MLA Talk 2015: "My Life, Not in 'Middlemarch': Anti-Academic Literary Critical Memoirs"

I presented a somewhat shorter version of the following talk on a panel that I also organized, called "Academic Prose and Its Discontents" at the 2015 MLA convention. The idea here -- apropos of this particular panel -- was to experiment with a somewhat looser prose style than I might usually deploy in an MLA talk. 

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The idea behind this panel was to respond to the ongoing public conversation about academic writing. While writing style has been a longstanding sore spot for academics, two of the most outspoken critics this past year were journalists – people like Nicholas Kristof, who published a piece called “Professors, We Need You!” in the New York Times last February; one also thinks of Joshua Rothman’s piece in the New Yorker along similar lines (“Why Must Academic Writing be so Academic?”). Those columns inspired comments from my co-panelist Emily Lordi that were widely shared on social media to the effect that black feminist criticism actually has had a tradition of accessibly written criticism. Professor Lordi’s comments reminded me of my own encounter in graduate school with Barbara Christian’s essay “The Race for Theory,” an essay that resists Theory with a capital “T” while nevertheless embracing a pragmatic black feminist form of “theorizing.” While many black feminist critics have modeled a kind of academic criticism that has been effective for communicating their ideas, it seems safe to say that the tradition Lordi is referring to – a tradition that Christian is a part of as well -- has become an influential form of academic writing that has nevertheless resisted academicism.

What do I mean by academicism? At a general level, academicism might describe any overly strict adherence to rules and conventions. Three forms of academicism stand out and will likely be immediately recognized – perhaps across disciplinary borders. One is of course the use of academic jargon, a topic that has been discussed quite a bit; we won’t address it today, other than to say that as the influence of French theory has become a little less pronounced in Anglo-American literary criticism in recent years, jargon is no longer really the crux of the problem.

A more important issue is the at times overwhelming citation imperative. When I talk to students about the need to research the previous history of conversation on a particular topic, I tell them that we do this because we want to be in conversation with others who have addressed that topic. But often bibliography – especially in dissertation chapters -- then turns into an end in itself: a rabbit hole from which the student’s argument never emerges.

Third, academicism suggests a strong emphasis on depersonalization and objectivity. We’re told not to put ourselves too much into the academic writing we’re producing. It’s distracting, it reflects insufficient rigor, it’s soft and weak and squiggly. To be fair, this accusation is sometimes true; personal anecdotes can reflect a kind of laziness. Some students have to be coached out of this habit. But the real value of the personal voice is a sense of what the stakes are for a particular critic. Why do we pick the topics we work on? If we don’t know what our ethical investment is in our research, why are we doing it? For every student who would be better off using fewer personal anecdotes there’s another student whose work would benefit from a thoughtful revisiting of their motivations for writing.

So: jargon, the citation imperative, and depersonalization. These three forms of academicism are pretty universal across the academic disciplines (in fact, if you remember the Kristof Op-Ed in the Times last March, his focus was more on disciplines like Political Science and Economics). There are other elements of academicism which might be more specific to literary studies. One of them might be the other kind of depersonalization – the depersonalization of the text itself, interpreted as if the author who created it didn’t exist.

And just this past week, Jeffrey J. Williams published an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education on “The New Modesty in Literary Criticism.” Among other things, Williams’ essay (which draws heavily from Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best’s 2009 essay, on “Surface Reading”) suggests a move away from a high theory register towards a more grounded and empirical kind of literary critical production. The shift he charts is not anti-academicism per se – Marcus and Best are more focused on deemphasizing what they call a paranoid style of criticism in favor a “surface” reading that limits ideological claims we might make about literary texts to the evidence on the surface. Marcus and Best are specifically singling out Fredric Jameson’s Political Unconscious as a target of critique, but as a postcolonialist I couldn’t help but think of Edward Said’s famous reading of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Instantiating a method that many other postcolonial readings of 18th and 19th century have emulated, Said argues that even the absence of conversation about the slave trade in Austen's novel may be seen as significant. By contrast, the newer advocates of “Surface Reading” might suggest we look at the ample evidence of conversations about slavery and the slave trade that were present in writings by contemporaries of Austen’s, albeit outside of works in the established canon. We don’t have to read for absence when slavery was arguably all too present in at least some writing from the early 19th century.

Today I want to talk about two books that resist academicism while aiming to make fairly substantial arguments about literary texts, William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter and Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch. Both authors have a very strong, at times over the top, emphasis on tying the experience of reading their respective favorite authors to their own life experiences – and their titles indicate this quite directly. Both books also tend to minimize jargon and aim for a non-specialized readership; they also deal with the citation imperative by eschewing footnotes and instead providing author’s notes at the end that acknowledge the sources they consulted in the process of writing. Finally, both books are quite deeply engaged with the lives of the authors who created the texts under consideration. Mead is particularly attuned to how particular life experiences shaped George Eliot’s point of view and informed the ethical orientation as well as many of the particular characters she created in Middlemarch.

My Life in Middlemarch is written by a journalist who has a fair amount to say about how her own life can be cross-referenced against the characters in George Eliot’s novel, including Casaubon. Mead describes her experience reading Middlemarch as a high-school age student, though she resists the tendency to let the academic context dominate: it’s important in her narrative that she first picked up the novel on her own initiative, not because it was assigned. We can see Mead move to distance her current writing from academicism when she recounts her experiences in a literature seminar led by a well-known Marxist scholar in the 1980s.

Monkish-looking young men with close-shaven heads wearing black turtlenecks huddled with their notebooks around the master, while others lounged on the rug at his feet. It felt very exclusive--and, with its clotted jargon, willfully difficult. Under such influences I wrote, for part of my finals, an extended feminist critique of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, which appropriately enough, clogged a friend’s printer, like a lump of undigested food. (145)
Clotted jargon, clogging the printer, willfully difficult, undigested. It’s abundantly clear that Mead now sees that kind of writing as of little value. On the same page, Mead singles out the prose of J. Hillis Miller as exemplifying the academicist style (the sentence she quotes is this one: “This incoherent, heterogeneous, ‘unreadable,’ or nonsynthesizable quality of the text of Middlemarch jeopardizes the narrator’s effort of totalization”).

Passages like these are in the minority; in fact for much of My Life in Middlemarch Mead proceeds as if the sizeable academic cottage industry of George Eliot scholarship didn’t exist. There’s a passage early in Mead’s book that eloquently summarizes her method. It’s a kind of thesis statement for the book as a whole, and to do justice to My Life in Middlemarch it should be acknowledged:

Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, and it’s a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself. There are books that seem to comprehend us just as much as we understand them, or even more. There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree.
In effect what Meads is describing might be seen as a particularly intense kind of reader-response criticism – where the lives of readers and the texts they read are intimately intertwined. It’s not just that a book like Middlemarch offers us life wisdom; rather, Mead is suggesting, it’s in the pages of George Eliot’s novel that she’s developed the tools by which to narrate and contextualize her own life. The title is quite carefully chosen; it’s not Middlemarch and Me, it’s My Life IN Middlemarch.

Mead begins her book by describing her repeated experiences with Eliot’s novel, starting with her first reading of the novel as a teenager, and then continuing forward through her twenties, thirties and forties. As she works through different elements of the plot of Middlemarch, she periodically recounts how the lives and experiences of the characters in Eliot’s novel resonate with her own experiences. The failed marriages in Eliot’s novel at one point lead Mead to describe her own failed romance with a man earlier in her life. The representation of childhood and children in the novel are described in connection with Mead’s own experience, first as a stepmother to three boys and then as a biological mother. Mead visits many of the places in England where Eliot wrote and lived. Eliot’s idea of the relationship between the older scholar Casaubon and the young, passionate, and na├»ve Dorothea Brooke is likely derived from a couple Eliot had befriended while visiting Oxford; this gives Mead an opportunity to write a little about her own experiences studying at Oxford in the 1980s.

To be clear, I’m not opposed to this mode of reading. Indeed, I have felt something similar occurring as I’ve gone back to books as a mature adult that I first encountered as a young person. One of those is Middlemarch (which I first read in an undergraduate seminar at Cornell taught by Satya Mohanty; I only revisited the novel when I taught it myself last year); another, even more personal to me, might be The Satanic Verses. The problem perhaps comes in when the circumstances of the lives of the characters in these “novels of our lives” don’t intersect well with our own, or when the life of the author looks nothing like our own life. In Mead’s case, it’s hard to escape the fact that she, like George Eliot, was an ambitious and bookish young woman growing up in England (Eliot grew up in the Midlands; Mead grew up in a shore town near Dover). Mead, like Eliot, had experiences of both Oxford and literary life in London (Mead would later move to New York), and both went on to pursue careers as professional writers. In response to Dorothea's famous question near the beginning of Middlemarch (“What could she do, what ought she to do?”), the answer would then seem to be : "leave home, go to the metropolitan center, and become a writer."

To be fair, Mead is also self-conscious about the method of her book, and aware of its limitations:
Such an approach to fiction—where do I see myself in here?—is not how a scholar reads, and it can be limiting in its solipsism. It’s hardly an enlarging experience to read a novel as if it were a mirror of oneself. One of the useful functions of literary criticism and scholarship is to suggest alternative lenses through which a book might be read (172)
And yet, isn’t this solipsistic reading process exactly how Mead frames her project in My Life in Middlemarch? Well, yes – but to her credit, and really against the grain of the title and presentation of the book, Mead is extremely careful to avoid the kind of solipsism she is alluding to her. Rather than dwelling on the correlations between her own life and the lives of Edward Casaubon, Dorothea Brooke, Lydgate and Ladislaw, or on how Mead’s personal life and experience might echo Eliot’s life behind the text, much of My Life in Middlemarch actually consists of close readings of the novel itself tied to historical background and biographical reference to the author.

And yet the question arises. Can we imagine the same book written by someone who might look and sound very different – someone not British, not white… perhaps not female? Someone who has not in the end had a life organized around books, ideas, and writing, but around something entirely different? A Midwestern American housewife, say? A reader in Nigeria or India? The real test of the viability of the self-reflecting reading practice that Mead at once disavows and symptomatically performs might be when the reader’s connection to the text in fact doesn’t appear at all obvious. What might happen to My Life in Middlemarch allowed versions of the narrative along the lines I’ve indicated? Would anyone want to publish that?

A different slate of issues arises in looking at William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education. While the stamp of Mead’s personal life is relatively light in My Life in Middlemarch -- it’s much more a book about Middlemarch than it is about Mead -- Deresiewicz’s personality and personal life are all over A Jane Austen Education. Here we hear a lot more about the author’s dating history, his social circle, his family drama (struggles with an overbearing Jewish father feature prominently), and so on.
For Deresiewicz, the critique of academia is front and center. In the opening chapter he introduces himself to us as a pretentious young Columbia graduate student, interested mainly in hard-nosed modernism; he came upon Austen under the influence of a particularly powerful and charismatic professor at Columbia (whom he does not name). We also know, though it’s not mentioned in the book itself, that its author gave up his tenured position at Yale to write books like this one and the more recent polemic -- Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite (a fascinating book that I think we ought to be talking about, albeit in another setting), and that he therefore has an evident axe to grind. But surprisingly, none of the sense of alienation that would later lead Deresiewicz to leave academia is described here; rather, in the middle of the book he lavishes praise on the Socratic teaching style and intellectual generosity of the same professor who introduced him to Austen in the first place. Against a bad academicism (which Deresiewicz often locates in his own, younger persona), Deresiewicz opens the possibility of a good academic experience: a classic liberal arts journey of self-discovery through books. In this particular instance, it’s Austen who becomes the central educative figure in the book: the person who taught Deresiewicz the lessons he needed to learn to grow up and make good life choices. As with Mead’s book, Deresiewicz really does his homework, and at his best he brings in quite a bit of biocritical material in the service of closely reading Austen’s novels.

What might these two books, both authored by people who position themselves outside academia, have to say to us here in this MLA panel? When they work, they model a kind of literary criticism that eschews academicism and communicates with a broad audience. They might inspire some of us to do our own versions (perhaps no commercial publisher would ever want my version of “My Life in Middlemarch,” but I could always post it on my blog…). It is possible to resist academicism without giving up entirely on academia. Whether or not any of us end up emulating the precise methodology of these books, they do remind us that we can matter -- as readers, as human beings with life stories of our own. Rather than always defer our agency as critics -- to the citation imperative, to depersonalization -- these books give us a way to claim it.