“And then what?” Margot Livesey, The Hidden Machinery

liveseyStevenson’s advice to the young writer is misleadingly simple, a Zen koan in disguise. Read everything that is good, nothing that is bad. And then what? … Then, learn to read as a writer, to search out that hidden machinery which it is the business of art to conceal and the business of the apprentice to comprehend … And then you have to hope for grace and luck, the Lares and Penates of fiction, to knock at your door.

I don’t have a lot of specific things to say about Margot Livesey’s The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing. I’m more interested in what I learned (or didn’t learn) from it about teaching creative writing, something I have been–mostly idly–curious about for some time, for personal and professional reasons. I’ve always been a bit of a skeptic about it: none of the novelists I admire the most, after all, had any kind of training in “craft,” and given the impossibility (in my view, anyway) of setting reliable standards for good or bad art, I have never been convinced that creative writing can or should be graded. These opinions are, I frankly admit, more prejudices than convictions or conclusions–they are not supported by extensive study on my part of how creative writing programs work or whether on balance they do seem to be good or bad for the literary world. I have read a number of essays and articles about this question over the years, both pro and con, but it hasn’t been an issue of great importance to me. Lately I have thought that perhaps it should be, not least because creative writing is an increasingly large part of the curriculum in my own department. I certainly have no doubt whatsoever about the talent, dedication, and good faith of the people who do this work at Dalhousie, and that is actually one reason I have been feeling more curious lately about creative writing as a process or a discipline.

between-the-coverrsWith that in mind, I asked the Twitter ‘hivemind’ for examples of what people consider the best books for or about teaching creative writing. I got a lot of suggestions: Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House; Nancy Kress’s Beginnings, Middles, and Ends; Sarah Painter’s Stop Worrying, Start Writing; Robert Boswell’s The Half-Known World; Graywolf Press’s The Art Of series; Tin House’s Between the Covers podcast; Ursula LeGuin’s Steering the Craft, Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction.* One that got a few strong endorsements was Margot Livesey’s The Hidden Machinery. It sounded appealing, so it’s the one I decided to read first (and, I now think, maybe last).

I did learn something from The Hidden Machinery, but it wasn’t quite what I expected or was looking for, though I suppose I’m not exactly sure what that was–something concrete, I think, about the actual pedagogy of writing, about the movement from reading to doing. Livesey’s book is not a textbook (of the list I compiled, I now see that only Burroway’s is of really of that kind), but it is described as a “masterclass,” so it’s not unreasonable to think that it is meant to do more than talk about how other people’s books are written. And yet that’s really all that it does, with a few nods towards using them as models and some stories about Livesey’s experiences writing her own novels. Rather than being a book of an unfamiliar kind, it turned out to belong to a category of books I spent a lot of my early blogging years exploring: “books about books.” Only I was reading them, back in the old days, looking for models of criticism, trying to answer my questions about what kind of literary analysis had any traction outside the academy. It hadn’t occurred to me (though maybe it should have) to look at these books as how-to-write guides, not (or not just) how-to-read ones.

oup-persuasionThe Hidden Machinery is a perfectly fine book about how some really good novels are written. It is mostly close reading. There are zero revelations in it for anyone who has read, say A Passage to India or Persuasion or Madame Bovary attentively with an eye to things like point of view or narrative form or metaphorical patterns or character development. Livesey does a good job walking us through her examples; she is an observant and insightful reader. In her discussion about her own fiction, she explains clearly what she thinks she learned, where she thinks she succeeded or failed, as a result, at least in part, of the attention she learned to pay to other writers. These sections are interesting, but they are not really transferable “lessons”, because each of her novels (like every novel) is unique. There is absolutely no specific advice about how to be as good as her exemplary writers are–and how could there be? There is, near the end, a list of “rules” (derived, a bit unexpectedly for a novelist, from her study of Shakespeare) and it is as useful and as useless as every such list I’ve ever seen: “don’t keep back the good stuff”; “negotiate your own standard of plausibility”; “don’t overexplain”; “write better sentences.” “Don’t overexplain” would probably rule out a novel like Byatt’s The Children’s Book, which I loved. “Write better sentences” is a good Flaubertian proposal–but for some of us, one Flaubert is more than enough. “Negotiate your own standard of plausibility” at least allows for the ridiculous level of coincidence in Dickens…but he (and those who love him for, rather than in spite of, his excesses) would laugh off “be careful how you repeat yourself.”

the_new_novelI was looking for something in Livesey’s book that would be an “aha” moment for me about creative writing as something that can be taught. There was such a moment, but it didn’t exactly confirm for me that what’s most important is classes or programs dedicated to the how-to side. Many, many times I have sat at the English Department’s table at the “academic program fair” held yearly to showcase and recruit students to our various majors and honours program. Year after year, since we started offering creative writing courses, the vast majority of student inquiries are about them, not about our “standard” literature courses. But in those literature courses we do exactly what Livesey does in The Hidden Machinery,** and if you do a majors or honours degree in our department you will perforce study examples across a range of periods and genres–not just the contemporary ones or the ones students already know they are interested in, but the ones they don’t know they are going to love, the literary “unknown unknowns.” Many, many times I have asked prospective creative writing students what other writers, what literary periods or forms, they are most interested in, and many, many times they have had no answer: they just “like to write.”

burrowayI love that they like to write! But I have always thought (and sometimes said, as tactfully as I could) that to write well you really, really need to read widely. If Livesey’s typical at all–and in this respect I do think she is–that’s what creative writing teachers think too. I’m just still left wondering why an English degree isn’t, then, the right or even best way for these students to proceed, and why they don’t know that. The counter-argument probably turns as much on time, encouragement, and mentorship as on the belief that you can actually teach someone to write something worth reading or even, one day, something that is itself worth studying as an example. Those are definitely good things for aspiring writers to have, even if they are neither necessary nor sufficient factors for producing good, much less great, writers.

I’m not trying to take a stand for or against creative writing programs as such: that’s really not my place as a non-expert, for one thing, and there are lots of reasons (including administrative and financial ones) that make it inevitable that they will not just continue but expand. There can be (and there is, at Dalhousie, I’m glad to say) valuable integration or at least intersection between creative writing and English, in individual courses as well as in the programs as a whole. For these reasons among others, I’m still interested in questions about how reading leads to writing, and about craft, creativity, and pedagogy. I like the look of the Tin House podcast, so I might have a go at some of its episodes next.


*I don’t know what, if anything, to make of the fact that these are by and large not writers I had heard of or read before (I’d heard of Livesey, but not read any of her novels; I’d obviously heard of LeGuin!).

**While I was thinking about this post (and, to be honest, second-guessing the wisdom of wading into these waters at all), I happened to read a review in the Los Angeles Review of Books of George Saunders’s new book about writing, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, that included this comment: “One doubts that a lesser writer could recognize the skills of the masters so readily, or be able to analyze the short stories as cogently and incisively as Saunders does.” That immediately struck me as absurd: it describes precisely the work of literary criticism, and it reflects what I have always found a problematic assumption, which is that authors make the best critics. Review assignments (in Canada especially) often seem to assume this as well. I think the two skills sets are intimately related but different, and I wonder if this assumption that those who are critics and not practicing novelists lack insight is what leads to books like Livesey’s and Saunders’s being hyped as revelatory, expressions of some special creative power, rather than a good reflection of (some of) the things an English degree will teach you about and how to do.

Specifications Grading: Lessons Learned

My previous post ended on a high note: a list of the benefits I believe came from my decision to try specifications grading. Most of these things are hard to be absolutely sure about, but that’s true of most questions about pedagogy, especially when your only sample is a single iteration of a course. Still, I have taught first-year writing classes almost every year since 1995, so I give some weight to my own impression that on balance, this change in strategy had some good results for them and for me. It wasn’t all good, though, and especially as I do intend to try specifications grading again, I am already thinking a lot about what needs to change in the second version of the course policies and requirements.

The first problem I need to fix is one that I tried very hard to prepare for and fend off, but (perhaps inevitably) without complete success: unfamiliarity. As far as I could tell, specifications grading was a brand new concept to everyone in the class, and though some students seemed to grasp its procedures and implications very quickly, others clearly struggled–some of them right to the very end of the term. There were clear indications that some students just did not understand the mechanics of it: they did not realize (or not until it was almost too late) that their final grade was going to depend, not on doing well on an individual essay or exam, but on how consistently they did or did not do satisfactory work across the entire term.

I am confident that my explanations were clear and explicit and abundant–but the very care with which I laid out the assessment model probably backfired in some cases, as it meant there was a lot of information to take in. I tried (so hard!) to clarify and simplify, including having ‘quick reference’ tables that summed up exactly what each bundle required and what the standards were for a satisfactory assessment. I reiterated essential points in announcements and assignment instructions and in the FAQ discussion board … but I think the difference between what we were doing and what they were used to or assumed about grades and grading was just too much for some students to process. Specifications grading was an unknown unknown for them: for whatever combination of reasons (other challenges related to online learning or with information management, or the same kind of indifference or inattention to the syllabus that we always see some of, no matter what the mode of course delivery) some students not only didn’t realize it was not business as usual but they didn’t even think to check or ask. They were a minority of the class, and it was equally obvious that some students very swiftly grasped the system and made their plans and did their work accordingly. Still, next time I will be more aware of how hard the conceptual leap can be and work even harder to leave nobody behind.

On a related note, by the end of the term it was clear to me that the specific set of requirements and bundles I had devised was much harder for many students to makes sense of and (even more important, perhaps) to keep track of than I’d expected. Again, I took a lot of measures to make it all legible and easy to follow, including my handy reference tables. I am still actually quite puzzled about why so many students completed such a random array of components, such that their final tallies were not consistent with any particular bundle. As the end of term approached I did an audit of what everyone had done to that point and there were a surprising number of cases in which, if I had not changed the bundle requirements, the students would not have been able to earn even a passing grade, because they had completed a high number of one kind of components but completely dropped the ball on others.

I did revise the requirements, mostly to reduce them, although I had some misgivings about doing so. The process of revision also helped me think about ways of totting things up that might actually work better: requiring an overall number of journal entries for the term rather than a consistent number per week, for example (although, without getting too much into the weeds of my plans and planning, one goal I had and don’t want to give up on is ensuring steady effort, not a crush of last-minute contributions). Perhaps my bundles just had too many moving parts: again, a significant number of students didn’t seem to have any problems, but confusion was widespread enough that one of my key take-aways is that I need to simplify things.

(As an aside, though, one thing I did like about the bundles system with its many moving parts, however, is that it was possible to sort out particular cases where a student was far short of passing the course or just short of a better bundle by counting up the components the student was missing and devising a make-up plan. This felt much more constructive than any options we usually have for a student who has done poorly on a midterm or otherwise compromised their standing under a regular assessment scheme.)

Finally, and I’m not sure if this is a problem or it just feels like one, far more students than is typical ended up with A or A+ grades in the course. Clearly, knowing that they could earn an A if they just put in the work was highly motivating for a lot of students–and also stress-inducing, in some cases, because having set their sights on that goal, students could not let go of it, even if they were finding the work more difficult or time-consuming than they’d expected. Heading into the semester, I expected a lot of students to decide (eventually, if not immediately) against the MOST bundle, on the grounds that all they wanted was their writing requirement credit and their other courses were higher priorities. Over the years I have encountered that attitude a lot in first-year classes, often quite explicitly. Now I wonder if some of that hasn’t been the side-effect of students (especially those in STEM programs who do not think of themselves as “good” at English) simply writing off the course, especially if they get below an A on their first paper: resigning themselves to it or telling a story about it that makes it matter less. This time, told they could end up with an A if they just did X, Y, and Z, students who might not have bothered before decided to go for it…which is great! As I said in my last post, they did the work and that paid off.

And yet I can’t shake a lingering concern that the number of A+ grades I filed tells me my standards were not high enough: my requirements, or the specifications, or (more likely) the enforcement of the specifications, was lax. It’s true we were not as fussy as we originally intended to be. This was partly about grading fatigue (we had to process a lot of discussion posts!) and also about the pressure we were constantly under (arguably rightly) to give students a break during a term that was already difficult for them. I did end up filing grades across the whole range of possibilities from F to A+: there were just significantly more As and A+s than I’m used to seeing. Should I–could I–have made A and A+ grades harder to get? My guess is that increasing the requirements for the largest bundle would not have deterred most of those who went for it on the terms I set, and why would I want to deter them anyway? I think my lingering unease comes from the same doubts my colleagues expressed about quantity vs. quality and what exactly we think letter grades are supposed to mean or signal. Specifications grading is designed to sideline judgments about “excellence,” but the habit of thinking in those subjective qualitative terms is deeply ingrained in most academics, even though we know perfectly well that grades, publications, grants, awards, and tenure-track jobs depend more on other factors (including luck and privilege) than on intrinsic and objective kinds of excellence.

Summing up my own “lessons learned” from my first attempt at specifications grading, then:

  • you can’t explain too clearly or too often how the system works, and even then some students will not grasp the difference it needs to make to their work habits, so I need to anticipate problems and prepare interventions;
  • relatedly, I need to make my bundles simpler and more flexible: they should (probably) have fewer moving parts overall, and I should have more flexible ways of adding them up;
  • and I need come to terms with the potential for what will look like grade inflation–whether this means raising (or being stricter about) standards, putting the very top grade a bit further out of reach, or accepting (maybe even encouraging!) a larger than usual number of As and A+s.

If you’ve used specifications (or contract) grading, I’d love to know if these are concerns you too have had, and if so, how you have handled them. It’s especially hard to know how big a part the transition to online teaching and learning played in the successes and failures of specifications grading for me (and for my students) last term. It might have been exactly the wrong time to try it! I’m teaching the same course again next fall, and right now we don’t know if it will be in person or online. Whichever way it goes, I have lots of time between now and then to rethink, revise, and regroup.

Specifications Grading: My First Attempt

1015StartHere-cropAs if converting my courses to online versions wasn’t challenging enough, I also used specifications grading for the first time this fall, for my first-year class “Literature: How It Works.” This is an experiment I had been thinking a lot about before the pandemic struck: in fact, on March 13, the last day we were all on campus, I actually had a meeting with our Associate Dean to discuss how to make sure doing so wouldn’t conflict with any of the university’s or faculty’s policies. Though I did have some second thoughts after the “pivot” to online teaching, it seemed to me that many features of specifications grading were well suited to Brightspace-based delivery, so I decided to persist with the plan, and I spent a great deal of time and thought over the summer figuring out my version of it.

I had originally planned to try contract grading, but one concern I saw raised about that is it can be hard for students to know enough at the outset to make a good choice about which contract to commit to, a problem likely to be especially vexing for first-year students. The same could be said about specifications grading in a way (and both systems can be configured to allow for adjustments, too, of course), but I liked the idea of students accumulating work and learning along the way how much time and effort the course was worth to them. I pored over the materials I found about people’s plans for and experiences with specifications grading, especially this essay and some other materials by Linda B. Nilson and posts by Jason Mittell at his blog Just TV. I also had to take into account the rules that govern all of Dal’s writing requirement courses, and then to think about my own usual approach to teaching first-year English classes that combine introductory material about literary interpretation with explicit attention to writing. I wanted my plan to support, not replace, the overall pedagogical approach I am used to and believe in.

conciseBILI won’t go into every detail of the plan I finally came up with (though if anyone is really keen to see the extensive documentation, I’d be happy to share it by email). Basically, I made a list of the kinds of work I wanted students to do in service of the course’s multiple objectives: reading journals, discussion posts and replies, writing worksheets, quizzes, and essays. Then I worked out what seemed to me reasonable quantities of each component for bundles I called PASS, CORE, MORE, and MOST. These bundles corresponded to D, C, B, and A grades at the end of term; students’ grades on the final exam determined if they got a + or – added to their letter grade. I also (and in many ways this is the most important part of the whole system!) drew up the specifications for what would count as satisfactory work of each kind: completing a bundle didn’t mean just turning in enough components but turning in enough that met the specifications. Following the lead of others who have used this kind of system, I tried to make the specifications equivalent to something more like a typical B than a bare pass.

All teachers know that it is a mistake to draw firm conclusions based on a single iteration of any course or any assignment sequence, because every class is different – not just its population of students (who somehow take on a collective personality that can be quite different from the character of any individual member) but the whole dynamic. Add in the stress and chaos of everyone’s first semester of online teaching (which for most of the students in this class was also their first semester of university altogether) and I have a lot of reasons not to declare the experiment either an absolute success or a complete failure. All I can do at this point is reflect on what seemed to go well and what I will do differently when I try it again. I definitely will try it again, though, which in itself I suppose is a kind of conclusion: though there were some significant hiccups as the term and the plan unfolded, on the whole I think the benefits–not so much logistical as psychological and pedagogical–made it well worth the attempt and hopefully it will go more smoothly the second time.

Grade A Plus result vector icon. School red mark handwriting A plus in circleTo start with, then, what seemed to go well? First, especially when it came time to assess the students’ longer essays, I really appreciated being freed from assigning them letter grades. Almost every single essay submitted (so, nearly 180 assignments over the term) clearly met the specifications for the assignment, so our focus could be on giving feedback, not (consciously or unconsciously) trying to justify minute gradations in our assessments. I hadn’t realized just how much it weighed on me needing to make artificially precise distinctions between, say, B- and C+ papers, or trying to decide if an unsuccessful attempt at a more ambitious or original argument should really get the same grade as an immaculately polished version of one that mostly reiterated my lectures. Once I’d read through a submission to see if it met the specifications, I could go back and reread with an eye to engaging with it honestly and constructively. This is what I thought I did already, but if you haven’t ever tried grading essays without actually grading them, you too may be surprised at how liberating it feels to let go of that awareness that when you’re done, you have to put a particular pin in it.

One reason for trying the whole experiment in the first place was that this kind of change–in which individual assignments are not only not marked but also do not carry much weight in their course grade over all–would (I hoped) relieve students’ anxiety and also (relatedly) discourage plagiarism. I think it did both. I had fewer academic integrity cases this year than in the other first-year courses I’ve taught most recently, at any rate, and though some students were definitely still anxious, I was able to tell them not to worry so much about every detail because it was clear already that they were going to turn in satisfactory work. It was nice to be able to say “relax a little!” and know it didn’t sound hollow: I could encourage them just to do their best to explain what they thought and why they thought it, and we would see how it turned out. In retrospect I think my meta-messaging about this benefit could have been more conspicuous–but that said, worriers gonna worry, and it’s not a bad thing for students to want their work to be as good as it can be!

1200px-Gnome-computer.svgOn a related note, something else that I think was good (though it was a bit hard for me to tell without having a chance to talk it over with the class in person) was that the system gave students a fair amount of control over their final grade for the course. Instead of trying to meet some standard that–no matter how carefully you explain and model it–often seems obscure to students, especially in first-year (“what do you want?” is an ordinarily all-too-frequent question about their essay assignments) they could keep a tally of their satisfactory course components and know exactly what else they needed to do to complete a particular bundle and thus earn a particular grade. That didn’t mean it was an automatic process; again, to be rated satisfactory, the work had to meet the specifications I set. I tried to make the specifications concrete, though: they didn’t include any abstract qualitative standards (like “excellence” or “thoughtful”). The core standards were things like “on time,” “on topic,” “within the word limit,” and, most important, to my mind, “shows a good faith effort” to do the task at hand. I suppose that last one is open to interpretation, but I think it sends the right message to students trying to learn how to do something unfamiliar: if they actually try to do it, that counts. When my TA and I debated the occasional submission that had arguably missed the mark in some other way, we used “good faith effort” as the deciding factor for whether they earned the credit: we used it generously, rather than punitively.

letter_paper_and_pen_vector_275746One other way I consider the experiment a success was that it seemed to me that the students’ quantity of work–their consistent effort over time–did ultimately lead to improvements in the quality of their work. The skepticism I faced from some colleagues when I mentioned this plan tended to focus on concerns about rewarding quantity over quality, or about not sufficiently recognizing and rewarding exceptional quality. Over the term I did sometimes worry about this myself: much as I liked being freed from grading individual assignments, I didn’t always like giving the same assessment of ‘satisfactory’ to assignments that ranged from perfunctory or barely passable at one end of the scale to impressively articulate and insightful at the other. You can signal the difference through your feedback, though, and that’s the big shift specifications grading requires. The other key point is that most people really do get better at writing if they practice (and get feedback, and engage with lots of examples of other people’s writing) and so making it a requirement for a good grade that you had to write a lot had the side-effect (or, met the course objective!) of helping a lot of students improve as writers. Between reading journals and discussion posts and replies, there was no way to get an A in this version of the course without writing a few hundred words every week, which is a lot more than students necessarily have to do in my face-to-face versions of intro classes. Especially in their final batch of essays, I think that practice showed.

To sum up the positives, then:

  • using specifications grading let me focus on feedback instead of hierarchical evaluations for student writing;
  • this in turn reduced some of the anxiety students feel around writing assignments;
  • it also reduced the incentives for them to cheat;
  • it gave them more control over the outcome of their efforts, rather than leaving them subject to what they often feel (rightly or wrongly) are arbitrary professorial judgments;
  • and it meant that all students and especially students who aspired to do well in the course got regular practice at applying their analytical skills (and the specialized vocabulary they learned) to a wide array of literary texts and then explaining their ideas and observations in their own words.

Because this post has gotten pretty long already, I’ll stop here and take up the question of what didn’t work so well, or what I’ll do different next time, in another post. I hope that this overview of the benefits shows, though, why my first attempt at specifications grading won’t be my last.

Novel Readings 2020

“2020 will begin on a high note,” I wrote at the end of 2019’s “Year in Reading” post. As far as reading goes, at least, I wasn’t wrong: the books I was so looking forward to were Kate Clayborn’s Love Lettering and Tana French’s The Witch Elm, and I enjoyed them both thoroughly.

It hardly needs saying that 2020 turned out to be anything but a good year overall. Was it a good reading year? I wish I could say that I turned the relentless isolation of the pandemic into an opportunity to read deeply and voraciously. I feel perhaps unduly ashamed of how difficult I often found it to concentrate, of how often I gathered promising stacks of unread books from my shelves determined to make my way through them only to reject them one by one — usually for no good reason except that in the moment, they just didn’t appeal — and put them back where they came from. Maybe it was the long hours I put into learning about and then laboring over online teaching; maybe it was the suppressed but constant struggle to keep at bay the worst fears and feelings about the pandemic; maybe, also, it’s not embarrassing but understandable to be uneasy and distracted in the midst of a global crisis, and so to fall back more often than you’d like into the passive forgetfulness offered by television. 

And yet, looking back over my posts for 2020, though they are far fewer than usual (blogging, not just about books but about anything, also became harder this year, from screen fatigue and because of the way time kept seeming to pass without actually passing, if that makes sense), I find that I did read a lot of good books, ones that held my attention, that delighted or moved or provoked me in all the best ways. I also read — or at any rate finished — fewer books that really disappointed me, probably because I was less likely this year to press on with something I wasn’t engaged by. Of course, a number of books that I read were in the middle, in that largest zone that stretches from “not really my thing” to “good but not great.”

In a tradition that stretches back to 2007, the year I began Novel Readings, here’s my look back at the best, the worst, and some of the rest of my 2020 reading.

The Best Books I Read In 2020 

Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Remains of the Dead  was the last book my book club read before our meetings went virtual; I think our dinner out to discuss it was also my last pre-lockdown social event! When will we six (sometimes seven) meet again?! This fall was our 10th anniversary, so it seems particularly sad that we haven’t been able to get together in person: Zoom just isn’t the same. We all loved Drive Your Plow — rare unanimity. The novel is extraordinary: strange, intense, compelling, and morally serious without ever being didactic:

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is about someone who reacts to the perception of universal suffering by seeking justice, not sympathy. The surprise of the novel is that someone so odd, crusty, and uncompromising turns out to be so appealing. I enjoyed her abrasiveness, her frankness about her aches and pains, her determination to live on her own terms … the punishment fits the crime in a morally and philosophically satisfying way.

I was mesmerized by Miriam Toews’s Women Talking — I’m glad I overcame my initial skepticism to give it a try. I found it “at once ruthlessly specific (what should these women, who have been abused, tortured, raped, silenced, rendered extraneous to the meaning of ther own community, do?) and almost shockingly expansive: what should (or can) we all do, once we recognize how deep and entangling the world’s systemic injustices are?”

It seems inevitable in retrospect, but that shouldn’t diminish the extraordinary fact that Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light is as brilliant as the first two novels in the trilogy. I thought it was not quite as good as Bring Up the Bodies, but that’s such a high bar that the comparison doesn’t really reflect badly on it. The last 100 pages or so of The Mirror and the Light are particularly remarkable, not least because I read them knowing exactly what was going to happen and yet was utterly gripped. “It is hard to mourn a man like Cromwell,” even Mantel’s version of him, but the series is so good that “she has made it impossible not to miss him now that he’s gone.” What will Mantel do next? I would love to read her novel about Elizabeth I, if she would ever write one.

I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Maggie O’Farrell, but Hamnet and Judith exceeded my expectations:

In her author’s note, O’Farrell explains just how little we know about the real Hamnet, and also tells us that the central event of her novel, Hamnet’s sudden death from the bubonic plague, is a fiction: “it is not known why Hamnet Shakespeare died.” From this slight material O’Farrell develops a novel that is a delicate combination of historical recreation and literary excavation, of intimately portrayed human lives and undercurrents of meaning that flow almost unnoticed towards Shakespeare’s tragic drama.

One thin silver lining of our locked-down world is the movement of many interesting cultural events online: I really enjoyed “attending” O’Farrell’s Hay Festival interview.

Kathleen Rooney’s Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey was a delight, though by that I don’t mean to imply that it is a slight or easy nbook. Out of a very unlikely premise (and the risk factor is actually one of the things I appreciated most about the novel), Rooney created something that is at once grim, tender, and morally consequential.

Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Mr. Fortune’s Maggot was one of the long-unread books I plucked from my shelves and actually read, and I’m so glad I did: I absolutely loved it. I can’t think of another book I’ve read that is quite like it:

It is sad and strange and funny and touching; it is about faith, and the loss of faith, and about love and the loss of love, or sacrifice in the name of love. It is wryly satirical about missionary zeal and imperialism and cultural arrogance; it takes a small man and uses him to tell a much larger story about freeing ourselves from the things we believe in and the harm they can do. 

Steven Price’s Lampedusa also exceeded my expectations, joining “Colm Toibin’s The Master on my very short list of books about other authors that really succeed in conveying what it might have been like to be that other consciousness, to write that other novel.”

Turning to non-fiction, Clare Hunter’s Threads of Life  is “a marvelous, inspiring, touching, and extremely wide-ranging account of the myriad ways needle crafts of all kinds have mattered and made meaning throughout history.” I enjoyed it both for the story she tells and for the connections between it and my own work on needlework in the context of Victorian historiography.

Like Mr Fortune’s Maggot, Margaret Drabble’s The Pattern in the Carpet had malingered on my shelves for some time; the meditative comfort I have found in jigsaw puzzles since our stay-at-home protocols began inspired me to take another look, and it turned out to have found its moment:

It is a wonderfully digressive book that manages, by the end, to say some profound things about how we pass our time. It began, she explains, as what she intended as a gift book about jigsaws, the kind of thing you’d buy in a museum gift shop. In the end it is part memoir; part history of a wide range of puzzles and games and arts and crafts; part  reflection on (and this will sound pompous, but in the book it really isn’t) the human condition, including especially aging and death.

Last but not least, I was both gripped and impressed by Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing:

Say Nothing is not just a gripping work of historical reconstruction and exploration, it is also a morally weighty book. Like good fiction, it insists over and over on the complexity of its topics and its people. It has no heroes and, surprisingly, not really any villains either, because those categories rely on absolute perspectives that are simply not sustainable.

Other Books I Liked A Lot

I expected to like Sarah Moss’s new novel Summerwater, which I reviewed for the Dublin Review of Books (one of a sadly small number of writing projects I accomplished in 2020). I did like it, though I did not love it: it is a lot like Ghost Wall in scope and subject, and equally terse and intelligent, but I would like to see Moss do something more expansive, and also less emotionally reticent. Still, a “lesser” novel by Moss is still better than a lot of other books, and as with Ghost Wall, I also think this is one that gets bigger and better the more you think about it

The novel has the tense atmosphere of a thriller and clues to its eventual crisis are deftly deployed throughout, but its multiple layers mean that the most important revelations are less about what ultimately happens then about how the novel asks us to interpret it. How can we live together in a world being reshaped by the weather? What expectations should we bring to communities no longer defined by the artificial borders of nationalism? What really makes a good neighbour?

William Trevor’s Love and Summer was very good – not as good as The Story of Lucy Gault, for me anyway, but good enough (and so beautifully written) that it solidified Trevor’s place on my list of writers to read more of. 

Elizabeth von Armin’s sharply funny Father was a real treat and deserved a post of its own, which it didn’t get. I highly recommend it for fans of Barbara Pym, Angela Thirkell, or the Mapp and Lucia books.

 I thoroughly enjoyed Amy Jones’s comic family novel We’re All In This Together, which I thought had “the intimacy and precision of an Anne Tyler novel but is done in bolder colours, with stronger contrasts and, especially, deeper shadows.”

I also enjoyed Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting, though in the end I couldn’t escape the feeling that its premise was less an urgent reason to group its subjects together than an ingenious device for doing so and then marketing the results. Still, 

it’s an elegantly constructed and well-written introduction to five remarkable women–the imagist poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle); classicist Jane Harrison; historian Eileen Power; Dorothy L. Sayers; and Virginia Woolf. Starting from the very literal connection that all of them at one time … lived in Bloomsbury’s Mecklenburgh Square, Wade explores other commonalities between them, especially their conviction that “real freedom entails the ability to live on one’s own terms, not to allow one’s identity to be proscribed or limited by anyone else.”

Square Haunting made me long to be back in Bloomsbury, where for some reason I have always felt strangely exhilarated and also very at home, as if I can be more myself there than elsewhere.

I found Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel engrossing: it is interesting and highly readable. Yet somehow I couldn’t quite make sense of it all: “I wasn’t 100% sure why all of its specific ingredients belonged together in this particular novel: I couldn’t quite discern the underlying thematic unity, the meaning of it all.” That left me dissatisfied, though it also raised questions for me about what I look for when I’m reading, and why.

Books I Expected to Be Better 

My book club really enjoyed Helene Tursten’s An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good, so we chose Detective Inspector Huss to read next. I didn’t like it, though she’s a good character and the novel had a lot of interesting aspects. Maybe it was a poor translation?

Sandra Newman’s The Heavens had been on my reading radar for a long time: I proposed it to the TLS for a review, in fact, and they turned it down. Now that I’ve read it, I’m relieved, as “I just couldn’t sort out my thematic and conceptual confusions well enough to feel satisfied with the novel as a whole” — though, I concluded, “it is quite possible that the fault lies not with The Heavens but with me.”

My Least-Liked Book of 2020

I know how much Dorian likes the Bernie Gunther books, and he writes so convincingly about them that I decided to try the first one, March VioletsBernie and I (or Kerr and I) did not get along:

While I find Philip Marlowe’s misogyny disturbing, I give Chandler credit for showing the price Marlowe pays for it, in his embittered isolation, while Bernie Gunther’s sexism (“Her breasts were like the rear ends of a pair of dray horses at the end of a long hard day”) serves only to show off Kerr’s own hard-boiled credentials. (“There’s only one thing that unnerves me more than the company of an ugly woman in the evening, and that’s the company of the same ugly woman the following morning.”)

Maybe the later books improve, and there’s no doubt that it’s a great concept for a series and that this one is well executed in other ways. With so many other books to choose from, though, I’m unlikely to try Kerr again any time soon.

My Biggest 2020 Reading Project

My one larger writing project for 2020 was a feature article for the TLS in honor of P. D. James’s centenary. I thought rereading all of her Adam Dalgliesh novels, which took up a lot of my summer, would be more fun than it was. They are all very good, but they are good in particular and strikingly similar ways — ways I ultimately found limited, or limiting, as I explain in the essay.

Ring Out the Old, Ring In the New

Overall, that’s really not a bad year’s reading, especially for an otherwise pretty bad year! It proves that — gloomy, difficult, and uncertain as other things might be — a good book is still a good book and worth celebrating. As for 2021, well, it feels foolhardy to express much optimism about it in other respects, but I’m excited about the first book I have lined up, Rónán Hession’s Leonard and Hungry Paul. I got Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart and Anne Enright’s The Gathering as Christmas gifts (thank you!), and I’ve got Edna O’Brien’s Girl and Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom on their way thanks to Boxing Day sales. The next book lined up for my book club, also, is Elsa Morante’s enticing Arturo’s Island. We aren’t able to ring in the new year with much confidence or enthusiasm, but it is both comforting and cheering to have these books to look forward to.

Recent Reading: Two Hits and a Miss

monkshoodI don’t usually look back on my year in reading until I’m pretty sure the reading year is actually over: traditionally, I get some good books as gifts, for instance, and sometimes the last week of December is my best chance for happy, uninterrupted reading. So I won’t plunge into retrospection just yet! Instead, I’ll just briefly note three more books that could be in the running for best or worse of the year.

Actually (spoiler alert!) none of these three is at either of those extremes for me. The first, Monk’s Hood, was fine: exactly what I expected after my happy experience reading the first Brother Cadfael mysteries. In this turbulent year, Brother Cadfael’s quiet but firm moral rectitude felt particularly soothing. It calmed and satisfied me, but it didn’t inspire me to binge-read the rest of the series immediately. I remain very pleased that I inherited it from a colleague who was “downsizing” her library, though: it is nice to know they are all there, neatly lined up and ready for me the next time I want just that kind of an interlude.

fatherElizabeth von Armin’s Father was better than fine: it was funny, touching, and somewhat acerbic, never tipping over into sentimental but also without quite the edge of cruelty that turned me off Mapp and Lucia. As Simon Thomas notes in his Afterword to the nice new British Library edition, it is one of a number of novels from around the same period treating the place or plight of single women – he notes Lolly Willowes as another along with a few I’d never heard of such as May Sinclair’s The Life and Death of Harriet FreanFather tells a superficially simple story about a daughter finally freed from her care-taking duties to her austere and imperious widowed father (a highbrow if somewhat scandalous novelist) by his impulsive second marriage. “Papa is wed, and I am free,” Jen thinks joyfully, as she sets off, during what is supposed to be Father’s honeymoon in Norway, to find herself a home of her own. She does, and it is everything she ever wanted. The initial period of her setting up housekeeping is just so happy – but between her clergyman landlord and his possessive and interfering sister and her father and stepmother (who, it turns out, never made it further than Brighton) things do not go quite as Jen had planned–with what specific results, I will leave it to you to find out when you read Father for yourself!

spoonstealerThe recent book that did not go over so well with me was Lesley Crewe’s The Spoon Stealer. I decided to buy it after enjoying an online event put on by the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia about historical fiction. All of the authors on the panel read excerpts from their work, and The Spoon Stealer sounded charming–and it is, in many ways, but it fell flat when I read it for myself. I’ve been wondering if the problem might lie somewhere in the difference between how books sound read aloud and how they sound in my head, or with something about what I read novels for and prefer to get from them: perhaps Crewe’s style tilts towards oral storytelling, for instance, while my taste tends in another direction. When I paused over an incident or paragraph or sentence in the novel that seemed especially stilted or unconvincing, I could almost never point to anything specifically wrong with it, and I like the novel’s premise and (in theory at least) its protagonist. But I became increasingly impatient with it, though just to be sure I gave it a fair chance, I did read all the way to the end. I am always aware that not all books are for all readers and this one turned not to be for me–it’s not always good enough (depending on the circumstances) to shrug a book off this way, but in this case, I am OK with just moving on.

The Last Few Weeks In My (Online) Classes

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The second half of term, and especially the couple of weeks right after our November reading week (which falls uncomfortably late in the term, as I’ve often complained), always go by in a mad rush. This term has been no different in that respect, except that the mad rush has just been more of the exact same things I’ve been doing since September: staring at the screen, typing, clicking, staring some more, typing, clicking. Because we have the same routines on Saturdays and Sundays as on every other days of the week, too, it really all just blurs into one long sameness, one continuous stretch of staring and typing and clicking, with just our daily walks, our meals, and our evening television as interruptions and diversions.

2040 SYLLABUSIt hasn’t been all bad, though. I said back in October that given the choice, I’d never teach all online again, and that remains true. But would I never teach online again at all, ever, if it were up to me? I can actually imagine, now, that there might be circumstances in which I would appreciate some features of online teaching, especially if the rest of my life were restored. I don’t miss early morning starts, and once wintry weather arrives I will be glad not to be forced out into it. If I had to – or chose to – be somewhere else for a while, I wouldn’t be so constrained by the implacability of the academic calendar. And it’s not all new to me any more: though I don’t love Brightspace, I know my way around it a lot better than I did in May, for one thing, and when I recorded my concluding lectures for my courses I felt much more comfortable and confident in front of the camera than I did when I made my first videos in August.

Over the last week or so, in the lull between the incessant weekly tasks of this term’s classes and the arrival of their final essays and exams, I have been finalizing the syllabi and working on the course sites for next term’s classes, and while I certainly don’t think I have got this whole thing figured out, I do feel as if I’ve learned a lot by doing it once that will help me do it better. Right now it seems about 50/50 that we’ll be going back to in-person teaching in Fall 2021: with the roll-out of vaccines beginning even as I write this, it isn’t impossible that by then enough of us will be protected that some semblance of normalcy will have returned, though we are still in such uncharted territory that it would be foolish to assume anything about the future. I would still rather teach online than be back in a classroom hamstrung by necessary safety measures and shadowed by anxiety. Maybe even once classroom teaching is securely the default once again, there will still be times when I will be glad to have acquired this experience and to know that I can do it again if I have to or want to.

panopto-logoSo what have I learned? In addition to the technical stuff – Brightspace and Panopto and Collaborate, oh my! – I have learned, as a lot of other people have too, that the best advice and methods for online teaching may not be the best advice and methods for online teaching in these circumstances. “Formative” assessments, scaffolded assignments, regular low-stakes engagement exercises: they may all be (and in fact I believe they are) pedagogically effective, but when we all start doing them all at once with students many of whom are used to more episodic kinds of engagement (essay assignments, midterms, final projects, etc.), the overall effect is overwhelming. I spent a lot of time puzzling over exactly the issue addressed in that linked essay: in my mind, as I planned my courses, if anything I was requiring much less work than usual, as I’d cut back the reading assignments and instead of three class meetings a week students had “just” a couple of short videos to watch and some informal writing to do, plus the usual papers and tests.

What I think I had miscalculated, however, is how little specific accountability there really was in most of those classroom hours: students could do all the reading and come prepared to discuss it, and some certainly did, but others didn’t, or didn’t always, and they could count on that time as useful but passive, a chance to listen in on what the rest of us had to say without having to generate material of their own. The new expectation that they “show up” in writing seemed like a great opportunity to make sure the talkative portion of the class wasn’t the only part that I heard from, and that was a good aspect of it. Even for the students who typically did the readings and did want to talk about them, though, the written alternatives felt harder, I think, and created more pressure, no matter how hard I tried to explain that they were meant to be low key, not high stakes. Plus, again, if every class is asking for a constant stream of input, the logistics alone probably get bewildering.

1200px-Gnome-computer.svgThat said, I’m still going to ask for online discussions in my winter term courses! Expressing your ideas about what you’ve read in words is the fundamental task and method of literary studies, after all. I lessened the requirements in one of my classes this term, once we started to hear reports of students being overwhelmed, and for next term I have (I think!) made the requirements more streamlined, and also explained better what the terms and expectations are. In retrospect I should perhaps have scaled things back in my first-year course, where I was (still am!) doing my first experiment with specifications grading – but I honestly didn’t expect that so many of them would fix on and stay fixed on fulfilling the most demanding bundle. I expected a much larger number to decide that level of effort was a bit much just to cross off their writing requirement: instead, knowing it was achievable with enough persistence seems to have motivated a significant portion of the class to do a lot of regular writing. They will have worked very hard on a whole range of tasks, so I certainly don’t begrudge them their As, though this is something I will think more about when (if) I do specifications grading again – which will have to be the subject of its own post when the term is really and truly over and I have a more complete sense of whether or how the experiment succeeded or failed.

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Once again I seem to be focused in this teaching post primarily on logistics and methods rather than on the content of my courses: this has been my lament all term, really, because compared with just showing up to class with my book and my notes, offering an online lesson or module is just a whole lot more complicated. Reviewing my recorded lectures as I made up review handouts and final exams, though, I was pleased to see that they are pretty substantial. Within the relatively simple options I chose to deliver them (basically, just narrated PowerPoints, pretty much all under 15 minutes each) they are as interesting and creative as I could manage; thinking of ways to present ideas in this format, especially ideas derived from or modeling close reading, was conceptually challenging. That was my favorite part of each week’s class prep, and I’m actually kind of looking forward to doing more of it next term, especially because I’ll be working with readings that I know really well, which makes the jump from “what’s next?” to “what do I want to say about it?” much easier.

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This term isn’t over yet, though: starting tomorrow I’ll be deep in exams and essays, which is at least par for the course, for this point in the year. Despite the monotonous way one day has blurred into the next, and the difficulty of keeping my spirits up in this surreal, isolated, scary time, I’ve been grateful that my work has continued and has kept me so busy that I can marvel that it’s “already” December. I expect that next term will be much the same – and maybe by the time I look up from my screen and marvel that it’s “already” April the tentative optimism sparked by today’s good news will have turned into genuine hope for the future.

Briefly: Maurizio de Giovanni, By My Hand

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Christmas was looming over everyone, midway between a promise and a threat.

I picked By My Hand up a bit randomly the other day: I was browsing my shelves for books I haven’t read yet (I have a reasonable number of these, though not nearly as many as some people!) and I remembered how much I’d liked the first two Commissario Ricciardi mysteries–and also de Giovanni’s ‘Bastards of Pizzofalcone’ books. With the holiday season upon us but little chance that it will be a particularly festive time this year, it seemed like the right moment for “The Christmas of Commisario Ricciardi,” and it was.

I won’t go into detail about the plot. While it’s a neat enough murder mystery, the appeal of the novel lies in its characters: Ricciardi himself, and this time also his colleague Raffaele Maione, still awash in grief and anger about the murder of his son. Ricciardi is a unique variation on the familiar figure of the gloomy detective. As I said in my post about the first in the series, I Will Have Vengeance, “the strange and somewhat risky gimmick of the series is that he sees dead people — or, rather, dying people.” It is indeed a risky premise, but it works, because we feel on every page the burden of sorrow that his grim visions place on Ricciardi. In this novel, as he moves through the crowds of people bound on holiday errands and outings, he reflects,

My crowd is made up of the living and the dead, indifference and sorrow, cries and silences. I’m the sole citizen of a city made up of people who are dead but think they are alive, or of people who breathe but think that they are dead.

The other strength of the series is its atmosphere, both local and historical. In this particular instance, politics are pervasive but also peripheral: the victims are well-placed parts of the Fascist regime, but while that enables the abuses of power that create possible motives for their killing, our detectives are not drawn into any confrontation with Mussolini’s minions and the crime itself turns out to be deeply personal. What dominates is Naples: the city’s sights and sounds and traditions, particularly of elaborate carved nativity scenes. There are pages, too, devoted to the enticing food and drink of a Neapolitan Christmas:

The shop windows of the confectioners and pastry shops were especially spectacular, and at the center, enjoying pride of place, was a Christ Child made of spun sugar. Surrounding him was an overabundance of cookies and cakes, small hillsides of struffoli, balls of fried dough dripping with honey and colorful candy pellets, cassata, along with the traditional pastries and confectionaries that no Christmas in Naples could do without, from the brightly colored almond pastries arranged on specially cut biscuits to the hard almond-dough taralli also known as roccoco; from the rhomboid-shaped Neapolitan Christmas cookies known as mustacciuoli covered with a chocolate glaze to the spicy, aromatic quaresimali …

Not all the treats are quite so appetizing: there’s also a detailed description of the evasive maneuvers and ultimate bloody death of a saltwater eel, and in the end, that grisly spectacle sums up the mood of the novel as a whole better than the cheerful cookies. By My Hand is a pretty depressing book: its glimmers of light are low and muted, like wintry sunshine, and give us just the faintest hope that for those in the novel who are suffering, things will get a bit better someday. I’ll certainly read the other Commissario Ricciardi novels waiting on my shelf eventually, but I’m glad I’ve got Lesley Crewe’s The Spoon Stealer lined up to read next: it looks a lot more cheerful.

Recent Reading: Five Fine Finds!

I can’t seem to muster the mental or physical energy to keep up with regular blogging right now (blame an excess of computer time for other purposes plus a spell of back pain – happily now subsided – making it particularly unappealing to spend yet more time at my desk!). But I also can’t stand to watch the pile of read books growing without saying something about them, and I don’t feel like waiting to do a monthly survey, which seems to be a bit of a trend. So let’s see what I can manage to say about these five rather miscellaneous but all, in their own ways, very good books. They all deserve more than passing attention, but it’s 2020 and that means sometimes less has to be enough!

Steven Price, Lampedusa. This was my local book club’s most recent choice, and it proved an excellent one. Everybody loved it, which is actually pretty rare for us. I think the last book we were all this excited about was Drive Your Plow Over the Remains of the Dead. One thing we wondered about going into this was whether it would be important to have read The Leopard beforehand–some of us had, some of us hadn’t. I read it, but years ago (with the Slaves of Golconda group, which sadly faded away) so my recollection was pretty vague. Some who hadn’t read it before opted to read it in preparation for Lampedusa, and some watched the Visconti adaptation. But some just went ahead with Price’s novel, on the theory that he can’t have expected readers to ‘prep’ for it. And we were all fine! Those who knew The Leopard were able to make or appreciate some connections, but Lampedusa is plenty good enough to stand alone as a beautifully written (it genuinely deserves that over-used word ‘lyrical’), evocative (another over-used but well-earned word) and very moving account of creativity, memory, middle age, loss, and death. Oh, and Sicily too: it is very much about a particular place at a particular time.

Lampedusa joins Colm Toibin’s The Master on my very short list of books about other authors that really succeed in conveying what it might have been like to be that other consciousness, to write that other novel. Here’s a sample:

After that first night, Mirella did not again react to the story. She responded neither with surprise nor disapproval nor delight. Rather she was quiet and precise and wholly present, like a shadow on a wall. He was grateful for this. Some part of him understood that these were the cleanest and purest working hours he would ever know; hearing the language aloud, steady, slow, permitted him to edit as he went; and later, after Mirella had left, he would lift the new typed papers to a random page and begin making alterations almost at once, unable to help himself. There were truths inside the story that surprised him, that he had not intended. It felt at times as if he were overhearing the novel speaking to itself. HIs prince, he saw, whom he had always thought of as hollowed out by an absent faith, in fact was the last of the devout. But his prince’s faith was a faith in tradition, in the fate of a bloodline, and at such moments Giuseppe saw that he had written his way through his own bitterness, towards the man he might have wished to be. His prince stood alone, impassive, needing no one; and because of this, and because there is no true survival in isolation, it would be his prince’s very strength that destroyed him.

There is more to the novel than writing and contemplation–there’s family drama, and war, and myth, and also failure, as he dies before knowing “his prince” and his novel would be published, acclaimed, and lasting, the masterpiece he felt but could not be certain it was.

I loved the idea of Lampedusa when I first heard about it but I admit I was prepared for disappointment. The genre is a risky one (I have yet to read a George Eliot novel that hasn’t bored, annoyed, or outraged me), and the only other novel by Price I’ve read is By Gaslight, which I liked just fine but which is a very different kind of thing altogether. I’m so glad I didn’t let those hesitations deter me: it’s one of the best novels I’ve read all year, and this is a year that included Hamnet and The Mirror and the Light.

Up next for the book club: We usually follow a theme of some kind from one book to the next, so this time we chose Italy and Elsa Morante’s Artur’s Island.

Margaret Drabble, The Pattern in the Carpet. The subtitle of this book is ‘A Personal History with Jigsaws’ and I plucked it off the shelf (where it had malingered for a few years mostly unread) because I have been doing jigsaw puzzles as a form of meditative distraction since early in the lockdown. I thought–rightly–that this might mean Drabble’s book, which hadn’t interested me much when I began it before, might have found its moment, and it had. It is a wonderfully digressive book that manages, by the end, to say some profound things about how we pass our time. It began, she explains, as what she intended as a gift book about jigsaws, the kind of thing you’d buy in a museum gift shop. In the end it is part memoir; part history of a wide range of puzzles and games and arts and crafts; part  reflection on (and this will sound pompous, but in the book it really isn’t) the human condition, including especially aging and death. There are many parts I would love to quote but in the interests of actually finishing a blog post before age too much more, here’s just one:

One of the reasons why the jigsaw appeals to me … is that it is pre-made, its limits finite, its frame fixed. No ordinary degree of manual clumsiness (and mine is advanced, and inevitably advancing) can yet prevent me from finishing a jigsaw. It can’t be done badly. Slowly, but not badly. All one needs is patience … In this aspect, the jigsaw is the very opposite of the novel. The novel is formless and frameless. It has no blueprint, no pattern, no edges. At the end of a day’s work on a novel, you may feel that you have achieved something worse than a lack of progress. You may have ruined what went before. You may have sunk badly into banality or incoherence. You may have betrayed or maligned others. You may have to scrap not only the day’s work, but the work of the preceding week, month, year, lifetime. You may have lost ground, and for ever. You may have lost your nerve, and indicted all that you have achieved. Writing fiction is frightening.

She goes on to note that when she was working on The Oxford Companion to English Literature, it had more of the character of a puzzle: 

The pieces fitted together, they interlocked … Assembling and fitting the pieces together was a form of carpentry.

Writing novels is not like that.

Actually, here’s one more passage. Perhaps because I am currently working on a puzzle that is one of Monet’s paintings of his gardens at Giverny, I appreciated her discussion of the way jigsaw puzzles help us understand and appreciate works of fine art by forcing us to pay meticulously close attention:

From jigsaws, you learn about the brush strokes of Van Gogh, the clouds of Constable, the reflections and shadows of Manet, the stripes of Tissot and Rousseau, the brickwork and tiles of the Dutch masters, the flesh tones of Titian, the undulating fabrics and limbs of Botticelli, the business of Bosch and Brueghel. While struggling to recreate Titian’s Venus of Urbino, you discover that the little dog at her feet is painted in almost exactly the same shades of russet and apricot as the naked Venus herself. According to Julian Mitchell, himself a master puzzle solver, the dog represents her politely concealed public hair …

I learned more about the appreciation of clouds and of Constable from doing jigsaws of The Hay Wain and Salisbury Cathedral than I learned from my first encounters with the original paintings. Now, when I see clouds, I see clouds and Constable, not clouds and the shapes of a jigsaw puzzle, but the puzzle was the medium that introduced me, that fixed my attention, that made me pause. This may sound ridiculous, but it is true. I could have learned about clouds at the Courtauld, but I didn’t have the opportunity. I learned through Clementoni.

One thing the book made me realize is that my local jigsaw options are sadly limited! Her book inspired me to go looking for a Brueghel puzzle and I found this line of what look like beautiful art puzzles—how I would love to work on Landscape with the Fall of Icarus!-but they are not to be had in Canada, as far as I can tell.

OK, just one more bit, to give you a sense of how much more this book is about than idle pastimes–or, more accurately, of how it makes you think differently about your pastimes, which may not be as idle as they seem:

The concept of life as a journey, a pilgrimage, a quest, a ladder, or a spiral track may be attractive to some, but to me the notion of a goal is not. The very word ‘goal’ has unpleasing associations. Board games, unlike jigsaw puzzles, necessarily admit elements of competition and victory … Whereas the Greek telos can mean an end, an aim, an ultimate purpose, a final cause, and need not embrace the concept of competition. In the larger pattern, all the solitary journeys combine, and we arrive together.

The jigsaw, with its frame, is a simulacrum of meaning, order and design … if you try hard enough, you can complete it. That galactic scatter of inert and inept fragments of wood or cardboard will come together and make a picture.

Lennie Goodings, A Bite of the Apple. I enjoyed this thoroughly. It combines a brisk personal history of Goodings’ years with Virago Press with comments on the books and writers the Press published–some of whom I knew of but without having connected them explicitly to Virago, like Sarah Waters or Sarah Dunant. Goodings is clear that in its origins Virago was a product of second-wave feminism and so had some of the shortcomings you’d expect; she’s also explicit and occasionally defensive about Virago’s determination to be a feminist press that reached mainstream audiences. The tension between ideology and marketing was real sometimes but she makes a good case for the value of having a range of approaches to feminist publishing, including theirs. It was slightly disorienting reading enthusiastic sections about Virago’s close relationship with Margaret Atwood, who of course has long been an ‘iconic’ feminist writer but who has become a controversial figure, in her home country anyway, because of her entanglement in the Steven Galloway case. I suppose this particular mess is not really relevant to Goodings’s story, but it’s a long time since I read anything admiring about Atwood that didn’t have at least an implicit asterisk by her name–a sign, as I expect Goodings herself would readily acknowledge, that feminist critique is always evolving.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Mr. Fortune’s Maggot. This is another book that has been sitting on my shelves for a while (one thing lockdown has done is encourage me to look more closely at the books I already have, since things like leisurely trips to the library or bookstore are not currently options). I loved Lolly Willowes and liked Summer Will Show, so I’m not sure why I hadn’t read this one yet! Maybe it too was waiting for its moment, and like The Pattern in the Carpet, it found it, since I read it in one delicious sitting and absolutely loved it. It is sad and strange and funny and touching; it is about faith, and the loss of faith, and about love and the loss of love, or sacrifice in the name of love. It is wryly satirical about missionary zeal and imperialism and cultural arrogance; it takes a small man and uses him to tell a much larger story about freeing ourselves from the things we believe in and the harm they can do. Mr. Fortune is kind of a stupid man in many ways, but he finds a lot of wisdom by the end. A snippet:

‘Because I loved him so for what he was I could not spend a day without trying to alter him. How dreadful it is that because of our wills we can never love anything without messing it about! We couldn’t even love a tree, not a stone even; for sooner or later we should be pruning the tree or chipping off a bit of the stone. Yet if it were not for a will I suppose we should cease to exist. Anyhow it is in us, and while we live we cannot escape from it, so however we love and whatever we love, it can only be for a few minutes, and to buy off our will for those few minutes we have to relinquish to it for the rest of our lives whatever it is we love.’

My nice NYRB Classics edition comes packaged with the short sequel Townsend Warner wrote for it, The Salutation. I didn’t read it (yet): I was so satisfied by Mr. Fortune’s Maggot that I didn’t want anything to distract or detract from it! I won’t forget that it’s still there, though, waiting for me. Perhaps it perfectly completes or complements the original: some day I’ll find out.

Kerry Clare, Waiting for a Star to FallI was so looking forward to Kerry’s new novel: I really enjoyed and admired Mitzi Bytes and of course I know Kerry well from her wonderful blog and from Twitter (though sadly for me, she is rarely there now!) and for all her work reading, writing, talking about, and cheering on Canadian literature. Waiting for a Star to Fall did not disappoint, though it is a different kind of novel than Mitzi Bytes–at its heart is a painful personal struggle that is really well summed up in Stacey May Fowles’s review in Quill & Quire:

In sketching the nuance and power imbalances of Brooke and Derek’s romance, Clare has successfully rendered a spectrum of abusive behaviour and articulated a vital cultural tension between two seemingly opposed concepts: being 23 and being taken advantage of, and being 23 and having agency. In doing so, she asserts that both can exist simultaneously and that those who mistreat young women are not relieved of responsibility because their victims “should have known better.” 

Waiting for a Star to Fall is a highly topical novel, what I suppose we will come to call (maybe we already do?) a #MeToo novel. It doesn’t feel forced or formulaic, though, mostly because it walks us through the problem of recognizing the harm, rather than insisting on it or hectoring us about it from the very beginning. Brooke’s struggle to make the right kind of sense of her own experience is hard to watch and harder to participate in vicariously, which the close third-person narration requires of us. I appreciated that while by the end it is clear even to Brooke that she needs to understand the story differently, even it it means letting go of ideas about herself that she wants and needs to hold on to, the pieces do not fall so neatly into place that labels like ‘victim’ really fit. Real life is full of ambiguity, after all, and she did make choices; her relationship with Derek is not something that just happened to her, without her participation. At the same time, there’s some wishful thinking in Brooke’s own insistence that right and wrong are not so easy to determine:

‘But it’s not nothing,’ said Brooke, trying to explain. ‘It can’t just be either/or–there is something in the middle.’

‘There are many degrees, aren’t there,’ Derek’s mother eventually says to Brooke, ‘between perfection and being a sinner And who among us hasn’t sinned? … It’s not all or nothing.’ This is true, but it’s also not really good enough, especially for Derek as Brooke finally comes to see him.

So there we have it: five good books I’ve read recently!

Free to Be: On Idiosyncrasy

This post may be a contribution to the vast genre of “someone finally noticed something obvious to everyone else,” but it is about something that has been a bit of a quiet revelation to me, a small insight that on my good days (I do still have a few, in spite of it all) makes me feel not just better about what I’ve done so far but optimistic about what I might do next. So I thought it was worth saying something about here!

Recently we’ve been really enjoying the shows Landscape Artist of the Year and Portrait Artist of the Year (in Canada, they air on the ‘Makeful’ channel, which is also where you can watch the Great British Sewing Bee, in case that’s your jam). Like all ‘reality’ shows, they are a bit artificial and micro-managed, and the gamification of creativity can seem problematic: much more so than with, say, baking shows, where there’s something definitive about a “soggy bottom” or a collapsed soufflé, in these shows there’s  something mysterious to us about the judging, as the judges often rate most highly the paintings we thought were clearly the worst. It’s thought-provoking, in that it raises a lot of questions about what we and they are looking for: clearly they are seeing things we aren’t, or valuing things we don’t.

But the question of artistic merit (while one I am always interested in puzzling over) is not actually what’s on my mind these days. Instead, I’ve been thinking about how these shows celebrate the value of what I will call (for lack of a better word) idiosyncrasy, by which, in this context, I mean the  value of finding the distinctive approach that is yours, or the specific thing you are good at and doing that thing, not some other thing. Given the identical task (paint this person, paint this scenery) the artists all do every single step differently: some sketch first in pencil, some slather background colors on their canvas; some work in meticulous grids, some block in big shapes; some use pastels, some watercolors or oils or acrylics. In the episode we watched last night, someone worked on scratchboard, which I’d never heard of before. The end results are also enormously various, ranging from photographic realism to much more abstract or conceptual versions of the assigned subject.

Watching the artists just do their thing, which they are often asked to explain but never expected to excuse or justify, I realized how often in my own life I have felt inept or inadequate because I couldn’t do things in a certain way, or do certain kinds of things well, across a whole range of activities from the professional (writing and scholarship) to the personal (knitting or cooking or quilting, for example … or drawing). I have often felt sheepish about the variations I was reasonably good at, or enjoyed doing even if I wasn’t that good at them, as if they signaled my limitations, not my own special (if modest!) gifts. I struggled for a long time to make quilts in traditional pieced patterns, which I love the look of–but I have always found simple applique patterns more fun and gotten better results with them. I thought this meant I was not good at quilting. I struggled for a long time to learn to knit and have never really got the knack of it; once I figured out how to make granny squares, I quite enjoyed crochet. I thought this uneven result meant I was pretty mediocre at yarn crafts. One crochet pattern I have found particularly congenial, for whatever reason, is the so-called ‘virus shawl’; it didn’t occur to me to celebrate this as my niche rather than wonder why I couldn’t do other patterns as readily.

Switching to professional examples, I found most of the critical approaches I was expected to engage with as a graduate student inaccessible, and none of the criticism I actually ended up finding meaningful and useful was ever assigned. I often interpreted this as evidence of my unfitness for academic scholarship, but what if it isn’t, but is just me finding my academic style? I seem to be pretty good at some kinds of essays – ones that think through a body of work, for example, like all of Dick Francis’s novels, or all of P. D. James’s – and not so good at, or at least not so eager to try, or able to pitch,  other kinds. What if the pleasure I take in doing that kind of work is not a sign of weakness, but (and I think this is important) not a sign of strength either: what if I thought of it instead without those hierarchical judgments, just as a mark of my idiosyncrasy, of my individual intellectual style? What if the freedom and curiosity and occasional exhilaration I experience when I’m writing on my blog, for that matter, is also about finding my own way, using the tools that feel natural in my hands, making this site a self-portrait in words rather than a shelter from the uncongenial demands of “real” academic writing? What if feeling some comfort, pleasure, and ease in a particular kind of work means that it fits, and that’s a good thing?

Perhaps this is just another way to explain what it is like to try to break out of certain academic habits of mind, and to recognize just how pervasive they are. Academia is an environment in which (for some good reasons, to be sure) we spend a lot of time trying to fit ourselves – and our students – to specific models, trying to conform to standards and practices, to produce certain kinds of outcomes and results, to attain certain styles of writing. We rarely have either the time or the courage for idiosyncrasy, and it isn’t likely to be rewarded. I’m not rejecting the whole idea of standards or rigor or expertise as foundational values. I’m sure it’s true that all of the artists on these shows have had to master a lot of fundamental skills: they can all draw anatomically correct figures, create likenesses, sketch landscape elements to scale. They have an enormous amount of technical know-how as well. But the whole point of being an artist is to go past that common ground into your own territory, which is where you really expand and define yourself. Maybe that is what’s different: a lot of academics spend a long time in that first phase, the “do it this way” phase, which fills us with lasting fear that we aren’t doing it right and so we get stuck there.

As I said, maybe I’m just restating the obvious, and maybe what I’m really probing is more an individual neurosis and not a general condition (though I expect a lot of academics will recognize my description of the way we are trained to think and work). Still, when I started thinking about idiosyncrasy in this way it felt exciting and even a bit empowering. Imagine being free to be you and me in this way! I’m not 100% sure what that would even mean for me in practice, especially as a writer, but for now I’m going to just sit with the idea that it’s not just OK but actually desirable to do my own thing rather than feeling awkward or deficient because I can’t or don’t want to do some other thing.

Histories of Violence: Experiments in Narrative Nonfiction

say-nothingI read a book that wasn’t for work! In fact, I read two books! I cant remember another teaching term when this has felt like such an accomplishment. Sometimes I read the most, paradoxically, when I am otherwise the busiest! There’s something enervating about the way I am busy this term, though, including (as previously noted) that everything about it is done on my computer, and also, just to state the obvious, that we are in the middle (she says optimistically – what if it’s just the beginning?!) of a global pandemic that has made everything harder and sadder.

Perhaps because of this context, which among other things has made me anxious and fretful and thus often makes it harder for me to concentrate, I have been drawn more than usual to non-fiction. Two of the best books I read early in the pandemic were Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting and Clare Hunter’s Threads of Life, both of which engaged me as much the best novels do. In some ways, though, nonfiction creates or relies on a different kind of engagement, something I found myself thinking about as I read two more highly acclaimed works of nonfiction, Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland and Karen Abbott’s The Ghosts of Eden Park.

McConvilleI’m not going to recapitulate the intricate details of the stories either book tells. Briefly, in case neither title is familiar, Say Nothing starts from the abduction of a Belfast woman named Jean McConville by (it is presumed) the IRA, and from that harrowing incident layers on contexts and characters to explore the social, political, and especially moral complexities of life in Northern Ireland during the ‘troubles.’ “Who should be held accountable for a shared history of violence?” Keefe asks? At every turn, difficult questions arise about motives, culpability, and, ultimately, accountability. One example, about a key player in the IRA’s so-called “nutting squad” who turned out to be an extremely valuable informant (if you think about it, you’ll figure out how they got that name and you will shudder, as you will often reading this book):

If an agent is a murderer, and his handlers know that he is murdering people, does that not make the handlers–and, as such, the state itself–complicit? British Army sources would subsequently claim that Scappaticci’s efforts saved 180 lives. But they allowed that this number was a “guesstimate,” and this sort of thinking can degenerate pretty quickly into a conjuectural mathematics of means and ends. Scappaticci would ultimately be linked to as many as fifty murders. If a spy takes fifty lives but saves some larger number, can that countenance his actions? This kind of logic is seductive, but perilous. You start out running numbers in your head, and pretty soon you are sanctioning mass murder.

This ruthless calculus is disturbing enough, but even worse (I thought, anyway) is what Scappaticci’s handlers eventually do to protect the secret of his identity. It isn’t necessarily the number of deaths that carries the most weight, but their context: should an individual with no direct part in the shared violence be sacrificed, for example, in service of either party’s long-term efforts to end or win the war? Most of us probably accept that, at least in theory, there are causes worth not just dying for but killing for, but this book will make you ask over and over who gets to decide–about which causes, about which deaths. It also raises profoundly difficult questions about what price is right to pay for ending the violence, which turns out to be linked in fascinating ways to questions about research, sources, and even academic freedom.

Boy and flaming car outside Divis flats.

In other words, Say Nothing is not just a gripping work of historical reconstruction and exploration, it is also a morally weighty book. Like good fiction, it insists over and over on the complexity of its topics and its people. It has no heroes and, surprisingly, not really any villains either, because those categories rely on absolute perspectives that are simply not sustainable. Many people in it do or condone appalling acts. The disappearance of Jean McConville is one such act: she is never seen alive again, and for decades her children, who watched her be dragged away, have to live with the uncertainty of her fate, and thus in turn with unanswered questions about her possible guilt or innocence of the ‘charges’ against her.

eden1The second book I recently finished is also an accomplished work of narrative nonfiction, Karen Abbott’s The Ghosts of Eden Park. Its long subtitle tells you a lot about its flavour: The Bootleg King, the Women who Pursued Him, and the Murder that Shocked Jazz-Age America. My interest in this book was piqued by our recent viewing of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, in which Abbot’s main character, the bootlegger George Remus, features prominently. It was fun learning how many aspects of his character were based on reality, such as his peculiar habit of referring to himself in the third person.

There is a lot of violence in this book as well, but Abbott brings no underlying gravitas, no moral weight, to the story she tells about it, and so for me The Ghosts of Eden Park was a much less satisfying read. There are plenty of moral grey areas, surely, around the legalities of prohibition and bootlegging. As we see over and over again in the book, vast portions of America were happy to break the law, and without market demand, there would have been no fortunes for the bootleggers to make, while without prohibition itself driving the trade underground, the circumstances around it would not have been so murderous. Related conversations go on today around arguments for legalizing drugs, and I would have been interested in questions about culpability and accountability being part of Abbot’s project.

remusThey aren’t, though: that’s just not the book she is writing, and of course that’s fine. She tells a brisk, entertaining, fairly sensational story about Remus, whose success as a bootlegger actually is just background for what becomes his obsessive love-hate relationship with his wife Imogene. While Remus is being prosecuted and imprisoned, Imogene begins an affair with one of the agents who had investigated him, which drives Remus (or so he later argues in court) insane. He never seems very stable: Abbott’s reports from his own statements and writings as well as other people’s reports and observations make him out to be a highly erratic and, frankly, extremely annoying character, someone who never at any moment aroused a glimmer of empathy in me. This is a problem, or it was for me, because after a while reading about his antics and histrionics was like watching some kind of strange zoo animal go berserk and hoping eventually someone will just sedate him and get it over with. Imogene is no better: she’s an opportunist who lies and manipulates and takes everything she can from Remus. When he shoots her in the middle of  Chicago’s Eden Park (not a spoiler – this is where the book itself begins!) it seems pretty grim, but by the time we circle around to it after hundreds of pages of backstory, I felt much less, rather than much more, horror–which, in my view anyway, is something of a failure for the book, or perhaps more generally for the project. We should not be indifferent to murder: it should not feel like no more than a plot point. It is, as P. D. James says over and over in her essays on detective fiction, “the unique crime.” That Remus and Imogene and most of their cohort of friends and accomplices have become indifferent to its moral significance is telling, about them and about the world they (thought they)  lived in. I was disappointed, though, that Abbott’s treatment more or less accepted their terms. It’s a wild story, with many remarkable twists, but Abbott’s exhaustive research didn’t make it seem any less shallow.

Mabel_WillebrandtThe one element of Abbott’s book that will really stick with me is Mabel Walker Willibrandt. One of my questions watching Boardwalk Empire was about the plausibility of the character Esther Randolph, the U. S. Attorney who tries to bring down Nucky Thompson. It turns out that there were a few women who made careers in the law even that early in the 20th century, and Willibrandt was one of them. She and her “Mabelmen” ought to have their own TV series, if you ask me: she is bold, fierce, and sharply self-conscious about the extra burden her sex adds to her work. “Why the devil they have to put that ‘girlie girlie’ tea party description every time they tell anything a professional woman does,” she wrote to her parents,

‘is more than I can see.’ At the same time, she felt compelled to play along, trying, at least in public, to strike a balance: not too masculine or too feminine, too aggressive or too demure; too indifferent or too emotional; too much or too little of any quality that would highlight her sex instead of her work. ‘I try not to think of myself as a woman in going before a jury,’ she told the Washington Evening Star. ‘by this I do not mean that women should be mannish but that they must forget about themselves.’

One consequence of her dedication to her work is that she divorces her first husband and then declines a later proposal on the grounds that the demands of her job would inevitably ruin the balance and happiness of their relationship. (She does adopt a daughter, though, to raise on her own.) I thought the book would turn on a showdown between Remus and Willibrandt, but in the end she is not the one who faces him in his last, most important trial, the one in which a jury has to decide what, if any, price he should pay for his most decisive act of violence.

boardwalkI realize there’s something of an apples and oranges problem with comparing these two books. It’s inevitable, though, that reading books back to back prompts some consideration of what they do or don’t have in common. I would say both are good of their kind, but Say Nothing is of a more important kind: it demands that we look at its events, not as colourful stories about the past, but as parts of our ongoing, imperfect, and morally weighty attempts to understand the place and consequences of violence, especially in our politics. It’s easy to condemn violence, but absolute pacifism can be (as Vera Brittain found, in a different context) difficult to defend. Even if there are cases in which violence seems necessary or justified, though, so many questions still remain. We are watching the Norwegian series Occupied right now, which of course is speculative fiction, not history, but I think it too provokes these questions. At what point would you agree with blowing something up, or worse? My complaint about The Ghosts of Eden Park is that not only do none of the people Abbott talks about seem to care very deeply about these problems – Abbott herself, or at least her book, also does not engage with them. In her book, the story is everything, and it’s actually a pretty cheap and lurid one. Maybe this is not so different, really, from the standards I apply to fiction: I have always found it (pace Oscar Wilde) important to be earnest, at least where matters of moral weight are involved.