The Oprah Effect on Morrison’s Fiction

My paper will explore the relationship between Oprah Winfrey and Toni Morrison, especially her Book Club endorsement of four of Morrison’s novels, more than any other author. I will argue that Oprah’s repeated and sustained endorsements of Morrison in her Book Club subvert the usual “prices of admission” into conversations about high, or serious, literature, creating a vast subgenre of Morrison readers who oppose the characteristics of the perceived Morrison reader as studied, academic and critical. We might further break out these reading audiences into “readers who read Morrison” and “readers who read Winfrey.” That is, Winfrey’s status as a “human brand” translates directly into the material book object of the Book Club editions of Morrison’s novels, creating an artifact that cuts across social stratums, a “high” novel clothed in mass media glitz. 

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. 

Capitalizing on Scandal

After Oscar Wilde’s remarkably public trial and subsequent imprisonment, Decadent authors and publishers faced the difficult task of navigating a literary landscape that marked their art as dangerous. My project will analyze how Leonard Smithers, a publisher and purveyor of rare, exotic, and pornographic books, took advantage of this dangerous decadence to further his own career. I will argue that Smithers was able to become a prominent publisher by capitalizing on the scandal surrounding Wilde’s trial in an effort to demonstrate how scandal shapes and redefines reputations as well as genres in the literary field of late Victorian England.

Don’t Meet the Author: Reclusive Literary Popularity

A 1922 article, “The Book I Most Enjoyed Writing: A Symposium of Well-Known Novelists,” covertly suggests an important quality of literary popularity: successful authors can be personally well-known. However, purposefully unknowable writers can also achieve substantial literary popularity. This project will examine the desire to know authors by studying the response of the literary marketplace to writers like Thomas Pynchon and Harper Lee who insist on their privacy. In examining the literary label of “recluse,” the relationship between biographical access and literary popularity reveals a voyeuristic desire for intimacy that becomes an integral part of a reclusive author’s literary value.

Tracing the Arc of The Gothic’s Psychologization and De-Supernaturalization

It is widely acknowledged that as the 19th c. went on, the gothic genre became increasingly more psychologized and less supernatural. I would like to trace this trend and visually model it to 1) confirm its veracity in high and low literature 2) see if authorial gender plays a significant role in text’s being psychological or genuinely supernatural and 3) see if the proliferation of related genres (travel narratives, imperial gothic, sensation fiction, mysteries, detective fiction, etc.) correlates with the decline of the supernatural. As I interpret this data, the works of Tuchman and Fortin, Moretti, and Underwood will likely be invaluable.

Abstract: William Faulkner’s Reputation(s)

To my knowledge, no one has compiled and compared the various explanations for William Faulkner’s change in fortunes from his career’s nadir (circa 1942) to Nobel win in 1950. I will analyze the most prominent of these explanations sociologically, placing theories of Faulkner’s resurgence as positions within the literary field themselves. Finally, I will take a stab at a sociological account of the “right” answer to that question—that is, explore if it’s possible to arrive at a convincing narrative of Faulkner’s individual trajectory while also acknowledging that every account of said trajectory is itself a position re: literary value and history.

“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.

Abstract: Persephone Books

Persephone Books, founded in 1999 by Nicola Beauman, publishes and sells “neglected” twentieth-century women writers, positioning itself as neither too literary nor too commercial. It also has a more ambivalent relationship to feminism than its larger counterpart, Virago Press, which declined to publish some of the authors mentioned in Beauman’s 1983 monograph, A Very Great Profession. Urmila Seshagiri argues that Persephone makes modernism more accessible to a general readership; I suspect that its marketing also aims to re-direct tastes of already educated women (especially). I will examine commercial and archival materials on Persephone’s website, videos, news articles, and Beauman’s book.

Purging the Nation: Laxative Ads in the Illustrated London News

In early twentieth-century issues of the Illustrated London News, nestled among advertisements for ladies’ perfumes, cruises to the West Indies, seaside cottage rentals, continental hotels, and luxury cars, one finds ads for an assortment of proprietary purgatives. Marketed as gentle, convenient, even glamorous aperients for young mothers, businessmen, and traveling couples alike, Purgen, Jubol, Carter’s Little Liver Pills, and other brand-name laxatives make constipation—a universal, but embarrassing and unseemly, bodily process—appropriately legible, through the printed page, to a cosmopolitan middle-class reading public. This paper examines ILN’s changing purgative ad landscape in the decades surrounding WWI, when cleansing and fortifying the middle-class body offers Britain a surrogate fantasy for stabilizing an increasingly fractured empire.

Where the Crawdads Go: Charting Prestige, Success, and Meaning in Reese’s Book Club

In 2017, Reese Witherspoon partnered her with her media company Hello Sunshine to form Reese’s Book Club, an organization dedicated to promoting “a truer, newer narrative for women” (Reese’s Book Club Website). Since its creation, RBC has launched dozens of unknown female authors into literary stardom. And Kristen McLean, an executive for the publishing data provider BookScan, argues that a selection is “the equivalent of winning the lottery” (Grady). This paper attempts to produce a sociological study of RBC by exploring the honorific of “RBC pick” and charting the commercial journey of one or more of its selections.

Abstract: Pauline E. Hopkins & Black Publishing

Scholars often discuss the literary field in terms of the strained relationship between its creative and commercial interests. However, for African Americans at the turn of the twentieth century, these interests were deeply intertwined. I contend that agents in the black literary world defined the field by its interdependence rather than by its autonomy. To explore this dynamic, this essay examines the publishing career of Pauline E. Hopkins whose work as an editor, composer, and author made her essential to shaping and maintaining the African American literary field between 1879 and 1916.

Several trips across the great divide later…

Having neglected my own blogging for a couple of weeks, I am going to catch up with one big blog-o-lump.

Big and little magazines in the divided field

First, modernist little magazines. Egoist, Blast, and Little Review, in their limited circulations and often esoteric content, seem to exemplify modernism’s self-conscious choice of a specialist audience. Here if anywhere is the “subfield of restricted production.” One of the main efforts of the so-called “new modernist studies” was to complicate this view of modernism as a specialist pursuit: one argument after another challenged Huyssen’s “great divide” formulation by showing how classic modernism was fascinated by or linked to the broader currents of its time. Though periodical studies was not the main current of “new modernist studies,” the kinds of inquiry exemplified by Morrisson or the Modernist Journals Project are related to this tendency. Magazines are by their nature more heteregeneous, and perhaps also more porous, than the big books of monumental authors.

The chapter we read by Morrisson is distinctive, however, in that its attack on the “great divide” is mounted by linking high modernism not to a generalized Zeitgiest or a broad mass culture but to feminist print culture and publishing practice. The feminist “counterpublic sphere,” tied as it was to a mass political movement, had a different social base and a wider social reach than artistic experimentation.1 Thus Morrisson’s argument, more complex than most overcomings of the great divide, suggests that a title like The Egoist relates to consumer culture, advertising, etc. through the mediation of the feminist movement—very particularly, via Dora Marsden’s individual trajectory.

Nonetheless, the divide refuses to be closed. The fact that The Egoist modeled some of what it did on Votes for Women, or that Blast’s visual rhetoric unmistakably resembles (or pastiches) that of advertising and political placards, does not actually mean these magazines are just mass-cultural artifacts like any other. Their drive to distinction and their restricted audiences are social facts. They are not pure vehicles of pure art, but they solicit (and depend upon) an audience that knows how to discriminate between what they do and what their cultural rivals do. When Bourdieu wrote (I put it on the handout) that “there is no way out of the game of culture,” he did not, of course, mean that no distinctions exist in the cultural field. These distinctions are made through different types of relations to the marketplace, not through being in the market or (impossibly) getting outside of it.

Next, larger-circulation magazines. Actually, I find publications like the Illustrated London News, the Strand, or even the London Mercury more challenging for the theory of the divided field than the little magazines. They all take literature quite seriously, even the ILN, where books occupy only a back page, and sometimes emit apparently sincere signals of their desire for cultural distinction. Where are the signs of profiteering or the dominance of economic over symbolic capital? They do exist, but they come in disguised and ambivalent forms: in class we talked about the treatment of authors as celebrities in the Strand. Notice also the difference between the language of criticism and debate one finds in Little Review or Egoist (and the language of manifesto in Blast) and the language of appreciation or depreciation in the book review pages of the ILN (say). As for the Mercury, it is a high-brow publication, just one that lies on the wrong side of literary history. Its general atmosphere is comparable to that of the official artistic academies and other institutions of consecration Bourdieu discusses. But the difference between Mercury and the Criterion is the difference between two competitors in the restricted subfield, which nonetheless is also a difference between a less restricted and a more restricted (and more “advanced”) periodical.

Bags of words

How these divides are related to the divergences in the status of books discussed in Algee-Hewitt et al.’s “Canon/Archive” or Underwood’s Distant Horizons seems to me to invite more reflection than we had time for. Just to make once more the point I made before Ted joined our seminar session, the “archive” and the “un-reviewed” are not equivalent to “mass culture” or the subfield of large-scale production. In both “Canon/Archive” and Distant Horizons, most of the books that have lower literary status also have low sales. Only the books in the “bestseller” category, which crystallizes in the 1890s, really exemplify the “mass cultural”—and not all of those, either, since, as we know from James English, bestsellers and prizewinners overlap substantially right through the midcentury. (The Sheik is untypical, an extreme example of the “absolute bestseller.”) Neither the Lit Lab study nor Underwood’s seeks to differentiate the neglected books which were trying to be popular from those which were trying for literary status. What does “trying” mean, anyway? How would you tell? (I think you could…)

What is most impressive and most frustrating about these two computational literary inquiries—and pretty much all others too—is their focus on the features of text as the variables of interest. Though Underwood is very cautious about saying that textual differences do not cause differences in status (as we saw, the Lit Lab pamphlet is bolder), in terms of the statistical modeling, the textual features are the “independent” or explanatory variables and the differences in status are the “dependent” ones. It is pretty strange that knowing only how often a bunch of words occur in a book of Victorian poems is enough to let the computer guess whether that book got reviewed in literary periodicals. It’s even wackier that knowing something about the frequency-pattern of word pairs (“bigrams”) let the Lit Lab researchers make good guesses about whether Victorian novels would be in the Chadwyck-Healy Literature Online collection.

There are two levels of strangeness about this. First is the correlation–detectable only by computation—between “bags of words” and humanly-recognizable qualities of diction, style, and theme. Strange as this appears, literary critics have long assumed that meaning is transmitted at many levels of language, and linguists have known for a long time that word frequencies reflect differences in individual style and in “register” or genre. But it is no less strange to learn that “prestige” durably correlates to these word-frequency features. This is a fact to be explained, but it would be an error to suppose it means that there is a sorting process where literary judges (e.g. reviewers) consider all the books that are published and choose the ones with certain kinds of language for consecration (e.g. being reviewed).

Given everything we know about how books are made and circulate, this is unlikely. In talking with us, Ted gestured at Bourdieu’s theory of the habitus (“durable, transposable dispositions”) as a framework for an explanation. He implied, I think, that the ability to be reviewed (because of connections to publishers and choice of subject matter or genre) is correlated with the kinds of qualities (educational trajectory, social location, etc.) that make one write review-able books.2 It is interesting to think about how this hypothesis could be put to the test.

By the way, Ted is particularly exemplary in his commitment to laying bare all the details of his methods. It’s not all spelled out in the text of Distant Horizons, but he created a reproduction repository with code, data, and instructions that would, with enough patience, let you recreate all the figures from the book. I draw your attention to the tables of “metadata” (i.e. title and publication information) of the poetry and fiction volumes considered in the analysis, which can be browsed online and make for instructive reading.

Equally instructive are the outputs of the statistical models, the coefficients assigned by the model to each word. These numbers tell you whether making a given word more frequent will make the model more or less likely to predict it belongs to the reviewed set: thus the lowest-status words in the model are “command,” “maidens,” “’ll”; the highest ones are “seasons,” “sign,” “hers”—but browsing the full 2600 features will help you contemplate the true weirdness of this kind of modeling.3

In fact there’s even more there than all that, since his notes include further discussions of some of the methods beyond what’s in the book. From the material for chapter 3, I call your attention to the “notebook” on the method for estimating sales using “empirical Bayes,” not so much for the numerical details as for a general sense of how one makes usable data and draws inferences from it.

Bon Dieu!

Now, as for The Sheik. First of all, the whole 1921 silent film is on the Internet Archive.4 Leavis tells us quite a bit about the coupling between fiction and film (films of the novel, novels of the film, film magazines, etc.), and, bracketing off her scorn for the phenomenon, we can reflect on the novel’s position in a changing interwar media ecology. I am tempted to say that The Sheik anticipates what Henry Jenkins calls “transmedia storytelling,” that is, a fiction that “unfolds across multiple media platforms, with each new text making a distinctive and valuable contribution to the whole.”5 There’s no reason to suppose E.M. Hull anticipated the Valentino vehicle, but the circulation of her novel takes place in a cultural world defined by the possibility of such vehicles—and of the positive feedback effects that send filmgoers in search of the novel (with its more transgressive thrills, censored out of the film) and novel readers out to the film (with its visual impact). In this light, the novel’s exploitation of the chapter gap for the sexiest parts reveals something important about novel-reading as an erotic technology.

We talked a bit about The Sheik as a proto-romance novel. It has been identified as such for a long time, including by pioneering romance novelists like Barbara Cartland. (The last time I taught this course, a student gave me an abridged edition of the novel from Cartland’s Library of Love.) Nonetheless, it is anachronistic to speak in 1919 of the “romance novel” in the sense of a specific channel of book production for love stories aimed at women. The term “romance” still had its older meanings of “adventure” or “fanciful story.” The London firm of Mills & Boon, which is now totally identified with the romance (and a subsidiary of Harlequin Ltd), specialized in this category only in the 1930s. Specialized production in mystery novels also emerges in the 1930s, and “genre fiction” as a system only comes into view with the boom in paperbacks after the Second World War.

The Sheik does anticipate some later iterations of the love-story genre which were central to establishing North American romance-novel publishing: the “sweet savage romance” which boomed in the 1970s (according to Radway). Our discussion focused, rightly, on the ambivalent representation of sexual violence. I want to draw attention to two other features of the novel’s handling of sex and gender. One is that, in the happy ending, Diana and Ahmed do not get married. They just go back to sleeping together in the desert. This was, though certainly not unprecedented, still transgressive—it was, and indeed it remains, typical for novels of love to punish unmarried cohabitation or “rectify” it with marriage.

By contrast, the whitewashing origin story for Ahmed does appear to rectify his alien racial status. Yet not only does this story simply displace racial mixture back into the distant past (his Spanish mother’s “Moorish” antecedents); it also breaks down the apparent distinction between the civilized white world and the barbaric Arab desert by comparing the wife-beating Lord Glencaryll to the dignified Sheik Ahmed père. In a parallel moment earlier in the text, Diana notices a resemblance between Ahmed and her brother Aubrey: “She had seen Aubrey do similarly hundreds of times. Occidental or Oriental, men seemed very alike” (106). The exotic thrill of primitive masculinity turns out to be another version of the masculine domination any woman could find at home. But to say this is hardly to say that the book mounts a critique of patriarchy, only that the ubiquity of patriarchy supplies one of the fundamental premises on which the novel builds its fantasies of escape-by-subjection.

However, the sociology of reading enjoins us not to stop at textual interpretation. We should ask seriously what people who use the book actually use it for. Q.D. Leavis thinks she knows (“compensation for life” [57]), but her sense of cultural embattlement—and her commitment to the high-modernist project—prevents her from actually going and finding out. As I tried to hint in class, literary studies has still not really faced this challenge. The dominant mode of our discipline remains expert “reading,” backed by the conviction that the significance of any literary work is largely due to what expert interpretation can reveal in its text. Because we have our own ways of doing things with books, we lack a disciplinary framework for studying what people who aren’t us do with them.

I also tried to hint that Leavis’s dilemma, which pushed her into the ludicrous idea of organizing an “armed and conscious minority” of cultural critics, remains our own. There is a great divide, for scholars: the divide between our ways of handling culture and the other ways that people practice. For us it is unavoidably freighted with moral significance (we believe we do it right; we try to get students to do it too). Once again I return to Bourdieu’s maxim: “there is no way out of the game of culture.” It is not so simple as adopting a new, more righteous attitude about reading. But we can try to find a way to understand the whole space of possibilities.

And onwards

But there is also a real historical difference between Leavis and us. Fiction and the Reading Public registers, with some shock, the ubiquity of pleasure reading. Everyone reads novels, it seems to Leavis (McAleer gives us the best available statistics, which are not quite so high: 55% at peak [74]), and this changes the nature of the problem into how to get the “reading public” to read right. But not everyone reads novels anymore. This is the fundamental point in the review essay by Wendy Griswold et al. which I have assigned for our next meeting. Though the rich industrialized world has near-universal literacy, and nearly everyone believes reading more would be good for you, only a minority now reads regularly for entertainment; the era of the reading public has passed, and we have return to an age of what Griswold calls the “reading class.” What difference this makes for literary scholars’ attitude to low-status or unliterary texts—and to the literary as such—is one of the issues I hope we will take up next time. But whereas Leavis was worrying over a majority practice, we have only to do with a minority pursuit.

As for our other readings for next time, I hope you’ll continue to try to use your sociological and historical imaginations in making sense of the texts by I.A. Richards and F.R. Leavis. Both have very interesting biographies: from the DNB entry on Leavis I entice you with this detail: “On one occasion he was in trouble with the police and university authorities because he wanted Joyce’s banned novel Ulysses to be available for study.” On Richards, come for the anecdote about his missed vocation as a mountain guide, but whoops! he ended up an English professor (#humanitiescareers). If time had permitted, I would have supplemented the excerpts from Richards’s Principles of Literary Criticism with excerpts from his later, (in)famous book Practical Criticism (London: Kegan Paul, 1930). Glance at the first pages of his discussion of his undergraduates’ responses to the poems he gave them (without authors or titles or any other context).

You can also find many issues of F.R. Leavis’s journal Scrutiny on (which is great for scans of all kinds of old periodicals, so long as you can ignore the antivaxx stuff and other lunacy on the site). Say what you will about the contents of Scrutiny; you can’t beat the title.

Edit, Dec. 1: if time permits, please look at Browning’s “Pan and Luna” (1880)—never fear, only thirteen stanzas of ottava rima—which will shed some light on the interesting diagram in Richards’s Principles (116).

  1. It also strikes me that feminism’s relation to advertising and consumption is quite unlike that of most political movements. Middle-class women were and are perhaps the most important of all groups of consumers.↩︎

  2. It strikes me that this is not far off from Q. D. Leavis’s idea that the popular authors can speak for their readers because they are so similar to them: “Novelists of class D, who both share their readers’ tastes and exploit them (even if unconsciously)” (59).↩︎

  3. Because of the gnarly non-linear formula for the estimated probability (the one I gave in class; cf. Wikipedia’s likewise gnarly page on logistic regression), it’s kind of tricky to interpret the coefficients or to compare coefficients for two different predictors. A coefficient that is twice as big does not mean the word is twice as important. Furthermore, because many words’ frequencies are highly correlated with one another, the interpretation of any single word’s coefficient can be deceptive (because it’s not clear what it means to change just one word’s frequency ceteris paribus). On top of all that Underwood’s use of “regularization” creates further difficulties of interpretation; it turns out that the ability of the model to guess whether a text is reviewed or not does not mean that the particular model coefficients are the best or “truest” choices.↩︎

  4. With inexplicable Brahms soundtrack. I have no idea what the musical accompaniments might have been in early screenings.↩︎

  5. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 96–97, ACLS Humanities EBooks. Jenkins has in mind narratively continuous enterprises like Star Wars or The Matrix or the Marvel Cinematic Universe, rather than sequences of adaptations and imitations like the Sheikverse, but I think the categories meld into one another.↩︎

Absolute Bestsellers

While reading Fiction and the Reading Public I kept trying to pin down what exactly Leavis’s concern is with the “middlebrow” and “absolute bestsellers” she investigates. Compared to Woolf’s critique of middlebrow writing in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” which primarily fixates on the form and writing style of a handful of authors, Leavis approaches these categories through an “anthropological study” of twenty-five authors. After grouping her responses into categories, Leavis goes on to make some sweeping generalizations about why someone might read a novel including, “to obtain vicarious satisfaction or compensation for life” or “to obtain assistance in the business of living” (48). While I’m confident this wasn’t Leavis’s intention, I found her reasons for reading quite funny. I can’t imagine any casual reader responding that they were driven to pick up The Sheik by a need to learn the “business of living.” Humor aside, I think it is telling that Leavis uses capitalistic language like “business” and “compensation” when attempting to identify motives for reading since it seems that at least part of Leavis’s discomfort with the phenomenon of the bestseller is that it strengthens what she sees as a vulgarizing connection between art and capitalism.

In her conclusion, Leavis argues that to resist the “herd prejudices” of the masses we must educate the youth to form a “conscious minority” of proper literary taste (271). While it is easy to dismiss Leavis as a classist/elitist purist, I think it is worth reflecting on how similar ideas of value influence what novels we deem worth teaching today. Why do we teach Ulysses and not The Sheik if the latter was such an “absolute bestseller,” for example? As distressing as Leavis’s account is, I think we still make value judgments about a literary work based on how pleasurable or difficult it is to read. What would happen if we assigned Harry Potter and not Lord of the Flies to middle schoolers? In other words, what is the benefit of teaching established “classics” that supposedly challenge students instead of modern bestsellers?

“What Did a Francophile-Arab Read?”

Regarding The Sheik, it’s hard not to fixate on the disturbing scenes and questions that Teresa has already brought to our attention. I anticipate that these topics will drive much of the discussion that we have in class this week, but, in the spirit of trying to turn our attention elsewhere, I’d like to think briefly about Ahmed Ben Hassan’s bookshelf, which Diana encounters the day after she is kidnapped and raped. Kneeling beside the bookshelf, she asks “What did a Francophile-Arab read?,” expecting to find the shelf full of novels because they “would harmonise with the atmosphere that she dimly sensed in her surroundings” (67). Instead she finds that the shelf is filled with sport and travel books (mostly written by Raoul, one of which is personally dedicated to Ahmed) as well as books on veterinary surgery, which we learn later that Ahmed studied in England.  The content of these books as well as the evidence they offer of Ahmed’s linguistic skill (books written in French, annotated in Arabic), disturb her even further because they reveal a much more calculating, intelligent, “civilized” captor than she initially imagined. The bookshelf becomes a recurring image in the novel, and Diana turns to its contents (particularly Raoul’s books) often over the course of her captivity.

We’ve seen the image of the bookshelf recur throughout our readings this semestere: the Harvard Classics five-foot shelf, Virginia Woolf’s personal library of women’s fiction, and Amitav Ghosh’s grandfather’s bookcase. Each of these bookcases offers a distinct vision of literary prestige and makes different assumptions about what belongs in the canon. Thinking about the bookshelf in these terms, I’m interested in what vision of literary prestige, what kind of canon that Ahmed’s bookshelf might offer. What do we make of the gap between Diana’s assumptions and the true contents of the bookcase? And what is the role of the novel here?

“Every Caged Woman’s Desire”

In his book on popular 20th-century British fiction, Joseph McAleer explains that “escapism…[was] the principal motive in reading” (1) for working-class adults from 1914-1950. He adds, “Reading as a means of escape intensified in times of adversity such as the war and the depression” (1). While reading E.M. Hull’s popular romance novel The Sheik (1919), I found myself wondering what would’ve made this book appealing to its main audience: working-class women. McAleer cites a passage from The Times (1917) that maintains, “The tastes of the working-girl reader incline to the adventurous and romantic. She wants something that is not wordy and will hold her attention” (14). While The Sheik is a “romantic” adventure—one that takes place in an “exotic” setting that would be likely to intrigue and attract female readers—it is also a deeply troubling story about female confinement and sexual assault. For in Hull’s novel, Diana doesn’t simply fall in love with a charming Arab Sheik. She falls in love with an Arab Sheik who entraps and rapes her.


I found it interesting to learn that in the 1921 silent film adaptation of The Sheik, Ahmed doesn’t rape Diana. But in an entry on the film for Turner Classics, James Steffen explains that this decision was made in order to “preempt the censors” (Steffen), not to revise the novel’s troubling gender politics. In fact, according to a review of the film from Variety, it was actually the omission of these rapes that made the film less successful: “The same novel, preposterous and ridiculous as it was, won out because it dealt with every caged woman’s desire to be caught up in a love clasp by some he-man who would take the responsibility and dispose of the consequences” (qtd. in Steffen). I wonder what other kinds of “desires” Hull’s novel may have elicited from its audience. Would female readers have found Diana’s androgynous identity thrilling? Would they have identified with her longing to escape from her oppressive life and brother? How, though, do such desires manage to exist in a narrative that romanticizes rape?

Reading and Awaiting the “long arc of literary change”

Like Vianna, I too am interested in the number of reading practices necessary to interpret the descriptions of the literary field the algorithms produced. I was also surprised by how frequently the authors acknowledged the limitations of their own arguments. Underwood even says that his methodology “has a significant weak spot” (93) and “turning those models into fully satisfying stories could take several more decades” (109). In my experience, it’s rare to find this kind of frankness in literary studies where the task of the essay is to produce a clear argument that appears to have few (if any) weaknesses. There seems to be a liberty in this scientific approach to literature that takes description as its primary task. Specific arguments seem to still be reliant on close readings of text. 

In acknowledging the limitations of digitization, Algee-Hewitt, et al and Underwood checked my unrealistic hopes that distant reading and digitization would provide a more inclusive or expansive vision of the literary field. As Algee-Hewitt, et al noted, “with digital technology the relationship between the three layers has changed; the corpus of a project can now easily be (almost) as large as the archive, while the archive itself is becoming—in modern times—(almost) as large as all of published literature” (2). For me, the notion of an expanding archive could be the remedy to the historical violences and silences (to borrow from Saidiya Hartman) of the archive, but as both critics observe, the archive is still a significant limitation to that kind of work. Despite the grand scale of studies like these, “libraries don’t buy books for representative samples; they want books they consider worth preserving; good books; good, according to the principles that are likely to be similar to those that lead to the formations of canons” (2). As Underwood mentions, finding “some way to measure the effects of imbalances” when “sheer underrepresentation in the data set, by itself, is an eloquent fact” remains a challenge (94,95). 

“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.

Non-readers (Computers and Reviewers)

Ted Underwood’s machine learning algorithm predicts the probability that a given work is part of the set of works reviewed in a group of prestigious publications. In the case of poetry from 1820 – 1899, the prediction is almost 80% accurate. (This requires that probabilities be collapsed into the categories of more likely to be reviewed than not, and vice versa.)

In its training phase, the algorithm does something a human could never do: it identifies groups of words whose presences/absences are most likely to sort the work into the correct category: reviewed or unreviewed (an approximation of prestigious or not-prestigious). Computers are good at counting; humans are not. Even though what the computer does is extremely different from human reading, some differences between the prestigious words and the non-prestigious words are actually recognizable to humans. As Underwood puts it, “All of this boils down to a fairly clear contrast between embodied lyric subjectivity and an older mode of poetic authority that is more didactic, sentimental, and collective” (84). Of course, Underwood chooses the most representative passages for his article. Contrasts in diction might not be clear to modern readers–or past reviewers–across the whole dataset. We also have no idea what went on in the minds of reviewers.

That said, the predictive value of diction might bolster the idea, put forth by Arnold Bennett, that to the reviewer, “The narrative everywhere discloses … the merits and defects of the writer; no author ever lived who could write a page without giving himself away” (97). Diction is apparent even from small samples. So if reviewers were compelled to only sample a work before determining whether it might be reviewed or not, diction might have been a useful feature to register (whether consciously or not). According to Bennett, the title page is also extremely useful to the reviewer, but Underwood strips this kind of material from his texts. I wonder if a model could be trained on the smaller data set of paratexts. Would it be too difficult to encode aesthetic and material features?

Ulysses Large and Small

Browsing the two appearances of the “Wandering Rocks” episode of Ulysses in the Little Review and the Egoist led me to think about format–specifically, the ways in which publication format might offer another angle to discuss the allegiances of these little magazines to existing trends in periodical publication. In many ways, the Little Review’s format makes it a magazine that resembles a book: according to its physical description on the Modernist Journals Project site, it’s 21.9 x 14.6 cm, in line with the size of a larger quarto but by no means huge; the text is set in a single column, a familiar bookish layout; the margins are wide. The Egoist, on the other hand, is much larger at 31.5 x 21 cm; it features type set in two columns, in what appears to be a smaller typeface; its margins are slim. The genre with which the Egoist aligns itself is more manifestly periodical: that is, it looks like a newspaper.

This discrepancy can be pretty readily explained–the Little Review came out less frequently; we know from Morrisson all about the Egoist’s financial difficulties by 1919, so it makes sense to save on paper by packing text into the page, etc. However, what remains to be explained is the effect on the reading experience these format differences entail, and what these differences imply about these two publications’ relationships to existing kinds of print. Would a reader’s relationship to Ulysses be different if they initially read it in the Little Review’s booklike format, or as a newspaperish column in the Egoist? (or is that too much interpretive pressure to put on format?) As Morrisson established, these little magazines drew on formal characteristics and strategies of commercial publications whose reliance on the market they opposed; what part does the material format of these publications play in that calculation of commercial inspiration versus artistic aspiration? Do these format differences indicate that the Little Review and the Egoist are angling for different positions in the modernist marketplace?