“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 Module In My Classes

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Working from home.

I am starting to draft some concrete plans for my fall courses that combine what I’ve been learning about best practices in online teaching with the goals and priorities that have always motivated my pedagogy. One of the hardest parts of this for me turns out to be rethinking the rhythm of my courses now that they will be almost entirely asynchronous.

The key shift seems to be moving away from thinking in terms of days per week, with each class meeting a discrete opportunity to introduce new content, focus on a new (part of a) reading, raise a different set of questions, or practice a specific skill. Instead, we are supposed to think in terms of modules. These may also be weekly–and in fact I do expect each larger unit in my classes to be parceled out across weekly modules to create and sustain a pattern that sets expectations, provides some structure, and keeps us all moving through the term, if not in sync, then in concert. But the modules will not be (should not be, if I understand the guidance correctly) understood as virtual versions of the thrice-weekly meetings but rather as bundles of activities that help students work towards the same goals in a more self-directed way.

I think (though I’m still figuring this out) that this means sorting my typical course activities so that instead of going through them, as I usually do, once each class meeting, we move through them once each module. A typical class meeting in 19thC-Fiction, for example, would be a bit of logistical stuff to start (reminders, announcements, clarifications); then a lecture segment in which I first briefly review what we’ve talked about so far and then introduce some new contexts or questions (historical, theoretical, formal, interpretive); then discussion in which we take that new material and the new section of the novel we’ve read for the day into account. This discussion might just be me doing my best to engage the whole class in talking about the day’s key topics, or it might involve break-out groups looking at specific passages or taking up particular questions and then reporting back to the group and moving on from there. Occasionally (often on the first day of a new novel, for instance) the lecture part is longer and a bit more formal; sometimes, especially towards the end of our work on a novel, we might move almost immediately into class discussion.

Office
I miss my office!

It’s a simple pattern but, in my now fairly long experience, it works well. The opening remarks catch us all up on where we are in the course; the lecture material gives everyone some common ground for discussion; the discussion models the fundamental process of literary criticism, which is to try out your ideas on other attentive readers, see what they say, and refine, correct, or elaborate as needed. (Hello coduction, my old friend!) The three weekly meetings let me dole out the reading assignments so students aren’t overwhelmed (they “just” have to read X amount of, say, Bleak House by our next meeting), a process which also disciplines me and them into paying attention as we go along. Students who fall behind in the reading at least get regular updates on what’s going to matter when they do catch up. And everyone gets a constant dose of enthusiasm for the work–from me, reliably, and, most of the time, from other students.

In a way it is obvious how to manage a similar structure in a weekly module. Every one will open with some kind of greeting and set of announcements and reminders–maybe, if I can face it (pun intended!), by way of a short video. Then there would be one or two elements that do the job of the lecture portions–probably slide shows with voice-overs, probably keyed to reading installments as usual. But here one of my first puzzles arises: do I still break the reading up across the week the way I usually do? or do I just say that for the first Hard Times module, they have to read the whole first half of the novel? The net result would be the same, but the immediate “ask” seems like a lot more if you put it that way. Maybe I could compromise and give them a “suggested reading schedule.” One plan I have is for them to maintain online reading journals, something I’ve done before as part of face-to-face versions of 19thC Fiction: if I tied the requirements for journal entries to specific parts of the novels (the first entry must address an example from Book I, the second an example from Book II, etc.), that might be a useful way to create and sustain some momentum in their reading.

the_new_novelThen, instead of having three distinct conversations about the reading on three separate days (which, again, has always allowed me to pace us, and to model sorting out specific interpretive elements rather than facing everything that’s going on in the novel all at once), we’ll have discussion boards. Presumably, the topics will reflect the same questions I usually set in class, but I’m not sure if I should try to move us through these topics in some kind of sequence across the week, as I would in person, or think of the module as weighted towards reading at the beginning of the week and discussion at the end of the week. Probably the latter–though they might miss getting input and ideas from each other (and from me) earlier in their reading. I don’t want to be micromanaging participation on the discussion boards too much: I’m imagining how strange this all might feel to them, and ideally I’d like it to feel both easy and sort of natural to contribute. Super-rigid requirements (post once by Wednesday, reply once on Thursday, post again on Friday–whatever) really work against that and give me a lot to keep track of.

OUP MiddlemarchI think the next step for me is actually to back away from the overwhelming amount of information and advice I’ve been contemplating about online teaching and go back to my actual teaching notes. Looking at the topics I usually cover with a modular redesign in mind will probably help me realize ways in which these bundles would actually work and think in more concrete ways about just how different the online experience needs or doesn’t need to be. Precisely because I’ve been teaching 19th-century fiction in such a similar way for so long, it is the one that feels the strangest to mess with, but it’s also the one where I have the simplest overall goal–to have the best conversations we can about our readings–and the most faith in the books themselves to get us talking, one way or another. Even if I don’t get everything right on my first attempt to do all this online, at least we’ll still be working our way through Middlemarch!

I would love to hear from anyone with online teaching experience about this weeks-vs-modules question, especially if they have found good ways to make it work with the inevitably heavy reading load for a class on the Victorian novel. I have already cut one novel (we’ll be doing four instead of my usual five) on the expectation that everything is going to take us longer. If there are any students out there who have taken online classes that really worked (or, I guess, didn’t work), I’d also love to know if there was a rhythm to the course that played a part and what level of structure you think would help you stay engaged without making you feel micromanaged.

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.

The Power of the Whodunnit: Anthony Horowitz, MagpieMurders

magpie

I’ve always loved whodunnits. I’ve not just edited them. I’ve read them for pleasure throughout my life, gorging on them actually. You must know that feeling when it’s raining outside and the heating’s on and you lose yourself, utterly, in a book. You read and you read and you feel the pages slipping through your fingers until suddenly there are fewer in your right hand than there are in your left and you want to slow down but you still hurtle on towards a conclusion you can hardly bear to discover. That is the particular power of the whodunnit which has, I think, a special place within the general panoply of literary fiction because, of all characters, the detective enjoys a particular, indeed a unique relationship with the reader.

Unlike Susan Ryeland, the narrator of (much of) Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders, I’m not actually a fan of whodunnits–at least, not if by the term you mean the kind Magpie Murders at once exemplifies and comments on, which is the Agatha-Christie-style cozy. I just don’t find curiosity a powerful enough incentive to keep reading: if all a book ultimately has to offer me is the solution to a puzzle, I would almost just as soon skip straight to the end and get the answer already. Almost .. because of course a good puzzle mystery can offer other pleasures along the way, and also if the story-telling is brisk and skillful enough then it distracts me from the temptation to flip to the last page.

Magpie Murders was not quite good enough to keep me patient. I got bored with the embedded mystery by the fictional Alan Conway about half way through its 200+ pages–not so bored I wanted to give up, just enough that I started intermittently skimming. That said, it seemed to me a pitch-perfect imitation of a Golden Age novel, so if you like that kind of thing more than I do, you’d probably enjoy it thoroughly. I quite liked the conceit of the mystery-within-a-mystery, and for a while I was pretty engaged with the framing story about Alan Conway’s own suspicious death, but then it seemed to go on too long, and while the parallels and connections to “his” book were presumably meant to make it more fun to puzzle out both murderers, the insistent cleverness of it all eventually made me irritable. I expected a bigger payoff, too, a most stunning twist of some kind, as a reward for the book being quite so long.

magpie-2On the other hand, I did appreciate the metafictional commentary on the genre scattered throughout Magpie Murders, though it was (as far as I could tell) somewhat gratuitous or incidental to the novel(s). If the stories Horowitz was telling subverted expectations more than they do, or if their resolutions turned in some way on critiquing the ubiquity of murders on page and screen or the idea that anything about crime is in any way “cozy,” then the whole novel would (for me) have taken on much greater significance. Still, he raises good points about the perverse gratifications of the form even as he unapologetically offers them up, twice over. “I don’t understand it,” says Detective Superintendent Locke when Susan meets with him to discuss her questions about Conway’s death. “All these murders on TV–”

you’d think people would have better things to do with their time. Every night. Every bloody channel. People have some sort of fixation. And what really annoys me is that it’s nothing like the truth. I’ve seen murder victims. I’ve investigated murder. … They don’t put on wigs and dress up like the do in Agatha Christie. All the murders I’ve ever been involved in have happened because the perpetrators were mad or angry or drunk. Sometimes all three. And they’re horrible. Disgusting.

Susan Ryeland (perhaps as a proxy for Horowitz) offers the standard explanation for that ‘fixation.” “In a world full of uncertainties,” she proposes,

is it not inherently satisfying to come to the last page with every i dotted and every t crossed? The stories mimic our experience in the world. We are surrounded by tensions and ambiguities, which we spend half our life trying to resolve, and we’ll probably be on our own deathbed when we reach that moment when everything makes sense. Just about every whodunnit provides that pleasure. It is the reason for their existence.

Image result for foyles war season 6"That, she concludes, is “why Magpie Murders was so bloody irritating”–unfinished as it is when she first reads it. For me, though, the end of Horowitz’s Magpie Murders did not provide much satisfaction. The dotting of the i‘s and the crossing of the t’s seemed to show up the whole elaborate exercise as artificial, an impressive display of plotting but little to feed any deeper curiosity. I prefer my crime fiction more character driven, and also more embroiled in social and political contexts. I know Horowitz can write that kind of mystery, because he wrote Foyle’s War, one of my favorite series. I’d watch it all again in a heartbeat if I could (stupid Netflix Canada dropped it years ago), because it has the kinds of layers that, for all its intricacies, Magpie Murders lacks.

This Week In My Classes: Going Noir

The-Big-SleepWe have started our unit on detective fiction in Pulp Fiction and moved from Sayers to Hughes in Women & Detective Fiction, meaning it’s time to test my prediction of last week that being immersed in noir will make me fretful. So far I’m doing fine–much better than expected! For one thing, I’m happy to be done with Westerns in Pulp Fiction, plus I am starting to feel as if, collectively, the class has some momentum now, something which is definitely helped by the continuities between our readings as much as by the students’ growing familiarity with the kind of analysis we’re doing. Also, while I have reservations about The Big Sleep on other grounds, there’s no denying that Chandler’s prose is–what? beautiful is the wrong word, and ornate seems to miss the point. I’ll go with artful. It’s not just that he never met a simile he didn’t like, but that the ones he chooses infuse the story with both atmosphere and meaning: I’m thinking, for instance, of the plants in the conservatory with “stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men,” or the strands of white hair clinging to the general’s scalp “like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock.” These images tell us so much about the world of the novel, with its cynicism and corruption and danger, and they also reveal so much about Marlowe’s state of mind, about the blend of resolution and fascination and horror with which he approaches the life he has to live. Unlike Elmore Leonard (with his stupid “leave out the parts that readers tend to skim” rule), Chandler gives us plenty of good material for close reading. Today we warmed up with the stained glass panel, which works pretty neatly as a microcosm of the whole novel:

Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some long and very convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere.

What kind of chivalry is required or possible, I asked them, if the “lady” you are trying to rescue acts like this one?

Her hands dropped limp at her sides. She tilted herself towards me on her toes. She fell straight back into my arms. I had to catch her or let her head crack on the tessellated floor. I caught her under her arms and she went rubber-legged on me instantly. I had to hold her close to hold her up. When her head was against my chest she screwed it around and giggled at me.

She’s so annoying I might have let her head hit the tile: he’s a better man than I am–or is he?

lonelyI know The Big Sleep reasonably well at this point (though I still rely heavily on the helpful sketch of the basic plot, complete with who killed whom and why, that I drew up the first time I taught it!). This is my first time teaching In A Lonely Place, though, and so I am feeling my way along, trying to anticipate the most useful lines of discussion to open up, to tell what’s obvious and what isn’t, what examples are most thought-provoking, and so on. One small but important logistical thing you can’t really be sure of until you try it is whether you’ve chosen the right place to break up the novel for reading. I think I should maybe have assigned a bit more of it for today than I did (we read just the first two sections,just about 50 pages), but we didn’t run out of things to talk about, so that was reassuring.

The main thing I’m still wondering about In A Lonely Place is whether Hughes pulls off the highwire act of dramatizing murderous misogyny without glamorizing or exploiting or just plain recreating it for our entertainment. The first time I read it, I wasn’t convinced. When I reread it this summer, with this class in mind, I thought definitely yes. This time I’m unsure again! We are tucked up so closely next to Dix that even though it’s not a first-person narrative it’s very hard to disentangle our experience of the novel from his story of himself. We can pretty quickly (I think) discern that his version is not reliable, but we are still immersed in his point of view and the thrills of the novel (if that’s the right way to put it) come from exactly that: from knowing what he’s doing, how much sense it makes to him, and the kind of pleasure it gives him. For most of the novel the suspense is his, not about him–it’s about what he’ll do next rather than whether or when he’ll be stopped. Having said that, though–and my students were sharp about this today–he gives himself away so completely as dangerous and deranged and not nearly as in control as he fancies himself that it does distance us from him. I think Hughes succeeds in showing him up as a repulsive exemplar of toxic masculinity, but in doing so she does have to reproduce some of its nastier (and deadlier) features. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, which is up next, will seem downright wholesome by comparison–and yet its murder is, I think, one of the most horrific crimes (literally and morally) that we will encounter.

This Week In My Classes: In Which I Admit to Missing the Classics

van-gogh-still-life-french-novelsWe are well into the term now, and overall I think it’s going fine. I do not like teaching Pulp Fiction at 120 students, which maybe doesn’t sound like that big a change from 90 but certainly feels like one to me. I miss being able to see their faces–and having at least a fighting chance of learning their names! I know that I have colleagues who have taught intro classes at even larger sizes, and also that I have colleagues who are comfortable, pedagogically, with teaching writing at this scale. Maybe they know something I don’t about how to make it work, but for me, the increasingly sharp division of class time into formal lecture time–you can do some Q&A, but not a wide-ranging, inclusive discussion in a tiered lecture hall–and tutorial time (where the 30:1 ratio is still far from ideal for either discussion or hands-on writing and editing work) is really unsatisfying. I don’t think it serves us or them particularly well.

The-Big-SleepThe odds that we’ll ever be able to get back to smaller first-year classes seem slim, however, so I’ll just keep trying to make the best of it. Right now I’m considering giving up on some things I think are pedagogically valuable (like frequent low-stakes work) because logistically it’s just getting to be too much–but it’s too late to do that for this year! In the meantime, we are nearing the end of our unit on Westerns; next week we start on mysteries, with The Big Sleep taking the place of The Maltese Falcon this time around. As you might recall, I had big plans for bigger changes but they fell through: first True Grit turned out to be unavailable and then I lost my nerve about assigning Laura. I’m not entirely sorry, because I have a number of new books on the syllabus for Women & Detective Fiction so it’s relief to have existing materials to rely on here.

In Women & Detective Fiction we are almost done with Gaudy Night, which overall they seem to be finding a bit much. I don’t think of it as a particularly long book: in my 19th-century fiction courses it would be only an average-sized one! I’ve been wondering if the difficulty some students have run into getting through it (or getting into it) comes from their having different expectations for crime novels. Also, our first readings were very simple and quick–Agatha Christie and Nancy Drew–so they may just have underestimated how much time they needed to allocate to reading for this class. The students have mostly been putting in a good effort, though, and I’m looking forward to tomorrow. My class notes are basically prompts: chess set, dog collar, fascism, misogyny, academic integrity, sonnet, balance, counterpoint, Bach, Placetne, Magistra? Placet.

hughes2Next up is In a Lonely Place, which means for a while both my classes will be steeped in noir. Though I think both books I’ll be working on are great examples of their kind, it is not my own favorite kind of crime fiction, and it’s likely that this juxtaposition will exacerbate another lurking dissatisfaction of mine this term, which is with the amount of teaching time I’ve been spending on genre fiction. I hope it’s obvious that I am not a snob about genre fiction! I read and enjoy a lot of it; I was the one who introduced our detective fiction class well over a decade ago and I have taught it with great enthusiasm probably a dozen times; a few years ago I volunteered to do Pulp Fiction instead of one of our more standard intro to lit options; I regularly include sensation fiction in my Victorian fiction classes and offer a course exclusively on it; etc. This term, however, I have found myself unexpectedly weary of spending so much of my class time on books that (frankly) wear a bit thin over time because they aren’t, many of them, quite the kind of book that the English literature classroom–or at least my English literature classroom–was designed to showcase.

ackroydDo I really think that? Can I even say that? What exactly am I saying? I’m certainly not saying we can’t or shouldn’t teach genre fiction, or that doing so doesn’t involve doing rewarding or meaningful analysis. That we even have the concept of ‘horizontal reading,’ though, does suggest that genre fiction isn’t always best approached with the aim of deep or close reading, doesn’t it? Agatha Christie, to give just one example, is brilliant at many things (and I have gotten pretty good at making the case for them), but it’s not much fun lingering over the details of her prose; not much will come–not much of interpretive interest, anyway–from mining them for the kind of nuances we appreciate when we read, say, “Araby.” Sometimes in the detective fiction class I point out that (though of course there are exceptions) a lot of details we might read as symbolic in another kind of fiction are better read more literally in crime fiction: does it make any sense to read the dagger in Roger Ackroyd’s neck as anything other than a convenient sharp object suitable for murder? There is a similarly literal impulse in a lot of detective fiction: no matter how complex the social, political, or psychological elements, it is rare for the language in particular to be of great  interest.

greatexpectationsI think what I’m saying is that I love my 19th-century fiction classes, which I still teach regularly, but I have also, over the years, loved teaching other more conventionally “literary” material and I’m starting to miss the greater variety I used to enjoy, especially the chance to teach more poetry and more (literary) fiction from other periods. That’s one reason I’m excited to be doing the British literature survey next term. I’ve also asked that, if possible, my next first-year course assignment be something besides Pulp Fiction. When I first designed my version of the course I imagined that students would get caught up in the contrarian spirit of reading genre fiction instead of the classics, but as far as I’ve ever been able to tell, they mostly don’t care: with rare exceptions, they’ve never thought about the difference before and what they really want is just to get their writing requirement as easily as possible. My advocacy for dismantling the canon is wasted on them: I’m standing there at the lectern basically having an argument with myself! And somehow right now I feel as if I’m losing it.

Still Teaching, Still Blogging About It!

DALHOUSIE-UNIVERSITYTomorrow I kick of my 25th year of teaching at Dalhousie and my 13th year of blogging about the process. Five years ago I took stock of what I had to show for what was then just a “20 year investment in Dalhousie”:

My academic research and publications certainly count as accomplishments, but when I am having a “save Tinkerbell moment” and need my belief [in this work] restored, my surest remedy is a browse through the fat file folder I have of thank-you cards and messages from students. It’s enormously uplifting to know that the part I played in their lives mattered to them.

I also, I noted, had the benefit of experience, and “a drawer full of notes, handouts, transparencies, and other materials, as well as acres of virtual storage devoted to more of the same”–and I had worked out some effective (for me) strategies to handle the logistical chaos of term, from designated shelves for course materials to ample supplies of post-it notes.

officeIt wouldn’t make much of a post to say that five years later, nothing has changed! And yet in most respects that’s true. (Certainly my office looks more or less the same.) I think, or at least I hope, that the consistency in my priorities and methods is a sign of success, not stagnation. I still take class preparation seriously and regularly look for ways to change things up, whether it’s refreshing my reading lists (as I spent a lot of time working on during my recent sabbatical) or taking on new classes (such as Pulp Fiction, which I offered for the first time in 2017). Like the strong scaffolding I aim to provide with my materials for individual courses, my now well-established routines free me up from a lot (though never all!) of the stress of just keeping everything running, so that as much as possible I’m concentrating on matters of substance. This is one of the reasons I wish there wasn’t so much emphasis on innovation in discussions of higher ed. There’s something to be said for stability, and for sticking with things that you know are effective. Change for the sake of novelty is not desirable–but to hear some pundits and administrators talk, you’d sure think it was better to be constantly experimenting with gimmicks and gadgets than focusing your attention directly on your students and the material you’re working through together. (Also, alas, many of the innovations that are hyped these days are really attempts to compensate for the sad fact that we can’t pay as much attention to our students as we’d like given increasing class size and diminished numbers of permanent faculty.)

van-gogh-still-life-french-novelsThere won’t be big changes in my pedagogy this year, then: just the usual tweaks to see if I can get an exercise or an assignment or a reading to go a bit more smoothly or get better results. That doesn’t mean there won’t be surprises or challenges, though. That’s the thing about teaching! Every time you do the “same” thing–discuss the same book, assign the same essay topic, ask the same exam question, whatever–you are doing it with a different group of people and in a different context, not just of your own changing ideas but of theirs, which are shaped by the other courses they are taking and readings they are doing and experiences they are having–and by your life in the moment and their lives too. One of the scary, exhausting, and stimulating things about teaching is that no matter how carefully you have prepared, you never know what exactly is going to happen in the classroom that day. You just show up, bring what you’ve got, and try your best to shape, steer, listen, and respond in a way that serves the goals that you have for the course. In my case, though there are more specific objectives that vary from class to class, my fundamental goal is simply to help my students have as good a conversation about our readings as possible (meaning one that is well-informed and attentive to both text and contexts) so that they will carry away with them a sense of both how to do that and why it’s worth doing. We talk a lot these days about “transferable skills,” and those certainly matter, but the reason I teach English instead of something else is that I consider that specific work well worth doing for its own sake.

cassatOn that motivational note, the two courses on my teaching schedule for this fall term are Pulp Fiction (a large introductory-level class) and Women and Detective Fiction (a small upper-year seminar). I’ve spent a lot of time over the last several weeks getting things in order for them; although I’m a bit anxious, as always at the start of term, at this point I’m eager just to get going. Once again, I will be writing about them here. Though sometimes over the years I have wondered if I’ll find anything new to say in this blog series, the exercise itself always proves that I do, and it also always proves valuable in the same ways I explained after my first year of doing it. Blogging about my teaching prods me to reflect on it rather than just get through it and move on; I think it has made me a better teacher as a result. The archive of these posts is also now a helpful resource, for me definitely, and perhaps for others: a record of ideas about both specific texts and broader pedagogical concerns. The high hopes some of us once had for academic blogging may have faded but for me at least, there are still lots of good reasons to be an academic who blogs.