“In My Mind”: Susanna Clarke, Piranesi

piranesiIn my mind are all the tides, their seasons, their ebbs and their flows. In my mind are all the halls, the endless procession of them, the intricate pathways. When this world becomes too much for me, when I grow tired of the noise and the dirt and the people, I close my eyes and I name a particular vestibule to myself; then I name a hall. I imagine I am walking the path from the vestibule to the hall. I note with precision the doors I must pass through, the rights and lefts that I must take, the statues on the walls that I must pass.

Piranesi is a strange, wondrous, mysterious novel, the kind of book that makes me marvel that someone ever had the idea to write it, much less carried it out so that a reader like me could be moved and transported by it. By training and inclination I am (more or less) a realist; the two genres I always have the least success with reading are fantasy and science fiction. I gave up on Clarke’s earlier novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – not just gave up, but gave it up, donating it to the book sale after a couple of failed attempts to get into it. Now I wish I still had it, because if Clarke is good enough to make the weird world of Piranesi feel real to me, I trust her enough to try it again.

I’m not going to say much specific about Piranesi, mostly because it’s such an intricately delicate construction that describing or explaining it seems unlikely to do it justice – and might, worse, spoil its carefully unspooled revelations. Most of it takes place in a kind of labyrinth made up of halls and vestibules, populated with statues and skeletons and one solitary living person, the man we know, and who knows himself, only as ‘Piranesi’ – until we learn more about him, that is, and he too is brought to confront some elusive truths about himself.

piranesi2The story of who he is and what he’s doing in this place is the novel’s central plot, and it has elements of an actual mystery, even a thriller, with clues and an investigation and a climactic face-off with a villainous antagonist. In a way it is even a horror story, or at any rate things about it are horrible. The oddity of Piranesi, though, is how beautiful Piranesi’s weird world is and how lovingly he studies and tends to it. It isn’t our world but it has things we are familiar with, including tides and sea birds and seasons, all of which are vividly evoked. Although Piranesi is essentially (we learn) a captive in this place, it’s not a story of suffering. He feels taken care of; in his isolation, he has created meaning through rituals and through relationships that are real and valuable to him. When the truth is revealed and he has to choose which world to live in, it’s not obvious where he will really be better off. Or, at any rate, the right choice may be obvious but it clearly comes with costs, with losses.

I wasn’t really sure what to think about Piranesi as I read it, partly because both Piranesi and his labyrinthine world are so captivating and partly because it takes the whole novel to really understand what is happening in it. It is a fantasy novel of a sort; it is perhaps a kind of parable; it may or may not be saying something about the imagination, or art, or religion, or mythology. I think it’s about freedom in some way – about whether a life can be a good one, for example, if it is lived under duress (even unknowingly), or whether a life stripped down to its bare elements might have a kind of purity that is some compensation for what has been taken away or sacrificed. It is about human needs, including for love, and the way they find outlets wherever they can. It is incredibly sad, but by the end it is also quietly hopeful.

arch-piranesiHappily, other people have written smart things about it, including Teresa at Shelf Love, whose post was one reason I had made a mental note to read Piranesi for myself even though I thought it sounded a bit far out for me (which it is). I also appreciated Ron Charles’s review, and this one by Ilana Teitelbaum in the Los Angeles Review of Books – I don’t know the Narnia books well enough to make the connections she does, but I found them really interesting. The title of the novel of course tells us to make connections to Piranesi, who in turn was an influence on M. C. Escher: these allusions are good visual cues, but whether they help much with interpreting the novel I’m not sure. In any case, because Piranesi is at once so memorable and so enigmatic, I know it will linger with me for a long time.

“They wept, they dreamed”: Hallie Rubenhold, The Five

the-fiveThey are worth more to us than the empty human shells we have taken them for; they were children who cried for their mothers, they were young women who fell in love; they endured childbirth, the death of parents; they laughed, and they celebrated Christmas. They argued with their siblings, they wept, they dreamed, they hurt, they enjoyed small triumphs.

Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five admirably fulfill’s Rubenhold’s stated ambition for it: to restore “their dignity” to five women whose individual life stories have been subsumed by the horror of their deaths and the horrifyingly glamourous mythology of their murderer. These women, the “canonical five” victims of Jack the Ripper, have long been cast as bit players in his drama, in parts that, Rubenhold shows, reduce or misrepresent who they actually were.

I’m not going to reiterate the life stories Rubenhold has (somewhat astonishingly) managed to reconstruct in The Five, partly because it’s the sheer accumulation of detail that matters to the book’s effectiveness. At times I did wonder if we really need so much detail—Rubenhold risks bogging us down in minutiae, and I admit that sometimes I found myself starting to skim, looking to reconnect with a storyline, to regain some forward momentum. But even as I did that, I was aware that I was going against the grain of the book, which is by design anti-narrative.

What I mean by that (and of course this is just my theory about Rubenhold’s approach) is that we already know something crucial about each woman: we already know how their stories end. For too long that one thing has been considered enough to know about them, or at least the most important thing to know about them, and it has been used to make assumptions about what came before—and about who these women were. In order to undo that ending, to refuse it as the defining moment in their lives, Rubenhold has to repress it almost completely, even as each step of each of her five biographies takes its subject closer and closer to it. It’s a really interesting conceptual challenge.

the-case-of-the-murderous-dr-creamShe is also committed to undoing the sensationalism around her subjects’ lives and deaths: I think that’s another explanation for the way she writes the book. She avoids all the obvious kinds of narrative manipulation: she creates no suspense, she does not set a foreboding tone, use foreshadowing, or create melodramatic scenarios or dramatic climaxes. This is one way The Five differs from Dean Jobb’s The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream: although I did not find his treatment of this murderer’s victims exploitive, Jobb does enjoy dramatic irony and foreshadowing, and overall he  tells a more melodramatic and grisly tale. He also, obviously, focuses on the killer, whereas Rubenhold refuses to give Jack the Ripper any more attention than is absolutely necessary. (For instance, there is no speculation at all in The Five about who he was.)

This is not to say that The Five is a dull, plodding, or wearily studious book, though it is very much a work of social history. It gets its considerable energy from Rubenhold’s frankly feminist perspective on her subjects’ lives, deaths, and posthumous treatment. “The courses their lives took,” she says early on, “mirrored that of so many other women of the Victorian age.” The book is really one long quietly furious riposte to the still too-common victim-blaming question about women who are assaulted: “what was she doing there in the first place?” She answers that question five times, recounting how one by one these women were worn down by social constraints, by economic struggles, by lack of education, by lack of employment options, by their inability to control their fertility; she shows families broken by disease, by poverty, by alcoholism, and especially by the lack of support and resources to recover from any of these problems. The women she tells us about were not helpless victims of circumstance, but their world was hard, hostile, and often dangerous—and profoundly misogynistic. They ended up in vulnerable situations, not because they made uniquely bad decisions or were in any way “looking for it,” but because they had run out of other options.

fiveAnd no matter how they came to be “sleeping rough,” they didn’t invite or deserve their horrendous deaths. The idea that any version of their life stories should mitigate our distress at the violence done to them—that in any way their murders open them up to that kind of judgment of their characters—is precisely what Rubenhold is crusading against. The epigraph for her conclusion comes from the judge at the trial of the so-called “Suffolk Strangler” in 2008: “You may view with some distaste the lifestyles of those involved,” he says, but “no-one is entitled to do these women any harm, let alone kill them.” Since the first inquests into their deaths, Rubenhold shows, her five have been dismissed as “only prostitutes,” perpetuating the familiar Madonna / whore dichotomy that “suggests there is an acceptable standard of female behavior, and those who deviate from it are fit to be punished.” She rightly points out how persistent this view is, to this day:

When a woman steps out of line and contravenes accepted norms of feminine behavior, whether on social media or on the Victorian street, there is a tacit understanding that someone must put her back in her place.

Never having read any “Ripperology,” I was shocked at the examples she gives of writers (recent ones!) about Jack the Ripper who casually degrade his victims and “elevate the murderer to celebrity status.” “Our culture’s obsession with the mythology,” she convincingly argues, “serves only to normalize its particular brand of misogyny.” Women shouldn’t have to be nice, good, perfect to be safe; men shouldn’t be able to use anything about women’s lives as justifications for violence against them. It might seem like a stretch when Rubenhold declares that by accepting the “Ripper legend” we not only perpetuate the specific injustice done to her subjects but “condone the basest forms of violence”—but if we understand them, as she wants us to, as representative rather than unique, as important because they are ordinary, not because they are outliers, then she is exactly right, and in that respect The Five is very much a book about the present as well as the past, and it is not just sad but infuriating.

“And then what?” Margot Livesey, The Hidden Machinery

liveseyStevenson’s advice to the young writer is misleadingly simple, a Zen koan in disguise. Read everything that is good, nothing that is bad. And then what? … Then, learn to read as a writer, to search out that hidden machinery which it is the business of art to conceal and the business of the apprentice to comprehend … And then you have to hope for grace and luck, the Lares and Penates of fiction, to knock at your door.

I don’t have a lot of specific things to say about Margot Livesey’s The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing. I’m more interested in what I learned (or didn’t learn) from it about teaching creative writing, something I have been–mostly idly–curious about for some time, for personal and professional reasons. I’ve always been a bit of a skeptic about it: none of the novelists I admire the most, after all, had any kind of training in “craft,” and given the impossibility (in my view, anyway) of setting reliable standards for good or bad art, I have never been convinced that creative writing can or should be graded. These opinions are, I frankly admit, more prejudices than convictions or conclusions–they are not supported by extensive study on my part of how creative writing programs work or whether on balance they do seem to be good or bad for the literary world. I have read a number of essays and articles about this question over the years, both pro and con, but it hasn’t been an issue of great importance to me. Lately I have thought that perhaps it should be, not least because creative writing is an increasingly large part of the curriculum in my own department. I certainly have no doubt whatsoever about the talent, dedication, and good faith of the people who do this work at Dalhousie, and that is actually one reason I have been feeling more curious lately about creative writing as a process or a discipline.

between-the-coverrsWith that in mind, I asked the Twitter ‘hivemind’ for examples of what people consider the best books for or about teaching creative writing. I got a lot of suggestions: Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House; Nancy Kress’s Beginnings, Middles, and Ends; Sarah Painter’s Stop Worrying, Start Writing; Robert Boswell’s The Half-Known World; Graywolf Press’s The Art Of series; Tin House’s Between the Covers podcast; Ursula LeGuin’s Steering the Craft, Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction.* One that got a few strong endorsements was Margot Livesey’s The Hidden Machinery. It sounded appealing, so it’s the one I decided to read first (and, I now think, maybe last).

I did learn something from The Hidden Machinery, but it wasn’t quite what I expected or was looking for, though I suppose I’m not exactly sure what that was–something concrete, I think, about the actual pedagogy of writing, about the movement from reading to doing. Livesey’s book is not a textbook (of the list I compiled, I now see that only Burroway’s is of really of that kind), but it is described as a “masterclass,” so it’s not unreasonable to think that it is meant to do more than talk about how other people’s books are written. And yet that’s really all that it does, with a few nods towards using them as models and some stories about Livesey’s experiences writing her own novels. Rather than being a book of an unfamiliar kind, it turned out to belong to a category of books I spent a lot of my early blogging years exploring: “books about books.” Only I was reading them, back in the old days, looking for models of criticism, trying to answer my questions about what kind of literary analysis had any traction outside the academy. It hadn’t occurred to me (though maybe it should have) to look at these books as how-to-write guides, not (or not just) how-to-read ones.

oup-persuasionThe Hidden Machinery is a perfectly fine book about how some really good novels are written. It is mostly close reading. There are zero revelations in it for anyone who has read, say A Passage to India or Persuasion or Madame Bovary attentively with an eye to things like point of view or narrative form or metaphorical patterns or character development. Livesey does a good job walking us through her examples; she is an observant and insightful reader. In her discussion about her own fiction, she explains clearly what she thinks she learned, where she thinks she succeeded or failed, as a result, at least in part, of the attention she learned to pay to other writers. These sections are interesting, but they are not really transferable “lessons”, because each of her novels (like every novel) is unique. There is absolutely no specific advice about how to be as good as her exemplary writers are–and how could there be? There is, near the end, a list of “rules” (derived, a bit unexpectedly for a novelist, from her study of Shakespeare) and it is as useful and as useless as every such list I’ve ever seen: “don’t keep back the good stuff”; “negotiate your own standard of plausibility”; “don’t overexplain”; “write better sentences.” “Don’t overexplain” would probably rule out a novel like Byatt’s The Children’s Book, which I loved. “Write better sentences” is a good Flaubertian proposal–but for some of us, one Flaubert is more than enough. “Negotiate your own standard of plausibility” at least allows for the ridiculous level of coincidence in Dickens…but he (and those who love him for, rather than in spite of, his excesses) would laugh off “be careful how you repeat yourself.”

the_new_novelI was looking for something in Livesey’s book that would be an “aha” moment for me about creative writing as something that can be taught. There was such a moment, but it didn’t exactly confirm for me that what’s most important is classes or programs dedicated to the how-to side. Many, many times I have sat at the English Department’s table at the “academic program fair” held yearly to showcase and recruit students to our various majors and honours program. Year after year, since we started offering creative writing courses, the vast majority of student inquiries are about them, not about our “standard” literature courses. But in those literature courses we do exactly what Livesey does in The Hidden Machinery,** and if you do a majors or honours degree in our department you will perforce study examples across a range of periods and genres–not just the contemporary ones or the ones students already know they are interested in, but the ones they don’t know they are going to love, the literary “unknown unknowns.” Many, many times I have asked prospective creative writing students what other writers, what literary periods or forms, they are most interested in, and many, many times they have had no answer: they just “like to write.”

burrowayI love that they like to write! But I have always thought (and sometimes said, as tactfully as I could) that to write well you really, really need to read widely. If Livesey’s typical at all–and in this respect I do think she is–that’s what creative writing teachers think too. I’m just still left wondering why an English degree isn’t, then, the right or even best way for these students to proceed, and why they don’t know that. The counter-argument probably turns as much on time, encouragement, and mentorship as on the belief that you can actually teach someone to write something worth reading or even, one day, something that is itself worth studying as an example. Those are definitely good things for aspiring writers to have, even if they are neither necessary nor sufficient factors for producing good, much less great, writers.

I’m not trying to take a stand for or against creative writing programs as such: that’s really not my place as a non-expert, for one thing, and there are lots of reasons (including administrative and financial ones) that make it inevitable that they will not just continue but expand. There can be (and there is, at Dalhousie, I’m glad to say) valuable integration or at least intersection between creative writing and English, in individual courses as well as in the programs as a whole. For these reasons among others, I’m still interested in questions about how reading leads to writing, and about craft, creativity, and pedagogy. I like the look of the Tin House podcast, so I might have a go at some of its episodes next.


*I don’t know what, if anything, to make of the fact that these are by and large not writers I had heard of or read before (I’d heard of Livesey, but not read any of her novels; I’d obviously heard of LeGuin!).

**While I was thinking about this post (and, to be honest, second-guessing the wisdom of wading into these waters at all), I happened to read a review in the Los Angeles Review of Books of George Saunders’s new book about writing, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, that included this comment: “One doubts that a lesser writer could recognize the skills of the masters so readily, or be able to analyze the short stories as cogently and incisively as Saunders does.” That immediately struck me as absurd: it describes precisely the work of literary criticism, and it reflects what I have always found a problematic assumption, which is that authors make the best critics. Review assignments (in Canada especially) often seem to assume this as well. I think the two skills sets are intimately related but different, and I wonder if this assumption that those who are critics and not practicing novelists lack insight is what leads to books like Livesey’s and Saunders’s being hyped as revelatory, expressions of some special creative power, rather than a good reflection of (some of) the things an English degree will teach you about and how to do.

“The Complexity of Life”: Marina Endicott, The Difference

difference2

‘Still, was it right, to take a child from his people?’

Thea shook her head and got up from the rocker. ‘You make me tired, Kay,’ she said. ‘You have a way of simplifying an argument that ignores the complexity of life.’

Marina Endicott’s The Difference was a near miss for me. It has a lot of elements and qualities that I usually enjoy, and that I mostly did enjoy in this case. It is meticulous historical fiction–though ‘meticulous’ is not my highest term of praise because it rightly implies that the novel made me a bit too aware of the care with which it renders its imagined version of a particular time and place. I prefer more exuberance, and The Difference as a whole only occasionally risks more expansive expressiveness.

When it does so, it is around the wonders of the sea and its creatures: it is very much a sea-faring novel, and while (again) this meant it was filled with good things, things I usually like (like vivid descriptions of water and light and dolphins, and plenty of neepery about sailing) often it felt to me as if we were proceeding at a speed a bit too close to real time on the Morning Light‘s voyage from Yarmouth to the South Pacific and around again. For over 250 pages (so, much more than half of the novel) The Difference seemed to be going nowhere in particular except on that literal voyage, which provides a deliberate, well-crafted, but rather protracted set-up for the problem that is supposedly the crux of the story and its themes.

The Difference tells the story of Kay, her half-sister Thea, and Thea’s husband Francis, the ship’s captain, as they travel the ocean on Francis’s trading route. Endicott’s account of both the trip and their many varied stops are full of fine detail and Kay is a well-developed character: young, thoughtful, unconventional (of course – she has to be, I guess, to be a protagonist), excited to be tutored in Greek.

Part of the backstory for both Kay and Thea is their father’s work at an “Indian” school, where conditions were harsh and the treatments punitive for the pupils who were taken away from their own families and cultures. It’s clear that Endicott means this large-scale wrong as a counterpoint to the specific wrong on which the book’s plot eventually pivots: about half way through the book, off the coast of a small island called Pulo Anna, the ship encounters boats full of men eager to trade – including, it turns out, one of their own number, a young boy whom they leave on the Morning Light in exchange for four pounds of tobacco. Thea, who has had multiple miscarriages, essentially adopts the boy, whom they call “Aren”; she delights in being his “mother,” and Kay embraces her role as his big sister. Aren adjusts with seeming ease to his new life but becomes ill with TB, and they end up stopping in New York so he can recover.

difference1We pick up again about a decade later and much has changed. Most importantly, Aren has left his adopted family and is living a bit of a rough life in Halifax. Distressed and frustrated, both on his behalf and her own, Kay comes up with a plan to take him “home” to Pulo Anna. Once more we find ourselves on board ship and traveling across the seas. Although the next part of the book is as carefully and thoughtfully crafted as the first part, as I made my way through it, and even more so at the end of the novel, I found myself preoccupied with what Endicott had left out by not addressing the intervening years: a lot was missing, I thought, that would have illuminated both the action and, more importantly, the meaning, of the novel’s resolution.

The moral heart of the novel is the question of whether, as Kay very belatedly asks, it can have been right for them to take Aren away with them. Near the end of the novel, Thea reveals in a letter to Kay that when Aren was very sick, he yearned for his original family to “come to get me.” This is the first and almost the only explicit evidence we get that Aren did not in fact accept his new situation as placidly as it seemed, and while perhaps it should go without saying that his experience was traumatic, I can’t understand why that truth (assuming it is supposed to be the truth) was so completely suppressed in Endicott’s story-telling. Perhaps the point is to indict both Kay and Thea for taking his contentment for granted – an assumption as reductive to his humanity as the more overtly racist things people say to him or about him after he has joined their family – and thus to indict us by association if we haven’t questioned their points of view. Still, it seems odd to make the alternative perspective – a potential source of significant moral conflict not just elusive but invisible almost to the very end.

It’s Kay who has the most chance to be a figure of resistance and an ally for Aren, as she is set up as a bit of a maverick or nonconformist from the start, but she doesn’t express any concerns until that late and quite muted confrontation with Thea, and her relationship with Aren is genuinely affectionate, and (as far as we are ever shown) mutually so. Only her tutor, Mr. Brimner, shows any shock at the crude transaction these kindly people have engaged in. “We’ll leave Thea to tell the tale of her purchase of this little fellow,” Francis says lightly, at which

Mr. Brimner’s eyes snapped up to Francis’s face, as if he checked for a jape or jollity, but he schooled his expression quickly to one of objective interest.

His reaction does cast a skeptical shadow over the family’s own account, which casts them as benevolent saviors (“One could not credit how desperate the people were,” Thea explains to Mr. Brimner), and perhaps that is supposed to be enough to drive a wedge between us and them, even though the novel proceeds to depict both them and Aren as carrying on quite happily together.

I wonder if Endicott decided not to show the actual years Aren spends with his adopted family (skipping ahead as she does to his eventual alienation and departure) because that actually avoids treating Kay’s question as one that presents a genuine moral problem. Is the idea that we should not even try to weigh the life he had against the life that, in some sense, he should have had, or that at any rate he would have had, if his brother (as it turns out) had not so cavalierly traded him for tobacco? If the question of whether he might not, by some measures, have benefited from the trade is simply inadmissible, than I can see that it would be wasted time, argumentatively at least, to lay out the results as if there is any value or meaning in doing so: as if the specifics of his experience of being raised as  part of Thea and Francis’s family could possibly make any difference to the absolute moral wrong of his having been take away in that way from his own home. (Does he consent? What would count as consent, for a child and in those circumstances? Would it matter if he did?)

Taking that initial trade as a kind of original sin, from which no good can come, there is a certain simplicity, rather than complexity, to the novel’s moral framework: no matter how kind you are or how good your intentions, you have no right (to answer Kay’s question) to take a child from “his people.” If that is the novel’s point, it approaches it quite circuitously and by omission, rather than inquiry or dramatic enactment. Why not more directly expose the inadequacy of Thea’s version of the story, for one thing? (“A benevolent God,” she thinks, “had given her the chance to save this one soul at least from poverty and starvation,” and she considers this repayment for, not duplication of, “the deaths of all those poor Blade Lake children.”) Why not show us, too, what exactly Aren gave up, what the loss is to him, which remains not just abstract but actually a bit hard to take for granted, because something else we learn on that final voyage is that “his people” have not survived: war and then famine have wiped them out. If he had never left, he would presumably have died with them; his body might well have been one of those found “littering” the beach. I guess what I missed as I finished the novel was clearer evidence of how (or, I guess, whether) the novel thought we should wrestle with these alternatives. Is the news of the island’s catastrophe actually evidence of complexity after all, because it is hard to say for sure whether Aren was, ultimately, better off for being spared this fate? Or, again, do the terms of his “adoption” make any further moral considerations moot as there’s nothing that can possibly compensate for or mitigate that harm?

Endicott’s acknowledgments suggest she intends the latter. The Difference was inspired by real events, and she says that she “heard Miss Ladd’s story of the boy bought for four pounds of tobacco with an instantaneous feeling of revulsion.” She also makes explicit the connection I alluded to between Aren’s story and “the terrible legacy of residential schools in Canada.” Kay and Thea both carry profound guilt with them for how their father’s pupils suffered; it is surprising that they do not more readily make this connection themselves, though Kay moves closer to it by the end. One of the reviews quoted on my edition of The Difference says that the novel shows “how many mistakes can lead to kindness.” To me, the thrust of the novel seems rather to be “how many intended kindnesses can lead to mistakes.” I just wish the novel had been more direct about both dramatizing and philosophizing about – making the arguments for – that theme.

This Week In My Classes: Online

1015StartHere-cropIt is hard to know how to begin the 2020-21 iteration of this ongoing series without cliches about how everything about it is unprecedented. In recent years I had started to worry that continuing to post about my teaching might be boring–a bit, perhaps, to me but more so to the people who still come by and read this blog–because in so many ways, things had been going on more or less the same for so long. I kept tweaking things, including both my teaching methods and my course design and reading lists, but the academic year has a predictable routine and one way or another I have kept teaching more or less the same material. And now none of that seems boring to me at all. I would so much rather be writing again about how annoying our long add-drop period is than about what’s actually going on. But here we all are, in general, without the option to go back to the way things used to be, and here I am, in particular, one week into the unprecedented experience of an all-online semester.

1200px-Gnome-computer.svgSo how is it going? One of the oddest things about it, to be honest, is that I really have no idea. The whole past week felt like a massive anti-climax: after months of work, trying to re-train myself and take on board an overwhelming amount of information about “best practices” for online course design and student engagement and teacher presence, after taking a 9-week online course myself to learn about how to do this, after countless hours revising my course outlines and schedules and learning new tools and building my actual Brightspace course sites … all with September 8 as the looming deadline for when the students would “arrive” and the whole experiment would really begin … After all of this, there was no one moment when we were back in class, no online equivalent to that exhilarating and terrifying first face to face session. Instead, because this is how asynchronous online teaching works, students just gradually and on their own timeline started checking in and making their first contributions, while I watched and waited and wondered and tried not to pounce too fast whenever a new notification appeared.

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It was strange–it is strange–but in many ways the lack of drama is obviously exactly what I should want: it means that, so far anyway, nothing has imploded. Students seem to be doing fine learning their way around Brightspace; I haven’t had a wave of messages (I haven’t had really any, in fact) asking for clarification of policies or procedures; I haven’t heard, so far, of anything at all going wrong, from acquiring the course books to viewing the uploaded video lectures. I’m sure that eventually there will be problems, at their end or mine, but I am relieved that we seem to have had an uneventful roll-out in both courses.

hello badgeI’m also genuinely pleased about the contributions that have come in, especially, in both courses, the introductions students have been posting on our “getting to know each other” discussion boards. As I said to them, our first crucial task is to begin building the class into a community, and it has been lovely to see them embrace that goal by telling us a little bit about themselves and then (best of all) responding with great friendliness to each other. I don’t usually solicit individual introductions in all of my F2F classes, only in the smaller seminars, so actually I know more about these groups than I think I ever have this early in the term. While a lot of what I read and practiced this summer was about how to make myself present to my students as a real, if virtual, person, this exercise has been great for making them present to me, not just “students” in the abstract but two really varied and interesting groups of people who bring different perspectives, interests, and needs to our collective enterprise.

Latour reading womanStill, I find the spread of the experience out over all hours of the day and all the days of the week disorienting, destabilizing, uncomfortable. Usually my weekly schedule involves regular build-ups to each class meeting: preparing notes and materials and ideas and plans, doing the reading, summoning the energy. Then there’s the live session, which in the moment absorbs all my concentration. When it’s over, I’m drained, even if (especially if!) there has been a really good, lively discussion: being in the moment for that kind of exchange is unlike anything else I do in terms of how focused but also flexible, how attentive to others but also on-task I need to be. I love it, and I really miss it already. I know we can have engaged and intellectually serious exchanges in our online format, but they won’t have the same rhythm, or perhaps any rhythm at all, who knows. Not having to be up and dressed and out the door early in the morning (or ever!) is some compensation, and I expect I will find more of a routine as we settle into the term, but (and I expect I’m going to be saying things like this a lot this term, so sorry for the repetition) it’s a strange new way of being a professor.

hardtimesAs for specifics, well, we’re discussing Seamus Heaney’s “Digging” and Adrienne Rich’s “Aunt Jennifer’s Tiger” in my intro class this coming week, and in 19th-Century Fiction it’s time for Hard Times (which I assigned this term because we ended up cutting it last term when we ‘pivoted’ to online). These are all texts I like a lot, though in my experience Hard Times is often a hard sell, even to students who otherwise like Dickens (which is never all of them, of course). Will I be able to communicate my enthusiasm and generate the kinds of discussions I aspire to in the classroom without being in the classroom? I guess I’ll find out. I’m trying to create recorded lectures that open up into writing prompts, rather than drawing conclusions, much as I would move in the classroom through laying out some ideas, contexts, or questions and then opening things up to their input. I am actually having some fun with this, though yet one more unknown is how effective my first attempts will be. I have the next two weeks of material nearly completed, so that buys me a bit of time: as I see what works and what doesn’t, and which approach to the lectures they prefer, I can adapt the next round accordingly.

I guess I would characterize my current feeling about this term as “cautiously optimistic.” Besides, it doesn’t really matter how I feel: this is what we all have to do. Doing it as well as possible under the circumstances remains the only plan I have.

“Holes in the Fabric”: Sandra Newman, The Heavens

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Because Kate’s anomalies had now spawned enigmas, discrepancies, holes in the fabric of Kate. It wasn’t that she was crazy, or not like any crazy girls he’d known before. She didn’t weep; she didn’t scream. She wasn’t hyperemotional. If anything, she was all too sanguine–wore the same clothes for days on end and forgot to brush her hair and was perfectly content. . . . But there was also the incident where Kate told Ben a story about an ex-Green Beret who had climbed the White House fence and broken into the White House and bearded the president and the First Lady in bed, and instead of calling for the Secret Service, the president called downstairs for tea, and they sat drinking tea in the president’s bedroom and discussing the treatment of veterans, and the man became the president’s personal friend. She couldn’t remember which president. It had happened sometime in the nineties.

I found Sandra Newman’s The Heavens really engaging until I started getting confused about how exactly it worked, about what the essential conceptual links were between its variable pasts and presents. It is, definitely, a high-concept novel, one that invites that kind of probing: it’s clear that Newman is using the elements of her genre-bending time-traveling speculative historical dystopian romantic novel to say something–lots of things, probably–rather than simply as plot devices. If I understand her at all, some of these things are about the better alternatives we can imagine to the world we actually live in. Some of them are about how to get to that world we would have to, or have had to, make different choices, including about what, or who, or whose stories, we value most.

What I couldn’t ultimately hang on to, though, was why exactly Shakespeare is somehow placed at the center of this project. Is the novel a critique of something exemplified, maybe, by what is sometimes called ‘Bardolotry,’ so that Sad Will (as Kate, or, rather, Emilia, knows him) is present more as a symbol than a character? Is the notion that our fixation on individual accomplishment and fame–what we routinely but perhaps sloppily, think of as ‘genius’–crowds out other kinds of achievement that might lead to better communal futures? If that’s the idea, I feel as if I should be more certain of it, as well as clearer about why Emilia Lanier is the specific device Newman chooses to set up that implicit argument.

heavens2I also didn’t understand the relationship between Kate’s specific choices in the past and the outcome she hopes for from them. She believes (or Emilia believes) that she has some kind of mission to save the world, but as the novel wound on I got more confused about the nature of that mission and the metaphysics that presumably make sense of it, never mind how she and we are supposed to get from what she does then to what happens now. (It probably didn’t help my attempts to never mind all that and just go along with Newman’s unexplained model of time travel that I’ve been proofreading my husband’s book on determinism, which includes compelling arguments about the logical consequences of any speculative ‘what if’ re-imaginings of the past.) Newman is writing fiction, so she doesn’t necessarily have to meet a stringent philosophical standard, but there wasn’t even enough narrative coherence to her version to hold doubts at bay. As far as I can remember it, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife (to which The Heavens has inevitably been compared) is every bit as metaphysically confusing and implausible but was at least an intensely gripping story.

By the end, then, my appreciation had become quite fragmented. Newman does some things really well, and I was able to sustain an interest in the love story that threads through the novel as well as in the various versions of their ‘now,’ each of them a bit worse than the last but all vividly recognizable. The 9/11 section in particular had a grim emotional intensity without sentimentality or sensationalism. The historical novel that is Kate’s dream life (or whatever it is rightly called) as Emilia is also really well done–again, vivid, specific, and tense. The question of whether Kate is mad or actually somehow having experiences outside of linear time is well handled, often painfully as those around her try to secure her in what they believe to be the only reality. I just couldn’t sort out my thematic and conceptual confusions well enough to feel satisfied with the novel as a whole. That said, I’m not at my most patient and attentive right now as a reader, and it is quite possible that the fault lies not with The Heavens but with me.newman2

Matt Keeley’s review of The Heavens is worth checking out: he is much less equivocal about it than I am, and I think he is right about all the strengths of the novel. As always, if you read this novel too I’d love to know what you thought.

This Week In My (Fall 2020) Classes: Coming to Terms

DALHOUSIE-UNIVERSITYWell, it’s official: Dalhousie’s Fall 2020 classes will be “predominantly online,” the only planned exceptions being specialized programs that rely on “experiential learning” — “medicine, dentistry, select health professions, agriculture.” In the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, we were told some time ago to begin planning for an online term: if some miracle occurred and suddenly it was safe to resume business as (formerly) usual, after all, it would have been easier to revert to face-to-face teaching than it would have been to have to pivot the other way. It is definitely helpful to have more certainty, though, especially for our students.

Because planning ahead suits me much better than waiting and wondering, I had already begun trying to come to grips with what it would (now, will) mean to teach my classes online. The first stage was wrestling with my emotions about this. I love teaching–it is my favourite part of my job, sometimes the only part of it that really makes sense to me and certainly the part of it that I am most motivated about. I have always accepted that there are people who do a good job of online teaching and that there are ways to make it a good experience. Still, I have always resisted doing it myself, because I enjoy being in the live classroom so much and because I spend a lot of time online for other reasons and didn’t want to lose one of my main sources of in-person human contact.

Dal_MarionMcCain_BuildingHaving the decision made for me by circumstances hasn’t changed everything about how I feel about teaching online, but it has made a lot of those feelings irrelevant. Also, countering my wistfulness about what we’ll be missing are other, stronger feelings about what we will, happily, be avoiding by staying behind our screens. Every description I’ve seen of ways to make face-to-face teaching more or less safe for everyone involved has involved a level of surveillance, anxiety, and uncertainty that I think would make it nearly impossible to teach or learn with confidence: a lot of what is good about meeting in person would be distorted by the necessary health and safety measures, and even without taking into account the accessibility issues for staff, students, and faculty who would be at higher risk, being in a constant state of vigilance would be exhausting for everyone. Frankly, I’m relieved and grateful that Dalhousie has finally made a clear call that (arguably) errs on the side of caution. Now we can get on with planning for it.

The Student (Dixon)As my regret about the shift to online has been replaced by determination to make the best of it, I’ve also noticed something I’ve seen experienced online teachers point out before, which is a tendency to idealize face-to-face teaching, as if just being there in person guarantees good pedagogy. It doesn’t, of course. In my own case, I know that what I’ll miss the most is lively in-class discussions. But if I’m being honest, I have to admit that even the liveliest discussion rarely involves everyone in the room. Of course I try hard to engage as many people as possible, using a range of different strategies depending on the class size and purpose and layout: break-out groups, think-pair-share exercises, free writing from discussion prompts, discussion questions circulated ahead of time, handouts with passages to annotate and share, or just the good old-fashioned technique “ask a provocative question and see where it gets us.” Even what feels to me like a very good result, though, might actually involve 10 people out of, say, 40 — or 90, or 120 — speaking up. Others are (hopefully!) engaged in different ways, and there are different ways, too, to ask for and measure participation than counting who speaks up in class. Still, I’d be fooling myself if I pretended that there wasn’t any room for improvement–and what I want to think about as I make plans for the fall is therefore not how to try to duplicate that in-class experience online (ugh, Zoom!), partly because we are supposed to focus on asynchronous methods but also because maybe I can use online tools to get a higher contribution rate, which in turn might make more students feel a part of our collective enterprise. And, not incidentally, if all contributions are written, they will also get more (low-stakes) writing practice, which is always a good thing, and they will be able to think first, and more slowly (if that suits them), and look things up in the text, before having to weigh in.

Bookworm's Table (Hirst)There are other ways in which (and we all know this to be true) face-to-face teaching isn’t perfect, and there are also teachers whose face-to-face teaching does not reflect best practices for that medium. Given these obvious truths, and especially since the shift to online teaching is driven by factors that themselves have nothing to do with pedagogical preferences, I have been getting pretty irritable about professors publicly lamenting these decisions, especially when it’s obvious that they haven’t made the slightest effort to learn anything about online teaching, or to reflect on the limitations of their own usual pedagogy. One prominent academic just published an op-ed in a national paper declaring that online teaching can only ever be a faint shadow of “the real thing”; others have been making snide remarks on Twitter about the obvious worthlessness of a term of “crap zoom lectures” (that’s verbatim) or questioning why students should pay tuition for the equivalent of podcasts. Besides the obvious PR downside of making these sweepingly negative and ill-informed statements when your institutions are turning themselves upside down to find sustainable ways forward, what kind of attitude does that model for our students? The situation is hard, I agree, and sad, and disappointing. But at the end of the day we are professionals and this, right now, is what our job requires. If we value that job–and I don’t mean that in the reductive “it’s what we get paid for” way (though for those of us with tenured positions, that professional obligation is important to acknowledge and live up to) but our commitment to teaching and training and nurturing our students–then, if we can*, I think we need to do our best to get on with it.

Arcimbolo LibrarianAnd happily, though most of us are not trained as online teachers, we do have a superpower that should help us out: we are trained researchers! We can look things up, consult experts, examine models, and figure out how to apply what we learn to our own situations, contexts, pedagogical goals, and values. At this point, that’s what I’m working on: learning about online learning. Yes, I had other projects I was interested in pursuing this summer. In fact, I still do, but I have scaled back my expectations for them, because I can’t think of anything that’s more important right now than doing everything I can to make my fall classes good experiences, for my students and also for me. I have the privilege of a full-time continuing position, after all, and my university is making experts and resources available to me–plus there are all kinds of people generously offering guidance and encouragement through Twitter and I have been following up their leads and bookmarking sites and articles and YouTube videos.

I still feel a lot of generalized anxiety about the pandemic–both its immediate risks and its broader implications–but I can’t influence those outcomes, except by following expert advice and “staying the blazes home” (to quote our premier!), doing my part to slow the spread of the virus by doing as little as possible. It’s hard! I am still really struggling with my own feelings of fear and helplessness and uncertainty. But that’s why it actually feels good to focus on this pedagogical work: there is so much about the wider situation that I can’t control, but this effort is up to me. It is genuinely challenging, and I also genuinely like learning how to do new things. Sometimes now I even feel excited about what my classes might be like. After all, I have years of experience forming important relationships and experiencing real community online, through blogs and Twitter and the collaborative work of editing Open Letters Monthly, for example. I believe it can be done! Now, if I can just convince more of my colleagues–and reassure my students–about that …


*I realize not everyone is equally able to do this–those in precarious positions, those with young children who are no longer in daycare or school and who may not have summer camps; those with limited access to technology and other resources. As many people have been discussing, this crisis is highlighting and exacerbating inequities of many kinds, both in and out of the academy. Institutions should be asked over and over what they are doing to address them, and then held to account. For instance, it has always been wrong to assign courses to contingent faculty at the last minute: now it would be simply impossible for them to prepare their materials in a matter of days or even weeks. It’s already clear to me that three months isn’t really enough time!

“Solitude Deepens”: May Sarton, The House By the Sea

sarton-houseSolitude has replaced the single intense relationship, the passionate love that even at Nelson focused all the rest. Solitude, like a long love, deepens with time, and, I trust, will not fail me if my own powers of creation diminish. For growing into solitude is one way of growing to the end.

There’s not really much new or different in A House By the Sea: like the other Sarton memoirs or journals I’ve read, it is a patchwork of records of her daily life (“At the end of the afternoon yesterday Raymond came to see how I was getting on, and we sat at the table in the porch and had a little talk”), reflections on people she knows, or memories of those she has lost (“The Julian Huxley I knew and loved is beginning to emerge again after the shock of seeing him, old and crotchety, last October”), a lot of fretting and some very occasional rejoicing over her writing projects (“I wonder sometimes whether the sea may not constantl defuse the anxiety without which poetry is impossible for me”), observations on the solitude that nourishes but also occasionally devastates her (“This morning I feel better for having let the woe in, for admitting what I have tried for weeks to refuse to admit–loneliness like starvation”), and descriptions of the natural world around the house she has moved to by the sea:

If there is one irresistible piece of magic here among many others, it is the slightly curving path down to the sea that begins in flagstones on the lawn, cuts through two huge junipers, and proceeds, winding its way down to Surf Point, through the wood lilies in June, to tall grasses in summer, the goldenrod and asters in September, leading the eye on, creating the atmosphere of a fairy tale, something open yet mysterious that every single person who comes here is led to explore.

It’s the last two elements that draw me to these books, which otherwise are such so committed to the everyday that they risk being as dull as uncomposed reality. At their best, they bring out the poetry of the quotidian–and Sarton’s own everyday life, too, sometimes has real drama, while her literary work and connections mean that her activities do become more interesting than they would otherwise be.

The House By the Sea seemed less engaging in those ways than Plant Dreaming Deep or Journal of a Solitude–like At Seventy, it is more incidental and miscellaneous. Still, there are many wonderful descriptions of nature and many moments when her observations about life, death, and especially solitude really resonated with me. The book covers a time that is not without its troubles–a dear friend succumbing to dementia, others to death, her own illnesses bringing constant reminders of her own mortality, importunate visitors, harsh winter storms–but she seeks and often finds strength and comfort in her quiet life and habits. “I have never been so happy in my life,” she says, thinking back over her first year and a half in her house by the sea:

I have not said enough about what it is to wake each day to the sunrise and to that great tranquil open space as I lie in my bed, having breakfast, often quietly thinking for a half hour. That morning amplitude, silence, the sea, all make for a radical change in tempo. Or is it, too, that I am growing older, and have become a little less compulsive about ‘what has to be done’? I am taking everything with greater ease. When I was younger there was far more conflict, conflict about my work, the desperate need to ‘get through,’ and the conflict created by passionate involvement with people. There are compensations for not being in love–solitude grows richer for me every year.

“A Certain Solace”: Nancy K. Miller, My Brilliant Friends

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There’s a certain solace in writing about loss, too, of course, because it’s a way of coming to terms with mortality. As long as you are doing the writing, you are rehearsing the losing; unlike the friend, you are still there. You are the mourner, after all. But what happens when you start losing yourself?

Nancy K. Miller’s My Brilliant Friends: Our Lives In Feminism is an odd kind of book, or perhaps it just seems that way to me because it hovers in between genres I recognize–it is part friendship memoir, part introspective autobiography, with dashes of campus tell-all and dabs of philosophical reflection on grief and aging and physicality and mortality. It often felt unfinished to me, with its uneven sections and abrupt segues never quite developing, never going for a long time in any one direction. Miller is too experienced and self-conscious a writer not to be doing all of this on purpose: that I found the end result rather scattered is a reflection of my own preference for continuity and order, but I imagine she would say that continuity and order are exactly what the experiences the book is about have not provided, and so the form fits the content.

heilbrunA lot of things about My Brilliant Friends really interested me. The friendships Miller is reflecting on were with Carolyn Heilbrun, Naomi Schor, and Diane Middlebrook: all four of them are big names, renowned scholars of the generation that basically pioneered feminist literary scholarship in the American academy in the later 20th century–and thus the generation that laid the groundwork for my own education as a feminist critic. I’ve written here before about the influence of Heilbrun on my own scholarship and my ongoing interest in her life and work. Miller’s own 1981 PMLA essay “Emphasis Added: Plots and Plausibilities in Women’s Fiction” greatly influenced my thinking about many novels but especially The Mill on the Floss. Part of the fascination of the book for me, as a result, was purely anecdotal and personal: I liked getting to know more about what it was like to be these women doing this groundbreaking work, getting a glimpse behind the scenes. I found myself envying these women their drive and also marveling at their persistence. It was oddly reassuring, too, to hear about their doubts and hesitations, and their fears about whether their work was worth what it took to produce or getting the notice or credit they wanted for it–familiar academic neuroses. “I don’t want to die thinking I’ve been left out of a footnote, excluded and erased” Miller comments (harking back to Naomi’s “pain at being left out of a footnote in an essay by a historian we both knew”), “though it’s not a feeling alien to me [or to me!]; alternately, I don’t want to be relegated to a footnote, which at best is what happens to most academic work.”

middlebrookAt its heart, though, My Brilliant Friends is really about more personal things than that (again, I think Miller might reply that the personal and the academic are not really so separable, or shouldn’t be). I found I wasn’t always able to be as interested as I wanted to be in the details. The Heilbrun section was the easiest one for me to engage with, because I have a relationship of my own, however indirect, with its subject. Miller’s thoughts on her friendship with Naomi Schor (a relationship which was long, complex, and of intense interest and significance to her) left me mostly unmoved, a detached spectator to the emotional intricacies of its ebb and flow. Of her three main subjects, I knew the least about Diane Middlebrook when I started the book; for some reason she came more vividly to life for me than Schor did, through both Miller’s recollections and her own letters. She sounds wonderful: she possessed, Miller says, “the art of making her friends feel loved and appreciated.” Theirs was a friendship formed relatively late in life, and I found Miller’s reflections on the different bases on which such belated bonds are formed really thought-provoking, especially as I have spent so many years distant from the very dear friends I made in my younger years.

220px-Carolyn_Gold_HeilbrunDeath is the occasion for the book. Middlebrook died of liposarcoma, which she was diagnosed with not long after she and Miller met; Schor suffered a cerebral hemorrhage at only 58, which, Miller remarks, “while not a tragically young age, is young enough to feel untimely.” Heilbrun, of course, committed suicide: though a relatively small part of the book as a whole, the other women’s reactions to her choice are among the most thought-provoking moments, because they are tied up with their deepest convictions about autonomy, especially for women, as well as with their thoughts about living, aging, and dying. Miller quotes from an exchange about Heilbrun’s death between Middlebrook and Elaine Showalter (another accomplished and very influential feminist scholar of this generation, of course, and another whose work has played a large part in my own scholarly life–her book A Literature of Their Own was the first book of literary criticism I ever bought for myself, when I was just starting down this academic path). Middlebrook argues that the suicide was an act “taken on behalf of what she valued in herself, which was her independence,” while Miller sides with Showalter, at least emotionally, that while the death itself may have been a legitimate choice, it was regrettable that leading up to it Heilbrun had (as Showalter put it) withdrawn herself “from life, from the trivial, quotidian treats that gave pleasure, and from the tasks and obligations that give pleasure to others.” (As a side note, I looked up the rest of the Showalter-Middlebrook exchange because it is also a discussion about retirement, something that, while most likely a decade or more away for me, has begun to pose itself to me as a question: not just when, but what. My attention was especially caught by Showalter’s reference to a book that makes the case for “people reinventing themselves after 55. She believes,” Showalter says, “that it is actually necessary to make major life changes at this point, or fade away.” Hmm. That gives me just over two years!)

miller-but-enoughIt’s not just her friends’ deaths that prompt and shape Miller’s writing: early in her work on the book, she herself was diagnosed with lung cancer. “You discover that your position, secured among the living, is unstable, unsure,” she observes; “You may have imagined yourself safely on the side of the living, and then suddenly … you are on the verge, possibly, of disappearing yourself.” This increases her desire to be “the subject”–“to be in charge of the story even if it seemed I had lost control of the narrative.”

This is why the generic oddity of the book ends up making sense to me. At first there seemed to be a strange kind of self-assertion to the book, an assumption about the relevance of these very particular and very personal relationships. In themselves, they are probably not that different from many friendships, ones that have been written about (such as that between Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby) and ones that will never be written about (such as most of the ones all of us experience). But for a feminist theorist, one whose life has been bound up in articulating what (and how) women’s lives mean, and especially one like Miller who has been particularly interested in criticism as a form that intersects with autobiography, some kind of commentary on the complex dynamics of loyalty, affection, support, rivalry, and resentment that made up her most important relationships with other women seems more than reasonable–it seems necessary. Miller is especially aware that in writing this book she is claiming the last word: “What else am I doing here,” she asks at one point, “but sketching biographies of my dead friends without their permission?” But she isn’t using it to put them in their place, to settle scores or fix definitions or perfect narratives about them. My Brilliant Friends is also not a manifesto about the “right” kind of friendship: it doesn’t have and also doesn’t seek that kind of unity. It just offers up Miller’s friendships, warts and all, for readers to think about. It also invites us to think about what Miller’s diagnosis has forced her to confront: not just who we will mourn and why, but who will mourn us, and what role writing will have for us, in that particularly difficult exercise in being human.

2019: My Year in Writing

oshaughnessyI am trying not to feel dissatisfied with the writing I did in 2019. For one thing, I deliberately took a step back from a certain kind of ‘productivity’ in order to develop ideas about what I hope will turn into some worthwhile projects. This kind of “fallow” time is rare and valuable and I think it is important not to accept the quantitative logic about “output” that treats it as unproductive. I had hoped to publish an essay about George Eliot in honor of her bicentenary, but in the end that pitch went nowhere; on the bright side, I was pleased to be given a bit more room than usual in the TLS for my review of Kathy O’Shaughnessy’s In Love With George Eliot, which could thus incorporate (albeit still briefly!) some of my broader ideas about how we think about Eliot today.

norrisIn any case, as it turned out, all of my publications in 2019 were reviews. For Quill & Quire, I wrote about Antanas Sileika’s Provisionally Yours (in March) and Laurie Glenn Norris’s Found Drowned (in June). For the TLS, I reviewed Tessa Hadley’s Late In the Day (in January), Joan Silber’s Improvement (in April), Jessica Howell’s Malaria and Victorian Fictions of Empire (in June), and Evelyn Toyton’s Inheritance (in November), in addition to O’Shaughnessy’s novel (also in November). I have one more review done and forthcoming in January (Emma Donoghue’s Akin, for Canadian Notes & Queries) and one more in progress, also forthcoming after Christmas (Marjorie Celona’s How A Woman Becomes A Lake, for Quill & Quire). Finally, I wrote a review of Tea Obreht’s Inland on spec; by the time I knew the publication I wrote it for did not want it, it was too late for any of the other editors I contacted about it to be interested. (Note to me: writing reviews on spec is a bad investment of time, energy, and angst!)

ghost-wallThis isn’t really a bad run of reading and writing: there wasn’t any point in 2019 when I didn’t have a review underway in addition to whatever other work I was doing. I think one reason I nonetheless feel disappointed about what I have to show for 2019 is that although many of these books engaged and interested me, none of them excited me the way that, for example, Ghost Wall and Dear Evelyn did in 2018. While there is always some satisfaction in figuring out what to say about a new book (I sometimes think of it as contributing to the ‘contemporary reception’ section of some future ‘critical heritage’ volume!), some books offer more literary or intellectual rewards than others. This year’s list had no dreadful lows, but it also (for me) had no dramatic highs. In this respect, the books I read “just” for myself were a better bunch. (Stay tuned for my regular ‘Best of Novel Readings’ round-up about them!)

Cover2I did publish one more substantial thing this year: Widening the Skirts of Light, my collection of (non-academic) essays about George Eliot. It was a hard but (I still think) sensible decision to self-publish them. I wanted to create something a bit more stable and lasting from all that work than links to online publications that sometimes seem discouragingly impermanent; doing this also helped me with my plan to refocus my energy on different material by providing some sense of closure about that run of writing. The e-book has sold over 1100 copies on Amazon (for those who avoid Amazon, it’s also available on Kobo, or you can just let me know you’re interested and I’ll happily email you the file in the format of your choice). That’s a pretty tiny number, but when I consider what a niche topic it is, how few copies sell of most academic books, and how little sustained effort I have put into publicizing the collection, I’m actually pleased and surprised that it has found even that many readers. I know it is not a publication that will earn me any professional credit, but it made me happy to hear myself described as its author when I was interviewed about George Eliot on CBC: it represents writing and thinking I am proud of.

I consider my blog posts publications too, though of a different sort than the others I’ve tallied up here. Because of my sabbatical in the first part of 2019, I wrote quite a few ruminations on pedagogical and research goals, and as always I wrote (though not as often as I once did) about my teaching when I went back to it in the fall and about my reading throughout the year. There’s more to be said about all of these things so they’ll get their own posts. For now, though, it’s useful for me to see what 2019 looked like for me as a writer–and to think about how I can make 2020 a year that I look back on with more satisfaction.