Finally, the winter term is well and truly concluded (our annual May Marks Meeting was yesterday). As my last few posts show, I wallowed in aimless reading for a while after classes ended (aimless in the sense of “not in service of anything else,” not pointless or useless: it was certainly a very interesting run of books!), and then this past week my parents have been visiting, so I’ve been spending less time on social media and more time being sociable in person. (I had written “actually being sociable” but then realized how much that would misrepresent how I feel about my time online and the relationships I’ve formed here, which are just as “actual” to me as any of my “F2F” ones!)
And now it’s time for another end of term ritual, which is sorting out what I hope to accomplish in the next couple of months, while the fall term is still remote enough not to demand any attention beyond monitoring my waiting lists. I have mixed feelings as I look back at last year’s post about this. I did get the Middlemarch for Book Clubs site completed, but I haven’t really figured out how to get the word out about it. I’ve made some tentative efforts on my own, and I had some dim but disappointed hopes about possible synergies with the Middlemarch readalong at The Toast, but the biggest boost has certainly come courtesy of the generous mention of it by the Atlantic’s 1book140 Twitter book club. This month I’ve also been invited to participate in a Twitter “party,” so if you’re on Twitter, feel free to join in! I’ll post a notice here when I know the details. I may make some changes to the site this summer based on my observation of what actual book clubs talk about when they talk about Middlemarch, though I remain determined that the site will reflect the kind of conversations I like best and want to promote, not the more solipsistic kind that still seem to be typical of the guides included with new releases.
This time last year I also had aspirations to get a lot done on my phantom book project: “the final, most ambitious but at this point most amorphous plan is to think about where I’m going with the various George Eliot essays I’ve written over the past few years: do they, could they, add up to something larger, perhaps some kind of cross-over book project?” That question of what my “various” publications add up to has been fraught to me since a dispiriting interview last year at work about my prospects for promotion. Now, I knew perfectly well that if I chose to apply, mine would be (will be) a tricky case, and I wasn’t at all sure that I was in a position to make a strong application, which is why I set up the meeting in the first place. (Getting promoted to full professor is not a high priority for me anyway: if it were, I would be doing different kinds of things with my time, for just this reason!) But as my list of non-traditional publications and projects grew, it seemed like it was worth having a chat about how my c.v. looked to someone who would have to make a supporting case if I did apply … and the response (to put it mildly) was dismissive: “All this [with a wave of the hand towards the Open Letters and LA Review of Books essays] doesn’t really add up to anything.” There are ways and ways to deliver negative judgments, of course, and that one could have been made in a less deflating way. It might have been worth considering the possibility that they do add up to something (knowledge dissemination, anyone?), if not the usual thing. Still, that was a good preview of the challenges I would face if I chose to pursue promotion without a c.v. that looks more like what academics expect. If there were a book there, however — even a different kind of book … well, academics really like books.
Now, the book I aspire to write is not an academic book. And the reason I want to write it is not that it might help me get promoted. But the observation that my work wasn’t adding up to much is the kind of thing that mattered anyway because it made me think about what I hoped “all this” would add up to, or, indeed, whether I thought it already did add up to something. A body of work is a cumulative something, isn’t it? So there’s that, which isn’t nothing. And yet it isn’t a whole lot, compared to some (as bodies of work go, mine is petite, we might say!) and it’s not as if I’ve established myself in the non-academic world in some marked way. Indeed, the challenge of making yourself known in the broader book world is pretty overwhelming!
It would be nice if I was learning from the process, though, as if the small steps I have taken so far were building up to some kind of greater insight, if not some separate and larger-scale accomplishment. Who am I, as a critic? What can I do? That’s the kind of question that my book project will help me answer, for myself if for no one else. I did not get as far on it last summer as I hoped, but I did do some ground-clearing work, including a survey of everything I’d written so far on George Eliot and a stop-overthinking-it post on why I like George Eliot “so very much.” I got caught up in smaller writing projects over the fall and spring, but one of those was my review of Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, so that kept me thinking about how to write about George Eliot for a broad audience. I have also started several files and documents to help me conceptualize the project. It helps me to believe it will all actually come to something that last summer I began talking informally with an agent interested in helping me get it done; this summer I am determined to ward off the distraction and temptation of other reviews and essays (for instance, I was really thinking about pitching a Robert B. Parker piece to the LA Review of Books to follow on from last year’s Dick Francis essay! that would be so fun to do!) and start turning the brainstorming into actual readable writing.
In the last couple of weeks, and especially the last couple of days, I have just begun doing this…and here’s an interesting thing I’ve noticed. I have already looked up several old blog posts of mine to draw on ideas or references in them that bear on the critical framework I am trying to set up. Yes, the ones explicitly on George Eliot are among them, but so too are some of the ones I’ve written about principles of criticism more generally (such as, just today, this one on Ronan McDonald’s The Death of the Critic,). Will this material end up in the final version of whatever it is that I’m writing? I don’t know. But it was encouraging to realize that my previous work (unofficial and informal as it may seem in some contexts) was relevant and helpful: ideas I’ve been working out here, both explicitly and implicitly, are shaping the way I am now thinking and writing. The critical voice I’ve been practicing, too, here and at OLM and LARB, is the one I want to write the book in — not the much dryer, drearier tone of even my most recent academic papers. This scattered work may not add up to a single thing that’s tangible or measurable, then, but it may do that eventually, and in the meantime what it adds up to is, quite simply, the intellectual sum of all of its parts. Looked at that way, it seems like quite a lot.
I can’t promote you, obviously, but your work sure adds up to a lot for me. Here’s hoping the Eliot book (or whatever it turns out to be) comes to be.
Thank you, Dorian! At least I am actually working on it now, even if I’m still not sure what it should be.
I second Dorian’s comment. The combination of literary criticism (or conversation) and self-reflection on this blog continues to draw me and inspire me and even comfort me. Thanks so much for what you do.
Thanks, Susan. I never have doubts about keeping it up when I am actually writing or reading over the blog. I just wish I could completely dissociate myself from the academic habit Dan rightly identifies in his comment!
“Adding up” being, of course, the most common activity of academics.
Indeed. For all that the refrain in Humanities departments is usually “quality, not quantity,” I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve ever heard the argument actually made that someone’s single publication matters more than someone else’s raft of them, too. One impediment to living up to that principle is that it would commit us to actually reading and evaluating everyone’s work, of course — which is both a logistical and an intellectual impossibility.
All the best on the project! I hope you have a productive and enjoyable summer 🙂