Refreshing My Reading Lists III: Brit Lit Survey

babl-volumebThe third course I plan to spend time rethinking during this sabbatical is British Literature After 1800, one of a suite of 2nd-year survey classes we originally established to orient students in the big picture (nationally and historically) as context and preparation for our more specialized upper-level courses. These curricular intentions are compromised (some might say, rendered inoperable) by the way our program actually works now: the surveys are no longer specific program requirements but are simply part of suites of classes from which students make their own selections. We do not have the option, either, to make specific surveys prerequisites for specific upper-level courses. I wish it were otherwise, and we did at one time have a more structured (and thus, IMHO, more coherent) curriculum. But here we are, and here these courses still are, and in Winter 2020, for the first time since 2010, I will be teaching this particular one again.


In 2010, not only was it clearer how this course fit into our overall offerings but it also was supposed to do specific kinds of work for our majors and honours students, focusing not just on literary content but also on research and writing skills at a a step up from what we typically cover in our first-year classes. Now that the surveys are no longer program requirements at all, much less part of a deliberate skills-based sequence, that is no longer (as far as I know!) a necessary part of them, any more than it is in any of our other 2000-level offerings. This alone would mean reconsidering the structure and assignments I set up for it when I offered it before, when students did (among other things) an elaborate annotated bibliography. Even if the place of the course in our program had not changed, however, I would want to rethink the reading list.

When I drew up the syllabus in 2010, I followed a very conventional — by which I mean, quite canonical —  model. This was not (or not just) a failure of imagination on my part: given the very wide range of our other course offerings, it seemed like a priority to address the “standard” classics that (in my experience) students have often had surprisingly little chance to read at the outset of an English major, ones that are often touchstones or pushing-off points for later authors or movements or specific texts. While in some ways this might seem like a conservative approach, in other ways I consider it essential for understanding our field: it is hard, for instance, to discuss the significance of challenges to the canon, or exclusions from the canon, or problems with the whole notion of canonicity to begin with, without some sense of the traditional canon as a starting point. Or so I thought, anyway: this course, as I conceived of it, set out a preliminary version of literary history that would be complicated (as I repeatedly discussed in class) by other approaches and other courses.

norton-vol-2So I assigned the “major authors” edition of the Norton Anthology and we read Wordsworth and Coleridge, Keats and Shelley, Tennyson and Browning and Hopkins, Wilde and Joyce and Woolf, Yeats and T. S. Eliot and Auden, Heaney and Rushdie. A bit less predictably, we also read Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti, and Katherine Mansfield, and while the first time around I assigned Great Expectations as our representative Victorian novel, the second time we read Mary Barton. Both times, our 20th-century novel was Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which worked really well because it directly–metafictionally and thematically–addresses changing ideas about fiction from Modernism to modernity. The course was a lot of work for me, both because I had to teach a lot of material outside my usual area and because of the challenge of conceptualizing it so that there was some coherence–some patterns and themes to follow across the term–while still doing my best to keep the whole problem of canonicity in view. As part of this effort, I set up one of the most elaborate course requirements I’ve ever done: a collaborative wiki-building project for which the students (working in teams) built study guides for the course based on the lectures and readings as well as their own research and also incorporated some information about readings not included in our syllabus.

atonement_(novel)Looking over my notes, I actually think it was quite a good course of its kind. (You can read some blow-by-blow accounts of it while it was in progress if you’re interested; just scroll down this page until you get to 2010!) Now that this course is not specifically meant as a prelude to other courses, however, I am rethinking the kind of course it should be on its own terms. I would still like to provide something of a canonical overview–because, again, I think some sense of what that looks like is really helpful for other critical, even subversive, conversations–but I would also like to build more of the critiques and revisions and alternatives into the course itself, rather than assuming they will come up later. This assumption just doesn’t seem reasonable any more given the extreme flexibility of our current program (which is a response to scarce resources more than a principled shift away from requirements or sequences), and I also think we will have more interesting conversations in the moment if I shape the reading list to include more contestation and urgency.

How to do that, though, without losing the basic chronological survey structure that distinguishes this course from ones organized by genre, theme, or just narrower parameters? I have been thinking about organizing the readings into clusters, such as gender or nation and identity, but I don’t like to abstract topics or themes as if it doesn’t matter when they took on a particular literary form or voice or what IRL they might have been responding to.  In every course I teach, in fact, including introductory classes, the mystery class, and the 19th-century novel classes, I tend to teach things in chronological order because it makes the most sense to me pedagogically: it allows us to work through any relevant historical contexts in order, and to talk about ways writers respond to each other. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to compare earlier and later treatments of related ideas or forms; it just means that this possibility gets more robust as the course progresses. (This is one reason I often focus the first assignment(s) on a single text and then make later assignments comparative.)


One thing I could do, as a compromise, is choose all of the texts for the course with an overarching theme in mind. This is probably quite feasible, especially if that theme is itself somewhat flexible. In fact, having some reason to choose one thing over another is going to be essential, as canon (re)formation in the past couple of decades has been almost entirely additive: anthologies have only gotten bigger, and some of them, vast already in print, also have associated websites with still more potential material! The thing about letting go of the “old standards” approach is that it leaves you quite overwhelmed with possibilities. Thinking in terms of “how to have the best conversation about X” rather than about coverage (which was impossible, of course, even in the old model) will be not just helpful but essential. I just (just!) need to settle, in that case, on which conversation(s) I want the course to highlight and then figure out how best to include a variety of voices–which is something that I should have done better at in the previous versions.

small-islandI actually already have one specific idea, which is to substitute Andrea Levy’s Small Island for Atonement. It too is a book that crosses literary generations and that tells a story about telling stories, but it starts from a very different place and has very different concerns. I think it’s a very readable book, less subtle, perhaps, than Atonement but also less insular. Atonement is very much a novel about novels, which is one reason I admire it and enjoyed teaching it; this time around, though, for this course, I think I want less literary self-consciousness and more social and political engagement in the reading list. That might make Mary Barton still a good option, but I’m also wondering about Kipling’s Kim, which is one of the 19th-century novels I’ll be getting to know this term–because like Small Island, it’s (as I understand it, anyway) about how we think about who we are in relation to where we come from and where we live. Is that the overarching theme I want to go with? I don’t know yet, but at least it’s a place to start thinking about how to conceptualize this survey course in a new (for me) and possibly more relevant way.

I’d be very interested in knowing how other people approach survey courses of this kind. I have always thought that they are, or should be, the backbone of a good English curriculum. Obviously that view no longer prevails, in practice, in my own department, where we once had a mandatory survey (“Literary Landmarks”) for all majors and honours students. I am sensitive to the objection that we don’t want to perpetuate narrow ideas about the canon or literary history. Within the scope of any such course, though, these issues can always be confronted directly–as I know they were by my colleagues who taught “Literary Landmarks” back in the day. If you have taught — or taken — a survey course, what principles organized it? How did you approach the impossible task of coverage and the essential task of subverting your own generalizations as you went along? What readings worked really well? And, not incidentally, if you assigned an anthology, which one? (At the moment, I am inclined towards making up a custom anthology using Broadview’s excellent tool for this.)

Refreshing My Reading Lists II: Women and Detective Fiction

the-secret-of-the-old-clockIn my last post I went over my plans for refreshing the reading lists for my regular courses on the 19th-century novel. I have now set up a shelf for these books and begun requesting exam copies for those I don’t already have. Next up is the reading list for my upper-level seminar ‘Women and Detective Fiction,’ which I’ll be offering next fall for the first time since 2014. Here is the book list from that iteration of the course:

Agatha Christie, Miss Marple: The Complete Short Stories (selections)
Carolyn Keene, Nancy Drew: The Secret of the Old Clock
Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night
P. D. James, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman
Sue Grafton, A is for Alibi
Sara Paretsky, Indemnity Only
Katherine V. Forrest, Death at the Nightwood Bar
DVD: LaPlante/Mirren, Prime Suspect I

We also read a sampler of stories: “The Purloined Letter,” “A Scandal in Bohemia,” and Hammett’s “The House on Turk Street” (as touchstones for the tropes and traditions of the genre), and Mary Wilkins Freeman’s “The Long Arm,” and Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers.” I have not taught this particular seminar often and there has not been a lot of variation in the reading list, but in earlier versions I included Murder at the Vicarage instead of the short stories for Christie, and I used to assign Amanda Cross’s Death in a Tenured Position until it went out of print, while Death at the Nightwood Bar was a new addition to the course in 2014.

neely-blancheTo date, the books I’ve chosen for this seminar have all been by women writers, about women detectives, and explicitly interested in gender and detection. They all, that is, bring a lot of self-consciousness to their engagement with detective fiction as a genre. Collectively, they also cover a good range of subgenres or types of detective fiction. While in these respects the list has reasonable breadth, however, in other respects it is quite narrow;  the feminist tradition it covers is, to put it mildly, not very intersectional. I put in some time in the past trying to fix this problem; though I came up short, the good news is that I do, as a result, already have a preliminary list of names to start with, particularly of African American authors: among these are Barbara Neely (whose books were out of print the last time I looked but appear to be available again), Eleanor Taylor Bland, Paula L. Woods, Grace F. Edwards, Frankie Y. Bailey, Valerie Wilson Wesley, and Attica Locke, whose The Cutting Season looks especially promising because its historical angle is something the books on my usual list don’t include. I basically haven’t read any books by these authors, so if anyone has tips about where to start with them or other ideas about good candidates for my seminar that would help me make the reading list more diverse, I’d be grateful.

the-breakSo far I have never assigned a Canadian writer in either of my detective fiction classes, primarily because I haven’t found one that takes the genre in what seems like a new direction or that really made me sit up and take notice. (Phonse Jessome’s Disposable Souls came close and might yet end up on the list for the survey course, both because it’s good and because the local angle would be interesting to take on.) For  Women and Detective Fiction, I am very tempted to include Katherena Vermette’s The Break this time, even though it may or may not be genre fiction–it would be a good opportunity to discuss how or why we use that label anyway. The Break would differ from my usual reading list in that it does not follow a woman detective, though it is definitely about women and crime (and if that focus was enough to put a book on the reading list, it would open the door to Dorothy B. Hughes’s In a Lonely Place, an intriguing possibility). A recent article in Quill  & Quire also gave me a starter list of Indigenous mystery writers, including Mardi Oakley Medewar, Sara Sue Hoklotubbe, and Alison Whitaker–more authors whose work will be new to me.

cutting-seasonOne of the problems I ran into last time I went down this road was getting my hands on samples from the authors I was interested in. I probably just need to be more persistent and order a lot of titles through interlibrary loan. The other problem is that I’m not really a voracious or enthusiastic reader of mysteries (odd, I know, in the circumstances) so I tire easily of the necessary exploratory work and I can take a while to warm to books that are not immediately appealing to me (though I can eventually get there, as has happened with Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress–still not a personal favorite, but one I have found very satisfying to teach). This is why I need help sifting through or coming up with good options so that I can make this reading list represent a wider range of voices. Ideas and recommendations would be very welcome.

Postscript: Dorian sent me a link to this excellent round-table discussion on diversity in detective fiction from Writer’s Digest, which might be of interest to others.

Refreshing My Reading Lists I: Victorian Novels

van-gogh-still-life-french-novelsOne of my plans for my upcoming sabbatical is to reconsider and possibly refresh my reading lists for courses I offer frequently. It may be that the reading and rereading I do confirms my usual selections, or that it gives me ideas for mixing things up a little, or that I get inspired to rethink my approach altogether–we’ll see! It isn’t that I’m dissatisfied or trying to fix anything in particular about these courses, which usually go very well. It’s just that book orders for the next year come due in the middle of term when I’m too busy to do this kind of exercise. I don’t want change for the sake of change, but I also don’t want to slide into complacency or let my classroom conversations stagnate.

First up for reconsideration are English 3031 and English 3032 (The 19th-Century British Novel from Austen to Dickens and from Dickens to Hardy). They replaced a full-year survey course on the novel that covered the 18th- and 19th century (that was one of the first courses I taught at Dalhousie and it was a lot of reading and a lot of fun!) and a full-year Honours seminar on the Victorian novel (also a lot of reading and a lot of fun!). Now they are are sandwiched in between other more or less period-specific fiction courses: The Novel to 1820 (“from Behn to Austen”) and Fiction of the Earlier 20th Century (not necessarily British) and British Literature of the Earlier 20th Century (not just the novel). In addition, we offer a range of genre-specific courses likely to include a fair amount of 19th-century British fiction, including Mystery & Detective Fiction, Gothic Fiction, Foundations of Science Fiction, and Children’s Literature. I also regularly offer a 4th-year seminar on sensation fiction.

Maclise DickensThis context explains the choices I typically make for the 19th-Century Fiction Austen-Dickens-Hardy courses: in our curriculum, there are other courses that focus on particular kinds of fiction from the period, so I stay away from works in those categories (such as Frankenstein or Dracula, for example, or Alice in Wonderland) that I know students will read elsewhere and focus primarily on realist, domestic, historical, or social problem novels. I start with Austen, but I tilt English 3031 towards the Victorians, rather than the Romantics, because they have their own classes; similarly, I end English 3032 with Hardy and (with regret) leave Forster and his fellow Edwardians to the later courses.

Over the years, it turns out I have taught 31 novels in these courses, in many different combinations. Here’s the complete list:

  • Austen: Pride and PrejudicePersuasion
  • Braddon: Lady Audley’s Secret (I have assigned Aurora Floyd in the sensation fiction class)
  • A. Brontë: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
  • C. Brontë: Jane Eyre, Villette
  • Collins: The Woman in White;  The Moonstone
  • Dickens: Bleak HouseLittle DorritA Tale of Two CitiesGreat ExpectationsHard Times;  David CopperfieldA Christmas Carol
  • George Eliot: Adam BedeFelix HoltSilas MarnerThe Mill on the FlossMiddlemarch (I have assigned both Romola and Daniel Deronda in graduate seminars but never in undergraduate courses)
  • Gaskell: CranfordMary BartonNorth and South
  • Gissing: The Odd Women
  • Hardy: Jude the ObscureTess of the d’Urbervilles
  • Scott: WaverleyThe Heart of Midlothian
  • Thackeray: Vanity Fair
  • Trollope: The WardenBarchester Towers (I have assigned He Knew He Was Right in an upper-level seminar but never in an undergraduate course, and also The Eustace Diamonds in a graduate seminar)

To be clear, this is not a list of all the books by these authors, or by 19th-century novelists, that I have read: it is just a list of the titles that I have assigned for our core undergraduate courses on the 19th-century British novel. (We have separate courses on 19th-century American fiction, and on Irish literature from 1700-1900.)

penguin-wutheringBesides books like Frankenstein that I know are covered frequently in other courses, probably the most obvious absence from this list is Wuthering Heights. I have read it more than once but never taught it, for the simple (if perhaps indefensible) reason that I like the Brontë novels I do teach much better and the maximum of five books per course that seems realistic to me is a zero-sum game. Also, my colleague Marjorie Stone, who loves Wuthering Heights, regularly offers an upper-level seminar on the Brontës. This winter is her last term in the department, however: her impending departure is another reason I am taking stock in this way. Wuthering Heights is (sigh) near the top of my “reread in 2019” list.

What alternatives might there be to other books on this list? There are many I’ve considered before and rejected, either from lack of interest or for logistical reasons. I can’t imagine choosing Agnes GreyThe ProfessorShirley, Sylvia’s Lovers, or Ruth, for example, over the books by those authors already on my list. Where the choice seems clear to me, I go with the best books. (Remember, it’s a zero-sum game.) I think Wives and Daughters is wonderful but it’s very long and I dare to assign only one very long novel per course: maybe one year Wives and Daughters will win this peculiar lottery, but that would mean no Vanity Fair, or no Bleak House, or no Middlemarch. That’s also the case with No Name and Armadale: I really enjoyed them, but they are very long and, for my purposes, The Woman in White is just fine. I would like to teach The Way We Live Now–but again, it would require balancing it out with shorter books across the rest of the term. This is always possible to do, but so far I haven’t felt that these other Very Long Books are worth displacing my favourites for.

oxford-draculaSo besides Wuthering Heights, what other alternatives am I contemplating? Well, to start with, I’m reconsidering the way I have always avoided Frankenstein and Dracula, as well as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Picture of Dorian Gray. For one thing, soon we’ll be down to one Romanticist in the department and it isn’t clear how often Gothic Fiction will be taught after that. For another, it has been a while since I read any of these novels and I’d like to see how they’d fit into (or disrupt) the discussions I usually have. There are Dickens novels I’ve never read (including Nicholas Nickleby and Dombey & Son) and ones I haven’t read in years (including Oliver Twist and Our Mutual Friend): especially since I assign Dickens in both 3031 and 3032, it would be nice to have more options. Gissing’s New Grub Street is on my re-read list: The Odd Women always goes over well, and New Grub Street seems very timely. It has been decades since I read The Mayor of CasterbridgeThe Return of the Native, or Far From the Madding Crowd: I should at least check if Tess and Jude really are my best options for Hardy. Much as I love Waverley, it is always a very hard sell; I’d like to give both The Bride of Lammermoor and Ivanhoe another look. I’ve only ever assigned Margaret Oliphant in a graduate seminar: I’d like to review at least Miss Marjoribanks, to see how it might go over in an undergraduate course. I haven’t read any Meredith, so I will probably give The Egoist a try. I’ve never read any Kipling, either; 2019 will be the year in which I finally read Kim.*

yonge-clever-womanThere’s another dimension that I need to give further thought to, and that’s which less canonical writers or genres I should work into these plans. I’ve made it this far without reading any novels by Bulwer Lytton or Disraeli or Charlotte Yonge, any “silver fork” novels or Newgate novels or, besides The Odd Woman, any ‘New Woman’ novels. I haven’t read Ouida or Marie Corelli or Amy Levy, or H. G. Wells or* …. but then, the list of books I have read is always (and always going to be) much shorter than the list of books I could have read. The challenge is always deciding which of those are books I really should have read. In the end it’s about defining purposes and drawing lines, which are always exercises in artificial precision. For my current fairly narrow purpose–refreshing the reading list for two undergraduate courses already defined by what they are not–the authors I’ve already identified as priorities are probably more than enough to take on, but if there’s a story about the 19th-century novel from Austen to Hardy (that is, roughly from 1815-1890) that you think I can’t tell, or could tell better, with the help of someone I seem likely to overlook, I’d be happy to know!

*If you are shocked at these gaps in my literary education, you should also know that for a long time my ‘Humiliation’ winner was The Heart of Darkness, but I did finally read that. I don’t think either The Egoist or Kim would win the game.

Year-End Reflections: Plans and Plateaus

Tree 2018I’m not quite ready for my traditional posts about what I’ve read and written in the past year: for one thing, I often read at least one really great book between Christmas and New Year’s, when the holiday bustle has ended and the book-shaped packages under the tree have revealed their secrets! (In fact, I’m currently reading Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey, which seems a likely contender for any “best of 2018” list.) That doesn’t mean, though, that I’m not looking back over 2018 and ahead to 2019, trying to figure out where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’d like to be going.

Taking stock in this way is particularly relevant for me this year because as of January 1, 2019 I will be on a half-year sabbatical, which means instead of being caught up in the routine busyness of the new teaching term I will have the luxury of time to think and write, to consider and then advance my own priorities as a scholar and a critic–and as a teacher, since one of the most valuable things about a term off from actually teaching is a chance to reconsider reading lists and pedagogical approaches without an imminent deadline for book orders making the usual into the inevitable. (In another post, in part with the goal of making myself accountable, I will be drawing up a reading list to help me refresh, rethink, or reinvent some of my standard course offerings.)

cassatI do have a sabbatical plan–you have to submit one as part of your application–and also some existing deadlines I need to meet, so I’m not heading into the new year entirely aimless. Still, the precise form my work on that plan will take is really up to me, and figuring that out will be my first and possibly hardest task. A crucial context for me is what I did on and then after my previous sabbatical, in Winter 2015. Over that winter I threw myself into writing what I hoped (and perhaps still do hope) would become a book of “crossover” essays about George Eliot. I wrote a lot of material, and then towards the end of the term I peeled off two parts that I eventually published as self-contained essays. (I did not really appreciate at that point how bad it might be for the book I was imagining to publish a lot of its intended content first.) By and large I enjoyed doing that writing: I felt very motivated and productive, and across my sabbatical my confidence in my overall portfolio grew–which is why I decided, at its end, that I was ready to apply for promotion. This administrative project, too, was initially exhilarating: I had done so much (I thought), in so many different forms, since my first promotion, and the result was (I thought) a body of work I was rightly proud of, some of it well within the usual academic boundaries, but a lot of the more recent work reaching across them or representing my principled resistance to them.

Well, we all know how that turned out…and since the 18-month saga of arguments and counterarguments, appeals and, ultimately, rejection ended, I have struggled to regain the buoyancy that had led me to what in retrospect seems like a terrible error in judgment. I have been gradually (if unevenly) reconciling myself to the change in my professional outlook and I have found renewed pride in what I have accomplished since the university handed down its verdict against me. Now that I’m not seeking institutional validation any more, though (which of course is wonderfully liberating in some ways), I face the rather more existential question of what it is that I really do want from my work–what am I writing for?

Dunnett-New-CoverIn the last couple of years the kind of writing I’ve been doing has, more and more, been book reviews. I like doing this: I enjoy the variety of books and the challenge of finding a way in, and while it can be frustrating trying to say something that I think is insightful and convincing in what is often a pretty tight word limit, that too has its gratifications. I am starting to feel, however, as if I am on kind of a plateau where this work is concerned. I could probably keep puttering along doing a regular string of reviews indefinitely now that I have proven myself reliable to a couple of editors at different places. Is this what I want? Is this enough? Looking over some of my old reviews for Open Letters Monthly, which were a minimum of 2000 words and often more, I envied their roominess, and even more, I envied the greater freedom I felt in the writing, which is partly from having the space but also from the confidence my co-editors gave me in my ideas. I would like the chance to stretch like that again–but who will give me that kind of room to play and both trust and help me to use it well? The closest I’ve come so far outside of OLM is my TLS piece on Dorothy Dunnett: I was and am so thrilled that the editor I proposed it to took me up on it. (I’m sorry that this, like most of my TLS reviews, is behind their paywall; if anyone ever really wants to read one of them but can’t subscribe, just let me know.) On my sabbatical, one thing I want to do is think about what other opportunities like that I might reach for.

escher12The other question is whether I want–or in some sense need–to stop working (only) in small increments and re-commit myself to a book project, and if so, of what kind? If an essay collection of the kind I have long been playing around with is a non-starter unless I self-publish it (which I might yet do), is there another kind of book I would feel was worth the long-term single-minded effort to produce? I have long objected to the academic fixation on “a book” as a necessary form. I suspect, now, that there is a similar bias in non-academic publishing, or at any rate that one way to get off the kind of plateau I am on is to publish a book of my own which might (at any rate, it seems to have, for others) give me increased visibility and credibility as a critic. I resist that implicit pressure too: I think it’s a good thing to have practising critics who are one step removed from the immediate business of publishing. How long, I wonder, or in what venues, do you have to write reviews before you are perceived as having any stature as a critic, though? How is that kind of professional credit or reputation earned? Do I care? I guess so, or I wouldn’t be wondering! But should I? Is it possible, even if it might in theory be desirable, not to eventually start thinking about going further, doing more, being more?

So: these are some of the things on my mind as 2018 yields to 2019! I’m not sure how I will answer these questions; indeed, one of my plans for January is precisely not to try to answer them but to reread my archive of essays and reviews (and blog posts) and try to understand and evaluate it–not with a judgmental eye on my past but with an eye out for what aspects of it I especially want to bring with me as I move ahead. I’m hoping I will learn something from that exercise, about both my writing and myself.

This Week In My Sabbatical: Winding Down and Waiting

  My sabbatical ends officially on June 30. I leave on June 29 for a week’s vacation in Vancouver, so that will mark the transition nicely. I already feel a shift, though, not just in how I’m using my time but in my attitude: the big push I was making to get new writing done has yielded to a period in which I have to wait and see what comes of it, and while I haven’t stopped writing (or planning more new writing), I’ve started doing some prep work for my fall classes, like setting up Blackboard sites. I could put that stuff off until later in the summer, but I don’t enjoy doing it, so picking away at it a bit at a time works best for me. I also like the sites to be up and running before term begins, so that students can check them out.

I suppose another approach would be to rush headlong at these last two weeks and see how much else I can get done. Also, the summer months are meant for research and writing as well, so it’s not as if June 30 is my last day! I will certainly try to do what Jo calls “laying down some breadcrumbs,” so that after my vacation I can keep going, both with the George Eliot material and with some other ideas I have about possibly “pitchable” pieces. I love writing for Open Letters (honestly, I don’t think you’ll get better edits anywhere you submit — I never have), and I don’t intend to stop, but I also want to branch out a bit if I can, for the experience and exposure, for my own self-confidence, and, just a little bit, for the health of my c.v., so that I can point to work I’ve had accepted at places where I’m not on the masthead…in case, just for instance, I decide it’s time I applied for a promotion or something like that.

But speaking of Open Letters, that’s where much of my attention has been this week, as I’ve been working on a review of Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins for the July issue, wrangling contributors for our annual Summer Reading feature, and doing my share of editing on the other new pieces we’ve got.

I wish I had something more exciting to report!  But it has been a pretty uneventful week, really, at least where sabbatical stuff is concerned. It is also my son’s last week of high school, so that’s eventful in its own way: it has made me more sentimental than I expected, and very conscious of the passage of time. I’m kind of in between books, so I’m rereading Venetia just for fun; my book club meets in a week or so to discuss Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net, so that’s probably my next serious read.

This Week In My Sabbatical: Bits and Pieces

escher12The most important bits and pieces at issue this week, sabbatical-wise, are those I’ve been breaking off from the large chunk of writing I worked on through January, February, and March. At 18,000+ words it was unwieldy for any purpose, including a potential book chapter, and it was always going to need pruning, but the more I stared at it the more it seemed to me that in putting everything I could think of into it, I had smothered rather than revealing its purpose. There were always some smaller parts that in my mind were the really key ones, so over the past week or so I experimentally cut them out and patched them together into something much smaller and more focused. Now I’m cautiously adding material to this new micro-version, trying to find the sweet spot at which the main idea is sufficiently amplified without being either tediously repetitive or blurry from extraneous details.

I have no idea if, strategically, it is right to be working on refining smaller pieces right now rather than churning out more messy rough material. It has certainly helped my day-to-day motivation and focus, but of course that might be relief at turning away from something more difficult (because more inchoate) rather than a sign that I’ve found my way. On the other hand, it is easier to build something larger out of good small pieces that (cross your fingers) have already been published than to go the other way. Also, as I’ve talked about here before, I’ve had ongoing doubts about whether my approach really lends itself to a book-length project, and this feeling had only been growing as I tried to work out my ideas in book-sized forms. I’m not abandoning a book as a possible outcome down the road, but right now it feels important that I just keep writing, and it turns out I feel much more comfortable doing that on a smaller scale. So I’ll keep doing that for a while and then take stock of the results.

todolistI’ve also been adding bits and pieces to my fall syllabi. I had vowed not to turn my attention to class prep until my sabbatical was over at the end of June (with the exception of book orders, which were due April 1). The temptation is very strong, though, because the tasks are so definite, and it’s a relief to do something so familiar. I also really enjoy preparing syllabi! It’s such an optimistic thing to do. My other justification for poking away a little at teaching stuff now is that neither of my fall classes exactly reiterates a previous offering. It’s true that I have taught them both before (I’m doing a section of one of our intro classes and a graduate seminar on George Eliot) — but the intro section is going to be the largest version I’ve ever done (it’s capped at 90), while I want to integrate some different ideas and materials into the graduate seminar. So both are going to take some careful planning, and, for the grad seminar, some advance reading. That’s a good excuse for drawing up some tentative schedules, at least, just to see what the options and challenges are going to be.

Untitled-2Finally, I’ve been reading in bits and pieces too. After I finished Station Eleven, I relaxed with some Julie James, whose romances usually amuse me — they are like reading romantic comedies. My favorite is Practice Makes Perfect (which should really be a movie already), but this time I picked up Just the Sexiest Man Alive, an early one that I hadn’t read before. It was just OK — I guess she got better with practice. Two things do bother me about her books, though, that were definitely problems in this case. One is that I think they are badly edited: there are recurrent errors, particularly confusing “lay” and “lie,” and there are also lots of examples of awkward exposition, as if nobody could think of a graceful way to give us relevant facts except to add “he said, referring to X” after a bit of dialogue. The other is that her people are just too good-looking: the men are always “tall, dark, and smoldering” (or, in a variation, “tall, dark, and glowering”) with great physiques, while her women are all stereotypically gorgeous, with long wavy hair, perfect skin, and dream bodies. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Or, actually, yes there is, because people who aren’t beautiful do in fact fall in love, and there’s something boring about perfection.

Then I decided it was time I try some of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse books, which (shockingly, I know) I haven’t read any of. This didn’t go well: I started at the beginning, as I usually do, with Last Bus to Woodstock, and I disliked Morse so intensely I had to stop. Is he always such a sexist pig, or does Dexter outgrow that?

HildNow I’m reading Nicola Griffith’s Hild and really enjoying it. It is giving me much the same trouble that King Hereafter did, as it is full of names I can’t pronounce* or remember, so I’m frequently confused about who is doing what to whom and why, but Hild herself is a brilliantly realized character, and the larger arc of the story is quite gripping. The prose, too, is really wonderful. The overall effect is kind of Dunnett-like, with the lavish details that sensually evoke a strange time and place, but the language is more poetic, with lighter exposition and more reliance on striking moments or images. At this point (about half way through) I’m particularly interested in the emphasis on reading as something that makes new kinds of communication possible, across distances but also between women, who are often separated from friends and family because of their roles as “peaceweavers,” used to create and sustain strategic alliances. The reading is going quite slowly, but now that I’m well into the book and have a sense of how it works, I think it will move faster for me. I’m looking forward to writing about it in more detail when I’m done.

*Updated: I have belatedly discovered a note on pronunciation at the end of the book — and a glossary! Very helpful. That will teach me not to read through the whole table of contents before starting the novel itself.

The Past Couple of Weeks In My Sabbatical: Various!

How’s that for a vague title for a blog post? But it is accurate, really: for the past couple of weeks my attention and energy have been focused on a range of different things. I  haven’t felt inspired to write a sabbatical update for a while precisely because my activities seemed so miscellaneous, and not that variable, either, from week to week. But it seems like time to round things up.

First, some good news! One of the questions Jo asks us at each ‘Meeting With Your Writing‘ session is how we’d like to feel while we’re working. At the top of each new entry in my MWYW notebook is my answer, which has become a kind of mantra for me this term: “engaged, optimistic, productive.” It’s optimism that has given me the most trouble, what with winter and all, but sometimes it has also been hard to tell if I’m being productive because I haven’t been quite clear on my goals. The past week has been a particularly good one in all these respects, though, because I decided on a concrete task I wanted to accomplish that turned out to be really fun to work on. Imagine that: I have been enjoying writing! In fact, it came so (relatively) easily and has caused, so far, so little hair-tearing and second-guessing that I’m starting to think I must have gone horribly astray. It’s a subset of the larger plans I have been following for the George Eliot book project, something I thought would work well at essay-length. It’s now in a reasonably clean draft awaiting a final round of editing and revision. We’ll see what becomes of it, but right now I’m just happy and energized by the experience of pulling it together.

In other good news, the May issue of Open Letters Monthly went up on schedule; if you haven’t already checked it out, I hope you will! As always, the pieces range very widely — more widely, we think, than in most other literary journals. Books reviewed include Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, Ian Bostridge’s Schubert’s Winter Journey, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, and Helen Vendler’s The Ocean, The Bird, and the Scholar; John Cotter contributed a thought-provoking essay on the possibility that the gigantic glass atrium at Boston’s MFA is a symptom of our changing relationship with art; Steve Donoghue tests (as only he can) the claims of a new translation of the Iliad to be “declaimable”; and I offer a “Second Glance” at Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret. I thought about Open Letters today when I read this piece on the effects of Britain’s REF: “Taking on a journal editorship? That means you’ll be helping other scholars publish their REF research, but what about yours? Can you spare that kind of time?” I realize that Open Letters is not necessarily the kind of journal editorship she has in mind (though I have had British scholars tell me that writing for it is something that they think works in their favor), but I have often felt particularly pleased that one thing I’ve been able to do there is show off how smart and interesting my academic colleagues and connections are. I don’t know if that kind of editorial role will count in my favor if I ever go up for promotion, but I think (I hope) that we are still clinging to more generous and collegial models of scholarship on our side of the pond — for now, and maybe just barely, as that piece emphasizes.

unbrokenThe other writing I’ve done has already shown up here, in my posts on my recent reading. I’m currently completing my “war in the Pacific” unit with Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, which I gave my husband for Christmas. I rarely risk buying him books, but he likes good nonfiction, and this one seemed ready-made for him, as he’s a long-time track and field enthusiast and his father piloted a B-24 during WWII. He really enjoyed it, and I’m enjoying it too — though “enjoy” probably isn’t quite the right word for either of us, since it’s rather a grim story! A lot of it is, naturally, very reminiscent of elements of both The Narrow Road to the Deep North (particularly the treatment of the Allied POWs in the Japanese camps) and Shame and the Captives (especially the context and commentary Hillenbrand provides on the aspects of Japanese culture that contributed to the extreme brutality of the camps). I find Hillenbrand’s narrative a bit clunky or heavy-handed at times: it has that “one damn thing after another” rhythm that is perhaps inevitable when you’re putting together a lot of material into a fairly straightforward chronological account. I suspect that images from the novels will stick with me longer than anything from her book except the outline of Zamperini’s undeniably astonishing story.

Once I’m done with Unbroken I think I’ll be happy to read something that doesn’t involve beatings, excrement, or hungry sharks. I picked out Nicola Griffith’s Hild and Sybille Bedford’s A Legacy with my birthday gift card to Bookmark, so one of them will likely be next, though I also got Aislinn Hunter’s The World Before Us from the library today because a friend highly recommended it. I’m starting to be more aware of the luxury it is to be choosing my reading material this freely: it won’t be long before my sabbatical is officially over (June 30 suddenly doesn’t seem so far away!), and I’ve already started thinking a bit about fall classes, as book orders were already due. I’m second reader on an MA thesis that should get to me in early June, and I’m also participating in a PhD comprehensive exam coming up in just a couple of weeks, for which I’ve been having semi-regular meetings with the student. A sabbatical is not, in fact, ever a period of complete isolation or exemption from one’s regular duties! But come September I’ll be doing required reading again.