“A Kind of Castaway”: Octavia Butler, Kindred


I opened the book with some apprehension, wondering what archaic spelling and punctuation I would face. I found the expected f’s for s’s and a few other things that didn’t turn up as often, but I got used to them very quickly. And I began to get into Robinson Crusoe. As a kind of castaway myself, I was happy to escape into the fictional world of someone else’s trouble.

I read Kindred with unflagging attention: it is a gripping narrative, fast-moving and suspenseful and emotionally harrowing. It also, however, felt heavy-handed, almost didactic, and seemed formally and stylistically uninteresting. The time-traveling, which is never really explained or motivated–never given any autonomous logic–within the novel itself, functions as little more than a device to haul us back to to the antebellum South with Dana; its authorial objective is pretty clearly to teach us by immersion about the corrupting horrors of slavery. The back-and-forth in time also, of course, provides a neat mechanism for comparison: how much have things in fact changed; how deep-rooted and long-lasting are the effects of this traumatic past on the present; how, if at all, can a nation build a unified future on such a rotten foundation. It’s not that these aren’t interesting and important, even urgent, questions; I just didn’t find Butler’s literary treatment of them especially artful. Dana, too, seemed more a tool than a distinct character, though her relationship with Kevin, especially as his habits and attitudes are affected by his long stint away from their real (modern) life, seemed the most subtle and thought-provoking aspect of the novel.

kindred (1)Thinking more about Kindred after I’d finished reading it, I wondered if I would notice more subtleties in it if I knew more about the specific genres it combines: it is a hybrid of time-travel fiction and the slave narrative, and while I have read an example or two of each of these, I have never given sustained thought to their conventions and I have little, therefore, to compare Butler’s effects or choices to. The reader’s guide in my edition includes an essay by Robert Crossley that says some things about these contexts. “One of the protagonist’s–and Butler’s–achievements in traveling to the past,” he says, for instance,

is to see individual slaves as people rather than encrusted literary or sociological types. . . . Here we see literary fantasy in the service of the recovery of historical and psychological realities. As fictional memoir, Kindred is Butler’s contribution to the literature of memory every bit as much as it is an exercise in the fantastic imagination.

OK, I can see that, although there may be less novelty in that recovery effort now than there was in 1979–which of course does not diminish Butler’s contribution. He also remarks that “Science fiction and fantasy are a richly metaphorical literature,” but Kindred itself is not, as he tacitly acknowledges when he says that in it “the most powerful metaphor is time travel itself” but then explains that “metaphor” as “a dramatic means to make the past live”–which is not really metaphorical, is it? In fact, time travel aside, Kindred is an almost laboriously literal novel; sometimes the research behind it seemed to have been simply incorporated into Dana and Kevin’s conversations or into her narration. Not that anything’s wrong with that literal approach, and it delivers a lot of drama that is both heartrending and morally devastating, but the result is really just historical fiction with a twist.

The one big exception is the obviously symbolic loss of Dana’s arm, which, as Crossley says, Butler “makes no attempt to rationalize” but allows to stand as a shocking mystery: “the author is silent on the process by which Dana’s arm is severed in the twilight zone between past and present.” He goes on to quote Butler’s explanation of the figurative meaning of this amputation: “Antebellum slavery didn’t leave people quite whole.” That makes perfect sense, but I’m less satisfied than Crossley is with the inexplicable and arbitrary process by which her arm is lost, which is wholly unrelated to the way Dana has passed between the eras up to that point. It feels, again, like a device that gets the job done, rather than like the culmination of a meaningful pattern that would give the novel the kind of creative unity and flair that I felt the novel, for all its ingenuity and sincerity, was somehow missing.

I should add that I read Kindred (or read it right now, at any rate) because my book club chose it for our next meeting. As always, we are following a thread from our previous book, which in this case was Lincoln in the Bardo. Perhaps it is inevitable that the next book after Lincoln in the Bardo would seem somewhat pedestrian!

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine Is Fine

oliphant-1Not great, just fine. Its strength is its protagonist, who I found just the right side of too contrived as a misfit, a figure of semi-comical pathos with a running undercurrent of desperation. That deeper, darker layer, however, for me was the novel’s weakness. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine purports to be a novel about loneliness: its blurb is from Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City and on the back is a review snippet calling it “an outstanding debut about loneliness.” But loneliness, it turns out, is a sideshow, or a side effect: it’s really a novel about trauma and recovery.

I’m not saying that a novel can’t be both of these things, but by the end of Eleanor Oliphant I was tired of the oh-so-gradual meting out of information about Eleanor’s tortured ( more or less literally) past and the carefully staged incremental movements towards her release from it. As a redemption narrative, the novel has its charming moments but is also relentlessly manipulative and, overall, predictable. And the thing is, I don’t think Eleanor needed all that background melodrama to be interesting, sad, and worth the effort. The novel reads like an Anne Tyler novel–it has many of Tyler’s characteristic themes and touches–but one written without Anne Tyler’s faith in the poignancy of the everyday, or her gift for emotional subtlety. I was engrossed in it, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was a slightly shoddy version of the better (different) book it could have been. Or maybe I just wanted to read a different book–Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, for instance.oliphant-2

That got me thinking, though: what are the really good novels about loneliness? Villette, of course! But what else? Scanning my index here, I’m reminded of Miral al-Tahawy’s Brooklyn Heightsand of Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night which is about two people who take a quiet stand against loneliness. Barbara Pym and Anita Brookner both seem likely candidates but single or solitary is not necessarily the same as lonely. What comes to mind for you when you think of novels about loneliness?

“A Gnat Against an Elephant”: Hans Fallada, Every Man Dies Alone


“What did you expect anyway, Quangel? You, an ordinary worker, taking on the Führer, who is backed by the Party, the Wehrmacht, the SS, the SA? The Führer, who has already conquered half the world and will overcome the last of our enemies in another year or two? It’s ludicrous! You must have known you had no chance! It’s a gnat against an elephant. I don’t understand it, a sensible man like you.”

For a novel about courageous resistance to tyranny, Every Man Dies Alone has surprisingly few moments of high drama or eloquence. The low key at which the novel is pitched, however, is what makes it so effective and, ultimately, so devastating. None of its motley array of characters are boldly heroic–or, on the other side, particularly villainous (with some exceptions): most of them are just painfully ordinary people with common garden-variety needs, hopes, flaws, and grievances. They become extraordinary only because they are all living under the Third Reich, a context which changes at once nothing and everything. Once upon a time they didn’t have to consider the moral implications and personal risks of mundane activities such as going to work, visiting a relative, or helping out a friend or neighbor. Now the pervasive possibility of surveillance, betrayal, accusation, and punishment strips them of the privilege of living an unexamined life–at least if they have even a lingering shred of conscience. But even for the thoughtless grifters, liars, and weasels among them, the natural instinct for self-preservation puts them in constant creeping contact with deeper moral corruption. One way or another, knowingly or not, for all of them a day of reckoning inevitably looms.

One of Fallada’s memorable achievements in Every Man Dies Alone is to immerse us completely in the minutiae of this world that is rotting from the inside out. He never attempts to paint with a broad brush, to pull back and show us the big picture. Instead, he helps us grasp the scale of the decay through the Dickensian device of minor characters spiraling outward from the central plot, their stories at once individual and intersecting. The overall effect is of a vast web in which they are all entangled and by which they are all contaminated. No one in the novel is free of the sticky strands of fascism: playing along with the Nazis gives you only the temporary illusion of control or power, while fighting them may tear at filaments but cannot destroy or even damage the ruinous system itself.

Otto and Elise Hampel, the real-life Quangels

Or can it? What is the value of individual resistance amidst such an all-encompassing catastrophe? And does resistance have to be effective to be meaningful? These are the questions at the heart of Every Man Dies Alone, embodied in the story of Otto and Anna Quangel, who are roused to belated opposition to the Nazis by the death of their soldier son in a war they never really believed in. “Isn’t this thing that you’re wanting to do, isn’t it a bit small, Otto,” Anna asks when Otto reveals his plan to scatter subversive postcards around the city. “Whether it’s big or small,” he replies, “if they get wind of it, it’ll cost us our lives.” What, after all, can anyone risk beyond that? “The main thing was,” Anna concludes, “you fought back.”

The writing of the first postcard is their declaration of war: “war between, on the one side, the two of them, poor, small, insignificant workers who could be extinguished for just a word or two, and on the other, the Führer, the Party, the whole apparatus in all its power and glory.” The victories they hope for are indirect and individual: to change minds, perhaps inspire similar small acts of opposition to the regime, and–most important of all–stay themselves. “The main thing,” as their son’s fiancée (herself a member of a small resistance cell) says to Otto even before he has committed to his own rebellion,

“is that we remain different from them, that we never allow ourselves to be made into them, or start thinking as they do. Even if they conquer the whole world, we must refuse to become Nazis.”

Much later, in prison, Otto meets Dr. Reichhardt, a conductor who has “not very actively opposed the Hitler regime, nor conspired with others, nor put up posters, nor plotted assassinations, but had simply lived in accordance with his principles,” a simple-sounding resolve which has led him, among other things, to speak frankly about “how disastrous the course was that the German people were taking under their Führer.” To Otto’s lament that his postcards ultimately made no difference–“and then they kill us, and what good did our resistance do?”–Reichhardt replies, “it will have helped us to feel that we behaved decently till the end,” a moral imperative that Otto eventually echoes to his lawyer, who wonders if he isn’t “sorry to lose your life over a stupid stunt like that.” “At least I stayed decent,” Otto rebukes him:

“I didn’t participate. . . . What was your price for turning into such a fine gentleman, with creased trousers and polished fingernails and deceitful concluding speeches? What did you have to pay? . . . You know perfectly well that the man behind bars is the decent one.”

alone-in-berlinThe main driver of the novel’s plot is less the distribution of the postcards themselves than the investigation  launched to discover the writer of these ineffectually seditious messages. It is led by Inspector Escherich, who pursues the criminal he dubs the ‘Hobgoblin’ more out of stern professionalism than any particular dedication to the Führer. When he finally has the Quangels in custody, though, Otto “vanquishes” him with the reality of this long-awaited victory: in “just” doing his job, he has been willingly complicit in the regime’s cruelty and injustice. “You’re working in the employ of a murderer,” Otto points out, “delivering ever new victims to him. You do it for money; perhaps you don’t even believe in the man.” Pressured by the celebratory SS to join them in “baptizing” Otto by smashing their glasses over his head, Escherich has “the sense that he was hitting out at himself, striking with an ax at the roots of the tree of his own life.” Unable to bear what he has done and who he has become, Escherich–“Otto Quangel’s only convert”–takes his own life.

There are ways in which a novel about a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler or sabotage a munitions factory or otherwise cause disruption on a much bigger scale would be more exciting than one about a middle-aged couple leaving postcards around. Yes, Fallada was  telling the Hampels’ story, but he made other changes to it and could always have raised the stakes in the service of melodrama, after all. In the end, though, I think it is precisely the small scale of the Quangels’ activism that makes Every Man Dies Alone so powerful. For one thing, as Otto points out at the start, even that minor infraction is enough to cost them their lives; the disproportion of the risk and then the punishment is itself a grim measure of fascism’s violence, of the extremities required to maintain its totalitarian order.

More than that, though, there’s something so disarmingly and deceptively manageable about the postcards themselves.  Fallada’s tone throughout the novel is so prosaic and matter of fact, and his Quangels are so very low key themselves, that I nearly made the same mistake as Escherich, underestimating their accomplishment because I measured the scale of their resistance against the vastness of their enemy. Then I saw the reproductions of some of the Hampels’ actual postcards (included in the Melville House edition of Every Man Dies Alone) and found myself affected more powerfully by them than by the novel’s account of the Quangels’ deaths:

“German people wake up! We must free ourselves from Hitlerism!”

That laborious lettering is at once unbearably humble and unthinkably heroic. Anyone could do such a thing–it takes no special skills, no fancy equipment, no elaborate conspiracy, no great physical strength–but how many people would? Would you? Would I? Would we stay decent, even if writing a postcard was “all” it took? In putting the means so close to hand for all of us, Fallada makes it painfully clear that the smallest act of resistance is much more difficult and thus much more precious than we thought.

This Week In My Classes: Readers and/or Scholars

Arcimbolo LibrarianMore clutter to clear out of my head, if I can — something that has been on my mind for about three weeks now, but in an unfocused or inconclusive form. In fact, I’ve started and then deleted a couple of posts about this already; I just couldn’t seem to get very far before either deciding I didn’t want to get into it after all or running out of energy. But now the topic feels like mental debris, so let’s see if I can make any kind of sense of it so I can move on. One thing my blog is supposed to be for is freeing me to write about things without having to be absolutely certain about them, after all.

Basically, I recently attended an interesting presentation on (among other things) a site that makes a range of teaching tools available for people in “my” field, Victorian studies. (I put the possessive pronoun in scare-quotes because something else I’ve been puzzling over is whether I still identify with, much less operate within, that scholarly field, or any scholarly field–a subject for another unfocused inconclusive post down the road, perhaps. Consider yourself warned.) The tools looked fine! Cool, even! It is clear that people are using them in interesting and no doubt valuable ways to engage their students and further the goals they have for their courses. Still, I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to use them myself–not because (and this is about the point in the post where I gave up the last two times, because I felt uneasy about potentially being misunderstood on this point!) I have any objections to them on their own terms, but because they seem peripheral to the main objectives have for my own classes, especially (though not exclusively) my 19th-century fiction classes. Just to clarify the kinds of things I am talking about, one of the tools enables you to construct a timeline; others produce maps or annotations or digital scholarly editions.

van-gogh-still-life-french-novelsThis is all good! That is, it is all good if these are the activities you want your students engaged in–and I genuinely have no problem with that. I’m just not interested in doing that kind of thing myself, and what I was trying to figure out is why, and then whether this signals a deficiency of some kind in my own pedagogical approach. After some reflection, I decided the answer to the first part of that question is that increasingly, I do not approach my classes as steps towards making students into scholars, as part of a program designed to train them to do academic things. Instead, I aim to engage and train them as readers–attentive, well-informed, rigorous readers, to be sure, but with their eyes first and foremost on the page, not on contexts or scholarly apparatus or digital tools.

Another reason this post fell apart before is that I could see then, as I still can, that the distinction I just proposed between readers and scholars is reductive and perhaps unproductively polarizing. Still, I think there’s something to it, something that holds true even if you object to explaining it quite the way I have so far. After all, the vast majority of the students I teach at every level (now, really, including graduate students) are not going to enter the academy as professional literary scholars–but they are (I very much hope!) going to keep reading. My goal is to foster both the skills and the commitment they need to carry on reading as well (as intently, curiously, and critically) as we ask them to in our classes. It also matters to me that the literary works I feel most passionate about teaching are themselves oriented very much towards the world we live in and the relationship we have with it and with each other. Their ‘aboutness’ is moral, social, political; they have designs on us, dear readers,  and it takes all the time and energy we have to figure them out and see what stories we have to tell about them in our turn…and that’s not even taking into account just how long it takes to actually read the books with patience and attention.

cassatI’m not saying that the kinds of hands-on learning students get from constructing timelines (or whatever) can’t contribute to the conversations I prioritize, and clearly it can also give them valuable experience of other kinds, including building the skills set required to work with these kinds of digital tools. I can’t shake the feeling, though, that these projects take time away from, or redirect attention from, the books themselves, and there are so few contexts in which a sustained focus on reading is even possible, much less required and supported. If my own work and interests were in the field of book history, I expect I would find these tools more personally congenial. At the same time, my own estimation of the value of some forms of scholarly work has also eroded so much in the past decade or so–my own impatience with its insularity, with the feeling of playing insider baseball, has gotten so acute– that I have far less interest in drawing students into that world than I have in … well, in doing what I do in my own classes, which is pretty well documented here across the decade-plus history of posts in this series.

It’s not that I never incorporate research into my class assignments: at the upper level in particular, and of course in graduate seminars, there is always a scholarly dimension, and I do my best (albeit with mixed success) to make it relevant and valuable, not just perfunctory. And in spite of my alienation from aspects of academia (also something recorded and interrogated regularly over the dozen years I’ve written this blog) it’s not that I see no value in specialized literary research and scholarship: I have done it myself, and my teaching is suffused with insights and strategies and knowledge gleaned from my three decades as first a student and then a teacher in the academy. I routinely bring contextual information to the classroom; I have brought maps and timelines sometimes too–they are invaluable aids when teaching Waverley! I have also done some digital assignments, including wiki building–though I am much less inclined to go to that kind of logistical trouble now. So maybe I’m fretting about something that is really a difference of pedagogical degree, not kind, or maybe I’m just going through pointless mental convolutions because I felt uncomfortable during that presentation due to the gap between the student experience it championed and the one I (think I) offer and as a result I wanted (as we are all prone to, I suppose, when we feel sidelined or irrelevant) to make up some story to justify myself!Bookworm Icon

I’m still having second thoughts about this whole post: I wonder why this topic in particular is making me so self-conscious. But I don’t want to lose my nerve about thinking out loud in public, and of course one possible value of writing this up is in hearing what, if anything, other people think about the things I’ve been turning around in my head. I don’t mean to set reading and scholarship, or reading and research, against each other in any absolute way, but it has been hard for me to put the difference I’ve been thinking about in any other way. I’d like to think that my teaching award answers the second part of my earlier question–I am not shortchanging my students — but that doesn’t mean I’m not still learning all the time myself.

In Brief: Recent Reading

chasing-christmas-eveWhen you don’t blog for a while, or at least when I don’t, one of the obstacles to getting back into a routine is the clutter of possible things to blog about, which becomes strangely unmotivating because it’s hard to pick one topic and just get started. This is an attempt to clear out some of that clutter!

I have been busy and kind of distracted lately, and I also am just getting over shingles (a relatively mild case, fortunately, but still an intrusion on my general well-being), so I have not been able to focus on much sustained reading beyond what I’ve had to do for my classes. Still, I have managed to putter through a few romances that I plucked more or less at random off the library shelves in search of undemanding distraction. (It’s not that I think romances are always or only undemanding distractions, but one good thing about adding romance to my reading repertoire has been knowing it can offer light diversion when needed.) Two of these were OK but nothing special: Jill Shalvis’s Chasing Christmas Eve, which I enjoyed for its interesting choice of careers for its protagonists, including the inevitably self-referential “successful author” role for the heroine (which, even more self-referentially, involves her ‘discovering’ that her new book is — gasp — a romance!), and Start Me Up by Nicole Michaels, which is blandly predictable but has a blogger heroine who at least raises some mildly interesting questions about online / off-line identities and boundaries. I started but didn’t get far in Sarah Morgan’s Holiday in the Hamptons: this is par for the course for me with Morgan, whose books always sound cute but feel very formulaic once I actually start reading them.

BestOfLuckThe one stand-out experience in my recent romance reading was Kate Clayborn’s Best of Luck, which I did not pick up haphazardly at the library but had pre-ordered on the strength of the first two books in the series, Beginner’s Luck and Luck of the Draw. I liked the first one just fine and then really liked the second one a lot; both have also stood up well to rereading. Best of Luck is a good finale for the trilogy. Like the first two, its biggest strength is its characters, who have both distinct and plausibly complicated personalities and histories and genuinely interesting work to do–something Clayborn gives a lot of attention to. I like that: I have a documented fondness for ‘neepery’ and each of her books offers it in spades. The books are not particularly funny or witty, but they are not ponderous, and they earn their angst rather than piling it on (which is what I thought happened in my one excursion into Alisha Rai). The pacing is good and the alternating points of view for each chapter keeps things interesting as the conflicts develop and then resolve. I realize these comments are sort of generic! But that’s because reading and liking Best of Luck after reading and either not liking or not caring much about a handful of other books in the same genre got me thinking about what makes a romance work for me. Voice has a lot to do with it, and so does freshness, and for me the ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ books get high marks for both.

hobbitThe other book I was reading for a while (inspired by my not entirely successful experience with N. K. Jemison’s The Fifth Season) was The Hobbit. It turns out that The Hobbit (like Little Women) is a book I know so well from my childhood that it is almost impossible for me to really see the words on the page. It isn’t so much that I read it often as that my brother had the marvelous Nicol Williamson audiobook and listened to it often with me within earshot. After the initial pleasure of revisiting the people and places wore off, I found myself easily distracted because I knew all too well what was coming next, and after a while I just stopped going back to it.

Much more promising, as far as engrossing me even amidst other distractions, is Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, which I have just started but am already thoroughly involved in. When I asked Dorian about it on Twitter, he described as “Dickens with fascism,” which is a marketing blurb that would probably always work for me! So far, that seems a fair description, and I am looking forward both to the rest of the book itself and to feeling myself back in a reading groove again.

World Building: N. K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season

jemisinI find myself at something of a loss about how to respond to The Fifth Season. The bottom line, I suppose, is that it didn’t work for me: I felt frustrated from the outset at the barrage of unexplained particulars, and though I think the advice that I got from more proficient readers of SFF to just read on and let the logic of Jemisin’s world and its inhabitants emerge from the action was good advice, and it more or less worked (by the end I did, as promised, have a reasonable grasp of the various terms and elements), the process of getting there–the struggle to understand those crucial building blocks of the story–proved too great an obstacle to my engagement with the novel’s drama for me to get much pleasure out of it. I got intermittently caught up in particular scenes, especially towards the end, but they were never sustained long enough for any momentum to build–and then the final, quite intense, scenes were cut short in the kind of open-ended cliff-hanger that seemed obviously meant to sell the next book in the series. Perhaps that is considered fair play in a genre that seems dominated by series that are cumulative rather than simply sequential, but I felt frankly resentful that after the effort of getting to that point I was not given any satisfactory sense of closure for this installment beyond its having finally (and it really did feel like finally! to me) brought the dispersed parts of the novel together.

scoundrelsI have had bad experiences before when stepping into unfamiliar genre territory, and I am very aware that reading something well–which doesn’t necessarily mean liking it, but rather knowing how to deal with the kind of book it is–requires recognizing the conventions and norms and expectations that it is dealing in. (At any rate, this is true of genre fiction, which typically relies on a kind of reciprocal proficiency between writers and readers–for me, at any rate, this is one of the ways I define “genre fiction.”) I thought Lord of Scoundrels was ridiculous the first time I read it, and now I thoroughly enjoy it (and have even taught it twice); what happened in between that initial reading and later ones was a gradual education in romance conventions and an evolution in my own reading taste. I was braced for a similarly clueless initial experience with The Fifth Season but I hoped and expected, from what I’d heard about it, that I would find its narrative drive or characters compelling enough to compensate for the difficulties. In the end, though, I just didn’t: at this point, I have no urge to read the rest of the trilogy, though of course that might change, just as I came back to Lord of Scoundrels and found we had learned to get along after all.

elaine-fake-gifIt’s not that The Fifth Season didn’t give me anything to think about. Probably what preoccupied me the most, though, was not thinking about the issues of identity and social order and oppression (and geology) that I take to be central to Jemisin’s project so much as wondering why the unreality of her world grated on me in ways that the equally artificial fictional worlds of other authors don’t. It’s not as if the town of Middlemarch isn’t also made up; it isn’t (to go with a more apt comparison) as if the souls of the unwillingly departed really lingered in the cemetery where Lincoln’s son was interred and intervened to change both his fate and the course of history. I learned to deal with vampires, werewolves, and witches in Joss Whedon’s universe, and, prompted by puzzling over what didn’t work for me about The Fifth Season, I just started rereading The Hobbit for the first time in decades and was immediately delighted.

Dunnett-New-CoverWhat makes the difference? Is it that Saunders and Whedon–to go with the ones who clearly aren’t offering “the nearest thing to [real] life”–are not completely replacing our world but adding a dimension to it, so I am still anchored in familiarity, and as a result the application (if that’s the right word) of their fantastical elements to my thinking about the world I actually live in is more straightforward? Though I am sure Jemisin’s work is meant to reflect on our reality in some way, it’s so complex and elaborate on its own terms that it seems an awfully long way around. (Also, a big part of the point of a book like The Fifth Season is presumably that world building on its own is something readers can simply take an interest in as an alternative reality; maybe my realist habits of mind are precisely the problem.)

hobbitOr it might be, thinking about how much I’m enjoying the The Hobbit, that it’s not in fact the genre elements of The Fifth Season that kept me at a distance but something that can be a problem for me in any genre: its style. As is trendy these days, it’s almost all in close third person (or, a bit awkwardly, I thought, close second person), with little contextual information from a knowledgeable narrator. Another bit of advice I got for coping with Jemisin’s world building was to think of it as similar to historical fiction, but the historical fiction I typically like best (though there are some exceptions, to be sure) is dense in exposition–what I called in the context of A. S. Byatt’s remarkable The Children’s Book, “fearless pedantry”–or, as with Hilary Mantel’s historical novels, intimately personal in point of view but still driven by a propulsively linear narration. Dorothy Dunnett is a consummate world builder, but her plots and characters are rendered in extraordinarily strong colors that stand out against the stunning detail of her exposition. All of these novelists, too, are splendid prose stylists; Jemisin’s prose seemed mostly workmanlike and unexceptional. Her most dramatic moments often turned on what seemed like the narrative equivalent of special effects: I thought they were pretty cool in the moment, but for me, the minute I’m noticing something as a cool special effect, the effect itself is rather ruined.

henry-jamesI know there are readers who are as unmoved by Dunnett as I was by Jemisin. As Henry James said, the house of fiction has many windows! I don’t like to preemptively close any of them: I have long thought I must be missing out on a lot of good reading because I don’t read SFF (I haven’t even read Ursula Le Guin-don’t @ me!). I’m not necessarily giving up, on the genre or on Jemisin. If I keep reading around, maybe, as happened with romance, I will find my footing, at which point perhaps I would reread The Fifth Season and find, as with Lord of Scoundrels, that I’m able to appreciate it in a way I can’t now. On the other hand, there are just so many other books and authors I haven’t read that seem likely to engage and excite me without my having to struggle quite so much just to get it that I’m not sure how much of a priority to make that attempt. As James also said, “nothing will ever take the place of the good old fashion of ‘liking’ a work of art or not liking it.” I didn’t like The Fifth Season, and maybe for now that will have to be enough.

A Brief Return to Meta-Blogging

cassatI am perhaps in a blogging slump, not a reading slump, though it can be hard to tell the difference. There have been a lot of comments recently about blogging as a dying form, a remnant (and how odd this characterization seems, after all the flak bloggers used to — and still do — get from some quarters) of a more leisurely and reflective internet era. Because his is one of the first blogs I started reading and remains one of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking, Timothy Burke’s post about this has hit me the hardest. Why doesn’t he blog more often, he wonders? Among his reasons:

Readers swarm over everything now, stripping any writing down into a series of declarative flags that sort everyone into teams, affinities, objectives. There’s no appetite for difficult problems that can’t be solved or worked, or for testimonies that give us a window into a lived world. No pleasure in the prose itself, and thus none in the writing of it.

Like so many generalizations, especially those about social media and the internet, this one struck me as kind of true but also importantly not true, at least for “my” internet: I know for a fact that there are readers who do want that window, who do take pleasure in the prose and in writing it, who don’t want their world so emphatically (sometimes ruthlessly) divided into opposing teams. But he’s not wrong that things have changed out there (out here), or that the rapidity and the absolutism of a lot of online discourse makes it feel that “almost everyone is one day away from having someone paint a bullseye on them, deserving or otherwise.”

the_new_novelTim is not talking about book blogging, though, and there (here) I don’t think as much has changed–or, that things have gotten so bad–though I do notice a slowing down, a fading out, not across the board but certainly among some of the folks whose blogs and comments used to be steady sources of stimulation and conversation. That seems natural, though I really miss some of them: people move on, priorities change, the intrinsic rewards of something that has never (for the kind of bloggers I follow, anyway) been tied to extrinsic rewards can fade. The times have changed, in some scary and upsetting ways, and as a result people’s anxiety is high and, amidst the hubbub, their attention is scarce and precious. Other things rightly take precedent. The ebbing of energy is contagious, too: when posting diminishes and commenting declines, and bookish people quite understandably back away from (or just get overwhelmed on) Twitter, it gets harder to imagine who you are talking to when you contemplate writing up a post yourself.

I have felt all of this myself recently, in varying degrees, and that is one reason my posts have been less frequent lately. Looking back over my archive, I also realize how much momentum for my own earlier writing came from the excitement of discovering this new form and then advocating for it as an alternative form of scholarly communication. (There are 74 posts tagged ‘blogging’ here–now 75!) For various reasons, that specific impetus has subsided. A few years ago I wrote a couple of posts trying to take stock of where the reforming zeal about academic blogging that launched so many individual blogs and also sites like The Valve had gone. It was already clear then, in 2015, that the big transformation many of the keenest participants had hoped for was not going to happen. As Aaron Bady said then, “While we were hoping the profession would grow to include blogs, the world decided to shrink the profession”: it’s not just the blogs of a lot of brilliant young scholars that we’ve lost but also their presence in the academy. For those of us still who are still part of that particular world, the question of the professional value of blogging remains a vexed and unpredictable one. It certainly proved to be of no value to my career institutionally–though just because I no longer feel like advocating for it doesn’t mean I don’t still believe it should be considered a valuable part of the scholarly publishing ecosystem.


Though right now I have lost interest in throwing posts against that particular wall to see if any of them stick, I haven’t lost my interest in the kind of blogging I actually started with in the first place, which was, after all, just writing–freely and in my own uninhibited voice–about books. Neither have a lot of the folks on my blogroll here or people whose blogs I follow through Feedly: they continue to be wonderful, if slightly diminished, sources of interesting, thoughtful, idiosyncratic bookish commentary. These blogs have never been about “hot takes” — the closest they come is sometimes weighing in on prize nominations or following the yearly Tournament of Books. If you got into blogging because you wanted to write about what you were reading, read about what other people were reading, and have a bit of discussion in both directions, I think (though my experience may not be representative, as it always depends on particulars) you might not feel things have changed all that much, at least in the spirit of the exercise. Twitter has changed how our conversations sometimes play out: some of the energy that once went into comments directly on posts has been diverted there, but except for the logistical challenge (Twitter is a very diffuse and fast-moving medium!), that doesn’t seem like a bad thing–except, I suppose, that it means the book talk intersects with the reasons people have for backing away from Twitter, which again becomes an obstacle.

macke woman readingI’m not really going anywhere in particular with this: I’m just thinking out loud in public, which is what having a blog lets me do! I also trusted (because it works every time I’m in a blogging slump) that if I actually started writing something, anything, here, things would start to turn around for me, because the process itself is a tonic. “It remains important to me to think: today, I might blog,” Tim says in his post, “And to think: I have a place to do it in.” This is very much still true for me. I do a lot of other writing (well, right now it doesn’t seem like a lot, but that’s a subject for another post, especially with a sabbatical coming up) but this is the one place where I can write entirely on my own terms: no rules, no assignments, no editors, no second-guessing, no need to know what it will add up to or if I can pitch it or where I can include it on my annual report. I cherish that writing experience; when I don’t get around to doing it for a while, whether it’s because I’m too busy at work or too tired and distracted or because I think I don’t have anything to say–then I really miss it. Putting things in words is clarifying, and when I’m not under pressure, it’s also fun. Maybe blogs are now internet dinosaurs, but what matters to me (in this as in so many things) is not whether the form is trendy or innovative but what the form enables. Also, lately I’ve been feeling a bit prehistoric myself: maybe form and content are just syncing up!

jemisinAs for the possibility of a reading slump, well, I have been reading quite a bit; I just haven’t been blogging about it, because (perhaps unsurprisingly) nothing since Lincoln in the Bardo has seemed worth much notice. I might do a ‘recent reading round-up’ type post next, just to clear the air, or I might wait and see how I do with The Fifth Season, which so far I am finding an odd balance of baffling (and thus off-putting) and gripping. Seasoned sci-fi readers assure me that if I press on, the estrangement will fade, the world-building will work its magic, and I will be on my way. We’ll see! In the meantime, at least I’ve reminded myself why I do this: because I like to.