How did you get interested in your research subject?
Some projects begin with a book. In my case that book was Caleb Williams—a thriller from the 1790s by the political philosopher William Godwin (now better known as the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft and the father of Mary Shelley). I became interested in the sense I had of feeling responsible for Caleb’s misfortunes and mistakes, in what about the text made feel that way, and in the obvious uselessness of feeling that way. My research examines a set of aesthetic experiences I call “perverse attachments,” in which we feel a strong urge to act upon things that are beyond our control. On some level the sense of complicity I felt reading Caleb Williams was a kind of metaphysical mistake, but it’s also central to how that novel operates—and, I came to see, to how many other texts of the period operate: political fiction and terror tales, historical novels and novels of manners. Because these experiences combine absorption and detachment—the impulse to enter into a fictional world as well as its frustration or interruption—they are poorly captured by our existing theories of reading, which tend to see these stances as fundamentally opposed. I’m interested in the intellectual history of that binary, and in the works of fiction that make it difficult to sustain.
What are your intellectual passions? What are you passionate to teach?
I like to teach texts that raise interesting questions about reading and reception. Why is Clarissa so long? Why was Walter Scott so massively popular in the nineteenth century and why is he so little read now? Eighteenth-century literature makes questions like these unavoidable. I like to think of it as the uncanny valley of literary history for modern readers—when certain familiar genres (like the novel) take their basic shape, but in strange and sometimes alienating ways.
I try to make room for lots of different reading experiences in my classes. In my Austen and Scott course this year we’re reading Pride and Prejudice and Waverley, volume by volume, at the same time. My suspense course starts with Highsmith’s novel Strangers on a Train and ends with Hitchcock’s film version, to see what happens when we encounter a suspenseful plot a second time.
What is the value of studying literature in the current political climate?
After Trump was elected, 1984 and It Can’t Happen Here became instant bestsellers. I think there’s a reason people turn to literature in moments of political crisis. We might read fiction to understand things that seem incomprehensible by other means. People often process empirical social facts through literary examples: to call something “Orwellian” or “Dickensian” is to acknowledge the descriptive power of those novels. I don’t think it’s so much a matter of the genius or clairvoyance of particular writers, but of the kind of thinking that literary forms enable in writers and readers.
Of course, part of what it means to study literature is to read things that other people aren’t reading, to pay attention to the texts that don’t bear an obvious relevance to our political moment, and to think about exactly this question—a question that has its own history and a long train of answers behind it. I see this as part of literature’s value—this standing invitation to connect it back, even at its most otherworldly, to our world and our political life.
What are you reading for fun right now?
James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce, a hardboiled novel that’s all about motherhood. I just finished Carmen Maria Machado’s My Body and Other Parties, which was unlike anything I’ve read before.
In grad school I discovered that essay collections are my ideal pleasure-reading genre when I’m writing. They’re a nice way to take a vacation from your own thoughts, to spend a little time in someone else’s head. So I tend to have a book of essays going along with whatever else I’m reading. Right now, I’m reading Elizabeth Hardwick’s essays. Her metaphors have lives of their own. (Her wonderful essay “George Eliot’s Husband” begins: “She was melancholy, headachey, with a slow, disciplined, hard-won, aching genius that bore down upon her with a wondrous and exhausting force, like a great love affair in middle age.”)
What was your favorite job before becoming an academic?
Before grad school I worked at the Legal Aid Society in the Bronx, helping people who’d been denied government benefits during the appeals process. It was hard to leave that job, and I still miss it. My colleagues there were all voracious readers. I like to think that some of the students in my literature classes might go on to do similar work.