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!

This Week In My Classes: Poetry and Prose

That was a busy week! Not only was it the first full week of term, with both classes and committee meetings, but I was involved in a Ph.D. comprehensive exam, which is something we usually do when classes aren’t in session. Obviously it’s the student who has the biggest job, but the committee has to read the written papers and prepare questions for the oral exam. Happily, it went well (congratulations, Laura!), and next week things should settle into more of a routine.

howe-close-readingIn Close Reading I always start with poetry, partly because it’s just easier to model and practice mining details for meaning when working with shorter, denser texts. Even in Middlemarch (don’t tell anyone I said this!) there are places it’s probably okay not to scrutinize every word, but a sonnet such as Robert Frost’s “Design” demands our unrelenting attention. I reviewed some key terminology on Monday, and then Wednesday and Friday were all about scansion, something think is not just vital (who can talk well about poetry without considering rhythm?) but kind of fun. However, despite my best efforts, I am almost never able to convince the majority of my students that it is anything but aggravating: the stress was palpable in both tutorials on Friday!

One of the problems, of course, is that while there are things you can do wrong, there isn’t just one right result: you need to use your ear and your judgment (which in turn relies on your understanding of the whole poem, including both form and themes). As far as possible, I try to shore up their confidence by proposing methodical steps to follow: be sure you are pronouncing words correctly; mark in stressed and unstressed syllables first where you do not have any choice (it’s never spi-DER, it’s always SPI-der); at least initially, assume little words aren’t strong beats but nouns are; wait until you’ve done several lines before deciding what pattern you see, because good poets like rhythmic variation. Ultimately, though, you do have to rise to the occasion of the poem itself and make some decisions about how you think it is best read. Sometimes a poem steers you towards a more regular (and thus possibly more artificial “poetic”) rhythm, with a strong predictable beat that isn’t necessarily how you would “naturally” speak its sentences (Poe’s “The Raven,” to me at least, works this way), while other times a poem demands to be read dramatically.

donnepoemsI almost always end up using lines from Donne’s Holy Sonnet X (“Death, Be Not Proud”) to illustrate just how interesting, important, and even exciting scanning poetry can be. For one thing, it’s a poem that quickly teaches you not to read it in anything like mechanical iambic pentameter: “Death, BE not PROUD, though SOME have CALLed THEE / mighTY and DREADful, FOR thou ART not SO”? You wouldn’t. You mustn’t. And not just because that’s not how you pronounce “mighty.” You’re standing up to Death! At the very least, you have to call him out in that first syllable: “DEATH, BE not PROUD.” You might even do four stresses in a row — “DEATH, BE NOT PROUD” — or maybe that’s too much. I’m tempted to do “for THOU ART NOT SO” as well, but my reading of the poem may be more confrontational than others would like. At any rate, you have to say it as if you mean it, which makes scanning the poem actually quite a profound exercise:

In The Victorian ‘Woman Question’ we read Frances Power Cobbe’s 1868 essay “Criminals, Idiots, Women, and Minors,” a powerful attack on the irrational and unjust laws governing married women’s property, along with Margaret Oliphant’s 1858 essay “The Condition of Women,” in which she wonders why women are complaining so much (we agreed that “don’t young men have it pretty tough too, with all their college degrees but no clear vocation?” is not her most compelling argument!). And we read J. S. Mill’s The Subjection of Women (1869), which of course is a classic text in the development of liberal feminism. It is always interesting to see how strikingly modern it can sound (on this reread, I was particularly interested in Mill’s discussion of unearned male privilege and its deleterious moral effects) even as it betrays its Victorianism in other moments (for instance, in Mill’s comments that left to themselves, women will almost certainly still end up choosing marriage and motherhood over other options, and that the domestic arrangements of the household make pretty good sense as they are).

My main goal with these early readings is to start us off with a sense of some of the Victorian debates about women, including idealistic notions of their angelic influence and delicate sensibilities (with all the pit-and-pedestal consequences of that view) as well as contrary views and arguments for their rights and abilities. This lets us put the arguments we’ll encounter in our novels and poems, which are often put less directly — dramatized rather than theorized — into their contemporary contexts. Next week it’s Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, for example, which will show (among other things) that the idea of women’s influence is just that, an idea, one that means very little compared to the overt power of a man determined to have his own way.

Academic Enclaves

I was reminded yesterday that SSHRC has awarded a large sum to help start up a Canadian version of The Conversation. I have followed links to the other national iterations of this site before and thought it seemed like a good idea. “Academic rigor, journalistic flair”: what’s not to like?

Well, actually, I don’t altogether like the tone that tagline sets — as if there isn’t journalistic rigor, as if academics can’t have flair, as if the twain otherwise don’t meet. Okay, folks, you’re different, but maybe not that different: people with “deep expertise” do write for other outlets, after all, and once in a while “facts and evidence” actually do get into the public arena from other directions. It’s a great idea to make the kind of expertise academics have more widely available, but that good impulse is somewhat offset, for me, by the site’s faint air of condescension. Am I being uncharitable or oversensitive? Does it strike anyone else this way?

Thinking about The Conversation got me thinking, in turn, about some other academic “crossover” sites I’m familiar with. Almost all of these have occasionally (again, despite their manifest good intentions and the often very high quality of their content) irritated me in the same way: Stanford’s Arcade site, for instance, or the Public Books site (which has another tagline that I don’t like, implying as it does that the “curious public” is passively awaiting delivery of “cutting-edge” ideas); or, in a more niche category, the Branch Collective. Obviously, these sites aren’t all trying to do the same thing, and they have quite different personalities of their own, but they have in common that they are deliberate attempts to bridge the divide between the ivory tower and the rest of the world. Also, they all seem very keen to differentiate themselves, implicitly or explicitly, from the masses of other sites offering analogous content, playing up the scholarly qualifications of their contributors or their replication of key academic processes (notably, in the case of the Branch Collective, peer review).*

I think what rubs me the wrong way is exactly what these sites (with some justification) play up as their strengths — that they may be out in public, but at heart they are still academic. They are careful to explain and assert their own authority, in (mostly) implicit contrast to the many other sites that are equally public but not created or curated by academics. To me, this all has a whiff of the all-too-familiar academic mistrust of the actual “public arena,” in which credentials are neither necessary nor sufficient for authority and peer review neither filters nor stifles contributions to the conversation. It’s not that there aren’t good reasons to get frustrated with the resulting chaos of information and opinion, but to me there’s something a bit precious about setting up special academic enclaves and calling them “public” instead of just joining in. (If you don’t think Wikipedia is good enough, why not make it better?) It also seems to me in some cases as if, alongside the desire (genuine, I’m sure) to offer something of value to people outside the academy, there’s some concern about ensuring that the form that offering takes will pass muster inside the academy — because for all the big talk these days about “knowledge mobilization,” in practice universities are profoundly conservative institutions, and the more familiar an “innovation” looks, or the more it is “branded” as a ground-breaking institutional or disciplinary project, the more likely it is to be praised and given professional credit.

Again, I’m not disdaining the quality of the sites I’ve mentioned. There is just something about their tone or atmosphere that I sometimes find off-putting. I have also been frustrated at having them held out by other academics as exemplary in ways I do not believe they actually are. In my own promotion case, for instance, one of my external reviewers praised the editorial process she (or he, I don’t actually know) had experienced at Public Books, suggesting more or less directly that it was more rigorous than that at Open Letters Monthly because she had found some of my reviews there “repetitive” (which ones, she didn’t say). Well, of course, equally rigorous readers can still disagree about judgments like that — and it’s a hard claim to assess or dispute anyway, without specifics. (I didn’t appreciate the slur on my co-editors, however, even setting aside the criticism of my own writing!) However, in my turn, I’ve read a few things at Public Books that I found ponderous, pretentious, or just too long for me to care enough about to finish, so I don’t see any reason to assume that either venue can claim a uniquely effective process. (I certainly feel confident that contributors to Open Letters get pretty arduous treatment in what we fondly call the “shark tank” of general edits.) I also have academic colleagues who are keen to write essays for Branch but cannot bring themselves to contribute to Open Letters — it’s pretty clear that the academic imprimatur motivates them in a way that our masthead does not. (Or perhaps, as has been suggested to me a couple of times, the prospect of going public quite so openly, even on the modest scale Open Letters offers, is intimidating. As Alex Reid has observed, “the Journal of narrowly-focused humanities studies is a good place to hide,” and I admit it takes a while to get used to just saying what you think without the protective shelter created by peer review and obscurity. Or perhaps they just don’t think very highly of Open Letters but are too tactful to tell me: my speculation should not be too partial!)

Obviously this issue is personal to me, especially at this particular moment in my career, which is why I freely acknowledge that my inverse snobbery about these erudite and high-minded projects may well be symptomatic of my own anxieties about the choices I’ve made, rather than an accurate reflection of anything they’re actually doing or saying. Clearly, I have approached working in public in a different way — not as part of an institutional or specifically professional enterprise (not that we have anything like, say, the Public Humanities program at Western — but even if we did, that’s not what I want to be doing), not in a special space that privileges academics. I have just tried to find a place for myself in the ongoing public conversation about literature, to figure out what I could bring to it and how. In this conversation, unlike at The Conversation, we share and create authority for each other; mine, such as it is, doesn’t inhere in my credentials. I am not saying this is the right or best model for all public academics (it almost certainly would not work for nuclear physicists), and I’m also not saying that the enclave model is wrong — though I do think it should not be insisted on or valued more highly just because it preserves, even relies on, distinctions between the university and the world. I think that for me personally, the problem with the enclaves is that they represent, or resemble too closely, what I came out here to get away from, is all.**

*I can’t decide where The Valve fits in here. I think it always had more of a hybrid quality, and certainly while I was writing for it its boundaries seemed fairly porous. But maybe it struck other people as insular in this same way.

**My way has the advantage of not requiring a SSHRC grant to get on with it — though actually to some people that it’s free (except, of course, for the investment of time) apparently counts against it, because getting grants is a thing we’re supposed to do.

“Writing At This Level”: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon III

lambandfalconI started reading Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon four years ago. I’m still reading it – or, more accurately, I am reading it again. I didn’t stop reading it then because it was no good or I wasn’t interested. On the contrary, I was fascinated and endlessly impressed. But the very thing that so fascinated and impressed me – the astonishing density and rhetorical brilliance of West’s individual sentences – made it very slow reading, and at nearly 1200 pages it’s also, quite literally, very heavy reading. I didn’t consciously decide to stop reading it. I just set it down and read something else for a while, and somehow that “while” turned into four years.

Here I am again, though, back at it. A summer of mostly not very excellent books had made me a bit restless intellectually, and suddenly the remaining 900 pages of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon seemed really inviting. Since picking it up again last weekend I’ve read another 300 pages — not much, really, in almost 10 days. It’s just not the kind of book you skim through, though: there’s no basic plot, no simple gist, that you could grasp if you did that. It’s also not clear how much value the book would have if you were able to reduce it, somehow, to a skeletal level. It is not an authoritative history of the Balkans, for example, though it is, in part, an exposition of and meditation on the history of the Balkans. It is not a colorful travel narrative about the former Yugoslavia, though it is, in part, a rich and sometimes riveting account of traveling there. It is not a political analysis of the rise of fascism — though it moves in those shadows and thus shows its readers the horrors that lurk in them. (One footnote is particularly chilling in its brevity: “I was about to discover the reason for this from a Viennese historian,” West says about a small point of historical interest, “when the Anschluss came, and there was silence.”)

000033Now that I’m almost half way through the book, I am still impressed above all by West’s writing. In his introduction, Christopher Hitchens (after acknowledging some of the idiosyncrasies and problems of West’s commentary on the world she was exploring) concludes that “writing on this level must be esteemed and shown to later generations, no matter what the subject.” I’m not sure that quality of prose (even if we had a 100% reliable and universal measure for it) is or should always be a sufficient condition for reading something. One of the challenges of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon for me is that it is so vast and complex that I doubt my own ability, even when I finally finish it, to evaluate its worth on other grounds, though. At this point I do feel some frustration, in fact, at being so immersed in details and yet still so unable to perceive, never mind assess, larger patterns.

I may never see the forest for the trees, or perhaps by the time I read the Epilogue (which Hitchens describes as “ice-cold but white-hot”) I will have traveled with West at least to her conclusions, and then I can look around for other perspectives on them. In the meantime, here are a few more samples that show, again, the rhythm of her thinking and writing, pulsing between the specific observation and the perceived implication:

What is the use of ascribing any catastrophe to nature? Nearly always man’s inherent malignity comes in and uses the opportunity it offers to create a greater catastrophe.

It is a glorious story, yet a sad one. What humanity could do if it could but have a fair course to run, if fire and pestilence did not gird our steps and earthquakes engulf them, if man did not match his creativeness with evil that casts down and destroys!

Like all other material experiences, sex has no value other than what the spirit assesses; and the spirit is obstinately influenced in its calculation by its preference for freedom.

The more one knows about the [Sarajevo] attentat the more incomprehensible it becomes. It shows also that moral judgment sets itself an impossible task. But when the Bosnians chose life, and murdered Franz Ferdinand, they chose death, for the French and Germans and English, and if the French and Germans and English had been able to choose life they would have chosen death for the Bosnians. The sum will not add up. It is madness to wrack our brains over this sum. But there is nothing else we can do except try to add up this sum.

These wreaths [laid at the Monument to the Unknown Soldier] were displeasing in any case because they were official, and had been ordered by preoccupied functionaries and supplied as articles of commerce for a minor state occasion that would provoke no wave of real feeling in the people, but their provenance reminded one that the quality of Balkan history, and indeed of all history, is disgusting.

[Mozart’s music] presents a vision of a world where man is no longer the harassed victim of time but accepts its discipline and establishes a harmony with it. This is not a little thing, for our struggle with time is one of our most fundamental conflicts; it holds us back from the achievement and comprehension that should be the justification of our life.

Again history emitted its stench, which was here particularly noisome. Nothing a wolf can do is quite so unpleasant as what can be done to a wolf in zoos and circuses, by those who are assumed not to be wolfish, to be the civilized curators of wolfdom.


The photos are from my own trip to the former Yugoslavia in 1986.

This Week In My Classes: Back At It Again

escher12I was struggling over what to write about in this post, which begins the 10th season of my blogging regularly about my teaching. What angle, what big idea, what topic, should I focus on? What do I have to say that’s new? I couldn’t seem to think of anything. And then I remembered that when I started writing these posts, all I aimed to do was report back from inside my classroom, to counter harmful negative myths and stereotypes about what goes on there. It’s partly because I had been doing that for a long time that I began to take up somewhat more general abstract topics — you can see it happening if you scroll through the archive, not all the time, but more and more as the series putters along. But that wasn’t supposed to become an imperative! So without further ado, I’ll just get back to saying a little bit about what went on in my classes this week.

The short version is: not a whole lot, really. After all, it’s only the first week of the fall term, and it wasn’t even a complete week, at that. The most important thing I did, besides distribute the syllabus and try to sort out logistics like class lists and presentation sign-ups, was probably set the tone for what’s to come. Still, in both classes we did move into some content.

boothI opened Close Reading on Wednesday with a lecture focused primarily on choices: first ours, in the department, to include the course among our suite of requirements; then theirs to take it, which includes their choice to major in English (not something I’ve ever heard of anyone being pressured into); then, moving into the course materials, the choices writers make, from the biggest (to write anything at all) to the smallest (to use this word or that one). My broader pitch is for the connection between aesthetics and ethics; I quote Wayne Booth, which won’t surprise regular visitors here:

[The writer] has made a vast range of choices, deliberately or unconsciously: these characters and their conflicts rather than a host of tempting other possibilities; just which of their experiences to dramatize fully and which merely to ‘tell’ or narrate; which virtues and vices to grant them; which voice to grant the telling to, which metaphors to heighten and which to delete; where to begin and where to end; when to use style indirect libre and when to use actual quotations; which level of style to employ, and where; when to interrupt with commentary revealing the authors’ judgment of events …; and so on and on. It is that chooser who constitutes the full ethos of any work.  It is living with that highly select set of virtues…that constitutes our full experience.

I propose that in our close readings we are trying to understand what that “chooser” is offering us. In the classroom we don’t typically move from understanding and appreciation to judgment, but in our lives, we often do, or should, so I also quote Orwell: “The first thing we demand of a wall is that it shall stand up.  If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be torn down if it surrounds a concentration camp.” It’s harder to know if a work of literature stands up than it is to tell if a wall does, just as it can be much harder to be sure what that literary “wall” surrounds. But I think — I hope — that thinking of their reading as something that at least potentially has ethical implications makes our academic project of becoming good close readers seem more than just an academic exercise.

white_spiderIn today’s tutorials we looked at one writer’s specific choices, comparing Robert Frost’s “In White” to the later, much more famous version, “Design.” You can see the two poems side by side here, if you’re curious. Looking at different versions of the “same” poem is a nice way to provoke discussion about the difference a specific word makes — consider the difference between “dented” and “dimpled” in the first line. (I actually used a reader for this class once that was all poems in various revisions.) It’s not so much about explaining why the later version is better, though in this case it does seem to me conspicuously so. It’s about seeing the significance of the poet’s choices come into focus when you consider what else he might have said. A lot of the changes in the later version really bring out the problem of agency, for instance: if there are “characters,” who is their author? And so on — from the title to the last line, there are lots of things to consider. It’s a small-scale exercise, but I think it was a good way to get us started.

In The Victorian ‘Woman Question,’ Wednesday was for getting organized and today was for establishing some context, meaning I lectured, for the one and only time I will do that in this seminar class. I have found that with students arriving from many different directions, it is helpful if I give everyone a common framework at the outset so I go over some key terms and concepts — some generalizations about the “separate spheres,” the ideal of “the angel in the house,” that sort of thing .Then I explain a bit about women’s education in the period, and about some of the central legal issues with marriage and property — and I also sketch out some of the special challenges of being a woman writer at this time. I try to emphasize that the “woman question” really was a “question,” and that it was posed as well as answered in many different ways, as our readings will amply illustrate.

For Monday we’re reading Frances Power Cobbe’s terrific essay “Criminals, Idiots, Women, and Minors”:

At the head of this paper I have placed the four categories under which persons are now excluded from many civil, and all political rights in England. They were complacently quoted last year by the Times as every way fit and proper exceptions; but yet it has appeared to not a few, that the place assigned to Women amongst them is hardly any longer suitable. To a woman herself who is aware that she has never committed a crime; who fondly believes that she is not an idiot; and who is alas! only too sure she is no longer a minor,—there naturally appears some incongruity in placing her, for such important purposes, in an association wherein otherwise she would scarcely be likely to find herself. But the question for men to answer is: Ought Englishwomen of full age, in the present state of affairs, to be considered as having legally attained majority? or ought they permanently to be dealt with, for all civil and political purposes, as minors? This, we venture to think, is the real point at issue between the friends and opponents of “women’s rights” . . .

hamiltonFor a somewhat different perspective, we’re also reading Margaret Oliphant’s essay “The Condition of Women.” (Both are in Susan Hamilton’s excellent Broadview collection, which some person named “Maitzen” calls “an indispensable volume” in her sincerely enthusiastic blurb for it.) And we’re reading the first chapter of Mill’s The Subjection of Women, which we’ll finish for Wednesday.

Usually now when I teach a seminar class I have students give group presentations, and one of the requirements is that they have to engage the rest of the class in some kind of activity — they aren’t allowed to hold forth on their own for more than 10-15 minutes of their time. I always look forward to the creative things they come up with. In previous years, for example, I have played “Who Wants to be a Pre-Raphaelite” and done a “Choose Your Own Adventure in Wildfell Hall” in which we tried to extricate Helen from her bad marriage without violating convention, law, or her character as we understood it. But things don’t have to be so elaborate: I have also had really successful presentations that relied on more conventional but very valuable things like break-out discussion groups that reported back on key themes or passages. The first presentation for this term will be next Friday, so that guarantees me one class where I am not in charge. Hooray! Because I was reminded at the end of my third class hour today that running the show — whether lecturing or coordinating discussion — is pretty tiring.

OK, there we go. Nothing fancy, just another report from the field. Yet, having said that, I continue to believe that in addition to helping me be a more self-conscious and accountable teacher, these posts do, in their own small way, serve a larger purpose.

Summer Reading

moby-dick-penguinI decided to ease out of the summer with some light reading on this long weekend — first Honest Doubt, and then two Spensers, Early Autumn (one of the best of the series just for defining Spenser’s code, which is roughly “autonomy with honor”) and Hundred-Dollar Baby (notable for being a rare case in which Spenser’s knight-errantry fails rather spectacularly). In between, I did read another two hundred pages or so of Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, but it’s just too good to power through. I do intend to keep on reading it, so more about it later, if only for an excuse to quote more of West’s remarkable sentences.

Looking back over the summer, it wasn’t a great one for reading, beyond (and even, to some extent, including) the books I read for reviews. Still, there were definitely some highlights. Chief among them would have to be Moby-Dick, and isn’t that an entry that makes up for a lot of other deficiencies! A first reading of a novel so deep and capacious can only be a preliminary one, of course, but now that I’ve reveled in it once I know why I will want to read it again one day. In retrospect, I’m surprised at how low my expectations were. Why didn’t I know how much fun it would be?

haruf_coverThe novels of Kent Haruf are on a very different scale and in a very different register — it’s hard to imagine a greater contrast, really, to Melville — but in their own quiet way they gave me a lot of pleasure — readerly pleasure, that is, as they are certainly not novels that shy away from emotional pain. And I would single out David Ebershoff’s The Danish Girl and Emma Claire Sweeney’s Owl Song at Dawn as two other books that I particularly enjoyed this summer: both eloquently and, in their own ways, elegantly conveyed the complexities of love and family, and the need, above all, for acceptance.

I expected To the Lighthouse to be another high point of my summer reading: that it wasn’t is surely my fault, not the novel’s. Another time.

And with that, another summer ends and another fall term begins.

Given to Murder: Amanda Cross, Honest Doubt


“I know you said most professors aren’t given to murder, but are English departments more given to murder than most?”

“Not as far as I know,” Kate said.

Over the years I have read all of the Kate Fansler mysteries by Amanda Cross (who was really Columbia English professor and renowned feminist critic Carolyn Heilbrun). Honest Doubt, published in 2000, is the penultimate of these; the last, Edge of Doom, came out just a year before her 2003 suicide.

I remember not liking Honest Doubt very much when I read it the first time, and rereading it over the last couple of days I could see why. At least for someone with preexisting knowledge of academia and its discontents, Honest Doubt is fairly heavy-handed, with a lot of tendentious explanations of the kind of theoretical and disciplinary infighting that was characteristic of English departments in the 1990s  and also of the territorialism, defensiveness, and self-importance that remain pretty typical. If you live it, there’s not necessarily a lot of charm in reading about it, particularly when the telling offers no new insights or revelations. Often in a mystery the solution to the individual crime points towards a solution to the broader ill it is a symptom of — Honest Doubt, however, does not offer any glimmer of a way forward except the general hope that eventually the worst, with all their passionate retrograde intensity, will die off.

That said, I did appreciate that Heilbrun devised a good formal justification for her expose of academic foibles by approaching her story, not through Kate, as usual, but through a private investigator, Woody, who consults with Kate to make up for her own ignorance of academic ways and means. Woody is an engaging narrator, and her outsider status gives Kate (and many of the other characters) an excuse for explaining how things work as well as how they go awry — with details about all things academic, from adjunct labor to tenure requirements to the hazards of prioritizing teaching over research. It also lets Heilbrun (and thus her readers) have some fun with Woody’s fish-out-of-water experiences on the college campus, and with the hyper-articulate name-dropping poetry-quoting professors she has to interview. There’s no doubt that a lot about how we carry on is kind of absurd if you step back and think about it, and though there are some ways in which Heilbrun’s cynical take seems a bit outdated, she’s not wrong that the extent to which our work often seems inconsequential to outsiders is exactly why the stakes get so high internally. She also does well capturing the ways academics’ identities get bound up in their objects of study, so that it becomes near impossible to avoid taking changes in their field personally. Kate sagely acknowledges the corrupting potential of this over-identification, especially as it converges with academic ambition: she quotes Auden saying that when Tennyson “decided to be the Victorian bard . . . he ceased to be a poet,” and propose that the victim, a curmudgeonly Tennyson expert, experienced a similar fall from grace: “He was a real academic when he began with Tennyson. Then he tried to become the academic and the Tennysonian, and ceased to be even a decent professor.”

heilbrunThe case itself is cleverly contrived but not, I think, particularly meaningful. On a completely personal and thus mostly irrelevant note, I enjoyed that it turned on the victim’s fondness for retsina: retsina is actually the first wine I ever drank, back when I was a regular in a Greek dance performing group, so for some time I didn’t realize just how distinctive (many would say, just how disgusting) it actually is. I haven’t had any in years, but now I’m tempted to see if our local wine store carries any. As I recall, it certainly goes well with the robust flavors of Greek cooking — garlic, lemon, and lamb especially. It isn’t really key to the crime, though, except that because nobody likes it but the victim, it proves a useful vehicle for delivering the fatal poison. (This is not a spoiler, as the method of the murder is one of the first things we find out!)

Otherwise, the only thing that really interested me in the novel was its gesture towards another of Heilbrun’s own recurring interests: solitude. She sees, rightly, I think, that a fondness for solitude is a particularly vexed issue for women, and in Honest Doubt she gives us a character who has managed to achieve the remarkable state of being unapologetic about her need for it. “I don’t want to offer you an extended disquisition on a woman’s life,” she tells Woody (the phrase itself reminiscent of Heilbrun’s slim but mighty book Writing A Woman’s Life)

and how it is made to seem that she really wants what she has, how she believes she has what she wants, and, if she has any secret desires, which are against all the forces of her culture, she hardly dares to face them.

Kate herself also in her own way resists the pressure to want what she’s supposed to – she is happily childless, for one thing – and in other Amanda Cross novels Heilbrun offers a number of characters who try to write their own stories according to their own needs and desires rather than haplessly following cultural norms. In Death in a Tenured Position, for instance, which is the one in the series that I know the best (I’ve assigned it several times in my ‘Women and Detective Fiction’ seminar), a happily married couple struggles with the dubious reactions of friends who realize they sleep in separate rooms — a small private decision that provokes simply because it doesn’t conform to people’s assumptions about marital togetherness. “You’d think they’d decided to be tattooed, or run guns to Cuba,” remarks one of their friends.

tenuredpositionI finished Honest Doubt thinking that, though I didn’t love it this time either, I should reread more of the series. Even 2000 was a long time ago in my own academic career, and for all that aspects of Honest Doubt seemed faintly archaic already, some of its truths hit home in a way they didn’t before. Even its title, in fact, has new resonance to me, taken as it is from Tennyson’s lines (from In Memoriam) “There lives more faith in honest doubt / Believe me, than in half the creeds.” My own doubts about a range of academic values and practices have made me seem to some, I think, like a negative force, maybe even a threat (or, and I’m not sure if this is better or worse, like an irrelevance). I’ve described myself as feeling sometimes like “a nonbeliever in church”: to me, though, my doubts have always been indications of my faith that what we do not only is valuable but can be even more so.

The Last Throes of Summer

COVER-SMALLSeptember is here, which means that even though technically it’s still summer, it feels like fall. From now on, every nice day is to be cherished and even the sunniest Sunday will be under the shadow of Monday’s impending classes — though not quite yet, because my first class meetings of the new term aren’t until Wednesday. And as it happens, I will be able to wind up my summer without too much angst: yesterday I realized that right now, though as always there are plenty of things I could be doing, there’s really nothing I must be doing. All the writing I’d promised has been sent along to editors; my courses are prepped, including handouts, lecture notes, and slides for the first day(s); other odds and ends of administrative tasks have been completed. I suppose this is my reward for not really taking a vacation: though I did take it easy when I could, I didn’t travel, and I was in my office almost every weekday getting things done. As a result, I will head into the last long weekend of the summer without either the ambition or the pressure to be working.

This seems like a good opportunity to take stock of how the summer went. I had a number of plans when it started, some of which I fulfilled and some of which got revised. One of my main goals was to learn how to create publishable ebooks. This is a skill I hope to use for a range of projects down the road, including for creating some themed collections of posts and essays. To start with, though, I focused on converting the materials for the Middlemarch for Book Clubs site into book form, which I did — you can now “buy” the book version (it’s free) from both Kobo and Amazon. The process turned out to be extremely tedious but not difficult. Probably the hardest part for me was figuring out GIMP well enough to create a cover — but that too was challenging more because of how picky it was than because anything about it was really challenging. I do feel quite proud of myself for mastering these new, if dull, skills. Now that I’ve gone through this process once, I will be less intimidated about doing it again, for myself and potentially also for Open Letters.

smokeI had intended to create another book club site, probably for The Mill on the Floss, but in the end the time that would have gone into this project went instead into doing more book reviews than I had anticipated. One of my more general goals has been to get more experience and also more recognition for my criticism by writing for a wider range of venues. Because reviews are usually commissioned rather than pitched, I wasn’t sure quite how to do this, but I reached out to a couple of editors and was contacted by a couple of others, and in the end I was kept fairly busy! I consider this time very well spent for a number of reasons. First, I read and thought about a lot of books, some of them ones I would probably not have sought out if left entirely to my own devices. Then, in addition to the intellectual and literary benefits of engaging with a wide range of books, I had to work to deadlines and within space constraints set by other people, and also work with their editorial feedback. I cherish the freedom I have at Open Letters, but sometimes it paralyzes me a bit as I look for “just the right book” to review. I also think my colleagues there are among the very best editors around, but it’s bracing to venture outside, if only to find out what else I might learn. And I do feel that I’ve learned a lot this summer, partly about the genre of reviewing, and partly about my own writing process. I had hoped that writing more and faster would make me, ultimately, a more confident as well as a more widely competent writer, and I think it has.

The-Life-Writer-207x325Here’s the tally of my summer reviewing, meaning books read and written about since classes got out in April:

For Open Letters, I wrote about Tracy Chevalier’s Reader, I Married Him, Mary Balogh’s Only Beloved, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words.

For Quill & Quire, I reviewed Dan Vyleta’s Smoke, Steven Price’s By Gaslight, and Ami McKay’s The Witches of New York (forthcoming in the November issue).

For 3:AM Magazine, I covered Maurizio de Giovanni’s The Bastards of Pizzofalcone and Darkness for the Bastards of Pizzofalcone.

For the Times Literary Supplement, I reviewed Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder (forthcoming). (A couple of other reviews of mine appeared in the TLS this summer, but they were written much earlier.)

For the Quarterly Conversation, I reviewed David Constantine’s In Another Country and The Life-Writer (forthcoming in the fall issue).

For the Kenyon Review Online, I reviewed Yasmine El Rashidi’s Chronicle of a Last Summer (forthcoming).

I know there are people who review two or three (or more!) books a week. I’ve always wondered how they manage that, since just reading the books takes me a few days usually. But I have discovered that I can both read and write faster than I thought and still come out of it with something I am satisfied with, even at shorter lengths. I do sometimes find it frustrating having to leave out a lot, but it’s a great mental exercise deciding what to put in when your space is limited while still trying to convey a nuanced sense of the whole book.

In some ways book reviewing is not quite the kind of writing I’m most interested in doing. But I think you have to earn your way into more essayistic assignments, and I also think that the greater skill and confidence I’m gaining at this kind of criticism will make me better at other kinds of book writing too. It was exactly a year ago that I wrote a short-ish review that ended up, despite a lot of editorial back-and-forth and revision, being judged unpublishable. That experience was a real blow to my confidence: I feel better now! (Also, I recently reread my effort for that assignment, just to see how it looked in retrospect, and really, I still don’t see what was so wrong with it!)

I’ve done a fair amount of reading and writing for this blog too over the summer; I’ll round that up in another post. Plus, of course, I’ve been working on class preparation, including pragmatic things to be ready for my fall courses and more open-ended research in anticipation of the new (to me) Pulp Fiction class in the winter. About all of that, you can expect more as another season of ‘This Week In My Classes’ gets underway.

Blog Archive


Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 39 other subscribers

Comments Policy

Comments that contribute civilly and constructively to discussion of the topics raised on this blog, from any point of view, are welcome. Comments that are not civil or constructive will be deleted.

All entries copyright Rohan Maitzen. If you use material from this blog, please give proper credit to the author.