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Sunday, January 28, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On Stupidity And Willful Ignorance

Nature has a way of dealing with stupidity. Only the smart and strong survive. In civilized society, however, stupid people suffer, but due to societal kindness, they can survive. It's when a society rewards stupidity and willful ignorance that the trouble begins. And nowhere is stupidity and willful ignorance more rewarded than in the United States Congress. It also resides comfortably within our judicial system. Ignorance is very difficult to cure, and if allowed to spread and flourish, especially among our leaders, it can bring a nation down.

Thornton P. Knowles 

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On The Mystery Of The Creative Process

Many novelists are reluctant to discuss the creative process--that is, how and where they get their ideas, talent, and inspiration to write. Many deny that talent is an inborn phenomenons, while others ridicule the notion that writers have to be inspired to create. Perhaps having the creative impulse is less a mystery than the lack of creativity in a person. When a reader tells me that he can't imagine how I and others produce novels, I wonder why some people cannot. The truth is, I have no idea how, or even why, I'm compelled to write creatively. Rather than contemplate how or why, I just do it.

Thornton P. Knowles

Friday, January 26, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On The Length Of A Novel

At a writer's conference, an aspiring writer working on a piece of fiction asked me how many words she had to write before her book qualified as a novel. I said the minimum word count, in that regard, ranged around 60,000 words. She said, "Oh great, then I'm finished!" Upon that, all the other hopeful authors in the room congratulated her with a round of applause. Who are these people?

Thornton P. Knowles

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On Pretentious Humor

The bartender at a writer's conference I spoke at in Morgantown, West Virginia wore a name tag that read, TRUMAN CAPOTE. In the spirit of the joke, I ordered an "In Cold Bloody Mary". The barkeep didn't even crack a smile. I guessed it wasn't a West Virginia kind of joke, then realized it was simply pretentious, professorial humor. It wasn't funny. I got fall-down drunk that night worrying that I had morphed from a writer into a cold-blooded academic.

Thornton P. Knowles

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On Writing In The Correct Person And Point-Of-View

One of my students opened a story with: "Three months before my sudden death in my girlfriend's car, I went fishing on the Ohio River." Intrigued by this opening line, I asked the student if he intended using the wrong person and point-of-view in an experimental piece of fiction. Or perhaps he was taking a stab at humor. When the kid told me he wasn't experimenting, or trying to be funny, the sentence lost its charm. The kid simply didn't know how to write. Even worse, he didn't know how to BS himself into a better grade.

Thornton P. Knowles  

Friday, January 19, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On Receiving a Bad Review

A writer for Kirkus, in reviewing one of my crime novels, said the book featured a cast of vile hillbillies in a trashy setting who said and did things to each other that would turn the stomach of a murder scene investigator. She wrote that good taste demanded that she put the book down after page 20, but was ashamed to admit that out of the kind of morbid curiosity that makes passing motorists gawk at a bloody traffic accident, she finished my "trashy and brutal" novel. It was a terrible review, really bad. I framed that one.

Thornton P. Knowles

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On The Mystery Of Advanced Math And Intellectual Superiority

For me, math is adding, subtracting, multiplying, fractions, and percentages. Beyond that, math is a mystery I was never able to solve. Maybe that's because I'm not smart enough to figure out the clues. I'll  have to live with knowing there's a universe of knowledge out there beyond me. Does that make me feel inferior? Hell yes. On a good day, if I stretch intellectually, I can touch the bottom of mediocrity. The thing is though, having great self-worth is the worst thing for a novelist. I guess that's why I'm a fairly good crime writer. Anyway, I don't think I have the personality for brain excellence. Being intellectually excellent is a burden I don't have to carry.

Thornton P. Knowles

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On His Unfinished Short Story

I started a short story called Who's Afraid of Emily Post? The piece featured a protagonist who was obsessed with always saying the right thing. The poor fellow hanged himself after innocently asking an un-pregnant heavy woman when she was due. I couldn't finish it. Where do you go from there?

Thornton P. Knowles 

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On Bringing Back The Insult, "Flannel Mouth"

When I was growing up, I heard my father use the term "Flannel Mouth" to describe someone he considered a bragging, loud-mouthed, BS artist. I liked the sound of this insult, and in my earliest writings, used the term a lot. "Flannel mouth" gradually fell out of use, and eventually became obsolete. Worried that my father had made it up, I checked my dictionary and found "Flannel-Mouthed: 1. Speaking thickly, as if one's mouth were full of flannel. 2. Smooth-talking in an insecure way." Since the term perfectly describes the self-promoting, pompous, from-the-pulpit-toned speeches delivered by so many politicians, I'd like to bring "flannel mouth" back into common usage. I think it's needed now more than ever.

Thornton P. Knowles

Friday, January 12, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On Flunking Seventh Grade

I have the distinction of having flunked seventh grade in West Virginia. I hated school, and my cruel, dimwitted teacher, hated me. My distraught and embarrassed parents considered moving to another town, and, when referring to the family tragedy, never used the word "flunked." They preferred "retained." Yeah, I was "retained" because my teacher couldn't bear to let me go. But for me, it wasn't all bad. Two months after she "retained" me, the seventh grade teacher died of a hardened heart. She was replaced by a younger, friendlier, but equally dull teacher who just happened to be really nice to look at. Most important, while I didn't learn anything in my seventh grades, this humiliating chapter in my life taught me the power of words.

Thornton P. Knowles 

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On People Who Love Themselves

While "Know Thy Self" makes sense, I don't get "Love Thy Self." What kind of person can be deeply and hopelessly afflicted with self-love? As a self-loathing person, I can't comprehend how someone who knows himself can even like himself. What is there to like? Who doesn't lie, harbor evil thoughts, and in various degrees, hurt others? I think the self-love syndrome is a form of delusion and borderline psychosis. I also believe that people who truly love themselves can be dangerous. Short of that, they are profoundly unlikable. As a group, politicians tend to be self-loving, deceitful, narcissists capable of horrendous acts of cruelty. This should be of no surprise to anyone who has even a basic knowledge of history. Let's face it, the world has been shaped by self-loving sociopaths.

Thornton P. Knowles

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On The American Worship Of Sports

In a town where I lived, a high school football coach who was in his 90s, died. His life story and historic achievements on the field dominated the local news for three days. He was a legend. One of his former players was quoted as saying that old Coach was now on the big gridiron in the sky. Hell, you'd think the guy had cured cancer, or had saved the world from Hitler. Good heavens, he was just a high school football coach. The next day, the former town doctor died. There was nothing in the paper about him other than a short obituary. In America, we worship our sports heroes.

Thornton P. Knowles

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Posthumous Literary Glory

There is no worse fate for a writer than being rejected in life and loved after death. Posthumous literary glory is not for me. I have no interest in the literary judgments of future generations. I'd rather be recognized now and forgotten later. Any author who says otherwise is either a liar or a fool. You can't cash a royalty check or take a bow when you're dead. If you really want to be remembered for something after death, don't write a book, do something really bad.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On The Crime Novelist Auggie J. Swisher

Auggie Swisher, after winning The Edgar Allan Poe Award for his thriller, Whackyshack, was asked by a New York Times reporter if he would now try his hand at serious fiction. I was standing next to Swisher when he took that question at the Mystery Writers of America's Annual Awards Banquet in New York. Obviously annoyed by the reporter's question, Swisher asked the reporter to define, "serious fiction." When the look on the reporter's face revealed he had no clue on how to define "serious fiction," Swisher asked the guy if he ever considered doing , quote, "serious journalism." That ended the interview. When I got home, the first thing I did was buy a copy of Whackyshack. That was my last MWA awards banquet. There was no need to go back after the Swisher incident. It just couldn't get any better than that.

Thornton P. Knowles 

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On His College Writing Students

Students in my college fiction class tended to use more words than necessary. They also ignored the key elements of plot, suspense, and drama. Moreover, they were more prone to describe rather than narrate. Perhaps that was because narrative writing requires skill, hard work, and talent. During my relatively brief fiction-teaching career, I had about three hundred students. Only two or three of them were truly creative and could write. Other than giving these kids a few tips and encouragement, they didn't need me. I was wasting my time, but the pay was decent, and, at the time, I had nothing better to do. Welcome to academia. 

Thornton P. Knowles

Ridiculous College Courses: Majoring in Stupid

     Recent polls indicate that most Americans believe that acquiring a higher education isn't worth the time or the money. Having a college degree once meant something, and provided the graduate with at least the opportunity to get a decent job. Modern employers are not so impressed. The job market is flooded with degree holders who are unfit for the higher paying positions. That those with bachelor degrees are more informed than people without college educations is less true now than it ever was.

     On average, students in public supported colleges and universities spend $35,000 a year. (This includes room and board.) Private schools cost twice as much. This means that a four-year college education costs between $100,000 and $200,000. How many parents with more than one child can afford this? The average college graduate enters the job market owing, for his or her education alone, $25,000. They also have to pay off credit card debt, and car loans. No wonder they are so disappointed when they can't land the high-paying jobs. With the cost of higher education so high, and so many graduates unemployed or under-employed, it's no longer a given that a college education, as a business proposition, is a wise investment.
       Studies have shown that college and university services are less geared for student needs than for the needs of administrators and professors. Too many college courses reflect the interests of the people who teach them rather than the interests of the students who take them. Many courses are products of the professors' pet interests, or are designed, not for the teaching of useful and demanding subjects, but to draw students.

     One way to fill up a classroom is to create a course about sex. This is one subject college graduates are well versed in. If the professor is a historian, he can offer a course called The History of Sex. There's also the Sociology of Sex; The Philosophy of Sex; The Physiology of Sex; the Psychology of Sex; and The Politics of Sex. Some actual course titles include: Sex in Ancient Rome; The Adultery Novel; Those Sexy Victorians; The Phallus; Sex, Rugs, Salt, and Coal (I have no idea what that one is about); Purity and Porn in America; Cyberporn and Society; FemSex; God, Sex, Chocolate: Desire and the Spiritual Path; and Dirty Pictures.

     There are entire academic departments devoted to gay studies. Swarthmore students are offered a course called "Interrogating Gender: Centuries of Dramatic Cross-Dressing." At the University of South Carolina one can take a course entitled "GaGa for Gaga: Sex, Gender, and Identify." Not to be outdone, the University of California, Los Angeles, offers a course called "Queer Musicology." At Oberlin College, students on the hook for the $75,000 a year to go there are rewarded with a Contemporary American Studies gem called "How to Win a Beauty Pageant: Race, Gender, Culture, and U. S. National Identify." How about being stupid and in debt as a national identity? 
     Look through any college catalogue and you'll find courses on UFO's, ghosts, vampires, zombies, and witchcraft. College kids can enroll in courses devoted to the study of people such as David Becham, Lady Gaga, Oprah Winfrey, Tupac, and dozens of other sports and entertainment "icons." College students today take courses called The Art of Walking; Tree Climbing; Whitewater Skills; Golf, Knitting for Noobs; Finding Dates Worth Keeping; Getting Dressed; How to Watch Television; and my favorite--Underwater Basket Weaving. (In the old days, if you were weaving baskets, you were in a mental institution. Now, you are in college.) At the University of Pennsylvania, the English Department offers a course called, "Wasting Time On The Internet." What kind of idiot needs to be taught how to waste time on the Internet? Perhaps the advanced version of this class could be called, "Wasting Time And Money On Stupid College Courses?" 
     Several universities, including Georgetown, offer courses featuring the old TV series "Star Trek." Students at the University of Texas can sigh up for a course called "Invented Languages: Klingon and Beyond." Language students at the University of Wisconsin can take Elvish (a language spoken in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.) Many of these Klingon and Elvish speaking students can barely handle English.

     Physics students at Frostburg University can study the magic featured in Harry Potter books. Inquiring minds at Occidental College can earn credits by taking a course called, "The Unbearable Whiteness of Barbie." Students at the University of Iowa can avail themselves of a course called "Elvis As Anthology." The University of California Irvine offers a course called "The Science of Superheroes."

     At Alfred University, some professor teaches a course called "Nip, Tuck, Perm, Pierce, and Tattoo: Adventures with Embodied Culture." According to the course description: "Students are encouraged to think about teeth whitening, tanning, shaving, and hair-dying." Since kids think about this stuff anyway, perhaps this professor could encourage students to think about things that are at least academic. But wait--there's more: class projects include a visit to a tattoo-and-piercing studio. (Maybe owned by the professor's spouse.) University of California Berkeley students can avail themselves of "Joy of Garbage." 
     At the University of Minnesota, if you're a numbskull who's worried about satisfying the physical science requirement, there is a course for you. It's called "Geology and Cinema" (Professors use the word "cinema" instead of "movie" because "cinema" sounds so academic.) where students sit in class and watch movies that feature geological subject matter as in "Tremors," and "Journey to the Center of the Earth." (If I were this professor, I'd include a field trip to DisneyWorld.) At Pitzer College there's a course called 'Learning from YouTube." According to the catalogue, "YouTube is a phenomenon that should be studied." (Any referred to as a "phenomenon" must be important.) At Georgia State University one can enroll in "Kanye Versus Everyone." Skidmore College offers students a course called "The Sociology of Miley Cyrus: Class, Gender, and Media."

     For Ohio State students who don't know how to watch a football game, there's a course called "Sport For The Spectator." (Again, notice the word "Spectator." How many people who attend sporting events think of themselves as "spectators?") Hopefully this professor gives several lectures that deal with the technique, and meaning, of face-painting, or "facial art." Temple University has a course called "UFOs in American Society." At Brown University, the English Department proudly offers a course called, "On Being Bored." According to the class description, "This course explores (there is a lot of "exploring" in academia, it's a favorite word) texts/films that represent and formally express states of non-productivity or non-desire. Beginning with the Enlightenment and Romanic periods, we will reflect (another favorite) on narratives with neither progress or plot, characters that resist characterization, and poems that deny assertion and revelation." Who would pay good money for a boring class about boring books, movies, and poems, probably taught by a boring professor who wrote a boring book on the subject?

     For pre-law students at the University of California at Berkeley, there's "Arguing with Judge Judy: Popular Logic on TV Judge Shows." This course is of particular value to students who would rather play a judge on television than be one in real life. For students who want to be TV lawyers, I recommend the Perry Mason series. There is probably a college course around called: "The Jurisprudence of Perry Mason."

     Appalachian State University offers a history course called "What if Harry Potter is Real?" Students who take this course will "explore" questions such as "who decides what history is, and who decides how it is used or misused. How can fantasy reshape how we look at history." (I would rename this course Advanced Load of Crap.) 
     Students lucky enough to attend the University of Wisconsin at Madison can avail themselves of "Theatrical Fencing." This offering from the Department of Kinesiology provides the student with this pearl of wisdom: "Good theatrical fencing is distinct from the art of sword craft, and is worthy of study." Indeed. What value is an academic program without at least one course on theatrical sword craft? And finally, at New York University, students can earn four college credits by taking a course called "Disc Jockey: History, Culture, and Technique." (The technique part suggests a big lab fee.) Many college graduates don't know what came first, World War I or World War II, but they all know the history of the D J. At the University of Pennsylvania one can take a course called "The Feminist Critique of Christianity."
     It's no wonder that if you throw a stick in your local shopping mall you'll hit nine retail employees with college degrees. And all of them are in debt and quite a few can speak Klingon.

     In his book, The New School, University of Tennessee law professor Glenn H. Reynolds makes the case that college graduates can't find good jobs and pay off their huge debts because colleges and universities overcharge and underperform. One way to quickly improve the quality of higher education would be to replace stupid courses like the ones above. Better yet, entire academic departments should be eliminated.

Thornton P. Knowles On a Kid Named Rocket

We had a kid in class named Rocket Blankenship. Everyone, of course, wanted to know why his parents named him Rocket, and every time Rocket came up with a different answer. He once told me that his father named him Rocket because at birth he slid out of his mother with a pointed head. Rocket lied a lot. That's why I liked him.

Thornton P. Knowles

Friday, January 5, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On Life As An Introvert

I avoid crowds like an albino avoids Miami Beach. I don't like loud noise, either, and can't imagine myself cheering my head off at a professional wrestling show. Forget amusement parks, rock concerts, firework displays, and motorcycle races. I think people who gather in Times Square to watch a big ball drop on New Years's Eve are idiots. Mainly, I stay at home, occasionally venturing out to a used book store. There's one nice thing about being an introvert, you have a lot of time to write. Writers who are extroverts, clowns like Truman Capote, often lose their minds.

Thornton P. Knowles 

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Nutty Professors, Academic Publishing, and Tenure: Welcome to Whackadamia

Hug a Tree, Punch a Student

     Upon earning her Ph.D from Kansas State University in 2008, Meghan Buckley began teaching in the Soil and Waste Resources program at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point. She had earned a B.S. degree in agronomy and international agriculture at Iowa State University. In July 2011, the assistant professor led students on a field trip to a forest in Lincoln County. After it was time for the kids to get back on the bus, Dr. Buckley got off the vehicle to round-up a few no-shows. When the professor returned to the bus with the straglers, a 23-year-old student named Wesley Shaw sarcastically clapped for them. Angered by this, Dr. Buckley walked over to Shaw and punched him several times in the face as he sat in his seat. The punched-out student filed a complaint.

     Following the results of an internal investigation conducted by the university (this was hardly a case for Sherlock Holmes), Dr. Buckley resigned from the school effective at the end of the school year. In the meantime, although out of the classroom, the professor would perform research duties. Dr. Buckley subsequently filed a lawsuit to block the public release of the contents of her personnel file.

UCLA Lab Fire: Accident or Crime?

     In December 2008, in a UCLA chemistry lab, a fire broke out when air-sensitive chemicals burst into flames during an experiment. The fire ignited the clothing of a 23-year-old research assistant. Sherarbano Sangji, who was not wearing a protective lab coat, died eighteen days after the accident. The synthetic sweater she wore caught fire and melted onto her skin, causing second and thirt-degree burns over half of her body.

     The Los Angeles County district attorney's office, on December 27, 2011, charged 42-year-old chemistry professor Patrick Harran with three counts of willfully violating occupational health and safety standards that resulted in the lab assistant's death. If convicted, the professor could be sentenced up to four and a half years in prison. The university could be fined up to $1.5 million on each of the three counts.

     UCLA's vice chancellor for legal affairs called the criminal charges unwarranted, outrageous and appalling. To a reporter with the Los Angeles Times, he said, "What happened in December 2008 was a tragedy, an unfathomable tragedy. It was not a crime."

     In June 2014, Professor Harran pleaded guilty to lesser offenses in return for a $10,000 fine and 800 hours of community service. In December 2015, Harran was dropped as a fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The professor, however, did not lose his teaching position.

It's Not Booze, It's My Heart Medicine

     Between 2005 and 2011, Dipak Das, the director of the University of Connecticut's Health Center's Cardiovascular Research Center, published the results of his research in dozens of scientific journals. Dr. Das was known for his findings that red wine is good for the heart. In 2008, the university initiated an internal review of the doctor's work after an anonymous complaint of irregularities in his research.

     In January 2012, the university reported that its investigators had uncovered 145 instances, over a seven year period, in which Dr. Das fabricated, falsified, and manipulated data. As a result, the U.S. Office of Research Integrity (do these people carry guns?) opened an independent investigation of his work. Journals that published his articles were notified.

     In May 2012, Dipak Das was fired from the University of Connecticut. Following his $35 million libel suit against the school, he died in September 2013 at the age of 64.

     Other scientific studies, ones not involving Dr. Das, suggest that red wine is in fact good for some people. It's the ingredient resveratrol.

The Book Professors Would Like to Burn

     Higher Education?, a 2012 book by Andrew Hacker, a retired Queens College professor, and Claudia Dreifus, a New York Times journalist, is based on the idea that what takes place on campus isn't education, high or low. The authors blame our failed higher education system on, among other things, the emphasis on research and publishing over classroom teaching. And these authors don't like tenure.

     In a 2012 article about Higher Education? in The Atlantic, Jennie Rothenberg Gritz interviewed Professor Emeritus Hacker. The following are excerpts of the professor's responses to her questions:

"There are two ways to pick a college. One is to go to a prestigious college, and when you graduate the world will know you went to Princeton or Stanford. It dosen't matter what happened in the classroom as long as you have that brand behind you....The second reason to go to college is to get a good liberal arts education. We argue that you can get a better education at second or third tier colleges."

According to Professor Emeritus Hacker, "The problem is that there are just too many [academic] publications and too many [professors] publishing...and many of the publications are too long. A book on Virginia Woolf could be a 30-page article. Somebody did a count on how many publications had been written on Virginia Woolf in the past 15 years. The answer is several thousand. Really? Who needs this?"

"Academics," said Hacker, "typically don't get tenured until the age of 40. This means that from their years as graduate students and then assistant professors, from ages 25 through 38 or 39, they have to toe the line....So tenure is, in fact, the enemy of spontaneity, the enemy of intellectual freedom....And even people who get tenure really don't change....What bothers us, too, is that over 300,000 professors have tenure....What that means is these people never leave. There's hardly any turnover in the senior ranks....You go to a campus and over two thirds of the faculty have been there at least 25 years. They begin to stagnate....They become  infantilized, embroiled in ideological issues like faculty parking."

More on Tenure and Academic Publishing

     For more than 30 years, Martin Russ taught creative writing in several college and university English Departments. A published novelist, he wrote, in 1980, Showdown Semester: Advice From a Writing Professor. This is one of the most entertaining, informative, and helpful books I have ever read on the subject of teaching people how to write. In his book, Professor Russ also provides a professor's take on college administrators (they are mostly idiots) and gives the reader a peek inside the ivory tower. Professor Russ says this about tenure: "I have the impression...that it is the untenured in most English departments who are the most effective teachers. This is largely due to the anxiety arising from job insecurity, which forces them to work at full capacity....The tenured professor is never forced to justify his classroom work to his students, and can go on year after year in a take-it-or-leave-it way in which arrogance overrides the kind of teaching that has to do with helping, sharing, giving."

     Professor Russ, back in 1980, realized that too many professors were taking time away from their teaching to write books nobody reads: "English professors are always turning out extraneous 'textbooks'....or else collecting other people's writing and publishing them as anthologies."  

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles on Having "Polyphobia."

As a compulsive liar--I lie even when I don't have to--I'm deathly afraid of the polygraph. If I merely walk past one, the instrument will turn itself on and starts registering deception. Once, when actually hooked up to a lie detector, the examiner ended up soaked in polygraph ink. Confronted with all that untruth, the poor instrument simply exploded. The nonplused examiner looked at me and said, "You must be a writer."

Thornton P. Knowles

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On TV Preachers

While I'm not a religious person, I sometimes watch those Bible-thumping preachers on TV who, as entertainers, are as flamboyant and phony as professional wrestlers.  Take Jimmy Lee Swaggart, a singing, piano-playing preacher from Louisiana with big hair and a spellbinding delivery. Jimmy had it made with thousands of devoted followers who opened their wallets and made him rich. If you didn't know better, you'd think Jesus and Jimmy were close, personal friends. But old Jimmy had a taste for the working girl, and that brought him down. In his prime, Jimmy was quite a show, but he was no match for the Devil. But hell, who is?

Thornton P. Knowles 

Monday, January 1, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On His Personality Disorder

For a somewhat introverted, self-loathing person, I'm oddly narcissistic. If this combination of personality traits doesn't add up to a personality disorder, I don't know what does.

Thornton P. Knowles