The Pleasure Of...Academia?

I’m as surprised as you are. (Plus Gothic tales, of WAGs and other demons)

Last night I went to the launch of a new series of books from NYU Press, from Avidly, a wonderful site for niche cultural enthusiasms. The editors define Avidly Reads as “short books about how culture makes us feel.” The first three titles are on diverse subjects—board games, theory, and making out—but together they made me think about something I’ve been turning over in my head for a while, about trying to find a better way to reconcile my academic and—what even is the opposite? Secular? Public? Commercial? Creative? Other?—selves. It might have been while I was listening to Kathryn Bond Stockton talk about kissing and reading and kissing as reading, making out and making out, caught up in the intensely studied playfulness of her words; or it might have been listening to Jordan Stein reading about reading Foucault’s History of Sexuality in public as a college student, desperately self-conscious and yet desperate also to be seen, read, interpreted, understood, outed, even, by his choice of reading, and spinning that into an analysis of how biographers have and haven’t read Foucault’s homosexuality into his work. I was thrilled, anyway, to be back among my people, my original people, for whom writing and reading isn’t purely an aesthetic business, isn’t a business at all, but an all-absorbing, self-absorbing struggle with meaning: finding it, making it, conveying it. I’ve spent so long in revolt against everything that’s deeply, structurally wrong with academia as a capitalist project, and so long swallowing the bullshit certainty of outsiders that academics can’t write that I’ve let that muscle shrivel.

In my class last week we talked about the difference, or distance, between reviewing and literary criticism. My student Emily talked animatedly about Judith Butler and Jacqueline Rose, and a piece she was working on about Jane Austen, and I could feel her excitement at the back of my neck—the lights coming on, the way I would feel when I was deep in reading something difficult, theoretical, making it to the end of a chewy clause-clogged sentence and getting it. Listening to Jordan read last night I felt that same excitement, although I never felt the bond he described with his friends about literary theory. I was never close friends with anyone in my college cohort who read English. My friends were in science and politics, anthropology, economics, and we didn’t talk much about work—not the substance of it, just the pressure. But I knew exactly what he was describing. It’s been there throughout my academic career, beginning with the tight, pretentious clique of boys in the year above me at college, who I envied, and mocked because I envied. Theory, the more difficult the better, bonded boys, especially straight ones, who were always in the minority, always seemingly reaching for the thing that would lift them into the safer realms of politics, philosophy, history, economics. Away from literature, its feminized and sensual pleasures. (You read storybooks! I remember a historian friend at college yelling at me when I complained about work.) I never really thought about it as a defense of masculinity—or I joked about it without really thinking, about what else it affected.

But it affects everything. It means that part of being an academic means having to cordon off reading and writing “for pleasure” as something furtive, illicit, out of bounds, because maybe acknowledging the pleasure of reading and writing as part of work, intrinsic to it, threatens to undermine our right to be in the academy at all, with our storybooks, our reading that is subversively close to making out. Well, screw it. I want to rediscover the pleasure of difficult reading, digging out the thing beneath the thing, doing what my students used to worry about, reflexively: Maybe I’m reading too much into this? To which I would laugh and say, that’s what you’re here for. 

Standing with one foot in the creative world and another in the academic is a rickety place to balance, not least because the two worlds are so antagonistic: Writers resent the snobbery of academics and mock them for their impenetrable prose; academics envy creative writers their freedom and mock their lack of rigor and rules. I am still figuring out what it means to balance the critical and creative, how to be clear-eyed and critical about academia and yet hold on to what it trained me to do best: to assert, to argue, to pay attention, to read closely and skeptically: because it is work and at the same time, pleasure. Maybe it’s the division that’s the problem.

Things I Read & Wrote

These three collections of spooky stories, for the TLS for Halloween. Did I bitch about the takeover of October by horror movies? Why yes, I did. But there was plenty of good stuff in these collections, especially Women’s Weird. Having loved her books as a child I’m now very intrigued by E[dith] Nesbit’s stories for adults, and Eleanor Fitzsimon’s new biography of her as a socialist and radical, as all the best children’s authors are. I also enjoyed the creepy Nathaniel Hawthorne story “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” in the BL’s Promethean Horrors collection of mad-scientist stories—it’s about a girl bred to be poisonous, but more about men who want the pleasure of love without the consequences. I may have insulted the very pretty Quaint & Curious Volume by suggesting it was designed to be Instagram fodder, but it’s solidly stuffed with classics, and the introduction, on the history of the Gothic, is great. Anyway, review soon!

Good Thing (?)

Look, I didn’t want to care about the WAG feud heard ‘round the world. I don’t actually care. But if you’re going to go down a tabloid rabbit hole, Marina Hyde is there for you.