Reading and “Spots of Commonness”

Among our valued friends is there not some one or other who is a little too self-confident and disdainful; whose distinguished mind is a little spotted with commonness; who is a little pinched here and protuberant there with native prejudices; or whose better energies are liable to lapse down the wrong channel under the influence of transient solicitations? (George Eliot, Middlemarch)

My book club met on Sunday to discuss Nora Ephron’s Heartburn. We all basically really enjoyed it: we found it funny and sharp and yet also just serious and touching enough to be anchored in believably human feelings about the kind of deception and betrayal that not only ends a marriage but taints its happiest memories. Towards the end of the novel its narrator Rachel recalls being asked why she turns everything into a story:

So I told her why:

Because if I tell the story, I control the version.

Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me.

Because if I tell the story, it doesn’t hurt as much.

Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.

What a lot of truth about stories, about laughter, and about life is packed into those few lines!

I liked a lot of things about Heartburn: the laugh-out-loud comedy, the book’s clever plotting, the ring Mark gives Rachel that comes to symbolize her stolen and then freely relinquished relationship with him. “I love the ring,” Rachel says to the jeweler she sells it back to, “but it really doesn’t go with my life.” I especially liked the cooking. I too consider potatoes a comfort food–though I had never thought to connect potatoes with love quite the way Rachel does. (Her recipe for Potatoes Anna sounds particularly delicious, but it also sounds like more trouble than I’m ever likely to go to.)

There was one thing in the novel that I didn’t like. When Rachel’s friend Richard tells her that his wife Helen has fallen in love with another woman, Rachel figures it would be a mistake “for me to have introduced the word ‘dyke’ into the conversation,” but then Richard introduces it himself and they go back and forth about how you can “tell if someone’s a dyke” or whether “all women have tendencies of that sort.” It seemed to me as I read this section that it was a mistake for Ephron to have “introduced the word ‘dyke,'” and then to have kept on using it. I blame Ephron (not Rachel or Richard) for it because I don’t see any reason to read it as a “tell” of some kind about the characters: there’s no sense that this is a moment in which (as in one of Browning’s dramatic monologues, for instance) they give away more than they mean to about themselves; there’s no implicit narrative judgment, no distancing irony, no self-conscious scare-quotes, nothing that would make this other than what it sounds like, that is, the casual deployment of a homophobic slur by two characters we’re supposed to like.

Some members of my book club wondered if “dyke” would have been meant or heard as derogatory in 1983: if not, my negative reaction would be anachronistic. I was pretty sure it wasn’t, but I did poke around in a few sources that confirmed “dyke” was basically always an insult, though the term has of course also been reclaimed as a positive one–as in the “dykes vs. divas” softball game that is a well-known feature of Halifax’s annual Pride Festival. I don’t think Rachel and Richard are engaging in any such subversive recalibration of the word (and it wouldn’t be their business to do so in any case), and I don’t think Ephron is either. She just strikes a wrong note here–she betrays what George Eliot calls in Lydgate a “spot of commonness.”

This exchange takes up less than half a page in a scene that is fairly incidental to the novel as a whole. The insignificance of it by that measure got me thinking about cut-off points for my tolerance of this kind of–what should I call it? a failure? a blot? a slip? When or why do we shrug off something that we recognize as a lapse, something that signals a gap between our own values or standards and those on display in a book–and when or why do we find it too much to take? It sometimes feels as if we are in a particularly absolute phase right now in this respect. I’ve seen some recent books written off entirely by some readers for their insensitivity on a particular point–one example that comes to mind is Sally Thorne’s The Hating Game, which was roundly criticized for its characters’ fat-shaming. I’m not in any way suggesting the fat-shaming is OK; I’m wondering about how we decide the extent to which such a “spot of commonness” affects our judgment of the book as a whole. When do we say “it’s a good book except for X ” and when do we say “it just isn’t a good book because of X”?

The extremes are easy. Gone with the Wind, for instance, doesn’t just include a couple of incidentally offensive bits: as I wrote in my 2010 essay about it, the novel “endorses racism and romanticizes slavery.”  But so many books include but (arguably, at least) aren’t actually built on problematic views or attitudes: some examples in books or authors I generally like a lot include the anti-Catholicism in Villette, for example, or the occasional anti-Semitism in Georgette Heyer and Dorothy L. Sayers, or Dickens’s annoying tendency to either vilify or idealize women, or the racist caricature of Miss Swartz in Vanity Fair (here’s a thoughtful little piece by John Sutherland on Thackeray’s racism). One approach is to read every such “small” example as indicative of wider and cumulatively unforgivable systems of prejudice and oppression and condemn the books accordingly as complicit. I think that is true about the big picture but not very helpful about specific cases: symptoms of even the worst diseases can range from mild to severe, after all, and sometimes a book’s own moral energy can be part of what makes its moral failings stand out so urgently.

I expect we all handle moments of disappointment with a book in our own way: we all probably have our own particular issues on which we allow no compromise, as well as our own degrees of tolerance for “spots of commonness” in cases where (as Eliot intends with Lydgate) the good, in our estimation, outweighs the bad.  This means being clear-eyed about faults, not excusing or ignoring them, but also not letting them set the entire terms of our engagement. For me, the more I otherwise admire a book–the more I think it deserves and repays a thoughtful response–the more effort I’m willing to put into weighing the implications of its flaws. The risk, of course, is that I might end up making excuses for them, but we all also probably have books for which we are willing to take that risk because they mean so much to us and we want to do our best by them. I’m certainly not going to go to that kind of trouble with Heartburn: I mostly enjoyed it, I almost certainly won’t reread it, and that’s an end of it.

Posted in Ethical criticism, Nora Ephron | 10 Comments

Next Week In My Classes: Once More With Feeling

SnowyTreesWe’re hunkered down bracing for the big storm that is working its way up the Eastern seaboard. It isn’t clear yet whether Halifax will get much snow or mostly rain and freezing rain, but the biggest threat seems to be strong winds and thus power outages. Happily, the school board cancelled classes preemptively and classes at Dalhousie don’t start until Monday, so none of us has anywhere to go. [January 5 update: Our power went out almost as soon as I pressed ‘publish’ on this post and we just got it back. It got pretty cold in the house but otherwise we got off easy–and there was no measurable snow in Halifax at all, so no shoveling!]

I also don’t have much I have to do, as with the forecast in mind, I went in to campus the last couple of days and finished up most of my materials for the new term. My syllabi and Brightspace sites were already mostly done: I prefer to chip away at work over the break rather than have a big panic when it’s over and everything needs to be ready in a hurry. (I know this is contrary to the oft-heard advice to academics to take a “real” break, and I certainly understand the way our work’s porous boundaries can become debilitating, but this is what works best for me.)

So what lies ahead? I have just two courses again this term, and they are at opposite ends of our undergraduate curriculum, so that will keep me alert. I have taught them both before, but as always, I hope I can teach them better this time! One is Pulp Fiction, which I am offering for just the second time. I haven’t changed much since last year’s iteration: individual classes (as all teachers know) develop their own personalities and that can skew one’s sense of what readings, discussions, and assignments worked or didn’t work. That doesn’t mean I didn’t learn anything last time, of course, or that I haven’t changed anything at all.

cornellmethodOne specific innovation–a modest but, I hope, a valuable one–is that this year I am going to take some time to talk explicitly about note-taking strategies. Particularly for class meetings that are discussion based, I often get the sense that students do not know what to write down. Many clearly do not record anything at all, while those that think of themselves as conscientious note-takers often seem to be trying to transcribe every word. I’ve been reading up on the Cornell system and I think it’s easily adapted to the kinds of class sessions I typically run, so that’s what I’m going to focus on. Once I’ve gone over it, I will try to make it a common practice to take the last few minutes of a class to have students literally compare notes. (The image here is from the JMU website; many universities advocate or adapt this format.)

Another minor innovation is a new policy I’m experimenting with to help students who have a crush of overlapping deadlines. Pulp Fiction is a pretty big class (90 students) so it isn’t practical to be endlessly flexible about when our major assignments are due–plus ultimately it doesn’t help students to be stuck working on older material well after the class as a whole has moved on–but sometimes there are cases when a day or two would make a big difference to a student’s workload and stress level, so I thought I would try to formalize a way for them to ask for it. Under this new policy, students can request a penalty-free extension on a paper if they can show that they have another paper or a midterm due on the same day. (They already have options covering illness or other emergencies.) It’s an incremental change but one that I hope will be helpful for the students who need it while keeping things fair and transparent. There have always been students who have asked for extensions or chosen to accept a late penalty in this kind of situation, so this makes clear what principle will guide the process.

valdezThe overall structure of the course will be the same, though, as will the readings, which means I can draw on the notes I had to develop more or less from scratch last year. We’re starting with some general discussion about how and why “pulp” and “genre” fiction get differentiated from “literary” fiction. Then we’ll work through our examples of Westerns, mysteries, and romances, with Valdez Is ComingThe Maltese Falcon, and Lord of Scoundrels complemented by a selection of short fiction and, for Westerns, one poem (Sherman Alexie’s “My Heroes Have Never Been Cowboys”). The only one of the readings I really had second thoughts about was The Maltese Falcon, not because it wasn’t perfect for the course but because it is the only one of our three novels easy to cheat about. This year I will take that into account in the paper topics I assign about it. (Sadly, that means nobody gets to write about Brigid O’Shaughnessy as a femme fatale.)

broughtonMy other course is a 4th-year seminar on Victorian sensation fiction. I have taught it several times before but not recently–in fact, to my surprise, I realized I haven’t taught it since 2009! I have, of course, assigned a couple of the key texts we’ll be reading in it for other courses: I have often covered both The Woman in White and Lady Audley’s Secret in 19th-Century Fiction. Even The Woman in White hasn’t been on my syllabus since 2012, though. I started rereading it yesterday and I am really looking forward to discussing it with my students. I’ve never taught Ellen Wood’s East Lynne in any other course: it is such a strange novel! In previous versions of this course the fourth sensation novel on the reading list was Braddon’s Aurora Floyd, but I always thought it was less than ideal to have two novels by the same author, however different they are, so this year I have substituted Rhoda Broughton’s Cometh Up As a Flower. Yes, when I read it this summer I wasn’t entirely sold on it–but as is so often the case, it got more interesting as I read and thought about it, and it is refreshingly unlike the other three. I think it will provoke good discussion. We will wrap things up with Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith, one of my favorite novels and always a class favorite as well. There was a terrible time last summer when it looked as if we wouldn’t be able to find a Canadian distributor for it, but our diligent bookstore buyer found an available stash and it’s ordered and ready.

DALHOUSIE-UNIVERSITYIn many ways, I’m looking forward to the term. There are only two real sources of anxiety (besides the usual anticipatory stage fright). One is just that it’s winter, which always brings complications. The other is that it’s a bargaining year and negotiations between the administration and the faculty association seem to be dead ended. Last time around, they were right up against the strike deadline when a deal was finally reached, and it was very hard on everyone but especially the students. I’m not in the faculty association myself (technically I am appointed to the University of King’s College, an affiliated but independent and non-unionized institution). My classes are all Dalhousie classes, though, and if there is a strike we’d almost certainly all be locked out in any case. The parties are heading to conciliation: we can all hope things get sorted quickly and reasonably.

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“A Squalid Procession”: John Le Carré, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold


“What do you think spies are: priests, saints, and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors, too, yes . . .  . They don’t proselytise; they don’t stand in pulpits or on party platforms and tell us to fight for Peace or for God or whatever it is. They’re the poor sods who try to keep the preachers from blowing each other sky high.”

Remember when I said that you’d hear about it if I got really excited about another book before the end of the year? Well, here I am: all fired up about John Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold!

I’m very late to the Le Carré party, of course, though I’ve read a fair amount about Le Carré over the years; it was this excellent recent piece in the New York Review of Books that finally convinced me to try him for myself. As a result I knew, or thought I knew, more or less what the book’s atmosphere would be–cynical, murky, morally ambiguous–and, if very approximately, what its plot would be–lies, secrets, betrayals, morally compromising means to equivocal ends. I suspect that the (presumed) familiarity of the books was one reason I felt indifferent for so long to actually reading them.

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold lived up to my preconceptions: it is every bit as grim, every bit as grey, every bit as intricate as I expected. In its atmosphere, and in the nature (though not the specifics) of its plot, it did not surprise me at all. What did surprise me–precisely because I thought I knew so well what I was getting into–is how good it was. It’s not that I hadn’t heard that about Le Carré too, but lots of people praise and admire books I don’t end up gripped by: what Henry James called the “ultimate test”  (“‘liking’ a work of art or not liking it”) can only be administered personally, and the results are always unpredictable.

So that, for me, was the surprise: that The Spy Who Came In From the Cold not only passed that test for me but passed it so swiftly and so convincingly–and I’m told it is not even Le Carré’s best novel! I liked Leamas, tired, angry, but unbroken; I liked the cold and the darkness and the small rooms and the terse conversations; I liked (meaning I was appropriately chilled by) the ruthlessness the work requires, and I liked even more the novel’s running commentary, mostly implicit but sometimes out loud, about its human costs. “We have to live without sympathy, don’t we?” Control asks Leamas as he makes the opening moves in the game Leamas will end up playing to its bittersweet ending:

“That’s impossible of course. We act it to one another, all this hardness; but we aren’t like that really, I mean . . . one can’t be out in the cold all the time; one has to come in from the cold . . . d’you see what I mean?”

I liked Le Carré’s prose, which is economical but at the same time rich with evocative details and a strange sort of yearning:

There was a girl standing on the beach throwing bread to the seagulls. Her back was turned to him. The sea wind played with her long black hair and pulled at her coat, making an arc of her body, like a bow strung towards the sea. He knew what it was then that Liz had given him; the thing that he would have to go back and find if he ever got home to England: it was the caring about little things–the faith in ordinary life; the simplicity that made you break up a bit of bread into a paper bag, walk down to the beach, and throw it to the gulls. It was this respect for triviality which he had never been allowed to possess; whether it was bread for the seagulls or love, whatever it was he would go back and find it; he would make Liz find it for him. A week, two weeks perhaps, and he would be home.

I wasn’t sure I would find spy plots interesting: this is another reason I haven’t read Le Carré until now. In some ways the plot of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold was the least interesting aspect of the book for me: just as I read most mysteries without trying to figure out the murderer before I’m told, I didn’t exert myself much to anticipate the twists the story took. It was clear in practice what I already knew in theory: that Le Carré uses his plots as vehicles for character, and for their potential to explore moral problems, including (as he says in his introduction to my edition) “the same old question that we are asking ourselves fifty years later: How far can we go in the rightful defence of our Western values without abandoning them along the way?” “London won–that’s the point,” Leamas says near the end, refusing the hard, perhaps impossible, work of deciding whether the end justified the means. But he knows there is another way to do the calculation, that there are other measures of winning and losing, and that is surely why he makes his final decision to come in, once and for all, out of the cold.

Posted in Le Carré, John | 4 Comments

2017: My Year in Reading

The year isn’t quite over, but while things are quiet around here it seems like a good time to take stock of my year in reading. If a book gets me really fired up between now and New Year’s, believe me, you’ll hear about it!

Like 2016, 2017 included a fair amount of “assigned” reading, but (also as in 2016) this meant I discovered some titles and authors I would otherwise have missed. I’m most glad to have been introduced to Sarah Moss’s intense, cerebral historical fiction. I wrote about her novels Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost Children for Numero Cinq. I very much enjoyed Gillian Best’s The Last Wave, which I reviewed for Canadian Notes & Queries, and I found Adam Sternbergh’s “taut conceptual thriller” The Blinds both smart and engrossing.

Books of the Year

The highlight of my reading year was rereading the entirety of Dorothy Dunnett’s The Lymond Chronicles in preparation for the feature I wrote on them for the TLS. What a luxury it was to have an excuse to put everything else aside and immerse myself in them again–it was hard for anything else I read to compare! The essay is behind their paywall but if you want a sense of what I said you can listen to me talk about Dunnett on the TLS podcast, which (once I got over being nervous) was a lot of fun to be part of.

an-odyssey-coverThe best of my new reading this year was Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey, which I loved–and which has prompted me (very belatedly, I know) to secure a copy of The Odyssey to read in 2018. I so admire Mendelsohn’s gift for weaving together different narrative strands into a compelling and unified whole, something he also did in The Lost (which topped my “best of” list when I read it in 2009 and still holds its place as one of the best books I’ve ever read): while some writers who meander make me impatient, he always kept me engrossed as he worked through related ideas about family, pedagogy, journeys (real and metaphorical), and Homer’s epic itself.

Second best, though mostly because I haven’t finished it yet, was John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga. It took me a while to get drawn into The Man of Property but by the end I was thoroughly absorbed in and impressed by it; I really loved its immediate sequel, the novella Indian Summer of a Forsyte. One of my top reading goals for 2018 is to finish the next two novels.

Other Highlights

Katherena Vermette’s harrowing and thought-provoking The Break, which uses one terrible incident as a device to explore systemic problems that strain our capacity to imagine what achieving a just outcome would require.

Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone, an engrossing story about a family riven by mental illness that is also a meditation on whether it is possible to right the wrongs of the past–personally but also nationally.

Helen Simonson’s The Summer Before the War, which I found “rich in charm and humanity and, ultimately, pathos.”

Kathleen Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk, which I enjoyed for its own sake and because in her independence, wit, and love of language, Lillian reminded me of my grandmother.

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer , “a stinging satire, of American hypocrisy and self-delusion in particular but also of pomp and corruption and ideological posturing on all sides.”

Elizabeth Taylor’s A View of the Harbour, which is a subtle and sharp and meticulous portrait of a flagging community.

Two particularly good book club choices: Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes, both of which I thought were wonderfully sly and artful.

In the Middle

A number of books I read were fine but not as thrilling as I expected from the hype or my own previous experience with the author. I enjoyed but wasn’t bowled over by Ann Patchett’s  Commonwealthfor instance; Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing With Feathers was touching but too formally precious for my taste; Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread was vintage Tyler, which isn’t a bad thing but is also not an exciting thing; Marilynne Robinson’s much-lauded Housekeeping resonated with me much less than Gilead had; Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent was promising but, for me, never quite delivered. I started and didn’t finish a fair number of romance novels–but I found a few new ones that seem like keepers. My reading in that genre always seems a lot more hit or miss than in other genres; I think that may be a function of just how many there are to choose from.

Low Points

There really weren’t many this year, which is interesting in itself. I didn’t read anything that riled me up the way, say, Nutshell did last year; the worst books I read were mostly in the “meh” category. The one I liked least was The Stepford Wives, which I read with my book club: I wasn’t convinced it’s a satire about sexism rather than just underhandedly sexist, and even if it is satire, it’s pretty heavy-handed. For different reasons, maybe not good ones, I really struggled with Antonio Pennacchi’s The Mussolini Canal, even though, as I wrote in my post about it, it is great material.

Looking Ahead

Last December, flush from the success (at least from my perspective) of my first reading of Moby-Dick, I said 2017 might be the year I finally tried Ulysses. It wasn’t, but maybe 2018 will be. First, though, I’d like to read The Odyssey: I am woefully undereducated in the ancient classics, and between Mendelsohn’s new book and all the talk about Emily Wilson’s new translation I have been feeling the lack even more than usual. (I don’t have Wilson’s version: I traded a colleague in the Classics Department a nice Oxford edition of Middlemarch for his spare copy of the Fitzgerald translation. That’s fine with me: this one has stood the test of time, after all, and if I get really engaged, I can always follow up with Wilson’s and appreciate how untraditional it is.) As already mentioned, I’d also like to complete The Forsyte Saga. Otherwise, I have no particularly lofty goals: just a lot of books I’m looking forward to reading. I got a nice stack of them for Christmas, including Suzette Mayr’s Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall, Martin Seay’s The Mirror Thief, and The Spy Who Came In From the Cold–which I’ve already started and am liking a lot. I have a couple of ideas for the gift card I got to Bookmark, including Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach, but I should probably read more of what I already have before I decide what else I want! Nearest to hand, though, is Katherine Ashenburg’s Sofie and Cecilia, which I agreed to review for Quill & Quire–and the deadline is nearly upon me, so in the short term, that had better be my priority.

All in all, I think 2017 was a pretty good reading year: not as prolific as some, but steady and without catastrophes. And that’s just my not-for-classes reading: any year that also includes Bleak HouseCranford, and Middlemarch has got to count as a good one!

Posted in Year End | 1 Comment

Rereading, Nostalgia, and Genre: The Dark Is Rising

On a bit of a whim, I decided to join in with “The Dark Is Reading”: a mass reading of Susan Cooper’s fantasy classic The Dark Is Rising, originally published in 1973. I read The Dark Is Rising often as a child, along with the other books in the series, especially Over Sea, Under Stone and Greenwitch. I don’t have my original copies any longer, but (probably at my urging) my parents gave new copies to Owen for his 10th birthday in 2007. Sadly, I don’t think he ever read them; I found them on Maddie’s bookshelf, but I don’t think she has read them either. I never did quite learn the lesson that my children won’t necessarily share my taste! I’m certainly glad we still had them, though, if only for my own sake.

I hadn’t reread The Dark Is Rising in decades, and one interesting aspect of rereading it now was actually realizing how my own taste has changed–or perhaps it is more accurate to say how my reading habits have changed, as it isn’t that I didn’t like the book so much as I wasn’t quite at ease with its conventions and demands. In fact, I really loved some things about rereading it, starting with how immediately I remembered it. I couldn’t have told you the details of the plot, but as each event unfolded it was vividly familiar, as was the overall atmosphere of the book, which opens on Midwinter’s Eve and is full of wintry beauty and dread comingled. Cooper is really good at taking an ordinary landscape and imbuing it with magic, as when her hero, Will Stanton, looks out of his window to see his usual world transformed by snow:

In the first shining moment he saw the whole strange-familiar world, glistening white; the roofs of the outbuildings mounded into square towers of snow, and beyond them all the fields and hedges buried, merged into one great flat expanse, unbroken white to the horizon’s brim. . . .

His attention is briefly drawn away from the window by a flash of uncanny music; when it fades away, he looks out again and finds it has taken his world with it:

In that flash, everything had changed. The snow was there as it had been a moment before, but not piled now on roofs or stretching flat over lawns and fields. There were no roofs, there were no fields. There were only trees. Will was looking over a great white forest: a forest of massive trees, sturdy as towers and ancient as rock. . . . the only break in that white world of branches was away over to the south, where the Thames ran; he could see the bend in the river marked like a single stilled wave in this white ocean of forest, and the shape of it looked as though the river were wider than it should have been.

The book as a whole turns on such revelations of different worlds somehow coexisting, layered by time but not fixed in it, at least not to those who, like Will, belong to all times.

The Dark Is Rising is the story of Will’s discovery that he himself, like the landscape, is not as he has always seemed, and of the quest his uncovered identity as one of the “Old Ones” imposes on him as part of the ongoing struggle between the elemental forces of Dark and Light. There’s plenty of high drama and some epic confrontations, though I think Cooper does chills better than thrills: she excels at building up a sense of menace through small details, particularly as Will’s new awareness begins to separate him from his merrily innocent family.

Much as I liked revisiting Cooper’s evocative descriptions and enjoyed the familiarity of the story and characters, I found the plot itself somewhat unconvincing–the wrong standard, perhaps, for a fantasy novel, but at the same time, isn’t it a sign of successful fantasy that you give yourself over to it without puzzling over its coherence or internal logic? I don’t know if the mild dissatisfaction I ended up feeling is because I am out of practice at reading fantasy (which, like science fiction, is a genre I have almost never read as an adult) or if it’s because, for all its elegance, The Dark Is Rising is a children’s book, and thus a bit sparse on exposition. Is its world a fully realized one? When I began it, I was relieved not to be plunged into an info-dump of “world building,” but is it possible that’s what I was missing, by the end?

I do think my own recent reading habits account at least in part for my mild disenchantment. Every genre makes its own kind of demands and has its own conventions: my experience learning to read romance on its own terms taught me a broader lesson about that, and (closer to the point here, perhaps) so did my adaptation and then conversion to Buffy. In her very engaging Tolkien lecture Cooper gives a good primer on how fantasy works; her emphasis on its elements as vehicles for more universal ideas and conflicts makes a lot of sense, but it’s just not how I usually read now, or that’s not how the books I currently like best work. It’s interesting to me, though, that I didn’t have or need this kind of conceptual apparatus to enjoy The Dark Is Rising as a child, and in fact I don’t recall ever thinking much about genre as a classifier or about the possible need to read different kinds of books differently–I just read what I liked, which at the time included not just Cooper but Tolkien and Anne McCaffrey alongside historical fiction, mysteries, and everything else.

I never consciously decided not to keep reading fantasy; it just fell away. I think I began (however unfairly) to associate its overt inventiveness–its dragons and sorcerers and improbable made-up worlds–with a kind of childishness, like fairy tales, and never made the further connection that, also like fairy tales, such stories might be a means to deeper ends. Understanding better how a genre works doesn’t of course, mean admiring  or enjoying every example. What I came to love about Buffy is how rich the characterizations are, and how well so much of the story-telling develops them even as (at its best) it explores ideas about good and evil. So far, I haven’t been tempted to try most of the other shows Netflix now recommends for me because I’ve watched Buffy so much: it’s not the genre in general that I have embraced, it’s the specific show. Interesting as I found Cooper’s lecture, and much as I enjoyed some aspects of The Dark Is Rising, I’m not currently inspired to go on a fantasy-reading binge either. For me, the book was most powerful in its nostalgia: it reminded me of the reader I once was, but it didn’t really inspire the reader I now am.

Posted in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, genre fiction, Susan Cooper | 1 Comment

This Term In My Classes: A Recap and Some Reflections

It’s all done: final essays have been returned, final exams are marked, Excel has worked its (carefully supervised) magic, and I’ve submitted my final grades for Fall 2017. As usual, it’s a relief and also an anti-climax, as one of the first things that happens after you click the button to “approve grades” for one term is that you start thinking about what needs to be done in preparation for the next term!

Still, it’s the in-between time now, and that means I can stop and breathe and think for a bit, including about what went well in my fall courses and what didn’t, and what I might be able to do about it next time around. My winter term courses are quite different from my fall ones in both size and objectives, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing I can carry forward to them, and then next fall I’m teaching 19th-Century Fiction again (though the Dickens to Hardy version), so it’s worth contemplating whether things there are working the way they should.

My first thoughts, though, are about Close Reading, which I am not teaching next year, and which frankly I rather hope I don’t have to teach again, at least for a while. It’s not that I don’t believe it’s a valuable course. In some respects I believe it is the most useful one I teach: that is certainly what many students over the years have reported–though, and this matters, they often reach this conclusion after they’ve completed it, when they discover ways that the close attention we paid to textual details pays off in their work for other courses. I am also still satisfied with the conceptual framework I developed for it, which emphasizes both the literary and the ethical implications of an author’s choices. We’re always trying to get at the difference it makes to say things one way rather than another–or to say one thing rather than another thing. This can mean minute attention to individual words, brainstorming about the political dimensions of a particular organizing metaphor, or discussions about the implications of writing in first-person or third-person, just for example. These discussions can get really interesting!

It seemed harder than usual to carry the class along with me this year, though, especially when we were working through Middlemarch: though I know at least a few students were deeply engaged with it (one even described her experience of reading it as “life-changing”), a lot of them at least gave the impression that it was an unwelcome chore. I have taught Middlemarch a lot over the years, and there is always some resistance, even some resentment, about it: I’m used to that, and generally just carry on. My impression that it was worse this time may be mistaken: I might have been projecting my own anxiety or defensiveness about assigning it onto the students, who may actually have been fine with it–but that it was so hard for me to tell how they were doing became its own source of stress, which led to various forms of  overcompensation, including lecturing too much because discussion seemed to be flagging. I still think Middlemarch is a great text to use for a course with these purposes, but it is also true that students signing up for Close Reading have not self-selected for reading long Victorian novels the way students in 19th-Century Fiction have. If I ever do teach the course again, I might reconsider.

Having said that, I have to acknowledge that discussion flagged a fair bit in 19th-Century Fiction this term too, especially towards the end of term. I know I am not the only one in my department who thinks that our inordinately long fall break made things worse instead of better: students did not come back refreshed and invigorated but rather seemed deflated, and the time remaining seemed very short and hectic. I blame myself, though, for not having taken action earlier to break what eventually became a fixed pattern of limited participation. I had unusually lively groups last year in both of my Victorian classes, and that made me overly sanguine about just letting things take their course without deliberate strategies (simple stuff, like pair-and-share exercises or break-out group discussions) to make sure more people were actively involved. When I finally did do some of that, it was really too late to change the overall classroom dynamic. Once or twice, I also let my frustration show, and that is never a good idea! After all, who wants to speak up when the prof is visibly cranky? Next fall I will intervene earlier (and more cheerfully) if it starts to seem that a handful of students are going to carry everyone else.

Who knows: that might be a lesson I’ll need to apply sooner than next fall! I’m teaching Victorian Sensations this coming winter term, and a seminar is even more dependent on widespread participation. There will be a lot of familiar faces in it, for me and thus presumably also for them, so I hope that makes everyone more comfortable about pitching in. The readings are such a lot of fun that surely everyone will want to jump in! But you never know. I’m teaching Pulp Fiction again next term and last year I expected a lot of discussion given the provocative and highly entertaining readings I’d chosen for that class–but no matter what tricks I tried it felt like pulling teeth to get students to speak up. Was it me? Was it them? It was both, probably: there’s always that mysterious alchemy that gives every class its own personality. I so hope that this year’s group gets a bit more excited!

Something else I’ve been thinking about (and again it is very hard to know if my impression of what was going on reflects what was really happening) is that this year students seemed to struggle more than usual to keep up with the readings. I also had an unusually high proportion of students just struggling this term, one consequence of which is that I will have an unprecedented number of assignments coming in next month from students who were unable to complete their courses on schedule. The university has protocols for these situations and of course I’m happy to support students who need them; it’s just striking how many more there were than usual. Primary duties of empathy aside, the increase in these cases raises administrative challenges for me: I already realized this term that I need a more formal system to track accommodation requests, as there are many more of them than there used to be (and thus more forms to fill out and more exams to drop off early and pick up again), and I’ll also need a better plan than usual to follow up on this unfinished work.

I mentioned before that it seemed like kind of a difficult term; this post dwells on the reasons why. I don’t want to leave the wrong impression, though. A lot of the time classes clearly went well, or at least just fine, and despite my own nagging concerns during the term I’ve had some very generous feedback from students since classes ended, which is always encouraging as well as a salutary reminder of something a frequent reader of Middlemarch should hardly need to be told: things often look quite different from someone else’s perspective.

Posted in This Week In My Classes | 2 Comments

The Sincerest Form of Flattery: Samantha Silva, Mr. Dickens and His Carol

Dickens’s A Christmas Carol was first published on this day in 1843, so it seems like an apt time to say a little about Samantha Silva’s homage to that holiday classic, Mr. Dickens and His Carol. I actually read Silva’s novel with the intent to review it more formally, but two different plans for that fell through. Frankly, I was relieved both times, because I didn’t–don’t–have that much to say about the novel! It’s inoffensive. It’s moderately diverting. It’s a nice idea. You should reread A Christmas Carol instead.

The thing is, they called Dickens “The Inimitable” for a reason. Love him or hate him, he’s a writer who absolutely revels in what words can do, and who takes risks and leaps with them, who frolics and freaks out with them, who tries every trick he can think of to make us laugh and tremble and cry with them. His is an aesthetic of excess, of extravagance, both structurally and emotionally, and I know plenty of readers who get impatient with it, or worse. I myself am actually a late convert–and there’s still plenty of Dickens I haven’t read–but I’ve come to cherish him for just that sense that he’s absolutely throwing himself into his writing, giving it, and thus giving us, everything he’s got. As I wrote a few years ago, when David Copperfield saved me from a reading slump, “his books radiate delight in words and stories and imagination.” It can be intoxicating.

Nothing about Mr. Dickens and His Carol is intoxicating. It’s a perfectly fine story in which the writing of A Christmas Carol itself becomes the means of saving both Dickens and Christmas. Inevitably, Silva’s writing is pedestrian by comparison with her predecessor’s. When at long last the redemptive tale is written and then read aloud to the rapturous delight of Dickens’s audience,

Dickens bowed, long and low. His heart was thundering inside him, too, louder than all the clapping, which seemed not to subside at all. He needed the moment. It was as if he’d come to the crest of a great mountain peak and, though panting and spent, could see all the world. And how vivid a view. Even the Turkish carpet under his feet was every color imaginable, an alchemy of alum, copper, and chrome mied with madder root, indigo, poppy, and sage. What magic there was all around him. Words were inadequate, but all he had. He didn’t know where they came from or why, but it was how we told one another what the world was and might be. Who we were, and might become. It was the only magic he had. Everything else was faith.

Fair enough. But here’s an example of the real magic he had:

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and on his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperatures always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, nor wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purposes, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. . . .

I could go on–Dickens certainly does (“and on and on and on,” I imagine the nay-sayers muttering)–but I’m sure you already see the difference. One writer is competently telling a story; the other is having a grand old time. “I know that of late I’ve pitied myself a poor man,” says Silva’s Dickens to his long-suffering wife Catherine,

–poor in love, in riches, in prospects. But I’ve learned, in these days of your absence . . . that whatever I suffered was a poverty of my own vision.

“I will honour Christmas in my heart,” exclaims Dickens’s redeemed miser,

and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!

And then discovering he does indeed have a precious second chance, he is “checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had every heard”:

Clash, clang, hammer, ding, dong, bell. Bell, dong, ding, hammer, clang, clash! Oh, glorious, glorious!

Running to his window, he opened it, and put out his head. No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious. Glorious!

Only one of the two novels feels like a revelation.

It is of course not fair to insist that someone writing about Dickens should try to write like Dickens. The results would probably be pretty awful, actually, so Silva was almost certainly wise just to write her own novel in her own way. I don’t think it’s unreasonable, though, to expect that a novel so heavily invested in another writer’s work will engage with it in some transformative way: even if that endeavor too is likely to fail (or at any rate I don’t know of many great examples, and I can think of some really dreadful ones) at least the attempt will be more interesting–and I just didn’t find Mr. Dickens and His Carol particularly interesting. There are aspects I would have tried to make more sense of for a more formal review, such as how consistent it is to make the story of Dickens’s Christmas redemption turn as much on the commercial success of his new book as on any spiritual revelation–but I don’t think much would really have come of that exercise.

On its own terms, though (and I honestly don’t mean to be damning it with faint praise) Mr. Dickens and His Carol is readable and kind of charming, and it has stretches of prose that, if not truly Dickensian, are still wonderfully tactile and evocative:

The night was an embroidery of stars on a taffeta sky so blue it bled all the black away. No more drab-colored December fringed with fog. The even of Christmas week burst into the world, clear and dry, the streets one continuous blaze of ornament and show. . . . Shops sat in their best trim under bright gaslights turned all the way up, with evergreen plumage four stories high, like a great forest canopy. There were great pyramids of currants and raisins; brown russet apples and golden bobs, Ribston Pippins and huge winter pears; towers of jams, jellies, and bonbons; solid walls of sardines, potted meats, bottled pickles, drummed figs. . . . Over grappling horses’ hooves, roaring drivers, and chaffering dealers, rose the harmonies of an oboe, French horn, and flute, warbling a pastoral Christmas tune.

All of London seemed set upon suffering gladly a sprinkle of brotherly this and that, but cheer most of all.

And the novel is sometimes even touching, as Dickens struggles through his writing slump and emerges–thanks to some visitations of his own and some hard-won insights into his own life–renewed and filled with the spirit of Christmas: “He turned his face to the star-kissed winter sky, from which tiny, glittering snowflakes began to fall. He couldn’t have been happier had he been transported to Paradise.” Silva says in her Author’s Note that “the book is, most of all, a fan letter”–and the sincerity of her appreciation for Dickens and his brilliant little Christmas ornament of a book is palpable and more than a little heartwarming.

Posted in Christmas, Dickens, Charles, Samantha Silva | Leave a comment