February 29, 2008

Why I Teach Literature" (with some thoughts about James Wood appended)

Not long ago there was a 'meme' going around on the question "Why Do I Teach Literature?" (Joseph Kugelmass's comments on this topic at The Valve include links to further contributors). Reading around in my files today (where I am in search of an organizing pattern for future research--but that's another post for another day) I came across this passage and it struck me as nicely encapsulating both the central problem of teaching literature (that it is, paradoxically, always about feeling as well as knowing) and its greatest lure:
Critics, before and after Northrop Frye, have distinguished between literature and experience and literature and knowledge. The distinction, though plausible in some theoretical contexts, blurs nearly every day, in nearly every classroom. I am content that it blurs. Unlike physicists, who teach not nature but physics, we teach both literature (how it feels, how it thinks, to have read a literary work) and the rules and facts about reading literature. As Gertrude Stein once said to an obtuse interviewer: "But after all you must enjoy my writing and if you enjoy it you understand it. If you did not enjoy it, why do you make a fuss about it?" That is why I finally became a teacher of literature, to live in the vicinity of that joy.
This is from Ihab Hassan's essay "Confessions of a Reluctant Critic or, The Resistance to Literature" (New Literary History 24, 1993). Other critics have also written eloquently about the experience of following that lure of joy into a professional life that does not--perhaps cannot--reinforce or reward it, and may even work actively against it. John McGowan, for instance, in his book Democracy's Children (2002), notes,
[T]here remains a tension between the experience of reading literature and the paths followed in studying. . . . To give one's allegiance to the academic forms through which literature is discussed and taught is to withdraw (at least partly) allegiance to literature itself" (65).
25 Years after Hassan's remarks, I think it remains true that it is in the classroom rather than in their scholarship that many academic literary critics feel and communicate their love of their subject. One of the reasons I shifted research directions altogether a few years ago (significantly, after achieving the professional security of tenure) was that I wanted my research activities to give me, or be driven by, the same kind of intellectual and affective immediacy I find in teaching, and I couldn't see how that would happen if, among other things, much of my work continued to be on second-rate material, no matter how historically revealing it was--or how useful for generating publishable, if niche, material of my own. To a large extent I succeeded, and as an unanticipated bonus, I think I became a better teacher because of the synergy that developed between my class preparation and my other work. It's interesting, actually, that it seems to be widely taken for granted (or is it?) that undergraduate teaching and scholarly research leading to publication are very different kinds of things, and overwhelmingly the professional priority is with the latter--even though (or, perhaps, because) its tendency is to drive all joy away!

Follow-Up (to be developed later): Also as part of sorting through my files, I've been re-reading some of the James Wood essays I've gathered up, and (aside from being overwhelmed with envy at his erudition, elegant style, and intelligent craftsmanship as an essayist), I'm struck by how much closer they are to the kind of criticism we--or at least I--do in the classroom than anything that ordinarily passes for academic or professional criticism (and here I think it's important to distinguish, as mainstream writers often don't, between criticism and reviewing). It's not that I think I'm as smart, articulate, or insightful as Wood,or as well-read either, though I hope I have my good moments! My point is really about the genre of criticism he works in, which seems to me to lie somewhere in between the poles of academic scholarship (which he clearly knows about, but relies on more implicitly than explicitly most of the time) and popular book reviews (which would rarely seek the kind of broad perspective or level of sophisticated analysis he deploys). I've ordered How Fiction works from The Book Depository, along with The Irresponsible Self, and I've got The Broken Estate from the library. I sense a Wood-fest coming on, perhaps as a way to draw together some of the scattered elements of my recent browsing and brooding about the function of criticism at the present time. Conveniently, as a motivator, there's a conference panel on Victorian criticism for which I'm hoping to submit an abstract. One of the questions in the CFP is about what the relationships envisaged by the Victorians between "different forms of cultural production and the work of the critic" might tell us "about how criticism was imagined during the Victorian era, and what they might tell us about the more professionalized forms of criticism practiced today." If this isn't an opportunity (and a challenge) for me to make something of my work on the Broadview anthology along with the 'work' I've been doing on this blog, I don't know what is! Whether anyone would want to hear it is, of course, another matter altogether.

February 28, 2008

Hammett Time

Here's something to file under 'coincidences.' I was just revising my notes for Monday's meeting of Mystery and Detective Fiction, for a lecture and discussion section focusing primarily on the story Sam Spade tells Brigid O'Shaughnessy in Chapter 7 of The Maltese Falcon about "a man named Flitcraft." Feeling restless with work, though (it's still Reading Week, after all), I flipped around to a few of my usual bloggy haunts and almost immediately landed at this post over at the Guardian's book blog:
Like most readers, I often wonder what it is that makes some books more appealing than others. It's an impossible problem to solve definitively, but the explanation I'm finding most persuasive this week is that part of it - possibly the greater part - is in the digressions. Digression in writing is risky: nobody wants to read 500 pages when 250 will do. But in the right hands it's exhilarating.

This is especially true in the kind of writing that otherwise gets right to the point. In fact one of the most remarkable and arresting digressions I've ever come across is the "Flitcraft parable", which appears about a third of the way into Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. (read the rest here)
I think the author of the post is entirely right that the seemingly gratuitous character of this story, which comes just when we think the action of the plot is really heating up, is precisely what makes it so significant and effective; we are driven to ask why it is there at all, forced, as it were, into being critics and interpreters instead of 'just' a passive audience. And, as the post suggests, its relevance is not limited to The Maltese Falcon; rather, the story stands as a pointed, if elliptical, primer on an entire worldview. (One major work of criticism about Hammett is actually called Beams Falling.) In my class discussion, we will think about how someone would (or could or should) act who sees the world in that way, as governed entirely by "blind chance." What, for instance, is the place of love in that world? Where do you find your guiding principles, to combat or survive the randomness? Sam, of course, defines himself through his work, choosing an ethos of professional loyalty over sentiment: "When a man's partner is killed he's supposed to do something about it." After detailing his reasons for turning Brigid in, he points out that all they've got on the other side of the argument "is the fact that maybe you love me and maybe I love you." It's possible that he never does in fact love her, but my reading of the novel has been that he does, as much as he can, but that he rates that feeling as less important than the code he lives by. It's a rational response but a chilling one, which is presumably why Effie asks him not to touch her once she knows and he himself ends the novel shivering.

February 27, 2008

P. D. James, Time to Be in Earnest

It's Reading Week here, which means a slight break from the day-to-day pressures of the term. Still, one's pedagogical conscience is never easy, so I've been balancing work and relaxation by reviewing P. D. James's memoir, Time to Be in Earnest, with an eye to teaching An Unsuitable Job for a Woman again in a week or two. James's subtitle is "A Fragment of an Autobiography," which rightly suggests a work that is neither tightly crafted nor expansive; it is an uneven but ultimately, I think, engaging mix of simple diary entries (her success has made her a very busy woman, we learn), recollections of her earlier life, and reflections on subjects of interest to her, from the history of crime fiction (of course) to current events such as the death of Princess Diana (the memoir begins in August 1997) or her experience serving on the jury for the Booker Prize, about which she is certainly frank ("Our final choice of Penelope Lively's Moon Tiger was only arrived at after a long argument which nearly made us late for the Guildhall dinner, and the choice was not unanimous"). (For what it's worth, Moon Tiger is one of my favourite books, and would probably have gotten my vote!) Throughout, her strong, if slightly crotchety, personality provides the unifying thread; she is opinionated and decisive, especially in her literary judgments (on The God of Small Things, for instance, she remarks that "it seems to me somewhat lush and overwritten, a beginner's attempt at a Naipaul or a Rushdie"), impatient with pretense and show, and unapologetic about her own chosen form:
I love structure in a novel and the detective story is probably the most structured of popular fiction. Some would say that it is the most artificial, but then all fiction is artificial, a careful rearrangement by selection of the writer's internal life in a form designed to make it accessible and attractive to a reader. The construction of a detective story might be formulaic; the writing need not be. And I was setting out, I remember, with high artistic ambitions. I didn't expect to make a fortune, but I did hope one day to be regarded as a good and serious novelist. It seemed to me, as it has to others, that there can be no better apprenticeship for an aspiring novelist than a classical detective story with its technical problems of balancing a credible mystery with believable characters and a setting which both complements and integrates the action. And I may have needed to write detective fiction for the same reasons as aficionados enjoy the genre: the catharsis of carefully controlled terror, the bringing of order out of disorder, the reassurance that we live in a comprehensible and moral universe and that, although we may not achieve justice, we can at least achieve an explanation and a solution. (12-13)
She talks often, actually, about the particular importance of setting in her novels; this is a topic we will address at length in class as we work on Unsuitable Job, in which the beauty of Cambridge provides a particularly poignant (as well as thematically significant) backdrop for the horrors of the story. An expert on the history of her own genre, James is also widely read in Victorian and contemporary fiction, though she is generally more enthusiastic about the former than the latter. Here, in a passage that exemplifies the bookish, even erudite, yet somewhat meandering or incidental quality of the book, she quotes one of my own favourite lines about the novel, Henry James writing on Trollope (an unlikely alliance, perhaps?) then finds herself meditating on the changing role of fiction in society:
One quotation I would most like to see in any revised edition [of the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Quotations, which she was reviewing for the Sunday Times] are the words of Henry James, writing of Anthony Trollope, "We trust to novels to maintain us in the practice of great indignations and great generosities." It is an elevanted ideal of fiction, but, thinking it over, I am not sure that it is any longer true. Dickens could write a novel which would move his readers to pity or outrage and act as a spur to action, but surely today it is television which, sometimes powerfully, sometimes superficially, examines for us the dilemmas and concerns of our age, reflects our lives and opens us to the lives of others. . . .

In particular, the so-called literary novel too often seems removed from the day-to-day concerns of ordinary people. The very description 'literary novel' is, for many readers, an indication that the work is not intended for them. With some notable exceptions--David Lodge is one--the worlds of industry and commerce, the very means by which society gains the wealth which supports our art and literature, are alien to the modern novelist, perhaps because they are worlds few of us have experienced. Have we a responsibility to break free from our cabined preoccupations, our fascination with history and our literary exploitations of the evils of the past and address ourselves to more contemporary themes? Is there a novelist today who could write--or would try to write--War and Peace or Trollope's The Way We Live Now with its brilliant portrayal of the financier Melmotte, the nineteenth-century Robert Maxwell?

Unless the novel, particularly the so-called literary novel, can reach the hearts and minds of ordinary people, reading will increasingly become a minority interest. . . It would be futile, and indeed silly, to suggest that novelists today can recover the hierarchical and moral certainties of Victorian England. Some writers would argue that we can no longer comfortably write in the tradition of social realism because we no longer know what we mean by reality. I suppose the extremes of literary experimentation are some novelists' ways of explaining the arbitrariness and chaos of human existence, an attempt to express the inexpressible. Thomas Hardy wrote that the secret of fiction lies in the adjustment of things uneven to things eternal and universal. But what adjustment can a writer make if, in a world governed for him by chance and chaos, he is no longer able to believe in things eternal and universal? (77-78)
On that note, it's interesting to note that James herself is a devoted, but not pious, Anglican, meaning she appreciates and participates in religious ritual but finds that compatible with what seems a fairly loose commitment to specific doctrines.

There's much more of interest in the book, especially for fans of her novels or of detective fiction more generally. I'll end here with some of the rules she provides, first for reviewers, and second for those adapting books for television. First, from her advice for reviewers:
  1. Always read the whole of the book before you write your review.
  2. Don't undertake to review a book if it is written in a genre you particularly dislike.
  3. Review the book the author has written, not the one you think he/she should have written.
  4. If you have prejudices--and you're entitled to them--face them frankly and, if appropriate, acknowledge them.
And some sage words for TV people:
  1. [her #6] Must we always have a car chase? Men may like them (although I can't think why); most women find them boring in the extreme. And if you must have a car chase, must it go on for so long? It need last only as long as it takes us to go and make the tea.
The book itself ends with her engaging address to the Jane Austen Society of North America on "Emma Considered as a Detective Story," well worth reading. Finally, if you want to listen to James speak for herself, try this excellent lecture on "The Craft of the Mystery Story," which she gave at the Smithsonian in 1995.

February 21, 2008

The Function of Criticism, in Brief

I just came across this quotation in my notebook and was struck, again, by how well it suits my own sense of the central purpose, or best possible outcome, of criticism:
The goal is not to pack into our traveling bag only the best that has been thought and said but to find forms of critical talk that will improve the range or depth or precision of our appreciations.
This formulation seems to me at once stringent and flexible. (It's from Wayne Booth's The Company We Keep.)

February 17, 2008

Recent Reading (and a little Recent Watching, too)

Despite He Knew He Was Right (currently on the table in my Victorian 'Woman Question' seminar), graduate admissions, and the ordinary middle-of-term business (incoming assignments, class preparation, committee meetings, and so on), I have been able to do a little 'pleasure' reading lately. Here are some 'thumbnail' responses.

Reginald Hill, Death Comes for the Fat Man. I find this series reliable: literate, well plotted, with its main characters well enough developed that the prospect of Dalziel's demise had some poignancy. This particular novel did not blow me away, though (for those who have read it, sorry for the pun). Although I appreciate Hill's attempt to engage with big issues and international conflicts as they register on a local scale, his Knights Templar seemed like foolish medieval joust re-enactors rather than a genuine force of menace worthy of their intended opposition. On the other hand, I wondered as I was reading whether that was Hill's point: that secret societies, blood vengeance, beheadings, and so forth are relics of medieval concepts of justice, religion, and warfare--that the Islamicist movements the Knights imitate represent anachronistic, regressive forces that are incongruous with contemporary mores.

Benjamin Black, Christine Falls. I expected more from this much-touted 'crossover' work by Booker-Prize winner John Banville. It is elegantly written, and some of the characters--especially his dour protagonist, the pathologist Quirke--are compellingly portrayed, but I didn't find that was true of all of them (Rose and Josh Crawford, for instance, or even Phoebe, who seems to be supposed to carry a pretty heavy thematic burden). Quirke's love for Sarah seemed based on nothing in particular (maybe I just miss fuller exposition?). The central 'crime' had few surprises for a novel set in 1950s Ireland (corruption in the Catholic church? unwanted babies? no kidding!). Atmospheric, I guess, but a thin atmosphere unless the people live in it intensely, and Banville's spare style did not establish that kind of intensity for me. I suppose I would sum up the novel's theme as 'being orphaned' (literally, but also emotionally and metaphysically). It did not bring home to me what the costs of such a condition are, maybe because on closer inspection pretty much all of the characters are in it together--which in itself is a potentially powerful (poignant, frightening) vision. I'll probably re-read it, as I admit my immersion in baggy Victorian novels that tell me everything (sometimes over and over) does not always make me the best reader of novels that leave more out.

On Friday I rented The Jane Austen Book Club. I found the book OK, if a bit gimmicky, but I thought it would make a decent movie. It did, but also an odd one: I can't imagine anyone getting much out of it, for instance, who doesn't know all six of Austen's novels pretty well--well enough to take an interest in watching other people debate, say, Fanny Price's character, or Emma's marriage to Mr Knightly. Superficial as the movie's book club discussions are (in fact, maybe because they are so superficial and rapid), non-Janeites seem likely to tune out, and then the plot that surrounds these scenes is itself not particularly rich. It's striking that only rarely did the book club scenes turn on issues of construction or literary technique: they were pretty much all about the characters all the time, generally in the spirit of "these people seem real to us, so let's debate their motives and choices." I have almost no personal experience of book clubs, but my sense is that this is indeed typical. Of course, this is also precisely the kind of conversation I think most English professors eventually shut down in class. And yet working my way through He Knew He Was Right with my students, I have been finding that it seems like the most natural and appropriate approach, because Trollope's most notable literary technique is precisely characterization, and his primary concern is what his characters do, with what motives, to what ends, and with what consequences. Also, as my students have pointed out, in many crucial cases he does not take sides, or if so, only equivocally, so that we are poised ourselves on the cusp of decisions or moral judgements and prompted to keep weighing the pros and cons of actions, the honesty, self-knowledge, or self-deceptions of his people, and so on. Who is right, Emily or Louis? Is Priscilla right to want Emily and Nora to leave the Clock House? Should Dorothy accept Mr Gibson? We spend so much time thinking about these questions with the characters that backing off into other kinds of interpretive questions sometimes seems like missing the point. In Middlemarch we know Dorothea's first marriage is an awful mistake. We are pressed to understand it, even to sympathize with it, nonetheless, and we may perhaps acknowledge the beauty of such an error: there's plenty of room for nuance and ambivalence. But somehow in that case a spirited discussion on the relative merits of Sir James and Mr Casaubon seems out of place, because clearly there are larger philosophical and historical and moral issues being brought into focus by Dorothea's choice. In Trollope, the choices seem more literal, more ordinary, and no less important--perhaps even more so in a way, because you have no confidence that the wise narrator will resolve or even analyze the full significance of the options for you. As many of the characters keep discovering, you may have to rely on your own judgment.

February 13, 2008

He had a bad day!

Turns out, before Daniel Powter, there was...Herbert Spencer!? Over at Acephalous, Spencer scholar Scott Eric Kaufman has convincingly documented the importance of his research subject with evidence straight from the 'paper of record': "Herbert Spencer, who has been ill for some time, passed a bad day today." As SEK says, "He was the Britney Spears of his time! Except instead of being a useless pop singer, he was an Intellectual Titan!" Read the whole story here. George Eliot enthusiasts may feel little sympathy for the man, who gave our heroine many bad days by refusing to love her (in his own words, "the lack of physical attraction was fatal").

February 12, 2008

This Week in My Classes (February 12, 2008)

We wrapped up The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in Mystery and Detective Fiction yesterday. I enjoy going over the details of the text to demonstrate just how ingeniously Christie (by way of her narrator, of course) uses language to play the game in it, stating the truth but keeping, as Poirot points out, 'becomingly reticent' about Sheppard's precise role in events. Of its kind, Ackroyd is no doubt close to perfect. If in the end I judge it an inferior book, which I do, that judgment rests on my sense that its kind is inferior: clever, amusing, entertaining, but also superficial, trivial--worst, trivializing, including of its central subject, murder. These are hardly new criticisms; they are made derisively and at length of the genre overall by Edmund Wilson in "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd," and more constructively by Raymond Chandler in "The Simple Art of Murder." I think Chandler is right that the degree of realism introduced into mystery fiction by, for instance, Dashiell Hammett (and there already, though Chandler does not say as much, in earlier examples such as The Moonstone) is necessary to make the genre substantially meaningful as well as literary. The scene in which various members of Ackroyd's household carry on a perfectly cool and collected conversation in the presence of his corpse, complete with dagger sticking out of his neck, is entirely ludicrous and morally objectionable except that emotional detachment (by both characters and readers) is a prerequisite of this type of detective story. Harmless enough for diversion, I suppose, but perhaps Carlyle's comments on Scott's achievement have some application here:
But after all, in the loudest blaring and trumpeting of popularity, it is ever to be held in mind, as a truth remaining true forever, that Literature has other aims than that of harmlessly amusing indolent languid men: or if Literature have them not, then Literature is a very poor affair; and something else must have them, and must accomplish them, with thanks or without thanks; the thankful or thankless world were not long a world otherwise!
Once we admit that literature (including mystery fiction) can be much more than a harmless amusement, I think the 'cozy' necessarily sinks to a low rung on the merit ladder. Mind you, I have related reservations about hard-boiled fiction, with what one critic has called its 'poetics of violence'; that's where we're headed next this week, with one of Hammett's "Continental Op" stories and Chandler's "No Crime in the Mountains." It's P.D. James's An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (of the novels on our reading list) that really takes up the ethical challenge of literary treatments of detection where the Victorians left off, in my opinion, and that's no surprise given that James points to Trollope and George Eliot as her influences rather than her predecessors in detection. More on that when the time comes!

In The Victorian 'Woman Question,' we've had our first session on He Knew He Was Right and I'm feeling good so far about the synergy between it and our previous novels. The thematic and plot links are obvious, but the structure of Trollope's multiplot monster is also of interest; like its other loose baggy cousins, HKHWR works as a kind of theme and variations, so the juxtaposition of the various stories, especially those of unmarried women in different contexts confronting their options, or their lack of options, cumulatively creates a rich sense of the complexities of social and political life for women. While Helen's disastrous marriage to Huntingdon in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall comes to seem exemplary, if in an extreme way, of the novel's whole concept of the relations between the sexes, here every case has its clear individual features even as the laws and rules of propriety are fairly fixed structures within which everyone has to find a way forward. My students were also intrigued at, and pleased by, what they felt was his complex presentation of the male characters, particularly Louis but also Colonel Osborne. No simple polarization of right and wrong here--and so we were able also to give some time to critical views of Trollope as a practitioner of a form of 'virtue ethics,' developing morality through practice and particulars, rather than precepts and prescriptions. I took the unusual step (for me) of leading off also with a clip from the BBC adaptation. My thinking was that it's a very long book that relies heavily on our forming relationships with the characters: Trollope writes about people more than themes, abstractions, or anything else (our next book is Middlemarch, which I think will make a fascinating comparison in this respect). Given all the things competing for my students' attention, I thought it would help to bring the people to life dramatically, even at the risk of substituting Andrew Davies's ideas of them for Trollope's. As always, showing an adaptation also helps us see some things about how the material is managed in the original. In this case, for example, the adaptation seemed more melodramatic, the action more sensational--and, as one of my students pointed out, it seemed to make Emily more clearly sympathetic. So I think we managed to use our clip to further our thinking about the novel. We'll be working on the book for almost a month, so we need to build up enough momentum that finishing it does not become a chore. I'm optimistic! But of course I am, or I would never have assigned it in the first place...

February 7, 2008

Publish or Perish Shut Up

Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education's newish blog Brainstorm, Gina Barreca chides whiny academics for complaining about the pressure to publish:
OK, so you not only have to show up and teach, you also have to publish. But in our line of work, that’s how you tell a professional from an amateur. The professional is somebody who does it all the time, does it publicly, does it well enough to be recognized by peers as a formidable presence, and who does it in such a way that other people can make use of and follow her example. (read the rest here)
While I take Barreca's point that getting stuff into print is an "initiation rite" that proves we belong in the "gang" of professional critics, I'm disturbed by her suggestion that it's pure self-indulgence to want to wait until you have something worthwhile to say.
Imagine, if you will, a nasal voice contorted into a faux-Brit accent passionately reciting the following lament: “I do research for my own particular and personal purposes. Why should I, I who have been the top student in my class since my mother took Lamaze, be pressured into publishing before my ultimate opus is up to it?”


Because a commitment to work is what is expected whenyou are a professional. Look, I brush my teeth twice a day but that doesn’t make me a dentist. I cook dinner five nights a week but that doesn’t make me a chef. Just because you read novels, you wouldn’t call yourself a novelist, would you? Because you read the paper everyday, you wouldn’t call yourself a journalist, right?

So why is it that after you’ve read a stack of critical volumes, you feel free to call yourself a critic?
Journals and bookshelves are overflowing with the results of the current insistence on publishing more and more sooner and sooner. To argue that scholars should just shut up and put out because that's the game they've agreed to play is realistic, no doubt, but shouldn't we at least pretend to believe that we publish when we think we are ready to make a genuine contribution to scholarship? Shouldn't we also worry about whether scholars publishing for the sake of doing so produce anything like the best work they are capable of? Further, it's a long way from writing to publishing; those academics I know who protest the pressure to publish are not objecting to the requirement that they develop their research into articles or books but to the way professional survival now hinges on a hugely competitive, often arbitrary, and supremely slow-moving process in which you have no recourse against even the most patently inept editorial decisions (as the MLA itself has remarked in recent years, tenure decisions have effectively been handed over to publishers). Certainly no one without tenure could afford the luxury of refusing to publish; it's disingenuous at best to describe resentment at these pressures as no better than prima donna posturing. And given what it takes to achieve tenure these days, isn't it perhaps a good thing if scholars take the opportunity afforded them by their hard-won security to think hard about their research and writing priorities and to take more time, if they want to and need to, to change directions, learn new things, and produce work they are proud of?

February 6, 2008

The TLS Weighs in on Wood's Latest

The TLS has its review of How Fiction Works up:
As Wood moves between his approved texts, I was reminded of Henry James’s short story “The Great Good Place”. This satirical tale conceives heaven as a “sort of kindergarten”; nothing provides a challenge (and hills resemble gigantic bosoms). There is something of this in Wood’s writing about the books he owns. It is, like Mrs Wix, “safe”. This is why I found myself wishing away his occasional grace notes. “What a piece of writing that is!” he exclaims about Henry James. “How fine that is”, he adds after quoting a sentence by Marilynne Robinson. It is sometimes hard to distinguish a gasp of admiration for another’s skill from the contented sigh when the books in one’s study satisfy one’s own theories. James Wood is best, it seems, when interrogating how fiction works, rather than exclaiming over it. In any case, one thing that novels teach you is that you have to feel things for yourself. (read the rest here)
I agree that those do sound like some throwaway lines there, and also that any wide-ranging claims based on the books on your own shelves are bound to reflect and reinforce your own prepossessions (though as a professional reviewer, Wood does presumably own a lot of books that exceed the limits of his personal taste). Still, I must get my hands on this book--unfortunately it is not yet released in Canada, and, sadly, it's out of stock at the Book Depository (I'm still dazzled by my first experience with their low prices and free overseas shipping). Well, I suppose I have enough to read, what with starting He Knew He Was Right next week with my seminar and all.

February 5, 2008

This Week in My Classes (February 5, 2008)

In Mystery and Detective Fiction, it's Agatha Christie time. Our major reading is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I like to take this opportunity to talk a bit about canonization and literary value, highlighting the timing of the novel (1926) and considering some of the reasons we treat it differently from some of its near-contemporaries, such as Ulysses (1922) and To the Lighthouse (1927). Of its kind, Ackroyd seems to me nearly perfect, so the question has to be how we evaluate different kinds of things. We talk about the valorization of difficulty at this time, for instance, something I have often talked about with my colleague Leonard Diepeveen. I point out that Agatha Christie is apparently the most successful (English language) novelist of all time (2 billion copies sold!). Doesn't that in itself provide sufficient reason to take her seriously? This question typically sparks some good debate. I also read some excerpts from Edmund Wilson's provocative essay "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" And we talk about the ethics of puzzle fiction. Next class we'll look, for example, at the scene in which the characters assemble in the room with Ackroyd's body and carry on a long and completely collected conversation about his death, and then think about Poirot's cool demeanor as he plunks himself down in the very chair that held the body, and the way the murder weapon (still dripping blood, presumably) is an object of great but, again, entirely cool and collected observation. We won't get to the novel's conclusion until next week, so I'll hold off on any comments on whodunnit.

In The Victorian 'Woman Question,' it's still East Lynne until Friday. I tried my handout with the excerpts from Vanity Fair and Adam Bede yesterday; interestingly, there were some who found Wood's overt didacticism effective and engaging, and others who preferred Thackeray for leaving them some room to draw their own conclusions. We had some productive discussion about things like the way Isabel's zombie-like presence in what was once her own household brings into focus class and gender anxieties that run throughout the novel, and about the way the election plot displaces the class and sexual rivalries between Carlyle and Levison--but why? How far does Levison's humiliation in the dunking scene help in the restoration of our sympathies for Isabel, assuming we weren't already on her side after the whole train wreck catastrophe? And we've begun considering the issue of the excessive pathos that dominates the last part of the novel; there will be more to say about this when we've read to the end, complete with the two wrenching deathbed scenes.

February 3, 2008

Weekend Miscellany II

It's Sunday afternoon again after a weekend filled with bits of this and that: grocery shopping, taking my son to the optometrist, taking my daughter to a birthday party, and so on. In and amongst household errands, I'm reading about six different things, some for classes (East Lynne and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd), some for fun or personal interest (Death Comes for the Fat Man, Soldier's Heart), some as a gesture in the direction of research (Orientalism, Dangerous Knowledge). And when all of these are out of reach, I've flagged a number of essays and posts online that I take a look at when family activities allow:

In Prospect Magazine, William Skidelsky's essay "Critical Condition". Here's an excerpt that raises some questions I'm interested in:
There is a third, perhaps less obvious reason for the diminishing importance of book reviews: the declining authority of academic criticism. This is a subject that Rónán McDonald—an English lecturer at Reading University—explores in his satisfyingly chewy new book The Death of the Critic (Continuum). In the past, McDonald points out, although by no means all successful critics were academics, there was a fruitful interplay between literary journalism and scholarship—something that has dwindled in recent years. There are exceptions: journals such as the London Review of Books and the TLS; the book sections of the Independent and, to an extent, the Guardian. But on the whole, journalists increasingly dominate the literary review pages of newspapers—and since an increasing number of books are written by journalists too, this results in a kind of circularity (which bloggers, quite reasonably, often moan about). But if literary journalism is increasingly feeding off itself, then, McDonald contends, that is largely because academic criticism has withdrawn from the field. In the last two decades, English literature has both tangled itself up in arcane and inaccessible debates about theory and emasculated itself by allowing itself to become a handmaiden to other disciplines, through its embrace of historicism and cultural studies. McDonald traces this retreat to a paradox that has always bedevilled the study of literature: the more Eng lit tries to prove that it is "rigorous," the more it cuts itself off from aesthetics—the original source of its attraction. The discipline has, in effect, worried itself into irrelevance.
Dan Green and his readers have been discussing this piece already, though with a primary emphasis on Skidelsky's dismissive remarks about bloggers--given which it does seem a bit ironic that directly under the essay's headers is an invitation to discuss it at the magazine's own blog. I hope to have another go at writing up some considered thoughts on the state of criticism (and/or the role of academic critics) after I get my hands on the Ronan McDonald book mentioned in Skidelsky's essay.

Also of interest, here's an excellent piece by James Wood at the Guardian on characters in literature--and by excellent I mean thoughtful, wide-ranging, thought-provoking, well-written, the kind of piece that makes me want to sit down and talk to him (not a typical reaction from me when I read criticism). That's not to say I don't disagree with him at various points (for instance, I'm not sure he gives Scott's Waverley enough credit--come on, you have to love a 'hero' who can't go 20 pages with tripping or passing out!). Further to this, and also sparked by his new book How Fiction Works, there's an interview with Wood at the Financial Times. A&L Daily tipped me off to both of these pieces initially. As previously noted, I'm looking forward to seeing what Wood does in How Fiction Works.

Perhaps as a result of the jumble of things coming in and out of focus for me this weekend, I also keep thinking about two (quite different) connections, perhaps parallels, that raise questions for me. First, I've been mentally connecting the various struggles to know how best to speak of or think about the late chess genius Bobby Fischer, given the nasty ideas he came to espouse, and the disgust expressed on some blogs not long ago at the revelation (to the bloggers concerned) that in his day, Dickens had expressed some pretty repulsive racist (even, some would say, genocidal) sentiments. I defended Dickens the writer on the grounds (basically) that his books have a life independent of Dickens the man. I'm not as comfortable putting Fischer the man to the side, but I'm not sure why. I suppose his achievement in chess has as much right to be considered apart from his personal failings as Dickens's accomplishment in literature--doesn't it?

And, quite unrelated to this little question, we've just finished watching the first three seasons of House on DVD (finally, we're all caught up!) and I'm trying to decide what I think about Dr. Cuddy as a representation of a woman in authority. Initially I was hugely irritated by her tight, revealing clothing--no successful professional woman would actually dress so provocatively except to provide ammunition for the endless succession of sexist jokes House makes at her expense, or so I thought. But I've been reading some of the stories about Hillary Clinton's anxieties about appearing too feminine (and thus unelectable, presumably) and I'm rethinking my first position. After all, she stands up to those "jokes" and maintains her authority (except, arguably, over House himself), getting taken seriously by everyone else in the hospital. OK, I still doubt the wisdom of some of the outfits, but perhaps there's something to be said for letting her actually be 'womanly' in her job without implying that it costs her all of her power. That said, I still think C. J. Cregg in The West Wing is the best attempt so far to depict a strong, smart, sexy, professional woman (though there are some weak moments in this depiction, especially early in the series). Allison Janney is amazing, of course, which helps.

Miscellaneous, as I said.