Overheard on the bus

There is a free bus that goes round Wollongong in both directions, linking my house to the university (as well as numerous other locations of less global importance). It is brilliant, both because I can get to work super easily for free and without having to park anywhere (or, indeed, learn to drive), and because of the conversations you get to hear on it, especially on the anti-clockwise route from my house to the uni, which is mostly students and/or lecturers: when one of my colleagues is travelling at the same time as me, we complain vociferously about students, and when I am travelling along and not immediately identifiable as a lecturer, I listen to the students complain vociferously about lecturers. (The ones that are talking about uni, that is. Mostly they are talking about other stuff, as well they might.)

Anyway. Overheard on the free bus today:

 

I have nearly finished watching the HBO show, Rome. It’s like Game of Thrones, only, you know, in Rome.

 

Which intersects very nicely with some thoughts I have been having about importing reading practices from one type of text/ interpretative community to another, but I am going to wait till I finish reading Henry Jenkins’s Reading in a Participatory Culture to write them up at more length.

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Just reading

So I just read Sharon Marcus’s book Between Women. Which is great, and you should all read it: it’s about (different kinds of) relationships between middle-class women in Victorian England – mother-daughter relationships, same-age friendships, sexual relationships, marriages. I found it really energizing to read; it’s like her readings release new energies from the texts and materials she uses, by re-organizing and re-channeling their… their libidinal economies, I guess, the flows and exchanges of desire and erotic energy in and between them. Two things I especially enjoyed about it were

(1) the way she talks about the centrality of f-f friendships to “the marriage plot” in the Victorian novel, which reminds me of a thing I noticed in the many, many hundreds of chicklit novels I read over the last 5-10 years: it takes the labour of at least two (heterosexual) women to make a romantic m/f relationship function. (This is not what Marcus says about the Victorian period, but it’s remarkable when you look at chicklit in that light: Sharon and Jude and Bridget in Bridget Jones’s Diary spend immeasurable time and energy drinking Chardonnay and doing the emotional work to keep all their relationships functioning, while their male partners are… I don’t know, probably working late at the office and earning giant sums of money).

(2) the way she manages to remap the landscape of gender and desire in the Victorian period by jettisoning the assumption (formulated by second-wave feminism and a hugely important insight for the twentieth century) that f-f relationships must always be in opposition to m/f ones. And the picture we get of the way erotic desire travels through Victorian middle-class society, and the way masculinity and femininity were done, is fabulous. Her discussion of Pip (in Great Expectations) as a ‘dildo’ (rather than a phallus) is a particularly brilliant example of the way in which she follows her insights through with logical and historical rigour, even when they lead to sexually unlikely-looking places, but you’ll have to read the book to get the full impact of it.

But none of this was what I was going to talk about! What I was going to talk about was Marcus’s idea of ‘just reading’, which I think has already been taken up enthusiastically by literary scholars and with good reason. Marcus has also co-edited a really good special issue of the journal Representations on a related concept, ‘Surface Reading’ (here on JSTOR, but you’ll need institutional access): both ‘just reading’ and ‘surface reading’ are about refusing to see texts as symptoms of (for example) ideology, cultural anxieties, authorial neurosis, etc., but instead thinking of texts as organizing and producing their own meanings (to paraphrase my PhD student Evan, one of the main people I talk to about reading).

Here’s what Marcus says about just reading (p.75):

I invoke the word “just” in its many senses. Just reading strives to be adequate to a text conceived as complex and ample rather than as diminished by, or reduced to, what it has had to repress. Just reading accounts for what is in the text without construing presence as absence or affirmation as negation. Finally, just reading recognizes that interpretation is inevitable – even when attending to the givens of a text, we are always only – or just – constructing a reading.

I like this a lot, and I think it succeeds in negotiating a tension which has been increasingly present for me over the last few years. Let’s see if I can articulate it:

What I learned in my postgraduate degrees
Reading is active, creative, productive; as Derrida says in Plato’s Pharmacy, we read by “adding a thread” (our own knowledge, our own experience, our own fantasies, desires, investments) to a text. There is no reading that is not like this: the idea of reading as construing a “correct” meaning is always ideologically loaded and usually backed not by intellectual rigour but by the power of an institution.

Then I taught intermediate Latin and first-year English Literature for seven years
– Texts are valuable because they contain things we don’t already know; they can reconfigure our knowledge, our experience, our fantasies, desires, and investments. ALSO and FURTHERMORE, imperio is not a gerund, and the fourteenth-century poem Pearl was not influenced by the thought of John Calvin (1509-1564).

… But then, Pearl may not have been influenced by Calvin, but can I imagine a brilliant sf story where Calvin goes back in time and writes Pearl and the story makes me see something else in Pearl? Yes, I can (probably I expect it would be by Le Guin, or maybe Piercy). There is no reading so wrong that it doesn’t have the potential to reveal something – or, as the amazing Sheldon Pollock puts it, “no reading is incorrect in its historical existence“.

So the tension I was talking about, which I feel perhaps most acutely in my teaching practice, is the tension between (1) the fact that all readings are processes of decoding texts with the resources to hand, and there is no single “correct” reading to evaluate the others by; and (2) the fact that there are certain practices, techniques, knowledges which I believe we can impart to our students to make them better readers: more able to understand what the text is saying. Lack of grammatical knowledge is a fairly clear example, where one of the dimensions by which language means on a literal, or almost-literal, level, is lost when a reader doesn’t have the same understanding of grammar or syntax: but there’s sort of a sliding scale from vocabulary/dictionary definitions, through grammar and syntax, through to “higher-level” interpretative operations – I mean, I don’t think you can get round this tension by appealing to a “literal level” of a text which can be read correctly, and then an “interpretation” which is plural, subjective, etc.

And I am increasingly interested in the second half of this equation – what we think we’re doing when we teach literary reading/critical reading techniques; what knowledges and skills we are imparting. Because I feel like we are equipping our students with the skills to rescue meanings and ideas that would otherwise be lost, not because the physical texts no longer existed, but because the capacity to read them would be gone. And, just like that mythical Amazonian plant that contains the cure for cancer, one of those texts that we can no longer read might be what we need to cure the ideological and conceptual ills of our world.

AND YET, most of the critical/pedagogical tools we have for thinking about, and teaching, reading in this way, are very traditionalist, and conceptualize the text as the bearer of a “correct” meaning. So, in conclusion and after this long and very pleasurable ramble, the idea of a “just” reading seems to me to be potentially very enabling: a way for me to teach my students to read “what the text says”, “just what is in the text”, without having to base that in a theoretical position that I just can’t accept.

More on this soon, with some thoughts on the philologist and the amateur as opposed-yet-connected figures of the reader.

Hello, by the way. I know I haven’t been around for a while, and maybe at some point I’ll talk about why.

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Classics and/as fandom, part 2: recs post

This is the recs post I promised last week: just a few examples of really great, interesting fanfic which engages with classical myth. Without further preamble, here are the links, in no particular order (though my absolute favourite comes last), with some notes about the stories.

Gods Versus Aliens, by fresne
This is fanfic for the Troy story, especially the Odyssey: the story ends up with Penelope and Circe living together and thus demonstrates how epically (sorry) the Odyssey fails the Bechdel test.This specific story is here because I’ve taught it in my ‘receptions of the Odyssey‘ course for English honours students at Wollongong, but I love all of fresne’s fic. She has a ton of stories on AO3, mostly myth fic, often crossing over the myths of different cultures or playing on the idea of variant myths (see her Firefly version of Cinderella which tries to get in all the known variants of the Cinderella story…). Her writing is really stunning, her jokes are actually funny, and she uses the mythic crossovers to say something both about the myth and about the present-day or fanfictional settings and characters.

The First Place, by lisztful
Hera travels through a contemporary world, gathering several of her children and step-children for a birthday party, where she announces to her children: ‘I fear I’d been made to believe that your father came first. That he made all of us, all of this. In that, I was incorrect… I am the first… I am the beginning. Life springs from me, and always shall’. It’s a really enjoyable, well-imagined story in all its details, and I also find it interesting as an example of my own Theory of Myth In Popular Culture, which is that pop culture tends to use theories of myth to create more stories. So one way that people explain/understand myths is through ‘euhemerism’, where you think of myths as half-remembered, dramatized/religious versions of actual historical facts: the Marvel Comics explanation for the existence of the Greek gods (they are aliens from another dimension, visiting us via a portal on Mount Olympus) uses exactly this technique, but dispenses with the requirement that the ‘real’ explanation should be more plausible than the mythical one. Lizstful is here generating narrative out of comparativism (the idea that the ‘same’ myth recurs across different cultures) and Bachofen’s theory of originary matriarchy (the oldest form of religion, universally and cross-culturally, is the worship of the Mother/Earth-Goddess, and the Father/Sky-God comes in later to instal patriarchy).

songs inside the fog inside the world
, by daygloparker
A journalist comes to interview Andromeda (why?), who is a constellation but is also chain-smoking and texting (how? why? when?). I just love the writing here, and the strangeness of it, which really works for me. I think it’s partly because this a very different, very modernist/postmodernist, kind of take on the materiality of the Greek gods and a welcome change from the usual highly sensualized, clearly visualized, almost cinematic versions that I think all derive ultimately from the way the stories are told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (where an awful lot of ‘canonical’ or well-known versions of Greek myths come from).

Five Times Maia’s Life Was Permanently Changed, by calenlily
J, who was my beautiful research assistant on this project, says this is her favourite kind of feminist retelling: it very successfully manages to weave five quite disparate myths featuring Maia into a plausible, unified subjectivity and biography. It quietly emphasizes the emotional costs to Maia of the events of her mythic biography and the emotional resourcefulness with which she deals with them, and shows how big, ‘mythic’ events take place within the compass of human (female) lives. It makes me cry.

Tea Time, by chellerrific, and Like Mother, Like Daughter, by skypirateb
Chellerrific and skypirateb both write (among other things) lots of domestic fics about the sibling relationships between Rhea’s children, with a particular interest in Hades and Hestia. I don’t think they’re as well-written as some of the other fics in this recs list, but fanfic isn’t just about fine writing, it’s also about a particular kind of passionate engagement with the source material, and I love the way both chellerrific and skypirateb write about this family. Tea Time is a drabble (a fanfictional short form which has to contain exactly 100 words) which just seems to consist of chellerrific giving Hestia a nice experience of the kind that she would like. Which is a fantastic dimension of reading and fanfic – the desire to make characters happy – and also reminds me of Walter Benjamin in ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, where he says: ‘The picture of happiness which we harbor is steeped through and through in the time which the course of our own existence has conferred on us. The happiness which could awaken envy in us exists only in the air we have breathed, with people we could have spoken with…’ (translation by Gary Redmond, online here).

Hope Springs Eternal, by quantumwitch
This is a giant (126,000-word) and very famous piece of fanfic (it has its own page on TV Tropes). I love it partly because it is so giant and ambitious, and partly because it combines, to a degree I don’t think I’ve ever seen before, two of my favourite fannish things: (1) philological-style hyperattention to detail in the sources and (2) a complete lack of respect for high/low culture, mainstream/academic ways of measuring cultural capital, and disciplinary boundaries. Summed up for me in the author’s note:

This is primarily a far-too-well-researched-for-its-own-damned-good piece of fan-fiction. It is based largely on two things: Disney’s Hercules and the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. I do draw very marginally upon Ovid’s Metamorphoses (though I avoid him as much as possible) and I have also used bits from Hesiod’s Theogony and fragments of poems from the Orphic tradition. The rest is strictly from my own up-close experience with the gods and goddesses involved, as well as personal theories developed over time

(I think Simon Goldhill would probably just say O TEMPORA O MORES to the idea that you would avoid Ovid but go with Disney as one of your two primary sources for a retelling of myth, but for me it’s more interesting to ask: what makes this possible? What kinds of reading and thinking about story must be going on for someone to write this way?)

Ibra in the Underworld, by meretricula
This is a retelling of the Orpheus/Eurydice story with European football (soccer) players, about whom I know literally nothing except what I discovered from the author’s notes to this story, but it is one of my favourite pieces of fanfic of all time. Brilliant, sharp writing, immensely funny (I expect it would be even funnier if you knew who the people were), and providing a healthy dose of wonder at how it came to be in the world. Lots of classical fanfic tries for the kind of clash of registers and tones (high, colloquial, sweary) that this pulls off, apparently effortlessly.

Refugees, by apolesen
This is a Doctor Who/Aeneid crossover, and a kind of almost essayistic fanfiction that I like: mostly dialogue and internal thought, rather than action, and designed to make a point about the relationships between two texts and characters. I like this one because it uses the comparison to say something about both Aeneas and the Doctor, and, if I’m truthful, because I hope it will make more people get how great Aeneas is, given how many people think the Doctor is great, even though he is not as good as Aeneas, who does not prance about going on about how he is a lonely angel, he just gets on with saving the future again and again and again without any possibility of reward or happiness. (Also, in my book Now and Rome, I referred to Aeneas’s war in Italy and the Roman civil wars of the first century as a ‘Time War’, because of the complicated temporal structure of the Aeneid, so the fact that apolesen makes exactly the same comparison pleases me.)*

And finally!

Deus Ex, by innocentsmith
This is my favourite piece of classical fanfic. It’s a story about Jeeves, from Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories, who turns out to be a Deus Ex Machina, moving at will (or rather on instruction) between different storyworlds: he is also the naval officer who shows up to save the children at the end of Golding’s Lord of the Flies, for instance. What makes it classical fanfic is Jeeves’s encounter with Cupid and Psyche about halfway through the story.

As well as being phenomenally well-crafted, with a mastery of tone and register even better than meretricula’s (the moment where Cupid’s genuinely numinous powers break into a pitch-perfect Wodehouse pastiche gives me actual goosebumps), this story does three of the things things that I love most about fanfic, and it does them superlatively well:

(1) It posits the ability to move between storyworlds. Lots of fics do this, via crossovers, but in this case there’s a structural/literary-critical point to it (the idea that characters with a particular narrative function are the ‘same’ across different stories) which I find deeply satisfying. Thinking of the deus ex machina as literally divine allows innocentsmith to bring the theory of storytelling together with the framework of myth: as a narrative device (deus ex machina), Jeeves is divine (deus ex machina), and the gods are revealed to be the enablers of story as well as interveners in the personal lives of characters.

(2) It points out a hitherto unnoticed point of connection between separate storyworlds. I am now convinced that Jeeves and the naval officer at the end of The Lord of the Flies are the same person, and I can’t account for why: it just has a feeling of absolute rightness. (Similarly, the idea that Bernard Black from the UK sitcom Black Books is a cousin of Sirius Black from the Harry Potter books.)

(3) It takes a line from the source text and recontextualizes it to mean something entirely new but also entirely consistent (it does this in what happens to be my favourite way, too: it makes a common line of dialogue mean “I love you more than ANYTHING IN THE WORLD”). So it doesn’t add something new on to the source text by diverging from it and telling you what would have should have could have happened; it supplements it, by giving you the information you need to properly (or improperly, but that’s part of the game… fanfic is always asking who gets to say which readings are ‘proper’ or ‘improper’) understand the dynamic behind the line.

So those are some of my favourites, though they don’t at all showcase the range of what’s being done in classical fanfic. More recs welcome in comments.

*OH HEY I was just googling for the above story and found this entry on fanfiction.net (one of the biggest fan archives of all time), for a story called ‘Aeneid’ by VirgilxRome:

A fanfic of my favourite story ever, the Iliad, written in the epic style of my favourite author ever, Homer. Contains OCs, and may contain slash later on!

This may be the funniest thing I have ever seen.

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Classics and/as fandom, part 1: knowing the past

Hello! Happy New Year!

Today I’m launching the Call for Papers for a special issue I’m editing of the journal Transformative Works and Cultures, on classical literature and/as transformative work. (You can see a pdf of the Call here, with an email address if you want to contact me about any aspect of this project.) I’m excited about it for a number of reasons (see below!) but perhaps especially because when TWC launched back in 2007 or so, I remember thinking ‘But there’s tons of transformative work that isn’t contemporary fanwork – Latin epic! Shakespeare! Film adaptations!’ And now here I am (imagine!), getting some of those works and questions into the journal.

This post, then, is a space for me to start thinking around some of the ideas that I hope might be explored more fully in the special issue (though if you’re checking this post out because you’re thinking of submitting to the issue, please don’t take it as prescriptive: it’s also just me following up some loose threads left over from a book chapter I wrote recently for Vanda Zajko’s forthcoming Wiley-Blackwell Companion to the Reception of Classical Myth, on the way myth works in contemporary popular culture). It’s the first of two posts on classics and fanfic: this one is a bit more theoretical, and the second (next week) will be a recs post, with links to some of my favourite fan fiction dealing with classical myth.

So. Classics and fanfic: why? Well, there are two kinds of texts that I have mostly worked with/written about as an academic: one is Latin literature and the other is fan fiction. It’s not hard to see that there are lots of things that those two bodies of work have in common. Latin literature was produced by and for a small, elite, single-sex community, who were mostly rewarded by prestige within that community rather than by direct payment for their works (this was before copyright, royalty payments, or the idea of ‘intellectual property’). It was written in the shadow of Greek literature and mythology; most of its major works take place in shared narrative universes, with characters and story arcs borrowed from earlier works or taken from the common store of myth. It often produces its meanings and its effects on the reader by appropriating and reworking specific events, phrases, or lines from earlier texts, with which the audience is expected to be extremely familiar. Similarly, contemporary fan fiction is written by and for a small, single-sex community of writers who take up and rework earlier texts for a highly informed and knowledgeable audience.*

So both in terms of their particular literary techniques – allusion, intertextuality, adaptation, appropriation, transvaluation  – and in terms of the dynamic between authors, readers, and texts, classical literature and fan fiction are very similar – similar enough that sometimes people will just assert that they are the same thing.** But there are differences, too, of course. The really big one, I think, is legitimacy.*** Classics, as everyone knows,**** is proper literature (it’s, well, classic), and fan fiction, as everyone knows, is basically kind of stupid and laughable.***** 

And one thing that’s really interesting to me about classics/fanfic parallels, which are often made, is that they tend to be made by people on the fanfic (or the pop-culture) side of the divide. Fans claim that the Aeneid (or Greek tragedy) is the first piece of fan fiction; Henry Jenkins explains contemporary transmedia storytelling by comparing the Matrix to the Odyssey; Roz Kaveney compares the vast narratives of contemporary comics universes to the ‘megatext’ of Greek mythology.

Which is where we get back to the question of legitimacy, and ultimately of ownership. Because all these comparisons attempt to claim legitimacy for fan fiction or contemporary popular storytelling by pointing out its similarities to classical culture – which in turn means that the legitimacy of classical culture is beyond question, goes without saying, can be taken for granted. And one of the things I’m interested in at the moment – it’s a big part of my chapter for Vanda’s book – is the way in which classicists appear to celebrate the ‘afterlife’ of the ancient world, its culture and its texts, but are in fact often attempting to assert and maintain a kind of disciplinary ownership of that world, that culture, those texts. Simon Goldhill’s popularizing 2004 book Love, Sex and Tragedy: How the Ancient World Shapes Our Lives is upfront about this, arguing that the ancient world has provided ‘the basic building blocks of the modern self’, and that we cannot, therefore, understand ourselves or our world without ‘understanding classics’:

The motivation which drives this book is the need to reassert the importance of understanding classics for understanding these building blocks, now above all, as educational and artistic amnesia seeps further and further through contemporary culture… The grounding principle of this book is simple. It can be summed up in a single idea – taken, of course, from an ancient writer: ‘If you do not know where you come from, you will always be a child.’ (p. 3)

Goldhill talks about contemporary culture as amnesiac, ignorant, and childlike, in need of professional help from classicists, who alone can provide understanding and knowledge of the ancient world. In a similar moment, Ghita and Andrikopolous write (in an essay on the videogame Rome: Total War in Lowe & Shahabudin’s 2009 Classics for All):

Given [the game’s] apparent lack of concern for historical authenticity, classicists are confronted with the age-old dilemma: should they condemn the product for propagating inaccuracies and creating false beliefs about the ancient world, or praise it for reviving the interest of the public in antiquity, by whatever means? (p. 119)

There are a bunch of assumptions here. Firstly, that there is accurate knowledge of, and a set of true beliefs about, the ancient world, and that trained classicists have privileged access to this.****** Secondly, that the consumers of popular culture can only relate to representations of the ancient world in terms of historical accuracy, either being duped into thinking that the ancient Romans really did fight chariot-mounted Amazons, or being inspired to do their own research and discover that they really didn’t. But aren’t there other outcomes, other pleasures, other practices involved in playing a videogame set in Ancient Rome, that the question of ‘accurate representation’ doesn’t get at?

Of course there are, and equally of course, lots of classicists are doing good work on precisely these questions – Dunstan Lowe’s essay in the same volume has some brilliant things to say on classical motifs and settings in videogames, and people like Tony Keen, Gideon Nisbet, Nick Lowe, and Kim Shahabudin, also immediately come to mind (more recs would be welcome in comments!) What I’m trying to get at, I guess, is that pop-cultural understanding/knowledge, and especially fannish knowledge, doesn’t always look like traditional academic or philological ‘knowledge’ (although sometimes it does): it can be more productive, more explicitly about making something out of the past or using the past. The knowledge practices of fandom may be more interactive, more affective; they may look more like two-way encounters between the demands of the present and the resources of the ancient world. I’d like to see (and do!) more work along these lines, drawing perhaps from the way in which ‘knowledge’ is being questioned, pluralized, relativized, in fields like Science and Technology Studies*******.

I should also make it clear that it’s not just classicists who get it (in my view) wrong. Classicists tend to over-specify, fencing off an ancient world which can and must be known accurately, and which only they know how to know; but fans, on the other hand, often over-generalize, insisting on a vague and universal category of ‘myth’ in a way which sometimes leads to outrageous claims. In Convergence Cultures, Henry Jenkins records a Star Wars fan, Elizabeth Durack, arguing that ‘Star Wars (based purposely on the recurring themes of mythology by creator George Lucas)… take[s] the place in modern America that culture myths like those of the Greeks or Native Americans did for earlier peoples’ (original post here). This consigns the living cultures of Native American peoples to ancient history and elides the coexistence of Native American sacred stories with Star Wars.********  

So, in conclusion. It seems to me that the comparison between classical culture/work and fan culture/work isn’t so much a neat overlap (‘hey, these two triangles are the same shape and size!’) as it is an intersection of lines, mapping out a really intriguing space to explore a bunch of questions about literature, myth, storytelling, value, legitimacy, popular vs high culture, the web of interconnections that makes up literary traditions, and the web of readerly and writerly practices that makes up interpretative communities. It’s also an opportunity to read some really good stories, though, and next week I’ll be putting up some recs for works that exist right on that intriguing intersection between classics and fanfic…

* There are lots of men who write fan fiction, in fact, but the community tends to conceptualize itself as a female one nonetheless, which has effects on community dynamics and participation. Similarly, there were women who wrote literary works in ancient Rome, but literature was conceptualized as a masculine activity. (See Plant, Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome, Equinox 2004: Google preview here.).

 
**For an eloquent statement of the view that most literary production is fanfic, see bookshop’s 2010 post ‘I’m done explaining why fanfic is okay’ here; for an eloquent statement of the view that fanfic is its own thing, brought into being in a new, post-copyright world, see Paul M. Rodriguez’s essay on The Ruricolist here.
 
*** Or ‘canonicity’, to make a hilarious pun.
 
**** What ‘everyone knows’, or what ‘goes without saying’, is always the most blatantly ideological stuff, as Althusser and George Orwell both point out.
 
*****Laurie Penny has written a wonderful essay (here) arguing that Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss’s Sherlock is Sherlock Holmes fanfic, and it is only seen as more legitimate than online slash fiction because of Moffatt and Gatiss’s higher cultural capital/privileged status. She writes, among many other brilliant and sensible things:
 
‘What Doctor Who and Sherlock offer us right now is a chance to see what modern fan fiction would look like if it was written by well-paid, well-respected middle-aged men with a big fat budget. That sort of fanfiction is usually referred to simply as “fiction”
 
The proper way for cultural mythmaking to progress, it is implied, is for privileged men to recreate the works of privileged men from previous generations whilst everyone else listens quietly
 
******Classicists (like academics in lots of other fields) are often very sophisticated, theoretically rigorous, and nuanced in the way we think and write about the problems of access to the past when we are talking to each other, but very clunky and absolutist about accurate vs inaccurate knowledge when talking to ‘the public’.
 
******* Science and Technology Studies has a historical narrative about scientific knowledge which goes a bit like this, though different scholars have different versions of how and when the change occurred: (1) Once, scientific knowledge was understood as the domain of experts, who needed to communicate accurate information downwards to an ignorant public who would otherwise behave irrationally and wrongly, much like Goldhill’s version of the amnesiac, childlike public in need of TRUE KNOWLEDGE produced, certified, and communicated by professional experts in the Classics; (2) Now, people are much more interested in the idea that scientific knowledge is ‘co-produced’ in interactions between experts, the media, ‘citizen scientists’ and the public in general. STS insists that ‘knowledge’ can be a plural noun (even though my spellcheck disagrees!): there are different ways of knowing and different kinds of knowledges.
 
******** (for a take on Star Wars and Native American ‘culture myths’ which acknowledges this, see, for example, the painting ‘Boba Fett and Trickster Encounter’ by the Diné (Navajo) artist Ryan Singer, and the discussion of the painting by Singer in his ‘Artist Statement’ here.
 
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A chance to make history: women’s writing and the selective tradition

penguin classics

Thinking about reception (which is what I do for a living) means thinking about all the ways in which books are received: read, rewritten, remixed, reused, returned to in times of trouble. Books can provide powerful resources for survival: they can provide what Walter Benjamin calls ‘counsel'; we can find friends in them, or people who are like us, or people who are nothing like us. We can find worlds like our own, or worlds which are nothing like our own. We can find beauty: the exactly right word or phrase or image for something absolutely commonplace, or something we hadn’t known anyone else had ever felt, or something we hadn’t even known existed.

So one of the things I think about a lot is how we read: how we make meanings out of books, and how we put them to use in our lives. But there’s a first step that sometimes gets overlooked. Because we can only read books that are, well, there.

Literary history is full of lost books, forgotten authors, and some pretty scary near-misses. Here are a few:

Susan Warner, author of The Wide, Wide World (1850).
Warner was immensely popular in her lifetime, and was seen as a writer of much the same type, and in the same rank, as Nathaniel Hawthorne (author of The Scarlet Letter). Hawthorne went on to become a classic, and Warner was dismissed as a second-rate writer of sentimental women’s fiction. In the 1970s and 1980s, her work was re-evaluated by the feminist literary critics Nina Baym and Jane Tompkins, and The Wide, Wide World was republished by The Feminist Press in 1987 (it’s still in print, but not a Penguin Classic).

Jean Rhys, author of Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)
Rhys wrote three amazing novels in the 1930s (Quartet, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, and Good Morning, Midnight): they fell out of print quickly, Rhys moved to Cornwall where she lived in poverty, in an out-of-season holiday cottage, and everyone thought she was dead. In the late 1950s, two brilliant women (Selma Van Dias, who adapted her work for stage and radio, and Diana Athill, the editor and publisher) tracked her down, and with their support she was able to finish Wide Sargasso Sea, the book for which she is remembered (although all her work is currently back in print).

Zora Neale Hurston, author of Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937).
Hurston has been called (here) ‘the most successful and most significant black woman writer of the first half of the 20th century’. She published her last novel in 1948 and died in poverty twelve years later, with none of her books in print: Alice Walker paid for a headstone for her (previously unmarked) grave in 1973.

We often talk about good books ‘passing the test of time': in fact, that’s sometimes how people define a classic. And all those gorgeous, covetable Penguin Classic editions in the header image up there are fantastic books, which pass the test of time in the sense that they can still reach us across a historical gap: they can still speak to us, jolt us out of our everyday way of seeing the world, provide us with counsel and beauty, friends and phrases. But in order to be able to do that, they have to pass a different kind of test of time: they have to survive. And that doesn’t happen simply because books are good; it happens because people keep reprinting them, keep reviewing them, keep writing critical works on them, invest time and money and energy on maintaining the presence of these books so that they are there, so that the kind of readers who need this kind of book can keep on finding them, reading them, making use of them.

Raymond Williams, who invented cultural studies, calls this the ‘selective tradition'; Jane Tompkins, who helped rediscover The Wide, Wide World, writes:

Works that have attained the status of classic, and are therefore believed to embody universal values, are in fact embodying only the interests of whatever parties or factions are responsible for maintaining them in their preeminent position… The literary works that now make up the canon do so because the groups that have an investment in them are culturally the most influential (1985: 618)

So the works that don’t get selected – which very nearly included The Wide, Wide, World, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Wide Sargasso Sea – aren’t necessarily those that aren’t good enough: they’re the works whose readers are culturally less influential, whose readers are not the people doing the selecting of the selective tradition. They’re often works by women; they’re very often works by non-Anglo women.

And there are reasons for that, too. Many feminist historians of literature and visual art have noticed that although women have produced art in all forms and media at all historical periods, their art tends not to survive. This is partly because women are less likely to have a good network of connections to professional critics, editors, and publishers who will keep their work alive after their death (Tompkins’ article on Warner and Hawthorne provides a really good example of this). But it’s also partly because women get written out of the selective tradition, out of the story that we tell about art and literature. Even when women’s art is published, recognized and appreciated – which is already much harder for women than for men (see Vida’s statistics for 2011 here) – it tends to be seen as exceptional, as standing outside the mainstream. Which means that when histories are written, lists of ‘influential books’ are compiled, and traditions are selected, works by women tend to drop out. So women can (exceptionally) make it as writers, but they are almost never cited as influences on the next generation of writers (unless as influences on a subsidiary ‘women’s tradition’).

So I’m really pleased that initiatives like the Australian Women Writers Challenge exist, to raise awareness of writing by Australian women. The AWW website’s ‘About’ section says:

Male authors [are] more likely to have their books reviewed in influential newspapers, magazines and literary journals than female authors… Part of the problem [is] one of awareness. When [Elizabeth Lhuede] went to find books at her local library, the weekend staff couldn’t name one living Australian female author. So, if books by Australian women aren’t being reviewed, how do readers know what they’ve published? How do they know to ask for them at libraries and book shops? How would they know to recommend them to friends?

But – again – there’s a first step missing here. Because readers, libraries, and book shops can only provide these books if they’re there; if they haven’t fallen out of print, as women’s books tend to do.

So now let’s talk about the Hungarian-Australian writer Inez Baranay, who I’m honoured to be able to call a friend, and who is the author of seven novels, as well as novellas, shorter prose works, screenplays, and memoirs. Inez’s first novel, Between Careers, set in Sydney in the late 1970s, waited until 1989 for publication, but is very much part of the explosion of Australian women’s writing which started with Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip in 1977, and which produced a huge, diverse range of books by a huge, diverse range of women, telling stories about their experience in contemporary Australia, and examining the society which gave rise to those experiences. Monkey Grip survives (as a Penguin Modern Classic!), but Between Careers is out of print, as are Inez’s other two Sydney novels, Pagan and Sheila Power.

I wonder whether one of the reasons that Inez hasn’t been taken up into the tradition as definitively as, say, Helen Garner, is that her work stands at a particular kind of angle to Australia. For twenty years, her work has been informed by her travel (she has lived in a number of countries including Papua New Guinea, India, and the Netherlands; she now lives in Istanbul). She’s written a memoir of her year in Papua New Guinea, and novels set in Bali, India, and Amsterdam: she writes about the places where people and cultures meet and interact, and that’s not always easily recognizable as ‘Australian’ literature. (In fact, her two Indian novels, Neem Dreams and With the Tiger, couldn’t find publishers in Australia at first, and were both first published in India; critics are beginning to describe her as a ‘transnational’ writer.)

But, precisely because of that particular angle, her books are an important part of the tradition of Australian women’s writing, of transnational/global writing, of travel writing. (We might, for example, come to a different understanding of this year’s Miles Franklin winner, Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel, if we read it against Inez’s With the Tiger and The Edge of Bali). Her books mess with national boundaries. They play with genre – Sheila Power is a very smart and funny take on the sex-and-shopping novel; Always Hungry is a kind of vampire novel. They expand what we think ‘Australian women’s writing’ is.

And they’re out of print.

Which means not only that readers don’t have the opportunity to connect with them – to discover their worlds, their characters, their beauties – but also that literary history is being written, and Inez Baranay is being written out of it.

But we can change that history. New technologies and networks – social media, crowdfunding, print-on-demand – are closing the gap between selectors and readers, making it possible for anyone with even a few euro to spare to help keep Inez’s books alive and available for the readers who need them, and for the scholars and historians who might not otherwise be able to tell the whole story of women’s writing in Australia and beyond.

Inez’s crowdfunding campaign to produce print-on-demand editions of ten of her books is here. At the time of posting this, she has one week to raise 932 euro. That’s just 93 people giving 10 euro each (that’s about AU$15). Please think about donating: Inez, and I, and history, will be grateful.

**

References and further reading (I did say I do this for a living!):

On the ‘selective tradition': Raymond Williams, ‘The Analysis of Culture’ in The Long Revolution (1961), and ‘Tradition’ in Marxism and Literature (1977).

On The Wide, Wide World:

Nina Baym, Woman’s Fiction (1978)

Jane Tompkins, ‘Masterpiece Theater: The Politics of Hawthorne’s Literary Reputation’, American Quarterly 36.5 (1984). (available here at JSTOR with university login)

Catharine O’Connell, ‘ “We Must Sorrow”: silence, suffering and sentimentality in Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World‘, Studies in American Fiction 25.1 (1997).

On transnational literature (the Sharrad essay mentions Inez’s Indian novels in particular):

Michael Jacklin, ‘The Transnational Turn in Australian Literary Studies’, Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature Special Issue: Australian Literature in a Global World (2009), available here

Paul Sharrad, ‘Seen Through Other Eyes: Reconstructing Australian Literature in India’, Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature 10 (2020), available here

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Para-Academic Opportunities

After doing my BA in 1994-1998, I spent a year working as a legal secretary in London by day, while writing a novel by night. (You don’t need to know about the novel.) Then I did an MA and a PhD at the Centre for Cultural Studies at Leeds, while simultaneously discovering fandom and the Barbelith Underground* (and still working as a legal secretary in the holidays). In the four years of my PhD, I wrote a 100,000-word thesis and about 100,000 words of fan fiction, and I was a member of four enormously generous, supportive and challenging communities: the postgrad cohort at Leeds; the Beechwood Collective (a bunch of women in the area who used to meet up and watch Buffy together); the Barbelith Underground; and Blake’s 7 slash fandom. In all four of those contexts, we talked ideas and theory and personal experience and passion, and we produced readings and writings for each other to share. (I think this is what Aren Aizura is talking about when he talks about a ‘commons’, though his account of grad school emphasizes its territorializing/professionalizing aspects.)

Then I finished my PhD and I had to decide whether I wanted to be an academic. I knew that I wanted the centre of my life to be reading books and having ideas and talking about them with people, but of course I knew from my other three communities that academia wasn’t the only place to do that. At that time, it seemed to me that my two options were:

1. Be an academic; or
2. Be a legal secretary by day and a theorist/novelist by night. (Actually, the plan was to be a legal secretary by night and a theorist/novelist by day: someone once told me that the big law firms in London employ night-shift secretaries, which would have been like my perfect job and is still a road not taken for me, though of course mostly I did audio typing and presumably there will not be jobs in that field for much longer.[YouTube link])

I decided to be an academic for two reasons. The first was that academics have much easier access to the cool stuff – especially in the UK, where university libraries are not open to the public. (Seriously, UKers, in Australia you can just WALK IN OFF THE STREET to any university library, sit down, and read all the books! It is amazing!**) But, basically, if you work at a university you get free access to books, inter-library loans, journal subscriptions, etc, which are hard to access from the outside.

And the second reason, which was really the more important one, was that it struck me that, basically, over my five years at Leeds, almost all the important ideas/conversations/things to read that had come my way had done so in snatched moments in the corridor between one class and the next meeting. (Oh, Ika, I meant to tell you about this book I read about Rome, and that was how I discovered Michel Serres…) Being a lone scholar, working as a legal secretary by day and reading/writing by night, I just wasn’t going to be in the kind of space that would maximise my chances of those random encounters that, in practice, were what shaped my work and my thought.

I really like working in academia, and I’ve had an uncharacteristically easy ride of it. I haven’t been through the post-doc/one-year-teaching-fellow precarious hypermobile can-I-still-live-with-my-girlfriend mill. I got a full-time permanent job at Bristol University within a year of completing my PhD, and by the time I was ready to move on [<--euphemism] I got another full-time permanent job here at Wollongong within about two years of seriously starting to search. Which was nice. [YouTube link]

But academia isn’t, and shouldn’t be, and mustn’t be, the only place where knowledge is produced and shared and transmitted. Most of the fields I’ve been most energized by and enjoy working in the most have been co-produced by people working in the academy and people working outside it: feminism, queer theory, reception theory/fan studies. But those two barriers to intellectual work and community outside the academy still remain: access to books, journals, ideas; and access to communities of thought where random, everyday interactions can occur and spark things.

All of this is preamble to sharing two links with you. One is to the Call for Papers for a book called The Para-Academic Handbook, co-edited by the amazing feminist philosopher Alex Wardrop and the excellent ‘researcher who makes things’ Deborah Withers:

Frustrated by the lack of opportunities to research, create learning experiences or make a basic living within the university on our own terms, para-academics don’t seek out alternative careers in the face of an evaporated future, we just continue to do what we’ve always done: write, research, learn, think, and facilitate that process for others… As the para-academic community grows there is a real need to build supportive networks, share knowledge, ideas and strategies that can allow these types of interventions to become sustainable and flourish. There is a very real need to create spaces of solace, action and creativity.

The other is an interview with the also amazing Eileen Joy, co-director of the ‘para-academic’ punctum books, an open-access and print-on-demand academic publisher:

Given that the University (writ large across many different sorts of institutions – an actual network of site(s) but also an Ideal) ought to be the place where we practice free speech (Foucault’s “fearless speech,” in my view) as well as put into place Derrida’s “university without condition,” it seems to us at punctum that academic/public intellectual writing should be made widely accessible to whoever, wherever, wants to read it… What we need now, in the academy as well as the world, is more, and not less, thought, more, and not less, experimentation, more, and not less, “free play” of ideas.

Read! Write! Enjoy!


*The Barbelith Underground was founded and run by Tom Coates, who was writing ‘don’t-go-to-grad-school’ blog posts back in 2004, n00bs.

**People don’t seem to, though.

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