Salvatore Pane

Category: The University

Writing Comics and Other Alternative Careers for Literary Writers

Most people know I’m a fan of Scott Snyder. I’ve blogged about two of his comic book series, the oft-praised American Vampire co-written by Stephen King and the less appreciated Iron Man: Noir for Marvel. But I’ve also written about his short story collection, the excellent Voodoo Heart published by the good folks at Dial Press. The reason I became aware of Scott and his work is Cathy Day. During one of her classes maybe a year ago, we got to talking about career aspirations, and somehow we got on the subject of how one day I’d like to support myself financially (and also, artistically) through mainstream superhero work while also focusing on my literary fiction endeavors, namely short stories and novels. She put me in touch with Scott via Facebook and after a brief conversation, I sought out his story collection. A few months later, American Vampire came out which I liked almost as much as Voodoo Heart.

The reason I bring this up is because we’re close to San Diego Comic-Con which means a lot of the big comic-related news is going to come out now as to not be overshadowed by all the movie buzz. One of the biggest stories to break today? Scott Snyder signed an exclusive contract with DC Comics and will write a year-long run on Detective Comics (one of the oldest and most prestigious Batman books on the racks).  What does this mean? Scott gets a salary and is no longer a freelance writer for DC. Scott can’t write for Marvel. Scott gets health benefits (I think).

What else does this mean? It means Scott might not have to teach college. I don’t know any more than what’s in the above interview, but from what I’ve researched independently over the years, it would seem that contracted comic book writers easily make more than adjunct teachers. So many writers are pushed into teaching writing workshops after getting the MFA, and for many (potentially myself), it’s really what they love. But what few people within MFA programs talk about are the alternative careers. And by alternative, I don’t just mean desk jobs. I mean jobs that fulfill creatively in the same way teaching writing does (I’m not saying desk jobs are inherently uncreative). Obviously, Scott Snyder believes that writing comics is one of these alternatives, a job that allows writers to be compensated for doing what they love. Obviously^2, I agree with him. But what I’m curious about are other responses. Do alternatives to teaching exist for working writers in the 21st century? And if so, what are they? If not, why the hell not?

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Flashback Monday II: The Single Worst Personal Statement in the History of MFA Applications

It’s an absolute miracle I got in anywhere. Abandon all hope.

Sal Pane

Personal Statement Final Draft

10/26/06

I’ve spent the last four years studying at the Writers Institute at Susquehanna University with practicing fiction writers Tom Bailey and Gary Fincke. This has not only given me the chance to take over ten workshop classes steeped in constructive criticism but also an opportunity to learn craft, be a part of a writing community, and, most importantly, discover my process. I write every day, no excuses, for a minimum of two hours or more.

I’ve become completely obsessed with writing and reading, both of which happily possess hours of my time each and every day. Any good writer must be an insatiable reader. So I try and read broadly and delve into fiction camps that aren’t necessarily my own, spending as much time poring over my Richard Yates and Raymond Carver as I do brushing up on writers like Anton Chekhov or Franz Kafka. I also think that the act of writing fiction is a way of life and an end unto itself. I don’t need to be rewarded professionally because the writing itself is the reward. My career goals are ambitious in that I want to take two more years to hone my craft and better my writing. I’m very eager at taking every opportunity to learn and become a better writer.

Aside from the actual process of writing, I’d contribute to the program at the University of Pittsburgh because I’m such a veteran of workshops. I’ll be able to jump right in and give constructive criticism aiming at helping fellow students, not hindering them. And I’ll certainly be able to take any negative comments that will inevitably crop up during my stay. I’ve found that criticism is much more helpful for my own writing than simple praise. Beyond that, I’ve also served as an editor for multiple on campus literary journals, including working as the editor-in-chief of Susquehanna University’s creative nonfiction magazine, Essay. If I was accepted into your program I’d very much like to continue working on literary journals or creative outlets in any capacity possible. That’s one of the most alluring features of the program for me, the community of writers I’d be entering into with not only the faculty, but with other students as dedicated to writing and literature as I am.

Much of my work centers on my hometown, Scranton, Pennsylvania. It’s an urban area with a rich history of decades of debt and failure after a promising start as a mining city. It’s even the first American town to have a functioning electrical trolley system, hence it’s nickname, The Electric City. I’d like an opportunity to devote even more time to exploring this subject of decaying cityscapes and the hard working people they produce. Right now I’m working on a novel set in Scranton, and a short story collection centered on various characters living in the town. In grad school, I hope to continue these projects and expand my horizons, thus giving me even more obsessions to write about. My tentative goal is to have a novel at least halfway finished by the time I complete the program, along with a finalized short story collection

I want to thank you for looking over my application. More than anything I want a chance to continue focusing on writing under the aide of a mentor and literary community, spending the next few years working dutifully on short stories and novels each and everyday. The ability to weave a continuous dream through fiction, a tangible world pregnant with feeling, is the greatest artistic accomplishment I could ever possibly achieve. Entering the community of writers at the MFA level is the next step in my evolution as a writer.

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Personal Statement Final Draft

I’ve spent the last four years studying at the Writers Institute at Susquehanna University with practicing fiction writers Tom Bailey and Gary Fincke. This has not only given me the chance to take over ten workshop classes steeped in constructive criticism but also an opportunity to learn craft, be a part of a writing community, and, most importantly, discover my process. I write every day, no excuses, for a minimum of two hours or more.

I’ve become completely obsessed with writing and reading, both of which happily possess hours of my time each and every day. Any good writer must be an insatiable reader. So I try and read broadly and delve into fiction camps that aren’t necessarily my own, spending as much time poring over my Richard Yates and Raymond Carver as I do brushing up on writers like Anton Chekhov or Franz Kafka. I also think that the act of writing fiction is a way of life and an end unto itself. I don’t need to be rewarded professionally because the writing itself is the reward. My career goals are ambitious in that I want to take two more years to hone my craft and better my writing. I’m very eager at taking every opportunity to learn and become a better writer.

Aside from the actual process of writing, I’d contribute to the program at the University of Pittsburgh because I’m such a veteran of workshops. I’ll be able to jump right in and give constructive criticism aiming at helping fellow students, not hindering them. And I’ll certainly be able to take any negative comments that will inevitably crop up during my stay. I’ve found that criticism is much more helpful for my own writing than simple praise. Beyond that, I’ve also served as an editor for multiple on campus literary journals, including working as the editor-in-chief of Susquehanna University’s creative nonfiction magazine, Essay. If I was accepted into your program I’d very much like to continue working on literary journals or creative outlets in any capacity possible. That’s one of the most alluring features of the program for me, the community of writers I’d be entering into with not only the faculty, but with other students as dedicated to writing and literature as I am.

Much of my work centers on my hometown, Scranton, Pennsylvania. It’s an urban area with a rich history of decades of debt and failure after a promising start as a mining city. It’s even the first American town to have a functioning electrical trolley system, hence it’s nickname, The Electric City. I’d like an opportunity to devote even more time to exploring this subject of decaying cityscapes and the hard working people they produce. Right now I’m working on a novel set in Scranton, and a short story collection centered on various characters living in the town. In grad school, I hope to continue these projects and expand my horizons, thus giving me even more obsessions to write about. My tentative goal is to have a novel at least halfway finished by the time I complete the program, along with a finalized short story collection

I want to thank you for looking over my application. More than anything I want a chance to continue focusing on writing under the aide of a mentor and literary community, spending the next few years working dutifully on short stories and novels each and everyday. The ability to weave a continuous dream through fiction, a tangible world pregnant with feeling, is the greatest artistic accomplishment I could ever possibly achieve. Entering the community of writers at the MFA level is the next step in my evolution as a writer.

Tom Bailey and the Perfect Writing Pedagogy: In Which I Discuss Abortions, Rilo Kiley and Jar Jar Binks

I attended my first workshop eight years ago (eight years! how did this happen?). We sat around a conference table in the basement of an academic building, the type from a trillion frat movies, all brick with ivy growing up and down the sides. And in came this man wearing denim, cowboy boots, and sporting the type of facial hair that could frighten Tom Selleck. The guy sat down, didn’t say a word of introduction, and opened up an anthology he edited (on the cover is a picture of him scowling alongside portraits of JCO, Hemingway, Dubus and others). He cleared his throat, said, “In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits,” and read us the entirety of John Updike’s A&P.

Needless to say, my friends and I all lived in worship of this man, novelist Tom Bailey, a southern good old boy who openly told us, “I’m not interested in experimentation. My reading list’s mostly dead white men.” And we all hurried home after that first class and poured our hearts out into Microsoft Word, producing lackluster, predictable stories about break ups, losing your virginity, the death of a grandparent, or whatever other bullshit teenagers come up with (my story was about how much the Catholic Church blows and how awesome Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is; so in some respects, my unfortunate themes haven’t changed much over the years).

But then a funny thing happened over the course of that first semester: people started talking shit about Bailey behind his back. I couldn’t understand. We read the man’s stories, and it was obvious he had chops. But more importantly he had swagger. He was a living illustration of what we all wanted to become, a real life writer we could imitate. If he did it, so could we. Right?

(Check out this creepy video where Tom Bailey cries and a younger, more vulnerable Sal gives a reading in a Rilo Kiley t-shirt and awkward sports jacket.)

I didn’t figure out why all my friends got so sick of Bailey all of the sudden until I was about to go up for workshop. I printed out my masterpiece about the anointing of the May Queen and a twelve-year-old obsessed with Playstation and left it in Tom’s mailbox. A day or two later I went to talk with him about it. His office was lined with books, most of which I had never heard of (up until that point, I’d only read comic books, sci-fi, and the respective catalogs of J.D Salinger and Chuck Palahniuk).

Tom told me that he really liked one specific line (it took me awhile to track it down, but it’s “The nuns were supposed to pick the purest girl in the school, but they didn’t want any trouble, so they decided to pick a name out of a hat.”). I nodded, took notes in my little notebook and asked him about the rest of the story. He said he didn’t like it and thought I should cut it (all 22 pages) and start again with that line. He handed me a book by Breece D’J Pancake (a writer who blew his brains out in graduate school; great encouragement, Tom) and told me to get cracking.

I’m bringing this up because (years later) now that I’ve finished grad school and eight continuous years of workshops, I’m trying to figure out what kind of criticism I got the most out of. I remember how so many of my fellow students in Bailey’s class were completely shut down by his tell it like it is method which is designed to teach you the value in cutting your work and never being attached to anything you write. And that skill’s proven absolutely invaluable to me (especially in ’08 when I threw away a completed novel I now refer to as The Abortion). But some writers are absolutely crushed by this level of criticism.

This is a CGI representation of what my first attempt at a novel was like.

Justin Taylor recently posted a critique he received from an undergrad poetry teacher. To me, it seemed perfectly in line with something a writer might say to an undergrad. But in the comments section, people were split on whether the commentary was actually helpful or just cliche-ridden and destructive. I have to admit, this kind of reaction always surprises me.  Are writers so thin skinned that honest criticism is too much for them to deal with? And if so, is this really what they want to be doing with their lives? Submitting to hundreds of journals only to get a handful of acceptances? Because, let’s be honest, any criticism in the real world is inevitably a trillion times harsher than what people receive in workshop.

There’s something to be said for the, “This is good; keep going” route of writing pedagogy. But I think it’s more appropriate when workshopping novels than short stories. If someone writes a flawed short story, isn’t it the duty of instructors and fellow workshop students to make the author aware of said flaws and point out potential solutions? On the flip side, I’ve seen writers a third of the way into a promising novel put up a first chapter and become completely debilitated by the laundry list of suggestions.

After sixteen workshops, I’ve gone through a lot of feedback. And what I remember most are the harsh critiques, the honest critiques. Those made me a better writer. What I never remember is the false flattery, the praise, and all the unearned bullshit writers sometimes feel compelled to give apprentices. Case in point, a few years back when I was really wrestling with The Abortion (the aforementioned novel, not a reincarnated Chuck Palahniuk creation), Cathy Day took me aside and gently (maybe not in so many words) told me I should put it away for awhile. At the time, I wasn’t ready to hear this and sulked for a few days, but the key here (just like in the Bailey example where he plucked out a new first line from the wreckage) was that Cathy gave me something to build on. I was spending a lot of time back then creating Facebook photo albums with long, elaborate captions that went on for entire paragraphs. And Cathy told me how much she liked that voice and how little she saw of it in my novel writing. Why not write in that voice?

Well why not? So I aborted The Abortion and began writing something completely different, all the while imagining myself captioning pictures on Facebook. Is that an absolutely bizarre method? Yes. But it worked for me, and Cathy helped me find that. She didn’t worry about my feelings. Just like Tom and a gazillion other amazing mentors I’ve had, they were honest. They weren’t afraid to tell me something I wrote was terrible.

The Changing Definition of Overflow in the Age of Broadband Internet: How Lost Changed the Way We Look at Media and Cultural Convergence

LOST is coming to an end in less than a month. And despite the fact that this final season has left much to be desired (oh, wow, Alternative Dimension Sayid’s a killer?! Holy shit! Because I didn’t figure that out in the first five seasons. And wow, you’re telling me Jack has to fix problems? CRAZY!), I thought I would still honor the end of the show with a repost of a paper I wrote on LOST a few years back. This might be of interest to one or two of you. And please forgive the academic language. I too find it oppressive and narrowing but was forced into writing this way. It’s certainly not my natural method of writing.

The Changing Definition of Overflow in the Age of Broadband Internet: How Lost Changed the Way We Look at Media and Cultural Convergence

Will Brooker’s essay “Living on Dawson’s Creek: Teen Viewers, Cultural Convergence, and Television Overflow” takes a critical look at the concepts of overflow, media convergence, and cultural convergence in television studies. Primarily concerned with the way viewers interact with “texts across various media platforms” (Brooker 570) and how certain programs have “deliberately ‘overflowed’ the bounds of television” (Brooker 569), Brooker conducts a study chronicling the youth market’s usage of Dawson’s Creek fanzines and producer sanctioned online content geared towards fans of the late 90s teen soap. Unfortunately, these results are incredibly misleading as only “5 out of 40” (Brooker 573) users in group one of Brooker’s study interacted with these websites while a mere “one-third of these respondents” (Brooker 574) from group two responded positively to interfacing with the official Dawson’s Creek website. These results may lead one to believe that overflow is simply a fringe novelty. However, I will argue that the reason for the reported low turnout of the Dawson’s Creek website is actually due to the fact that teen soaps do not directly lend themselves to the concept of overflow when compared with programs that match Matt Hills’ definition of cult television in his essay “Defining Cult TV: Texts, Inter-Texts and Fan Audiences.” More importantly, I will show how the very definition of overflow needs to be upgraded thanks to the rise of broadband internet technologies and the increasing willingness of producer/creators to embrace these technologies for creating primary texts. To prove this I will be using ABC’s Lost, a cult television program about a passenger jet that crashes on a mysterious island, as a test case.

First we must examine what exactly is meant by the terms overflow and media and cultural convergence. According to Will Brooker, overflow occurs when “the text of the TV show is no longer limited to the television medium” (Brooker 569). Basically, this accounts for any number of interactions with television programs, including everything from fanzines to visiting official websites where viewers are allowed to participate in their favorite programs. For example, in 2005 dedicated followers of the cult TV/medical dramadey program Nip/Tuck were able to track down the series’ longtime villain, the mysterious murderer known only as the Carver, through the fictional character’s producer sponsored MySpace profile, viewable at http://www.myspace.com/thecarver. According to Anthony Crupi of MediaWeek, “The Carver’s friends list has ballooned to 60,496 MySpace members, all registered users who have seen the site and elected to link to it on their own home pages” (Crupi). The users were then allowed to comment on the Carver’s profile page and receive messages from the character himself. In this way these viewers, which now total 69,445 unique users, were able to experience the program Nip/Tuck without ever using their televisions. This is overflow. Will Brooker further defines overflow by breaking the concept down into two groups: cultural convergence and media convergence. Cultural convergence involves “a participatory community” (Brooker 570) which can be exemplified best through fanzines or fanfiction rings, such as http://fluky.gossamer.org/ which specializes in fan generated X-Files fanfiction. Media convergence on the other hand is defined by Brooker as “structured interactivity” (Brooker 570). This means that media convergence is when the consumption of a television program does not directly involve a television but is still controlled by the show’s producers or some other corporate entity. The Nip/Tuck MySpace profile is an example of media convergence.

The reach of overflow has been dramatically impacted by the proliferation of the internet, especially broadband technology which allows website programmers to outfit their sites with features that users could only dream about as little as a few short years ago. In 1999 the largest share of internet users were signing on through 56k, a speed incapable of handling advanced multimedia exchanges (Connection Speed Survey). By 2005, the 19% of internet users that chose broadband over 56k to access the internet in ’99 had ballooned to an overwhelming 68%, and producer sponsored websites promoting television programs reacted accordingly by giving their fans a broader sense of interactivity (Internet World Stats). For example, take a look at the official Buffy the Vampire Slayer website for season one, which launched in 1997 during the zenith of 56k usage, and the website for the final season which launched in 2004, just a few short years before the widespread shift to broadband. The season one website is crude at best with limited interactivity or media overflow. Users could interact with one another on a message board and chat room, but beyond that there was little reason to navigate the 1997 version of the website except to peruse a small photo gallery or send electronic post cards featuring the show’s various stars (Internet Archive: Buffy Slayer). However, by the time the final season website was functioning in 2004, users could not only use all of the features established in 1997 website but also compete against one another in Buffy trivia contests, download “exclusive wallpapers,” vote on whether the final episode was a satisfying conclusion to the Buffy saga, play Buffy flash games, read bios and back stories on the various characters, or even access “making of” video files (Internet Archive: Buffy). Since Will Brooker’s examination of internet overflow was conducted before the explosion of broadband internet users it inherently arrives at faulty conclusions that do not reflect the internet tendencies of television fans today.

As mentioned earlier, Will Brooker’s essay “Living on Dawson’s Creek,” arrives at the conclusion that “fans, we have to remember, are an active minority. The response of keen but uncommitted viewers is less dramatic than we might have expected or hoped” (Brooker 579). Although it is surely true that hardcore fans that write fanfiction and attend conventions are surely not representative of any program’s viewer ship as a whole, it seems apparent that a teen soap does not lend itself to the type of fan culture that would generate very much cultural or media convergence. As a genre, the appeal of a teen soap is usually limited to the length of time it runs on television and then is promptly forgotten about by an overwhelming number of viewers. For example, look at programs such as 90210 or The Facts of Life. Despite being rating draws during their respective runs, neither show has managed to produce a long term cultural community in its fans. On the other hand, a dedicated fan base is one of the very defining characteristics of a cult television program such as The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost, or most famously, the various incarnations of the Star Trek franchise. An examination of cultural convergence and overflow produced by fans of a cult television show such as Star Trek would obviously make for a better critical study simply due to the fact that so much content has been generated by fans. Compare that content with viewer created content from a program such as The Facts of Life and surely the discrepancy between volume of content will be massive and relatively problematic when conducting a study that is more than simply hearsay.

In arguing that a cult television program would make for a better test case in a study of television overflow, I must first prove that the aforementioned test case, in this instance ABC’s Lost, is in fact an undeniable example of cult television programming. In Matt Hills’ essay, “Defining Cult TV: Texts, Inter-Texts and Fan Audiences,” Hills provides readers with three definitions of what makes a cult program. Despite admitting that television shows only need to meet one of the definitions to qualify as a cult program, for clarity’s sake I will prove that Lost does in fact fit all three of Hills’ definitions. The first definition relies on the text as the defining characteristic of whether or not a television program qualifies as a cult program. Hills writes that “this argument implies that cult TV is best thought of as a group of… genres [such as] science fiction, fantasy, and horror” (Hills 509). He expands on this definition by listing three major criteria that goes beyond simple genre labeling. Hills writes “cult TV is identifiable as a set of texts which share qualities of fantastic hyperdiegesis, representations of close but non-sexualised character relationships and communities, and a form of endlessly deferred narrative based on narrative enigmas” (Hills 513). Lost employs fantastic hyperdiegesis “by virtue of defining and developing fantastic beings and worlds over a lengthy period of time and in great amounts of detail” (Hills 511). For example, in the very first episode of Lost we are introduced to “the monster,” a being which has the capacity to kill and even destroy the landscape of the island in one fell swoop. However, we don’t actually see the monster until the final episode of season one, 1.22 Exodus, in which the monster materializes as a black smoke cloud that travels beneath the island through an intricate series of underground tunnels. During seasons two and three, the monster is briefly shown in only three episodes, 2.10 The 23rd Psalm, 3.05 The Cost of Living, and 3.15 Left Behind, despite being one of the central mysteries of the show. However, each time the monster is shown it displays new powers which further develops its fantastic nature. For example, in 2.10 The 23rd Psalm” we as viewers realize that the monster has the ability to download island inhabitants’ memories and in 3.15 Left Behind we are shown that the monster cannot pass through an electro magnetic security fence. However, like Hills says, answers concerning the monster are “endlessly deferred” (Hills 513). The “non-sexualized character relationships” (Hills 513) come in the form of the interactions between Lost main characters Jack and Kate. Their relationship is very reminiscent of the one between Mulder and Scully on The X-Files, and like in that show, Jack and Kate repeatedly hint at their love for each other without acting on it in any meaningful way that would impact future episodes.

The second definition of cult television provided by Matt Hills is as follows: “Cult TV can be defined through an analysis of secondary texts” (Hills 509).  Hills goes onto say that television programs that generate a great deal of producer sanctioned overflow and fan created content should be labeled as cult television programs. As I explore Lost overflow at great length later in the paper, I will limit my examples here. On the producer side of things, Lost has generated a weekly podcast in which the executives producers take fan questions and hint at the plotlines of future episodes, two viral marketing campaigns which reward diligent players with exclusive clips promising to reveal the true nature of the show’s mysteries, a video game, Lost: Via Domus, which supposedly provides insight into the nature of the show’s usage of time travel, and its own monthly magazine appropriately titled “Lost Magazine.” On the fan end, viewers have spawned numerous online clubs, the most prominent being the fan sites promoting the skaters or the jaters. These groups have been formed in support of Kate, one of the show’s heroines, falling in love with either one of the two major male characters of the program, Sawyer and Jack. This love triangle has been one of the many dangling plot threads of the show, and people rooting for Sawyer and Kate to get together have dubbed themselves skaters while fans of Jack and Kate are the jaters (Buddy TV). These groups of fans have formed their own communities which constantly take swipes at each other. The sheer amount of secondary texts that are produced by the fans and producers of a program like Lost easily sync up with Hills’ second definition of cult television show.

Matt Hills’ third definition is that “Cult TV can be defined through an analysis of fan practices, and depends on fan activities” (Hills 510). This element of Lost fandom has been briefly touched on in the previous paragraph, however, I will discuss what Hills calls “fans… [producing] commentaries, fan fiction, episode guides and production histories that all work to sustain the distinctiveness of fandom as a community that reads the ‘intertextual network’ of cult TV” (Hills 519). Fan commentaries have become increasingly popular since Lost’s debut in the form of fan produced podcasts. Effectively labeled as downloadable internet radio broadcasts, podcasts allows any viewers with a broadband internet connection and microphone to host their own radio show at length. “The Transmission,” one of the most popular Lost podcasts, holds an hour long podcast after each new episode of Lost is aired. Recently, they even had a 25-hour marathon session in which they did nothing but discuss the mythology of Lost (The Transmission). Fan fiction has always been a marker of cult television status, specifically slash fan fiction in which fans compose stories of television characters partaking in homosexual pairings. Lost has a thriving slash fan community. On “The Lost Fan Fiction Archive,” the most prominent of the sites that attempt to catalog the wealth of Lost fan stories, the tally of slash Lost stories currently stands at 161 (The Lost Fan Fiction Archive). As for episode guides and production histories, one needs to look no further than “Lost-TV,” a website that has meticulously provided transcripts for all three seasons of Lost along with detailed examinations of the fundamental nuts and bolts necessary to producing the show week in and week out (Lost-TV).

If it is readily apparent that Lost does in fact serve as an example of a cult television program that gained in popularity following the widespread proliferation of broadband internet connections in America, then the next topic that must be explored in order to show that cult television programs work as better examples in a study of overflow is the media and cultural convergence produced by that show. First, I will examine the producer sponsored media convergence before discussing the fan generated cultural convergence. One of the most obvious examples of producer sponsored overflow occurred towards the end of Lost’s second season in May 2006. During the airing of the penultimate episode of season two, 2.22 Three Minutes, a commercial aired promoting a fictional company that exists within the Lost mythos: the Hanso Foundation. At the end of the commercial a phone number was given. Adamant viewers who called the number were eventually given access to a website, http://www.thehansofoundation.org/. Over the course of the ensuing summer hiatus, fans hunted down advertisements with clues to find the next website littered with background information pertaining to the show, culminating with a real world directive: to travel to the 2006 ComiCon, a massive convention promoting comic books and other cult interests, and attend the Lost panel conveniently moderated by the executive producers/writers of the show. When fans arrived they were treated to exclusive clips of the upcoming third season. However, what truly broke the fourth wall was that during a question and answer segment at the end of the panel, an actress who portrayed one of the characters in the viral marketing videos appeared in character and verbally accosted the producers for their supposed real life involvement with the fictional Hanso Foundation. Estimates put the number of players participating in the Lost viral marketing campaign at 50,000 people (Alternative Reality Game Stats).

An even more blatant attempt at cross media marketing occurred during episode 2.13 The Long Con. During the episode, Hurley, the program’s everyman character, finds a manuscript for a mystery novel, Bad Twin, in one of the wrecked plane’s unclaimed pieces of luggage. He begins reading it and claims how interesting it is before handing it off to the aforementioned Sawyer to read. In episode 2.20 Two For the Road, Sawyer is enraptured by the manuscript and can’t wait to find out the ending when Jack burns the manuscript, apparently erasing all hopes of Sawyer and the viewers learning the identity of the story within the story’s killer. However, on May 2, 2006, exactly one day before the airing of 2.20 Two For the Road, Hyperion Publishers released the novel, Bad Twin, as a fictional mystery written by Gary Troup, a man who apparently died on flight Oceanic 815, the same flight the Lost characters were on when they crashed onto their mysterious island. Despite being a fictional novel set outside of the Lost universe, Bad Twin included several direct references to various mysteries from the show including the previously referenced Hanso Foundation. In a bit of cross marketing with the Lost Experience viral marketing game, a fictional character introduced through the game took out a real life ad in various American newspapers on May 5th, 2006 claiming that the information in the book regarding the Hanso Foundation was fraudulent at best (Lostpedia).

During the nine month hiatus in 2007/2008 between the close of season three of Lost and the opening of season four, the executive producers and writers of the series teamed up to write a twelve part Lost miniseries, “Missing Pieces,” that would air only on Verizon cell phones enabled with broadband wireless support. Dubbed “mobisodes,” these two-minute episodes were not only written by the regular show writers and scored by the series composer, Michael Giacchio, but they also starred the show’s regular cast of actors. This is also one of the major examples of problems occurring with Will Brooker’s definition of overflow as being whenever “the text of the TV show is no longer limited to the television medium” (Brooker 569). Overflow is relegated to serving as a secondary text, however, shouldn’t the “Missing Pieces” miniseries actually serve as a primary text considering that it was created by all of the people responsible for the television show right down to the producers and actors? To answer that completely we must look at the next example and Lost’s producers’ reactions to it.

Another piece of producer sponsored overflow that questions the very definition of the term overflow can be seen in the 2008 video game, “Lost: Via Domus.” Players control a character that has never before been seen on the television program Lost, but according to the game, was on the flight that crashed onto the island. The viewer, while using this character as an avatar, interacts with the show’s characters and events from seasons one and two (Lostpedia). A small percentage of the game’s video segments and dialogue were written by the show’s executive producers, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, and since this game is experienced through a television, some would say that it falls into the category of a primary text according to Brooker’s definition of overflow. However, I would call this a secondary text, thus making it overflow and not a part of the actual show, due to two reasons. First off, even though the producers control the environments and situations of the video game to a certain extent, viewer/player interaction is tenfold to that of watching the regular show. Secondly, there is the question of canonicity, meaning whether or not events that take place in products tangential from the show, i.e. the mobisodes, video game and viral marketing games, actually factor into the timeline of the Lost television show. In the March 10th, 2008 episode of “The Official Lost Podcast,” a weekly internet program in which Cuse and Lindelof take fan questions, Cuse announced that “It’s only canon if it’s in the show. We try hard to make the other things very much a real part of the world of the show and frankly it just depends on how much time and influence we have as to whether we can officially designate other things as canon… We wrote the mobisodes, our writers wrote them, we put a lot of time into them. We produced them. Our directors directed them. We feel that those are canon… The video game does not count.” Even if the video game is experienced through a television, which is one of Brooker’s primary definitions for a piece of producer sponsored programming becoming a primary text instead of a piece of overflow, because of the fact that the executive producers do not view the video game as canon makes “Via Domus” a secondary text and an example of overflow. On the flip side, the “Missing Pieces” mobisodes which are clearly consumed through cell phones and not televisions, do have canonicity, which transforms them from pieces of overflow into primary texts. This causes a huge, nearly irrevocable, problem for Brooker’s definition of overflow.

Considering the time that it was written and the fact that executive producers of television programs and their parent companies were still unsure of how to utilize the internet as an effective tool in promoting their shows, Will Brooker’s essay “Living on Dawson’s Creek: Teen Viewers, Cultural Convergence, and Television Overflow” predicts many developments correctly. As he predicted, viral marketing and cultural convergence did not sweep the globe or ever truly reach a mass audience, however, this calculation was founded on faulty logic that used a test case, Dawson’s Creek, which was predisposed to reveal this type of answer. A teen soap does not generate the amount of cultural convergence or media convergence that a cult television program such as Lost does, and if a similar study is conducted in the future, its writer should choose a post-broadband subject that is more appropriate such as Lost or Jericho or Heroes for examples. However, what Brooker gets completely wrong is his limiting definition of overflow which pigeonholes all overflow as secondary texts that do not operate within the realm of the television. As Lost’s “Missing Pieces” has shown, a primary text can exist outside the boundaries of television. On the other hand, the video game adaptation, “Lost: Via Domus,” has proved that a secondary text can exist within the boundaries of television. Due to the inconsistencies of Brooker’s definition of overflow and the ever evolving nature of technology and its effects on what producer/writers can employ in their creation of overflow, a new definition is needed which can define overflow by plainly saying what it is instead of relying on a definition that says what it isn’t, i.e. experiencing a television program outside of the sphere of television.

Works Cited:

1) Brooker, William. “Living on Dawson’s Creek: Teen Viewers, Cultural Convergence, and Television Overflow.” The Television Studies Reader. Eds. Robert Allen and Annette Hill. New York: Routledge. 2004. 569-580.

2) Crupi, Anthony. “Nip/Tuck Goes Viral on Myspace.com” Media Week. December 12 2005. <http://www.mediaweek.com/mw/news/recent_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1001658741/&gt;

3) Cuse, Carlton. Lindeloff, Damon. “The Official Lost Podcast: March 10th, 2008.” The Official Lost Podcast.10 March 2008.

4) Dena, Christina. “Alternative Reality Game Stats.” November 17 2007. <http://www.christydena.com/online-essays/arg-stats&gt;

5) Hills, Matt. “Defining Cult TV: Texts, Inter-Texts and Fan Audiences.” The Television Studies Reader. Eds. Robert Allen and Annette Hill. New York: Routledge. 2004. 509-523.

6) Williams, Don. “Lost: Who Should Kate End Up With?” Buddy TV. January 12 2008. <http://www.buddytv.com/articles/lost/lost-who-should-kate-end-up-wi-15600.aspx&gt;

7) “Bad Twin.” Lostpedia.com. 2008. <http://www.lostpedia.com/wiki/Bad_Twin&gt;

8 ) “Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 1 Official Website.” The Way Back Machine. 1997. <http://web.archive.org/web/19980202153530/www.buffyslayer.com/main.html&gt;

9) “Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8 Official Website.” The Way Back Machine. 2004. <http://web.archive.org/web/20040806045901/www.upn.com/shows/buffy/&gt;

10) “The Carver.” Myspace.com. 2005. <http://www.myspace.com/thecarver&gt;

11) “Connection Speed.” Georgia Institute of Technology. October 1998. <http://www.cc.gatech.edu/user_surveys/survey-1998-10/graphs/technology/q01.htm&gt;

12) “Dawson’s Creek: The Official Website.” Dawsonscreek.com. 2008. <http://dawsonscreek.com/

13) “Lost-TV.” Lost-tv.com. 2008. <http://www.lost-tv.com/&gt;

14) “Lost: Missing Pieces.” Abc.com. 2007. <http://abc.go.com/primetime/lost/missingpieces/index&gt;

15) “Lost: The Video Game.” Lostpedia.com. 2008. <http://www.lostpedia.com/wiki/Lost:_The_Video_Game&gt;

16) “The Lost Experience.” Lostpedia.com. 2008. <http://www.lostpedia.com/wiki/The_Lost_Experience&gt;

17) “The Transmission.” Hawaiiup.com. 2008. < http://www.hawaiiup.com/lost/&gt;

18) “United States of America: Internet Usage and Broadband Usage Report.” Internet World Stats. 2007. <http://www.internetworldstats.com/am/us.htm&gt;

19) “The X-Files Fan Fiction Archive.” Fluky.gossamer.org. 2008. <http://fluky.gossamer.org/&gt;

Thoughts on the Short Story Survey

“Do people still care about short fiction?” That’s a redundant, pointless question for the most part, but I find it interesting that the dominant form of literary fiction consumed in this country is the novel, yet so many undergraduate institutions focus primarily on the short story in writing workshops and even in general surveys for non-English majors. I’m taking an Independent Study at Pitt with Nick Coles called Seminar in Course Design. The goal of the course is for me to generate five syllabi for a wide variety of classes: Workshop in Composition, Short Stories in Context, The Graphic Novel, Intro to Creative Writing and Intro to Fiction. I’ve been reading a lot of pedagogical theory on these subjects by writers like Mike Rose, Richard Rodriguez, Madison Smart Bell and Peter Turchi. It’s been really great experience so far, but the one I keep getting stuck on is the short story course.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the survey courses I took in undergrad. My professor was a particularly cool guy we all wanted to emulate. Dr. Laurence Roth had a book out about Jewish detective fiction and wrote scholarly articles about comic book luminary Will Eisner. He also played in a kickass band made up of other faculty members. This is all to say that he had a posse of students who signed up for practically every class he taught. When I took his survey,  I was still a very naive, innocent undergrad reading Carver, Dubus, Wolff and Ford pretty much exclusively. Roth bombarded us with Pynchon, Eggers, Safran-Foer, DeLillo, Kincaid and even the aforementioned Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware. I was alternatively frightened by Roth’s selection and intrigued. But what I didn’t realize at the time was that Roth’s survey class proved a valuable counterpoint to the realism heavy focus of all my workshop classes. Roth showed the alternative; he showed us what else was possible.

So the question I’ve been facing is whether or not one class can balance both sides. Can a single survey course manage to promote neither realism, postmodernism or any other school of thought, and instead, simply show students the possibilities and let them decide on their own? Or will professors’ biases always come to the forefront no matter how democratic a syllabus? I’m not sold either way. But I’ve made an attempt. Below, you will find a draft of my short story survey syllabus. I’m looking to improve it, so if you have any suggestions, please throw them out. Keep in mind, it’s aimed at undergraduates.

Course Description

This course is a survey of the various facets of the contemporary short story from 1950 to present. The class will be broken down into four major units in which we will examine the work of authors from different literary movements and see how they are affected by history and culture. The first unit will involve a thorough analysis of the so-called post war writers who often focused on the widespread conformity of 1950s and early 1960s America. Unit two will move on to the more experimental writers of the ‘60s and beyond and focus on how these writers constructed their stories and why they were so deeply impacted by their place in literary history. Then we will cover the dirty realists of the ‘80s and their shift back to basics during an age of utter excess. Toward the end of the course, we will study the growing world of globalized writers and the plight of those who deal with the aftermath of colonial imperialism. Finally, the class will investigate the new frontier of canonized short story writers and attempt to understand and categorize what their place in history is.

Required Coursework

The class is designed as an ongoing discussion about the contemporary short story and how the form affects and is affected by broader stratifications in history and culture. We will conduct close readings on the assigned material every class. After the second week, group presentations will begin in which teams of four students are given time to present on directed topics. Aside from class participation and group presentations, grades will be based on three separate papers in which students will be asked to discuss the various texts at length along with supplemental material and other theoretical/cultural concerns.

Sequence

Unit I: Post War Conformity in the USA: The Rise of Traditional Realism

John Updike
John Cheever
J.D Salinger
James Baldwin
Richard Yates
Group Presentations Begin

Unit II: The Counter Culture and Avant-Garde

Donald Barthelme
Joyce Carol Oates
James Alan McPherson
Barry Hannah
Toni Cade Bambara
Charles Baxter
Jamaica Kincaid
Roberto Bolano
Paper #1 Due

Unit III: Dirty Realism in the Age of Reagan

Tim O’Brien
Raymond Carver
Andre Dubus
Tobias Wolff
Richard Ford
Bobbie Ann Mason
Alice Munro
Breece D’J Pancake
Lorrie Moore
Paper #2 Due

Unit IV: New Frontiers

David Foster Wallace
Rick Moody
Rick Bass
Etgar Keret
Junot Diaz
Dan Chaon
Robert Boswell
Dave Eggers
Antonya Nelson
Miranda July
Stewart O’ Nan
A.M Homes
Don Lee
Jhumpa Lahir
George Saunders

Final Paper Due

Assignments

Paper #1) Using the work of two writers from Unit I and two writers from Unit II, compare and contrast the style and techniques of the Post War Realists and the Experimentalists. What is at stake for these groups of writers and is there any overlap? Focus your argument on whether or not one side or the other has more emotional resonance. You may want to take into consideration that the answer may be more complex than “the experimentalists have more emotional resonance because…” What concerns bind these seemingly disparate groups of writers together? What threatens to tear them apart? 5 pages.

Paper #2) What does it mean to be a dirty realist in the age of Reagan? Using the work of at least three of the writers covered in Unit III, come up with a mantra for this generation of writers and spend your paper arguing their merits and drawbacks. What have these writers taken from those in Unit I? What about Unit II? On the flip side, what have they jettisoned? What is gained from their techniques? What is lost? Feel free to make use of the historical milieu of the time period. 5 pages.

Paper #3) We have now examined some of the most major writers of the short story from 1950 to the present day. Since you now have a vast resource of stories and writers to draw from, I would like you to select three writers from Unit IV that you think are similar stylistically. Then go back through the previous units and attempt to create a genealogy for this group of writers. You should argue which writers and stories influenced your writers and how. Do you see the macabre flourishes of Joyce Carol Oates in the work of Dan Chaon? Is there a connection between the down and out protagonists of Raymond Carver and the Pittsburgh milieu of Stewart O’ Nan? Is Jhumpa Lahir’s interest in the post-colonial world influenced by Jamaica Kincaid in any tangible way? Make connections. See the through lines that are at play in literary history. 10 pages.

The Most Unfortunately Titled Article Ever Published or Why America Hates English Professors

A few days ago I read an entry on the LA Times blog Jacket Copy written by former Pitt MFAer Carolyn Kellogg. The article links back to a feature published in The American Book Review conspicuously titled “Top 40 Bad Books”. Normally, I wouldn’t read such a list because there’s so much great literature out there, so many wonderful opportunities. Why dwell on the negative? But the writers Carolyn name-checked from the article were enough to pique my interest (and rage): Cormac McCarthy? F. Scott Fitzgerald?! RICHARD YATES ??!! Umm….. huh? The introduction (there’s no author credited) gives us this:

Richard Ford once said that it takes as much effort to produce a bad book as a good book. And as disheartening as that sounds, what Ford’s assertion might raise, and what most everyone who has attempted the task of a book-length work already knows, is the notion that effort alone does not ensure a book’s success, and that there are probably more ways for a good book to be overlooked than a bad book to never make it into print…

That said, what constitutes a bad book? Is it an overrated “good” book? Can an otherwise good author produce a “bad” book? Is the badness in style, in execution? Or is it in theme or outlook? Or is the notion of a “bad” book even comprehensible in the age of postmodernism, poststructialism, and cultural studies?

Calling the question of “bad books” to the fore elicited—as might be expected—an overwhelming response. The forty responses below were selected to demonstrate the sheer variety of responses to what at face value seems a simple question. But as with most literary matters, nothing is as simple as it appears—not even the question of what constitutes a bad book… (American Book Review)

Ok, let’s just ignore the fact that they used the dreaded “theme” while discussing literature. I didn’t realize this was AP English. Anyway, what’s on the list? The Great Gatsby. Revolutionary Road. All the Pretty Horses. The Ian Fleming James Bond novels. Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence. Dreiser, Melville and Colson Whitehead also make appearances. On initial glance, I wanted to yell and scream and rant. The list is made up of 40 entries written by College English Professors (in all Caps of course). A few of the entires are obsessed with attacking well-renowned writers and tearing down their legacies (the Yates and Fitzgerald entries are especially, and needlessly, unkind), but there are many examples here of professors (and a writer or two) doing good work. Some don’t even name a single book. For example, take a look at what Dagoberto Gilb has to say on the subject of bad books:

Like bad girlfriends (and boyfriends, too), there are so many categories of bad books that it’d be gruesome and pathetic to categorize the various species of that sorryness. Setting aside the intrinsically aggravating that the very coquetish author is actually stupid, or the editor who chose the manuscript is too dumb or lame or dazzled, or that the system which perpetuates both of them is as flawed as a university paying for a Glenn Beck lecture series, and omitting the writers who are really salespeople, as are their duped or complicit publishers hyping their so pretty product as though…. Wait a minute, that may be what I think is a major bad book or line of them even. (Gilb) (His ellipses, not mine)

One professor wonders about the usefulness of bad books and cites Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Another, Gerald Graff, talks about the practicality of bad books in pedagogical practice. Graff writes, “It has always seemed strange to me that bad books aren’t a prominent part of our school and college literature curriculum. How do we expect students to learn to tell the difference between good and bad books unless we assign some bad ones for comparison? Don’t you need badness in order to know goodness?” Another interesting tangent is brought up by Carol Guess who says:

Notice (2004) was published posthumously. Its narrative voice was so unique that no press would touch it until Lewis committed suicide at forty. Her suicide allowed the book’s publication; now she was dead, and sufficiently chastened for examining experiences that mainstream culture attempts to suppress. Before she killed herself, Lewis wrote one more novel, The Second Suspect (1998). This book was published and reviewed during her lifetime. It was bought, and it was read. The Second Suspect is a terrible book. But it’s not just a bad book; it’s so much more. It’s a bad book riffing off the author’s masterpiece. The Second Suspect is a rewriting of Notice, but minus everything that makes Notice literary. The Second Suspect takes plot, characters, and themes from Notice and reduces them to formulaic drivel. (Guess)

It’s obvious that Guess isn’t arguing that The Second Suspect is one of the worst books ever written, just as it’s painfully clear that some of these professors have axes to grind (look at the lambasting poor Cormac McCarthy takes!) and are using the American Book Review as a platform to air their theoretical grievances. So although the article in its entiretry is far less inflamatory than expected, what I can not stand for is its title. “Top 40 Bad Books” is a horrible title when the article in question doesn’t even have a list, when some of its contributors don’t even put forth a single book. I’m hoping that this is some type of marketing ploy, that the Editors at ABR chose this title knowing it would be controversial and would garner more attention (case in point, its mention on this blog). But an article like this written by a legion of college professors does much more harm than it does good. It purpotrates a stereotype that America loves to hate, that of the stodgy old English professor who despises everything.

For an example of what I’m talking about, check out The New Republic’s review of a recent memoir, The Professor and Other Writings, by Terry Castle. Ross Posnock, the reviewer, starts his critique with the following:

The public expression of contempt for professors is one of our cherished national pastimes and is that rare thing—bipartisan… Recently on its front page the New York Times invoked “the classic image of a humanities professor … tweed jacket, pipe, nerdy, longwinded, secular—and liberal” in a story on a sociological study of the power of typecasting. And in the annals of egghead bashing, the perennial butt of the foolproof punch line has long been the English professor. For decades Hollywood has dined out on this stereotype—Dennis Quaid’s bloated, bleary, and insufferable literature professor in Smart People is only a recent entry in a long parade of fatuity—but the Times has also loyally done its part. Their reports on the MLA convention are always good for a laugh, with their generous sampling of silly and sex-addled paper titles (who can forget “Wandering Genitalia in Late Medieval German Literature and Culture”?) that the Times cited a few years ago as proof that “eggheads are still nerds” with too much “sex on their minds (and time on their hands).” Whether the accusation is justified or not is less the point than the casualness of the contempt, the easy assumption of a license to scorn. Almost no group is more safely maligned and mocked. (Posnock)

I love the New Republic (especially their dryly titled lit blog The Book), but when they think you’re stodgy you know there’s a serious PR problem. Articles like “Top 40 Bad Books” reinforce the stereotype that English professors are cranky old dipshits seething in their Ivy Towers casting their hate outwards at everything. They are not lovers of literature; they are destroyers. Fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction are the manure from which they produce their cornucopia of brilliance. While Carol Guess and Gerald Graff and Dagoberto Gilb attempt to subvert this assumption, there are just as many examples within the ABR article that prove it. Since there are no bios included within the text of the article (only the names of institutions), one has to wonder if these hater professors teach Literature exclusively or if they dabble in their school’s Comp or Creative Writing departments.

The reason why I ask about what department these professors come from is because of an article by William M. Chace in the American Scholar. This was passed around in secret between friends of mine because the views expressed within are relatively controversial in a University environment. Entitled “The Decline of the English Department”, Chace’s article explores how and why enrollment numbers in English departments across the country have plummeted since the 1960’s coinciding with the ascendancy of critical theory as the main text of the humanities classroom. His findings are what you expect. He blames things on cultural studies and theorists with pseudo-political, pseudo-philosophical agendas (thus satisfying neither the politician or philosopher) and the shift away from the so-called Great Books. This stereotype of an English professor is in line with the bogeymen presented in the ABR article: Learned Men coming down the mount to explain to us philistines why The Great Gatsby is one of the top 40 worst books ever written.

But not all is doom and gloom. What Chase ignores is the rise of undergraduate Creative Writing programs and MFAs. Their enrollments have skyrocketed since the 1960’s with MFA programs pumping out 5,000 graduates a year. Similarly, Comp programs have also evolved thanks to the work of dedicated scholars like Mike Rose and Richard Rodriguez. While regular humanities classes become more and more specialized and in some cases jettison works of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction altogether, creative writing and comp classrooms have put the focus back on student work and the so-called great books. So, to cap off this long, rambling rant, we need more professors like Guess and Graff and Gilb willing to ruminate over tough subjects, but also willing to celebrate the beautiful act that is the reception and creation of literature. And what we need less of are professors making lists of the worst books ever written and explaining why exactly the work of Richard Yates is so offensively terrible.