Job’s Jobs

Many years ago, after Nashotah House decided it no longer required my unique outlook, I bought a book.  (That’s my default reaction.)  This book was on how to write killer cover letters.  I don’t remember the title or the author, but I followed the advice, well, religiously.  It got me nowhere.  Business tricks, at least historically, don’t work in academia.  Sitting at home, pondering my sins, I flipped to the chapter on advice to take if none of the rest of this was working for you.  Here’s where the human side began to show through.  Have you been eating onions or garlic before your interviews? it asked.   Do you need to lose weight?  Try dressing nicer.  It occurred to me that the business world lacks the imagination required for denying jobs.  And besides, who was getting any interviews before which I shouldn’t eat garlic?

Business advice is, in a word, shallow.  It assumes that if you’ve got the goods there’s no reason you won’t get hired.  Reality is a bit more complex than that.  I often ponder how people simply go for what they want.  They reach for the biggest piece without pondering the repercussions of their actions.  I see it in my small world of publishing all the time.  Those who are “hungry” (read “greedy”) succeed.  Those who wait behind to help others simply can’t compete.  So the cover letter book did get that part right.  Is it possible, however, to devise a society where everyone fits?  Not all are created equal, perhaps, but do we have to reward those who seem to care only for themselves?  Let them eat garlic.

The cover letter book, in the end, never really did me any good.  I found my way into publishing by being willing to aim low.  I’ve written many cover letters since leaving Nashotah House, and only two ever led to a job.  Those who work in business, what with their concerns about readers’ aromas and weights, seem never to have considered the intricacies of the intellectual job market.  What strikes me as particularly odd is that there are plenty of smart people out there, and yet they haven’t organized to offer alternatives to the greed-based structure on which our work lives are based.  They can’t, it seems, gaze beyond capitalism as a mechanism for helping individuals lead productive lives.  Business operates on the principle of replaceable parts, many of which happen to be human.  And even those who know how to write can’t hope to compete against those who prefer cogs that know to avoid onions.

Powerful Wink

Those of us who became academically aware (in the biblical field) in the 1980s knew the name of Walter Wink.  Now, if you’ve ever become academically aware, you know that we all know some names vaguely, as if seen in a glass darkly, and some more intimately.  Wink fell into the former category for me.  He specialized in “the other testament,” and although I read Greek quite well, my academic track led me through Hebrew to Ugaritic and beyond, in the opposite direction.  I taught New Testament in my academic career, but never found the time to go back to Wink.  I knew he’d written about “the powers,” and the idea was interesting, but I had other research I was doing and I never got around to him.  Now I’ve finally finished the first volume of his famed trilogy on the powers (Naming the Powers).

“Powers” was a circumlocution for many things in antiquity.  It is a high abstraction.  Why do you do what you’re told?  The powers.  They can be human, such as bullies or governments (which are increasingly difficult to distinguish), or they can be supernatural.  Much of Wink’s book is technical—this isn’t easy going, even if it’s theology.  He looks closely at the terminology of power and exegetes it minutely.   The book comes alive, however, in part 3.  There were quite a few worthy insights here, but the one that struck me the hardest is how institutions generate a power that no one individual can control or contain, let alone comprehend.  As Wink points out, a school isn’t a building.  What goes on inside such a building takes on a power that reaches beyond any of the individuals involved in teaching or learning.  Think of Harvard.  What is it?  Who is it?  It bears power simply by the citation of its name.  No scientist can quantify it, but none will dispute it either.

Thinking about “the powers that be” in this way is transformative.  Wink draws this into the ancient perception that what is happening “down here” is merely a reflection of what is taking place on high.  Not unique to Christianity, or even monotheism, the idea that our lives reflect the reality of some higher power is pervasive in human thought.  And institutions.  Harvard, as most prestigious universities, essentially began as a place to train clergy.  Even at this stage it began to exert a power.  Today Harvard (and many other schools) still hosts a seminary and training ground for clergy.  They face a largely unbelieving society when they’re done.  And if they’re at all like me, it might take them decades to realize something may be missing.

To Be Continued

I’m about in the middle of Neal Stephenson’s Fall: Or Dodge in Hell.  I’ve also just about finished Walter Wink’s Naming the Powers.  At the same time I’m revising the draft of Nightmares with the Bible, which will become my fourth published book.  While doing all of this at the same time (and working about nine hours a day), it occurred to me that to really “get” an author you should theoretically read her or his oeuvre from start to finish.  Ideally, to trace the arc of thought, you shouldn’t leave anything out.  The reason that this is as important as it is futile is one of the nagging problems that came to me while working on my doctorate: how do you know what a source you’re citing is really saying?

Pardon my nihilism, but this is an important matter when it comes to academic practice.  Academics cite many sources, and often miscite them.  I’ve seen it regarding my own work.  One scholar argued the exact opposite of what I published in an article and even made the point that he was building on what I’d stated.  Clearly he was digging where I’d been building or vice versa.  We were going in opposite directions and what I’d written was to undermine what he was arguing.  The thought came to me now because both Stephenson and Wink are the writers of many volumes.  I need to cite my sources, but it’s clear that the books are merely slices of lifetimes of thought.  Academia wants you to show your work, but its dated even before you press the “send” button.

I’m not knocking scholarly process.  It’s the best system we’ve come up with for getting near to the truth.  Since no one person has the entire truth, however, we get closer still if we follow a writer from start to finish.  Those of use who use pseudonyms in order to keep our day jobs only complicate things.  Our works (which we hope will outlast us) are only fragments of a larger world of thought that goes on behind the writing of books.  And what about weblogs, or “blogs”?  The million-plus words on this one are a stream of consciousness that weave within, behind, and outside of the books, articles, and stories I write.  Some writers make bold as to attempt biographies of other writers.  Some try to read everything said writers wrote.  Even so they’re only getting part of the picture.  To understand where a writer’s coming from requires more commitment than we’re likely willing to spare.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some books to finish.

Honest Labor

When an artisan begins a new job, s/he must acquire the tools of the trade.  During a period of unemployment I seriously considered getting certified as a plumber.  I’d done some plumbing repair and, unlike many people, I wasn’t afraid of it.  (I am, however, terrified of electrical work.)  When I was looking into it, it became clear that there would be a significant outlay of tool purchasing up front.  While all of this may seem obvious, people are often surprised to learn that writing books also involves tools acquisition, although it generally pays far less than plumbing. The tools used to be made of paper, but they can wrench pipes apart and rebuild a bathroom from scratch.  I’m referring to books, of course.  In order to write books you have to read books.

Long ago I gave up on trying to read everything in an area before writing.  There’s just too much published these days.  When I was teaching and actually had a modest book allowance I would attend AAR/SBL only to come back with armloads of books that I needed for my research.   Of course I had the backing of the seminary library as well, so I could find things.  As an independent scholar doing the same work, however, you have to do a lot more tool acquiring since no library will back you up.  Nightmares with the Bible came back from peer review with a standard-issue academic who wanted me to “show my work.”  (I.e., document everything.)  Apart from slowing the book down (it is written), this also means acquiring tools.  AAR/SBL always reminds me of just how much is being published these days and that my toolbox, although already quite hefty, isn’t nearly big enough.

As I’m going through Nightmares rewriting and adding footnotes, I’m discovering more and more material that could be included.  As an editor myself I try hard to keep to assigned word counts, and the entire allotment could easily be taken up by bibliography alone.  I am very modest in my spending at conferences now—independent contractors have to be.  Nightmares will likely be my last academic book; I can’t afford to keep going like this.  I don’t plan to give up writing, of course, just academic publishing.  Both this book and Holy Horror were written for non-specialist readerships, to showcase my non-technical way of explaining things.  Both ended up with academic presses and are slated to be among those specialist tools that the beginning artisan covets but for which s/he has to budget.  And when this house is finished it will have an impressive, if most unusual, private library.

Mad Dog

Like those who write long books, those who write very many books ask for some level of commitment from their fans.  I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing I had more time to read.  I tend to be driven to Stephen King’s novels by the movies made around them, and there’s nothing wrong with that I suppose.  I decided I wanted to read Cujo some years back when I was on a werewolf kick.  I knew it wasn’t a werewolf story, yet as one who suffers from cynophobia even a large household pet will do.  I didn’t know the story in advance, and I had no idea how it ended.  It’s good to read novels like that sometimes.

I took it with me to San Diego and read most of it on the plane, finishing it somewhere over the mountain west.  It is a bleak story, one of King’s more drawn-out and wrenching tales.  It’s made more so by the fact that it could happen, at least in the main storyline.  Or could have happened.  Maybe I waited too long to read it, but I kept thinking as I was going through—today we have cell phones.  A large part of this story unfolds because of Donna Trenton’s inability to contact anyone while a rabid dog keeps her trapped in her car during a record-breaking heat wave in Maine.  I suspect it’s kind of a story about redemption, but I really need some time to think about it before rushing to such conclusions.  There’s not much you can really consider religious in this particular tale, and perhaps it’s because Cujo is a very natural kind of monster.

I saw my first rabid dog when I was maybe five.  My brothers and I reported a dog acting strange to our mother, after which she kept us in the house.  That wasn’t the origin, I don’t think, of my cynophobia.  Two of my brothers were bitten by a family dog when I was little, and I was once chased by a dog about as big as I was, certain that it was going to eat me.  At the same time, we had dogs as pets, and apart from the one that liked to bite, they never gave cause for fear.  Cujo tapped into those memories and made me reflect on what it means to befriend wolves.  It won’t be my favorite King novel, but it did help to pass the time from coast to coast.

Sister Monsters

Every once in a while you read an inspirational book.  I’m hoping readers will keep in mind that inspiration comes from different locations for some of us.  Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction, by Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson, is a source of inspiration.  With the usual Quirk Books touches, this isn’t a tome heavy on literary criticism, but it is a wonderful compendium of brief bios on women who walk(ed) on the dark side.  I find books like this encouraging in a number of respects.  First of all, these are women who did what they loved and were recognized for it.  Secondly, it gives the rest of us some hope that getting through the establishment to actual publication isn’t as impossible as presses would have us believe.  And third, it’s also a lot of fun.

It isn’t often pointed out that women played a major role in the development of the horror genre.  Some of the earliest Gothic novels were by Ann Radcliffe and Margaret Cavendish.  Probably the first fully fledged horror novel was Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley.  The real learning kicks in when the other names come out—many women found, and continue to find, the genre compelling.  Most of them, like most of us, are lost to history, but many of them have been rediscovered.  Here again is cause for hope; those of us who write, I think, have our eyes set on the far distant future.  We’re inscribing our “Kilroy was here” on paper—I still can’t think of ebooks as actually existing—in hopes that those down the road might know us a little better.  The fact that some of our sisters have been found suggests that we too may be resurrected some day.

There’s no plot here, and the point isn’t to present some great discovery.  This is a book that encourages women to be who they are through example.  The fact that it involves monsters and horror is simply a bonus.  As a non-female reading this it struck me time and again that women have long been informed of what they should or could do by men.  Men don’t like to see women knowing as much as they do about the shadow side of human existence, even as they relegated them to the shadows.  It’s my hope that this book will inspire women to be themselves.  And if they want to invite monsters along, so much the better.

Frozen Streams

I was walking in Ithaca, with my feet not far from Sagan.  Winter had settled in prematurely, as it often does in upstate.  I was wearing a hoodie and old fleece combo and I suppose I looked a bit tatty.  My wife and daughter had gone to see Harriet, but movies about how badly people have mistreated others, strangely for a guy who watches horror, really depress me.  Ithaca, until recently, supported three independent bookstores, so I figured I could pass the time easily enough.  It was growing dark and breezy, and I visit bookstores only with a list, otherwise it’s too dangerous.  Autumn Leaves, a used vendor, I’ve visited many times.  Their religion section is disappointingly small, but I tend to find offerings in other areas when I blow in.

Buffalo Street Books is the last remaining indie that handles new books, but I stopped by The Bookery, now closing, on my way.  This was saddening.  Ithaca houses both the ivy league Cornell and the highly regarded Ithaca College.  I suspect many of the street sweepers hold doctorates.  Has book culture entirely bent the knee to Amazon?  At the end of the last millennium, Ithaca housed 25 independent bookstores.  Today it’s evident that Buffalo Street (formerly The Bookery II) struggles to keep its hold.  I feel ethically obligated to buy something there, to take one for the team.  I had a short list and the shelves in The Bookery had been nearly bare.  It was just too depressing to stay there.  I found an inside bench and sat to read until the movie was over.

Or so I thought.  I ventured back outside and now it was fully dark, being six p.m., and I wandered back to the familiar Ithaca Commons.  I went into a couple of shops, but they looked at me as if I were homeless.  (I suppose I was, in a sense.)  I haven’t had a haircut in a while, and my beard is scruffy and white.  My hoodie and fleece don’t speak to affluence.  I had unconcealed books—I routinely refuse bags—and I suppose I could come across as a touch eccentric.  (I don’t have enough money to be authentically eccentric.)  I wondered how street people do it.  Outside the east wind was decidedly sharp and windbreaks on the pedestrian zone are few.  I came to the monument to Martin Luther King Junior.  I was walking in Ithaca but I really felt that books could make that dream come true.