What are not novels?

“Novel (noun): a fictitious prose narrative of book length, typically representing character and action with some degree of realism. . . . ORIGIN mid 16th cent.: from Italian novella (storia) ‘new (story)’, feminine of novello (new), from Latin novellus, from novus (new). The word is also found from late Middle English till the 18th cent. in the sense a novelty, a piece of news, from Old French novelle.” (American Heritage Dictionary)

Ever since 1977, when my third-grade teacher told us, “Now, class, take out your novels, and turn to page 38,” I have had to fight the tendency to understand the word “novel” as encompassing every kind of book-length printed work. Perhaps it’s because novels–unlike, say, works of historiography (=on the theory and practice of writing history) or verse-drama (such as Shakespeare’s plays) or even Enlightenment philosophy in its most belletristic or populist narrative modes (the Hume of the Essays; Burke and Rousseau in most things)–remain, even today, everyday objects, even when we read them on a Kindle.

When I relax with a book, it’s more likely to be Lesley Thomson’s The Detective’s Daughter (a novel) than Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality among Men (a work admittedly capable of speculative feats in its conjectural account of history, but still not a novel–too inconsistent in narration, lacking in dialogue and characters.) No one has ever read Kant’s Critique of the Power of Aesthetic Judgment in a bathtub. But even the hardest works of Henry James can be found in secondhand bookstores covered in the tell-tale wrinkles of dried splashes and submergences.

That my third-grade teacher and I are not alone in our tendency to see “novel” as a catchall term for books (texts, works) is clear from Clifford Siskin’s discussion, in his 1998 The Work of Writing, of what he calls “novelism.” Novelism, for Siskin, has two major outcomes: the folding into the conceptual category “novel” of all printed works, and the displacement of “the history of writing,” in all its multiplicity of manuscript and printed genres, short and long, official, elevated, or popular, by “the history of the novel” in the history of literary criticism and, subsequently, in popular understanding (172-3). Siskin argues that these folds and displacements began during the eighteenth century, as “writing” first became a household word, an everyday activity, a medium so common as to have become largely invisible as such. Siskin claims, following Raymond Williams, that during that century writing was thoroughly “naturalized” (Siskin 173; see also Williams 7). The developing familiarity, and eventual acceptance, of “the novel” was part of both processes. Viewed through the template of “the novel,” writing, like novels after novelism, came to appear as a force of nature: without a history, always present, usually comfortable even as it harbors dangers requiring active vigilance and containment.

Would yielding up the tendency to speak of all books as “novels” allow us to recapture something of the past and present dangers (that is to say, the seriously poetic agency, in the sense that poeisis means creation) of writing? Would it allow us, that is, to re-experience writing, in all its multiplicity, as a serious agent in the world? This, I think, is a crucially important consequence of Siskin’s project. Let’s, then, let philosophy be philosophy, and experience it in a context in which it is seriously discussed. (Last year, when two young men in Russia got into an argument about Kant, it ended when one shot the other. The stakes remain high.) Let ephemera be ephemera, and make an effort to read them: let polemic and sales pitches alike be heard with all the force of their original appeal. Let a hundred flowers bloom.

Yet, at the same time, let’s acknowledge that The Work of Writing also suffers from its tendency to experience “the [realist] novel” as distinct from all this: in short, as “safe” (193). This is a reading that accepts, in particular, the literary-historical characterization of Jane Austen’s novels, which Siskin calls “particularly narrow but thus admirably deep,” as especially secure and unthreatening works of writing (208). Siskin demonstrates that Austen’s novels were simultaneously praised and dismissed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, much as literature more broadly has come to be praised and dismissed in the contemporary academy and, perhaps, in the world at large. (Could literature ever be more than a decorative adjunct, a helpmeet, to Science, Technology, and Maths in the currently trendy STEaM acronym? Why else the lower-case ‘a’?) Indeed, Siskin importantly argues that, today, the praise of literature has precisely required its dismissal.

Austen’s novels were, for Siskin, “feminine” in the features of their pioneering mode of realism–what he takes to be their narrowness of geographic and thematic scope and their depth of psychological inquiry, which have come to serve as a model for “the novel” as it’s classically understood today (208). As a result, Austen’s works became milestones in the critical and, subsequently, the popular feminization of “literature,” which came about by means of the simultaneous naturalization and canonization of the novel. By “naturalization” I mean the ubiquity of the genre that resulted from the containment of its dangers. By “canonization” I mean the entry of the genre into classrooms and newspapers, where it remains as an (ever less important) component of the “general education” background to degrees in applied science and practical technology and as the focus of a(n ever shorter) pull-out section in the (dying) printed form of the daily newspaper.

Perhaps, if we were to reclaim the word “novel” to speak only of novels, we would be marking the historical newness of the novel that its proper name captures (novello, novelle) and registering our sense of wonder at the strangeness and continued inventiveness, generativeness, and variability of the genre, its range far beyond classic realism as it has retroactively been canonized. And perhaps we could also thereby reclaim something of this form’s own agency–and, not least, of the strange lingering poetic energy that has begun to be recovered even in Austen’s works.

Works Cited

Siskin, Clifford. The Work of Writing: Literature and Social Change in Britain, 1700-1830. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998.

“Unreasonable critique of Kant leads to man being shot in Russian shop.” Guardian. 16 September 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/16/kant-philospohy-argument-turns-violent?CMP=twt_gu.

Williams, Raymond. Writing in Society. London: Verso, 1983.

Camus, repetition, and the pains, graces, and distractions of consciousness

Here is Albert Camus on Sisyphus in 1942: “the gods. . . thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.” This, as Jill Fellows pointed out in her discussion of Camus is a myth about repetition. But, as Jill also showed us, there is a necessary supplement to the association of repetition with punishment. “The myth is tragic,” Camus asserts, only “because the hero is conscious.” Not otherwise.

Repetition and consciousness: the stuff of tragedy?

What do you think Camus means by “conscious”?

What would unconscious repetition look like? (Can it ever be, in Camus’s terms, “human”?)

Camus’s own example is the “workman of today, who works every day in his life at the same tasks.” Such a worker, under the early twentieth-century regime of Taylorism or in today’s neo-Taylorist workplace, might spend her days feeding napkins, but never Turkish towels, into an industrial iron; soldering microchips to a circuit board without ever holding or using the finished smart phone or PC; reading a series of prompts and statements into a telephone headset at a call centre, debarred from taking the “wasted” time for unscripted conversation.

According to Camus, such a worker’s “fate is no less absurd” than the fate of Siphysus, “[b]ut it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.”

Do you agree that workers engaged on repetitive tasks are not conscious?

Do you agree that consciousness alone makes overwork and alienation tragic?

Repetition and rescue: the case for consciousness (as thought and as imagination)

Camus offers a rescue from the more unconscious kind of repetition, which threatens to subsume life, as well as a consolation for the conscious repetitions that comprise the tragedy of Sisyphus: “myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them.” To read, implicitly, is to imagine Camus’s version of the myth into life.

Camus went further: he found the joy in Sisyphus. “His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. . . He knows himself to be the master of his days.” And so “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.” In discussing Camus’s text, and his myth-making, Jill Fellows argued that the “must” is crucial: what’s needed is agency, which she attributed to the work of the reader.

Among the questions we might want to think about: Can compelled labour (any action subject to a term like “must”) be a source of true happiness? (This is a question especially germane to the life of the student—and to the question, too, of how to find joy in what one does not especially wish to read.)

We might also want to consider the politics of this emphasis on agency as “mastery,” or at least as self-assertion and self-regulation. Does every possible kind of agency require the agent to act on something? Must all agency result in tangible ends? What kinds of subjects (or actors) exist without objects (the targets of their action)? What takes place in acts without mastery or outcomes?

What can imagination (and ideas) do? A conversation

We could also think about–and then decide what we think about–Karl Marx’s claim that ideas make nothing happen (other than other ideas), and that the contrary argument amounts to “ideology” (a false idea–that is believed to be true–about ideas.)

The position is laid out most baldly, perhaps, in Marx’s The German Ideology (1845) and the “Theses on Feuerbach” that he wrote in the same year, though he never published them. Thesis XI, from the “Theses on Feuerbach,” states that “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point is to change it.” In The German Ideology (Ch. 1. §A.), Marx wrote that “Since [philosophers] consider conceptions, thoughts, ideas, in fact all the products of consciousness, to which they attribute an independent existence, as the real chains of men. . . it is evident that [philosophers] have to fight only against these illusions of consciousness. . . . It has not occurred to any one of these philosophers to inquire into the connection of. . . philosophy with. . . reality, the relation of their criticism to their own material surroundings.”

Marx’s counter-proposition is that only events make events happen. The consciousness or unconsciousness of workers is irrelevant to the “reality” of their “chains.” The chains exist and require a fight.

And then there is the claim of W. H. Auden for the non-agency of poetry, the expression of imagination.

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives/ In the valley of its making where executives/ Would never want to tamper, flows on south/ From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,/ Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,/ A way of happening, a mouth. (W. H. Auden, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” 1939) 

Is Auden’s statement more modest or less modest than Camus’s claims for conscious imagining? Does it agree with or depart from Marx’s insistence on the intractability of “material surroundings”? 

What happens when you read Camus’s “Myth of Sisyphus” (and think about or comment on it)? Can it change your life? Can you imagine Sisyphus–or yourself–happy?


On reading and disengagement

Last week I asked you to give me, on anonymous slips of paper, any questions about Arts One you wanted answered but didn’t quite want to ask in public. One member of the seminar had a fantastic (translation: impactful and probably universal) question: “What’s the best way to read things that don’t strictly interest you and still get something out of them?”

I have a few ideas about this.

* A lot of academic reading—regardless of one’s major—will end up being secondary material. It’s background. Reading it is like arriving at a cocktail party and listening to the conversation before contributing to it. Very often what you hear is banal. Sometimes it’s boring. Sometimes it’s offensive. Occasionally it’s incredibly exciting and/ or it offers flashes of insight that can, at times, be made to last and shed light elsewhere.

* Our colleague’s question recognizes that, even among primary texts–even the great list of readings for Arts One!–some will appeal to or engage you (individually and collectively) more than others. Sometimes it’s helpful to try to broaden the parameters of appeal by asking questions about them: why does this bore me? Or: why does this anger me? Or you can ask yourself why a particular text has become important, influential (read: frequently read or frequently re-made) or popular.

* It is probably inevitable that, sometimes, you will fail to read something. (For me it’s The Brothers Karamazov. I can’t get through it. It used to be Heart of Darkness, but then my interests changed and Conrad’s work made itself newly available. Once upon a time it was George Eliot’s Romola. But that novel became irresistible once I got past the first chapter/ finally travelled to Florence/ compared the modes of narration and characterization to James’s imitation of them in The Golden Bowl.) There is a game, in David Lodge’s Changing Places, that you win by NOT having read the book everyone else has read. If you haven’t read Hamlet, you usually win. The existence of this game suggests that readerly failures are ubiquitous enough to be amusing to discuss in public. That said, try to keep your failures to a minimum. Don’t assume any one of them is permanent. If you are failing a lot, ask yourself whether you need to rethink your expectations about, or your ways of understanding, your reading experience.

* Not all reading experiences can–or should–be understood as productive, ending in a gain. How else can you think about them?

* Consider reading not as one activity but as a variety of activities, with different speeds, purposes, and emphases. Entertainment is a possible outcome, but not a typical one. It’s possible to find engagement in reading without being entertained. Fun and pleasure are not the same thing. Neither are excitement and enjoyment.

* Sometimes you just have to embrace boredom. (If it helps, Heidegger wrote in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics that “boredom is an attunement”–a feeling of what matters that might also remind us that WE matter by insistently reminding us of ourselves.)

* When you are reading for information, try not to bog down in the local. If you are reading an essay: plan to write a summary of no more than three sentences, then do it before you put the journal away. If you are reading a book: plan to write a summary of no more than a paragraph 1/3 of a page long. Along the way, write one-sentence summaries of each chapter. As you read, tape-flag striking quotations and passages you don’t understand but suspect might be important.

* When you are reading for form, rhetoric, aesthetic experience, don’t worry too much about the big picture. Read the text through, but focus your attention on what local insights offer your reading of it. Ask yourself what the text wants you to do with it, and who the text wants you to be.

What do you think? How would you advise a reader wondering how to read texts that don’t, at least at first, seem to promise much pleasure or engagement?

Blogging on WordPress: walled gardens, wilderness, rooms of one’s own

“To say the truth,” replied Miss Crawford, “I. . . may declare that I see no wonder in this shrubbery equal to seeing myself in it.” Austen, Mansfield Park, Vol. 2, Ch. 4

I spent the morning getting this site up and running. I’m not new to WordPress–I’ve been using it for my professional web pages at http://mirandaburgess.com for a couple of years–but I’ve never blogged in WordPress before. Maybe you haven’t either. Or maybe you are old pros. Either way, the WordPress platform is flexible, fairly intuitive, and can make an attractive home for your writing, in Arts One and beyond it. (If you’d like to use a different site, please feel free. If you think you might need to ask for my help, it’s safer to go with WordPress, as I actually know how it works.)

UBC has its own WordPress domain here at http://blogs.ubc.ca. What’s nice about this space is that you can build on its situation as a walled garden (an area of webspace that is protected from other parts of the internet and inaccessible to  internet users from beyond it) or you can open your blog up to users outside UBC, just as you wish. (Once you’ve created your blog, use the “Settings” menu at right, and then the “Reading” menu, to control access to your site from outside UBC, and to encourage or discourage access by search engines.)

To create a blog, log into the UBC WordPress domain using your CWL login details, click on your name at right, click on the “Blogs” tab near top left, and then click the button marked “Create a Blog.” After that, you can choose a title, tagline (goes underneath the title and explains it a little), and theme (some more graphically beautiful than others; some more hospitable to blogging than others) using the menus at left. You can create pages, which host stable content, and arrange the pages in hierarchical trees if you wish. (My site has several pages with stable content related to the course.) You can also create posts, or blog entries, which are dated, allow tagging, and accumulate on whichever page you choose in the order in which you posted them. (This here is a “post.” Welcome.) If you just want to blog, and want to do so on a single page that unspools in time, automatically indexed and archived monthly, simply skip “Pages” and go directly to “Posts.” And if you want to insert images, video, or URLs, use the “Upload/Insert” command just above the text editor at the top left of the posting/ content field.

There’s a good FAQ in the help menu under your log-in and avatar at top right, and the help pages are keyword searchable. There is also a tutorial available at http://codex.wordpress.org/WordPress_Lessons. Because some web developers use WordPress platforms for commerce sites and similar, some of the materials there are intended for site creators who intend to write code, embed apps, and so forth. If you are new to WordPress, and even if you’ve been around the WordPress block a few times, the “Beginners” section is a helpful overview (or reminder) of the basics.