New Reviews and “Right” Reviewers

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Launch day never comes but what I am surprised at what we’ve pulled off, thanks to the talent, perseverance, and generosity of our contributors and the diligence, enthusiasm, and contributions of our editors! Our May issue seems to me to exemplify what we want Open Letters to be. It covers a wide range of material — I think there’s greater variety in the titles we cover than in most other literary magazines, online or otherwise — and in a range of voices. Have you ever looked at our “About” page? Here’s what the wise heads that set up Open Letters in the first place came up with as our “mission statement”:

We’ve all had the experience of reading a review that sparkled—one that combined an informed, accessible examination of its quarry with gamesome, intelligent, and even funny commentary. These are the pieces we tell our friends about and then vigorously debate.

That’s the kind of writing you’ll find in this month’s issue, so hop on over and take a look! Among its goodies you’ll find a thoughtful exploration of Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge by friend-of-Novel-Readings Colleen Shea (a.k.a. the esteemed proprietress of Jam and Idleness); an exuberantly insightful commentary on a new edition of Birds of America by the inimitable Steve Donoghue; a provocative critique of Tea Obreht’s critically-acclaimed The Tiger’s Wife; and much more.

atkinson1My own contribution this month is a review of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, which has also been receiving  a fair share of critical acclaim. You’ll have to read my review to find out if I’m joining in the chorus. I will say that the book is extremely readable, and that writing the review was good mental exercise, especially once I decided on how I wanted to structure it.

While I was working on it, a conversation broke out on Twitter about the question of what makes someone a good fit to review a particular book. OK, I started it — well, technically Mark Sarvas started it by noting he thought a particular reviewer was a “terrible choice” for a particular assignment. Happily, I pretty much “assign” my own books to review, but I puzzle over how to make good choices for myself, so I asked what he thought the parameters were. He proposed avoiding cases of “outright conflict,” cases where there’s a specific “axe to grind.” I proposed someone who could be expected to have a good conversation with the book . Gregory Cowles of the NYTBR chimed in (Twitter is fun that way) to suggest “open engagement” as the key.

As I said in that exchange, I seek out books to review that I expect to like, by which I mean books by writers I have some reason to trust, and/or on topics and/or in genres that are within my usual range of interests. This is not to say that my default plan is a good review (in fact, I try not to think in terms of “good” or “bad” reviews). I just figure that way I have the best shot of appreciating what the book does well but also recognizing what, according to my reading experience, it doesn’t do well. To keep going with the conversational metaphor, there’s no point trying to have a lengthy discussion with someone whose language you don’t speak at all. If I were a full-time professional book reviewer, such discrimination would presumably be a luxury. Sometimes when I’m paging through catalogs not finding any “likely candidates” for my next review, I hope I’m not being some kind of prima donna, or  (worse?) that I’m not being intellectually unadventurous. But who would want to read my attempt to review something like Revenge? Or, to go even further outside my normal literary habitat, Richard Hell’s autobiography, reviewed with great panache in this issue by Steve Danziger? Much better to leave these books to readers who get them.

Besides, in a way all contemporary fiction is an adventure for me, since my official expertise is entirely elsewhere. I’ve certainly found plenty to grapple with in the recent books I have reviewed, from The Marriage Plot to Two-Part Inventions. (Whether I’ve acquired expertise, or at least relevant experience, by writing about contemporary fiction on my blog is another question, not entirely unrelated, I suppose!) Mark’s question was timely in part because I was wondering if I was a good choice to review Life After Life. Reviews were coming out all around me as I worked (I managed not to actually read any of them until I had a complete, committed draft of my own!) — Francine Prose’s came out in the New York Times just this past weekend, too. Clearly someone there thought she was a good fit, and I can see why. Every reviewer who acts in “good faith,” though (to call on another of Mark’s Twitter comments) brings something fresh to the conversation. It’s possible, too, especially reading the major literary reviews, to feel as if there’s all too much insider trading (have you heard the joke about the New York Review of Books — that its real name is The New York Review of Each Other’s Books?). I think my review stands up well to Prose’s. (Mind you, she, poor woman, was probably given a word limit.)

What do you think makes someone a good fit for a particular review? Proximity or distance? Expertise or an unexpected angle? Or will you take any of these provided the conversation itself is good enough? These questions are relevant to me not just as a writer but as an editor, after all.

Also, in case you wondered, the next book I’m reviewing is Deirdre David’s biography of Olivia Manning. I think I’m a good fit: I know David’s work as a Victorianist, of course, and I’ve read both trilogies in Manning’s The Fortunes of War, and I know a lot more about early 20th-century women writers than I used to because of my reading in the ‘Somerville’ set. So far it’s entirely fascinating.

2012: My Year in Writing

cassatI began my annual look back at 2012 with my small contribution to the Open Letters year-end feature. I’ll follow up soon with my regular survey of highs and lows from my reading and blogging year. But this year I thought I’d also take a moment to review the writing I’ve done this year for venues besides Novel Readings.

Most of it was for Open Letters Monthly, of course, and I continue to be grateful for the opportunity to write about whatever interests me, as well as for the challenges to write about things I might not otherwise tackle. Also, as I always tell new or prospective contributors, the editing process at OLM is one to cherish: we bring different interests and sensibilities and styles to bear on every piece, but always in the interests of making it the strongest version of itself that we can collectively manage, and I know that my pieces always end up better than they began.

My first OLM piece in 2012 was “The Quiet One: Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.” I think this is a wonderful novel – more artful, in many ways, than Jane Eyre, if without its visceral appeal. I teach it regularly and the more time I spend on it, the more I admire the unity and integrity of Anne Brontë’s accomplishment. It was a treat to write this up: it’s basically a much-elaborated version of the notes I use for lecture and class discussion.

The scariest piece I wrote in 2012 was “Abandonment, Richness, Surprise: The Criticism of Virginia Woolf,” which was my contribution to our special 5th anniversary issue. I was not initially enthusiastic about doing an entire issue on criticism, and I wasn’t at all sure I had what it took to say anything at all about Woolf as an essayist. On the first count, I was completely converted as the pieces came in. Sam Sacks on Frank Kermode, Greg Waldmann on Edmund Wilson, Steve Donoghue on Elizabeth Hardwick, John Cotter on Gore Vidal … the project brought out the best in our writers as they spoke from the heart about the people who showed them what criticism could be. As for my own piece, the faint edge of desperation I brought to the task unexpectedly gave me courage to get more outside my own head than I’m usually able to do and to write with a freedom I rarely feel. This is the 2012 publication I’m most proud of, precisely because it’s a bit riskier in voice and approach than any of the others.

The most fun piece to write, on the other hand, was definitely “All the World to Nothing: Richard III, Gender, and Genre.” As I confess in the essay, I’ve been a “Ricardian” for many years but I hadn’t found a place for that somewhat esoteric interest in my working or writing life before. Yet as I thought about the elements I wanted to include in the essay, I realized that a lot of the work I’ve done as an academic has grown out of my early passion for historical fiction, while a lot of my conceptual thinking about gender and historiography finds apt illustration in the tale of the last Yorkist king and his mostly female advocates. I have a feeling that not a lot of readers followed me down the slightly wandering path I took, but I hope those who did shared in my last gleeful “ha!” They will also understand the great excitement I have felt as this news story unfolds.

I wrote two essays on George Eliot this year, stages in a still somewhat indefinite longer project about her thought and her novels and what they might mean for us today. In the first of them, “Macaroni and Cheese: the Failure of George Eliot’s Romola”, I bypassed the essay I initially thought of writing, in which I made a case (as I did a couple of years ago for Felix Holt, the Radical) that the novel is better than is usually thought, and chose instead to think about the ways in which the novel is every bit as bad as it seems. I know that fear of failure holds me back: I find George Eliot’s failures inspiring because they teach me about reach and ambition and intellectual courage. That said, Romola actually is a fascinating and occasionally thrilling novel, so if you’ve already made your way through the others, don’t be put off by all this talk of failure!

Also for Open Letters, I reviewed The Life of George Eliot, by Nancy Henry (in our ‘annex,’ Open Letters Weekly) and Lynn Sharon Schwartz’s newest novel  Two-Part Inventions. Henry’s biography is smart, thorough, and yet somehow not as exhilarating as a life of George Eliot deserves to be, perhaps because it is that odd hybrid, a ‘critical biography.’ Still, it’s miles and miles better than Brenda Maddox’s abysmal George Eliot in Love. Schwartz is the author of two novels I admire enormously–Disturbances in the Field and Leaving Brooklyn–but I wasn’t inspired by Two-Part Inventions mostly because it seemed to me that Schwartz wasn’t either.

The second of my George Eliot essays this year, “‘Look No More Backward’: George Eliot’s Silas Marner and Atheism,” appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books (and then, rather to my surprise, in Salon). As the essay was in progress, I had second thoughts about the ‘New Atheist’ hook I’d proposed for it when I pitched it, but that is how I’d pitched it and (understandably) that’s what they wanted me to stick with, so I did. It’s not that I don’t believe what I said, but as I’d feared, that set-up was a distraction for some readers, who seem (at least from the posted comments) not to have persisted as far as my reading of Silas Marner. I have argued before that we could do worse than look to George Eliot for ideas about how to be both godless and good and this was a good experiment in making that argument in more detail and taking it to a wider public, while still doing the kind of close reading that I hope might be seen as my trademark when (if) people think of me as a critic. I have yet to muster enough courage to write a sustained essay on Middlemarch, but when I do, it may well build on this foundation.

Finally, I published one essay in a conventional academic journal this year, though somewhat ironically (given that my non-academic publishing was almost all in my supposed areas of specialization) it’s about blogging: “Scholarship 2.0: Blogging and/as Academic Practice” appeared in the Journal of Victorian Culture. This paper grew out of the conference presentation I gave at the British Association of Victorian Studies conference last summer. It was supposed to be made open access but there seems to be a hitch with the publishers: anyone denied access who wants a copy can just let me know.

So: that’s six essays and two book reviews in 2012, which is not bad for someone who has been told her ‘publication record is spotty‘! And that’s not taking into account any of my writing here on the blog, much less any of the writing I do as a matter of course for work, from lecture notes to handouts to evaluations to memos to letters. Of course, none of the writing in those last five categories really feels like writing, though it’s easy to underestimate how much creativity and ingenuity it calls for. There were some definite highlights in my blogging year, and I’ll be looking back at those in my next post. I love the complete freedom of blogging–freedom from deadlines and other external requirements, and freedom to say what’s on my mind without second-guessing myself too much. However, one of my goals for 2013 is to keep up a good pace of essays and reviews outside Novel Readings, because I still find writing for other people intimidating (and yes, I know, other people read my blog, but it feels very much like my space, so it’s just different, however irrationally). In addition to writing for Open Letters, I might have another go at pitching a piece somewhere else, just to keep pushing my boundaries. But what, and where? (Ideas welcome….) I find I’m still quite clueless about this process, and I hardly know if I’m more nervous about a pitch being turned down or accepted, but that’s just the kind of anxiety I need to get past. Maybe 2013 will be the year I figure out how to just write, without so much agonizing. On the other hand, isn’t agonizing part of what defines writing?

This Week In My Classes: So Much To Do! Also, a New OLM!

It’s the time of term when I really just have to focus on doing one thing at a time: if I contemplate the big picture, it’s overwhelming. The truth is, everything does not in fact need to get done in a hurry or come due at once, but the constant appearance of more items on the ‘to do’ list creates that impression–and thus generates panic–if I’m not careful. Requests for reference letters are streaming in, for instance, and just fielding the inquiries and receiving and collating the documents and forms is a lot of virtual paper-pushing, but the deadlines are in fact spread out between now and January or later, so I have to be careful not to put these nice finite tasks ahead of more amorphous ones that are actually more urgent, if less defined. I do have one extraordinary event coming up next week, a Ph.D. defense (I’m the supervisor): it is not optimum to do these in the middle of term, but that’s how it’s happened, so by next Friday I need to review a 450-page thesis. Given just how important an event this is for the student and our graduate program, more routine business may have to get set aside–marking, for example. Nobody will suffer anything worse than a little suspense if the papers and responses currently awaiting my evaluation take a bit longer than usual to come back.

Routine business goes on, though, in all three of my courses. In Introduction to Literature, we’ve started our short fiction unit, which wraps up the basic ‘introduction to genres’ I’ve been focusing on this term. Next term we revisit all the genres but, as I said to my class today, from a position of strength! We won’t be beginners any more, so we will read longer texts as well as texts in thematic clusters that provoke different kinds of conversations than the ones we’ve been having. My expectations will go up, and they will have a larger role in presenting and analyzing the readings, including, I think, more collaborative group work. I’m really pleased with the good will and hard work I’m seeing from the students in this class so far. I know that they are feeling a lot of pressure at this point in the term too, but they’re hanging in there, and, I hope, feeling that at least in my class they are clear about what the expectations are and supported in meeting them.

In Mystery and Detective Fiction, we’re reading The Terrorists. It really is a superbly interesting and provocative book. Today’s focus was on the plural form of the title, and how the presentation of the different acts of violence and coercion in the novel challenge us to think about innocence and guilt, about motives and justifications, about not “whodunit” but about why. The two convicted murderers in the novel are both people for whom we feel a great deal of sympathy, while their victims hardly seem to deserve the protection of the state. Next class, when everyone has finished the whole book, we’re going to discuss our standard questions about the conclusion — is justice served? on whose terms? what does the novel present to us as a ‘just’ outcome, and how closely does that track what the law declares to be right or wrong? — and then I’m going to open up the discussion further to look back across our earlier readings and start trying to do some more comparative and synthesizing analysis, because whether they write the final exam or do the optional paper, they are going to have to reach a bit more than we’ve been doing on our assignments so far.

In The Somerville Novelists we are moving into the controlled chaos zone of planning the collaborative wiki project. It is a delicate balancing act for me. I need to avoid dictating exactly what I think will work and how I think they should do it (something I know some of them would prefer) but at the same time provide enough guidance and insight that they can make the best use of their time and resources. They’ve been doing some planning on their own, but we met as a class today and I think that it was just in time in some ways, because I realized that there was a risk of their thinking being a bit too narrow, a bit too zoomed in on the particular texts they’re working on, so that the larger framing issues the course aims to address were not part of the conversations they were having and thus not part of the plans they were making–issues like canonicity, for instance, or relationships between gender and genre. I had a chance to make this point today, I hope in a constructive way, and we will return to the discussion and to the planning process on Wednesday. I need to step back soon and let them build their wiki sections, but it’s really important that they not rush to formalizing the structure of their projects before we’ve worked out the conceptual issues better. In order to maintain the momentum of today’s conversation, I’m postponing Wednesday’s planned session on “Pecha Kucha,” which is actually a bit of a relief: I have been working industriously on my sample presentation and would have been ready for Wednesday, but I’ll be better rehearsed on Friday.

In other news, in case you missed the Twitter and Facebook announcements, there’s a beautiful new issue of Open Letters Monthly up, including what will almost certainly be my final OLM contribution for 2012: my review of Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s new novel Two-Part Inventions. I was so sorry not to be more enthusiastic about it, as her novel Disturbances in the Field is one of my all-time favorites. I wrote about it briefly here, and I wrote at length here also about my great admiration for Leaving Brooklyn. During the editing process, one of my co-editors asked if my review was an implicit response to the recent brou-ha-ha about critics being “too nice.” It certainly was not–at any rate, I did not set out to be not nice, and I hope the review does not come across as anything but what I believe it to be, which is honest and thoughtful. In his “Critic’s Manifesto,” Daniel Mendelsohn proposed that “The intelligent negative review … does its own kind of honor to artists: serious artists, in my experience, want only to be reviewed intelligently, rather than showered with vacuous raves—not least, because serious artists learn from serious reviews.” I agree that taking a work seriously is a way of honoring it and its author, and in this case (as with my review of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot) I tried to write an “intelligent negative review.” It’s not the kind of reviewing that gets a lot of attention: it’s no good at all as link-bait, compared to the outrageous pan or the “vacuous rave”–but it’s hard work and I think does more service to readers and writers than either of the more extreme alternatives.

Blogging is Detrimental to Literature? Make Him Stop Saying That!

Just when you thought maybe, just maybe, the worst was over when it came to casually dismissive generalizations about blogging–you know, of the kind that used to get us all riled up way back in 2008, and that still irked us in 2010–we get this, from the editor of the TLS:

The rise of blogging has proved particularly worrying, [Stothard] says. “Eventually that will be to the detriment of literature. It will be bad for readers; as much as one would like to think that many bloggers [sic] opinions are as good as others. It just ain’t so. People will be encouraged to buy and read books that are no good, the good will be overwhelmed, and we’ll be worse off. There are some important issues here.”

Yes, that’s right: he’s worried that if readers stop tagging along after the “traditional, confident” critics who occupy the literary high ground, they will end up (lemmings that they are) following bloggers over the cliff into the slough of mediocrity, and then they will be worse off! He’s right: there are some important issues here. They just aren’t quite the ones he’s talking about…

Is there really no way we can put an end to this kind of pompous and insulting pronouncement? Can’t we flood the comments with links to book blogs that inspire and excite us as readers and do more than the TLS ever does to bring us to books we would otherwise not discover? Can’t we explain that the world of  “traditional, confident” criticism often seems hopelessly circular and self-referential–that it can only be good for literature to have a variety of voices and perspectives and tastes in play? Can’t we remind him that people have always bought books that others thought were “no good,” and that the process of sorting and judging is always a fraught one? Can’t we get across the basic point that blogging is a form that can hold as great a variety of content as a newspaper (imagine dismissing the TLS because of the existence of the Sun or the Mirror) and that the problem continues to be one of filtering–a problem the TLS could help with by actually reading a wide range of bloggers and encouraging (maybe even engaging with!) those that offer the most informed and provocative and original commentary? Can’t we … Oh, never mind. It’s hopeless.

But actually, no it’s not. Here’s Daniel Mendelsohn,  in his recent ‘Critic’s Manifesto,’ discussing how the “the advent of the Internet [has] transformed our thinking about reviewing and criticism in particular”: “First, there has been the explosion of criticism and reviews by ordinary readers, in forums ranging from the simple rating (by means of stars, or whatever) of books on sites such as Amazon.com to serious longform review-essays by deeply committed lit bloggers.” It’s true he sees this in terms of “ordinary readers” finally going public, not as his having discovered critical peers online, but he certainly acknowledges that there’s more to blogging than seems to be dreamt of in Stothard’s philosophy: he even gives the impression that he might actually have read some book blogs (and not just those run under the aegis of “traditional, confident” publications). Mind you, Mendelsohn (surely someone whose opinion is worth something even to Stothard) has been making more carefully qualified statements like this for years: apparently Peter Stothard doesn’t listen to him either. So, maybe it is hopeless–for Sir Peter.

And for the rest of us? Well, I’m not worried. We’ll just keep reading and writing, and somehow I’m confident nobody will be worse off because of it.

The Worth of Our Work (with Some Thoughts on Jonah Lehrer)

Alas, alas!
This hurts most, this . . that, after all, we are paid
The worth of our work, perhaps.

— Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh

The very smart and funny Adam Roberts has decided to put an end to his blog Punkadiddle. Iif you haven’t already had the pleasure, you should check out the archives – I particularly enjoyed his skewering of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, especially this one, which starts hilarious and ends profound (that reminds me–time for a tea break!). As a Victorianist, though, I found posts like this one of the greatest value to my own thinking.

It’s understandable that Adam would decide to close up shop in one venue when, as he says, his time and energy are needed elsewhere. Blogging consistently (by which I mean not just posting regularly but staying involved with comments and generally maintaining a site that reflects genuine engagement with its subject and with other readers and writers) does take a lot of time and energy, and people’s interests and priorities change over time. As a result blogs ebb and flow, and come and go. The Valve, where both Adam and I were contributors, ran out of steam a while back, and that was a group effort, which in theory should be easier to keep invigorated. I’ll miss following Adam’s work at Punkadiddle, but I’ll look forward to keeping up with it in other venues.

One part of Adam’s farewell post really made me think:

Once upon a time writers were paid in money, but now writers are paid (in the first instance at any rate) in eyeballs, which may or may not at a later stage, underpants-gnomically, turn into money.  Part of this new logic is that the writer ought to be grateful simply to have the attention of those eyeballs.  I’m as deep into this new economy as anybody, of course; I read many thousands of fresh new words, free, online every day.  But I wonder if it doesn’t have more downsides than ups.  Take the material contained in the archives of this blog.  If the sort of thing I write is worth paying for then I’m a mug to give it away for free; and if it isn’t worth paying for (of course a great deal of online writing isn’t) then I’m wasting everyone’s time, including my own, carrying on.

As a number of comments on his post have noted, it’s tricky to measure the worth of a blog monetarily: for many bloggers, the chief attractions of the form are the intrinsic pleasures of the writing itself and of the conversation that it stimulates. Yet as Rich Puchalsky comments there, “It’s very easy for people to say that the value of an activity is not measured in what it earns… but part of the monetization of attention is that yes, really, it is hard to say whether written work that people don’t pay for is valued.” Certainly as long as work is unpaid it doesn’t make sense to keep it up unless the effort is repaid in some other way, while anyone who’s enjoying the writing and doesn’t need or want money for it can hardly be faulted for continuing to do it. But how much does the willingness of so many people to write criticism for free make it difficult for those who hope to make a living at it?

As Adam says, it’s a strange new economy here on the internet, with attention or “eyeballs” the primary currency. Adam and I are both somewhat insulated from the effects of this because we’re academics. As Tom Lutz wrote about the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Many of us are also supported, as I am, by our universities (however much they, too, are shrinking and under siege), and so we can write and edit “for free” as part of our commitment to the dissemination of knowledge that is integral to that job” (“Future Tense“). There’s a sense in which Adam and I are both already getting paid for whatever we write, depending on how broadly we define our university’s missions and our professional obligations. (I have a few times made the case that academics who write blogs related to their areas of specialization are making valuable contributions — here, for instance, and more recently here.) Blogging for free can be understood as a variety of open access publishing, and I don’t think anyone’s making the argument that academic articles made freely available aren’t valuable–but at the same time, built into arguments about such open access publishing is the assumption that the work is already being paid for. Academics are also hardly used to being paid specifically for their publications. I have never received a dime from any journal that published my work: the currency there is not eyeballs but prestige and professional recognition. (I also wasn’t paid by the LARB for the essay I published there.) I made a few hundred dollars in total from each of my books. Academics are accustomed, that is, to thinking of writing primarily in non-monetary terms. But, as Lutz points out, “many of us are not [academics],” that is, not everyone publishing their writing for free online already has economic support for that effort.

I don’t know how to do the math here, really, especially when models that assume scarcity increases value hardly seem to apply. Criticism is not a pursuit that responds well to supply and demand, any more than literature itself is–not if what you want is some version of “the best that has been thought and said.” The relationship in both cases between popularity and quality is surely a vexed one. It makes sense in some ways to expect the best work from people who will do it no matter what, simply because it means that much to them, but then with professionalism comes a particular kind of experience and expertise, as well as editorial and public scrutiny which, perhaps, leads to better work overall. (Even as I wrote that last bit, though, I wanted to retract it: the quality of criticism that appears in a lot of paid venues is not inspiring, outside a few elite publications. Punkadiddle is–was–many times better than the review section of my local paper, or of either of Canada’s national papers, for that matter. But isn’t that as much a sign of the limitations of the marketplace as of anything else? Presumably, newspapers publish the kinds of reviews [they think] their subscribers want to read. See also this critique at Lemonhound of a recent published review, though I don’t know if it was paid for.)

In any case, as Lutz says, “We don’t know what the future of publishing is, but we know that the future for every writer requires food.” Edward Champion wrote a strongly-worded response to Lutz’s essay. “Financially speaking,” he observes,

The Los Angeles Review of Books is no different from any other group blog or online magazine. As Full Stop‘s Alex Shephard observed, the question of basic survival is crucial to all writers, regardless of where they come from. The Los Angeles Review of Books‘s present interface relies on Tumblr and, even though it has featured close to 100 posts, it is just as dependent on volunteers and donated time as any other online outlet. As such, so long as it does not pay, it assigns zero value to the labor of its contributors, which makes it not altogether different from The Huffington Post.

“Lutz’s essay is unwilling to swallow the bitter pill,” Champion concludes: ” in a world of free, expertise no longer has any value. . . .  those who want the content are so used to getting it for free that they expect writers of all stripes to surrender their labor for nothing.” In the comments, he and Lutz go back and forth a bit about whether his assessment is unduly negative. I’m certainly hoping that the Los Angeles Review of Books succeeds in its aim of finding a sustainable financial model that includes fair pay for its contributors. As Champion points out, Open Letters Monthly is one of several other “quality online outlets” that have been “getting by” with basically no revenue stream. It’s a labor of love, something we keep doing because we believe criticism is intrinsically worth doing as well as possible. Is this, as Champion says, “an unsustainable model in the long run”? As he’s well aware, oddly it isn’t (as long as we’re willing to cover the core costs, like server space and postage, ourselves), because enough people want to write that they’ll do it for free–if they weren’t, it would certainly be impossible for us to keep offering the magazine for free, which is what the new internet economy expects. Would we like to pay our contributors, never mind our editors? Sure! But we can’t, and they (and we) are all willing to do the work anyway. Maybe, as Adam says, we’re all mugs.

That said, there are people who are paid for their writing, and it seems both inevitable and just that at this moment when there is so much great criticism online for free (the problem, of course, is finding it reliably: the challenge is curating and filtering the endless proliferation of material) there is sharp scrutiny of those lucky few. What should our expectations be–what should the standards be–for those who somehow have made writing a paying gig? It would be gratifying if the hierarchy of quality were clear: if only the very best (the smartest, the most engaging, the most eloquent, the most original) writing was writing that made money. (Heck, it would be gratifying if the very best writing was the writing that attracted the most eyeballs! If only.) This is pretty clearly not the case, and I know I’m not the only person writing for free who sometimes puzzles or even fumes over the results (see, for instance, Steve Donoghue’s often excoriating series on ‘the penny press.’). “You have eight pages in The New Yorker!” I have been known to rant … you’d better use them really, really well! Meaning, of course, use them as I would use them, if I ever got the chance! (Though is it really the money that matters, or, still, the eyeballs? Writers want readers above all. Hence the difficulty of figuring out the economics.)

I think this paradoxical context of scarcity amidst abundance is relevant to the recent brouhaha about Jonah Lehrer, whose “self-plagiarism” has cast a shadow over his recent appointment to a pretty plum position: staff writer for The New Yorker. Is ‘repurposing’ your own work the worst sin a writer can commit? Of course not. Writers rework material all the time. Academics, for instance, routinely use material first in a conference paper, then an article, and then in a book. A writer like Lehrer whose main contribution is a particular expertise or insight in a field is bound to repeat it in multiple variations. But there are ways and ways of doing this, and the measures of how best to do so (ethically, creatively, intellectually) surely include not just transparency (acknowledgement, “as I said in this prior piece,” and attribution, “previously published in”) but also development and enrichment (if large chunks of wording need no revision whatsoever over a long period of time, that suggests not so much dishonesty as mental stagnation). Even if it’s not a strictly illegitimate practice, it’s not very impressive for a writer to be so repetitive.

It’s also a kind of double-dipping. Some have disputed the entire idea of “self-plagiarism,” on the logic that you can’t steal from yourself. That’s true in a literal way, but you can try to get credit twice for doing something once–for submitting the same assignment to two different classes, for instance. That’s considered cheating at a university because it means you did not in fact do the amount of original work your credit-based degree requires. It devalues your credential, and it means you looked for a short-cut, too. The best students don’t do that; the best educated students haven’t done that. The best writers, similarly, won’t be the ones doing the same thing over and over and trying to get credit for it every time. You can’t put the same publication more than once on your c.v. as an academic or, I assume, on your resume as a writer. That’s padding, to make your list of publications look longer than it is. In both situations, time pressure is proposed as an excuse (students are stressed and over-committed, Lehrer’s a busy guy). Srsly? Without even sorting out whether Lehrer had the legal right to rerun material he’d already published (and as far as I know, the consensus is that he retained copyright on his material, but I don’t know the specifics of his contracts), again, don’t we expect something more of our best writers? And don’t we expect staff writers at The New Yorker in particular (a job many of those Champion describes as currently having to “debase themselves for scraps” would be overjoyed to get) to be conspicuously the best? Don’t the editors of The New Yorker expect that their writers will set an example of intellectual curiosity, originality, creativity, and rigor?

Yes, there’s an element of Schadenfreude here, but  it’s about something more than just sour grapes. Those of us who write for free online have heard for years about the deficiencies of our amateur efforts (here’s Ron Hogan on the same example)–it’s no wonder that we get riled up when the very publications that supposedly set the bar for us all turn out to be kind of slack, orwhen  those who somehow (“underpants-gnomically,” as Adam so colorfully says) turn their writing into money turn out not to be conspicuously better than those who don’t or even, like Lehrer, kind of worse. I’m not saying Lehrer clearly doesn’t deserve to be a staff writer at The New Yorker. He’s not a book critic, and he’s got special expertise and celebrity of his own, so he brings things to the table that presumably have their own kind of value. (Still, I would have expected that kind of disrespect for the magazine to be disqualifying for keeping his post.) Even so, I think his example does further complicate the discussion about what writing is worth. In some of the ways that really count, Adam’s writing at Punkadiddle is clearly worth more to him (as an exercise of his own intelligence and wit and expertise) than Lehrer’s was worth to him. Lehrer wanted the paying gigs: to sustain them, he had to take shortcuts and, as a result, he shortchanged his readers and his publishers.

How should we really measure and repay the worth of our work or others’? It’s a wonderful thing to do work that you love, but as the economy of the internet shows (or, for an example in a different area, the economy of higher education), love can make exploitation awfully easy–and there’s no guarantee that love is what you’ll buy with your money, as The New Yorker found out.

I have no interest in monetizing Novel Readings. I am fortunate not to need this work, which I enjoy and benefit from in other ways, to be a specific source of income. But I know (as Ed Champion and Tom Lutz know) that the work we do online is not really free, even if we make it freely available, and I worry that Champion is right that we are all contributing to the devaluing of criticism even as, ironically, we all read and write it for free because we do value it. Open Letters Monthly does not have the manpower or resources or infrastructure to do the kind of massive fundraising work going on at the Los Angeles Review of Books. We do, however, have a PayPal account set up for donations. If you’re ever wondering if you can do anything to help sustain the wonderfully rich and generous and perhaps (if Champion is right) ultimately unsustainable world of online book reviewing, one small gesture would be to put a little in the hat there. At the very least, it would help us with the cost of our web hosting, the one thing eyeballs alone can’t buy.

It’s All in the Frame: Reasons For Writing

I’ve been brooding (and pacing, and swearing, and procrastinating) about starting a new essay project, and what I find myself most stymied by is how to frame it. This is a problem I don’t have with blogging, which is perhaps why I find this such a liberating form. Here, having read something is reason enough to write something about it, and all that’s at stake is my own thoughts about it. I don’t have to attach my comments to anything or make them relevant or prove that they are somehow current or significant to anyone but me. They don’t need to be contributing to an ongoing debate or solving a critical problem. I don’t have to be engaging with someone else, or acknowledging everyone else, who has written on the same topic. Any or all of this kind stuff may emerge as I write, but the writing needs no further occasion for itself.

I think it is possible to write this way in any venue if you either are or believe yourself to be sufficiently wise and important that people ought to take an interest in your thoughts just because they come from you. But the rest of us usually need some sort of justification for writing–which is, after all, an implicit claim on other people’s attention. At least, that’s very much how I am feeling right now.

In academic writing about literature, there are a few fairly standard ways to build a frame around your specific analysis. All of them turn on the idea that you have something new to say. Probably most common nowadays is to claim a new insight into an ongoing interpretive argument: a revision, refinement, or refutation of some element of an established critical debate. This might be text-specific or have a broader reach, but you construct the frame by outlining the existing contributions and then explaining where you come in: ‘In the ongoing debates about Jane Eyre‘s implication in British imperialism, inadequate attention has been paid to the source of Jane’s drawing paper. Closer attention to the history of the production and importation of artists’ sketch pads shows that in the very art work often assumed to express Jane’s defiant Romantic individualism, Jane is dependent on a resource deeply embedded in an exploitative economic system’–most of you know the drill. A variation on this is the application of a particular theoretical model or idea to a particular text or body of texts: ‘Reading Jane Eyre through the lens of Levinas, we discover that…’ There’s also the ‘newly discovered’ frame: a text or author is unfamiliar and requires placing within appropriate theoretical, critical, and/or historical contexts. And so on. Both the preparatory and the rhetorical moves are well established. You do the reading and thinking and research that leads to the formulation of your idea. You do more  research, to be sure that your idea is novel and so that you can set up your account of what people have said so far in relevant discussions. Your introduction lays out the debate and sets up your new contribution, and then you write it out in detail, engaging as you go along with the other people in the critical conversation you are now part of. One of the hardest parts is defining just which conversation that is, so that you don’t end up trying to include, say, everything anyone has ever said about Jane Eyre since it was published! Lots of things about this kind of writing, in fact, are difficult. But as academics, we learn how it is done–usually by the implicit example of the other criticism we read (though some people are fortunate enough to get explicit instruction).

I’ve been trying to get a sense of the range of possibilities for framing writing about literature in non-academic contexts. The most obvious form is the basic ‘review of a new release.’ The occasion for the writing is the novelty of the book itself. Within that there is certainly room for different strategies, from contextualizing the book within the author’s oeuvre or within its genre to just giving a plot summary and a few remarks on style or form. For books that are not new, things are a bit more complicated. A book may get renewed attention because of an occasion or event–the author’s death, for example, or its anniversary, or perhaps an invocation of the book by another book or author (the way, say, novels about Henry James give us a reason to talk about Henry James’s novels). A film or TV adaptation is likely to prompt a flurry of attention to “the original.” A scandal is an attention-getter: if a book is banned by a school library, for instance. Hot-button issues like (to cite a recent example) debates about whether Young Adult fiction is too dark and dreary these days can also prompt lots of discussion of back-list or even out of print titles. Fads like vampire novels or Scandinavian crime fiction give us an excuse to write again about Dracula or the Martin Beck books. These all strike me as journalistic reasons: in all of these cases, books become (or are made into) news.

Then there’s book writing of the “personal journey” or “what it meant for me” variety–a combination of autobiography and literary essay or commentary. There seem to have been a lot of examples of this recently, from Elif Batuman’s The Possessed to Rebecca Mead’s “Middlemarch and Me” or William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter (this one I haven’t read yet, so I may be making unfair assumptions about it, but I did read the excerpt at the Chronicle). This is literature in the service of self-knowledge. That’s fine, but it assumes a fairly extensive interest on our part in the autobiographical subjects. That seems reasonable if they are people of substance and significance, and they know it, and they aren’t afraid to assert it: we’re back, again, at a certain kind of self-confidence, even egotism, something inherent in all writing–again, a claim on other people’s attention–but more pronounced in this form. This form makes the books new by making them personal. (I’m not a huge fan of this approach, because I feel that too often the books get subordinated to, well, personal stuff. My own attempt at something in this vein is the essay I wrote on rereading Gone with the Wind, though I don’t think personal revelation was ultimately the main issue there, as I tried to use my own reading experience as a way to think hard about the novel itself.)

It seems to me to be harder to find book writing outside of blogs that simply, without special excuse or occasion, focuses on a particular book or author. One example I’m familiar with is Zadie Smith’s essay on George Eliot, originally published in The Guardian and now included in her book Changing My Mind. I can’t get at the Guardian version any more, but assuming she didn’t revise the beginning substantially, this essay has no journalistic or personal hook: she just starts talking about Middlemarch. But then, she’s Zadie Smith, so the novelty here is that she in particular is talking about Middlemarch: she is the news, her attention itself the frame needed to create an occasion for the piece. The pieces I wrote for Open Letters Monthly on Trollope, Felix Holt, and Vanity Fair are also examples of essays without occasion or special justification. Felix Holt was easiest in some ways because it’s Eliot’s least (or second-least) popular novel, so there’s some novelty just in focusing on it instead of Middlemarch. I motivated the Trollope piece (in my mind, at least) by figuring that he doesn’t have anything like the general popularity of Jane Austen so it was safe to imagine an audience that needed some kind of general introduction; focusing on The Warden (which I love, but which is hardly either his best or his best known novel) gave it a little helpful specificity. And I also felt reasonably sure Vanity Fair is not widely read these days, so again there’s some intrinsic novelty in trying to talk about it to a general audience. It surprises me a little, though, looking back, that I wrote all of these pieces with as little anxiety as I did about their place or reason. It didn’t even occur to me, for instance, to try to frame the Vanity Fair piece by talking about either the BBC adaptation or the weird Reese Witherspoon film (which Amardeep Singh appreciated much more than I did).

Do you think book writing needs to be framed in some way that makes the book new or relevant? Can you think of other strategies (ones you like? ones you dislike?) for writing about books, besides the ones I’ve thought of? Can you think of other examples of recent (mainstream, published [in print or online]) writing about books outside of the journalistic frameworks I’ve described? Do you worry about framing your writing? There has to be a reason to write something, doesn’t there? But can the reason be, ultimately, the book itself? Must it come from somewhere else?

Novel Readings 2010

My turn! Here’s my traditional look back at the highs and lows of my reading and blogging year.

Book of the Year:

Hands down, and entirely to my delighted surprise, since I had no particular expectations going into it, my favourite book of the year was Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. I raved about this book in my original post, and I’d like to emphatically repeat what I said there:

If you ever read a book, or were a child, or read a book to a child–if your childhood was shaped in any way by the books you read–then you should buy this book and read it immediately.

I don’t usually do this, but I feel strongly enough to provide a link straight to Amazon so you don’t waste any time getting your own copy. Mine was a gift, and for that, many, many thanks to the amazing Steve Donoghue of stevereads, book-giver extraordinaire.

More books I’m particularly glad I read:

After featuring it three times running on my ‘most looking forward to’ list and making at least one false start, I did finally read Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy (it took two posts to cover it, here and here). I enjoyed it thoroughly, proving my long-held theory that sometimes books simply have to ripen a while on the shelf before the reading experience can be perfectly tasty. “Would I read A Suitable Girl?” I asked, rhetorically, I thought; “You bet I would.” Imagine my pleasure in learning that just such a book is forthcoming!

Lynne Sharon Schwartz’sLeaving Brooklyn proved every bit as rich and satisfying a read as my long-time favourite Disturbances in the Field, though in quite a different style and register. It’s a coming-of-age story, “an intensely personal but also profoundly commonplace experience, movingly represented in a book by a woman, about a woman, that [I concluded my original review] I think deserves to be called ‘important.'” It would have been my ‘book of the year’ if it hadn’t been edged out by Dear Genius–but that’s OK, because Dear Genius is a book that advocates for all other books!

Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety took longer to grip me than Wolf Hall, but once I was well into it, it really wouldn’t let me go, even though there was absolutely nobody in it to like or even (except sort of theoretically) to root for. A bit like A. S. Byatt, Mantel is resolutely severe, not only towards her characters, but also towards her readers, giving them little comfort or even encouragement as they press on:

if, as I recently suggested, reading Ian McEwan’s prose is like getting acupuncture to your brain, I found reading A Place of Greater Safety akin to walking barefoot across a stretch of gravel towards a graveyard: you aren’t particularly enjoying the experience, but it has its own vividness and particularity, and there’s a morbid fascination in the direction you know you’re headed.

Even at the end–the guillotine for pretty much everyone, as we know it will inevitably be–she avoids what I called “tumbril sentimentality” of the Tale of Two Cities variety (I can’t imagine Oprah ever assigning this novel to her followers). Impressed as I was by Wolf Hall, I read several other novels from Mantel’s back catalogue this year and was repeatedly startled by her range of styles and interests (not one, not even A Place of Greater Safety, really fits the marketing tag ‘by the author of Wolf Hall‘ as they are all simply too dissimilar). The other that resonated most deeply with me was The Giant, O’Brien. Fludd was under the tree for me this year, so there will be at least one more Mantel novel in 2011.

Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop. I found this “a gem of a book: spare but revealing, quirky but unsentimental” (hmm, I’m noticing a trend away from sentimentality this year–even A Suitable Boy, though full of sentiment, does not ultimately cater to our more wistful or wishful emotions).  I’m glad finally to have begun my relationship with Fitzgerald; I’ve been meaning to read The Blue Flower for years and I look forward to doing so in 2011.

Elizabeth Hardwick, A View of My Own. When I grow up, I want to be Elizabeth Hardwick. Well, OK, not exactly, but I envy her the force and confidence of her critical voice. Even when I disagree with her, I really want to talk to her about what she says. I was particularly interested in her essay “George Eliot’s Husband,” which sets a high standard for biographical thinking not met at all by a particular more recent attempt to write about my favourite novelist–Hardwick says more worthwhile things in a few pages than that author comes up with in a couple hundred.

A. S. Byatt, The Children’s Book. Another tough-minded, unsentimental novel, as expansive in its own way as A Suitable Boy or A Place of Greater Safety. I called it “history as information management,” and I meant that as a tribute of a sort. Byatt is an accomplished novelist; while Seth’s abundance (though I loved it) occasionally seemed cluttered, Byatt’s somehow has a tautness to it. If Mantel writes historical fiction that defies conventional expectations of the genre, Byatt does the same with the ‘sweeping family saga.’

Laila Lalami, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. I called this “a quietly harrowing account of hopes turned back and diminished,” and concluded that “hope is a dangerous pursuit, not just because of the risks of the pursuit itself, but because sometimes the chance you take brings you only further away from what you really wanted.”

Morley Callaghan, Such is My Beloved. This book, a classic of Canadian modernism, took me out of my comfort zone as a reader; talking about it with the new book group I belong to took me out of my comfort zone in other ways–but salutary ones! I ended up finding some kinship between Father Dowling and a couple of Victorian protagonists who founder, similarly, on the mismatch between their most strongly felt principles and the pragmatic realities of their world. But Callaghan’s setting, contexts, and language are not Victorian at all.

May Sarton, The Small Room. In the end I didn’t love this novel, but it interested me enormously, as did the conversation it generated on (and around) the Slaves of Golconda reading group. Its central themes certainly struck a chord with my ongoing anxieties about my professional work and the public discourse around higher education:

So much about the discourse of education today seems to disregard the value of that connection to the whole person–it’s all about outcomes and measures and productivity and, of course, jobs after graduation. Is that really what we want? We as teachers? or as parents? as students? If Lucy’s view seems dangerously personal, the current obsession with students as consumers seems dangerously limited and limiting. If we can’t ever hope to teach students as people, or to be people ourselves when we teach, who will ever, in the end, actually learn anything worth knowing?

Daphne du Maurier, Frenchman’s Creek. Dare I say that they don’t write pulp fiction like they used to? Purple prose, absolutely, but as I said in my original post, it’s ‘royal purple, richest velvet.’ I haven’t worked my way through the rest of the du Maurier collection on my shelf, but what’s a sabbatical for, if not to catch up on books you otherwise have no excuse at all for reading?

Books that disappointed, for one reason or another:

Happily, once again there weren’t very many of these. Leading the pack is certainly Brenda Maddox’s George Eliot in Love, which I reviewed for Open Letters Monthly. Here’s the money quote:

I wasn’t just disappointed in George Eliot in Love—by the time I finished it I was equal parts astonished and enraged. The book is not just George Eliot ‘lite’–it is superficial, prurient, and at times simply offensive. Maddox comes across as naively underqualified for her task: her good intentions are as painfully evident as the bad judgment and limited expertise she displays throughout. Focusing persistently on the pettiest details of Eliot’s biography, Maddox strips her of both dignity and intellectual substance and leaves us with an impoverished version that belies Elizabeth Hardwick’s confidence (expressed in her marvelous essay “George Eliot’s Husband”) that it was impossible to make this accomplished woman “look foolish and small.”

I was pleased (though hardly surprised!) that George Eliot in Love also won a spot in the ‘Worst Nonfiction, 2010‘ smackdown at stevereads: “Maddox should chronicle Paris Hilton next and leave the deep end of the pool to the grown-ups.” Ha! Between us we perhaps give the lie to the old saw about the only thing worse than not being talked about.

I was underwhelmed by Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas:

I really wish that, having grabbed people’s attention, Menand would have seized the opportunity, not to lob another petty grenade at his struggling colleagues but to insist that we not concede too much to either the rhetoric or the pressures of the marketplace. Surely an English professor who is also a public intellectual is uniquely positioned to make the case for, not against, the rest of us.

For quite different reasons, Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures was also distinctly unremarkable: “The subject of the book is intrinsically interesting, but if a novelist can’t do any better than this, we might as well read non-fiction, or, better yet, poetry”–the salient example of the latter being, of course, In Memoriam A.H.H.

I think my expectations were just too high for David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. I really enjoyed reading some parts of it, but I don’t ordinarily seek out work in some of the genres he plays with (notably, science ficton) and I was frustrated by the way so many different kinds of storytelling were shoehorned into one book–even though Mitchell is dazzlingly smart (too conspicuously so, I sometimes thought) about the unifying threads. My conclusion after reading it was “after a while I found I was more aware of  his virtuosity and the ingenuity of the nesting narratives than I was actually engaged in them.”

The best of the not-entirely-satisfying collection is Ian McEwan’s Solar. I’d rather read an imperfect novel by Ian McEwan than any novel by probably the majority of other contemporary writers. I actually couldn’t quite decide which category to put Solar in, it’s so nearly excellent–but in the end, I decided McEwan set too high a standard for himself with Atonement and (for me, at least) Saturday, so for failing to live up to it, here he is down here.  A bit of my original post:

Of course it is not a universal prescription for excellence that a novel satisfy both heart and head, but that’s what I want, that’s what I think takes a novel from good to great, and Solar seems quite content to leave my heart untouched. I think this is a missed opportunity for a novelist with McEwan’s gifts. Why not set against the shabby opportunism of the protagonist (who is both brilliantly drawn and wholly unsympathetic) either some idealism not undermined by the general attitude of cynicism that permeates the novel–even if only to show it up as ineffectual against the absurd realities of political and scientific institutions–or some unembodied but evocative commitment to the beauties of the planet Michael Beard only pretends to cherish? Bleak House is an unforgettable critique of the stupidities of a system that serves, at most, only those who constitute it, because we see beyond it, unrealized, an idea of human flourishing, of love and justice, worth yearning for. Thus we find the yammering of innumerable lawyers both comic and tragic. Where is Miss Flite, or Lady Dedlock, never mind Jo the crossing sweeper, in McEwan’s universe?

Books I’m most looking forward to reading in 2011:

There are too many to enumerate, really, including all the treasures delivered for Christmas from my lovely family, but here are a few titles, if only to motivate me as the new year gets underway.

  1. Tolstoy, War and Peace. This is the new Suitable Boy: it will be on this TBR list until I get it read! Surely being on sabbatical, if only for half  the year, will remove most of the standard excuses.
  2. Flaubert, Madame Bovary. Yes, the new Lydia Davis translation. I’ve begun this, but it got pushed aside during the Great Cough and Cold of late 2010.
  3. Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children. I’ve been curious about this since reading about it in Hardwick’s A View of My Own.
  4. Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter. This one is another object lesson in why you should never “purge” your book collection, no matter how often you move or how many times someone close to you mutters baleful warnings about running out of space. I owned this trilogy as a girl, never got around to reading it, purged it, and now–older and wiser–rejoice to have found a nice Penguin edition in a local bookstore.
  5. A delicious stack of old Virago Modern Classics, including novels by Margaret Kennedy, Antonia White, Rebecca West, and many others.
  6. Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games. I’ve owned this for a couple of years without reading it–I think its time has come.
  7. Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai. The discussion at Conversational Reading piqued my interest about this novel, which I’ve owned for many years without reading (note again the value of the ‘ripening on the shelf’ theory to justify these habits!).
  8. Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory. This is the next book up for the book group that read Such is My Beloved. I read it many years ago but Greene is an author I haven’t done anything with since turning ‘pro,’ and I’m finally, belatedly, interested.
  9. Colm Toibin, The Master and Brooklyn.
  10. Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf. I’ve made some progress on this one, helped by an excursion into Woolf’s letters and diaries. I’d like to finish it in 2011!

I observe that not one of these is a work of literary history or criticism! There’s some chance that being on sabbatical will also give me a chance to recover some energy for that kind of reading! Certainly I will be doing some of it, as I am working (still!) on at least one academic paper which I hope to get into publishable form by the end of my leave.

Other Novel Readings highlights:

In 2008 I noted the invitation to contribute to The Valve as an important development in my blogging life. 2010 saw my farewell to The Valve, following on a resolution to “Get On With It!“–whatever, exactly, “it” is. The biggest development in 2010, congruent with this shift in emphasis, was the invitation from the fine folks at Open Letters Monthly, first to move Novel Readings to its new home, and then to join their editorial team. Both steps have been good ones for me, helping to sustain my blogging energy, bringing me into contact with all kinds of interesting writers and readers, even providing an excellent excuse for a trip to New York. Under the influence of these developments I increased my contributions to Open Letters, taking advantage of the flexibility and outstanding editorial input the magazine offers to write some more pieces on Victorian literature (Felix Holt and Vanity Fair), a couple of reviews (in addition to George Eliot in Love, I reviewed Claire Harman’s Jane’s Fame) and an essay on Gone with the Wind that took me a little outside my usual 19th-century ‘beat’ but reflected  my ongoing interest in ethical criticism–and my desire to write in a more personal voice. The Gone with the Wind essay earned me a link from Arts & Letters Daily, which helped me believe that I do have something interesting and even valuable to say as a critic–something that I have rarely felt in my almost 20 years as a practising academic critic. Looking ahead to 2011, I hope I can continue to build my confidence as a writer and critic, keep discovering what I have to say and saying it as well as I possibly can, in my own voice.

To everyone who reads and comments here at Novel Readings, and to all of you who keep up your own wonderfully thoughtful, diverse, and stimulating book blogs, thank you, and Happy New Year.

Best of ‘Novel Readings’: James Wood, How Fiction Works

This review first went up in March 2008. My brooding over deep vs. broad reading has had me thinking again about Wood’s criticism, which I wrote admiringly about when I first discovered him in 2007. (This remarkably belated discovery speaks volumes, I think, of the divide between academic and public criticism.) I have also been thinking a lot about Becky Sharp, because in an essay for the July issue of Open Letters Monthly I lay out a more elaborate version of the argument I touch on here for her incidental significance to the novel in which she is so captivating a heroine. Both lines of thought led me back to take another look at this piece. I haven’t kept up with all of Wood’s reviews since, mostly because he and I often choose different books to pay attention to, but when I do (as with his recent piece on David Mitchell) I’m still struck by the elegant erudition of his language and analysis. Still, as this review shows, I have some sympathy with Lauren Elkin’s proposal that Wood is “a fine specimen of a book reviewer” but not exactly a “literary critic.” Not, as they used to say on Seinfeld, that there’s anything wrong with that.

How Fiction Works was also very ably reviewed in 2008 in Open Letters Monthly, by Dan Green of The Reading Experience.


The dust jacket describes How Fiction Works as Wood’s “first full-length book of criticism.” Anyone led by this blurb to expect sustained analysis supported by extensive research and illustration will be disappointed, as in fact How Fiction Works turns out to be essentially a ‘commonplace book,’ a collection of critical observations and insights of varying degrees of originality and sophistication, developed with varying degrees of care and detail. Wood acknowledges having set deliberate limits on his project, likening it in his introduction to Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, proposing to offer practical “writer’s anwers” to “a critic’s questions,” and admitting (though with no tone of apology) that he used only “the books at hand in [his] study.” To some extent I agree with other reviewers who consider it only fair to evaluate the book Wood wrote, rather than regretting he didn’t write another one. Yet even within the parameters Wood sets, I think there are grounds for wishing he, with his exceptional gifts and qualifications as both reader and critic, had not sold himself (or us) short in fulfilling them. Further, beginning with the invocation of Forster but going well beyond it, the book has pretensions to grandeur: for instance, also in his introduction Wood remarks that Barthes and Shklovsky “come to conclusions about the novel that seem to me interesting but wrong-headed, and this book conducts a sustained argument with them” (2). With gestures such as this, Wood claims an elevated stature for his critical contribution that is undermined by its casual construction and over-confident approach to scholarship. Though How Fiction Works provides many further proofs of Wood’s critical gifts and considerable erudition, I think it also proves that even the best practical critic flounders when working only with what he has already to hand or in mind.

Right off the bat I was irritated by the book’s structure. Wood has said that he felt liberated by using the numbered “paragraphs” or sections, but allowing yourself to skip from thought to thought in this way means letting yourself off the hook too often. Frequently in the margins of my students’ work I write “And so? Finish the thought!” One effect of crafting, first paragraphs, and then longer pieces as sustained wholes is that in working out the overall movement of your ideas and building in appropriately specific transitions, you confront both the logic and the further implications of your claims: the form pressures you to think better. Numbered bits, however, relieve that pressure: you can just stop with one topic and start the next, and as long as they are more or less related, you can claim to be producing a unified whole, even if you are only papering over gaps. In How Fiction Works, the breaks often seem unnecessary: a new number sets off what is really just the next sentence in the idea already unfolding. Most of the time, however, they are substitutes for careful transitions. They allow a certain stream-of-consciousness effect to creep in: that last bit reminds me of this exception to a general principle, or of a writer who also does that, or of another favourite excerpt, or of a time I went to a concert with my wife. Well, OK, I guess, and no doubt it would have been much more difficult to do a coherent chapter offering a theory of, say, fictional character, realism, or morality and the novel. And I suppose it’s true that non-academic readers don’t want the kind of detail and complexity such a full account of these topics would require. Even so, the numbered bits felt lazy to me. The footnotes too had an aimlessness about them. Some of them covered ideas or examples that seemed no less important to their chapter than most of the bits allowed their own numbered section (note 53 on p. 150, to give one example) while others appeared entirely unnecessary to the book (note 40 on p. 121, or note 41 on p. 124, for instance).

The TLS reviewer objects to Wood’s “grace notes”: “It is sometimes hard to distinguish a gasp of admiration for another’s skill from the contented sigh when the books in one’s study satisfy one’s own theories.” I shared this reaction, not least because “how fine that is” (139) is an expression of taste, not criticism. But Wood is a compelling reader of details, even passages. It’s when he makes broader assertions that he leaves himself more open to objections. For one thing, he has some governing assumptions about what fiction is for that he treats as universal rather than historically or theoretically specific. In his chapter on “Sympathy and Complexity,” for instance, as a footnote to his remarks on fiction as a means of extending our sympathies (the occasion for one of his shockingly few references to George Eliot!), he adds this:

We don’t read in order to benefit in this way from fiction. We read fiction because it pleases us, moves us, is beautiful, and so on,–because it is alive and we are alive. (129)

Well, maybe, but not everybody, and not all the time: for instance, most of the Victorian critics I have been editing for my Broadview anthology [now that the anthology is actually out, I wonder if Wood would like a copy–maybe I’ll send one along!] would not have recognized this highly aestheticized motive for novel reading. Is it fair, or even sensible, to say that they were simply wrong? Or to ignore how the formal developments of the Victorian novel furthered ends not adequately respected by Wood’s post-Jamesian formulations? His is in many respects a teleological account of the history of the novel. “Progress!” he exclaims after a quotation from Proust: “In Fielding and Defoe, even in the much richer Cervantes, revelation of this altering kind occurs at the level of plot” (125). But were Fielding and Defoe trying to do what Proust did and failing? How much better we might understand them if we allow them what James calls their “donnee.” “It is subtlety that matters,” he declares in his chapter on character; “subtlety of analysis, of inquiry, of concern, of felt pressure”: “I learn more about the consciousness of the soldier in Chekhov’s The Kiss than I do about the consciousness of Becky Sharpe [sic] in Vanity Fair.” But Becky Sharp’s consciousness is surely not the point of Vanity Fair; indeed, I argue in my own lectures [and now, in my essay in July’s Open Letters] that too close a focus on Becky risks diverting us from Thackeray’s grand gesture of holding the mirror up to ourselves, so that the novel becomes an opportunity for us to reflect on our own morality and mortality. “Was she guilty or not?” the narrator asks–and, remarkably, will not tell us, because ultimately she is not the point but the occasion, the device. Thackeray is not a failed Chekhov any more than Dickens is a failed Flaubert. To Wood, “the history of the novel can be told as the development of free indirect style” (58), but that history is partial and often distorting.

About the operations of free indirect discourse and the importance of knowing who ‘owns’ which words, on the other hand, Wood is typically astute. Here’s one place where examples from Middlemarch would have served him well, though at the risk of undermining his generalizations. Consider this passage from Chapter 1, for instance:

And how should Dorothea not marry? — a girl so handsome and with such prospects? Nothing could hinder it but her love of extremes, and her insistence on regulating life according to notions which might cause a wary man to hesitate before he made her an offer, or even might lead her at last to refuse all offers. A young lady of some birth and fortune, who knelt suddenly down on a brick floor by the side of a sick laborer and prayed fervidly as if she thought herself living in the time of the Apostles — who had strange whims of fasting like a Papist, and of sitting up at night to read old theological books! Such a wife might awaken you some fine morning with a new scheme for the application of her income which would interfere with political economy and the keeping of saddle-horses: a man would naturally think twice before he risked himself in such fellowship. Women were expected to have weak opinions; but the great safeguard of society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on. Sane people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.

Think how much is lost on a reader who improperly identifies the source of that word “naturally”–or the last two sentences altogether!

Wood is good on the telling detail as well as the quality he calls “thisness”: “any detail that draws abstraction towards itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability” (54). But again, when he moves into prescription, he becomes less persuasive, as when he objects to the “layer of gratuitous detail” in 19th-century realist fiction. Again, the challenge is in defining “gratuitous” (as, clearly, Wood himself is well aware), but he can’t propose any principle except, perhaps, his idea that “insignificant” details avoid irrelevance if they are “significantly insignificant” (68). After recounting an incident in which he and his wife had “invented entirely different readings” of a violinist’s frown at a concert, he claims that a “good novelist would have let that frown alone, and would have let our revealing comments alone, too: no need to smother this little scene in explanation” (72). Again, well, maybe. I can imagine at least one “good novelist” who might have done great things with their “different readings” of that little moment, perhaps even using their “revealing comments” as a chance to reveal even more about perception and reality as well as human relationships (“these things are a parable…”). Doesn’t it depend on what your novel is about and on the formal methods you are using to realize those goals?

I’d like to return before I close to the “Sympathy and Complexity” chapter, because this is a topic close to my heart, one on which I have spent a lot of my own critical energy recently, and one I expected Wood to handle particularly well. “Perfunctory” is the best word I can think of to describe it. I’ve mentioned already his dehistoricizing assumption that “we” don’t read in order to receive moral benefits. I doubt this is true in practice, and I also question the separation he implies between moral and aesthetic readings. Here is a case in which even a little research outside “the books at hand in [his] own study” would have immeasurably enriched his discussion: Wayne Booth’s The Company We Keep, for instance, would have helped him complicate exactly that separation. And the conversation about how fiction might do “what [Bernard] Williams wanted moral philosophy to do” (135) has many participants besides Williams: Martha Nussbaum comes promptly to mind. Further, not all novels avoid providing “philosophical answers”; he replicates Nussbam’s error in generalizing about “the novel,” but as a professional novel reader, he should know better.

Here the hybrid character of How Fiction Works proves a genuine weakness, I think. This chapter is not a full, responsible, or authoritative inquiry into its subject. Of course, it does not pretend to be (remember, the book promises only “a writer’s answers” to “a critic’s questions”). But then how should we evaluate it? Doesn’t Wood do even his non-specialist audience a disservice by taking up complicated subjects on which there already exists a rich body of scholarship and offering his own fairly casual observations with the confidence of real expertise? What a much greater contribution it would be to distill that complex material and present it accessibly! To grab what’s at hand and say just what comes to mind bespeaks an enviable but also problematic degree of confidence. And while the non-expert reader is in no position to object, the expert reader is easily deflected with the excuse that she is not the intended audience…

After I read How Fiction Works I re-read some of my collection of Wood’s essays, including his reviews of Never Let Me Go, Saturday, and Brick Lane. This is really wonderful stuff, as I have remarked before; I admire it wholeheartedly for its critical acuity, its literary elegance, and its moral seriousness. But considering How Fiction Works strictly as one among many books about books (and Wood is wrong, or perhaps disingenuous, when he says “there are surprisingly few books” of this kind about fiction [1]), I think there are many better choices available. I continue to recommend David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction, for instance, which takes up many of the same topics as Wood, though under a less grandiose umbrella of prescriptive claims. I think it’s an exciting development that Wood has landed a job in Harvard’s English Department. In taking this now unconventional route from journalism to the academy, he is following in the footsteps of many eminent Victorian critics (David Masson, for instance). But considering how bitterly difficult it is for those following the established professional route to land any academic job at all, it’s frustrating to think that he may not be held to anything like the same standard of rigour as many critics far less lauded and applauded. Here’s hoping that he has more books in him as good as The Broken Estate.

(Original post cross-posted to The Valve.)

Novel Readings 2009

It’s time for my annual review of the highs and lows of my reading year.

Books I’m most glad I read, either for the intrinsic richness of the aesthetic, affective, or intellectual experience they offered, for the conversations they generated, or for the ideas and connections they offered for my teaching and research:

1. Daniel Mendelsohn, The Lost. This book made by far the strongest impression on me of any I read this year. Devastating though it is, it also manages to be surprising, suspenseful, and sometimes even comical. Mendelsohn manages to be self-reflexive about his research and writing, about his own assumptions and limitations, without ever compromising his dedication to reaching after the truth of the story he is telling or his respect for the suffering of those whose story it really is. It’s a remarkable accomplishment.

2. Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk. I ended up enjoying this novel as much for the way it implicitly chastised me for my own assumptions (about fiction, about families) as for the story it told. I’m happy to say that Santa (OK, my mom) sent me Sugar Street and Palace of Desire for Christmas, so I’ll be reading–and, I expect, writing about–Mahfouz again in 2010.

3. Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns. Although (as I say also in my original review) I don’t think this is actually a great novel by literary standards, and in retrospect I feel my own emotional reaction to it was the result of some heavy-handed narrative and ideological manipulation (pain! suffering! injustice! misogyny!), it’s impossible to ignore the very real pain, suffering, injustice, and misogyny of the world it fictionalizes.

4. Mahbod Seraji, Rooftops of Tehran. Unlike A Thousand Splendid Suns, Rooftops of Tehran is not a sensational or particularly populist treatment of its material. It reaches across cultural differences to tell a story of yearning and love, emphasizing feelings that are universal, if differently embodied or characterized based on circumstances. At times a bit heavy-handedly pedagogical, it still avoids the trap of what I am now thinking about as ‘moral tourism’: it isn’t an Iran packaged for mass consumption and political ends, but something more inward-looking and sincere.

5. Charlotte Bronte, Villette. This year’s choice for our summer reading project at The Valve, Bronte’s perverse exploration of thwarted desire, religious conflict, surveillance, and narrative unreliability offers all kinds of fun and surprises, especially for those who think the Victorians were all naive realists. (D’oh! But there really are people who think that. In my experience, many of them are specialists in late 20th-century fiction whose favourite straw man looks a lot like Trollope, but doesn’t have his metafictional savvy.)

6. Ian Colford, Evidence. Understated, even insidious, these stories leave their mark on your consciousness, like inky thumbprints.

7. Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway. It seems somehow significant that I quoted from this novel instead of writing much about it. It’s not that there aren’t ideas in it, or that its form and technique isn’t inviting to criticism, but for me this was a reading experience that was very much about easing up my critical grip (which seemed to be deforming my reading) and savouring the tactile quality of the language. My feelings about this book were also much affected by my thoughts about a special student, Samantha Li; I only wish I had read it before it was too late to talk to her about it.

8. William Boyd, Any Human Heart. Dear students: The main character in this book is not at all “relatable.” Guess what–that doesn’t matter! You don’t have to like him (though by the end I was fond of him after all, as you are of someone you’ve known their whole life). You just have to go along, feeling the pulses of his idiosyncratic life and personality. He has no special insight, into himself or any larger contexts; he isn’t even especially charismatic. But, as George Eliot points out in Adam Bede, most of the people around us are nothing special–we need to adapt our aesthetic to that reality, and it turns out to be a surprisingly moving experience.

9. Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall. Wolf Hall surprised me by not resembling any other historical fiction I’ve read. For one thing, there is almost no exposition. Mantel’s trick of referring to Cromwell throughout as “he,” though it does create the occasional awkwardness, also creates an oddly intimate atmosphere: we are with him, in close proximity, as if standing by his shoulder, but there’s a little separation remaining. First-person narration would have overcome it, but then I think the novel would have felt more artificial, and the emotions would have had to run higher–a mistake in a novel remarkable for its restraint (yes, even at 650 pages, it feels tightly controlled). And the language: it is crafted with the precision of Ian McEwan’s prose, but with a higher sheen of poetic possibility. Here’s a little bit that describes and exemplifies the novel’s characteristically taut balance of eloquence and repression:

There’s a feeling of power in reserve, a power that drives right through the bone, like the shiver you sense in the shaft of an axe when you take it into your hand. You can strike, or you can not strike, and if you choose to hold back the blow, you can still feel inside you the resonance of the omitted thing.

The central conflict is not Henry VIII against God, or fate, or his wives, for denying him a son, or Anne against Katherine, or any of the other stock melodramas of Tudor fiction (and television), but Cromwell, the self-made man, the accountant, the bureaucrat, the statesman, the pragmatist, the modern man, against extremism, privilege, waste, indulgence–and especially against Thomas More, who delights in torturing heretics and seeks a pointless (to him, a martyr’s) death.

10. Nadeem Aslam, The Wasted Vigil. Is it wrong to make something so beautiful out of material so terrible? Is terrorism really analogous to vandalism? Both obliterate the beauty (realized or potential) and the creativity of humanity.

This year I’ll skip over the list of low points. There weren’t many, happily–most of the other books I read were in the OK – to – mediocre range, which only irks me when they win awards.

In last year’s post I noted the expansion of my blogging horizons that came with the invitation to write for The Valve. This year I have been pleased to contribute to Open Letters: I’m glad they made room for my piece on Trollope among their many astute and engaging essays and reviews, and I’ve got a little thing on Felix Holt appearing in their January 2010 issue, so stay tuned for that.

Looking ahead, I’m anticipating an unusually busy term coming up, with three classes including one all-new one and some new kinds of assignments. Still, I hope to have time to keep up my usual series on teaching, and also to fit in some reading for myself. Looking over my year-end posts for 2007 and 2008, it is notable how such ‘pleasure’ reading feeds into my research and teaching (the leading example being Ahdaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun, which went from being just another book I’d read to the lynchpin of a reconceptualized research program). Perhaps something I read in 2010 will end up turning me in another new direction, or adding in some other unanticipated way to my life. But in any case here are some of the books I’m most looking forwarding to reading or re-reading:

  1. Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger. It’s great to feel so confident that a book will be both extremely smart and extremely entertaining.
  2. Hilary Mantel, A Place of Great Safety. Speaking of confidence, Wolf Hall gave me confidence in Mantel as both a stylist and a historical novelist.
  3. Naguib Mahfouz, Sugar Street and The Palace of Desire.
  4. Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf.
  5. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead.
  6. War and Peace. Somehow, it didn’t get read in 2009, but I’m sure it will be there for me when I’m ready for it.
  7. Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy. I’m going to keep putting this on my TBR list until I actually read it.
  8. Dickens, Our Mutual Friend. I haven’t read this since my undergraduate Victorian fiction class in 1989. Once every twenty years seems like a minimum for what I remember as one of the best of Dickens.
  9. George Eliot, Romola. I’ve assigned this for my graduate seminar on George Eliot this term. It was a tough call between it and Felix Holt, but Romola has been on the back burner the longest. When it is good, it is very, very, very good. When it is bad, characters say things like ‘You are as welcome as the cheese to the macaroni.’
  10. Audrey Niffenegger, Her Fearful Symmetry. All appearances (and movie adaptations) to the contrary, The Time Traveller’s Wife is a gritty, suspenseful, intellectual romance. Sure, you have to accept a wacky premise, but for me at least, it was worked through with surprising toughness. So I’m game to see how Niffenegger follows it up.
  11. David Mitchell, Black Swan Green. Because you told me to!

Globe and Mail Book Section Goes Online

The Toronto Globe and Mail, which fondly declares itself “Canada’s National Newspaper,” has, like many other newspapers, recently eliminated their stand-alone books section. I haven’t found the Globe‘s book section very stimulating for some time, so to me the loss is more symbolic than intellectual. (One of my theories about why the section is so often disappointing is that they ask too many authors–as opposed to, say, critics–to write their reviews.) Literary coverage will continue, but as part of the Focus section (odd, maybe, that it’s not the Review section?). At the same time, however, the paper has dramatically expanded its online books coverage. I haven’t had time to explore the site very thoroughly, but it seems to include many of the same features that the print version had as well as a range of interactive pieces, including a couple of blogs and an “Ask the Author” feature that looks like fun–P. D. James is scheduled for later this month, and she’s an author I’d like to ask a few questions myself. I see that their Blogroll so far is exclusively other Globe and Mail blogs. I wonder if they will get outside that box a bit and link to some of the wide range of other book blogs (affiliated with newspapers and not) in and out of Canada.