Happy 10th Anniversary, Open Letters!

The March 2017 issue of Open Letters Monthly marks the magazine’s 10th anniversary. I’m pretty sure that means it is 247 in internet years! I haven’t been with OLM since the very beginning, but I published my first essay there in 2009 and joined the editorial team in 2010, which means I was part of our 5th anniversary celebration, the “Critical Issue.” Our 10th anniversary issue is not themed, but its diversity of both subjects and styles is unified by our ongoing commitment to fulfilling our mission statement:

Open Letters is dedicated to the proposition that no writing which reviews the arts should be boring, back-patting, soft-pedaling, or personally compromised. We’ve all had the experience of reading a review that sparkled—one that combined an informed, accessible examination of its quarry with gamesome, intelligent, and even funny commentary. These are the pieces we tell our friends about and then vigorously debate.

Our mission here is to provide you with a wide variety of such reviews every month.

This month, those reviews include Steve Donoghue on a new book about “ostentatious martyr” Lady Jane Grey (or, as he prefers to call her, “Jane the Pretender”); Sam Sacks on two books making the case for literature’s special relevance in turbulent times; Nick Holdstock on Russian fabulist Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s The Return of Munchausen; Melissa Beck on the Indian classic of ill-fated lovers, Chemmeen; Kenyon Gradert on George Saunders’ historical (but very contemporary) Lincoln in Bardo; Jennifer Helinek on Elizabeth Kostova’s Shadow Land; Jessica Tvordi on Danielle Dutton’s captivating Margaret the First; me on a not-very-inspired (or inspiring) novel about WWI … and that’s not even all! As always, I hope you will head on over and read what interests you.

I think we are all feeling pretty proud of ourselves on this 10th anniversary. Enthusiasm is enough to get a project like Open Letters up and running, but to keep it going every month for a decade requires a lot of effort, a lot of trust, and also a certain kind of doggedness. Over the years the editors have had our share of disagreements, some of them vehement, but I think we would all agree that in spite of them — perhaps even, in a way, because of them — we have achieved something pretty remarkable. So here’s to us!

Sustaining Open Letters also depends on our contributors: one of the very best parts of this whole endeavor is working with so many smart, articulate, generous writers and having the privilege of showcasing the results. So here’s a heartfelt thanks to all of them — to all of you, since some of you are also readers of Novel Readings. What do you think: do we all have another 10 years in us?

Showing and Telling in Adam Bede

Tomorrow we start our work on Adam Bede in my 19th-Century Fiction class. As I was rereading the opening chapters last week, I tweeted, a bit facetiously, that you could probably “launch a successful attack on the whole foolish ‘show, don’t tell’ myth using excerpts from Adam Bede alone.” This was in part a delayed reaction to a comment on my post about Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk: “it didn’t work for me at all as fiction,” Irene said; “A lot of telling, not showing.” To which I replied, “I’m a fan of telling. How could I not be, as a Victorianist?” Because when people invoke this supposed rule, what they usually seem to mean is that good writing should be dramatic, not descriptive, and that, above all, it should avoid extended passages of exposition — and what would Victorian fiction be without description and exposition? Frankly, I’ve also read a few too many recent novels that leave empty space where telling might in fact be really valuable, and where its absence looked to me a bit like shirking the admittedly hard work of doing it well.

Obviously, the casual assumption that good writers show rather than tell is a pet peeve of mine, but it’s also not an assumption that I think is actually that widely or strongly held by avid readers, who in my experience tend to agree with Henry James that “the house of fiction has many windows.” (Not that we don’t have own own favorite styles, but confusing taste with objective evaluation is … well, OK, it’s inevitable, but it should at least be self-conscious!) The source of this “rule” seems to be creative writing classes, but I wonder how strong its hold is even there. The creative writers I know seem unlikely to be so narrow-minded, and here is an admirably nuanced ‘lesson’ on showing vs. telling from novelist Emma Darwin.* The right technique, surely, is the one that best achieves a writer’s goals, including not just formal, stylistic, and aesthetic ones but also substantial ones. There are things that exposition in particular can do that simply can’t be provided in any other way: historical or philosophical context for the novel’s action, for instance, or psychological insights unavailable to the characters themselves.

If your ideal fiction is not analytical in these ways, then showing might be enough for you. But that means your novels will never include anything like Chapter 15 of Middlemarch — in which almost nothing actually happens, but we, as readers, learn an enormous amount — or, to get back to Adam Bede, anything like its Chapter 15, “The Two Bed-Chambers,” which is a stunning set piece of characterization. It includes both showing and telling. The actions of both Hetty and Dinah, for instance, speak volumes about who they are: most obviously, Hetty stares into her mirror while Dinah gazes out the window. The  narrator layers meaning onto their actions with pointed descriptions — Hetty’s “pigeon-like stateliness” as she paces back and forth in her shabby faux-finery, for instance, and Dinah’s tranquility as she feels “the presence of a Love and Sympathy deeper and more tender than was breathed from the earth and sky.” We are brought close into each character’s consciousness, and then drawn out again to a broader perception, which is the characteristic pulse of George Eliot’s fiction, and running through it all is her perspicacious commentary:

Nature has her language, and she is not unveracious; but we don’t know all the intricacies of her syntax just yet, and in a hasty reading we may happen to extract the very opposite of her real meaning. Long dark eyelashes, now — what can be more exquisite? I find it impossible not to expect some depth of soul behind a deep grey eye with a long dark eyelash, in spite of an experience which has shown me that they may go along with deceit, peculation, and stupidity. But if, in the reaction of disgust, I have betaken myself to a fishy eye, there has been a surprising similarity of result. One begins to suspect at length that there is no direct correlation between eyelashes and morals; or else, that the eyelashes express the disposition of the fair one’s grandmother, which is on the whole less important to us.

“What a strange contrast the two figures made!” exclaims the narrator after Dinah, provoked by intuitive anxiety about where Hetty’s “blank” nature might lead her, interrupts Hetty’s dreams of becoming a “lady” by rapping on her door:

Hetty, her cheeks flushed and her eyes glistening from her imaginary drama, her beautiful neck and arms bare, her hair hanging in a curly tangle down her back, and the baubles in her ears. Dinah, covered with her long white dress, her pale face full of subdued emotion, almost like a lovely corpse into which the soul has returned charged with sublimer secrets and a sublimer love.

I’m pretty sure that’s telling — but how could you simply show that contrast, which lies less in the details visible in the “mingled twilight and moonlight” than in the difference they represent between the flesh and the spirit, or between egotism and altruism, which the whole previous sequence has prepared us to realize?

I know that what some readers object to in Eliot’s style of telling is that she doesn’t seem to leave us to draw our own conclusions about her characters: her commentary usually steers us firmly in a particular direction. Her narrator is much less forgiving than Dinah, for example, about Hetty’s vanity, and so too is Mrs. Poyser, who sees Hetty’s “moral deficiencies” quite clearly. It’s not that she doesn’t leave us plenty to think about, though. Adam Bede dedicates much more than this one chapter to analyzing Hetty’s character and motives, for example, as well as to exploring the effect on them of her specific circumstances. A great deal of effort, in other words, goes into understanding Hetty — including the unarguable fact of her vanity, which means not just her pleasure in her own beauty but her inability to tell any story without herself at the center of it. Also, we know that “Hetty could have cast all her past life behind her and never cared to be reminded of it again” — which, in Eliot’s world, means she is morally unmoored. (“If the past is not to bind us,” as Maggie Tulliver will say in Eliot’s next novel, “where shall duty lie?”) What, though, is the relationship between this deep understanding (the kind required by Eliot’s theory of determinism) and forgiveness? If we can explain so thoroughly what someone does so, and if we are under a moral obligation to sympathize with them, what happens to accountability, to blame, to justice? If you know where Hetty’s journey takes her, and why, then you know how painfully these questions arise in Adam Bede.

My point, I guess, is that this central problem of the novel is vivid to us — it matters to us — in part because of what we have been told. It is an intellectual problem, not (to borrow from Darwin’s post) a “scratch-and-sniff” one. Yet, having said that, it’s absolutely true that we feel its urgency in part because the narrator gets out of the way at crucial dramatic moments, such as during the novel’s second great set piece with Dinah and Hetty much, much later, in Hetty’s prison cell:

Slowly, while Dinah was speaking, Hetty rose, took a step forward, and was clasped in Dinah’s arms.

They stood so a long while, for neither of them felt the impulse to move apart again. Hetty, without any distinct thought of it, hung on this something that was come to clasp her now, while she was sinking helpless in a dark gulf; and Dinah felt a deep joy in the first sign that her love was welcomed by the wretched lost one. The light got fainter as they stood, and when at last they sat down on the straw pallet together, their faces had become indistinct.

What a great return this is to the earlier scene, with Dinah’s premonition of trouble: “Dear Hetty,” she says, “it has been borne in upon my mind to- night that you may some day be in trouble . . . I want to tell you that if ever you are in trouble, and need a friend that will always feel for you and love you, you have got that friend in Dinah Morris at Snowfield.” When her prediction comes true and Dinah comes to her in her time of trouble, almost all the telling in the chapter is Hetty’s own.

*Actually, after reading her post I am not so sure I really understand what people mean by “showing,” which going by her examples just means “doing description better.” That has never seemed to me to be the implication of “show, don’t tell.” If it is, I don’t think I disagree after all, and you can disregard this entire post! What do you think that rule means — or, perhaps a different question, what do you think people typically mean when they sling it around?

This Week In My Classes: Blizzards and Breaks

This week is Dalhousie’s Reading Week, so I’m enjoying a break from the routine of classes. Last week, though, was also sort of a break, or at least a broken up week, thanks to the massive blizzard that arrived late Sunday night and shut the city down almost completely until Wednesday. And then on Thursday another storm hit — meaning we had three full snow days last week on top of a partial closing the week before. That’s a lot of disruption in a hurry! It was also the first time I can remember Dalhousie announcing a closure the day before, instead of at 6 a.m. the day of (ah, the lovely treat of waking up early to find out if you need to wake up early).

I used to panic about snow days. Now I only panic if the snow isn’t quite bad enough to close things down outright but is still bad enough to trigger my significant anxiety about driving in it, or to make it really difficult for students to get safely to and from campus. A cancellation is at least logistically straightforward and it’s rare that the schedule in any of my classes can’t be tweaked a bit here and there to adjust: it’s not like we’re doing time-sensitive laboratory experiments, and there is no universally accepted “best practice” for exactly how many hours we should spend on Cranford. Having said that, it was particularly unfortunate that Cranford was our scheduled reading over those two weeks, as I had not planned very many hours on it to begin with, and so it actually was harder to re-organize than it would have been for Bleak House!

Anyway, one way and another we made our way through the week, and the snow, and now it’s Reading Week. Just because classes aren’t meeting doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to do, including prepping and grading for them. After the break, we’re starting Adam Bede in 19th-Century Fiction. As this is the first time I’ve assigned it in an undergraduate class, I have no pre-existing materials to draw on, so working some up has been a priority this week. I do know the novel pretty well from having taught it several times in graduate seminars, but that’s a pretty different kind of preparation. (Adam Bede was also the focus of a read-along at The Valve I organized a few years ago that I still look back on as one of the best online experiences I’ve had.) I’ve drawn up Monday’s lecture and sketched out roughly the topics I want to cover in the five other hours we’ve got for it: I’m really looking forward to the discussions. Several students in the class have already studied either The Mill on the Floss or Middlemarch (or both!) with me this year, so that gives them a head start on some of the issues we’ll address; I think they’ll be interested in how different Adam Bede is — but also, of course, in the continuities. Those coming to George Eliot for the first time will, I hope, find Adam Bede an inviting introduction. Rereading the first installment this week I was especially in love with the wonderful descriptions of the rural setting, which have a marvelous luxury of detail and a particularly rich warmth of light and tone. It is something of a “slow burn,” though readers’ patience is richly rewarded.

In Pulp Fiction we start The Maltese Falcon when we get back: this is fairly familiar territory for me, as I’ve assigned it many times in Mystery & Detective Fiction. That doesn’t mean I’m not rereading it, though, or that the change in context doesn’t require a different approach. Still, it’s something of a relief after the novelty of our Westerns — and a bit of a breather before I have to ready materials for our section on romance novels, another new teaching area for me.

Also on my to-do list this week was finishing a review of Lesley Krueger’s Mad Richard for Canadian Notes & Queries, which looks like it will be ready to submit tomorrow, and finalizing my own and my contributors’ pieces for the March issue of Open Letters Monthly. This issue will mark OLM’s 10th anniversary! I didn’t join up as an editor until 2010; I was in time, then, to contribute to our 5th anniversary celebration, The Critical Issue — which I think probably still stands as our best individual issue ever, though we have certainly run outstanding pieces in every issue before and since. Though we aren’t doing a special topic for this 10th anniversary, it will definitely be another good one, so stay tuned!

These and other projects have kept me busy, but the nice thing about the break from classes is that I feel much freer to spend my evenings not working. Inspired by Hag-Seed, for instance, I am rewatching Slings & Arrows — and I think it’s time for another episode now.


Tempest of the Headspace”: Margaret Atwood, Hag-Seed

“Also,” said Felix, “it’s on a universal theme.” What he had in mind was vengeance – that was certainly universal. He hoped she wouldn’t ask him about the theme: vengeance was so negative, was what she’d say. A bad example. Especially bad, considering the captive audience.

Hag-Seed is one of a series of novels commissioned for the Hogarth Shakespeare project, which is just the kind of hybrid literary-commercial venture that usually puts me off — and which, in its Austen incarnation, I have recently sworn off altogether. Too often, the intent is too clearly to cash in, or the results are too clearly inferior to the inspiration, and I am left wishing authors would just write their own d–n books. (I realize, of course, that many classics are themselves, in one way or another, indebted to or homages to other texts. But who says irritability has to be entirely consistent?)

I was fretful, therefore, when my book club settled on Hag-Seed for our next read. As my experience with Atwood’s fiction has also been mixed over the years, I would at least have been happier if we’d chosen Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl: one of Tyler’s main virtues is that she is dependable! But one of the reasons to belong to a book club is so that I read some things I wouldn’t necessarily pick for myself, so I dutifully ordered Hag-Seed, read it … and (surprise!) thoroughly enjoyed it.

Why does Hag-Seed succeed (for me, at least) where so many other derivative novels have failed? I think it’s because throughout, it communicates Atwood’s own gleeful enjoyment of the undertaking. I don’t think Hag-Seed is particularly profound, and it has little (though not none) of the poetry that decorates the original (what grace and beauty there is in the novel often comes by way of lines from The Tempest itself). But — at least for someone with only a passing acquaintance with Shakespeare’s play — Hag-Seed is a clever, as well as entertaining, recreation of The Tempest on Atood’s own chosen terms.

Hag-Seed particularly embraces the “play within a play” conceit of The Tempest, in which Prospero contrives and manipulates events for his own gratification. Atwood’s protagonist, Felix Phillips, is ousted from his position as Director of the Makeshiweg Festival just before he launches a spectacular new production of The Tempest. He had thrown himself into it to distract himself from his heartbreak over the death of his baby daughter Miranda:

What he couldn’t have in life he might still catch sight of through his art: just a glimpse, from the corner of his eye.

He would create a fit setting for this reborn Miranda he was willing into being. He would outdo himself as an actor-director. He would push every envelope, he would twist reality until it twangled. There was a feverish desperation in those long-ago efforts of his, but didn’t the best art have desperation at its core? Wasn’t it always a challenge to Death? A defiant middle finger on the edge of the abyss?

But the treachery of a colleague who then usurps his place ruins Felix’s plans and forces him into exile, where he broods for years over his lost daughter, his lost position, and his dreams of revenge. When he takes on a job promoting literacy in a local prison by producing Shakespeare plays, he unexpectedly discovers the perfect plan.

There’s lots of fun in the development of Felix’s elaborate plot, which both mimics and incorporates the multiple interconnected plots of The Tempest. Though Hag-Seed is ultimately more satirical than earnest, there’s also a more serious strand, woven through the novel’s comedy, about the role of literary programming in prisons, something Atwood addresses in her acknowledgments as well as through the actors’ discussions of real and metaphorical prisons in the play they are putting on. (I found the classroom sessions on The Tempest fascinating, even though — or maybe because — they were wholly unlike the kinds of classroom discussions I am used to.) Though Felix’s quest for vengeance is as absurd as it is diverting, his mourning for his own lost Miranda (whose spirit haunts him) is often very touching; it adds a human dimension to him that balances the novel’s arch tone.

Of course, I have to wonder if not knowing the ‘primary source’ is what freed me up to appreciate Hag-Seed. If The Tempest were dear to my heart the way Jane Eyre and Daniel Deronda are, would I have gone along less cheerfully? There’s a playful quality to Atwood’s interaction with The Tempest throughout that makes me think I would still have liked it: she’s not overriding it or imposing herself on it, or (worst of all) condescending to it or correcting it, but rather (like her actors) immersing herself in it and making it her own. Still, I’d be interested to hear from people who approach the novel from a more informed position.

“What a Smart Girl”: Kathleen Rooney, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

Fifteen inquiries. Five favorable replies. Including one by telegraph from R. H. Macy’s. This was the one I chose: my first serous job in New York City. A job which in some ways saved my life, and in other ways ruined it. What a smart girl.

The premise of Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk is simple. It’s New Year’s Eve in 1984, and Lillian Boxfish, 84 (or is it 85? even she is no longer quite sure) – once celebrated for the sparkling ad copy she wrote for R. H. Macy’s, as well as for her books of witty light verse – heads out for her traditional dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant. Lillian’s appetite has been spoiled, though, by a package of Oreos she has unthinkingly devoured while on the phone with her son. “I am, for the life of me,” she says testily,

unable to fathom why I even had the vile black sandwiches. Did I buy them while the grandchildren were here? I’m sure I did not. My week prior to their visit was a Tartarus of sheet pans, spent in the creation of a Christmas-cookie fantasia; had the little goblins at any point asked me for packaged cookies, I’m quite certain I would have shipped them back to Maine with stockings full of coal.

Her best guess is that, ironically enough, she herself has been taken in by advertising: “I don’t remember wandering the grocer’s aisles with the idiotic jingle playing in my head, but no doubt I did. I don’t remember lifting the cookies from their shelf . . . and dropping them in my basket, but nevertheless they infiltrated my pantry. A nutritionally nugatory Trojan horse.”

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk follows Lillian on what becomes a much longer and more meandering walk around Manhattan than she originally intended. As she travels, she reminisces — about her heyday at Macy’s, her marriage and the birth of her son, the eventual breakdown of her marriage, her treatment for depression and alcoholism. En route, she also has a series of encounters, some comic, some touching, that showcase the wit and fierce independence that make her such an an appealing character. Ending up, for instance, at a friend’s rather wild party in Chelsea, she’s confronted by a drunken guest who thinks she looks too old and too conservative to belong. “Who the fuck invited Nancy Reagan?” he says antagonistically. Lillian is undaunted:

“When you’re insulting someone,” I say, “the trick is to be fast, specific, and accurate. Two out of three won’t do. You fumbled the third. Please note that I am six inches taller, twenty years older, and more adventurously dressed than Nancy Reagan has ever been.”

Almost everyone she runs into on her walk tries to discourage her from continuing, but Lillian refuses to make any concessions to her age and the vulnerability they read into it — or to the actual threats she encounters. Walking has always renewed and refreshed her, and she’s not about to give it up. As a poet, she depended on her walks:

My funny old brain, like those of many poets, has always done its best work sideways, seeking out tricky enjambments and surprising slant rhymes to craft lines capable of pulling their own weight. Taking to the pavement always helps me find new routes around whatever problems I’m trying to solve: phrases on signs, overheard conversations, the interplay between the rhythms of my verse and the rhythm of my feet.

“A motto favored by the ancients,” she notes, “was solvitur ambulando: It is solved by walking.”

I enjoyed Lillian a lot. I particularly appreciated the pleasure she takes in words, which is both appropriate to her vocation and part of what she stands for in the face of a world that she thinks is giving up its commitment to civility and to cleverness in favor of appealing — like the insidious Oreo commercial — to our subconscious desires, rather than our reason and our imagination. She misses the clever “verbosity” she and her friends treasured in her youth. During her New Year’s Eve walk, she finds herself trying to walk to the beat of a rap song she heard from a car window as she set out and reflects that “this is where playful language is cherished now”:

Rap I like. That’s because of the words, of course, which instead of being chained to some inane melody are freed to lead the rappers where they will, by way of their own intrinsic music. So it seems, at least, to my untrained ear. Much of it is utter nonsense, to be sure. As with the best nonsense, some of it seems as if it were made up on the spot, and also as if it could be a thousand years old.

In this enthusiasm for language, Lillian reminded me a bit of my grandmother, who always called herself — and always embraced anyone else who was — a “word person.” Like Lillian, too, my grandmother always asserted her strong-minded, idiosyncratic self. She enjoyed dressing up and hated being looked down on for being an old woman. It wasn’t until after her death that I realized how much courage it took to live her life the way she did, including (again like Lillian) having a career when it wasn’t expected of her, and living on her own, and on her own terms, until the end.

Rooney’s author’s note explains that Lillian is based on Margaret Fishback, a copywriter and poet whose verses stand in for Lillian’s in the novel. I don’t know how closely Lillian’s character (as opposed to her life) is meant to resemble Fishback’s, but Rooney has given us a woman who is frank and tough enough that the novel is never twee or sentimental. It’s also very evocative of New York, a city where I too have always preferred to walk, so as not to miss anything. When I was a student at Cornell, I used to go there regularly, and I always loved the feeling of freedom it gave me, as if anything is possible on its hectic streets. Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk doesn’t indulge this visitor’s fantasy — Lillian’s New York is gritty as well as iconic — but I ended the novel feeling renewed enthusiasm for going back and talking another walk around Manhattan myself.

Recent Reading Roundup: Reviews and Romances

You’d think from my recent blog posts that I wasn’t doing anything but teaching these days! That’s not quite true, but like a lot of people I know, I’m finding myself too distracted to get a lot of “quality” reading done in my leisure time – what ability I have to concentrate hard I’m expending on work, and on books I am reading for off-blog reviews that have deadlines. The rest of the time my reading alternates between anxiety-inducing news stories and pleasantly diverting romance novels.

The most recent book I finished for a review is Simon Tolkien’s No Man’s Land: my review will be up in the March issue of Open Letters. It has actually been a difficult review to write because I neither loved nor hated the book: I’m afraid that even with whatever revisions I come up with after my colleagues’ useful input, the piece is going to sound fairly perfunctory. Now I’m reading Lesley Krueger’s Mad Richard, which I’m reviewing for Canadian Notes & Queries. So far, it seems pretty interesting, so I’m hopeful that it will be more fun to write about. And next up after that will be Sarah Moss’s Bodies of Light, which is backround reading for the review of Signs for Lost Children I’ve promised to Numero Cinq. Moss looks like a writer I should have been reading already, which is one reason I proposed this particular title — my ideal reviewing “assignment” converges with my existing reading intentions!

I have some completed reviews that should see the light of day in the near future. One of those is my TLS review of Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First (which I loved); another is my Quill & Quire review of Jean McNeil’s The Dhow House (which is strange and uncomfortable and gripping); and the last is my review of Yasmine El Rashidi’s Chronicle of a Last Summer, which I wrote last summer and is expected to show up, at long last, in The Kenyon Review Online in early March. Though there are some down sides to all this reviewing, one definite up side is that it has made me a bit more sure-footed as a critic, including with books that are not obvious “fits.” I can’t really say if I am developing my critical voice or style: I’m not deliberately trying to do anything other than what I’ve always done here and at OLM, which is find the best way to express whatever I think about the book. I don’t focus on answering “should I buy this book or not?” — because that’s the kind of review I find the least interesting to read — but instead I try to figure out what kind of book it is and what’s the most interesting conversation for me to have with it or about it. Academics (myself included) often hesitate to get into conversations outside their official area of expertise: this is an anxiety I have largely overcome when it comes to fiction, partly because blogging loosened me up so much as a reader and a writer, and partly because the more I teach, the more I’m aware that my expertise is as a reader — it’s my skill and experience at reading, as much as or more than my body of scholarly knowledge, that equips me to do this kind of criticism.

As for my romance reading, I’ve been rereading some favorites, just for the good cheer (Georgette Heyer’s Devil’s Cub, for instance, and Tessa Dare’s Any Duchess Will Do), but I’ve also read a scattering of new ones. I have all of Courtney Milan’s Brothers Sinister novels but hadn’t gotten to Talk Sweetly To Me before: it’s charming. (The Countess Conspiracy is still my favorite in this series, though.) I read Alyssa Cole’s Let It Shine and found the love story well done, but while I appreciated her evocation of the historical context, I thought the novella (sexy bits aside) read too much like YA fiction for me to find it really engaging: it seemed to assume readers who had very little idea about either the civil rights movement or the Holocaust. Everything about it was very pat and predictable. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t about important things, or that it didn’t include details that make very clear, how devastatingly this history affected people’s lives.

I read Eloisa James’s Seven Minutes in Heaven and thought it was fine — as I mentioned on Twitter, I especially appreciated the heroine’s competence, which is a quality not often portrayed as attractive, and I enjoyed following the character through to their HEA. I also read Fool for Love, which I chose somewhat at random from the ebooks the library had available: I liked the set up but was a bit let down by the conclusion, for reasons I won’t give in case they are spoilers! I have yet to really fall in love with one of James’s novels. They seem very competent and usually keep me interested to the end, but they don’t make me laugh the way Loretta Chase’s do, and I don’t find them as entertaining as Tessa Dare’s (which seem more sprightly, somehow) or as touching as my favorite among Mary Balogh’s. Maybe I haven’t found the right one for me (not all of Dare’s work well for me either, after all).

Now I’m rereading Ruthie Knox’s Truly: I liked it the first time, partly for the beekeeping ‘neepery,’ and it’s holding up well on a reread. I am starting to feel a bit restless, though, as if it’s almost time for me to read something  else again. I picked up Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk on a recent trip to the bookstore: it looks like it might be a good intermediate step between light and really serious reading.

This Week In My Classes: The Comforts of Cranford

We’ve started our discussions of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford in 19th-Century Fiction, and like last week’s reading, it has special resonance in these turbulent times, but not because it is a call to action: more because it provides a refuge. This is not to say that it’s “escapist” in the pejorative way that term is often applied, or that it is all (metaphorically) rainbows and lollipops. Actually, rereading the first few chapters I’ve been particularly struck this time by how melancholy they are, despite the wonderful touches of comedy. There are so many deaths — not nearly as many as in Valdez Is Coming, of course, but whereas in that novel most deaths leave little emotional mark, each of the losses in Cranford is deeply felt. There’s little drama (well, Captain Brown’s is pretty startling) but much tenderness. I love the delicacy with which we are brought to understand the depths of Miss Matty’s grief after Mr. Holbrook dies:

Miss Matty made a strong effort to conceal her feelings–a concealment she practised even with me, for she has never alluded to Mr. Holbrook again, although the book he gave her lies with her Bible on the little table by her bedside. She did not think I heard her when she asked the little milliner of Cranford to make her caps something like the Honourable Mrs. Jamieson’s, or that I noticed the reply–

“But she wears widows’ caps, ma’am?”

“Oh! I only meant something in that style; not widows’ of course, but rather like Mrs. Jamieson’s.”

This effort at concealment was the beginning of the tremulous motion of head and hands which I have seen ever since in Miss Matty.

One thing I want to talk about with my class is the structure of the novel, which seems especially loose and episodic coming right after the elaborate vastness and intricate patterning of Bleak House. Though there is a bit of a through-line, Cranford is really built around vignettes; it’s heard even to identify a central protagonist. This makes sense for a novel named after a town, and before long I think we realize that the town itself has a personality, and that’s what the novel is about. And what characterizes Cranford above all is the way it operates as a community. In it, people go to all sorts of trouble–mostly but not only on a very small scale–to help everybody else along. Here too there are comic elements, such as the amiable pretense not to know that the hostess “who now sat in state, pretending not to know what cakes were sent up,” had been busily baking them all morning: “she knew, and we knew, and she knew that we knew, and we knew that she knew that we knew,” as Mary Smith explains. It’s not just about keeping up appearances, though. “But, to be sure,” says Miss Jessie,

“what a town Cranford is for kindness! I don’t suppose any one has a better dinner than usual cooked, but the best part of all comes in a little covered basin for my sister. The poor people will leave their earliest vegetables at our door for her. They speak short and gruff, as if they were ashamed of it; but I am sure it often goes to my heart to see their thoughtfulness.”

When Miss Matty opens her tea shop, even her competitor “repeatedly sent customers to her, saying that the teas he kept were of a common kind, but that Miss Jenkyns had all the choice sorts”– and there are so many other examples of similar small acts of kindness, forgiveness, and generosity that even when it makes you cry, Cranford also makes you hopeful.

It definitely also makes you laugh, though, and I hope that my students can appreciate its humor, that it won’t seem too quiet and twee after the flamboyance of Dickens’s comedy. One of my favorite bits in this week’s chapters is the “great event” of Miss Jenkyns’s new carpet, and the great struggle to protect it from the unruly sun:

Oh the busy work Miss Matty and I had in chasing the sunbeams, as they fell in an afternoon right down on this carpet through the blindless windows! We spread newspapers over the places, and sat down to our book or our work; and, lo! in a quarter of an hour the sun had moved, and was blazing away on a fresh spot; and down again we went on our knees to alter the position of the newspapers. We were very busy, too, one whole morning, before Miss Jenkyns gave her party, in following her directions, and in cutting out and stitching together pieces of newspaper, so as to form little paths to every chair, set for the expected visitors, lest their shoes might dirty or defile the purity of the carpet. Do you make paper paths for every guest to walk upon in London?

Not in Halifax we don’t, no–but we do pull the living room drapes to protect floor and furniture from the afternoon sun, which may be why this amuses me so much. We’ve also had the furtive orange-eating, the difficult peas, and (particularly funny because Cranford was published in Household Words) the great Boz vs. Dr. Johnson dispute. What a nice place Cranford is to be for a while!

This Week In My Classes: Social Justice and Warriors

Although it is often difficult to concentrate on reading fiction right now, amidst the clamor of current events, it is also the case that current events have their usual uncanny way of making some of the novels I’m reading seem more important than ever.

Take Bleak House, for instance, which we have just wrapped up in 19th-Century Fiction. As I mentioned in my post about teaching Hard Times last March (remember last March, when the possibility that Mr Bounderby would actually win the U.S. presidency seemed absurd?), there are plenty of reasons to look skeptically at Dickens’s approach to the problems of the day. Jo is every bit as safely pathetic a focus for our reforming zeal as Stephen Blackpool, for instance, and as much an argument for preserving ignorance and poverty (so as not to spoil instinctive virtue) as Joe Gargery in Great ExpectationsBleak House may focus eloquently on dysfunctional systems, but it returns us repeatedly to well-meaning individuals as our best hope for change, keeping its political radicals securely on the margins (in the form of, for example, Mrs. Rouncewell’s son, the insufficiently respectful ironmaster) while idealizing benevolent paternalism (in the form of, among others, Mr. Jarndyce — who is never held accountable by anyone for his enabling of the odious Mr. Skimpole). It mercilessly satirizes women who care about causes more than about their children — and that’s not all.

Yes, yes, I am well aware: for all these reasons and more, Dickens is not the ideal standard-bearer for today’s resistance. (And that’s just with respect to his fiction, without even getting into his moral failings as an actual man and how they ought to figure in our reading of his novels.) But (as I also said about Hard Times), I think there are things about both the arguments and the affect of a novel like Bleak House that could (maybe even should) trump those objections — especially now. I’m not saying these are just petty quibbles, but there are times when picking fights with people who in their own way are fighting on your side can seem counterproductive. As a friendly cynic standing next to me at the recent Women’s March rally said during one of the speeches, “That’s the thing about coalitions: you probably won’t all agree on everything.”

Bleak House, for instance, is eloquent about the ethical obligations of both a shared society and our common humanity. One particularly brilliant thing about the novel is the way it formally enacts the interconnectedness of even the most seeming disparate elements of its complex and widely dispersed universe. “What connexion can there be,” asks the third-person narrator, at once coy and portentous,

between the place in Lincolnshire, the house in town, the Mercury in powder, and the whereabout of Jo the outlaw with the broom, who had that distant ray of light upon him when he swept the churchyard-step? What connexion can there have been between many people in the innumerable histories of this world who from opposite sides of great gulfs have, nevertheless, been very curiously brought together!

The answer Bleak House makes over and over is not just that everyone is connected but that it is both morally and practically destructive to act is if they aren’t — to pursue only narrow self-interest, or single-minded partisanship. Dickens may wring every possible tear out of Jo’s story, but his cry that such children are “dying thus around us every day” is meant to compel his readers out of their comfortable chairs and into constructive action. Esther may be a cloying embodiment of every Victorian cliché about woman’s nature, but Lady Dedlock’s story is a devastating indictment of some of those very ideals, some of which (such as the sexual double standard) are not ones we can complacently claim to have left behind. Bleak House is a novel obsessed with getting us to care about how other people — people unlike ourselves — live, and how they die, and what we might have to do with them. It champions the vulnerable, the persecuted, and the unloved; it makes us feel, over and over, that the best thing anyone can possibly do is — quietly, unassumingly, tenderly — offer whatever help they can, whenever they see the need.

Bleak House is and does more than this, of course. It is a dramatic detective novel, a shameless melodrama, a somewhat peculiar and repressed romance, a vast compendium of images and objects and whimsy and tragedy and sheer, delirious delight in language. It contains multitudes! What moved me particularly about it this time, though, is something not quite reducible to its many component parts, to its characters and events … something like its spirit, or its heart. Heartsick as many recent events have made me, I’ve never felt less inclined towards a hermeneutics of suspicion, whatever its justifications. Maybe Dickens hadn’t worked out the best way to make the world a better, fairer, more compassionate place, but reading Bleak House you can sure tell that’s what he wanted to do, and wanted us to do. Right now, I’ll take it.

The other novel I’ve been working on for class is Valdez Is Coming. It is a pretty different reading experience in almost every way, but it too turns on questions about what’s right and what’s fair, and about when and where to draw the line in the face of an injustice. “Why do you bother?” Valdez is asked about his quest to get restitution for a widow whose fate nobody else cares about because she’s Apache and her dead husband (though shot by Valdez himself) was the victim of their unrepentant racism. “If I tell you what I think,” he replies, “it doesn’t sound right. It’s something I know.” By that time we know too why standing up to the men who mocked him, shot at him, then crucified him when he asked for justice is something he has to do. It’s about not letting them win, yes, but that outcome matters because of who they are, and who he is — and, if we’re on his side, who we want to be, and how we want the world to be. “You get one time, mister, to prove who you are” he tells his antagonist during their final showdown. Valdez (true to his genre) proves who he is through action, including a lot of violence. (I wouldn’t like this novel as much as I do if this violence were treated differently — simply as action, for instance, or drama — but Leonard imbues it with moral and even existential meaning.) A lot of us are thinking, now, about what actions we can take, in our world and in our own quieter way, to prove who we are.

This Week In My Classes: Ups and Downs

The past couple of weeks have felt pretty hectic to me, mostly because any time you teach a new course, or just new material, you have to build up all its materials from scratch. This term it’s Pulp Fiction that needs, well, everything! Not only do I not have any lecture notes to draw on for most of the readings (but boy, am I looking forward to our weeks on The Maltese Falcon, which I have taught before!) but I have no pre-existing handouts, worksheets, tutorial plans, or essay topics, and also not many strong instincts about what kinds of exercises or discussion questions or essay topics will get good results. You can only find that out by making some stuff up and seeing how it goes, which means inevitably there are some hits and some misses. I never usually finalize a lot of course materials in advance, because I want them to develop organically — to be responsive to discussion, and to my ongoing discoveries about what’s interesting or useful, but at this point I have a lot of files I can draw on for ideas for my standard teaching assignments. All I have for Pulp Fiction is my preparatory research and my best guesses!

That said, I think it’s going reasonably well, especially now that the initial anxiety of the start of term has faded and I’m trusting myself and the class more to generate ideas and work with them together. I lectured a bit too much at first, but our last couple of sessions have been about as lively as I usually expect from a class at that level and of that size (it’s settling down to about 80 students). So far we’ve read four short stories, three of them westerns, and today we start work on Valdez Is Coming, which will also be the focus of their first longer assignment. One pedagogical challenge for me is that the characteristic style of the western does not lend itself very well to the kind of close reading strategies that I usually focus on in introductory courses. I’m not saying it’s impossible — just that it has been harder to find passages that seem likely to reward that kind of attention, mostly because the prose is very terse and often very literal, and the stories are quite action- and character-driven. Usually by this point in the term I would have spent quite a bit of time on figurative language, and so far all we’ve really seen examples of is a bit of potential symbolism and some strong imagery, especially of the landscapes. I suppose this is more revealing about what I’m typically reading (or urging them to read) for than anything else: I am having to retrain myself to think about action and dialogue more, and about things like sentence length and rhythm and pacing.

In 19th-Century Fiction we are nearly through Bleak House. They seem to be hanging in there! In this class too I have felt myself falling into too much lecturing, but I have been consciously working on balancing that out with some much more open-ended sessions. I feel as if lecturing in a more orderly way can be an important part of our work on a novel as long and complex as Bleak House, where a risk for newcomers to the novel is getting overwhelmed by minutiae: I try in my lecture segments to give them big grids or maps on which they can later place specific characters or incidents as they arise, or rise to prominence. I also try to plant interpretive seeds in the form of questions to be followed up on as they read further. That way, when we do approach topics through discussion, they will already have been thinking about some of them on their own — which usually seems to work!

Today’s installment of Bleak House was Chapters 46-54, which include the murder of Mr. Tulkinghorn and then Inspector Bucket’s investigation, culminating in the dramatic “reveal” scene in which we find out that [redacted] is the murderer. In the same sequences, Bucket tells Sir Leicester the story we already know about Lady Dedlock’s past. One of the big surprises of the novel is that these revelations bring out the best in Sir Leicester, who until that moment has seemed little more than a buffoon, a walking anachronism. His one redeeming feature has been his devotion to his Lady, and now we see that this, at any rate, is neither foolish nor superficial, but comes from everything that is best in him. As he looks out the window of his ancestral home, bewildered and hurt at the vision of “thousands of fingers pointing at him, thousands of faces sneering at him,” because of his wife’s disgrace, it is she to whom “he addresses his tearing of his white hair, and his extended arms”:

It is she in association with whom, saving that she has been for years a main fibre of the root of his dignity and pride, he has never had a selfish thought. It is she whom he has loved, admired, honoured, and set up for the world to respect. It is she who, at the core of all the constrained formalities and conventionalities of his life, has been a stock of living tenderness and love, susceptible as nothing else is of being struck with the agony he feels. He sees her, almost to the exclusion of himself, and cannot bear to look upon her cast down from the high place she has graced so well.

And even to the point of his sinking on the ground, oblivious of his suffering, he can yet pronounce her name with something like distinctness in the midst of those intrusive sounds, and in a tone of mourning and compassion rather than reproach.

These are also the chapters in which Dickens gives us one of his most tender and pathetic deathbeds (“The cart is shaken all to pieces, and the rugged road is very near its end”), and I am always touched to tears by it, but Sir Leicester’s yearning heart touches me as much, perhaps because it feels like such a generous moment, not just on Sir Leicester’s part, but on Dickens’s, to allow something so beautiful to come from such a ridiculous source. As much as the stalwart assistance of Mrs. Bagnet in negotiating on Mr. George’s behalf, or the staunch friendship of Liz and Jenny, who have only each other for comfort, Sir Leicester’s compassion reflects the hope that permeates Bleak House — that against the mud and the fog and the bleakness of it all, we can set the equally pervasive possibility of kindness and love.

Family Drama: Ann Patchett, Commonwealth

I enjoyed reading Commonwealth: I was engaged all the way through. But I was never gripped by it. I kept waiting for it to go deeper, or get darker, and it just stayed the same: the prose is cool, almost detached, the diffuse ingredients assembled with that air of meaningful randomness that seems to govern a lot of contemporary novels. Why this detail, this memory, this connection, right now? Why tack back into the past at this point, and then skip forward again? Where are we going? The transparent assumption is that simply laying out the story in chronological order isn’t interesting or artful enough, and that can certain be true. Also, sometimes things are dispersed like this so that the climax or revelation comes upon us unexpectedly, or so that the crisis is discerned in its effects before it actually breaks over us, the readers. That’s sort of what goes on in Commonwealth, but maybe because I’m rereading Bleak House right now, I felt a lack of central purpose in Patchett’s novel: I’m fine with a lot of moving parts, but I didn’t feel hers were in service of a deeply felt meaning.

To be fair, I don’t actually think Commonwealth is a swing and a miss at a more profound type of novel. It’s a novel about family drama, so relatively small in scale, and it is sharp in its insights into the ways people come together and move apart. Even allowing for that, I do think Commonwealth isn’t really excellent of its kind. There is a crisis at the heart of Commonwealth — two, I suppose, a tragedy and its exposure — but Patchett never made either of them feel urgent to me. I was interested, sometimes amused, sometimes touched, by the tangle of family relationships Commonwealth presents — and nothing more. This can be enough, of course: there are plenty of books I like a lot that are similar. Is that the real problem, maybe? that Commonwealth slots in too easily in among many similar novels by, say, Anne Tyler or Joanna Trollope? To me, it didn’t really seem to stand out either stylistically or thematically: its effect on me is already fading.

I don’t mean to sound unduly negative about it. I did think it was a good novel; I was just hoping, even expecting, that it would be better than good. Probably it’s another case of my expectations being raised unreasonably by the generally effusive reception it got, or maybe I just read it too soon after A Spool of Blue Thread to appreciate another novel more or less in the same tone and vein. (Or maybe I just read it badly and missed whatever made it special.) Because Commonwealth turns in part on the death of child, too, I can’t help comparing it unfavorably to my favorite novel in the ‘family saga’ genre, Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s Disturbances in the Field. I hardly cared at all about the loss in Commonwealth, while the tragedy in Schwartz’s novel still breaks my heart every time I read it — really, every time I think about it. There’s an emotional intensity in Schwartz’s novel that for me was completely missing in Commonwealth: the whole thing had a more or less flat affect, which felt a little too safe to me, as if Patchett was deliberately steering away from the rapids, or the depths.

I’m uneasy about my own experience of Commonwealth, as you can probably tell, especially as I only just wrote a much more forgiving post about A Spool of Blue Thread. In that post I explicitly welcomed the familiarity of Tyler’s novel — and here I am complaining, if mildly, because Commonwealth didn’t provoke, startle, or particularly delight me. There’s nothing with perfectly good novels! I like family dramas, too: we need them, and not just because a steady diet of books like The Orphan Master’s Son, or King Hereafter, or Hild, or Wolf Hall would be debilitatingly rich. I’m a firm believer in the significance of small-scale stories. Their importance can be harder to discern at first, though. I didn’t really appreciate Unless until I reread it: maybe it will be the same way with Commonwealth.

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