March 30, 2008

Weekend Miscellany

A few things of interest I've come across while browsing this weekend:

Margaret Atwood on Anne of Green Gables in the Guardian:
"God's in his heaven, all's right with the world," Anne whispers in the very last lines of Anne of Green Gables. She's fond of Victorian poetry, so it's appropriate that she ends her story by quoting from a song sung by the optimistic heroine of Robert Browning's dramatic poem "Pippa Passes"; doubly appropriate because Anne Shirley herself acts a kind of Pippa throughout the book. Pippa is a poor Italian orphan girl who slaves away in a silk-spinning mill, yet manages to preserve a pure imagination and a love of nature despite her lowly status. Like Pippa, Anne is an unselfconscious innocent who, unbeknownst to herself, brings joy, imagination and the occasional epiphany to the citizenry of Avonlea, who are inclined to be practical but drear. (read the rest here)
Keith Oatley on Middlemarch for the Globe and Mail's '50 Greatest Books' Series (once again, a novelist scores the good gig in the book section):
Middlemarch is a generous book. It is one of the world's great books because, between the three streams of writing, George Eliot enables a space to grow: a space for the reader's emotions and thoughts. You feel things you have not felt, think things you have not thought. It's a book for grown-up people. (read the rest here)
Charles Nickerson proposes an obscure 'inspiration' for Miss Havisham in the TLS:
Much discussion has arisen over Miss Havisham’s genesis. The numerous sources proposed – including, most frequently, a theatrical skit by Charles Mathews, articles in Household Words and The Household Narrative of Current Events, and Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White – have been ably surveyed by both Peter Ackroyd and Harry Stone. Although a good case can be made for Miss Havisham’s evolution from a mix of these sources, none of them contains anything like the intense psychological dynamic that develops between Miss Havisham and Estella. One work in which Dickens might have found the germ of that dynamic is Disraeli’s seventh novel, Venetia (1837), a thinly disguised fictionalization of various episodes in the lives of Byron and Shelley. (read the rest here)
And one more knock against James Wood (keeping in mind that in many respects, I'm a fan!): he's a spoiler!
I like destroying the tyranny of plot. I always ask people who are recommending me a novel to tell me the entire story right out, and I make a point in my reviews of describing the entire book. I don't think I need a plot to sustain my enjoyment. Formally speaking, if you really did believe in plot you'd say, "I can't re-read Anna Karenina because I know what happens." But it's obvious that there are deeper, more sustaining beauties underneath. (emphasis added; read the rest here)
Of course, he's right about re-reading, and about the "beauties underneath" that sustain multiple readings, but I believe sometimes plot and the surprise, suspense, confusion, pleasure, and emotional and other reactions it can generate are more meaningful than he allows. Consider the ending of The Mill on the Floss, for instance (and no, I'm not going to give it away here!). Our shock and surprise provoke all kinds of important social and moral questions for us. Re-reading and re-thinking both help us answer them, but our demand that this result be accounted for motivates us to interpretation. Also, I encourage my students to question plot elements: after all, things could always have unfolded in some different way, so how is this plot element suitable for this project? What do we learn from it about the underlying ideas of the novel? (Useful classroom exercise: try tweaking the plot and see how fast the whole book begins to change its shape...or, for The Mill on the Floss, try coming up with an alternative ending that satisfies all the pressures developing from the beginning of the novel...) We read better in some ways once we know the book's whole shape, and knowing the plot helps us attend to other elements, but plot is often where the social, political, and moral aspects of the novels have their strongest presence. Further, there's a readerly experience (for lack of a better word) that is simply spoiled by spoilers.

March 27, 2008

This Week in My Classes (March 27, 2008)

We finished up Grafton's 'A' is for Alibi in Mystery and Detective Fiction yesterday. Drawing on ideas from sources such as Peter Rabinowitz's very smart essay "Reader, I Blew Him Away: Convention and Transgression in Sue Grafton," I invited the class to consider Charlie Scorsone not just as a male Brigid O'Shaughnessy but also a version of the Byronic hero, who is tempting to our heroine in part because he is masterful and domineering. Although the novel emphasizes women's desire and struggle for autonomy, especially in marriage, through Kinsey, Grafton clarifies that autonomy is valuable and (politically and personally) essential, but also exhausting. What a relief, perhaps, not to have to stand alone but to give yourself over to someone whose power, after all, may simply be greater! We puzzled over why the final chase sequence is so unheroic for Kinsey, who ends up partly undressed and hiding in a garbage can...leading me eventually to one of those classroom questions you can't quite believe you've asked, but there you are anyway: "How is her sleeping with Charlie like her hiding from him in a trash can--besides that both situations involve taking her pants off?" Hmmm. Tomorrow we are working with a cluster of rather quirky stories, all by women authors: Amanda Cross's "Arrie and Jasper," Sue Grafton's "A Little Missionary Work," and Sarah Caudwell's "An Acquaintance with Mr Collins"--the last of which, delightfully, proves the practicality of a degree in English and a specialization in the Victorian novel...if you want to commit murder. Hmmm again. Maybe this is not the way to make our departmental pitch for more of the university's resources. On the other hand, if we sounded menacing enough...

In The Victorian 'Woman Question' we dealt with murder and sex as well, as we reached the end of Middlemarch. Especially as we read East Lynne earlier this term, it is interesting to consider the 'sensational' elements that permeate the final sections of this famous example of realism: while in He Knew He Was Right, Trollope relegates his sensational elements to the comic margins of his unfolding Shakespearian tragedy (Camilla and her carving knife--wonderful!), here with Will and Rosamond we have an adultery plot that is never realized--two, I suppose, if we consider Casaubon's suspicions of Will and Dorothea. And the Raffles plot brings us close to an actual sensation case, except that here the suspicious death is ambiguous in every possible way. As for sex, well, I began our work on the novel with some consideration of the famous Bernini sculpture of the ecstasy of Saint Teresa, and of course we have paid attention throughout to Dorothea's struggles to reconcile her spiritual yearnings with her other passions, beginning with the 'jewel scene' in Chapter I. Asserting your own will is important to finding the necessary balance between altruism and egotism (without a candle, after all, the scratches on the pier glass remain wholly random, rendering interpretation and thus action impossible). At the same time, willfully declaring your own desire seems necessary to embracing a fully human life: your ardour needs outlets both philosophical and physical. There's never enough time to talk about everything, but I did bring up some of the critical objections that have been made to Will so that we could debate how suitable a partner he seems for Dorothea and what relation their marriage bears to the novel's larger themes, especially regarding reform, vocation, and women's roles in society. A couple of times this week we worried about Rosamond and Casaubon as possible limit cases for the narrator's theory of sympathy. I've become increasingly worried about a line from The Mill on the Floss: "the responsibility of tolerance lies with those who have the wider vision." Both Dorothea's and Lydgate's marriages proceed to some extent according to this principle, and the moral beauty of Dorothea's efforts to subdue her own needs in generous response to Casuabon--in the wonderful conclusion of Chapter 42, for instance--is certainly made apparent. At the same time, Lydgate's submission to Rosamond is unquestionably shown as a tragedy, for him and perhaps for medicine, so even as we can't wish him a more selfish or cruel person, one who could put his parasitic wife aside in pursuit of his own higher aims, we can hardly applaud the result. And Dorothea is rescued by the novelist from a similarly dismal fate: as my students pointed out, Casaubon's death is altogether too convenient to be realistic, and we therefore have to consider its effects in other ways. Perhaps that near-death experience for Dorothea is meant to sharpen our own awareness, for instance, of the extraordinary risks of submission and renunciation--or of marriage, if undertaken on those terms.

Although we have talked a lot about fictional form in this seminar, I am starting to feel as if the other thing we are doing, indirectly, is a tutorial on men, women, courtship, relationships, marriage, domination, autonomy.... So many of the books we are reading are designed to provoke thought on just these issues, after all, and they adapt their forms in part as coaching strategies (the incessant shifting of point of view, or interruptions of chronology, in Middlemarch, for example, which force us to re-consider people and events from other perspectives, as parts of other stories). Some of my students have admitted that they are looking differently at their own relationships as a result of the stories we've been analyzing. Well, as far as that goes, they are only doing as the authors expected or hoped. Here's Trollope on 'Novel Reading,' for instance:
There it is, unconcealed, whether for good or bad, patent to all and established, the recognised amusement of our lighter hours, too often our mainstay in literature, the former of our morals, the code by which we rule ourselves, the mirror in which we dress ourselves, the index expurgatorius of things held to be allowable in the ordinary affairs of life. No man actually turns to a novel for a definition of honour, nor a woman for that of modesty; but it is from the pages of novels that men and women obtain guidance both as to honour and modesty.
He goes on to consider particularly the potential value of the novel as a training ground for young lovers. "There used to be many," he remarks, "who thought, and probably there are some who still think, that a girl should hear nothing of love till the time comes in which she is to be married." But "While human nature talks of love so forcibly, it can hardly serve our turn to be silent on the subject," and novels, for better or for worse, provide necessary as well as pleasant guidance:
We do not dare to say openly to those dear ones, but we confess it to ourselves, that the one thing of most importance to them is whether they shall love rightly or wrongly. . . . It suits us to speak of love as a soft, sweet, flowery pastime, with many roses and some thorns, in which youth is apt to disport itself; but there is no father, no mother, no daughter, and should be no son, blind to the fact that, of all matters concerning life, it is the most important. That Ovid’s Art of Love was nothing, much worse than nothing, we admit. But nevertheless the art is taught. Before the moment comes in which heart is given to heart, the imagination has been instructed as to what should accompany the gift, and what should be expected in accompaniment; in what way the gift should be made, and after what assurance; for how long a period silence should be held, and then how far speech should be unguarded.

By those who do not habitually read at all, the work is done somewhat roughly,--we will not say thoughtlessly, but with little of those precautions which education demands. With those who do read, all that literature gives them helps them somewhat in the operation of which we are speaking. History tells us much of love’s efficacy, and much of the evil that comes from the want of it. Biography is of course full of it. Philosophy deals with it. Poetry is hardly poetry without it. The drama is built on it almost as exclusively as are the novels. But it is from novels that the crowd of expectant and ready pupils obtain that constant flow of easy teaching which fills the mind of all readers with continual thoughts of love.
Though I would not want our class hours to be taken up with personal reflections, I can't say I think it's a bad thing if our readings are encouraging them to think more deliberately about their own lives! Marriage may be a very different institution today than it was in the 19th century (and we have certainly talked at length about the specific political, economic, and social contexts that made marriage such a momentous step for women especially), but even so, there may still be "something even awful in the nearness it brings." One thing it seems to me we are all certain to take away from reading Middlemarch is precisely how demanding it is to live in close physical and mental proximity to someone who is not ourselves, for whom "the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference." In a world in which Wuthering Heights (Wuthering Height?!) has recently been voted the greatest love story of all time, it seems like a little corrective realism tinged with pessimism is called for. And to ward off despair, we can always think of Fred and Mary, whose "solid mutual happiness" starts to seem anything but middling after all we've been through.

March 20, 2008

James Wood, How Fiction Works

(Cross-posted to The Valve. Thank you to the regular Valve folks for the invitation to do some guest posting!)

The dust jacket describes How Fiction Works as Wood's "first full-length book of criticism." Anyone led by this blurb to expect sustained analysis supported by extensive research and illustration will be disappointed, as in fact How Fiction Works turns out to be essentially a 'commonplace book,' a collection of critical observations and insights of varying degrees of originality and sophistication, developed with varying degrees of care and detail. Wood acknowledges having set deliberate limits on his project, likening it in his introduction to Forster's Aspects of the Novel, proposing to offer practical "writer's anwers" to "a critic's questions," and admitting (though with no tone of apology) that he used only "the books at hand in [his] study." To some extent I agree with other reviewers who consider it only fair to evaluate the book Wood wrote, rather than regretting he didn't write another one. Yet even within the parameters Wood sets, I think there are grounds for wishing he, with his exceptional gifts and qualifications as both reader and critic, had not sold himself (or us) short in fulfilling them. Further, beginning with the invocation of Forster but going well beyond it, the book has pretensions to grandeur: for instance, also in his introduction Wood remarks that Barthes and Shklovsky "come to conclusions about the novel that seem to me interesting but wrong-headed, and this book conducts a sustained argument with them" (2). With gestures such as this, Wood claims an elevated stature for his critical contribution that is undermined by its casual construction and over-confident approach to scholarship. Though How Fiction Works provides many further proofs of Wood's critical gifts and considerable erudition, I think it also proves that even the best practical critic flounders when working only with what he has already to hand or in mind.

Right off the bat I was irritated by the book's structure. Wood has said that he felt liberated by using the numbered "paragraphs" or sections, but allowing yourself to skip from thought to thought in this way means letting yourself off the hook too often. Frequently in the margins of my students' work I write "And so? Finish the thought!" One effect of crafting, first paragraphs, and then longer pieces as sustained wholes is that in working out the overall movement of your ideas and building in appropriately specific transitions, you confront both the logic and the further implications of your claims: the form pressures you to think better. Numbered bits, however, relieve that pressure: you can just stop with one topic and start the next, and as long as they are more or less related, you can claim to be producing a unified whole, even if you are only papering over gaps. In How Fiction Works, the breaks often seem unnecessary: a new number sets off what is really just the next sentence in the idea already unfolding. Most of the time, however, they are substitutes for careful transitions. They allow a certain stream-of-consciousness effect to creep in: that last bit reminds me of this exception to a general principle, or of a writer who also does that, or of another favourite excerpt, or of a time I went to a concert with my wife. Well, OK, I guess, and no doubt it would have been much more difficult to do a coherent chapter offering a theory of, say, fictional character, realism, or morality and the novel. And I suppose it's true that non-academic readers don't want the kind of detail and complexity such a full account of these topics would require. Even so, the numbered bits felt lazy to me. The footnotes too had an aimlessness about them. Some of them covered ideas or examples that seemed no less important to their chapter than most of the bits allowed their own numbered section (note 53 on p. 150, to give one example) while others appeared entirely unnecessary to the book (note 40 on p. 121, or note 41 on p. 124, for instance).

The TLS reviewer objects to Wood's "grace notes": "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." I shared this reaction, not least because "how fine that is" (139) is an expression of taste, not criticism. But Wood is a compelling reader of details, even passages. It's when he makes broader assertions that he leaves himself more open to objections. For one thing, he has some governing assumptions about what fiction is for that he treats as universal rather than historically or theoretically specific. In his chapter on "Sympathy and Complexity," for instance, as a footnote to his remarks on fiction as a means of extending our sympathies (the occasion for one of his shockingly few references to George Eliot!), he adds this:
We don't read in order to benefit in this way from fiction. We read fiction because it pleases us, moves us, is beautiful, and so on,--because it is alive and we are alive. (129)
Well, maybe, but not everybody, and not all the time: for instance, most of the Victorian critics I have been editing for my Broadview anthology would not have recognized this highly aestheticized motive for novel reading. Is it fair, or even sensible, to say that they were simply wrong? Or to ignore how the formal developments of the Victorian novel furthered ends not adequately respected by Wood's post-Jamesian formulations? His is in many respects a teleological account of the history of the novel. "Progress!" he exclaims after a quotation from Proust: "In Fielding and Defoe, even in the much richer Cervantes, revelation of this altering kind occurs at the level of plot" (125). But were Fielding and Defoe trying to do what Proust did and failing? How much better we might understand them if we allow them what James calls their "donnee. "It is subtlety that matters," he declares in his chapter on character; "subtlety of analysis, of inquiry, of concern, of felt pressure": "I learn more about the consciousness of the soldier in Chekhov's The Kiss than I do about the consciousness of Becky Sharpe [sic] in Vanity Fair." But Becky Sharp's consciousness is surely not the point of Vanity Fair; indeed, I argue in my own lectures that too close a focus on Becky risks diverting us from Thackeray's grand gesture of holding the mirror up to ourselves, so that the novel becomes an opportunity for us to reflect on our own morality and mortality. "Was she guilty or not?" the narrator asks--and, remarkably, will not tell us, because ultimately she is not the point but the occasion, the device. Thackeray is not a failed Chekhov any more than Dickens is a failed Flaubert. To Wood, "the history of the novel can be told as the development of free indirect style" (58), but that history is partial and often distorting. (About the operations of free indirect discourse and the importance of knowing who 'owns' which words, on the other hand, Wood is typically astute. Here's one place where examples from Middlemarch would have served him well, though at the risk of undermining his generalizations. Consider this passage from Chapter 1, for instance:
And how should Dorothea not marry? -- a girl so handsome and with such prospects? Nothing could hinder it but her love of extremes, and her insistence on regulating life according to notions which might cause a wary man to hesitate before he made her an offer, or even might lead her at last to refuse all offers. A young lady of some birth and fortune, who knelt suddenly down on a brick floor by the side of a sick laborer and prayed fervidly as if she thought herself living in the time of the Apostles -- who had strange whims of fasting like a Papist, and of sitting up at night to read old theological books! Such a wife might awaken you some fine morning with a new scheme for the application of her income which would interfere with political economy and the keeping of saddle-horses: a man would naturally think twice before he risked himself in such fellowship. Women were expected to have weak opinions; but the great safeguard of society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on. Sane people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.
Think how much is lost on a reader who improperly identifies the source of that word "naturally"--or the last two sentences altogether!)

Wood is good on the telling detail as well and the quality he calls "thisness": "any detail that draws abstraction towards itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability" (54). But again, when he moves into prescription, he becomes less persuasive, as when he objects to the "layer of gratuitous detail" in 19th-century realist fiction. Again, the challenge is in defining "gratuitous" (as, clearly, Wood himself is well aware), but he can't propose any principle except, perhaps, his idea that "insignificant" details avoid irrelevance if they are "significantly insignificant" (68). After recounting an incident in which he and his wife had "invented entirely different readings" of a violinist's frown at a concert, he claims that a "good novelist would have let that frown alone, and would have let our revealing comments alone, too: no need to smother this little scene in explanation" (72). Again, well, maybe. I can imagine at least one "good novelist" who might have done great things with their "different readings" of that little moment, perhaps even using their "revealing comments" as a chance to reveal even more about perception and reality as well as human relationships ("these things are a parable..."). Doesn't it depend on what your novel is about and on the formal methods you are using to realize those goals?

I'd like to return before I close to the "Sympathy and Complexity" chapter, because this is a topic close to my heart, one on which I have spent a lot of my own critical energy recently, and one I expected Wood to handle particularly well. "Perfunctory" is the best word I can think of to describe it. I've mentioned already his dehistoricizing assumption that "we" don't read in order to receive moral benefits. I doubt this is true in practice, and I also question the separation he implies between moral and aesthetic readings. Here is a case in which even a little research outside "the books at hand in [his] own study" would have immeasurably enriched his discussion: Booth's The Company We Keep, for instance, would have helped him complicate exactly that separation. And the conversation about how fiction might do "what [Bernard] Williams wanted moral philosophy to do" (135) has many participants besides Williams (Martha Nussbaum comes promptly to mind!). Further, not all novels avoid providing "philosophical answers" (here, he replicates Nussbam's error in generalizing about "the novel," but as a professional novel reader, he should know better). Here the hybrid character of How Fiction Works proves a genuine weakness, I think. This chapter is not a full, responsible, or authoritative inquiry into its subject. Of course, it does not pretend to be (remember, the book promises only "a writer's answers" to "a critic's questions"). But then how should we evaluate it? Doesn't Wood do even his non-specialist audience a disservice by taking up complicated subjects on which there already exists a rich body of scholarship and offering his own fairly casual observations with the confidence of real expertise? What a much greater contribution it would be to distill that complex material and present it accessibly! To grab what's at hand and say just what comes to mind bespeaks an enviable but also problematic degree of confidence. And while the non-expert reader is in no position to object, the expert reader is easily deflected with the excuse that she is not the intended audience...

After I read How Fiction Works I re-read some of my collection of Wood's essays, including his reviews of Never Let Me Go, Saturday, and Brick Lane. This is really wonderful stuff, as I have remarked before; I admire it wholeheartedly for its critical acuity, its literary elegance, and its moral seriousness. But considering How Fiction Works strictly as one among many books about books (and Wood is wrong, or perhaps disingenuous, when he says "there are surprisingly few books" of this kind about fiction [1]), I think there are many better choices available. I continue to recommend David Lodge's The Art of Fiction, for instance, which takes up many of the same topics as Wood, though under a less grandiose umbrella of prescriptive claims. I think it's an exciting development that Wood has landed a job in Harvard's English Department. In taking this now unconventional route from journalism to the academy, he is following in the footsteps of many eminent Victorian critics (David Masson, for instance). But considering how bitterly difficult it is for those following the established professional route to land any academic job at all, it's frustrating to think that he may not be held to anything like the same standard of rigour as many critics far less lauded and applauded. Here's hoping that he has more books in him as good as The Broken Estate.

March 19, 2008

This Week in My Classes (March 19, 2008)

Because this week in my life has been a bit complicated, I'm a bit late posting on this week in my classes. In fact, as I don't teach Thursdays and Friday's a holiday, for this week, my classes are now over! But it was a good week, an interesting week, I thought.

In Mystery and Detective Fiction, we wrapped up our discussions of P. D. James's An Unsuitable Job for a Woman with some discussion of the novel as a kind of Bildungsroman, with Cordelia's development as a detective coinciding with her moral and emotional development. For me, one sign that the novel is not "just" a mystery is simply that it is not over when the mystery is solved: in particular, it seems to be important that Cordelia be brought face to face with Dalgliesh, who has served as both mentor and antagonist throughout the novel. So we looked pretty closely at the interview they have and considered what is at stake, not just for her, but also for him--I think it's interesting, for example, that he is shown to have learned from her to regret not having taken more care over Bernie's fate. The other scene we focused on was the climactic encounter between Cordelia and Sir Ronald, in which his utilitarian (rational, scientific) outlook is explicitly pitted against her more 'humane' (sentimental, perhaps aesthetic) one: "what is the use of making the world more beautiful if the people who live in it can't love one another?" Can you tell James sees herself as working in the tradition of the 19thC novelists?

Today (in the spirit of "and now for something completely different!") we started on Sue Grafton's 'A' is for Alibi. I played an excerpt from the interesting documentary "Women of Mystery," which features interviews with Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky, and Grafton. The clip I played puts women's detective fiction in the context of sensation fiction; the other highly relevant context for this novel is clearly hard-boiled detective fiction, so I spent some time recapping some of the features of that subgenre with special attention to its gendered aspects. I also began some discussion of the relationship of these feminist PI novels to the feminist movement; both Grafton and Paretsky began their series novels in 1982, and the influence of first-wave feminism is pretty obvious (Grafton says her goal was to "play hardball with the boys"). In 'A' is for Alibi, the plot itself highlights changes in women's roles: it features one marriage that begins, by my calculations, in the late 1950s, and another that begins in 1970. I put some general questions to the class to consider as we work our way through the novel, particularly about possible problems with women rewriting hard-boiled conventions--for one thing, many of them change a lot when you reverse the genders, as Sara Paretsky has pointed out, and for another, well, is it necessarily progress to show women too can be tough, rude, and emotionally detached? Grafton begins her novel with Kinsey's discomfort at having just killed someone, so she is clearly problematizing the conventions even as she adopts and adapts them.

In The Victorian 'Woman Question, it's week 2 on Middlemarch. It does seem to be true that coming to it right after reading He Knew He Was Right makes some of its features really stand out. For instance, comparing the power struggles between Dorothea and Casaubon to those between Emily and Louis Trevelyan proves quite interesting, not least because I haven't been in the habit of seeing Dorothea's struggles as being quite about power--but what is his attempt to get her to promise total compliance even after his death but as extreme an attempt to usurp her moral (and economic, and intellectual, and sexual) agency as Louis's persecution of his wife? The Garths stand out on this reading because of the healthy balance of respect and love so evident in their relationship--though it's clear that Mrs Garth has a very traditional theory of marital hierarchy! I think the class is doing pretty well with it, though it comes at a hard time of term when they are swamped with work in all of their courses: the discussion has been not just lively but empathetic towards the characters in a way that does not always happen in my 'lecture' classes. Maybe my tendency to emphasize the novel's formal properties and philosophical abstractions gets in the way of people responding emotionally to the story--next time I teach the novel in a lecture/discussion format instead of a seminar, I'll keep this in mind, as GE herself was urgent that fiction should not 'lapse from picture to diagram.' I'm quite excited that the group doing the presentation is, among other things, working up some kind of class activity involving string that will get across the giant hairball effect of the novel's structure...

March 14, 2008

The Dead (Critics, That Is)

Dan Green alerts us to William Deresiewicz's essay "Professing Literature in 2008" in The Nation, in which the author draws some dire conclusions about the profession of English literature from the evidence of this year's MLA job listings:
This year's Job List confirms the picture of a profession suffering from an epochal loss of confidence. It's not just the fear you can smell in the postings. It's the fact that no major theoretical school has emerged in the eighteen years since Judith Butler's Gender Trouble revolutionized gender studies. As Harvard professor Louis Menand said three years ago, our graduate students are writing the same dissertations, with the same tools, as they were in 1990. Nor has any major new star--a Butler, an Edward Said, a Harold Bloom--emerged since then to provide intellectual leadership, or even a sense of intellectual adventure. The job market's long-term depression has deepened the mood. Most professors I know discourage even their best students from going to graduate school; one actually refuses to talk to them about it. This is a profession that is losing its will to live.

Twenty years after Professing Literature, the "conflicts" still exist, but given the larger context in which they're taking place, they scarcely matter anymore. The real story of academic literary criticism today is that the profession is, however slowly, dying.
I've also just finished reading Ronan McDonald's The Death of the Critic--hmm, suddenly I don't feel so well! Both authors present their material in what strikes me as an unfortunately tendentious way. Deresiewicz, for instance, in arguing that the "profession's intellectual agenda is being set by teenagers," apparently does not entertain the possibility that departments might be genuinely embracing the priorities he sees reflected in the latest wave of job ads, rather than cravenly appeasing their undergraduates. McDonald similarly attributes most changes in critical practice to everything but the conviction that the method in question might have intrinsic merit, as when, discussing the establishment of English "as a university discipline" in the early 20th century, he says that the critics of the time "sought to imbue [English] with some procedural and disciplinary muscle" (89). No doubt showing that English could have "procedural and disciplinary muscle" was crucial to proving its academic credibility, but McDonald repeatedly implies the primacy of self-interest over scholarly commitment--a move which in turn bespeaks a hermeneutics of suspicion on his part to match any he might point to in 'cultural studies.' Both of these writers, in other words, seem to consider their colleagues and peers singularly unprincipled and opportunistic--or (a bit more generously, as they might prefer to be interpreted) they see them as particularly susceptible to fads because they lack foundational commitments (Deresiewicz) or have tried too hard for too long to appear what they are not, namely scientists (McDonald).

Still, both Deresiewicz and McDonald are describing features of this profession (historically and currently) recognizable to anyone working within it, even if we might quarrel over how they are characterized or explained. That priorities in teaching and scholarship have changed often, sometimes dramatically, is not news; neither is it a revelation that English as a discipline seems particularly prone to self-doubt, internal convulsions, and obsessive self-scrutiny and meta-criticism. Is it on its death-bed, though? In my own department we are going through yet another round of curriculum reform--the third or fourth since I was hired just over a decade ago. I have come to see we aren't actually moving towards any final goal but that each such round is part of an ongoing, probably never-ending process driven by many things, from our own changing research interests and strengths to the ever-mutating condition of the 'canon' of material and methods we feel responsible for presenting and the fluctuating needs and interests of an evolving student population. How far is this instability a symptom of disease, and how far is it a healthy process, warding off stagnation and sustaining our connection with a wider (and itself endlessly evolving) life outside the academy? To be honest, at different times I have felt both ways about it myself, depending on just what's on the table and how closely I am involved! Overall, though, surely it does not make sense to expect talk about literature to be the same now as it was 10, 20, or 50 years ago. Neither Deresiewicz nor McDonald provides particularly convincing evidence for the conclusion that criticism (as either a practice or a profession) is in a far worse state right now that at other times, and the pressure they both apparently feel towards polemical generalization means they obscure all kinds of qualifications and nuances as well as many potential signs of life.

That said, there are certainly some features of McDonald's argument with which I do find myself in sympathy, or which ring changes on themes that have preoccupied me for some time. Key among these is his interest in closing, or at least bridging, the gap between "the academic critic and a wider public audience" (ix). Though every history of criticism notes the same phenomenon and agrees with McDonald that it dates more or less from the early 20th century, with the professionalization of literary study and the bifurcation between criticism and literary journalism / reviewing, I think McDonald's specific diagnosis is distinct: he blames critics' abandonment of evaluation for the alienation of the wider public:

The question in which the reading public would have taken a primary interest - 'Is this book / artwork worth my attention and time? Is it of any merit?' - was not one that exercised the cultural theoretician. (23)
"If criticism forsakes evaluation, it also loses its connections with a wider public" (134): this loss and its roots in the history of criticism are the book's major focus, though McDonald also considers other phenemona that have contributed to the diminished relevance of academic critics, particularly the democratization (or relativization) of criticism, or attitudes towards critical expertise, enabled by new media such as blogs or Amazon-style customer reviews. His focus on evaluation is reiterated in his prescriptive closing section, which calls for a renewed aestheticism and concludes,
Perhaps the critic is not dead, but simply sidelined and slumbering. The first step in reviving him or her is to bring the idea of artistic merit back to the heart of academic criticism. 'Judgement' is the first meaning of kritos. If criticism is to be valued, if it is to reach a wide public, it needs to be evaluative. (149)
There seem to be some internal inconsistencies in McDonald's analysis of criticism's decline in public significance. His chief grievance with the movements he groups together as 'cultural studies' is that they treat literature instrumentally, as a means to other (usually political) ends. On his own account, though, most major critical movements have done some version of this, from promoting or sustaining civil society to "fill[ing] the breach left in religion's absence" (69), and in fact the whole idea of 'evaluation' always has to be grounded in a set of extrinsic standards which (again on McDonald's own account) have almost never been strictly aesthetic (if such a thing is even possible). Though McDonald believes that emphasizing aestheticism will bring about a "rapprochement between academic and non-academic criticism," and thus, apparently, between critics and general readers, aesthetic evaluation is surely as problematic as any other kind. Further, McDonald actually praises Virginia Woolf precisely for "enrich[ing] aesthetic formalism with political and gender consciousness" (86)--so Paterian obsession with the immediacy of the aesthetic encounter is presumably not his ideal. So what is it, exactly, that he means to invoke with his mantra of 'evaluation'? He objects to the levelling effects of considering every cultural artefact equally worthy of critical attention ("To be concerned with everything is, ultimately, to be concerned with nothing" [127]), but he resists the notion of an unchanging canon ("Who would not welcome the rediscovery of unjustly forgotten women writers, or the efforts to hear the voices of the marginalized and disempowered . . . ?" [21]; "the criteria for admission [to the 'canon'] needed to be renovated . . . 'quality' is not an eternal and unchanging facility, but rather one that mutates along with the cultural evolution of a society" [23]). Once you've acknowledged the 'problematics' of literary judgment, how then are you supposed to answer what he proposes is the common reader's key question ("Is this book ... worth my attention and my time?")? For what it's worth, I think most academic critics would in fact be quite happy to answer that question about any book, but first we would all want to develop the question further (along the lines I laid out here, for instance).

Still, I share McDonald's concern about the isolation of academic expertise from today's reading culture more generally. I was struck particularly by his note that "Vintage are launching a new series of classical novels to rival Penguin, but they have decided to use journalists and novelists, not academics, to write the 'Introductions'" (25). If true, this certainly marks a change and a lost opportunity for scholars interested in demonstrating the interest and value of their work to a wider readership. (Journalists and creative writers certainly dominate the book review section of Canada's "national" newspaper, The Globe and Mail.) I think, too, that he is right to be looking at questions of judgment and how they are understood and articulated as one of the flashpoints for misunderstanding or resentment between academics and other readers. I just don't see how his prescription to be more evaluative is an adequate response, unless (at the minimum) it is accompanied by a commitment to showing why the question "Is it of any merit?" requires substantial complication before a worthwhile answer is possible. The responsibility here is not all ours: ideally, readers would want, not to be dictated to, but to be engaged in debate worthy of the books they are considering. Imagine a reader who takes this position, for example:

[Great thinkers can] rouse, excite, and elevate our whole natures—set us thinking, and therefore enable us to escape from the fetters of ancient prejudice and worn-out platitude, or make us perceive beauty in external nature, or set before us new ideals of life, to which we should otherwise have been indifferent. But we have to co-operate in the result, if it is to be of any real value. We are not passive buckets to be pumped into . . . mere receptacles for ready-made ideas, but fellow-creatures capable of being roused into independent activity.
Such a reader wants, not to be told whether a book has "any merit" (McDonald's formulation), but to collaborate in forming a judgment--and accepts responsibility for his or her own "independent activity." Now there's a hope to get even the most moribund critic up off her sickbed! (The quotation, by the way, is from Leslie Stephen's 1881 essay "The Moral Element in Literature.")

One final note: McDonald points to James Wood as an example of a new wave in critical possibilities, "an avowed evaluative critic of the novel" who has "moved not from academia to journalism . . . but rather from journalism to the university" (147). (In my text, he notes that this is not "the usual root" [sic]--one of many egregious editing errors in the volume, including missing words and faulty punctuation.) Wood is certainly an interesting example of someone who approaches criticism as a serious public task requiring both insight and erudition, judgment and learning. Is the highest standard of criticism, though, to be someone with strong opinions and the erudition to explain them well? Is Wood's evaluation of novels really what makes his criticism important, or is it his ability to analyze literary particularities while taking into account (as McDonald argues Woolf does) the situatedness of the work in history and life? I would say the latter; even Wood has trouble articulating his standards (such as his foundational assumption that everything valuable in the modern novel begins with Flaubert) without their seeming like prejudices that ultimately add little to our ability to understand and appreciate other kinds (as the exceptions he often admits to in How Fiction Works seems to confirm--oops, for instance, but then there's Dickens!).

Update: I just noticed John Mullan weighing in (favorably) on McDonald in the TLS here:
"there has been something comical about the eagerness of academics to scorn the notion that some books are better than others..." Honestly, (setting aside objections to the incessant pretense that all 'academics' speak with one voice), surely these smart, literate people know that "better" is a meaningless measure unless we can explain better at what? You just can't take the next step in the conversation without refining the question (and simply revising it to "better written" will not do). Shouldn't readers and critics alike have to scrutinize, articulate, and defend the grounds of their evaluations? And isn't the conversation itself, as much as (maybe even more than) the conclusion what will be exciting, revealing, instructive? Finally, is it so terrible to take time for something that is interesting or important, even if on some measures you might conclude it is not the best, even of its kind?

March 12, 2008

Some Notes on How Fiction Works

I got my copy of Wood's How Fiction Works from the Book Depository a couple of days ago and in between finishing He Knew He Was Right and The Maltese Falcon and starting Middlemarch and An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, I have managed to read the whole thing--not nearly as hard as it might have been, given how brief and, ultimately, shallow a text it is (hence the title of this post, meant to imply that Wood does not really deserve his title!). Full review to come as part of my 'series' on "books about books." The short version is: I'm underwhelmed, and also disappointed, given how smart and even moving I have found some of Wood's more careful criticism (yes, moving, and how often can we say that about literary criticism?).

March 10, 2008

This Week in My Classes (March 10, 2008)

First, a momet to vent. On Friday of last week I handed back homework assignments in Mystery and Detective Fiction and took up the entire class meeting on the topic "how to do better next time." Although I usually address common problems when returning work, this time seemed different because of the relatively low level of problem--to give just one example, although for one part of the assignment students were clearly (and I mean clearly) instructed to write one coherent paragraph, large numbers of them wrote anywhere from two to six paragraphs, sometimes simply setting off each new sentence. It's the kind of marking experience that leaves me wondering if somehow it's my confusion: has the definition of 'paragraph' changed, maybe? As I hope I made clear to them, that instruction was not just an arbitrary limit on their creativity but a deliberate direction meant, among other things, to improve the odds that they would put forward a coherent idea supported through argumentation and evidence--rather than, say, a string of basically unconnected observations. So ignoring it had other consequences for the quality of both their thinking and their writing. Then there were the many, many students who just as cavalierly disregarded the word limits I had set for another part of the assignment, thus, again, undermining my effort to encourage pointed commentary rather than plot summary. As I demonstrated with examples drawn from this round of assignments, the task could certainly be done well within the set limits, but it's true that editing is hard work, and I couldn't help concluding that some of them had imagined they would be fine just tossing off their first thoughts and turning them in. The vast array of typos (ah, that well known detective Sherlock Homes!) was also discouraging. But as I told them, a flurry of red ink is really a compliment, as it indicates my conviction that they can in fact get it right if they take time and pay attention!

OK. So. Hoping to turn Friday's negative energy into something more positive, today we did an editing worksheet giving them some hands-on practice at writing more concise, focused prose and then at developing observations about their reading into the kind of unifying interpretive idea called for in their paragraph assignment. For the latter we worked with Sara Paretsky's clever story "Dealer's Choice," in which she takes on the voice of Christopher Marlowe and offers up her own 'take' on the hard-boiled detective story. For our exercise we compared her 'femme fatale,' "Naomi Felstein" (a.k.a, Kathleen Akiko Moloney) to Brigid O'Shaughnessy, exploring how Paretsky uses now-familiar hard-boiled elements to do something rather different. Is the story an homage, a parody, a sincere re-visitation, or a subversion of the hard-boiled genre? I opened with some brief comments Paretsky has made about trying to do a straight gender role-reversal in this genre, and her conclusion that too much simply changes when you put a woman behind the desk. The issues she raises will become particularly relevant for us when we move on to Sue Grafton's 'A' is for Alibi in a couple of weeks. But first, starting Wednesday, we're studying P. D. James's An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. Sadly, the Smithsonian lecture I was hoping to play for them appears to be non-functioning!

In The Victorian 'Woman Question,' it's Middlemarch time (right in the middle of March, too, as they pointed out--clever, eh?). I wrote a fair amount about how I approach teaching Middlemarch when I worked on it in my 19th-century fiction class in the fall. This round will be different for at least a couple of reasons, though. First of all, as this is a seminar class, inevitably our discussions will take new and unexpected directions as we are guided by the students' opening questions rather than my lesson plans. Second, we are coming at it after reading several novels focusing very prominently on marriage and (of course) the 'woman question,' and these are not actually the angles I play up the most in my lecture classes. To me (and, I hope, to the students who were also in my fall class) it will be interesting to see which aspects of the novel take on increased significance as a result. I'm expecting, for instance, that the Lydgate/Rosamond plot will be more prominent this time, and we may take more time on Fred and Mary than I usually manage. Having just finished He Knew He Was Right, the students may find Dorothea's struggle to submit to Casaubon--her idealization of renunciation--more problematic than they otherwise would; in fact, I am quite interested in comparing Eliot's emphasis on duty with Trollope's interest in rights and principles. I will also be tempted to return us to the questions of literary merit we kicked around when we were studying East Lynne, and which came back in a more muted form with Trollope, whose readability (as Friday's presenters emphasized) has as often cost him as earned him credibility. And, speaking of Friday's presentation, our class activity was a mock tea party in which we were all assigned parts from the novel--fun, appropriate given how much we talked about the importance of characters and characterization in the novel, and also effective in stimulating informed contributions from pretty much every member of the seminar. I was assigned the part of Wallachia Petrie, proving, of course, that they were casting against type! (Ha.)

March 3, 2008

This Week in My Classes (March 3, 2008)

We're back from our 'break' and, if this year is like years past, the time from now until the end of term will seem to go by in a crazy rush. Here's what's in the works for this week:

In Mystery and Detective Fiction, we're finishing up The Maltese Falcon. Today we talked about Flitcraft, as mentioned here. Next time we'll watch a clip from the film version, probably the concluding scene between Sam and Brigid as preparation for a class debate about the morality or other implications of Sam's choice to turn her in. I must say I find this novel one of the most depressing I teach--not because its elements are, strictly speaking, sad in themselves. The Remains of the Day, for instance, is much sadder. But Ishiguro's novel, while also showing the costs of life without love, shows us (indirectly, implicitly) the alternative, suggesting it is attainable, worth aiming for even if in the end you miss. Hammett emphasizes the costs as well (note Effie's revulsion in the final chapter, and Sam's shiver), but only Effie seems to strive for something better, warmer, more human, and we can tell that she persists in her kinder, gentler world view only by being (willfully?) oblivious to the realities of the world she lives in. Can love and hope be sustained only through ignorance? Sigh.

And in The Victorian 'Woman Question' we're reaching the end of He Knew He Was Right. What a great read. Once you're about 500 pages into it, surely you're hooked. Before the break I took some time in class to inquire how the students were feeling about the novel. Admittedly, those who are hating it are not likely to 'fess up to their professor--or perhaps they would, given an opening, since they seem a pretty candid bunch, and have expressed some blunt opinions before. Anyway, I was interested in how appreciative several of them seemed. One said that she turned to Trollope with relief after doing the reading for other classes, partly because of the directness of his narration and project, and partly because she felt she could care for so many of the characters. Several have praised the novel's humour and are clearly taking pleasure in the twists and turns of the subplots; a few particularly emphasized the appeal of the 'secondary' characters, who strike them as lively and distinct. I'm feeling pleased about my gamble in assigning it (my brooding over which is recorded here and here especially). Mind you, there will be some culture shock when we move to Middlemarch next week: I think they will find it much slower going, though perhaps now they won't be intimidated by its length!