December 27, 2008

Novel Readings 2008

One of the best features of blogging is turning out to be the record it provides of my reading experiences. 2008 doesn't seem to have been my most rewarding year of novel reading (being on sabbatical for part of last year accounted, in part, for the greater number and variety of books I went through in 2007), but there have certainly been highlights. Some of my most stimulating reading in 2008 was re-reading, and some was non-fiction. Here's my look back at the highs and lows of my reading year.

Books I'm most glad I read, either for the intrinsic richness of the aesthetic, affective, or intellectual experience they offered, for the conversations they generated, or for the ideas and connections they offered for my teaching and research:
  1. Ann Patchett, Bel Canto. Without a doubt, this was my favourite new novel of the year: exquisite, finely tuned art about the beauty, value, and fragility of art.
  2. Olivia Manning, The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy. Though the prose throughout these books is consistently, almost perversely, flat, I found the series consistently interesting, especially in its depiction of ordinary, flawed, but mostly likable people trying to organize meaningful lives for themselves amidst the constantly unfolding chaos and danger of war. The understated style comes to seem appropriate for characters who are never really dramatic, always on the periphery of the 'real' action and yet, of course, always the protagonists of their own stories.
  3. George Eliot, Adam Bede. I hadn't read Adam Bede in a couple of years and have never paid it as much attention as my favourite George Eliot novels. When it emerged as the front-runner for our summer reading group at The Valve, I was uncertain how things would go, if relieved to be on somewhat familiar territory. In the end, I gained a greater appreciation of the uneven beauties and oddities of the novel. I also found it constantly stimulating seeing how other readers responded to it and learning from the range of approaches and expertise that inflected their readings. Of the many memorable passages, this is the one that I find has echoed in my mind since we wrapped things up:
    "It would be a poor result of all our anguish and our wrestling, if we won nothing but our old selves at the end of it--if we could return to the same blind loves, the same self-confident blame, the same light thoughts of human suffering, the same frivolous gossip over blighted human lives, the same feeble sense of that Unknown towards which we have sent forth irrepressible cries in our loneliness. Let us rather be thankful that our sorrow lives in us as an indestructible force, only changing its form, as forces do, and passing from pain into sympathy--the one poor word which includes all our best insight and our best love."
  4. James Wood, How Fiction Works. Though my assessment of this much-hyped book from today's most talked-about literary critic was not altogether positive, Wood is certainly an inspiration to anyone who would like to see the gap between academic and public criticism bridged without false populism.
  5. Ronan McDonald, The Death of the Critic. Like How Fiction Works, The Death of the Critic stood out in my reading year more because of the conversations it generated than because of its intrinsic merits. I'm still thinking about the emphasis McDonald (and others) places on evaluation as the key to critical relevance, and I'm still inclined to think that people's everyday reading practices have at least as much to do with ethics (broadly construed, as Booth does in The Company We Keep). Eventually I hope to make this case--and, further, the case for ethical criticism as a useful framework for public criticism--in a careful way.
  6. The Reader. I've been so happy to discover this excellent publication from The Reader Organization. I first came across it through this article on Scott and have since read several back issues and both of the issues made available as PDFs for download. I've been promised that a two-year subscription is part of my Christmas haul this year, and I really look forward to keeping up with its stimulating blend of intelligent but accessible literary analysis, readers' reports, and new fiction and poetry.
  7. Vanity Fair and Bleak House. The enormous pleasure and challenge of teaching both of these books in the same class nearly compensates for an academic year in which I am not teaching Middlemarch even once (I'll have to make up for that in 2009-10).
  8. The Wire. OK, it's not a novel...but it was certainly one of the most enthralling narrative experiences of my year, and in its social and thematic ambition and its attempt to convey the connections between multiple layers of a complex socio-economic world and a sprawling cast of characters, it has much in common with the 19th-century 'condition of England' novels.
  9. Two recent additions I haven't had time to write up properly: Kate Atkinson's Case Histories and One Good Turn. I first read the former on the way home from a trip to Sydney. I'm not a happy flier and I was fairly well medicated, which must be why I didn't appreciate it much at the time and wantonly gave it away on landing. After hearing a number of people speak very highly of both of Atkinson's mysteries, I got One Good Turn from the library last week and enjoyed it so much that I picked up a new copy of Case Histories, which I just finished reading and found thoroughly impressive.
Books I could have done without (happily, a shorter list than last year's):
  1. Inger Ash Wolfe, The Calling. There's a good book--even a good series--to be had from the materials in this creepy thing. Maybe the sequel will abandon the cheap thrills in favour of intelligent plotting and character development.
  2. Paul Auster, City of Glass. Actually, I wasn't sure which list to put this one one. I hated it and yet I thought it was very smart, and I'll be teaching it in April. Wish me luck!
Books I'm most looking forward to reading in 2009:
  1. Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy. Yes, this was on my books to read in 2008 list too. I don't blame the novel at all for my failure to get through it; I was enjoying it, but other things intruded and my attention wandered.
  2. Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace. My Christmas wish list this year reflected a certain impatience with hot new books that rather disappointed; War and Peace is one of those Great Classics that I have read only once (years ago, trying to look smart) and have often thought I should read properly. Now I have it in a highly praised new translation and I'm excited to get started.
  3. John Galsworth, The Forsyte Saga. This is another from my wish list. I've never read it, but it looks like just the kind of thing I'll enjoy.
  4. Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited. See above.
  5. Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca. I read this many times in my youth, but it was part of our family library and since I moved away from home I've never owned my own copy. Now I do!
  6. Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep. For someone who teaches a course on detective fiction, this one is probably my "Humiliation" winner. I'm tiring a bit of The Maltese Falcon, so I figure it's time I tried the other obvious one.
Not directly related to reading novels but of much significance to Novel Readings in 2008 was the invitation I received to become a contributor to The Valve. It has been invigorating, if sometimes intimidating, to share my posts with a wider audience and to participate in the lively exchanges that go on among the diverse community of readers and thinkers that write and comment there.

I have no bold new plans for Novel Readings in 2009 except to keep it up. Thanks to everyone who came here to read or comment!

December 22, 2008

Winter Day Miscellany

1. Winter's here.
2. We spent a fair part of today with no power. Brrrr.
3. Happily, I got some of these for Christmas and they are very cozy.
4. Also happily, I had this to read.

December 19, 2008

Chime in on "The Chimes"


To be honest, "The Chimes" has left me a bit at a loss, and so I'm looking forward to hearing reactions from others. My biggest confusion was over Trotty himself: what did he do to deserve these terrible visions of deprivation and depravity, and what is he supposed to do about them? His sin appears to be his loss of faith in humanity:
'Unnatural and cruel!' Toby cried. 'Unnatural and cruel! None but people who were bad at heart, born bad, who had no business on the earth, could do such deeds. It's too true, all I've heard to-day; too just, too full of proof. We're Bad!'

He has to learn to blame nurture, rather than nature:
'I know that we must trust and hope, and neither doubt ourselves, nor doubt the good in one another.'

But because he's really such a kindly fellow himself, and so powerless that his error can hardly do any damage, while his redemption can hardly do any good, he seems a far more artificial device for this re-education project than Scrooge does. The story's didacticism, in other words, seemed to overpower its aesthetic conception and thus blunted its emotional effects: it was always already about me (and you), not about Trotty, and unpleasantly so, as the underlying assumption about me (and you) is that we will blame and despise desperate mothers who make their terrible way towards the river to take "the dreadful plunge."* In short, I didn't like it that much overall.

Still, it's Dickens, and he can't help being brilliant, at least fitfully. My favourite bit was definitely the opening of the third quarter--yes, the bit with the goblins:
He saw the tower, whither his charmed footsteps had brought him, swarming with dwarf phantoms, spirits, elfin creatures of the Bells. He saw them leaping, flying, dropping, pouring from the Bells without a pause. He saw them, round him on the ground; above him, in the air; clambering from him, by the ropes below; looking down upon him, from the massive iron–girded beams; peeping in upon him, through the chinks and loopholes in the walls; spreading away and away from him in enlarging circles, as the water ripples give way to a huge stone that suddenly comes plashing in among them. He saw them, of all aspects and all shapes. He saw them ugly, handsome, crippled, exquisitely formed. He saw them young, he saw them old, he saw them kind, he saw them cruel, he saw them merry, he saw them grim; he saw them dance, and heard them sing; he saw them tear their hair, and heard them howl. He saw the air thick with them. He saw them come and go, incessantly. He saw them riding downward, soaring upward, sailing off afar, perching near at hand, all restless and all violently active. Stone, and brick, and slate, and tile, became transparent to him as to them. He saw them IN the houses, busy at the sleepers’ beds. He saw them soothing people in their dreams; he saw them beating them with knotted whips; he saw them yelling in their ears; he saw them playing softest music on their pillows; he saw them cheering some with the songs of birds and the perfume of flowers; he saw them flashing awful faces on the troubled rest of others, from enchanted mirrors which they carried in their hands.

He saw these creatures, not only among sleeping men but waking also, active in pursuits irreconcilable with one another, and possessing or assuming natures the most opposite. He saw one buckling on innumerable wings to increase his speed; another loading himself with chains and weights, to retard his. He saw some putting the hands of clocks forward, some putting the hands of clocks backward, some endeavouring to stop the clock entirely. He saw them representing, here a marriage ceremony, there a funeral; in this chamber an election, in that a ball he saw, everywhere, restless and untiring motion.

OK, help me out: is "The Chimes" better than I think? What struck you most about it?

*A much better example of a 'fallen woman' story, just btw, is Elizabeth Gaskell's "Lizzie Leigh."

December 17, 2008

Napoleon was Defeated at Watergate...

...and George Osborne died during the civil war. Jane Austin eloped with a married man, Charle's Dickins wrote Bleak Houses, and Maggie Tulliver doesn't share the values of her aunts the Duncans. Night is a non-fiction novel, realism is when you decide to write realistically about reality, and unreliable narration is when you don't believe what you are saying.

Yes, I'm grading exams.


December 11, 2008

The Little Child Had Come to Link Him Once More with the Whole World

No, not that child, though there is a seasonal allusion. I'm rereading Silas Marner and finding it every bit as good a secular fable for the holidays as A Christmas Carol--better, even, as the inspiring transformation of a lonely and bitter miser in this case is entirely the result of human accident, agency, and love. Here's poor Silas, bereft at the loss of his gold:
Silas spent his Christmas-day in loneliness, eating his meat in sadness of heart . . . . In the morning he looked out on the black frost that seemed to press cruelly on every blade of grass, while the half-icy red pool shivered under the bitter wind; but towards the evening the snow began to fall, and curtained from him even that dreary outlook, shutting him close up with his narrow grief. And he sat in his robbed home through the livelong evening, not caring to close his shutters or lock his door, pressing his head between his hands and moaning, until the cold grasped him and told him that his fire was grey.
It's no supernatural visitor, but a golden-haired child who stirs "old quiverings of tenderness" in Silas's bruised heart, animates his past, present, and future, and restores him to the human community:
[I]n this way, as the weeks grew to months, the child created fresh links between his life and the lives from which he had hitherto shrunk continually into narrower isolation. Unlike the gold which needed nothing, and must be worshipped in close-locked solitude--which was hidden away from the daylight, was deaf to the song of birds, and started to no human tones--Eppie was a creature of endless claims and ever-growing desires, seeking and loving sunshine, and living sounds, and living movement; making trial of everything, with trust in new joy, and stirring the human kindness in all eyes that looked on her. The gold had kept his thoughts in an every-repeated circle, leading to nothing beyond itself; but Eppie was an object compacted of changes and hopes that forced his thoughts onward . . . . The gold had asked that he should sit weaving longer and longer, deafened and blinded more and more to all things except the monotony of his loom and the repetition of his web; but Eppie called him away from his weaving, and made him think all its pauses a holiday, re-awakening his senses with her fresh life . . . and warming him into joy because she had joy. . . .

In the old days there were angels who came and took men by the hand and led them away from the city of destruction. We see no white-winged angels now. But yet men are led away from threatening destruction: a hand is put into theirs, which leads them forth gently towards a calm and bright land, so that they look no more backward; and the hand may be a little child's.

December 5, 2008

Recommended Reading

By popular demand--or, at any rate, at the request of 'Robby Virus,' of Blogging the Canon, one of my favorite sources for lively commentary and good drinks recipes--here is the list of 'recommended further reading' I offered to the students in my 19th-century fiction class at the end of term.

If you liked Persuasion:
  • other Austen novels, but especially Pride and Prejudice (you never know, some of them might not have already read it)
  • for a similar combination of delicate social satire and affectionate domestic comedy, try some Trollope; I have a fondness for The Warden, but Barchester Towers is also manageable in length and delightful
  • for a novel that combines an Austen-like sensitivity to social and moral nuances with an intellectual range closer to George Eliot's, Elizabeth Gaskell's last novel Wives and Daughters
  • for fun, Bridget Jones's Diary (smarter and wittier than the adaptation)
If you liked Vanity Fair:
  • Tom Jones, if you have the patience for it
  • Trollope's The Eustace Diamonds (Lizzie Eustace, Becky Sharp, and Scarlett O'Hara should be in some kind of "Literary Diva Survivor" show)
If you liked Jane Eyre:
  • Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (in some ways, I think this is a better-crafted and more subtle novel than Jane Eyre, with all its melodrama)
  • Charlotte Bronte's Villette, another one of those novels that ought to put paid to the idea that nineteenth-century fiction is all about naive realism
  • Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret, if melodrama is what you like best
  • Sarah Waters's Fingersmith, because I never miss an opportunity to recommend it
If you liked Bleak House:
  • other Dickens, of course, especially Great Expectations, David Copperfield, and Little Dorrit
  • or, if what you liked about it was its social conscience, then Gaskell's Mary Barton
  • or, if what you liked about it was its capaciousness, then Trollope's The Way We Live Now or He Knew He Was Right, for more multiplot madness
If you liked The Mill on the Floss:
  • Middlemarch. Actually, no matter what else you like, my recommendation is that you read Middlemarch.
  • Daniel Deronda, because once you're done reading Middlemarch you'll be temporarily dissatisfied with every other author, so you'll go looking for more George Eliot to read.
  • Felix Holt (see previous comment)
  • Hardy, Tess of the d'Urbervilles
And some recommended neo-Victorian novels, if you're interested in what smart contemporary novelists have done with this legacy:
  • Fowles, The French Lieutenant's Woman
  • Byatt, Posession and Angels and Insects (the latter might be of particular interest to the scientifically inclined)
  • Waters, Fingersmith (just go read it!)
  • Michel Faber, The Crimson Petal and the White, a novel that may actually deserve the adjective "Dickensian"

December 4, 2008

Ring in the Holidays with "The Chimes"


It’s that time of year again--you know, the time for “paying bills without money,” for “finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer,” and, of course, for re-reading A Christmas Carol. But wait: we all know (or think we know) A Christmas Carol. What about Dickens’s other Christmas stories? I’ve actually never read them, and I’d like to. I thought I’d start with “The Chimes,” which is short and appears, promisingly, to involve goblins. It’s easily available in electronic editions (here and here, for instance); some contextual information and the illustrations are available here. At The Valve, I've proposed a miniature version of the Adam Bede project we did in the summer. I’ll post a reminder there in a week or so, and then somewhere around December 19 or 20, post a few comments and/or questions and see who comes to the party. If you think the story will go down easier with a little “Smoking Bishop,” here’s the recipe. Everyone's invited; bring a friend! Or post on your own blog and we'll make a decorative blog-link chain.

Wordpress Experiment

I'm not much of a "techie," and I also generally use technology as a convenient support for my "real" work, rather than as an end in itself, so I'm always looking for the easiest ways to get things done. Currently I use FrontPage for making my departmental web pages, but I like the convenience of web-based tools, so I was wondering about adapting a blog site into a more general home page, perhaps even phasing out my Dalhousie-based page. One option is to add Google Pages to this site, but for no reason I can really articulate, I kind of like having a little distance between this place and my other sites. Also, I gather Google Pages is sort of on hiatus until Google Sites is up and running. Anyway, I have been poking around with Wordpress a bit and figured out enough to build this little site. Does anyone have any particular thoughts about or experience with using Wordpress that they'd like to share, or any different suggestions? I admit, I started this site on Blogger for the simple reason that it was the one I had heard of, back in the day. Also, is there a way to use something like Wordpress but have it come up at my "myweb.dal" URL?

December 3, 2008

This Week in My Classes (December 3, 2008)

Both classes met just once this week, for "Exam Review and Conclusions" in both cases. Although reviewing for finals is of course important, lately I feel compelled also to offer what I only half-jokingly describe to my colleagues as "closing perorations"--remarks aimed at drawing out, or drawing together, the major intrinsic motives for our work in the class. The accounts that follow here are reconstructed from my lecture notes and retain the...looseness...of that genre.

In Introduction to Prose and Fiction, I returned us to our course epigraph, taken from Ian McEwan's essay "Only Love and then Oblivion": “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.” A major point I tried to drive home over the term is that (literary) reading and writing have never usually been intended as ‘academic exercises’—writers use literary and rhetorical strategies to further ideas and achieve effects in the real world, by changing the way people see the world, or think about the world, and thus the way they act in the world. It is possible to conceive of all of the readings we did as outreach projects of this kind, though their strategies have ranged from the very direct and overt (such as Martin Luther King’s "I Have a Dream" speech) to the subtle, even ambiguous (Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth,” for instance, an invitation to her readers to acknowledge the ‘grandeur’ of life in its smallest forms—but to what ends?). Even the aesthetic and affective aspects of our readings alter our perception of the world around us, as well as our experience of and in it.

We particularly worked on understanding the tools of a writer’s trade, from argumentative strategies to rhetorical and literary devices, so that we could talk about how we got the ideas we did from them, how they made these ideas memorable, or thought-provoking, or persuasive. We worked on distinguishing between better and worse readings of their works—better readings being those that account most fully and accurately for the material in the text--and we discussed the concept of "coduction," a coinage by Wayne Booth that describes the way we test, modify, and improve our readings by conversation with other readers.

What in particular did we study? We worked through our lists of the "Elements of Prose" and the "Elements of Fiction," learning terms and definitions for key techniques. We need to know enough about writing styles and techniques to test and explain our interpretations, which can be wholly inaccurate if, for instance, we fail to recognize irony (as in Swift’s “Modest Proposal”) or unreliable narration (as in Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”). In some cases historical context is also crucial: you can’t work appropriately with Wiesel’s Night, for instance, without understanding, first, that it is a version of his own life story, and second, that his story is an individual piece in the larger story of the Holocaust--which itself, of course, is part of a number of still larger stories including the history of Germany as a nation, or the history of anti-semitism in Europe and elsewhere—which is also an important part of the story of TheRemains of the Day. Sometimes literary history is a great aid to our understanding: the history of different literary genres, for instance (such as the short story) or argumentative styles (such as oratory or rhetoric) can help us appreciate about how our individual examples work with or against literary conventions (such as the way female gothic texts--"The Yellow Wallpaper," say--use but also subvert the traditional gothic mode). And information about individual writers can help us understand texts that might otherwise be obscure in their purposes or styles, and illustrate the point that writers too work with the kind of knowledge (the sense of options) that we developed in this course (self-consciously placing themselves into genres, traditions, and also historical and political moments).

The larger context for this work is my hope that our readings and discussions encourage the students to think about writing and literature as in some way relevant to their own lives. The aim is not to turn them on to any particular writer or form, but to demonstrate that the process of engaging with writing (both fiction and non-fiction) matters because writing is one of our sites of interaction with each other. The larger aim, then, is to experience something of the variety of conversations that people have about prose and fiction and learn what is necessary to participate in these conversations in a responsible, well-informed, and rewarding way.

In The Nineteenth-Century Novel, I remind the class that I opened the course with review of some of the pejorative stereotypes associated with the Victorian age in general and Victorian literature in particular (assisted by Virginia Woolf’s Orlando). As I explained at that time, the object of the course was not so much to disprove or dispel myths and stereotypes as to complicate them and rethink them. In fact, to some extent, I embrace and advocate a specific aspect of the stereotype, namely earnestness--which I believe is important, Oscar Wilde notwithstanding.

I chose an array of novels that in some sense do represent the “Victorian” qualities of social and moral earnestness—though, in their sheer variety of style and approach (narrative techniques and structures, plots and characters, tone, humour, ‘flavour’), I think they make it more difficult to generalize (pejoratively or otherwise) about Victorian literature. All of our books in their own ways ask us to get worked up about “the way we live now”—using fictional techniques (intrusive narration, direct address, thematization, multiple narrators, sensationalism, comedy, pathos…) and artistry to engage us. Even in our ‘lighter’ books, this preoccupation with social conditions and the need for or conditions for change helps explain the stereotypical association of Victorianism with ‘earnestness.’ But where the issues are important ones (marriage, morality, authority, the status of women, class conflict, conflicts between duties to ourselves and duties to others, care for the weak and suffering and ill...)—where the stakes are so high, being earnest surely seems appropriate, if not essential—what would it mean, after all, to take these issues lightly? To me, that quality of earnestness, then, is nothing to be ashamed or apologetic about, but is part of the appeal of Victorian novels, as is the way that the great 19th-century novelists combine it with great humour, charity, curiosity, and formal innovation.

A further, and related, feature of these novels, and one that seems to me of increasing importance, is the imperative they communicate that we, as readers, have a lot of responsibilities: to read well, to judge carefully, and to think about our own role in the social worlds and institutions the novelists examine so imaginatively and often so critically—many of which have continuations or counterparts, after all, in modern society. At heart, this is the demand these novels make on us—to get involved, as readers—to acknowledge that the world they talk about is always, if not always literally, our own. When still an aspiring novelist herself, George Eliot remarked that “art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot." Right now, there is a lot of interest in fiction in this way, as a literary form that perhaps is specially suited to bringing about change in the world as well as in individuals. For example, Martha Nussbaum has published a book called Poetic Justice in which she holds up Dickens’s Hard Times as exemplary of the potential role of the literary imagination in public life—holding up a vision of human flourishing that contrasts with the theories most at play in socio-economic theory today, and that she argues is best cultivated precisely through the form of the novel. This is part of a broader attempt on her part to get the novel as a genre recognized as a form of moral philosophy. I myself have published a paper arguing for the value of George Eliot’s Middlemarch as an ethical text.

My general point is that the very qualities that make 19th-century novels problematic if your approach is formalist, aesthetic, or modernist can be those that make them matter if your approach is philosophical, activist, humanist, or communicative—why not, we might ask, use the powers of language and story-telling to get people thinking and talking about the way they live with other people, or about their ability to face themselves in the mirror in the morning? Yes, these novels are demanding in their length and complexity. But the greatest demand they place on us as readers is to be active, rather than passive, whether through the great moral "labour of choice" we experience vicariously in The Mill on the Floss or through the exercise of our sympathetic imagination and social conscience on behalf of those who need our help, as Bleak House might inspire us.

And then, in an equally Victorian spirit of optimism, I conclude with a list of more 19th-century novels for future reading.

Now, on to exams!

November 30, 2008

Weekend Miscellany: Wisdom, Paul Auster, Chess Novels, and the NYTimes 100 Notable Books

Update: Further to my remarks on tiring of over-hyped new books, hooray for the folks at The Millions for these remarks, and for their plan to have their contributors share "the best book(s) they read in 2008, regardless of publication date":
There will be plenty of lists in the coming days assigning 2008's best books (and movies and music and everything else you can think of), but it is our opinion that these lists are woefully incompatible with the habits of most readers. As it does with many things in our culture, what we call "the tyranny of the new" holds particularly strong sway over these lists. With books, however, it is different. We are as likely to be moved by a book written 200 years ago as we are by one written two months ago, and a list of the "Best Books of 2008" feels fairly meaningless when you walk down the aisles of your favorite bookstore or library. (bookmark this post to follow the series)
Morris Dickstein is eloquent on "why literature still matters" (though I wonder about the rhetorical valence of that "still"):
We readers and critics do what we do because we love it, but also because it disquiets us, throws us off balance, unsettles our easy assumptions. No two readings of a genuinely significant book, no performances of a living play, are ever quite the same. When they work their spell, they enfold us in an action that is radically provisional, not easily paraphrased, open to interpretation — and therefore to the unexpected. Since literature resists closure, our work — which is not exactly work — remains open-ended, with no real endgame. Always provisional, never definitive, this wisdom is our special form of knowing. (read the rest here)
Just in time to help me prepare for teaching City of Glass next term, Michael Dirda writes up Paul Auster in the NYRB:
Auster himself has emphasized that he is fascinated by "certain philosophical questions about the world," in particular aspects of identity and human psychology. His art, in its serious playfulness, aims to heighten our awareness of life's overall unreality, to recreate on the page some of its wondrous serendipity and strangeness. . . .

Some of Auster's tics or techniques—the incestuous literary connections, the skewed autobiography, the ambiguous blurring of fact and fiction, the pervasive fatefulness—might sink any ordinary novel from sheer portentousness. And portentousness, as well as sentimentality, has been a criticism regularly leveled at his work. At its best, his tone is unruffled, meditative, intelligent, yet sometimes it does grow gravely august, both orotund and oracular. His characters are all too often the playthings of invisible forces; and the most trivial action—answering a telephone, buying a blue notebook—can bring about the most improbable and dire consequences. What may look like chance is usually kismet, and to Auster New York really is Baghdad on the Hudson, an Arabian Nights world of omens, shifting identities, unexpected windfalls, improbable meetings, wildly good and bad luck, and all those sudden peripeteias that seem more the stuff of melodrama than of modern fiction. (read the rest here)
As my earlier post on Auster reveals, I'm not sold on ingenuity and metatextuality as a basis for great literature. I was recently exposed to another "novel" that made me even more dissatisfied with what seems like the substitution of intellectual games and hyper-cleverness for the humanity of art....Well, for people who like that sort of thing, I'm sure this is just the sort of thing they like.

The yearly orgy of "best of" lists is underway; the New York Times offers its list of "100 Notable Books of 2008" here. Pat Barker's Life Class, Kate Atkinson's When Will There Be Good News and Richard Price's Lush Life are three from the fiction list that I hope to get around to. I'm actually feeling a bit tired of reading much-hyped literary newcomers that disappoint (more about that when I get around to writing up my own "year in reading" post). My Christmas wishlist this year is heavy on more classic titles (like a little thing called War and Peace that I really should have reread in a good translation long ago).

And in a more idiosyncratic vein, at the Washington Post we get a list of novels for "chess enthusiasts (and those who love them)." My son is an avid chess player (and former provincial champion), but at 11 I don't think he's quite ready for any of the books described here. Still, it's worth noting them down in case the enthusiasm endures. A commenter already mentioned Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union, which was the one book I could think of with a chess-driven plot. Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles all feature chess-y titles, and some chess games are played (one, memorably, with live 'pieces'), but they aren't really about chess in any particular way.

November 26, 2008

Well Marked

A couple of weeks ago, Nigel Beale posted some tips from Mortimer Adler on 'How to Mark Your Books "Fruitfully and Intelligently."' The recommendations sounded pretty familiar, though understandably there's no mention of my own must-have accessory, the Post-It Note. I think anyone who teaches literature has to get over any initial reservations about making a mess on the page; a large part of what we want to convey to our students is that reading is an active process, for one thing, and writing on the text is one way to make sure you are actually engaging with it. Textual annotations can also serve as prompts and guides for lecture and discussion. As someone who mostly teaches 'loose baggy monsters,' I also feel that one of my primary responsibilities is just being able to find important passages to help students make their observations and analyses specific. Herewith, some samples of a well-used teaching copy of Middlemarch, marked up Maitzen style.

First, the Big Picture Post-It Index and Finder's Guide.

Next, the Inside Cover Index to Essential Information:

Here's a sample of a key passage annotated for teaching point of view and free indirect discourse:

And a sample of a Cross-Referencing Post-It--probably the most important kind (it's blue because it marks the blue-green boudoir passages, of course!):

Here's this year's Post-It opus:

See how you can track Jo through the novel? And the hot pink tabs point to the clues to Lady Dedlock's past. Hmmm. It starts to look a little obsessive, doesn't it?

November 25, 2008

This Week in My Classes (November 25, 2008)

It's the last full week of classes--unbelievable, how fast the term goes by. That means it is wrapping up time. It would be nice if the end of a course could feel like a culmination and a triumph. Instead, it's always a struggle to keep the momentum (and the attendance) up and the focus on the intrinsic interest and merits of our work. In my new-found cynicism, I now always save one "surprise" quiz for the last day of class, to maximize the number of students who will actually be there for my closing perorations. I do think there is more at stake than what will be on the exam, and I like to take a little time during our last meeting to say a few things about that; it's disheartening if nobody is there to listen! So coercion is my little helper.

In Introduction to Prose and Fiction, the students' final papers are due next week. As it is a designated Writing Requirement course, we are supposed to spend time explicitly on writing, so I have scheduled two class hours this week for editing workshops. Last time, they did peer editing. I always have to fight my fear that peer editing is simply a case of the blind leading the blind; I have almost never seen evidence on their drafts or worksheets that I'm wrong about this, but I remain committed to the principle that it is good to read and edit other people's work, and also that it is excellent to finish a full draft a week before the final due date so that you have at least the opportunity to improve it before you submit it. This time I am asking them to edit their own essays. I think this is an even harder task, and yet in many ways, for a writer, nothing is more important than learning to look critically on your own writing, to achieve enough distance to identify weaknesses in your arguments or evidence, and to develop the fortitude to mess with something you worked hard to produce in the first place. Their worksheet includes a "reverse outline" exercise: the idea is to produce an outline working backwards from the draft, checking as you go whether you have in fact put all the parts in place that you need. One small detail I have come to see as important, though it often seems trivial at first, is whether they have a strong title for the paper. In my experience, a bland ("English Essay"), vague ("Interpreting The Remains of the Day), or simply missing title is a symptom of an essay without a strong organizing idea. We'll see how it goes. At the very least, again, they have won themselves a few days to reconsider their first try. Many of them will not take advantage of the time they have to rewrite (they tend to tinker with individual words, rather than move pieces around, reconsider their thesis, or choose better examples). But those who are motivated and listening to our advice will end up with much better essays, which ultimately makes our work of grading them more pleasant too.

In The Nineteenth-Century Novel, we are nearly through The Mill on the Floss. After emphasizing last week how important the long, detailed account of Maggie and Tom's childhood is because it prepares us (and them) for the complexities of their adult decisions, now we are getting to the moral heart of the book: Maggie's struggle with the conflict between her own needs and desires, and the demands of her conscience and her duty to family and her past. So far this week we've focused on the limitations of available stories or narratives for Maggie (helped along by Carolyn Heilbrun, in Writing a Woman's Life, for instance, and Nancy Miller's "Emphasis Added: Plots and Plausibilities in Women's Ficton"). We can take this issue up fairly literally by considering Maggie's reading of Thomas a Kempis, and a bit more literarily by considering the significance of the Scott novels with which Philip courts her, and which lead to her famous resolution to "read no more books where the blond-haired women carry away all the happiness." Sadly, of course, her quest to read, much less live, a story "where the dark woman triumphs," "to avenge Rebecca and Flora MacIvor, and Minna and all the rest of the dark unhappy ones," is doomed. To help explain why, I've handed around copies of George Eliot's essay "The Antigone and Its Moral: the analysis she offers of the intractable opposition of competing goods clarifies at least one way of understanding the structure of the novel's ending, though we'll have to get into specifics of Maggie's choices to see just what goods are in opposition for her and why she can't come up with a better resolution (and here "she" could refer with equal reason to Maggie or George Eliot, I'd say).

It is a treat to be reading The Mill on the Floss. Much as I love Dickens's verbal acrobatics and all the other qualities that make Bleak House one of my top 3 Victorian novels, the combination of intelligence, philosophical breadth, social and historical insight, humour, and charity in George Eliot's narration is enormously stimulating, and her language, so very different from Dickens's, has its own aesthetic as well as intellectual beauty. Here (because it's my blog and I can!) is a long and wonderful passage from a chapter with the unpromising title, "A Variation of Protestantism Unknown to Bossuet." Bossuet, the notes tell those of us who wouldn't otherwise know, was a 17th-century French bishop who wrote a history of Protestantism; the unknown variation belongs to Tom and Maggie's family and "consist[s] in revering whatever was customary and respectable'--it is based on convention and habit, on material and social habits and expectations, rather than on any grand spiritual notions. The Dodsons and Tullivers invite, deserved, and get plenty of satirical treatment and criticism, but, characteristically, George Eliot is concerned to contextualize both their "theory of life" and her own analysis of it, and to prepare us for how their beliefs in turn provide a crucial constraining context for the ardent efforts of her protagonists. I've copied the text from this nice searchable e-text.

JOURNEYING down the Rhone on a summer's day, you have perhaps felt the sunshine made dreary by those ruined villages which stud the banks in certain parts of its course, telling how the swift river once rose, like an angry, destroying god sweeping down the feeble generations whose breath is in their nostrils' and making their dwellings a desolation. Strange contrast, you may have thought, between the effect produced on us by these dismal remnants of commonplace houses, which in their best days were but the sign of a sordid life, belonging in all its details to our own vulgar era - and the effect produced by those ruins on the castled Rhine which have crumbled and mellowed into such harmony with the green and rocky steeps, that they seem to have a natural fitness, like the mountain pine: nay, even in the day when they were built they must have had this fitness, as if they had been raised by an earth-born race who had inherited from their mighty parent a sublime instinct of form. And that was a day of romance! If those robber barons were somewhat grim and drunken ogres, they had a certain grandeur of the wild beast in them - they were forest boars with tusks tearing and rending, not the ordinary domestic grunter: they represented the demon forces for ever in collision with beauty, virtue, and the gentle uses of life: they made a fine contrast in the picture with the wandering minstrel, the soft-lipped princess, the pious recluse and the timid Israelite. That was a time of colour when the sunlight fell on glancing steel and floating banners: a time of adventure and fierce struggle - nay, of living, religious art and religious enthusiasm; for were not cathedrals built in those days and did not great emperors leave their western palaces to die before the infidel strongholds in the sacred east? Therefore it is that these Rhine castles thrill me with a sense of poetry: they belong to the grand historic life of humanity, and raise up for me the vision of an epoch. But these dead-tinted, hollow-eyed, angular skeletons of villages on the Rhone, oppress me with the feeling that human life - very much of it - is a narrow, ugly, grovelling existence, which even calamity does not elevate, but rather tends to exhibit in all its bare vulgarity of conception; and I have a cruel conviction that the lives these ruins are the traces of were part of a gross sum of obscure vitality, that will be swept into the same oblivion with the generations of ants and beavers.

Perhaps something akin to this oppressive feeling may have weighed upon you in watching this old-fashioned family life on the banks of the Floss, which even sorrow hardly suffices to lift above the level of the tragi-comic. It is a sordid life, you say, this of the Tullivers and Dodsons - irradiated by no sublime principles, no romantic visions, no active, self-renouncing faith - moved by none of those wild, uncontrollable passions which create the dark shadows of misery and crime - without that primitive rough simplicity of wants, that hard submissive ill-paid toil, that child-like spelling-out of what nature has written, which gives its poetry to peasant life. Here, one has conventional worldly notions and habits without instruction and without polish - surely the most prosaic form of human life: proud respectability in a gig of unfashionable build: worldliness without side-dishes. Observing these people narrowly, even when the iron hand of misfortune has shaken them from their unquestioning hold on the world, one sees little trace of religion, still less of a distinctively Christian creed. Their belief in the unseen, so far as it manifests itself at all, seems to be rather of a pagan kind: their moral notions, though held with strong tenacity, seem to have no standard beyond hereditary custom. You could not live among such people; you are stifled for want of an outlet towards something beautiful, great, or noble: you are irritated with these dull men and women, as a kind of population out of keeping with the earth on which they live - with this rich plain where the great river flows for ever onward and links the small pulse of the old English town with the beatings of the world's mighty heart. A vigorous superstition that lashes its gods or lashes its own back, seems to be more congruous with the mystery of the human lot, than the mental condition of these emmet-like Dodsons and Tullivers.

I share with you this sense of oppressive narrowness; but it is necessary that we should feel it, if we care to understand how it acted on the lives of Tom and Maggie - how it has acted on young natures in many generations, that in the onward tendency of human things have risen above the mental level of the generation before them, to which they have been nevertheless tied by the strongest fibres of their hearts. The suffering, whether of martyr or victim, which belongs to every historical advance of mankind, is represented in this way in every town and by hundreds of obscure hearths: and we need not shrink from this comparison of small things with great; for does not science tell us that its highest striving is after the ascertainment of a unity which shall bind the smallest things with the greatest? In natural science, I have understood, there is nothing petty to the mind that has a large vision of relations, and to which every single object suggests a vast sum of conditions. It is surely the same with the observation of human life.

Who wouldn't want to spend more time in this company, at once erudite and ironic, astutely critical and warmly compassionate? The demands are many, but the rewards are too.

November 21, 2008

Milton Marathon

The Chronicle of Higher Education chronicles Professor Richard DuRocher's experiment in a Milton Marathon: a "straight-through, out-loud reading of John Milton's Paradise Lost — all 12 books of it, from Satan's fall to Adam and Eve's eviction from the Garden of Eden." From the article:

Here are some of the things you learn when you participate in a Milton marathon:

  1. Milton is not as boring as you think. Paradise Lost has something for everyone: Hot but innocent sex! (You thought Adam and Eve spent all their time in Eden gardening?) Descriptions of hellfire that would make The Lord of the Rings' archfiend, Sauron, weep with envy! Epic battles, with angels hurling mountains at their demonic foes! This is edge-of-your-seat material. "It's a really cool story, which I wasn't expecting," said Anna Coffey, a sophomore who took part in the reading to get a jump on her homework for a "Great Conversations" core-curriculum course.
  2. Milton is not that hard to read out loud. As Mr. DuRocher pointed out in a set of "Guidelines for Reciting" he handed out before the marathon, "Paradise Lost is written in modern English." Compared with Beowulf, Paradise Lost is a walk in the park.
  3. Milton is really hard to read out loud. Very few people get words like "puissance" right on the first try. Milton loved a runaway sentence and just about any now-obscure classical or geographical reference he could get his hands on, many of them polysyllabic nightmares. Partway through Book VI, Mr. DuRocher offered advice to the tongue-tied. "Whenever you encounter a word you don't know, that's a word to pronounce with special certainty," he said. "It's probably best to mispronounce demonic names anyway."
  4. It's worth it. "It's really a good poem," said Mr. Goodroad. "It's a lot better to hear it than to read it."
This venture is not as original as it may sound. Many years ago (in 1990, to be precise), the members of UBC professor Lee Johnson's Honours Milton seminar decided the best way to prepare for their final exam was to do the same thing. We started at 9:00 a.m. and read for the whole day. It was a tremendous experience, and one that got better as the day (and the poem) went along. I think those who got to read Satan's speeches had the most fun. I would second all four points above, particularly that it is a better poem to hear (or to proclaim), not just to read. And I would add that the whole experience goes better when fuelled by mimosas... Ah, to be a keen undergraduate again.

November 20, 2008

Posner on the "Decline of Literary Criticism"

In the most recent issue of Philosophy and Literature, Richard Posner reviews Ronan McDonald's The Death of the Critic (discussed previously here):
The problem with “criticism conceived as magistrate”—the problem that McDonald not only does not solve, but does not acknowledge—is that there are no objective criteria of aesthetic distinction. The reason is that there is nothing that all great works of literature have in common but lesser works of literature do not. When critics propose criteria that they think will distinguish the great from the non-great, they end up narrowing the canon of great literature in arbitrary ways, as T. S. Eliot attempted to do with Milton and Shelley. There is no need to develop a litmus test for great literature. Critics can point to the features of literary works that they like or dislike without assuming the authority to tell people what they should read. And Croce was right: you don’t need evaluative critics in order to have a “canon” of great literature. The canon evolves in Darwinian fashion; writers compete, and the works that are best adapted to the cultural environment flourish.

I fear that McDonald has succumbed to the cliché that the enemy of my enemy is my friend: the cultural studies crowd is against evaluative criticism, so McDonald is for it, provided it is objective—but he does not show how literary criticism can be objective. But the problem is not that modern-day literary criticism is not evaluative; it is that literary criticism aimed at increasing the readership of great literature has been displaced by literary theory, on the one hand, and by literary scholarship for literary scholars only . . . on the other hand.
Though I might take issue with some of Posner's specific points, I agree with him that "the dearth of evaluative criticism" is not what accounts for the diminished significance of literary criticism. He concludes that "If there were less pretentious literary theory and no evaluative criticism, but more readable literary criticism in the style of Cleanth Brooks or F. R. Leavis, the literary culture would be in a lot better shape than it is." I've been reading a fair number of books that attempt to offer "readable literary criticism"; it's not that such books aren't out there, but perhaps that often they aren't often as intellectually challenging or rhetorically exhilirating as the examples Posner gives--often they seem to me to underestimate their intendend audience. The two books I'm reviewing on the 19th-century novel (Case & Shaw and Levine) are actually pretty good options of this kind, but they are overtly aimed at a student audience and so unlikely, I'm guessing, to reach very far out into the world. I admit, "readable literary criticism" with the effects Posner describes (work that "quickens" the reader's interest in reading literary works) is pretty much the kind I would like to write one day... "literary criticism that helps people understand and enjoy serious literature," which is why the kinds of debates he and McDonald are engaged in are of such interest to me.

November 19, 2008

This Week in My Classes (November 19, 2008)

We'll be working on The Remains of the Day until the end of term in Introduction to Prose and Fiction. Today I highlighted the problem of politics in the novel, looking at the many moments in the novel when Stevens expresses pride in his own indirect contribution to society through his service to Lord Darlington. One of the most comic, yet piognant, examples is the long section on how his finely polished silver "made a small, but significant contribution towards the easing of relations between Lord Halifax and Herr Ribbentrop" during a meeting at Darlington Hall: "Lord Darlington himself suggested that the silver might have been at least a small factor in the change in his guest's mood that evening, and it is perhaps not absurd to think back to such instances with a glow of satisfaction." Perhaps. Stevens's insistence that he reflects on these moments with pride and satisfaction is clearly in tension with his repressed awareness that Lord Darlington's commitments during this period are problematic, to put it mildly, and thus his own belief in the dignity of his life of loyal service is severely compromised.

We also looked at the links between Stevens's own political self-effacement--his frequent admissions that international affairs are "over [his] head" or not for "the likes of us"--and the anti-democratic arguments of Lord Darlington and his cronies. In particularly painful scene, Stevens called on, ostensibly to answer a series of questions about current affairs, but really (as he and we quickly see) to demonstrate his own limitations as a political participant. His only response to each question, that he is "unable to be of assistance on this matter," is wholly in keeping, of course, with his identity as a butler, and thus Ishiguro is able to draw us along from the inadequacies of that role on a personal level to its inadequacies as a model for a democratic citizen. Lord Darlington and his friends use Stevens's subservience and ignorance as arguments against democracy; as Lord Darlington explains, "Democracy is something for a bygone era. . . Germany and Italy have set their houses in order by acting. . . . Look at Germany and Italy, Stevens. See what strong leadership can do if it's allowed to act. None of this universal suffrage nonsense there. . . . The man in the street can't be expected to know enough about politics, economics, world commerce and what have you." Translated, that is, from a household to a nation, Stevens's idea of dignity as defined by submission and service to the will and needs of another leads direct to fascist dictatorship.

The proclamations of Harry Smith about "the privileges of being born English" including the right to "express your opinion freely, and vote in your member of parliament or vote him out" set up the grounds for resistance to tyranny and a very different standard of dignity. I'm interested in the relationship of this conflict between repression and self-expression, service and independence, fascism and democratic liberty, and the novel's narration. On the one hand, the first-person narration is in a way a direct counter to Stevens's own reluctance to accept his role as the main character in his own life. He has seen himself as a secondary character, telling Miss Kenton,"my vocation will not be fulfilled until I have done all I can to see his lordship through the great tasks he has set himself." In telling his own story here in the novel, he is forced to see his life a different way, with himself, rather than his master, at the "hub" of things; one result of this shift in perspective is, of course, his realization (or acknowledgment) of his own failures. But he does at least, and at last, speak for himself. Isn't a fundamental principle of democracy that each voice deserves to be heard, as each vote deserves to be cast? And yet Stevens is hardly a poster child for democracy, precisely because of how badly he has lived his life, how flawed his judgment has been, how unreliable he is. How can we feel good about trusting our wellbeing as a collectivity to individuals as flawed, self-deceived, and ignorant as Stevens's own voice shows him to be? This is a good conversation starter, anyway, and as a classroom question, it helpfully draws our attention to relationships between the form of the the novel and the ideas it is so clearly but complexly engaged with about what dignity really means and what democracy really requires and entails.

In 19th-Century Fiction, we've just started our work on The Mill on the Floss. I always begin a George Eliot 'unit' with a survey of her life and philosophical and fictional principles, with an emphasis on her interest in providing a secular alternative to Christianity as a framework for morality, on the relationship she theorizes between realism, sympathy, and morality, and on her interest in and ideas about determinism--so that's what I did on Monday. Today, though, we will get going on the particulars of this remarkable novel. It's an enormous shift, stylistically, from Bleak House: the prose is so balanced and philosophicaly, the story so overtly grounded in historical and social analysis, the characters so psychologically complex. I'm loving the humour of it especially, this time. The first couple of chapters, with Mr Tulliver puzzling over how to set Tom up for an education that will serve Mr Tulliver's desire to get the better of rascally lawyers are hilarious: "I want him to know figures, and write like print, and see into things quick, and know what folks mean, and how to wrap things up in words as aren't actionable. It's an uncommon fine thing, that is, . . . when you can let a man know what you think of him without paying for it." He's just as unintentionally funny about the great mystery of breeding, which has led him to the puzzling situation of having a daughter who is far more " 'cute" (accute) than her brother:
"It's a pity but what she'd been the lad--she'd ha' been a match for the lawyers, she would. It's the wonderful'st thing"--here he lowered his voice--"as I picked the mother because she wasn't o'er 'cute--bein' a good-looking woman too, an' come of a rare family for managing; but I picked her from her sisters o' purpose, 'cause she was a bit weak, like; for I wasn't agoin' to be told the rights of things by my own fireside. But you see when a man's got brains himself, there's no knowing where they'll run to; an' a pleasant sort o' soft woman may go on breeding you stupid lads and 'cute wenches, till it's like as if the world was turned topsy-turvy. It's an uncommon puzzlin' thing."
Like his listener Mr Riley, we may find our "gravity [give] way" here! And yet of course there's nothing really funny about Maggie's experience of being a "small mistake of nature" in this way, and much of the first few chapters is also devoted to showing her painful encounters with the limits set on her development because she is, as Tom points out, "only a girl." There are many memorable incidents in the first volume: Maggie smashing the head of her doll, for instance (into which in the past, we're told, Maggie has often hammered nails to "commemorat[e] . . . crises in Maggie's nine years of earthly struggle); Maggie trying, and failing, to share the jam puff with Tom in a way that will meet his perverse but rigid standard of what's right; Maggie chopping off her recalcitrant hair to free herself from the censure of her carping relatives--only to repent; Maggie pushing Lucy in the mud and then running away to the gypsies in hope of finally being "in harmony with circumstances." Eliot is particularly good at evoking the "bitter sorrows of childhood," the "strangely perspectiveless conception of life" that gives childhood suffering its special "intensity." She also writes beautifully about the special relationship we have to the landscapes of our childhood, where the scenery is infused with memories and so speaks to us of who we once were and who we might have been:
We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it, - if it were not the earth where the same flowers come up again every spring that we used to gather with our tiny fingers as we sat lisping to ourselves on the grass - the same hips and haws on the autumn hedgerows - the same redbreasts that we used to call 'God's birds' because they did no harm to the precious crops. What novelty is worth that sweet monotony where everything is known and loved because it is known?

The wood I walk in on this mild May day, with the young yellow-brown foliage of the oaks between me and the blue sky, the white star-flowers and the blue-eyed speedwell and the ground ivy at my feet - what grove of tropic palms, what strange ferns or splendid broad-petalled blossoms, could ever thrill such deep and delicate fibres within me as this home-scene? These familiar flowers, these well-remembered bird-notes, this sky with its fitful brightness, these furrowed and grassy fields, each with a sort of personality given to it by the capricious hedgerows - such things as these are the mother tongue of our imagination, the language that is laden with all the subtle inextricable associations the fleeting hours of our childhood left behind them. Our delight in the sunshine on the deep bladed grass today, might be no more than the faint perception of wearied souls, if it were not for the sunshine and the grass in the far-off years, which still live in us and transform our perception into love.

November 18, 2008

Where Have All the Bloggers Gone?

It occurs to me: the deadline for my ACCUTE CFP has now passed and I have received a grand total of ... zero ... submissions. Hmmm. I have a theory expressible through the sophistication of a homemade Venn Diagram. Let RM=yours truly and MJ=Scribbing Woman and here's what I think the situation is:

November 14, 2008

This Week in My Classes (November 14, 2008)

(cross-posted, slightly expanded, at The Valve)

This is a great week for me because in both of my classes I am teaching books I am really passionate about. In Introduction to Prose and Fiction, we have started Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, and in 19th-Century Fiction, we are just finishing up Bleak House. It's hard to imagine books more stylistically different: Dickens offers a teeming overabundance of words, characters, and plots, while Ishiguro at once models and thematizes restraint and understatement. Yet both are immensely moving and humane; their artistry is both intellectually and emotionally demanding, and their beauties are at once aesthetic and ethical. If, as Leslie Stephen said, we "measure the worth of a book by the worth of the friend it reveals to [us]," both offer us companionship of an inspiring kind. Wayne Booth proposes we consider what "kind of desirer" we become if we cooperate with the implied author of a text: "Is the pattern of life that this would-be friend offers one that friends might well pursue together?" The best literary "friends" are identified by "the irresistable invitation they extend to live during these moments a richer and fuller life than I could manage on my own." (All quotations from from Booth's The Company We Keep: an Ethics of Fiction, the only critical work I've read in a decade or more that I know has had a profound impact on how I imagine and articulate the task of criticism.) By these standards, I think both The Remains of the Day and Bleak House are among the very best.

Still, the devil is always in the details. So here's what I tried to get done this week.

In Intro to Prose and Fiction, the topic today was first-person narration--again, since we have already spent two classes talking about that. A major interest of mine is helping them work with the concept of unreliability so that they can talk about it with some precision. For instance, it is important to control the urge, once you recognize that a narrator is not altogether to be trusted, to assume that you can't believe anything they say and can just speculate wildly about what really happens. Point A: there is no "really happens"--there's only what's in the novel. Point B: unreliability works as a fictional device because there are limits to it. In "The Yellow Wallpaper," for instance, we believe in the basic elements of the story: there is a house, there is a husband, there is a room with hideous patterned wallpaper. What we don't believe is that there are women trapped in the wallpaper, or crawling in the garden, etc. I'm fascinated by the artistic feat of presenting two (at least) very different versions of one story with just one set of words, so I usually spend a lot of time on this issue. More specifically, we have been talking about Stevens's 'butlerspeak' and how the tone and diction of his language helps us understand his character, including its problems and limits. We have begun making connections between the inadequacy of his language for expressing the human qualities of his life and the inadequacy of his values more generally. We've watched some excerpts of an interview with Ishiguro in which he remarks that he had an idea, working on the book, that "most of us [are] butlers--politically, and morally, perhaps, too." This idea about what it means to be a metaphorical butler will be important to our discussions next week, when we will have moved further along in the book.

In 19th-Century Fiction, we spent Monday's class and part of Wednesday's considering the novel's two narrators--Bleak House is unique among Dickens's novels (as far as I know, among Victorian novels) in dividing our attention in quite this way, and the dramatic differences between the prophetic sage-like voice of the 3rd-person narrator and Esther's almost excessively self-effacing and evasive voice invite careful consideration about why both approaches are necessary to achieve the novel's goals. (One theory we worked on: to solve the social problems he focuses on, you need both breadth of analysis and perspective, and depth--sensitivity to the personal implications.) On Wednesday I also talked about the theme of infection, about ways we can read Jo's illness metaphorically, for instance, as a symptom of the broader spiritual disease Dickens sees plaguing his society. It's illuminating to compare the depiction of poverty and social decay in a more literal novel, like Gaskell's Mary Barton, to Dickens's handling of Tom-All-Alone's. It rapidly becomes clear that literal, material, social, or economic causes are not Dickens's primary interest. Like his philosophical mentor (and the dedicatee of Hard Times), Thomas Carlyle, Dickens tends to present the tangible aspects of poverty as manifestations of an underlying spiritual malaise or failure--of human fellowship or compassion. We looked at the 'Irish Widow' excerpt from "Past and Present" and discussed the ways in which infection literalizes the premise of Bleak House that everything, and everyone, is connected, even if you can't see or anticipate how.

For some reason, on this reading I found the work Dickens does with Sir Leicester especially moving. It's interesting to consider that in his own way, Sir Leicester becomes a charity case in the novel, as much in need of our compassion and sympathy as Jo ever is, and deserving of them, too, because he proves capable of a moral transformation through love. Here are the affecting descriptions of him after the discovery of Lady Dedlock's guilty secret:

Sir Leicester, left alone, remains in the same attitude, as though he were still listening and his attention were still occupied. At length he gazes round the empty room, and finding it deserted, rises unsteadily to his feet, pushes back his chair, and walks a few steps, supporting himself by the table. Then he stops, and with more of those inarticulate sounds, lifts up his eyes and seems to stare at something.

Heaven knows what he sees. The green, green woods of Chesney Wold, the noble house, the pictures of his forefathers, strangers defacing them, officers of police coarsely handling his most precious heirlooms, thousands of fingers pointing at him, thousands of faces sneering at him. But if such shadows flit before him to his bewilderment, there is one other shadow which he can name with something like distinctness even yet and to which alone he addresses his tearing of his white hair and his extended arms.

It is she in association with whom, saving that she has been for years a main fibre of the root of his dignity and pride, he has never had a selfish thought. It is she whom he has loved, admired, honoured, and set up for the world to respect. It is she who, at the core of all the constrained formalities and conventionalities of his life, has been a stock of living tenderness and love, susceptible as nothing else is of being struck with the agony he feels. He sees her, almost to the exclusion of himself, and cannot bear to look upon her cast down from the high place she has graced so well.

And even to the point of his sinking on the ground, oblivious of his suffering, he can yet pronounce her name with something like distinctness in the midst of those intrusive sounds, and in a tone of mourning and compassion rather than reproach.

And just a bit later,

“My Lady is too high in position, too handsome, too accomplished, too superior in most respects to the best of those by whom she is surrounded, not to have her enemies and traducers, I dare say. Let it be known to them, as I make it known to you, that being of sound mind, memory, and understanding, I revoke no disposition I have made in her favour. I abridge nothing I have ever bestowed upon her. I am on unaltered terms with her, and I recall—having the full power to do it if I were so disposed, as you see—no act I have done for her advantage and happiness.”

His formal array of words might have at any other time, as it has often had, something ludicrous in it, but at this time it is serious and affecting. His noble earnestness, his fidelity, his gallant shielding of her, his generous conquest of his own wrong and his own pride for her sake, are simply honourable, manly, and true. Nothing less worthy can be seen through the lustre of such qualities in the commonest mechanic, nothing less worthy can be seen in the best–born gentleman. In such a light both aspire alike, both rise alike, both children of the dust shine equally.

Today, as we wrapped up our too-short time for the novel, I emphasized the importance of affect, pathos, and sentimentality in Dickens's project of fiction as an agent of social reform. Though there are many respects in which I think Bleak House exemplifies self-contained aesthetic possibilities, in its formal structure and thematic coherence, its unifying metaphors, and so on, there's no mistaking Dickens's intention to shake us out of our complacence about the state of our world and our own responsibility for those who suffer. I can't think of a novelist today who could do this and not sound ridiculous:

The light is come upon the dark benighted way. Dead!

Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, right reverends and wrong reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day.

What makes this an impossible move today? Many things, I suppose, from the fragmentation of our sense of audience, or of readers (who is included in "you" or "us" these days?), to changing theories about the role of art in society. But for Dickens, there's nothing inartistic about reaching out from his text in this way. His novels have nothing in common with the kind of literary artefacts meant to sit, like golden bowls on a mantlepiece, and be admired. At the end of Hard Times, he's even more direct:

Dear reader! It rests with you and me, whether, in our two fields of action, similar things shall be or not. Let them be! We shall sit with lighter bosoms on the hearth, to see the ashes of our fires turn gray and cold.
And here is where I feel the two novels I'm teaching converging. Both inspire reflections on how we might look at what remains of our own days and how we will judge our contributions to a wider world, as well as to ourselves.

Dear CBC Radio 2,

It's me again. I tuned in this morning and once again I have cause to thank you: I am so happy that finally there's a radio station giving air time to such commercially unsuccessful artists as James Blunt and the Barenaked Ladies. My tax dollars should definitely go to making sure they get heard, and not to something as culturally peripheral as, say, the CBC Radio Orchestra. It's a relief, also, especially in the morning, not to get those jarring contrasts we used to get when switching from commercial top-40-oriented radio stations to Radio 2. All those violins and harpsichords that would just come out of nowhere, interrupting the flow of banal lyrics!



PS James Blunt? Seriously?!

PPS Nothing against the Ladies, really.

November 13, 2008

Score One for Our Team!

It's easy to get discouraged when you're teaching first-year English. A lot of people in the room don't really want to be there and don't see why they should care much about the course, except that they need to fufill a writing requirement. Sometimes they even tell you as much. That can make you cranky, defensive, or even a little bit sad. Still, you show up with your game face on and do the best you can to show them reasons to care. You try not to let your own commitment or enthusiasm flag. You teach as if they are all with you, because that's the highest compliment you know how to pay them, as well as the only way to face coming to class again and again. And of course many of them are with you: they are basically well-meaning and open-minded kids, and even if they do see your class primarily as a requirement, they'll put in the effort and see what they learn from it. Still, you're always aware of those lurking skeptics, which is why it is especially nice to hear, from the very student whose earlier words rankled so, "I'm changing my major ... to English."

November 12, 2008

Fiction and Development

Recently The Telegraph reported on the contribution fiction can make to international development, as examined by a study done by a team of scholars at Manchester University and the London School of Economics:
[Dr. Rodgers, of Manchester University's Brooks World Poverty Institude] said: "Despite the regular flow of academic studies, expert reports, and policy position papers, it is arguably novelists who do as good a job – if not a better one – of representing and communicating the realities of international development.

"While fiction may not always show a set of presentable research findings, it does not compromise on complexity, politics or readability in the way that academic literature sometimes does.

"And fiction often reaches a much larger and diverse audience than academic work and may therefore be more influential in shaping public knowledge and understanding of development issues."

Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner "has arguably done more to educate Western readers about the realities of daily life in Afghanistan under the Taliban and thereafter than any government media campaign, advocacy organisation report, or social science research", said the report. (read the rest here)

I actually supervised an honours thesis in Dalhousie's International Development Studies program that examined Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South for its implicit and explicit contributions to theories of development. One source we found useful in setting up the project was Martha Nussbaum's Poetic Justice, which makes a related case for the potential value of literature and the "literary imagination" in developing public policy; another was an essay by Richard Horton in the TLS called "Mr. Thornton's Experiments." The risk of such analyses is that they risk reducing literary works to their social or historical content. What I've always liked about Nussbaum's work in theory is that she aspires to consider literary form, rather than to abstract social or political messages from her texts. In practice, I don't think she always manages to do this, but the idea that literary form is itself expressive of philosophical and other ideas seems to me a case she (and others including Wayne Booth) make quite convincingly. The IDS student I worked with did a good job at incorporating explicit consideration of genre and form into her analysis.


November 11, 2008

'Literary' vs. 'Genre' Fiction

At 'Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind,' Kyle Minor offers some thoughts on the relationship between 'literary' and 'genre' fiction:

I did not set out to be a mystery writer or a crime writer, nor am I sure I am one now. That’s not to say that I don’t admire the genres, because I do. If forced to trade, I’ll take one Dennis Lehane, one Richard Price, one George Pelecanos, one James M. Cain, one Big Jim Thompson or Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett—any one of them, any day—over any ten “literary” writers. I mean it. Because all of these writers do all of the things to which literature ought to aspire—vivid evocation of character, an intelligent reckoning with thematic material that matters, an acquaintance with the music language can make—while, at the same time, giving us a sock-in-the-gut story in a time and place of consequence.

(I also ought to mention, while we’re speaking of it, that contemporary crime and mystery writers are lately doing another thing that literature used to do more often, which is to work out intractable social problems on a big canvas and consider the workings of groups and systems as worthy as the individual of their attentions. I might argue, in fact, that the closest thing we have to Dostoevsky, Dickens, and Dos Passos these days is HBO’s The Wire, a television show helmed by nonfiction crime writer David Simon, with episodes penned by Lehane, Price, and Pelecanos. But that’s an argument for another day, another essay.) (read the rest here)

This is well-travelled territory for anyone who teaches mystery fiction, as readers of this blog will know. The remark about 'The Wire' sounds a bit familiar too... But the distinctions between varieties of fiction do matter, if only insofar as our assumptions about them affect our reading practices--something highlighted to great comic effect in Thurber's "The Macbeth Murder Mystery." The exercise of drawing up "a list of mystery stories that belong in the literary canon, and a list of canonical works of literature that are, at their core, mysteries" is fun, as drawing up lists always is. On the other hand, highlighting mystery novels that count as literary rather perpetuates the idea that most of them don't--an assumption I don't actually disagree with, but then, I wouldn't consider all "canonical" works equally literary either. Of Minor's list, I'd think the Hammett and Chandler hardly need defending on these grounds anymore. I haven't read Lush Life, but unless it is much better than Clockers, it wouldn't be on my list: I thought Clockers was well conceived and constructed, but not very well written. (Probably it would have seemed more original if I hadn't just watched all of The Wire.) Minor's list is also weighted towards American hard-boiled and police procedurals, but I would consider P. D. James one example of someone working within the British tradition who uses the strong structural frame of a detective story to do some very thoughtful and literary things (A Taste for Death comes to mind, as does An Unsuitable Job for a Woman). Ian Rankin, also, is an obvious example of a writer whose crime fiction shows both social and thematic reach and literary sophistication. But it's the conversation generated, rather than the lists themselves, that seems to me most valuable on these occasions: we should all keep thinking and talking about what qualities make some books better or more important than others, no matter where they are usually shelved in the bookstore.


November 9, 2008

'Tis Aw a Muddle...or Is It?

I've been trying for a while to find a conceptual framework that will unify the various reading and writing activities I've been doing. The immediate, pragmatic motivation for bringing things into some kind of order is that it's about time I applied for some research grant money to support those activities (and by "support," I mean pretty basic stuff, like buying ink cartridges for my office printer or paying for research-related xeroxing, not to mention buying books, renewing memberships in professional associations, or upgrading my take-home computer equipment--all expenses that are not covered by my department or faculty). There is money to be had, internally and externally, but of course to get any of it you need to have a research project defined clearly enough to justify your demands. I have a couple of objections to this system. One of them is just to the principle of the thing: doing research is part of my job, so I've never understood why I have to scrounge up the money necessary to get it done. Another is to the inflationary effect of the grant application process. Except for the occasional conference trip, I don't actually need much money--what I really need is time to think and read. In terms of funding, what I'd like is enough to cover the basics (cartridges, xeroxing, books) on an ongoing basis. I'd like to feel I can keep reading and thinking and looking things up and writing things until I reach a point at which I can't express my ideas and findings adequately in short form but need the time and resources to produce a book that will do them justice. Instead, I have to start the process assuming I'm writing a book, because that's the kind of project that gets grants. So I have to inflate the significance and scope of what I'm currently doing, and what I plan to do next, so that I can ask for enough money to get taken seriously. (SSHRC standard grants, for instance, now require a minimum budget of $7000, but we're generally advised to ask for a lot more). Our main internal source of research funding clearly spells out in its terms that it is seed money for SSHRC-fundable projects, so it is also not hospitable to exploratory work, and it also rules out what it calls "basic research overhead," which it declares is the responsibility of our departments and faculties. It doesn't say exactly what counts as "basic research overhead," but I'm thinking that category probably includes things like printing and xeroxing, and maybe books (which I know SSHRC used to refuse to pay for)--and it specifically excludes computer equipment. So some fancy footwork is required to explain one's research needs in a way that will at once meet the approved criteria and actually provide the things one needs for one's research. And, to get back to my main point, the whole thing has to be framed as an attempt to accomplish some clearly defined research endeavor...ideally, one that builds in some coherent way on past research accomplishments.

Of course, I have applied for research funding before, and I have used the resources I obtained responsibly and gotten things done--published, even. I haven't made a successful SSHRC application yet; my one attempt (which, in retrospect, I admit was enthusiastic but naive in its presentation) was slapped down hard enough that I wasn't very motivated to try again, though it's interesting to me that I have, after all, gone on to do some key parts of the 'program of research' described in it, so it can't have been altogether wrongheaded. The most recent internal money I got was to help me get the Broadview anthology taken care of. But now that's all gone, and so is my last print cartridge and any remaining credits on my copy cards. So it's time to go back and ask for some more. But for what?

My problem is (and I realize that I have brought it on myself by the choices I've been making about how to use my time) my attention has been increasingly diffused over the past couple of years. Instead of picking one critical problem and pursuing it consistently, I've been looking around at a lot of different things. Why have I been doing this? Well, for one thing, I can't seem to bring into focus any one critical problem that feels urgent to me: I can't find something to work on that seems truly necessary and exciting, and I've chosen to indulge--or respect--my weariness with the flood of academic microcontributions that has resulted from the incessant pressure to publish as soon as possible and as often as possible. I felt that academic scholarship tended too far away from the liveliness and urgency of literature and I wanted to look outside to see how non-academics talked about books, or how academics talked about books outside of 'work' that maybe had more mobility and potency. And the first thing to really hit me once I started looking around in this way was just how ignorant my own specialized research had made me. Behold, I knew not anything! Or at least not anything that anybody else was likely to take an interest in--or so it seemed.

This was the point at which I began a relatively systematic exploration of books about books, as well as books about the relationship between academic criticism and what we might call 'public' criticism. This was also the point at which I began taking more time writing blog posts and tentatively looking for a place for myself (small, no frills, just a corner of my own) in the wider world of book talk. It took me almost no time to realize that I am very poorly equipped to be a public intellectual: graduate training does not produce generalists, and life pre-tenure, not to mention life post-babies, does not make it any easier to broaden your reach. Still, my professional work has given me some equipment for analyzing books that aren't Victorian novels, and it was both educational and fun to see how that might work. I have also written about academic issues and about my teaching, both exercises in mobilizing what I know in new ways. Along the way, I think I've done some decent thinking and writing. (I've written before about the intrinsic benefits of blogging; making connections with other readers and writers, academic and not, has been the very best part of this experiment so far.) I've also completed the Broadview anthology and puttered along with my inquiry into Ahdaf Soueif's In the Eye of the Sun as an engagement with Middlemarch, so it isn't as if I've been doing nothing but playing online. However, I do feel that I have fallen behind in my supposed area of specialization, because while I was looking the other way, the flood of new publications continued. Now I feel inadequate in two directions!

Overall, though, I've been doing so much reading and writing that it seems as if it must add up to something. So far, however, I just can't see what. I can see a strong convergence between my metacritical inquiry into the nature of academic criticism and its alienation from the wider reading public, on the one hand, and my attempt (primarily through blogging) to find a different kind of criticism, though so far that attempt is not systematic or particularly ambitious. I can see links, too, between those issues and my work on 19th-century criticism (very much an activity of the public sphere). But I don't really want to do a project about criticism so much as I want to do criticism differently...but it's hard to see how to do writing about the literature I'm best prepared to write about (Victorian literature) in a non-academic way, because non-academic book talk seems (reasonably enough) preoccupied with contemporary writers about whom, and about whose contexts, I discover I am in many respects an amateur. So perhaps the Soueif project stands as a way of bringing 19th-century literature into a modern discussion because that is what Soueif herself does by taking Middlemarch as in some way her starting point?

Well, I'm not going to arrive at any answers tonight, and there may in fact be no answer that draws these different threads together. Maybe what I need to do for the grant application is articulate fully the interests and goals of the Soueif essay and never mind the rest. But I'd like to think there's a point to the rest of it too. I'm also aware that exploring without a shaping purpose eventually becomes dilettantism, and I'm convinced of the importance of being earnest even without a research grant to strive for, so any time I can clear some mental space, I'll think about it some more.