The most important bits and pieces at issue this week, sabbatical-wise, are those I’ve been breaking off from the large chunk of writing I worked on through January, February, and March. At 18,000+ words it was unwieldy for any purpose, including a potential book chapter, and it was always going to need pruning, but the more I stared at it the more it seemed to me that in putting everything I could think of into it, I had smothered rather than revealing its purpose. There were always some smaller parts that in my mind were the really key ones, so over the past week or so I experimentally cut them out and patched them together into something much smaller and more focused. Now I’m cautiously adding material to this new micro-version, trying to find the sweet spot at which the main idea is sufficiently amplified without being either tediously repetitive or blurry from extraneous details.
I have no idea if, strategically, it is right to be working on refining smaller pieces right now rather than churning out more messy rough material. It has certainly helped my day-to-day motivation and focus, but of course that might be relief at turning away from something more difficult (because more inchoate) rather than a sign that I’ve found my way. On the other hand, it is easier to build something larger out of good small pieces that (cross your fingers) have already been published than to go the other way. Also, as I’ve talked about here before, I’ve had ongoing doubts about whether my approach really lends itself to a book-length project, and this feeling had only been growing as I tried to work out my ideas in book-sized forms. I’m not abandoning a book as a possible outcome down the road, but right now it feels important that I just keep writing, and it turns out I feel much more comfortable doing that on a smaller scale. So I’ll keep doing that for a while and then take stock of the results.
I’ve also been adding bits and pieces to my fall syllabi. I had vowed not to turn my attention to class prep until my sabbatical was over at the end of June (with the exception of book orders, which were due April 1). The temptation is very strong, though, because the tasks are so definite, and it’s a relief to do something so familiar. I also really enjoy preparing syllabi! It’s such an optimistic thing to do. My other justification for poking away a little at teaching stuff now is that neither of my fall classes exactly reiterates a previous offering. It’s true that I have taught them both before (I’m doing a section of one of our intro classes and a graduate seminar on George Eliot) — but the intro section is going to be the largest version I’ve ever done (it’s capped at 90), while I want to integrate some different ideas and materials into the graduate seminar. So both are going to take some careful planning, and, for the grad seminar, some advance reading. That’s a good excuse for drawing up some tentative schedules, at least, just to see what the options and challenges are going to be.
Finally, I’ve been reading in bits and pieces too. After I finished Station Eleven, I relaxed with some Julie James, whose romances usually amuse me — they are like reading romantic comedies. My favorite is Practice Makes Perfect (which should really be a movie already), but this time I picked up Just the Sexiest Man Alive, an early one that I hadn’t read before. It was just OK — I guess she got better with practice. Two things do bother me about her books, though, that were definitely problems in this case. One is that I think they are badly edited: there are recurrent errors, particularly confusing “lay” and “lie,” and there are also lots of examples of awkward exposition, as if nobody could think of a graceful way to give us relevant facts except to add “he said, referring to X” after a bit of dialogue. The other is that her people are just too good-looking: the men are always “tall, dark, and smoldering” (or, in a variation, “tall, dark, and glowering”) with great physiques, while her women are all stereotypically gorgeous, with long wavy hair, perfect skin, and dream bodies. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Or, actually, yes there is, because people who aren’t beautiful do in fact fall in love, and there’s something boring about perfection.
Then I decided it was time I try some of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse books, which (shockingly, I know) I haven’t read any of. This didn’t go well: I started at the beginning, as I usually do, with Last Bus to Woodstock, and I disliked Morse so intensely I had to stop. Is he always such a sexist pig, or does Dexter outgrow that?
Now I’m reading Nicola Griffith’s Hild and really enjoying it. It is giving me much the same trouble that King Hereafter did, as it is full of names I can’t pronounce* or remember, so I’m frequently confused about who is doing what to whom and why, but Hild herself is a brilliantly realized character, and the larger arc of the story is quite gripping. The prose, too, is really wonderful. The overall effect is kind of Dunnett-like, with the lavish details that sensually evoke a strange time and place, but the language is more poetic, with lighter exposition and more reliance on striking moments or images. At this point (about half way through) I’m particularly interested in the emphasis on reading as something that makes new kinds of communication possible, across distances but also between women, who are often separated from friends and family because of their roles as “peaceweavers,” used to create and sustain strategic alliances. The reading is going quite slowly, but now that I’m well into the book and have a sense of how it works, I think it will move faster for me. I’m looking forward to writing about it in more detail when I’m done.
*Updated: I have belatedly discovered a note on pronunciation at the end of the book — and a glossary! Very helpful. That will teach me not to read through the whole table of contents before starting the novel itself.