July 28, 2007

Monica Ali, Brick Lane

I really enjoyed this novel and the things it made me think about. Although in some ways this seems like the wrong context in which to consider it (at any rate, there are others more or equally relevant), I couldn't help comparing it, as I went along, to the novels I discussed along with Joanna Trollope's A Village Affair, because in its own way, it too deals with a woman reconsidering the ways her marriage requires her to compromise her individualism. Of course, Nazneen's marriage has its particular form in large part because of her culture and religion, both of which have encouraged passivity and submission to her "fate," while the protagonists in Trollope's or Tyler's stories of discontented marriage are drawing on ideas about self-realization and agency that seem--literally as well as metaphorically--foreign to her. As I neared the end of Brick Lane, I thought I knew where we were going, especially as Nazneen became increasingly sympathetic, even affectionate, towards Chanu, and distanced from Karim: she and we were turning away from experiments in re-visioning and rewriting her own story, back to acceptance of the life she already lives, of the strength and shape of its architecture, to use Smiley's image. But to my surprise and pleasure, Nazneen does not resign herself to the life she never actually chose. Neither does she choose a new life with Karim, an option which seemed insubstantial and improbable right from the beginning of their affair. Nazneen chooses uncertainty, a story without a known outline, with an indefinite shape, so that the ending of the novel is really a new beginning: "'This is England,' [Razia] said. 'You can do whatever you like.'" Treated differently, her story might have been more polemically and politically charged, but (in part through using limited omniscient narration, which keeps us mostly within Nazneen's own tamped-down consciousness) Ali keeps these possibilities at a slight distance. Still, there's no doubt that the novel comes down on the side of a woman's right to (or need for, if there is a relevant difference) self-determination and agency. How different, really, is Nazneen's dilemma from Dorothea Brooke's, as Dorothea too is hampered in her imagination and her desire by history and culture, by who and when and where she was born, and into what expectations? Like Dorothea, Nazneen struggles to articulate her dissatisfaction and then to see her way through them to a happier alternative. In the end, she rejects what she cannot tolerate and yet remains tolerant; in fact, it seemed to me as if her liberation from her life-long passivity freed her to be generous, especially towards Chanu.

There are many more aspects of this novel that deserve more thought and commentary than I can spare (summer teaching obligations intervene!): the interweaving of Nazneen's story with her sister Hasina's letters, which (among other things) throw Nazneen's more abstract struggles into relief and inhibit any nostalgic tendencies she (or we) might have regarding the world she has left behind; the story of Nazneen's mother, who did not, could not, accept her own life; the unsentimental and nuanced depiction of the ideological conflicts and confusions in Nazneen's Muslim community; the portrayal of Chanu, with his endlessly futile optimism and equally prolific but pointless scholarship; the delicate use of ice skating to provide an image, for Nazneen and thus for us, of what she wants but can barely imagine. There were times when I wanted more overt emotion from the novel--I wanted Nazneen to break free and thus free up the narrative from its veiled tone, to look more aggressively at the world. I wonder, though, if that sense of being kept one step back from the action and the emotion isn't meant to generate just such a feeling, so that we end up feeling, with Nazneen, that life cannot be lived at one remove.

July 20, 2007

Jane Smiley, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel

Of the array of 'books about books' aimed at general audiences that I've read in the last few months, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel is by far the most intelligent and engaging. Smiley writes as a novelist primarily, reflecting often on her own experiences and motivation as an author, but she also writes as a scholar, a dedicated reader, and an insightful literary critic who can capture a significant idea about a writer or a text in a well-crafted sentence or two. Here, to give just one of many examples, is Smiley on Anthony Trollope:
Trollope was a great analyst of marriage as a series of decisions that turn into a relationship and then, as time goes by and the children grow up, into history and architecture; simultaneously, he was the great analyst of politics as it devolves into feelings and their effects on the nation. If we say that Trollope is the ultimate realist, we are recognizing that his work as well as his life recognized more points of view, more endeavors, more sensations, more things to think about and reasons to think about them than almost any other novelist; that the technique he developed for balancing the attractions of these sensations--in sentences, paragraphs, chapters, characters, and entire books--beautifully mimics the way many people construct their identities moment by moment. (133)
Not only is that analysis elegantly put--I love the description of marriage moving from something intangible and negotiable into something with the solidity of a building--but every reader of Trollope will appreciate how well Smiley has captured the distinctive qualities of Trollope's accomplishment in something like the Palliser novels or the Barchester chronicles.

I was particularly impressed with Smiley's engagement with the moral implications of some of the novels she considers. Her comparative discussion of Wuthering Heights and de Sade's Justine (in which Bronte's novel comes off much the worse) is an excellent example of 'ethical criticism': like Wayne Booth, Martha Nussbaum, and others (though without explicit reference to any theoretical work in this area) Smiley illustrates that elements far more complex than a novel's content need to be considered when evaluating its ethical import:

Justine shows that whatever an author's motives for depicting horror, the form of the novel itself molds the depiction. Ostensibly shocking and immoral, Justine actually promotes a certain moral point of view--that integrity and virtue can be retained and recognized in the face of relentless suffering. In addition, to expose secret corruption is to challenge its existence because of the nature of the novel as a common and available commodity. (111)

[F]ar more shockingly cruel, in its way, than Justine is that staple of middle school, Wuthering Heights. No one has ever considered Wuthering Heights to be unsuitable for young girls; most women read it for the first time when they are thirteen or fourteen. There are no sex scenes in Wuthering Heights. . . . At the same time, there are no beatings or shootings in Wuthering Heights. The only blood is shed by a ghost in a dream.
At the same time, the theme of Wuthering Heights is that any betrayal, any cruelty, any indifference to others, including spouses or children, is, if not justifiable, then understandable, in the context of sufficient passion. . . .
Do the characters of Wuthering Heights perpetrate even a grame of the harm that the characters of Justine do? No. Does Wuthering Heights seem in the end to be a nastier novel than Justine does? Yes. They are similar in that both are unrelieved and both have endings that are happy relative to the rest of the novel. But it is more disheartening to read about Heathcliff's domestic sins than it is to see the crimes of the ruling class exposed, because the exposure of political crimes seems like a step towards ameliorating them, while Heathcliff's cruelties are specifically directed at those he should be nurturing, and only chance intervenes between him and his victims . . . . The paradox is that novelists ended up exploring the rich subject of the morality of interpersonal relationships only to discover that while, on the one hand, this subject was safe from the danger of sex and violence, on the other hand, achieving in such plots the satisfying feeling of redress is difficult if not impossible. (114-5)
The specifics of her argument will no doubt strike other readers as debatable, but to me her analysis is an effective example of the Victorian critical premise that I have been exploring in my research: that it is not the subject but its treatment that determines a novel's moral character. The conclusion to this particular section also, I think, effectively captures the problem of the unsatisfying endings that are so common in 19th-century marriage plots (Tenant of Wildfell Hall, for instance, or Middlemarch): the novels expose and critique systemic problems with marriage and the condition of women but struggle to resolve them--or (as with Jane Eyre or The Mill on the Floss) resolve them by abandoning realism.

I was interested in the ethical aspects of Smiley's readings for my own reasons, but her larger goal is to argue in favour of the novel as perhaps the ultimate expression of freedom, not just artistic but also personal and political. At several points, she makes claims about the benevolent effects of the combination of analysis and empathy demanded of novel readers:

Pride, arrogance, moral blindness, and narcissism are endemic among humans, especially humans who occupy positions of power, either in society or in the family. But when I have read a long novel, when I have entered systematically into a sensibility that is alien to mine, the author's or a character's, when I have become interested in another person because he is interesting, not because he is privileged or great, there is a possibility that at the end I will be a degree less self-centered than I was at the beginning, that I will be a degree more able to see the world as another sees it. And there is the possibility that I will be able to reason about my own emotions. . . . When I've read lots of long novels, I will be trained in thinking about the world in many sometimes conflicting ways. . . . Perched on the cusp between the particular and the general, between expertise and common sense, the novel promotes compromise, and especially promotes the idea that lessons can be learned, if not by the characters, then by the author and the reader. (175-6)
These are familiar arguments but important and eloquently made. Perhaps the finest quality of the book, though, is that Smiley not only makes such a case but enacts it through her rigorous, intelligent, well-informed, sympathetic engagement with the novels she writes about. Probably the main reason a reader turns to criticism at all, instead of resting content with having read the novel itself, is to carry on the conversations the book begins. Smiley's manifest love of fiction and its possibilities (aesthetic, social, and political), together with her expertise as both novelist and student of the novel, make her someone I'd like to talk to, even about our disagreements. Though very different in approach, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel is as good a book as David Lodge's The Art of Fiction as a guide and introduction for avid readers looking to broaden and improve their reading experiences with some expert help.

I do think Smiley is disingenuous, though, when she justifies her own decision to avoid "theorists of the novel . . . even though there is an entire academic industry based on theorizing about the novel"--"I preferred," she says, "to glean my ideas about the novel from the books themselves. My justification for this . . . is that novels were invented to be accessible":
Specialized knowledge about the novel is something the reader may engage in for added pleasure, but doesn't need to engage in merely to understand what she has read. (278-9)
That Smiley is as good at gleaning ideas from novels as she is, is the result, surely, of her exposure to a wide range of specialized knowledge about the form, including (as displayed continually in her introductory chapters) historical and contextual knowledge, awareness of different genres and forms, attention to ideological implications, and so on. One of the reasons her book strikes me as valuable is precisely that it mobilizes this kind of specialized knowledge in an accessible way and shows that having it makes reading novels a richer, more rewarding experience. Though she's right that "the authors and books on [her] list constitute a treasure available to all" (279) in the sense that anyone who is motivated to do so can read them, for many, without some kind of preparation or education (of the sort, for instance, supplied by Smiley's book) the experience might yield little pleasure or insight. (There are lots of books I don't feel prepared enough to read--or at least to read and enjoy--and I study novels for a living!) Smiley is an expert, but she wears her erudition stylishly, and we, her readers, are its beneficiaries.

Dragging through the Classics

In one of many essays occasioned by the release of the final Harry Potter instalment, Ron Charles at the Washington Post remarks,
As I look back on my dozen years of teaching English, I wish I'd spent less time dragging my students through the classics and more time showing them how to strike out on their own and track down new books they might enjoy. Without some sense of where to look and how to look, is it any wonder that most people who want to read fiction glom onto a few bestsellers that everybody's talking about?
As I look back on my own dozen years of teaching English, I'd like to think that while dragging my students through the classics may not have taught them where and how to look for new books, it has taught them a lot about what to look for when they actually sit down to read--and maybe also raised the bar for the kind of books they enjoy. That said, I agree that English teachers should encourage their students to see the work they do in class as preparation for a future in which, for most of them, there will be no more "required" reading. For those who need help when they do strike out on their own, John Sutherland's How to Read a Novel provides some useful, if idiosyncratic, advice.

July 18, 2007

Professors, Start Your Blogs...

I read with much interest Dan Cohen's post "Professors, Start Your Blogs" (now a year old, but new to me). I appreciated his discussion of the reasons academics might not only want to blog but also justify blogging. He is particularly clear and persuasive about the merits of bringing specialized knowledge, even obsessions (if "properly channeled and focused on a worthy subject"), to a wider audience. The idea of bloggers in well-defined niches becoming "a nexus for information exchange in their field[s]" makes intuitive sense and seems to be borne out by examples, including those he gives. At the same time, he points to what he calls "altruistic reasons" for blogging, reaching out to "an enormous audience beyond academia. . . . I believe it's part of our duty as teachers, experts, and public servants." I agree, but it strikes me that his two kinds of reasons (call them obsession and outreach) are not wholly compatible. The high degree of specialization in academia is one of the main reasons academic research is not particularly accessible, never mind interesting, to broad audiences. My own interest in blogging is motivated largely by a desire to escape or redefine the limits of specialization, not to reproduce them in an alternative medium. Cohen's account of what makes a blog successful exacerbates my ongoing concern, though, that there's not much point competing with thousands of other blogs for readers' attention unless your own site offers something distinctive, some angle or attitude they can't find anywhere else. To use my own blog as an example, I enjoy writing up my latest reading and I find it useful posting about subjects related to my embryonic project on 'writing for readers,' but if my ultimate goal is to provide something that will, in Cohen's words, "frame discussions on a topic and point to resources of value," I'm going to need to narrow, or at least define, my focus--ideally, in a way that still satisfies my desire to get out of the ivory tower and into a wider conversation.

July 16, 2007

Cynthia Ozick, "Puttermesser Paired"

Not ever having been a regular reader of The New Yorker, I learned only belatedly about Puttermesser, but as soon as I read a review of The Puttermesser Papers I knew I had to read "Puttermesser Paired." Who could resist a romance based on reading biographies of George Eliot? It sounded like Possession for the poetry-impaired. Now that I've read it, I know that it is indeed something like Posession, though odder and starker and (impossibly) more intellectual. Like Byatt, Ozick explores excesses of readerly identification, of readers driven by desires that are themselves generated or given form by reading, but no less real, or really felt, because of that--how else do we imagine what we want, after all, if not through stories? In Possession, the knowingness is mostly on Byatt's part, and on the readers'; we enjoy ourselves at the expense of the 20th-century characters and their obsessions, which inevitably complicates our pleasure at the 19th-century romance. Ozick's 20th-century characters, in contrast, seem much more in control of the ironies in their story--or at any rate Puttermesser does (I'm not quite sure about Rupert). And while Byatt's story turns on the convergence of sexual and scholarly desire, with both characterized as consuming and possessive and thus potentially destructive, I appreciate the way Ozick's story examines the relationship between Eliot and Lewes as "a marriage of two minds":
They read until they were dried up. They read until their eyes skittered and swelled. The strangeness in it did not elude them: where George Eliot and George Lewes in their nighttime coziness had taken up Scott, Trollope, Balzac, Turgenev, Daudet, Sainte-Beuve, Madame d'Agoult (Lewes recorded all this in his diary), she and Rupert read only the two Georges. Puttermesser discussed what this might mean. It wasn't for "inspiration," she pointed out--she certainly wasn't mixing herself up with a famous dead Victorian. She was conscious of her Lilliputian measur: a worn-out city lawyer, stunted as to real experience, a woman lately secluded, eaten up with loneliness, melancholia ground into the striations of her face. The object was not inspiration but something sterner. The object was just what it had been for the two Georges: study. What Puttermesser and Rupert were studying was a pair of heroic boon companions. Boon companions! It was fellowship they were studying; it was nearness.

July 12, 2007

Meta-Criticism: A Complaint!

Often when I make good faith efforts to re-kindle my interest in and appreciation for academic criticism, I experience what I've come to think of as a "Reverse Godfather": just when I think I'm back in, they keep pushing me out! In today's episode, I was doing some catch-up on new releases in Victorian studies, with an eye to my upcoming course on sensation fiction, so [a new book on sensation fiction] caught my attention. Happily for me (I thought) its introduction is freely available online, so I start reading along, only to find my interest slipping away and my attention wandering as [the author] develops an argument that turns out to be every bit as much about criticism as about Victorian novels. In fact, for long stretches of the introduction she offers criticism of criticism of criticism--that is, she examines and critiques the premises and procedures of review essays on recent work in Victorian studies. Is it just me, or does this sound like a variation on navel-gazing in which the object of said gaze is just someone else's navel? [The author] describes the book's project overall as "literary criticism that reads itself reading the Victorians." I'm sorry, but the thought of reading literary criticism reading itself reading the Victorians is just not appealing. I'm going to go read an actual book instead.

Follow-up: This little piece got a lot more attention than any other post I've put up here. I've been feeling uneasy, as a result, because it was meant more as an outburst of frustration with a genre (academic literary criticism) than an attack on [this] book in particular, but this distinction is blurred in my original post. As I said in a comment on Dan Green's "The Reading Experience," as an academic book, [this one] seems better than most (at least the introduction does, which is as far as I've read at this point). For starters, it makes an original argument and is clearly written. My impatience is with the layers of self-conscious meta-commentary that are now required in academic criticism: it can feel like you are looking at literature through bubble-wrap. [The author] has to do something like this to succeed professionally (though perhaps she's fine with that, and would not do otherwise even if she had the choice). But at the same time such an approach pretty much guarantees that the book won't be of much interest to anyone outside the profession. It is this double-bind that frustrates me the most and that has motivated me to engage in the meta-critical project I myself have underway, as I try to rethink how and why we write about books. (July 24, 2007)

Final follow-up: I continue to regret having singled out a particular critic in this post and it occurred to me belatedly that I could at least edit out the specific references. I can't change the peevish tone of the post, but I hope there's evidence elsewhere on this blog of my better self. I'm not done thinking about genres of criticism, but (though for different reasons) I agree with the last anonymous comment--"Enough!"--at least with this post as its starting point. (August 7, 2007)

July 9, 2007

Carol Shields, Unless

A recent talk with a good friend sent me back to my bookshelf to revisit Carol Shields's Unless, which I remembered having found not wholly convincing. My reaction on this re-reading was the same, though the novelistic intelligence evident throughout engaged me more fully this time. My problem here is the opposite of my complaint about 'chick lit' (absence of ideas): Shields's novel is too conspicuously driven by an idea, specifically an idea about the way women are rendered trivial, condemned (as the narrator Reta says in one of her interspersed letters) to a "solitary state of non-belonging." The novel does not have a feminist sub-text: it is, both artfully and overtly, a feminist novel. Reta confronts her "smarmy" New York editor about her next novel featuring her characters Roman and Alicia--bound, on her initial conception, for marriage, but now redirected by her epiphanic realization that Alicia must be granted her singleness:
"I am talking about Roman being the moral centre of this book, and Alicia, for all her charms, is not capable of that role, surely you can see that. She writes fashion articles. She talks to her cat. She does yoga. She makes rice casseroles."
"It's because she's a woman."
"That's not an issue at all. Surely you--"
"But it is the issue."
". . . A reader, the serious reader that I have in mind, would never accept her as the decisive fulcrum of a serious work of art that acts as a critique of our society while, at the same time, unrolling itself like a carpet of inevitability, narrativistically speaking."
"Because she's a woman."
"Not at all, not at all."
"Because she's a woman."
The reflexivity of this moment is palpable: can we take Reta herself--who calms herself through housekeeping, who cooks lasagna, who mothers her children--seriously as a moral fulcrum? Can her story offer a social critique that reaches beyond the personal? Or, perhaps, should we want it to, as the novel, even as it chafes against cliches about women novelists being "miniaturists of feeling" (from another of Reta's letters), refuses to reach out and claim its larger issues in larger ways? Doesn't Shields, in avoiding bolder confrontation with the global and ideological issues that lurk around the edges of her plot (admittedly, as they typically lurk around the edges of our lives), allow her novel to settle into something like comfortable domestic realism? The woman in a burka who sets herself alight and thus precipitates Norah's (and, in turn, Reta's) crisis: surely in a post-9/11 novel to choose such an incident to stand for women's desperation is no accident, but no more is made of her than that, a symbol--and an occasion for Norah's and Reta's meditations on goodness, rather a reductive and objectifying gesture, and one that conflates Reta's rather abstruse complaints (women writers and thinkers are undervalued in the history of literature and philosophy!) with the truly devastating limitations on personal freedom, individualism, and wellbeing we can imagine would motivate a Muslim woman to self-immolation.

And yet at the same time as I felt Shields allowed some of the (potential) substance of the novel to become insubstantial, I felt irritated at the novel's didacticism on its main theme, and inclined to quarrel with its insistence that despite apparent gains, women continue to exist on the margins of power and discourse. "Not so," I kept wanting to interject, and especially when the tone and art of the novel seemed to suffer from Shields's polemical intent. "I need to speak further about this problem of women," Reta begins one chapter, "how they are dismissed and excluded from the most primary of entitlements." Is my resistance to these persistent iterations the result of a generational difference? Wishful thinking, or ignorance? Whatever its cause, it distanced me from the novel.

And yet (again), there are moments and expressions in the novel that sparked poignant recognition in me, that made me reach for my notebook to jot them down for later reference. ("This is why I read novels," Reta reflects: "so I can escape my own unrelenting monologue.") And Norah's story, though ostensibly the occasion for Reta's narrative rather than a "fulcrum" in its own right, strikes me as a creative and appropriate working out of George Eliot's line about the "roar on the other side of silence" that Shields takes as her epigraph. If the novel irritated and frustrated me at times, I think it was because I wanted a different kind of book, one that gave me these people and their stories in more Eliot-like depth, with more picture and less diagram. But I'm aware, too, because the novel is also about novels and what we want from them and how we theorize and criticism them, that Shields is resisting that kind of book and offering this one instead, and I respect and appreciate her invitation to her readers to think as well as to feel.

July 2, 2007

Susan Minot, Evening

Seeing the previews for the new movie of Evening reminded me that the novel had been sitting on my shelf "ripening" for a few years, so I decided it was time to read it. While I was reading it, I kept thinking that it was a very odd choice for a movie adaptation, dedicated as it is to rendering the dying protagonist's consciousness, the meandering and then occasionally piercing or flashing experience of her memories and feelings. The prose and the story combine to make reading the novel an intense and often moving process, and I thought (I guess I still think) that the care Minot has lavished on telling details and on exploring the ultimately lonely experience of subjectivity will inevitably be lost when the story is translated or reduced to its action (for some reason I'm sure that the car accident will feature prominently in the film version). Since finishing it last night, though, I've engaged in some co-duction with myself and become increasingly dissatisfied with the novel. It seems to me that Minot's care has already been lavished on an undeserving subject, in this respect at least: the relationship that Ann describes as "the highest point" in her life is, basically, an unlikely and cliched interlude of sexual ecstasy with another woman's fiance--and the emotional force of the novel relies on our accepting that this brief affair with a near stranger matters more than anything else that has happened in her life since then. Here's an excerpt from one of the culminating scenes:
She swam through the water and let cold reason take over and the heart which had asked for too much left her behind and when she emerged from the water on the rocky beach she had let go of it and there was a new version in her, a sort of second heart. She went in with one heart and came out with a second heart inside. (246)
Is the idea really that as a result of this youthful romance, which he calls off in favour of his pregnant girlfriend, she has turned away from feeling (the wisdom of the heart?) and allowed herself, oh so wrongly, to be governed by "cold reason" (the wisdom of the head?)? Even putting aside this improbably absolute separation of head and heart, the whole scenario turns out, despite the beautiful prose, to be no better than a Hollywood cliche or a fairy tale fantasy about true love--meaning that, after all, it's not such a bad subject for a sentimental 'weeper' movie. All of the moral complications, the difficult weighing and balancing of duties and principles against feelings and impulses, seem to be set aside, while being swept away by passion becomes the highest ideal, the life most worth living (it's hard for me not to think about the way George Eliot handles a similar situation, in a wholly different philosophical and literary style, in The Mill on the Floss). Maybe there's a layer of thought in the novel in which Ann's memories of her love for Harris Arden are ironized or critiqued; it's true that we do learn that Harris never felt as strongly, for example. But at this point my judgment is that the novel is beautiful and evocative and yet, sadly, insubstantial.