A Romantic Interlude – with Ruminations

dare-scotI’ve just finished two Scottish-themed romance novels — Sarah MacLean’s A Scot in the Dark and Tessa Dare’s When a Scot Ties the Knot — and they have enough similarities that the juxtaposition has provoked me to figure out why I enjoyed one so much more than the other, a question that quickly expanded, in my mind, to the more general question of why some romance novels work for me and others just don’t, including novels by the same authors. Of these two, for instance, I much preferred Dare’s, though I really enjoyed The Rogue Not Taken, the previous novel in MacLean’s “Scandal & Scoundrel” series, and I liked but didn’t love Dare’s most recent novel, Do You Want to Start a Scandal.

As so often when I ruminate on romance fiction, I ended up thinking that somehow things get more personal more quickly in this genre than in others, meaning not just that my romance preferences are about my personal taste but that my taste in romance writing is hard to separate from my feelings and beliefs about relationships — which in turn are likely to be influenced not just by principle but also by my personal experience. For me, these factors affect my reading habits as well as my evaluative judgments for romances in ways they don’t for, say, mysteries.

maclean-scotFor instance, I have mentioned before that I don’t always read right to the end of the HEA. This is partly because while I can enjoy the development of a romantic relationship, especially when it involves witty sparring and plenty of sexual tension, I don’t find unmitigated happiness (which is where, of course, romance novels always end up, sooner or later) that dramatically interesting. But it’s also because I don’t really believe marriage itself is necessarily a particularly blissful state. For both of these reasons, the rosier things get for the protagonists, the more disengaged I become from their novel. Thus I usually prefer romances that defer the protagonists’ happiness until the end of the novel, or very nearly. In a lot of Georgette Heyer’s novels, for example, hero and heroine don’t come joyfully together until pretty much the last page. That keeps things interesting! Our attention then is also less on how delightful they find each other and more on their learning about each other, and / or on wondering how they will ever discover how delightful they are to each other, or on how they will overcome the personal or social obstacles keeping them apart.

baloghI also often find with more recent romances that the protagonists get intimately sexy too soon and too often for my taste. I don’t think this means I’m prudish! No doubt it’s partly the result of many years spent reading Victorian novels, which are full of erotic undercurrents but have vanishingly few explicitly sexual moments. When feelings (and body parts) are usually kept covered, it’s that much more exciting when you finally get a glimpse! As well, I don’t think lust and love are the same thing, and sometimes — including in A Scot in the Dark — they get too quickly conflated. I suppose this is a variation on my preference for deferring their happiness, and it’s also about the sacrifice of tension involved. (I think there may also be some problems with realism — but I’m really not an expert on sexual mores during the Regency, so I may be quite wrong about what well bred men and young, “respectable,” unmarried women would get up to in their carriages without anxiety, shame, or repercussions.)

milan-countessA specific romance-reading preference of mine that I know is about me more than about the novels is that I have a fondness for bluestocking heroines, or at least ones with an intellectual passion, who have a lot more on their minds than romance. I love Dare’s A Week to be Wicked and Courtney Milan’s The Countess Conspiracy for this reason, and of course my favorite romance of all — so far — is Loretta Chase’s Mr. Impossible. Madeline in When a Scot Ties the Knot, with her passion for illustrating natural history, is a good addition to this collection. I also prefer more mature heroines, and I have a fondness for prickly ones, like Claudia Martin in Mary Balogh’s Simply Perfect. I find ingenues annoying and get bored easily by heroines who are too nice. It’s not hard to see that I appreciate romance novels that show women at least somewhat like me as lovable!

I find it interesting that I consciously reject such personal standards for most other kinds of books. For example, I have very little in common (I think!) with Dorothea Brooke, or with Becky Sharp or Esther Summerson (I hope!), though I love and admire their novels greatly, and I am quick to caution students against valuing literary characters more highly because they are more “relatable.” Am I being implicitly condescending towards romance fiction when I pick and choose favorites on these grounds? Or is it in the nature of a genre based on fantasies of intimate feelings (rather than, say, lessons in otherness and alienation) to offer more satisfaction when you can imagine yourself in it a bit more easily? There are good reasons to diversify one’s romance reading — but should “heroine type” one of the ways? It matters, I suppose, whether you are reading something “just for fun” or for other reasons, but I read plenty of fiction for no reason except my own interest and amusement, and romance is the only kind that affects me (or that I approach) in quite this way.

This Week In My Classes: A Brief Lull!

advent2016We had our last day of classes yesterday. Owing to a very peculiar scheduling plan devised (of course) by a committee, although yesterday was actually a Tuesday, it was designated an “extra Monday” to make up for “losing” a day of Monday classes to Thanksgiving (so much for the concept of a day off — must everything be weighed and measured?). Anyway, that meant two days of Monday classes in a row to bring us to the end of term. As I am not giving final exams in my courses, I now have a lull in immediately pressing teaching-related activities until the final essays come in, the first batch on Friday, the second on Sunday. Then I have to dig in and get through them all, and then do all the final record keeping so that I can compute and submit final grades.

I wrapped up my classes feeling pretty satisfied about how they had gone. In some ways it wasn’t a terribly demanding term, as I was teaching just two classes, and both were upper-level ones as well as ones I’ve done more than once before. That turned out to be a good thing, though, because it was a difficult term in other ways as I pursued the appeal of my promotion case and then waited for the outcome. More than once I felt, as I had back in the spring term when the case first started going badly, that teaching was my salvation. This term my seminar on the ‘Woman Question’ went particularly well (I thought, anyway) the first day I had to teach after learning the bad news: I was in a pretty deep funk when I came into the room, but the students were so well prepared and engaged and full of intelligence and humor that they just lifted me right up — and it meant so much to me that I told them so the next time we met, because I don’t know if students realize that, just as we can make a difference in their lives, so too they often make a difference in ours. I was a bit worried that it would be weird for them if I broke the frame in that way, but at the time I had rather had it with being “professional.” (Still, I didn’t tell them why I had been feeling so low–just that I had been, and that they had really helped.) They seemed to appreciate what I said. They really were a great group to work with, not just that day but all term.

tree-2013Though the cessation of classes doesn’t mean there’s not anything else to do at work (just for instance, today I put some time in organizing the Brightspace site and readings for one of next term’s courses), I usually take advantage of any break in the schedule at this time of year to get some holiday shopping done, especially for things I want to mail out west to my family.  I was especially motivated to get as much done as I could today because so far (unlike my family out west, in a rare reversal!) we have no snow to deal with yet. Sadly, that can’t last, and everything gets harder once the roads and sidewalks are wintry. So once I’d taken care of some business at the office, out I went, and had a pretty nice time puttering around at the mall and in the rather more interesting shops at the Hydrostone Market. I’ve written before about the approach we take to presents in our house: to me they are partly symbolic, ways of making tangible the connections between us and the people we care about. I’m always full of thoughts of my friends and family as I look around for little offerings for them, which usually makes it both a happy and a faintly melancholy experience for me as so many of them are so far away. Here in Halifax we do have our own cheerful holiday traditions, though, which help ward off any gloominess that threatens: this weekend, for instance, we had ‘Advent Brunch,’ and I expect we’ll put our tree up next weekend.

I don’t expect I’ll be quite done with my grading by then, but my goal is to be industrious enough every day next week that I don’t feel guilty relaxing with some Baileys and a book (perhaps one of the three I’m supposed to be reviewing this month) in the evenings.

“Things I Could Not Say”: Elizabeth Strout, My Name Is Lucy Barton


Later, after my first book was published, I went to a doctor who is the most gracious woman I have ever met. I wrote down on a piece of paper what the student said about the person from New Hampshire named Janie Templeton. I wrote down things that had happened in my childhood home. I wrote down things I’d found out in my marriage. I wrote down things I could not say. She read them all and said, Thank you, Lucy. It will be okay.

I loved My Name Is Lucy Barton at first, and really liked it probably until about half way through — maybe even up to the point when Lucy gets feedback from novelist Sarah Payne at a writing workshop that turns out to be about My Name Is Lucy Barton:

Never ever defend your work. This is a story about love, you know that. This is a story of a man who has been tortured every day of his life for things he did in the war. This is the story of a wife who stayed with him, because most wives did in that generation, and she comes to her daughter’s hospital room and talks compulsively about everyone’s marriage going bad, she doesn’t even know it, doesn’t even know that’s what she’s doing. This is a story about a mother who loves her daughter. Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly. But if you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: You’re not doing it right.

I’m not against metafiction in principle. Some of my favorite books are metafictional — honest! But something about My Name Is Lucy Barton didn’t work for me: by the end, it felt awkwardly self-conscious, as if it were performing, rather than inhabiting, a certain fictional role, as if Strout wanted, rather than needed, to make certain moves to be clever, rather than to fulfill some idea about fiction, or about her fiction. The awkward appearance of a reading of the novel in the midst of its action didn’t create my unease, which had been building already, but it crystallized it: I was uneasy about the novel’s on-again, off-again relationship to its own story, which it sometimes tells with poignant detail and other times almost coyly conceals (“I thought of what I have — to myself — always called the Thing, the most horrifying part of my childhood”).

Payne understands the story Lucy is telling more clearly than Lucy herself, or at any rate she puts it more clearly. But there’s a lot she too doesn’t say, and I think it’s the hand-waving not-saying that ultimately distanced me from My Name Is Lucy Barton. I understand the consistency in withholding what Lucy herself finds too painful to put into words, but novels are words, ultimately, and though “spare” is widely used these days as high praise, My Name Is Lucy Barton ultimately isn’t just spare as in minimalist; it’s downright sparse, and also fragmented. Some of the fragments are individually marvelous, but they never cohered, and it felt less to me as if Strout was presenting perfected miniatures than as if she had used this dispersed form to let herself off the hook, the way some essay writers divide sections with asterisks rather than working out the transitions.hild

I know that some of this is just my own preference for novels that embrace telling: I was similarly dissatisfied, for instance, with Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation, which I finished thinking she’d forgotten to actually include the novel. I love novels like Nicola Griffith’s Hild or Byatt’s The Children’s Book: novels that are immersive and luxurious, that don’t leave it up to me to do the work of story-telling, that don’t rely on my assumption that what’s in the gaps is meaningful. That’s not an absolute judgment of what is good, just a statement of what I like: as always, I invoke Henry James’s line that “nothing . . . will ever take the place of the good old fashion of ‘liking’ a work of art or not liking it.”

haruf_coverBut in fact it’s not always true that I don’t like “spare” novels. I read three of Kent Haruf’s novels recently, and the sparest of them all, Our Souls At Night, may have been my favorite. So even as I was articulating my reasons for not, ultimately, finding My Name Is Lucy Barton more satisfactory I was trying to figure out what else might be the problem. Here’s what I came up with: Haruf does tell his stories; he just doesn’t make a big deal about them. Strout, on the other hand, makes a big deal about not telling her story. Haruf does not insist on our emotional response: it arises (or doesn’t) from his people and their actions. Strout, in contrast, openly strives for emotional effect. Sometimes it works:

Always I screamed and screamed. I cried until I could hardly breathe. In this city of New York, I see children crying from tiredness, which is real, and sometimes from just crabbiness, which is real. But once in a while I see a child crying with the deepest of desperation, and I think it is one of the truest sounds a child can make. I feel almost, then, that I can hear within me the sound of my own heart breaking . . .

She strikes some notes that are powerful precisely because they withhold so much: “I thought, Pity us. We don’t mean to be so small. Pity us — it goes through my head a lot — Pity us all.” Too many such moments, though, can end up seeming not effective but affected, which is also too easily true of metafictional gestures. Both draw attention to themselves, which is an impulse that I think contradicts the simplicity and sincerity that initially drew me into My Name Is Lucy Barton.

For some reason it seems to me that Marilynne Robinson is someone who ought to be in this conversation. I’ve never read Housekeeping: maybe it should be next.


“No Such Thing As Air”: Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You


All her life she had heard her mother’s heart drumming one beat: doctor, doctor, doctor. She wanted this so much, Lydia knew, that she no longer needed to say it. It was always there. Lydia could not imagine another future, another life. It was like trying to imagine a world where the sun went around the moon, or where there was no such thing as air.

Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You starts like a thriller: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” It is structured like a thriller too, or at least like a mystery, with Lydia’s death the puzzle at its center and the novel moving bit by bit through the revelations that will ultimately explain it. I don’t say “solve it,” though, because Lydia’s death ends up feeling like a problem with no solution — or, more accurately, her life feels that way, so that by the time you arrive again at her death, you are weighed down, as Lydia is, by everything that led to it. The set-up is a feint, a bit of misdirection, that leads us to think knowing why and how Lydia died will matter.

It does matter, of course, intensely. It just doesn’t matter in the way that solving a crime matters to a whodunit, because Everything I Never Told You is actually a very different kind of book. It is a book about family above all, and particularly about the perverse and painful ways people who love each other can twist, bend, and even break their relationships with each other. It is also, and inextricably, a book about belonging. Lydia’s parents have come together from opposite sides of a great yearning: “more than anything, her mother had wanted to stand out; … more than anything, her father had wanted to blend in.” Her mother Marilyn, fair and pretty, dreads repeating her own mother’s life as a homemaker, inspired only by her battered copy of Betty Crocker’s Cookbook (“Make somebody happy today–bake a cake! . . . Is there anything that gives you a deeper sense of satisfaction?”); fitting in, for her would be easy but profoundly disappointing. Her father James, on the other hand, has stood out as different ever since his Chinese immigrant parents moved to Iowa and enrolled him in the private school where they had found jobs. “You’re the first Oriental boy to attend Lloyd [Academy],” his father reminds him on his first day; “Set a good example.” Though James wears the same uniform as his classmates, though, his difference is ineradicable: “he looked like no one they’d ever seen.” Later, at Harvard, James is still an outsider, even though he studies “the most quintessentially American subject he could find — cowboys.”

ng-cover-2Marilyn’s mother tries to talk her out of marrying James. “Think about your children,” she urges Marilyn; “Where will you live? You won’t fit in anywhere.” James and Marilyn believe they can — even in the small Ohio town where they settle and where their children Nath, Lydia, and Hannah are born and grow up. The children don’t really fit in, however, though they hide the truth, concealing their isolation and trying to placate the parental unease that, in the guise of loving concern, infects every aspect of their life. The burden of her parents’ hopes falls especially hard on Lydia: nothing is ever proffered that isn’t tainted with expectations that “drifted and settled and crushed you with their weight.” It’s because she loves her parents and wants them to be happy that she accepts, over and over, all the things they want for her that she does not want for herself. Only when it’s too late does Marilyn realize what this acceptance has meant to Lydia, who never told her because she never could.

Everything I Never Told You is full of things that haven’t been said, along with things said that haven’t been heard. There’s no single secret, no revelation, that causes or explains Lydia’s death — one of the things the novel does best, I think, is show how complicated lives are, by the circumstances that hem them in and shape them, and by the other lives that intersect with them. Ng is particularly interested in the complication of ‘otherness,’ including both who or what is perceived as different and how difference is acted on. How far is the kind of insidious, hurtful rejection James has experienced also to blame for the tragedy that befalls his daughter, who is described in the local paper, after her death, as “one of only two Orientals at Middlewood High”? How much of Lydia’s struggle is the result of Marilyn’s despair at her own thwarted ambitions, her own inability to be something more, or something else, than a wife and mother? Though Everything I Never Told You is a probing novel about the systemic problems of racism and sexism, it emphasizes that in individual lives these forces are not abstractions: they are also, always and crucially, personal experiences, refracted through the prisms of specific people’s needs, fears, and loves. That human element is where the novel’s drama and mystery ultimately come from, and also its glimmerings of hope.

This Week In My Classes: Appeasing Fascists

remains-coverYou never know what twists of fate will bring new relevance to the readings you’ve assigned. Teaching A Room of One’s Own soon after the David Gilmour fiasco, for instance, made Woolf’s arguments about women’s writing (“everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists”) seem unhappily current; teaching Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress just post-Ferguson made Easy Rawlins’ problems seem painfully contemporary (“they figure that you did something because that’s just the way cops think”).

This term it’s Kazuo Ishiguro’s subtle, devastating novel The Remains of the Day that resonates with current events in ways that seemed unthinkable just a few weeks ago. Ishiguro has said in interviews that he used the appeasement era as an abstract cautionary tale about how we are all, in our own ways, butlers, including politically: going about our jobs either unable or unwilling to see how we might be serving larger agendas, finding dignity in doing our work well rather than in ensuring we do the right thing. He wasn’t literally warning us not to give Nazism a second chance — and yet here we are.

Because we’re studying the novel in Close Reading, a lot of our interest is in how Ishiguro tells his story. In particular, so far we’ve been talking a lot about Stevens as an unreliable narrator — about how the gaps and inconsistencies in his story, and the misfit between his language and the events he describes, lead us to mistrust his version of events and begin to tell an alternative story that, in profound ways, contradicts the one he clings to so desperately almost to the very end. And no wonder, because how terrible to admit, when there’s no second chance, that in dedicating your life to dignified service you’ve sacrificed not just your true dignity, as a thinking person, but also your humanity. How much worse, too, to acknowledge that even your dutiful subordination was fatally flawed — that in serving your master you enabled one of history’s great villains to triumph. Immersed as we are in Stevens’s consciousness, we can’t help but sympathize, I think, with his resistance to these painful truths, which can be faced only at great psychological cost. How much easier to maintain, as he does for so long, that all he could reasonably do is his job, leaving the complications of world affairs to “his lordship.”

remains-cover-2As much as the specific context of nascent fascism, this indirect approach to it through the internal ruminations of someone well-meaning but ultimately morally compromised, perhaps beyond redemption, seems timely to me. Stevens does not refuse Lord Darlington, for example, when instructed to dismiss two Jewish maids to preserve the “safety and well-being” of his guests. Against Miss Kenton’s passionate rebuke — “if you dismiss my girls tomorrow, it will be wrong, a sin as any sin ever was one” — he sets his own professional standards: “our professional duty is not to our own foibles and sentiments, but to the wishes of our employer.” It might seem a relatively modest act of bigotry to be complicit in, but it’s inexcusable nonetheless, intolerable both in itself (as Miss Kenton rightly notes) and as a concession to the creeping encroachment of worse horrors. Resistance may even mean the most on this personal scale, where you can act before events outsize and overtake you — but in any case the most anyone can do is refuse to cooperate with — or to normalize — what they know to be wrong. From inside Stevens’s head, we feel the appeal of compliance, of pretending that this one thing, or the next thing, doesn’t really matter very much. But against that dangerous ease, as we travel with him to a fuller understanding of what his political passivity has enabled, we can set our own rising horror — at the waste of his life, and at the possibility that we ourselves might do no better. It’s a cautionary tale indeed.

Policy and Prejudice: My Promotion Postmortem

ns-dalhousie-universityAfter well over a year, my application for promotion to Professor finally concluded last week, with the disappointing news that my appeal of President Florizone’s negative decision was unsuccessful.*

I am well aware that compared to the precarity of so many others working in academia, my troubles don’t amount to a hill of beans. But they are troubles, nonetheless, and when you’ve given over 20 years of your life to an institution — a commitment that has had significant and often negative consequences for every aspect of your life, especially your family life — and when you have always brought your best self to the job — then the conditions of that job, the return you get for that commitment, hardly feel trivial. Those of us with tenure, also, have the security to advocate for the academy to become the kind of place we think it should be, which in my case means a more open, flexible, and publicly engaged place. If we don’t use our privilege to instigate change, we are wasting it. That this process ended in failure for me is a personal defeat, but one that I think also says something about the hope I know many of us share that academia will evolve.

I have thought a lot about what I can and can’t (or, should and shouldn’t) say in this public space about this process. I haven’t been completely silent about it up to this point, but I pretty much kept to generalities while the case was ongoing. I’ve gone into a bit more detail on Twitter since I received the appeal committee’s judgment, but though tweeting is a good way to let off steam and lay out preliminary arguments (and also to be reminded that you have allies), it doesn’t allow much deeper reflection or provide any sense of closure. That is what I need, and that’s why I’m writing this post — that, and because for almost a decade this blog has been a site for reflecting on my academic as well as my reading life.

screamIt is tempting, of course, to use this opportunity to lay out my whole case, to rehearse the ups and downs as my application went through its nine (nine!) stages of review, and to air my specific grievances as well as parade my allies and advocates. Militating against that self-indulgent impulse, though, is the conviction that even if it were professionally appropriate to expose all the parties involved in that way, nobody really wants to read that 10,000 word screed. Besides, I’ve done a lot of relitigating of details in the past 16 months. It will do me more good to pull back a bit, to get out of the weeds and try instead to articulate what seems to have been the fundamental problem, which I now think can be aptly summed up as (to borrow a phrase from Middlemarch) “a total missing of each other’s mental track.” I won’t name names or quote at length from any submissions, and I’ll try to avoid special pleading — though I can hardly be expected to hide which side I’m on! It will help me to write about it in this way, I hope: it will exorcise some of the frustration and bitterness I still feel. And then I will be done with it — publicly, at least — and I will do my best to gather up all the energy that has been dispersed among these professional and psychological hindrances for so long and rededicate it to the ongoing task of becoming the kind of literary critic and semipublic intellectual I aspire to be.

I’ll put the rest below the fold, so that if you come here for something besides academic self-flagellation, or you don’t have much patience for the professional troubles of someone in my position when the world seems to be falling apart (a reasonable attitude!), you can move on more quickly.

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This Week In My Classes: Revisiting Chartres Cathedral

chartres-rose-windowFrom the Novel Readings Archives: Since I started this blog almost ten years ago, one of its most important roles for me has been as a place for me to reflect on my teaching, which is the part of my professional life I value the most and that takes up, usually, the majority of my time and energy.

Universities talk a lot about the importance of teaching, but in practice, as we all know and are frequently reminded, in big ways and small, it’s of secondary — possibly tertiary — value when it comes to our professional advancement. A lot of the discussion about teaching at the higher levels of administration seems to turn on the lure of new technologies or the promise of impersonal kinds of efficiency. To those of us who stand in the classroom every day — at least, those of us in the humanities — much of that discussion misses the point entirely. What we want is to engage with our students in ways that are at once rigorous and profound, that serve both the head and the heart.

Standing in front of my students this morning, talking with them as passionately as I could about the final sequences, and the beautiful Finale, of Middlemarch, I hoped I had gotten better at combining the intellectual and what, for want of a better word, I’ll call the spiritual. If I have, it’s partly through the work I’ve been doing outside the classroom (indeed, outside the university altogether), including here on this blog, and including especially the kinds of thinking out loud I did in this post from 2010. I’m so grateful to everyone who reads and comments for helping me sustain and improve this ongoing project of finding (and sharing) both meaning and inspiration in literature.

Standing in Chartres Cathedral Unmoved

I’ve been thinking more about this passage from May Sarton’s The Small Room that I quoted in my earlier post on the novel, from Lucy’s irate speech to her students on returning their woefully inadequate assignments:

Here is one of the great mysterious works of man, as great and mysterious as a cathedral. And what did you do? You gave it so little of your real selves that you actually achieved bordeom. You stood in Chartres cathedral unmoved. . . . This is not a matter of grades. You’ll slide through all right. It is not bad, it is just flat. It’s the sheer poverty of your approach that is horrifying!

I’ve been marking assignments myself (in my more benign moments, I call it ‘evaluating assignments,’ which sounds less adversarial). But that’s not actually what has had the line about standing in Chartres cathedral unmoved running through my head. Instead, it’s our recent class meeting on James Joyce’s “The Dead,” which I know I am not alone in finding one of the greatest pieces of modern fiction: smart, patient, subtle, powerful, poignant. My very smart talented teaching assistant led the class, and as always happens when I hand over the reins, I learned a lot and was reminded why I ended up where I am today, namely, because I loved being an English student. (I had the same treat today because another of our very smart and talented graduate students kindly took over the class on T. S. Eliot. Boy, we can pick ’em!)

Because I was sitting among the students, I couldn’t see their faces, so I had less than my usual sense of whether they were engaged or listening, but there was certainly not a flurry of responses in answer to Mark’s questions about the story. Now, it’s not a hugely forthcoming group anyway,  and for that I partly blame both the style in which I have decided to teach the course (basically, lectures, with some Q&A, which seemed to fit the purpose of the course) and also the room we were assigned (quite a formal tiered lecture hall, narrow but deep, which exaggerates the distance and difference between the front of the room and the back and makes the prospect of throwing up your hand to volunteer an idea more intimidating, I expect, to any usually reticent students). Anyway, I sat listening to Mark and looking at the moments on the page he called our attention to and filling up with the old excitement–but also simmering a little at what seemed to me an undue lack of excitement in the rest of the room. ‘Aha!’ I thought. ‘This is what Lucy was talking about! Here they are, in Chartres cathedral, unmoved!’

But the more I’ve thought about that moment and my reaction, the less satisfied I am–not with them (though come on, it’s “The Dead”!), but with myself and with the unfair lose-lose situation I am (silently) putting the poor students in.

The thing is, my classroom is nothing like Chartres cathedral. And I don’t mean just in the look and layout, though here are some pictures so you can imagine the scene for yourself:

No, the dissimilarity I’m thinking about is one of atmosphere. Or, perhaps more accurately, attitude. As I remarked in my write-up of The Small Room, Sarton seems to me to be appealing to”an old-fashioned view of literature as a kind of secular prophecy,” imagining a world in which “the professor’s scholarship giv[es] her the wisdom to speak ‘from a cloud,’ a ‘creative power,’ a ‘mystery.'” I wasn’t–and I’m not–lamenting that this is not my academy. I’m not a secular priest; I have no special creative power, no authority to speak to them from some mysterious height– no interest, either, in evoking spiritual revelations. That’s not my business. We can’t just stand there and emote, after all. There’s not much point in their bringing their “real selves” to their work in the way Lucy seems to want it: what would I grade them on? Failure (or success) at having their own epiphanies, rather than failure (or success) at explaining the concept of ‘epiphany’ in the context of Joyce’s fiction in general and “The Dead” in particular? As Brian McCrea writes,

People who want to become English professors do so because, at one point in their lives, they found reading a story, poem, or play to be an emotionally rewarding experience. They somehow, someway were touched by what they read. Yet it is precisely this emotional response that the would-be professor must give up. Of course, the professor can and should have those feelings in private, but publicly, as a teacher or publisher, the professor must talk about the text in nonemotional, largely technical terms. No one ever won a National Endowment for the Humanities grant by weeping copiously for Little Nell, and no one will get tenure in a major department by sharing his powerful feelings about Housman’s Shropshire Lad with the full professors.

And as I wrote in response to McCrea in a (much) earlier post,

While we can all share a shudder at the very idea, to me one strength of McCrea’s discussion is his admission that marginalizing affect, pleasure, and aesthetic response is, in a way, to be untrue to literature, and that the professional insistence on doing so also, as a result, marginalizes our conversation, alienating us, as McCrae says, “from our students, our counterparts in other academic departments, our families [unless, he allows, they include other professional critics–otherwise, as he points out, even they are unlikely to actually read our books and articles], and, ultimately, any larger public” (164-5). (In Democracy’s Children, John McGowan makes a similar point: “There remains a tension between the experience of reading literature and the paths followed in studying. . . . To give one’s allegiance to the academic forms through which literature is discussed and taught is to withdraw [at least partly] allegiance to literature itself” [65]).

chartres_cathedralThey aren’t standing in Chartres cathedral unmoved. I’m slamming the door of Chartres cathedral in their face. They might well have been feeling all the excitement I could hope for, or at least those who actually did the reading for the day might have. But it wouldn’t be their fault if they thought the CIBC Auditorium was no place to bring it up. It wouldn’t be Mark’s fault either, or mine. We do show enthusiasm and appreciation for the literature we’re covering, to be sure, but it’s not of the viscerally rapturous variety, or even the aesthetically transcendent variety. It’s a heavily intellectualized variety, and while I don’t think that makes it inauthentic, it isn’t something they are quite ready to emulate, not yet. I want them to feel the readings, and to show that they feel them, but there’s really no appropriate way for them to express that feeling in the ways they would find natural.

But what are we to do?  I’m not a fan of the unreflexive response, and taking down the nets would open up our class discussions (at least potentially) to a particularly banal and subjective kind of verbal tennis (“I really like this” / “Can you say more about why?” / “Not really, I just thought it was nice / beautiful / relatable”). Nobody learns anything from that. I usually just hope that my enthusiasm (however peculiar its variety) catches their interest and makes them read more, and more alertly, then they otherwise would. I try to give them tools to notice and think about their more personal responses, too: how they might have been achieved by the formal strategies of the work, and what their implications might be. I was remembering, though, a conversation of my own with one of my undergraduate professors. We had been reading Matthew Arnold, including “To Marguerite–Continued,” at a time when a lot of emotionally difficult things were going on in my life, and after our seminar (in which, as I recall, we talked about things like faith and doubt, and modern alienation, and verse forms, and metaphors) I very tentatively went up to the professor–one of my favorites, a wry 18th-century specialist who always looked faintly sardonic (as is only fitting, of course, for that period). “But don’t you think,” I remember saying (and those who know me now would not, probably, believe how nervous it made me even to stand there and ask this kind but intimidating man anything at all) “don’t you think that life is like he says? that we are isolated like that?” “Perhaps,” was his only reply–that, and a quizzical lift of his eyebrow. Well, what else could he say? What did my angst have to do with his class?

But (I’m full of these equivocations tonight, apparently) I can’t help but think that, for all the gains involved in professionalizing the study of literature, one of the reasons our students don’t graduate and go out into the world and absolutely trumpet the value and significance of the work they did with us is precisely that we have given up that prophetic role. We stood with them outside the cathedral, perhaps, and told them it mattered, and explained its history and architecture and social role and so forth, but left them to stand inside, moved, on their own. To be sure, they might have ignored it altogether if it weren’t for us (how many of these kids would pick up Joyce on their own?), but no wonder they are left thinking that when it came to the things that really mattered, we weren’t there for them.

Originally published in Novel Readings November 10, 2010.

“Which War?” Andrea Levy, Small Island


I could no longer see her but I called out to Queenie as an MP, his baton thrusting hard into my chest, his face pressing close to mine, hot breath breaching my cheek delivered the words ‘Get away from her, nigger.’ Only now did I experience the searing pain of this fight — and not from the grazing on my face or the wrench in my shoulder. Arthur Bligh had become another casualty of war — but come, tell me, someone . . . which war?

I don’t know what intuition led me to pick Andrea Levy’s Small Island as my first book to read after the U.S. election, but it was a good one. Levy’s novel is not about contemporary America: it is set in Britain in 1948 (and, through flashbacks, in Jamaica and Britain and, briefly, India and America before and during the war). The stories it tells, however, are about similar problems of change and resistance, of expectation and misunderstanding, of difference and hostility. It is also the kind of storytelling that I think a lot of us believe can help, not to solve, but at least to ease the tensions (maybe even the violence) these feelings create. Why? Because it explores with clear-eyed tenderness the experiences of very different people trying to live together.

Small Island focuses on two couples: the English Bernard and Queenie Bligh and the Jamaican Gilbert and Hortense Joseph. It opens as Hortense arrives in London in 1948 to join Gilbert in the small room he has rented in Queenie’s house in Earl’s Court. Out of Hortense’s intense disappointment in these shabby quarters unspools the story of her upbringing, her training as a teacher in Jamaica, and her investment in Gilbert, demobbed from the RAF and dreaming of a new life in England. We also learn Gilbert’s history, including his education in racism during his RAF training. It’s while he’s stationed in Lincolnshire that he first meets Queenie. While her husband Bernard is serving overseas, Queenie is looking after her father-in-law, Arthur, who is still severely affected by his service in WWI. One day, in his confusion, Arthur wanders away from home and is found and returned by Gilbert. Gilbert strikes up a friendship with Queenie, a relationship which eventually sparks anger from  the American G.I.s in the area even though, as Gilbert angrily points out to a theater usher who tries to steer him to the back row, “there is no Jim Crow in this country.”

small-island-1Though it’s only in America (or on American bases) that segregation is an explicit policy, Gilbert learns that his own loyalty to the British Empire is no defense against the equally pervasive racism of “the mother country.” Despite this discouragement, after the war Gilbert finds Jamaica too small for his dreams and yearns to return to England, which with Hortense’s collaboration he eventually does. His war service does nothing to earn him a welcome, however, and he has trouble even finding lodgings until he remembers Queenie’s London address. With Bernard still missing, Queenie has begun taking in lodgers herself to make ends meet, and Gilbert takes up residence in her house. Queenie’s experiences during the Blitz make up another thread of the novel, as does Bernard’s war experience and then his posting to Calcutta during the harrowing violence between Muslims and Hindus in 1946. All of these story lines come together when Bernard finally shows up again in Earl’s Court and our four protagonists end up under the same roof — but hardly, in any way that matters, in the same place.

Levy does a good job making these disparate stories, each of which is told in its protagonists’ own distinct first-person narration, vivid and convincing.  In doing so, she helps us see larger social changes — brought about in part by the war but also by the more abstract forces of modernization and globalization — as very personal things: lives change often faster than people do, and the result is liberation, sometimes, but also disorientation, resentment, and conflict. Good intentions aren’t enough to smooth the way forward any more than either covert or outright opposition to the new or the different is enough to stop them. It’s easy to sympathize with Gilbert and Hortense, and to wish the best for Queenie, as they try to build on their common ground. But Bernard — who is horrified to come home at last and find “coloureds” in his house — is a much harder case. I was interested to read Levy’s comments about this in the author Q&A at the end of the book. “When I created Bernard,” she says,

it was important for me to really understand why he was the way he was. He’d been brought up to see the world, and his place in the world, in a certain way. When that world started to change and his position is challenged, he responded in the only way he knew — by asserting his sense of superiority. I never wanted readers to see him as an evil man — misguided, foolish, bigoted, and stubborn maybe.

That call for understanding sounds familiar right now, doesn’t it? It’s something a lot of people are arguing about Trump supporters: that their embrace of a candidate whose attitudes and policies are openly racist, sexist, and xenophobic demands explanation, not (or not just) condemnation. No doubt that’s true for pragmatic reasons, but it seems important that explaining not shade into excusing — and I notice that Levy still calls Bernard a bigot, and that the novel as a whole is clearly pitched against his narrow-minded anger.

small-island-3Though Small Island is not naively optimistic about progress, there are signs of hope, including faint glimmers of humanity in Bernard. When progress is made, it’s when people are startled out of their “certain ways” of seeing the world into realizations about how other people see and experience it. What Bernard needs most of all is something like Small Island itself: stories about people he struggles to recognize as equally human that make their humanity real to him. Gilbert tries to explain it to him in principle:

You know what your trouble is, man? Your white skin. You think it makes you better than me. You think it give you the right to lord it over a black man. But you know what it make you? You wan’ know what your white skin make you, man? It make you white. That is all, man. White. No better, no worse than me — just white. . . Listen to me, man, we both just finish fighting a war — a bloody war — for the better world we wan’ see. And on the same side — you and me. . . . But still, after all that we suffer together, you wan’ tell me I am worthless and you are not. Am I to be the servant and you are the master for all time? No. Stop this, man. Stop it now. We can work together, Mr. Bligh. You no see? We must. Or else you just gonna fight me till the end?

Bernard claims that he literally “can’t understand a single word,” but of course the problem is more than just the Jamaican cadence of Gilbert’s language. Gilbert is asking him to see the world in a completely different way, to enlist in a completely different war than the one he thought he’d been fighting. This is the work that a novel like Small Island helps with: it provides alternative stories, it shows the world from a different perspective. The problem is that Bernard, the one who needs this insight the most, is the one least likely or able to engage in the necessary imaginative effort, and as a result all the labor of sympathy is on the other side: “And hear this,” Gilbert says after Bernard has attacked him, “soft-hearted man that I am, I go to help him up. For suddenly pity for him flowed over me like a wave. . . . But he thrust my hand away.”

I’m reading The Mill on the Floss as well as Middlemarch right now for my classes. As I’ve often written about, I find Eliot’s doctrine of sympathy very beautiful and important. But, as I have also written about, there’s something potentially worrisome about her moral imperatives. In The Mill on the Floss, for instance, her narrator observes that “the responsibility of tolerance lies with those who have the wider vision.” As I watch both hate and fear spreading after Trump’s victory, I find this doctrine hard to embrace, because it seems to give a free pass to the less tolerant, to the less empathetic — to the bigots, to the Bernards — as if they don’t have an equal obligation, or an equivalent capacity, to understand other points of view. I’d feel more motivated right now to understand the Bernards of the world if they gave any sign of trying to understand the people they villify, terrify, and horrify.

An American Story: Jane Smiley, Some Luck

some-luckMy book club met last night to discuss Jane Smiley’s Some Luck. We didn’t choose it with this in mind, but it ended up feeling like a good choice to talk about the night before the American election, because it is pretty clearly meant not so much as a story about a particular American family as a story about America told through a particular family. You can’t quite tell this at first (though the structure of the novel, a chapter a year, is a hint), but by the time this novel — the first in her ‘Last 100 Years’ trilogy — ends in 1953, it’s the march of time and the sense of a changing nation that predominate, not the details of individual lives.

How much the different readers in the group enjoyed the novel turned to a large extent on how they felt about this concept, which along with the relentless year-at-a-time pace, necessarily meant a degree of superficiality in Smiley’s treatment of any particular story line. Most of us felt that she had struck a good balance between getting us interested in her character through judicious details with moments of greater depth and the rapid movement across time necessitated by her chosen form. We were interested enough in her people that we wanted to know what turns their lives took. For one of us this had already meant reading on into the next book, Early Warning, though she said she had begun to tire a bit of the trilogy’s concept, which began to seem too much like a gimmick as, Forrest-Gump-like, her people managed to keep turning up, one way or another, at every landmark event in 20th-century America. I haven’t decided yet if I’ll read more of the series; that’s where my hesitation would come from, that the concept might overwhelm the humanity, but I was pleasantly surprised by how engaged I was with the Langdon clan and their extended family by the end of Some Luck, so that gives me some confidence that Smiley can pull it off.

some-luck-1I think it is in part because the election was on all of our minds that our discussion turned quite a bit on what kind of story Smiley had chosen to tell about America. One conspicuous feature of Some Luck, for instance, is that it’s very much a story of white rural America: if Smiley intends the trilogy to be something of a national biography or a broader chronicle of the country, that seemed to us like a strategic error, one that replicates a certain vision of America’s “heartland” as the “real” America. That said, as some people argued last night, Smiley’s focus on an Iowa farming family and how it is affected by social changes that often seem to come upon them from elsewhere is itself certainly a very American story, even if it is not the story of America as a whole, and there’s not in principle anything wrong with her choice of a starting point. One reason I’d like to read on is that I’m curious about whether Smiley finds a way to complicate her origin story — to highlight its partiality as a story about America. Clearly, even in Some Luck, she is taking us well beyond Iowa as the family members spiral outwards into places and lives very different from those of our first couple, Walter and Rosanna.

Another possibility that came up is that the specific story she’s telling might illuminate the causes of what is now such a prominent divide in American life and politics as the Langdons disperse and bring new differences with them when they return home (as has already happened to some extent), but also as the Langdons still rooted to the land find their way of life harder to sustain. We talked about the way that technology has already transformed life on the farm: Smiley is good about not idealizing the ‘old’ ways even as she shows how unsettling it is to adapt to new ones. We all had found the shift from horses to tractors, for example, particularly effective in confronting us with the inexorability of change and the possibility it brings of both pathos and liberation.

One particular challenge for me with Some Luck is that the stories Smiley focused on the most were not the ones I wanted most to read a novel about. I would love, I expect, the whole book that took Eloise — writer, agitator, city dweller — as its protagonist, but though she’s a recurrent presence in Some Luck she’s peripheral, never well understood by the rest of her family, impossible to completely integrate into their way of being in the world. Smiley spends a lot more time on Frank, whom I felt, in my turn, I did not understand very well. I think the next generations will become increasingly congenial to me, but that in a way is a testament to the value of Smiley’s chosen focus: for me, there is something quite foreign about the Langdons’ America so far, so by taking such a prototypical American story as her beginning she has reminded me that my own norms are partial too.

This Week In My Classes: No Classes!

some-luckThis week will be our first ever week-long fall break, one of several adjustments to the academic schedule that have come into effect this year. I’m against it in principle, because no matter how long the break, more and more students (in my experience) leave early for it and come back late, which, along with the extra effort it always takes to get back into the rhythm of classes, means more lost time and attention at this point in the term than I’d like. However, I find myself completely in favor of it in practice: for one thing, it means I haven’t spent the weekend prepping for or worrying about my Monday classes, and I’ll have some time this week to do non-course-related reading and writing.

I do, of course, still have ongoing work to do. I’ve got a Ph.D. thesis chapter to read and comment on, for one thing, and some reference letters to get out. I would have managed these tasks in any case, in between classes, but for the thesis chapter especially it will be nice to be able to concentrate on it more completely. I can’t ignore that regular classes start up again the following week, and I am going to seize the opportunity provided by this mid-term break to rethink the way I’ve usually approached the last couple of sessions on Middlemarch for Close Reading — particularly by continuing my ongoing efforts to stop micro-managing class time on it, and by trying to come up with ways to help students feel genuinely involved in it. I’ve got Books IV and V of The Mill on the Floss to read for next Monday, as well. It’s lovely to be reading George Eliot for two classes at once! And it’s quite interesting, too, because both similarities and differences between the novels seem particularly evident to me. The Mill on the Floss seems, predictably, to be going over better — or going down more easily. I wonder if, for the students (and there are several) who are in both classes, Mill has made them feel better or worse about Middlemarch. What I’m most aware of right now is how much more sophisticated the narration is in Middlemarch — how much more fully integrated with the other aspects of the novel (though I do love the long expository sections of Mill). At the same time, it’s hard to miss how much more immediately gripping the personal drama of Mill is.

valdezMy other work-related ambition for this reading week is to buckle down and do more preparatory research for the Pulp Fiction class, specifically background reading for teaching Valdez Is Coming. It’s a first-year writing requirement class with a primary emphasis on learning basic literary critical and essay-writing skills: we are doing our readings in service of that broad mission, not with any ambition of getting really deep into theoretical or critical issues about the genres we’re covering. That’s not to say, though, that I don’t have to be reasonably well informed about those issues so that I can provide useful contextual information and frame our discussions appropriately. I’m not worried about that for our mystery readings, as I have been researching and teaching in that area for well over a decade, and I have a lot of preliminary ideas about the romance material already, but westerns represent a new frontier for me as a reader and a teacher, so that’s where I feel I need to put in the most advance work. I’m also thinking hard about how to deal with the language in the novel, plenty of which is not, as the phrase goes, “politically correct.” I think it will become clear as we work through the novel that Valdez Is Coming is not itself condoning racism, but we’ll need some conceptual tools (such as the use/mention distinction) and alertness to who is responsible for what gets said (and how the novel positions them in its values system), as well as some sense of changing historical norms, if we’re all going to have good discussions about this and not simply react by cringing or being offended by it. If anyone has suggestions about how to go about this, they would be welcome, as would recommendations for tersely authoritative histories of the American west.

Another priority for me this week is being a bit more sociable than I usually manage during the term. I already had a lovely time today warding off the November chill by drinking chai lattes and talking with a dear friend who has been sick off and on for ages, poor thing, and thus necessarily reclusive — making time with her especially precious. Tomorrow night my book club meets to talk about Jane Smiley’s Some Luck (which I quite enjoyed but haven’t been able to blog about yet, as I lent my copy to someone else in the group). Then on Thursday I am having lunch with a colleague I love to talk books with but rarely have a chance to, as we mostly just pass each other in the hallway en route to classes or meetings. For me, this is actually quite a flurry of social activity! I know it will lift my spirits, and it will also help distract me from brooding about the pending decision on my promotion appeal, which might arrive any time between now and January.

Finally, I hope to start revising and expanding my old Felix Holt essay, the first step towards shaping the various essays I’ve wrtten on George Eliot’s novels at Open Letters and elsewhere into a collection. After much cogitation, I have decided to proceed with at least the initial goal of self-publishing them when I think they’re ready. Felix Holt seemed like a good place to start during the final week of the U.S. election cycle, which has made Felix’s ruminations on the hazards of democracy seem unhappily relevant.

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