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

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

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

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

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

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

Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books

In the early days of Novel Readings, one of the things I was trying to figure out was how non-academics wrote about books, or (a slight variation) how academics wrote about books for non-academic audiences. So I read a lot of what I very ingeniously (OK, very literally) called “Books About Books“: Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree, Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, Sara Nelson’s So Many Books, So Little Time, John Sutherland’s How to Read a Novel, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, James Wood’s How Fiction Works. One that was always on my radar but that I somehow didn’t get hold of before I started focusing more on writing myself, instead of worrying about how other people wrote, was Ruined by Reading, by Lynne Sharon Schwartz. I was particularly interested in this one, because Schwartz is the author of one of my favorite novels of all time, Disturbances in the Field–and now I would add that I am a huge admirer of her earlier novel Leaving Brooklyn, which I read for the first time only a couple of years ago. I was happily surprised to see  a copy of Ruined by Reading on the book rack at the school’s Spring Fair flea market this year: though it’s too bad Fred (whoever he is) didn’t want to keep such a nice gift from “Nanny and Poppy,” I think they would be glad to know it ended up with someone who appreciates it properly. And I did appreciate it. It’s part memoir, part meditation on the motives for, effects of, and–above all–the experience of reading. It’s loosely organized, associative rather than strictly logical, but Schwartz is too interesting and thoughtful a writer (and reader) for it to feel rambling, even though it ranges somewhat unpredictably across its array of topics.

There were lots of bits I particularly enjoyed or that made me feel a readerly kinship with Schwartz–her comments about “the fear of being interrupted” while reading, for instance:

Sometimes at the peak of intoxicating pleasures, I am visited by a panic: the phone or doorbell will ring, someone will need me or demand that I do something. Of course I needn’t answer or oblige, but that is bside the point. The spell will have been broken. In fact the spell has already been broken. The panic is the interruption. I have interrupted myself.

Like her (maybe like you) I too “came to prefer reading late at night, when the intrusive world has gone to bed.” I understand, too, her love for Little Women–but unlike her, I never tried “copying it into a notebook” out of a fierce desire to possess it. “Only later did I understand,” she says, “that I wanted to have written Little Women, conceived and gestated it and felt its words delivered from my own pen.” I loved her closing peroration, about reading as an activity that matters because it is so completely, thoroughly “of the moment”: “the dynamism is all inside, an exalted, spiritual exercise so utterly engaging that we forget time and mortality along with all of life’s lesser woes, and simply bask in the everlasting present.” How amazing, “what a feat of transmission,” what is done by these marks on the the page. Because I had just been thinking quite a bit about choice in reading, though–about what to buy, what to read, why we make the choices we do, the section I appreciated the most was her discussion of “the convoluted agonies of choice.” Is it better to read contemporary books or “dead” books, to read by design or at random, to keep lists or to forget, to be a spider or a bee, a fox or a hedgehog? Ultimately, she concludes, “reading at random–letting desire lead–feels like the most faithful kind”:

In a bookstore, I leaf through the book next to the one I came to buy, and a sentence sets me quivering. I buy that one instead, or as well. A book comes in the mail and I begin it out of mild curiosity, to finish spellbound. A remark overheard on a bus reminds me of a book I meant to read last month. I hunt it up in the library and glance in passing at the old paperbacks on sale for twenty-five cents. There is the book so talked about in college–it was to have prepared me for life and here I have blundered through decades without it. Snatch it up quickly before it’s too late. And so what we read is as wayward and serendipitous as any taste or desire. Or perhaps randomness is not so random after all. Perhaps at every stage what we read is what we are, or what we are becoming, or desire.

Appearing Elsewhere: Our Books, Ourselves

In honor of the second anniversary of the launch of The Second Pass, founding editor John Williams (prompted partly by the VIDA statistics and the ensuing discussion about women and criticism) invited contributions for a feature by women about books by women that they felt deserved more attention. The collection is now posted and includes a fascinatingly diverse assortment: Ranylt Richildis writing on Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (which readers of this blog will know gets plenty of attention around here!) and Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin (“inspired by the messy, irreducible worlds of folklore, desire, and crime”); Emma Garman on Elaine Scarry’s Dreaming by the Book (a “groundbreaking investigation into how words on a page — flat, inert, devoid of sensuous qualities — are miraculously transmuted into fully fledged, three-dimensional worlds in the mind’s eye”); Jessica Ferri on Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick (“a genre-busting book that bravely asserts there is a difference in the way men and women are treated not only as artists but as people”); Xarissa Holdoway on Jane Hirshfield’s Given Sugar, Given Salt (“her frequent invocations of heart, hope and grief would quickly irritate if they weren’t balanced so well with precision”); Jennifer Szalai on Mona Simpson’s My Hollywood (“a keen exploration of the American experience, with all of its attendant exhilarations and disappointments”); Emily Bobrow on Iris Murdoch’s A Word Child (“full of a dark curdling humor, the kind that captures the interior hum of a perceptive man who knows that he is a loser, and who knows it is partly his fault”); and me on Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s Disturbances in the Field. I’ve mentioned my longstanding admiration for Disturbances in the Field before here, particularly in my post about Schwartz’s Leaving Brooklyn (which is also fabulous). I wasn’t sure that it really counted as “underappreciated,” but then, when you really love a book, it’s hard to imagine that it is ever appreciated as much as it should be. It was challenging trying to explain just what about the novel moves and impresses me so much. I was tempted to, but ultimately didn’t, include the little personal detail that when I sat down to review the book for the piece, it fell open to a particular moment near the middle and I had read literally about four words before I was helplessly crying. That’s how powerful its hold is on my imagination and my emotions–indeed, that hold has only intensified over the years, particularly since I became a parent. Anyway, it is certainly one of the ‘books of my life,’ and if your TBR pile isn’t already teetering, you should consider adding it on.  Of the other books in this feature I think the one I’m most interested in trying is the Iris Murdoch: she’s a writer I have long meant to read, but I’ve never been able to focus on where to start.

Congratulations on two good years, John! Thanks for choosing this way to celebrate, and for inviting me to contribute.

In my 20s, I found it a compelling, if unconsoling, exploration of the kind of adult life I hoped to have: at once intellectually rigorous and emotionally intense

Lynne Sharon Schwartz, The Writing on the Wall

It’s odd and a bit disconcerting to see that a category of “9/11” fiction is emerging, but of course it is only right and natural, too, that this moment in our history should become part of our literature. The Writing on the Wall seemed to me a delicate, even elegant, engagement with the big issues of loss, survival, and recovery that broke over America that morning…delicate in the sense that the horror and pathos is understated, elegant in that these emotions are brought out through recurrent touches like the ‘Missing’ posters so poignantly itemized. As McEwan evokes so powerfully in Saturday as well as his essays written in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, most of us are bystanders at the crises of history, and yet even that witnessing creates change in our lives–perhaps most irrevocably, in our thinking about our lives. I think this sense of how we think differently is a big part of what Schwartz’s novel is about, as her characters (so distinct, so individual, with their own complex pasts) are shaken up by the visitation of terror on the once familiar streetscapes of their city. Is this really a novel “about” 9/11, in the way that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is? I’m not sure, though both novels are certainly about Renata’s favourite storyline, ‘Transformed Lives’. Twin sisters, twin towers: how far, thematically, are we supposed to pursue these parallel stories of ruin?