“That’s all there is to it”: Feminized Forms of Autonomy in Absolute Bestseller Interviews

My project will analyze interviews with a cohort of British “absolute bestseller” women writers in periodicals from 1899-1930 to outline a feminized form of autonomy that differs from the Bourdieuian autonomy practiced by male, highbrow authors. These women writers construct an authorial persona based on disinterestedness, self-concealment via deference, and an understanding of writing as a natural act of pleasure, invoking an older form of feminized autonomy like that of the poetess. Rather than seeking autonomy from commercial success or popularity, these authoresses pose themselves as pure mediators of public emotion while slipping the gendered constraints of a masculine, professionalizing field.

“Literariness” and The Tightrope of Exceptionalism

In “Behind the Scenes of the Nobel Prize in Literature,” Ellen Mattson claims that choosing the laureate is “all about quality. Literary quality, of course.” What she means by “literary quality,” however, is admittedly hard to pin down: “It’s very difficult to explain what [you need to be a laureate]. It’s something you’re born with, I think. The romantics would call it a divine spark. For me, it’s a voice that I hear in the writing that I find within this particular writer’s work and nowhere else.” One can identify a language of exceptionalism and individualism, the power of the individual voice. Nevertheless, in reading through so many of the speeches for this prize, this equating literary greatness to exceptionalism/individuality isn’t so exact. In Danius’ introduction of Ishiguro, she notes that “It is hard to imagine Ishiguro without Kafka, but also without Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf…And yet this is only background. Ishiguro’s writing is characterised by a striking integrity. His viewpoint is his alone.” Meanwhile Danius’ introduction for Alexievich frames her voice as “a choral work, of voices stitched one upon another. This is Alexievich’s great achievement.”

Here, it’s hard not to see the central tension that Bourdieu also brought us to: the one voice that can also be the many, “j’accuse!” And there is much we might say about issues of nation (see English, chapter 13), gender, and race (Buck and Kipling’s introductions are useful for both) in relation to this concept of “representation.” Who is best situated to “represent” the many with one voice and why? Is it “something you’re born with” and, if so, how might we interpret this a bit differently from the romantics Mattson cites? But in addition to these critiques, after reading all these speeches about some authors I do admire, I wonder: how would we assign literariness if not by some of these terms? And do any of these speeches or writings provide alternative perceptions of literary greatness that may not be centered on this tension between representation and exceptionalism, the individual that rises above the mass?

Puzzling Epiphanies and Paratextual “Contrasts”

At the end of his journey through nightmarish “experiences” and Freudian interpretations that confuse more than they reveal, Hatterr at long last claims to have a puzzlingly unrevelatory revelation: “Life is no one-way pattern. It’s contrasts all the way. And contrasts by Law!” (275). Hatterr specifies that he does not mean “Law” in the traditional sense as “if there is Law behind all these contrasts, making ‘em contrasts, it cannot itself be subject to any contrasts” (275). In arriving at “contrasts” as the ultimate truth, Hatterr insists on not only the way in which “all communicated and communicable knowledge is subject to this bashing-up,” but also the inability for any traditional or universalizing “Law” to be possible at all (275). Where, one might ask, does such a paradoxical epiphany leave him (or us)?

For Hatterr, at least, it leaves him imagining his own canonization. A few pages later we see the “results” of such recognition in the paratextual “defense” by Yati Rambeli. Rambeli—despite his claims to writing this defense “without any egotism”—seems quite interested, like Hatterr, in bolstering his reputation. In a quick conflation of “Hatterr” and “the East,” Rambeli glosses Hatterr’s epiphany as “the East says, nevermind the kung-an and contrast, love the others…Why not one universal language” (294-295). As in the reception to Banjo, in such ironic framing devices we see the totalizing effects of attempting to unify a text and its message; the efforts of agents (whether altruistic or selfish, the latter being more likely here) to circulate the text “bash-up” its central epiphany in an attempt to package the text as something palatable.

Yet similar to how it is often possible to both laugh at and feel unsettled by the content of this book, there is something troubling about this epiphany. Aside from spinning through the circular logic of this “revelation” and imagining the recognition we might receive for pointing it out, what are we to do with such a conclusion that “Life is…contrasts all the way”? How much of a joke are we meant to take Hatterr’s “revelatory” moments and their interpretations to be?

The Space of Rupture and (Dis)Union in Bourdieu

In The Rules of Art, Bourdieu suggests that artistic autonomy requires writers who wish to acquire a kind of symbolic capital to “manifest a certain distance from dominant values” (Bourdieu 69). While Bourdieu means to demonstrate the way in which prestige value is established through the upending of norms and generic expectations, I kept returning to this concept of “distance”—or as he puts it elsewhere, “rupture”—more broadly and wanted to think about how we might conceptualize gaps (spatially, interpersonally, theoretically).

Just after pinpointing this ruling logic, Bourdieu claims some analysts “can only register, unwittingly, the way the ignored authors have affected, by the logic of action and reaction, the authors to be interpretated…This is to preclude a true understanding of everything in the work of the survivors themselves that is, like their rejections, the indirect product of the existence and action of the vanished authors” (70-71). Here, the “rupture” is framed as not being just a form of opposition (action, reaction) but rather a form of relation (of the more complexly bounded alchemy that results amongst factors). To consider “the work of the survivors” as just as much an “indirect product” of the “vanished authors” is to consider this field more as an interlocked network than his more commonly used image of two poles with space between them. Instead, we might start to think of this blank space not as a boundary, but as a space of potential relation, as his metaphors about the forces that move figures within that space implies.

I wonder where else in the text and elsewhere we might see conceptualizations of distance, rupture, boundaries, or gaps as being—rather than absent of connection—excessively dense with it. One place that might provide a visualization of this is the salon (page 51), but what other theoretical or literal social environs might help make the connections that disappear into such a “distance” become more visual to us? And what would thinking about gaps, ruptures, or distance as a space of increased density of relation do for our understanding about traditional notions of individual authorship?