A few weeks back, I did the math, and noted that I really didn't watch enough television to justify spending about $80/month on cable. Did shifting to online delivery alter my viewing habits?
All of the delivery systems--iTunes, Amazon Unbox, Hulu, network websites--first make episodes available anywhere from twenty-four hours to a week after their initial network airing. But the result isn't like watching everything on a VCR or DVR. If I recorded something, I usually went on to watch it, even if online reviews I trusted gave the episode a thumbs down. Now, a spate of really negative comments sometimes means that I won't even bother to look for the episode, unless I'm particularly invested in the series in question. In other words, DVRing made me feel predisposed to watch ("what the heck, I've already recorded it"), but online viewing eliminates even the barest hint of commitment ("why should I watch this universally-loathed episode of CSI when I could be finishing Book Two?").
Presumably, I would just go ahead and watch everything if I were buying season passes, not purchasing on an episode-by-episode basis.
Speaking of which, even though the costs of watching TV this way are far less than $80/month, I've found myself unwilling to fork over even a tiny chunk of change for some shows. There seems to be some psychological make-or-break involved in having to pay for that particular series, as opposed to sending the cable company a check every month. "What the heck, I've already paid for it" vs. "That $2.99 could buy me a double-toasted onion bagel with butter and a drink at the local coffee shop, with change to spare."
It seems to me that the imposed waiting period is a deciding factor. Yes, I can watch whenever I want, but I can also see detailed reviews from likeminded viewers first. As I said above, there are some shows I'll watch whatever the comments say, but if I'm only mildly interested in the first place, then why not spend my $ and time more profitably elsewhere?
Obviously, the results would be different if I were a more dedicated viewer, or if I avoided discussions that contained spoilers.
Historical novelists (unless they're the late George MacDonald Fraser) usually get around the problem of fictional characters interacting with historical ones by making them effectively "invisible": the fictional characters are private folk, the sort who normally don't appear in the historical record. They're servants, subordinate officers, low-level functionaries, random passers-by. Or, alternately, they're "important" but necessarily erased from history--secret agents, spies, and behind-the-scenes "fixers," for example. Or, again, they inhabit the halfway point between fictional and historical: we know that they're probably historical (e.g., Girl with a Pearl Earring), but we also know so little about them that they might as well be fictional.
Wayne Johnston's The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, which at first glance appears to be an entirely conventional biofiction about Joseph R. "Joey" Smallwood, charges the problem head on--and gets around it by ignoring it entirely. Half of the novel is given over to Smallwood and his first-person autobiographical narrative; the other half to Sheilagh Fielding, Smallwood's lifelong obsession, a flamboyantly ironic journalist and op-ed writer who publishes under a series of pseudonyms ("Field Day"). Fielding's output includes her diary, her unpublished Condensed History of Newfoundland (complete with a forged preface), and her op-eds. Fielding turns out to be integral to Smallwood's life, career, and sense of self; her personal traumas eventually prompt him to what appears to be the only truly selfless, loving act of his life. And yet, she is entirely fictional. (As is David Prowse, Smallwood's nemesis.) In a notorious review, Rex Murphy complained that Fielding "just doesn't belong."1 Where, then, does this leave Smallwood?
Fielding's Condensed History unwrites D. W. Prowse's History of Newfoundland (both Prowse and his book haunt the novel) and Robert Hayman's Quodlibets, both of which it sets alongside fake folk ballads and a "lost" version of the national anthem. By contrast, Smallwood's narrative appears to be a model of thick-skulled narrative respectability. But forgery infects Smallwood's life as well: the forged letter that impels him to drop out of Bishop Feild College, the forged signature on his father's copy of Prowse's History, and, ultimately, his forged public persona. "But I never stopped believing, deep down, that these men were my betters, my true superiors," Smallwood says of the men he dominated during his life in politics, "nor, I now realize, did they" (85-86). Smallwood's non-meteoric but eventual rise to power comes accompanied by so many metaphorical pratfalls, not to mention real-life disasters, that at times the novel reads like a more realistic version of Robert Coover's The Public Burning. In fact, as Stan Dragland bluntly noted a few years ago, Johnston does not attempt to recreate Smallwood's life with any particular accuracy: "Well, Johnston didn't get it right. He didn't get Smallwood right, and he committed many other errors and distortions of Newfoundland history and geography."2 Given how important forgery and parody turns out to be, it's hardly surprising that Smallwood isn't "right." Still, that doesn't altogether account for Fielding.
Fielding, I would suggest, writes Smallwood. That is, whether or not Fielding "actually" writes Smallwood's autobiography, Smallwood's voice exists within Fielding's ironic worldview and not outside it. In terms of the novel's structure, this is actually the case: the first and last character we hear from is Fielding, not Smallwood. (Even then, we first have to get through two epigraphs from Prowse and a prefatory note from the author.) For that matter, Fielding remains at the center even when she is purportedly offstage, jibing at Smallwood in her op-eds. Under the circumstances, it is not too much to say that Fielding creates him. (This is practically a parody of bad fanfiction...) Dragland points out that Smallwood is a "pretender" (195), just like everyone else in the Condensed History. But we can go further: Smallwood's regime appears here as the logical sequel to the Condensed History. Herb Wyile comments that the Condensed History is Fielding's "revenge on a history that has cramped her style."3 Smallwood's--or "Smallwood's"--career appears to be more of the same. If Smallwood didn't exist, Fielding would have had to invent him.
1 Rex Murphy, rev. of The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, rpt. in Points of View (New York: Random House, 2004), 49. 2 Stan Dragland, "The Colony of Unrequited Dreams: Romancing History?", Essays on Canadian Writing #182 (Spring 2004): 189 <web.ebscohost.com>. That being said, Dragland is mostly very positive about the novel's success as a fiction. 3 Herb Wyile, Speculative Fictions: Contemporary Canadian Novelists and the Writing of History (Montreal, Quebec and Kingston, ON: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2002), 132.
When I was coming up with lost novelists in my previous post, I was thinking of authors who might somehow, somewhere, be brought out in (gasp) a well-edited paperback edition. After all, there's an off chance that a brave scholar might want to expose graduate students to Bulwer-Lytton. (The students would develop permanent immunity to Bulwer-Lytton from such an exposure, no doubt, but we can't have everything. Or maybe that is having everything.) But what about books for which there probably isn't a classroom market, even though intrepid scholars everywhere would be delighted to see them on their university library's shelves? In other words, the authors born and books made for something like the Pickering & Chatto editions.
Grace Aguilar: One of the best-known Jews of the nineteenth century, popular enough that complete editions of her works were being released decades after her death. Edith Wharton even stole the title of one of her novels from Aguilar. Michael Galchinsky recently did a one-volume selection for Broadview, but it would be interesting to see a complete collection that included not only Aguilar's novels, but also her poetry and nonfiction prose (including the two works of popular theology).
Along the same lines, how about a multivolume collection of Anglo-Jewish Novelists? Let's call it From Aguilar to Zangwill: Aguilar, Israel Zangwill, the Moss sisters, Benjamin Farjeon, Amy Levy, etc.
And let's not forget Victorian Catholic Novelists: Lady Georgiana Fullerton, Fanny Taylor, Cecilia Mary Caddell, Julia Kavanagh, Wiseman, Newman, Mrs. Wilfrid Ward, "John Oliver Hobbes"...
I think George Eliot's Daniel Deronda benefits from being read in the context of Jewish Conversion Fiction (Eliot systematically reverses all the tropes): ergo, Amelia Bristow, Charlotte Anley, E. F. Wheeler, Mrs. J. B. Webb, and my favorite didactic crook, "Osborn W. Trenery Heighway" (Gordon Trenery).
There have been occasional attempts at republishing the work of the important Irish novelists John and Michael Banim, but nothing really systematic or complete.
I think William Carleton belongs on my other list, given just how much time people spend writing about him--and yet, he's completely out of print in anything but POD. (Now that I think about it, this really makes no sense. Is somebody working on a scholarly edition?)
Last but not least, I think it would be great (I would--I write about these things, remember?) to have an anthology of Fiction and the Religious Tract: lots of RTS stuff, of course, but this could be a completely ecumenical selection (there are Victorian Catholic and Jewish tract societies, after all). Tracts crop up in a number of older anthologies, especially those devoted to children's lit, but a large and varied collection would be helpful.
A few posts down, a commenter asked about the fate of George Meredith. When I started graduate school, back in the murky mists of time (OK, 1992), Meredith-the-novelist had already been reduced to three books: The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859), Diana of the Crossways (1885), and The Egoist (1879). Those willing to stretch also included Beauchamp's Career (1875). I remember John Sutherland observing somewhere that you could always find Meredith for sale by the yard, which he thought was perhaps not such a good sign for Meredith's status. (The American equivalent must be James Whitcomb Riley. Walk into any antiquarian bookstore, and I swear you'll find the Complete Works of James Whitcomb Riley gathering dust on a shelf and/or feeding the non-figurative bookworms.) As for the poetry, everybody read "Lucifer in Starlight" and Modern Love. A quick check on Amazon reveals that there's one novel available via Kindle, thanks to Penguin, but there isn't any hardcopy Meredith available from either Penguin (which had a quick go at The Egoist again a few years back) or Oxford. Of course, there's plenty of POD Meredith, which obviously has to change our definition of "what's in print," but there's also plenty of POD Emily Sarah Holt. I'm surprised that nobody has tried to resurrect Diana of the Crossways, at the very least.
A number of semi-forgotten Victorian novelists have been brought back to something resembling life in the past few years, including Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Amy Levy, Mrs. Oliphant, Mrs. Humphry Ward (although, to nobody's great shock, there hasn't been much of a run on Ward's Robert Elsmere), and Charlotte Yonge. Who else out there is suitable for editorial reanimation, at least for literary-historical purposes?
Edward Bulwer-Lytton: I don't know if I would wish a Bulwer-Lytton renaissance upon the world, exactly (I would probably be sentenced to everlasting torment if I did), but his influence is everywhere in nineteenth-century fiction. You could probably make a good case for an edition of The Last Days of Pompeii, and maybe Paul Clifford and Eugene Aram along with it. Emily Lawless: A late-Victorian Anglo-Irish novelist, not forgotten among Irish studies specialists but certainly out of print in the US. Grania and Hurrish are the most highly-regarded novels, but With Essex in Ireland remains extremely readable (and has some genuinely shocking/scary moments in it). Charles Reade: The quintessential "blue book" novelist. The Cloister and the Hearth is the obvious go-to book, but there's been a lot of recent interest in Hard Cash. Mary Martha Sherwood: At the very least, a good edition of The History of the Fairchild Family, which has to be the most famous Victorian book (series of books, actually) that nobody has ever read. I vote for the first volume, which has all the notorious material ("Just
between that and the wood stood a gibbet, on which the body of a man
hung in chains: the body had not yet fallen to pieces, although it had
hung there some years. It had on a blue coat, a silk handkerchief round
the neck, with shoes and stockings, and every other part of the dress
still entire : but the face of the corpse was so shocking, that the
children could not look upon it"). Frances Trollope: Alan Sutton republished a few of her novels some time back, and Nonsuch also brought out Michael Armstrong, The Widow Barnaby (which appears to have gone out of print), and Jessie Phillips. The Widow Barnaby is actually quite funny and could stand another edition. (A more enterprising soul could bring out the entire Trollope family of novelists...)
In the short term, watching the evidence (darned evidence!) blow up your original research project is, to say the least, frustrating. In the long term, however, it's much more interesting to discover that your materials don't conform to your assumptions than to discover that they do. Why study works that do exactly what you expect them to do? What is there to learn?
Whenever I begin a project, I remind myself that literary history, like history in general, tends to be inconvenient.
There's much more critical evaluation in literary history than you might expect; it's just that when it comes to tracing literary influence, genre development, cultural significance, and so forth, what now seems to be an obviously lousy book may be much more important than a good one--or even a great one. (Or, in some cases, what appeared at the time to be a lousy book...) For Victorianists, Bulwer-Lytton serves as a pretty aggravating case in point. See #2.
Even cheap didactic fiction can be experimental, or, at least, do unexpected things. See #1.
It's dangerous to assume that non-canonical works have actually vanished. Academics may not bother paying attention to them; other audiences, however, may take a very different view.
I found Dr. No's post about the unbearable heaviness of excessive citations just as I was putting some citations into Book Two (which, amazingly enough, is really, truly near completion). Ah, the irony. My own attempts to go forth naked into the world--by which I mean not citing irrelevant secondary sources--have, alas, been stymied by readers. "Why aren't there any references to these two books?" (Because...they have nothing to say about this topic?) "Where's the discussion of this theoretical approach to hard-boiled eggs?" (Nowhere, because I'm writing about turkey bacon.) I might as well just put the citations in now and expect to delete them later...