New Styles for Criticism: An Interview with Jeff Dolven

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Last year, the poet and critic Jeff Dolven published two books. The first, Senses of Style, examines the ambiguity of style through a nuanced study of the poets Frank O’Hara and Sir Thomas Wyatt. It is the work of ten years of writing, editing, and rewriting. The second, Take Care, is a novella-length reflection on notions of care in art, ethics, and language. It is the work of twenty-four hours.

Both books, while seemingly different, reach outside their expected audiences and ask that we pay attention to their processes. Both are exquisite and articulate contributions to their fields. While Senses of Style was released by a traditional academic publisher, University of Chicago Press, Take Care came out through Cabinet magazine as part of their twenty-four-hour book series and includes such addenda as a time-stamped list of everything Dolven ate during the writing process.

I sat down with Dolven, who is Professor of English Literature at Princeton University, to discuss the work behind each book and the space he negotiates between experimental and scholarly writing.

Maybe you could start by talking about Cabinet’s twenty-four-hour project, and how yours, which you titled Take Care, came about?

Cabinet has always experimented with the habitus of intellectual exchange—I remember when I first went to an event there, it was a conversation between two scholars perched in tall wooden chairs like lifeguards or tennis umpires. Cabinet’s “Failure” issue was cut at an angle so it leaned forward on the shelf. A great joke if you got it, but a disaster for the magazine since so many were returned as defective.

The twenty-four-hour books are in this tradition. The idea is that the author is locked in a room for a full day, carefully tended, fed, and provided with editorial and research assistance, but truly locked in, and required to produce a book within that time span. And not only is the book written, but it is also edited and formatted and designed and everything is sent to the publisher at the twenty-four-hour mark.

When we first started doing the series, I thought I wanted nothing of it myself, because I’m a hedonistic writer. I like to enjoy writing, and I do everything in my power to arrange things so that when I’m doing it, I’m having a good time; which also means, enough time. But after the magazine did a few, I was asked and couldn’t resist. The excitement of the project comes from the category confusion between the humanistic monograph and the daily paper. What does it mean to take someone who’s accustomed to slow writing, about slow topics, and extract a book at the speed of news?

Once I came to be persuaded that it would be a fun thing to do, Sina Najafi, the editor, set it up so that my work would be simultaneous with the writing of a parallel book by the artist Sally O’Reilly in London. I would be working in Brooklyn starting at 7 am and Sally would start at 12 pm in London and we would both write around the clock.

Was it demanding?

Well, yes, and the demands began with the prompt. Twenty-four hours before we were to start, Sina sent both of us the 1986 catalog for the Braintree Scientific Corporation, a company that produces equipment for testing lab animals. The image that you see first in the interior of the book is the cover of that catalog and I think that’s what first caught Sina’s eye—a folk-art Botticelli Venus de Milo, with the role of Venus assumed by a coy lab rat.

So I got this catalog of devices for the containment and torture of rats on my desk with twenty-four hours to work out what to say. It’s not a topic I had thought about in any systematic way before—it wasn’t as though Sina knew I had an antecedent interest in animal rights and hence would be a good person to do this. It is a subject about which I think it is safe to say I had not, and still have not, thought about enough. Suddenly I was thinking about it in a deliberately desperate rush.

The direction you took was to focus on the notion of “care.” Was that something you had thought about before?

I hadn’t thought about it in a modern context, but I had considered care and its contingent relationship to ethics in writing about Spenser’s Faerie Queene—the mother of all poems for me, for better or worse. As far as I can tell, there’s nothing I’m interested in that can’t be found in The Faerie Queene. There is a curious phenomenon there of evil characters getting hurt, and other evil characters trying to help them, generously, compassionately, carefully. In a poem that is allegorically organized around the binary of good and evil, it is quite disorienting to find these small pockets of kindness among the bad guys. Spenser seems to be asking whether care has anything to do with moral good at all.

The most immediate connection to the Braintree catalog would be “care” of the rats themselves, and I think many readers would expect a book like yours to go in the direction of animal studies. But you quickly go on to explore some more interesting angles, such as the care taken making that initial cover for the 1986 catalog—artisanal care. Did the writing process prompt you to think about the kind of care you take for your own work?

I certainly wanted to think about the relationship between sympathetic care, care for injury, on the one hand; and fastidious, craftsmanly care, care for one’s work, on the other. I’m always interested in what Empson calls “complex words.” “Style” is one of those—I’ve thought a lot about style these last ten years, and wrote a book about it—and “care” immediately struck me as another. Why do we use the same word both for fastidiousness, which can be quite impersonal and detached from its objects, and also for the sympathetic attentions of caretaking, where there’s a very intimate felt bond between the caretaker and the caretaken? What’s at stake in the relationship between those two versions of care?

You write a lot about the ad copy in the catalog, such as when it urges the consumer to take proper care of his or her purchase. As if the lab equipment is deserving of the same kind of care as rats.

Exactly. You might use the word in order to displace one sort of care with another, as though they were morally equivalent; as though to be a careful steward of your equipment were equivalent to caring for the sufferers around you.

When you encountered the catalog, did you feel any sort of nostalgia for the era in which it was written? Could you sense 1986 through the copy?

Yes, certainly through the typography and the character and quality of the black-and-white images. But nostalgia is an interesting word to use. The 1986 catalog does have a slight cottage-industry or amateur feel to it. You get the sense that this is an enterprise run by real people, who are kind of blundering along through the ethical dilemmas they make for themselves, as opposed to a corporation assessing its risks and positioning itself to mitigate them. So I have some sense of nostalgia, perhaps, for the amateurism of it—though that likely had little to do one way or another with what things were like for the rats.

At the beginning of Take Care, there is a photo of you in the room where you wrote, and at the end, there is a time-stamped list of food and drinks you consumed over the twenty-four hours. It’s funny, but also helps humanize the process a little bit by peeling away the curtain, in a sense. Do you think more of that kind of thing could be done in traditional publishing?

With respect to the experiments at Cabinet, a lot of their interest and quizzical utility comes from their surprise. No one knew quite what to make of those tall chairs, least of all the good professors stuck up there trying to have a conversation. A few years ago, I did a public discussion with Wayne Koestenbaum at Cabinet on sleep and poetry, in a bunk bed: Wayne was in the bottom bunk and I was in the top bunk, we were in our pajamas, Sina brought milk and cookies, and it was all very dark. It was great.

But does that mean we need more academics in bunk beds? That we should break up our seminar tables for firewood? I don’t think so. There are so many unapologetic, straight-up academic books that I love and value, and the world where they are the norm seems to me likely to be a better world than the one where it’s all bunk beds and mis-cut magazines. The experiments would get tedious, and if you decided that they were a primary mode, you’d have lost the depth and rigor that a discipline imparts. I’m always trying to encourage students to experiment—but I do feel there is a dialectical relationship between experimental freedom and disciplinary knowledge, and discipline is still the properly dominant term. Much of what I do depends upon the patience and work and acumen of scholars who can’t be said to have been experimenting in any formal way, yet still made something that I could not and would not want to do without.

Maybe this is a good point to transition to your last book, which came out almost simultaneously with Take Care and is highly inventive in its own right. I can imagine you may have still been putting the finishing touches on Senses of Style as you were participating in the twenty-four hour experiment . . .

It’s true. That they came out simultaneously is a wonderful irony, one the work of twenty-four hours and the other the work of ten years.

Could you talk a little bit about how you structured Senses of Style?

I had the idea early on that it should be done in short sections, short remarks, condensed and even aphoristic, and that it should follow the lives and thoughts of two poets, Frank O’Hara and Sir Thomas Wyatt. I saw that in a flash one morning and it felt right. But it took a lot of labor to realize that initial notion, and I worried more than once that I had set out on the wrong road and would never make it work.

Why did you choose to structure the book in fragments?

One answer is that I wanted to write a book that you had to read. I don’t think I’d quite formulated it that way at the outset—but it’s essential to my training to know how not to read a book and still know what it says. Every academic learns that at some point. It’s a survival skill in a world of so much scholarship. If you do it well, then you know exactly where to go and where to get what you need from any given codex. No need to turn all the pages.

But Senses of Style is a book that does not readily tell you where its heart lies. You cannot read the last paragraph of the introduction and then read strategic sentences here and there in order to discern the skeleton of the argument. The claims are partly dispersed, and partly they consist in the dispersion itself. I hope that it is pleasurable to read, in some ways even easy to read, but you do have to read it.

You have this line in the book: “A philosophy that believes in changing minds by argument once and for all need not cultivate a style, it may but it need not. A philosophy that understands itself as a therapy for intransigent habits of mind cannot do without style, may even consist in style.”

Would you consider Senses of Style an example of the latter?

It certainly dreams of being that. That is the area of its highest aspirations.

Apart from a tendency to skim or go directly to the heart of books, are there other intransigent habits of mind that you were thinking about?

Wittgenstein was an important if impossible model for me, his project of ongoing therapy for essentialisms of all kinds, where essentialism is understood to be dependent upon a basically referential theory of language. That is, if there is a word, there must be something to which that word refers, something concrete—a slab or a color or by extension a race or a religion or the blood in your veins. To think about style the way I have tried to is to query such essentialisms, and to move toward an understanding of experience that is rich not because of the depths beneath it, but because of the sophistication of the surfaces, how we read them and what we read in them.

So, when I encounter you, you or any other you, it will sometimes be useful to try to think deeply about what’s inside you or what makes you tick; to play the language game of interpretation, as Wittgenstein might say. But it may also work and may work better to think about who you look like, or who you look like you want to look like; where you come from, or where you look like you want to come from; and so on. In other words, the way you keep going in the world, the continuity of your gestures and actions. That’s a rather long-winded way of saying Senses of Style is a book that encourages us to look horizontally rather than vertically: to think about the consonances and dissonances, harmonies and disharmonies, that we enact or project in our sociability with one another, and in the extended sociability we have with books and paintings and poems and the rest.

Wonderfully put, and thank you for your time.