About

Twitter

Facebook

CUP Web site

RSS Feed

New Books

Author Interviews

Author Events

Keep track of new CUP book releases:
e-newsletters

For media inquiries, please contact our
publicity department

CUP Authors Blogs and Sites

American Society of Magazine Editors

Roy Harris / Pulitzer's Gold

Natalie Berkowitz / Winealicious

Leonard Cassuto

Mike Chasar / Poetry and Popular Culture

Erica Chenoweth / "Rational Insurgent"

Juan Cole

Jenny Davidson / "Light Reading"

Faisal Devji

William Duggan

James Fleming / Atmosphere: Air, Weather, and Climate History Blog

David Harvey

Paul Harvey / "Religion in American History"

Bruce Hoffman

Alexander Huang

David K. Hurst / The New Ecology of Leadership

Jameel Jaffer and Amrit Singh

Geoffrey Kabat / "Hyping Health Risks"

Grzegorz W. Kolodko / "Truth, Errors, and Lies"

Jerelle Kraus

Julia Kristeva

Michael LaSala / Gay and Lesbian Well-Being (Psychology Today)

David Leibow / The College Shrink

Marc Lynch / "Abu Aardvark"

S. J. Marshall

Michael Mauboussin

Noelle McAfee

The Measure of America

Philip Napoli / Audience Evolution

Paul Offit

Frederick Douglass Opie / Food as a Lens

Jeffrey Perry

Mari Ruti / The Juicy Bits

Marian Ronan

Michael Sledge

Jacqueline Stevens / States without Nations

Ted Striphas / The Late Age of Print

Charles Strozier / 9/11 after Ten Years

Hervé This

Alan Wallace

James Igoe Walsh / Back Channels

Xiaoming Wang

Santiago Zabala

Press Blogs

AAUP

University of Akron

University of Alberta

American Management Association

Baylor University

Beacon Broadside

University of California

Cambridge University Press

University of Chicago

Cork University

Duke University

University of Florida

Fordham University Press

Georgetown University

University of Georgia

Harvard University

Harvard Educational Publishing Group

University of Hawaii

Hyperbole Books

University of Illinois

Island Press

Indiana University

Johns Hopkins University

University of Kentucky

Louisiana State University

McGill-Queens University Press

Mercer University

University of Michigan

University of Minnesota

Minnesota Historical Society

University of Mississippi

University of Missouri

MIT

University of Nebraska

University Press of New England

University of North Carolina

University Press of North Georgia

NYU / From the Square

University of Oklahoma

Oregon State University

University of Ottawa

Oxford University

Penn State University

University of Pennsylvania

Princeton University

Stanford University

University of Sydney

University of Syracuse

Temple University

University of Texas

Texas A&M University

University of Toronto

University of Virginia

Wilfrid Laurier University

Yale University

Archive for the 'Literary Studies' Category

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017

Spectacles Vehement and Untutored and Rude: Reading David Foster Wallace in the Age of Trump

David Foster Wallace's Balancing Books, Jeffrey Severs

“Wallace is chief among the contemporary U.S. writers who deserve careful re-reading in the age of Trump.”—Jeffrey Severs

The following post is by Jeffrey Severs, author of David Foster Wallace’s Balancing Books: Fictions of Value:

On the night of November 8, 2016, walking home from a sorrowful bar, I tried easing the pain by pausing to post on Facebook: “Dawn of a new age of grim apocalyptic satire? Searching for a bright side.” Soon a British friend and fellow scholar of contemporary fiction offered “Trump means fart in the UK—does this help?” Then another scholar-friend said he was reminded of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Johnny Gentle, a cheesy, idiot lounge-singer-turned-politician, “the first U.S. President ever to swing his microphone around by the cord during his Inauguration speech.” I’d also been thinking of Gentle’s precedent. This germaphobe’s major geopolitical achievement is to turn much of New England and Quebec into a waste dump, disastrously imposing his irreality and obsessive-compulsive habits on North American policy.

Wallace’s novel of grim apocalyptic satire, published in 1996, is set during Subsidized Time, when numbered years have been replaced by corporate sponsorships, but careful reading reveals the setting is the 2010s. So here we were, more or less on schedule, an entertainment- and consumption-addicted society, more swayed by image than substance in all things and now climbing into the (tiny) hands of a boorish, hateful star of reality TV (a genre Wallace also analyzed brilliantly—see his late story “The Suffering Channel”).

Wallace is chief among the contemporary U.S. writers who deserve careful re-reading in the age of Trump. Re-reading Wallace should be followed by Pynchon, Morrison, DeLillo, Wideman, Coover, Mailer, Vollmann—we have a lot to learn about American fascism from our novelists. Wallace set his unfinished novel The Pale King (2011) in the 1980s but still captured forty years of past and future Republican presidencies with lines about electing “a symbolic Rebel against his own power . . . We’ll have a tyranny of conformist nonconformity presided over by a symbolic outsider whose very election depends on our deep conviction that his persona is utter bullshit.” The Pale King uses the hatred of taxes to explain how Americans view civic duty in childish terms, like adolescent rebels against parental authority who are still happy to use Daddy’s credit card. The future leader that IRS workers conjure in The Pale King will “do what corporate pioneers have discovered works better” than outright lying to the populace: “He’ll adopt the persona and rhetoric that let the people lie to themselves.” Nation of self-deceiving kids, meet your man-child narcissist-in-chief.

Wallace, who grew up in Illinois and taught there for many years, understood the perennial appeal of conservatism to middle America. Indeed, as D.T. Max’s 2012 biography revealed, Wallace himself, a late convert to the left, voted for Ronald Reagan (Gentle’s model, with a dash of Bill Clinton playing the sax on late-night TV thrown in) and for proto-Trump Ross Perot. In his essays about Illinois, John McCain, and right-wing radio, Wallace took seriously and saw the depths of what coastal elites have been scrambling to parse since November: how the white, rural, working-class folks of various fly-over zones think about their country, how their cynicism about government can be ruthlessly exploited with the techniques of the entertainment-industrial complex. Wallace can’t help us much with the jingoism, racism, and xenophobia that led to Trump’s win, but he did give us visceral evidence that, as one of his essays quoted from de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, “spectacles vehement and untutored and rude,” aiming “to stir the passions more than to gratify the taste,” continue to be the American way.

(more…)

Tuesday, February 21st, 2017

An Interview with Jeffrey Severs, Author of “David Foster Wallace’s Balancing Books”

David Foster Wallace's Balancing Books

“Immersive reading of literary fiction, especially in Wallace’s ragged, tangential, footnoted forms, reminds us that the minds of others are wonderfully textured, unpredictable places—and forgetting that underlies nearly every ethical problem we encounter, as Wallace demonstrates again and again.”—Jeffrey Severs

The following is an interview with Jeffrey Severs, author of David Foster Wallace’s Balancing Books: Fictions of Value:

Question: How do you account for the continuing popularity of David Foster Wallace in 2017, especially his novel, Infinite Jest?

Jeff Severs: Infinite Jest has certainly become the book on which many young intellectuals test their reading mettle, much like Gravity’s Rainbow was for me when I was in college in the mid-1990s. Many of my most ambitious undergraduates often come to my courses already in love with Infinite Jest or some of his essays and wanting to read the books that inspired Wallace. Certain parts of Infinite Jest have become quite apt descriptions of how we entertain ourselves and communicate in the 21st century: Wallace’s “InterLace” network of film-cartridge distribution predicted the rise of Netflix and supposedly total “choice” over TV, and his deadly Entertainment is an exaggeration that exposes how unhealthy our everyday media habits can be—think of what we’re saying by making the bodily metaphor of “binge-watching” commonplace. Whenever I feel weird about where I’m looking (camera or screen?) during a Skype call, I think of Infinite Jest’s hilarious account of the demise of video-telephony. He understood how machines would continue to make being in touch easier but never resolve fundamental anxieties about communication, like “Does this person truly understand me?” and “Am I just narcissistically talking to myself here in the guise of a conversation?”

Q. Wallace has experienced an upsurge in critical interest since his 2008 suicide. How does his untimely death figure in the culture’s reception of him and your own appreciation of him?

JS: If you’ve ever been through depression or addiction yourself or been close to someone with those struggles, Wallace’s work offers illuminating descriptions of how those states can frame every thought and comprise the air of every breath. Those who love Wallace’s work and find wisdom in it tend to recognize that his intimate descriptions of the mind consuming itself are absolutely heroic. Immersive reading of literary fiction, especially in Wallace’s ragged, tangential, footnoted forms, reminds us that the minds of others are wonderfully textured, unpredictable places—and forgetting that underlies nearly every ethical problem we encounter, as Wallace demonstrates again and again.

It’s very difficult to say anything about Wallace’s suicide in relation to his writing that seems simultaneously true, right, respectful, and attentive to his complex understanding of authorship, autobiography, fiction, and the ability of language to represent feeling. Beyond being sad that we will see no more books from him, I prefer to think of writing and thinking about him after his death as an opportunity to be the kind of active, involved reader he was obsessed with cultivating—a way of helping make his work into a nuanced, communal dialogue that doesn’t begin and end with him. That’s what he seemed to want most.

(more…)

Monday, February 20th, 2017

Book Giveaway! David Foster Wallace’s Balancing Books

David Foster Wallace's Balancing Books

“Since its inception, David Foster Wallace studies has focused on a relatively small set of themes—irony, sincerity, addiction, and the mass media—often centered on Wallace’s own descriptions of his literary project in interviews and essays. Severs’s insightful new study builds on and challenges this critical orthodoxy, revealing how Wallace was a careful economic, political, and historical thinker. Wallace’s writing, as Severs shows in a series of original and bracing chapters that cover the author’s whole career, engaged provocatively with the New Deal, the social-welfare state, the monetary system, and the history of neoliberalism. Severs uncovers a new domain of questions that will dominate debates about Wallace’s legacy and the meaning of his important art for decades to come.” — Lee Konstantinou

This week, our featured book is David Foster Wallace’s Balancing Books: Fictions of Value, by Jeffrey Severs. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

Thursday, January 26th, 2017

On Modernist Magazines, Little and Small — A Conversation with Eric Bulson and Donal Harris (Part 2)

On Company Time, Donal Harris

“Just about every serious author working in the U.S. contributed to big magazines in some capacity, and plenty of writers worked for them for multiple years, if not decades. Lots of them complained about this situation, but I found it an interesting occupational fact that shaped their ideas about what it means to be an author or ‘professional writer’ and what it means to produce literature. And, on the other side, I wanted to know why these magazines thought it was a good idea to hire poets to write copy!”—Donal Harris

This is the second part of a two-part conversation between Eric Bulson, author of Little Magazine, World Form and Donal Harris author of On Company Time: American Modernism in the Big Magazines (You can read part 1 here).

Bulson and Harris shift their focus from small to big to examine how magazines like Time, Life, The Crisis, shaped the direction of modernist literature the work and careers of W.E.B. Du Bois, Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather and others. (Here is part one of their conversation):

Eric Bulson: On Company Time proves that Modernists weren’t as antagonistic to big magazines as we’ve been led to believe! So, how does this shift in focus influence our understanding of that period in literary history we call “modernism”? Are Willa Cather and W.E.B. Du Bois really modernists? Do we need to rethink, maybe even throw out the term?

Donal Harris: I don’t think anyone will be surprised to find out Ernest Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald, or even Gertrude Stein, occasionally crossed paths with big magazines. But what I discovered is that just about every serious author working in the U.S. contributed to big magazines in some capacity, and plenty of writers worked for them for multiple years, if not decades. Lots of them complained about this situation, but I found it an interesting occupational fact that might influenced their ideas about what it means to be an author or “professional writer” and what it means to produce literature. And, on the other side, I wanted to know why these magazines thought it was a good idea to hire poets to write copy!

Does the fact that a lot of American modernists made a living by selling their talent as writers mean that we should do away with the term? I don’t think so. No more so than discovering little magazines’s longer and wider history outside of Western Europe and the United States (which I was fascinated to find out about!) means that we should get rid of that term. It just means that we think about modernism’s proclaimed market aversion slightly differently. Rather than a fact on the ground, it’s a rhetorical gesture that helped to differentiate modernism’s various types of experimentation from the innovations happening in mass-market magazines.

A side effect of this altered approach is the new visibility of people like Cather and Du Bois within modernism. They took both their magazine work and their literary aspirations very seriously, and they thought about them as two sides of the same coin. I mean, it’s hard to imagine the originality of McClure’s magazine without Willa Cather, and it’s hard to imagine Cather’s novel The Professor’s House without what she learned while editing McClure’s.

EB: The story you tell about Big Magazines ends with the arrival of television. Was TV really as powerful a force as you argue here?

DH: Ending with the rise of television in the early 1950s was partially a decision of convenience, to be sure. The book is about the relationship between various forms of print media and the people who write and publish them. So I end when a new, non-print media takes the history of journalism and literature in a different direction.

Certainly what you call the “little wireless magazines” pushes forward the artistic possibilities of electronic communication to a much earlier date, which I found compelling. The periodical world I wrote about is less sanguine about these changes. In 1948, when T.S. Eliot won the Nobel Prize in Literature, about one percent of American households owned televisions. When Hemingway won it in 1954, over fifty percent did, and by 1958 over eighty percent did. And you can watch magazine circulations fall as television spreads. It was only natural for magazine editors to see the flood of television screens as a bad omen for their own longevity.

(more…)

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

On Modernist Magazines, Little and Big — A Conversation with Eric Bulson and Donal Harris (Part 1)

Little Magazine, World Form, Eric Bulson

“I would love to believe that writers, critics, editors, and translators have been and will continue to be everywhere connected, but that is not and never has never been the case. The cold reality of literary history teaches us otherwise, and the little magazine is a great place to examine how this whole concept of a world republic of letters did and did not work globally in the twentieth century.”-Eric Bulson

Below is the first part of a two-part conversation between Eric Bulson, author of Little Magazine, World Form and Donal Harris author of On Company Time: American Modernism in the Big Magazines.

In this first part, Harris asks Bulson about his book and how it challenges the ways we have thought about the form and content of modernist magazines, their role twentieth-century global literature, and the promises and limitations of little magazines in creating a “world republic of little magazines” (In tomorrow’s post, Bulson will ask Harris about the “big” magazines):

Donal Harris: The term “little magazine” refers primarily to the non-commercial journals printed in the United States, England, and Western and Central Europe between the two World Wars. But little magazine, world form takes a different approach, both in terms of geography and time frame. What new constellations of magazines and literary scenes did you find when you thought about the legacy of this medium more broadly?

Eric Bulson: Like so many other people who have studied modernism over the years, I was under the impression that little magazines were really a western phenomenon. That, of course, is not true at all, and so the more I looked for examples from outside the usual Paris-New York-London orbit, the more I began to uncover constellations that I never knew existed.

One of the more surprising examples for me early on was Black Orpheus, a little magazine that came out of Nigeria in the 1950s, and had a major influence on the direction of what we now call Anglophone literature. And Black Orpheus was a major wake-up call for me. Once I knew that these other little magazine hubs existed, the more I began to realize that the whole timeline and geography for the little magazine was severely restricted and misleading. In fact, the old narrative that it was born with the French Symbolists in the 1890s and died at the end of the 1940s with the beginning of World War Two just doesn’t work globally. Once you modify the geographical frame, in fact, then you must change the timeline. The little magazine is born at different times in different places, and trying to get our heads around this whole idea requires that we develop new strategies for thinking about what the little magazine is and where it has been.

Donal Harris: You spend quite a bit of space discussing the idea of “form” as an overlooked aspect of scholarship on little magazines and periodicals in general. How do you see the “form” of little magazines changing (or remaining constant) during the twentieth century? And does periodical form have an impact on the content that gets included in the magazine?

Eric Bulson: Form is absolutely critical to our understanding of the historical, social, political, economic, and, of course, literary meaning of little magazines. It’s interesting, in fact, that the emphasis on form was something that book historians and art historians figured out decades ago but literary critics were slow to pick up on. Yes, the cool covers and edgy design have garnered lots of attention but not in any rigorous, analytical way. They are more of a side-show, or an after-thought, for those who are interested in getting to the “real content” of little magazines. Taking our cue from a tradition of those non-literary critics that think of the little magazine as an art object and as a medium can help us to reframe how we understand the relationship between the form and content, what’s in the little magazine and what the little magazine is made of.

One very important example for me was VVV, a Surrealist magazine printed in the United States during World War Two. It’s a magazine, yes, but it’s also a traveling art exhibit for the surrealists who chose voluntary exile after the Nazis arrived in France. There are visually stunning installations in these pages from Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp and so many others, so that reading through VVV actually feels like walking through a gallery. But as interesting as that experience might be, the payoff comes in thinking about the politics of this form, the very idea that the shape, design, structure becomes a way for these exiled surrealists to find a place for art in an increasingly repressive, violent world. So form is not just about the structure, design, and sequence: it is also about the materiality of the experience, what paper gets used for the contents and cover design, what ink and typeface are available, who does the printing and with what machines and which compositors.

(more…)

Friday, January 20th, 2017

On Childhood and Love

Marriage as a Fine Art

Philippe Sollers: The love encounter between two people is the rapport between their childhoods. Without that, it doesn’t amount to much.

Julia Kristeva: You’re right to begin with childhood, because ours were so different, and yet we’ve brought them into tune.

This week, our featured book is Marriage as a Fine Art, by Julia Kristeva and Philippe Sollers. For the week’s final post, we are happy to present an excerpt from the book’s second chapter, in which Kristeva and Sollers discuss the importance of childhood to shaping how one lives and loves.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Marriage as a Fine Art!

Thursday, January 19th, 2017

Love and Experience

Marriage as a Fine Art

“The pages that follow resonate with current anxieties around the topic of marriage, while not falling for the unlikely merger of two into one or hinting at a happy solution to the idyllic, and failed, ‘togetherness’ of ‘diversity.’ They invite you, simply but ambitiously, to ponder the experience of marriage as one of the fine arts.” — Julia Kristeva

This week, our featured book is Marriage as a Fine Art, by Julia Kristeva and Philippe Sollers. Today, we are happy to present an excerpt in which Kristeva and Sollers discuss the nature of experience.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Marriage as a Fine Art!

Wednesday, January 18th, 2017

Love of the Other

Marriage as a Fine Art

“Together we fell into a dialogue that never stopped, we are still deep into a conversation with no end in sight, because it’s full of arguments; though we don’t always see eye to eye, the intensity of the conversation never flags.” — Philippe Sollers

This week, our featured book is Marriage as a Fine Art, by Julia Kristeva and Philippe Sollers. To kick off the feature, we are happy to present an excerpt from the book’s fourth chapter, in which Kristeva and Sollers discuss the idea of “love” and how it impacts a relationship and a marriage.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Marriage as a Fine Art!

Tuesday, January 17th, 2017

Book Giveaway! Julia Kristeva and Philippe Sollers’s Marriage as a Fine Art

Marriage as a Fine Art

“[Kristeva & Sollers's] performance, so smart, so practiced, is genuinely entertaining, enacted, as it is, by two people who are openly energized by showing off to and for one another. Their mutual enjoyment, as they go through their paces, is palpable. Clearly, intellectual busking is the glue that binds Kristeva and Sollers to one another.” — Vivian Gornick, New Republic

This week, our featured book is Marriage as a Fine Art, by Julia Kristeva and Philippe Sollers. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016

An Interview with Aarthi Vadde, Author of “Chimeras of Form”

Chimeras of Form, Aarthi Vadde

“I am most interested in those moments in modernist and contemporary fiction where unachievable dreams of global transformation yield critical insights into the world as it currently exists.”—Aarthi Vadde

The following is an interview with Aarthi Vadde, author of Chimeras of Form: Modernist Internationalism Beyond Europe, 1914–2016. In the interview, Vadde discusses how literature and literary form allows us to see the possibility of internationalism and communal politics in a new way. She considers how the work of writers such as Zadie Smith, James Joyce, and Rabindranath Tagore explore and critique imperialism and globalization and imagine new political communities.

Question: Why look to literature for ways of understanding the possibilities and limitations of internationalism and international community?

Aarthi Vadde: It’s an important question. Part of my argument in Chimeras of Form is that literature is an overlooked medium for thinking about internationalism and international community. People are much more likely to turn to the discipline of history for an account of specific international movements or political philosophy for a definitional or normative account of internationalism. But literary works are vital too because they take us into zones of experience and imagination that history and philosophy cannot reach.

The writers that interest me most, from Rabindranath Tagore to Zadie Smith, reflect on the lived conditions of imperialism and globalization; they regard internationalism as a communal aspiration that confronts the day-to-day ambiguities and inequalities of these large-scale formations. Such ambiguities and inequalities are often invisible in expository language, but they become palpable through literary language. The study of literature returns abstract theories of internationalism to specific cultural milieus. Moreover, literary works open up political formulations of international community to poetic forms of examination and reinvention.

Q: How did this discourse or imaginings of internationalism change over the period you cover in the book?

During and after World War I, many writers, artists, intellectuals, and politicians expressed the need for international cooperation as an antidote to national competition and aggression. The League of Nations was founded in 1920 as a bastion of liberal internationalism, and it sponsored the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation (ICIC), which boasted an elite membership: Henri Bergson, Marie Curie, and Gilbert Murray among others. Its events brought Albert Einstein, Rabindranath Tagore, H.G. Wells, and Thomas Mann into the fold. The ICIC associated internationalism with cross-cultural understanding, but that only went so far. It was a largely European affair, and, as Tagore, James Joyce, and other writers in my book point out, such cultural internationalism could not fully flourish on the back of colonial exploitation.

The discourses of internationalism that interest me most are the ones that sought to blend proposals for cultural exchange with materialist critiques of the conditions that make such exchange difficult or coercive across continental and global lines of power. We see such imaginings of internationalism stirring in the 1910s-20s and peaking in the 1950s and 1960s during the era of decolonization. They persist through to the 21st century even if their targets of criticism have changed. Whereas the British Empire was the target of internationalist critique in the first half of the twentieth century, we now see global institutions like the World Bank, human rights organizations, and transnational states like the European Union come under scrutiny for extractive economic policies, political interventionism, and racialized immigration and asylum laws. The key now is to balance criticism and reform of these internationalist institutions with support for their existence in the face of resurgent xenophobic populisms worldwide.

(more…)

Thursday, December 8th, 2016

Thursday Fiction Corner: Between Dog and Wolf in Translation

This post is a part of the inaugural week of the Russian Library, a new series that seeks to demonstrate the breadth, variety, and global importance of the Russian literary tradition to English-language readership through new and revised translations of premodern, modern, and contemporary Russian literature.

Enter the Russian Library Book Giveaway here

Between Dog and Wolf

Welcome to the Columbia University Press Thursday Fiction Corner! This week Russian Library intern and Columbia Russian Literary Translation MA student Elaine Wilson delves into Alexander Boguslawski’s translation of Between Dog and Wolf.

Sasha Sokolov’s novel Between Dog and Wolf is intimidating in its complexity: time is non-linear, character names are inconsistent, register moves along a wide spectrum from peasant dialect to sophisticated, even Biblical style, and the language is filled with neologisms. It is highly intertextual, astoundingly rich in its reference to Russian literary tradition across the centuries. Space, time, life and death are all uncertain—rarely is any one of them clearly demarcated—and events are told and retold from differing perspectives. And that’s just the content.

The structure likewise poses a challenge: dialogue, monologue and third person omniscient narration coexist on the page with no breaks, no indentation, no typeset cues or even general conventions of reported speech, but rather flow freely along in a train of associative (and sometimes seemingly unassociated) thought. Sokolov’s writing style belongs in a category all its own, a genre Sokolov himself categorizes as somewhere between prose and poetry, or “proetry.” And speaking of poetry, there are plenty of poems throughout, too—complete chapters of poetry tucked among the “proetic” sections of the novel.

How can something like this find its voice in a foreign language? For a long time, publishers and translators asked themselves that very question. When the Russian version of the novel was first published in 1980, critics gave it a rather mixed reception, and many within the literary community—capable translators among them—balked at the idea of an English-language version, suggesting it could never be done.

And yet it could. Sokolov’s Between Dog and Wolf is being published in English for the very first time, and so the idea of the “untranslatable” returns to the realm of translation mythology. Or does it?

I am a student of translation. Russian into English literary translation, to be specific, and so I feel a personal kind of victory in the release of this novel, a sense of celebration in a triumph over apparently insurmountable linguistic odds. Yet for all my excitement I still wonder about the inevitable losses that occur when we bring a literary work from one language into another; in the back of my mind I can’t help but hear Nabokov denouncing the “sins” of our “queer world of verbal transmigration,”* crying out that all translation but for literal, scholarly renderings are false. (Though perhaps Nabokov would find the most egregious transgression of all to be the lack of exhaustive notes on the same page of the referenced text, an organizational decision specified by Sokolov himself.)

Nabokovian doubt on the value of translation aside, can translation of something like Sokolov’s convoluted work be done well? The novel is difficult, packed with myriad obstacles that translators don’t frequently face, much less all at once. Puns, peasant dialect, a general sense of disorientation—translator Alexander Boguslawski tackles these challenges by the best means possible: culturally conscious creativity, or what Philip E. Lewis calls “abusive translation.” When a translator must force an idea from a unique mode of expression in the source text into a new linguistic framework, the translator’s job is to convey sense and meaning while still communicating the uniqueness of the source form in the receiving language. Often what “works” in Russian won’t work in English, and so the translator needs to “abuse” the text, that is, creatively engage the receiving language so that it can carry the meaning, the humor/ irony/ sadness, etc. and the unorthodox medium of the source in its new linguistic code. Consider Boguslawski’s translation of the Russian dva sapoga para: “two boots of leather flock together.” This is a clever blending of the Russian subject and English idiomatic structure to convey the literal scene—two characters sharing a pair of boots—and the spirit of collaboration implied by the Russian proverb Sokolov uses to describe them. The Russian, literally “two boots are a pair,” folds into “birds of a feather flock together” to create an English-Russian proverbial hybrid.

Why not simply use the English idiom here? Wouldn’t the spirit of the proverb be enough to convey the characters’ sense of comraderie? A translator could take this easy way out, but more than just sounding trite, the imagery would be lost, deafening the line’s descriptive power in Russian. Boguslawki does not take the easy road, and thank goodness, for his solution is lovely: it retains the visual and sense of the Russian while infusing some “foreignness” into the English text, an “abuse” that works in service of conveying the character and style that we experience in Sokolov’s Russian.

So much for linguistic obstacles. What about literary density? Again, Nabokov’s cynicism echoes in the back of my mind: the translator of a text “must have as much talent, or at least the same kind of talent, as the author he chooses.”* Between Dog and Wolf is packed with references to past and modern Russian artists, particularly Pushkin, something which only a reader with comprehensive, arguably exhaustive knowledge of Russian literary tradition would understand. Careful Russian readers have trouble identifying everything that is layered within the story, so how can we expect anyone but the most meticulous scholar to identify these layers, much less translate such a text? Of course, Boguslawski’s friendly relationship with the author establishes him as the closest thing to a Sokolov specialist for this translation, but Nabokov’s standards still reach impossibly high; in the case of this extremely learned text, is anyone capable of translation? Or perhaps the “untranslatable” does not exist, but is it possible that scholarly translation and Nabokov’s towering footnotes are the only recourse? If so, are there “prerequisites” in literary pedigree for both translators and readers of these works?

To silence this existential questioning I could turn again to literary and translation theory for inspiration, but I don’t need to. A novel’s complexity notwithstanding, translation is ultimately a dialogue between cultures and an exchange of ideas. And even though things are certain to get left by the wayside as they move from one linguistic and cultural framework to another, the receiving language and audience still gain. Perhaps readers won’t or possibly can’t identify all that the author has folded into the text, but this is an invitation to study, to revisit the story and look closer.. No matter how deep the reader chooses to go, reading a text in translation is an entry point into another literary tradition and culture that was previously closed; exhaustive research can be nice, but ultimately we have reason to celebrate because one group has gained insight into another, and that is a beautiful thing.

*Nabokov, Vladimir, (August 4,1941). The Art of Translation. The New Republic.
Retrieved from https://newrepublic.com/article/62610/the-art-translation

Wednesday, November 16th, 2016

An Interview with Gayle Rogers, author of “Incomparable Empires”

Gayle Rogers, Incomparable Empires

“But we should ask ourselves why we (and anyone, globally) might wish to study foreign literatures? To make ourselves better, more well-rounded humans? That’s a lofty and often immeasurable goal. To understand better the cultures that we fear, the cultures of the markets our country is entering, to understand our own syncretistic pasts? All complicated, too. And then, how much is enough?”—Gayle Rogers

The following is an interview with Gayle Rogers, author of Incomparable Empires: Modernism and the Translation of Spanish and American Literature:

Question: What was the role of empire in shaping how Americans saw themselves and their culture over the past century?

Gayle Rogers: I have always had a profound interest in the Spanish-American War of 1898, the “splendid little war” that set into motion many trends that are still unfolding in our contemporary moment. I came across this amazing speech from 1899 by William Graham Sumner, a famous sociologist and anti-imperialist. It was called—and this is not a typo—“The Conquest of the United States by Spain.” Sumner believed that this new stage of American imperialism, marked by the country’s first overseas interventionist war, would ultimately ruin the country, just like imperialism had ruined Spain over the course of several centuries. He claimed that the United States had “beaten Spain in a military conflict” but was “submitting to be conquered by her on the field of ideas and policies.” In other words, we were on a course to become the new Spain—a formerly great empire that had gradually lost all of its foreign territories (including large swaths of the United States itself) and, at the turn of the twentieth century, found itself bankrupt, broken, and largely forgotten on the world stage.

This notion that a growing empire would cause America’s cultural ruin led me to the larger issues that this book takes up: namely, the relationship between geopolitical power (often exercised through imperialism) and literary eminence. A common narrative holds that the United States was a minor or second-rate literary scene at least until the late 1800s—that we were derivative, that we mostly imported British and French texts that held higher and more enduring cultural value. And then, we emerged onto the global literary stage right around the moment that we began acquiring overseas territories, consolidating our new territories and states in the west and southwest, and intervening all across the western hemisphere. In essence, against Sumner’s claims, American empire meant the birth of a globalized American literature.

Q: So, greater empire, greater literary prominence?

GR: The Spanish-American War looks like a well-placed axis in which the United States surges and Spain declines, with geopolitical and literary fortunes neatly yoked together in both cases. Of course, it’s not so simple, and as I knew from reading a good deal of literature of the early twentieth century, many leading authors believed that such a narrative was either horribly misleading or, if accurate, the signal of a terrible future for America in particular.

Q: To what extent are the imperial fortunes of Spain and the United States unique, or how do they speak to larger cultural or literary questions?

GR: I realized that this case study—the U.S. and Spain—actually framed a host of larger issues about the way we write literary histories: the models and assumptions we rely on, the trajectories and paths we follow in them. The modernist author John Dos Passos looked at the state of literature in the mid-1910s and concluded that great eras of empire actually strangle fruitful literary production, and so, he hoped that America’s new empire would quickly collapse in order to allow its literature to truly flourish. He saw a model in post-imperial Spain, where his peers like the novelist Pío Baroja were headlining what he believed was a new golden age of Spanish letters in the wake of an empire’s collapse.

(more…)

Thursday, November 10th, 2016

Interview with Donal Harris, author of “On Company Time”

Donal Harris, On Company TIme

“New media technologies and working conditions re-balance the relationship between journalism and literary writing.”—Donal Harris

The following is an interview with Donal Harris, author of On Company Time: American Modernism in the Big Magazines. In the book, Harris tells the story of American modernism from inside the offices and on the pages of the most successful and stylish magazines of the twentieth century, looking at the careers of writers such as Willa Cather, W. E. B. Du Bois, Jessie Fauset, James Agee, T. S. Eliot, and Ernest Hemingway.:

Question: How did your interest in journalism begin?

Donal Harris: My first white-collar job during and after college was at a local weekly newspaper. I started as a reporter and feature writer, and I eventually served in just about every possible capacity: copy editor, section editor, page designer, managing editor. I even made a couple (unsuccessful) advertising calls. I was better at some of those jobs than others, but they showed me that producing a paper every week is exhausting, exhilarating work that requires a special approach to reading and writing. It also exposed me to the wide range of work that gets lumped under a term like “journalism.”

Q: How did the literary element come in?

DH: That begins with James Agee, who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Death in the Family, and co-authored an extremely strange book about Alabama sharecroppers, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Famous Men explicitly denounces how newspapers and magazines represented the plight of poor folks during the Great Depression, so I was surprised when I discovered that the original idea for the book was assigned to him as a story for Fortune magazine. Fortune was published by Time Incorporated, at the time the largest media company in the United States, and it turns out that Agee worked at Time Inc. in some capacity for most of his adult life. On Company Time, at least in part, began as my attempt to make sense of how Agee’s and other writers’ (including Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, W. E. B. Dubois, and T. S. Eliot) day jobs fed into their attitudes about “serious” writing outside of work.

Q: But Agee deeply resented working for Time Inc., right? Is that a common theme in the writers you discuss, that they disparage their experiences in journalism?

Donal Harris: We’d miss a lot of what’s interesting about the intersection of journalism and literature in the twentieth century if we took the writers at their word.

Agee did often badmouth Time Inc. and especially Henry Luce, its co-founder. But Agee also often bragged about how good he was at the job, and how generous the company was in regards to pay (and paid leave). While digging through his files at the University of Tennessee, I found an office memo, on Time Inc. letterhead, that touted a cover story Agee wrote as the ideal piece of Time writing. I think it says a lot about his relationship with Time that, first, the memo exists and, second, that he saved it.

Your larger point is valid, though. Agee’s showy anti-journalistic stance is one note in a long chorus about the terrible effects of journalism—or more generally “mass culture” writing—on literary writing. Journalism is commercial so it privileges sensationalism; it’s presentist so it doesn’t understand history; it’s focused on information, so the style is boring. It’s worth noting that the feeling of superiority works the other way, too. There are obvious claims one could make about the “usefulness” of journalistic work and writing – journalism is the fourth pillar of democracy, right? But, in the period I cover, there are also a number of arguments about the superiority of journalism’s style. It strives for clear and transparent language, while novels and poems in the early twentieth century are often purposefully difficult.

(more…)

Wednesday, October 26th, 2016

Interview with Jeremy Rosen, Author of “Minor Characters Have Their Day”

Minor Characters Have Their Day, Jeremy Rosen

“Genre is more than just a publishing category or marketing device…. Genres reflect the concerns of the historical moments in which they flourish. Minor-character elaborations reflect the interest of readers and writers in revisionist histories, in new angles on old stories…. They also demonstrate the playful, mischievous attitude toward the classics … [and] the sense that the classics aren’t simply there to be worshipped, but are books that we can take over, play with, and remake in whatever way we see fit.”—Jeremy Rosen

The following is an interview with Jeremy Rosen, author of Minor Characters Have Their Day: Genre and the Contemporary Literary Marketplace:

Question: What got you interested in contemporary novels that convert minor characters from classics into protagonists?

Jeremy Rosen: It started when I heard about Lo’s Diary by the Italian novelist Pia Pera, which retells Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita from the young girl’s perspective. Lolita is one of my all-time favorite novels, and I was intrigued but also a little skeptical about this retelling. I was in graduate school at the time, and taking a class on postmodern novels that included stuff like Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, which focuses on Rochester’s first wife, the so-called “madwoman in the attic,” from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

And then, just like the new word you learn and then start seeing everywhere, books featuring formerly minor characters started popping up everywhere I looked. Wicked the Broadway musical based on Gregory Maguire’s novel premiered around this time. And Alice Randall published her novel The Wind Done Gone, which imagines that Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind had a half-sister who was a slave. Then Geraldine Brooks won the Pulitzer in 2005 for March, which makes a protagonist of the absent father from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and I could go on and on… What I realized was that I was seeing a vibrant phenomenon unfold, a genre that was “blowing up,” before my eyes, and I wanted to try to explain why that was happening.

Q: So why are so many contemporary writers focusing on minor characters from classics?

JR: When I tell students, and friends, and other people I meet about this research, they often say a couple things: that there must be no new ideas left, and that what I call “minor character elaborations” sound just like spinoffs and sequels in film. And I think these are right to an extent, but they don’t tell nearly the whole story. First, because seen from a certain angle, there have never been any new stories. From what little we know about Homer, he just wrote down and standardized what were already very old oral tales when they came to him. And the Greek tragedists like Sophocles and Aeschylus were likewise working with and transforming already ancient material. Rewriting, or what literary theorists call “intertextuality,” is really the oldest game in town.

On the other hand, some new things are happening here. Rewritings that focus on minor characters, especially on women and other socially marginalized groups, certainly have a new emphasis. Sena Jeter Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife, for example, takes the extremely masculine world of whaling and says: where were all the women? Naslund picks up on the single line in all of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick that mentions that Ahab was married. (And you think your partner has some bad moods!) Naslund takes that line and expands it into a grand narrative about what it would have been like to be the wife of a sea captain, who is at sail for years at a time, in the nineteenth century. A great many of these novels reflect a contemporary concern for the kinds of people—women, servants, slaves, non-Europeans—that were not often protagonists in classic literary works, in response to the wealth of stories we have that focus on the experience of white, male, upper class heroes.

Q: But you also suggest that there’s some merit to the comparison to Hollywood sequels and TV spinoffs, right?

JR: Absolutely. I chose the admittedly clunky term “minor character elaboration” because these books seem to me to differ from “spinoffs” in some important ways. When contemporary novelists seize on a minor character, we tend to get a picture of the character that is totally different than the brief glimpse we got in the classic. But when Joey from “Friends” gets his own show, we don’t suddenly find out that Joey was a much deeper, much more interesting person than we ever thought when we watched “Friends.” We just get more Joey.

That said, I think a lot of the forces driving the explosion of “minor character elaborations” are closely connected with the reasons we see such a rage for sequels and spinoffs in Hollywood, as well as all the “genre” films and TV shows out there: all the vampires, superheroes, zombies, and fantasy worlds. These phenomena all have a lot to do with transformations in media, in the publishing and film industries, which have undergone a major consolidation in the past several decades. The multinational media corporations that control much of the publishing industry like to minimize their risk. And totally unique books that have no connection with prior works are tough to explain and market. Whereas, “Like Harry Potter but sexier!” conjures up something we all know. Rewritings of classics tap into a known quantity, as well as prestigious literary names. And they have a genre formula that is easy to encapsulate in a few words: “Shakespeare’s King Lear from the court jester’s perspective!” (This describes Christopher Moore’s hilarious, bawdy novel Fool.) In the economic context of contemporary media consolidation, publishers have found familiar authors and genres to be reliable ways of grabbing readers’ attention.

(more…)

Friday, September 9th, 2016

Carrie Preston On Being a Scholar-Teacher-Student

Carrie Preston, Learning to Kneel

“To write this book, I had to become a beginner rather than an expert.”—Carrie Preston

The following is a post by Carrie Preston, author of Learning to Kneel: Noh, Modernism, and Journeys in Teaching:

To write this book, I had to become a beginner rather than an expert. I had to study an entirely new language (Japanese) and performance form (noh theater). The experience of becoming a student again—and often a poor student at that—taught me a good deal about being a scholar-teacher.

The ideal of the scholar-teacher emphasizes that research inspires great performances in the classroom. I remain committed to that ideal, but writing Learning to Kneel made me realize the need to develop strategies for making my research more accessible to my students. The book includes stories of my research process, various attempts to teach my scholarship, and also what my scholarship has taught me about teaching.

I originally intended to write a book called Noh Modernism (pun very much intended) about the ancient Japanese noh theater’s influence on early twentieth-century European and American drama, dance, poetry, and film. I decided to take lessons in noh performance technique because I was dissatisfied with previous scholarly accounts that suggested because W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, Bertolt Brecht, and other “westerners” were more interested in their peculiar ideas of noh than the reality of the theater, actual research into noh performance technique is unnecessary. The artists certainly mystified noh, but scholars were advancing that mystification of a “foreign” art form by refusing to do the work it takes to learn about noh. I realized that deep research on noh requires taking lessons in the form, so I applied for a grant from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science that allowed me to become a visiting researcher at Hosei University in Tokyo. My hosts there helped me find a professional actor and master teacher who would take me on as a student.

In preparation for my time in Tokyo, I began taking Japanese language classes with undergraduates at Boston University. I found myself hiding in the back row, hoping that my professor would not ask me to come to the board to draw kanji characters. If my Japanese classes reminded me that learning something new can be scary, my noh lessons in Japan completely changed the way I thought about scholarship and teaching. Before each lesson, I had to fall to my knees before my teacher, or sensei.

Carrie Preston, Learning to Kneel

As I bowed, I spoke the formulaic phrase, “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu,” which might be translated as “Thank you for your help and guidance now and in the future,” or, as a fellow noh student suggested, “Please be kind to me during this lesson.” I received instruction while kneeling in seiza, a position with buns on heels that I found incredibly painful after a few minutes but was supposed to maintain for a half hour while I practiced chanting.

Carrie Preston, Learning to Kneel

(more…)

Thursday, September 8th, 2016

Michael Orthofer and Tyler Cowen Talk about and Shop for Books

Earlier this summer, Michael Orthofer, author of The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction, videotaped two conversations with Tyler Cowen. In the first see below, Orthofer explains why everyone should read more fiction, how we should choose books, why American popular literature is overrated, what he thinks about authors like Herman Melville, Fyoder Dostoevsky, Goethe, J.K. Rowling, Arno Schmidt, and many others, his recommendations for the best sites for readers, why studying literature at college was such a big disappointment, how much book covers matter, and why his opinion will never be the final word.

In this second video, Cowen and Orthofer go shopping at the Strand Bookstore in New York City and talk about book shopping and how to choose what to read next:

Thursday, September 8th, 2016

With and After Orientalism — Carrie Preston

Carrie Preston, Learning to Kneel

“After almost forty years of important and illuminating discussions of orientalism and ironic responses to the scourge of empire, I think a new space is opening for global or transnational scholarship and intercultural art. Participants in this space are not naïve about the continuing ramifications of empire … [b]ut they also want to move beyond irony and make room for pleasure, inspiration, even enchantment in the fraught encounters between cultures.”—Carrie Preston, author of Learning to Kneel

The following post is by Carrie Preston, author of Learning to Kneel: Noh, Modernism, and Journeys in Teaching:

A century ago, W. B. Yeats’s first noh-inspired play for dancers, At the Hawk’s Well, was performed in Lady Emerald Cunard’s London drawing room with an invited audience that included Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot—one time we know for certain that these three great modernist poets were all together in the same room.

Also in the room was Ito Michio, the Japanese-born performer who choreographed and danced the role of the Guardian of the Well and went on to have an important career in American modern dance.

Ito Michio
(Ito Michio as the Guardian of the Well in At the Hawk’s Well (1916))

The French artist Edmund Dulac designed full wooden masks, made costumes, and composed and performed the music.

Edmund Dulac
(Edmund Dulac with other musician and the cloth to be folded and unfolded at the beginning and end of each play for dancers.)

It was a fascinating collaboration and avant-garde modernist performance experiment. Eliot, also a great critic, claimed that Hawk’s Well made him think differently of Yeats, “… rather as a more eminent contemporary than as an elder from whom one could learn.” For him, Yeats soared into the new modernist generation with Hawk’s Well. Plenty of critical ink has been spent on Yeats in the past century, but this play has tended to be something of an exception and embarrassment, largely because it’s a pretty good example of orientalism, exoticism, and cultural appropriation.

There were many warnings against writing a book focused on Hawk’s Well and modernist noh, certainly against moving to Japan to take lessons in noh performance technique. I was literally becoming an orientalist, part of that academic tradition Edward Said famously defined in 1978 as being based on essential distinctions between the so-called “Orient” and “Occident.” The “Orient” (primarily the Middle East for Said) is imagined to be spiritual, passive, effeminate, exotic, traditional, and inscrutable, while “the Occident’” is rational, aggressive, masculine, central, modern, and knowable. Said argued that scholarly and aesthetic accounts of “the Orient” justified empire, even when, as with Yeats and noh, the artists were celebrating nonwestern achievements to counter white European cultural stagnation. In later works, Said clarified that he viewed modernism as an “ironic” rather than “oppositional” response to empire. And in the decades that followed, critics have recognized that cultural exchange is inevitable in modernity and can’t simply be deplored, but few models of transmission emerged that did not emphasize irony, mimicry, or appropriation. Warnings from Said and other postcolonial theorists have contributed to my feeling that I should have been more ironic, certainly less enthralled, as I took noh lessons and researched modernist noh.

Yet, studying and participating in collaborative intercultural exchange, however fraught and full of mistakes, tended to encourage my optimism rather than irony. Accusations of orientalism and appropriation begin from a desire for cultural sensitivity, but they can unintentionally reinforce the notion of an unbridgeable divide between east and west. Certainly we can identify plenty of orientalist assumptions in Yeats, Pound, Dulac, and their collaborators, including Ito, one of the most successful performers to build a career out of orientalist performance.

But, after almost forty years of important and illuminating discussions of orientalism and ironic responses to the scourge of empire, I think a new space is opening for global or transnational scholarship and intercultural art. Participants in this space are not naïve about the continuing ramifications of empire, the offense of cultural appropriations that look more like theft, and the ways that outdated polarities like east and west still encroach upon our thought. But they also want to move beyond irony and make room for pleasure, inspiration, even enchantment in the fraught encounters between cultures.

(more…)

Wednesday, September 7th, 2016

An Interview with Carrie Preston, author of “Learning to Kneel”

Learning to Kneel, Carrie Preston

“My noh training in Tokyo with a master actor changed everything about Learning to Kneel.”—Carrie Preston

The following is an interview with Carrie Preston, author of Learning to Kneel: Noh, Modernism, and Journeys in Teaching

Q: Learning to Kneel examines the Western interest in the Japanese noh theater from many different perspectives, historical and scholarly, as well as via your own experiences as a teacher, student, and performer. How did these different vantage points shape your approach to the book?

Carrie J. Preston: I began thinking about this book as a fairly typical scholarly study of the noh theater’s influence on modernism. As I read previous scholarship on the topic, I kept encountering a disclaimer that went something like this: I tried to watch a noh play but understood next to nothing; that’s ok, there is no need for a deep knowledge of noh because W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, Bertolt Brecht, Benjamin Britten, and other Westerners knew nothing about noh. Aside from the homonym fun (nobody knows noh), this was a troubling and decidedly un-scholarly disclaimer. I set out to learn deeply about noh, and I soon realized that experts locate the essence of noh in training, always in private lessons where the student mimics the teacher’s chant and dance so as to memorize the noh repertory. I clearly needed to take lessons, and my experience as a performer helped me undertake this rather daunting enterprise. My noh training in Tokyo with a master actor changed everything about Learning to Kneel.

I decided that the story of my experience taking lessons in noh performance technique needed to be central to the book. I tried to interweave that personal story with the accounts of how the various artists I was discussing learned about noh. I treated us all as noh students who bring personal desires and goals to our studies that impact how we understand and use noh. This approach allowed me to face the disclaimer that none of us know anything about noh by acknowledging that there are always limits to a student’s knowledge. But students also develop unique and interesting strategies for learning. By focusing on the techniques for learning and teaching noh, I hoped to open up the rather esoteric topic of noh theater’s influence on modernism so that the book will be of interest to many students and teachers of cultures—and we are all students and teachers of cultures on some level.

Q: Yeats, Pound, Brecht, and Britten’s approach to noh is often viewed as an example of cultural appropriation. In what ways does your book alter this perception?

CJP: I don’t disagree that these figures were engaged in cultural appropriation and orientalism, but in some ways, that’s the least interesting thing to say about them. It’s easy to accuse them of cultural insensitivity and prove their guilt. At the same time, we often celebrate multiculturalism and diversity, believing that study abroad will produce cultural sensitivity in our students. I find the binary of good multiculturalism and bad appropriation to be particularly unhelpful. Who owns a culture? Who should be allowed to study and perform the theater of a particular culture? What is the difference between being inspired by noh and appropriating noh? If the answer is that only those born into a culture can study, use, or be inspired by it, what does that mean for study abroad, diversity requirements, and global studies?

These are difficult questions, and international/transnational teaching and learning is messy work. In Learning to Kneel, I embrace that mess and get down on my knees in the dirt, so to speak. And that taught me that all cross-cultural or global learning involves a degree of appropriation, whether we’re studying noh or opera. But, of course we don’t put those two lyric musical theaters in the same category because of unequal power relations between the so-called “east,” where noh originated, and “west,” the birthplace of opera. Was Ito Michio appropriating opera when he moved to Germany to become an opera singer? I recognize that power disparities are absolutely crucial to understanding cultural exchange and that some appropriation is regrettably malicious, but I also hope to recognize and question the habits of mind that make us treat noh so differently from opera.

Q: Ito Michio is one of the more fascinating figures in your book. How does his life affect the way we think about cross-cultural exchanges?

CJP: Ito’s life is the perfect example of the messiness of cultural exchange. He traveled to Europe as a young man hoping to become an opera singer and then a western dancer and slough off his stultifying Japaneseness. Upon reaching London, Ito was valued most as an “oriental” artist” by Pound and Yeats, who wanted him to help them translate noh plays and work on modernist noh adaptations. He claimed that they taught him to value his own culture, but they also taught him how valuable the popular fascination with Japan could be for his career as a performer. He began to advertise himself as an “oriental dancer” and exoticize his modern dance practice. When he arrived in New York during World War I, Ito began staging Pound’s translations of noh plays, even though he had no training in noh. And in spite of the fact that he was adapting Pound’s already adapted versions of noh texts, Ito advertised them as absolutely authentic. His tendency to stretch the truth and invent a powerful position for himself in Japan raised the suspicions of the CIA, and he was arrested shortly after the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor as an enemy alien. He was eventually repatriated to Japan, where he staged spectacular revues for the U.S. occupying forces and introduced American modern dance and beauty pageants (for better and worse).

(more…)

Tuesday, September 6th, 2016

Book Giveaway! “Learning to Kneel,” by Carrie Preston

This week our featured book is Learning to Kneel: Noh, Modernism, and Journeys in Teaching, by Carrie J. Preston.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Learning to Kneel to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, September 9th at 1:00 pm.

Martin Puchner writes, “What drew Western writers to an arcane, highly stylized form of Japanese court theater? As a scholar, Carrie J. Preston answers this question by way of the archive, unearthing a global network of dancers and writers. But she also pursues this question as a student, subjecting herself to the rigors of noh training. The result is an unusual blend of both approaches, a magisterial study in cultural history that is also a compelling story of teaching and learning.

For more on the book, you can read the book’s opening chapter “Introduction to Noh Lessons”:

Wednesday, August 31st, 2016

An Interview with Jenny Davidson, author of “Reading Style”

Jenny Davidson, Reading Style

“Sentences are my obsession—I linger on them compulsively, it is the feeling of words in the mouth that got me hooked on literature in the first place as a very young child and I wanted to write a book that conveyed some of the magic of that way of reading.”—Jenny Davidson

The following is an interview with Jenny Davidson, author of Reading Style: A Life in Sentences, now available in paper:

Q: You’re a scholar of eighteenth-century English literature, a novelist, and a blogger; how did these three hats you wear inform your approach to writing Reading Style?

Jenny Davidson: From my point of view, those three hats—scholarship, fiction-writing, blogging—are part of a single fully integrated set of activities, and I wrote this book partly to show what that means for me as a reader and writer. The separation between scholarship and fiction-writing has always seemed to me largely artificial—I will write a novel because there’s a problem or topic that I’ve pursued as far as I can by scholarly means and want to think about further in a different medium, and the same thing goes in the other direction. Blogging is something I took up about ten years ago: it was largely for my own enjoyment, with some minor self-promotional aspect I suppose, but I found as I continued to do it that it became an excellent way to develop and refine an easy, fluent critical voice that I could then take back into the more formal kinds of criticism I also write.

Q: In an age of “big data” and “distant reading,” why have you decided to focus on the sentence?

JD: Not so much a choice as a compulsion, I think. Work by new media theorists and literary scholars like Lev Manovich and Franco Moretti is motivated in part by a sense of the insufficiencies of the kind of mainstream historicist literary criticism that predominates inside the academy in the United States. My own dissatisfaction with that kind of criticism increasingly stemmed from the sense I had that the kinds of interpretation I practiced in the classroom were at least as exciting and revealing as anything I was doing in my published scholarship, but that for some reason the professional protocol seemed to be that I couldn’t just “do” that kind of very close work with sentences in print. I’m kicking back against that here, and I’m interested in thinking more about how to explain and defend a methodology that is related to some older kinds of formalism—as practiced by critics like Roman Jakobson and Victor Shklovskii—and even to the New Criticism or Cambridge-style practical criticism in the tradition of I. A. Richards, but that also benefits from the insights of other more obviously historicized and politicized schools of criticism.

That is a fancy way, though, of saying that sentences are my obsession—I linger on them compulsively, it is the feeling of words in the mouth that got me hooked on literature in the first place as a very young child and I wanted to write a book that conveyed some of the magic of that way of reading.

Q: You begin the book by acknowledging that you’ve always been bothered by the notion that literature can “teach” us about life. What do we miss out on when we focus on the “lessons” of literature?

JD: That opening is a little bit tongue-in-cheek, in that obviously we do learn things about life from literature, and I have hugely enjoyed books like Alain de Bouton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life, Sarah Bakewell’s Montaigne biography and Rebecca Mead’s recent book about a lifetime of reading Middlemarch. But when it’s done with less sensitivity than these authors muster, it often leads to a kind of oversimplification—a lack of attention to what the books are actually doing, how they work—that makes me really annoyed. I will read novels by Austen or Henry James again and again neither because of the psychological insights they offer nor because of how those insights might illuminate aspects of my own experience in the world, but rather because the sentences are utterly ravishing, and because there is nowhere else on earth I can learn the things these books teach about narration and the techniques and conventions by which human experience is translated into language.

(more…)