Weekend Miscellany: Mr Whicher, James Wood, Reader Online Poll

It’s ‘Halifax Natal Day’ here (also known as ‘we want an extra day off in August too’) and thus still in some sense the weekend, so here’s my semi-regular round-up of interesting things:

At The Little Professor, there’s a typically thoughtful review of Kate Summerscale’s much-discussed The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, the story of the infamous Road Hill murder case and its lead investigator:

Summerscale’s project wears a number of intellectual hats: it aspires to be, simultaneously, a popular microhistory of a scandalous murder case, a literary history of modern detective fiction, and a sort of detective “faction” in its own right. Summerscale’s story doesn’t just analyze the Road Hill case, but actually tries to be the kind of narrative the murder inspired; the reader is invited to watch as new forms of story-telling coalesce into recognizable genre conventions.

LP isn’t entirely sold on the project: for her reasons, read the rest here.
Open Letters Monthly features Daniel Green‘s review of James Wood’s How Fiction Works. Not surprisingly, given the differences between their critical agendas and the resulting history of contention between Green and Wood, the review is not particularly enthusiastic:

Wood is currently the most well-regarded generalist literary critic in the English-speaking literary world, and it is discouraging to say the least that such a figure uses his influence to conduct a rearguard action against the forces of change in literary practice, against those who, like William Gass (Wood’s bête noire in this book), want to transform our perception of fiction as the effort to depict “people” and “life” to one that can encompass that goal (with many provisos) but can also capture the reader’s attention in other ways, ways more responsive to the possibilities of fiction as imaginative manipulation of language and form. Wood makes his case for realism always within a context in which it is endangered by postmodernists and other stylistically immoderate writers who don’t appreciate its subtleties and are tearing fiction away from its proper relationship to “the world.” . . . .

Ultimately the most disconcerting thing about How Fiction Works, and about James Wood’s criticism in general, is that while Wood on the one hand expresses near-reverence for the virtues of fiction, the terms in which he judges the value of fiction as a literary form implicitly disparages it. He doesn’t want to let fiction be fiction. Instead, he asks that it provide some combination of psychological analysis, metaphysics, and moral instruction, and assumes that novelists are in some way qualified to offer these services. He abjures them to avoid “aestheticism” (too much art) and to instead be respectful of “life.” (read the whole review here)

I find it interesting that Green repeatedly faults Wood for an over-zealous commitment to realism while my own reading of How Fiction Works expressed frustration rather at his tendency to emphasize aesthetics and form over plot, character, and “moral instruction,” and to universalize this priority and talk as if the novel really began with Flaubert.

At The Reader Online, they have a winner in their poll to select a classic novel to recommend for the Richard and Judy book club, which I gather has something of the force across the pond that Oprah’s book club has here. Their favored selection is Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, a recommendation I would certainly second. In retrospect, I actually wonder if it wouldn’t have been a better choice for our summer reading project at The Valve: though I’ve certainly been pleased overall at the discussion we’ve had of Adam Bede, something a bit sexier might have kept more people engaged once summer really arrived.

Victorian Halifax

I complain a lot about living in Halifax, but when spring finally arrives out here, the city has some redeeming features. This bright, beautiful morning, I enjoyed one of my favourite Halifax things: a trip to the city’s Victorian Public Gardens.

First opened in 1867, the Public Gardens feature the most spectacular rhododendrons I’ve ever seen, as well as formal flowerbeds, a gazebo (with band concerts on Sunday afternoons), a large duck pond (with abundant ducks) and all manner of fountains and statues. It’s a green oasis in the middle of downtown: you can barely hear the hum of traffic, and as you stroll the well-kept walkways (no dogs, no joggers, and no bicycles allowed!), you can easily feel as if you have stepped back into a Victorian fantasyland.

There’s a Boer War memorial fountain, and a fountain commemorating Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Even the swans are named ‘Horatio’ and ‘Nelson.’

Boer War Memorial
Diamond Jubilee Fountain
Horatio (or Nelson)

When Hurricane Juan struck Halifax in 2003, the Public Gardens were hit hard (though not with quite the devastating results seen at nearby Point Pleasant Park, which lost an estimated 70% of its trees). Since then, the Gardens have been beautifully restored. Here are a couple more pictures from today’s trip, including a shot of the bust of Walter Scott that used to be right outside the front gates (during the restoration, it was relocated to just across the street, near the statue of Robbie Burns–we’re not called New Scotland for nothing).

Sir Walter Scott
Robbie Burns

Massive Rhododendrons

Victorian Gazebo

Excellent Companion
with sassy new haircut


Weekend Miscellany: Road Murder, The Neuroscience Delusion, HBO at The Valve

A few things of interest I’ve found while browsing around:

At the Guardian site, Kate Summerscale on the literary legacy of the infamous Road Hill murders:

Even after the confession and conviction of the killer in 1865, the case was attended with doubts and unease. Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone – described by TS Eliot as the first and the best detective novel – was suffused with the events at Road Hill. “It is a very curious story,” observed Dickens when the book was published in 1868, “wild and yet domestic.”

Collins diluted the horror – instead of a child-murder, there was a jewel theft; instead of bloodstains, splashes of paint – but he fashioned from it a template for detective fiction. A shrewd investigator strives to expose the secrets of the inhabitants of an English country house. His task is to distinguish the innocent from the guilty, real clues from red herrings. His methods are indirect, his reasoning inspired, and a highly improbable suspect turns out to have committed the crime. The novel borrowed many of the specifics of the Road Hill story: a sullied and missing nightdress; a laundry book that proves its loss; an inept local police officer; and a renowned detective summoned to the countryside from London. (read the rest here)

Also at the Guardian, Ian Rankin reviews Summerscale’s book on the case’s chief investigator, Inspector Whicher. Actually, he doesn’t so much review it as recapitulate its central story; there’s only one word in the piece that really constitutes any kind of comment on the book itself–fortunately for Summerscale, it’s “engrossing.”

At the TLS, Raymond Tallis is unimpressed with “The Neuroscience Delusion”:

At first sight, the displacement of Theory, with its social constructivism and linguistic idealism, by talk of something as solid as “the brain” of the writer and “the brain” of the reader may seem like progress. In fact, it is a case of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The switch from Theory to “biologism” leaves something essential unchanged: the habit of the uncritical application of very general ideas to works of literature, whose distinctive features, deliberate intentions and calculated virtues are consequently lost. Overstanding is still on the menu.

Much of his discussion is focused on A. S. Byatt’s work on John Donne:

…by adopting a neurophysiological approach, Byatt loses a rather large number of important distinctions: between reading one poem by John Donne and another; between successive readings of a particular poem; between reading Donne and other Metaphysical poets; between reading the Metaphysicals and reading William Carlos Williams; between reading great literature and trash; between reading and a vast number of other activities – such as getting cross over missing toilet paper. That is an impressive number of distinctions for a literary critic to lose. But that is the price of overstanding. (read the rest here)

Finally, over at The Valve, the guys have been talking (again) about The Sopranos, Deadwood, and The Wire. I wonder: are these really the ‘three most talked about HBO series‘? Wouldn’t that depend on who you’re talking to? For instance, perhaps women viewers talk more about other shows–ones that aren’t characterized by “boobs, cussing, and spectacular violence“? Sex and the City comes to mind, for instance. (OK, in its own way it has two of those three elements…)