2013: My Year in Writing
I still expect to get some reading done before the end of the calendar year (especially Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, which I have resolutely started over), but except for another blog post or two I have no great writing ambitions, so I thought I’d start my annual year-end wrap-up with a look back at the essays and reviews I published in 2013.
Once again I did most of my writing for Open Letters Monthly, and once again I can only be grateful for the encouragement, support, and astute criticism I get from my co-editors. After only three years “on board,” I know I would be bereft without the freedom but also the challenges this platform offers me as a writer and thinker.
In 2013 I wrote two more essays on George Eliot for Open Letters. I consider all of these essays part of a larger work in progress, the exact form and character of which I am still trying to figure out. In February I wrote about the ending of The Mill on the Floss, which I framed with some ideas about the concept of ‘spoilers’ but intended primarily as an investigation into how Eliot uses the trap and shock of the novel’s conclusion to provoke us into demanding alternatives. In March, I worked through some ideas about the beautiful but ruthless morality of Middlemarch; the thoughtful comments I received helped me see ways in which my argument is, not wrong, but incomplete. One thing’s clear to me when I think about a more sustained project on Eliot: these are the issues I want most to keep writing about. I wrote one more Victorian essay for Open Letters this year, a fun ‘Second Glance’ feature on Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone.
I reviewed four books for Open Letters this year (that’s a long way from Steve’s nearly 200, but for me it’s not a bad total). In some ways the time spent on these reviews — or on three of the four — was time I ended up regretting a bit, as I’m not sure the books themselves were worth the effort. That said, a lot of the time you can’t be sure what a book is worth until you read it carefully and think about it for a while — and write about it, too, which is always a learning experience. And if I’m going to review a book, I want to bring my best attention to bear on it, even if there’s a risk it will not hold up. This was true only of the most recent one, I think, which was Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy, which I reviewed for our December issue. It really isn’t a very good book even of its kind. But writing about it did give me another opportunity to air my grievance against the tediously persistent idea that incompetence is charming while brains are, well, not. (How pleased I was to find Rebecca West making the same complaint: “can anybody who cannot grasp that the angles at the base of an isosceles triangle are equal have charm?”) The other two novels I reviewed, Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things and Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, were at least intelligent and ambitious books, and thus it was more interesting to grapple with just why I nonetheless found them unsatisfactory. I’m particularly proud of my review of Life After Life, which I think is both intellectually scrupulous and rhetorically ingenious. The other book I reviewed for Open Letters this year was Deirdre David’s biography of Olivia Manning. I have no regrets about the time spent on this book, which is smart, interesting, and thought-provoking.
Outside of Open Letters, I successfully pitched another piece to the Los Angeles Review of Books, this time on the racing thrillers of Dick Francis (where I have written in previous years on Sjowall and Wahloo’s ‘Story of Crime’ and on Silas Marner). I had a great time rereading the novels and thinking about how to place them in the context of debates about and revisions of gender roles in crime fiction. What should I pitch to them next summer, do you think? How about a similar Big Gulp piece on Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series?
Of course, the bulk of my writing has been here at Novel Readings. I have been feeling as if I was in a blogging slump this year, but looking back through my archives I don’t see much evidence for that, which is reassuring. Since I’m going to write another post on my year in reading, I’ll pick out here a few pieces that aren’t book reviews.
I wrote several more posts on blogging. My post on blogging and ‘intellectual curiosity’ led to some confessions about the limits of my own curiosity. l also considered how I would answer the question “should graduate students blog?” and I wrote yet another polemic on the place of blogging in criticism and scholarship (“Blogging: Accept No Substitute!“), which was rerun in a slightly abbreviated form at the LSE’s Impact blog. Also in a polemical spirit I responded to William Giraldi’s gratuitous grumblings about internet criticism: “Forget that blog is just one letter away from bog, or that the passel of burgeoning “literary” websites is largely a harvest of inanity with only the most tenuous hold on actual literature.”
As usual, I also did a lot of thinking out loud about my teaching: this year’s highlights include posts on teaching feminism, on ‘coercive pedagogy,’ on the difference between information and education, and on the challenge of emphasizing processes over products.
Finally, I wrote a lot on Twitter this year. 140 characters isn’t much at one time, but it adds up. It’s a very different kind of writing than a blog, an essay, or a review, but the conversations it enables and the communities it supports have become essential parts of my intellectual and social life.