Sunday, November 8, 2015

Stephen King is an Okay Writer

I realized recently that I haven’t read a Stephen King novel in about ten years.

A fortuitous encounter with a copy of 11/22/63 at a thrift store recently inspired me to rectify that.

I used to read King religiously.  In my teenage years he was my literary idol.  Ever since my mom let me get a copy of Pet Cemetary when I was in the fourth grade (yes I started reading King in the fourth grade) I devoured as many of his books as I could.  By the time I went off to college I had already read It, the Stand, Desperation, Insomnia, Bag of Bones, the first four Dark Tower novels, Four Past Midnight, Needful Things, the Tommyknockers, and many others.  I continued to read him for awhile in college but becoming an English major and taking a job at a bookstore inspired me to expand my literary horizons a bit and I left King in the dust.  Hence this was a long-delayed return to a writer who used to be very important to me.

What I was particularly interested in this time around was deciding what literary merit King actually has.  In the chaotic, messy, excessively ideological and every once in a great while noble effort to try to expand, redefine and/or abolish the literary canon it has become commonplace even in the halls of academia to declare Stephen King a genius.  It is a stance that I have rarely ever seen articulated or defended and in fact often seems to be inspired not by a love of King but by a fear of being labelled a snob, since even in the halls of academia it is disturbingly rare to ever encounter discussions that move beyond simplistic “with us or against us” false dichotomies (either you think King is a genius or you’re an elitist snob).

So at the risk of being labelled an elitist snob I am going to say that Stephen King is not a genius and he is not a great writer.  In fact he’s pretty mediocre.

Now before I delve into the nitty-gritty of 11/22/63 I want to offer the following praise for the book: even though it is almost 850 pages long, I read the whole thing.  This may seem like faint praise but anyone who knows my reading habits knows that I am an extremely fickle reader.  Every book I read gets weighed against the thousand others I have on my shelf that I haven’t read yet and if a book fails at all to maintain my interest I won’t think twice about tossing it aside unfinished and moving on to the next book.  So the fact that I actually stuck the book out for its entire length means something, especially given how long it was.

It does have an interesting premise: school teacher and aspiring novelist Jake Epping (check “troubled writer” off the list of Stephen King tropes) is let in on a secret by his friend Al Templeton, owner of a local diner whose store room has a portal that takes you back to 1958.  Al, who is dying, asks Jake to take over a mission he was determined to see out: stop the Kennedy assassination from ever happening, a rather substantial request since this requires Jake to live in the past for five years before he can do anything about it.  It’s a cool take on time travel and of the books King has published in the last ten years this one seems to have been particularly highly praised so I was intrigued enough to take it on.

With that said, I also can’t think of a single reason why the book needed to be 850 pages long.  A more accomplished writer than King probably could have told the exact same story in half the length but I bet even King could have cut a good two hundred pages or so.  Despite being a book about time travel, it actually has a very simple, straightforward and surprisingly linear narrative (this is not a fault though, not all time travel stories need to be full of convoluted paradox) but as I reflect back on the book I really don’t know why he needed so much space to tell it.  God knows he didn’t use that space to do things like develop themes or character.  Indeed the pages and pages of next to nothing happening in the long middle passages in the book nearly did inspire me to quit a couple of times, but even in the sloggiest passages King managed to keep things just interesting enough to inspire me to skim through them.

Perhaps a big part of my disinterest in these passages was in the fact that I found it impossible to give a shit about any of the characters.  I have heard some books criticized before as having characters that were nothing more than names on the page, and this book is an embodiment of that.  One of the best litmus tests I’ve ever heard for judging the quality of a character is whether or not you can describe them without mentioning physical characteristics and nearly every character in 11/22/63 fails this test including the lead character.  I have sat here in earnest for the last couple of minutes trying to see if I can describe any non-physical characteristics of Epping and all I could come up with was “he’s not a bad guy,” by which I mean he basically tries to do good.  And for the love interest, Sadie Dunhill, all I could come up with was “clumsy” which I think counts as a physical trait.  Much of the middle passages of the book are dedicated to their relationship and since I found it impossible to care about either character I also found it impossible to care about their relationship.  I took King’s word for it that they love each other though.

A couple of the peripheral characters were at least somewhat interesting.  The sniveling, bitter Bill Turcotte was probably the most memorable and King did manage to give Lee Harvey Oswald some depth but King had a cheat sheet in the fact that Oswald was an actual person whose personality can be read about (he’s the only historical figure who plays a major role in the book).

I also have to give King credit for his attention to detail.  Tidbits like the fact that coins from the present day wouldn’t work in phone booths from 1958 (the weights have changed) are nice touches, as was the fact that things like the Cuban Missile Crisis, which for us today is little more than another chapter in the history book, was for the people living through it an utterly terrifying experience.  One of King’s biggest interests in the book is to render the past as thoroughly as possible.  This was another sticking point with me though, as long passages of the book are nothing more than “nostalgia porn,” tiresome idylls on how much better things were back then, with occasional acknowledgement of the fact yeah things like racism happened too and that’s bad and all but man they don’t make blueberry pies like they used to.  I wasn’t alive for the fifties or the sixties but I would wager that if I could travel back to them, any charm I’d feel for the time period would wear off pretty quickly after seeing my first “whites only” sign.  I am, however, old enough to remember the days before the internet and no, Mr. King, we were not better off without it.

Where the book was at its best though was in building suspense.  This is perhaps King’s greatest strength as a writer, and as often as I skimmed through passages that bored me I also found myself skimming through passages because dagummit I need to know what happens next and I need to know now.  I have heard King’s popularity used as an argument for him being a great writer in the past, a ridiculous argument, since even a brief survey of classic literature demonstrates pretty handily that there is almost no correlation between popularity and tenacity (for every great writer who died a legend, there’s another who died in obscurity and there are quite a few degrees in between).  King’s ability to build suspense is what I would attribute his popularity to.  When he gets on a roll his books are very difficult to put down but, and maybe this does make me a snob, I do not think building suspense is the hallmark of a genius.  It is a talent, a knack, and those lucky enough to possess it are much more likely to find themselves topping the bestseller lists than other writers.

The other point I hear defenders of King try to make is that he does build themes and ideas into his books: they’re about more than just story, I’ve been told.  Yeah, let’s talk about that.  The great”theme” of 11/22/63 is that life turns on a dime, a cheesy Hallmark platitude that gets repeated over and over again with the assurance of good old-fashioned folk wisdom.  That’s pretty much all the book has for a theme: a corny cliche.  Hardly philosophy there.  Speaking of cliches, I don’t think King can go for a full paragraph without using one.  His writing style is definitely not one of his strong points.  When I was first aspiring to be a writer I was told time and again that King is a great model for how to write good sentences.  After reading this book though, I’m really not sure why anyone thinks that.

One other point I want to make in King’s favor before I move on: King has a reputation for fucking up his endings.  Even as a kid, when I was far less critical than I am now, I remember thinking that a lot of the endings of King’s books were terrible and it’s a sentiment I’ve heard even from a lot of his defenders.  So I must give King credit that he did not fuck up the ending to 11/22/63.  I saw the ending coming from as far away as Kennedy was in Oswald’s sights, but he didn’t fuck it up.  Unlike me praising the book for actually finishing it though, that is pretty faint praise.

Because I never read books one at a time, I worked my way through three other, much shorter books, while I was taking on this one.  I bring this up because I feel that each book, in its own way, can be contrasted nicely with some of King’s biggest shortcomings as a writer and lets us put into context just where he really stands with his literary merits.

The first was Patrick Modiano’s Missing Person, a book that shares a similar theme to 11/22/63 in that both are interested in the past.  But Modiano, who was last year’s Nobel Prize winner, explores the past through the story of a man with amnesia who is carrying out an investigation to find out who he used to be before he lost his memory.  The book is an exploration for how the past shapes our identity, and it is a simple and eloquent metaphor that is far more powerful than King’s bumper sticker musings.

The second was The Room, by an upcoming Swedish novelist named Jonas Karlsson.  The central character, Bjorn, is one of the most maddening and insufferable central characters I have encountered in a book in a long time and, as such, is quite a remarkable accomplishment (I put very little stock in book cover blurbs but one comparing Bjorn to Bartleby was actually quite apt).  Bjorn is infallibly logical, aloof, irascible, impersonal, obsessed with minute routines (and who becomes furious and disoriented when they are interrupted) and can’t understand why no one else around him can see him for the genius he is.  See how I didn’t describe any physical characteristics there?  Actually, except for the obvious facts that Bjorn is male and, since he is Swedish, presumably white, Karlsson never tells us what Bjorn looks like and it would have added nothing to the book.

The third was Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution.  Chabon is another writer who I’ve been trying to decide for awhile whether or not he’s overrated and, while The Final Solution has still left the question up in the air for me, I have no problem saying that Chabon is a vastly superior writer to King and for me a big part of it was his style.  Even when I had my doubts about how worthwhile the book was I kept going in part at least because Chabon’s sentences are so good.  Some were so expertly tuned I had to read them two or three times just to appreciate how well written they were.  Consider the following, which isn’t even an important passage: “The old man watched helpless as the boy, with mounting agitation, spun threads of loss from his palms and fingertips.”  Next to the cliche-riddled prose of King, sentences like that are a treasure.

If an aspiring writer wanted a model of good writing, I would pick any of these three over King and, while we’re admittedly getting into subjectivities here, I would also say even the weakest of them surpasses King’s merits as a writer on nearly every front.

How then is King a genius?  His themes have no depth, his characters are impossible to care about, his writing style is shit and even his greatest strength, his ability to spin a compelling and suspenseful narrative, gets bogged down by bloated, overly long passages.  No writer, not even the greatest, is perfect, but King is so far from perfect his books aren’t even in the same galaxy.

What’s wrong with treating King for what he is: a writer of fun, entertaining but ultimately unsubstantial and deeply flawed books?  What is this dogged insistence on praising him as a genius even accomplishing?  I’m all for questioning traditional notions of what makes a great writer and automatically dismissing any sort of popular fiction as meaningless fluff is a sure sign of a narrow minded snob.  But in trying to fight back against the narrow mindedness of stodgy thinking I feel we have gone too far in the other direction and trapped ourselves in a different box: the equally narrow minded belief that any writer who falls outside the traditional notions of what great literature is supposed to be must be a maligned genius.  Stephen King is a fine companion for a long plane trip or a rainy day, but as a writer for the ages, not so much.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Goodbye to 3d

I have despised 3d films since their resurgence in the mid-2000’s.  This has always been one of the more unpopular of my opinions and I have been assured many times that I am wrong and that 3d is the way of the future whether I like it or not.  And yet no one has ever been able to present me with a single compelling argument for what 3d actually brings to a movie (“a third dimension, duh”).  From its inception it’s mostly been used as an obnoxious gimmick to make things come RIGHT OUT AT YOU FROM THE SCREEN!, a trick that gets very old very fast and tends to give me a headache when I try to watch such films (apparently I’m part of 15% of the population who has this problem).  Many people have argued that 3d is a comparable evolution as the transition from black and white to color but with the difference that, if pressed, I can give many, many examples of color film to which the use of color is so essential to the meaning or style of the film that to watch it in black and white would make it a lesser film but I see nothing of the sort for 3d.  However, I made a vow: if any director could make a film where the 3d was as essential to the meaning of the film as the use of color is to a film like Wizard of Oz, Vertigo or the Three Colors trilogy then I would publicly admit that I was wrong about 3d and that it does have artistic merit.

Many directors who I have the utmost respect and admiration for tried and none of them convinced me.  James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Ang Lee and Alfonso Cuaron all made fine films in 3d but none of them were essential to watch in 3d. At the very least, I have to credit these directors for the fact that they were all able to resist the urge to make things come RIGHT OUT AT YOU FROM THE SCREEN! and instead tended to project their 3d images inward, which at the very least keeps me from getting headaches from the effect, so congratulations to all of these directors for making films that didn’t literally put me in physical pain while I watched them.  But all of their movies were just as good in 2d as they were in 3d.  The most I can say is that some effects were enhanced slightly by the use of 3d, such as the way Ang Lee liked to use water as a barrier between us and the action on screen in Life of Pi or the way Cuaron would use 3d focus to draw our attention to certain parts of the screen, but these are all effects that can be achieved in 2d as well and therefore the 3d is not actually essential to appreciating the technique meaning of these films.

There is one thing about all of these directors though: none of them are Jean-Luc Godard.  I do not say this to suggest I hold Godard in higher esteem in any of them: Godard in fact has not made a film that I’ve liked since 1967, when he abandoned the New Wave movement and plunged deep into the realm of avant garde pretentiousness.  Godard has spent the last fifty years actively subverting and undermining the conventions of cinematic art and form, usually resulting in films that are unwatchable to all but the most snobbish of cineastes.  Godard is also the first such director who they gave a 3d camera to and let him go nuts with it.

When I learned that Godard was making a 3d film I declared that if Godard could not convince me that 3d had artistic merit, nobody could.  The result of his experiments with a 3d camera: Goodbye to Language 3d, finally opened in Boston this week for one week only and, knowing that this would probably be my one opportunity to see this film, since Godard has been explicit that the film must only ever be screened in 3d and venues willing and able to show such a film are extremely limited, I made the seventy mile trek to see if someone had finally brought depth to 3d.

And I must say I have to concede defeat: Godard has finally made a film for which the 3d is essential to the experience of the film.  The film is in fact shot in such a way that it would literally be impossible to screen the movie in 2d, so effectively does he make use of the 3d camera.  However, my 3d advocating friends, don’t be so quick to rejoice for it is a Pyrrhic victory you have on your hands.  Godard may have made a film that makes essential use of 3d but only because he also made a film that is maddening to the point of being nearly unwatchable.

Godard may have very well mapped out every single possible way to use a 3d camera in this film in such a way as to be disjointing, obfuscating and disorienting.  Some of his favorite tricks include obstructing the screen with objects in the foreground (a technique he clearly couldn’t get enough of, as he uses it in over a dozen scenes), 3d images that are out of focus (which are surprisingly disorienting to look at), foreshortening, canted angles, dizzying twists (an effect enhanced far too well by the use of 3d) and, perhaps the one compelling technique he experimented with: projecting two completely different images into each eye, creating a rather novel superimposition effect (which also allows for the pleasure of switching back and forth between the two images by opening and closing one eye at a time).  There are other shots still that are harder to describe: such as his love of shooting out of windshields but ensuring that either the windshield or the view beyond is out of focus or the way he would project two slightly different images at the same time, usually putting just one object on the screen out of focus.

Couple all of this with an array of audio distortions and a non-narrative that mostly consists of a couple engaged in long and meaningless philosophical discussions juxtaposed with whatever the hell Godard felt like throwing in and the result is a movie that most people would find unwatchable despite Godard mercifully keeping the running time quite short (at 70 minutes, the movie only barely outstays its welcome).

These then were the lengths that someone had to go to to make the “essential” 3d film and so, at the end of it, I still feel smug and righteous in my claims.  The “art” of 3d has proven itself to be good for little more than rarified and nauseating exercises in avant garde experimentation, the possibilities for which I would say Godard has already completely exhausted (though, if my past experience with the avant garde is anything to go by, its practitioners will, for whatever reason beyond justification, feel the need to repeat the techniques used in Goodbye to Language again and again and again ad nauseam).  At this point, I don’t know that there is any director left who could still prove the merits of 3d to me: all of my favorites have already either tried their hand at it or outright rejected any interest in using it.  3d as a gimmick has failed to impress me, 3d as a subtle component of a film has failed to impress me and 3d as a tool for pushing the boundaries of cinematic possibility has failed to impress me.

You all are certainly entitled to continue to debate its value amongst yourselves but as far as I’m concerned the matter is settled.  I am bidding adieu to 3d.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Feeling some "Whiplash"

Yesterday I made my way to the theaters to see Whiplash, directed by first-timer Damien Chazelle and one of the plethora of Oscar-buzz films that I feel an obligation to go to every year.  What surprised me most about the film is that, for a movie that won't be anywhere on my top-ten for the year, that had me walking out of the theater thinking "eh, not bad," it has given me a great deal of cause for introspection in the last twenty-four hours, more so than almost any other film I've seen this year.

It is the story of Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) an aspiring young jazz drummer recently accepted to an exclusive conservatory.  Looming large over the school is Fletcher (JK Simmons) the most respected professor in the school.  It is the dream of every student there to be accepted into his jazz band and one day Fletcher comes barging into one of Neyman's class, puts everyone through an impromptu three second tryout and selects Neyman alone to join the band.  Fletcher is an impossibly cruel instructor, as Neyman learns when, on his first day of practice, Fletcher throws a chair at him, slaps him, screams at him and insults him until he is reduced to tears because he can't keep the right tempo.  The film treats us to many more examples of Fletcher's cruelty, including informing us at one point that one of Fletcher's former students (who became first chair in a symphony because of Fletcher's tutelage) committed suicide because of depression and anxiety that first began in his time in Fletcher's band.  But Fletcher isn't all monster and twice in the film he relates the story of Charlie Parker, at sixteen years old giving one of his first public performances in Kansas City when Jo Jones threw a cymbal at him, after which the audience laughed Parker off the stage.  The humiliation led Parker to practice intensely for another year before returning to the stage and giving one of the greatest jazz performances ever heard.  This tale seems to inspire Fletcher's teaching philosophy, as he believes that by pushing students past their breaking point he can inspire them to greatness and he seems to think that Neyman has a bit of Charlie Parker in him.

At one point in the film (after relating the story), Fletcher tells Neyman that the worst two words in the English language are "good job" and imagines another scenario where, after Parker's performance, Jo Jones told him "good job" and Parker thinks to himself "yeah, I did do a good job" and, because of it, never becomes anything more than mediocre.  While Fletcher's methods are, of course, beyond the pale, there is some truth to his beliefs and I couldn't help but think back to my own development as an artist.  It was in high school that I first came to think that maybe writing was something I could be good at but I had never done well in my English classes up to that point and my high school teachers had always been highly critical of my writing.  It wasn't until I got to college and met my first writing professor, Steve Goldsberry, who did the two most important things anyone has ever done for my writing career.  The first thing he did was to tell me I had talent (said as he was handing back a descriptive essay I had written for his class).  As I had been so plagued by doubt about my own writing ability, this was something I desperately needed to hear and it inspired me to sit down at my computer for the first time and try writing a short story.  I asked Dr. Goldsberry if he would be willing to read it and he was more than happy to oblige.  That was when he did the second most important thing anyone had ever done for my writing.

He obliterated my story.  Everything about it: the writing, the tone, the narrative - every piece of the story was ripped to shreds.  The first page was so bad he literally could not find a single redeeming quality to it and X-ed out the entire thing.  I was crushed.  I walked home carrying the tattered remains of my story that I had worked so hard on and was so proud of, thinking once again that I had no talent for writing, that I was an idiot for ever wanting to pursue it.  But then I realized that Goldsberry was right - the story was terrible and I realized also that I could do better.  So I sat back down at my computer and rewrote it entirely from scratch and I brought it to him again.  This time he only X'ed out half the first page and he showed me what in my first page was working and what wasn't and I revised again and again, getting better each time.  I eventually abandoned that story (trust me, even the last version was still shit) but that doesn't matter, what mattered was how much the process of rewriting and revising that story taught me about the art of writing.

When I look back on these two acts there is no question that him destroying my first short story was by far the greater act.  I had desperately needed the validation he had given me but if I had brought him that first short story and he had told me "good job, you're such a good writer!" I would have gone home very happy and written another godawful short story just like it, and another and another, convinced all the while that I was a good writer, and I would have sent them off to lit mags and contests and I would have been baffled at every rejection I got ("but...but...I'm a good writer! Can't they see that?").  Eventually I would have given up, no doubt bitter and cynical that the world had failed to recognize my genius.  Instead, the failure of that first story inspired me to push harder and harder, it taught me to never be satisfied with my work and so much of what I've accomplished in the twelve years since: my PhD, my MFA, my many publications, my novels-in-progress, even my dissertation and scholarly work, all of them leaves on a tree whose roots go back to my despondency at watching Goldsberry trash my work.  I would probably still be where I am today if Goldsberry hadn't told me I had talent, but I know I wouldn't be where I am today if he hadn't destroyed my first short story.

Cruelty is the difference between Charlie Parker and the season-opener rejects of American Idol, it's the difference between a Pulitzer-prize winner and a self-publishing failure, between Oscar winners and street performers.  Sure, there are many who lack talent who won't let any amount of cruelty stop them and sure there's not enough room at the top for all of those who actually have talent but be cruel all the same.  If you love art then be cruel to all the artists you meet.  You don't need to hit them or threaten them or humiliate them but hurt them all the same.  Fletcher's methods may be reprehensible but he is absolutely right about one thing: "good job" will never produce great art.

And Damien Chazelle, if you're reading this, Whiplash wasn't bad for a first feature film but come on, man, you can do better than that.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

9 Things I Wish I’d Been Told About My Academic Job Search

First off, a couple disclaimers: First, this post is not intended to imply that my department did a poor job preparing me for the job search.  Without the advice and guidance they provided I probably wouldn’t have gotten the job that I did.  But the thing about the job search is that it is such a long, complicated process that it’s just impossible to cover everything that someone would want to know about the search.  The purpose of this piece is to discuss those components of the job search that caught me off guard, the things I didn’t expect or that, in hindsight, I realize would have been very useful things to have known going into my own search.

Secondly, some of this advice won’t hold much relevance outside of my own field, but I’ll try to note when that’s the case.  All of this advice won’t be useful to everyone, but it’s my hope that some of this advice will be useful to someone.

1.) It’s impossible to start too early.

I thought I was getting on the ball by starting on my job search materials as soon as the Fall semester started, but come mid-October I was still struggling to get my materials together and watching the earliest deadlines slip by.  All of your materials need to be top notch and it will take a lot longer than you’d probably guess to get your CVs, cover letters, teaching philosophies and other materials written, updated and revised than you would guess.  Getting your materials started or updated should be a summer project so that come Fall semester you can have them revised and ready to go by the time those first early October deadlines come.

But even still, I would have started earlier than that if I had thought to.  Every year of my PhD before the year of my job search I would glance through the listings to get a sense of what kind of jobs were out there but I realized during my job search that I should have followed the listings much more closely and checked them much more frequently than I did.  I could have gone into my own search with a much better sense of what colleges are looking for and what kind of jobs are out there.  So, if it’s not too late for you, spend each year of your PhD really closely following and reading the job listings, because it will give you a very strong sense of what the job market is like and what you can expect when you’re finally ready to go at it for real.

2.) You have no idea how much material you will need to create.

Going into my job search, I knew I would need a CV, teaching philosophy, letters of recommendation and a few variations of my cover letter tailored to the different types of jobs I would apply for.  But I didn’t know I would also need to create a statement of administration philosophy, curriculum contribution statement, dissertation summary, research summary, writing samples, sample syllabi, statement of experience with students in research or scholarship (yes, that is a thing) and, while I didn’t apply for any job that needed one, a statement of faith if you want to apply to a Christian college.  I had not known that any of these would be necessary (though only a handful of jobs I applied for asked for most of these).  One of the things you’re going to have to take into consideration is whether or not you want the job badly enough to have to create these materials because you may decide its not worth the extra effort (I only used the administrative philosophy for three or four jobs and the experience with students etc. was only used at one place).  One school I applied for asked for a document describing three dream courses I’d love to teach, but that was quite a pleasurable document to create.

On a side note related to this, be sure to always pay very careful attention to the submission instructions the school asks for.  Oftentimes those rules are in place to rule out any application that can’t follow the directions.

3.) You will receive an infuriating amount of conflicting, contradictory advice.

This is one of the most frustrating components of the job search, especially because everyone who gives advice means well and is genuinely trying to help you, but after talking to enough people you won’t know which way is up anymore.  I was told to only apply for around ten jobs, to apply for about twenty, to aim for fifty, to apply for as many jobs as I possibly can.  I was told that the dissertation is the most important part of your qualifications, I was told that nobody cares about the dissertation and it’s your research agenda that’s most important, I was told that your research agenda isn’t as important as your letters of recommendation, and so on.

I ultimately found that it was most useful to go by my instincts.  For example, I saw no value in trying to limit the number of jobs I applied for so I applied for as many as I could and after looking through the sheer variety of jobs out there I think I understand why no one can seem to agree on what the most important part of your qualifications are.  For me, it was the variety of my teaching experience as well as my experience with creating curricula that netted me a job, but for many of my friends it was their research, their dissertation or their administrative experience.  What you should really be aware of is that it’s hard to say what part of your experience is going to net you a job, which is a good argument for being as balanced as possible in your qualifications.

4.) Create a spreadsheet.

I figured this one out on my own and was glad to have figured it out early on, but I started keeping all the jobs I wanted to apply for in a spreadsheet that included, the college, location, position, duties, course load, minimum and desired qualifications, materials needed and deadlines.  It was an absolute godsend for helping me keep track of deadlines and which schools I had and had not applied to.  Maybe not a spreadsheet per se, but have some way to keep track of the jobs you want to apply to.  A little bit of organization goes a long way.

5.) You will probably have to book MLA without knowing whether you have an interview

It’s an unfortunate truth that many colleges still hold job interviews at MLA every year and won’t give much consideration to contacting you about it a week before the convention.  Because of this, don’t be the least bit surprised if you find yourself having to plan to attend MLA without even knowing whether or not you’ll have an interview there.

There’s quite a lot about the job search process that’s frustrating but this is one component of it that desperately needs to be changed.  In the age of Skype and so many other means of long-distance communication there’s no need to make anyone travel for a preliminary interview anymore.  But even if you are insistent on keeping to the MLA tradition, it is extremely disrespectful to the very tight budgets and schedules of PhD students to make them pay hundreds of dollars for MLA without any guarantee that they could even expect an interview.  Any college that insists on clinging to this practice could at least do their prospective candidates the courtesy of notifying them well enough ahead of time that they can plan for MLA knowing that it will be worth their while to show up.

For those of you who are on the receiving end of this system, sorry but there’s not much you can do about it.  Hopefully you’ll get at least one interview at MLA.

6.) About that whole geography thing…

If your experience was anything like mine you were told again and again and again to just accept the fact that, because the academic job market is so small, you really don’t get much choice about where you’re going to live and if you try to limit your job search by geography you’re setting yourself up for failure.  If you’re one of those lucky few individuals who doesn’t care about geography (what’s your secret?) then this was never an issue for you to begin with, but for the rest of us, this is a great source of anxiety and despair.

Here’s the thing though: yes, the academic job market is small and yes you are probably going to have to make some compromises on geography (just how many compromises is of course quite dependent on how many jobs there are in your field) but if, for example, you loathe the idea of settling down in one of the plains states you can probably leave them out without much worry.  The thing is, most of the jobs are in places that are more desirable to live anyway.  I didn’t apply for a single job in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming or Idaho (or a few other places but we’ll leave that aside for now) but during the course of my job search I saw maybe ten job listings in my field pop up in those eight states.  To put that in perspective, I applied to that many jobs in New York City alone (not to mention several other jobs in NYC that I skipped over).

Personally, I limited myself geographically to what I call the “W”: all the way down the west coast then across the southwest, with an upturn into Colorado before swinging back down into Texas and through the southeast and then up the east coast into New England.  With a few exceptions, I decided I was perfectly willing to live anyplace along this route and the only major population centers it leaves out is the stretch from Ohio to Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota (and I’ll admit that I took quite a risk not applying for any jobs in those states but despite my refusal to do so, I had still managed to apply for 70 jobs by mid-December).

I will certainly grant that if you really don’t care where you live you will have a definite advantage on the job market and I will also certainly agree that if you try to limit your job search too much you’re setting yourself up for failure.  But if this has been a source of great stress to you, just know that it probably won’t be quite so bad as you fear.

Also, don’t forget to think globally.  While not as abundant, there are absolutely international job opportunities that will pop up for Americans to apply for.  They’re much easier if you’re single (being married and/or having children greatly complicates taking a job overseas) but if you have the freedom and ambition to do so, look abroad for more opportunities.

7.) Personality goes a long way

A lot of our job prep guidance focuses on qualifications, job materials and how to present them and without the ability to do so you’re not going to make it past your living room.  But I think one of the most overlooked portions of the job search process is presenting yourself as a person.  You can have publications and teaching experience out the wazoo but if in an interview you’re incapable of showing some basic grace and social etiquette you’re unlikely to make it very far regardless of how good your other qualifications are.  Yes, a department cares about your publications and your teaching and your service but at the end of the day they’re also going to have to work with you on a day to day basis and some assurances that you’re not a nutball will be greatly appreciated.

If, like many scholars, you’re more socially awkward then be aware that this is a shortcoming you’ll need to work to overcome.  My dissertation director told me of a candidate who interviewed for a job in the department and spent the entire interview with his hands on his knees staring at the floor, never once making eye contact with anyone.  They rejected him outright because of his odd behavior.  Making eye contact, smiling, being polite, showing curiosity about the school, the region, the students, etc…all of these are factors that can tip the interview in your favor.  Your qualifications got you to the interview in the first place, but your personality will do a lot to get you a job.

8.) You’re going to have to make some tough decisions

Perhaps the reason advice is never given on this matter is probably because there’s not much advice that can be given but be aware that there’s going to have to be a lot of very difficult decisions to make as the process progresses and offers start coming in (or, worse, don’t start coming in).

In a perfect world, all of the interviews would happen around the same time and all the job offers would come on the same day and you would get to leisurely pick which job you like the best with no concerns that maybe you could have gotten a better opportunity.  We don’t live in a perfect world though and it’s entirely feasible that you’ll find an offer coming from a less desirable school while you’re still interviewing for your dream job and you’ll have to decide whether to pass on the offer and risk getting shut out of the next one too or accept the less desirable offer and be left wondering whether or not you could have gotten a better job if you’d held out.  A friend of mine found herself in that exact position but decided to take a gamble and won.  She got a great job at a far better school than where the first offer came from, but I had many conversations with her as she was agonizing over the decision, realizing that her future hinged on what she decided to do.

There’s no easy way to see through these decisions.  They take a lot of soul-searching and sleepless nights to get through and ultimately no one can guide you through them but yourself.

9.) Don’t Panic

The whole process is immensely stressful and, even if you’re in a more lucrative field, will leave a constant shadow of doubt hanging over your head as to whether or not you’ll even be employed in a year.  One of my professors told me at the beginning of the year that I should be excited about the job search because a new world of opportunity was opening up for me and I wanted to smack him.  All I could see was doubt and uncertainty.  But now, at the other end of the process, I realize there was something exciting about it.  If I hadn’t gotten the job I’d gotten I probably would have gotten one somewhere else and if I had been shut out of academia entirely there were plenty of opportunities in the private sector I would have been perfectly happy to pursue (another pro-tip: no matter how lucrative your field and no matter how dead-set you are on a career in academia, research the private sector so you can be sure of having a viable plan B, C, D, E and F [which, yes, is how many plans I had]).

While it’s definitely a case of easier said than done, perhaps the most useful piece of advice I can pass on is DON’T PANIC (which I have printed in large, reassuring letters for you there).  At the very least, undue stress and anxiety does nothing to benefit your search and, at worst, can work to undermine you.  This is a piece of advice that I was given but failed to follow but do try to see it as an exciting new opportunity because, when you get that offer, that’s exactly what it’s going to be.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Amazon's Up to Some Shenanigans

A little over a year ago, I started selling movies and videogames online as a way of earning some extra money (graduate school never having been the most lucrative of positions) and because it is by far the largest and easiest place to sell things, I have always listed the overwhelming majority of my inventory on Amazon.  For a long time everything was fine but a few months ago I started to notice something a little peculiar.

A small but not insignificant part of my business is TV seasons because they’re easy to find for cheap and always sell quickly.  But when I came home with a couple of seasons of Deadwood that I had found at a thrift store and tried to list them for sale, I got a message saying I had attempted to list a restricted item and could not proceed.  This was rather peculiar because there were plenty of copies for sale but I couldn’t find any explanation for the restriction and couldn’t get any response from Amazon when I emailed them about it.  Pretty soon I started to notice that HBO’s entire lineup was restricted for sale and I started to notice something else too: used copies were drying up.  Now if you go and search for almost any HBO series you’ll see only a handful of overpriced new and used copies are left for sale but the other thing too is that the first option that comes up when you search for them is to buy downloads of the episodes through Amazon Prime.

This was rather obnoxious but I just assumed that Amazon and HBO had struck some kind of deal and forgot about it.  Or I did until I started noticing that other TV seasons, in many cases shows that I had in the past had no problem being allowed to list for sale, were becoming restricted as well.  So far I have discovered that 3rd party vendors can no longer sell seasons of Everybody Loves Raymond, Veronica Mars, The Mentalist, Breaking Bad, Dexter and pretty much the entirety of the BBC’s lineup and I'm sure a little bit of digging around will yield quite a few more.  If you want to check for yourself you can.  You don’t need any special access, all you need to do is pull up the product listing and look for a button that says “sell yours here.”  If you click on it and are given the option to enter product information then the item has not been restricted, but if you get a message saying that it’s a restricted item then, well, you don’t need me to tell you what that means.

Furthermore, like with the HBO seasons, when you search for these shows you are usually given the option to download episodes through Amazon Prime first and sometimes you have to do a lot of digging to get the option to buy the DVD or Blu-Ray.  I don’t think it takes much logical deduction to parse out what’s going on here: Amazon is trying to force customers onto Amazon Prime (or at least force them to download TV shows) and while I don’t want to try to blow the severity of the situation out of proportion (at some point I will write a blog post about how we’ve gotten into a nasty habit of doing that) it is definitely not a good thing for two reasons:

1. It hurts small businesses.  In case you’ve ever wondered who those third party vendors on Amazon are, most of them are small businesses taking advantage of Amazon’s space to gain a huge amount of exposure for their business or they’re people like me just trying to earn a bit of extra money or simply get rid of some stuff.  When Amazon restricts the sale of a market as large as DVD and Blu-Ray TV seasons it really hurts the income of these sellers.  TV seasons used to be a reliable source of money for me but now I’ve found myself surrounded by a lot of TV shows that I can’t sell and reluctant to buy anymore because there’s no way for me to tell until I get home with them whether or not Amazon is going to restrict me from selling them (and yes I have tried eBay and it has been my experience that TV seasons will sit on there for months without selling. Furthermore, any online retailers outside of these two get so little traffic that your inventory will also sit for months before anyone buys it).  Luckily, TV shows are not the bulk of my business because if they were I would probably have been forced to close up shop by now.

2. It’s bad for consumers.  Essentially Amazon is trying to limit your buying options and limit them to a product that many people do not want.  I can assure you by the way that physical TV seasons used to sell almost as quickly as I could list them that there is still a very strong demand for the physical copies and Amazon is currently trying to take this away.  Of course there will always be brick and mortar stores (for the time being at least) and other online retailers but since Amazon is by far the largest of them, it is a bit of a worrisome precedent that they are setting, and more worrisome still when you consider the possibility that they may start restricting the sale of other physical media as well, in which case I and a lot of other sellers are going to be out in the cold and your buying options are only going to become more and more limited.

There are of course, far more serious problems in the world but unlike most of those, this is a pretty easy one to see to.  There is a very similar parallel at work here to what Microsoft tried to do with the Xbox One and a lot of loud complaining from fans forced them to renege very quickly on the restrictions they had planned to put in place with the Xbox One.  The difference here is that Amazon has been putting restrictions in place in a much quieter way, because unless you are specifically in the business of selling TV seasons on Amazon you’d never know that this was going on.  I’m sure simply complaining to Amazon will get the same results.  They are, after all, a business and any business thrives by making sure its customers are happy.  I know I still love to have physical TV seasons on my shelf and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who doesn’t want to give them up anytime soon either.  We just need to make sure that Amazon is aware of that as well.