The Aca-Creative Hybrid

December 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

Kerry Skemp published a great article in Bitch magazine’s Fall “Make Believe” issue, called “Appropriating Authors: How Fictionalized Females Feed Our Fantasies.” As far as I can tell, it’s not available in full text online (subscribe!), but if you find otherwise, please let me know and I’ll incorporate the link. In any case, the article was a review of two recent books about canonical American women writers, Louisa May Alcott and Emily Dickinson. Both of these authors were of vague interest to me when I was a high school student, knowing that I wasn’t interested in many of the male authors we were reading (excepting the most recent and autobiographically-driven, like Tim O’Brien), but also finding that I was turned off by the 19th century in general, even if it did turn out to have been inhabited by cool spinsters as well as pompous moralizers. They were of interest to me in the way Georgia O’Keeffe and romantic comedies were of interest to me, in that I could tell they were for me, and addressed questions I had about the world. At the time, I was significantly more interested in poetry than fiction, presumably because the former seemed to bear a closer relationship to questions I had about the structure of language and its proximity to music, and also because the absolute artificiality of the latter simply drove me crazy. Because of this preference, I spent time with Dickinson rather than Alcott, reading her poetry aloud and taking pleasure in the sort of Cliff Notes biography of the author, imagining her writing furiously in an attic, surrounded by fountain pens and daisies, or something. Needless to say, I had a pretty abstract relationship to what was known as the assigned reading.

In any case, I think I would at the time have been drawn to the two books Skemp reviews in her article, Jerome Charyn’s The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson and Kelly O’Connor McNees’s The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott. For one thing, look at that coding: “secret” is almost as lesbian as “potential,” and a “lost summer” sounds like it contains a story somewhere along the queer cinematic hybrid between Suddenly Last Summer and My Summer of Love. I would have been just as thrilled with either, but, according to Skemp, I would have been sorely disappointed. For one thing, rather than flesh out the spinster as lovable, eccentric queer, both Charyn and McNees instead de-spinster the spinsters entirely by creating male love interests for them. This decision is the primary target for Skemp’s critique of these two novels, which she says unfortunately play on our era’s “cultural fascination with celebrity” without actually elucidating anything about the pleasure of reading them, which is presumably what fans of the writers would have wanted. (58) Skemp further criticizes McNees especially for having filled her work with “stiff wording and trite phrases” in no way reminiscent of those written by Alcott herself. (59) Of course, one can’t expect a contemporary non-fiction/research novelist to break new ground in the way a classic fiction writer has done, but we can, I think, expect them to carry forth a thread significant to the writer before, and so serve her devotees.

Skemp’s review in no way made me want to read these books for myself, as her assessment sounded airtight. However, I did want to send her in the direction of some spectacular contemporary writing about great authors, which does not fall into the traps of Charyn and McNees. Specifically, I wanted to talk about two twenty-first century works, Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Novels and the People who Read Them and Georgina Kleege’s Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller. Neither of these books does what Skemp hoped for from Charyn and McNees, that is, illuminate something new about the relationship between women’s lives and their literary authorship in nineteenth century America. However, both works offer a superior model, which I think makes room for the kind of “enhanced history” longed for by Skemp and those who were drawn to Charyn and McNees.

In Batuman’s The Possessed, the author produces an aca-creative hybrid of the purest kind: indeed, the introduction contains a reproduction of her arguments first published in n+1, about how reprehensible, or in any case dull, the contemporary life of the American writer can be, if it is constrained by an MFA program and its dictates early on. Batuman then offers an academic coming of age story along two threads; first, her inexplicable life-long obsession with things Russian (she was drawn to her Russian violin teacher in the way I was drawn to the mawkish design of the Barnes and Noble Classic Emily Dickinson collection); and secondly, her academic interest in literature, but not Anglophone literature, and language, but not linguistics. It is a story to which any graduate student in the humanities can relate, except, of course, for some unimaginable other, who really was just plain thrilled with the required reading in high school, and still can’t get enough of Updike. But despite her obvious academic inclinations, Batuman had little interest in producing scholarship proper, and was not moved to do so until she realized that the only real alternative was pursuing an MFA, which sounded like one long group project to the woman who’d felt oppressed as a child by the “tyranny of leisure” permeating American culture. In a series of essays, several having been published elsewhere on their own, the author offers a highly original ethnography of the state of Russian Literature fandom today, spanning author-oriented conferences, bus tours through Russia, and attempts to delineate an Uzbek national literary tradition apart from its Soviet history. Batuman’s work, in other words, tries as organically as possible to track the passionate reader of Russian literature across the world, and, somewhere along the way, she earns a PhD and falls in love as well. The intertwining of these trajectories is the clearest accomplishment of the book, which comes together much more convincingly than one might anticipate from a collection of non-fiction essays. I’m a fan of autobiographical criticism generally, I should point out, if only because, like Batuman, I’m not convinced that scholarship or “creative writing” (whether explicitly autobiographical or not) can serve to answer the questions we have about the world and our relationship to it.

My favorite of Batuman’s chapter is the final one, a literary analysis-cum-bildungsroman finale about Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, which used to be translated for the Anglophone literary world as Demons. In this essay, the author summarized the dominant critical interpretations of the work, focusing on the inexplicable protagonist Stavrogin, who serves as kind of an avatar for the classic works of literature to which passionate readers are drawn. She quotes critic Joseph Frank’s theory

“that Stavrogin is a composite of two inconsistent, irreconcilable characters from earlier drafts. The first character, a young aristocrat of the 1860s, is embroiled in a Fathers and Sons-sty;e ideological clash with the generation of the 1840s, but undergoes a moral regeneration, overcomes his own nihilism, and becomes a ‘new man’; the second is a young aristocrat in the earlier, Byronic type of Eugene Onegin, who has already undergone, or seems to have undergone, a moral regeneration, but who then, to quote Dostoevsky’s notes, ‘suddenly blows his brains out–(Enigmatic personage, said to be mad).’ Because he was working ‘under great pressure,’ Frank suggests, Dostoevsky was obliged to consolidate these two heroes in the person of Stavrogin. Stepan Trofimovich, ‘a Liberal Idealist of the 1840s,’ is thus made into ‘the spiritual progenitor of a Byronic type associated with the 1820s-1830s’–a relationship that is doomed never really to make sense.” (261)

I cite this theory among the many explored in the chapter, because I think it has particular resonance with Batuman’s own attempt to hybridize several intellectual journeys at once in her own writing. One could simply say that she’s “over-educated,” of course, and it’s true that her encyclopedic knowledge of the Russian Literature world is awe-inspiring, but there’s something more at stake in her refusal to delineate it according to arbitrary external demands, whether disciplinary or market-driven. In other words, she could presumably have written the Tolstoy version of Will in the World, but instead found it more valuable to explore questions about why we read at all, outside of our own particular historical and cultural situation. The autobiographical anchor serves to accentuate her point, which is about the singular paths our reading lives follow, and the inherent value of following these in the unexpected directions they may take, rather than allowing ourselves to be edited prematurely. Surely, some fans of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Babel found moments of recognition in The Possessed, but the more important component is its absolutely recognizable model of the pleasure of reading itself, which is nowhere to be found in much contemporary “enhanced literary history.”

Hence the name “aca-creative hybrid.” Much as Batuman and the whole n+1 crowd resist the term “creative writing” for being redundant, and also for having given rise to the equally unfortunate “literary fiction,” I need some way to denote the quality of Batuman’s writing beyond the academic. She is other things, as well — certainly a humorist, a stylist, and a wordsmith, but these strike me as just as inadequate as “creative,” and so, I’ll stick with that. I also prefer the aca- hybrid to oppose the research that goes into producing any piece of quality writing from the academic kind of research undertaken by Batuman — it’s not just that the academic world is in some ways her object of study, but also that her research takes seriously the history of interpretation in a way that transcends the material archives, and I think ought to be described as academic.

The same holds for Kleege’s Blind Rage, although Kleege gives less screen time to the debate over whether or not to succumb to the creative writing tendency, and indeed sees her own aca-creative hybrid form of writing as an inevitable development from her research trajectory. Perhaps in the case of Blind Rage, this is because the work fits neatly into an epistolary tradition, consisting only of letters to Helen Keller, without helpful inter-texts or significant scholarly citations. If Batuman’s book was about reading, Kleege’s book is comfortably about writing, too — both about Keller’s own writing process, and about the way in which her writing has been canonized (though not necessarily as literature), and certain interpretations have become sacrosanct. Unlike one’s take on the purpose of the character of Stavrogin, it should be said, Kleege’s take on Keller is intentionally subversive of a particularly damaging mythology surrounding people with disabilities in American culture. To be honest, one might live a perfectly good life having nothing to say about Stavrogin. But we all have a stake in the dominant historical narrative’s “take” on someone like Keller as perfect role model of “overcoming” disability, and perpetually innocent child to be talked about ad nauseum rather than ever directly addressed.

One of my favorite aspects of Kleege’s work is her insistence on addressing Keller over the course of her life, taking her seriously as a child when she was a child, when she was expected to be a little adult, and taking her seriously as an adult when she continued to be infantilized by those around her. The finest example of Kleege’s take on Keller’s childhood appears early in the book, in a letter dated February 4, when she writes to Keller on the subject of accusations of plagiarism that emerged surrounding a story she’d written at the Perkins Institution in Boston. Keller was eleven years old at the time, and had been accused of “plagiarizing” a story called “The Frost King,” which had been read to her three years earlier. Kleege says,

“In order to prove that you had not conspicuously copied Canby’s story, you had to answer a lot of very tricky questions. ‘If you didn’t copy it, where did your idea come from?’ ‘How do you know it came from imagination rather than memory?’ ‘How do you know the difference between imagination, memory, dream, and reality?’
These are questions for psychologists, neurologists, and philosophers, not for an eleven-year-old girl, even one as eager to please as you were.
And you were always a little shaky on those issues anyway. Dreams, for instance. Sometimes you woke in the morning and the dream still lingering in your mind would seem more vivid to you than waking life. One minute you’d be floating around in a rowboat with your dog Lioness licking your face, or standing on a table eating a bunch of bananas, and the next minute you’d be lying in bed smelling bacon cooking somewhere, and you found it hard to say which sensation was most real.” (12)

What I love about passages like this (I could go on forever, but it’s time to wrap it up) is the way in which Kleege attends precisely to the question of truth in history, writing, and literature. The way it can’t quite be recorded, and has to be approached obliquely. A specialist might say she’s over-identifying, making the figure of Keller over in her own memories of childhood. But, as Batuman points out in her discussion of names in Russian literature, sometimes there is more truth in an apparent repetition — of Annas, say, or the smell of bacon — than there is to be found in the pseudo-differences of the contemporary world, the kind we think about when we wonder what life was like before ipods. It takes a particularly fine author, a scholar of history, literature, and, I think, herself, to evoke this kind of connection in literature today — the strangeness of fiction, the sameness of truth.

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