My fall classes start exactly three weeks from today. I’m pretty well prepared already: both of them are repeat offerings, so although I have changed up the readings (quite significantly, in the case of Women and Detective Fiction, and just a bit in Pulp Fiction) I’m not starting from scratch in terms of either course concepts or course materials. I have been working on the syllabi, schedules, and Brightspace sites off and on for a while, because that’s the kind of task I don’t like to do in a rush and also because when other things I’m working on start to feel too amorphous, it is a relief to do a concrete task that can then be crossed off my to-do list. There’s only so much you can do in advance, though, I find, or you sap the first class meetings of the spontaneity that gives them energy.
I am well aware that I use class preparation as both procrastination and comfort in the summer. I’ve written before about the way my mood often slumps in this season, and though it has been better overall this year — thanks in part to the work but also fun of preparing for and then attending the George Eliot conference in July — I have still sometimes felt the same dreary listlessness coming over me. One factor this summer has been that I haven’t been able to settle into a writing project that excites me. I have nobody to blame for this but myself, which just makes me feel worse about it! I have been experiencing crippling indecision about what to write — a strange inability to commit to any project beyond the immediate demands of whatever book I’m currently reviewing. That I have not been finding reviewing very rewarding recently only compounds the problem. I have really enjoyed some of the books I’ve been assigned over the past couple of years, but this year, not so much; also, I have been finding the space constraints I’m typically working within frustrating, although of course if the book I’m writing about is not particularly exciting it is a relief not to have to spin 2000 or more words about it.
I thought it might help to write for some places that do run longer pieces, so I wrote a review “on spec” for one such venue but they didn’t want it–in the end it maybe wasn’t a great fit with the place I sent it, although the book I chose (Téa Obreht’s Inland) is getting a lot of coverage, as I anticipated it would. I suppose I could (should?) keep trying to branch out. It’s a bit frustrating to feel I’m still relatively invisible as a critical presence, even after writing regularly for the TLS for 4 years, but then except for the piece I wrote on the Lymond Chronicles in 2017 I haven’t really had much room to stretch out there and show what I (think I) can do. I suppose here too I have only myself to blame, though it’s hard to think of what I could do in 600 words that would be particularly notable. There was recently a letter to the editor about one of my TLS reviews–a sort-of correction about an implication (not even a direct statement) in an “In Brief” review of a scholarly book about malaria and 19th-century fiction. That is its own kind of irksome, especially considering there’s basically never been any feedback or conversation around anything else I’ve published there.
Anyway, the question that has been much on my mind is, if not (only) reviews, then what? I am running out of time to answer that question this summer, never mind to have any significant result to show for it. The possibilities go round and round in my head (and in my notes). I can’t even decide whether it makes more sense to just work hard on something and then worry about where I might try to publish it or to focus on a particular publication, or type of publication, and then work up the kind of piece that seems likely to fit there. I am thin-skinned about rejections so it is hard to motivate myself to write towards uncertainty rather than a definite goal, but I’m also terrible at pitching. Further, my sense of pacing has been confused by the years I’ve spent doing writing that can be conceived of, executed, and published in a fairly short time; if I’m not working to a fairly immediate publication deadline I feel unproductive, but writing for and then submitting to the kinds of places I think I might like to appear in requires both confidence and patience.
This is why I keep returning to class prep! It’s so straightforward, and after all, it does have to get done. Maybe I should think of it this way: the better prepared I am for the term, the more likely it is that I can keep working on some kind of writing project even after classes start. My colleagues and I often talk about the way teaching expands to fill however much time you can (or are willing to) give it: this is something we advise TAs and junior colleagues to guard against. Good, detailed course planning is part of a strategy for achieving better balance between my various professional obligations; it’s not just a diversionary tactic when your other commitments are getting you down. Right? RIGHT?!
I do have some time left, though, before the day-to-day demands of teaching become pressing, as they inevitably will, and I am determined not to spend it all fretting and second-guessing myself. I have one review underway (my mixed feelings about the book lie behind some of my current angst about the reviewing process) and a couple of other things I particularly want to wrestle into shape, not as finished pieces but as plans, before September. One of these is the work I was doing during my sabbatical on Woolf’s The Years and related questions about the “social” novel. I felt really good while I was reading and thinking about that material but so far I haven’t figured out what to do with it. Three weeks: that’s enough time, surely, to do at least that much, especially if I stop brooding and complaining. Here goes!
I sympathize (and identify with the possibility that “relatively invisible as a critical presence” might be part of an epitaph someday)
I’m curious to know how you changed your crime fiction syllabus. I hope you write about it some day. 🙂
I definitely will! This is a specialized seminar on women and detective fiction, rather than the crime fiction survey I offer more often, so it is already different in focus, but I’ve changed it up since I offered it in 2014 in what I hope will be interesting ways.
I look forward to hearing about it. As a student, I loved that kind of focussed course. It usually also meant interested peers, rather than fulfilling-credit ones.
I hope you have a great semester, Rohan!
Thank you, Melissa – you too!
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I also know that summer slump. I had hoped that once I retired it would vanish but it still hits me every year. It isn’t as though it is related to a dislike of hot weather (which I do suffer from); this year we have had precisely two hot days. Come September things normally start to pick up again, but that somehow doesn’t compensate for the productive time I seem to have lost.
I was talking with a colleague recently about how nice it would be to be able to enjoy the fall weather without its being lost in the rush of going back to classes–September / October are often the nicest months here, but it can be hard to enjoy them because it is so busy. But it sounds like we both appreciate a return to routine and more frequent society.
I would love to read more criticism by someone like you, who is discerning, well read, can write well, and has a subjective voice. Because you share your doubts and feelings, I feel that I would like to read whatever you are reading. It seems that the only way in which I can find such critical writing is in finding good literary blogs. If you were to have a blog for reviews of what you were reading, you could adjust the length of each piece to what the content demanded.
The area in which I would love to find more appreciative yet perceptive criticism is in the growing fields of authors of color, especially women. I’m at the Edinburgh Book Festival this week and have been excited by the emphasis on ‘outsiders’ telling their stories of home and dislocation. Margaret Busby has just published her second volume of ‘Daughters of Africa,’ a compendium of global writers. Busby and Bernardine Evaristo commented that not only is it difficult for women writers of color to get published, but their works are not reviewed in mainstream publications. It was mentioned that Toni Morrison’s work received scathing reviews until Oprah made her more appreciated. ‘The Good Immigrant’ is another such publication (crowd-funded, I believe) that needs more attention.
I think you could perform an immensely valuable service by critiquing minority writers and bringing their works to the real readers who scour literary blogs. Maybe something to think about? I’m sure George Eliot would be in favor!
I too would like to see more crime fiction reviews and hear details of your syllabus. Do keep up the good work and don’t get discouraged.
Thank you for your encouragement, Elaine: I’m glad you like the critical voice you find here. I do have a blog where I write about what I read, of course — this is it! I don’t focus specifically on any one kind of book; what I like best about my blog is that I can write about anything at all, and at any length I like, which as you note is one of the freedoms that comes with blogging.