Saturday, January 31, 2009

Bibliography and book blogging

Andrew Seal has returned to the fight. This time he dislikes my introductory list of fifty-some titles on the history and theory of the novel. It seems that I “threw” my list at poor Mark Thwaite, who’d confided that he had been “thinking more and more about the history of the novel,” and asked explicitly: “What should be on my reading list, then?”

Seal is not impressed. I just can’t draw up a list to satisfy him! At least this time around he didn’t complain that there are more Frederick Karl books (3) on it than books by men of color. This time my list is “too cumbersome to be of much use except maybe for someone preparing for orals in grad school.” I regret to inform him that an orals list would have to be several times longer—for anyone who expected to learn the impervious facts so well he could dispense with them. If a fifty-title list is too “cumbersome,” may I suggest a less physically taxing line of work? But then Seal turns on his heel and offers, as an alternative to mine, the UCLA English department’s reading list on the novel, which contains forty-six titles in criticism. I would be tempted to conclude that Seal is hopelessly muddled if it weren’t obvious that almost his entire purpose is to take shots at me, no matter how weirdly aimed.

The rest of his criticisms can safely be ignored, then. Where he does not contradict himself (my list is both “cumbersome” and “redundant,” although the duplication might seem to lighten the load), he blames me for not providing something different from what was asked. “[I]nstead of bald lists which give the reader lots of options which she must sort out,” he scolds, “an actual attempt to create something which will help a reader understand how to go about ordering a set of names or titles, how to turn a reading list into knowledge.” Thwaite asked for a reading list; I replied with a reading list. My bad.

Things get comical, though, when Seal tries to provide some “context” for studying the English novel, which had been so sorely lacking in my list. You should first, you see, strike off down a “formalist path which would track the development and diffusion of novelistic forms. . . .” But there is also another path, and you should not be sorry that you cannot travel both. You can! Read “a lot of Marxists”! On the first path you “you would be reading things like D. A. Miller and Nancy Armstrong and Franco Moretti, Bakhtin, some narratologists like Todorov and Peter Brooks.” On the second: Raymond Williams, Fredric Jameson, György Lukács, Lucien Goldmann, Cathy Davidson, Homi K. Bhabha, Edward Said, Robert Stepto, and Henry Louis Gates Jr. The latter “things,” as I guess Seal would call them, “focus on the communities that create/receive these [novelistic] forms.”

An entire context for studying the novel. In just one paragraph and fifteen names. And nearly all from the last ten minutes of the history of criticism. (Bakhtin was first translated into English in 1968.) Only two concepts you need to get straight too—form and community. True, he’s tossed a Russian together with a Hungarian, an Italian, an Indian, and a Romanian-born French theorist, but he’s got his African Americans, a counterfeit Palestinian, and at least two women. If coherence is not his long suit, or even a concern, Seal at least holds out something lightweight and frothy, whatever is the opposite of cumbersome. You have to admire how easily he can dispense with those impervious facts about the novel!

I don’t mind overmuch that Seal thinks that my reading list on the novel, “not very concerned about context or redundancy or even error or irrelevance,” is indicative of everything that is wrong with most “lit-blogs.” He doesn’t like me or my Commonplace Blog. I get it. I really do. I will lose sleep tonight, but I will recover. I do wish he understood that bibliography is indispensable to literary knowledge; that I am not alone in thinking so; and that, unlike context, a book list can, to use Derrida’s term for it, be “saturated.” When he arrogates to himself, though, the role of deciding what book blogs ought or ought not to do (“Instead of just aggregating choice, we can aggregate real knowledge,” whatever that means), I can only giggle. All such attempts to dictate from above, especially by someone with such slim qualifications for the role, are doomed to pathetic failure. I’ll keep doing what I have been doing, even if Andrew Seal keeps disliking it.


Andrew said...

At least you could allow me to represent myself, rather than rely on your selective quotation and commentary. Introducing my "lightweight and frothy" comments. I said,
"I'd like to offer Mark and other interested parties a very rough attempt at providing not just names, but some contexts for their inclusion. I don't feel that I can claim any kind of authority on this, since there's a lot of criticism-—including some of what I am about to recommend-—that I haven't read, but I offer what I have, which is basically how I'm trying to tackle the question of the history of the novel."

I don't know how many more qualifiers you expected me to put in there to make it clear that I was being tentative and general! Unless you believe I have absolutely no right to contribute to your ethereal discussion, I'm not sure what in there is an arrogation or what in there suggests that I believe my "paragraph" is, in Nigel's word, "comprehensive." All I was saying was "here's what I got--I'm trying to get more, but I'd like to share now."

I find it extremely telling that you point to the diversity of my list as some kind of fault--a lack of coherence. Evidently you think the history of the novel is coherent and can be comprehensively covered by only Anglophone writers? I don't think it's ideologically radical to suggest there's more out there. Even if you're just working toward a history of the anglophone novel, wouldn't Hippolyte Taine fit in well with your list?

But as for the general faults I find with your list--yeah, I think that maybe if you spelled out why you included the books you did, that could add to its utility. I think dropping a column of names on someone who's asking for guidance is a little patronizing, which is why I said you and Nigel threw your lists at Thwaite. Perhaps I should have used a different verb, but the sense I wanted was that you acted at a distance, more interested in your ability to create a list than in someone's ability to make use of it. Thwaite is obviously extremely smart, but it is no insult to him or to your readers to annotate a little.

Finally, I'm not ignorant about how long orals lists are. I didn't say, "my, this looks exactly like an orals list!"--I said it would not be of use except if you were preparing for orals, in which case (I assumed people would infer) you could use it to build your list. Furthermore, I contrasted the UCLA lists with yours not on the subject of length, but on the subject of diversity of ideological background.

Anonymous said...

Interesting back and forth here.

Brought to mind the ending couplet of a story by my author:
Aficionados agree that this is not literature. But there is no agreement on what it is.