Dispatch from Iowa City and a Random Ten

I'm taking a short break from all the NonfictioNow excitement. The high point for me, so far, was yesterday's "Creating the New Nonfiction Cannon" panel, where Lynn Z. Bloom described a canon as "a map of the territory at any given moment." I like that. Often, people talk dismissively when the notion of "the canon" comes up-- "Just a bunch of dead white males," the critics complain, "let's abolish the canon once and for all!" Of course, the problem with that is that there are still plenty of great authors we're going to want to teach-- a canon's going to form one way or another if every nonfiction professor insists on teaching Orwell, White, Baldwin, and Didion every semester. But this notion of the canon as a map, a guide to a landscape that's subject to change in time... Well, I like it. It allows for a certain amount of flexibility without suggesting that all works are created equal, and should be studied equally. We're going to have a canon, but it should be a tool, not a liability.

Also, from the same panel, Ned Stuckey-French delivered a fantastic paper on E.B. White's "Once More to the Lake," where he argued that this essay hasn't really received the critical and scholarly attention it deserves because it's most often taught in composition, not literature, classes-- it's regarded as less a literary text and more of a model "to teach nineteen-year-olds how to write." He went on to provide an analysis of the essay that argues that the piece is actually much darker, more full of dread, than most of us typically imagine it is. But he argued his point persuasively, and it's definitely stuff I'm going to talk about with my grad students on Monday.

(Grad students, if you're reading this-- remind me I want to talk about "Once More to the Lake" again on Monday).

Anyway, the next highest point was this morning's "The Problem and Promise of the Spiritual Memoir." All five of the panelists were quite good, but I thought Scott Cairns and Joe Mackall really stood out. No surprise regarding Mackall-- he's usually the best part of any panel he's on, in my experience. He has a charming, self-effacing sense of humor that lulls you into giving him your full attention, then he delivers the truth and wisdom he's there to impart-- quite effective. Today, he spoke about how he very deliberately tried to not write a spiritual memoir-- as someone who felt that he had "gotten over" his Catholicism years before, he strongly felt that his religious experiences shouldn't have any bearing on the story about himself he was trying to tell. Naturally, he found that it was impossible to isolate that one section of his life and remove it from his life story. Furthermore, he discussed how writing his memoir-- combined with problems with addiction-- resulted in a sort of "spiritual crisis" (my words, not his) that resulted in a newfound religious faith located at the most unlikely of times. Really, really good stuff. I'm not sure if they were recording that panel or not, but if they put it on the website, you should listen to it. I'm not really doing it justice here.

Anyway, lunch-- with an accompanying talk from Richard Rodriguez-- is in an hour. After that, I think I'll go to the "Where Essays Get the Drama: When There Is No Drama" panel. I'm intrigued by the colon in the middle of that title. Plus, Ander Monson's going to be speaking. His book won the Graywolf nonfiction contest a couple years ago, and he was on the very first job search committee to interview me for a job the year I went on the market. I didn't wind up getting the job at his school, but I'm pretty happy with where I ended up, and he actually wrote a very nice note on the form letter they sent me telling me they had filled the position. So he's a nice guy, and a good writer, is what I'm trying to say. I'm looking forward to hearing him speak.

All in all, it's been a pretty good conference this year. I think I had more fun at the last one, but that's only because none of my friends are here this time-- Bob Cowser and Maureen Stanton both stayed home. So I've spent a lot of time in my hotel room, editing and revising my paper for Saturday's panel. And I've talked to people, don't get me wrong. But this feels much more like a work trip this time, whereas 2005 felt more like, you know, hanging out and getting drunk with my friends. Which, let's face it, is what it was.

Anyway, here's the Random Ten. Put your music player on random or shuffle or whatever, record the first ten songs that come up. Do I have to explain this to you every week?

1) Robbie O'Connell-- "When the Ship Comes In"
2) Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers-- "Don't Come Around Here No More"
3) The White Stripes-- "My Doorbell"
4) Barry White-- "Can't Get Enough of Your Love"
5) Moby-- "In This World"
6) Elvis Costello-- "Man Out of Time"
7) The Dead Milkmen-- "Smokin' Banana Peels"
8) Prince-- "Cream (NPG Mix)"
9) Warren Zevon-- "The French Inhaler"
10) The Pogues-- "Bottle of Smoke"

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