This Week In My Classes: Everything Else!

BigMagicFinalWhen it’s this quiet around here, that can only mean one thing: I am very busy elsewhere! The main reason I haven’t written up any new reading is that I’ve been working on a review for the next issue of Open Letters. Despite my best efforts, I’m still quite a slow and painstaking writer when I know it’s for a “formal” purpose (most of the time, I write with much greater freedom here, but there haven’t been quite the spin-off benefits in the rest of my writing life that I’m always hoping for). Sort of ironically, given that, the book I’ve been writing about is Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, which I picked up to read (not, initially, to review) precisely because I was feeling stymied about my writing and thought maybe she’d have some helpful tips. All I’ll say about the book for now is that it did indeed motivate me to do some writing!

I sent my draft of that review off to my co-editors for their input a couple of days ago and will come back to revisions once they are done with it. I’ve been writing for Open Letters for six years now (my very first piece went up in the October 2009 issue) and everyone there is now a friend as well as a colleague, but I still get butterflies when I post my work for their edits. If you’ve contributed to OLM you may sometimes have wondered what the process is like for the insiders: believe me, we are just as attentive and rigorous with each other’s work! And in a way it’s a more intense process for us, because we condense and redact editorial comments a lot of the time before sending them back to authors, whereas we see the edits on our own work quite unfiltered. To show what I mean, here’s a screen clipping of a typical* segment of one of my drafts (the first version of this review) festooned with suggestions (I won’t decode which font is which editor):


(If you want to see the details, click on the image and it gets bigger). Even a piece that doesn’t provoke a lot of objections or corrections can generate a lot of debate about its argument or examples: it’s thrilling, really, to have so many smart people ready and willing to pay close attention to my writing. And while it can be intimidating, it’s done in such a supportive spirit that it’s somehow never discouraging. I’ve certainly never experienced anything like it in academic publishing.

Anyway, because I was using so much of my extra-curricular time writing the review, I haven’t done much other interesting reading, so I don’t have anything to write up for the blog. I have been slowly working through Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles, but as I’m going to be reviewing it for OLM for the next next issue, I won’t be blogging about it in any detail. (I can say, though, that it seems to me as extraordinary in its own way as The Orphan Master’s Son, which is one of the most memorable novels I’ve read in a long time.)

The other reason it has been quiet here is that I have been pretty busy on campus too — not so much with teaching, since my load this term is not heavy, but with administrative and advising work. I’ve already sent out a lot of reference letters and there are more requests coming in pretty steadily. Writing the letters themselves is often kind of uplifting, as you are cheering students on as they move into new, exciting phases of their lives. The paperwork is a real pain in the a–, though, even though these days much of it is virtual. No two places have the same forms or the same specific requirements, and often when there are forms they pose interesting technical challenges (yesterday, for instance, I ended up retyping several paragraphs into a fillable PDF because for whatever reason I could not get it to allow me to paste in the text of my letter, even though that is something I have done without difficulty on similar forms). As far as I know I have never screwed up anyone’s application by missing a deadline or sending the wrong materials to the wrong place or whatever, but it’s stressful worrying that I might lose track of something important.

Committee work, too, has been a bit hectic. One reason is that our department is steadily losing resources: we have five wonderful senior people now phasing into retirement (and more to come soon, it seems likely), which has lots of implications for administrative assignments as well as teaching capacity, and this fall at one point we also had four people on sick leave plus another on a personal leave — and that’s not even counting sabbaticals. We also have no truly “junior” people left in our tenure-track ranks as it has been so long since we made a permanent hire. It seems like many of our recent meetings have focused on reshuffling the people we still have in order to keep everything running, and it’s just barely working. Welcome to the downsized humanities. I’ll never forget the dean telling our Faculty a couple of years ago that we were all going to do “less with less and do it better.” The “less with less” part has certainly come true, but better? Well, we’re certainly doing our best, and every day I’m reminded how committed everyone is — to our students, first of all, but also to the university, in both its real and its ideal incarnation.

All is not gloom and doom, however! I thoroughly enjoyed the class my TA ran on “Araby” on Monday (as always, when I get to move back to the other side of the podium, I was reminded just how much I loved being an English student), and yesterday we had what I thought was quite a good session on Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party.” In my graduate seminar, we struggled with the second half of The Mill on the Floss — not with actually reading it, of course, but with figuring it out. As I eventually said to them, one thing about the ending is it as good as tells us directly “you need to interpret this!” It’s not a novel that’s overtly metafictional in a cool postmodern way (not as much as Middlemarch is, anyway), but it constantly teases us about how fiction works and what its conventions are, as if to make sure we think about how The Mill on the Floss confronts them. We start Middlemarch on Monday; we’re taking it slowly, with just the first two books assigned, so I hope that allows them to linger over the reading and think about form as well as plot.

TLS_Cover_October__1186210hOne other piece of good news, which I kept quiet about until now because I was worried that (for who knows what reason) it might not actually come to fruition: in the summer I got the opportunity to review a book for the TLS (the TLS!), and after much waiting, my review has finally appeared in the current issue. I try not to be an “old media” snob, but there’s something about the TLS and its history that makes it pretty thrilling to see my name in its table of contents.

*OK, maybe not 100% typical – it looks like the new piece is coming through relatively unscathed, for instance! (Maybe I’m getting better at this?) But typical of sections that show fear. Never show fear in the shark tank – it’s like a faint trail of blood and they’ll always pick up on it!

Appearing Elsewhere: “Middlemarch and the ‘Cry From Soul to Soul'”

Dorothea_and_Will_LadislawAn essay I worked on during my sabbatical on faith and fellowship in Middlemarch has just been published in Berfrois. The general themes will not surprise any regular visitors to Novel Readings (or readers of my other essays on George Eliot, particularly my essay on Silas Marner in the Los Angeles Review of Books). In fact, the germ of this essay was a blog post I wrote years ago on George Eliot and prayer; ever since then I have wanted to expand those passing comments into a fuller reading of Middlemarch along those lines, and now I have!

I’ve also written about Middlemarch in a somewhat less consoling way, in my essay on the novel’s “miserable morality” at Open Letters Monthly.

February Reading: Open Letters Monthly and Vera Brittain

FoxTeaPhotoI’ve been so overwhelmed by winter (last night’s storm was another big one, but at least the 6 inches of fresh snow was of the light, powdery variety rather than the ice-encrusted kind!) that I almost forgot to give a shout-out to the new issue of Open Letters Monthly, which went up almost a week ago. I hope you have already checked it out. But if you haven’t, here are some teasers that I hope will entice you on over:

My brilliant colleague Alice Brittan writes on Norwegian phenomenon Karl Ove Knausgaard. I love reading Alice’s pieces: she wears her erudition so gracefully, yet there’s an intellectual severity that also keeps us on our toes: “When reviewers praise Knausgaard for liberating the novel — as though it were a rigid and relatively parochial form like a haiku or a villanelle— all I see is evidence of amnesia.”

Regular contributor and now, happily for us, our newest editor Robert Minto writes one of my favorite kinds of essays: a smart and heartfelt appreciation of a cherished classic, in his case John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress: “in my irreligious adulthood, the book remains one possession from my childhood secure against retrospective distaste.”

Fox Frazier-Foley writes about the “kitchen witchery” she learned from her remarkable grandmother, and about the ways women have always passed down much more than recipes as they shared their wisdom — and their sometimes scary, sometimes funny, ways of using food to get what they want, whether it’s revenge (beware the “Punish and Banish a Bully” brownies!) or love (“Engagement Chicken”!). I could use some “Let’s Be Friends Cobbler” right about now, actually.

There’s much more, as always, including 19th-century photography, a new series featuring literature from and about China, translations of Anna Karenina, and new poetry. Go take a look — and while you’re there, notice some of the renovations we are undertaking, including a new widget that shows related reading at the end of every new piece. We have a rich archive, and this is one way we hope to keep more of it in sight!

You may notice that once again there is nothing by me in the main Table of Contents. That’s not really by design: it’s more a matter of how I’ve been ordering my writing priorities, as well as a few external writing obligations I’ve had, including the forthcoming review for Belphegor that I mentioned here, the essay on Winifred Holtby and Virginia Woolf that ran in 3:AM Magazine, and, appearing just today, a small but, I hope, not trivial “listicle” on Vera Brittain for the website For Books’ Sake, for their regular “10 Reasons to Love” feature. I’ve also been trying to step up the pace of blogging here, as I had been missing the energy I get from writing exactly what I want, without worrying about guidelines or audiences or whatever else.

I’ve also, just by the way, written nearly 16,000 words of my book chapter. It is still very much in the shitty first draft phase, but 16,000 words that need a lot more work sure seems like progress over no words, even if my faith in the whole project wavers daily (sometimes hourly). I am so glad I signed up for Jo Van Every’s Meeting With Your Writing sessions: you wouldn’t think something so simple would make such a difference, but not only is the scheduled “meeting” a great motivator, but her prompts are pitched just right to help you get moving without feeling harrassed.

My Open Letters silence will be broken next month, however, as I will be reviewing Diana Souhami’s new novel Gwendolen. “Souhami has breathed fresh life into a classic in ways that will appeal to readers entirely unfamiliar with Eliot’s fiction,” promises (or threatens?) the blurb. But what about readers who are familiar with it? Let’s just say that so far this reader is … skeptical. It hasn’t helped that Souhami seems to have gone to the Brenda Maddox school of how to write about George Eliot, who appears, god help us, as a character in Gwendolen — but no more about that now! you’ll have to wait for my review. In the meantime, happy February reading!

Open Letters Monthly and Other December Reading


It’s up: another new issue, and this one is as wide-ranging but also as deep as any we’ve published in a while. A small sampling:

Sam Sacks on James Wood and the Fall of Man:

But Wood’s story works brilliantly if it is taken as just that, a story—if it is read conditionally and gleaned for the truths of a work of fiction. Wood personifies the novel; he sets it on a quest, as in a Bildungsroman. He puts it through a crisis of faith and then follows it past obstacles and blind alleys, through low periods of stasis, and into the fugitive joys of innovation and discovery. Most powerfully, he animates the novel with a very human desire: like Thomas Bunting, and like Wood himself, it seeks freedom—from the outdated customs of its upbringing and the fear of public disapproval. Most of all it looks to throw off the chains of self-consciousness, or, to borrow a description from his collection The Fun Stuff, to get away from “the overbearing presence of the self, the insistent internal volume of the self, the dunning inescapability of being who one is.”

Alice Brittan on Colm Tóibìn’s Nora Webster:

Like the painters he admires, Tóibín is devoted to revealing the interior life of the individual, the emotions and thoughts that people hide even from themselves and that you can only see by looking closely and for a very long time. He writes the calmest prose I know. There is nothing showy or grabby about his sentences, and his narrative structures are fairly straightforward. Yet no living writer seems wiser. Few are as moving. “You want plot, read the newspaper!” he said in a recent interview. Tóibín is more interested in the moment when the action stops, and in people who look forward to getting home, shutting the front door, and quietly thinking it all over.

Steve Donoghue on yet another biography of that ‘pestiferous little Corsican,’ Napoleon Bonaparte:

veteran biographer Andrew Roberts this book season has produced an 800-page biography of Napoleon Bonaparte, and the mere thought of such a thing, let alone the brick-solid reality of it, is an extravagant, almost insulting imposition on the carefully-rationed spare time of his readers. Bonaparte is one of the most exhaustively-studied people in history; in less than a decade, we’ve had gigantic one-volume biographies, gigantic two-volume biographiesgigantic reprints of earlier biographies, studies of the Russian campaignthe Egyptian campaign and dozens of other studies large and small. Bonaparte’s every move has been scrutinized, his every utterance parsed, his locks of hair CT-scanned as often as any Egyptian mummy; no matter how galling it might be for professional historians to admit, there are no substantial secrets remaining in his life.

Greg Waldmann on Leon Panetta’s unworthy Worthy Fights:

Just as Panetta writes himself as a cliché, many of the people he writes about become clichés, and most of his ideas are clichés, too. Political memoirs are often badly written, so in a sense this is no surprise. The genre, however, is a deformed species of apologetic literature, and the way in which these former leaders go about justifying themselves is usually revealing in other ways. George W. Bush’s Decision Points was like its author: Manichean and self-righteous, yet fundamentally insecure. Dick Cheney’s memoirs were contemptuous and not a little sinister. Donald Rumsfeld’s were combative and condescending, quarreling in end notes about semantic minutiae. Worthy Fights, like its author, is stultifyingly conventional, cozy in its Washington milieu, grinding on for page after page of received wisdom and unexamined assumptions about people and the role of American power in the world.

There’s much more equally interesting and worthy of your attention, on topics from Norman Mailer’s letters to contemporary Serbian fiction, from new poetry to the collected stories of Frank Herbert: I hope you’ll head over and explore for yourself. I’m represented this month only through my behind the scenes editing work and my contribution to our annual Year in Reading feature, where my comments about discovering that there’s Dorothy Dunnett beyond Lymond won’t surprise any regular readers of this blog.

kinghereafterI am, however, represented in a couple of other publications this month — one of which is actually Whispering Gallery, the journal of the Dorothy Dunnett Society, where my essay on King Hereafter is being reprinted. Whispering Gallery is available in hard copy only, to members of the Society. I’ve never been much of a joiner (I don’t even belong to the George Eliot Fellowship! and I’m just a little bit scared of the enthusiasm manifested by the members of the Jane Austen Society of North America …) but Whispering Gallery looks like it’s a lot of fun. The last issue included an article called “Jerott Blyth: Dashing Hero or Dumb Idealist?  Part 2,” for instance, which certainly got me thinking, not just about how I’d answer this question (“a bit of both,” maybe?) but also about how great it is that Dunnett has readers who care enough to make this a 2-part feature. (Lymond was just voted “Scotland’s favourite literary character,” by the way, which is as it should be.)

And you’ll also find my byline on an essay in 3:AM Magazine this month: “Sex, Style, and Sewage Farms: Winifred Holtby and Virginia Woolf.”

Woolf, of course, dominates our picture of early twentieth-century women writers: Holtby paid a price in prestige for her commitment to the kind of social realism Woolf eloquently dismissed in essays such as “Modern Fiction” or “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown.” Holtby’s novels offer us not the “luminous halo” of consciousness, but the materiality Woolf rejected as lifeless; to Woolf’s rhetorical question “Must novels be like this?” Holtby implicitly replies that at any rate they can be like this and still convey something important, that the “series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged” may reveal social patterns of genuine significance — not just artistically but politically.

It’s exciting to contribute to another great online journal, and also gratifying to see all that work I did on Brittain, Holtby, and the Somerville novelists bearing new fruit. I’m actually working on another short piece on Brittain for another site, so more about that when it goes live early in the New Year.