It’s been a busy month around here. I spent a fantastic week visiting the New America Foundation in DC and getting to know the people behind ASU’s Future Tense partnership with NAF and Slate Magazine. There has been a lot of action back at the office too, and I’ll be posting shortly about my upcoming trip to Emory. But for now I wanted to mention that I wrote up a short post for Open Culture last week to promote another ASU project, the very cool 10,000 Solutions. Check it out and share your bright idea!

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.

Pamphlet #3

I’m very excited to announce that a version of my essay on David Foster Wallace has just been published online as the Stanford Literary Lab’s third pamphlet. Here’s the lead-in:

If there is one thing to be learned from David Foster Wallace, it is that cultural transmission is a tricky game. This was a problem Wallace confronted as a literary professional, a university-based writer during what Mark McGurl has called the Program Era. But it was also a philosophical issue he grappled with on a deep level as he struggled to combat his own loneliness through writing. To really study this question we need to look beyond the symbolic markets of prestige to the real market, the site of mass literary consumption, where authors succeed or fail based on their ability to speak to that most diverse and complicated of readerships: the general public. Unless we study what I call the social lives of books, we make the mistake of keeping literature in the same ascetic laboratory that Wallace tried to break out of with his intense authorial focus on popular culture, mass media, and everyday life.

Wrestling the Gators of Adolescence

Swamplandia!Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this novel, from its lush descriptions of the dystopian swamp amusement park industry to the mystical experience of journeying through the deep everglades. At Swamplandia! all the alligators are named Seth. It took me a little while to figure out where Russell was setting her course between absurdity and pathos, but once I did I really started enjoying the book. The descriptions of Kiwi Bigtree’s employment at the World of Darkness, the Walmart of fun factories, were hilarious.

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Writing in the Real World

It’s been a summer of major changes in my life: completing grad school and moving on to my first job as a fellow at Arizona State University. As I adjust to a new position where I am “doing” almost as much as I am “thinking” (for a very word-based, university definition of doing), the impossible has occurred. I’ve begun to miss the abundant time I used to spend just sitting at the keyboard, writing. And think about writing. And fiddling.

I still do a fair amount of sitting and fiddling in the new job, of course, but my full agenda there does not include any special time for research. There is no gilt-edged appointment in my office Outlook calendar. I need to make that time myself, and I’ve begun to wish I was a faster writer. I mean, I’m fast enough at drafting proposals, emails and memos, but I don’t have the prodigious speed that some academics seem to have for polishing off whole essays in an evening. I can barely read whole essays in an evening.

So my ambitions for this year are to practice the arts of making time and of thinking through problems on the go. It’s dawned on me that my new slate of responsibilities is not a temporary condition, and that the period of graduate navel-gazing is done forever.

The positive side of this new reality is that I am actually starting to enjoy working on my own stuff once again. It’s still a challenge of will to revise dissertation work for publication, but I am really starting to look forward to some new projects and fresh directions. Who knows, maybe I’ll even put more time into this blog?