Literature

Literature professors outline strategies for attracting more students

Number of English majors is dropping and many language programs fight for survival. But at the MLA, professors share strategies that are boosting enrollments and in some cases forcing them to change what they teach.

Job market is tight in many humanities fields, but healthy in economics

Market looks tight and getting worse for job seekers in English, foreign languages, history and philosophy. But a major social science field -- economics -- is doing a lot of hiring.

MLA Delegate Assembly narrowly votes to criticize Israel

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MLA Delegate Assembly narrowly approves controversial measure criticizing Israeli decisions on travel of scholars to the country and the West Bank. Should the meeting have been chaired by someone who backs boycott of Israel?

Email to job candidates renews debate about conference interviewing

Is it O.K. for a search committee to tell job candidates on January 3 that they do or do not have interviews at a disciplinary meeting that starts January 9?

Leaders of literary journals discuss strategies to face economic challenges

Editors consider how small publications can find support and reach audiences.

A roundup of university press titles on 'Frankenstein'

In a year as crowded with historical anniversaries as this one, it’s hard to argue for any single one of them as pivotal, but the bicentennial of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The New Prometheus has a better claim to than most. Few novels send a new mythological being out into the world. Not Victor Frankenstein himself, of course, who is a recycled archetype at best: the original bioengineer is a grotesque if not mad version of Prometheus, and his punishment for the hubris of bringing dead flesh back to life follows accordingly.

Rather, it’s the creature who embodies a truly original addition to the cultural imagination. A triumph of knowledge over nature, intended as beautiful but ghastly even to himself, he is sympathetic in ways that Victor is not: his creator denies him the one thing that would make his damaged condition bearable -- someone of his own kind to love. Mary Shelley’s narrative has been radically transformed in cinematic adaptations over the years. (If there’s a movie where the creature reads Milton, I haven’t seen it.) But now, on the 200th anniversary of her novel’s publication, the two central characters are allegorical figures of the two sides of the technologically enhanced drive for human self-refashioning -- expressions of the tragic sense that it won’t end well.

Looking over recent university press catalogs, I noticed how many new and forthcoming titles sounded like glosses on her vision. The connection is direct in the case of Daisy Hay’s The Making of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Bodleian Library, November). Emphasizing the young author’s engagement with “the pressing issues of her time: from science, politics, religion, and slavery to maternity, the imagination, creativity, and community,” Hay “stitches together the objects and manuscripts of the novel’s turbulent genesis in order to bring its story back to life.”

Some of the classical antecedents to Frankenstein will be found in Adrienne Mayor’s Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology (Princeton University Press, November), which tells “the fascinating story of how ancient Greek, Roman, Indian, and Chinese myths envisioned artificial life, automata, self-moving devices, and human enhancements -- and how these visions relate to and reflect the ancient invention of real animated machines.” (Publication dates and quoted material here and below are taken from the presses’ catalogs and websites.)

Arriving in translation three years after it was published in France, Hubert Haddad’s novel Desirable Body (Yale University Press, August) is described as “a contemporary Frankenstein.” The paralyzed survivor of an accident is given a new lease on life when his head is transplanted to a new body. I suppose it could also be described as someone’s old body being given a new head. “The gruesome transplant (detailed in a manner that highlights the author’s own diligent research and comprehension) parallels other ways humanity mutates nature globally …”

It may not make head transplants possible anytime soon, but the progress of neuroscience keeps breaching the mind-body distinction in surprising ways. Russell Poldrack’s The New Mind Readers: What Neuroimaging Can and Cannot Reveal About Our Thoughts (Princeton, October) offers “an insider’s perspective on what is perhaps the single most important technology in cognitive neuroscience today -- functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, which is providing astonishing new insights into the contents and workings of the mind.” It and other brain-mapping tools “are increasingly being used to decode our thoughts and experiences,” which raises “sometimes troubling questions about their application in domains such as marketing, politics, and the law.” It also poses the challenge, at least implicitly, of producing some mass of genetically engineered tissue that would produce the same waves.

And more of human interiority may be available for technological inspection than we’d prefer to imagine, at least if Nick Chater is right that The Mind Is Flat: The Remarkable Shallowness of the Improvising Brain (Yale, August). Rather than there being a surface layer of awareness that sits atop “a deep and complex set of inner beliefs, values, and desires that govern our thoughts, ideas, and actions,” we have brains that generate “behaviors in the moment based entirely on our past experiences” through “ceaseless and creative improvis[ing].”

Again, its sounds like a challenge to reverse engineer something comparable. Just wait! The tricentennial of Mary Shelley’s novel will be celebrated by our replacements.

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Professor discusses his new book on reading classic novels with people with autism

Professor discusses his new book on insights gained from reading classic literature with people with autism.

British students paint over Kipling poem, citing author's views on race and imperialism

British students paint over the Kipling poem "If" with one by Maya Angelou, citing the British writer's poem "White Man's Burden" and "a plethora of other work that sought to legitimate the British Empire’s presence in India and de-humanize people of color."

Teaching 'Lolita' is still appropriate (opinion)

I’ve taught an undergraduate seminar on Vladimir Nabokov since 2008. In each iteration I’ve addressed the challenges of reading Lolita -- a novel whose plot (the fabula, to speak in Russian formalist terms) is about the abduction and ongoing sexual abuse of a child, but whose structures and devices (the siuzhet) point everywhere else. In 2016, students debated whether I should have included a “trigger warning” on the syllabus. This year I added a few words asking students to inform themselves about the plot of Lolita and to consider what it means that Nabokov treats “a range of human experience in a highly artful, and even artificial, way.”

This semester, about one week into discussing Lolita, I assigned feminist readings of the novel, including Elizabeth Patnoe’s 2002 essay on trauma. After some uncomfortable discussion, my students issued a polite but concerted challenge. How could I justify teaching a book that inflicted trauma and even perpetuated rape culture? Could I not convey the essence of Nabokov’s art without teaching Lolita? Was I not excluding some students simply by teaching the text? While I was more or less prepared to talk about rape, I wasn’t at all ready to talk about the possibility of not teaching a book I love.

The next class I gave a lecture entitled “Why I Teach Lolita.” What follows is an abridged version of my lecture.

Why I Teach Lolita

I was surprised by your suggestion that I not teach Lolita in a college seminar on the novels of Vladimir Nabokov, whose fame -- at least as an American writer -- rests largely on this novel.

I was not surprised by the vehemence of your response to the book, but by the suggestion that we should perhaps not read it at all. That by assigning Lolita I am perpetuating trauma and may even be perpetuating rape culture. This last suggestion runs so counter to my own beliefs about what literature does that I found it hard to parry your challenges.

Let me try to explain myself now and make a case for why I will continue to teach the novel. I'd also like to suggest that what happened in class -- if we are able now to process our discussion -- is learning at its best.

The Ubiquity of Sexual Assault

Before I launch my defense, I wish to acknowledge where I went amiss. When I teach this book, I always keep in mind that, in all likelihood, several people in this room have experienced sexual assault. The numbers are staggeringly high; some studies suggest that as many as one in five children experience sexual abuse.

I accept your point from yesterday that I might have started our discussion of this book differently. Earlier in the semester, I nodded to the emotional and intellectual challenges of reading Lolita. However, I never addressed that the act of reading 300-plus pages is different than knowing the subject matter. The next time I teach Lolita I will make sure to address the emotional and intellectual challenges of reading from the outset.

I will also announce loudly and clearly that students may choose not to read the book.

That said, I would urge you -- in this class and in other classes -- to opt out only when you are experiencing emotions or reliving events that are detrimental to your health and not because you are feeling queasy, disgusted or morally offended. Your health needs to be protected. But these other responses are ones we should learn to inhabit and process, including by discussing books like Lolita.

No Lolita in a Course on Nabokov?

Could I do justice to Nabokov’s art without teaching Lolita? The answer is no.

To my mind, not teaching Lolita would amount to a breach of contract. If I don’t teach Lolita, I am denying you the opportunity to read -- in the hopefully productive environment of the classroom -- the book that established Nabokov's reputation as an English-language author. I would not be doing my professional duty as a professor and literary scholar if I sidestepped this novel. You agreed to this contract when you stayed in this course after reading my syllabus.

The world of Lolita, though related to Nabokov’s other novelistic worlds, marks a significant shift in Nabokov’s oeuvre. He wrote -- after the book was published in Paris but before it came out in the United States -- “It has taken me some 40 years to invent Russia and Western Europe, and now I was faced by the task of inventing America.” The Russian novels we’ve read remain at a distance that allows for safe intellectual contemplation. Lolita is likely the first Nabokov novel that touches you -- young people living in America who are not much older than Lolita -- in a visceral way.

Lolita is not the first novel where Nabokov turns horrific events into linguistic play. But it’s the first time he does it in a deeply American book that touches us today at such a deep core of, yes, trauma. Lolita captures something that is wrong with the time and place in which we live. Without Lolita, we lose a sense of the provocative nature of Nabokov’s writing and lose an opportunity to reflect on the transition from Nabokov the Russian writer to Nabokov the American writer.

Nabokov’s Poetics

In class we’ve discussed the relationship between author, reader and characters in Nabokov.

The essay “Good Readers and Good Writers” helps us think through the impasse at which we find ourselves when thinking about Humbert Humbert and Lolita. Nabokov orders us not to identify with a book’s hero or heroine. Look what happens in Lolita if you don’t follow the rule! Either you slip into identification with Humbert Humbert and find yourself in the subject position of a child molester. Or, if you identify with Lolita, you feel abused and traumatized!

I’m not saying that we should avoid identifying with characters. To my mind, that is one of those (slightly bullying) Nabokovian instructions that has to be taken with a grain of salt. Identification is deeply wired in the human psyche. This is how we engage with narrative. But Nabokov is pushing us to read differently. And part of his program means that either possibility for identification in Lolita is very uncomfortable indeed. This dilemma is interesting. Nabokov both tells us not to identify and manipulates us into identifying.

You may be angry and mad about this. Even offended. But I would argue that this manipulation is itself a reason to read this book and not to let it rot on the shelf.

The Specter of Cruelty

Nabokov speaks of the author as a demiurge. He dismisses the notion that a character could ever take on a life of her own outside of the author’s control.

There is a recurring scenario in Nabokov, when characters become aware of their status as characters and try to escape the text.

In Lolita we see, especially in the “authorial” relation to the heroine, both sides of this coin. On the one hand we have the naked level of “plot” where Lolita is abused. But we also intuit authorial empathy. On the level of metafiction (but not in “real” life), Lolita gets her just rewards. Lolita is, the novel suggests, smarter than Humbert Humbert, and plays her cards as well as she can.

Nabokov can also be cruel toward his reader. Recall his interview responding to a critic, ordering him “to remove his belongings.” Eric Naiman has written of the “hermeneutic performance anxiety” Nabokov creates among his readers. Nabokov makes many of us feel stupid. We may experience a Pavlovian reward when we get his erudite references and jokes, and we may even feel bad when we enjoy that reward.

Does Language Trump All Else?

Nabokov called Lolita his "love affair with the English language." But are we willing (and should we be willing) to set the “plot” aside and delve into the novel’s linguistic pyrotechnics? This is an important challenge to the genre of the social novel and to our familiar modes of reading that we need to take on.

“Always Historicize!”

We need to think more historically. At the core of our current difficulty with Lolita -- and at the heart of the book itself -- is a clash of historical and national sensibilities. In Lolita, we are dealing with at least four layers of history. First, we need to think of Nabokov as a member of the turn-of-the-century European elite. Second, Nabokov is an immigrant in 1950s America, offering us an outsider’s perspective on postwar American life in the McCarthy era. Third, Nabokov offers us layers of literary allusion to past centuries: Elizabethan England, 17th- and 18th-century France, 19th-century America. Finally, we need to reflect on our own American moment now, and especially our attitudes towards culture, politics and sex.

We must acknowledge that our attitudes toward sex are historically constructed. In Nabokov’s novels, sex is dangerous, revealing and hilarious. In 1950s America, polite society pretended sex didn’t exist. Today, sex seems to be overtly present in every aspect of American culture. Many of us are now comfortable acknowledging and discussing sex between consenting adults as a healthy and normal part of the human experience. Many of us are invested in the Me Too movement. Gay sex no longer disturbs us (unlike in Oscar Wilde’s England), and BDSM is a term that is a regular part of the public discourse (see Fifty Shades of Grey), even if only some know that the “S” refers to the Marquis de Sade. Every teenager has a device in their pocket, a phone, that can serve as a screen for showing pornography (some of which has appropriated the name Lolita for its own purposes!) and a camera for producing it. But sex between a child and an adult is so taboo we have trouble even starting a conversation about Nabokov’s Lolita.

In “On a Book Entitled Lolita,” Nabokov wrote that there were three taboos that American publishers refused to tackle. The first concerns Lolita (he never names the exact taboo); the second is “a Negro-White marriage which is a complete and glorious success resulting in lots of children and grandchildren.” The third is “the total atheist who lives a happy and useful life, and dies in his sleep at the age of 106.” Let us abstract these concepts: sex, race, religion. Are these not the accursed questions of our lives in America today?

(Self-)Censorship

Finally, there is the question of censorship. Nabokov was not published in the Soviet Union. Soviet proscriptions on ideological form and content prohibited it. One of the commonplaces in Communist Party discussions of forbidden books was, “I haven’t read it, but …” We need not to fall into that same trap of pronouncing judgment on texts we have not read. Nabokov -- a Russian émigré who fled Berlin with his Jewish wife in 1937 -- understood censorship. In writing Lolita, he’s pushing Americans, with their expressed ideology of “freedom,” to notice where they enact censorship, too.

Professors need to assign, and students need to read, difficult books. The challenges we face are not new. Our students are not “coddled” (a discourse which I abhor). But we need to read and discuss and come to our own conclusions. Even if that conclusion is that Nabokov contributed to a “Lolita myth” that has at times had horrific resonance in our culture.

Anne Dwyer is associate professor of Russian at Pomona College.

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Co-editors discuss new book on teaching the literature survey course

Editors discuss the way a key teaching role has evolved -- and should evolve.

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