’,” another error common among students new to comparative criticism in particular is not comparing plays directly with each other, but rather discussing how each addresses the student’s chosen theme or thesis. So an essay making that kind of error might argue something to the effect that two plays both represent an identified theme, and discuss how each one does so separately from the other, without considering what elements of form they might have in common. (Essays like this also tend to stay focused on “real world” type content – characters’ actions and events, as though they’re things that happen, not scripted constructions composed to convey specific artistic and cultural effects.) Instead, a stronger essay of comparison and contrast might argue that two given plays compare or contrast in their representation of a given theme – through the uses of two or three different dramatic techniques and/or elements of literary form that each uses in a way that’s significantly similar to or different from how the other does.

Further reference

More about integrating the grounds of comparison for an essay of comparison and contrast is at this page I’ve created in the Landing, Athabasca U’s social network.

And if you’re still unsure about the whole “talk about the writing” thing, I’ve blogged more extensively about it.

And, lastly, in another blog post, I detail four specific steps to practice the close reading of texts, in order to focus on how they’re written and the implications of that writing.

New article on copyright and literary production in the Romantic period

William Hazlitt (1778-1830), prose centonist

William Hazlitt (1778-1830), prose centonist

My article in the new issue of English Studies in Canada brings some historical perspective to the copyfight, and suggests some precedents for fair dealing in the work of Romantic writers usually identified as exemplars of originality: William Hazlitt and William Wordsworth. The article focuses on the curious case of the cento – a genre of poetry made from quoted lines of other poems – and its various uses in literary production during the Romantic period. This was a very interesting period for copyright: neither before nor since has the term of copyright protection been as brief, and arguably as accommodating (to users and writers), as it was from 1774 to 1842. The article belongs to a special section in this issue of ESC on Romantic and Regency authorship, featuring some exciting new work on the period’s print culture – and its implications for cultural production and copyright today.

“The Cento, Romanticism, and Copyright.” English Studies in Canada 38.2 (2012): 71-101. [Published June 2013]
Published journal version (for readers with university library access)
Open Access version (for readers without university library access)

Abstract: This article excavates the obscure literary genre of the cento – a genre of poetry defined by its wholly derivative composition from quotations of other works – and its supplementary relation to Romantic literature and the period’s transformations of copyright regulation. The cento’s Romantic reworkings position this genre as a precedent for later appropriation art, especially digital culture’s sampling and remix practices. Specific uses of the cento form by the essayist William Hazlitt and the poet William Wordsworth suggest precedents in the period’s culture of literary production for fair dealing, the “user’s right” to the limited appropriation of copyrighted works that has more recently become ensconced in copyright law. By investigating the place of the cento in Romantic literary production, this study argues for the importance of fair dealing to both creative and critical forms of writing, and contributes historical context to the present-day “copyfight.”

The Open Access version of “The Cento, Romanticism, and Copyright” is made available with the author’s grateful acknowledgement of English Studies in Canada for the original publication of the article.

Quoting Scripture to support organized labour

From the something-you-don’t-see-every-day files

Having recently read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and blogged about its images of corporate monstrosity, I have worked to identify some of the novel’s other related textual details and references. One reference has proven especially tricky to source – and especially rewarding. In the last scene in which Tom Joad appears, he talks with his Ma about his plans for the future. Tom hints at – but stops short of spelling out – his plans for organizing workers: “why we can’t do that all over. … All work together for our own thing – all farm our own lan’.” (536). Tom also reflects on the lapsed Reverend Casy, whose loss Tom laments, and from whose wisdom he works out his plans. Casy’s wisdom, throughout the novel, is consistently critical, and is crystallized in Tom’s recollection here, via a specific biblical allusion:

Tom went on, “He [Casy] spouted out some Scripture once, an’ it didn’ soun’ like no hell-fire Scripture. He tol’ it twicet, an’ I remember it. Says it’s from the Preacher.”
“How’s it go, Tom?”
“Goes, ‘Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lif’ up his fellow, but woe to him that is alone when he falleth, for he hath not another to help him up.’ That’s part of her.”
“Go on,” Ma said. “Go on, Tom.”
“Jus’ a little bit more. ‘Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him, and a three-fold cord is not quickly broken.'”
“An’ that’s Scripture?”
“Casy said it was. Called it the Preacher.” (535-36)

In this exchange, Steinbeck frames a resonant Biblical quotation in a curiously coded gesture: he doesn’t clearly cite the text’s source, he just alludes to it (who is “the Preacher”?); he also repeats this allusion, and has Ma doubt the veracity of the source: “An’ that’s Scripture?” The exchange invites – or provokes – the reader to identify the biblical excerpt in question, given here as if it were both common knowledge, via the folksy figure of “the Preacher,” and hidden wisdom: “that’s Scripture?”

It is Scripture, of course, quoted almost verbatim from the King James version of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes: chapter 4, verses 9 to 12. Chapter 4 is a short chapter of meditations on work and hubris, humility and cooperation – and it opens with this suggestive contextualization: “Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun.” According to the way verses 4-9 are placed and discussed in the novel, Steinbeck makes it abundantly clear who the oppressors are.

Language: what's got you covered

Language: what’s got you covered

So in this passage we encounter one of the most popular and widely taught American novels quoting Scripture to support organized labour, thereby suggesting labour’s legitimacy in Christian teaching and theology. Perhaps symptomatically, a Google search for biblical allusions and quotations in The Grapes of Wrath nowhere includes this rather remarkable detail. (I don’t think it made it into the 1940 film adaptation, either.) I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a conspiracy – and there is no doubt an extensive research literature documenting the novel’s biblical intertexts – but the omission of this detail (which is important for the novel not only thematically but structurally) from readily available public Internet sources does seem a conspicuous absence.

I should add, too, that – as everybody knows – Scripture is promiscuously available to furnish quotations that support or condemn any number of social practices, as dramatized in a scene from the West Wing TV series that has gone viral. It may simply be valuable to recognize here a biblical passage that features significantly in a canonical American novel, and that lends organized labour some authoritative cultural support from an unexpected quarter, in the plain truth it speaks about the social and economic benefits of organizing, which economic studies confirm and which working people everywhere can recognize.

Works Cited
The New Oxford Annotated Bible. New Revised Standard Version. Ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Roland E. Murphy. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath (1939). New York: Penguin, 1976.