September 29, 2008

This Week in My Classes (September 29, 2008)

I didn't post anything about my classes last week. Mental clutter is my lame excuse--that, and I used what 'extra' energy I had to get done one of the book reviews I've been working on, and to read two quite long graduate thesis chapters. So really, I wasn't slacking off! Actually, since one thing I was doing was launching Vanity Fair in my 19th-century fiction class, the little piece I posted on that at The Valve sort of counts. Anyway, here's what's up at this point.

English 1010: This week we start our work on Elie Wiesel's Night. I chose this text for this course because it seemed to epitomize the idea I pitch in the class about great writing not being aimed at college classrooms and anthologies but being a form of intervention in the world. Night is a highly-wrought text, conspicuously literary, deliberate in its language and devices, and urgent in its attempt to reach us on an important subject. It's also enormously moving--and (not an insignificant consideration for a first-year class) it's very short. My experience has been that students arrive in class without much historical background (my own view would be that, at the very least, modern history should be a graduation requirement for all high school students, but here at least, it is optional). I opened today, therefore, with an overview of the Holocaust, beginning with the rise of the Nazi party in the 1930s and going briefly through the steps towards the 'final solution.' Throughout I emphasize the problems Wiesel and others have raised about finding appropriate language to refer to the mass murders, including objections to the term "Holocaust"; I also (again, following Wiesel's prompts) try to balance a sense of the overwhelming scale of suffering and death with attention to individual faces and stories. In my introductory lecture I also talk a bit about Wiesel himself, about the textual history of Night, and about its status (and, perhaps, limits) as a memoir, rather than a comprehensive or authoritative history. Finally, I try to give some fresh urgency to his mantra of "never forget" by mentioning some notorious contemporary Holocaust deniers.

I worked hard on my PowerPoint slides for this lecture, trying first to put faces on the abstractions, but also to provide starting points for the problems of language and representation that we will work on. It is an almost unbearable job to do; I found myself in tears several times, particularly as I worked on the topic of "selection." In the Preface, Wiesel asks,
Was there a way to describe . . . the vanishing of a beautiful, well-behaved little Jewish girl with golden hair and a sad smile, murdered with her mother the very night of their arrival? How was one to speak of them without trembling and a heart broken for all eternity? . . . And yet, having lived through this experience, one could not keep silent, no matter how difficult, if not impossible, it was to speak.
Here's the account of that incident he gives:
An SS came toward us wielding a club. He commanded:

"Men to the left! Women to the right!"

Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight simple, short words. yet that was the moment when I left my mother. There was no time to think, and I already felt my father's hand press against mine: we were alone. In a fraction of a second I could see my mother, my sisters, move to the right. Tzipora was holding Mother's hand. I saw them walking farther and farther away; Mother was stroking my sister's blond hair, as if to protect her. And I walked on with my father, with the men. I didn't know that this was the moment in time and the place where I was leaving my mother and Tzipora forever.
Tzipora was seven, the same age as my own daughter. It's the mother I mourn for most, though: she would have known, or feared, more of the truth, and felt the devastation of walking her child towards it.

Did it seem trivial to move to Vanity Fair for my afternoon class? It did, a bit, and though I got my head into it and enjoyed myself, and I think it was a pretty good session, I find that now, having returned imaginatively and emotionally to that scene on the platform at Auschwitz, I don't feel like writing it up. Instead, here are some links to some remarkable online resources for learning about (and teaching about) the Holocaust:
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

USC Shoah Foundation Institute

Yad Vashem: The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority

Holocaust Denial on Trial

The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity

Elie Wiesel Nobel Prize Interview

Elie Wiesel Academy of Achievement Interview

Night on Oprah's Book Club

September 26, 2008

CFP: LitCrit 2.0

The calls for papers for ACCUTE 2009 are now posted, including my own for a session on "LitCrit 2.o: Academic Blogging and Other New Forms of Scholarly Publishing" (scroll down this list). Panels like this are old news in other venues, but I haven't seen much about it up here, at least not through ACCUTE (which, for any American readers who don't know this, is our MLA-like thing). My own thinking about these issues was somewhat focused by the presentation I gave to my department on academic blogging last fall.

The version of the CFP I submitted actually had more apparatus, including hyperlinks that I had hoped would be retained in the posted version. For those who might be interested, here's the full text with links.

LitCrit 2.0:
Academic Blogging and Other New Forms of Scholarly Publishing

[A]nyone engaged in any aspect of academe, from teaching to administration to libraries to research, would do well to take a look at what some of their colleagues are doing on the internet. (Miriam Jones, “Why Blog?” @ ScribblingWoman)

I do think that the solution to the problem of poor circulation of ideas (not paper) has to involve making room for something that blogs do well. There has got to be healthier conversation, keeping up the circulation of ideas regarding books and articles. Blogging isn't scholarship, but scholarship may need blogging in quite a strong sense. (John Holbo, “Form Follows the Function of the Little Magazine” @ The Valve)

Peer-review thus demands to be transformed from a system of gatekeeping to a mode of manifesting the responses to and discussion of a multiplicity of ideas in circulation. (Kathleen FitzPatrick, “On the Future of Academic Publishing, Peer Review, and Tenure Requirements” @ The Valve)

The 2006 report of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion urged us to reconsider the primacy of print publications, particularly monographs, in assessing each other’s contributions to scholarship. Most of us recognize that academic publishing in some respects serves institutional needs better than intellectual or scholarly ones; ideally, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick argues, our professional advancement should not depend on “whether the vagaries of any publishing system did or did not allow a text to come into circulation, but rather on the value of that text, and on the importance it bears for its field.” The challenge both conceptually and institutionally, is developing alternatives to a system the protocols of which are so well-established.

Among the recommendations of the MLA Task Force is that we adopt “a more capacious conception of scholarship,” including “establishing multiple pathways to tenure, and using scholarly portfolios,” and that we “recognize the legitimacy of scholarship produced in new media.” Certainly the opportunities for self-publishing and scholarly networking via the internet are transforming our ideas about what is possible as well as what is desirable in academic discourse. Websites, wikis, and blogs may not render the old forms (books, refereed articles, print reviews, conferences) obsolete, but they do make it necessary to identify what the traditional methods—slow, rigid, resource-intensive, and often exclusionary—nonetheless do better than the alternatives, and they should motivate us also to imagine and develop the aspects of our intellectual and scholarly work that can be done more effectively using new forms. Many academic bloggers, for instance, have already discovered the value of what Matthew Kirschenbaum has called a “public academic workbench,” of putting their ideas into circulation faster and among a much wider variety of audiences than conventional publication allows and thus enabling a remarkable immediacy of response and debate. Some bloggers have observed that blog comments can constitute a form of post-publication peer review, offsetting the seemingly intractable problem of quality-control in self-publication.

This panel invites proposals for papers on the changing nature of, and new possibilities for, academic publishing in the era of Web 2.0. Analyses of specific blogging or other interactive or collaborative web-publishing experiences would be particularly relevant. In order to allow time for demonstrations of research or publication in new media as well as discussion among both panel and audience members, slightly shorter papers (15 minutes, or 8-10 pages) are encouraged. A/V needs should be clearly specified in the proposal.

Submissions should be sent electronically by 15 November 2008 to:
Rohan Maitzen
Department of English
Dalhousie University
Subject: ACCUTE Panel
Please note that submissions must follow the same guidelines as those for the general call (Option 1), as specified on the ACCUTE website. In particular:
  • submitters must be ACCUTE members in good standing
  • an electronic copy of the proposal, a completed copy of the Proposal Submitter’s Information Sheet (available online), and a file containing a 100-word abstract and a 50-word bio-bibliographical note must be submitted to the panel organizer by 15 November
  • proposals (maximum 700 words) should clearly indicate the originality or scholarly significance of the proposed paper, the line of argument, the principal texts the paper will speak to (if applicable), and the relation of the paper to existing scholarship on the topic

How Not to Talk to Your Professor

On the stairs of an academic building, 3 minutes before class time:
Student: Professor!

Professor (thinking is this one of mine?): Yes?

Student: I'm in your English 1010 class.

Professor (at least this one knows which English class): What is it?

Student: I just wanted you to know that I'm in sciences and I'm just taking your class because I need my writing requirement.

Professor: (here it comes) . . .

Student: The thing is I really don't get English.

Professor: (Oh no, she's heard about our secret code! I can't just hand that out to someone in the sciences!) Well, you can meet your writing requirement in lots of subjects besides English.

Student: Honestly, I have to take this course because it's the only writing class I can take and still fit in all the science classes I need.

Professor: Hmmm. Well, that's unfortunate.

Student: Yes, it's really awful.
Professor: . . .

September 23, 2008

September 19, 2008

Paul Auster, City of Glass

I've just finished reading City of Glass, one of many suggestions I've received for expanding the reading list for my upcoming 'Mystery and Detective Fiction' course.

Unprofessional reaction: I hated this book. It's too clever by half, full of cute intertextual, metatextual jokes and tricks, and all too predictably and preeningly post-modern about the elusiveness of meaning, the fracturing of identity, and the gaps between signifieds and signifiers. It's fiction as word- and mind- games, all metaphysics and no humanity.*

Professional reaction: This book is utterly unlike the other novels on my syllabus, and yet deliberately and intricately engaged with them and what they represent and investigate (I realized that all by myself, even before I read through this smart critical essay). You could say that it offers a philosophical and theoretical as well as literary response to the rest of the syllabus. In its own way, it takes the metaphysical premises and literary conventions of detective fiction more seriously than any of the other assigned works--and, again in its own, postmodern, self-conscious way, does more with them (or should I say, to them?). Pedagogically, I can certainly see the case for teaching it, and I'm sure I and my students would learn from the experience.

So here's where I'm left for now: I hate the novel, I'd be happy never to read it again, it's everything I don't like about postmodern fiction (and theory)...but it just might be the right book for my course, and assuming I can learn to engage with the novel intellectually, my visceral dislike of it will either be rendered irrelevant or even subside. Maybe.

* Update: This review of Auster's recent Man in the Dark over at the TLS tells me mine is not a wholly idiosyncratic response to Auster: "for the first time, perhaps, in an Auster novel the heart is more important than the head."

September 17, 2008

This Week in My Classes (September 17, 2008)

As always, the chaos of the first week has settled into the confusion of the second, and by next week we should all be in the groove. I'm still flummoxed by students asking questions such as "what's the reading for Friday?" when I have told them, with tedious frequency, since September 5, that they will find all the guidance they need in their course syllabi. But in general they seem to be figuring out how things work, and I'm beginning to learn some of their names--a process that gets discouragingly more difficult for me every year.

In English 1010, I tried an experiment this year and assigned an in-class essay last week. An article I was reading on pedagogy recommended an early assignment as a way of focusing their attention on the class and showing them that you mean business, and I thought that made sense. Also, I thought it would be useful for me and them to see early on what they know how to do already and what we need to work on this term. Though in retrospect I should have allowed myself more than two days to read through them all (even Woolf's "The Death of the Moth" collapses under the weight of 50+ first-year papers), it was definitely an informative experience, and I was able to generate a list of "Things to Work On" that we will keep track of over the term. First up today was "its" vs. "it's" (and all other things apostrophe-related). Honestly, as I told them, there's no reason to get so muddled about apostrophes, as their rules are so specific--unlike commas, for which a great deal of fine judgment can sometimes be required. Then we moved on to the higher-order task of improving their vocabulary for analyzing literature, with some work on diction, tone, and irony. Our reading for today was Brent Staples's "Just Walk On By: A Black Man Ponders His Power to Alter Public Space" (better known by the shorter title "Black Men and Public Space," I think). It's a good case study for considering the importance of tone, I think. One aspect we discussed was how he might have pitched the essay given its original audience: it first appeared in Ms. Friday we'll keep going with tone but also consider some aspects of formal argumentation with Shelby Steele's "Affirmative Action: The Price of Preference."

It's Persuasion in my 19th-Century Fiction class this week. Having talked about the navy quite a bit last week, this week I tried to lay out some ideas about the novel's historiographical implications (when a war is going on, or has just ended, or may just start, what counts as an 'important' or historical event? where does history happen? how do people experience historical change? how does Austen let us know that her characters live in history?) and then, today, to move from big social and political issues to the presentation of Anne's interiority and her (and the novel's) struggle with strong feelings and desires. I went over the concepts of limited omniscient narration and indirect discourse, and tried to introduce some issues about narration and point of view more generally that will be important for our thinking about all of our novels. Towards the end of class today we talked about what to make of Anne's self-control or reserve, which can come across as repression and seem highly problematic in the context of the contemporary feminist valorization of speaking one's mind or demanding what one wants. With Jane Eyre coming up, I thought it would be good to raise some questions about that novel's iconic status in the feminist canon and to consider how far Austen is endorsing a different model of feminine strength. It's a problem for Anne, of course, that she doesn't speak out enough: she nearly loses everything! But Louisa Musgrove's fall can be seen as a caution about being too clamorous.

I'm looking forward to Vanity Fair next week. I think the class will be pleasantly surprised by how much fun it is.

September 15, 2008

CFP Blues

First, a proposal I worked very hard on even though I had a lot of other things to do was flat-out rejected--no explanation given. But it was in a new area, so you expect some failure at first. Then I saw a CFP that seemed promisingly close to things I know something about (George Eliot, realism, and sympathy)--but it was in a language I didn't understand (something about how "bodily practices inculcate cultural dispositions") so I let that one go by. And now there's a conference I'd really like to go to, because it has great plenary speakers and all kinds of interesting panels and workshops, but its general theme is the kind of work I stopped doing a few years ago in order to explore the kind of thing I did (or would do, if I could) for the other two conferences--so I don't think I can generate a legitimate proposal. I'm actually developing a distaste for conferences with themes. I suspect they inspire a great deal of spurious scholarship, given that most of us can't get funding to attend unless we're presenting and so you have to write up whatever your current research actually is in a way that suits the purpose--which is often defined in ways so broad as to invite all kinds of cute applications of it. And yet my most recent experience with a very open-ended conference program was very discouraging, as the sessions were so many and so disparate that most were badly attended and no sense of scholarly community emerged. (My own paper that time, over which I sweated bullets, was heard by a grand total of about 8 other people.) I do wish I could afford (or get funding) to go to a conference just to learn things and talk with people and get excited about ideas--without having to be on the program myself.

OK, I'm done complaining for now. Time to go do something productive, like trying to describe my current research in a way that fits the conference parameters. After all, rightly understood, what isn't about "Past vs. Present"?

September 14, 2008

Mysterious Reading Plans: Another Idea

I'm still struggling with the question of what, if anything, to add to the reading list for my winter term course on 'mystery and detective fiction.' Just to reiterate, it's not that there aren't lots of good mystery novels out there, but I'm trying to see what type of novel I might assign that isn't already represented on my list, what author or book models some kind of significant recent development rather than a modern twist on a familiar genre (such as the hard-boiled private eye, or the British police procedural).

Here's my most recent thought. I've just finished watching the last season of The Wire. I'd love to incorporate television crime drama into the course--but I lack the expertise to do so responsibly, and even if I thought I could study up, there seem to be a lot of logistical problems. I was thinking about what I admire about The Wire, though, and part of it is the way it uses its 'cop show' framework for broad (or do I mean deep?) social criticism: many critics have used the adjective "Dickensian" for it, and I think they are right in that it resembles a novel like Bleak House in the range of its interests and in its strategy of showing not just connections between, but also variations on common themes across, a wide social spectrum. In other words, among other things it is an updated take on the 'condition of England' novel--though of course it's the 'condition of America' that's at stake in The Wire. I don't have anything on my syllabus that is so overtly ambitious as social criticism, though of course many (perhaps all) of our readings are at least implicitly critical of key aspects of modern life (The Moonstone and The Maltese Falcon being the best examples). Ian Rankin uses his detective fiction for something like this purpose: Fleshmarket Close is one that comes to mind. But I like Knots and Crosses, already on my syllabus, for its twist on Gothic fiction. Still, I could replace it with one of Rankin's more socially and thematically capacious novels. Or, it occurs to me, I could look at the books written by the guys who wrote for The Wire: what about Richard Price's Clockers, for instance, or his more recent Lush Life? The problem is, I haven't read these yet--and also Clockers appears to be 600+ pages. What about David Simon's Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets? It's non-fiction, so perhaps that's out of line. I'm reading Denis Lehane's Mystic River right now. It's certainly compelling, but it's as much a thriller as a detective novel, and it's an inward-looking psychological drama too, not unlike Knots and Crosses (both remind me of the line from Gaskell's "Old Nurse's Story": "What is done in youth can never be undone in age!"). Lehane (and Price, and George Pelecanos) have a lot of other books between them, but Clockers seems to be among the most critically praised. If it is the kind of book it sounds like, it would bring the course around in an interesting way to Victorian ideas about crime and society and about fiction's role in addressing these issues--but in a 'gritty' contemporary way. But then maybe I'd need to cut something.

I have about three weeks now before final book orders are due. Sure, I can read another 600-pager. No problem.

September 11, 2008

This Week in My Classes (September 11, 2008)

We're one week into our fall term here and things are close to settling into routine again. I found blogging my teaching valuable enough last year that I'm going to do it again this year, though I may try to mix up the format a bit--maybe instead of reporting (or anticipating) the discussion topics for each class, sometimes I'll post a favourite passage and invite your comments on it, for instance. Only one of my courses this year is the same as last year, so I won't be repeating myself too terribly much--though no doubt some of my preoccupations will be the same. So here's what's up this week:

I'm teaching a first-year class this term, English 1010, "Introduction to Prose and Fiction." One of the principles in our department that I have always approved of is that we all teach intro classes on a regular basis, regardless of our other roles in the department; some of our teaching is done by our contract faculty and graduate students, but this year, for instance, of our 21 sections of first-year, tenured and tenure-track faculty are teaching all but 6. Though first-year classes have their challenges, I think many of us would agree that are genuine compensations, including the chance to excite students about literature and writing who had no great expectations for the course coming into it, and the chance to work with bright students heading off into other programs who bring different perspectives to their literary analysis. I was converted into an English major by my own first-year English course, so I never forget the significance this required course may have for someone. I teach English1010 with an emphasis on writing as an act of urgent communication: most writers, I suggest, wrote not to be anthologized (a distressingly sanitizing and dampening experience for most texts) but to say something to us about something they thought really mattered. As we start the term with a selection of non-fiction prose pieces, this point is easily illustrated with Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech or Swift's "A Modest Proposal," things like that. But I actually started out with Ian McEwan's two Guardian pieces on the September 11 attacks, as I think they effectively illustrate the process of a writer struggling to craft something in words that gives shape and meaning to a conspicuously important event. (The pieces are "Beyond Belief" and "Only Love and then Oblivion.") First (because my students were very young in 2001, and perhaps not really paying attention) I showed some news footage from the morning of September 11, to recapture something of the shock and confusion so many of us felt as events unfolded without our yet having a story to tell about them--particularly, without knowing what else might happen. Then they wrote a little bit themselves: I asked them particularly to consider what literary form they would use if assigned to write something about that morning and what details or approach they would choose to make what kind of point. Then for the next class they read McEwan's pieces and we talked about his choices, leading into a discussion of his conclusion that the attacks represent a failure of imagination and compassion. This gives me a somewhat self-serving opportunity to point out that literature could be seen as the antidote to the problem he sees, a good starting point for discussion in general but also for the term to come. The last time I taught the course, I chose McEwan's Saturday for our major novel, so both the historical / political and the literary context this discussion set up were particularly useful; even though I've chosen The Remains of the Day for our novel this year, I thought this would still be a good way to start. I do worry about its sensational aspects: I fretted about showing the video clips, and felt uncomfortable taking time to select the ones I thought would be most effective (that's an uneasy kind of voyeurism--though it's surely no worse than the steps involved in making the PowerPoint presentation on the Holocaust which I will show when we study Wiesel's Night). Because McEwan focuses the second essay on the cell phone calls made that day, I thought of playing some clips, but the only one I could find that still includes the victim's words proved so upsetting for me to listen to that I opted against using it in that way. Now we've moved on to works in our anthology (yesterday, Orwell's "A Hanging," tomorrow Woolf's "The Death of the Moth"). I hope this first exercise had enough impact that they will bring to these readings the idea that writing is always a response to living and thus a matter of some urgency.

My other class this term is English 3031, The Nineteenth-Century British Novel from Austen to Dickens. This is the prequel to the course I taught last fall, English 3032 (Dickens to Hardy). These vague start and end points allow us nice flexibility in our course planning; a colleague recently taught 3031 more or less as a course in the Romantic and gothic novel, for instance, while I always teach it as "What the Victorians Learned from Austen and Scott"--only this year, for the first time since 1995, I'm teaching this part of the history of the novel without Scott, a decision I'm already regretting because there is so much I can't say about our other books without Waverley as a touchstone. Oh well. I just get tired of dragging them along all unwilling (actually, there are always two or three who really "get" Waverley and get a kick out of it as a result, but that still leaves about 35 students who really wish they were reading anything else). To make up for that, I brought in The Mill on the Floss, as I have usually reserved George Eliot for 3032. I haven't lectured on The Mill on the Floss in some time, though I have assigned it in a number of seminars. I'm looking forward to deciding what I have to say about it this time. But first, we are doing Persuasion, then Vanity Fair, then Jane Eyre, then Bleak House. Sometimes I pick my books around a common theme (I did a "Napoleonic" theme once, for instance), but this time I just went with a list of books I think are really fabulous. We haven't done much with Persuasion yet, but tomorrow we'll address it as a war novel. Really. I'm going to show a clip from Master and Commander of the taking of a French ship--just the kind of thing Wentworth and his buddies have been doing to make all their new money. Then we'll look at a clip of the excellent adaptation of Persuasion, just to highlight the different tone. Then we'll talk about some historiographical issues, particularly gendered ones, to do with identifying a historical 'event,' relating domestic life to national or public life, etc. I think it will be interesting. And on that note, I'd best go get my materials organized for it.

September 10, 2008

Lament for CBC Radio 2

I miss my radio station! I have been a loyal CBC listener for over 30 years. Since the launch of the new CBC, I have turned on Radio 2 almost every day, out of habit and out of optimism that I'll like what I hear. No luck so far! I know that there's still classical music programming, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. I find this particularly disappointing: I don't know about the rest of the CBC-2 audience, but I'm at work, and my kids are in school, between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. We used to always tune in to CBC-2 on our way in to and home from school, and I can't count the number of times we heard something we all enjoyed or learned from or took an interest in. No more. CBC-2 used to be the default setting on all of our radios. No more. The thing is, sure, there might sometimes be some good music or some interesting commentary on CBC under the new regime, but I'm not going to stay tuned in on the off-chance that something I like will come on. That seems to me the fundamental problem with this new music-mix idea: trying to offer a little something for everyone (what a Canadian idea that is!) means you don't offer much in particular for anyone. Sadly, in Halifax we don't have other classical music radio stations to turn to, so it will be my own playlists from now on.

September 9, 2008

Recent Reading

As the new term gets underway, I feel my opportunities for "leisure" (a.k.a. "not required") reading slipping away--not that I'm sorry, of course, to have an excuse to read Bleak House again, or The Remains of the Day (too late now to worry that the latter is way too subtle a pleasure for my first-year students!). In the interstices of the past two hectic weeks, though, I have enjoyed reading a few things just for the sake of it.

A wise friend lent me both David Lodge's Thinks..., which provided much amusement, and Nuala O'Faolain's Are You Somebody?, which provoked much reflection. I've fallen quite behind with Lodge's books, maybe because academic satires aren't quite as funny when you are struggling with shaping your own academic life to your liking. Maybe now I'll do some catching up, or at least reread Nice Work. Thinks... reminded me of another of my old favourites, Alison Lurie's Foreign Affairs, though Lurie's novel allows for a bit more sentimentality. I was rereading O'Faolain's novel My Dream of You this summer and, again, enjoying especially the contemporary story (which, as in Byatt's Possession--an inevitable comparison, I suppose--alternates with the 19thC story being investigated, or, in this case, largely imagined, by the 20thC characters), and I found O'Faolain's memoir had very much the same wry yet elegaic tone, particularly in its descriptions of Irish landscapes, but also in its treatment of getting older. "How do people arrange to love their ageing selves?" O'Faolain asks. How indeed. I was particularly interested in her frustration with the cultural pressures towards romance--"reaching for me, trying to ruin me." Her description of her Christmas alone moved me, with its carefully planned pleasures, its undertone of melancholy and its moments of being surprised by joy. And then it's writing, she goes on to say, that fills "the emptiness."

There are links between O'Faolain's grasping after a storyline for herself that is not a romance plot and some of the main lines in Maureen Corrigan's Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading (which, appropriately, I tried to read most of while on airplanes with two children who seemed to have an unending list of needs and wants that only I could satisfy!). I'd like to write at more length about Corrigan's book than I have time for tonight, as it is an interesting variation on the "books about books" I've written up before. For now, I'm struck by Corrigan's observations about the absence of stories about working, or "intelligent or bookish" women in the classic novels she studied. (Of course, social and historical constraints--and the literary constraint of realism--makes such plots unlikely until the 20th century, but there were certainly intelligent, bookish women throughout the centuries. As many feminist critics have pointed out, George Eliot lived a life her own fiction can seem to imply is either impossible or undesirable.) I was thinking Gaudy Night during this part of Corrigan's discussion, and sure enough, Sayers's novel is a key example in the next chapter. Corrigan is another critic who likes to take shots at her academic experience ("I had to pay a price for the self-knowledge I gained in graduate school: the price was being in graduate school"). There's a lot of interesting bookish discussion in the book, though it is primarily a memoir; I found her comments on mystery and detective fiction of particular interest.

Now I'm reading Peter Robinson's Friend of the Devil; next up is Penelope Lively's Perfect Happines, which I "borrowed" from my mother's wonderful book collection in Vancouver to compensate for not, after all, having been able to do any book shopping there. (Next time, it's Duthie's or bust!) Lively's Moon Tiger is another of my long-time favourites.

September 4, 2008

This Week in My Classes (September 4, 2008)

Guest Author: Archdeacon Grantly*
Dr. Maitzen's fall classes begin tomorrow.

Good Heavens!

*Sadly, I'm not teaching The Warden (or any Trollope, for that matter) this term.

September 1, 2008

Inger Ash Wolfe, The Calling

The Calling is a really creepy book. Although it is ostensibly a police procedural, following the efforts of D. I. Hazel Micallef's efforts to solve a murder case that begins in her small home town of Port Dundas, Ontario, its cover identifies it as "a novel of suspense," and that ultimately seems the more accurate category for it. Edgar Allan Poe, often considered the founder of the detective story 'proper,' wrote short stories in two categories: horror and ratiocination. The former (such as "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Black Cat") are extensions of or variations on gothic elements and give us human nature at its most perverse, frightening, and inexplicable; the latter (such as "The Purloined Letter") hold out the promise that reason can prevail. Though the detective work in The Calling relies to some extent on ratiocination, on evidence and deduction, by choosing as its criminal a religiously-motivated psychotic* and by the nature of its denouement, the novel overall continues that first tradition, the gothic/horror tradition. But it does so without linking its specific story in any compelling way to some underlying idea about human nature (as Poe does, with his interest in the shaky borders between sanity and insanity) or about social institutions and their impact on individual personalities (as I think Ian Rankin does in, say, Knots and Crosses). Micallef and the other 'good guys' are well-drawn characters and the community they work in is nicely evoked, but I would have been much more impressed by a story that arose somehow out of that community, out of its history, its landscape, or its people. Instead, what Wolfe (whichever "well-known North American writer" he or she might really be) has given us is a grim, sometimes shockingly gruesome, but cheaply sensational cop-vs-psycho story--my least favourite kind of crime fiction, as it turns us into morbid voyeurs as we hang on for the inevitable last-ditch confrontation between good and evil. I thought the cross-country crime odyssey was inadequately motivated, as well: we get some back-story, but not enough, or not deep enough, to offer insight into the factors (whether psychological or social) that might give rise to such a character. Though a brief attempt is made to connect Micallef to the killer ("it was as if they had become twins"), the comparison is totally undeserved and undeveloped, so, again, the gothic potential remains untapped. The jacket blurb (unseemly, I think, in its effusive praise, which should surely come not from the publisher but from the book's readers) says that this "dazzling novel" is "the first in a series." It could be a good series, if it takes what is honest and human in this book and finds the tragedy, pathos, and police work in that. But I certainly won't assign this one in my class. For one thing, I don't find a teachable contribution in it, either to the mystery genre or to our thinking about crime as a literary theme or a social problem. But also, I felt awful while reading it, sickened by being a witness to its events, and while of course it would be foolish, even disingenuous, to be squeamish about violence as such in crime fiction, I want the violence to be treated as more than spectacle, and here, I wasn't convinced that it was.

*This is not a spoiler, as we follow his thoughts and actions from the first chapter.