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Monday, 13 November 2006

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N. Pepperell

This may just be because I've long ago surrendered hope of participating in any critical consensus, but I'm wondering two things: (1) would a "contrarian" defense of an author be more likely to get attention than another sort of read? and (2) are evaluations of Mitchell's significance really the likely context for evaluations of the significance of your work?

On the second point, it seems that, by touching on issues of evolutionary concepts in popular culture, you've hit on a fairly resonant topic for the present moment - and if Mitchell is the man you need to read to get you there, well, I suspect people will deal with your choice... ;-P It seems to me that you've redefined the reasons why someone might want to assess Mitchell as being significant - and therefore can to some degree influence the extent to which he is thought to be significant... (This from someone, of course, who knows nothing of your field and is just looking at the themes you cover in a very outsider kind of way: you've chosen an author that lets you criticise common understandings of evolutionary theory, feminist critiques, popular culture - looks like a promising combination to me...)

Scott Eric Kaufman

N.P.,

(1) would a "contrarian" defense of an author be more likely to get attention than another sort of read?

It depends, really, on factors no one can predict. Sometimes demand for "against the grain" readings is high, and issue after issue of American Literature and American Literary History brims over; then, for months on end, the tide of critical reevaluation ebbs. Who knows why the tides move? Are they locomoted by the moon? I don't know, but neither does anyone else, I think.

(2) are evaluations of Mitchell's significance really the likely context for evaluations of the significance of your work?

Not the dissertation as a whole, but this chapter, which when finished I'll shop around and try land someplace prestigious.

It seems to me that you've redefined the reasons why someone might want to assess Mitchell as being significant - and therefore can to some degree influence the extent to which he is thought to be significant...

This is the real question. The problem is everyone's so invested in their own work that there's little exchange. Great new work rarely dents the critical consensus, which slinks toward Babylon at half the speed of slug. Unless you become a name, no one pays attention. It's citational momentum—once you earn those few citations, there's a chance that your work will have some impact. Mostly, though, if you place it with a publisher it'll come out five years later, be reviewed once deep in the wilds of American Literature and sink like a stone—especially if it doesn't concern a canonical writer, one with an "industry" devoted to his or her explication. Since there's no Mitchell industry, there's no one to pick up the momentum. Similarly, there's no evolutionary theory industry in literary studies, just Gillian Beer and a few of her students.

This is one of the reasons I'm convinced that this alternative academic community has so much potential. Here, people get excited about works, write about them with enthusiasm, respond to their arguments with intellectual seriousness, &c. Much better than writing the perfunctory two books required for tenure.

P.S. Your comment warmed my cockles. What is it about other people's evaluation of your project that lends it an air of substance, of importance?

N. Pepperell

We're social creatures - ideas in isolation are never completely real...

I'm obviously not in a position to assess the vagaries of your discipline (I haven't even figured out what my own discipline is, so I'm something like the worst possible person for this sort of thing), but I'd think you're not so much shopping around a piece on Mitchell, as on a whole mass of intellectual history that surrounds a particular vision of Mitchell - reinterpret him, and the "names" follow. If you find yourself having difficulty shopping the chapter as an independent piece, perhaps strategically this point could be foregrounded? (You may already foreground this issue, of course - I haven't seen your wares... ;-P)

At any rate, I tend to think it's really important to find a microcosm through which you can make a broader argument - and it's always seemed to me that you've found a particularly saturated microcosm in Mitchell - not because of how wonderful he is in some intrinsic sense, but because of the various narrative threads that can run through a story about him... (To put this in context, of course, you're talking to someone who's researching suburban fringe development, so perhaps I'm just easily excited... ;-P)

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