A Brief Return to Meta-Blogging

cassatI am perhaps in a blogging slump, not a reading slump, though it can be hard to tell the difference. There have been a lot of comments recently about blogging as a dying form, a remnant (and how odd this characterization seems, after all the flak bloggers used to — and still do — get from some quarters) of a more leisurely and reflective internet era. Because his is one of the first blogs I started reading and remains one of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking, Timothy Burke’s post about this has hit me the hardest. Why doesn’t he blog more often, he wonders? Among his reasons:

Readers swarm over everything now, stripping any writing down into a series of declarative flags that sort everyone into teams, affinities, objectives. There’s no appetite for difficult problems that can’t be solved or worked, or for testimonies that give us a window into a lived world. No pleasure in the prose itself, and thus none in the writing of it.

Like so many generalizations, especially those about social media and the internet, this one struck me as kind of true but also importantly not true, at least for “my” internet: I know for a fact that there are readers who do want that window, who do take pleasure in the prose and in writing it, who don’t want their world so emphatically (sometimes ruthlessly) divided into opposing teams. But he’s not wrong that things have changed out there (out here), or that the rapidity and the absolutism of a lot of online discourse makes it feel that “almost everyone is one day away from having someone paint a bullseye on them, deserving or otherwise.”

the_new_novelTim is not talking about book blogging, though, and there (here) I don’t think as much has changed–or, that things have gotten so bad–though I do notice a slowing down, a fading out, not across the board but certainly among some of the folks whose blogs and comments used to be steady sources of stimulation and conversation. That seems natural, though I really miss some of them: people move on, priorities change, the intrinsic rewards of something that has never (for the kind of bloggers I follow, anyway) been tied to extrinsic rewards can fade. The times have changed, in some scary and upsetting ways, and as a result people’s anxiety is high and, amidst the hubbub, their attention is scarce and precious. Other things rightly take precedent. The ebbing of energy is contagious, too: when posting diminishes and commenting declines, and bookish people quite understandably back away from (or just get overwhelmed on) Twitter, it gets harder to imagine who you are talking to when you contemplate writing up a post yourself.

I have felt all of this myself recently, in varying degrees, and that is one reason my posts have been less frequent lately. Looking back over my archive, I also realize how much momentum for my own earlier writing came from the excitement of discovering this new form and then advocating for it as an alternative form of scholarly communication. (There are 74 posts tagged ‘blogging’ here–now 75!) For various reasons, that specific impetus has subsided. A few years ago I wrote a couple of posts trying to take stock of where the reforming zeal about academic blogging that launched so many individual blogs and also sites like The Valve had gone. It was already clear then, in 2015, that the big transformation many of the keenest participants had hoped for was not going to happen. As Aaron Bady said then, “While we were hoping the profession would grow to include blogs, the world decided to shrink the profession”: it’s not just the blogs of a lot of brilliant young scholars that we’ve lost but also their presence in the academy. For those of us still who are still part of that particular world, the question of the professional value of blogging remains a vexed and unpredictable one. It certainly proved to be of no value to my career institutionally–though just because I no longer feel like advocating for it doesn’t mean I don’t still believe it should be considered a valuable part of the scholarly publishing ecosystem.

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Though right now I have lost interest in throwing posts against that particular wall to see if any of them stick, I haven’t lost my interest in the kind of blogging I actually started with in the first place, which was, after all, just writing–freely and in my own uninhibited voice–about books. Neither have a lot of the folks on my blogroll here or people whose blogs I follow through Feedly: they continue to be wonderful, if slightly diminished, sources of interesting, thoughtful, idiosyncratic bookish commentary. These blogs have never been about “hot takes” — the closest they come is sometimes weighing in on prize nominations or following the yearly Tournament of Books. If you got into blogging because you wanted to write about what you were reading, read about what other people were reading, and have a bit of discussion in both directions, I think (though my experience may not be representative, as it always depends on particulars) you might not feel things have changed all that much, at least in the spirit of the exercise. Twitter has changed how our conversations sometimes play out: some of the energy that once went into comments directly on posts has been diverted there, but except for the logistical challenge (Twitter is a very diffuse and fast-moving medium!), that doesn’t seem like a bad thing–except, I suppose, that it means the book talk intersects with the reasons people have for backing away from Twitter, which again becomes an obstacle.

macke woman readingI’m not really going anywhere in particular with this: I’m just thinking out loud in public, which is what having a blog lets me do! I also trusted (because it works every time I’m in a blogging slump) that if I actually started writing something, anything, here, things would start to turn around for me, because the process itself is a tonic. “It remains important to me to think: today, I might blog,” Tim says in his post, “And to think: I have a place to do it in.” This is very much still true for me. I do a lot of other writing (well, right now it doesn’t seem like a lot, but that’s a subject for another post, especially with a sabbatical coming up) but this is the one place where I can write entirely on my own terms: no rules, no assignments, no editors, no second-guessing, no need to know what it will add up to or if I can pitch it or where I can include it on my annual report. I cherish that writing experience; when I don’t get around to doing it for a while, whether it’s because I’m too busy at work or too tired and distracted or because I think I don’t have anything to say–then I really miss it. Putting things in words is clarifying, and when I’m not under pressure, it’s also fun. Maybe blogs are now internet dinosaurs, but what matters to me (in this as in so many things) is not whether the form is trendy or innovative but what the form enables. Also, lately I’ve been feeling a bit prehistoric myself: maybe form and content are just syncing up!

jemisinAs for the possibility of a reading slump, well, I have been reading quite a bit; I just haven’t been blogging about it, because (perhaps unsurprisingly) nothing since Lincoln in the Bardo has seemed worth much notice. I might do a ‘recent reading round-up’ type post next, just to clear the air, or I might wait and see how I do with The Fifth Season, which so far I am finding an odd balance of baffling (and thus off-putting) and gripping. Seasoned sci-fi readers assure me that if I press on, the estrangement will fade, the world-building will work its magic, and I will be on my way. We’ll see! In the meantime, at least I’ve reminded myself why I do this: because I like to.

“Multiplicity of the Self”: Kerry Clare, Mitzi Bytes

The problem with the multiplicity of the self — an idea that appealed to minds as wide-ranging as Virginia Woolf’s and Lolo’s, not to mention Cher’s — was that you never knew which part of you anybody was talking about. The problem with the multiplicity of the self was that there could be enough of you to get spread all over town.

I knew I wanted to read Mitzi Bytes as soon as I saw that it was being pitched as “a grown-up Harriet the Spy for the digital age.” Harriet the Spy was one of my favorite books as a child — though I discovered today that, to my dismay, I apparently no longer have my well-worn copy. I loved the premise of Mitzi Bytes: a pseudonymous blogger who gets “outed,” just as Harriet does, and then must disentangle herself from the consequences. And I knew I could trust Kerry Clare to tell a good story, one with wit and tenderness, but also with some bite, because these qualities are all on display at her excellent blog Pickle Me This, as well as in her conversations on Twitter, where we are what Sarah Lundy, the protagonist of Mitzi Bytes, might call “virtual friends.”

Mitzi Bytes did not disappoint: I enjoyed it from start to finish. Even better, I was interested in it, particularly in the questions it raises about voice, identity, and perception, and about how (or whether) we really know ourselves or each other. [Warning: though I’m not going to walk through the many entertaining twists of the plot, I’m also not going to avoid spoilers.] When the novel begins, Sarah believes that her identity is divided between the person she is “IRL” and the persona she inhabits on her blog:

Was Sarah Lundy Mitzi Bytes? She said she owned her words, but did she really? Once upon a time, Sarah had aspired to be Mitzi. She’d needed a life, so she’d invented one, and for a while, the two led the very same existence, one whose adventures she’d turned into stories because the stories were all that she had. But somewhere along the line, her two selves had diverged.

Sarah feels safe in her online anonymity because she assumes nobody she knows would recognize her in herself. But when her secret life is exposed, this comforting belief proves naive. Though some of the people in Sarah’s life have indeed been ‘Mitzi Bytes’ readers without identifying her, it turns out, for instance, that no pseudonym could hide her from her mother, and though her husband had no idea ‘Mitzi Bytes’ existed, Mitzi herself is perfectly familiar to him:

She said, “Do you hate me now?”

He said, “Because you’ve just revealed that you have a vicious streak, no compunction, are socially clumsy, and talk far too much about everybody else’s business?”

She said, “I guess so.” She got out from under his arm and moved away so she could see his face. . . .

“I didn’t know about the blog,” he said, “But I know you.”

And really, how could Sarah have so blithely imagined that her own voice would not speak for her, at least to those who knew what to listen for? What is a blog, after all, if not a kind of dramatic monologue in which, as always, character relentlessly reveals itself? “It was a world I recognized,” says one of Sarah’s friends after the story breaks and she reads the blog for the first time; “It was so totally you.”

Mitzi Bytes also highlights the impossibility of telling the story, rather than a story. Sarah believes that when writing as Mitzi she has only ever been honest, but as she hears from the people who became, unsuspectingly, her subjects, she is forced to acknowledge that being honest doesn’t preclude being partial. “I only ever said what I meant,” she writes in a belated apology, but the stories she told “only ever stood for a single side, a tiny sliver of a single side of that many-sided thing: The Entire Story. Life itself.” Her pseudonym freed her to describe “life the way I see it,” but it also shielded her from the obligation to consider how other people saw it, to weigh her own first-person narration against competing points of view. It is a narrative failure, in other words, with moral consequences, which the structure of Mitzi Bytes itself highlights as it alternates between Sarah’s plot (in 3rd person) and cleverly apposite samples from the ‘Mitzi Bytes’ archives. The blog posts are brisker and funnier than the ‘novel’ portions, but especially as we get to know the characters Mitzi blogs about, their skewering wit becomes increasingly uncomfortable, and it’s hard not to agree that Sarah’s angry friends have a point when they rail against her betrayal of their trust.

There’s a lot else that I appreciated about Mitzi Bytes, including its many deft literary allusions, from Harriet the Spy (the dumbwaiter!) to Unless (which I flatter myself I would have noticed even without a heads-up). I was also moved by its honest portrayal of Sarah’s struggle to retain her own sense of self after becoming a wife and mother. (For more about this topic, see the essay collection Kerry edited, The M Word.)

The aspect of Mitzi Bytes that I found most thought-provoking, though, was its treatment of blogging. “I just didn’t really see the point. Of blogs at all, basically,” Sarah’s husband Chris says to her as she’s making her confession to him about ‘Mitzi Bytes.’ Kerry wryly acknowledges that blogs are no longer the cutting edge medium they once were: “Blogs were for old people,” notes one of the teen-aged moms Sarah tutors, while her editor tells her bluntly that “Blogs aren’t big news anymore. Unless they’re dying.” Those of us who keep on blogging nonetheless do so for reasons that Kerry, via Sarah, does a good job explaining. Some of the anger directed at Sarah once she is outed as Mitzi comes from people not understanding the form or spirit of a blog and thus taking her posts as something more declarative than they are, or were ever intended to be. I think most bloggers would agree that a blog is always a work in progress, a place of intellectual exploration rather than definition. “To me,” Sarah-as-Mitzi writes,

this has always been the attraction of the blog, that it’s a place to record impressions of the innumerable atoms as they fall, to decipher the universe, assembling the chaos into a pattern of days, weeks, and years.

Blogging is open-ended in a way that allows for ongoing discovery: “the best posts,” as Sarah reflects,

began from a jumping-off point instead of with a careful route plotted on a map. Every time she posted, it was just a little bit an act of faith.

To me, that certainly sounds both familiar and true. I was thinking recently about why I’m not quite comfortable with calling my blog posts “reviews,” and that exploratory spirit is one reason. There are obligations in reviewing that, for me anyway, don’t exist for blogging, and while I craft and structure and revise reviews until they are just so, I usually start writing blog posts about books (including this one) with no specific plan except to reflect on my reading experience and see where it takes me. I relish that freedom, even though — or maybe because — it means the results are always a bit ragged or imperfect.

The division (however unstable) between Sarah’s “real” life and her blogged experiences also resonated with me, but in this case because my own experience of that split in identities is the reverse of Sarah’s. Because I blog under my own name, I have mostly avoided discussion of my personal life, for instance, including writing only occasionally and very selectively about my family and almost never about my friends. I think of ‘Novel Readings’ as a personal but also a public space, not a private one. Though I have certainly addressed some fraught issues (especially around my professional life) and some emotional ones, I think (though like Sarah, I may be deluding myself!) that by and large my online persona is better (more positive, more generous, more temperate) than I sometimes am offline. It’s not that my blog doesn’t represent who am I, but like ‘Mitzi Bytes,’ ‘Novel Readings’ represents only parts of who I am — the better parts, I usually think, though over the years there have certainly been slips. Though I can see the appeal of a blog where I could really let loose, as Sarah does when writing as Mitzi (and as some anonymous academic bloggers once did – remember “BitchPhD”?), I have come to appreciate the pressure to rise to my own standards here.

I think in a way that is the lesson of Mitzi Bytes— though I am reluctant to boil it down to anything that sounds so didactic: that you have to both own and live up to the person you are capable of being. By the end of the novel, the plot complications are mostly resolved but their emotional aftermath remains. Having to confront and then try, as best she can, to reconcile the different pieces of her life finally prompts Sarah to “show her face to the world” — her best face, if she can. It will be a work in progress, but this time an aspirational one, and of course, she’ll still “put it down in words,” because that remains the best way to find out what she means.

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.

This Week In My Classes: Here We Go Again, Again

januaryIt starts to feel as if I have written a lot of these ‘start of the term’ posts: I’ve used up every variation I can think of for titles! It’s in the nature of academic work to be cyclical, though, and on the bright side, this term I am doing one all-new course, so at least you can look forward to some novelty in my teaching posts!

This Week In My Classes‘ was one of the first regular series I started up on Novel Readings. The very first was ‘Books About Books‘ – and there aren’t really any others, except, sort of, my book club updates. Otherwise, as I’ve observed before, for better or for worse I pretty much just write about whatever I’m reading, or whatever else is on my mind about either literary or academic / professional topics. It’s interesting (to me at least) that reading and teaching so quickly took on equal importance here: that’s actually what I was thinking about as I contemplated this post, more than any specifics about this week’s class meetings (though I’ll say a bit about those in a bit). I didn’t know anything about blogging when I began doing it, so I didn’t know there was such a thing as “academic blogging” or “book blogging” — or “mommy blogging” or anything else. As a result, I really didn’t have a plan, except to post some updates about reading I could share with friends and family when they asked what I’d been reading lately and if I had any recommendations. (I’ve written at some length about the transformation in my reading, writing, and scholarly life that ensued: if you’re reading this post, you probably don’t need to hear any more about it anyway! I’ll probably make a few remarks around my anniversary, though.)

cassatI’ve sometimes wondered if I should have had a plan, or developed one, in order to give Novel Readings a more definite identity. In the decade since I launched this blog, I’ve seen quite a lot of articles or posts giving advice on blogging, and the key to success is apparently having a mission, or filling a specific niche — along with posting on a regular (and frequent) schedule, and keeping your posts under 1000 words. (Hey, I’m 0 for 3!) I do think the hybrid identity of Novel Readings — which is not really, or at least not just, a book blog, and not really, or not altogether, an academic blog — has probably limited its appeal, because for some bookish people there’s no doubt too much academic stuff here, while for some academics, there’s too much book talk (or, too much book talk that’s not sufficiently academic).

But because I didn’t have a plan, or a purpose, Novel Readings evolved based only on what I wanted to write about. That I still want to write it is, for me, the surest sign that on my terms, it has been successful. I think this is true of all of the bloggers I follow, in fact: we blog because we like the activity itself (including both the writing and the community and conversations we’ve found through the comments). After my very first year of blogging about my teaching, I wrote about how valuable I’d found the experience. If I didn’t like doing it, I could have just stopped: my blog, my terms! And that could still happen — but it hasn’t yet.

bleakhouseoupSo: what’s up for this winter term? Something old and something new. I’m doing another iteration of 19th-Century British Fiction (Dickens to Hardy), beginning, this week, with Bleak House, which I haven’t taught (or read) since 2013. I was so sad to read Hilary Mantel identifying Dickens as the most overrated author: “The sentimentality, the self-indulgence, the vast oozing self-satisfaction, the playing to the gallery.” Them’s fightin’ words, even from a writer I admire as much as Mantel. I’ve never written anything more formal than a blog post about Dickens: 2017 might be the year that changes.

My other course this term (and how lucky I feel, to have just two!) is my new intro class, Pulp Fiction. So far we’ve just been warming up, but next week we start our unit on Westerns, which means I have been busy putting my miscellaneous notes in order for an introductory lecture, after which we read some short stories and then launch into Valdez is Coming. I just read through the first batch of reading journals (about Lawrence Block’s twisty little crime story “How Would You Like It?”) and it looks like a good group.

On Having and Earning Critical Authority

IMG_3141I don’t want to leave the impression that frustration with the rigidity of academic practices is all I took away from my Louisville conference experience. There was definitely value for me in the work I put into my own paper, as well as in hearing and discussing the papers my co-panelists presented. So I thought I’d follow up my previous post with a sketch of the questions I went to Louisville to talk about.

My paper was called “Book Blogging and the Crisis of Critical Authority.” During the discussion after our papers, all of the panelists agreed that things have died down since the days when you could hardly turn around without seeing yet another “bloggers ruin everything” article. A few diehards still take every opportunity to decry the temerity of feckless amateurs who think they can just go online, say whatever they want, and call themselves “critics” (I’m looking at you, William Giraldi), but by and large (as Dan’s paper convincingly argued) the success of many serious web magazines has proven that online criticism can be as good as if not better than its old media competition, and book blogs in all their idiosyncratic variety are now a familiar, if not always respected, feature of the critical landscape.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s conspicuously temperate “Critic’s Manifesto” was one sign of the changing times; in it he acknowledged (as so many of his professional colleagues would not) the existence of “serious longform review-essays by deeply committed lit bloggers.” Mendelsohn did still conclude that “everyone is not a critic”; he cites “expertise and authority” as crucial qualifications (“knowledge … was clearly the crucial foundation of the judgment to come”) along with a more ineffable quality that he sums up as “taste” (“whatever it was in the critic’s temperament or intellect or personality that the work in question worked on“). Though he concedes that the requisite knowledge does not depend on formal credentials such as Ph.D.s, he does ultimately describe the critic’s job as being “to educate and edify” — so, it’s still a top-down or hierarchical model.

ao scottMendelsohn’s article was one of the sources I cited in my paper, in which I explored some questions about what we mean by “critical authority.” As he notes, once you move outside the academy degrees are neither a necessary nor a sufficient measure of the relevant expertise. But it’s not easy to pin down what does count, how authority is established, especially in a field of inquiry where there are no sure or absolute standards of judgment. Literary critics know that their authority is unstable because the history of criticism teaches us how judgments change over time, while simple experience shows us how much they differ among individuals. We can call variant assessments “gaffes” or “errors in individual taste,” as Mendelsohn does in his recent New York Times review of A. O. Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism, but he can’t actually prove that “early and wince-inducing takedowns of John Keats’s poetry, [or] of “Moby-Dick” are flat-out wrong any more than I could convince my Modernist colleagues that George Eliot is objectively a better novelist than James Joyce. Still, the rhetoric of criticism as well as its traditional methods of delivery typically seek at least the appearance of offering definitive judgments. As Sebastian Domsch argues in his interesting essay about ways the internet transforms critical genres, criticism has typically attempted to be and sound “monologic,” as if “everything that needed to be said has been said and there are no more follow-up questions possible.”

One reason blogging aroused such hostility, I proposed, was that it exposed the artifice of this model, and indeed of any idea of literary criticism as a series of edicts issued from on high, leaving critics themselves exposed, not as frauds, but as less authoritative than they pretended to be. As Mendelsohn says in his review of Scott, “the advent of the Internet” has “rais[ed] still further questions about authority, expertise and professionalism”; I argued that it has done so by breaking down monologic forms and exposing the inherently dialogic nature of both critical judgments and critical authority. Domsch defines “critical authority” as “the level of acceptance that is conceded by a reader to an aesthetic value judgment”: I think he is right to emphasize that this kind of authority is not inherent in the speaker but conferred by context and audience. In my paper I drew on Wayne Booth’s notion of “coduction” to make the case for the importance of dialogue in developing critical judgments, and I pointed to blogging as a form that establishes “follow-up questions” as both a natural and an inevitable part of criticism.

MendelsohnBarbariansIf critical authority is not something you simply have but something you have to earn and maintain by your own participation in a dialogue — if it is best understood not so much as a top-down assertion of superiority (“the critic’s job,” Mendelsohn proposes in his recent review, “is to be more educated, articulate, stylish, and tasteful … than her readers have the time or inclination to be”) but as a process of establishing yourself as someone whose input into an ongoing conversation is sought and valued — that helps explain why “expertise” is such a tricky thing to define for a critic. Mendelsohn’s original formal training is as a classicist — despite his wide-ranging erudition and critical prestige, he would almost certainly not qualify for an academic position in any other field — but obviously he has written with considerable insight on a wide range of subjects, from Stendhal to Mad Men. That so many of us read Mendelsohn’s criticism with interest and attention no matter what he writes about is a sign that we have come to trust him, not as the last word on these subjects, but as someone who will have something interesting (“meaningful,” to use one of his key terms) to say about them. If we disagree with him, we are not challenging his authority but continuing the conversation — and in fact one thing I’ve been thinking a lot about is how little disagreement really matters to this kind of critical authority. If what we go to criticism for is a good conversation, then engaged disagreement can be seen as a sign of authority — a sign that you care enough about the critic’s perspective to tussle with it, if you like. I can think of a number of critics in venues from personal blogs to the New Yorker whose views I would not defer to, but which I want to know because they provoke me to keep thinking about my own readings — which (however definitive the rhetoric I too adopt in my more formal reviewing) I always understand to be provisional, statements of how something looked to me in that moment, knowing what I knew then, caring about what I cared about then.

boothcompanyI’m not saying we can’t or shouldn’t defend our critical assessments, but awash as we are and always have been in such a variety of them, it would be naively arrogant at best and solipsistic at worst to imagine ourselves as “getting it right,” no matter who we are or where we publish. Blogging very often reflects that open-endedness in its tone, and its form is based on just the process Booth describes as “coduction”:

‘Of the works of this general kind that I have experienced, comparing my experience with other more or less qualified observers, this one seems to me among the better (or weaker) ones, or the best (or worst). Here are my reasons.’ Every such statement implicitly calls for continuing conversation: ‘How does my coduction compare with yours?’

The comment box makes that implicit call explicit. This doesn’t mean “erudition, taste and authority” (the qualities Mendelsohn repeatedly invokes) don’t matter — though the extent to which they matter will depend on what you want from criticism. Domsch argues, for instance, that Amazon reviewing ultimately returns us to the most monologic form of criticism: people seek out, or are steered to (by algorithms, ‘like’ buttons and so on) the reviewer whose views and tastes are closest to their own, and once they find their “virtual” critical self, their critical proxy, as it were, they have found their perfect authority, a guarantor of their own well-established tastes. But Amazon is fundamentally about shopping. If you read criticism for some reason other than deciding which book to buy next, you are likely to look for and concede authority to different qualities. In my paper I noted that I don’t want to be told about books — I want to talk about books. So sympathetic as I am with most of what Mendelsohn says, I resist his insistence on the critic’s superiority as a necessary or structural part of the relationship.

The result of accepting, rather than resisting, the challenge blogging poses to old-fashioned critical forms is, I argued, not a catastrophically relativistic criticism of the kind Peter Stothard dreaded but a pluralistic criticism, such as that described by Carl Wilson in Let’s Talk About Love:

a more pluralistic criticism might put less stock in defending its choices and more in depicting its enjoyment, with all its messiness and private soul tremors — to show what it is like for me to like it, and invite you to compare. This kind of exchange takes place sometimes on the internet, and it would be fascinating to have more dialogic criticism: here is my story, what is yours?

I’d be very interested to know what you think about this argument, particularly about my proposal to redefine “critical authority” in a more reciprocal and context-dependent way than the anti-bloggers always do. What makes a critic “authoritative” to you? Or is “authority” not something you think or care about? If it isn’t, how would you explain what makes a critic someone you want to listen to or engage with? Are there critics you pay attention to because their taste (I might prefer the term “sensibility” myself) reflects yours, or because they push you to less familiar points of view? Does disagreeing with a critic make you doubt them, or does it depend on the critic, or the context? More generally, what do you want from criticism, and how do you think that affects where you read it and who you listen to?

The first picture here is one I took of the Big Four Bridge across the Ohio River from Louisville to the Indiana side. It was a really nice walk across and back!

 

This Week in ‘Not My Sabbatical Any More’

eggMy sabbatical actually ended officially on June 30. I marked the transition with my week’s vacation in Vancouver, and returned to Halifax ready to get back to “regular” work. It’s summer, of course, which means I’m still not teaching, but there’s definitely been a shift in my attitude, attention, and priorities.

For one thing, the fall term is no longer a distant possibility: now it’s a looming reality! So I’ve started drafting syllabi and organizing Blackboard sites. The former is always fun (because it’s both creative and optimistic), while the latter usually has me cursing within the first 15 minutes. I’m incorporating a blog into my graduate seminar, too, and so I’m setting up a WordPress site for that class as well. (Yes, Blackboard now has “blog” options, but one of the points of blogs is that they are not inside boxes. Even though I’m keeping the site private — at least to start with — working in WordPress at least feels more like actual blogging, and one of my goals is to help my students get more comfortable with the possibility of writing where other people can see them. Usually even writing where other students can see them causes a bit of anxiety at first.)

As preparation for the new teaching term, I’ve also been doing some housekeeping: sorting through my file cabinets, recycling redundant or outdated course materials in old teaching folders and properly sorting and filing what remains; archiving hard copies of grade sheets and course evaluations; and generally trying to put things in order. I keep things reasonably organized anyway (at least judging from the stacks of papers and folders visible on some of my colleagues’ floors and bookshelves — though presumably their “system” works for them) but it was a bit surprising to realize how much miscellaneous paper I still had around to deal with.

Another motivation for getting my paperwork sorted is that after much wavering and soul-searching I decided that after 20 years at Dalhousie it was time to put in my application for promotion to Professor. I earned tenure and promotion to Associate Professor back in 2000. It’s actually up to me entirely whether I ever seek another promotion, but it’s tacitly expected that we are all working with that ambition in mind. I’ve been puzzling about how much, if at all, to talk about this here. I think it’s best that I stay away from specifics, both of the case I’m making and of how the application seems to be going, at least until it’s all over. It’s a long, rigorous, and carefully orchestrated process involving every administrative level of the two universities where I am a faculty member (Dalhousie and the University of King’s College — please don’t ask me to explain the relationship, or the complexities of my joint appointment!) as well as external reviewers from at least four other universities. I won’t know the final outcome of my application, one way or the other, until next May, though I suppose I’ll have had some strong hints in the meantime. It will feel strange to keep fairly quiet about something that is going to preoccupy me mentally for months, but I think that talking about the specifics in public might come across as unprofessional, especially to those scrutinizing my file who aren’t accustomed to the relative openness of social media.

cassatI will say, though, just generally, that I am citing Novel Readings as part of my case, and that I am including it in my research dossier alongside my more conventional scholarship. (My teaching and service contributions are the other two major components of the application.) Where or how to “count” blogging in tenure and promotion cases has been much discussed online of course, and I reread a lot of articles and blog posts — including some of my own — on this topic before making up my mind about how I wanted to present Novel Readings. I was ultimately guided, of course, by departmental and faculty regulations. One of the most important tasks for me this month has been writing up a cover letter and research statement to explain and justify not just the blogging component of my file but also the other online writing I’ve been doing. This has been pretty challenging, mostly because there is so much I want to say but I have limited space to say it in. The other rhetorical challenge is to be assertive without sounding defensive, even though I would be a fool not to expect some skeptical responses. I think (hope) I have found the right tone as well as the right key points to make. I guess I’ll find out!

The other parts of the application are demanding in much more mundane ways. I had to compile a folder of every one of my course outlines, for example, which is one sure way to discover that your filing has not been 100% scrupulous over the years. I need to include a list of every class I’ve ever taught and its actual enrollment, and a table of all my numerical scores on course evaluations next to the departmental mean — I am very fortunate that our office administrator, who is helping me with all this, is fabulously competent, efficient, and also very kindhearted, which means almost more than anything else when you’re doing something that inevitably makes you feel exposed and vulnerable. (“It’s like taking your clothes off in public,” I said to her plaintively the other day, “and at my age, too!”)

I was warned that putting this file together was a big job, and it definitely is: it’s most of what I have been doing, really, since the beginning of July. It has been surprisingly interesting in some ways: even gathering my old course outlines has prompted some reflections on what has changed and what has stayed the same in my pedagogy since 1995. Still, I’m glad that my part of it is almost over: I should be able to turn everything in next week, and then, for me, it’s all about the waiting. And it’s also back to the teaching prep, and on with the writing — I’ve got three book reviews on my to-do list in the short term, plus a guest post for another blog, and I have some essay ideas that I’d like to solidify, before term begins and before the momentum I’d built up during my sabbatical fades away entirely.

Some Afterthoughts on Academic Blogging

escher12Some follow-up comments on academic blogging, prompted by comments on my previous post here and on Twitter. My main take-away at this point is that there are a number of further refinements that matter to any attempt at generalizing. Here are the ones I’ve been thinking about the most so far:

1. Disciplinarity makes a difference. I was thinking and writing about blogging in “literary studies,” which is what Holbo’s early posts focus on as well as where my own main interests and attention are. I don’t know as much about other fields, but some people suggested that blogging may have gained more ground as a recognized academic activity in other fields (such as history) than it has in English — or perhaps that English, precisely because it is such a vast and scattered “field” to begin with, is less likely to cohere around common conversations (or new models). As Nicholas commented, “the breadth of specialization is just too scattered, much as the whole notion of literature is itself diffuse”; that diversity can be seen as one of the field’s great strengths, but it also guarantees a degree of chaos that makes reform elusive. Nicholas proposes that blogging has taken greater hold in some of the sciences; Robert suggests that “philosophy (and to that I would add economics, sociology, and anthropology) has a thriving world of blogs.” I’m interested in just what “thriving” means. From some perspectives, English has a world of blogs too, if you look at individual blogs (including group blogs), but in terms of the place blogging has in the way the discipline understands and organizes itself professionally, my impression is that in the larger context of academic literary studies, blogging remains a fringe activity.

I have also been thinking that blogging in literary studies may be more likely than blogging in other fields to merge with other forms of non-academic writing — because our main objects of study and analysis are the subject of a lot of commentary by a wider bookish culture (from the NYRB to the vast array of book blogs that have no academic connections or aspirations). The impulse that led some literary academics into blogging may now have led them (or may now be leading others) into writing for sites like Public Books or the Los Angeles Review of Books instead of sustaining individual blogs.

2. Jobs and the job market make a difference. A lot of the most exciting bloggers I followe(ed) — including a number of my Valve colleagues — were graduate students when they started blogging. The energy that went into this new enterprise was tied up with hopes about how the profession might change as they entered it, but, as Aaron Bady ruefully commented on Twitter, “While we were hoping the profession would grow to include blogs, the world decided to shrink the profession.” Questions about whether blogging is (or could be) valuable to academic scholarship in principle need to be carved off from questions about whether blogging is (or was) a good option for those aspiring to enter the profession. I don’t think the two questions are unrelated: whether writing a blog makes it easier or harder for someone to become a full-time academic is bound up in how the profession works — what it values, what it rewards. I have written about some of the pragmatic questions before. In my last post (and a number of my other posts on blogging) I address mostly the principled ones: is blogging something we need as a profession (or, because I know that those securely within the academy are not by any means the sum of those in literary studies, as a community of scholars)? what can it do for us, what has it done for us, where has that energy gone? I have always acknowledged that I am fortunate to be able to persist in my own experiments in non-traditional publishing — to be an academic in my own way — because I have the security of tenure. I have also noted that people in my position need to be advocates for those who take the same risks without the same protections. It’s a big world, though, and attitudes change slowly. It would be wrong not to recognize that however strong a case might be made for academic blogging in theory, in practice some great scholar-bloggers may have lost faith in it because they realized that it was not helping (and may even have been hurting) their professional prospects. (I don’t think it has helped mine, but again, it’s up to me to decide how much I care, else what’s tenure for?) So I would add … 

3. Hope makes a difference. Starting an academic blog, as was pointed out to me by someone off-line, is a pretty optimistic gesture, not just about your work but about your career. Sustaining it takes more than just persistence (not to mention time that could, always, be used for other things). It also takes faith — faith in the value of your work, in your voice, and in your vision of the academy.

4. National frameworks make a difference. A few people pointed out that in the U.K., there seems to be pretty strong interest in blogging, partly because of the new emphasis on “impact” in evaluating research. This is clearly an equivocal blessing, as we discussed on Twitter. Requiring everyone to blog hardly seems right: it’s not a form that suits every one, or every project, and expectations are far too likely to be additive (blog as well as maintaining a stellar record of conventional publications!). Assessing impact is also a tricky business. It would be awful to be judged on the basis of “hits”: we all know that the internet rewards bad behavior, sensationalism, extreme positions, and adorable kitten pictures! We would never ask how many times a peer-reviewed book had been checked out of the library before giving it credit for a tenure or promotion application — and yet when I have asked here about how I might make the case for blogging as part of such an application, I’ve been encouraged to stress exactly such quantitative metrics. I’d be interested to know what my British friends have experienced when they’ve included blogs as part of their scholarly profile. The absence of peer-review is often the first objection raised to counting blogs as academic publications: are we any closer to establishing alternative measures of quality?