Archive for July, 2010

Mash-up vs. Purple Crayon

This is not a post on bastard pop or remixed movie trailers.  Such a post would be fun to read, but this isn’t it.  At 13 years (if measured by my degree date) or 11 years (if measured by my first publications) into the business that is academia, I’m reflecting on what kind of work I do.  So, if you aren’t an academic, it’s highly likely that this will bore the pants off of you.  True, given that we’re having an exceptionally warm summer, you might want to be pants-less.  Surely, though, you could find a less wearisome way of becoming de-pants’d?  (Insert ribald joke here.  Thank you.)

Anyway.  Some scholars manage to shift the paradigm, changing the discussion.  Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (2000) is a popular example; Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (1993) is another.  In the field of literary studies, one could point to Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence (1973), Eric Lott’s Love and Theft (1993), or Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s Was Huck Black? (1993) — among many others.

And then you have people like me.  Some (much?) of my scholarship is the academic equivalent of the musical mash-up.  Instead of combining a song by Jay-Z with one by the Beatles, I make a similar move with ideas — placing a set of ideas in a different context, and coming up with something unusual.  Read Dr. Seuss through theories of the avant-garde and postmodern, and you — well, I — get “Dada Knows Best: Growing Up ‘Surreal’ with Dr. Seuss” (article, 1999; book chapter, 2002).  Write on Don DeLillo while teaching Introduction to Women’s Studies, and — voila! — “Amazons in the Underworld: Gender, the Body, and Power in the Novels of Don DeLillo” (article, 2001).  Where odd ideas collide, you’ll find me.

I admire people who have the paradigm-shifting ideas.  But I’m not one of those people.  Perhaps my tendency to pursue many projects simultaneously prevents the sort of reflection that leads to the Big Ideas.  Or maybe that my mind simply doesn’t work that way.  Likely, both are factors.

After getting my doctorate, I concluded that a rigorous publishing regimen was the only path out of adjuncthood and into a tenure-track job.  Kathleen Fitzpatrick, who earned her Ph.D. at the same time I earned mine (exactly one year later, in fact), did something different.  Instead of arriving at a conclusion, she asked a question: Why?  Why do we publish in academic journals and with academic presses that take years to print our work and that few non-academics read anyway?  Why not post our work on-line, via a blog?  While I toiled away within the publish-or-perish paradigm, she challenged the paradigm … and has begun to change it.  Thanks to her Planned Obsolescence blog, her many invited talks, and her forthcoming book (named for her blog), Kathleen is shifting the way that academics think about publishing.  My motto for the past decade has been: Enhance production!  Hers is something more like: Change the mode of production!

I intend the echo of Marx in that last sentence to evoke less his ideas, and more the boldness of his thinking.  As an untenured academic, Kathleen took a risk in questioning the system she aspired to join.  Wisely tempering that risk, she did (and does) also publish scholarship through traditional venues, of course — via academic presses, academic journals. Though I co-edited a collection of radical children’s literature, my own career path has been much more conservative. True, I have had a website since 1997, but — for the bulk of my scholarship — I have stuck almost exclusively to traditional modes of publishing.

If the mash-up is the controlling metaphor for my scholarship, then the purple crayon is the metaphor for hers. Instead of doing the usual thing and creating a story about a character, Crockett Johnson had the idea to make his character the author of his own story.  In doing so, he created a classic of children’s literature — Harold and the Purple Crayon — in which the title character draws a universe out of a single crayon.  His adventures get him into a few tight spots, but, keeping “his wits and his purple crayon,” Harold draws his way out … and into another six books.  So, hoping that you keep your wits and your purple crayon (or blog, or vlog, or insert other medium here), remember there’s more than one path to success.  Why not draw your own?

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Cul de Sac = Classic

If you don’t already read Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac, you really should. If you are among those who don’t, I should clarify that this is not the singer-songwriter Richard Thompson.  This is the creative genius behind Richard’s Poor Almanac and this new, daily strip.  I say “new” because it’s one of the newer creations on the comics page, but it’s actually been out for for a little while: it began as a weekly strip in the Washington Post in 2004, and went into syndication in 2007.  And I say “genius” because this is one of the strips that will, in the future, be regarded as classic.  It’s up there with George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby, Walt Kelly’s Pogo, Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts, and Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes.  It’s that good.

Richard Thompson's Cul de Sac (10 Sept. 2007)

Cul de Sac from 10 Sept. 2007

Richard Thompson's Cul de Sac (11 Sept. 2007)

Cul de Sac from 11 Sept. 2007

Cul de Sac is funny, but is character-driven rather than gag-driven.  The humor develops from Petey, the anxiety-ridden comic-book obsessed older brother; Alice, the force of nature that is his younger sister; Ernesto, who may or may not be imaginary (Petey isn’t sure); Dil, who has thus far survived his older brothers’ many experiments; and many others.  I confess that, when I began reading it last year, I grasped that it had a unique point of view, but I didn’t quite “get it.”  I was intrigued enough to stay with it, and — after a couple of weeks — it became my favorite strip.  Indeed, when I’m traveling, it’s the one strip I make sure to read on-line, every day.  So, stick with it.  You won’t be disappointed.

Richard Thompson's latest Cul de Sac book (2010)The third and latest collection, Cul de Sac Golden Treasury: A Keepsake Garland of Classics (2010), would make a good introduction — it collects strips from the first two volumes, Cul de Sac: This Exit (2008) and Children at Play: A Cul de Sac Collection (2009).  Not incidentally, the first book features a foreword by Bill Watterson, who writes, “I thought the best newspaper comic strips were long gone, and I’ve never been happier to be wrong.  Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac has it all — intelligence, gentle humor, a delightful way with words, and, most surprising of all, wonderful, wonderful drawings.”  So, if you don’t trust my judgment, then perhaps Calvin and Hobbes’s creator will persuade you to check out Thompson’s work?  For your sake, I hope so.

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Mix: I Think It’s Getting Better


I Think It's Getting Better (mix)Since the decline of commercial radio (hastened by the Telecommunications Act of 1996), I learn about music by paying attention: to music blogs, public radio, other people’s playlists, and the few surviving interesting radio stations (such as WFMU, KEXP, WXPN) — all of which one can listen to via the internet.  I also learn from mixes.  And I love to make mixes.  My hope is that this blog will allow me to share what I’m listening to, helping others discover new and old music.  Here’s my most recent uptempo mix, titled I Think It’s Getting Better (created in June 2010):

1)     Bugler’s Holiday US Air Force Band Of The Golden Gate (2006)      2:18

This appears on their album Good Ol’ Days.

2)     And what do you recommend for yourself, doctor? (from Holiday)  Katharine Hepburn & Cary Grant (1938)      0:06

This is in the film Holiday, which I highly recommend.  Hepburn & Grant in a film adaptation of a play by Philip Barry (The Philadelphia Story).

3)     Holiday Vampire Weekend (2010)      2:18

From Contra.

4)     Vacation The Go-Go’s (1982)      3:00

Originally appeared on the album of the same name.  Also appears on hits collections Return to the Valley of the Go-Gos (1994) and VH1 Behind the Music: The Go-Go’s Collection (2000).

5)     Berlin Girls The Cute Lepers (2009)      2:56

From Berlin Girls (single, 2009) and Smart Accessories (2010).

6)     White Russian Doll Lucky Soul (2010)      2:26

From White Russian Doll (single) and A Coming of Age.

7)     Secret Agent Man The Toasters (1996)      2:41

From Hard Band for Dead.

8)     Teen Titans Theme Puffy AmiYumi (2004)      3:06

From Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi.

9)     Girls with Guns Tender Trap (2010)      2:28

From Dansette Dansette.

10)  You Belong to Me The Like (2009)      2:00

A cover of Elvis Costello from the benefit album War Child – Heroes, Vol. 1

11)  I Stand Accused Elvis Costello and the Attractions (1980)      2:20

Another cover, from Costello’s classic Get Happy!!

12)  Can I Get a Witness Barbara Randolph (1968)      2:22

From The Complete Motown Singles – Vol. 8: 1968.

13)  Can’t Stand It Never Shout Never (2010)      2:52

From What Is Love?  Man, is this song catchy!

14)  Hopeless Case Elíza (2009)      3:31

From Pie in the Sky.

15)  Need You Travie McCoy (2010)      3:23

Appears on Need You (single) and Lazarus (yes, the same album with “Billionaire” on it).

16)  Need You Tonight Beck’s Record Club (2010)      3:41

Cover of INXS from the fabulous musical experiment that is Beck’s Record Club.

17)  I Was Made for Dreaming ‘Bout You MadMixMustang [Kiss vs. Beyonce] (2010)      4:17

From mash-up maestro MadMixMustang.

18)  Can’t Touch It Ricki-Lee (2007)      2:58

Appears on Ricki-Lee’s Brand New Day and on the soundtrack for Sex and the City 2.

19)  Come and Get It Eli ‘Paperboy’ Reed (2010)      3:32

As of this writing, this is only available as a single.

20)  You’re the Kind of Trouble The Holmes Brothers (2010)      3:46

From Feed My Soul.

21)  I Am Trying To Break Your Heart JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound (2010)      3:39

This Wilco cover is the b-side to the band’s single “Get It Together.”

22)  The Difference Between Us The Dead Weather (2010)      3:37

Another scorching guitar performance from Jack White.  From the Dead Weather’s Sea of Cowards.

23)  Tender Torture Islands (2009)      3:34

From Vapours.

24)  Nobody Hurts You Graham Parker & The Rumour (1979)      3:39

From the classic Squeezing Out Sparks.

25)  Open Book The Rakes (2005)      2:18

From Capture/Release.

26)  The Devil and Me BR5-49 feat. The Jordanaires (2006)      2:40

From Dog Days.

27)  I Think It’s Getting Better Dave Smallen (2009)      4:24

From the Waiting For The Pills EP.

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Cockney Alphabet

Today’s post is a version of the inaugural entry on my MySpace  blog.  I’m re-posting it for three reasons.  First, who reads MySpace blogs, anyway?  Chances are, you’ve never seen it.  Second, it is the sole interesting post from that abandoned experiment.  Third, I’ve been obsessed with the alphabet since I was a child… and this is alphabet-themed.

When I was a boy, I learned “The Cockney Alphabet” from my parents. I also learned the standard alphabet, of course.  But, “The Cockney Alphabet” — which my parents learned when they lived in London, c. 1965-1968 — is funnier.  To get the humor, you’ll need to read each of these with a Cockney accent.  Otherwise, much will be lost. Ready? Put on your best Cockney accent, and read the following out loud:

A for horses
B for mutton
C for yourself
D for dumb
E for brick
F for vescence
G for police
H for retirement
I for Novello
J for oranges
K for ancis
L for leather
M for sis
N for a penny
O for the garden wall
P for relief
Q for rations
R for mo’
S for you
T for two
U for me
V for l’France
W for a bob
X for breakfast
Y for heaven’s sake
Z for breezes

Some of those are going to be a bit obscure, even if you get the accent right! Here are a few notes on some of the possibly more confusing ones:

I: Ivor Novello was a popular Welsh singer and actor.
J: Jaffa oranges were a brand of oranges.
K: Kay Francis was an American actress.
Z: zephyr breezes are a type of mild breeze.

There are other versions of this alphabet floating around. Under the title “Twentieth-Century Alphabet,” I Saw Esau: The Schoolchild’s Pocket Book (ed. Iona & Peter Opie, illus. Maurice Sendak, 1992) prints a slightly different version. Here are a few differences:

I for tower
K for teria
N for dig
P for comfort
Q for a bus
U for mism
W for tune
Y for husband

For the entire thing — augmented by Sendak’s illustrations — see I Saw Esau, pp. 100-105.

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Fortunate Failures; or, How I Became a Scholar of Dr. Seuss

I was going to begin this blog with a post on last week’s Harry Potter conference in Orlando, but Henry Jenkins’ excellent blog post (including photos of the theme park) is far more interesting than anything I could contribute.  So, instead I’ll lead with something else by J. K. Rowling: “the benefits of failure.”  As she said in her speech to Harvard’s class of 2008, “some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

Though my failures (and successes!) have never reached the extremes of Rowling’s, failure has been good to me.  In 1997, I had an idea: no one had collected any of the 400+ cartoons that Dr. Seuss wrote for the newspaper PM in 1941-1943.  That would make a great book!  So, I wrote an introduction, photocopied a selection of cartoons from microfilm, wrote a glossary to all the political references in the cartoons, and … tried to get a book contract.  At that time, I was a brand-new Ph.D. with zero publications to my name.  I have no idea why I thought that a publisher would offer me a contract.

An editor called to offer me a contract.  This should have been great news — except that, the day before, I learned that the New Press would (in six months’ time) be publishing Richard Minear’s Dr. Seuss Goes to War (1999), which collects about 200 of Seuss’s PM cartoons.  I told the editor about Minear’s book, and asked: perhaps we could still do our Seuss cartoons book?  She told me no, the market would not bear two such books.  But what else was I working on?  If I had any other ideas, I should definitely get back in touch.

Fast forward two years to July 2001.  I had published a few articles, including one on Seuss’s PM cartoons — I had taken that failed introduction and developed it into a essay.  I first sent it to the New Yorker, which turned it down.  (I have no idea why I thought the New Yorker would publish it.  Naïveté?  Optimism?  Both?)  I then reworked it again and sent it to a scholarly journal, which … rejected it.  Ah, failure again!  So, I submitted it to another journal, Mosaic, which published it in its June 2001 issue as “‘Said a Bird in the Midst of a Blitz…’: How World War II Created Dr. Seuss.”  Earlier that same year, I had turned in the manuscript to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Novels: A Reader’s Guide (Continuum, 2001).  Anyway, in July, checking my email at a computer terminal in Vancouver (where I was on holiday), I read a note from David Barker, my editor at Continuum:

I think I read something in Library Journal the other day about a (mediocre-sounding) new book on Dr Seuss. The review ended with something like  ‘so we’re still waiting for the first decent study of Dr Seuss’. Are you aware of anything good on Seuss? Would you know of anyone who might want to write one?

I responded immediately, saying that, though I was working on a few other projects, I might want to write one.  I had published two articles on Seuss, had plans for several more, and had ideas on what the structure of such a Seuss book would look like.  With what now seems like unbelievable hubris, I wrote, “I know that I could do a great book on Seuss and I’m ambitious enough to take on such a project.”  So, I asked, “What do you have in mind?”

Happily, Mosaic’s website had featured my Seuss piece as that issue’s sole freely downloadable article.  David read it, liked it, sent me guidelines for writing a book proposal.  On the basis of that article and the proposal, he sent me a contract for Dr. Seuss: American Icon.  Meanwhile, the Harry Potter reader’s guide — as the first scholarly book on Rowling’s series — drew media attention.  Newspapers quoted me.  I appeared on NPR.  This was a truly surreal experience, but it also got me thinking: the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) would be in March 2004.  If we could get the book out by that date, then it might conceivably get a little media attention, right?  (Not for nothing is a section of my website labeled Shameless Self-Promotion.)  Although the manuscript wasn’t due until 2004, I asked David: when would Continuum need my manuscript in order to get the book out by early 2004?  He said: July 2003.  So, I turned it in by the end of July 2003.

Some other time, I’ll write about the media hoopla that Dr. Seuss: American Icon begat.  It was fun, exhausting, and I often felt like I was living someone else’s life. Really. Going from being an adjunct professor  in 1999 to a tenure-track professor on NPR’s Talk of the Nation in 2004 is extremely strange. Good, but definitely weird. My point in mentioning the publicity is that the great Lane Smith saw me on CBS Sunday Morning, and sent me an email. That, too, was amazing.  Upon opening it, I called downstairs to Karin, “Holy cow! I got an email from Lane Smith!”  To meet people whose work you admire is wonderful.  Plus, Lane is a cool guy.  Anyway, Lane and I struck up an epistolary acquaintance, and I mentioned a couple of other ideas for Seuss projects — a collection of Seuss’s unpublished magazine stories, and an annotated Cat in the Hat (to be published on the 50th birthday of The Cat in the Hat). He said, well, why don’t you drop Janet Schulman a line?  (Schulman was Seuss’s editor for the last decade of his life.)  I said that I’d love to, but I didn’t know how to reach her.  Lane gave me her contact info., and I emailed her with my ideas.  Now an editor emerita, Janet had read and liked Dr. Seuss: American Icon, and promised to share my ideas with Kate Klimo, who heads the children’s book division at Random House.  Within days, I heard back that they liked the Annotated Cat idea and, later in the week, would be meeting with Dr. Seuss Enterprises (corporate entity which oversees the licensing and production of all things Seuss).  Could I send details on The Annotated Cat?  I dropped everything else, and stayed up very late one night writing sample annotations.  On the basis of that email and my previous Seuss book, I got a contract for The Annotated Cat: Under the Hats of Seuss and His Cats (2007).  That’s the shortest, quickest, and most high-profile book proposal I’ve ever written — or, I expect, ever will write.

To date, I’ve published five books (one co-edited), and have two more forthcoming (one co-edited).  I’ve also created failed proposals for an additional five books.  All of those failures either have gone or will go on to another life as articles, different books, or something else.  So, that’s why I say that failure has been very good to me.  And it’s why I’m starting this blog with a post about failure.

After all, who knows but that this blog may prove to be another fortunate failure?  Ah, one can hope!

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