The Calm (?) Before the Term

Bluhm PergolaMy fall classes start exactly three weeks from today. I’m pretty well prepared already: both of them are repeat offerings, so although I have changed up the readings (quite significantly, in the case of Women and Detective Fiction, and just a bit in Pulp Fiction) I’m not starting from scratch in terms of either course concepts or course materials. I have been working on the syllabi, schedules, and Brightspace sites off and on for a while, because that’s the kind of task I don’t like to do in a rush and also because when other things I’m working on start to feel too amorphous, it is a relief to do a concrete task that can then be crossed off my to-do list. There’s only so much you can do in advance, though, I find, or you sap the first class meetings of the spontaneity that gives them energy.

I am well aware that I use class preparation as both procrastination and comfort in the summer. I’ve written before about the way my mood often slumps in this season, and though it has been better overall this year — thanks in part to the work but also fun of preparing for and then attending the George Eliot conference in July — I have still sometimes felt the same dreary listlessness coming over me. One factor this summer has been that I haven’t been able to settle into a writing project that excites me. I have nobody to blame for this but myself, which just makes me feel worse about it! I have been experiencing crippling indecision about what to write — a strange inability to commit to any project beyond the immediate demands of whatever book I’m currently reviewing. That I have not been finding reviewing very rewarding recently only compounds the problem. I have really enjoyed some of the books I’ve been assigned over the past couple of years, but this year, not so much; also, I have been finding the space constraints I’m typically working within frustrating, although of course if the book I’m writing about is not particularly exciting it is a relief not to have to spin 2000 or more words about it.

inlandI thought it might help to write for some places that do run longer pieces, so I wrote a review “on spec” for one such venue but they didn’t want it–in the end it maybe wasn’t a great fit with the place I sent it, although the book I chose (Téa Obreht’s Inlandis getting a lot of coverage, as I anticipated it would. I suppose I could (should?) keep trying to branch out. It’s a bit frustrating to feel I’m still relatively invisible as a critical presence, even after writing regularly for the TLS for 4 years, but then except for the piece I wrote on the Lymond Chronicles in 2017 I haven’t really had much room to stretch out there and show what I (think I) can do. I suppose here too I have only myself to blame, though it’s hard to think of what I could do in 600 words that would be particularly notable. There was recently a letter to the editor about one of my TLS reviews–a sort-of correction about an implication (not even a direct statement) in an “In Brief” review of a scholarly book about malaria and 19th-century fiction. That is its own kind of irksome, especially considering there’s basically never been any feedback or conversation around anything else I’ve published there.

Anyway, the question that has been much on my mind is, if not (only) reviews, then what? I am running out of time to answer that question this summer, never mind to have any significant result to show for it. The possibilities go round and round in my head (and in my notes). I can’t even decide whether it makes more sense to just work hard on something and then worry about where I might try to publish it or to focus on a particular publication, or type of publication, and then work up the kind of piece that seems likely to fit there. I am thin-skinned about rejections so it is hard to motivate myself to write towards uncertainty rather than a definite goal, but I’m also terrible at pitching. Further, my sense of pacing has been confused by the years I’ve spent doing writing that can be conceived of, executed, and published in a fairly short time; if I’m not working to a fairly immediate publication deadline I feel unproductive, but writing for and then submitting to the kinds of places I think I might like to appear in requires both confidence and patience.

Arcimbolo LibrarianThis is why I keep returning to class prep! It’s so straightforward, and after all, it does have to get done. Maybe I should think of it this way: the better prepared I am for the term, the more likely it is that I can keep working on some kind of writing project even after classes start. My colleagues and I often talk about the way teaching expands to fill however much time you can (or are willing to) give it: this is something we advise TAs and junior colleagues to guard against. Good, detailed course planning is part of a strategy for achieving better balance between my various professional obligations; it’s not just a diversionary tactic when your other commitments are getting you down. Right? RIGHT?!

I do have some time left, though, before the day-to-day demands of teaching become pressing, as they inevitably will, and I am determined not to spend it all fretting and second-guessing myself. I have one review underway (my mixed feelings about the book lie behind some of my current angst about the reviewing process) and a couple of other things I particularly want to wrestle into shape, not as finished pieces but as plans, before September. One of these is the work I was doing during my sabbatical on Woolf’s The Years and related questions about the “social” novel. I felt really good while I was reading and thinking about that material but so far I haven’t figured out what to do with it. Three weeks: that’s enough time, surely, to do at least that much, especially if I stop brooding and complaining. Here goes!

 

Recent Reading: the Good, the Bad, and the OK

Image result for the walworth beautyOver the past week I read three novels. Only one, Michele Roberts’s The Walworth Beauty, was for a review! The short version: it’s fine. Some things about it are very good, but overall I wasn’t that excited about it. I’m starting to feel I’ve read enough neo-Victorian novels. This has never been my favorite genre in any case, but it is (for obvious reasons) a reasonable one for me to pitch or be assigned for reviewing. As a result, over the past year or so, I’ve read (and reviewed) Steven Price’s By Gaslight, Dan Vyleta’s Smoke, Graeme Macrea Burnet’s His Bloody Project, Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children, Lesley Krueger’s Mad Richard, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, and now The Walworth Beauty. I’m never 100% sure what makes a novel ‘ne0-Victorian’ instead of just ‘set in the 19th century’; if I use the broader category, Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder would also count, as would Dinitia Smith’s The Honeymoon and Diana Souhami’s Gwendolen. Some of these have been really good, but there’s a certain sameness to a lot of them–a palpable restraint in the prose, for instance, a lot of short sentences, an artful absence of sentimentality, or indeed any extremes of overt emotion. Sometimes this style works beautifully, but often it leaves me hungry for the qualities I love in novels from, rather than about, the Victorian period. I think this feeling that modern incarnations of the period are somewhat stifled artistically is starting to affect my judgment of individual examples–which is one reason I’m happy that my next couple of writing projects take me in completely different directions.

Image result for we have always lived in the castleFor my book club, I read Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. What a treat that was. It’s like a perverse inside-out fairy tale. In our discussion of it, we got particularly interested in the way it destabilizes our sympathies. There’s the initial instinct to side with the narrator, which of course quickly turns out to be a mistake, except that she is being persecuted–though not unfairly, since after all, she is a murderer.  Jackson evokes the horror of mob violence as well here as she does in “The Lottery”: the scene that begins with the fire chief throwing the first stone unfolds in an equally horrifying way–except that at least one of the targets is in no way an innocent victim, and later on, some of the villagers seem to be horrified, in their turn, at what they’ve done. We puzzled over Merricat’s motivation, or rather, over whether she has one, for killing her family. The suggestion seems to be that she didn’t much like being sent to her room without dinner, or in any way being thwarted or crossed. So the murders may be the act of a vengeful narcissist, a spoiled brat gone rogue. On the other hand, maybe there is no reason, which in its own way is even scarier. It’s a brilliantly written little book. I was hooked from the first paragraph, which is a perfect combination of whimsy and menace:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

There’s so much else going on, from the intimations of magic to Constance’s cloistered virtue to the predatory character of Cousin Charles — it’s a lot of twisted fun, and followed even better than expected on our last book, Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress, especially the story “Torching the Dusties.” Our next pick is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes, which carries on the theme of women acting in uncanny ways.

I expected Sarah MacLean’s The Day of the Duchess to be a lot of fun too, but I really didn’t enjoy it and ended up skimming the last third or so of it just to get to the end. I have liked some of MacLean’s romances a lot, including The Rogue Not Taken, the first one in this series, but this book tilted too far towards the “feels” for me: it’s all angst and yearning, without any frolicking. I’m not necessarily saying it isn’t well done. It’s just that my own taste in romance tilts instead towards comedy. Also, more than I remember noticing in MacLean’s books before, The Day of the Duchess is full of the kind of writing that seems meant to force feelings on you, rather than allow you to arrive at your own reactions–lots of fragments, and lots of single line paragraphs, devices which to me almost always backfire: rather than increasing the impact of the line, they make it seem artificial, especially if the trick is used over and over again. I’ve been trying to think if there are any consistently serious romances that I really like. Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm is the only one I can come up with. Blame my inner cynic, which, as I’ve said before, makes me accept an HEA only if it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

I’ve picked Arnaldur Indridason’s Arctic Chill to read next. It suits the weather we’ve had this holiday weekend: two days of dark clouds and heavy rain, and cold and damp enough that I’m in slippers with the heat on, down in my basement office.

Summer Plans: The Risks and Rewards of Reviews

The jet lag has lifted and I’m settling back into my routines after my trip to Vancouver–my first real vacation away since July 2015. And even so, it was hard to keep work obligations entirely at bay: a very late paper arrived at 10 p.m. the night before I left and had to be dealt with a.s.a.p.; proofs for a forthcoming review appeared in my inbox a few days along and threw me into a panic until I got reassurance that the corrections could wait until I got back; and a book for another review was my reading material on my way home–although that was my decision, and the book in question (Adam Sternbergh’s The Blinds) isn’t particularly hard work. I don’t really mind: porous boundaries are a small price to pay for the autonomy and flexibility I enjoy at this stage of my career, and there was certainly plenty of work-related business I simply ignored until today, when the Victoria Day holiday too is past.

Now that it is today, though, it’s time to get sorted for the summer. As previously mentioned, my first task is sort of a meta-project, in which this post is a very preliminary step: I want to take some dedicated time to plot out a more deliberate trajectory than I have followed for the last couple of years. It’s not that I’m dissatisfied with what I’ve accomplished: despite the still-embittering lessons of my promotion denial, I have no regrets or second thoughts about where I have been putting my energy or how I have been using my expertise. I certainly have at no point since the bad news felt inclined to rededicate myself to conventional academic publishing. I don’t set myself against it as an enterprise in toto, and I might yet decide that a project I’m interested in is best suited to publication in that form for that audience, but I have long believed that we produce not only enough of such scholarship but too much of it–too much too fast, at any rate, for us to keep up with it ourselves, or to assert its value with any confidence–and so as a profession we can and should spare some of our “HQP” to go and do otherwise.

My version of “otherwise” has so far included a range of essays on Victorian fiction aimed at a non-specialist audience (though not, I have always hoped and often found, lacking in interest for specialists as well); a website and e-book of supporting materials for book clubs reading Middlemarch; this blog, which includes commentary on academia and especially on teaching along with its posts on books and literary culture; and a fair number of book reviews in a widening array of venues. One of the things I’m specifically thinking about right now is what, if any, parameters to set on that last category, especially because for the last year or so I have pretty much always had at least one review underway at all times, and when work is otherwise busy that’s about as much “extra” attentive reading and writing as I can manage. Given that even short reviews still take me several concentrated days, I could almost certainly fill up most of this summer with them if I accepted or sought out all the possible opportunities — but should I?

One reasonable answer is, “Why not?” One pragmatic reason to review as much as I can in as many publications as will have me is that doing so builds both my skills and my “brand” as a reviewer. I get valuable experience, and I gain the kind of credibility as a critic that my academic resume does not earn me outside the ivory tower. At least as important–maybe more–is that I really like the work. It is more intellectually stimulating than I would have thought before I tried it, and more creative: for every book you have to find the story to tell, the tilt to hold it at so you can see it clearly but by your own lights. The different genres of reviewing add a further challenge: the more expansive 2000 (or more) word review-essay we typically run at Open Letters Monthly makes different demands, and allows for different kinds of fun, than a more pointed review of 300, or 700, or even 1000 words. I have already learned a lot about both books and criticism from practicing in these different forms, and I enjoy feeling that I’m getting better at it. (I have also learned even greater respect for those who do it much more frequently and fluently than I!) 

I also like the scale and scope of the work. Each assignment (whether I choose it myself or it is set by another editor) comes with known parameters and a deadline, a finite structure that suits my temperament. There can certainly be stress involved, especially before I know what my angle will be and then as I try to shape my ideas into my allotted space in a way that satisfies me and doesn’t (to my eyes, at least) sacrifice nuance or particularity. As I get more experience, however, my confidence grows, so that now I recognize those messy earlier stages as a necessary phase before I chip away and refine, leaving something as clear and expressive as I can make it. There’s a lot of satisfaction in successfully completing a piece of writing with such a specific mission and then moving along to the next one.

I have also appreciated the way reviewing has expanded my reading, particularly when the books are suggested by other editors rather than hand-picked by me to suit my own known tastes and sensibilities. I would point, for example, to the increase in Canadian titles I have read since taking on some commissions for Quill & Quire and, more recently, Canadian Notes and Queries, though the best example of a writer I would probably never have discovered on my own but loved would be David Constantine. Here, however, is also where the advantages of reviewing shade into the disadvantages: for every David Constantine or Danielle Dutton or Sarah Moss, there’s another writer whose books I would not be bereft to have missed — though of course you can’t know that until you’ve tried them. “Most books aren’t very good,” one experienced reviewer once said to me, and now that I do more reading on demand (though not nearly as much as he does!) and somewhat less just for myself, I understand much better what he meant. There’s a certain resignation every full-time reviewer must feel on opening up the next cover without any expectation of greatness. Of course, that makes it all the more delightful when a book exceeds expectations — which in turn probably accounts for the effusive praise books that are pretty good but not that good sometimes seem to get. For a reviewer who reads, perforce, a lot of mediocre titles, the relief no doubt results in some disproportionate enthusiasm.

So one risk of doing more reviewing is having to read a fair number of books that may not be that good or may not really reward the effort it takes to say something interesting about them. This is not the case when working with George Eliot, whose worst books are still more worthwhile than many writers’ best. Another risk is that the temptation of doing these neatly finite pieces makes it harder to commit to longer-term or more open-ended ones: the immediacy of the next deadline becomes the perfect excuse for putting off what might be harder but ultimately richer writing projects. I said before that I would like to get back to writing more essays–I don’t mean just reviews that are more essayistic, but essays that range and explore literary ideas in a different way. I would like to push my limits and increase my fluency in that genre as well, but I feel as if I have lost my nerve when it comes to proceeding towards an idea that isn’t justified by a specific occasion, such as “here’s a new book,” or framed by a pre-set task and word limit. What could I or should I try to write about? A likely genre for me to pursue here is the literary profile, but I’ve had trouble focusing on a topic, so that’s one thing I’ll be thinking about during my planning period. Another common kind of literary essay is a pitch for the “underappreciated” novel or novelist. I griped a bit on Twitter about what I see as the “literary hipsterism” of this approach, but that needn’t be the tone, and in fact all of the ‘Second Glance’ pieces I’ve written for Open Letters are in this spirit but don’t (I hope) suggest I’m preening because I think I’m particularly cool to know about them! 

But essays too are, in the end, small scale projects. Should I be aspiring to something on a larger scale? In the academic humanities, books are by far the most valued form; I’ve questioned the assumption that they should be, especially under current circumstances, and though I have watched with a bit of envy as some of the online writers I’ve followed for some time have published books that look really great, I do still feel that you should write a book if you have a book to write–something that needs and deserves a more expansive treatment–not as an end in itself. How do you know if you have a book in you, though? Or, how do you know what kind of book you might have in you, or already have begun without realizing it? More than once here  I’ve brought up the possibility of a book that is actually a collection of smaller parts (revised versions of my essays on George Eliot, for instance). I have spent a lot of time on that idea before, including on my last sabbatical, and I even wrote a draft introduction. My work on that project stalled, for various reasons, but perhaps it’s time I took it further. Here, then, is something else I’ll be reflecting on.

In the meantime, I have the Sternbergh review to do, and Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, which I committed to write up for OLM, has just arrived and looks mighty tempting. And I just said yes to another editor for a June deadline. I’m looking forward to doing all of these, but I need to make up my mind how many more I can do if I still want something else to show for my summer. If

Recent Reading Roundup: Reviews and Romances

You’d think from my recent blog posts that I wasn’t doing anything but teaching these days! That’s not quite true, but like a lot of people I know, I’m finding myself too distracted to get a lot of “quality” reading done in my leisure time – what ability I have to concentrate hard I’m expending on work, and on books I am reading for off-blog reviews that have deadlines. The rest of the time my reading alternates between anxiety-inducing news stories and pleasantly diverting romance novels.

The most recent book I finished for a review is Simon Tolkien’s No Man’s Land: my review will be up in the March issue of Open Letters. It has actually been a difficult review to write because I neither loved nor hated the book: I’m afraid that even with whatever revisions I come up with after my colleagues’ useful input, the piece is going to sound fairly perfunctory. Now I’m reading Lesley Krueger’s Mad Richard, which I’m reviewing for Canadian Notes & Queries. So far, it seems pretty interesting, so I’m hopeful that it will be more fun to write about. And next up after that will be Sarah Moss’s Bodies of Light, which is backround reading for the review of Signs for Lost Children I’ve promised to Numero Cinq. Moss looks like a writer I should have been reading already, which is one reason I proposed this particular title — my ideal reviewing “assignment” converges with my existing reading intentions!

I have some completed reviews that should see the light of day in the near future. One of those is my TLS review of Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First (which I loved); another is my Quill & Quire review of Jean McNeil’s The Dhow House (which is strange and uncomfortable and gripping); and the last is my review of Yasmine El Rashidi’s Chronicle of a Last Summer, which I wrote last summer and is expected to show up, at long last, in The Kenyon Review Online in early March. Though there are some down sides to all this reviewing, one definite up side is that it has made me a bit more sure-footed as a critic, including with books that are not obvious “fits.” I can’t really say if I am developing my critical voice or style: I’m not deliberately trying to do anything other than what I’ve always done here and at OLM, which is find the best way to express whatever I think about the book. I don’t focus on answering “should I buy this book or not?” — because that’s the kind of review I find the least interesting to read — but instead I try to figure out what kind of book it is and what’s the most interesting conversation for me to have with it or about it. Academics (myself included) often hesitate to get into conversations outside their official area of expertise: this is an anxiety I have largely overcome when it comes to fiction, partly because blogging loosened me up so much as a reader and a writer, and partly because the more I teach, the more I’m aware that my expertise is as a reader — it’s my skill and experience at reading, as much as or more than my body of scholarly knowledge, that equips me to do this kind of criticism.

As for my romance reading, I’ve been rereading some favorites, just for the good cheer (Georgette Heyer’s Devil’s Cub, for instance, and Tessa Dare’s Any Duchess Will Do), but I’ve also read a scattering of new ones. I have all of Courtney Milan’s Brothers Sinister novels but hadn’t gotten to Talk Sweetly To Me before: it’s charming. (The Countess Conspiracy is still my favorite in this series, though.) I read Alyssa Cole’s Let It Shine and found the love story well done, but while I appreciated her evocation of the historical context, I thought the novella (sexy bits aside) read too much like YA fiction for me to find it really engaging: it seemed to assume readers who had very little idea about either the civil rights movement or the Holocaust. Everything about it was very pat and predictable. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t about important things, or that it didn’t include details that make very clear, how devastatingly this history affected people’s lives.

I read Eloisa James’s Seven Minutes in Heaven and thought it was fine — as I mentioned on Twitter, I especially appreciated the heroine’s competence, which is a quality not often portrayed as attractive, and I enjoyed following the character through to their HEA. I also read Fool for Love, which I chose somewhat at random from the ebooks the library had available: I liked the set up but was a bit let down by the conclusion, for reasons I won’t give in case they are spoilers! I have yet to really fall in love with one of James’s novels. They seem very competent and usually keep me interested to the end, but they don’t make me laugh the way Loretta Chase’s do, and I don’t find them as entertaining as Tessa Dare’s (which seem more sprightly, somehow) or as touching as my favorite among Mary Balogh’s. Maybe I haven’t found the right one for me (not all of Dare’s work well for me either, after all).

Now I’m rereading Ruthie Knox’s Truly: I liked it the first time, partly for the beekeeping ‘neepery,’ and it’s holding up well on a reread. I am starting to feel a bit restless, though, as if it’s almost time for me to read something  else again. I picked up Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk on a recent trip to the bookstore: it looks like it might be a good intermediate step between light and really serious reading.

The Last Throes of Summer

COVER-SMALLSeptember is here, which means that even though technically it’s still summer, it feels like fall. From now on, every nice day is to be cherished and even the sunniest Sunday will be under the shadow of Monday’s impending classes — though not quite yet, because my first class meetings of the new term aren’t until Wednesday. And as it happens, I will be able to wind up my summer without too much angst: yesterday I realized that right now, though as always there are plenty of things I could be doing, there’s really nothing I must be doing. All the writing I’d promised has been sent along to editors; my courses are prepped, including handouts, lecture notes, and slides for the first day(s); other odds and ends of administrative tasks have been completed. I suppose this is my reward for not really taking a vacation: though I did take it easy when I could, I didn’t travel, and I was in my office almost every weekday getting things done. As a result, I will head into the last long weekend of the summer without either the ambition or the pressure to be working.

This seems like a good opportunity to take stock of how the summer went. I had a number of plans when it started, some of which I fulfilled and some of which got revised. One of my main goals was to learn how to create publishable ebooks. This is a skill I hope to use for a range of projects down the road, including for creating some themed collections of posts and essays. To start with, though, I focused on converting the materials for the Middlemarch for Book Clubs site into book form, which I did — you can now “buy” the book version (it’s free) from both Kobo and Amazon. The process turned out to be extremely tedious but not difficult. Probably the hardest part for me was figuring out GIMP well enough to create a cover — but that too was challenging more because of how picky it was than because anything about it was really challenging. I do feel quite proud of myself for mastering these new, if dull, skills. Now that I’ve gone through this process once, I will be less intimidated about doing it again, for myself and potentially also for Open Letters.

smokeI had intended to create another book club site, probably for The Mill on the Floss, but in the end the time that would have gone into this project went instead into doing more book reviews than I had anticipated. One of my more general goals has been to get more experience and also more recognition for my criticism by writing for a wider range of venues. Because reviews are usually commissioned rather than pitched, I wasn’t sure quite how to do this, but I reached out to a couple of editors and was contacted by a couple of others, and in the end I was kept fairly busy! I consider this time very well spent for a number of reasons. First, I read and thought about a lot of books, some of them ones I would probably not have sought out if left entirely to my own devices. Then, in addition to the intellectual and literary benefits of engaging with a wide range of books, I had to work to deadlines and within space constraints set by other people, and also work with their editorial feedback. I cherish the freedom I have at Open Letters, but sometimes it paralyzes me a bit as I look for “just the right book” to review. I also think my colleagues there are among the very best editors around, but it’s bracing to venture outside, if only to find out what else I might learn. And I do feel that I’ve learned a lot this summer, partly about the genre of reviewing, and partly about my own writing process. I had hoped that writing more and faster would make me, ultimately, a more confident as well as a more widely competent writer, and I think it has.

The-Life-Writer-207x325Here’s the tally of my summer reviewing, meaning books read and written about since classes got out in April:

For Open Letters, I wrote about Tracy Chevalier’s Reader, I Married Him, Mary Balogh’s Only Beloved, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words.

For Quill & Quire, I reviewed Dan Vyleta’s Smoke, Steven Price’s By Gaslight, and Ami McKay’s The Witches of New York (forthcoming in the November issue).

For 3:AM Magazine, I covered Maurizio de Giovanni’s The Bastards of Pizzofalcone and Darkness for the Bastards of Pizzofalcone.

For the Times Literary Supplement, I reviewed Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder (forthcoming). (A couple of other reviews of mine appeared in the TLS this summer, but they were written much earlier.)

For the Quarterly Conversation, I reviewed David Constantine’s In Another Country and The Life-Writer (forthcoming in the fall issue).

For the Kenyon Review Online, I reviewed Yasmine El Rashidi’s Chronicle of a Last Summer (forthcoming).

I know there are people who review two or three (or more!) books a week. I’ve always wondered how they manage that, since just reading the books takes me a few days usually. But I have discovered that I can both read and write faster than I thought and still come out of it with something I am satisfied with, even at shorter lengths. I do sometimes find it frustrating having to leave out a lot, but it’s a great mental exercise deciding what to put in when your space is limited while still trying to convey a nuanced sense of the whole book.

In some ways book reviewing is not quite the kind of writing I’m most interested in doing. But I think you have to earn your way into more essayistic assignments, and I also think that the greater skill and confidence I’m gaining at this kind of criticism will make me better at other kinds of book writing too. It was exactly a year ago that I wrote a short-ish review that ended up, despite a lot of editorial back-and-forth and revision, being judged unpublishable. That experience was a real blow to my confidence: I feel better now! (Also, I recently reread my effort for that assignment, just to see how it looked in retrospect, and really, I still don’t see what was so wrong with it!)

I’ve done a fair amount of reading and writing for this blog too over the summer; I’ll round that up in another post. Plus, of course, I’ve been working on class preparation, including pragmatic things to be ready for my fall courses and more open-ended research in anticipation of the new (to me) Pulp Fiction class in the winter. About all of that, you can expect more as another season of ‘This Week In My Classes’ gets underway.

Finished with Ferrante. Probably Forever.

lostchildI actually hadn’t intended to read The Story of the Lost Child. By the time I finished Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, I felt that three long volumes of minutiae (however intense) and interpersonal angst (especially between two characters who never seemed either particularly plausible or particularly interesting) was plenty. It’s not that I didn’t think the first three Neapolitan novels were any good. They are good — probably better than most recent novels I’ve read. But after a point, it was impossible to read them without sky-high expectations, because their overall reception has been both so positive and so uncannily uniform. Raw! Honest! Confessional! Brave! (I wrote about the critical phenomenon already in some detail, in a piece that I thought might generate some self-conscious discussion among the feverish Ferrante fans or just people interested in the general issue of women’s writing and its reception. It didn’t.) And how many novels are really that great?

I got a tempting invitation to review the fourth volume, though, and so I did end up reading it. I’m not entirely sorry that the review has ultimately dead-ended, as during the editorial back-and-forth it was turning into something I didn’t really care for, that didn’t even sound like me. (That’s undoubtedly because it also didn’t start out very well, at least for its intended purpose: I’m not blaming anyone but myself.) I’m not entirely sorry I read The Story of the Lost Child either, though, because like its predecessors, it is pretty good, and after the investment of reading the first 1000 pages of a series, it is nice to know how it all wraps up. At this point, though, especially after two frustrating weeks immersed all over again in her work, I’m fed up with both thinking and writing about Ferrante. Anyone who wants to read a deep, thoughtful commentary about her should read Alice Brittan’s “Elena Ferrante and the Art of the Left Hand” in this month’s Open Letters. Alice loves the novels, but she also comes at them, as she comes at every book she writes about, from an unexpected angle, so though there’s plenty of enthusiasm on display, it’s not of the “these books are the awesomest, bravest, most honest, truthful, confessional, searing, epic portraits of women’s lives and female friendships ever” variety. (I’m sure not every other review is like that either, but that’s certainly the general flavor of Ferrante criticism.)

Here is the short version of my ‘take.’ The Neapolitan novels are good books, but to me they represent novels as blunt instruments. They have a lot of detail, but not a lot of nuance, especially stylistically. (Requisite caveat: maybe in the original Italian, they are different, better, more subtle.) In particular, the first-person narration is ultimately a disappointment, both artistically and thematically. Elena is not much of anything: she is neither unreliable nor interestingly retrospective (by which I mean, though she is remembering and reconstructing her past, her narration does not show her learning or developing from it). In the review you won’t ever read, I compare her unfavorably to Pip in Great Expectations (and why not, since every much-hyped novel these days seems to explicitly invite the comparison). Reading Great Expectations, you realize early on that Pip the character is not (until the end) Pip the narrator. There is great artistry in that palimpsestic effect, as well as real moral significance in his changing perspective. I did not find any comparable achievement by (either) Elena. As a Kunstlerroman, also, which is what the Neapolitan novels could (perhaps should) be, the series is unconvincing, or at least not compelling. Elena talks a lot about her writing, about its deficiencies and changes, and especially about women’s writing and women in writing as creatures of the male imagination and aesthetic. Her chronicle of her life, of Lila’s life, and of their friendship does not strike me as a powerful or empowering alternative: it’s too linear, too literal, and in its own ways, too reductive. If it is (as, say, Aurora Leigh is for Aurora Leigh) the culmination of her artistic development, then for me (despite all its emotional power, and the richness and complexity of its historical and sociological description) it’s underwhelming. (Maybe if I’d been this blunt in my draft review, we would have gotten somewhere!)

Lots of readers disagree with me, and plenty of critics have written at length about what they see as the brilliance of the series. Every major critical outlet (well, except one, I guess) has or will have an opinion on offer and I have yet to see one that isn’t pretty much ecstatic. So you have lots of support if you think I’ve read uncharitably or stupidly. My review, however, would have been mixed, for the reasons I’ve given. I found Nicola Griffith’s Hild a much more exciting literary experience: I’m really looking forward to reading its second volume. I’m keen, too, to read Adam Johnson’s new collection of short fiction, because I thought The Orphan Master’s Son was extraordinary. I will read anything else that Helen DeWitt publishes, because The Last Samurai was brilliant on every level. Having given Ferrante my best shot as a reader and critic, here and elsewhere, though, I think I’m done with her.

I wouldn’t even care — or bother saying anything — about this except that if you want (as I sometimes want, or think I want) to participate in ‘the literary world,’ the books everyone is talking about exert a certain pressure on you. (Recent exhibit A: The Goldfinch.) Sometimes, that’s fine: it’s a good book, it’s a good conversation, it’s a good intellectual exercise. Even when I write what I think is a really good piece of criticism about a current hot title, though (Life After Life, say — and there‘s a review I’m proud to have my name on), I often end up feeling a bit disappointed in the process. What (as Dorothea says) could be sadder than so much ardent labor all in vain? Because there’s always another, and another, and another good but probably not great book coming down the pipe that we’ll all feel we have to read and talk about.

The joy of blogging is the total freedom it brings from publishers’ schedules and publicists’ blandishments. I’m sure my current feelings of exasperation will abate, but you can probably expect a lot more Dorothy Dunnett around here for a while, until they do.

New Reviews and “Right” Reviewers

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Launch day never comes but what I am surprised at what we’ve pulled off, thanks to the talent, perseverance, and generosity of our contributors and the diligence, enthusiasm, and contributions of our editors! Our May issue seems to me to exemplify what we want Open Letters to be. It covers a wide range of material — I think there’s greater variety in the titles we cover than in most other literary magazines, online or otherwise — and in a range of voices. Have you ever looked at our “About” page? Here’s what the wise heads that set up Open Letters in the first place came up with as our “mission statement”:

We’ve all had the experience of reading a review that sparkled—one that combined an informed, accessible examination of its quarry with gamesome, intelligent, and even funny commentary. These are the pieces we tell our friends about and then vigorously debate.

That’s the kind of writing you’ll find in this month’s issue, so hop on over and take a look! Among its goodies you’ll find a thoughtful exploration of Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge by friend-of-Novel-Readings Colleen Shea (a.k.a. the esteemed proprietress of Jam and Idleness); an exuberantly insightful commentary on a new edition of Birds of America by the inimitable Steve Donoghue; a provocative critique of Tea Obreht’s critically-acclaimed The Tiger’s Wife; and much more.

atkinson1My own contribution this month is a review of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, which has also been receiving  a fair share of critical acclaim. You’ll have to read my review to find out if I’m joining in the chorus. I will say that the book is extremely readable, and that writing the review was good mental exercise, especially once I decided on how I wanted to structure it.

While I was working on it, a conversation broke out on Twitter about the question of what makes someone a good fit to review a particular book. OK, I started it — well, technically Mark Sarvas started it by noting he thought a particular reviewer was a “terrible choice” for a particular assignment. Happily, I pretty much “assign” my own books to review, but I puzzle over how to make good choices for myself, so I asked what he thought the parameters were. He proposed avoiding cases of “outright conflict,” cases where there’s a specific “axe to grind.” I proposed someone who could be expected to have a good conversation with the book . Gregory Cowles of the NYTBR chimed in (Twitter is fun that way) to suggest “open engagement” as the key.

As I said in that exchange, I seek out books to review that I expect to like, by which I mean books by writers I have some reason to trust, and/or on topics and/or in genres that are within my usual range of interests. This is not to say that my default plan is a good review (in fact, I try not to think in terms of “good” or “bad” reviews). I just figure that way I have the best shot of appreciating what the book does well but also recognizing what, according to my reading experience, it doesn’t do well. To keep going with the conversational metaphor, there’s no point trying to have a lengthy discussion with someone whose language you don’t speak at all. If I were a full-time professional book reviewer, such discrimination would presumably be a luxury. Sometimes when I’m paging through catalogs not finding any “likely candidates” for my next review, I hope I’m not being some kind of prima donna, or  (worse?) that I’m not being intellectually unadventurous. But who would want to read my attempt to review something like Revenge? Or, to go even further outside my normal literary habitat, Richard Hell’s autobiography, reviewed with great panache in this issue by Steve Danziger? Much better to leave these books to readers who get them.

Besides, in a way all contemporary fiction is an adventure for me, since my official expertise is entirely elsewhere. I’ve certainly found plenty to grapple with in the recent books I have reviewed, from The Marriage Plot to Two-Part Inventions. (Whether I’ve acquired expertise, or at least relevant experience, by writing about contemporary fiction on my blog is another question, not entirely unrelated, I suppose!) Mark’s question was timely in part because I was wondering if I was a good choice to review Life After Life. Reviews were coming out all around me as I worked (I managed not to actually read any of them until I had a complete, committed draft of my own!) — Francine Prose’s came out in the New York Times just this past weekend, too. Clearly someone there thought she was a good fit, and I can see why. Every reviewer who acts in “good faith,” though (to call on another of Mark’s Twitter comments) brings something fresh to the conversation. It’s possible, too, especially reading the major literary reviews, to feel as if there’s all too much insider trading (have you heard the joke about the New York Review of Books — that its real name is The New York Review of Each Other’s Books?). I think my review stands up well to Prose’s. (Mind you, she, poor woman, was probably given a word limit.)

What do you think makes someone a good fit for a particular review? Proximity or distance? Expertise or an unexpected angle? Or will you take any of these provided the conversation itself is good enough? These questions are relevant to me not just as a writer but as an editor, after all.

Also, in case you wondered, the next book I’m reviewing is Deirdre David’s biography of Olivia Manning. I think I’m a good fit: I know David’s work as a Victorianist, of course, and I’ve read both trilogies in Manning’s The Fortunes of War, and I know a lot more about early 20th-century women writers than I used to because of my reading in the ‘Somerville’ set. So far it’s entirely fascinating.