(Sort of but Not Really) Reviving the “Tragic Flaw”

Being (I guess) a morose kind of person, I spent a large chunk of my time in graduate school researching tragedy. I was specifically interested in the concept of gendered tragedy in George Eliot’s novels—a kind of tragedy in which the protagonist’s agency is always already radically curtailed by virtue of her sex. What would hamartia—the “error” made by the prototypical tragic protagonist—look like in such cases?

Of course, one of the first things I discovered while researching was the fact that the pop culture understanding of tragedy—and of hamartia in particular—is grossly misinformed. Most of us, I think, were told sometime in junior high that a tragic hero has a tragic flaw—some kind of moral failing that precipitates his downfall. This, as it turns out, is almost certainly not what Aristotle had in mind when he wrote the Poetics; though hamartia can refer to an error in moral judgment, it can just as easily refer to an error with no readily discernable moral dimensions. And even if we do take Aristotle to mean the former, it strikes me that this is not quite the same as a character flaw: the emphasis is on a discrete moment in time in which the character made a mistake rather than on an inherent tendency (or, at the very least, a pattern of behavior). Continue reading

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Rowan Williams on The Chronicles of Narnia

Given that I’ll be talking about The Lion’s World—a book by a former Archbishop of Canterbury that discusses The Chronicles of Narnia from a Christian perspective—I feel it is only fair that I say at the outset that I am sympathetic and receptive to theistic arguments and apologetics. In particular, I am sympathetic to the sensitive accounts of religious experience provided by people like Francis Spufford (and, yes, C. S. Lewis), as well as to Terry Eagleton’s contention that the particular brand (and I say “brand” for a reason) of atheism popular at the moment tends to be philosophically vacuous and socially complacent. Those are fighting words, I know, but I’m not trying to start an argument; in fact, I have absolutely zero interest in discussing this, since it’s the kind of thing that tends to generate ill will all around. I simply want to lay all my cards on the table so readers know where I’m coming from.

Onwards. Continue reading

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Book Review: Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

Dear Committee Members is a book for anyone who has ever taught at, studied at, or been within five miles of a university. The latest novel by writer (and University of Minnesota faculty member) Julie Schumacher, it chronicles a year in the life of Jay Fitger, a professor of creative writing at a (fictional) small research college. Like their real-life counterparts, Payne University’s administrators are seeking to cut costs in some areas in order to spend lavishly in others. Unfortunately for Prof. Fitger, the posh digs provided to lucrative programs, the extravagant amenities designed to lure in unsuspecting undergraduates, and the (one assumes) well-padded pockets of the administrators themselves come at the expense of the English Department, which has had its budget repeatedly slashed and is currently being chaired by a sociologist. To add insult to injury, the building that houses the department is currently undergoing renovations for the benefit of the economics faculty, who have been evacuated until the restoration is finished. Not so the English faculty, and the warning about “particulate matter” leads Fitger to playfully hypothesize that “the deanery is annoyed with [the English faculty’s] request for parity and, weary of waiting for [them] to retire, has decided to kill [them].” Continue reading

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Book Review: A Slant of Light by Jeffrey Lent

Note: I received a copy of this book from Bloomsbury USA (via Netgalley) for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review in any way.

A Slant of Light is a novel about the aftershocks of violence—but not, perhaps, the violence that you’d expect, given that it’s set in the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War. The gruesome double killing that opens Jeffrey Lent’s latest novel is an act of domestic violence. It is also the tragic explosion of resentments (and injustices) that have been festering for years. So perhaps, in that respect, Lent’s novel is as apt a depiction as any of the wreckage left behind in the wake of a cataclysmic civil war. Continue reading

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My Gripe with Stephanie Meyer (Besides the Obvious)

If there’s one thing I’ll never forgive Stephanie Meyer for (besides general misogynistic grossness), it’s ruining the Brontës for me.

Let me tell you a little story, in belated honor of Valentine’s Day. I did not read Jane Eyre until my sophomore year of college. I read it because I was required to read it for a course, and if I hadn’t been forced to read it then, it probably would have been years before I got around to it. I had read (and adored) Wuthering Heights, but the things I liked about Wuthering Heights were not things I expected to find in Jane Eyre. I thought at the time that I only enjoyed love stories with a twist. Star-crossed love, obsessive love, unrequited love—they all fascinate me; what I didn’t like (and still, for the most part, don’t like) in a story is happily-ever-ever love. I knew Jane Eyre was more or less a happily-ever-after kind of romance, and as a 19 year old with pretensions of academic seriousness, I didn’t expect to like it. Continue reading

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Yes, Literature Is Useful (but Then, We Already Knew That, and Maybe We Shouldn’t Care So Much Anyway)

Generally speaking, I’m wary of attempts to defend literature (or the humanities generally) on utilitarian grounds. It’s not that I don’t think studying literature can be useful; I think—naively, maybe, but honestly—that it can be transformative for both the individual and for society at large. That said, I would still argue that studying it is worthwhile even if it weren’t, strictly speaking, useful. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with pleasure or even escapism, and frankly, the entire idea that the primary goal of education is utility strikes me as puritanical (sometimes literally—the increasing pressure to make education wholly vocational feels deeply intertwined with the Protestant work ethic). Continue reading

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Book Review: Your Face in Mine by Jess Row

Here’s a bold statement: reading Your Face in Mine made me want to crack open my long-neglected copy of Derrida (or, perhaps, my less neglected—but no less dense—copy of Judith Butler).

To those who aren’t theory junkies, I say: don’t worry (and I sympathize). It is entirely possible to read and enjoy Jess Row’s debut novel without a background in deconstruction. It is, however, a mark of Row’s strength and ingenuity as a writer that he is able to engage with some very complex philosophical thought while steadily sharpening the novel’s gripping, thriller-like edge.

This is, of course, to say nothing of the fact that Your Face in Mine is a novel about race written by a white man. As you might expect, reviewers have been quick to trumpet Row’s daring. Continue reading

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An Update on Postings and Such

A heads up—although my ability to update this blog in a timely fashion hasn’t really been affected so far, I think there’s a good chance they’ll be a longer gap between posts in the near future. There are two reasons for this, one good (yay!) and one bad (boo!).
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Top Ten Tuesdays: Top Ten Film Adaptations

This week’s “freebie” Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, gave me the perfect excuse to do a post I’ve been mulling over for a while—a list of my favorite film adaptations. I couldn’t quite stick to ten, and I’m sure I’ll want to revise this list tomorrow to include something I forgot, but whatever.

Two or three notes before we get started, though. I picked movies that are my favorites, not necessarily the best films ever made, because there are a number of adaptations that succeed aesthetically but take their material from works I just don’t especially like, for one reason or another (Gone With the Wind comes to mind). I’m also drawing the line at “real” adaptations rather than loose, inspired-by ventures, to make things a little more manageable (although it pained me greatly to leave off The Lion King, which is—depending on who’s talking—either a light(er)hearted, kid’s version of Hamlet or out-and-out plagiarism of a Japanese series). And difficult as it was, I’m also limiting myself to theatrical releases rather than TV productions (but seriously, everyone, go watch the 2005 BBC version of Bleak House).

Based on my selections, you’ll also likely notice that despite my occasional snarkiness, I’m basically a squishy idealist at heart, so fair warning. In no particular order: Continue reading

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Book Review: The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman by Denis Thériault

Note: I received a copy of this book from Hesperus Press (via Netgalley) for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review in any way.

Reading The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman so soon after reviewing a novel like You is a strange—and not altogether comfortable—experience. In the Author’s Q&A that accompanies the novel, Denis Thériault confesses that he worried readers would fail to sympathize with the novel’s protagonist—would, perhaps, even see him as sociopathic. And at two or three pages into the novel, I have to admit that I had similar concerns. I wondered: for the sake of the novel’s intriguing premise, for the sake of whatever insights it had to offer into the nature of identity and the power of the written word, could I temporarily quell my kneejerk discomfort with anything that remotely resembles stalking, manipulation, and romantic subterfuge? In the spirit of open-mindedness, I forged ahead, and am largely happy that I did so. Unfortunately, I couldn’t quite stomach the second leap of faith the novel required of me—the acceptance of what was for me a jarringly discordant conclusion. That said, I suspect that the novel’s ending will likely prove as controversial as its subject matter, with some readers defending the aesthetic daring of Thériault’s abrupt, startling ending even as others wish he had kept the novel on a more even tonal keel throughout. Continue reading

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