Category Archives: writing

“The Great Ph.D. Scam” (or: Academy Plight Song)

Thanks to the Wayback Machine, here’s my piece from the Boston Phoenix on the MLA, the first feature piece I ever wrote for publication, twenty-one years ago last month.

Who knows if the Wayback Machine is forever?  Just in case, I’m including the text of the piece here.

The Phoenix gave this piece its title, which I think is too fighty.  My title was “Academy Plight Song.”  (Get it?)

I think this holds up pretty well!  (Except if I were writing this today I wouldn’t attach so much physical description to every woman with a speaking part.)

Melani McAlister, the new hire at GWU who appears in the opening scene, is still there as a tenured professor in 2018.  And all these years later, she’s still interested in helping fledgling academics navigate the world of scholarly work; her page “Thinking Twice about Grad School” is thorough, honest, humane, and just great.

Here’s the piece!

The great PhD scam
by Jordan Ellenberg

“We dangle our three magic letters before the eyes of these predestined victims, and they swarm to us like moths to an electric light. They come at a time of life when failure can no longer be repaired easily and when the wounds it leaves are permanent . . . ”
— William James
“The Ph.D. Octopus,” 1903

By nine o’clock, more than 200 would-be professors have piled into the Cotillion Ballroom South at the Sheraton Washington hotel, filling every seat and spilling over into the standing space behind the chairs. They’re young and old, dressed up and down, black and white and other (though mostly white). They’re here to watch Melani McAlister, a 1996 PhD in American Civilization from Brown, explain to a committee of five tenured professors why she ought to be hired at Indiana University.

Everybody looks nervous except McAlister. That’s because, unlike almost everyone else here, she doesn’t need a job; she’s an assistant professor at George Washington University. This interview is a mock-up, a performance put on to inform and reassure the crowd of job-seekers. As McAlister cleanly fields questions about her thesis and her pedagogical strategy, the people in the audience frown and nod, as if mentally rehearsing their own answers to the similar questions they’ll be asked in days to come.

This is night one of the 112th annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, the national organization of professors of English, comparative literature, and living foreign languages. Ten thousand scholars are here in Washington, DC, to attend panels, renew acquaintances, and, most important, to fill open faculty positions. A tenure-track job typically attracts hundreds of applicants; of these, perhaps a dozen will be offered interviews at the MLA; and from that set a handful will be called back for on-campus interviews. For the people who are here “on the market,” that is, trying to become professors of English and so forth, the MLA is the gate to heaven. And, as everyone in the room is aware, the gate is swinging shut.

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A Supposedly Fun Thing (a book review)

I wrote a review of David Foster Wallace’s book A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again in 1997 for the late great Boston Phoenix, whose archives don’t seem to be online anymore.  (SOB)

But I have a pdf copy, so here it is, for my own reference, and yours if for some reason you need it!

I should have anticipated this and downloaded all my Phoenix stuff. The first pieces I ever reported were there, a short one about a Michael Moore rally and a long one about the MLA. They’re gone. But wait! I was able to recover the MLA piece from the WayBack Machine.  Thanks, WayBack Machine!  I’ll post that later.

 

 

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Ursula K. LeGuin is dead

She was one of the people who taught me what good writing was.  I read mostly SF as a kid.  Nothing against SF.  But a lot of it is … terrible.  We know this.  When I read LeGuin I suddenly saw what English could do when a writer actually cared about the words on the page, where they sat, how they sounded.  I couldn’t believe it.  Her sentences were more exciting than most people’s space battles.

The famous books are famous justly.  The Dispossessed.  The Left Hand of Darkness.  A Wizard of Earthsea.  (And when you’re talking about words on the page, think about how much more right that title is with “A” instead of “The.”)  Earthsea I just read again last year.  I felt, at once, glad I’d gotten to read it as a kid, but equally glad I’d come back to it as an adult so I could understand it in full.  Maybe 20 years from now I’ll read it again and say, “I’m sure glad I read it again — now I finally get it.”

(Here’s David Carlton on Earthsea.)

But the one I read down to shreds was her anthology The Compass Rose.  Especially “The New Atlantis.”  And hey look, the full text is online!

When I was in high school I thought I wanted to be a writer but probably really I just wanted to be the writer of this story.  I wrote a dozen crappy versions of it, each of which I thought of as original.  Looking at it now, I can hardly find a paragraph I didn’t rip off at some point.  I mean, just:

There was an electrified fence all around the forest to keep out unauthorized persons. The forest ranger talked about mountain jays, “bold little robbers,” he said, “who will come and snatch the sandwich from your very hand,” but I didn’t see any. Perhaps because that was the weekly Watch Those Surplus Calories! Day for all the women, and so we didn’t have any sandwiches. If I’d seen a mountain jay, I might have snatched the sandwich from his very hand, who knows.

It’s a small thing, I know, but this is how I learned an effect I don’t even have a name for.  Repeating a phrase but the phrase is delivered in two different voices.  It can be comic or it can be spooky, or, as here, it can be both.  I ripped it off from Ursula LeGuin as I ripped off so much else.  RIP.

 

 

 

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A rejection from Gordon Lish

At some point I’m going to go through my gigantic file of rejection letters from the mid-1990s, when I was trying to be a fiction writer, and write a post about them, but for now, here’s the one I have from Gordon Lish, from 27 June 1996, when he was editing The Quarterly:

Excellent Jordan — you only impress me further with your force. I
would take the cut if I liked it. I don’t — but I do admire the man
who made it. Cheers, Gordon.

 

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City of Mirrors

Remember how much I liked the first book in this series?  It wasn’t perfect, but I admired the idea of depicting the destruction of a world that’s already kind of ruined though the people in the world don’t fully realize it.  (See also:  Station Eleven.) I was going to write a long post about how lousy this book was but didn’t get around to it and now I’ve mercifully forgotten most of the worst parts.  Still, I did save a lot of highlights of terrible sentences to my Kindle so here are some.

“such was the bittersweet beauty of life”

“Here, tacked to the neutral plaster walls, are the pennants of sports teams and the conundrumous M.C. Escher etching of hands drawing each other and, opposite the sagging single bed, the era-appropriate poster of the erect-nippled Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, beneath whose lubricious limbs and come-hither gaze and barely concealed pudenda the boy has furiously masturbated night after adolescent night.”

“I’d known that Lucessi had a younger sister; he had failed to mention that she was a bona fide Mediterranean goddess, quite possibly the most beautiful girl I’d ever laid eyes on — regally tall, with lustrous black hair, a complexion so creamy I wanted to drink it, and a habit of traipsing into a room wearing nothing more than a slip…. striding through the house in tall riding boots and clanking spurs and tight breeches, a costume no less powerful than the slip in its ability to send the blood dumping to my loins.”

“Though I knew I had done well, I was still astonished to see my first-semester report with its barricade of A’s”

“Between these carnal escapades — Carmen and I would often race back to her room between classes for an hour of furious copulation — and my voluminous classwork and, of course, my hours at the library — time well spent replenishing myself for our next encounter — I saw less and less of Lucessi.”

“On a Saturday afternoon, escorted by my father, I entered this sacred masculine space.  The details were intoxicating.  The odors of tonic, leather, talc.  The combs lounging in their disinfecting aquamarine bath.  The hiss and crackle of AM radio, broadcasting manly contests upon green fields.  My father beside me.  I waited on a chair of cracked red vinyl. Men were being barbered, lathered, whisked.”

“Caleb had peeked at her journals a few times over the years, unable to resist this small crime; like her letters, her entries were wonderfully written.  While they sometimes expressed doubts or concern over various matters, generally they communicated an optimistic view of life.”

The combination of pretentiousness (“manly contests upon green fields”), cliche (“hiss and crackle”), thesaurus-wrangling (“barricade”,”traipsing”), and general vagueness (“various matters”) is really something special.  It is not just bad but BAD in the sense of Paul Fussell.

Oh yeah and also he’s obsessed with the word “possessed” where he means to say “had” or just express the idea in a defter way.

“Something about this place felt new and undiscovered; it possessed a feeling of sanctuary.”

“His flesh, a sickly yellow, possessed a damp, translucent appearance, like the inner layers of an onion.”

“His thoughts possessed a lazy, unmoored quality.”

“His limbs possessed a thin-boned delicacy”

So much more is wrong!  The way characters are often referred to as “the man” or “the woman,” the general concern with manliness throughout, but manliness of a very bent kind:  a weird you-know-how-it-is sympathy towards characters when they get so frustrated that they just have to hit / strangle / kill / sexually assault a woman?  Which culminates in the big action set piece at the end — so of course the big giant ship they have to escape on has been tiresomely personified as a woman,  Michael’s actual one true love for 400 pages — then the big moment comes and the ship can’t consummate, all seems lost, until Michael solves the problem by calling the ship a bitch and hitting it with wrench, at which point it immediately settles down and behaves.  Then the end is an epilogue set 1000 years in the future where a tenured professor (yes, there’s still tenure in 1000 years) gets lucky with a young journalist who’s captivated by his hidden depth and middle-aged loneliness.

 

 

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Portuguese vs. Portuguese

The Portuguese edition of “How Not To Be Wrong” just arrived at my house.  “Portuguese” as in “from Portugal” and as distinct from the Brazilian edition.  Interesting how two versions of the book in the same language can be rather different!  Here’s the opening paragraph in Portugal:

Agora mesmo, numa sala de aula algures no mundo, uma estudante esta a reclamar com o seu professor de matematica.  Este acabou de lhe pedir para usar uma parte substancial do seu fim de semana a calcular uma lista de trinta integrais definidas.

And in Brazil:

Neste exato momento, numa sala de aula em algum lugar do mundo, uma aluna esta xingando o professor de matematica.  O professor acaba de lhe pedir que passe uma parte substancial de seu fim de semana calculando uma lista de trinta integrais definidas.

Ok, those are not too far off.  Here’s how some lines of John Ashbery’s “Soonest Mended” are translated in Portugal:

E vimos que ambos temos razao, ainda que nada

Tenha resultado em coisa alguma; os avatares

Do nosso conformismo perante as regros,

E ficar sempre por casa, fizeram de nos — bem, en certo sentido — <<bons cidadaos>>

and in Brazil:

Esta vendo, ambos estavamos certos, embora nada

Tenha de algum modo chegado a nada; os avatares

Da nossa comformidade com regras e viver

Em torno de casa fizeram de nos … bem, num sentido, “bons cidadaos”

I don’t know whether Ashbery’s poems have official Portuguese translations.  The only one I could find of “Soonest Mended” was in a book of criticism by V.B. Concagh, where the last two lines were rendered

Deste conformarmo-nos as regras e fazermos a nossa vida

Ca por casa fizeram de nos — bem, num certo sentido, “bons cidadaos”

The line I hit very hard in English is  “For this is action, this not being sure.”  That last phrase is rendered

  • (Portugal) esta incerteza
  • (Brazil) essa falta de certeza
  • (Concagh) este nao esta seguro

I don’t read Portuguese but the last, most literal rendering seems best to me, assuming I’m right that it captures something of the “not the way you’d normally say it”-ness of the Ashbery:  “this uncertainty” or “this lack of certainty” in English don’t have at all the same quality.

Note:  Because I was feeling lazy I have omitted all diacritical marks.  Lusophones are welcome to hassle me about this if it makes the quotes ambiguous or unreadable.

 

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Wall words

When I was a kid I had an anthology of Cyril Kornbluth stories and one detail in the introduction made a big impression on me:  Kornbluth had lots of random notes among his papers, ideas, words, and phrases, and the editor of the anthology found it kind of poignant to look at these and wonder what stories they would have been.  Especially — and this phrase has stuck with me all these years — “ghosts in a Martian department store.”

Anyway:  while cleaning up the basement, I came across a pile of Post-its, which were on my wall when I was a creative writing grad student at Johns Hopkins in 1994.  Each of these, I guess, was something I meant to use for something.  I have no memory of what any of these mean.  But here they are.  Maybe you can use them.  None of them is as good as “ghosts in a Martian department store.”

  • “every third person in the world”
  • The Admonitionist
  • assapanic
  • “Bald men, a lot of them — yeah, that might work!”
  • Rick Ziggurat
  • The First Church of Christ Plaintiff
  • Community Reaction to a Horrifying Event – Arndt
  • out of the fishy-smelling steam
  • reckless use of a highway
  • THE UNDERTAKER’S BIRTHDAY (Did the stripper shoot the corpse?)
  • The grandfatherly crook gives a motivational lecture to fifth-graders
  • “you slug in a ditch!”
  • Solomon “Duck-Duck” Goos
  • A first line:  “Here’s something you might not know.”
  • “luz” — “an unidentified bone…”
  • The hobo community, waiting /expecting (esperar) for rich couples to pick them up.
  • The apocalypse counselor “If the sun went supernova, we wouldn’t know for eight minutes.”
  • “Of course, there is some element of risk involved in building a house out of oily rags.”
  • steeped in regret
  • Chief Louis Anemone NYPD (red)
  • “This guy’s been shot.”  “No kidding — you think he’ll make it?”
  • HIDALGO – hijo de algo
  • fetus/treatise
  • fuckadelphia
  • abacinate
  • “Victory without a whimper…the only sound:  excellence.”
  • “The ghost of Knute Rockne is living and he is smiling.”
  • “That’s a big number, but it’s a heck of a lot better than infinity.”
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Creeping and boiling

Then the cannon-ball smashed through the window-sill, the opened glass panes shattering into fragments with a crash.  The ball itself rolled on until the stone wall stopped it with a heavy thud, then it burst into pieces, and a creeping gray smoke came boiling out.

I have a lot of issues with this passage.

First of all, it seems like the cannonball smashed through the window, not the windowsill.  As for the panes — if the cannonball smashed through them, doesn’t that mean they were closed, not open?  How would they shatter if not into fragments?  I object, too, to the “with a [sound effect]” construction being used in two consecutive sentences, especially given that the chosen sound effect (“crash,” “thud”) is the most obvious choice in both cases.  The second sentence has too many different actions carried out by too many different objects (the ball, the wall, then the ball again, then the smoke.)  The smoke — is it creeping or boiling?  By my lights it can’t be both.

The lines are from Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, a fantasy novel which despite this paragraph has a lot of good things about it. and which won this year’s Nebula Award.

Two idiosyncratic reactions:

  • Agnieszka’s magic is set up as being the inheritance of Baba Jaga, a kind of intuitive, sing-songy, kitcheny kind of magic, explicitly opposed to the formal, rule-governed spell-casting of Sarkan, the broody sorcery dude who kidnaps, then mentors, then eventually falls in love with her.  This works well in the story, but I’m not on board with the suggestion that formal, rule-governed manipulation is a masculine activity that needs a feminine complement in order to achieve its full power.  Math has an improvisational, intuitive aspect, to be sure; but that aspect, like the formal aspect, belongs to men and women equally.
  • Weird feature of this book:  its setting is a magical version of Poland, and Agnieszka is explicitly presented as being “rooted” in the village, the hearth, the homeland; this is, in part the source of her power.  Sarkan, by contrast, is explicitly “rootless” — without a connection of his own to the land, he has to feed on the young women of the village, one after another, cutting their connection to the village and leaving them sort of ruined, suited only for big-city life.  So my mind naturally wanders to the question of “what group of people were thought of in rural Eastern Europe as rootless cosmopolitans who hide out behind walls looking at books all day and who corrupt our women and we just have to accept it because they have access to mysterious secret powers?”  Now maybe I’m overthinking this, but I do have to point out that after I noticed this I looked up Novik on Wikipedia, and her mother is Polish and her father is Jewish.  Make of it what you will.

 

 

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A free writing tip, or: the extraordinary m*****f*****s who founded this country

It gets under my shirt when writers use “individuals” as a synonym for “people.”  It sounds bureaucratic, like a police report:  “Several individuals were observed entering the vehicle in the vicinity of the establishment…”

But people do this all the time, especially when they’re trying to sound a little formal.  I have a writing tip:  every sentence in which “individual” is used in this way is improved by replacing the word “individual” with “motherfucker.”

For example, the New York Times business bestseller list describes the book Succeed On Your Own Terms as an account of “The defining qualities shared by highly accomplished individuals.”

Now try:

“The defining qualities shared by highly accomplished motherfuckers.”

Doesn’t that sound like a better book?

Or consider the remarks by Republican National Committee chief of staff Katy Walsh, about the Koch brothers:

“I think it’s very dangerous and wrong to allow a group of very strong, well-financed individuals who have no accountability to anyone to have control over who gets access to the data when, why and how.”

Strong words, but

“I think it’s very dangerous and wrong to allow a group of very strong, well-financed motherfuckers who have no accountability to anyone to have control over who gets access to the data when, why and how,”

would have been stronger.

A great source of “individuals” is the amazing database of Presidential speeches and proclamations at UCSB.  Here’s Ronald Reagan, on October 24, 1986:

And when it happens and we’re able, for the first time, to reduce the number of nuclear weapons threatening mankind, it will be a result of the realism and commitment of solid motherfuckers like Don Nickles, motherfuckers who understand that peace through strength is not just a slogan, it’s a fact of life.

That’s what Reagan should have said, at any rate.

Bill Clinton on Flag Day 1997:

Adopted by the Continental Congress on June 14, 1777, the Stars and Stripes became the official flag of the young United States and a compelling symbol of our new independence. Woven into its folds were the hopes, dreams, and determination of the extraordinary motherfuckers who founded this country.

And Barack Obama, proclaiming National Maritime Day this May:

Our Nation is forever indebted to the brave privateers who helped secure our independence, fearlessly supplying our Revolutionary forces with muskets and ammunition. Throughout history, their legacy has been carried forward by courageous seafarers who have faithfully served our Nation as part of the United States Merchant Marine—bold motherfuckers who emerged triumphant in the face of attacks from the British fleet in the War of 1812, and who empowered the Allied forces as they navigated perilous waters during World War II.

But perhaps nobody did it better than John Quincy Adams, in his inaugural address of 1825, pleading for Americans to put aside their political differences and work together:

There still remains one effort of magnanimity, one sacrifice of prejudice and passion, to be made by the motherfuckers throughout the nation who have heretofore followed the standards of political party. It is that of discarding every remnant of rancor against each other, of embracing as countrymen and friends, and of yielding to talents and virtue alone that confidence which in times of contention for principle was bestowed only upon those who bore the badge of party communion.

John Quincy Adams was one bipartisan motherfucker.

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“Losers often grow up to be writers”

My first cousin once removed Marilyn Sachs, on writing:

One final word of encouragement to those of you who are cowardly, cry babies, and liars, as I was. These are extremely promising qualities for future writers. If you are a coward, you will probably spend more time at the library than you would ordinarily, and if you tell lies, it just shows that you have an imagination even if others don’t always appreciate it. Cry babies tend to be sensitive, which is also a plus for writers. When I grew up, I found that I had become a great expert on bullies, and my books are full of them.

So, don’t feel you have to be smart, beautiful, brave and popular to become a writer. Or even to be a good speller. Losers often grow up to be writers, which means we have the final word.

Her books are mostly for kids.  Have you read them, parents?  Some of the classics:  Laura’s Luck (1965), my favorite alienated-kids-at-summer-camp book.  The Fat Girl (1984), a truly creepy YA novel about brutal psychosexual guerilla war in high school.  The Bear’s House (1972).  I remember almost nothing about this but just hearing the title makes me choke up so I know it was really sad.

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