Category Archives: news

American Networks, American Nerds

I’m very pleased to announce that I’ve been invited to speak at Emory University’s new Digital Scholarship Commons next week. If you find yourself in the vicinity you won’t want to miss it. Here are the details:

The Digital Scholarship Commons Presents Ed Finn, Ph.D.: “American Networks, American Nerds”
Wednesday, November 2, 4:00 pm – 5:00 pm
Research Commons, third Floor, Robert W. Woodruff Library

Ed Finn, a recent Stanford graduate and University Innovation Fellow at Arizona State University, will speak about his network analysis of Amazon consumer reviews of David Foster Wallace and Junot Díaz, explaining how these differ from literary critics’ assessments. You can read about Dr. Finn’s work in the New York Times.
This talk explores changing systems of literary reputation in contemporary American fiction through two case studies: Junot Díaz and David Foster Wallace. Long-established models of literary production are changing dramatically as the digital era continues to blur the divisions between authors, critics and readers. Millions of cultural consumers are now empowered to participate in previously closed literary conversations and to express forms of mass distinction through their purchases and reviews of books. The bookselling behemoth Amazon has been collecting such information from its users since 1996, assembling a rich ecology of cultural data. Drawing on Amazon’s archive and a set of professional book reviews, I analyze the literary networks that readers have created for Wallace and Díaz through their collective acts of distinction. Tracing contemporary shifts in critical and commercial reception, I argue that both writers use style as a way to reinvent authorship for a hyper-mediated age. By redrawing the boundaries of dialect and slang in American English, they promote radical revisions to contemporary concepts of literary identity and community.

My Hat’s Off to Thinking Cap

I’m really delighted to announce that Patricia Cohen wrote up my recent essay on David Foster Wallace for her Thinking Cap column this week at The New York Times. Readers can download the full pdf of the essay here. A version of this research that I gave as a talk at Digital Humanities 2011 also got a nod from William Pannapacker in The Chronicle of Higher Education over the summer. I’m very grateful to these writers for covering my work as well as the editors, advisors and one extremely patient spouse who did so much to improve the final product.

Papers, papers

In all the excitement of the holidays, MLA and then a trip to Egypt (!), I didn’t have a chance to post about an exciting update from the publication front. Since then I also had some good conference news, so here’s the skinny.

I’m really delighted to be participating in an awesome book project co-edited by Lee Konstantinou and Sam Cohen considering the impact of David Foster Wallace. The collection is under contract with Iowa and it got a great writeup in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Very exciting! I’m working on revisions to my chapter right now. My piece will explore how different groups of readers are defining Wallace’s legacy through book reviews and literary consumption.

I had a paper accepted to Digital Humanities 2011! This may not seem like as big a deal until you start reading the comments on Twitter from people who didn’t get in: the acceptance rate was only 31% for panel proposals. I’ve really enjoyed my previous two DH conferences, and I’m looking forward to presenting with fellow LitLabbers Zephyr Frank and Rhiannon Lewis, with Franco Moretti as moderator. The panel is titled “Networks, Literature, Culture” and it’s going to be fantastic. I’ll save you a seat.

Critical Code Studies

I’ve been traveling for the past two weeks, heading off immediately after the end of the MLA conference in early January. So I’ve largely missed out on the storm of Twitter and blogosphere discussion about an emerging critical discourse that I’m excited to be involved in: Critical Code Studies. Fortunately, the leaders of this new community have done an amazing job of generating wider awareness, building on a conference last summer and an ongoing collaboration with the electronic book review (which is where I come in) to several panels at MLA and a thriving new forum over at HASTAC. Most recently, the CCS folks have published the proceedings of the conference last summer in collaboration with Vectors.

I’m excited to dive into the HASTAC conversation and to start thinking about how CCS connects to my own work. A lot of the research I’m doing on the literary marketplace explores how new computational algorithms are changing cultural systems (i.e. the seasons of book production, which operate a little like Hollywood’s summer blockbusters, winter Oscar-bait formula). But what I want to dwell on briefly here is how we are all learning to “read” algorithms ourselves on the front end. That’s one of the basic sources of challenge in videogames, for instance. An example from my dissertation work might be the way we reverse-engineer recommendation systems (to figure out why something was suggested to us).

A still better example is Slate’s Facebook parodies, which at their best adapt the functionality and rhetoric of the site’s algorithms for political satire. For instance, in “100 Days of Barack Obama’s Facebook news feed,” the authors mimic Facebook’s social media tracking for comedic effect:


Here we have humans ‘faking’ algorithms for their own purposes, and I think the satire effectively skewers Facebook as well as politics. Ultimately, Slate’s pieces work because they ask us if American politics is turning into a stylized, algorithmically deterministic system, a sadly unwitting self-parody. Or, as Aaron Sorkin put it, whether “socializing on the Internet is to socializing, what reality TV is to reality.”

Of course, the CCS people would point out that there’s no real code here, but I guess my point is that we’re all involved in interpreting algorithms in various ways, whether or not we’re coders. Perhaps my contribution to the HASTAC forum will be some of my own Perl code that I no longer understand!

Things are Cooking at First Person

I’m happy to share news of some exciting developments on the First Person thread over at the electronic book review.

First, we published a great riposte by Daniel Worden to Sean O’Sullivan’s essay on Deadwood, one of my favorite shows. The original essay appeared in Third Person and discussed the inherent tension between the plot demands of the television episode and the television series. Worden responded by thinking about the different definitions of necessity at work in the show, including the crossover between the narratological manifest destiny of a canceled season and the kind that drove all those characters to settle the deadly Black Hills of South Dakota.

Second, and ongoing, we’re running a series of entries drawn from the Critical Code Studies Working Group. The group took on the challenge of interpreting software not just as the mechanism for all of our new digital texts and toys, but as text itself. The conversation is a virtual who’s who of software studies, and I’m very excited to be editing its ebr instantiation. I find the subject fascinating and this is a great experiment in new models for digital scholarship. In Mark Marino’s introduction and the Week 1 discussion participants tried to hammer out some basic definitions and discussed readings of the infamous Anna Kournikova worm.

Franzen on Oprah

As a follow-up to my last post I was planning to talk a little more about the images I posted there. But before I get to that, I need to digest the latest wrinkle in this canon conflict–Franzen’s Freedom has been named the latest Oprah’s Book Club pick! (Of course I learned of this from a Barnes and Noble email.) This is a bit shocking because of the awkward kerfuffle that happened last time Oprah picked a Franzen novel, when the author said some disparaging things about the whole idea and got himself uninvited.

According to Reuters: “This time, Winfrey said she sent Franzen a note asking for his permission to feature his latest novel ‘because we have a little history.'” I wonder if that means Franzen will appear on the show? If so, it’s interesting to speculate what’s changed in the literary world since 2001. My off-the-cuff guess would be that we’re seeing a kind of flattening of the literary universe as professional critics thin their ranks and the publishing industry struggles to adapt to new realities. But on the other hand, it’s entirely possible that Franzen won’t go on the show, and that Oprah’s taking the high road (as in both moral and -brow) on her own.

All of this circles back to the ‘Franzenfreude’ debate. The same things that presumably attracted Oprah to the book: its themes of American families, love and the struggle for a new domesticity (or so I hear, not having read it yet) are the same things that make the novel appealing to more than just the ‘male readers’ Franzen was so worried about losing during his previous Oprah spat. And of course these themes would (so critics argue) condemn Franzen to chick-lit middlebrow status if he happened to be a woman.

What we can glean from the images I posted previously is that Franzen really is successful at breaking out of the ‘challenging young novelist’ box. Unlike, say, David Foster Wallace (whom I’m working on right now), Franzen’s books are avenues of exchange for readers of Jane Smiley, Jennifer Egan, David Mitchell, and a host of other writers of both sexes (though, it must be said, more men than women). Oprah’s latest pick proves what we see in the images below: Franzen has managed to snag the ring of elite literary prestige while still appealing to diverse audiences. His books lead readers to varied literary clusters, not just to more Franzen. And his links to the canon-spanning roster of previous Oprah selections will only proliferate in the coming months.

The New Open Culture

My good friend Dan Colman has recently moved his great site Open Culture to its new Internet home, the one it should have had all along: I wrote a few blog posts for Dan back in the day (far fewer than I’d actually said I would, alas), and I love the site.

If you’ve never seen it, be sure to check it out, especially his incredible, expanding archive of free high-quality podcasts, lectures and more–including a great list of free audio books.


Well, maybe not, but it was still exciting to see two of my colleagues from Stanford get some Newspaper of Record facetime today for their work on video game research. Henry Lowood and Matteo Bittanti have both been involved in the study of games as cultural forms and it’s nice to see their work reaching such a major audience.

The article discusses their efforts to create a draft canon for game studies. Of course, this is just as contentious in video games as it is in literature or film, and the difference between a formal canon and a top ten list is awfully thin. However, I think both Henry and Matteo would be quick to argue that the point isn’t to isolate a few games for special treatment but to get the rest of us thinking about games as artifacts worth studying and archiving. Henry has done an amazing job of building up the Stanford Library’s collection of games, consoles and more.