Tag Archives: reading

History of literary criticism

I can’t think of anything to write about. I just spent a good chunk of time getting my reading done for class tomorrow. It’s a graduate class, all about the history of literary criticism. And I have no idea what anybody’s talking about. When I got accepted into this program to get my MFA in creative writing, one of the professors I talked with suggested that I get this class out of the way as soon as possible.


And I thought to myself, why? I don’t get it. But now I get it. Because this class is insane. I wish I could even explain how tough it is, but that would require an ability to actually articulate what I find difficult. I don’t even know how to talk about anything. I’m reading these texts, and I’m rereading them, and it’s like, yes, the words are all in English, but nothing makes sense.

Did you know that according to some critics, there’s a difference between a work and a text? Yeah, I have no idea what that means either. And I’m not just throwing my hands up in the air and claiming ignorance. No, I’m really struggling to wrap my head around some way in which this will all make sense. Because I know that this stuff has to be for real. Someone wrote this book that I can’t read. And my professor is making a living teaching it.

So yeah, the problem is with me. But it’s like I thought that admitting that I had a problem would somehow make it better. But it’s not better. Like the relationship between a work and a text (in these anthology textbooks, I feel like so many random words are italicized, for some reason that I just don’t get) is that a text can cut across the work, or several works.

That’s straight out of the textbook, the whole cutting across business. And I’m sitting here and scratching my head and trying to imagine that at some point in time, someone actually had to sit down and write that out. To what end? What’s the point of coming up with all of these ridiculously impenetrable smart-sounding sentences that refuse to make sense in my head?

And it’s just, man, I’m so screwed. Every week we’re supposed to write these one-page response papers based on the reading that week. Last week I handed in my first paper, and I was actually somewhat pleased with myself. I told myself, yeah, I’m smart, I read the readings, I put something smart sounding together. Nice job, Rob.

And then as everyone handed his or her paper in, I saw the person in front of me, she handed in a single-spaced page. I thought to myself, wow, that person’s probably going to be penalized for sticking two pages worth of material onto one. But then I looked around, everyone else had it single-spaced also. “Is this single-spaced?” I asked the professor as I handed mine in. “Yeah …” he told me, and I just kind of stared back at him, like shit, I can’t believe it, how did I miss that?

Because yeah, I went back to the assignment, and it was printed out, “one single-spaced page.” Man, talk about starting off on the wrong foot. And then throughout the course of that class, I realized that the half-page of response I had written down was in fact all garbage. No, I had not understood the reading, and therefore whatever I handed in was similarly way off.

I don’t know, I want to do well, but this is all just so hard. And I have to get this next response paper in by tomorrow, and I’m trying to get something single spaced, which sounds easy, because I write all of this nonsense on this blog every day. But here’s all I have so far:

“Well … you see … it’s just that … the point I’m trying to make is … upon close examination of the reading … it’s obvious that the author was trying to … I mean, after a close interpretation of …”

And it goes on like that for another paragraph or so before whatever cohesiveness existed that managed to even link those words together disappears. In fact, after a while, the Word software sent me a popup message, it said, “Something isn’t right here, please wait while Word runs a diagnostic to make sure everything is OK on our end.”

So yeah, that’s where I’m at. Maybe if I sit up in the front of class, I can cross out the name on that smart girl who sits two seats back, and I’ll write my name in her place. And then when the professor hands them back the week after that, I’ll go up to her, she’ll be holding my paper with her name penciled in on top, hers will say D and mine (really hers) will say A. And I’ll say, “Oooh, too bad. Hey, don’t take it personally. This is some really hard work. Not everybody has what it takes to master the history of literary criticism.”


Even though I’m on vacation right now, I’m still committing myself to sitting down to write something every day. But it’s really hard to concentrate because it’s so beautiful outside and I don’t want to be at my computer trying to figure out what to write about. It’s hard enough doing this at my kitchen table back in New York, where I’m almost completely desensitized to the world around me. I’m able to, sometimes anyway, completely clear my mind from all distractions, open up my imagination to topics such as, what would it be like to wait tables in space? Or, do I really believe in the magical properties of crystals?

But here it’s like super hard, for all of the obvious reasons. There’s this ridiculous beach outside. I’m sitting in my hotel room in a bathing suit trying to just belt out a blog post, just one short piece, just something. I didn’t get any writing done yesterday, because we were traveling. It was one of those get-up-at-six-in-the-morning days so we could catch our flight. That’s great, but of course my brain wouldn’t let me fall asleep until two in the morning the night before.

When we finally made it to our hotel yesterday afternoon, all I had the energy to do was sit on the beach and drink Mai Thais until my body couldn’t keep its eyes open, some time around seven PM. I woke up this morning at nine, but my wife had to pry me out of the bed. I can’t believe I used to pull all-nighters like this once a week when I was in college. And it was nothing. I’d spend all day totally goofing around, realizing that I had way too much work due the next day, but I’d shrug it off, head to the library, and stay up all night getting my assignments done. What happened to me? At what point did I turn into this guy that becomes a zombie the one time a year he only sleeps for three hours before a flight?

By the way, it’s funny because, I wrote this whole blog post a while back about Delta Airlines, how they wronged me in the past, how I swore I’d never fly with them again. Guess which airline had the cheapest flights to Puerto Rico? Guess who flew Delta Airlines? Whatever, I flew in protest.

This morning we got up, we had the hotel breakfast, and then we camped out on the beach, my wife lying out in the tropical sun, absorbing its golden rays and bronzing herself like a pro. Me, I was committed to the shade like a cockroach, religiously reapplying sunscreen every twenty minutes. I’ll still burn, but it was worth it, to be able to sit outside. I got to read, something I really don’t let myself find enough time for.

We’re only on our first full day of vacation here, but if I had to find one thing to complain about, it’s that there are way too many vacationers here complaining. We’re at a total American beach destination, and yeah, I work in the service industry, so I guess I’ve sort of fine-tuned myself to automatically detect the frequencies of others’ discontent, but I’m really shocked by how so many Americans can come to a beautiful tropical island and just find everything to complain about.

We went out to dinner to some seafood restaurant in Old San Juan. Everything was as perfect as you’d imagine an amazing seafood restaurant to be. We had ceviche, we had whole red snapper, we had these fried fish balls. Man, everything was just f’n unbelievably delicious. The only thing that put a damper on our good time was these two ladies at the table next to us complaining the entire meal, to each other, to every single staff member that came over. It was beyond ridiculous. They ate an entire dish and then complained that it wasn’t enough, arguing over the bill for an hour after they finished their last bite. Our waitress wound up buying us a round of drinks after they left because we had to sit next to that vortex of negativity the entire time. What a bunch of entitled brats.

And then today at the beach, there was this couple complaining, loudly, to everybody around them about how long it was taking for the hotel staff to get them a beach umbrella. Just get one yourself if you want it that bad. It was one of these scenes where the woman was walking around in every which way, grabbing anybody that wore anything remotely resembling a uniform, “Excuse me? Can we have an umbrella? Everybody else is getting umbrellas. Oh my God. We need an umbrella,” to the point where like three employees eventually came over with three different umbrellas, the second and third one realizing that they had all been contracted to repeat the same job, muttering to themselves in Spanish the absurdity of this lady’s demands.

Anyway, that’s my only complaint, other people complaining. That and me not being able to concentrate on my writing, because I’m having a fantastic vacation.

The professor is a computer program

This week, two articles in the newspaper caught my eye. The first one looked at new programs that would allow computers to instantly grade written essays at a collegiate level. The second one dealt with cutting edge software that would be able to track exactly how much reading students were actually doing for their classes.

It seems to me like education is heading in a terrible direction. Computers to grade tests? Computers to make sure we’re doing our reading? Let’s look at where we’re currently at in terms of higher education. Everybody is expected to go to college. Colleges cost ridiculous amounts of money. High school graduates are pressured at eighteen years old to decide where they’d like to spend the next four years, how they’d like to secure the ridiculous amounts of money necessary to finance such an education, and then the next ten or twenty years after that figuring out what they’re supposed to do to pay it all off.

It’s not worth it now, and it’s going to be worth even less if computers are doing the majority of a professor’s work. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a big believer in a liberal arts education. Everything I learned in college, while it didn’t necessarily lead me to a successful career, it was instrumental in what I know, my views on the world. I learned how to write. I learned critical thinking, new ideas, differing opinions. That kind of stuff is essential.

But come on, my college bill was something like forty grand a year. What are you really spending your money on? Education. How do you get that? Classes. What are the classes like? For me, classes began as this huge rush at the end of a semester to register for classes for the next semester. Everything booked up very quickly. You were lucky if you secured half of the courses that you actually wanted to take.

And then you got in a class and it was like forty students for every professor. And that wasn’t even counting the first two years, when we were expected to take all of the core curriculum, taught not by real professors, but by grad students. To me, the whole process seems like a huge joke. The amount of time spent in class is a fraction of time spent in class during high school. I always say this, but am I the only one who thought that high school was significantly harder than college? I put in half the time and work that I did four years prior and I wound up doing great.

Which brings me back to my original point. Everybody is paying this ridiculously steep price for a college diploma, and what are we really getting? A few hours a week of class. Office hours with the professor. It’s all absurd. And now they want to make computers in charge of grading written work, of charting progress with the class texts?

By the way, none of the class textbooks are included in the cost of tuition. Oh yeah and maybe half of your classes have lab fees. Who do you think is going to be paying for the grading software? Is it going to be included in bill or will it be a little addition tacked on to the invoice?

In making the case for computerized grading, proponents claim that it will, “free up professors for other tasks.” What other tasks? You’re supposed to be grading. You’re supposed to be looking at what students write and figuring out if they’re really getting it. But teaching classes is really only a minor role for most professors. They have to do their own work, their own research and writing. Which is fine, but maybe the universities can use some of that forty thousand dollars per student to hire more professors, give them less work, smaller classes, more time to spend balancing their writing and their teaching.

I just feel like the whole system is so disorganized, so kind of cobbled together in any way to maximize the number of students able to fit on a campus. Which wouldn’t be a big deal if it weren’t for the cost of tuition. These software advances seem to me a blatant attempt to churn out curriculums, to make grading part of an assembly line, with us graduates the finished products. Here’s your grade. Here’s your diploma. Here’s your debt. Next!

Getting philosophical

A couple of years ago I tried to be all smart and sophisticated so I downloaded all of the works of Plato onto my Kindle. And I sat there and read for a little while, and I tried really hard, to furrow my brow, to give off the image of a man thinking, really thinking, like a deep serious thinking. After a while I realized that I didn’t need to try that hard, because the text was so complicated that I really didn’t have to put any effort into looking confused, my brow was actually furrowing naturally. This went on for like twenty minutes, and then I started getting bored. I really wanted somebody to come in the room and be like, “Wow, Rob, you really look like you’re working on something pretty tough, what is it?” and I’d say, “Oh, you know, just Plato, just brushing up on some Plato.”

But nobody saw me. My wife walked by, but she didn’t ask what I was reading. And after her sitting across from me for like five minutes, I finally said, “Hey, don’t you want to know what I’m reading?” and she said, “No, not really.”

And then I told myself I’d take a five minute break, let all of that philosophy sink in. But that was it. That was the last time I opened that. I read for like twenty minutes and the progress bar at the bottom of the Kindle hadn’t even moved up one percent. There’s no way I was going to get through any of that.

I took some philosophy classes in college. All prerequisite stuff. It was all really tough, not the class, but the assignments. “Go home from class, ignore all of your friends playing Super Smash Brothers down the hall, close the door to your room and read seventy-five pages of Descartes.” Actually, that was pretty much my entire college education, choosing between going to the library or staying in and watching The Boondock Saints with everybody in the dorm. No thanks. I’ll just take a B please.

Every once in a while I’ll read an article or book about a famous person, a writer, Abraham Lincoln, somebody accomplished. When writing about how smart somebody is, the word to use is devour. This person devoured books and newspapers. They devoured Plato.

Besides being an overused word, devour never connected with me. I like reading, but devouring the classics? Being able to not only read an old book, but to sit there and be unable to pull myself away from the page? That’s something that I don’t have inside. One time a couple of years ago I downloaded a bunch of old books. I started with Crime and Punishment. After spending an hour just trying to get through the first ten pages, I realized the enormity of the challenge ahead. Still, I pressed on. I wanted to prove to myself that I could finish one giant old book. It took me forever, but finally I did it.

And then I looked at all of the other giant books I had downloaded, War and Peace, Moby Dick, Infinite Jest, not to mention all of that unread Plato. There’s no way. I just can’t get myself to be engaged. And these are all recognized masterpieces, right? What’s missing from my life, what does somebody else have inside of them, to be so engaged in a book that, right now, I can’t sit through for even ten minutes? I want to be able to feel like that too.

I’d probably have to have no electricity, I’d have to live by myself somewhere with nothing else to do. But that can’t be all of it. There are people out there who study this stuff. They have to like it. What are they getting that I’m not? What am I doing wrong?

And then I think about the word devour again. And the only thing I can think of that comes close to applying in my life are comic books. For a good eight years, from high school through college and a couple of years after, I read comic books religiously. I would buy basically every single comic book that came out each Wednesday. And yeah, I guess you could say I devoured them.

I had to stop eventually. My collection grew to be way to big, like I don’t even know what I’m supposed to do with all of my old comics. They’re taking up space. Everybody thinks that comics have some sort of collectible value, but I don’t buy that at all. If I go to a comic store and buy an issue, it’s going to be the same copy of the same issue that you can find numerous printings of in any comic store across the country. It’s simple supply and demand. All of the old comics are valuable simply because, at the time, nobody hung on to their old books. And so the first appearance of Superman is really valuable just because there are only like ten copies left.

But modern books? Every fanboy in the world keeps his or her comics sealed away in plastic bags. There’s no chance of anything becoming rare or vintage, unless the publishers decide to restrict the supply. And why would they? They’d sell less comics.

I don’t even know what I’m talking about. It’s probably because I never paid attention during philosophy class. It hurts too much to really think about what all of those old Greek guys were talking about. Like Plato comparing the soul to a charioteer trying to handle two horses. Or Nietzsche imagining staring into the abyss. Please. I don’t even know what any of that stuff means. When somebody writes my biography, it’s just going to be photocopied reprints, the Infinity Gauntlet and the Squadron Supreme and the Secret Wars and Maximum Clonage and the Age of Apocalypse and the Crisis on Infinite Earths. And nobody’s going to buy it. Or even write it. They’re all already written.