I think I need to write about this paper I'm working on in a low-stakes environment for a moment or two.
I find it hard sometimes to start papers from the beginning because especially in seminar papers, "the beginning" is also the part where you locate yourself within a critical tradition of some sort -- which in my case is often the part where I pretend that I have read far more books than I've actually read, but have some idea of the centrality of because they've appeared in other peoples' footnotes.
I've been working this week on a paper that originally thought it was going to be something rather different from what it's turning out to be. According to my paper proposal, handed in a month ago:
For my seminar paper, I plan to examine contemporary reviews of late Victorian novels (published approximately 1865-1875) in order to develop a general understanding of periodical criticism’s treatment of the novel. By focusing on the criteria by which reviewers judge novels and the elements of novelistic form around which these judgments center, I hope to deal with the ways in which the periodical press worked to define the novel as a genre.
In addition to contextualizing the contemporary critical reception of Middlemarch, in my research I am interested in attempting to develop a poetics of the late Victorian novel review. What is its typical orientation to its objects of critique? What techniques are available to it in making its opinions known? How, for example, does it relate to plot summary and character sketch? How does it make use of quotations, both from the novel being reviewed and from other sources? Does it tend to focus on a single text, or compare the central text to other recent (or not-so-recent) examples? Does it follow any kind of standard organization? More importantly, I am interested in what we can learn about the assumptions about the novel as a form/genre from the way novels are treated in the reviews, and I suspect my research may lead me towards suggesting something like a “practical theory of the novel” as expressed in periodical criticism. By looking at the features of novels which are most often up for comment and the evaluative systems by which these features are judged, I hope to gain a sense of what constitutes a “good” novel in the reviews of this period. If any widespread metric for critiquing the novel emerges from my research, I may find it useful to compare this practical criticism of the novel in the periodical press with Victorian cultural criticism of a more theoretical bent (ex. Arnold, Pater, Wilde) to see, among other things, how criticism undertaken by periodical reviewers lines up with the precepts for criticism laid out by a less novel-specific approach.
Ultimately, by attempting to provide an “ad hoc” generic definition based on the reviewing institutions contemporary with the genre being defined, I hope to fill in some of the gaps in contemporary literary-critical work, which has produced little on either the prehistory of novel theory or the history of literary criticism.
So, I went and read a ton of reviews of Middlemarch
. And while the research I did allowed me to answer the questions I asked in this proposal, it also began to suggest that I wasn't exactly asking the right questions. If practical criticism in the periodical press is interested in the form of the novel at all, it's interested primarily in the ways in which that form a) can be represented (or not) in a short space by the reviewer, and b) effects the reader.
What's most interesting is that, even in the 1860s and 1870s, when the novel has been a feature of modern life for quite some time, critics are always stretching to talk about it in terms of genre -- and often, when they're talking about novels we'd consider good novels, perhaps the best novels, the generic comparisons are to things other than novels. More than one reviewer states that Middlemarch
really isn't a novel in any proper understanding of the word! It would actually be untrue to my research to suggest the ability to extrapolate anything like a "theory of the novel" from these reviews.
The paper I'm actually writing is focusing far more on the commentary about novelistic form implicit in reviewers' attempts to represent Middlemarch in the compressed space of the review and their evocations of (and cautions about) readerly responses to a serial novel. That's a good move, because it's helped me to see that the history of novel theory and the history of literary criticism are really much more separate than they seem to me at times: I would class the history of novel theory with intellectual history, but I've really come to believe that the most interesting way to approach the history of criticism is to see it as a subfield of the history of reading. Critics are those whose readings leave traces. Why aren't we reading them more frequently under the rubric of the history of reading, where they could do some good? So while this paper is on its most basic level a study of the ways in which reviewers both reflect and construct the reading public's responses to serial form, it's also a paper that suggests what is to be gained by seeing the history of literary criticism as a subfield of the history of reading (and how redefining it as such might in fact make it easier to produce such a history). Of course, the paper I'm writing can never claim space for itself as more than a minor point within this history -- but the important thing about criticism is that it has an object. And when criticism is literary, that object is a book. And the critic is also always already a reader.
So, I kind of know where I'm going with the thrust of the argument. But situating myself in the critical conversation turns out to be more like suggesting how that conversation has been hitherto wrongheaded or incomplete. And I always feel wary of making that move. I'm just a grad student! My professors know that! Won't they think I'm ridiculous if I tell them I'm about to change the field? I mean, I understand there are ways to make the claim that aren't about my ego and that really are -- to me -- about having an idea I think might be important (and might be better taken up and pondered by people who actually know what the fuck they're doing). I am just not sure I know how to make that claim in such a way that it sounds
like it isn't about my ego, while having it still sound like I've done my work.
(For the record. It's at least four hours since I started writing this post, which stayed open in the background while I read through portions of several books relevant to my project in lieu of actually writing this pesky introduction. I feel even less like writing it now than I did four hours ago.)
To recap: In this paper, I want to do two things: 1) a reading of reviews of Middlemarch
that illuminates something about the serial form; 2) a framing of the question in terms that connect the history of criticism to the history of reading. It is my belief that 1) will sort of naturally lead to and support 2). And I need to stop rambling and start writing. Like. Now.