Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Grand Return

So, the paper is done (all but for minor tweaking, which I always do immediately before, and a couple of read-throughs), I have decided upon outfits (and also overpacked with some other options), and now all there is to do is to straighten up the house and vacuum.

I am excited about this conference, and strangely nervous. I think part of it is that I've not been in so long because... well, how do I explain it.

This conference was my very first conference. And the author on whom it focuses was my first love, in terms of literature. My first real adult literary relationship. Now, I might have had crushes before that, books that I really liked, authors I enjoyed, but this author... yeah, this author marked my transition into adulthood, and then later, into academia. And when I fell for this author, I fell hard. And so the fact that my first ever conference was a conference focusing on this author, well, it was a pretty big deal to me. And it was a pretty heady experience, too, because I'd just finished my undergraduate degree, and so was still more an undergraduate than anything - wide-eyed and impressionable and clearly not the graduate student that I would become at later conferences. I followed my mentor around like a puppy, and all of the Eminent Scholars (or so I saw them at the time, and some of them actually are, I suppose, but really, anybody who was a professor someplace was an Eminent Scholar to me at that point) took me under their wings as this little enthusiastic fledgling. The grad students at that first conference looked at me with derision, and looking back, I really can't blame them. I somehow had access to the Important People that they didn't have, and I was too stupid to recognize how lucky I was to have that. I thought (because I was totally naive) that this was just how conferences worked.

But so then, well, after attending the conference for a few years, I began to feel like I needed to get out of dodge. Part of this was because I felt immense pressure to be a "This Author" scholar, and I resented that pressure. I also started to feel like the kind of work that I wanted to do wouldn't really be valued in the context of all of those Important People who had taken me under their wings. (I should note that this feeling probably had no foundation in, I don't know, reality, but it's how I felt. I think one might characterize it as the academic version of teen-aged rebellion.) And there was another problem: the turn that my work had taken meant that I wanted to work on authors who don't necessarily stand for the same things as "This Author."

[I realize that it's annoying that I'm not specifying the specific authors I'm discussing here. It wouldn't be hard for any of you to figure it out, but I really don't want this little meditation to be google-able with those names. I'll try to be as clear as possible as I continue, but forgive me if I sacrifice clarity at some points in order to maintain some non-google-able vagueness.]

But so what do I mean, they don't "stand for" the same things? Who says what a given author "stands for" anyway? Well, see, here's the thing about working in literary studies. Who a person chooses to work on, which authors one chooses to identify with or to be identified with, does, to some extent, define one. And so what often happens is that a bunch of people who work on one author also tend to work on a collection of other authors who "stand for" the same sorts of critical things.

So let's say, for the sake of argument, that one works on Ezra Pound. What connotations go along with Pound? Well, there's the whole fascism association, and he's seen as being anti-feminist, etc. So if you work on Pound, you might also work on Eliot, maybe Hemingway, and you're all about the "dick lit." Similarly, let's say you work on Joyce. That might indicate that you're an "Irish" person, and so you're also likely to work on Beckett and Seamus Heaney and John Banville, or it might indicate that you're interested in the proto-postmodernist stuff in Joyce, and so you're also interested in Pynchon. See what I'm saying? If you identify strongly with one camp, it means that you're going then to gravitate toward working on a certain and specific collection of other authors. And it also means that the scholars who fall into those categories get a certain reputation, and the conferences that they hold get a certain reputation, and so one might hear people say things like, "Oh, I'd never go to that conference! I've heard that it's terribly misogynist and not open and welcoming and collaborative in the way that This Author conference is!"

But see, I wanted to go to that conference at a certain point. I resented being locked out, even if that locking out was only in my own head. But once I did attend that conference, and all of the horror stories I'd heard were revealed to be ... well, grounded in a small little tiny bit of truth, but not ultimately true, I didn't know how to negotiate my love of that conference with any prior commitments I had to This Author. Complicating this problem further was the fact that I felt like what I was doing critically had more value in terms of that conference. Complicating this even further is that that conference is like the mother of all single-author conferences (and is featured in David Lodge's Small World) and happens in fabulous locations, and includes free drinks receptions in palaces and things, etc. So, I became a traitor. And I didn't go to This Author conference for years.

Some of that was logistical. But some of it was also that I didn't know whether I could be at home with the This Author people anymore, because the stuff that I'm doing with This Author goes against the grain in a lot of ways. Now, one thing that's helped in the past few years is that I've developed relationships with a couple of senior scholars who also bridge that gap between This Author and That Author. They haven't chosen, and so I don't feel like I have to choose, either. I've also been doing good (and well regarded) work on The Other Author, which has given me confidence that I didn't have as a graduate student, when I defected from This Author. And, slowly, I've been returning to the This Author fold. I had a publication last year in This Author journal, and I've reconnected with some This Author people at MLA.

So this Grand Return is more of an intellectual Grand Return for me. I doubt that anybody else really noted my absence, but for me, that absence was a really big intellectual deal. It signified my becoming my own scholar, and not the scholar that others wanted me to be, and it signified me divorcing myself from that fledgling undergraduate I was when I started on this path. That said, I never abandoned This Author. I just couldn't work on This Author in the context of the This Author scholars and do the kind of work on This Author that I wanted to do.

But so now, this brings me to the conference paper that I have written. I'm insecure about it. The paper itself really is a "grand return" - it focuses on a novel that was the first by This Author that I'd read and that was the focus of my first publication. After that publication, I'd abandoned this novel. Partly because I'd decided that I loved it too much to dissertate about. Partly because it was the part of my Grand Bid for Freedom, moving away from work on this particular novel. But so now, I'm working on it again. But what I have to say about it? Well, first of all I think that it may contradict what I said in that, my first publication. I also think that what I have to say about it has the potential to piss some people off. And, on top of all of that, what I have to say about it relates intimately to all of the work that I've been doing on The Other Author for the past 3 or 4 years, and so I'm afraid that if people think I'm full of shit that all that other work is full of shit, too.

But I really don't think I'm full of shit. I think I'm doing something that's really interesting. Something that is ultimately all part of the Next Book that's in my head (and that will remain in my head for a good long while, should I remain in this particular job, because jesus, one book is more than enough to be going on with if this is where I am and if this is where I remain). But slowly, through all of the work I've been doing in the past few years, I'm coming to a theory about something - a theory that is at one and the same time a theory of creativity that is rooted in the body but also that gets out of the binary opposition between masculine and feminine. And maybe I am full of shit, but if I'm not, then that is fucking interesting. So, that's what I've got to keep thinking about. How what I'm doing has the potential to be really fucking interesting. I've got to stop with the angst that others won't like it. I've got to stop feeling like an impostor and a traitor, because really, I am neither.

1 comment:

Sisyphus said...

This is fascinating; I had to go crib some Cliffnotes to follow all these authors. :)

Is this creativity an artistic creativity, or the literal production of new life? You're going to be all literary and postmodern and say "both," aren't you? I'm excited to hear about it.