This Week In My Classes: Canons and Complications

unlessMy classes aren’t meeting at all today, thanks to the “weather bomb” we are currently enjoying. It is uncanny how many storms have come through on Wednesdays this winter! And it’s an unpleasant surprise to get a big one this late in the term. The bright side seems to be that it’s supposed to warm up significantly by the weekend, so we can hope that all this snow will just be a bad memory before too long.

What is it interrupting? Well, in Intro to Prose and Fiction we’ve moved on to Carol Shields’s Unless, a novel I appreciate more and more the more time I spend with it. It’s not an in-your-face kind of novel, but (appropriately, given its themes) its sharp edges can take you by surprise: a modest-seeming story about a woman writer rethinking her life and work because of a family crisis, it’s also a commentary on women’s writing and the literary canon, and on women writers and literary culture. Reta is seeking an explanation for her daughter Norah’s decision to drop out of ordinary life and sit speechless on the curb holding a sign that says only ‘GOODNESS.’ In a series of increasingly acerbic letters to intellectuals, writers, and critics (never actually sent) Reta connects Norah’s rejection of the world with the world’s indifference (or worse) to women. To the magazine that has run an advertisement for a series called “Great Minds of the Western Intellectual World,” for instance, Reta writes,

I have a nineteen-year old daughter who is going through a sort of soak of depression . . . which a friend of mine suspects is brought about by such offerings as your Great Minds of the WIW, not just your particular October ad, of course, but a long accumulation of shaded brown print and noble brows, reproduced year after year, all of it pressing down insidiously and expressing a callous lack of curiosity about great women’s minds, a complete unawareness, in fact. . . .

I realize I cannot influence your advertising policy. My only hope is that my daughter, her name is Norah, will not pick up a copy of this magazine, read this page, and understand, as I have for the first time, how casually and completely she is shut out of the universe. I have two other daughters too — Christine, Natalie — and I worry about them both. All the time.

To the author of an article on “The History of Dictionaries,” she observes “there is not a single woman mentioned in the whole body of your very long article (16 pages, double columns), not in any context, not once.” In wry anticipation of the VIDA counts (and their critics), she notes,

Bean counting is tiring, and tiresome, but your voice, Mr. Valkner, and your platform … carry great authority. You certainly understand that the women who fall even casually under your influence (mea culpa) are made to serve an apprenticeship in self-denigration.

 And later, addressing the author of a book review who calls women writers “the miniaturists of fiction,” she says,

It happens that I am the mother of a nineteen-year-old daughter who has been driven from the world by the suggestion that she is doomed to miniaturism. Her strategy  is self-sacrifice.

The letters punctuate the story of Reta’s reconsideration of her own writing: in particular, she is working on the sequel to her earlier work of light fiction, My Thyme is Up; in our class reading, we’ve just arrived at her conclusion that her new novel, “if it is to survive, must be redrafted,” so when we meet again on Friday I hope we’ll be able to have a good discussion about how and why Reta wants to write a different kind of book, with different kinds of options for her heroine, Alicia. Then next week we’ll consider her editor’s advice that she rework it to make it “one of those signal books of our time” — by making Alicia’s fiance, Roman, the central character:

‘I am talking about Roman being the moral centre of this book, and Alicia, for all her charms, is not capable of that role, surely you can see that. She writes fashion articles. She talks to her cat. She does yoga. She makes rice casseroles.’

‘It’s because she’s a woman.’

‘That’s not an issue at all. Surely you — ‘

‘But it is the issue.’

‘She is unable to make a claim to — She is undisciplined in her — She can’t focus the way Roman — She changes her mind about — She lacks — A reader, the serious reader that I have mind, would never accept her as the decisive fulcrum of a serious work of art that acts as a critique of our society while, at the same time, unrolling itself like a carpet of inevitability, narrativistically speaking.’

‘Because she’s a woman.’

‘Not at all, not at all.’

‘Because she’s a woman.’

Clipping these bits out on their own makes the novel sound more didactic than the experience of reading it actually is, partly because Shields plays around with the form of the novel, partly because the other anecdotes and memories Reta shares with us implicitly raise the questions these more pointed sections address explicitly, so that the book reads like an ongoing dialogue — internally, for Reta herself, and then with us — about what we look for in fiction, how we judge what we find, and how those questions are affected by gender. We’re reading it right after A Room of One’s Own, and many of the questions are the same: what (where) is the women’s literary tradition, what is the place or effect of anger in literature, how are our notions of literary greatness tied to ideas about scale? (Shields said “Jane Austen is important to me because she demonstrates how large narratives can occupy small spaces.”)

forrestIn Women & Detective Fiction, this week’s reading also raises questions about literary canons and standards, and how we decide what is worth reading and discussing, but in this case it does so more accidentally. I’m not someone who believes that we should assign only the books we believe to be The Greatest (even if we individually felt we could be confident about our standards). Universities are in the business of education, not adulation, and plenty of works that we might feel falter on some grounds are plenty interesting and significant (historically, theoretically, formally) on others. Courses vary in their purposes, too, and the best and most relevant conversations don’t always emerge from the most elegantly crafted narratives. Still, I do sometimes find my principles conflicting with my actual reading experience, and that’s how I’ve felt with Katherine V. Forrest’s Murder at the Nightwood Bar, which has been our class’s reading for the past week.

Murder at the Nightwood Bar is one in a series with inarguable significance (“First, first, first,” emphasizes Victoria Brownworth in her recent profile of Forrest), and it deals explicitly with questions of sexual identity and systemic discrimination both through its closeted detective (alienated, thus, both from her follow officers and from the lesbian community she engages with during the investigation) and through the crime itself. It sets up lots of good points of comparison with our other books, from the detective’s struggle over getting too personally involved with the case (or people involved in it) to the connections it makes between individual crimes and systemic injustices. As far as all that goes, I have no regrets about having added it to the syllabus this year. I just wish it were better written — yes, that awkward evaluative measure! Better at what, to what ends, as I’m always asking? In this case, I just mean “better at the words”: especially during the patient rereadings required for class prep, it has seemed stilted and inartistic, sometimes tediously so. I’ve felt no temptation to discuss anything that’s not literal about it: not its form or its style, not its voice, its attention to setting, none of those “literary” aspects. Mind you, it’s not the first of our readings to make that kind of reading seem beside the point: Agatha  Christie is also not particularly literary. But Christie’s prose has a clarity and economy that gives it its own (superficial?) elegance. That said, while Forrest may not be as good a stylist, her materials are more challenging — her agenda is more ambitious, and she gave us much more to talk about than Christie did, even though Christie is, of the two of them, the one who is obviously part of the ‘canon’ of detective fiction. Not every course can or should be a tour of “the best that has been thought and said” (as if we could be sure what those examples are — as Woolf says, “where books are concerned, it is notoriously difficult to fix labels of merit in such a way that they do not come off”). My goal is always to find the readings that are the best for my purposes, which in this case include considering a wide range of different examples of detective fiction by women as well as examples that are in fruitful conversation with each other when collected on the syllabus. My hope is that they will also reward close reading and rereading. At this point, then, I’m ambivalent about Murder at the Nightwood Bar, then, which certainly serves the first purpose but doesn’t quite fulfill my hopes for the second.

“Because she’s a woman”: Carol Shields, Unless

unlessI’ve just wrapped up a couple of weeks of reading and discussing Carol Shields’s Unless with the students in my Intro class. I assigned it a bit on impulse: I wanted a reasonably contemporary Canadian novel on the syllabus, and I was also looking for a novel to pair with Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own — something that I thought could be in an interesting conversation with it, the way I thought Wiesel’s Night and McCarthy’s The Road would be thought-provking read side by side (which they were). When I started preparing Unless attentively for class, I was amazed at how many connections I found to Woolf, from questions about literary significance and merit (“This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room”) to a riff in Unless on the importance of female friendships in fiction (“Chloe liked Olivia”). From a purely pedagogical standpoint, I felt I had struck gold!

As this post from 2007 shows, my previous reactions to Unless have been mixed, but (as is often the case) I found myself appreciating the novel more the more I worked at figuring out what (and how) it meant. (One specific change is that reading it today, I am less “distanced” by the features that struck me then as overly didactic or diagrammatic.) I also read other material about it, and about Shields, including this Salon review, this review in the Guardian, this review in Quill & Quire, and, best of all, this thoughtful and spirited blog post from Kerry Clare about Unless as a contender in Canada Reads in 2011. The coductive process of comparing my reading to other people’s always challenges and enriches my own first responses.


A recent talk with a good friend sent me back to my bookshelf to revisit Carol Shields’s Unless, which I remembered having found not wholly convincing. My reaction on this re-reading was the same, though the novelistic intelligence evident throughout engaged me more fully this time. My problem here is the opposite of my complaint about ‘chick lit’ (absence of ideas): Shields’s novel is too conspicuously driven by an idea, specifically an idea about the way women are rendered trivial, condemned (as the narrator Reta says in one of her interspersed letters) to a “solitary state of non-belonging.” The novel does not have a feminist sub-text: it is, both artfully and overtly, a feminist novel. Reta confronts her “smarmy” New York editor about her next novel featuring her characters Roman and Alicia–bound, on her initial conception, for marriage, but now redirected by her epiphanic realization that Alicia must be granted her singleness:

“I am talking about Roman being the moral centre of this book, and Alicia, for all her charms, is not capable of that role, surely you can see that. She writes fashion articles. She talks to her cat. She does yoga. She makes rice casseroles.”

“It’s because she’s a woman.”

“That’s not an issue at all. Surely you–”

“But it is the issue.”

“. . . A reader, the serious reader that I have in mind, would never accept her as the decisive fulcrum of a serious work of art that acts as a critique of our society while, at the same time, unrolling itself like a carpet of inevitability, narrativistically speaking.”

“Because she’s a woman.”

“Not at all, not at all.”

“Because she’s a woman.”

The reflexivity of this moment is palpable: can we take Reta herself–who calms herself through housekeeping, who cooks lasagna, who mothers her children–seriously as a moral fulcrum? Can her story offer a social critique that reaches beyond the personal? Or, perhaps, should we want it to, as the novel, even as it chafes against cliches about women novelists being “miniaturists of feeling” (from another of Reta’s letters), refuses to reach out and claim its larger issues in larger ways? Doesn’t Shields, in avoiding bolder confrontation with the global and ideological issues that lurk around the edges of her plot (admittedly, as they typically lurk around the edges of our lives), allow her novel to settle into something like comfortable domestic realism? The woman in a burka who sets herself alight and thus precipitates Norah’s (and, in turn, Reta’s) crisis: surely in a post-9/11 novel to choose such an incident to stand for women’s desperation is no accident, but no more is made of her than that, a symbol–and an occasion for Norah’s and Reta’s meditations on goodness, rather a reductive and objectifying gesture, and one that conflates Reta’s rather abstruse complaints (women writers and thinkers are undervalued in the history of literature and philosophy!) with the truly devastating limitations on personal freedom, individualism, and well-being we can imagine might motivate a woman to actual self-immolation.

And yet at the same time as I felt Shields allowed some of the (potential) substance of the novel to become insubstantial, I felt irritated at the novel’s didacticism on its main theme, and inclined to quarrel with its insistence that despite apparent gains, women continue to exist on the margins of power and discourse. “Not so,” I kept wanting to interject, and especially when the tone and art of the novel seemed to suffer from Shields’s polemical intent. “I need to speak further about this problem of women,” Reta begins one chapter, “how they are dismissed and excluded from the most primary of entitlements.” Is my resistance to these persistent iterations the result of a generational difference? Wishful thinking, or ignorance? Whatever its cause, it distanced me from the novel.

And yet (again), there are moments and expressions in the novel that sparked poignant recognition in me, that made me reach for my notebook to jot them down for later reference. (“This is why I read novels,” Reta reflects: “so I can escape my own unrelenting monologue.”) And Norah’s story, though ostensibly the occasion for Reta’s narrative rather than a “fulcrum” in its own right, strikes me as a creative and appropriate working out of George Eliot’s line about the “roar on the other side of silence” that Shields takes as her epigraph. If the novel irritated and frustrated me at times, I think it was because I wanted a different kind of book, one that gave me these people and their stories in more Eliot-like depth, with more picture and less diagram. But I’m aware, too, because the novel is also about novels and what we want from them and how we theorize and criticize them, that Shields is resisting that kind of book and offering this one instead, and I respect and appreciate her invitation to her readers to think as well as to feel.

(Original post July 9, 2007)