September 28, 2007

"Just Right" Stories

I have been interested in these recent discussions about what books ought to be assigned to young readers. Like the seemingly endless array of articles about Harry Potter's success and what, if anything, it means for the literary tastes and aptitudes of current and future readers, these exchanges have made me think back on my own youthful experiences with books. For instance, I'm not in a position to assess whether in fact the boom in literature aimed at "young adults" has created readers ready and eager to move on to other books (books for "old adults"?). But I do have reservations about sending the message to younger readers that there are books that are for them and books that are not, either because of their content or because of their more demanding or sophisticated style and vocabulary. Judging difficult, depressing, or confrontational books inappropriate for young readers in fact seems to me the most likely way to contribute to a "decline in literary reading." I read Judy Blume and Jean Little pretty enthusiastically as a "tween" and teenager, for instance, and Barbara Willard and K. M. Peyton, among authors who wrote with readers more or less my age in mind. But I also read Charlotte Bronte, Dorothy Sayers, Dorothy Dunnett, Jane Austen, John Steinbeck, James Michener, Louisa May Alcott, Tolstoy, Dick Francis, Jean Plaidy, Margaret Mitchell...anything that looked interesting to me, that fed my love of language and of story, or that I hoped would help me live up to my aspirations to be a bookish person, involved in what I saw as a highly-valued adult activity. I read books that I did not understand, books that disturbed me, books that were trashy, books that were philosophical, books that were innovative, books that were formulaic, books that I've completely forgotten and might as well not have read, books that I still love today. My reach often exceeded my grasp--but what strikes me, in retrospect, is that I was grasping, and that I was encouraged to do so, rather than encouraged, as my daughter now is, to seek out books that are "just right" (which, we've been told, means books in which no less than 90% of the vocabulary is familiar, and are also, as far as I can tell from the assigned books she brings home, entirely wholesome and entirely flavorless, like pablum). Admittedly, she's in Grade 1, and it's a reasonable goal to want her to get confident about reading. And it was my parents, rather than my teachers (with rare and memorable exceptions), who made reading seem to me such an exciting pursuit--largely by reading incessantly themselves. But in Grade 1 I was reading The Young Mary Queen of Scots, to my teacher's surprise, and loving it. Comfort with reading quickly becomes a pretty limiting standard, and one that no doubt lies behind some of the complaints academics hear so often about the kinds of books we assign--too long, too hard, too boring. I'm not really worried about my daughter: she will do her homework with the "just right" books, but she'll have lots of books around to challenge and excite her, lots of support with moving beyond her comfort level. That way I hope she'll feel bold, critical, and confident not just reading but also responding to whatever books she's assigned, as well as any she picks off the shelf for herself. But I worry about how pervasive the theory seems to be that what is taught should meet or reflect, rather than raise or challenge, the reader's current interests and abilities. It seems all to easy, to me, for "just right" to settle into "just enough"--and no more.

September 24, 2007

This Week in My Classes

The warm-up period is over: now we're really getting down to work.

1. English 3032, 19thC Novel. This week, we start Great Expectations. In addition to placing the novel in the context of Dickens's career and a range of social and intellectual issues (from the alienation induced by modern urban professional society, to anxieties about the moral implications of Darwinism), I like to focus on Pip's retrospective narration and the ways his personal development prepares him, ultimately, to become the kind of man (especially the kind of "gentleman") who is capable of telling us this story. Great Expectations is also good for shaking up casually-held stereotypes about Victorian 'realism,' as from Pip's palindromic name to Miss Havisham's wedding feast to Wemmick's castle to Magwitch's splendidly eerie reappearance, nearly every element in the novel pressures us to read it literarily rather than mimetically. Plus, there's Joe's hat falling off the mantel in Volume II Chapter 8...

2. English 5465, Victorian Women Writers. Here, we are taking one more look at the 'real' life of a Victorian woman novelist before turning our attention to the novels themselves. But with Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Bronte, we have the added interest of one Victorian woman writer writing about another, and in the process exploring the ideas of femininity, authorship, vocation, and duty that preoccupied them both, though in different ways, throughout their writing careers. Last week we considered Margaret Oliphant's writing her own story in response to a literary representation of George Eliot's life (she points to Cross's biography as having prompted her to begin the Autobiography). But Oliphant has been reading Gaskell's Life of CB as well, so as we read on, we are accumulating a range of interrelated ideas about these women and their work--from them and from their respondents, interpreters, and critics--to carry forward with us into our analysis of the fiction they produced. In class we struggled somewhat with the idea of Oliphant's Autobiography as a literary text because at times both its form and its content seem so unselfconscious, spontaneous, and diary-like that we weren't confident attributing intent or design (though we also considered, of course, that it has literary qualities and other effects regardless of how deliberately they were developed). Gaskell's biography of Bronte is much more conspicuously constructed with its own aims and purposes. Critics have disputed how far Gaskell's stated goals--such as defending Bronte against her critics and presenting a sympathetic portrait of someone we are often reminded was Gaskell's "dear friend"--are sincere or unproblematic and how much she is using Bronte as a prop to establish her own literary credentials or to resolve larger debates about the "vexed question of sex" in authorship, as she calls it (she is emphatic that whatever their domestic responsibilities, women also have a duty to use their God-given talents, even if that means stepping outside the 'normal' bounds of female propriety). I expect we will have some good discussion along these lines. Reading The Life of Charlotte Bronte right after Oliphant's Autobiography should also prompt some conversation about their very different views and experiences of being women writers.

September 23, 2007

Compact Classics

We've known these were coming for a while, but somehow the news hit me harder seeing this up on Amazon. I'm not sure what people will think they have read after finishing one of these volumes. A novel is not identical with its plot summary, after all: the complete reading experience includes aesthetic, formal, and intellectual aspects as well. And cutting is hardly a neutral activity: every choice represents an interpretation as well as a judgment (one reader's excess verbiage is another's delight). A further concern: I already feel I need to see most adaptations of novels I teach so that I can anticipate ways students may conflate original and adaptation (or recognize the signs that they have substituted watching for reading). Will I have to read these mutant versions too?

September 19, 2007

Blogs and Plagiarism

I check my sitemeter intermittently to see what searches land people over here. The results usually surprise me: not long ago I noticed that a lot of people seemed to end up here because they were looking for information on Margaret Oliphant, for instance, and lately a lot of people are looking for information on James Wood, on Brick Lane, and on Black and Blue. There is, of course, no way to know why people are searching these topics (though I think it's safe to assume it's not because they are anxious to know what I in particular have to say about them). Now, though, I'm seeing signs of the new academic term being underway--or at least, that's what it looks like--as more searches appear to come from students looking to get a little direct 'help' with their homework. Someone recently Googled "conclusion for emotional/moral paper," for instance, and ended up at my post on George Eliot and non-belief, while another Googled "revision questions Middlemarch" and ended up at my post on A.S. Byatt. Of course, I can't be sure that the former was hoping to find a conclusion for a paper s/he was supposed to write, or that the latter was hoping to answer whatever questions had been provided. Like many Google search strings, these ones are elliptical and ambiguous. And I don't expect that these (or other searchers with impure intentions) find much help on this site--these ones didn't stay long, anyway, which I incline to think is a good sign. But this has prompted me to think more about something that worried me when I began doing this, namely whether by blogging I am contributing to the problem of plagiarism that plagues me in my more formal role as a teacher and professional. I see that Acephalous and his commenters have been over this territory as well, and in particular over the problem that apparently TurnItIn.Com does not do well at catching blog posts. One suggestion made was that bloggers should stick to a 'bloggy' style, so that bits cut and pasted into supposedly formal assignments would stand out; the reasonable response was, basically, that academic bloggers hope to generate high quality material, and insisting on a highly colloquial style or otherwise restricting the character or form of blog posts would defeat that aim. Given all the other information readily available online, I guess I don't see that blogging literary texts (or potential essay topics) really gives would-be plagiarists that much more to work with / steal from. But teachers should presumably be aware that TurnItIn is not a one-size-fits-all solution and that you should also run key phrases through search engines yourself. I also recently heard an interesting story about plagiarism running the other way, from someone's published work to someone's blog--though what someone would achieve by turning things around that way rather eludes me. In any case, students should be aware that if they can find a source on the Internet, so can their instructors, and also that if their instructors post course-related material on a blog, they will almost certainly recognize their own ideas or phrases if their students incorporate them into their assignments.

September 18, 2007

Good Intentions Lead to Piles...

...of books, that is!

As the teaching term gets underway, one's good intentions regarding research are mostly (at least in my experience) manifested through stacks of books you fully intend (honest!) to read during the next interval you have set aside (ever the optimist!) for concentrated research time...but the stacks rarely diminish much, because (a) that time gets stolen away by meetings, because strictly speaking you don't really have something scheduled for that time and it's the only time the six other people on the committee can meet (I know, administration is important too), and (b) the other way you prove that, nonetheless, you are going to make progress on your research projects is that you drop by the library on your way back from class to pick up a few more books from your working bibliography (and you were going there anyway to get some caffeine, to keep you awake during your next meeting). Here are my most recent additions:
  1. Robert Scholes, The Rise and Fall of English (This one will be sort of a 'reread,' but I felt I needed a refresher look.)
  2. Richard Ohmann, English in America (ha--"Why, in America, they haven't used it for years!"--My Fair Lady)
  3. Richard Ohmann, Politics of Knowledge (or, apparently, English in America 25 years later)
  4. Jonathan Arac, Critical Genealogies
  5. Jonathan Culler and Kevin Lamb, eds., Just Being Difficult?: Academic Writing in the Public Arena (this looks like an interesting review but I don't have a subscription)
On the bright side, these will all make a nice break--or a change, at least--from the emotional devastation of Oliphant's Autobiography or (next week's adventure in literature, depression, and death) Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Bronte.

September 17, 2007

This Week in My Classes

Here's what my students and I will be reading and talking about this week:

1. English 3032, 19th-Century Novel: We are finishing up Trollope's The Warden, with a special focus on Trollope's redefinition of heroism on a small scale and on his interest in the way public questions are always "a conglomeration of private interests." We'll also be looking at the role of his intrusive narrator, and at his parodies of Carlyle (as Dr. Pessimist Anticant) and Dickens (as Mr Popular Sentiment) as he works towards his own theory of fiction. "What story was ever written without a demon?" he asks in Chapter XV; "What novel, what history, what work of any sort, what world, would be perfect without existing principles both of good and evil?" As every reader of The Warden comes to see, this novel does not allow us to perceive the world as consisting of such extremes, despite John Bold's frustrated exclamation, "If there be a devil, a real devil here on earth, it is Dr. Grantly."

2. English 5465, Victorian Women Writers: This week it's Margaret Oliphant's Autobiography, which shifts us sharply away from last week's more abstract discussion of Victorian arguments over femininity and women's 'mission' into a life full of contradictions and compromises, struggle and suffering (economic and mental). While Oliphant's consideration of her own fiction, and her comparisons (often rueful or resentful) between her own hard-earned modest success and her more triumphant literary 'sisters' (especially George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte) will be of much interest to us, I am sure we will also talk about the form, mode, and tone of the Autobiography itself, with its long passages of heartbreaking lamentation for lost children interwoven with (often, seeming to slice apart) its record of ordinary domestic life and travels. Here's an excerpt from just after the death of Maggie, aged 10, after a sudden and very brief illness:
I ask myself why, why, and I cannot find any answer. I had but one woman-child and she was just beginning to sympathize with me, to comfort me, and at this dear moment, her little heart expanding, her little mind growing, her sweet life blossoming day by day, God has taken her away out of my arms and refuses to hear my cry and prayer. My heart feels dead. . . . Now I have to go limping and anxious through the world all the days of my life. . . . Oh God forgive me and help me. O God convey to me a sense of my darling's happiness, a feeling that she will not forget me and that I shall find her again, and have pity upon a poor heartbroken creature who does not know what she is saying. . . .Those curls I was so proud of were never more beautiful than when they were all rippling back with the gold string through them from her dear head as she lay ill, and when they lay all peaceful and still with her white wreath of hyacinths and snowdrops, she as as lovely as the angel she is. Oh my child, my child.
She would lose all of her children before her own death, "writing steadily," as she says, "all the time" to support the ne'er-do-well sons who survived into adulthood and the array of relatives who came to depend on her industry and charity. The poignant conclusion:
And now here I am all alone.
I cannot write anymore.

September 16, 2007

Carlyle Letters Online

A fabulous new resource has just been opened up online by Duke University Press: the letters of Jane and Thomas Carlyle. I've only peered around briefly, but the site is very attractive and seems easy to use. More to the point, it gives us easy access to all kinds of gems, such as this one, from TC to Elizabeth Gaskell just after the publication of Mary Barton:
Dear Madam (for I catch the treble of that fine melodious voice very well),—We have read your Book here, my Wife first and then I; both of us with real pleasure. A beautiful, cheerfully pious, social, clear and observant character is everywhere recogniseable in the writer, which surely is the welcomest sight any writer can shew us in his books; your field moreover is new, important, full of rich materials (which, as is usual, required a soul of some opulence to recognise them as rich): the result is a Book seeming to take its place far above the ordinary garbage of Novels,—a Book which every intelligent person may read with entertainment, and which it will do every one some good to read. I gratefully accept it as a real contribution (almost the first real one) towards developing a huge subject, which has lain dumb too long, and really ought to speak for itself, and tell us its meaning a little, if there be any voice in it at all! Speech, or Literature (which is, or should be, Select-Speech) could hardly find a more rational function, I think, at present.
The letters are fully indexed and footnoted. Thanks to Jack Kolb on the Victoria listserv for making sure we found out about this right away! I can hardly wait to browse around some more.

September 13, 2007

Exit Rebus?

From The Guardian this week:
Rankin readers have known for several years that some kind of end was coming. Most series' authors freeze their heroes' birth-dates: realistically, John Le Carré's George Smiley and PD James's Adam Dalgliesh would have been beyond the care of the insurance industry in their later adventures. Rebus, however, has always passed a birthday during or between books and so his retirement from the force was always scheduled for November 2006, across 10 days of which Exit Music is set. Even this, as Rankin has scrupulously acknowledged in interviews, is strictly fantastical. Most cops get out as soon as they have piled enough years into their pension.

But the novels have always made it clear that Rebus remains a policeman because there is nothing else he can bear to be - he has failed in spells as husband, father, even, perhaps, as human being - and so Exit Music is underscored with a double line of heavy regret, Rebus wanting to go no more than the reader wishes him to. (Read the rest here--don't worry, no spoilers!)

I'll certainly be sorry to see him go; I'm a big fan of this series, which shows how an author can work within the structures and strictures of genre fiction to accomplish a wide range of literary and other effects. (P.D. James, another of my favourites, has said explicitly that the clear structure of detective stories frees her up to concentrate on other aspects of her fiction.*) I have taught the first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses, twice in my course on Mystery and Detective Fiction (and plan to assign it again this winter), not because I think it's the best of the bunch but because Rankin works so well in it both with and against key elements of its genre that it 'teaches well,' as those of us in the lit biz say. Rankin claims that he did not intend to write a mystery novel (when I was prepping Knots and Crosses, I came across a story, perhaps an interview, in which he claims to have been dismayed to find it filed under mysteries rather than under fiction or literature). He was actually working on a Ph.D. in literature when he turned to writing fiction; he is wittily but ruthlessly dismissive of critical approaches to literature now (I've seen this in person, as he gave a reading and talk here a couple of years back)--this seems like a shame, as he is (despite his best efforts to hide it) clearly very knowledgeable about the history and craft of his chosen genre, as well as about literature and writing more generally. Does he think he'll alienate readers if he drops the whole "I spend all my time at the pub" routine? (He was very funny about that, though, claiming to pass Alexander McCall Smith's house on his way to and fro and always hearing the clickety-clack of the keys there heralding the completion of yet another bestseller.)

*To hear a wonderful talk by P. D. James on "The Craft of the Mystery Story," go here.

September 12, 2007

This Week in My Classes

I think one of the commenters on Footnoted is right that the most hostile reactions come from people who have an inaccurate idea of what goes on in 'lit departments.' I also think that essays like Wasserman's don't consider academics when they think about the state of literary culture because (a) for a mix of good and bad reasons, most academic writing and scholarship is not directly or visibly connected to or known in that culture and (b) our classroom work is typically forgotten, disregarded, or misunderstood outside the academy. I don't suppose that my own classroom is either wholly typical or exemplary, but I think it might contribute somewhat to the demystification of our profession, now that the teaching term is underway, to make it a regular feature of my blog to outline what lies in store for me and my students each week. As I have just two classes this term, thanks to the teaching relief I get for coordinating the graduate program, the list won't be long (unlike most of the readings we're doing!). And so, without further ado...
  1. English 3032, The Nineteenth-Century British Novel from Dickens to Hardy. Having begun Monday with an overview of literary and historical contexts for the novel in our period, we are launching today into our study of Trollope's odd little charmer The Warden. A small man in a big institution has a small problem that is a big one for his conscience; while sorting through this dilemma in his plot and for his characters, Trollope is also working out his own style of realism, in contrast to "Mr Popular Sentiment" (Dickens). Today I'll be offering some generalizations about Trollope, then zeroing in on his interest in individuals working in complex institutions (the Church of England, in our particular case), then looking at the characterization of the main players in The Warden, especially Mr Harding (love that imaginary cello!) and the chief combatants, John Bold (he's bold--get it?!) and Archdeacon Grantly ("Good heavens!").
  2. English 5465, Victorian Women Writers--the Novelists. Here too we have begun with an overview of literary and historical contexts, this time with an emphasis on women's situation in the 19th century and how this affected (or, as Gilbert and Gubar notoriously argued, "infected") their literary options, attitudes, and styles. To kickstart the term's discussion, we read some 19thC essays on 'lady novelists,' one of them (of course) being George Eliot's (in)famous "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists." "Be not a baker if your head be made of butter" is a good line for anyone who ventures into print--perhaps especially for bloggers...
And now, off to class.

September 9, 2007

Mad as Hell--at Literary Critics?

This particularly virulent comment appeared quite promptly after excerpts from my previous post appeared at Footnoted (see also update below):
Lit crit should finally die the death it so much deserves. Lit departments have floundered for decades because they have forgotten the text. Instead, they have pandered to the politically correct idiots who can neither read with sense nor write with style. May they ALL be flushed down the toilet where they belong.
Hostility towards literary critics is an interesting subcategory of what Tim Burke discusses at intelligent length on his blog as "Anger at Academe". Now, I started writing on this blog in part because of my own frustrations with some aspects of academic literary criticism; I have vented once or twice about particular examples of it, here and in print; and I've spent a fair amount of time recently looking at books, journals, and blogs that inquire into it from a variety of historical, theoretical, sociological, and what I might call 'readerly' perspectives. I think it's not only fine but desirable for people both inside and outside 'lit departments' to ask questions about the nature and condition of our discipline. But I have been frequently surprised by just how angry or dismissive some people are--and not just anonymous "trolls" such as the Footnoted commenter, but also some prominent figures in contemporary literary culture, such as Cynthia Ozick, who in her essay "Literary Entrails," writes the following:
(Academic theorists equipped with advanced degrees, who make up yet another species of limited reviewers, are worthy only of a parenthesis. Their confining ideologies, heavily politicized and rendered in a kind of multi-syllabic pidgin, have for decades marinated literature in dogma. Of these inflated dons and doctors it is futile to speak, since, unlike the hardier customer reviewers, they are destined to vanish like the fog they evoke.)
(For some previous discussion of Ozick's essay, see here.) As I noted in another earlier post, "Daniel Green of the blog The Reading Experience ... writes about 'academic schoolmasters, who now only serve to inflict the miseries behind the thick walls of their suffocating scholastic prisons'...Ouch." Francine Prose is another in this chorus, though her language about the academy (while equally dismissive) is at least somewhat more temperate.

An anonymous commenter on one of my own less temperate posts remarked that "The mere existence of theory-driven, 'difficult' literary criticism does not rob the amateur book lover of one micron of reading pleasure. " I think s/he is is right about this, but some of the hostility directed at us does seem to come from a sense that academics have betrayed or spoiled something that these lovers of literature cherish. As some of the scholarly work I've been reading also suggests, there is a grain of truth to this (see, for instance, the quotation from John McGowan's Democracy's Children included in this post). And that leads me to wonder how far I agree with that same commenter when s/he asks why academic literary specialists should be expected to write for a general audience any more than "specialists in quantum mechanics" should be expected to "write up their research in such a way that fans of Stephen Hawking can understand it." It does seem to me that there are important differences between literature and quantum mechanics as areas of study, though pinning them down at all (much less in an uncontroversial or tendentious way) may be challenging. I guess I'd start by pointing out that the texts we study in 'lit departments' typically originate as acts of communication aimed at readers or other forms of a general audience, not scholars, often with urgent purposes (whether aesthetic, social, political, or other). I realize that this does not at all render them inappropriate objects of study or theory--but it does mean that non-scholars have a different relationship with our primary materials than with subatomic particles. Does this justify such vitriolic response to our professional work? Not at all, but it may be the seed of at least a preliminary explanation for it, and some justification for making sure at least some of our work reaches beyond the academy.

Update: There's more, and no better. And these are readers of the Chronicle of Higher Education website, not Guns and Ammo or something, though it appears that they visit the site only to fan the flames of their antipathies:

It is in academia where you DO NOT find down to earth people. It is academia the home of obnoxious, arrogants who can not read for pleasure but can destroy a good book or poem through stupid literary criticism.
Most academic critics are irrelevant because they publish enough for the world to know what they think and how they think.
I understand why people interested in a reasoned discussion are not jumping in over there, but what's a girl gotta do to get some discussion going on over here? (September 10)

September 5, 2007

Academics and Literary Culture

There's a thoughtful piece in the latest Columbia Journalism Review by Steve Wasserman, former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review (among other things). Wasserman presents a mix of good and bad news about the current state of book reviewing and contemporary literary culture more generally. It strikes me as interesting that his analysis, which considers demographic and economic factors in publishing and newspapers, anti-intellectualism in American culture broadly speaking and in newsrooms more particularly, changing technologies for reading and writing, and many other factors, says nothing in particular about the role of professional academic critics. Perhaps they are implicitly included here--but somehow I don't think so:
It is through the work of novelists and poets that we understand how we imagine ourselves and contend with the often elusive forces—of which language itself is a foremost factor—that shape us as individuals and families, citizens and communities, and it is through our historians and scientists, journalists and essayists that we wrestle with how we have lived, how the present came to be, and what the future might bring.
And again, implicitly, perhaps both Mark Sarvas and Richard Schickel mean nods in our direction when they outline what they see as prerequisites for good reviewing, but again, somehow I don't think so:
Mark Sarvas, among the more sophisticated of contemporary literary bloggers whose lively site, The Elegant Variation, offers a compelling daily diet of discriminating enthusiasms and thoughtful book chat, recognizes the problem. In a post last spring about the fate of newspaper reviews, he wrote: “There’s been an unspoken sense in this discussion that Book Review = Good. It doesn’t always—there are plenty of mediocre to lousy reviewers out there, alienating (or at least boring) readers…Too many reviews are dull, workmanlike book reports. And every newspaper covers the same dozen titles…There’s much talk about the thoughtful ‘literary criticism’ on offer in book reviews but you don’t get much of that literary criticism in 850 words, so can we stop kidding ourselves?” But neither does Sarvas find such criticism on the vast Democracy Wall of the Internet, which he is otherwise at pains to promote. He confesses that, for him, the criticism that counts is to be found in the pages of such indispensable publications as The New York Review of Books or the pages of the upstart Bookforum.
What Sarvas is reluctant to concede but is too intelligent to deny is what Richard Schickel, the film critic for Time magazine, eloquently affirmed in a blunt riposte, published in the Los Angeles Times in May, to the “hairy-chested populism” promoted by the boosters of blogging: “Criticism—and its humble cousin, reviewing—is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author’s (or filmmaker’s or painter’s) entire body of work, among other qualities.”
(Quite rightly, Wasserman banishes the false dichotomy some, including Schickel, have proposed between print and online reviewing: "Moreover, the debate over the means by which reviews are published—or, for that matter, the news more generally—is sterile. What counts is the nature and depth and authority of such coverage, as well as its availability to the widest possible audience. Whether readers find it on the Web or on the printed page matters not at all. Content rules.")

Anyway, I'm wondering: Do academic critics have a part in the story Wasserman is telling? Should we? Is his omission a sign of our irrelevance to it, or his neglect of our relevance, or our failure to make our relevance visible and understood, or something else altogether?

September 2, 2007

Even in Blogging, Everything New is Old

I've been reading through the archives of some lively blog debates related to my own questions about the terms and tendencies of contemporary academic literary criticism (see, for instance, here, here or here). Following the long chains of arguments and rebuttals, examples and counter-examples, I'm struck with a familiar sense of futility: when so much has been said by so many so often, what can I hope to add? I'm also struck, though, by just how unaware I was that conversations of quite this kind were going on. It's not that I did not know that the terms of criticism have long been debated,of course, including in polemical and political ways as they often are in these blog exchanges--I did my graduate work at Cornell in the early 90s, after all. It's more that I literally had never heard of blogs until last year, and until early this year, I had no idea that there was such a category as 'academic blogs.' So what seemed to me like something new and experimental, like casually posting some notes on my current reading online, turned out to be entirely old and, as far as rethinking criticism goes, hardly experimental, especially as I did not know enough about the blogging scene to have any particular critical or theoretical agenda when I started.

I'm not really sure why my obliviousness to these online forums and debates--at a time when, after all, I was hard at work on other specialized reading and writing--strikes me as somehow symptomatic of more than just my own individual ignorance. Maybe the point is just that the ideal often expressed by academic bloggers (e.g. here or here) about opening up lines of communication is still a pretty long way off: at least in my immediate circles, blogging is definitely still seen as a fringe activity. In a way, it is 'just' (or just like) another academic specialization, in that academic bloggers know each other and link to each other and talk to and about each other, as do, say, medieval historians or Christina Rossetti scholars. I am persuaded that blogging has the potential to change a lot about our working and thinking lives (this was useful in clarifying some of the issues, as was this, to pick just two of the long and growing list of materials I've bookmarked), but old habits die hard and skeptical attitudes abound. Then, when it comes to joining in the debates, precisely because this form of publication and discussion is so diffuse, it feels like a particularly difficult conversation even to eavesdrop on, never mind to participate in. Also, while in typical academic publishing, with its glacier-like pace, it's hard to feel that you are coming in too late, somehow reading these blog archives on the function of criticism makes further comment seem SO does one 'make it new,' on or off line?

Leslie Stephen, "Charlotte Bronte"

Just a few choice bits from the latest essay I've been editing for my forthcoming anthology, Leslie Stephen's piece on Charlotte Bronte from the Cornhill Magazine. First, an apt description of the uneasy balance required of either reviewer or critic between sympathy and analysis, charity and judgment:
Undoubtedly it is a very difficult task to be alternately witness and judge; to feel strongly, and yet to analyse coolly; to love every feature in a familiar face, and yet to decide calmly upon its intrinsic ugliness or beauty. To be an adequate critic is almost to be a contradiction in terms; to be susceptible to a force, and yet free from its influence; to be moving with the stream, and yet to be standing on the bank.
Stephen's own analysis of CB does, I think, display something like the desired balance. Here, for example, he proposes a standard against which to measure her overall achievement:
Miss Brontë, as her warmest admirers would grant, was not and did not in the least affect to be a philosophical thinker. And because a great writer, to whom she has been gratuitously compared, is strong just where she is weak, her friends have an injudicious desire to make out that the matter is of no importance, and that her comparative poverty of thought is no injury to her work. There is no difficulty in following them so far as to admit that her work is none the worse for containing no theological or philosophical disquisitions, or for showing no familiarity with the technicalities of modern science and metaphysics. But the admission by no means follows that her work does not suffer very materially by the comparative narrowness of the circle of ideas in which her mind habitually revolved. Perhaps if she had been familiar with Hegel or Sir W. Hamilton, she would have intruded undigested lumps of metaphysics, and introduced vexatious allusions to the philosophy of identity or to the principle of the excluded middle. But it is possible, also, that her conceptions of life and the world would have been enriched and harmonised, and that, without giving us more scientific dogmas, her characters would have embodied more fully the dominating ideas of the time. There is no province of inquiry--historical, scientific, or philosophical--from which the artist may not derive useful material; the sole question is whether it has been properly assimilated and transformed by the action of the poetic imagination. By attempting to define how far Miss Brontë’s powers were in fact thus bounded, we shall approximately decide her place in the great hierarchy of imaginative thinkers.
I assume, though I stand ready to be corrected, that the "great writer" to whom he refers at the beginning of this passage is George Eliot (if anyone knows of any particularly forceful contemporary comparison of CB and GE, I'd be happy to be pointed in the right direction).[*see update below] Stephen concludes that CB's place is "a very high one," but he also has a standard for literary and novelistic greatness that includes linking one's particular genius to broader philosophical and historical insights, and on his view, CB's failure to make such a connection keeps her from reaching the very highest eminence. His main example here is his analysis of Paul Emanuel in Villette. Stephen considers M. Paul a great triumph, a wholly compelling and believable character, but he finds his "intense individuality" limits his literary significance:
He is a real human being who gave lectures at a particular date in a pension at Brussels. We are as much convinced of that fact as we are of the reality of Miss Brontë herself; but the fact is also a presumption that he is not one of those great typical, characters, the creation of which is the highest triumph of the dramatist or novelist. There is too much of the temporary and accidental--too little of the permanent and essential.

Seen from an intellectual point of view, placed in his due relation to the great currents of thought and feeling of the time, we should have been made to feel the pathetic and humorous aspects of M. Emanuel’s character, and he might have been equally a living individual and yet a type of some more general idea. The philosopher might ask, for example, what is the exact value of unselfish heroism guided by narrow theories or employed on unworthy tasks; and the philosophic humourist or artist might embody the answer in a portrait of M. Emanuel considered from a cosmic or a cosmopolitan point of view. From the lower standpoint accessible to Miss Brontë he is still most attractive; but we see only his relations to the little scholastic circle, and have no such perception as the greatest writers would give us of his relations to the universe, or, as the next order would give, of his relations to the great world without.
There is much to be said, of course, about the assumption that typicality is the mark of greatness, including about how far this standard is gendered. But not least because it is currently unfashionable to consider whether one kind of thing, one literary approach, is in fact better (higher, more significant, more admirable--choose your terms) than another, it is interesting to see a clear, temperate attempt to make just such an evaluative comparison. And Stephen is eloquent in his appreciation of CB:
We cannot sit at her feet as a great teacher, nor admit that her view of life is satisfactory or even intelligible. But we feel for her as for a fellow-sufferer who has at least felt with extraordinary keenness the sorrows and disappointments which torture most cruelly the most noble virtues, and has clung throughout her troubles to beliefs which must in some form or other be the guiding lights of all worthy actions. She is not in the highest rank amongst those who have fought their way to a clearer atmosphere, and can help us to clearer conceptions; but she is amongst the first of those who have felt the necessity of consolation, and therefore stimulated to more successful efforts.
I share something of Stephen's prejudice in favour of those who "help us to clearer conceptions" (though fiction is often most celebrated today for its ability to confound and complicate moral and philosophical questions, there does seem some advantage to working through the fog to what Stephen calls "some more comprehensible and harmonious solution"). CB resolves some of her thornier problems by highly artificial means, as Stephen points out: "What would Jane Eyre have done, and what would our sympathies have been, had she found that Mrs. Rochester had not been burnt in the fire at Thornfield? That is rather an awkward question." Indeed. Overall, he sees her unable to sustain a consistent answer to what I think he rightly identifies as a persistent problem in her major novels (as in so many others from the time): "Where does the unlawful pressure of society upon the individual begin, and what are the demands which it may rightfully make upon our respect? . . . She is between the opposite poles of duty and happiness, and cannot see how to reconcile their claims, or even--for perhaps no one can solve that, or any other great problem exhaustively--how distinctly to state the question at issue." Notoriously, her more philosophical contemporary would insist on the primacy of duty, a position that has cost her the devotion of many feminist readers today (Lee Edwards, for instance, who in her essay "Women, Energy, and Middlemarch," famously declared that the novel could no longer be "one of the books of [her] life").

One more passage, though for now I have no time to add commentary on it:
The specific peculiarity of Miss Brontë seems to be the power of revealing to us the potentiality of intense passions lurking behind the scenery of everyday life. Except in the most melodramatic--which is also the weakest--part of Jane Eyre, we have lives almost as uneventful as those of Miss Austen, and yet charged to the utmost with latent power. A parson at the head of a school-feast somehow shows himself as a “Cromwell, guiltless of his country’s blood;” a professor lecturing a governess on composition is revealed as a potential Napoleon; a mischievous schoolboy is obviously capable of developing into a Columbus or a Nelson; even the most commonplace natural objects, such as a row of beds in a dormitory, are associated and naturally associated with the most intense emotions. Miss Austen makes you feel that a tea-party in a country parsonage may be as amusing as the most brilliant meeting of cosmopolitan celebrities; and Miss Brontë that it may display characters capable of shaking empires and discovering new worlds. The whole machinery is in a state of the highest electric tension, though there is no display of thunder and lightning to amaze us.
Update: Today as I was editing Walter Bagehot's 1860 essay on George Eliot, I was reminded that there is a fair amount of comparison of CB and GE there, though not really addressing the specific grounds of philosophical thinking. A brief example:
[In George Eliot's novels], there is nothing of the Rembrandt-like style of Miss Brontë: the light flows far more equally over her pictures; we find nothing of the irregular emphasis with which Currer Bell’s characters are delineated, or of the strong subjective colouring which tinges all her scenes. George Eliot’s imagination, like Miss Brontë’s, loves to go to the roots of character, and portrays best by broad direct strokes; but there the likeness between them, so far as there is any, ends. The reasons for the deeper method and for the directer style are probably very different in the two cases. Miss Brontë can scarcely be said to have had any large instinctive knowledge of human nature:--her own life and thoughts were exceptional,--cast in a strongly-marked but not very wide mould; her imagination was solitary; her experience was very limited; and her own personality tinged all she wrote. She “made out” the outward life and manner of her dramatis personæ by the sheer force of her own imagination; and as she always imagined the will and the affections as the substance and centre of her characters, those of her delineations which are successful at all are deep, and their manner broad.
George Eliot’s genius is exceedingly different. There is but little of Miss Austen in her, because she has studied in a very different and much simpler social world; but there is in the springs of her genius at least more of Miss Austen than of Miss Brontë. Her genial, broad delineations of human life have more perhaps of the case of Fielding than of Miss Austen, or of any of the manners-painters of the present day. For these imagine life only as it appeals in a certain dress and manner, which are, as we said, a kind of artificial medium for their art,--life as affected by drawing-rooms. George Eliot has little, if any, of their capacity of catching the undertones and allusive complexity of this sort of society. But though she has observed the phases of a more natural and straightforward sphere of life, she draws her external life from observation, instead of imagining it, like Miss Brontë, out of the heart of the characters she wishes to paint.
Bagehot's is a tremendously interesting essay. It contains, among other choice bits, his [in]famous remark about Maggie's relationship with Stephen Guest in The Mill on the Floss being an "enthusiastic homage to physiological law, and seems to us as untrue to nature as it is unpleasant and indelicate"--a remark which is, in context, less prudish and more philosophically significant that it seems in its sound-bite form--but that's a subject for another post altogether!