This Week In My Sabbatical: Reading, Writing, Winter

IceThe winter of our discontent continues: with sidewalks already impassable across most of the city and side roads treacherous tracks of rutted ice, there’s yet another storm bearing down on us that promises the same cycle of snow followed by rain (and thus flooding) followed by a deep freeze. Usually rain is helpful as it means things warm up and snow gets washed away, but this winter it has just been bad news every time. I think it’s really the terrible sidewalks that are breaking people’s spirits — and it’s hard to imagine what can be done about them now that the ice has got such a grip. The whole “if winter comes, can spring be far behind” line is not much help when the answer is “yes, very far”!

But life goes on, and I’m trying not to get too disheartened by the feeling that I’m losing a lot of one of my precious sabbatical months to the extra work and stress this kind of weather brings in its wake. In spite of everything, I haven’t missed a Monday session of “A Meeting With Your Writing” yet, and though sometimes that’s the only time I get much done on my George Eliot project, it’s always very productive time. I was up to almost 20,000 words of my “shitty first draft,” [PDF] and now I’ve started trying to wrestle that material into a slightly better second draft, one that’s more organized, more selective (I actually cut 2000 words this week!), but also more finished, as many parts of it are very sketchy. One of the big challenges for me at this point is that — having generated such a lot of very rough material — I’m struggling to manage it: it has been a long time since I worked with such a long document, but it’s still too messy for me to break it confidently into smaller separate ones. (Does anyone have a good strategy for managing long documents? I’ve used the outline feature to create a table of contents for navigating, but otherwise I’m just paging around.) The other thing that’s very hard for me at this point is believing in the project itself, but I’m making a deliberate effort not to think too hard about whether all this effort will come to anything (meaning, for instance, whether it will ever become a publishable book) and just write.

Speaking of writing, I wanted to spend less time working on campus this term, and that has certainly happened, partly because just getting to campus has seemed like too much of a hassle. I had hoped that the new Halifax Central Library might be a place I’d want to work, but it has proved to be far too bustling a space to suit me. (I’m actually quite crushingly disappointed in the new library overall, not least because I looked forward to it so much for so long … but that’s for another post.) I’m mostly working in my usual basement office at home, as result, but I’ve also been taking my laptop occasionally to the nearby Atlantic School of Theology, where the library is pretty much the polar opposite of the public one: old, musty, and sparsely populated. It also doesn’t allow food or drink in the stacks (so there’s no socializing) and I’m not allowed to use their wi-fi, which is reserved for their own faculty and students: while this annoyed and inconvenienced me at first, because I store so much of my work in the cloud and rely a lot on web resources, I’ve made a few adjustments (such as making sure I have e-books of Eliot’s novels available off-line), and now I think it’s actually a good thing. During the MWYW sessions (and at other times when I know I need to really focus) I cut myself off from the internet anyway, but the temptation is always there; at AST I know I can’t check email or twitter no matter what, so I just putter away. The other nice thing about the AST library is that it overlooks the Northwest Arm. So far the view hasn’t been particularly inspiring (because winter) but it’s nice to at least have a window.

souhamiI haven’t been working exclusively on the book chapter: over the past couple of weeks I was also working on my review of Diana Souhami’s Daniel Deronda spin-off, Gwendolen. It hasn’t been a pleasant task, because I really (really, really) disliked the novel, which means the time spent reading and rereading it was not at all rewarding, and the time spent writing about it triggered a lot of questions about what a review of it was really worth (and to whom). On Twitter a while ago Ron Charles sparked a conversation about the value of book reviews for readers compared to the time and effort they take. I wish I could manage to do a review in 21 hours! Maybe if I took out all the complaining and procrastination that is close to how much time this one literally took — but that kind of deferral itself represents a severe cost in terms of mental energy, and there’s all the agonizing over how to write a really negative review that isn’t gratuitously mean or just a gleeful hatchet job. In any case, however long they take, I’ve been wondering how good a use of my time book reviews are, because it seems like they just go out into the ether and don’t make any difference. The book is already published, readers will read it or they won’t, and my little opinions, over in an obscure corner of the internet, aren’t exactly going to shape any broader conversation about the book if there even is one. On the other hand (and I excel at offering myself counter-arguments!) I do think books and reading matter and that attentive, honest criticism is a crucial part of literary culture, so participating in it is the right thing to do. As for being mean, well, if I think a book is really bad, there’s no point in my writing the review if I’m not going to say so, but I also have a responsibility to explain my judgment as thoroughly and thoughtfully as I can. I hope I’ve done that in this case.

I’ve already written up the other recent reading I’ve done, including Arctic Summer for my book club. I can add that we met Monday night and had quite a vigorous discussion about the novel, which was not very popular with the group. In general, people found it dull and/or badly written — which I didn’t — while a number of us puzzled over the difference between the Forster it showed us and the Forster we thought could have written Howards End. I didn’t think of it quite this way at the time, but one way to reflect on this would have been to think about the biographical author vs. the implied author, except that there’s the added complication that Galgut’s Forster is himself a literary character. I was kind of surprised that the overall reaction to Arctic Summer was so negative, but one thing I enjoy about the group is that often it’s the books that aren’t favorites that end up provoking the best conversation. Rather than following up with another book about India (I had been thinking of pitching Kipling’s Kim as a possibility) or something else somehow Forster-related (for instance, we considered Maurice as a logical next step) we ended up following Galgut to South Africa, and then settling on Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist for our next meeting.

I have some other things lined up to read before then, though. I’ve just started Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead, which is actually a kind of teaching-related task: following up some links to it that went around on Twitter, I thought it sounded like a contender for my mystery class, both because of its interesting historical context and because its author is Canadian. I don’t like it much so far, though: the writing and the set-up of the plot both seem very labored. I plucked Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes off the shelf the other day because all the talk about The Buried Giant reminded me that, much as I adore The Remains of the Day, I haven’t read much of Ishiguro’s back catalog. Finally, just for pure fun I’m rereading Busman’s Honeymoon. I talk all the time about how much I love Gaudy Night; although I think it is generally regarded as a sappy disappointment, I’ve also always loved this sequel too. I haven’t read it closely, though, since I started teaching and writing more about detective fiction, so I’m curious to discover how it holds up. The first 30 pages have been just as delightful as always!

12 Comments to This Week In My Sabbatical: Reading, Writing, Winter

  1. February 25, 2015 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

    Oh, dear. Well, yes, winter. You’re definitely having a worse one than we are here in Chicagoland. It is discouraging–especially those treacherously icy sidewalks. Do you know about YakTrax, these amazing little gizmos that attach to the bottom of your shoes and make you completely stable on the ice. Not good for running errands, because you can’t really wear them indoors, but outside, going for a walk (which I do everyday, despite the polar freeze), they’re fabulous.

    Re: the writing. You probably know the the quote from Raymond Carver? That he tried to write everyday “without hope and without despair.” Meaning, I think, just shut up and do the work; no one can know what will come of it.

    Anyway. That’s one approach, if you can manage it (that’s the “trying” part of the quote).

    And one more thing: About the value of your reviewing. When I read your reviews, even if I’m pretty sure I’m not going to read the book you’re discussing, I really, really appreciate seeing the way you work through the post, figuring out what you want to say, what you feel and think about a book, demonstrating again and again that whether one “likes” a book is the least of it, that some aspects can work for you, and others don’t, and still it has value as a reading experience, and you work so hard at carefully communicating the whys and wherefores of all that, even arguing with yourself in interesting ways. I love witnessing that process. It has been an extremely valuable learning experience to me in all the time i have been reading your blog. So thanks for that.

    • Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
      February 26, 2015 at 9:01 am | Permalink

      At book club I learned that all my friends with dogs have something like those, else they could not take them out walking! I think I’ll get some next year, just in case we get this awful ice again.

      That Carver quote is spot on. Easier said than done, of course!

      Thanks for your encouragement about reviews. I almost always enjoy the process here; somehow I feel differently accountable, or something, when writing more formally, “even” for OLM.

  2. February 26, 2015 at 12:48 am | Permalink

    Not sure how South Africa led to Good Terrorist–via Rhodesia, maybe? But no matter because Good Terrorist is SO AMAZING and really underrated, in my opinion.

    Nocturnes really didn’t do it for me. But I adore Pale View of Hills. Have you read that one?

    I’m sympathetic to that feeling that a review vanishes into the ether, but, for what it’s worth, your reviews matter a lot to me.

    I’ve just been teaching Matthew Goulish’s essay “Criticism” in which he says the critic can only write to change herself. It’s an interesting little piece, if you don’t know it.

    Stay warm!

    • Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
      February 26, 2015 at 8:48 am | Permalink

      As always, it was a circuitous route, but we were considering Coetzee, then someone mentioned The Grass is Singing, which is set in South Africa (or so someone thought – looking around now, I see that its setting gets described different ways), but then it wasn’t the Lessing we were most intrigued by, and so here we are! I’m glad you say The Good Terrorist is so good!

      Haven’t read Pale View of the Hills or finished When We Were Orphans. So many books, never enough time…

  3. February 26, 2015 at 2:02 am | Permalink

    I personally think “sappy disappointment” is an oxymoron and am very fond of Busman’s Honeymoon, though I agree it’s not as great as Gaudy Night.

    My library hold on Khan’s book just came in, though I probably won’t get to it for several days, so I look forward to seeing your thoughts (even if you give up, tweet me about it!). Like Susan, I enjoy reading your reviews just because I like to see your mind at work on reading. I really value the care and consideration you give to the texts you discuss.

    • Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
      February 26, 2015 at 8:57 am | Permalink

      I will definitely report back on the Khan, and be interested in your reaction too. The final Prime Suspect dealt with the same historical context and I remember it being really good: I must dig out my old tape if that too.

      Since I enjoy and learn from so many reviews myself, you’d think I wouldn’t get so vexed about writing them. I think it’s mostly that a bad book makes me resent how hard I find the work. Blog posts come more easily, but I always feel a lot more pressure for more formal pieces.

  4. February 26, 2015 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    I am interested in your thoughts about book reviewing because I’ve spent a large part of today curled up in an armchair in a back room at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre reading their collection of reviews of past productions of ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’ and eventually coming to the conclusions that the reviewers (almost all men) had spent most of the time writing about what sort of evening they’d had rather than saying anything intelligent about the production. I know little more about the actually productions than I did when I started – except, of course, that they all starred a dog. As I consider Lance and Crab the most important characters in the play this did not distress me too much, even though I suspect that the reason they were so frequently commented on had little to do with their centrality in the action and far more to do with the fact that it easy to write about a dog.

  5. February 26, 2015 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

    I’ve thought about the value of writing book reviews as well, and for me it comes down to the fact that I enjoy writing them. I’m glad they are out there for other people to read and I hope they do, but even if the audience is small, I’ve taken the time to think and write and I’ve enjoyed it and to me that’s enough. At least it’s enough for now. And the cool thing is that if I decide I’m not getting enough out of it to be worth while, I can just stop. It’s not my job after all! I like what you said in the comments about writing formal reviews, for OLM or elsewhere, as requiring a different level of accountability (at least I think that’s what you meant). I think I’ve felt motivated to write reviews for venues other than my blog because I want that extra push to write more carefully and thoughtfully than I would otherwise. It’s easy for me to dash things off on my blog — and there’s nothing wrong with that! — but I like putting the extra effort in now and then to write for a more formal review site.

  6. February 28, 2015 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    Please don’t stop writing reviews. It’s so hard to find a non-commercial site that reviews the kind of fiction I’m interested in.

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