Saturday, April 25, 2009


At the Blue and White, Columbia's undergraduate literary magazine, Samuel Kerbel has written a very nice review of Breeding: A Partial History of the Eighteenth Century.

He makes several thoughtful criticisms of the book.

One concerns what I think of as a certain temperamental unwillingness to argue for or against, or to articulate what may be controversial conclusions; this I am not sure I can do anything about!

The other concerns the level of knowledge I assume among my readers, and this seems to me in many respects the more pressing question, an interesting challenge I will need to tackle in the next non-fiction book I write.

When I first started working on Breeding, I was thinking very seriously about trying to make it a more general history - a narrative-oriented work of scholarship designed to reach the broadest possible audience.

(Historians tend to produce these more easily than literary critics, as the narrative mode is part of what makes this possible and narrative is more central to most history-writing than it is to literary-critical interpretation; but at least in this book, I'm definitely writing something close to cultural and intellectual history, so it's not necessarily a disciplinary sticking point...)

I realized, though, after drafting a couple chapters, that at the level of intellectual development I was then at (this sounds intolerably pretentious, but really it was just realistic self-assessment!), it still was going to be better for me to write a more traditionally scholarly book, with extensive quotations and footnotes, rather than to try slightly prematurely to make the transition to a more generally accessible mode. I thought I would learn more about the eighteenth century writing it this way - that I was still at a stage where I needed to immerse myself in the nitty-gritty rather than making the move to generalize...

That said, I tried to write as engagingly and accessibly as possible - and in my next academic projects (I regretfully observe that it is increasingly clear to me that I have two quite different - and in certain respects complementary - academic books pestering me to write them, one to do with forms of culture that cannot be transmitted through language and one to do with the history of the novel and the development in the European tradition of widely shared conventions of notation for human behavior in prose fiction), I am definitely going to try and take that next step away from quotations and footnotes and the other apparatus of academic style. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn is my aspirational model...

1 comment:

  1. Jenny--maybe I, the amateur who spends a lot of time around academic writing, am the perfect audience for Breeding? I have been enjoying it . . .