It’s All in the Frame: Reasons For Writing

I’ve been brooding (and pacing, and swearing, and procrastinating) about starting a new essay project, and what I find myself most stymied by is how to frame it. This is a problem I don’t have with blogging, which is perhaps why I find this such a liberating form. Here, having read something is reason enough to write something about it, and all that’s at stake is my own thoughts about it. I don’t have to attach my comments to anything or make them relevant or prove that they are somehow current or significant to anyone but me. They don’t need to be contributing to an ongoing debate or solving a critical problem. I don’t have to be engaging with someone else, or acknowledging everyone else, who has written on the same topic. Any or all of this kind stuff may emerge as I write, but the writing needs no further occasion for itself.

I think it is possible to write this way in any venue if you either are or believe yourself to be sufficiently wise and important that people ought to take an interest in your thoughts just because they come from you. But the rest of us usually need some sort of justification for writing–which is, after all, an implicit claim on other people’s attention. At least, that’s very much how I am feeling right now.

In academic writing about literature, there are a few fairly standard ways to build a frame around your specific analysis. All of them turn on the idea that you have something new to say. Probably most common nowadays is to claim a new insight into an ongoing interpretive argument: a revision, refinement, or refutation of some element of an established critical debate. This might be text-specific or have a broader reach, but you construct the frame by outlining the existing contributions and then explaining where you come in: ‘In the ongoing debates about Jane Eyre‘s implication in British imperialism, inadequate attention has been paid to the source of Jane’s drawing paper. Closer attention to the history of the production and importation of artists’ sketch pads shows that in the very art work often assumed to express Jane’s defiant Romantic individualism, Jane is dependent on a resource deeply embedded in an exploitative economic system’–most of you know the drill. A variation on this is the application of a particular theoretical model or idea to a particular text or body of texts: ‘Reading Jane Eyre through the lens of Levinas, we discover that…’ There’s also the ‘newly discovered’ frame: a text or author is unfamiliar and requires placing within appropriate theoretical, critical, and/or historical contexts. And so on. Both the preparatory and the rhetorical moves are well established. You do the reading and thinking and research that leads to the formulation of your idea. You do more  research, to be sure that your idea is novel and so that you can set up your account of what people have said so far in relevant discussions. Your introduction lays out the debate and sets up your new contribution, and then you write it out in detail, engaging as you go along with the other people in the critical conversation you are now part of. One of the hardest parts is defining just which conversation that is, so that you don’t end up trying to include, say, everything anyone has ever said about Jane Eyre since it was published! Lots of things about this kind of writing, in fact, are difficult. But as academics, we learn how it is done–usually by the implicit example of the other criticism we read (though some people are fortunate enough to get explicit instruction).

I’ve been trying to get a sense of the range of possibilities for framing writing about literature in non-academic contexts. The most obvious form is the basic ‘review of a new release.’ The occasion for the writing is the novelty of the book itself. Within that there is certainly room for different strategies, from contextualizing the book within the author’s oeuvre or within its genre to just giving a plot summary and a few remarks on style or form. For books that are not new, things are a bit more complicated. A book may get renewed attention because of an occasion or event–the author’s death, for example, or its anniversary, or perhaps an invocation of the book by another book or author (the way, say, novels about Henry James give us a reason to talk about Henry James’s novels). A film or TV adaptation is likely to prompt a flurry of attention to “the original.” A scandal is an attention-getter: if a book is banned by a school library, for instance. Hot-button issues like (to cite a recent example) debates about whether Young Adult fiction is too dark and dreary these days can also prompt lots of discussion of back-list or even out of print titles. Fads like vampire novels or Scandinavian crime fiction give us an excuse to write again about Dracula or the Martin Beck books. These all strike me as journalistic reasons: in all of these cases, books become (or are made into) news.

Then there’s book writing of the “personal journey” or “what it meant for me” variety–a combination of autobiography and literary essay or commentary. There seem to have been a lot of examples of this recently, from Elif Batuman’s The Possessed to Rebecca Mead’s “Middlemarch and Me” or William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter (this one I haven’t read yet, so I may be making unfair assumptions about it, but I did read the excerpt at the Chronicle). This is literature in the service of self-knowledge. That’s fine, but it assumes a fairly extensive interest on our part in the autobiographical subjects. That seems reasonable if they are people of substance and significance, and they know it, and they aren’t afraid to assert it: we’re back, again, at a certain kind of self-confidence, even egotism, something inherent in all writing–again, a claim on other people’s attention–but more pronounced in this form. This form makes the books new by making them personal. (I’m not a huge fan of this approach, because I feel that too often the books get subordinated to, well, personal stuff. My own attempt at something in this vein is the essay I wrote on rereading Gone with the Wind, though I don’t think personal revelation was ultimately the main issue there, as I tried to use my own reading experience as a way to think hard about the novel itself.)

It seems to me to be harder to find book writing outside of blogs that simply, without special excuse or occasion, focuses on a particular book or author. One example I’m familiar with is Zadie Smith’s essay on George Eliot, originally published in The Guardian and now included in her book Changing My Mind. I can’t get at the Guardian version any more, but assuming she didn’t revise the beginning substantially, this essay has no journalistic or personal hook: she just starts talking about Middlemarch. But then, she’s Zadie Smith, so the novelty here is that she in particular is talking about Middlemarch: she is the news, her attention itself the frame needed to create an occasion for the piece. The pieces I wrote for Open Letters Monthly on Trollope, Felix Holt, and Vanity Fair are also examples of essays without occasion or special justification. Felix Holt was easiest in some ways because it’s Eliot’s least (or second-least) popular novel, so there’s some novelty just in focusing on it instead of Middlemarch. I motivated the Trollope piece (in my mind, at least) by figuring that he doesn’t have anything like the general popularity of Jane Austen so it was safe to imagine an audience that needed some kind of general introduction; focusing on The Warden (which I love, but which is hardly either his best or his best known novel) gave it a little helpful specificity. And I also felt reasonably sure Vanity Fair is not widely read these days, so again there’s some intrinsic novelty in trying to talk about it to a general audience. It surprises me a little, though, looking back, that I wrote all of these pieces with as little anxiety as I did about their place or reason. It didn’t even occur to me, for instance, to try to frame the Vanity Fair piece by talking about either the BBC adaptation or the weird Reese Witherspoon film (which Amardeep Singh appreciated much more than I did).

Do you think book writing needs to be framed in some way that makes the book new or relevant? Can you think of other strategies (ones you like? ones you dislike?) for writing about books, besides the ones I’ve thought of? Can you think of other examples of recent (mainstream, published [in print or online]) writing about books outside of the journalistic frameworks I’ve described? Do you worry about framing your writing? There has to be a reason to write something, doesn’t there? But can the reason be, ultimately, the book itself? Must it come from somewhere else?

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15 Responses to It’s All in the Frame: Reasons For Writing

  1. Nicholas says:

    I constantly fret about a lot of the issues you cover here, and I appreciate how well you’ve crystallized the salient concerns. Stepping apart from academia for a moment (mainly to dodge the quagmires of citation, plagiarism, authority, and so on) and looking at popular writing on books, I’d say that a significant impulse behind the framed or occasional nature of these essays is the desire to be read, or the desire to be a part of a larger conversation.

    It’s valuable to write simply to reflect on what you’ve read recently, and I read book blogs online precisely to find those perspectives, but there’s an element of personalization already at work when “I just read this and/or thought about it” is itself the occasion or the framing device. It’s not really unframed, so to speak. And as you rightly point out, that’s why you can do this and command a wide readership when you’re Zadie Smith (beyond the quality of the essays, the superstar bylines are what really sell the NYRB). When there’s apparently no frame, the voice of the critic is the frame.

    But let’s say you’re not Zadie Smith; let’s say you’re not even Rohan Maitzen. I think there’s still room for motivating an essay with “the book itself”, but ultimately what generates a returning readership for that kind of thing, if not a novel thesis or framing device, is how the underlying critical perspective reveals itself over the course of writing about a whole series of works. (“Given this critic’s thoughts on X, I want to know his/her thoughts on Y.”) And it’s possible to build that from scratch, but it’s not surprising that this is largely confined to the blog form, where the author doesn’t need to secure column space with a portfolio of existing credibility.

    That’s one advantage of writing a comparative review, stuffing two different books into an essay back-to-back regardless of how loosely they relate: the framing device doesn’t have to be much more than the books themselves, but the packaging condenses the pleasure of peering at the critic behind the curtain into a single sitting.

    I’d love to see more non-occasional writing about books themselves, honestly. I think it’s quite valuable to sustain conversation about, say, the major works of Dickens, reflecting that people do still read him and would potentially be interested in a well-written perspective. Currently, the unfortunate veneer of popular book reviewing—and reviewing in many cultural media besides—is that everybody’s keeping up with the Joneses and consuming the latest publications or reissues, leaving no time to catch up with the apparent canon (which it seems like everybody else has already read). I suppose that’s good for selling new books, which we also want to support, but it also renders the critical conversation less engaged with the wider reading public.

    Perhaps we need to think about the task of a public literary essay as less like a journal article and more like an undergraduate lecture—and even those don’t come without frames.

  2. Nicholas says:

    And to clarify, I’m not arguing in favour of building a critical corpus as a kind of autobiography, or heightening the fixation on reviewers rather than books; I’m saying that passive, implicit personalization (for instance, the interest in how a critic’s biases trickle down from one reading to another) is probably unavoidable. I don’t really want a gonzo critic in my face unless the underlying story is really interesting, but I also don’t believe that the frame of the critic ever truly disappears.

  3. litlove says:

    My favourite approach is always comparative. The discovery of similar tropes or devices or themes in otherwise very different books, or even the way an author’s thoughts developed by comparing titles within his or her output. Then I liked looking at the way an author had presented a particularly unusual topic – so one of my favourite essays to write, ever, was on a book that featured cloning and what happened to the child (who grew up to be a perfect replica of the father, to the point that she commits incest with him – yikes! It was quite a book, let me tell you). And I was interested in teasing out the fantasies and fears that informed the plot. I have to say, looking back, that I was of the school of ‘Hey! I’ve just read something amazing or curiosity-inducing’ and I suppose the frame was essentially the fact that what a book seemed to be doing on the surface was complicated or challenged by what it was doing at deeper levels. Funnily enough, I got my eye in for framing academic things – it’s how to begin a blog post that stymies me some days! 🙂

  4. These are very thoughtful comments: thanks!

    Nicholas, I think you are right to point out that there is always, at least implicitly, a frame, even if it is as modest as the usual book blog approach of “here’s what I think about this book I just read.” There’s just no larger assertion of significance on (most) blogs, and that allows room to just let your ideas develop and your voice to be heard–which brings me to your really important point that the underlying desire of all critical writing is to be part of a conversation. Another way to put the issue of frames would be to consider it as a question of which conversation, or which audience: if you know who you are talking to, you know how to set things up. The audience for academic criticism is other academics: hence the need to refine your argument as well as to put it in the context of lots of other arguments. These readers already know their way around the primary text, after all.

    I suppose the specific publication venue to some extent defines the audience for non-academic writing. Readers of average newspaper reviews are (or are assumed to be) interested in little more than getting a sense of what a book is like so they can decide to buy it or not. The NYTBR pitches its reviews higher (or goes deeper with them, whatever) than, say, the Globe and Mail, and claims more cultural authority for them, but the underlying logic is about the same, isn’t it? The NYRB assume a reader who wants more context and analysis with their evaluation, and who already knows quite a bit about the topics likely to come up there–it’s probably not the place for an ‘undergrad lecture’ approach, unless the topic is quite obscure even to well-read intellectual types.

    I definitely agree about the ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ aspects of so much mainstream book reviewing / criticism and the value of trying to find ways of generating or sustaining “non-occasional” discussion of the books we think most reward close attention. I’m glad that Open Letters is completely open to this kind of thing.

    It’s interesting that you both point to comparative reviews as a useful and interesting strategy. I hadn’t thought of that, in this context, but it’s a common approach to undergraduate essay assignments, partly for these kinds of reasons, I think.

    litlove, I know what you mean, though I act quite deliberately to avoid getting hung up on beginnings for my posts. I just go with whatever comes out first, which is usually something pretty banal like “I finally got around to reading X”! I like Steve’s direct let’s-get-to-work approach at stevereads, usually just “Tonight our book is ….” and there you go!

    By the way, I love that little remark “let’s say you aren’t even Rohan Maitzen.” Being Rohan Maitzen is definitely not much, in this context–and I mean no false modesty by that (I know what my average hit count is here…). Being in the same sentence as Zadie Smith in that way reminds me of Margaret Oliphant’s whine that nobody will ever mention her and George Eliot in the same breath–ensuring, of course, that they will indeed.

  5. JoVE says:

    I’m liking this discussion and I think the key really is audience. You are right that the publisher determines the audience to a certain extent. And this is true for blogs, as well, though in that case you (individually, or in the case of Open Letters Monthly, collectively) are the publisher.

    Which means that with blogging building an audience is part of what is going one even if you are not very explicit about doing it. I think this is where Nick’s point about people coming back to see what you have to say about book Y because they found what you said about book X interesting.

    If I take this further, along with some other things you’ve said in the past, I wonder about a few possible non-academic audiences you might be interested in engaging. These are wonderings and as such I hope they provoke your thoughts in useful directions even if the specifics are wrong.

    For example, you have mentioned that you find the book club questions often included in paperback editions these days to be banal and uninteresting. I agree. And yet I always look at them because I’d quite like some thought provoking questions to help me think about the book in ways I might not do unassisted (the kinds of issues litlov raises, for example).

    Am I alone? I suspect not. And yet others like me are not being served. I occasionally wonder whether you could start a line of book club resources for people who want to think more deeply. Sell them as e-books for $2.50 or something to use as a supplement. (or more if you assume each club will buy one and distribute to many)

    Making connections between contemporary novels and “the cannon” (however you define that) is also implicitly interesting. As is revisiting older works, because many of us haven’t read them or we read them in high school and the context (and/or our immaturity) made that a less than edifying experience. Coming back to books again (and again) has a certain value, especially if we have essays to provoke new ways of looking at them.

    But to address the opening quandry, do you need to know where a writing project is going to get started? Can you start writing for yourself about a book you want to write about as a way of figuring out which conversations you might want to engage in? Perhaps an appropriate audience will reveal itself as you write and inform later drafts? And if multiple audiences, with different interests, emerge as you write what you want to say, then it becomes 2 (or more) writing projects.

    Some thoughts.

  6. litlove says:

    Oh dear, I’ve just read my post over again and I must point out that the cloned child is cloned from the mother, not the father and grows up to be an exact replica of her. This comes from typing comments early in the morning before my brain is in gear! I’ll also drop a line to say I’m writing something at the moment for OLM (well, hopefully) but it’s a very different sort of piece altogether. I should be able to get it to you on the weekend, just in case it’s something the editors might be interested in.

  7. A quarterly literary journal I read, The Hudson Review, often has unframed, writer-driven essays. If William Pritchard wants to write about Macaulay, to choose a recent one, he just does it. And often, of course, the hook of a new biography or volume of letters is somewhere in the background, even if the new book is barely discussed.

    A favorite from The Hudson Review that I think you would enjoy, not on the website but available through JSTOR, is an essay by Toni Bowers on the joys of teaching (and reading) Clarissa.

    I do not have any idea how much room there is for this sort of thing out in the world – how many little quarterlies there really are, or who reads them.

  8. Dan Green says:

    Very timely post, as the number of litblogs offering reflections on books only gets larger. The problem you identify is a litle easier if your main focus of interest is contemporary literature (as mine is). All of the frames other than the highly personal ones are usually available if you’re discussing current books and authors. The personal approach is still taken to current authors, however, and I have the same reservations about it as you do. The problem has to be only more acute if your primary interest is in an ealier period, however, as yours is.

  9. Rohan Maitzen says:

    AR, if you mean Judith Pascoe’s “Before I read Clarissa I was nobody: Aspirational Reading and Samuel Richardson’s Great Novel” (yes, I went straight to JSTOR!), you are right, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Who could not love an essay that includes the sentence “Cocktail parties would sizzle if martini-drinkers ventured strong opinions on epistolarity”? (If there’s yet another HR piece on Clarissa, I’m thrilled but need more info to find it!)

  10. Urk, yes, that’s it! Toni Bowers is the editor of the Penguin abridgment of Clarissa, thus my otherwise meaningless and bizarre confusion.

    And now I see that JSTOR might not be necessary. A PDF is here.

    I’m looking at it again – what a generous and funny essay. I note that it has just the vaguest hint of the kind of frame you are describing – Penguin had just released a new edition of its giant Clarissa, changing the cover art.

  11. But it’s other main framing device is very much the “what it meant to me” one, isn’t it? Pascoe goes (impressively) further with that tactic than many–but “me” is even the very last word of the piece. She’s not in quite such elite company as she pretends, of course: for one thing, she’s not the only graduate student to be assigned the complete Clarissa (now, those of us who read not just Pamela and Clarissa but also Pamela IIthat’s an elite group!)

    I could certainly set up a discussion of Middlemarch with stuff about how I read it for the first time at 18 while backpacking across Europe and have been coming back to it ever since–but I don’t know where I would really be going with that in terms of a narrative of personal development. I’d be doing it just to try to make a catchy hook (a “lede,” as I guess the journalist types say)–and that hardly seems worthwhile. Plus it seems unduly egocentric, which is particularly ironic for someone writing about Middlemarch (take note, R. Mead).

    Dan: The same kind of thing is true in academic criticism, I think–it’s just much easier to start talking if your material is relatively new or unknown. This is the advantage of working on a rediscovered writer from any period. But if you want to add to the vast body of existing writing on a major canonical figure, you need to find a more and more unexpected way to talk about it and frame your argument–and you and I are both familiar with the results!

  12. Quite true. I suppose Pascoe is trying to personalize the act of reading Clarissa, to move it, for the curious reader, from the category of “something I would never do not want to do” to “something I might well do would like to do.” Her essay is a work of advocacy – you, too, can read Clarissa. I think that’s what I was getting at with the word “generous.” Middlemarch is not such a hard sell. Hard enough, you might say.

    The “all me” frame really limits the books one can write about, doesn’t it? I loved what you did with your personal Gone with the Wind story – that really did give me a starting point for the rest of your critique – but how many of those bookish memoirs can any reader have? Could Pascoe write about too many more books in the same manner? It’s hard to imagine.

    I assume – I hope – every 18th century specialist reads the complete Clarissa. I knew one who said he did nothing but read Clarissa (and presumably eat, sleep, etc.) for nine days straight – this was preparing for orals or comps or something. He finally emerged into the sun and the world thinking to himself, he told me, “It is all so sad. It is all so sad.”

    As a reader of Sir Charles Grandison, a book I am very glad I read, and could even recommend to (some) others, I am duly impressed or dismayed that you read Pamela II.

  13. Rohan Maitzen says:

    Ah, Sir Charles Grandison: I remember it well. Unfortunately.

    I think you have a point about the limits of the biographical approach. Once, sure; twice, maybe. But much more and you are really writing autobiography, not criticism. But the “you, too, can read it and love it” doesn’t have to be particularly autobiographical to work, I think.

  14. JoVE says:

    “I could certainly set up a discussion of Middlemarch with stuff about how I read it for the first time at 18 while backpacking across Europe and have been coming back to it ever since–but I don’t know where I would really be going with that in terms of a narrative of personal development. ”

    This kind of narrative could also be a way to entice potential readers BACK to something that they think they don’t like or have no need to read again. Your focus could be on how one’s relationship to a book (and you could generalize somewhat from your own experience) changes with the context in which one reads it. And how returning to a book, especially a classic which has considerable depth, can be like reading a new book every time.

    I think there is a way to use this personal experience as a hook without it become completely self-centered. And one of the things about the books you want to talk about is that many people’s first/only encounter with them was in a context that leaves a bad taste in their mouths (high school lit classes; or other lit classes that they didn’t really like).

    I know you loved lit classes (though did you have at least a couple bad ones?) but some of us never got literature when we were in school/university, followed other paths, and have no idea how to get into literature in a deeper way at this stage of our lives.

  15. That’s a good point about the ‘bad taste in the mouth’ phenomenon, Jo. Taking another look can be very worthwhile because we change so much between readings, too–which is, just incidentally, a very George Eliot-like issue. I suppose in that case the book in need of rescue is probably Silas Marner, which is far more likely to be assigned in school than Middlemarch! I think it’s true, too, that it is possible to use a personal hook or frame without the whole piece becoming overly personal, as the Clarissa essay AR recommended succeeds in doing. It’s not that a highly personal essay is a bad thing–it’s just different from what I’m interested in doing.

    Also, I should say I was very interested in your other suggestions, up-thread, including the one about developing different book club resources. It may be wrong to assume that the terribly banal and solipsistic ones that are so often packaged with books these days really reflect what readers want to talk about–or at least, not what all readers want to talk about.

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