I prefer, where truth is important, to write fiction.
—Virginia Woolf, The PargitersPreface
It seems my doctoral dissertation has hit the ProQuest dissertations databases, so now is perhaps a useful time to say a few words about it here. First, the details for finding it, since there doesn't seem to be an openly accessible link: The title is Lessoning Fiction: Modernist Crisis and the Pedagogy of Form, and it is Dissertation/thesis number 10786319 and ProQuest document ID 2056936547. (If you don't have access to any of those databases and would like a copy of the manuscript, feel free to email me and I will send you a PDF.)
Here's the abstract:
Writers committed to Modernist ideas of artistic autonomy may find that commitment challenged during times of socio-political crisis. This dissertation explores three writers who developed a similar literary strategy at such times: they pushed fictionality toward and beyond its limits, but ultimately preserved that fictionality, revealing new value in fiction after challenging it. Virginia Woolf, Samuel R. Delany, and J. M. Coetzee shaped their writings at these moments to provide readers with an experience that I argue is congruent with the goals of critical pedagogy as espoused by Paulo Freire, bell hooks, and others. Such a reading experience avoids an authoritarian mode of communication (a writer dictating a message to a passive audience) by requiring any successful reader of the work to be an active interpreter of the texts' forms, contents, and contexts. The pedagogies Woolf, Delany, and Coetzee infuse into such works as The Years, The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals, The Mad Man, Elizabeth Costello, Diary of a Bad Year, and Summertime free those works from being either narrowly aestheticist or quotidian social realism; instead, each asks for an active interpretation, one that supports certain habits of reading that may develop into habits of thinking, and those habits of thinking may then affect habits of being. By pushing against fiction's fictionality, these writers of very different backgrounds, geographies, privileges, situations, tastes, and styles created texts that do the pedagogic work of liberating the reader toward a critical, ethical thinking that less Modernist, less polyphonic, and more traditionally fictional texts do not — even if those texts are more explicitly committed to particular socio-political visions. Monologic, preaching, propagandistic texts may present ethical thought, but they are less likely to stimulate it than the polyphonic pedagogies practiced by Woolf, Delany, and Coetzee in their fiction.Though I had settled a few years ago on the writers and most of the texts I planned to study, the direction of the dissertation didn't become clear to me until the US election of November 2016. In the days following, countless writers seemed to ask — on social media, in hastily-written essays, in private communication — what value writing, particularly the writing of fiction, serves when it feels like the world is falling apart all around you.
I did not myself share this sense of writing being in crisis, for a few reasons — I've pretty much always thought everything in life is in crisis, and I agree with Corey Robin that Trump is (vulgarly) emblematic of much that has dominated American politics for decades, so while I found his triumph nauseating, it didn't plunge me into a sense of futility any more than growing up with Reagan as president had, or Bill Clinton's assaults on the social safety net, or Newt Gingrich's triumph in the 1990s, or George W. Bush's atrocities, or Obama's fondness for bankers, drones, and deportations.
But the sudden distress among many writers after the election now made me think of writers of the past, ones who had faced social and political crises that threatened their lives. This overlapped with a different sort of uncertainty I was feeling, an uncertainty about the value of my own academic work. Academic writing, particularly for us literary scholars, can feel utterly useless even in the best of times, and as I approached writing the dissertation, I needed some sense of what I was writing this dissertation for (other than, of course, the obvious: to earn a degree).
Given the three writers I wanted to work on, I suddenly felt a new sense of purpose: I could explore what approaches these very different people had taken when the world seemed overwhelming to them. Within such an exploration I might find some sort of insights of use to people now, some models for how to proceed in the face of disaster and apocalypse.
The first approach I took to this exploration is one that is detailed in my Woolf Studies Annual essay, "The Reader Awakes: Pedagogical Form and Utopian Impulse in The Years". Originally, that was going to be the first chapter of the dissertation. Parts of it are in that chapter, but in revising both, they went in somewhat different directions, with different emphases, and so ended up more as cousins than twins. The idea of the pedagogical potential of the novel form is important to both, however, and important to my ideas about artistic autonomy and socio-political crisis. Here, I'll try to boil some of that down and offer a few examples and excerpts from the dissertation.