I had my first meeting with my primary supervisor last week. It was a very encouraging one. I went in worried that he would sit down and say: okay, here are all the things that sucked about your proposal that you have to fix. He didn’t say that at all, and yet I know that I have to work on specifics now and narrowing down my focus.
My degree is a PhD by practice. So my aim is to have a 30/70 split: 30,000 words of critical reflection and 70,000 words of creative work. Part of what scares me, haunts me and presents the biggest challenge is how to really effect an intellectually defensible marriage between the critical and creative work. I mentioned this fear to my supervisor, and he suggested that these parts don’t have to be physically separate. The critical part could serve as annotation, or illumination, or gloss to the creative portion – or the opposite. Having a background in graphic design, and loving old books, and the semiotics of layout, I found the idea of this very visually and intellectually stimulating. Something sort of Talmudic.
The Talmud (there are actually two distinct ones) is made up of two parts: the law (the darker columns in the centre) and the discussions on the law (the annotations surrounding the central columns).
I doubt very much that any reader of erotic fiction would want to read all the research, theory and critical reflection surrounding the text, but I think its a wonderful way for me to approach it as a finished work to present as my doctoral thesis. It will keep me making sure that the relationship between the critical and creative parts are strongly related.
So that was my first experience with my supervisor, and I have to say, it made me feel very secure that I could take a creative approach, even visually, to my work.
So, here are my tasks going forward in the next few months:
Build a bibliography on
- reader-response criticism
The first part is self-evident. The bibliography on reader-response criticism is essential because this is the lens through which I want to work. Reader-response criticism had its heyday in the 1980s. It’s since fallen out of favour and been eclipsed by more culturally focused methodologies. If I am going to pursue it, I need to defend why I feel it’s a good approach for my work.
Here are some of the theoretical assumptions about reading inherent in the reader-response critical approach”
Literature is a performative art and each reading is a performance, analogous to playing/singing a musical work, enacting a drama, etc. Literature exists only when it is read; meaning is an event
The literary text possesses no fixed and final meaning or value; there is no one “correct” meaning. Literary meaning and value are “transactional,” “dialogic,” created by the interaction of the reader and the text. According to Louise Rosenblatt, a poem is “what the reader lives through under the guidance of the text.”
(Reader Response Criticism, Barbara A. McManus : http://www2.cnr.edu/home/bmcmanus/readercrit.html)
As a writer, I write only for the reader. Reader-response criticism gives primacy to the reader – not the reader as representative member of a sociocultural grouping (of class, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, etc), but as an individual having a personal, intimate reading experience. I don’t write for women, or the working class, or straight people. I write one to one, appealing to and playing on the lived experience of the reader to make meaning of the text I provide. Moreover, my position is that writers intentionally use language that either invites or rejects the readers’ attempts to pull their lived experience into erotically explicit texts – and that in the last decade, this holding off of the reader from embodied engagement with the text has become very common. The how is pretty clear to me. The why is much more of a challenge to explain, but I suspect it has to do with not wanting to trigger arousal in the reader, as if that is a cheap trick, an unworthy pursuit, a low-art behaviour in the face of the ubiquity of pornography in mainstream media – as if they were scared to explore the difference or rejected the position that there is any difference.
And this leads me back to the definition of eroticism, and how often it is mistaken for, used as a substitute for the word pornography. Luckily, there is some exceptional writing on how they differ.
My second task is to write a working definition of eroticism that will guide me in investigations.
The third task is to make a list of 6 works of fiction and 6 works of non-fiction that explore eroticism, and summarize them in a few sentences each. Of course, the bibliography part makes this much easier.
Right now, I’m thinking for the fiction, that three books in which I believe the writers purposefully avoid erotically engaging the reader come to mind straight away:
Atomized by Michel Houellebecq
The Act of Love by Howard Jacobson
The Humbling by Philip Roth
I’m going to be working on the other three. I would like to include other titles where the sexually explicit scenes are not heterosexual, but ironically, gay and lesbian literary works seem to embrace the possibility of arousing the reader quite fearlessly. If you have any suggestions, I’d be grateful.
For non-fiction, I’ve got four to be getting on with:
Eroticism by George Bataille
The Politics and Poetics of Transgression by Peter Stallybrass and Allon White
Resisting Nudities : A Study in the Aesthetics of Eroticism by Florence Dee Boodakian
Beyond Romance by M.C. Dillon
and, perhaps Speaking the Unspeakable: A Poetics of Obscenity by Peter Michelson
So good, so far. Wish me luck.