Even in a little thing
This is a very strange term. I'm only up to week four and it feels like week 10. I want to say that this is the first time it has happened like this, but it isn't. It happens every year when my uni courses go over the term break. Mind you, this year is going to be amazingly complex for the whole of June, so maybe I'm anticipating.
When I was an undergraduate, History students used to joke that we didn't get holidays, we got extended writing periods. It was time-without-class, rather than time without work. Right now, again, I get more writing time in when I don't have to take those 4 hours of the day and teach. I do everything else in teaching time: I read, I review, I research, I complain about lack of sleep, but those extra 8-20 hours a week mean that I don't fall behind.
Recently I've had form-filling-in to add to everything and, last school holidays, my Wednesday teaching was in hiding, but the other teaching wasn't. And there was travel. And the travel continues and the forms continue.
I'll get one week in July for solid writing, but until then, I really have to find more time in my day. I have projects that have to progress if I'm to see them to print. And one thing I know is that if I get that mysterious full-time job that is my current Big Quest, that this pattern is going to continue. My freelance life, in other words, currently resembles my old academic existence very closely. This is good. It means that if I can sort things out now, and manage my research and writing and forms and teaching and fiction and conferences and meeting promises everything all at once, I'll be fine.
Right now, I have over a dozen review books on my to-be-read piles (for there have just been catalogue books and back books sent, and it's the time in between Aurealis seasons, so it's a good time to catch up on some reviewing) and I have a stack of books read (for ticon4) that need writing up. The Beast is progressing, slowly, as usual (one day we'll finish and then all kinds of people will know what it is and there'll be a hole in my life). I have three quite different classes (though one finishes next week) and two unfinished articles that desperately need to be sorted. And someone reminded me that my book about writers and history needs to move to the next stage, and the next, and the next. I may not have looked for a publisher yet, but the research is mostly done and there are people who want to read it. There's more. I know there's more because I keep on encountering notes to myself, reminding me of things. I'm still working on my fiction, for instance, but mostly world-building and solving possible problems. It's a good time to do this, for there's not a lot of time to write.
One thing I've been noticing in my remaining life (for I have a remaining life!) is that not all narratives are the fast-paced ones that quite a few publishers are currently besotted with. I saw The Bletchley Circle over the weekend and have been watching Lark Rise to Candleford and I can't help comparing the pace of their narratives with the pace of my narratives and thinking "There's still an audience for gentle narratives."
I just have to convince publishers of this, I guess. I also have to stop grinding my teeth when I'm told that male readers are wildly disadvantaged and that current narrative choices by publishers helps address this. Three people* over the weekend explained to me as important for long-suffering male readers to have more imprints that meet their specific needs, which totally doesn't help a writer like me. And in two of the conversations we were actually talking about writers like me. I am, on other words, supposed to feel good about being difficult to publish because I don't write action narratives specifically targeted at male readers. I will read books by all the dynamic new imprints and I will enjoy them, but to explain it as "Men suffer - female reading privilege is a problem that needs addressing" is not something that helps. Not at all.
And now I've had my cuppa and my daily whinge and I need to do some work.
*The third friend wasn't nearly as "Suffer in the cause of male equality of reading" - he just happened to use some of the same words. Really, I should only count the conversations as two, to be fair.
Today’s book is all about magic and politics and John Dee (Glyn Parry, The Arch-Conjuror of England. John Dee, Yale University Press, 2013). I took it with me to Sydney, to read in the quiet interstices in the weekend of the Aurealis Awards. The good news is that it was a quick read, with much material and thought I need to revisit. It counterbalances a book I looked at a few weeks ago, for it covers some of the same period as the one on demonic possession, but from such a different angle. Dee’s life occurred at the crucial moment when the Protestant vs Catholic views that Brian Levack examines were being developed and Dee was caught in the crossfire between the emerging differences in religious understanding. He was also caught in the middle of the undermining of the popular beliefs in magic and the learned beliefs in world manipulation sing numbers and various types of prophecy. A life of John Dee, therefore , leads us directly into some of the thorniest and most fascinating issues of the later sixteenth century.
The good new (for I’m in a good news and bad news mood today) is that Parry sees this clearly and manages to take the reader through this particular maze without once condescending or ascribing falsity to the beliefs of the period. The bad news is that Parry assume a fairly solid background in the people and issues of Elizabethan England. There are explanations, say, of Walsingham, but they’re more gentle reminders than the kind of description someone needs to survive a first encounter with him. This book is not, in other words, a good choice for an entry point into any of the subjects studied. It’s not even a good entry point to the life of John Dee.
Parry’s view is so much within the period that he doesn’t serve as tour guide, and he is not careful to give contextualisations, but if you know enough about English political and social history of the time, and if you understand the development of learned magic alongside religion and religious changes, however, then this book is very good.
Parry has many insights and those insights are particularly handy. He has a better understanding of the relationship of the occult with the everyday (though he doesn’t stop and explain, for instance, Dee’s methods for scrying in much detail, and he doesn’t give direct quotations from Dee’s prophecies. We are reliant on his explanations to see us through, for there aren’t nearly enough links with evidence for my satisfaction. Again, this is not a book for the reader who doesn’t know this field at all (for the most part). It is a book to be used alongside other books on related topics. As a book to be used alongside other books on related topics, Parry’s insights are often eye-opening and it’s useful. In a perfect world, Yale would have published a work three times the length, and this small volume would be its intellectual core. That work would have basic political timelines and biographies of those whose lives touched Dee’s and it would also contain new editions of the most crucial documents relating to Dee’s life.
It’s particularly useful for nuancing discussion that’s all-too-often black and white. Parry describes very effectively the complexities of the relationship between science and magic and mathematics and religion and politics and personal feeling. He demonstrates the relationship between mystical alchemy and practical and understands clearly the effects of skills differences among practitioners. He doesn’t group Protestants vs Catholics, but looks at the nature of the belief of an individual and where it fitted alongside others. He allows for charisma and training and political commonsense (this latter was something Dee particularly lacked).
I need to look for more books by Parry. I’m particularly interested in how he sees the intellectual changes in the English court in the sixteenth century. I would recommend this book to readers doing research into a number of fields that touch on the life of Dee. I’d also recommend it for anyone interested in John Dee and his work.
I would, however, suggest that Parry’s volume be used alongside other books, to get the most out of it, and that readers test Parry’s explanations against primary sources, not because they’re unreliable, but because he doesn’t always spell out all the implications. His insights are useful and interesting and offer solid perspectives into Dee and his world: they’re just not the whole story. It’s a word to the wise rather than an introduction to the period and the life of one of its many interesting people. Parry’s most interesting comments fit Dee neatly into his time and place, and demonstrate that many of the aspects of the man that we find quite extraordinary have only become so due to the intellectual and political currents of his time. Parry explores how Dee’s precarious position (theologian, alchemist and possibly conjurer) not only makes Dee’s life somewhat precarious, but also highlight the effects of the religious and political changes during his lifetime. For these insights alone, I’m happy to have read this book.
I'm back from Sydney. I had a lovely time, despite being a bit viral (L&I had to deal with a lot of "But I hurt"). I came back to a very cold Canberra and am torn between doing work and huddling up inside my down dressing gown and pretending the outside world is invisible. I think this is called 'recovery time.'
I'm learning more about the limitations of my eyesight. I can't do as much work on my netbook as I would like. I did some stuff while I was away (and you might see the results here tomorrow) but looking at the screen for a long time in a dark-ish room is just not good anymore. I shall work in light rooms and maybe experiment with portable lights. I'm fine with reading on paper except when I'm tired or the light is bad, so that's good.
The Aurealis awards were beautifully organised and the winners and runners up were all wildly deserving of award, so that was all rather nice.
I have the last Wheel of Time book, which I will review for ticon4 in the near future.
I still can't talk publicly about any of my news and anyhow, it's not news anymore. Maybe one day I'll have more news I can't talk publicly about. The news I can't talk about isn't about jobs and it isn't about novels getting into print, which are the two big things I need right now, so I shall move on in all matters.
I can't remember which bits of past news I've actually mentioned here, now, either. One thing is this, of course: http://salempress.com/Store/samples/cri
Today is book day. It should have been yesterday, but I wasn’t sure how to write about this one. It’s a useful book; it’s an interesting book; it’s a good book. For a whole bunch of reasons, though, it’s not simple to write about.
R. Kent Rasmussen has edited a volume’s worth of letters to Mark Twain from his readers (Dear Mark Twain. Letters from his Readers. Ed. R. Kent Rasmusssen, University of California Press, 2013). He has included Twain’s acerbic comments on the correspondence and investigated the background to the letters. This is wonderful. I love private correspondence. It tells us so much about a person and his or her time. The second worst element of an edition is when the editor assumes that we, the modern reader either know as much as they do or simply will not be interested. The worst element is when the letters get edited out of recognition. Neither is the case here. R. Kent Rasmussen respects his sources and explains them lucidly.
All the types of correspondence Twain received are represented. Twain was a hoarder to a degree, and an annotator, also to a degree and both traits are very useful. From the historian’s angle, it’s a lovely insight into the life of the mind that accumulated around trends in literature. We can trace when Clemens became famous and when he was publicly known not to be rich through the types of letters people wrote him. I need to compare the lionising of Twain with the lionising of Martineau: I’m curious about transatlantic differences and gender differences and differences provoked by their personalities. This goes on my ‘one day’ list.
There are so many uses for this book and so many insights in it. It’s a handy resource for researchers and an even handier resource for fiction writers. It’s full of colour and character and incident. It’s not, however, suitable for reading straight through. It’s a reference book, or a book to dip into when one feels the urge. The underlying narrative (if there is one) is not one that grabs the heart and drags the eye across page after page.
There is a definite place on many bookshelves for this volume. For people who like to read in scraps, for people who want to research America and Mr Clemens and the socio-cultural aspects of the writing world and who thought they could do what and when and why (from navigating an expedition to becoming a famous writer to collecting the autographs of the famous): a cross-section of that world is in this book. Some of the letters are illuminating: many are depressing. So many people wanted ‘in’ on fame and fortune and had schemes that would give them this and were willing to write letters to total strangers. I ceased being surprised at Twain’s terseness after a few of these. It’s hard enough to believe in the innocence and enthusiasm of readers after the tenth begging letter – I’m very relieved that only typical letters have been edited and published and not the whole lot of them!
Normally I would argue that everything should see light of day and that we should make our own conclusions, but I’m still jaded from the last “I have this idea for a book and you and I could make our fortune together” letter. These letters still exist. So do people who approach one after talks, workshops, panels and proffer their thoughts. Some of these are entirely well-meant and do reflect that innocence and enthusiasm I mentioned in the last paragraph, but equally as many are from people who want fame and money and want to hitch a ride with someone who they see as capable of getting it for them. If I get this (and I am the opposite of well-known) I shudder to think of what it’s like for big name authors.
Even as I shudder, the historian in me wonders “But wouldn’t it be great to have a collection of letters to JK Rowling to match the letters addressed to Mr Twain?” It would show so many interesting aspects of change over time and across countries. In fact, now I would like to see a collection of many volumes of these letters, starting with this one, and using the same editorial decisions, for consistency. I’d like them lined up on my bookshelf so that I can analyse them. And so that I can pull one out from time to time when a model letter hits my in-box. I will nod my head sagely and say “Yes, type F has just produced a very fine example of this letter sent to Author 3 in 1931 where they want the author to do all the work but have a fabulous idea and so will take 60% of the profits and it’s good to see that laziness is still alive and well in the land of the entrepreneur.” I shall then take one of Twain’s comments and annotate my own email with “What a proposition!” or, if the ‘idea’ is particularly familiar and I’m feeling kind, I shall plagiarise another comment and label it “Sarcasm?”
It’s a bit daunting to know that all the possible letters to writers about these things have already been written over a century ago. It is, however, useful from so many directions. It’s especially useful for historians and for grumpy writers.
I shall be less grumpy tomorrow. I shall have finished this round of forms and, at the same time, will have come to the end of the first cycle of the medication and my brand-new/old menstrual cycle. This means that I'm spending tonight working, rather than kicking up my heels at the CSFG meeting, or making bad jokes with Katrin (which is work, but not alone-work) for I'm really not sure what this evening will bring.
For those who were asking (a while ago) about Secret Jewish Women's Business I can now say definitively that none of the usual people who like reading my work want to publish it. So my novel that includes stories from my feminist past is either unpublishable or unfashionable (unfashionable, according to the usual suspects though most of them said they wished otherwise) and I'm going to have to find some non-usual suspects.
The reason I wanted to write it is because I want a modern Jewish heroine who comes from an Australian Jewish tradition and I want a feminist who faces demons (real ones, not the normal variety) and I want a historian with super powers (not the same character) and for those who think "The first bit of this sounds familiar" this is the earlier story of Judith, who appeared in a short story a while back. That's just how long it's taken me to find out that Jewish-Australian magic users don't find easy markets (except in that short story, which was accepted immediately I sent it somewhere).
I don't normally explain the rise and fall of my fiction here, but I know a whole bunch of you were interested in this particular novel, and I thought you'd like to stay in touch with its fate. I shall ponder the matter over the weekend and think about what to do. Self-publishing is not an option*, so I hope no-one suggests it!
No more news today, for I am too lazy to type any...
*I have nothing against self-published work. I have everything against me getting sick again from the amount of work that goes into self-publishing and against me hurting financially because of the money side that gets things done upfront with self-publishing. Good self-publishing has time and money expenses that I just cannot undertake. I refuse to do bad self-publishing.
I'm a teeny bit tired of filling in forms. I never thought I'd say that. I used to like filling in forms. There's a sense of completeness when they're done and gone and you've ticked many boxes and filled several pages worth of duty. Right now, though, each and every form seems to have major life consequences for me (jobs, income, publication etc) and none of them repeat what has gone before and each of them is slow to happen and has hiccups.
I think I'm turning into one of those people who cannot bear to be photographed for they feel their soul will be stolen. Well, bits of my soul are being taken, form by form. My sense of self is eroding.
I hope this means I'm doing something right...
It's not the forms, really, though the designers of some of them should be doing quite different job. It's simply that one should never, ever be in a position where most major elements of one's life are being changed all at once. I don't know where I'll be or what I'll be doing in three years time (and if I'm still here, doing this, then there is a Big Problem) and it's not simply finding a job and possibly moving cities. It's putting all my cards on the table and saying "This is what I need from my life." And doing it over and over and over again, using forms. Some ask less of me than others, but they're inevitably the forms I want to crash and burn, for the ones that ask for my lifeblood and my soul are offering, in return, if they choose to like what I tell them, some of my dreams.
It comes down to that moment, a few years ago, when I admitted that what I really wanted to do was to teach and to research and to write and that all the other things I've done have been attempts to do these three. Or they've been me being waylaid because of skills I have (administration is especially not something one should admit to, even though it's a handy thing to have).
I hope that some day, someone reads these applications and says "Yes, her" and sends me an offer, so I can follow those shreds of my souls and put myself back together again.
I didn’t quite do what I had intended to do tonight. I blame Louisa May Alcott. I also blame her most recent editor. I just wanted to take a look inside Daniel Shealy’s annotated edition of Little Women (The Belknap Press, 2013), but I found myself taking another look and a bit more of a look and then just turn a few more pages and then most of the evening was gone. My work is still to be done, but I had a lovely time. The fact that I had a lovely time even with a migraine says a lot about the joy that Little Women has given me since I was a child, but it also suggests that Shealy’s done a good job.
It’s a big book. Almost a coffee table book. The size is well-used, however, as it contains a great deal of good stuff, mostly well-presented. My main caveat is that the red of the notations is quite hard to read for people with eyesight problems (which made tonight the perfect evening to attempt it, in fact, for I demonstrated that red=eyestrain quite conclusively) and that I wish Shealy hadn’t silently corrected some textual errors. He explains at the beginning that he’s only doing this for really obvious errors, but I wish he had given us just a few pages more of annotations, so that I could know where his edition departs from the base edition/s he chose. I'm fussy about my critical editions, I guess.
Apart from this and the randomness of which flowers so carefully defined in the annotations get illustrations (they’re always ones I know and never the ones I want to know) this is a really wonderful book. And that’s the short form of the review. All the rest of this post is me enjoying a good book. All the typos are brought to you by my migraine, which is still with me, albeit in abated form.
One of the magic elements of this edition is that it shows us the lives of the March sisters, and runs the lives of the Alcott sisters alongside in fascinating counterpoint. The annotations and the introduction and the pictures all combine to provide insights into Alcott’s family and life and the American memory of her, and to reflect them through Alcott’s novel. We get to see May’s art grow into something almost respectable (which was a clever addition – showing us the art of the sister who provided the first illustrations for Little Women) from something that was sweet but not quite there.
Shealy has also included several paintings by Rockwell. My favourite is one of Jo-as-writer, for it’s almost identical with the mental picture I had of Jo-as-writer when I was child and imagining myself in that attic, inventing madly. Later I had a more deskbound version in my mind, and I have yet to find an artist who has seen that in the same way, but Rockwell’s picture is my Jo, with my dreams: this was a book I needed to have in my life, just to discover this fact.
The element of this volume that gave me the most relief was that Shealy spelled out the links with Pilgrim’s Progress. I know it’s wrong of me, but I find Pilgrims’ Progress prosy and dull and I’ve always wanted to know the links between it and Little Women, but I dislike it so intensely that I didn’t actually want to read it again to find out. That work has been done and I can just read about those links, safely one step removed from Bunyan.
Something else that leaps out at me is how much this volume can be useful to a writer. To any writer. Alcott’s experience in publishing and the decisions she made and the advice she was given is documented. What’s most interesting is that it breaks with some common advice given now. She was following the advice of her publisher when she wrote Little Women, and it wasn’t until she finished the first volume that her hart was fully engaged. It shows in the writing, I think, but it’s interesting to know that she was pushed into it.
It’s just as interesting to discover that she didn’t believe in the obedient and silent female: for her women ought to work and ought to think. She married all her March sisters off reluctantly, because society wanted romance in its fiction*.
There is so much in this volume. I want to go through and make a list of the popular literature mentioned in the annotations, for instance, and find out more about forgotten writers. I want to haul out more quotes (all as dramatic as the advice given of Alcott that I used as the title for this). I want…I want… to sit down and read the whole thing again, this time not skipping anything.
PS Canberrans (or anyone who feels like a small journey here): if you want to celebrate me falling in love (for the umpteenth time) with Little Women, I am thinking of having a Little Women dinner in late July. I’ll rustle out recipes that are correct for that place and time, we’ll all cook and eat and what else we do (read, watch a movie, chat, play period games) is entirely up to us.
*This is what happened to me in Cellophane. Beta readers found that it was not complete without romance. We expect relationships in books. Nothing new. Good to know, however, that one is not alone.
I had a delightful late morning, and spent that time with lovely folks. then i came home, put my shopping in the fridge, ate lunch, did a bit of work and... everything fell to pieces for a few hours. More weather changes.
This means I'm behind a bit on what I have to do today. I may have a bit of a long day from here on in. I don't want to. I want to give up on everything and watch Dr Who. But deadlines are deadlines and I have them stacked up senseless right until Friday morning.
Some irony is rather good. My latest review book (and I still owe discussion of three other books - watch this space for those) is a totally gorgeous annotated edition of Little Women, with pictures. I just want to sit and play with it. Alas, that I have to do other work first!
sartorias has an interesting discussion on her blog, about LM Alcott, for whose writing I have an abiding fondness. I own one of the 'sensationalist' novels she wrote, for I am also quite lucky.
I've been reading a couple of unreviewable* books this week, and the two are linked. If I discussed them, it would be to point out their sensationalist aspects, basically, for they're lacking in most other elements of good storytelling. One of them is very well known, too. And this kind of taletelling is on the increase.
My worries today are not about the lack of Literature or why this kind of tale is so popular (in the context of why my kind of writing never is). I'm far more interested in why this kind of tale is so popular and in the context of what it means to our various cultures and how it reflects the changes in readership that the new technologies and the crumbling of traditional publishing present.** The stories may mostly be somewhat vapid, but they meet a very real need and have a very real audience.
I don't think it's because we share the same values as Alcott's publishers did, in her early days. I think it's because we have a great increase in readers who are not yet sophisticated (and some of whom won't ever become so) due to changes in the accessibility of books and the nature of publishers' decisions about what will sell. Bread and circusses forever! Which, in this case, leads to a modern form of sensationalism. Or rather, many, varied modern forms of sensationalism.
The thing about sensationalism, is that it doesn't necessarily lead to bad writing. It does, however, depend on a culture of relying on action and drama and speed of events and shock and horror and bloody body parts and rape and all sorts of excitement above character development or carefully considered language or deep intellectual introspection. A good writer will have all the sensational elements and will also write well, tie the story together beautifully and have at least one nuanced character (the intellectual introspection is, alas, optional).
If I call someone a sensationalist writer, therefore, I'm thinking about the presentation of the story and I'm suggesting it's not a delicate and fragile narrative about small events. 24 is a sensationalist tale (the TV show) and TV is responsible for quite a few of our modern sensationalist tropes.
The bad news is that there's some poor writing out there (a lot of it) hiding behind splatter and emotion and hurt. The good news is, just with any other genre, there's some amazing stuff. What I would like to see is more articulation of the good writing, so that I can read it and ignore the rest and also so that we can be judged on our LM Alcotts and not on the worst of our penny-dreadfuls.
*By me, right now. They're perfectly reviewable in other ways. One I don't want to skewer, for it would be cruel, and the other, well, I'd be writing a critique when its audience is one that would not use that kind of critique (I checked reception of the author's other works, to make sure) and that's time wasted on a straight review at this busy moment, since the aim of my standard book reviews is to find the book the appropriate readers. It's not time wasted on an essay when life is quieter, so I'll save my thoughts for when an academic paper emerges or they spill out of me on this blog. This book could be one of the centres of an exploratory essay on modern sensationalism, if I choose its companions well, so I might wait for something scholarly. If I do, though, I totally obviously have more work to do!
**I feel I should apologise for this sentence. Maybe the sentence is apologising for itself...