As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m teaching a fourth-year seminar this autumn that I’m titling “Revenge of the Genres.” Here, again, is my hastily mocked-up poster:
Yes, that’s the poster from Hamilton that I’ve stolen and over-written; and yes, that means I’ll be including Hamilton on the course. It will be the last thing we cover, in part because it’s the most recent text, but also because I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s promise to film a performance for posterity makes it onto DVD or iTunes before we get to it in class.
This course is the product of several intersecting influences in my own reading and viewing habits, as well as a lot of thought I’ve devoted in the past few years to how genre has come to function in mainstream culture, and how it has come to be regarded in scholarly contexts. My doctoral dissertation, which was on conspiracy theory and paranoia, jumped gleefully between such capital-L literary texts like Gravity’s Rainbow, to classic films like Doctor Strangelove and The Manchurian Candidate, to episodes of The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Anyone who has read this blog more than just occasionally will know of my love for such genres as SF/F, and my addiction to prestige television. And while the traditional canons of literary study still comprise the core of most English departments, not only are interdisciplinary crossovers into different media and popular texts increasingly acceptable, but increasingly expected.
More and more we see cross-pollination between fiction, film, television, poetry, theater, music, and social media; more than perhaps at any point in history, literary influence has been shattered from Harold Bloom’s almost exclusively patrilineal (and white) “anxiety of influence,” which posits that writers of genius emerge out of an agon with the great writers preceding them, into a constellation of cultural forms and texts in which a poet is as likely to borrow imagery from classic Hollywood or post-structuralist theory as from Keats or Yeats.
Purists may wince, and often do, and conservative pundits fill column inches decrying the feckless drift of humanities degrees (if Margaret Wente hasn’t written something on this point recently, she will soon—that’s simply inevitable). But part of the point is that in this expanded universe (to borrow an expression from one particular genre canon), there’s still plenty of room for purists (whatever they may look like these days) and unreconstructed literary curmudgeons who don’t think anything of value was written after 1922.
Meanwhile, this cross-pollination and the general acceptance of forms and media formerly dismissed as lowbrow has opened up an intriguing space in which we can look at how many of these texts use generic conventions—or shrewd critiques or subversions of them—to expand our literary and cultural vocabularies. This space—or rather, these spaces—are what my course will be examining. And as I said in my previous post, I am keen to get this blog back into gear, so one of the things I will be trying to do is write one or two posts a week dealing with whatever text we’re looking at. These posts will be designed in part to foment class discussion (I’ve never written a textbook I can make my students buy, so the least I can do is force them to read my blog).
That being said, I’m also hoping that this course might interest people enough to read along at home, as it were, or to contribute to the discussion if we cover something you particularly love.
Fingers crossed. Meanwhile, here are our readings, in order that we will be covering them:
Neil Gaiman, American Gods. If you’re anything like me, you’ve been nerding out hard over the last few days with the release of the trailer for the television adaptation. I was concerned at first that STARZ is the network doing it, as they’ve tended to be far more erratic than, say, HBO or AMC. But the team they’ve assembled is stellar: the showrunners are Bryan Fuller, who brought us Hannibal, and Michael Green, whose nerd cred is pretty strong with such shows as Heroes and Smallville. But beyond the showrunners, the cast they’ve assembled so far is mind-blowing: Ricky Whittle (The 100) as Shadow Moon, Emily Browning as Laura Moon, Gillian Anderson (!) as Media, Pablo Schreiber (Nick Sobotka on The Wire, Pornstache on Orange is the New Black) as Mad Sweeney, Crispin Glover as Mr. World, Jonathan Tucker as Low Key Lyesmith, Orlando Jones as Mr. Nancy, Kristen Chenowith as Easter, Peter Stormare as Czernobog … but of course if none of those people were involved, I’d still watch to see Ian McShane as Mr. Wednesday.
Sorry. Didn’t mean to have that nerd braingasm.
Ahem. Putting Gaiman on the course is a bit of a cheat, as this is an American Lit course, and he’s very much a Brit. He does live in the U.S., however, and the novel is manifestly about America. Gaiman is an example of a literary jack-of-all-trades, moving with alacrity from comic books to prose fiction to children’s literature to TV writing (two episodes for Doctor Who); and all his work is profoundly influenced by myth and legend, and gothic horror. He is a genre author who has attained an enviable level of literary acclaim, and as we’ll discuss on the course, one way to read his figuration of gods and divinity is as an allegory of genre itself.
Colson Whitehead, Zone One. If Neil Gaiman is a genre author who has garnered literary acclaim, Colson Whitehead is a literary star who confused the literati and intelligentsia of the New Yorker set by writing a zombie apocalypse novel. I’d read his novels The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, and Sag Harbor, and was blown away by all of them: Whitehead writes with extraordinary lyricism about race and blackness in America in all three, but Zone One elides race as a factor until a key moment late in the narrative. It is instead preoccupied with images of a desolate and empty Lower Manhattan. His main character is a “sweeper,” someone tasked with clearing out zombie stragglers in order to secure the city south of Canal Street so that business and industry can return. As with his previous novels, the writing is gorgeous; Whitehead has an extraordinary talent for language, an ability to introduce unexpected and startling metaphors into the description of the most quotidian things.
Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven. I should point out that each of these texts has something bridging it to the next. Gaiman and Whitehead have the literary/genre inversion linking them; Station Eleven picks up from Zone One as a post-apocalyptic novel. In Mandel’s case, the world is wiped out by a virulent influenza, and we follow around a group of traveling actors who make their way performing Shakespeare for the pockets of survivors two decades after the Fall. Why Shakespeare? Because in this post-apocalyptic world, it seems to be the great works that feed the souls of the survivors—and because, as is written on the side of part of the troupe’s caravan, “Survival is Insufficient”—there must be something to survive for.
The fact that the motto specifically comes from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager speaks to the novel’s broader preoccupation with genre, and its juxtaposition with art in the form of Shakespeare. The title refers to a graphic novel called Station Eleven, about a space station shaped like a planet fleeing an alien invasion. The graphic novel becomes something of a talismanic object for the survivors, as its themes come to intersect with their own preoccupations.
Alison Bechdel, Fun Home. I must confess, of all the geeky obsessions and indulgences I have owned in my life, I have never been a reader of comic books or graphic novels. I don’t know why I find it an effort to read them. But Fun Home had me rapt. I knew I wanted to have a graphic novel on this course, as doing a class on genre in this way without bringing in a visual narrative would be a big elision. Fun Home is particularly appropriate, not just because it is a beautifully drawn and written memoir, but because it leapt genres to become a successful musical on Broadway.
Bechdel’s story of her childhood, of her queer awakening, and the realization that her father—who dies, possibly suicidally, not long after she comes out to her parents—was a closeted gay man, is a poignantly told story that grounds itself in the traditions of Joyce and Proust.
Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Truth told, this is the novel that really got me thinking about doing a course like this. I’ve taught it several times now in a handful of classes, and it is always a joy to introduce it to students. It tells the story of a hapless young Dominican man named Oscar, who embodies all the negative geeky qualities: overweight, myopic, socially awkward, obsessed with women but incapable of interacting with them, and addicted to every kind of fantasy and science fiction film or novel that crosses his path. The narrator, Yunior, is a closet nerd but corresponds to the masculinist Dominican ideal; his narration is peppered with Hispanic slang juxtaposed with Lord of the Rings references. The novel is, above all else, about the collision of worlds: of male and female worlds, of immigrant worlds with America, of nerd culture and everything else.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton. I so, so hope we’ll be able to watch the filmed stage performance. Failing that, though, the cast recording is not something I ever see myself getting tired of.
Considering how much has been said and written about Miranda’s work of genius, it feels redundant to offer my pale commentary. Instead, here’s their performance at the Tony Awards.
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