Wednesday, November 11, 2009

I'm not teaching this semester

But if I were, I'd absolutely inform my students they were murders, when I discussed plot with them. I'd love to hear the resulting discussion.
A fascinating read.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Oh, blimey

So I move some books from one shelf to another, to make room for the books on Bunyan (Hurrah for frolicking with the pilgrims!) - and I dislodge my copy of Witches Abroad. On picking it up, I sit cross-legged on the floor for a moment, reading the first two pages, and smiling. In the opening section, Pratchett waxes pseudo-philosophical on the nature of knowing, and the nature of stories.

"Oh blimey," sez I to the dog. "I'm writing "Witches Abroad: The Dissertation."

Sunday, August 30, 2009

What on earth?

I simply must take a break from an interesting and productive morning's writing/reviewing to exclaim - what on earth is going on with Shadwell's "The Libertine?"And to answer that question, I now present a feature I'm going to call:

Vapid Reductionist Plot Summary By Someone Who Read It A While Ago!*

It has a ghost in it - seriously - the ghost of the libertine's father comes back from the dead to say "You killed me, that was TOTALLY NOT COOL!" and the libertine's friends are all "ARGH A GHOST!" and the libertine says "Oh, thank god you're a ghost. If you were really my father, then you might want your estate back. But I killed you to get it and now I've spent it and it was ALL ACE and also you're stupid and I mock your ghostliness." The ghost says something along the line of "REPENT!" and the libertine says "nope, having too much fun, now sod off" -

The libertine then kills and rapes a lot more people, (which is not rendered exciting or glamorous, and is rather horrible to read about. How was this staged so that people enjoyed it? Play was v. successful) . Eventually he and his libertine, waggish chums are invited to a dinner party by another ghost, who (with ghostly chums) drags them down to hell at the end of the play. The libertine, who is arguably the scum of the earth, and the most unsympathetic protagonist I've seen on stage, nonetheless goes down fighting with considerable verve and without any remorse or regret. A pre-Byronic hero? Not a hero in the slightest, though.
This comic by Kate Beaton comes to mind...

My point is, this is totally the weirdest play I've ever read. I'm talking Beckett weird. And written in the 1670s. And I've been obsessed with it all summer.

I am going to say something clever about authorial intrusion, particularly what the persistent deflation of audience expectations with regard to genre actually does to shape a kind of narrative voice. I really am. But right now, on re-reading my notes and work on this play, I am again struck by my initial reaction to the damned thing, which was "
Dude - WHUT ?!"

*I may need a snappier title.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Puzzle (my dissertation's film trailer/preview)

At the heart of the English novel there's a formal puzzle. The puzzle is: Where did the third person narrative voice come from?

In some ways, of course, the third person narrative voice has always been with us. For as long as we have related our own lives in narrative we have imagined and related the lives of others, so it would be disingenuous of me to point to the eighteenth century and say ‘here! This is where it began!’ And yet the third person narrative voice in a novel is something without which one cannot imagine nineteenth century literature, and something which rarely appears in the first fifty years of prose fiction printed after the restoration of Charles II in 1660. It has come from somewhere other than the Bible, and yet it is neither common, nor a prerequisite in early works of extended prose fiction. An avid reader will notice that the third person narrative voice draws on techniques developed from spiritual autobiographies and partisan news-papers in the mid-to-late seventeenth century, and is deeply indebted to the conduct books of the seventeenth century, specifically to their ‘improving’ stories of model children and servants, but that's not the whole story. So what do I think? I think that the third person narrative voice develops and proliferates in the single essay periodical that dominates print culture in the first twenty years of the eighteenth century, and this is absorbed from the voices of the Tatler and the Spectator into the later periodicals written by Johnson, and the novels of Fielding, Haywood, Sterne, Burney and Austen. That's my big claim, and that's why I'm going sit at a desk and write for the next twelve months.

I've always been fascinated by the flips between narrative and discursive voices, the moments when you can tell the narrator has moved from relating the story, to talking about the story. I've always felt a strong interest in questions of voice and authority in prose fiction, and the eighteenth century was the first place (reading backwards, as a kid) that I noticed the third person narrator flicker and twist like fish in a shoal. Sometimes it's there, sometimes it isn't - unlike the sturdy leviathan forms of the nineteenth century, sometimes the eighteenth century's narrative voice groups together in one direction for a moment, to scatter completely the next. I see shoals, I see Venn diagrams, and I see patterns that aren't quite emergence and aren't quite rises, but are tried and dropped and sometimes tried again. At the end of the century, there is a third person narrative voice, and at the start of the century there isn't, quite. So it has to happen somewhere.

The problems with writing narrative about the origins of the third person narrator are many, but I am chiefly concerned with this one: I just can't know what it was like to read English in a time when the third person narrative voice was not a prevalent form of storytelling. Just as a contemporary music fan can't know what music sounded like before rock and roll, however passionate about baroque music she may be, so I can't tell what reading was like before the third person narrative voice came to dominate realist fiction.

It is helpful to consider the century between 1660 and 1760 as a liminal period for extended prose fiction in English, during which time many different types of narrative voice struggled for prevalence in print, so I plan to pay attention to some of the failed narrative voices which now read as quirks and oddities of the time. It is interesting to speculate what English Literature might look like had some of them caught on, but at this stage it is more important to note that literature altered in meaningful ways when the third person narrative voice was the most successful formal feature of eighteenth century prose fiction. The eventual success of the third person narrative voice altered literature and literary studies so completely that it is worth examining why and how this particular narrative voice emerged as dominant.

Also, while a detailed discussion of narratology will follow, that school of thought seems caught between two poles. In this project is not invested in privileging the story at the expense of the storyteller, nor the storyteller at the expense of the story. My interest lies in the postures and voices that the storyteller uses to tell the story. This conversation is about the act of narrating, rather than individual narratives or narrators. In fact, this conversation hangs on a story.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Wilder Shores

Check out the UCLA library's special collection "Wilder Shores: Lady Travelers of the 18th and 19th Centuries."
I am trying to design a board game in my head, where one is Lady Mary Wrotley Montagu, and goes to Turkey. Dallying in the seraglio for too long means you miss a turn, getting your letters published is plus ten points, and the first one to fall out with Pope AND bring smallpox vaccination to Britain wins the game!

Monday, February 2, 2009


If you're reading this blog because you enjoy eighteenth-century literature, then the chances are that someone will have already brought this to your attention - but if not, permit me to be the first to say: Jane Austen's novels - but with Zombies.

The book is called "Pride and Predjudice and Zombies." Considering my fascination with all things zomboid this book could well have been written with me in mind. Goodness, if 'someone like me' is somehow a deographic, does that mean there are lots of us? If you're a kindred soul, here's how to spot me; from now on, I'll be keeping my lacy bonnet next to the cricket bat and my Max Brooks library.

Stay safe out there, folks. I can hear groaning and shuffling from the library stacks...

A dignified nod to A Lady and Old English In New York for the link.

Edited to add: Alice of BenandAlice fame has also sent it to me. I think she's heard the zombie noises from the 10th floor of the stacks.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

"From My Own Apartment"

I have a cough.

It's not severe, it's just irritating. Also, I suspect I'm feeling far sorrier for myself that the actual cough should permit, and that irritates me even more - and then I cough, and begin again. It's a good job I have a comfy sofa and a portable edition of The Tatler, at the moment.

One of the pleasant aspects of spending Friday night in was trying a new recipe. I find that grey January skies and irritating colds both call for liberal applications of ginger, and so these triple ginger cookies are coming with me to a party tomorrow night.

Well, not quite all of them.