Saturday, March 21, 2015

Can Writing Be Taught In College?

The Department of English in any university is predicated on the idea that writing is a skill that can be studied, learned, taught, and to some degree, mastered (at the undergraduate level, at least).  We have innumerable theories on how to teach writing, and each teacher does his or her variation on some of these approaches, funneling their ideas into at least two core classes, Freshman Composition 1 and 2.  The goal of these courses is that students leave with a knowledge of writing critical essays using sources, and are able to understand how to write for various audiences by employing different rhetorical strategies to make his or her argument coherent and, perhaps, persuasive.  Sounds simple enough, but it’s a pretty tall order considering students have a very tenuous relationship with writing.  Sure, most have a passing acquaintance with the basics of writing an essay, and if pressed, some will admit that they have at least heard of MLA documentation.  A few even know the difference between primary and secondary sources (but only a few).  However, the idea of making an argument and responding to other ideas and conversations out in the world is completely foreign to most students for one simple reason: the vast majority of students don’t like to read.  They didn’t read as high school students, and they don’t magically read once they come to college.  Sure, they (usually) dutifully read assigned pages in a textbook or a novel assigned for class, but reading is seen as an artificial activity, something remote and academic.  It’s not something “real” that occurs in an organic form out in the world...and if it does, it primarily takes the form of Harry Potter or something they would consider “fun reading.”  

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

THE EARLY DVORAK SYMPHONIES: A Trial Run or a Complement to the Famous Three?

Dvorak’s ‘Early’ Symphonies have a checkered past, even though the final three (Nos.7-9) are considered cornerstones of the symphonic repertoire.  I’ve always found it curious that an audience that embraced one (much less three) symphonies by a great composer wouldn’t be the least bit curious to hear the works that came before, particularly when Dvorak wrote six (!) symphonies that lie in relative neglect.  What separates the ‘early’ symphonies of Dvorak from the three late masterpieces?  Did it truly take him six attempts to hammer out a competent symphonic language?  Conventional wisdom would tell us that, yes, the first six are so-called apprentice attempts, useful for scholars but not the lay audience, that simply wants tunes and dance rhythms in equal measure.  However, conventional wisdom, particularly when it comes to art, is usually wrong.  The Dvorak symphony cycle is (I feel) the most consistently rewarding 19th century symphonic cycle after Beethoven, rivaling for sheer variety and gusto even the symphonies of Brahms and Bruckner (Schubert’s are a near rival, though the early symphonies lack variety for all their charm).  From the very beginning, there is a clear voice that speaks Dvorak’s language, even if the earliest works are a tad verbose and under the spell of Beethoven.  Yet the mastery of form is there, the creativity, and the jaw-dropping orchestration.  Almost every one of these symphonies could be a “greatest hits” piece of a lesser composer, and Nos. 3, 5 and 6 in particular are masterpieces that by some fluke of fate escaped the orchestral canon.  Luckily, in our age of cheap music downloads you can sample these works at leisure, deciding for yourself if history has been unjust to Dvorak’s symphonic legacy.  As you do, here’s a brief rundown of each piece and its chief points of interest (click below to read about them...) 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Review of M.P. McVey's Plod On, Sleepless Giant (2015)

“Could the Maker have underestimated his own creation, Tyriano pondered. Could it be that Temelephas has learned to feel? Could it be, simply—that over time—this great elephant has taught himself to break his own nature? Tyriano’s face brightened as he
continued to explore all the possibilities.  “What could this lead to?” he asked.

All great fantasy/science-fiction novels must ask a question: that question could be simple, dismissed in a mere handful of pages, or it could be complex, requiring volume after volume to ferret out.  As the quote above suggests, M.P. McVey asks a big question in his first book, Plod On, Sleepless Giant.  What is the nature of the world as its been handed down to us?  Do we truly know why we know what we know?  Or even who we are?  By exploring this question from multiple perspectives (both semi-divine and painfully human), McVey not only presents us with a fabulous tale, but he makes us question the nature of stories themselves.  For to read is to come closer to knowing your place in the universe, however large or small; each book is a step closer toward the most profound knowledge of all.  This book might actually count for two or three steps, particularly if the reader takes time to savor the small details hidden along the way. 

Monday, December 22, 2014

Matt Madden's 99 Ways to Tell a Story (2005)

"Can a story, however simple or mundane, be separated from the manner in which it is told?" (Matt Madden) 

I often teach a short Intercession (2 week) course on Comics/Graphic Novels at ECU, and in that class I try to stress the limitless possibilities of the comic medium.  A simple story, with a slight shift in words, perspective, shading, sound effects, color, or frames, can gain hidden depth and purpose.  Or it can simply become another simple story.  We always do an exercise early on lifted from Scott McCloud's seminal book, Understanding Comics, where I ask students to fill in dialogue and narration for a basic 5-frame story.  Depending on what words the students add, the story either sticks close to the visual narration or becomes hilarious, tragic, or disturbing.  Matt Madden takes this exercise to a whole new level in his amazing book, 99 Ways to Tell A Story: Exercises In Style (2005), where he tells the same story 99 Ways.  These "ways" include everything from changing the style, the genre, the order, and even questioning what story is being told in the first place.  It's a clever, but surprisingly captivating read inspired by Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style which does much the same thing in words.  Yet the sheer range of Madden's technique and his profound imagination make this book more than a mere exercise; it's a story in its own right, and one that changes from page to page, even if you think you know the outcome.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

BOOKS ARE NOT PRODUCTS: Reflections on Reading Bad Reviews of Classic Books On-Line

I recently confronted someone on one of these endless book review sites (Goodreads, etc.) who gave Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde a 1-star review.  The review consisted of little more than an expression of annoyance that she had even picked up the book; it was boring, it had no interesting characters, and worse still, it wasn’t even scary!  She dismissed it with a one-star review and warned others not to bother with it, since she had no idea why people considered it a classic.  I asked her if she didn’t think it was a bit harsh to give a book that had survived well over a century and was beloved by millions (and had created a cultural myth that had given rise to countless copycats, such as The Hulk) a mere one-star.  The reviewer hotly responded that it was “her right” to give the book one-star, and that “you can’t censor my reviews!”  She went on to say that “I hardly think I’m going to hurt Stevenson’s book sales, so what does it matter?”  Clearly, my “attack” on her (as she called it) was based more on capitalism than aesthetics: once assured that his books would continue to sell, and make money for his estate, I should rest easy and withdraw my petty scruples about damaging the book’s reputation.  Isn’t it all about money, after all?  Clearly that’s what pissed her off so much...that she had spent, what, a few bucks for the book (or the e-book) of the novel only to be so bitterly disappointed?

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Prokofiev’s Symphonies: A Cycle for the Ages?

In classical music we refer to Beethoven’s Nine Symphonies, or Schumann or Brahms’ Four, or the Nine of Bruckner or Mahler.  To a lesser extent, the Seven of Sibelius are invoked, or the Fifteen of Shostakovich, the Three of Rachmaninov, or the Nine of Dvorak (though almost no one plays the first four).  Then there are composers who despite writing a good deal of symphonies, never composed a true “cycle” in the Romantic sense.  For many critics, a composer’s symphonies need to have some kind of consistency or development which makes them all of a piece, each one building on the other or reaching to some immeasurable height.  Beethoven’s Nine are all great statements, even the early, Mozartian ones; this is certainly true of Bruckner’s massive essays in symphonic form, as each one attempts to take up the struggle where Beethoven’s Ninth left off. So what do we do with someone like Prokofiev, who wrote seven magnificent, eccentric, erratic works which often defy categorization and are almost never played (and rarely recorded as a set).  Can we approach his symphonies are a cycle, though his approach to symphonic writing was haphazard and often blatantly theatrical (as several works borrow from his stage music)?  Or even more to the point, does a cycle have to consist of equally popular and lasting works, or can some have almost no identity outside of the cycle itself?  Here’s a quick look at Prokofiev’s seven—er, seven and a half—symphonies and why they should be considered as a cycle in their own right, as well as magnificent compositions individually. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Precusors to Comics: The Art of Franz Masereel


Considered the greatest twentieth-century master of the woodcut, and by many as the grandfather of the graphic novel, Franz Masereel (1889-1972) was born in Belgium and lived throughout Europe in the years before WWI.  Honing his craft as a graphic artist in various journals, Masereel perfected an expressionist style influenced by contemporaries such as Delaunay, Braque, and Marc.  Additionally, his literary influences can be seen in the numerous illustrations he did for authors such as Thomas Mann, Stephen Sweig, and Emile Zola.  Masereel emerged as a pacifist in WWI with strong Communist sympathies—ideals embodied in his most ambitious works, his so-called “novels” in woodcuts.  These works tell visual narratives about capitalism, man’s isolation in his modern metropolis, the decadence of the bourgeois, and the rising might of the proletariat.  His most famous works are A Passionate Journey (1919), an allegorical narrative of modern man’s existence, and The City, a “vision in woodcuts,” which documents the decline and eventual fall of a Berlin-like metropolis.  Though he sided with no one political movement, his works were warmly championed by Socialists and banned by the rising Nazi movement (forcing him to flee Paris on the eve of the Nazi occupation).  However, his humanity and sheer artistic appeal make it impossible to read his works as propaganda.  The pioneering graphic novelist Will Eisner (The Spirit, A Contract With God) cited him as a seminal influence on his work, and one of the first true visionaries of the comic book form—though he never viewed his work in this medium.  His influence has been further cited by notable comic book critic, Scott McCloud (Understanding Comics), and undoubtedly influenced Marjane Satrapi’s woodcut-style drawings in Persepolis I & II.