All posts filed under: Books

For Some Adjunct Professors, It’s Speak Your Mind versus Keep Your Job

The issue of academic freedom is particularly tenuous for the growing number of college teachers who hold positions that are neither tenured nor on the tenure track. Various titles are used to describe these positions, including adjunct professor, visiting professor, professor of practice, professor in residence, acting professor, and lecturer. There is wide variation in the job duties, qualifications for appointment, and appointment procedures associated with such titles. (And in some rare cases, it should be noted, university instructors who aren’t tenured faculty do have security of employment—such as at the University of California, at which some adjuncts have a “Lecturer with Security of Employment” job title.) But for simplicity, we will use the term “adjunct” to describe any college instructor who does not have, and is not on a formal track to receive security of employment through the tenure system. There is tremendous variation regarding the length of service and level of involvement that adjuncts have with colleges. An adjunct might be hired for a period of only a few months to teach a …

George Orwell, Henry Miller, and the ‘Dirty-Handkerchief Side of Life’

I. In December 1936, George Orwell was on his way to Spain to join the Republican side in the fight against fascism. On the way, he stopped in Paris where he met with Henry Miller in his Montparnasse studio. As D. J. Taylor notes in Orwell: The Life, Miller’s friend Alfred Perlès was present for the meeting, and he recalled an encounter that perfectly captured the seemingly antithetical worldviews of the two men. Miller thought Orwell’s decision to fight in Spain was absurd—as Taylor puts it (summarizing Perlès’s account of Miller’s attitude): “Wasn’t he more use to the world alive than dead? Orwell replied ‘earnestly and humbly’ that in extraordinary times there could be no thought of avoiding self-sacrifice.” Miller then offered his corduroy jacket as a “contribution to the Republican war effort,” but he “tactfully refrained from adding that Orwell would have been welcome to the jacket even if he had been fighting for Franco.” “Watching the two of them together,” Taylor writes, “Perlès was struck by the sharp contrast in personality and temperament, …

Analyst of Totalitarianism—Reading Simon Leys Today

Simon Leys was perhaps the pre-eminent Western chronicler of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and it is worth returning to his work for its vivid first-hand accounts of life in Beijing during this period. But Leys was also interested in the process by which, under the right conditions and with the right ideology, a society can collapse into insanity and murder. His description of the Cultural Revolution showed how political hysteria and the legitimization of violence and hatred combined to ravage a nation. These developments, however, are by no means unique to communism in general or China in particular, and Leys explored similar themes in his retelling of the harrowing true story of a ship wrecked off the coast of Australia in 1629. His book on the topic, The Wreck of the Batavia, is a short masterpiece about how the small society that the ship’s survivors tried to construct in the wake of the disaster was plunged into apocalyptic madness and murder by a psychopathic leader operating according to his own deranged totalitarian ideology. The parallels to Maoism—although Leys …

Inside Story—A Review

A review of Inside Story by Martin Amis. Knopf, 560 pages. (October 2020) As literature’s cultural relevance washes out on the high tide of digital media, self-absorption becomes the order of the day. Those who can still be bothered to write “serious” books aren’t interested in telling other people’s stories. They want to tell their own. And in the age of profiles and self-promotion, it’s not surprising that auto-fiction—or what I like to call the ME novel—is the literary genre with the most purchase. ME writing, while centuries old, has exploded in the last decade: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Ben Lerner’s 10:04, and Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy (to name a few in fiction); Roxane Gay’s Hunger, Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be? and Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering (for non-fiction novels)—while other excesses, like blog novels and memoirs written by 28-year-olds have even managed to find their way to audiences. Now Martin Amis’s new novel Inside Story joins this club of “life writing” (a genre he describes as “rather dubious”). Inside Story is a ME …

Postmodernism: Some Corrections and Clarifications

Before I proceed with a brief discussion of postmodernism and its contribution to the 20th century thought, a clarification: contrary to the common view, the “modernism” part of the word “postmodernism” does not denote “modernity.” Such an interpretation is wrong (and also raises the question of why postmodernism had not happened 200 years earlier). The “modernism” part of the word refers to the dominant literary and artistic movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In other words, postmodernism is not what came after the Renaissance, the industrial revolution, Voltaire and Descartes—it is what came after the cubists, the existentialists, Kafka and Joyce. This correction is important for reasons of formal accuracy—but it is also a reminder that postmodernism was neither the first, nor the most important movement to attack the values of Western civilisation. Mannerism did it in the 1520s, followed by baroque, then the gothics and romantics, and, finally, at the turn of the 20th century, the modernists. The latter rebelled on a truly grand scale, negating and annihilating everything that had …

The Dishonest and Misogynistic Hate Campaign Against J.K. Rowling

When J. K. Rowling first outed herself as a gender-critical feminist, my first thought was: If Rowling can be cancelled, anyone can be cancelled. Not only is she one of the best known and best loved authors in the world (the writer of children’s books, for goodness sake), she also has a personal history that ought to make her un-cancellable. This was the mum who escaped an abusive marriage and lived off benefits, writing the first Harry Potter book in an Edinburgh café while rocking her sleeping baby in a pram. This was the woman who became a billionaire, but then lost her billionaire status by giving away so much money to charity. If anyone was safe, Rowling should have been safe. And it turns out that she was, because despite the best efforts of her critics, she hasn’t yet been truly cancelled. Her latest book, the murder mystery (written under the pen-name Robert Galbraith), was published on Tuesday and, as of Thursday, was number four on Amazon’s bestseller list for all literature and fiction. …

Corruption and Remorse—The Novels of a Watergate Conspirator

As an avid reader of pop fiction, I’m more partial to the Nixon administration than any other White House. The Reagan years may have produced more crooks, and the Trump years may have produced more chaos, but there is one measure by which the criminal and criminal-adjacent members of the Nixon White House were far more productive: they produced a hell of a lot more novels. In May 1976, disgraced vice president Spiro Agnew published his first and only novel, The Canfield Decision, about a sitting US vice president pondering his own run for the White House. This was followed in January 1977 by a political thriller entitled Full Disclosure from Nixon and Agnew’s former speechwriter William Safire. Safire would go on to write three more novels—Freedom (a massive Civil War epic), Sleeper Spy (an espionage thriller), and Scandalmonger (about muckraking journalists in the age of Thomas Jefferson). G. Gordon Liddy, one of the masterminds of the Watergate break-in who served 52 months behind bars before the balance of his sentence was commuted by President …

Under the Frog: Why Tibor Fischer’s 1992 Booker-Nominated Novel May Have Found its Moment

In Szeged Hungary, while teaching at the university there, I met a student who read Tibor Fischer’s Under the Frog (1992) every single autumn. It was, she said, part of  her annual ritual, and I wasn’t that surprised. A crazy tale of a basketball team in post-war Stalinist Hungary—a time of terror retold with Fischer’s ink-black humour—it’s got something for almost anyone, and it’s rare to find readers happy to sample it just the once. Written following the fall of communism in 1989, a period Fischer covered as a journalist while living in Budapest, it nearly didn’t reach them at all. Under the Frog was rejected by all but two of the UK’s publishers, yet went on to become the first debut novel ever to be nominated for the Booker Prize. It is still Fischer’s most successful—and best known—book. Fischer knew what he was writing about. Under the Frog was based on his Magyar parents, both of them basketball players who, in the wake of the doomed 1956 uprising against the Soviets, fled Hungary for …

At the Intersection of Art and Science: Revisiting EO Wilson’s ‘Consilience’

I first read EO Wilson’s Consilience in the late 1990s when I was a student in a contemporary literary theory class. The class was taught by a poet, Gerald Locklin, who assigned it as a counterpoint to the postmodern theorists we’d be reading that semester. Wilson makes the case for the unification of knowledge—in the convergence of diverse disciplines such as the sciences and the arts, he says, there is an important story to tell, “about where we came from and why we are here: Neither science nor the arts can be complete without combining their separate strengths. Science needs the intuition and metaphorical power of the arts, and the arts need the fresh blood of science.” As someone who writes poetry, novels, and short stories, I have often drawn inspiration from science and its “fresh blood.” When I teach creative writing classes, I tell my students that aspiring writers not only need to read novels if they want to be a novelist, or poems if they want to be a poet, they need to …

The WEIRDest People in the World—A Review

A review of The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous by Joseph Henrich, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 704 pages (September, 2020). A decade ago, researcher and scholar Joseph Henrich, together with psychologists Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan, published a landmark paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences titled, “The weirdest people in the world?”1 No, the target of the label “weird” were not the Araweté horticulturalists of lowland South America, where mothers-to-be seek sex with multiple men in the belief that semen from multiple fathers is needed to form the fetus.2 Nor were they the Māori of New Zealand, who have been known to collect and preserve the heads of enemy chiefs they killed in battle as trophies of war, (the mokomokai.) The target of the weird label was Western people. More specifically, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, or WEIRD. WEIRD was not meant as a pejorative, but as an apt description of this group of psychologically peculiar people, who are distinct from the majority of humanity both …