Monday, 23 April 2012


I am writing a book. (So what else is new?) I am writing a book that does not consist of previously published and revised articles. Each chapter has to be written from scratch, apart from the summaries I once upon a time wrote for the proposal, but they are not particularly helpful. Sometimes I have no idea what I had in mind.

Writing a book like this means that you can easily jump from chapter to chapter, depending on what issue occupies you for the moment. You end up with piles of notes, half-finished paragraphs, recycled bits from previous work and some ingenious headings that most likely will have to go.

I am now at the phase that many academic writers and especially PhD students will recognise. I cannot go on writing notes or even paragraphs. I need to write up every chapter into a coherent text. Preferably avoiding repetitions and overlaps with other chapters. This is a decisive moment. It is the question of self-discipline. I need to tell myself that I am not allowed to continue to the next chapter until I am finished with the current one. Excited as I am about a new and fresh idea to develop in Chapter 5, I must finish Chapters 1, 2, 3 and 4 first.

It is irritating. But it is still more irritating to believe that you have a finished chapter only to go back to it and discover imperatives in capital letters: CHECK! DEVELOP! CONSIDER! or yellow and blue highlights for various actions you have left for later.

It is tempting to tell myself: This is a difficult chapter, I'll write the easy chapters first. But I have done this before. The easy chapters are almost finished. I really need to deal with the difficult chapters now.

The reward is of course when you have finished the difficult chapter and can go on to the next, which is as likely as not to turn out to be just as difficult.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Can a PhD thesis save the world?

Today is twenty-four years since I defended my PhD. Not quite a quarter of a century, but close enough.

I always tell my students that they need to write their thesis as if they wanted to save the world. Because if you don't believe in what you are doing, who will?

My PhD thesis was my third attempt. I certainly believed that my first one would make a significant contribution to linguistics, and I wasn't particularly enthusiastic about my second one, on Norwegian film, but it was a topic I was allowed to pursue at the time. Both projects were interrupted by external circumstances, and I have never regretted it. In my final and successful thesis I was doing what I had always wanted to do, and I truly believed it would make a difference. Fantasy was just beginning to become a hot research topic, after years and years of studies about dysfunctional families and teen pregnancies in children's books. In fact, the very year I moved to Sweden, the first academic study of fantasy was published in Swedish, which made me desperate until I read it and could state that it did something radically different from what I wanted to do and that I could still save the world. My thesis was indeed different from what was habitual in Sweden at the time, which was a very narrow, very concrete and specific topic of the type “The portrayal of XX in two early poems by YY”. I looked at two hundred and fifty texts and tried to make inferences from them. I wanted a taxonomy, a paradigm, a structural poetics. I wanted my work to become as famous as Propp's Morphology of the Folktale.

Looking back at it, I see its flaws – it was after all an apprentice's work, not the crown of a scholar's career. But it was not worse than most other doctoral theses and perhaps better than many. It was published as a book and had sold steadily for twenty years until the publisher gave me the remaining forty copies some years ago. It means that it has sold just under a thousand copies. I still get inquiries from libraries and colleagues and students. I always ask: Why do you want it? It is out of date, it wasn't brilliant to begin with (although I thought it was at the time), I have published so many better books since then. And yet people insist that it is very important, and some even claim that it is indispensable. I have never seen any colleague or student use my central concept of the fantaseme, the smallest identifiable element of a fantasy text, coined in analogy with mytheme. I haven't even seen my particular employment of Mikhail Bakhtin's chronotope reflected in any studies. I have no idea what people find useful. Not a catalogue of two hundred and fifty texts, I hope. There are annotated bibliographies for that purpose. Yet somewhere out there, in university libraries and in people's bookshelves, almost a thousand copies of my book are making their humble impact.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

New blog challenge

Eleven questions as a blog challenge from my daughter

1. What is the best book you have read?
Winnie-the-Pooh, but it's trivial. If we take is as "recently" it's John Green's The Fault in Our Stars (Julia's recommendation)

2. What hobby would you like to test? 

3. When was the last time you did some crafts?
Yesterday. I made a miniature ananas from a pine cone.

4.  How many pairs of shoes do you own?
Less than ten.

5.  What would you look like if there were no limit, professionally or monetary?
I guess the same. I might get a personal make-up artist, provided they were as good as Julia.

6.  What would you buy if I gave you 500 kronas [about £40] right now?
Some crazy kitchen utensil.

7. What are your secretly scared of?
 Forgetting one of languages I use professionally.

8.  What city would you like to visit?
I guess it means a city I haven't yet visited. I am not particularly fond of cities. Buenos Aires?

9.  What is your best home-maker trick?
Having my home-maker around.

10. Whom would you like to give a bun?
Literal or symbolic? With or without cinnamon? If it's big enough I'd share among my students.

11. What was the most recent thing you sang?
 Schnappssongs at a Swedish-Finnish party last weekend.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Two ways to turn an examination report into a publishable article

The Sweden and other Nordic countries there is a practice of publishing PhD examination reports. Now you may ask who would want to read those, but in Scandinavia doctoral theses in humanities are published as books, sometimes even by commercial publishers, so a report actually works as a book review, with a generous word count of up to 6,000 words. For the new doctors, it may be the only review of their book they are getting. For the examiner, it's a solid publication to add to your CV.

As with turning a conference paper into a publishable article, there are several ways to do it. Since doctoral defence in Sweden is a public event you probably had some jokes in your report to ease the tension. These must go. You also gave the candidate an opportunity to respond to your questions. The questions must now be turned into mild or firm subjunctives: “The candidate could have...” or “The candidate should have...” The examination follows a certain structure, with presentation, bibliography, research questions, methodology, text analysis and conclusion. You can keep this structure, but it will be painfully boring, unless you assume that nobody will read the review anyway (see above).

The written review gives you a chance to say all the nasty things you didn't want to say at the defence because the candidate would not have passed, and that would have given you bad conscience for the rest of your life. But now that they are entitled to put Dr before their names you can finally say what you really think. Although Dr X can still commit suicide after reading the review so you need to be careful. Every “should have” must be followed by “on the other hand”.

The proper way to write a review based on your examination is in fact to write it as if it were a book review. You may use the report as a point of departure, but it has to be re-written completely, re-structured; some clever bits sacrificed because they were side comments during the defence, some explications added since the reader of the review may not have read the book.

In other words, it is quite a lot of work.

I don't have to explain how I am spending my weekend.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Two ways to write a keynote paper

As I have repeatedly observed, these days I mostly go to conferences to which I am invited, and to most of these I am invited as a keynote speaker. This is always very flattering, and that's why I have such problems saying no, which I should do in two cases of three. Apart from being flattering it is also mostly interesting things I am invited to. Things that make you think: Wow, that's exciting! And before you know you have promised to do a keynote, some time in the distant future, with a slight hope that something might interfere. Either the king or the donkey will die, if you know the story.

I try to accept only invitations that are directly relevant for my current research, but this "Wow, that's exciting" thing is highly stretchable so every now and then I succumb to something that is off my path, and sometimes it is an open invitation when I can talk about anything - that's the most difficult ones.

There are two ways to prepare a keynote talk. The easy way is to take something ready. The audience at a large conference is likely not to have heard you before, and if there is a specific topic you can always squeeze in a couple of examples to illustrate it. You can even say: Now, you may wonder what this has to do with the topic of our conference... and then say something convoluted that will make people confused and uncomfortable enough to ask questions.

A more challenging way is to take the opportunity to explore something new. The conference is in the distant future, and you think that by then you will certainly have done all that research, and the keynote will fit neatly as a chapter in your coming book. Ha! The conference is over you before you know. You have promised this keynote, and very soon they ask you for a title to put on their website, which isn't a huge commitment and can be nebulous; but soon after that they ask you for an abstract to put on the website, and this is more of a commitment, especially if the topic of the conference is so narrow that there will be other papers you don't want to overlap with.

Then you re-read the books by the author who is the subject of the conference. You had vague memories of them, but of course they are not at all what you remember. Fortunately, they are not hopelessly bad, and you think that you just about might be able to do what you have promised in your abstract. Weeks and months go by, and you still hope that the donkey will die, but the silly animal isn't cooperative, so one day you simply have to write this paper, and you cannot take something ready because you haven't ever written about this author. You re-read the books again and realise that there is nothing useful in them in terms of your current research because at the time you agreed to do the keynote you had no idea what your current research would be. You are desperate. You go and dig in the garden. You read unrelated books. You grade student essays. You make your family's life miserable. You procrastinate. You grade more student papers. You cannot do anything sensible because the paper is hovering over you.

Then one morning you sit down at your desk, feeling like a prisoner, and re-read what you have written under torture, and suddenly it all makes sense, and you just need to delete half of it and write a new half, and it turns out to be quite a good paper, relevant to your current research, original, clever, a paper to be proud of.

Of course I know that part of the scenario is that when I re-read it tomorrow it will be a horrible paper, banal, incoherent - a paper to be ashamed of. But that's transitional as well.

PS The king and the donkey story appears in Arabian Nights and many other folktale traditions. A trickster makes a bet with a king that he can teach a donkey to talk in just ten years. When his friends wonder how he can venture such a bet, he says: Well, who knows what happens in ten years? I may die, the king may die, the donkey may die...

Easter, revisited

I was going to write a blog post about Easter. I knew exactly what I was going to write, with all funny details.

Luckily, I decided to check what I had written about Easter before. Well, I have aleady written the blog post I was going to write, so here it is.

This year it's just Staffan and me, and I have painted four eggs and made a very small pascha. I didn't bake. I am a bit melancholy and miss my children and grandchildren. I have tons of photos from all our family Easters.

By the way, my mother died last Sunday.