Dear diligent-ish followers,
Today marks the premiere of a semi-regular feature in these pages: the Lazy Scholar Interview. Each entry asks scholars of American culture a series of questions about the books, resources, and trends that inspire, excite, distract, or vex them—often at the same time.
With that flourish, I’m pleased to introduce the first scholar under scrutiny: Tania Modleski, Professor of English at University of Southern California. Professor Modleski may be best known for her 1982 book, Loving With a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women, which brilliantly re-reads harlequin romances and soap operas through feminist and psychoanalytic theory, with an index ranging from Adorno to The Young and the Restless. She followed that book up with The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory; Feminism Without Women: Culture and Criticism in a “Postfeminist” Age; and Old Wives’ Tales: Feminist Re-visions of Film and Other Fictions, among many other works.
Her essay, “Clint Eastwood and Male Weepies,” featured in the latest issue of American Literary History, offers a glimpse at her newest project. Nimbly connecting Million Dollar Baby and Freud’s theory of melancholia, the article looks at the manly melodrama—in Modleski’s words, “those movies featuring a strong, stoic type whose sorrow lurks under the surface but who is wept over by other characters and by the audience.”
What digital resources do you rely on, or would you recommend?
Still a neophyte in online research. But OED online comes in handy.
What is the best research and/or writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
I can’t remember the best, but I do remember the worst—from a senior colleague who advised me to go with a tiny press that was interested in publishing my dissertation as a book. The book’s title became Loving With a Vengeance. When it came time for tenure, some faculty questioned the worth of a book not published with a major press. The senior colleague who advised me to go with the small press, “The Shoe String Press” (the name says it all), asked me at tenure time why I didn’t go with a larger press—apparently she had forgotten her earlier advice. I was devastated. I don’t mean this anecdote to reflect badly on The Shoe String Press, which was very good to me within the limits of its ability to market the book.
What advice would you give someone working on their dissertation?
Choose a topic that you love, love, love. It’s better to write a good book on a subject you are passionate about than a mediocre book tailored primarily for the job market.
How does your teaching connect to your research?
I often teach the works I write about at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Of course, at the graduate level the students are also required to read a great deal of theory.
Name one book or article published before 1970 that has inspired or haunted you?
The Golden Notebook, a novel by Doris Lessing published in 1962, inspired a generation of women. For me personally, it provoked such rage against men that I had to break up with someone after continually pointing out how he acted just like Lessing’s male characters. I do not teach this novel, however, because I would be in danger of flunking my male students.
Name the last book or article you read to inspire or haunt you.
It was published a while ago, but as my recent article shows, the book that has most inspired me is Juliana Schiesari’s The Gendering of Melancholia. It’s a book about how male loss is dealt with in literature (it also applies to films) in a way that elevates men’s pathos at the expense of women and minorities whose grief is appropriated by the male melancholic. The very term “melancholy” has a grandeur about it which is denied women, whose sorrows are generally written off as mere “depression.” Schiesari’s work has been and will continue to be influential in my writing about such figures as Clint Eastwood.
What do you see as the most annoying tendency in contemporary scholarship?
What has long annoyed me is the tendency of popular-culture scholars to use terms like “progressive” or “regressive.” As I wrote long ago, I think we should not (or not simply) seek to justify any cultural text we happen to be fans of (romances, tv shows, etc.) in terms of our own politics—feminist, Marxist, or what have you. There is often a faulty syllogism at work in cultural criticism that goes something like this: I enjoy The Real Housewives of New Jersey; I am a feminist; therefore the program must be feminist). Better to admit we are all cultural dupes rather than to say that no one is a cultural dupe.