heart_in_the_margins: (Counterproductive)
I have way more issues with this novel than I thought I was going to. Triggers for sexual assault and victim blaming as well as pervasive misogyny and all the worst parts of rape culture behind the cut.

And also spoilers. )

And now the brief list of things I should probably also talk about in my orals meeting:
-- loss of rural ways of life and livelihood (especially with the advent of more mechanized farming) 
-- nature vs. culture as Pagan vs. Christian (+ convention)
-- science, history, and "deep time" (both the d'Urberville lineage and the temporal span of nature)
heart_in_the_margins: (Pencil marker)
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.
heart_in_the_margins: (Regency reader)
I'm interested in Jane Austen's strange status with regards to literary period. Her life (1775-1818) straddles the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and although all of her published novels were released between 1811-1819, I'm always tempted to see her as the pinnacle of the eighteenth-century novelist, rather than the progenitor of the nineteenth-century novelist (though of course she can be both!). Yet the period that, like Austen, straddles these centuries and seems nicely to encompass her dates of birth and death -- namely, English Romanticism -- is one in which she isn't necessarily "at home." In this semester's course on romanticism and method, I'm hoping to write a seminar paper that will examine Austen's relationship to romanticism via a reading of Persuasion, which in many ways is her most obviously "romantic" novel.

One thing I think this reading would have to implicitly do is contrast the position of Austen as "romantic novelist" with that of Sir Walter Scott, who is far more often treated under this rubric, but this seems like a difficult task considering I still haven't read any Scott yet. (Oh, the joys of orals list writing...) And I'm actually more interested in thinking about the way Austen contrasts the mode of authorship she employs as a (female) novelist with the modes of authorship employed by famous (male) poets -- especially Wordsworth and Byron, with whom she's obviously in some kind of oblique conversation during Persuasion (both are discussed and/or quoted by Anne in the novel). Scott actually becomes interesting again in this context because Austen's references to Scott in Persuasion are to his poetry, not to his prose! There isn't ever a suggestion that Austen disliked Scott or thought of him as a competitor -- in fact I seem to remember her rather enjoying his novels? will need to check her letters -- but the fact that he's represented he by his poetry and not by his prose suggests that Austen is interested in differentiating authorship across genres.

Sources to consult:

James Chandler, England in 1819: Why does Scott have such a large position when Austen is thoroughly absent? What does this say about the priorities of romanticism and/or romantic studies?

Mary Favret, War at a Distance: read the chapter on Persuasion; although this brings Austen into a history of romanticism, Favret's notion of romanticism is a bit stretchy and stretches into the modern period; when reading Persuasion as romantic because of its thematic treatment of war, what other modes for reading the novel as romantic (or potentially refusing to term the novel romantic?) are lost?

Adela Pinch, Strange Fits of Passion: Epistemologies of Emotion from Locke to Hume: read chapter on Persuasion and the emotional insulation of books and quotation

General questions:

What kinds of definitions of romanticism are likely to involve Austen and which aren't? Do romanticisms which include Austen seem to still possess a kind of internal integrity? How do they do that if they do, and why not if they don't?

Is Austen's interest in modes of authorship and authorial presentation romantic, or novelistic, or both? Where do we draw those boundary lines? What might we learn from drawing them differently?

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