Weekend Miscellany: Huffing and Puffing and Toasting 19th-Century Novels

Anyone who has been to an academic conference is familiar with the “question” from an audience member the entire subtext of which is “You didn’t present the paper I would have written on this topic.” (Some of us may even have asked such a question — in which cases I’m sure we were all 100% justified, because our papers would have been so much better than the ones we were listening to, right?!) Questions like these are bound to provoke some eye-rolling. For one thing, these aren’t usually the most constructive or welcome questions, and wouldn’t the world be a dull place, anyway, if we all approached our topics in exactly the same way? Yet when it’s a subject close to your heart, it’s still hard to accept that other people are going to do different things with it.

Now, imagine that the internet is a giant conference … and prepare to roll your eyes, because I’ve been feeling particularly curmudgeonly about people who are writing about Victorian novels online and not doing it right! By which, of course, I mean they are not doing it the way I would do it, or the way I think it should be done and can be done.

oxford jane eyreMy first example is an article from the Huffington Post called “Everything I Knew About Dating I Learned from 19th-Century Novels. Big Mistake.”  I know this piece doesn’t claim to be serious, much less pretend to be serious literary criticism. Yes, it’s tongue-in-cheek, and surely (surely!) the author knows perfectly well that the “readings” of the novels trotted out here are precisely as shallow and solipsistic as you’d expect from the teenager she claims to have been when she first “loved” them. (Not all teenagers, mind you, are that incapable of reading with  insight and nuance.) Nonetheless, I hate to see these complex works of art pimped out as link-bait like this. (Their piece on “11 Lessons that Jane Eyre Can Teach Every 21st-Century Woman About How to Live Well” was pretty stupid also.) “But why do you even care what the Huffington Post says about 19th-century novels?” I hear you asking. Good question. Is it just silly that I feel this kind of cheesy crap degrades the whole enterprise of literary journalism? It’s the bookish equivalent of tabloid journalism — and like the tabloids, it clearly “sells,” too, which is certainly frustrating. It’s disappointing, if not surprising, that this kind of thing (and there’s plenty of it online, goodness knows) is so much more successful in getting readers than we’ll ever be at Open Letters. In this case, though, my main aggravation really is that the novels deserve so much better than to be used as part of a parade of faux-intellectual self-display. Think of the social and artistic and intellectual risks their authors took! And this is how you repay them? And then you get paid in page views? Shame on us all if this works … which is why I have not included a link to the piece itself.

Adelle Waldman’s essay in The New Yorker on the enduring interest of the marriage plot is much less offensive but it’s still irksome. You could say that it’s the highbrow equivalent of the HuffPo piece: it too offers little insight into the 19th-century novels it discusses (though at least it addresses them reasonably and seriously) and it makes them relevant primarily by appealing to our needs and interests (but at least to our literary ones, not our dating ones). My real gripe in this case, though, is that the essay is both dull and leaden, which it ought not to be if it’s published by the New Yorker. I’m also puzzled at why Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot needs a response so long post-publication anyway. Wasn’t it put firmly in its place back in 2011? (I think my review actually did a lot of the same work as Waldman’s essay, though I took just one paragraph to explain why 19th-century novels aren’t just about the happy ending and I wasn’t at all concerned with whether other contemporary novelists could or should explore related territory.) Could it be that this essay is (implicitly) more about Waldman’s new novel than about Eugenides or Madame Bovary? Like the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker does sometimes seem to be produced by a rather tight circle of friends.

Life-in-Middlemarch-hires-coverIn possibly more heartening news, The Toast is going to be running a ‘My Life in Middlemarch’  Book Club. Ever since I launched ‘Middlemarch for Book Clubs’ in the summer I’ve been hoping some book club somewhere would actually take on the novel, and it’s hard not to hope that there might be some synergy between their project and mine. It’s true that I was (ahem) not the biggest fan of Rebecca Mead’s earlier New Yorker article, but I’ve been reading her book with much more pleasure (could it be that I just don’t have a New Yorker frame of mind?), and I’ll be reviewing it for Open Letters in the new year, so I’ll be well briefed to participate–if there’s any place for me in the discussion, and if it’s a discussion I’m interested in. I’m not sure what kind of conversation The Toast will encourage or attract. My sense of the site (from reading it and from following some of its key figures on Twitter) is that the tone is snappy and irreverent (“It’s a long-ass book”), which isn’t really my style, but the aims of the book club are noble (“challenging and fun and gripping and life-affirming and a wonderful bonding experience for us all”). The first “deadline” for discussion is December 2: I’m very curious to see how they run it and what it’s like. At the very least I might take some tips away from their book club that will help me revise or expand my own site — though I’m not going to turn away from my own fundamental concept of it. I’d rather offer something valuable to a smaller group of dedicated readers than chase the masses HuffPo style!

7 thoughts on “Weekend Miscellany: Huffing and Puffing and Toasting 19th-Century Novels

  1. Laura November 18, 2013 / 2:38 am

    I saw all three of these on the internets this week and the first two bothered me too!

    I didn’t click on the HuffPo one for the same reason you didn’t – you know it’s just going to be out of context/misquoted/misinterpreted anyway. I like literary lists when they’re done well (Flavorwire, sometimes) but not so much with HuffPo and Buzzfeed.

    The marriage one bothered me for slightly different reasons. The article seemed to be based on the premise that nowadays there’s no social pressure to get married or to stay married to which I say, HUH? Then what’s the deal with the scads of money raked in by the Wedding Industrial Complex and the full compliment of inane reality shows for each facet of the wedding… fascination with celeb weddings… yet we’re apparently over the whole marriage thing? I admit I didn’t read the whole thing because I was too annoyed. And yes, are we still talking about that book because I heard it sucked two years ago and hadn’t thought much about it since 🙂

    I’m interested to see where The Toast goes with this too. It sounds like a typical book blog “read-along” but the dynamics will be quite different given they’re kind of a general interest kind of site. I’m doing the book blog read-along thing in December though I may cheat and start early!


    • Rohan November 19, 2013 / 10:01 am

      I did read the HuffPo piece myself, which is why I know how tedious it is, but I think I am going to boycott all such link-bait from now on. I don’t mind a literary list that’s smart and original either, but it seems safe to assume they won’t come from HuffPo or Buzzfeed (and BookRiot usually disappoints too). For people who like that sort of thing, they’re welcome to go on liking that sort of thing. Happily, there are writers who do the sort of think I like, and I’m going to try to do more to point them out.

      You’re right about that odd assumption that marriage is easily undone today: it’s true legally, and in a way socially (there’s no disgrace in it anymore, in most circles anyway), but that doesn’t mean getting out of (or even reconsidering) any long-term relationship (and especially one involving children) isn’t complicated in all kinds of ways.


  2. Amateur Reader (Tom) November 19, 2013 / 11:24 am

    My always helpful spouse has been urging me to do an entire week of “listicles” in order to raise my “profile” and get more “hits,” whatever any of that means. “14 Classic Heroines You Would Hate to Date!”

    It would not be a bad prank, at least.


    • Rohan November 19, 2013 / 3:09 pm

      I expect you’d be bored by the time you’d finished your first one!


  3. Alex November 20, 2013 / 2:37 pm

    I know what you mean about the conference questions. As a linguist working in the field of children’s literature I inevitably split my audience between those who were glad to see someone taking an analytical approach to the works and those who thought boiling in oil would be too good for me. I really got to the point where if there hadn’t been a question that was a thinly veiled ‘a pox on you and all your works’ I would have thought I was slipping.


  4. Susan Messer November 20, 2013 / 11:22 pm

    This is just a side topic on your post, Rohan, but I’ll take any opportunity offered for a bit of ranting. I detest the way everything is quantified now . . . the clicks, and the likes, and the followers, and the “friends.” The rankings on Amazon, the most popular articles on the NY Times website, broken down into the most viewed and the most emailed, and so on and so forth. It’s one long nightmarish popularity contest. As you point out, getting the highest number of endorsements in any of these venues, or access to publication in any of these high-status places, does not necessarily equal most interesting or thoughtful or deep or anything else of the kind. Anyway, thanks for another fine post.


    • Rohan Maitzen November 21, 2013 / 8:52 pm

      I agree that it all can have a nightmarish aspect to it — and I say this as someone who is in many ways (as you know) a strong advocate of both web writing and social media. I continue to see effective filtering as the biggest challenge of the internet: ‘buzz’ or likes or retweets have a momentum of their own, but so often they do not lead to the best things — or, at any rate, to the things I want most to read. And that ‘viral’ quality is so mysterious and random.


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