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.

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.

9/25- Ginzburg’s Clues and Individuation

Ginzburg’s “Clues” feels like a great detective caper itself, twisting and turning through short histories of art forgeries, medical dissections, criminal fingerprinting, and some good, old-fashioned ear fetishizing.

The conclusion reached is that the clues emphasized in the first detective stories, the details that lend insight into the habits, traits, and personalities of complete strangers, come from the need for individuation in an increasingly  obfuscating and systematizing urban society. Ginzburg locates  Sherlock’s and Dupin’s extremely useful, if not critically important, abilities within a time period of growing geographic and social mobility, class struggle, criminalization, and anonymity. Such ability, like that of the forgery-spotter, the doctor, and the crime records keeper (close enough), restores a certain integrity and knowability to the social order. It imposes a perception of reality onto a shifting world where what is bad/illegal/diseased is not clearly distinct from the good/moral/healthy.

I’d like to trace this argument onto our continually evolving understanding of what modernism is. Tracing the individual and his distinction from /attachment to society is one of the goals of literary representation, and each loosely-lumped-together literary movement defines this relationship differently.  High modernism maps the individual consciousness NOT on the his lofty goals and godlike infinitude, nor by direct access to his innermost thoughts and emotions. Rather, what matters is the person’s seemingly inconsequential traits: their morning routine, whether or not they’ll buy flowers themselves, the memory of seeing their sister on a swing, what they do on the toilet, etc.

I’ve used The Actor’s Studio as an example of these noteworthy nothings. After a usually substantial interview with a noteworthy actor, James Lipton always closes the show with a questionnaire that was probably (not) developed by Proust. As if learning what Al Pacino’s favorite noise is would lend us any more insight into the person as a professional or as a man! And yet, somehow… it does. Or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe that’s an illusion that in our culture, we’ve learned to curate our tastes and habits as if this were the key to our individualities.

“The Sign of Four” opens with Sherlock drugging himself because to rid himself of “the dull routine of existence.” Without the act of deduction, Sherlock must resort to cocaine to be in his “own proper atmosphere,” to “reach mental exaltation.” Otherwise, he exists not only in stagnation but in self-negation, much like the rest of the masses whose existence passes by unnoticed in the modern world.