Even today's best literary studies rarely possess what those in the book trade call "crossover potential"-that is, any appeal for the average intelligent reader who resides outside the ivory tower. Harrison Solow's Felicity & Barbara Pym, recently published by Cinnamon Press, is a happy exception. The volume is, at its core, a heartfelt appreciation of the oeuvre of the author who produced, in Solow's canny words, memorable portraits of "silly men" and "mousy women."
But Harrison Solow's approach is unique. She constructs her case not through normal narrative, but via a series of imagined professorial communiqués to a young disciple who has taken up the study of Pym. As her book wends its way through this budding personal tutorial, it also offers sharp, provocative asides on academic politics, scholarly nonsense, and such unlikely subjects as science fiction, comparative religion, and the culture of Hollywood. The result is enlightening, entertaining, unconventional, and, above all, readable.
"Any idiot can take a hatchet to the Pietà or a book," writes Solow. "How many who do so can create one?" If, however, as Eliot assured us, that there will be time to murder and create, Solow has demonstrated in Felicity & Barbara Pym the capacity to do both. The following interview offers some insight into how she does so:
TV: Can you discuss at all where personal experience ends and imagination begins?
HS: No, I don't think so. I'm increasingly aware that the lyric use of words prohibits almost everyone from a photographic recounting of experience, since almost all words are imbued with relativity. "Tall," "beautiful," "comfortable," "red," "spiteful" - so that almost everything is partly imaginary. I remember being told by a colleague once, when I remarked that someone was beautiful that I was "wrong"! I found that really funny, because what does this mean? That my colleague was right? Similarly, what does fictional mean? My actual, factual life has been seen as fictive by some (of admittedly limited experience). My husband and I came across that attitude over and over in Wales. "Well if you were *really* the Head of MGM [a heavily documented and easily confirmable fact], then what are you doing *here*?"
There was a very simple answer to that - we liked it there. We enjoyed it. I loved it. But some could not process that so they didn't believe it. Not the Welsh, who happily, easily believe in actual fantasy, a characteristic that I love so dearly about them, but some of the non-Welsh people at the university. But back to the fiction/non-fiction dichotomy, it is very simple: when I write fiction, I am writing a truth, whether that truth has happened (manifested) or not. Not everyone writes this way, but I do.
Victor Turner, the renowned cultural anthropologist says, "The old dichotomy between fiction and reality implies that there is a stance outside either, which would allow us to designate one particular instance as fiction and the other one as reality. This is logically impossible. There is no such transcendental stance, which allows us to come up with these predicates. We can only say something about fiction by way of its manifestation and its use."
TV: Why a mixed-genre work about literary criticism?
HS: Well, let me put a question to you and your readers that I just asked another interviewer: Is literary criticism, non-fiction? I don't think it is (in fact, some of it could be called the most imaginary writing in existence) and all the ways in which I don't think that it is, came together to make a story. I didn't want to use the extant form of literary criticism to criticise criticism because it would have been too heavy an irony. I didn't want to write a third person novel about a person who begins to study a fictional author's work. So, I created a epistolary tale out of traditional literary criticism in which (via the main characters) criticism looks at itself and says, "I'm not really true, but what I talk about, is."
In the book, via a character named Mallory Cooper, I talk about Barbara Pym. Mallory is a fictional character. Barbara Pym is a real author who wrote real books depicting her life in a disguised manner that we call "fiction." But a lot of what she writes about, actually happened. A lot of what I write about also happened. However, in Felicity & Barbara Pym, I also made things up, as Barbara Pym did, in order to better depict and analyse reality.
This is a strong departure from non-fiction and almost as strong a departure from fiction. But the only solution for me was to create a hybrid text in which it really doesn't matter (except for the reading of the actual texts it explores) which parts are fiction and which are not. Truth arises from both genres.
TV: You say that Mallory Cooper is a fictional character, but you do share much factual history with her.
HS: Not as much as might be assumed. It's true that most of the pattern and much of the framework of her life is mine, but I left out a lot of my history. Particularly my recent academic history, out of respect for some of my colleagues and out of a genuine wish not to expose the folly of even my antagonists. Mallory shares the experience I've had, but not all of it. Not even most of it. Also, I don't purport to have the same literary authority as she, though I have the same worries and concerns. We're both intellectuals - that's where we meet, in fact, but I am not as much of an academic as she. She is not quite as much of a writer as I am. In fact, despite external and factual similarities, Mallory is only a part of my internal world - and I am not sure it is the most significant part.
It is as if a certain passage in one of Margaret Drabble's novels came true, fictionally. I don't remember in what novel it took place, but the scene is this: one of her characters is very surprised to be taken for an old classmate of hers by a mutual friend. When she looks at the old classmate, who seems so different to her and quite dull, she remembers their younger years together when thay shared certain characteristics that might have developed in the same way, had she not had the fortune of further education, of experience, of freedom to expand her ideas, her social circle and to implement inherent tendencies and talents (undeveloped during high school) that made her into the person she became. (And I don't have four sons - I just like the two I have so much that I doubled them. One of the pleasures of being an author.)
TV: As you conducted your imaginary correspondence with Felicity, did you feel that she was perhaps transcending your creation of her persona-taking on a life of her own, as it were? Or did you know where you were going with the character from the beginning?
HS: I almost never know what I want to say (beyond a simple reduction), when I start writing. It always, always evolves. Sometimes the story itself changes my mind about something, as it becomes a living entity capable of communication. In the case of Felicity & Barbara Pym, all I wanted to say initially is "literature = good, literary theory=bad and here's why." This of course became a much more complex theme and produced the epistolary work that grew from it.
As regards Felicity, I knew where she was going because I had already gone before her. Many readers think that my primary affinity is with Mallory. In fact, the stronger essential resemblance is with Felicity, albeit many many years ago. Mallory is a mixture of fiction, my current self and those who came before me - who taught me and who carried within them the scholars who had taught them. Felicity is similar to my younger self, free of - and confronting - all of that.
TV: As a PhD candidate, you have had much experience with literary theory. Much of one chapter of your book is devoted to what you call "cranky comments" about various theories, among them structuralism, feminism, Marxism, and post-colonialism. Please explain your apparent opposition to the idea of literary theory in general. Did you undergo an epiphany or "turning point"?
HS: First of all, the use of the phrase "PhD candidate" here is misleading - as if my analyses are based on an initial, revelatory and recent post-graduate encounter. They are not. For those readers who may not know, I wrote books, articles and hundreds of other works (literally) under various names and, having an MFA, which is a terminal degree in the fine arts - or was - taught at various universities and colleges for many years before I decided to do a PhD. My response to literary theory is that of a reader, scholar, lecturer/professor and a writer and not as a student.
Secondly, Mallory's cranky comments do not, in the end, add up to a conclusion that all literary theory is bad. I was using the simplistic polemic above to illustrate a point - the point from which one starts to build an argument that evolves, deepens, alters, matures, and of course, considers the other side. What it does explain is that theory has got out of hand and the fringe end of it, which is altogether rampant, has become just another set of the Emperor's clothes. What I do say, or what Mallory Cooper says to Felicity, is that there is a great deal of sanctimonious absurdity and rabid myopia in literary theory, but she also says, "...I hope you will not ignore all of these critics, for, among the labyrinths of nonsense, there is great, great worth."
When I was a contributing editor to Arts and Letters Daily, the managing editor used to hold an International Bad Writing Contest every year - and it was invariably won by academics. Here is a prime example: "The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power."
I do not mean to embarrass anyone in particular so I will not give the name of this (actually highly regarded) academic but your readers can go to the Bad Writing site and discover this and many more examples of theory gone wild. This is, as far as I am concerned, or anyone (particularly serious writers) with any love for our language is concerned, language-abuse. http://tinyurl.com/badbadwriting
Apropos of this, as Mallory recounts, in Felicity & Barbara Pym, "I was a scholarly editor at a prominent university press, employed, (and paid well) to quietly rewrite academic books because they were so badly written, so unnecessarily convoluted in such appalling academic English, that they had to be translated into intelligent English so that the press would have at least a chance of selling more than three copies."
And no, there was no epiphany. Just read this stuff. It doesn't take anything but common sense to see it for what it is.
TV: Felicity & Barbara Pym is ultimately a work of literary criticism, though. How would you describe your overriding theme, which presumably is not reducible to a single theory or "ism"?
HS: Felicity & Barbara Pym is a book of literary analysis or rather more accurately, an argument for it.It is not a work of criticism. At least three times in the introductory and end material, I explicitly say that is not. Here is a quotation from the Author's Preface:
"This is not a work of literary criticism-it is not a work of literary theory. It is an attempt to illustrate the value of appreciation in the study of literature by reading it in context, not merely in the context of the author, but in the context of the civilisation of literature itself. We do not read, after all, as a species, in order that we may deconstruct and dissect. People buy books and borrow books from libraries because they like them. They read, re-read, recommend, learn from, incorporate values from, live by, study and take to bed at night, books they like; books they appreciate; books they find meaningful. Appreciation is not perhaps what the university requests of its students today. But it is what writers (who are, after all, the sole source upon which the existence of English departments depends) deserve."
My PhD is a creative work, an extension of Bendithion, the essay that won a Pushcart Prize. (http://tinyurl.com/solow-bendithion) It will be accompanied by a critical commentary, yes, of about 30,000 words. It will not be accompanied by literary theory. I am writing this commentary in the manner of those of my literary forbears for whom I have the utmost respect - with elucidation as its central purpose and not obscurity. The more truly educated one is, the less need there is to pretend to be by employing such feeble tactics as "universityspeak" or complete bunk dressed up in polysyllabic words in hope that no one will notice the lack of actual thought. I trust that my commentary will be clear, logical, innovative, well researched and easily understood by the examiners. This doesn't mean the all of the concepts will be easily understood by anyone outside the profession, but the prose should be.
Being educated and being an academic are not the same things. Education is not the purview of academia. It is within the reach of anyone who thinks and reads. This is another central theme of Felicity & Barbara Pym: that when university education is good, "it is very very good and when it is bad it is horrid" - and, as is said in the promotional material for the book (because of a charming Welshman who is prominent in one of the chapters): "Sometimes, for a true education, you have to turn to your local butcher..."
I'm not alone in my concernabout the degeneration of serious literary analysis. The Chronicle of Higher Education is filled with articles protesting the fragmentation and inanity of Literary Studies today. I have no fewer than forty articles bookmarked. Mark Krupnick's excellent essay, "Why Are English Departments Still Fighting the Culture Wars?" is one of them:
"The usual explanation for the divisiveness in English is twofold. First, starting with the invasion of French poststructuralism in the 1960s, advanced literary interpretation changed from being formalist in method and traditionalist in ideology to a brand of French theory whose major distinguishing characteristic seemed to be that it required you to spend more time reading the theorists than reading the canonical texts of Western literature. The second major explanation for the culture wars is that they basically have been about politics, set off when '60s radicals took their battles from the streets into university departments. But the culture wars have petered out in many departments. Why so much less so in English?
I suggest that the bitterness of the canon wars, and so much else in academic literary studies, has had a great deal to do with the kind of people who become English professors...English professors tend to experience alternative approaches to the truth as they see it as a personal affront, and cause for counterattack." And: "Now there are fewer clashes within cutting-edge English departments, because nearly everyone is a theorist or cultural-studies specialist. The victors don't always present a pretty picture. Baby-boom and younger academics in English often project a sanctimony about their secular political-cultural convictions that I never see when my Divinity School colleagues touch on their religious beliefs. Their moralism strikes me as being at odds with their obsession with intradepartmental power plays and their rapt attention to new fashions in criticism and whatever will advance their careers." http://bit.ly/aTqhcz
And there are scores of articles in other publications as well. Here is one from Forbes: "The New York Times has caught up with the next dubious trend in English literature departments: neuroscience. As Patricia Cohen writes, "Zealous enthusiasm for the politically charged and frequently arcane theories that energized departments in the 1970s, '80s and early '90s - Marxism, structuralism, psychoanalysis - has faded. Since then a new generation of scholars have been casting about for The Next Big Thing. The brain may be it." http://bit.ly/aqGCkE
And the absolute pinnacle of exposition: " For some years, we have been surprised and distressed by the intellectual trends in certain precincts of American academia. Vast sectors of the humanities and the social sciences seem to have adopted a philosophy that we shall call, for want of a better term, "postmodernism": an intellectual current characterized by the more-or-less explicit rejection of the rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment, by theoretical discourses disconnected from any empirical test, and by a cognitive and cultural relativism that regards science as nothing more than a "narration", a "myth" or a social construction among many others.
To respond to this phenomenon, one of us (Sokal) decided to try an unorthodox (and admittedly uncontrolled), experiment: submit to a fashionable American cultural-studies journal, Social Text, a parody of the type of work that has proliferated in recent years, to see whether they would publish it. The article, entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity", is chock-full of absurdities and blatant non-sequiturs...And yet, the article was accepted and published. Worse, it was published in a special issue of Social Text devoted to rebutting the criticisms levelled against postmodernism and social constructivism by several distinguished scientists. For the editors of Social Text, it was hard to imagine a more radical way of shooting themselves in the foot.
Sokal immediately revealed the hoax, provoking a firestorm of reaction in both the popular and academic press. Many researchers in the humanities and social sciences wrote to Sokal, sometimes very movingly, to thank him for what he had done and to express their own rejection of the postmodernist and relativist tendencies dominating large parts of their disciplines." http://bit.ly/azBoxJ
Felicity & Barbara Pym, however, is not a diatribe against anything - it is, rather, a fairly amusing book about the pleasures and the responsibilities of reading and writing, using Barbara Pym as an example.
And on that note, I'd like to draw your readers' attention to Francine Prose - who says much the same thing about her book, Reading Like A Writer, which addresses some of the same questions you are asking me.
TV: Incidentally, why Barbara Pym as a subject? And do you think you could have written a similarly constructed volume with another author at its core?
HS: Well, I could probably drum up a complex version of my reasons, but the fact is, I just like her novels. I think she is more profound than she seems at first glance, sometimes parabolic, often very funny and certainly indicative of a time that has disappeared and a place that is disappearing, which is a worthy enough reason on its own to examine her work. She writes with a certain incisiveness and a certain distance that is unusual for someone who also writes with intimacy about her subject. Her narration is almost free of the constraint of narrative sequence. She often takes one word in a sentence and projects it into another sentence, which puts the characters or the action in another time period or scene altogether. It is a little idiosyncrasy which some could call a flaw, but I think is actually an (unconscious perhaps) emblem of the characters' lives and a marriage of form and content that has some literary weight. All these things. But first and foremost, because I like her work.
And yes, not only can I foresee another author as the subject of a similar (though not identical) endeavor, I have already chosen the author and begun the book.
TV: Do you foresee this book being used as a classroom text at all? Or do you think it too unconventional for an academic setting? And have you abandoned conventional university life?
HS: Very surprising to me is the number of messages I have had from academics who have read it and have contacted me to ask if it is available for the classroom. This baffles me. It is pretty uncomplimentary about academia, though it is highly supportive of scholarship and education and I have no idea why so many academics like it as much as they do.
In fact, the Emeritus Scholar of the English Association, which is a venerable and fairly traditional academic organization in England wrote in the Introduction that it should be "mandatory reading for all undergraduate students of English Literature," which astonished me when I first read it. It pleased me so much. So much. Because the only conclusion in the face of these requests and this endorsement is that these excellent academics are as dismayed about the state of English Studies today as I am. We criticize it because we love this discipline, this vocation and we grieve to see it become a pale ghost of itself. If we did not love it, its demise wouldn't matter.
And so, I suppose it is not too unconventional for some academic institutions. It would be for others of course. On the other hand, it really isn't unconventional at all. It calls for the rigors of a former time, seeks to reintroduce the Great Books (albeit amended to include worthy contributions by women), advocates a classic Liberal Arts education and fully supports an academic meritocracy - some would say elitism - in which only those who actually earn good marks, get them. But it does not value a university education over other kinds of education or skills or talents, and I suppose that in some circles, that is unconventional enough.
Which brings me to your third question. Have I abandoned conventional university life? Well, if by "conventional" you mean what the convention has become in many universities, then yes. I have no wish to be part of mediocrity. But in fact, I did not "abandon" such a state or place, because I don't think that I was ever a participant in mediocrity. I simply refused to lower standards or curtail expectations or give passing marks to students who were clearly incompetent (despite pressure to do so at times) out of love for my field and out of duty and respect to my deserving students.
But if by convention, you mean the traditional convention of university life, then no. Absolutely not. I have been offered more than one university post last year, which I have turned down, though I have not yet decided if I will accept one in the future. If it were the right university, I would be tempted. I'm very happy writing full time. But I also love teaching. So I'm still open on that question.
TV: Thank you, Harrison. Congratulations on Felicity and Barbara Pym - the reviews are spectacular. Here's hoping that it continues receives the attention and praise that it so richly deserves.
* * *
American writer Harrison Solow has received many awards for her literary fiction, nonfiction, cross-genre writing, poetry and professional writing, most notably winning the prestigious Pushcart Prize for Literature in 2008. She has lectured at a number of universities, colleges, arts and cultural institutions in the United States, Canada and Great Britain. A former faculty member at UC Berkeley, she accepted a lectureship in the English Department of the University of Wales in 2004 and was appointed Writer in Residence in 2008. She returned to America in 2009 to write her fourth and fifth books. Solow is a strong proponent of the traditional Liberal Arts, the Fine Arts and the Utilitarian Arts as separate and equally respectable entities, an advocate for Wales and a patron of literary endeavours. She lives in California with her husband, Herbert F. Solow, the former Head of MGM, Paramount and Desilu Studios in Hollywood. She has two sons.
Thomas Vinciguerra is a New York Times contributor and consultant. He is the former deputy editor of The Week (New York). He has published over 150 articles in such periodicals as The New Yorker, New York, The New York Observer, Newsday, Lingua Franca, People, New York Daily News, GQ, Icon, Time Out New York, Worth, The Weekly Standard, The American Spectator, and The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Causes Harrison Solow Supports
Lupus Foundation of America
Museum of Tolerance