Some changes: all posts have now been categorized & the categories archive enabled; there's a new list devoted to some nice non-Amazon bookstores (mostly academic remainders outlets); and there are a few new links on the sidebar.
I may be one of the world's experts on bad Victorian fiction. My motto: "I read these things so you don't have to."* I'm therefore delighted to report that I've stumbled across a fine example of truly mediocre didactic fiction. Since the Victorians produced sublimely awful didactic fiction by the cartload, "truly mediocre" is nothing to sneer at. The truly mediocre novel in question is Dinah Mulock Craik'sA Life for a Life (1859), a post-Crimean War diary novel. The novel features two parallel diaries, "Her Story" and "His Story," which record the progress of a slightly unconventional love affair between Theodora Johnston, a clergyman's daughter in her mid-twenties (that is, possibly on the route to spinsterhood) and Max Urquhart, a Scottish army doctor with a mysterious past. Craik uses this romance to explore a number of serious mid-Victorian moral questions: temperance; sanitary reform; the morality of war; the sexual double standard; and, above all, the death penalty. Most refreshingly, Craik does not allow her didactic intentions to overwhelm basic fictional ingredients like characterization and plotting. Max and Theodora are believably flawed figures with distinct and slightly sharp voices; the plot moves along at a reasonable pace; and the novel's various moral/religious themes unfold carefully and with adequate sophistication. In other words, A Life for a Life is--gulp--a genuinely competent novel. Go figure.
Kevin Drum may be proud of his new couch, but I beg leave to remind him of its likely fate. (I acquired the couch over a year before I acquired the cats; had it been the other way around, I would most assuredly not have bought something upholstered with a tweedy open-weave fabric. Now it's really open-weave.)
John Holbo contributes a fine post on bad academic prose. I confess that, in graduate school, I too fell for the temptations of "Englishese." My penchant for jargon vanished quickly during my brief tenure as editorial assistant at an academic journal, where I discovered that jargony prose rarely contained anything more of substance than did non-jargony prose. (Via Matthew Yglesias.)
Nuala O'Faolain's My Dream of You is less a parallel-plot historical novel (although it's that, too) and more a "burden of history" novel. The burden in question is Irish history in general and the Famine in particular, but for most of the characters in the novel--particularly its first-person narrator, Kathleen de Burca--that burden weighs heaviest in its domestic, intimate ramifications. O'Faolain's novel interweaves a number of Big Themes: the meanings of "passion" and "love"; physical and spiritual homelessness; the expatriate experience (Americans in England, the Irish in England, the English in Ireland...); and women's roles in Catholic Ireland. Kathleen, a rootless travel writer (the latter symbolizes the former) nearing fifty, abandons her job in England and temporarily returns to Ireland. Her quest: to find out the truth about the charge of adultery behind a Victorian divorce case. The reader thus becomes privy to Kathleen's historical narrative as well, although as Kathleen soon realizes, the text rapidly slides into historical fiction. (The novel is more metafictional than it is metahistorical.) The adultery plot involves a young Englishwoman, Marianne, married to an Irish landlord who resents Ireland; bored and dissatisfied with her marriage, Marianne has a passionate affair with an Irish servant, Mullan. Or does she? Kathleen herself is "awakened," as it were, by her own passionate affair with a married Irishman, another expatriate who has temporarily returned. As Kathleen weaves her historical fiction around what little--and shifting--evidence remains of the case, she develops an uneasy account of the relations between England and Ireland that incorporates her own cultural anxieties. Marianne's husband Richard, persecuted as a child in England because of his Irishness, identifies with neither country. Marianne herself loathes Ireland and the Irish people; her affair with Mullan transcends neither their national nor their class differences. Indeed, by initially making Marianne commit passionate adultery with Mullan, O'Faolain thumbs her nose at the literary tradition that makes marriage between individuals into a symbol of union between peoples. The novel makes no pretense of resolving Anglo-Irish differences on a national level, just as Kathleen herself ultimately relinquishes her attempt to identify the divorce case's singular truth. What's left, then, is individual survival. One of Kathleen's discoveries is that she cannot simply blame everything on Ireland, whether her own Irish past or the anti-Irish prejudices of her English present; instead, she needs to work out a new relationship between self-consciousness and historical consciousness. The solution, which I won't go into here, is perhaps the most Victorian thing about the novel.
Stephen King's acceptance speech has caused a bit of a stir. All I'll say here is that "literary" fiction and "genre" fiction often have a symbiotic relationship instead of an oppositional one. Literary authors have always appropriated and revised genre conventions, just as genre authors have borrowed technical strategies commonly associated with literary fiction. A number of contemporary literary novelists, for example, have revisited the historical novel, often self-consciously reflecting on its conventions. Think Russell Banks, Pat Barker, A. S. Byatt, Warwick Collins, George Garrett, Charles Johnson... Similarly, a "genre" novelist like Reginald Hill quite explicitly--and usually quite playfully--structures his mystery plots as conversations with canonical literary works. (See, for example, Pictures of Perfection, a gloriously twisted revision of Jane Austen's novels.) Or remember Alfred Bester's experiments with point of view in his terrific SF short story "Fondly Fahrenheit." Golden Age detective fiction can seem amazingly avant-garde in its use of metafictional techniques (see John Dickson Carr). George Eliot, that most consistently "serious" of Victorian novelists, was not averse to playing around with themes drawn from sensation fiction. And so forth, down through the ages. In other words, the best literary fiction and the best genre fiction exist in a mutually energizing shared field.* It's true that many literary novelists wind up rejecting genre fiction while they borrow from it (and vice-versa), but it's just as true that even such negative contact can prove imaginatively fruitful.
*Comparing Patrick O'Brian to Dewey Lambdin, say, might be one way of getting at the distinction between "energized" vs. "non-energized" genre fiction.
As student papers roll in, I cannot help but return to Timothy Steele's poem "Advice to a Student." For some reason, I've always been particularly fond of this quatrain, from the final stanza:
Always present yourself as one
Who, neither saint nor God,
Didn't quite get the assignment done,
Being tragically flawed.
As you might gather from these lines, the poem recommends that students construct their excuses according to Aristotelian guidelines. It's not earth-shaking poetry, but it is clever. You can find the whole thing in Steele's collection The Color Wheel.
Warwick Collins' The Marriage of Souls is the second novel in a projected trilogy* that began with The Rationalist. The year is 1798 and the place is Lymington, a town dominated by the ominous fires of its salt furnaces. But there is almost no action. Instead, the novel dwells on the reverberating effects of an absence--the absence of the mysterious Mrs. Celia Quill, whose presence in the first novel awoke the titular "rationalist," Dr. Silas Grange, to the possibilities of passion. When the second novel begins, Grange is beginning to recover from the mysterious illness connected with Mrs. Quill's departure, with the sometimes equivocal aid of the town's senior physician, Dr. James Hargood.
What follows is a cross between confession and proto-psychoanalysis. (In fact, the two doctors spend some time discussing what amounts to a French theory of the subconscious mind.) Collins shifts back and forth between a third-person limited omniscient narrator and Hargood's letter-journal, paying close attention to the limitations of language itself: to what extent is is possible to fully confess? To what extent does language collapse under the weight of emotion, or even betray it? As it happens, the character who changes most is not Grange but Hargood, whose sense of self transforms radically as he reveals his earlier relationship to Mrs. Quill. Hargood's self-discovery rests in his reevaluation of "purity," which he defines not as "innocence" but, instead, as authentic "wholeness." While Hargood initially disdains purity--at one point he proudly describes himself as "impure"--he comes to see that purity cannot be separated from autonomy, a respect for one's own liberty and the liberty of others. Grange's own purity, however, is not quite enough: he still needs feeling. For Grange, this lack in himself becomes most evident when he encounters the banker Mr. St. Just, whose purely rational calculations about the relationship between profit and the welfare of his workers elides the experiential reality of human suffering. Nevertheless, Grange's budding humanitarianism indirectly results in tragedy.
There's far more going on here: reflections on subjectivity, the relationship between the subconscious and the conscious mind, the nature of atheist morality, the role of accident in historical events... This novel takes some patience, since very little actually happens; speech and writing substitute for physical action. All of the characters exist in a heightened state of consciousness, forever reflecting on the process of interpreting other human beings. As the novel warns, seeking for patterns and motives may itself become dangerous; it is Hargood's misreading of Mrs. Quill, for example, that propels the crisis of the first novel, just as in the second it prevents him from acknowledging the demons in his own soul. In a sense, Collins drives his characters towards "objectivity," by forcing them to acknowledge that the Other's autonomy is not exhausted by the Self's own needs and desires. I'm not sure that this is an altogether successful novel--the characterization is occasionally inconsistent, the absent Mrs. Quill is a disappointment when she reappears (odd, given the novel's feminism), and on occasion the novel simply becomes too talky--but it is certainly an ambitious one.
*--The third novel was announced for 2001 but never appeared, although it is still listed in some online bibliographies of Collins' work.