Comfort Books and Hugo Reading: Spring Break 2014

Even though we are expecting snow here in Fitchburg tomorrow, this is officially Spring Break for me and the rest of Fitchburg State, which means time to catch up on my reading and writing, as well as grading and class prep for the second half of the spring semester.

Like most of you, my own To Be Read pile is so long that it will never be completed but I do have an upcoming deadline that will determine my priorities this week: the March 31st nomination deadline for the 2014 Hugo Awards.

And while the John W. Campbell award is “not a Hugo,” I’m starting my reading for the nomination period with the 2014 Campbell award anthology so that I can round out my ballot. I already know that I am nominating Lissa Price (her Starters/Enders series captivated me) and I can’t wait to discover other new genre authors as well.

I’ll also be working through the other works on my recommendation post from last month over the next few weeks, as well as those other fans have shared with me, but not all of my pleasure reading will be new.

I’ve been thinking a lot about “comfort books” lately, largely because one of my enduring favorites just recently became available as an ebook: A Woman of Substance by Barbara Taylor Bradford. I first read this romance novel, and its two sequels, when I was in seventh grade and they were the first books I read that were not aimed at my own age group. And they have stuck with me so much that I’m thrilled to have Woman of Substance with me now wherever I go.

And that reminded me of something I explained to my niece when I was unpacking my boxes this summer. There are several books that I have kept from when I was her age, I told her, and even though I don’t read these copies anymore, they remind me of my early years as a reader.

These are the books I showed her:

The Shelf of Honor: My Comfort Books

The Shelf of Honor: My Comfort Books

Included on this shelf of honor are my battered paperback copies of the Woman of Substance trilogy, two of the Little House books, several from YA-fantasy authors Lois Duncan and Robin McKinley, a novel about ballet dancers, and finally, the historical novel Summer of My German Soldier (which, by the way, is the only one of that set I was assigned to read for “English” class).

These are my comfort stories, the ones that cemented themselves into my consciousness and in many ways define my tastes for popular culture today. This makes me wonder, what are your comfort books?


End to the Summer of Upheaval

So what have you been doing for the past month?

It’s been nearly five weeks since my last post and I’ve spent that time closing on, painting, and then moving into a townhouse in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. With lots of help from family and friends, nearly every wall has been repainted, new rugs have been installed, and the “must haves” have been put in place (including my massive desk, Star Wars posters, and a print of a painting that includes my elementary school from Aldan, PA in the background).

A little bit of Delco in Massachusetts

A little bit of Delco in Massachusetts

When I accepted my new position with the English Department at Fitchburg State University, I knew that I was in for a lot of upheaval, especially when I decided that I would make the leap and become a homeowner rather than renting a place.

New job, new state, and new home.

It’s been a lot and for someone like me who finds comfort in routine and familiarity, I’m definitely ready to be done with all of it.

But the transition back to that routine hasn’t been anywhere near as simple as I expected. And I realized that’s mostly because of the vastly different types of mindsets involved between the “move” mind and the “writing” brain.

The “move” mind required short-term, immediate decision-making involved in setting up a house, unpacking belongings, and placing furniture. I spent hours one day, for example, dashing between rooms, up and down stairs, answering questions and making decisions as my awesome family members were tackling projects like unpacking my kitchenware, painting the main bathroom, and assembling, then placing, the new cabinets in my amazingly large new home office.

The “writing” brain, on the other hand, is also the mindset I need for syllabus planning and my research (including the paper I’m going to be presenting at LoneStarCon 3 at the end of the month). Before the move preparation, this was my default mindset and that was actually problematic as I tried to be so strategic when I packed that I got in my own way at times.

But once I was (mostly) settled, and my family returned to their own homes, it took me nearly a full week to re-set my brain. I quickly realized that it was going to take a deliberate effort to make the switch and that I had taken for granted the time and attention I typically have for such thinking. I am lucky that I’m able to control a great deal of my time and environment to create and maintain (even nurture) that reflective, writing mindset.

Throughout this process, I have been reminded of Virginia’s Woolf’s classic essay A Room of One’s Own, which I first read many, many years ago in college. Now that I have a great space to call my own, I also have the additional obstacle known as “the joys of home ownership” to get in the way of achieving the mental and physical space I need to write. For example, tasks like waiting hours for a plumber to arrive and changing addresses online do not lend themselves to recapturing the sustained attention required for longer-term projects (even for relatively short pieces like this blog post).

My copy of A Room of One’s Own, complete with the “vintage” GSC (Glassboro State College) used book sticker.

My copy of A Room of One’s Own, complete with the “vintage” GSC (Glassboro State College) used book sticker.

I’m still considering how to incorporate this experience into my teaching and writing but one of the great advantages of my job is the synergies among my teaching, writing, and thinking. As my students in First-Year Writing at Fitchburg State this fall are making a huge transition, I will still be adapting to my own and I definitely plan to be open about my own struggles setting up my writing space, and recapturing my writing mind.

Affect, Emotion, and Fandom

As I wrote last month, the sorting process for my upcoming move to Fitchburg has me feeling nostalgic, especially when I come across artifacts like this:

Colonial Insignia from original Galactica

For those who don’t recognize this pin, it was a product tie-in to the original Battlestar Galactica, meant to replicate the Colonial rank insignias you can see here:

Original Apollo (Galactica)

When I removed this pin from the collar of the now-antique denim jacket where it had “lived” for years (before donating the jacket to Goodwill), I was reminded of the inner fannish struggle I experienced when Galactica was rebooted in 2003. I’ve written about my ambivalence before (both in On the Verge of Tears and Science Fiction Reboot), so I won’t repeat myself here.

Instead, this nostalgic journey made me reflect on the key role of emotion, or affect, in fandom.

Now I am in no way the first fan-scholar to consider this aspect of fandom (see, for example, Henry Jenkins’s excellent blog here). In terms of fan experiences with reboots, though, this was one area of my analysis that didn’t quite fit into narrative theory and so it doesn’t have as prominent a place in Reboot as I believe it does in the fan-viewer experience.

At its core, there is no fandom without emotion, and strong emotion at that. If a text (film, book, game, television series, etc.) doesn’t strike a powerful emotional cord with us, then why would we continue with it at the level of dedication (obsession?) that defines fandom?

This is, of course, both an advantage and disadvantage. The hours of pleasure we experience engaging with our fandom, especially with like-minded (or should I say, like-hearted) others, cannot be over-stated. As anyone who has been to a genre convention like World Con can attest, groups like Brotherhood Without Banners (the fan group associated with the Song of Fire and Ice series by George R.R. Martin) are just one example of the in-person camaraderie, not to mention awesome parties, that result when fans come together.

The emotion of fandom also yields amazing creative production as well. Many scholars have documented the complexities of fan fiction (see, especially, Karen Hellekson and the excellent online journal published by the Organization for Transformative Works) that are inextricable from the affective dimension of fandom. But there is so much more. I am amazed at every con, for example, at the skill and creativity of the costumes on display not only in the Masquerade but in the hall costumes/cosplays as well. Without an enduring emotional attachment to the genre (and/or a particular story), it’s hard to imagine spending the time and attention required to produce such works of art.

But there is a dark side to this emotional attachment as well. Not only can it make us very grumpy and defensive when someone else doesn’t feel the same affection for our favorite stories as we do (or worse, openly mocks them), but being so attached also makes it very difficult to achieve any distance to examine the texts objectively, or even critically. That’s the reason I waited so long into my academic career before writing about Star Wars. I knew I was too close to do it well until I hit upon the narratology approach to provide structure for that distance.

So, for aca-fans like me (academics and fans), we are always walking that fine line between emotion and intellectual curiosity. But, if I may be so bold to say, that is also one of our greatest strengths: our emotional attachments to these stories fuel our intellectual endeavors. And when we get very lucky, our intellectual projects reinforce our affective experiences as well. In other words, we come to love and appreciate our targets of fandom all the more once we finish the manuscripts and hit “Submit.”

Mementos of Transformation, or Treasures Found While Packing

A lot of changes are in store for me this summer, with the two most extensive being that I’m leaving Central Connecticut State University to join the English Department at Fitchburg State in Massachusetts and that I will become a homeowner for the first time when I buy a condo in Fitchburg in July.

The prospect of another inter-state move five years after I left Pennsylvania to come to Connecticut has me sorting my possessions like crazy, shredding or recycling pieces of paper almost as ruthlessly as George R.R. Martin prunes characters in the Song of Fire and Ice series. And after more than ten years of teaching, and seven years of graduate school, I have a lot of paper.

Yet, not everything is becoming victim to this purge. I found two amazing pieces of paper the other day, both more than ten years old, that unmistakably mark the start of the path that I am currently taking to Fitchburg.

The first is a printout of a May 2000 email (back when we used to print such things as a matter of course) from the director of the brand new Rowan University Master of Arts in Writing program. I had been investigating graduate programs for a little while, trying to figure out the next step in my career and a former professor of mine put me in touch with Diane, who (as you can see in the picture) invited me to join an Issues in Composition class that was starting that evening so I could see what it was all about.


I received that email early in the morning of May 31 and by 6:30 that night, I was introduced to a world I hadn’t even known existed, and which I haven’t left ever since: Composition and Rhetoric. All of my current composition work and the basis for Science Fiction Reboot can be traced to that single impulsive decision and I’m beyond grateful that I have this physical artifact of that profound transition period in my life.

I discovered the second piece of paper a few minutes later in the same folder as the Rowan MAW file. It’s just a simple Word document, single-spaced, with no header, title, or other identifying marks. I’m not even sure why I created that document, let alone decided to print it and save it for more than a decade, but the content leaves no doubt that this memento contains my initial thoughts and reflections from my first World Science Fiction Convention (World Con) in Philadelphia in 2001.

Attending that convention was another spontaneous decision, made with as little awareness of what I was getting myself into as the one to join Issues in Composition the year before. I had never been to a science fiction convention, ever, but saw a link on the SciFi Channel’s website for something called Millennium PhilCon over Labor Day Weekend in my hometown. I thought, why not?

Why not, indeed? It is no exaggeration for me to say that those five days in 2001 changed my life. I have described before the way in which that convention (specifically Greg Bear’s Guest of Honor speech) inspired my first book and that the idea for Writing and the Digital Generation was also sparked at a later World Con (LACon in 2006). But what is particularly remarkable about the reflections I found the other day was this tidbit: “The big question is: will I go to next year’s World Con in San Jose, CA?” I laugh even now reading that because not only did I attend the 2002 World Con, but I have been to eight of them in the past twelve years, and attended two North American Science Fiction Conventions when the World Con was off the continent and I couldn’t make the trip.

As my reflection from twelve years ago also says, that weekend I found “a greater sense of this science fiction and fantasy community I have belonged to for so many years but just didn’t know it.” What I also didn’t know at that time was how that community would come to define, in many ways, my identity as a scholar and as a professor.

The time it took for me to sort through those files was certainly well spent even if these pieces of paper didn’t make it into the recycling after all. They will be coming with me to Fitchburg, and wherever else this journey takes me, to remind me that while it’s a good thing to make plans, I also need to leave myself open to take those opportunities I didn’t even know would be coming.