November 30th was the publication date of my new book, if that’s the right term to describe something so many years in the making, which is titled False Starts: The Rhetoric of Failure and the Making of American Modernism. Spanning US literature and culture from middle of the 19th century to the present—with significant stops in the work of Herman Melville, Susan Warner, Henry Adams, Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, and Chris Ware—I examine the uses of failure at different historical locations. What all of the writers I study share is a desire to explore failure as a measure of literary success, a sense that failure isn’t something to be merely overcome or passed through, but a condition that constitutes the creative act itself. This sense of failure, I argue, stands in for two signal modernist preoccupations that can never be fully realized: the desire to divorce the literary from popular culture and the desire to establish an authentic and self-generative newness. While these fascinations with and transvaluations of failure are constants throughout the authors I study, their uses for this rhetoric vary widely: from a negotiation of popularity and prestige in the American Renaissance, to an account of demographic change at the turn of the century, to a register of the failures of Reconstruction in the first half of the 20th century, to the literary aspirations recorded in contemporary graphic narrative. And while it cuts against the grain of the deprecatory, even self-lacerating rhetoric frequently employed by the authors in the study, I’m very proud of how it turned out.
I’m talking about the book and giving an informal reading at mighty Labyrinth Books here in Princeton this Thursday, the 4th of December, at 6:00. The title of the book refers to an essay written by F. Scott Fitzgerald in his late memoiristic phase titled “One Hundred False Starts,” which is an account of his failures to write, the writing of which constitutes the essay itself. I’ll be speaking about my own false start to the book, an idea I’d flirted with early on in the writing that analyzes the final rap battle in Eminem’s film “8 Mile” and why I decided to opt for Fitzgerald instead. If you’re in town, please join us, and if you’re the type who’s inclined to ask your institutional or local public library to buy a book, steer them in the direction of False Starts. Or, if you want to share some failure with family and friends for the holidays…
In other news, I’ve been returning to the conference circuit to continue thinking my way through my current book in progress on the intersections of late-19th– and early-20th-century comics and literary and art historical modernism. I’m presenting twice at the annual MLA conference in Vancouver in January: first on the comics of R. F. Outcault as accounts of immigration and assimilation and then as a respondent on a roundtable devoted to the work of comics journalist Joe Sacco. The latter is an outgrowth of the first book—The Comics of Joe Sacco: Journalism in a Visual World, organized and edited by the irrepressible Daniel Worden—in my new edited series with the University Press of Mississippi: Critical Approaches to Comics Artists. The book is already available for preorder, if only through a certain retail giant. I’m delighted to share that the third volume in the series, The Comics of Charles Schulz: The Good Grief of Modern Life, edited by Jared Gardner, is now under contract, and that a fourth, organized by Eisner-nominated Jane Tolmie, is soliciting abstracts. I’ll also be taking part in a roundtable with other academic editors in comics studies at next year’s PCA/ACA titled “Meet the Press(es): Series Editors Chart the Future of Comics Studies.” I’m excited to hear some big ideas for the future of comics scholarship, and to share some of my own.
I also had the opportunity to moderate a panel at New York Comic Con, which was my first, overwhelming experience at a mainstream comics convention. I was there (along with 151,000 of my closest friends) at the kind invitation of Amy Chu, who is a writer and entrepreneur in comics (both self-published and through major houses like Vertigo ad DC), and is currently auditing my course on American comics at Princeton (follow the link to see some of the comics my students have been composing throughout the semester). She brought together some major, fascinating figures in the field, including Scott Snyder, Becky Cloonan, Marguerite Bennett, Fred van Lente, and Ryan Dunlavey. We talked about the creative process and the advice they would give to aspiring creators, who I suspect were legion among our audience. I was struck by how resonant their answers were to the ways in which I conceive of the work of authorship in conventional literary study: writing is a seeming singular pursuit that is crucially supported through collaboration and editing; creation is constituted by revision and no work emerges fully formed; great ideas are as often purloined and transformed as they are generated sui generis; self-doubt is ubiquitous and is overcome through a mixture of willful disregard and tireless iteration. As familiar as these narratives were to me as a literary scholar, audiences in amusement-park-style rope lines—there was even a bit of a dash when they opened the doors for the best seats in a 400-person conference room—aren’t something I’m used to at the MLA.
Finally, it feels as though there’s an emerging critical mass around comics studies here at Princeton. I blogged about Alison Bechdel’s visit last year and we have a visiting scholar from Harvard coming next week to talk about Bechdel’s work as well. I’ve been approached by two graduate students in the French department, Charlotte Werbe and Marie Sanquer, to help organize a one-day conference in the spring, “Frames: Jewish Culture and the Comic Book,” scheduled for April 10th, 2015 and including visits by Rutu Modan and Miriam Katin (their CFP is here). Princeton just brought two powerful thinkers about graphic narrative to campus this year—Kinohi Nishikawa in the English and African-American Studies departments and Alfred Bendixen in English—both of whom I had a chance to speak with when the department invited Nick Sousanis, author of Unflattening, the first dissertation written in comics form, forthcoming from Harvard University Press in 2015. Andrew Hamilton, a fellow in the Humanities here both works on pre-Columbian art (an interesting precursor/parallel to serial images) and has authored his own graphic narrative. Things are beginning to take shape and I’m excited to see where these energies, when organized, will lead once my time here at Princeton ends.