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.