heart_in_the_margins: (Heart)
Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is on my orals list, "A Gossip on Romance" is not, and yet I have a lot more to say about the latter than the former.

It does make sense to put Jekyll and Hyde on my orals list, and in this swath of reading -- which also contains Dracula and The Picture of Dorian Gray. There are obvious connections between these three texts: all are interested in the supernatural, particularly as it relates to developing psychologies, and all involve strange doublings. Yet the things that really interest me about each of these works individually are not actually things that overlap. (For example, I care most about Dracula as a documentary novel, I care most about Dorian Gray as it relates epigram and narrative, and as for Jekyll and Hyde...well, I don't know that I have a thing I care most about!) And it doesn't help that I am discussing these three novels in the same meeting where I'm discussing Hardy's Mayor of Casterbridge and Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and that my adviser really wants me to be able to talk for at least a little bit about some overarching connection between ALL of the works we're talking over in each meeting.

But Stevenson's interest in the "romance revival" is actually incredibly relevant, not only to bringing Hardy back into this conversation, but to my broader interest in "genre fiction" and the ways in which readers imaginatively engage their texts. Essentially, Stevenson's short essay (10 pgs in my Oxford World's Classics ed. of Jekyll and Hyde) describes early on in his career his thoughts on the difference between romance and realism, and it does so in a way that foregrounds the engagement of the reader in romance.

"Drama is the poetry of conduct, romance the poetry of circumstance. The pleasure that we take in life is of two sorts--the active and the passive. Now we are conscious of a great command over our destiny; anon we are lifted up by circumstance, as by a breaking wave, and dashed we know not how into the future. Now we are pleased by our conduct, anon merely pleased by our surroundings." (140)
--> This seems useful to me as a way to connect Hardy's novels to the other ones in this cluster. Hardy's characters are often passive, his novels often interested in surroundings.
--> Playing devil's advocate, though, what RLS goes on to discuss about the difference between novels of active consciences/morals vs. novels of active bodies once again aligns Hardy with the side of realism.

argument that scenes of action and romance are the ones that we remember in books, p. 142 --> discussion of Clarissa vs. Robinson Crusoe, pp. 143-4
--> "we read story-books in childhood, not for eloquence or character or thought, but for some quality of the brute incident" (139)
--> "perhaps nothing can more strongly illustrate the necessity for marking incident than to compare the living fame of 'Robinson Crusoe' with the discredit of 'Clarissa Harlowe.' 'Clarissa' is a book of a far more startling import, worked out, on a great canvas, with inimitable courage and unflagging art; it contains wit, character, passion, plot, conversations full of spirit and insight, letters sparkling with unstrained humanity..." (143)

"English people of the present day are apt, I know not why, to look somewhat down on incident, and reserve their admiration for the clink of tea-spoons and the accents of the curate. It is thought clever to write a novel with no story at all, or at least with a very dull one." (143)
--> connect this to the novel without a plot that "poisons" Dorian?
--> and yet I'm pretty sure what RLS says about "no story at all" is different from what Wilde calls the plotless novel...I wonder if RLS would have felt Dorian Gray had "story"? It certainly does have the kind of incidents that stick in your mind -- in fact at times it feels like it's all incident!

RLS' sense of how imaginative engagement works:

"In anything fit to be called by the name of reading, the process itself should be absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat over a book, berapt clean out of ourselves, and rise from the perusal, our mind willed with the busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images, incapable of sleep or of continuous thought." (139)

"Some places speak distinctly. Certain dank gardens cry aloud for a murder; certain old houses demand to be haunted; certain coasts are set apart for shipwreck." (141)

"To come at all at the nature of this quality of romance, we must bear in mind the peculiarity of our attitude to any art. No art produces illusion; in the theatre, we never forget that we are in the theatre; and while we read a story, we sit wavering between two minds, now merely clapping our hands at the merit of the performance, now condescending to take an active part in fancy with the characters. This last is the triumph of story-telling: when the reader consciously plays at being the hero, the scene is a good scene. Now in character-studies the pleasure that we take is critical; we watch, we approve, we smile at incongruities, we are moved to sudden heats of sympathy with courage, suffering, or virtue. But the characters are still themselves; they are not us; the more clearly they are depicted, the more widely do they stand away from us, the more imperiously do they thrust us back into our place as a spectator. [...] It is not character, but incident, that wooes us out of our reserve. Something happens, and we desire to have it happen to ourselves; some situation, that we have long dallied with in fancy, is realised in the story with enticing and appropriate details. Then we forget the characters; they we push the hero aside; then we plunge into the tale in our own person and bathe in fresh experience; and then, and then only, do we say we have been reading a romance." (146-7)
--> romance as the genre of self-insert!
--> interesting that RLS suggests character individuation is almost what prohibits identification: instead, you have to push aside the real character and enter the novel as yourself
--> this is a mode of imaginative engagement with the text that actually isn't about character in a familiar manner

"Fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child. It is there that he changes the atmosphere and tenor of his life." (147)

THOUGHT: Perhaps the thing I want to talk about to join together all of these novels is narrative perspective and its relation to spectatorship?

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: (Default)

June 2017



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