Sunday, May 29, 2005

Why I write

In the blawgosphere there's an interesting question going around: what motivates your academic scholarship? The answers go beyond the obvious. Since the people answering are not only law professors but also bloggers, which already means compulsive writers, that isn't surprising. Here's my start at an answer to why I write academic articles even though my career choices have taken me away from the tenure track. One of the best reasons to write, I find, is to piece out an answer to a question like this: writing as self-discovery.

1. To set the record straight. "Getting it right" in rebuttal to someone who has gotten it terribly wrong is a powerful motivator. An early publication of mine was written out of frustration with a New York Times review of a novel, The Night Travellers by Elizabeth Spencer. A male reviewer took this woman's novel that had two protagonists, male and female, and assumed that the boy was the one the story was really about. He measured it against his expectations of a boy's coming of age story and found it wanting. But this was the wrong measure, I claimed. It was the girl's story, and it had a very different trajectory.

2. Because I want to let you in on a secret. A poem by Plath is more interesting if, for example, you understand how the poet absorbed and translated the influence of the artist Giorgio de Chirico. A novel by Melville becomes more richly layered if you explore just one allusion to a long-forgotten historical figure. This style of criticism is commonly called an influence study.

3. Because I want to set the record straight by letting you in on a secret. For my dissertation, which led to a collection of essays, I studied the ways in which Renaissance literature influenced Virginia Woolf. By the early 1990s, feminist scholars of the Renaissance kind of had it in for Woolf, who in A Room of One's Own invents "Shakespeare's sister," a frustrated writer, and assumes that in the 16th century she would have been all alone. Not so! these contemporary scholars proclaimed, sharing their own secrets. Just look and you'll find all sorts of women writers back there. Maybe so, I thought; but that's not all Woolf got out of the Renaissance. Her Renaissance comes out of Michelet and the French Revolution--it is a space of imagination and hope and radical reinvention. By this point what I was deeply engaged in was not influence study so much as historical (literary) criticism: trying to understand works in broad social, political, and intellectual context. And this is where I have chosen to dwell.

4. Because I want to let you in on secrets within secrets, and closer to home at that. I'm lucky to have come along in a time when interdisciplinary study is so strong. (Paul likes to cruise the textbook aisles to see how many history professors are teaching novels.) Influenced by Woolf herself (by an understanding of both her interest in "the lives of the obscure" and her insistently open and democratic critical practice, as outlined by my friend Melba Cuddy-Keane), influenced further by making a life in Chapel Hill among a wealth of historical resources, I've turned my attention to the American South across two centuries. I've returned to Spencer, for example, by doing some 19th century detective work to discover the 1886 context behind her 1950s novel The Voice at the Back Door.

The fascinating thing about this project is the way it invokes issues of historical memory. The episode that Spencer alludes to, the historical event that I teased out of old newspapers, happened in her home town. But she knew almost nothing about it; her family wouldn't talk. There's a lot that southerners have refused to talk about. And so the study of historical memory itself, which has made valuable contributions to other fields, in southern studies has now come into its own. (The debate over the legacy of Cornelia Phillips Spencer is an example of an evolving historical memory.)

Another thing is that once you start to think about "the texture of memory," as James Young calls his book on Holocaust memorials--about memory a component of history, rather than something apart--the work of writing becomes even more difficult, for you become aware of contingencies upon contingencies ("turtles all the way down"). You come to understand that the record does not intend to be set straight--which is not to say, however, that meaning cannot be made. I have two new projects on the horizon, both of which involve coming to terms with difficult untold stories. Seems like everyone I know who grew up in the South has a story. "Tell about the South": and so we should.

5. For pure pleasure. Gloria Steinem said it best: "I like to have written."

UPDATE: Eric Muller joins Michael Froomkin and Orin Kerr in articulating a thoughtful response. Some overlap: "I write out of a delusional sense that I have reached some insight others are missing" (Kerr); "Some articles I wrote because I was angry and wanted to fix something" (Froomkin); "I write to have fun and to tell stories about the law that I think are important, that outrage me, and that move me" (Muller). And others have recalled George Orwell: "[L]looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally."

No comments: