Wednesday, October 08, 2014
Does Catullus sing Smokey? A meditation on the fannish academic and the return of the personal voice
This is one of those long essays I probably shouldn’t write here. You might want to read this in conjunction with my piece on Reception theory.
I began this piece in response to a conference in Bristol in 2010, organized by the ever-interesting Ika Willis, “Desiring the Text, Touching the Past: Towards An Erotics of Reception” (I fear the official conference webpage has long since disappeared into the black hole of institutional reorganization of webspaces). The thinking behind the conference was inspired by Roland Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text (1975), and focussed upon responses to texts that were more personal than the usual “distanced” academic approach (you can read some of Ika’s thinking on this topic here). It kicked off a number of thoughts in my head about the overlap between fannishness and academic study, and I wrote some preliminary notes for this piece at the time (initially intending it for the Friends of the Text blog that started up in the wake of the conference, but has since sadly disappeared). It never got very far, as other matters intervened, but I always meant to get back to it. I am doing so now because of a couple of interrelated developments in the teaching I am doing in the current academic year.
First up, I got offered the opportunity to teach some sessions on the University of Roehampton’s “Theories and Methods in Classical Research”, part of their MRes in Classical Research. When I was offered this, I had just been listening to Neil Easterbrook lead a class at the Science Fiction Foundation’s Masterclass in Science Fiction Criticism on the writing of scholarly articles and criticism. That inspired me to want to spend one of my MRes sessions talking about academic writing to the students. Something that never really got said to me when I was starting out as an academic was that I was now an aspiring writer, and I suspect still that most postgraduates think of themselves as researchers and scholars rather than writers. But research in the humanities must (in the majority of cases) eventually result in a published outcome. The various research assessment processes which have dogged the UK university system since the 1980s judge university departments on the publications of their members, which means, in effect, that scholars are judged on their writing, and that those wishing to make their way in an academic career will find that their chances of appointment and advancement are based upon what they have written.
The second thing was that I successfully applied to teach on the Open University’s new MA in Classical Studies. Reading through the first Block, I discovered there a Unit on “Finding a Voice”, exactly the sort of discussion I was planning for the Roehampton students. So I thought it was time I finished this piece off, to use it as a teaching object.
At the end of 2010, John Sutherland, Emeritus Professor of English Literature at University College London, appeared, as he often does, on BBC Radio 4’s nightly arts review programme, Front Row. He came on to promote his then-new book 50 Literature Ideas You Really Need To Know. That book is not of particular concern here, but something he said at the end his item struck me. He said that he now knew so much about how fiction worked, and how it was constructed, that he was no longer able to enjoy it in the way he once had. He wished he could recapture the innocent enthusiasm he once had for H. Rider Haggard, but this was now impossible.
And I thought, “Professor Sutherland, you are doing it wrong.”
This is hardly the first time John Sutherland has been wrong. Anyone from a background in science fiction fandom and criticism who has followed his pronouncements over the years on genre fiction, and why it should not be recognised by the likes of the Man Booker Prize, will be familiar with his wrongness. (And I wonder if his inability to enjoy Rider Haggard any more has anything to do with his hostility towards genre.) But his error here cuts right to the heart of what I believe to be the largely artificial and often wholly unnecessary and counterproductive divide between fandom and the academy.
First of all, let’s define our terms. In a number of academic contexts, when people talk about fannish writing, they mean fanfiction writing, and by “fandom” they mean the communities of fanfic writers who come together – so usually people will refer to “fandoms” and mean the communities that have gathered around fanfics about a particular film, novel or television series. Of course, not for a moment would I say that this is not fannish writing – indeed, a lot of my own fannish activity involves being part of those communities, if not actually writing fanfic myself (any more). But this is not the only form of fannish writing. [Edit: And see also Kate Keen's very valid point in the comment below that these writers write more than just fanfic.] There are a lot of different fandoms out there, and in many of them, the predominant writing mode is non-fiction rather than fiction. This is true, for instance, of the science fiction fanzines that were my main outlet for writing in the period 2000-2002, which were (and remain) full of critical analyses of texts. Other fandoms, such as Doctor Who, have devoted as much attention to analysing official stories as to creating new ones. So when I discuss fannish writing here, what I primarily mean is that critical analysis.
Fandom often sets itself up in opposition to academia. Academics are viewed as outsiders, and academic writing and teaching is seen as sucking all the enjoyment out of reading texts, exactly as Sutherland feels it does. On the academic side, there are some who are dismissive of the obsessiveness of fans; but as others have observed, it is a bit rich for anyone who conducts detailed academic research to use “obsessive” in a pejorative fashion.
This opposition between fandom and academia is, in my view, largely false. For a start, there are many academics (e.g. myself, Farah Mendlesohn, Juliette Harrisson, etc.) who self-identify as fans, and attend fannish events such as Eastercons or what was once the SFX Weekender. “They” are “us” in this case. And fans, as Stacie L. Hanes (another person both fan and academic) has pointed out, are entirely capable of engaging in exactly the sort of detailed and lengthy analysis of texts that academics do, in a manner that is often indistinguishable beyond the apparatus of academic criticism (footnotes, bibliographies, etc.). By doing so, not only do these fans demonstrate the falsity of the divide between academia and fandom, but they also demonstrate the falsity of Sutherland’s assertion that detailed study of the mechanics of texts robs you of the ability to enjoy them. Rather, if approached properly, this study (and being taught about texts) should enhance your enjoyment.
Unfortunately, study of texts is associated in many people’s minds with school experience, and being made for class to read literary works that you don’t want to. This, I would say, is nothing to do with the quality of teaching (or of the texts – I appreciate that the antipathy I picked up towards Dickens from school is probably largely unfair), it’s just the child’s natural resistance to being forced to do anything; but it does lead to an attitude that is hard to shift, that analysis of a text and love of that text are antithetical (and that brings us back to the theme of the Bristol conference).
Much is lost through this division. There’s a really good discussion of the things that academics and fans can bring to each other in the “Introduction” to Matt Hills’ Triumph of a Time Lord. I recommend everyone reads this. However, there is also some recent pushing back from the academic side against the concept of the “acafan” – I particularly remember the closing session of the 2011 conference “Alien Nation: A Conference on British Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Television” at Northumbria University, where Ian Hunter argued for a move away from the acafan and paying attention to fandom, which prompted James Chapman to say that he didn’t see himself as a fan of the texts that he wrote about. Now, since I believe fervently (in contrast to the self-appointed gatekeepers of some fandoms) that “fan” is a term of self-definition, and not a label that anyone else can grant or withhold, I cannot object to Chapman’s choice not to define himself in that way (Hunter and Chapman are, incidentally, both scholars that I respect). And I can also see that scholars working with fan readings of texts run the risk of assuming (almost always incorrectly) that fan readings necessarily represent the responses of the wider audience (the problem is, of course, that while I understand what Hunter is trying to move towards, the casual consumer of a text – what Hunter calls the “indifferent audience” – tends not to record their reaction to a text in any form that is easily accessible to scholars).
But I do feel that scholars are in some manner fans, or enthusiasts, of the texts that they study, or even that they love them. I mean, if you have devoted your life to the study of the Aeneid, there must be something about that text that attracts you. I can imagine that people might write commentaries on texts in which they are not really interested, but I can’t imagine they would be particularly good, and I suspect almost always there is something in a project that engages the scholar's interests and enthusiasm. And where there is enthusiasm, I feel that there is a lot of value in scholars admitting this. It destroys the myth of academic objectivity, and allows you to situate yourself in relation to the text, thus ensuring that your audience knows exactly where you stand.
So, for instance, when I teach cinema history, I feel there is value in letting the students know that, whilst I admire Citizen Kane (1940) for its cinematic techniques, I’m never going to love it the way I love Casablanca (1942), or that while I can see there are interesting things to say about James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), particularly in relation to the way it uses the tropes of 1940s melodrama, the way it is coded as a science fiction movie without actually being a science fiction movie, and its status as a cultural and economic phenomenon, I have to grit my teeth every time I’m required to watch it.
I think an awareness of the scope of your emotional engagement with a text may perhaps help avoid some potentially spurious avenues of research. I’ll begin with a possibly unfair example. Some recent work on the Aeneid has postulated that, far from being the unqualified work of propaganda for the regime of the emperor Augustus that everyone used to believe it is, The Aeneid actually includes some subtle criticism of Augustus. I’m not sure I buy this; if the criticism is sufficiently unsubtle to be picked up by modern scholarship, there’s a good chance it might be something that Augustus himself could spot, which might have landed Virgil in the sort of situation vis-à-vis the emperor that Ovid later faced.
Now, as I say, I may be out of order in postulating this (and perhaps just treat this as a thought experiment), but I find myself wondering if what is going on here is a clash between a love of Virgil’s craft and a dislike of the imperial system he endorses. This wasn’t an issue, at least in terms of what filtered through to students, when I was being first educated. Everyone admired Virgil, and everyone admired Augustus for bringing the Roman world out of chaos and into order (these were the days when the Roman principate was described as a sort of “constitutional monarchy”). In our post-colonial age, people are rather more wary about praising imperialists, and can see that, while it certainly can be argued that some aspects of the Augustan settlement benefited some people (the transformation of provincial government from a licence to steal to something that actually had to be done properly must have had an impact, at least on provincial élites), the emperor’s position was extra-constitutional, being a military dictatorship covered by a veneer of legality, and that intellectual freedom was not what it had been under the Republic (Catullus could never have been tolerated under Augustus as he was under Caesar.)
But we still admire the poetry of Virgil. So are attempts to argue that Virgil is actually criticizing Augustus manifestations of a desire to continue admiring Virgil whilst removing uncomfortable elements of his political allegiance? As I say, I’m no Virgil scholar, and I’m surely oversimplifying, so I could be wrong here, though this review does make similar points about the so-called “pessimistic” reading of Virgil. If I’m right, I don’t think this is the way to go; better to acknowledge both the greatness of Virgil’s art, and the problems of the propaganda in the poem. I recommend “How to be a fan of problematic things” as a guide to how to handle this sort of issue. But as I say (and yes, this is getting boring), I could be wrong, and constructing a pure straw man in this part of my argument.
In any case, the point that is actually important here is that a more openly fannish attitude towards the text being discussed might at least enable readers to make a more accurate judgement about whether affection for Virgil is distorting anyone’s arguments, and perhaps even help authors take into account their own biases.
So let’s move onto something a bit more solid. For a really egregious example of how wrong scholarship can get when it is divorced from an emotional response to the text, I offer the late Guy Lee’s commentary on Catullus, Poem 85. Lee was an eminent Latinist, and his Oxford World’s Classics translation is well-respected, and appears on a lot of reading lists. I haven’t read enough of the work to form an overall judgement of it, but I think he goes badly astray with his commentary on this poem, one of Catullus’ most famous:
Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.
I hate and I love. Why do I do that, you might ask?
I do not know, but I sense it happening, and I am torn apart.
Here is what Lee has to say about it in his notes:
This famous epigram disproves the theory that every good poem provides all the information needed to understand it. Presented with it out of context one could not possibly know that Catullus was talking about hating and loving the same woman at the same time. In other words we need to have read LXXII, LXXV and LXXVI in order to understand it.
I have used this poem and Lee’s comment when I was teaching Intermediate Latin, and the students I taught had much the same reaction as me to what Lee says here – that it’s an astonishing misreading of the poem, and in fact, palpable nonsense. The poem does contain everything necessary for its understanding, and that Catullus is hating and loving the same woman ought to be apparent from the second line; indeed, to admit the possibility that the this is not the case is to render that line ridiculous. There is no emotional conflict inherent in loving one person and hating another, and it can hardly be described as “excruciating”.
No-one needs to have read another word of Catullus, or even to know anything more about him, to see that the object of odi and that of amo must be the same. You need only to have been in love with someone and feel that said person has unforgivably betrayed or hurt you, and be in that cleft stick of hating them for what they have done to you but still unable to shake the love you had for them in the first place – or to be aware that these sorts of things can happen. It is the same emotion expressed, if less elliptically, in Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got A Hold Of Me”: “I don’t like you, but I love you.” It is precisely because of the universality of its sentiment that the poem is so famous (it is in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations). Through his commentary, Lee inadvertently casts himself in the role of Catullus’ clueless addressee, who can’t quite understand what the fuss is all about. (It is true that Catullus also deals with conflicted feelings, specifically towards Lesbia, in poems 72, 75 and 77, but that does not mean knowledge of those poems is needed to understand the emotional impact of 85.)
I have a sneaking suspicion (and this may get me into trouble) that part of the problem that results in comments like Lee’s is the emphasis placed upon philology in the discipline of Classical Studies (Lee’s introduction to his translation of Catullus is quite philological in its approach). Philology is the intensive study of the language and its constructions, though close detailed analysis of the texts. Philology is, of course, vital to a subject based upon texts in foreign and ancient languages. The only reason we can say anything at all about Catullus is that philologists have worked on the manuscripts, and given us confidence in the published texts from which we work. Everybody working in Classical Studies, in my opinion, needs to know a bit of philology.
The problem comes when some seem to suggest that philology is all that is needed, that once the intricacies of Greek and Latin grammar are mastered, any other skills (e.g. literary or historical analysis) are easily picked up without really trying. This, I fear, can lead to poor scholarship. Philology is very useful for drawing out what a text says, but it is rather less useful when it comes to what that text means (I well remember a conversation with Professor Emeritus Christopher Rowe where he expressed the view that it may be true that undergraduates are overall less able to read Latin and Greek than they were, but that critics, in focussing on that, are overlooking that these self-same undergraduates are far better equipped than their predecessors to talk about Greek and Latin works as literature). My suspicion is that an over-emphasis on philological training at the expense of anything else leads to commentary on love poetry that seems disconnected from the emotions that said poetry deals with; or people writing on Aristophanes who can tease out the complications of his syntax, but seem unable to spot where he is making a joke (and to judging the reliability of historians at least partially on the attractiveness of their literary style, and whether they tell us that they are intrinsically trustworthy – but that’s probably a rant for some other time).
I don’t mean, of course, to condemn anyone with a philological training – the majority of philologists are really good, and are aware that there is more to talking about a text than simply the philological approach. Indeed, there’s a lot of that sort of training in my background, though tempered by a Ph.D. completed in a History department, for which I will always be grateful.
What I am saying is that we, as a discipline, need to be aware of a wide range of issues when writing about texts, possibly a wider range than we sometimes consider, and that a “fannish” approach (or however you wish to describe it) can be an advantage here.
Writing with a fannish perspective almost inevitably involves writing from a personal point of view. Classics/Classical Studies academia has been here before. Twenty years ago “personal voice criticism” burst into the field, with sessions at the American Philological Association in 1994 and the Classical Association in St Andrews in 1995 (where the late David West criticised the approach in his Presidential Address as part of a general call for the rejection of “theory”). I didn’t attend the Scottish session, but I was at the conference, and I do recall there being a buzz about the papers around it (much of it, I recall, antipathetic responses to Judy Hallett’s paper about American universities’ preference for employing British scholars over Americans, a thesis which she perhaps overstated, but which probably carries more weight than it was allowed). This culminated in the publication of Compromising Traditions: The Personal Voice in Classical Scholarship, edited by Hallett and Thomas van Northwick (1997). And there overt theoretical exploration of the personal voice seems to have stopped, bar a couple of reviews, e.g. one by Gideon Nisbet in Bryn Mawr Classical Review (on his own admission written by “a younger and angrier Nisbet”), and an even more hostile one in Classical Journal. Clearly the issue occasionally resurfaces, at least as a practical consideration, as indicated in a report of a Twitter debate that Liz Gloyn was part of back in 2012. [Edit 20/10/14: I checked with Liz, and this debate seems to have been a general academic one, rather than one confined to Classical Studies. I have no idea of the state of play of the debate on the personal voice outside of Classical Studies.] There are clearly some scholars who have subsumed the personal voice in practice, very often, as both Liz and I have noted, in Reception Studies, where perhaps the nature of the material makes a less formal approach more comfortable.
But it is a shame that theoretical debate has not really continued – as Gideon says in a comment on Liz’s post, this is a conversation we should have continued having in the discipline (though, as I note at the beginning of this piece, it is interesting that the OU’s new MA course chooses to engage directly with the personal voice). Perhaps now is the time for it to come back. For me, the intrinsic advantages of the personal voice still apply. With impersonal usage, it is too easy for statements to appear as objective facts, when they are actually statements of opinion. I am not arguing that there is no such thing as an objective fact – it is, for instance, simply the case that the Cato who appears on stage in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is Portia’s brother and not, as Wikipedia had it until I found this and corrected it, her father. But that is a completely different statement from “Wordsworth is a better poet than Bob Dylan”, which, however much I may agree with it, remains a subjective statement of opinion. At its most egregious (yes, this is my current favourite word), an over-reliance upon the impersonal can result in students writing “It is suggested that…”, implying the existence of some third party consulted, when what they actually mean is “I wish to suggest that…” But more subtly, and perhaps more dangerously, I have seen articles in which subjective opinions are then employed as if they are objective facts – canon creation is full of this (see the Wordsworth/Dylan comment above, which is something I genuinely heard on Radio 4 – it’s entirely possible that it was John Sutherland again). And I repeat, expressing enthusiasm for your subject matter is no bad thing. I am just about to finish a long-delayed review of Classics and Comics, and one of the points I will make there is that a weakness of the volume (one that I am sure the editors wished to avoid) is that few of the pieces capture the enthusiasm for the subject matter that informs the best writing in comics fandom.
My own feeling about Compromising Traditions is that it often falls short of its hoped-for target because, whilst all the contributors are theoretically interested in the personal voice, not all of them actually have practical experience of its application. This results in writers unsure of their tone, and often in danger of crossing the line between writing with a personal perspective and over-sharing (I personally feel that on at least one occasion that line is crossed). I don’t myself think that the personal voice requires the dumping of large elements of autobiography into your writing – it requires merely writing from your own perspective (rather than from some omniscient “objective” view). You can liven your writing up with anecdotes without necessarily revealing your every emotion.
The solution to the problem of lack of practice in the personal voice is, of course, to practise the personal voice. And that requires finding a venue where the personal voice is more accepted, and honing your writing skills there, before bringing them to bear on more academic material. For me, this was the two years I’ve already mentioned where I spent writing almost exclusively for fanzines, which made me a massively better writer – for others, it is active writing on social media, in particular on blogs (Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter don’t really encourage writing sufficient length here). Blogging still sometimes seems something that lies outside academic activity. The pressures on full-time academics very much push them towards spending all their writing time directly focussed upon their research. Yet blogging can be very useful in raising one’s profile. This is certainly true for Mary Beard – her position as “Britain’s best-known classicist” is, I would argue, very substantially connected with her blog A Don’s Life and the increased media presence that has resulted. Beard is a special case – her blog is a piece of paid journalism. But other early career academics have certainly raised their profiles through blogging, at least within the discipline – I think of Juliette Harrisson and Liz Gloyn – and Helen King notes that she finds blogging useful to keep in the discipline of writing. As more younger (and indeed older) scholars blog as well as write in more academic arenas, I feel sure that a more personal approach will inform more academic writing (though at the same time, the opportunities blogging provides for getting noticed will decline). That doesn’t necessarily mean more use of overt autobiography, something that often gets included in the personal voice approach, but which, as I say, I don’t think is necessarily intrinsic to it, but more of a sense of the personality of the writer coming over in what they write.
What will that look like? Well, I think there’s a good example in Gideon Nisbet’s Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture from 2006. This is a book very much written in an individualist style – I have indeed told Gideon that I hate him, for writing exactly the sort of idiosyncratic, erudite and funny book that I wish I had written myself (it’s okay, we’ve been friends since the early 1990s, we’ll get by this…). The jokes, to me, function as memorable cores around which the points that Gideon is actually trying to make can coalesce. There’s a great gag about Antony in Cleopatra (1963) crying in front of the tomb of Alexander, whom Richard Burton had played seven year earlier – “a famous drunk (played by a famous drunk) weeping for another famous drunk (ditto)”.
There are risks here. I’m sure that there are some who think Nisbet’s style to be wholly inappropriate (though the reviews I’ve seen have been favourable; however, he did receive some criticism for his previous book, Greek Epigram in the Roman Empire, written in a similar style). And I myself have been told off for being too chatty. Despite what Helen Sword says, it is not entirely mythical to suggest that early career researchers may need to be concerned about this issue. As Susanna Morton Braund notes in her contribution to Compromising Traditions, the Latinist with the most individual voice in the 1990s, John Henderson, wrote from a safe position as a Lecturer (and later Reader and Professor) at King’s College Cambridge. (Interestingly, I’ve found quite hard, without doing more diligent research than perhaps this piece really warrants, to find much that Henderson wrote prior to 1987 – I’ve only turned up one article in Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society that I’m not able to access online, so I can’t say whether Henderson always wrote in an idiosyncratic style. Anyone who would like to enlighten me about this, please do so.) On the other side of the coin, my own prospects for career advancement in academia are non-existent, so it doesn’t matter what and how I write, something which, as I note in my chapter in The Para-Academic Handbook, is actually quite liberating. But I appreciate that there are many people who fall between these two points, and their concerns about how they write and the effect it might have on their careers are not entirely illusory.
Nevertheless, I encourage you to at least think about writing in a more personal, and more fannish style. I am not remotely saying that you should write like Gideon Nisbet, or John Henderson, or Roz Kaveney (another scholarly writer, though one outside the academy, whose style I admire for its personality) – indeed, the whole point of the personal style is that it is unique to the individual using it. But given the choice, I would rather write like any of these than like the dry, dull author of Dynastic Lycia.
I think it would be good for scholars at all stages of their career to meditate on what a more fannish perspective and a more personal voice could do for them. The advantages – communicating more clearly, communicating your enthusiasm for the subject, writing more honestly, and not sucking the joy out of your topic, either for yourself or for your readers – seem to me well worth considering.
That’s what I think anyway.