On Reading Monsters

Monster with lightning

Modernist Monsters

I’ve made a terrible mistake… As a scholar of modernist literature, the idea of reading monsters isn’t surprising. We accustom ourselves to knowing the great figures of our academic discipline can also be monsters. Some brilliant scholars play coy about Ezra Pound’s fascism and awareness of the atrocities of Nazi concentration camps and genocide, but I believe Matthew Feldman when he says the typewriters give up the goods. We are used to asking these difficult questions of T.S. Eliot’s antisemitism; Orwell’s misogyny; Woolf’s racism (Tolkien’s too, for that matter); or just about everything about Wyndham Lewis.

But I moved away from modernism in A Modernist Fantasy, or rather I moved modernism itself to look at those who shifted from it to the popular pulp. This was partly to include or even emphasize those who led normal and tedious lives, teaching modernist literature and writing mainstream entertainments for the young, or the radical poets who turned to children’s adventure novels.

Then I discovered I was still reading monsters.

Worse, I felt sympathy and had mis-interpreted the fragmented archive. It transforms one entire body of not-quite-modernist works. My terrible mistake, I think, reflects a common quandary in our approach to the modernist archive in relation to the art, and in relation to the artist. I want to argue that the individual talent is not like a catalyst – it is profoundly altered by the creation of art, and that change (if not the personality) lingers on in the creative work itself. But that is a hermeneutics of engagement, not one of suspicion… For that I need an example.

The Popular Monster

David Eddings was a popular, very popular, fantasy novelist. It also looks like he served a one-year jail term for child abuse and lost his tenured professorship at what is now Black Hills State University before writing fantasy novels that shaped my childhood. As I note in A Modernist Fantasy and “A Frightful Hobgoblin Stalks Through Modernism,” he was also an accomplished professor teaching modernist literature. His lecture notes are not simply capable, they are even by today’s standards, pretty good. And this made me think again about how I approach, in my profession, those other earlier modernist monsters we hold up as a canon.

Eddings married Judith Lee Schall, and they eventually settled in Spearfish, South Dakota when he took up a faculty position teaching English literature at Black Hills State College[1]. They then adopted a son, Scott David Eddings,[2] and later a daughter, Kathy. In January, 1970, they were arrested at their home on charges of child abuse in relation to their son.[3] Eddings’ lawyers moved for a separate trial from his wife, as well as separate counsel. This was only granted at his own expense, $50 a month.[4] During the trial, they lost custody of both children[5] and eventually agreed to a plea of misdemeanor child abuse with one year in jail, and an agreed statement of fact that “between the fall of 1966 and Jan. 22 1970, on dates other than those included…, on regular or separate occasions as part of a general scheme, [they] did consistently willfully and unlawfully cruelly punish and neglect a child under the age of 14, namely Scott David.”[6]

He planned to divorce his wife after the jail term and sought advice from his lawyers for it: sue for alienation of marital affections.[7] His later letters to his father also depict her as wildly tempered and capable of real violence.[8] In any case, they did not divorce. Their marriage survived, though she changed her name to Leigh Eddings, and he was already using this new spelling of her middle name before her jail term ended. He did not change his name, but he did say he left his tenured faculty position over a pay dispute… Surprisingly, his department chair and the college President both backed him up in glowing letters of reference[9] written after they had already terminated his position and the stories were widespread in the news – in other words, it wasn’t just to get rid of him. How we interpret all of this is, however, inherently speculative.

I am compelled to tell this story not to gossip about the dead or to knock down some readers’ (or just my own) brass idols but because the Wikipedia editor censored it. If I take seriously that editor’s concern that there could be many people with the initials D. and L. Eddings in the USA, the answer is that it would seem “David Carroll Eddings” and “Judith Lee Eddings” in Spearfish, as tenured literature faculty and wife at Black Hills State College, whose archives include a calendar countdown for the same jail dates with the “Good Time” exit date circled[10], well, that lowers the odds of mistaken identity…

Reading Monsters: Biography, Affect, & Critique

But what does this mean? Is there a difference in their degrees of culpability? Are the clearly sensationalistic early newspaper reports exaggerated? (they begin with a torture dungeon but grow significantly tamer over time)[11] None of that can be known now – the couple agreed to a statement of fact in the plea, so there is no final judge’s determination or testimony based on an expert assessment of the evidence. Their defense lawyers argued the sensationalism of the news coverage had already punished them, and they included for sentencing what would have been expert testimony that they were not “the malicious sort”[12], but the extent of their individual culpability and the extent of their crimes is a closed history now.

Does this mean we should we never read Eddings? Should we never read Pound, Eliot, Woolf, Lewis, and so forth? Should publishers donate the profits to charity?

This is where I learned a good deal from Eddings’ popular pulp. His novels are changed utterly with this biographical knowledge, but the change is one of affect and feeling not interpretation. Rather than accepting the death of the author, I want to adopt some of the postures of postcritique to ask about how we as readers respond. Eddings returned to writing while in jail, which led to his first published novel, High Hunt. He later suggested he co-authored it with his wife, but this wasn’t possible. He completed the first draft in March 1971 while they were both in different jails, about half-way through their terms.[13] The novel opens with his own abusive relationship with his father, where being hit as a child is followed by him showing affection and asking his father for a story. The abuse bound up with love is telling. This self-exploration during his jail term is plainly the driving motivation of the highly autobiographical novel.[14]

That modest success was then followed by striking gold in the 1980s fantasy market. Eddings’ Belgariad novels started in 1982 and earned millions – tens of millions during his fantasy writing career. Those books are also symptomatic. They depict an idyllic childhood, serenely innocent children, a woman like his wife who experiences her happiest moments in life while gently holding a toddler, there’s a direct juxtaposition of his own alter-ego in the books and an abuser, and a failed marriage saved by the birth of a son, and the tremendous gentleness this awakens in his parents. In short, I now read Eddings’ later fantasy novels as an impossible attempt at atonement, a desperately failed wish put to paper, and a tortuously painful digging out of his and his wife’s shame.[15] As a modernist scholar, this changes nothing about how I interpret the books or recognize their extensive allusions to literary texts or pro-labour politics. It is a change of affect not interpretation.

I was in the middle of re-reading those novels with my sons when the extent of my terrible mistake first became clear. But we’re still reading them… They are populated with loving families, beautiful childhoods, perfectly innocent toddlers – the readerly affect, the feeling I have in response to these novels now, is one of pity and anguish. You see, I am also an adopted son… I feel it most strongly when the novels show moments of domestic bliss or comfortable companionship. They reveal how an abuser confronted his own position in intergenerational violence and abuse, his culpability, what he lost and how fully it was gone, then somehow turned that pain into something different – but not without first bleeding into the page, and not without me thinking about their adopted son. Thinking of how differently I might feel if my own story had been more the monster than the dream.[16] That fantasy became a thing of comfort for many young readers. I can hardly imagine what it meant for his wife, Leigh, to read such books offering hard truths about herself, themselves, and their culpability. And my sons love it like a warm blanket for a cold night.

Rather than a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” I’d like to follow postcritique’s attention to affect. Rather than the death of the author, which would here be a way of killing off the monsters to keep only their hoard of treasures, I wonder how looking the monster full in the eyes may instead awaken another possibility. I don’t have that with Pound, but surely the Pisan Cantos have a richness when we realize the yawning profundity of Pound’s guilt. Eliot’s Prufrock can hardly hide as some product of a catalyst when we see Old Tom’s letters and the inhibited sense of connection those foibles spawn. But while we may cringe over how Eliot treated his first love, cannot the failure of that treatment also open to us a greater sense of feeling for Prufrock? If I can find something that brings my children great comfort when it’s read to them, is that in some sense a recognition of an attempt to atone?

What Now?

Some people suggest it’s a symptom of political correctness gone wrong when we hold the creative work responsible for the crimes of its creator. The sins of the father and all… I think that’s a dodge. The work can’t be read without the crime, but it can go different ways. I can’t read an Anne Perry novel without thinking of it… In epic fantasy, the love triangle at the heart of The Mists of Avalon, a book vital to so many, is forever perverted into abuse… But revulsion isn’t the only affect. There are also pity and pain, even while being careful not to centre the experiences of the abuser. In particular, I think anguish is a potent entry to discussing the affect of a creative work.

When Eddings died, he bequeathed a gift in Leigh’s name to the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver of $10 million for pediatric asthma treatment and research, and bequeathed an $18 million gift to Reed College for an endowed professorship in English and need-based scholarships for students of limited means. Perhaps the monster grew, by writing, to comprehend how irrevocably it had made a terrible mistake…


[1] Eddings, David. Teaching. Box 7, Folders 15–20. David Carroll Eddings Papers. Special Collections & Archives, Reed College Library, Portland, OR. 2 August 2016.

[2] “Mr. And Mrs. David Eddings Adopt First Child, Scott David,” Queen City Mail (Spearfish, South Dakota), 10 March 1966, p. 5.

[3] “Witnesses Tell of ‘Child Abuse’,” Black Hills Weekly (Deadwood, South Dakota), 11 February 1970, p. 1, 3.

[4] “Couple Granted Separate Trials In Spearfish Child Abuse Case.” Deadwood Pioneer Times, 2 May 1970, p. 1.

[5] “Court Denies Petition for Child Custody,” Rapid City Journal (Rapid City, South Dakota), 16 May 1970, p. 2. “Appeal Trial Set In Child Custody,” Black Hills Weekly, 24 February 1971, p. 3. “Hills Couple Denied Custody,” Black Hills Weekly (Deadwood, South Dakota), 23 June 1971, p. 4.

[6] “Pair Sentence to Year in Jail on Child Abuse.” Rapid City Journal, 15 September 1970, pp. 1, 2.

[7] Eddings, David. Notes. Circa 1971. Box 7, Folder 8. David Carroll Eddings Papers. Special Collections & Archives, Reed College Library, Portland, OR. 2 August 2016.

[8] Eddings, David. Letter to George Eddings. Circa 1993. Box 8, Folder 12. David Carroll Eddings Papers.

[9] Eddings, David. University of Washington – Catalog, Correspondence, Records. 20 March 1970. Box 7, Folder 21. David Carroll Eddings Papers. Special Collections & Archives, Reed College Library, Portland, OR. 2 August 2016.

[10] Eddings, David. Notes.

[11] “Eddings Couple Faces Sentencing on Child Abuse,” Rapid City Journal, 15 August 1970, p. 2. Even in my personal experience, newspaper accounts (especially those of small towns) can embellish a lot – the first story featuring me in the early 1990s to promote a concert opened with a romantic (and impossible) stroll through venues and locations. I didn’t complain because it helped, but it also awakened a wariness I’ve carried ever since.

[12] “Pair Sentence to Year in Jail on Child Abuse.” Rapid City Journal, 15 September 1970, pp. 1, 2.

[13] Eddings, David. Notes.

[14] The novel parallels Eddings’ life in many respects. The break-up of his engagement with his college sweetheart while drafted and serving in Germany, his return to Tacoma, WA, his relationship with his brother and father, all play a clear role in the novel as well, also including his struggles with alcoholism.

[15] Many scenes across the novel series are altered by this knowledge. The adoption of the orphaned child Errand by Polgara and Durnik, the protagonist’s peaceful and idyllic childhood, Ctuchik as abuser, the healing of Barak and Meril’s marriage by the birth of their son (and the gentleness it awakens), and many specific passages about children, toddlers, and the joy and tenderness they awaken in the character suggest a very different relationship between author and work.

[16] I have written about this through creative non-fiction. In a narrative form, “Terrace Nostoi” combines my own return to my first adoptive home just after learning about Eddings’ jail term, finding his books well-stocked in that small-town bookshop, and thinking about how my own life could have been very different.

A Durrellian Dictionary

The Harbour in AlexandriaLawrence Durrell in the OED

Lawrence Durrell was an author for readers of dictionaries par excellence. And while that may seem peculiar praise, it also shapes one way of reading the man. Dictionaries have an indexical nature, and the most labour intensive word for a reader is “See…” Durrell tells us he structures his books as siblings not sequels (a recuperation or excavation of time rather than progress) – surely these siblings are also cousins to that word ‘see…’ Durrell, see also Henry Miller, see also Elizabeth Smart, see also Anarchism, see also Colonialism, see also Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962, see also Anglo-Indian. Durrell, see also Durrellian.

Of the 264 definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) that currently draw on Durrell for quotations, my favourite is ‘Ouspenskyist’. The word means ‘A follower of the Russian mystical philosopher Ouspensky or of his ideas’, and the OED’s quotation is from the novel Balthazar, the second volume of Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet. For the OED, this is currently the first source for the word – no preceding (or subsequent) use appears in the wild. In a sense, then, ‘Ouspenskyist’ was only defined retrospectively, which reminds us that Durrell’s Quartet has been a particularly fertile source of quotations for logophiles, and hence an attractive ‘word object’ for the same subspecies of humanity.

But there’s a theme in this as well. The full quotation, which is necessarily abridged in the entry, reads ‘Alexandria is a city of sects – and the shallowest inquiry would have revealed to him the existence of other groups akin to the one concerned with the hermetic philosophy which Balthazar addressed: Steinerites, Christian Scientists, Ouspenskyists, Adventists…’ In typical Durrellian fashion, the word sits provocatively amidst unlikely companions with the esoteric, the occult, the Pulitzer Prize winning, and lastly conservative Protestantism. And none are uniquely Alexandrian.

Overlooked Bestseller

These conflicting juxtapositions are perhaps the most memorable element of Durrell’s literary style and also the source of his appeal to OED contributors for quotations. Such sharp contrasts were also a part of the author himself, who remains an oxymoronically overlooked bestseller. Durrell continues to out-sell most of his literary contemporaries, at least those with literary pretensions, and his works have developed an extensive body of scholarship in literary studies. Yet he remains peculiarly outside the literary establishment and almost utterly absent from literary anthologies.

While Faber & Faber had financial success with Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies in the 1950s, only one of those texts became a mainstay of the classroom (reaching generation after generation). Durrell remains a series of complex contrasts, and that can make his works both rewarding and a challenge.

Durrell as Homonym

In addition to his doppelgänger brother, Gerald Durrell, we find in Durrell a double. We have the Durrell of the Second World War era who may have been a government agent yet published in the anarchist press and befriended pacifists. There’s Durrell who offered a nostalgic aroma of empire without any meaningful Arab characters in his 1957 Alexandrian novel Justine (notably a vision sold to a post-Suez British reading public). This is the same man who protected the Egyptian writer Albert Cossery from American intelligence and paid his way when he couldn’t make rent. In that same forgotten moment Durrell supported the translation of Cossery’s first novel Men God Forgot, a manuscript he sent from Egypt to his friend Henry Miller in California for publication in the anarchist Circle Editions imprint – the same book enjoyed support from Kenneth Rexroth and Robert Duncan in their radical San Francisco reading circle. Yet Bitter Lemons, also from 1957, presents Durrell in his working capacity for the British government in Cyprus during Enosis, a man who had been in Argentina under Perón and Yugoslavia during Tito’s break with the Cominform. An anarchistic government man – a political liaison taking sanctuary in personal landscapes.

These politics are nowhere more evident than in his Revolt of Aphrodite. This 1968 and 1970 book set made Durrell’s readers of colonial eroticism sad. It mocks sexuality in the modern industrial world and relentlessly excoriates the lateral spread of corporatism into culture itself. The books were more Marcusian critique than Marijuana culture, and those who had imagined themselves in libidinal Alexandria were not keen on the contrast. However, even here the juxtapositions are keen. For ‘personal’, the OED offers a Durrell quotation for the plural form of the noun: ‘He had invented what he called the mnemon which he insisted was a literary form… Times Personals of a slightly surrealist tinge’. The cutting edge of the juxtaposition here is the creeping growth of multinational capital into intimate human vulnerabilities through the mundanity of advertising – hence the revolt is pranksterism not uprising.

The complexities of this conflictual figure pour out in his prose. In one mood, the OED offers the following loquacious quotation from Durrell’s Justine for ‘palpitation’: ‘In autumn the female bays turn to uneasy phosphorus and after the long chafing days of dust one feels the first palpitations of the autumn, like the wings of a butterfly fluttering to unwrap themselves.’ In contrast, the poet attending to his language more tersely tells his reader in ‘Green Man’, ‘Four small nouns I put to pasture.’ The poem’s simplicity and attention to itself goes through the emotional grammar of loss that the poet surely felt in Greece in 1940 after the outbreak of war. He painfully realizes ‘the nouns are back in the bottle’ and ends with the simplicity of tense shifts, ‘I ache and she is warm, was warm, is warm.’ These two homonyms of ‘Durrell’ juxtapose keenly.

Basic English

This movement between the baroque and colloquial should come as no surprise for a poet who experimented as a language tutor with Charles Kay Ogden’s Basic English and its 850-word vocabulary. Despite providing the OED with examples for both ‘pegamoid’ and ‘pithecanthropoid’, Durrell’s poetic voice could limit itself to 850 words. Yet his ‘Two Poems in Basic English’ still provoke, for ‘This earth a dictionary is / To the root and growth of seeing’ and also more sharply ‘But ideas and language do not go.’ This last provokes us by reveling in the complexities of a basic vocabulary versus an aesthetic that resists clear definitions. In a way, we’re back to the anarchist government man… A dictionary with ambiguous definitions.

I hope this kind of conflict brings readers back to Durrell on his anniversary, though many readers have never left and new readers continuously arrive. It’s a productive conflict. By jarring us between juxtapositions, indexical page flipping, and purposeful prolixity, Durrell makes us read dictionaries like novels: as a fecund richness of language ordered by an index. In the same moment, we begin to read novels like dictionaries: an index fecundated by linguistic richness. See also ‘polysemy.

Image by: Yani papadimos (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This blog posting first appeared in Oxford Dictionaries, Oxford University Press, 7 November 2013. (Access via the Internet Archive: https://web.archive.org/web/20170807110825/http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2013/11/a-durrellian-dictionary/)

Fantastic Neoliberalism! Or, Redistributing the Dragon’s Hoard?

My desk, strewn with mass market fantasy, a dead leaf, and a reasonable layer of grime

Emerging out the other side of a book project might be how I prepare for the empty nest syndrome. Books aren’t children, but they dwell with one’s family for years, and then suddenly one day they have to go out into the world, never to be cajoled or coaxed into growth again. I’m calling this the empty desk syndrome, except it’s ridiculous – I’m as buried under as ever. More than ever, to be honest. In any case, I’ve done three big book projects with two tiny sons tearing the paper apart, and I have two more drafts completed that they’re itching to pull to pieces every time I slide the springback binder off my desk… The trick is that I increasingly see them both as future readers of the words I’m writing. Somewhere off in the receding future, they co-exist with cracking spines rather than scrawling crayons. And that makes me ask how I re-read the things I read while young.

Cover for A Modernist FantasyI opened A Modernist Fantasy by pointing to the books from my childhood. I would have never written that kind of book if my neighbour Julie hadn’t passed a copy of Pamela Dean’s fantasy novel The Secret Country over the fence during the summer of 1985. It might not seem like a network or coterie, but I’m calling it close enough. I was as mystified by the novel as I was by its magical cover with a unicorn and castle. So while the moment of 1980s fantasy fiction that nurtured my love of reading wasn’t the focus of my own project (I looked earlier, I looked to the more radical), it was the impulse. It set me on that path and urged me to ask questions that led to it. It also demanded that the cultural studies part of my mind see these books in two ways: (1) as “books that real people actually read” and hence have a social history of importance, and (2) as books playfully aware of the complexities of literary hobby horses and the formal experimentation of the twentieth century. I could look to Dean’s allusion-packed Tam Lin as well as David Eddings’s silly emperor watching model war games. Of course, those models are an allusion to Uncle Toby in Tristram Shandy. After all, Eddings had lecture notes on Sterne in his archives, but that also changed how I would read the maps and images tucked into Eddings’s novel against the emblem of Sterne’s work.

Now I’m reading those books from my childhood again and maybe being cajoled by them into writing a new project or perhaps just learning to simply be a reader for a while. That’s an unreasonable thing for an academic: to read without the critical faculty churning like a discontent or nervous foot. I knew it wouldn’t happen, and that’s what made me curious.

Mass Market fantasy novelsThe books that first lured me to read under the covers, hide with a flashlight, or bike off past farm fields to read under the trees in the park were all from around the same period, roughly 1977–87. It’s a strange moment in fantasy as a genre too. I was only three years old when fantasy surpassed science fiction in sales, and that year is still lamented by foundational critics in the SF field as the death of western civilization (I’m pointing at Fredric Jameson and Darko Suvin). That strange cluster of the Eighties, or really 1977–90, is puzzling. The tendency, deriving from Jameson and Suvin, is to look at those books as reactionary nostalgia, and that’s precisely what I set out to disprove about the genre in A Modernist Fantasy, but it’s a harder argument to make about that 1980s moment that beguiled me as a young reader.

In 1977, the publication of Tolkien’s The Silmarillion shook bestseller lists (and set Guy Gavriel Kay off toward his 80s fantasy trilogy The Fionavar Tapestry). The same year saw the start of Piers Anthony‘s still (r/p)unning Xanth series with A Spell for Chameleon, Stephen R. Donaldson‘s also-still-running Chronicles of Thomas Covenant with Lord Foul’s Bane, and Terry Brooks‘s also-also-still-running Shannara with The Sword of Shannara. It’s also the same year as Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set and the first AD&D. The problem for me is why this shift happened in 1977 with these four (or six) books?

In a sense, 1977 wasn’t really a change. Ursula K. Le Guin began her Earthsea series in 1968 with A Wizard of Earthsea (or four years earlier with a short story), Mary Stewart‘s Arthurian series started in 1970 with The Crystal Cave, and Katherine Kurtz‘s Deryni Rising in the same year started her own series. The change, really, seems to be a shift from female to male writers… But there’s also a change in money – the naturalization of commercial exchange (buying ale in a tavern and jingling a purse of filthy lucre) arrives in 1977 in a way we don’t see earlier, especially not in Tolkien. And maybe this is really a better complaint to use by turning to Jameson and Suvin, no matter how hard I eschewed them for A Modernist Fantasy.

1980s fantasy seems deep set in rising neoliberalism. Dragons of Autumn Twilight, the book that launched a thousand novels, opens with that D&D tavern and Tika Waylan deep in a Protestant work ethic that would find her interpellated perfectly in a McDonald’s today. The Sword of Shannara opens with Flick as a traveling salesman of a sort. Eddings has blood red coins that tilt economies with a flood of capital. The other giant series, Forgotten Realms, turns instead to race with a thinly veiled finger pointed to American racism in The Crystal Shard, yet each book in its first trilogy seems to really mean class and circles around recovering a treasure, and always homesick for the Icewind Dale that exists only to exploit the sale of fish whose bones are ivory. Charles de Lint‘s Moonheart and depictions of indigenous peoples seems steeped in the same identity politics of neoliberalism. The naturalization of choice as an expression of capitalist exchange, the production of race as a condition of capitalism, and freedom as the freedom to own and exchange appear to be deep set. For this reason, I feel sure Friedrich Hayek would have loved Dragonlance.

But what does this mean? I certainly read these books in my youth with a very different state of mind, but I was at least of the moment of their production. My students read (and still read) them too, but they were born in a different century and, most often, on a different continent. I first went back to re-read Eddings at the prompting of one of my students from Zimbabwe who grew up reading him too, but can we be said to have read the same books? Is it unfair of me to switch tracks and suddenly historicize fantasy after 1977? Could I do anything else? There’s an element of chance to wandering into a project not really knowing what, if anything, one might find – at what point in a scholarly career can any of us simply enjoy the luxury of that role of the dice?

RPG diceThe fall of the Berlin Wall ushered in something new as well. If fantasy was uniquely receptive to the economic and political climate of the 1980s, absorbing Thatcher and Reagan ideologically even while espousing a social and cultural liberalism, the genre took to the unifying Germany and post-Soviet world almost immediately and changed again. An explicitly Randian libertarianism appears in Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series (make no confusion here with Le Guin’s and Moorcock’s anarchism). There’s more than a little pleasure to be taken in knowing Goodkind’s description of capitalist competition through trees has been debunked in the wood-wide-web… (this is my personal schadenfreude). Robert Jordan‘s Wheel of Time is deep set in concerns of power and domination, and the ongoing sprawling realpolitik of George R.R. Martin‘s Song of Fire & Ice seems ready to call out the climactic cataclysm we call the unspoken condition of late capitalism. In any case, the hopeful pluralism of the 1980s had gone, even if that pluralism had been bought rather that conjured.

The Battle for Seattle in the 1999 WTO protests in turn opened to something new in urban fantasy. Identity politics might, in the kind of analysis Jameson urges us toward, be understood as neoliberalism’s greatest reification, but the impulse behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer makes the personal political in a seemingly different way. It endorses a sense of identity distinct from that which the materialist discourses of neoliberalism imply. Nancy Fraser would not approve… If we accept that “claims for social justice seem to divide into two types: claims for the redistribution of resources and claims for the recognition of cultural difference,” then fantasy of the naughts aims for recognizing cultural difference. Maybe it makes a challenge at the beating heart of our critical disputes today. And in this difference we find Nicole Peeler‘s Trueniverse, Margaret Killjoy‘s Danielle Cain, Saladin Ahmed‘s Throne of the Crescent Moon, Jes Battis‘s OSI, and Daniel Heath Justice‘s Way of Thorn & Thunder trilogy. Reactionary interpellations of the consuming subject as an exotic product, or a radical subversion?

But seriously, anyone who calls fantasy apolitical has gotta take a closer look. And with that, my empty desk is about to collapse under new weights.

A Frightful Hobgoblin Stalks Through Modernism?

It all started in another book… A prequel. After an archival project retracing global networks of late modernist radical poetry groups in the Second World War, I found several poets turned to popular pulp. And I don’t mean Day-Lewis’ punning mysteries as Nicholas Blake – more like the New Apocalypse’s Henry Treece, Ruthven Todd, or Alex Comfort. They wrote fantasy novels with magic and swords, or for Todd: cats in space. The post-war years were a time of need, and poetry (especially radical) never pays its bills. So, after picking up its tab and archival traces in Personal Modernisms, I wanted to relax with pulp. I wanted simplicity.

That’s how I found myself in the basement of the Reed College Library’s Special Collections in Portland – it was even a road trip: a journey, a quest. A “Reedie,” David Eddings, later became one of the best-selling fantasy authors of the twentieth century, as far from modernism and into pulp as possible. I’d become curious after giving my little sister a set of his books, at the same age I was given them when they first appeared in the 1980s. So in Portland with Eddings’ papers in hand, ostensibly a splurge during research on Robert Graves and the Beats, I discovered an irruption of the marvellous. Eddings had been a tenured professor of English literature before quitting the profession. Worse still, he’d taught Modernism! I held his lecture notes from three courses on modernist English and American literature. When his quest narrative gave cheeky dialogue between an ancient wizard and a young boy (the target audience), he set free choice and determinism in conflict amidst a magical prophecy by asking why two and two make four.

“Simple things are always the hardest to explain.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Garion retorted, a bit irritably.

“Oh?” Wolf looked at him with amusement. “Let me ask you a simple question, then? What’s two and two?”

“Four,” Garion replied promptly.


Was he really thinking of “two and two make four” as the expression of determinism in Dostoyevsky’s Notes From the Underground? Well, he had lecture notes on it… He identifies Dostoyevsky as the prototype of the sociological novel in all of his modern writing courses, pointing to The Idiot and the underground man specifically. Even his lengthy (and very good) lecture materials on Ulysses close with the troubling assertion that Molly Bloom is deliberately obscene. Rather than seeing her “gusto for life,” we’d do well to regard her as the creation of a mind trained to think of women as filth: “She is deliberately obscene” as well as “life itself.” Oddly, in retrospect, Eddings’ lust-driven character Salmissra the snake queen also has “The catalogue of Molly’s lovers p 731” (Fonds 7.20), yet her sexuality is neutral, neither good nor bad.

Inconceivable! Political radicals and a modernist legacy amidst fantasy’s medievalisms and reactionary nostalgia? Could Futurism really shake hands with the anti-modern?

  Reading list for Eddings' course "The Modern Novel"Cover of Eddings' course lecture notes for "The Modern Novel"

But more was at work than this curiosity of my transformed childhood fandom. There was a lesson for my other self: the dusty prof in corduroy with elbow patches about to teach the textual variants of Hilda Doolittle. Eddings was a professor teaching modernism about as long as I’ve been as I write this, so underestimating seemed foolish. And if modernist concerns infiltrated Eddings’ fantasy novels, he was surely not alone. William Morris and Hope Mirrlees were obvious early voices, and my crew of radical poets in Personal Modernisms included several who turned to the genre after World War II. They were already infected by modernism. But what of those late arrivals who were only ever in the mainstream, like Eddings or Terry Brooks and Guy Gavriel Kay in the same 1980s moment? Was there anything a modernist might look to in fantasy outside of Ursula Le Guin and Samuel Delany (and even then perhaps because they sit so close to modernism’s more comfortable discourses with science fiction)? For Eddings, there were also pop culture commentaries that tended toward the dismissive. Farah Mendlesohn calls Eddings’ conclusion to the Mallorean series a choice so predetermined it’s pointless, yet with his lecture notes, the inevitability of choice seems the point. It would be less different from the freedom to believe that two and two is four in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four than the two remaining volumes of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Orwell’s not bad company in which to share modernist sources.

Eddings also had a simple prose style with what some describe as minimal world building without the grit of “real life.” It’s like those who say he wrote for money, as if we don’t find ledgers in modernist notebooks (ahem, Dylan Thomas). But he set the rumours in motion in interviews by saying the commercial success of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings inspired his turn to the genre: he found a copy of this late modernist predecessor in a bookshop in its 78th printing and hence a commercial model. His teaching notes and diaries revealed something different: a world as elaborate as Tolkien’s written prior to the narrative that became his Belgariad series. Except, Eddings’ lecture notes on Marx and Engels weren’t wasted, so economic and material conditions preceded ideology in his demesnes, unlike Tolkien… In each course he included a discussion of Marx and “system critics.” In “The Modern Novel,” his course introduction detailed the material forces shaping the aesthetic, structural, generic concerns of the novel form, especially commercial mass production. But for Eddings, the world-building that he built out from these critical interests was expunged from the commercial product (ahem, Lester Del Rey). Tolkien was also in his 1960s syllabus (long before the 78th impression) set amidst British modernists (Woolf, Pound, Eliot, and Joyce, no less). So much for the story of commercial opportunism. When we pause to consider fantasy’s world building and form beside the allusive compulsions of Pound, Joyce, Eliot, and H.D., it seems odd to exclude such contemporaries and descendants.

Eddings' Reading List for English Literature II, including J.R.R. Tolkien

The archives also revealed a “real life” with plenty of grit, which differs from the narratives he offered of himself or that provide the biography on Wikipedia. Once seen, it became impossible to overlook in the terribly clean novels, just as his modernist preoccupations with allusion increasingly demanded attention. Even Eddings’ often repeated story of leaving his vaguely described (implicitly sessional or adjunct) tenured teaching post in protest against administrative fiscal greed is belied by his checklist prior to moving away from Dakota. The most important phrase in his “to-do” list is a question not a ledger: whether or not to sue for alienation of marital affections. He abandoned tenure and teaching modernism to work in Safeway, it would seem, to save his marriage. Clearly it was a strong relationship and lasted, and she appeared as co-author to his books after 1996 despite a series of strokes that left her unable to communicate – he cared for her at home, even though by then he was a millionaire. The many goody-goody troubled marriages in his fiction, in this context, suddenly become impossible to ignore, even if the narrative voice never dwells in a way that alienates the young reader. The wizardly drunkards are equally complicated by the drafts in his Alcoholics Anonymous recovery journals and a disturbing life chart graphing emotions against alcohol over a timeline of major events. Like the modernist authors on whom I work – Durrell, Hemingway, Elizabeth Smart, Wilde, Henry Miller – his public comments were storytelling to disguise deep-set intellectual and emotional concerns that, in retrospect, appear blindingly obvious in his superficially simplistic prose. It’s a plainness Hemingway shows took great effort. And yes, even Papa is much there in Eddings’ first novel as a student at Reed, though he valued Faulkner more.

  Eddings' notebook drafts for The BelgariadEddings' notebooks for the Belgariad

I now had a popular pulp author known for squeaky clean narratives who suffered infidelities from his lovers, struggled against addiction for most of his life, abandoned a tenured career for painful reasons, and had read deeply in Joyce, Woolf, Huxley, Amis, Durrell, and many others while admitting to only Chaucer, Spencer, and Malory after his turn to pulp. He even used his time in Alcoholics Anonymous to outline his series The Dreamers as a response to the formal innovations of Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, a work already in his lecture notes as a prototype, just as Dostoyevsky anticipated his prophetic determinism. Was this kind of literary interest typical of the genre as a whole? Well, that’s my next book…

Most tellingly, I set Eddings’ thesis and his fiancée’s, both completed in 1954, side-by-side: his a novel and hers a project on F. Scott Fitzgerald. Four years later, she wrote him a “Dear John” letter remarkably akin to Hemingway’s in In Our Time. It may even have been her model – she too had a college teaching career in literature. It seemed clear to me that a literary author painfully aware of the stylistic complexities of modernist prose had moved from the aesthetic to the commercial. His thesis-as-novel, How Lonely Are the Dead, mirrors Hemingway’s style with Fitzgerald’s concerns, and in his own phrasing, oh boy, was he commercial! The literary and the radical had not, however, vanished. Critiques of settler colonialism appeared in his (anonymous) letters to the editor, his recognition of philosophical anarchism (read: sympathetic) occurs in his lecture notes, and he set up an opponent in fascism (Pound) to set beside elitism (Eliot) in lectures from the mid-1960s that could be trotted out in our notebooks today. My recreational turn to my childhood pulp was not the break I needed after a deep archival project. It was an entangled nest of modernist legacies.

  Eddings' BA thesis "How Lonely Are The Dead" (1954)Barbara Wilson's (Eddings' fiancée's) BA thesis, "The Major Novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald" (1954)

Blackberry vines on Mount Tabor, Portland, ORWhile in the basement at Reed, waiting to climb Mount Tabor to pick blackberries (no allusion to Heaney since they were for eating now) with a colleague at work on Mina Loy and Pound (authors deeply influential in Eddings’ lecture notes), I realized it would be ridiculous to keep up the pretence anymore. I cannot not genre modernism. The convoluted academic prose of justifications only showed insincerity. It didn’t work, struggling to keep the modernist, the radical, and the fantastic apart. The scenario’s nearly an allegory – and here, it’s no longer “nearly.” Of course there was a modernist fantasy. Of course modernism and subversion met in a radical fantastic. Of course there was a fantastic form of modernism. And of course their offspring conversed. Of course this was a superficially simple narrative of a quest, from Vancouver to Portland, to find a relic. And of course it really didn’t mean any of those things. It meant something more to literary criticism and conceptualizations of movements, periods, and especially genres. Modernism’s legacy might need as much attention as its origins, its lowbrow as much as any other market, and its persistence and echoes after its moment just as much as its first statements. There’s Nicole Peeler’s modernist PhD before her urban fantasy career, just as Hope Mirrlees’ “Paris: A Poem” precedes the magical Lud-In-The-Mist, or rethinking Eliot’s Arthurian Jessie Weston in the misprisions of the strong poetess of the 1980s Mists of Avalon.

But Goblin Modernism is another project. It’s A Modernist Fantasy, set in motion by a modernist scholar tripping into the archives of fantasy’s popular pulp.

About the Author

James Gifford is Associate Professor in the School of the Humanities and Director of the University Core at Fairleigh Dickinson University. He teaches and writes about too many things in too many disciplines after taking degrees in English, Humanities, and Music. His most recent books include Personal Modernisms and From the Elephant’s Back, his next A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism, & the Radical Fantastic is nearing the end of its quest, and he’s just completed a decade-long project, “To seek a home beyond the unknown sea”: The Collected Works of Edward Taylor Fletcher, a nineteenth century multilingual Canadian poet, translator, and travel writer. He also edits the “American Literature: The Twentieth Century” chapter of The Year’s Work in English Studies. He tweets at @GiffordJames and began blogging 15 years too late.

This blog first appeared in The Modernist Review, 30 September 2016.

Reading the Readers Writing

Academic writing is fraught with bizarre customs. One of the strangest is the sense of an “impact factor” or citations. I began several years ago to write to academics whose work I enjoyed or admired just to say what I’d read and that I’d liked it – they were all surprised. Even those who bordered on academic stardom seemed surprised. We are, after all, trained to critique from the feedback long ago on our very first undergraduate essays: “Your writing is execrable! (A-).” I suspect we are all more accustomed to finding fault than highlighting what works. Being surprised at positive feedback also comes from a custom of measuring writing’s impact by counting the citations it receives or how it gets used, not how we have conversations about it. Those citations are the challenge too, and they find us reading the readers writing. Unlike book reviews or critiques, you really are supposed to read them.

The problem for reading, however, is not only that academics are better at quarreling and quibbling than we are at expanding, extending, enriching, or developing. Most of us share a tendency to define our own work by how we revise or correct someone’s labor of love. Everyone needs to hold tight to the reality that provoking disagreement is actually productive, so finding a reader’s disagreement can be a decent measure of scholarly success. A colleague slyly pointed out at a conference that, in the British context, even “this article is an example of terrible scholarship” counts as a citation for measuring impact. Likewise, Jonathan Goodwin has a quietly polemical account of citation trends (tribes?) in modernist studies through topic modelling and work on quantitative methods more generally. All of that said, my “however” is really about the opposite of citations in the scholarly conversation – I hesitate over the unmeasurable silences. The aporias and the gaps are the more difficult legacy to read in citations and scholarly responses.

I won’t let this become a litany of “people who didn’t cite me.” I have only one example, and it’s neither the most recent nor the worst. A decade ago, I edited a critical edition of a major author’s first book, out of print since the publisher’s stock burned in the London Blitz. I was even lucky enough to have positive reviews from no less than the TLS. So, the silence took another form. A translation appeared six years later. It replicated my erroneous insertion of an incorrect paragraph break (bad editor!) along with a good handful of my footnotes (clearly I was doing something right…). Of course, there was no reference or “pingback” to my edition, editorial apparatus, or annotations. I can live with that – it was a commercial edition, and to be honest, the same rules simply don’t apply. Well, they actually do, but so what?

The rub was later that year attending a conference at which the publisher spoke. He gave an eloquent presentation. I really can’t praise its quality highly enough. I thought it was witty, modest, erudite, and utterly charming. It was so completely magnificent in every way that an old friend sitting next to me who was already familiar with the problematic use of my edition leaned over and whispered “I think I know someone who said that…” It was, of course, my introduction to the book, now in the form of a conference talk.

It does not, of course, end there. Clearly I was on to something so scholastically seductive that it had yet another afterlife in Bucharest for a journal article with more or less the same habits. The point, you see, dear reader, is not a litany of complaints but rather bragging rights. And of course, the more important point is that the odd silences in academia are far more telling and far more stinging than are the open disputes. I’ve previously written about the “insult review” and came to the conclusion that “a bad review fosters interest more than platitudes,” but reading the readers who read is more telling. Like in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, “’Narouz once said to me that he loved the desert because there “the wind blew out one’s foot-steps like candle-flames”. So it seems to me does reality.’” Those blown out footsteps (and quotations folded within quotations) are the burning citations and aporias of scholarship, without which we lose reality – or we might also lose an impact factor rating, whichever is more important.

So, in line with my other postings in this blog, I must ask, what does this mean for academics interested in professional topics? After all, “the things I wish colleagues had told me 15 years ago when blogging was still new” is how I identified and described this blog. The first answer is “don’t respond to it with lamentations.” To do so risks remembering Conan the Barbarian from the 1980s, and it is also not likely to make any difference. I deliberately used an old and not particularly egregious example for the blog so that I could avoid the impression of lamenting – at the end of the day, there would be no real point, and far worse happens often enough. Someone used my edition for a translation and didn’t mention me. Boo hoo… Well, I didn’t write the novel, and really, isn’t this something to celebrate as a rare impact? Someone used my editorial work for the same “habit” in an article in Old Europe – have I been materially harmed for the vampiric Transylvanian paraphrasing of something that I wasn’t even paid to write? Obviously there’s no harm. There’s even an incidental benefit, and I still cast a shadow. So how does one use that?

The answer, I think, lies in how we fold those errant works back in through citations in our own future writing. When that anecdote that took a month of archival research to uncover appears somewhere else, shepherd it back to the fold. When those in positions of authority (just as much as those on the margins of the discipline) reuse and recontextualize painstakingly assembled textual evidence yet cast its origins to the trash folder of history, cite their conversation with your past work and engage the quarrel. Treat it as you would any other circuitous passive aggressive conflict. It’s just like the conversations about “some people’s children” behind you in the queue… And this means, dear reader, an enormous trust in other scholars to actually read. In an age of Google Books and Google Scholar, the latter of which alerted me automatically to the very troubles I’ve mentioned in this post, it could not be easier to have this trust. Yet, I have absolutely no such trust. And still, I choose to believe in it.

As I’ve said in a previous posting though, I try to model this in my own work by citing as a way of granting recognition, even where it is minimally relevant. No one in the Humanities wants to run the risk of APA style citations that reduce themselves to “anything that shared my keyword search terms.” Having 75 citations for a 3-page critical note really isn’t a help in Sociology, and it’s downright menacing in Literary Studies. But at the same time, the narrative of sharing and recuperating is valuable. As I wrote in my blog last year for being a blind reviewer and giving authors opportunities to be gracious in revisions by citing others,

if it really is only shoring up the fragments of a failed policy on “impact assessment,” the simple “It would be kind to cite Q, R, & S as part of this conversation.” makes the same point. It also gives the author a chance to be seen by the editor in an act of kindness.

That’s reasonable advice for an author doing revisions based on a reader. It’s just as right for an author writing new work and strategically planning the bibliography. The “act of kindness” is now a double agent, a way of refolding those unattributed uses into a new narrative. You can never ensure any particular reader’s approach to any topic you might discuss, but where the development creates blind spots or has historical gaps, some motivated ideologically and others muffled to create the mystique of innovation, a new record can shape how the next reader understands it.

So cite creatively. Cite for representation. Cite beyond the politics of representation too. Cite often. And cite with a sense of solidarity for those colleagues whose work you want to be more visible and who you hope will stand with you.

Once more to another lake…


The mud flats at Stave Lake

Being a literary pilgrim is peculiar. Whether it’s Dublin on Bloomsday, blue plaques across London, the Sylvia Hotel in Vancouver, or the house like a white die cast on an Ionian shore, we literary folks don’t often think of our research travels as pilgrimages. Yet, in the important respects they really are. And I’ve had my fair share.

The latest has been a surprise. I’m wrapping up a critical edition of the collected works of Edward Taylor Fletcher, a nineteenth century Canadian poet, translator, travel writer, and linguist par excellence. He worked in some 14 languages, and his late long poems blur the landscapes of Europe and Egypt into the Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island here in Western Canada. The cast of spirits come as much from the Kalevala or Völuspá as the Mahabharata, which keeps the annotations lively. I made a pilgrimage many years ago to speak about his work for a conference in Kamloops, but I took the long road on the #99 with its single lane bridges to have a better feel for his writing about the landscape. But it was more – he is also a distant ancestor, and his commonplace books were part of my teenage readings before they found a safe haven for the long term in the McPherson Library’s Special Collections in Victoria, BC.

E. T. Fletcher manuscript

Edward Taylor Fletcher’s commonplace books

But on my working summer “vacation,” I retraced the steps of his son. Sidney Ashe Fletcher did not have his father’s gifts for poetry and languages, although he did leave an archival trace in a 100 page memoir about his life in New Westminster and Victoria. It’s now in the New Westminster archives. He’s also the voice that opens my edition of his father’s work with a brief biography. His less literary travels took him from a spot a few minutes from my home today up the Fraser River and eventually to Stave Lake.

East from Vancouver

It would have been quite an experience 130 years ago. Four days by canoe from Sapperton with the help of the flood tide, up the Pitt River, onto the Alouette River, and out to the lake itself – then overland to look down on Stave Lake from just north of where Florence Lake sits between them. He would have looked up to Mount Robie Reid. It’s still no easy trip today.

The Pitt River, the Lillooet River, the Stave and Harrison Rivers, and the lakes from which they came, although well known to the timber cruiser and trapper, had not yet been explored by the great majority of the young men of the City.  I spoke with Dick McBride about this and we arranged to make a trip up the Lillooet River to the Lake.  With us came Dick’s brother-in-law, Allison, a fine looking powerful young fellow, full of enthusiasm and energy.  We got a dug-out canoe in fairly good condition and left from Sapperton late one evening with the flood tide.  In four days we reached the Lake, moving along slowly against the swift cold water, lifting and pulling the canoe over logs and rocks, unloading and portaging past some places where the water fell abruptly among rocky ledges.  On each side of the stream the timber grew tall large and straight in a wonderful dense compact growth.  Reaching the Lake, we camped on the east side just above the outlet.  A high sharp peak stood boldly out on the west side, towering over everything in sight.  The timber grew all around the Lake, in the lower places and high up the slopes of the mountains.

Florence Lake Forest Service Road

Florence Lake Forest Service Road

The mud flats on Stave Lake are now reputed to be a home of lawlessness and excess, so far down at the end of the Forest Service Road that even the RCMP fear to tread where this fool rushed. It wasn’t actually so bad as all that… Really, it was better. Idyllic. I didn’t see a soul, though the fading spirits of the trees drowned by the hydro project that damned and raised the level of the lake were haunting across the distance. These would quite possibly be the trees Sidney saw.

The water was clear and still here.  We could see trees and logs of all kinds that had drifted here, and lodging, had in course of time become waterlogged, and got below the surface.  There was an extraordinary collection of these sunken trees piled criss-cross apparently from the bottom of the channel.  Passing through, we found ourselves in another Lake.  We skirted around close in to its south shore.  The mountain here was quite low with very little timber on it.  We got ashore and easily went up to the top.  Here we found to our surprise that we could see the Stave Lake extending below us, and north and south for many miles.


North into the larger arm of Stave Lake

Where we stood on the mud flats and today’s teenagers go for spirits-fuelled adventures (very different angels and fools), he had passed to the North. Rocky Point, beyond the end of the rough road, is the moment of opening to the larger arm of Stave Lake that he’d looked down on after climbing up from Alouette Lake. It was Lillooet Lake then, feeding the Lillooet River – protean names for the protean water, or as his father described the Fraser River (as the Nile) in 1892:

The old Nestorius, worn with many woes,
Cast out, an exile, from the haunts of men,
To all a stranger and an alien,
And seeking only silence and repose,
Passed to the sands of Egypt.
Day by day,
Wrapped in the splendor of the sunlit air,
Which vestured, there, a world so strange and fair,
He watched the mighty river glide away,
For ever passing, and for ever there.

With my young sons with me, I also realized this must have been in some ways like Sidney’s own travels in the wild with his poet-surveyor father, who took him in 1870 to Lac Matapédia just south of the Saint Lawrence River, East from where it opens to become the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. His illustrious father came from England and traveled across Canada from Labrador to Vancouver Island. Sidney traveled from Lac Matapédia to Alouette Lake. My sons may have far to travel too.

And like Lac Kénogami in Quebec, about which Fletcher wrote another long poem, this land has a very long history, the weight of which my sons are beginning to recognize. Stave Lake has revealed artifacts from the Clovis culture in excavations made possible by erosion from the hydro project that dammed the lake, a 1912 dam that reveals a 13,000 year history damned by settlers, my family among them.

I realize this isn’t the experience my colleagues have when they visit Tintern Abbey, Monk’s House, see the blue plaque on Red House, or even the Shrine of Saint Arsenius. I might be the only reader to retread some of these steps deliberately with the text in hand (admittedly on my iPhone…). But I’m almost happier for that.


The Shrine of Saint Arsenius, Corfu

The Year’s Work of Reading the Reviewer

More than a dozen years ago I was on a small boat, a caïque, as it crawled across a bay in the Mediterranean. I sat beside one of the major critics of our time and had just read a nasty review penned by this anonymous giant of our discipline. After we chatted about lunch, dinner, and nothing in particular, I asked what had troubled this writer of reviews. In answer, I was told “One could not possibly read all the books they send. A few words, good or bad, are only to give it some attention on the reviews page. I don’t worry much about the details.” And in all fairness, more than a dozen years later I can’t make myself disagree – a bad review fosters interest more than platitudes do.

After three blogs on blind review (being, reading, and enduring the reviewer), what about the book review? How do we read the reviewer? It’s a genre in which many of us start out for first publications, which means public commentary precedes prolonged contemplation, but that’s often the reality of it. It’s also service work that does little to grow a cv in comparison to peer reviewed publications, even though publishers value reviews as a measure, and a well-placed review can influence the reception of a book.

My own background, in review, is mixed. I have only a couple handfuls of traditional published book reviews – in fact, my own books have been reviewed more than I’ve written the standard reviews of others for the back pages of one journal or another. The exception is the ever-productive Year’s Work in English Studies, for which I contribute the Poetry section of the “American Literature: The Twentieth Century” chapter. I’ve reviewed books published each year since 2007, and I’ve been fortunate to edit the chapter as a whole for the past six volumes, now happily at work on the seventh (volume 97). It’s an exercise in scope more than precision, taking up the year’s products as a whole to give a sense of the direction in which the discipline is moving from year to year. The purpose is that overview of the year from the Pearl Poet to Pynchon, just as much as it is a brief evaluative description of individual books.

The self-description of The Year’s Work in English Studies speaks for itself, its service to the English Association, and its purpose in Oxford University Press:

The Year’s Work in English Studies is the qualitative narrative bibliographical review of scholarly work on English language and literatures written in English. It is the largest and most comprehensive work of its kind and the oldest evaluative work of literary criticism. The Year’s Work in English Studies does not merely offer annotated or enumerated bibliography entries, but provides expert, critical commentary supplied for every book covered.” (OUP)

The scope of “American Literature: The Twentieth Century” chapter is a book-length collection of brief reviews. Annually. Relentlessly. Last year the chapter kissed close to 72,000 words on 143 books. I tend to cover 30 or more volumes each year from across a range of presses, occasionally including critical editions or significant reprints, as well as particularly important articles. It’s a return to grad school with comprehensives due at the end of every year… It means I’ve written or am now wrapping up such reviews of some 300+ scholarly books and have edited five-fold that number for reviews by other contributors. Comprehensive exams indeed, and all bundled together annually for anyone to skim through. It is, after all, fast not slow reading.

What makes a useful review?

The most obvious audience for a book review is the author. This is the only person almost certain to read it, and in my experience, to read it before anyone else does. Writers of reviews beware! But with this in mind, the reviewer might think twice about wishing a book weren’t as it is. Every scholar approaches a problem differently. This is why reading a monograph is like peering into the wishes and woes of our colleagues, even more than inspecting their bookshelves… Wishing for more coverage or a different approach is, then, as much a comment to prospective readers as it is a nudge to the author by a reader asking about future work – it also runs the same risk as re-stacking the dishwasher when one’s spouse doesn’t do it “right.” The fix can leave everyone disappointed.

Unlike the writing of peer reviews, the book reviewer offers no suggestions for improvements. The book is done and set free in the world, so at best corrections are for the second edition that rarely occurs in academia. In reality, they’re complaints not correctives. Apart from the author, you’re telling possible readers whether or not this is something to note, and in doing so also shaping those readers’ interpretive schema or predispositions coming to the book.

Because of this, I’ve developed a deep bias about what helps a review. To a degree, it’s descriptive. The review tells the reader something different from the book’s self-description. What is it about rather than what did the author intend it to be about? How does the reviewer see a particular book in relation to trends of the moment and trends over time? In other words, where does it fit and what work does it do (distinct from where the book tells us to put it on our shelves for our peers to inspect and what task it says it meant to achieve)?

In this, it’s like a candid letter of reference. And like a letter of reference, when there’s little to praise, it’s most often better to fall back on description rather than evaluation and recriminations. And when there is something to praise, how do you do it in a way that doesn’t sounds the same as all the echoes filling every other letter and review? I tend to think one accomplishes this by realizing the praise is less important than the contextualization since all superlatives are the very, very best after a while.

A review is also a kind word to librarians. This can mean sales, and library sales are an enormous part of the academic marketplace. It can also mean that when a book has already appeared in full as articles that are likely in an institution’s databases, there’s a duty to say so. No author wants you to, but every reader does. It’s normal to expect parts of a book to appear in articles since this drums up interest and tests the waters, but when every word is already in print (and this does happen), there is a duty to notice it.

Lastly, nearly all academic books are ways of broaching or joining a conversation. The reviewer can ease introductions by reminding interlocutors of each other’s names, where and when they’ve previously met, and by providing some conversation starters. One can as easily say “Mickey and Nyarai, you met last year at Rumbi’s party – didn’t you both study under Professor Dizdar? Remember Tino’s hats?” as “Cold War Modernists and Beleaguered Poets and Leftist Critics, you met Counter-Revolution of the Word in 2008 – you seem to be all rethinking mid-century conflicts, oh and you vacationed together at that lovely winery in California one summer with Late Modernism & Late Modernism. Did the weather hold?”

What are the trends?

Every press, or almost every press, has a special place on the submission page that marks out “We do not accept unrevised dissertations or theses.” Of course they don’t… Yet, there they are.

There are so many excellent books, it’s hard to say what single trend makes them a joy to read. But for the lightly revised dissertations (including the excellent ones), there’s a very definite trend that almost wafts from the cover boards like the smell of an old book. In part because it is an old book in new wrappers. The pressures of the job market and the tenure path intensify the aroma:

  1. defend the dissertation
  2. carve out an article or two for the job market
  3. carve out a couple more for the tenure process
  4. republish the dissertation as a book for tenure

The fifth step is limited to Twitter and conference hallways: criticize adjuncts for not being more research active whilst enjoying the rewards of not really having done any new work since grad school. (That was me coughing beside you…).

This is the very delicate point though. It genuinely helps readers to notice that the “tenure book” reflects a career with little productivity since school days, yet in the same breath how could anyone expect otherwise from colleagues teaching 4+4 and trying to start a “normal” academic life, a family, a mortgage, or the many other human things that are so often delayed in order to earn the PhD? “Gently” is how readers can expect it. And “indirectly” and “gently” is how one can say it when readers ought to know.

I see the second trend as much in applications for adjunct work as I do as a reviewer, and it’s more concerning:

  1. defend the dissertation
  2. carve out an article or two for the job market
  3. publish the dissertation as a book for the job market
  4. start a new book for the tenure process

Time on a postdoc can alter this flow, but the “job book” appears to be a growing phenomenon, especially for mid-level presses aimed almost exclusively to the library market. And there’s nothing wrong with such presses either – they can be much preferred for some good projects. It does, however, give the reader material conditions to consider.

The fourth stage of a brand new book for tenure may seem like the academic ideal (full disclosure: I did this), but it also reflects fast research during the most pressure-filled years of an academic career. It might not be a revised dissertation, but it’s written amidst new course preps and the potentially prickly entrance to the profession. Both are troubled.

This is to say, the reviewer really cannot and should not overlook the nature and needs of the book. Books that fulfill career requirements simply cannot be read the same way as those that come after tenure and therefore without the same material demands on the author. Many of those first or second books are excellent, many are good, and some are perfectly good enough. There are a few others too… But they served their purpose before they were first read in their bound state. And the reviewer shouldn’t forget that the review itself can be added to (or carefully quoted in) the tenure file.

If you want to know the scholarly trends in any given year, I’m sorry, but you’ll have to read the book

What can a review do best?

The most helpful part of the reviews I read is also, in the Year’s Work context, among the most difficult. YWES includes a helpful parenthetical reference habit akin to the polite introduction: “Title (Publisher [Year]; reviewed in YWES Vol.[Year]). This means a review can contextualize a work’s place within the year’s work as well as over time in the reviews of other years’ works. I increasingly write things such as “Melba Cuddy-Kean, Adam Hammond, and Alexandra Peat’s Modernism: Keywords takes its inspiration from Raymond Williams’s Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (Fontana [1976]; reviewed in YWES 56[1977]) but expands to include features and methodologies updated to correspond with the New Modernist studies and digital humanities.” It’s not glowing praise, but I suspect it shapes how readers then turn to the book.

Where this is most productive and also most demanding on the reviewer is stitching a web of connections between books in recent years. When James Clawson notices modernism “is often imagined as entailing a ‘great divide’ between art and daily life” and that “Mary Chapman’s Making Noise, Making News: Suffrage Print Culture and U.S. Modernism” rejects this division, he follows it with a genealogy: “as has been argued in recent years by Irene Gammel’s Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity (MITP [2002]), Bryony Randall’s Modernism, Daily Time, and Everyday Life (UGlasP [2008]), Liesl Olson’s Modernism and the Ordinary (OUP [2009]; reviewed in YWES 90[2011]), and Siobhan Phillips’s The Poetics of the Everyday (ColUP [2010]; reviewed in YWES 91[2012]).” (YWES 95[2016]). I think there’s an emerging trend. I think the reader knows where to find it.

In the same sense, to see the volumes of the collected writings of Robert Duncan in comparison with each other is helpful. Yet, it’s better still to see Duncan’s The H.D. Book and its impact on the recent critical editions of H.D.’s unpublished writings and the palimpsest of monographs about H.D. from the past few years. It is just as helpful to see the Duncan editions now being used in articles, how attention to Ezra Pound’s reading ability in Chinese shapes attention to his Latin, the content changes that occur between the various Cambridge Companions by editors who “make it ‘New’,” the growth of modernist studies into the Cold War, or the differing impacts of books in a series (OUP’s Modernist Literature & Culture, for instance).

The fabric woven by those connections, or what I prefer to think of as a cable knitting, shows books nestled among a series of relations. The cable seems more flexible and interconnected than the links in a chain.

Back on the caïque

I didn’t know what to say to my scholarly senior on that small boat looking across the waters of the Adriatic to Albania. Maybe I was in awe. Maybe I’d had too much sun. After ten years of writing reviews, I now don’t think I’d ask the question at all. Lunch, dinner, and nothing in particular are actually better topics of conversation. But I remember the review, and it provoked me to pick up the book. It was more effective than a summary or verbal obeisance could ever have been.

More and more, I think the praise or condemnation are the least important parts of the book review. Instead I think of its connections, its links, its introduction of an interpretive schema before the reading starts, and its junk pile of interchangeable clippings for administrative and professional uses by authors and presses. These are the review’s real service work. We hardly know when someone reads our articles. Occasionally, kind souls send a note when they do. But the book review gives the author the whisperings of at least one reader in an otherwise strangely silent echo chamber.

Reading the Blind Reader

edited text

I’ve written Letters to a Young Reader of Reviews about being described as “execrable” and also about the time involved in writing these reviews for other readers of reviews, so it’s apt to think a little about what content goes into a reasonable review that tries to be useful.

I can’t say if I’ve written comparatively many or few blind reviews for other people to read and gnash over, mainly because as a profession we don’t seem to talk openly (or even secretively) about the topic much… Academia is secretive, and by and large what happens in blind review stays in blind review, or else I’m simply not in the club that does and hears the talking. That silence can make it difficult to get better at reviewing over time or easier for personal grumpinesses to seem like a reasonable way of opening discussions with colleagues – my thoughts here are the things I’ve done to try to write more useful peer reviews for my colleagues to read.

All in all, I’ve probably been someone’s peer reviewer for a few dozen books and the blind reviewer for somewhere more than double that number of articles. I also edit the “American Literature: The Twentieth Century” chapter of the expansive Year’s Work in English Studies (more on that in a later post), which means I write reviews of some 30–40 publications every year to give a sense of what’s happening across the field (American Poetry) while editing a book-length set of book reviews at the same time. It’s books upon books, really. Annually. Relentlessly. Richly. I’m doing my ninth year of those reviews right now.

So the question is, what’s actually helpful in a reviewer’s comments? What commentary helps to move something from a submission to a publication? After all, if the assessment and comments aren’t helpful to the publisher and author, what was the point of the volunteer labour?

The most obvious question in any assessment is “To print or not to print?” followed by “If not here, where?” I think the second can matter the most. If the work doesn’t suit the journal or press, where would it suit (after suitable revisions). Relatively few works are unpublishable in principle, but many are unsuitable. I’ve seen more than a few works that were well worth printing but certainly not where they’d been sent – getting those to press shouldn’t become a game of What Have I Got In My Pocket.

I also try to imagine myself as the author receiving the comments, and not so that I can better appreciate writers tears (I have no taste for it, and I don’t want to develop one). It’s much too easy to communicate poorly or to say something harshly that was not intended – “I have shot mine arrowroot o’er the horse” or other terrors of autocorrect can make the corrective into the crass. If I have a point, I try to say “This is the main point” or more often “I consider this the key revision to make” and “These are now suggestions for the author to consider as s/he sees fit.” The review, unlike the writing, does not need lovely prose. Likewise, and exactly as with student papers, I aim to restate the thesis in my comments with the explicit proviso that if I get it wrong, the author might wish to take steps to prevent me from being wrong in this way again.

Have you cited my friends?

When government policy sets up “impact assessments” that count citations (even those like “Any idiot would know not to trust Gifford (73)”), it creates a pressure to put pressure on others to cite. Rather than “why haven’t you cited me,” I think a better question is “What will readers expect to see?” or some form of “What revision is this project making in the established discourse?” followed up quickly with “If it’s making that revision, what works does it need to signal to make that change?”

Most importantly, if a previous scholar’s work needs a response in the article, I say so directly and emphasize that it’s my opinion that readers are likely to expect it – in contrast, if it really only merits a casual footnote at the author’s discretion, I say that instead. And if it really is only shoring up the fragments of a failed policy on “impact assessment,” the simple “It would be kind to cite Q, R, & S as part of this conversation” makes the same point. It also gives the author a chance to be seen by the editor in an act of kindness.

To cull or to cultivate?

I tend to hesitate more and more before asking for expansions or further developments in articles. It feels too much like asking an article to be more like my articles… I worry about that and as a consequence ask myself twice if that’s actually what I’m doing (“Am I just saying how I’d go about this task?”) then ask it once more for good measure.

Instead, I find myself suggesting cuts. Much like a conference paper, I very rarely look back to discover I’ve written in the margins of a journal or print off “Couldn’t this be longer?” As with the conference paper, no one takes offense if you wrap up at the 17 minute mark. And if the author really does have two distinct arguments, it’s a kindness to point out s/he really has two articles worth of work here, not just one.

Am I the right reader?

The most pressing question I ask myself as a blind reviewer is whether or not I’m the right reader. Do my own predilections and preferences lead me to like or dislike something that the target audience would feel very differently about? How does this shape my evaluation as distinct from my taste? Most especially, if I disagree with the author, have I given her or him the respect of actually saying so explicitly in the review and then outlining a reasonable way to manage those disagreements without changing his or her position? Have I shown a pathway for a positive assessment of things contrary to my own stance? Have I also made is clear to the editor that I disagree and should be read in light of that?

In a sense, much of this comes down to whether peer review is a way of broaching a conversation or guarding a portal. Conversations may have their appropriate places and polite conventions, but they are also based on some shared identity through analogy – those analogies make us a community of colleagues even amidst great differences. Guards tend toward silence and emphasize what keeps us apart.

Being the Blind Reader

Rejected Stamp

I’ve heard a lot about the slow professor, and there’s much merit to it, but sometimes I suspect our slowness and our haste both hide our procrastination… We hurry one thing we’ve procrastinated over and slow down what could be wrapped up in a sitting. I’ve often been guilty of working feverishly to meet a deadline that I could easily have met earlier, and I’m just as likely to carry a project on for a decade to make sure the details are “just so” when maybe they don’t need to be.

Where this matters to anyone other than myself is peer review.

Peer review is too often one of the speed bumps in the process of disseminating research, though there are certainly best practices. We might instead call it traffic calming when there’s a “need to speed” that takes too many risks, but more often than not it’s the reason everything I send out comes back a year or more later. It’s the reason why an article sent off to a major journal might come back 18 months later with a “decline to review” or another might wait 10 months, from one summer to the next, before being accepted as it stands. Is the quality and integrity of the review process actually served in that timeline? Might a 2 week turn around be just the same?

“Might a 2 week turn around be just the same?”

I’ve noticed as a writer and reviewer a tendency for reviews to get done in that feverish rush at the very end of the deadline (and in a deliberate passive voice…). As an author, it’s a great frustration to be told peer review can take up to 6 months, which typically means receiving the reviews six months and two weeks later. Yet as a reviewer, that deadline has just as often meant feverishly wrapping up the review in a single sitting after receiving the editor’s helpful reminder about tardiness once the six months are up.

I realized I had become the reviewer I didn’t want reading my own work. I should have known better.

I made a quasi-promise to myself three years ago to resolve that contradiction. When asked to review an article, I either decline or complete the review by the end of the next day. It’s not really a matter of hurrying or spending more or less time – it’s simply when the time is allocated. I could race at the end of the deadline or just read the materials on the train the same day I receive them and send off comments the next morning (sometimes even that night). The latter actually leaves me the time to be slow where it counts: writing. As for the authors, I’m sure they still wait until two weeks after the deadline following a kindly reminder from the editor, but at least I give her an excuse to write “Reader A finished up 6 months ago. Could you kindly supply your comments?” (apologies to all Reader Bs everywhere).

“When asked to review an article, I either decline or complete the review by the end of the next day.”

For more than a dozen articles over the past two years, I’ve met my next day deadline. It also means I haven’t needed to hurry to meet any overdue deadlines. So, in a surprising way, the review that goes back the next day is, I’d argue, more thoughtful and thorough than the one that comes 6 months later. I’m also not sure if doing a blind review every couple of months is a high or low volume, though I suspect the practice may lead to an increase over time. Despite that risk, I’d encourage everyone to hurry up so that we can all slow down a little.

Books are a different matter. The reader is typically paid, and miraculously, it seems that the blind review of books is speedier than blind review of articles — it couldn’t possibly be the promise of cash or free books… I have no promises to myself for deadlines with books, but the score of manuscripts for which I’ve done peer review over the past few years have generally gone back within a month. It’s more delicate when a book really needs some serious revisions, and I have even passed the deadline — what I haven’t done is take that time and not provide the work. If I need more time, it’s for the writing, not the reading. And looking back for the sake of writing this post, I realize most of my feedback has been chapter length. A short chapter, but still.

Lastly, lest this seem like the humblebrag endemic to the twitterverse, this doesn’t hold true for writing. I get it done when it’s done. I learned a lot from teaching freewriting in my composition classes, and in that sense I believe that not-writing is simply not writing (rather than the graceful slow professor’s contemplation prior to the inspired pen touching paper). Yet even when there are deadlines, actively writing doesn’t mean the written work is finished when the paper runs out — unlike the timer on my toaster oven, the ringing bell doesn’t signify completion. Thankfully, with the peer review done, I can take that time as I need it.

Speeding up has done more than anything else to help me be able to slow down.

Prior Blogs


I have mainly contributed to other blogs, so this seems the place to give a list:

Gifford, James. “Miller’s Coat & Orwell’s Plongeur.” Hotems: Hotels & the Modern Subject: 1890–1940. National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. Web. 18 July 2022.

———. “The Queen’s Hotel as Hospitality’s Third Space: Lawrence Durrell’s Black Book and Michael de Larrabeiti’s Borribles.” Hotems: Hotels and the Modern Subject: 1890–1940. National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. 18 March 2022.

———. “Terrace Nostoi.” Quarantine Review. 1 January 2021.

———. “On Reading Monsters.” Humanities Commons. 3 February 2020.

———. “Fantastic Neoliberalism! Or, Redistributing the Dragon’s Hoard?” Humanities Commons. 19 July 2018.

———. “A Frightful Hobgoblin Stalks Through Modernism?” Humanities Commons. 26 August 2017.

———. “On or About November 2016, Modernist Studies Changed.” In These Times. Modernism/modernity Print Plus. Web. 2 February 2017.

———. “A Frightful Hobgoblin Stalks Through Modernism?The Modernist Review. British Association of Modernist Studies. Web. 30 September 2016.

———. “Discoverable Keywords of the New Modernist Studies.” Journals Blog. University of Toronto Press. Web. 8 September 2016.

———. “Once More to Another Lake…” MLA Commons. 26 August 2016.

———. “The Year’s Work of Reading the Reviewer.” MLA Commons. 28 July 2016.

———. “Reading the Blind Reader.” MLA Commons. 19 July 2016.

———. “Being the Blind Reader.” MLA Commons. 13 July 2016.

———. “Boring, Risible, Execrable, & Those are Just Its Good Qualities: Letters to a Younger Reader of Reviews.” There’s a Hole in the Bucket. University of Alberta Press. Web. 30 November 2015.

———. “Open Hemingway.” Modernist Versions Project. University of Victoria. Web. 22 July 2015.

———. “BCcampus Open Textbook Summit 2015.” Modernist Versions Project. University of Victoria. Web. 3 June 2015.

———. “Most Valuable Publication? Versions and Critical Editions.” Modernist Versions Project. University of Victoria. Web. 23 June 2014.

———. “A Durreallian Dictionary.” Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press. University of Oxford. Web. 7 November 2013.

———. “THE COMPLEAT ANGLER.” Modernist Versions Project. YoU: Year of Ulysses. University of Victoria. Web. 21 September 2012.