“The Precious Ordinary”: Kent Haruf, Benediction

benediction2A friend of mine highly recommended Kent Haruf’s Plainsong, but when I looked for it at the bookstore they didn’t have it, so instead I brought home his more recent novel Benediction. It seems to me to have been a happy enough substitution: Plainsong may yet turn out to be better, but I thought Benediction was very good.

Benediction is a quiet novel on a small scale, written in the kind of deliberately understated prose that sometimes makes me impatient but in this case felt just right. The sentences are short and simply structured, mostly plain statements of fact without embellishment:

She got up and went to the house. It was cool inside, the kitchen very clean and neat. there were starched curtains at the windows. The little bathroom was off the kitchen, it was clean and neat too, with a picture of a red flower framed on the wall.

It’s like that all the way through — I chose that example literally just by opening the book to a random page. That kind of absence of style of course is itself a style, a “plain” style, an anti-literary style. It’s terse in the way that Hemingway or Hammett is terse, though without the underlying tension that makes their minimal prose almost melodramatic.

There is drama in Benediction, though; it just lies in the feelings, not the words, and in the overall concept of the book, which is indicated by its title. It’s the story of a dying man, Dad Lewis, of the small cluster of people who are close to him as he dies, and of one person — his estranged son — who is and remains far away. This is a scenario devised, clearly, to prompt reflection about what makes a life meaningful, and about what we might regret or be glad of in our last days. Dad is a man who has done both harm and good: he is far from a saint, but his wife loves him faithfully and his community respects him. His situation and even his character are in some senses generic, but Haruf makes him specific enough that his failings and his efforts to atone have their own particular pathos.

benedictionDad is at the center of Benediction, but the novel’s attention radiates out from him to the small struggles and successes of those around him. Notable among these is the town minister, Rob Lyle, who has been sent to the town of Holt after causing trouble in Denver — trouble he ends up reiterating in Holt because (as he says in his own defense) “I had to say it . . . It’s the truth.” The truth he preaches is love, which sounds common enough except that he suggests people should really mean it, not just pay lip service to it:

And what if we tried it? What if we said to our enemies: We are the most powerful nation on earth. We can destroy you. We can kill your children. We can make ruins of your cities and villages and when we’re finished you won’t even know how to look for the places where they used to be. . . .

But what if we say, Listen: Instead of any of these, we are going to give willingly and generously to you. We are going to spend the great American national treasure and the will and the human lives that we would have spent on destruction, and instead we are going to turn them all towards creation. We’ll mend your roads and highways, expand your schools, modernize your wells and water supplies, save your ancient artifacts and art and culture, preserve your temples and mosques. In fact, we are going to love you. And again we say, no matter what has gone before, no matter what you’ve done: We are going to love you . . . .

Even though his sermon begins with a passage from the Sermon on the Mount, his message is heard as radical, revolutionary, treasonous. “Are you crazy?” calls out an angry member of his congregation; he is shunned and assaulted; he is voted out of his position. “Did you actually think they’d agree with you?” demands his angry wife. “No, I didn’t think that,” Lyle says, “I had to say it anyway. . . . Because I believe it.”

Lyle’s message of love is a religious one in context, but of course it doesn’t have to be, and neither does the notion of a blessing, or of grace. In the novel, grace is found in what Lyle calls “the precious ordinary”: the novel, like the larger world, is full of people suffering, but it’s also full of “the sweet kindness of one person to another.” Benediction is composed of vignettes of either pain or kindness, moments of action or of memory strung along the connecting thread of Dad’s last few weeks. It offers no epiphany, no great revelation, just the quiet conviction that if we can manage it, forgiveness is our best option, and that forgiveness, and thus peace, is made possible by love, which is “patient and boundless and right-hearted and long-suffering.”

It’s a testament to Haruf’s skill that he manages to makes this message seem true and important, rather than trite. And it’s a sign of his underlying optimism, I think, that he ends his novel about death with the image of a lost child who “found her way home in the dark . . . and so returned to the people who loved her,” and with a reminder that death ends life, but not life itself.

Middlemarch for Book Clubs: Now Available as an E-Book!

COVER-SMALLI’m pleased to announce that I’ve completed one of my first summer projects: turning the materials for my Middlemarch for Book Clubs website into an e-book, to give people the option of using it offline, or just navigating it more conveniently on their tablets, phones, or e-readers. I wanted to do this partly to achieve this result, and partly because I wanted to learn how to do the whole process, from creating a text that could be cleanly converted into ePub or mobi format to creating a usable cover to actually publishing the final document. There is definitely a learning curve involved in each of these steps! It was good, if sometimes tedious, working through them, though: adding new skills is intrinsically satisfying. And now that I’ve done it once, in this very modest way, I can think about other possible self-publishing projects, whether on my own behalf or for Open Letters (where we’ve often discussed how best to make some of our very deep archives available in neat ways).

Here are the links, in case you or someone you know is interested! I wanted the little book to be free, and it is from Kobo (where it’s available as an ePub), but Amazon insists on a minimum list price. As Kindle users probably know, you can convert ePub books into mobi pretty easily using Calibre, if you’d prefer the free option.



“As Though From a Distance”: Rereading Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn

brooklynWhen I posted about Brooklyn here before, I admitted that I might just have been reading it at the wrong time to appreciate it. I found the style so flatly precise it was almost plodding; I thought Eilis herself was so distanced, from herself and from us, that she seemed ultimately insubstantial. “I was expecting something urgent and illuminating to emerge from behind the cool narration,” I concluded, “and was left disappointed.” I liked The Master so much that it seemed to confirm my suspicion that this underwhelmed reaction was at least as much my fault as Tóibín’s, so I decided to give Brooklyn another try.

I wish I could say that on a rereading, Brooklyn was transformed for me into a book I could love. I certainly did like it much better than I did before. I was more moved than I remember being by Eilis’s dilemma, too, and by her feeling of being impossibly placed between two worlds and two selves, each of which recedes or predominates depending on where she is at the moment:

She wished now that she had not married him, not because she did not love him and intend to return to him, but because not telling her mother or her friends made every day she had spent in America a sort of fantasy, something she could not match with the time she was spending at home. It made her feel strangely as if she were two people, one who had battled against two cold winters and many hard days in Brooklyn and fallen in love there, and the other who was her mother’s daughter, the Eilis whom everyone knew, or thought they knew.

There is no right or easy resolution. Unlike the bookkeeping she practises, in which ultimately every detail has a proper place and all the columns, if managed correctly, add up, life is untidy:

The answer was that there was no answer, that nothing she could do would be right. . . . She saw all three of them — Tony, Jim, her mother — as figures whom she could only damage, as innocent people surrounded by light and clarity, and circling around them was herself, dark and uncertain.

What still bothered me — what still left me discontented — with Brooklyn is that Tóibín’s prose is the antithesis of this uncertainty and of the emotional turmoil Eilis is surely experiencing but that we (or at least I) can’t hear at all in his sentences, which are so calm, so even, so restrained that they leave me chafing against their very simplicity.

brooklyn2I understand that this can be taken as symptomatic of Eilis’s character. Early in her first year in Brooklyn she recognizes that her survival there in fact depends on suppressing her feelings:

No matter what she dreamed about, no matter how badly she felt, she had no choice, she knew, but to put it all swiftly out of her mind. She would have to get on with her work if it was during the day and go back to sleep if it was during the night. It would be like covering a table with a tablecloth, or closing curtains on a window; and maybe the need would lessen as time went on . . .

She’s just as muffled before this moment as after it, though, and now that I’ve read The Master I know that this deliberate, cerebral tone is not unique to Brooklyn. Perhaps Tóibín is just drawn to characters who live life below the surface, who experience it, as Eilis thinks of herself, “as though from a distance.” There’s an elegance to this remoteness, and a poignancy that is the careful opposite of sentimentality, but while I admire the emotional delicacy of the presentation more than on my first reading, I’m still left just a bit disappointed.

Is Jane Austen a “Romance Novelist”?

oxford-pride-and-prejudiceI feel as if I should begin with a disclaimer: this post is just a preliminary attempt to sort something out for myself that I am sure has been discussed a lot already! I know it’s not a new question, but it is a new one for me to be thinking carefully about — and that’s what my blog is for, not for presenting absolutely finished position papers but for exploration. So don’t jump on me if, for you, this is old news or already a settled question! Instead, tell me what you think, since one thing I’m hoping will come from writing a little about this question here is that I’ll get some leads and ideas for how to think about it better, or where to read more about it.

I’m puzzling over whether Austen is a “romance novelist” (and I’m going to keep the scare quotes, for reasons that I’ll get to in a bit) because I’ve begun doing research in preparation for the romance unit in next year’s Pulp Fiction class (another disclaimer: it’s just a first-year writing class organized around a fairly imprecise definition of “pulp,” so I’m not going to get very ambitious about the theoretical or critical grounding — I just need to sort out some terms and frameworks for talking about our one or two readings in the genre).*

One much-cited scholarly work in this field is Pamela Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003), so that’s one of the first ones I took out of the library to read. It’s generally very helpful, and it’s also thought-provoking, for its tone as much as its argument. It is certainly less rah-rah than some of the more fannish books I’ve peered at about the genre (such as Sarah Wendell’s Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels (very ably reviewed at Open Letters by Jessica Miller). It still differs from most academic criticism I’ve read, though, in being very openly a work of advocacy: it includes a chapter called “In Defense of the Romance Novel,” for instance; it declares that its purpose is not just to historicize or analyze the genre but to “refute” negative critical perspectives on it; and it includes many celebratory claims on behalf of romance fiction — just for example, “the romance novel is … about women’s freedom. The genre is popular because it conveys the pain, uplift, and joy that freedom brings.”

RegisNot that there’s anything wrong with that! Lots of (maybe even most) critical work is at least implicitly advocating on behalf of its specific topic — whether for its underestimated importance to literary history or for its political efficacy or for a right understanding of its aesthetic properties. Romance is a special case, too: as pretty much everyone I’ve read who writes about romance says at some point, it seems to call for overt special pleading simply because it is so routinely dismissed and its readers and writers so routinely shamed. If Regis seems at times to protest too much, it’s probably just that she knew her choice of subject would be met with skepticism, if not derision, and not just by her academic colleagues. (I expect that more recent scholarship is less defensive, as genre fiction and popular culture more generally have become increasingly familiar parts of the academic landscape. Eric Selinger and Sarah Frantz’s collection New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction, which came out in 2012, is also on my reading list; I’ll be curious to see if I’m right that the tone has changed.)

Regis’s book is built on a particular (but also very general) definition of romance novels: “a romance novel is a work of prose fiction that tells the story of the courtship and betrothal of one or more heroines.” She expands on that definition by offering a specific list of structural features — “the eight essential elements of the romance novel” — including “the meeting between heroine and hero,” “the barrier to the union of heroine and hero,” and “the betrothal.” Then, using this definition, she tells a history of the romance novel (as she has defined it) through exemplary texts, starting with Pamela then going through Pride and PrejudiceJane EyreFramley Parsonage, and A Room with a View. It’s not until Chapter 12 that she turns to what she calls “the popular romance novel” — to, that is, all of the books I think most people actually mean when they use the term “romance novel.”

At the end of her discussion of A Room with a View, Regis comments that “it would be [Forster’s] only romance novel.” In a way, then, I could just well have called this post “Is E. M. Forster a ‘Romance Novelist?'” (or Bronte or Trollope or Richardson). As far as I’ve seen, though, it’s really just Austen among these canonical authors who comes up repeatedly in the romance context, and it’s Pride and Prejudice that Regis uses to illustrate her outline of the “eight essential elements.” So I’ll stick with her as a test case for how or whether we want to define “romance novel” as broadly as Regis does.

pride-and-prejudice-penguinRegis is completely right that by her definition, Pride and Prejudice is a romance novel. But here’s the thing: to me, that suggests she’s using the wrong definition. First of all, it’s too broad to be interesting (even her list of canonical “romances” hardly seems to hang together in a meaningful way, outside a very bare skeletal similarity). It also seems anachronistic, in the same way that calling The Moonstone a “mystery” does: there wasn’t really such a category at the time (that’s not really the kind of book Collins himself thought he was writing), and applying our current terms so absolutely means losing sight of the genealogy of our modern genres. Books can be closely related in kind (or, as Regis sets it up, in structure) with being the same kind exactly.

These are already debatable objections, of course: labels are always more or less arbitrary, and we redefine and recategorize things all the time based on new theories and approaches. So here’s another reason I don’t think I like Regis’s approach: I think that insisting that Austen writes “romance novels” indistinguishable in kind from today’s “popular” examples has inapt and potentially unwelcome consequences. For one thing, if this means that Austen and, say, Mary Balogh and Loretta Chase are doing the same thing, it seems to me to follow that Austen is doing it better (because much as I like Lord of Scoundrels, if it’s really an apples to apples comparison, I’d certainly consider Pride and Prejudice the better novel). Georgette Heyer? Fun, but not as artful or incisive or thematically rich as Austen. Balogh? Don’t even try. Lump them all in together, that is, and a hierarchy emerges that’s almost inevitably to the disadvantage of all the not-Austens.

Regis herself would disagree, I think — and others no doubt would too — that we can or should differentiate on the basis of literary merit in quite this way. Some would disavow the whole notion of literary merit, in fact, but Regis seems happy enough making evaluative claims. In her chapter on defining the romance novel, she uses Katherine Gilles Seidel’s Again as an exemplary case alongside Pride and Prejudice, claiming that it is a “complex, formally accomplished, vital romance novel” that makes nonsense of the idea that popular romances are just “hack work”:

Seidel incorporates the eight essential elements of romance, and two of the three incidental ones, in a manner so masterful that it leaves no doubt as to the vitality of the form in contemporary hands.

“Masterful,” no less! I’m only a couple of chapters into Again (which I dutifully rushed out to get), so I can’t be sure, but if it’s anywhere near as good a novel (qua novel) as Pride and Prejudice, I haven’t seen the signs, even though I’m enjoying it fine so far — which is exactly why my intuition is that Regis is coming at this question in the wrong way. We have to be able to acknowledge the differences on terms that don’t set contemporary romance novels up for failure.

scoundrelsAlternatively, you could argue (as I have seen done) that romance, like all genres, comes in both “high” and “low” — or literary and popular — versions.** There’s still a kind of hierarchy, but now you’re separating out those who “transcend the genre” (to use the phrase Ian Rankin hates when applied to crime fiction) from those who happily take their place within it. No direct comparisons are called for, then, and Heyer or Chase (or choose your preferred exemplars) get considered more or less on their own terms. I still think the larger category (the one being subdivided into high and low forms) conflates too many different kinds of things, and the end result can be condescending — it implies, or could, that the serious stuff is going on in some sense over the heads of both readers and writers of the popular incarnations of the genre, or that those who really take themselves and their work seriously will aim at that transcendent kind. But at least this approach doesn’t pretend all novels organized around love and marriage are the same kind of books.

I can see that, strategically, it serves Regis well to define the “romance novel” so that she can include Austen. That way the aura of Austen’s literary prestige can be shared with the popular writers who are the ones who actually need defending. (There may be some circles in which Austen is still shrugged off as a trivial miniaturist, but her iconic cultural status is surely beyond doubt.) But it could just as well backfire if it sets up the wrong expectations: yes, the plot structure of a contemporary popular romance is likely to resemble that of Pride and Prejudice, but if you expect to be reading the next Jane Austen, aren’t you almost certain to be disappointed? Maybe another way to think about it is that Austen is not celebrated because of how she incorporates the eight essential elements of romance (never mind the many “incidental” ones) but for other reasons, and so what Regis is doing is not thoroughly defining a category but encouraging a vast category error. Instead, wouldn’t her defense be more convincing if her definition were narrower — if it were based, not on 18th- or 19th-century marriage plot novels but on, well, actual “romance novels”?

Ay, there’s the rub, though, right? Because how do you define them? Where do you draw the lines? I sometimes say to students in my mystery class that genres and subgenres are themselves fictions, but useful ones, and that while it’s true you can’t perfectly define them, often enough you know them when you’re reading them. I think, too, that with the popular genres we’re familiar with today, while it may be difficult to pinpoint their exact beginnings, eventually the time comes when it is possible for someone to say “I’m going to write a detective novel” (or, even more specifically, a police procedural, or a feminist revision of hard-boiled detective fiction) because that is now a recognizable literary form, with a tradition and conventions of its own. Similarly, just because the margins around a genre are fuzzy doesn’t mean there’s no center. As Regis points out, “formulaic” is usually a pejorative term but all fiction is in fact driven to some extent by formulas; works that clearly belong to a particular genre just embrace and employ them in a more conspicuous way. Though intention is a tricky business, I might go so far as to say that what we now call “genre fiction” is defined by precisely that kind of knowingness on the author’s part (which is also an invitation to the knowing reader): this is the game I’m playing, I know the rules, I use or subvert them at my will, this game board is where I feel at home, my teachers and role models are the ones who showed me how it’s done so that now I can do it my way.

So by my definition, Jane Austen is not a “romance novelist.” Pride and Prejudice definitely has a crucial place in the history of the romance novel (as The Moonstone does in the history of the detective novel), but it’s part of the genre’s origin story, and that’s not what we’re talking about today when we talk about “romance novels.”

Or at least, that’s what I think so far! Now I feel that I may have taken a long time to say something nobody else will find surprising or controversial at all — but we all have to work through things on our own when we’re learning, right?

*Can you tell from these disclaimers that I have learned just how engaged, informed, and opinionated many romance readers and writers are?

**A belated additional point: Also, one era’s “popular” version may well become a later era’s “classic” or literary version (cue obligatory Shakespeare reference).

“The Old High Art of Fiction”: Colm Tóibín, The Master


Once it became more solid, the emerging story and all its ramifications and possibilities lifted him out of the gloom of his failure. He grew determined that he would become more hardworking now. He took up his pen again — the pen of all his unforgettable efforts and sacred struggles. It was now, he believed, that he would do the work of his life. He was ready to begin again, to return to the old high art of fiction with ambitions now too deep and pure for any utterance.

As I finished reading yet another not-very-good novel about George Eliot (Dinitia Smith’s The Honeymoon, review forthcoming), I found myself wondering why she has been so ill-served by later novelists who obviously (judging by their choice of subject) found her very inspiring. But I suppose in some ways it’s a thankless task, deliberately to set yourself against one of the geniuses of your genre: you can’t help but invite comparison, and you have to find a way to be not just connected to your source but also brilliant on your own terms. Naturally, this got me wondering where the good examples are of what we might call “homage fiction” — and this led me to The Master, which has been ripening on my bookshelves for a few years now.

The Master is a book I have long wanted to read, but my intention to actually do so kept getting undermined by my fear that reading it would be like reading the Master himself. He’s a writer with whom I have a vexed relationship: usually when I read him I’m equal parts fascinated and repelled, impressed and impatient. I sometimes feel a bit resentful of him — of his influence on people’s thinking about the art of fiction, for instance — but I love his actual essay on “The Art of Fiction.” Even in my best Jamesian moments, I can’t muster anything like the enthusiasm for him that, say, Jessa Crispin has expressed — I find him too claustrophobic in his meticulousness — but at the same time he’s a writer I can’t resist wrestling with.

I have not so far been a great Colm Tóibín fan either. My only previous experience is Brooklyn, which I also found a bit too perfect, though not so much for any particularly Jamesian qualities as in its replication of its protagonist’s emotional suppression. There’s a fine line between representing and enacting flatness and inertia. And yet even though I was mostly unmoved by Brooklyn, I could tell that Tóibín was a writer to trust — smart, skilled, deliberate. So I hung on to The Master, as if I knew that its day would come!

master2I’m glad it finally did, because I thought it was wonderful. I knew only snippets about James’s biography before, and I’m not at all familiar with his letters or other key sources, so I don’t know how far Tóibín has shaped the story in a distinctive way or how far his Henry is recognizable to people who already knew him well from other versions. But to me, Tóibín’s character was immediately convincing because he was so specific, so somehow complete, not just as a man but (more important, perhaps, in a Jamesian context) as a point of view. The Master read like a novel looking at the world from a very particular consciousness, which of course is the crucial twist James gave to the form himself — not that he was the first to do this, but he developed and concentrated the technique until its very singularity perversely crowded out some of the other things novelists valued (or were valued for). Tóibín’s novel isn’t quite as insular as its inspiration’s can be, but it seemed to me very much a novel of looking, rather than doing: it’s a novel about a man for whom the meaning of an action is more significant than the action itself.

Tóibín does a beautiful job showing how James’s novels arose from that way of being in the world. He doesn’t avoid making the literal connections between biographical events and real-life relationships and James’s plots and character — in his detailed account, for instance, of James’s cousin Minny, resurrected particularly in Isabel Archer:

he had a great mission now to make Minny walk these streets, to allow the soft Tuscan sunlight to shine on her soft face. But more than that, he sought to re-create her moral presence more finely and more dramatically than he had ever done before.

But Tóibín also evokes the creative mysteries that underlie the transformation of life into art: we feel the ideas for new stories glimmer in Henry’s mind before they take any final form, and see them as part of a broader striving to elucidate and connect both people and ideas. His Henry’s mind is always at work, observing details (“Henry noticed how beautiful his shoes were and how slender his feet”), puzzling over nuances, shaping thoughts into the elegantly complex sentences which Tóibín can hardly resist invoking in his own prose (“He dictated with his usual mixture of certainty and hesitation, stopping briefly and darting forward again, and then going to the window, as if to find the word or phrase he sought in the garden, among the shrubs or the creepers or the abundant growth of late summer, and turning back deliberately into the cool room with the right phrase in his head and the sentence which followed until the paragraph had been completed”).

Henry_James_SargentSomething that moved me deeply about Tóibín’s vision is that, as he tells it, there really are costs to such an extraordinarily intellectual life. It isn’t easy to be “one of those on whom nothing is lost”: The Master is suffused with melancholy, and with a strange, contradictory longing for decisive moments that never quite arrive, for connections that are never quite achieved. Every time Henry ventures further out into the world, whether literally or emotionally, just as promptly he retreats. For him, to be fully himself is, paradoxically, to be distant from himself; his best company, it sometimes seems, is his memory, but that is an equivocal solace:

Alice was dead now, Aunt Kate was in her grave, the parents who noticed nothing also lay inert under the ground, and William was miles away in his own world, where he would stay. And there was silence now in Kensington, not a sound in the house, except the sound, like a vague cry in the distance, of his own great solitude, and his memory working like grief, the past coming to him with its arm outstretched, looking for comfort.

The Master overall is a mournful book, as if the great achievements of its protagonist came, in some sense, at the his own expense. But at the same time, Tóibín shows us a Henry who is happiest precisely at that remove from liveliness. I was struck, at the very end, by the unexpected image of young Henry wholly absorbed in David Copperfield, reading, as David himself says, “as if for life.” In some ways it’s hard to imagine a less Jamesian novel than David Copperfield: although both David and Henry find their vocation in writing fictions of their own, David — and Dickens — has a vitality I’ve never found in James. Tóibín’s Henry seems at once wistfully aware that such energetic engagement is not for him and quietly content that it should be so — that he should be, at the end of the day (at the end of his days) alone with his thoughts.

This Week In My Classes: No More Classes!

keepcalmstudyClasses ended last Wednesday, and I held my first final exam at 8:30 the following Saturday morning. That seemed hasty to me! Students have a lot going on at the end of term, and two days isn’t much time for them finish other assignments, regroup, and rest up a bit. On the bright side (for me, at least) I don’t have another exam until next Tuesday, so this has given me plenty of time to get that first batch graded. Since the only thing I have left to do for my other exam is copy it, I have a nice little window to sort out my own end-of-term mess and start organizing — literally and mentally — for my summer reading and writing projects. I spent some cheerful time this afternoon filing papers, reorganizing my bookshelves, and reflecting on the year that was.

It was kind of an odd teaching term for me, because I was frequently quite distracted about other work-related business, to an extent that is unprecedented for me. It’s not that I was busier this term than I have been before: in fact, in some ways this was quite a light term for me. It’s just that the business I was involved in was quite fraught, and the stress it caused affected me more than I expected. My concentration was particularly bad, which showed up in my proofreading: there were mistakes in some of my handouts, for instance, and for the first time I can remember I had to make a correction to an exam question during the exam — little things of that sort that I am not usually prone to. I was having trouble sleeping, too, which didn’t help.  I think nonetheless my classes went fine overall, and I was especially pleased as we neared the end of term to find I was comfortable keeping my notes in hand but not right in view, as discussion was steady and I didn’t need a script to keep things moving or focused. There’s something to be said for experience!

marybartonOften at the end of term I am full of resolutions about things I will do differently next time. One thing I am almost certain I’m going to change is my use of reading journals in the 19thC Fiction course. I’ve grumbled here before (and more than once on Twitter) about my difficulties making these work quite the way I want: my idea is to coax students into valuing the ongoing process of reading, as well as to give them low-stakes practice with critical writing. Despite my attempts to micromanage the process further, though, I still find that a lot of students push their journals until the last minute, so they get little benefit from what their choices have basically converted into busy-work. The students who do a really steady job of it are often the students who would be keeping up with the reading and seeking advice on writing in any case. It’s true that it’s not particularly difficult for me to keep tabs on this work (or at least it hasn’t been with Blackboard, though who knows what wrinkles our new LMS might introduce), but I will either revamp the structure next time or abandon it and just redistribute the marks across other assignments. I have time to think about this as I’m not teaching 19thC Fiction again until January.

My only other real take-away from this year’s teaching is that I’m not in any hurry to teach another graduate seminar. It had been a few years since my last one, and though I had a lovely group of keen, cheerful students this time, I still found myself puzzling over the purpose of the whole exercise, and especially over how to approach it given my own alienation from standard kinds of specialist research. It doesn’t help that the dispersal of the undergraduate curriculum means that the graduate students themselves often arrive in these seminars as relative beginners: add unfamiliarity with the primary materials and their basic contexts to the challenge of making sense of complex critical and theoretical arguments about them and you risk running everyone into a frustrating muddle. Undergraduate teaching just seems a much more straightforward business to me right now.

hondoAs for next year, I’m glad to be taking a break from the Mystery and Detective Fiction class: I always enjoy it, but I’ve taught it almost every year since 2003: though I’ve changed around the book list pretty often, it still feels a bit repetitive to me at this point. The good side of this is that I feel well prepared for every discussion — but that in itself becomes something of a risk, as it means I get tempted not to refresh or rethink or even (occasionally) reread. What will I be teaching? In addition to the 19thC Fiction (Dickens to Hardy version), I get to teach Close Reading: it’s a class I put a great deal of work into conceptually when I first offered it, and I think the results are more interesting than you might expect from its generic title. I’m doing an upper-level seminar on the Victorian ‘Woman Question,’ another one that’s in my regular rotation but which I haven’t done for a while. And in the winter term I’m doing our first-year “pulp fiction” class, which I’ve already written about here a couple of times. Because it’s new for me, this is the one that I expect to do the most work on over the summer: as well as choosing my readings (definitely still a work in progress), I need to decide how to frame it for the students — and because I’ll be teaching in at least two genres I haven’t taught before (Westerns and romances), there’s lots of reading to be done in both primary and secondary materials. I like that work of exploration and then synthesis: I’m looking forward to it! In fact, it’s already begun: I’ve just finished reading Sarah Wendell’s Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels, and once I wrap things up here I’m off to the library to pick up Louis L’Amour’s Hondo.

What We’re (Really) Talking About When We Talk About “Time to Read”

cassatt the teaRecently I went out for a very pleasant lunch with a group of local Victorianists. One of the topics of discussion was retirement, and particularly how demoralizing it has been for people we know who have given literally decades of their lives to their universities only to be urged to consider retirement before they themselves feel ready for it. Nobody that we know wants to work past the point where they can’t do their job well, but for many professors 60-ish can actually be a peak time for creative productivity. Academic careers start slowly anyway, given the years it takes to earn qualifications, to land a permanent position (for the increasingly small number privileged enough to do so), then to meet the demands for tenure. Women with children, in particular, may have waited a long time to really flex their intellectual muscles: researchers have shown that motherhood has different professional costs for academic women than for men.

For these reasons and more, many academics approaching what used to be the mandatory retirement age have in fact enjoyed only a relatively short phase of being free to do the work they really think is most important, building on their long apprenticeships and painstakingly acquired expertise. By that time they usually also have extensive experience in the many facets of academic self-governance. They are enormously valuable resources for their departments and institutions — and, nowadays, they are unlikely to be replaced. In the circumstances, they should be cherished, not dismissed. It is borderline illegal to push them towards the door, and it is also insulting and discouraging.

quartetAnyway! Retirement is not the main subject of this post (though it’s related to it, in ways I’ll come back to): it’s just the context for how, at our nice lunch, I ended up mentioning Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn, which I had discussed with my book club the night before, and in which retirement and its existential discontents is a central theme. No sooner had the words “This reminds me of Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn, which I just read with my book club” left my lips then, nearly in unison (and I don’t exaggerate), the rest of the table erupted with “I don’t know how you find time to read!”

I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me when I’m talking with my colleagues. There are a handful of them who are also “readers,” and with whom, instead of talking time management, I can talk books. What a pleasure that always is! But the “how do you find time?” response is by far the most common one, and the tone is always a mixture of incredulity and envy, often with just a hint of judgment, as if I’m doing something pleasurably illicit, something just a bit daring and also a bit suspect.

This is not necessarily what you’d expect. Don’t English professors read for a living, after all? Didn’t they become English professors because at some point they were bookworms? Isn’t reading what we do? And of course the answer is yes — English professors read incessantly: literary works they have assigned or are considering for classes, scholarly books and articles for class preparation and for research, student writing from introductory-level papers to graduate theses, manuscripts for peer review, their own writing. When my colleagues exclaim over my mysterious ability to find time to read, they clearly don’t mean that kind of reading: they mean other kinds of reading — reading I do not because I have to, but because I want to, reading that might be considered “pleasure” reading or “leisure” reading.

Bookworm's Table (Hirst)This is not to say that there are not pleasures to be had in the kinds of professional reading I’ve mentioned, or that English professors don’t ever want to do that reading. Of course they — we — do. But it’s still reading for work, and it’s pretty clear that “how do you find time to read?” really means “how do you find time for reading that isn’t for work?” Again, this is a question that can be tinged with envy, as if to say the person would also like to do that, but it’s also implicitly, inevitably, judgmental: “why aren’t you as busy with work as I am — why aren’t you too busy to read?”

For as long as I have been asked this question, I have struggled with how to respond. Usually I say something tediously self-deprecating, like “I have no social life” (true), or “I don’t really read that much” (also true, compared to most of the bloggers and critics and book lovers I know online). I try not to get defensive, or to ask, in return, how they find time for things that I don’t do (extensive gardening, say, or running marathons, or going to the theater) — my  point would not be that they should not do these other things, of course, but that we all have at least some things that we choose to do, and my thing is reading. It always has been, since childhood.

My suspicion, though, is that the people who ask me about reading aren’t thinking about their own leisure activities as the problem. They accept these things as welcome breaks from what they’re usually doing, which is working. What I suspect they have trouble with is giving themselves permission to do reading that isn’t for work, because if they are settling down to read, surely they should be using that reading time to work. Reading is always already too much like work, because it is our work, and so the zero-sum game they imagine is not between time to read and time to go to yoga or binge-watch Breaking Bad, but between time to read Barbara Pym and time to beaver away on that next peer-reviewed article.

Academics are prone to working all the time, or at least to thinking they should be working all the time — or, some have more cynically proposed, to taking pride in saying they are working all the time: there is a kind of perverse prestige in proclaiming “I’m terribly busy!” in response to every casual “how are you?” This is not necessarily a good thing. It’s also not necessarily a nice thing, because in this context, asking me “how do you find time to read?” kind of sounds like an assertion of superiority: “you are not as busy as I am!”

macke woman readingBut the truth is, I’m probably not, if by “busy” you mean spending every available minute doing academic work — though that depends, of course, on how you define “working” (not to mention “academic”). I have argued before that, for me anyway, the line between leisure reading and reading for research is not as clear as all that. A good current example would be that for several years now I have been reading romance novels just for fun — but in January 2017 I’m teaching my first incarnation of our “Pulp Fiction” class, in which I expect to assign a romance novel (probably Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels). Though a crucial part of my preparation will be turning from reading romance fiction to reading criticism and scholarship about romance fiction, there’s no doubt that the time I’ve spent reading novels and getting a preliminary sense of the general terrain (including by reading tweets, blogs, and essays by better-informed romance readers) has made taking on this pedagogical challenge feasible for me.

Similarly, I read mystery novels for decades before offering my first class in that field, and  every mystery I read now contributes to my understanding of what is possible in and interesting about that genre. I have incorporated many books into my classes that I initially read “only” for myself; some of my leisure reading — such as Ahdaf Soueif’s novels — has led to specifically academic as well as non-academic publications. My teaching has been generally enriched by my awareness of what is going  on in the wider literary world. (Surely it’s not only English professors who explicitly specialize in contemporary literature who have any stake in its directions and debates.) Then there’s the reading I do for reviews, which are not exactly my “job,” or at least which prove difficult to get acknowledged (counted) as “academic work” but which are certainly some kind of work — sometimes, now, even paid work! And, last but not least, there’s this blog, in which I turn my reading into something — something not clearly academic, but at any rate less ephemeral than personal experience.

So one way of justifying the time I spend reading is to explain its hybridity: it is both personal and professional time. When I read, I am not (just) relaxing, I am being productive! I am busy … busy reading! But why do I even feel the need to justify it?  What is wrong with making time for reading that isn’t for work? I have acknowledged that I have not been able to sustain a standard program of academic publication at the same time as the range of other things I’ve been doing — but it’s not reading that’s to blame, as I have always been a reader. A whole array of contexts and choices has led to that situation, one of which is the choice not to let all my waking hours be devoted to academic work. In this, I suppose, I have anticipated the “slow professor” movement — although I am “slow” only by narrow academic standards, and only in strictly academic contexts. (I actually consider the past 5 years of my life as the most busy and productive years I’ve ever had as a critic.) I recognize that I can do this because I enjoy the privilege of tenure (which I earned, mind you, by meeting all the requisite academic standards) — but so too do almost all of the people I’ve had these exchanges with over the years. If they want to slow down and read, they absolutely can, and they can do so without compromising on their actual professional obligations (though they may diminish their chances of professional advancement). They just have to change their habits and separate their sense of self-worth from an academic lifestyle of constant work that can actually be as destructive as it is productive.

Ironically, maybe they’ll finally have that chance when they retire. Or will the internalized norms of university life mean that even when they unequivocally have the time for it, they will still struggle to let themselves just read? In any case, when we talk about having time to read, we’re really talking about a lot more than how we allocate hours in the day.

“Infant, it’s madness!” Georgette Heyer, These Old Shades


‘Monseigneur, I do not think that I can live without you. I must have you to take care of me, and to love me, and to scold me when I am maladroite.’

I had met the Duke of Avon and the irrepressible Léonie, the hero and heroine of These Old Shades, before, in Devil’s Cub — but there they are the long-suffering parents of the Marquis of Vidal, who in that novel follows his own madcap course to true love. I had heard that the full account of Avon and Léonie’s own romance was delightful, and it is, from start to finish, but especially once Léonie has thrown off her initial disguise as Léon (it’s a complicated story) and begun the vexing transformation from pert page to elegant lady.

Léonie is very entertaining during this transition, and I enjoyed the way Heyer uses it to highlight restrictions on women, from their literal freedom of movement (Léonie especially hates trading in her breeches for layers of skirts and petticoats) to their inhibited speech (“Bah!” as Léonie would say). Léonie insists on learning to fence, hates riding side-saddle, and rather likes the idea of shooting villains dead: her hot temper is something she passes on to her son, Vidal.

Léonie actually isn’t my preferred kind of heroine — I usually like the more severe bookish ones (I wonder why), like Mary Challoner in Devil’s Cub. But Léonie is splendid, subversive fun. I wasn’t so sure about Avon: he’s very controlling; the plot turns on his determination to get revenge, which he does, with particularly nasty results (though Heyer does her usually brilliant job putting all the pieces together, not to mention sustaining the action); and from start to finish he calls Léonie “infant” or “child,” which got me thinking again about my objections to Hero and Sherry in Friday’s ChildI was particularly sensitive to the issue of child brides when reading These Old Shades, in fact, because of a recent comment left on my post about “Hero as Kitten,” arguing that my discomfort in that case was both anachronistic and culturally narrow-minded.

As I wrote in my reply to that comment, I’m not convinced by the argument that marrying very young was just normal “in those days” (and I am convinced by the U.N. arguments against child marriage). But my key dissatisfaction was with the maturity of the sixteen-year-old heroine in that novel: she just didn’t seem marriageable to me, which is another way of saying I had trouble imagining her transition from being adorable to being sexual.

these-old-shadesIn These Old Shades, however, despite the age gap (the Duke is forty, Léonie is twenty), I was quite reconciled to the romance by the end, and not just because twenty is older than sixteen. Avon protests too much about Léonie’s youth, for one thing; as one by one the other characters perceive the romantic potential in their relationship, he keeps insisting that it is a strictly platonic one, even declaring more than once that she sees him as a grandparent. “Infant, it’s madness!” he exclaims about the possibility of her marrying someone as decrepit as he.

But his real concern, we realize, is not her age, or his own, but his belief that his own scandalous past makes him an unfit husband. Literal age doesn’t matter in this novel as much as experience and perspective — as one wife says sagely, “all women are older than their husbands,” and Léonie herself has  experience that makes her, somewhat sadly, wise beyond her years. For all her playfulness and zest for adventure, she has, as Avon observes,

a certain cynicism, born of the life she has led; a streak of strange wisdom; the wistfulness behind the gaiety; sometimes fear; and nearly always the memory of loneliness that hurts the soul.

Avon’s family believes Léonie will save him from his own bleakness — they are thrilled to see the rare tenderness in his eyes when he gazes at her, and perhaps even the absence of obvious desire is a good sign, as it distinguishes his feelings for her from his previous amours. (“You are not the first woman in my life,” he cautions her; “Monseigneur,” she boldly replies, “I would so much rather be the last woman than the first.”) She transforms his ancestral home, letting in light and air; she adores him but isn’t afraid of him — and, perhaps most important, she makes him laugh. The disparity in their ages comes up over and over in the novel, so clearly we are meant to be aware of it, but it turns out not to define either their characters or their romance. Even though Avon still calls Léonie “infant” after their marriage, her response only highlights her spirited independence:

“My infant,” he said, “duchesses, do not dance on chairs, nor do they call their brothers ‘imbecile.'”

Léonie twinkled irrepressibly.

“I do,” she said firmly.

Dubious Comfort: Barbara Pym, Quartet in Autumn


There was something to be said for tea and a comfortable chat about crematoria.

Early in Quartet in Autumn, Letty — one of the novel’s quartet of main characters — reflects on her past as an “unashamed reader of novels”: “she had come to realize,” we’re told, “that the position of an unmarried, unattached, ageing woman is of no interest whatsoever to the writers of modern fiction.” They are of great interest, of course, to Barbara Pym, who could be considered the patron saint of all such overlooked and underestimated women.

Quartet in Autumn actually balances our attention between two more in Pym’s panoply of spinsters and two — what to call them? what is the male equivalent of a ‘spinster’? That we don’t really have one is suggestive of the ways in which aging alone is different for women than it is for men. Still, terminology aside, the characters have a lot in common besides having worked for many years in the same office (that we never learn anything about where they work or what they actually do becomes one of the novel’s tragi-comic aspects). Though one of the men is a widower, now they are all equal in their mutual isolation, and if that sounds like a paradox (how can they be so alone if they’re all together so much?), I think that’s one of Pym’s points: that simply sharing time and space, even over many years, does not in itself create meaningful connections between disparate people. And yet by the end of the book, which is certainly one of the gloomier Pym novels I’ve read, the connection between them has become something just slightly more than any of them thought or expected, and therein lies what small comfort a book about aging, retiring, losing one’s strength and faculties, and dying unmourned can offer.

I thought Pym was especially good — meaning both funny and painful — about retirement, which for many working people surely seems as much a looming threat as an anticipated promise. When Letty and Marcia retire, they are not replaced: “indeed,” we’re told, “the whole department was being phased out,” which raises discouraging questions for them about the value of the work they’ve done for all those years, and even about the reality of their entire working lives:

It seemed to Letty that what cannot now be justified has perhaps never existed, and it gave her the feeling that she and Marcia had been swept away as if they had never been.

This gives her, understandably, a “sensation of nothingness” that is hard to overcome despite the opportunity retirement affords “to do all those things she had always wanted to do” — “unspecified” things that turn out not to be all that fulfilling after all, and which hardly take up all the time she now has. Her first day of retirement is “as tiring as a working day” from the very effort to occupy herself, including during “a period between tea and supper which she did not remember as having existed before.” Perhaps because retirement is much in the air at my own workplace, with similar non-replacement policies raising questions both practical and principled, personal and existential, for all of us, her experience seemed particularly poignant to me: I know how much it can hurt someone to get the message the institution they have devoted themselves to can treat them as an expensive redundancy, someone to be urged out and happily done without.

Sad as the novel’s premise is — it is, indeed, autumnal, with its focus on unwelcome but inevitable changes in all facets of its characters’ lives — it is somehow never, or never completely, melancholy: Pym is too funny for that. There’s the saga of the misfit milk bottle, for instance, which I won’t spoil by relating — it’s not so much that I would ruin any suspense about it as that I could never capture quite why it is so daftly comical, but also so spot on about human nature. Alexander McCall Smith is quite right, in his introduction, to say that “we all have something that is the equivalent of that symbolic milk bottle.” It’s a smaller-scale comedy here than we get in Kingsley Amis’s Ending Up (which is the earlier book club choice that led us here), but it’s also kinder: wry, rather than bitter. Though Pym gives us one truly depressing story about ending up alone, she softens the blow by helping us realize that even in age there are choices, and as long as you have a little life left in you, there are still “infinite possibilities for change.” The novel ends up feeling like a calming cup of tea on an otherwise bad day: it can’t really fix anything, but in its own way, it is bracing.

Responding to Srigley, Over and Over and Over

Lady (Waterhouse)I have been very glad to see eloquent and well-informed responses to Ron Srigley’s screed “Pass, Fail” in The Walrus (which largely reiterates his screed in the Los Angeles Review of Books). I was disappointed in both venues, frankly: it seems to me to show poor editorial judgment to publish rants of this kind without checking their intemperate anecdata and wild generalizations against at least a broader sampling of facts and opinions about the very complex business that is higher education. I would have expected both journals to think better of themselves and their readers. Both Aimée Morrison and Melonie Fullick have offered valuable critiques — but because these writers don’t go to extremes, either rhetorically or ideologically, their thoughtful pieces almost certainly won’t get as much attention, and because Srigley is preaching to a nasty choir of higher ed haters, rather than actually trying to engage people interested in meaningful dialogue, critique, or reform, the people who are gleefully linking to his article are unlikely to step back and reconsider the nature or value of his arguments.

I thought about writing a detailed response as well — not because I have done the kind of research that makes Melonie so well-qualified to speak up, but because I found Srigley’s sweeping denunciations of “contentless” classrooms, the replacement of what he considers important topics by “narcissistic and transparently self-promoting twaddle,” and professors who “pandered to [students’] basest inclinations while leaving their real intellectual and moral needs unmet” profoundly insulting — to me and my colleagues and to the generations of students we have taught. Further, the claim that “most degrees involve no real content” is not just a lie but, in our current economic and political climate, a damaging lie. Yes, there are grains of truth in his criticisms of the way universities are run and in his descriptions of the sometimes incompatible priorities of students, staff, and faculty. But most of us who are dealing with these problems every day on the job (and evenings and weekends too, much of the time) do not need “friends” like Srigley, who is actually an enemy of the enterprise we are all, collectively, engaged in, in good faith if sometimes with flagging spirits.

By the time I finished his LARB piece I was seething, and I was seething again, and also profoundly discouraged, when I saw it resurrected in The Walrus. Is this really the story about higher education that people want to read? It must be, or relatively sober publications that could certainly afford to turn it down wouldn’t run it: they must have figured that it would generate traffic, and I’m sure they were right. (You’ll notice I have not linked directly to either iteration here, because I hate that the internet incessantly rewards the worst over the best.) I fervently believe that my work, and the work of thousands of others like me, is not a “retail scam”: maybe, I thought, I should try to explain why not.

WP_20140827_005But then I realized that I have said so, that I have made my argument — over and over, for almost 10 years. Here at Novel Readings I have posted regularly about my teaching, for instance, since 2007, when I began my series on “This Week In My Classes” because of other equally vitriolic and unbalanced public criticisms of my life’s work. I have shared details about what my classes are studying, I have raised questions about pedagogy, I have fretted about students who don’t seem engaged and celebrated the much more numerous ones who care a lot, I have explored new subjects and developed new material, I have sought advice and sometimes comfort. In other words, I have tried to do the opposite of Srigley’s grand dismissive gestures: I’ve invited anyone who’s interested to come inside the academy and see for themselves what I’m up to.

I can’t rule out the possibility that someone would read through my archive of teaching posts and still reach Srigley’s dire conclusions about the state of higher education. I know, too, that I’m just one professor, so my first-person experience is also, in its own way, anecdotal rather than conclusive. But I honestly think my efforts to meet my students every time with the best that I can come up with are more representative than Srigley’s dystopian exaggerations. I’m surrounded every day with colleagues who similarly strive, with all their intelligence, creativity, and fortitude, to bring their students with them to intellectual places they think are both interesting and vitally important. Every day, we are all surrounded with students who meet us at least half way, and some who take us further than we would have gone on our own. Sure, some don’t, or won’t, for both good and bad reasons, some of them individual and some of them structural. But an imperfect process is a sign of a work in progress, which is always what education is.

Novel Readings is still a pretty quiet corner of the internet; whatever hope I had, back in 2007, that my teaching posts would make even a slight difference to the larger public narrative about higher education has long subsided. But the archive is there for those who want a different perspective: rather than grand statements, they provide a steady record of particulars. I’m not going to attempt any further response to Srigley, because in these posts I have, implicitly, responded already, over and over and over: instead, I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve been doing, both here and, especially, in the classroom, where it really matters.

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