Category Archives: Journals

Evaluating Teacher Performance

Journal of Human Resources cover image

Journal of Human Resources contributor Matthew A. Kraft believes that we do teachers and students a disservice when we assess teachers based mainly on students’ standardized test scores. His article “Teacher Effects on Complex Cognitive Skills and Social-Emotional Competencies,” which will be published in the Winter 2019 issue of JHR, examined teachers’ influence on students’ social-emotional abilities. These include such qualities as growth mindset, perseverance, and effort in class, which have been linked to employment and health outcomes in later life. Kraft also studied student performance on complex open-ended tasks in math and reading—problems more complicated than those required by multiple choice tests—to understand how teachers affect critical thinking skills. Kraft found that a teacher’s ability to impact students’ standardized test scores was not always a good indicator of that teacher’s effectiveness at fostering complex cognitive skills and social-emotional skills, suggesting that we need better methods of evaluating teacher performance.

Kraft, who is an Associate Professor of Education and Economics at Brown University, joined us for a conversation touching on his background as an educator, his ideas on effective teaching techniques, and other topics. To learn more, read about the article on the JHR blog.

How did your time as a public school teacher influence your drive to research topics in education and/or the direction of that research?

As a public school teacher in Oakland and Berkeley, California, I often felt that teaching social-emotional skills had to come before teaching academic content. I tried to help my ninth grade students, most of whom were identified as at risk of dropping out, to feel like they belonged in school, to control their behavioral impulses, and to see value in what they were learning. My students did not take standardized tests, but if they did I doubt their performance would have captured the multiple ways in which I attempted to help them develop as young adults.

Do you remember any particular teachers that helped you develop social-emotional skills as a student?

I don’t ever remember being explicitly taught social-emotional skills. Instead, I remember teachers like Ms. Thomas, my tenth and twelfth grade English teacher, who set extremely high expectations but provided constant support to help us meet these expectations. She helped me to develop my own self-efficacy and perseverance by the way she taught core academic content.

Do you have a sense of what techniques teachers could use to develop students’ complex cognitive skills? Social-emotional skills? Maybe give an example or two. 

In my opinion, project-based learning holds great promise for developing complex cognitive skills. Examples such as the curriculum developed by EL Education (formerly Expeditionary Learning) illustrate how authentic and complex tasks require students to use a multitude of skills rather than practicing individual skills in abstract isolation on worksheets.

How to teach social-emotional skills is very much an open question. I’m convinced that the best teachers both explicitly narrate and reinforce the value of these skills, while also designing their curriculum and pedagogical approaches to support their development through academic work. I think we learn things like persistence not by being told about the value of this skill, but by experiencing small successes in overcoming challenges with the support of educators.

What is one takeaway from your article that you’d like to communicate to nonscholars or policy makers? 

Our understanding of teacher effectiveness, as well as the multiple measures used in new teacher evaluation systems, fail to capture the full range of ways in which teachers affect students’ success in school and life.

After this publication, where did your research go? Did you find yourself pursuing similar questions or changing course?

My current work in this area is focused on the importance of students’ sense of belonging in schools. Preliminary results suggest that schools and teachers who help support students to feel like they belong are creating environments where students develop their academic and social-emotional skills at faster rates.

Matthew KraftMatthew Kraft is an Associate Professor of Education and Economics at Brown University. His research and teaching interests include the economics of education, education policy analysis, and applied quantitative methods for causal inference. His primary work focuses on efforts to improve educator and organizational effectiveness in K–12 urban public schools. He has published on topics including teacher coaching, teacher professional growth, teacher evaluation, teacher-parent communication, teacher layoffs, social and emotional skills, school working conditions, and extended learning time. His research has been featured in The Economist, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Education Week, The 74 Million, public radio, and several blog sites.

Land Economics Journal Welcomes New Editor

Daniel J. Phaneuf

When Daniel W. Bromley assumed the editorship of Land Economics in 1974, the journal had just celebrated fifty years of continuous publication. Bromley is the Anderson-Bascom Professor (Emeritus) of Applied Economics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and recipient of the 2011 Reimar Lüst Prize from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. Under Bromley’s leadership, the journal has flourished as a forum for scholarship on the economic aspects of natural and environmental resources. Now, forty-four years later, as Land Economics approaches its centennial, Bromley will pass the baton to Daniel J. Phaneuf.

Phaneuf is the Henry C. Taylor Professor of Agricultural and Applied Economics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He boasts an impressive editorial resume, having served as the inaugural editor in chief of the Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists (JAERE) and the managing editor of the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management. He is the president-elect of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists.

In his first “From the Editor” feature, which will appear in Land Economics volume 94 number 3 this July, Phaneuf expresses the ambition “to maintain the journal’s emphasis on empirical and pol­icy-relevant research in the field, while con­tinuing to expand its readership and author community to include broader swaths of re­searchers in the profession.” He continues, “My early emphasis will be on increasing the journal’s visibility, circulation, and overall impact—tasks for which I will call on current authors, readers, and reviewers for assistance and sug­gestions.” Phaneuf notes that he does not anticipate making any changes in the journal’s scholarly focus or the way it is managed.

Land Economics was established in 1925 by Richard T. Ely, founder of the American Economic Association, at the University of Wisconsin. (For more on Ely’s legacy, including the story of how he was tried as a socialist and anarchist in 1894, leading the UW Board of Regents to issue a groundbreaking defense of academic freedom, see this article.) Today, the articles in Land Economics contribute crucial knowledge to discussions of scholarly and public policy topics. The journal publishes research related to environmental quality, natural resources, housing, urban and rural land use, transportation, and other areas in both developed and developing country contexts.

Claire Eder joins UWP as Journals Marketing Specialist

Claire Eder

The University of Wisconsin Press has hired Claire Eder as its new Marketing Specialist in the Journals Division. Eder joins UWP from the literary journal Quarter After Eight, where she was editor in chief. She also has experience in scholarly publishing from a past graduate internship at the University Press of Florida.

Eder earned a PhD from Ohio University and an MFA from the University of Florida. Her poems and translations have appeared in the Cincinnati Review, PANK, Midwestern Gothic, and Guernica, among other publications.

Journals Manager Toni Gunnison notes, “Claire’s varied experience will be a great asset to UWP. We feel very fortunate to have her join our program.”

Eder states, “I’m excited to help the crucial research published in UWP journals reach a wider readership, as well as to join a friendly and skilled team. The University of Wisconsin Press is the perfect place to grow my knowledge of scholarly publishing.”

About the University of Wisconsin Press

The University of Wisconsin Press, a research center housed within the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is a nonprofit publisher of books, journals, and other works. The Press’s mission is to embody and extend the research, education, and outreach mission of the University of Wisconsin through publishing:

  • scholarship, research, and educational materials of exceptional quality and distinction valued by a worldwide academic and professional community
  • works that serve the people of Wisconsin and document our region’s heritage
  • works that sustain a literate culture and foster an informed and engaged citizenry.

 

Honoring Mekemson era at Contemporary Literature

Mary Mekemson, hard at work editing Contemporary Literature

The Fall 2016 issue of Contemporary Literature marked the end of an era, the last to be edited by Mary Mekemson. Her nearly thirty years as managing editor with the journal were celebrated at a party in September, given in honor of her retirement. Mary received a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature in 1988 and took the position of managing editor with the journal in 1989. She has read, corrected, and revised every word in Contemporary Literature from 1989 to 2016. She was (and is) a superb editor. Her insistence upon clear writing improved the prose style and argument of many an essay. She regularly received praise and thanks from the authors with whom she worked, and her mentoring of the journal’s graduate-student editorial assistants was much appreciated. The editorial office staff of the journal and staff at UW Press wish Mary the very best.

 

 

Executive Editor Thomas Schaub, outgoing Managing Editor Mary Mekemson, new Managing Editor Eileen Ewing

Eileen Ewing is the new managing editor. “Having worked for Contemporary Literature for several years as its editorial and administrative associate, I am pleased to take on the role of managing editor. It allows me to continue my scholarly engagement with the literature of the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. I have a Ph.D. in English, with my dissertation focusing on twentieth-century women’s writing. I am particularly interested in the technical aspects of journal production and find the process of rejigging workflows for an electronic environment both stimulating and fun. I look forward to the challenges of manuscript editing and to carrying on the journal’s tradition of excellence.”

 

Contemporary Literature journal marks 57 years of publishing

This guest post is written by Eileen Ewing, Managing Editor of Contemporary Literature

This year marks Contemporary Literature’s fifty-seventh year of publication. Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature was begun by graduate students in the Department of English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1960.

The journal publishes articles on multiple genres, including poetry, the novel, drama, creative nonfiction, new media and digital literature, and graphic narrative. Over the decades, many literary luminaries have been featured in the journal, often early in their careers.  CL published the first articles on Thomas Pynchon and Susan Howe and the first interviews with Margaret Drabble and Don DeLillo. It also helped to introduce Kazuo Ishiguro, Eavan Boland, and J.M. Coetzee to American readers. At the links, read some fascinating recent interviews found exclusively in Contemporary Literature with poet Brian Kim Stefans, novelist Rachel Kushner, and novelist Anthony Cartwright.

L. S. Dembo, a scholar of modernist poetry, became editor of the journal in 1966 and shortened its title two years later. During his twenty-four years as editor, Dembo’s dedication to all that is exciting in modern and contemporary literature helped the journal to attain the international readership and large subscription base that he and the associate editors (Cyrena N. Pondrom, Betsy Draine, Phillip Herring, Jay Clayton, and Thomas Schaub) sought for it.

At Dembo’s retirement in 1990, Thomas Schaub took over as editor and shifted the parameters for submissions to work on post-World War II literature in English. The journal continued to publish interviews with established and emerging authors, articles featuring a diversity of critical practices, and reviews of scholarly books. Throughout the next two decades, Schaub and the associate editors (Richard Begam, Lynn Keller, Rafael Pérez‑Torres, Robert S. Baker, Jacques Lezra, and Rebecca L. Walkowitz) kept Contemporary Literature at the forefront of its field as a forum for discussing the issues animating the range of contemporary literary studies.

In 2009, the editorship of the journal was restructured as a collective led by Lynn Keller (poetry), Thomas Schaub (American fiction and drama), and Rebecca Walkowitz (British and Anglophone fiction and drama). The three co-editors worked closely with six new associate editors: Alan Golding, Adalaide Morris, Amy Hungerford, Sean McCann, Matthew Hart, and John Marx.

The current editorial collective is composed of Yogita Goyal (British and Anglophone fiction and drama), Michael LeMahieu and Steven Belletto (American fiction and drama), and Timothy Yu (poetry), with Thomas Schaub acting as executive editor. The associate editors are Elizabeth S. Anker, David James, Heather Houser, Jessica Pressman, Alan Golding, and Adalaide Morris.

 

Revised 7/10/17 to add byline.

Journal of Human Resources contributes to public policy debates

With this post, we launch an occasional series highlighting the University of Wisconsin Press journals program. UWP began publishing journals in the 1960s.

The Journal of Human Resourcescover_jhr is among the most important journals in the field of microeconomics, with research relevant not only to scholars but to current debates in public policy. Findings and analysis published in JHR are often covered by major news organizations, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC’s Today Show, CNBC, and National Public Radio. The journal’s scope includes the economics of labor, development, health, education, discrimination, and retirement.

Founded in 1965 at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, JHR continues to be housed within the Institute for Research on Poverty. JHR has had many accomplished editors over the years, including Sandra Black, who was appointed to President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors in July 2015. The current editor, David Figlio, is the director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

A past JHR contributor of particular interest to the University of Wisconsin–Madison is the current UW Chancellor, Rebecca Blank. Her work on poverty and public assistance programs appeared in four articles in JHR before she became Deputy and Acting Secretary of Commerce in the Obama administration.

Intriguing examples of research presented in JHR can be seen in two upcoming articles. The first, “It’s Just a Game: The Super Bowl and Low Birth Weight” by Duncan, Mansour, and Rees, interprets data from 1969 to 2004 for mothers whose home team played in the Super Bowl. Read the Washington Post’s coverage here. “The 9/11 Dust Cloud and Pregnancy Outcomes” by Currie and Schwandt also examines birth outcomes, in this case in relation to the events of 9/11. Their findings were recently cited by National Geographic.

Other topics recently covered in JHR included the effect of birth order on the development of a child, the unintended consequences of China’s One-Child policy, the influence of school nutrition programs on childhood obesity, the effects of age on hiring practices, and the effect of the minimum wage on employment practices.

Learn more about The Journal of Human Resources.

View a free online sample issue.

 

UNIVERSITY PRESS WEEK 2016! THURSDAY BLOG TOUR: THROWBACK TO THE FUTURE

Throwback to the Future

On Day Four of University Press Week, visit these blog sites that highlight the past and future of university press publishing.

Yale University Press on mass media and the global village

Indiana University Press on Indiana’s Bicentennial Bookshelf

Seminary Co-op Bookstores reproduces their Fall 1983 newsletter

University of Michigan Press  introduce two major projects: a digital archaeology monograph about excavating a Roman city, built on a video game platform;  and a new digital publishing platform for information and data in multiple forms.

IPR License introduces its work as a fully transactional rights and licensing online marketplace

Columbia University Press on the South Asia Across the Disciplines series, a Mellon-funded collaborative project of Columbia University Press, the University of Chicago Press, and the University of California Press

University of Toronto Press Journals looks back and forward at online publishing platforms for journals

Also, plan to watch this event on Friday!

Scholars and Editors on Social Media
YouTube Live   Friday, November 18, 12PM ET
Communities of scholars and editors have always been essential to the work of university presses. Today these communities often form and find each other via social media. An AAUP Art of Acquisitions Hangout brings together editors and scholars to explore this. Watch the livestream >

And view an impressive gallery of university presses collaborating with partners to form communities.

 

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Stone: An Inhuman Ecology: A review and brief interview

The current issue of SubStance: A Review of Theory and Literary Criticism includes a review by Paul Harris of Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s book Stone: An Inhuman Ecology (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), which can be viewed on Project MUSE or Highwire. Subsequent to the review’s publication, Harris asked Cohen about his interest in stone and how he came to write Stone.

PAUL HARRIS At the end of your introduction, you cite the “Big Rock,” a glacial erratic on a hill in your neighborhood growing up, as a sort of original inspiration in your lifelong explorations in lithophilia, literary and otherwise.  Can you flesh out a bit more how you came to have a strong affective resonance with stone?  Are there other specific stones or sites that stand out in retrospect as exerting a particularly powerful influence on you?

JEFFREY COHEN I grew up just outside of Boston, not far from Lexington and Concord … and this geographic situation really matters since when I was a small child the USA was celebrating its national bicentennial. The colonial musketeering, parades and flags and tricorns and redcoats were just too much for me. I became obsessed with deeper pasts. I’m sure that’s why I was eventually drawn to medieval studies. But I was also fascinated by the temporality of stone, how erratics like the Big Rock bore witness to a narrative of swamps and dinosaurs indifferent to the small human histories that bubble and pop around them. The Big Rock (what a poetic name!) was close to home and yet a constant invitation to the faraway. What I did not reveal in the book is that I tricked other children in the neighborhood into believing that if you sat on that rock at the right time of day you would be transported into another dimension and likely not find your way back. Well, maybe there is some truth to that.

I should also note that Stone is a book that keeps beginning: I tell a variety of stories for how I started the project in it, of various landscapes and encounters that triggered the project. Although they contradict each other somewhat, all of them are true, in the same way that stone is process more than object.

PAUL HARRIS I like how the physical and narrative powers ascribed to The Big Rock make it become a portal—one might call it a “fantastic” stone….  Your answer broaches a question that often surfaces in relation to deep time or Big History: is a turn to this temporality informed or accompanied by a desire to escape history?  Or at least the politics of the present?

I enjoyed the recursive style and narrative form of Stone very much, and wondered about how such an intricately interwoven book came together, over the “long duration” you reference in the acknowledgements. When did you start working on the text, and what was your method?

JEFFREY COHEN Rather than a fantastic stone I’d call the Big Rock an adventurous one: full of futurity (advent, avenir) through its durability, its intimacy with a long past, its relentless suggestion of possibility. I’m not sure that what such adventurous objects offer is escape from the present exactly: more an unexpected widening of ambit than a flight from particular circumstance. Sitting on the Big Rock was always an essential component of the stories I told: that is, the narratives were always grounded in a time and a place, even if in lithic companionship they attempted to imagine larger prospects.

Stone took a lifetime to compose, since I have always been attracted to the substance. Or maybe the book took about six years to write, with the last three given over almost completely to its composition. It took me a long time to find the form the book wanted, so I discarded tens of thousands of words I’d composed and restructured the volume repeatedly. Once I understood though that the form of the book might perform its argument (because stone is always about recursivity within difference, circuits that open wider at each cycle and yet do come back in time) – and once I realized that I could not pretend that the scholarly and the personal are two disjunct realms — then Stone began to cohere. I was a little too obsessive with the project. Toward the end I injured my shoulder from poor posture at my laptop, a battle scar I still bear. Stone hurts! But I will never tire of its contemplation.

Paul A. Harris is co-editor of SubStance and professor of English at Loyola Marymount University. He served as president of the International Society for the Study of Time from 2004-2013 and edited the recent SubStance issue David Mitchell in the Labyrinth of Time.  His current project is The Petriverse of Pierre Jardin.

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen is professor of English and director of the Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute at the George Washington University. His recent work includes the edited collections Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory Beyond Green (Minnesota, 2013) and, with Lowell Duckert, Elemental Ecocriticism. Recently he co-wrote a short book called Earth (forthcoming from Bloomsbury in early 2017) with planetary geologist Lindy Elkins-Tanton.

It’s our 80th birthday! 1936-2016

80th-logo“Publication is as much a function of the university as teaching or research [and] an obligation that every great university owes to itself and to society.”
—The University of Wisconsin Committee on University Publications, April 13, 1936

In 2016, we mark the eightieth anniversary of the founding of the University of Wisconsin Press. Throughout the calendar year, we’ll be blogging about the history of the Press, as well as welcoming guest posts from our UWP authors and editors.

Subscribe to our blog (at right) to read more UWP history throughout the coming year.

Livia Appel

Livia Appel

1936    On April 13, 1936, the University of Wisconsin faculty senate enacts legislation to “publish particularly meritorious manuscripts as books using the imprint ‘The University of Wisconsin Press.’” Livia Appel is hired as managing editor.

1940s   Hit hard by the toll of war—paper shortages, staff shortages, and the near impossibility of finding printers with facilities for “non-essential” work, the Press nearly ceases operations.0469-165w

1950s   The Press publishes the two-volume Classics in Translation edited by University of Wisconsin faculty Paul L. MacKendrick and Herbert M. Howe. It will become our all-time bestseller.

1960s   The new Journals Division publishes its first volumes of Contemporary Literature, Luso-Brazilian Review, Slavic and East European Journal, Journal of early Contemporary LiteratureLand Economics, Arctic Anthropology, and Monatshefte. Five of these continue as UWP journals, joined by later acquisitions.

1970s   University budget cuts result in the Press reducing by half both its staff and the number of new publications.

1980s   The Press publishes its largest-ever book in a single volume: the 1056-page Fishes of Wisconsin, by George C. Becker of the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point. (It’s nowUWP_Spring2011_catalog_12610 available free online.)

1990s   UW–Madison professor of art Warren G. Moon dies, leaving an endowment of $700,000 for the book series Wisconsin Studies in Classics. His legacy continues to support a thriving series.

2000s   The Press begins publishing journals and books in both print and electronic formats. Our bestselling e-book is Death in a Prairie House: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Murders by William R. Drennan.

50612010s    Several new book series are launched: Critical Human Rights, the Harvey Goldberg Series in Understanding and Teaching History, and Languages and Folklore of the Upper Midwest. Three new journals in African Studies are added to the Press’s publications: Mande Studies, Ghana Studies, and African Economic History.

Visit the UW Press homepage.

 

 

 

 

Slade House in Review(s)

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A new novel from David Mitchell, Slade House, was published in October 2015. Following up on a 2015 special issue  of the journal SubStance devoted to Mitchell’s extraordinary works of fiction, Paul Harris and Patrick O’Donnell previewed Slade House in a pre-publication discussion. Now that the novel has received its early critical response, Harris and O’Donnell review the reviews.


 

Paul Harris

Paul Harris

PAUL HARRIS: As we suspected, the reviews of David Mitchell’s Slade House seem quite cleanly divided between two types of responses. Either the novel is a “devilishly fun … fiendish delight” fit to devour in a single sitting like the twins sucking down another soul, or it is dismissed as “soul-sucking mumbo-jumbo” registering too high on the “wackometer” to enjoy, let alone take seriously.

The most positive reviews see it as an entertainment given substance by the “human warmth” of its characters or the philosophical questions it raises: John Boyne calls it “a highly effective, creepy and witty ghost story, designed to unsettle the reader and raise questions about what all of us might do in our quest for immortality.” The most negative assessments see Slade House as a letdown, or even a betrayal: for Scarlet Thomas, the novel moves Mitchell from exemplary author (“what would David Mitchell do?”) to one “writing [his] own fan fiction.” Thomas criticizes Mitchell for moral and political disingenuousness: the novel sounds “hefty themes” but transfers “meaning and purpose” from the real to the “supernatural” and ends up offering only a “Bill and Ted philosophy” that we should all “be excellent to one another.”

 

david_mitchell_slade_house

Patrick, do you see a third alternative to these views, an excluded middle that gets us out of the muddle of either seeing Slade House as a lite fictional funhouse or a shrill failure without much value? In considering this question myself, one avenue that I’ve thought about is genre. Reflecting on the many reviews I read, I realize how critical the lens of genre is in the reader’s reception of Slade House. The novel has garnered ubiquitous comparisons to Henry James’s Turn of the Screw for giving the ghost story a new twist, while also being lauded for its Lovecraftian integration of horror and science fiction. Others, though, diagnose Slade House as over the top in its deployment of genre(s) and heavy-handed in explaining or laying bare the rules of its fictive world.  I found science fiction writer and critic Paul Kincaid’s review the most informed, persuasive take on this issue. Though the novel as a whole sounds the horror note, Kincaid points out that in each section Mitchell “sets up genre expectations and then upends them in a very deliberate and calculated way.” This pattern is what makes Mitchell so successful: Kincaid concludes that Slade House “works, as all of Mitchell’s novels have worked, because we start out reading one thing and end up reading something very different indeed.”

Mitchell both explodes the boundaries of genre (by refusing to stay within the confines of distinct classes of fiction) and implodes them (by miming a genre and then turning it inside out).

Kincaid’s review made me appreciate Mitchell’s constant upending of expectations, but it also made me wonder whether the game can reach a point of exhaustion. Mitchell’s fictional arcs can abruptly shift dimensions, it seems, because it is all fiction—it’s all made up, so you are free to make anything up and keep changing the rules; once this is the case, ultimately there is nothing that can be trusted and nothing that cannot be done.

Slade House seems to assert this view of narration or fiction most explicitly or literally. The twins have infinite fiction-creating power dressed up in Lacuna-Operandi-Orison stagesets, but they SO free to compose the scene and inhabit characters that there are no rules left. Behind the world being constructed is an omnipotent wizard who can wave a wand at any time, without any need to justify matters. The orison of the Fox and Hounds pub featuring Jonah commandeering Fred Pink in the novel’s penultimate section felt the most contrived; the sudden shift left me more ticked off than tickled. This reversal then sets up the final turning of the tables, at yet another level of abstraction, when Marinus’s powers prove even more infinite than the Grayers, and time enters the Lacuna. As readers, we should be able to see this coming because that final section is narrated by Norah, and each section has shown the destruction of unsuspecting narrators who think they are in one world with one set of rules but turn out not to know who or what they are up against.

Returning to one strand of our previous discussion, I am left wondering what Slade House tells us about the house of fiction. If the rules of conjuring have no rules, or all genres and conventions can be flouted at any time, then there is not enough suspense or tension left to warrant our entering into a state of suspended disbelief—put differently, with nothing to believe in, there is nothing not to believe in, and hence no disbelief either.

What are your thoughts about this very basic but also encompassing question of the rules for constructing houses of fiction?


 

Patrick O'Donnell

Patrick O’Donnell

PATRICK O’DONNELL:  Like you, I am not terribly surprised by the bifurcated responses from the reviewers, though I think those that regard Slade House as a minor entertainment really miss the mark. Many of the responses that you cite proceed from a set of expectations regarding both David Mitchell (a major novelist in mid-career) and the fictional genres that he characteristically engages—or rather, the fictional sub-genres (as they are often viewed) of  fantasy, science fiction, horror.  The combination of “major novelist” and “sub-genre” poses a dilemma for reviewers who have a hard time putting together the notions of serious literature and popular genres, despite much important Anglo-American fiction since the 1960s closing the gap between “high” and “low” art.”

Murakami

I’ll simply note in this regard that one of Mitchell’s fictional mentors, Haruki Murakami, received a similar set of binary responses to 1Q84. Reviewers, in the main, weren’t particularly happy with that novel’s engagement with what they perceived as a chaotic mix of realism, mysticism, fantasy, and various shaggy dog pyrotechnics.

There seems to be an equal amount of difficulty with the expectation that each succeeding novel by an acknowledged, important novelist and prolific writer must somehow “top” everything that has come before, or offer some kind of visible, steady advance (“the best David Mitchell novel yet!”) in an ever-rising career trajectory.

I’m quite sure there is a large excluded middle between viewing Slade House as either a delightful (but minor) entertainment or a “fan fiction.” There are many ways seeing the novel that do not rely so much on the expectations I’ve mentioned.

I’m in complete agreement with you that examining what Mitchell is doLost in the Funhouseing with genre in Slade House, and throughout his fiction, offers one way of getting at what is at stake in this newest work. Some of the reviewers seem to suggest that nothing important is at stake, particularly those who are disappointed that Mitchell seems to be trading off his investment in the “big themes” of human greed, exploitation, colonialism, mortality, historical inevitability, or historical change, etc., for sheer fun, fantasy, and entertainment (or lack thereof).  And, I think you are quite right in suggesting that the novel is constantly turning the tables on itself and on the expectations of its readers by positing that its own fictional rules are constantly changing and subverting their own tenancy. I’m reminded of the line in John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse: “for whom is the funhouse fun?”

For you, it seems that the suspension of belief in the rules that undergird the suspension of disbelief results in a kind of mise en abyme of infinite play and a loss of semiotic power that, for those unhappy with certain putative versions of postmodernism, signals a dead end of sorts.

I’d like to pose another possible way of seeing all of this.  The novel—quite seriously, I think, for all of its esoteric claptrap, as well as its fractality and generic hybridity—poses the questions of who is making the rules, and what are the hidden or manifest agendas of their making?

How do those in power (the rule-makers) stay in power, and what do power-mongering and rule-making—which in Mitchell’s fiction has everything to do with the enforcement and construction of a supposedly orderly and stable “reality” that enables those in power to remain empowered—have to do with our sense of what constitutes human identity?

Michel Foucault has performed for us the crucial work of explaining how power operates in relation to knowledge: he poses and answers a series of complicated epistemological questions. But he doesn’t get at what power has to do with us ontologically, and I think that is what Mitchell is trying to get at in his work, including Slade House, with its soulsucking semi-immortals and its rebirthed “saviors” like Marinus, who operates not as a deus ex machina but as a last-ditch interventionist embodying the unforeseen good luck of those who will not be destroyed by the Grayers in the future (though that’s not to say something else won’t come along to take their place). The novel might then be seen as extending the fantasy of empowerment, perhaps to its absurdist limit, enabling us to ask some key questions: what happens if everyone is in on the lie of this fantasy that disguises the real fragility and vulnerability of the empowered? What happens if we see that power, with all of its seductions, is the opposite of what constitutes (or should constitute) life and being? What if the construction of reality is put into the hands of the multitude and not the hands of the one per cent?

Let me put the ball back in your court, Paul: How do you see Slade House in relation to Mitchell’s previous fiction: as an advance, an extension, a repetition, a refutation—or, if none of those, how can we regard it?  Is there any way to tell where Mitchell goes from here?


 

PAUL HARRIS: Pat, you just hit the refresh button on Slade House for me: I look forward to rereading it to watch how empowerment is linked to world-making and see how it plays in these terms. You’re right to remind Mitchell readers that, just as he collapses serious and popular genres, he also sounds heavy themes in seemingly light stories.

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As for how Slade House relates to Mitchell’s previous work, in form and structure it most clearly resembles Ghostwritten, Cloud Atlas, and Bone Clocks. All these texts are divided into discrete sections with different narrators set in different decades/centuries. The obvious difference is that Slade House takes place at one setting, while the episodes in the other novels span the globe. Just as the spatial setting doesn’t change, Slade House also generates a more static image or concept of time than those other novels. Even though its episodes move forward nine years each time, each plays out the same scenario, so there is not the same kind of plot advancement as in the other texts.

The game afoot is to defy mortality: the Grayers persist in a Lacuna where time doesn’t pass, and they consume engifted souls to keep themselves from aging.  The narrative time thus progresses in a recursive loop; each nine years a new narrator enters a new Orison, but the modus operandi remains the same. The novel’s temporality reminds me a bit of a video game, where a new player enters and tries to beat the villains. It is reminiscent of the film Run Lola Run (explicitly framed as a video game sequence, run three times through), except that not all characters remain the same through the iterations of the game-time. As in that film, here there is Run Lolalearning, or shared information, that accumulates in the game’s iterations: knowledge and weapons are passed forward. For the reader, each section makes us increasingly familiar with the plot routine (enter the house, consume Banjanx, go upstairs, soul is consumed). So, as we make our way through it, the novel seems to become more and more suspended in the ghostly time of its fictional house. Of course, like all Mitchell novels, it ends with a new beginning. Instead of Norah’s death closing the deal, she transverses into a fetus and vows revenge on Marinus—and surely we can anticipate seeing this confrontation in a future novel.

This brings me to the other question you posed: what direction Mitchell might take from here. Mitchell is particularly fun to play this game with, because he keeps defying expectations and exploring new territories. In imagining Mitchell’s career trajectory, I don’t think about his work as a single arc or linear process. I’ve written before that it seems more fitting to imagine his texts as iterations in a fractal imagination. The recurring characters, themes, and genres prompt me to picture his “übernovel” as a sort of strange attractor; each text marks a recursive movement—both returning to familiar sites and opening new terrains—that simultaneously fleshes out and fills in more and more of his fictional universe. With each textual iteration, the overall shape and contours of his übernovel become increasingly clear and its constituent parts more densely interwoven.

If we conceptualize Mitchell’s work this way, then speculating where Mitchell’s work will go next would entail running the strange attractor simulation through its next iteration. Stanislaw Lem actually thought about authors’ work in this way in his brDostoevskyilliant “History of Bitic Literature” thought-experimental essay published in 1973. (Lem is a “Prescient” if ever there was one!) Lem imagines computing machines capable of “bitic mimesis,” machine-written imitation of writers. He describes a novel by Pseudodostoevsky, created by a computer processing all existing Dostoevsky novels as information in “the space of meanings” and modeling his corpus as “a curved mass, recalling in its structure an open torus, that is, a ‘broken ring’ (with a gap). Thus it was a relatively simple task (for machines, of course, not for people!) to close that gap, inserting the missing link” (58).

At first sight, it seems much harder to model Mitchell’s writing in that way than Dostoevsky’s; the latter seems to have an internal stylistic and generic consistency that Mitchell purposely eschews. But with each successive novel, his corpus seems to gain coherence and consistency, assuming some sort of discernible shape. If I tried to model Mitchell’s work, I wouldn’t start from “the space of meanings” in the words, but rather I would list a set of recurring elements—island or city settings, cats, types of characters (angry writer, gifted rebellious teen)—and a template for form, such as every ending a beginning, stand-alone episodic stories serving a larger plot, etc.

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Putting aside this digressive line of speculative unreasoning, one could make a more educated guess at predicting the shape of Mitchell’s future work by following the clues he himself has laid down. In her excellent piece about The Bone Clocks, Kathryn Schulz reports that Mitchell mapped out his next several several texts: “These include further adventures with soul-eating villains, a trio of linked novellas set in New York in the late ’60s and early ’70s, a return to historical fiction (different hemisphere this time), and a fictionalized biography of an 18th-century person you’ve probably heard of. The final installment of the Marinus trilogy will follow all that. Mitchell is also toying with an idea for what will by then be his 12th novel. It is set 250 million years in the future.”  It will be interesting to see if Mitchell adheres to this plan or if he cannot stop his restless imagination from going in other directions. Regardless of what Orisons Mitchell sends from his Operandi though, I confess that I’ll always eagerly eat the Banjanx he serves up, as long as my psychovoltage holds out.

I have suggested that Mitchell might serve readers well by publishing serially rather than in novels. Wouldn’t it be great if we could ‘subscribe’ to him, and receive his novels in installments, rather than waiting for the whole work to be done and consuming it all at once?  This would make reading Mitchell much more fun; not only would we endure shorter breaks between new Mitchell texts, but we would also stay in suspense much longer when one section ends, and have time to wonder what is coming next. This would also prevent book reviews from spoiling the surprise of reading his novels, the problem we attempted to mitigate in our first exchange.

I find reading his books now comparable to binge-watching seasons of a TV series. Just playing with this scenario, if the storylines of several novels are already set, one could even imagine a point where Mitchell could hire ‘writers’ to execute textual episodes in the ongoing übernovel saga. This turnabout on himself would even be fair play in some way.  Mitchell has been a kind of authorial noncorporum who infiltrates the minds of narrators, styles of authors, and conventions of genres, and speaks through them. He does more than allude to other writers; it is like he dons their modus operandi and produces a new version of them: number9dream is like Murakami as done by Mitchell; Cloud Atlas is like Mitchell does Defoe, Melville, Nabokov, Hoban, etc.  So why not see if talented writers could ‘do’ Mitchell?

David Mitchell book tour

David Mitchell

Of course, I don’t imagine or expect that Mitchell would ever outsource his stories to other writers. But I do think that he and his editor/publisher/agent might consider alternative delivery systems beyond print novels. He has already migrated into twitter; why not break new ground in publishing fiction?  I actually suggested this to Mitchell a year ago; he simply responded in conventional terms, saying that he would continue to follow the existing process. This occurred at a book tour stop for Bone Clocks, so maybe it wasn’t the right context for him to consider other options.

So, I’ll bounce it back to you—where do you see Mitchell going from here, and what do you think of his moving to some sort of serial publication, adapted to the contemporary historical context?


 

PATRICK O’DONNELL:  Thanks, Paul, for this lively speculation on where Mitchell might go from here. I completely agree that his fictions, as they unfold across the time of their writing, are “iterations in a fractal imagination”—that’s a terrific way of viewing his work incrementally. Doing so, as you suggest, leads to many interesting possibilities for reading him in the future (as well as considering what his writing in/of the future might look like).

There are “personalities” like Marinus to consider, who appears to be an amalgamation of tendencies or projections, a wavering needle on the scale that runs from protagonist to antagonist.  Then there are all the atomistic shapes and designs of Mitchell’s work, taken fractally as a non-totalizable totality—rooms, islands, fortresses, cities, avenues, pathways, landscapes, artifacts, assemblages of all kinds. One finds all of these and more in any novelist of Mitchell’s encyclopedic demeanor, but in observing these iterations across—now—seven novels, we definitely get the sense that each of these shapes and designs bear striking similarities but are radically different from novel to novel.

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One of the pleasures taken by many of Mitchell’s fans is playing “Where’s Waldo?” with his novels as they appear, focusing on the transmigratory characters of the novels. It’s rather like spotting the various manifestations of Tom Hanks in the film adaptation of Cloud Atlas (which, by the way, despite some dismal reviews, provides to my mind a compelling and precise visual rendering of Mitchell’s sense that civilizations across time are made up of transmutable identities, forms, and objects in continuous collision with each other). But to play “Where’s Waldo?” with the novels largely misses the point, because doing so overdetermines character as the primary element of his fiction.

I know there are some who read the repeated/rebirthed characters of Mitchell’s novels as generating some concept of transcendent human identity, or as a comment about the survival of “the human” over the reaches of time and amidst the collapse of civilizations and cultures, but I don’t quite see it that way. The repeated identities of his novels, to me, are simply one set of elements among many that circulate molecularly through his fiction: his game is terrain, not identity, and thus he is always moving—at times sequentially, at times randomly—between generated worlds always in the process of formation. This is another reason why I think the Wachowskis/Twyker adaptation of Cloud Atlas was so successful while being true to its materiality as a visual experience:  while probably difficult to understand “thematically,” especially for those not familiar with the novel and thus challenged to follow the intertwined plots of the film, visually, it captured perfectly Mitchell’s sense that history “happens” in a fragmented, non-linear fashion, that cultures and identities evolve fractally, and that the “whole” of reality is an illusion for which we generate partial narrative patterns and signifying chains as compensations.

David Mitchel ghost

David Mitchell

Given all of that, I agree entirely that the future “Mitchell” may well try out different forms and kinds of writing made available as the digital age progresses. As we know, writing and thinking are being radically transformed by the advent of social media, and there are several contemporary writers beginning to experiment with those forms in interesting ways.

The origins of Slade House in Twitter certainly indicates that Mitchell may well be moving into this territory. It will be interesting to see what happens along these lines given that, predictably, he will continue to be strongly tied to the notion of the book and the narrative traditions that have emerged in the post-Gutenberg book culture. (For many, “the book” is done, though not, I think, for David Mitchell.)  As you suggest, Mitchell may well move into a form of serial publication that somehow replicates both the novel’s traditional seriality (think of the apocryphal crowds waiting on the Brooklyn docks for the arrival of the latest number of The Old Curiosity Shop in the nineteenth century, and yielding up a universal moan when readers collectively came upon the death of Little Nell) and the new serialities of the digital age: semirandom, occasional, serendipitous, wherever Google takes us.

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But I think as well that Mitchell may in the future be exploring both other media and new ways of viewing how human cognition and behavior work, made available by the fast-moving advances in neuroscience and genetics currently taking place. The two indicators of this for me are his recent collaborative work with his wife, KA Yoshida, on the English translation of Naoki Higashida’s The Reason I Jump, and the “3-D film-opera,” The Sunken Garden, with Michel van der Aa. I think it’s quite possible that Mitchell will be engaging in future collaborative projects that mix media (as he does genres in his novels) or that involve collaborative writing projects of some kind.

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David Mitchell and Michael van der Aa

And—given Mitchell’s fascination with childhood and adolescence (revealed most fully in blackswangreen but visible throughout his fiction), combined with the cognitive and learning processes of children that he directly engages with personally and in the act of co-translating the memoir of an autistic teenager—I would not be at all surprised to see Mitchell writing young adult fiction, or, in another dimension, exploring the ways in which narrative operates cognitively for different minds. In this, as in all of his work, I believe his focus will be not upon the universal, but upon the differences, the fractures in the surface and the gradations in the terrain, however we stumble upon them.


 

PAUL HARRIS: Patrick, this has been a great pleasure.  Thank you for contributing your perspectives on David Mitchell to SubStanceI look forward to reading more of your work and perhaps resuming this conversation when “Season 8” of Mitchell’s übernovel comes out.


 

Paul Harris

Paul Harris

Paul A. Harris is a co-editor of SubStance and a professor of English at Loyola Marymount University. He served as president of the International Society for the Study of Time from 2004-2013 and edited the recent SubStance issue David Mitchell in the Labyrinth of Time.  His current project is The Petriverse of Pierre Jardin.

Patrick O'Donnell

Patrick O’Donnell

Patrick O’Donnell is a professor of twentieth- and twenty-first-century British and American literature at Michigan State University; he is the author and editor of over a dozen books on modern and contemporary fiction, most recently, The American Novel Now:  Reading American Fiction Since 1980 (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), and A Temporary Future: The Fiction of David Mitchell (Bloomsbury, 2015).  He is currently working on a book about Henry James and contemporary cinema.