January 31, 2008

This Week in My Classes (January 31, 2008)

This week I've been preoccupied with graduate admissions--about which, for obvious reasons, I won't say more here, except that it is a process that prompts much reflection on the state of the profession and the discipline and on the best way forward for a department such as ours. But of course the rest of business goes on, including my two classes, and this in spite of the best efforts of an evil maritime winter storm Sunday night and into Monday that put a modest 5 cm. or so of snow on the ground but then followed up with equal amounts of ice pellets and then a day of freezing rain...it was an awful mess.

In Mystery and Detective Fiction, we got to Sherlock Holmes at last. Our sample was "The Blue Carbuncle," particularly delightful for its infamous close reading of a hat:
"Then, what clue could you have as to his identity?"
"Only as much as we can deduce."
"From his hat?"
"But you are joking. What can you gather from this old battered
"Here is my lens. You know my methods. What can you gather yourself as to
the individuality of the man who has worn this article?"
(curious? read the rest here)
My main interest was in placing Holmes into the larger history of detective fiction that I have been laying out, as well as examining the story as exemplary of some important characteristics of a 'Great Detective' mystery. We talked, for instance, about the appeal of a 'reasoning, thinking machine' such as Holmes in the particular historical and social context in which he was created, as well as the continuing appeal of characters who promise to interpret even the most unyielding of data and render it amenable to human solutions (I brought up House M.D., for example, in many respects, especially in its earlier episodes, a kind of revisiting of or homage to the Holmes mystique). We also talked about the relative lightheartedness with which the crime is treated (necessary, perhaps, for us to enjoy the process of detection as a process, even a game), and about the limits the form of such a story places on characterization, a problem that will become more acute as we move to Agatha Christie next week. The appeal of the detective series clearly emerges at least in part from the opportunity it provides to get to know at least one person very well, to watch that character change and develop over time and perhaps also in response to the crimes that he or she solves. One small cool thing that I was also able to do, thanks to the amazing resource that is the internet, is play an audio clip of Arthur Conan Doyle himself explaining the origins of his great character (you can listen too, if you go here and click on the link provided).

In the seminar on the Victorian 'woman question,' we have begun working our way through East Lynne. Each time I have taught this book so far I become preoccupied with the problem of literary evaluation. Is the book as badly written and constructed as I think? How far are the standards and comparisons I would invoke to defend this judgment defensible in any general way? How far is my own reading affected by knowing at the outset that East Lynne has no standing as great literature? Do I forgive trite or awkward or dull moments in other books for no good reason? I've tried to get some discussion going about this here before; I'd still be interested in anyone's comments, especially about the sample excerpts I posted. I certainly have never regretted assigning the novel, because teaching literature has many purposes and goals, one of which is (or at least can be) gaining some understanding of literary history, including the books that were bestsellers at a particular time--an exercise which for students as well can helpfully spark questions about literary merit. (If all they ever read is the really good stuff, they won't necessarily grasp why it is considered the really good stuff, after all, or have concrete examples of alternatives to challenge the idea of "really good stuff" for themselves.)

January 25, 2008

This Week in My Classes (January 25, 2008)

We wrapped up our discussion of The Moonstone today in Mystery and Detective Fiction. This is a novel that provokes thought (as well as pleasure) on many levels. Today I felt inclined to emphasize some of the neat formal and thematic balancing Collins provides with his conclusions. (I say 'conclusions' because we get both the English ending, wrapping up the 'marriage plot,' and the Indian ending, with the restoration of the diamond to its rightful place--or is it?) For instance, the Prologue gives us a kind of murder mystery with the figure of John Herncastle poised with the bloody dagger over the body of the dying Indian (surely he's guilty, but we draw this conclusion from insufficient--moral, not legal--evidence); then at the end we get the body of the English thief (see, no spoilers!) and draw the conclusion that he has been murdered by the Indians in pursuit of their stolen treasure, but here too (even the phrasing is the same) we have moral rather than legal evidence. The English characters continue to believe the diamond really belongs to Rachel, exposing the limitations of their own notions of justice and guilt, but the Indians have killed without remorse to steal it back. English religiosity has been exposed as hypocritical, vicious, and intrusive; how far is the representation of the Indians as pursuing spiritual goals at the expense of fortune, caste, and security supposed to be a good alternative? Also, how far can we trust the story we think we know by the end, given the doubts Collins's narrative technique has so effectively raised about first-person testimony? Do his multiple narrators cumulatively overcome the presumption of unreliability? Lots of questions, lots of answers, lots of fun. Monday we're on to Sherlock Holmes.

In The Victorian 'Woman Question' we had our last classes on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Today was student presentation day, and the group put on a good show, with lots of relevant information about literary and critical contexts, and a fun activity too, because I always ask presenters to find some way to get everyone involved. Today we had a "Choose Your Own Adventure" version of Tenant, prompting us to examine Helen's (and Bronte's) choices, including how far they really were choices, given some of the social and economic constraints on Helen's situation. My rule for this part of the presentation is that the activity can be nearly anything--a debate, a group discussion, a game, a dramatic sketch--provided it engages us in some substantive way with our class readings. I've played "Who Wants to be a Pre-Raphaelite?" (when in doubt, you can "Phone Dr. Maitzen," check your notes, or ask a classmate), adjudicated a "Worst Mothers in Victorian Literature" contest, seen fallen women (dressed for the part) debate their respectable counterparts, tried to decide who else could die in The Mill on the Floss without losing the novel's main ideas (this was a good one, as it convinced me of the necessity of an ending that can seem gratuitous or uncalled for--which is not to say that we couldn't think of people we would rather see die, but it's remarkable how different the book quickly becomes if you try to get rid of them)....I'm always impressed at my students' ingenuity, and I think the classes always appreciate the change of pace and the opportunity for some fun.

January 23, 2008

Coming Soon: James Wood, How Fiction Works

Mark Sarvas links us to this write-up of James Wood's new book, How Fiction Works:
To the business of criticism, Wood brings his personal baggage as a self-confessed Presbyterian Calvinist. He is a seeker of truth and enlightenment, reading being a sublime form of communication, an act almost of religious application, which requires serious study if its rewards are to be properly mined. What he is always on the lookout for are phoneys, bum notes, intrusive authorial voices, obviousness, lazy thinking, the denial of art, the fear of experiment. Iconoclastic he may be, but he is also respectful, sensitive and challenging. As he sees it, he has a moral imperative to investigate hype and hypocrisy, showing readers less well-read than him in every sense what is actually going on in a novel. (read the rest here)
I've already identified myself as an admirer of Wood, though I can't claim to have read more than a small fraction of his extensive output. The references here to his 'religious application' or outlook are especially interesting in the context of his earlier book The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief (brief excerpt here). I'll certainly want to read How Fiction Works as part of my inquiry into 'books about books' written for non-specialist or non-academic readers. It sounds very much in the tradition of David Lodge's excellent The Art of Fiction, which remains my favourite in this genre.

January 20, 2008

Silly Novels about Silly Women; or, Reflections on Jane Austen, Sex and the City, and Winning at Scrabble

Well you see, it was a busy week, and sometimes it's nice to have something light to pick up and read over breakfast or whatever....but Confessions of a Shopaholic sure is lame. In a general way, I don't have much to add to what I said before about "chick lit." I'm glad I got this book from the library and didn't pay a cent for it, because I want to get rid of it as soon as possible. I don't necessarily object to a little mindless diversion. But--what really irked me with this one was actually the same thing that irks me about Bridget Jones's Diary, although that novel is much more clever and entertaining: what's supposed to be the charm of foolish, incompetent women? Is it really so hard to imagine smart, committed, capable women in romantic contexts? The answer of course is no, because the supposed "mother of chick lit," Jane Austen, does precisely that. Elizabeth Bennett does not win Mr. Darcy's heart by being cute but trivial; she earns his respect and charms his socks off. Anne Elliot doesn't deserve happiness because she happens into an insight or two after a whole book of being silly and irresponsible: we know all along that Wentworth will be the foolish one if he falls for anyone without her integrity and capacity for intelligent action. None of Austen's protagonists discovers, conveniently, that having no real interests beyond clothes, shopping, and sex, no professional competence, no ideas of any substance, is actually the way to true love. "Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story," Anne Elliot famously protests when confronted with literary ' evidence' of women's character. "Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands." Yet with the pen in their hands, some women peddle this kind of "sell-yourself-short" fantasy to women--and it sells! Is the appeal of this variety of "chick lit" that it reassures women that not only do they not have to be smart and successful to be attractive but that their failures (blue soup!) will make them more appealing to smart and successful men? Or is it just easier to put that kind of story together than to confront, as Austen does, just what kind of challenge a strong woman poses to conventional ideas of romance, femininity, and narrative? (There's a kind of equivalent for men in Forrest Gump, I think: better to be mentally deficient but good-hearted, and somehow, by accident, you will win every race.) Once upon a time my (very shrewd and professionally successful) grandmother cautioned me not to beat my then-boyfriend at Scrabble. The message was that brainy women are off-putting, that competence is incompatible with charm. (This theory was wholly undermined by her own life, though she persisted in calling herself "Whistler's mother," a label nobody who knew her could ever accept.) Though she was a huge fan of her granddaughters' successes, I think she was not altogether wrong--not in principle, but in practice. Sex and the City, which looks in many ways like it belongs in the "chick lit" genre, is very smart sometimes about the difficulties independent, successful women face in negotiating romantic norms and expectations (remember the episode in which Carrie buys Berger a Prada shirt? or the one in which Miranda wants to take Steve to an office party?). Sex and the City presents fantasies of other kinds, to be sure, but overall I think it refuses to make its women silly and often this is precisely where their romantic problems begin. In this respect anyway, perhaps the series is more in Austen's tradition than I would have thought, and certainly more so than even Bridget Jones. In any case, I say go on and win at Scrabble if you can! Your self-respect depends on it.

January 18, 2008

Fun with Miss Clack (with a nod to the 'value' of the humanities)

My Mystery and Detective Fiction class was great fun this morning--and educational, too! We focused on Miss Clack, one of Collins's narrators in The Moonstone, first as an example of first-person narration, reading some excerpts closely to see how her voice reveals her character, in the manner of a dramatic monologue (allusions to Browning are inevitable, and often helpful, as students are not always accustomed to paying the same kind of minute attention to fictional speakers as they are to poetic ones). As I collected students' insights and observations about the particular words, phrases, and intonations that give the game away for her, we found many connections between her individual quirks and flaws (so tremendously comic, as rendered by Collins) and themes of the novel--from the limitations of eye-witness testimony to the disruptive potential of sexual desire. Here are two of the excerpts we examined:

1. I find my insignificant existence suddenly remembered by Mr. Franklin Blake. My wealthy relative — would that I could add my spiritually-wealthy relative! — writes, without even an attempt at disguising that he wants something of me. The whim has seized him to stir up the deplorable scandal of the Moonstone: and I am to help him by writing the account of what I myself witnessed while visiting at Aunt Verinder’s house in London. Pecuniary remuneration is offered to me — with the want of feeling peculiar to the rich. I am to re-open wounds that Time has barely closed; I am to recall the most intensely painful remembrances — and this done, I am to feel myself compensated by a new laceration, in the shape of Mr. Blake’s cheque. My nature is weak. It cost me a hard struggle, before Christian humility conquered sinful pride, and self-denial accepted the cheque.

2. When I answered for a loving reception of him at the Mothers’ Small-Clothes, the grateful heart of our Christian Hero overflowed. He pressed my hands alternately to his lips. Overwhelmed by the exquisite triumph of having got him back among us, I let him do what he liked with my hands. I closed my eyes. I felt my head, in an ecstasy of spiritual self-forgetfulness, sinking on his shoulder. In a moment more I should certainly have swooned away in his arms, but for an interruption from the outer world, which brought me to myself again.

Who wouldn't want to "gloss" these passages? This session was a good reminder to me that if you are pretty well prepared, you don't need to script everything in order to generate both interest and substance for your students. The issue of relying on lecture notes has been discussed a couple of times recently at RYS (scanning the posts over there is a kind of guilty pleasure for me--the folks over there say some of the things I'm sure we all think at times but bite back because, well, we're polite). "Winging it" is risky, though (I certainly didn't come with just my book and a prayer): you have to have some idea of where you hope the discussion will go, and you also need the cooperation of your students. This group is great, especially for a class its size (about 70): plenty of bright, curious, smart people willing to raise their hand and add something. Mind you, Miss Clack makes our work easy by being so thoroughly despicable and yet so entertaining. Now, what exactly is our Christian Hero doing with her hands?

2 hours later: I had nearly as much fun with a good discussion of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in my 'woman question' seminar, where formal issues about point of view fed into analyses of the way Helen and Huntingdon's marriage exposes the critical gaps between the ideal and the reality. Without actual power, influence is no better than nagging; without accountability, power mutates rapidly into abuse. As well as dramatizing moral crises, the novel is formally organized to both teach and model moral development. Mornings like these invigorate me, intellectually but also emotionally. With all these heavy discussions going around about the "value" of the humanities and why we do what we do and dare to love it, it's a relief to be in a context where that value at least feels palpable, even if it is difficult to articulate it.

January 16, 2008

This Week in My Classes (January 16, 2008)

For me, at least, and I hope for my students, this is a fun week of reading in both of my winter term classes.

Mystery and Detective Fiction: We've begun our discussions of Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone, a novel that I enjoy more every time I teach it. My main focus for the first couple of classes is on the way the novel sets us up to worry about problems of interpretation and misinterpretation. With its series of first-person narrators, the novel is self-consciously set up to mimic the testimony of a series of eye-witnesses, but right from the Prologue we know that seeing something with your own eyes is not always enough to tell you just what it is that you have seen: you require an interpretive framework, and the first-person narrators also serve to remind us that these frameworks reflect the presuppositions and prejudices of each individual witness. The prologue also introduces the idea of "moral evidence," as opposed to legal or circumstantial evidence, which relies among other things on understanding of people's characters (not something an "objective" outsider like Sergeant Cuff can bring to a case). And it sets supernatural or otherwise unscientific theories and interpretations against reason and common sense. By setting the theft of the diamond from Rachel's Indian cabinet against the story of its other thefts across history, the novel complicates questions of legitimacy and ownership; by emphasizing the bloody aggression of the English against the Indians, it also undermines the fantasy of the main characters that their home represents order, tranquility, and justice that is disrupted only by the invasion of the "devilish Indian diamond." "Good heavens, mamma!" Rachel exclaims in Chapter XI; "Are there thieves in the house?"--to which the answer is of course, yes, on one interpretation they are all thieves, even before the diamond goes missing. Today we get to talk about Sergeant Cuff and how far his outsider perspective can move the inquiry forward. If we have time, we might do a bit with Rosanna and her friend Limping Lucy, too, one of the many clues we get that the novel as a whole is not entirely (if at all) behind the values so cherished by our first narrator, Betteredge: "Ha, Mr Betteredge, the day is not far off," she warns him, "when the poor will rise against the rich." So much fun, and always we'll be thinking about how Collins is using the form of his novel--the first-person narrations so similar in effect to dramatic monologues, and the juxtaposition of so many of them as if to model one possible way of overcoming their limitations. (In classes when I teach both The Moonstone and Middlemarch, it's always interesting to compare his strategy here to George Eliot's use of her omniscient narrator and manipulations of point of view.)

The Victorian 'Woman Question': Here we're moving into The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, another novel that foregrounds issues of narrative construction through its nested narratives and chronological doubling-back. Again, we get a telling introductory piece with the letter from our main narrator, Gilbert Markham, to his buddy Halford; the letter, apologizing for a failure of confidence and making amends by offering up the story of Gilbert's own marriage plot, raises all kinds of questions about masculinity and friendship, and also, by beginning where Gilbert's story actually ends up--for instance, after his process of maturation and development--helps us understand what the novel will be about. When the story 'begins' we go back to his younger self and realize how far he has to develop before he will be capable of such a letter. Then, of course, when we reach Helen's diary, we see that she too, so strong and independent in Gilbert's narrative, has evolved significantly through her own experiences. Today's reading is the first instalment of her diary, taking her from her first meetings with Huntingdon to their marriage. It brings to life central issues in the debate over the 'woman question'; one aspect I find particularly interesting is its emphasis on Helen's desire to be Huntingdon's saviour--just as she has been taught to see her 'mission'--but of course, as the novel goes on to dramatize in compelling detail, the female influence she so looks forward to wielding means absolutely nothing in the absence of actual power or leverage, social or economic. I think Bronte handles her first-person narrations really artfully as well; though her characters are nowhere near as diverse (or comic) as Collins's, they do reveal themselves by their language as well as by their self-reporting.

January 14, 2008

The Shelf Life (Half-Life?) of Blog Posts

In a piece on the role (or not) of public intellectuals, Russell Jacoby raises some questions about blogging that I've wondered about too:
On the Internet, articles, blog posts, and comments on blog posts pour forth, but who can keep up with them? And while everything is preserved (or "archived"), has anyone ever looked at last year's blogs?
"Rapidly produced," he concludes, blog posts are "just as rapidly forgotten." Jacoby is interested in how blogging has affected "the quality or content of intellectual discussions." I'm interested in that too, but for now I'd just like to pick up on the issue of the status of past posts. For instance, as I familiarized myself with academic and literary blogs that looked interesting to me, I often found myself trailing through archives sometimes three or four years old. Some of the discussions--the most 'occasional' ones--obviously had become outdated, but others, including discussions of books, retain their currency just fine. But do they really? Well, not in practice, of course. Especially with the backwards chronology blogs impose, with newest always first, they do seem designed to keep us moving on. I'm also not aware of an easy way to locate material in blog archives unless the blogger has a particularly thorough index or set of labels or categories. Especially when discussions link back and forth across different blogs, the process of following older threads is extremely laborious. I guess I'm basically wondering about a couple of things: first, is there some "netiquette" principle that governs when a post 'expires' and ought not to be commented on any more? and second, does the perhaps fleeting nature of the attention any given blog post can have, as it is relentlessly shuttled down and down into the archives, add an extra dimension of futility to writing in this form?

Meanwhile, on the subject of public intellectuals, there's much discussion at The Valve about Stanley Fish, who is busy actually being one, for better and for worse, with his own blog at the New York Times. The enormous chains of comments on his recent posts on 'the uses of the humanities' (the first one reached around 500 comments, I believe, while the second one is up to 244 as I write this) suggests the rapidly diminishing returns at this extreme end of the commenting scale. A recent comment thread at the Valve raised questions about the importance of commenting for measuring the success or value of blogging; I've noted a couple of times the generally low level of discussion on literary topics and, in a more general way, felt that without active back-and-forth blogging is not as worthwhile or rewarding as I'd initially hoped it would be. But, as blogging skeptics have often noted, the greater the quantity, typically the lower the quality of the discussion. I have only scanned the replies to Fish. In general, they seemed to stand up well to the threads over at the Guardian blog, which degenerate pretty quickly. But even so, who can process so many replies or synthesize them in any kind of meaningful way? (I recommend reading the Valve comments instead; there are "just" about 80 of them, including a number of extremely thoughtful and illuminating ones.)

January 12, 2008

This Last Week in My Classes (January 7, 2008)

Last week was the first full week of classes for this term and, as usual, it was chaotic despite my pretty thorough efforts to be ready. You just get out of practice at juggling all the parts, at having everything ready to go when you need it, at keeping track of the requests and complications and paperwork. Also, you realize when you get back in the classroom that two weeks nattering at your kids all day and catching up on past seasons of House at night actually diminishes your ability to speak in complete (never mind polite) sentences. However, it's all underway now and, also as usual, it feels good. The first few class meetings for me are all about trying to get everyone on the same page by giving them some historical and critical frameworks for considering our particular readings. I find there's often very little common ground among students in terms of preparation, especially since in our department there is no historical survey required before upper-level classes; you're lucky if very many of them know that Virginia Woolf did not actually know Shakespeare's sister or that the Romantics preceded the Victorians. And a lower-level survey class in a popular genre, such as the Mystery and Detective Fiction class I'm teaching this term, attracts a lot of non-majors. So here's how we warmed up:

English 2040, Mystery and Detective Fiction: We led off with a discussion of differences (real and perceived) between "genre" and "literary" fiction, focusing on the different reading strategies and expectations we typically bring to each kind. To get us started on these questions, we read aloud James Thurber's brilliant little story "The Macbeth Murder Mystery," in which an "American lady" accidentally finds herself curled up in bed with Shakespeare instead of the murder mystery she was expecting. Her interpretive misadventures are both comic and revealing, perfect for my purposes. It doesn't hurt, either, in the tender early days of a professor's relationship with a class, to get some laughs. The next couple of meetings were spent on some background about detective fiction as a genre, a kind of genealogy taking us from Newgate and gothic fiction, through early practitioners like Poe and related forms such as 'sensation' fiction, through the Golden Age and the hard-boiled Americans to feminist revisionists (Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton, for instance) to contemporary figures such as Ian Rankin. We've also spent some time on the history of policing, and on the characteristic features of the charismatic amateur detective so compellingly inaugurated with Poe's C. Auguste Dupin. Next week, we're done with generalizations and moving into detailed analysis of our first major reading, The Moonstone. Cursed diamonds, eerie quicksand, stained nightgowns, and multiple narrators: who could ask for anything more?

English 4604, The Victorian 'Woman Question: Here too my opening tactic is laying out some generalizations, this time about the social, political, and historical context of the debate over the 'woman question.' Once we get going on our particular literary texts, we will want to spend plenty of time on their formal and aesthetic properties, but we will also be considering how they contribute to this debate by dramatizing or thematizing some of its elements. And most of our readings simply require us to understand some specific issues about the circumstances of Victorian women, particularly in marriage. We begin Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall on Monday, for example, an ingeniously constructed, piercingly intelligent and emotionally gripping novel that turns in part on some key 19th-century ideas about femininity and masculinity as well as on the economic and other constraints of a Victorian wife. But this past week our major reading was Mill's The Subjection of Women--also, of course, piercingly intelligent, and eminently rational and persuasive. We looked at it along with France Power Cobbe's powerful piece "Criminals, Idiots, Women, and Minors," which gave us some opportunities to compare the different rhetorical strategies of two writers approaching this highly contentious material from somewhat different positions.

It's early yet, but I like what I've seen of both groups so far. Here's hoping we can all keep up the momentum!

January 9, 2008

Go in!

Yesterday I finally mailed off the typescript (all 500+ pages) of the anthology of 19th-century novel criticism that I have been working on for...well, longer than I like to admit. In the end, will it be all it could have been, or should have been? Who can say? What would be the measure? Still, the experience of preparing it has been a learning experience and even, sometimes, a pleasurable one. In honour of its completion (to this stage, at least), here's what has come to rest in my mind as my favourite excerpt from the 22 essays on the final list. There are many close seconds, including much of David Masson's British Novelists and Their Styles, brilliant bits of Edward Dowden's review essay on George Eliot's novels, and, of course, many words of wisdom from George Eliot herself. But for sheer exuberance at, and generous appreciation of, the multitudinous possibilities of the genre, you can't beat this conclusion to Henry James's classic essay on "The Art of Fiction":
But the only condition that I can think of attaching to the composition of the novel is, as I have already said, that it be interesting. This freedom is a splendid privilege, and the first lesson of the young novelist is to learn to be worthy of it. ‘Enjoy it as it deserves,’ I should say to him; ‘take possession of it, explore it to its utmost extent, reveal it, rejoice in it. All life belongs to you, and don’t listen either to those who would shut you up into corners of it and tell you that it is only here and there that art inhabits, or to those who would persuade you that this heavenly messenger wings her way outside of life altogether, breathing a superfine air and turning away her head from the truth of things. There is no impression of life, no manner of seeing it and feeling it, to which the plan of the novelist may not offer a place; you have only to remember that talents so dissimilar as those of Alexandre Dumas and Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Gustave Flaubert, have worked in this field with equal glory. Don’t think too much about optimism and pessimism; try and catch the colour of life itself. . . . If you must indulge in conclusions let them have the taste of a wide knowledge. Remember that your first duty is to be as complete as possible--to make as perfect a work. Be generous and delicate, and then, in the vulgar phrase, go in!’

January 5, 2008

The 50 Greatest Books?

Announced in this weekend's Globe and Mail: a new project to discuss the "50 Greatest Books":
So many issues, so many books, so few of them great. Watch for our first choice in this space next week. And be prepared to argue. (read the whole column here)
As one of the top-secret 'jurors' points out, a venture like this raises all kinds of questions, mostly of the "great in what way, or for what?" variety that I mentioned in my reply to Nigel's question about evaluation in literary criticism. It would be a more sensible project to set some parameters--even focusing on "50 Greatest Novels" or "50 Greatest Poems" would alleviate the inevitable apples and oranges kind of conversation that is about to ensue. While in some ways I think this is a pointless exercise, because it artificially tries to reduce literary analysis to something like a Billboard chart, I think the process it could initiate for readers is valuable. We ought to think about why we love or value the books we do, not just insist that it's all a question of arbitrary taste. "Tell me what you like and I'll tell you what you are," as Ruskin said. If pressed, we always have a reason, and clinging to our preferences without acknowledging our reasons is just prejudice, in reading as in the rest of life. Further, when thoughtful people articulate, exchange, and argue about their judgments, we can learn a great deal, and our own tastes can evolve; this is the process the critic Wayne Booth called "coduction." So bring it on! I'm curious, though, about why the panel is being kept so strictly anonymous. Does this have anything to do with mistrust of authority where literary judgments are involved? But we're told that "each entry will be written by someone with knowledge, usually extensive knowledge, of the book in question," so unlike "Canada Reads" (which seems to have a deliberate policy of keeping out the scholars and critics), it seems that here expertise, and not just enthusiasm, is being sought. I suppose anonymity keeps us focused on the argument they make for their chosen text--and saves them, at least temporarily, from hate mail of the kind that does, actually, get generated whenever someone waves the red flag of "literary merit" in front of enough readers ("I can't believe you think Ulysses is a great book when it is clearly incomprehensible drivel!" etc.). Well, let the games begin: any bets on which will book will launch the series? (My money's on the Bible or the Odyssey.)

January 2, 2008

Sun spots?

Wait a minute: did I miss something? Here's the plot summary of Soueif's In the Eye of the Sun given in a reputable reference source:
Aisha [one of Soueif's earlier characters] reappears as Asya in In the Eye of the Sun, a novel about a feminist's failed marriage to a dry intellectual that has parallels to George Eliot's Middlemarch. Moving between various Middle Eastern cities and using passages from Arab newspapers, this long, detailed novel recalls the anti-Western politics Gamel Abdel Nasser, his death, the 1967 war with Israel, and the rise of Anwar Sadat. Asya ignores public events, tries to immerse herself in Western culture, but is forced into an arranged marriage with impotent Saif, who works for Syrian intelligence. Unhappy with her marriage she studies in England for a doctorate, sees in England's monuments symbols of imperialism and exploitation of Arabs, blames England for the creation of Israel, and becomes disenchanted with English literature. Bogged down in research at a provincial university, she starts an affair. Learning of the affair, Saif accuses her of selfishness and ignoring the consequences of her actions on others. Seeing the parallel between her personal life and her neglect, as an intellectual, of Egypt, she returns home where she teaches birth control while wanting a child of her own.
I've only read In the Eye of the Sun once so far, but I'm not sure the author of this source has read it at all--or else I read it very badly! First, I probably would not label Asya a "feminist," unless that's what you call any independent-minded woman. Second, Saif is not a "dry intellectual"; it's Asya, actually, who comes closest to being that for a while, through her linguistic analysis of metaphors (which I thought was meant as a kind of 'key to all mythologies'). Third, theirs is not an "arranged marriage" and, far from being forced into it, Asya yearns for it and idealizes it. Fourth, Saif is not impotent; the sexual problems in their marriage arise from Asya's fears of intercourse. Fifth, she does not go to England because she is unhappy with her marriage, as this summary implies. Sixth, I didn't notice meditations on imperialism or exploitation of the kind described here, though of course these are themes explored (in a more nuanced way, I thought) in the novel. Seventh, OK, she does start an affair, but (importantly) it's with an idiot. Eighth, is that why she goes back to Egypt? I suppose that may be an interpretive question, but most of these other points are pretty straightforward ones. It was a disorienting experience (no pun intended?) staring at this paragraph.