2014: My Year in Writing

IMG_2655There’s still time to get a bit more reading done in 2014, but as with last year, I don’t expect to finish any more writing projects before January, so I thought I’d do another year-end round-up of my essays and reviews.

It’s not as long a list as last year — how did I manage to do so many pieces for Open Letters in 2013? — but I also looked back on some of those pieces with a bit of regret, since I didn’t think all of the books I reviewed were worth the effort I put into them. Thinking about that, and then reflecting on this year’s output, it becomes clear to me that being a busy book reviewer is not really what I’m interested in. I do like writing about books (obviously!), but if I dared to articulate my real ambition, it would be to become a good literary essayist — to do the kind of criticism that is not (or at least not necessarily or incessantly) dedicated to keeping up with, or evaluating, the latest thing. “Most books aren’t very good,” a sage friend and experienced reviewer once said to me. Blogging gives me the freedom not just to read what I want but to write about it however I want, which often means not walking through the patient steps of summary and analysis you find in a good standard review but meandering through ideas and associations I find interesting. Essays should probably be more purposeful than that, but they too are free from some of the obligations of reviewing, especially the obligation to put a lot of effort into talking about books that “aren’t very good.” I’m still going to write reviews! I have two books on my desk right now that I’ll be writing up in the next month or so. But other things will be higher priorities.

mylifeinmiddlemarchFor Open Letters this year I did write one review of a new book, Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch. I approached it with skepticism but ended up both enjoying and admiring it. It is not the kind of book I want to write, and its success therefore made me uneasy, but at the same time, it’s nice to know that I haven’t been scooped, and maybe (just maybe!) the friendly attention she drew to a great novel that for many people comes across as intimidating will soften readers up for a different kind of book about its author. I also contributed to our monthly ‘Title Menu’ feature, with a list of “8 more George Eliot novels” — not more novels by George Eliot, but novels about or inspired by her, from Deborah Weisgall’s The World Before Her (which I wrote up in more detail here) to Edith Skom’s The George Eliot Murders. If I concluded that really, you’d be better off rereading Middlemarch than reading any of these others — well, what did you expect?

My next piece for Open Letters was about K. M. Peyton’s Pennington series. I have wanted to write about these books for some time, because I think they are wonderful — I like them even better than her Flambards series (though that is wonderful too). I was working on it when a heated debate broke out in the online book world about the value – or shame – of grown-ups reading “young adult” fiction. I didn’t want my essay to be a polemical screed on one side or the other, but I felt (and said in its conclusion) that it made my case implicitly, which is that what matters is not the label on the book but how well it stands up to thoughtful attention over time. I suppose that was too temperate a stance for the piece to be of much interest to the people who were fighting so noisily about this — plus they would have had to read the whole essay about the books to reach that conclusion, and that really isn’t how these things play out online. Still, it would be nice if once in a while all my bleakest beliefs about the way click-bait runs the internet weren’t confirmed at my expense! I’m happy about the essay itself, though, which I thought was pretty convincing about the merits of the Pennington books. Maybe I should send it to NYRB Classics as part of a pitch for them to do a nice set of reissues.

my-brilliant-friend-ferranteMy last full-scale Open Letters piece of 2014 was another failure as click-bait, despite being pretty topical, but, again,  it was something I was pretty pleased with just for itself. We do a semi-regular feature called “Peer Review” which surveys and comments on the critical reception of a particular book or author, and after reading my way through the first three of Elena Ferrante’s much-acclaimed Neapolitan novels (My Brilliant FriendThe Story of a New Name, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay) I decided that she (or they) would be an excellent candidate for this treatment — as, indeed, I found! The essay ran just as the third book was being released in North America; the novel has received a significant amount of critical attention pretty much entirely consistent with the outlines I gave. I remain somewhat baffled at the effusive praise Ferrante gets, and convinced that it is about what she stands for as much as it is about how or what she actually writes. Maybe the fourth book (if I read it) will persuade me that it all adds up to something spectacular.

I also wrote a few things that were published elsewhere this year. I was pleased to be asked to contribute two essays on George Eliot to the British Library’s new “Discovering Literature” site: “Realism and Research in Adam Bede” and “The Mill on the Floss as bildungsroman.” It’s a great site for exploring, as the essays are set up to showcase digitized materials from the British Library’s collection (such as the manuscript of Adam Bede or the letter from Eliot’s brother Isaac congratulating her on her marriage).

southridingI also wrote an essay on Winifred Holtby and Virginia Woolf that came out in 3:AM Magazine; it’s nice to have some tangible results from all my work on the Somerville novelists, and in fact I have another such result, a short piece on “10 Reasons to Love Vera Brittain,” coming out in the new year at For Books’ Sake — technically I guess it “counts” for 2015, but I did write it in 2014!

Another result from earlier work was my participation in the Atlantic‘s Twitter book club “1 Book 140” when they opted to give Middlemarch a try. It was really gratifying to get a generous shout-out to my “Middlemarch for Book Clubs” site and then to be asked to do a Q&A about Middlemarch with the scintillating Stephen Burt: I think he and I could have talked much longer, and I hope one of these days we can sit down and chat in person (about Middlemarch or anything else). Another stimulating conversational opportunity was being interviewed about “a critic’s role” by Matt Jakubowski for the series he’s running at his blog truce.

As always, the largest quantity of writing (and I hope, not the lowest quality of writing!) that I did in 2014 was here at Novel Readings. My traditional look back at my year in reading is coming up, so I’ll just highlight a few posts that weren’t about books.

I continued my series on ‘This Week In My Classes’; along with reporting on routine business I found myself reflecting on why students might find me intimidating, and on beginning my twentieth year of teaching at Dalhousie. I wondered what makes a novel “teachable”; and I asked how I could get out of my own way when teaching a novel I’ve got as many thoughts and plans about as Middlemarch. I didn’t write much about general academic issues, mostly because not much has changed about what I see or how I feel about it. Despite frequent resolutions to do otherwise, I couldn’t quite stop myself from brooding about how things add up, or about how my attempts to redefine my work as a critic have turned out so far, or  from wondering how much the ugly word ‘blog’ affects assumptions about this not-quite-academic activity. Self-consciousness and constant self-evaluation are just too deeply ingrained, I think, after all these years in an academic environment where keeping tabs on ourselves and others is a way of life.

Of all the posts I wrote in 2014, my farewell to critic, blogger, and great Twitter conversationalist D. G. Myers is the most heartfelt. He had a profoundly unsentimental approach to his own illness and impending death, but it’s impossible not to mourn for someone who was such a vigorous, challenging part of so many conversations I’ve been in over the past few years.

“Who shall tell what may be the effect of writing?”: On Audiences and Serendipity

Bonnard The Letter

Who shall tell what may be the effect of writing? (Middlemarch, Ch. XLI)

One of the things I always emphasize to my students is the importance of considering your audience when you are writing. Knowing your intended audience settles a lot of questions about tone as well as style and content: formal or informal, colloquial or specialized, anecdotal or analytical. I usually recommend that they not think of me as their primary audience but aim their writing at another member of the class — a really top-notch, well-informed one who knows the readings and has followed our discussions closely.  You know you don’t have to summarize the plot for this reader. What you can do that such a reader will appreciate is draw attention to a pattern or idea or formal issue that deserves more sustained attention. And so on.

One of the unsettling things about writing a blog is that you can’t be certain who your audience is or will be. Given the competition for readers’ attention, you can’t be sure you even have an audience, much of the time, and most of us will never have a big one. And one of the questions every blogger surely confronts at some point is: how much should I care about this?

I think it’s disingenuous to pretend the question is “do I care?” Of course we care. If we really didn’t care about anyone ever reading what we write, we’d use old-fashioned notebooks — the kind you write in with pens! Writing in public is a symptom of a desire for readers, not because we’re egomaniacs or narcissists (though all writers, no matter their platform, surely need to have a bit of the egomaniac in them, enough to make them believe they have something worth writing down) but because we want to be part of the larger conversation about whatever it is that we are passionate about.

But the fact remains that readers are scarce, and attention (the currency of the internet) is hard to get. If you feel, as you are bound to sometimes, that the big conversation is going on somewhere else, without you, you can start thinking that you should do something, change something, write something, to get attention. You should write deliberately for an audience, and not the audience you actually do have of people who care about you and the writing you’re actually doing, but some imagined audience that would care if only you did something different. And yet, as Kerry  Clare eloquently explains in her recent post “Blogging Like No One Is Reading,” this is a bad idea:

To do the opposite of blogging like no one is reading is terrible advice for a variety of reasons. First, because most of the time, no one is going to be reading, and so there has to be something more than feedback from the outside world to push a novice blogger on. Second, because you’re never going to be able to predict what readers will respond to and what they won’t. It’s the strangest serendipity, and attempts to orchestrate this will absolutely drive you crazy. It will also result in the naked tap-dancing that just looks ridiculous, and never more so than when it doesn’t work and still, no one is reading. And there you are in your feather boa and your silly top hat, when dancing wasn’t even what you planned to be doing in the first place.

You need to write as who you really are, so that you will want to do the writing, and so that you will be pleased about the conversations you do get into, whether with your readers or just with yourself in a follow-up post. As Kerry says, there’s a strange serendipity to it all, and not only would you go crazy trying to orchestrate it, but you can go kind of nuts trying to figure it out when it does happen. Why my most-read post of all time is “How to Read a Victorian Novel” is puzzling to me; that it is my most-read post of all time is, if I think too hard about it, kind of annoying, considering it’s not by any means the best writing I’ve ever done here…but I had a great time writing it, so if it had stayed in peaceful obscurity, I would have had no regrets, and since I believe every word of it, I can only find its popularity cheering.

anthologyI mostly don’t fret too much about the audience for this blog: it’s my space, and I just do my thing, at my own pace. But when I write for Open Letters Monthly, I often struggle more with how to write or who to write for — or just what to write, since there are no limits and no imperatives, thanks to the deliberate breadth of the journal itself and the latitude my colleagues allow their co-editors. Though there have certainly been pieces I have been invited or urged or even pressured to write, I can’t imagine the topic I could propose that they would actively discourage! In puzzling out what project to take on next for Open Letters, I sometimes get caught up in questions about who would want to read what I have to say on a particular book or subject. What audience would I be writing for? Is there an audience I should be deliberately aiming for? Because of my own training and pedagogy, these have always seemed reasonable questions. But to my surprise, the most vehement advice I got from my most ruthless and motivating mentor was: never, ever, think about your audience! That’s the one thing you must put entirely out of your mind!

But how could this be? why is this wrong? I have always wondered. I’m coming to realize that the reason it’s wrong in that case is the same as the reason it’s wrong in blogging: if you’re hoping to second-guess the erratic interests of an amorphous online readership, you’ll end up endlessly second-guessing yourself, and you won’t write well (or, at least, you won’t write your best) or write things you believe in absolutely. Forget the timely hook, the link-bait trend, the ambulance-chasing review. If you have the luxury I have of not having to write anything in particular, then write what you know, write what you care about, write what you’d love to talk about if you got the chance, and write as well as you possibly can. That way if you do get the chance to join in a bigger conversation, it will be one you’re excited to be in. And in the meantime, you’re being your best, and also your unique, writing self — who else would you want to be, and who else, really, would anyone want to read?

I’m feeling buoyed about this perspective on writing because I’ve been caught up in a bit of that strange serendipity Kerry talks about as a result of the essay about Richard III mentioned in this recent post. It’s an essay that had no extrinsic reason at all to get written. My only justification for writing it was that the topic has been dear to my heart since childhood and then turned out to be intertwined with many intellectual strands from my later life as a scholar. It had its roots in a blog post prompted by one of my very earliest encounters with Open Letters. I began working up notes for an essay on this material in the summer of 2011 and got all excited about it (and wrote about it here and here) and then, as I later explained to Steve, “lost faith in the project: it seemed too esoteric to be of general interest.” Obviously, he talked me back into it, and it was great fun (if also a fair amount of work!) getting it into shape and finally published in May 2012. After all that time I had made something I was proud of from an unlikely but, to me, fascinating combination of elements.  That was that, and that was enough! Nobody commented on it, it didn’t get any external links, I doubt it reached a very wide audience — but there it was.

AlltheworldThen last fall they started digging up the skeleton that turns out almost certainly to be Richard III’s. Suddenly there’s a surge of interest in his story, and when people go looking for something to read about it, one of the pieces they find is mine. It hasn’t gone viral or anything, but it has found a new audience, including the author of this Globe and Mail story, and also a producer for CBC who contacted me to confer about ways I might contribute to a potential documentary about the discovery of his remains. I don’t know yet what, if anything, will come of the proposal, but no matter what, that’s twice in a week I’ve had a chance to talk with curious people about one of my pet subjects, and, through them, to share my enthusiasm and my ideas with others. Once again, I’m immensely cheered by the whole process, even as I’m amused at its unpredictability. Fond as I am of the Richard III essay, I don’t consider it the best writing I’ve done for Open Letters. It is among the more personal pieces I’ve done. If I’d really thought about who might read it, maybe I would not have included the hopelessly nerdy picture of my younger self beside Richard’s statue in Leicester! I’m glad I didn’t worry about that, though. Another piece of advice I often give my students is that your writing represents you. It might as well represent the whole you, warts (or 80’s glasses) and all.

One final thought about audiences. Academic prestige (not to mention professional advancement)  is strongly tied to writing for academic audiences. Sure, there’s rhetoric about outreach and “knowledge dissemination” and so on, but my experience is that most academics don’t take writing and publishing outside conventional academic channels very seriously: it doesn’t really count. Just recently a colleague praised my Open Letters essay on Anne Brontë for its interest and originality, then spoiled the nice moment by adding “You should really publish it sometime.” I was genuinely pleased that a specialist found the essay valuable, but I did already “really” publish it. I just placed it — and wrote it — so that it would be accessible to non-specialists as well. I have persisted with this kind of writing and publishing, despite the likely professional disadvantages, because I believe  in it: I believe that one thing (not the only thing) we should do with our expertise is share it widely and show people why we’re excited about it. The CBC producer was explicit that her interest in contacting me came from her reading of the essay, which she described as “fun academic writing” — not, that is, the kind of academic writing she usually runs into, but nonetheless writing she recognized as expert. As I told her, that was music to my ears! The specific attention to Richard III that drew her to this piece was certainly serendipitous, but the existence of the piece in the first place, and its presence out in the open where she could find it, was not, and it’s not just cheering but gratifying to have the value of writing for a different audience affirmed in this way.

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?

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.

The Unbearable Lightness of the Digital

I had an interesting chat with a colleague the other day about academic writing and publishing that shifting over, inevitably, into the changing ways we do our writing and publishing now. My colleague said, basically, that he can’t shake the feeling that there’s something particularly ephemeral about online publishing: when it’s not in front of you, after all, where is it? Or, when its original home has expired in some way–whether it has been taken down or the site is no longer maintained or updated (as is the current status of The Valve, where I did a lot of writing for a while) or the content has migrated–where is it then? With hard copies, they are always somewhere. I have offprints of my articles and reviews, for instance, as well as copies of my books. No matter how old they are (and how unlikely it is that anyone might want to pick them up and take a look) I know where they are and the medium they are in will not be outdated. Just the other night I was actually working on a piece and trying to remember something that, it occurred to me, could be easily found in my U.B. C. honours thesis c. 1990, which exists now only in a cerlox-bound copy on my shelf.

Even though I know digital content is (or at least can be) archived and stored and in many ways is actually more accessible and durable than some kinds of paper archives, I have sometimes had the same feeling as my colleague about online writing, especially blogging. I know that all my posts are still “there” and can be searched for and viewed easily enough. (I also make back-ups by way of preserving the content against unforeseen catastrophes. What if WordPress just shut down one day?!) But there’s something relentless about the way the posts scroll off the bottom of the page. That makes them seem to lose currency, even though, with book reviews at least, there’s no reason why they should. I have tried to counter that ‘out of sight, out of mind’ effect by building the blog index, which groups and lists posts in what I hope are useful ways and gives a little form to the range of topics I write about. But there’s something about not having anything tangible to show for all these years of writing. It’s one thing to pull a book off the shelf and put it in someone’s hand: here, look what I made! It’s more complicated to do that with a blog.

I thought of this recently when my faculty held its annual “Book Launch,” which (as journals and articles are also displayed) is really more of a research showcase than a book launch. There was no provision made this year for displaying digital projects, so as not one of my 2011 publications was in print, I had nothing to contribute. Well, I could have printed out copies of my book reviews and essays–but you don’t end up with something that looks quite right when you do that unless you can figure out some way to recreate banners, not to mention links. And how do you display a blog without a computer, if you did decide to insist that it deserved, literally, a place at the table?

I know that the kind of publishing I’ve been doing doesn’t really count as research by academic standards. It’s not just that I’m publishing in digital-only forms but that I’m writing for a non-academic audience, and while I do often draw on original research, I’m putting it to slightly unconventional purposes. Because I’m well aware of this and have decided to live with the professional consequences, I’m not really upset about the book launch, though I will suggest that next time they make sure to have computers set up, as I know I’m not the only one whose research is being disseminated electronically, while other people in the faculty are at work on archival or other digital projects that really deserve to be shown off even though they aren’t books. The MLA has been advising us for years now to “decenter” the monograph, after all: here’s an opportunity to think through how we can do that.

But I do feel odd–bereft, even–that I’ve done all this writing and from a certain perspective it’s invisible. It’s not any less “there” than the offprints of articles I have filed away, but why does it feel as if it is more transient, more ephemeral? Am I just still, in spite of everything, in thrall to print? Is it a sentimental thing? Do those of you who also keep blogs ever find yourself fretting that for all your hours of writing, you have created something that seems oddly insubstantial?

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?

This Month in My Sabbatical: Reading and Writing

Though nothing especially momentous marks this month in my sabbatical, I am pleased that I have continued to move fairly steadily through the various projects I set for myself back in January. Though I appreciate having the time to read, reflect and reconsider, though, I have to say that this month I have felt particularly isolated, because it’s the two aspects of this job that you are relieved of on sabbatical (administration and teaching) that actually bring you into regular contact with other people. Without classes and meetings, much of what we do is strictly solitary, and during a regular term that quiet can be very welcome, precisely because teaching and committee work are hectic, demanding, and often as annoying as they are stimulating. At first, it was just a relief to be free of the incessant demands on my time and attention. But after a while, it’s lonely, even a bit depressing, puttering away by myself. That’s one reason this post on academic blogging (thanks to Jo VanEvery for the link) resonated with me, especially this bit:

a college of one’s own is essential to scholarship. Sometimes we get lucky and our collaborators are able to participate in that world, but more often they need us for narrower purposes: our technique, students, or grants. Who then to bump ideas off of? Who to share our latest little discovery or epiphany? How to communicate the interest of an article or book? Where to find a reader? Who will forgive us our latest and dumbest ideas? How to feel that slight flare of getting the last word in a debate among learned colleagues?

It’s true, as the author continues, that “a blog can provide those things, and more besides,” and I’ve been grateful for the interest and input I receive from so many of you on my posts here. (The post I link to also gives a thoughtful account of changes in the culture of academic life that have made that collegial interaction more difficult to achieve–if anything, I think he underestimates the role played by sheer day to day busy-ness.) I was thinking that it’s no accident I first began blogging on my previous sabbatical: without really knowing much about it, I was looking for more ways to communicate with other people, and it was exhilirating to discover the conversations going on online and then to become part of them myself. I wonder sometimes why I feel this lack, even when I’m not on sabbatical, and (as far as I can tell) most of my colleagues don’t. It’s true I’ve always been a chatty type (if my parents are reading this, they are muttering “no kidding” and recalling their coinage “talkit” … ) so there’s that; some of my colleagues are just more reclusive or scholarly by instinct, happy to burrow away in their research; some, I think, for whatever reason have a better network of peers and collaborators that provide input, support and energy; others might enjoy blogging but haven’t tried it, or think it would be a distraction from their “real” reading and writing. In any case, the solitude of sabbatical work has made me appreciate my online network more than ever. And it has also made me realize how much of the return I get for my investment in this career comes from my students, from the challenge and the fun of getting them involved in our readings, from their curiosity and energy and enthusiasm. I miss students! (Remind me I said this when I’m whining about grading their assignments in the fall, would you?) I miss my colleagues, too, a little bit … but it’s not like we do spend much time on the kinds of conversations evoked above. When we do talk about work-related topics, it’s more often griping conferring about workload, curriculum, or policy issues, about pedagogical problems–or about each other! Well, it’s a workplace, after all. (Those colleagues who are also personal friends are another matter, of course.)

So: what have I done? I’ve read and commented on more thesis material–and another 120+ pages sit in my inbox at this minute. I’ve read, or scrolled through, a large number of the nearly 100 reviews and articles I downloaded, getting “caught up” on–or at least refreshing my sense of–recent work in Victorian studies. That has not been as disheartening as I frankly expected it to be. The sheer quantity of scholarship in this field is potentially overwhelming if the idea really is to internalize all of it. It quickly becomes apparent, though, that most of it is of peripheral signifiance: the accumulation of it, trends and directions, are more revealing than any particular arguments, and even at that level I haven’t seen anything that suggests a paradigm shift on the scale of, say, feminist criticism or post-colonial criticsm: I haven’t seen anything that makes me think I need to fundamentally change what I think about or say about the material I teach. It’s possible to acquire lots of little insights, or to file things away in case they become relevant to some future class or project, but most of what I’ve read has left me unmoved. This result, in turn, has me reflecting on the pleasures of learning new topics. I have one colleague whose list of teaching interests struck me, back when I was first interviewing for my job here, as astonishingly diverse–but there’s an intellectual buzz that comes from discovery, and it’s hard to get that feeling at the level of highly specialized research. On the other hand, it is easy to get it when you don’t already know the central problems and paradigms of a field you are just starting to explore for yourself, so I can see the appeal of turning to new things, like a kind of learning junkie who can’t be satisfied anymore with yet another way to read the economics of Bleak House or the poetics of Goblin Market!

I’ve read more books that I thought might be appropriate for my classes, including Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress and more of the Martin Beck mysteries–and in the last week or so I’ve drafted up a schedule for the course that actually includes Devil in a Blue Dress and The Terrorists. Other course-related reading included most of Rhoda Broughton’s Cometh Up as a Flower (which I ultimately decided not to assign),  a text book called Close Reading and the TOCs of numerous anthologies of crime fiction. I haven’t made the call yet about Close Reading but I did finally discover a Dover anthology of crime fiction that includes all the authors I wanted and is economical too–this is one more small testimony to the value of a sabbatical, because it took me ages to find and consider the alternatives here and if I had been in the midst of teaching, I would have given up and stuck with one of the books I’ve used before, even though for various reasons I wasn’t happy with them. (I have now ordered almost all the books for my fall classes and set up preliminary websites for them.)

I’ve also read a lot that wasn’t strictly for teaching or research, but then, as I say so often, in this job you never really know what reading will end up affecting your work, and I’ve been finding Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby so interesting I am now wondering if at some point I could put together a course on the “Somerville Novelists”–not least because we have no in-house specialist in 20th-century British literature (crazy, I know) so I’d actually be helping round out our curriculum a bit if I did so. Just think: another excuse to assign Gaudy Night! (There’s that lure of the new, again: this would involve a whole process of learning and discovery.) Coming up for my two reading groups I have Somerset Maugham and Elizabeth Bowen–so more 20thC British fiction there too.

As for writing, well, there’s the blogging that goes along with all that reading, and I also decided to review Marjorie Garber’s The Use and Abuse of Literature after all. Following on my meditation about “giving myself permission,” I thought it might help overcome my writer’s block if I worked in a form I am very familiar with, so I did the review as a kind of feedback form. I thought it suited, because the book, though full of interesting and provocative threads, really read to me like something unfinished. I don’t understand why it got published without further revision, to be honest: what editor would be satisfied with something so amorphous? Despite my anxiety that it would seem unforgivably snarky to treat the book as I did, I did find it freeing to write it that way: for better or for worse, that is who I am, after all. And just as I do when responding to student work, I made sure to give credit for strengths as well as weaknesses, and to try to be constructive in my criticisms…