The Union Libel: On the Argument Against Collective Bargaining in Higher Ed

By Emmett Rensin

The National Labor Relations Board has reversed itself for the second time in this century: graduate student instructors at private universities once again have the right to unionize. With the ranks and working hours of non-tenured faculty far exceeding what they were twelve years ago, and interest among graduate students in unionizing far higher too, the decision represents a significant and hard-won victory for what remains of the American labor movement.

The administrators of elite private universities have responded to the decision with all the enthusiasm of their assembly-line-owning ancestors. In the past several days, many have begun issuing open letters to their students, discouraging them from taking advantage of their newfound right to collective bargaining. They are very concerned, you see. The private university is a special place, and formalizing the relationship between administrators and the non-tenured faculty who now perform roughly half of the undergraduate education in this country might spoil the rarified air.

What is remarkable — as the political theorist and CUNY professor Corey Robin has pointed out — is how similar all these letters are, how each, despite its excessive personalization and focus on the individual needs of the university, manage to raise the same three or four specters every time: “You’re students, not employees.” “You’re privileged educational elites, not poor laborers.” “A union will come between you and the faculty that wants to love you (but can’t, if you let a union get in the way).”

It is this last item that I am particularly interested in, this notion that a special, intimate relationship exists between graduate students and tenured faculty that could not possibly survive a collective bargaining process. A particularly shameless example of this line comes from Robert Zimmer, the President of the University of Chicago — the university where I was once an undergraduate. In light of the NLRB’s decision, he informed a university-wide listhost on Wednesday, it is “more important than ever to reflect on the fundamental nature of education at UChicago, and the potential impact that graduate student unionization in particular could have on the University’s distinctive approach to research and education.”

“Central to the success of graduate students is the intellectual relationship between students and faculty, particularly between students and their advisors,” Zimmer wrote. It wasn’t the fundamental unwillingness of managers throughout human history to embrace unionization efforts, but rather “the special and individual nature of students’ educational experiences” that had him worried. “A graduate student labor union could impede such opportunities. […] It could also compromise the ability of faculty to mentor and support students on an individualized basis.” A labor union “will come between students and faculty to make crucial decisions on behalf of students” by focusing “on the collective interests of members while they are in the union,” something that “could make it more difficult for students to reach their individual educational goals.” Decisions made based on the “collective interests” of a labor force? My god.

One wonders how deeply Zimmer must pity those poor public universities — Berkeley, Michigan, UW-Madison, obscure places, really — where unionization has long been a fact of life. When a newly-minted Chicago PhD secures an increasingly rare tenure-track position at an institution like Berkeley, does their advisor shake their hand, smile broadly, then whisper, “Just so you know, the union there will make it impossible for you to care for your advisees as I have cared for you”? The University of Iowa, where I am presently a unionized graduate student instructor, has seen twenty years of successive union contracts secure vastly superior working conditions. My advisor has not yet referred to me as “employee” in a distant way, sad memories of happier days scarcely hidden behind cold eyes — but perhaps I am the exception.

One also wonders how this all comports with The University of Chicago’s incessantly reiterated commitment to open inquiry and debate, a life of the mind unencumbered by emotional concerns (i.e., “special relationships” between human beings, one assumes). This is, after all, the institution which has just informed incoming undergraduates that it does not support “so called ‘trigger warnings’” or “condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces,’” because such warnings and spaces undermine the university’s “commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression.” Is it possible that in the bustle of all that freedom, these high-minded academics failed to take a cursory glance at academic research into the question of graduate student unions? “Effects of Unionization on Graduate Student Employees: Faculty-Student Relations, Academic Freedom, and Pay” is a subtle title, I know, but the conclusions of that study are not:

Unionization does not have the presumed negative effect on student outcomes, and in some cases has a positive effect. Union-represented graduate student employees report higher levels of personal and professional support, unionized graduate student employees fare better on pay, and unionized and nonunionized students report similar perceptions of academic freedom. These findings suggest that potential harm to faculty-student relationships and academic freedom should not continue to serve as bases for the denial of collective bargaining rights to graduate student employees.

I have not been a student at Chicago for some time now. I have never been a student at Yale, or Columbia, or any of the other top-tier academies so concerned by the chilling effect of union bureaucracy on the warm relationships between faculty and their adjunct servants. Perhaps they really cannot afford higher salaries or more generous benefits — they can’t even afford JSTOR subscriptions.

Yet surely access to academic databases is not beyond the reach of a man like Robert Zimmer, a man who saw his total compensation double over the course of five years, reaching $3.4 million dollars in 2014, and placing him atop the Chronicle of Higher Education’s annual ranking of the highest-paid private university presidents. Perhaps the “special relationship” truly imperiled here is the one between administrators and their universities. Being forced to negotiate fair contracts with the adjunct and graduate student instructors — who perform the bulk of daily labor, servicing undergraduate customers in exchange for their exorbitant, federally-subsidized tuitions — might cut into the cash pot elite universities ordinarily reserve for the hiring of new administrators and the subsidizing of profitable athletic programs. (The athletes themselves cannot unionize either, of course. They are not even paid.)

But then, as President Zimmer informs his charges in Chicago, none of this is necessary. “Recent experiences” — not research, mind you, experiences — “demonstrate that efforts to enhance the graduate student experience are highly successful when graduate students, faculty, deans, and the provost’s office work together directly. Dialogue among students and faculty has led to increased stipends […] increased remuneration for teaching […] expansion of health insurance coverage” and “child care grants,” among other benefits. In other words, there is no need to force our benevolence: you’ve already got it. But never forget, those gains are contingent on our benevolence. Under true negotiating conditions? “It is unclear whether a graduate student labor union would have achieved any of these outcomes.”

Indeed — who knows what outcomes collective bargaining might achieve in the neo-gothic halls of Chicago, in Harvard Yard, or in Morningside Heights? Surely nothing so generous as the benefits that administrators like Zimmer have already granted by the magnanimity of their own spirits, by the kindness of every manager who has ever said We’re only against this union because we have your best interests at heart.

“We hope all members of our community will take the time to look more deeply into the challenges and potential negative consequences of a union,” Zimmer writes. After all, it’d be a shame if anything happened to that pretty special relationship of yours.


Nuts! The Bursting of the Chinese Walnut Bubble

By Austin Dean

Walk down the street in Beijing and you’ll encounter a certain type of character: buzz cut, paunchy stomach, probably tattooed, likely taking drags from a cigarette as he barks into a cell phone. He’s probably also sporting a bracelet or necklace (or both) made of walnut shells strung together. This guy might be a gangster; more likely he’s plain old Chinese nouveau riche.

The walnut jewelry links him back to beliefs and practices from imperial China, though he might not realize the extent of this cultural inheritance. He probably selected these accessories simply to demonstrate that he can afford them. This guy and his peers have made walnut-shell jewelry and other products hot commodities—creating the Great Chinese Walnut Bubble. Like so many other bubbles before it, the bubble has now popped.

The price of walnuts in China exploded between 2008 and 2013, driven by demand not for the edible meat, but the outer shell. Big, symmetrical, colorful shells became prized items. As one farmer remarked at the height of the craze, a pair or shells could be more “more expensive than gold, in terms of weight.”

There’s a lot you can do with walnut shells besides crush them to get at the meat inside. Some people twirl two of them across the palm of their hand, often while walking; others wear walnut bracelets or necklaces that have been carved with intricate designs of Daoist figures or natural scenes. As one walnut carver explained, his designs focus on “longevity, safety, reunion, faithful love, health, and wealth.” But some prefer to forego any carvings and leave the shells as is because “no craftsman can create anything as beautiful as these natural patterns.” With so much money at stake, the aesthetics of walnut design is a serious topic.

There are numerous ways to get involved in the market. You can buy the end products, you can get into the wholesale business or, most speculative or all, you can buy the rights to future walnut shells while they’re still hanging from the tree and covered in green skin. You could end up with prize shells or with duds—the nut business is a risky one.

As with any bubble, there were historic, cultural, and economic reasons behind the sky-rocketing walnut prices.

Chinese emperors and officials rotated pairs of them in their hands to promote circulation. Walnuts became a gift traded among the Chinese elite, part status symbol and part health remedy. As one walnut farmer remarked, “Mainly the walnuts are good for the body, that’s why people play with them.” In fact, the very act of twirling the walnut shells will, over time, give them a red, glossy polish, making them even more valuable, or so the thinking goes.

And let’s not forget our friend from Beijing with his walnut jewelry. He represents the segment of the population for whom this cultural inheritance became cool, As one article from the height of the bubble observed, buying, wearing, and speculating in walnut shells was “especially popular among the newly wealthy and gangsters profiting from Beijing’s grey economy.” The walnut craze also had a gendered aspect; though it’s impossible to cite statistics, it seemed to be primarily a male pastime.

At the level of individual decision-making, the walnut bubble reflected a shortage of assets to invest in. The Chinese stock market is a mess, rates on bank deposits are abysmal, and average citizens are only allowed to move a certain amount of money out of the country each year. As a result, a lot of investment goes into housing. But if you already have an apartment (or three) and you want to put your money to work in some way, then walnuts (as well as tea, garlic, and jade) might start to look quite appealing. If you think wearing walnut-shell necklaces looks cool and prices are likely to rise, then, well, all the better.

But the good days are likely over for walnut speculators. As a number of Chinese media outlets have recently reported, the walnut market is not the same as it once was. Walnut shells themselves are quite fragile—easily scratched, broken, or damaged—and so is the walnut market.

One of the traditional homes of walnut carving is in Zhoushancun, near Suzhou, on the east coast of China. It has been epicenter of change in the walnut market during the past few years. As prices rose, people flooded into the business: stay-at-home moms and former fruit vendors learned how to carve walnuts; teenagers entered the trade; famous walnut carvers swamped with orders farmed out production; walnut bracelets and necklaces designed using computer programs emerged.

In 2014, the Chinese walnut crop was 35% higher than normal. Supply went up. Quality, or perceived quality, went down—and so did prices and sales volume.

At the height of the walnut craze, growers and vendors didn’t even have to bring their goods to market. The market came to them, with waves of cars from urban areas descending on the countryside. That’s no longer the case.

At the retail level, a store that grossed 2-3 million yuan in monthly sales in 2012 or 2013 is now doing a small fraction of that. One shop owner told a television reporter that she now has to call up former customers to see if they’re interested in the most recent arrivals. In 2013, she wouldn’t have had to chase customers for their business.

With sales down, the retailer is naturally pickier about what types of walnut shells she displays. On her rounds to various walnut carvers, she rejects a number of samples as too poorly designed. This change filters down through the walnut industry. One walnut carver (a former fruit vendor) noted that she’s trying to renegotiate her rent payments on her small carving studio and store. Carvers, in turn, are more demanding about the types of walnut shells they procure for wholesale merchants—not just any pair will do.

The nut business, clearly, isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.

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That’s Korean Entertainment: the Freakishly Fluent Foreigners of Non-Summit

By Colin Marshall

“Whatever you do,” fellow foreigners here in Korea occasionally tell me, “don’t go on television.” Easy enough advice to follow, you’d think, though many Koreans, upon meeting a Korean-speaking non-Korean, almost automatically insist that they should go right before the cameras. Flattery in the absence of anything else to say aside, the response reflects a real viewer demand. Recent years have seen a flowering of shows about foreigners in Korea, and not just EBS’ documentation of the home and work lives of the various Canadians, Jamaicans, Vietnamese, and Russians who wind up married with children here. You can easily channel-surf your way to other shows, hit shows, that have made their foreigners into stars.

If you often fly on airlines that serve South Korea, you’ve probably noticed among their canned television a program with the curious title of Non-Summit, originally from the cable network JTBC. Pitched as a comedic G20 meeting, most of the show takes place around a U-shaped table. On its sides sit eleven or so men in their twenties and thirties, all of various non-Korean nationalities — English, Canadian, Japanese, Italian, Chinese, American, Belgian, French, and Australian on the 2014 debut. At its head sit three slightly older Korean men who preside each week over a discussion of current events in Korea as well as in the countries of the “representatives”, the more emotionally charged — whether in the nationalistic sense or in the realm of mild scandal — the better.

The episodes’ overarching issues range widely: fashion trends, the War on Terror, pre-marital cohabitation, the generation gap, sad pop songs. All these discussions, apart from the readings-out of each country’s news item under discussion, happen entirely in Korean. This by itself, even two years into the show’s run, constitutes a real element of novelty, since most of the foreigners who appeared on Korean television before had a patchy to nonexistent command of the language. Even Non-Summit‘s closest precedent, KBS’ all-foreign-women Global Talk Show, never seemed overly concerned with its panelists’ language ability. (Its Korean title 미녀들의 수다, or “Beautiful Women’s Chat,” sheds some light on its priorities.)

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But Korea, as I’ve written here before, lags behind the rest of northeast Asia in foreigner integration, especially of the linguistic variety (the only kind of integration a foreigner, especially a Westerner, can really achieve here). A popular television show that features a group of them every week does its part to alleviate that condition, though that very popularity would seem to indicate that Korea, unlike Japan and China, hasn’t quite made it out of the stage where a foreigner can attain celebrity status by competently speaking the language. Dave Spector, known across Japan as “Dave-san,” put down stakes there in 1983; Mark Rowswell became the Chinese public’s beloved “Dashan” when he appeared on a 1988 New Year’s broadcast watched by 550 million people.

Non-Summit has come closest to creating a similar breakout personality in Tyler Rasch, the representative of America during its first two seasons. By background and inclination a quick and thorough language-learner, he seems, just like the mild-mannered Rowswell, to draw resentment from other foreigners as he does admiration from the locals, who invariably describe him as a better Korean speaker than they themselves. “It used to be that people in Korea would praise my Korean abilities. But now that so many foreigners fluent in Korean are appearing on TV, the mood has changed,” writes the film critic and longtime Seoul resident Darcy Paquet. “People may not say it out loud, but I know it’s true: in their heads, everyone is comparing me to Tyler.”

Clearly the smartest guy in the room — and one who certainly didn’t force the editors to cut creatively around his speaking deficiencies — during his time in the American seat, Rasch vacated it in June, leaving viewers to wonder who would hold up the show’s high level of discourse. But it makes me and his other foreigner fans consider a different question: what do you do after Non-Summit? Many non-Koreans here complain of having “hit a wall,” but most of them came to teach English and, having never learned Korean to a high level, can’t find a way out of the industry they never really meant to get into in the first place. Work in Korean media, no matter how acclaimed, may present a similar dead end; scratch the surface of half the foreign-language broadcasters here, and you’ll find something like desperation for a job back “home.”

At least they have endorsement deals. I’ve seen Rasch pop up in language-product ads on the internet, and just about equally famous Ghanian Non-Summit colleague Sam Okyere in ads on the subway. Okyere, who’s also moved on from the show, must also have wielded serious influence behind the scenes, since the producers seemed to allow only him to have a normal-looking hairstyle. Everyone else’s hair juts out and swoops around in all manner of ridiculous angles, the better to complement their flashy suits (often with chasm-like collar gaps) and glowing makeup — the dire aesthetic fate, perhaps, that inspires all those warnings about not submitting to the Korean televisual machine.

Or maybe they refer to the layers and layers of extra text and graphics applied, as in so many Korean television programs, to enliven the proceedings, underscoring slights and embarrassments, intensifying emotions, and hammering on the occasional mispronunciation. They also have a good deal of fun with the icons and traditional costumes of each representative’s country of origin, one of those practices that gets so many foreigners — mostly Westerners, and then mostly Americans — firing off accusations of insensitivity, condescension, racism, and what have you from the moment they arrive. But the show has also made an effort, against expectations, of introducing representatives from nations it could have overlooked, like Egypt, India, Mexico, and Iran.

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It once had a Turk at the table — naturally, given the Turkish-South Korean special bond — but that didn’t work out so well. Over the first twenty or so episodes, Enes Kaya made his name as the show’s conservative loudmouth, referencing at every opportunity his devotion to family, respect for tradition, abstention from alcohol, and so on. An American viewer, witness to the constant disgracing of their own fire-and-brimstone preachers, homophobic politicians, and aggressively wholesome sportsmen, would have known exactly what to respect. But Korean viewers (the society’s dim view of its own sexual morality as revealed in novels and films notwithstanding) still haven’t fully recovered from the shock of revelation at the texts Kaya, already married to a Korean woman, exchanged with his girl (or one of his girls) on the side.

That degree of scrutiny provides another good reason not to go on Korean television, as does the fear of becoming what the expat-in-Asia parlance calls a “performing monkey.” Non-Summit doesn’t exactly downplay its freak-show angle: the Korean title, 비정상 회담, translates as “Abnormal Summit,” and the concept’s basic humor comes out of holding up anyone so patently eccentric as a Korean-speaking foreigner as a “representative” of anything. But I suspect that the success of these shows has less to do with the fascination of watching any particular foreigner than watching other Koreans interact with foreigners. (Non-Summit also brings on a steady supply of pop stars, actors, and other famous Koreans for its representatives to chat with.)

That fascination extends beyond the television screen. As one Korean friend (who happens to run an online Korean-teaching empire) put it, “If you’re a foreigner riding the subway with a Korean, every other Korean onboard is watching to see how that Korean is interacting with you.” Whatever the language of that interaction, the “audience” wants to observe how one of their own engages with, to use the academically fashionable term, the Other. And though you could probably live out your life in Seoul without once having to appeared on television, as for avoiding the subway… well, you’ll sooner learn to speak Korean like Tyler Rasch.

Related Korea Blog posts:

Multicultural Love and Its Discontents

Among the Korea Vloggers

Why Is Korean So Hard?

You can read more of the Korea Blog here and follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.


Academics, Journalists—Everyone Is Miserable! Hug!

By Noah Berlatsky

Writers are jealous critters. You don’t put your name out there unless you think your name deserves to be out there. Aren’t all my thoughts more insightful, more golden, and more worthwhile than all the other thoughts thunk by all those lesser thinkers?  (Support my Patreon! Buy my book!) Alas, some of those lesser thinkers are inevitably better known than I am (I’m looking at you, George Will) and the result is resentment, anguish, and the remorseless gnashing of egos.

Thus it has ever been, thus it continues to be, as illustrated recently in the latest round of “Who’s better — elitist stuffed shirt academics or frivolous ignorant journalists?” I (somewhat inadvertently) kicked this discussion off in a piece at the Chronicle in which I argued that you don’t necessarily need to have a lot of background knowledge to write about pop culture. Thus, even though I am a Wonder Woman expert, I try not to get overly cranky when people with large pop culture platforms don’t know as much about Wonder Woman as I do.

Pop culture academics Amanda Ann Klein and Kristen Warner responded, with a certain bitterness of spirit, that expertise is too important, and that watching people who don’t know anything about your subject spout nonsense over a prominent byline is depressing and insulting. This, in turn, drew a response from Maria Bustillos here at LARB. She averred, also with a certain bitterness, that academics suck anyway and the Internet has freed us from them, so go sulk behind the paywalls, you doctorate-touting losers.

Again, this isn’t exactly a new contretemps. As Thomas Aquinas said, “Watching the town criers discuss the proof of God is like being beaten about the head with a large plague-ridden pig carcass.” To which Joseph Pulitzer responded, “Does Thomas Aquinas’s name sell papers? I didn’t fucking think so.”

Or maybe they didn’t say those things; I’m too lazy to look it up.  In any case, the point is, the mutual enmity between academics and journalists isn’t of recent vintage. Journalists envy academics their relative stability and prestige, and so call them elitist and irrelevant. Academics envy journalists their audience and relative freedom from institutional hurdles, and so call them ignorant and irrelevant. The two warring sides are locked forever in a war of whirling words, which journalists duly scurry to monetize in the latest blog post and academics slog to analyze in dusty unread tomes for the pleasure of their tenure committees.

I enjoy a good internet slugfest as much as the next clickbait surfer, so I don’t want to discourage anyone from airing their dyspepsia in the great tradition of Aquinas and Pulitzer. But it’s maybe worth remembering, as jealousy boils within you, that, whether you’re an academic or a journalist, the grass that looks greener over yonder is probably composed mostly of the same shit you’re standing in.

Aaron Bady, quoted in Bustillos’s essay, writes that, “Scholars who spend their lives writing for JSTOR and other pay-walled gardens get tenure as the reward for making their work inaccessible to everyone else.” But, as I’m sure Bady knows, the academics don’t get any of the revenue from those pay-walls. Moreover, many academics these days don’t get tenure at all, but are instead shuttled into badly paid adjuncting gigs. “Donate your work for free now in exchange for a lousy job later!” You can understand why academics don’t feel like they’re getting an especially great deal.

And as for the utopia of free information exchange that Bustillos touts in the bulk of her essay — well. There’s certainly a lot of hype about what Bustillos calls the “rich, heady cross-cultural ferment” of the Internet, but I’m here to tell you that being fermented isn’t always quite as awesome as all that. As a professional information exchanger, I can tell you that I am writing this on Saturday evening, as a break from a work-for-hire gig, because, to make a living as a writer, you basically have to work all the time, including evenings and weekends.

If you want to be a writer, Virginia Woolf said, you need a room of your own. Whether you’re an academic or a journalist, writing well demands time and security to think, to study, to reflect. The reason journalists don’t look at academic articles isn’t (just) because the journalists are lazy or careless; it’s because grinding out the fourth Beyoncé thinkpiece today for next to no pay doesn’t give you the time or resources to do a whole lot of research. The reason academics often don’t reach out to popular venues isn’t (just) because they’re snobs. It’s because they generally don’t have control over the product of their own labor, and can’t make their work accessible even if they want to.

The internet, for all its virtues, has made it extremely difficult for writers to get a decent income. At the same time, the hollowing out of the middle class has turned a once relatively stable academic career path into a precarious and humiliating scramble. If turf wars between the academy and journalists are particularly fraught, it’s not because academics are getting snobbier, nor because pop culture writers are becoming more ignorant. It’s because everybody’s options are more and more limited, and everybody is desperate. That’s a topic both academics and journalists could write about, perhaps — if they could get someone to pay them for it.


Thinking and Writing about Inner Asia: A Q&A with Rian Thum

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

I recently caught up by email with New Orleans-based historian Rian Thum to ask him a variety of questions about topics he knows and cares a lot about, ranging from trends in publishing on Inner Asia to the curious ways that even seemingly arcane issues relating to the past can get intensely politicized in today’s China.  Thum’s name should be familiar to regular readers of this publication, since both an excerpt from and an effusive Nile Green review of his prize-winning first book, The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History, ran in LARB.

What trends have you noticed in the kinds of books on Inner Asia that have been coming to you as Journal of Asian Studies Book Review Editor for that part of the continent?   And since this is an interview for something called the “China Blog,” perhaps focus most on the works that deal with places that are now at least partly encompassed in the PRC, though if there has been a massive surge in English language studies of the Central and Inner Asian states that were once part of the Soviet Union that would be interesting to know!

I’ll have to go region by region here, because there’s relatively little recent work that straddles the various Inner Asian cultures. There are exceptions, for example a new edited volume that looks at ethnic conflict in both Tibet and Xinjiang and a very important new book that examines reincarnation as a political phenomenon linking Tibet, China, and the Mongols, but most new work focuses on a single culture.

Of all the Inner Asian regions, Tibet has always received the most attention, which means that there are enough books on Tibet to really identify consistent trends. Lately scholars have taken an interest in Tibetan biography, analyzing both the genre in its particular Tibetan forms and its potential to open windows on the experiences of Tibetans of the last millennium or so. This is an exciting turn, because it injects very personal and human elements into the abstract institutions and ideologies that have featured so prominently in the study of Tibet.

For the Mongolic-speaking traditions, the last couple of years have seen some important books on religion, both Buddhism and shamanism, Mongol and Buryat. This is, I think, a reflection of the kinds of sources that are available, but also of an attention to the ways Mongolic-speakers frame their own experiences. However, there’s also a pair of books out that examine violence in Mongolia, reflecting a nascent tendency to mine Inner Asian materials for insights into universal social phenomena.

As for Xinjiang, what’s most striking is that we’re finally seeing more than one or two books per year. This is the culmination of a long process of developing linguistically competent scholars with experience living in Xinjiang, a slow process that only began with the reopening of the region in the late 1980s.

I’m also happy to see an ethnography of the Ewenki reindeer herders, a group that has not received much attention. Manchu books tend to work from the Qing imperial perspective, and so usually find their way to the China section of the book reviews, rather than Inner Asia.

Zeroing in on Xinjiang, the region that has been the main focus of your own work, what strikes you most about the style, range, and topical or chronological emphases of the works about it that have been coming across your desk?

Diversity, and that’s something new. When people started writing about Xinjiang again in the 1990s, a focus on ethnic identity or resistance to the Chinese state was de rigueur. But as the field has developed, authors have begun to explore a wider range of questions. 2016 is turning out to be the biggest year for Xinjiang books in a century, and coverage is all over the map. We have books on the contemporary experience of Han Chinese colonists in Xinjiang, on the development of the “Uyghur” idea across the Sino-Russian border, and on Republican-era politics in Xinjiang through the eyes of its Chinese rulers. Another forthcoming book re-imagines indigenous officials in the 18th and 19th centuries as capitalist entrepreneurs. These are all academic works, but they are also remarkably readable, which places them in a growing movement in the humanities away from tortuous prose and specialist jargon.

Largely for logistical reasons, the JAS, mostly reviews English language scholarly works, though it is certainly open to looking at works in other languages.  What are the most important languages other than English these days for scholarship on Inner Asia, and does it differ between, say, Tibet and Xinjiang?

You can get a sense of the history of Inner Asia scholarship from those kinds of linguistic divisions. Japan’s long tradition of research on Xinjiang, for example, and Soviet interest in the Central and Inner Asian cultures that fell under Russian rule are both reflected in publications in those languages. Tibet, on the other hand, tends to see more work in western European languages. There are of course important publications in Uyghur, Tibetan, and Chinese, but the Chinese state, through its academic system and through its censorship regime, presents some pretty daunting obstacles to effective humanistic scholarship. Inner Asian and Chinese authors who manage to overcome those obstacles often end up publishing in English.

Okay, a couple of final questions beyond books.  First, is there uniformity in how people define “Central Asia” or “Inner Asia,” as it’s sometimes called, as in the “China and Inner Asian Council” of the Association for Asian Studies?  If not, how do you think about this region, in terms of its contours and shape?

These area divisions are always messy and always disputed, but there’s a clear center of gravity in defining both Central and Inner Asia. The Turko-Persian areas of the former Soviet Union tend to get called Central Asia, with Afghanistan sometimes lumped in. Inner Asia is a term that, to my mind, accommodates a China-centered view of the Asian interior: the steppe region to China’s north (most recently dominated by Manchus and Mongols), “Xinjiang” or “Eastern Turkestan,” and Tibet all have histories that are intimately entangled with China. The major point of overlap is Xinjiang. Culturally it looks more like former-Soviet Central Asia, but historically it has important connections to China.
Finally, turning to something associated with both Chinese and Inner Asian history, have you been surprised to by how passionate some Beijing authors have been in their denunciations of the “New Qing History,” treating it as something with major political implications, rather than the topic of purely scholarly interest that it might seem to be to the non-initiated?

Working, as I do, in a field in which historians have been banned from China for their writing, I can’t say I was very surprised. The party has taken upon itself the task of justifying the borders of the Inner Asian Qing Empire, borders which the PRC has inherited, in the language of Chinese nationalism. To a certain extent, the insights of “New Qing history” were spurred by taking seriously the Qing rulers’ explanations of how and why they maintained such a massive empire. PRC nationalist historians have great difficulty weaving this material into their narratives of China – of a primordial and continuous China, one that “unifies” rather than conquers and divides rather than contracts – without leaving some frayed edges. Those frayed edges are particularly visible in Inner Asia.


Profsplaining, or, The Internet IS a Classroom, Whinypants!

By Maria Bustillos

“The Internet is not a classroom,” pop-culture scholars Amanda Ann Klein and Kristen Warner write in a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. For those of us who spend our days in a positive orgy of learning things there, this statement is, well… false, to begin with.

The gist of Klein and Warner’s argument is that online, and in magazines, pop-culture critics do not sufficiently credit the work of “experts,” by whom they mean pop-culture scholars like themselves. “That write-up you’re planning on antiheroes, reality-television history, or the networks’ exploitation of black audiences? It has a scholarly antecedent just waiting to expand your knowledge of the subject.” Whether a critic and his readers have the faintest desire for their knowledge to be “expanded” is immaterial; evidently, critics should hie themselves along to JSTOR before setting paw to keyboard, just in case some academic may have gotten there first.

Furious subtweeting predictably followed, with one popular critic silkily observing of “pop culture academics” that “[t]hey usually can’t write & are extremely stubborn about edits,” and Klein firing back on Twitter: “Just do your research before you publish, whinypants” [since deleted].

It’s surprising to find that there is still some vestige of the old gatekeeper mentality among our academics. The once-common tendency of academics to talk down to the rest of us plebs is clearly on the wane, though. And a very good thing, too. Marshall McLuhan’s promises of the early nineteen-sixties are come to pass, and we enjoy a fantastically rich, heady cross-cultural ferment across the sciences as well as the humanities, owing in part to the magic of the Internet and in part to the slow but steady opening up of academic minds. The Internet is itself the “Gutenberg Galaxy”—the “mosaic configuration or galaxy for insight” that McLuhan so uncannily predicted; students, readers, hobbyists, stans and scholars, all sorts of interested parties are free, now, to roll their own blend of ideas and observations. All are free to participate. We take this for granted, but in fact the sheer wealth of it is exhilarating.

It’s plumb loco to be drawing up battle lines between popular and academic criticism right now, when so many academics and ex-academics are writing top-notch popular criticism (e.g., just off the top of my head, Ian Bogost, Aaron Bady, Lili Loofbourow, Freddie deBoer, Jacqui Shine and Clay Shirky). I asked Evan Kindley — a visiting assistant professor of English at Claremont McKenna College, editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books, and gifted popular critic — what he thought about this Chron piece, and he replied, “Where I depart from Warner and Klein is their apparent assumption that journalists have an obligation to consult academics, as opposed to the claim that consulting academics is a good idea. […] Journalism and scholarship are just totally different animals; the two can be mated with interesting results, but they’re not doing each other any harm if they keep to their own ecosystems.”

Are the two ecosystems really so far apart? Perhaps these academics’ anxiety owes more to the fact that the gate opened all by itself. Over the last century, academic and popular culture have grown closer and closer together, as evidenced, indeed, by the very existence of pop-culture scholarship. There was a time when the undergraduate study of English ended at Milton; when the serious study of English required serious “expertise.” Not anymore, whinypants!

Let’s be clear: popular critics aren’t here to “teach.” But it’s also possible the best professors aren’t here to “teach” either, but instead to participate in a broader discourse. Sadly, there is a real cost to that for public intellectuals today. “If scholars want to be part of [popular] conversations, they can be,” Aaron Bady wrote to me in an email. He continued:

Many of them — us — are. But for a lot of us, the price we paid for it was not getting academic jobs! Scholars who spend their lives writing for JSTOR and other pay-walled gardens get tenure as the reward for making their work inaccessible to everyone else — because, literally, publishing in inaccessible peer-reviewed journals “counts,” while publishing for the public doesn’t — and that’s fine; that’s a choice. But it seems strange to complain that they don’t get to have their cake and eat it too. Those barriers are real, and they go both ways.

We can only lament that the academy doesn’t appear to recognize the groundbreaking and vital importance of this perspective. If the humanities are in decline, that may partly be due to the brand of fusty, square condescension to the public put on display by Klein and Warner. Charged with this on Twitter, Klein protested that professors engage with the broader culture through their contact with students. But it’s quite clear that that contact goes in one direction only:

The first time students see Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 film, Breathless, they often assume his jump cuts are sloppy editing mistakes, rather than a conscious strategy on the part of the director to subvert the polished style of the 1950s French “Cinema of Quality.” In the classroom that is called a “teachable moment.” Mistakes and misunderstandings offer professors platforms for engaging students in productive but also corrective discussions.

The future is not in the “corrective,” but in the inclusive.

Early works on popular culture written by public intellectuals, like Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro” (1957) and Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp’” (1964), have aged poorly for this very reason. Valuable as they were at the time for helping to bring the real concerns of American popular culture to the forefront, they were written from a self-congratulatory perch high above the common herd. In order to participate in a meaningful critique of popular culture you cannot hold yourself above it. That is why the Internet is, in fact, a classroom.


Into a Memory

By Robert Kingett

When I was little, I did not wander as a cloud. I floated on one.

I have to admit, when the assignment was given to me, a blind college student, to write about a poem I did not think I would find one that would capture my interest or my memory. For days, my ears would burn the table of contents of my textbook as my fingers struck down page numbers in a hopeless search to find something that I could connect with, for something that I could write about and have it be genuine. I was lost and my hopes for finding a poem that would even hold my interest long enough to allow me to write about it seemed to be an impossible reach. I was a bibliophile at heart, but I did not like writing about poetry. I enjoyed reading it, but writing about it was a different kind of circle of hell. On my fifth haphazard hunt through the table of contents, my ears caught something that I had not noticed, and I was instantly drawn because it sounded familiar: “I wandered lonely as a cloud” by William Wordsworth. I reflected on its familiarity, sensing that it would be significant to my life in some way. I wanted to explore the kind of emotional journey that this poem would take me through, and so I did. After listening to the first line, I was instantly transported to a memory that I did not even know I had.

It is late at night, and I am six. I remember feeling the Braille calendar poised in my lap, my finger tracing the soft indentations of the moons among the days. A sound erupts from the living room and I look up, my ears picking up every shift of the air just a few rooms from me. Shouting soon breaks out as if I am in a pep rally. It grows louder and more obscene with each passing word. My mother has made her appearance on stage yet again, and I start to sob. I am guessing that Grandma and Grandpa are out in the fray as well, but I do not want to be in here all alone. The shouting reaches a volume that I do not even know exists, and my fright and anger mesh into one emotion as the stupidity of the situation finally reaches me.

As my mother and her husband continue screaming at each other, mixing in sounds of smacking and hitting, Grandma comes into the room. I know it is her because I can smell the peach scented perfume. It is as if the smell alone is a blanket, about to wrap me up. My bedroom door softly clicks shut, and tender shoes thud over to me. She takes my small hand in hers.

“Are you ready for bed?” she asks me. I smile and nod while  trying to hide my anger at my mother. “Well, I’m sorry. I do not have a story for you tonight. All I have is this book of poems your grandfather gave to me.” I groan at the mention of poetry. Even at that young age, I much rather prefer it when she read me something GOOD such as Nancy Drew or The Hardy Boys. I do not want to stay here any longer; however, I like it when Grandma reads to me.

Outside of my bubble of safety, my mother starts to cry as grandpa yells at her about how stupid she is acting. I hear pages slowly open. Grandma leans over to read and instantly I am taken to the place of golden daffodils, leaving the screaming behind me.

I wandered lonely as a cloud,

that floats on high o’er vales and hills,

when all at once I saw a crowd,

a host, of golden daffodils.

I am soon floating on that cloud looking at dancing yellow flowers. As Grandma continues to read the poem to me, I feel a sense of peace. I am flying, and the newly developed sounds of clashing in the kitchen are merely a faint whisper. I am swept away by Grandma’s reading. We are both wandering as clouds, but neither of us is lonely. I listen with eagerness as Wordsworth’s words allows me to ignore the smashing sounds in the next room.

When she finishes the poem, she tucks me in and kisses me goodnight. She tells me she loves me and then leaves the room. I drift on my own cloud of safety, finally able to feel calm and happy enough to go to sleep. I am comfortable and soon floating on my own cloud, across vales and hills far from the treachery of the world. I am safe.

That was when I was six. That memory of Grandma sprang to mind when I first listened to the poem. I reread the poem after that, repeatedly, making it my ‘comfort poem.’ While I was reading the poem at that young age, I had a literal visual interpretation of it that seemed logical and obvious to me: the speaker was looking down at golden flowers swaying in the wind. I believed it so strongly that I vividly imagined this, picturing the golden tendrils swaying gently in the breeze, and some shadow sitting up high on a pink cloud looking down at this dancing show. For a long time, that is how I interpreted the poem. I do not know where my interpretation changed, but it did.

I presume that it changed just after my grandmother died and I had no way of escaping the abuse and domestic violence I had to endure. I would always wish that Grandma would come softly into my room, click my door shut and take me with her on a cloud high above the bad things in my life. With the passing of years, I never saw or heard the poem again.

Now, when I heard the poem again, I was instantly six again, feeling a sense of love. I replayed the poem, wearing out the skip back button on my CD player in order to keep hold of the memory that this poem helped to bring back from the dead. I loved this rare opportunity to smell Grandma’s peach scented perfume again. I loved the chance to hear her powerful delicately articulate voice read me a poem to take away all the bad things in my life. Listening to the poem now, I soon realized that I had a different interpretation. Perhaps this interpretation came from her death when I was seven. I believe that the loss of my grandmother, physically and mentally, has helped me to make this interpretation once I reclaimed her in my memory after so long of an absence. This poem helped me regain a memory that I did not even know existed within me.

The speaker talks about how he is happy to watch “golden daffodils” dance. My grandmother was always like that, happy to see, create, and experience pure happiness. This poem, I believe, is what my grandmother sees and saw. Because of this realization about my grandmother, I no longer have the same image when I listen to the poem. I picture someone looking down on people, but not just any people, I picture someone looking down on me, and a few other people, some wealthy, some poor, some old, some young, some black, some white, some Asian, and some of everything. All of us are dancing with an airy display for our spectator, twirling and giggling as we choreograph a perfect rhythm. I no longer picture the shadow on top of the cloud as having no face or figure. It now has a form and a shape to it. It is someone I know. I picture the wrinkly old woman looking down at us softly smiling. She is comfortable on the pink cloud, basking in her glory and her peace. I am sure, if we were closer, we would smell the peach scented perfume. I picture the old woman slowly bringing her wrinkled hands together, clapping and shedding silent tears as she watches the spectacle. I would like to think that she would be smiling at this point, glad to finally have the opportunity to watch the best show in the world – the show of a host of golden daffodils tossing our heads up in a sprightly dance.


The Promised (Disney)land

By Alec Ash

Wang Zhigang flew three hours just to see Mickey Mouse. In swimming shorts and a colourful umbrella-hat sold by peddlers outside the entrance to keep the sun off, he queued in 97 degrees heat for hours to get on the best rides. All because he made a promise to his son while Shanghai Disneyland was still under construction, that they would go when it opened. Wang Zhigang is a good father.

With his eight-year-old son, Xinbiao, he flew from Bazhong in Sichuan (just another anonymous Chinese city of three million) to Pudong international airport by the Pacific ocean. He took a plastic bag into the theme park. In it were two pots of instant noodles, a cylinder of chips, three bottles of water and a pack of what I can only describe as miscellanious meat jerky in shrink wrap. In his line of work as a travel agent, he explained, he has been to many of China’s tourist destinations, from the Sichuanese nature reserve Jiuzhaigou to mountainous Zhangjiajie in Hunan. “China has famous mountain and water scenery,” he told me – a stock phrase – then seemed to doubt his own pitch. “But it’s just mountains and water. Disneyland is more experimental.”

I asked what he meant. “It’s the meeting point of Chinese and Western culture.”

We were on a Pirates of the Caribbean themed ship at Treasure Cove. Over the lake rose the spires of Enchanted Storybook Castle. Other attractions included Tron Lightcycle Power Run, Buzz Lightyear Planet Rescue, Alice in Wonderland Maze and Marvel Universe. I saw the Western culture, I said. Where was the Chinese?

“Well,” he eventually responded. “It’s in China.”

Families like the Wangs are why Disney chose the mainland as the location for its newest resort park in ten years (Hong Kong already has one). The $5.5 billion site has been under construction for five years, a joint venture between Disney and the Shanghai development group Shendi, and since it opened on June 16 an influx from all over the nation has proved it a smart investment. Zhigang paid 499RMB ($75) for his peak period entrance ticket – a significant sum, which is why he was stinting on the Mickey burgers by bringing his own food in. Then again, disposable income and a rising middle class is part of the magic.

There are Chinese characteristics to the park, but they feel token. A pagoda-roofed restaurant, the ‘Wandering Moon Teahouse’, serves Shanghai-style braised pork and ‘eight treasure’ steamed rice with duck inside a lotus leaf. At ‘Garden of the Twelve Friends’, the animals of the Chinese zodiac are reconfigured as Disney characters – Pluto for dog, Kaa for snake, Abu for monkey, Tigger for … you get the gist. Yet domestic tourists aren’t there for that; they’re pulled by the soft power of Disney and the rest of the world, which Chinese society embraces all the while that its leaders assert China’s uniqueness.

For a thirty year old, I had a wonderful time in Disneyland. Mickey and his friends were stoically cheery inside furry costumes in the blistering heat. The Tron ride was amazing. We picnicked in a grassy park in Fantasyland that everyone else seemed to assume was off-limits. The light show on the enchanted castle at nightfall was everything my inner preteen hoped for. Even a three-hour queue for a ride called ‘Soaring Over the Horizon’, where our feet dangled over smellovision vistas from the Taj Mahal to the Australian outback, somehow seemed an essential part of the experience.

When the four-minute ride finished with fireworks over the Shanghai skyline, and our toes touched the ground once more, I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed. Then I turned to my right, where eleven-year-old Li Jiayi from Shandong province was in conniptions. Shanghai was the furthest from home she had ventured, and she was biting her fingers in shrill excitement at the thrill of it all.

Xiasiwole!” she said. Shocked to death. “The world is so big!”

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Where Is Korean Translated Literature?

By Charles Montgomery

Over the next two months, the LARB Korea Blog will feature chapters from a draft of Charles Montgomery’s book-in-progress titled The Explorer’s History of Korean Fiction in Translation, an attempt to give a concise history and understanding of Korean literature as represented in translation. Here is the introductory chapter.

Almost every English language reader would immediately recognize the words “Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to discover that he had been transformed into a giant cockroach” as the first line of Franz Kafka’s masterpiece The Metamorphosis, a work that helped define his style and changed literature forever.

Or, quote to an English reader the line “Mother died today,” and they might well immediately recognize it as the first line of Albert Camus’ The Stranger. If they did not recognize it, perhaps one would only need to begin humming “Killing an Arab” by the English band The Cure to make the literary allusion obvious. Though written in French, The Stranger has been translated and not only read, but incorporated into English-language culture in such a way that it can become not just a hit as a piece of literature but a hit in popular music as well.

To go even farther back in time, one can quote the famous line, “The whole of Gaul is divided into three parts,” and the savvy reader will immediately recognize the first line of Julius Caesar’s account of the Gallic wars. Some might even recognize this quote in its original Latin: “Gallia omnis divisa in partes tres est.”

“The taxi’s radio was tuned to a classical FM broadcast. Janáček’s Sinfonietta—probably not the ideal music to hear in a taxi caught in traffic.” That might be a bit more obscure, but it is the first line from Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, which sold out upon its first day on sale in Japan and has been translated into many languages with first editions published in at least seven countries (Japan, United States, United Kingdom, Hungary, Norway, Turkey, and Greece). You could go to your local bookstore and immediately purchase this book, most likely in English, perhaps even in some language other than English or Japanese. 1Q84 has also been translated into Persian, Chinese, and Korean. In Korea, the book sells as a three-volume set, as it originally in Japan, but in Korean literature, it has few if any equivalents.

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An educated person might well recognize “Tell me, Muse, of the man of many devices, who wandered far and wide after he had sacked Troy’s sacred city, and saw the towns of many men and knew their mind” as the first line of Homer’s The Odyssey, or “To go wrong in one’s own way is better than to go right in someone else’s,” as that of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

All of these first sentences cross time, space and language, to achieve immediate recognizability to many English-speaking readers of fiction, whether that reader knows the original language at all, or even that the works come from other languages in the first place.

Yet ask that same reader about the following classic lines from Korean literature in translation:

“Why do murders always seem to happen on Sundays?”

“Perhaps we ought to begin this investigation into the deviations of his life by evoking the problem of memory.”

“Fighting, adultery, murder, theft, prison — the shanty area outside the Seven Star Gate was a breeding ground for all that is tragic and violent in this world.”

or one of my all-time favorite first lines in Korean literature,

“Before my wife turned vegetarian, I thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.”

It is an almost certainty that the “well-read” reader of translation will not recognize the first line, from Kim Young-ha’s brilliant detective novella Photo Shop Murder. The second line, nearly Nabokovian in nature, comes from Yi Mun-yol’s The Poet, and the third from Kim Dong-in’s translation of the tragic Potatoes. The last sentence is from possibly the most successful translation of Korean literature to date, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (and, it is worth noting, a kind of spiritual heir to the first line of The Metamorphosis).

There is, in fact, possibly only one opening line that many readers of Korean fiction might recognize: “It’s been one week since Mom went missing.” And yet, ask yourself if you actually did recognize this line from the other candidate for most successful translated work of Korean fiction in history, Shin Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mom.

Now consider the following plots:

A young, sexually abused hacker takes revenge, with the help of an older male journalist, on her abusers.

A deranged knight on horseback, followed by his loyal companion on burro, tilts ridiculously against windmills.

The adventures, misadventures, and disillusionment of a young man who ends up wanting nothing more than to tend his own garden.

A great, but blocked author visits Venice and finds himself obsessed with an extremely attractive young man. While the writer suffers the pangs of unrequited and unattempted love, he dies of cholera.

To many readers, these plots would be instantly identifiable as those of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Don Quixote, Candide, and Death in Venice. But describe the following story to any English-language reader (or non-Korean speaker): a young boy and a young girl meet while playing by a stream. They meet again and form a kind of friendship. Suddenly, a cloudburst appears out of the sky, forcing the boy and the girl to take shelter in a cramped stack of millet. The story ends with the girl dying, her final request being that she be buried in the same clothes that she always wore when she met the young boy.

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This would most likely ring no bell with a non-Korean reader, even though it comes from Sonagi (“Cloudburst”), among the most famous stories in Korean fiction. In fact, until quite recently one would have been hard-pressed to come up with any plot description of a Korean story that a non-Korean would recognize.

When I presented at conferences in Korea, I would always begin with a thought experiment. Imagine someone at a cocktail party in any intellectual city in the English-speaking world. The topic might well turn to literature, at which point the question might arise: “Who is your favorite author from (insert any country here)?” It is easy to imagine a partygoer with quick and easy answers for many countries: Japan, Asia, Russia, Sweden, Germany, Brazil, China, and so on. But faced with the question of “Who is your favorite Korean author?” our hypothetical partygoer may feel the immediate need to go refresh their drink.

And this is the unfortunate position in which translated Korean literature now finds itself, despite yeoman’s work from translators, publishers, the Language Translation Institute of Korea, and others. Despite a few breakthrough works, Korean literature has not succeeded to a level weaves it into the intellectual fabric of the Western world. The good news is that this seems to be slowly changing, and The Explorer’s History of Korean Fiction in Translation will look at Korean fiction through translation, trace its influences and development, and suggest where an interested non-Korean-speaking reader might begin — in some sense, an “idiot’s guide” to translated Korean fiction.

To understand Korean fiction, we must first discuss some of the historical and social influences that have made it what it is, and to some extent helped keep it off the international literary map. This discussion will occur two posts from now, and chapters from The Explorer’s History will appear here at a pace of about one per month. I would love to hear any feedback that readers of the Korea blog might have on them.

Related Korea Blog posts:

 Looking Back at Modern Short Stories from Korea, the Very First Collection of Korean Fiction in English

The Triumph of Han Kang and the Rise of Women’s Writing in Korea

Bright Lies, Big City: Korean Authors and Seoul

Charles Montgomery is an ex-resident of Seoul where he lived for seven years teaching in the English, Literature, and Translation Department at Dongguk University. You can read more from Charles Montgomery on translated Korean literature here, on Twitter @ktlit, or on Facebook.


On Christopher Bram’s The Art of History

By Emmett Rensin

Christopher Bram likes some books. He doesn’t like some others.

If you were to list these books, one by one, and include with each Bram’s marginalia a few short paragraphs explaining what he liked about the books he likes and what he didn’t like about the books he doesn’t, you would have in your hands something resembling the preposterously titled The Art of History, out from the ordinarily peerless Graywolf Press this month.

Bram, himself the author of nearly a dozen novels and nonfiction histories, wants to make sense of historical writing: What is it? Why do we read it? Most importantly, how do we do it well? Answering these questions is an ambitious project for a book scarcely longer than 150 pages, and one made more ambitious by the fact that Bram wants to answer them not only as they relate to nonfiction, but to historical fiction as well.

At least I gather that this is what he wants. At no point in The Art of History does Bram state any goals explicitly. The better part of his introduction is given over to an anecdote about a beloved history teacher who helped inspire his own lifelong dedication to the past. The rest goes to the value of studying history (In the end we learn about… ourselves, more or less). From there we launch directly into case studies, grouped by topic: details, lives, comedy, right through to “endings”. The closest we come to a statement of purpose is Bram’s assertion that history is “good medicine”, something that helps us learn that “the past isn’t as long ago as we think, and it isn’t radically different from the present,” that “we must learn to distinguish fact from fantasy,” and that this will in some way help us defeat the Tea Party.

Nonetheless, Bram says, history is not “a magical mystery solution to the problems of the present.”

The jacket copy on The Art of History calls it “an essential volume for any lover of historical narrative.” It isn’t. This isn’t so bad, really, because if there is a way to recommend this book, it is as a primer, better suited for historical neophytes than “lovers.” Bram introduces the reader to dozens of authors. He provides neat summaries of their work. He is an extremely competent, if somewhat superficial close reader, and his book would be of great service to any teacher of undergraduates looking for a quick way to introduce their students to the canon of historical writing while providing an example of the sort of fluid prose and detailed analysis expected in their forthcoming term papers. The Art of History excels as a survey.

But that is all it does. Nothing in The Art of History works toward any theory of aesthetics; if there is an art revealed here, it is the art of Christopher Bram’s taste. We learn whom he likes (Marquez, McCullough, Morgan, William Styron, and Nancy Mitford, among others). We learn whom he doesn’t (Eco, Hugo, Broch, most modern historians writing in multiple volumes, among others). This second set produces a few solid one-liners — Edward P. Jones’ The Known World is “like a North American One Hundred Years of Solitude but even harder to follow”; Blood Meridian, “could be just the fantasy of a really mean fourteen-year-old” — but these burns don’t tell you much.

Bram does offer reasons for his taste, but they rarely extend beyond his assessment of whether or not a particular approach “worked” for him. In a chapter on details, for example, we learn that Lampedusa’s The Leopard is “all details, and good details, too,” while in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall “details open windows only into [Mantel’s] own virtuosity.” War and Peace uses “surprisingly few” details, “which is one reason why War and Peace remains alive.” But Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels has “none of the surprising, striking details that historical writing needs to cut through the clichés.” Key questions remain unanswered. Charles Portis’s True Grit, we learn, is a “wonderful historical novel.” “Postis must’ve read scores of Old West memoirs and dime novels to get the tone exactly right, as well as to capture the slang and wealth of details.” But did he? We don’t find out. By the end of the chapter, we’re left with a thorough account of what kinds of details excite Christopher Bram’s imagination, but no particular sense of what to make of this knowledge, much less what they teach us about the art of historical writing. Sometimes details help, but other times they don’t.

When Bram does attempt a more general lesson, the results are rarely more than platitudes, which are occasionally bizarre but more often just boring.

We learn that certain books help the past “come alive” or help us “see the big picture.” Endings, we learn, are difficult to choose “because history doesn’t stop.” History imported from other languages can be tricky — but also revealing. “Something is lost, but something is also gained,” Bram writes to sum up the translation of A. B. Yehoshua’s Mr. Mani from Hebrew to English. Attempting to explain how the comic can add depth to history’s most brutal episodes, he tells us,“comedy opens the reader to a more complex and profound sadness than tragedy does, in part because we don’t see the sorrow coming.”

He is talking about Evan S. Connell’s Son of the Morning Star, a book about Little Bighorn and the indigenous genocide. Humor adds quite a lot to Connell’s narrative, but I am confident we all “see the sorrow coming.”

After a long, serious chapter about the treatment of American slavery in history and fiction, we nonetheless end on the observation that W.E.B. DuBois, a Marxist, wrote about the white worker too. “Like it or not, we are all in this together,” says Bram. Well, alright.

It is possible that all of this is deliberate. There are indications that Bram does not care much for philosophizing, that a kind of unsweeping ambivalence is his sense of the art. The final pages of the book are dedicated to excoriating War and Peace’s second epilogue, a novel Bram otherwise loves:

The Second Epilogue is less than fifty pages long, but it feels interminable. We shift from the novelist’s world of specifics — bodies and emotions and acts — to an amateur philosopher’s jumble of ideas. Tolstoy asks some good questions. […] But his answers are airy and contradictory.

“I don’t know about the laws of history,” Bram writes, but Tolstoy, having successfully worked “the human scale for more than a thousand pages” has “lost faith in his accomplishment by the time he writes his conclusion.”

Maybe so, and maybe it is precisely this kind of humiliating gesture at grand theory that Bram is attempting to avoid. Perhaps a safe collection of close readings is the only thing he believes is achievable in a book like this.

But our culture is so full of this kind of criticism already, so full of writers who are only able to issue lists of praise and condemnation, only willing discuss their preferences, which is to say only willing to discuss themselves. We have too many autobiographies of taste, justified by platitudes. If we are going to have an Art of History, I would rather have it from Tolstoy’s palest imitator. I would rather have it from an author who believes he has uncovered the secret of that art, and who will argue its case, even at the risk of embarrassment. Even at the likelihood of being wrong.