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Since I stopped teaching in 2000, I don’t have to read anything. I make my own choices. In practice, for new books it means being guided by what I read about in reviews and by what I see on the Waterstones tables. For old books, it means reading what I feel I ought to have read or want to read again. But the desire for ease and familiarity surely keeps me away from some authors – ones I have never got to grips with, etc - and more generally from very long books. In addition, the anxiety of influence keeps me away from books which I think might deal in the same topics as I am currently trying to think about. I want to have my shot at them first.
That, of course, is a distinctly non-academic way of thinking and a very risky one too: in all likelihood, someone else has already taken the same shot as I am aiming for - and been shot to pieces, too.
In the arts and humanities, academic thinking and writing carved out its niche by insisting that you read other people’s work first and, ideally, to the point of exhaustion. You could then write a literature survey, groaning under the weight of the footnotes and Bibliography attached, before trying (ideally) to turn a small trick of your own at the end, essentially a small step up your career ladder. In many cases, you simply pointed out other people’s mistakes and omissions. In practice, the results were often unreadable and, deservedly, pretty much unread. Life had been so much more fun in the days of belles lettres when anyone with leisure and the ability to turn a phrase could write an essay about anything they pleased – and publish it! If it means I can do as I please, I am all in favour of belles lettres. True, I don’t expect anyone else to pay me.
Though I knew Denise Riley as a fellow-student in the 1960s and 1970s – she designed the cover for my first book Language, Truth and Politics (1975) – I kept a distance from her later work, partly because of the anxiety of influence and partly because I suspected it would be Too French for me. Recently, I decided it was long overdue for me to take a look at what she had been up to in the past forty years.
Her short (I liked that) book of essays Impersonal Passion, published in 2005, was a very pleasant surprise. I enjoyed it, found it accessible, thought it dealt deftly with the problems which surely arise (even more so now) when you try to engage with issues contentious within academic feminisms and where there is at least some pressure to go for safety in numbers. At moments, it is very funny, though Riley only occasionally lets herself enjoy the pleasure - notably in the essay “Your Name Which Isn’t Yours.” Finally – this was no surprise – it is exceptionally well written, everywhere turns of phrase to die for.
There are footnotes and heavy-duty books cited, and Riley knows an awful lot of stuff, but the visible apparatus is slight compared to the evidence of Stakhanovite effort traditionally displayed in heavy-duty academic writing.
I think this book of essays belongs to belles lettres not to academic prose, and that is all to the good as far as I am concerned, though the question is legitimate whether the production of belles lettres is the proper business of universities.
When I say belles lettres, I am not just congratulating the author on her abilities as a writer. For example, as one part of the evidence, a lot of the time she uses indirection – not an academic trope at all - to come at central controversies in culture and politics by means of small, everyday examples which may not seem to have much to do with the public domain unless you, the reader, make the connection – Riley often indicates the links but never harangues us about them. So she writes about how difficult it is to tell the truth using a conventional formula often deployed to lie; about the ways and by-ways in which your own name is, well, not really yours because someone else gave it you and you just put up with it; about the odd persistence of hurtful words which seem to have a much longer life than real bruises; about the querulous questions Why? and Why Me? All this is done both delicately and probingly. She avoids overt autobiography and I think this may still be an academic inhibition – once you allow autobiography into academic writing, anything goes. So she uses “she” to give third person examples where as a post-academic I would at least feel free to use “I”.
Belles lettres has its own weak points. If you can write well, you can always spin things out so that you go on and on making a point not because that is the way to make a point but because you have been asked for five thousand words. Traditionally, the genre of belles lettres did not stoop to include political or religious tracts. It was meant to seduce rather than harangue and though the controversial was not excluded, whimsy was accommodated rather more easily and that was a weakness in the genre and directly related to the social class of both likely writer and likely reader, free of the pressing worries which were addressed by the tract.
I see I am on 876 words; I used to write a thousand automatically in these circumstances of a book review. So I’ll tell you that I thought of an example which perfectly demonstrates Riley’s claim in chapter Six, that we often tie ourselves and others in knots if we try to tell the truth with a conventional formula.
Somewhere in the world, there is a person whose dog once ate their homework. Next day, they went to school …. The sensible thing would have been to LIE, it would have caused so much less anguish all round.