naive v. ironic distinction is… just annoying

Sorry for the hiatus.  In a flash of nostalgia for my previous life in Spain, I ran a google search for “Sherlock Holmes Madrid,” not expecting to find something so relevant to our class.  It’s funny to see “Jack the Ripper” translated as Juanito el Charcutero, which literally means Johnny (which is, I guess, a way of saying Jack) the Pork Butcher.  But anyway, I found a dismally reviewed, for-profit Sherlock Holmes movie… from Spain.  It’s called Holmes and Watson, Madrid Days, and it follows Holmes and Watson as they hunt down Jack the Ripper in Madrid.  I don’t understand why the title is in English,  when all the dialogue is in Spanish.  The film garnered a 4.2 rating on IMDB, and received at least one pretty bad review.  Don’t understand Spanish?  Don’t worry; “lamentable” in Spanish means… “lamentable.”  And that’s the description that the critic gave the trailer, at least.  From what I can see, the movie seems just an excuse to show shots of the Buen Retiro Park (incidentally, last year I used to live just about five minutes away from here).  Another funny review has a title that can be translated into “Holmes Discovers [the classic regional] Stew of Madrid.” And indeed, check out the hilarious trailer, in which the men, for some inexplicable reason, are sitting in a candle-lit Turkish bath with a towel across their loins (~0:47).

Aside from that funny tidbit, for this week’s blogpost, I am going to rant a little.  A lot of things irritated me about Michael Saler’s article, “‘Clap if you Believe in Sherlock Holes’: Mass Culture and the Re-Enchantment of Modernity.” I got the overall message of the article loud and clear, since Saler seems to repeat his main point over and over and over and over again: Sherlock Holmes’s appeal lies in his ability to use the rationale stressed by modernity to find enchantment in every day life, which we readers are all capable of doing as well.  This resonates just fine with me, as it syncs quite nicely with the way I live my own life.  Except my version of finding enchantment in reality specifically involves people, which means that I will use (and have used) my detective skills to figure out certain details about the people who intrigue me, so that I can figure out the way to best amuse myself with this information…

Anyway.  Aside from my Holmes-like ability to deduct information about the people in my life, I am also a big-time reader, as you might have gathered from my previous posts.  That’s not to say that I read a lot, but mostly that I stake my identity on being a reader.  And while I do stake an enormous portion of my identity as a reader, I just cannot understand or stand the readers featured in Saler’s article.

First and foremost, I do not understand the easy distinction that Saler creates between “naive” and “ironic” believers of Sherlock Holmes.  It is very obvious to me which of the two Saler values more.  According to the scholar, the “naive” reader of Homes “genuinely believed that Holmes and Watson were real” (609) — how laughable!!!  So these were the types of folks that would write letters to a Mr. Sherlock Holmes for help with various things, including financial assistance.  Saler tells us of the trends in publishing that might have led “less sophisticated” (611) readers, largely from working class backgrounds, that would lead to such a phenomenon.  Just because layers and layers of authorship are involved — after all, Doyle writes in the voice of Watson, who relates his experiences with Holmes in a supposed private diary, that readers finally see — I can see how readers might believe that Watson’s diary is a true account of interactions with a true Holmes.  So these people believe that a living, breathing, needle-marked Holmes walked the streets of London.  Okay.  Fine.

But Saler talks again and again of the “ironic” believers.  And I don’t understand this notion.  What does it mean to be an “ironic” believer?  Either you believe, or you don’t.  You either believe in the existence of Sherlock Holmes, or you don’t.  You believe that he is a living, breathing person, walking down the streets of London — or you don’t.  Do I believe in Santa Claus?  No.  Do I wish he existed?  Sure.  Can I pretend that he does?  Okay.  Does that make me an “ironic believer” of Santa Claus?  No — it makes me a sad, wishful person.
The “ironic” readers, according to Saler, “pretended that Holmes was real — but for whom this pretence was so earnest that the uninitiated might not recognize it as pretence. . . . But the tenor of ironists’ writings changed over time, from outright parodies to more solemn, quasi-scholarly investigations.”  Key word in Saler’s definition is “pretend.”  These folks — who are clearly more educated and have more leisure time than the aforementioned “naive” readers — go around pretending, and they pretend so much that other people become confused.
While Saler seems to value the latter type of reader, I’d rather side with the “naive” type.  Because at least the naive readers do not go around making other people feel bad. The ironic readers are disrespectful!  Towards the author of the character they love so dearly, in fact.  As we learn in this article, Doyle-as-author is so neglected by these Sherlock Holmes devotees, that when Doyle’s son, Denis, attended a Baker Street Irregulars dinner in 1940, he was alarmed to see that his father’s name was not mentioned even once at this Sherlock Holmes Lovers Fest, as the members spoke of Holmes instead as a real man.  But Denis was reassured by a member that “this was the highest compliment an author could obtain: not even Shakespeare created characters that were seen as more real than their creator.” (617)
Really?  Readers like these are why people hate English majors.

sad boy

My eyes were quite pleased upon seeing Johnson’s name everywhere in the Trumpener reading.

Because my impressions of Johnson were formed a long time ago – shall I say I was brainwashed? – and they are nestled amidst very pleasant memories in my brain.  Of collegiate possibility, of mentorship.  Or new learning, New England.

And because of all these positive associations, I can just ignore things I don’t like.  As a result, I can feel vaguely indifferent upon reading, over and over again, that Johnson’s travel-guide-of-sorts through the Hebrides was, in effect, a racist diatribe against the Scottish.  (It’s bad to be racist.)

Instead I’ll focus on the things that feel right, like the following quote, which just seems like harmless, straightforward description of the era:

One “of the first full-dress professional men of letter,” Johnson “is both grandly generalizing sage and ‘proletarianized’ hack.”  With its enforced, continual productivity in a multiplicity of genres, his career typifies the tenuous livelihood of professional literati in a commercial society.  Yet Johnson’s philosophical prose style and his elaboration, in Lives of the Poets, of a new, biographically based account of authorship (which insists on the links between an author’s life experience and his poetic production, and on the power of art to transcend even tragic material circumstances) work to counter the effects of the market.  79

This quotation contains quite a bit.  It describes “authorial intent” as one of those literary preoccupations frequently associated with the 18th century.  It expounds that a focus on authorial intent was directly in opposition against the rapid change of 18th century Britain, which entailed explosive growth and an increasing commodification of just about everything, definitely including literature.  The fact that Thomas Chatterton represented a youthful, rustic idealism – he was from Bristol – that was shattered by the disappointment of London’s rejection made the young poet a darling of the Romanticists.  Wordsworth and Keats both loved him; and he became forever immortalized in this beauty of a painting.

I have to admit that it has been very difficult for me to judge the few Chatterson pieces I’ve read, because old spellings really throw me off, and as a result, I find myself unable to speak to the talent that is supposedly inherent within his Rowley poems. Criticism here and there will tell me why the Rowley poems are so good – (ever the authority) tells me that “Chatteron’s Rowley uses language to convey a reality not of cognition but of the imagination. His verse, whether dramatic or lyrics, excels in its sense of occasion, physicality, color, and incantation” – but truth be told, I can’t make sense of this.

What I do notice, however, is how many of the criticism pieces talk about Chatterton’s personality.  I’m not citing them right now out of laziness (sorry), but right off the top of my head, the words most frequently associated with him have been: pride, pride, fame, precocity, tragedy, poverty, pride.  It’s only the apologetic view of Chatterton that would claim that he wasn’t terribly interested in fame, but rather in the beauty of the work alone, which would supposedly explain why he decided to share the credit for his own poems with the persona of the 15th century monk, Rowley (who, pay attention people, has the same first name as Chatterton!).  But I think that by designating Rowley as the rightful author of some of these poems, Chatterton is actually able to claim for himself double the glory – as both discoverer of the Rowley manuscripts, and as translator.

But I can hypothesize all I want, as can all the rest of the scholars.  Thomas Tyrwhitt published Poems, supposed to have been written at Bristol, by Thomas Rowley, and Others, in the Fifteenth Century (talk about a creative title) in 1777; Warton included substantial chunks of “Rowley’s” work in his 1781 History of English Poetry.  I think the existent narrative about Chatterton, the tragic tortured genius, is just that – a narrative – because he never had the opportunity to define himself apart from his early death in 1770.

I can read Johnson how I want, and the world over will carry on postulating, as it will, about Chatterton.



When You Want Everyone to Know (version bluestocking)

Degrees, titles, honors – they grant a certain level of legitimacy to the people who have them, but at the end of the day, we will seek the counsel of those whose opinions we trust and admire the most.  One of my favorite readers is currently teaching middle school English at a Boston charter school.  I’m going to call him Blitz.  The beginning of this blogpost is anecdotal, just because.

I’m one of a few people who, throughout college, actively sought out friendships based on intellectual connection rather than hobbies, proximity, shared interests, whatever.  Blitz and I were in a class in which we read Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.  We became friends after he took me to the supermarket, to help me recreate for our 23-person class the famed Banana Breakfast scene.  (Thank you, English Department, for providing a slush fund for fun classroom activities – my professor literally handed me a $100 bill and told me to go crazy)  Once you help someone make 23 banana milkshakes, the bonds don’t break easily.

As a ripe old junior English major to my anxious sophomore, Blitz somehow managed to take on the role of counselor in my life.  (Which is sometimes kind of annoying, because he’s only a year older than me, and post-college, is no longer really in the same hierarchical position to advise me all the time.) When, in the library, I was bemoaning the absence of enough intellectual partners in my life, those with whom I could discuss literature, Blitz said to me, maybe a little nonchalant: “You know, I don’t really need to talk about literature anymore.”  Indicating, basically, that he’d reached a certain point in his understanding of himself as a reader, a point at which which reading and books and art and meaning and all those Important Things were an obvious presence in his life, so he no longer had to air his interests aloud.  None of it even had to be mentioned anymore.  Like, if you’re a blond person, you don’t need to mention all the time that you are blond.  You just are.  I think the logic can be extended.

Where was I in my stage as a reader?  At 19, I wasn’t where Blitz was — but I think, in the last few years, that I’ve gotten there.  I’ve become distrustful of readers who congratulate themselves for reading, just as I’ve become irritated by the half-boastful complaints of “I didn’t get any sleep last night because of (work/study/whatever)!” This is not to say that a community of fellow readers is not important to me – it is highly important, but in my envisioning, my ideal community would be composed of other readers like me.  And we would sit there, just knowing the importance of the words we were reading, without being self-aggrandizing and speaking incessantly of ourselves as readers.

Fanny Burney is probably right there with me, as The Witlings is clearly making fun of these annoying readers who read – rather quickly – just for the sake of talk (not conversation, just talk), rather than reflection.  Some cringe-worthy moments from Act II, especially involving Lady Smatter, whose brilliant name rhymes with Chatter and evokes the superficiality of “smattering,” are:

I declare, if my pursuits were not made public I should not have any at all, for where can be the pleasure of reading books & studying authors if one is not to have the credit of talking of them?

O, I am among the critics. I love criticism passionately, though it is really laborious work, for it obliges one to read with a vast deal of attention. I declare I am sometimes so immensely fatigued with the toil of studying for faults & objections that I am ready to fling all my books behind the fire.

O lovely, charming, beauteous maid,— I wish this song was not so difficult to get by heart,— but I am always beginning one line for another. After all, study is a most fatiguing thing! O how little does the world suspect, when we are figuring in all the brilliancy of conversation, the private hardships, & secret labours of a belle esprit!

Manofwhitwit wrote in his corresponding blogpost that Burney’s father prevented the staging of The Witlings because the play would have been obviously offensive to the Bluestockings, one of the most conspicuous, female-dominated literary groups at the time.  Maybe that is true.  What I can’t figure out, then, is if Burney was also poking fun of herself, since she herself was so involved in the Bluestockings.  (In that case: How reminiscent of our po-mo (sorry) generation today; all we can do is recognize and be aware of our faults and laugh at ourselves, without actually addressing our weaknesses.) Or was she truly bothered by the empty blabbermouthiness (yes) of such supposedly highbrow groups of comfortable ladies?

If she meant to take a stand, then could we perhaps  believe that she may have wanted to stage the play?  To get the message across?

I don’t want to be Lady Smatter.  I don’t want to be that kind of reader.  I don’t want to read just a line or two, here or there, about the Bluestockings, and then come to a conclusion about them.  So all I have are questions and visceral impressions.  And here I will mention that I am not quite sure what to make of Miss Carter, either.

Elizabeth Carter’s letters to Miss Talbot were lovely and entertaining, and they make me miss my closest friends.  But see – Carter rarely goes a letter without mentioning what time she woke up to squeeze in some reading, how many hours she spent that day reading, how terrible she feels about her “utter neglect of [her] intellects” (331) if she takes a few weeks off.  I can tell she is a woman whose entire being rests on her scholarship, on her identity as a thinker… and yet, I can’t help but wonder: is it necessary to talk of it all the time?

However, I will grant that she wrote these in supposedly private letters to her best friend, and not to the whole world.  And we all know that talks with the Best Friend are sacred.

Yours, yours,



Oh, Pope.  I do not know how to read you.  I don’t know how to make sense of you.  Alas.  I may just be playing devil’s advocate here against the general air of Oh-Pope-has-been-so-unfairly-labeled-as-a-jerk-but-really-he-was-the-most-moral-genius-just-a-bit-cynical-is-all (which I’m sure is all very true) that I have been presented so far, but let me just posit that I don’t know how to read Pope because I don’t know what he thinks of his readers. 

Who are the satires, the vituperation – no matter how hilarious – meant for?  What kind of reader does Pope care about?

In Peri Bathous I’m looking specifically at the following declaration:

‘Tis a fruitless 

[Page 11 ] 

Undertaking to write for Men of a nice and foppish Gusto , whom, after all, it is almost impossible to please; and ’tis still more Chimerical to write for Posterity , of whose Taste we cannot make any Judgment, and whose Applause we can never enjoy. It must be confess’d, our wiser Authors have a present End, 

Et prodesse volunt, & delectare Poetæ. 

Their true Design is Profit or Gain ; in order to acquire which, ’tis necessary to procure Applause, by administring Pleasure to the Reader: From whence it follows demonstrably, that their Productions must be suited to the present Taste ; and I cannot but congratulate our Age on this peculiar Felicity, that tho’ we have made indeed great Progress in all other Branches of Luxury, we are not yet debauch’d with any high relish in Poetry, but are in this one Taste, less nice than our Ancestors. If an Art is to be estimated by its Success, I appeal to Experience, whether there have not been, in proportion to their Number, as many starving good Poets, as bad ones?

Knowing full well that Peri Bathous is a satire, ridiculing contemporary poets and the everything-for-sale ethos of contemporaneous Britain, I know, obviously, that this paragraph is dripping with sarcasm; Pope is not actually “congratulating” his Age for the high premium being placed on giving the reader Pleasure, or for having a culture of poetry that’s resisting “high relish.”  But I don’t understand why Pleasure is being presented as something to be scoffed at.  I don’t know how the rest of you read, but “pleasure” in reading is very important to me; I would stop, otherwise. 

Considering the fact that nearly every critical piece we’ve read on Pope describes him as a highly moral man – an Achilles in a world of Hectors – I can only assume that Pope wants his readers to be as invested in issues of morality – right and wrong, corrupt society—as he.  But if readers went along with authors just out of political allegiances, rather than actual enjoyment of the authors’ artistic or literary merits, there would be many more impactful authors than actually exist. 

Now, this may just come down to a question of the definition of pleasure.  I prefer black coffee to the saccharine, caramel-coated frappuccino.  My pleasure in reading comes as much from bitter realizations and mind-screwing challenges as it does from gorgeous language and vivid imagery.  If there are authors who can provide all of those, I will provide the Applause, and maybe even pay some money. 

Yours sincerely,


Remembering Pope

To my kindred spirits —

It’s crazy (but entirely explainable) to me that a character would change so significantly in translation, which is just another form of creation.  Steven Shankman explains that Pope’s interest and devotion in allowing his characters – whether Achilles, whether Eloisa – to have many dimensions, to be as angry or as passionate as they want, was what set him apart as a poet.  Pope’s elevation of and emphasis of an angry Achilles in his translation of The Iliad differs widely from George Chapman’s rendering of Achilles, portrayed instead as “an ideal Renaissance hero who, from the opening moment of the poem, is largely in control of his emotions”(65).  So here we have two completely contrasting visions of one of the most important characters in classical literature – Achilles as wrathful, or Achilles as reasonable. This seems pretty important to our general understanding of The Iliad, doesn’t it?

It’s not such a stretch to think that just as our understanding of Achilles depends almost entirely on the way writers have constructed him for our public consumption, our understanding of Pope also depends on the way others have written about him.  The picture of Pope as an angry, vituperative man has always abounded – in his time, and in ours.  Yet what matters is the degree of sympathy granted to him. There might have been less when his enemies were alive, but there is probably (certainly?) more now.

I haven’t read enough of Pope to give my (truly worthless) opinion on whether he possessed genius or not.  I’ll bet he did.  I know that Pope had a lot of enemies in his time, but this week’s critical readings were largely Team Pope, and this was a fact that jumped out at me.  Shankman uses Pope’s version of Achilles elevate both the mythical character and the poet himself, as he repeats and validates Pope’s envisioning of himself as “Achillean warrior for truth” (70). And J. Paul Hunter, who really likes alluding to male genitalia (I was thinking of naming this post “Penis” — just to get your attention, friend.  Are you still reading this?), dismisses those poets who wrote mean-spirited, “anonymous” poems to attack Pope:

–          The couplets, flaccid and repetitious, develop the plot tediously; the poetic texture is like that of the poets had entombed in The Dunciad.  But just as important is the tastelessness and pointlessness. (628)

–          Epistle from a Nobleman, scarcely disguised as by Lord Hervey, appeared a few months after Verses to the Imitator. . . The tone of the poem itself is less shrill than Verses to the Imitator, but its attempt at a relaxed, detached urbanity results instead in a limp, flaccid lack of intensity. (630)

If I feel fondly toward this understanding, posthumous image of Pope, it’s partially because the literary authorities are telling me to. And because a Popean verse is the title of one of my favorite movies of all time – can you guess which?.  So I feel mistrustful, skeptical.  (But Florentina!  Great literature is just great literature! Right!)

It’s at a moment like this that I’ll turn to a critic I admire, one I am more familiar with, for reassurance.  The clearly written prose of Dr. Johnson, a friend I made sophomore year of college and have turned to from time to time (never mind that he thinks women can’t be pastors), is much more reliable.  Johnson gives us an even-keeled review and bio of Pope in his Lives of the Poets – there’s praise, and there are admissions to character faults. Here I found out that Pope was born a sweet, delicate boy and was called, in his youth, “the little nightingale” (Brady 473). But Johnson chastises where appropriate, granting that one could discover in Pope’s character “an appetite to talk too frequently of his own virtues” (479), and that the poet “pretends insensibility to censure and criticism, though it was observed by all who knew him that every pamphlet disturbed his quiet, and that his extreme irritability laid him open to perpetual vexation; but he wished to despise his critics, and therefore hoped that he did despise them” (537).

But of course, we have this final, eloquent praise — “After all this it is surely superfluous to answer the question that has once been asked, whether Pope was a poet? otherwise than by asking in return, if Pope be not a poet, where is poetry to be found?” (559) — and little else needs to be said.

You believe what you want to believe, who you want to believe.

Sincerely yours,


(edited to replace “inordinate” with “eloquent” in the last paragraph)

What Kind of Reader are You? On criticism and Eagleton

What kind of reader are you?

Dear English Major Friends,

You probably decided to study literature up until now because in some capacity, you enjoy reading.  Because you identify as a reader. You may also be a poet or fiction writer, but most probably, you’re not (someday later, you might think). And so your relationship to literature is probably dictated by your role as reader. The author is important — for the act of indisputable creation — but you’re also important, because the text couldn’t be brought to life without you.  If you’re a melodramatic type, you might say drastic things like I would be dead without literature (metaphorically, anyway).  I wouldn’t be conscious, I wouldn’t be alive.  

Maybe you are one step past being a lay reader, but you’re still not quite a creative writer. So somewhere in between — maybe you are just a literary person in general?  Maybe you write long, florid e-mails or letters to your friends.  Or you learned how to write love letters from all those novels and poems you consumed when you were a little bit younger, a little more impressionable.  Like me.

Nonetheless, you love literature.  Now, can I ask you, my fellow classmate, something else?  How do you feel about being a critic-of-sorts (critic-in-training?) now that you’ve chosen this major or profession?  How do you feel about writing papers *deconstructing* those works that you like (or could care less about, but it’s a part of the syllabus) and declaring publicly your love or displeasure for a certain paragraph, a certain image?  Instead of sitting in that armchair of yours, completely and privately absorbed in plot and language, simultaneously in the author’s world and in your own mind?

In the passage we read from The Function of Criticism, Eagleton lays out how the role of criticism changed drastically from the early eighteenth to the early nineteenth century – how it moved from an air of gentlemanliness and a sort of cultural unification, to “scurrility and sectarian virulence” (37).  In all of this change, in all the “vituperation” (37) that criticism eventually evolved into, one wonders how much actual emphasis was placed on any of the texts being examined.  What happened to the art itself in the middle of the cultural-political battleground?

Literary criticism is complex, and its history and function has changed throughout the centuries, as we’ve read in the Eagleton.  At one point Tatler 29 is quoted, and I’m actually not at all interested in Eagleton’s analysis of the quote.  Instead, I just want to look at the quote: “That of all Mortals, a Critick is the silliest; for by inuring himself to examine all Things, whether they are of Consequence or not, he never looks upon any Thing but with a Design of passing Sentence upon it; by which means, he is never a Companion, but always a Censor” (20).

Is it too rash to say that once a highly commodifed literature becomes up for public literary criticism, (which has also now become commodified on its own) a violence of sorts is performed?

The last paragraph in the Eagleton paragraph was profoundly moving to me, with the thought-provoking idea that in the movement toward the extreme commodification and proliferation of print, authors lost an “audience to address in the first place” (43).  It sounds as though the authors were, in essence, abandoned. This, believe it or not, makes me feel a real sadness.  I don’t know what kind of reader you are.  But I know what kind I am — the same melodramatic type who feels like the world as I know it would not exist without fiction; who feels hugely indebted to creative writers for doing something I have not proven capable of doing, and giving me something special; who is thus fiercely loyal.  Let the critics participate in the vituperation.  I just want to read and breathe in all those words.

Yours sincerely,

Florentina Riza

Are we ever gonna get away from this question: Who do we call “author”? Foucault, Ezell, technology-talk

I think what we’re facing today, in the 21st century, as readers whose habits have been hugely affected by the explosion in print and digital publishing, is oddly parallel to the issue at heart in Margaret Ezell’s Social Authorship and the Advent of Print. Let me explain.

There’s no page number on our handouts, but I suspect that it’s on 43 (the joys of counting) that Ezell complains about the way modern literary history has prioritized print history over manuscript circulation history: “Finally, having a ‘voice’ is equated with being in print, with the obvious implication that ‘work’ is equated with print text and anything else, manuscript copy in particular, is only ‘silence.’ The sole criterion of the success of these generations of women writers is the amount they published, with no mention of the amount they actually wrote.”  Now, it’s clear what Ezell’s bottom line is: manuscript text was important and warrants as much study as the printed work.  Unlike what today’s stuffy thinkers seem to insist, “the manuscript text operates as a medium of social exchange, often between the sexes, neither private nor public in the conventional sense of the terms, and a site at which women could and did comment on public issues concerning social and political matters” (41).

Foucault would probably be one of those people Ezell takes with, as he outlines very specifically (remember the four criteria?) what it takes for an individual to be called an “author,” what it takes for a text to be called a “work.”  And, if you recall, they are not democratic definitions that include everyone who writes a journal, letters, cookbooks, whatever.  But Ezell’s studies deal precisely with those handwritten, hand-bound letters, personal journals, etc. shared among friends, family members, and coterie circles, papers that were at once literary in nature but not meant to be published for wider dissemination.

Ezell deals with works from the seventeenth century.  We are here today, over 300 years after these texts were written, and yet still the question of “To whom shall we bestow the title of ‘author’?” is valid.

Today, our print culture is the exact opposite of literary culture in the age that Ezell has described.  Hardly anyone writes by hand today (penmanship classes are dead in the public educational system of the United States – R.I.P.), and in the last twenty years we have seen an unbelievable explosion in digital publishing, the average person shares his personal thoughts with the rest of the greater world (even if they want to hear none of it) via the internet.  Just about everyone has a blog, like this one.

In 300 years worth of literary study, the verdict is still not out on manuscript literature – or, maybe it’s safer to say that there’s a prevailing notion that it is secondary to printed literature, which Ezell is trying to change.  Let’s do a quick survey around the room and ask if it’s fair to call bloggers “writers.”  And let’s wonder if in 300 years from today, assuming life still exists, people will be asking the same kinds of questions about our age of digital print.

— Florentina

This Doesn’t Change the Fact that I Love Virginia Woolf

Some disparate thoughts:

In college, in one of the most influential classes I’ve ever had, the professor who would become my Mentor made a disparaging comment about “you know, the type of person who underlines a passage in a novel and writes beside it ‘irony.'”  Everyone else in the class laughed.  I chuckled along too, probably, but I was confused.  Was that a stupid thing to do?  Because I had done that plenty of times.  I was laughing at myself.

I’m not huge on writing in my books, but especially since then, I’ve refrained from making margin notes, unless it’s to paraphrase a paragraph in a theory book to help me remember it all better.  If I underline anything, it’s something I think is beautiful, or startling, or moving.  It’s something that has touched me, for whatever reason, as a reader.  So I have come to read viscerally, rather than cerebrally, as I stated in my last post, and I admit all of this unabashedly.

Here are some of the quotes I’ve underlined in my copy of Mrs. Dalloway:  

87 One cannot bring children into a world like this.  One cannot perpetuate suffering, or increase the breed of these lustful animals, who have no lasting emotions, but only whims and vanities, eddying them now this way, now that.

90 The whole world was clamouring: Kill yourself, kill yourself, for our sakes.

146  He did not want to die.  Life was good.  The sun hot.

179 He had thrown himself from a window.  Up had flashed the ground; through him, blundering, bruising, went the rusty spikes.  There he lay with a thud, thud, thud in his brain, and then a suffocation of blackness.  So she saw it.  But why had he done it?  And the Bradshaws talked of it at her party!

I underlined a bunch of Mrs. Dalloway’s thoughts, of course, but I underlined just about everything that has to do with the suicide of bewildered Septimus, the former who soldier who says things at once beautiful and crazed.

That is probably because the lines are so damn sad, and about as muddled and confused as they are vivid.  And also because I can only read anything written by Virginia Woolf as a modern reader, as someone who knows the hard fact that Woolf killed herself. So that any slight mention of suicide in her writing must be somehow foreshadowing, or inextricably linked, etc., with her own death.  (And of course this applies to all writers with such pained histories.  Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace come to mind.) It’s impossible to ignore the “author function” here, Mr. Foucault.  There is essentially no way for me to read a Woolf piece about suicide without thinking about Woolf’s biography.

So of course, in reading “A Room of One’s Own,” I was uncontrollably drawn to the Woolf’s descriptions of the impassioned, suicidal female would-be-poetess, Judith Shakespeare: “who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body? — [Judith] killed herself one winter’s night and lies buried at some crossroads where the omnibuses now stop outside…” (1343)

I suspect that the popularity and influence of “A Room of One’s Own” throughout the years is because Woolf has created a totally female figure (Ms. Shakespeare, who is scorned for her literary ambitions and eventually made pregnant by a man who takes pity on her) who matches the masculine ideal of the solitary, romantic poet.  Judith Shakespeare dies young, her life tragic and stormy.  She is named Shakespeare but really, she could have been Keats – if someone had allowed her to actually write.  But her story is compelling precisely because it can be compared to that of the sad-male-poet-who-dies-young, precisely because we already have that classification of the author figure.

I suppose in this way, I find myself nodding along to Margaret Ezell’s critique of Woolf and the creation of the “female canon.”  In creating a suicidal fictional character to envision the experience of the literarily-minded Renaissance woman, rather than accept that other forms of female writing existed (letters, religious papers, advice books, etc.), Woolf seems to have prioritized a masculine image of the solitary, serious, impassioned writer.

At the same time, maybe Woolf prioritized this image because it’s the same one that she herself embodied, in both her life and death.

— Florentina

on What is an Author?

There’s something about a blog format that warrants some informality, at least in my eyes, so this is going to be a ditty of a thought.

Let me first introduce myself as a reader.  My name, Florentina, has its root in a well-known book (I’ll let you figure out its title), whose protagonist is first and foremost a “lover” – in both the bodily and emotional identity sense.  To be a lover means to delve wholeheartedly into the image of the lover, to embrace all the pain of unrequited love, unfulfilled love, unsatisfying love – ideas that stem primarily from books and art.  It should follow that this character is a voracious reader of books. All books, of all qualities – the more sentimental the better.  In short, the protagonist reads to be moved.

I’ll readily admit it and say that I read for the same reason.  So all the reading that I do during my spare time consists of novels and short stories, rather than non-fiction or critical works, and much of it is contemporary stuff.  As a result, I also spend a lot of time browsing the appropriate literary forums, such as literary websites (i.e., journals, magazines, and good old-fashioned bookstores.  Say what you will about the rise of online and digital media, and whatever differences exist between this new form of publishing and traditional print media, but there is something common in all of these forms: the author is widely, necessarily displayed.  In the form of books is the author’s bio, with a picture, a commentary, or at the very least a blurb, or a list of the author’s other works.  In online magazines, the author’s name will frequently link to another website, oftentimes the author’s personal/professional site; and of course, you can search by author and effectively reach that writer’s entire oeuvre.

On page 119 of the class copy of What Is an Author?, Foucault acknowledges that a world will never exist in which “the fictive would operate in an absolutely free state” and not be limited by “the figure of the author.”  He gives some historical backdrop but goes on to say the following, and note the key line I’ve bolded:

“Although, since the eighteenth century, the author has played the role of the regulator of the fictive, a role quite characteristic of our era of industrial and bourgeois society, of individualism and private property, still, given the historical modifications that are taking place, it does not seem necessary that the author function remain constant in form, complexity, and even in existence.  I think that, as our society changes, at the very moment when it is in the process of changing, the author function will disappear, and in such a manner that fiction and its polysemous texts will once again function according to another mode, but still with a system of constraint — one which will no longer be the author, but which will have to be determined, or, perhaps, experienced. “

Foucault addresses the change of society, but he wasn’t around for our big internet boom.  Popular authors today take to blogs and twitter accounts and have enormous online presence.  Take Jennifer Egan, for example, who “tweeted” her short story, “Black Box,” 140-characters at a time.  Take Zadie Smith and Jonathan Franzen, both young authors who have both released incongruous non-fiction essay collections – there’s no connecting thread in their respective books, except that they are the authors of those essays – presumably because there’s high public demand for these authors’ opinions, personas, maybe to better understand their past and future creative works.  These days, you hear less and less about the Salinger types; maybe Thomas Pynchon is one of the last hermit-like literari who refuse to give interviews and try to keep their lives as private as possible.

Foucault does admit that “literary discourse came to be accepted only when endowed with the author function” (109), that “literary anonymity is not tolerable” (109).  This has not changed much since 1969, except to have intensified.  The fact is that the internet is crowded, with everyone on a computer able to spill out his thoughts, guts, heart on a webpage.  In a space crowded with so many words, with so many anonymous inhabits, authors must fight even harder to be read.  And to do that, they’ll strengthen their personas, online and off, even more than before.

— Florentina