So what did I do on my summer break? Well, we were away for almost 2 months – most of it in New York City, where I had lunch with a famous science fiction author, finally met the excellent Zach Barocas in the flesh, & saw a decent amount of theater. We spent the better part of a week in Tennessee visiting Mom, & a number of weekends on Fire Island, where I got bitten by lots of horseflies and not as many mosquitoes. (The mosquitoes on Fire Island, strangely enough, are slower & rather more stupid than the Florida variety, if one can talk of mosquito intelligence levels.)
And of course I read a lot of books. I read stacks & stacks of slim volumes of contemporary verse (some of which I've blogged, some of which I haven't gotten round to, some of which I won't – I've pretty much abandoned the notion of adding things I didn't really like to the "100 poem-books" project), but I also read a little bit of criticism, a soupçon of philosophy, & wow a bunch of novels. But when I think about it, I realize I'm reading novels all the time, really.
Of course I teach novels in my lit classes, so there's a certain number of books that I'm always working at because I know I'll be teaching them in an upcoming semester (or next week). But I enjoy fiction pretty deeply, & am pretty much in awe at the craft & sheer long-haul determination it takes to produce a full-length work. Why haven't I tried writing a novel, at least since I gave up my last abortive attempt maybe 9 years ago? I think it may be a combination of sheer lacks: a lack of imagination, for one thing – I just can't come up with people, characters who interest me as much as real human beings do, & I can't put them into situations that I find, on rereading, to be particularly interesting.
And then there's a lack of determined focus. I'm best at smallish, manageable projects: a long poem that can be broken down into modular parts, an essay, a book review. It still amazes me that I managed to finish the LZ biography, but I realize that I did it primarily as mosaic-work, a bit at a time, a detail here and a passage there. I certainly didn't sit down & write it from beginning to end. I'm not a big word-count person (like one old friend of mine who writes fantasy novels, who's just posted a truly eye-popping daily word-count on her Facebook page) – I'm ecstatic when I can squeeze out a thousand words in a day. While I'm in awe of Ulysses, perhaps what impresses me the most is that Joyce managed to write it in only seven years.
There're some novelists whose work makes me want to take up fiction again – folks whose novels make me say, "hey, with a bit of luck I could do something rather rather as good as that." (I won't name names, but Paul Auster springs to mind. And I like Auster. And I'm probably fooling myself.) Others – Joyce, Nabokov, Byatt – make me want to never put one fictive word next to another again, I'm so ashamed at their deftness.
Then there's teaching the damned things. A colleague's Fulbright this fall has bequeathed to me a 19th-century American novel course, which I'm pretty excited about – if only it weren't for the 2 or 3 thousand pages of 19th-c. fiction I have to read thru over the course of the semester. I've reread House of the Seven Gables and Uncle Tom's Cabin over the past few weeks. Very interesting books indeed, if in very different registers. I find myself interested in the issue of sentimentality – much on my mind since reading David Copperfield for the first time a bit earlier in the summer.
The sentimentality – the tears – are laid on heavily in each of the novels: if Dickens applies it with a palette knife, Hawthorne uses a mortarer's trowel, & Stowe a garden shovel. But Stowe crosses a line for some of us: as one of my colleagues told me earlier this year, "Oh, well, you teach Uncle Tom's Cabin for sociological or historical interest – not as literature."* And I suspect that line has less to do with tendentiousness than with sentimentality. Wondering how my students will take all that tear-jerking.
*Alas for me, I've become so invested in all sorts of approaches to literary texts that I can't for the life of me remember what pure "literary" value looks like anymore.