The Case for “Intelligent, Bloggy Bookchat By Scholars”: How’s It Looking?

JVCOn Thursday I participated in a Twitter Q&A with the members of Karen Bourrier‘s University of Calgary graduate seminar on Victorian women writers. The students had been assigned my JVC essay on academic blogging (anticipated in my 2011 BAVS presentation, which you can see the Prezi for here, if you aren’t one of those people who get sea-sick from Prezis!). The group showed up very well prepared with questions for me, and the half hour went by in a flash, with me thinking and typing as fast as I could. (Here’s the Storify, if you’re interested.)

In preparation for the session, I did some rereading, not just of my essay but of some of my old meta-blogging posts (many of which are listed under the “On Academia” tab here, or in the “blogging” category). I also looked back a bit further, to John Holbo’s founding post for The Valve, where I was a contributor from 2008 to 201o. I’ve actually reread this essay, “Form Follows the Function of the Little Magazine,” fairly often over the years, but I hadn’t previously gone back further from it to the Crooked Timber posts it links to on “Academic blogging and literary studies.” The second one of these especially, “Lit Studies Blogging Part II: Better breathing through blogging,” strongly anticipates the Valve essay, while The Valve itself is obviously what Holbo meant when he said “After this post I swear I am going to settle down to just doing the sort of thing I have in mind, rather than talking about how nice it would be to do it. Proof in pudding.”

I’m always swearing off meta-blogging (and meta-criticism more generally). And yet just when I think I’m out, something pulls me back in! This time the trigger is one of the questions I was asked during the Twitter session: whether my thoughts about academic blogging had changed since my essay was published. Also, rereading Holbo’s posts, now a decade old, I found it hard not to wonder: what happened? how did it turn out? Does Holbo’s call for improving the condition of scholarly publishing in the literary humanities by “rub[bing] its sorry limbs vigorously with … conversations” seem outdated now? or misguided? or utopian? Holbo advocated “intelligent, bloggy bookchat by scholars. . . . That isn’t scholarship,” he acknowledged, “but – in a world with too much scholarship – it may be an indispensable complement to scholarship.” Has that hope for the beneficent effects of blogging fizzled out, or has it been (even to a minor extent) realized? Was Holbo wrong in his premise that academic literary studies were in need of any such thing? Or was he right, but there has proved to be too much inertia in the larger system to which academic scholarship and publication belong (especially, systems of institutional credentialing and validation) for the pro-blogging arguments to make much of a difference?

My immediate answer to the question on Twitter was that my thoughts about blogging have not changed but my attitude has. To explain in more than the 140 characters I could use there, I remain convinced that blogging is (or can be) a good thing in all the ways Holbo talked about, and in some ways he didn’t (my own blogging, for instance, has never been “academic” in quite the ways he emphasizes, such as hunting out and promoting the best academic scholarship, but I stand by its value as a form of criticism). Overall, more academics are probably blogging now than in 2005, though I really don’t have any sense of the big picture and certainly no data to back up this impression. But I haven’t seen much change in the way things operate generally in the academy, and if anything, the number of bloggers actively promoting a significant shift in the way we understand scholarship and publishing seems to have declined. In my own immediate circles, I don’t see any signs that anyone is interested in actually doing any blogging of the kind Holbo described (some do now write blogs that address academic issues or serve professional associations, both good things but different), and I never hear anyone mention reading any academic blogs either (again, with the exception for blogs about academia, rather than “bookchat” blogs of the kind in question). I have no reason to believe most of my colleagues ever read my blog: if they do, they never mention it to me! (That might be different if Novel Readings were more academic and less bookish. I’m never a good example for my own arguments about all this!)

What it looks like to me, more or less (and again, my perspective is inevitably limited, so I’d be interested to hear how others perceive the situation) is that not much has changed since 2005. People who were into blogging then are often still into it (several of my former Valve colleagues, for instance, continue to maintain their personal blogs, though The Valve has been closed for renovation since 2012). But they seem less likely to make claims for, or express hope for, the form as something that can and should change how the profession of literary studies works.  I think blogging as such is no longer likely to be held against you as an academic — but it’s also not going to work for you, particularly at any of the key professional moments (hiring, tenure, promotion), when you’ll still need a defensible record of conventional publishing.

I still see the situation of literary studies pretty much as I did then, which is much the way Holbo describes it in his posts. There’s more published scholarship than we can ever hope to process in a meaningful way, and the reasons for that have more to do with professional imperatives than with any need to churn out so much so fast for the intellectual benefit of so few.   “How many members of the MLA?” asked Holbo in 2005;

30,000? That a nation can support a standing army of literary critics is a wondrous fact, and quite explicable with reference to the volume of freshman papers, etc. that must be marked. The number is inexplicable with reference to any critical project. Yes, we need new scholarship (don’t bother me with more false dichotomies, please.) The point is: no one has a clear (or even unclear) sense of what work in the humanities presently needs approximately 30,000 hands to complete. I don’t mean we should therefore hang our heads in shame, although being a member of a standing army of literary critics must be a semi-comic fate, at least on occasion. But the utter lack of any justification for 30,000 literary critics assiduously beavering away explicating, interpreting, erecting new frameworks, interrogating the boundaries, etc., has consequences. Notably, when a book or article is up for publication and the hurdle is set, ‘if it has real scholarly value’, we discover this condition is just not as intelligible as we would like, conditions being what they are. It isn’t true that literary scholars value the output of 30,000 other literary scholars. They just don’t, and that is quite sensible of them, really.

That seems fair enough, although I also think we  all value the output of a select subgroup of that 30,000, as well as of the larger ends we believe the whole enterprise serves — which is why Holbo was not, and I am not, calling for an end to it all, the way Mark Bauerlein seems to. But the sheer chaotic vastness of it all still occasionally provokes despair.

And, dedicated as I am to preserving the forest, I do often recoil from individual trees — and the less time I spend reading properly “academic” criticism, the harder it is for me to tolerate it when I dip back in. I recognize, however, that other people genuinely relish both reading and writing it, which is more than fine with me, because that’s how (to stick with the arborial metaphor!) the trees I do appreciate are able to take root and flourish. It continues to mystify me, though, that so many academics seem so content to keep planting trees in those woods knowing that hardly anybody will hear their hard-won knowledge or insight when it falls into its safely peer-reviewed place. Even people who have no professional reason to play it safe any more seem oddly uninterested in, or even resistant to, getting the word out about their research in other ways (I say this because I have proposed it to some of them!) — and I get no sense that this has changed in the past decade. Is it anxiety or snobbery that makes it seem preferable to them to hold out for acceptance by a journal or press that will deposit their work safely where almost nobody will read it, rather than to tell other people about it directly through the magic of WordPress? Surely at some point you have enough credibility just to speak for yourself, and you should do that if your actual goal is to increase the overall sum of understanding in the world. Mind you, then you’d also have to try your hand at self-promotion, something else that, as Melonie Fullick has observed, runs against deep-seated academic prejudices.

I always find myself going back to Jo Van Every’s comments about validation vs. communication. The display case in our department lounge, our faculty-wide book launch, the list of recent books by members of NAVSA — these all seem to me monuments to the triumph of validation in academic priorities, because by and large these books and articles (representing so much ardent labor!) are reasonably responded to as Lawrence White (quoted by Holbo) responded to the “current project” of John McWhorter, “some modest essay modestly proposing modest new perspectives on some modest problem in linguistics”:

At this point I say to myself, “Yes, we should all be working hard & earning those paychecks, & I’m sure Professor McWhorter does fine work in his field, & I have no doubts as to his fine intentions, but what are the odds that this essay will make any difference to anything?”

“We have to learn to live,” Holbo observes, “with dignity, with the effluent of institutionalized logorrhea.” That ardent labor is not in vain, and there is dignity in pursuing our scholarly interests rigorously and in achieving our professional goals. (What fate isn’t “semi-comic,” anyway, seen in the right light?) Still, I would add that we ought to learn to let go of the quantitative imperatives that structure our professional processes, as well as to break away from the rigid prestige economy that clearly still governs our publishing priorities. But these changes seem a little less likely to me now than they did in 2007, when I gave my first presentation to my colleagues on blogging — or than they did in 2011 when I made my case at BAVS, or in 2012 when my essay was published.

I’d love to know what other academic bloggers think — especially (but definitely not exclusively) any other former Valve-ers who might be out there. Were we wrong about the problem, or about blogging as a potential solution? What difference, if any, do you think academic blogging has made to academic writing, or publishing, or conversations? Has its moment passed without its potential ever being realized — which is what I rather fear?

“The value of appreciation” — Harrison Solow, Felicity & Barbara Pym

I missed Barbara Pym Reading Week by just a bit. I have been keen to read more Pym and serendipitously picked up a couple of Pym’s novels at a book sale just in time for it (The Sweet Dove Died and A Few Green Leaves). And I ordered Harrison Solow’s Felicity & Barbara Pym, which arrived on schedule. Then other things got in the way and I missed it.

sweet doveI did read The Sweet Dove Died a week or so later, though. It’s a slight little book, yet it wasn’t an easy read for me: I kept picking it up and putting it down and letting myself be diverted to other books. It’s true I’d been on a steady diet of Dick Francis novels and so perhaps my reading senses (they’re like spidey senses only less tingly) were not attuned to Pym’s dry tone and small scale. I was eventually drawn into the pathos (or is it bathos?) of Leonora’s lost loves, and of course I abhorred the loathsome Ned … but I felt as if the larger significance of the subtle nuances were escaping me.

I was afraid that my relative inexperience and lack of success with Pym (I didn’t love Jane and Prudence either, when I read it last year) set me up badly for Felicity & Barbara Pym. It turns out, though, that the opposite was true, as Solow’s charming and slyly provocative book is (in part) a tutorial for someone not altogether unlike me. Not quite or even very much like me, I hope, as the recipient of the letters that compose the novel is a self-absorbed undergraduate who gets a little snippy at blows to her self-esteem. Actually, that last bit sounds kind of familiar … Anyway (as Felicity might say), she’s registered for a seminar on Barbara Pym and Mallory Cooper (whose side of the correspondence is all we see) is called in to provide some advance tutoring.

Felicity initially isn’t much better at appreciating Pym than I was, and Mallory is quick to call her (alright, us) on it:

Your notes aren’t bad. You have touched on a few themes that Pym’s biographers, editors, and critics analyse repeatedly: Silly men. Mousy women. Tea. Religion. Quotations. These are worthy of mention. The fact that you still think nothing happens is not. It merely shows that you do not respond to what does happen in the novel, for whatever reason — innocence, feminism, scepticism, youth, cynicism, thoughtlessness, expectation, or too rapid and therefore too shallow reading of the novel — too light, perhaps, a perception of the economy of expression Miss Pym employs.

OK, OK: I am appropriately shamed and humbled.


Over the rest of the correspondence Mallory — cranky, erudite, witty, persistent — does her best to improve Felicity’s perception, working with her on nuances of dress and class, on historical contexts, on literary relationships (the riff on Religio Medici is particularly memorable), on silly men and, crucially, on the real significance of mousy women:

At best, the cultivation of mousiness is to participate in a distinctive moral past. At worst, it may indeed be a camouflage, brought about by war, under the protective covering of which the wish to inhabit one’s own cosmos peacably can be fulfilled.

“And now,” she continues, “– on to Tea” — and the excursus on tea is a wondrous thing indeed.

The Pym neophyte will benefit enormously from all of this: I have been moved not only to a greater appreciation of The Sweet Dove Died (“There is even an entire Pym novel devoted to the downfall of elegance, beauty, and taste, personified in the character of the colossally self-preoccupied Leonora”) but to a wish to reread Jane and Prudence and to acquire as soon as possible Excellent Women and Less Than Angels (at a minimum).

But the sneaky thing about Felicity & Barbara Pym is that Pym herself (as Solow acknowledges in her Preface) is not exactly the real subject of the book: instead, she’s a device for allowing Mallory — or  Solow — to critique academic approaches to literature she thinks are limited and limiting. Pym’s lack of academic currency (and really, how likely is it that anyone would offer or take an entire seminar on her novels?) makes her useful for this project: “she is such an antithesis to the prevailing attitude.”

It’s a project that could, like Pym, seem “outmoded.” Mallory speaks with nostalgia of a time when universities “were sacred to the pursuit of education, whereas now, for the most part, they are desultorily engaged in the dispensing of narrow expertise.” Her position is not exactly anti-theory: there’s even a theory primer of sorts near the end, which, though brisk and tendentious, is not inaccurate and includes the full URL of a real website at Brock University for “some rather more practical assistance,” perhaps even enlightenment. I might sum it up as a “pre-theory” position: Mallory feels that the literary conversation, particularly but not exclusively in the academy, needs to start with what Solow calls “the context of the civilisation of literature itself” — not just the big picture but the really big picture. “We do not read, after all, as a species,” Solow says in her Preface,

in order that we may deconstruct and dissect. People buy books and borrow books from libraries because they like them. They read, re-read, recommend, learn from, incorporate values from, live by, study, and take to bed at night, books they like; books they appreciate; books they find meaningful.  Appreciation is not perhaps what the university requests of its students today. But it is what writers … deserve.

As Felicity’s tutor, Mallory keeps broadening, rather than narrowing, the field of inquiry, the scope of questions. The ultimate goal, though, is not to ignore the range of theory, interpretation, and scholarship available but to arrive at it equipped with as rich an “appreciation” as possible, so that you can figure out its worth for your reading (and writing) with some independence. “I hope you will not ignore all of these critics,” exhorts Mallory, “for, among the labyrinths of nonsense, there is great, great worth. But that is for you to discover . . . ”

Excellent Women

To some extent I sympathize  with Mallory’s skepticism and impatience with the “labyrinths of nonsense,” and I certainly embrace the idea of appreciation, which is something I often pitch to my own classes as our goal (as opposed to, say, “liking”). The kind of appreciation Mallory endorses is also, crucially, not an anti-intellectual kind. There’s even a paragraph in the book that is eerily like a speech I have given more than once:

I want you to feel — and feel deeply about literature. But I also want you to know why and how these emotions are engendered by the writer, the text (apart from the writer), the words (apart from the text) as well as the relationship between the reader and all of the above. I also want you to be able to take that emotion out of any equation when it is necessary to do so. Otherwise, we could all take courses in “My Favourite Books” and spend endless and idle time in groups resembling your friend’s therapy session “sharing” our feelings about why we just love Gone with the Wind and how cool Harry Potter is. Not that there is anything wrong with that, intrinsically. But it’s not what we do in academic literary studies. If that’s what you want to do, join a book club.

Yet there are aspects of Mallory’s approach, and even more of her tone, that seemed a bit 1990s-culture-wars-ish to me, and I wondered how important it was that Felicity & Barbara Pym is epistolary fiction, rather than a straightforward first-person treatise or polemic: is Mallory herself being ironized even as she’s the vehicle for Felicity’s (re)education? Is her rather prim tone and affected manner a way of placing her at a safe distance? Are we meant to embrace her nostalgia, or to see her as embodying another among the list of theoretical approaches, one that purports to speak for the universal value of literature but that, in doing so, reveals its own limitations? (The book is actually, Solow says, “both fiction and non-fiction”; there are clear biographical parallels, but it’s also clear that we aren’t meant to assume a direct identification of author with speaker.)

Felicity & Barbara Pym, then, provokes as well as amuses. It had lots of connections, sometimes unexpected, to my own adventures in re-thinking literary criticism (speaking of “why we just love Gone with the Wind!). I would recommend Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel over Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer, and I didn’t much care for Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, but these are hardly irreconcilable differences to have with a book  so lively and ingenious.

Full disclosure: Harrison Solow and I follow each other on Twitter and have had more than one friendly exchange. I first learned about Felicity & Barbara Pym as a result of this contact — and I’m glad I did.

Diana Athill, Stet: On Angela Thirkell, Virginia Woolf, and the Embarrassment of Caste

StetThis month’s reading for the Slaves of Golconda group was Diana Athill’s briskly evocative memoir Stet, about her decades-long career in publishing. Other folks have been putting up their smart and detailed posts, and you should hop on over and read them if you haven’t visited already. Partly because I’m tired and busy, and partly because I can’t think of anything substantial to add to their observations, for my contribution I’m just going to quote a passage I particularly enjoyed. It comes almost at the very end, in Athill’s Postscript to the memoir, and it stood out for me because it touches on a number of issues about publishing and taste and literary merit and canonicity that have been coming up a lot in my classes this year — particularly the Somerville Novelists seminar (and as you’ll see, chronologically her remarks are spot on for that one) but also, more recently, in my intro class, where we’ve been talking about feminism and the role of taste-makers and gatekeepers in establishing and policing the literary hierarchy. The ‘crisis in publishing’ and the ‘death of reading’ are also, of course, endlessly reiterated themes in the literary world. I found Athill’s frankness and lack of pretension refreshing, her pragmatism admirable, and her examples thought-provoking.

Having seen Andre Deutsch Limited fade out, why am I not sadder than I am?

I suppose it is because, although I have often shaken my head over symptoms of change in British publishing such as lower standards of copy-preparation and proof-reading, I cannot feel that they are crucial. It is, of course, true that reading is going the same way as eating, the greatest demand being for the quick and easy, and for the simple, instantly recognizable flavours such as sugar and vinegar, or their mental equivalents; but that is not the terminal tragedy which it sometimes seems to the disgruntled old. It is not, after all, a new development: quick and easy has always been what the majority wants. The difference between my early days in publishing and the present is not that this common desire has come into being, but that it is now catered for more lavishly than it used to be. And that is probably because the grip on our trade of a particular caste has begun to relax.

Of that caste I am a member: one of the mostly London-dwelling, university, university-educated, upper-middle-class English people who took over publishing towards the end of the nineteenth century from the booksellers who used to run it. Most of us loved books and genuinely tried to understand the differences between good and bad writing; but I suspect that if we were examined from a god’s-eye viewpoint it would be seen that quite often our ‘good’ was good only according to the notions of the caste. Straining for that god’s-eye view, I sometimes think that not a few of the books I once took pleasure in publishing were pretty futile, and that the same was true of other houses. Two quintessentially ‘caste’ writers, one from the less pretentious end of the scale, the other from its highest reaches, were Angela Thirkell and Virginia Woolf. Thirkell is embarrassing — I always knew that, but would have published her, given the chance, because she was so obviously a seller. And Woolf, whom I revered in my youth, now seems almost more embarrassing because the claims made for her were so high. Not only did she belong to the caste, but she was unable to see beyond its boundaries — and that self-consciously ‘beautiful’ writing, all those adjectives — oh dear! Caste standards — it ought not to need saying — have no right to be considered sacrosanct.

Keeping that in mind is a useful specific against melancholy; and even better is the fact that there are plenty of people about who are making a stand against too much quick-and-easy. The speed with which the corners of supermarkets devoted to organic produce are growing into long shelves is remarkable; and there are still publishers — not many, but some — who are more single-mindedly determined to support serious writing than we ever were.

She’s right about organic produce (around here, anyway), and though I bet a lot of us would like to have it out with her about Woolf, and maybe also Thirkell, there seems a lot right too in her wry admission that there is no incontrovertible standard, and that  it’s all too easy to mystify one’s own preferences.

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?

Margaret Kennedy, The Outlaws on Parnassus

Preparing for reading The Constant Nymph in my Somerville Novelists seminar, I was intrigued to learn that in her Times obituary Margaret Kennedy was accorded little significance as a novelist while her book on the novel, The Outlaws on Parnassus, was considered her greatest literary contribution. I promptly ordered it from interlibrary loan, and it arrived just in time for me to take a look at it before we wrap up our discussions on Friday.

First published in 1958, The Outlaws on Parnassus harks back to works like E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel rather than anticipating the more theoretical wave of criticism to come. It’s an idiosyncratic book, including  taxonomies of forms and styles along with reflections on the role of the novel and of the critic. Kennedy begins from the point that the novel is a “late arrival” and thus does not have a clear, established place among the other older arts. The relatively low and ill-defined status of the novel is one factor, she proposes, for the dearth of serious criticism of the novel; the other is the perceived redundancy of such criticism given the apparent ease of both reading and writing novels: “The other arts strike the average man as being much more mysterious and as making more strenuous demands upon him.” Novelists, too, she thinks, are uneasy about where they fit and what their work is worth.

I enjoyed her analysis of the fundamental problem confronting the would-be critic:

It is a great misfortune for any human activity if the Greeks, as was seldom the case, had no word for it. The chances are that it will stagger through the ages shackled by ambiguities, since it never got itself thoroughly defined at the start. The most useful words in which to discuss it are missing, and there is no original debate to which any dispute can be referred.

In a discussion of the drama, for instance, it is always possible to ask what Aristotle meant by irony, pathos, the unities, and the protagonists. Since he never deliberated upon the novel we do not know what meaning he would have attached to a plot or a story save in relation to tragic drama. If he did not define these things, who can? Who should?

Who should, indeed? The Outlaws of Parnassus is, of course, Kennedy’s own contribution to defining “these things” plot, story, narrative voice all get some attention, with examples drawn from Homer to Austen to Scott to Tolstoy to Joyce. Kennedy’s approach is pluralistic: she focuses on what different strategies enable, or on when and why various trends emerged, rather than declaring any of them preferable. A sample from her chapter “The Language of Thought”:

Scott, when he wrote this passage [from Waverley], would not have maintained that it was an accurate transcription of thought. He had taken some trouble to convey the state of mind. The soliloquy is addressed to the victim, which is obviously right. We are told that the dying man’s whisper rang continually, like a knell: “Ah, Squire! Why did you leave us?” The paternal fields have been identified as a boyhood memory for both of them, and a picture conjured up of a cottage and bereaved friends: “old Job Houghton and his dame” to whom the penitent has promised to be kind if he ever gets home. In 1814 no novelist would have thought it necessary or possible to do more. Few would have done as much.

By 1914 it was felt to be necessary, and possibilities were therefore explored. Writers using an orchestra of minds to tell their story for them were obliged to consider, not only the exact language of the mind, but the variety of language, as used by different minds. A technical device developed which has sometimes been called “interior monologue.” It is a soliloquy purporting to be bounded entirely by the thinker’s character, idiom, vocabulary and range of expression.

As a device it bristles with problems. . . .

After discussion of, among other things, Molly Bloom’s “reverie at the end of Ulysses,” Kennedy returns to Scott to note that when most fully possessed with a character, as she thinks he was with Jeanie Deans, exceeds “the conventions of his age” and “indicates those small, subtle changes of style and vocabulary,dictated by mood, which are the essence of the whole business; he indicates them with a certainty for which many a writer in this century, grinding out interior monologue, might envy him.” That’s the kind of moment that made The Outlaws on Parnassus winning for me–it’s not that Scott is good only insofar as he anticipates later fictional priorities, but that he’s not to be underestimated because these were not routinely his priorities.

Kennedy gets kind of snarky when she gets to the more self-conscious era of the modern novel, especially when talking about novelists who focused making the novel “professional” or “serious.” About James, Moore, and Conrad, she notes,

All three were tremendously interested in the theory of the novel; they believed that a writer ought to be able to determine in advance what a good novel should be, instead of writing one, as their forbears had done, in the hope that it would turn out to be good.

Things only got worse as novelists decided that their watchword, their measure of good, serious art, should be “integrity”: “The fact that bad artists can have it too was not so generally recognized.” Shes impatient with attempts to distinguish on this basis between potboilers and real novels, or between art and non-art, an effort she sees as a diversion from the critic’s real task, which is “to distinguish between bad art and good art, and, above all, to help us to understand why good art is good.” Attempts to delimit the field of art a priori, on the basis of intentions, are fundamentally mistaken; as she says with admirable understatement, “It is not by a yard-stick of intentions that we can measure the distance between East Lynne and Middlemarch.”

However, the twentieth century saw the rise of “dogma” about “the only possible and permissible way” of writing novels. She looks at “naturalism,” for instance, which she sees as having given novelists new tools and ways “to say some things which had not been said before” (a good thing) but which, taken as dogma, could also lead novelists into error: “at length it became clear that there is no intrinsic magic in the formula . . . a formula can beget nothing on the imagination.” The alternative to the dogma of naturalism or realism is what she calls “the novel of egocentric perception.” Here her touchstone text is Woolf’s essay “Modern Fiction,” which she quotes at length, including the “gig lamps symmetrically arranged” bit. Rather than insisting on scrupulous fidelity to external details, the novelist wedded to this dogma “bases all on the writer’s own feeling . . . [and] shuns the external.” This too is an enabling dogma in the right hands (“by its first advocates [the Bloomsbury Group] it was regarded as a formula for the rare, the gifted, the chosen few”). But as with realism, egocentrism — however excellent in theory –could be only as good  in practice as the individual novelist:

Amongst novelists the good news spread that they need no longer provide plot, comedy, tragedy, love interest, nor catastrophe in order to get top marks. Many adopted the new method who had never got nearer to Bloomsbury than Clapham Junction. They did not see why they should not be as rare and gifted and chosen as anybody else.

The failures of “writers who should never have attempted the method” incited a backlash and “the dogma collapsed so suddenly that those who had put their shirts on it had no resource save to declare furiously that the whole art of the novel must be, in such cases, defunct.” Yet Kennedy believes that “frontier land between the novel and poetry” which “the novel of egocentric perception” had explored was worth the risks and rejoices that such experimentation had made it possible for novelists such as Elizabeth Bowen and Eudora Welty to have “a large public.” Pluralistic, as I said, a point that is reinforced by her chapter “The Choice” which surveys formal options available to novelists (with examples from Richardson, Fielding, Homer, Bennett, and Bowen) and concludes:

In making a possible list for the attic these questions can be put: Why was the form chosen? Did it suit the material? Did the author appear to understand it? Had he the gifts required by those who use it? Is any departure from it deliberate, an experiment, or merely an indication that he did not perceive its limitations? Upon the answers will depend the sheer readability of the book in thirty years’ time. Whether, even it is readable, it will be read, is another matter. That depends upon content. He need not sign his own death-warrant in advance. If he does so sign it, however striking the content, to the attic he will go.

One way this commentary seems relevant to the reading I’ve been doing for my Somerville seminar is precisely that point about choosing the form to suit the material: one of the most useful critical pieces I’ve read is an essay on Winifred Holtby and Woolf (previously discussed here) that points out that by the time Holtby wrote her novels, there were clear stylistic and formal alternatives to the social realism she chose.

There’s much more of interest in this little volume, including a chapter on didacticism in fiction (charmingly titled, “Anyway, I think so!”), another on ethics, another  on “Faking” (including a bit on famous writers who produce a “Reputational Novel,” one written only “because he thinks that his reputation demands another addition to literature”). But I’ll take my last excerpts here from her concluding chapter on “The Goosefeather Bed,” in which Kennedy takes up arms against “the appearance of a new critical term: the serious novelist.” In this chapter she laments the tendency of critics to set aside “the labour of identifying and defining the good” in favour of guaranteeing a writer’s seriousness, defined largely in opposition to his commercialism. “Seriousness” used to be a meaningful term, she says, but now is little more than a good conduct prize, indicating “a miserable decline in critical standards.” In fact, Kennedy argues, there ought to be no such distinction between types of novels, all of whom “share the great goosefeather bed of General Fiction.” What seems to bother her most, again, seems to be the idea that you can or should discriminate between kinds of novels or novelists, rather than between good and bad novels. She urges as broadminded a concept of fiction as possible, on the grounds that it is ultimately the freedom from rules, constraints, and categories that

enabled novelists in the past to write as they pleased, under a label which might be inadequate but which never quenched those who had no mind to be quenched. It never fettered or silenced the giants who won for the novel a whom on Parnassus, and to whom it owes liberty and dignity.

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 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.