Thursday, May 6, 2010

More on Levity, with Help from SMG

I've been wanting to write about the critical styles and writing styles of Susan Gubar and Sandra M. Gilbert for awhile now, and this is a good day for it, as I can clarify some things about my last post on scholarship with levity (not to be misconstrued as "scholarship lite"). On this blog I try to be funny as often as possible, I make silly comparisons and rude jokes because that's just what comes out of me most of the time, and I wouldn't call much of what I do here scholarly. I was not suggesting in my last post that scholars should write like I write (well, maybe a little). I was instead insisting that they write, as I just mentioned, with some measure of levity. To do otherwise seems closed-minded and unrealistic, and as I said in the last post, as if they are forgetting everything except their own heads. I guess I like my criticism to have something to do with the real.

Here I'll use some examples from Sandra to explain my levity requirements a little. (I can't help but call women critics by their first names once in a while. Their last names are men's names.) Then in a second post I'll get to what I've been meaning to do, that is, talk about the differences between Gilbert and Gubar, that dynamic duo that always have their names run together as if they are one person (or a law firm, or a candy bar...), even though they are two very different women/critics. Of course there is some similarity between their critical approaches, and their respective feminisms. This is why they collaborate so well. But they deliver the results of their approaches quite differently, and their personal lives and personalities, except that they are literary scholars of the same age, are different enough that they complement each other both in life and in scholarship, rather than meld completely together as the Gilbert-Gubar franchise would have us think. Finally (it might take one more post) I want to say a little about my own identification with each of these critics, and comment on how such identifications can both nurture and hinder a young lady's scholarly growth.

Lighten us up, Sandra
I found an excellent reading spot yesterday, and went back over some of the long introduction to The Madwoman in the Attic. One reason it is so long is that the book was originally published in 1977, so the women take the time and space to give an eloquent, all-critics-considered, non-defensive critical history of Madwoman up through the 1990s. They also give a history of themselves, before, during, and after working on it. I had a solitary picnic in a field of clover, an enormous nineteenth century windmill as my backdrop, a river full of new goslings in the foreground, and traveled back to the time of the madwomen in the book. Except for the parking lot by the river, where people would periodically issue from shiny horseless carriages and stare at the strange person, the madwoman, in the field. Who sits and reads? Alone?!

I started up mid-Susan paragraph, fairly certain it was her who was writing, nodding a little at things I remembered and things I agreed with, then flipped a page for the next section. There it was, "SMG," (they label the sections with their initials) and I was excited to get back to Sandra, whose more casual style is my favorite of the two. The chuckles (and elucidations) began straight away! The following is a few big chunks (slightly condensed chunks) of this final section of Sandra's entitled "The Present Moment." See if you can find the levity! It's fairly easy to spot the cleverness, as well as the approachable voice that comes through because of her conversational style. Here she is talking about herself and Susan as "the madwomen in the academy" as a result of Madwoman's critical legacy, and she wonders what the future will bring for their particular feminisms, and for the English academy in general. Besides just looking for the fun parts, it is some good reading on why we've all gotten so theoretical, how feminist criticism functions as a microcosm of English, and English as a microcosm of the humanities. I don't usually post such long excerpts, but I feel the need to (for once) provide examples, instead of always assuming you people know what I'm talking about.

"Clearly The Madwoman's descent from the attic to the classroom has been in many ways a journey full of paradoxes. Predictably enough, 'her' incendiary impulses at first encountered considerable opposition from the antifeminist thought police. Less predictably, as Susan has demonstrated, even some of her own feminist allies soon began to express suspicion about her credentials, while she met with outright hostility from a number of so-called postfeminist sisters, cousins, and aunts. Perhaps more surprisingly, she found that some parts of the academy into which she'd stepped had already been set ablaze, often by male as well as female theorists...

"The world in which The Madwoman now moves, moreover, is virtually new -- and to go on being paradoxical, I mean the word virtually quite literally. . .What, after all, will become of those entities quaintly known as books in the imminent, hypertextually hypersophisticated millenium? Will there be real people who really read, really study and really teach what used to be called literature in the brave new world toward which we're zooming with such alarming speed?

"Some of my formulations may seem extravagant...Putting aside for the moment my hyperbole about the hypertextual, is there in this posttheoretical era a phenomenon we can still call 'literature,' that can be distinguished from, say, telephone directories, railway schedules, Nordstrom catalogs, and maybe even web pages? Are there people (once known as 'authors') who produce that stuff, and people (still, I guess, known as 'readers') who in some way consume it? Does is make a difference if some of those people formerly known as authors are beings called 'women' rather than beings called 'men'?

"One of the most positive [explanations for our profession's move toward theory] would locate the impulse to excavate and examine intellectual assumptions within the urge to question supposedly inevitable and timeless cultural arrangements that motivate feminism itself. But this analysis doesn't preclude a rather more cynical explanation, which would argue that the move of literary criticism towards "high" theory (note that adjective!) reflects the need for humanists to compete for funding with scientists in . . . arenas that are always, and no doubt always will be, disposed to prize 'hard' scientists over 'soft' humanists

"And note those adjectives again! From a gender studies perspective, as a number of thinkers (including Susan and me) have observed, the humanities in general and our profession in particular have lately been increasingly feminized, both literally and figuratively. Literally: the membership of the Modern Language Association is now about 50 percent women, and graduate students in many departments are overwhelmingly female. Figuratively: if the sciences are hard, and we are soft, that's at least in part because we do the genteel, wifely job of acculturation and socialization on campus, while the guys in astrophysics shoot for Mars."

Ok, I'm going to point some things out. In the first paragraph, Gilbert is already doing something a little different, by speaking of the book metaphorically, sometimes personifying it as its own woman, sometimes channeling it into herself and Susan. It has sisters and aunts. It walks down stairs. It starts academic fires. She is of course, using "the madwoman" (ostensibly a person) as the vehicle for all this walking around and fire-starting, but it is really the criticism contained in the book that is doing these things, and the now mobile legacy of G-n-G's work that seems to take off on its own. She has also already started in with hyperbole, a move usually considered unprofessional, with her reference to the "antifeminist thought police" (hyperbole which she reflects on as she writes, and uses for some wordplay), and isn't afraid to call out words for what they are -- if you call us incendiary, you are accusing us of arson. Mightn't we point out the fires you've started then, good sirs? I love that she sustains the madwoman metaphor throughout much of the introduction, I love that she uses words with their meanings intact in order to show us what's really going on, and I love that she isn't afraid to exaggerate for effect (something that always won me little red exclamation marks on my papers).

In the second paragraph, Gilbert starts to talk about what's happening to literature because of technology, and she talks about the words she's using as she uses them. Most writers would just move right on if they used "literally" and "virtually" together, and not point out that it might be confusing. She is delighting in what she writes as it's coming out of her -- those of us who are crazy parentheses junkies know what this is like. She also starts in with the "hyper-" words that she uses throughout the rest of the section. This has no real argumentative purpose, it just gives the reader something to latch onto, something to laugh at occasionally, and a kind of repetition that is soothing. Who says criticism can't include some elements of poetry? She does an excellent job of hyperseparating herself from literature and continues a hyperbolic sort of voice with lines like "those entities quaintly known as books."

The third paragraph is just incredibly conversational, the way she just lists the first written materials she can think of, and uses words like "stuff" (and earlier, "really...really...really"). More "hypers" of course, a sustained imaginary separation from her craft, and even from those "beings called 'women.'"

I like that fourth paragraph because it is so serious! See there is a place for seriousness. We just need relief too. There were two more long sentences in the beginning of it that I cut out! There was nothing clever in them, just argument. The only little glimmer of personality in this one is the excited parenthetical note. And then we know it's still Sandra talking to us, that the whole time she's writing this serious paragraph her brow is just looking for an opportunity to unfurrow itself!

The fifth paragraph is where I stopped because I thought it would be funny to end on "the guys" shooting at Mars. The gals stay at home in the classrooms and nurture some feminine minds, while the men take the young men out shootin' at the sky. It would probably tick some people off that she refers to the activities of English and humanities professors as "wifely," but I'm glad she's not afraid to say it.

On the whole, this little section is just so readable, has good information, arguments, and speculations in it, but also gives us a fair amount of levity, and even a little bit of silliness -- which the critic owns up to. This delivery continues for four more pages, and before the end of the intro we find a condensed version of what I've been saying here all along, even before I found this nugget:

"Maybe one of the tasks facing future generations, then, should consist in an effort not to bypass methodological sophistication [again! not "scholarship lite"] but to harness it to more accessible modes of critical writing. [Ahh! YES!] How can we purge our critical prose of the gobbledygook of stale theoretical platitudes, of hollow political grandstanding, making it more supple and perhaps even more fun [fun! YES!] to read for specialists and general readers alike?"

Gilbert can't give us the answer, but I am elated to find that I might not be the only one in search of it.

The painting at the top is "Fabyan's Windmill" by local artist David Hettinger. That really is my reading-spot windmill!


  1. Ever have one of those days where it feels like you have nothing to do when the opposite is true? I'm currently in the midst of that. I've got a mountain of work to do, mainly studying, yet I just don't wanna :)

    I need to get into more literary criticism. You make it sound incredibly appealing. I've unconsciously avoided it because of the fear that I wouldn't understand word one. That was the problem I had in my intro to philosophy class: loved the subject, couldn't understand the book for the life of me.

    Your pairing of Gilbert and Gubar made me think of the psych article I read about classical writers and depression. I should send it to you. The authors paired up the oddest writers to compare, usually for simple reasons like "came from the same place" or "won a Pulitzer". It was actually quite intriguing.

    The Madwoman in the Attic, I so want to read that. I know you mentioned it before and as usual, you peaked my interest. Where was your solitary picnic? It sounds positively amazing. The best I have is the park behind me, which is normally crawling with the bratty spawn of suburbanites. Ugh, there's a soccer game going on right now and I can hear the excited high-pitched shrieks of women in capris, screaming for 5 year-olds that probably haven't the foggiest about what's going on.

    [Does is make a difference if some of those people formerly known as authors are beings called 'women' rather than beings called 'men'?] According to popular culture, depending on the genre, it does. Personally, I don't think it makes any difference, but apparently women write scary womany stuff.

    I agree with her about the social sciences and humanities being seen as "wifely". Anything that deals with emotions and aesthetics is seen as more feminine because it's not seen as "actual" work.

    I really loved this post and the little nuggets from Gilbert's writing. It was a pleasure to read.

  2. Haha, Lauren! I just realized last night how important the difference between the "women beings" and "men beings" can be for genre. It's a huge problem with literary works for sure, but I find myself really judging genre before I read it based on the sex of the writer.

    Another of my blog buddies here (Mike Johnduff) recommended some science fiction books like the Mars Trilogy, and I picked one of them up last night. He'd recommended these after I complained about sexism in SF, so I assumed the author (first name Kim) was a woman -- it's a dude! I'm still excited to read it, but I have totally different expectations now! (Especially with a couple of main characters being female...)

    By the way I was thumbing through some anthologies last night too, and found some Neil Gaiman stories. I didn't know who he was besides that you like him a whole lot (and from your stories that his biggest fans are insane), but I liked the little bits of "Orange" that I read. Seem like he should have a pretty big fan base of sane, intelligent people too -- maybe they just usually avoid the events! I hope your visit to the House on the Rock turns out better than the signing -- it will surely be an adventure.


I publish all the comments, the good, the bad and the ugly. Unless I have no idea what you're saying. If you want to email me (with only good I hope), I'm at rbyrd [at] niu [dot] edu.