Janine Utell is Homer C. Nearing, Jr. Distinguished Professor in English at Widener University, where she chairs the Department of English and Creative Writing and is an affiliated faculty member in Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies. She is the author of several books, most recently Literary Couples and 20th-Century Life Writing (Bloomsbury, 2019) and the forthcoming “Howard Cruse: A Life” (Mississippi, Summer 2023), and the editor of The Comics of Alison Bechdel (Mississippi, 2020) and Teaching Modernist Women’s Writing in English (MLA, 2021). An edited volume on queer comics from the 1960s to the 1990s is under contract with UP of Mississippi, and Utell is also working on a monograph about 20th-century women's writing and rage entitled “Women and Bullshit.” Utell serves as editor for “Orientations,” an online forum dedicated to queer and feminist modernist studies for Modernism/modernity Print+. She also currently serves as First Vice President of the Modernist Studies Association and as an elected member of the Modern Language Association Forum on Comics and Graphic Narratives.
When I was in the process of proposing and developing the volume that became Teaching Modernist Women’s Writing in English, one of my peer reviewers noted an orientation towards the celebratory, a somewhat uncritical extolling of the vibrancy of modernist women’s writing.
A space for reorienting ourselves as scholars, teachers, writers, and practitioners of interdisciplinary modernist studies to the feminist, to the queer—and also a space for sustained orientation to feminist and queer modernisms.
This is about failure: my own failure to think forward, my own failure to see the future. Perhaps this piece can provide an opportunity to reflect on what can emerge from individual failures as well as our field’s reckoning with its wider failures: failure to grapple with racism and white supremacy, failure to support emerging scholars, failure to intervene meaningfully in the dismantling of the university as a site of serious thought and the generation of transformative ideas.
Jia Tolentino in The New Yorker describes a spate of current essays by men disgraced by #MeToo, essays that speak of what these men have lost personally and professionally and their quest for redemption, as bearing “the gravitational pull of male power . . . exerting itself, turning our attention back to the place where it has been trained to linger: the hero’s journey of men.”
Those of us who study modernism have also been, perhaps, trained to linger on the hero’s journey of men. The contours of the field early on, indeed, were shaped by such hero’s journeys. Paul Saint-Amour, in the introduction to the special issue of Modernism/modernity on “weak theory,” casts these contours as explicitly masculinist, writing that we have “equated” modernism with “warrior masculinity” and that the “heroic ‘men of 1914’ script likely compounded baseline cultural and institutional prejudices in effacing” women writers and others. Recovery work has raised up silenced or unheard voices, even as the value placed on those voices and that work by the structures of prestige and power that define academia is sometimes measured in coffeespoons. Rai Peterson, in arguing that we should attend to how women modernists like Nancy Cunard and Hope Mirrlees speak back to T. S. Eliot, has pointed out that “[r]eaders . . . [still] believe that Eliot’s work speaks definitively for its age.” It matters who gets to speak and who does not, and for whom, and how we hear what they say. In engaging the topic of this roundtable, I’m coming from the perspective of someone who has devoted her career to undergraduate teaching, and who has thought a lot about feminist pedagogy and gender and sexuality in the classroom and in academe. In reading “The Waste Land” in the context of #MeToo, what space might students as well as emerging critics find for their own voices? Can they speak back to certain voices—and thus ways of reading—that dominate? Or are those voices—and ways of reading—silencing in their very volume?
For this two-part installment of Process, I asked eight scholars who had just finished a book—their first or their fourth—to write informally about their experience. Conferences often feature roundtables about writing and publishing, but I thought it might be a good addition to have some personal anecdotes, stories less attached to the mechanics of the industry and more to the quiddities of the book-writing process. A book might arrive as an artifact, but it begins as a dream or a compulsion or a hunch. No review or reading, however generous, does justice to the messiness of the life that seals itself into the final object of the book, as though in anticipation of the spell that may someday release it. The intent here is not so much to demystify as to re-enchant.