This week is nearly over already! Whew. It hasn’t been a particularly intense week in my classes (relatively “light” reading, for instance, in both of my undergraduate classes, plus the final books of Middlemarch for my graduate seminar, which I know well enough by now not to have to reread every word–though, as a matter of fact, I did reread almost all of it anyway, because who wouldn’t, given the excuse?). But it’s March Break, which means some schedule juggling, and then my poor daughter came down with a violent stomach flu, which derailed her camp plans. We are fortunate to have a lot of flexibility in our working hours, but I find that as I get older I find it harder to make up in the evenings for reading or marking that I couldn’t get done during the day. Happily, anyway, she’s on the mend, if sipping a little ginger ale means anything, and by Monday we’ll all be back to our usual routine.
So, what have I been doing, when I could? In Mystery and Detective Fiction, we’re on to our unit on ‘the contemporary police procedural, with short stories by Ed McBain, Peter Robinson, and Ian Rankin. I haven’t actually read any of McBain’s 87th Precinct series, only a few short stories in the various anthologies I’ve used over the years, which have felt to me a bit too much like reading episodes of Law & Order. It’s just not my favourite style, though maybe I just haven’t read the best examples. I generally enjoy Robinson’s Inspector Banks series, but our story was actually a one-off, a historical mystery that is not really (as my students quickly discerned) a police procedural proper, as its detective is only a “special constable” and has the usual run-ins with the official officers of the law that we expect of the amateur detective or private eye. Set in September 1939, the story (“Missing in Action”) evokes a feeling of civilization spiraling out of control; vigilante justice, justified in hard-boiled detection as the only way for Our Hero, however morally questionable, to fight for The Right in a corrupt world, is shown in a darker light here, reminding us of why we need to rely on formal systems of law and evidence, even if the outcomes are not always satisfactory. Tomorrow, it’s Rankin’s “The Dean Curse,” which sets us up well for Knots and Crosses next week, not only by introducing Rebus, but by making similar connections between military training and police work, and asking difficult questions about the moral responsibility of a military organization that (of necessity) trains men away from their humanity only to loose them on the world at the end of their service. Rankin is the best stylist of this group, for sure.
Having said that, I confess to feeling some impatience in the last week or so with the preponderance of mediocre-to-fine writers on that reading list. Though I wouldn’t accept any argument that genre fiction is inherently or inevitably less “literary,” it’s striking that the prose is so rarely excellent, even among the most popular or innovative mystery writers. “Workmanlike” is how I would describe, for instance, the writing in Paretsky’s Indemnity Only: important as her work is, for its contributions to breaking open the feminist potential of crime fiction, there’s no temptation to linger over the language at any point. In fact, only Chandler and Hammett much tempt me that way, this term, which may be one reason I’m missing P. D. James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, removed from the syllabus because of its unpopularity with students over the years–James cares about language as well as story and character. When I go looking for new writers to include in this course, I usually tire of the exercise quite soon because however interesting the angle or scenario may be, so many are badly, even dreadfully, written (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, anyone?).
It’s only fair to say that bad or mediocre writing occurs in all forms, including self-consciously aspiring “literary” novels (The Mistress of Nothing, anyone?). But much of the time there’s no reason to teach a mediocre work. For a course on the contemporary novel, I don’t think Tracy Chevalier, for instance, would even be a contender for the syllabus. But when your criteria is not literary excellence but something else, then you do teach material that is “interesting” for other reasons, and I think what happens is that once you’ve gone through it a few times, it isn’t really that interesting to you anymore and you’re just reiterating stuff about its relationship to conventions and social / political issues and so on, reading it symptomatically, for what it is, rather than (dare I say) lovingly, for what it specifically says, or, as important, how it says it. I know, I know: “literary excellence”–what does it mean? But surely one defensible measure of excellence is “bearing up well under repeated, attentive readings.” It might be intellectual qualities or aesthetic qualities that achieve this quality of endurance, and there are certainly many, many ways of being excellent, but a book that eventually lies flat before me like a deflated balloon because there’s really nothing else to discover in it is not excellent, I feel pretty sure about that. I routinely teach some pretty bad books (Aurora Floyd, anyone?)–but so far, some of them do continue to bear up, maybe because they are so odd and unfamiliar that they resist deflation despite everything. But I think I’m going to start purging my teaching life of the ones that have become perfunctory. That may mean giving up the mystery and detective course, at least for a while. I know I still make the books interesting for students coming to them for the first time, but I’d really rather those same students were getting excited and interested in better books, books that will survive to become real literary friends of theirs and/or that will encourage them to set their sights higher. In spending a lot of time explaining what’s interesting about not-very-good books, it sometimes seems I am implicitly allowing that it’s OK to settle for them.
I wonder if I’m fretting over this problem this term because of the contrast with the readings for the Brit Lit survey: because there I have had to be so selective, I often feel overwhelmed with the fabulousness of our readings. This week, for instance, we’ve done Auden, Dylan Thomas, and Seamus Heaney, all writers who seem to me to offer the whole package.
And having said all that, I started rereading Daniel Deronda last night and I’m very excited about going through it again, with all of its challenges and rewards.