“Unsure of the Rails”: Patricia Highsmith, Edith’s Diary


There was, of course, her diary. For two days after Cliffie’s mishap, and Bobby Kennedy’s death, Edith felt quite unsure of herself, unsure of the rails on which she moved–giving George his meals and taking sheets to the launderette and all that. So she wrote at greater length, voluptuously and voluminously, but still carefully in her big diary.

Edith’s Diary is not a very good novel. It pains me to say this, because right there on the cover is a blurb from the TLS declaring it “a masterpiece,” and if you can’t trust the TLS, really, who can you trust? ūüėČ It’s not¬†terrible–in fact, considering how plodding the writing is and how painfully slowly it moves, it’s pretty readable. But the writing¬†is plodding, very little happens but at great length, and many of the details seem strangely random, such as the incident (if you can call it that) when the protagonist Edith’s wastrel son Cliffie comes home when she’s listening to Faur√©’s¬†Requiem and she turns it off because Cliffie’s presence spoils the experience for her. That could have been a telling moment if it had been prepared for, but its extreme specificity seemed pointless to me. There’s also a lot of political discussion that contributed (I suppose) to Edith’s characterization but seemed disproportionate.

The novel’s premise is a pretty good one, though. Edith is an extremely ordinary woman living an extremely ordinary life. The one oddity of it is Cliffie, who is lazy, self-centered, and mildly sociopathic. One reason the novel kept my interest is that I kept waiting for Cliffie to blossom into a full-fledged evil-doer–but he stays¬†just this side of true villainy. As a child he is trouble; as an adult, he is creepy. Fairly early in the novel Edith’s husband Brett leaves her for his secretary; Edith is left to cope alone with Cliffie and with Brett’s aged Uncle George, who spends the rest of the novel getting gradually more decrepit and demanding.

highsmith-2Edith’s real life gets more and more disappointing, but the life she “records” in her diary is quite different: there, Cliffie gets accepted to Princeton instead of cheating on his admissions tests; he marries, has children, travels, and excels professionally, instead of hanging around home moping, drinking, harassing Uncle George, and getting in trouble. “Splendid day,” Edith writes; “Long letter from Cliffie. . . . D. [Cliffie’s imaginary wife] phoned. She considers going out to join C. when the baby is a few months older. I really think she should.” It is sad as well as deranged: Edith’s reality is not great, after all, and the novel’s one strength is how subtly Highsmith has Edith’s grasp on it deteriorate (at one point she almost says something to the real Cliffie about the family she has concocted for him). Here too there is some suspense: as Edith’s friends and family start to worry about her, trying to get her to acknowledge that all is not well, it seems all too possible that the fissure between truth and lies will lead to some dramatic crisis.

It doesn’t, though: like Cliffie’s rotten character, Edith’s fantasy life never quite becomes anything: the reckoning, when it comes, fizzles out in anticlimax. Maybe that’s the point of the novel: maybe it’s best read as realism about the dreary horrors that lie behind seemingly ordinary lives and I was misreading its signals because it is by Highsmith and so I expected something different, something more sly and dangerous. Edith’s Diary, it turns out, is not a psychological thriller; it belongs with other period pieces about women’s domestic discontents. But I don’t think it’s a very good example of this kind either. I’d never heard of it before I happened upon it in the bookstore. It’s exciting to “discover” a lesser-known title, and we like to think the filtering process for literary fame is arbitrary, but sometimes the truth is that books are obscure for a reason.

Dolls and Dames: Vera Caspary, Laura

laura-feminist-pressSeating himself in the long chair, his thin hands gripping the arms, he seemed to relax watchfulness. Tired, I thought, and noticed the hint of purple in the shadows of the deep-set eyes, the tension of flesh across narrow cheekbones. Then, quickly, hailing into my mind the scarlet caution signal, I banished quick and foolish tenderness. Dolls and dames, I said to myself; we’re all dolls and dames to him.

I learned from A. B. Emrys’s afterword to the Feminist Press edition of Laura that¬†Vera Caspary deliberately applied “the Wilkie Collins” method to her novel: her use of multiple narrators was inspired by¬†The Woman in White in particular (although elsewhere Emrys makes the case that¬†The Moonstone was also an influence), and her “fastidious, fascinating, and fat villain” is based at least in part on Count Fosco. Knowing this doesn’t make¬†Laura better or more fun to read, of course: it just confirms that my taste is consistent, because I love¬†The Woman in White and I also loved¬†Laura.

I read¬†Laura¬†sort of in case it was a good fit for¬†Women and Detective Fiction but more because I would like to switch out¬†The Maltese Falcon in Pulp Fiction. I had resolved to assign¬†In a Lonely Place, but when I started rereading it and was reminded just what a creepy experience it is to be immersed in the point of view of a serial rapist and murderer, I reconsidered: that’s a lot to put on first-year students, and after all, I wasn’t entirely convinced myself when I read it before that it succeeds in exposing misogyny rather than wallowing in it. At this point I am thinking of putting Hughes’s novel on the syllabus for Women and Detective Fiction, which is a 4th-year seminar populated by students who I think will be better prepared to have that interpretive debate themselves.¬†Laura, however, just might do for Pulp Fiction–though I have yet to find out if our bookstore can get it in sufficient quantities (all of our first-year classes next year are capped at 120, which I find both distressing and daunting).

laura-popular-coverLaura would pose some pedagogical problems of its own, not because it’s creepy (though it is deliciously twisty) but because its first narrator, Waldo Lydecker, is completely insufferable. I actually didn’t know when I began the novel that it would have multiple narrators and I wasn’t sure I was up for 200 pages of his self-conscious pomposity. “I am given,” he tells us,

to thinking of myself in the third person. Many a time, when I have suffered some clumsy misadventure, I am saved from remorse by the substitution for unsavory memory of another captivating installment in¬†The Life and Times of Waldo Lydecker. Rare are the nights when I fail to lull myself to sleep without the sedative of some such heroic statement as “Waldo Lydecker stood, untroubled, at the edge of a cliff beneath which ten thousand angry lions roared.”

Will the students be able to find him funny as well as pathetic and irritating? Of course, once Laura’s story has fully unfolded there are also plenty of clues to the mystery in the way he talks: the trick of teaching the novel, as with teaching¬†The Moonstone (which, after all, opens with a couple hundred pages of Betteredge being stuffy), would be to make sure we have prepared for it by talking about dramatic monologues and the ways people reveal themselves through their language. If, as I am currently contemplating, we read¬†True Grit rather than¬†Valdez Is Coming as our sample Western, we will have practiced that at length with Mattie.

laura-pulp-coverIn addition to the clever plot and the pleasures of the multiple narrators,¬†Laura seems to me particularly interesting for (no surprise!) Laura herself, and for the way the other characters attempt to fix her identity in a way that accords with their assumptions about women. Hard-boiled or¬†noir fiction famously tends to limit women to specific roles: victim, dame,¬†femme fatale. Caspary and Laura are both aware of the way women get cast into roles that restrict their individuality and define them in relation to men; Laura’s resistance to this is one of the factors that puts her life in danger. “You are not dead,” another character says to her at one point; “you are a violent, living, bloodthirsty woman.” How much of that sentence is true? It depends, quite literally, on whose story you accept.

Laura is also self-conscious about the conventions of detective novels. Waldo hates them:

I still consider the conventional mystery story an excess of sound and fury, signifying, far worse than nothing, a barbaric need for violence and revenge in that timid horde known as the reading public. The literature of murder investigation bores me as profoundly as its practice irritated Mark McPherson [Laura‘s detective].

“I offer the narrative,” he goes on, “not so much as a detective yarn as a love story”–another clue, though we might think, by the time we finish¬†Laura, that he draws too fine a distinction–and that Caspary is nudging us to think about the ways stories of “violence and revenge” are usually gendered. “In detective stories,” Laura herself remarks, “there are two kinds [of detectives],

the hardboiled ones who are always drunk and talk out of the corners of their mouths and do it all by instinct; and the cold, dry, scientific kind who split hairs under a microscope. . . . Detectives aren’t heroes to me, they’re detestable.

Is Mark McPherson the hero of Laura? Again, it depends on which version of the story you accept, or on what you think actually does constitute heroism.

There’s a lot going on in¬†Laura that I think would be fun and productive to work through. It certainly has as much literary flair as anything I’ve read by Hammett or Chandler, and it pulls off its tricks without glamorizing violence (as Hammett especially often seems to) and with a woman at its center who is herself, not just an object for male fantasy. I think it’s the first noir novel (Emrys calls it “new woman noir”) I’ve ever straight up enjoyed reading. Cross your fingers that it turns out to be an option for my class!

“Your Greater Misery”: Rereading Wuthering Heights

wuthering-oup“I know he has a bad nature,” said Catherine; “he’s your son. But I’m glad I’ve a better, to forgive it; and I know he loves me and for that reason I love him. Mr. Heathcliff,¬†you have¬†nobody to love you; and, however miserable you make us, we shall still have the revenge of thinking that your cruelty rises from your greater misery! You¬†are miserable, aren’t you? Lonely, like the devil, and envious like him?¬†Nobody loves you–nobody will cry for you, when you die! I wouldn’t be you!”

I said that Wuthering Heights was near the top of my list of books to reread on my sabbatical, with my eye on refreshing the titles in regular rotation in my 19th-Century Fiction classes. Because I have never enjoyed reading it, I started it this time a bit reluctantly, and for the most part it gave me no more pleasure than it has before. I still don’t like it. But while liking or not liking a book may be, as Henry James put it, “that primitive, that ultimate, test” for us as readers, it really can’t be the ultimate test for those of us who are also scholars, teachers, or students! So as I reread the novel, I tried not just to keep an open mind about it but to imagine as actively as I could what it would be like to teach it, including both its individual features and how it might shake up discussions of other books on the reading list. And guess what: I think I’m going to try it!

One reason is that it is impossible to deny the novel’s emotional power. Its unrelenting, highly compressed intensity really does make it qualitatively unlike any of the other books I assign, and that difference alone is thought-provoking. Not only, as the introduction to my edition rightly notes, does “Emily Bront√ę [have] no interest in the moral response as a reason to soften her narrative,” but the effects she¬†is interested in are discomfiting, even disturbing. Passion, hatred, violence, revenge: these are the novel’s animating forces, and while they are repellent, they are also grimly fascinating, with thematic (and, yes, moral) implications that are well worth discussing.

penguin-wutheringAnother is that while Emily Bront√ę may have had no “interest in shaping her story morally,”¬†Wuthering Heights is a very¬†complexly structured novel, with its multiple nested and embedded narratives. The many hours I’ve spent on other novels with multiple or unreliable narrators, such as¬†The Moonstone or¬†The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,¬†have shown me what fun the interpretive work can be as you sort through who is saying what in particular, to whom and why and with what consequences for our reading of their words. I hadn’t paid that much attention to this aspect of¬†Wuthering Heights before, though I knew it was the subject of a lot of the critical discussion. This time I was more attuned to it and felt some genuine enthusiasm at the prospect of working on it with my students, even if most of the voices we’ll be attending to are as unpleasant as young Catherine’s spiteful words to Heathcliff in my epigraph to this post.

Yet another reason: the mental exercise will be good for me! Yes, I still don’t like the novel: as I said on Twitter, it may be a masterpiece, but I can’t imagine it becoming a personal favorite. That’s exactly why I should work on it: learning to appreciate it will stretch and challenge me, intellectually and aesthetically. I will have to consider why it does the things I don’t like, for instance, and how that instinctive dislike might be inhibiting my critical sensibility–what my taste keeps me from appreciating. I will also, quite simply, have to learn new things, and that is always beneficial to me as a teacher: it keeps me both alert and humble. What do I need to know to teach¬†Wuthering Heights¬†effectively? I am sure that I will enjoy figuring that out more than I enjoyed rereading the novel. At the end of the process, I will probably like¬†Wuthering Heights¬†better, too, but if I don’t, that’s OK.

OUPTenantThe one reason I’m still hesitating: Perhaps wrongly, I’ve been assuming that the Bront√ę portion of my reading list is a zero sum game, that if I assign¬†Wuthering Heights I can’t also assign¬†Jane Eyre or¬†The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and that makes me sad, because those are known pleasures. But the only person making up this rule is me, so maybe I can break it! Would it be so bad if two out of five novels were Bront√ę novels, especially given how different they are from each other? As I was finishing up¬†Wuthering Heights I kept thinking how great it would be to read¬†Tenant right after: then Heathcliff and Hindley and Hareton could face off against Huntingdon, Hattersley, and Hargrave. What if Wuthering Heights¬†were crowding out Scott or Thackeray instead of Charlotte or Anne? Would¬†that be so bad? (I mean, yes, it would, in a way, because I also love teaching¬†Waverley and¬†Vanity Fair, but you can’t do everything, at least not all at once.)

Another possibility that occurred to me is that¬†Wuthering Heights might be a good option for the 19th-century novel I assign in my Brit Lit survey, rather than (or as well as) a good selection for 19th-Century Fiction. One theme I’ve been kicking around for the survey course is “belonging,” which seems like a concept that could work at the level of the course itself (for discussions about what’s included and what isn’t and what story you tell by deciding what belongs and what’s excluded) as well as at the level of particular texts (who do they implicitly or explicitly include or invite or leave out? what idea of community or nation or fellowship is at stake? etc.). I was having a hard time identifying a Victorian novel that really fit this theme, but clearly¬†Wuthering Heights¬†would, especially but not only because Heathcliff is the ultimate outsider. “But where did he come from,” wonders Nelly, “the little dark thing, harboured by a good man to his bane?”

“Literature Nowadays”: Rereading New Grub Street

new-grub-street“Literature nowadays is a trade. Putting aside men of genius, who may succeed by mere cosmic force, your successful man of letters is your skilful tradesman. He thinks first and foremost of the markets; when one kind of goods begins to go off slackly, he is ready with something new and appetising. He knows perfectly all the possible sources of income.”

I enjoyed rereading¬†New Grub Street–although “enjoyed” might be the wrong word given how relentlessly dispiriting the novel is. It’s a well-told story and its satirical commentary on the literary world, in which artists, intellectuals, and idealists suffer while glib, market-savvy opportunists prosper, seems at time uncannily contemporary. “The evil of the time,” says one of the novel’s many ultimately unsuccessful literary men, “is the multiplication of ephemerides”:

Hence a demand for essays, descriptive articles, fragments of criticism, listicles,* out of all proportion to the supply of even tolerable work. The men who have an aptitude for turning out this kind of thing in vast quantities are enlisted by every new periodical, with the result that their productions are ultimately watered down into worthlessness.

As for literary criticism, then as now “such work is indifferently paid and in very small demand.” (Plus √ßa change, eh?)

new-grub-oupThere is a lot to admire about the novel. Its characters are effectively, if somewhat schematically, established; their salient traits and values are distinct and the turns their stories take as they play their parts in Gissing’s depressing story of jockeying and dreaming and ailing and failing are always consistent with the strengths and weaknesses we know them to have. The intersecting plots play out with what in a more stylish writer I might call elegance, and Reardon’s story in particular reaches heights–or is it depths?–of pathos that are very nearly tragic, though Gissing’s tonal register is too prosaic for that label to sit comfortably. The novel is also very good about the way personal feelings are inextricably entangled with people’s money (or the lack of it) and ambition (or the lack of it): its marriages (actual, imagined, sought, and abandoned) play out in nice counterpart to, and sometimes illustrations of, the novel’s literary commentary.

I’m not persuaded, however, that I would like to teach New Grub Street, at least not as a replacement for any of the novels currently in my Dickens-to-Hardy rotation. For one thing, it is in many respects dully documentary–not to the same extreme as Biffen’s √ľber-realist¬†Mr. Bailey, Grocer, but enough to make summary seem more suitable than interpretation. As I read it, I wondered what we would¬†talk about in class–or, more to the point, what we could¬†discover¬†in class discussion, given how straightforwardly expository the novel seemed. What is at stake in the novel that the novel then helps us to understand?¬†The Odd Women–to show I’m not just biased against Gissing–seems to me to give us a lot more to work with in this respect, and it is also faster moving and more dramatic.

new-grub-broadviewThis underwhelmed reaction is, of course, very likely due to some analytical near-sightedness of my own, or to New Grub Street just not being the kind of novel that I like best to look harder at, while my preference for The Odd Women may just be because I know it better and have spent more time thinking, writing, and teaching about its central themes. But overall what I felt by the end of¬†New Grub Street¬†was that for a novel so self-consciously¬†about fiction, it is surprisingly, disappointingly, not particularly metafictional: I couldn’t see a way in which Gissing was offering up a novel that is itself (in structure, form, style, or theme) more than the sum of the literary parts it includes. That lack of transcendence may be the point: if it is a novel¬†about anything, it is about literary failure, including both the kind that presents itself as success and the kind that might actually be success but doesn’t seem like it, and so if¬†New Grub Street was a brilliant, stylish, provocative, or formally innovative novel, its whole premise might implode.¬†I don’t really think, though, that something so artistically self-conscious and deliberate is going on: Gissing is just describing a close possible world to his own, showing it to us in all its meticulous, dreary, disheartening detail. Adam Roberts is absolutely right that New Grub Street “works superbly as a detailed evocation of a particular social and cultural milieu,” but once you’ve acknowledged that, then what? (Adam, characteristically, does much better addressing that question than I have here: read his post for more, including the interesting suggestion that in parts of New Grub Street¬†Gissing “cathects the spirit of Samuel Beckett into a more conventionally upholstered nineteenth-century novel,” an idea that couldn’t occur to me because I haven’t read any Beckett.)

*Of course he doesn’t¬†actually include listicles – but surely they belong.

This Week in Reading for My Classes: Starts and Stumbles

new-grub-streetThe next step after drawing up my plans for refreshing my reading lists was to get my hands on the books I’m interested in. This is easier for some courses than others. For instance, I already own copies of several of the Victorian novels I want to reread, and because I’m a regular customer, both Oxford University Press and Broadview Press are always very helpful about providing exam copies. As a result, I now have a nice TBR shelf of 19th-century titles, and I’m over half way through my reread of¬†New Grub Street–which at this point I think will probably¬†not end up displacing any of my usual titles, though more on that when I finish it.

It is always harder getting hold of books from “trade” publishers, who are stingy about exam copies: Penguin Random House, for example, charges for them–not full cover price, but still the costs could add up, and (oddly, I’ve always thought) there is no standard budget allocation for expenses of this kind. The obvious route is to get them from the library, but this is harder than you might think. I went through the list of writers I’d generated for my Women and Detective Fiction seminar and almost none of their books are held by any local library, public or university. The next step is submitting interlibrary loan requests (or “document delivery,” as it’s now called for some reason), which I will do, but this is slower and needs to be done thoughtfully so that I don’t get a dump of books all at once that have (as is often the case) brief lending periods with no option for renewal. This is one reason why this exercise is hard to do during a teaching term!

cutting-seasonA small handful of titles are more easily available, including Attica Locke’s¬†The Cutting Season, so I started with that because it had sounded like a promising option. It’s a decent enough novel but it sparked no excitement in me: it is slow moving and detailed in a way that made it seem drawn out rather than rich or textured, and in terms of innovations in or provocations about the genre, it didn’t seem to me to offer much. Next up, because it too is available locally, will be Rachel Howzell Hall’s¬†Land of Shadows; among other things, it’s a police procedural, which is actually a genre not well represented on my standard reading list for this course.

I thought the question of how to approach the standard British literature survey course would generate more discussion, either here or on Twitter, but nobody seems particularly interested in it! Maybe I’m missing something obvious, or maybe it’s such an intractable problem that nobody thinks they have a genuinely good solution to it. In any case, I was pretty happy with my bright idea of assigning¬†Small Island as one of the longer texts, because I thought that novel would help me redefine the questions the course addresses. However, it turns out the novel does not have distribution in Canada, so unless my bookstore is willing and able to use a US distributor (something that, as I recall, they have balked at in the past because of the expense and difficulty of returning unsold copies), I can’t use it. This kind of thing has happened before and it is always very frustrating to have pedagogical aspirations constrained for logistical reasons. I’ll be talking with our bookstore buyer this week, just to be sure what the options are, but it seems likely I’ll have to come up with another idea.

truegritI didn’t write a separate post about this because it’s a smaller scale project, but I’m teaching Pulp Fiction again this fall and with regret, I think I’m going to give up on¬†Valdez Is Coming. I thought it was eminently “teachable” (that indefinable quality!) but both times I taught it most of the students in the class did not seem to agree! I took¬†True Grit out of the library this week to review it and was quickly reminded why I had enjoyed it so much before. So I think I’ll just swap it in–an easy enough choice (provided, again, I can order it, which I guess I should not assume) but one that has spin-off implications for the way I had conceived of the course as organized around interrogations of masculinity. The sequence¬†Valdez Is Coming,¬†The Maltese Falcon, and then¬†Lord of Scoundrels made for some really good discussion (and assignment) threads about different ways to define “being a man,” from tough masculinity as heroic, to the damage that kind of identity can do, to Chase’s joyful demolition of it. Leading with¬†True Grit would start us down a different, if related, thematic path–less directly about men and more about women who challenge them and their patriarchal assumptions.¬†Lord of Scoundrels still seems like a good place to go, but this would be one more reason to replace¬†The Maltese Falcon with something else, such as¬†In a Lonely Place, which I also have on my shelf to reread.

It didn’t feel like a very productive week, given the setbacks and slowdowns I encountered, but writing this up I see that I did get a lot of necessary work done. Even a negative result such as “you can’t use this book because it’s not available”¬†is a result, after all.

Refreshing My Reading Lists III: Brit Lit Survey

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Refreshing My Reading Lists II: Women and Detective Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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