2015 and books

Once again I will say it and then it will be said: others say you should only go into academia if you are interested in research and the life of the mind but I say that you should not go into academia if you are interested in these things. You should go to graduate school if funded at a nice place, yes, but you should not be a professor unless you get a good job right away. And good jobs are at state flagships, research extensive institutions within reach of large cities, that have Ph.D. programs in all your fields.

There are no other good academic jobs but there are many other things you can do with a Ph.D. You should never, as I did, accept a job you know you will not like, or renounce other things for the sake of other peoples’ need to say you are a professor. This is tantamount to suicide and having done it is why I want to commit suicide. This would not be a radical act, it would just be the last touch on a murder job begun long ago.

However, I am turning into one of those people I could not be when I was younger — those people who say they live in a wasteland but “have their work.” I was horrified at the degree of resignation this statement evinced the first time I heard it but in retrospect I realize it was not even a true statement: the person who said it was not in a wasteland but was at a major research institution with a very good library, and also had many personal resources with which to withstand the cold.

I have a more ascetic life than that, although asceticism is not my inclination. Yet there is value in having one’s work and that was the main thing I renounced in Reeducation, and that made me so sad; not being allowed to acquire a different work made me even sadder, but I am taking back my old work. It is said one is not to look back, but only ahead; to take up my old work means looking back, though, and that is why it feels traumatic. I had forgotten today that I had made a decision — well, not made a decision, but come to a realization that it is now within my power to suffer less than I do. I might make a resolution, as it is the last night of the year, not to forget this.

I have to review this book and I do not like it. Everyone else does, which is a problem. Am I misanthropic? The book is liked, it seems, for every reason except poetry. I read some translations to Spanish of it and the poems were prettier, as many things are in Spanish, but there is no use of language and no perception in the text that strikes me as new. Another problem is that in English, it reads to me as a depiction of Mexican life as exotic. Reading them I feel like a South American groaning at the ways gringos stereotype us and the Americanization of certain Mexicans, and am embarrassed by this because in fact the writer is the Mexican immigrant and I am the Anglo. My review copy came already marked up by the journal editor who liked a number of images I find particularly awkward; I feel ungenerous since he is the creative writing professor, not I. But I have read a great deal of poetry in my life and I do not like this book.

I took two academic books with me to visit the Emeritus Professor last week and he read them, too. I like one of them quite a lot and I appreciate some of the insights and also facts contained in the other. The Emeritus Professor was far more critical and this was interesting. Let us see what you think of our comments.

Book #1: I say it has deep research, a very original and important topic, skillful and graceful theoretical grounding and commentary, and very clear writing generally. It does suffer from signposting but I realize I am in the minority that considers this bad, and not good style. (The question of style gives a great deal to think about, of course.) The Emeritus Professor says the signposting is a serious problem. Where I see the author making an interesting refutation of a received interpretation or an insightful use of a theoretical perspective, the Emeritus Professor sees him getting bogged down and distracted from his story, such that he is forced to use signposting to get back on track.

Book #2: I say the general argument is of some interest, and that there are some useful insights in the book as well as interesting facts cited. There is too much overgeneralization and too much focus on secondary work: it is not a book about the literary period in question but about scholarship on it. Clearly the author discussed a first draft with a number of people and then expanded the text by incorporating their comments, and commentary on their comments. This adds another level of overgeneralization. Nonetheless the author and his chorus do, as I have already said twice, have some interesting things to say, that are worth thinking about. The Emeritus Professor, on the other hand, says it is a bad book because it says nothing new and contains no original research, but only sews together comments from and arguments by the myriad people mentioned in the acknowledgments.

Result: I am clearly a kinder reader than is the Emeritus Professor. Is my highly negative reaction to the Treviño book, which I assume is an overreaction, a matter of personal taste (“she is just not my cup of tea”) or is it that I am such a kind reader that, when I dislike something, it is that that piece of writing really is bad? Or is this an unscientific comparison since the Treviño book is poetry, and I have higher standards for that than I do for academic prose?

Inquiry: The fact that book #2 is a standard in one of my fields is a reason why I left that field for such a long time. If we were to think and write in that way, I thought, or in other words if this was good research and writing, then I was not equal to the job. My claustrophobia in the academic world seems to stem from that problem: if this was the kind of thing I was to do, I wanted to get out so I could do something interesting and useful. I was told that was arrogant and ungrateful of me but I wonder now whether I was right, and this kind of work is actually less good than it is said to be.

Comment: I do not find South American academic books that I disagree with or consider poorly done nearly as irritating as U.S. ones, because the South American ones seem so much more sincere. They may be thin, but they are what that writer came up with, for their reasons. The U.S. ones all seem so calculated, that is to say they seem more like public relations projects than research projects, and that is another reason I find myself wanting to run quickly away.

The themes of this post appear to be: having been shamed for having views and desires of any kind; being convinced it is inappropriate to have these; feeling it is futile and perhaps dangerous in this venue to develop them; wanting to get away because in this venue one is precisely to develop one’s views, but may killed if one actually does so; feeling that if one is to be killed for developing one’s views, it should be in service to humanity and not over some obscure question of academic decorum; wanting to get to a place where one can actually develop one’s views; not really caring what field one is in, so long as one is allowed to develop in it; feeling guilty because of having been accused of “betrayal” due to willingness to change fields for the sake of gaining freedom.


16 thoughts on “2015 and books

  1. I am interested in your responses to the Trevino book because I have had similair discussions about the same issues reagrding other texts with a few people. I will play some catch up on your blog….

    1. The Treviño book is straight-up bad and her professors either have told her this and not had her listen, or lied to her to get a TA and so on, or not been good poets themselves. I am very disappointed in Cisneros for promoting this quality of writing and I am against the proliferation of MFA programs. I will say more in this vein soon.

      Great to see you Lisa!

  2. This is a discussion I have had for years with a few people (primarily Dagoberto Gilb- do you know his stuff?) – especially about the need for real criticism – and not just a kind of supportoup/fan club…

    1. They do it in the art department, starting at the BFA level … I do not understand why they canno do it about writing.

      1. I meant to write “support group.” There is a dearth of real criticism in the Mexican American – and Latino – lit community. Dago guest edited an issue of the American Book Review awhile back (I have a piece in it) – and sought to start a conversation about it. (http://americanbookreview.org/issueContent.asp?id=193) He also is the founding editor of a “new” lit journal – Huizache.

      2. Very interesting to see D G things, gracias !!! Will read. Interesting about Huizache.

        NB also: it is condescending and patronizing to assume or assert that Chican@ writers are not good enough / worthy enough to criticize, as many in the community seem to feel or as many English professors seem to feel about them. I am amused when Anglo types who do not even speak Spanish lecturing me about how I might not understand Mexico or something (where they have been once, on a cruise).

  3. I once wrote a quite serious article on Anzaldúa which was never published because it questioned some of her political strategies (the idea that the mestiza figure was necessarily transgressive). People, including Anglos in English, said I could not say that and the only proper attitude toward her or any Chicana writer, especially if lesbian, was hagiographic. This is NOT how we do literary criticism in Spanish or any other field I am familiar with, although students are encouraged to write hagiographically in some Spanish and French speaking countries.

    1. Review is just for a little cyberjournal, Cybersoleil, and yes I am on FB … you know my name, right?

  4. Lisa, something that occurred to me about the Treviño situation and that I said on another thread is: It occurs to me that people do not want to criticize Treviño or poets like her because the poems depend so much on her very intimate sentiments and neuroses and experiences that to criticize them is like criticizing her personally and hitting her where she is perhaps weakest, and does not feel fair.

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