Category Archives: writing

Pandemic blog 35: Updates

What’s going on with some of the topics previously covered?

Slimming: The initial weight loss reported slowed down, but hasn’t stopped, even though I started eating take-out from restaurants in July and have been doing so pretty regularly. Now at about 18 pounds below pre-pandemic weight. Why, I wonder? Is it really just the lunch out at work and the snack at the coffeeshop forgone?

Pandemic elections: 100,000 people in Dane County have already returned their absentee ballots for November. The city is setting up “Democracy in the Park” events where voters can turn in their ballots to city pollworkers; Republicans are trying to have those events declared illegal, because (this is me editorializing) they make it easy and convenient for people to vote whose votes they’d rather not see cast. There is a lot of noise about slowness of the mail, but it’s been fast here, and I mailed my ballot in; received by the clerk in just two days. The underlying worry here is that political actors will try to retroactively have legally cast ballots invalidated after Election Day, leaving voters with no recourse. The fact that mailed-in absentees are expected to be predominantly Democratic (only 44,000 ballots returned so far in Crucial Waukesha County) creates an obvious means of attack. I don’t really think that’ll happen but people are thinking about it under their mental breath.

Writing: The book is almost done! A draft is written, I’m going through and revising and putting in more endnotes now. To me it seems completely different from How Not To Be Wrong, while Dr. Mrs. Q says it seems exactly the same, which seems a kind of sweet spot: I can hope the people who liked the other book will like this one, while feeling for myself that I’m not putting out the same product again and again like a hack.

Impossible Meat: We’re still eating a lot of it! I have absolutely learned to read it as meat and no longer think of it as a substitute. But we’ve converged on using it exclusively in sauces; as a burger, it still doesn’t totally satisfy.

Smart Restart: After the big surge with the opening of classes, UW-Madison shut down in-person instruction for two weeks and put the two first-year dorms where cases were concentrated into isolation. The positivity rate on campus has dropped back down to around 1% and the campus outbreak doesn’t seem to have created sustained exponential growth in Madison’s general population; but it does seem to have brought our daily case load back up to where it was months ago, from which it is, again, only very slowly dropping. When R_0 is a little less than 1, even a brief bump up in prevalence can be very expensive in terms of long-term cumulative case numbers. Now we are starting football again. Is that smart? There won’t be any fans in Camp Randall (which means the economic catastrophe for local businesses of a year without a football season is going to happen unblunted.) Then again, there’s something hypocritical about me saying “Hell no, why take the risk” since I’ve been watching and enjoying baseball. The enjoyment of millions of fans actually does have value. MLB, because lots and lots of money is riding on this, has mostly kept its players and employees from suffering outbreaks. The Big Ten can probably do the same — if it cares to. What I worry about is this. By all accounts, in-person teaching hasn’t been spreading COVID either. But when we had in-person teaching, everyone felt things were more normal, and thinking things were more normal, they relaxed their social distancing, and that generated thousands of cases. There was indirect spread. Will football generate the same?

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Pandemic blog 32: writing

Taylor Swift surprised everyone by releasing a surprise new album, which she wrote and recorded entirely during the quarantine. My favorite song on it is the poignant “Invisible String”

which has an agreeable Penguin Cafe Orchestra vibe, see e.g.

(The one thing about “Invisible String” is that people seem to universally read it as a song about how great it is to finally have found true love, but people, if you say

And isn’t it just so pretty to think
All along there was some
Invisible string
Tying you to me?

you are (following Hemingway at the end of The Sun Also Rises) saying it would be lovely to think there was some kind of karmic force-bond tying you and your loved one together, but that, despite what’s pretty, there isn’t, and you fly apart.)

Anyway, I too, like my fellow writer Taylor Swift, have been working surprisingly fast during this period of enforced at-homeness. Even with the kids here all the time, not going anywhere is somehow good writing practice. And this book I’m writing, the one that’s coming out next spring, is now almost done. I’m somewhat tetchy about saying too much before the book really exist, but it’s called Shape, there is a lot of different stuff in it, and I hope you’ll like it.

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Pandemic blog 26: writing

I was supposed to turn in a manuscript for my new (general-audience book) last week. It’s not finished. But I’ve written a lot of it during the pandemic. Of course it is very hard to be “productive” in the usual way, with the kids here all day. But being in the house all day is somehow the right setup for book-writing, maybe because it so clearly separates life now from my usual life where I am neither staying in the house nor writing a book.

I think the pages I’m putting out are good. As usual, the process of writing is causing me to learn new things faster than I can put them in the book and indeed there is now too much material to actually go in the book, but that means, at any rate, I can be selective and pick just the best.

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“Hamilton”

We saw the last show of the touring company’s visit to Madison. The kids have played the record hundreds of times so I know the songs very well. But there’s a lot you get from seeing the songs realized by actors in physical space.

  • I had imagined King George as a character in the plot interacting with the rest of the cast; but in the show, he’s a kind of god/chorus floating above the action, seeing certain things clearly that the people in the thick of it can’t. So his famous line, “I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love,” comes off in person as less menacing, more cosmic. Neil Haskell played the role very, very, very mincy, which I think was a mistake, but it got laughs.
  • On the other hand, I hadn’t grasped from the songs how big a role George Washington plays. It’s set up very nicely, with the relation between Hamilton and the two Schuyler sisters presented as a shadow of the much more robust and fully felt love triangle between Hamilton, Burr, and Washington.
  • The biggest thing I hadn’t understood from the record was the show’s gentle insistence, built up slowly and unavoidably over the whole of the night, that the winner of a duel is the one who gets shot.
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Morally problematic, even questionable

Today’s New York Times contains the phrase

is itself a morally problematic, even questionable, act.

Are there no editors anymore? What work is “even questionable” doing? Is it possible to imagine an act that was morally problematic but not morally questionable? And even if it is, is that thin distinction really what the writer of this piece about an HBO miniseries is going for? Or did they just think “is itself a morally problematic act” didn’t have enough heft, stuff another couple of non-nutritive words in there, admire the sentence’s new bulk, move on?

Boo, I say, boo.

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“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.

Continue reading

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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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