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Hello from Central New Jersey, where I’m at my partner’s house watching it snow while one of his cats purrs on my lap. (In this sense, I am, perhaps, having a very similar experience as that of Rosemary Feal, a.k.a. @mlaconvention.)

So we tried to liveblog but it only kinda worked. Part of the problem, of course, was that most of the panels that Mia and I attended were in the Marriott or the Loews, neither of which had free wi-fi. So a lot of the synchronicity couldn’t happen and, even when it could, it felt a bit awkward to do so — as Mia discovered in the middle of the “Why Teach Literature Anyway?” panel. On the other hand, even if I had the technological capability to, say, tweet during panels, I’m not sure that I would have. It takes me forever to get something typed out on my iPod Touch, and I admit that I would have felt kind of awkward, especially in panels where there weren’t that many people to begin with. I suppose that I am old fashioned in my preference to take notes in my Moleskine (despite the vague sense of affectation) — not because I privilege non-digital writing, but simply because this is the inscription technology (if you will) that works best for me in this context.

I do plan to type up some of my thoughts in the coming day/days because although I wasn’t blogging my real-time notes, I was definitely thinking about at least some of these notes as eventually informing a more public post. One thing that Twitter has done for me is add what may be another level of self-narration to my experience of the world — even when I’m not twittering I am often thinking of how this might be tweeted — though I might in turn argue that tweeting isn’t exactly the same thing as narrating.

All in all, I think it was a great convention. Definitely smaller than the ones I’d experienced previously (Philly in 2006; Chicago in 2007), but less fraught than I was expecting it to be. I had a conversation with someone who said, essentially, “the rewards of the profession are so small that it’s not worth selling my soul, doing something I don’t believe in,” and I think that’s a really wise view of the whole thing. I almost feel less stressed out about the  job market for next year, at least in the sense that I will be better than I am now (even if the market isn’t).

One of the things that has been on my mind for the last couple of days (and that I may try to work out here) is what going to MLA can reveal about my own scholarly identity. I joked that, although I’m a Victorianist (more or less), I go to MLA to pretend to be a Romanticist and to have obsessive conversations about Peanuts. The book exhibit finds me looking longingly at the more theoretical offerings of presses like Stanford, Duke, Fordham, and Continuum, even as I hope that my future lies with publishers with strong 19th century offerings. It’s possible that some of my angst on the first day and a half was a result of this field anxiety, particularly since this was my first MLA as part of the ABD crowd — back in 2007 I was still pre-orals. On the one hand, I was able to see how far I’ve come in terms of the thinking I’ve been doing about my field and my dissertation; on the other, it did also confirm the sense I’ve had for awhile now that I’ve become more narrow in my interests than I want to be — particularly in the last, say, year and a half. It’s probably time for me to start expanding again, keeping up a bit more with theory, reading books published after 1900, maybe trying to write about Snoopy when the inspiration strikes, making room for creative work. It was so good to be excited about all this again — 2009 (as I’ve mentioned before) was the year where a lot of it stopped being fun.

Incidentally, my most productive hour at this year’s conference began at 11 p.m. on Tuesday, when Mia fortuitously found herself at someone else’s department party and invited me to meet one of the biggest scholars in my field. There’s something truly wonderful about not being the only person in the room geeking out over Victorian poetry, and I’m very much looking forward to attending this conference in March. And, speaking of geeking out over Victorian poetry, I may have also talked myself into resuming the Poem of the Week posts once I get back from my vacation.

Am going to hop off the blog machine for now, but just for my own memory (and public accountability/shame), I do intend to write up some thoughts on the following:

  • The “Why Teach Literature Anyway?” panel — especially the question of what we talk about teaching when we talk about teaching literature and how suspension might help us rethink the hermeneutics of suspicion vs. reparative reading debate
  • Notes from other panels — probably just random unconnected highlights
  • One other thing that I can’t for the life of me remember now, possibly because it is hard to think with a cat purring on one’s lap.

I also clearly need a lesson in how to write short blog posts. This  may also be why I’m a poor twitterer. (Though I do have a number of new followers there from my indiscriminate tagging.)

Anyway. Bye for now and happy new year all.

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Wordle: My MLA paper

(My MLA paper–well, my MLA paper two drafts ag0–as envisioned by http://www.wordle.net. Click to enlarge if you don’t mind spoilers.)

It’s MLA Eve, of course!

…wait a minute, what most wonderful time of the year did you *think* I was talking about?

Anyway. In the past two days, I’ve been to Chicago and back again–quite a feat, considering the weather there and here this morning and the whole “hey, why don’t I light my pants on fire right before the flight lands? Al-Qaeda, yeah!” ridiculousness. And after my whirlwind of blissfully unironic family hangouts (baby! dogs! Uncle Ron’s bourbon slushies! did I mention a *baby*??), it’s time to unpack and repack and head to Philadelphia in the morning for four days of geeking out over hotel-priced cocktails and all the other joys that MLA brings.

I have to admit that I really like MLA. This will probably be my last year to say that, since next year I pretty much absolutely have to be on the job market and that’s going to change things substantially–after this year, the experience is going to be a lot less fluffy and innocent. But for now, I’m looking forward to it. This will be my third time going, first time giving a paper. I didn’t go to San Francisco last year, lacking even the slightest justification for spending the money. And I found that I missed it–not when I was sledding in Wisconsin with my family on December 28–but later in the spring semester, where I found myself uninspired and losing sight of why I was doing what I was doing in the first place. And, in a hugely dorky way, I’ve been fortunate enough to find MLA (or at least the two MLAs before this one) to be energizing and inspiring. I come home weighed down with books and ideas, I have notes that I can refer to, and I’m reminded that there really are people out there who are reading and thinking and doing cool stuff. And I kind of need that right now for all kinds of reasons.

Whether I’ll get it of course remains to be seen. But, since this is my last pre-job market MLA and since we need to get this blog back into gear for 2010, I’ve suggested to Mia that we attempt a kind of liveblogging of the convention over the next several days. So check this space for talk postmortems and notes — and who knows what else.

(We are also both, incidentally, on Twitter. I’m @annecmccarthy and she’s @mini_mia.)

First up — my own paper! I’ll be presenting some version of the above Wordle during the very first panel session tomorrow (Sunday 12/27) at 3:30 pm. The panel is “Literary Form and the Social: Victorian Poetry” and my paper is of course on Browning. Should be a good time, despite the inexplicable time conflict with the Tennyson bicentennial panel that will force me to miss a talk by one of my heroes, Matthew Rowlinson. Clearly, the MLA assumes that the audience for Victorian poetry is so vast that there is no room in the Philadelphia Marriott that can hold us all at once and so they have wisely forced us to choose between panels at a time. I have a feeling that 25 copies of my handout may have been optimistic.

For now, however, it’s time for me to get off the computer and pack in earnest. Am trying to make the 10:14 train out of Penn Station. My appreciation for New Jersey Transit is running high as I pack all kinds of crazy stuff in my baggage like liquids over three ounces and plan on arriving at the station fifteen minutes rather than two hours before my train.

See you tomorrow, MLA!

(Yes, I know. I don’t blog for like 2 1/2 months and now I won’t shut up. But bear with me.)

To read Browning he must exert himself, but he will exert himself to some purpose. If he finds the meaning difficult of access, it is always worth his effort — if he has to dive deep, “he rises with his pearl.”

This comment comes from George Eliot’s review of Men and Women that was published in the Westminster Review. (Thanks, Norton editors!) The observation that Browning’s work is difficult but rewards thought is hardly exclusive to Eliot. In fact, it’s more or less a commonplace about Browning and, I think we could see with fairly little effort how this kind of attitude produces on the one hand the Browning Societies of the 1880s and — in a much more nuanced, scholarly context, something like Donald Hair’s discussion of emblems in Robert Browning’s Language (1999) — the idea is basically that you have to work your way through the poem to find a  meaning that could not have been directly stated otherwise, engaging in an act of interpretation that is also, Hair argues, the process of saving one’s soul as far as Browning is concerned.

I am obviously on board with the idea that careful reading of poetry (or any literary text — or not-necessarily-literary text — for that matter) should be rewarding. But that’s different, I think, than saying that careful reading should be rewarded. A hair-splitting difference? Perhaps. But it helps me express something that bothers me about Eliot’s image of the reading of poetry as diving for a pearl — and, more than that, the implication that if you apply the correct, careful reading practices, you cannot help but come back with the pearl of meaning at the center of the poem. And as with Hair’s discussion of emblems and riddles, this seems to imply that there are right answers when it comes to these kinds of poems, even if we are meant to value the dive as much as or more than the pearl or the process of working out the riddle as much as or more highly than the answer to that riddle.

And I find myself wanting more, wanting something more uncertain, more contingent. This is the approach I’ve been trying to take in my reading of “An Epistle” for the last six months, but the poem does seem kind of impervious, at a certain level, to any kind of “new” reading — whether one applies New Criticism, historicism, deconstruction, Bakhtin, the best anyone seems to be able to do is come up with a slightly different version of the same story about faith and skepticism struggling with each other. Different approaches make it possible to notice different aspects of that struggle or read it in a slightly different way, but no amount of critical theory is going to be able to make the poem not be about Jesus, for instance. And this may be why, the last time I checked the MLA database, the last time anyone published an article on “An Epistle” was 1993.

It’s not that I think “An Epistle” is somehow not about the things that it is very obviously about. But I feel like there’s more to be done, that the working out of the riddle or the canonical Victorian religious doubt narrative may not actually be the most important thing to do. I hope, of course, that I can make this case from the poem — and I’m pretty sure that I can and will by December. But I’m beginning to see that a lot of this has to do with my resistance to the pearl-diving model of reading poetry, where we work hard and are sure to find a meaning. Perhaps what really needs to be interrogated here is something about the language of reading poetry — of what it means, for example, to “get something out of” a poem. It’s a discourse that we take for granted — one that I certainly do, particularly when trying to make the case for close reading to undergraduates — but it may be more difficult to do this if we’re going to take seriously the performative aspect of Victorian poetry, the whole “poetry as constitutive cultural event” school of thought. And I don’t think it’s a matter of shifting our attention from the pearl to the dive, but rather rethinking the metaphor entirely and changing the way we think about reading poetry. Part of the reason why I keep going back to Coleridge’s “poetic faith” is that it seems to imply a certain kind of contingency — the possibility and the threat not just of something overwhelming happening, but the equally and perhaps more terrifying (if we believe Lyotard) possibility of nothing happening. (Those of you who remember my ESA paper from March may recall that Peter only starts to sink *after* his faith has carried him to Jesus….)

I don’t know where I’m going with this at the moment, except towards another ginormous blog post. But at least now you have a sense of what I’m dealing with. And I’d be interested to know if anything of the foregoing seems like it might be valuable….

Once upon a time there was a Victorianist with a dream and that dream was to selectively blog her way through The Oxford Book of Victorian Verse, rescuing the obscure and occasionally poking fun at the canonical on a more or less weekly basis.

So, um…hi, blog. Sorry that I’ve been so quiet. The sad fact of the matter is that I’ve been busy, but busy mostly with being things other than a Victorianist (dream-inspired or otherwise). But I mean, it’s not like I have an MLA paper on Robert Browning to give in two months or anything….

Oh, wait. Yeah. Browning. Sigh.

I circumlocute. Among the things I’ve had the opportunity to learn about myself so far this semester is the rather dismal fact that my attention span is about 12 minutes. On a good day.

What you’re going to get from me in this post is something between an accounting of what it is I’ve been doing lately and a kind cri de coeur from the land of ABD (hence the News from a non-utopian Nowhere). All joking aside, I’m in a punishingly hard semester in terms of teaching and other work obligations — 8 a.m. classes and 12-hour days, with weeks punctuated by meetings that take me an hour to get to. Though I’m not really complaining — a lot of what I’m doing is at least intermittently satisfying, I’ve managed to take the advice my adviser gave me (in slightly stronger language) a couple of department parties ago with regards to not messing up my personal life, and I think I’ve actually managed to change some of my working and general life habits to match the reality of my work and life rather than hoping that reality will somehow bend to accommodate me. In a weird (and probably quasi-Victorian) way, I’m almost happy. And all of this is, I think, going to make me much better off in the long run, both in material terms (if nothing else, this is the first year I’ll make more  money than I did seven years ago as the office manager of a small nonprofit that shall remain nameless in Chicago) and in the lasting changes to my work habits, mindfulness, and focus.

In the meantime, though, I’ve also come to feel a definite narrowing in my intellectual life. It feels too much like my writing is being pushed to the margins, that I’m working twelve hour days on teaching and other stuff so that I can maybe sit down with my computer for two or three hours. Which is sort of a manifestation or symptom of what might be a kind of identity crisis for me — part of why I’ve been struggling lately is that I always seem to be losing my grip on my “scholarly” identity and finding myself scrambling to reassemble it. My scholarship and my teaching don’t overlap very much right now — though I am teaching a mini-unit on De Profundis, it’s still a composition course and even the way I teach Wilde is a bit of a relic from an earlier version of my scholarly self (circa 2007-08 or so) — and the same goes for my other job, which is a gig in Writing Across the Curriculum where I’m partnering with people far out of my field.

On any given day, then, my Victorianist / Long Nineteenth Century / Poetics and Theory persona isn’t the one that’s first in my mind — and if it is, I’m likely also nervous and stressed out about the tangle I’ve gotten myself into with Browning’s “An Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician,” the subject of my upcoming MLA paper and my third dissertation chapter, but OMG can I really write an entire dissertation chapter on one single relatively short Browning poem that most normal people read once to appreciate the faith / skepticism tension and nod because we know that Jesus is the answer and then move onto something really important like The Ring and the Book and does this just make me look like I’m too dumb to work on actual Browning? &c. — the italicized portions being somewhat like the last time I talked to my aforementioned adviser who, after listening to me spend 20 minutes trying to articulate the thesis of my chapter commented that my problem was that my mind was too subtle. I’m pretty sure that was a compliment and, to be fair, I did leave that meeting feeling slightly more confident that this will all, eventually, come together and also with a better sense of where I was wasting my energy.

And it’s really since that meeting that I’ve begun to be able to explore the sources of my dissatisfaction with whatever progress I am or am not making. And I’m coming to realize that when I say (as I have been since late July), “I feel like I’ve been writing and rewriting the same twelve pages on ‘An Epistle’ since June,” the part that stresses me out the most is the part where I’ve been writing about one freaking poem. I mean, again, “An Epistle” ain’t The Ring and the Book and it doesn’t take a Browning Society to see that Jesus is the answer. I do think that ultimately it is a poem worth the effort I’ve put into it, but I’ve also begun to see that there’s a danger in this being the only poem I’m ever reading ever — and it’s beginning to feel that way. I realized with a start last weekend that I simply miss reading — I spent some lovely hours with Jean-Francois Lyotard this week that felt like 2005 all over again.

And it’s these kinds of sentiments (well, and Mia’s gentle prodding) that have brought me back, humbly, to the blog. I need to find the thread again. I need to be sharing my ideas with people who aren’t college freshmen, as delightful as they are. I need to talk about my dissertation in a way that’s a bit deeper than “oh, so what are you writing about?” — I need to find my way through the field again. I hope I haven’t painted too bleak a picture in the foregoing paragraphs — I’m not unhappy about anything so much as I want to make things better, to make room in my life for the thing that brought me here in the first place, with the ideas that got me into MLA and Victorian Poetry.

So let’s see how this goes. I would like to think of my return to blogging here from ABDland as something that could be complementary to Mia’s work on her orals lists, a way of both trying out ideas and inspirations and of reflecting on the process and the life as a whole. If I’m feeling frisky I might just get crazy and pull out the OBVV again.

In the meantime, this is officially the longest post ever, so I will thank you all for indulging a post more personal than scholarly. I also think I might go reread Derrida’s “Psyche: Inventions of the Other”…or maybe some Browning that is not about Lazarus or the Bible or resurrection as troping as referential uncertainty. Just another Saturday in Paradise, yo.

This semester, we will be meeting at 2:30 on the first and third Wednesday of each month, beginning on February 4th. Our focus this semester will be discussing the state of the field and our place within it. Rather than making a strict distinction between reading/working meetings, we’ll combine the two, looking at general professionalization issues and, as always, helping people with their works in progress. For the readings, we have decided to focus on journals and articles that are readily available in electronic format (i.e. no more going to the Grad Center just to copy something). 

For February 4th, I will, lest I be everlastingly ashamed, workshop a paper on The Trial for a special issue on Charlotte Yonge. We will also be discussing the hottest, sexiest, digi-tastic research resources available for us long-nineteenth-century-ists. We’re interested in finding out your research strategies, too–where do you start searching? What sites keep you up to date on the latest scholarship? What do you wish you were more knowledgeable about?

Okay, so since approximately nine people have forwarded it to me–and since it was discussed pretty intensely on the VICTORIA list, I suppose I have to be the one to mention here that earlier this week, the Guardian reported something that all of us in this semi-private club already know: that reading Victorian novels totally makes us better, more cooperative, more Dorothea Brooke-like people. Or something.

I refer, of course, to Wednesday’s article, “Victorian novels helped us evolve into better people, say psychologists.” I’m not going to go into much detail on it or quote from the article–it’s more or less what it says, and the reaction has been more or less predictable, if you can make it through the comments page and the VICTORIA thread. (I do think that spec, one of the Guardian commenters, makes an excellent point, though.) And, of course, I’m something of an outsider to all this, since Rod Blagojevich rather forcefully demonstrated that Victorian poetry is poor insurance against being an asshat.

On the same day, we also got John Sutherland’s Guardian blog post, “Believing in 19th century novels.” He talks about a man named Bill Stone, recently deceased at the age of 109, as one of the last incarnations of “Victorian values”–the same ones, we infer, being communicated through the novels:

Newborn as he was when it ended, Stone’s life explains much about the huge global success that Britain enjoyed in the 19th Century. He and his kind believed in country, King (or Queen), and God. A whole cluster of other beliefs spun off from this core: duty, decency, marital fidelity, paying your way, doing your bit, playing fair.

You probably don’t need me to poke holes into this. Sutherland concedes that the whole thing might well be a delusion, but argues that Stone (as an individual) and England (as a country) was better off for having held it.

I don’t actually have a problem with the premise that Victorian novels (at  least some Victorian novels–Sutherland’s own research has been crucial in demonstrating just how hard it is to generalize about them) had a role in promoting certain values, or that books can influence their readers in all kinds of ways. (Picture of Dorian Gray, anyone?)

However, the way I see it, the major flaw in all of this is the focus on characters. If you read the first article, you’ll see that the study’s methodology involved asking scholars to fill out a questionnaire on certain characters from (canonical) Victorian novels. (In fact, as one VICTORIA contributor realized, the researcher had actually distributed the survey on the list itself–and I’m pretty sure, thinking back, that I myself may have participated.) That assumes that the only thing we get out of reading a Victorian novel is the identification with characters, and that readers are only interested in plot insofar as it develops characters’ identities, punishes the bad, vindicates the good, and so on. It also assumes that the only way that novels influence their readers is through these seemingly  unmediated identifications with individual characters.

And that all seems kind of stupid; it flattens 0ut the complexity of what happens between the text and reader in even a casual reading experience. The not-stupid version of this argument would be something like the premise of Caroline Levine’s excellent 2003 book, The Serious Pleasures of Suspense. Levine argues that Victorian realist novels provided a kind of “epistemological training” that encouraged readers to become more skillful and critical, to consider all the possibilities before making a decision, to respect the otherness of the world and the limits of sympathy–and that such reading practices could be translated into other areas of life, such as science and politics.

We’ll notice, of course, that “suspension of judgment” or “skepticism about received ideas” doesn’t make Sutherland’s list of Victorian values, but I’d say it’s at least as important as something like “duty.” The Victorians weren’t perfect, but I give people like, say, Matthew Arnold a lot of credit for promoting the importance of a good-faith inquiry and the effort to disabuse oneself of preconceived notions.

But that, of course, doesn’t make for a pithy headline. It’s something that’s intangible, and it doesn’t quite provide that pungent nineteenth-century antidote to a twenty-first century problem. (If anything, skepticism is seen as a more “postmodern” problem, something that distracts us from duty and cooperation.) But it’s frustrating, sometimes, to see articles like this because, when it comes down to it, I do think that there’s a lot we gain by reading Victorian novels (or literature in general, for that matter)–just not in the ways that this study suggests.

It’s been a pretty crummy year for real estate, stock markets, and investment banks, but for this humble group of Victorianists gone wild (and their co-conspirators), 2008 has been very good indeed. Among our accomplishments:

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