This Week In My Reading: Scale and Significance

unlessIn a way, this post is also about “this week in my classes,” as it is prompted by the serendipitous convergence of my current reading around questions we’ve been discussing since we started working on Carol Shields’ Unless in my section of Intro to Lit. In our first session on the novel, I give some introductory remarks about Shields — a life and times overview, and then some suggestions about themes that interested her, especially in relation to Unless. One of the things I pointed out is that she also wrote a biography of Jane Austen; in an interview, Shields said “Jane Austen is important to me because she demonstrates how large narratives can occupy small spaces.” We come to Shields right after working through Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, so I also bring up Woolf’s pointed remark: “This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing room.” Both Shields and Woolf are thinking about the relationship between scale and significance, and both of them are drawing our attention to the ways assumptions about what matters — in literature, particularly, since that’s their primary context — have historically been gendered.

Unless itself explores the relationship between scale and significance on several levels. Its protagonist, Reta Winters, is a writer whose first novel, My Thyme Is Up, is light and romantic, a “sunny” book that has won a prize for books that combine “literary quality and accessibility.” Reta has been working on a sequel (with the equally charming title Thyme in Bloom), but over the course of Unless she becomes discontented with it, especially with the happy ending she had blithely anticipated for it. For much of the novel, she is puzzling over what else to do — what other kind of book to write. She grows to dislike her characters as originally conceived: she sees her heroine Alicia as “vapid” and Alicia’s impending marriage as a mistake:

Suddenly it was clear to me. Alicia’s marriage to Roman must be postponed. Now I understood where the novel is headed. She is not meant to be partnered. Her singleness in the world is her paradise, it has been all along, and she came close to sacrificing it, or rather, I, as novelist, had been about to snatch it away from her. The wedding guests will have to be alerted and the gifts returned. All of them, Alicia, Roman, their families, their friends — stupid, stupid. The novel, if it is to survive, must be redrafted.

But how? All we really know is that instead of submitting Alicia to the conventional marriage plot, Reta now wants her to “advance in her self-understanding.”

carol-shieldsReta’s redrafting is disrupted by her editor, an officious American (of course! Unless is a Canadian novel, after all) named Arthur Springer who has even bigger plans for Thyme in Bloom, which (significantly) he proposes she retitle simply Bloom. His idea is that Alicia should fade into the background while Roman emerges as the “moral center” of the novel. This, he insists, is necessary for the novel to graduate from “popular fiction” to “quality fiction.” He also proposes that Reta retreat behind her initials: she will become R. R. Summers (“Winters” is her husband’s surname). This way her new (“quality”) book can’t possibly be associated with her, or with her earlier (“popular”) novel.

Reta sees exactly what’s up, of course: Springer believes that a book’s literary significance depends on its masculinity — that its standing as great literature will increase as it moves away from the world of women. When Reta presses him about what’s wrong with Alicia, his answer is comically symptomatic of the problems much of the novel is about. “I am talking,” he says, “about Roman being the moral center of this book,”

“and Alicia, for all her charms, is not capable of that role, surely you can see that. She writes fashion articles. She talks to her cat. She does yoga. She makes rice casseroles.”

“It’s because she’s a woman.”

“That’s not an issue at all. Surely you —”

“But it is the issue.”

“She is unable to make a claim to — She is undisciplined in her — She can’t focus the way Roman — She changes her mind about — She lacks — A reader, the serious reader that I have in mind, would never accept her as the decisive fulcrum of a serious work of art that acts as a critique of our society while at the same time, unrolling itself like a carpet of inevitability, narrativistically speaking.”

“Because she’s a woman.”

Reta ultimately resists both Springer’s exhortations and the “critical voice in [her] head that weighs serious literature against what is merely entertainment.” We are never told exactly how Thyme in Bloom ends, only that “Alicia triumphs, but in her own slightly capricious way.” What we do know is that having discovered her dissatisfaction with a particular kind of conventional woman’s fiction, what Reta imagines doing next is not something on a larger scale or a more overtly grandiose style but something even smaller: “I want it to be a book that’s willing to live in one room if necessary,” she says; “I want it to hold still like an oil painting, a painting titled: Seated Woman.”

One of the questions I asked my class to think about is whether Unless is itself a model for a different kind of fiction, maybe even an example of the kind of book Reta imagines writing — one that insists we find, or at least look for, significance in small things. Reta is “just” a fairly ordinary woman but the things that happen in the novel certainly mean a lot to her, and as she connects the incidents in her life to other events, both personal and historical, private and public, significant patterns emerge. Unless initially seems like a really unassuming book, but by the end that feels like part of the plan: Shields’ novel itself asks us to accept an ordinary woman as “the decisive fulcrum of a serious work of art.”

What has been so interesting over the past couple of weeks is how many of the other  books I happen to be reading also either explicitly turn on or implicitly raise questions about the relationship between women and scale and significance, in life and in literature.

derondaOne of them is Daniel Deronda, which I’ve just finished reading with my graduate students. This novel is famously bifurcated between Gwendolen’s story (a highly personal, small-scale drama) — and Daniel’s (which starts out on a similarly domestic scale but opens out into a potentially epic, world-historical story). Is Gwendolen condemned to insignificance when she is left behind to suffer at home while Daniel goes off to (perhaps) found a nation? The literal scale of Eliot’s treatment of Gwendolen is not belittling: she gets at least half the huge novel to herself, after all. Perhaps this novel insists, formally, on an equivalence between two kinds of significance, one of which occupies a small space. Or perhaps what’s significant is Gwendolen’s discovery of her own insignificance. “Could there be a slenderer, more insignificant thread in human history,” asks the narrator,

than this consciousness of a girl, busy with her small inferences of the way in which she could make her life pleasant?—in a time, too, when ideas were with fresh vigor making armies of themselves, and the universal kinship was declaring itself fiercely; when women on the other side of the world would not mourn for the husbands and sons who died bravely in a common cause, and men stinted of bread on our side of the world heard of that willing loss and were patient: a time when the soul of man was walking to pulses which had for centuries been beating in him unfelt, until their full sum made a new life of terror or of joy.

But then Eliot seems to reject that premise:

What in the midst of that mighty drama are girls and their blind visions? They are the Yea or Nay of that good for which men are enduring and fighting. In these delicate vessels is borne onward through the ages the treasure of human affections.

Isn’t that belittling in its own way, though? It certainly doesn’t allow “girls” much historical agency.

Then, I’m about half way through The Portrait of a Lady, which picks up on exactly this question of how much that girlish presence matters (James even quotes Eliot’s “delicate vessels” line in his 1908 Preface to the novel). Can so small a thing as the consciousness of a young girl support the whole weight of a novel, James wonders?

“Place the centre of the subject in the young woman’s consciousness,” I said to myself, “and you get as interesting and as beautiful a difficulty as you could wish. Stick to that — for the centre; put the heaviest weight into that scale, which will be so largely the scale of her relation to herself. . . . See, at all events, what can be done in this way. What better field could there be for a due ingenuity? The girl hovers, inextinguishable, as a charming creature, and the job will be to translate her into the highest terms of that formula, and as nearly as possible moreover into all of them. To depend upon her and her little concerns wholly to see you through will necessitate, remember, your really ‘doing’ her.”

Is James issuing a corrective to Eliot’s approach, calling her out, as it were, for lacking the courage or “ingenuity” to let Gwendolen carry her whole novel? But notice that his terms are, in their own way, belittling: “the girl” needs to be “translated” into something higher; she needs the novelist to infuse her with importance. Reading The Portrait of a Lady, I feel conscious of the weight of his novel bearing down on Isabel in a way I don’t feel Daniel Deronda weighing down Gwendolen (and certainly don’t feel Unless impressing itself on Reta). Is it possible that, more than James, Eliot does believe in the significance of her heroine’s “little concerns”?

portraitOUPNeither of these novels, however, whatever their differences, feels in any way light, despite the intimacy of their core casts of characters. It’s the treatment, not the subject, that gives literary significance, isn’t it? Austen’s novels don’t feel trite even though viewed narrowly they are “just” about a handful of “ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses” (in Charlotte Bronte’s words) — because her love stories are also stories about values and class structures and social changes with far-reaching effects. When Isabel Archer accepts Gilbert Osmond’s proposal, it feels large because James has imbued Isabel’s choices with philosophical consequence: her decision isn’t just to marry or not to marry, but about how to use her freedom, and about what to value and how to value herself. These are personal questions but also abstract ones, and so the small space of her individual life occupies a large narrative (by which I don’t mean, though I could, just a long book).

But I’m also reading Laurie Colwin’s Family Happiness, and so far it seems to me a small space filled by a small narrative. Its plot and cast of characters are intimate, domestic, insignificant on anything but a personal scale. It reminds me very much of Anne Tyler’s novels, though (so far, at least) it lacks Tyler’s habit of whimsy. I’m enjoying it, and I’m interested in how things will go for its protagonist, but nice as it is, it feels trivial. I think it shows that you can’t just reverse expectations and insist that the ordinary is always resonant with significance. You have to really ‘do’ it, as James says: you have to go all in. You can enlarge the narrative in a lot of different ways: morally, aesthetically, historically, philosophically — but literary greatness still requires some kind of expansiveness, some reaching beyond the particular. Or does it? (If Austen’s own description of her work as “the little bit . . . of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush” really did, unironically, sum up the scale of her novels, would we admire them as much as we do?)

family happinessI have been thinking that this constellation of questions (not really any answers) is relevant to the discussions about why, say, Jonathan Franzen’s novels about family and private life get treated as more significant than some other books that are about similar topics. Gender may well be part of the explanation, but it would be disingenuous to pretend we don’t know that some books by both men and women simply do more with their material than others, and that that scale — the scale of meaning, of treatment — is ultimately where literary significance lies. But this post has gone on long enough without really arriving anywhere in particular, so that’s probably as good a place to stop as any.

“Up to the wall”: Carol Shields, The Stone Diaries

stonediariesI don’t really understand why I didn’t like The Stone Diaries this time. Did I reread it at the wrong moment for me, somehow? I admired lots of pieces of it as I was reading, but my overall experience of it was that it was too miscellaneous: that it incorporated too many elements that ended up feeling random, that as a novel it felt piecemeal instead of designed. That may in fact have been Shields’s concept, since I think a lot of what the novel is about is how difficult it is to capture “a life” — even if you are the one living it. Not only is Daisy’s own story shot through with unease about her identity, but the reflections we get about her from other people show misunderstandings, misinterpretations, but also readings of her — theories, as one section of the novel calls them — that might well be as accurate as her own theory of herself.

Already, as I try to write about the novel, it starts to feel more interesting than it did while I was reading it. Is that a problem, if it’s that kind of a book, a book that is driven forward more by a concept than by the kind of momentum that comes from following a strong narrative of a more old-fashioned kind? The Stone Diaries is another in the ‘soup-to-nuts’ genre: I was reminded, reading it, of A God in Ruins as well as of My Real Children. By the end — despite its greater fragmentation — it has something of the same inevitable poignancy: a life lived, a life worn out, a life ending, ended. “Something has occurred to her,” thinks Daisy’s daughter Alice at the end of one of her visits to her fading mother:

something transparently simple, something she’s always known, it seems, but never articulated. Which is that the moment of death occurs while we’re still alive. Life marches right up to the wall of that final darkness, one extreme state of being butting against the other. Not even a breath separates them. Not even a blink of the eye. A person can go on and on tuned in to the daily music of food and work and weather and speech right up to the last minute, so that not a single thing gets lost.

The Stone Diaries does give us a strong sense of that “daily music” of life, but it also divides it into acts and self-consciously jangles those “single things” in our ears right up to its own last minute — most of all, in fact, during those final pages. I think it might be that self-consciousness, actually, that kept me aloof from the book as a whole, even though I paused frequently to retrace sentences I particularly liked.

I feel as if my business with The Stone Diaries is unfinished: perhaps some of my own current restlessness put me at odds with it. At any rate, I have at least reread it now, so that’s one more in my review of Shields’ oeuvre as I prepare to teach Unless again this fall.

“An Act of Reconstruction”: Carol Shields, Swann

swann

The faces of the actors have been subtly transformed. They are seen joined in a ceremonial act of reconstruction, perhaps even an act of creation. There need be no suggestion that any of them will become less selfish in the future, less cranky, less consumed with thoughts of tenure and academic glory, but each of them has, for the moment at least, transcended personal concerns.

Carol Shields’ Swann is a very clever book — too clever for me, in the end, because as it went on it became more and more clearly a conceptual set-up, the people in it more evidently pieces in a game. I like novels to have ideas. I think I probably criticize more novels here for lacking intellectual depth than for sacrificing character or feelings to abstractions. But the novels I like best (including Shields’ Unless) balance head and heart: they are both thoughtful and, at some level, sincere about their characters’ humanity. There are certainly touches of that sincerity in Swann, especially in the section about town librarian Rose Hindmarsh:

She cannot possibly be the one who set in motion the chain of events that led to Mary Swann’s death since she has never been capable of setting anything in motion. Never mind her work in the town office, in the library, and in the museum — she has always known, not sensed, but known, that she is deficient in power. So many have insisted on her deficiency, beginning with her dimly remembered soldier father who failed to come back home to Nadeau to take his place as her parent, and her grandmother who told her, moving leathery gums stretched with spittle, that she had the worst posture ever seen in a young girl, and her mother who said looks weren’t everything …. and the seditious blood that is pouring out of her day after day after day, making her weaker and weaker so that she can hardly think — all this has interfered with her life and made her deficient in her own eyes, and it is this that mercifully guards her against self-recrimination, from believing she is someone who might possibly have played a part in the death of the poet Mary Swann. Rose is a person powerless to stir love and so she must also be powerless in her ability to hurt and destroy.

For me, Rose’s deficiencies show Shields’ strength: she’s great at hitting that fine line between pathos and poignancy, creating sympathy without overloading us with sentiment. In Unless, she controls these elements with her acerbic first-person narrator. In Swann, though, I felt that she subordinated these emotional layers to the point she wanted to make.

So what is that point? I think (to put it bluntly and thus, inevitably, reductively) it’s that criticism is inimical to art. Swann opens with Sarah Maloney, a feminist professor (at 28, already somehow the author of a bestselling book based on her Ph.D. thesis — yup, that happens all the time!) now building her reputation as an expert on an obscure rural Canadian poet whose work she “discovered” in a classic act of feminist literary recuperation. She narrates one section; Morton Jimroy, who’s writing Swann’s biography, narrates the next; our sad friend Rose, who rather exaggerates how well she knew Mary Swann personally, gets a section; and then Frederic Cruzzi, who published Swann’s slim oeuvre. The final section brings them all together (about this part, more in a minute!).

All of the individual parts have their charms. Even Jimroy, who’s a self-absorbed twit, is occasionally endearing, especially in his meditations on the imperfect glories of biography:

The disjointed paragraphs he is writing are pushing toward that epic wholeness that is a human life, gold socketed into gold. True, it will never be perfect. There are gaps, as in every life, accidents of silence and misinterpretation and the frantic scrollwork of artifice, but also a seductive randomness that confers truth. And mystery, too, of course. Impenetrable mystery.

His phrase “impenetrable mystery” is a hint, it turns out, at the futility of everyone’s attempt (or pretense) to really know Mary Swann. The more they think they know about her, or claim to know about her, the more elusive she turns out to be. Sarah wonders how a woman who seems in every other way to have been unbearably ordinary could have produced extraordinary verse; Jimroy struggles to grasp what her life was like and how it might connect to or illuminate her poems; Rose builds her minimal acquaintance into a story of intimacy that she knows is illusory; Frederic Cruzzi knows almost nothing about Swann herself but is the only one who knows the poems on which everyone else’s interest hangs are themselves already half-truths salvaged from ruined manuscripts. As they try to create a full picture, the scraps of evidence one by one disappear, leaving them less and less certainty. Though there is a story about where all the evidence went, the literal explanation is clearly much less important, thematically, than the symbolic one: their subject evaporates, leaving only their theories of her, which reflect who they are, not who she was.

And they aren’t that great, really: they are indeed selfish, cranky, consumed with thoughts of tenure and academic glory. Their better selves emerge only when they put those unworthy motives aside and turn, purified, to “reconstructions” of Swann’s vanished work. Swann struck me as very much a book of the 80s, and surely “reconstruction” is offered as the better alternative to “deconstruction,” or (since none of the characters is, strictly speaking, a poststructuralist) to theory. Swann is, in part, academic satire á la David Lodge: the culminating sequence at the “Swann Symposium” would fit right into any of his early novels, in flavor if not so much in form. In this section Shields makes the whole academic enterprise look both silly and futile: what do the meanings spun out in deliberately elliptical fragments have to do with the meaning of the lines of poetry we read, or with Mary Swann’s own obscure, tragic life? Her short verses are a flimsy foundation for the edifice constructed on them.

Shields’ satire isn’t blistering: there are some acknowledgements that without the attention of scholars and biographers, many great poets — especially women poets — would have stayed unknown. She also makes each of her characters more than just a caricature, so that it is possible, at least provisionally, to sympathize with their quests to find out more, and to define their own lives through someone else’s. The final section, though, inexplicably presented as a script, strips away much of the nuance and turns the characters’ interconnected stories into an odd and, for me, uncomfortably arch farce. This was the point at which Shields lost me — both the strange formal decision, which I found both distracting and sort of lazy, and the turn to comic maneuvering.

As I finished reading Swann, I found myself thinking of A. S. Byatt’s Possession, which deals with a lot of the same thematic elements. It has been quite a long time since I read Possession, so I may be misremembering, but in my recollection, while it does bring out the comic aspect of scholarly obsession, it also cherishes it, even indulges it, matching its satire with a love story — and I don’t mean (just) the historical love story that’s uncovered but the romance of knowledge itself. The scholars’ quest, there, is balanced by the humanity of their subjects, which is given the kind of scope Mary Swann never gets in Swann. I would have liked the last part of Shields’ novel to be hers — for Shields to use her novelist’s licence to solve her “ineffable mystery,” maybe even to allow for the possibility of something more — something that’s not ridiculous — between the creation and the critic, the subject and the scholar.

“Shaped Into Stories”: Carol Shields, Small Ceremonies

smallceremonies

It’s the arrangement of events which makes the stories. It’s throwing away, compressing, underlining. Hindsight can give structure to anything, but you have to be able to see it. Breathing, waking and sleeping: our lives are steamed and shaped into stories. Knowing that is what keeps me from going insane, and though I don’t like to admit it, sometimes it’s the only thing.

I didn’t love Carol Shields’ Unless the first time I read it. Over time, though, my appreciation for it has grown a lot. It is smart and interesting about abstract literary problems (how we define literary greatness, for instance, or what kinds of stories we consider important), and it’s told in a wry, self-aware voice that invites intimacy but also allows for some distance. It seems to me a novel that wants us to think along with Reta, its narrator, rather than pressuring us to identify with her. Her discoveries — about her life, about her family, about herself — provoke us to discover things about ourselves, partly through discovering how far we agree with her. I enjoy the experience of being with Reta, who is sometimes abrasive, sometimes pedantic or overly insistent, but who is always trying, especially to find the meaning, the story, to make sense of things.

Shields’ first novel, Small Ceremonies, turns out to have a lot in common with Unless. It too has a writer for a narrator, one who through her work is trying to shape lives into stories. Judith is a biographer whose current subject is the Canadian pioneer writer Susanna Moodie. She’s perplexed by Susanna’s character, which she feels she can’t clearly discern through the materials available to her, including Moodie’s own voluminous writings. The problem of figuring out who people are is one unifying theme of the novel: Judith is puzzled, also, by her husband’s lingering opacity, by her childrens’ otherness, by her friends, by herself. Biography seems a natural form for someone so preoccupied with how externals reflect but also conceal internal qualities. But biography also epitomizes the limits we always face in understanding other people. “I can’t quite pin it all down,” she says, speaking in context about the Moodie biography but in a phrase that applies much more widely to her perceptions across the novel.

The plot of Small Ceremonies turns on Judith’s attempts to switch from biography to fiction. Unable to get a novel off the ground, she ends up stealing an idea from another writer (we have to take her word for it that it’s a brilliant idea, fresh and original), only to have “her” idea stolen in turn by her writing instructor after she has abandoned it. I found this plot itself pretty thin; its interest comes from the questions it provokes about literary originality and indebtedness. “Writers can’t stake out territories,” says the writer who persisted where she did not and turned the twice-purloined idea into a successful novel; “one uses what one can find. One takes an idea and brings to it his own individual touch.” Is he right? In a way, he is. “Where did Shakespeare get his plots?” he demands when Judith attacks him, angrily declaring him a “swine.” But these abstract questions prove less important, though (or so I thought), than the moral one: Judith herself is most upset by the dishonesty, the “casual treason,” of her friend and teacher. The situation becomes another opportunity for inquiry into character as defined by external actions, or, looking at it another way, for character to define itself in response to events.

As with most first-person narrators, Judith is the most important character in Small Ceremonies. Like Reta in Unless, she has a lot of rough edges. She’s hasty, blunt, and sometimes mean, as when she scorns her Milton-professor husband’s idea to weave a tapestry conveying the intricate patterning of themes in Paradise Lost. She is not the kind of “likeable” character much-debated (and often dismissed) in recent discussions of the place of anger in women’s fiction: rather, she is flawed in ways that aren’t at all extraordinary. Shields is good at this kind of thing, at creating people and families that are normal enough to bristle with irritation, to turn querulous or defensive, but also to soften into affection, in the familiar emotional oscillation of everyday life. I think Unless is a much more polished and elegant version  — the various parts and ideas of Small Ceremonies didn’t feel as well-coordinated, and the language was sometimes overdone in ways I found distracting. This isn’t surprising, of course, as Unless was Shields’ last novel, written almost three decades later than Small Ceremonies.

Something else I found distracting in Small Ceremonies was a brief but virulent attack on Middlemarch that occurs , quite unexpectedly, about half way through. “When I was about fifteen years old,” Judith tells us,

I read a very long and boring novel called Middlemarch. By George Eliot yet. I got it from the public library. (All girls like me who were good at school but suffered from miserable girlhoods were sustained for years on end by the resources of the public libraries of this continent.) Not that Middlemarch offered me much in the way of escape. It offered little but a rambling plot and quartets of moist, dreary, introspective characters, one of whom was accused by the heroine of having ‘spots of commonness.’

The point turns out to be that Judith sees “spots of commonness” in the man who ends up stealing her (stolen) plot. But that doesn’t begin to explain this particularly petulant squib! (It’s also inaccurate — it’s not “the heroine” but the narrator who contemplates Lydgate’s “spots of commonness.”) The degree to which this paragraph threw me off track in my reading is partly idiosyncratic, I realize. It made me fretful for the rest of the novel, though, not just because harumph WRONG!!!, but because it seemed potentially important precisely because it appeared so uncalled for. Is this seemingly gratuitous section actually doing some important intertextual or metafictional work — giving us clues, for instance, about Judith’s own writing or Shields’ own fiction? Is it a deliberate attempt to make Judith look bad? If so, to what ends? I wondered if Judith would come back to Middlemarch later on and reconsider her immaturely dismissive view of it; when she didn’t, I wondered if that passage was there to drive a wedge between Judith and Shields for us — because I can’t believe that Shields, who used the squirrel’s heartbeat passage from Middlemarch as the epigraph for Unless, could ever have seen Eliot’s novel that way. Maybe she did, but that still doesn’t explain why she needed to say so in this way (“moist”? “yet”?) at this point in her own novel. At any rate, I find it easier to forgive Judith for this bad moment than Shields, but it’s true that 1976, when Small Ceremonies was published, was very early days for feminist criticism.

This Week In My Classes: Canons and Complications

unlessMy classes aren’t meeting at all today, thanks to the “weather bomb” we are currently enjoying. It is uncanny how many storms have come through on Wednesdays this winter! And it’s an unpleasant surprise to get a big one this late in the term. The bright side seems to be that it’s supposed to warm up significantly by the weekend, so we can hope that all this snow will just be a bad memory before too long.

What is it interrupting? Well, in Intro to Prose and Fiction we’ve moved on to Carol Shields’s Unless, a novel I appreciate more and more the more time I spend with it. It’s not an in-your-face kind of novel, but (appropriately, given its themes) its sharp edges can take you by surprise: a modest-seeming story about a woman writer rethinking her life and work because of a family crisis, it’s also a commentary on women’s writing and the literary canon, and on women writers and literary culture. Reta is seeking an explanation for her daughter Norah’s decision to drop out of ordinary life and sit speechless on the curb holding a sign that says only ‘GOODNESS.’ In a series of increasingly acerbic letters to intellectuals, writers, and critics (never actually sent) Reta connects Norah’s rejection of the world with the world’s indifference (or worse) to women. To the magazine that has run an advertisement for a series called “Great Minds of the Western Intellectual World,” for instance, Reta writes,

I have a nineteen-year old daughter who is going through a sort of soak of depression . . . which a friend of mine suspects is brought about by such offerings as your Great Minds of the WIW, not just your particular October ad, of course, but a long accumulation of shaded brown print and noble brows, reproduced year after year, all of it pressing down insidiously and expressing a callous lack of curiosity about great women’s minds, a complete unawareness, in fact. . . .

I realize I cannot influence your advertising policy. My only hope is that my daughter, her name is Norah, will not pick up a copy of this magazine, read this page, and understand, as I have for the first time, how casually and completely she is shut out of the universe. I have two other daughters too — Christine, Natalie — and I worry about them both. All the time.

To the author of an article on “The History of Dictionaries,” she observes “there is not a single woman mentioned in the whole body of your very long article (16 pages, double columns), not in any context, not once.” In wry anticipation of the VIDA counts (and their critics), she notes,

Bean counting is tiring, and tiresome, but your voice, Mr. Valkner, and your platform … carry great authority. You certainly understand that the women who fall even casually under your influence (mea culpa) are made to serve an apprenticeship in self-denigration.

 And later, addressing the author of a book review who calls women writers “the miniaturists of fiction,” she says,

It happens that I am the mother of a nineteen-year-old daughter who has been driven from the world by the suggestion that she is doomed to miniaturism. Her strategy  is self-sacrifice.

The letters punctuate the story of Reta’s reconsideration of her own writing: in particular, she is working on the sequel to her earlier work of light fiction, My Thyme is Up; in our class reading, we’ve just arrived at her conclusion that her new novel, “if it is to survive, must be redrafted,” so when we meet again on Friday I hope we’ll be able to have a good discussion about how and why Reta wants to write a different kind of book, with different kinds of options for her heroine, Alicia. Then next week we’ll consider her editor’s advice that she rework it to make it “one of those signal books of our time” — by making Alicia’s fiance, Roman, the central character:

‘I am talking about Roman being the moral centre of this book, and Alicia, for all her charms, is not capable of that role, surely you can see that. She writes fashion articles. She talks to her cat. She does yoga. She makes rice casseroles.’

‘It’s because she’s a woman.’

‘That’s not an issue at all. Surely you — ‘

‘But it is the issue.’

‘She is unable to make a claim to — She is undisciplined in her — She can’t focus the way Roman — She changes her mind about — She lacks — A reader, the serious reader that I have mind, would never accept her as the decisive fulcrum of a serious work of art that acts as a critique of our society while, at the same time, unrolling itself like a carpet of inevitability, narrativistically speaking.’

‘Because she’s a woman.’

‘Not at all, not at all.’

‘Because she’s a woman.’

Clipping these bits out on their own makes the novel sound more didactic than the experience of reading it actually is, partly because Shields plays around with the form of the novel, partly because the other anecdotes and memories Reta shares with us implicitly raise the questions these more pointed sections address explicitly, so that the book reads like an ongoing dialogue — internally, for Reta herself, and then with us — about what we look for in fiction, how we judge what we find, and how those questions are affected by gender. We’re reading it right after A Room of One’s Own, and many of the questions are the same: what (where) is the women’s literary tradition, what is the place or effect of anger in literature, how are our notions of literary greatness tied to ideas about scale? (Shields said “Jane Austen is important to me because she demonstrates how large narratives can occupy small spaces.”)

forrestIn Women & Detective Fiction, this week’s reading also raises questions about literary canons and standards, and how we decide what is worth reading and discussing, but in this case it does so more accidentally. I’m not someone who believes that we should assign only the books we believe to be The Greatest (even if we individually felt we could be confident about our standards). Universities are in the business of education, not adulation, and plenty of works that we might feel falter on some grounds are plenty interesting and significant (historically, theoretically, formally) on others. Courses vary in their purposes, too, and the best and most relevant conversations don’t always emerge from the most elegantly crafted narratives. Still, I do sometimes find my principles conflicting with my actual reading experience, and that’s how I’ve felt with Katherine V. Forrest’s Murder at the Nightwood Bar, which has been our class’s reading for the past week.

Murder at the Nightwood Bar is one in a series with inarguable significance (“First, first, first,” emphasizes Victoria Brownworth in her recent profile of Forrest), and it deals explicitly with questions of sexual identity and systemic discrimination both through its closeted detective (alienated, thus, both from her follow officers and from the lesbian community she engages with during the investigation) and through the crime itself. It sets up lots of good points of comparison with our other books, from the detective’s struggle over getting too personally involved with the case (or people involved in it) to the connections it makes between individual crimes and systemic injustices. As far as all that goes, I have no regrets about having added it to the syllabus this year. I just wish it were better written — yes, that awkward evaluative measure! Better at what, to what ends, as I’m always asking? In this case, I just mean “better at the words”: especially during the patient rereadings required for class prep, it has seemed stilted and inartistic, sometimes tediously so. I’ve felt no temptation to discuss anything that’s not literal about it: not its form or its style, not its voice, its attention to setting, none of those “literary” aspects. Mind you, it’s not the first of our readings to make that kind of reading seem beside the point: Agatha  Christie is also not particularly literary. But Christie’s prose has a clarity and economy that gives it its own (superficial?) elegance. That said, while Forrest may not be as good a stylist, her materials are more challenging — her agenda is more ambitious, and she gave us much more to talk about than Christie did, even though Christie is, of the two of them, the one who is obviously part of the ‘canon’ of detective fiction. Not every course can or should be a tour of “the best that has been thought and said” (as if we could be sure what those examples are — as Woolf says, “where books are concerned, it is notoriously difficult to fix labels of merit in such a way that they do not come off”). My goal is always to find the readings that are the best for my purposes, which in this case include considering a wide range of different examples of detective fiction by women as well as examples that are in fruitful conversation with each other when collected on the syllabus. My hope is that they will also reward close reading and rereading. At this point, then, I’m ambivalent about Murder at the Nightwood Bar, then, which certainly serves the first purpose but doesn’t quite fulfill my hopes for the second.

“Because she’s a woman”: Carol Shields, Unless

unlessI’ve just wrapped up a couple of weeks of reading and discussing Carol Shields’s Unless with the students in my Intro class. I assigned it a bit on impulse: I wanted a reasonably contemporary Canadian novel on the syllabus, and I was also looking for a novel to pair with Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own — something that I thought could be in an interesting conversation with it, the way I thought Wiesel’s Night and McCarthy’s The Road would be thought-provking read side by side (which they were). When I started preparing Unless attentively for class, I was amazed at how many connections I found to Woolf, from questions about literary significance and merit (“This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room”) to a riff in Unless on the importance of female friendships in fiction (“Chloe liked Olivia”). From a purely pedagogical standpoint, I felt I had struck gold!

As this post from 2007 shows, my previous reactions to Unless have been mixed, but (as is often the case) I found myself appreciating the novel more the more I worked at figuring out what (and how) it meant. (One specific change is that reading it today, I am less “distanced” by the features that struck me then as overly didactic or diagrammatic.) I also read other material about it, and about Shields, including this Salon review, this review in the Guardian, this review in Quill & Quire, and, best of all, this thoughtful and spirited blog post from Kerry Clare about Unless as a contender in Canada Reads in 2011. The coductive process of comparing my reading to other people’s always challenges and enriches my own first responses.

Unless

A recent talk with a good friend sent me back to my bookshelf to revisit Carol Shields’s Unless, which I remembered having found not wholly convincing. My reaction on this re-reading was the same, though the novelistic intelligence evident throughout engaged me more fully this time. My problem here is the opposite of my complaint about ‘chick lit’ (absence of ideas): Shields’s novel is too conspicuously driven by an idea, specifically an idea about the way women are rendered trivial, condemned (as the narrator Reta says in one of her interspersed letters) to a “solitary state of non-belonging.” The novel does not have a feminist sub-text: it is, both artfully and overtly, a feminist novel. Reta confronts her “smarmy” New York editor about her next novel featuring her characters Roman and Alicia–bound, on her initial conception, for marriage, but now redirected by her epiphanic realization that Alicia must be granted her singleness:

“I am talking about Roman being the moral centre of this book, and Alicia, for all her charms, is not capable of that role, surely you can see that. She writes fashion articles. She talks to her cat. She does yoga. She makes rice casseroles.”

“It’s because she’s a woman.”

“That’s not an issue at all. Surely you–”

“But it is the issue.”

“. . . A reader, the serious reader that I have in mind, would never accept her as the decisive fulcrum of a serious work of art that acts as a critique of our society while, at the same time, unrolling itself like a carpet of inevitability, narrativistically speaking.”

“Because she’s a woman.”

“Not at all, not at all.”

“Because she’s a woman.”

The reflexivity of this moment is palpable: can we take Reta herself–who calms herself through housekeeping, who cooks lasagna, who mothers her children–seriously as a moral fulcrum? Can her story offer a social critique that reaches beyond the personal? Or, perhaps, should we want it to, as the novel, even as it chafes against cliches about women novelists being “miniaturists of feeling” (from another of Reta’s letters), refuses to reach out and claim its larger issues in larger ways? Doesn’t Shields, in avoiding bolder confrontation with the global and ideological issues that lurk around the edges of her plot (admittedly, as they typically lurk around the edges of our lives), allow her novel to settle into something like comfortable domestic realism? The woman in a burka who sets herself alight and thus precipitates Norah’s (and, in turn, Reta’s) crisis: surely in a post-9/11 novel to choose such an incident to stand for women’s desperation is no accident, but no more is made of her than that, a symbol–and an occasion for Norah’s and Reta’s meditations on goodness, rather a reductive and objectifying gesture, and one that conflates Reta’s rather abstruse complaints (women writers and thinkers are undervalued in the history of literature and philosophy!) with the truly devastating limitations on personal freedom, individualism, and well-being we can imagine might motivate a woman to actual self-immolation.

And yet at the same time as I felt Shields allowed some of the (potential) substance of the novel to become insubstantial, I felt irritated at the novel’s didacticism on its main theme, and inclined to quarrel with its insistence that despite apparent gains, women continue to exist on the margins of power and discourse. “Not so,” I kept wanting to interject, and especially when the tone and art of the novel seemed to suffer from Shields’s polemical intent. “I need to speak further about this problem of women,” Reta begins one chapter, “how they are dismissed and excluded from the most primary of entitlements.” Is my resistance to these persistent iterations the result of a generational difference? Wishful thinking, or ignorance? Whatever its cause, it distanced me from the novel.

And yet (again), there are moments and expressions in the novel that sparked poignant recognition in me, that made me reach for my notebook to jot them down for later reference. (“This is why I read novels,” Reta reflects: “so I can escape my own unrelenting monologue.”) And Norah’s story, though ostensibly the occasion for Reta’s narrative rather than a “fulcrum” in its own right, strikes me as a creative and appropriate working out of George Eliot’s line about the “roar on the other side of silence” that Shields takes as her epigraph. If the novel irritated and frustrated me at times, I think it was because I wanted a different kind of book, one that gave me these people and their stories in more Eliot-like depth, with more picture and less diagram. But I’m aware, too, because the novel is also about novels and what we want from them and how we theorize and criticize them, that Shields is resisting that kind of book and offering this one instead, and I respect and appreciate her invitation to her readers to think as well as to feel.

(Original post July 9, 2007)

Carol Shields, Unless

A recent talk with a good friend sent me back to my bookshelf to revisit Carol Shields’s Unless, which I remembered having found not wholly convincing. My reaction on this re-reading was the same, though the novelistic intelligence evident throughout engaged me more fully this time. My problem here is the opposite of my complaint about ‘chick lit’ (absence of ideas): Shields’s novel is too conspicuously driven by an idea, specifically an idea about the way women are rendered trivial, condemned (as the narrator Reta says in one of her interspersed letters) to a “solitary state of non-belonging.” The novel does not have a feminist sub-text: it is, both artfully and overtly, a feminist novel. Reta confronts her “smarmy” New York editor about her next novel featuring her characters Roman and Alicia–bound, on her initial conception, for marriage, but now redirected by her epiphanic realization that Alicia must be granted her singleness:

“I am talking about Roman being the moral centre of this book, and Alicia, for all her charms, is not capable of that role, surely you can see that. She writes fashion articles. She talks to her cat. She does yoga. She makes rice casseroles.”
“It’s because she’s a woman.”
“That’s not an issue at all. Surely you–“
“But it is the issue.”
“. . . A reader, the serious reader that I have in mind, would never accept her as the decisive fulcrum of a serious work of art that acts as a critique of our society while, at the same time, unrolling itself like a carpet of inevitability, narrativistically speaking.”
“Because she’s a woman.”
“Not at all, not at all.”
“Because she’s a woman.”

The reflexivity of this moment is palpable: can we take Reta herself–who calms herself through housekeeping, who cooks lasagna, who mothers her children–seriously as a moral fulcrum? Can her story offer a social critique that reaches beyond the personal? Or, perhaps, should we want it to, as the novel, even as it chafes against cliches about women novelists being “miniaturists of feeling” (from another of Reta’s letters), refuses to reach out and claim its larger issues in larger ways? Doesn’t Shields, in avoiding bolder confrontation with the global and ideological issues that lurk around the edges of her plot (admittedly, as they typically lurk around the edges of our lives), allow her novel to settle into something like comfortable domestic realism? The woman in a burka who sets herself alight and thus precipitates Norah’s (and, in turn, Reta’s) crisis: surely in a post-9/11 novel to choose such an incident to stand for women’s desperation is no accident, but no more is made of her than that, a symbol–and an occasion for Norah’s and Reta’s meditations on goodness, rather a reductive and objectifying gesture, and one that conflates Reta’s rather abstruse complaints (women writers and thinkers are undervalued in the history of literature and philosophy!) with the truly devastating limitations on personal freedom, individualism, and wellbeing we can imagine would motivate a Muslim woman to self-immolation.

And yet at the same time as I felt Shields allowed some of the (potential) substance of the novel to become insubstantial, I felt irritated at the novel’s didacticism on its main theme, and inclined to quarrel with its insistence that despite apparent gains, women continue to exist on the margins of power and discourse. “Not so,” I kept wanting to interject, and especially when the tone and art of the novel seemed to suffer from Shields’s polemical intent. “I need to speak further about this problem of women,” Reta begins one chapter, “how they are dismissed and excluded from the most primary of entitlements.” Is my resistance to these persistent iterations the result of a generational difference? Wishful thinking, or ignorance? Whatever its cause, it distanced me from the novel.

And yet (again), there are moments and expressions in the novel that sparked poignant recognition in me, that made me reach for my notebook to jot them down for later reference. (“This is why I read novels,” Reta reflects: “so I can escape my own unrelenting monologue.”) And Norah’s story, though ostensibly the occasion for Reta’s narrative rather than a “fulcrum” in its own right, strikes me as a creative and appropriate working out of George Eliot’s line about the “roar on the other side of silence” that Shields takes as her epigraph. If the novel irritated and frustrated me at times, I think it was because I wanted a different kind of book, one that gave me these people and their stories in more Eliot-like depth, with more picture and less diagram. But I’m aware, too, because the novel is also about novels and what we want from them and how we theorize and criticism them, that Shields is resisting that kind of book and offering this one instead, and I respect and appreciate her invitation to her readers to think as well as to feel.