2016: My Year in Writing

2016 was an odd year for me as a writer. On the one hand, I wrote a lot of literary criticism, for a wider range of venues than ever before. This experience was challenging, educational, exhilarating, and occasionally frustrating: in some cases, I had to write shorter and faster than I ever had before, and in others I had to find an angle on books or writers that weren’t immediately congenial or intelligible to my critical sensibilities. I also had to work with new editors and adapt to their different styles and priorities. Overall, I’m very proud of the results.

On the other hand, I also got the clear message from my employer (and many colleagues) that this is not the kind of writing they value, and that if I hope to advance professionally, I’d be better off giving it up, scrambling back into the ivory tower and devoting myself to a very different model of literary criticism. I actually wrote thousands of words in 2016 trying to turn this judgment around — attempting to persuade people on campus (none of them, ironically, actually literary critics of any kind) to recognize my essays and reviews, and the other elements of my diverse portfolio of projects and publications, as worthwhile contributions to my academic discipline. Of all the writing I did this year, this was the least pleasant, and ultimately the least rewarding.

Where does this leave me? Well, mostly it leaves me wondering how much more writing about literature I could have done in 2016 if I hadn’t wasted so much time (and, perhaps even more relevant, so much angst and energy) on a futile quest to change academic priorities — even if it did initially seem as if I was just urging everyone to live up to their oft-stated commitment to outreach, public engagement, and innovation. It certainly hasn’t persuaded me to do as I was told: I’m not against academics doing specialized research leading to peer-reviewed publications in academic venues, but I strongly believe enough academics in my field are doing this already and that it is both right and imperative that universities loosen their grip and encourage, support, and even reward faculty who do other kinds of work as appropriate to their disciplines.


Institutional issues aside, I feel as if I made a lot of progress as a writer this year. Book reviews are not the be-all and end-all of my writing ambitions: I would particularly like to write more, longer, better, wider-ranging essays. I wasn’t able to do much of that this year, but the reviewing I’m doing is both honing my skills and helping me build up my credibility (one interesting and humbling thing about writing outside the academy is that my formal credentials and my academic c.v. mean very little “out here,” where authority is something you have to earn in other ways). I hope that in 2017 I will keep moving forward — both as a reviewer and as an essayist. This includes hoping that I make more progress compiling my existing essays on George Eliot into a book: now that I’ve self-published one e-book, I feel emboldened about doing another.

There’s a complete list of my publications under the ‘Other Writing’ tab above. Here I’ll just mention a few from 2016 that stand out to me, for one reason or another.

At Open Letters, I was particularly pleased with “Our Editions, Our Selves,” which was ostensibly a review of the lovely new Penguin Deluxe Classics edition of Middlemarch but which also gave me a chance to ruminate about my personal history with my favorite novel. Writing this review of Mary Balogh’s Only Beloved brought me some comfort and joy, and it was also my first attempt to write something thoughtful about romance fiction.

At The Quarterly Conversation, I wrote about David Constantine’s The Life-Writer and In Another Country, which I already mentioned in my previous post as some of the best reading I did in 2016. Because Constantine was new to me, and because his fiction is so elegant, I was a bit intimidated when I started working on the review, but in the end I felt that I had found something interesting to say and said it pretty well.

I published four reviews in the Times Literary Supplement in 2016. My favorite was of Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder — to me, anyway, this little piece reassured me that I am starting to be more at home in shorter reviews, that I can still sound like myself in a more compressed form. (I think my forthcoming review of Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First is actually better, though; it will be out in January, I expect.) I was proud of my only longer piece in the TLS (so far), which discussed three recent scholarly books on Victorian women’s writing: this was not as much fun to do, but (again, to me, anyway) it seemed like a good example of my academic expertise being used in the service of a wider public.

I was very happy to write about Maurizio de Giovanni’s Bastards of Pizzofalcone novels for 3:AM Magazine: these were two of many good examples of crime fiction I read and/or reviewed in 2016. And I also appreciated the reviewing opportunities I got from Quill and Quire, including two neo-Victorian novels (Smoke and By Gaslight) that, again, let me draw on my academic background a little while nudging me out of my comfort zone.

Overall, then, on my own terms 2016 was a productive year for me as a writer and a critic. A key goal for me in 2017 is to stop seeking validation on other people’s terms!

3 thoughts on “2016: My Year in Writing

  1. David Fernley December 30, 2016 / 9:24 am

    Thanks for the review of your year. It’s interesting to read about how different writers view their work, particularly the tensions that have an impact on it. Although it’s important for academics to continue their research, I think it’s vital that they also produce writing that is more accessible too. I know many people view academic research, particulary in the arts, as irrelevant, but writing more popular pieces for a larger audience is surely one way of dispelling this view. I subscribe to the TLS and, while it’s not a ‘popular’ publication, I do thinks it’s enriched by academics writing the kind if reviews you do.,

    I don’t work in academia, but I do have academic qualifications in literature, and I know the training I received underpins much of the way I approach my writing. I feel the way I work is better for having those skills. I think the different kinds of writing discipline enrich each other: you’re a better critic for the academic training, and a better academic because of the pipat criticism.?

    The final sentence of your post really struck a chord with me. One of the things I’ve discovered since starting my blog in November is how difficult it often is to balance people’s expectations of the blog with mine. I want people to enjoy what I write, but I’m resisting some well-meaning attempts to force me down another route. It’s my blog, not theirs by proxy.

    I’d say follow your instincts. Happy New Year.


    • David Fernley December 30, 2016 / 9:27 am

      Sorry, last sentence in penultimate paragraph should read, popular, not pipat.


      • Rohan Maitzen December 30, 2016 / 11:58 am

        Thank you for your comment, David. For me, the best thing about blogging is not answering to anyone else for how I choose to use the form. I think that also lies behind the appeal of reading other people’s blogs: no two are the same because none of us are the same, as people or as readers!

        I agree that it’s important for academic research to carry on: one thing I have never argued for is an end to it. I’ve done my share of it, too: I’ve published peer-reviewed scholarship in some of the top journals in my field. I’m still doing research, too, for writing I do and also, a lot, for my teaching. I like the way you put it, that “the different kinds of writing discipline enrich each other.”


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