I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the work I do and what it has to offer—partly because the isolation and hyper-focus of trying to work on the dissertation all day, every day may be getting to me, partly because it’s a question I need to have a compelling answer for as I get closer to the job market, and partly because what I do is in many ways so removed from the sort of work most other graduate students in the department do that I sometimes feel as if I must be going about things all wrong.
That last part makes it sound like I’m some sort of iconoclast or innovator, which could not be farther from the truth. But I work on late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century reception, and I spend a lot more time looking at what people had to say about books when they were first published than I do putting forth new or challenging readings of a novel. To some people, that looks very little like literary study.
My interest in reception is two-fold. The first and most important reason is that I want to know what readers and reviewers had to say about books, particularly novels. It gives me a better sense of how novels fit into nineteenth-century American culture (plus, people had some crazy and hilarious things to say). Novels and book reviewing had a different status at the turn of the century than they do today. In 1902 Frank Norris declared (with more than a little self-interest, of course), “The Pulpit, the Press and the Novel—these indisputably are the great moulders of Public opinion and Public morals to-day. But the Pulpit speaks but once a week; the Press is read with lightning haste and the morning news is wastepaper by noon. But the novel goes into the home to stay. It is read word for word, is talked about, discussed; its influence penetrates every chink and corner of the family.” It seems worth knowing, then, what kind of public opinion novels were molding.
The other reason for my interest in reception is my own increasing resistance to the idea that what literary study produces are proliferating interpretations and ways of reading a novel. I’m torn on this one: on the one hand, I think literary study is valuable, I think the mission of the academy to advance knowledge without concern for its profitability is super-valuable and I don’t think humanities research can be judged in terms of the money it brings in or the number of citations it generates. On the other hand, there are a lot of books being written that few people will read, and publishing in the humanities is driven as much by the requirements for tenure, which change at a glacial place despite a rapidly-changing university, as by a humanistic attempt to advance knowledge.
A big part of my middle-of-graduate-school, is-this-really-what-I-want-to-be-doing-with-my-life, what-is-the-point-of-all-of-this-obscure-knowledge crisis (I assume everybody else has one of those at fairly regular intervals, too) was trying to figure out the value of all this seemingly-esoteric work. There are the obvious answers: to teach writing, I need to write; to teach students how to be scholars, I need to be engaged in scholarship; to teach literature in new and interesting ways, I need to be aware of new and interesting things other people are doing. But that’s an argument for being engaged in scholarship in general, not a particular kind of scholarship.
I’m sympathetic to my students’ exasperation with readings they see as requiring specialized knowledge or unfamiliar analytic moves. Reading Deborah McDowell’s excellent essay on sexuality and Nella Larsen’s Passing, my students asked, “sure, she says the envelope is a vagina, but did anyone who read it actually think that?” There’s a lesson there about different ways of reading and interpreting and the analytic stakes of different hermeneutic approaches, but there’s also a genuine question that we shouldn’t dismiss in our rush to defend the work of the twenty-first century literature classroom: what kind of reading strategies were available to readers of this novel? If we’re going to ask students to historicize and contextualize their reading, and I think we should, we should also address the fact that our contemporary interpretive moves are often very different from those of a novel’s first readers.
My work with reception not only helps my students contextualize their own reading, but it also helps me think about my students as readers. The classroom is a problematic space of reception, because the reading is coerced and the interpretive strategies are often proscribed for students. That’s okay—one of my goals as a teacher is to force my students to read differently in the hope that they will acquire new skills. But I’m also aware that the hermeneutic I stress in the classroom isn’t the only one, or even the most important. Keeping that in mind helps me connect my research and my classroom practice, and it reminds me to keep the work we do in the classroom in perspective. There are many different modes of reading, and they aren’t less valuable for being less academic.
Next time: some methodological difficulties when working with reviews, or, I am not a social scientist, but should I be?