A Minor Epiphany About Writing and Running

I had a minor epiphany this morning: I should try to approach writing in the same spirit I approach running.

I’ve been running fairly regularly for over a decade now. It has turned out to be just the kind of exercise that suits me. Growing up, gym class was always a nightmare for me, from the embarrassment of the changing rooms to the alienating exposure of team sports–and that’s not even getting into the stress of the “Canada Fitness Tests,” with their gold, silver, and bronze levels, which Canadian readers of a certain age will probably also remember. I dreaded every aspect of gym, and as a result, when I was finished with school I shunned every form of exercise. It took me years to get over the bad memories and to admit that getting more exercise would probably be good for me–that I might even enjoy it, if I could do it on my own terms. As a graduate student, I started going to aerobics classes (hey, it was the early 90s–everybody was doing it!); some years after we moved here, when that habit (and fad) had lapsed, I took a beginner’s clinic at the Running Room and I have kept up a running program since then.

This does not mean I excel as a runner. I don’t run very far or very fast. In fact, pretty much everyone else I know who also runs goes further and is more ambitious: many of them have taken to doing “events”–5Ks, 10Ks, even marathons–while I’m happy just to complete my modest route around the neighborhood. When I’m out on my morning runs, I move quickly out of the way when I hear footsteps behind me so whoever it is can pass me easily, which they always do. My intransigent allergies–wholly resistant, as far as I can tell, to all non-drowsy antihistamines–mean I always need to carry a kleenex (how I wish more running gear had real pockets!), and in colder weather especially my eyes water terribly: I’m probably quite a sorry sight!

Why, then, would I want my writing in any way to resemble my running? Here’s what clicked with me this morning, after my run: none of these things about my running bother me, because I get out of it exactly what I want. I don’t feel any shame or pressure about how fast or how far I run; I feel no competitive desire either to race against others or to improve my own “personal bests.” I run for one reason only: because I feel better (more energetic, more focused, healthier both physically and psychologically) when I do it regularly. When I don’t, both my energy and my mood slump, and that prompts me to get back to it. I have set my own standard for success,  and the intrinsic rewards are enough to motivate me.

I sincerely hope that I am a better writer than I am a runner. No doubt, up to a point, that’s because I am more ambitious about my writing than I am about my running: I aspire to be an excellent writer, while I have never aimed to be (or imagined I could be) a serious athlete. I don’t want to let go of that ambition. I would, however, like to set my own standard for success in this arena as well. I would like not to be dependent on others to measure it for me, and not to be envious or discouraged in the face of what other writers accomplish. It’s hard, sometimes, to see other writers appear to sprint past me or achieve marathon-like projects while I am (or feel as if I am) still running in circles. It’s also hard not to judge myself by the goal posts other people have set up–even if I am deliberately running in a different direction. (Have I tortured this analogy enough?!) I need to find, in writing, the same sure sense of what I’m doing it for that I have about my morning runs. I need to remind myself–until I don’t need reminders anymore–that a lot of the satisfaction and rewards are intrinsic, that I’m doing it my way for a reason, and, above all, that I feel better when I write than when I don’t.

It’s a good goal, anyway, something for me to think about as I set my priorities, not just for the summer but for the longer term. Changing attitudes is harder than changing shoes, though!

Summer Plans: The Risks and Rewards of Reviews

The jet lag has lifted and I’m settling back into my routines after my trip to Vancouver–my first real vacation away since July 2015. And even so, it was hard to keep work obligations entirely at bay: a very late paper arrived at 10 p.m. the night before I left and had to be dealt with a.s.a.p.; proofs for a forthcoming review appeared in my inbox a few days along and threw me into a panic until I got reassurance that the corrections could wait until I got back; and a book for another review was my reading material on my way home–although that was my decision, and the book in question (Adam Sternbergh’s The Blinds) isn’t particularly hard work. I don’t really mind: porous boundaries are a small price to pay for the autonomy and flexibility I enjoy at this stage of my career, and there was certainly plenty of work-related business I simply ignored until today, when the Victoria Day holiday too is past.

Now that it is today, though, it’s time to get sorted for the summer. As previously mentioned, my first task is sort of a meta-project, in which this post is a very preliminary step: I want to take some dedicated time to plot out a more deliberate trajectory than I have followed for the last couple of years. It’s not that I’m dissatisfied with what I’ve accomplished: despite the still-embittering lessons of my promotion denial, I have no regrets or second thoughts about where I have been putting my energy or how I have been using my expertise. I certainly have at no point since the bad news felt inclined to rededicate myself to conventional academic publishing. I don’t set myself against it as an enterprise in toto, and I might yet decide that a project I’m interested in is best suited to publication in that form for that audience, but I have long believed that we produce not only enough of such scholarship but too much of it–too much too fast, at any rate, for us to keep up with it ourselves, or to assert its value with any confidence–and so as a profession we can and should spare some of our “HQP” to go and do otherwise.

My version of “otherwise” has so far included a range of essays on Victorian fiction aimed at a non-specialist audience (though not, I have always hoped and often found, lacking in interest for specialists as well); a website and e-book of supporting materials for book clubs reading Middlemarch; this blog, which includes commentary on academia and especially on teaching along with its posts on books and literary culture; and a fair number of book reviews in a widening array of venues. One of the things I’m specifically thinking about right now is what, if any, parameters to set on that last category, especially because for the last year or so I have pretty much always had at least one review underway at all times, and when work is otherwise busy that’s about as much “extra” attentive reading and writing as I can manage. Given that even short reviews still take me several concentrated days, I could almost certainly fill up most of this summer with them if I accepted or sought out all the possible opportunities — but should I?

One reasonable answer is, “Why not?” One pragmatic reason to review as much as I can in as many publications as will have me is that doing so builds both my skills and my “brand” as a reviewer. I get valuable experience, and I gain the kind of credibility as a critic that my academic resume does not earn me outside the ivory tower. At least as important–maybe more–is that I really like the work. It is more intellectually stimulating than I would have thought before I tried it, and more creative: for every book you have to find the story to tell, the tilt to hold it at so you can see it clearly but by your own lights. The different genres of reviewing add a further challenge: the more expansive 2000 (or more) word review-essay we typically run at Open Letters Monthly makes different demands, and allows for different kinds of fun, than a more pointed review of 300, or 700, or even 1000 words. I have already learned a lot about both books and criticism from practicing in these different forms, and I enjoy feeling that I’m getting better at it. (I have also learned even greater respect for those who do it much more frequently and fluently than I!) 

I also like the scale and scope of the work. Each assignment (whether I choose it myself or it is set by another editor) comes with known parameters and a deadline, a finite structure that suits my temperament. There can certainly be stress involved, especially before I know what my angle will be and then as I try to shape my ideas into my allotted space in a way that satisfies me and doesn’t (to my eyes, at least) sacrifice nuance or particularity. As I get more experience, however, my confidence grows, so that now I recognize those messy earlier stages as a necessary phase before I chip away and refine, leaving something as clear and expressive as I can make it. There’s a lot of satisfaction in successfully completing a piece of writing with such a specific mission and then moving along to the next one.

I have also appreciated the way reviewing has expanded my reading, particularly when the books are suggested by other editors rather than hand-picked by me to suit my own known tastes and sensibilities. I would point, for example, to the increase in Canadian titles I have read since taking on some commissions for Quill & Quire and, more recently, Canadian Notes and Queries, though the best example of a writer I would probably never have discovered on my own but loved would be David Constantine. Here, however, is also where the advantages of reviewing shade into the disadvantages: for every David Constantine or Danielle Dutton or Sarah Moss, there’s another writer whose books I would not be bereft to have missed — though of course you can’t know that until you’ve tried them. “Most books aren’t very good,” one experienced reviewer once said to me, and now that I do more reading on demand (though not nearly as much as he does!) and somewhat less just for myself, I understand much better what he meant. There’s a certain resignation every full-time reviewer must feel on opening up the next cover without any expectation of greatness. Of course, that makes it all the more delightful when a book exceeds expectations — which in turn probably accounts for the effusive praise books that are pretty good but not that good sometimes seem to get. For a reviewer who reads, perforce, a lot of mediocre titles, the relief no doubt results in some disproportionate enthusiasm.

So one risk of doing more reviewing is having to read a fair number of books that may not be that good or may not really reward the effort it takes to say something interesting about them. This is not the case when working with George Eliot, whose worst books are still more worthwhile than many writers’ best. Another risk is that the temptation of doing these neatly finite pieces makes it harder to commit to longer-term or more open-ended ones: the immediacy of the next deadline becomes the perfect excuse for putting off what might be harder but ultimately richer writing projects. I said before that I would like to get back to writing more essays–I don’t mean just reviews that are more essayistic, but essays that range and explore literary ideas in a different way. I would like to push my limits and increase my fluency in that genre as well, but I feel as if I have lost my nerve when it comes to proceeding towards an idea that isn’t justified by a specific occasion, such as “here’s a new book,” or framed by a pre-set task and word limit. What could I or should I try to write about? A likely genre for me to pursue here is the literary profile, but I’ve had trouble focusing on a topic, so that’s one thing I’ll be thinking about during my planning period. Another common kind of literary essay is a pitch for the “underappreciated” novel or novelist. I griped a bit on Twitter about what I see as the “literary hipsterism” of this approach, but that needn’t be the tone, and in fact all of the ‘Second Glance’ pieces I’ve written for Open Letters are in this spirit but don’t (I hope) suggest I’m preening because I think I’m particularly cool to know about them! 

But essays too are, in the end, small scale projects. Should I be aspiring to something on a larger scale? In the academic humanities, books are by far the most valued form; I’ve questioned the assumption that they should be, especially under current circumstances, and though I have watched with a bit of envy as some of the online writers I’ve followed for some time have published books that look really great, I do still feel that you should write a book if you have a book to write–something that needs and deserves a more expansive treatment–not as an end in itself. How do you know if you have a book in you, though? Or, how do you know what kind of book you might have in you, or already have begun without realizing it? More than once here  I’ve brought up the possibility of a book that is actually a collection of smaller parts (revised versions of my essays on George Eliot, for instance). I have spent a lot of time on that idea before, including on my last sabbatical, and I even wrote a draft introduction. My work on that project stalled, for various reasons, but perhaps it’s time I took it further. Here, then, is something else I’ll be reflecting on.

In the meantime, I have the Sternbergh review to do, and Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, which I committed to write up for OLM, has just arrived and looks mighty tempting. And I just said yes to another editor for a June deadline. I’m looking forward to doing all of these, but I need to make up my mind how many more I can do if I still want something else to show for my summer. If

Back Again, Bearing Books!

I am back from my trip to Vancouver, where in spite of the rain (even, in some ways, because of it) I had a lovely time visiting with family and friends and drinking in the always inspiring sight of the mountains rising above the city and the sea. It was a a welcome interlude between the end of a challenging term and the beginning of a summer of reflection and writing.

I didn’t end up doing a lot of reading while I was in Vancouver. During the day I was often out and about, and in the evenings we talked and then wound down with a little TV. A particular treat was watching Dr. Thorne, which my Trollope-loving father had saved up for me. I thought it was delightful, though as I rather sheepishly confessed to him, it has been many years since I read the novel (one of his personal favorites) — perhaps it’s time I reread it! In return (?) I introduced my parents to the quirky little comedy Detectorists, which my husband and I found both hilarious and unexpectedly touching. I’m not 100% sure my parents were converted, but at least now they know it’s there.

I did get some travel reading done. I’m nervous on planes, so light or fast-paced books are good as my concentration isn’t always great. En route to Vancouver, I found Miranda Neville’s The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton an excellent diversion, and on the way home I alternated between Georgette Heyer’s Black Sheep (reliably amusing) and Adam Sternbergh’s The Blinds, which I’m reviewing for Quill & Quire. I plucked several promising titles off my mother’s well-stocked shelves, but the only one I read cover to cover was Martha Gellhorn’s A Stricken Field. I didn’t think it was a very good novel, but it tells an important story based on Gellhorn’s experience reporting on the plight of refugees from the Sudetenland after its annexation by Nazi Germany: it’s not particularly artful, but it is certainly gripping. I read about two-thirds of a Donna Leon mystery but left it behind unfinished: I might try to find it here, just to know whodunit and why–but I don’t feel highly motivated to as I was finding Leon’s prose terribly stilted.

Though I didn’t manage a lot of good reading while I was away, I did bring back a nice stack of books to read here at home. One ritual my mother and I have on my visits is an expedition to Hager Books, which is a small store with a nice atmosphere and thoughtfully stocked shelves. We peer around at everything and kibitz, in our opinionated and idiosyncratic ways, about authors and titles we’ve read or are interested in–or, for whatever reason, want nothing to do with! I picked out Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata and Anita Brookner’s Providence as part of my “keep independent bookstores in business” project. As I observed when reporting on my last trip to Vancouver, my mother’s personal book collection is another great resource, and recently she has been pruning it, putting some boxes together to donate to the public library’s book sale. I had the bright idea to “just take a look” through them and of course found a few I couldn’t resist, including another by Anita Brookner, one by Angela Huth I haven’t read before (I really like both Invitation to the Married Life and Easy Silence), and Elizabeth Taylor’s A View of the Harbour.

Including The Blinds, then, which had been mailed to Vancouver so I could get started on it sooner rather than later, I came home with 8 more books than I left with. And yet wouldn’t you know it: the book I most want to read next turned out to be waiting for me when I got back to Halifax. It’s Marina Benjamin’s The Middlepause: On Life After Youth, a 50th birthday gift which seems like just the right book to help me think about where my own life is now and what I want to make of it next. That is likely, then, to be the next book I write about here.

This Week: Summer Plans

I haven’t disappeared or given up blogging! It’s just that as soon as my final grades went in, I had to buckle down and finish two reviews that have been haunting me — not because I didn’t want to write them, but because though I have had the books for some time and had even started reading them, it just hadn’t been possible for me to get the hard work of writing thoughtfully about them done. The result was that even though neither of them was technically late, I felt guilty for weeks! But one went in last week and the other today, and while I now have to wait and find out what the editors think, including what revisions they want, I’m out from under that shadow and ready to contemplate the rest of my summer.

It doesn’t look much like summer yet, of course. May weather in Nova Scotia is … well, let’s be charitable and call it changeable. We have had a couple of days–or at least afternoons–of beautiful sun, and the daffodils are in full bloom, but there has been a lot of rain and fog, and I’m not putting away the flannel sheets any time soon either. Sometimes you have to very consciously remind yourself how great it is not to be buried in winter anymore, because the relentless gloom and grey can be almost as depressing, even if you don’t have to shovel it.

However! Rain is perfectly good weather for taking stock and making plans, and that’s the stage I’m at now. I actually feel as if I need some dedicated time for that, because I’m not really sure right now what my top priorities are. I spent a lot of the last two summers doing work related to my promotion application: in 2015, I spent a buoyant summer preparing the application, a process that (ironically, in retrospect) made me feel very proud of what I have accomplished in the last decade or so; in 2016, I spent many dreary hours writing out appeal documents of one kind or another, trying to convince other people of the value of the work I’d been doing. Since the appeal was denied in November I have tried, with intermittent success, to focus again on my own goals and standards, but just keeping up with the day to day demands on my time and energy kept me from doing this in more than an ad hoc way. Ideally, the summer months allow for sustained reflection and work of a more expansive kind–but what work, of what kind? I know that I’d like to get back to writing more essays instead of just reviews, but about what? I have a couple of ideas and one fairly definite plan; it will feel good to clear my desk (and my desktop), set some priorities, and get to work on projects I am excited about.

I’ll settle in to do this after I get back from my vacation: I leave on Thursday, as soon as we’ve put our annual ‘May Marks Meeting’ behind us. It will probably continue to be quiet here at Novel Readings while I’m away (though I will have my laptop along, so you never know). However, I will be reading plenty (I’ve got Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In the Castle for the plane, for instance), and I will come back refreshed and ready to write.

This Week In My Classes: The Dust Settles

I filed final grades for my winter term courses this week: apart from a couple of make-up tests that still need sorting out, my work for them is over. I have sorted and recycled or filed all my notes and paperwork, and put the books back where they belong — which for some of them means on the shelf where I will gather materials for next year’s courses, but for all of them means out of the way of the space I will use to stash everything for my summer projects. (These will get their own post, once I’ve sorted out better just what they are!)

Looking back over my 2016-17 teaching, a few things stand out.

First of all, while classroom teaching is always, for me, the best part of this job–the part that makes up for a lot of the nonsense and the stress and the long hours it entails–this year it mattered to more than ever, because I was doing it under the shadow of my promotion appeal, a process that significantly undermined my confidence, my self-esteem, and my collegiality. During the fall term especially, I often found it hard to concentrate, never mind to be my best self, but almost without fail, my time in the classroom was both intellectually stimulating and emotionally therapeutic.

Some of that was due to my specific teaching assignments this year. My fall term courses were both ones I have taught before and really enjoy. Since I first designed my version of Close Reading, I have tried to infuse its more technical aspects with both critical and moral purpose, and the result is that it generates some of the most interesting discussions and assignments I get. It was also balm to my soul to spend five weeks on Middlemarch for this class: that is not enough time, of course–what would be?–but still feels comparatively luxurious (when I teach Middlemarch in my standard 19th-century fiction class, we get three weeks). Finishing with The Remains of the Day is always marvelous, but Ishiguro’s novel felt particularly and painfully relevant right after the U.S. election.

My other fall term class was The Victorian ‘Woman Question.’ For this class we read works from a range of genres, including Mill’s The Subjection of Women, Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and EBB’s Aurora Leigh–another text that resonated powerfully with current events. I had a particularly keen and engaged group in this seminar: class discussions were exceptionally smart and lively, and the group presentations were among the best I’ve ever seen.

In the winter term, I taught 19th-Century Fiction from Dickens to Hardy, which is familiar territory in most respects as I teach either it or its Austen to Dickens version pretty much every year. (I’m fearful that might change when we revise our curriculum to cope with our shrinking faculty complement–that would be sad!) I do try to mix things up at least a little bit every time, and this year’s innovation was putting Adam Bede on the reading list. I thought it taught beautifully: it is more schematic than Middlemarch and more accessible than The Mill on the Floss (both of which I have taught in this class). I think some students found it a bit slow–but imagine, then, how they would have found either of the other two! It also stood as a wonderful contrast to Tess of the d’Urbervilles; a lot of students wrote on these novels for their essay question on the final exam, and the results were usually excellent.

The big teaching adventure for me this term was Pulp Fiction. I’m not really sure yet how it went: I’m still thinking about it! I found it much more difficult than I’d expected to get discussion going in class–both in the lectures and in the smaller tutorial sessions–and this made me worry that nobody was finding the readings or the class engaging, but based on some feedback I’ve had since, I think at least some of the students were enjoying themselves just fine, they just weren’t talking. This is not ideal, obviously, so as I prepare to teach the class again next winter I’ll be thinking about ways to liven things up.

One thing I realized as the term went by is that the big questions that, in my mind, really motivated the course–questions about the difference between “pulp” or “genre” fiction and “literary” fiction, for instance–were not of great interest (at least, as far as I could tell) to most of the students: they did not seem to be invested in either the distinction or arguments against it. My guess is that most of them had never thought much about genre categories or literary prestige before; certainly I got no sign that they believed themselves to be victims of or participants in any kind of “culture war” by virtue of having been assigned Elmore Leonard and Loretta Chase instead of Shakespeare and Jane Austen. It’s possible that some of them are now more interested in how and why we might draw these kinds of lines, but it was at once disorienting and refreshing to realize that they were not nearly as exercised about them as people often are in the media or in the world of literary criticism and book reviewing. In the end it was just another thing I was trying to teach them about.

I also found that the issue of how to deal with “inappropriate” or potentially offensive content in our readings–such as racist language or explicit sex scenes–which is something I fretted about a lot as I drew up the course materials and my early lecture notes–did not seem to be much of a problem either. It is possible that I successfully preempted some kinds of knee-jerk reactions: for the first time ever, for example, I included a kind of “content warning” statement in my syllabus, acknowledging the presence of elements that we would need to exercise care, precision, and maturity in addressing. One of the first technical things I talked about was the use/mention distinction, and I took care also to work on the difference between a character’s point of view and what we could discern to be the position the novel as a whole took on issues like race or gender. It’s also possible that I will learn more about students’ reactions to these issues when I read the course evaluations: it may be that students who did find some of the material uncomfortable also did not feel free to tell me so. In a way, that is fine, provided they were not unhappy with how we (or just I) dealt with the material in class discussion.

I know how fortunate I am that these four courses comprised my entire teaching load this year, especially as two of them were upper-level courses in my own field of specialization. When we adopted 2/2 as our standard teaching load a few years ago, we did have to raise class sizes, sometimes significantly,  which meant that though contact and preparation hours went down, the marking load stayed more or less the same. Larger classes also increase administrative time–everything from data entry to alphabetizing assignments to handling student appointments and emails takes longer the more people you are keeping track of. (This term, for instance I had about 130 students between my two classes: I’ve had more some terms, though I’ve also sometimes had fewer.) As we head into 2017-18 we are facing a significant reduction in the number of full-time faculty members in our department: inevitably, we are reconsidering how to allocate the resources that will remain. My teaching next year is going to be almost identical to this year’s, but after that, who knows?

You can read more about my classes going all the way back to 2007; posts about it are indexed on the Teaching page (so far I haven’t added links to this year’s entries), or you can click on the tag for ‘This Week In My Classes’ and work your way backwards.

“Modest Hope”: Rosy Thornton, Hearts and Minds

After that, there was a return to something of the camaraderie which had developed between them during these last two terms and he discovered himself nursing the more modest hope that her departure would not mean a cessation of their friendship.

The last time I wrote about Rosy Thornton here, in a post on her later novel The Tapestry of Love, I identified Hearts and Minds as a book that “now numbers among the little cluster of books I think of as my ‘comfort reading,’ books that I reread when I want to wander mentally away from home without feeling adrift, to be distracted without being distraught or dismayed.” That was in 2011, and to be honest I don’t think I have actually gone back to Hearts and Minds since then, not because I changed my mind about it but because — happily — the cluster of books I reread for amiable diversion is larger than it used to be. It now includes, for instance, a number of romance novels, which provide not so much comfort as cheer.

I wonder if it’s because in the interval I have read so many books with happy endings that on this reread, Hearts and Minds seemed more melancholy than I remembered it. Not that it’s a sad or pessimistic book — far from it. It’s a campus novel, and thus perhaps inevitably satirical — a much kinder, gentler satire than, say, David Lodge’s — but it’s also an intimately human story about well-meaning people trying to make their way forward, as best they can, in their intertwined professional and personal lives. It doesn’t offer either belly laughs or epiphanies, but it’s full of quiet insight and a kind of wry tenderness.

The novel’s paired protagonists are James Rycarte, the charismatic newly appointed Head of St. Radegund’s College, Cambridge who has landed in academia after a career at the BBC, and the college’s Head Tutor, Martha Pearce. Martha’s career as an academic economist has stalled because of her devoted attention to her administrative duties. She likes the work, but her term is nearly up and she’s facing an uncertain future worsened by her teenage daughter’s inertia and withdrawal (which she fears is depression) and her poet husband’s self-indulgent underemployment. Despite the value she places on her work, and the utter dependence of her family on her as the only real earner, Martha is plagued with guilt about her long hours and fragmented attention.

Much of the novel’s plot is devoted to maneuvers around a potential donation that would shore up St. Radegund’s literally sinking foundations but poses what some faculty see as an unacceptable conflict of interest. On this, and on the equally vexing issue of a student strike against rising college rents, James and Martha work together first as colleagues, then as allies, and finally as friends. If you think there’s some romantic potential there, you’re not wrong, but one of my favorite things about the novel is that it’s recognized in but does not become the story. In fact, it’s really only James who develops warmer feelings, but he is too good a man to make them Martha’s problem, even when she lets on that she and her husband may be separating. As for Martha, she may be fed up with her husband and desperate for a change, but that doesn’t mean she’s giving up on him or their life together. It’s all very mature — and that’s one of the other things that struck me about the novel this time, that it’s a realistic novel about the complexities of mid-life and mid-career.

Almost every crisis that looms in Hearts and Minds fizzles out by the end of the novel: as a result, there are neither catastrophes nor epiphanies. Maybe it doesn’t sound all that comforting, but that lack of drama, along with the gentle wit with which Thornton treats all of her well-imagined characters, is what I like about it. This time around it reminded me less of Anne Tyler and more of some Joanna Trollope’s earlier novels, especially A Village Affair or Marrying the MistressHearts and Minds is a little lighter than either of these, but they all have the same commitment to taking everyday life seriously, appreciating its bright spots without too much wishful thinking about how easily we can solve its inevitable problems.

This Week: All Exams All the Time

OK, I exaggerate slightly: I’ve also had some papers to grade. But the final exams for both of my winter term classes were this Tuesday. At 3 hours each, with set up and pack up time that meant over 7 hours straight in the dreary Dalplex fieldhouse, and I walked away with 120 exams which I will be working my way through until next Tuesday at least. Overall, it’s not exhilarating work: there are certainly bright spots (many of which so far have been in the essay answers from students in the 19th-century fiction class), but a lot of this marking is more or less drudgery. I do try to make the questions not just relevant but, where possible, interesting, for me as well as for the students, but as I’ve written about here before, the main value of exams for me is simply, and kind of sadly, coercive. So I approach this part of every term with resignation, and try to pace myself so that repetition and fatigue don’t make me mean.

The other typical feature of this time of year is an uptick in meetings. These too require some deliberate self-care for me these days, as I continue to struggle a bit with the emotional residue of my failed promotion application. Certain topics, and certain faces, can still trigger bursts of bitterness; one thing I’ve been thinking about, inspired in part by this excellent post from Timothy Burke, is how to orient myself towards the university for the remaining third of my career there. (I’ll probably write something more about this once this term is fully behind me.) At the department level, our meetings are particularly difficult right now as we are facing a decline of a third in our faculty complement (the number of full time faculty in the department) due to the non-replacement of retirees. As you can imagine, shrinkage on this scale has significant repercussions for everything from our ability to form supervisory committees for graduate students to the kind and range of undergraduate courses we can offer — and thus for how we structure our majors and honors programs. Let’s just say the term “death spiral” has come up more than once: it’s hard to sustain a program, much less expand or innovate it, under these conditions.

I have been managing to get some reading done: some serious reading, with an eye to reviewing deadlines coming up, and some light reading. I just finished Julie James’s newest, The Thing About Love — and did not love it. It was entertaining enough, and she’s good at both plot and banter, but the awkwardness I always notice in her prose seemed particularly conspicuous this time. I can’t believe better editing couldn’t smooth a lot of it out: she has tics like explaining new names by adding “referring to etc. etc.” after them. I was diverted by the book, but also disappointed in it, especially as I like her previous novel, Suddenly Last Summer, a lot. I am really looking forward to doing some immersive reading that’s not for work (or for formal reviews, for that matter). I have some birthday gift cards I’m going to use to treat myself to some new books as soon as I file final grades! It will probably be pretty quiet around here until then.

“Kiss Me, Katya”: Anne Tyler, Vinegar Girl

Vinegar Girl, Anne Tyler’s contribution to the Hogarth Shakespeare project, is basically a romantic comedy — the “indie” version, a bit quirky, a bit acidic, a bit sweet. In fact, it is both sweeter and more romantic than I expected: it has been decades since I read or saw The Taming of the Shrew, but at least in my memory, Shakespeare’s play is much more rambunctious and much harder to swallow, though that may be because the version I remember best is the Taylor / Burton one. I’ve also seen 10 Things I Hate About You more than once, and it too is harder-hitting than Vinegar Girl, though it is also more joyful.

Whether or not Vinegar Girl is an especially clever or original reworking of The Taming of the Shrew, it is enjoyable enough on its own terms, which are fairly undemanding. It moves us briskly through the story of its Katherine, a cranky, repressed older daughter whose life is divided between caring for her father (a dedicated but not terribly successful scientist) and her younger sister Bunny, and her job as a preschool teacher — an uncomfortable fit for her because, as she tells her father’s lab assistant Pyotr, she hates children.

She tells him this in disavowal of her father’s claim that she is “very domestic,” an unexpected (and misleading) endorsement that turns out to be part of his scheme to marry her to Pyotr, whose visa is about to expire. Though Pyotr has some of Petruchio’s domineer instincts, and a bad temper to match Kate’s, he is also the only person Kate has ever met who sees her, and who likes what he sees. Though at first Kate is insulted by the whole plan, which reflects the general opinion of everyone around her, including her father, that she will never find love on her own, she starts to appreciate Pyotr, and to see marriage to him as an opportunity to get away from a life she finds wholly unrewarding. “He listens to people,” she tells Bunny, who tries to talk her out of the marriage:

he pays attention. And did you hear what he said the other night about how maybe I’d want to go back to school? I mean, who else has ever suggested that? Who else has even given me a thought? Here in this house I’m just part of the furniture, somebody going nowhere, and twenty years from now I’ll be the old-maid daughter still keeping house for her father.

Pyotr even likes that she’s … blunt? direct? tactless? rude? “In my country they have proverb,” he tells Kate,

“Beware against the sweet person, for sugar has no nutrition.”

This was intriguing. Kate said, “Well, in my country, they say that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

“Yes, they would,” Pyotr said mysteriously. . . . “but why you would want to catch flies, hah? Answer me that, vinegar girl.”

As this line suggests, there’s not much taming in Tyler’s version, which I appreciated. Kate’s prickly personality instead is part of her appeal. Katherina’s famous closing speech becomes a rant from Katherine, not about how wives should lovingly obey their husband’s, but about how hard it is to be a man who always has to hide his feelings, while women “have been studying people’s feelings since they were toddlers.”  “It’s like men and women are in two different countries,” she explains to Bunny, who accuses her of subordinating herself to Pyotr;

“I’m not ‘backing down,’ as you call it; I’m letting him into my country. I’m giving him space in a place where we can both be ourselves.”

I wasn’t actually convinced that she or Pyotr had earned quite that speech, but along with the epilogue that follows, it does show a happy ending that is based on mutual tolerance for both eccentricity and difficulty, which I liked. And the route there is strewn with funny moments, and the occasional touching one too. Maybe because I can be rather vinegary myself, I would have liked the novel better if it had made Kate harder to like, and admired it more if it had tried to go deeper than it does. Still, like Hag-SeedVinegar Girl gives the impression of an author enjoying the task she’s set herself, and that added to its charm.

Chilling, Twisted, Forensic: Hilary Mantel, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

The adjectives in my post’s title all come from the nearly four pages of blurbs at the front of my paperback edition of The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and Other Stories. Looking them over after finishing the book, I was struck by how consistent the clips are, and how accurate: “exhilarating if dark,” “brilliantly chilling,” “artfully controlled savagery,” “brutally dissecting,” “brusque and brutal,” “cruelty is made manifest,” “dark and judgmental,” “harsh and comic,” “satisfyingly chilling.” I agree that these are just the qualities of the stories in this collection. I’m just not as sure as either these reviewers or the publicity team at Harper Perennial seem to be that these are signs of its greatness — that they are, or should be, unqualified selling points.

I did admire the stories, which I found consistently interesting and intelligent, but I would have liked them much better if they showed some signs of warmth, humanity, or tenderness. Instead, they struck me as cold and sometimes mean, unforgiving. They reminded me of some of Ian McEwan’s fiction, or of Edward St. Aubyn, in the precision and taut control of the prose, but I’m starting to get tired of writing that deliberately avoids expressiveness or emotion: flat affect is not the only way to show you are serious, and (as I have argued about both St. Aubyn and, in my arrogance, Flaubert) grim horror is not the only truth to tell about the world.

I found myself thinking, as I worked through the volume, about why I enjoyed the stories in Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles and David Constantine’s In Another Country so much more. Johnson’s stories are as, or even more, grim than Mantel’s; they are also riskier, as well as more varied in tone and style, and so perhaps less consistently excellent in their execution. However much they are about horror, cruelty, or alienation, though, they seemed to me to also be about how fiction, or how we, can overcome them. In contrast, there’s something voyeuristic about Mantel’s glimpses of loneliness, pain, or cruelty: her stories give me the sense that she’s fascinated by these manifestations of our worse natures, but not moved by them to compassion or redress. Her stories also offer no epiphanies: just meticulous observation without revelation. This is a perfectly legitimate approach to fiction, of course: it’s just, cumulatively, chilling. Constantine sounds more like Mantel than Johnson does, at least at first read, but his stories are shot through with another quality hers lack: beauty — not necessarily as an aesthetic quality, though there is more of that in his writing than in The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher too, but, again, as a feeling, a hope, a light you can sense around even the darkest moments in his stories.

Looking over the effusive blurbs again, I’m reminded of the critical enthusiasm for Elena Ferrante, with all her “anger” and “searing honesty.” It seems as if there are a lot of readers who are particularly impressed by writers (women writers especially?) who are both unsentimental and unmerciful. I can be impressed by fiction this ruthless, but I can’t be moved. For me, that puts a cap on the praise I can offer it.

This Week In My Classes: Just Keep Swimming!

This post really should be called “This week, last week, and next week in my classes” — partly because I didn’t manage to post last week at all, and partly because if I had, or if I manage to post again next week, the theme is likely to be the same: it’s Dory time!

My teaching posts around this time of year, like those in late November and into December, have a probably tedious sameness to them that reflects the cyclical nature of academic work. As the end of term approaches, it’s like a blizzard of different tasks, big and small, from getting the last few readings and lectures prepped to making up review handouts, and including marking the work that’s still coming in while bracing for the onslaught of final exams and term papers. As I’ve mentioned before, because I have one all-new class this term (Pulp Fiction), I’ve had to create basically every scrap–meaning everything from paper topics to editing worksheets to lecture notes to you name it –from scratch, so that has meant a lot of scrambling. I had been feeling kind of discouraged about this class, but in the last week or so I got a bit of positive feedback about it, which helped a lot, and also heard from a few students about how much they’d enjoyed Lord of Scoundrels. Score one for my team! I’m teaching it again next winter: it will be much easier, logistically anyway.

This has not been such a problem in 19th-Century Fiction, except that this is my first time including Adam Bede, so that meant both new materials and tweaks to existing ones to integrate it. Also, the additional students I blithely admitted (in a fit of altruism, I raised the cap on the class from our standard of 36 for upper-level classes to 50, so everyone on the waiting list could take it) meant at least 30 additional hours of work over the term — which was fine, really, as I was happy to have more interested students participate, but it has added up. As I said when I made the call, though, the more people who read Adam Bede the better! It’s my small way of contributing to the growing good of the world. I’m not so convinced reading Tess is a means to that end, but I have to give Hardy credit: for all his terrible sentences, he provokes more impassioned responses than almost any other author I teach.

Anyway, the unusual silence here mostly reflects just how busy I’ve been, along with how tired I’ve been feeling when the work is done — too tired to do much good reading, too tired to do much extra writing. The reading I’ve done outside of work has mostly been light: I just finished both of Lucy Parker’s contemporary romances set in the London theater scene, for instance, both of which I really enjoyed. As much as the stories, I liked the inside look at play production: I guess this continues my habit of enjoying both romance and mystery especially when there’s “neepery” involved.

Another reason for the lapse in my blogging is that we’ve been struggling with some technical problems at Open Letters (if you have visited the site recently, you may have noticed it either loading very slowly, or not loading at all). We are working away at fixing this — I say “we,” but I admit I’m not able to help much. In fact, all of the editors are a bit out of our depth when the problems are too far below the surface of our WordPress template, but we are making progress and, best of all, have a lead on someone trustworthy with more technical expertise than any of us, in whom we have now invested all our hopes and dreams! It is a particularly good issue of Open Letters this month, I think, so it is really frustrating knowing that has been less accessible. Happily, for me at least, Novel Readings does not seem to have been affected, or at least not in the same way.

So that’s what’s up! Not much, and I do wish I had more of interest to say, and especially more good reading to write about. That time is coming, though. I can see it, through the mists! Spring is coming too, I think, though it’s still a bit early to be too confident about that.

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