December 30, 2007

Novel Readings 2007

'Tis the season for it, so here are my lists of my best and worst novel-reading experiences of 2007. I've written about almost all of them here at least a little, so I've included links to my original posts. As always, I'd welcome comments from other readers.

Novels I'm most glad I read, mostly because of the richness of the aesthetic, emotional, and/or intellectual experience, but sometimes because of new ideas or connections that emerged for my teaching or research:
  1. Ahdaf Soueif, In the Eye of the Sun. I'm very excited about exploring how this novel, often described as "the Egyptian Middlemarch," complicates, extends, or revises George Eliot's themes, especially her theories of sympathy and morality. Obviously one major component of this critical project will be thinking about how the particular historical and political contexts of Soueif's novel matter to the purportedly universal moral prescriptions of Eliot's.
  2. Vikram Seth, An Equal Music. I found this novel tremendously engrossing, particularly in its evocation of the intellectual demands of music.
  3. Sarah Waters, The Night Watch. This novel is near the top of my list of books I hope to re-read in the near future. I thought its backwards chronology was formally and thematically innovative but it also meant that re-reading will (I think) be quite a different experience than reading for the first time.
  4. Elizabeth von Armin, The Enchanted April. Lovely.
  5. Margaret Oliphant, Miss Marjoribanks and Hester. Just think, there are 85 more. I didn't actually think either of these was a great novel--nothing very striking aesthetically or formally--but both were genuinely interesting, appealing to both the scholar and the reader in me.
  6. Anthony Trollope, He Knew He Was Right. it just kept on going and going, and after a while, I didn't want it to stop. Like the Oliphant novels, HKHWR doesn't do anything particularly striking with form, but its many parts are managed and balanced beautifully, and like other great multiplot novels, it contains multitudes.
  7. Monica Ali, Brick Lane. It seemed flat at first, but it drew me in and made me think.
  8. Eugenides, Middlesex. Parts of it are tremendous, moving, exhilirating--but in the end it seemed unfocused to me, especially because the hermaphrodite aspect seemed thematically irrelevant, like a gimmick. Maybe I just haven't thought it through enough.
  9. Carol Shields, Unless. I was more moved by and involved in this novel when I re-read it this year than when I first read it (note to me: make more time for re-reading in 2008).
Novels for which my great expectations were most disappointed:
  1. Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach. This time his technical skill did not win me over.
  2. Zadie Smith, On Beauty. Maybe I need to read Howard's End to really "connect" with it--but it's hard to see how doing so would quiet my objections.
  3. Elizabeth George, What Came Before He Shot Her. I feel about this as some of Dickens's contemporaries felt about his novels--leave this kind of stuff to the actual experts, rather than writing up a sociology or criminology treatise in the guise of fiction.
  4. Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides. Ick.
  5. Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights. The critic in me knows better, but the reader in me really doesn't like this novel.
Books I'm most excited about reading or re-reading in 2008:
  1. Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy. This was high up on my Christmas wish list and I'm so glad I got it (thanks, Dave!). But how am I ever going to read it when I can barely lift it?
  2. A. S. Byatt, A Whistling Woman. Another one from my wish list (thanks, EB!). I might re-read the first three in the series first so that I can appreciate it fully.
  3. Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policeman's Union. I thought The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay was a lot of fun; Chabon's a good story-teller, and I love the premise of this one.
  4. W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz.
  5. Dickens, Our Mutual Friend. I last read this in 1988; the posts on it at The Valve piqued my interest again.
  6. Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway. I keep trying; for some reason, I'm simultaneously convinced that this will be one of my great reading experiences and completely unable to get past page 1. I've read most of Francine Prose's Mrs. Dalloway Reader with interest and pleasure, but still can't seem to get on with the original. My theory (OK, excuse) is that Woolf's style demands a kind of micro-concentration that I am (a) not trained for, since I'm most practised at the big baggy books, and (b) unable to apply because my 'voluntary' reading (i.e. not for school) goes on either when the children are milling around or late at night, when things are quiet but I'm tired and rely on some momentum in the plot to carry me along...
  7. Mitchell, Gone with the Wind. I keep coming back to this novel when I think about issues with historical fiction, as well as problems with identification and sympathy. Write-ups of Rhett Butler's People also got me thinking about it again. My problem with this one is that the novel is so intimately familiar, even though I have not read it all the way through for about a decade, that I have a hard time focusing on the words on the page.
  8. Graham Swift, Waterland.
  9. Lloyd Jones, Mister Pip.
  10. Laila Lalami, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits.
  11. V. S. Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswas.
  12. Irene Nemirovsky, Suite Francaise.
Actually, the "want to read" list could just keep growing, so I'll just stop there, especially since my interests and priorities always shift around a lot as I actually move from book to book.

December 27, 2007

Post About Books=Lackluster Response?

In his reflections on "The Best and Worst of Intellectual Blogs 2007," Joseph Kugelmass remarks "the consistently lackluster response to posts about books." I've noticed something similar in my expeditions around the 'blogosphere,' on both academic sites and litblogs, regretted it and wondered why blogging, which seems ideally set up for informal but thoughtful back-and-forth of the kind that so many readers value, does not seem to generate it. Anyone out there have any thoughts on the reasons for that "lacklustre response"? And are there any blogs at which you have seen rich conversations develop about books?

I've also seen and regretted the phenomenon that Kugelmass seems to see as a positive development, namely that in response to the apparent lack of enthusiasm for book chat, "most intellectual bloggers turned towards politics and professional matters with increasing frequency." I've regretted it partly, as I noted in my previous posts, because by "politics" they usually mean "American politics," partly because the political stuff often seems to lower the level of discourse (i.e. people become meaner and ruder, and discussion gets polarized and predictable), and partly because I went online to avoid some of the more confining aspects of professionalism. (It's true, mind you, that one side-effect of my own blogging experiences has been to make me more appreciative of some features of professionalism in literary studies, including expertise and civility--though it's precisely the spread of civility in the blogosphere that Kugelmass points to as a problem as he sees it leading to a kind of deadening blandness. He also sees "polish" as antithetical to the spirit of blogging, but given how fast and how publicly you can be taken to task for what you post--maybe rightly, maybe not, depending on the post and the context--there seems more chance of a high quality of debate if you slow down.)

December 24, 2007

A Very Merry Dickensian Christmas To All!

There's no avoiding the association of Dickens with Christmas festivity. Indeed, it's about the best 'press' the Victorian period gets, so I figure we should make the most of it. With that in mind, here are some Dickensian links for the season.

First, the TLS has published the second installment of their "guided tour" to Dickens's A Christmas Carol:
Does his ecstasy have something of mania about it? Perhaps. And more than a little of evangelical conversion, surely – though only in the loosest sense. (The religious claims made for Carol, which relishes sensual glut, are overstressed.) Because, far from being reborn into that world of systematic moral conviction inhabited by the Murdstones, the Gradgrinds, or the Revd Chadband, Scrooge is on the contrary released into a profoundly happy uncertainty – “I don’t know anything!” – which describes reality rather well: that state of continuous creation and anticipation which we can call doubt, or hope, as we choose. I think, I am almost sure, that Dickens preferred the latter. (read the rest here; for Part I, see here)
Second, if you've got anyone who's fond of Dickens on your gift list, a last-minute idea might be to head over here for a Dickens-themed e-card.

Third, the Guardian offers up Booze By Boz, including 'smoking bishop':

Smoking bishop
"'A merry Christmas, Bob!' said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. 'A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you, for many a year! I'll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!'" (A Christmas Carol)

5 oranges * 1 grapefruit * 1/4 lb sugar * 2 bottles red wine * 1 bottle ruby port * 30 cloves

Bake the oranges and grapefruit in the oven until they are pale brown and then put them into a warmed earthenware bowl with five cloves pricked into each. Add the sugar and pour in the wine. Then, either (i) cover and leave in a warm place for a day, or (ii) warm the mixture gently (do not boil) for about three hours. Squeeze the oranges and grapefruit into the wine and pour it through a sieve. Add the port and heat (again, don't boil). Serve in warmed cups/glasses and drink hot.

And finally, Patrick Leary of the excellent VICTORIA list-serv sent us all this inspired excerpt from one of R. L. Stevenson's letters, and I can't resist passing it along:
"I wonder if you ever read Dickens’s Christmas Books? I have read only two of them yet, and I have cried my eyes out, and have a terrible time not to sob. But, 0 dear God, I feel so good after them, and would do anything to make the world a little better for people. I wish I could lose no time; I want to go out and comfort some one. I shall never listen to the nonsense they tell me about not giving money. I shall give money; not that I haven’t done so always, but I shall do it with a high hand now. Oh, what a jolly thing it is for a man to have written books like these books, and just filled people’s hearts with a desire to do good!"
A jolly thing indeed!

December 23, 2007

"You Are What You Read"

This week's New York Times Sunday Book Review includes a very interesting essay by literary scholar Leah Price in response to the recent National Endowment for the Arts report "To Read or Not To Read." Price's main point is that historically, widespread reading has not been the norm--particularly if by 'reading' is meant 'reading for literary experience.' Further, as she points out, excessive reading (particularly of fiction) has as often prompted anxiety as applause:
We’re not the first generation to invest reading with miraculous powers. But until radio and television dethroned the book, social reformers worried about too much reading, not too little. Advice about when and where not to read was once a medical specialty. In an 1806 diagnosis, a British doctor hypothesized that the “excess of stimulus” produced by reading novels “affects the organs of the body and relaxes the tone of the nerves.” Reading at the table interfered with your digestion, reading before lunch with your morals. Another expert, in 1867, warned that “to read when in bed ... is to injure your eyes, your brain, your nervous system, your intellect.” Cue to the other in-bed activity that makes you go blind. Like masturbation, reading was too pleasurable for its own good; like masturbation, it threatened to upstage real human contact (messy, tedious, disappointing) with virtual pleasures. (read the rest here)
My own work on 19th-century criticism of the novel has had me reading and re-reading many examples relevant to Price's argument. Here's Anthony Trollope's (characteristically temperate) overview, from his 1879 essay "Novel-Reading":
Fond as most of us are of novels, it has to be confessed that they have had a bad name among us. Sheridan, in the scene from which we have quoted, has put into Lydia’s mouth a true picture of the time as it then existed. Young ladies, if they read novels, read them on the sly, and married ladies were not more free in acknowledging their acquaintance with those in English than they are now as to those in French. That freedom was growing then as is the other now. There were those who could read unblushingly; those who read and blushed; and those who sternly would not read at all. At a much later date than Sheridan’s it was the ordinary practice in well-conducted families to limit the reading of novels. In many houses such books were not permitted at all. In others Scott was allowed, with those probably of Miss Edgeworth and Miss Austen. And the amusement, though permitted, was not encouraged. It was considered to be idleness and a wasting of time. At the period of which we are speaking,--say forty years ago,--it was hardly recognised by any that much beyond amusement not only might be, but must be, the consequence of such reading. Novels were ephemeral, trivial,--of no great importance except in so far as they might per¬haps be injurious. As a girl who is, as a rule, duly industrious, may be allowed now and then to sit idle over the fire, thinking as nearly as possible of nothing,--thus refreshing herself for her daily toils; as a man may, without reproach, devote a small portion of his day to loafing and lounging about his club; so in those perhaps healthier days did a small modicum of novel-reading begin to be permitted. Where now is the reading individual for whom a small modicum suffices?

And very evil things have been said of the writers of novels by their brethren in literature; as though these workers, whose work has gradually become so efficacious for good or evil, had done nothing but harm in the world. It would be useless, or even ungenerous now, to quote essayists, divines, and historians who have written of novelists as though the mere providing of a little fleeting amusement,--generally of pernicious amusement,--had been the only object in their view. But our readers will be aware that if such criticism does not now exist, it has not ceased so long but that they remember its tone. The ordinary old homily against the novel, inveighing against the frivolities, the falsehood, and perhaps the licentiousness, of a fictitious narrative, is still familiar to our ears. Though we may reckon among our dearest literary possessions the pathos of this story, the humour of another, the unerring truth to nature of a third; though we may be aware of the absolute national importance to us of a Robinson Crusoe or Tom Jones, of an Ivanhoe or an Esmond; though each of us in his own heart may know all that a good novel has done for him,--still there remains something of the bad character--which for years has been attached to the art.
Trollope, of course, goes on to defend the novel; many of his contemporaries, including George Eliot, were also eloquent proponents of the moral, social, and aesthetic value of fiction. The point is, though, that they had to argue for this--and one reason the merits of the novel, in particular, were controversial was precisely that the reading public was expanding and some saw the attractions of "literary experience" as undesirable or risky. Here's W. R. Greg, for instance, from an 1853 essay on the "False Morality of Lady-Novelists":
There are many reasons why we should look upon novels in [a] serious point of view. They are the sole or the chief reading of numbers; and these numbers are mainly to be found among the rich and idle, whose wealth, leisure, and social position combine to give to their tastes and example an influence wholly out of proportion either to their mental activity or to their mental powers. They are the reading of most men in their idler and more impressionable hours, when the fatigued mind requires rest and recreation; when the brain, therefore, is comparatively passive; and when, the critical and combative faculties being laid to sleep, the pabulum offered is imbibed without being judged or sifted. They form, too, an unfortunately large proportion of the habitual reading of the young at the exact crisis of life when the spirit is at once most susceptible and most tenacious--"Wax to receive, and marble to retain;” when the memory is fresh, and has a greedy and by no means discriminating appetite; when the moral standard is for the most part fluctuating or unformed;--when experience affords no criterion whereby to separate the true from the false in the delineations of life, and the degree of culture is as yet insufficient to distinguish the pure from the meretricious, the sound from the unsound, in taste; and when whatever keenly interests and deeply moves is accepted and laid to heart, without much questioning whether the emotion is genuine and virtuous, or whether the interest is not aroused by unsafe and unwarrantable means. Finally, novels constitute a principal part of the reading of women, who are always impressionable, in whom at all times the emotional element is more awake and more powerful than the critical, whose feelings are more easily aroused and whose estimates are more easily influenced than ours, while at the same time the correctness of their feelings and the justice of their estimates are matters of the most special and preeminent concern.

There are peculiarities, again, in works of fiction which must always secure them a vast influence on all classes of societies and all sorts of minds. They are read without effort, and remembered without trouble. We have to chain down our attention to read other books with profit; these enchain our attention of themselves. Other books often leave no impression on the mind at all; these, for good or evil, for a while or for long, always produce some impression. Other books are effective only when digested and assimilated; novels either need no digestion, or rather present their matter to us in an already digested form. Histories, philosophies, political treatises, to a certain extent even first-class poetry, are solid and often tough food, which requires laborious and slow mastication. Novels are like soup or jelly; they may be drunk off at a draught or swallowed whole, certain of being easily and rapidly absorbed into the system.
Like Price, I'm an advocate of "reading for literary experience" and would like to see it sought and practised widely and avidly. But it's salutary to be reminded that a "crisis in reading"--even "reading" itself--can be defined and measured in many different ways and to different ends. The N.E. A., Price says, "shuns...any use of literacy for something other than disinterested pleasure"--reading done for work or school, for example. Price's assessment of our current situation is certainly provocative: "It takes some gerrymandering to make a generation logging ever more years in school, and ever more hours on the BlackBerry, look like nonreaders."

December 20, 2007

Novel Readings in the Guardian

Thanks to Nigel Beale for his kind reference to Novel Readings as "stimulating" in his recent post in the Guardian's book blog. When he was working up the piece, Nigel asked me whether I had any thoughts about "why academic writing is so abstruse," remarking among other things that academics "don't have to appeal to the average intelligent reader" and that they avoid making aesthetic value judgments. Nigel quoted me accurately, but being an academic, of course I answered a bit lengthily, so in case anyone's interested, here's my full response to his inquiry:
I suppose the first thing to be said, as neutrally as possible, is that every area of specialized inquiry develops and requires specialized language (or jargon) that can seem opaque or abstruse from outside that specialization. In that respect, academic literary criticism is like other kinds of writing aimed primarily at other specialists. (The audience for academic criticism is not, generally, students, but other academic critics.) And of course literary criticism has become intensely specialized, in its academic versions, because of the demands of professionalization. There's a great deal of pressure to publish (in academic, peer-refereed journals), which means finding things to say that have not been said before, which of course can and does push forward the frontiers of knowledge, put new ideas and texts and theories into circulation, etc., but which also means micro-specialization or niche scholarship, and increasing levels of self-conscious commentary or metacriticism. Whether these developments are good, bad, or simply inevitable, is of course much debated (including in some other posts on this blog), but within this context, it's clear that as an academic, the audience you are trying to be 'interesting' to is not usually the broader public or the 'average intelligent reader.'

I think you are right, in general, that aesthetic judgment is not currently seen as a central (maybe even an appropriate) aim of academic criticism. We are too aware of the shifting nature of such judgments, for one thing, and of the many reasons besides aesthetic ones for finding a text worth studying. If asked whether a book is good, an academic is likely to reply 'good at what?' or 'good in relation to what?' or 'good for what?' It may be that this insistence on refining the question, or examining its implicit assumptions, is part of what makes academic criticism less appealing to the 'average intelligent reader,' if what they are after is actually a recommendation (if so, there are lots of Top 10 lists around they can go to for that). But many non-academic readers would in fact like to think in more careful ways about their reading. Here's where academic expertise presented in an accessible manner comes in, or could or should...but it's not clear how such work would be rewarded professionally, and so we come back around to my first point.
There has been a pretty extensive comment thread following Nigel's post already. Related posts on this blog appear under the labels 'literary criticism' and 'writing for readers.'

December 19, 2007

The Best [Victorians] of 2007

Amidst the flurry of 'Top 10' and 'Best Of' book lists that the end of the year inevitably generates (and after reading several dismissals of Victorian novels in various insistently modernist blogs), it's nice to see some people proclaiming how much fun is to be had with Dickens and George Eliot (both via The Millions):
From Bookdwarf: "First, I'll get George Eliot's Middlemarch out of the way. It's simply one of the best books I've ever read. I expect to read this again in a few years and still feel the same, it's that good. It's the kind of book where you're not certain you can make it past the first 100 pages, but what a treat if you do!"

From novelist Jess Row: "I'd be lying if I didn't say that my favorite books read in 2007 were Little Dorrit and Daniel Deronda. But almost as much fun as the novels themselves were the copious endnotes (in the Penguin and Modern Library editions, respectively). I wonder: in a hundred years, will any novels from our era get the same treatment? And if so, what will the endnotes 'say?'"

December 18, 2007

A Little Something Seasonal

From the TLS, a "guided tour" of Dickens's A Christmas Carol:
The rapidity of construction shows in the story’s gappy psychology (why, one might ask, does Scrooge become a miser?), but it also permits a number of strokes of genius, which, aptly for a haunting, seem to loom quickly and then vanish with a laugh. One or two of these are just metaphorical phosphorescences, such as the “dismal light” of the knocker that has become Jacob Marley’s face, shining “like a bad lobster in a dark cellar”. But others seem to me to be good examples of a writer’s highly refined process of selection and discard working at an unconscious level. (read the rest here)
I agree that in A Christmas Carol, as in many of Dickens's novels, there are "gappy" bits, but it does usually seem beside the point to fret over them, as his brilliance lies in other directions--or perhaps, as this piece suggests, his brilliance lies precisely in the rapidity of his ideas and images. One of our festive treats is listening to the wonderful recording of Michael Bawtree, formerly director of drama at Acadia University, reading A Christmas Carol. To borrow from another Dickens moment, he "do" the ghosts in different voices; it's a lovely version (but sadly, as far as we can tell, not commercially available, otherwise I'd link to it). This year we've also added the Muppet Christmas Carol to our stash of children's movies. Not only is it fun and fairly true in both detail and spirit to the original, but it features all our friends from the old Muppet Show, including Kermit as Bob Cratchit and the crotchety guys from the balcony (what are their names, anyway?) as Jacob and (in a slight variation!) his brother Robert Marley ("It's good to be heckling again! "It's good to be doing anything again!"). We even get Gonzo as Dickens to provide intrusive commentary and a bit more besides: "Wait a minute: how did you know that?" "I told you, storytellers are omniscient; we know everything!" "Well, hoity-toity, Mr. God-like Smartypants!"). Who could resist?

December 13, 2007

What's in a Poem?

There's a fascinating and detailed analysis of Keats's "To Autumn" by Tom Paulin in The Guardian:
Opening a school anthology, I find this note to Keats's ode "To Autumn": "The magnificent ode is justly famous, and is often regarded as the most perfect of Keats's poems. Its structure is quite complex, but after a couple of readings it will not be difficult to see that the first verse describes the 'positive' side of autumn - the side that looks back to summer and brings it to fruition, while the third verse describes the 'negative' side - a suggestion of chilliness, a series of thin sounds, and the sadness of approaching winter. The middle verse balances these two with four glimpses of a figure representing both the spirit of autumn and a farm-worker engaged in a series of typical autumnal activities."

This describes, clearly and sensitively, how the poem has been read since its publication in 1820, but in recent years a group of historical critics has offered a more complicated, political reading of Keats. He was passionately interested in politics, and it would be surprising if that interest didn't shape his writing. As a radical, who read and contributed to John and Leigh Hunt's famous weekly journal, The Examiner, he would have seen not so much a "farm-worker", as a member of the rural poor, a gleaner, who has scraped up the grains of corn left after the farm labourers had gathered in the harvest. Gleaning was made illegal in 1818, so by personifying autumn as a gleaner he is characterising the season as a proud and dignified young woman. (read the rest here)
The piece is an advance taste of Paulin's forthcoming book, The Secret Life of Poems. It's a compelling reading, at least to someone who's not a Keats expert; I particularly enjoyed its balance of attention to fine textual details and historical and intertextual contexts. But I can see someone reacting quite differently, along the lines of the discussion that broke out recently in the comments to this post at The Valve. A sample exchange:
LB: That is to say, let’s imagine two critics who write the same excellent account of the formal, stylistic, and thematic features of Blake’s “The Tyger.” Then let’s imagine that while critic 1 stops there, critic 2 builds on that account and shows in clear, well-supported terms how these features connection to biography, cultural history, economics, etc. In that case, critic 2 has clearly added something that critic 1 cannot offer.

DG: Perhaps, if you’re more interested in biography, cultural history, and ecomonics than in art. I’m not, so the critic who provides such an account does nothing for me.
It seems a tailor-made example, actually. Paulin reads Keats's Ode as critic 2 would. But is his therefore a better analysis than a fleshed-out version of the one in the 'school anthology' would be? The school anthology has described the poem an ordinary (i.e. non-specialized) reader would be familiar with; Paulin argues that this simpler account is inadequate, even wrong on some counts, and supports his more 'complicated' reading with a lot of specific evidence. Both readings address what is "actually there" in the poem (a phrase all who teach poetry to undergraduates are familiar with)--that is, both infer the meaning of the poem from the words on the page--but Paulin is less literal and inquires further afield in search of its meaning. I think that the result is a richer appreciation of Keats's art. What do you think: is it fair, or reasonable, or problematic, to consider that you can "understand the poem perfectly well" without knowing any of the additional material or ideas Paulin brings to bear on it? Do you just understand it differently, or do you understand a different version of it? Also, how far does this dispute over the limits of "the poem itself" encapsulate the difference between academic and non-academic approaches to interpretation? And how far do readings of this sort, that set out to correct ordinary readings as simplistic or inadequate contribute, to the dislike ordinary readers sometimes express towards academics?

December 11, 2007

Powell's Review-A-Day: Adam Bede

I've been enjoying the "Review-A-Day" service from Powell's, not least because you never know what will show up next. Today's choice, for instance, was quite surprising: an Atlantic Monthly review of Adam Bede from 1859:
Adam Bede is remarkable, not less for the unaffected Saxon style which upholds the graceful fabric of the narrative, and for the naturalness of its scenes and characters, so that the reader at once feels happy and at home among them, than for the general perception of those universal springs of action which control all society, the patient unfolding of those traits of humanity with which commonplace writers get out of temper and rudely dispense. (read the rest here)
Anyone still seeking holiday gifts for bookish friends should also note that Powell's is the source for the ever-popular Jane Austen action figure, complete with removable quill pen. If you think she'll be lonely, you can also get Dickens (removable hat!), Oscar Wilde (imagine the dialogues they'll have), Shakespeare (of course), or Sherlock Holmes, not to mention Mozart, Freud, and Einstein...

December 10, 2007

J. S. Mill: "Victorian Firebrand"

In the Times, Jane O'Grady reviews Richard Reeves's new biography of J.S. Mill:
This biography dispassionately presents the richness and contradictoriness of Mill’s theories, and skilfully shows the way in which his integrity forced him to modify them in the light of his experience. Unlike most pontificaters on justice, Mill actually lived what he preached. (read the rest here)
There's more here in the New Statesman (link from A&LDaily), and here, at the Guardian:

This biography gives us a JS Mill for our times: feminist and anti-racist, radical without being leftwing. It is good on the poets of the first half of the 19th century, particularly Coleridge, to whose work Mill turned as an antidote to his father's dry studies. Reeves examines and judges Mill as an interesting specimen, which is fine as far as it goes, but he never develops the biographer's ability to stand at the shoulder of the subject and see the world as if through his eyes.

Mill's judgments could be badly skewed; he profoundly misjudged Robert Peel as "perhaps the least gifted man that has ever headed a powerful party"; he opposed the secret ballot, in the belief that political principles should be declared publicly. In general, however, his ideas stand the test of time to such an extent that they are now everyone's intellectual currency - but our notions of gender equality and personal freedom first had to be stated by a person of courage and conviction, speaking against the prevailing orthodoxy.

Reeves quotes with approval John Morley's remark that Mill was "a man of extreme sensibility and vital heat in things worth waxing hot about". It is an obituary remark to be coveted.

To that last remark, hear hear. It's all very well (and always popular) to mock the Victorians, but about some things, it is in fact important to be earnest.

December 7, 2007

Wanted: The Death of the Critic

The "Books of the Week" listing at ReadySteadyBook reminds me that I want to get my hands on Ronan McDonald's The Death of the Critic. (The Bedside, Bathtub, and Armchair Companion to Virginia Woolf looks good too!). (Just by the by, my first experience ordering from the Book Depository went so well that I am likely to become a regular customer: great selection, including books that are hard to get in Canada, good prices, and no minimum order for free shipping. Excellent!) Anyway, here's the blurb provided on McDonald's book:
In an age of book clubs, celebrity endorsements and internet bloggers, what role is there now for the professional critic as an arbiter of artistic value? Are literature and the arts only a question of personal taste? Is one opinion ‘as good as another’? Rónán McDonald’s The Death of the Critic seeks to defend the role of the public critic. McDonald argues against recent claims that all artistic value is simply relative and subjective. This forceful, accessible and eloquent book considers why high-profile, public critics, such as William Empson, F.R.Leavis or Lionel Trilling, become much rarer in the later twentieth century. A key reason for the ‘death of the critic’, he believes, is the turn away from value judgements and the very notion of artistic quality amongst academics and scholars.
Peering around for further information or reviews of the book, I found this preview from McDonald in the Guardian and this post by Todd Swift at Eyewear, to which McDonald graciously replies. This exchange focuses on the debate about the status of blogs as criticism, which also surfaced again in this review of Gail Pool's Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America (further discussion can be found at This Space). It is endlessly mysterious to me why the perfectly obvious and predictable truth that there are both good (thoughtful, well-informed, articulate) and bad (careless, knee-jerk, incoherent, ignorant) blogs about books (or anything else) needs such incessant re-stating. This Space puts the case well:
[B]ook blogging is a new form of criticism under restraint. It has good, bad and indifferent practitioners. As a reader, I make the same decisions online as I make in the bookshop and the library. I don't dismiss fiction because of Tom Clancy anymore than I dismiss online criticism because of Amazon customer reviews.
(Blogging skeptics out there could do worse than check out the recommendations in Scott McLemee's recent Inside Higher Ed piece "Around the Web.")

December 5, 2007

Next Term in My Classes: An Anticipation

I haven't finished with this term's classes yet (my 19thC Novel students wrote their exam this afternoon, and I have papers coming in tomorrow and Friday)--but I've raised my head just high enough above water to notice that next term's classes aren't quite ready to be launched yet. If I don't want to be competing for the photocopier with everyone else on January 7, I'd better get the details sorted soon. Because book orders were due months ago, though, I do at least know what we'll be reading, and, since I'm a stickler for chronological order, what order we'll read them in. Here's what's in store:

English 2040, Mystery and Detective Fiction:
English 4604, The Victorian 'Woman Question':
I've enjoyed Mystery and Detective Fiction a lot when I've done it before. Part of the fun is getting outside my usual territory a bit, not just in the reading list but in some of the questions we kick around, such as why Agatha Christie, apparently the best-selling English language author of all time, is not a staple in literature classes, or how to acknowledge the impositions of genre conventions or requirements without dismissing the results (for instance, characterization is a victim of the puzzle mystery form, since you need a lot of plausible suspects). I'm looking forward to it.

But this year I'm particularly excited and apprehensive about the 'Woman Question' class. I've taught it several times before with a mixed genre reading list that I have always thought was very successful: lots of formal and thematic variety, lots of stimulating juxtapositions. I always particularly enjoy the 'fallen woman' cluster: "Jenny," "A Castaway," "Lizzie Leigh," "Gone Under," Aurora Leigh, The Mill on the Floss.... But I thought it would be good for me to shake things up a bit, so I reconceptualized it as a fiction-only course with a special focus on novels that take us past the 'matrimonial barrier' (or, in the case of Gissing, see that barrier as insurmountable). You see where this got me, though: with more pages than I have ever assigned in any one course before. Book ordering somehow makes me all giddy with the sense of possibilities--and now I'm facing the consequences. I'm not regretting my choices; I'm just well aware that careful planning and handling is called for. While I was invigilating my exam today, I doodled around with ideas for assignments that would keep some kind of steady buzz going about the readings without overwhelming the students with busywork when they need to keep reading (and reading and reading). I'm a firm believer in the pedagogical value of frequent short written pieces, so that they can practice focusing and expressing their insights and get regular feedback as they move towards their big essays. I also like to make sure everyone has to write at least something on everything we read! But I want a lighter touch than usual this time, I think, so that they stay energetic but also engaged. Given what I've been doing myself lately, naturally I've been wondering about some kind of class blog arrangement. BLS (once WebCT) has a blog option built in which would overcome some of the privacy issues that arise if you required students to post their ideas in an open-access forum. Ideas welcome, blog-ish or otherwise! I have a couple of weeks to make my final decisions.

And then before too much longer (since they are doing the timetable so early this year, with an eye to recruiting, I think) we'll be facing requests for course descriptions for 2008-9 [update: they're wanted by January 25, as it turns out--yikes]. I doodled around with ideas for those too today, resolving (among other things) that I really am going to take a break from Jude in the Dickens to Hardy course. I'm thinking Tess: maybe a change is as good as a rest? Hey--I could do a whole 'bad girls' theme, with Maggie, and Lady Audley, maybe Bleak House, and Ruth... (you see how it goes!).

December 3, 2007

Philosophy and Literature Again

Further to an earlier post on David Masson's British Novelists, here's another bit I came across today in my proofreading that I can add to my file of Victorian observations on the relationship between philosophy and literature. This one is from an 1848 review of Jane Eyre that appeared in the Christian Remembrancer (hence its ultimately tendentious conclusion):
With [novelists] it rests to determine, each for himself and according to the measure of his gifts, whether so powerful an instrument of moving men, as fiction is, shall be used to move them for good or evil. Are the poetic and artistic faculties given to man purely for his amusement? Are they alone of all his powers not subject in their exercise to the legislative or judicial conscience? Curiously enough, we believe no moral philosopher has yet given a complete scientific answer to this question. A philosophical account of that part of man's essence which is neither moral nor intellectual, but lies midway between the two, both in itself and in its relation to the moral and intellectual parts, would we believe still be an addition to the Moral Science. . . . [T]he position that the poetic and artistic faculties are subject to conscience, is a truism in theory which seems to be metamorphosed into a paradox in practice. We suppose, for instance, that Mrs Marcet considered herself to be uttering an acknowledged truth in saying that Goldsmith's 'Deserted Village,' being poetry, is none the worse for being bad political economy. Yet if this is so, neither is Don Juan, being also poetry, the worse for being bad religion. Goldsmith intended, or at least he foresaw that the effect of his poem would be, to raise certain sentiments and impressions relative to certain social questions; and if those sentiments were morbid and those impressions wrong, his poem is as plainly vicious as the most rigorous scientific treatise, embodying the same fallacies, would have been. This may seem an exaggerated instance. It is an experimentum crucis, certainly--but where is the line of demarcation to be drawn? . . . We do not mean to say that the writer of fiction is called upon to play the part of the preacher or the theologian. Far from it. What he is called upon to do is to hold up a clear and faithful mirror to human nature--a mirror in which it shall see its good as good, its evil as evil. His pages must give back the true reflection of a world of which morality is the law, and into which Christianity has entered.
Some good questions, along with a number of assumptions few critics today would entertain about literary merit or morality--though I enjoy the idea that morbidity is somehow an objectively measurable (and obviously undesirable) quality.

This Week in My Classes (December 3, 2007)

Today was the last meeting of my 19th-Century Novels class--a depressing inquiry into the meaning of the tragedies of the final volume of Jude the Obscure. One effect of the children's deaths is to drive us to interpretation. After all, if they 'mean' nothing, then their horror is unredeemable. Here our activity as readers becomes entangled with the efforts of the characters to make sense of their experience. In particular, Sue is driven to religious explanations, in part for the (meager) comfort they offer, and in part because if she interprets her suffering as punishment for her 'sins' against God, then she can seek atonement by turning back to His laws. So religion is shown as answering human needs, rather than as offering truths. Jude's explanations are more consistent with what we've seen in the novel ("it is only ... man, and senseless circumstance")--but what response can we muster to that? Jude's response, of course, is to lie down and await death. Then there's Arabella's survival, scariest of all, perhaps, if we ordinary folks create the environment in which it is only Arabella who can flourish--just as in Middlemarch, "we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorotheas, some of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of the Dorothea whose story we know" (Finale). I usually point my final lecture for this class towards the responsibilities of readers, pointed to so often by both the content and the forms of our readings. As Janice Carlisle argues persuasively in her smart book The Sense of an Audience, the goal of many Victorian novelists was "an 'ennobling interchange of action' [Wordsworth's phrase] that would elicit the best qualities of both the reader and the narrative persona of the novelist" (11).

And in a truly Victorian spirit of optimism, I also always end this course by recommending other 19th-century novels my students might enjoy now that they've got a taste for them. So here's this year's list of Recommended Further Reading:
  1. If you particularly enjoyed The Warden: Scenes of Clerical Life, Barchester Towers, or any other Trollope novel
  2. If you loved Great Expectations: David Copperfield, Bleak House, Mary Barton, North and South
  3. If your favourite was Lady Audley's Secret: The Woman in White, Aurora Floyd, Fingersmith
  4. If Middlemarch inspired you: The Mill on the Floss, Wives and Daughters
  5. If Jude the Obscure was your favourite: go on vacation, preferably somewhere sunny
And that's a wrap.

December 2, 2007

Weekend Miscellany

Weekends in our house are not really times for concentrated work or reading, between household chores, kid stuff, and the odd idea that even academics should be off-duty occasionally. On the other hand, it's nice to have a little intellectual pay-off for puttering too. So in between activities and distractions, one thing I end up doing a fair amount of on the weekend is poking around in blogs and literary websites, just seeing what's around that's of interest to me or to friends or family (whose mailboxes I now regularly clutter up with links to things I think might be of interest to them too). Here are a couple of things I've been looking at this weekend, some of them 'old' in web years but newly come to my attention:
  1. Crooked Timber had a book event on Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, a copy of which I finally picked up for myself a little while ago. Not only is there a nice array of interesting contributions by 'Crooked Timberites,' but Clarke herself participated. I've bookmarked it for now, since I'd like to read the novel 'fresh' before reading so much about it, but just browsing through its contents has made me move the novel to the top of my 'to read' pile.
  2. A. S. Byatt has an interesting piece in the TLS about novels and neuroscience. Its conclusion: "We have had a lot of the body as desire, and listened to many professors of desire. There is something else – the human capacity to think, and to make feelings into thoughts. It is a way out of narcissism."
  3. Conversational Reading had a Friday Column back in February on 'Classical Music in Literature'; many of the books sound extremely interesting. I could add to the books named there also Vikram Seth's An Equal Music, Angela Huth's Easy Silences, and one of my long-time favourites, Lynne Sharon Schwartz's Disturbances in the Field; none of these are as formally ingenious as some of CR's examples sound, but all bring to life the demanding blend of intellectual and aesthetic response (and sheer physical and mental labour) that is classical music. Of the ones CR discusses, Europe Central sounds most compelling to me.
  4. And speaking of classical music, The Guardian has a couple of reviews of recent books about it, all of which sound tremendously interesting: Alfred Brendel's Collected Essays, and Oliver Sacks's Musicophilia and Daniel Levitin's This is Your Brain on Music.
  5. ReadySteadyBook refers back to earlier posts condemning "Establishment Literary Fiction" (or "ELF," cute) for ignoring the challenges of modernism: "ELF endlessly repeats the tropes and styles of the Victorian Novel, with its fingers in its ears, shouting its (sometimes very good) narrative, flaunting its (sometimes very finely drawn) characters, refusing to be interrogated and refusing to recognise its own structural ressentiment." I think it's not supposed to be the Victorian Novel that has its fingers in its ears, but even so, the set-up suggests a monolothic naive realism on the one side with self-conscious meta-fictional modernism on the other, in a way that is hardly fair or accurate. I haven't followed back all the old links yet.