When is Reading Research?

I’ve been thinking more about what we mean when we say “research.” In my post on the ‘duties of professors,’ I quote C. Q. Drummond’s remark,

If research in an Arts Faculty means humane learning, then we all hope our teachers are as much involved in research as they possibly can be. We want them to know better and better what they are talking about, so that they will have, and will continue to have, something intelligent and important to profess to their students. But if research means output or publication, as it so often does today, how do the students profit?

In his turn, Drummond quotes George Whalley, who suggests that the word “research” is altogether misleading or inappropriate when applied to humanistic inquiry: ““The functions of research are specialized and limited; … the word research is not a suitable term for referring to the central initiative and purpose of sustained inquiry in ‘the humanities.'” “Most professors in Arts Faculties,” Drummond proposes, “would be better off reading more and publishing less.” Of course, reading is research for most humanists–that is, it’s the research process. But not all reading is research–or it it?

When we talk about “doing research,” I think we conventionally mean reading in service of a particular research project, that is, reading in pursuit of a foreseen research product, a published essay or book. Does that mean that reading for which we cannot already identify such an outcome is not research, then? Certainly it’s reading for which we can get no particular institutional support. For instance, if I want to get a research grant, it does me no good to justify my budget on the grounds that I am gathering materials on subjects about which I would simply like to know more than I do, or in which I have a developing interest but, as yet, no idea what, if any, payoff there will be in terms of publications. I also can’t get research support to develop new classes. I might be able to get a grant from our Center for Teaching and Learning–although peering at their page, the only grants I see them offering are for “faculty members who are seeking new and innovative ways to incorporate technology into their teaching practice” and “high impact initiatives that address student engagement activities/projects in the first year of their studies.” Too bad if I just want to follow my curiosity, acquire new expertise, and then gather students up to share it through reading and discussion.

My own new class on the ‘Somerville Novelists’ may, in fact, incorporate technology (brace yourselves, students–I’m thinking wikis again!), but it will have been developed from reading I did initially purely out of interest–and of books I bought with my own money. I don’t mind about the money–though it’s sometimes frustrating to realize how much the university relies on our willingness to do things “on our own” without which the institution would be a much poorer place, and by that I don’t mean poorer financially. (I bought the laptop I’m using with my own money too–the university doesn’t provide “home” or portable computers, or at least our faculty doesn’t, but imagine how academic work would grind to a halt if we could not work evenings and weekends, or not without coming in to campus. But that’s another issue…sort of.) I don’t really draw strict lines between what I do for work and what I do for myself, precisely because being a professor is not just having a job but having a certain identity–filling (or aspiring to fill) a certain kind of role in the world. But especially since reading Drummond’s essay I’ve been thinking about the way our particular understanding of “research,” one that yokes together the process and the product, undervalues other kinds of reading. I do mind about that, because I think it artificially narrows both that job and that identity.

Is there really only one professionally worthwhile kind of reading? I’ve recently bought Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. I bought it out of interest: I’ve been exhilarated by learning about other early 20th-century women writers, and West is a major figure. I’m not sure where to place her: she’s not specifically in the Somerville crowd I’ve been looking into, and she’s not really a Modernist (I don’t think). I’m curious to figure out more about her. Reading The Return of the Soldier made me more curious. She is not–and Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is not–obviously continuous with any issues or genres I have an explicit “research” interest in. There are plenty of books in “my field” of Victorian literature that I haven’t read, and there are also plenty of books about Victorian literature that I haven’t read. I have some declared “research” projects that have not reached the official finishing point of publication in an academic journal (much less an academic monograph). Clearly, if I read (when I read) Black Lamb and Grey Falcon I am doing it only for myself: it’s not research. And yet reading it will almost certainly  help me have “something intelligent and important to profess to [my] students,” and that I don’t know exactly what else will come of it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It isn’t even necessarily a bad thing that nothing concrete (beyond some blog posts) may ever come of it. But by some measures–the only ones that mean much, professionally, these days–it would be more productive for me to read the umpteenth specialized analysis of Middlemarch. Now that would be research.

Mark Bauerlein’s “The Research Bust”

I have mixed but mostly negative feelings about Mark Bauerlein’s recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education about literary research. Reporting on a study* he did for the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, Bauerlein argues that (most) literary research and publishing is not worth the investment of time and money that goes into it. His major evidence in support of this argument is that academic books and articles aren’t cited very much. Interestingly, he doesn’t argue that this is because they aren’t any good, that they aren’t worth doing because they contribute nothing to knowledge or understanding, or because they are opaque to the lay reader (popular forms of the attack on academic criticism, both of which are to be found in the long comments thread on his post) . In fact, he opens with the example of an article that is “learned, wide-ranging, and conversant with scholarship on the poet and theoretical currents in literary studies. The argument is dense, the analysis acute, on its face a worthy illustration of academic study deserving broad notice and integration into subsequent research in the field.” What he finds, however, after diligently entering the article’s title into Google Scholar, is only “a handful of sentences of commentary on the original article by other scholars in the 10 years after its publication.” There’s a dramatic imbalance, as he sees it, between the input (“100-plus hours of hard work by a skilled academic, plus the money the university paid the professor to conduct the research”) and the impact (” we can be sure of only a few scholars who incorporated it into their work”).

There’s plenty to be said about Bauerlein’s methodology, and some of the comments on the piece are sharp about the reliability of citations indexes in general and Google Scholar in particular, as well as about his very reductive notion of impact, which doesn’t consider the impact of scholarship that is read but not formally cited, read as teaching preparation, and so on. That we can’t count something doesn’t make it irrelevant, and all practising scholars know from their own first-hand experience, I’m sure, that they read and are influenced in their thinking by a great deal of material that never makes it into their footnotes or bibliographies.

But suppose we grant Bauerlein a modified version of his quantitative point: suppose it’s true that much specialized research does not change the conversation the way its authors probably hope it will. In fact, my own experience to some extent supports this–not only of watching the fate of my own publications, but of burrowing through masses of work by other scholars that really does, as Bauerlein says, “overwhelm[] the capacity of individuals to absorb the annual output.” What puzzles and disturbs me is what Bauerlein believes follows from this ‘finding,’ which is that we ought to stop doing (or at least funding) literary scholarship (he doesn’t actually say this in so many words, and at some points seems to be making the more temperate suggestion that we simply scale back expectations and output). Along the way to this modest proposal he also makes some dubious further claims–or at least claims that would require a great deal more nuance and specificity to be satisfactory.

Further to his point about the overwhelming mountain of publications, for instance, he proposes that we have “reached a saturation point, the cascade of research having exhausted most of the subfields.” But his examples  are Melville and George Eliot, two of the most emphatically canonical authors imaginable. Yes, it’s a near impossibility to read “all of the 80 items of scholarship that are published on George Eliot each year”: I can’t do it–I wouldn’t want to do it. But the realities of specialization are also such that I don’t need to do it: there isn’t one subfield of George Eliot scholarship anymore but a multiplicity of potential angles on George Eliot, and the researcher’s task is to navigate among the available material to find what’s relevant. Yes, that’s difficult, even frustrating at times, but it’s hard to see how a continuing “cascade of research” is a sign of exhaustion: surely it’s a sign that people are still finding questions to ask, and doing their best to answer them? In these cases it may be true that the results will matter only to ” a microscopic audience of interested readers,” but that’s what happens in all highly specialized fields, not just in the humanities. The objection, then, can only be that for some reason literary subjects are not suited to specialization, which seems a suspect argument, one that harks back to a time when literary scholars were comfortably certain they knew what needed to be known and said about the books that really mattered, and those books and that knowledge could be neatly summed up and pronounced upon.

Having said this much, I should acknowledge what readers of this blog (certainly, any who have read it from its early days!) already know about me, which is that I have often complained about the pressure of specialization and the related trend towards metacriticism. I started blogging in part because of my own dissatisfaction with the norms of academic literary criticism. My early complaints about that got me in hot water with a commenter who charged me with “offering nourishment” to those who want “to eliminate literary studies from university curricula altogether.” Though I know more now than I did then about these kinds of criticisms of and attacks on the academic humanities, my view continues to be that what we need is not to end, but to diversify the kinds of research and writing that institutions recognize and support as valuable uses of academic expertise. There needs to be room for ‘knowledge dissemination’ that serves non-specialist purposes and audiences, for instance. Some researchers have less inclination and talent for microspecialization, but excel at synthesis and exposition–I think that is actually where my own strengths lie. But ask any academic whether writing a textbook or a popularization (or a series of reviews and essays in a non-academic, non-peer-reviewed journal) “counts” the same way that 5001st study of Melville will, when it comes time for hiring, tenure, or promotion, or just for earning the respect and support of your institution and administration…

To return to Bauerlein’s argument, the 5001st article on Melville may yet have its value to the small group of Melville specialists, provided it is, like the article he mentions in his opening, a high quality piece of professional scholarship. But it’s true that it can’t maximize its impact if it is not widely read, and the burden of reading 5000 other studies may be too much for most scholars. I think Bauerlein is right to suggest that quantitative measures for tenure and promotion are detrimental to individual scholars as well as to the profession as a whole.  (I interviewed for one position where I was told I would need two books or six articles for tenure. That’s absurd, not least because the fetishization of books creates what I described in an earlier post as “the corrupting pressure to inflate, not only our prose and our manuscripts, but our claims.”) The MLA has been making the argument for decentering the monograph for years now, but as Bauerlein points out, “nobody wants to take the first step in reducing the demand.” Between the crisis in academic publishing and the changing demands and expectations of scholars themselves, perhaps eventually the ‘publish or perish’ model will be reformed.

But let’s consider, again, the article Bauerlein opens with. The problem Bauerlein identifies is not that the author’s time (and the university’s resources) were wasted because the article never needed to be written the first place, but because the article had little measurable impact–it didn’t make a conspicuous difference to the field. Again, Bauerlein’s claims are undermined by their lack of specificity: depending on how specialized the essay’s argument is, perhaps nobody should expect it to transform the overall discussion about that particular canonical poet. The 10-year time frame also does not allow for the glacially slow pace of academic publishing. But let’s, again, grant him a modified version of his premise, this time that the impact of the piece really was inappropriately (or unfortunately) light. Why isn’t that a reason, not to stop producing learned, wide-ranging, acute analysis, but to change the mechanisms for circulating it? What’s wrong with the processes, the apparatus, of our scholarship, if good ideas are not circulating as widely as they should? How can we open up the research and publishing process so that scholars engage each other in more direct, productive conversations? Why aren’t the scholars working in this area actually talking to each other–not face to face, but through Twitter, blogs, listservs, or other kinds of scholarly networks? Is it that there are too many of them, each of them individually overwhelmed by the difficulty of trying to keep up with the output of scholarship from others? Or is it something about their work habits–keeping their heads down, trying to beat the tenure clock, looking only so far and no further? Is the sheer pressure to publish a lot a disincentive to more exhaustive research? What are the logistical impediments, in other words, to improving the circulation of ideas? Also, how can we change the way we work so that the value Bauerlein himself claims to recognize in an essay such as that one can be perceived by readers outside the academy as well? Why is the best response to a (perceived) oversupply of exemplary scholarship to denigrate or even halt the scholarship, rather than to champion it and ask that we and our institutions work to solve the problem of its reception and distribution?

From Bauerlein’s perspective, the answer would appear to be that he thinks literary research has already run its course–that there’s really nothing left of any significance for scholars to find out, at least not on behalf of the rest of us. But here his choice of George Eliot and Melville is misleading, if not disingenuous. I’m prepared to concede that the latest articles on George Eliot are pretty specialized. Indeed, I have nearly lost interest in reading them myself, and I don’t want to be compelled to contribute to them myself. Curiosity-driven research can hardly, in consistency, be made compulsory. But I don’t think that means they have no value (why should my interests and preferences be the arbiter?), and I wouldn’t want to propose (as Bauerlein certainly implies) that “saturation” means “completion”–what would it mean to be finished studying something? how could we ever be sure we have found out everything there is to know? “We can no longer pretend … that studies of Emily Dickinson are as needed today,” Bauerlein proclaims, but how can he know this? There’s some irony in his relying on simple quantity of research to decide there’s nothing of interest or value left to be said. Still, perhaps in these cases scholars are working mostly for each other. Again, this happens in all fields once you reach a certain level of specialization.

Suppose we consider if every subfield is as densely populated as those he cites, however. I’ve been looking up Winifred Holtby: there’s very little scholarship about her novels, compared to the vast output on her Bloomsbury contemporaries. That absence of material is already provocative, to my mind: what has given one literary movement so much more critical value? In learning more about Holtby and Brittain, I feel that I am also learning (again) about the ways our scholarship is shaped by expectations and priorities that are not intrinsic to the literature but may, in fact, interfere with our understanding of its forms and ideas. Much was made at one time about the “end of history”: does Bauerlein believe we have reached the end of literary history? Surely not. The landscape of literary studies is in constant flux, not just in the theoretical apparatus readers bring to primary texts, but in our selection of primary texts to look at in the first place. Imagine if we had concluded, as a profession, that Leavis’s The Great Tradition was the last word on the British novel, or that the list of Oxford World’s Classics as of, say, 1970, was definitive. In my own undergraduate course on the Victorian novel, in 1988, the term “sensation fiction” never came up–and neither did Elizabeth Gaskell. In our discussion of Jane Eyre, at no point did we consider whether British imperialism was a significant context. In my own academic lifetime and my own specialized field, that is, there have been enormous changes in just a couple of decades. It’s easy to take the horizons of our own interests and knowledge as actual limits on what is worth asking or knowing, but surely the last 100 years of literary studies have shown us just how limiting and even dangerous that assumption can be. What a depressingly anti-intellectual proposition, that we have nothing more to learn or say, or that even if we do, it’s not worth finding it out. It’s precisely because we can’t foresee the significance of research that we need to preserve a space to do it open-mindedly, in a spirit of sheer intellectual curiosity. Up close, in the moment, it may be difficult to discern how or where the multitude of individual projects is moving us–but yet, look back and see what a different place we are in now. Who, in 1900, or 1950, or even 1980, could have told us what would turn out to make the most difference?

Ah, but you see, all that research is expensive. As Bauerlein says, “we cannot devote our energies to projects of little consequence”–but note the presumed correlation between measurable impact and “consequence.” And, again, “impact” is a complex issue, one hardly amenable to simple metrics. What will those “undergraduate reading groups” Bauerlein wants us to lead (in lieu of going to conferences or archives) be talking about in 10 or 20 years, if specialized research grinds to a halt? Exactly the same things we would bring to them today, I suppose–but why would we want time to stand still in that way? Or, how will he decide who will carry on the research while the rest of us focus on mentoring undergraduates (not, presumably, to be scholars) and “pushing foreign languages in general-education requirements”? (How that last is the particular responsibility of English professors, I’m not clear.) Bauerlein argues,

 If a professor who makes $75,000 a year spends five years on a book on Charles Dickens (which sold 43 copies to individuals and 250 copies to libraries, the library copies averaging only two checkouts in the six years after its publication), the university paid $125,000 for its production. Certainly that money could have gone toward a more effective appreciation of that professor’s expertise and talent.

But that professor’s “expertise” is surely in part defined (and expanded) precisely by that long-term effort to know more about Dickens. Why is it a “more effective appreciation” of that professor to discourage  (and perhaps even to prevent, by withholding time and resources) the research and publication of the book? (How can you judge the importance of the book’s ideas from the number of times it has been checked out, anyway? Haven’t you ever just sat in the stacks and read stuff?)

Bauerlein is right to challenge the reigning paradigm that values quantity over quality and specialization over synthesis and accessibility. But throughout the piece, there’s an uneasy slippage between making the case for a more rational, deliberative research model and a wholesale dismissal of the entire enterprise. At one point he acknowledges that “research is an intellectual good,” but then he shrugs it off as “ineffectual toil.” He concedes that those who object to his position are not wrong “on principle”–but then rules them out of order on grounds of pragmatism. He agrees that research “makes better teachers and colleagues” but then he characterizes it as the pursuit of an identity that is alluring because it “flatter[s] people that they have cutting-edge brilliance”–as if literary research is no more than egotistical posturing. (Perhaps he has been reading Eugenides?) He concludes by looking forward to the waning of “the research years of literary study.” As many of the comments on his piece show, this kind of thing is music to the ears of those who see no value at all in what we do–his gestures towards moderation and reform are eclipsed by his larger narrative of excess and waste.

That Bauerlein’s column is clearly having a large impact (as measured by external links–including both Arts and Letters Daily and the Book Bench–as well as by the number of comments it has garnered) seems to me pretty good evidence that we need better ways to measure what a piece of writing is really worth.

*I haven’t read the entire study; my response is just to the presentation of its main ideas in the Chronicle article.

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?

“Women Catch Courage”: Carolyn Heilbrun, The Last Gift of Time

lastgift

The greatest oddity of one’s sixties is that, if one dances for joy, one always supposes it is for the last time. Yet this supposition provides the rarest and most exquisite flavor to one’s later years. The piercing sense of “last time” adds intensity, while the possibility of “again” is never quite effaced.

It’s impossible not to be very aware, reading The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty, that Carolyn Heilbrun committted suicide in 2003–six years, that is, after the book’s publication. As she tells us in the Preface, she had “long ago settled upon the determination to end [her] life at seventy,” but arriving at that age, which once seemed “far off, indeed unlikely ever to occur,” she surprised herself by choosing to live past it. Life, for her, became a daily decision, an empowering one because it meant she remained in control of the narrative of her own life. As someone who finds the opacity and finality of death profoundly disturbing, I am fascinated by her clarity and resolve about it.

The Last Gift of Time is a series of personal essays reflecting on Heilbrun’s experience of aging as well as on issues that took on new relevance or new dimensions as she aged. Perhaps because they are quite personal, to me they were not all equally substantial or valuable. I didn’t much like the chapter “Living with Men,” for instance, which seemed to me to overgeneralize carelessly. But I loved “The Small House,” in which Heilbrun writes about her desire for solitude, in pursuit of which she eventually buys a small house in the country. It turns out she does not love being alone quite the way she expected and she and her husband end up, paradoxically, finding “solitude together.” But she is astute about the temptation, the fantasy, of solitude, “a temptation so beguiling that it carries with it the guilt of adultery, and the promise of consummation.” Being alone and being lonely are not necessarily the same conditions–indeed, my own experience is that it is sometimes possible to feel much more lonely when not alone. I imagine many women, particularly ones with young families, feel both longing for “quality time” with themselves and guilt about that desire; men who want to get away from it all have (as Heilbrun points out) more cultural support and precedent for it. I wonder how far Heilbrun is right that the pleasure of solitude depends on its being both voluntary and temporary.

Another chapter I enjoyed is the one on e-mail, which is also really about balancing aloneness and togetherness. E-mail “reaches into our privacy without invading it,” as she remarks, and she rightly notes too that it enables new relationships to develop as well as sustaining old ones that might otherwise erode with distance. She’s writing when this technology was still relatively new for non-techies. I got my own first email account in 1995, when I moved away from Vancouver to go to Cornell, and I remember how it sustained me (as, indeed, it still does) to open my mailbox and find messages from home. As Heilbrun notes, there’s an intimacy to email that is different (not better, just different) from both face-to-face and phone conversations: “with e-mail, one moves into it without notice, and may find there messages that are not, strangely enough, appropriate for the telephone.”  Also, because they are written and not in ‘real time,’ email messages can allow us not just extra reflection but also “the practice of wit.” I imagine Heilbrun would have been even more exhilirated by blogging–and might even have been an enthusiastic Facebooker.

220px-Carolyn_Gold_HeilbrunTwo other, more literary, chapters also stood out for me. One, “Unmet Friends,” talks in general about the way writers can come, in our minds, to be our close friends, though we have ‘met’ them only through their words on the page. “Women catch courage,” Heilbrun proposes, “from the women whose lives and writings they read, and women call the bearer of that courage ‘friend.'” Heilbrun’s main example is Maxine Kumin, who, she says, “exists as a close friend only in my mind.” She talks in engaging detail about how she got to ‘know’ Kumin and what their ‘friendship’ has meant to her over the years. “Kumin,” she explains, “spanned both the refuted and the desired aspects of my life.” But she also mentions Dorothy L. Sayers (“her life and her writings spoke to me of a more expansive life, an existence devoted to aims riskier than I had previously allowed myself”)–and Virginia Woolf, who, though “a writer I have studied, taught, and written about with admiration, has never been a friend: she is entirely too much of a genius for that.” There’s also a separate chapter on a writer who became Heilbrun’s real-life friend, May Sarton. Heilbrun mentions her reading of Sarton’s 1968 memoir, Plant Dreaming Deep, “a work that quite literally caught me in its spell,” as “the beginning of our friendship;” that comment, plus her account of Sarton’s eccentric personality and vexed writing career, made me glad I had coincidentally picked up Plant Dreaming Deep at the same time I bought The Last Gift of Time.

The final chapter in The Last Gift of Time is “On Mortality.” It’s here, of course, that the knowledge of her suicide lingers most hauntingly over her words, but the chapter is neither morbid nor sentimental–she considers her death in the context, especially, of her children and grandchildren, and admits that she faces her own mortality with equanimity but cannot bear the thought of her husband’s: “Perhaps death, the nearness of it, transforms long marriages. . . . I have noticed that marriages that have endured over many decades seem to have earned, as reward, a mutual mellowness.” She has learned to stop expecting or demanding change; she quotes George Balanchine’s instruction, “Just dance the steps,” and suggests that similarly she has come to believe that in marriage too, one should worry less about larger meaning and significance and “just dance the steps.” The chapter ends with a poem that was new to me and that will linger with me, Jane Kenyon’s “Otherwise.” An excerpt:

I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

For Heilbrun, that day was October 9, 2003.

This Month in My Sabbatical: Not a Bad Start

I’m sort of missing the routine of my weekly teaching posts–not just writing them, but the act of taking stock that they represent. So I thought I would have a go at a similar exercise reflecting on my  progress (if that’s what it is!) through my sabbatical term. It may be even more useful, in a way, to make sure I am self-conscious about the passage of time, because my days are much less structured and my goals are in some ways more diffuse! So here goes.

Ongoing Business: Despite what non-academics often think, being on sabbatical does not mean not being at work–it means shifting the focus of your work, particularly by re-allocating the time usually spent in class prep, teaching, marking, and administration to research and writing tasks. Most of that time, that is, because there are always teaching and administrative tasks that still need to get done. For instance, this month we were asked to turn in our course descriptions for next year, which means I have already spent some time thinking about reading lists. Book orders will be due later this spring, so at this point my choices are only tentative, but I did brood about how things went with specific books or courses the last time and make some changes accordingly; I also researched and then wrote away for exam copies of some alternative texts, particularly for the Mystery and Detective Fiction class. I set up and marked a make-up exam for a student who had a family crisis right before our December final. I worked through 100 pages of a draft thesis chapter from one of my Ph.D. students and about 40 pages from another (and I attended a colloquium paper presented by yet another whose committee I am on). I wrote a lot of reference letters (and have three more I plan to finish up today or tomorrow).

Housekeeping: During teaching terms, though I stay on top of the day-to-day business pretty well, I find there’s not a lot of time to spend thinking about how I organize things, or sorting through old materials to see what needs to stay and what can go. After 15 years in this job (and 10, now, in this particular office) stuff does rather pile up. One of the first things I did in the new year, then, was to begin going through my filing cabinets: so far I have three bags of paper ready for recycling, and much less duplicate or unnecessary material taking up space. I’ve also donated (or at least put out on our “help yourselves” shelf in the department lounge) an array of unwanted books. Equally important now that we do more and more of our work electronically, though, is electronic filing, and here I have begun a big project of reorganizing my files of course materials. Long ago I decided to keep my paper notes and handouts in files by author and text, rather than course, which has worked very well for me: if I’m teaching, say, Great Expectations, I pull out the DICKENS GREAT EXPECTATIONS folder and in it I find old lecture notes, discussion questions, overheads, essay topics, etc. But my computer files have always been by course and then by year. This worked well for a few years, but now I often find myself puzzling over which year it was that I taught The Tenant of Wildfell Hall or where the latest version of the exam questions on Jude the Obscure are filed. Of course, you can simply search for key terms, but inefficiencies still emerge if you’re trying to browse your materials for a particular text or topic–plus there’s redundancy here too, as I end up with many files of lecture notes revised, expanded, or improved on over the years but still stored in multiple versions. So I’m re-sorting all this stuff into the kinds of groupings that I think will help me quickly gather what I need when I’m prepping for class and deleting outdated or duplicate files. Once the teaching ones are better organized, I’d like to do the same for my research materials. Many of these files I might copy into OneNote, which is where I now organize my new notes and draft materials.

Research: My main research project for this sabbatical is getting a version of my essay on Ahdaf Soeuif ready for submission to a peer-reviewed journal–at least, I think that’s what I want to do with it, though I admit, the revolution still unfolding in Egypt has made me feel dissatisfied, somewhat, with what I’ve been doing. More about that later, perhaps. In any case, I have finished taking my fresh set of notes on The Map of Love (on January 25th, as it happens, I was just working through a scene of intense political discussion in the novel, a debate about the future of Egypt and the possibility of change). One of the challenges of academic writing is figuring out, not just what you want to say, but when you’re ready–or allowed–to say it, given the array of contextual and critical material that already exists. When can you stop reading, in other words, and feel entitled to contribute to the discussion? There is no right way to answer this, of course, and it is easy (at least for me) to get so overwhelmed by the vastness of the existing scholarship and the difficulty of drawing lines between what’s relevant and what’s peripheral that I can’t put two words of my own together. I find what helps me most, in this situation, is to go back to my primary text, allowing whatever else I’ve been reading to buzz around in the back of my mind and help me notice things and generate questions as I go. I make detailed notes, going page by page through the novel, and along the way I usually begin to see where the main questions are for me, and how I might begin to answer them. Then I am better able to see what I don’t have to read, and to position myself in the discussion I want to be a part of. In this case, because I am starting from my analysis of In the Eye of the Sun, I wanted to stay in roughly the same territory, thinking about the relationship between Soueif’s work and the English literary tradition she repeatedly invokes. But The Map of Love is a very different book, particularly in its form, and it seems much less confident about the idea of common ground (or ‘mezza terra’) that I argued is central to the earlier novel. Towards the end of last week I started roughing out the new section of the essay.

Other Reading and Writing: I’ve done quite a bit of reading this month. I began looking at some recent books in Victorian studies, in keeping with my goal of refreshing my own expertise for both teaching and criticism in “my” field. One was Patrick Brantlinger’s Victorian Literature and Postcolonial Studies, but it ended up not being of great interest, as it recapitulates texts and debates that I had already become reasonably familiar with. He’s a good writer and it’s a good overview, to be sure. I’ve begin Rachel Ablow’s The Marriage of Minds: Reading, Sympathy, and the Victorian Marriage Plot, and I have James Eli Adams’s A History of Victorian Literature out from the library–another overview, but given how specialized critical work has become, I thought I’d start big and zoom in. But, speaking of specialized, I saw Julie Fromer’s A Necessary Luxury: Tea in Victorian England in the library while I was browsing around and couldn’t resist checking it out as well. Necessary indeed! I’ve documented most of my other reading on this blog already, including the beginnings of my Margaret Kennedy project–I’m two books in and feeling, frankly, underwhelmed, but I will persist! And if the essay that results is along the lines of “Margaret Kennedy: As Well Known as She Deserves, Actually,” well, that will be as interesting in its own way as “Margaret Kennedy: Underappreciated!” Among the other books I’ve read and written up are Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory and Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book, for the book clubs I now participate in, and I’m now reading Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers, not really for fun (how could it be? too grim!) but with an eye to my mystery class in the fall.  In addition to the ‘other writing’ that I have done here on Novel Readings (including a long piece on Sex and the City 2), I also wrote a review of Sara Paretsky’s Body Work for Open Letters Monthly–though this is not an academic publication, it certainly draws on the work I’ve done preparing for my courses on detective fiction.

Overall, then, though I’d like to be a bit further along in the rough draft of the Soueif essay, and though I feel I have not, actually, done as much reading as I’d like, or (with the academic reading) as much as I probably should have, I think I have made a reasonable start on accomplishing my goals for this sabbatical. A lot of time I might have spent working on other things, I spent reading and watching coverage of events in Egypt–I’m not inclined, actually, to see that as in any way irresponsible. I’ve also been going fairly regularly to the gym, where I run around the dreary concrete track, and I’ve made good progress on my cross-stitch “Bookshelf” sampler, including changing the pattern to include more of the books and authors I like best! Maybe next weekend I’ll get the binding on the quilt that has been sitting unfinished on my sewing table for months, and then I’ll really feel I’m getting things done…

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.

Writing and Life: Influential Critics

heilbrunSome time ago one of my most thoughtful readers (hi, Tom!) suggested I write about “a teacher/scholar whose work has had a significant influence on you.” I really liked this idea because, as I said in the resulting post, “It is impossible to overestimate the importance the right teacher at the right time can have on a student, though it may be impossible to foresee what will turn out to be ‘right’ ahead of time.” The teachers I wrote on included one from elementary school, one from high school, and one in particular among several who were important to my university years. At the close of the post, though, it occurred to me that the original question “may have been meant to elicit more about scholarly and critical, rather than personal, influences.” “I’m still thinking,” I concluded, “about that dimension of influence. No question, I have learned a lot from many teachers and scholars. But is that the same as having been ‘influenced’ by them? And have any of them actually inspired, moved, or motivated me?”

I’ve been thinking about those questions again recently because as I have tried to figure out what is most important to me to express as a critic (now that my long apprenticeship is over and I’m answerable primarily to myself for the future direction of my research and writing) I have identified two critics whose work indeed does inspire, move, and motivate me. More specifically, I have noticed that two critical books in particular repeatedly help me see and articulate what matters to me, or interests or challenges me, about many of the books I read, teach, and write about. One of these is Wayne Booth’s companionably plump and erudite The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, and the other is Carolyn Heilbrun’s slim but mighty Writing a Woman’s Life. Oddly, both were originally published in 1988. That means both were quite current when I started my PhD program at Cornell in 1990. But neither work–indeed, neither author, that I recall–was assigned, or even mentioned, in any course I took.

Booth’s book I discovered for myself when, soon after I earned tenure, I allowed myself to reconsider the focus of my scholarship, hoping to capture in my research the same excitement and urgency I felt in my teaching. I was dubious that I would ever feel much exhiliration pursuing increasingly esoteric projects about obscure women historians; I had done what I wanted to in that area with my thesis (which became my book). What I wanted to talk about was how and why novels actually mattered in our lives. I felt (feel!) that they do, profoundly, and I thought (think!) that one important facet of their significance is ethical. But I didn’t know how to talk about this in a rich way that would also be sensitive to fiction’s many other significant facets, including form, aesthetics, and history. The Company We Keep not only talks about exactly this, but it does so in Booth’s wonderfully engaging, unpretentious, open-minded way. It was criticism that talked about how we live in the world, and about literature as part of that living rather than something abstractly theoretical. Booth’s work was part of a wider debate about the ethics of fiction that included, among many others, Richard Posner, Martha Nussbaum, and, eventually, me: I published two academic essays as a result of this turn in my research (here’s one, in PDF; here’s the teaser for the other). The ideas it generated infused my teaching as well, particularly in a course I designed on ‘close reading’ that I will offer again, for the first time in 5 years, next fall. More recently, I wrote an essay on Gone with the Wind that attempted a “Boothian” reading of that problematic novel: an ethical reading that avoids (or so I hope) simplistic finger-pointing while accepting morality as a key aspect of literary evaluation. (Judging by the comments, not everyone was convinced! But I hope, in the spirit of what Booth calls ” coduction” [my favorite neologism!], some readers found themselves thinking about Gone with the Wind differently, even if they didn’t agree with me in all the details of my argument.) Clearly, Booth counts for me as an influential critic; I only wish I had read him earlier and been in a program where he and his interests had been prominent instead of–well, instead of much of what I was assigned.

I have a longer relationship with Heilbrun’s little book, which was given to me by my mother soon after its publication, with a lovely inscription noting that she had found it “interesting and provocative” and hoped we would talk about it “over tea.” It seems appropriate that Writing a Woman’s Life should have come to me in this way, as a gesture of shared interests and an invitation to intimacy and support, because that kind of female community and the strength it generates is one of Heilbrun’s major themes. Written relatively late in Heilbrun’s long career, its brevity is deceptive as it distills the accumulated insights of three decades of academic experience and feminist scholarship (for Heilbrun, often in a vexed relationship with each other). It’s wise, articulate, and insistent. I drew on it in formulating the central argument of my thesis and book, quoting from its first chapter, which is nominally on George Sand but is also on the difficulties and the vital necessity of finding appropriate ways to shape narratives of women’s lives. “Lives do not serve as models,” Heilbrun writes;

only stories do that. And it is a hard thing to make up stories to live by. We can only retell and live by the stories we have read or heard. We live our lives through texts. They may be read, or changed, or experienced electronically, or come to us, like the murmurings of our mothers, telling us what conventions demand. Whatever their form or medium, these stories have formed us all; they are what we must use to make new fictions, new narratives.

She moves immediately on to an example from George Eliot, to the Alcharisi in Daniel Deronda, who vehemently “protests women’s storylessness.” She writes in the book about women who lived lives that chafed against the stories they knew, and about biographies of these women that did, or, more often, did not find a better story to tell their lives in. She writes about anger and courage, about love and compromise, about age and beauty, about Dorothy Sayers and Virginia Woolf and herself. Writing a Woman’s Life is as much polemic (graceful and witty as it is) as theory, and it makes big claims supported by allusion and invocation rather than narrow claims defended by bulwarks of footnotes and metacriticism. It’s not, exactly, scholarly, but then it wasn’t exactly meant to be, because it’s a book that’s about living life as much as it is about writing it. “I risk a great danger,” Heilbrun remarks at the outset: “that I shall bore the theorists and fail to engage the rest, thus losing both audiences.” But Writing a Woman’s Life is never boring because it has all the urgency I wanted criticism to have. Though I didn’t immediately see it as a relevant book when I was reconsidering my own critical path, it’s urgent because it too is ethical criticism, in that broad sense of ethos that drives Booth’s arguments as well, and it’s urgent because it thinks it matters what and how we read: it takes fiction seriously because it sees reading as part of living, as shaping how we think and thus how we live.

I’ve found myself returning again and again to Heilbrun’s ideas about the limits of narrative forms and the problems of conceptualizing new stories (especially love stories) when talking with my students about many different novels, from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to The Mill on the Floss to Sue Grafton’s ‘A’ is for Alibi. Like Booth’s book, Heilbrun’s has been recurrently useful not so much in the details but in the lens it offers for bringing key problems into focus–or, to try a different metaphor, for the way it illuminates the problems I want to talk about. Reviewing a new biography of George Eliot that frustrated and disappointed me, I turned to Heilbrun for help in explaining why. I just turned to her work again while teaching Death in a Tenured Position, which was written by Heilbrun under her pseudonym, Amanda Cross. (In another odd coincidence, Death in a Tenured Position is dedicated to May Sarton, whose novel The Small Room I just read and wrote up for the Slaves of Golconda.) Looking at it again, and also reading with great interest and pleasure the essays in her collection Hamlet’s Mother and Other Women, I found that after all these years, she more than most critics speaks in a voice I want to listen to. She’s infectiously passionate about the books and writers and issues she addresses, and she explains them sympathetically: her approach is inspiring, even, again, if we might differ on the details. Her  own story, also, with its brave ending, is moving in its effortful integrity. She was a controversial figure, but that in itself is motivating. As she says towards the end of Writing a Woman’s Life, those of us who are very privileged,

not only academics in tenured positions, … but more broadly those with some assured place and pattern in their lives, with some financial security, are in danger of choosing to stay right where we are, to undertake each day’s routine, and to listen to our arteries hardening.

“I do not believe,” she concludes, “that death should be allowed to find us seated comfortably in our tenured positions.” There, she is surely correct.