Sad, Beautiful, Absurd: Irène Némirovsky, Suite Française


How sad the world is, so beautiful yet so absurd . . . But what is certain is that in five, ten or twenty years, this problem unique according to our time, according to him, will no longer exist, it will be replaced by others . . . yet this music, the sound of this rain on the windows, the great mournful creaking of the cedar tree in the garden outside, this moment, so tender, so strange in the middle of war, this will never change, not this. This is for ever . . .

There are two aspects to Suite Française: the (unfinished) novel itself–two parts of an imagined five–and the story of its author, whose arrest, transportation, and eventual death at Auschwitz haunt her fiction about occupied France. It is difficult for me to disentangle my reading of the former from my response to the latter. I was interested enough in Suite Française, which is almost uncomfortably cool and acerbic in its depiction of its characters’ various trials and traumas. There’s no room for sentiment or heroism in Némirovsky’s portraits of people under extraordinary pressure–almost everybody is to some degree petty and self-absorbed, but her upper-class characters in particular are more afraid of losing their luxuries and privileges than they are of the larger and more dire implications of the German occupation.

I found Part I (“Storm in June”), about the flight from Paris as the Germans approached, more gripping than Part II (“Dolce”), about the uneasy relationship between the French characters and the occupying forces: the drama was more overt. Part II is more subtle, both morally and emotionally, as it deals with the difference between “the enemy” in the abstract and the all-too-real human beings sharing homes and gardens and public spaces with the vanquished. One thing that particularly struck me about Part I was that Némirovsky mostly avoided clichéd wartime melodrama: although the evacuees are bombed, for instance, the carnage seems almost incidental, and the two most shocking deaths in that part are only indirectly caused by the war. Part II is primarily about character and atmosphere until near the end, when it turns out Némirovsky has been laying the groundwork for a plot twist that, as her notes show, was going to drive a lot of the action in the subsequent parts.

suite-2I was interested, as I said, yet I wasn’t really captivated. The novel has a rather flat affect–perhaps the result of translation, but also reminiscent of Olivia Manning, who writes about war and violence and what survives with similar restraint. Némirovsky’s novel follows a cast of loosely or incidentally connected characters; the overall effect is somewhat like a sampler, or (as the title suggests) a “suite.” If Némirovsky had been able to finish the novel, the cumulative effect might well have been more than the sum of its parts; it seems shoddy to judge what seem like imperfections knowing that what we’ve got is only a fragment.

Having said that, I did appreciate the novel’s long descriptive passages, which–in contrast to its typically more stilted and utilitarian prose–are often very beautiful, even poetic. Here’s an example that also captures some of the paradoxes of the war-time world Némirovsky depicts. The French villagers have gathered to watch the Germans celebrate the anniversary of their occupation of Paris:

Little by little, darkness spread across the lawns; they could still make out the gold decorations on the uniforms, the Germans’ blond hair, the musicians’ brass instruments on the terrace, but they had lost their glow. All the light of the day, fleeing the earth, seemed for one brief moment to take refuge in the sky; pink clouds spiralled round the full moon that was as green as pistachio sorbet and as clear as glass; it was reflected in the lake. Exquisite perfumes filled the air: grass, fresh hay, wild strawberries. The music kept playing. Suddenly, the torches were lit; as the soldiers carried them along, they cast their light over the messy tables, the empty glasses, for the officers were now gathered around the lake, singing and laughing. There was the lively, happy sound of champagne corks popping.

“Oh, those bastards! And to think it’s our wine they’re drinking,” the Frenchmen said, but without real bitterness, because all happiness is contagious and disarms the spirit of hatred.

It is a memorable vignette, one of many such striking moments in the novel. If it sounds as if Némirovsky is holding out beauty or happiness as in any way the antidote to war and cruelty, though, that would be misleading: the aesthetic pleasure the French take in this spectacle does nothing to undo their resentment and fear at the German presence in their lives, or to compensate for their grief for the loss of their sons and husbands at German hands.

nemirovskyThe individual stories Némirovsky tells all have their interesting details, but one thing I thought was missing as I read along was any acknowledgment of the specific risk to Jews. This made me wonder exactly what Némirovsky would have known while she was writing in 1941-2. The Appendices include her notebooks and then correspondence from her and her husband Michael including his letters, increasingly desperate, to friends and connections after her arrest in July 1942. It is clear that he, at any rate, did not realize what it means–that it is almost certainly a death sentence. Not only does he try every means he can think of to find her and bring her home, but he even offers to take her place: “Can you please find out,” he writes a couple of months after her arrest,

if it would be possible for me to be exchanged for my wife–I would perhaps be more useful in her place and she would be better off here. If this is impossible, maybe I could be taken to her–we would be better off together.

By the time he sent this letter Irène had been dead for over a month. Michael himself was arrested in October 1942 and sent on to Auschwitz, where he died in the gas chambers. Their daughters survived only thanks to the courageous efforts of friends who sheltered them.

Maybe if I hadn’t read these documents immediately after finishing Suite Française the novel itself would have made a stronger impression on me. I found the appendices so compelling and immediate, though, so painfully real, that they overshadowed Némirovsky’s more muted and analytical fiction. The juxtaposition did raise questions for me about the kind of novel she wrote: about whether it deliberately lacks melodrama and avoids the horror and urgency her own story evokes or whether–though the included Preface to the French edition notes that she and her family “all openly wore the Jewish star” as restrictions on French Jews increased–she was spared the full painful understanding of what was really at stake until it was too late for her to write about it. (I’m sure there are answers about who know what when, though who believed what when is probably a somewhat different question. Then as now, it would have been hard to grasp the worst realities.) In any case, it is her personal story more than Suite Française that will stay with me, I think, which seems somehow both all wrong and entirely right.

Another Group: Joanna Smith Rakoff, A Fortunate Age

fortunate-age-2I was relieved to discover that nobody else in my book club liked A Fortunate Age either. For once, I feel reasonably confident saying it’s not me, it’s the book! I don’t think we’ve been so unanimous in our dislike of any our choices, in fact, since the disaster that was Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife.

We ended up having a very lively discussion, however, as we tried to figure out where or how we thought the book went awry. The novel rewrites Mary McCarthy’s The Group , which we read back in March. I didn’t love The Group, but it was certainly interesting, edgy, and thought-provoking–and by and large none of us found Rakoff’s updated version any of those things. Was it because Rakoff followed McCarthy’s model too closely and thus had to wrestle her characters into plotlines that didn’t necessarily suit them, and that gave the novel a stale air in spite of all the “novelty” of its 90s setting? Was it that we were all too familiar with that setting to find it historically interesting the way we did McCarthy’s rendition of her period? Perhaps it was that Rakoff’s women seemed too much like McCarthy’s, as if nothing had really changed about their options and preoccupations despite the decades that had passed–they seemed so insular, so self-absorbed, so unengaged with the wider world, or with ideas or possibilities outside their incestuous little nest of relationships. But things have changed for women, though of course not enough and not necessarily in only positive ways: in Rakoff’s novel, however, it seems as if the narcissism of youth makes historical change illegible or irrelevant. We concluded that, more than offering an insightful account of life in the 90s, A Fortunate Age read like The Group in 90s sets and costumes. We all found it a slog.

fortunate-age-1I particularly puzzled over why I found its detailed exposition so tedious. I am on record as a fan of exposition! But by half way through A Fortunate Age I was impatiently skimming through its dense paragraphs of stuff that just didn’t seem worth taking more time over. Rakoff inadvertently furnished a clue with her epigraph, which is from Daniel Deronda. (Beware: If you’re going to invite a comparison to George Eliot, it may well work against you!) True, Gwendolen Harleth is every bit as self-absorbed and ignorant of the wider world as the characters in A Fortunate Age, but (and for me this is crucial) George Eliot is not: her account of Gwendolen’s youthful egotism and willfulness is suffused with wry compassion; the context for Gwendolen’s story is not just the relentless minutiae of her immediate experience but everything else the narrator knows and thinks about the world she lives in. Gwendolen’s limitations do not limit her novel–but Rakoff’s characters are all we get in A Fortunate Age, and they don’t repay our sustained attention. I’m not saying the novel needed exactly what Daniel Deronda has–an intrusive narrator, for instance, or profundity, both of which are risky ventures if you aren’t George eliot–but it needed a broader perspective somewhere, a sense of what kind of story it is ultimately telling about these people and this age, especially since the book aspires (as its title indicates) to be about an era, not just a few individuals.

Our collective impatience with A Fortunate Age led us to abandon our usual practice of following a thread from one book to the next–which is how we got from The Group to The Radiant Way to A Fortunate Age. Enough (for now) of scrutinizing women’s lives and relationships! We wanted something different–formally, intellectually, thematically–and so we settled on Lincoln in the Bardo, which seems about as unlike Rakoff’s novel as is possible. It’s also a book several of us have been interested in but wary about reading, so now we have a specific incentive to press on with it.

In Brief: Megan Abbott, You Will Know Me

Abbott-die-a-littleI didn’t think I had read any Megan Abbott before this year,  but when I was at the library picking up You Will Know Me I realized that I had signed out one or two of her noir novels at some point in the past–probably while shopping around for ideas for Mystery & Detective Fiction or Pulp Fiction. I hadn’t put the pieces together, mostly because those books are (fairly cleverly) decked out with vintage-style covers which quite simply don’t look as if they belong with Abbott’s contemporary thrillers. (Shallow of me, I know.) I expect it’s also because I didn’t actually read them, or at least not more than the first few pages. It wasn’t personal; it’s just that noir is not my favorite genre–in fact, to a degree that might surprise the students in Mystery & Detective Fiction, I’m not a voracious reader of crime fiction at all, in any flavor, or not any more. When I do read mysteries nowadays, it’s almost always because I want to keep up with old friends, though I do try new writers intermittently, especially if there’s buzz, and sometimes I do like them–Tana French comes particularly to mind. Apparently, on the basis of that admittedly skimpy sample, Abbott was not among them.

Abbott-you-will-know-meAnyway, lately I’ve been picking up enough buzz about Abbot (who has a new book out) that I thought I would give her what turned out to be another try. First I got hold of The End of Everything–but again I didn’t persist past the first chapter or so. It read like a YA novel, not just because it was centered on teenage girls but because it sounded as if it was written for them. Abbott seems like a self-conscious enough writer that I’m sure she was doing something on purpose with this style, and maybe she went on to do something twisty and surprising with it, but the scenario too seemed a bit pat and familiar and I wasn’t interested in reading on.

You Will Know Me was my next attempt to read one of her books, and it will almost certainly be my last. I did read this one to the end, and there are a lot of things about it that I thought were good or interesting, especially the gimlet-eyed look at competitive gymnastics, which has always equal parts inspired and repelled me. She certainly made it seem every bit as horrendous as I ever imagined! She also knows how to tell a gripping story and keep up the pace–but that’s not altogether a good thing, as I felt manipulated by her heavy-handed foreshadowing even as I started skimming here and there so I could press on more quickly to whatever revelations were to come. When I finished the book, I didn’t feel surprised or shocked, though, much less exhilarated by the experience. I felt tense and dissatisfied and a bit dirty, because so much of the suspense of the novel is really just, or also, or inextricable from, prurient curiosity.

fingersmithI’m not necessarily calling You Will Know Me a bad book. These are (or are they?) the feelings, the reactions, a thriller depends on and aspires to–which is why I don’t typically read them. There is definitely overlap between thrillers and crime fiction, but for me, the best crime fiction depends on our taking a genuine interest in the people and the outcome, caring about what happens both because it’s possible for us to empathize with at least some of them and because of what’s at stake–the immediate consequences for people’s lives and then beyond that, the possibility of justice, if not realized, than imagined. Other kinds of fiction can also be very suspenseful: Daphne du Maurier or Sarah Waters, for instance. But a novel like Fingersmith is engrossing only initially because it makes us voyeurs and lures us in: then it turns on us, exposes us, and makes us interrogate and repent of our self-absorption. It shows us the moral consequences–for us and for its subjects–of the kind of objectification that a thriller depends on. Fingersmith is also 100 times more subtle and ambitious than You Will Know Me, but that’s not really my point, which is just that I found Abbott’s particular brand of suspense a bit distasteful and ultimately unrewarding.

OUP-WHPerhaps tangential, perhaps not: A lot of people were pretty annoyed at the recent piece about Emily Brontë in the Guardian, and I agree it was a sloppy job, and unconvincing about its complaints. But Wuthering Heights is another novel I’ve never much liked, and it’s for some of the same reasons I didn’t like You Will Know Me, and also, I suppose, the reasons that I really didn’t like Eileen. It’s not that I think every novel must be “nice” or uplifting or offer a feel-good epiphany, but I’d like more of a pay-off–intellectually, or ethically, or aesthetically–for time spent in ugliness than these novels seem to me to offer. Wuthering Heights at least has the compensatory virtue of complex artistry. I didn’t discern anything in Eileen that made up for its unpleasantness–and as readers of this blog well know, I don’t share the trendy opinion that simply being expressively unpleasant is some kind of artistic triumph in itself. I’m very aware that this preference almost certainly says more about me as a reader than it does about these particular books–and to be clear, I think You Will Know Me is probably a pretty good book, of its kind. Maybe I underestimate it, and thus Abbott, but I disliked it too much to want to double-check.

Definitely Not a Review of Mary McCarthy’s The Group

group-1One of the things (OK, the many things) I can be persnickety about is what to call whatever it is that I write here when I write about books. I call the results “posts,” not “reviews,” not because I consider a book review a limited or limiting form (not by definition, anyway, though in practice published reviews are very often limited, in scope if in nothing else) but because when I’m writing what I think of as a review I feel  accountable, both to the book and to the implied audience. As a bare minimum, that accountability means reading every word in the book scrupulously, and then crafting a narrative about it that is very carefully considered. No review is authoritative in any absolute sense, of course, but when I’m wearing my Official Reviewer hat I aspire to a certain kind of confidence in my understanding of the book I’m writing about.  Here, in contrast, I can write whatever I want, no matter how inadequate my understanding might be. My blog posts are narratives of my own reading experience, and so I’m answerable only for being honest and thoughtful about that.

This is probably a lot of unnecessary fuss about terminology. I don’t disagree at all with Dorian that a review is really just any “reckoning with a text.” Yet, however irrationally, the label I use matters to me because giving myself permission to write has always been a challenge. I know it is for many academics, because we are trained to be pretty sure we know what we’re talking about before we say anything. Up to a point, or in the right context, this is as it should be, but it’s also really inhibiting–and contributes to the epidemic of imposter syndrome, I’m sure. Blogging has helped me get comfortable with writing that is exploratory, not necessarily assertive, and certainly not authoritative. Many of my favorite posts were written when I didn’t understand what I’d read or couldn’t make sense of a reading experience. I don’t have to work through those limitations before writing a blog post (something I would try to do before writing a review)–I can work through them in a blog post.

the-groupThat’s an awfully long preamble to these remarks about Mary McCarthy’s The Group, which my book club met yesterday to discuss. As you might have predicted, I was putting off getting to the book until I’d said all that other stuff because I did not do a good job reading it, and as a result I wasn’t sure I should write about it. But then I remembered that I was blogging about it, not reviewing it, and so it’s okay for me to admit that and write about it anyway! If you want commentary by someone who is much better informed about The Group, I highly recommend this series of posts by Andrew Seal (a former Valve colleague of mine); I also really liked this article on McCarthy by B.D. McClay, which was actually one of the reasons I suggested The Group for my book club in the first place.

I didn’t hate The Group. Well, actually I did, at first: on Twitter I called it “nearly unreadable,” and that accurately describes how I felt about the first few chapters. It was a combination of the tone, the claustrophobic social setting, and the dense, unbroken paragraphs. Everybody I met in the novel seemed profoundly unpleasant; I thought I might be driven to complaining that nobody in the novel was “relatable” … the horror!

the-group-2I never had a conversion moment, but I’m glad I persisted with my reading, not just because it meant I could show my face at my book club but also because the book did turn out to be better than my first impressions of it. My experience improved as I got more used to the style–but I also gave myself permission to skim some of the relentless cascade of details that made up so many of those dense paragraphs. I understand that this may seem precious coming from a Victorianist! I tried to put my finger on what made McCarthy’s exposition seem so long and unpleasant to me in spite of my love for long and excessively detailed 19th-century novels, and I think it’s the same thing that made me recoil from most of her characters: she treats everything, and everyone, so coldly. Ultimately a lot about The Group is very sad, in some cases even tragic, but the novel has none of the humanity, none of the compassion, that its own stories could reasonably summon up. The word ‘sociological’ came up a lot in our book club discussion, and by and large we’d all found her depiction of her women’s lives interesting. But there’s something clinical about each of the women’s stories, with McCarthy observing them shrewdly, scrupulously, often wittily, but never sympathetically.

group-coverI’m not sure if I liked the second half of the book better than the first because I adjusted to (or compensated for) McCarthy’s prose or because I liked the later characters better. Libby’s story was the first one that really engaged me, for the not especially good reason that I’m interested in writing and publishing, and that whole world has a sordid kind of glamour to me as a result. At my book club we were unanimous in liking Polly’s story the best; her relationship with her father is perhaps the only tender one in The Group, and her marriage also seemed like a respite from the acidity of the novel’s other relationships. (I should say that overall everyone else was quite enthusiastic about the novel–listening to them explain why helped me appreciate it better.) Kay’s reappearance in her story in a very different situation made me rethink my earlier reactions to her and her marriage, and the novel’s ending also made me realize that I had missed something of the forest because I was focusing too hard on the individual trees.

So. This (therefore) will not have been a book review, but it is something of a reckoning with my experience of reading one particular, unexpectedly ornery book.

A New (and Final) Open Letters Monthly

Final-issue-1I have often but not always marked the occasion of a new issue of Open Letters Monthly here. The thing about publishing on the first of every month, regular as clockwork, is that it seemed predictable enough that people who cared shouldn’t have any trouble remembering the schedule and finding the new issues on their own! I feel as if I should not let the December 2017 issue go by without acknowledging it, however, because as some of you already know from our announcements on Facebook and Twitter, it will be the last one.

We’ve made our official statement about this on the site itself, and I’m not going to say more here about the collective discussion that brought us to this point. Speaking just personally, I feel a potent mixture of regret and relief. Open Letters Monthly is pretty venerable in internet years–it was founded in 2007–and has had a very good run. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say that at its best Open Letters Monthly was as good as any literary journal you’ll ever read, and I will always be very proud to have been part of it. It has also always been a lot of work, all of it challenging and most but not all of it rewarding. Though I feel ready to move on from it, I also know that I have OLM to thank for where I am now as a writer and critic, and thus for the new opportunities I hope to keep reaching for. I learned an enormous amount from my co-editors and from our contributors–about writing and editing above all, from the intense hands-on experience, but also about books and criticism, and about literary culture more generally and how I would like to participate in it.

For our final issue, we opted to highlight some of our favorites of the many essays and reviews we have both written and edited over the past decade. The result is a sampling that I think truly epitomizes what we always hoped Open Letters would be: a place that showcases smart, engaged writing on a wide range of topics, writing that is detailed and probing but also has plenty of personality. It is our plan to keep Open Letters available in its entirety so that people can still browse and enjoy its rich archive. We will all also still be reading, writing, and talking about books in a range of venues, so keep your eyes open for us!

On that note, I should add that I have no plans to give up Novel Readings, which actually predates my own association with Open Letters Monthly by a couple of years. I moved the blog from its original location to the OLM site in 2010. I always find change difficult, and I remember very clearly how anxious I felt when I made that decision. I feel a bit anxious now too, but as we all know, change is the only real constant! So as OLM winds down, so too will new posting at the OLM address, and this will become the only current home for Novel Readings.

Summer Plans: The Risks and Rewards of Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Price We Pay: Brian McCrea, Addison and Steele Are Dead

mcrea-not-the-coverFrom the Novel Readings Archives: I still find myself thinking a lot about the questions raised by Brian McCrea’s book Addison and Steele Are Dead, which I wrote about during my first year of blogging. Apparently I’m in something of a minority, or presumably I’d be able to find the actual cover image online somewhere! But rereading this post nearly a decade later, McCrea’s theory about the relationship between literature, professionalism, and teaching still seems well worth considering.

In parallel to my reading of ‘books about books’ aimed at non-specialist readers, I have been reading scholarly books that treat the development of English studies and/or academic criticism in historical as well as theoretical contexts. (Examples include John Gross’s The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, Morris Dickstein’s Double Agent: The Critic and Society, and Geoffrey Hartman’s Minor Prophecies: The Literary Essay in the Culture Wars. My notes on these have been largely maintained off-line, though my post on Denis Donoghue’s The Practice of Reading comes out of the same line of research.) All of these books (and many more like them, of course) make explicit that what now appear to be the “givens” of professional literary criticism and the discipline of English studies are highly contingent and far from exempt from scrutiny, evaluation, or (presumably) further development.

McCrea’s Addison and Steele Are Dead: The English Department, Its Canon, and the Professionalization of Literary Criticism (1990) is certainly among the more lively and provocative books in this collection. As his title suggests, McCrea frames his consideration of English departments as professional and institutional spaces with arguments about what features in the work of Addison and Steele “render it useless to critics housed in English departments”–not, as he is quick to add, that “their works are without value, but rather, that they are not amenable to certain procedures that English professors must perform.” The opening sections of the book look first at the express intentions of Addison and Steele as critics and men of letters, particularly at their desire to be popular, widely read, accessible, un-mysterious. The short version of his story is that professional critics require difficult, complex, ambiguous texts to do their jobs; the “techniques of simplicity” that characterize Addison and Steele propel them, as a result, out of the canon. (McCrea reports that the last PMLA essay on Addison or Steele appeared in 1957, and that Eighteenth-Century Studies, “the publication of choice for the best and brightest in the field,” published only two short pieces on them in 20 years.) (As an aside, I wonder if a similar argument could be made about Trollope, whose novels often seem difficult to handle using our usual critical tools.)

spectatorAs he develops his argument, McCrea offers an interesting overview of the 19th-century and then 20th-century critical reception of Addison and Steele. He explains the Victorians’ admiration for these 18th-century predecessors largely in terms of the different understanding that prevailed about the relationship of literature, and thus of the literary critic, to life. Rightly, I’d say (based on my own work on 19th-century literary criticism), he sees as a central Victorian critical premise that literature and criticism are public activities, that their worth is to be discussed in terms of effects on readers; hence the significance attached, he argues, to sincerity as well as affect. Especially key to McCrea’s larger argument is his observation that the 19th-century writers were not “academicians” or “specialists in a field”:

For Thackeray and his contemporaries, literature is a public matter, a matter to be lectured upon before large audiences, a matter to be given importance because of its impact upon morals and emotions. For the present-day academic critic, literature no longer is a public matter but rather is a professional matter, even more narrowly, a departmental matter. The study of literature has become a special and separate discipline–housed in colleges of arts and sciences along with other special and separate disciplines. The public has narrowed to a group of frequently recalcitrant students whose need for instruction in English composition–not in English literature–justifies the existence of the English department.

As McCrea tells the story (which in its basic outlines is pretty similar to that told in other histories of criticism) this decline in the critic’s public role has had both significant costs (among them, the critical ‘death’ of Addison and Steele) and significant benefits. At times the book has a nostalgic, even elegaic sound:

People who want to become English professors do so because, at one point in their lives, they found reading a story, poem, or play to be an emotionally rewarding experience. They somehow, someway were touched by what they read. Yet it is precisely this emotional response that the would-be professor must give up. Of course, the professor can and should have those feelings in private, but publicly, as a teacher or publisher, the professor must talk about the text in nonemotional, largely technical terms. No one ever won a National Endowment for the Humanities grant by weeping copiously for Little Nell, and no one will get tenure in a major department by sharing his powerful feelings about Housman’s Shropshire Lad with the full professors.

mcgowanWhile we can all share a shudder at the very idea, to me one strength of McCrea’s discussion is his admission that marginalizing affect, pleasure, and aesthetic response is, in a way, to be untrue to literature, and that the professional insistence on doing so also, as a result, marginalizes our conversation, alienating us, as McCrea says, “from our students, our counterparts in other academic departments, our families [unless, he allows, they include other professional critics–otherwise, as he points out, even they are unlikely to actually read our books and articles], and, ultimately, any larger public.” (In Democracy’s Children, John McGowan makes a similar point: “There remains a tension between the experience of reading literature and the paths followed in studying. . . . To give one’s allegiance to the academic forms through which literature is discussed and taught is to withdraw [at least partly] allegiance to literature itself”).

But why, McCrea goes on to consider, should we expect such cross-over between our work–our professional lives and discourse–and our personal lives? McCrea’s answer to this question (we shouldn’t) puts the professionalization of English studies into the context of professionalization more generally, which he argues (drawing on sociological studies) was a key feature of American society during the last half of the 20th century. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of McCrea’s book, in fact, seems to me to be his insistence that, in this respect at least, ‘professing English’ is (or has now become) just another job, and indeed that its success at establishing itself professionally at once accounts for and has depended on its investment in theory and metacommentary: “The ultimate step in the aggrandizement of any professional group is for its members to get paid to talk about how they do what they do rather than doing it.” If one result is isolation from and (perceived) irrelevance to the broader public, including the reading public, the gains for criticism and even for literature are also, McCrea argues, substantial:

Rotarians no longer look to us for uplift, future presidents no longer turn to us to increase their ‘stock of ideas,’ nor do ex-presidents attend our funerals, undergraduates no longer found alumni associations around us, family members can no longer read our books, and plain English has disappeared from our journals. But professionalization has liberated us from a cruel Darwinian system in which one white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant male emerged at the top while others struggled at the bottom, grading papers in impoverished anonymity. It has liberated us from the harsh economic realities of eighteenth-century literature . . . while [today’s critics] might wish to share Steele’s influence, I doubt they would want to share his life. He practiced criticism in a world in which there was no tenure, a world devoid of university presses, National Endowments for the Humanities, and endowed university chairs in literature. . . .

In a society in which no one outside the classroom reads Pope, professors can earn handsome incomes by being Pope experts. The five top Pope experts compete with each other, but probably not with the Tennyson experts, and certainly not with the Chaucer experts. The quest for autonomy has cost us Addison and Steele, has cost us the ability to treat literature as a public, moral, emotional phenomenon. But it has left us with a part of literature, with a canon of works complicated in their technique and tone, and with a classroom in which we have a chance to teach those works, to keep them (and whatever value they hold) alive.

Provocative, as I said, not least in reversing the oft-heard line that (undergraduate) teaching is the price professors pay for the opportunity to do their research and as much as declaring that, to the contrary, academic criticism is the price they pay to preserve literature and its values.

Originally published in Novel Readings August 8, 2007.