Last Week In My Classes: Where’d They Go?

middlemarch-first-editionI’ve been feeling a bit downcast since Friday, because attendance absolutely plummeted in the tutorials for my Close Reading class and I can’t stop worrying about why — and wondering what to do about it.

My particular cause for concern is that last week, as you might recall, we started working on Middlemarch. I brought all the positive energy I could to our two lecture meetings, and I expected a good turnout for the tutorials (which, just to be clear, are regularly scheduled class meetings, not optional drop-in sessions, but smaller and structured specifically around hands-on exercises and group discussions). After all, it’s a big and perhaps somewhat intimidating novel for first-timers, while those who’ve studied it before know it’s an inexhaustible treasure trove of riches. In both cases, surely more time to work through it with my encouragement and expert guidance is highly desirable — but no, apparently not, as both tutorials were at barely 50% full, an unprecedented low.

I know there are lots of tricks for getting people to show up, from regular small-scale on-the-spot assignments to literally giving marks for attendance. I actually have some things like this set up for these tutorials, though, so students who skip them already know they are taking the chance of losing 2% of their grade. I’m frankly sick of doing this kind of coercive micromanagement, even though I acknowledge that it can have some peripheral pedagogical benefits. I resent the implication, and hate sending the message, that showing up for class is something you have to be coaxed into, or should be rewarded for. I also resist taking the blame for absenteeism myself: imagine me as boring — suppose the uses I make of our class time as tedious and unproductive — as you possibly can, and even then, even if the worst is true about what goes on in my classroom (which I am morally certain it isn’t, but let’s grant the hypothetical), it should still be a basic expectation that students show up and make the most of the opportunity.

penguinmiddlemarchBut that is a general pet peeve that’s probably never going to get resolved, while Friday’s collapse is a specific instance that I’d actually like to get to the bottom of. Is it because we’re spending so many weeks on Middlemarch that this first tutorial seemed expendable? (But why would anyone think that, given how much material we clearly have to work through? It isn’t as if we’re going to spend all those weeks on Book I.) Are a lot of students finding the novel difficult to engage with? (But wouldn’t that be an incentive to come to class and learn and talk more about it, rather than opt out — to increase the odds that you’ll enjoy the next 4 weeks?) Do some of them figure they’ve got this covered and don’t need to do the tutorial exercises? (But in that case, they could still come and help out their classmates with their insights, raising the quality of the experience for everyone — and maybe even learning a little something new themselves.) Is the pay-off from our tutorial work in general not clear enough, or actually less than I fondly imagine? On Friday we worked on tracking the movement of point of view in particular passages — but we also just talked about the themes and characters set up in the first section of the novel: both activities seemed pretty valuable to me, at least.

I probably shouldn’t be fretting about it so much, but I was so excited to settle in with Middlemarch that it was hard not to take it personally when so many of them blew me off (which, however irrationally, is how it feels when you look around a room that’s usually crammed and see a lot of empty chairs). I have been wondering how or if to address it in class tomorrow. I could just let it go, but actually our time on Middlemarch is not infinite, and in my view (and according to my experience) most of them need all the support they can get to reach a good working understanding of it: I don’t want tutorial-skipping to become a trend! I think I will approach them mostly with carrots — but I also have one big stick they may have forgotten about, which is a general course policy stating that students with frequent unexcused absences can’t submit assignments. I should make sure they know that absences from tutorials fall under this policy too, and that I’m going to be keeping careful track. Then I’ll turn my attention to this week’s tutorial: if I’m going to scare lure more of them into showing up, it had better be good.

“There Is No Why”: Ian McGuire, The North Water


“If you can’t save him, then why are you here?” she asks. “What are you for?”

“I’m here by accident. It doesn’t mean anything.”

“Everyone died except for you. Why did you live?”

“There is no why,” he says.

I always follow the proceedings of the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel with interest, partly just because I appreciate their sharp commentaries and exchanges about the Booker Prize nominees, and partly to help me decide which, if any, of the nominated books I’ll read. Of the six books on their short list this year, Ian McGuire’s The North Water was the one that most intrigued me: a number of the panelists were enthusiastic about it, plus I had such a good time reading Moby-Dick this summer that I was keen to go on another whaling expedition, despite Teresa’s warning that “no drop of blood or bodily fluid is left unmentioned.”

I can’t say that I enjoyed it very much. For one thing, Teresa was not exaggerating about the attention to bodily fluids and effluents of all kinds. From farts to feces, from urine to vomit, every emission (and there are many, given the brutality of the plot and the rough environment in which it is played out) gets meticulously and often (somewhat incongruously) eloquently described. A small sample:

In the night, the priest has a fierce bout of diarrhoea. Sumner is woken by the sounds of loud groans and splattering. The cabin air is dense with the velvet reek of liquid faeces.

scandal-tessa-dareThere’s realism, and then there’s utterly, relentlessly, graphic and gruesome realism, which is very much the aesthetic principle of The North Water — McGuire offers not just a vision of the world warts and all, but of the world as warts only. I’ve also been reading Tessa Dare’s Do You Want to Start a Scandal? and the juxtaposition of the novels got me wondering about whether we have a label for McGuire’s style that would be the grim equivalent to the kind of (usually pejorative) terms used for romance writing — “flowery language,” “purple prose.” The implication of such labels is typically that the writing is excessive rather than expressive, that it’s artlessly out of control, rather than artfully serving its own purposes. (I still struggle with this reaction to some of it, but I’ve come a long way in understanding how well it can actually work since I first recoiled from Lord of Scoundrels.) What do we call writing like McGuire’s, that dedicates its excesses to pus rather than passion? And do we mock one but award the other because we assume ugliness is more literary? (Hmm, shades of Madame Bovary…)

But if you aren’t too squeamish for it, The North Water will carry you right along with its fast-paced story, which is part adventure story, part murder mystery, part survival narrative, and part revenge tragedy. All of this is well done, and McGuire’s prose is stylish without being mannered. I particularly enjoyed his descriptions of the strange and hostile environment his ship navigates:

During the night they entered Lancaster Sound. There is open water stretching to the south of them, but to the north, a granular and monotone landscape of ice boulders and melt pools, sculpted smooth by wind in places, but elsewhere cragged, roughened, and heaved upright into sharp-edged moguls by the alternations of the  seasons and the dynamisms of temperature and tide.northwater2


It is dark when they return. The black sky is dense with stars and upon its speckled blank, the borealis unfurls, bends back, reopens again like a vast and multi-coloured murmuration.

The struggle of the characters to survive the hardships that come upon them is dramatically rendered, and there’s plenty of tension and surprise in the ways the parts of the plot resolve.

I was disappointed in The North Water in the end, though, for reasons that its protagonist, ship’s surgeon Patrick Sumner, neatly articulates: although a lot happens, there is no why to it all. The different aspects of the book — its crime story, its whaling, its survival story, its captive bear, its Christian missionary — fit into the plot but not, as far as I could tell, into any larger idea. Sumner and his antagonist, the evil Drax, are contrasting characters, sure, but they don’t create a strong thematic counterpoint; their final confrontation is a climactic event, but nothing more.

angel-finaleThe absence of meaning can, of course, itself be meaningful, but The North Water didn’t read to me like an investigation or revelation of existential vacancy, and certainly not like a purposeful response to the possibility that “there is no why.” Compare Angel, for instance, in which a crucial motivating idea is that “if nothing we do matters, than all that matters is what we do.” The main insight I carried away from The North Water  is “if you’re out in a blizzard, see if you can find a bear, kill it, disembowel it, and climb inside the carcase.” Not that that isn’t inspirational in its own way! But I’m not surprised or disappointed that The North Water didn’t make the actual Booker shortlist.


This Week In My Classes: In the Thick of It All

ebbgordigiani1First of all, where did this past week even go? It feels like just yesterday I was writing my previous post, in a flush of enthusiasm about Aurora Leigh, and now we’ve wrapped up our time with it in The Victorian ‘Woman Question.’ After Wednesday’s student presentation, we’ll be moving on, first to a pair of poems about ‘fallen women’ (Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Jenny” and Augusta Webster’s “A Castaway”) and then, on Monday, to the ever-popular “Goblin Market.” And then, no doubt to the relief of the poetry-averse in the group, we’re on to Gaskell’s “Lizzie Leigh,” and from there on it’s novels all the way to the end.

cordeliahigherbeingI’ve always assigned all of Aurora Leigh for this course, but I think that next time I might experiment with excerpting it just a bit. I would never do this for a novel, but there’s no doubt that the blank verse slows a lot of students down — and me too, to be frank. A few judicious cuts might make the parts we really want and need to talk about stand out better. Still, by yesterday’s class it seemed like pretty much everyone was engaged with it. We had a good discussion especially of Marian’s radical assertion that (‘fallen woman’ as she is by society’s standards) she would in fact lose her purity by marrying without love. I’m not sure how helpful it was for me to compare her mysterious apotheosis to Cordelia’s ascent to a ‘Higher Being’ in Angel — but it does have something of that same gratuitously symbolic quality to it. We also puzzled over how to interpret Aurora’s declaration that “art is much but love is more” — a statement that always seems to me to go against the grain of the poem as a whole.

OxfordIn Close Reading, we’ve just started Middlemarch — always a happy occasion for me, of course! Here’s hoping I can make it a good experience for the students as well. In a break from the usual rhythm of this course, I open with a fairly formal lecture to establish some biographical and philosophical context: as I explained to the class, with short texts it’s reasonable to expect them to be able to put specific details into the context of the whole right away, but with a text this long we can’t do meaningful close reading exercises without my providing some preliminary interpretive frameworks. I’ll do a bit more of that tomorrow, and then they’ll have some general concepts to guide their reading and analysis as we keep going. We’re only reading Book I this week: it’s always nice to move through it relatively slowly (we’ll take about two more weeks on it in Close Reading than I usually allow for it in my 19th-century fiction class).

computerJust as this term’s courses are really underway, we’re already having to think, not just about next term, but about next year. I’m on our Undergraduate Committee, which is tasked with soliciting people’s teaching preferences and putting together a slate of offerings, and this year we’re doing it even earlier than usual because the university is implementing a new automated scheduling system that seems sure to cause all kinds of stress and complications we’ll need time to deal with. In the trial run they did last year, apparently the algorithm, in its infinite wisdom, scheduled a number of classes for Friday nights. OK, yes, that is probably a time when classrooms are “underutilized,” but who do they think would sign up for a class at that time? When I told my students about the possibility, they were aghast. I don’t understand, really, why maximizing “efficient” use of classrooms is any kind of priority. It already seems obvious that machine-defined efficiency — as is entirely predictable — may have little to do with what is humanly reasonable. But, here we are, and I guess we’ll find out.

valdez2In the nearer future, I do have to start thinking more about next term, especially about Pulp Fiction. I’m glad I put in a fair amount of time on it in the summer: I had already roughed out a schedule, and now when I have a moment here and there I’ll be refining the logistics, including assignments, and adding to the notes I’d begun taking on Westerns and romances. Right now I feel very aware of how much I don’t know! Well, one thing at a time, right?

This Week In My Classes: The Radicalism of Aurora Leigh

aurora-leigh-oxfordIn my seminar on the Victorian ‘Woman Question,’ we started work last week on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 1856 verse-novel Aurora Leigh. It’s usually kind of hard going for the students: although it does have many of the familiar features of a Victorian marriage plot novel, it also includes (among quite a bit of more miscellaneous material) long meditations on, and also arguments about, the nature and purpose of poetry in the modern world — and its 9 books of blank verse add up to a total of approximately 15,000 lines of iambic pentameter, which, let’s face it, is not the easiest reading even when the verse itself is thrilling … which, frankly, for long stretches Aurora Leigh is not.

And yet, having said that, there are plenty of things that are thrilling about Aurora Leigh. The challenge is just helping students to get excited about some of them before they’ve completely disengaged from the effort to tramp through EBB’s often ungainly poetry. One of them is the sheer bravado of the exercise itself: an epic poem, on the scale of Paradise Lost, but about the life of a nineteenth-century woman poet. This is probably the single most daring thing about Aurora Leigh, that it insists on, not just the importance, but the epic potential of contemporary female life, at a time when such a thing seemed both artistically and socially inconceivable. “The critics say that epics have died out,” says the eponymous narrator in a famous passage in Book 5; “I’ll not believe it,” and in particular she refuses to accept that her own age offers no heroic subjects suitable for epic treatment:elizabeth-barrett-browning_engraving

Nay, if there’s room for poets in the world
A little overgrown, (I think there is)
Their sole work is to represent the age,
Their age, not Charlemagne’s,–this live, throbbing age,
That brawls, cheats, maddens, calculates, aspires,
And spends more passion, more heroic heat,
Betwixt the mirrors of its drawing-rooms,
Than Roland with his knights, at Roncesvalles.

“Never flinch,” she advises the modern poet,

 But still, unscrupulously epic, catch
Upon a burning lava of a song,
The full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age:
That, when the next shall come, the men of that
May touch the impress with reverent hand, and say
‘Behold,–behold the paps we all have sucked!
That bosom seems to beat still, or at least
It sets ours beating. This is living art,
Which thus presents, and thus records true life.’

The whole poem is an extraordinary appropriation of epic conventions in the pursuit of revising gender conventions — and, as that excerpt shows, it does have some moments of great poetic vigor.

EBB works out her theory of poetry in other fascinating and sometimes exhilarating ways across the course of the poem — I get particularly excitable about the sections of Book VII in which Aurora begins to draw connections between her initially very high-minded idealism and the more material kinds of social reform which the poem also advocates but she at first disdains:

                                            Thus is Art
Self-magnified in magnifying a truth
Which, fully recognized, would change the world
And shift its morals. If a man could feel,
Not one day, in the artist’s ecstasy,
But every day, feast, fast, or working-day,
The spiritual significance burn through
The hieroglyphic of material shows,
Henceforward he would paint the globe with wings,
And reverence fish and fowl, the bull, the tree,
And even his very body as a man,–
Which now he counts so vile, that all the towns
Make offal of their daughters for its use…

But usually, and understandably, Aurora’s (and EBB’s) developing theory of poetic double-vision is less engaging to students than Aurora’s resistance to the traditional marriage plot. (The two aspects of the poem, as I hope they realize by the end, are of course connected.) It is very common for the first proposal in a 19th-century novel to be rejected, but Aurora’s reasons are not common — and neither is the explicitness with which she lays them out to her hapless suitor. He appeals to her to give up her idle fantasy (as he sees it) of writing poetry and (St. John Rivers-style) join him in his work of social reform. “Men and women make / The world,” he says earnestly, “as head and heart make human life”;

                                  ‘Women as you are,
Mere women, personal and passionate,
You give us doating mothers, and chaste wives.
Sublime Madonnas, and enduring saints!
We get no Christ from you,–and verily
We shall not get a poet, in my mind.’

For its time, it’s a perfectly conventional vision of the sexes and their separate spheres, but Aurora is having none of it:the-tryst

With quiet indignation I broke in.
‘You misconceive the question like a man,
Who sees a woman as the complement
Of his sex merely. You forget too much
That every creature, female as the male,
Stands single in responsible act and thought
As also in birth and death.’

She insists, that is, on her autonomy, on her right to an independent identity defined not by her relationship to any man but by her own choices and actions: “I too have my vocation–work to do” she tells him defiantly, “Most serious work, most necessary work / As any of the economists.'” And (having also rejected his attempt to give her financial support for this “necessary work”) off she goes to London, to live as a single woman supporting herself by her writing.

As if that’s not radical enough, Aurora Leigh also unabashedly takes on the plight of ‘fallen women’ and the sexual double standard that shames an unwed mother while shrugging off men’s culpability. “God knows me, trusts me with the child; but you,” exclaims the “murdered” Marian Erle, “You think me really wicked?” It is hard to grasp today how boldly EBB defied propriety with this plot line, something she has Marian herself call attention to, along with the hypocrisy that propriety relied on:

‘Enough so!–it is plain enough so. True,
We wretches cannot tell out all our wrong,
Without offence to decent happy folk.
I know that we must scrupulously hint
With half-words, delicate reserves, the thing
Which no one scrupled we should feel in full.’

She not only tells Marian’s story, but insists on Marian’s untainted purity, again, in defiance of Victorian norms. Something I expect we’ll talk about is why she does this — what strategic and political purpose it serves — but also what the limits are of this approach to the fallen woman.

ebbgordigiani1That Aurora Leigh has not lost its radicalism — that we are still fighting on some of the same fronts — was made unexpectedly clear to me this past weekend, as with so many others I watched the story of Donald Trump’s now-infamous bus tape break, and then one pontificating man after another denounce it in the name of his daughters (or his wife or his great aunt or whatever). For some men — too many men — women are still seen primarily as complementary, their value uncomfortably entangled with ownership (all those possessive pronouns!), their right to respect and dignity somehow contingent on their belonging to someone else (someone else male, of course). My tweet quoting that excerpt of the poem got liked and retweeted more than any other tweet of mine that I can remember. Emphasizing the arguments of the poem, though, as I have also done here, while wholly consonant with some of EBB’s aims, is not meant to reduce her achievement to a social or political one, one with purely ideological value. This genre-bending work also offers what, to me at least, are some really wonderful poetic moments. Appropriately, as the love story and the aesthetic theory reach their convergent culminations in the final volume, it’s there that the verse itself rises to its most ecstatic heights:

But oh, the night! oh, bitter-sweet! oh, sweet!
O dark, O moon and stars, O ecstasy
Of darkness! O great mystery of love,–
In which absorbed, loss, anguish, treason’s self
Enlarges rapture,–as a pebble dropt
In some full wine-cup, over-brims the wine!

For once, our Victorian heroine (like her author) ends her story without compromise — and with poetry too.

This Week In My Classes: A Rogues’ Gallery of Style

howe-close-readingOver the past few weeks in Close Reading we have been working on disentangling specific elements of poetry and fiction in order to improve the precision of our analysis. We’ve focused, for instance, on tone and diction, on figurative language, on imagery, on symbolism, on rhythm, on point of view, on narrative voice, on characterization, and on setting. Often separating these elements is quite an artificial exercise, but there’s value in it nonetheless, as it helps us moves from impressionistic responses to focused observations that can be the foundation of critical conversation and analysis.

Now we’re working on putting these elements back together again. Today we talked about “style,” which, as our textbook explains, encompasses all of a writer’s choices about both what to say and how to say it, and next we’ll be working on theme – which of course has been central to all of our attempts to read the significance of details all along.

“It is difficult to pinpoint the effects that make up an author’s style,” says the author of Close Reading. I agree, but that’s what makes it fun, so in that spirit, much of today’s class was spent trying to pinpoint the effects that make these authors’ styles so distinct and so interesting. In some cases, it’s the overabundance of rhetorical effects that’s most obvious and inviting; in other cases, the seeming absence of style is itself pretty stylish. Another factor is whether a particular style appeals to your taste — I think that just becoming more self-conscious about authors’ varying styles can not only help us identify what factors constitute our own taste but also lead us to a greater appreciation of authors whose writing we don’t particularly enjoy at first. Do you have any favorites among these? How would you pinpoint what constitutes their particular styles? Are there stylistic features you love that I’ve missed in my sampler? Who do you suggest I should consider including next time around, and why?

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Learning to Read (Romance)

kinsaleThe other day while idly browsing the ever-changing array of titles on ‘special’ at Kobo, I happened across Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm for only $1.99. Not long ago, the same thing happened with Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels. What serendipity — two of my favorite romances! The alacrity with which I snapped up both titles (hooray – no more waiting for library copies) was a reminder of how much has changed for me since my first forays into reading romance.

I’ve written here before about my early adventures in reading romance novels. One thing I’ve learned since that first post is how annoying such pieces about “discovering” that romance fiction is not trash are to long-time romance readers, and fair enough: what other genre, after all, prompts confessional conversion narratives of this kind, as if elaborate excuses and self-justifications are needed for enjoying them? Of course, there is something unique about the disdain in which romance fiction is held, as my own experience since then has frequently reminded me, but I get, now, why this oft-told tale gets old — and it’s not (or not exactly) what I wanted to write about this time. Instead, I want to have a go at answering the more specific question Jackie Horne (of the blog Romance Novels for Feminists) asked in a comment on my review of Mary Balogh’s Only Beloved. “I remember reading your initial rather negative thoughts on LORD OF SCOUNDRELS,” she wrote; “what made you change your mind about it?”

I suppose the answer is a subset of the larger “learning to love romance” narrative, but I’ve been thinking that it’s also about reading more generally. I often remark in my classes that we need to learn how to read particular kinds of texts well, whether they are Shakespearean sonnets or Victorian multiplot novels. Whether we manage to do so depends on both our willingness (something the coercive aspects of literature classes takes care of, more or less, but which outside of that context is usually up to us) and on our ability — on our access to information about and models of better reading, including the conventions and tropes and forms that provide the internal logic and the governing standards for the genre. Our success also depends on the expectations we bring with us, and whether we can revise or even discard them if we realize they don’t fit the reading at hand. And it also depends on our motivation: sometimes it just won’t seem worth it, and really, most of the time there’s nothing wrong with that.

lighthouseoupI have read some things badly that I know I could learn to read better — Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, for instance, or more recently, To the Lighthouse. One of these I don’t expect to try again, though I might surprise myself; the other I hope to grow into. There are some books I haven’t even tried because I imagine (wrongly, perhaps) that I would be unable to read them well without a lot of support — Joyce’s Ulysses, for instance. There are whole genres I haven’t learned to read yet: science fiction, for example, which I would like to read some day, and horror, which I am entirely unmotivated to explore. These are just personal decisions, not absolute judgments of any kind; they are based on my own inclinations, taste, and priorities. It’s not always up to me, and when I have to figure out how to read something well, for professional or reviewing purposes, I pretty much buckle down and get it done — or at least I figure out a way to read it that makes sense to me.

crusieFor me, romance is an interesting in-between case. I had no external obligation to get anywhere with it. But my curiosity was roused by following discussions about it among other readers who clearly enjoyed it and found interesting things to say about it. I think what stood out the most is how often they talked about reading romance in terms of pleasure — which is not to say the conversations didn’t get critical, or didn’t address complicated topics. But it seemed like for a lot of people reading romance (and talking about it together) was really fun, and that was enticing. Given that my early experiments in the genre were not very successful, I might not have tried again, FOMO notwithstanding, if it weren’t for those other readers both challenging and encouraging me — and finding, before I’d soured on the project, some romances that were easy for me to like. That line crossed, I pretty rapidly got better at reading in the genre. This is not to say I have any special insights about it: just that I have acquired a reasonable working awareness of important conventions and styles. Because I’ve also now done some reading about romance, and have followed and even contributed to a lot of informal and formal discussions about it, I also have a decent, if still somewhat superficial, understanding of the history of and cross-currents within the genre. I don’t like every romance novel I try any more than I like every mystery novel I pick up, but in both cases I feel equipped to read them, if that makes sense.

1995-lord-of-scoundrelsGetting back to Lord of Scoundrels, the problem I had with it at first is that I thought it was ridiculous: melodramatic, overwritten, heavy-handed. I still think it is some of these things, some of the time — but I experience them quite differently: as playful, as tongue-in-cheek, as intertextual, as sexy. Now I enjoy the novel’s wit in a way I couldn’t before, because then I was too distracted by my initial negative reactions; now I appreciate its strong-minded heroine, not just on her own merits but because I have met more of her literary sisters. I can’t remember exactly the sequence that brought me back to Lord of Scoundrels in a more receptive frame of mind: my 2012 progress report notes that “I have yet to read a ‘historical’ that I really like” and mentions Heyer’s Sylvester in particular as a failure — and Sylvester, too, is now a favorite, though not nearly as much as Venetia or Devil’s Cub. (Jessica and Mary Challoner would get along just fine: they could compare notes on the beneficial effects of shooting alpha males in the shoulder — a link between the novels that I’m sure Chase makes quite deliberately.)

It turns out that my answer to Jackie’s question can’t be very specific after all. All I know for sure is that once I mocked Lord of Scoundrels, while now I thoroughly enjoy it. Somehow, in the intervening years, I learned how to read it…and next term I hope to teach 90 first-year students how to read it (and enjoy it) too!

Nomad: Phonse Jessome, Disposable Souls

disposablesoulsPhonse Jessome’s grim, violent crime novel Disposable Souls is set in the city where I live, and in a city I’ve never seen. Reading it was a constant reminder of the point Ian Rankin has often made about his Edinburgh-set novels: they show a side of Edinburgh that tourists never see — and neither do most residents, even though it is around them every day. The physical landscape is the same, but the shadow city of his crime stories has a different population and runs on different rules. Similarly, the Halifax depicted in Disposable Souls has the same geography as my Halifax, but it’s not at all the same place.

Of course, the reality is that these two cities are one city: I am just, in my own everyday life, ignorant of and sheltered from the one Jessome describes, so much so that even his vivid commentaries on very familiar places were disorienting. His description of downtown’s Spring Garden Road highlights just this duality:

In the bright sunshine of the day, the sidewalks on both sides of the road are crammed with beautiful people buying beautiful things. Trendy office workers lug six-dollar lattes past panhandlers who stand invisible at the curb, empty cups in hand. The homeless sit huddled against fire hydrants and utility poles. Halifax doesn’t have a trendy Main Street or a Skid Row. Spring Garden is a little of both.

At night, the tide shifts, and Spring Garden is taken over by angry, young rich kids in torn jeans and baggy black hoodies. They scowl and bluster at anyone who walks past and then tweet about it on seven-hundred-dollar phones. The real thugs roll past in Escalades, looking for someone to shoot. Even they wouldn’t waste real lead on wannabe hoods.

sgrFor readers who don’t know Halifax at all, Jessome provides not just vivid description but a lot of context about the city’s history. That it never feels like info-dumping is because much of it is provided by his protagonist, Detective Constable Cam Neville, a former army sniper and escaped POW, who in his new role as a cop struggles to overcome both PTSD and his past as a member of the biker’s club Satan’s Stallions. Cam views his home town with merciless clarity and an unhealthy dose of cynicism. “Halifax is a navy town,” he explains;

A military moron named Cornwallis was the first to claim it. He started his career as a bedchamber servant for King Edward over in England. He managed to sneak out of the royal bedroom long enough to slaughter hordes of unarmed Scots. The blood lust impressed the King who, although reluctant to lose a man good with a bedpan, realized he had a new bully ready for battle. With no one left to kill in Scotland, the good King sent him off to clean up the royal mess here. Cornwallis built a fort on the hill overlooking Halifax Harbour and headed off into the woods to make war. He couldn’t find the French, so he drew [Cam’s Mi’kmak partner] Blair’s ancestors into a little game called genocide. The British say he won. Cornwallis didn’t procreate; Blair is here. I call that victory.

He’s similarly blunt about the shameful story of Africville:

For 125 years, the descendants of African slaves lived along the shoreline here. They built a tightknit and proud community in isolation and poverty. Africville was part of Halifax, but the city didn’t want it, wouldn’t provide sewer, water, or even police protection. As far as the good people of Halifax were concerned, Africville was a shantytown to be ignored. The city put the open-pit dump beside it and set up sewage lagoons nearby to drive home the point.

Then, one day, Africville mattered more than it wanted to. The people were evicted, and late one cold night in 1969 heavy equipment swept in and demolished the church. The last house was flattened within a month. The city called it urban renewal. Halifax needed a new bridge, and Africville was in the way. The suddenly homeless people were jammed into inner-city slums and ignored for decades. Some of the toughest gangs in the city came out of those inner-city kitchens where bitterness and frustration still simmer.

cornwallisWe learn almost as much about Cam from these accounts as about Halifax, and, again like Rankin, Jessome also uses this contextual material to emphasize the relationship between social and historical conditions and the city’s distinctive patterns of crime and violence.

Disposable Souls alternates between Cam’s first-person narration and third-person narration that moves around among other characters in the tense unfolding drama. Cam is a well-realized character: tough, angry, brave, loyal. His voice is dominated by the anger and the toughness, and after a while I did find myself wishing for more nuance: not just Cam but the book as a whole seemed too much all in one key, and that a particularly rough, grating one. Disposable Souls is a little bit too hard-boiled for my own taste: I didn’t particularly enjoy it. On the other hand, it’s perverse to expect a story about murder, child pornography, and biker gangs to be “enjoyable” — this is the paradox of all crime fiction, of course, that it offers up horrors as entertainment. In my detective fiction class I often raise questions about this ethical problem, especially when we read Agatha Christie or other writers of Golden Age or puzzle mysteries. The  writers of hard-boiled detective fiction and police procedurals are generally credited with making mystery fiction both more literary and more morally weighty by infusing it with realism, and on those grounds, Disposable Souls is definitely a success. There’s nothing amusing at all about its crimes, and Jessome effectively immerses us in the entirely unpleasant world where they take place. That I prefer my Halifax is a reflection on me more than on the novel!

Disposable Souls is well-told and skilfully plotted. I finished it, however, wondering what else it was, if anything. If I were to assign it in my detective fiction class, for instance, what (besides local color) would it bring to our discussions? I’m not sure what its deeper thematic burden is: I couldn’t see how its particular case stood, for instance, as symptomatic of anything more general, rather than as a case study of a hypothetical but sadly plausible scenario. There’s a lot of talk about rivalries between the regional police and the Mounties, but that felt either personal or bureaucratic, not especially political. The contrasting ethos of the police and the Stallions might be a fruitful avenue to explore, particularly in a course where we will already have talked about the dangerous appeal of vigilantism; I think Cam’s military background and its psychological aftermath would also make for an interesting comparison to Knots and Crosses, where Rebus’s SAS training is a crucial part of both his character and the case. I also don’t want to underestimate the interest and value of thinking about crime as a local issue. Certainly Disposable Souls has already made me think differently about this place where I’ve lived for over twenty years — about aspects of the city I’ve otherwise confronted only through newspaper headlines — and there’s something to be said for bringing our classroom discussions of justice close to home.

Regardless of whether I decide to teach it (and I’m very tempted to), I am glad I’ve read it: it’s the first Canadian crime novel I’ve read in a long time that has really made me sit up and take notice, and I’m grateful to Nimbus for sending me a review copy.

Slaying the Dragon: First Thoughts on Five Seasons of Angel


“Well, personally I kind of want to slay the dragon.” – Angel (S5 E22, “Not Fade Away”)

I recently finished my first complete run-through of Angel. I can tell that, as has already been the case with Buffy, re-watching will complicate my response to particulars as well as to the show overall. It’s interesting to me, though, that I can already imagine watching it again (though maybe not all of it, especially not the second half of Season 4, which I really did not enjoy). Like Buffy, Angel seems to do things that are worth taking another look at after the dust has settled, after you know the answer to “what happens next?” There are ideas at stake in it, sometimes confused or swamped by the action, but at other times driving it towards moments of real insight. Unlike the other shows I happily rewatch in order to bask in their familiar pleasures, Angel and Buffy are shows that seem to change, and often deepen, when you go back to them.

angelusMy initial thought at this point is that overall, while I like Buffy the series better than Buffy the character, I like Angel the character more than Angel the series. I would happily watch another two or three (or more!) seasons about Angel, despite how dreadful Angel occasionally was, because I find him complicated and fascinating, whereas Buffy (though she does develop over the course of her series) always seems somewhat two-dimensional to me. I suppose this is a version of the age-old artistic problem that virtue is intrinsically less interesting than vice, except that of course with Angel we’ve got the best of both worlds: good and evil in unending tension, Angel and Angelus distinct but never entirely separable. Buffy, on the other hand, has a clear and singular role to play: while she sometimes rebels against it, when things turn bad she always, always, rises to the occasion — which is great and inspiring, because she’s strong and principled and brave and autonomous, but also somewhat predictable.

Angel is quite limited in Buffy, too: I was actually startled, in the early episodes of Angel, to see him laughing and talking and generally interacting with people, and with the world, like a real person, rather than just brooding in his crypt. (I’m not sure I ever saw Angel really smile in Buffy, never mind sing or dance — though I suppose that’s just as well.) I loved the way Angel made a running gag out of his broodiness, rather than romanticizing it,  and I appreciated that the other characters and also many of the plots that unfolded over the series challenged him to think about his life and choices in varied and often quite ethically complicated ways. His role as a “champion” is never as straightforward as Buffy’s, because he carries Angelus with him, with all the baggage of his past sins but also the lurking possibility of reverting to evil. In some ways I think that gives his moral choices more weight than Buffy’s can ever have, because she’s never actually going to do the wrong thing, and when Angel does the right thing (like destroying the Gem of Amara) it’s often at considerable cost to himself.

This is one reason I liked it so much when Spike joins Angel: their different paths to the same place become so mutually illuminating. Spike made a deliberate decision (and went to considerable pain and trouble) to get his soul back, and that heroic quest makes him more noble in some ways than Angel, whose transformation was involuntary. But Spike has nothing like Angel’s experience of repentance. As Spike eventually says to Angel, “I never looked back at the victims,” and in that respect Angel, who has suffered years of tormenting guilt and chosen over and over to seek redemption, has something of a moral lead. “I spent a hundred years trying to come to terms with infinite remorse,” Angel expostulates; “you spent three weeks moaning in a basement and then you were fine.” (Spike’s entrance into the show also, as that line shows, brought back the wonderfully comic quality that Season 4 is mostly missing, and that keeps the show from falling into self-importance. Here’s an entertaining compilation of some funny Angel-and-Spike moments. :-) )

I enjoyed the noir atmosphere of the earlier seasons, with its blend of superhero crime fighting and hard-boiled private eye investigations: it’s Batman meets Philip Marlowe. I can see, though, how that genre could lose momentum: while having a vampire as the investigator is initially a cool twist, it could easily have become just a gimmick. So it makes sense that they moved the show away from that episodic approach towards larger arcs in which Angel’s ongoing fight for redemption, and the overarching conflict between good and evil in the world, gave it purpose and depth. (This is how Buffy develops too, with the first season — as others warned me when I first started watching it — following pretty tedious “monster of the day” plots and then later seasons taking on more ambitious unifying themes and story lines.) I know that I’m not alone in feeling that in Angel the result can sometimes be terrible (did I mention that I don’t really want to watch Season 4 again?), but a show with a reach that exceeds its grasp is still preferable in lots of ways to one that doesn’t even try. And even the worst story lines in Angel sometimes yielded great moments. I hated everything about the way Jasmine came into the show, for instance — parts of that plot were truly abhorrent — but the episode in which she finally faces off against Angel was both dramatically satisfying and philosophically significant.

wesleyI didn’t like the Angel ensemble as much as the Scoobies in Buffy, but another thing Angel and Buffy have in common is that they both show individual characters transforming in ways that leave them astonishingly far from where they started but that somehow happen in utterly believable ways. Other long-running shows I’m familiar with put fairly consistent characters into lots of new situations, but what happens with Spike in Buffy happens with both Cordelia and Wesley in Angel. If you’d told me while I was watching Buffy that one day Wesley would make me cry, I would not have believed you! As for Cordelia, I couldn’t possibly do better than Jennifer Crusie at explaining how good her character becomes and how terribly she is ultimately treated. Kudos to the actors, of course, as much as the writers. As for our new friends, Gunn was good; I found Lorne a bit bland and Fred annoying ditsy — until she wasn’t any more.illyria

Since I’ve only seen them all once so far, I can’t really say much in detail about individual episodes, though there are a few that do already stand out in my mind, including “I Will Remember You,” “Epiphany,” “Reprise,” and “You’re Welcome.” (Oh, and “Smile Time,” of course — though I still haven’t decided if it’s awful or brilliant. Maybe it’s both? Ditto “The Girl in Question,” which was almost too hilarious.) I also thought the final episode of Season 5 was quite wonderful: each character chose to have a day that beautifully represented who they were. My favorite bit there was Spike reciting his poem: what a nice return to our love-lorn William. When the season, and the series, was over, I felt satisfied with the way it went out, but also bereft because now there’s nowhere new left for me to go in this imagined universe that, to my surprise, I have ended up enjoying so much.

After I finished watching Buffy I discovered this excellent series of episode guides, which includes a pretty smart one called “Why You should Watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” I knew from watching that video that if I watched the matching one about “Why You Should Watch Angel” I might inadvertently pick up some spoilers from the illustrative clips he uses, so I didn’t watch it until I’d seen the whole series. I’ve watched it now, and like the Buffy one, I think it makes a pretty good case, as well as offering some insights into the plots, characters, and themes of the show.

Fear of Failing

success-failureEarlier this year there was a lot of buzz when a Princeton professor published a “CV of Failures.” I know: “Princeton professor” and “failure” hardly seem to belong in the same sentence. But that was pretty much exactly why Johannes Haushofer decided to make his record of rejection public. “Most of what I try fails,” he wrote in his preamble,

but these failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible. I have noticed that this sometimes gives others the impression that most things work out for me. As a result, they are more likely to attribute their own failures to themselves, rather than the fact that the world is stochastic, applications are crapshoots, and selection committees and referees have bad days. This CV of Failures is an attempt to balance the record and provide some perspective.

I admit that it seemed a bit silly to me at the time. Don’t we all fail a lot, and isn’t the point of a curriculum vitae to make the positive case? But he and the many people who responded enthusiastically to the whole idea of going public with failure weren’t wrong that in academic culture failures are hidden while successes are trumpeted — not just in the relatively discreet form of CVs (which are all-too-rarely made public anyway), but by announcements from Deans, or applause at Department meetings, or faculty book fairs, for example. In this context failure always feels a bit shameful (which is just one of many reasons the terrible job market for PhDs is so psychologically damaging). Academia is a profoundly evaluative, and thus incessantly judgmental, culture, and thus also a culture that all too easily divides us (if only tacitly) into winners and losers.*

fisforfailureI have been thinking about the question of failure in academia again since my promotion was denied. The appeal is ongoing, so I don’t yet know how the story will finally turn out, but no matter how it does, the fact will always remain that I was not successful in this process. It has recently occurred to me that one reason last year was so difficult for me is that when things took a turn for the worse, one of my most intense reactions was humiliation. I felt profoundly embarrassed, because I had been held up for scrutiny and found wanting: I had not passed the test, and in this world, that feels not just like a professional evaluation but also like a very personal and all-too-public shaming. I know that this is not an entirely rational response, but I bet it also isn’t unusual for academics who fail in this way, especially when you add in imposter syndrome (endemic among academics) — this is the time you were finally exposed as the pretender you always were.

freakoutthrowstuffWhat I have been thinking about more recently, though, is how much worse this cringing attitude made the whole experience for me, because it led me to be not just discreet but downright secretive about what was going on. I’m not saying that I should have made all aspects of the case public (and I don’t plan to now, either): I have some doubts about the advice on Historiann’s blog (about another case) to “YELL AND SCREAM ABOUT WHAT’S HAPPENING,” not just because it seems to me a strategy that could backfire but also because it could look as if you’re trying to do an end-run around proper procedures. (Not that those procedures themselves might not sometimes deserve yelling and screaming about, of course, but as a general rule I don’t think professional matters should be litigated in the court of public opinion.) I just mean being frank about the basics, so, for instance, when people ask how you are doing, instead of saying “fine” and then going in your office and throwing things to relieve the stress of keeping up appearances, maybe saying “not great, actually, because my promotion application isn’t going as well as I’d hoped.”

My overwhelming desire to hide in my office and listen to Adele may have protected me in some ways, but it also, I belatedly realize, cut me off from what might have been really valuable gestures of support. Mind you, being more open might well have created other problems, since the sources of my troubles are one way or another all colleagues: presumably we don’t routinely discuss these processes more openly precisely because the airing of internal grievances threatens our collective collegiality. Of course, from my point of view the damage is already done: there are people I’ll never look at the same way again. Also, the prevailing norm of confidentiality strips away some kinds of accountability. My feeling at this point is that like any dissension between co-workers, it’s awkward any way you handle it, but my way — which meant closing myself off from many of the people around me — ended up being quite personally debilitating.

failureI don’t rule out that some of the intensity of my own reactions might be idiosyncratic: I myself was surprised that I took it all so hard, and that has been cause for some self-reflection. (Indeed, I have experienced fits of meta-failure in which I have been thoroughly unimpressed with myself for not handling everything better!) That’s what got me thinking again about the general context, though — about what failure means and how failure is treated in the academic world. And it also got me thinking about other failures in my own life, along the lines of the ‘CV of Failures.’ It isn’t, after all, as if this is the first time I have swung at something and missed. So in the spirit of Johannes Haushofer, here are a few more of my own failures. I’ll restrict the list to things that quantify more easily than, for instance, my general failure to thrive during my graduate coursework, and that are on a larger scale than, say, the many books I have failed to understand.

  1. I was rejected by most of the graduate schools I applied to, including the one I most wanted (the History of Consciousness program at UC Santa Cruz, which in retrospect I think might have been a complete disaster for me).
  2. I was also did not get most of the jobs I applied for, including the one I really (really) wanted (at Simon Fraser University, where I came close enough to have a campus interview). (Worse, almost, is that they sent the rejection by email so I wept over it in a dank basement computer lab, which is where we read email in those days.) Obviously, I did still get a very good job (just as I did get into a good graduate program) but I didn’t know at the time that’s how things would turn out.
  3. I didn’t get the only SSHRC grant I ever applied for. The funny thing about that, in this context, is that one criticism of my promotion case (from some quarters) was that I hadn’t applied for a SSHRC grant — I had, but it wasn’t on my CV because I didn’t think failed applications belonged there.
  4. I’ve been fairly lucky with articles submitted for publication, though I’ve certainly had failures there too. One that I remember with particular clarity came back with a very dismissive assessment and then was accepted unchanged by a different journal — good evidence for the “crapshoot” theory. Another came back as a revise and resubmit: that ended up being one of the most valuable experiences of my early professional career, as it was for Victorian Studies, the revision advice was both generous and rigorous, and they accepted it when I sent it back.
  5. I don’t yet have much experience with “pitching” essays to magazine editors, but I’ve failed almost every time I’ve tried. Sometimes these failures come in the form of absolute total silence in response — that I don’t really want to get used to, as it seems to me just plain bad manners. There was also that book review that was declared unpublishable.
  6. I have so far failed to turn my miscellaneous writing on George Eliot into a viable book project. I do consider this particular failure a work in progress, though. At the very least, as time goes on and I try different variations of it, I hope maybe I am failing better!

Like Haushofer, I’ve been very fortunate overall in my academic career. The point is not to complain (that would be absurd, for someone in my privileged position, and anxiety over giving just such an impression has nearly kept me from posting this at all) but to reveal more of the whole picture, to be clear that my career has not been an unimpeded string of successes that nobody with any failures on their record could possibly hope to emulate. I’ve learned over the past year, too, that for all my successes — maybe even to some extent because of them — I still need to work on my own fear of failing, or, more specifically, of being seen to fail. This post is a start.

*I’m sure these attitudes are not unique to academia, but I think they may have some unique features there given the particular form and very long process of indoctrination professionalization we’ve gone through by the time we end up in these jobs.

“Bother the Incubus!” Angela Thirkell, High Rising

high-risingHigh Rising is the first of Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels. I read the second, Wild Strawberries, a few years ago — that I barely remember it and also apparently didn’t write about it hints at what to me is both the appeal and the limitation of Thirkell (so far, since this is a pretty small sample): she offers charm without much substance, so the reading experience is light and enjoyable but not particularly memorable.

High Rising is definitely a funny novel, and it is well-plotted, at least insofar as its characters move around each other in a kind of dance that resolves in a perfectly satisfying way. Though there is some good situational comedy around their rivalries and romances, the novel is wittiest in its comments on contemporary literature. Thirkell is clearly self-conscious about her own modest aims, and she tacitly invites us to place her fiction in the context of her heroine’s “good bad novels.” Laura Talbot (a kind of country house Lady Carbury, to invoke the author of the more famous Barsetshire novels) has turned to writing fiction after her husband’s death when “the problem of earning money was serious”:

She had considered the question carefully, and decided that next to racing, murder, and sport, the great reading public of England (female section) liked to read about clothes. With real industry, she got introductions, went over big department stores, visited smart dressmaking friends, talked to girls she knew who had become buyers or highbrow window-dressers, and settled down to write best-sellers. . . .She was quite contented, and never took herself seriously, though she took a lot of trouble over her books.

The mediocrity of her successful literary output is perfectly fine with Laura. Her total lack of pretension about her writing is actually kind of refreshing: she would never be vexed at not being taken seriously by the literary establishment, whose elitism is nicely skewered when one of her best friends, an eminent historical biographer, flirts with fiction himself and identifies as his most likely avenue to success the genre of the “Awfully Dull Novel.” “Dull novels?” asks Laura in some dismay; “But, George, why? Anyone can do that.” “Laura, they cannot,” he promptly replies: “It needs a power, an absorption, which few possess. If you write enough dull novels, excessively dull ones, Laura, you obtain an immense reputation.”

That’s about as intense as the metacommentary gets, and it is a peripheral part of a novel that is primarily about a small knot of people figuring out who they will or won’t marry. There’s some nice pathos around the ailing mother of one of the characters, and a little bit of intrigue around an interloper, the secretary who earns the epithet “The Incubus” when she latches onto George and seems likely to ensnare him, not so much through her wiles (which are quite transparent) but through his own kindliness and inability to see what is going on right in front of him. Her comeuppance is decisive but mild, like Mapp and Lucia without the malice.

thirkelltyposThe series clearly aims to be associated with Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire, and my edition even includes a map with Barchester at the center. Based on the two novels I’ve read, Thirkell doesn’t really deserve to stand as Trollope’s equal: for all their similarly companionable charm, his novels are both more subtle and more profound. (Jenny at Shelf Love is further along in the series; from her review of The Brandons, it sounds as if the quality stays about the same as you keep going.) High Rising is perfect weekend reading, though. My one real complaint is on Thirkell’s behalf: the reprint editions from Moyer Bell are really sloppily done, full of typos and spacing errors and extraneous punctuation, all minor in themselves but cumulatively distressing. Just because these are “good bad novels” doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be properly proofread!

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