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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: Writers, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 1 - 25 of 427
1. Heather McHugh for the Seattle Review of Books

Seattle poet Heather McHugh for the Seattle Review of Books.

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2. Nancy Rawles for the Seattle Review of Books

Seattle Author Nancy Rawles for The Seattle Review of Books.

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3. Happy birthday

Happy birthday, Beverly Cleary. 
Thank you for Henry, Ramona, and Beezus.
Thank you for Klickitat Street.
Thank you for your books. 













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4. Surely, you Jest…

Since April begins with April Fools’ Day, I thought I’d write about those who make us laugh and push our buttons. In the first book of my time travel series, I introduce you to Alan a Dale—Robin Hood’s famous minstrel and part of his band of merry teens. In my version, Alan is a teenage jongleur—a.k.a. juggler— and is instrumental in helping the Timekeepers with their mission in Nottingham. Jongleurs and juggles and jesters all fall into the same category: their purpose was to entertain royalty and commoners alike. In fact, the word ‘jester’ derives from the Anglo-Norman (French) words gestouror jestour meaning storyteller or minstrel.

Jesters (or fools as they were known) held a position of power and privilege within a royal or noble household. They could get away with saying or doing anything to the king or queen or nobles—literally anyone—without being punished. Compare the antics to our modern day comedians like Tim Allen, Robin Williams (still miss him), Ellen DeGeneres, or any past or present Saturday Night Livecomedians and you get what I mean. Comedians will say and do anything (most times for the shock value) and get away with it.

Now, if you think about it, books are a huge part of the entertainment industry. We writers are present day jesters and fools too. Words are power. And like comedians, we can pretty much say whatever we want in the written form, and publish it on Amazon or any other on-line publishing site. But there’s a fine line here. Back in the day, when jesters got a free pass for their behavior (with the exception of a few who did get reprimanded or whipped), they didn’t have the social media circus that we have now. Nowadays, if someone says something out of turn, you can bet it will be tweeted or shared! The jester’s main job was to entertain through stories or music or juggling. They poked fun at others, helped them to lighten up, and made them smile and laugh. Sometimes they even stopped wars from happening by detonating a situation between royals.

Imagine if writers had that kind of power? To write a book so powerful it could stop a war. Put down prose that would allow a reader to visualize walking in a character’s shoes. Or just create a story that will take readers away from their mundane existence. Keep in mind the intent of such power, and use intention as a foundation, and you’ve probably written a generational book that will continued to be talked about and read in the future. Think To Kill a Mockingbird or Les Miserables or The Catcher in the Rye, and you know what I’m talking about. Jesters, like authors, aren’t so far apart after all. We just have to remember to lighten-up, ourselves.

So, what makes you laugh-out-loud? Do you have a favorite modern day jester? How about a book that affected you so deeply that you’d recommend your kids and grandchildren should read it? Would love to read your comments! Cheers and thank you for reading my blog! 

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5. Workshops of Empire by Eric Bennett


Eric Bennett has an MFA from Iowa, the MFA of MFAs. (He also has a Ph.D. in Lit from Harvard, so he is a man of fine and rare academic pedigree.) Bennett's recent book Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing during the Cold War is largely about the Writers' Workshop at Iowa from roughly 1945 to the early 1980s or so. It melds, often explicitly, The Cultural Cold War with The Program Era, adding some archival research as well as Bennett's own feeling that the work of politically committed writers such as Dreiser, Dos Passos, and Steinbeck was marginalized and forgotten by the writing workshop hegemony in favor of individualistic, apolitical writing.

I don't share Bennett's apparent taste in fiction (he seems to consider Dreiser, Dos Passos, Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, etc. great writers; I don't), but I sympathize with his sense of some writing workshops' powerful, narrowing effect on American fiction and publishing for at least a few decades. He notes in his conclusion that the hegemonic effect of Iowa and other prominent programs seems to have declined over the last 15 years or so, that Iowa in recent years has certainly become more open to various types of writing, and that even when Iowa's influence was at an apex, there were always other sorts of programs and writers out there — John Barth at Johns Hopkins, Robert Coover at Brown, and Donald Barthelme at the University of Texas are three he mentions, but even that list shows how narrow in other ways the writing programs were for so long: three white hetero guys with significant access to the NY publishing world.

What Bennett most convincingly shows is how the discourse of creative writing within U.S. universities from the beginning of the Cold War through at least to the 1990s created a field of limited, narrow values not only for what constitutes "good writing", but also for what constitutes "a good writer". It's a tale of parallel, and sometimes converging, aesthetics, politics, and pedagogies. Plenty of individual writers and teachers rejected or rebelled against this discourse, but for a long time it did what hegemonies do: it constructed common sense. (That common sense was not only in the workshops — at least some of it made its way out through writing handbooks, and can be seen to this day in pretty much all of the popular handbooks on how to write, including Stephen King's On Writing.)

Some of the best material in Workshops of Empire is not its Cold War revelations (most of which are known from previous scholarship) but in its careful limning of the tight connections between particular, now often forgotten, ideas from before the Cold War era and what became acceptable as "good writing" later. The first chapter, on the "New Humanism", is revelatory, especially in how it draws a genealogy from Irving Babbitt to Norman Foerster to Paul Engle and Wallace Stegner. Bennett tells the story of New Humanism as it relates to New Criticism and subsequently not just the development of workshop aesthetics, but of university English departments in the second half of the 20th century generally, with New Humanism adding a concern for ethical propriety ("the question of the relation of the goodness of the writing to the goodness of the writer") to New Criticism's cold formalism:
Whereas the New Criticism insisted on the irreducible and indivisible integrity of the poem or story — every word counted — the New Humanism focused its attention on the irreducible and indivisible integrity of the humanistic subject. It did so not as a kind of progressive-educational indulgence but in deference to the wholeness of the human person and accompanied by a strict sense of good conduct. (29-30)
This mix was especially appealing to the post-WWII world of anti-Communist liberalism, a world scarred by the horrors of Nazism and Stalinism, and a United States newly poised to inflict its empire of moral righteousness across the world.

For all of Bennett's gestures toward Marxism and anti-imperialism, he seems to share some basic assumptions about the power of literature with the men of the Cold War era he disdains as conservatives. In the book's conclusion, he writes:
It remains an open question just how much criticism some or all American MFA programs deserve for contributing to the impasse of neoliberalism — the collective American disinclination to think outside narrow ideological commitments that exacerbate — or at the very least preempt resistance to — the ugliest aspects of the global economy. Those narrow commitments center, above all, on an individualism, economic and otherwise, vastly more powerful in theory and public rhetoric than in fact. We encourage ourselves to believe that we matter more than we do and to go it alone more than we can. This unquestioned inflation of the personal begs, in my opinion, the kinds of questions that must be asked before any reform or solution to some seriously pressing problems looks likely to be found. (173)
This is almost comically self-important in its idea that MFA programs might (he hopes?) have enough cultural effect that if only they had been more willing to teach students to write like Thomas Wolfe and John Steinbeck, then maybe we could conquer neoliberalism! One moderately popular movie has more cultural effect than piles and piles of books written by even the famous MFA people. If you want to fight neoliberalism, your MFA and your PhD (from Harvard!) aren't likely to do anything, sorry to say. If you want to fight neoliberalism ... well, I don't know. I'm not convinced neoliberalism can be fought, though we might be able to find an occasional escape in aesthetics. The idea that Books Do Big Things In The World is one that Bennett shares with his subjects; he'd just prefer they read different books.

As self-justifying delusions go, I suppose there are worse, and all of us who spend our lives amidst writing and reading believe to some extent or another that it's worthwhile, or else we wouldn't do it. But "worthwhile" is far from "world-changing". (Rx: Take a couple Wallace Shawn plays and call me in the morning.)

Despite this, Bennett's concluding chapter had me raising my fist in solidarity, because no matter what our personal tastes in fiction may be, no matter how much we may disagree about the extent to which writing can influence the world, we agree that writing pedagogy ought to be diverse and historically informed in its approach.

Bennett shows some of the forces that imposed a common shallowness:
There was, in the second wave of programs — the nearly fifty of them founded in the 1960s — little need to critique the canon and smash the icons. To the contrary, the new roster of writing programs could thrive in easy conscience. This was because each new seminar undertook to add to the canon by becoming the canon. The towering greats (Shakespeare, Milton, Whitman, Woolf, whoever) diminished in influence with each passing year, sharing ever more the icon's niche with contemporary writers. In 1945, in 1950, in 1955, prospective poets and novelists looked to the neverable pantheon as their competition. In 1980, in 1990, in 2015, they more often regarded their published teachers or peers as such. (132)
That's polemical, and as such likely hyperbolic, but it suggests some of the ways that some writing programs may have capitalized on the culture of narcissism that has only accelerated via social media and is now ripe for economic exploitation. I don't think it's a crisis of the canon — moral panics over the Great Western Tradition are academic Trumpism — so much as a crisis of literary-historical knowledge. Aspiring writers who are uninterested in reading anything written before they were born are nincompoops. Understandably and forgiveably so, perhaps (U.S. culture is all about the current whizbang thing, and historical amnesia is central to the American project), but too much writing workshop pedagogy, at least of the recent past, has been geared toward encouraging nincompoopness. As Bennett suggests, this serves the interests of American empire while also serving the interests of the writing world. It domesticates writers and makes them good citizens of the nationalistic endeavor.

Within the context of the book, Bennett's generalizations are mostly earned. What was for me the most exciting chapter shows exactly the process of simplification and erasure he's talking about. That chapter is the final one before the conclusion: "Canonical Bedfellows: Ernest Hemingway and Henry James". Bennett's claim here is straightforward: The consensus for what makes writing "good" that held at least from the late 1940s to the end of the 20th century in typical writing workshops and the most popular writing handbooks was based on teachers' knowledge of Henry James's writing practices and everyone's veneration of Hemingway's stories and novels.

For Bennett, Hemingway became central to early creative writing pedagogy and ideology for three basic reasons: "he fused together a rebellious existential posture with a disciplined relationship to language, helping to reconcile the avant-garde impulse with the classroom", "he offered in his own writing...a set of practices with the luster of high art but the simplicity of any good heuristic", and "he contributed a fictional vision whose philosophical dimensions suited the postwar imperative to purge abstractions from literature" (144). Hemingway popularized and made accessible many of the innovations of more difficult or esoteric writers: a bit of Pound from Pound's Imagist phase, some of Stein's rhythms and diction, Sherwood Anderson's tone, some of the early Joyce's approach to word patterns... ("He was possibly the most derivative sui generis author ever to write," Bennett says. Snap!) Hemingway's lifestyle was at least as alluring for post-WWII male writers and writing teachers as his writing style: he was macho, war-scarred, nature-besotted in a Romantic but also carnivorous way. He was no effete intellectual. If you go to school, man, go to school with Papa and you'll stay a man.

The effect was galvanizing and long-term:
Stegner believed that no "course in creative writing, whether self administered or offered by a school, could propose a better set of exercises" than this method of Hemingway's. Aspirants through to the present day have adopted Hemingway's manner on the page and in life. One can stop writing mid-sentence in order to return with momentum the following morning; aim to make one's stories the tips of icebergs; and refrain from drinking while writing but aim to drink a lot when not writing and sometimes in fact drink while writing as one suspects with good reason that Hemingway himself did, despite saying he didn't. One can cultivate a world-class bullshit detector, as Hemingway urged. One can eschew adverbs at the drop of a hat. These remain workshop mantras in the twenty-first century. (148)
Clinching the deal, the Hemingway aesthetic allowed writing to be gradeable, and thus helped workshops proliferate:
Hemingway's methods are readily hospitable to group application and communal judgment. A great challenge for the creative writing classroom is how to regulate an activity ... whose premise is the validity and importance of subjective accounts of experience. The notion of personal accuracy has to remain provisionally supreme. On what grounds does a teacher correct student choices? Hemingway offered an answer, taking prose style in a publicly comprehensible direction, one subject to analysis, judgment, and replication. ... One classmate can point to metaphors drawn from a reality too distant from the characters' worldview. Another can strike out those adverbs. (151)
Bennett then points out that the predecessors of the New Critics, the conservative Southern Agrarians, thought they'd found in Hemingway almost their ideal novelist (alas, he wasn't Southern). "The reactionary view of Hemingway," Bennett writes, "became the consensus orthodoxy." Hemingway's concrete details don't offer clear messages, and thus they allowed his work to be "universal" — and universalism was the ultimate goal not only of the Southern Agrarians, but of so many conservatives and liberals after WWII, when art and literature were seen as a means of uniting the world and thus defeating Communism and U.S. enemies. "Universal" didn't mean actually universal in some equal exchange of ideas and beliefs — it meant imposing American ideals, expectations, and dreams across the globe. (And consequently opening up the world to American business.)

Such a discussion of how Hemingway influenced creative writing programs made me think of other ways complex writing was made appealing to broad audiences — for instance, much of what Bennett writes parallels with some of the ideas in work such as Creating Faulkner's Reputation by Lawrence H. Schwartz and especially William Faulkner: The Making of a Modernist, where Daniel Singal proposes that Faulkner's alcoholism, and one alcohol-induced health crisis in November 1940 especially, turned the last 20 years of Faulkner's life and writing into not only a shadow of its former achievement, but a mirror of the (often conservative) critical consensus that built up around him through the 1940s. Faulkner became teachable, acceptable, "universal" in the eyes of even conservative critics, as well as in Faulkner's own pickled mind, which his famous Nobel Prize banquet speech so perfectly shows.

(Thus some of my hesitation around Bennett's too easy use of the word "modernist" throughout Workshop of Empire — the strain of Modernism he's talking about is a sanitized, domesticated, popularized, easy-listening Modernism. It's Hemingway, not Stein. It's late Faulkner, not Absalom, Absalom!. It's white, macho-male, heterosexual, apolitical. The influence seems clear, but it chafes against my love of a broader, weirder Modernism to see it labeled only as "modernism" generally.)

Then there's Henry James. Not for the students, but the teachers:
As with Hemingway, James performed both an inner and an outer function for the discipline. In his prefaces and other essays, he established theories of modern fiction that legitimated its status as a discipline worthy of the university. Yet in his powers of parsing reality infinitesimally, James became an emblem similar to Hemingway, a practitioner of resolutely anti-Marxian fiction in an era starved for the same. (152)
Reducing the influence and appeal here to simply the anti-Marxian is a tic produced by Bennett's yearning for the return of the Popular Front, because his own evidence shows that the immense influence of Hemingway and James served not only to veer teachers, students, writers, and critics away from any whiff of agit-prop, but that it created an aesthetic not only hostile to Upton Sinclair but to the 19th century Decadents and Symbolists, to much of the Harlem Rennaissance, to most forms of popular literature, and to any writers who might seem too difficult, abstruse, or weird (imagine Samuel Beckett in a typical writing workshop!).

As Bennett makes clear, the idea of Henry James's writing practice more than any of James's actual texts is what held through the decades. "He did at least five things for the discipline," Bennett says (152-153):

  1. His Prefaces assert the supremacy of the author, and "the early MFA programs depended above all on a faith that literary meaning could be stable and stabilized; that the author controlled the literary text, guaranteed its significance, and mastered the reader."
  2. James's approach was one of research and selection, which is highly appealing to research universities. Writing becomes a laboratory, the writer an experimenter who experiments succeed when the proper elements are selected and balanced. "He identified 'selection' as the major undertaking of the artist and perceived in the world a landscape without boundaries from which to do the selecting." Revision is key to the experiment, and revision should be limitless. Revision is virtue.
  3. James was anti-Romantic in a particular way: "James centered modern fiction on art rather than the artist, helping to shape the doctrines of impersonality so important to criticism from the 1920s through the 1950s. He insulated the aesthetic object from the deleterious encroachments of ego." Thus the object can be critiqued in the workshop, not the creator. 
  4. "James nonetheless kept alive the romantic spirit of creative inspiration and drew a line between those who have it and those who don't." He often sounds mystical in his Prefaces (less so his Notebooks). The craft of writing can be taught, but the art of writing is the realm of genius.
  5. "James regarded writing as a profession and theorized it as one." The writer is someone who labors over material, and the integrity of the writer is equal to the integrity of the process, which leads to the integrity of the final text.
These ideas took hold and were replicated, passed down not only through workshops, but through numerous handbooks written for aspiring writers.

The effect, ultimately, Bennett asserts, was to stigmatize intellect. Writing must not be a process of thought, but a process of feeling. It must be sensory. "No ideas but in things!" A convenient ideology for times of political turmoil, certainly.
Semester after semester, handbook after handbook, professor after professor, the workshops were where, in the university, the senses were given pride of place, and this began as an ideological imperative. The emphasis on particularity, which remains ubiquitous today, inviolable as common sense, was a matter for debate as recently as 1935. The debate, in the 21st century, is largely over. (171)
I wonder. From writers and students I sense — and this is anecdotal, personal, sensory! — a desire for something more than the old Imagist ways. A desire for thought in fiction. For politics, but not a simple politics of vulgar Marxism. The ubiquity of dystopian fiction signals some of that, perhaps. Dystopian fiction is being written by both the hackiest of hacks and the highest of high lit folks. It shows a desire for imagination, but a particular sort of imagination: an imagination about society. Even at its most personal, navel-gazing, comforting, and self-justifying, it's still at least trying to wrestle with more than the concrete, more than the story-iceberg.

So, too, the efflorescence of different types of writing programs and different types of teachers throughout the U.S. today suggests that the era of the aesthetic Bennett describes may be, if not over, at least far less hegemonic. Bennett cites its apex as somewhere around 1985, and that seems right to me. (I might bump it to 1988: the last full year of Reagan's presidency and the publication of Raymond Carver's selected stories, Where I'm Calling From.) The people who graduated from the prestigious programs then went on to become the administrators later, but at this point most of them have retired or are close to retirement. There are still narrow aesthetics, but there's plenty else going on. Most importantly, writers with quite different backgrounds from the old guard are becoming not just the teachers, but the administrators. Bennett notes that some of the criticism he received for earlier versions of his ideas pointed to these changes: 
I was especially convinced by the testimony of those who argued that the Iowa Writers' Workshop under Lan Samantha Chang's directorship has different from Frank Conroy's iteration of that program, which I attended in the late 1990s and whose atmosphere planted in my heart the suspicion that, for some reason, the field of artistic possibilities was being narrowed exactly where it should be broadest. In the twenty-first century, things have changed both at Iowa and at the many programs beyond Iowa, where few or none of my conclusions might have pertained in the first place. (163)
That's an important caveat there. The present is not the past, but the past contributed to the present, and it's a past that we're only now starting to recover.

There's much more to be investigated, as I'm sure Bennett knows. The role of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and similar institutions would add some more detail to the study; similarly, I think someone needs to write about the intersections of creative writing programs and composition/rhetoric programs in the second half of the twentieth century. (Much more needs to be written about CUNY during Mina Shaughnessy's time there, for instance, or about Teachers & Writers.) But the value of Bennett's book is that it shows us that many of the ideas about what makes writing (and writers) "good" can be — should be — historicized. Such ideas aren't timeless and universal, and they didn't come from nowhere. Bennett provides a map to some of the wheres from whence they came.

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6. A Book for Passionate Creators + a Giveaway

Have you lost your muse? Create Now is the kind of book you need to help you transform your creative process and get you inspired to write.

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7. Judy Blume for Seattle Review of Books

This week's portrait for the Seattle Review of Books is Judy Blume. 

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8. Unscientific Twitter poll: 66% of readers buy comics based on diversity

tumblr_nt51hpaQEU1qa1a2ko1_1280A couple of snap polls on Twitter suggest that people pick up comics for many reasons, but here's our own comprehensive poll -- vote often and early!

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9. A Perfect Way to Bundle Up in the Cold!

Women in Fantasy Storybundle

It’s cold. In some places, it’s freezing. OF COURSE WE NEED TO READ RIGHT NOW! Bundle ourselves up in fleece and wool and whatever else will do it, and sit for hours totally immersed in story.

Speaking of bundles … do I have a treat for you!

My novel BOOK OF EARTH is currently part of a terrific WOMEN IN FANTASY story bundle, along with nine other books, all guaranteed to transport you away from the cold and wind and snow to places and times … where there might also be cold and wind and snow, but at least there’s also magic and mysticism and other delights that make losing ourselves in fantasy so much fun.

The whole bundle is available for a $15 minimum (although you’re free to pay more, and might want to, since a portion of the proceeds go to The Pearl Foundation, a charity created by singer Janis Ian to promote education by providing scholarships to returning students who have been away from school for a while — a worthy cause!).

But here’s the catch: this bundle will only be available for a limited time. You’ll never find all these wonderful novels grouped together like this for such a low price anywhere else. So the time is now! Winter isn’t just coming, it’s here! Let’s go read our way through it!

Enjoy!

~Robin

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10. A Woolfian Summer


The new school year has started, which means I've officially ended the work I did for a summer research fellowship from the University of New Hampshire Graduate School, although there are still a few loose ends I hope to finish in the coming days and weeks. I've alluded to that work previously, but since it's mostly finished, I thought it might be useful to chronicle some of it here, in case it is of interest to anyone else. (Parts of this are based on my official report, which is why it's a little formal.)

I spent the summer studying the literary context of Virginia Woolf’s writings in the 1930s. The major result of this was that I developed a spreadsheet to chronicle her reading from 1930-1938 (the period during which she conceived and wrote her novel The Years and her book-length essay Three Guineas), a tool which from the beginning I intended to share with other scholars and readers, and so created with Google Sheets so that it can easily be viewed, updated, downloaded, etc. It's not quite done: I haven't finished adding information from Woolf's letters from 1936-1938, and there's one big chunk of reading notebook information (mostly background material for Three Guineas) that still needs to be added, but there's a plenty there.

Originally, I expected (and hoped) that I would spend a lot of time working with periodical sources, but within a few weeks this proved both impractical and unnecessary to my overall goals. The major literary review in England during this period was the Times Literary Supplement (TLS), but working with the TLS historical database proved difficult because there is no way to access whole issues easily, since every article is a separate PDF. If you know what you’re looking for, or can search by title or author, you can find what you need; but if you want to browse through issues, the database is cumbersome and unwieldy. Further, I had not realized the scale of material — the TLS was published weekly, and most reviews were 800-1,000 words, so they were able to publish about 2,000 reviews each year. Just collecting the titles, authors, and reviewers of every review would create a document the length of a hefty novel. The other periodical of particular interest is the New Statesman & Nation (earlier titled New Statesman & Athenaeum), which Leonard Woolf had been an editor of, and to which he contributed many reviews and essays. Dartmouth College has a complete set of the New Statesman in all its forms, but copies are in storage, must be requested days in advance, and cannot leave the library.

All of this work could be done, of course, but I determined that it would not be a good use of my time, because much more could be discovered through Woolf’s diaries, letters, and reading notebooks, supplemented by the diaries, letters, and biographies of other writers. (As well  as  Luedeking and Edmonds’ bibliography of Leonard Woolf, which includes summaries of all of his NS&N writings — perfectly adequate for my work.)

And so I began work on the spreadsheet. Though I chronicled all of Woolf’s references to her reading from 1930-1938, my own interest was primarily in what contemporary writers she was reading, and how that reading may have affected her conception and structure of The Years and, to a lesser extent, Three Guineas (to a lesser extent because her references in that book itself are more explicit, her purpose clearer). As I began the work, I feared I was on another fruitless path. During the first years of the 1930s, Woolf was reading primarily so as to write the literary essays in The Common Reader, 2nd Series, which contains little about contemporary writing, and from the essays themselves we know what she was reading.

But then in 1933 I struck gold with this entry from 2 September 1933:
I am reading with extreme greed a book by Vera Britain [sic], called The Testament of Youth. Not that I much like her. A stringy metallic mind, with I suppose, the sort of taste I should dislike in real life. But her story, told in detail, without reserve, of the war, & how she lost lover & brother, & dabbled her hands in entrails, & was forever seeing the dead, & eating scraps, & sitting five on one WC, runs rapidly, vividly across my eyes. A very good book of its sort. The new sort, the hard anguished sort, that the young write; that I could never write. (Diary 4, 177)
Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth was published in 1933, and was one of the bestselling books of the year. It remains in print, and a film of it was in US theatres this summer. What struck me in Woolf’s response to it was that she called it a book “I could never write” — and she did so just as The Years was finding its ultimate form in her mind, and only months before she started to write the sections concerned with World War One. What also struck me was that her response to Testament of Youth was in some ways similar to her infamous response to Joyce’s Ulysses, a book she thought vulgar and a bit too obsessed with bodily functions, but which also clearly fascinated and influenced her.

One of the things that occurred to me after reading Woolf’s note on Testament of Youth was that The Years is among her most physically vivid novels. Sarah Crangle has said of it: “The Years is a culminating point in Woolf ’s representation of the abject, as she incessantly foregrounds the body and its productions” (9). The September 2 diary entry shows that Woolf was highly aware of this foregrounding in Vera Brittain’s (very popular) book, and her framing of herself as part of an older generation and someone unable to write in such a way may have worked as a kind of challenge to herself.

I then sought out Testament of Youth and read it (all 650 pages) with Woolf in mind. What qualities of this book caused it to run so rapidly across her eyes? She herself wrote in a letter to her friend Ethel Smyth on September 6: “Vera Brittain has written a book which kept me out of bed till I'd read it. Why?” (Letters 5, 223). I asked Why? myself quite a bit as I began reading Testament, because the first 150 pages or so are not anything a contemporary reader is likely to find gripping. And yet reading with Woolf in mind made it quite clear: The first section of Testament is all about Vera Brittain’s attempt to get into Oxford, and Woolf herself had been denied (because of her gender) the university education her brothers received, a fact that bothered her throughout her life. The ins and outs of Oxford entrance exams may not be scintillating reading for most people, but for a woman who had never even been able to consider taking those exams, and yet dearly yearned for an educational experience of the sort men were allowed, Testament provides a vivid vicarious experience. The central part of the book, about Brittain’s experience as a nurse during the war, also provided vicarious experience for Woolf, whose own experience of the war was far less immediate. Woolf lost some friends and distant relations in the war (most notably the poet Rupert Brooke, with whom she was friendly and may have had some romantic feelings for), but did not experience anything like the trauma that Brittain did: the loss of all of her closest male friends, including her fiancé and her brother. Nor did Woolf see mutilated bodies and corpses, as Brittain did.

Woolf and Brittain were very much aware of each other — Brittain, in fact, makes passing mention to A Room of One’s Own in Testament of Youth — and the first book-length study of Woolf in English was written by Brittain’s great friend Winifred Holtby (an important character in the latter part of Testament; after Holtby’s death in 1935, Brittain wrote a biography of her titled Testament of Friendship, which Woolf thought presented too flat a view of Holtby, a person she seems to have come to respect, though she didn’t much like Holtby’s writing). There is, though, very little scholarship on Woolf, Brittain, and Holtby together, perhaps because Brittain and Holtby seem like such different writers from Woolf in that they were much more committed to a kind of social realism that Woolf abjured. There's a lot of work still remaining to be done on the three writers together. Not only is Testament of Youth a book that can be brought into conversation with The Years, but Brittain’s novel Honourable Estate, published one year before The Years, has numerous similarities in its scope and goals to The Years, though it seems almost impossible that it had any direct influence, since it was published when Woolf was doing final revisions of The Years and she didn’t much like Brittain’s writing, so was unlikely to have read the book (I’ve certainly found no evidence that she did).

In the course of this research, I soon discovered that UNH’s own emerita professor Jean Kennard published a book in 1989 titled Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby: A Working Partnership, the first (and still only) scholarly study of the two writers together. I read the book avidly, as I had taken a seminar on Virginia Woolf with Prof. Kennard in the spring of 1998 at UNH as an undergraduate, and I owe much of my love of Woolf to that seminar. The book looks closely at each authors’ writings and proposes that their friendship was a kind of lesbian relationship, an idea that has been somewhat controversial (Deborah Gorham’s study of Brittain offers a nuanced response).

In addition to exploring the connections and resonances between Woolf, Brittain, and Holtby, I looked at three writers of the younger generation whom Woolf knew personally and paid close attention to: John Lehmann, William Plomer, and Christopher Isherwood. Lehmann worked for the Woolfs at their Hogarth Press in the early thirties, left for a while, then returned and took a more prominent role, buying out Virginia Woolf’s share of the press in the late 1930s. Lehmann and the Woolfs had an often contentious relationship, as he was very interested in the work of younger writers, particularly poets, and Virginia Woolf especially had more mixed feelings about the directions that writers such as W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender were going in. Woolf wrote a relatively long letter to Spender  on 25 June 1935 about his recent collection of criticism, The Destructive Element, in which she positions her own aesthetics both in sympathy and tension with Spender’s, particularly Spender’s perspective on D.H. Lawrence.

Spender’s defense of Lawrence helps explain some of Virginia Woolf’s resistance to the younger writer’s aesthetic. One of the insights that my work this summer provided (at least to me) was the extent to which Woolf thought about, and was bothered by, Lawrence, who died in March 1930. (In 1931, Woolf wrote "Notes on D.H. Lawrence", primarily about Sons and Lovers.) She had complex feelings about Lawrence’s writing — disgust, frustration, and annoyance mixed with fascination. She often said she hadn’t read much of Lawrence’s work, but from the amount of references she makes to it, and the number of critical studies and memoirs about Lawrence that she read and commented on, I don’t think her protestations of not having read much of Lawrence are quite accurate — she was clearly familiar with all his major novels, and I suspect that in her letters she downplayed this familiarity as a hedge against the strong feelings of correspondents who thought Lawrence to be among the greatest British novelists of the age. Lawrence’s work was very much on Woolf’s mind in the first years of the 1930s, and it therefore seems likely to me that The Years was also conceived as a kind of response to The Rainbow and Women in Love in particular. But that's more hunch than anything, and this is a topic for more study.

John Lehmann introduced Christopher Isherwood to the Woolfs, and encouraged them to publish his second novel, The Memorial, which they did. In 1935, they also published his first Berlin novel, Mr. Norris Changes Trains (in the US, The Last of Mr. Norris), then in 1937 his novella Sally Bowles and in 1939 the interlinked stories of Goodbye to Berlin (later to be adapted as the play I Am a Camera and the musical Cabaret). Isherwood’s experience of Berlin in the 1930s was of particular interest to the Woolfs, who themselves (with some trepidation, given the fact that Leonard was Jewish) traveled through Germany briefly in 1935 to see the extent of the spread of Nazism.

William Plomer was a writer the Woolfs published in 1926, and who became close friends with Lehmann, Isherwood, Auden, and Spender. Plomer was born to British parents in South Africa, attended schools in England, then returned to Johannesburg, where he finished college and then worked as a farmhand and then with his family at a trading post in Zulu lands. It was there that he wrote Turbott Wolfe, based partly on his experience at the trading post and partly on his friendships among painters and artists in Johannesburg. He was only 20 years old when he sent it to the Woolfs, and they printed it soon after Mrs. Dalloway. Leonard was particularly interested in African politics and anti-imperialism, and the novel’s theme of racial mixing as a solution to the tensions between races in South Africa was iconoclastic and proved controversial. Plomer left South Africa and spent time in Japan, experiences which informed his later novel (also published by the Woolfs) Sado, a story that included homosexual overtones. (Like Lehmann, Isherwood, Auden, and Spender, Plomer was gay, though less openly and comfortably so than his friends.) Plomer would publish a number of books with the Woolfs, including some well-received volumes of poetry, but eventually moved to publish his fiction and autobiographies with Jonathan Cape, where he was an editorial reader (and convinced Cape to publish the first novel of his friend Ian Fleming, Casino Royale — a very young Fleming, in fact, had written Plomer a fan letter after reading Turbott Wolfe, the two became friends when Fleming was a journalist in the 1930s, and eventually Fleming dedicated Goldfinger to Plomer).

Plomer became a more frequent member of the Woolf’s social circle than any other young writer that I’ve noticed, and Virginia Woolf seems to have felt almost motherly toward him. Aesthetically, he was far less threatening than the other young men of the Auden generation, and though his novels can easily be read through a queer frame, he was more circumspect about the topic than his peers.

As the summer wound down and I continued to work through Woolf’s diaries and letters, I became curious about the place of Elizabeth Bowen’s work in her life. Woolf and Bowen were friends, and Bowen’s work shows many Woolfian qualities, but Woolf made very few conclusive statements about Bowen’s novels that I have been able to find so far — mostly, she acknowledge Bowen sending her each new novel, and always said she would read it soon, but I have only found definite evidence that she read one, The House in Paris, which is set soon after World War I and, like Mrs. Dalloway, takes place over the course of a single day. Like the connections and resonances between Woolf, Brittain, and Holtby, the relationship between the works of Woolf and Bowen seems to be ripe for further study.

But the summer has ended, and my studies must now move toward my Ph.D. qualifying exams, so the British writers of the 1930s, as fascinating as they were, must move now to the background as I widen my view toward everything there is to say and know about modernism, postcolonial studies, and queer studies... Read the rest of this post

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11. Seattle Review of Books Portrait Column: Kate Beaton

Here's a portrait of Kate Beaton that was just published in The Seattle Review of Books. Each week I will feature a different author portrait in this new SRoB column "Portrait Gallery."

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12. Charles Mudede for Seattle Review of Books

Each week I will feature a different author portrait in this new Seattle Review of Books column "Portrait Gallery."

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13. Collected Fiction by Leena Krohn


The most peculiar property of language is its symbolic function. The writer exchanges meanings for marks, while the reader performs the opposite task. There are no meanings outside us, or if there are, we do not know them. Personal meanings are made with our own hands. Their preparation is a kind of alchemy. Everything that we call rationality demands imagination, and if we did not have the capacity to imagine, we could not even speak morality or conscience.

—Leena Krohn, "Afterword: When the Viewer Vanishes"
Ann and Jeff VanderMeer have done wonders for the availability of contemporary Finnish writing in English with their Cheeky Frawg press, and in December they will release their greatest book yet: Collected Fiction by Leena Krohn.

I've been a passionate fan of Leena Krohn's work ever since I first read her book Tainaron ten years ago. I sought out the only other translation of her writings in English available at the time, Doña Quixote & Gold of Ophir, and was further impressed. I read Datura when Cheeky Frawg published it in 2013. It's all remarkable work.

Collected Fiction brings together all of those books, plus more: The Pelican's New Clothes (children's fiction from the 1970s, just as entrancing as her adult work later), Pereat Mundus (which I've yearned to read ever since Krohn mentioned it when I interviewed her), some excerpts and stories from various books published over the last 25 years, essays by others (including me) that give some perspective on her career, and an afterword by Leena Krohn herself.

This book is as important a publishing event in its own way as New Directions' release earlier this year of Clarice Lispector's Complete Stories. It's a similarly large book (850 pages), and though not Krohn's complete stories, it gives a real overview of her career and provides immeasurable pleasure.

Leena Krohn
One of the wonders of this collection is just how big it is. I keep jokingly referring to it as KROHN!, and not just because of Jeremy Zerfoss's gorgeous cover, but because this is a doorstop of a book that collects the work of someone whose writing might often be described as delicate, miniature tales. Her books don't tend to be especially long, and even her novels are built of miniatures. But now we can hold this huge collection of decades of writing and its solidity is stunning.

In a helpful overview of the first thirty years of Krohn's writing (1970-2001) included here, Minna Jerman writes: "Gold of Ophir is constructed in such a way that you could easily read its chapters in any order, and have a different experience with each different sequence." This is true for most of Krohn's novels, it seems to me, and is another virtue of her writing, something that makes it feel so different from so many other books, so truly strange, and yet so captivating, like a puzzle that isn't especially insistent about its puzzle-ness — or, to quote the great John Leonard, it embodies "Chaos Theory, with lots of fractals."

This is what I want to tell you, then: Reader, you should get this book at the first opportunity and you should spend a year (at least!) reading through it in whatever order you feel like, letting it be a magical, mind-warping cabinet of curiosities, a wonderbox of a book. You should not devour Leena Krohn's writing. Savor it, take it in in small bits, because there are so many glorious small bits here. Why rush? This is rich, rich material. Just as no rational person would ever guzzle a truly fine scotch, so you should sip from Krohn's fountain of dreamwords.

And this is what I want to tell you, O Writerly Types: This book is a gift to you, a tome of possibilities. Stop writing like everybody else. We don't need you to make your vision fit into the airport bookstore shelves. Those shelves are full. We need more writers who will do what Leena Krohn has done, who will seize language as a tool for dreaming back toward consciousness, who will find forms that fit such dreaming, who will not replicate the conventions of now but instead reconfigure their own conventions until they seem inevitable. Learn from this book, O Writers. Let it inspire you to write in your own new ways, your own new forms, your own truthful imaginings.

In a trance, his hand already numb and senseless, accompanied by the rustle of the rain and the croaking of frogs, Håkan was taken through the eras toward the wondrous time when he did not yet exist.
—Leena Krohn, Pereat Mundus: A Novel of Sorts

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14. Charles Williams: Oxford’s lost poetry professor

It was strikingly appropriate that Sir Geoffrey Hill should have focused his final lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry on a quotation from Charles Williams. Not only was the lecture, in May 2015, delivered almost exactly seventy years after Williams’s death; but Williams himself had once hoped to become Professor of Poetry.

The post Charles Williams: Oxford’s lost poetry professor appeared first on OUPblog.

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15. Anecdotes on Literary Popularity and Difficulty


When interviewed by a reporter from the Wall Street Journal regarding Thomas Ligotti, Jeff VanderMeer was asked: "Can Ligotti’s work find a broader audience, such as with people who tend to read more pop horror such as Stephen King?" His response was, it seems to me, accurate:
Ligotti tells a damn fine tale and a creepy one at that. You can find traditional chills to enjoy in his work or you can find more esoteric delights. I think his mastery of a sense of unease in the modern world, a sense of things not being quite what they’re portrayed to be, isn’t just relevant to our times but also very relatable. But he’s one of those writers who finds a broader audience because he changes your brain when you read him—like Roberto Bolano. I’d put him in that camp too—the Bolano of 2666. That’s a rare feat these days.
This reminded me of a few moments from past conversations I've had about the difficulty of modernist texts and their ability to find audiences. I have often fallen into the assumption that difficulty precludes any sort of popularity, and that popularity signals shallowness of writing, even though I know numerous examples that disprove this assumption.

When I was an undergraduate at NYU, I took a truly life-changing seminar on Faulkner and Hemingway with the late Ilse Dusoir Lind, a great Faulknerian. Faulkner was a revelation for me, total love at first sight, and I plunged in with gusto. Dr. Lind thought I was amusing, and we talked a lot and corresponded a bit later, and she wrote me a recommendation letter when I was applying to full-time jobs for the first time. (I really need to write something about her. She was a marvel.) Anyway, we got to talking once about the difficulty of Faulkner's best work, and she said that she had recently (this would be 1995 or so) had a conversation with somebody high up at Random House who said that Faulkner was their most consistent seller, and their bestselling writer across the years. I don't know if this is true or not, or if I remember the details accurately, or if Dr. Lind heard the details accurately, but I can believe it, especially given how common Faulkner's work is in schools.

And this was ten years before the Oprah Book Club's "Summer of Faulkner". I love something Meghan O'Rourke wrote in her chronicle of trying to read Faulkner with Oprah:
Going online in search of help, I worried about what I might find. What if no one liked Faulkner, or—worse—the message boards were full of politically correct protests of his attitude toward women, or rife with therapeutic platitudes inspired by the incest and suicide that underpin the book? But on the boards, which I found after clicking past a headline about transvestites who break up families, I discovered scores of thoughtful posts that were bracingly enthusiastic about Faulkner. Even the grumpy readers—and there were some, of course—seemed to want to discover what everyone else was excited about. What I liked best was that people were busy addressing something no one talks about much these days: the actual experience of reading, the nuts and bolts of it.
We often underestimate the common reader.

Which brings me to another anecdote. When I was doing my master's degree, I fell in love with the poetry of Aimé Césaire, particularly the Notebook of a Return to the Native Land. I was at Dartmouth, so our instructor (who later very kindly joined my thesis committee) was an expert on Césaire and had spent time in Martinique with him. I asked him how it was possible for someone who wrote such complex, thorny stuff to have become so popular among not just individuals, but whole groups of people who had not had great access to education and who may have little knowledge of modernist poetry. He said something to the effect of: Difficulty depends on what you expect, and what your context for understanding is. If your experience and  perception of the world fits with that of the writer, then the form a great writer finds to express that experience and perception is going to be accessible to you, or at least accessible enough to allow you some level of basic appreciation from which to build greater appreciation. He said he'd seen illiterate people deeply, deeply moved by Césaire's poetry when it was read aloud. He knew countless people who had memorized whole passages. He himself fell in love with Césaire's work when he was at school in England, far away from home, and his roommate, who was from the Caribbean, had written (from memory) passages of the Notebook on the ceiling of their dorm room so that it would be the last thing he saw each night and the first thing he saw each morning. Césaire may not have been an international bestseller, but his popularity is real, and is a kind any writer would be humbled by and grateful for.

I've been reading around in Modernism, Middlebrow, and the Literary Canon: The Modern Library Series 1917-1955 by Lise Jaillant, which includes a fascinating chapter on Virginia Woolf. While the information about how Orlando sold well from the beginning is familiar to anyone who's read much biographical material about Woolf, far more interesting and revealing is the discussion of the fate of Mrs. Dalloway in the Modern Library edition in the US. This actually has a lot of parallel to Ligotti becoming part of the Penguin Classics line, for, as Jaillant writes, "The Modern Library was the first publisher's series to market Woolf as a classic writer.") During and immediately after World War II, the Modern Library edition of Mrs. Dalloway sold quite well, at least in part because of its use in schools:
In 1941-42, Mrs. Dalloway sold four copies to every three of To the Lighthouse. This trend continued after the war, a period characterized by a huge rise in student enrolments, and an increasing number of courses on twentieth-century literature. The Modern Library edition of Mrs. Dalloway was often adopted for use in survey courses at large universities. In 1947, for example, one professor at the University of Wisconsin ordered 1,400 copies of Mrs. Dalloway, and another one at the University of Chicago ordered 800 copies of the same book. In the 1940s, Mrs. Dalloway sold around 2,800 copies a year. If we look at the twenty-year period from 1928 to 1948, Mrs. Dalloway sold 61,000 copies.
It probably would have gone on like that if the Modern Library hadn't lost the reprint rights to Mrs. Dalloway — Harcourt/Brace had decided to start their own line of inexpensive "classic" editions (Harbrace Modern Classics). Attitudes toward modernist novels had changed, too, as Jaillant says: "...the idea that a modernist work could also be a bestseller was increasingly contested in the 1940s and 1950s, at the time when modernism was institutionalized in English departments. The popularity of Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse was soon forgotten, as modernism came to be seen as a difficult movement for an elite" (102). (I don't know how well Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse sold between 1948 and the 1970s. By 1975 or so, Woolf was championed by feminist scholars and started on her way to becoming one of the most frequently studied writers on Earth. I've been told that sales of her books were pretty dismal by the end of the 1960s, and that most of her books were out of print, but that may be more a matter of memory and perception than fact. This is something I need to look into further.)

Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse are not easy books. They aren't The Waves, but they're still nothing anyone would ever describe as "easy reads". (The Waves did very well at first, since it was Woolf's first novel after Orlando, selling just over 10,000 copies in the first six months in the UK, but it then dwindled to only a few hundred copies sold in the UK in the next six months, according to J.H. Willis) The various editions of Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse still sell well today, and are not only beloved by English professors, but by all sorts of common readers who come upon them in a class or just in the course of ordinary life and find something in the pages worth wrestling with. Even The Waves is deeply loved by many people, and it's one of the most difficult of modernist texts. But it, like all of Woolf's best writing, does things to you few, if any, other books do.

This gets back to what Jeff said about Ligotti: "he’s one of those writers who finds a broader audience because he changes your brain when you read him." If readers trust that the effort of learning to read a strange or difficult writer is worth it, then they may put forth that effort. Brains are stubborn, and sometimes resist being changed. I threw Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! across the room three times when I first read it. Eventually, I put in enough work that the book was able to teach me how to read it. And then we were in love, eternal love.

There's no sure pathway to such things, for writer or reader, and of course there are plenty of marvelous, difficult writers whose work has never succeeded much, if at all. In many cases, success (eventual or immediate) is a matter of packaging, and sometimes that packaging is deceptive. Look at Faulkner, for instance. His reputation among critics and scholars in the 1930s was generally high, but the only book that sold well was his sensationalist pulp novel Sanctuary. The Southern Agrarians (and, later, New Critics) rather oddly reconfigured and tamed Faulkner, downplaying and flat-out misinterpreting and misrepresenting the darkness, ambiguity, and weirdness of his work. The biggest successes at this were Malcolm Cowley, who gave up left-wing politics around the time he started editing the various Viking Portable editions of major writers, and Cleanth Brooks, who palled around with the Agrarians and helped create and promulgate New Criticism. Cowley's Portable Faulkner presented a simplified and superficial vision of Faulkner, while Brooks's studies of Faulkner provided (mis)interpretations of his works that made Faulkner seem like an unthreatening nostalgist, a writer palatable both to the more conservative of Southern critics and the blandly liberal Northern critics. The simplified/sanitized/superficial view of Faulkner led to a Nobel Prize and quick canonization. Faulkner himself even seems to have bought into the new, cuddly presentation — his last great work was Go Down, Moses in 1942, with nothing written after it of comparable quality, depth, or strangeness. Some of the later books and stories are quite readable, but they're relatively shallow and often cloying. Partly, or perhaps even fundamentally, this was the result of chronic alcoholism catching up to Faulkner, but it was also a matter of his having apparently decided to write what his growing audience expected of him.

Still, even with all its simplicities and superficialities, the canonization of Faulkner allowed his work to stay in print, to receive wide distribution, and to be read. Many people probably didn't read past the Agrarian/New Critic view for decades, but I expect many others did. (Especially people influenced by existentialism, who would have seen the darkness and even nihilism within the best writings. For a long time, and maybe still, people outside the US academy saw a deeper, stranger Faulkner than US professors and critics.) The books were available, the words could be read.

The lesson here, if there is a lesson, is that literary history is complex and doesn't easily boil down to simple oppositions like popular vs. difficult. And that so much depends upon how a book is sold to readers, and how readers have the opportunity to discover a book, and what they expect from it and hope from it, because what they hope and expect from a book will determine how they find their way into it, and it will further determine whether they stick with it when the way in proves challenging. If writers, publishers, critics, and teachers respect readers as intelligent beings and keep high expectations for them, some great things can happen sometimes, especially if a "difficult" book is able to stay in print for a little while, to lurk on shelves until it is discovered by the readers who need it, the readers ready to help its words live.

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16. Sign Up for November Writing Tips!


WGDW #58b

November is novel writing month! I’ve decided to expand the secret gift I was going to send a writer friend of mine, and send out daily writing inspiration and tips to anyone else who would like them! Here are the details. Sign up and let’s write!

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17. The Invaders by William Plomer


I mentioned William Plomer in passing when discussing my summer research on Virginia Woolf. Thanks to the wonders of Interlibrary Loan, I was recently able to read his fourth, and perhaps least-read (which is saying something!) novel, The Invaders. It's an odd book, one that sometimes feels a bit under-cooked, with an ending that seems to me perfunctory, forced, and utterly unsatisfying. Yet there are also moments of real artistry and interest, and I've found myself thinking about it continuously since I finished it a week ago.  

The Invaders is, among other things, a gay novel, but it doesn't get noted in even some of the most comprehensive studies of gay fiction, and Plomer deserves to be generally better known by scholars of queer literatures. He was not as talented or accomplished a fiction writer as many of his friends in the London literary scene, but his point of view was unique among them, because though he was mostly educated in England, his home until he was in his 20s was South Africa, and then he moved to Japan for a few years, before finally settling in London (though with many excursions elsewhere, particularly Greece). After The Invaders, he wrote only one more novel (and that 18 years later), but he published numerous volumes of poetry, biography, autobiography, etc. Fiction seemed to defeat him eventually. It's unfortunate, because there's a lot in The Invaders to suggest that if he had let down his guard a bit, if he had trusted the characters and stories more, if he had not been so seduced by English propriety, he might have been able to rekindle the creative fury that propelled him originally.


Plomer, 1933. Photo by Humphrey Spender

Plomer's first novel, Turbott Wolfe, written in his late teens, remains the most famous of his books today, and was championed by Nadine Gordimer. There's a brash energy to it that disappears from a lot of his later fiction, and it's more aesthetically daring than what he wrote subsequently. Sado, his next novel, tells the story of Europeans in Japan. It's more subdued and oblique than Turbott Wolfe, but also more openly about homosexual desire, though "openly" here is a relative term, as all the homosexual desire, though not difficult to see, is implied. Plomer's next novel, The Case Is Altered, is a sort of novel of manners that becomes a tale of murder (as, I would submit, all novels of manners ought). It was a significant success, helping to keep the Hogarth Press afloat during the 1930s. In Leonard and Virginia Woolf as Publishers, J.H. Willis, Jr. describes the novel succinctly, noting first that it was based on a gruesome murder in Plomer's own boarding house:
Although the crazed butchery of Beryl Fernandez by her husband in front of their small child is the shocking climax of the novel, it does not constitute the main interest in the book. Plomer's first English novel explores in depth the traditional subject of a respectable rooming house on its way down, but the most intense aspect of the novel is the thinly disguised homosexual relationship that develops between the Plomer-like hero, Eric Alston, and Willie Pascal [note the initials], the extroverted, working-class brother of Alston's girlfriend Amy. It was Plomer's most overt statement of his sexual identity in fiction and went beyond the lyrical eroticism of Sado. (203-204)
By the time The Case Is Altered became a success in 1931, Plomer was well established in England's literary circles. At the end of the '20s, he'd become friends not only with the gay male writers of his own generation (e.g. W.H. Auden, John Lehmann, Stephen Spender, and Christopher Isherwood), but also with E.M. Forster, who remained a close, lifelong friend.

And then in 1933 Plomer changed publishers, moving with a short story collection, The Child of Queen Victoria, from the Hogarth Press to the more mainstream Jonathan Cape (with whom he would soon become an employee, leading to his role in Cape's acquisition of his friend Ian Fleming's James Bond novels). The next year, Cape released The Invaders, a story of a middle-class London family's relations with a variety of mostly working-class people. (I will summarize and quote from a lot of the book as I go on, given how rare it is.)

The novel doesn't really have a plot, just encounters, and yet there's a momentum and tension to it all, because it always feels that one of these encounters could go horribly wrong at any moment. That tension is mostly false. Characters do encounter disappointments, misunderstandings, frustrations, anger, and, in the end, get involved with a robbery ... but the consequences for the middle-class family that we are set to identify with are almost nil, and even most of the working-class characters end up pretty well, if occasionally bruised and disillusioned.

The "invaders" of the title are the working-class characters, and one of the ways the novel is interesting is in its portrayals of class difference. The main character is Nigel Edge, a veteran of World War I (and badly injured in the war), who works at a tea importer/distributor and lives with his cousin, Frances, and her father, Uncle Maurice, who had been a colonel in the Boer War. Uncle Maurice has strong ideas about class differences and considers anyone from the working classes to be congenitally dishonest. Class differences seem to him eminently reasonable and necessary. Nigel and Frances are no revolutionaries, but their faith in the class system is not especially strong, and Nigel especially is drawn to the working classes. In some ways, this is clearly because by spending his time among people of a lower class, he's able to feel better about himself: compared to theirs, his life is comfortable, prosperous, and well-ordered. But his life is neither interesting nor attractive, and he is a failure as a conventional man: he lives with his cousin and uncle rather than a wife, he has no children, and though he fought and was wounded in the war, his tastes and mannerisms are far from virile.

Interestingly, the novel does not begin with Nigel's point of view. The first chapter is a lovely, panoramic description of London that seeks to establish the variety of people and sites, the numerous possibilities of interclass contact, particularly around the Marble Arch. Here's the first paragraph:
Gleaming and stinking, gliding and vibrating, the traffic swerves and jostles round that squat anachronism, the Marble Arch. This was Tyburn. Butchery, cries of agony, steaming entrails, calm courage, Perkin Warbeck and Claude Duval, have helped to prepare the scene. Go this way, there is a nunnery; go that way, there is a public house; go down there, and you will come to rich people's houses. You aren't a nun, you don't drink and will never be rich, so for you there is a large hotel, a large cinema, and behind those hollow cliffs some sort of comfort and amusement may be bought. And over there, beyond the wheels and windows of the traffic, is the grass and the comparatively open air, the common heritage of all of us corpuscles who are carried from time to time through this artery of the great body of London, or held there for a while with the policeman on point-duty, the beggar who scratches himself at the gate, or the commissionaire in gold braid at the foot of the cliff. Here is somebody with a grudge, here is somebody whistling, the old lady is about to light a cigarette, the young woman wears jodhpurs and a monocle, and a pavement artist is arguing with his brother-in-law over the merits of a greyhound.
This goes on for a few pages, until the chapter ends with: "Something must be wrong, but something has been and will always be wrong, with the faces round the Arch." The next chapter introduces us to Tony Hart, recently arrived in London from Lancashire. He is starving on the streets, but he rejects charity. He feels watched, judged. One day, he helps a stranger who has fallen on the steps of a tube station. This is Nigel. Tony trusts Nigel for some reason, lets him buy him some food, and Nigel offers to try to find some work for him at Uncle Maurice's house. Soon, we slip into Nigel's point of view, and see him at home with his uncle and cousin. Nigel yearns for a bit of subversion:
"I read in the paper this morning," said Nigel, "that there's an international group which does nothing but smuggle people into countries that won't allow them to come in straightforwardly. They fake passports, provide disguises, teach the elements of conversation in various languages, bribe the captains of coasting steamers, and so on. Of course they do it for profit, but I wouldn't mind doing it for pleasure."

"Why?"

"Oh, simply as a protest against the way the modern world is arranged."

"So you're becoming an anarchist?"

"It looks rather like it, doesn't it?"

"He's only teasing you, father," said Frances. "Don't take any notice of him."

"I'm worried to see him getting more subversive," said the Colonel, speaking of NIgel as if he was not present, "instead of taking things as they are and making the best of them." (33)
Tony comes to clean the windows of the house and meets the new maid, Mavis, herself only recently arrived in the city (seeking to escape a boring rural life, to make her fortune, etc.), and soon enough they fall in love. Eventually, Mavis's brother, Chick, stops by, as he's in the military and based in London. He and Nigel pass each other on the steps, and Nigel is immediately taken with him, even more than he was with Tony. They visit with each other a lot, have long conversations, stare deeply into each other's eyes. (Chick was based on one of Plomer's lovers, a trooper with the Royal Horse Guards.) Tony remains as steadfast and decent as ever, but Mavis is greedy and ambitious, and ends up involved with Tony's felonious brother, Len, an involvement that concludes with a robbery, with Len going back to prison and Mavis realizing the errors of her ways and returning home, where she seems to belong. Nigel's affair with Chick falls apart when Nigel feels that Chick has not entirely honest and has not been paying enough attention to him — Nigel seems to suspect that Chick might prefer being with a woman. (Poor, not-so-bright Chick seems rather blindsided by Nigel's jealousy and his curt dismissal of him.) Nigel goes on holiday to the south of France. He disappears one night, and his proper, married, middle-class friend, Robin, traces him to a seedy bar:
The dancing was going on behind a second bead curtain at the end of the room. Together with the stridency of the gramophone could be heard the sibilant steps of the dancers. Robin strolled over to have a look. There were four couples dancing. Two women were dancing together, and so were two men. One of them was Nigel, the other a working man in a blue shirt. Nigel was so engrossed in the dance that he did not notice Robin for a moment or two.

"Hullo, Robin," he said suddenly.

Robin felt a little uncomfortable.

"I hope I don't intrude?" he said.

"Well, I wasn't expecting you," said Nigel with a smile, "but it's very nice to see you. We'll have a drink."

He came out with his partner, and all three sat at Robin's table. The partner had an amiable face, Robin thought, but rather beady black eyes.

"I came along," he said, "because Yvonne was worried about you. She made me come. I don't think she trusts you to look after yourself."

"What a sweat for you," said Nigel. "I am sorry for dragging you out."

"It's all right. Glad to see you enjoying yourself." (274-275)
Then follows a long paragraph from Robin's point of view — he finds the atmosphere in the place "oppressive and uncomfortable", and the various elements and people combine to "produce a distasteful, an almost horrible effect on him. There was an air of rhythm and ritual, of acceptance and celebration, that made him long to escape" (275-276). Nigel is perfectly happy, and was thinking of spending the night, but decides that he'll go back with Robin and set Yvonne's imagination at rest. The chapter ends:
"Phew!" said Robin. "It was stuffy in there."

"I like that place," said Nigel.
This, in many ways, is the climax of the novel. After it, there's fewer than 30 pages left, and they're mostly devoted to tying up loose ends. Nigel returns to London and his job, and he thinks for a moment that he should perhaps marry Frances. (Plomer himself had recently been wondering if he should get married.) He decides not, as their friendship might be ruined, and he clearly isn't really interested in her in the way a husband should be. He wonders if his desire for marriage is a result of the "emancipation of women" and a feeling of the loss of male power and privilege. The thought is not concluded. The brief final scene of the novel begins: "The invaders had gone" (304). Tony shows up at Nigel's apartment (mid-way through the novel, he decided to move out of his uncle's house) to see if the windows need washing. They chat, then the novel ends with Nigel making a proposal:
"Well, I'll tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to lend you your fare home. I think it's time you had a holiday. Mind you, I said 'lend', not 'give'. You can pay me back when your ship comes in."

Tony's face grew brilliant with pleasure.

As for Nigel, it was a long time since he had felt the wound in his head. He felt calm and resigned, and hopeful about the future. He did not know why he was hopeful, but he felt that a phase of his life was ended. He felt as if he knew where he was. (304).
It's a strange ending — one in which people return to where they "belong", and in which Nigel has gained a mysterious sense of peace. What is the "phase" of life that has ended? His attraction to working class men? He feels as if he knows where he is ... but where is that? London, his apartment, the modern age? He is no longer possessed with the subversive/anarchistic desire to help immigrants get to London, but instead with the (conservative) desire to help people go home. He is full of hope, but it can't be the hope of a heteronormalized life, because he's rejected that. Somehow, in rejecting Chick, in dancing in a gay bar in Nice, in sending Tony home, he has found the balance and meaning of his life. He is no longer invaded.

When The Invaders was published in 1934, Plomer's friends and some of the reviewers tended to refer to its presentation of sexuality as "ambiguous". This is true to some extent, but it would be difficult to argue that Nigel is not a gay man — he is clearly attracted to Tony and infatuated (for a time) with Chick, he goes to the bar in Nice, he's threatened with blackmail (by a lackey of Tony's brother Len). He never quite identifies himself as a homosexual, an invert, a man of the "Oscar Wilde type", etc., nor the does the text ever say that he wants to have sex with the men he is drawn to, but it's not hidden. Where Plomer's narrative reticence in Sado can seem coy, even annoying, in The Invaders it seems to me a useful technique for showing these characters and their world — some of the scenes with Chick are charming, the scene in Nice is marvelous (mostly because of just how comfortable Nigel is there, and how uncomfortable Robin grows), but there is ambiguity, and it's the ambiguity we see in that ending, an ambiguity that seems to defeat a lot of what's going on in the rest of the book (unless we read it ironically, which is certainly possible — after all, the first paragraph of the novel established "you" [which may be us, the readers] as Tony. And indeed, with the story ending, we are being sent home). The chaotic threat of homo-pleasure is defeated and order is restored, with everyone going back to where they belong.

Plomer's quiet approach to writing about gay characters was not in step with the times, as his biographer Peter Alexander noted:
...writers such as Rosamond Lehmann had dealt explicitly with homosexuality, and Plomer's publishers actually encouraged him to be more open about the matter in The Invaders, Rupert Hart-Davis [director of the Jonathan Cape publishing company] writing that the one criticism he had of the manuscript was that Plomer had been vague about the scope of Nigel's relationship with Chick: "You don't say, and hardly even infer, whether they went to bed together or not." But Plomer declined to expand the passage. (194)
The overlaps of class and sex in The Invaders are ones that will be familiar to anyone who has read E.M. Forster's Maurice. It's possible, in fact, that Plomer himself had read it when he wrote The Invaders — Forster tended to share the manuscript with gay friends (sometimes as a test of their friendship); Isherwood read it in 1933, and Plomer introduced Isherwood to Forster. (Naming Nigel's conversative old uncle "Maurice" might have been a little in-joke.) But Plomer certainly wouldn't have had to read Maurice to decide on the theme of inter-class relationships, for during this particular era of English gay male history, such relationships were the most common ones upper-class gay men would have, as Alexander notes:
One of the curious features of English homosexuals of the upper class at this period was that as a rule (though with notable exceptions) they did not regard each other as potential lovers. Spender was to remark years later, "It would have been almost impossible between two Englishmen of our class ... Men of the same class just didn't; it would have been impossible, or at least very unlikely." This behavior may have originated in the English public schools in which so many of them had been educated, where a senior boy often chose a younger boy as a "friend", and tended to avoid his equals in the school hierarchy.

Certainly Plomer had always been attracted to his social inferiors, if only because this gave him control over the relationship. ... With the younger writers, Spender, Auden, and Isherwood, the impulse to choose working-class partners was reinforced by left-wing political views. (180)
Plomer wasn't politically committed in the way his friends were, but he detested the English laws regarding homosexual conduct, and he seems to have shared at least some of Nigel's occasionally subversive inclinations. From the time of Turbott Wolfe, he'd seen sex as a solution to political problems, and it's certainly possible that he thought homosex was a path toward dismantling the class system. But he was no class warrior (even if he was more active, in every sense, than Nigel).

One of the reasons that The Invaders may have disappeared from even the most inclusive of gay canons is that it was a bit old-fashioned even for its own time. Where writers like Isherwood and Spender delighted in pushing the edges of what was acceptable, Plomer was far more comfortable in a more liminal space.

In a letter to Plomer dated 26 September 1934, E.M. Forster expressed a criticism of The Invaders:
What seems to [be] not satisfactory in the book is a thing which I find wrong in A Passage to India. I tried to show that India is an unexplainable muddle by introducing an unexplained muddle — Miss Quested's experience in the cave. When asked what happened there, I don't know. And you, hoping expecting to show the untidiness of London, have left your book untidy. —Some fallacy, not a serious one, has seduced us both, some confusion between the dish and the dinner.

I'm all for these London books of yours. They seem to me about a real town.
Forster is insightful here. (More insightful regarding Plomer, I think, than about his own novel.) The Invaders fails to be a great novel at least partly because Plomer couldn't let Nigel become ... something. In the end, his sense of peace rings false because it is so random and so against all the facts the book presented up to that point. If the novel had ended with Nigel and Robin walking out of the bar in Nice — if the last line had been, "'I like that place,' said Nigel", it would have been far more effective, even though lots of loose ends would have still been left untied. But Plomer's instincts (and, perhaps, fears) led him to squeeze Nigel into a form that does not follow from the rest of the book, that makes no sense — that, and not so much Nigel's homosexuality, is the muddle. It's not so serious a fallacy for Forster's work because A Passage to India is actually strengthened by the ability of readers to make their own sense of Miss Quested, but it is a failure for Plomer's novel because while we have enough information to make sense of him as a gay man who genuinely likes (and is also sexually attracted to) working class men, we cannot make sense of him as he is in the final scene. Nor, I suspect, could Plomer.

The Invaders was Plomer's last novel until his final one, Museum Pieces, was released in 1952. I haven't read it, but Alexander praises it as Plomer's most accomplished fiction, and also says, intriguingly:
In essence it is the story of [Plomer's friend] Tony Butts's life, told by a young female narrator. What Plomer had done in Turbott Wolfe, in making it possible for his hero to fall in love with another man by slipping the loved one into a dress, he did at much greater length, and with greater success, in Museum Pieces. (266-267)
While it may be true that Plomer was most comfortable, and most successful, when writing about men from a female perspective, it would be a shame for the world to completely forget his efforts in Sado, The Case Is Altered, and The Invaders to write, however quietly, however reticently, about gay desire.
"I like that place," said Nigel.

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