The Reader as Writer: Giraldi and His Gratuitous Grumblings

giraldiI don’t teach creative writing classes or attend MFA workshops or writers’ conferences, so I have no first-hand experience of the lamentable species William Giraldi is so annoyed about in his recent essay at the Los Angeles Review of Books: wannabe writers with “no usable knowledge of literary tradition [who] are mostly mere weekend readers of in-vogue books.” For all I know, his generalizations are entirely accurate, and speaking as someone who will almost certainly never write any novels but certainly does love reading them, it does seem wrong to assume (if anyone does assume this) that “writing doesn’t demand special skills” and right to urge (or even demand, if you’re in a position to) that aspiring authors read both widely and deeply.

I’m not quite so sure that I would second Giraldi’s specific prescription, however: “decades [of] training … in canonical literature” and “an unflagging religious immersion in the great books.” As Giraldi’s own examples show, there has always been disagreement about which books are “great” or what literature is or should be “canonical.” He is confident that Henry James underestimated Middlemarch (and I, obviously, concur entirely), and it’s obvious to him that the key to writing “the next great social novel” is to study “Stendhal, James, and Austen’s half-dozen” and that Keats represents “the perfection of craft.”  But these are evaluative claims to be debated, not absolutes to be declared. Moreover, the ideal of the “important writer” as one who “kneels at the altar of literature” has its conservative as well as its elevating aspect. That the many names he drops are so predictable seems to me a symptom of the limits of his own approach: he’s so much a product of his own canonical literary education (as, of course, we all are) that it doesn’t occur to him to mention Scott, Pope, or Elizabeth Barrett Browning, or to mention Elizabeth Gaskell or Winifred Holtby as great social novelists. Which is fine in a way, as of course he can’t mention everybody, but he also should not imply that we all know just what books really deserve our attention.  And this is all before we even get into the discussion about whether someone aspiring to write about contemporary society might not learn something from the novels of Jodi Picoult. Giraldi apparently reads Jeffrey Eugenides without regret (at any rate, he quotes from The Marriage Plot): who is he to turn his nose up at other people’s choices? (And if people want to write like Dan Brown, well, neither Giraldi nor I will buy their books, but not all bestsellers are “lobotomized,” and before we conflate “popular” and “worthless” let’s pause to think about Dickens for a moment.)

Still, I think that discussions about which books we value and why are important ones to have. I feel fortunate to have had some very stimulating conversations about this kind of thing here at Novel Readings, usually to my own edification. Giraldi’s tone strongly suggests he isn’t interested in having a conversation – his piece is a polemic. However, it does quite rightly, if only implicitly, challenge us to think about how far we agree with him, who we might rather, or also, cite, and what we think books are for anyway. That’s all good, then. The bone I really want to pick with him is about something else – something tangential, it seems to me, to his main purpose, and gratuitously insulting to a lot of people who actually share his evident passion for reading and writing about literature.

You see, among his litany of complaints about “troubled twenty-somethings who have been bamboozled by second-raters such as Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski and have arrived to molest you with spontaneous prose which ought to remain incarcerated inside their diaries” (see, I told you it was a polemic!) he includes swipes at things I do have first-hand experience of and indeed invest a good deal of my own time and energy on: blogs and “‘literary’ websites” (his ‘scare quotes’). “The abracadabra of the internet,” he explains,

 has transformed us into a society of berserk scribblers; now anyone can have a public voice and spew his middling stories and thoughts at will. Forget that blog is just one letter away from bog, or that the passel of burgeoning “literary” websites is largely a harvest of inanity with only the most tenuous hold on actual literature. Our capacity for untamed, ceaseless communication has convinced us that we have something priceless to say.

Seriously, William: why did you have to go there? The whole ‘bloggers are ruining everything’ trope is so old, for one thing (see, just for instance, here, here, and here). If the best you have to bring to this particular game is “blog is just one letter away from bog,” it’s actually hard to know how to respond – some old line about “what’s in a name” comes to mind. But of course it’s easier to spew hasty generalizations than to explore the literary blogosphere with an open mind and rejoice that so many people care enough about books to write about them (or to write their own). Sure, some book blogs are middling or worse, but I have always found the same to be true of an awful lot of more formally published writing in forms ranging from peer-reviewed academic journals to the pages of mainstream newspapers. For range, originality, and enthusiasm, blogs can’t be beat: if you want to read about something more than “in-vogue books,” you’re much better off exploring some of the sites on my blogroll, for instance, than reading the New York Times Book Review, and if you enjoy hearing from different voices and getting surprised by what you read, well, you’re better off reading a lot of those “literary” websites than New York Review of Books. Further, as an editor at one of those literary websites (and I’ll abandon those condescending scare quotes now!), I feel pretty good about our “hold on actual literature,” and I feel very proud of what we accomplish every month with no resources but our own deep commitment to just what Giraldi claims to be defending — that is, the art of taking literature seriously.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not countering Giraldi’s sweeping dismissal with a blanket endorsement. The challenge of the internet, as I’ve often said, is filtering. But it’s not an impossible task, and I genuinely believe it is a worthwhile one. I just wish more professional critics would not just follow Daniel Mendelsohn’s lead and acknowledge the presence of “serious longform review-essays by deeply committed lit bloggers” but also curate blogrolls of their own. And since it seems that Giraldi exempts the Los Angeles Review of Books from his indictment of online inanity (else why publish in it?), wouldn’t it do more for the cause of literature to find and encourage and promote other sites (or at least individual pieces) that live up to his standards, instead of ranting about kids these days and their dang computers?

LARBI actually hesitated to write any kind of response to Giraldi. When I mentioned his essay on Twitter, a wise friend counselled me to “skip it, not worth the stress!” And in some ways he was right. Whenever someone goes off on an anti-blogging, anti-internet rant on the internet, you know you’re being trolled, and “don’t feed the trolls” is almost as important an online rule as “don’t read the comments” (though happily that last rule mostly doesn’t apply in my corner of the blogosphere, where the comments make the whole exercise worthwhile!). Giraldi has just enough qualifiers (“largely a harvest of inanity”), too, that he can shield himself from the fall-out (“hey, I didn’t mean you guys! some of my best friends are bloggers / run ‘literary’ websites!”).

But I guess I’m just a slow learner. I don’t see why things have to be this way: I don’t see why slagging off about bloggers has to be part of anybody’s defense of criticism or literature, or why people who should know better insist on conflating form (or platform) with content…except that it’s more work to draw finer distinctions. Giraldi has said this kind of thing before (worse, really):

If you’ve ever attempted to read a review on Amazon or on someone’s personal blog, you know it’s identical to seeking relationship advice on the wall of a public restroom.

The bottom line is that I don’t think he should be able to get away with it. Frankly, I don’t think his editors should let it go by either: though I’m sure they appreciate the link-bait, they might keep in mind that some of their other contributors write “personal blogs” — or, to take it less personally, they might at least insist on some specifics and some qualifying nuances. I happen to agree with Giraldi’s summary of a critic’s ideal credentials: “the assertion of an aesthetic and moral sensibility wedded to a deep erudition.” He just needs to stop belligerently proclaiming that these qualities aren’t to be found “on the Net.” He needn’t become one of the “online coddlers” he so despises, but there’s no special virtue in being sloppily vitriolic either.  He could at least take his own advice and read widely before writing.

2012: My Year in Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Worth of Our Work (with Some Thoughts on Jonah Lehrer)

Alas, alas!
This hurts most, this . . that, after all, we are paid
The worth of our work, perhaps.

— Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh

The very smart and funny Adam Roberts has decided to put an end to his blog Punkadiddle. Iif you haven’t already had the pleasure, you should check out the archives – I particularly enjoyed his skewering of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, especially this one, which starts hilarious and ends profound (that reminds me–time for a tea break!). As a Victorianist, though, I found posts like this one of the greatest value to my own thinking.

It’s understandable that Adam would decide to close up shop in one venue when, as he says, his time and energy are needed elsewhere. Blogging consistently (by which I mean not just posting regularly but staying involved with comments and generally maintaining a site that reflects genuine engagement with its subject and with other readers and writers) does take a lot of time and energy, and people’s interests and priorities change over time. As a result blogs ebb and flow, and come and go. The Valve, where both Adam and I were contributors, ran out of steam a while back, and that was a group effort, which in theory should be easier to keep invigorated. I’ll miss following Adam’s work at Punkadiddle, but I’ll look forward to keeping up with it in other venues.

One part of Adam’s farewell post really made me think:

Once upon a time writers were paid in money, but now writers are paid (in the first instance at any rate) in eyeballs, which may or may not at a later stage, underpants-gnomically, turn into money.  Part of this new logic is that the writer ought to be grateful simply to have the attention of those eyeballs.  I’m as deep into this new economy as anybody, of course; I read many thousands of fresh new words, free, online every day.  But I wonder if it doesn’t have more downsides than ups.  Take the material contained in the archives of this blog.  If the sort of thing I write is worth paying for then I’m a mug to give it away for free; and if it isn’t worth paying for (of course a great deal of online writing isn’t) then I’m wasting everyone’s time, including my own, carrying on.

As a number of comments on his post have noted, it’s tricky to measure the worth of a blog monetarily: for many bloggers, the chief attractions of the form are the intrinsic pleasures of the writing itself and of the conversation that it stimulates. Yet as Rich Puchalsky comments there, “It’s very easy for people to say that the value of an activity is not measured in what it earns… but part of the monetization of attention is that yes, really, it is hard to say whether written work that people don’t pay for is valued.” Certainly as long as work is unpaid it doesn’t make sense to keep it up unless the effort is repaid in some other way, while anyone who’s enjoying the writing and doesn’t need or want money for it can hardly be faulted for continuing to do it. But how much does the willingness of so many people to write criticism for free make it difficult for those who hope to make a living at it?

As Adam says, it’s a strange new economy here on the internet, with attention or “eyeballs” the primary currency. Adam and I are both somewhat insulated from the effects of this because we’re academics. As Tom Lutz wrote about the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Many of us are also supported, as I am, by our universities (however much they, too, are shrinking and under siege), and so we can write and edit “for free” as part of our commitment to the dissemination of knowledge that is integral to that job” (“Future Tense“). There’s a sense in which Adam and I are both already getting paid for whatever we write, depending on how broadly we define our university’s missions and our professional obligations. (I have a few times made the case that academics who write blogs related to their areas of specialization are making valuable contributions — here, for instance, and more recently here.) Blogging for free can be understood as a variety of open access publishing, and I don’t think anyone’s making the argument that academic articles made freely available aren’t valuable–but at the same time, built into arguments about such open access publishing is the assumption that the work is already being paid for. Academics are also hardly used to being paid specifically for their publications. I have never received a dime from any journal that published my work: the currency there is not eyeballs but prestige and professional recognition. (I also wasn’t paid by the LARB for the essay I published there.) I made a few hundred dollars in total from each of my books. Academics are accustomed, that is, to thinking of writing primarily in non-monetary terms. But, as Lutz points out, “many of us are not [academics],” that is, not everyone publishing their writing for free online already has economic support for that effort.

I don’t know how to do the math here, really, especially when models that assume scarcity increases value hardly seem to apply. Criticism is not a pursuit that responds well to supply and demand, any more than literature itself is–not if what you want is some version of “the best that has been thought and said.” The relationship in both cases between popularity and quality is surely a vexed one. It makes sense in some ways to expect the best work from people who will do it no matter what, simply because it means that much to them, but then with professionalism comes a particular kind of experience and expertise, as well as editorial and public scrutiny which, perhaps, leads to better work overall. (Even as I wrote that last bit, though, I wanted to retract it: the quality of criticism that appears in a lot of paid venues is not inspiring, outside a few elite publications. Punkadiddle is–was–many times better than the review section of my local paper, or of either of Canada’s national papers, for that matter. But isn’t that as much a sign of the limitations of the marketplace as of anything else? Presumably, newspapers publish the kinds of reviews [they think] their subscribers want to read. See also this critique at Lemonhound of a recent published review, though I don’t know if it was paid for.)

In any case, as Lutz says, “We don’t know what the future of publishing is, but we know that the future for every writer requires food.” Edward Champion wrote a strongly-worded response to Lutz’s essay. “Financially speaking,” he observes,

The Los Angeles Review of Books is no different from any other group blog or online magazine. As Full Stop‘s Alex Shephard observed, the question of basic survival is crucial to all writers, regardless of where they come from. The Los Angeles Review of Books‘s present interface relies on Tumblr and, even though it has featured close to 100 posts, it is just as dependent on volunteers and donated time as any other online outlet. As such, so long as it does not pay, it assigns zero value to the labor of its contributors, which makes it not altogether different from The Huffington Post.

“Lutz’s essay is unwilling to swallow the bitter pill,” Champion concludes: ” in a world of free, expertise no longer has any value. . . .  those who want the content are so used to getting it for free that they expect writers of all stripes to surrender their labor for nothing.” In the comments, he and Lutz go back and forth a bit about whether his assessment is unduly negative. I’m certainly hoping that the Los Angeles Review of Books succeeds in its aim of finding a sustainable financial model that includes fair pay for its contributors. As Champion points out, Open Letters Monthly is one of several other “quality online outlets” that have been “getting by” with basically no revenue stream. It’s a labor of love, something we keep doing because we believe criticism is intrinsically worth doing as well as possible. Is this, as Champion says, “an unsustainable model in the long run”? As he’s well aware, oddly it isn’t (as long as we’re willing to cover the core costs, like server space and postage, ourselves), because enough people want to write that they’ll do it for free–if they weren’t, it would certainly be impossible for us to keep offering the magazine for free, which is what the new internet economy expects. Would we like to pay our contributors, never mind our editors? Sure! But we can’t, and they (and we) are all willing to do the work anyway. Maybe, as Adam says, we’re all mugs.

That said, there are people who are paid for their writing, and it seems both inevitable and just that at this moment when there is so much great criticism online for free (the problem, of course, is finding it reliably: the challenge is curating and filtering the endless proliferation of material) there is sharp scrutiny of those lucky few. What should our expectations be–what should the standards be–for those who somehow have made writing a paying gig? It would be gratifying if the hierarchy of quality were clear: if only the very best (the smartest, the most engaging, the most eloquent, the most original) writing was writing that made money. (Heck, it would be gratifying if the very best writing was the writing that attracted the most eyeballs! If only.) This is pretty clearly not the case, and I know I’m not the only person writing for free who sometimes puzzles or even fumes over the results (see, for instance, Steve Donoghue’s often excoriating series on ‘the penny press.’). “You have eight pages in The New Yorker!” I have been known to rant … you’d better use them really, really well! Meaning, of course, use them as I would use them, if I ever got the chance! (Though is it really the money that matters, or, still, the eyeballs? Writers want readers above all. Hence the difficulty of figuring out the economics.)

I think this paradoxical context of scarcity amidst abundance is relevant to the recent brouhaha about Jonah Lehrer, whose “self-plagiarism” has cast a shadow over his recent appointment to a pretty plum position: staff writer for The New Yorker. Is ‘repurposing’ your own work the worst sin a writer can commit? Of course not. Writers rework material all the time. Academics, for instance, routinely use material first in a conference paper, then an article, and then in a book. A writer like Lehrer whose main contribution is a particular expertise or insight in a field is bound to repeat it in multiple variations. But there are ways and ways of doing this, and the measures of how best to do so (ethically, creatively, intellectually) surely include not just transparency (acknowledgement, “as I said in this prior piece,” and attribution, “previously published in”) but also development and enrichment (if large chunks of wording need no revision whatsoever over a long period of time, that suggests not so much dishonesty as mental stagnation). Even if it’s not a strictly illegitimate practice, it’s not very impressive for a writer to be so repetitive.

It’s also a kind of double-dipping. Some have disputed the entire idea of “self-plagiarism,” on the logic that you can’t steal from yourself. That’s true in a literal way, but you can try to get credit twice for doing something once–for submitting the same assignment to two different classes, for instance. That’s considered cheating at a university because it means you did not in fact do the amount of original work your credit-based degree requires. It devalues your credential, and it means you looked for a short-cut, too. The best students don’t do that; the best educated students haven’t done that. The best writers, similarly, won’t be the ones doing the same thing over and over and trying to get credit for it every time. You can’t put the same publication more than once on your c.v. as an academic or, I assume, on your resume as a writer. That’s padding, to make your list of publications look longer than it is. In both situations, time pressure is proposed as an excuse (students are stressed and over-committed, Lehrer’s a busy guy). Srsly? Without even sorting out whether Lehrer had the legal right to rerun material he’d already published (and as far as I know, the consensus is that he retained copyright on his material, but I don’t know the specifics of his contracts), again, don’t we expect something more of our best writers? And don’t we expect staff writers at The New Yorker in particular (a job many of those Champion describes as currently having to “debase themselves for scraps” would be overjoyed to get) to be conspicuously the best? Don’t the editors of The New Yorker expect that their writers will set an example of intellectual curiosity, originality, creativity, and rigor?

Yes, there’s an element of Schadenfreude here, but  it’s about something more than just sour grapes. Those of us who write for free online have heard for years about the deficiencies of our amateur efforts (here’s Ron Hogan on the same example)–it’s no wonder that we get riled up when the very publications that supposedly set the bar for us all turn out to be kind of slack, orwhen  those who somehow (“underpants-gnomically,” as Adam so colorfully says) turn their writing into money turn out not to be conspicuously better than those who don’t or even, like Lehrer, kind of worse. I’m not saying Lehrer clearly doesn’t deserve to be a staff writer at The New Yorker. He’s not a book critic, and he’s got special expertise and celebrity of his own, so he brings things to the table that presumably have their own kind of value. (Still, I would have expected that kind of disrespect for the magazine to be disqualifying for keeping his post.) Even so, I think his example does further complicate the discussion about what writing is worth. In some of the ways that really count, Adam’s writing at Punkadiddle is clearly worth more to him (as an exercise of his own intelligence and wit and expertise) than Lehrer’s was worth to him. Lehrer wanted the paying gigs: to sustain them, he had to take shortcuts and, as a result, he shortchanged his readers and his publishers.

How should we really measure and repay the worth of our work or others’? It’s a wonderful thing to do work that you love, but as the economy of the internet shows (or, for an example in a different area, the economy of higher education), love can make exploitation awfully easy–and there’s no guarantee that love is what you’ll buy with your money, as The New Yorker found out.

I have no interest in monetizing Novel Readings. I am fortunate not to need this work, which I enjoy and benefit from in other ways, to be a specific source of income. But I know (as Ed Champion and Tom Lutz know) that the work we do online is not really free, even if we make it freely available, and I worry that Champion is right that we are all contributing to the devaluing of criticism even as, ironically, we all read and write it for free because we do value it. Open Letters Monthly does not have the manpower or resources or infrastructure to do the kind of massive fundraising work going on at the Los Angeles Review of Books. We do, however, have a PayPal account set up for donations. If you’re ever wondering if you can do anything to help sustain the wonderfully rich and generous and perhaps (if Champion is right) ultimately unsustainable world of online book reviewing, one small gesture would be to put a little in the hat there. At the very least, it would help us with the cost of our web hosting, the one thing eyeballs alone can’t buy.

Monday Miscellany: Getting My House in Order, Course Prep, & LA Review of Books

In part, I mean “getting my house in order” quite literally, in the sense that much of my time in the past week has been spent sorting out a household problem of the most unexciting kind. It sounds simple enough: some time ago our dryer began catching items in its edges and scorching them – not a good thing! So I finally set up a “service call” and, after warning me that if he even stepped across the threshold he’d have to charge me at least the minimum for the visit and it might not be worth it for a dryer that is over a decade old, the nice man from Sears diagnosed the problem, “costed” the parts and repairs, and left us convinced that we didn’t want to fix the thing because to do so would cost very nearly as much as a new dryer. And a new dryer, of course, instead of developing yet more expensive problems, would actually be under warranty. And it might (technological advances being what they are) actually dry clothes more efficiently. Thus was launched the great Washer-and-Dryer quest of 2011 — washer too, because our old set was ‘stackers,’ a decision by our home’s previous owner that had seemed odd to us until we started looking for alternatives that would actually fit inside the closet where the laundry hook-ups are. Hours of internet research followed, and then multiple phone calls and then trips to stores (tape measure in hand, eventually, because it turns out you can’t trust the information you find on the internet!). It’s such a boring thing to spend so much time on, and yet it’s just the kind of thing you don’t want to screw up because you need the darned things to work, preferably for years. It’s a boring thing to write about, too! And this is just the kind of thing that gets the snide hashtag #firstworldproblems on Twitter…so I’ll stop, except to say that our new, pretty basic but, we hope, efficient and effective (and non-scorching) set arrives on Saturday. As most of the appliances in our house are at least that old or older, I fear we are living on borrowed time, especially with our cook-top and oven (original, I believe, with the house, which was built in the late 1980s). I promise not to keep you up to date.

I’ve also been getting things in order at work. A couple of weeks ago I laid out the tasks I need to get done to be ready for the start of classes in September: Blackboard sites, course syllabi, and other assorted paperwork and preparation. At this point I am happy to say the syllabi are ready for all three of my fall courses, including details about course requirements and policies, and, most important, full schedules of readings and assignments. I’ll give these one more thorough examination before I make them official, but I don’t expect to change anything major. I’ve also prepared the Blackboard sites for all three courses. I won’t be using these sites for much besides organization and storage of course materials except for in one class, where we will use the discussion boards for questions and responses. Even so, it takes a lot of tedious work to put the various pieces in place, including setting up and testing links to a range of online resources, uploading handouts, and so forth. There are some bits and pieces I still need to draw up, including study questions for novels I haven’t taught before, and I’ll keep puttering away at those, but those can be added easily enough now that the overall system of tools and folders is in place. I do hate Blackboard: every step is so laborious. But it is helpful having course information centralized in this way as well. I know we don’t have the latest version. I can’t say I’ve found the most recent upgrades improvements, but maybe the next level will give us a more intuitive interface and even (dare I dream?) drag-and-drop capabilities. Though I’m not completely finished with class preparation, there are some things it never makes sense to do very far ahead of time (like actual lecture notes, which I find need to be pretty fresh to be useful), and the panic I was feeling at the beginning of the month has more or less abated.

As for my other work, there too I am getting things in order. I’m actually caught up right now on thesis chapters to read. That won’t last – I expect not only another Ph.D. installment this week but an entire M.A. thesis, for which I am serving as 3rd reader. I must make the most of this little lull and … work some more on my conference presentation for Birmingham! I finished a first full draft version of the Prezi I was building for it (if it even makes sense to talk of a “draft” of something as malleable as a Prezi). Looking at it this weekend I felt that I had found pretty much all the pieces I wanted to include (the accompanying commentary, of course, is what will make it all intelligible, or so I hope) but it still seemed kind of linear and unimaginative given what you can actually do with Prezi’s layout options — it looks as if I took PowerPoint slides, shuffled them up a bit, and laid them out on the table in related clusters. I’m going to spend some time working on my speaking notes separately now, and then go back to the Prezi and tighten it up. I’ve been looking at some of the samples on the Prezi site (like this astronomy one: cool!) and getting a sense of how you can use the zooming functions and the multi-directional layout options more creatively to end up with a presentation that lets you step back and display the big picture as well as come in close and explore the details. In the end, of course, what matters most is that your audience understand your points and the relationship between them. What I have been appreciating about Prezi is that it lets me think about those relationships and play with them right there on the ‘canvas,’ muttering to myself as I go. I know that in PowerPoint you can shuffle slides around, but the slides themselves are both harder to set up and fussier to change than the Prezi, where you literally just slide things around. That said, I definitely want to do a trial run in one of our classrooms that has its own ‘desktop’ computer and a data projector, to check how what I see on my own computer translates to that technology. I think I’m also going to prepare a simple PowerPoint version: the conference organizers have told us to bring PPT presentations on memory sticks to use in the conference rooms, and even though I have double-checked that the available computers will have internet access (which should be all I need to run the Prezi right from the Prezi site), I don’t want to be caught short by some factor I haven’t anticipated. The conference program is up and it looks like it will be a very full three days of sessions. With my departure now only two weeks away, I am starting to feel my usual pre-travel jitters, which I will keep in check by focusing on planning. I’ve just started looking more attentively into trains from London to Birmingham, for instance. Both prices and times for the trip seem to vary enormously. Oh dear: something else to fret about!

In other news, I don’t think I ever mentioned here specifically that the piece I wrote on Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series ran on the Los Angeles Review of Books site on August 5th (link). I’m really impressed at what the folks there have accomplished in what seems like a very short time (though I realize a lot of work went on in preparation for the launch even of this temporary site!), and also at their larger ambitions for the review, which reflect a deep commitment to but also a welcome optimism about books and book culture. If you haven’t been paying attention to them, one piece that is well worth reading because of the way it contextualizes their efforts is editor-in-chief Tom Lutz’s “Future Tense.”  Among the many interesting things he says is this, about their editors and contributors: “Many of us are also supported, as I am, by our universities (however much they, too, are shrinking and under siege), and so we can write and edit ‘for free’ as part of our commitment to the dissemination of knowledge that is integral to that job.” As I noted briefly on Twitter, the kind of writing the LA Review of Books represents is not the kind that is usually required or rewarded by universities (I bet most if not all of the academics who are heavily involved in this experiment in knowledge dissemination are tenured), so if they are indeed being encouraged by their institutions to proceed, that’s a promising sign that at least some administrators understand that there are more ways to use academics’ time and expertise than specialized, peer-reviewed publication.

I’ve been taking kind of a mini-sabbatical from Open Letters Monthly, partly to make sure I concentrated on my ‘must-do’ tasks, partly just to regroup and think about my priorities over there, including how best to balance them against the upcoming term, which promises to be one of my busiest in a while. I haven’t forgotten the essay on Richard III, gender, and genre, but my motivation for it rather sagged, especially given how esoteric it is, really — except for my own quirky interest in it, I couldn’t see the point of it, and it’s certainly not time-sensitive, unlike other work I’ve been doing. I’ll take a fresh look at it when my informal leave of absence is over and see if I feel excited about finishing it, and also if, on sober second thought, it seems like something anyone else would want to read! I also need to be ready to steer a couple of incoming pieces from other contributors through for the September issue, so I hope to be re-energized and back in the editing business soon. Watching the LARB take off has prompted some reflections on how we fit into the broader context Lutz describes: as Ed Champion remarks in his response to Lutz’s essay, there is a pretty extensive array of online review publications already, including OLM. (As a side note, following on the issue of how academics might fit into the ‘new’ order, one of the comments at EdRants says “Perhaps the kind of long-form book reviewing that was the rule in the old print world should be gathered into the fold of academia, and it seems like the LA Review of Books model might be the thin end of the wedge here.” The more I think about these issues, the more they seem to deserve a separate post, as they open up all kinds of questions, including about the role of academics in the wider world of books and reviewing – which were, of course, some of the questions that were most on my mind when I first began blogging.)

And now, I must go put some laundry in, as our old set leaves tomorrow and though the four-day interval before the new ones arrive may not seem like much, it’s not negligible with a teenaged boy in the house! Then I’ll settle in to address the next things on my to-do list.