This Week In My Reading: Scale and Significance

book-cover-unless-by-carol-shieldsIn a way, this post is also about “this week in my classes,” as it is prompted by the serendipitous convergence of my current reading around questions we’ve been discussing since we started working on Carol Shields’ Unless in my section of Intro to Lit. In our first session on the novel, I give some introductory remarks about Shields — a life and times overview, and then some suggestions about themes that interested her, especially in relation to Unless. One of the things I pointed out is that she also wrote a biography of Jane Austen; in an interview, Shields said “Jane Austen is important to me because she demonstrates how large narratives can occupy small spaces.” We come to Shields right after working through Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, so I also bring up Woolf’s pointed remark: “This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing room.” Both Shields and Woolf are thinking about the relationship between scale and significance, and both of them are drawing our attention to the ways assumptions about what matters — in literature, particularly, since that’s their primary context — have historically been gendered.

Unless itself explores the relationship between scale and significance on several levels. Its protagonist, Reta Winters, is a writer whose first novel, My Thyme Is Up, is light and romantic, a “sunny” book that has won a prize for books that combine “literary quality and accessibility.” Reta has been working on a sequel (with the equally charming title Thyme in Bloom), but over the course of Unless she becomes discontented with it, especially with the happy ending she had blithely anticipated for it. For much of the novel, she is puzzling over what else to do — what other kind of book to write. She grows to dislike her characters as originally conceived: she sees her heroine Alicia as “vapid” and Alicia’s impending marriage as a mistake:

Suddenly it was clear to me. Alicia’s marriage to Roman must be postponed. Now I understood where the novel is headed. She is not meant to be partnered. Her singleness in the world is her paradise, it has been all along, and she came close to sacrificing it, or rather, I, as novelist, had been about to snatch it away from her. The wedding guests will have to be alerted and the gifts returned. All of them, Alicia, Roman, their families, their friends — stupid, stupid. The novel, if it is to survive, must be redrafted.

But how? All we really know is that instead of submitting Alicia to the conventional marriage plot, Reta now wants her to “advance in her self-understanding.”

unless2Reta’s redrafting is disrupted by her editor, an officious American (of course! Unless is a Canadian novel, after all) named Arthur Springer who has even bigger plans for Thyme in Bloom, which (significantly) he proposes she retitle simply Bloom. His idea is that Alicia should fade into the background while Roman emerges as the “moral center” of the novel. This, he insists, is necessary for the novel to graduate from “popular fiction” to “quality fiction.” He also proposes that Reta retreat behind her initials: she will become R. R. Summers (“Winters” is her husband’s surname). This way her new (“quality”) book can’t possibly be associated with her, or with her earlier (“popular”) novel.

Reta sees exactly what’s up, of course: Springer believes that a book’s literary significance depends on its masculinity — that its standing as great literature will increase as it moves away from the world of women. When Reta presses him about what’s wrong with Alicia, his answer is comically symptomatic of the problems much of the novel is about. “I am talking,” he says, “about Roman being the moral center of this book,”

“and Alicia, for all her charms, is not capable of that role, surely you can see that. She writes fashion articles. She talks to her cat. She does yoga. She makes rice casseroles.”

“It’s because she’s a woman.”

“That’s not an issue at all. Surely you —”

“But it is the issue.”

“She is unable to make a claim to — She is undisciplined in her — She can’t focus the way Roman — She changes her mind about — She lacks — A reader, the serious reader that I have in mind, would never accept her as the decisive fulcrum of a serious work of art that acts as a critique of our society while at the same time, unrolling itself like a carpet of inevitability, narrativistically speaking.”

“Because she’s a woman.”

Reta ultimately resists both Springer’s exhortations and the “critical voice in [her] head that weighs serious literature against what is merely entertainment.” We are never told exactly how Thyme in Bloom ends, only that “Alicia triumphs, but in her own slightly capricious way.” What we do know is that having discovered her dissatisfaction with a particular kind of conventional woman’s fiction, what Reta imagines doing next is not something on a larger scale or a more overtly grandiose style but something even smaller: “I want it to be a book that’s willing to live in one room if necessary,” she says; “I want it to hold still like an oil painting, a painting titled: Seated Woman.”

One of the questions I asked my class to think about is whether Unless is itself a model for a different kind of fiction, maybe even an example of the kind of book Reta imagines writing — one that insists we find, or at least look for, significance in small things. Reta is “just” a fairly ordinary woman but the things that happen in the novel certainly mean a lot to her, and as she connects the incidents in her life to other events, both personal and historical, private and public, significant patterns emerge. Unless initially seems like a really unassuming book, but by the end that feels like part of the plan: Shields’ novel itself asks us to accept an ordinary woman as “the decisive fulcrum of a serious work of art.”

What has been so interesting over the past couple of weeks is how many of the other  books I happen to be reading also either explicitly turn on or implicitly raise questions about the relationship between women and scale and significance, in life and in literature.

derondaOne of them is Daniel Deronda, which I’ve just finished reading with my graduate students. This novel is famously bifurcated between Gwendolen’s story (a highly personal, small-scale drama) — and Daniel’s (which starts out on a similarly domestic scale but opens out into a potentially epic, world-historical story). Is Gwendolen condemned to insignificance when she is left behind to suffer at home while Daniel goes off to (perhaps) found a nation? The literal scale of Eliot’s treatment of Gwendolen is not belittling: she gets at least half the huge novel to herself, after all. Perhaps this novel insists, formally, on an equivalence between two kinds of significance, one of which occupies a small space. Or perhaps what’s significant is Gwendolen’s discovery of her own insignificance. “Could there be a slenderer, more insignificant thread in human history,” asks the narrator,

than this consciousness of a girl, busy with her small inferences of the way in which she could make her life pleasant?—in a time, too, when ideas were with fresh vigor making armies of themselves, and the universal kinship was declaring itself fiercely; when women on the other side of the world would not mourn for the husbands and sons who died bravely in a common cause, and men stinted of bread on our side of the world heard of that willing loss and were patient: a time when the soul of man was walking to pulses which had for centuries been beating in him unfelt, until their full sum made a new life of terror or of joy.

But then Eliot seems to reject that premise:

What in the midst of that mighty drama are girls and their blind visions? They are the Yea or Nay of that good for which men are enduring and fighting. In these delicate vessels is borne onward through the ages the treasure of human affections.

Isn’t that belittling in its own way, though? It certainly doesn’t allow “girls” much historical agency.

Then, I’m about half way through The Portrait of a Lady, which picks up on exactly this question of how much that girlish presence matters (James even quotes Eliot’s “delicate vessels” line in his 1908 Preface to the novel). Can so small a thing as the consciousness of a young girl support the whole weight of a novel, James wonders?

“Place the centre of the subject in the young woman’s consciousness,” I said to myself, “and you get as interesting and as beautiful a difficulty as you could wish. Stick to that — for the centre; put the heaviest weight into that scale, which will be so largely the scale of her relation to herself. . . . See, at all events, what can be done in this way. What better field could there be for a due ingenuity? The girl hovers, inextinguishable, as a charming creature, and the job will be to translate her into the highest terms of that formula, and as nearly as possible moreover into all of them. To depend upon her and her little concerns wholly to see you through will necessitate, remember, your really ‘doing’ her.”

Is James issuing a corrective to Eliot’s approach, calling her out, as it were, for lacking the courage or “ingenuity” to let Gwendolen carry her whole novel? But notice that his terms are, in their own way, belittling: “the girl” needs to be “translated” into something higher; she needs the novelist to infuse her with importance. Reading The Portrait of a Lady, I feel conscious of the weight of his novel bearing down on Isabel in a way I don’t feel Daniel Deronda weighing down Gwendolen (and certainly don’t feel Unless impressing itself on Reta). Is it possible that, more than James, Eliot does believe in the significance of her heroine’s “little concerns”?

oxfordportraitNeither of these novels, however, whatever their differences, feels in any way light, despite the intimacy of their core casts of characters. It’s the treatment, not the subject, that gives literary significance, isn’t it? Austen’s novels don’t feel trite even though viewed narrowly they are “just” about a handful of “ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses” (in Charlotte Bronte’s words) — because her love stories are also stories about values and class structures and social changes with far-reaching effects. When Isabel Archer accepts Gilbert Osmond’s proposal, it feels large because James has imbued Isabel’s choices with philosophical consequence: her decision isn’t just to marry or not to marry, but about how to use her freedom, and about what to value and how to value herself. These are personal questions but also abstract ones, and so the small space of her individual life occupies a large narrative (by which I don’t mean, though I could, just a long book).

But I’m also reading Laurie Colwin’s Family Happiness, and so far it seems to me a small space filled by a small narrative. Its plot and cast of characters are intimate, domestic, insignificant on anything but a personal scale. It reminds me very much of Anne Tyler’s novels, though (so far, at least) it lacks Tyler’s habit of whimsy. I’m enjoying it, and I’m interested in how things will go for its protagonist, but nice as it is, it feels trivial. I think it shows that you can’t just reverse expectations and insist that the ordinary is always resonant with significance. You have to really ‘do’ it, as James says: you have to go all in. You can enlarge the narrative in a lot of different ways: morally, aesthetically, historically, philosophically — but literary greatness still requires some kind of expansiveness, some reaching beyond the particular. Or does it? (If Austen’s own description of her work as “the little bit . . . of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush” really did, unironically, sum up the scale of her novels, would we admire them as much as we do?)

family-happinessI have been thinking that this constellation of questions (not really any answers) is relevant to the discussions about why, say, Jonathan Franzen’s novels about family and private life get treated as more significant than some other books that are about similar topics. Gender may well be part of the explanation, but it would be disingenuous to pretend we don’t know that some books by both men and women simply do more with their material than others, and that that scale — the scale of meaning, of treatment — is ultimately where literary significance lies. But this post has gone on long enough without really arriving anywhere in particular, so that’s probably as good a place to stop as any.

21 thoughts on “This Week In My Reading: Scale and Significance

  1. Susan Messer December 4, 2015 / 12:05 am

    This is an excellent post, and i think I will read that Shields book. Sounds very interesting. Overall, the thoughts you present here remind me of something I once heard Franzen say in an interview, that the writer has to have “skin in the game.” Which is kind of like the James “all in.” As much as it irritates me that he has become the anointed one, I think Franzen does put skin in the game, doesn’t hold back, doesn’t worry about what people might think of him, what he might expose about himself (or people might think he’s exposing about himself) by pushing characters to the limit. It’s hard as a writer to go all in, but I know it when I see it in a book. I agree about Colwin’s work–pleasant and lovely but light. I think Lionel Shriver(a woman who uses a mannish name) writes with as much skin in the game as Franzen. Elana Ferrante (writing under a pen name) probably does too.


    • Ali December 4, 2015 / 2:36 pm

      I just have to weigh in that I have enjoyed many of Lionel Shriver’s books! We Need to Talk About Kevin was a brutal and compelling read for me, and I thought The Post-Birthday World was very clever. And the ending of So Much for That was definitely a shocker!


      • Laura December 4, 2015 / 4:35 pm

        Ali – I’ve only read Kevin, but boy, talk about skin in the game! That book doesn’t have a topic you’d think of as small, so the scale thing is different, but it strikes me for having its power all from the ideas and form, without a lot of “literary” flourish but so devastating in the outcome.


    • Rohan Maitzen December 4, 2015 / 6:29 pm

      The only Franzen I’ve read is The Corrections and it was Before Blogging, so I have nothing but my memory to rely on, but I certainly thought he was going all in — which has been enough to make me restless when people insist he’s somehow doing the “same” thing as the books that get sidelined as “women’s fiction.” I really like a lot of those books, especially including several of Anne Tyler’s, but I wouldn’t make big claims for them.


  2. Laura T. December 4, 2015 / 11:44 am

    Great post – really makes me again want to hear you take on Alice Munro – so much interesting stuff about scale there – long “short” stores that are about “small” place and families but big in how they move around in time and come to feel like mini-epics, each and every one . .. Also if you don’t know it Vivian Gornick’s essay “End of the Novel of the Love” has an interesting take on what makes plots around love feel slight or large – she describes having the similar reaction to a Jane Smiley novel you have to Colwin – for her it’s also about the context in which a love seems to have the power to be a metaphor for transformation.

    Susan I liked your comment as well – though I think in Franzen’s case his skin in the game is more aspirational than realized. My personal pantheon of people who write about sex, family, etc but are “all in” include Munro, Mary Gaitskill and Miranda July.


    • Rohan Maitzen December 4, 2015 / 6:34 pm

      I have Gornick’s book with that essay sitting right here! I read the essay quickly when I first got it from the library and have been meaning to go through it carefully, so this is a good instigation to get to it.


  3. Liz Mc2 December 4, 2015 / 12:14 pm

    Your comments make me think that I read Unless at the exact wrong time in my life. I remember feeling annoyed that a privileged, university-educated woman would feel “silenced” (thinking more about Reta’s daughter, I guess). I read it in a book group with older colleagues, and they felt very differently. I suspect I would now, too.

    I really like your thoughts about scale. I wonder, though, how much of it is in the eye of the reader–even in the comments, people start to disagree.

    I think you’re right about Colwin writing small books, and yet a line from the end of this one has stuck with me for two decades…. I think of her books as whimsical, though maybe this one has the least. That’s another book I haven’t read in at least 15 years. Maybe it’s time for reassessment. Which I guess brings me back to the idea that part of what matters is the skin the reader has in the game, her own experiences and feelings, which can perhaps enlarge a small book or narrow a big one if she can’t see all of its scope.


    • Rohan Maitzen December 4, 2015 / 6:39 pm

      I haven’t finished Colwin’s novel yet, so my views on it are still provisional, of course. But Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years is a longstanding favorite of mine: not so much lines from it as scenes and images from it have stuck with me in the way you say the line from Family Happiness has with you. I think I have two axes of evaluation that intersect but aren’t identical, one for books I cherish personally and one for books I feel are great in a more public (?) way — or, a more impersonal way? I think you are on to something important with your comment about what the reader has at stake, but I also think I still feel there are different levels of aspiration or enlargement that matter to how I think about a truly great novel.

      I was wondering how much my own age and life stage affects my interest in Unless. A number of my students commented that their interest was caught by Reta’s daughter being their age, so it does have that cross-generational potential. Without my pushing them, perhaps they would not have engaged with it, but some of them have seemed really very interested, which has been great.


  4. Ali December 4, 2015 / 2:29 pm

    I am so enjoying your posts lately! I am very interested in the topic of reading books that are seemingly trivial on the surface. I agree with you that Jane Austen and Henry James appear to write about trivial topics on the surface, but when you actually get below the surface, you realize they have much greater depth. I think a lot of modern fiction is written about trivial topics, and perhaps that is why I am more interested in classic fiction–because I think it deals with more profound topics and ideas. I thought I mentioned previously in another post of yours that one of my favorite reads of this year is a work of modern fiction by Rachel Cusk. (And in fact, I checked and couldn’t find my comment, but saw that you wrote about her novel, Arlington Park, which prompts me to ask in a dumbfounded way: is there anything you don’t read because you seem to be very aware of the literary landscape in a way that many English professors are not–and I can tell from your writing that you really love literature. But this is an aside.) Anyway, I adored Outline, which–I’m sure you are aware–has gotten great reviews in the press, because I liked how Cusk uses language and because it seems like an experimental novel. On the surface, however, its topic appears trivial because it follows one writer as she spends time in Greece teaching a course over the summer. I think it is written in a fresh, intelligent manner in a way that Lauren Groff’s novel, Fates and Furies, is not despite the fact that Groff’s novel has been hailed as an original work.

    I am very familiar with Laurie Colwin’s work. I have read both Family Happiness and Happy All the Time. I do agree with you that she tends to write small narratives, but I Happy All the Time really resonated with me on a personal level, and I revisit it from time to time.


    • Rohan Maitzen December 4, 2015 / 6:43 pm

      Oh my gosh, Ali, there is so much that I don’t read! Don’t you find that the more widely you read the more you realize how many books you are never ever going to get around to?

      I am really interested in your comparison between Groff (who I haven’t read) and Cusk. I’ve only read the one novel by Cusk, but I have Fates and Furies on my wish list for Christmas so I expect I’ll be writing it up in a few weeks.

      “Small” books often really resonate with me too, and I really don’t mean to dismiss Family Happiness — calling it “trivial” was maybe the wrong choice, but what I meant was that it seems to be just about its surface elements, whereas Austen and James, as you say, are always writing about much more than theirs.


  5. lawless December 4, 2015 / 3:38 pm

    Without getting into the specifics other than to say that Austen had much larger concerns than most of her books might suggest – how should we relate to each other as human beings in an orderly society and attain happiness and security – I love this post. I think you are dead on in talking about scale and that commentators are right to speak of skin in the game. To me, it’s more a matter of commitment to larger concerns and unflinching truth.

    Not sure what it means that my favorite novel ever — Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov – doesn’t fit today’s aesthetic paradigms, though.


    • Rohan Maitzen December 4, 2015 / 6:44 pm

      Oh, I totally agree about Austen, which is why I put that “just” in scare-quotes near the end. Larger concerns and unflinching truths: that’s a high standard for a novel, but I’m happy to sign on to it.

      Dostoevsky. Another novelist I haven’t read!


  6. Amateur Reader (Tom) December 4, 2015 / 5:46 pm

    Dostoevksy is doing all right in “today’s aesthetic paradigms.”

    Is Colwin’s book named after the Tolstoy novella, by any chance? Suggests some ambition, if it is. Or playfulness.

    Having just read it once, I did feel that the weight of Daniel Deronda risked crushing Gwendolen. The character in the other half is going to found Zionism! It is a bold contrast that Eliot makes there.

    Rummaging around in pre-Portrait James, it was clear – it was deeply interesting – how he was consciously preparing for his “big” book, trying out types of characters and plot lines in shorter works, rejecting some and developing others until he felt he could build the “large narrative” that he seemed to think this particular kind of significance required. Or required from him.

    I’m glad your students are taking to Unless so strongly.


    • Rohan Maitzen December 4, 2015 / 6:45 pm

      I hadn’t thought of the Tolstoy connection! It would be pretty cheeky, if it were intended, and perhaps subversive.

      I have been really pleasantly surprised by the energy students are bringing to Unless — at least, the ones who’ve been in to see me one-on-one about it. They have shown me some really interesting things about it that I hadn’t noticed on my own.


      • Dorian December 4, 2015 / 9:09 pm

        I absolutely think Colwin has Tolstoy in mind with her title.

        I really love Colwin and have to resist feeling defensive about all these claims that she’s somehow lightweight or trivial. I re-read a lot of her books this summer–they meant a ton to me when I discovered them twenty years ago–and in some ways they held up even better for me, especially now that I’m Jewish and appreciate all kinds of elements in them that I didn’t before.

        All of which is to say that those two vectors of books you describe makes sense. And Colwin is definitely part of the first for me. In fact, re-reading family happiness this year I was almost in tears because I so identified with the expectations Polly family puts on her to always be so competent!

        Anyway, even if you’re not totally sold on Colwin’s fiction, I highly recommend her books on food (Home Cooking and More Home Cooking). Here she’s at her loosest and most delightful.


        • Rohan Maitzen December 4, 2015 / 10:55 pm

          I didn’t say I wasn’t sold on it! I am enjoying it. I’m just not admiring it in the same way I admire a book that strikes me as … what? deeper? larger — not in scope but in ideas? Your comment on why you identify so strongly with it is interesting because it’s so personal: I would never say that a book that means that much to us personally is insignificant … to us.

          Another example might be the difference between Georgette Heyer and Austen. Heyer is often compared to Austen, as if she has somehow carried on Austen’s legacy. But delightful as I find her books (now – it took a while for me to catch on!) I think they only very superficially resemble Austen’s, because they don’t have (or even pretend to have) the same depth of insight or significance.


    • lawless December 5, 2015 / 12:10 am

      Dostoevsky’s style of writing and subject matter are light years away from what is fashionable in literary circles and commercial fiction now. That’s all I meant. Not that he’s no longer read or is irrelevant.


      • Amateur Reader (Tom) December 5, 2015 / 12:55 am

        Well, I do not believe that is true, but I should not argue this tangential point in Rohan’s comments. If you ever want examples of Dostoievskian writers in the here and now, some even fashionable, feel free to drop by Wuthering Expectations. There are plenty. Some of them are even commercial (in Germany).


  7. Kerry December 4, 2015 / 11:01 pm

    Important to note that Colwin is a New Yorker short story writer. Her canvases are small. But she also takes her subject matter (which is often “light”) and handles it in entirely unexpected ways—I re-read Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object this summer, about marriage and widowhood, and the lens is so entirely skewed from anything I’d expect from conventional fiction. She’s such a strange and interesting writer.

    I’m loving this whole discussion—and of course, I am devoted to Unless. Such an important, easily misunderstood novel that is so rich with ideas.


  8. Juhi December 6, 2015 / 2:51 am

    What an interesting post! It definitely makes sense that the way the subject is treated matters. But I also had the same thought that Liz talks about—that while the inherent scale and treatment of the subject matters, so too does the perspective that the reader brings to the table.

    While the text itself propels the manner in which the reader engages with the text, it is also very much about the person involved in the act of reading itself.


    • Rohan Maitzen December 6, 2015 / 11:55 pm

      I think that’s true up to a point, but more so with some books than with others. I wonder if it matters whether we are talking about liking or engaging with a book or admiring it (or something else slightly more objective, or at least less idiosyncratically personal).


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