by Ashley Bales
A funny thing about beginnings: they’re always false. They share this with endings, but while writers often talk about false endings, beginnings simply don’t start at the right time. ‘Begin as near to the end as possible’ is an idea about containment and a good lesson in why life and literature differ, or we can hope. A blog has a life and will begin as lives do at whatever moment an individual is born to it and will experience many more beginnings than the first. So, hello again. I give you the re-beginning of the Assignment blog.
I was once a paleontologist and finding beginnings was my job. Never the first beginning, only a committed search for prior beginnings. When a new species appears—something like this blog, reappearing, not reborn—it can always be traced earlier, though its life is no less significant for it. Needless to say, a blog for a literary magazine for an MFA program functions on hyperbolically compressed timescales relative to the life of a species. It adheres to the rhythms of application, acceptance, concentration, graduation, with new voices added and lost in 6 month cycles. It’s agglutinative, stratigraphic, an exercise in context.
Criticism is also an exercise in context: the successes of literary criticism (and the lit blogs that practice it) are not bound to facile judgement, but the ability to contextualize. This incarnation of the Assignment blog is re-begun within the context of me, my Mountainview cohort, the Fall 2017 entering to graduating classes, the year 2017, Trump’s America, all of our Americas, the blogosphere, a publishing landscape stuck continually re-beginning in a world where blogospheres exist (unless they don’t anymore), and a deep continuity of literary practice and practitioners reaching back without beginning to our earliest humanity.
My point being, an education in context aggrandizes the whole, as it humbles each individual start. Let's begin.
Last Week: Nabokov, Hardwick, and Emojis
For all the discussion of engagement flying around these days it’s hard not to want to ostrich-up once in a while. A new collection of interviews with Nabokov demonstrates his stubborn disengagement. He “… [didn’t] give a damn for the group, the community, the masses, and so forth…” limiting his political opinions to: "Portraits of the head of the government should not exceed a postage stamp in size." What would he have thought of this morsel?
In this inspiring profile of Elizabeth Hardwick, Sarah Nicole Prickett describes her as a "domestic writer," acknowledging the weight of applying that term to a woman. Prickett seems unsure how to discuss this unarguably feminist icon in the context of Hardwick's skepticism of feminism. Like Nabokov her concerns were literary and in so far as she did actively engage in and even help shape feminist literary criticism, she refused to be drawn beneath its homogenizing banner.
As citizens, that ideal unification we strive for turns us into the homogenized masses, which, as Auden so eloquently argues in his classic essay "The Poet and the City," has no place in literature. At least not as long as literature is still at its most powerful when presenting individual experience.
But a little engagement is unavoidable: Emoji poetry has made it into The Paris Review (blog), The New Yorker came out with it's first ever television issue mere days after Game of Thrones set it's narrative priorities airborne, but at least Curb Your Enthusiasm is coming back?
I'd rather go back to reading about Nabokov apologizing for cliched butterflies.
Ashley Bales is a current student of Southern New Hampshire University's MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. She holds a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology, teaches in the Math and Science Department at Pratt Institute and is web editor for Assignment Magazine.