Comic-Con, San Diego, Friday, July 19

And now, a few notes from day 3 of Comic-Con 2013.

A Simple Repast, Coming This Fall

Jerry Griswold invited me for breakfast at the Broken Yolk, which (we discovered) had been leased by the TruTV television show (Impractical) Jokers. As we sat at the table, we noticed that a laminated advertisement fully covered the table’s surface. Then, a smiling young woman employed by the network stopped by to hand out an advertisement disguised as comic book. She also invited us to flick a spinner on a plastic wheel, to win a prize. I did and won a sturdy keychain bearing the name of the network. So did Jerry. For those who are interested, the television program seems to involve four white men getting into mischief. Alleged hilarity ensues.

Brought to You By

advertisement on side of building, San Diego

Advertising covers every available surface at the Con itself. The sides of buildings, the sides of buses, the sides and backs of bicycle taxis, the sides of people. To be at the Con is to be immersed in glossy appeals from the entertainment industrial complex. Not that anyone expected otherwise.

advertisement on side of bus, San Diego

Juxtaposed Images vs. Juxtaposed Text and Images: Smackdown!

Philip Nel, Scott McCloud, R.C. Harvey

While loitering at the Fantagraphics booth, I met R.C. (Bob) Harvey, whose work I’ve read and admired for years.  Then, Scott McCloud strolled up to chat.  Haven’t seen him in, oh, 5 years at least. Great to see him again. As if on cue, these two theorists of comics — with opposing views on how comics work — began a friendly debate. As my students (and, really, all people who are serious about comics) know, Scott McCloud, following Will Eisner, defines comics as “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence.” For Harvey, however, the key juxtaposition is between text and images.

Here is a slightly sketchy, inaccurate recreation of our conversation:

Harvey: Have I convinced you yet that text are part of comics?

McCloud: Isn’t text a kind of image?

Harvey: When a definition gets too broad, it loses meaning.

McCloud [not taking the bait]: That can happen, true.

Me: There should be a panel — at a future SPX? at a future Comic-Con? — with both of you, Mark Newgarden and Paul Karasik — debating how comics work.

McCloud: And Dylan Horrocks. Have you read his “Inventing Comics”?

Me: No. Where would I find it?

McCloud: It appeared in The Comics Journal. I think he also has it on his website. It’s a very eloquent, smart take-down of me and Understanding Comics.

Me: Thanks.  I’ll check it out.

Gauld = Wry, Topical Gorey

Scott, Karin and I walked over to the Drawn & Quarterly booth, to say hello to Tom Gauld.  I wanted to tell him how much I enjoyed his presentation, and buy a few books — his, the new Spiegelman anthology, more Moomin comics….  But back to Gauld. Later in the afternoon, I read You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack, and I think many of my fellow English professors (or, simply, anyone who is a great reader) would enjoy these cartoons.  Rendered with Gorey-esque style and humor, they’re more topical and wry than Gorey. Though some have dark undercurrents, Gauld’s comedy creates a brighter mood. I laugh out loud at these more often than I do at Gorey’s work. The comic below is actually one of the less topical collected in the book, but it’s definitely a keeper.

Tom Gauld

Here Comes Snoopy

I also got to meet Snoopy. (That’s him, on the right.)

Snoopy and fan

My first choice would have been a photo with Charlie Brown, but I understand that he is currently in traction, following an unfortunate, annual kicked-and-missed-football accident.

Drawing Stories: What’s New in YA Graphic Novels

Panel featuring: Vera Brosgol (Anya’s Ghost), Gris Grimly (Frankenstein), Faith Erin Hicks (Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong), Hope Larson (Who Is AC?, Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time), Paul Pope (Battling Boy)

Moderator Scott Robins asked: What did you read as a teen-ager?

Rumiko Takahashi’s Ranma 1/2Vera Brosgol read Sailor Moon and Pokemon. She got really into manga.  Sheoved Rumiko Takahashi’s Ranma 1/2 and Hiroaki Samura’s Blade of the Immortal.

Gris Grimly responded, “I wasn’t allowed to read comics, but as a kid I would read New Mutants and hide it.  I’d stick it in my backpack between schoolbooks and stuff.  I was really into horror even though I wasn’t allowed to read horror.”  He also admitted that his books are really more children’s books than comics, but that he had always really wanted to draw comics.  As a result, he said, “My books stand out in the children’s book sections because they look like comics.”

Faith Erin Hicks answered, “I am Canadian, and as all good Canadian children do, I grew up reading Tintin and Asterix…. But when I hit my teenage years, I didn’t really have access to comics.  There was one comic book store, but it was terrifying…. I had no access to comic books that were appropriate for a 15-year-old to read.”  She added, “I started making comics because I wanted to make the sort of comics that I wanted to read.”  Getting back to the question, she admitted, “As a teen-ager, I mostly read prose.” She mostly read science fiction.

Paul Pope said, “I read what ever I could find, but the stuff that I lvoed was Dune. I read Heavy Metal magazine.  I loved Carl Barks.  I read Moby-Dick.” These comments made me see immediately why he and Jeff Smith — who recommended Pope’s work yesterday — would be friends.

Hope Larson told us, “I was kind of an anime and manga nerd in high school.  So, Ranma 1/2. And then I got into indie comics — Dan Clowes, that sort of thing.”

Scott Robins asked: How many of you on the panel are readers of YA fiction?  If so, does that play a role in your work?

Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor & ParkFaith Erin Hicks responded immediately: “I’m a big reader of YA. I read one on the plane.” That book was Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park. She wants to see more YA comics. She would like to see books like Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian in comics.

Others admitted that they don’t read much YA. Hope Larson responded, “Lately, I don’t have as much time to read. I read YA, but I read my friends’ books.”  Paul Pope said that “Once you start working, you go … down into a trench. All I look at right now is Moebius and Kirby.  I feel like you can do two things. You can either read everything or nothing.  I’m reading nothing.”  Gris Grimly admitted that most of his influences come from children’s literature of over 100 years ago — Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

In a discussion of why teens read, Paul Pope said that when you’re a teenager, “You read to enhance your experience.” Teen-agers, he said, are trying to understand their experience, see possible futures. I thought that an insightful comment.

In a discussion of the future of the YA graphic novel, Paul Pope had an explanation for why there are currently so few: “You have to have two disciplines down, a writer and an artist, to do YA graphic novels. And that’s 20 years to become each.”  Though (as she admitted) the author of an adaptation herself, Hope Larson said, “What I would hope about YA comics is that I’d like to see more original fiction and less adaptations.”

In response to an audience member’s question on making comics more female-friendly, Faith Erin Hicks said, “Not all girls need to have large bosoms” — which inspired much applause from the audience. Paul Pope agreed: “Comics have been dominated by the male gaze.”

One interesting question that no one really had an answer for is what makes a YA comic book a YA comic book. Gris Grimly wasn’t sure. Faith Erin Hicks said “Because they’re about teenagers.” But, as Ben Towle pointed out in a question, teen-agers often read books about adults. So, not an easy question to answer.

In response to why adolescents read what they do, Paul Pope said: “They trust stories to tell them the truth.  You cannot lie to children in books.”

Humor in Graphic Novels

Left to right: Andrew Farago, Jeffrey Brown, Tom Gauld, Lisa Hanawalt, Ellen Forney

On this panel, Andrew Farago, Jeffrey Brown, Tom Gauld, Lisa Hanawalt, Ellen Forney discussed — you guessed it — humor in graphic novels.

They began by discussing how they got into writing humorous comics.

Jeffrey Brown noted that humor “lets you deal with sometimes serious subjects, but there’s this distance that the humor gives you that grants you a different perspective”

Tom Gauld: “I wanted to be a deep dark soul who was tormented, but I just wasn’t. … And I’ve found that through that humor, you can still have a depth….”

Lisa Hanawalt: “It was a way of interacting with other people if I was shy”

Ellen Forney, MarblesEllen Forney: “I think having a sense of humor is a great way of coping with life.”

Lisa Hanawalt: “Sometimes the funniest things are the saddest things.”

Tom Gauld: “A lot of humor comes from things failing…. For something to be funny, you need that balance — funny and sadness, and awkwardness.”

Next, Andrew Farago (our moderator) switched to background in cartooning, asking “What led you here today?”

Jeffrey Brown: “About 15 years ago, I started writing autobiographical comics. And I focused on the most awkward things. I was trying to show how stupid I was.”

Tom Gauld: “The thing I do — the weekly thing for the Guardian — and so every week, I think that the joke is like a little machine that I’d like to make work. And it’s not really about anything else other than itself.  Whereas in a longer work, the joke is in service to the story. The joke comes out of the situation. It can’t be funny all the time.”

Tom Gauld, The Poetry Gene

Lisa Hanawalt: “Comics are the most efficient way for me to take whatever I’ve been experiencing in my life”

Ellen Forney: “Telling — especially retelling — something that was intense or awkward is a way of owning it, controlling it.”

Andrew Farago observed, “Every time I’ve done a panel with humor as a topic, it’s always become about misery”

Tom Gauld added that there’s the idea that “‘Happiness writes white’ because when it’s happy there’s nothing to say”

Tom Gauld noted that people think that writing cartoons must be fun. He acknowledged that, when you get the idea, it’s great. “On either side of that moment, I get a kind of brain smile. But the rest of the time, it’s just a man sitting alone in a room.”

Asked where they draw inspiration from, the cartoonists answered….

Tom Gauld: “My work’s abstracted from the world. It’s not really autobiographical.”

Lisa Hanawalt: “I take a lot of notes”

Ellen Forney: “just observations from the day”

Next question: Are long-form versus short-form radically different processes for you?

“A really short comic can be a bit like writing a haiku, because everything really matters” replies Tom Gauld, who admits he “likes the constraints.” Gauld also explained how he helps people get the joke. He’s always thinking, he says, “Someone who hasn’t been on this thinking journey that I’ve been on, how can I leave little markers for them that will lead them to this hilarious conclusion?”

A Tribute to Kim Thompson of Fanagraphics Books

Eric Reynolds, Gary Groth, Diana Schutz, Gilbert Hernandez, and Jaime Hernandez Fantagraphics publishers (and partners of the late Kim Thompson) Eric Reynolds and Gary Groth joined Diana Schutz (of Dark Horse), and Gilbert Hernandez and Jaime Hernandez (whose Love & Rockets is published by Fantagraphics) to remember Kim Thompson.

As Gary Groth noted at the start of the panel, to learn more about Kim, everyone should take a look at the triubutes to Kim on the Fantagraphics website (I think he means The Comics Journal website, because that’s where I found them).

Recalling being hired (at Fantagraphics) by Kim, Diana Schutz noted that there were a lot of other women who Kim had reached out to. “Back in the ’80s, there were not a lot of other women who were interested in comics. In a lot of ways, we were ignored. So, it was a great honor to be asked to contribute.”

Kim Thompson & EisnersJaime Hernandez saw Kim as something of an enigma. Imagining saying hello to Kim, he said, “Sometimes it was just “Hey, Kim,” and then Kim’s reply would be “Hey.” And that would be the end of the reaction. Then, Jaime said, “In the Comics Journal, there’d be this review attacking Frank Miller, and I’d wonder: is that the same Kim?”  Recalling that article, (Kim Thompson’s review of Frank Miller’s Ronan), Gary Groth said that when he and Kim Thompson were out with Harlan Ellison, Ellison took exception to Kim’s review.  Gary argued back, vigorously defending Kim’s review.  Kim, however, said nothing.  He preferred to argue on the page.

“He was part French bohemian, part comic book nerd, part American punk”

—Eric Reynolds

When he wanted something, Kim would be more outgoing. Affecting Yogi Bear’s voice, Gilbert Hernandez demonstrated: “Heyy, Diana! I’m coming to California!” He explained that Kim “had a way of trying to talk like Yogi Bear when he was trying to get something.”

I found especially interesting the list of novelists Kim Thompson liked (according to Gary and Eric):

  • Cormac McCarthy
  • Douglas Adams
  • P.G. Wodehouse
  • Terry Pratchett

“Fantagraphics publishes the best comics that are currently available, but Kim’s tastes were wider.”

— Diana Schutz

Eisners: It’s an Honor Just to Be Nominated

Susan Kirtley, Lynda Barry: Childhood Through the Looking-GlassCongratulations to Susan Kirtley on winning the Eisner for best Educational/Academic Work, for her Lynda Barry: Girlhood Through the Looking Glass — and for being the sole Eisner winner seated at our table.  She was so very happy.  Very cool.

For the record, since half of my book was devoted to a non-cartoonist (Ruth Krauss), I thought it an odd fit with the rest of the nominees — and the least likely to win. That said, I am an optimist and so was nervous… just in case. The moment Susan won, I relaxed. Whew! I didn’t have to get on stage and speechify. But, just in case, I had mentally prepared a few words. Here’s what I would have said:

When I began this project, back in the waning days of President Clinton’s second term, I never thought it would be nominated for such an award — much less be in the august company of my fellow nominees. There are many people to thank, but I’ll restrict myself to four. Thanks to Chris Ware for creating the best cover any of my books has ever had or will have. Thanks to Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, who — though I never met them — became two of my closest friends. Finally, thanks to Karin Westman, who for a dozen years shared her spouse with this book.

Since I couldn’t say that there, I’m saying it here.

The big winner of the night was (no surprise!) Chris Ware, who — if my count is correct — won 5 of the 6 Awards for which he was nominated. Chip Kidd (Ware’s friend and editor) accepted them on his behalf, and performed his role with élan (and a bit of camp).

Oh, and there were a fair few celebrity award presenters: Edward James Olmos, Sergio Aragones, Neil Gaiman, James Marsters. (It is possible that Sergio Aragones is not a celebrity beyond the comics world, but any reader of MAD magazine would know who he is!)

Sergio Aragones at the Eisners, 2013

And as part of a bit Neil Gaiman and Jonathan Ross were doing, Chip Kidd kissed Neil Gaiman. On the mouth.

Kidd and Gaiman, snogging

And… that about wrapped things up for this year’s Eisner Awards.

I’ve never been nominated for such an award before, and am unlikely to be nominated again. I think I have a better understanding of those televised awards ceremonies now. The anticipation (and nerves) until your category’s done. And then, following the deflation, an ability to focus more broadly on what’s going on in the room, even as — lacking the former anxiety — fatigue begins to set in. The Eisners ran for oh, over 3 hours. I don’t remember exactly how long. But this is why other awards shows play the “please get off the stage” music (the Eisners do not). Important to keep the show moving.

We didn’t linger afterward. Ben Towle and I congratulated each other on losing an Eisner Award, and then ’twas time for a pleasant walk back to the hotel to write this up.

Coming Saturday morning at 9 am, another signing at Fantagraphics (booth 1718). Barnaby Volume One! The Johnson-Krauss bio.! The Chris Ware poster for the bio!  If you’re at Comic-Con, stop by!

Chris Ware's cover for Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature

 

The rest of my 2013 Comic-Con coverage:

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A Brief Inquiry Into the Paradoxes of Academic Achievement

Front cover by Chris Ware for: Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, Sept. 2012)When I started writing what was then a biography of Crockett Johnson (back in the late 1990s), I thought: When I finish this, I really will have achieved something. Even as I wrote other books, I continued to think of the biography — which became a double biography of Johnson and Krauss — as The Big Achievement. Sure, Dr. Seuss: American Icon (my third book, published 2004) was OK, and, yes, the media attention it received was certainly flattering. But the biography would be the Truly Important Work.

So, you might (or might not) be asking: (1) Why make this distinction between the biography and my other work? (2) Do I still make this distinction? (3) And, now that the biography is published, does it feel as “Truly Important” as I thought it would?

1. Why make this distinction?

The degree of original research required far surpassed that needed for my other books. I interviewed over 80 people, investigated over three dozen archives and special collections, read everything written by or about Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, and consulted additional hundreds of articles and books. I looked at birth certificates, marriage certificates, census data, property deeds, wills, century-old insurance company maps, and Johnson’s FBI file. If I hadn’t gathered (some of) this information, it would be lost forever. Coping with the mortality of one’s sources is a big challenge for the biographer. Maurice Sendak, Remy Charlip, Syd Hoff, Mischa Richter, Else Frank (Johnson’s sister), Mary Elting Folsom (author who knew Johnson in the 1930s), Gene Searchinger (filmmaker who knew them both), and so many others taught me much about Johnson and Krauss. They have since passed away. If I hadn’t recorded their stories, that information would be gone.

The biography has been more challenging than any other project I’ve tackled, bar none. As I’ve observed before (probably on this blog, and certainly in the talk I gave last month at the New York Public Library), a biography is a jigsaw puzzle, but this puzzle has no box, missing pieces, and no sense of how many pieces you’ll need. There are also the challenges of creating character, knowing which details to omit, and finding a narrative structure. Life has no narrative, but biography has to have a narrative. I have no training in creative writing, but — for this book — I had to try to think like a creative writer.

In sum, there are reasons that a biography takes so long to write….

2. Do I still make this distinction?

Dr. Seuss: American IconSort of. The distinction reflects a tendency to devalue the discipline in which I was trained — the sense that Dr. Seuss: American Icon, though it does draw on considerable original research, is ultimately “just interpreting texts.” In contrast, rigorous historical research, actually uncovering new information, is much more important work. But I say “sort of” because of course there are truly insightful ways of interpreting texts, illuminating formal strategies, transformative critical approaches — Robin Bernstein’s Racial Innocence is one such book. It’s a paradigm-shifter. As I’ve noted before, I don’t have the kind of mind that writes a paradigm-shifting book.

My strength is that I work hard. A biography plays to that particular strength — and perhaps this is one reason that it interests me. It interests me for other reasons, too (the “detective work” part, for example). But it is one intellectual arena where I can do something well: work really hard. Superior intelligence may elude me, but I can put in the hours! So, in some ways I still make the distinction (the amount of research, the box-less puzzle, etc.), but in other ways I do not.

3. Now that it’s published, does it feel like such a Big Achievement?

The response (mostly positive) has been a good feeling. In addition to nice reviews from Anita Silvey, Roger Sutton, Maria Tatar, Kirkus, and the Wall Street Journal, other Notable People Whose Work I Admire have been very complimentary. With apologies for the name-dropping, those people include Chris Ware (who also created the beautiful cover), Dan Clowes, Mark Newgarden, Paul Karasik, Lane Smith, Susan Hirschman, George Nicholson, and Michael Patrick Hearn. Given that Maurice Sendak even responded positively to an early, detail-clogged, incomplete draft, it is of course possible that these folks are simply being kind, and forgiving the book’s many infelicities (as I expect Maurice was). But I’m accepting their kind assessments as genuine because, well, it makes me happy to do so!

That said, as I’ve documented on this blog, the editing process was not entirely harmonious. Some cuts were good ones; others were not. My copy-editor was an historian by training; I needed a writer of fiction. My changes to her edits resulted in some errors, including (as one audience member pointed out at the NYPL last month) a typo in the first sentence. The press refused to change some errors I found in the page proofs (though it did change others). The paperback is priced not at $27, as I had originally been told it would be, but at $40 — this makes it harder to schedule signings because who buys a $40 paperback? These problems make me not want to think about the book at all.

I realize that I should let this go. Publishers introduce errors into manuscripts. Bureaucracies do not always function smoothly. Humans are prone to error, fatigue, and failures of judgment.

Fortunately, despite my irritations, the book does feel like an achievement. Given how long it took to write (I started in 1999), it is thus far my life’s work. It is a big deal.

But there is little time to dwell upon one’s achievements. There are new projects (such as The Complete Barnaby, volume 1 of which is due out early next year), tenure-and-promotion letters to write, letters of recommendation to write, (other people’s) book proposals to review and manuscript to edit, (my) conference abstracts to create and talks to write, planes to catch, meetings to attend, syllabi to revise, syllabi to invent, papers to grade, classes to teach, students to meet. Being an academic is a great job, the work is rewarding, and I feel privileged to do it — even though I rarely have the time to notice those rewards or recognize that privilege. It’s one of the paradoxes of being a professor.

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Not a Good Fit

            “It has been a long trip,” said Milo, climbing onto the couch where the princesses sat; “but we would have been here much sooner if I hadn’t made so many mistakes. I’m afraid it’s all my fault.”

            “You must never feel badly about making mistakes,” explained Reason quietly, “as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons.”

            “But there’s so much to learn,” he said with a thoughtful frown.

            “Yes, that’s true,” admitted Rhyme; “but it’s not just learning things that’s important. It’s learning what to do with what you learn and learning why you learn things at all that matters.”

— Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth (1961), p. 233

Sometimes, a press or a journal will tell you that what you’ve sent simply isn’t a “good fit.” Over a decade ago, American Literature turned down a piece on Crockett Johnson that I subsequently published in Children’s Literature 29 (2001) — the article that inspired my forthcoming biography of Johnson and Ruth Krauss. What does a “good fit” mean?  In that case, it meant that an American author of comics and of picture books did not qualify as American Literature (at least, not according to the journal’s editor).

Here is a slightly trickier case. Yesterday, eighteen and a half months after I submitted my essay “Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: Seuss and Race in the 1950s,” American Quarterly at last returned a verdict. Reject. The very helpful reader’s report recommends “revise and resubmit,” but the accompanying letter notes that the board “decided that your essay was not a good fit for American Quarterly.  This is primarily because we felt your argument needed clarification and further elaboration.”  Judging by both the report and the letter, “not a good fit” in this case means insufficient theorizing of how race is constructed — and I’d be the first to acknowledge that I’m not well versed in race theory. I did do some of that theoretical work in writing this piece, but I’m much better versed in Seuss and in children’s literature than I am in critical theory.  This is a new area for me. “Not a good fit” in this case also means (as the editor elaborates) that the argument could have been more effectively structured.

On that note, the reader’s report will be very useful to me as I further revise the essay.  To paraphrase Rhyme’s advice (in Juster’s novel), there’s much to do with what I’ve learned.  Indeed, I’m quite happy to be able to rewrite the essay without thinking “Oh, what if they like it in its original form?”  I turned in the piece a year and a half ago, and my own thinking has evolved considerably since then.  Even if the essay had been accepted, I was going to ask if I might make some revisions to it.

Any junior scholars reading this might wonder why I’ve let this essay languish at American Quarterly for so long. A big reason is that I have had the luxury to wait.  If I were earlier in my career, I would have certainly pulled this essay about a year ago, and sent it elsewhere. (As I note in an earlier blog post, it’s good to be proactive.) American Quarterly currently says that they require six to eight months simply to decide whether or not to send the essay out for review.  In my case, the journal took a year to decide to send the essay out for review — nearly exactly a year, in fact.  I submitted the essay on 31 Aug. 2010, and the editor sent it out for review on 25 Aug. 2011.  However, since American Quarterly is a good journal, since I’m a full professor, and since I have more than enough to keep me busy, I decided to wait it out. I followed up with the managing editor at regular intervals… and worked on the many other projects I’d committed myself to.

The final issue to address, then, is “If a journal deems your work ‘not a good fit,’ should you submit something else to same journal?”  The answer is “yes, if you write something that seems a better fit,” but otherwise “no.”  My answer to the question (regarding AQ) is “probably not” — but less for the unusually long delay (for which both editor and managing editor apologized) and more because I doubt that anything I’m doing will be “a good fit” for AQ. Of the sort of work I do, this piece seemed to me to be the best fit for AQ. It’s interdisciplinary, mixing history, close-reading, theory — though not well enough, evidently. But, as I’ve acknowledged before, as a scholar, I’m more hard worker than big thinker. That is, I’m persistent, I produce a fair amount, but I seem unable to write the sort of scholarship that changes the paradigm. I admire people who do that type of work, but acknowledge that I’m not one of them. So, if “best fit” (from my perspective) is “not a good fit” (from AQ’s perspective), then I’ll need to pursue other venues for my work.

And, happily, there are other venues. Generally speaking, I try to publish in both children’s literature journals and in ones that are not devoted to children’s literature. My reasons are many — seeking a broader audience for my own work, wanting to diversify, believing that one shouldn’t always talk to the same group of scholars, feeling that children’s literature scholarship should be more thoroughly integrated into academe, and so on. But, of course, some journals will be a better fit than others.

So, following the advice of Rhyme and Reason, what have I learned from this experience? (1) I’m grateful for the helpful feedback, and look forward to putting it to good use. (2) It’s useful to know that AQ is unlikely to be a good fit for me: I can turn towards (what I hope will be) more receptive venues instead. (3) Finally, it’s a cliché, but it’s also true: nothing ventured, nothing gained.  Onwards!

If you enjoyed this post, there’s at least a chance that these posts may also be of interest:

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Advice from the Least Likely to Succeed

photo of Philip Nel, taken during his first year of graduate school (1992-1993)When I was a graduate student, I would have voted myself Least Likely to Succeed in Academe. I published nothing while in graduate school. I worked hard on my seminar papers, but none would work as an article — so, I didn’t send them out. I didn’t figure out how to write publishable literary criticism until I was working on the dissertation. For these (and other) reasons, I spent my first three post-Ph.D. years as an adjunct professor.1

So, 19 years after beginning graduate school here, it’s both gratifying and astonishing to be back at Vanderbilt as an invited speaker.  I’m both flattered and a little flustered.  I’m honored to be here and secretly surprised to be here.

In addition to talking a bit about our research (Karin on Harry Potter, me on Seuss), we’re also offering some reflections on our success in academe — professional advice, of a sort — to the current graduate students.  For the record, as a graduate student, I would also have voted myself Least Likely to Be in a Position to Offer Professional Advice.  When I look back on it, I’m mildly surprised that I made it to the Ph.D.

The title of our talk — “Accidental Experts: Strategy, Serendipity, and the Places You’ll Go!” — expresses quite succinctly the combination of chance and forethought, luck and pluck, accident and planning that has made my career possible. A failed book proposal ended up yielding two successful (different) books. Writing a chapter on Dr. Seuss in a dissertation that was not about children’s literature led to a career as a scholar of children’s literature.  Creating a website devoted to an author whose work I admired led to me to write a biography (due next fall!).2

If I could offer one piece of advice to current graduate students (in addition to the advice I’ve already offered), it would be this. If you’re serious about academe, if you really want to pursue this, then give it your best shot. It won’t be easy, it will at times be frustrating, and spare time will be hard to find.  But all careers are challenging. (That’s why they’re called careers, and not merely jobs.) To be able to do work from which you derive meaning, and to get paid for doing that work… is a real gift.  You’re unlikely ever to join the 1%, but you’ll be doing something worthwhile.  And that’s a good feeling.

Thanks to Vanderbilt’s Department of English for my doctoral education, and for inviting us both back here.  If you’ll be in Nashville, the talk is tomorrow (Friday) at 2:10 pm in Vanderbilt’s Buttrick Hall, room 309.


  1. Footnote for any non-academic reading this.  Adjunct professors receive low pay, and (usually) no benefits, no health insurance.  They’re not on the tenure-track and are unlikely to get on the tenure-track at the institution where they work.  Indeed, they typically are not guaranteed employment from semester to semester: if there are classes that lack instructors, they’re hired; otherwise, they’re out of luck.  Given that, each year, the academy produces five times as many Ph.D.s in English as there are jobs in English, adjuncts are all too abundant a resource.
  2. Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature, due in Fall 2012 from the University Press of Mississippi.

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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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