In retrospect, I’m glad my pitch for a article reporting back on the George Eliot Bicentenary Conference was rejected: the cognitive dissonance I struggled with during the conference was strong enough that I have been puzzling over how or whether to write about it even here, in relative obscurity and without being answerable to anyone else for whatever it is that I come up with to say.
It’s not that I have bad things to report. In many ways, it was a wonderful and invigorating experience. I spent time with a lot of lovely people, including some I have known for ages on Twitter and finally got to meet face to face but also new acquaintances met at the breakfast table or in the courtyard or at sessions. At all-purpose conferences like ACCUTE it can be hard to find a critical mass of people who share your interests, or even to see the same people at two different panels; I have typically found such events deadening rather than enlivening. This group, in contrast, was unified by a common commitment to understanding George Eliot and her work better; though there were multiple sessions in each time slot, a sense of community emerged pretty quickly as faces and names became familiar. I enjoyed many good informal conversations about George Eliot, about 19th-century literature more generally, about teaching, about academia, and about our lives. Then there was the stimulating if slightly surreal experience of seeing in person scholars who work has been familiar to me for as many years as I have been doing scholarly work on Victorian literature–most notably George Levine, Gillian Beer, Isobel Armstrong, and Rosemary Ashton (whose biography of George Eliot I have often recommended). All of the plenary addresses were conference highlights (as they should be), but especially the moderated discussion between Levine and Beer about George Eliot studies then and now (and in the future).
Of particular importance to me was finally meeting Philip Davis. I have been interested in his work with The Reader Organisation for nearly as long as I have been blogging; their journal The Reader was one of the first non-academic venues for thoughtful writing about literature that I became aware of. He first became aware of me (as far as I know) when I reviewed his fascinating book The Transferred Life of George Eliot for the TLS a couple of years ago. He wrote to me about my review and we struck up a correspondence that led to my writing an essay for The Reader on Carol Shields’ Unless (which readers of this blog will recognize as an old favourite of mine). When I saw the announcement for the bicentenary conference the first thing I thought of was that he and I should put together a panel on bringing George Eliot to broader audiences. Happily, he liked the idea too, and that’s what we did; we called it “George Eliot in the Wider World.”
Each of the presenters on our panel addressed quite a different “application” for George Eliot. I spoke about what I see as reasons for but also the difficulties with “pitching” her work to the kind of bookish public I have been trying to write for–at left is my design for a George Eliot tote bag meant to illustrate the case I made that her books are not, as too often assumed, too long and dull for the “common reader” but too fierce. Phil spoke about the often profound impact Eliot’s work has on participants in the groups run by the Reader Organisation; his University of Liverpool colleague Josie Billington discussed the therapeutic value of particular elements of George Eliot’s writing, especially her use of free indirect discourse; and Alison Liebling from Cambridge University talked about the relevance of George Eliot’s ideas to her work on the ethics of prison culture. I admit, hearing the other speakers made me fret for a while that my contribution was on the frivolous side: it seemed to matter much more to help people change their lives or feel more human than to compete for the attention of editors and magazine readers. But then I thought about the essays I have in fact written and I felt OK, both about them and about the people I have actually reached with them. If one thing unified our slightly disparate presentations it was a shared conviction that the more people who read George Eliot the better, in however many different ways and for whatever different purposes.
So far so good! I would also add a couple of other sessions to the unequivocal plus column. One was on teaching George Eliot, which of course is something I work on and worry about a lot; I particularly appreciated the presentations by Jennifer Holberg and Steven Venturino (both Twitter friends I was so happy to hang out with in person!), which made me think a lot about ways to slow down by, for instance, letting go a bit of the coverage model and allowing more time for things like reading passages aloud and really lingering on them. I have always done some of this, of course, but there’s no question that for many students keeping up with reading long books is a challenge these days. Jennifer offered some really useful data related to that, partly to make the point that we need to focus on teaching the students we actually have, not the ones we might wish we have or–a common problem, I think–the ones we were ourselves, or at least think we were. Steven spoke convincingly about the value of “serial reading.” The other panel I would single out was on George Eliot and the modern reader; in particular, Valerie Sanders’s paper about how George Eliot is discussed or drawn on in contemporary literary culture had strong resonances with my own.
What distinguished these three panels from the others I attended is that they were outward-facing: they were all organized around ideas for talking about George Eliot and her fiction to people besides other scholars and academics. They focused on and generated discussions about mobilizing what we know about her work, about turning our informed enthusiasm into something for other people to use or share or benefit from. I want to make sure I am very clear about this next point (because the opposite case is made too often by people with very different aims than mine): I have no objection to discourse that is exclusively for and between experts. Not every conversation has to be for everybody, and literary scholarship is a specialized field of inquiry like any other: those who pursue it need opportunities to share and test their ideas with other specialists. Although I have written many times on this site about my own vexed relationship with academic literary criticism, I have consistently explained that I don’t think nobody should do it–I just no longer believe that it’s the only (or, sometimes, the most valuable) kind of work for people in my profession to pursue. Crucially, I no longer think it is the kind of work I want to do. (I haven’t written as much about these issues lately; if you want to review what I have said about them you can browse the academia or criticism indexes and read as much or as little as you like!)
What I’m going to say next follows predictably both from what I just said and from what I’ve been saying here for over a decade. The part of the conference I (mostly) did not enjoy or find rewarding was what some people might consider the actual conference, that is, the panels of finely wrought, scrupulously argued, and (by and large) highly abstract and specialized academic papers. I really tried–to listen closely, to engage with the ideas and arguments, to think my way into the conversations they were having. Mostly, I failed. I found this genuinely disheartening, though really I should not have been surprised. I am not criticizing the presenters. They were doing what they came to do, what their profession requires of them, what–presumably–they find interesting and intellectually stimulating, and they were doing it well. Some good evidence for that is that at every panel I attended, there were questions from the audience that showed a high level of attention and engagement. As the conference wound up, there were many expressions of excitement about how stimulating and transformative and generative it had been. I have no reason to doubt their sincerity. For people who like this kind of thing, there was a lot of it to like at this conference!
But I don’t like it–not much, or not usually, and, mostly, not this time either. I thought I might do better when all the papers were on George Eliot, but that just made me more frustrated–at myself, mostly, for not getting it. I have previously described my experience of attending academic talks (#NotAllAcademicTalks) as making me feel like a non-believer in church, and for all my belief–for all our shared belief–in the interest and value of paying close attention to George Eliot, that’s how I felt at a lot of the sessions I attended. I wondered beforehand if the conference would inspire me to return to more conventional academic scholarship, if not as a producer, at least as a reader. I even hoped, a little, that it would. I did hear about some projects and lines of inquiry that seemed genuinely interesting, and there was something generally encouraging about the evident energy around the scholarly enterprise as a whole (as I have said here before, whatever my feelings about individual trees, I am a committed supporter of the academic forest). Overall, however, my conference experience reminded me of the reasons why I have been doing something else for so long. This is where the cognitive dissonance comes in, though: how can I think it’s a good thing and yet want no part of it myself?
It isn’t exactly that I want no part of it, though. As I hope I have also made clear here over the years, my own intellectual life has been shaped and enriched by many kinds of academic scholarship (though not always the most currently trendy kinds). I have contributed to that specialized work and remain proud of those contributions. Who knows: I may make more! Probably not about George Eliot, though–the conference confirmed for me that I want to keep moving in a different direction with my research. I’m not ruling out doing any more writing about George Eliot. I already have one piece in the works for the fall (I hope) and she will always have my heart. But after three immersive days listening in on what academics talk about when they talk about George Eliot now, I am more convinced than ever, not that I don’t need them, but that they don’t need me. I have nothing to add to the work they are doing, and (as I have long argued) there are enough people engaged in it that the field can spare a few of us to go and do otherwise–indeed, it not just can, but almost certainly should.
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I appreciate your “non-believer in church” analogy – I have felt that before on occasion, and it’s a good way to put it!
In a sense I’m sorry to read this, because I for one really value the academic writing of yours I know. But I also value the fact that you’re doing something different that lots of us can’t do / don’t feel in a position to be able to do. For me, your panel with Philip, Josie and Alison was the most thought-provoking of the conference.
I really appreciate that, Helen: thank you.
Your point about not everyone being in a position to try something else is something I think about a lot. I have the impression (perhaps wrongly) that in the UK the REF with its emphasis on impact has made it more plausible, professionally, to experiment with less academic forms of writing or projects. There’s no question, though, that here professional advancement still depends very heavily on doing the ‘right’ things (peer-reviewed scholarly articles, academic monographs, etc.), making it unfortunately riskier for precarious or pre-tenured faculty to make the kinds of decisions I have.
At its core, I find this part of a liberal arts philosophy. There’s value in breadth as well as depth, and not everyone has to dive deep into a specialty. I think of the work that you and I do as literary critics and bloggers as interstitial.
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That’s a good way to explain it.