Robert Cohen on co-editing a new anthology where established writers discuss their practice and vocation
The Writer's Reader: Vocation, Preparation, Creation, eds. Robert Cohen and Jay Parini (Bloomsbury, 2017).
The Writer’s Reader: Vocation, Preparation, Creation, eds. Robert Cohen and Jay Parini (Bloomsbury, 2017).

How did you come to put together The Writer’s Reader?

[Jay Parini, my co-editor, and I] both taught workshops for emerging writers — here at Middlebury, at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, at Iowa and Harvard and elsewhere — for more years than we care to think about, and all that time we’ve been Xeroxing certain essays we love, essays that seem particularly well-suited to providing consolation, instruction, and the muscle of inspiration, not just to the small-w aspect of the practice but to the larger, more long-term, capital-W sense as well. At a certain point it became almost physically painful, not having these essays between covers (especially the ones out of print), not being able to share them in an easy, accessible way. It just seemed somehow stupid and wrong that there was no way to introduce a new generation of writers to Natalia Ginzburg’s piece, say, or Tillie Olsen’s, or Ted Solotaroff’s, or Danilo Kis’ — to name just three of the wiser, more over-arching essays about the writer’s life you’re ever likely to find. (more…)

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Lorraine Sim discusses how the women of modernism allow us to reimagine the ordinary and the everyday
Lorraine Sim, Ordinary Matters: Modernist Women's Literature and Photography (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Lorraine Sim, Ordinary Matters: Modernist Women’s Literature and Photography (Bloomsbury, 2016)

What inspired you to write Ordinary Matters?

The idea developed from my first book, Virginia Woolf: the Patterns of Ordinary Experience. Towards the end of that project I realised there was much more that I wanted to explore, both in terms of the concept of the everyday and its applications to modernism and cultural histories of early twentieth-century modernity. I remember reading H.D.’s fascinating wartime memoir, The Gift, while I was working on my book on Woolf, and seeing some of Lee Miller’s photographs of London during the Blitz around the same time, and I felt I needed to extend my exploration of the ordinary to a broader range of women writers, artists and contexts. The final chapter of Virginia Woolf looked at what I termed the ‘ethics of the ordinary’ in her oeuvre. This idea, of the ways in which the ordinary functions as a site of value (be it personal, social, moral or political), really fascinated me, and I wanted to explore it in a more comprehensive way. Also, many canonical and contemporary theories on the topic view the everyday negatively, or as requiring radical transformation, and I felt that this was a critical habit or commonplace that itself required interrogation. (more…)

Some reflections, three years after gaining a PhD

Three years ago today, I passed my viva voce examination for a PhD in English Literature. It was one of the most exciting, thrilling, and exhausting experiences of my life. My wife, Jennifer Dawn Whitney, had recently gained a PhD in Critical and Cultural Theory, and we graduated together in the same ceremony at Cardiff University in the UK.

Since that time, my wife and I have been extremely lucky. We were both offered part-time, fixed-term contracts that allowed us to teach the next generation of literary critics, journalists, philosophers, and informed citizens. It’s been incredibly fun and rewarding, but insecure in its very nature. Now, we are at a point where our contracts are ending simultaneously, and so we are both looking for full-time posts where we can develop our own teaching and research initiatives.

Getting this far has not been easy. It has required hard work, discipline, persistence, and a generous helping of sheer luck. My wife and I were both the first people in our immediate families to go to university and achieve a college degree. As people from working-class backgrounds, we have seen how difficult it is to get a foothold on the institutional ladder. Many of our peers have access to financial support or are independently wealthy, enabling them to research and publish in their own time without needing to worry about keeping a roof over their heads or put food on the table. This financial security can allow some to live comfortably on a part-time fixed-term contract, or to pursue volunteer work or internships that will enhance their academic resume. Without this kind of safety net, pursuing an academic career can be daunting. But we are not letting that deter us.

As our contracts come to an end, we are looking to work at institutions that support the same kinds of values and ideals that attracted us to academia in the first place. We celebrate the university as an inclusive space that recognises diversity and debate. We seek to think critically about our own cultural assumptions and histories, and to reflect on what it means to lead a meaningful and fulfilling life. We also seek to prioritise teaching as a crucial part of an academic’s day-to-day life, not just to share knowledge but as an opportunity to inspire and generate discussion on the issues that matter most in contemporary culture. Wish us luck.

Robert Doran examines how critical theory has always been a form of ethical practice
Robert Doran, The Ethics of Theory: Philosophy, History, Literature (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Robert Doran, The Ethics of Theory: Philosophy, History, Literature (Bloomsbury, 2016)

What led you to write The Ethics of Theory?

The impetus for this project was a feeling that the tectonic shift of Theory–from a hermetic-textualist to a culturally-focused and politically-driven discourse–had not really been examined. This shift (circa 1987) was simply accepted, celebrated, or lamented without any real thinking about how we got from here to there or from there to here. Thus, I wanted to reflect on how this transformation happened and what it means for us now.

What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about critical theory?

That it is definable in terms of some general consensus, that there is some general agreement about what it is and what role it should play, when in fact it embodies many competing and at times mutually exclusive paradigms and assumptions. Nevertheless, I think that what binds everyone (or most everyone) together under the Theory banner is the sense that Nietzsche’s challenge to philosophy (continued and amplified by Heidegger) represented a fundamental break in the intellectual history of the West. On the one side, Nietzsche contested the hegemony of scientific inquiry, which, in the late nineteenth century, had attained great cultural prestige, displacing philosophy’s traditional role as the arbiter of knowledge. On the other side, Nietzsche held that human beings make their own truth–or decide what counts as truth–and that all knowledge is therefore contingent on human projects. The concept of objective, value-neutral knowledge is thereby torn asunder, giving way to the idea that seemingly “objective” knowledge is permeated with social, ethical, and political considerations that can never be completely expunged. The role of Theory or Critical Theory is to keep pointing this out. (more…)

Kathryn Simpson discusses the life and work of one of literary modernism’s most distinguished innovators
Kathryn Simpson, Woolf: A Guide for the Perplexed (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Kathryn Simpson, Woolf: A Guide for the Perplexed (Bloomsbury, 2016)

What motivated you to write Woolf: A Guide for the Perplexed?

I feel very passionate about the work of Virginia Woolf because of the ways it engages with some of the ‘big’ questions about self and identity, experience and relationships, politics, cultural pressures and the impact of a changing world. She, like other modernist writers and artists, attempted to convey what it meant and felt like to live through a period of dramatic change (politically, socially, economically and in terms of technological developments) and to find new forms and techniques to represent a new sense of modernity.

How did you discover Virginia Woolf’s writing?

I discovered her writing as part of my undergraduate degree at the University of Birmingham and then chose to write on her work for my PhD alongside other early twentieth-century women writers (Gertrude Stein, H.D, Radclyffe Hall and Djuna Barnes). (more…)