This Week In My Classes: What Makes a “Teachable” Novel?

This week I decided to call my own bluff.

knots_crossesI spend a lot of time fretting about which books I assign in my Mystery and Detective Fiction course — because once you get past the few absolute “must haves” (something by Poe, some Sherlock Holmes, The Moonstone, something to represent the Golden Age, one of the hard-boiled essentials) there are many good reasons but no real imperatives to help me choose from the tens of thousands of possibilities. My guiding principles are coverage (of the major subgenres, such as the police procedural) and diversity (of voice or point of view), but that doesn’t really narrow things down that much. I’ve asked for suggestions quite a few times here, with great results: I have readers like Dorian to thank, for instance, for prodding me to read Sjöwall and Wahlöö, whose The Terrorists is currently a staple of my course reading list.

I tweak that list pretty regularly, and I’m always turning over alternatives in my mind. One of the books I’ve assigned the most is Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses, which is his first Rebus novel. As often the case with the first books in a series, it is in some ways his most self-conscious, and it doesn’t assume any prior knowledge of Rebus on our part, which is useful for classroom purposes. It’s also a nifty little book in its own way, neatly constructed, with lots of clever twists; its deliberate invocations of the Scottish gothic tradition make it nicely literary and its inquiry into masculine identity, military “bonding,” and repression usually spark good discussion. It’s not the best Rebus novel, though (I know Rankin doesn’t think so either): the others, especially the more recent ones, have a broader social and political reach and do more as police procedurals, while Knots and Crosses (which was not intended as a “crime novel” to begin with) is really more of a psychological thriller. Every time I teach Knots and Crosses, then, I mutter to myself (and sometimes remark to the class) that to really see what Rankin and Rebus can do, we should read something else. Yet I have never acted on that conviction.

This week, then, I decided I should reread one of the others that has long been in my mind as an alternative: 2006’s The Naming of the Dead. Set in Edinburgh during the 2005 G8 meeting, it balances its murder investigations against political crimes and misdemeanors of all kinds. Siobhan Clarke is on the case too, but involved personally as well as professionally, and Rebus’s old antagonist, “Big Ger” Cafferty, becomes an uneasy ally. My recollection of the book is that it explored lots of themes we’re always interested in in this class, especially gray areas between crime and detection, or tensions between the law and real justice. Rereading it, this impression has been confirmed, as has my sense that its political context gives Rankin the opportunity to do something similar to what Sjöwall and Wahlöö do, that is, extend particular criminal investigations to larger critiques of systems of power. Rankin’s novels have been acknowledged as contemporary versions of the Victorian ‘condition of England’ novel: with Knots and Crosses, you can’t see why, but with The Naming of the Dead, the genealogy works and would, I think, be really interesting to discuss.

namingofthedeadAnd yet … I am not convinced that I should replace Knots and Crosses after all! Much as I’m enjoying rereading it, I’m not sure it would be as teachable as Knots and Crosses, and my hesitation over this has had me wondering: what do I mean by “teachable”? It’s not something I ever really consider about Victorian novels when choosing among them for my 19th-century fiction classes, but when I’m scouting for mystery novels to assign — or contemplating assigning some new (or new to me) novel for an intro course — “How would this work in the classroom?” is always a concern. And for the majority of mystery novels I read, the (usually unarticulated) response to this question is “it wouldn’t”: I put most of them aside without seriously considering them for my syllabus, which strikes me as interesting. Why would that be? Might it (she says a little nervously) have something to do with the “literary” vs. “genre” fiction distinction? Or, to be more precise, with the ways that methods for “teaching” a novel (at least for me) align with qualities that are more likely to occur in “literary” fiction?

What qualities am I looking for in a novel I assign? I suppose the fundamental requirement is that there be something in it for us to talk about — not just for a few minutes, but for enough classroom hours that we can spread our work on the novel across whatever seems like a reasonable amount of time for the students to read the whole thing. The formula for this will vary depending on the level and nature of the class, of course, but anything that will take up a week or more of class time has to be of a certain complexity — and not just of plot, because just rehearsing what happened is not particularly valuable or interesting. It might sound foolish to put it this way, but to teach a book there also has to be something about it that needs explaining, as well as something that rewards discussion. Not all of this has to be generated by the intrinsic qualities of the book: a book might get some of its interest from external contexts — (literary) historical, for instance, or theoretical. But you don’t (well, I don’t) want to spend a lot of time on stuff around the book and only point to the book itself in passing: you want to dig in and really get to know it!

One way of labeling the process I’m most used to, pedagogically, would be “deep reading,” or “close reading.” Not all books reward that particular kind of reading equally. An alternative is “horizontal reading,” where the individual text is seen as part of a broad array of related and perhaps even quite similar material. Its interest arises at least in part, in that case, by comparison: among things of this kind, how is this particular one different or interesting? In Mystery and Detective Fiction we actually do a combination of the two. I spend a fair amount of time describing a broad horizon of comparison (because we don’t have time to read lots and lots of examples to establish it on our own) and then we consider how our specific example fits into or revises common conventions and tropes. Mystery fiction really is strongly governed by recognizable patterns which in their least interesting versions seem simply formulaic — which is not to say that there aren’t tropes and conventions and formulas in “literary” fiction too, and one reason I’m using scare-quotes is that I am very aware that the distinction I’m invoking is a vexed and imperfect one. But it seems silly to pretend there aren’t books that are very clearly of a kind, perhaps even repetitively or predictably so, and that whatever the pleasures they afford many readers, they don’t individually hold up under the kind of scrutiny I am inclined to give them in class. Or, in another variation on the problem, they don’t do something new and thought-provoking enough to those tropes and conventions that they jump out as examples we need to consider. I’m not judging these books in any absolute way, of course. I’m just measuring them by what I perceive as my pedagogical goals.

moonstoneThen there are other constraints on teachability: more pragmatic ones. Again, with Victorian novels I mostly don’t worry too much about these, though I am wise, or cautious, or jaded, enough never to assign two genuine door-stoppers in the same term  (say, Bleak House and Middlemarch). Students who sign up for “The 19th-Century Novel from Dickens to Hardy” have to know what they are getting into! But the mystery class is a lower-level course that is purely an elective for everybody in it. I can barely get them all through The Moonstone (and in fact I am confident there are always some who never make it to the end) — and that’s a book that’s so interesting I can barely stop talking about it myself! It earns its two weeks of class time by being not just important but really complex and (for the class) quite challenging. This is actually where I fear The Naming of the Dead  falls apart as an option (though I’m not 100% sure yet). Its nearly 500 pages are not nearly as dense as The Moonstone‘s, but in a way that’s just the problem: it goes on for almost as long a time without actually being as complex. It is broad, I might say, and it’s smart, but it’s not particularly deep. I’m not sure about this, because I haven’t tried to map out any lecture topics, but it would be a bad idea to assign 500 pages and then end up feeling like we were spinning our wheels in class.

It’s true that you can find something to say about almost anything, and that there is no one uniform approach that works for teaching all novels. The Naming of the Dead seems to me an in-between case: I’m ruling it out (I think) because it requires too big an investment for the likely payoff in this particular course. It also matters to me that Knots and Crosses — which is both short and suspenseful — is always very popular with students: it is often singled out in course evaluations as a favorite, for instance, and class discussions about it tend to be pretty lively. (This year The Terrorists has been our most-discussed book so far, though.) Maybe it will inspire students to go on and read more of Rankin’s (better) novels on their own; I’m guessing that the number who are inspired to read more Wilkie Collins is very small! I suppose I could swap it out for a different example of the police procedural. I’ve tried that before, actually: one year we read Ed McBain’s Cop Hater, which earned its spot on the list because the 87th Precinct series was ground-breaking of its kind. But for all that is interesting about it, Cop Hater is a really badly written novel, or so we ended up thinking by the time we’d talked it through. In that case, being teachable turned out not to be enough to teach it again!

If you’re curious about which books I’ve chosen over the years, in Mystery and Detective Fiction or in my other classes, you can get a good sense of the range by scanning the On Teaching page of this blog.

14 Comments to This Week In My Classes: What Makes a “Teachable” Novel?

  1. November 15, 2014 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    I’ve taught Orhan Pamuk’s murder/art mystery My Name is Redin a lower division elective course and it worked surprisingly well. Many students don’t like it, I’m sure, but every semester there are a few who come tell me how much they love the novel, how they’ve never read anything like it before, and how they are now going to read some of his other works. It was definitely the most difficult text we read in the semester, but even students who didn’t enjoy it often remarked how much they liked the structure. I would always have more students choose to write their essays on Pamuk’s novel than on The Maltese Falcon, which I always found curious, actually.

  2. lawless's Gravatar lawless
    November 15, 2014 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    As a lifelong fan and reader of mystery and detective fiction, I find the question of “literary canon”, or at least what to teach in a course such as yours, intriguing. Why is The Moonstone an absolute must have? Is it because it’s the first full-length detective novel/police procedural in English? I ask this as someone who admires what Collins seeks to do (or did, depending on one’s view of the novel) but was left cold by the book. Then again, my favorites of his — Annandale, No Name, a few others the names of which escape me — may stray too far from the class’s genre focus.

    Does hard-boiled include noir? I think noir is either the progenitor of hard-boiled fiction or is a subset of it. Noir both appeals to me more as a reader and feels more literary than hard-boiled, but it becomes tiresome if I read too much of it in a row. I attended college before classes such as yours were common, but as Harriet Vane notes of the students she meets in Gaudy Night, I would probably have excelled in such a class.

  3. November 15, 2014 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

    Have you ever considered splitting the class up into groups of three to five students and assigning each group a Rankin, or any other author you’re interested in, or a mystery subgenre of various titles instead of an author? Then, on the basis of your expertise via lecture or whatever method you prefer, having each group act as a panel with the rest of the class comparing and contrasting their own views/impressions via questions and discussion? I’ve always thought that, if I’m ever given my dream teaching course (it’ll never happen) of romance fiction, I’d love to do this with a particular author, or trope. Ah, teacher dreams … 😉

  4. November 16, 2014 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    Oh, that makes perfect sense, of course. I assumed you consistently had small numbers in your classes, not for lack of interest, but as policy. That would be nuts in a big class! It’s unfortunate because breadth is sometimes what intro. classes need.

  5. Dorian Stuber's Gravatar Dorian Stuber
    November 18, 2014 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Fantastic post–helped me realize I think about “the teachable” all the time without ever having stopped to consider what I mean. (It’s like porn, you know it when you see it…) The calculus you describe for what to include on a syllabus, etc is very familiar to me.

    As I thought more about the topic, prompted by your post, it seemed to me that I most worry about whether something is teachable is I don’t like it. Take Elie Wiesel’s Night, for example, which I cannot stand, and which I actually think is quite a pernicious book, but which I always include on my Holocaust Literature syllabus because it’s important in its field, and it fits into the narrative I’m telling in that class. Plus it’s short and syntactically easy, and students tend to like it a lot.

    On the other hand, I also think of Maus, for example, as eminently teachable, and it is one of my very favourite books ever.

    Plus, I sometimes use the idea of “the teachable” to describe books that resonanate with me in some idiosyncratic way that I have a hunch I could teach well. That’s true of Ellen Ullman’s By Blood, which I’m teaching right now.

    And sometimes I don’t realize how teachable something is until after I’ve taught it–especially when students seize on a book and show me how much there is there that I hadn’t even realized. That happened earlier this semester with Sara Kofman’s Holocaust memoir Rue Ordener, Rue Labat.

    I guess I have no idea what I mean by “teachable”…

  6. Dorian Stuber's Gravatar Dorian Stuber
    November 19, 2014 at 2:24 am | Permalink

    I know this is straying from the point of the post–but it makes me sad that so many people’s first (even worse, often only) experience with Holocaust literature is Night. Wiesel really has a lot to answer for in terms of making the Holocaust sacred and ineffable. Plus his reaction to the planning of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum–he refused to be involved if the museum gave prominence to other victim groups (gays, Romany, Jehovah’s Witnesses, political prisoners, etc) really sticks in my craw.

    Have you read Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies & Gentlemen? The title story alone–wow.

  7. Dorian Stuber's Gravatar Dorian Stuber
    November 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Absolutely makes sense as a question. And answer is yes. When I first read Night I knew next to nothing about him. The mystical, sacred response to the Holocaust that the memoir upholds: I really take issue with it. I do find the father & son stuff interesting, though.

  8. dollymix's Gravatar dollymix
    December 12, 2014 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    For what it’s worth, we read Rankin’s “Dead Souls” in a detective fiction class I took in college, and I remember feeling it was a good addition to the class. Although I can’t remember how so exactly, looking back ten-odd years, so maybe it could have been replaced. It did make me read a lot of Rankin thereafter.

    On the one hand, I don’t really think of Knots and Crosses as a mystery novel, but on the other hand I suppose that is a good starting point for discussion in a class focused on mysteries.

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