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


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.

2012: My Year in Writing

cassatI began my annual look back at 2012 with my small contribution to the Open Letters year-end feature. I’ll follow up soon with my regular survey of highs and lows from my reading and blogging year. But this year I thought I’d also take a moment to review the writing I’ve done this year for venues besides Novel Readings.

Most of it was for Open Letters Monthly, of course, and I continue to be grateful for the opportunity to write about whatever interests me, as well as for the challenges to write about things I might not otherwise tackle. Also, as I always tell new or prospective contributors, the editing process at OLM is one to cherish: we bring different interests and sensibilities and styles to bear on every piece, but always in the interests of making it the strongest version of itself that we can collectively manage, and I know that my pieces always end up better than they began.

My first OLM piece in 2012 was “The Quiet One: Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.” I think this is a wonderful novel – more artful, in many ways, than Jane Eyre, if without its visceral appeal. I teach it regularly and the more time I spend on it, the more I admire the unity and integrity of Anne Brontë’s accomplishment. It was a treat to write this up: it’s basically a much-elaborated version of the notes I use for lecture and class discussion.

The scariest piece I wrote in 2012 was “Abandonment, Richness, Surprise: The Criticism of Virginia Woolf,” which was my contribution to our special 5th anniversary issue. I was not initially enthusiastic about doing an entire issue on criticism, and I wasn’t at all sure I had what it took to say anything at all about Woolf as an essayist. On the first count, I was completely converted as the pieces came in. Sam Sacks on Frank Kermode, Greg Waldmann on Edmund Wilson, Steve Donoghue on Elizabeth Hardwick, John Cotter on Gore Vidal … the project brought out the best in our writers as they spoke from the heart about the people who showed them what criticism could be. As for my own piece, the faint edge of desperation I brought to the task unexpectedly gave me courage to get more outside my own head than I’m usually able to do and to write with a freedom I rarely feel. This is the 2012 publication I’m most proud of, precisely because it’s a bit riskier in voice and approach than any of the others.

The most fun piece to write, on the other hand, was definitely “All the World to Nothing: Richard III, Gender, and Genre.” As I confess in the essay, I’ve been a “Ricardian” for many years but I hadn’t found a place for that somewhat esoteric interest in my working or writing life before. Yet as I thought about the elements I wanted to include in the essay, I realized that a lot of the work I’ve done as an academic has grown out of my early passion for historical fiction, while a lot of my conceptual thinking about gender and historiography finds apt illustration in the tale of the last Yorkist king and his mostly female advocates. I have a feeling that not a lot of readers followed me down the slightly wandering path I took, but I hope those who did shared in my last gleeful “ha!” They will also understand the great excitement I have felt as this news story unfolds.

I wrote two essays on George Eliot this year, stages in a still somewhat indefinite longer project about her thought and her novels and what they might mean for us today. In the first of them, “Macaroni and Cheese: the Failure of George Eliot’s Romola”, I bypassed the essay I initially thought of writing, in which I made a case (as I did a couple of years ago for Felix Holt, the Radical) that the novel is better than is usually thought, and chose instead to think about the ways in which the novel is every bit as bad as it seems. I know that fear of failure holds me back: I find George Eliot’s failures inspiring because they teach me about reach and ambition and intellectual courage. That said, Romola actually is a fascinating and occasionally thrilling novel, so if you’ve already made your way through the others, don’t be put off by all this talk of failure!

Also for Open Letters, I reviewed The Life of George Eliot, by Nancy Henry (in our ‘annex,’ Open Letters Weekly) and Lynn Sharon Schwartz’s newest novel  Two-Part Inventions. Henry’s biography is smart, thorough, and yet somehow not as exhilarating as a life of George Eliot deserves to be, perhaps because it is that odd hybrid, a ‘critical biography.’ Still, it’s miles and miles better than Brenda Maddox’s abysmal George Eliot in Love. Schwartz is the author of two novels I admire enormously–Disturbances in the Field and Leaving Brooklyn–but I wasn’t inspired by Two-Part Inventions mostly because it seemed to me that Schwartz wasn’t either.

The second of my George Eliot essays this year, “‘Look No More Backward’: George Eliot’s Silas Marner and Atheism,” appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books (and then, rather to my surprise, in Salon). As the essay was in progress, I had second thoughts about the ‘New Atheist’ hook I’d proposed for it when I pitched it, but that is how I’d pitched it and (understandably) that’s what they wanted me to stick with, so I did. It’s not that I don’t believe what I said, but as I’d feared, that set-up was a distraction for some readers, who seem (at least from the posted comments) not to have persisted as far as my reading of Silas Marner. I have argued before that we could do worse than look to George Eliot for ideas about how to be both godless and good and this was a good experiment in making that argument in more detail and taking it to a wider public, while still doing the kind of close reading that I hope might be seen as my trademark when (if) people think of me as a critic. I have yet to muster enough courage to write a sustained essay on Middlemarch, but when I do, it may well build on this foundation.

Finally, I published one essay in a conventional academic journal this year, though somewhat ironically (given that my non-academic publishing was almost all in my supposed areas of specialization) it’s about blogging: “Scholarship 2.0: Blogging and/as Academic Practice” appeared in the Journal of Victorian Culture. This paper grew out of the conference presentation I gave at the British Association of Victorian Studies conference last summer. It was supposed to be made open access but there seems to be a hitch with the publishers: anyone denied access who wants a copy can just let me know.

So: that’s six essays and two book reviews in 2012, which is not bad for someone who has been told her ‘publication record is spotty‘! And that’s not taking into account any of my writing here on the blog, much less any of the writing I do as a matter of course for work, from lecture notes to handouts to evaluations to memos to letters. Of course, none of the writing in those last five categories really feels like writing, though it’s easy to underestimate how much creativity and ingenuity it calls for. There were some definite highlights in my blogging year, and I’ll be looking back at those in my next post. I love the complete freedom of blogging–freedom from deadlines and other external requirements, and freedom to say what’s on my mind without second-guessing myself too much. However, one of my goals for 2013 is to keep up a good pace of essays and reviews outside Novel Readings, because I still find writing for other people intimidating (and yes, I know, other people read my blog, but it feels very much like my space, so it’s just different, however irrationally). In addition to writing for Open Letters, I might have another go at pitching a piece somewhere else, just to keep pushing my boundaries. But what, and where? (Ideas welcome….) I find I’m still quite clueless about this process, and I hardly know if I’m more nervous about a pitch being turned down or accepted, but that’s just the kind of anxiety I need to get past. Maybe 2013 will be the year I figure out how to just write, without so much agonizing. On the other hand, isn’t agonizing part of what defines writing?