Saturday, October 25, 2008

"The Office" (workstation series) 113 (satellite B edition)

ConferenceBlog02 – or, where Robert B Parker gets it wrong

Day 2. My own paper's past and I can remark upon the passing scene.

This is one damn beautiful hotel. According to the literature, St Louis's old Union Train Station, built in the flush of the Gilded Age in the 1890s, had essentially fallen into abandonment when the railroad system died after WWII (final nail in the coffin was Reagan's declining to even consider bailing out Amtrak in the '80s), and was only recovered as part of a huge, and ambitious, restoration and re-purposing project within the last 10 years. And it is gorgeous, even if it’s stuffed to the rafters with Shit to Buy.

I have to admit that I still admire scholars: even the geeky ones, even the arrogant ones, even the self-loving ones. Particularly when I’m stuck for three days in an enormous building stuffed to the rafters and very carefully thought-designed to promulgate impulse-buying. That’s really what a “mall” is—it’s not about finding the stuff you set out to locate, it’s about introducing you to a bunch of stuff—fresh fudge, Budweiser beer mugs, mocked-up street signs that cater to your own profession or alma mater—that it would never cross your mind to seek out, much less blow money upon, unless and until you find yourself in 10-12 square acres of space designed precisely to deny you any other kind of mental stimulus than that (very temporarily) provided by buying shit you don’t need.

Scholars traffic in different currency. Because whatever you say about them—they’re isolated, they’re arrogant, they’re un-obligated and un-accountable for the quantity or quality of their own work, all of which are unquestionably true—they don’t mostly care about amassing shit. Books, maybe; a house, maybe; a decent retirement plan, maybe (though most of the scholars/teachers I know would stay on teaching and researching virtually forever, if their employers and cognitive retention would permit)—but the markers of attainment—cars, second and third homes, 30-year-old Scotch, expensive prescription drug habits, whatever—which some people have to substitute for a sense of real accomplishment, scholars mostly don’t’ give a shit about. They can be as petty, spiteful, impractical, childish, and greedy as anybody else—but they’re mostly not very materialistic.

For years I’ve been a guilty-pleasures consumer of Robert B Parker’s detective novels starring the shamus “Spenser.” Started reading them with the first one, The Godwulf Manuscript, about the theft of an early English manuscript from a thinly-described Harvard library, and have continued since, buying them furtively and second-hand in used-book stores, and embarrassed to have them out on my shelves where the kids who house-sit for us can see them (in interesting contrast, I’m unashamed about the Robert E Howard “Conan” and C.S. Forester “Hornblower” novels, maybe because those latter are, in my mind, superb and unpretentious examples of respectable genre fiction—situations in which the author respects the genre and doesn’t coast in her/his efforts within it).

Parker is different—for years, now, he’s basically been writing slight screenplays in bound form, rotating his stock company of characters through telegraphically-short 1-dialogue-scene chapters and cranking them out for us to consume pretty much like potato chips. And with about as much lasting nutritional value.

I keep reading them because of (a) the Boston locations—Parker really does know the city; (b) the great (if simplistic and stereotypical) second-bananas, most notably the shaven-headed Big Scary Black Man assassin Hawk, played to perfection in the (deservedly) short-lived Robert Urich teleplay by the great Avery Brookes, years before he was Borged by the Star Trek franchise. But, they’ve gotten slighter and slighter—as Parker has more and more obviously coasted through low-effort recycling of past efforts, and as the blatancy with which he uses these thin fictions to redress or rewrite the ins-and-outs of his own life with himself as the hero (all authors do this—Parker is just a lot more blatant, and a lot more opportunistic, than most). I could still live with him, though, because some of the dialog, some of the locations, and some of the bit characters are still remarkably good. And he used to (not so much anymore) write absolutely riveting and very accurate fight scenes.

That’s mostly gone, and, as you might anticipate, his cranky-old-guy nature has come out more and more—it happens to us all. Unfortunately, a cornerstone of his Bahston-accented Grandpa Simpson is his really remarkable, and (considering his own academic background) unseemly, cheap shots at academics. I don’t know what the hell was done to him at Boston University, where he took a Ph.D. with a dissertation on Dashiell Hammett (what are you bitching about, Robert? You got to write a dissertation on precisely the author who you wanted to revive and cop from!), but, based on the absurd and petulant caricatures that riddle his books from the very first, he certainly seems to feel that every academic he ever met was a total pompous jackass. They’re there throughout his corpus: distant, arrogant, unkempt, “liberal,” petty, mundane, you name it. He only grants grudging absolution from this caricature to those occasional academics in his catalog to who he can carefully assign back-stories: as wrestlers, college football players, and so on.

Now, I’d guess that virtually every candidate who has gone through the process of a Ph.D. in the humanities or fine arts could share hair-raising stories about the delusional senior professors of their pained acquaintance, and God knows I’m no exception. One of the ways that people post-Ph.D. cope with the trauma of that experience is by telling and re-telling anecdotes of the horrible shit that was done to us. My beef with Parker’s characterizations (more accurately, caricatures) is that, by re-visiting and re- re-visiting them in book after book after book, and by rendering them in such absurdly stereotypical terms (the professor with the cat hair on his sweater or the grad student with frizzy hair and a sack-like natural-fibre dress), is that those caricatures don’t further either his story or the reader’s understanding of that story—in fact, they sound like the whining of a post-doc, overage in grade, who couldn’t get done with the document and is searching for excuses why. You want to say: “Robert, look—maybe your professors were Mean to you. Maybe some of them were space cadets or impractical. Maybe some of them even had cat hair on their sweaters or needed a haircut. But shit, Robert, you got your damned degree. You’ve sold hundreds of thousands of more than 50 titles which are all essentially variants on a single plot (Spenser meets person in distress, who is too poor or too stupid to recognize the merit of his services. Spenser boy-scouts his way into assisting anyway. Hawk and Vinnie and Chaco and Susan Silverman comment sardonically. Spenser has to do something he doesn’t want to do, and hopefully gets to hit someone. Conflict resolved; Spenser (Parker) once again told by rescued victim what a wonderfulMan’s Man he is). What the hell are you still bitching about?”

Professors mostly aren’t like that. They’re impractical, unaccountable, spoiled, self-loving, mundane and/or abstracted in equal balance. But they’re mostly not materialistic.

We traffic in ideas. And ideas—more than personalities or royalties or fudge or Budweiser caps or a trophy wife or a bully pulpit from which to stereotype the people who Hurt Your Feelings four decades ago—matter.

They matter.

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