May 9, 2010

Novel Readings has moved...

Just a reminder to anyone who used to read or subscribe to Novel Readings and hasn't seen any activity over here recently: new posts are going up at the new address:

Don't forget to update your blogrolls, subscriptions, or RSS feeds.

March 21, 2010

A New Home--Who'll Follow?

Yes, that's the title of a story of American settler life, by Caroline Kirkland. But it's also the state of affairs at Novel Readings, which as of today is relocating to its new address and becoming part of the family of blogs hosted by the online literary magazine Open Letters Monthly. Aside from the new address, it will be the same Novel Readings as always. I hope you'll update your RSS feeds, bookmarks, blogrolls, and so on, and keep reading and commenting. Here's a link to the new site:

Novel Readings at Open Letters

And here's the new URL:

This site will stay where it is, but new posts will go up only at the new one. Hope to see you there!

March 19, 2010

This Afternoon in My Class (March 19, 2010): Seamus Heaney

As a brief follow-up to my previous post, which discussed a certain flagging of enthusiasm for one of my classes, I'll just report that I thoroughly enjoyed this afternoon's tutorial meeting on Seamus Heaney. The best thing about it was that it was the first time I can remember this term that a significant number of students were genuinely enthusiastic about a poem: that is, often students will contribute, thoughtfully, to discussion, but today even the body language was different, with people leaning forward into the discussion and smiling and nodding at each other as they talked. The poem that got this reaction was Seamus Heaney's "Digging":
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner's bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awakens in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.
I opened by asking about the pen as a gun: why make that particular comparison? What is the risk or the threat of his pen? Pretty quickly we were talking about the difficulty of the poet son, who has broken from the tradition of his father and grandfather, writing about them and their work without condescending to them or, at the other extreme, sentimentalizing them. It turned out (and I think that this is why the discussion became so animated) that many of them understood the anxiety, or perhaps just self-consciousness, of that kind of break from tradition because they have been through it themselves, coming from mining or farming or military backgrounds, sometimes themselves among the first in their families to go to university, or to study something like English, or to want to be writers. One student also pointed to the "sloppily" corked milk bottle, a sign, he suggested (and many agreed) that it speaks to an anxiety also about the manliness or practical value of choosing poetry: there's an ideal of the "man of the house," good with his hands, tough, physical, that the speaker can't reach ("I've no spade to follow men like them"). Though he looks down on his father from his window, he isn't looking down on him otherwise, we thought, but rather seeing him clearly, seeing the dignity of his skill and hard work. He puts his pen to work, in turn, digging up memories (which "awaken in [his] head") and making something himself that (as another student suggested) his father would understand--it's not difficult poetry, there are no unusual words in it, it's hardly "poetic" at all, but direct, colloquial, even (sorry) earthy. And yet for all its seeming simplicity, as we dug into it, we found more and more of interest, even before we moved into the more abstract idea of poetry and/as archeology (another of our poems was "The Grauballe Man").

Though we all hate the reduction of literary value to what is " relatable" (a coinage many students seem unable to resist), and though I'm a big believer in stretching ourselves and our students into what is unfamiliar, there was a great energy today that came from this poem having meaning for them--meaning of its own, that they could appreciate, but also meaning for their own lives.

March 18, 2010

This Week in My Classs (March 18, 2010)

This week is nearly over already! Whew. It hasn't been a particularly intense week in my classes (relatively "light" reading, for instance, in both of my undergraduate classes, plus the final books of Middlemarch for my graduate seminar, which I know well enough by now not to have to reread every word--though, as a matter of fact, I did reread almost all of it anyway, because who wouldn't, given the excuse?). But it's March Break, which means some schedule juggling, and then my poor daughter came down with a violent stomach flu, which derailed her camp plans. We are fortunate to have a lot of flexibility in our working hours, but I find that as I get older I find it harder to make up in the evenings for reading or marking that I couldn't get done during the day. Happily, anyway, she's on the mend, if sipping a little ginger ale means anything, and by Monday we'll all be back to our usual routine.

So, what have I been doing, when I could? In Mystery and Detective Fiction, we're on to our unit on 'the contemporary police procedural, with short stories by Ed McBain, Peter Robinson, and Ian Rankin. I haven't actually read any of McBain's 87th Precinct series, only a few short stories in the various anthologies I've used over the years, which have felt to me a bit too much like reading episodes of Law & Order. It's just not my favourite style, though maybe I just haven't read the best examples. I generally enjoy Robinson's Inspector Banks series, but our story was actually a one-off, a historical mystery that is not really (as my students quickly discerned) a police procedural proper, as its detective is only a "special constable" and has the usual run-ins with the official officers of the law that we expect of the amateur detective or private eye. Set in September 1939, the story ("Missing in Action") evokes a feeling of civilization spiraling out of control; vigilante justice, justified in hard-boiled detection as the only way for Our Hero, however morally questionable, to fight for The Right in a corrupt world, is shown in a darker light here, reminding us of why we need to rely on formal systems of law and evidence, even if the outcomes are not always satisfactory. Tomorrow, it's Rankin's "The Dean Curse," which sets us up well for Knots and Crosses next week, not only by introducing Rebus, but by making similar connections between military training and police work, and asking difficult questions about the moral responsibility of a military organization that (of necessity) trains men away from their humanity only to loose them on the world at the end of their service. Rankin is the best stylist of this group, for sure.

Having said that, I confess to feeling some impatience in the last week or so with the preponderance of mediocre-to-fine writers on that reading list. Though I wouldn't accept any argument that genre fiction is inherently or inevitably less "literary," it's striking that the prose is so rarely excellent, even among the most popular or innovative mystery writers. "Workmanlike" is how I would describe, for instance, the writing in Paretsky's Indemnity Only: important as her work is, for its contributions to breaking open the feminist potential of crime fiction, there's no temptation to linger over the language at any point. In fact, only Chandler and Hammett much tempt me that way, this term, which may be one reason I'm missing P. D. James's An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, removed from the syllabus because of its unpopularity with students over the years--James cares about language as well as story and character. When I go looking for new writers to include in this course, I usually tire of the exercise quite soon because however interesting the angle or scenario may be, so many are badly, even dreadfully, written (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, anyone?).

It's only fair to say that bad or mediocre writing occurs in all forms, including self-consciously aspiring "literary" novels (The Mistress of Nothing, anyone?). But much of the time there's no reason to teach a mediocre work. For a course on the contemporary novel, I don't think Tracy Chevalier, for instance, would even be a contender for the syllabus. But when your criteria is not literary excellence but something else, then you do teach material that is "interesting" for other reasons, and I think what happens is that once you've gone through it a few times, it isn't really that interesting to you anymore and you're just reiterating stuff about its relationship to conventions and social / political issues and so on, reading it symptomatically, for what it is, rather than (dare I say) lovingly, for what it specifically says, or, as important, how it says it. I know, I know: "literary excellence"--what does it mean? But surely one defensible measure of excellence is "bearing up well under repeated, attentive readings." It might be intellectual qualities or aesthetic qualities that achieve this quality of endurance, and there are certainly many, many ways of being excellent, but a book that eventually lies flat before me like a deflated balloon because there's really nothing else to discover in it is not excellent, I feel pretty sure about that. I routinely teach some pretty bad books (Aurora Floyd, anyone?)--but so far, some of them do continue to bear up, maybe because they are so odd and unfamiliar that they resist deflation despite everything. But I think I'm going to start purging my teaching life of the ones that have become perfunctory. That may mean giving up the mystery and detective course, at least for a while. I know I still make the books interesting for students coming to them for the first time, but I'd really rather those same students were getting excited and interested in better books, books that will survive to become real literary friends of theirs and/or that will encourage them to set their sights higher. In spending a lot of time explaining what's interesting about not-very-good books, it sometimes seems I am implicitly allowing that it's OK to settle for them.

I wonder if I'm fretting over this problem this term because of the contrast with the readings for the Brit Lit survey: because there I have had to be so selective, I often feel overwhelmed with the fabulousness of our readings. This week, for instance, we've done Auden, Dylan Thomas, and Seamus Heaney, all writers who seem to me to offer the whole package.

And having said all that, I started rereading Daniel Deronda last night and I'm very excited about going through it again, with all of its challenges and rewards.

March 16, 2010

Reading Tolstoy

I'm not, but these posts really make me wish I were. It was Early Tolstoy Week recently at Wuthering Expectations, beginning with Chldhood, Boyhood, Youth:
It's Tolstoy's first novel, yet is so Tolstoyan. The obsession with death, for example, the way death mingles with life. In Chapter 23 of Boyhood the children are all sent on a surprise sleigh-ride. What a lark!:

As we drew up to the house on the way back I open my mouth to make a fine face at [my sister] when my eyes are startled by a black coffin-lid leaning against one panel of our front door, and my mouth remains fixed in its distorted grimace.

'Votre grand'mère est morte!' says St-Jérome with a pale face, coming out to meet us.

Yes, the novel has a healthy sprinkling of the untranslated French that we all loved in War and Peace. The Sevastopol Sketches, written at the same time, contain untranslated Polish, so count your blessings, I say.

The single great touch, though, the art of that passage, is the boy's frozen mouth.
The series continues here, here ("He makes peers like Balzac or Dickens, whatever their strengths, seem so convention-bound. Tolstoy wrote in the service of Truth. His integrity is bracing. Thank goodness, though, not everyone writes like him"), and here (with "Sevastopol Sketches"--"Many passages...would not seem out of place in War and Peace. It all sounds like Tolstoy. What a powerful writer").

And at The Millions, Kevin Hartnett writes beautifully about reading War and Peace:
In the end, though, the reason I read novels is not because I can talk about them with other people, or because I’m looking for ideas to explain the world. I read them for the pure aesthetic moment that comes from seeing life perfectly distilled into words. In this respect, I don’t think there is a more able book than War and Peace. Tolstoy’s singular genius is to be able to take the torrent of conscious experience and master it. There are countless moments in the book where this happens, but the one that left me reeling was Tolstoy’s long, exquisite depiction of the Battle of Borodino, which was the deciding battle in the war and one of the bloodiest in history.

The night I finished reading about Borodino, it was plainly obvious that I had just read something great. Yet here I was sitting in a corner of my couch, just the same as I had been an hour before. I thought about the question with which I opened—what is it that greatness does? An encounter with greatness, I would say, is like a bright light fixed in time, a marker that defines memory and makes it clearer than it otherwise might have been, that we were here.

I've been feeling dissatisfied with much of my recent reading, much of which has been second-rate, but under the pressure of a term with lots of assigned books I'm wary about picking up something that deserves my full attention and probably can't get it. I think I'll put my copy of War and Peace out where I can see it, as a promise to myself that there are better things ahead.

March 15, 2010

How happy the lot of the mathematician!

From W. H. Auden's essay "Writing":
How happy the lot of the mathematician! He is judged solely by his peers, and the standard is so high that no colleague or rival can ever win a reputation he does not deserve. No cashier writes a letter to the press complaining about the incomprehensibility of Modern Mathematics and comparing it unfavorably with the good old days when mathematicians were content to paper irregularly shaped rooms and fill bathtubs without closing the waste pipe.

I bet that Great Achievements in Math are debated by mathematicians, too, and not, say, by former Olympians, doctors, or journalists.

March 11, 2010

Louis Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas

The Marketplace of Ideas is not as interesting as I thought it would be. One reason may be that it is part of a series intended, as series editor Henry Louis Gates Jr. explains, to "invite the reader to reexamine hand-me-down assumptions and to grapple with powerful trends"--that is, the books are not rigorous analyses aimed at specialists but accessible and deliberately provocative commentaries meant to bring a wider public quickly up to speed on debates about (Gates again) "ideas that matter in the new millenium." At just over 150 small-scale, large-type pages, The Marketplace of Ideas is not anything like a comprehensive examination of the many issues it addresses, whether the rise of the modern university, the vexed history of the "liberal arts" curriculum, the changing aspect of humanities research, or the causes and consequences of the current appalling academic job market. Rather, it offers a briskly coherent account of some historical contexts of particular relevance to certain elite universities (he shows this narrowness of focus throughout, which, as other reviewers have pointed out, eventually undermines a number of his more general claims and complaints). Then he transitions quite abruptly to consider political homogeneity as a feature of the academy, and then, with another awkward transition, to offer some interesting but often idiosyncratic or, worse, facile suggestions about what ails graduate education in the humanities today and how to fix it.

Of the contextual section of Menand's book, Anthony Grafton at The New Republic writes, fairly, I think,
Menand’s account is consistently even-tempered, and he resists all temptations to succumb to nostalgia or to launch jeremiads, even when both might be appropriate. He does not portray the university in the age of New Criticism as a paradise of Serious Reading, or denounce the new forms of scholarship that have grown up more recently as one great betrayal of truth and high standards. Instead he sings a song of sclerosis. Through all these changes, he writes, the basic system of disciplines and departments remained intact--a hard and confining carapace that proved impossible to break, however humanists squirmed and pushed.
I appreciated his discussion of the mixed blessing that is professionalism, something addressed from a more discipline-specific angle in Brian McRae's Addison and Steele are Dead (a book I discussed here at some length). I also found his comments on the unsatisfactory realities of "interdisciplinarity" very interesting: "interdisciplinarity" is a buzzword often invoked as if it represents a panacea to whatever ails our individual, disciplinary, or institutional limitations, but Menand suggests, persuasively, that our obsession with it is a symptom of anxiety about "the formalism and methodological fetishism of the disciplines and about the danger of sliding into an aimless subjectivism or eclecticism."

Overall, though, this "structural explanation," as Grafton calls it, wasn't really what I went to the book for; rather, I was hoping for an elaboration on the provocative excerpt published last fall in the Harvard Magazine, focusing on "the PhD problem." There, he talked about the dramatic rise in the number of doctoral students even as the number of available tenure track positions (relative to the number of candidates) fell off drastically, the long time to degree for doctoral students in the humanities, and some ideas for unclogging the system by, for instance, making an article the standard for the Ph.D. rather than the book-length thesis. It turns out he gave most of the milk away for free here, and my thoughts on reading that material over in the book version were the same as what I said at the time (if he can make his writing do double-duty, I figure I can do the same with mine):
. . . I was struck by Menand's passing suggestion that "If every graduate student were required to publish a single peer-reviewed article instead of writing a thesis, the net result would probably be a plus for scholarship," but this seems to me another of those ideas about changing "the system" (not unlike the MLA's call to "decenter the monograph" as the gold standard for evaluating tenure and promotion files) that can never be addressed on a local level and so may never be addressed at all. Which department wants to be the first to say that they will award a Ph.D. without requiring a thesis? For that matter, which department could make such a change in policy without losing their accreditation or funding? Which department could independently assert its ability to evaluate the work of its members without the sacred stamp of "peer reviewed publications," or at least giving equal weight to less conventional modes of knowledge dissemination? . . .

I was also struck by Menand's remark that "Inquiry in the humanities has become quite eclectic without becoming contentious. This makes it a challenge for entering scholars to know where to make their mark." This certainly echoes my strong feeling for the last several years that English, for one, has become a field so inchoate that it is unable to declare and defend itself in any compelling way that all of its members can agree on--at least, not without resorting to unbelievably bland formulations (all the world's a text!). How can we sustain a sense of ourselves as a functioning discipline under these circumstances? Though I don't want to fall into conservative lamentation about the good old days when everybody knew what books were valuable and why (when were those days, exactly, and how long did they last?), anyone who has worked on curriculum reform (and probably everyone working in an English department anywhere has done so at least once) knows that the lack of an identifiable core is a practical as well as an intellectual problem. It's a problem for us, as we try to define priorities in hiring as well as teaching, and it's a problem for students, whose programs include so much variety it is possible to meet a 4th-year honours student and be more struck, somehow, by what they don't know or haven't read than by what they do and have, and certainly impossible to predict what experience or knowledge they bring to your class . . . . But what, if anything, to do about that? Too often, I think, we resort to a rhetoric of skills (critical thinking!) that (as Menand points out with his remark about the dubious efficiency of studying Joyce to achieve more general ends) rather strips away the point of working through literature to achieve such general, marketable ends.
That last point about skills is something I have returned to recently, as I feel as if the pressure is mounting for humanities graduate programs to retool themselves as all-purpose training grounds for a (rarely specified) set of non-academic jobs. Here's what Menand actually says on that issue:
The effort to reinvent the PhD as a degree qualifying people for non-academic as well as academic employment, to make the degree more practical, was an initiative of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation when it was headed by Robert Weisbuch. These efforts are a worthy form of humanitarianism; but there is no obvious efficiency in requiring people to devote ten or more years to the mastery of a specialized area of scholarship on the theory that they are developing skills in research, or critical thinking, or communication. . . . The ability to analyze Finnegan's Wake does not translate into an ability to analyze a stock offering. If a person wanted to analyze stock offerings, he should not waste his time with Joyce. He should go to business school. Or get a job analyzing stock offerings.
As I've recently argued in response to just that kind of administrative "humanitarianism" (some might call it "pragmatism," as well), I think there is indeed something fundamentally misguided about this trend to play up the skills set acquired during Ph.D. training, as if the content of the degree (and its specific constituent requirements, such as specialized comprehensive exams and a thesis) are somehow tangential. This "solution" to "the Ph.D. problem" sounds exactly like something an outside (non-specialist) administrator who doesn't in fact care much about the content of individual disciplinary programs would propose, and our rapidity to embrace it, well-meaning though we certainly are (we really like our graduate students, in my experience, and want to help them), is in itself a kind of capitulation on the larger issue of the value of the work we specifically do (about which collapse of principle, see more here).

And here's where Menand really turns out to disappoint, because with his throw-away line about the prospective stock analyst who should not "waste his time with Joyce" he (perhaps strategically) distances himself from one of his key audiences--not the skeptics or outsiders who already think that reading Finnegan's Wake is at best a harmless (if bizarrely difficult) form of self-indulgence and at worst, yes, just a waste of time (and certainly not something that should be supported by public funding), but his fellow scholars and academics, the ones making decisions about curriculum and program requirement and advising undergraduate students to go on (or not) to Ph.D. programs, or Ph.D. students to complete (or not) their dissertations. How can they look for leadership to someone who doesn't sound as if he thinks their work is important, whose suggestions for reform effectively trivialize it? He may well be right about Joyce as a means to that particular end, but why does he so blithly pass up the opportunity to explain why that work on Joyce might be vitally important to some other end not currently lauded or rewarded in the public culture he claims, in his closing peroration, must in fact be questioned and resisted by "the culture of the university"? He does spend a little time acknowledging what we have all gained: "the humanities," he says
helped to make the rest of the academic world alive to issues surrounding objectivity and interpretation, and to the significance of racial and gender difference. Scholars in the humanities were complicating social science models of human motivation and behavior for years before social scientists began doing the same thing via research in cognitive science. That political and economic behavior is often non-rational is not news to literature professors. And humanists can hope that someday more social scientists and psychologists will consider the mediating role of culture in their accounts of belief and behavior. . . [Scholarship in the humanities] is pursuing an ongoing inquiry into the limits of inquiry. And it is not just asking questions about knowledge; it is creating knowledge by asking the questions. Skepticism about the forms of knowledge is itself a form of knowledge.
That's something, though that's about all I could find, and it strikes me as pretty tepid and unconvincing, all very abstract and general and vague about how exactly those literary scholars achieved the insight (?) that "political and economic behavior is often non-rational," and promising nothing more than that humanities scholars will keep on keepin' on, being skeptical and questioning about, well, everything. What's Joyce to them, then, exactly, anyway? But I wouldn't be so annoyed at these moments if it weren't for this one:
It takes three years to become a lawyer. It takes four years to become a doctor. But it takes from six to nine years, and sometimes longer, to be eligible to teach poetry to college students for a living. . . . students who spend eight or nine years in graduate schools are being seriously overtrained for the jobs that are available.
I won't get into the problem of his math (see the discussion at Historiann for some trenchant critiques). And I'll concede that he means (I think) to be descriptive: it's just true that the majority of jobs that are available for Ph.D.s in English right now are not at research-intensive universities or elite liberal arts colleges, or teaching specialized classes to majors and honours students in their fields. In a painfully literal way, then, he's just telling the truth (though every time he talked about supply and demand I wondered why he wasn't acknowledging the work of Marc Bousquet). But he makes it sound as if "teach[ing] poetry to college students for a living" is a pretty trivial occupation, one that really doesn't depend on a base of specialized knowledge. What he doesn't say, in this astonishingly dismissive remark, is that the eight or nine years people spend in graduate school are preparing, not just to teach Introduction to Poetry, but to rethink, and perhaps transform, how we teach poetry to undergraduates--not to mention what poetry we teach. I have only to compare the undergraduate training I received with what is standard in the curriculum today to realize what a seismic shift has gone on, in expectations, in contexts, in critical approaches. I had occasion to remark just this week, for instance, that when I studied "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in my own first-year English class, the term "Modernism" never came up. Never. We read Joyce but no Woolf, just as in my Victorian novel class we read Trollope but not Gaskell or Braddon, and the term "imperialism" never came up. Now, I suppose you could argue that a small cadre of specially privileged researchers could be off doing the kind of work the effects of which would trickle down to the peons in the classroom, but as Menand himself argues, the fewer people engaged in an activity, the less likely it is that its norms and paradigms will be challenged. And as Grafton argues eloquently in his own response to Menand, "all this takes time," and "the vocation of scholarship is difficult." I think there are some difficulties with Grafton's emphasis on the academic life as a "quest," but I really wish that, having grabbed people's attention, Menand would have seized the opportunity, not to lob another petty grenade at his struggling colleagues but to insist that we not concede too much to either the rhetoric or the pressures of the marketplace. Surely an English professor who is also a public intellectual is uniquely positioned to make the case for, not against, the rest of us. I'm not sure that someone who wants to be a stockbroker should finish a PhD either, but I'd rather have a stockbroker who reads Joyce (or Trollope or George Eliot) than one who doesn't see the point of that stuff.