Course Syllabus: Young Adult Speculative Fiction

Hello readers! As promised, here is the syllabus for a seminar that I’m currently teaching at Bowdoin College. The seminar is entitled (Im)Possible Lives: Young Adult Speculative Fiction, and it is currently offered under Bowdoin’s English Department and the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies program. The course description is as follows:

How do wizards, monsters, cyborgs, and dystopias shed light on precarious issues such as sexism, homophobia, racism, poverty, and illness? This seminar examines representations of identity and difference in young adult speculative fiction—texts created for younger audiences that include elements from genres such as fantasy, horror, science fiction, and magical realism. Students not only analyze the approaches that writers implement to construct hypothetical settings and characters, but also examine how speculative young adult novels depict different possibilities for existing and mattering in the world.

There are many goals that I have for this course. For the most part, I want students to realize the ways in which the content and structure of contemporary YA speculative fiction is symptomatic of many of the political, environmental, and sociopolitical crises that we face today in American society. In literature, film, and media, many have been exploring the issue of who matters, or who doesn’t matter. Particularly in social media discourse, we have seen a rise in attitudes such as homophobia, xenophobia, transphobia, sexism, elitism, and so on and so on. We are also developing greater awareness of the violence experienced by people of color, LGBTQ+ communities, and immigrants. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for us to ignore violence (and violent discourse), and recent events have been pushing many of us to question the value and future of human life. Through these acts of hate and violence, however, many of us are recognizing the need for community, highlighting the importance of self-care, and developing a desire for safer, more collective ways of being and knowing.

I think that YA speculative fiction offers readers a unique opportunity to think through the aforementioned precarious issues, and I believe works in this genre will push my students and I to ask difficult questions and explore complex issues. Teaching this seminar is not going to be easy. It will involve difficult and tedious emotional and intellectual labor. But I think that my students and I will grow both as people and thinkers by the time the semester is through.

Part of what I find valuable about works categorized as YA speculative fiction is that they are often crafted with a Utopian bent, and they often envision alternatives to the suffocating and violent conditions of the present. Books in this genre are often exercises in positive affect, and they push readers to imagine, desire, and work for better ways of living in the world. Students and I will explore both the perks and the pitfalls of the ethical frameworks discussed in a selection of YA speculative novels that overtly include themes of gender, sexuality, race, and class. It is my hope that through this seminar, my students will not only learn more about themselves and their place in society, but they will also recognize the value and importance of narratives that deviate from normative paradigms. Furthermore, I hope that students will be able to recognize and discuss current and emerging trends in the genre of YA speculative fiction, especially the genre’s increasing penchant for non-traditional narrative forms and genre-blending.

Just in case you missed the link above, you can access my course syllabus by clicking here. I hope you enjoy it!

Course Syllabus for “The Young Adult Novel” – University of Notre Dame

Here is the syllabus for a course that I designed on the Young Adult Novel. I will teach this course during the fall 2014 semester at the University of Notre Dame. I’m very excited about this course for various reasons–mostly because I finally get to teach the texts that I work with and that I love. This course is offered as an English 20XXX requirement, which is an English course for non-majors. I also managed to get the course cross-listed with the gender studies department–especially since class discussions will focus heavily on notions of sexuality and the body that are looming in YA fiction. As of now, 18 of my 19 students are seniors, and they all come from different concentrations such as marketing, biology, English, gender studies, American studies, and education

The most difficult thing about designing this course was the choice of novels to be discussed in class. I wanted to strive for a balance between male and female authors, and I also wanted students to familiarize themselves with books that either they haven’t encountered before, or books that blur the line between young adult literature and literature marketed to adults. Because of this, I feel that there is a lack of novels focused on issues of race and class, but I will certainly make sure to cover these issues during the semester.

As always, all comments and suggestions are more than welcome. You are welcome to draw inspiration from this syllabus, but please make sure to give me credit if you do so–and be sure to share your syllabus with me so I can see what you did similarly or differently! I hope you enjoy the course I’ve designed, and I will keep you posted with how everything is going as the semester unfolds.

My Ultimate Reading Challenge – The Reading List for My PhD Candidacy Examinations

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Part of the requirements for the doctoral degree in English at the University of Notre Dame are written and oral exams (which I will take in March of 2014). The exams are a requirement that demonstrate that all doctoral students have in-depth knowledge of a major field, a secondary field, and a literary theory/methodology, in order to assure that we are thoroughly prepared for teaching and dissertation writing. For these exams, we are all required to construct a reading list for three areas of specialization. The list for our major field should contain approximately 75 works, whereas the reading lists for our secondary field and the literary theory/methodology should contain about 50 works each–for a grand total of about 175 works. This means that we have about ten months to read and familiarize ourselves with these works. Yikes!

After a lot of thought and research, I have decided that my major field will be Contemporary American Literature (1945-Present). My secondary field will be Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) Literature, and my literary theory/methodology will be Queer Materiality (which fuses readings within the areas of Queer Theory, Queer Cultural Studies, and the Materiality/Sociology of Texts). Professors Susan Cannon Harris (chair), Kinohi Nishikawa, Matt Wilkens, and Barry McCrea have graciously agreed to be part of my examination committee. I am very thankful fo their support and their interest in my project. The lists below were constructed thanks to my committee’s  advice and input, and thanks to extended periods of online and library research. What I have below is a description of each area, along with the reading list that I developed for this list.

Now, in terms of making this a challenge, for every single work that I read, I plan to write a blog post with my thoughts, opinions, and concerns about the work–think of these posts as mini book reviews. If all goes as planned, I should have a total of 176 posts related to my candidacy exams. Each time I write one of these reviews, I will update this post and provide links to the review next to the works’ title. Not only will this help me keep track of what I have read, but it will allow me to share my thoughts an opinions of these texts with the world. Wish me luck!

EXAM AREA I – CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN LITERATURE (1945-PRESENT)

(Historical Field)

These works are typically approached as Post-World War and postmodern, and the list has a heavy emphasis on works published between the 40s and the 60s. Although my primary interest is in the area of gay fiction, I have decided to make contemporary American literature my primary field seeing as it is a more marketable area within the field of English and literary studies. I would claim that my main area of expertise within this area is the coming-of-age narrative, particularly focusing on issues of gender and sexuality in the coming-of-age process. Seeing as texts that are typically dubbed coming-of-age narratives are usually concerned with readers’ self-identification with characters in the text, many items in this list are works that would be considered “middlebrow.” The items included in all of my sub-lists are works that reflect the aforementioned themes within an American and postmodern context.

I am interested in determining whether gendered or queer issues manifest in coming-of-age texts that are not typically approached as queer—thus, I deliberately avoided the inclusion of queer texts within the novels section of this list, as they are included within my second list on LGBTQ fiction. In addition to the notion of “coming-of-age” and gender, I am also invested in the marketing and sociology of texts within a “globalized” postmodern American context. Thus, in conjunction with coming-of-age texts, I have also included novels that have helped to shape the globalized American literary landscape that we live in today—which is why my young adult fiction section also includes important global novels that have had a major impact on the young adult market.

I.A – Novels

  1. Alice Walker. The Color Purple (1982)
  2. Ana Castillo. So Far From God (1993)
  3. Art Spiegelman. Maus I: My Father Bleeds History (1986)
  4. Bret Easton Ellis. American Psycho (1991)
  5. Cristina Carcia. Dreaming in Cuban (1992)
  6. David Foster Wallace. Infinite Jest (1996)
  7. Don Delillo. White Noise (1985)
  8. James Baldwin. Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953)
  9. Jack Kerouac. On the Road (1957)
  10. Jonathan Safran Foer. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005)
  11. Joseph Heller. Catch-22 (1961)
  12. Junot Díaz. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007)
  13. Kurt Vonnegut. Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
  14. Matthew Quick. Silver Linings Playbook (2010)
  15. Philip K. Dick. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)
  16. Ralph Ellison. Invisible Man (1952)
  17. Sandra Cisneros. The House on Mango Street (1984)
  18. Sylvia Plath. The Bell Jar (1963)
  19. Thomas Pynchon. Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)
  20. Toni Morrison. Beloved (1987)
  21. Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita (1955)

I.B – Short Stories

  1. Abraham Rodriguez. “Boy Without A Flag” (1992)
  2. Anne Proulx. “Brokeback Mountain” (1997)
  3. James Baldwin. “Sonny’s Blues” (1957)
  4. John Barth. “Lost in the Funhouse” (1968)
  5. John Updike. Pigeon Feathers (1962)
  6. Norman Mailer. “The Man Who Studied Yoga” (1959)
  7. Raymond Carver. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981)
  8. Sandra Cisneros. Woman Hollering Creek: The Collection (1991)

I.C – Drama

  1. Amiri Baraka. Dutchman (1964)
  2. Arthur Miller. Death of a Salesman (1949)
  3. Arthur Miller. A View from the Bridge (1955)
  4. August Wilson. The Piano Lesson (1990)
  5. David Henry Hwang. M. Butterfly (1986)
  6. Edward Albee. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962)
  7. Eugene O’Neill. Bound East for Cardiff (1914). Click here for my discussion of this O’Neill play.
  8. Eugene O’Neill. The Hairy Ape (1922)
  9. Eugene O’Neill. Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956)
  10. John Guare. Six Degrees of Separation (1990)
  11. Lorraine Hansberry. A Raisin in the Sun (1959)
  12. Tennessee Williams. Camino Real (1953)
  13. Tennessee Williams. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955)
  14. Tony Kushner. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (1993)
  15. William Friedkin. The Boys in the Band (1970)

I.D – Poetry

  1. Adrienne Rich. An Atlas of the Difficult World (1991)
  2. Allen Ginsberg. Howl and Other Poems (1956)
  3. Elizabeth Bishop. The Complete Poems (1984)
  4. Frank O’Hara. The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara (1995)
  5. John Ashberry. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1976)
  6. Sylvia Plath. Ariel (1965)

I.E-1 – Young Adult Novels (Supplementary List)

  1. Daniel Keyes. Flowers for Algernon (1958). Click here for my discussion of Keyes’ novel.
  2. Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
  3. J.D. Salinger. The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
  4. John Corey Whaley. Where Things Come Back (2011). Click here for my discussion of Whaley’s novel.
  5. John Green. Looking for Alaska (2005)
  6. Judy Blume. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970)
  7. Judy Blume. Then Again, Maybe I Won’t (1971)
  8. Lois Lowry. The Giver (1993)
  9. Madeleine L’Engle. A Wrinkle in Time (1962)
  10. Orson Scott Card. Ender’s Game (1985)
  11. Robert Cormier. The Chocolate War (1974)
  12. Scott Westerfield. Uglies (2005)
  13. S.E. Hinton. The Outsiders (1967)
  14. Sherman Alexie. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007)
  15. Stephanie Meyer. Twilight (2005)
  16. Stephen Chbosky. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999). Click here for my discussion of Chbosky’s novel.
  17. Suzanne Collins. The Hunger Games (2008)

I.E-2 – Global Young Adult Novels

  1. Diana Wynne Jones. Howl’s Moving Castle (1986)
  2. Douglas Adams. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979)
  3. J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997). Click here for my discussion of Rowling’s novel.
  4. Mark Haddon. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2004)
  5. Philip Pullman. The Golden Compass (1995)
  6. T.H. White. The Once and Future King (1958)

I.F – Criticism

  1. Fredric Jameson. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1990)
  2. Joan L. Knickerbocker, Martha A. Bruggeman, James A. Rycik. Literature for Young Adults: Books (and More) for Contemporary Readers (2012)
  3. Mark McGurl. The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (2011)
  4. Michael Cart. From Romance to Realism: Fifty Years of Growth and Change in Young Adult Literature (2010)
  5. Stuart Sim. The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism (2011)
  6. Richard Gray. A History of American Literature (2011)

EXAM AREA II – LGBTQ FICTION

(Special Topic Field)

As of now, I envision my dissertation project as an analysis of the intersection between the areas of fiction, queer theory, and middlebrow culture. Part of my focus will be the concept of coming out and concealment, not only in terms of a novel’s content, but also in terms of its marketing and design. Thus, my project will ultimately have a dual focus in that I will pay close attention to matters of queerness and the closet as applied to the coming-of-age narrative and the materiality of the books themselves, delving later on into a discussion of how the digital age has expanded (or perhaps even shattered) the limits of this, as Sedgwick would put it, queer space. In due course, I want to present myself as a scholar who is well versed in the realm of novels that deal directly with LGBTQ concerns, issues, and representations. My hope is that in addition to working with contemporary American novels, I will ultimately be able to teach classes focused exclusively on LGBTQ fiction. With this in mind, although this list will focus heavily on contemporary fiction published after the “gay boom” in the late 90s up to the present day, I also want to develop a historical awareness of the novels and works that paved the way towards a possible market of LGBTQ fiction—especially novels that were published prior to the 1969 Stonewall Riots.

Although in my past work I have focused heavily on issues and concerns pertaining to the male tradition of gay literature, I am seeking to expand my current scope of queer texts by including a healthy sample of texts within lesbian, transgender, bisexual, transsexual, and intersex traditions (even though the gay male tradition is far more prevalent). Keeping in line with my interest in coming-of-age fiction and issues of materiality, a large portion of these LGBTQ texts are classified within the young adult genre—especially when considering that in today’s literary market, young adult fiction is the genre in which queer issues have been able to flourish, due primarily to its middlebrow and so-called didactic nature. Seeing as LGBTQ fiction can, to some extent, be considered a niche market, I have decided to approach this genre from a global Anglophone rather than a purely American perspective in order to determine how queer and coming-out narratives, in addition to the books’ marketing, are influenced by their specific geographical locations.

II. A – LGBTQ Novels and Prose

  1. Achy Obejas. Memory Mambo (1996)
  2. Alan Hollinghusrt. The Line of Beauty (2004)
  3. Alison Bechdel. Fun Home (2006)
  4. Armistead Maupin. Tales of the City (1978)
  5. Barry McCrea. The First Verse (2005)
  6. Bret Easton Ellis. The Rules of Attraction (1987)
  7. Christopher Isherwood. A Single Man (1964)
  8. Colm Tóibín. The Blackwater Lightship (1999)
  9. Djuna Barnes. Nightwood (1936)
  10. Dorothy Allison. Bastard Out of Carolina (1992)
  11. E.M. Forster. Maurice (1971)
  12. Edmund White. A Boy’s Own Story (1982)
  13. Evelyn Waugh. Brideshead Revisited (1945)
  14. James Baldwin. Giovanni’s Room (1956)
  15. Jamie O’Neill. At Swim, Two Boys (2001)
  16. Jeanette Winterson. Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (1985)
  17. Jeanette Winterson. Written on the Body (1994)
  18. Jeffrey Eugenides. Middlesex (2002)
  19. Leslie Feinberg. Stone Butch Blues (2003)
  20. Melvin Dixon. Vanishing Rooms (1991)
  21. Michael Chabon. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay (2000)
  22. Michael Cunningham. A Home at the End of the World (1990)
  23. Michael Cunningham. The Hours (1998). Click here for my discussion of Cunningham’s novel.
  24. Patrick McCabe. Breakfast on Pluto (1998)
  25. Radclyffe Hall. The Well of Loneliness (1928)
  26. Rita Mae Brown. Rubyfruit Jungle (1973)
  27. Sarah Waters. Tipping the Velvet (1998)
  28. Scott Heim. Mysterious Skin (2005)

II.B – LGBTQ Young Adult Fiction

  1. Alex Sanchez. Rainbow Boys (2001)
  2. Benjamin Alire Sáenz. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012)
  3. Brent Hartinger. Geography Club (2003)
  4. Brian Katcher. Almost Perfect (2009)
  5. David Levithan. Boy Meets Boy (2003)
  6. Eddie De Oliveira. Lucky (2004). Click here for my discussion of De Oliveira’s novel.
  7. Ellen Wittlinger. Hard Love (2001)
  8. Ellen Wittlinger. Parrotfish (2011)
  9. J.C. Lillis. How to Repair a Mechanical Heart (2012)
  10. J.M. Colail. Wes and Toren (2009)
  11. John Donovan. I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip (1969) – Click here for my review of Donovan’s novel. 
  12. John Green and David Levithan. Will Grayson, Will Grayson (2010)
  13. Julie Anne Peters. Luna (2006)
  14. Justin Torres. We the Animals (2011). Click here for my discussion of Torres’ novel. 
  15. Martin Wilson. What They Always Tell Us (2009). Click here for my discussion of Wilson’s novel.
  16. Nancy Garden. Annie on My Mind (1982)
  17. Nick Burd. The Vast Fields of Ordinary (2009)
  18. Perry Moore. Hero (2007)

II.C – LGBTQ History and Criticism

  1. Christopher Bram. Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America (2012)
  2. Claude J. Summers. Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage (2002)
  3. Kenneth B. Kidd and Michelle Ann Abate. Over the Rainbow: Queer Children’s and Young Adult Literature (2011)
  4. Michael Cart and Christine Jenkins. The Heart Has its Reasons: Young Adult Literature with Gay/Lesbian/Queer Content, 1969-2004. (2006)

EXAM AREA III – QUEER MATERIALITY

(Theoretical/Methodological Field) 

Seeing as my dissertation project will focus on issues such as coming out, concealment, confession, circulation, and distribution, immersion in the realms of queer theory and the sociology/materiality of texts will be crucial to my study. The fusion between queer theory and the materiality/sociology of texts is one that has been vastly underexplored within studies of gay fiction, and in my estimation, this is due primarily to the fact that the aims of these studies, at first, seem radically different. Queer theory problematizes the male/female binaries while in turn addressing other dichotomies within the domains of sexuality and pluralistic identities. Queer theory approaches identity, as Jonathan Kemp points out in “Queer Past, Queer Present, Queer Future,” as a porous, unfixed, and intersectional entity that takes into consideration multiple cultural facets, including but not limited to race, gender, religion, and nationality, among others. Crucial within this approach are goals such as the disruption of binary approaches, the notions of reproductive futurism, and ideas concerning affect and the body. Furthermore, a strand of queer studies also has an obvious activist and emancipatory mission.

I think these issues would mesh in an interesting and productive fashion with the materiality and sociology of texts, which focuses mostly on how the textual, paratextual, political, and cultural elements of literary productions work in conjunction to circulate texts within the social sphere—particularly when it comes to the role of the closet and “concealment.” I think queer theory, particularly when it comes to notions such as the closet, futurity, and affect, will provide a rich and innovate spin on the materiality/sociology of texts, a spin that will ultimately prove to be quite fruitful when it comes to the analysis of the socio-cultural dimensions of LGBTQ texts, which in and of themselves actively align themselves against the status quo.

III.A – Queer Theory

  1. David Ross Fryer. Thinking Queerly: Race, Sex, Gender, and the Ethics of Identity (2011)
  2. E.L. McCallum. Queer Times, Queer Becomings (2011)
  3. Elizabeth Freeman. Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (2010)
  4. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Epistemology of the Closet (1990). Click here for my discussion of Sedgwick’s book.
  5. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (2003)
  6. Ian Barnard. Queer Race: Cultural Interventions into the Racial Politics of Queer Theory (2004)
  7. John D’Emilio. “Capitalism and Gay Identity” (1983)
  8. Jose Esteban Muñoz. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009)
  9. Judith Butler. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990)
  10. Judith Butler. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (2004)
  11. Judith Butler. Undoing Gender (2004)
  12. Judith Halberstam. Female Masculinity (1998) and The Queer Art of Failure (2011)
  13. Lee Edelman. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004)
  14. Leo Bersani. Is the Rectum a Grave?: and Other Essays (2009)
  15. Lynne Huffer. Mad for Foucault: Rethinking the Foundations of Queer Theory (2009)
  16. Michael Warner. The Trouble with Normal (1999)
  17. Michel Foucault, trans. Robert Hurley. The History of Sexuality – Volume I (1976)
  18. Michel Foucault, trans. Robert Hurley. The History of Sexuality – Volume II (1984)
  19. Michel Foucault, trans. Robert Hurley. The History of Sexuality – Volume III (1984)
  20. Roderick Ferguson. Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique (2004)
  21. Sarah Ahmed. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (2006) and The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004). Click here for my discussion of Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotion.

III.B – Queer Materiality and Queer Cultural Studies

  1. David Savran. A Queer Sort of Materialism (2003)
  2. Elisa Glick. Materializing Queer Desire: Oscar Wilde to Andy Warhol (2009)
  3. Guy Davidson. Queer Commodities (2012)
  4. Heather K. Love. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (2007)
  5. Jaime Harker. Middlebrow Queer: Christopher Isherwood in America (2013)
  6. Kathryn Bond Stockton. The Queer Child, or, Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century (2009)
  7. Kevin Floyd. The Reification of Desire: Toward a Queer Marxism (2009)
  8. Michael Moon. A Small Boy and Others: Imitation and Initiation in American Culture from Henry James to Andy Warhol (1998)
  9. Michael Trask. Cruising Modernism: Class and Sexuality in American Literature and Social Thought (2003)
  10. Michael Warner. Publics and Counterpublics (2005)
  11. Samuel R. Delany. Shorter Views: Queer Thoughts & the Politics of the Paraliterary (2000)
  12. Scott Herring. Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism (2010)
  13. Steven Bruhm and Natasha Hurley, eds. Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children (2004)
  14. Susan Stryker. Queer Pulp: Perverted Passions from the Golden Age of the Paperback (2001)

III.C – Materiality and the Sociology of Texts

  1. Andrew Piper. Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times (2012)
  2. Benedict Anderson. Imagined Communities (1983)
  3. D.F. McKenzie. Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts (1999)
  4. Gérard Genette. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (2001)
  5. Janice A. Radway. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (1984)
  6. Jim Collins. Bring on the Books for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture (2010). Click here for my discussion of Collins’ book.
  7. Jürgen Habermas. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1991)
  8. Kathryn Sutherland and Marilyn Deegan. Text Editing, Print and the Digital World (2008)
  9. Nicole Matthews and Nickianne Moody. Judging a Book by its Cover (2007)
  10. Pierre Bourdieu. The Field of Cultural Production (1993)
  11. Raymond Williams. The Long Revolution (1961) and The Sociology of Culture (1982)
  12. Ted Striphas. The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control (2011)

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Image above courtesy of Surachai / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Oscar Wilde and the Graphic Novel: [The Picture of Dorian Gray]

The following post is an excerpt from my seminar paper written for my class on Wilde and Synge: Art as Subversion, offered by Dr. Declan Kiberd at the University of Notre Dame (fall 2012). In this paper, I evaluate the artistic merit of literary comics adaptations using Wilde’s views on aesthetics. I then perform a series of close “readings” in order to assess how comics adaptations of The Picture of Dorian Gray take advantage of the conventions of the comics medium in order to offer a standalone artistic expression. This excerpt displays my analysis of Basil Hallward’s death as depicted in the comics adaptations I selected.

FAIR USE NOTICE: This blog post contains some copyrighted material  (samples from the comics adaptations used in this study) whose use has not been authorized by the copyright owners. I believe that this not-profit, educational use on the Web constitutes a fair use of the copyrighted material (as defined in section 107 of the US Copyright Law). No infringement is intended.

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ACTION versus PASSIVITY: The Death of Basil Hallward

Basil’s death is a key moment in Dorian Gray, not only because it is the novel’s climactic point of no return, but also because it is the moment that Dorian truly obfuscates any light he had remaining in his soul. Part of what makes this instance so memorable in Wilde’s novel is that he certainly had no reservations in illustrating the graphic and violent nature of Hallward’s death. Everything from the sounds of Basil choking on blood, to the repeated stabbing motions delivered by Dorian, are emphasized by Wilde in his uncensored version of Dorian Gray:

He rushed at him, and dug the knife into the great vein that is behind the ear, crushing the man’s head down on the table, and stabbing again and again. There was a stifled groan, and the horrible sound of someone choking with blood. The outstretched arms shot up convulsively three times, waving grotesque stiff-fingered hands in the air. He stabbed him once more, but the man didn’t move. (Wilde 223-224)

Perhaps the overt violence in this passage can be approached as gratuitous, but on the other hand, it emphasizes the rage and the loss of sanity that Dorian was undergoing at the moment. Surprisingly, despite how descriptive Wilde was in this passage, adapters of the novel tend to diverge in terms of how Basil’s death take place, and the adaptations differ drastically in terms of the grotesqueness and detail that characterizes the murder. I will first focus my attention on John Coulthart’s adaptation of the text, in which he combines quotes from the source text with pen and ink drawings of the actions taking place.

Coulthart’s depiction of Basil’s death (see Figure 1 below) is nowhere near as explicit or overt as Wilde’s text is. Rather than depicting Basil’s death or focusing on the depiction of Basil’s lifeless body, the comic shows an image of Basil looming towards the painting, raising his candle in the air as he stares in horror at the disfigured painting. Interestingly, in Coulthart’s collages of Dorian Gray, the decay of the painting is not shown until the very end—an interesting choice when considering that the degeneration of the picture is one of the most vivid and concrete images that Wilde portrays in his novel. Coulthart develops a sense of anticipation and avoids showing the monstrosity of the painting until the final reveal at the end of his collage sequence. Coulthart’s interpretation of Basil’s death illustrates Dorian’s arm and hand approaching the shocked victim with a knife in hand, suggesting the murder rather than directly illustrating it. Note that the image alludes the idiomatic expression of ‘stabbing someone in the back,’ strengthening the element of betrayal present within the narrative.

Coulthart’s images are known for depicting Modernist, decadent, and intertextual elements. Close attention to the squared background of the image reveals that it is divided equally into back and white colors. However, the parameters within these boundaries of space are not respected; not only does Basil’s candle provide illumination into the darkened area of the background, but the white side of the background melds into the darkness with the prominent splatter of blood (which foreshadows Basil’s death). This can be interpreted as a sign of transgression, in which certain limits and socio-cultural parameters are not respected—thus forcing the decoder to rethink the image of innocence that Dorian initially projects. This use of imagery can also be interpreted in a moralistic sense, for we see that although Basil is trying to provide some illumination to the darkness present within the scene, it is darkness that ultimately prevails.

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Figure 1. “The Death of Basil Hallward—The Graphic Canon Edition.” Designed by John Coulthart. “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” The Graphic Canon (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2012). 481. Print.

The intertextuality at play in this image is quite stark as well. In the upper corner of the image, emphasis is put on the curtain that is draping over the painting. When thinking of curtains within the context of a stabbing, it is nearly impossible to avoid invoking the image of Prince Hamlet stabbing Polonius as a consequence of invading a private space[1]. The connotations of this invasion of privacy and its murderous consequences are eerily similar to those that take place in the murder of Basil. The other objects depicted in the painting, such as the candle stand and the book holder, also emphasize the lavishness and decadence present within Dorian’s lifestyle. Note that within the context of the original novel, these objects seem out of place because the painting is supposed to be located within Dorian’s childhood room. Their baroque nature and depiction of nudity certainly creates a clash with the simplicity and the purity that is typically expected within a child’s room.

Coulthart’s suggestive and subtle interpretation differs immensely from the artistic direction that Roy Thomas and Sebastian Fiumara take in the Marvel Illustrated adaptation (see Figure 2 below). Thomas and Fiumara certainly invoke the graphic and brutal nature of Basil’s death in Wilde’s novel, and unlike Coulthart’s version of the death, these adapters want their decoders to be disturbed and shocked by Dorian’s violent and transgressive act. Mirroring the description offered in the source text, one can observe a knife being pugnaciously jammed into the vein behind Basil’s ear. Blood gushes out of the puncture would in a hyperbolic fashion—accompanied by the onomatopoeic word “SHUNK,” which verbally simulates the sound the knife makes as it punctures Basil’s flesh. The image also places emphasis on the fact that Basil is choking on his own blood, as evidenced by the streams of scarlet spewing from his mouth, and the disturbing sound effect that accompanies this ghastly discharge.

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Figure 2. “The Death of Basil Hallward—Marvel Illustrated Edition.” Adapted by Roy Thomas and illustrated by Sebastian Fiumara. The Picture of Dorian Gray (New York: Marvel Publishing, 2008). No page number available. Print.

The image is not only meant to shock, but it also demands pause and careful observation. It is not a coincidence that this image is not placed alongside other comic panels, but rather, the artists use an entire page of the comic to depict Basil’s death. The use of color is particularly effective in this panel. Unlike the bulk of this comic adaptation, which makes use of vivid colors and tones in most of the panels, this image is depicted with an opaque crimson hue, further adding to the aggressive and ferocious nature of the act taking place. Basil’s expression also denotes an element of shock and surprise—his mouth is wide open and his pupils are positioned upwards as if he were mirroring the reader’s reaction towards Dorian’s slightly unexpected transgression. His eyes are quite reminiscent of a martyr’s countenance during the moment of sacrifice—looking upward as if they were surrendering themselves to God. This interpretation definitely fits within the context of Wilde’s work. Recall that Basil implores Dorian to give up his evil ways, and to embrace piousness as a form of salvation. As Basil beseeches in Wilde’s uncensored version of the novel:

“Pray, Dorian, pray,” he murmured. “What is it that one was taught to say in one’s boyhood? ‘Lead us not into temptation. Forgive us our sins. Wash away our iniquities.’ Let us say that together. The prayer of your pride has been answered. The prayer of your repentance will be answered also. I worshipped you too much. I am punished for it. You worshipped yourself too much. We are both punished.” (223)

This plea greatly mirrors the narrative of most martyrs, for after they implore a non-believer to be reverent and to turn their faith into a higher power, they are then sacrificed under the hand of the non-believer. Although this sense of martyrdom can be implied by the Wildean text, Thomas and Fiumara make this notion overt with their visual depiction of Basil’s countenance. Dorian’s act was violent, but in this case, the artists focus on Basil’s self-sacrificial attempt to save the remnants of Dorian’s soul—an attempt that failed miserably.

Alex Burrows and Lisa K. Weber take a subtler approach to Basil’s murder (see Figure 3 below). As mentioned previously, their adaptation is part of the Graphic Classics series, which similar to the Classics Illustrated series, is aimed at a younger audience. With this in mind, the violence and aggression in this adaptation has to be more subtle than that which is seen in the Marvel Illustrated edition, yet it has to be less abstract and open to interpretation than it is the case of Coulthart’s collages. In the images depicting Basil’s murder, none of the panels represent the actual insertion of the knife into the victim’s body. Rather, the decoder is offered a silhouette image of Dorian mounted over Basil’s lifeless body with a bloody knife in hand, preparing to stab the body once again. The inversion of black and white in this particular panel forces the decoder to pay close and sustained attention to the action occurring in this image. The panel that follows in this sequence depicts Dorian in a raged and infuriated stance, covered in blood. The final panel in this particular sequence depicts Dorian hunched over Basil’s body, vis-à-vis the cursed painting—which now portrays Dorian gray in a decrepit and grotesque fashion reminiscent of the crypt keeper[2].

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Figure 3. “The Death of Basil Hallward—Graphic Classics Edition.” Adapted by Alex Burrows and illustrated by Lisa K. Weber. Graphic Classics: Oscar Wilde (Wisconsin: Eureka Productions, 2009). 31. Print.

The greatest difference between Burrows and Weber’s interpretation of Wilde’s text, and the other adaptations discussed previously, is their choice of subject for the murder of Basil. Whereas Coulthart and Thomas/Fiumara approach the victim as the subject of the murder, Burrows and Weber place more emphasis on Dorian Gray and the heinous deed that he committed. This difference in subject has resounding interpretive effects—Burrows and Weber’s interpretation pushes the decoder to attribute agency to Dorian, thus enforcing an understanding of the climax based on an actual change within his persona. This adaptation approaches this point as a moment of transformation, for although he was partially responsible for other deaths in the narrative, this is the first death that he is directly responsible for. This notion of change is capitalized when Dorian himself is forced to come face to face with the decay of the painting. On the other hand, the other adaptations offer a sympathetic interpretation that focuses on Basil as a victim—thus reinforcing a reading centered on the grotesque nature of the act itself rather than its transformational effects on Dorian Gray. It all comes down to the issue of passivity versus activity: Does one focus on the fact that Dorian murdered Basil, or does one focus on the fact that Basil was murdered by Dorian? Despite the superficial similarity between these approaches, they do manage to highlight different concerns and issues that affect the interpretive possibilities of the novel.


[1] I would like to thank my friend and colleague, Leanne MacDonald, for pointing out this possible allusion to Shakespeare’s Hamlet as we were scrutinizing the imagery used in my selection of comics.

[2] See HBO’s television series titled Tales from the Crypt.

Works Cited

Burrows, Alex. “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Illustrated by Lisa K. Weber. Graphic Classics: Oscar Wilde. Wisconsin: Eureka Productions, 2009. Print.

Coulthart, John. “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” The Graphic Canon. Ed. Russ Kick. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2012. Print.

Thomas, Roy. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Illustrated by Sebastian Fiumara. New York: Marvel Publishing, 2008. Print.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated, Uncensored Edition. Ed. Nicholas Frankel. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011. Print.

FAIR USE NOTICE: This blog post contains some copyrighted material  (samples from the comics adaptations used in this study) whose use has not been authorized by the copyright owners. I believe that this not-profit, educational use on the Web constitutes a fair use of the copyrighted material (as defined in section 107 of the US Copyright Law). No infringement is intended.

Literature + Computation = Amazing Results

1 word, 2 words, 150 words! So many beautiful words! Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah!

As a graduate student in English, I guess it comes to no surprise that I tend to have an inherent aversion to math and anything related to quantitative studies. Even as I child, I was unable to understand why the Count from Sesame Street felt such orgasmic joy as he immersed himself into the realm of numbers. I always viewed language as a safe haven from the influence of the quantitative, but then came Algebra and decided to mix letters and numbers. Let’s just say that I was less than pleased with the combination.

During my undergrad studies in English linguistics, I came to appreciate quantitative approaches towards texts and language, but I never thought that I would deal with this combination as a scholar of English. However, thanks to a graduate introductory course that I am taking on Digital Humanities (or Humanities Computing) at the University of Notre Dame, I have recently come across some incredibly useful ideas (and online software) that really augment the possibilities of quantitative research within the field of literature. These ideas and tools facilitate what Franco Moretti calls “Distance Reading,” which basically denotes the analysis of hundreds, if not thousands or millions, of literary texts in order to get a better sense of meaningful changes and developments throughout literary history (see my review of his book Graphs, Maps, Trees).

I have recently been dabbling with the interpretation and creation of programming code (using Python and HTML) thanks in part to the Programming Historian 2, a step-by-step tutorial on how to create basic computer programs that can decode and search for basic patterns in digital texts. Nonetheless, the possibilities of the pre-existing tools available on the web are indeed much more powerful and seductive than the basic programs I’ve developed so far. I will focus my attention on two of the many tools I have surveyed as of now: Voyant Tools and the Google Labs N-Gram Viewer.

VOYANT TOOLS

According to their webpage, Voyant Tools is a web-based environment used primarily for the analysis of digital texts. This “environment” allows you to conduct different types of quantitative analyses (word counting, word frequency, etc.) with any text in practically any digital format (html, .doc, etc.). All you have to do is paste the text that you want to analyze or simply provide a web link to the actual text. The application then “reveals” facts, quantitative data, and statistics that are interpreted from the textual input. Not only can Voyant Tools demonstrate the frequency and distribution of particular words across the text, but it is also able to depict graphs and lists that graphically illustrate the prominence of any word in comparison to another.

In order to test Voyant Tools, I simply pasted the URL of the html version of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (made available via Project Guttenberg) onto the main text bar, and I clicked on the button labeled “reveal.” My browser then opened the following set of tools:

Now, it is important to note that I applied limitations on the incorporation of stop words into my data in order to limit the types of words that Voyant Tools used and interpreted (which simply means that I requested VT to eliminate “meaningless” grammatical words such as “the,” “a,” “are,” among others, from the interpretations of the data). The application processed the textual data, organized it, and depicted it in an array of useful formats.

The “Cirrus” section illustrates the most common words of the text in a visual cloud, and the size of the word is directly correlated to its frequency within the corpus. The “Words in the Entire Corpus” section lists all of the words that appear in the source text and lists how many times they appear. The “Corpus Reader” section depicts the textual input and highlights the appearance of a word selected within the frequency list. The “Word Trend” section graphically illustrates the frequency of a selected word from the beginning to the end of the text. Note how I selected the word “man” within the Wilde’s novel, and how the Word Trend section illustrates how the word increases in frequency as the novel progresses.

Overall, I think the research possibilities of this program are indeed noteworthy, for it may allow us to offer concrete evidence for some of the claims we make as literary scholars. For instance, if we were to argue that Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein increasingly begins to view the creature as a human being, perhaps we could compare the frequency and distribution of words such as “monster,” “creature,” “devil,” and “wretch” with other terms such as “human,” “being,” and “man” in order to determine when and how the creature is labeled by his creator. Of course, there might be issues with these tools, especially when determining the context of these terms, and whether or not concepts are referenced to using different names. However, as Moretti once posited in his aforementioned work, graphs and lists provide data, not interpretation.

GOOGLE LABS N-GRAM VIEWER

The premise of the N-Gram Viewer is far simpler than that of Voyant Tools: using the collection of digital books found within the Google Books archive, N-Gram viewer allows you to trace the presence of particular words or terms within thousands (and even millions) of books across a specific span of time. All you need to do is type in the word(s) that you are interested in tracing, establish the years that you want to survey, and the literary scope you want to study (English texts, Spanish texts, American texts, etc.), and the app will trace a nifty graph of the presence of this term in books that fall within the parameters you established.

The coolest part is the fact that N-Gram Viewer is able to illustrate the prominence of more than one term within the same chart, allowing you to trace, for instance, the use of different synonyms or of complimentary concepts (e.g. “adult, child, teenager” – “gay, lesbian, bisexual, heterosexual” – “novel, poem, short story” – “Asian, Latino, Caucasian, African American”, etc). Below, you can see the search I conducted for the terms “gay,” “homosexual,” “bisexual,” “queer,” and “lesbian” using a corpus of English fiction between the years of 1850 and 2000. The results were as follows:

It is quite amazing to see these results illustrated in such a clear and concise format. Note how the use of the term “gay” begins to decline after the 1850’s, probably due to its increasing association with homosexuality rather than an emotional state of joy. It is after the 1970’s (which coincides with the establishment of a gay rights movement after the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York) that the use of the term gay begins to increase dramatically in English fiction, leading to a peak of the term in the late 90’s (which happens to be the peak of the nationalization of gay media in television and popular culture). It is interesting to note that the presence of the term “lesbian” roughly begins to manifest and increase during the same time that the use of the term gay begins its ascent.

Of course, as with Voyant Tools, the N-Gram Viewer has issues, particularly when it comes to the shifting meaning of particular words, the prominence of a certain term to denote a particular concept, and the sampling of the books themselves (which according to Culturomics, only represents around 12% of all the books ever published). But regardless of these issues, I particularly enjoy the possibilities that these tools present within the realm of distance reading, and I’m looking forward to seeing the new tools that these applications will inspire.