Friday, July 23, 2010

Breaking Through

I'm going to begin writing Housewives and Hussies on Monday. I hit that point today - and a glorious point it is - when I saw the entire project whole and entire, and something clicked in my head, and it became apparent that the time for preliminary research is done (or, well, will be done after a couple more days of reading) and the time for writing is upon me. I Have to say, it's really exciting to actually feel this "click," because the truth is that I haven't felt that since I started my job 7 years ago. Because, quite frankly, I have never written something without having some sort of external deadline (conference upcoming, deadline for an editor, whatever) and so I don't typically get the luxury of waiting for the "click" and feeling ready to write.

Anyway, today I revised my outline, and I've realized that my project can go one of two ways: it can be this wildly successful rethinking of gender and women's social roles and representation and stuff - or it might be lame. Whatever the case, my plan is ambitious but it doesn't feel undoable. It just feels... well, it feels new.

One of the things that I struggle with (and this was actually something I hinted that I would write about in my last post) is that I ultimately do believe that there is something special about literature and I have little-to-no interest in doing the work of a historian by analyzing pop culture of the time or advertisements or whatever. I'm a snob. And I'm a bad poststructuralist. But that's been something that's been interesting to me about the process of reading and research over the past weeks, too - not only do I not want to write that sort of a book, but also I find that I really kind of loathe reading that sort of a book. Not that I think it's a bad thing to do interdisciplinary research - my research is that, actually - but I really hate literary criticism that seems like it doesn't actually care about literature. Does this happen in other fields? Are there people who are biologists who seem totally uninterested in biology? Because I seriously don't know why this happens to so many otherwise smart people in my field.

Interestingly enough, Jane Gallop made an argument not unlike the position I describe in the previous paragraph at an MLA a few years ago, in which she talked about the lost art of close reading. I remember at the time thinking that in my world close reading is still very much a part of what students do in the classroom and that I really didn't understand why she thought nobody did it anymore. But in doing all of the reading I've been doing... I think I see what she means. And the fact of the matter is that since I've been reading outside of my discipline, I feel very comfortable in saying this: Historians write history, sociologists write sociology, geographers write geography better than Literary Critics do. And so no, I have no interest in writing the sort of book where literature takes a back seat to culture more generally. Let people in other fields do that work, thank you very much.

That said, I do realize that my vision for this book is so much broader and deeper than my vision for the first book, and I think that is exciting and terrifying... and also probably a good thing. I have a lot to say about how I think teaching and blogging both have influenced that - because I really do think that both have - but not in this post. I'll save that for another day.

Also, I've been reading with interest the conversations about Terry Castle's memoir over at Historiann's and Tenured Radical's and Comrade Physioprof's... but I'm going to just come out and announce that I won't be reading it because I'm not allowed to read things for fun since I'm trying to write a freaking book that requires me to read about a gajillion things. (As I'm seeing the thing take shape, I realize that I'm going to need to read or reread about 15-20 novels over the next 6 months or so, plus reading theory and criticism on the side, so lest you encourage me to read for fun, I will preempt you to say that reading stops being fun when you're reading as much as I'm reading, which is why graduate school in English is often for many people a soul-killing endeavor that makes them despise literature, but I digress.) But I did want to say something about the following in CPP's review:

"The last part of the book is a rumination on how this romantic/sexual liaison influenced both the development of her personality and her scholarly perspective. The latter I found very interesting: as scientists, we pretend that our personal lives do not influence our scientific tastes and perspectives, while Castle sees it as a truism that her escapades with the Professor would influence her scholarly pursuits."

I think that is a distinction between the sciences generally and people in literary studies (I was going to write "the humanities" but I don't know that other humanities disciplines do take things so personally as we do in English), and I think it's also probably why I don't like to write about my research in a concrete way on blog - it feels very personal to me, and I feel very exposed when I talk in non-work contexts about my work. In a very real way, my cv does tell a whole hell of a lot about who I am and what I was going through at different points. So I can see why somebody outside of my field might find that connection between life and work intriguing, but for me... Yeah, think about it people: why am I so interested in looking at housewives just at the moment when I bought my first home? (I've got more examples than that, but I feel like if I write them here that most of them are way inappropriate and more information about me than you want.) I realize that not everybody's research connects up to their lives in such an obvious and transparent (and, some might say, pedestrian) way, but I know a lot of people for whom that is very much the case. And I also think it's interesting that it's much more likely, in the blogs I read, to see that the people who most frequently will talk about books they're reading tend not to be the English proffie types. I mean, just look at the above conversation: two historians and a scientist. (I know that there are more "professional" style blogs by English types out there, and those do talk about the books, but I find them really stuffy and miserable to read as a general rule.)

So anyway, with that, I must go and return to my reading. While it is true that I won't be reading Castle's memoir, I will be taking a gander at The Apparitional Lesbian. Because as much as I whine about not having time to read anything fun, really, every single thing (with the exception of Habermas) that I'm reading for this project is fun. Otherwise I wouldn't be doing it.


Susan said...

As a historian who reads literature and art history, I know I write better history than I do literary criticism. So this makes lots of sense. And there is only some lit crit that I enjoy reading -- half the time I sort of shrug my shoulders and say, "Whatever". And the great thing is, some historian or cultural studies type (even more likely) as we speak is probably writing about the pop culture end of things, so you don't have to.

And when I'm deep in research, I don't do much reading either because I read a lot.

Oh, and I displace plenty of life questions on to my research, but in ways that are more evident to me than to others...

Anonymous said...

And I'm a bad poststructuralist.

What the fucking fuck is a "poststructuralist"?

undine said...

_The Apparitional Lesbian_ is amazing (and also fun). And I feel as you do about the work/writing connection, maybe because I'm at about the same place in my project.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I've always thought that literature people analyze history better than historians do with literature, so I've never tried the interdisciplinary trick. I'd certainly never condemn a book by a literary scholar for not having enough history; I only object to when they try and get it woefully wrong. But I think your basic instinct -- write the kind of book you'd actually enjoy reading -- is the best one.

And congratulations on getting started! You're an inspiration for me to get off my ass and start writing.

Dr. Koshary said...

It's always interesting (especially to ourselves) to note possible bleed-over between our personal lives and our professional trajectories. In my discipline, it's practically required to account for that in some way or other in one's book(s). Still, it can get way out of hand. Unless you can really say something nifty about that, perhaps it's better to wait until you're an awe-inspiring senior presence in the discipline and other scholars start writing critical biographies of you. :)

Historiann said...

Many historians (and I would consider history a humanity rather than a "social science") are in deep denial about how their lives are connected to their work and intellectual interests. It rarely lines up very neatly, but it seems like feminist scholars and scholars of color who write about people who look like them--women, people of color, etc.) are more likely to admit that the personal and political is lined to the professional interest. This means that the (overwhelmingly white and male) historians who write about "real" historical subjects like war, diplomacy, politics, and intellectual history for example are "objective" versus the "relativists" described above.

I think there should be more analysis of why so many white male historians are apparently armchair generals and Walter Mittys--or why they still believe in a fiction that no one with half a brain takes very seriously any more.
But, I'm obviously just axe-grinding and writing history according to my ideological agenda without respect to The Evidence.

Good luck with "Housewives and Hussies!" It sounds terrific.

Anonymous said...

Along the lines of Historiann's comment, there's a certain brand of Roman historian who dearly wishes he were following Julius Caesar into battle. I hate that guy.

What I really wanted to say, though, is that there are definitely people in my field who appear to have no real interest in the actual content of religion. This drives me batty.

Unknown said...

I'm not sure why literary scholars who write cultural history seem like they have no interest in literature. I love literature. But I'm also interested in readers ... the reasons other people love literature, the places and times they loved it, the they reasons they might have had (or didn't have) access to it. Personally, I'm not crazy about scholarship that is just "close reading" because it seems to miss so much about what the text has meant to real people ... I might even say "common readers."

Dr. Crazy said...

I'm going to write a fuller post talking more about this, but suffice it to say for the moment that I think there is a place for research that focuses on readers and what you describe, and some of it is done very, very well .... though I think I would quarrel with the way that you seem to distinguish "real people" from critics or theorists or ... I don't know... would they be "imaginary" people? "Fake" people? It's unclear to me why a general reading public's response to or consumption of particular texts, or the response of readers contemporary with the text, is somehow more important or more real than other sorts of responses or approaches. Doesn't that just invert the privilege while preserving the opposition between high and low, etc.? I guess I dispute that the sort of cultural criticism you describe is in some way more meaningful than research that isn't coming from that particular vantage point.

Unknown said...

By "real" people I mean people outside the university, but I see why you find that an annoying way to put it. I don't think historical or cultural criticism scholarship is "more meaningful"-- it's just an important part of the conversation. I'm pretty sure the reason I like doing it is that I learn more (back to seeing your own story in your research, I've always felt woefully ignorant about history. So this is a way to fix that!) But, I love it when my students read closely, well. It is rare and wonderful.