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The lute lies rusted in its green case odor of pines is synthetic; sweeteners artificial; even salt!  our tongues crave something dif...

Friday, April 30, 2010

Revise and Resubmit

Most articles I review that end up getting published are "revise and resubmit." I rarely just accept an article as is, and revisions might be extensive. The difference between reject and revise and resubmit is whether I see the germ of a publishable article. Usually, the writer just has to organize things a little better.

Thursday, April 29, 2010


Citing other critics involves a certain rhetorical acumen. For example, if the ideas of the critics you cite are more interesting than your own, then you are in trouble, because the reader will tend to focus on ideas of other critics and view you as an amanuensis. On the other hand, you can't pick banal quotes either, unless you are taking issue with their banality. If you agree with other critics, then you can bring them in for back-up. If you are proposing something controversial, then it is good to have some other authority on your side. "See, it's not just me who's saying this..." On the other hand, it is also useful to have a critic who is sort of half-way right, whom you can agree with and then correct. Maybe someone has a very harsh opinion of something. You can cite that opinion, and seem less harsh yourself, distancing yourself from that position while at the same time putting it out there.

In short, citation brings into play a complicated dynamic of authority, competition, novelty. The point here is to be self-conscious about how you deploy other critics' writing. What are you doing by quoting someone else?

Establishing what the critical consensus is.

Finding support for something that your audience might not agree with.

Defining the position with which you disagree, either partially or wholly.

Establishing contextual information.

If you know why you are citing then you can figure out how to cite.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


I often saw publishing as a kind of game. How many separate journals can you publish in? Can you make it into X or Y journal?

The trifecta for me is PMLA, Diacritics, and Critical Inquiry. I still haven't published in CI, so I don't have the trifecta yet.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Your Next Article

You should always feel that your next article is going to be the most brilliant, or the most solid or convincing, or the best-written. It might not turn out that way, but you need to feel that way.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Show of Strength

At some points you will want to provide a show of strength in an article you are writing. By this I mean an overwhelmingly convincing demonstration of your knowledge of the subject matter, a particularly strong argument, something that establishes your authority. I'd say one of every three or four articles needs such a display.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Article Guy or Book Guy

It's hard to know whether you are going to be a book person or an article person. At one point I decided not to worry about writing any more books, but a few years after that I published two books. Now I think I'm book guy again, but in the meantime I'm doing a lot of articles because of all the invitations I'm getting.

The problem with the academic system as it's set up is that you need books for promotion, but articles on a year-to-year basis. Writing articles can be a distraction if what you really care about is the book. A book should be at least 50% unpublished in article form, so you have to worry about not publishing too much of it. On the other hand, if that book never gets written, you want to have something to show for all that work.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Brutal Profession

I've known some very nasty people in this profession. I'm very fortunate not to have anyone like that in my current department, but I've seen very bad situations in the past. Places where I dreaded going into the office.

Academic politics can be quite brutal; the competition to get a job at all can be quite fierce as well.

A good rule of thumb is that no conflict among colleagues should ever effect the graduate students. A graduate student should not have to worry about putting two colleagues together on the same committee or having to take sides in a faculty conflict.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Most Influential Books

Ten most Influential Books (Literary Criticism)

I've been working on a list of books that have influenced me in literary criticsm. This is not a list of all books that have influenced me generally, just the ones in the genre of literary criticism and theory. This is in roughly chronological order of when I was influenced.

1 X.J. Kennedy. An Introduction to Poetry.

I didn't know this was a college textbook when I started reading it when I was about 12-years old. I know the book has gone through many revisions and editions, but the one I am interested in is, I believe, the 1971 edition. I studied this book until it fell apart, for three or four years. I still remember parts of it: a comparison between several different translations of a sonnet by Baudelaire... This book taught me the essence of what I still know. today. It made me a professor.

2. The ABC of Reading.

I loved Pound's idea that you could just study poetry by paying close attention to it, in its auditory, visual, and purely linguistic aspects. It taught me to listen.

3. Perloff. The Poetics of Indeterminacy.

This is the book I wanted to have written about the time I was graduating from college. It was published in 1981, the year I graduated and began graduate school. It helped establish a new view of the canon and a critical model of crispness and clarity. Rimbaud to Cage indeed.

4. Burke. A Rhetoric of Motives.

I used Kenneth Burke quite a bit in a formative stage of my career. He seemed the perfect bridge between rhetoric as formalism and rhetoric as action.

5. Barthes. Critical Essays.

I really went to school with Barthes. I wasn't interested in structuralism as method as much as in the growth of a critic's mind.

6. Borges. Otras inquiiciones.

I went to school with Borges too. One of the true greats of literary theory. The idea that Kafka could create his own precursors, for example...

7. Morton Feldman. Give my Regards to Eighth Street

Not a work of literary criticism per se, but a deep source of analogies for literature.

8. Lorca. Conferencias.

The work of a creative artist reflecting on poetry, with insights that are wholly unique.

9. Ricardo Gullón. Una poética para Antonio Machado.

I love the concept of writing a poetics for Machado. Not an interpretation of Machado's poetry, but a way of extracting an implicit poetics from Machado's poetry, subsequently dedicated to Machado.

10. Julián Jiménez Heffernan. Los papeles rotos.

What this book taught me was that there was something like the Spanish equivalent of me: someone who knew both traditions and was truly bi-poetic. It's also great to have the example of someone who has exactly my interests but is way smarter than me.

Such list-making is always a bit arbitrary. I'm sure that on another day I would come up with a slightly different list.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Some Common Mistakes

A few problems I've come upon recently in reviewing articles.

(1) Vague humanist language: "issues facing humankind"; "the human condition"; "dilemmas of life." Over-enthusiastic, gushing belletristic rhetoric about how wonderful this particular poet is.

(2) Close reading that is painstaking, fussy, plodding, but not really deep; belaboring the obvious. I like to distinguish between close reading and deep reading.

(3) No critical voice; excessive dependence on what the sources say. Citing sources for obvious points of common knowledge, or choosing banal quotes from other critics. A lack of critical authority.

(4) A theoretical framework that doesn't add anything: the reading would be the same in the absence of the framework. Wikipedia-like summaries of theoretical ideas. Citing Foucault for Foucault's most cliché idea about power.

(5) Bad writing by (someone I presume to be) a non-native speaker of English. The person should have checked their writing with a native speaker who is also a good writer.

(6) Citing dictionary definitions of common words. (Always a bush-league move. Very high-school.)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Reviewing articles

What do I do if I think I know who wrote an article but am not sure? Usually, I feel confident about going about and doing it anyway, as long as I'm not sure. Sometimes my guesses have been wrong.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Smoking Gun

The smoking gun is the piece of evidence, the example or anecdote, that is the most convincing. The term comes from police forensics, where the murder weapon that is still smoking serves as the example of the best possible evidence.

I found such a smoking gun once after I had finished the book and it was too late to include. It came in the form of Billy Strayhorn's settings of Lorca's songs from a play.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Not a Normal Person

I'm not exactly a normal person, so I don't know how much my experience can be useful to anyone else. I take a level of intensity and drive to my work that is maybe not even advisable.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


I just now rejected three articles for three separate prestigious journals (these seem to come in batches). I have a dissertation to read and a Graduate Student Doctoral Exam paper. This summer I have at least one tenure review to do. In short, I am a gate-keeper, one who is paid (well, usually not even paid) to say whether someone should pass an exam, get an article or book published, get tenure.

There are two ethical issues involved. One is to perform these duties fairly and conscientiously, to disqualify oneself when there is a conflict of interest or a breach of confidentiality, to put aside one's own stake in a particular debate in the interest of disinterest. This involves a narrow adherence to the ethical code of the profession.

The second issue is whether the process of gatekeeping itself furthers a larger aim. I want to promote the kind of work I think is truly valuable and help other people have successful careers like I have. There is no issue when the work is strong; even strong work that goes against my particular point of view is valuable in the larger scheme of things. Having to reject work, however, does me no good psychically. In most cases, the rejection is justified both on narrow grounds (the academic code) and in terms of my larger aim of not wanting to be embarrassed for my field. I like being a gate-keeper, but I like having a positive benefit. I can point to an issue of a journal and say, "I helped this author improve his or her article and get it publlshed." That's wonderful. But I wouldn't point to the same journal and proudly proclaim: "You see this issue, I kept three bad articles out of it."

Yet the bad articles do have to be kept out.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Personal Library

The personal library is an essential part of one's scholarly base. It shows the relics of scholarly projects past, side issues that have occupied one's attention, theoretical trends. For me, the core of the personal library is primary texts, many of them purchased in Spain on numerous trips since 1979. I have many review copies, books I've taught from, personal gifts with the poets' dedications.

What I have to do now is organize my books better, make sure they are all in a few select places and more or less ordered.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Magical Day

Once in a while, you will have a magical day of work. You will be channeling the spirits of Thomas Campion and Charles Mingus. I had this happen one morning last week. All I had was a notebook, a fountain pen, and a xerox of Coolidge's lecture on Kerouac.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Analog Humanities

I'm not a Luddite or anything, but I wish they would have grants for analog humanities rather just digital ones.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Captatio Benevolentiae

One way of beginning an article or talk is by making a profession of humility. We'll call this a CB for short. Adeptly handled, this technique presents the speaking self of the article or book chapter as attractively modest, but without undercutting his or her authority. In other words, the audience understands that it is being seduced by the profession of modesty, but also understands that the modesty is a rhetorical device. There is an article by Derrida in The Translation Studies Reader (ed Venuti) that was originally a talk given to a professional association of translators. Derrida goes on and on at the beginning about how unqualified he is; he knows less about the subject (translation) than his own audience. Yet this CB does nothing, ultimately, to undercut his actual talk. Once he get into his main points he leaves behind this posture of modesty completely. Derrida is not a modest writer in the least.

I've seen people completely undercut their own authority by apologizing in a way that makes the audience think, "hey, he doesn't really know what he's talking about."

The paradox, then, is that the CB must be performed arrogantly enough so that it is transparently false. It must not be taken literally, but as a rhetorical ploy.


The Socratic dialogue is based on a profession of ignorance, but Socrates uses that ignorance (known as Socratic irony) as a form of rhetorical jujitsu, lulling his interlocutors into thinking he is going to be easy to debate. The CB is also rhetorical jujitsu. It's got to be performed from a stance of strength, not weakness.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


I've modeled my writing on a few other scholars. Marjorie Perloff for clarity. John Kronik for clarity. Guy Davenport for clarity.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Speaking from Authority

Speaking from authority raises some difficult problems. What if you don't have authority (yet)? You still need to project a sense that you know what you're talking about.

Authority does not come from the ego, but it is a projection of ego, in some sense. You have to have enough confidence to hold the floor. A pianissimo should not be weak. It can still be a strong, confident musical phrase. The fact that one's knowledge is limited does not mean that one's authority is nonexistent. Qualification of degree of certainty does not necessarily decrease authority.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Texture of Language

When I write in Spanish I feel myself moving through a medium with a certain texture, one that offers me a certain resistance. I can savor the language itself. In English, I have a much smaller sense of the language as language--at least when I write prose. I don't have a sense of the distinctive Englishness of English. I'm not saying English in inherently more transparent, just that my own relationship to it is colored by the fact that it is my native language. I don't have that inherent enjoyment of the English language itself, sad to say.

This suggests that I should write more in Spanish, the more pleasurable language. There is also a different relationship to the self, for me, in a second language. The speaking subject is not me, and that is part of the pleasure. I'm sure I would enjoy writing in French too, if I weren't so afraid of making grammatical errors.

Saturday, April 10, 2010


Self-control is an odd concept, because it seems to divide the self into two--one part doing the controlling and the other being controlled. Anyway, I don't like not having the feeling of absolute self-control. It's interesting how discourse surrounding addiction, for example, is predicated on the presence or absence of will.

I am seriously addicted to caffeine. It seems to be the fuel of scholarship. I would have no problems with continuing to drink coffee in copious amounts the rest of my life--except that I don't want to feel that I have to have it. I'd like it to feel like an absolutely voluntary choice. Now I'm down to one double-espresso a day, a double-espresso that still feels entirely mandatory.

Self-control also feels like a restriction, something mandatory. In this case the servitude is voluntary. If you were addicted to writing, say... What one wants, desires most of all is to enslaved by a larger purpose.

Another word for addiction is habit. Our habits tend to define us more than our single actions, as Aristotle observed. The choice is not between habits and no habits, but between ones that are situated differently in terms of the will.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Fountain Pens and Calfskin Drumheads

Roland Barthes gave an interview about writing instruments once. He referred to his use of fountain pens and the newer (at the time) felt pens. Like Barthes, I have an "obsessive relation to writing instruments," and hate what he refers to as the "bic style." In other words, if you write with a bic (cheap ballpoint pen) you aren't respecting your craft. Haven't you ever seen an old postcard written in a fountain pen? You can tell the difference right away, because the bic just has one thickness of line.

Ironically, I tend to do most of my writing directly on the computer, since I have horrible handwriting, but I do like to maintain that connection with the "craft" of writing.

One thing that makes jazz after the mid 60s sound different is the use of plastic drumheads which don't have the same resonance as the old, temperamental calfskin heads. Those skins are especially effective with wire brushes. There's just a different sound there, thicker and tastier. But hey, who wants to mess with fountain pen ink and humidity-sensitive skins?

I'm not against technology. The fountain pen itself was at one time a modern gadget, after all. I'm just saying there is a difference.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


There need to be leisure activities that restore your energy rather than further sapping it. For me, drinking, television, and internet surfing can sap my energy, whereas listening to music, exercise, talking to interesting people, and drawing tend to restore it. You need to have down time, but the down time needs to be restorative.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Morning Posts

I have set up this blog so there will be one post waiting for you to read every morning when you get up. If I have multiple ideas for posts, I just schedule them to be published on the first available day.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


I really feel a deep need to collaborate. Nevertheless, I have to examine my own motives here and figure out exactly what I want.

In the first place, a collaborator would have to be more or less my equal. We would have to be compatible in our outlooks, but sufficiently different in what we know. In other words, ideologically overlapping enough to co-sign an article, yet bringing at least two separate areas of expertise into play.

One motivation I have is that I have too many ideas for me to develop on my own. Another is that I want to mitigate the solitariness of scholarly writing. A third is that I want to learn from others. Fourthly, I want to be able to teach others what I know and maybe help someone else get out some publications. I envy people who can be in close collaborative relationships.

Monday, April 5, 2010


If you follow me around for a week, it might look like I'm not doing much for large stretches of time. Idleness is a necessary part of research; you can't be occupied at every moment with purposeful activities. Receptivity requires a certain freedom from other activities. Think of Baudelaire and the figure of the flâneur.

Driving long distances is good for the mind, since you can't be working, but yet must maintain a certain amount of alertness. I use the shuffle technique on my ipod, playing random pieces of music and poetry through the speakers in my car as I drive to cultivate a kind of openness or receptivity.

Idleness is not laziness. The idle mind is working very hard; it is just not producing anything immediately tangible or quantifiable. My idle mind, for example, produced the idea for this post as I was driving the other day.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Kramer's dojo (ii)

When I was first entering the field I thought it was mediocre. I saw established people giving plot summaries in conferences. I had internalized a certain standard by working at Stanford and through my own reading, and I did not find that standard at work in the field I was going to enter. I'm sure that arrogant attitude cost me some potential friends. I knew that I didn't know everything; in fact, I knew I had a lot left to learn, but I also knew it would be pretty easy for me to get a foothold in the field without knowing all that much yet.

I always wanted to set a standard for my field. I just wish I had known how to do it as a younger person without all that arrogance, without the Kramer's dojo syndrome.

I'm still trying to shed some arrogance and anger.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Good News

I'm not the only scholar in my household. Akiko has just had her book accepted by University of Toronto press.

Friday, April 2, 2010


I have an elaborate system to take care of my finances. I can't reveal details because of privacy concerns, but I am paid every two week, for about 9 months, and have to save for the summer. Since bills are due at regular times of the month 12 months a year and paychecks are on a 2-week cycle, it makes it impossible to establish a regular relation between incoming and outgoing funds. For example, a given month's paychecks might be on the 2, the 16, etc... but the rent is due on the 1st. Almost every day I have to be thinking about how to optimize everything to make sure there is money in my account, that I am saving for the summer, minimizing debt, etc... I use certain techniques to save for the summer, and make constant adjustments.

I don't know what this has to do with scholarly writing and how to get it done. Money, time, and effort to establish their connections...

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Radical Clarity

Some scholars feel that if their prose is too clear, they won't be taken seriously. There is a gravitas in being a little difficult to follow. Even undergraduates try this. The real trick, however, is to explain complex ideas clearly and concisely. Write in a way your uncle could understand, but with no sacrifice of complexity or nuance. I'm not there yet myself.

Clarity is also luminosity, radiance. Your ideas should jump off the page. As I said, I'm not there myself.

It does no good to say "write clearly" as abstract advice. The way to achieve this *stupid* degree of clarity is two-fold. Emulate models of writing that exemplify this trait; break down what these clear writers do. Secondly, read your own prose from the perspective of your aunt, your cousin, your neighbor. What don't you understand in your own writing?

Ok, no I know you're going to say that there will always be a need for a technical language specific to your field. That is not what I'm taking about here, though. Very little--maybe 10%--of why your uncle or grandmother doesn't understand what you're writing is due to your use of terms like catachresis or chiasmus. Most of obscurity is due to syntax, or to technical vocabulary USED INCORRECTLY and MISLEADINGLY.