Though I’ve been blogging for over three years now, today’s post is my first as a member of the Open Letters family. So I’d like to use it, first, to thank my hosts for the invitation to join them here–they’re a great bunch of readers and writers, and I’m happy to become a regular part of the excellent fare they offer at Open Letters.
My plan is to go on doing pretty much what I’ve been doing; those of you who have kept up with Novel Readings so far, then, should feel at home here despite the new address. For new readers, here’s a quick introduction to me and to Novel Readings. From the beginning, my blog has reflected my identity as both an academic (I’m an English professr) and an avid reader.These are not always roles that go comfortably together. In fact, one of the main reasons I began blogging was to experiment with a style of criticism that might reconcile my two selves. Academic criticism can feel claustrophobic, because of its intense specialization and its dissociation from the concerns and experiences of ‘common’ readers (though there are some good reasons for this, and some good results from it); at the same time, clubby book chat (pleasurable, even valuable, though it is for us personally) can be distressingly solipsistic and indifferent to both the details of the words on the page and important literary, historical, and political contexts. I thought it would be a good thing to participate in critical conversations that crossed those boundaries: that respected both expertise and love, that relished insight as well as different points of view. Blogging makes these conversations possible to an unprecedented extent–and the comment box makes sure they are conversations, not just pronouncements.
I didn’t realize all of this about blogging at first, mind you. I had to feel my way, through an unfamiliar medium, out into the wider world. This was not a movement that came easily: although in some ways the academy is one of the most intellectually rigorous environments imaginable, it’s also very insular. Even in our most public activity, teaching, we’re alone in the classroom with our students, rarely exposed to the judgmental eye of our peers, much less the general public. We debate each other under very particular conditions: Robert’s Rules of Order, for instance, for internal governance (including curriculum debates), or the well-established etiquette of seminar rooms and conference panels. The often ruthless process of peer review is carried on anonymously–and without the opportunity to reply to your judges. Blogging is different! You put yourself out there–your ideas not always fully formed, your readings often still provisional, your audience diverse, unpredictable, and armed with the “Leave a Comment” option. (At least in blogging, I always have the option to reply!) Writing up reviews of my recent reading (often of books far outside my official “field,” which is Victorian literature) has therefore been both nerve-wracking and exhilirating. Happily, in my experience, most blog readers are there for the same reason I am: they like developing ideas about books and reading. It’s not a competitive sport! And while I enjoy the exchange of views that sometimes follows a review, one of the main benefits is the intrinsic value of having thought hard about a book before putting it back on the shelf.
Because I am both a reader and an academic, I do post about both kinds of things. As I’ve puttered along, in fact, one idea that grew on me was that another good use of this form could be to make my academic work more transparent. One of my longest-running series, with the unimaginative label “This Week in My Classes,” was inspired by disturbing hostilities I encountered to the very idea of English professors. It has never been an overtly polemical series, though: it’s just a record of my week’s work with my students, with associated musings. I’ve come to value the exercise a lot, for reasons I explain in this post. I’ve also written a number of posts about general academic issues, and some about academic literary criticism–what it is, what it could be, why it sometimes irks or bores me, what’s at stake in it. I’ve done a series of posts looking specifically at books about books aimed at non-academic audiences, too, because I wanted to get a clearer sense of how else, or why else, people read. If you’re interested, that material is all in the archives, or can be retrieved by searching the list of categories, if you’re interested. I’m sure I’ll be posting more on those topics in the future, too.
And so, on to that future! I look forward to writing more about the things I read and the work I do, with the occasional digression into whatever else catches my interest or makes me want to post about it. I will probably try a few new things here, inspired by the general atmosphere of change that comes with the new site (I’ve been thinking, for instance, about an occasional series on old favorites, or what I think of as “comfort reading”–or what about an “ask the English professor” thread once or twice? if I don’t know the answer, I probably know someone who does!). I thought I might also furnish my new home here with some familiar pieces by re-posting a few things from deep in the archives–maybe just to air them out, or perhaps with some updates, to give them a fresh new look. We’ll see. I hope you’ll stop by and read, and I especially hope you’ll contribute to the conversation.