I’ve been brooding (and pacing, and swearing, and procrastinating) about starting a new essay project, and what I find myself most stymied by is how to frame it. This is a problem I don’t have with blogging, which is perhaps why I find this such a liberating form. Here, having read something is reason enough to write something about it, and all that’s at stake is my own thoughts about it. I don’t have to attach my comments to anything or make them relevant or prove that they are somehow current or significant to anyone but me. They don’t need to be contributing to an ongoing debate or solving a critical problem. I don’t have to be engaging with someone else, or acknowledging everyone else, who has written on the same topic. Any or all of this kind stuff may emerge as I write, but the writing needs no further occasion for itself.
I think it is possible to write this way in any venue if you either are or believe yourself to be sufficiently wise and important that people ought to take an interest in your thoughts just because they come from you. But the rest of us usually need some sort of justification for writing–which is, after all, an implicit claim on other people’s attention. At least, that’s very much how I am feeling right now.
In academic writing about literature, there are a few fairly standard ways to build a frame around your specific analysis. All of them turn on the idea that you have something new to say. Probably most common nowadays is to claim a new insight into an ongoing interpretive argument: a revision, refinement, or refutation of some element of an established critical debate. This might be text-specific or have a broader reach, but you construct the frame by outlining the existing contributions and then explaining where you come in: ‘In the ongoing debates about Jane Eyre‘s implication in British imperialism, inadequate attention has been paid to the source of Jane’s drawing paper. Closer attention to the history of the production and importation of artists’ sketch pads shows that in the very art work often assumed to express Jane’s defiant Romantic individualism, Jane is dependent on a resource deeply embedded in an exploitative economic system’–most of you know the drill. A variation on this is the application of a particular theoretical model or idea to a particular text or body of texts: ‘Reading Jane Eyre through the lens of Levinas, we discover that…’ There’s also the ‘newly discovered’ frame: a text or author is unfamiliar and requires placing within appropriate theoretical, critical, and/or historical contexts. And so on. Both the preparatory and the rhetorical moves are well established. You do the reading and thinking and research that leads to the formulation of your idea. You do more research, to be sure that your idea is novel and so that you can set up your account of what people have said so far in relevant discussions. Your introduction lays out the debate and sets up your new contribution, and then you write it out in detail, engaging as you go along with the other people in the critical conversation you are now part of. One of the hardest parts is defining just which conversation that is, so that you don’t end up trying to include, say, everything anyone has ever said about Jane Eyre since it was published! Lots of things about this kind of writing, in fact, are difficult. But as academics, we learn how it is done–usually by the implicit example of the other criticism we read (though some people are fortunate enough to get explicit instruction).
I’ve been trying to get a sense of the range of possibilities for framing writing about literature in non-academic contexts. The most obvious form is the basic ‘review of a new release.’ The occasion for the writing is the novelty of the book itself. Within that there is certainly room for different strategies, from contextualizing the book within the author’s oeuvre or within its genre to just giving a plot summary and a few remarks on style or form. For books that are not new, things are a bit more complicated. A book may get renewed attention because of an occasion or event–the author’s death, for example, or its anniversary, or perhaps an invocation of the book by another book or author (the way, say, novels about Henry James give us a reason to talk about Henry James’s novels). A film or TV adaptation is likely to prompt a flurry of attention to “the original.” A scandal is an attention-getter: if a book is banned by a school library, for instance. Hot-button issues like (to cite a recent example) debates about whether Young Adult fiction is too dark and dreary these days can also prompt lots of discussion of back-list or even out of print titles. Fads like vampire novels or Scandinavian crime fiction give us an excuse to write again about Dracula or the Martin Beck books. These all strike me as journalistic reasons: in all of these cases, books become (or are made into) news.
Then there’s book writing of the “personal journey” or “what it meant for me” variety–a combination of autobiography and literary essay or commentary. There seem to have been a lot of examples of this recently, from Elif Batuman’s The Possessed to Rebecca Mead’s “Middlemarch and Me” or William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter (this one I haven’t read yet, so I may be making unfair assumptions about it, but I did read the excerpt at the Chronicle). This is literature in the service of self-knowledge. That’s fine, but it assumes a fairly extensive interest on our part in the autobiographical subjects. That seems reasonable if they are people of substance and significance, and they know it, and they aren’t afraid to assert it: we’re back, again, at a certain kind of self-confidence, even egotism, something inherent in all writing–again, a claim on other people’s attention–but more pronounced in this form. This form makes the books new by making them personal. (I’m not a huge fan of this approach, because I feel that too often the books get subordinated to, well, personal stuff. My own attempt at something in this vein is the essay I wrote on rereading Gone with the Wind, though I don’t think personal revelation was ultimately the main issue there, as I tried to use my own reading experience as a way to think hard about the novel itself.)
It seems to me to be harder to find book writing outside of blogs that simply, without special excuse or occasion, focuses on a particular book or author. One example I’m familiar with is Zadie Smith’s essay on George Eliot, originally published in The Guardian and now included in her book Changing My Mind. I can’t get at the Guardian version any more, but assuming she didn’t revise the beginning substantially, this essay has no journalistic or personal hook: she just starts talking about Middlemarch. But then, she’s Zadie Smith, so the novelty here is that she in particular is talking about Middlemarch: she is the news, her attention itself the frame needed to create an occasion for the piece. The pieces I wrote for Open Letters Monthly on Trollope, Felix Holt, and Vanity Fair are also examples of essays without occasion or special justification. Felix Holt was easiest in some ways because it’s Eliot’s least (or second-least) popular novel, so there’s some novelty just in focusing on it instead of Middlemarch. I motivated the Trollope piece (in my mind, at least) by figuring that he doesn’t have anything like the general popularity of Jane Austen so it was safe to imagine an audience that needed some kind of general introduction; focusing on The Warden (which I love, but which is hardly either his best or his best known novel) gave it a little helpful specificity. And I also felt reasonably sure Vanity Fair is not widely read these days, so again there’s some intrinsic novelty in trying to talk about it to a general audience. It surprises me a little, though, looking back, that I wrote all of these pieces with as little anxiety as I did about their place or reason. It didn’t even occur to me, for instance, to try to frame the Vanity Fair piece by talking about either the BBC adaptation or the weird Reese Witherspoon film (which Amardeep Singh appreciated much more than I did).
Do you think book writing needs to be framed in some way that makes the book new or relevant? Can you think of other strategies (ones you like? ones you dislike?) for writing about books, besides the ones I’ve thought of? Can you think of other examples of recent (mainstream, published [in print or online]) writing about books outside of the journalistic frameworks I’ve described? Do you worry about framing your writing? There has to be a reason to write something, doesn’t there? But can the reason be, ultimately, the book itself? Must it come from somewhere else?