The students in my Gender Studies class could freely choose the subject of their paper and I have ended up marking five (out of twenty-five) on Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). In parallel, I have been asked to peer-review two articles submitted to journals on the same topic. Even a proposal for a TFM dissertation.
Curiously, although the renewed interest in Atwood’s dystopian classic is due to Bruce Miller’s series (first season, 2017) for the streaming service Hulu, none of these articles nor the dissertation proposal, refer to it as an relevant trigger for new academic work. First issue, then, that calls my attention: the way in which all these budding academics hesitate to connect novel and series (it seems that if you deal with one, then you don’t deal with the other).
Second issue, the total absence of any comments on the quite good 1990 film version of The Handmaid’s Tale directed by Volker Schlöndorf, with Natasha Richardson as Offred and Aidan Quinn as Nick, based on a screenplay by a Nobel prize winner, illustrious playwright Harold Pinter. This film did generate some academic attention because of Pinter’s contribution but it’s worrying me very much to see how cinema is being neglected these days in favour of TV, even within academic circles in the Humanities.
Third issue, and this is my main issue today: the constant rediscovery of the academic wheel… Here we go.
One of the most beautiful feelings a reader can enjoy is the discovery of a text that becomes a significant landmark in one’s development. If you’re a student, or a professional academic, and you may choose what to focus on in your work, this joy of new discovery often becomes the foundation for papers, articles and even books. I have never ever believed in the phallacy that Literary Studies should be objective since all work within them begins with the process of falling in love with a text–and other sentimental variations, such as falling out of love with a text or hating it. Something mysterious happens and suddenly you do know that, sooner or later, you have to write about this or that text, and then proper research begins.
In Literary Studies ‘proper research’ means entering into a dialogue with your predecessors, those who also expressed their sentimental attachment in the sophisticated jargon of academia (for we’re not… irrational fans… or are we?). If you fall in love with a recent text, then the obvious problem is that there might not be any predecessors. In that case, you need to write a list of keywords and see who has contributed something indispensable in each area of interest. For instance, one of my TFG/BA dissertation tutorees has fallen in love with a new film adaptation, Call Me by Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, 2017, written by James Ivory, based on the 2007 eponymous novel by André Aciman). His dissertation will be among the first academic works devoted to this very well-received film and, so, he’ll have to compile a bibliography with sources that deal more generally with the representation of gay men in cinema, and the theory of film adaptation.
This student had also fallen in love with Mercutio in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and although there is not that much published on this ambiguous character, we decided that mastering the huge bibliography on this ultra-famous play would be a too tall order at this level. Besides, my student quickly found out that what he had to say about Mercutio had been covered by other scholars and, so, he decided to embrace the chance to make an original contribution. This does not mean that you should not write about Shakespeare. I have indeed tutored a TFG on Romeo’s masculinity and written myself a long piece about Antonio’s love of Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice (https://ddd.uab.cat/record/132012). It simply means that if you feel an unstoppable love for a classic, you need to brace yourself for a long struggle to acquire an acceptably solid idea of all the relevant bibliography.
Here is, however, the problem: what is ‘relevant bibliography?’ I usually tell my students that their bibliographies should be properly updated and that, ideally, they should cover the period from 1990 to the present. That’s twenty-eight years!! Already a lot… Of course, I also tell them that they may quote from any source previous to 1990, provided this is absolutely relevant or an academic classic (Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, 1975). In practice, however, what happens is that most pre-1990s gets a blanket dismissal, and I won’t even mention how awfully neglected anything written before 1980 is, unless it is by a really big name like Michel Foucault or Raymond Williams. F.R. Leavis, anyone? Northrop Frye?
In the specific case of The Handmaid’s Tale this poses a singular problem, as I have seen in the work I have marked or assessed. The novel was published in 1985 and, as the MLA database shows, 24 authors wrote about this text before 1990, beginning with Michele Lacombe’s article “The Writing on the Wall: Amputated Speech in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale” (1986). The MLA database offers 199 registers for the period 1990-99, then 72 for 2000-9 and 41 since then; you can see the curve here: climbing up to 1999, then going down, then up again. Someone should look into these fluctuations and the reasons for them beyond my sketchy approach here.
Anyway, back to my point: what the 24 initial commentators said cannot be dismissed because they set the foundations for the critical approach to Atwood’s text, and covered all the main issues: feminism, dystopia, post-apocalyptic narrative, politics, speech manipulation, religion, puritanism, nature vs. nurture, even ironic autobiography and the epistolary nature of this novel. Naturally, this doesn’t exhaust The Handmaid’s Tale, as the many subsequent essays on it show. What I mean, rather, is that if you wish to write today about the dystopian nature of Gilead, the fundamentalist Republic that deprives women of all their rights in Atwood’s novel, you do need to take into account what the first authors to tackle the subject had to say. Even more so because this was criticism contemporary to the book’s publication and will give you a clear context for it.
What happens if you neglect the 1980s sources? Well, you may end up de-contextualizing the novel. It is certainly true that the 2017 television series indirectly comments on the dictatorial style of new President Donald Trump. However, the novel was published in a decade dominated by Ronald Reagan’s administration, when Christian fundamentalism, the dying but still vicious Communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe, and Iran’s radical Islamist revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini were very much in the author’s mind. As I’m sure the 1980s academic work stresses. This doesn’t mean that you cannot read The Handmaid’s Tale, novel, against the context of the early 21st century, as, say, Baz Luhrman’s film adaptation reads Romeo and Juliet for 1993, rather than 1593. Yet, just as no Shakespeare scholar would ever neglect the 1590s context, you cannot neglect the 1980s context.
Besides, you run the risk of reinventing the academic wheel… which consists of presenting as new arguments which others have already presented decades ago and that, are, in addition, obvious. If you’re lucky enough to be the first one to tackle academically a given text, then you can deal with the basics: The Handmaid’s Tale connects with the dystopian tradition. But if you approach a text thirty-two years after its publication, then the obvious is not an option. Again: of course you can write about dystopia in Atwood’s novel but not as if you were the first one to do so. Understood? So, yes, it is necessary to consider academic work published before 1990 in the particular case of Atwood’s novel to avoid reinventing the academic wheel.
Now I’m going to destroy my own argument…
What should we do with much older texts? I’m going back to Romeo and Juliet, with 1411 registers in the MLA database for work published between 1900 and 2017. And this is only because the registers begin with the 20th century… So, supposing I’m working on Shakespeare’s allusions to Queen Mab, should I take into account W.P. Reeves’s pioneering essay, published in Modern Language Notes (1902)? How about the 27 academic publications about this play from the 1940s? Is anyone quoting them? Should my student have started work with Leslie Hotson’s “In Defence of Mercutio” (Spectator, 8 August 1947: 168-169)? How long would his bibliography be in that case? Is this the reason why we tend to begin bibliographies in 1990? To limit our work?
Perhaps if we read early Shakespearian scholarship we might be dismayed to find that all has been said and that we reinvent the academic wheel every few years, as long as academic generations last. I was myself a second-year undergrad student when The Handmaid’s Tale was published, which means I am old enough to have a personal memory of all its academic trajectory; this is why I’m warning the current generation that they should be prepared to go beyond their own time. But, then, no teachers currently active were employed before 1975, right? And, anyway, the conceptual revolutions of the early 1990s, when apparently all current methodologies were invented, means that this is own our operative chronological barrier. 1990 is already beginning to seem too long ago to begin a bibliography on Romeo and Juliet, with 879 MLA registers since that year… Should we start in 2000? Is this good scholarship or bad?
To sum up, then, we’re constantly reinventing the academic wheel, perhaps not at all advancing but moving in circles. Yet, I still think that one should try to enter a dialogue with the inventors of each wheel if they are historically close to us… and the final bibliography is manageable… and we’re not offending any scholar still active by neglecting their work.
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