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…)

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…)

David Lloyd talks about Beckett’s friendships with twentieth-century painters and his enduring interest in the visual arts
David Lloyd, Beckett's Thing: Painting and Theatre (Edinburgh University Press, 2016)
David Lloyd, Beckett’s Thing: Painting and Theatre (Edinburgh University Press, 2016)

What draws you to the work of Samuel Beckett?

I’ve been reading Beckett’s work since I was a teenager and writing on him since my undergraduate days at Cambridge in the 70s. I dare say part of my initial attraction to Beckett lay in the kinds of philosophical conundra his work posed, in its hilarious comedy and in its ascetic reductionism. In a letter to Georges Duthuit, in which he comments on his desire for “a theatre reduced to its own means”, he goes on: “That is Protestantism if you like, we are what we are.” It may be that there was also something about the South Dublin Protestant background that I shared with Beckett that felt like grounds for affinity: certainly there was something familiar as much in the ethos as in the local landscapes secreted in the works. But above all, it was the uncompromising aesthetic ethic, the commitment to a work determined to “reduce itself to its own means”, that corresponded to the refusal of extraneous resources like the resonances of identity or signifiers of cultural belonging. That offered a quite different set of possibilities, intellectually and aesthetically, than Irish culture at the time generally made available. (more…)

Roger Luckhurst offers a critical and entertaining survey of Kubrick’s horror masterpiece
Roger Luckhurst, The Shining (Palgrave, 2013).
Roger Luckhurst, The Shining (Palgrave, 2013).

In the thirty-seven years since its premiere, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) has been the subject of heated debate. Based on a bestselling novel by Stephen King, the adaptation was dismissed by the author as ‘maddening, perverse, and disappointing’. His judgement was not unique. Critics and audiences alike found the film bewildering and strange, not knowing whether to take it as an art film or a low-brow horror shocker. Yet, as Roger Luckhurst points out in his excellent book, The Shining (BFI Classics, 2013), despite its chilly opening reception the film is now regarded as ‘one of the most admired horror films in cinema history’.

Luckhurst’s take on The Shining manages to pierce the lid on thirty years of critical discussion, and to yield a fresh perspective on one of cinema’s most discussed and perplexing films. The book addresses Stanley Kubrick’s status as a distinctive auteur filmmaker, but dismisses the tendency of critics to see deliberate intention in every move and gesture. Instead, Luckhurst reads The Shining within the broader cultural and historical context of late 1970s-early 1980s American culture. Insightful connections are made to films like The Amityville Horror (1979), The Omen (1976), Poltergeist and The Evil Dead (both released in 1982). Through its representation of prescient children, telepathy, and horror, Luckhurst reveals how The Shining expresses widely-held anxieties about traditional gender roles, the nuclear family, and histories of repressed trauma and violence. (more…)

Celebrating the women’s civil rights movement

Today marks International Women’s Day, which has commemorated the struggle for women’s civil rights throughout the twentieth century. The day was originally known as International Working Women’s Day, and for most of its history has been connected with socialist movements and communist states such as China and Soviet Russia. In the mid-1970s, during the height of Second Wave Feminism, the UN recognised International Women’s Day and invited its member states to do the same.

Since the Women’s March on Washington earlier this year, there has been an increased level of vigilance on issues surrounding women’s civil rights in the United States. Many basic political, economic, and cultural entitlements have fallen under threat, and thousands of grassroots campaigns have mobilised all over the country to respond. To mark this year’s IWD, the Women’s March on Washington has called for A Day Without A Woman, a one-day demonstration of economic solidarity for ‘equity, justice and the human rights of women and all gender-oppressed people’.

Reads for IWD 2017

Masthead Photograph: Artist Louise Bourgeois in her home studio

Michael Richardson discusses how literature can help shed new light on our understanding of torture, trauma, and affect
Michael Richardson, Gestures of Testimony (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Michael Richardson, Gestures of Testimony (Bloomsbury, 2016)

How did you come to write Gestures of Testimony?

One of Barack Obama’s first acts as President was to declassify the Torture Memos of the Bush Administration. Suddenly, the architecture of American torture was visible to an extent that it had never been before. At the time, I was working as a speechwriter in Canada for Jack Layton, who was then the leader of the New Democratic Party, and watching very closely what was happening across the border. I became obsessed with how torture was articulated and authorised, and even more so with the effect it had on both survivors and perpetrators. I’ve always understood the world through writing and literature, so I wanted to understand torture in that context too. That led me to a PhD on torture, literature and politics, and from there to writing Gestures of Testimony. (more…)

British artist Tom Harman discusses how critical theory led him to return to painting
Tom Harman installs abstract paintings at Little Man Coffee Co., Cardiff. Photograph: Rhys Tranter.
Tom Harman installs abstract paintings at Little Man Coffee Co., Cardiff. Photograph: Rhys Tranter.

When did you start painting?

Drawing and painting, for me, was what I always did and was always good at. Throughout school I only ever wanted to paint and couldn’t wait to leave at 16 and begin a BTECH in Art and Design at my local FE college. This was a great experience, at last getting to create visual material all day, every day. I was particularly interested in painting that had some form of social commentary and was influenced by the New Glasgow Boys, painters from the Glasgow School of Art such as Steven Campbell, Peter Howson and Ken Currie, as well as the big names in British painting such as Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. (more…)

Aimee Pozorski discusses the complex ways we engage with art and writing in the wake of the September 11th attacks

We are conducting this interview fifteen years after the September 11th terrorist attacks took place. What motivated you to write Falling After 9/11? How did the project begin?

Aime Pozorski, Falling After 9/11: Crisis in American Art and Literature (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Aimee Pozorski, Falling After 9/11: Crisis in American Art and Literature (Bloomsbury, 2016)

The project began with the installation of Graydon Parrish’s 9/11 mural, Cycle of Terror and Tragedy, which was commissioned in 2002 by the New Britain Museum of American Art in my hometown of New Britain, CT. It took Parrish four years to complete the work, and when it was finally revealed, some critics savaged it for its commitments to Classical Realism. After being outraged that reviewers could be so callous, my training in trauma theory kicked in. As a trauma theorist who studies literature, I frequently consider ways in which a text’s moments of so-called failure can actually succeed in telling us something not only about the nature of representation but also about traumatic history itself. What does it mean that so many representations of 9/11 seemed inadequate? I asked myself. And does that have more do to with the nature of trauma and our reception of art and literature than it does with the singular talents or contributions of individual artists themselves?  (more…)

A new study explores the potential for agency and flight in post-war working-class writing
Roberto del Valle Alcalá, British Working-Class Fiction: Narratives of Refusal and the Struggle Against Work (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Roberto del Valle Alcalá, British Working-Class Fiction (Bloomsbury, 2016)

“I’m not working-class: I come from the criminal classes.” These words by the actor Peter O’Toole play on a broader prejudice that aligns working-class identity with marginality and transgression. Roberto del Valle Alcalá explores these thematic links in British Working-Class Fiction, which traces an alternative literary history of the British Isles, spanning from 1950 to the economic collapse of 2008. Alcalá documents life on the hard shoulder of modern capitalist progress, offering an analysis of working-class experience through detailed theoretical readings of Alan Sillitoe, Pat Barker, Irvine Welsh, Monica Ali and others. [Read More]

This extract is from my review of Roberto del Valle Alcalá’s British Working-Class Fiction: Narratives of Refusal and the Struggle Against Work, published in the Times Literary Supplement, 24 February 2017.

Neil Badmington discusses his fascination with the work of Barthes, the continuing relevance of critical theory, and his own approach to academic style

Neil Badmington, The Afterlives of Roland Barthes (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Neil Badmington, The Afterlives of Roland Barthes (Bloomsbury, 2016)
What led you to write The Afterlives of Roland Barthes?

‘Who’ rather than ‘What’, really. It’s all the fault of my good friend Jürgen Pieters, who has repeatedly led me, with our conversations over the years, in new directions. In 2006 Jürgen and Kris Pint (who was Jürgen’s PhD student at the time) organised a conference at their home institution of Ghent University on Barthes’s lecture courses at the Collège de France, which had recently appeared in print for the first time. I’m not sure why I was invited to participate: the other speakers were people with formidable reputations in the field of Barthes studies (Andy Stafford and Claude Coste, for instance), while I’d never written extensively about Barthes. His work had often informed mine up until that point — he’s there in Alien Chic and even the Posthumanism anthology, for instance — but he’d not been the primary object of analysis: I’d written with Barthes, not on Barthes. And the Barthes with whom I’d written had been the familiar Barthes, the ‘classic’ Barthes — the Barthes of S/Z and Mythologies, for example. But the unexpected invitation from Jürgen and Kris led me to look closely at the various volumes bearing Barthes’s name which had been published long after his death, and I was struck by how a different Barthes, another Barthes, was emerging gradually into print — not just the Barthes of the Collège years, but the Barthes of Travels in China, the Barthes of the seminars at the École pratique des hautes études, and the Barthes of Journal de deuil (or Mourning Diary, to give it its English title). It was the appearance of the latter in French in 2009 which really convinced me that The Afterlives of Roland Barthes needed to be written, in fact. I remember reading it at the time and realising as I turned the pages that it was altering my established perspective on Camera Lucida. This ‘new’ Barthes was reshaping the ‘old’ Barthes. In short, then, I wrote Afterlives to take stock of some of the posthumous publications which have appeared in recent years, and to ask how they might lead us to reconsider our understanding of the well-known publications which appeared during Barthes’s lifetime. (more…)

Ann Basu discusses how Philip Roth reveals the contradictions at the heart of American identity
Ann Basu, States of Trial: Manhood in Philip Roth's Post-War America (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Ann Basu, States of Trial: Manhood in Philip Roth’s Post-War America (Bloomsbury, 2016)

What motivated you to write States of Trial?

My imagination was lit, in particular, by the historical perspectives of Roth’s American Trilogy: American Pastoral, (1997) I Married a Communist (1998) and The Human Stain (2000) as well as its forerunner, Operation Shylock (1993) and a slightly later novel, The Plot Against America (2004). I became fascinated by how Roth tests narratives about both national and male identity to the point of destruction, uncovering the contradictions within concepts of American identity. Roth displays a powerful sense of conflicting historical forces impacting on personal identity, combining this with portraits of individuals tormented by contradictions in their own lives; contradictions that may both stretch and limit them. I found these major late-career novels compelling and wanted to write about them. The trial, a resonant concept in terms of American history and personal identity with its connotations of testing, suffering and also experimentation, was a good lens, I thought. It was productive for me, anyway. (more…)

Adam Weiner discusses how a Russian socialist novel from the nineteenth-century influenced the work of Ayn Rand and subsequent economic deregulation in the United States

What motivated you to write How Bad Writing Destroyed the World?

Adam Weiner, How Bad Writing Destroyed the World: Ayn Rand and the Literary Origins of the Financial Crisis (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Adam Weiner, How Bad Writing Destroyed the World: Ayn Rand and the Literary Origins of the Financial Crisis (Bloomsbury, 2016)

The idea evolved over time. While I was attending university I kept hearing about what an incredible, life-transforming experience it was to read Ayn Rand’s novels. Eventually I became curious enough to read The Fountainhead. The awfulness of the writing dumbfounded me, and I began to wonder what people could possibly be finding in there—it couldn’t be pleasures of an artistic order, so something else. As a graduate student I had to read Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s history-making but horribly written novel What Is to Be Done? and I became immediately aware that its badness was akin to what I had found in Ayn Rand. I mean not merely the clunky prose style and android heroes, but the dictatorial, sermonizing tone, and the sense that questionable ideological values were being hawked practically for free. When I began to teach literature at Wellesley College some of my students kept naming Ayn Rand and Nabokov as their favourite writers, and I was dismayed that the two names were being spoken in the same breath. So I read Atlas Shrugged. Only then did I get it: Ayn Rand, while officially despising socialism, had found her most immediate literary inspiration in Russia’s homegrown socialist, Chernyshevsky. All of the same ideas, devices, images: the same rational egoism; the same utopian scheming, right down to weird details, like perpetual motion machines. Humankind would discover miraculous new metals, motors and professional relations that would allow them to re-shape the world in their own image. Do god’s work. Become the master of your destiny. Etc., etc. I knew that all of this nonsense had been a direct inspiration to Lenin, who had destroyed the Russian Empire under its heady influence. Suddenly I saw that Ayn Rand had done much the same thing in the US by programming Alan Greenspan with objectivism and unleashing him into our economy, where he deregulated everything to the point of disaster and beyond. That’s when the book took shape in my mind. (more…)