Those Gosh-Darned Academics!
“She wasn’t all that interested, as a reader, in the reader. She was still partial to that increasingly eclipsed entity: the writer. Madeleine had a feeling that most semiotic theorists had been unpopular as children, often bullied or overlooked, and so had directed their lingering rage onto literature. They wanted to demote the author. They wanted a book, that hard-won, transcendent thing, to be a text, contingent, indeterminate, and open for suggestions. They wanted the reader to be the main thing. Because they were readers. Whereas Madeleine was perfectly happy with the idea of genius. She wanted a book to take her places she couldn’t get to herself. She thought a writer should work harder writing a book than she did reading it.”
-Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot
I was driving to work and listening to the audio CDs of The Marriage Plot, the descriptions of the conjoined twins of intellectual stimulation and melodramatic love affairs of an undergraduate experience pleasantly whisked me back to my years in Ann Arbor. Seemingly out of nowhere, the above quote was read by the actor and I was taken aback, it seemed out of place, especially embittered, not at all representative of the feelings of the naïve Madeleine, but rather almost explicitly of the author himself. It seemed unlikely that a young woman would have formulated such a poignant critique of semiotic theorists in the midst of her tumultuous tryst. And yet, I sympathized with the sentiment that Jeffrey Eugenides had not-so-surreptitiously jabbed at all those “death of the author” critics.
In part, this very quote spurred a project in which I examined just how authors of fiction are able to view themselves and publicize themselves in the current academic and public climate. I had noticed that it seemed more and more common for authors to claim the “death of the novel,” a pointed and strategic deflection of what Roland Barthes had started in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author.” Ultimately, I was left with the (perhaps only) solution for novelists to engage with the tremendously complex aesthetic issues facing our contemporary culture was to forgo their status as genius and embrace the duty to educate the networked public in creating art. Collaboration was the buzzword. The text that contributed most to my understanding of why authors liked Jonathan Franzen and Don DeLillo constructed this deflection and subsequently demand this environment of collaboration: Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s “The Anxiety of Obsolescence.”
This is all to say that I was extremely excited as I began reading “Planned Obsolescence.” I enjoyed the possibility that the sword with which she masterfully used to take mighty swings at the white, heterosexual male authors who proffered the “death of the novel” would also be the very same sword academia would also fall on. After all, academically published work had the same effects in developing an “author function,” in which our reading was immediately and always contingent on the constellation of factors surrounding the name on the front cover, Frederic Jameson, Linda Hutcheon, Terry Eagleton, etc. As Fitzpatrick lays out the necessary future for academic publishing, one that I think is absolutely spot-on, the necessity of widespread collaboration, or a broader understanding of what that will entail in terms of due credit, is undeniable. Yet, do we not share the same fears and apprehensions of such a climate as novelists? I would not deny Eugenides the portrayal of academics as socially-isolated readers latched onto their texts (though, isn’t that a little like the pot calling the kettle black?) We love our ideas stirred from our hearts and minds in our offices. That we may put our ideas into the public domain in a format that is not print-on-paper, completed, unalterable is a certain comfort. That we proudly receive the credit for those ideas is equally rewarding, despite their inherent reliance on the assemblage of texts we’ve read and colleagues we’ve spoken with.
Shifting academic conversations from the safe, peer-reviewed culture of banter-via-publications to the more open, adaptable environment of blogs and wikis can certainly be a positive change, even though it may bruise the egos of our genius-complexes. Yet, perhaps the necessary democratization and collaborative shift in our work is not the inevitable result of a rapidly changing print and digital culture but the astute critiques we had made on the relationship between the novelist and his text. The notion that it is simply the fault of technology that we must change is both deterministic and limiting. We weren’t necessarily wrong in claiming the why “death of the author” was a positive shift, in fact it is actually the “rightness” of those claims that have created the current publishing climate. Kathleen Fitzpatrick is absolutely right in “Planned Obsolescence,” in the same unfortunate way that she was absolutely right in “The Anxiety of Obsolescence.” It’s time to fall on the sword. We have to embrace a new way of approaching our work, our peers, and our readers, one that inherently problematizes our status as genius and fits us more accurately in the collective that is facing the new problems of the contemporary moment.