Translation and Power

I find myself returning to our discussion of Chester Himes while considering this week’s topic of global literature. I’m especially interested in the how the role translation plays in the production of Himes’ crime novels differs from the dissemination of Swedish/Scandinavian works. Himes’ novels, as we established, were often written in French but with the intent of being translated into English (or sometimes vice versa), so that Himes was consistently aware of and catering to his transatlantic audience. This, to use Rebecca Walkowitz’ term, results in literature that is “born translated.”

An important distinction arises when we look at Swedish crime novels, however, because both Beecroft and Berglund would agree that Himes was operating in two languages that are at the “core” of global literature. Both critics posit that there is a hierarchy to language, and Berglund, borrowing from Heilbron’s argument, claims that there are “three levels of languages: central, semi-peripheral, and peripheral” (82). In this model, English is the central language which acts as an intermediary for other, less central languages. Swedish is labelled as “semi-peripheral” (83). I can’t help but see these distinctions as creating (or addressing) a power dynamic that neither critic seems willing to contend with—Beecroft even imagines that we could be headed toward a “borderless world” as “texts begin to circulate more rapidly around the planet” (36). How is that possible if literature is still being filtered through a core language? Doesn’t the very act of translation affirm that there are borders that need to be overcome?

This brings me to my main issue: if there is a hierarchy/power structure for languages and translations, what does it mean for an author writing in a “semi-peripheral” language to appeal to a global audience? Berglund claims that Swedish crime novels (like Himes) are written with an international audience in mind: translation rights are often sold before a novel is even finished (81). If Swedish authors are writing with the aim of reaching a readership in the more “powerful” (in the hierarchy Berglund establishes) language of English, does this necessitate that Sweden/Scandinavia itself become an object of an outside gaze, one that does not belong to the author or the native people? I think this is what Berglund is getting at when he describes the “exoticization” of place within Swedish crime novels. He sees this is a distinctive feature of the success these novels enjoy, claiming that readers are often more interested in the descriptions of place rather than the crime. Drawing on Anderson, Miranda, and Pezzotti, Berglund argues that the setting can be both entertaining and didactic for readers (85). While Berglund sees this as a good thing—the novels are successful, a global audience is learning about a different country—I can’t help but be troubled by what he’s implying. There’s a certain voyeuristic quality in his account, one that requires writers to cater to a foreign language that is higher in the language hierarchy than their own.

With all that being said, I think it’s important to consider where Mankell fits in to all of this. Certainly, we’re reading his book in translation. The cover features a snowy, desolate scene. The novel includes a map, and Wallander describes places and weather patterns throughout. But the central concern of the novel seems to be the danger of foreigners and anxieties about open borders. Wallander often worries about the “newness” of the world. What is Faceless Killers doing, then, with the very specific phenomenon of Swedish crime novels?   

Complaints, despair

I’m troubled by the metaphors (?) this week’s secondary readings use to understand the translation and circulation of “world literature.” First, Berglund leans heavily on the idea of a linguistic core, periphery, and semi-periphery, apparently invoking world-systems theory. (While the terms “core” and “periphery” seem to be commonly used in network analysis, the use of “semi-periphery” is, as far as I can tell, basically exclusive to world-systems.)

I put a question mark after “metaphors” in the preceding paragraph because I’m not sure precisely how we’re meant to read these terms. Are they naming a relationship of domination and exploitation? Suggesting a homology between an economic world system and a linguistic or literary one? And what exactly is the “periphery” in this model? Berglund plays fast and loose with the concept, first describing Swedish novelists as “writing from a periphery” (77) then seeming to accept Heilbron’s quantitatively/sociologically-based identification of Swedish-language novels as “semi-peripheral” (83). Meanwhile, world-systems theory consistently identifies Sweden as a core country. Ultimately, this lack of clarity on the definition of periphery seems to contribute to Berglund’s ambivalent conclusion that “‘otherness’ or ‘exoticness’” are both “a requirement and an opportunity” (87). In this model, Swedish literature seems to wind up almost but not quite exploited, and almost but not quite dominant. I suspect that more clarity would be possible were this analysis backed by a clearer account of political and economic power dynamics on a global scale, in addition to its account of global literary production.

Beecroft substitutes the idea of multiple “ecologies” for the core-periphery model Berglund employs, but his model of world literature remains dependent on some dubious ideas about the ease of immigration, multiple citizenship, and movement across borders. Discussing global literary ecology, Beecroft suggests that as languages and texts “escape the bonds of the nation-state,” “we may be moving in the direction of just such a borderless world” (36). As nice as it is to think about the “writers of the future Anglosphere […] carry[ing] dual passports” (264), we may also wish to question who can simply “choose” to take on such a global identity given the current climate of militarized borders and renewed assaults on immigrants and refugees.

In summary, it seems that both these theories are evoking political realities of immigration and core-periphery relationships only to submerge those issues again. These issues are, however, raised fairly explicitly by Faceless Killers, a book about how “foreigners” are violent and dangerous, or really aren’t, or are after all, and about its protagonist’s libidinal relationship to blackness. (Is this novel exoticizing Sweden as Berglund suggests, or is it exoticizing blackness and other forms of racial and national difference!?!?!?) This post is too long already, so I’ll leave off here, mid-idea.

Hey Guys, What’s a Text?

For quite a long time now, I’ve been grappling with many of the questions raised by the Griswold/McDonnell/Wright article outlining the changes in readings habits over the 1990s and early 2000s. I’ve reduced those questions to “Hey guys, what’s a text?” As a scholar, I tend to see my study of literature as on par with my study of performance events and filmed media. Many of our dissertations may include chapters on art or performance  or film. I’ve yet to fully understand, however, what space English Departments offer that type of study, as opposed to Film or Theater or Art Departments. I’ve also gotten the sense that English scholars are more readily adapting to popular shifts in the consumption of narrative fiction to film and television and even video games by writing and teaching courses about these other types of media.

As a teacher, I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating what role a literature class has in a Netflix generation. When I taught high school, I asked students to write a research paper about why they read. The assignment got very mixed reviews, especially from my co-teacher, who confessed with some defensive rationalization that, like the students, she doesn’t read much outside of the class’s assigned books either. When I’ve taught college Expository Writing and Intro to Lit, my courses often include some digital media component. For several semesters, I’ve asked students to present a reading on some kind of visual text (a film clip, a painting, an album cover). My rationale is that even if my students never again pick up a book, they should learn how to ‘read’ the media they do consume.

As Griswold et al. state, there’s still a prestige attached to books and the act of reading. This new great divide between the reading and non-reading carries with it the same implications of high and low culture. Yet, if we reconstitute the definition of a text, then reading is more prevalent than ever. And people are consuming texts of greater quality and diversity than ever. Since our class has spent so much time exploring what it means to be a scholar of the mass market, should every 20/21st century class focused on popular fiction include at least some television or film on its syllabus? Are we performing a drastic oversight by not covering, for example, episodes of Law and Order? Would the fact of its medium change the kind of insight it provides? Would we need to read Law and Order differently than we would Indemnity Only? Should its wide viewership allow it to take precedence over another contemporary detective novel that doesn’t have as wide an audience, like Assumption, and provide better insight into the detective’s role in mass culture?

Griswold also presents data showing that white women are most likely to read literature than any other subgroup. I think we see this gendered slant in Indemnity Only, our first full woman detective novel. Vic is a UChicago grad who’s able to drop references to Marcuse and Paul Klee and infiltrate the college’s Women’s group. We’ve seen this literariness in other novels: Wimsey’s book collection and meta-references to other detective fiction, Chandler’s ‘elevation’ of the genre to high modernism, Borges’s presentation of a detective story within the genre of an academic review of an author’s work. In Paretsky, however, I can’t help feeling like these references evoke a clear knowledge that this novel is written for women, about a woman, and that neither likes to be spoken down to. Paretsky recounts that the first time she envisioned the character Warshawski felt like a quietly subversive act while she was femininely yes-ing her  nasty and stupid boss Fred.  I don’t think it’s necessary to see the high-culture references as Paretsky trying to prove her artistic know-how. Rather, I think it’s possible to claim that this artistic know-how is already a fact of women’s culture, embedded in our reading habits, and relishing itself with the game-changing female detective.

Genre after mass reading

I confess that this week’s primary reading—Sara Paretsky’s Indemnity Only—struck me initially, at a kind of intuitive level, as new territory for our course: now we’re really reading mass-market fiction! Of course, it doesn’t get any more mass-market than the magazine stories of Black Mask and its ilk, and writers like Sayers and Conan Doyle were writing for enormous popular audiences in their own time (to say nothing of Nancy Drew!)… but none of that, I have to say, has really altered my unreasoning conviction that Paretsky has somehow a different status. After all, Peter Wimsey and Sherlock Holmes are classics now, comfortably within the province of the English department; and even the Black Mask stories benefit from a historical distance that converts them into literary “artifacts.” Paretsky is too close, too contemporary: a fact brought home most signally by the book’s cover, which conveys nothing of the self-reflexive canonization of the “vintage” imprints that have republished our course versions of Himes or Sayers. It is true that we are reading the “30th Anniversary Edition,” with a new introduction by Paretsky, and that this implies that some kind of canon is being recognized or constituted here: but the stronger signals that the book is giving off make clear that Indemnity Only is being marketed as a contemporary airport novel, and thus a foreign object in the seminar room—the giant, block-letter author name; the soft, compact paperback, made to be mobile; the cheap paper; the large author photo on the back inside cover, redolent of the fan club. At bottom, it is really just the book’s appearance that convinces me of its difference. This, of course, is the experience of genre in the most Frowian sense: the framing features that produce an intuitive conviction of a text’s interpretative status. Regardless of the intellectual knowledge that says that Paretsky is not fundamentally separable from the rest of the syllabus, that bone-deep generic knowledge remains hard to shake.

In this vein, the Griswold, McDonnell, and Wright is particularly interesting for its suggestion that the very label of “mass-market” is increasingly becoming an inoperative distinction. The defining stratification of our era, they argue, is not between mass-market and literary book readers, but rather between book readers and everybody else: the “reading class” and the rest. If we agree to accept this premise, then the decline of “mass reading” puts new pressure on a term like “mass-market” to justify itself: is there even a “mass market” for fiction anymore (138)? Or is all book-reading, whether it be John Grisham or Jorie Graham, an elite, prestige activity now? This wouldn’t necessarily mean a leveling of the literary field—Jorie will always have more cultural capital than John—but it does suggest, at minimum, that the age-old association between literary genre and mass reading will have to be fundamentally rethought. How much of our thinking about genre fiction will survive when it is no longer conceptually linked to the naïveté of a mass audience?

V.I. Warshawski and the Female Likability Problem

As the half-Italian, half-Polish daughter of a retired police officer, I was immediately curious about V.I. Warshawski on a personal level. But Vic is far from the hard-boiled female hero I was expecting (hoping for?): I was expecting more of a Jessica Jones type of character (“a foul-mouthed, hard-drinking mess of a woman”) but Vic likes her fine clothes and hot baths, enjoys a good meal and keeps herself in impeccable physical shape. She’s weirdly socially conservative and pro-cop for a private investigator. In short, she feels much less like a gritty subversive hard-boiled detective who just happens to be female and more like a suburban mom’s escapist daydream. I can’t imagine the readership for the V.I. Warshsawski novels overlapping with the readership for Philip Marlowe stories, or even the Millennium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books).  There’s something, for lack of a better description, girly about V.I. Warshawski, despite her tough-gal act which to me is just a bit too contrived: just look at Paretsy’s “bio” for the character on her website. Yes, Vic drinks scotch whiskey neat and gets beaten up by thugs, but the narration surrounding these acts is painfully self-conscious: she practically boasts about her ability to talk-back to threatening men when it’s just dangerous enough to do so, and she always knows her limits when it comes to how much of that Jonnie Walker she should drink. Ultimately Vic is likable: for her flaws, she is respectful of her family upbringing, surprisingly maternal where she needs to be, financially and personally responsible, and kind more often than she is crass. For me, its this very likability that problematizes my viewing her as a gritty or hard-boiled detective. Vic is not an antihero, an unlikable loner with deep character flaws and recurrent trauma from a dysfunctional past; she doesn’t “dare” us to like her in spite of who she is, but assumes we will like her because she is a good person. For me, this taps into an old gendered problem of readership: an audience is much more likely to accept a flawed, unlikable male character than a female one. Since it feels like Paretsky is writing for middle class women in the 1980s, I certainly can’t blame her for not making V.I. “edgy” enough; it’s only in the past decade that we’ve seen real commercial success from flawed female antihero detectives like Jessica Jones and Lisbeth Salander—two realistic (?) female characters created by men.

Vic does seem to have one underlying flaw that isn’t mentioned explicitly in the text, or even really alluded to; I wonder if Paretsy is even consciously coding for it. V.I. seems to me to have some major body issues. At first I thought that Vic’s love of food was meant to be some kind of marker of self-acceptance, a note that she likes what she likes and doesn’t care of that’s attractive or not. But the detailing of food in this novel is almost obsessive—as obsessive as Vic’s workout routine and compulsion to stay in physical shape. She is constantly commenting on the clothing of others at inopportune moments (as in when she is being actively abducted from her apartment) and has no problem body shaming women for no real productive end—I can’t get out of my head the scene in chapter four where Vic comments on the “unlovely sag” in the secretary’s arms, a detail Vic can’t seem to stop fixating upon. It’s always a dangerous move to try to psychoanalyze literary characters, but I can’t stop wondering if this weird body fixation is meant to be V.I.’s issue or if it’s just one more reason why Sara Paretsy’s attempt at writing a gritty female character falls flat.

from “Sam Spade”

[posting this for our colleague “Sam Spade,” who is having login troubles–AG]

There are a lot of mysteries that remain unsolved at the end of *Assumption*. Not the least of these, to me, is the role of race in the novel. One of the review excerpts on the back of the book, touting Everett as “America’s preeminent post-racial novelist,” certainly cues the reader to search for racial themes. On the other hand, that qualifier “post-“ sure is troubling, and the other excerpts emphasize his inventiveness, his slipperiness, and his use of genre. To use McGurl’s terminology, is this high cultural pluralism, technomodernism, or some combination of the two? I’d argue the publisher’s ambiguous framing suggests they had about as good an answer to that question as I do.

The beginning of the novel certainly seems more like some variant of the high cultural pluralist mode, genre trappings notwithstanding. Ogden’s racial identity is made a central issue in the novel’s first section, where his father’s hatred of white people seems tied to Ogden’s self-hatred and self-doubt—“it was hard for a son to think that his father hated half of him,” Ogden thinks (13). Seemingly the only black person in the area, Ogden also encounters plenty of racism in this section of the book. “Maybe she was acting strange simply because she was strange, because she had never liked Ogden’s skin colour, though she had never said as much,” Ogden thinks to himself with regard to Mrs. Bickers, and we’re inclined to believe him, especially once we learn of her involvement in a violent racist organization (9). But the novel’s ending upsets all this—it may be that Mrs. Bickers has a great reason to act strange toward Ogden that has nothing to do with his race, and the indeterminacy introduced by the conclusion makes me think that ominous hate group may itself be a fiction. The exploration of racial identity seems undermined by the ambiguous game playing of the conclusion; is this technomodernism winning out?

Or perhaps the cultural pluralism and technomodernism reinforce each other. Perhaps we can understand the confusion surrounding Ogden’s character—and the book as a whole—as an expression of Ogden’s own confusion about his racial identity. “Nothing makes sense and that’s the only way that any of it can make sense,” Ogden says at the end of the book (225). Reading this line as a comment on racial identity seems appealingly concrete.

But—yet another reversal—perhaps this is falling into Everett’s trap. A little research into Everett reveals his skepticism of the “assumptions” underlying the typical reception of a black novelist and his penchant for parodying these assumptions (see his novel *Erasure*). We get such a parodic scene in *Assumption*, involving a mural depicting refrigerators dressed like dancing Native Americans. “[M]ost people were offended by it,” we learn, “but [the owner], being Native, claimed that every detail was accurate, except for the fact that the dancers were appliances” (107). This small vignette, parodying the position of authority and authenticity from which writers of minority cultural identities are presumed to speak, suggests that perhaps, for Everett, trying to make race the key to the book is itself wrongheaded and limiting.

But perhaps…

More Questions than Answers

To my mind, the first question that needs to be answered, before embarking on any interpretation of this novel, is whether one can actually pull a Herbert Quain (as suggested in the previous post), comb back through Assumption after reading the ending, decipher the clues, and reconstruct a coherent version of what happened. The whole meaning of the book depends on whether that’s possible.

But that would be hard to do even in the time devoted to a full-length paper, and I certainly wasn’t able to do it by the time this post was due. Maybe we can put our heads together and work through it in class on Monday.

In lieu of that, here are some questions about the novel that I thought merited reflection:

1.) Genre and the desire for resolution/coherence. If the point of this novel is that there is no point, and that’s all there is to it, I would feel pretty disappointed. Such points have certainly been made often enough before, and frankly I find them tiresome. It’s more interesting, I think, to say that the novel’s lack of resolution forces us to examine our own desire for resolution, and more importantly, how certain generic elements sculpt that desire. In this case the relevant ones are (modernist?) high-literature and of course detective fiction

2.) Identity and denotation. Many passages in the novel made me wonder whether “Ogden’s mother” and “Eva Walker” in fact refer to the same person. The top of page 60 is a particularly suspicious example. The same can of course be applied to the last scene. Is it really Bucky who says “It’s me” when Warren Fragua calls out? Is it really Ogden who gets shot? After all, the face of the guy who got killed is not the “a face he [Warren] knew” (225). Was it really Ogden who held Warren at gunpoint? Warren could have easily misrecognized him.

3.) Holy Mary, Mother of God. Well, the title of the novel is Assumption, right? So we have to talk about the Assumption of Mary into heaven, right? (I know I’m not the only one in this class who was raised Catholic.) Anyway, on page 199 a junkie tells Ogden: “My name is Mary… You know, like in the Bible. Jesus’s mother. The light blue one.” Honestly, I think this (modernist?) high-literary clue is just as unlikely to lead anywhere as the detective-style clues in the novel are. What’s really interesting is how Assumption points out the similarities between high-literary and detective-fiction discourses by showing how the same kind of story can subvert both at once.

So how ’bout that ending?



Up until I read the last thirty pages of Assumption, my plan for this response was to talk about how Ogden Walker and his approach to detection subvert or reaffirm Raymond Chandler’s conception of detective fiction as laid out in “The Simple Art of Murder.” I suppose I still could. Ogden is simultaneously a man who, as Chandler says, “talks as the man of his age talks” and certainly appears to not be the kind of person who would despoil a virgin; nonetheless, he is not impressively heroic, nor does a figure like him present a model for the creation of a better world—quite the opposite, actually. Perhaps that’s as far as that discussion can go although one might consider what Everett is saying about the type of the detective when it turns out that our intrepid hero takes the line between criminal and detective that most gumshoes straddle and obliterates it.

So much for that. Now, back to the ending.

It obliquely reminds me of Herbert Quain’s The God of the Labyrinth, especially the phrase about chess players that signals to the reader that the crime’s solution is wrong, and thus an “unquiet reader rereads the pertinent chapters and discovers another solution, the true one” (Borges 74). Almost immediately after finishing the novel and taking a few seconds to mouth the words “What the hell?” once or twice, I flipped through the earlier sections of the novel to try and discover if something else was amiss, now fully aware that neither Ogden nor the narrator can be trusted. I congratulated myself on figuring out that Wally Yates was a figment of Ogden’s imagination, but like Ogden upset about missing out on earlier clues, I let my skepticism run wild. “Interesting that there was only one set of footprints in the snow leading up to Mrs. Bickers’s house,” I murmured with an air of erudition, “and wasn’t there supposed to be much more money stolen from One Hand than twelve-thousand dollars? Where did the rest go?” I started to wonder if my own search was, as Ogden so flatly puts it, “some ego thing, or, worse, some macho thing” (150).

Like Quain’s novel, Assumption thrusts the burden of detection onto the reader. However, a true resolution in Assumption is doubtful. It is very difficult to pin down when or exactly why Ogden might have lost his grip on reality; perhaps it did not occur until the third section of the novel, and the inconsistencies early on are just that. It likely occured somewhere in the gaps between cases in the novel. Perhaps his racial background or attitude about authority or persistent loneliness all contribute to his break with reality. One wonders if, as a detective, the reader reaches the same conclusion Ogden does: “Nothing makes sense and that’s the only wat that any of it can make sense” (225).

I wonder if Assumption—which is not exactly metaphysical, so please bear with me here—might be doing some of what Michael Holquist claims postmodern detective fiction does, which is “dramatiz[ing] the void” and revealing that it is not death that requires a solution but that “in the new metaphysical detective story it is life which must be solved” (155). If so, then what is the solution to life that Assumption proposes? Distrust the mind? Distrust everything and everyone, including those you think you can trust the most, whether they are your good friend or an authoritative narrator? Distrust all your assumptions? That last one was groanworthy. I apologize.

Speaking of groans and crimes:

Cosmic Mind Detective

Himes and the Absurd

Johnathan Eburne’s take on Chester Himes is useful in the way that it maps both the author’s biography and development as an artist, but I was particularly struck by the middle ground that Himes seems to occupy within the genre of detective fiction in Eburne’s understanding: his detective novels are neither in the realm of “social realism,” nor “existentialism” (807). Rather, they occupy “absurdity” as “both a social condition and a narrative apparatus” (807). This is especially interesting if we consider this distinction in the larger scope of the course. We have often wrestled with the question of realism in detective fiction (with Sayers in particular), and just last week we were confronted with the existential (metaphysical, if we trust Holquist) detective stories of Borges. What then does it mean for Himes to occupy this middle ground?   

I’m particularly concerned with how Himes’ position relates to the generic codes of detective fiction, especially as there have been several prescriptive accounts of what makes a detective novel a detective novel. A dead body, clues, a logical conclusion, a lack of mystical intervention all seem to be a part of what makes good detective fiction (if we’re meeting the London Detection Club’s standards). Sayers must meet these standards if she wants to maintain the veneer of realism; Borges must include them if he wants to show their failings, thus creating a postmodern experience for the reader. Certainly, Himes’ works meet these rules. Yet his novels and their position in the world of the absurd make these rules less of a focal point. Himes is not writing for the pleasures of ratiocination, nor is he attempting something metaphysical. Instead, Himes is “abandon[ing] any such coherent philosophical position, seeking instead a ‘handle’ on absurdity as a way of describing how racism operates in the American imaginary” (825). There is something larger at stake for Himes, something that can only be communicated via the realm of the absurd: a critique of racism in America.

Why is the detective novel, then, Himes’ modus operandi? The absurd could certainly exist in other genres. Here, I would like to consider Eburne’s careful attention to the language of Himes’ works. He opens his argument by describing the “indecipherable language” of Harlem jazz in Cotton Comes to Harlem, quickly tying it to the language of the novel: “This painful, paradoxical understanding of the world as language not only frustrates the two detectives but also characterizes the narrative logic of Himes’s detective fiction” (806). This frustration could quite possibly be problematic because it goes precisely against what is expected of a detective novel. If the detectives are confused by the language of the world, then the reader is certainly lost. Indeed, this, for Eburne, is what Himes intended: “[his] fiction refuses to relinquish this indecipherability, insisting on, even celebrating, its value as an impediment to idealized solutions to the world’s injustice (807). Himes wants to leave us in an unsolvable world, so that we will be faced with the vicious realities of racism, without the option of escape. Why is this something that is ideally communicated through the detective novel? Is it because we expect authors and detectives to follow the rules of “the game” that we are shocked and confused when the language does not allow us a logical conclusion?  

Himes and the refusal of “ethnic realist” narration

I find these excerpts from The Program Era helpful for their schematic mapping-out of the contemporary literary field, but I also question McGurl’s account of the strategies available to racialized and otherwise minoritized writers. McGurl seems to imagine a literary field whose alternatives lie on a spectrum from ethnic realism to technomodernism, both of which are necessarily mediated by the university. This seems to suggest that all (“literary”/non-genre?) literary production by people of color ultimately serves the university, becoming part of its (raced, classed) project of social reproduction. While this is pretty undeniably one of the functions literature performs in society, I’d like to believe that some intervention is possible for writers of color beyond endlessly reproducing their (our?????) difference from whiteness in service of the reproduction of both whiteness and capital. I’m also troubled by the “strategic triumphalism” of McGurl’s conclusion. If “systematic investments of capital over time have produced a continual elevation of performance” in literature, how can we even begin to think of the potential “excellence” (whatever that means) of working-class writers, writers of color, or anyone else belonging to a group that has been systematically excluded from the university and denied the “investment of capital” McGurl points to (409)?

I don’t really have the tools to deal with either the social reproduction questions or the aesthetic evaluation questions I’m raising here. So I’d like to set those aside for a moment and think about how the formal features of Cotton Comes to Harlem might challenge the logic of cultural pluralism that the literary establishment as described by McGurl relies upon. I imagine that McGurl would classify Himes’ work as genre fiction rather than either ethnic realism or technomodernism, but I do think Cotton might provide a model for “genre” techniques that could be absorbed by either of those modes in order to challenge the logic McGurl sees as foundational to them.

How does “ethnic realism” stake its claim to knowledge of a culture or experience? McGurl doesn’t say much about its formal properties in the excerpt we read, but I imagine it involves a sort of reversal of 19th century realism’s equation of knowledge with social distance. First-person or highly focalized third-person narration from the perspective of one or two primary characters replaces a more omniscient, wide-ranging, and detached view, suggesting that the narration, like all knowledge, stems from a specific social location—likely one close, if not identical to, the author’s.

By contrast, Himes seems to refuse both these modes of narration. As Eburne puts it, Himes dramatizes the “collapse” of the “fixed point in intellectual space” from which one might understand a culture or a political struggle (807). Neither an “objective”/omniscient perspective nor an individual/personal one seems possible here. And yet, the narrator does seem to display a sort of omniscience in their (its?) ability to move across character perspectives and social strata—like a multiplot Victorian novel, without either the chatty narrator or the free indirect discourse that allows characters to briefly take over the telling of the story. Ultimately, I’m not sure how to characterizes Himes’ narrator other than by what the narrator isn’t. But I’m interested in that narrator’s ability to refuse either detachment or personalization, and how this seems to complicate easy equivalences between the author’s social position and the work.

Warning: Very Snarky

Far be it from me to criticize an article with the intellectual and scholastic chops to use the term “savage” unironically. However, if I was to venture a slight critique of Michael Holquist’s “Whodunit and Other Questions” I would start by noting that it is quite bad and Michael Holquist should feel bad for having ever written it.  

It is nonetheless a fascinating article, as Holquist’s fundamental argument is predicated on a monolithic understanding of various literary and cultural forms. Modernist novels, for him, are defined by a kind of psychological refraction of Western mythology; they “essentially take place in the country of the mind, inside,” (145). It always amazes me that critics turn to Ulysses as an example of a psychological, non-political drama. The book is basically a ransom note of jaggedly cut newspaper articles, tavern ditties, advertising slogans and political fantasies. 

Anyways, this received tidbit of New Critical wisdom would be less egregious if it did not also structure the putative binary between “kitsch” and, in particular, detective fiction. The detective, dating back to Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, is a “metaphor for order” (141), he is resolutely non-psychological, or even anti-psychological to the extent that his spurious rationalizing operates as a narcotic that dulls the mind against “a world that all too often seems impervious to reason,” (143). It is very telling that he has no clue at all what to do with ‘hard-boiled’ detective fiction, other than to place it somewhere higher on the field of literariness than ‘real’ detective fiction.    

In fact, it is his “small digression”, in which he both introduces and dismisses the ‘hard-boiled’ genre, that his project is most nakedly apparent. This project, in essence, is an attempt at literary gatekeeping; post-modernism is the legitimate heir to modernism, and the latter’s perplexing turn towards the genre of detective fiction is largely ironic. The ‘hard-boiled’ genre, which draws its appeal from “mainstream fiction; literature, if you will” (146) cannot act as a bridge between the classic detective story and the post-modern detective story (a thesis that would be problematic in its own right) but is instead “impure- and I mention it only as an exception” (147). Instead, the relation between the detective genre and post-modernism is that of the modernist novel and the pre-Christian mythological; lumps of discursive coal used to fire the engine of white European treatments of the “modern mind”.  

Following up on the thesis of “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (which at least had the decency to be written in the 1930’s) Holquist’s article is a fascinating example of scholastic acrobatics, an anxious attempt to reinscribe literary binaries that are clearly undermined by the actual texts he is referencing.  

What have we learned?

Even on the basis of our brief acquaintance this semester, it is safe to say that critical work involving quantitative methods often seems, on the whole, to be more about what it hasn’t taught us. Like Moretti—who was forced to problematize and even revoke large swathes of his argument in the final pages of his essay—Underwood is constantly qualifying his findings, which in any case point in no clear direction, having failed to support any of his initial ideas. Indeed, if there is any rhetorical gesture that marks this genre of criticism, one is tempted to say, it is surely the cautious backpedaling of uncertain conclusions.

Of course, that their method may be more productive of ambiguity than certainty, I am sure distant reading’s practitioners would be the first to agree. Not for nothing does Underwood feel compelled to close his essay with a section titled “What have we learned?”—a tacit admission that the answer has heretofore been far from obvious. But the larger question that remains for me, at the close of Underwood’s article, is what kind of knowledge such methods are actually intended to produce. What would learning look like, on a good day? To put it another way: if we are adopting a critical practice that involves, as Underwood puts it, “bracketing the quest to identify underlying factors that really cause and explain the phenomenon being studied” (p. 2 in the downloaded PDF version), then to what degree are we really sacrificing understanding? And what kinds of new understanding are we looking to gain, that could compensate for our inability to explain or account for genre?

In this respect, it is striking how often our received notions of genre find affirmation here (for example, that Poe created the blueprint for all subsequent detective fiction), while our more theoretically sophisticated and nuanced understandings (genres as “fluid and tenuous constructions”) are troubled and unsettled (4, 5). The picture of genre that Underwood’s research paints is mainly new, it seems, insofar as it is so old: its novelty, from our current vantage, is precisely its outdatedness. In these pages, we are returned to a vision of genre as stable, unchanging, and intrinsically identifiable: detective fiction began with Poe, and remained fixed and coherent ever after. Ironically, this is the exact opposite of Underwood’s intention, having set out with a fluid view of genre based in “blurry family resemblances” and “the shifting practices of particular historical actors” (2).

It might behoove us to ask how Underwood’s quantitative methods have produced a result so antithetical to his own theoretical premises. In the meantime, the further irony is that even this state of straightforward coherence remains essentially opaque and inexplicable in his model. This is because, for Underwood, the linguistic consistency that marks the long-term coherence of the detective genre does not define it (“our goal is no longer to define a genre” –2): i.e., the genre’s coherence does not consist in its linguistic consistency (Underwood makes clear that genre is not a linguistic phenomenon), “words just happen to be convenient predictive clues”—predictive of a coherence, in other words, that is comprised of something else (2). What that something else is, the model has no way to tell us.

Underwood concludes his essay by opining “that quantitative methods can give literary scholars descriptive resources” (8); his basic move, throughout, has been to trade definition for description: instead of trying to define genre, we’ll just describe how it behaves. I am happy to meet him on those terms, which seem like a worthwhile trade-off to make: but I remain unsure of what description he has actually provided. All he can do, it seems, is tell us that there is indeed a thing called genre out there (but only sometimes—see the case of the Gothic): its content and features remain, if anything, more mysterious than they were before.

A Case of (Decadence, Emptiness, and) Identity

Will Norman’s assessment of Chandler’s style is a fascinating study that speaks not only to Chandler’s style, but which also raises questions about the nature of genre and periodization themselves. In reading about Chandler’s biographical details–particularly as set forth by Norman–I was struck by how much his “dates” overlap with Dorothy Sayers (he lived 1888-1959, she from 1893-1957) and how little their styles do. I sense this is rooted in more than their geographical distance and more in something more deeply philosophical: an understanding of the modern world taking shape around them, as well as an understanding of their recent past.

Norman seems to claim that Chandler’s fiction has the trappings of decadence, that Chandler’s sense of being “born half a century too late” fed into the quest for a particular aesthetic that was crystalized in a hollowness, an emptying out of meaning that came to define the author’s style. (751) I’ll admit that while reading these Chandler selections, I myself did not get a sense of the decadence I associate with the British fin-de-siècle tradition: if anything, that was much more apparent to me in Sayers’ work. To me, Peter Wimsey easily fits the image of a man holding onto an aristocratic, decadent past that seems to be transforming into something grotesquely modern before front of his eyes; Philip Marlowe seems embittered by the modern space he inhabits without any particular nostalgia for another time or place.  I imagine Norman would ascribe this interpretation to David Weir’s assertion that “in America, the cultural conditions that produced the possibility of decadence in Europe simply did not exist,” perhaps insisting that my very assumption that “American decadence” should look like English decadence is what prevents me from seeing said decadence in Chandler’s work. (756) But is it really fair to equate hollowness and emptiness with decadence? It seems to me that while the atmosphere that Chandler creates could look like decadence with its smoky rooms and pleasure-seeking characters, it is really something else entirely–that it is that very “emptiness” which prevents from being decadent. After all, in order to have decay or decline, one must start with some kind of substance. I don’t know that I find the explanation of a “temporal dysfunction that empties the past of significance and establishes a disorienting equivalence of late and early” enough to justify an existence of American decadence at all. (757)

All this being said, the lingering questions I have relate to choice of this particular genre for Chandler to work out his transatlantic identity, his own geographic and temporal tensions in forming his identity as a writer. Perhaps my real question is even larger: what draws writers to the particular genre of the detective story? There are clearly other subgenres of popular fiction at their disposal; what is it about the detective story–or, it seems to me– the figure of the detective himself that draws writers like Chandler to work out their understanding of the modern world through this form? Does the detective figure lend himself to a type of loneliness, a type of isolation due to his inherent suspicion of others, his obsession of following the facts to solve problems, his need to work alone to puzzle out what things truly “mean”?

10/30: Shaw v. Gardner

Erin A. Smith provides us with a useful set of oppositional approaches to the issue of detective fiction’s place in the cultural hierarchy.  On the one hand, we have Black Mask editor Joseph Thompson Shaw, who extolled his writers’ publications in the more literary, highbrow, “slick” magazines as evidence of Black Mask‘s equal level of sophistication and accomplishment. His approach is a defensive and recursive one, arguing for Black Mask‘s exceptionalism while also claiming its indistinguishability from the popular slicks. Smith characterizes Shaw’s stance as “desiring honorary slick status” instead of arguing for the cultural value inherent in the pulp (33).

On the other hand, writer Erle Stanley Gardner, who was one of the acclaimed writers Shaw would’ve singled out, thinks Shaw’s argument is futile. People will pay for a pulp when they want to read a pulp, and a slick when they want to read a slick. For Gardner, not only are the two genres unrelated and incomparable, they’re each validated but the market niche they inhabit. In fact, he seems to jokingly suggest that the pulps are better than the Post or Liberty because it costs 15 cents more (34). We can see Gardner’s stance as bound to the innate possibilities the genre provides. His stance might seem to be more populist and liberating, freeing the detective genre from the pressures of being avant-garde or marketable. But it also assumes something inherent about the genre (and its readers) that remakes the ‘great divide’ and stratifies them.

Shaw’s approach seems to end up costing the magazine, which nearly always operated in the red. However, his career is remarkable for the talent that he fostered into higher cultural strata: Hammett, Chandler, Gardner, etc. In the longer span of time, it is Shaw’s work that earns these writers the capital needed for places in the canon.  Gardner goes on to rake in the silver screen bucks writing Perry Mason for CBS (and showing up as a frequent NYT Crossword answer, according to Wikipedia). But how do we resolve this tension between the two defenses against cultural hierarchy using Bourdieu’s theory of cultural value? One possible answer is that Shaw’s approach best serves in shifting the milieus over long periods of time, giving writers the currency to enter into different spots along the hierarchy throughout their careers. It offers the role of the editor, or literary agent, in the market. Gardner’s approach, however is better for the short-term market, playing the rules of the game successfully as a writer who knows his place best.

McCann Post

McCann´s treatment of Black Mask hard-boiled detective stories shows how an interesting methodological issue arises when the object of literary study shifts from canonized Literary Works to popular literature that has not been endowed with the same prestige—to what extent do we view these works as products of an individual authorial intelligence vs. products of systemic economic and ideological formations? I think there is a tension in these two views at work in McCann´s treatment of Dashiell Hammett, who, if he has not ascended to the ranks of the Great Modernists, has at least progressed much farther in certain canons than Daly has. McCann´s clear bias toward Hammett reiterates this canonical status: he is “a far more perceptive writer” than Daly (62) and his novel Red Harvest is lavished with praise. As a result, it seems to me that, in the Hammett sections, a desire to defend the author´s status emerges alongside (and potentially in tension with) the larger project of linking a particular cultural form to its economic and cultural context.

This defensiveness is particularly evident in the claim that “in order to fully appreciate Hammett´s ingenuity and his novel´s account of violence run amok, we need to recognise that Red Harvest is not only a deconstruction of the detective story but the logical conclusion of the critique of Klannish fantasy that hard-boiled fiction began in ´Knights of the Open Palm´¨(78). The ideological work done in Red Harvest is put down to Hammett´s own “ingenuity,” his own agency as a thinker and an author (it is interesting to note as well that this ingenuity is linked to a skeptical engagement with genre). This perhaps explains a small problem I have with this article. With Daly, McCann is perfectly willing to admit that Klannish nativism is merely one form of the will toward community-constituting social fantasy that the hard-boiled detective sides against—Race Williams finds himself opposing labor unions and liberal senators peddling class-based fantasies of solidarity as well. With Hammett, however, McCann at times presses Klannish nativism into service to stand for any such fantasy. Perhaps a practical philosophy of amoral individualism is a lot more redeemable as an authorial position if it is opposed to atavistic nativism. Perhaps viewing Red Harvest as the “logical conclusion” of work begun in “Knights of the Open Palm” is a move at least somewhat rooted in a desire to defend Hammett as a thinking author. But is the goal of criticism to defend or to objectively explain? And is the independence of thought we allow to some writers and not others a result of the complexity of their work or merely our preexisting assumptions about them?

A Tale of Two Racisms

If “Knights of the Open Palm” criticizes the KKK, McCann correctly points out, it criticizes it not from a position of antiracism, but from a position of superior whiteness. “Race Williams represents the true nature of whiteness,” McCann writes. “The nature of that quality is to scoff at the Klan’s fraternal bonds and to pursue an uncompromising personal liberty” (61). Although I agree with McCann that what this story is staging is a conflict between two different types of whiteness, I would like to suggest that there is, at the very least, another dimension to this conflict besides the binary McCann sets up between whiteness-as-community and whiteness-as-individualism. Central to the story, I would suggest, is the notion of whiteness as work.

Crucial for the question of racialized work is the passage McCann points us to on page 436 of the Daly, where Race says “Oh, I’m a pretty tough egg — none tougher, I guess, but I felt as white as my robe in comparison with most of this gang.” To understand this passage, I think we need to look at a passage earlier on the same page, where Race describes the Klansmen to whom he is comparing himself: “…the new citizens [Klan members] swear never to tell anything nor give evidence against a Klansman unless he’s committed rape, willful murder or treason. Hot dog! Burglars, counterfeiters, and check raisers welcome — also arson might be appreciated — I don’t know.” Most of the crimes listed here are crimes that make money, which fits the earlier narrative of Dumb Rogers joining the KKK so he can more easily rob people. Crucially, the Klan members make money buy stealing, and although Race is “a pretty tough egg” he is ultimately construed as whiter than the Klan, I would argue, because he makes his money through work.

In “Knights of the Open Palm,” we are perhaps seeing the beginning of the shift from a racism that defines whiteness through a construction of moral and sexual purity, to a racism that defines whiteness as “hard work.” This is particularly apparent on page 436, where Daly’s narrator/protagonist says those who make money through any means — theft, fraud — besides “hard work” are by definition not truly white.

The vanishing object of literary-sociological study

In his focus on the structure of social relations within the literary field and the role literature plays in the field of power, Bourdieu seems to direct his attention away from the actual content or form of the works produced by his actors. He does at one point mention the preference of the avant-garde for “pastiche or parody” (Bourdieu 313), two terms we’ve previously associated with both modernism and postmodernism, and his idea of “art for art’s sake” seems to suggest something like Greenberg’s avant-garde “artists’ artists” who theorize the medium itself (Greenberg 8), minus Greenberg’s evaluative judgments about “real” and “ersatz” culture. Apart from these moments, though, “The Field of Cultural Production” doesn’t tell us much about what texts look like as aesthetic objects, or what they do beyond scoring points for their creators in the struggle for social distinction. We get little sense of literature as potentially registering social contradictions or anxieties, expressing utopian longings, compensating for some emotional intensity absent in its readers’ lives, or any of the other functions literary critics have attributed to it.

Can Bourdieu’s more structural, sociological approach be reconciled with the forms of close reading and ideology critique more closely associated with literary criticism? I do think that certain close reading-based questions can help us to mediate between individual texts and Bourdieu’s account of the structure of the literary field, for example:

  • What types of culture are depicted in the text? What do we as readers seem to be meant to feel toward that culture (recognition, estrangement, contempt, awe, aspiration, etc.)? What type of habitus must a reader have in order to experience that reaction?
  • How does the text interpellate the reader? (For example, “you” addressed as the medical student confused and unsettled by Lord Peter in Whose Body?, or Sayers’ footnotes that purport to teach you more than Lord Peter knows about editions of Dante.)
  • Following Leavis and Greenberg: how “difficult” is the text? What type of reader is most likely to seek out that level of difficulty (thinking about labor, leisure, access to education, etc.)?

It may also be useful, however, to think of Bourdieu as continuing the project of literary critics such as Leavis, whose work similarly downplays from close reading in favor of other methods (though she seems to attend more to potential effects of the text upon the reader than does Bourdieu). Both are thinking about gradations of power and prestige within the literary field—and both projects also seem to point toward the difficulty of just such a project. Leavis, as we’ve noted, aims to produce a study of readers yet finds that she can only go about this by surveying writers. Bourdieu seems to build here on his earlier work in Distinction, which elaborated a theory of taste as socially determined, drawing on extensive surveys of French people across classes about their economic position, tastes, and consumption habits. But rather than continuing such contemporary, empirical work, he applies his theories back to the moment of the formation of a stratified literary field in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Reading these two texts together seems to suggest that there’s something slippery about readers (or even authors) as sociological subjects, and that they must be approached with caution and from some distance, whether via readings of the texts themselves rather than engagements with the individuals producing and consuming them; surveys carefully distributed only to a particular population; or historical analyses whose bearing on the present is implied but not quite made explicit.

Survey and data on tastes in visual art, from Distinction. Why not do this for literature?

10/15 Fields, Positions, and Dispositions…Also, Ghosts

As I was reading Pierre Bourdieu’s piece, two thoughts came to mind. The first was that, having experienced his challenging syntax, I would do well to keep my use of parenthetical and prepositional phrases in check from now on. The second, more fruitful idea was that it would be interesting to apply his rigorous method of literary field analysis to Sayers and get a better sense of where she stands in relation to the other agents in her field.

Then, I remembered something in Robinson Crusoe about the folly of starting something without counting the costs.

Bourdieu does not make implementing his analysis easy. As covered in Cohen’s article earlier this semester and reiterated on page 31 of Bourdieu, it is difficult to reproduce the “spaces of original possibles” because some of an era’s problematics became extinct or were not commented upon at all. Furthermore, Bourdieu seems mostly occupied with the avant-garde and with oppositions to bourgeois culture within autonomous subfields; popular writing figures little in his discussion. This limitation, in turn, prompts some more questions. How do we classify Sayers? Where does she fall in relation to the three competing principles of legitimacy? How does whatever position she takes in her literary subfield displace other positions and struggle with avant-garde or “consecrated” writers?

More than anything, though, I am interested in how Sayers’s disposition—is she daring, conventional, desperate, or out to make a buck? —shapes what position she might be taking. She does not seem to be striving for the post of poet or “pure” artist, so to consider what she is striving for requires one to consider the “social direction” that guides he towards her goals. We can consider that social factors are “the basis of the astonishingly close correspondence that is found between positions and dispositions, between the social characteristic of ‘posts’ and the social characteristics of the agents who fill them” (Bourdieu 64). We could consider how her need to make a living would perhaps push her far away from the “art for art’s sake” crowd, which as Bourdieu points out, might be composed of the guardians of truth and justice who are “explicitly defined as such in opposition to the constraints and seductions of economic and political life” (54). We can also consider how structural time-scales of the literary field of the novel shape Sayers’s position-taking. The novel goes through changes more rapidly than theater but less so than poetry if Bourdieu is to be believed (52), and the detective novel, as a popular form closely attached to the market, must undergo changes even more rapidly. Do the rapidly changing aesthetics of the detective novel make it hard for Sayers to challenge an established antagonistic position or even to fend off newly arising forms?

There is a lot to consider. The rigorous demands of Bourdieu’s method, the nature of which are not-so-succinctly described on page 65, seem to be raising more questions now than answering.

Bonus: I couldn’t help but think that the séance in Strong Poison was a dig at Conan Doyle for believing in fairies and ghosts. With that being said, please enjoy this recording of Conan Doyle’s ghost recorded at a séance in 1934.

10/9 Gender and the Reading Public

In the assigned section of  Q.D. Leavis’ Fiction and the Reading Public, there is only a passing mention of the role gender plays in the creation of the reading public. Though Leavis counts Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë among the great novelists, she is not concerned with how gender affects the making of the canon or bestsellers. In fact, Leavis argues that reading habits are created by whatever is most affordable in the marketplace, and thus class-based (an answer for Moretti?). However, the issue of gender does make a striking appearance when Leavis quotes one of the anonymous bestselling authors she interviewed, who says, “‘I imagine the bulk of my readers to be fairly simple people (mostly women) who want to read of romance in a form not incompatible with their own opportunities’” (58). While pondering Leavis’ larger concerns about who reads what and why, I was concerned by the implicit (and seemingly accepted) alignment of women–as both writers and readers–with “lesser” fiction.

Significantly, this “lesser,” commercialized fiction is singled out as detective fiction. Leavis claims that, because the masses enjoy the mental relaxation found in the act of reading, detective stories enjoy a certain popularity: “for the reader of to-day a not unpleasurable way of relaxing is to exercise the ratiocinative faculties on a minor non-personal problem. It is chiefly this use of fiction that has commercialised novel-writing” (50). Detective fiction achieves its association with mass culture, rather than highbrow literature, because of its approachability for the masses, perhaps the “simple” female reader the anonymous author anticipates.

Detective fiction being tied with mass culture carries with it concerns about not only the gender of the audience, but also the gender of the author, something that Andreas Huyssen addresses in After the Great Divide. Taking Flaubert and Madame Bovary as his example, Huyssen claims that the mass culture debate at the heart of modernism is largely concerned with gender: “woman (Madame Bovary) is positioned as reader of inferior literature–subjective, emotional, passive–while man (Flaubert) emerges as writer of genuine, authentic literature–objective, ironic, and in control of his aesthetic means” (46). Highbrow literature is clearly within the realm of male writers, since in this dichotomy, women are not even considered as authors; they are readers only, and readers of “inferior literature.”

All that is to say that Dorothy Sayers is a female author, writing the alleged “lesser” fiction known as the detective story. Herself an incredibly accomplished woman (one of the first to receive a degree from Oxford, multiple translations of Dante), Sayers, in my opinion, seems aware that her readership will have these opinions of her work. So what do we do when one of her characters, Parker, actually says, “‘you’ve been reading detective stories; you’re talking nonsense’” and “‘if this were a detective story’” (20, 29). Is Sayers trying to distance herself from the mass culture that is so often feminized? Or do we see her poking fun at the elitism of highbrow literature?