Weekend Miscellany: Ethical Criticism, Long-Awaited Reads, Literary Lines, and #AcWriMo

It’s the third dark, rainy day in a row, just the kind of weather to inspire gloom and brooding! Even David Copperfield isn’t entirely working its magic, not only because I don’t feel as if my class sessions on it have been going very well (in response to which I opted to not even try to elicit discussion on Friday — about which I now feel kind of guilty), but because we are deep into the Dora phase of the novel and I hate, hate, hate, HATE Dora. It helps a bit that I know perfectly well we aren’t supposed to adore her the way David does, but she’s still insufferable company, and I don’t like Agnes all that much better: this is the point in the novel at which I can understand why someone might turn against Dickens.

However! Happily, there are people on the internet doing more interesting things than grumbling, so I thought I’d revive an old habit and link around to some of them. I haven’t been a very linky blogger lately, and I feel bad about that, as I have always believed that the connections are a large part of what makes blogging fun, and the generosity of spirit I’ve found among bloggers, too, has always been one of my favorite things about the blogosphere. So without further ado, here are some posts that I’ve enjoyed this weekend.

sophyAt Something More, Liz gives a great example of ethical criticism in practice, as she works through concerns about the Goldhanger scene in Heyer’s The Grand Sophy:

I think Sophy’s judgment of Goldhanger (she tells him exactly what she thinks of his character) is of a piece with the other character judgments she makes in the novel, and the narrative asks us to accede to her judgments–something I do willingly in the other cases. We’re meant to think she is right about people. And her judgments about the right partners for her cousins are partly about who is “the right sort” in a class-based sense. It’s hard to articulate this (and maybe, really, it’s nonsense to see this as at least akin to judging people based on their class), because all the novel’s candidates for marriage are from aristocratic families, but they don’t all share the right aristocratic values and the right type of “good breeding.” Miss Wraxton may be “very English,” as the Marquesa says, but she is also Not Our Kind in some ways.

What I especially appreciate about her thoughtful exploration (brought on by listening to the book and thus being made more self-conscious about “every ugly word”) is that she doesn’t shy away from the problems but she also doesn’t become what Wayne Booth talks about as a “hanging judge.” We have complex responses and responsibilities when it comes to our moral differences from the past. It’s not enough just to say “well, people had different values back then” (because for one thing, even “back then” people did not all think the same — which is one reason why that’s such an inadequate response to the racism in Gone with the Wind). But it’s also inappropriate to say “well, I don’t agree with this book / author in every way and therefore this work is worthless” — though you might well conclude, as Lee Edwards did about Middlemarch, that it can’t be “one of the books of my life.”

At Things Mean a Lot, Ana announces the return of Long-Awaited Reads Month. I love this idea! It’s just the kind of little spur that will be helpful to make me pick up one thing instead of another when I’m browsing my shelves for my next read. I’m actually thinking that since a lot of my non-work reading is 20th-century fiction these days, I might use this as a spur to read one of the Victorian novels I keep meaning to get around to – Collins’s No Name, or Dombey and Son, or perhaps (inspired by Colleen and Tom) something else by Margaret Oliphant.

At Shelf Love, Teresa shows off an elegant Jane Eyre-inscribed coffee mug and invites us to post our own favorite literary lines. This turned out to be surprisingly hard for me! As she notes with a very good example from Dorothy Dunnett’s Pawn in Frankincense, some memorable lines don’t work well out of context. Also, some of my favorite bits are too long to fit on a mug — though I’m inspired now to think about how I might incorporate something from Middlemarch into my next effort at Clay Cafe. I did make my mother a tile there once with a line from Mrs. Dalloway on it — and I made a Jane Austen tile for my sister, too, that I was quite proud of. Do you think a mug that said “Children may be strangled, but deeds never” would give the wrong impression? How about a line of Mr. Casaubon products — perhaps a wall plaque that says “I trust I may be excused for desiring an interval of complete freedom from guests whose desultory vivacity makes their presence a fatigue”?

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Teresa also stepped up to provide a great list of choices for the Slaves of Golconda group to vote on. Participation has been a bit sparse recently, though the posts that do get shared are as interesting as ever. If you think you’d enjoy a group read and discussion, you’re welcome to participate.

And at Read React Review, Jessica outlines her admirable plans for #AcWriMo. I’ve never participated in anything like this myself, but her post made me think I should consider it: I have writing projects I want to get done, and it is sometimes difficult (practically and/or psychologically) to give them the time they need. I was also quite struck by her remark that the biggest obstacle to progress is not the internet, but the inner doubts about the value of the work that become “a recipe for staring at a blank screen until the urge to check Twitter takes over.” I’ve been contemplating a “proper” academic article on a book I’ve taught often but never written about. That seems to me a good concrete objective that would be well served by an #AcWriMo. But I am motivated less by a sense that writing and publishing in that way is the best way to share my ideas about it than by a nagging anxiety about the dearth of peer-reviewed publications at the top (i.e. ‘current’) part of my c.v. But the prospect makes me kind of claustrophobic. Shouldn’t the process be the other way around, anyway — shouldn’t I begin by believing that the conversation I want / need to join is going on in those pages (or among their readers)? A well-meaning colleague said to me a while back, after reading one of my Open Letters essays, that I should “really” publish it somewhere. Putting aside the casual ignorance about the way in which the piece was already published, it seems to me a genuine question why I would want it in a less accessible form. Confusions such as these about form and purpose do indeed become recipes for writer’s block and refuge on Twitter — so using Twitter for “social writing” and accountability might be a good thing.

Weekend Reading: I laughed, I cried, I’d read it again!

And that was just the first book I read this weekend …

Maclise DickensI was right that David Copperfield not only gave me great pleasure while I was reading it but restored my flagging enthusiasm for reading more generally. I finished it over the weekend and loved almost every minute of it.

The big setback for me is always Agnes. Dora is insufferable, but the poor thing is set up as a mistake, not an ideal, which is some compensation — and her final chapter still makes me cry, which is kind of embarrassing, but there we are. Agnes, on the other hand, with that damn finger pointing ever upwards: what kind of an alternative is that? Agnes had me wondering, actually, where the (good) sexy is in Dickens. He’s good at lechery, here exemplified by the horror that is Uriah Heep (and there’s the pedophiliac Bounderby in Hard Times as another example of just how creepy Dickens can make lust). He’s good at treachery, here epitomized by Steerforth’s fatal seduction of Little Emily. And he’s brilliant at childish innocence (Dora) and shining purity (Agnes). But healthy adult sexual desire (you know, the kind both parties are pretty excited about) is harder to spot. It’s pretty broadly hinted at that Agnes is wounded by David’s long insistence on seeing her as a sister, but there’s nothing like Dinah’s blush to make sure we understand the nature of her feelings, while David’s feeling for Agnes never seem other than worshipful admiration. Even though they seem better matched than David and Dora, there’s still something awkward about them as a married couple.

However. Whatever reservations I had about the women in David Copperfield were more or less overwhelmed by the many hilarious and touching and vindictively gratifying parts we are treated to as the novel draws to a close–Mr. Micawber’s denunciation of Uriah Heep, for instance, which (like so much in Dickens) is absolutely best read aloud. And the chapter “Tempest” is just splendid, with no “Dickens being Dickens” apologia required.

Unfortunately, though I was energized by David Copperfield to do a lot more reading this weekend, it was just this book that really excited me. I skimmed through Tina Fey’s Bossypants, which I had picked up at the library because it is supposed to be very funny and at the time I felt I could use a good laugh. Meh. At most I got a couple of chortles out of it. Since I have never liked Saturday Night Live and never been tempted to watch 30 Rock, I guess I should have known better.

faultinstarsThen I read John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. It went very quickly and I quite enjoyed it: I was engaged from the beginning by the narrator’s voice and the quick pacing and the blend of humor and pathos. But though I thought it was quite good, it also seemed to me a little too self-consciously smart — not just Hazel and her hyper-articulate friends (after all, such teenagers do exist — around here, most of them end up enrolling in the King’s Foundation Year Program, where they continue to talk pretty much like Hazel and Augustus) but the novel as a whole, including the metatextual interaction with An Imperial Affliction. That layer (along with the wry humor of the characters) kept the book from descending into bathos, but it also kept me at kind of an emotional distance: I was not one of those who wept copiously through the final chapters. In fact, a bit to my surprise it didn’t make me cry at all, and here I’ve just confessed to crying over Dora! After I finished it I reread a lot of the discussion of it in this year’s Tournament of Books. I haven’t read many of the other contestants, but I admit I share the feeling expressed by some commenters there that YA literature, however good of its kind and for its intended audience, shouldn’t really compete in the grown-up leagues. And yet it made it to the finals, so what do I know, right?

Finally, I tried a few more chapters of May Sarton’s The Magnificent Spinster. Though I’ve loved everything else I’ve read by Sarton, it just has not been going very well: I’ve been finding it prosy and portentous. The narrator insists a great deal that Jane, the spinster of the title, is magnificent, but I’ve been getting no authentic sense of that myself. I like the formal conceit, with the attention to Cam’s problems writing Jane’s life story as a novel. And I like the idea of taking us through so many important historical moments from the perspective such an unusual and individual experience. But with my time running out for summer reading, and with the new term looming along with deadlines for reviews and essays and book clubs, I’ve decided to put this one back on the shelf for now. It’s just not ripe yet (or I’m not). I’m certainly not giving up on Sarton, though: I long to get my hands on Journal of a Solitude.

Weekend Miscellany: Other People’s Points of View

I was a bit snarky about both A Visit from the Goon Squad and The Professor. Other people have read them quite differently–or at least more favorably. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from Olivia Laing’s recent review of The Professor in the Guardian:

If the spleen only went one way this sort of thing would be vindictive, even nasty, but Castle is too self-aware a critic to carry out anything so brutish as a hatchet job. She persistently casts herself in ridiculous, demeaning roles (“I, her forty-something slave girl from San Francisco”), yelping at one point: “Caveat lector: Lilliputian on the rampage!” The self-belittling reaches its apotheosis in the most substantial essay here, “The Professor”, an extraordinarily gleeful account of Castle’s damaging relationship with a much older woman when she was a grad student in the midwest.

In this real-life retelling of Bluebeard, The Professor, complete with “the Very Weird Long Grey Braid; the Withered Leg, the Loaded Pistol in the Bedside Drawer; the Room in Her House One Was Never Allowed to Enter”, is pitted against the youthful “T-Ball”, a naive and horribly intellectually ambitious baby dyke. The result, predictably enough, is carnage, albeit of a kind that anyone who’s ever loved and lost might experience considerable cathartic pleasure to encounter. (read the rest here)

Laing concludes, “As Castle says of her period of academic specialisation, the 18th century, one can sense beyond the “rococo lightness and drollery… a deep moral seriousness humming away at the core”. That same hum is certainly audible in these pages, though you might be hard pressed to catch it over your own delighted cackles.” I was hard pressed to catch it, but because I was recoiling from the page, not cackling delightedly. I agree more with Elaine Showalter’s earlier Guardian review (here). Though Showalter too is more appreciative of Castle’s “vengeful side” than I am, she identifies aspects of the collection that I too thought were interesting and engaging:

Castle is not limited by the malicious muse. In other essays she writes stirringly about the first world war, and the feminine fascination with and envy of male heroism, as well as about 9/11 and its impact on popular culture. She contends frankly with her fear of “being swept back – annihilatingly – into the world of ‘my mother’s taste’.” In a wonderful sentence about her mother, Mavis, she sums up an entire feminist dilemma: “my whole life up to now . . . has from one angle been a fairly heartless repudiation of maternal sentimentality: all the bright, powerless, feminine things.”

In The New Republic, Ross Posnock celebrates Castle’s “turn to memoir”:

Castle partakes of the culture’s sense of entitled contempt of the “English professor,” while also complicating that entitlement. Her essays turn her painfully won capacity to see herself and the world “mock-heroically” into a source of bracing truth-telling that, in turn, becomes an unexpected source of insight into the power of literature, art, and music in shaping a life. . . .

Castle learned mock-heroism the hard way—above all, as the title essay recounts, by surviving a humiliating, scalding, passionate affair as a graduate student with a self-intoxicated, regal, promiscuous female professor—a “connoisseur, a sensualist, skilled in the arts of homosexual love,” a wounding eventually and partially healed by abundant reading in eighteenth-century satire. . . .

Getting dirtied and staying dirty encouraged Castle not only to take a “debunking attitude toward the self,” but also to become insouciant about seriousness and easy about “self-burlesque.” She can be absolutely hilarious. And this suppleness puts her on both sides of the public/academy conflict: she expresses the general public’s contempt for the academic literary intellectual and the genteel sense of superior refinement that the profession cultivates in its members. At MLA she bristles at a “drifting throng of rabbity academics”—an “unprepossessing” mass of “tweedy jackets, sensible shoes”—and also describes herself as an “effete little twit” full of “aristocratic disdain” not only toward her collegial brethren but particularly, in her youth, toward her earnest lesbian separatist sisters.

I think Posnock is right that the book’s appeal (for those who like it) lies at least partly in Castle’s participation in anti-academic satire. I’m not as comfortable with what he calls her “suppleness,” however: another word for that could be “inconsistency,” or even “hypocrisy”. And I honestly don’t see how it is the case that this book

understands more about the academic vocation, and the art of self-examination, than the shelf of grave and socially responsible studies of and by professors that have appeared in recent years. It is a superb weapon for tearing up that soul-destroying cardboard figure of fun its title names.

Nothing in it that spoke to my own experience of “academic vocation,” and if Posnock’s last comment about “that soul-destroying cardboard figure” refers to the English professor as a general identity rather than a specific English professor such as the one with whom Castle had her awful love affair–if he means all of us, in other words, then I resent the implication and Castle should too, except that I don’t see where in The Professor she has done anything to show English professors as soul-enhancing.

And the final offering in my sample of other people’s opinions of The Professor, is Sam Anderson in New York Magazine (here). Anderson pairs The Professor with Elif Batuman’s The Possessed (which I also read and didn’t much like–though for different reasons):

Part of the pleasure of these books is seeing a figure of genteel cultural authority—the literary scholar—comically reduced. Castle, in particular, is vulnerable and neurotic. She blows writing deadlines and suffers from “astronomical credit card debt.” She describes herself as “moody and mean-spirited”; “pale, criminal, a bit bloated”; a “japing, nay-saying, emotionally stunted creature”; and a “bullet-ridden blob.” She has a panic attack in a rental car and explosive diarrhea in the sea off Sicily. (“I am breaking every law of God and Man,” she thinks.) She decides, after a waiter calls her “sir,” that she is destined to “suffer the lonely death of the sexual pervert.” (In a recent interview with The Nation, Castle described her persona in these essays as “self-burlesque … a conscious casting off of a sort of authority or pedantry or certainty.”)

Both Batuman and Castle come across as supremely lovable dorks. As a grad student, Castle used to write some final papers during the first week of class, then brag about it to her classmates. (She seems less proud of this today.) Batuman once brought her bathroom scale to the library to weigh Tolstoy’s Collected Works, ten volumes at a time. (It weighs, apparently, as much as a newborn beluga whale.) Even their faults are lovably dorky.

Here we go again with the anti-academic thing: why exactly is it such a “pleasure” to comically reduce the literary scholar, I wonder? Is it just a grown-up manifestation of the typical childish rebellion against teachers? A kind of erudite adolescent angst? What does it really have to do with anything that the woman who Castle became so disastrously involved with was a professor?

None of these reviews makes me keen to reread The Professor. Similarly, none of the pieces I’ve looked up on A Visit to the Goon Squad will send me back to it–yet, anyway. I’ll hang on to it, of course. Maybe it’s moment will come for me. Maybe. Some prettty energetic discussions of it took place in the posts and comments at The Morning News’s Tournament of Books. Here’s a bit from Anthony Doerr’s judging round, in which Good Squad was thrown in the ring against another book world favorite, Skippy Dies (which would have got my vote):

Egan’s book is a terrific feat of ventriloquism, composed of 13 short stories that seesaw back and forth through time and interconnect multiple characters, particularly the lives of a music producer named Bennie and his assistant, Sasha.

But it’s so much more than my lame synopsis—and more than a sum of diverse narrators and characters. The structure of Goon Squad reminds me in many ways of Joan Silber’s Ideas of Heaven, a lovely collection of six stories in which a minor character in one story becomes the narrator of the next. In Goon Squad, Egan focuses on multiplicity as well as totality; her approach isn’t about eliminating everything that’s irrelevant to a central narrative in the way so many novels are. It’s more about dropping a giant, rotating, mirror ball into a pair of lives and watching it turn.

Silber called her book a “ring of stories” and that’s how I began to think of Goon Squad—as a ring. As you travel around the ring, you watch Bennie and Sasha be kids, compromise, grow up, fail, have kids, make strides, fail again. “Time’s a goon, right?” Bennie says at one point. “You gonna let that goon push you around?”

By the time I got through the book’s penultimate chapter, a breathtaking short story told entirely through PowerPoint slides, there were tears in my eyes.

Elif Batuman took on Goon Squad vs. The Finkler Question in the quarter-finals. At first she reacts a bit as I did, with skepticism about the power of the form of interlinked stories. But like many other reviewers I read, she was won over:

In the middle of Goon Squad’s fourth story, which involves a love triangle with a couple and their guide on a safari—a play on Hemingway’s “Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”—I suddenly realized that I was reading a brilliant and wonderful book. The “goon” in the title, it turns out, is time—time that brutalizes, and ravages all things. Most of the recurring characters experience serious reversals and undulations of fortune—successes become spectacular failures and vice versa—in a way that somehow seems not artificial, but incredibly true. Egan makes you feel how time bends stories out of shape, gives them new, incongruous, beautiful, retrospectively inevitable endings. This is the kind of feeling you get from Proust or Tolstoy, but over hundreds, thousands of pages. I don’t think I’ve ever felt it from a short-story collection. “Virtuosity” is actually an apt word: You feel that Egan got so good at the form that she managed to get it to transcend itself—to make it historical, to make it do the work of the novel.

It’s also very much “a book of our times,” a book of our historical moment. I’m thinking less of the story told entirely in PowerPoint than of the character who predicts the coming of Facebook: “The days of losing touch are almost gone,” he says. “We’re going to meet again in a different place. Everyone we’ve lost, we’ll find. Or they’ll find us. I picture it like Judgment Day. We’ll rise up out of our bodies and find each other again in spirit form.” Goon Squad shows how, in a certain sense, we can’t lose track of people anymore—even as, in another, older sense, we eventually lose everything and everyone. It’s a beautiful, valuable achievement.

Huh. Then in the Zombie Round, Rahdika Jones says the PowerPoint chapter made her cry. Maybe I’m just not a reader of our historical moment? If it’s a “book of our times,” why does it have so little in common with anything I know or care about? Maybe the New Yorker story origins are a hint: there’s something almost cliquish about Goon Squad and its fans that relies on a knowingness and a taste for a certain flavor of fiction (clever, artful, self-conscious, and hip). I did appreciate C. Max Magee’s description of Goon Squad in his judging of the Championship Round (in which he ended up giving the nod to Freedom):

Calling Goon Squad a novel in stories, as it is sometimes billed, does it a disservice. The book is more like a scaffold. Each story is a platform connected by the structure Egan has erected, but, in the form of little bits of exposition within the stories, she also sends ladders shooting higher and ropes hanging lower, moving the characters decades into future where they may or may not meet again. The scaffold suggests the heft of a much larger design behind it. And, to extend this metaphor further, isn’t it true that an intricate, possibly hazardous scaffolding is sometimes more interesting to behold than the massive building to which it is affixed?

That’s nicely put, a persuasive way to describe the book’s structure. My answer to his final rhetorical question, though, is “no”–or at least, not unless the building is a failure, in which case our interest in the scaffolding is partly that of a pathologist. What I really want is the edifice, not the artifice.

Tuesday Miscellany & Links

That last post on my grandmother turned out to be a bigger project than I anticipated when it crossed my mind to do it–rounding up the scrapbook and letters, then scanning some of the old pictures. It was fun, though fun of the inevitably bittersweet kind that comes from remembering someone very dear. Once it was finally ready to post on Thursday, I had run myself out of time for that night, and then came a run of other distractions so that really all weekend I hardly got any reading done: Friday I spent doing some spring cleaning and cooking in preparation for having a few friends over, then I hauled myself out of bed on Saturday earlier than was entirely desirable (not that we’d been drinking wine or anything…) because Owen had to report by 8:30 for the Math Olympiad (where he and his partner handily came first in Grade 8). Saturday night my husband and Maddie arrived home from a week in Florida, so there was a lot of catching up to do–including the shows saved up on the DVR! More miscellaneous activity on Sunday, including various errands in preparation for my own trip this week, to Boston–so still not much reading. Not last night either, as Owen was performing in the Kiwanis Festival Gala Concert–where his newest piano composition, “Hypnotic Suggestion,” had its world premiere.

Yesterday I was back in the office for a few hours, though, and I finished up The Locked Room, which was the last of the Martin Beck books I hadn’t yet read. I’m working on a short piece about these books for another purpose, so I won’t go into detail about it here except to say that this one is particularly clever in its engagement with one of the classic mystery puzzles–you could do a whole paper, or at least a lengthy riff, on the significant differences between this particular locked room case and those in other kinds of detective stories. The other thing of particular note is that The Locked Room contains by far the funniest chapter in all 10 books, a unique combination of slapstick comedy and violent mayhem. Are there any laugh-out-loud funny chapters in Henning Mankell’s books? Not in the two I’ve read. I’ve set myself a perverse little challenge for the piece I’m writing on the Beck books, which is to see if I can write the whole piece without any references to either Mankell or Stieg Larsson–or, for that matter, to “Scandinavian” or Nordic crime fiction as a general category. Sure, there’s a bandwagon right there, but that doesn’t mean I have to jump on it! I want to see if I can talk about the books looking straight at them instead of treating them as antecedents or precedents. [That said, if you want  a great link round-up for recent reviews in or on this territory, check out the Scandinavian Crime Fiction blog.]

I’m about half way through Vera Brittain’s A Testament of Friendship and, primed by Carolyn Heilbrun’s introduction as well as a lot of Brittain’s own remarks, finding it really engaging as a portrait of women’s friendship that has no truck with the cliches about competition, cattiness, or jealousy that make up the usual tropes for such stories. I was interested to find Brittain opening it by invoking Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë. That relationship, and that biography, are now seen as more problematic than they clearly seemed to  Brittain: some have read Gaskell as (accidentally) revealing antagonism or rivalry towards Brontë, for instance, and even if you take her to be sincerely defending her friend, there are moments when you wonder if she’s really doing Charlotte any favours by contextualizing her ‘coarseness’ in order to excuse it, rather than rejecting that entire conversation as inappropriate. I wonder if anyone has reread Brittain’s account of Holtby as being not altogether friendly after all. After I finish the book, I will peer around. I don’t see any reason to bring a hermeneutics of suspicion to it, myself: so far, certainly the aspect of it that I like most is what appears to be a wholly sincere and generous spirit of admiration. Thinking about the rarity of representing female friendship has also prompted me to think more about my own friends and what they have meant to me, which is a lot.

The other book I have on the go is Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it, despite all the positive press and awards and so forth, but I was peering at it in the store and had a gift card in my pocket, and you can predict the rest. A couple of chapters in, I’m liking it fine, though I have yet to discover why people think it is quite so special–but two chapters is hardly decisive. It will be my airplane reading en route to Boston. No point packing any more books, though, because one of the first places I’ve been promised by my cruise director for this trip is the Brattle Bookshop–which sounds like the sort of place I will be lucky to escape with fewer than five additions to my TBR pile. I believe we are also stopping in at the Barnes and Noble at the Prudential Center, and there may be an expedition to the Trident Booksellers and Cafe as well.

Clearly, I’m in a kind of limbo period here with my reading and writing. Luckily, there are others who can offer you more substance and provocation than I can right now. For instance, over at Wuthering Expectations, Amateur Reader finally got around to Gaskell’s North and South. There’s a little grumbling at first, but as always, he has astute and unexpected ideas about what makes the novel interesting and sometimes even excellent as well. At Tales from the Reading Room, litlove convinces me I should give Willa Cather a try, writes thoughtfully about what critics do all day, and responds to Stephanie Staal’s Reading Women:

I was sorry to see Staal’s tendency to dismiss the latter stages of her course because they were more theoretically demanding, less obviously relevant to her own experience. I’ve always found them some of the most compelling parts. And come on, girls! Are we really going to wimp out here just because something is hard? Absolutely not. If feminism is going to come good on all its hopes, there is still tough work to be done deep in the hearts and minds of women, where perfectionism, compulsive compliance, guilt, responsibility and self-esteem create some pretty toxic combinations. That’s a feminism course I’d love to teach myself. But in the meantime, to catch up on the history of feminism to this point, I thoroughly recommend Stephanie Staal’s book.

Teresa at Shelf Love writes about writing about books, including a number of links worth following up; Annie at Senior Common Room has a very interesting post on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Macbeth; at the New Yorker’s Book Bench, the ‘Ask an Academic’ feature addresses boredom (the work under discussion as well as its author’s anticipated next project, on sentimentality, reflects a trend I have observed to do studies, not of things or substances, which were trendy for a while, but abstractions or concepts–I have a colleague working on a book about ‘grace,’ for instance).  There are lots more interesting posts out there but I have to get back to organizing for my trip! I don’t expect to be posting here while I’m away, but there may be the occasional Twitter update.

Monday Miscellany: Friday Night Lights, South Riding, Ian McEwan, & a Musical Bonus

We’re finishing out a four-day weekend here based on a holiday we don’t even celebrate in its hopelessly commercial secular form–Maddie is the only one of us who’d really appreciate Easter Bunny stuff but she’s allergic to both eggs and nuts, so never mind, and just as well too, really. It doesn’t seem like much really went on or got done, but the grown-ups did finish up the first season of Friday Night Lights, which I’d heard buzz about on Twitter from folks including Maud Newton (and Daniel Mendelsohn held it up as a counter-example in his recent smackdown of Mad Men, as well). I was finally motivated to get going on it by Sonya Chung’s post on it at The Millions. We both enjoyed it, which is no small thing considering that I wouldn’t ordinarily ever watch that much football. The characters are engaging and brought to life very convincingly, and there’s plenty of interest in the storylines. But we weren’t swept away by it: it already seems to be falling into the usual TV drama pattern of just one damn plot twist after another–when in doubt, throw in a crisis!–with the additional fairly melodramatic use of the football games to bring things to fever pitch (my husband, who does watch football, was amused that nearly every game was won or lost on the last play, in the final seconds). So far, there’s no sense of a larger project or developing insight of the kind that you get with The Wire or Deadwood, and the premise itself is not as breathtakingly stark and unexpected as In Treatment. I appreciate good storytelling, and I share Chung’s appreciation for the show’s commitment to heartfelt emotion, even to sentimentality.  It’s just that now we know it’s possible to do something more ambitious within the same basic structure. I’ll probably watch at least the second season (though I think my husband won’t), to see if it builds over time into something more, or at least to see if my initial attachment to the characters keeps me hooked, wanting to know what happens next.

In the meantime, I’m about 2/3 throug Winifred Holtby’s South Riding and enjoying it a lot–for some of the same reasons I liked Friday Night Lights, actually, including its straightforward commitment to character development and its interest in the dynamics of a tight knit community under pressure. I particularly like Holtby’s narrative voice, which is smart and analytical without being pedantic. The introduction to my (badly proofread) BBC Books edition promptly and plausibly compares it to Middlemarch. If I were writing one of those annoying “X meets Y” jacket blurbs for it I might call it “a post-war Middlemarch written by a socialist Anthony Trollope,” because while it has the wide range of Middlemarch and the sensitivity to the ways multiple stories can be interconnected, it has none of the formal sophistication of the earlier novel: in fact, it is structured very much like Friday Night Lights or any other conventional multiplot fiction, simply moving from focus to focus while progressing more or less linearly towards its conclusion. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! And in fact it’s a more interesting choice in 1940 than it was in 1860, if only because by then other alternatives had been so abundantly demonstrated, and Holtby’s own awareness of her more immediate literary context is pointed to by conversations within the novel itself about writers including Virginia Woolf. Lauren Elkin has some thought-provoking comments about this at Maitresse, comparing Holtby to Elizabeth Bowen (whom I’ll be reading for one of my book clubs soon, making Lauren’s post doubly relevant!):

It would be a stretch to classify South Riding within the category of modernism.  Although they share thematic concerns, Bowen seems more interested in the possibilities of form, whereas Holtby seems more interested in the possibilities of message. “We are members of one another,” Holtby writes in her prefatory letter to her mother, quoting Paul’s letter to the Romans (Romans 12:3-8). She is not only referring to members of the same community, of course, but to the community of humanity. Bowen’s citydwellers, on the other hand, feel more alienated than ever, and have an awareness of themselves as estranged from anything as conventional as a community. Communities, for Bowen, are in the process of being dissolved, and there is not much that can be done about it. Bowen’s novels and essays constantly interrogate and ironize concepts like “community,” and “humanity.”  Her novels interpret themselves for the reader, her sentences twist in syntax to avoid banality, her young heroines are intensely aware of themselves as young heroines, her novelistic forms double back on themselves. Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle call this aspect of Bowen’s work the “dissolution of the modern novel.”

I’m intrigued by the phrase “the possibilities of message,” and I’ll think more about how or whether Holtby’s form is or is not integral to the “message” of her novel as I finish it up–tonight, perhaps!

On a completely different topic–or maybe not, since it’s also about novels and what ideas inform them–I found this discussion with Ian McEwan about books that have influenced his fiction very interesting. Not surprisingly, he emphasizes books about science. An excerpt:

I don’t need to ask what the influence on your novels is here, as science plays a big part in many of them – most noticeably in Solar, but also in Saturday and Enduring Love. What is the nature of your individual relationship, as a writer, with science?

I would like to inhabit a glorious mental space in which books like Slingerland’s would not need to be written. In other words – and this comes back to the notion of mental freedom – your average literary intellectual, just as much as your average research scientist, would take for granted a field of study in which the humanities and sciences were fluid, or lay along a spectrum of enquiry. This is the grand enlightenment dream of unified knowledge. If you think of the novel as an exploration or investigation into human nature, well, science undertakes a parallel pursuit. Of course, much science is concerned with the natural world, but increasingly it has invaded the territory of the novelist. Neuroscience routinely deals with issues not only of consciousness, but of memory, love, sorrow, and the nature of pain. I went to a fascinating lecture on revenge and the reward system by a German neuroscientist a few years ago.

I’m sometimes asked by a literary intellectual in an on-stage discussion – often through the medium of a puzzled frown – why I’m interested in science. As if I was being asked why I had a particular fascination for designs of differential gears in old Volkswagens, or car-parking regulations in Chicago in the 1940s. Science is simply organised human curiosity and we should all take part. It’s a matter of beauty. Just as we treasure beauty in our music and literature, so there’s beauty to be found in the exuberant invention of science.

Finally, once before I posted a sample of one of Owen’s original compositions. If you’re interested, you can follow this link to another, this time the slow movement of the Sonatina for Piano and Violin that was his entry in the composition category at this year’s Kiwanis Festival. It’s an amateur recording of a live performance, so not studio quality, but I think it’s beautiful…

Weekend Miscellany: Books, Music, and Sunshine

There are crocuses up, the Public Gardens are opening Wednesday, and I bought fries and sat outside the public library to eat them this afternoon: it’s official, spring is here. What a relief. It wasn’t a particularly severe winter, by east coast standards, but it was still tough enough for this recovering Vancouverite. Being on sabbatical definitely made it less stressful than usual, though. If it were an option, I’d happily teach two of my five courses in the spring and summer sessions as a regular thing and use winters as my research terms. I could hibernate with my books, and then emerge, refreshed, into the sunshine and share that restored energy with my students! But this year, at any rate, I’ll just be sharing it with … well … you! And with my friends at OLM, when I trek down to Boston for our editorial summit and general festivities in May.

I have been doing some fairly miscellaneous reading in the last few days. After finishing Noah’s Compass, I picked out the first volume in Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, The Wreath. I wasn’t swept up into it in quite the way I expected to be, but as I read on and also read a bit about the series, I realize that my expectations were not quite right (this seems to be happening to me a lot lately!). I thought it would be more sweeping, more melodramatic, maybe, or epic. Instead, it is quietly lyrical in its descriptive passages but otherwise more direct emphatic than poetic or emotional–except in some of the more heated dialogue, when characters are often described as “screaming,” which shocks me every time because that’s just not the register things have been proceeding in. Not that there’s not plenty of action in the novel, but it just happens in very direct, almost blunt, way, so that when something really shocking happens (like attempted rape, or someone being urged, successfully, to stab herself to death!)  it’s particularly shocking because it’s just there, happening. I’m not explaining this very well, am I? There’s something of the same flatness in the prose style that is striking in the Scandinavian crime fiction I’ve read recently, and again I wonder whether it’s the effect of translation, or an effect of a different set of literary traditions and conventions that affects the tone. It’s also winter a lot in this book, as in the Beck mysteries–but at least here spring does come! I was surprised at the sexual directness of the story. I’m going to move on to the second and third ones soon and then write them all up in a bit more detail.

I’ve also been working through Marjorie Garber’s The Use and Abuse of Literature. I was considering reviewing it for Open Letters, but the prospect of writing about this book in any detail makes me tired and irritable. I didn’t dislike it as much as William Deresiewicz did, but my marginal notes have a lot in common with the ones he rattles off in the first paragraph of his stinging review at Slate. It’s rambling, occasionally charming, occasionally extremely tedious, and always strangely evasive; its conclusions are vaporously insubstantial and wholly unrevelatory. I’m starting to think it’s a mistake for anyone to generalize about “literature.” The effusive blurbage on the volume also adds substantially to my cynicism about the publishing business (or at least its marketing side). I’m just not sure it’s worth my weighing in on it: I don’t think it really deserves much attention, well-intentioned and sincere as it clearly is, and I’m not sure what I in particular could add to it, or to discussion of it.

I realized that I have read shockingly little Victorian fiction since my sabbatical began, and one of my ambitions for some time has been to fill in some obvious gaps, so I’ve started Our Mutual Friend. (I did read this once before, but long ago–for my own undergraduate Victorian fiction course, in fact–and I barely remember it, despite having written my term paper on it. “Archipelagos of Meaning: Language in Our Mutual Friend.” Thanks for asking.) It’s interesting how strange and experimental Dickens’s language seems after reading a lot of contemporary novels. As book ordering deadlines for the fall term loom, I’m also wondering if I should shake up my reading list for my seminar on the Victorian ‘Woman Question,’ which I’ve done with the same reading list several times. The novel I’m thinking of mixing in is Rhoda Broughton’s Cometh Up as a Flower, but I’ve never read it (only about it), so I probably should do that before I go commiting myself! Any other suggestions?

I also need to make decisions about the detective fiction class, so now I’m reading Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress, which so far I am really impressed with. If I do add it, I think I’d back off switching to The Big Sleep and stick with The Maltese Falcon, though, as I don’t think I want to be teaching three new books in the second half of the term. If I go through with my plan to assign one of the Martin Beck series, I still have to decide which one; I found the last two in at the library this afternoon, so I’ll read them and then make up my mind. I’ve been struggling to find an anthology for the class that includes all the short fiction I want. I’ve used the Longman anthology for a couple of years but it was not popular with students and included a fair amount of secondary reading which I don’t tend to assign. I thought I’d switch back to the Oxford Book of Detective Fiction, but I notice it does not include any Poe (??)–I guess I can link to online sources, but when you use an anthology, it would be nice if it had all the readings you wanted in it! There’s a cute little Everyman ‘pocket’ anthology that’s not a bad choice but why are the contents in reverse chronological order? Once upon a time I used a nice little Penguin book of classic crime fiction that suited perfectly, but of course it’s not available anymore. I think the Oxford is the winner, partly because it has a good selection of recent and international stories.

Finally, I just got Jill Barber’s new album, Mischievous Moon, on iTunes and I am thoroughly enjoying it. I also thoroughly enjoyed Chances. It’s not a sound for everyone (my husband doesn’t like her voice at all), but I love the retro vibe, the melodies, the husky voice, the whole sensibility. If you like a little something gently jazzy to go with your glass of wine after dinner, I highly recommend either one.

Worth a Look or Listen: Louis Menand, Philosophers and Fiction, and the Dangers of Theism

I haven’t been keeping up my “Weekend Miscellany” posts for a while, so here’s a bit of a miscellany for a Tuesday evening instead:

At Open Letters Monthly, Laura Tanenbaum reviews Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas:

The basic facts will likely be familiar to current or recent graduate students: graduate school takes longer to complete than ever before, especially in the humanities, nearly half in some fields like English drop out before completion, and many of those who do finish will not find tenure-track positions. To his immense credit, and unlike many critics, Menand recognizes that making graduate school more demanding or raising barriers of entry will only exacerbate the problem. Instead he suggests a shorter time to degree, with the completion of an academic article taking the place of the dissertation. He argues this on humanitarian grounds, but then notes the institutional pressures that demand a large pool of graduate students and underemployed PhDs as cheap labor.

At A Commonplace Blog, D. G. Myers writes about philosophers and fiction:

Philosophers want to show that a possibility is valid; novelists try to make it plausible. The distance between validity and plausibility is the distance between philosophy and fiction, but it does not follow that the one is sharp while the other is fuzzy. They are, instead, as Putnam suggests, merely different approaches to knowledge.

Further to his comments, I’ll add that I’ve done some work myself at the intersection of philosophy and literary studies, and I’ve found that many philosophers cannot, or at least do not, understand the textuality of literature. Even Martha Nussbaum, whose Love’s Knowledge is a kind of manifesto for making philosophy literary, or reading literature philosophically, sometimes lapses into readings that extract dicta about how to live rather than finding literary form itself, and the experience of that form, meaningful. Interdisciplinarity, in other words, is harder than it sounds. There are, unsurprisingly, a number of essays on or around this topic in the excellent journal Philosophy and Literature.

And at Common Sense Atheism, another Professor Maitzen is interviewed on, among other things,

  • how many theistic defenses don’t make sense given the demographics of theism
  • how Christian theism leads to twisted morality
  • the problems with free will theodicies
  • the incoherence of ‘Ultimate Purpose’

In my wholly unbiased opinion, the interview is well worth a listen, not least for its articulate explanation of why, “though it’s an extremely popular view that atheism is bad for morality, … it seems pretty clear that theism is what’s bad for morality,” for its crushing judgment of a recent Christian best-seller (“it’s the most intellectually shallow, childish, morally frivolous novel I’ve ever read”), and for its Utopian vision that “maybe the blogosphere can help us where the schools evidently have failed us.”

You all keep busy with these while I go put together my lectures for tomorrow! I hope to be able to do some book blogging myself again soon; I just finished Hilary Mantel’s Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, for instance, and am about half-way through Rebecca Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God.