Last Friday was Munro Day and I almost didn’t notice: usually it’s a highlight of the winter term, a day off right when things are starting to get real and so everyone’s starting to get tired. It’s true that I’ve been tired lately myself, but at least I haven’t had to show up for class! I’m mostly on my usual schedule, because I’m still dropping Maddie off at school, but it has definitely been nice not having to be ready for the day in quite the same way: evenings and weekends aren’t haunted by what’s yet to be done or taken up with prep and grading.
I have been trying to be diligent about my sabbatical projects, however, and though it didn’t always feel that way, I think January ended up being pretty productive. I got right to work following up on ideas for refreshing my reading lists, for example. It really does take time: it’s inevitably kind of haphazard, as not every idea you come up with pans out but at the same time every book you look at or look up can send you off in new directions. Already at times I have felt the urge to never mind and just stick with the tried and true! But persisting has paid off: I’m reasonably certain that I’m going to assign Wuthering Heights as the one 19th-century novel for my Brit Lit survey, though I’m still not sure about whether I’ll put it on the roster for Austen to Dickens.
The survey course isn’t until next winter term so I have plenty of time to keep considering options for which contemporary novel to use. I want something that will play along with the theme of ‘belonging’ and/or be an interesting complement to Wuthering Heights, and with that in mind I’m currently reading Caryl Phillips’s The Lost Child. I’m not liking it very much, though, and having decided (I think) against White Teeth and found Small Island to be unavailable in Canada, I’m feeling discouraged. Is it reasonable or lazy to be thinking that maybe everything doesn’t have to change at once in the course? I didn’t specifically pair up the novels I assigned the last time, so maybe as I’ll be shaking up the short readings as well, I can stick with a 20th-century novel I’m already comfortable with.
I have less time to make final decisions about Women & Detective Fiction, so I’m glad to say I think I am making good progress there. One helpful thing is that I’ve shifted the way I’m thinking about the readings: instead of focusing exclusively (as I have in the past) on a fairly narrow range of subgenres, and even more narrowly, on books with woman detectives. Instead I’m approaching it as if it were called “Women Write Crime” – which seems a fair way to interpret the title and makes room for books that, to put it mildly, go a different way with the genre, such as Dorothy B. Hughes’s In a Lonely Place (which does some surprising things with women’s frequent roles as victims or femmes fatales) and Katherena Vermette’s The Break, which is (arguably) not a crime novel but a novel about crime, and especially about indigenous women’s experience of crime and (in)justice. I’m still not 100% sure about The Break (not because I don’t think it’s a very good novel, but because approaching it as crime fiction is not obviously the right thing to do), but I am pretty sure that we’ll read Blanche on the Lam, which will help us focus on both race and class–not just when discussing Neely’s book, but across our readings.
Finally, after trying and not liking a few other hard-boiled / noir options for Pulp Fiction, I think I have settled on Vera Caspary’s Laura to replace The Maltese Falcon. If, as I currently plan to, I also replace Valdez Is Coming with True Grit, that course too will shift its conceptual focus, away from toxic masculinity (which was, I thought, a pretty good unifying theme across the three main texts, culminating in Lord of Scoundrels which both critiques it and offers a fix for it) to something like “women who disrupt expectations” — for which Lord of Scoundrels will also work well. Issues of masculine identity will still come up, of course!
I still have leads I’m following up, including a stack of 19th-century novels any one of which just might change everything! I actually just started Dombey and Son–but I have to say, it is really long and so it would have to be better (IMHO) than Bleak House to earn a spot on my syllabus. I’m not afraid of working through Really Long NovelsTM with my classes, but I have to believe myself that the effort is more than worth it, or I can hardly expect to carry any of them along with me! I’ve browsed Ivanhoe and The Heart of Midlothian and both made my heart sink at the prospect of convincing students to engage with them: yes, Waverley is a hard sell too, but it’s so influential and so funny (OK, not at first, but once you get it), and when it is good, it is so very, very good (the trial scene, just for example) that I’m willing to do the work. In fact, what looking at the other Scott novels has done for me so far is tempt me to put Waverley on the reading list for Austen to Dickens this time around!
Another sabbatical project of a different kind was to come to terms with the essays I’ve written over the past few years about George Eliot, mostly for Open Letters Monthly but also for the Los Angeles Review of Books and Berfrois. What I mean by “come to terms with” is really “decide what to do about,” but the first phrase captures a bit more of the emotional baggage the essays have come to carry. I loved writing them, and on my 2015 sabbatical I worked mostly on more writing of the same kind, some of which I ultimately pitched unsuccessfully to a couple of publications that run similar pieces, such as The Hudson Review. I naively thought this was the kind of cross-over writing that would bolster my application for promotion–distilling, as it did, decades of academic expertise into publicly accessible forms. But it actually made no positive difference to my case at all (not peer reviewed, you see), as it turns out. Since then, the idea of a revised and expanded collection has also proved completely umarketable: the essays themselves don’t do anything with mass appeal and also–and this is something I honestly hadn’t thought enough about–their standing as previously published material works against them. Yes, there are plenty of essay collections out there that are mostly or even wholly republished material (some of them with not much more popular appeal, in subject and approach, than mine) but in those cases the authors’ famous names make the sale.
Anyway, I have had multiple conversations with people in the publishing industry that all led me to the same conclusion: these essays (however transformed) aren’t going anywhere. Still, it made me sad to think that they would simply languish forever on the margins of the great wilderness of content that is the internet, so I decided I could at least give them a more organized form by collecting and publishing them myself, which I have now done. I edited them all one more time and expanded a couple of them, and I added an introduction. I didn’t add any wholly new essays, though I do have a couple more in the early stages, because the point was to free myself from this material–and, not incidentally, not to create yet more work that would be ineligible for publication elsewhere. I’m not sure if self-publishing this ebook really answers my ongoing question about book projects, but it should help me think about different book projects instead of what I once hoped this material would turn into. I won’t say that self-publishing doesn’t feel in some ways like a failure, and though publishing experts insist the stigma against it has lifted, perhaps it looks to some people like a vanity project. I have fretted over both of these things (I am still fretting!) but clearly I decided to press on, and the essays are now available at both Kobo and Amazon – or directly from me, if anyone asks. (It is not, apparently, possible to upload ePub files to WordPress, so at this point I can’t simply offer a download link here.)
So, six weeks into my sabbatical, that’s what I’ve done so far. Well, that and make most of a shawl that, over the past few days, I have had to completely unravel because I realized I had been doing one part of the pattern wrong almost since the beginning. As I ready myself to start re-doing it, it’s hard not to think of the process as a metaphor for my other work. Undoing crochet still leaves you with all the yarn, after all: you just have to make something else out of it. It’s very pretty yarn; that seems like grounds for optimism.