Thursday, July 27, 2006

"The Odyssey": The original chick lit? (by Andrew O'Hehir,

Shaking up the academy, an independent scholar argues that Homer didn't write the great epic poems -- and that their author was likely a woman.

Jul. 27, 2006 | For most of the past 2,500 years, scholars and aficionados of what we would now call the Western literary tradition had little doubt about its point of origin. At the dawn of Greek civilization, nearly 1,000 years before the birth of Christ, a blind poet named Homer (Homeros, in Greek) had written or composed -- and here we feel the first faint stirrings of an irresolvable ambiguity -- two great epic poems, "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey."

These poems were not the beginning of literature; the Sumerian epic of "Gilgamesh" was first written down at least 1,000 years earlier (but was not widely known in the West). Just as Greek society and politics would set the table, for better and for worse, for the 3,000 years of Occidental civilization to follow, so too would the Homeric epics generate a fertile, extensive and continuing literary culture. There is no story about the cruelty and heroism of warfare in the Western tradition -- and no story about men fighting over a woman -- that does not refer back to Achilles and Agamemnon, Paris and Helen, Hector and Andromache, and the other characters and themes of "The Iliad."

Every tale of a hero who survives many hardships and adventures on the long road home -- and every tale of a woman who remains true to her long-lost husband, in defiance of her own family and community -- is essentially a reworking of the saga of the wily Odysseus and the steadfast Penelope in "The Odyssey." In many ways, the world of Achilles and Odysseus seems enormously distant from our own, sometimes to the point of incomprehensibility. At the same time, imagining what Western culture would be like without these poems and the stories they tell is literally impossible; it's like imagining contemporary America without cars or guns.

As the English historian and linguist Andrew Dalby reminds us in his new book "Rediscovering Homer," most of what was understood about the Homeric epics, for most of Western history, was wrong or misleading. Conventional ways of thinking about history and legend, about authorship and the oral tradition, about the structure and language of the poems, and about what they actually say, have clouded men's minds for generations -- and continue to do so today, Dalby thinks, even in an age of more rigorous scholarship.

Dalby's headline-grabbing assertion is that Homer, if he ever existed, was certainly not the author of "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," and not even the author of early drafts or proto-texts. The author was the person who decided to write down (or dictate) the legendary stories of the Trojan War and the wanderings of Odysseus as epic narratives, far longer than would be suitable for an evening's tale spinning. That author had at least the faint glimmering of an idea that would change the world: Writing a long poem on a stack of cured goatskins (the only available medium) might ultimately reach a larger audience than that available to the traditional poet-singers who traveled from place to place as after-dinner performers. Dalby thinks that author was probably, or at least plausibly, a woman.

"Rediscovering Homer" is certain to rile professional Homeric scholars, whose view of the epics has changed cautiously and gradually over the past century or so. Some may seek to dismiss Dalby, who is a free-floating, unaffiliated author and researcher of the sort once described as a "gentleman scholar." (He holds a Ph.D. in ancient history, but makes his living by writing books for general readers, not by teaching in a university.) They will argue that his dating of the poems is unorthodox -- he thinks "The Iliad" was written around 650 B.C. and "The Odyssey" around 630, whereas most scholars would date them 70 to 90 years earlier -- and that his identification of a female author is no better than guesswork.

Dalby himself cheerfully acknowledges these criticisms. His work is full of speculation and supposition, he admits, but at least those are rooted in the best available linguistic, literary and historical scholarship rather than antiquated tradition. Many contemporary textbooks and teachers, on the other hand, offer a half-hearted and indecisive mishmash of information: "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" are the work of person or persons unknown, conventionally called Homer, perhaps literate and perhaps not. Some authorities try to make Homer coincide with the birth of Greek writing, while others ascribe authorship to an anonymous process called the "oral tradition" rather than to specific people. Either way, these are fuzzy, self-undermining notions.

The Homeric epics have been surrounded by an aura of mystery and controversy since they first became popular (sometime around 500 B.C.), and this has never prevented readers from enjoying them, or grasping their seminal importance. If anything, the idea that "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" offer a window onto human prehistory, onto a past that is otherwise silent piles of dust and bone, has formed a considerable part of their allure. But anyone who admires intellectual puzzles will appreciate Dalby's attempt, imaginative as it may be, to synthesize the arguments of many other scholars with his own and untangle the tortured question of Homeric origin.

If you read the poems in school sometime in the last 30 years or so (most likely in Richmond Lattimore's dutiful but leaden 1961 translation), you already have a vague sense that the question of who wrote them, and when and how and why -- and even the question of what we mean when we ask who wrote them -- has no easy answer. Homer isn't mentioned in Greek sources until at least 300 years after his presumed lifetime, and many scholars view him as a folkloric figure, a "personification of epic," in Dalby's phrase, rather than a remembered human being. Spurious biographies of Homer were published later, after the poems had achieved widespread fame, but those bear roughly the same relationship to historical truth as the books about Nostradamus available in today's supermarkets.

If Homer was a real person, he almost certainly lived and died before the introduction of the Greek alphabet. (Yes, language wonks, written Greek existed centuries before "Homer," in the alphabet known as Linear B, but that had vanished by 1100 B.C. and in any case was never used for literary purposes.) Even early Greek commentators saw this problem, and so a traditional answer emerged: Homer was an oral poet or bard (Dalby prefers the simpler term "singer") who composed the epics during the Greek Dark Ages, sometime between the 10th and 8th centuries B.C. After that they were handed down from poet to poet, essentially intact, for decades or centuries, until someone wrote them down.

Across the succeeding millennia, Dalby observes, scholars quarreled over the details of this history without ever confronting the weakness of its fundamental premise. Some argued that Homer had really existed and others that different poets were responsible for the two epics. Some found evidence that the Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus had ordered the poems written down in the 7th century B.C., while others looked to the 6th century Athenian dictators Peisistratos and Hipparchos. No one challenged the idea that authorship lay somewhere in the pre-literate past.

Other scholars puzzled over the text, debating the poems' internal inconsistencies and their insistent usage of repetitive formula. Scenes of bathing and eating recur over and over again, in virtually the same words, and people and things always carry the same attributes whether or not they seem appropriate in context. The Trojan hero Hector is "man-killing Hector" even in a peaceful setting; Odysseus is "resourceful" or "wily" even when he is lost, clueless and terrified. The "life-giving Earth" is still described that way when fallen heroes are being buried in it, and "The Odyssey" actually includes the line "the noisy dogs were silent." Was this laziness or irony or just a constricted view of the world? (Some translations, like E.V. Rieu's Penguin Classics prose version from 1946, deliberately conceal these poetic formulas.)

Bizarre as this may seem, during all that time no one paid attention to the surviving traditions of oral epic storytelling in Europe and elsewhere. The same oral-literary culture that had produced the Homeric epics had endured into modernity in relatively remote areas like the Balkans, Finland, Russia and Central Asia, rural Ireland and Scotland. This may seem obvious to us now, with our multicultural, anthropologically conditioned vision of the world, but it flew in the face of everything classical scholars believed. Their discipline was at the pinnacle of the humanities, and the cultures they studied were by definition superior to everything that came later. It was axiomatic that the classics could shed light on modern life, but it was ludicrous to suggest that the reverse might also be true.

As early as the 18th century, British scholars like James Macpherson made awkward efforts to compare the Homeric epics to existing Gaelic oral tradition. But the breakthrough didn't come until the 1930s, when the American classicist Milman Parry and his assistant Albert Lord began intense comparative studies of the rich oral traditions in the Balkans, especially among Bosnian Muslims, who at that time were a largely illiterate people still untouched by mass media. What they learned would change Homeric scholarship profoundly, but Dalby believes the changes have still not been fully absorbed or understood.

The key discovery of Parry and Lord's "oral theory" is that entire poems are never transmitted intact from one oral poet to another, let alone across several generations. "In modern oral traditions," Dalby explains, "poets or singers often claim to be repeating word for word a composition by some famous, honored predecessor, but it has been shown by experiment and fully confirmed by research that this claim is not and never can be true in our terms. There is no possibility of exact transmission. Narratives in oral tradition are created anew every time they are performed."

In other words, poets don't perform works exactly as they heard them from others, and themselves never perform works the same way twice. To anyone who has ever told a campfire ghost story or a shaggy-dog joke this may seem glaringly obvious, but again, the professoriate is not noted for its ability to draw appropriate lessons from everyday life. In the face of this evidence, Lord and other scholars sought to redate Homer such that he could plausibly have written or dictated the epics himself, but this contradicts every ancient authority on the subject.

To Dalby, the real conclusion is clear: "As the tradition says, Homer was a famous singer who worked long before the use of writing. We are therefore reading not his work but that of a later singer in the same tradition, the one who composed the 'Iliad' and the 'Odyssey' and saw them written down. She (or he) was a seventh-century [B.C.] contemporary of Archilochos [one of the earliest identified Greek poets] and was among the greatest creators of literature that the world has known, but is not named in the poems."

Every reader will be eager to evaluate Dalby's case that this neo-Homer was female, but before he gets to that, Dalby demonstrates how Parry and Lord's oral theory has helped illuminate many of the epics' most mysterious ingredients. When you accept the premise that "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" were semi-improvised oral epics, but composed at a highly unusual length and composed to be written down, many things become clear. The repeated scenes and the use of formulaic adjectives are found in every oral tradition. They supply the poet with ready-made metrical material and allow him to think ahead, and they simultaneously refer to shared assumptions about heroes, gods, social relations and the natural world.

Some of the language used by Mr. or Ms. Homer is already archaic by the standards of 7th century Greek, while some is contemporary. Much of the legendary history presented in the poems is clearly hundreds of years old and may contain real history at its core. In the wake of Heinrich Schliemann's famous 19th century excavations, archaeologists have established that there really was a city called Troy, or Ilion, in Asia Minor (on the northwestern coast of contemporary Turkey), and it really was burned down around 1200 B.C., very close to the traditional date of the Trojan War.

One of Dalby's most delightful nuggets is that when Alexander the Great visited Ilion in 334 B.C., it was basically a tourist trap. Someone had built a spurious "tomb of Achilles" where admirers of the legendary hero could leave offerings; there were guides available and phony Trojan War souvenirs for sale. Yet if ancient beliefs about the time and place of that conflict now look surprisingly accurate, the society depicted in "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" is basically that of the poet's own time, at the dawn of classical Greece, which was quite different from the lost Mycenaean civilization of the 13th or 12th centuries.

Dalby unpacks an intriguing series of snippets from historical or archaeological evidence to support the view that the epics have a historical basis but were built up over the years from a wide variety of materials and also have specific roots in the middle of the 7th century. He suspects that the Trojan War of "The Iliad" comprises two different military campaigns, the one mentioned above and another found in the records of the Hittite king Tudhaliya I, who claimed to have conquered "Wilusiya" and "Truisa," Hittite names for Ilion, or Troy, around 1410 B.C.

He adds that Paris, in "The Iliad" the son of Troy's King Priam and the seducer of Helen, probably has two names for a similar reason. He is often called Alexandros, a fact never explained in the text, and his life history is an odd one: He was expelled from the household as an infant, raised by a herdsman, and later accepted back into the royal family. Hittite records of the 13th century refer to the king of "Wilusa" (Troy again) as Alaksandu, who was the adopted son of his predecessor. This king's dates do not fit either possible Trojan War, and the Paris/Alexandros of "The Iliad" never becomes king of Troy. So maybe we have a composite literary character here, derived from "a prince of Troy named Alexandros and a seducer named Paris -- not the same person, not necessarily in the same place or at the same date."

Dalby's argument that the author of the epics was a woman, probably an aristocratic wife, rests heavily on the oral theory, other recent developments in Homeric studies, and a couple of imaginative leaps. But it isn't a completely new idea. Samuel Butler (whose 19th century translations of "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" are probably the best freely available on the Internet) shocked other Victorian scholars with his 1897 treatise "The Authoress of the Odyssey," in which he identified "The Iliad," with its treatment of warfare, bloodshed and honor, as a manly yarn and the "The Odyssey," with its heightened focus on human relationships, the domestic realm and the subtle play of sexual power, as the Western world's earliest example of chick lit.

It's possible that Dalby is guilty of the same kind of oversimplification, or at least a simplistic view of gender and its literary consequences. When he writes that the poet presents Helen and Andromache (Hector's wife) in "The Iliad," or steadfast Penelope in "The Odyssey," as complicated, insightful and largely sympathetic characters, he is surely correct. Furthermore, both poems offer unflinching depictions of sexual relations in a world where women are literally property and must use their domestic and erotic power subtly while presenting the appearance of total subservience.

Maybe most men couldn't capture those subjects, but that isn't evidence. Men, after all, wrote "A Doll's House" and "Three Sisters" and "A Portrait of a Lady," along with any number of lesser chick-lit classics. When you add these observations to the question of how and why the Homeric epics were composed, however, Dalby's hypothesis begins to gain momentum. First of all, there is no convincing indication that any poetic work the size or scale of these epics had existed previously in Greek. Other early epics from roughly the same period, like Hesiod's "Theogony" or "Works and Days," are less than 1,000 lines, a length that could comfortably be heard by a boozy after-dinner audience. "The Iliad" runs to almost 16,000 lines and "The Odyssey" to about 12,000.

Six centuries or so before the time of Christ, writing something that long "was an extremely daunting project," Dalby says. "A great many goats would have to be killed and skinned, and the chosen singer and the scribe [he assumes they were not the same person] would have to set aside many weeks." Later, he writes that "the 'Iliad' had to be composed privately, with an extended effort of voice and concentration, without the reward in audience appreciation that a singer normally enjoyed ... How would a popular ancient oral singer, accustomed to vocal praise and varied rewards from live audiences, have regarded such an offer?"

Indeed, who would have had the freedom, and the inclination, to do something so peculiar? Singers were traveling tradesmen, dependent on each night's audience for food and shelter, eager to move on to the next town and the next rich man's banquet hall. One can certainly imagine some local aristocrat, who perhaps understood the possibilities of reading and writing, deciding to pay a favorite singer a few weeks' wages to compose and dictate a long-form version of the Trojan War story. But why didn't that singer stick his own name in the poem somewhere and indulge in a little poetic braggadocio, the way Hesiod, Archilochos, Alkman and other early Greek writers did?

Dalby's idea that the poet was someone acculturated to reticence and privacy, someone who was already accustomed to composing and performing at home, is seductive. He demonstrates considerable evidence that women have been among the foremost practitioners of oral epic in many cultural traditions. Researchers (generally male) have tended to miss them because female poets in most patriarchal societies have performed in private, "to please themselves or for a few friends or family members."

A wealthy wife who was skilled in the poetic tradition, and who had slaves to perform most of her expected domestic chores, would have been in an ideal position to devote herself to composing and writing a lengthy epic. She could have paid for the goatskins and the scribe, and would have inconvenienced no one except herself with her weeks of literary work. "Such a woman, if she were as perceptive as the poet of the 'Iliad' and the 'Odyssey' must have been," Dalby writes, "might have realized that a new potential audience undreamed of by male singers -- an audience of women -- existed and could be reached with the help of writing."

None of this rises anywhere near a standard of proof. But growl as they may, the members of the Homeric academy will have to wrestle with it. I came away from Dalby's book convinced that he has destroyed any sensible connection between the Homeric epics and Homer himself, and that all arguments that the author can only have been a man are on equally shaky ground.

As mentioned already, "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" tell us a great deal about how gender, sexuality and property relations worked in early classical Greece, and it isn't pretty. Briseis, the girl over whom Achilles and Agamemnon have their near-deadly feud in "The Iliad," endangering the Greek siege of Troy, is nothing more or less than a sex slave. (Achilles' true romantic love is of course his valiant companion Patroclus.) When Odysseus, the unquenchable and largely sympathetic hero who has battled the Cyclops, the sorceress Circe, an island of cannibals and numerous other foes, finally gets home, how does he reward his household's slave girls? He has them all killed for having sex with Penelope's loutish suitors, and specifically for enjoying it.

Helen, who has abandoned her husband Menelaus for Paris and thereby launched a thousand ships, is also an item of stolen property, albeit one who comes at a higher price than slave girls do. Whether Helen and Paris truly love each other is of no consequence in the poem's world, and neither is the fact that their affair was compelled by the goddess Aphrodite (who herself loves Paris and therefore acquires him the woman of his dreams). Their coupling violates numerous fundamental social codes; all Greek audiences understood that the resulting 10-year war was justified and the fall of Troy inevitable.

Dalby makes the valid points that Helen and Andromache supply important moments of commentary in "The Iliad," and that Penelope, who without ever leaving home outwits the suitors and her own headstrong son Telemachos, is the co-heroine of "The Odyssey." I think a perceptive male writer could have managed all that, and I'm not sure Dalby gets anywhere with his claims that the poet "subverts" epic and gender in a distinctively female manner. But when you return to the text after reading Dalby, and encounter again the poems' flashes of psychological insight, and their brutal sexual frankness, it's hard to resist the feeling that a woman is addressing us.

Helen is consumed by a passion for Paris that she knows is wrong, does not understand and cannot resist. It's the work of Aphrodite, but one could say that men and women of all eras have sought similar explanations for ill-advised love affairs that ruined their lives and destroyed their families. When Helen comes face to face with Aphrodite in Book 3 of "The Iliad," she tells the goddess spitefully (in Dalby's translation):

Go to Paris yourself, then! Stray from the high road of the gods,
Never again turn your feet toward Olympos;
Whine around him and watch him all the time
Till he makes you his wife, or rather his slave girl!

Aphrodite answers her just as angrily, saying, "Don't rouse me, wretch, or I shall ... hate you as wildly as until now I have loved you, and expose you to the hatred of both armies, Trojans and Greeks. You would die a vile death."

There is no mistaking the underlying electrical charge of fear and emotion beneath this exchange. Helen says: If you love him so much, then crawl to him and beg him for sex, as I have done. Pushing this vulnerability even further, Aphrodite threatens to turn Helen over to the soldiers on both sides, to be raped and killed. Can there be a more real or primordial fear for any woman, whether slave or princess, in a militaristic and male-dominated society? It happened often; it undoubtedly happened to the women of Troy when their city was sacked. Did a male poet of the 7th century B.C. really understand that fear, from a woman's point of view?

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Goodbye, Mr. Keating (by Thomas H. Benton, The Chronicle of Higher Education)

Goodbye, Mr. Keating

To succeed as a Ph.D. in English, you have to give up all of the things that attracted you to the subject in the first place
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Undergraduate English majors often treasure the 1989 film Dead Poets Society. The film is set in the 1950s at Welton Academy, a boarding school that is beautiful but strict in an old-fashioned way; it aims more at placing its graduates in the Ivy League than developing their imaginative capacities.

The film centers on the efforts of an unconventional young teacher named Mr. Keating, played by Robin Williams, who transforms his English class from an exercise in cultural duty to a whirlwind tour of self-discovery. In one memorable class on Walt Whitman, Mr. Keating coerces a painfully shy student into "sounding his barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world."

Sadly, Mr. Keating's efforts at liberating his students result in the suicide of a boy whose father insists that he abandon his love of acting to study medicine at Harvard. In the aftermath, Mr. Keating is forced to leave Welton, but not before his students stand on their desks in a gesture of support that foreshadows the social upheaval of the 1960s.

Dead Poets Society is old enough now for many professors to have been inspired by it as undergraduates. I remember seeing it during my junior year, and I thought, at that time, that the film encapsulated many of the romantic feelings that led me to become an English major the year before.

It's not that I admired Mr. Keating entirely. He has some stirring moments, such as when he shows his students photographs of long-dead Weltonians while discussing Robert Herrick's poem, "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time":

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.

Mr. Keating urges his boys to "seize the day." It's a beautiful scene, tinged with the melancholy of late adolescence.

But most of Mr. Keating's teaching is more like Mr. Williams's improvisational comedy than something that might work in a real classroom with stipulated outcomes. Telling students to tear pages out of their textbooks seems excessive and maybe even a little authoritarian. Today the teacher is a big-hearted liberal; tomorrow he is a demagogue. Today we are tearing out pages; tomorrow we are burning books.

I might have been attracted to a teacher like Mr. Keating at times, but my rational side would have agreed with his older colleague, Mr. McAllister, who laments, "You take a big risk encouraging your students to be artists, John. When they realize they're not all Rembrandts, Shakespeares, or Mozarts, they'll hate you for it."

Let me decide for myself whether I want to rip pages out of my textbook or sound my barbaric yawp if you don't mind, Mr. Keating. Maybe I want to learn how to diagram a sentence and write a research paper. Maybe I don't want to be your idealized version of Walt Whitman, someone who is, nevertheless, easily manipulated for ideological purposes. Maybe I want to be an accountant, and I don't regard that as wasting my life, thank you very much. Maybe there is something valuable in the traditions of Welton that might be worth protecting.

Mr. Keating was charismatic, no doubt about that. But the attractions of English, for me, had less to do with the vision of Mr. Keating than the durability of the institution that hired him.

There was a strong material component to English; it wasn't just about words or ideas. I associated literature with the feelings of fall — the vague sadness of the end of summer, the crisp air, sweaters and wood smoke, stained glass and Gothic architecture, and the optimism that comes with new books and stationery. All of those associations took place in an institutional setting apart from teachers, though teachers were necessary because they made demands and offered their experience.

My college education was a lot like the one depicted at Welton Academy — or at least I could fantasize it as such. But I had the pleasure of choosing elements from the Mr. Keatings and Mr. McAllisters I met without being forced to take sides in the eternal struggle between tradition and change, community and self, reason and imagination.

In a course I taught last spring, after three months of tracing the development of literary theory from humanism to structuralism to poststructuralism to the dilemmas of the present, I finally asked my students the question: "So, why do you want to study literature, knowing what you now know?" I wondered if studying a century of cynicism had altered their motives in the slightest.

They were all considering graduate school, but their answers had little to do with what I knew they would need to write in their application essays. Sitting in a circle in the grass, backed by purple hydrangeas, they offered the following motives:

Formative experiences with reading as a child: being read to by beloved parents and siblings, discovering the world of books and solitude at a young age.

Feelings of alienation from one's peers in adolescence, turning to books as a form of escapism and as a search for a sympathetic connection to other people in other places and times.

A love for books themselves, and libraries, as sites of memory and comfort.

A "geeky" attraction to intricate alternate worlds such as those created by Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and George Lucas.

ontact with inspirational teachers who recognized and affirmed one's special gifts in reading and writing, often combined with negative experiences in other subjects like math and chemistry.

transference of spiritual longings — perhaps cultivated in a strict religious upbringing — toward more secular literary forms that inspired "transcendence."

fascination with history or science that is not grounded in a desire for rigorous data collection or strict interpretive methodologies.

A desire for freedom and independence from authority figures; a love for the free play of ideas. English includes everything, and all approaches are welcome, they believe.

A recognition of mortality combined with a desire to live fully, to have multiple lives through the mediation of literary works.

desire to express oneself through language and, in so doing, to make a bid for immortality.

A love for the beauty of words and ideas, often expressed in a desire to read out loud and perform the text.

n attraction to the cultural aura of being a creative artist, sometimes linked to aristocratic and bohemian notions of the good life.

A desire for wisdom, an understanding of the big picture rather than the details that obsess specialists.

Those answers defied everything they had been taught in my theory seminar. Nevertheless, they were all, in different degrees, the answers I would have given as an undergraduate. They reflected the drive toward imaginative freedom expressed by Keating, but they also reflected a deep traditionalism that is equally crucial to English as a discipline. Both impulses, however, are intractably emotional, irrational, and romantic.

Not one student said, I am studying English "because I want to make a lot of money" or "because my parents made me."

English is, almost always, a freely chosen major — and sometimes it is chosen in spite of parental and material resistance. English is a rebellious major, even as it draws on a tradition deeper than the contemporary American dream of success.

It surprised me that none of my students mentioned a commitment to social justice or to some specific political ideology as a motive. Nearly all of them would have skewed to the left on most of the usual subjects.

When I asked about that, one said, "If I wanted to be a politician, I'd major in political science. If I wanted to be a social worker, I'd major in sociology." English is, among my undergraduates at least, one of the last refuges of the classical notion of a liberal-arts education.

It makes me sad to think how little those motives will be acknowledged if they go on to graduate school. They will probably go for the wrong reasons: to continue their experience as undergraduates. They are romantics who must suddenly become realpolitikers. Maybe that's why most drop out before they complete their doctorates. Those who stay have political commitments (and probably come from undergraduate programs where those commitments are encouraged early), or they develop them as graduate students, or they feign or exaggerate them to get through.

For me, it's strange and wonderful, after receiving tenure, to be able to rediscover my undergraduate self, to nurture in my students the motives that drew me to graduate school in the first place.

The problem is you can't get to where I am now without going through a decade or more of immersion in a highly politicized and anti-literary academic culture. You have to spend so many years conforming that, by the time freedom presents itself, you don't know why you became an English major in the first place. You might even have contempt for your seemingly naïve students, who represent the self that you had to repress in order to be a professional.

It is not that I want to privilege some form of literary dilettantism as a substitute for professionalism. I simply want to demonstrate that the reasons most people get into English are different from the motives that will make them successful in graduate school and in professional life beyond that. They must, ultimately, purge themselves of the romantic motives that drew them to English in the first place — or pretend to do so. If you want to be a literary professional, you must say goodbye to Mr. Keating.

You may be teaching English, but in many academic positions (and certainly in the mainstream of academic publishing), you'll have to fulfill your emotional life in other ways, probably in secret, the way some people sing along with Barry Manilow in their cars.

In the final minute of the class, one of my students asked exactly the right question: "If you had the chance, Professor Benton, would you do it all over again? Would you still become an English professor?"

I thought for a while and said, "Yes, I would, if I could know that it would turn out this way."

Thomas H. Benton is the pseudonym of an associate professor of English at a Midwestern liberal-arts college. He writes about academic culture and welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at For an archive of his previous columns, see here .

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Thank You for Hating My Book (by Katha Pollitt, the New York Times)

Illustration by John Hendrix

July 12, 2006
Op-Ed Contributor


ACTUALLY, this is good,” my editor said when my book got panned. “It’s a long review by a well-known person. It’s on a good page. It’s even got a caricature of you.”

True, the drawing made me look like a demented chicken — a fat demented chicken — but as he explained, art meant space and space meant respect and respect meant attention. As my former husband put it, quoting Dr. Johnson as is his wont, “I would rather be attacked than unnoticed.” Even in the 18th century, it seems, there was no such thing as bad publicity.

Unless, of course, it’s your own. In the days that followed, I discovered something interesting about my writer friends. Here I had thought of them as anxious and sensitive, taking to their beds, or the phone, or both, when professional setbacks came their way. How often had I had the conversation about the culture editor with a grudge dating back to the reign of Tiberius, the clueless reviewer, the publicist who stops returning your phone calls and the publisher who suggests you consider another line of work?

But that was them. My bad review was something else again: my writer friends thought it was great. It was an opportunity, a platform, a megaphone, a lemon about to be transmuted into the most ambrosial lemonade. The very things that made it bad made it good: its frivolity displayed my depth, its confusion threw into relief my steely logic, its snark showed all too clearly who the real wit was.

“Yes, it was pretty negative, and your arms looked like tree stumps,” said one friend, helpfully. “But so what? That just means you’re a star!”

“All the review did was tell the world you have a new book out,” said another friend. “It’s attention. Just watch your Amazon numbers soar.” I reminded her that she hadn’t been so cheerful when her novel was panned by that Romanian diplomat. “Oh, that,” she explained. “That was different.” Her bad review was written by an ignorant nobody. My bad review was written by a mini-celebrity. The reviewer’s semi-fame would enhance my own. Gee, I suggested, maybe I should be sending her flowers.

Of course, like every writer, I had been obsessively monitoring the sales ranking on my page since well before publication, ignoring the advice of my friend the historian. (“Don’t look at Amazon, whatever you do! After they dredged up that Welsh farmer to review my book, it was like watching Enron stock implode.”) By judiciously purchasing one book an hour — something I was going to do anyway, I have free shipping and a lot of relatives — I had managed to raise my rating from 101,333 at 2:25 on June 17 to 6,679 at midnight — a staggering advance of 94,636 places at a cost of only $110.60.

Skillfully timed additional purchases — I have a lot of friends as well — kept things simmering in the 4,000’s. When I clicked on my number for the previous day, I could even see what books were selling like my own. On June 28, for example, when, inexplicably, my book had plummeted to 55,777, it was sandwiched between “Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction” and “Calligraphy Alphabets Made Easy.” Fortunately, I found an old Rolodex with the addresses of a whole bunch of people I used to know in Canada — what better way to reconnect than to send them a book!

“Mom,” my daughter said in that stern way she gets sometimes. “Stop it. Those numbers don’t mean anything.”

“Well, I don’t know the precise algorithm, nobody does, but the ratings aren’t totally meaningless.”

“No, Mom, I mean your numbers don’t mean anything. You’re raising them by buying the book yourself.”

Well, technically, yes. But nobody who visited my page knew that. They would just see that only 6,515 books were selling more copies than my own — and most of them were written by Dan Brown.

Would the bad review help my book? By 6 p.m. that Sunday it had reached 2,087 (“See?” my novelist friend e-mailed. “Just wait!” The author of a new book on crime wrote: “I’m jealous. Why can’t my book get panned?’’)

By 8 p.m. my ranking had reached a stratospheric 1,520. I basked in the knowledge that at least six people had figured out that only a truly wonderful book would get such a terrible review.

“You see?” my editor said on Monday morning. “Length, placement, caricature. Works every time.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him I had already drifted back down into the 3,000’s.

“Oh, well, it’s Fourth of July weekend,” said my novelist friend, consolingly. “A lot of people are away.”

Apparently there is such a thing as bad publicity, and that’s bad publicity that people don’t know about. That problem though, I could fix. I wrote up an e-mail message describing my new book, with a comical lament about my bad review and a link so people could read it for themselves, and I sent it off to my entire address book. Then, just to get the ball rolling I ordered a copy for a friend of my father’s who lives in Hawaii and one for a Legal Aid lawyer I’d met on the train. Sure enough, by the end of the day I had advanced to 1,314. If you take out Dan Brown, I was practically a best seller.

And all it took was $256.68 — and a really bad review.

Katha Pollitt is the author, most recently, of “Virginity or Death! And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time.”