A New (and Final) Open Letters Monthly

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

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

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

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

Happy 10th Anniversary, Open Letters!

The March 2017 issue of Open Letters Monthly marks the magazine’s 10th anniversary. I’m pretty sure that means it is 247 in internet years! I haven’t been with OLM since the very beginning, but I published my first essay there in 2009 and joined the editorial team in 2010, which means I was part of our 5th anniversary celebration, the “Critical Issue.” Our 10th anniversary issue is not themed, but its diversity of both subjects and styles is unified by our ongoing commitment to fulfilling our mission statement:

Open Letters is dedicated to the proposition that no writing which reviews the arts should be boring, back-patting, soft-pedaling, or personally compromised. We’ve all had the experience of reading a review that sparkled—one that combined an informed, accessible examination of its quarry with gamesome, intelligent, and even funny commentary. These are the pieces we tell our friends about and then vigorously debate.

Our mission here is to provide you with a wide variety of such reviews every month.

This month, those reviews include Steve Donoghue on a new book about “ostentatious martyr” Lady Jane Grey (or, as he prefers to call her, “Jane the Pretender”); Sam Sacks on two books making the case for literature’s special relevance in turbulent times; Nick Holdstock on Russian fabulist Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s The Return of Munchausen; Melissa Beck on the Indian classic of ill-fated lovers, Chemmeen; Kenyon Gradert on George Saunders’ historical (but very contemporary) Lincoln in Bardo; Jennifer Helinek on Elizabeth Kostova’s Shadow Land; Jessica Tvordi on Danielle Dutton’s captivating Margaret the First; me on a not-very-inspired (or inspiring) novel about WWI … and that’s not even all! As always, I hope you will head on over and read what interests you.

I think we are all feeling pretty proud of ourselves on this 10th anniversary. Enthusiasm is enough to get a project like Open Letters up and running, but to keep it going every month for a decade requires a lot of effort, a lot of trust, and also a certain kind of doggedness. Over the years the editors have had our share of disagreements, some of them vehement, but I think we would all agree that in spite of them — perhaps even, in a way, because of them — we have achieved something pretty remarkable. So here’s to us!

Sustaining Open Letters also depends on our contributors: one of the very best parts of this whole endeavor is working with so many smart, articulate, generous writers and having the privilege of showcasing the results. So here’s a heartfelt thanks to all of them — to all of you, since some of you are also readers of Novel Readings. What do you think: do we all have another 10 years in us?

Open Letters Monthly, June 2016 Edition!


Another month invariably means another issue of Open Letters Monthly! Just in case anyone who visits Novel Readings doesn’t already automatically check out our new issues, here are some highlights that might encourage you to click on over. The range of topics seems particularly broad to me: that eclecticism may be part of what keeps us relatively obscure, but it’s also what makes the whole enterprise fun and interesting for the editors. So, for example, this month we have:

Justin Hickey on a book that encourages us to think of fish as far more than food

Zach Rabiroff on a new biography of “the cute one,” Paul McCartney

Dorian Stuber on a book that examines Primo Levi’s perhaps less-than-exemplary conduct when he was in the Resistance

Steve Donoghue on a thoughtful and even-handed study of the Creation Museum that really should have been a screed

Laura Tanenbaum on a new biography of anarchist poet Lola Ridge

And that’s not all! Sara Malton reviews Charlotte Mathieson’s Mobility in the Victorian Novel, Steve Danziger interviews an Oulipo translator, there’s new poetry, there are pieces from our rich archives, and … Well, at this point, if I haven’t piqued your curiosity you are beyond reaching.


My own contribution is a review of Mary Balogh’s Only Beloved that doubles as a more general piece on romance fiction, that “most despised and rejected of genres.” It reflects both the journey I’ve taken in my own reading and thinking about the genre since I first posted about it here and the reading I’ve begun doing as preparation for teaching Lord of Scoundrels in my Pulp Fiction class next winter. It doesn’t say anything that will surprise (or perhaps even interest) an audience already well versed in these debates, and it might even just tire romance readers who have had enough of defenses of the genre. But the general prejudice certainly persists, and I wanted to try my hand at confronting it in what I hope is a measured way, and especially by talking about specific examples. I thought Mary Balogh would make an interesting case because she’s so different from what (in my experience, anyway) most people assume romance novels are like, especially post-50 Shades of Grey. I hope I avoided the pitfalls romance “think pieces” often fall into.

Happy New Year! and New Books! and New OLM!


2016 is getting off to a good start in my corner of the world. For one thing, I have a lovely array of new books, thanks to the kind people who basically ran my entire Chapters wish list. Isn’t that an enticing stack? My problem now is that I can’t decide where to start: rereading Mr. Impossible, because I know how fun that will be? rereading Little Women, because I finally have my own elegant edition? embarking on Jane Smiley’s ‘100 Years’ trilogy? plunging into Fates and Furies? wandering New York with Vivian Gornick? I suppose I could postpone the decision by settling down to finish The Portrait of a Lady — not least because I don’t want to read The House of Mirth until I’ve done that.

It’s not just the beginning of a new year, of course: it’s also the beginning of the month, and that means, as always, that a new issue of Open Letters Monthly has just gone live. I’m in it a couple of times: in brief in our feature of most-anticipated books of 2016,and at greater length in an essay about different editions of Middlemarch that is also a review of the elegant new Penguin Classics Deluxe edition. I’m always wary of writing autobiographically, but I couldn’t think how else to approach this review, and I enjoyed reflecting on the versions of the novel I’ve accumulated over the years as well as on how the editions we read of a book affect the relationship we develop with it.

oxfordlawrenceAs usual, the issue includes a wide range of other interesting pieces. One of my favorites this time is Dorian’s essay on D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. My own experience with Lawrence so far is limited and ambivalent — but it has certainly made me curious, and Dorian writes so eloquently about both the language and the ideas of Women in Love that I’m feeling emboldened to read more Lawrence before too long. My co-editor Robert Minto offers a fascinating essay on Nietzsche’s Anti-Education, recently reissued by NYRB Classics, finding in it strains that might serve as cautionary to today’s “anxious citizens of academia”; Steve Donoghue reviews (as only he can) a new book on Sigismondo Malatesta, the only man ever to be reverse-canonized; Barrett Hathcock explores the hall-of-mirrors sensation of finding himself fictionalized by a student in his own creative writing class; and that’s just the top half of the Table of Contents. I hope you’ll check it out, and if you like anything about what we produce every month at Open Letters, I also hope you’ll consider supporting our efforts — we are entirely sincere when we say that a comment or a link is as welcome as a donation.

Very soon, I will also be launched on the new term. My classes this time are familiar ones in my teaching rotation: Mystery and Detective Fiction and 19th-Century British Fiction (Austen to Dickens edition). As usual, I’m feeling equal parts anticipation and dread at the prospect of starting it all up again. (I have already had one very typical anxiety dream in which I was unable to print notes or handouts because my files had disappeared, and the computer kept auto-updating as I desperately tried to find them, and the start time for class came and went … you’d think after all these years I would not need my subconscious warning me to prepare for class, but this did prompt me to go to campus early and print all my notes and handouts for Monday, so that’s good, I guess!) I’m also feeling very aware that this time last year my sabbatical term was just beginning: inevitably, I guess, that is provoking some reflection on how I used that time and what has become of the projects I worked on since it ended — more about that eventually, along with more of my regular posts on how things go in my classes.

But I still have one more full day, and since I did print my materials early (and have also built my Blackboard sites and labelled my folders and made my Powerpoint slides for opening day), I will spend it reading — if I can just settle on which book. Happy New Year!

A New Open Letters Monthly Is Up! Again!

Bookworm's Table (Hirst)A monthly schedule really is relentless, isn’t it? And yet somehow, every month, we pull it off and present to the world another brand spanking new issue. As usual, I hope you’ll be tempted to go browse and read in it directly, but here are a couple of teasers:

Once again we wrap up the year with our special “Year in Reading” feature, in which the Open Letters editorial team picks favorites read, not (or not necessarily) published, in 2015. I always enjoy reading through everyone’s contributions: we are all avid readers, but we all read differently, and different things, so you can never predict what will turn up there. There was some competition for my own top spot this year; I’ll get a chance to revisit more of my own personal bests when I do my year-end post.

My review of Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles is up. I thought The Orphan Master’s Son was an extraordinary novel — gripping, sad, funny, and really original — and I thought the same of this collection of stories, though they certainly take us to some disturbing places.

Jane Schmidt reviews what sounds like a really interesting book on the history and ideology of makeup. Is it oppressive or expressive? Read the review and find out!

Also in this month’s issue: Steve Donoghue on a new book about atheism, Luciana Magniafico on the art and legacy of Edward Gibbon, new poetry, and more.

Open Letters Monthly, November 2015

BigMagicFinalDidn’t we only just do this? And yet here we are again, at the beginning of a new month with a brand new issue of Open Letters Monthly up and ready for your enlightenment and enjoyment! A few highlights:

Greg Waldmann reads Exceptional, by Dick and Liz Cheney, and finds it exceptionally (though unsurprisingly) bad.

Steve Donoghue reports on an outstanding history of the Battle of the Bulge, which (if Hitler had had his way) would have been a pivotal Nazi victory known as the Battle of Antwerp.

Victoria Olsen follows up her fascinating piece on Jane Avril from last month with a thoughtful essay on the pilgrimages we make to places like Paris’s Père Lachaise cemetery.

My Dalhousie colleague Jerry White writes with his usual brio and a fair amount of annoyance about a new collection of essays from The New Republic.

And that’s not all: we’ve got JC Sutcliffe (known to bloggers as Slightly Bookist) on Timur Vermes’s risky comic novel Look Who’s Back; John Cotter looks at Jay Parini’s new biography of Gore Vidal; I take on Elizabeth Gilbert’s feel-good self-help book Big Magic; and even that’s not all! So do head on over to Open Letters Monthly and have a look, while the OLM team basks for a few days in pride and relief — and gratitude, also, for all the writers who contributed.

This Week In My Classes: Everything Else!

BigMagicFinalWhen it’s this quiet around here, that can only mean one thing: I am very busy elsewhere! The main reason I haven’t written up any new reading is that I’ve been working on a review for the next issue of Open Letters. Despite my best efforts, I’m still quite a slow and painstaking writer when I know it’s for a “formal” purpose (most of the time, I write with much greater freedom here, but there haven’t been quite the spin-off benefits in the rest of my writing life that I’m always hoping for). Sort of ironically, given that, the book I’ve been writing about is Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, which I picked up to read (not, initially, to review) precisely because I was feeling stymied about my writing and thought maybe she’d have some helpful tips. All I’ll say about the book for now is that it did indeed motivate me to do some writing!

I sent my draft of that review off to my co-editors for their input a couple of days ago and will come back to revisions once they are done with it. I’ve been writing for Open Letters for six years now (my very first piece went up in the October 2009 issue) and everyone there is now a friend as well as a colleague, but I still get butterflies when I post my work for their edits. If you’ve contributed to OLM you may sometimes have wondered what the process is like for the insiders: believe me, we are just as attentive and rigorous with each other’s work! And in a way it’s a more intense process for us, because we condense and redact editorial comments a lot of the time before sending them back to authors, whereas we see the edits on our own work quite unfiltered. To show what I mean, here’s a screen clipping of a typical* segment of one of my drafts (the first version of this review) festooned with suggestions (I won’t decode which font is which editor):


(If you want to see the details, click on the image and it gets bigger). Even a piece that doesn’t provoke a lot of objections or corrections can generate a lot of debate about its argument or examples: it’s thrilling, really, to have so many smart people ready and willing to pay close attention to my writing. And while it can be intimidating, it’s done in such a supportive spirit that it’s somehow never discouraging. I’ve certainly never experienced anything like it in academic publishing.

Anyway, because I was using so much of my extra-curricular time writing the review, I haven’t done much other interesting reading, so I don’t have anything to write up for the blog. I have been slowly working through Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles, but as I’m going to be reviewing it for OLM for the next next issue, I won’t be blogging about it in any detail. (I can say, though, that it seems to me as extraordinary in its own way as The Orphan Master’s Son, which is one of the most memorable novels I’ve read in a long time.)

The other reason it has been quiet here is that I have been pretty busy on campus too — not so much with teaching, since my load this term is not heavy, but with administrative and advising work. I’ve already sent out a lot of reference letters and there are more requests coming in pretty steadily. Writing the letters themselves is often kind of uplifting, as you are cheering students on as they move into new, exciting phases of their lives. The paperwork is a real pain in the a–, though, even though these days much of it is virtual. No two places have the same forms or the same specific requirements, and often when there are forms they pose interesting technical challenges (yesterday, for instance, I ended up retyping several paragraphs into a fillable PDF because for whatever reason I could not get it to allow me to paste in the text of my letter, even though that is something I have done without difficulty on similar forms). As far as I know I have never screwed up anyone’s application by missing a deadline or sending the wrong materials to the wrong place or whatever, but it’s stressful worrying that I might lose track of something important.

Committee work, too, has been a bit hectic. One reason is that our department is steadily losing resources: we have five wonderful senior people now phasing into retirement (and more to come soon, it seems likely), which has lots of implications for administrative assignments as well as teaching capacity, and this fall at one point we also had four people on sick leave plus another on a personal leave — and that’s not even counting sabbaticals. We also have no truly “junior” people left in our tenure-track ranks as it has been so long since we made a permanent hire. It seems like many of our recent meetings have focused on reshuffling the people we still have in order to keep everything running, and it’s just barely working. Welcome to the downsized humanities. I’ll never forget the dean telling our Faculty a couple of years ago that we were all going to do “less with less and do it better.” The “less with less” part has certainly come true, but better? Well, we’re certainly doing our best, and every day I’m reminded how committed everyone is — to our students, first of all, but also to the university, in both its real and its ideal incarnation.

All is not gloom and doom, however! I thoroughly enjoyed the class my TA ran on “Araby” on Monday (as always, when I get to move back to the other side of the podium, I was reminded just how much I loved being an English student), and yesterday we had what I thought was quite a good session on Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party.” In my graduate seminar, we struggled with the second half of The Mill on the Floss — not with actually reading it, of course, but with figuring it out. As I eventually said to them, one thing about the ending is it as good as tells us directly “you need to interpret this!” It’s not a novel that’s overtly metafictional in a cool postmodern way (not as much as Middlemarch is, anyway), but it constantly teases us about how fiction works and what its conventions are, as if to make sure we think about how The Mill on the Floss confronts them. We start Middlemarch on Monday; we’re taking it slowly, with just the first two books assigned, so I hope that allows them to linger over the reading and think about form as well as plot.

TLS_Cover_October__1186210hOne other piece of good news, which I kept quiet about until now because I was worried that (for who knows what reason) it might not actually come to fruition: in the summer I got the opportunity to review a book for the TLS (the TLS!), and after much waiting, my review has finally appeared in the current issue. I try not to be an “old media” snob, but there’s something about the TLS and its history that makes it pretty thrilling to see my name in its table of contents.

*OK, maybe not 100% typical – it looks like the new piece is coming through relatively unscathed, for instance! (Maybe I’m getting better at this?) But typical of sections that show fear. Never show fear in the shark tank – it’s like a faint trail of blood and they’ll always pick up on it!