by Catriona Mills

Articles in “Writing”

Am I a Leavisite? A Disconnected Ramble Through Interpretation

Posted 7 April 2008 in by Catriona

Nick and I, via a discussion of how much fun it is when comment threads build up on this blog, got to the point of wondering whether I am actually a Leavisite (which relates to possibly my favourite title for an academic work, John Docker’s “How I Became a Teenage Leavisite and Lived to Tell the Tale,” from his In a Critical Condition: Reading Australian Literature.

I’m not sure that I can be considered a Leavisite (to be fair, the suggestion was, perhaps tongue in cheek, that I demonstrated Leavisite tendencies, but let’s stick to absolutes for argument’s sake), not least because Leavis’s excoriation of mass culture is something with which, manifestly, I have no sympathy.

(Nick, wandering in, has just suggested “Well, I don’t think Terry Eagleton would find much to be displeased about in your writing . . . although you may talk a bit too much about women.” I think that might be the nicest compliment I’ve ever received.)

I’m not even certain that, as a student of the mid- to late-1990s, I’ve even read any of Leavis’s work. I’ve certainly read Q. D. Leavis’s Fiction and the Reading Public, which I found thought-provoking but frustrating; if I’m not forgetting my reactions—it’s been a couple of years since I read it—I found myself frustrated by a sensation underlying the text that working-class readers were helpless dupes of a publishing industry whose permutations they could barely grasp.

But I can’t recall ever reading one of Leavis’s books.

I’m certainly not in sympathy with Leavis’s canonical bent. I’m not denying the significance, value, or quality of canonical works. But the works that I’ve spent the majority of my effort on—for my M.Phil. and for my Ph.D.—have never been included in any canon, not even the revisionist ones.

But my problem with potential Leavisite tendencies arises with Leavis’s emphasis on textual criticism, divorced—to an extent—from the socio-economic and political connotations of the text’s production. The latter aspect is easier for me to avoid: I don’t identify as a strict Marxist, but my critical interests—and my political bent—are certainly left leaning.

(Incidentally, nearly a decade ago in my first share house—at the beginning of my postgraduate career, when my self-identification was more dogmatic and less nuanced—I did identify as a Marxist, as well as a feminist. This led, in a circuitous fashion, to a friend of one of my flatmates bursting into my room at midnight, while I was reading a Harry Potter novel in bed, to demand that I lend him my lipstick, so that he and my flatmate could draw warpaint on themselves and then wrestle. When I refused—on, I felt, the very sensible grounds that my solitary, very flattering, lipstick was an American brand not available here—he harangued me on the inappropriateness of Marxist feminists wearing lipstick at all, and then slammed the door. I think that’s one of the strangest things that’s ever happened to me.)

But I do value what close textual reading can tell us, and I do privilege textual analysis in my own work. I can’t personally encompass the idea of a critical approach—any critical approach—that completely divorces a text from the process of its mechanical production. Regardless of whether we wish to emphasise the value of writing or the value of reading in the construction of textual meaning, at some point an author placed those words in that order.

But the problem with that, I suppose, is that the intentionality of the author is unrecoverable. Even where it is recoverable, there is an element of speculation. We can argue, for example, that the reading list that Mary Shelley included in her diary has an element of veracity. Where reading lists can be a matter of personal representation, which implies a manipulation of the contents to show the writer as a different kind of reader, the private nature of the genre in this case helps negate that point: is there any need for Shelley to manipulate her presentation of her reading in a private document?

Then again, I remember an example from a Dorothy L. Sayers novel—I can’t remember which one it is, now, and I can’t find the reference. The instance is one in which Lord Peter is drinking a sadly dead Victorian port with his lawyer, who discusses the man who passed it on to him: a man who, a lonely bachelor for life, was discovered after his death to have had a rich fantasy life in which he married and lived with his true love, a life that he only expressed in his diary.

This is a fictional example, but that diary, too, is a private document. Had it been discovered in isolation—with no supporting testimony from friends and families—how would a reader have been able to judge its veracity?

I’m not intending to draw any hard-and-fast conclusions from what I’ve legitimately called a ramble. I’m not even entirely certain that I’ve isolated a critical perspective that absolutely works for me, rather than still being a state of flux.

But I am fairly certain that my work will always retain an interest in authorship: not as a work isolated from socio-economic status and historical placement, but certainly the work as the technologised output of individuals.

So perhaps there are shades of the Leavisite in me, after all.

Writing

Posted 4 April 2008 in by Catriona

I don’t like to talk about my teaching on here, because I don’t blog anonymously and I really want to keep my job. Not that I’m likely to say anything offensive, because I do love teaching—I find there’s no job so stimulating as teaching young adults, and my students are invariably engaged and engaging. But they haven’t signed up for the courses to be blogged about.

But, I feel it’s safe to start this entry with something I’ve noticed while teaching writing courses: every semester, students claim that, outside university assessment, they simply don’t write. They back down from this position when I point out that, for example, e-mail, SMS, and online instant messaging count as writing. But it prompted me to list for one class the kinds of writing that I undertake regularly, and it surprised even me.

(I’m coming back to this entry a day late, after those rants about my temperamental car, and I’ll probably be interrupted again shortly when Nick returns with dinner. But in the interim I’ve been thinking further about this.)

When I spoke to my students about the variety of types of writing that I produced regularly, I was still in the process of completing my thesis. And one of the things that I found so challenging but also so fascinating about that work was the variety of different ways of organising material that that one document contained.

It had the usual components of an Eng. Lit. thesis: chapters that varied between connecting my object of study to a broader school of thought and close analysis of the texts, sections—such as the introduction and conclusion—that served largely to impose hierarchical structure on the work, a beautifully formatted bibliography (my supervisor said to me, “I was going to say this was one of the cleanest bibliographies I’d seen—then I saw that you’d put all your full stops outside the inverted commas.” Damn.), a Literature Review.

Ah, the Literature Review. How I hated writing you. You’re boring, and depressing, and you bring with you a constant anxiety that in boiling down a hundred years of theory on nineteenth-century fiction I might, conceivably, have missed something really important. But I got through you, thanks to a Jonathan Rose article that raised as many questions for me as it answered—it focused on working-class auto-didacts, which was too narrow for my purposes, and emphasised that working-class authors mentioned Dickens more often than they mentioned G. W. M. Reynolds. Sure, they did; it’s a matter of self-representation, though, isn’t it? And Reynolds still outsold Dickens by some magnitude, so someone was reading him.

Still, Rose is a superb scholar, the article was a fantastic response to claims that nineteenth-century, working-class readers could not grasp classics such as The Iliad, and his encapsulation of the difference between “old” and “new” book history methods was the catalyst that allowed me to get a grip on my Literature Review, for which I will be forever grateful.

But I also had vital sections in my thesis that relied on forms of writing that I’d never undertaken before.

I had one appendix that reproduced the contents of a nineteenth-century album, the absolutely pivotal find in my research, which enabled me to extend the work beyond a single author to draw conclusions about the field of publishing in which she worked. Most of this appendix was made up of a series of reproduced photographs, but organising this material and writing brief but illuminating captions was a challenge.

Then there were two further appendices, both indices to fiction in nineteenth-century penny weeklies. I would never have undertaken one of these if I had realised that it would take the better part of a year. The first—a short-lived, fiction-specific journal called Fiction for Family Reading, which I’ve already mentioned in conjunction with half-naked princesses—only took three days, because the run was so brief.

I knew Bow Bells—which I indexed from 1864 to 1881: 34 volumes in total—would take longer, but a year? I didn’t anticipate that. And I had no idea how time-consuming and intricate it would be to keep this material in order. Or that it would end up adding 164 pages to my thesis. Still, scholarship on penny weeklies suffers under a lack on indexing projects, and I don’t regret doing it. I do regret the fact that it was on microfilm, and working on it therefore triggered my motion sickness, but that’s out of my control.

Then there was the gem of my thesis, in my mind, anyway—my bibliography of the works of Eliza Winstanley. I’m still feeling a little bit smug about the number of works I managed to confirm as hers. But I’d never produced a critical bibliography before, and the fun was in trying to find a format that was immediately accessible but also included as the necessary information.

(Well, no—the real fun was being able to attribute twenty-one anonymous works to her by cross-referencing the journal contents with advertisements in The Times, but I admit that that doesn’t sound like fun.)

But then, as I pointed out to my students, there are all those other, more casual forms of writing.

E-mails have to be written every day: formal ones to students and colleagues, and informal ones to family and friends.

There’s Pownce, which I joined relatively late but love as a private, convenient way to hold conversations with friends when I should be doing other things. And, speaking of Pownce, whither the Pownce, friends? Whither the Pownce? Don’t let it die.

I’ve been doing two kinds of marking, lately: informal global feedback on non-assessed work and formal feedback on assessment.

Slightly more frivolous are Facebook status updates: I do enjoy reading them, though. As a friend of mine mentioned recently, it’s like communicating by SMS, without actually having to send the messages. Of course, they’re much more fun now that we’re not restricted to “is” verb forms.

I’ve also written a book review lately, and thought about ways to write more.

I have a teaching reference for a colleague due in ten days, and am still marking—two different types of assessment for two different grades of students.

And then there’s this blog, which I thoroughly enjoy writing but can’t update every day.

I’m sure I mentioned more types, when I was talking to my students, but if so, they’ve slipped my mind. Nevertheless, given the list I’ve managed to remember so far, I think I should probably stop feeling self-conscious about saying that I write for a living.

Well, that and get on with writing (and hopefully publishing) some journal articles.

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