Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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English 4400a: History of the Book. Notes for discussion.

Posted: Sep 11, 2007 17:09;
Last Modified: Oct 18, 2007 16:10


Notes for discussion.

These are notes to offer some prompts to help you with your thinking and reading. You do not need to restrict yourself to the approaches and ideas pursued here, but these may help you if you find yourself not knowing where to begin.

Week 2: Introduction: Speech Genres, Contextualisation Cues, and the Interpretation of Literature

Required Reading:

Primary Readings
Secondary Readings

This section introduces the approach we will be taking in this course. In addition to introducing some of the key concepts and secondary sources on genre and context, we will also be looking at what makes the texts we are studying so interesting. After an introductory lecture and discussion of Bakhtin and Foley, we will discuss two historical examples: Theodor Adorno’s attempts at distinguishing between “Serious” and “Popular” music, and the generic difficulties faced by the Old English translator of Lactantius’s late classical Latin poem, De ave phoenice.

Adorno, “On Popular Music”

Adorno’s essay does something many of us probably do informally all the time—it tries to draw some kind of inherent distinction between “serious” art and what Adorno poet clearly sees as the sub-artistic genre of popular music. The danger with this type of criticism lies in the possibility that one has either misunderstood something about the works one considers “sub-literary,” or failed to see the conventional or generic in the works one considers exceptional. Since, as Alan Bloom has argued in the Closing of the American Mind, popular music is the form of art with which most late twentieth century students are most intensely involved, we are probably as well qualified as anybody to criticize Adorno’s argument—even if we are unfamiliar with the specific examples he chooses (all of which are from before the middle of the last century).

Here are some questions to ask yourself as you read: Is Adorno’s central contention about structure and expectation true? Does classical music differ from popular music in that it is free of structural standardization? Is popular music different from classical music in that its details are invariably subservient to the generically determined structure? Is this a true and qualitative artistic difference? Or is it something else? How would Foley or Bakhtin criticize Adorno’s argument? Is there a defense for the superiority of “serious” music, or should we treat “serious” and “popular” music as artistic equals?

The Old English Phoenix and Lactantius’s De ave phoenice.

Most surviving Old English poems are translations from Latin sources. These mostly are translations from religious or philosophical texts, but also include riddles and charms.

Anglo-Saxon readers and authors did not necessarily understand “translation” the same way we do. Where many of us consider a translation “good” when it follows its original closely, Anglo-Saxon translators—especially verse translators—often adapted their translations to fit the expectations of their target audiences. King Alfred includes meditations on Anglo-Saxon Kingship in his translation of Boethius, for example.

The translation effected by the Old English Phoenix poet goes one step farther. In addition to translating the words of his original, the poet also thoroughly Christianises his subject: he moves and adjusts pagan references in his Latin original, and adapts and extends his generic model to fit Anglo-Saxon expectations for how Christian natural history should be presented.

In reading this text and the associated critical discussion, you might want to begin by asking whether we would consider this to be a translation or something else—a reworking? a text based on the other? Do we need to historicise our knowledge of the translator’s goals in order to appreciate his work or can we read it as a translation on its own terms? We now know that Lactantius himself was a Christian. Does this historical perspective affect our understanding of what the Old English poet was up to?

Weeks 3-5: The Archaeology of Genre

Required Reading:

Week 3 Primary readings
Secondary readings

This section looks at the reconstruction of genre in two medieval texts: Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale and Beowulf. We will be examining these texts as far as possible in their medieval contexts and asking ourselves how this context can (or ought to) affect our reactions as twentieth-century readers. How much weight should we give to contemporary contextual considerations in deciding what we think of a text? Can medieval/early Renaissance readers misunderstand their own literature? And how do we deal with texts that seem to appear in the wrong context in contemporary manuscripts? Must we always cede authority to the “originals.”

Chaucer, The Squire’s Tale

One way of looking at the interpretative history of Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale is to say that it took his readers almost 600 years to get the joke. Beginning in 1948, but especially since the mid-1960s, the Squire’s story has come to be read almost universally as a satire against its teller. The tale begins badly and is broken off by the “gentile Franklyn” (who pretends to believe the teller is finished) as soon as it becomes clear that the plot is going nowhere.

The trouble, however, is that this view is almost entirely restricted to scholars of the late twentieth century. From Chaucer’s earliest reception right through until at least the end of World War II, the tale of Cambuscan et al. was seen as a wonderful albeit tragically incomplete romance. It is praised by Milton and completed by Spenser, for example.

In discussing the Squire’s Tale, we will begin by assessing these two views of Chaucer’s work. Is it possible to see the tale as a parody and still understand what earlier readers found so impressive?

We will then go on to discuss what we are to make of the discrepancy. How can we account for these two seemingly irreconcilable readings? Are the early (or late) readers just plain wrong? Should we cede to Milton and Spenser because they are famous poets who lived in an age that was less far removed from Chaucer’s own? Or are they simply early critics with who we may disagree as we see fit?

And finally, we will ask what it is we are doing when we propose a “reading” of a medieval work. Does Chaucer belong to the past or to us? When we study him, is our goal to recreate what it was like to be in his fourteenth-century audience? Or are we to ignore historical reception and concentrate on formal aspects of the text itself? What do we do when these approaches seem to contradict each other? And what if the dispute was over something more serious—like sexual morality or religious hierarchy or heresy?

In preparing for this class you should read up on Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales, and on Spenser, and Milton and their respective careers as writers. You should also orient yourself in each writer’s period: at what dates did each flourish, what were some other major events going on the world?

Week 4 Primary readings

Required Reading:

Secondary readings

Beowulf is a great poem either because of or despite its monsters.

The idea that the poem might be great because of the monsters was suggested most forcible by J.R.R. Tolkien (who, in addition to writing the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, was an Anglo-Saxonist of some note) in a famous address to the British Academy: “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” (Tolkien 1936 ). Before Tolkien, the consensus view tended to be that the poem was a great compendium of Germanic mythology marred, unfortunately, by its anonymous author’s bizarre and childlike interest in “Fairy Tales.”

Tolkien’s suggestion that the poem actually might be about the monsters was reinforced by subsequent research into the makeup of the manuscript book in which the only known copy of the poem is found, Cotton Vitellius A. xv. As Kenneth Sisam pointed out in his seminal article on “The Compilation of the Beowulf manuscript” (Sisam 1953 ), the texts with which Beowulf is bound are all concerned with monsters or monstrous happenings. While there has been some debate as to whether all the texts were originally copied for the same manuscript, we will begin by focusing on the fact that somebody—a script, poet, or subsequent “editor”—put the manuscript together the way it is now.

Our discussion will revisit some of the same questions we looked at with the Squire’s Tale: how are we to interpret the implicit generic information contained in something like the Beowulf manuscript? Does knowing that the other tales involve monstrous characters help or hinder us when we read the poem? Do the monsters in Beowulf mean something different when the poem is read in isolation? Does our opinion of who the monsters are in Beowulf change in response to this context?

Unit 3: The Politics of Genre

Required Reading:

Primary Readings

2 If we have time, I would like to devote a class to discussion of Diary’s film adaptation.

Secondary Reading

This unit looks as the definition of genre as a political weapon. We concentrate on the controversies surrounding the reception of two great literary works: Anne Frank’s non-fiction World War II memoir, Het Achterhuis (English Title: Diary of a Young Girl), and Mark Twain’s novel, Huckleberry Finn.

The controversies are alike in that they involve race, and genre. These two issues interact, however, in extremely different ways in each case.

Huckleberry Finn

In Huckleberry Finn, the controversy surrounds the question of the treatment of race in the novel itself. On the one hand, Huckleberry Finn is often held up as an important monument on the road to racial tolerance in the United States. Huck’s decision to ‘go to hell’ rather than turn in his friend, the escaped slave Jim, is seen as an important satire of the ‘morality’ of slave owning whites. No reader of Huckleberry Finn, it is argued, can possibly agree that Huck really is going to hell for refusing to turn in Jim. By getting us to sympathize with Huck as he sympathizes with Jim, the argument goes, Twain manages to get past contemporary white America’s tendency to see slaves as property rather than individuals—to overcome their racism.

On the other hand, however, Huckleberry Finn is also frequently attacked for what is seen by its critics as its own irredeemable racism. The problem, according to this reading, is not so much that Huck doesn’t like Jim or see him as an individual (although the cruelty Tom and Huck force the ex-slave to undergo at the novel’s end do suggest they see him less as a person than a play-thing)—it is Twain’s entire characterization of African Americans as lovable half-wits. Jim may be seen by Huck as a friendly individual, this argument suggests, but he is also portrayed as an immensely, almost sub-humanly, silly individual—a portrait of the Black Man no better than those put forward by the slave owners themselves.

For our purposes, what is most interesting about the debate about race in Huckleberry Finn is its relation to our understanding of genre and context in the broad Bakhtinian sense we are using in this course: are the accusations of racism mitigated if we consider the time in which the book first appeared? The audience for whom it was intended? The spirit in which it was written?

My own feeling is that most late twentieth-century readers will be able to see both sides of the argument. Our discussion of Huckleberry Finn will therefore concentrate on reading the book in light of the various attacks and defenses proposed in Booth’s article and the Bedford “Casebook”.

The Diary of Anne Frank

Unlike that surrounding Huckleberry Finn, the controversy surrounding the Diary of Anne Frank is fake. Since the late 1950’s, neo-nazi and ‘revisionist’ critics and historians have suggested that the Diary is a forgery 3 . Despite overwhelming forensic evidence to the contrary compiled by Dutch Government crime labs in the mid-1980s, these attacks have continued.

This section of the course will look at the crucial role generic definition has played in the debate both about the Diary‘s authenticity and the legitimacy of ‘revisionist’ historicism in discussions of Holocaust literature. In contrast to that of Huckleberry Finn, the racism in this case lies in the critics rather than the text of Anne Frank’s Diary. But the debate has expressed itself, as was true of Huckleberry Finn, almost entirely in what are properly seen essentially generic terms: how does our understanding of an author’s intentions affect our reading of the work he or she produces? If a book exists in multiple contemporary and contradictory versions, which do we choose for our reading? Do the interpolations of an editor affect the authenticity of a dead author’s work? How much attention should we pay to social pressures that might affect a text after it leaves its author’s hands?

Our work will involve readings from various versions of the Diary (these are available only in the specified edition), from so-called ‘revisionist’ criticism, and from the work of the Diary’s defenders. We will consider how the political battle about the generic definition of Anne Frank’s work has affected its textual and critical history, and decide what we ourselves think of the work in light of the numerous conflicting accounts that exist of its intention and significance 4 . We will be concentrating on the b text of the Diary, a revision Anne Frank was working on at the time of her capture. We will, however, also be considering the relationship of this version to Anne Frank’s original draft ( a ), the version put together by Otto Frank after the war ( c ), and subsequent popularizations (represented particularly by the film version).

A general account of the textual history of the Diary can be found in my lecture, What Anne Meant. The Globe and Mail article “Sacred Text” places the Fall 1997 discovery of new leaves from the Diary in the context of its post-war textual history.

3 As we shall see, the generic controversy extends from the subject of the debate, through the names the participants choose for themselves, to even whether there can be a legitimate debate about ‘Holocaust Revisionism.’ Lipstadt’s Denying the Holocaust contains a definitive account of issues at stake in what I argue is an all consuming debate about genre.

4 At risk of belaboring the obvious, the actual authenticity of the Diary is not one of the issues that we can reasonably expect to come up for debate—Anne Frank’s authorship has been demonstrated by the Dutch Government more thoroughly than that of almost any other major author. We know Anne wrote Het Achterhuis more reliably than we know Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn, Joyce wrote Ulysses, and, certainly, Chaucer The Canterbury Tales.

Unit 4: The Ethics of Genre

Required Reading:

Primary Reading
Secondary Reading

5 If we have time, I would like to devote a class to this film.

This unit of the course looks at the ethics of genre: how we use generic claims to excuse the contents of certain kinds of texts and condemn that of others.

Our discussion takes its cue from two comments on the nature of pornography and its position in literature. The first is U.S. Justice J. Stewart’s famous definition of the genre: “I know it when I see it.” 6
The second is Wayne Booth’s challenge in “Rabelais and the Challenge of Feminist Criticism” to those critics who would defend pornography as literature:

You do want to defend it? As literature? As something to be “taught” the way one might teach Donne? I find it hard to believe you 7 .

Since the same might be said—apart from the very controversial evidence connecting pornography to criminal activity 8 —of women’s romance fiction, detective novels or any forms of “category fiction,” this section explores why people find it on the whole so easy to make personal distinctions (despite the notorious legal difficulties 9) between ‘literature’ and ‘sub-literary’ genres. What is it that makes literature literature and pulp fiction pulp fiction? Is there a generic difference between works of serious artistic merit and those that are not? Does the difference lie in the skill of the practitioner? Or in our attitudes towards certain kinds of subjects and writings? Is ‘literariness’ a permanent quality or a relative one subject to historical change? Can you write good ‘sub-literary’ fiction and remain ‘sub-literary’? Do serious literature and sub-literature invoke different types of responses in readers?

The answers to these questions can be extremely important. Distinguishing between pornography and literature has been the subject of numerous court cases and government commissions in Canada, the U.S. and Great Britain. As Edward de Grazia shows in his survey of obscenity cases in the United States, slight changes in nuance can result in one author becoming a best-seller and another the recipient of a large fine or jail sentence.

Defining such genres, moreover, is big business. As Radway notes in her chapter on “The Institutional Matrix,” the romance industry is predicated on the idea that you can produce and package writing that readers will recognize (and buy) as if it were a straight commodity. The pornography industry likewise divides its material up into a bewildering number of distinct generic categories. These two industries’ success depends on readers desiring a continuous supply of generically predictable fiction.

Our readings provide some extremely interesting case histories of the difficulties we face in confronting this problem. The first, Lolita, is widely acclaimed today as an important work of ‘serious’ American fiction by a significant Russian/American author. But its publication history looks more like that of a ‘dirty book’: its author tried initially to remain anonymous (he feared he might end up losing his university job), and, after being turned down by most major U.S. publishing houses, handed his work over to a French publisher that was most famous for publishing explicitly pornographic novels.

The history of John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (“Fanny Hill”) is almost the exact inverse to that of Lolita. Written as pornography by its author—he spent much of his life repenting for and trying to disassociate himself from his creation—and read by generations of teenagers and young adults for its sexual content, the novel nevertheless enjoys an almost indissoluble relationship with respectability in law and academia: it is published today by Oxford World Classics—an imprint which specialises in editions of ‘classic’ (public domain) literature for classroom use, and was defended before the U.S. Supreme Court in the mid-1960s in part on the basis of its artistic and historical merit.

For our discussion of woman’s romance, we will be reading a work from Harlequin’s current (August) catalogue. This is significant in and of itself. While there are one or two acknowledged classics of the genre—Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower (1972) being one of the most frequently cited—none of these important works are currently in print (though you can pick up the Flame and the Flower at the library). The major romance houses almost never republish, 10 and no example of the genre has ever been picked up by “Oxford World Classics.” In addition to looking at how our example, TBA, defines itself, we will devote some of our time to discussing why Women’s Romance is so often ignored in secondary studies in favor of its—no less formulaic—brother, pornography.

This final section of the course is almost certainly going to be among our most difficult. While the attacks on the Diary of Anne Frank can be hard to stomach, and while the debates about racism and Huckleberry Finn can get viciously personal, neither is usually seen as being all that threatening to specific individuals: neo-nazis are no threat to most people in most Western democracies, and, whether or not they think Huck is a racist novel, few people wish it were racist.

The debate about pornography is different (the same could apply to Romance, but almost never does). Almost by definition pornography (and erotica if you allow the term), and romance involve the objectification of some segment of the population: the women characters in male-oriented heterosexual pornography are not being portrayed for their nice personalities and nobody wonders if the men in female-oriented heterosexual romance wouldn’t actually prefer to abandon their Byronesque sneering for a couple of beers and a chance to burp at the ball-game in their undershirts. The debate centres not on whether this objectification exists, but whether it is objectionable. The closest equivalent would be a debate about whether racism in Huckleberry Finn was evil or just good fun.

For anti-pornography activists (there do not appear to be any real anti-romance activists11), the objectification is what is wrong. “Pornography is the theory, rape is the practice” went a common slogan in the mid- 1980s. While such activists often try to contrast the negative connotations of “porn” with the positive connotations of “erotica”, there seems to be very little agreement about the definition of such ‘erotica’—and no consensus as to whether such a distinction could get around the problem of objectification anyway. In this view, fighting pornography and fighting violence against women are essentially the same thing.

Until very recently, pornography has had almost no mainstream supporters. Instead, there have been those who have been opposed to its censorship 12. But whether they have been ‘for pornography’ or less controversially ‘against censorship’, however, members of this camp have tended to concentrate on either denying that pornography does any serious harm to the objectified group or suggesting that limiting porn would also affect access to ‘legitimate’ or ‘serious’ art. Erotic fantasies are a form of entertainment, the argument goes, which, at the borders at least, are very hard to distinguish formally from serious literature. While it is almost certainly the case that some women are forced into the pornographic industry, this side suggests, moreover, there is no evidence of systematic abuse, and some evidence of women freely choosing this career 13 . For people of this persuasion, pornography is often seen as a crucial test case for our willingness to tolerate offensive free speech.

The result is that people of good will can end up taking positions that other people of good will find at best to be incomprehensible and at worst to be personally threatening or offensive. We will attempt to ease this danger by concentrating on print works (avoiding in the process the possibility that direct physical harm was done to the subjects of the works we are examining), and, following Arcand, focusing on questions of genre and reception. Inevitably, however, we will run into controversial areas and something somebody will say will be misunderstood by somebody else. If our discussion is to be in anyway enlightening or useful, we will need to avoid the complementary sins of political correctness and political insensitivity. We need the courage to speak up and the willingness to forgive those who inadvertently offend us. If we manage this, this section should prove one of the most interesting.

6 Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184, 197(1964) (Stewart, J., concurring). Quoted in the Attorney General’s Commission Report on Pornography: Final Report (Washington: US Department of Justice, 1986): p. 229: MainC KF 944 A822 1986, vv. 1-2,

7 “Rabelais and the Challenge of Feminist Criticism,” p. 394, fn.12

8 Our course is not the place to debate this evidence. Suffice it to say that there appear to be conflicting views in the secondary literature about the validity of studies linking pornography in general to sexual crimes in general. For a recent review (with references to both sides of the issue) see, Arcand, pp. 62-75.

9 An interesting example is the 1986 U.S. Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography—which could not easily define pornography, but was able to come up with lots of examples. See Final Report, pp. 227-232.

10 This includes books that are receiving favorable publicity in the media. None of the books mentioned in a February 13, 1999 Globe and Mail article on the ‘New Romance’ (Val Ross, “I am strong, I am Domestic, I am Man”) were still in print when I tried to order them in June of the same year.

11 A few critics have in the past criticized women’s romance for what it says about the women who read it. This is different, however, from objecting to the objectification of men in the genre. Criticism of pornography usually shows the opposite tendency. There has been much work on the damage done by the objectification of women in this genre, but relatively little on what the use of pornography says about the tastes of the people who consume it.

12 Thus has changed in the last few years. For a recent Canadian example, see Cossman et al., Bad Attitudes on Trial: Pornography, Feminism and the Butler Decision (Toronto: UTP, 1997): MainC HQ 472 C3 B34 1997.

13 As noted above, this is not the forum for determining the validity of claims about the sociological or psychological effects of pornography. See the reference in footnote 8.





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