There’s an interesting discussion going on, digitally, regarding the way we roll our eyes, digitally, at students’ poor prose. This has become an industry in itself: I’m not going to pretend I don’t spend a lot of time chuckling at this site. There are also books like this and this.

My favorite experience was a fairly benign one – it didn’t involve student error so much as hasty penmanship. I was teaching a 7th grade logic class (yes, that existed) and was having students translate normal language into universal language (i.e.: Woofy the dog is spotless to “Some Dogs Have no Spots”) so that it can be the universal or particular premise of a syllogism. One of the phrases I gave was “Mr. Daniels [an administrator] tucks his pants into his socks.” Not foreseeing that lower case cursive “ts look a lot like lower case cursive “f”s, I was delighted to see a student respond “All Mr. Daniels is a pants into socks *ucker.” Thankfully, Mr. Daniels found this as funny as I did.

[Click here to get the links to all of these]

The issue begins here: when Clare Potter, the Tenured Radical, takes a pretty hard line against such behavior, claiming:

Humiliating students in their absence is, of course, a symptom of very intelligent, highly verbal and very resentful group of people trying to amuse themselves during bouts of grading, an activity many of us despise. Strangely, making fun of students while grading is usually perceived by other professionals as harmless fun. It’s an academic version of  ”Kids Say The Darndest Things,” a regular feature of the middlebrow Cold War TV show Art Linkletter’s Houseparty in which small children were served up by their parents to be ridiculed on a national broadcast.

She cites, favorably, an article by Cathy Davidson, who claims:

So don’t blame the next eighteen year old who calls, knocks on your door, or emails to boost that B- to an A-. He’s been taught his whole life how to get the good final score that equals educational success.

This prompted an interesting debate on Twitter and Jeffrey J. Cohen’s facebook page, in which issues such as institutional demands are referenced as reasons why teachers engage in such behavior. Also, as they note, Potter doesn’t really give a solution other than to come up with unorthodox assignments. To this, I’d respond, such assignments produce even more unorthodox and ragged results because less diligent students fail to understand the parameters of the assignment; this isn’t a reason not to think outside of the box, but it doesn’t really solve the problem. And grading these creates its own set of problems: I always come up with a detailed two-page rubric and a series of instructional prompts that give the students structure, lest they assume that a “creative” project is just an opportunity to do whatever they want.

While Potter is characterized as “wrong-headed,” she’s not wrong. And yet, I don’t doubt that teachers who chuckle together at misguided prose love their students and want them to succeed.

Here’s the on-going debate. (Note: you will need an institutional account to access the Chronicle articles; post in the comments and I’ll try to get you a copy if you want it)

Grading in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by Clare Potter (links to other valuable resources here as well, such as Davidson’s article)

The responses via Twitter, collected on Storify

On-going discussion on Jeffrey J Cohen’s public facebook profile


For years, the defiantly uninventive provocateur B.D. Myers has been making the same unoriginal argument that always manages to get him published in places like The Atlantic, as well as a book that makes a trenchant point shared by engineering majors in lit survey courses: celebrated modern authors blow. Whenever someone like Don DeLillo or Cormac McCarthy has the audacity to write a novel, Meyers picks out a few sentences to use them as evidence of ” the decline of American prose since the 1950s.” Seriously: in his widely-read 2002 hand grenade polemic “A Reader’s Manifesto,” he makes this claim after reading a few sentences of a novel by Annie Proulx. Myers emerged in 2010 from his hibernation of irrelevance to crash the party again when he called the prose of Jonathan Franzen’s novel-of-the-moment Freedom juvenile.” The ultimate point of this diatribe is to explain that modern writers are self-absorbed, myopic, shallow, too focused on their own subjectivity to examine the subjectivities of fictional characters, and that the decline of style can be traced to this desire to look outward instead of inward. Instead, we should be reading the novelists of the 1940s and 1790s – William Godwin, Patrick Hamilton, etc. – because they write “in careful, unaffectedly poetic prose” that is free from authorial intrusion.[1] Attacks on style are always attacks on voice, and what Myers seems to be complaining endlessly about is the need to for authors to inject their own personalities into a language that desires to be combed like an award-winning haircut. When style calls attention to itself, or its author, it becomes “slovenly,” and we need the presence of a critic to tell us which economically-written and precise writing manners we should emulate. Nevermind that the apparent juvenilia of Franzen or the “plodding” nature of Raymond Carver might be interesting in itself, worthy of a more sympathetic analysis with attention to the reasons why such style is produced and continues to affect. It’s easier to mark that territory as a wasteland than to spend any time thinking about the conditions that have produced the apparently aggressive insecurity that has produced it.

It’s arguments like Myers that come to mind when I hear criticisms of Lena Dunham’s argument-starter Girls. I’m not talking about the more blatantly misogynist complaints; I’m referring to more subtly misogynist ones like the things I’ve said when I suggested that the show “wasn’t for me:”[2]


I made arguments about how shallow and unlikable the protagonists were, and how the refusal of Dunham to explore anything outside of her immediate vicinity made it uninteresting and myopic. Until my friend Amy corrected me on Facebook, I was blissfully ignorant that Dunham is the most important and compelling cinematic voice to emerge in the last few years: a writer who has her eyes firmly fixed to her subject (which is often herself), a director who has an unpretentious eye for a city that is often captured in grand visual language, and an actor who is unafraid of her body and of giving the most pivotal dramatic moments to her co-stars.[3] And while Dunham certainly possesses an invasive solipsism, so did Montaigneand so does Woody Allen, and so did Proust and Frieda Pinto, etc.  etc. I’m not saying she’s as good as any of those luminaries, but its not wrong to fit her in their hallowed tradition, and like her for the same reason we liked them. Like Franzen, it’s what makes her interesting rather than what makes her bad.

Rather than view Girls as a window into the shallow and meaningless lives of privileged early twenty-somethings, why not view it as an intimate and personal look at what it means to be twenty-four, overeducated, and underemployed in this particular cultural moment? What would you prefer we use television for? There are valid reasons to criticize Girls, but there are really no reasons to ignore it.[4] What Dunham is up to here is more interesting than about a hundred recently produced cultural documents that are less messy, more conventionally entertaining, or about protagonists who face higher dramatic stakes. If you want to say that her intervention into the “what it means to be a woman right now” conversation is shallow, you’re missing the point of what it means to have that conversation in the first place.[5] Dunham’s self-styled protagonist, Hannah, is equally assured of her entitlement and coming to terms with her failure to actuate it. Her best friend Marnie looks to find her own self-doubt in others and when she can’t find it, she finds herself in dark places. Jessa turns self-destruction into an ethos that she wields defiantly (against Marnie, mostly). And Adam defies expectations as soon as we make them.

I think there are better shows on TV than Girls (Treme, for instance), but none are as revelatory or pertinent for the moment they’re being made. Girls is an extension of the potential of mumblecore to capture the meaningful emptiness of twenty-first century life using categories that mainstream movies won’t go near and that post-Sundance independent movies used to find too mundane. Its cinematic roots aren’t Sex and the City (a show it frequently references), but John Cassavettes and Paul Mazursky. Both Dunham and her show have become, unfairly, the representative document of a cultural war that is linked to the Occupy movement, this article, and your parents’ neighbor’s kids who only wants a job worthy of his art school degree. But Girls is blessed apolitical, and often just as critic of your ambition to live of your highly successful blog. But lookit: we can’t become B.D. Meyers when we hear a voice like Dunham’s – seizing on a sentence or two to attack a more complex whole. Instead of Meyers cantankerous salvos, we might consider another cranky old man – Stanley Fish – in asking not whether a particular style is good or bad, but what that style does.

So read this as a glowing endorsement of a show I was deeply reluctant to like. Don’t just avoid it because it’s a show about privilege starring the daughters of Brian Williams, David Mamet, and someone in Bad Company. Criticisms of the show rarely discuss the content, focusing instead on the idea of it. I’ll admit that my initial disdain for Girls – captured above in my reactionary Facebook post – had more to do with me than the show I was passing judgment on. Whatever the case, I’m excited for the new season and the opportunity to watch someone as honest, assured, and vulnerable as Dunham.

[1] This is one of the topics of my dissertation: that whenever something is called “unaffected,” it is referring to an empirical and philosophical enlightenment ideal of a language that is divorced from intention. The idea such semantic purity is possible is what was at heart of the origins of modern science, and its what drives Myers. If you’re interested in this topic, start with Thomas Sprat’s apparently innocuous but ultimately paradigmatic statement that there is “a close, naked, natural way of speaking” and go from there. And then please tell me what you think.

[2] I’m not intimating that when you say the show isn’t for you, you’re hating women; only that when I did so, I was participating in a regressive anti-girl spirit that probably has to do with girls not liking me in college.

[3] Also, Lena Dunham is clearly a striking and beautiful woman, albeit atypically so, who allows herself to be presented unflatteringly. I throw that back against anyone who calls the show “narcissistic.”

[4] However, this has resulted in this funny hash-tag

[5] And if you think that’s all that the show is about, you’re wrong: Some of Dunham’s most insightful observations are about masculinity. Its led to the most interesting acting newcomer of the year: Adam Driver. I would like to see Driver in the Joaquin Phoenix role in The Master.



Might it be more productive to think of filmed adaptations of literary works as “fan fiction”? Of course, by its most frequent definition, “fan fiction” exists in some of the weirdest, most disreputable corners of the internet, where Harry Potter fans imagine sexual encounters between wizards and muggles, or defiantly non-professional authors extend and deepen the mythology of ALF. Yet the impulse is the same: both writers of fan fiction and directors of expensive productions such as Cloud Atlas and The Hobbit make choices; they adapt, extend, or remove significant features of the original based on personal proclivities and by ignoring or adhering to the demands of audience of the texts course audiences.

On the Urban Dictionary, someone calling themselves Mistaki corrects other his fellow urban lexicographers by noting that “other definitions completely trash fan fiction.” The prior reviewer “Cherrie” offers a paradigmatic definition that you probably share: “Something really fun for extrenely [sic] bored people who like their favorite show/movie/video game too much.” In an effort to bring some much need  decency to this forum, Mistaki admits that a lot of fan fiction is awful (just like a lot of normal fiction is awful), he or she is more sympathetic to the genre:

It is true, however, that some fanfictions are rather poorly written and only a few hundred words, and it is also true that some people just write them so they can have their favorite characters have sex (lemon). But, if you take the time to find something decent, you can end up with a fanfiction story that is so close to the original piece of art, that you’d barely notice the difference.

So in other words, according to Mistaki’s distinction: good fan fiction is an act of mimesis rather than departure. If you want to write Encyclopedia Brown and Sally’s boudoir romance, you miss the point of the author’s original intentions, and you give over to your own weirdness, which violates the sanctity of the original.  I agree that fan fiction deserves more sympathy than it gets, but I’m not sure I agree with Mistaki that “lemons” aren’t just as interesting as those stories in which you’d “barely notice the difference.” Of course, this didn’t really matter until recently, when writing fan fiction had a similar impact to drawing a picture of Optimus Prime putting onlipstick one a piece of notebook paper that you then threw away. But Fifty Shades of Grey changed things.


Fifty Shades of Grey began as Twilight fan-fiction from “Snowqueen Icedragon.” An erotic adventure featuring characters from Twilight, it soon drew enough of a following to warrant its own website. It was published through a “virtual publisher.” Now it has sold a bazillion copies and created hours of cheap jokes for Jay Leno. No one is saying its good other than the bazillion people who have read it and its three sequels, and they saying it’s amazing. They are buying classical music anthologies “inspired” by the books. This could not have happened in 2004. What “Snowqueen Icedragon”  – now known as E.L. James – did was follow the deep fantasies that had emerged from the reading experience. And her new address is easy street.

What’s the difference, ultimately, between Fifty Shades of Grey, The Hobbit, and this story about the Kathy Bates character from Fried Green Tomatoes trying to lose weight, besides the medium of adaptation? The easy answer is authorization. (And money, I guess).Peter Jackson and New Line had the rights to transform Tolkien’s words into a visual form. And yet, is not on some level Jackson making the same kinds of choices that fan-fiction writers do? He’s bound by more expectations, of course, but he can choose to ignore them. In the first LOTR movie, he dropped Tom Bombadil – probably for economy and its intrusion of a uncinematic quaintness – and gave Arwen a more prominent role, probably because the studio was concerned women might not watch the movie otherwise. So there’s another distinction: the institution matters more for Jackson, while fan fiction writers operate with the blessing or curse of autonomy. Still, I think the point is not that Jackson made these choices because of the prominence of his adaptation, the point is that he made these choices at all. There are issues of fidelity and there are issues of departure, and Jackson got yelled at and celebrated for both of them from bookish kids who dressed up as Balrogs for their seventh grade costume day. But don’t fan fiction writers imagine themselves before the same kinds of audiences as Jackson? Much like Jackson sought inclusion and approval from a fervent and zealous tradition of Tolkien readers, fan fiction writers also have to think about the communities that they engage. And of course, in terms of what makes them different, the other answer is quality. As mediocre as Zak Snyder’s version of Watchmen was, it’s better than these.

By now I’ve completely conflated “adaptation” and “fan fiction,” and that’s the point. I hope to think about this later in terms of the fascinatingly flawed adaptation of Cloud Atlas by the Wachowskis, in which they revered the spirit of the book but (particularly in one instance) significantly changed its substance. But if we take away issues of authorization and quality, we’re left with some startling similarities rather than obvious differences.


In terms of visual imagination, no active director can top Ang Lee. Even in his lesser efforts, Lee paradoxically unites his sense of childlike wonder with a belief in a deterministic nature. In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, for instance, the leaves blow like sails in the wind while ninja warriors fight on them. The stark beauty of Brokeback Mountain foreshadows a doomed romance that can’t happen anywhere but that backdrop. Often, Lee’s passion for color and motion and detail consumes the story; yes, Brokeback is a haunting and iconoclastic love story, but I came away remembering the tableaus, even when it was the craggy surface of Heath Ledger’s face as he struggled to articulate something he (in the movie’s cruel world) shouldn’t feel. For my money, the key scene of Lee’s ouvre is the final one: when Jen evades paternalistic authority forever as she dives off a mountain. As Jen’s relaxed body vanishes into nature, this movie about dreams ends with a fantasy of immersion and tranquility that the world she escapes from can’t offer her. We can take this scene as metaphor, but I don’t think Lee does.

As the world closes in you, you fight back with your own rituals. Lee repeats this scene, with sea and rain replacing mountain and fog. It’s not an original moment, but Lee holds these scenes dear – they become the centerpiece of his films even when they aren’t the most memorable thing about them. That’s why Lee is a fitting choice to take on Yann Martel’s gripping novel Life of Pi. The first part of Martel’s book, and Lee’s movie (a section that he captures with masterful economy), captures the means by which belief and ritual have a power outside of orthodoxy. And the second, and most vivid, shows the way they’re necessary for survival, as young Pi is trapped at sea with a Bengal Tiger.

I would imagine Lee wanted to direct that move once he heard that high concept premise. It gave him a chance to play around with CGI, with 3d, with the ocean as a bottomless pit of translucent beauty. But while critics are quick to argue that Lee is only interested in a formal exercise attached to some hokey hoo-haa spirituality, [1] it sounds like they came up with the thesis when they saw the trailer. Lee simplifies (again, to good effect) an already simple story, one that Martel saw no need to muddy up with the complexity of an outside perspective. Pi is all about the simplicity – the way his name reflects the way an endless mathematical constant can be translated into a symbol. I think there’s a group of Mr. Spectator types who are angry that a certain class of reader is thinking that the book is more profound than it actually is, without ever talking to those people. And the movie draws out that same arrogant critique: here’s Slate Dana Stevens, resplendent in the authority of her detachment: “The movie’s energy peters out in a series of book-club conversations about divine will, the power of storytelling, and the resilience of the human spirit.”

Because, of course, there’s something wrong with “book-club conversations about . . . the resilience of the human spirit.” At those moments, there’s no critic around to correct you for finding storytelling powerful in an uncomplicated way. At book clubs, no one uses the word “meta-narrative” as a way to shut down what you might have liked about a particular story.This is coming from the same publication that argued that you need to stop binge-watching TV shows because the best viewing experience is to follow along with the indispenable commentary of TV recappers.

Lee’s Life of Pi doesn’t just put the cookies on the bottom shelf, it revels in its simplicity and its instincts, much like the animals who are the real stars of the movie. Martel refuses to give into anthropomorphism except for one of the weakest scenes in the book. [2] Tigers act like tigers; hyenas are terrifying, not conniving; if meerkats are adorable, its because meerkats are adorable, not because they act like cartoon kittens. There’s a remarkable detail  that suggests the authors know what they’re up to – whether its Lee the director, Martel the author, or Pi the storyteller. They forgo easy sentiment by understanding that tigers can’t become domesticated, but they still get seasick. And forgive me if I find a complexity in the “power of storytelling” that belies Stevens quick deflation of it: the power wouldn’t have any effect if this weren’t a well-told story, and it clearly is. Lots of publicists write “a ripping yarn” on the book cover, but few deserve it as well as this one. And rather than emphasize the “rip,” Lee brings along his canny patience, one of the trademarks that rarely gets commented on. Movies about kids on lifeboats with tigers shouldn’t be slow, but at moments this one is, and it works.

If the movie has a flaw, it’s that it’s so decidedly PG. This is also one of its strengths: because its content isn’t going to offend anyone, there are going to be ten year olds who are going to be allowed to see it and fall in love with the potential of movies. However, the book opens up itself more to the nasty side of being ship-wrecked, including a disgustingly potent section about the possibility of eating tiger shit [3] and the joy of a long-awaited bowel movement. But its a fable about something that movies rated PG rarely touch on: sadness and loss, even if its yoked with inspiration. And you can roll your eyes at the human spirit, laugh at the earnestness of its presentation, but I didn’t.

GK Chesterton wrote, “But we cannot say why an egg can turn into a chicken any more than we can say why a bear could turn into a fairy prince. As ideas, the egg and the chicken are further off from each other than the bear and the prince; for no egg in itself suggests a chicken, whereas some princes do suggest bears.”[4] He was talking, I think, about the fact that modernity had left us bored with creation, and that when children love fairy tales they do so because the logic makes more sense. It’s the reason a kid looks at a tiger and wonders what she’s thinking, and if she likes being a tiger. But it seems we don’t want to go to the zoo anymore. Maybe if we hang with Pi, we might just share his wonder.

1. That’s what Joe Morgenstern said in the Wall Street Journal, Paul Ryan’s go-to source for movie reviews.
2.I’m referring to the scene in the book when a blinded and perhaps delusional Pi thinks he is talking to Richard Parker, a scene Lee wisely cuts.
3. A waste of fresh water, apparently. Predictably unflavorful.
4. From Orthodoxy, read it free online.