There’s still time to get a bit more reading done in 2014, but as with last year, I don’t expect to finish any more writing projects before January, so I thought I’d do another year-end round-up of my essays and reviews.
It’s not as long a list as last year — how did I manage to do so many pieces for Open Letters in 2013? — but I also looked back on some of those pieces with a bit of regret, since I didn’t think all of the books I reviewed were worth the effort I put into them. Thinking about that, and then reflecting on this year’s output, it becomes clear to me that being a busy book reviewer is not really what I’m interested in. I do like writing about books (obviously!), but if I dared to articulate my real ambition, it would be to become a good literary essayist — to do the kind of criticism that is not (or at least not necessarily or incessantly) dedicated to keeping up with, or evaluating, the latest thing. “Most books aren’t very good,” a sage friend and experienced reviewer once said to me. Blogging gives me the freedom not just to read what I want but to write about it however I want, which often means not walking through the patient steps of summary and analysis you find in a good standard review but meandering through ideas and associations I find interesting. Essays should probably be more purposeful than that, but they too are free from some of the obligations of reviewing, especially the obligation to put a lot of effort into talking about books that “aren’t very good.” I’m still going to write reviews! I have two books on my desk right now that I’ll be writing up in the next month or so. But other things will be higher priorities.
For Open Letters this year I did write one review of a new book, Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch. I approached it with skepticism but ended up both enjoying and admiring it. It is not the kind of book I want to write, and its success therefore made me uneasy, but at the same time, it’s nice to know that I haven’t been scooped, and maybe (just maybe!) the friendly attention she drew to a great novel that for many people comes across as intimidating will soften readers up for a different kind of book about its author. I also contributed to our monthly ‘Title Menu’ feature, with a list of “8 more George Eliot novels” — not more novels by George Eliot, but novels about or inspired by her, from Deborah Weisgall’s The World Before Her (which I wrote up in more detail here) to Edith Skom’s The George Eliot Murders. If I concluded that really, you’d be better off rereading Middlemarch than reading any of these others — well, what did you expect?
My next piece for Open Letters was about K. M. Peyton’s Pennington series. I have wanted to write about these books for some time, because I think they are wonderful — I like them even better than her Flambards series (though that is wonderful too). I was working on it when a heated debate broke out in the online book world about the value – or shame – of grown-ups reading “young adult” fiction. I didn’t want my essay to be a polemical screed on one side or the other, but I felt (and said in its conclusion) that it made my case implicitly, which is that what matters is not the label on the book but how well it stands up to thoughtful attention over time. I suppose that was too temperate a stance for the piece to be of much interest to the people who were fighting so noisily about this — plus they would have had to read the whole essay about the books to reach that conclusion, and that really isn’t how these things play out online. Still, it would be nice if once in a while all my bleakest beliefs about the way click-bait runs the internet weren’t confirmed at my expense! I’m happy about the essay itself, though, which I thought was pretty convincing about the merits of the Pennington books. Maybe I should send it to NYRB Classics as part of a pitch for them to do a nice set of reissues.
My last full-scale Open Letters piece of 2014 was another failure as click-bait, despite being pretty topical, but, again, it was something I was pretty pleased with just for itself. We do a semi-regular feature called “Peer Review” which surveys and comments on the critical reception of a particular book or author, and after reading my way through the first three of Elena Ferrante’s much-acclaimed Neapolitan novels (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay) I decided that she (or they) would be an excellent candidate for this treatment — as, indeed, I found! The essay ran just as the third book was being released in North America; the novel has received a significant amount of critical attention pretty much entirely consistent with the outlines I gave. I remain somewhat baffled at the effusive praise Ferrante gets, and convinced that it is about what she stands for as much as it is about how or what she actually writes. Maybe the fourth book (if I read it) will persuade me that it all adds up to something spectacular.
I also wrote a few things that were published elsewhere this year. I was pleased to be asked to contribute two essays on George Eliot to the British Library’s new “Discovering Literature” site: “Realism and Research in Adam Bede” and “The Mill on the Floss as bildungsroman.” It’s a great site for exploring, as the essays are set up to showcase digitized materials from the British Library’s collection (such as the manuscript of Adam Bede or the letter from Eliot’s brother Isaac congratulating her on her marriage).
I also wrote an essay on Winifred Holtby and Virginia Woolf that came out in 3:AM Magazine; it’s nice to have some tangible results from all my work on the Somerville novelists, and in fact I have another such result, a short piece on “10 Reasons to Love Vera Brittain,” coming out in the new year at For Books’ Sake — technically I guess it “counts” for 2015, but I did write it in 2014!
Another result from earlier work was my participation in the Atlantic‘s Twitter book club “1 Book 140” when they opted to give Middlemarch a try. It was really gratifying to get a generous shout-out to my “Middlemarch for Book Clubs” site and then to be asked to do a Q&A about Middlemarch with the scintillating Stephen Burt: I think he and I could have talked much longer, and I hope one of these days we can sit down and chat in person (about Middlemarch or anything else). Another stimulating conversational opportunity was being interviewed about “a critic’s role” by Matt Jakubowski for the series he’s running at his blog truce.
As always, the largest quantity of writing (and I hope, not the lowest quality of writing!) that I did in 2014 was here at Novel Readings. My traditional look back at my year in reading is coming up, so I’ll just highlight a few posts that weren’t about books.
I continued my series on ‘This Week In My Classes’; along with reporting on routine business I found myself reflecting on why students might find me intimidating, and on beginning my twentieth year of teaching at Dalhousie. I wondered what makes a novel “teachable”; and I asked how I could get out of my own way when teaching a novel I’ve got as many thoughts and plans about as Middlemarch. I didn’t write much about general academic issues, mostly because not much has changed about what I see or how I feel about it. Despite frequent resolutions to do otherwise, I couldn’t quite stop myself from brooding about how things add up, or about how my attempts to redefine my work as a critic have turned out so far, or from wondering how much the ugly word ‘blog’ affects assumptions about this not-quite-academic activity. Self-consciousness and constant self-evaluation are just too deeply ingrained, I think, after all these years in an academic environment where keeping tabs on ourselves and others is a way of life.
Of all the posts I wrote in 2014, my farewell to critic, blogger, and great Twitter conversationalist D. G. Myers is the most heartfelt. He had a profoundly unsentimental approach to his own illness and impending death, but it’s impossible not to mourn for someone who was such a vigorous, challenging part of so many conversations I’ve been in over the past few years.
I like your essays best of all. And I can’t believe I loved Peyton’s Flambards series so much and never heard of her Pennington books! I will have to track them down. Another goal for the new year — and happy New Year to you, Rohan. Thank you so much for everything you do here.
They aren’t easy to find, I discovered – so maybe my NYRB Classics idea isn’t such a bad one, actually. I really only got to know the Flambards books when I reread them recently. They are quite different in style and setting, but I think both series are really intelligent. I’ll be interested to hear what you think, if you find the Pennington ones.
The Ferrante piece should go in your career-capping Selected Works, in your eventual Library of Canada volume. That was a great article. I thought it would get more attention than it did, but it was perhaps too painful for book reviewers to read. It is about more than Ferrante’s books.
Thanks, Tom (and welcome back!). I read another article, quite recent, that included a kind of round-up of reactions to Ferrante — and even there, no sense that piece had shown up on their radar. We must be really obscure, internet-wise. (In fact, out of curiosity I just did a Google search just of her name and it turns up on the 11th page of search results, so yes, obscure!)