In a new interview series on Isak, I'll feature original conversations with folks around the world who are in the thick of literary culture -- the passionate writers, editors, critics, readers, translators, publishers, bloggers, designers, booksellers, poets, performers, journalists, and instructors who are bringing vibrancy and joy to the world of words. More than a rehash of things you have heard familiar names natter on about before, this series will turn its attention beyond the bounds of the usual suspects and the usual issues. This series is committed to a dynamic exploration of ideas, craft, language, literature, and culture with the people who are committing their lives to it. See the debut interview here.
Anne Trubek is the author of A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses, which will be published this fall from the University of Pennsylvania Press. She is also an associate professor of English at Oberlin College and a literary journalist; her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, Mother Jones, Dwell, The Believer, The American Prospect, The Barnes and Noble Review, The Oxford American, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Tikkun, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, among other eclectic publications. She writes a weekly literary column for GOOD, and her essay, "Handwriting Is History," appears in the just-published Best Technology Writing 2010. In kind, Anne (@atrubek) also happens to be one of the savviest Twitterers that you'll find. You can find Anne's other online home here.
I first became interested in Anne's work when I read her essay on the nearly-forgotten writer museum of Thomas Wolfe in Asheville, North Carolina. "Fading from View: Is Thomas Wolfe a Genius? And Should We Care?," adapted from her forthcoming book, is striking in its capacity to hold ambiguity -- she approaches the project of opening writers' houses to the public with neither precious sentimentality nor pretentious cynicism. As a whole, A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses comes from a person who is passionate about literature and disarmingly honest (and at times hilarious) about her mixed feelings about domestic homages to authors. Brock Clarke calls it "a remarkable book." I call it "pretty damn awesome."
In this conversation, Anne and I hash out what people want out of literature (and out of the people who make literature). Also discussed: the twisted, deflated legacy of the fierce Louisa Alcott; viewing literature with a "shackled imagination"; Dayton, Ohio; Mark Twain as asshole; weird gendered reading habits; money; pot smoking; and literary journalism. Also, there are the inklings of a rant of my own.
But let's get to the point. Here's Anne:
You take an unusual stance about writers' houses in your upcoming book. Rather than positioning yourself as a tour guide for a rosy litany of these houses-turned-museums across America, you take a "skeptics" view, questioning the underlying narrative and intention of these museums (and their visitors), and juxtaposing it with larger questions about what people want out of literature and out of artists. How did the culture of writers' houses first open up to you as a source of fascination?
I became fascinated with the idea of writers' house museums while I was a graduate student in English, studying American literature. As someone who was working with a lot of literary theory from the 80s and 90s, the idea of making a material monument to literature--something we experience immaterially--fascinated me. To put it in post-structural terms, and reductively: they seemed to me to be making the signified utterly literal, and we had abandoned all pretense of there even being a signifier! This was the heyday of "the author is dead!" studies, and these houses seem to absolutely contradict that premise, because they participate in a certain "cult of the author." So initially, I wanted to "expose" these institutions as fraudulent and paradoxical, examples of what Roland Barthes' calls "ordinary culture" -- a sort of middlebrow approach to reading. I was going to write about them as a "reverse travel guide" to places you should not viist. I would later change my mind about many of these idea as I worked on the book, travelled to houses, and changed my ideas about literature's role in American history and in contemporary culture.
Also, when I began this project, I considered it as my "creative" outlet to my "real," scholarly work. I never considered this project part of my graduate studies or, later, my research as a professor.
What caused you to change your mind, then, while you were visiting these places? And when did you realize that your mind was changing?
I think ultimately I decided that discounting a reader's relationship to an author -- not matter how specious, or how theoretically problematic -- is naive and problematic. This means rethinking much of 20th century literary criticism, from New Criticism through Post-Structuralism. And it means I need to think harder about why I have had a lifelong fascination with the figure of the authors, from high school poems I wrote about author photos on poetry books to dense jargony schoarly articles about the history of authorship.
What exactly do you think inspires the passion the people who work at and visit these houses, the people who cultivate these literary museums and communities? Is it always about the writer at hand, or is some other piece at play?
For the people who work there, it is often a love of history. They are committed to historic preservation and see their work in that vein. At the Poe House in Philadelphia, which is run by the National Parks Service, they use a curating idea called "Arrested Decay." They think hard about how to best preserve a house and Poe's life while avoiding the pitfalls of many such efforts: if there is no couch Poe had when he lived there, then the house has no couch. As a result, there is almost nothing inside the house -- just empty rooms. There is something almost more resonant about walking through those rooms as a result.
For visitors, some are fans, yes, wanting to see some Mecca of their favorite creative genius. But many are just people on vacation, or tagging along with a friend. It depends entirely on where the house is: in resort-y areas, many visitors will never have read the author's book. Also (it depends on) if the house is big and beautiful. Edith Wharton's The Mount is an example of a house many visit because they are on vacation in the Berkshires and the house is big and beautiful.
Do you think these houses actually inspire more people to pick up these books by, say, Edith Wharton, if they aren't fans already? Or for many of these vacationing and tag-along visitors, is it satisfying enough to peek into the life of an Important Writer, and perhaps see an interesting or beautiful old-fashioned house along the way?
That is an interesting question. I would wager there are people who get interested in reading an author's work by visiting her house. Like those who like to read the book after seeing the movie! Especially for more difficult works (say Faulkner) or more historically distant ones (say Longfellow--or even Wharton), it might help a reader get into and to access an author's work after having taken a tour of the house.
Your book chronicles how some of these homages to writers aren't just wrestling with the inherent slipperiness of their project: they get the writer, and the books, completely wrong. Hannibal, Missouri is totally unironic in its approach to small town life and Mark Twain's characters. Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House celebrates the domesticity that the writer herself loathed, negating the Alcotts as an unusual and radical family, and Louisa herself as a feminist who craved a life in Boston and never married.
While many writer museums may be misguided, if endearing, do you think they can ever be dangerous in their capacity to overwhelm public understanding of the writer and (perhaps most importantly) the books?
What smart questions you ask!I would hesitate to use the word dangerous for anything involving literary history. But some, like Hannibal and Orchard House, are involved in myth-making about their authors that perpetuate certain notions about literature and authorship that we should question. In both I see the tendency to conflate fact and fiction consonant with a contemporary desire for empiricism in literature: we want to believe that novels are based on fact, that novels are, really, memoirs with names changed. That is an impoverished view of literature, one that shackles the imagination.
With Alcott, this is troubling because she was such an ardent feminist and lived such an unconventional life, yet her house is dressed up in the markers of domesticity and family. I do not fault the curators: they have to deal with tides of visitors who come expecting a certain story. But I would love Alcott to be taken more seriously as a literary writer, and her life story to be better-known. How odd that men just do not read Little Women. There is no such analog with a famous novel that no women read. How obstinate we can be when it comes to gender. It never ceases to amaze me.
You know how "room of one's own" is such a revered phrase -- and there is even a "room of one's own" foundation that offers grants to women writers? I would love for Alcott -- who so wanted such a room, and who made it happen for herself, and without the financial help that Woolf always had -- to have such a foundation in her honor. I think she would be much better remembered, honored and celebrated with something that helped fund women writers than with more houses like Orchard House. Or what if Orchard House started telling this story more and more -- and in addition to asking for donations for upkeep to the house they asked for donations to help sponsor women writers?
Wow, that zeroing in on the desire to conflate fiction and fact strikes a chord with me ... it pains me to see this happen, as if truth can only come out of "true" things, as if art is a mere flourish on truth, rather than a unique carrier for a sort of truth that comes from nowhere else. I'm so sick of seeing folks "aha!" when they see that something is "based on a true story," as if that semblance of factuality suddenly makes a story consequential.
But I'll save this rant for another time. I love your Alcott foundation idea. God knows that more than a century later, what Alcott struggled with is still pervasive. And her writing really is far better, more complex than it's given credit for these days. Brilliant, even. When you visited Orchard House, did you ask anyone about this foundation or donation possibility? And do you think that Alcott's life and art are so wrongly remembered these days that it might actually embarrass women writers to receive an award in her name? I mean, it's one thing to take an honor from a foundation named for Virginia Woolf; I wonder if, without greater public education on Alcott, many writers would shrink from being associated with Little Women. I am -- ahem -- happy to be the first to take the honor if it makes others more comfortable ... for the cause, you understand.
I love your rant! Methinks we think very similarly....
It is so much easier and cheaper to write a new paragraph or delete an old one than it is to redo a roof or redecorate a living room!
So being a college English instructor, and a literary journalist, has your own contributions to public understanding of these writers and their books changed perceptibly since your journey into their houses? Has your class curriculum changed, or your broader work as a writer -- with or without an Alcott fellowship to support you?
Absolutely! When I began this project, I was not a literary journalist. I was an academic. First, a PhD student in English, then a junior faculty member. During many of those years, I felt the work being done in English mattered. But, because of changes in the academy, in English, and in my own life, I gradually became more and more disenchanted with the impacted, coterie writing of academic articles. When I received tenure, I remade myself as a literary journalist (this was not a plan -- it just sort of happened). This project, which I had always seen as a "sideline" one, I suddenly realized could become front and center. I wanted to write it up as a book. But what sort of book?