16th November 2016 | Robyn Pritzker.
From the moment fledgling researchers begin their independent work, the academic chorus rings out from all directions that their primary task is to find and fill in the various blanks spread throughout critical material. It is to contribute something new to scholarly discourse. Graduate students often struggle endlessly to find a way to make their work more unique, more interesting, and less like everyone else’s.
Often the dilemma we face is that if our ideas are not novel enough, we must not belong and we may never succeed. We are always encouraged to be innovative; we are asked of our projects, “why is this different?” We compare and contrast our ideas with those who have come before us in a way that can often be frightening and overwhelming. So what happens when we stumble into a gap that only exists because certain material is not well-liked or even hated? How do we reconcile the drive to be original and innovative with our interest in works ignored or slated by nearly everyone else to come across them?
After spending a few years attempting to be creative and unorthodox in the treatment of Victorian literary studies, a topic area largely considered well-documented and analysed, over the course of my doctoral research I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of researching unpopular material. This is not to say that my research has made any astonishing new discoveries that will change the face of nineteenth century studies forever, but is rather a testament to the fact that some literary topics and figures (the ones I happen to be studying) have been considered unpleasant and disinteresting by most of those who have encountered them.
Last month I had the opportunity to work in an archive housing the biggest collection in the world of materials on the women I research (five shelves of letters and assorted materials), who are known primarily for their unpopularity and their positions in the shadow of celebrated male relatives. The letters I was reading were full of information that I never thought I would find, and there were boxes upon boxes of scrapbooks containing manuscripts of short stories I had never known existed. Nothing I was reading had been mentioned in any of the work I’d read so far: indeed, not even the comprehensive biographies I’d waded through had paid any attention to the particular items I found. How could all this material have gone unreported for so long? Had those who used the archive before me just skimmed the small handwritten lines looking for the names of the more famous men associated with these women? Were these women so unpopular that I was really the only one invested in their short stories, letters, and travel writings? As I left the archives and faced the prospect of incorporating the wealth of information I’d discovered into my thesis, I realised I had no supplementary work left to guide me, or to give me clues about processing what I’d found. The cone of disinterest surrounding this small section of literary history (acting identically to a cone of invisibility) meant that if I wanted to see any critical discourse on the items I’d found, I would have to start the conversation and find an appropriate framework through which to do so. This was something I’d never been taught how to do. I had quickly gone from being a new academic, hoping to find the all-important gap in the field, to a slightly-less-new academic struggling wildly to close the gap between my work and the material surrounding it.
[Photograph is my own, courtesy of Silverado Museum, St. Helena, CA.]
In the world of literary academia, researchers have the odd perspective of being both fascinated by narratives and storytelling, and of being expected to craft our own tales with skill and eloquence. What, then, happens when the stories we want to tell are about people, books, and narratives that have escaped the interest of everyone else who has come across them? What do we do to liven up material so little cared for that most or all other scholars have glossed over it? Where does our material fit when it hasn’t been hiding undiscovered, but instead has been freely available and actively ignored for years and years?
Within the first pages of the very topical The New Nineteenth Century: Feminist Readings of Underread Victorian Fiction, Barbara Leah Harman and Susan Meyer acknowledge that, ironically, one of the trends holding scholars back from new perspectives is a lack of motivation to read Victorian fiction in quantity rather than quality for fear of wasting time on that which has not been critically acclaimed. The boring, unpopular, and unsuccessful comprises most of the fiction ever produced, and not writing about it, or its creators, leaves us in the dark about a large part of society’s interaction with fiction and even print at large. In the process of trying to find new and innovative material to research, much emphasis is placed on either reinventing the wheel, so to speak, and finding something new to say about heavily-studied works, or discovering a brand new topic nobody has yet explored.
I would suggest that the bigger and more illuminating gaps are in our underappreciation for that which is slated, that which is considered dull, unimportant, or unpopular. Indeed, as one might imagine, reading critically marginalised works and studying critically marginalised writers opens up our awareness of how print culture has more generally marginalised certain groups of people. If we hope to continue making strides towards a better understanding of how literature has shaped our culture in both theory and praxis, we ought to consider shifting our priorities from filling in the gaps in the field to uncovering our own blind spots and teaching others how to do the same.
Robyn is a graduate of McGill University and the University of Edinburgh. Her research involves the Victorian print trade, women, authorship, and digital humanities. Otherwise, Robyn is an avid ghost story reader with heterochromia and a penchant for the outdoors.
Article edited by Matthew Tibble.
 Harman, Barbara Leah., and Susan Meyer. The New Nineteenth Century: Feminist Readings of Underread Victorian Fiction. New York: Garland Pub., 1996. Print. xiii.