A Decade of Novel Readings!

My very first post to Novel Readings went up 10 years ago today. It wasn’t much: a quick comment on Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Rereading it today, I’m amused to see that careless applications of the label “Dickensian” was already a pet peeve, but I’m also interested to see that my appreciation for Dickens himself, as a self-conscious and effective artist, has increased since then.

As I’ve often remarked, starting a blog was not, at first, a very purposeful action for me. It turned out to be a life-changing one, though. I’ve written before about the ways blogging has opened up new opportunities for me, but today I find myself thinking more about the intrinsic value of Novel Readings itself. For me, blogging turned out to be an outlet, a distraction, a pleasure, a challenge, a learning experience, an intellectual adventure.  In some circles, Novel Readings is the work of mine that deserves the least credit. But in many ways I am more proud of my archive of blog posts than of any other writing I’ve done, precisely because the value of doing this lies all in the doing! I’ve never been under any obligation to blog, or had any extrinsic incentive to do it, or received any external reward (or, god knows, any professional advancement) for it. As a result, there’s an authenticity to this writing, a freedom, that means Novel Readings has allowed me to discover a lot about who I am as a reader, a writer, a critic, a scholar, and a teacher — which is to say that blogging has contributed a lot to my understanding of myself as a person. A lot has changed for me, both personally and professionally, since 2007, and some of that is indubitably because of the degree of reflection this blog has prompted, as well as of the habits, skills, and interests it has helped me cultivate.

At the same time, Novel Readings has never been primarily a personal exercise, a vehicle for self-exploration or self-expression. In fact, I’ve deliberately kept a lot of aspects of my private life off the blog! Though like all blogs Novel Readings ebbs and flows somewhat in its aims and accomplishments, overall I am as proud of the results of my blogging as I am pleased with the process of it, because I think I have actually (if, initially, accidentally) made something of substance here. Over the past decade I have produced a significant body of thoughtful, articulate commentary on books, on criticism, and on academic and pedagogical issues. I have done this in the face of a fair amount of skepticism — even some outright scorn — but also buoyed by some precious encouragement. In the end, though, what really mattered was my own commitment, and that came (as I expect it does for all bloggers) from my belief, born of experience, that it was something that, for me, was worth doing.

So, Happy Birthday, Novel Readings! And sincere thanks, as always, to those of you who help make this effort worthwhile by reading, commenting, and writing your own wonderful blogs.

The First Ever Novel Readings Book Giveaway!

When I put up my last post, I realized that it was #899 – making this my 900th post at Novel Readings. That seemed like a milestone that ought to be recognized with something a bit out of the ordinary! But what? As I was musing about options, I remembered that not long ago I had contemplated holding a book giveaway for my anthology, The Victorian Art of Fiction, to put a more positive spin on its rather sluggish sales. (OK, “sluggish” is putting it nicely: my last royalty statement shows it selling -3 copies in Canada!) Clearly this is the perfect opportunity for just such a special event. It can also double as my way of celebrating World Book Day!

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Lest the sorry story of my book’s recent sales makes you skeptical that you even want a free copy, let me tell you just a little bit about it. (You can also read more about it at Wuthering Expectations, where once upon a time it was the book of the week!) It’s actually the project I was working on in 2007 during the same sabbatical that I launched this blog, making it the perfect prize for this occasion. (The first person to joke that “second prize is two copies” is banned from Novel Readings forever.)  I had been reading quite a lot of Victorian essays about and reviews of fiction — partly because I was asking questions about the kind of criticism we do and how it sometimes seemed to me to fit the primary sources uncomfortably. I wanted to get a better sense of the contemporary conversation into which the Victorian novels actually emerged. I found this material fascinating but also diffuse, and I thought a collection of the choicest examples would be a nice thing to make available, for interested readers as well as for students and teachers of the history of criticism; happily, Broadview Press agreed.

My introduction to the volume that resulted sums up some key themes across the various readings as well as what seemed to me some notable and thought-provoking differences between the way they did criticism then and the way we do it now. But the real fun is in the essays themselves. There are some that are canonical (as far as that concept can even be applied to 19th-century essays about the novel): George Eliot’s “Silly Novels By Lady Novelists,” for instance, and Henry James’s “The Art of Fiction.” There are some by writers whose names are certainly familiar to readers of Victorian fiction: Margaret Oliphant’s “Modern Novelists – Great and Small,” or Anthony Trollope’s “Novel Reading.” There are some by people who, though not widely known today, were major critical or intellectual figures at the time: David Masson’s “Thackeray and Dickens” or Walter Bagehot’s “The Novels of George Eliot.” There are essays on “lady novelists,” sensation fiction, and the morality of fiction; there are discussions of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë by writers including George Henry Lewes and Leslie Stephen. The essays are perceptive, idiosyncratic, sometimes puzzling, often surprising, and occasionally profound. Above all, they reflect a common conviction that fiction is an art form worth talking about, which is a feeling I think is likely to be shared by anyone stopping by a blog called Novel Readings.

So here’s the plan. If you’d like a chance at a free copy of this elegant, entertaining, and edifying volume, just say so in the comments below, in the next 24 hours (it’s 10:00 a.m. Atlantic time here in frosty Halifax, so that will be the cut-off time tomorrow). As an extra incentive, I will also include a pretty bookmark in an appropriately bookish pattern made by a local paper artist! Then I’ll put all (both? the only?) names in a hat and Maddie will draw out one winner. I’ll identify the winner in the comments and invite him or her to contact me by email to sort out mailing information. (With regret, after looking at international shipping rates on Canada Post, I do have to limit this offer to US, Canadian, and UK addresses only. Maybe for my 1000th post I’ll go completely global.)

I hope someone is interested. If it turns out that I can’t even give copies of the book away, just think how depressed I’ll be: what could be sadder than so much ardent labour all in vain? And so, as James says in the exuberant conclusion to “The Art of Fiction,” go in!

UPDATE: It’s heartening to see so much interest in the book! I wish I could send everyone a copy – but I can’t. The ‘contest’ is now closed. I promised Maddie she could do the actual drawing, so it will have to wait until after work. Then I’ll make the big announcement of the winner. Thanks to everyone for joining in!

AND THE WINNER IS …