New Close Readings
- Parminder Kaur Bakshi (Author)
Distant Desire: Homoerotic Codes and the Subversion of the English Novel in E.M. Forster's Fiction. Peter Lang Publishing Group (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Joseph Allen Boone (Author)
Libidinal Currents: Sexuality and the Shaping of Modernism. University of Chicago Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Scott S. Derrick (Author)
Monumental Anxieties: Homoerotic Desire and Feminine Influence in 19th-Century U.S. Literature. Rutgers University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Stephen Guy-Bray
These three books demonstrate that what can loosely be described as queer theory has changed subtly but significantly in the last few years. Much of the earlier work in queer literary studies either concentrated on theoretical issues to the virtual exclusion of literary analysis or attempted to deal with all literature since the dawn of time. While both kinds of text can be useful, books like these three combine theoretical acumen with detailed and perceptive close readings of a manageable number of literary texts.
Parminder Kaur Bakshi’s book is that now relatively unpopular kind of literary book, the single-author study. Her thesis is that the traditional account of the role of homoeroticism in Forster’s novels—which says that except in the case of Maurice, which was not published in his lifetime, Forster shied away from expressing his homoeroticism—is an oversimplification. Bakshi sets out to demonstrate that although Forster was indeed conscious (and perhaps too conscious) of the obvious need for discretion, he nevertheless managed to find ways to present homoerotic themes and incidents in virtually all of his novels.
This may not seem a startling revelation in itself, but what is remarkable about Bakshi’s approach is her very careful and sensitive investigation of Forster’s strategies of concealment and revealment. Working with Forster’s correspondence, his diary, and the evidence of his revisions as well as with the published novels themselves (and, in the case of Maurice,with the revised manuscript), Bakshi gives us a valuable and interesting picture both of the problems homophobia poses for a queer writer like Forster and of the strategies he developed in order to achieve, if not honesty, then at least a nuanced dishonesty.
Bakshi is thorough in her discussion of the novels, but I did think it somewhat odd that there was very little discussion of the short stories. Her book would have profited from an extended comparison of Forster’s approach in what we could call the closeted novels and in a quite explicitly homoerotic short story like "The Obelisk." This is a minor objection, of course. Bakshi’s book is clear, persuasive, and well-written. It should be very useful to anyone who teaches Forster. For me, its chief interest lies in its perceptive analysis of the strategies by which homoerotic desire is kept at a certain distance from texts and readers it might otherwise disturb.
In this respect, Distant Desire should be very useful to all scholars as an investigation of what Lee Edelman has called homotextuality.
Scott S. Derrick’s Monumental Anxieties is about what could be described as the struggle over the ownership of American literature at a crucial period in its history. Derrick says that in the nineteenth-century, literature became increasingly an industry and, perhaps even more importantly, one of the primary means by which "Americanness" was asserted and by which the United States demonstrated its greatness as a nation. He points out that literature’s rise in status meant that it became more and more a man’s profession. While women writers tended to sell a great deal more, male writers could console themselves with the thought that they were the real artists. From almost the beginning, then, American literature has defined itself as a male industry to a greater degree than English literature has.
The conflict between masculinity and femininity in American literature has of course been extensively documented; Derrick’s emphasis is on the ambivalent nature of the most famous nineteenth-century American writers’ attitudes towards women. Writers like Hawthorne and Poe were simultaneously attracted by and frightened of the power of the feminine. The ambivalence of these writers is intensified and paralleled, Derrick suggests, by their ambivalence towards homoeroticism. And, although Derrick does not mention this, it seems to me that both were aggravated by their uneasy awareness that being a writer is not a particularly manly thing to do in a country which acquired new frontiers almost every month.
After a brief introduction, Derrick’s book has three sections (one on Hawthorne and Poe, one on James, one on Sinclair and Stephen Crane) and ends with a discussion of The Great Gatsby. The introduction, which presents literary and historical contexts for his analysis, is the strongest part of the book and is followed by an interesting discussion of The Scarlet Letter.The other close readings vary greatly in quality. His analyses of The Wings of the Dove and The Jungle seem particularly weak, although the section on Crane is fascinating. Perhaps a more serious criticism is that most of the analyses do not really work together. The book appears to be a collection of essays, some only quite tangentially related to each other, rather than a cohesive analysis. The sort of analysis which characterizes the introduction does not, to my regret, characterize the rest of the book.
Derrick’s choice of texts struck me as peculiar, particularly since some consideration of American poetry of the period would have fit in very well with his analysis, especially given poetry’s increasingly anomalous gender status in nineteenth-century America. An extended discussion of female novelists and short story writers of the period would also have helped him support his argument. The comments he does make on Willa Cather and Edith Wharton, for instance, are perceptive and would have been worth developing. But although the book is ultimately less than the sum of its parts, many of the individual discussions are incisive and his theoretical points should help to stimulate further the already lively discussion about femininity and American literature.
Joseph Allen Boone’s Libidinal Currents is the most immediately engaging of these three books, mainly because Boone has a genuinely charming style. And it’s just as well, since this is a very big book. The subject is big too: the role of sexuality in modernist fiction (once again, no poetry). The currents to which the title refers are the constantly changing forms of sexuality and textuality which Boone follows in novels ranging from Villette to The Golden Notebook, although most of the book is concerned with texts from the twenties and thirties. Boone begins by discussing his title and the other titles he thought of giving his book in a section called "Working Propositions: Both Sides of the Colon." Anyone who has ever had to think of titles will find this section fascinating. I must admit that I thought it was strange, in a book on sexuality, that Boone did not comment on his collocation of "propositions" and "colon."
Villette may seem an unusual choice for a book on modernism, but I found Boone’s discussion of it as a modernist—or, at least, proto-modernist—text entirely convincing. Boone’s choices are generally somewhat unusual, except for such conventional modernist texts as Ulysses, Mrs Dalloway, and Absalom, Absalom (how horrified the authors would be by this categorization). I tended to find Boone at his very best with the lesser-known works such as Nugent’s "Smoke, Lilies, and Jade" and Stead’s still underrated masterpiece The Man Who Loved Children. Many readers may find the ending of the book anticlimactic, since it deals with The Alexandria Quartet and The Golden Notebook, but Boone reminds us that these were both seen originally as great novels and he relates them very skilfully to his discussion as a whole (the section on Lessing’s homophobia was particularly satisfying).
Boone’s (and everyone else’s) contention that sexuality changes from place to place and from time to time informs the book as a whole. Unfortunately, however, he only rarely discusses the social and historical contexts of the works he analyzes. In particular, I would have appreciated some discussion of the obvious parallels between a writer like Woolf, whose panoptic authorial gaze is far more powerful and dominating than the very restricted knowledge (usually called omniscience) of the Victorian novelists, and the techniques of surveillance and observation which have played such a role in the formation of modern sexualities.
The scholars quoted on the back cover of Libidinal Currents herald the book as the return of close reading. All three books demonstrate the continued good health of close reading as a critical practice and show that close reading can be theoretically as well as technically sophisticated, although only Boone comments explicitly on this point. In this respect, these books can serve as models for other scholars with similar aims as well as being a useful introduction for those scholars still trying to catch up with developments in queer theory.
- La Vie Bohème by Julie Beddoes
Books reviewed: Scribes and Scoundrels by George Galt and In the Wings by Carole Corbeil
- Lives of Girls by Julie Beddoes
Books reviewed: Bread, Wine and Angels by Anna Zurzolo and Fox's Nose by Sally Ireland
- Reflections of the Rock by Bryan N. S. Gooch
Books reviewed: Submariner's moon by Don McNeill, Rare Birds by Edward Riche, and Gaff Topsails by Patrick Kavanagh
- Those Voices Speaking Now by Neil Querengesser
Books reviewed: Rudy Wiebe: Collected Stories, 1955-2010 by Rudy Wiebe
- Moore's Catholicism by Ross Labrie
Books reviewed: Landscapes of Encounter: The Portrayal of Catholicism in the Novels of Brian Moore by Liam Gearon
MLA: Guy-Bray, Stephen. New Close Readings. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #159 (Winter 1998), Gay and Lesbian Writing in Canadian Literature. (pg. 161 - 163)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.