Category Archives: blog business

Isolated Thoughts: Taking Stock, Seven Weeks In

I had a bad day yesterday: I woke up to a low-grade anxiety attack and spent the better part of the day feeling sad, listless, and generally useless. Some time around 4pm the fog lifted, and I started to write, hammering out my previous post on The Last Ship and about half of another post on recent HBO programming.

This morning has been better, in spite of the fact that it’s miserably cold and pissing rain. Though in truth, I enjoy sitting in my home office on dismal, rainy days, pathetic fallacy be damned, so the rain wasn’t likely to depress me—and in fact, I just sort of shook my head at it, as if the universe was conspiring to put me in a funk. And then the words “murder hornets” popped into my head and I started to giggle uncontrollably at the sheer absurdity of it all. As I asked in a previous post: What’s next? It makes an odd sort of sense, however, that if the universe is conspiring to compound all of the absurdity of the recent weeks, its choices were limited after the President of the United States suggested drinking bleach and getting an ultraviolet enema might be a viable treatment for COVID-19. In order to truly up the ante, murder hornets were a logical choice.

It has been interesting, day after day, to see how people are coping on social media and otherwise. My partner Stephanie has broken out her guitars after months of not playing, and ordered an electronic drum pad. She taught herself “Miracle Drug” by U2, and is, as I write, in the process of recording her tracks on her laptop. Online, I see all the baking and cooking people are doing; many people are posting pictures of daily pandemic life, sharing intimate or artistic portraits of what the lockdown has meant for them and their families; many others have taken up various seven- or ten-day challenges to post covers of books or albums that they love; they share affirmations about mental health; one of my friends has asked a question for the hive mind every day of the quarantine, from favourite colour to what person, living or dead, you’d most want to have lunch with.

Though few of these things are especially new to social media, their volume, frequency, and earnestness is. At least part of that, presumably, proceeds from the boredom of being cooped up; but there is also a profound expression of shared humanity in it all. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, perhaps, as it can also serve to remind us of all the people out there we cannot see in person; but there is also a comfort to is, an affirmation that we are not alone in the difficulty of weathering this crisis.

For my part, I’ve written more on this blog in the three weeks since I started this “Isolated Thoughts” series than I had in the year and a half preceding it. I don’t exactly garner much of a readership—my posts top out at about fifty views, according to my stats—but then that has never really been the point of my blogging. I write here to work through certain thoughts, to give them an airing; it is not unlike writing in a journal in that respect, except that the public nature of a blog and the knowledge that some people will read it forces me (hopefully) into somewhat more coherence than when I jot stuff in my Moleskine.

So we keep on. Keep posting pictures of your sourdough loaves, your pets, your favourite albums, your rants and fears and loves; talk about your good days and your bad, and I’ll keep posting my isolated thoughts. I have quoted my favourite W.H. Auden poem on this blog before, but there’s that one line that utters what is, for me, one of the most profound truths: “We must love one another or die.”

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Isolated Thoughts

I had my first real bout of pandemic-related depression the other day. I woke up from a bad dream whose details I could not recall, but which was coronavirus-related, and the lingering sense of sadness and dread dogged me for the better part of the day as I looked out my office window at the grey and miserable weather that frequently passes as spring in Newfoundland.

It actually took me a few hours to put my finger on why I was feeling down, and it came, weirdly, as something of a surprise. Right. Things are kind of fucked up right now. I had by this point been party to any number of expressions of sadness, depression, anger, frustration, and a host of vagaries of brown study inspired by isolation, anxiety, and worry for the future, all of them communicated over social media. I read every day news stories, think pieces, and op-eds from the seat of my own isolation, connected to the world but separated from it. I go for long walks every day; my grocery shopping is an infrequent but excruciatingly long process as I buy mountains of food and necessities so I don’t have to do it again any time soon, all the while getting annoyed at people who don’t seem to grasp the basics of social distancing or the point of the arrows spaced six feet apart on the store floor. I return home and subject myself to a Silkwood-style scrubbing, and sit again in front of my portal to the world after putting the groceries away.

In a number of ways, this pandemic is the apotheosis of what we once called the postmodern condition, one aspect of which was neatly characterized by Fredric Jameson as the paradox of collectivity experienced in isolation by way of mass media. As traumatic as the assassination of John F. Kennedy was, Jameson writes, it offered a “utopian glimpse” of shared experience, but an experience shared by an atomized population watching television. September 11th, 2001 offered a similar experience, but one rendered uncanny by its familiarity. As Slavoj Zizek pointed out, the true shock of 9/11 wasn’t its novelty, but the haunting sense of “where have I seen this before?” Popular culture had been imagining apocalyptic destruction for years; contra what innumerable pundits were saying in the aftermath, said Zizek, “It wasn’t that reality entered to shatter the illusion, illusion entered to shatter the reality.”

And now we sit in self-isolation watching a pandemic unfold after having imagined it in literally hundreds if not thousands of movies, TV shows, novels, and video games. It is with no small sense of serendipity that I spend part of my days working on a series of articles that have been in the works for some time on post-apocalyptic imaginings: one on zombie apocalypse as an expression of ambivalence to mass culture, one on apocalyptic figurations as an expression of “hopeful nihilism” (the flip side to Lauren Berlant’s formulation of “cruel optimism”), and one on the humanist nostalgia of Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven, a novel about the persistence of art in a post-pandemic world. One character in Station Eleven remarks ironically, “It could be worse. There could be zombies.”

apocalypse outfit

It could be worse. One of the more amusing memes circulating on social media is the contrast between how one imagined what their post-apocalypse outfit would look like versus what it actually is—the former being something badass with a lot of leather and guns, and the latter being sweatpants and a housecoat. But what art and narrative offer that real life tends to lack is catharsis. Killing zombies with a crossbow or blasting across the alkaline flats in a souped-up semi with Imperia Furiosa would be harrowing but thrilling; sitting (as I am right now) in flannel pyjama bottoms and a hoodie with a dozen tabs open to different stories in my browser, is, to say the least, a counter-intuitive way to endure a pandemic, and not one that should lend itself to anxiety and depression.

But of course it does. The surprising thing, on reflection, was not that I was depressed the other day, but that it took that long for it to happen. I am, by my count, twenty-two days into self isolation, the first fourteen of which were actual quarantine. My partner Stephanie and I were in Barbados on vacation when the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic and Justin Trudeau strongly encouraged all Canadians abroad to come home. We cut short our time in Barbados, and the relief we felt on making it home after the headache of rebooking flights was palpable; it was good to get home, and we also had the glow of time spent in the Caribbean lingering. And I have been on a half-sabbatical since the start of January, so I’ve more or less been self-isolating and social distancing before I was aware that either expression was a thing. I am, I’m almost a little embarrassed to admit, perfectly well situated to endure the lockdown with minimal issues.

And so I try to keep in the front of my mind the fact that whatever anxiety, frustration, and depression I experience is being experienced tenfold, a hundredfold, by many others. I think of how much worse this would be if it had happened when I was a graduate student living alone in a small apartment on a pittance, and I think of my students, current and former, enduring that now themselves.

My biggest fear is not that the world will be different when all this is over, but that it won’t be—that we won’t have learned the lessons about the fragility of our political and economic system, that those most vital to society aren’t the wealthy but those who get shit done every day, whether they’re stocking shelves or caring for the ill.

It’s a bit ironic to think that one of my standard riffs in my lectures on the nature of power is to get my students to imagine how long my authority as a professor would last into a zombie apocalypse. Think about it, I say: you’ve all paid tuition to sit in this class; I am granted authority both tacit and explicit as someone with a doctorate in this subject to run this class and evaluate your work. The very room is arranged with that power dynamic in mind. But if the zombie apocalypse happens while we’re in here, it’s quite likely that my usefulness will be reduced to being shoved out into the hallway to see if the coast is clear.

I can’t help feeling like we’re sort of in a moment like that now. It’s vital that when we come out the other side of this, we remember who kept things running, who put themselves in harm’s way for minimum wage, and who deserves the greatest consideration when we rethink everything. The biggest problem with our fascination with apocalyptic narratives, as has been observed by Jameson and Zizek and others, is that they comprise a failure of imagination—that it’s easier to imagine the wholesale destruction of capitalism than any sort of functional alternative. This failure, in a nutshell, is what I mean by “hopeful nihilism”—the idea that burning it all down will somehow make way for something better, without any clear idea of what “better” entails. It should go without saying that this kind of thinking was at least partially responsible for the election of Donald Trump (one of my more glib titles for the hopeful nihilism essay is “Were the Zombies Trying to Warn Us About Trump?”).

One sentiment that made the rounds on social media that made me laugh was someone who, commenting on the fact that quarantined Italians were singing from their balconies, said “I can’t sing opera, so I plan to conduct a PowerPoint presentation from my balcony this evening.” I laughed at that, thinking that my equivalent would be to deliver a rambling lecture on postmodernism from my balcony.

As it happens, I don’t have a balcony. So stay tuned for more isolated thoughts.

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Project Brevity

I’ve been neglecting my blog all summer, and for many months before that, and for a long time before that … part of my problem, I’ve come to realize, is that I’m not so good at writing short blurbs. Every time I start a new idea for a post, it grows in the telling: this is not helped by the fact that I tend to develop grandiose ideas, like multi-part meditations on topics like expanded universes (for example). And then I write myself into corners, dissatisfied with what I’ve produced (and believe me, I’ve written somewhere in the neighbourhood of 20,000 words since April that have never seen the light of day).

So … new project: brevity. I will aim to write one or two posts a week of less than 1000 words, ideally closer to 500, on something germane to this blog’s general theme of narrative (though that has always been something of an elastic category here).

New post coming shortly, on the heels of this one.

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Returning to blogging, and a recent symposium

Yes, yes, this blog has lain fallow for quite some time … as usual, it’s not for lack of desire to write or a lack of anything to write about, just … well, a lack of motivation, I suppose. That and just the press of other obligations, professional and otherwise.

But it is strange, I suppose, that I never think of shuttering this blog or otherwise abandoning it—I’m quite proud of a lot of the stuff I’ve written here, and always have the best intentions of getting back to posting on a regular, or at least a semi-regular basis.

So here’s an attempt to get back to it, and hopefully get myself back into the habit of working out my thoughts out loud, as it were—which, really, is the greatest value this forum has for me. I have no illusions that I’ll ever have a huge readership—the stuff I post about and the format I tend to write in (i.e. long) pretty much guarantees that my audience remains somewhat limited—but that doesn’t bother me. I have come to think of this space as an intermediate stage between scribbling in my journal and writing more formally. My ruminations here have more to do with the former, but in putting in out publicly, at least I have to keep myself honest (to a point).

visual symposium

Anyway, the occasion for getting back into it is a symposium in which I took part, organized by a colleague of mine, featuring brief (5-7 minute) presentations on various aspects of visual culture.

Now, keeping an academic-ish presentation to five to seven minutes is hard. I can reliably burn through five to seven minutes at the start of a lecture just clearing my throat. And as anyone who has read my posts on this blog knows, brevity isn’t exactly my strong suit (to quote President Josiah Bartlett, “In my house, anyone who uses one word when he could have used ten just isn’t trying hard”).

But it was a useful exercise; my topic is one I’ve aired on this blog before, namely, maps, fiction, and fantasy. I’ve been kicking around a variety of thoughts and ideas about this for a long time now, but never really had the impetus to find my traction. I don’t know, necessarily, that I’ve got that now, but this talk certainly forced me to distill the key ideas down to the point where I can see a few avenues opening up for future exploration.

The symposium itself went extremely well—five presenters, each of us compressing our thoughts into the crucible of five to seven minutes. It’s always a shame that academics can get so insular in our own research, writing, and teaching—especially in winter, and especially as the semester gets busier—because one thing I love about this job is listening to my brilliant colleagues share their work.

As it turns out, my medievalist colleague John Geck was also presenting on maps, looking at medieval conceptions of space and place, especially in terms of “itinerary” maps that stress the experience of travel as opposed to the abstraction of a god’s-eye empirical perspective. We sat down a few times before the symposium to share ideas, and to see whether our respective topics would have any overlap.

As things happened, they did. Here’s the text of my presentation along with the slides I showed.

1 - fantasy and cartography - title card

What I want to do here is make a bridge from John’s discussion of medieval itinerary maps to the maps we find in fantasy, a genre which for the purposes of my talk could be usefully characterized as the bastard love child of medieval romance and historical fiction.

2 - earthsea

My representative fantasy map, chosen to honour one of the greats. R.I.P. Ursula K. Le Guin.

Given the brevity of this presentation, I need to make one point quickly and hope to stick the landing: that maps and cartography are by definition fictional. Mapping resembles the writing of fiction in at least two principal respects: one, it is mimetic; two, it invariably distorts or deforms what it imitates according to its preoccupations—or, to put it another way, according to the story it wants to tell.

4 - world maps

The fact that we speak of maps as projections is a useful point to keep in mind, considering that term’s use in psychology to refer to forms of ideation.

3 - projections

7 - mercator-peters copy

Wish I’d had time to show the “Cartographers for Social Justice” clip from The West Wing.

All of which is to say nothing of the more overtly fictional elements of mapping, such as the consensual hallucinations of place-names and borders, all of which come freighted with their own histories, stories, conflicts, and connotations. I mean … we live on a peninsula named “Avalon” by Sir George Calvert in the hopes that, like its namesake, it would be paradisaical.

5 - Arthur - Avalon

To take the analogy between mapping and fiction a step further, we could liken the itinerary maps John discussed to the genre of romance, and “empirical” maps to realism … and as I suggested, it is at the intersection of these two that we find fantasy, or at least the kind of fantasy modeled on J.R.R. Tolkien’s example (which is to say, most of it).

8 - GoT - credits

And as those who read fantasy know, maps frequently play a key paratextual role, and are distinct from “real” maps for obvious reasons. They do not render or imitate territory. Maps in fantasy are deterministic, which is to say they define the territory rather than vice versa. They provide readers with a gods-eye view not available to the characters—and in this respect comprise a conflation of fantasy’s premodern and/or quasi-medieval sensibilities and those of modernity’s empirical presumptions.

9 - middle-earth

As a case in point (to use my favourite example): in The Fellowship of the Ring, some time after departing Rivendell, the Fellowship hoves into view of a western spur of the Misty Mountains. When Pippin protests that they must have turned eastward in the night, Gandalf says, “There are many maps in Elrond’s house, but I suppose you never thought to look at them?” (283). To which Gimli the dwarf declares that he needs no map, and proceeds to name the peaks on the horizon. “There is the land where our fathers worked of old, and we have wrought the image of those stone mountains into many works of metal and of stone, and into many songs and tales.”

10 - misty-mountains

Shortly after, Sam confides to Frodo that “I’m beginning to think it’s time we got a sight of that Fiery Mountain, and saw the end of the Road, so to speak. I thought perhaps that this here [mountain] … might be it, till Gimli spoke his piece” (285). Tolkien then observes that “Maps conveyed nothing to Sam’s mind, and all distances in these strange lands seemed so vast that he was quite out of his reckoning.”

A few points here: maps are presented in this instance as all but useless to those who have no wider knowledge of Middle-Earth, and unnecessary for those who do. The provincial hobbits are quite at sea, while Gimli’s rather intuitive knowledge of the landscape evokes the experiential understanding of space and place discussed by John in his talk: Gimli can recognize and name the mountains because of his familiarity with “many songs and tales.”

By contrast, the paratextual map of Middle-Earth provides readers with a privileged perspective, one that lets us know, even without Tolkien’s somewhat patronizing observation, precisely how naïve Sam Gamgee’s hopeful sense of place is.

12 - middle-earth 2

This privileged perspective creates an interesting thematic contradiction at a point in the narrative most deeply embedded in the conventions of medieval quest romance. We as readers can pin Sam and the Fellowship to a specific place—as if we could pull up Google Maps and inform Sir Gawain that he’s just half a kilometer east of Bertilak’s Castle, or let Hansel and Gretel know that if they carry on past the gingerbread house for another hour or so they’ll be literally out of the woods.

This, for the record, is the nub of my particular interest in fantasy: the contradiction of Tolkien’s (and by extension, fantasy’s) nostalgic rendition of medieval romance, and the imaginary but exhaustive empiricism of his invented mythology, for which the map of Middle-Earth functions emblematically, subverting the mystery and caprice of romance with cartographic, historical, and linguistic determinism. Tolkien’s “mythology” is ultimately evocative of Jorge Luis Borges’ Tlon, a fictional world so scrupulously detailed and imagined that it takes on corporeal reality.

13 - tolkien-lewis

This contradiction is doubly interesting insofar as both Tolkien and his good friend C.S. Lewis both created their fantasy worlds in part as a corrective to what they saw as the spiritual aridity of secular, scientific modernity with its emphasis on the empirical at the expense of mystery. Echoing Keats’ injunction against unweaving the rainbow, Tolkien writes in his poem “Mythopoeia” that “I will not walk with your progressive apes, / erect and sapient. Before them gapes / the dark abyss to which their progress tends / … I will not tread your dusty path and flat, / denoting this and that by this and that.” It is thus perhaps something of an irony that Tolkien privately loathed Lewis’ Narnia chronicles, considering them slapdash and careless in their world-building and too reliant upon allegory, and lacking the kind of exhaustive intellectual rigor he would ultimately bring to the creation of Middle-Earth.

I have no conclusion other than to say that this is my starting point from which to explore how this contradiction in the “cartographic imagination,” more broadly considered, is deployed by contemporary fantasists to articulate a secular and humanist worldview.

 

 

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Blogging, or The Intrinsic Value of Shouting at an Empty Room

I’ve been a very bad blogger. Every so often I go through a burst of energy and put up a handful of posts in quick succession, but it’s been some time since I posted on a regular basis. Certainly this past year has seen a lot of inaction on this site. If it weren’t for my Game of Thrones posts with Nikki Stafford, I’d have put up next to nothing.

Which isn’t for lack of wanting to. I have journals full of notes chronicling my thoughts on a host of topics, many prefaced with the hopeful header “possible blog post”; and I have a folder on my desktop containing an embarrassing number of half-completed posts that I just couldn’t make work to my satisfaction, or which languished until their subject was no longer current.

One of the reasons for my blogging absence has been one of the more epic cases of writer’s block I’ve experienced in my adult life. There have been a variety of factors contributing to that (which I won’t get into here), but one of them is the way in which writer’s block gets worse the more you don’t write. I haven’t posted much this past year because of writer’s block; but one of the reasons I’ve had writer’s block is because I haven’t been posting to this blog.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that my level of blogging activity is a bellwether of my productivity more broadly—sometimes I just don’t really have anything to say here, but am getting a lot of writing done in other arenas—but there’s something to be said for keeping the pump primed by posting relatively clear and coherent arguments or meditations.

What is this blog for? It certainly isn’t aimed at a large audience. If my ambition was to write for thousands of people, I’ve failed miserably here. Fortunately, that has never really been a concern. Most of my posts garner in the neighbourhood of fifty readers, which likely corresponds to the number of my Facebook friends actually interested in what I might have to say on a given topic. The Game of Thrones posts tend to top out at about one hundred and twenty readers. Three years ago, I made it to three hundred and fifty with a pair of posts about that whole David Gilmour thing, and Margaret Wente’s entirely predictable response to it. And the most readers I’ve ever had was for a post I wrote, apropos of the events in Ferguson, Missouri, about The Wire and police militarization, which garnered twelve hundred readers—mainly because a friend of mine posted the link to Reddit.

So, I’m hardly swaying anyone’s opinion on such matters as Donald Trump, as I can say with a great deal of confidence that everyone who read my previous point probably agrees with everything I said. The fact that I’m almost invariably preaching to a (very small) choir has occasionally bothered me. Why go to the effort of parsing my thoughts if I’m not reaching people who will disagree with me, or whom I can engage in substantive, meaningful debate?

That thought underpinned a lot of my more self-defeating capitulations to writer’s block, at least as far as this blog was concerned. But lately I’ve been thinking about it in a different way: less as a means of engaging in a broader conversation, than as a conversation with myself. What I’ve been missing this past year is the exercise of thinking out loud. On my old blog I once compared blogging to shouting at your empty kitchen to something you hear on the radio. I think that analogy holds: articulating thoughts, giving them form and shape, is a valuable exercise even when no one is listening. The difference between writing things out in my journal and composing a post is that the latter is technically public—meaning that the act of composing takes precedence. Only a handful of you are actually reading this, and fewer still will have read this far. For those who have: Hello! I am happy that you’re interested enough in my thoughts that you’re still with me.

Don’t get me wrong: a large audience would be nice, but I’m not about to do all the things necessary to broaden my appeal. To be honest, I’m not even sure I know what those things would be (aside from employing more clickbait-y titles and keeping my posts more succinct. Yeah, that’s not happening).

I do however want to do more with the blog, and write more, and more frequently. One of my favourite series of posts I’ve done is when I taught a course on The Lord of the Rings two years ago, and did a series based on my lectures. I intend to do something similar this fall: I’m teaching a fourth-year seminar course I’m titling “Revenge of the Genres,” which will deal with texts that play with the “genre” appellation in a variety of ways. I’m planning to do a series of posts for each of the texts we cover, which will hopefully fuel discussion both in and out of the classroom. I’ll say more about that course closer to when we begin in September.

Revenge of the Genres

I’ve also got, I’m sorry to say, a cluster of Trump-themed posts on the back burner. Yes, I know … we’re all suffering from Trump fatigue, and I encourage people to actively avoid reading them. They’re more for my own benefit, to clarify my own thoughts more than to make specific arguments.

And I’ll be picking up the threads of research I had intended to do over the past few months. I won’t say much about that now, other than that it involves zombies, crowds, and soldiers.

That’s all for now.

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Blog 2.0

Welcome.

Some eight years ago I started a blog called An Ontarian in Newfoundland, on the occasion of being hired at Memorial University and moving from London, ON, to St. John’s, NL. Its purpose was to record my thoughts and impressions both of my move to Newfoundland and into the career I’d spent eight years of graduate school training for. And for some time, the blog filled its purpose, giving me a forum to record key events in my life and a place for my friends and family to read them at their leisure, without the annoyance of that intrusive (now thankfully obsolete) practice of the mass email.

Since then, two things happened to make the blog a lot less relevant: one, Facebook. Somehow, using a blog to keep one’s acquaintances apprised of major life events came to seem quaint, and even (bizarrely) a little narcissistic (perhaps because it’s so easy to post reams of minutiae about your life on Facebook with no effort, whereas writing a blog positively reeks of effort). Two, Newfoundland went from being a strange and fascinating new place to live, to becoming my home. I can’t really put my finger on when that happened … perhaps when I bought a house, or when I got tenure. Or perhaps when it just ceased being a novelty and became Where I Live. Someday I will peruse all my old posts and see if I can locate the moment of transformation.

In the interim, my posts became increasingly few and far between; and when I did post, it almost never had to do with living in Newfoundland and almost always had to do with whatever political, literary, academic, or cultural events roused me enough to sit at the keyboard. Mostly in the past few years I have been writing about books and television, with the occasional enraged response to one of Margaret Wente’s columns; and while the blog was a fine enough forum for such posts, it lacked a raison d’être.

Hence the reboot. After a lot of thought and even more procrastination, I have arrived at this new space and theme.

It’s all narrative. I mean that rather literally. I stress two things to my first-year English students (I stress these points to all my students, really, but I really try to pound it home with the ducklings): first, telling stories is how we enter the world. Or to put it another way, our principal mechanism of understanding is narrative. We tell stories to put things in comprehensible order, to grasp the nature of causality, to make meaning. These narratives are invariably incomplete and provide us with biased and selective pictures of the world. They are also frequently compelling and entertaining. This is why we need to understand how they work.

Second, all language is rhetorical. That is to say, all language is designed to persuade. There is no such thing as absolutely precise language, just better and worse ways of communicating ideas. (I say this as if it’s a broadly accepted fact, when in reality it’s one side of a bitterly contested philosophical debate. But hey, my blog, my reality). And narrative, especially compelling narrative, is perhaps the most convincing rhetorical device there is.

I am a narrative junky. I love good stories told well. This can be something of a failing at times for someone who is ostensibly a professional literary critic, as I am somewhat too easily caught up in a good story. It also means I privilege such gauche elements as plot over symbol and metaphor (another rather unfashionable thing for English professors. Good thing I have tenure).

So if this revamped blog is to have a theme, it will be just that: narrative. There will almost certainly be deviations from this theme (probably when Margaret Wente plagiarizes another screed), but we’ll mostly be preoccupied with stories of one form or another—novels, film, television. I want to talk about what I’m reading, what I’m watching, what I’m reading, and what I’m writing about … which is to say, more or less the say as the last blog, but with more focus.

Stay tuned.

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Nothing to see here.

Not yet. Check back soon.

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