“Ordinary corrupt human love”: Graham Greene, The End of the Affair


I’m tired and I don’t want any more pain. I want Maurice. I want ordinary corrupt human love. Dear God, you know I want to want Your pain, but I don’t want it now. Take it away for a while and give it me another time.

My local book club met Tuesday night to discuss Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. We chose this novel as the follow-up to Lady Chatterley’s Lover: as I’ve explained here before, we pick a thread to follow from one book to the next, which in this case was adultery. (The last time we read Graham Greene we had followed a “depressing novels about priests” thread from Such Is My Beloved to The Power and the Glory.)

Quite by coincidence, because I had forgotten that they had often been compared, I started Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder just before I had to turn to The End of the Affair. (Or was it a coincidence? Perhaps it was all part of some grand design by the great publisher in the sky!) The connection came back to me as I was reading and writing about Beha’s novel, though, thanks especially to Nicole’s comparative discussion at Book Riot, so inevitably I was thinking a lot about Sophie and and Charlie as I read about Sarah and Bendrix. As Nicole very adeptly explains, the two novels are indeed strikingly similar in structure, but reading them feels very different: Beha’s has a (somewhat deceptive) colloquial clarity to it, and (I thought) a lot more emotional detachment, especially, and paradoxically, where Sophie’s religious experiences are concerned, while Greene’s is more overtly written, more conspicuously literary, as well as emotionally intense — to the point of claustrophobia.

At the purely subjective level of taste, I preferred Greene’s: I enjoyed (if that’s the right word) Bendrix’s palpable bitterness, and the twisty self-justifying but also self-loathing ways he tells his story. I was fascinated to learn that Greene tried this experiment in first-person narration because he’d been reading Great Expectations: apparently he felt he hadn’t really pulled it off:

Dickens had somehow miraculously varied his tone, but when I tried to analyze his success, I felt like a colourblind man trying intellectually to distinguish one colour from another. For my book there were two shades of the same colour —  obsessive love and obsessive hate; Mr. Parkis, the private detective, and his boy were my attempt to introduce two more tones, the humorous and the pathetic.

I can’t think of a novel I would be less inclined to compare to The End of the Affair than Great Expectations if I were approaching it thematically, but it’s interesting to think of it, as Greene apparently did, as a technical problem he was unable to solve. One thing Dickens does that perhaps he didn’t adequately consider was use retrospective narration to add a layer of painful self-knowledge over top of Pip’s obsessive love. The End of the Affair is told retrospectively (except for Sarah’s diary), but all that does is infuse the love story with that “obsessive hate.” Imagine the novel told in a way that really reflects the religious conversion that the ending points us towards: wouldn’t that complete or perfect the narrative by returning Bendrix, and thus us, to love, by way of forgiveness? It’s impossible to imagine any Dickens novel, much less Great Expectations, stuck in hatred the way Bendrix is: even Miss Havisham is brought to repentance, after all. As for “the humorous and the pathetic,” well, I agree with Greene that he doesn’t quite achieve either (at all, never mind to Dickens’s level), but it’s hardly a fair contest.

Anyway, I liked reading Greene better for the style and the emotional intensity … but I also found myself thinking back on Sophie Wilder (and bringing it up during our discussion) because there were things about The End of the Affair that left me dissatisfied, too, in ways that Beha’s novel helped me understand. I was particularly frustrated by Sarah’s “conversion.” Having protested Beha’s failure to explain Sophie’s conversion in more depth, I found I objected to Sarah’s on different grounds: it didn’t seem religious at all! She has no epiphany, no spiritual revelation, no breakthrough. She just makes a deal with a deity she only kinda sorta believes in, and then feels coerced into keeping up her end of the bargain. It seemed so pragmatic — and hardly inspiring, as it boils down to “I’ll be good if you grant me my wish” — which rather neatly sums up negative clichés about Catholicism.

That moment is only the beginning of Sarah’s newly-defined life, of course: does her contract with God lead her into genuine faith? She spends a lot of time doubting and arguing, as in the bit I chose for my epigraph (which nicely captures the central conflict between human and divine love, fought in the novel over the territory of the human body). But she does seem to find something like peace eventually, and of course once she dies she’s apparently capable of working miracles. There’s little saintly about her during her life, as far as we know, or as far as Bendrix will admit (“She was a good woman,” says Father Crompton: “She was nothing of the sort,” retorts Bendrix irritably) but being a saint doesn’t necessarily require that: as Father Crompton replies in his turn, “There’s nothing we can do some of the saints haven’t done before us.” But it didn’t seem that Sarah was working towards doing good, not the way Sophie is when she cares for her dying father -in-law. Still, struggle and debate are compatible with belief, and Greene did well precisely at conveying faith as something to be achieved through effort, not simply succumbed to or carried along by.beha

That said, I certainly didn’t see why Bendrix came round (or is on the verge of coming round) to it in the end. Greene apparently said he wanted to box him into a corner so he couldn’t help but accept the religious explanations. Here too I end up giving Beha the edge: both novelists play metafictionally with novelist / God comparisons and make room for ambiguity about the ultimate source of structure and meaning, but in offering the resolution I thought I wanted (“all right, have it your way. I believe you live and that He exists”), Greene frustrated me in a different way, because his ending felt both manipulative and reluctant. If your conversion is really a reluctant concession, what’s the thrill in that, especially if you haven’t in fact earned it by winning the argument against coincidence or rationalism? Beha at least seems to be saying “make up your own mind.”

We had a pretty lively discussion of The End of the Affair over our book club dinner. There, of course, the immediate comparison was to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, since I was the only one who’d read Sophie Wilder, and plenty of interest came out of that, particularly around the affair itself and what it meant to the characters, as well as the overall treatment of sexuality and desire in the novel (we thought poor Henry seemed not altogether unlike Clifford, for instance). We were intrigued by the war setting, and by the possibility that the blast that leads to Sarah’s deal with God might itself be interpreted as some kind of divine intervention. By and large we thought the ending of the novel was unsatisfying because the crucial interventions that build up to the “Sarah is a miracle-working saint in Heaven” theory seemed ad hoc: there’s the mother ex machina, for instance, who appears on the scene just in time to save Bendrix from himself. We were all fond of Parkis, which made me think we should maybe try some Dickens one day (or some Trollope — isn’t Parkis a bit like Bozzle in He Knew He Was Right?). We were also intrigued by the discussions of the novelist’s craft, and from this we picked up on the mentions of Forster and decided that should be the thread to our next book. Though Maurice would have been a cute choice (because that’s Bendrix’s name), we settled on Howards End, which I am very pleased about as it has long been near the top of my Humiliation list.

This Week In My Classes – An Update: Middlemarch Unplugged

WP_20140827_005I’m sure you have all been wondering whether I have managed to get my control-freak tendencies under control for this week’s classes on Middlemarch. Well, the week isn’t over yet, but so far the answer is both not really (Monday) and more or less (today). I had all kinds of good intentions on Monday, but I also had quite a lot of notes in hand, and though I did use them to frame the questions I hoped we would discuss, I went on too long and in too much detail in what was supposed to be the set-up portion of the class. I left feeling quite dissatisfied with myself, but also with a better understanding of why things keep turning out that way — an insight that I confirmed by leafing through the rather sizable folder of Middlemarch materials I have accumulated over the years.

Here’s what I figured out: it’s my notes that are the problem! Once upon a time, they were looser and more open-ended. Over the years, in the well-meaning but ultimately mistaken belief that I was doing the right thing, I have filled them in more, elaborated on them, figured out ways to fill “gaps” in the topics and examples they cover. They are good notes, don’t get me wrong: the lectures they support are good ones, or at least I think so! In some settings, delivering them — not as a completely closed production, without any interaction, but as a more or less set “piece” with a clear structure — is a fine idea and goes over well enough. Sometimes, too, there really is content that needs to be passed along in an orderly way. But this is an upper-level class on the 19th-century novel and having wide-ranging discussion is a genuine goal of mine, especially now that I hope have laid the groundwork for it. And the thing is that while having detailed notes feels like it will help me lead a good discussion, what I realized on Monday is that I have come not just to rely on them but to feel controlled by them myself — moving in order through the topics and examples, and trying to include everything. Not 100%, not all the time — but enough that I need to take some self-conscious steps in the other direction.

For today, then, instead of revising and presenting my lecture on “reform in Middlemarch,” (which comes complete with a handout of excerpts from Arnold, Mill, Carlyle, and Felix Holt, as well as Middlemarch), I worked out a list of likely topics and collected the pages numbers of some key scenes under each heading — but nothing more! Before class, I reviewed that scanty page or two again and manually jotted some big ideas next to topic, to make sure I had some big ideas in my head to work towards. I also chose a short excerpt from the BBC adaptation to show, because my impression had been that we were a bit lost in the abstractions and the human drama of the novel was perhaps escaping them. It felt oddly like a leap of faith to go so “unprepared,” but I think it went fine. The film clip loosened everyone up, and we didn’t have any trouble finding things to talk about for the rest of the time – and I didn’t feel we were just drifting, even though we weren’t following a script.

I am emboldened, as well as reassured: for Friday I have selected two specific passages as launching points, and that will be (almost) everything I bring along. Maybe one day I can get (back) to the openness with Middlemarch that I find much easier to achieve and accept with other novels.

This Week In My Classes: Micromanaging Middlemarch

OxfordMaybe there should be a question mark in the title of this post. I hope there should be! But I’m not sure, and that makes me just a little anxious.

It is always hard to find a good balance between showing students what’s interesting and important in the novel we’re studying and letting them explore and discover things on their own. But it is particularly challenging with a novel as dense as Middlemarch, and I fear that — in recent years especially, as I’ve become more certain of my own ideas about the novel — I have become a little too controlling during our class time.

In my defense,  Middlemarch is long, our time is short, and an inductive or Socratic approach guarantees some serious inefficiency in arriving at anything like a thorough understanding of the novel. More than that, it’s flat-out unreasonable to expect anyone reading the novel for the first time to keep good enough track of the details (whether of plot or of narrative commentary) to put the pieces together confidently into an interpretation they feel ready to defend. It takes a lot of time and rereading to do that! And that’s not even taking into account the kinds of contextual information — historical, political, theoretical — that helps make sense of things that happen in the novel, or that enriches a reading that otherwise might focus (of necessity) quite superficially on the plot.

It’s true that, as Steve recently argued about Wuthering Heights, it is perfectly possibly to have a thrilling reading experience “without a speck of annotation,” or its in-class equivalent. My own first reading of Middlemarch was innocent in just that way. But in class, we come to study Middlemarch, not (just) to praise it, and I believe strongly that “expert guidance” can enhance that reading experience in myriad ways — else how would I show up for work every day? At the same time, it’s my job to train students to read well themselves, not just to show them how well I can read! With that in mind, I proceed in all of my classes through a blend of lecture and discussion, laying out facts and, where it seems appropriate, big-picture interpretive frameworks, but also asking open-ended but purposeful questions that begin with observations and then build towards interpretations by looking for connections and patterns. Even when I am outright lecturing, I’m not “just” transferring information (something I think is in fact easily undervalued) — I’m also modelling the process; class discussion is a collaborative way of doing the same thing. The further along we get in our discussions the less distance there is between observation and analysis, because (if all goes well) the early classes demonstrate the most fruitful lines of inquiry, or lay down tracks to pursue as we continue our reading.penguin

But, again, open discussion has built-in inefficiencies, and with Middlemarch – both because I love it so and because I have worked hard myself to connect its ideas across its many parts — I am always tempted to minimize them by doing more demonstrations, more set pieces of explanation. For instance, over time I have developed a range of detailed of lecture notes that focus on particular themes or problems (interpretation and misinterpretation, say, or reform, or religion) and trace them through examples from across wide swathes of the novel. This is precisely the kind of thing that’s hard for students to do: by the time they get to Chapter 31, Chapter 15 is a long way behind them; by the time they get to Chapter 77, how much detail can they remember of Chapter 43? I also have a few favorite examples of the novel’s formal properties that I like to work through with some care so that they see how its structure reflects its central ideas. Again, these are hard things to notice on a first reading (the chronological shifts especially), so it seems right that I should steer the class pretty closely through all of this. But it’s not good if my well-meaning guidance precludes their — and my — finding out what they are interested in or letting them work out connections on their own, or if it means I am just using our class time to insist on my own way of reading the novel. That’s sort of what they are there for, but in some important ways it is not what they are there for at all!

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not talking at them without interruption for the whole class period! Last week, precisely because I’ve been worrying about this micromanaging tendency, I did not stick rigidly to my notes but consciously tried to throw out more open-ended questions and see where they took us. It’s pretty clear, though, that for many of them the novel is a lot to manage on their own (I’m not sure I want to know how many have fallen behind in the reading). When not a lot of answers are forthcoming, what’s a micromanager  control-freak  enthusiast responsible teacher to do but fill in the gaps herself?

But I’m hopeful that they are oriented reasonably well in the novel now. We’re heading into sections that lend themselves to genuine debate, too, and that should give the discussion some good momentum. Toomorrow, for instance, we’ll consider whether Dorothea should have promised Casaubon to “carry out my wishes . . . [and] avoid doing what I should deprecate, and apply yourself to do what I should desire.” His request prompts a painful inner struggle for her, so presumably there are genuine reasons on both sides. And we’re not far from Raffles’s death, which raises lots of interesting questions about culpability. Overt crises in the action typically help bring more abstract problems (here, about sympathy and morality) into focus and make them seem more urgent.

I do have more specific ideas I very much want us to “cover” about Middlemarch – points I think it is genuinely important to make, moments I believe we should pay particular attention to — before we reach the end of our allotted time for the novel. What I have to keep in mind is that it is impossible to actually cover everything we might conceivably address. Even my own “must-do” list is incredibly partial (Fred and Mary, for instance, always seem to get short shrift, which is all kinds of wrong). But that’s OK! “Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending”: the narrator says so! I just need to keep my inner Casaubon under control . . .  Still, it’s both funny and frustrating to realize that it is getting harder rather than easier to find that ideal balance with this, my favorite book of all to read and teach.

Write It Different: Christopher Beha, What Happened to Sophie Wilder


“I wish things could be different.”

She leaned over the bed to kiss me.

“Then write it different.”

I read What Happened to Sophie Wilder in honor of D. G. Myers, who championed it with his usual hard-headed enthusiasm. “Like Charlie, I was immediately smitten,” Myers said of Sophie Wilder herself in his 2012 Commentary review, and in a longer essay this summer on religious fiction he went so far as to call Beha’s novel “the best American novel of 2012.”

Myers was not the only reader won over by Beha’s story of Charlie Blakeman (the aspiring writer who narrates the first-person portions of the novel) and Sophie Wilder, his one-time classmate and sometime lover (whose story, in third-person narration, is interwoven with Charlie’s). Mark Athitakis reviewed it very favorably in the Washington Post, for instance, calling it “beautiful and whip-smart,”  while Sarah Towers wrote admiringly about it in the New York Times (how Charlie — whose initials just happen to be the same as his author’s — would have relished such prestigious coverage!). Nicole wrote about it at Bibliographing, and again at Book Riot, and at Shelf Love Teresa sings its praises as well. Even closer to home, Sam Sacks wrote about it in Open Letters Monthly – but Sam expressed more ambivalence about it than seems to be typical: “It’s a testament to Beha’s talents as a dramatist,” he observes, “that What Happened to Sophie Wilder remains an intriguing and emotionally stirring book despite its palpable omissions. . . . in the end, the book is very gray.”

I have these links to other reviews close at hand because when I finished Beha’s novel last night I felt kind of let down by it and so I wanted to see what specifics lay behind what I had recalled (rightly, as it turned out) as the novel’s generally very favorable reception. A mismatch between other people’s reactions and my own is always thought-provoking, whether I liked a book more or less than they did — but especially when I liked it less, because, as Dorothea says to Will, “It is painful to be told that anything is very fine and not be able to feel that it is fine — something like being blind, while people talk of the sky.” I don’t typically second-guess my positive reactions, though when I write about a book that I found immediately and utterly captivating (The Once and Future King, say, or The Orphan Master’s Son, or The Paper Garden) I do try to articulate as much as I can about what the reading experience meant to me, rather than just gush. As Carl Wilson says (in his smart little book on Celine Dion, which I finally read!),

a more pluralistic criticism might put less stock in defending its choices and more in depicting its enjoyment, with all its messiness and private soul tremors — to show what it is like for me to like it, and invite you to compare.

“This kind of exchange takes place sometimes on the internet,” he goes on, “and it would be fascinating to have more dialogic criticism: here is my story, what is yours?” It’s in that spirit that I went back to revisit other people’s stories about What Happened to Sophie Wilder.

And I have to say that all these smart people are convincing, not just that they liked it, but about why and what it was like for them to like it. I didn’t dislike the novel myself, but now, thanks to them, I feel that I have a better appreciation, if only retrospectively, of the craft of the novel. I see more clearly, for example, how the division into different narratives reflects different — perhaps incompatible — ideas about authorship and about purpose in narrative. Here’s D. G. Myers’s explanation:

Beha writes his novel from alternating points of view; or, as Sophie herself would say, in alternating styles (“What was style, if not a point of view? A set of values?”). Every other chapter is narrated in first person by Charlie, who remains devoted to the principle of fiction (“[T]he story made the truth irrelevant,” he believes. “The telling was what mattered”). The even-numbered chapters are told in third person, from Sophie’s perspective — the perspective of a devotee to a different principle altogether. The difference in their values culminates in two different endings, two utterly different and incompatible versions of What Happened to Sophie Wilder. Outside the styles and values of his two main characters, Beha gives his readers no assistance in determining what really happened. Fiction is challenged by religion; religion is challenged by fiction; and readers are challenged on the grounds of their deepest values. 

Convincing, as I said (though the alternating narrators is not such a novel experience to a Victorianist: Dickens does it flamboyantly in Bleak House, after all). These other readings also reconciled me somewhat to the irresolution of the novel’s conclusion. As Teresa says,

The two threads–Charlie’s first-person story and Sophie’s third-person story–cannot exist seamlessly. The book is, after all, a story. The question is, who is in charge of that story? Who, indeed, is in charge of life and death? And how does our answer to that question drive the stories we write for ourselves?

 In his review in Volume I Brooklyn, Tobias Carroll also makes a strength of the open ending (or, rather, endings):

The final scene, offering an image of redemption in the face of contradictory evidence, achieves an impressive [balance?] between intellectual rigor and unadorned faith.

I agree with Greg Walklin in the Journal Star that the novel’s opening is a feint, a kind of sleight-of-hand, setting us up for what seems like a rather clichéd example of the “MFA novel” only to replace it with something more interesting and intellectually ambitious. “If “What Happened to Sophie Wilder” was what it appears to be on first glance,” as he says, “– a simple story about a lovesick writer and his mysterious on-again, off-again girlfriend,” it might be hardly worth writing about. “But,” as Walklin says, “there is far more to it than that.” Instead of offering (only) thinly-disguised autobiography and resultingly thin metafiction, Beha sets out to reinvent the conversion narrative for our skeptical age — a move reminiscent of George Eliot’s story of a “latter-day” Saint Theresa in Middlemarch.

Walklin goes on, though, to echo Myers’s rapturous evaluation of the novel as “the best fiction I’ve read all year,” and that’s where I part company with both of them, and with the other readers I’ve mentioned. I recognize the book I read in the book they are talking about, and as I said, I didn’t hate it. But I was never enthralled or moved by it, and while I believe my appreciation of it might grow on rereading, I have no desire to go through it again — it just wasn’t interesting enough to me. The writing seemed flat and, at times, forced, and the characters — Sophie especially — seemed insubstantial: concepts more than people. As for what actually happened to Sophie Wilder, well, my conclusion at the end was “not much,” or at least not much that the book made richly present to me. I agree with Sam that the conversion “episode” — on which so much depends — is a particularly “thoughtful, earnest, and unsatisfying passage,” and the crisis Sopohie goes through during her time with her dying father-in-law seemed equally hasty and unmotivated to me: it was not developed in anything like enough detail to thrill me with dread or sorrow at either its problem or its conclusion(s).

What did I want from the novel that I didn’t get? Some of the lack I felt is surely a matter of that ineffable thing, taste. Some of my dissatisfaction comes, I think, from the expectations I have developed through years of focusing on particular kinds of fiction — on fiction that offers (to put it simply) more — more to think about, more to work with. For instance, to me the account of Sophie’s religious experience was a reedy echo (at best) of Maggie Tulliver’s struggles with faith in The Mill on the Floss, where her passionate embrace of asceticism after reading Thomas à Kempis emerges from a rich narrative context including overt philosophical reflection on the needs religion meets for those who are suffering inexplicably. By comparison, What Happened to Sophie Wilder is briskly superficial about the social and historical contexts of both Charlie’s and Sophie’s stories. Perhaps that’s because George Eliot thinks religious belief needs explanation, while Beha is emphasizing its spontaneity and inexplicability. Yet I agree with Sam that religious conversion (at least if it’s going to be a central event) is “something that can be expressed in words because it’s real, just as any other experience can be evoked through language. It is hard to grasp, when you read this scene, why Beha would be so quick to concede failure in this respect.” Paradoxically, Eliot’s religion — that is, the religion of her characters — seems more solid than Beha’s, even though the tendency of her fiction is to replace sacred explanations with secular.

In doing so, she is of course making a decision about the fundamental split Beha’s dual narration leaves unresolved. Do I perhaps prefer Eliot because of that — because that is my own outlook? Was I impatient — bored, even — by Sophie’s religious struggles because they were left as religious struggles, not absorbed into other ways of thinking about the world? Wondering about this made me think about Silas Marner, which I have come to love, though it is certainly very much about religious faith. Does it satisfy me more because it offers (as Sophie Wilder does) a dual approach, religious and secular (or, sacred and literary) — but only in order to expose the religious as really human, the sacred as really literary? In doing so it conforms better to my own prejudices or preexisting beliefs: was my response to What Happened to Sophie Wilder a tacit form of resistance to Beha’s apparent openness not just to religion in general (or some kind of vaguely embraced spirituality) but to  Catholicism in particular? I have been trying to think of another contemporary novel with a genuinely religious protagonist that I did like — and Gilead comes to mind, so I don’t think it’s as simple as my unconsciously rejecting faith as a literary premise.

I don’t think I’m going to be able to do much better than this at analyzing my reading of What Happened to Sophie Wilder — not now, anyway. I don’t think I have to defend my tepid response, and I certainly don’t think the readers who liked the novel more than I did need to defend themselves either. “What would criticism be like,” as Wilson says, “if it were not foremost trying to persuade people to find the same things great? If it weren’t about making cases for or against things?” It would, I think, be the ongoing exchange of views that we bloggers are used to, out here where (Wilson again) “the strangeness of our strangeness to one another” can get the “airing” it needs. I know that if he were still around, D. G. Myers would welcome my dissenting view — though I’m sure he’d also engage with it vigorously and make the experience of his own liking palpable. And so, since he is not around to do so himself, I’ll give the last word to him:

A brazen attempt to revive the saint’s life as a literary genre in an age of unbelief, Beha’s novel also dramatizes the enigma of Christian humility when viewed from a secular perspective. After the experience of being “taken over” by the Holy Spirit during mass at a small church, Sophie Wilder renounces her past enthusiasms and devotes herself to the care of her dying father-in-law. She is gennathei anothen—”not ‘born again,’ exactly, but ‘born from above.’” What happens to her as a consequence is so foreign to postmodern sensibility that an alternative ending must be written. The result is a two-sided novel of unforgettable insight into the religious life.

Update: See Nicole’s really interesting response at Bibliographing:

It may be just that “religious struggles…left as religious struggles, not absorbed into other ways of thinking about the world” are the only ones I enjoy. . . . What she believes may make no sense to me, but her actions do, because they predictably follow from her beliefs—and I never have to walk through any attempts at nonmystical moral logicking with her that might rankle or irritate.

“Bored by Fear”: Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests


Once, she never would have thought it possible for a person to be bored by fear. She recalled all the various terrors that had seized and shaken her since the thing had begun: the black panics, the dreads and uncertainties, the physical cavings-in. There hadn’t been a dull moment. But she was almost bored now, she realized. Bored to tears.

It’s not that I was bored by The Paying Guests, exactly – I found it as smoothly readable as all of Waters’s previous novels. Her sentences move with ease across the page, even when (as was certainly the case for long stretches here) the precise and abundant details seem in excess of what is really necessary to convey scene or mood, never mind plot or theme. Waters is a master of meticulous but imperceptible effort: her extensive historical research leads her neither to the dreaded awkward “info-dump” nor to the “fearless pedantry” I admire so much in A. S. Byatt’s ruthless stretches of exposition. How people lived, what they wore, what they ate, how they cleaned or decorated their houses, how they cut and styled their hair — it’s all there, but the artifice of her recreation is so artful it feels completely natural, even while you never forget you’re in 1922, not 2014.

Waters is a consummate story-teller, too, though her love of the long, slow burn was more conspicuous to me this time as a feature of her fiction, rather than a necessity of this fiction. She likes to take her time with her plots, and in The Paying Guests that means we’re 200 pages in before anything decisive happens and another 100 pages along before we reach any kind of crisis. The interest and momentum is sustained during this very gradual ascent to drama because Waters is so good at anticipation — creating it in her characters and also, because of her back catalogue, manipulating it in her readers. In a Sarah Waters novel, we know something more is happening than we can tell at first; we can be sure there is a twist, a surprise, to come, that will reveal what was really going on or how things were really working.

Or, I thought we could be sure of that! It turns out that the big reveal in The Paying Guests is that there is no big revelation. Events just keep on unfolding, until eventually we know what happens and it’s over. For a page-turner, then, it turns out that The Paying Guests actually is kind of boring, or at least anticlimactic. I enjoyed reading it until I realized there wasn’t more to it — that my expectations and speculation had exceeded what Waters was offering — and then I felt disappointed, and my critical curiosity deflated because I couldn’t see what, beyond its impeccable surface, the novel was actually about. Its plot is gripping as far as it goes, but what are its themes? What idea drives it? What does it do with its material, besides tell a story? (If I’m bored by simple suspense, it’s Waters’s own fault for setting the bar so high with Fingersmith.)

And then I read the author’s note, in which Waters lists some of her key sources, and then I felt my curiosity revive a bit. Maybe (no matter whose fault it was) I was reading for the wrong things. Just because it walks like a neo-Gothic or sensational duck and at times quacks like one too, that doesn’t mean The Paying Guests isn’t something else entirely — or a twist on a different form, one I also know a little about. The first book Waters cites, it turns out, is Nicola Humble’s The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, which is one of the sources I drew on myself when thinking and teaching about the Somerville novelists (among others, Humble discusses Dorothy Sayers, Winifred Holtby, and Margaret Kennedy). As Humble explains it, the feminine middle-brow novel “straddles the divide between the trashy romance or thriller on the one hand, and the philosophically or formally challenging novel on the other: offering narrative excitement without guilt, and intellectual stimulation without undue effort.” That sounds quite a bit like The Paying Guests.  The novels I’ve read from this category (such as Holtby’s The Crowded Street or Kennedy’s Together and Apart) also often challenged me by being flatter and more literal than is altogether helpful to the attentive critic. They are intensely domestic; they accept the limitations of personal experience rather than making those limits overt themes or formal problems. In Fingersmith Waters takes over the conventions of sensation fiction for her own purposes. I can see The Paying Guests as her doing something similar with the conventions of domestic realism that belong, themselves, to the period in which she’s set her story: taking them over, infusing them with the desires and frustrations and uncertainties of her characters in a way that modernizes them while still following their more pedestrian processes – the twisty endings I was imagining don’t belong in that genre.

But putting her aesthetic choices into that context didn’t end up making The Paying Guests itself more exciting to me. I don’t want to undersell it: it’s still a good novel (for elegant account of its strengths, see Alex’s post at Thinking in Fragments, all of which I agree with — except of course I think she missed a bet in not finishing the second half of Fingersmith — or Teresa’s at Shelf Love, which wisely and rightly notes that “The mysteries and tensions that drive the book are those of the human heart”). I just wish Waters had done more with her materials. Vera Brittain also figures in her sources – Testament of Youth as well as Chronicle of Youth – and, drawing on these, Waters develops a very believable picture of the grief and dislocation of families who have lost all their young men in the war; she also picks up on the double-edged gift of autonomy and ambition the war had made to women But since we can read Brittain, or other contemporary sources, for first-hand accounts of these moods and experiences, and since Waters has shown she can layer her novels in such thought-provoking ways, The Paying Guests seems a bit thin. There wasn’t a dull moment in it, but in the end I was almost bored by it.

This Week In My Classes: Lots of Reading

It’s not so much that we are doing a lot of reading this week in particular, but that cumulatively by now, in both classes, we have done a lot of reading. I like this middle phase of term: the logistical confusion of the first couple of weeks is behind us, the frameworks for our class discussions have been established, we have a body of completed work to lean on (bounce off?) as we move along — and the end of term is still far enough away that we aren’t distracted by planning for it.

greatexpectationsIn 19th-Century Fiction we’ve finished our first two novels, Villette and Great Expectations. Although Villette is a fascinating novel, I had more fun (rather to my surprise) rereading Great Expectations. I’ve read and taught it so often that my own expectations were kind of low as we started it up, but I fell right into it, especially the climactic confrontation between Pip, Estella, and Miss Havisham after Pip’s world has been up-ended:

‘You are part of my existence, part of myself. You have been in every line I have ever read, since I first came here, the rough common boy whose poor heart you wounded even then. You have been in every prospect I have ever seen since — on the river, on the sails of the ships, on the marshes, in the clouds, in the light, in the darkness, in the wind, in the woods, in the sea, in the streets. You have been the embodiment of every graceful fancy that my mind has ever become acquainted with. The stones of which the strongest London buildings are made, are not more real, or more impossible to be displaced by your hands, than your presence and influence have been to me, there and everywhere, and will be. Estella, to the last hour of my life, you cannot choose but remain part of my character, part of the little good in me, part of the evil. But, in this separation I associate you only with the good, and I will faithfully hold you to that always, for you must have done me far more good than harm, let me feel now what sharp distress I may. O God bless you, God forgive you!’

In what ecstasy of unhappiness I got these broken words out of myself, I don’t know. The rhapsody welled up within me, like blood from an inward wound, and gushed out. I held her hand to my lips some lingering moments, and so I left her. But ever afterwards, I remembered — and soon afterwards with stronger reason — that while Estella looked at me merely with incredulous wonder, the spectral figure of Miss Havisham, her hand still covering her heart, seemed all resolved into a ghastly stare of pity and remorse.

I know some people recoil from Dickens’s rhetorical excesses and emotional manipulation, and when my defenses are up I can feel the same impatience. But he’s also better than any other novelist I know at ripping the bandage off our wounded humanity and creating moments as morally thrilling as this one. There’s also something fantastic (in both senses of that word) about just how fearless his language and his stories are: his relish for both is practically tangible.

I’ve been thinking about Dickens a lot in the context of the ongoing discussions about YA fiction: why, for instance, should Henry James be the touchstone for grown-up reading? There’s a quality in Dickens that runs afoul of that rarefied, over-intellectualized ideal, but Christopher Beha’s description of the rewards of reading James (and other “adult” fiction) describes Great Expectations astonishingly well:

Much is taken from us as we pass out of childhood, but other human beings who have suffered these losses have created great works of art, works that can only be truly appreciated by those who have suffered the same losses in turn. These works are among the great recompenses that experience offers us.

One of the things we discussed in our last session on Great Expectations is whether it’s worth having made Pip’s mistakes, having suffered as he suffers, because in the end he is capable of narrating the novel — something Joe, for all his admirable qualities, could never do. Dickens, in other words, has built his own novel around just that trade-off between pleasures that can “easily be enjoyed by a child” and hard-won moral and literary maturity. I’m not necessarily disagreeing with Beha’s commentary on James (though I’m on record as not finding James that pleasurable to read — for me, he’s more on the mortgage-payment side of adulthood): I’ve just been thinking Dickens has a more interesting role to play in this conversation than he is usually given (in Beha’s essay, a passing reference to him as someone who wrote “inviting, event-packed novels”).Oxford

Next up for us in this class: Middlemarch. As you can imagine, I’m looking forward to this! I’ve spent a lot of time in the last couple of years thinking and talking about Middlemarch, but I haven’t actually reread it patiently for a while. I started on it this morning while the class was writing their short test on Great Expectations, and even as I winced watching Dorothea be so, so wrong, I was reminded all over again how funny the first few chapters are.

houndIn Mystery and Detective Fiction we’ve wrapped up not only The Moonstone but Sherlock Holmes and a sampler of other great detectives as well (we read one story each by G. K Chesterton, R. Austen Freeman, and Jacques Futrelle). Today we started our discussion of Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  I enjoy using Christie to spark discussion about canonicity: I point out that despite being possibly the best-selling novelist of all time, she has no literary standing compared to her contemporaries Henry James, Virginia Woolf or James Joyce, which gives me a chance to suggest that modernism set a lot of the terms for discussions of literary merit that we now often take for granted. This means talking about things like linguistic or syntactical difficulty, which on the face of it, Christie is having none of: her prose is remarkably lucid. Next time, though, when all is known, we’ll go over just how tricky she actually is — telling us everything while keeping everything from us. Is this its own kind of difficulty, or is it just trickery, and if so, is that somehow a lower order of skill? To some extent I am playing devil’s advocate in asking why she should be taken any less seriously than Woolf: for me, conversation about Christie flags pretty quickly once the game is played out, and for my money there are other mystery novelists who are a lot more interesting to think about. But she’s excellent of her kind, and I think it’s worth provoking a conversation about whether it makes sense to value some kinds more than others. This is the “genre fiction” version of the YA debates, of course.

Once we wrap up Ackroyd, it’s midterm time in this class, and then we turn to Hammett and Chandler.

“Passion, plus craft”: Donald E. Westlake, The Getaway Car

getawaycarI’m glad I didn’t take Levi Stahl’s advice. If I had, I would have walked away from The Getaway Car, which is “the first book by Donald E. Westlake [I've] ever held in [my] hands.” Not that it seems like bad advice to get my hands on some of Westlake’s actual novels — indeed, reading The Getaway Car has made me quite enthusiastic about doing that! But a book in the hand is worth many dozens in the store (even if, as turns out not to be the case, my local bookstores had any Westlake on their shelves) or at the library (especially since my local branch is currently closed). So I blithely disregarded the advice to “stop right here” and read on.

And what a lot of fun I had! The Getaway Car is an anthology of Westlake’s miscellaneous nonfiction, and it is indeed miscellaneous: autobiographical fragments, letters, reviews, introductions (he wrote a lot of those). To me, as someone without his novels as a frame of reference or a set of touchstones, what struck me most was what a likable guy he seems to have been: even in what is the longest and probably the most conspicuously “expert” piece in the collection, his essay on “The Hardboiled Dicks” (originally a lecture at the Smithsonian), there’s not the slightest hint of pretension. Westlake’s letter to Howard Gotlieb of the Boston University Libraries, in response to a request to donate his papers, struck me as exemplary of his no-nonsense perspective on his own work. In the letter he expresses his “astonishment” that anyone would want to collect his papers, because he sees himself as a “writer,” not an “author”:

A writer, in my personal lexicon, is a commercial wordsmith, an active professional, a (if the word can be stripped of overtones) hack. An author, on the other hand, is an institution, a brand name, a reputation. John D. MacDonald is a writer. Saul Bellow began as a writer but has become an institution, an author. Arthur Miller has never been anything but an author. John Steinbeck, having resisted authordom, is a writer with an honorary author’s membership card.

 As for himself,

I’m a writer, with only the teeniest and most secret and ephemeral urgings towards authorhood. . . . all of the book-length writing I’ve done under my own name has been exclusively in a category of strictly entertainment writing, in which higher aspirations, even if they existed, are irrelevant.

There’s a cheerful pragmatism in this that’s refreshing in this era of heated (if largely manufactured) debates about “literary vs. genre fiction” — which is not to say that his comfortable assumption that there really are two kinds of writing, or at least two ways of approaching your writing, isn’t in its own way a potentially provocative contribution to just these debates.

Being a “hack” on his terms, though, certainly doesn’t mean being sloppy or careless. “In my opinion,” he says (or, at any rate, one of his personae says, in an entertaining “roundtable discussion” among them that he wrote up for Murder Ink) “the best writers are always people who don’t care about anything except telling you what’s in their heads, without boring you. Passion, plus craft.” A letter to David Ramus about the manuscript of that author’s first novel shows passion about craft:

Now I also think you need to do a little tweaking of story procedure, how you unfold it for us. Page 52 was way too late to introduce a flashback and then let the flashback wander. You say you’re going to tell us about the first time Ben met Dana, and then you tell us a bunch of other stuff for eight pages. I am very impatient during all of this. I don’t mind leaving prison to go to court, but if I’m leaving court, by this point in the story I want to get back to prison. . . .

Finally, I have one absolute objection. We do not overhear plot points. No no no. He just happens to be standing here when somebody over there says the stuff he needed to know. No. But if Ben wanted to know what was going on, and felt it was important, he could put himself at risk to deliberately eavesdrop. Almost get caught.

Don’t you feel you can trust a writer who has such a clear grasp of how the elements of fiction actually work? And then there’s his very endearing defense of the semicolon (my pet punctuation mark too):

I do want to rise to say a word or two for the semicolon. . . . My own rhythms tend to be long ones [mine too!], and I grant you that as a result I tend to over-use the semicolon, but some of them are right, and in most instances (in this book and others) the copyeditor’s alternative is less correct. . . .Why does everybody hate the poor semicolon? It’s nice; it’s useful; it’s even rather pretty.

 Equally endearing in its own way is that he has just the same tone when discussing the afterlife as when discussing plot points or punctuation:

Therefore, if I am to assume life after death, and if I am to further assume that the me over there would still be recognizably me, then I would like to meet O. Henry, Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce and Dashiell Hammett, sit down with a bottle of beer — I won’t be on a diet then — and talk shop for a century or two.

The Getaway Car itself is full of “shop talk,” all of it brisk and opinionated without being overbearing. I took a special interest in the overview of the genre in his introduction to the anthology Murderous Schemes, because I’m always testing and refining the introductory framing lectures for my detective fiction course. (I think I got an exam copy of Murderous Schemes once, in fact, and ended up rejecting it as a course text because its taxonomy was a bit too different from the one I have settled on, though our generalizations converge easily enough.) And I paid special attention to his essay on hard-boiled detection, which I found useful as well as entertaining — and also thought-provoking. Talking about ways in which a genre can become exhausted if its form doesn’t undergo some kind of renewal, for instance, he holds out the ‘gothic romance’ as an example:

Several years ago [his essay is from 1982] there was a paperback fad for gothic romance, and an editor in the field told me one day about a book he was publishing — one of the four gothics from his house that month — that he was truly excited about because it was a bold breakthrough. “The girl isn’t a governess,” he said. “She’s the cook!”

There was no strength in those gothic romances beyond the ritual, so they soon withered and died. The Western had strength, and survived, and endured, and from time to time the very ritual itself leads to art.

Westlake comes across as a bit of a man’s man in these pieces (his final word on the afterlife is that, shop talk done, he’d “go off with Robert Benchley and look for girls”); if he ran with a different crowd, I wonder if he’d be so quick to see gothic romance as a form that had withered and died. Similarly, he ends the piece reflecting that the private eye novel has itself withered:

The brevity of the early Black Mask days is long gone. The relevance of those days is gone. The vitality of novelty is gone. The reflection of an underlying truth is gone. I’m not really sure what’s left.

Except the books and stories that started it all. Hammett reads as smoothly and honestly as he ever did. His contemporaries are just as lively, and not very much dated. Chandler retains his strength and his complexity. . . .

“The private eye novel may have become very strait-jacketed by ritual, but it’s certainly not dead,” he concludes. I wonder if he looked around and noticed that it was getting new life at that very moment from women writers like Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller, and Sue Grafton. They brought a new vitality to the form because their perspective on it was novel, their underlying truth a somewhat different one. If Westlake were still around, I can imagine that it would be fun to sit down with a bottle of beer and talk this over with him.

Besides making me think Westlake is a guy I’d like to have met, The Getaway Car definitely made me think I’d like to read at least some of his books (he wrote an awful lot of them!) — I’m open to suggestions about where I should start. It also reminded me that I have yet to read any Ross Macdonald or any Rex Stout. I hadn’t heard of Peter Rabe before reading Westlake’s essay, but he made me curious (“Peter Rabe wrote the best books with the worst titles of anybody I can think of”). His “Ten Most Wanted” list is mostly books I haven’t read or hadn’t heard of, in fact, which is a bit discouraging considering how much time I spend reading, reading about, or talking about crime fiction. Also, why have I never read Thurber’s “The Man Who Knew Too Little”? I start my class every year now with “The Macbeth Murder Mystery,” but a little more Thurber can only be a good thing.

Just what I needed: more books to read! I’m glad I already read The Getaway Car, though, even if by some lights I should have deferred it. Many thanks to its editor Levi Stahl for my copy of it: congratulations on turning your obvious enthusiasm into something tangible that you can share with the rest of us.

Not At All Commonplace: Goodbye to D. G. Myers

I was deeply saddened this morning to learn of D. G. Myers’s death. I have been reading  A Commonplace Blog since I started blogging myself; I can still remember how pleased I was when I noticed that Novel Readings had made its way onto his blog roll. We have also both been on Twitter for a long time, and he was integral to many of the most stimulating conversations I have overheard or participated in there. We had very different reading sensibilities; there would not be much overlap between our lists of our top 100 favorite books. But I always enjoyed and learned from the learned and passionate way he wrote about books, and more than once he convinced me to try something I would not have picked up otherwise — Roland Merullo’s The Talk Funny Girl, for instance, or John Williams’s Stoner, which he was an advocate for well before it became a belated overnight sensation. With posts like “Francine Prose and the Great Tradition,” he gave the lie to those who dismiss book blogging as an inherently trivial and trivializing form of critical discourse. We had some of the same concerns about the direction of the modern academy in general and English departments in particular; his perspective on causes and possible solutions wasn’t exactly mine, but then, his experience was also different; posts like “An End to Readings” spurred me to think more and think harder about my own views on criticism. I was endlessly moved and impressed by his unsentimental candor and good spirits during his long illness; it seems fitting that what turned out to be his final blog post was entitled “Choosing Life in the Face of Death.” His was a sharp, smart, witty, provocative, generous voice in the online literary world; though I never met him face to face, I know already that I will miss his presence in my reading and thinking life.

A tribute from Terry Teachout appears here, another from Patrick Kurp here. Apparently an online “Festschrift” is in preparation; I’ll add a link to it when it goes up. As my own quiet form of acknowledgment, I plan to read one more book from the long list of those he convinced me I ought to, Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder.Along with handing [readers] something good to read,” he said about this novel, “it will renew their faith in what literature is capable of achieving.” That renewal always seemed to me the faith that his own writing was most profoundly about.

Update: Here’s a link to the round-up of tributes from friends and colleagues.

This Week in My Classes: Low Stakes, High Rewards

fountainpenOver the last week or so we’ve done our first small assignments in both classes: an in-class writing response in Mystery & Detective Fiction, paper proposals and then a “mini-midterm” in 19th-Century Fiction. Also, since the start of term students in the 19th-Century Fiction class have been keeping reading journals. These assignments have all been developed as parts of my attempt to shift the emphasis from product to process. The challenge for me is to set up low -stakes work that builds skills and prepares for high-stakes work in such a way that it is clear to them why it is worth taking seriously, even though on its own it may not seem to be significant.

I think I am getting there, in terms of figuring out how this is done. My key strategy is simply to be very explicit about the value of trying something out and learning from it as a kind of trial run, before you invest heavily in a weightier assignment. I think this pitch is very convincing to students who are already quite engaged and motivated, because they are already trying to think harder and do better work, and so they appreciate the chance to see how they’re doing, confer with me about the results, and then do the longer assignment from a position of greater confidence. I’m not so convinced that it reaches students who are, for one reason or another, not particularly engaged or motivated, precisely because I’ve set the stakes so low. I do also stress occasionally in class discussions of these small assignments that they add up — that even 2% can, when all is said and done, be the difference between passing and failing. I’m really least interested in that punitive approach, though.

Another challenge is the dissatisfaction that I feel when someone does a really outstanding job and I’m still stuck giving them only 2 points. I do send other signals too — comments like “oustanding!” in the margins, for instance! But I’ve been wondering if I can build in a “bonus points for excellence” system somehow, without losing control of the overall exercise. Right now the mini-midterms are marked quite simply out of 10 points, for instance, 2 for each of the short-answer questions and 4 for close reading a passage. This is all very quick and tidy. But because I don’t want to traffic in fractions of points, I end up giving 2 points to really rich, smart answers as well as to ones that say just enough to satisfy the rubric. Maybe I should make each of these questions worth 3 points — the first two for the same things I mark for already (1 point for a full and accurate identification, 1 point for a reasonable comment about how the subject of the question connects to or illuminates central themes of the novel) and then the last one for … well, how could I characterize it so that it didn’t seem hopelessly subjective? “Doing a really good job” seems a bit vague. The same problem arises with the 4-point questions (1 point for accurately situating it, then 3 more to be earned by insights into its language and themes): there’s a bit more latitude here already, but how about one more point for “wow, that’s really smart and well-written”?

To be clear, I don’t grade essays according to this kind of fairly coarse grid. (In fact, I don’t grade them numerically either.) It’s important for me, though, that these very small assignments not become very large tasks for me: being able to go through them quickly and return them promptly is part of the plan. I invite students who want more detailed feedback to come and talk to me (and quite a few do), and I also routinely share and discuss samples of stronger and weaker submissions (with names removed, of course), which I hope also provides very valuable guidance. The goal, as I often point out, is for the students to learn to judge their own writing better, to know what kind of result they are working towards so that they can work deliberately and with purpose.

The low-stakes assignments are way stations en route to larger and more sophisticated productions. To work, I think they need to be relevant, skills-oriented, efficient, and transparent. I think making the marking a lot more nuanced might interfere with too many of these goals. So for now I’ll press on. The pay-off for the “outstanding” ones will have to be the encouragement they get to do more of the same when the stakes are higher. And for those who blow things off that aren’t worth enough points for them to pay attention? If I’m right about how this system works, some of them will find that the product suffers because they’re neglecting the process. I can only hope they realize this before the term is over, and we all have a chance to get better results.

On Being Neither Fish Nor Fowl

escherMy blogging has been a bit sluggish lately. Partly that’s because my life has been a bit busy, what with the start of term and all. But it’s also because I’ve been a bit broody and taking refuge in easy distractions, like rewatching the early seasons of The Good Wife, instead of in my usual levels of extracurricular reading and writing.

Broody about what? Nothing new, really: just the usual round-and-round of questions about how I’ve been using my time for the last few years and what I have to show for it. Not long ago I had vowed to put aside doubts and defensiveness about my decision to focus on writing that isn’t conventional academic scholarship: it’s not like my choices haven’t been carefully considered ones, after all, and if anyone really feels the need to challenge me on them, I’m quite prepared to have that conversation — but I thought I was done with both the advocacy and the apologetics, ready to just keep on with the projects I want to get done.

Then a couple of weeks ago I went to our meet-and-greet for new graduate students. It’s probably not fair to point at this event as the cause of my recent mental malaise. What it did, though, was reveal to me that I am not as sanguine as I thought about the state of my career — not that I regret it, but that I’m still vulnerable to conflicting and contradictory responses to it.

The specific trigger was a friendly and entirely appropriate question: “what’s your current research on?” That’s just the kind of exchange this event is supposed to encourage, of course, and for many years this question was not at all difficult for me to answer. This time, however, I wasn’t sure where to go with my reply. “I’m not doing any” seemed wrong (see “When is Reading Research“); “I’ve been working on a lot of different things,” while true, seemed somehow non-responsive; and “I don’t believe in academic research any more,” while temptingly snarky and also at least partly true (see “Mark Bauerlein’s ‘The Research Bust’“), is much too reductive, lacking all the nuance I have painstakingly tried to maintain in my public comments about this kind of thing.

I did, ultimately, say something about my having moved away, or out, from most academic research, and why; and I muttered something, also, about my work on a “cross-over” book on George Eliot, which, while not a scholarly project of the kind we usually discuss in academic contexts, will certainly require reading. Research. Whatever. The simple truth is, though, I am not in the loop anymore when it comes to the latest specialized research in my field, which is what the question was implicitly about, and while I don’t regret this at all, there’s a sense in which that makes me only barely qualified to do some of the things graduate students especially might ask of me — like, steer their own specialized research in my field. I also look at most conference calls for papers and realize that in almost every case I am unable to contribute: the only way I could generate the right kind of paper (or even the right kind of proposal) would be to radically change how I am using my reading and writing time.

While I vehemently disagree with the person who told me a year or so ago that I have “obviously thrown [my] career away,” then, (and let’s keep in mind, too, that research, however one does it, does not in itself define the whole of an academic career), I do at times falter under the realization that by some measures it looks as if I have — that in some respects or from some points of view (and why pretend otherwise?) I am failing as an academic.

Which is easy enough to live with, up to a point (again, because I have made choices that I stand by, to end up in this place) — but it would be easier if I could say “but look, I’m a success in this other way!” I can’t really say that, though. As I look around at what other people I know (online or “in real life”) are accomplishing outside of academia, I seem to be stumbling along by comparison there as well. Other academic bloggers have turned their posts into books, or into different kinds of writing gigs (or managed to publish academic articles and books while keeping up their blogs); other academically-trained writers I follow have moved on to publishing brilliant, original reviews and essays in prominent venues, becoming part of the bigger literary conversation in ways even my most topical pieces never seem to. I, on the other hand, seem to be puttering along, adding a piece here and a piece there to a somewhat miscellaneous portfolio of reviews and essays, while writing a blog that is neither quite academic nor quite bookish in a more popular way. If I’m not acting like an academic critic these days, what exactly am I doing? If I’m not a successful academic, what, or who, am I? In my grimmer moments, it feels to me that now I am nothing in particular: no longer in the game as a specialist, and not really in whatever the other game is — neither fish, that is, nor fowl, and floundering in my attempts to be either or both.

I almost deleted this post without publishing it because I was afraid it would sound whiny and petulant. Maybe it does. Maybe it is! I’m honestly not fishing for reassuring compliments or affirmation. I already know how to tell the “glass half-full” version of this story: that’s how I’ve talked myself out of funks like this before. But I had second thoughts about my second thoughts about saying anything at all about how I’ve been feeling — because it’s my blog, darnit, and it’s where I think things through. Also, given my frequent advocacy for blogging and non-academic criticism, and my posts about whether other people should engage in these activities, I think it would be misleading never to talk about the doubts and misgivings I do have, or to ignore the professional costs my choices have incurred (remember this one?). I try to stay positive, but it’s not like I don’t understand (and don’t sometimes agree with) the arguments against me.

I know, too, that the only way forward for me is just to keep on doing the best criticism I can, wherever I can (even if that isn’t what other academics mean when they say “research”) and to call it success when I think I’ve done it well. I am proud of what’s in that portfolio, even if it isn’t (yet) as deep a file as I’d like. It’s just hard to feel motivated to do this writing sometimes, when the rewards are so equivocal. It is also just hard to find the energy right now, when both teaching and administrative tasks are taking up a lot of my time. My other projects used to feel like more of a welcome liberation from the elements of academic research and writing that I have lost interest in or commitment to. Now, wobbling as I am between two worlds, it turns out both can be pretty constant sources of guilt and anxiety! I’m not reading enough – or I’m reading the wrong things! I’m not writing enough, or I’m not writing the right kind of pieces!

I know from experience that this too shall pass. I have writing plans I’m excited about – in theory, at least – and busy as the term is getting, I’ll make time for them and find in the work itself a better fix for these doubts and hesitations. I feel very tired right now, though, and for a little while longer I think there’s more of The Good Wife in my evening plans. At least I’m getting lots of crochet done at the same time!


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