in which academia and I circle each other warily; 3.27.19

So last week I promised you a life update and I figured I might as well just get that out of the way before we start digging into the rest. The life update actually is On Theme; as some of you may know, I’ve been spending the last year-ish preparing and then sending in grad school applications for English literature programs. Over the last couple of weeks, the rejections have been rolling in, and I recently heard from the final school, which *technically* waitlisted rather than outright rejecting me, but honestly that school’s whole process has been such a mess (they told me mid-March that I was on the waitlist as of 2/12/19???) that I’m currently making most of my plans as if I did not get in anywhere.

And by “my plans” I mean…not much! I’m not sure yet what my next moves are going to be–if I’m even going to apply again, etc, etc. So in some ways, the announcement is kind of a non-announcement: nothing’s really changing! This blog will continue in its present form for the foreseeable future, which is kind of cool. In some of my more ridiculous moments, I like to imagine that the selection committees who turned down my applications did so because they found my blog and decided it would be rude to deprive my 12 or so readers of these recommendations.

If you haven’t put it together by the title, this week’s books are…about academia! All in slightly different ways (and to different degrees), but I figured I would lump them into one post and be done with it. But before I jump into the books, I wanted to share a recommendation that’s not so much On Theme as it’s not *about academia* [though I’m CERTAIN it will be part of many a syllabus in years to come] but in terms of existential fear…I guess it’s not too far a departure!

Readers, I saw Jordan Peele’s Us this weekend, and…wow. It’s very, very good and very, VERY scary. As many have said before me, it’s much more of an outright horror movie than Get Out, but there’s just as much to parse out and think about. I’m a big fan of creators who know how to use a genre to its maximum capacity and Peele does that and MORE. [p.s. if you’ve already seen it (or if you haven’t seen it but understandably need spoilers to get you through a horror movie) this piece is great and funny and digs into some of the themes.]

Okay now onto academia!

Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and The Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination – Sandra M. Gilbert & Susan Gubar

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Okay so this is just straight up an academic TOME. Often considered THE seminal work in feminist literary criticism, Gilbert and Gubar’s 1979 book examines the ways nineteenth century women writers (plus Jane Austen) ran into or elided their patriarchal restraints through their work. Their project is both impressively expansive in its breadth [I cannot comprehend how long it must have taken to research, formulate, and compose] while also being steeped in a pretty 1970s/1980s gender essentialism that assumes a white, cisgender, middleclass ~female experience~.

This book is…enormous. And I’ll just tell ya straight: there’s not actually a good reason to read this unless you’re reading it for a class. Like, even if (like me) you’re thinking you might SOMEDAY need to read it for a class and want to get prepared…don’t. YES I AM TELLING YOU NOT TO PREPARE I RECOGNIZE HOW OFF-BRAND THIS IS FOR ME. A of all) presumably when reading this for a class you’d be under the guidance of an instructor, and in a setting where you’d be struggling through this with other students and B of all) you’d have a specific purpose/goal in mind when reading it. Also, if you’re reading it in school, your brain is in “academic mode,” probably, and this is…quite intensive literary criticism. It is not for funzies.

There were several spots within that were super interesting and informative, but honestly once the rejections started to roll in I REALLY started to tune out/give into my exhaustion and hence I probably didn’t get much out of the last half. Plus, as I’ve mentioned before, it’s pretty “of its time” in terms of its feminism, so one would also need to read it prepared to take in the magnitude of what they were doing when they wrote it, while also holding in your brain the amount of people this leaves out and the ways other types of literary criticism have recontextualized this work.

The Marriage Plot – Jeffrey Eugenides

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I just finished this book last night and I am…spitting mad. I should also mention that this is only like, halfway, about academia, which is NOT what I’m mad about but seems worth mentioning. This book came out in 2011 but is set in 1983 and follows 3 recent college graduates both backwards in time through their college experiences and through their first year after graduating.

Okay so first of all, Madeleine Hanna, Leonard Bankhead, and Mitchell Grammaticus [yep, those are THEIR NAMES] are three of the most insufferable hoes I have ever met. I actually had kind of a good time hating them for the first 150 pages or so (and let me tell you, my margin notes [IN A BOOK I OWN, OF COURSE] were PRIME) but then…there were 250 pages left to grit my teeth through. Yes yes I should have given up, etc, etc, but this is such a polarizing book–some people I respect really liked it!–that I thought there might be something the book would pay off. Interestingly, an issue a lot of people seem to be having with this book’s pretentiousness is in its many depictions of these three at their Ivy League college, taking courses in semiotics and philosophy. Those were actually the parts I enjoyed most–yeah they seemed more like they were having graduate level conversations rather than undergraduate, but at least they were FUN.

Not sure whether to start with the sexism or the depiction of bipolar but, spoiler: they’re both bad!! Madeleine Hanna…I don’t know if I’ve ever thought, “this female character is so smart that it’s almost…demeaning?” Everything she did was the MOST SPECIAL and INTERESTING and literally Mitchell Grammaticus’ EN.TIRE. character arc is accepting that she’s never going to sleep with/marry him. Over FIVE. YEARS. OF. PLOT. (p.s. the most fun thing about this book was discovering that a few years ago Amy Spalding [who wrote The Summer of Jordi Perez!!] wrote a fabulously fun short satirizing both this book and Gilmore Girls and I cackled so many times while reading.)

Meanwhile, the first 150ish pages are devoted to convincing you that Leonard is a pretentious dick [surprise, they’re ALL pretentious dicks], but then SURPRISE! Actually he has bipolar! (Set in the 80s, everyone refers to it as ‘manic depression.’) I myself…do not enjoy the mental illness bait-and-switch, especially when I learned that Eugenides…didn’t actually talk to anyone with bipolar while writing this? Like he is ON RECORD saying that he mostly just read studies and talked to a doctor, and that he chose bipolar for Leonard because of its “dramatic potential.” Though the portrayal is fairly clinically accurate (apparently he consulted with a doctor to make sure the dosages Leonard was taking would be accurate, but he didn’t want to actually talk to people who’ve actually TAKEN those medications? sure, jan.) “accuracy” doesn’t count for that much with me when your plot pretty unequivocally screws over that character in favor of the other two’s arcs.

I’ve already said more about this book than it deserves but I am just. so. UPSET.

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[also TW: for some depictions of suicidal ideation]

Possession – A.S. Byatt

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Phew, I’ve exhausted so much on that male-written book that I hated that I need to re-summon the energy to get into my complicated feelings about this female-written book. [isn’t that just THE WAY though.]

Actually, my feelings aren’t *that* complicated: I liked some parts very much, and might have liked the composition of the book in its entirety at a different point in my life (past or future). This is an academic mystery that Margaret H. Willison (whose recommendations I usually love wholeheartedly) was enthusing about on Twitter, and the premise sounded extremely up my alley: two academics in the 1990s discover that the 19th century poets they’ve each been spending their careers studying might have had a heretofore-unknown affair with one another, and the book takes us on their journey through the works, letters, and scholarship surrounding these poets and their acquaintances to try to unearth the truth while eluding other interested parties.

There’s a good chunk of the book that’s made up of those “primary sources” that Roland and Maud are searching through–both the poets they’re investigating are fictional, so on its own I’m super impressed by the poetry, diaries, and scholarship Byatt created around her characters. That being said…I often found it exhausting to read and not really what I was interested in. I really liked the sections that were more straightforwardly novelistic, and I cared deeply about all of the characters in the book—“past” and “present.”

Something that this book and The Marriage Plot together actually prompted me to think about is the question of what makes a book ‘pretentious’? Is it the actual content, or the way that content is written? A lot of the material in Possession is fairly esoteric and specialized; it’s hard to imagine that people without a pre-existing interest in Victorian literature and literary criticism would enjoy this book. But does that, necessarily, make it pretentious? There was a curiosity and humbleness to Byatt’s writing that was a sharp contrast to Eugenides. Her characters are self-aware in a way that’s not “look how self-aware I am!!!” and think deeply about what they’re doing and why it matters. Also in contrast to The Marriage Plot, I like this book more the more I think about it and can see myself coming back to it someday when I have a bit more patience.

Appropriately enough for an academia-themed post, this was fairly long-winded, and you’re a champ if you’ve stuck with me to the end. See you next week for our usual delightful grab bag!

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