April 30, 2008

Special Poetry Post

My daughter has been studying poetry in her Grade 1 class. I approve! I especially like the careful way she reads poems aloud, as if every word is important and meaningful--just as it should be. Getting in the spirit of Poetry Month, we bought a bunch of the Poetry for Young People books through her school's Scholastic Book Club: our (somewhat miscellaneous and heavily American) pack includes Whitman, Dickinson, Coleridge, Poe, Frost, and Shakespeare. I'm impressed with these books, not least because the editors have definitely not dumbed down the content or made painfully kid-friendly selections. As a result, she'll be able to grow into them, rather than rapidly growing out of them. However, the real point of this post is to showcase an early effort of hers. OK, it takes a sort of prosaic turn towards the end...but she's a practical sort of girl.


I love cats!
Anything is not better
than cats.
If you have a cat
don't come near
my Dad is allergic to

April 29, 2008

Ooooh, My Aching Head...

Grading exams is a tarafying experience. It is enough to drive me insain. You see, as the professor I feel responcable, as if I am the purpotrator of their leathal errors. It may be contraversal to make this cratique, but I have not reached the necasary level of acseptence of their ignorance of the convensions and rules of spelling. I would be a lie-er or guilty of hypocracy if I said otherwise or did not take this opertunity to expose it. It's enough to bring on post-pardom depression, even in someone whose manners are usually impecible. I have decended into marking purgatory. Someone should launch an investegation of the causes of this mass confusion.*

(I'm guessing reliance on spell-checkers has something to do with it.)

*Guaranteed 100% authentic spelling errors.

April 27, 2008

Literary Criticism and/in the Public Sphere

I did, after all, recover my interest in the small metacritical project mentioned in my previous post; it has gone up at The Valve. It revises some earlier posts from this blog, particularly my account of Brian McRae's Addison and Steele are Dead, touching especially on the gap between academic criticism and the interests or needs of a more general readership. It concludes by inquiring in a preliminary way into whether a return to aesthetic evaluation is, in fact, the direction required for academics to come back to life.

April 23, 2008

Novel Readings--Not So Much!

I was thinking today that for a blog called 'Novel Readings' this one hasn't shown many signs of novel reading lately (not counting, of course, the ones I've been teaching). Appearances are somewhat misleading. I'm in the grading zone right now: papers and exams! This means not much time (or mental strength) for other things. But I am reading, and hope to write soon about, Olivia Manning's Balkan Trilogy and its follow-up, the Levant Trilogy. And I have an enticing stack of books to read in the summer months, when required reading no longer takes up most of my evenings and weekends (or lunch hours, or time spent in waiting rooms--this is the price I pay for being a Victorianist). A Suitable Boy, for example, top on my Christmas wish list and still waiting for me, along with Affinity and Austerlitz (speaking of which, didn't someone at The Valve propose a Sebald book event? I expect I'm going to need a little support with this one--again, something to do with my being a Victorianist) and Bel Canto and The Grave-Digger's Daughter and ... Plus I have finally joined the Trollope discussion group, and though I think it's too late for me to get in on the ongoing exchanges about Orley Farm, I'm game for whatever's on their summer schedule too.

But the other thing I've been thinking is that a lot of what I've been doing here continues to be metacriticism, and I'm not altogether pleased about that. I was drafting a longer post, for instance, on criticism in/and the public sphere, putting together some pieces from various things I've been reading on- and off-line as well as some of my work on the Broadview anthology of 19thC criticism I have been working on--sort of a make-up exam for a CFP I didn't manage to submit a proposal for. But today I found have lost interest in it. I started blogging precisely in order to free myself to write about fiction straight up, as it were. Only that's hard to do when you're trained to frame every reading you do with an elaborate critical apparatus. It's also just plain hard to do, or at least to do well. Where do you even begin, after all? And why, if you aren't writing about the latest thing (that is, if you aren't offering up a review)? In some ways, it is easier to do "the other thing," if only because often there's an argument ongoing just waiting for you to put in your two cents' worth. I've been puttering away at ideas for a grant proposal for some kind of project on the purposes of and audiences for criticism...but really, that's not what I was hoping would come out of this experiment. Anyway, I'm not swearing to give up writing about criticism altogether. I'm just resolving to do more literary posting, if only to see what purpose I discover for my efforts. Also, tonight while pacing in the strange state of mental suspension that is exam invigilation, I thought I had an idea about how to conceptualize a different kind of project...but maybe it was just lack of oxygen, so no more about that now.

April 21, 2008

Cruel Indeed!

Growing up in Vancouver, I never understood the whole thing about April being the cruelest month. Now, on the other hand, I get it. You see, in Halifax, where I live, we won't see tulips and daffodils until May, or leaves on the trees until June. In Vancouver, however, where I would like to live....The constraints on your location and the near-impossibility of 'lateral movement' are among the great cruelties of an academic career. After over a decade of resistance, I have faced the fact that in order to move 'home' I would need to change professions (or, somehow, belatedly, become a different kind of academic--a more 'successful' one, by some measures). It's frustrating, of course, to be less employable in my chosen field after 12 years of experience than I was when still ABD, but that's the way this game is played. I've gone through most of the stages of grief over this and moved a long way towards acceptance--but spring sure makes me homesick. Is the job worth it? Sometimes. But the likelihood of being separated from your family and your history is one of the aspects of this career that I emphasize most strongly when advising prospective graduate students, not least because I never really thought much about it until, in many ways, it was too late.

(Photo credits: RDS)

April 20, 2008

Weekend Miscellany

At the Guardian, Jane Smiley writes about Trollope's The Kellys and the O'Kelly's:

The Kellys and the O'Kellys was not a commercial success. It was published - perhaps unluckily - in the same year as Thackeray's Vanity Fair, Dickens's Dombey and Son and Gaskell's Mary Barton, all addressing the issue of what was wrong with life. The Kellys and the O'Kellys evoked much that was right. It must have seemed bland. It failed, selling 140 copies and earning Trollope no money. Although it was written in a wholly different tone from his first novel, The Macdermots of Ballycloran, its author gained no points for exhibiting his versatility. Both novels, scholars now feel, suffered commercially from being about Ireland - the famine was raging, and the English reading public did not want to think about it. It was destined to be a sleeper - a thoughtful, subtle novel published in an anxious year.

But one of England's greatest novelists had laid out his tools for all to see - the grace of his writing, the worldliness of his vision, the variety of his characters and scenes, the expansiveness of his geography. The story itself is the important thing, not the satiric tone, as in Thackeray, the social criticism, as in Gaskell, or the stylistic exuberance, as in Dickens. He delivered the whole package, but it was a modestly wrapped package and got lost. (read the rest here)

I have written before about how well I think Smiley talks about Trollope.

At the TLS, critic and novelist David Lodge writes with both pathos and humour about his hearing loss:

You might think that of all the professions a novelist is least affected by hearing loss and, up to a point, that is true. We compose books in silence, consumed in silence by solitary readers.

However, deafness restricts and thins out the supply of new ideas and experience on which the novelist depends to create his fictions. That former nun’s life story might have been priceless “material” and I regret its loss. I miss opportunities to eavesdrop on humanly revealing conversations on buses and in shops and to keep up with new idioms, coinages and catch-phrases that give flavour and authenticity to dialogue in a novel of contemporary life. (read the rest here)

Hmm: "it’s a cast-iron excuse for declining to serve on committees"? That might offset a lot of the disadvantages...

In the Globe and Mail's book section, Cynthia MacDonald reviews Emma Donoghue's latest, a neo-Victorian novel focusing on the 1864 Codrington divorce case:
It's amazing to think that 150 years ago, the British Empire was ruled by an actual married woman. As Emma Donoghue reminds us in her marvellous new novel, wives in the Victorian era were usually classed with "criminals, lunatics and children": devoid of legal identity, stripped of property, limited in their opportunities for paid work.

By way of illustration, she has chosen a thoroughly riveting courtroom drama. The Sealed Letter is a fictionalized version of the Codrington divorce case, which had le tout London squirming in its pantaloons over several months in 1864. Juicy, vicious, elegant and thoughtful, the book is a valuable addition to Donoghue's growing corpus of fine historical novels (including Life Mask and Slammerkin). (read the rest here)
I wasn't that taken with Slammerkin when I read it about a year ago (as George Eliot remarked a long time ago, historical fiction is a particularly demanding genre, though the risks are often underestimated). But I'll probably give this one a try, just to keep up-to-date on my neo-Victorian options.

Finally, the little comment-spat I've been involved in at The Reading Experience has led me back to this earlier post by Dan Green:
After eighty years of experimenting with the study of literature as an academic subject, those carrying it out (myself included) have made a complete hash of it. Literature itself is held in contempt not just by the majority of ordinary people but by those professing to teach it. "Literature Professor" has become a near-synonym of "lunatic." That literary study would come to such an end was probably inevitable, since the primary imperative of academe--to create "new" knowledge--is finally inimical to something so difficult to dress up in fashionable critical clothes as serious works of fiction or poetry. Once it was perceived that "aesthetic complexity" was a spent force (at least as the means for producing new monographs and journal articles), approaches to literature that essentially abandoned its consideration as an art form were practically certain to follow.

Nearly three years later, a conversation touching on many similar points is unfolding in a comments thread at The Valve even as Ronan MacDonald is announcing the death of the critic. Well, give us credit, at least, for not going gentle into that good night! Indeed, critics appear to have co-opted the story of their impending demise as yet another subcategory of metacriticism.

April 15, 2008

Reflections on Blogging My Teaching

I began my series of posts on 'This Week in My Classes' back in September, in response to what I felt were inaccurate and unfair representations of what English professors are up to in their teaching. As I said then,
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.
(April 16 update: Somewhat more temperate but equally dismissive attitudes appeared again here just this morning). The resulting entries range from brief commentaries on key passages to meditations on larger critical or theoretical issues prompted by a particular reading or class discussion (on October 1, for instance, there's some of each); from notes on pedagogical strategies or favourite discussion topics (such as 'giant hairball' day) to protracted afterthoughts on the central issues of a class meeting or reading (such as the didactic or instructional aspects of 19th-century courtship and marriage novels).

And so? What did I accomplish by writing all this up--and by putting it all out in public? I think there's no way to tell if I made any difference at all to the kinds of pervasive and (in my view) pernicious attitudes towards literary academics expressed in the Footnoted posts that prompted me to do this. It seems pretty unlikely! How would these angry people even know my blog exists, after all? And even if they did come across it, the odds of conversion would surely be pretty slim for a determined anti-academic. Still, I think it was worth making the effort and putting some evidence against their version out there, just in case. Where in my posts would these people find evidence that I hate literature and spend my time on political indoctrination? (April 16: or, again with reference to this post, that I dismiss aesthetics, hold in contempt the notion of literature as "record and register of literary art," and oppress my students with my hyperliteracy? Sigh. A classroom is large and can contain multitudes--of ideas and voices and critical approaches.)

As the weeks went by, though, I more or less stopped thinking about these lost souls. So who was I writing for? Well, as other bloggers often remark, your only certain audience is yourself, so you have to find the effort intrinsically valuable and interesting, which I almost always did. Teaching is, necessarily, something you do in a state of rapid and constant motion (and I mean not just mental but physical, as the Little Professor has recently proven). Classes follow on classes, and on meetings and graduate conferences and administrative tasks and attempts to meet proposal deadlines, in what becomes a blur of activity as the term heats up...and though a great deal of planning and preparation typically goes into each individual classroom hour, I hadn't usually taken any time to reflect further on what just happened, or what's about to happen. I found that taking this extra step each week not only helped me identify the purpose, or, if writing retrospectively, the result of each class, but it made each week more interesting by giving me an opportunity to make connections or articulate puzzles or just express pleasure and appreciation in ways that went beyond what I had time for in class. I pursued links between my teaching and my research projects, for example, as well as between my teaching and my other 'non-professional' interests and activities. I articulated ideas suggested by class discussions that otherwise would have sunk again below the surface of my distracted mind. Blogging my teaching enhanced my own experience of teaching. That in itself is a worthwhile goal.

But isn't that a goal I could have achieved by keeping a teaching journal off-line? Well, sort of, but not altogether. For one thing, blogging (again, as other bloggers have remarked), precisely because it is a public form of writing, puts a different kind of pressure on you as a writer. Though perhaps nobody will read your posts, somebody actually might! And once you realize that, you try to write better--just in case. Maybe there are all kinds of dedicated prose stylists in the world who laboriously craft the entries in their private notebooks. But even they probably have their eye on posterity ("one day, when I'm famous, these notebooks will sell for a fortune on eBay!"). It's true, too, that the 'blogosphere,' with its millions of members, includes many samples of writing done, as far as anyone can tell, with no care at all. But for me at least, the accessibility of writing in this medium (and the impossibility of ever really taking something back once it has been 'published' on the internet) raises the stakes, even while the relative informality of the blog post as a genre has been a welcome change from the demands of professional academic writing.

Further, I like the idea that I might write something that other readers find interesting, useful, or mentally stimulating. My teaching posts in particular seem to me likely, if chanced upon, to be welcomed by readers outside an academic setting who are, nonetheless, interested in learning more about the kinds of reading contexts and strategies I work on with my students. Looking through my posts, I think there is nearly enough in them for someone to do an 'independent study' of my reading lists for any of the four classes I taught this year. The frequent publication of 'books about books' aimed at non-academic audiences suggests an appetite for what you might call 'reading enhancement.' Maybe other teachers, too, would get some ideas for how to approach some of the texts I've discussed, just as I have often sought ideas from posted syllabi or from the blogs of other people in my field or, more generally, my discipline. At its best, the 'blogosphere' is a great reservoir of information and insights made generously and collaboratively by people of all kinds; we can learn from each other and contribute to each other's learning. This is not something that can happen off-line. (Here, of course, is the justification for blogging at all, not just for blogging about teaching.) And in the year or so that I have been blogging, I have been contacted by a few readers who have seemed genuinely appreciative of my efforts in this direction.

Finally, as a blogger, I found that carrying out this plan to do a regular series of posts on one theme added a helpful structure to my posting habits: it was a kind of productive discipline. Like all academics, after all, I'm used to working to deadlines. Often, I began my week thinking I had nothing in particular to say. But I 'had' to post about my classes (also like all academics, I have an over-developed sense of obligation and I'm used to generating my own necessities). And once I started writing, most of the time I quickly found I was invigorated by discovering that I did have something to say after all.

Overall, then, I'm glad I set myself this task, and reading through my posts, I'm pleased with the results. No doubt other English professors do very different things, including with the same primary materials I took on. No doubt there are some who would be alienated, rather than won over, if they happened upon this material; no doubt some who have read it have turned away impatiently (or worse), for their own theoretical, political, or other reasons. But my posts represent my classroom well, and thus I admit, they represent me well too. Yup, that's me: the one who cries over Oliphant's Autobiography and finds passages in Dickens poetic, who admires George Eliot's stringent morality but worries about the way her better people seem driven to sacrifice themselves to their petty partners because 'the responsibility of tolerance lies with those who have the wider vision,' who watches House and Sex and the City and finds Agatha Christie clever but shallow, who goes all pedantic when homework comes in but relishes her students' creativity and humour in devising class activities, whose children delight and torment and distract her. That's the thing about teaching--and about blogging too. You put yourself out there, try to be your best self most of the time, have moments of irritability and moments of eloquence--and then you sit back and see if anyone was paying attention.

April 12, 2008

Weekend Miscellany: Road Murder, The Neuroscience Delusion, HBO at The Valve

A few things of interest I've found while browsing around:

At the Guardian site, Kate Summerscale on the literary legacy of the infamous Road Hill murders:
Even after the confession and conviction of the killer in 1865, the case was attended with doubts and unease. Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone - described by TS Eliot as the first and the best detective novel - was suffused with the events at Road Hill. "It is a very curious story," observed Dickens when the book was published in 1868, "wild and yet domestic."

Collins diluted the horror - instead of a child-murder, there was a jewel theft; instead of bloodstains, splashes of paint - but he fashioned from it a template for detective fiction. A shrewd investigator strives to expose the secrets of the inhabitants of an English country house. His task is to distinguish the innocent from the guilty, real clues from red herrings. His methods are indirect, his reasoning inspired, and a highly improbable suspect turns out to have committed the crime. The novel borrowed many of the specifics of the Road Hill story: a sullied and missing nightdress; a laundry book that proves its loss; an inept local police officer; and a renowned detective summoned to the countryside from London. (read the rest here)

Also at the Guardian, Ian Rankin reviews Summerscale's book on the case's chief investigator, Inspector Whicher. Actually, he doesn't so much review it as recapitulate its central story; there's only one word in the piece that really constitutes any kind of comment on the book itself--fortunately for Summerscale, it's "engrossing."

At the TLS, Raymond Tallis is unimpressed with "The Neuroscience Delusion":
At first sight, the displacement of Theory, with its social constructivism and linguistic idealism, by talk of something as solid as “the brain” of the writer and “the brain” of the reader may seem like progress. In fact, it is a case of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The switch from Theory to “biologism” leaves something essential unchanged: the habit of the uncritical application of very general ideas to works of literature, whose distinctive features, deliberate intentions and calculated virtues are consequently lost. Overstanding is still on the menu.
Much of his discussion is focused on A. S. Byatt's work on John Donne:
...by adopting a neurophysiological approach, Byatt loses a rather large number of important distinctions: between reading one poem by John Donne and another; between successive readings of a particular poem; between reading Donne and other Metaphysical poets; between reading the Metaphysicals and reading William Carlos Williams; between reading great literature and trash; between reading and a vast number of other activities – such as getting cross over missing toilet paper. That is an impressive number of distinctions for a literary critic to lose. But that is the price of overstanding. (read the rest here)
Finally, over at The Valve, the guys have been talking (again) about The Sopranos, Deadwood, and The Wire. I wonder: are these really the 'three most talked about HBO series'? Wouldn't that depend on who you're talking to? For instance, perhaps women viewers talk more about other shows--ones that aren't characterized by "boobs, cussing, and spectacular violence"? Sex and the City comes to mind, for instance. (OK, in its own way it has two of those three elements...)

April 10, 2008

George Eliot in 2009?

Speaking of contemporary interest in George Eliot, here's a question on a much smaller scale than my previous one: which George Eliot novel would you assign for a seminar on 'Victorian Literature of Faith and Doubt'? I'm scheduled to teach such a class in Winter '09 and though book orders won't be due until the early fall, I always prefer to plan ahead. Plus as this will be a new class for me, it will take substantial preparation--which I can't entirely do unless I know what I'm doing, if you see my point. Much of the reading list will be non-fiction and poetry (this will be my first chance to teach In Memoriam in several years, which will be a great treat). I expect to close out the term with Jude the Obscure; my very rough preliminary schedule suggests I have room for one more full-length novel. The Mill on the Floss, which will read particularly resonantly right after our 'unit' on Darwin, is my current first choice, but issues of 'faith and doubt' are perhaps more obviously front and center in Daniel Deronda. Or there's Silas Marner, which would leave me room for another short work of fiction--or, with some shuffling of other readings, even for Jane Eyre, which I don't usually teach with a religious emphasis. Or what about Scenes of Clerical Life? It's striking that one of the period's most profound thinkers about religion (in both its theological and its sociological aspects) actually treats the subject quite obliquely in her major works.


April 8, 2008

Raise a Ruckus for Radio Two!

This post is a bit off my usual topics, but I love CBC Radio 2 and will be very sorry if the proposed radical programming changes go ahead, so I'm posting this press release prepared by the "Save Classical Music at the CBC' group on Facebook. If there are any other CBC listeners out there who will be mournful without Tom Allen's "Music and Company" on weekday mornings (Cage Match!) or Rick Phillips' "Sound Advice" on the weekends (to name just two excellent shows that will be axed), you may want to join the Facebook group or attend (or organize) the rally in your home town. CBC executives may want to keep in mind that trying to be all things to all people may well lead to a radio station that means nothing in particular to anybody. (post edited for brevity now that the date has come and gone).
On Friday, April 11th, 2008 at 12:00pm Eastern Time, the 12,500 strong members of a hastily arranged Facebook group entitled “Save Classical Music at the CBC” will be holding a NATIONAL DAY OF ACTION called “RAISE A RUCKUS FOR RADIO TWO!” in over a dozen cities across Canada.

In response to recently announced programming changes at CBC Radio Two and the planned axing of the famed CBC Vancouver Radio Orchestra, classical music fans, musicians and Radio Two listeners are planning to take to the streets in front of their local CBC installations in every province simultaneously. Demonstrations are to be held at CBC facilities in Victoria, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Toronto, London, Ottawa, Montreal, Halifax, Charlottetown and St. John’s; with possible demonstrations to be held in Regina, Kingston, ON, and Saint John, NB as well.

Being Barbara Hardy

As a proud new member of NAVSA (better late than never!), I have just received a copy of the latest issue of Victorian Studies. Of the many interesting features in this issue (Volume 50 No. 1), I particularly enjoyed George Levine's review of Barbara Hardy's George Eliot: A Critic's Biography, a book I own but haven't yet read. One of my clearest recollections of my early days as a graduate student is being asked by one of my new faculty mentors to name a critic whose work on George Eliot I admired. "Barbara Hardy," I promptly replied. The response was a tolerant smile and nod, and a bit of sage advice: "Of course, you can't be Barbara Hardy any more." True enough--unless, naturally, you actually are Barbara Hardy. Her steadiness in being herself is at the heart of Levine's admiration of this new book:
Negative hermeneutics has never been Hardy's mode, and her determination to take seriously what Eliot said said, without suspicion and cynicism as a premise of the reading, is one thing that might make this anti-biography suspect to modern critics. But that determination becomes a form of negative capability that is one of the most moving and satisfying aspects of the book. For Hardy, Eliot wrote as if she meant what she said and she said what she meant. In critical circles, this is an astonishingly fresh argument these days. (100)
I've put it at the top of my "t0 read" pile.

April 6, 2008

This Week in My Classes (April 7, 2008)

We're almost done--not forgetting, of course, that after classes wrap up, we all move into our "papers and exams" frenzy--and then it's May Administrative Madness.

In Mystery and Detective Fiction we go out on a depressing note, finishing up Knots and Crosses and then fitting in one more short story, Rankin's "The Dean Curse." When we get to exam review on Wednesday, I hope to have some general discussion of the issues I "led" with back when the course started and we read Thurber's "The Macbeth Murder Mystery": what, if any, are the essential differences between 'literary' and 'genre' fiction? And, equally important, if Thurber gets comic results by showing someone reading literature by the rules of genre fiction, what results did we get, reading genre fiction using the techniques of literary analysis? Of course, some of our readings had higher aspirations in the literary direction than others, but a course like this provides plenty of opportunities to wonder how and why those lines get drawn. I think I want to shake up the reading list for this course when I offer it again next year. One thing I'd especially like to do is add a Canadian novel, though at the moment I'm not sure which one to choose (suggestions welcome!). My criteria would be that it should be a novel that adds something distinctive to our consideration of the various genres of mystery fiction. I like reading Peter Robinson, for instance, but I'm not sure that I need him if I'm already doing P.D. James (and there, I think I might trade Unsuitable Job for a Woman, much as I like it, for A Taste for Death). Maybe Giles Blunt? I haven't read his books yet but I've got a couple out from the library and they look promising.

In The Victorian 'Woman Question' we finish up with The Odd Women, a novel that sometimes seems designed to act as a concluding primer on the 'woman question,' as it features marriages (or courtships) that appeal to, subvert, explode, or reject all the Victorian models we've been considering in our other novels. I expect we'll have some good discussion about Rhoda and Everard and their bizarre "romance." Why does it end as it does? What's against them that it is so difficult for them to know, or state, or claim, what they want? (What do they want?) And I'm sure Monica and Widdowson's marriage will provoke comparisons to the Trevelyans' in He Knew He Was Right. Speaking of He Knew He Was Right, will I use it again, the next time I offer this seminar? I may have to wait for the course evaluations for honest declarations of how the students felt about it; I really enjoyed our work on it, not just because of its contributions to the big thematic arcs of the course, but because of the conversations it inspired about why and how we value and criticize different kinds of novels.

Next week, when I don't have classes to post about, I'll post some thoughts about doing this series of posts on my teaching (yes, more metablogging).

April 3, 2008

File Under "Hmmmm..."

Subcategory A: Well, that's OK, then!
"[P]ostcolonial critics inevitably homogenize as 'imperialist' critics did before them. The difference is that they typically profess an awareness of the problematics to a degree the others did not."
Subcategory B: Inadvertant Irony and Foregone Conclusions
"[Postcolonial cultural studies] involves a dialogue leading to the significant insight that the Western paradigm (Manichean and binary) is highly problematical."

April 2, 2008

Middlemarch in the 21st Century?

(cross-posted to The Valve)

I’ve been going through a book of essays called Middlemarch in the 21st Century. It’s an interesting enough collection, with contributions by a lot of the big names in current George Eliot scholarship. It is also at least as much about criticism in the 21st century as about Middlemarch. Of course, it is self-consciously so (in these metacritical days, how could it not be?); the editor is intelligently expressive on the intevitable interplay between text and (our) context:
The essays in this volume attach Middlemarch to the twenty-first century by way of their aesthetic, ethical, and social concerns, but each reading also dwells within the confines of the pages of the novel and its communities. We move constantly between the early and later nineteenth century and to the start of the twenty-first century, respecting the differences without allowing them to become obstacles in our way. (4)
That’s all fine, and so are the essays I’ve read, though to be sure I find some of them more engaging than others. What I’ve been thinking as I read, though, is that really none of them really presents a version of Middlemarch for the 21st century: that is, none of them addresses ways Middlemarch (or, for that matter, any other past literary work) might have special relevance in the 21st century beyond those interpretive contexts selected by the contributors--none of which contexts, in turn, seems pointedly or necessarily fixed in the 21st century (except by accident of critical history, e.g. “this year, we’re doing materiality,” or “Lacanian readings are so 1990s”). I think it’s accurate to say that typically we take our “aesthetic, ethical, and social concerns” to our texts and see how they answer back. Is there a way to “attach” them to our century starting, as it were, from the other direction? How might Middlemarch, for instance, “read” the 21st century? What “aesthetic, ethical, and social concerns” might it bring to us? What would such a criticism look like? What (or who) would it be for?

I tried my hand at something of the sort for a panel called (coincidentally) “George Eliot in the 21st Century” at ACCUTE a couple of years ago. My presentation was called “George Eliot: Moralist for the 21st Century”; its major contention (stripped of nuance) was that her secularized morality offers a philosophical perspective of great potential benefit to our times, and that its presentation in compelling fictional form could help her stand as "the friendly face of unbelief.” Now, on the one hand, I realize there is something reductive about such an approach. At the same time, we know that George Eliot herself conceived of her work as fundamentally ethical, which means (as I argued in my paper) that she offered it as (in part) an answer to the basic question of moral philosophy, namely “how ought I to live?” Many (though certainly not all) of the academic approaches now in vogue have little in common with this project. At this moment, (well, not at this moment, as clearly I am procrastinating by writing this instead) I am working on a proposal for a conference paper about Ahdaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun; Soueif has been called “Egypt’s George Eliot,” and In the Eye of the Sun takes the “squirrel’s heartbeat” passage as its epigraph (and refers to Middlemarch at many other points as well). Although I am still in the early stages of thinking through the relationship between the two novels, my feeling is that part of what Soueif does is bring the ethos of Middlemarch forward into a very different historical and cultural context, almost as if to ask, herself, “Can Middlemarch help us with this?” (The other part of what she does, I think, works in the other direction, testing that ethos against these new contexts; that Soueif uses a radically different form of novel suggests that, in some respects, “it won’t do, you known, it won’t do.”)

Thoughts? Do I exaggerate the difference between taking our concerns to the text and bringing the text’s concerns to us? Do I underestimate the risks or wrongs of the approach I took in my earlier paper? Or, in the spirit of the “public academic workbench,” if you’ve read In the Eye of the Sun, any ideas about the direction I’m taking in the new one? (Or about whether working on an Egyptian novelist writing in a post-colonial context necessitates using post-colonial theory? Just wondering...)

April 1, 2008

This Week in My Classes (April 1, 2008)

I sure went on and on about last week's classes! I guess in my own small way I'm trying to answer Martha Nussbaum's call for critical writing "that talks of human lives and choices as if they matter to us all"... Plus it feels good to get some mileage out of some of that 19th-century criticism I spent so much time editing ... But to compensate, here's this week's update in thumbnail form:

Mystery and Detective Fiction: Ian Rankin, Knots and Crosses. Grim, gothic, graphic.

The Victorian 'Woman Question': George Gissing, The Odd Women. Also grim. And graphic, in its own way. But not gothic.