We don’t stay up until midnight on New Year’s Eve anymore. I can’t remember when we gave up on this tradition, exactly. The last New Year’s Eve I specifically remember was 1999-2000: remember the Y2K panic? We didn’t really expect a dramatic catastrophe on the stroke of midnight, but it was hard not to wonder just what would go wrong. I think we rang in the New Year a few times after that, but there came a point at which it was just too obvious that nothing significantly changed with a new date, and also while the children were small, staying up late on purpose when we were already tired all the time didn’t make much sense. This is one way in which I have broken with my upbringing: to this day my intrepid parents and whoever’s celebrating with them stand out on their front porch in Vancouver and listen for the ships in the harbor to tell them when it’s officially midnight, then bang enthusiastically on pots and pans — a ritual I participated in with glee for many years. (To my knowledge, none of our neighbors ever complained.) I don’t think they still have Pêches Flambées for dessert, though: that used to be the showy finale to our elaborate New Year’s Eve dinner.
Anyway, here we are now, writing 2017 instead of 2016 but otherwise puttering along more or less as usual. For me, that means getting things in order for my winter term classes, which begin on Monday — a week later than is typical, which has been a real boon. The campus itself, including the administrative offices, opened up this week, so I’ve been able to get handouts printed and copied and all kinds of other preparatory business done, including a trek across campus to scout out the room where I’ll be teaching ‘Pulp Fiction,’ which is in an unfamiliar building. Will that preemptive action ward off anxiety dreams about getting lost en route? Here’s hoping.
It’s ‘Pulp Fiction’ that I’ve been working on the hardest so far, because although it is “just” a first-year writing class using popular fiction for its main texts, most of the readings are ones I haven’t taught before, which means I have no notes or handouts or exercises or assignments to draw on. The general remarks I want to make about the course’s aims and interests are also affected by the shift in focus to ‘pulp fiction’: I’ll be talking more than usual about canonicity, for example, and paying more attention than usual to best practices for talking and writing about difficult topics, or about books that include problematic language (like the racial slurs in Valdez is Coming). As Westerns are the first genre we’re working with, I am also working on synthesizing the historical and contextual material I’ve been reading (which is all new to me) into lecture notes.
The very first reading we’re doing, though, is a nifty little short story by Lawrence Block called “How Would You Like It?” I often begin the fiction unit in an introductory class with Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour”: it’s really short, but also full of things to talk about, so it makes a great warm-up exercise. It didn’t really fit ‘Pulp Fiction,’ though, so I hunted through my anthologies looking for something else equally brief that would help us get some key literary terms on the table right away while also (hopefully) catching people’s interest. I found the Block story in an excellent anthology called A Century of Noir; though it actually isn’t exemplary of noir, I liked that it was twisty as well as short, so I thought I’d try it out. One of the topics I always address early on is point of view, along with the different options for narrators; the story will work well for that, and it also provocatively introduces questions about vigilante justice that we will be discussing with both our Westerns and our mystery readings.
My other course this term is 19th-Century British Fiction from Dickens to Hardy. As regular readers will know, I do this class (or its prequel, 19th-Century British Fiction from Austen to Dickens) pretty much every year, but I mix up the reading lists at least a little every time to keep it fresh. This year I’m using almost the same list as in 2013, which was organized around the theme of “troublesome women”: then, we read Bleak House, Cranford, The Mill on the Floss, Lady Audley’s Secret, and Tess of the d’Urbervilles. (More recently, in 2014-15, the list was Villette, Great Expectations, Middlemarch, The Odd Women, and Jude the Obscure.) This year I’m substituting Adam Bede for The Mill on the Floss: I think Hetty’s sad story will make a nice complement to both Lady Dedlock’s and Tess’s. I have taught Adam Bede several times in graduate seminars, but never in an undergraduate class, so I’m curious to see how it goes over. Because I have never actually lectured on it, that means a bunch of new prep there too, but otherwise I’m on pretty familiar ground in this course.
I haven’t made any particular resolutions about research or writing for the new year — which doesn’t mean I don’t have ambitions in these areas, just that at this point I’m mostly still thinking over my priorities. I submitted three book reviews over Christmas (you can see one of them now in the January issue of Open Letters) and I have a couple more lined up. I’m never sure how much other writing I’ll manage during a teaching term, especially one with this much new prep. I will certainly keep up my blogging, though. Novel Readings will be 10 years old later this month, which is somewhat astonishing! I was reading Tom’s New Year’s post at Wuthering Expectations and feeling a bit sheepish that my own blogging (meaning, in part, my own reading) is so much more random than his: what a journey he has been on, since he too started up in 2007. But one of the great pleasures of blogging for me is being able to go wherever my interests take me — or my life and work. I will almost certainly say more about blogging and what it has meant to me when that anniversary arrives.
The one way in which I really hope 2017 is not like 2016 is in the level of angst around my professional life. I’m not doing as well as I’d like at putting my promotion debacle behind me, but though it can still work me up into mental knots when I think about it, I am certainly not thinking about it as often anymore. It would help not to be constantly running into the people responsible for it, but there’s not much I can do about that. I mostly don’t mutter epithets under my breath as I pass them in the hallway now: that’s progress, right? And one resolution I do have is, as I said in my post about my year in writing, “to stop seeking validation on other people’s terms.” This is a very hard habit for me (and most academics) to break, but if nothing else good comes from last year’s experience, it has certainly clarified for me just how debilitating and counterproductive it is to focus on getting approval, rather than on doing the work.
So, 2017! Bring it on.
Academia, indeed, any school environment, is often the bell jar for Yeats’s famous line: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” I spent about ten years being overlooked, I’d even say, deliberately sabotaged. It can certainly be soul-destroying. It left me quite … joyless in my work. Things are better at work now, but what I did for myself even when they weren’t was start Miss Bates Reads Romance. It was validating, especially so when I met other bloggers, like you! That is what blogging has meant to me and why I’m going to keep doing it, through good and bad, for better for worse. 😉 So, please keep blogging; the combination of reading material and personality that make up blogs like yours are very meaningful to readers, like me.
Trouble at work is a lot like trouble in the family, isn’t it? It’s really hard to get away from it, which makes it harder to get through (or past) it. Like you, I take strength from knowing that there are other communities around, including our blogging and Twitter ones, that help us find meaning and support.
Rohan: I have to ask: what is canonicity?
Happy New Year.
A fair question: issues about belonging to the literary ‘canon’ – what goes in, what stays out, who decides, who cares. That kind of thing!
Thanks, Rohan. I thought “pulp fiction” involved lurid or sensational fiction, printed on rough paper and sold cheaply – and as such was a type of “people’s fiction”, so I am surprised this type of fiction is the subject of academic analysis – but more power to you.
That is exactly why we’ll be talking about canonicity: because the books we’ll be reading in this class (though not in fact really examples of “pulps”) are not the kind most commonly assumed to be worthy of academic study or class time. It’s not uncommon now, of course, for popular fiction or popular culture more generally to be part of the curriculum (I teach a class on mystery fiction quite often, for example).
The adjective I attach to 10 years, mentally, I mean, is not “astonishing” but “preposterous.” Any blogger who doesn’t just go wherever his interests take him is nuts. Know thyself, right? This would be a good place for a Carlyle quotation. “[L]ike some mad banquet, wherein all courses had been confounded, and fish and flesh, soup and solid, oyster-sauce, lettuces, Rhine-wine and French mustard, were hurled into one huge tureen or trough, and the hungry Public invited to help itself” – a strange meal, but a good book blog.
I’m currently reading Bleak House for the first time. I must say: it is a strange novel. I don’t know what to think of it yet. I’ve read what you’ve had to say about it elsewhere, and I’ve read a little a little commentary on it. I’m still puzzled by it.
I was a relatively late convert to Dickens, but it’s in part his strangeness that won me over. People throw around the term “Dickensian” as if it just means “long book with lots of characters.” At his best, though, he is really much weirder than most modern books called “Dickensian,” I think. I also really appreciate what strikes me as the fearless quality of his writing. It may sometimes strike modern readers as hokey or sentimental or artificial, but what a splendid time he always seems to be having trying to see just how far he can go, or how much he can play with an idea. I think Bleak House is remarkable. Maybe this is the year I’ll write a little something on it for Open Letters! I’ve never written on Dickens for OLM — or indeed in any formal way.