12 Winters Blog

Returning to The Tunnel, and the Final Thursday reading

Posted in September 2011 by Ted Morrissey on September 11, 2011

For nearly a year now I’ve been devoting myself to my creative writing, putting my scholarly interests on hold, but I’ll be scratching that itch to some degree by presenting a paper with the PsyArt panel next February at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900. I plan on presenting a paper titled “William H. Gass’s ‘Very Long Winter’: The Cultural Trauma of the Fallout Shelter Frenzy as Expressed in The Tunnel” — which will deal with ideas and images of enclosure in Gass’s award-winning novel, nearly thirty years in the writing. Consequently, this fall I’ll get back to some Gass reading, in addition to research on the fallout shelter phenomenon in the United States, especially in the 1960s, the decade in which Gass began writing The Tunnel, for which he won the American Book Award in 1996.

This paper will be a companion to a paper I presented in 2010 at the University of Louisville’s conference on the Atom Bomb’s influence on Gass’s work, with that paper focusing chiefly on his classic short story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” I thought of submitting this fallout shelter paper for last year’s conference, but I knew I’d be in the throes of writing my novel, An Untimely Frost, and wouldn’t want to derail that line of thought to write the Gass piece. By the way, I was invited to participate in the panel by Andrew Gordon, who’s on the editorial board of PsyArt: An Online Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts.

It will be the fortieth anniversary of the Louisville Conference, and as such there are several special events planned — so it should be even more fun and rewarding to attend than usual. I’ve also submitted a creative piece to the conference, my short story “Crowsong for the Stricken,” but it’ll be awhile before I hear if it’s been accepted.

Speaking of “Crowsong,” I read the story to an enthusiastic (and indulgent) group at Athens (Illinois) Municipal Library August 28. I was there ostensibly to talk about researching and writing Men of Winter, but concluded by reading some new work. I appreciated the fact that a couple of my Quiddity and writing cohorts, Pamm Collebrusco and Meagan Cass, took the trouble to attend the talk and to add their experience and expertise to the conversation. Pamm is an associate editor for Quiddity (and one of the best proofreaders/copy editors I’ve had the privilege of working with), and Meagan has just begun teaching creative writing at the University of Illinois at Springfield (she’s a gifted fiction writer whose work I admire very much).

I’m currently working on a story that is a companion to “Crowsong for the Stricken” (and another recently written story, “Primitive Scent”); I’m thinking more and more that I want to write a collection of these weird stories which are conceptually connected. On the one hand, this current piece is really putting up a fight, but, on the other, I’m experimenting liberally (wildly) with narrative technique … so, anyway, we’ll have to see what comes of it all.

In a couple of weeks I’ll be headed to Cedar Falls, Iowa, to give a reading for the Final Thursday Reading Series, organized by the University of Northern Iowa’s Jim O’Loughlin and Final Thursday Press. The reading will be September 29 at the Hearst Center for the Arts. It begins with an open mic at 7:15; then I’ll do my thing at 8. It should be a good time, and I’m very much looking forward to it.

I don’t have any readings or talks planned for October (currently), but it should be a great month for literature and art here in Springfield, Illinois — I’m trusting those two facts are not related. Poet Stephen Frech will be in town October 3 and give a reading at The Pharmacy at 6:30. Then October 13 poet Erin Elizabeth Smith will also give a reading at The Pharmacy at 7:00. (The Pharmacy, by the way, is a new addition to Springfield — so new I’ve only recently learned of it and have not yet darkened its door with my presence … soon, very soon.) What is more, Quiddity is planning a unique literary event for October 27 — intriguing details to follow.

The Prairie Art Alliance continues to organize a series of terrific events. I attended “Abstractions: A Collection of Member Work” last week; and “Paper Works” is coming up October 7. See their events page for complete details.

I can’t stop writing without plugging one of my favorite local events, less than a week away: the Route 66 Film Festival, September 16-18, featuring 62 films in three days. Download the festival’s program schedule.

That’s about all I have time and patience to talk about for now (anyone reading this is probably feeling the same way), but I’ll be back at it again, I trust, before long.

tedmorrissey.com

Pathfinding

Book discussion at Athens Library, and sending out new work

Posted in August 2011 by Ted Morrissey on August 21, 2011

I’m looking forward to meeting with a book group at Athens (IL) Municipal Library August 28, starting at 2 p.m. I’ll be there ostensibly to talk about Men of Winter, but in particular I’ll kick around some ideas about writing fiction in general, especially writing historically based fiction; and I plan to read a newly written short story, most likely “Crowsong for the Stricken,” which I finished toward the end of June. I’ve invited several of my writer/poet buddies in hopes of including their insights and expertise into the discussion.

Speaking of new work, I’ve been busy this weekend sending out a couple of new stories, “Crowsong” and another that I wrote in July, “Primitive Scent.” They’re both set in the same bizarre little village. I’d had the story that turned into “Crowsong” on my mind for years (on a low simmer on a back cerebral burner while finishing my dissertation, then writing An Untimely Frost), which is perhaps why it came together with relative ease. “Primitive Scent” put up more of a fight, though not much more. I’m currently writing a third story set in this same weird place, and it’s not working out well at all; in fact, I’ve decided to pretty much chuck everything I’ve written so far and start over. I’m still attracted to the basic concept, but the narrative keeps wanting to get away from me and turn into something longer than a story — but yet I’m not attracted enough to the idea to commit to spending the next three years or so turning it into a novel. Also, I haven’t been satisfied with the mood of the … thing I’ve been writing.

I had planned to start a new novel this fall, but if this third story turns out reasonably well, I’ll consider writing a kind of conceptual novel, with all the stories having the same setting and some of the characters popping up now and again.  We’ll see.  As I mentioned, I finished the manuscript for An Untimely Frost, and I’ve started looking for representation. I like the completed novel a lot (thank goodness, as I only devoted the better part of five years to it), but it’s … odd, and much more experimental than Men of Winter — which may make finding an agent and/or publisher especially challenging. But ultimately it ain’t about the publishing; it’s about the writing.

On the academic front, I had a paper proposal accepted for the PsyArt panel at next year’s Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900. The paper is about the psychological impact of the fallout shelter frenzy of the 1960s on William H. Gass’s novel (mainly) The Tunnel. I also have a paper on Beowulf that I want to write this fall; it’d be a sort of warm-up for writing the full-blown novel I have in mind.

Meanwhile, I continue reading War and Peace (and Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, with which I’m nearly done). I surpassed the 1,000-page mark in War and Peace, and only have about 200 pages to go. It’s a monster, and it’s taken me some time to get through it — but I’m not in any hurry, so I’m reading it slowly and carefully; and I’m enjoying it. Its complexity is remarkable — ranging from intimate human relationships, to religion, to critiquing various historical analyses of the Napoleonic wars, to … everything else — but what I wasn’t expecting is its humor: Tolstoy is often funny. When I finish, I want to return to Joyce for a while — but I’ll also need to be doing some reading for the Gass paper, and for the Beowulf paper. So many books, so little time.

tedmorrissey.com

Pathfinding: a blog devoted to helping new writers find outlets for their work

Some readings and other literary happenings

Posted in May 2011 by Ted Morrissey on May 29, 2011

The last few weeks have been very busy, both academically and literarily. Besides the always hectic conclusion of the academic year, several creative-writing-related things have been afoot as well. As such, I’ll only devote a few lines to each.

This past week, for example, readings for Men of Winter resumed with a very nice affair at Benedictine University at Springfield, in historic (and haunted) Brinkerhoff Home. A few folks who were counting on coming to the reading had to send last-minute regrets, but otherwise it was well attended as such things go, especially when scheduled after the regular school year has ended. The fine folks of Quiddity planned the reading, and I must say no one does a reading in finer fashion than Joanna Beth Tweedy and the Q staff. Unfortunately Joanna Beth had to be out of town, but associate editor Amy Sayre-Roberts stepped up to host the event, which I very much appreciated.

Then yesterday poet Lisa Higgs and I read at Jane Addams Book Shop in downtown Champaign, Illinois. Lisa read from her chapbook of sonnets, Lodestar, plus some really interesting new work. We were in the shop’s third-floor “Mystery Room,” reading while a noisy thunderstorm moved through the area — a thunderclap or two were serendipitously timed for dramatic effect. On the downside, the weather probably discouraged attendance somewhat, but we had a quaint and appreciative group. Lisa and I don’t have any other dual readings on our calendar at the moment, but we’ll both be participating in Chatham Public Library’s Local Authors Panel June 11, from 1 to 3 p.m. However, we may try to schedule another reading or two before summer’s end.

Speaking of authorial events, I’ve also signed up to be part of Authors Row in Peoria Heights, Illinois, June 25 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., sponsored by I Know You Like A Book bookstore. The event is part of Duryea Days.

On June 30, from 6 to 9 p.m., I’ll be participating in Poets and Painters in the H. D. Smith Gallery at Hoogland Center for the Arts in Springfield, Illinois. This is a very cool event in which local writers compose original poems based on works of art by local artists they’ve selected. (This event especially deserves more “ink” so I’ll be sure to blog about it further beforehand.)

Recently I also had the honor of showing around town and introducing writer Meagan Cass, who will be teaching creative writing at University of Illinois at Springfield starting this fall. With local commencements and so forth underway, it was an especially busy time, and unfortunately a lot of folks’ calendars were overflowing, but we did have a chance to have dinner with Anita Stienstra, president of Springfield Poets and Writers; and we stopped by the campus of Benedictine University for a nice chat with David Logan, prose editor of Quiddity (among many other duties); we also met with Ethan Lewis, our UIS English Department colleague, at Barnes & Noble for a cup of coffee and a delightful conversation. To say that the local creative community is excited about the energy and expertise that Meagan will be adding is a gross understatement. Read her terrific story “Girlhunt, Spring 1999,” recently published in Devil’s Lake, to get a sense of why we’re so looking forward to her arrival.

In terms of my own creative writing, I’ve completed a draft of my new novel, tentatively titled An Untimely Frost, and have started revising and editing the manuscript, which runs just over 400 pages. I hope to be completed with the revision process by July 1 or so. For my main read, I’ve been enjoying Tolstoy’s War and Peace (after this morning’s reading, I’m on about page 470, out of 1200 or so). My bedstand read, though, has been Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, which I’ve also been enjoying very much. Years ago I skimmed through the novel as I didn’t have time to read it carefully, but now I’m soaking in every word at a decidedly leisurely pace. And I’m always absorbing a few lines now and again out of the Good Book, by which of course I mean Conversations with William H. Gass — America’s greatest living writer.

tedmorrissey.com

Print edition available Tuesday, PHP’s greenness, and more Tolstoy

Posted in December 2010 by Ted Morrissey on December 5, 2010

The ebook of Men of Winter has been available since last week, but Punkin House says the print edition will be available Tuesday. A Kindle version should be available soon. Punkin House took a big step forward this past week, too, in its goal to become a greener publisher. For one thing, the paperback edition is printed on 30% recycled paper stock, and, I must say, it looks very good. Beyond that, however, they’ve launched a unique publishing model called the ROGO Program (for Recycle One Get One). In a nutshell, when you purchase a Punkin House book, you can return it and receive 20% off your next purchase — in an effort to get more authors read, bookshelves less cluttered, and fewer trees killed. They have other innovative green initiatives that are explained in more detail at their Punkin Green Commitment page — please take a look. It’s serendipitous that a house that’s committed to green publishing has taken on me and my work, as I’ve been committed to greener practices myself for years. You go, Punkin House.

I’ve been working away on my novel in progress, and am enjoying the process very much. On the one hand, it’s moving in the basic narrative direction I’ve had in mind for some time, but it still surprises me on a regular basis. In fact, the chapter I’m working on right now (20) is in itself a surprise; originally I’d planned the protagonist’s next move after chapter 19 to be further along the temporal sequence, but instead I’m inserting an entirely new scene that occurred to me as a good idea as I was finishing a draft of chapter 19. What I had planned for chapter 20 will now be chapter 21 (as it stands currently), so the new addition isn’t altering the basic narrative trajectory, but I believe it will enrich the final chapters of the book.

On the reading front, I’m still making my way through Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and the more I read of it, the more I enjoy it. Even though really big novels are out of vogue — notable exceptions of late being Adam Levin’s The Instructions (McSweeney’s), and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) — there’s something to be said for delving that deeply into characters’ lives, and living with them for as long as it takes to make one’s way through the narrative. There are many short novels and novellas that I love, but a shorter work is a different reading experience than a long work. A key work in my dissertation was William H. Gass’s The Tunnel, also a big, wonderful book. Wow, I just discovered that Dalkey Archive Press has published a casebook for the The Tunnel, edited by H. L. Hix — okay, so now I know what to ask Santa for.

tedmorrissey.com

Men of Winter

Pathfinding (my Punkin House author’s blog)

Tolstoy a century later; Men of Winter to be released soon

Posted in November 2010 by Ted Morrissey on November 21, 2010

Yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of Tolstoy’s death, and as a matter of coincidence I’ve been reading Anna Karenina. One of my followees on Twitter posted an English-language Russian news segment reporting on the author and what an industry he’s become, especially his home, Yasnaya Polyana, as a tourist destination. The news reporter interviewed Tolstoy’s great grandson, who talked about the irony of the fact that very few of the tourists who enthusiastically flock to Tolstoy’s home have in fact read any of his work. Then he went on to discuss how it’s a shame that the vast majority of people only read classics that are required of them in high school. He made sure to take nothing away from contemporary books and authors, who should be read too, but insisted that classics, like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or War and Peace, still have much to offer modern readers. My favorite author, William H. Gass, also laments that too few people today read classic literature, which he believes helps to develop the mind in ways that popular fiction is unable to. I’m on the other end of the spectrum in that I’m drawn to classics and don’t read new authors as much as I feel I should — but there are only so many hours in the day: with working three jobs and giving daily attention to my own writing, there’s not nearly enough time left to read as I would alike. I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t take a newspaper, though the idea of sitting down with a big thick paper, like The New York Times, and a good cup of coffee is very appealing. To find that time, however, I’d have to forfeit time spent reading other things (like the three hours I spent with Tolstoy this morning) that I find nourish both my intellect and my soul.

Speaking of my writing, Men of Winter is supposed to be out this week (though I’m not holding my breath). It is fair to say that it will be out soon. Meanwhile I’ve uploaded videos of my reading chapter 1 of the novel to both Vimeo and YouTube; so far neither site has garnered very many hits, not surprisingly. Also I launched Pathfinding: a blog devoted to helping new writers find outlets for their work as my Punkin House author’s blog, though I’m not yet listed among their blogging authors (I believe PHP is redoing their webpages). On the one hand, I’m looking forward to having my novel out in the world, but on the other I feel a bit handicapped in trying to promote it as neither my three-job lifestyle nor pocketbook easily lends itself to aggressive promotion in terms of scheduling readings and attending book fairs, etc. I will do my best, however. (This past week I did receive an invitation to read the first chapter of Men of Winter at The Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900 in February — now just to find some way to pay for attending the conference. . . .)

I continue work on the Authoress, soldiering my way through chapter 19. It’s slow but I like what I have, which isn’t to say it won’t need much revision. It will.

In a bit I’m headed to the local Barnes & Noble for a school library fundraiser — just what I need: a good excuse to buy books.

tedmorrissey.com

More Turgenev and a proposed release date for Men of Winter

Posted in August 2010 by Ted Morrissey on August 15, 2010

I’ve been reading from the collection of Ivan Turgenev’s stories (though some have been described as short novels). After reading the collection’s titular story, “First Love,” I read an earlier-written tale, “Bezhin Meadow” (1851), then skipped to the final tale in the collection “Clara Milich” (1882), and now I’m reading “Assya” (1857). There’s been little rhyme or reason as to which stories I’ve read and in what order. I suppose I’ve been guided somewhat by David Magarshack’s (that is, the translator’s) introduction, and his assessment of the evolution of Turgenev’s style as reflected in these stories that span more than thirty years. According to Magarshack, in his earliest stories Turgenev was especially interested in describing scenery:

The interesting stylistic feature of A Sportsman’s Sketches, as well as of Turgenev’s other stories belonging to the same period [early 1850s], is the presence of the long descriptive passages which have very little relation to the subject matter of the story. Indeed, Turgenev was for a time so obsessed with his ability to paint landscapes in words that even his letters of the period abound in descriptive passages of the same kind. (pp. x-xi, First Love and Other Tales, Norton 1968)

On the one hand, I see in the stories I’ve read so far what Magarshack is getting at. His assessment, though, that the “passages … have very little relation to the subject matter of the story” is not one that I would whole-heartedly embrace. There may be little direct relation to the plot of the story, but it seems to me that Turgenev is operating in a way that would soon become known as impressionism in painting, and a bit later as impressionism in literature. That is, the descriptive passages are often meant to reflect some meaningful aspect of the characters who are operating within or observing the scenery — that aspect may be the characters’ psychologies, or it may be foreshadowing their narrative advancement. In the story “Assya,” for example, the connection between scenery and characterization is overtly made by Turgenev when the narrator says of Gagin, a young Russian fellow he’s met in Germany and who’s awakened him early on a beautiful morning, “With his wavy, shiny hair, open neck, and rosy cheeks, he was as fresh as the morning himself” (94).

Needless to say, I’ve been enjoying the Turgenev stories. I read a bit of Turgenev as an undergraduate, but he’s one of the many authors who’ve been just on the edges of my academic radar all these years.

A couple of developments on the creative writing front: My story “The Composure of Death,” which I just began sending round last month, has been taken by Pisgah Review, a beautiful little journal associated with Brevard College, in Brevard, North Carolina. The journal is edited by Jubal Tiner, whom I met several years ago at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900 (though I’m not sure Jubal is making the connection just yet). According to Jubal’s email, the editorial staff is not in love with the title of the story so they’ve asked me to consider a different title, which I’m willing to do — I have no emotional investment in that specific title. I did reply with a brief explanation of the title’s origin, which is Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil,” a story I allude to in my story, and why I’d chosen that phrase. I don’t know if that will change their feelings about the title, but, if not, I’ll put my thinking cap on and come up with another. With the acceptance of the story, each of the stories in my collection Weeping with an Ancient God, a novella with collected stories, has been published. I’ve also been shopping around the first chapter (under the title “Melvill in the Marquesas”) of the unpublished novella, but so far no one has offered to take it to the dance. It’s still very early in the process, and I’ve only gotten a couple of rejections so far.

The other development: According to Amy Ferrell, CEO of Punkin House Press, Men of Winter should be out in October. Still quite a ways to go in terms of laying out the pages and designing the cover, but that will apparently get intense in a hurry. PHP also wants to do some sort of online workshop/contest that I’ll lead and judge for publication, in part to promote my novel but also to help other writers find publication. Right now it’s just a concept, so that too will have to be fleshed out in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, I continue to work on the Authoress, my novel-in-progress. I’m about 265-manuscript pages in, and a couple of days ago I roughly mapped out the final sections of the story. I have a long way to go, but I must resist the urge to rush toward the finish line. In a sense I’ve been working on the novel for four-plus years, but that’s misleading because for three years I (almost literally) didn’t touch the manuscript as I finished my Ph.D., specifically preparing for and passing comprehensive exams, then getting the dissertation topic approved, and researching, writing, and defending it. So, really, this is only my second summer of working on the novel. I must keep in mind facts like it took Joyce seventeen years to write Finnegans Wake, and William H. Gass worked on The Tunnel for nearly thirty years — not to imply that my book will be another Finnegans Wake or The Tunnel, but rather to remind myself that a novel worth its salt takes time to write, and rushing the process is counterproductive.

tedmorrissey.com

Ulysses and my new website

Posted in May 2010 by Ted Morrissey on May 2, 2010

Somehow or another in my college coursework and general bibliomania, I managed to miss pretty much all of James Joyce, other than reading Dubliners (1914) in bits and pieces over the years and including “Araby” on my syllabus when I’ve taught Intro to Short Fiction at the college; and I’ve always considered my lack of familiarity with Joyce as an enormous gap in literary knowledge.  Hence one of my post-doctoral goals was to catch up on my reading of Joyce.  In the fall I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), and over the winter I began Ulysses (1922).  Other pressures forced me to leave the text be for a time, but I’m back at it, and in the last week or so I’ve read the “Lotus Eaters,” “Hades” and “Aeolus” sections,  and I’m working on “Lestrygonians.”  Ulysses is a difficult text to be sure, and it requires focus.  There have been a few episodes in which I’ve become enthralled as a reader and have been lost in the story, but for the most part it has required some concerted effort to stay with the narrative threads and make some sense of them.  I doubt that I’ll pursue Joyce in a scholarly way, and I can’t see incorporating Joyce into my teaching other than via the stories from Dubliners, but it’s time well spent nevertheless.  From a creative writing standpoint, Joyce’s experimentation and narrative courage, if you will, are valuable lessons to be learned or at least to be reinforced.  I was inspired by the overall structure of Ulysses in the writing of the central section of The Authoress.

Speaking of The Authoress, writing has been going well.  Though with over 200 pages of manuscript, I feel that the story is still waxing; it may end up being a fairly long novel, which is all right:  I’ve always felt like the conclusion of Men of Winter was a bit rushed.  A literary agent had been waiting to see the completed manuscript for three years (not with bated breath, mind you — but I was ever mindful of her expressed interest and was anxious to get it into her mailbox).  And of course once she read it, she decided not to represent it anyway.  And I may be mistaken (whatever “mistake” means when it comes to art):  perhaps the conclusion is as it should be.

This past week I launched tedmorrissey.com, devoted to my creative writing endeavors.  It’s very much a work in progress, and pretty low-tech as websites go these days.  But it seems a virtual necessity to have a dedicated web presence as a contemporary author.  Once Men of Winter gets closer to release, I’ll add some additional features.  One of the things I need to work on, I feel, is a trailer for the novel — as far as I know it’s a twenty-first-century phenomenon to have a trailer for a book.  One of the folks I follow on Twitter makes trailers, so I’m thinking of approaching her, but I’m also considering making it myself.  It would definitely be a learning experience (like starting 12 Winters Blog and tedmorrissey.com).  The publisher of Men of Winter, Punkin House Press, a brand-new press, is coming along.  I can’t imagine the numbers of irons they have in the fire, as it were, attempting to launch a commercial printing house along with a vanity press, a marketplace for self-published books, and a literary journal — simultaneously.  God bless em.

I submitted a proposal to write a chapter for a book on the artist and society; my chapter would be about William H. Gass’s The Tunnel.  I should hear within a couple of weeks whether or not my proposal’s been accepted.  The chapter will be due September 1 if it’s accepted.  If it’s accepted, I’ll enjoy diving back into The Tunnel; but if it’s not, that will be time I’ll be able to devote to other projects — it’s a win-win either way.

Men of Winter to be published, and Hawkes’s The Cannibal

Posted in April 2010 by Ted Morrissey on April 11, 2010

Well, it only took about ten years, but I’ve found a publisher for my novel Men of Winter.  Punkin House Press has offered to bring it out as both an ebook and an actual book.  Punkin House, whose CEO is Amy Ferrell, is adapted(ing) to the realities of publishing in the twenty-first century, I believe.  For years editors/publishers have reacted to my book-length work in more or less the same way:  They like it, they think it should be in print, but just not by them because they won’t make any money off of it.  At a glance it appears that there are just as many publishing houses as there were twenty years ago, perhaps more.  But, in fact, the same thing has happened in the publishing world that has happened in the TV and radio worlds — a few large corporations have acquired or driven out of business the smaller publishing houses, so what may look like a dozen houses is actually just one parent-owned house whose only interest is making a lot of money.  So you have a small group of “name” authors who publish continuously, and thousands of worthy authors who can’t get the time of day from a larger publisher because a “no-name” author isn’t going to sell enough product to make it worthwhile (and, of course, no-name authors remain with no name in the business).  Independent and university presses have tried to fill the void, but budget and staff restraints allow them to publish only a handful of titles each year.  Also, these sorts of presses, especially university presses, tend to evolve very slowly in terms of using technology and adapting to market trends because they’re associated with bureaucratic systems that are driven by inertia rooted in tradition (that is, bureaucrats tend to stick with what they know, even long after it’s proven ineffective).  Meanwhile, I continue to look for a journal to publish “Walkin’ the Dog,” which is really the last publishable story I have; and I work on The Authoress (novel in progress).

On the scholarship front, I’ve been busy tracking down the various portions of William H. Gass’s novel The Tunnel that appeared as excerpts or stand-alone pieces over about thirty years.  So far I’ve mainly been acquiring the pieces and I haven’t had the opportunity to sift through them with care.  What I’m especially interested in is how Gass may have revised them before they appeared in the novel itself.  When I compared “The Old Folks” that appeared in The Kenyon Review with its counterpart, “The Ghost Folks,” in The Tunnel, I found a few — but significant — changes.  I’m still interested in the metaphor of the tunnel itself as being rooted, psychologically, in the phenomenon of the fallout shelter.  I was surprised at the references to tunnels and basements in Nabokov’s early novel Bend Sinister; likewise, I’m only a few pages into John Hawkes’s 1949 novel The Cannibal, which is set in a bombed-out German town, and I’m finding very interesting references to basements, etc.  For example, in the opening chapter the character Balimir is set to work digging a pit in Madame Snow’s cellar, and we are told that as Balimir sits at the top of the steps all of Germany is at his feet.  Similarly, Madame Snow herself “felt the vastness of community that was like burial, spreading over all borders and from family to family” (New Directions 1962 edition p. 17).  That is, the entire town seemed to be underground.

I’m anxious to read on and see where these threads lead my research.

Side by Side by Sondheim, and Nabokov’s Bend Sinister

Posted in March 2010 by Ted Morrissey on March 28, 2010

One of the innumerable areas in which I’m woefully ignorant is musical theater, but I was spellbound last evening by a production of Side by Side by [Stephen] Sondheim at the Community Players Theatre in Bloomington, IL.  Among the amazingly talented players was Robert McLaughlin, an English professor at Illinois State University (and, as it happens, my dissertation chair).  The previous Sunday Dr. McLaughlin gave a 45-minute talk on Sondheim and his vast contributions to American musical theater, somewhat in commemoration of the composer and lyricist’s eightieth birthday.  Though the talk was brief, it gave me some insights into Sondheim that allowed me to understand and appreciate Side by Side more than I would have had I not heard it.  Dr. McLaughlin has written a book on Sondheim and his work, and he says it’s just about ready to go to his editor.  Though a neophyte fan of Sondheim, one of things about his art that I appreciate is his embracing subject matter because of its inherent interest to him — not because it was a commercial “sure thing.”  (As a part-time librarian, I see the claptrap that flows across our circulation desk from the likes of Nora Roberts, James Patterson and Nicholas Sparks — and I’ve considered writing similar nonsense in hopes of becoming wealthy, but I can’t bring myself to do it; I have too many other projects in mind, none of which has any genuine prospect of making me one penny richer.  It was Melville’s lament as he toiled on Moby-Dick, while the reading public clambered for another Typee or Omoo.  By the way, I only draw the lines of comparison between the likes of Sondheim and Melville and myself insofar as I too can relate to being drawn to the decidedly “noncommercial.”)

On another front, in a rather roundabout way I’ve been led to reading an early Nabokov novel, Bend Sinister (1947), via my interests in Gass, who knew Nabokov at Cornell in the 1950s.  It was Nabokov’s second novel that he composed in English; he’d been publishing in Russian since the mid ’20s.  Maurice Couturier calls Bend Sinister “one of the first ‘American’ novels about World War II” (Critique 34.4 p. 248).  I’m only ninety pages or so into Bend Sinister, but I’m struck by some similarities between its main character, Adam Krug, and William Kohler, Gass’s main character in The Tunnel.  For example, both are rather antisocial university professors who relish intellectual sparring with their colleagues.  Neither Krug nor Kohler thinks very highly of humanity, following the atrocities of the Second World War especially.  Intriguingly, in a section I read this morning, Krug has a recurring nightmare in which he dreams of “a tunnel of sorts”:  Nabokov writes, “The yawn of the tunnel and the door of the school, at the opposite ends of the yard, became football goals much in the same fashion as the commonplace organ of one species of animal is dramatically modified by a new function in another” (Henry Holt & Co. first edition, 1947, p. 63).  I hadn’t necessarily been looking to Bend Sinister as a direct source for Gass’s fiction, but some of the connections thus far are, as I said, intriguing.

I continue to gather notes for an article on the fallout shelter and its effects on the American psyche in the ’50s and ’60s.  I was hoping to have something publishable by May, but that seems unrealistic and sometime this summer is more likely.  Meanwhile, I continue to work on The Authoress, which goes well but slowly.  This afternoon I’ll attempt to make progress on one or both fronts, but I also should grade some research papers (my goal is to have all 90 or so graded by April 30).

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Notes on Romeo and Juliet, print-on-demand, et al.

Posted in March 2010 by Ted Morrissey on March 14, 2010

I’ve been meaning to say a few words about the production of Romeo and Juliet that I saw March 5 at Sangamon Auditorium.  It was produced by The Acting Company/Guthrie Theater, and was very well done–a treat indeed in Springfield, Illinois.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a live production of Romeo and Juliet (discounting Prokofiev’s ballet version that I attended a couple of years ago, also at Sangamon Auditorium), and it has been many, many years since I’d read it.  According to the Norton Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream were probably written at about the same time, with scholars not certain of which was quilled first.  As luck would have it, I saw A Midsummer last, well, summer at the Shakespeare Festival, which prompted me to watch the Michael Hoffman 1999 film version in the meantime.  There are numerous points of comparison between R&J and Midsummer, not the least of which being that the story of Pyramus and Thisbe that concludes Midsummer is a parody of Romeo and Juliet’s.  I of course am still on my trauma-theory hobbyhorse, so I watched the play from that perspective.  While a goodly number of scholars are at work on the early modern period, especially Shakespeare, as a site of trauma and how it was manifested in the literature of the time, I have not spent a lot of time (yet) with their findings.  Nonetheless, during the play I was struck by the dynamics of the Shakespearean-style stage (Sangamon Auditorium is a picture-frame stage, but The Acting Company director had set up the stage to work, as closely as possible, like a Globe-style construction).  To say there’s been a lot written about the Shakespearean-style stage would be a gross understatement, and I’ve read a fair amount.  I know, for example, that one line of thought is that the stage was constructed to resemble acting in a three-sided alley, which was where the early London (and other large city) troupes would have performed initially.  That theory, though, doesn’t contribute much to understanding the spareness of the sets, and the stream of continuous action (and even simultaneous action) that sets (ha) Elizabethan/Jacobean performances apart from more contemporary designs–designs which came to place great importance on realism in set and costume and special effects (the cinema of course contributed to this trend as it evolved from the late nineteenth into the twentieth century).  Watching R&J, it occurred to me that the Shakespearean-style design mimics the human mind–especially (here I go) a traumatized mind.  That is to say, the flow from scene to scene reflects the so-called stream-of-consciousness narrative style that modernists perfected (and that was then taken further, artistically speaking, by postmodernists); and, in a sense, one scene will usurp the audience’s attention, just as a traumatic memory imposes itself into the present moment; moreover, simultaneous scenes, being played out at various points on the stage, very much resemble the competing memories/images that trauma victims have to contend with.  Ghosts are regular features of Shakespeare’s plays, of course, and R&J is no exception–though Mercutio’s ghost seems to be more certainly a manifestation of Juliet’s traumatized mind than, say, the ghost of Hamlet’s father, or the ghosts who appear to Gloucester in Richard III, or Banquo’s ghost as he interrupts Macbeth’s coronation feast.

Perhaps this notion–that the Shakespearean-style stage is mimetic of the mind, especially the traumatized mind–has been explored previously.  I’ll eventually have to pursue some research on the matter.

On another front, my story “Unnatural Deeds” (a title taken, incidentally, from Macbeth) came out this past week in Leaf Garden.  Leaf Garden‘s editors, like many editors/publishers these days, are trying to bridge the gap between online journals and traditional print journals by doing both cost effectively via on-demand publishers (for example, Lulu).  The Oak Bend Review, which published my story “Missing the Earth” about a year ago, works in the same manner as Leaf Garden.  In fact, OBR uses Lulu as well.  Basically, the work appears online so that anybody in the world (who has an Internet connection) can read it, but it’s also available in a print journal format.  The potential of a global audience is attractive about online publishing, and the option of an in-hand version is appealing for a host of traditional reasons.  I wonder, though, who exactly is reading online journals (of which there have been an explosion in recent years)?  One drawback to the print-on-demand formats is that, from my experience, the contributing author must purchase copies if he or she wants them (traditional print journals have almost always paid in one or two free copies of the issue, often with a reduced rate for additional copies if an author wants them).  For example, I bought a copy of Leaf Garden No. 8, with my story in it, and it cost me over $30 with shipping, etc.  That’s a full-color version, granted, and less expensive black-and-white versions will eventually be available (apparently), and I’ll no doubt buy a few of those, too.  Also, the print-on-demand copies tend to be rather cheap looking, in terms of the quality of the paper, and the quality of print and/or art reproduction.  But–and this is an important “but”–these online journals with an option for print-on-demand are much, much more feasible, from a budget standpoint, than traditional print journals, especially ones that are trying to put out a high-quality product.  The high, high cost coupled with low, low readership (and getting lower all the time it would seem) make traditional print journals money-losing endeavors for virtually all publishers (many of whom, if not most of whom, are university sponsored–universities which are hypersensitive these days to drains on the budget).  It could very well be that traditional high-cost journals are an endangered species; and these hybrid journals like Leaf Garden and Oak Bend Review are on the leading edge of where “serious” writing is headed this century.

I sent my article on cultural trauma, postmodernism, and William H. Gass to a European editor last week; we’ll see if it gets accepted for publication (he had expressed an interest in the article based on the slimmed down conference paper version I’d sent him).  I’m beginning to research (or beginning more extensive research) on the phenomenon of the fallout shelter in American culture and how it may have affected the mass psyche (I have a journal in mind for that one, too, and the next submission deadline is mid-May–not sure if I’ll be able to make that).  I’m also working on “The Authoress,” and I’ve been sending my story “Walkin’ the Dog” around (it’s really the last publishable short story I have right now–it’s tempting to take a break from the novel to write a story or two, but I’m reluctant to do that, especially since the writing is going well for now).  I have several ideas for stories and novels, not to mention critical articles and books–enough to last me years just to work through the list as it stands right now.