Friday, April 18, 2014

A whiff of the providential - Austen and Eliot, for example, changed my life

Today I look at two recent books that directly mix memoir and criticism, Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch (2014) and William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter (2011).  Maybe I should omit the subtitle so as not to prejudice readers of Wuthering Expectations, who are mostly thinking “yuck.”  Not the target audience.

I have not read the entirety of either book, but have rather spot-checked them.  I do have them at hand, so you cannot just say “Well, the part you did not read is completely different.”  I can check.

Deresiewicz’s book is organized with a chapter per Austen novel, while Mead has a chapter per Middlemarch chapterMead loved her book from childhood and finds that the meaning of the novel deepens as life goes on, while Deresiewicz despised Austen until he had a graduate school epiphany, after which he became an Austen scholar and began learning various lessons from Austen.

Love, I saw, is a verb, not just a noun – an effort, not just another precious feeling.  (158)

Sorry, I did it again, as if I am trying to sabotage the book.  Let me get this out of the way.  Deresiewicz is writing a graduate school memoir, which in and of itself is a mistake.  Graduate students are the worst (the link is to a 30 Rock clip).  Then the structure of linking the events of his life to a particular novel, followed by a series of character-improving lessons, is bizarrely constricting, even if true – no, especially if true.  Deresiewicz presents himself as one strange bird.

If I just ignore the memoir, though, it turns out that his writing about the Austen novels is excellent.  His plot summaries are outstanding, his character portraits swift and vivid.  They are clear, efficient, and expert at deploying details and quotations from the text with enough elegance that I at first did not notice how many little slivers of the book he was really using.  The above “love” passage is preceded by a one-page run through the importance of the words “exertion,” “duty,” and especially “useful” in Mansfield Park (157-8).  If I had written that page as a blog post, I would have been pleased.

He does this first-rate close reading, and then writes about how he began to hang out with some wealthy Brooklynites, which made him appreciate Fanny Price in Mansfield Park and learn that rich people can be jerks.  I don’t get it.

Deresiewicz’s book is memoir plus close reading (with some biography) – Deresiewicz constantly links himself to Austen characters.  Rebecca Mead’s book is really a short Eliot biography with her autobiography and some criticism folded in, so she more often makes connections with Eliot herself.  In the old days, if a New Yorker writer wanted to write an Eliot book, all of the memoir would have been compressed into the foreword or afterword.

This is Ruth Bernard Yeazell, Chace Family Professor of English at Yale, reviewing Mead’s book in the April 24, 2014 New York Review of Books:

What is nonetheless a bit disheartening about My Life in Middlemarch is the apparent assumption that literary criticism and even biography will be most appealing to contemporary readers when packaged as memoir.  In George Eliot’s novel, few words carry a more consistently ironic charge than “Providence” or “providential”…  Though Mead is scarcely under such a delusion, there is still a whiff of the providential about some of the connections she traces between her own history and Eliot’s.  (59)

Or, less politely, the memoiristic passages should have been cut, some of the connections are inventions, and the fault is likely that of an agent or publisher (true for Deresiewicz, too, I’ll bet).  The review is otherwise pretty glowing, although it is mostly about how deeply interesting Eliot is.  And really, at this point, Eliot vs. Mead is not a contest, right?

I think I will just point towards Rohan Maitzen’s recent review for more, including lots of useful quotations that show Mead’s skill and some of her better and worse attempts to justify the exercise.

Neither of these books is a bad book, and I can imagine plenty of readers getting a lot out of them.  But I can also imagine the shadow books where the authors got out of the way, with all of the autobiography moved to the end, for example, so the artificial demand for connections is relaxed.  Those books seem like they would be better.

Next I want to look at Molly Peacock’s The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 (2010), which does much of what I am complaining about here, but I think with more success.  That will have to wait until Monday.


  1. Just reading through your last three posts -- these issues of how to do criticism are fascinating to me, but I also get stuck very easily. It's hard to get beyond some general feelings and a handful of individual examples of what I do and don't think is right, and to start articulating sensical arguments. I suppose I lack the theoretical toolkit.

    I am suspicious of pieces that mix criticism with memoir. I have come across examples where I've liked what the author has done, but I'm anxious about the possible subordination of critical tools to memoir -- the use of certain techniques for analysing literature to serve a narrative about oneself, rather than (or at least, far more than) to do the thing that the critical tools purport to do, and explore the literature in question. Similarly -- an easy point -- I am anxious about the tendency in certain kinds of biography to use the tools of literary analysis to speculate about an author's life.

    Memoir/criticism hybrids offer a lot of opportunities to do criticism badly. But then, doing criticism, in whatever tradition/style/format, provides all the opportunity necessary to do it badly.

    I don't at all like any tendency to view the critic (or historian, social scientist, scientist, doctor, lawyer, wheover) as objective. I don't think critics should necessarily conceal the first person and write as if their criticism were not the product of a human personality/mind/body/context. I think that criticism should aknowledge in some way that it comes from a particular perspective -- but I also want it to strive to consider many perspectives. Outside of exceptional cases, I don't think I want to read a lot about how a certain critic's perspective was formed. But I do want to have some idea of how their perspective has been formed, or at least, in some way, of what its like. Its perspectiveness. Perhaps -- from what I've gleaned from your posts and from very occasional comings-across elsewhere -- Arnold is in fact rather good at conveying perspectiveness. He seems to have a strong individual voice.

    Sometimes it is or would be nice to be able to poke about in a person's reading history to allow for some informed speculation about why they have approached a particular piece of writing in a certain way. Not just, for example, to know that they have written a book about Blake and taught courses on late eighteenth century print culture, but to know what they've been reading lately in a variety of genres, and what they read when they were growing up. This can be a good thing about blogs. Although blogs are selective, performative, etc.

    Moving slightly sideways -- I am highly ambivalent about viewing literature as pedagogical. Which is to say, I do view literature as pedagogical, sort of. I am sympathetic with George Eliot's idea that it can expand the sympathies, and feel, personally (aha, memoir!), that reading a lot has given me additional ways of looking at things, additional tools and language for working out my ideas, an expanded way of working and playing with words for whenever I do any talking, writing or miscellaneous communication or other things that might not be communication with words. (All of this is also a lot of fun.) But I am deeply averse to looking to specific works of literature for lessons abotu life, and perhaps I'm averse to looking for specific lessons of any sort in literature in general. Which I hope is not only because looking for 'the moral of the story' is unfashionable.

    I suppose my belief is that it's bad to look to literature for guiding principles, but good to look to literature as a way to increase intellectual experience, by putting yourself in contact with a lot of other ways of seeing/thinking/talking. But, examined closely, these two different things, the bad one and the good one, probably start to have places where they overlap. (I always expect binaries to be misleading.)

    I'm not sure if I have got anywhere at all. But will be interested to see what you write on Monday.

  2. I'm reading Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, and now I'm curious to know what he says about this book.

  3. Alison, so many good points. I really have to work through these ideas with specific examples.

    Arnold does have a strong voice, just not as strong, or odd as some peers like Carlyle and Ruskin. As a side benefit, Arnold never seems to come off as crazy.

    I am completely with you about literature as pedagogy. We of course do learn "lessons," to simplify, and extend our sympathies but over a long period of time and experience, not simply from a moral that we plug into our behavior. And the enjoyment and understanding of complex works of art is itself improving, yes, yes! But what nonsense to expect any of this to be easily visible or to happen quickly.

    Miguel, Deresiewicz says that he discovered that many aspects of his own life are reflected in Northanger Abbey, and that he learned many important life-improving lessons from the novel. He of course says this about all six books. The lessons are too embarrassing to quote. A lot of them focus around learning how to learn, a good thing for a graduate student to know how to do, certainly.

  4. I think that I may need to read the Deresiewicz. I don't know if that is a good thing.

  5. I will bet that there is not a single lesson in the Deresiewicz book that you had not already learned.

    If you are looking for accessible close reading of Austen, a book that might be worth trying is What Matters in Jane Austen: Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved (2013), which is another book that I have not read but sampled. Ignore the dumb sub-title. How old are the characters, how much money do they have, why do they refer to each other the way they do, etc.

  6. The more I think about a lot of this the more I am convinced that this focus on the personal -- or, on the critic as a person, rather than on the critic's voice -- is a response to what a mass audience prefers. Or, more hopefully, assumptions about what it prefers, but look at the huge success of The Millions, where an awful lot of the essays say far more about their author (though not necessarily much that's really interesting) than about books. There was even an essay not long ago quite literally arguing that The Goldfinch was really all about the essay's author. Would Deresiewicz's close readings on their own be marketable outside a small group of Austen enthusiasts? I say this as someone struggling mightily to figure out a book project she actually wants to write that might somehow also be pitch-able. Memoir or self-help (or, possibly, some kind of Big Think argument, TED-talkish) -- these seem to be the ways to sell literature these days. Or be a celebrity already, literary or otherwise.

    I hope I'm wrong. It was a cynical and discouraged weekend for me as I stared at my raggedy notes and failed attempts at proposals! But in its own very different ways the non-academic market for literary criticism does seem to be as intransigent as the academic one.

  7. I will bet that Yeazell is right, that in the initial pitch - for both books - the memoir was all in a single chapter, and that it was gently suggested to the authors that they distribute their life throughout the text. Mead did so more discreetly.

    Maybe I am wrong about Deresiewicz, though. His forthcoming book goes back to his "I can't talk to my plumber" Yale-bashing: Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. Maybe he really is an advocate of self-help by means of literature. So am I, in a way, but I just don't think it works the way he thinks it works.

    Lord, there are a lot of Jane Austen-related books. I was just glancing at Amazon. Holy cow. Maybe Austen is too special of a case. Maybe her market is big enough to support anything and everything.

    That Goldfinch essay is kinda amusing, but says almost nothing about the book itself.

    I hope you're wrong, too!

  8. Oh, I certainly wasn't planning on reading Deresiewcz for the life lessons. Or even for the Austen reading. I'm just a sucker for personal essays about books, a sucker for Austen and I think that I am part of a (very small) market for graduate student memoir. I'm not sure that I've read any graduate student memoir (little comics don't count) and have always thought there should be more. I know that's not what you and Prof. Maitzen want to hear, but I am really interested in individual's responses to books. (Although, as I write this, I am wondering if I am interested in anyone's book-length responses to books. I really like blog posts and personal essays in response to books. Hey, maybe an intro chapter length memoir/personal essay! Look how effectively your original point sunk in a day later.)

  9. Well, don't say you weren't warned.

    Look, I am so interested in individual responses to books that I read or at least look at hundreds of book blog posts every week, but I am looking for the book, not the reader.

    What are some of the especially interesting personal responses you have come across?

    I don't see how the stakes in a grad school memoir can possibly be high enough to be interesting. Most of Elif Batuman's book is actually travel writing (plus she is funny). The one chapter that is really about grad school is a disaster.

    1. Grad students read a lot of boring trash. I don't see why they wouldn't want to read boring trash about being a graduate student.

      The first that came to mind were Nora Ephron's love of the Woman in White, Nora Ephron's serial monogamy with cookbooks and Robin McKinley's essay that she remembers where she was in a migratory childhood by what she was reading. I also think that I Capture the Castle is an effective book-length memoir based on lessons learned from reading Jane Austen and Jane Eyre. That it is also a novel should probably count against it. Anyway, the first of that list is in no way about The Woman in White-- it's about Nora and Reading, but I loved it and it made me want to read The Woman in White.
      I've been trying to think through my food critic analogy. I like reading really good restaurant reviews, but I liked Garlic and Sapphires about the life of the reviewer better than its component reviews. I like Anthony Bourdain's books better than his television show because the books are actually more about Anthony. I'll try and post more of what I mean over on sparkling squirrel one of these times.

    2. Hey, you're making me do the work. Is the "Woman in White" one "On Rapture"? & "Serial Monogamy: A Memoir" is about the cookbooks? Where and what is the Robin McKinley?

      I had not thought of grad students as the audience for memoirs about grad students. If you say so! My own experience was that grad students did not read boring trash. If something was boring, it was valuable; if trash, it was exciting trash.

    3. The Robin McKinley is in something else by her. I think, perhaps, it is in the introduction to Imaginary Lands. In searching for it, I have found a book, Robin McKinley: Girl Reader, Woman Writer, by E. Perry that I must read. That someone else thinks what Robin McKinley read in her youth supports my point, to an extent, but the fact that I don't want to read about what E. Perry was reading at the time she was researching R. McKinley supports yours. I have actually come up with a reasonably well-articulated mini-essay in my mind about preferring memoir to criticism (and how that preference depends upon the quality of the criticism), but the time it takes to actually articulate such an essay is eluding me [silly 4 year old want to play!], but do ask next time we meet.

    4. I have done some reading.

      Ephron's "Serial Monogamy" piece is superb, a masterpiece of its type, although its relevance to the discussion here seems tangential. "On Rapture," well, I have a lot of problems with that one. Both essays are collected in I Feel Bad about My Neck.

      Based on what is available Google books, the amount of "girl reader" in the Evelyn Perry book is minimal.

      Almost everyone prefers memoir to arts criticism. Most people prefer visits to the dentist to criticism. Most readers of the Deresiewicz Austen book are not going to ask, like I did, Why is all this boring memoir here? but rather Why is there all of this boring literary criticism?

  10. I'm very interested in individuals' responses to books! But that's not necessarily the same as being very interested in their life stories or personal anecdotes, or even in the personal reasons they might have for being interested in or 'relating' to a particular book. Sometimes those things are interesting, and they might even draw me into their deeper analysis of the book itself, but I too am looking for the book not the reader ... unless that means some idea that the reader is every really absent from a reading. I like to hear the reader's voice, not the reader talking? Something like that?

  11. Criticism is fundamentally creative. What response is not an individual response? Everything written at Wuthering Expectations is a personal response to books. But so is everything in the NYRB. What was that Francine Prose review of The Goldfinch if not personal? "Doesn’t anyone care how something is written anymore?" - that was a true cry from the heart.

  12. Two interesting further examples spring to mind.

    Firstly, The Trip to Echo Spring, by Olivia Laing. She chooses four famously boozy writers, and describes their lives of struggle, while occasionally diving into the work itself. So far, so effective. She uses trips to particular places asociated with them as jump-off points for saying interesting things about the lives, the work, the methods. But, to my mind fatally, she interweaves personal reminscence about alcoholism into the tale, which only serves to distract and distance from what I, as a reader, have decided the book is "about". As you've said above, the links become glaringly artificial, and there is some kind of assumption of...what? consistency? otherwise inaccessible sympathy?...between Laing and her subjects which begins to grate.

    The second instance is (I think it's fair to say) a favourite of this parish: The Hare With the Amber Eyes. Of course in this case the reflections on art (and specifically writing) are wonderful incidentals to a story that is actually fascinating in its own right. This latter quality is, I think it's fair to say, probably absent from all "grad student memoirs" (shudder-inducing genre). But De Waal proves himself an astute critic of the works his family history involves him with...and of course, there is an *actual* link or involvement which means his astuteness benefits from the context he puts it in.

    I wonder if, as has been suggested, these books would have been published without the memoir-y bits being yoked in (in Echo Spring's case) or highlighted (as with Amber Eyes, which the publicity for piqued my interest in without giving the slightest hint of the actual riches in the book). A pity if so, although not the end of the world I suppose. It's the feeling of "unearned equivalence" that gives me pause I think.

  13. The funny thing is that a common complaint about the Edmund De Waal book is that the author is too cold and distant.

    The Laing book sounds, hmm, divisive. In some ways it is like The Paper Garden - why is there so much unrelated stuff about the author? Well, that's how we write 'em now. Molly Peacock at least puts all of the memoir in a separate chunk at the end of each chapter, each with its own little title. She is directly saying "this is something different."

    Really, I am open to any kind of mix, but a reader ought to be asking, about all kinds of decisions, not just the amount of memoirizing, "Is this serving the subject?"

    There is something going on here about the taste for overt emotion. And maybe, although this sounds strange, the taste for egoism. I am clearly on the low end of the distribution. But I have enough solipsism of my own to deal with, so why would I want that of other people?