what the young people are reading these days

My final project will explore the ways in which books are recommended, circulated, and popularized on “booktok,” a collection of accounts and hashtags relating to novel reading, largely, though not exclusively run by young adult women. I will ask: What kind of books are likely to be recommended? What forms/language do these recommendations take? What do booktok creators value in novel reading? I will build off Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance to consider how booktok favorites (which I predict also tend to be romance bestsellers, without mainstream literary awards or resulting prestige) figure in a “complex social event of reading,” specifically for young women at the present historical moment. 

“She was not a woman, but a mere machine for reading and writing”(!)

(Many of us, appropriately, read Gissing’s New Grub Street for our Victorian Fiction seminar this week)


In her blog post, Lucina helpfully outlines the work computers, through machine learning, are able to perform in Ted Underwood’s chapter. Of course, Underwood’s algorithm is also intensely connected with the human—he explains the process of selecting the texts to be analyzed, the time period selected, the periodicals considered, etc. Equally obvious is the human work of interpretation Underwood performs to make his results legible to readers, particularly in connecting his finding of gradual “diversification” of a reading audience as a corrective to Huyssen’s “great divide” between “high art and mass culture” (103-4). However, I was also really struck by the way Underwood’s methodology required not just that he interpret the data once it has been run through the algorithm, but that he “read over [the model]’s shoulder” (82). It seems, as the model works to read trends in literary prestige, one at the same time must read the model’s readings to have any kind of detailed understanding of what is being measured. 


I was also fascinated by the moments in Underwood’s study where he calls on the specialized knowledge of other literary scholars not only in the design of his study (he creates the initial list of periodicals by “quizzing friends who are who are scholars of this period” (this is also how I figure out many things but have never this kind of informal canvassing so explicitly acknowledged in a piece of scholarship)) but also in its implementation. Underwood explains that he presented pages from both reviewed texts and random samples to graduate students and professors who study 19th and 20th century literature, which proved that the model could differentiate where humans could not (79). I was left wondering, how this kind of method of sociological survey of scholars could be used to ask other questions and possibly reevaluate other issues across literary fields.

Gendered Autonomy in Banjo

In Edwards’ chapter from The Practice of Diaspora, he touches just briefly on the gender politics of the novel and the ways in which women figure in the Marseilles economy. Edwards largely takes Ray’s articulation of women’s position as that of the novel. Edwards, quoting from McKay explains that “for Ray ‘woman is woman all over the world,’ and that her identity is defined by two characteristics: ‘she is cast in a passive role and she worships the active success of man and rewards it with her body’” (Edwards 209). Edwards then figures Latnah as largely representative of this “uneven” approach of “cogent feminist critique” and “problematic insistance about the ‘nature’ of woman” (209). While Edwards mostly draws on the boys speech about Latnah (and women in general) to come to his conclusions in this section (not unreasonably, as they of course take up most of the space of the novel and Ray especially often seems a stand-in for McKay), women’s role in the marketplace of Marseilles becomes more complicated when we zero in on Latnah herself, the things we hear her saying and see her doing that go unremarked upon or dismissed by the men around her. 

In particular, we may give attention to the ways in which Latnah complicates the novel’s representation of Banjo’s distaste for capitalist exchange for his music. On the one hand, Banjo seems to give voice to a kind of insistence of artistic autonomy. Throughout the novel he often refuses to take up a collection for his playing, and figures his imagined orchestra as part of his vagabondism— not as a way to make money, but part of an “itch to make some romantic thing” (47). However, the novel notes out quite pointedly that “perhaps [Banjo] could afford to forget [to collect sous], however, with Latnah looking out for him and always ready with a ten-franc note whenever his palm was itching for small change” (40). How might Latnah’s intervention in Banjo’s anti-material tendencies complicate our understanding of economic and artistic exchange in the novel?

“Trembling on the verge”

Throughout Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown, Woolf characterizes her present historical moment as a point of literary transition. She concludes the piece with the “surpassingly rash prediction” that “we are trembling on the verge of one of the great ages of English literature” (24). And of course, much of her argument centers on how this “great age” must be brought on by drawing a distinction both historical (Edwardian vs Georgian writers, split by the year 1910) and literary (those who “lay an enormous stress upon that fabric of things” and those who dispose of convention to get at Mrs. Brown as “the spirit we live by, life itself”)(18, 24). However, while Woolf marks this transition quite specifically at the historical moment of 1910, it is less clear to me how one might read this moment of transition sociologically. By this I mean, while Woolf makes clear the literary imperative for this shift towards a new way of making characters “real,” it is not entirely evident right away what social forces, or, in Bourdieu’s terms, what configurations of different kinds of capital in a field of power, might have bearing on what Woolf posits as such a seismic shift in literary representation and production. I would like to propose, in the context of Woolf’s essay and Bennett’s work, that we continue our discussion from last week concerning the difference between what it takes for a field of cultural production to be maintained vs what it takes for it to be radically altered. My main question, then, is how might or might not this transformation in the literary field that Woolf describes also constitute a change in other social fields?