Since 1993, Jeffrey J. Williams has conducted over 50 interviews with contemporary critics, philosophers and writers. The Conversant is pleased to republish a selection of these interviews. This interview took place on October 1st, 2005 in Newark, Delaware, in the midst of a conference on reception study. It was conducted and edited by Jeffrey J. Williams and transcribed by Sean McCreery.
While deconstruction theorized difficulties of reading, Janice Radway talked to real readers about what they were doing. Her first book, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (University of North Carolina Press, 1984; new ed. 1991), is an innovative study of women who read romances and how they use them. Her second book, A Feeling For Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire (University of North Carolina Press, 1997), provides a cultural history of that book club as well as a personal account of literary taste. In 1998, Radway served as president of the American Studies Association (ASA), and her presidential address, “What’s in a Name?” (American Quarterly 51 (1999); reprinted in Pease and Wiegman, The Future of American Studies, 2003), posed an influential challenge to the hubris of the adjective, “American,” when we refer to literature or culture of the United States. More recently, Radway has co-edited volume 4 of A History of the Book in America, Print in Motion: The Expansion of Publishing and Reading in the United States, 1880-1945 (University of North Carolina Press, 2008) and American Studies: An Anthology (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009). Related to her current project on girl culture, she has published several essays, for instance “Zines, Half Lives and Afterlives” (PMLA 2011).
Born in 1949 in Englewood, New Jersey, Radway attended Michigan State University as an undergraduate, migrating to SUNY-Stony Brook for an MA before moving back to Michigan State for doctoral work (PhD, 1977). She worked with the prominent American historian Russel Nye, writing a dissertation on “A Phenomenological Theory of Popular and Elite Literature.” She first taught in the American Civilization department at the University of Pennsylvania, moving in 1989 to Duke University, where she chaired the Literature Program from 2003-9. In 2009, she moved to Northwestern University, where she is the Walter Dill Scott Professor of Communication Studies.
Jeffrey Williams: How did you come to do a project like Reading the Romance? I was surprised to learn that you were trained at Michigan State. I’m interested in careers and intellectual formation and was struck that you didn’t come through an Ivy route.
Janice Radway: I think it has to do with the institution that I was trained in, as well as with the particularities of the historical moment. I was actually trained in an American Studies concentration within an English department. I already had an MA when I did my PhD work (between ‘73 and ‘77). Theory had just come to the Michigan State English department, and I was, at that moment, intimidated by it, so I didn’t take classes with people like Evan Watkins, who the graduate students thought of as a young turk. I studied with Russel Nye, an eminent but self-proclaimed atheoretical social and cultural historian who had recently published The Unembarrassed Muse, an encyclopedic history of American popular culture. He encouraged me when I asked (I won’t call them theoretical) abstract questions about the difference between popular culture and elite culture, and urged me to attempt a theoretical dissertation. I can see now that it was much too ambitious a topic for a young scholar.
JW: Your dissertation was called “A Phenomenological Theory of the Differences Between Popular and Elite Literature.” Since you never published it, can you tell me the general line of argument?
JR: It’s completely different from what I eventually argued. I was working on the genre of the gothic and trying to think through the difference between popular and elite literature. At the same time, I had become very interested in phenomenology and the writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. I was interested in Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the difference between literary and empirical or ordinary language. My argument drew on his notion of empirical (as opposed to creative) language use to suggest that popular culture was formulaic rather than challenging. I’m reducing it, but the argument was not terribly surprising.
I was first hired by the University of Pennsylvania’s American Civilization department, which was very interested in the importance of popular culture. My eventual colleagues at Penn were opposed to what they called American Studies “connoisseurship,” that is, work that drew conclusions about American society from a reading of high culture. They were interested in social science methods; they were interested in questions that were socially and historically oriented. In fact, they were quite opposed to American Studies scholarship that made historical assertions about the historical moment on the basis of reading only Moby Dick, because they felt that Moby Dick was not representative of American culture at its moment. At the time, they were also interested in the concept of culture, so the basic course for graduate students focused on ethnography. There were different ethnographies—one focused on the South in the antebellum period, another on Pennsylvania Germans, another on the Mormons.
My colleagues asked me questions about my dissertation that were fundamentally different from the kinds of questions that I was asked at Michigan State. I realized very quickly that my dissertation was not publishable, that I wasn’t up to that kind of theoretical work without additional training and that the questions that I had asked were not very interesting. I spent a lot of time trying to retrain myself and to think about what I ought to do. It was the moment at which continental theory came to Penn in a big way. Barbara Herrnstein Smith was directing what was called the “semiotics seminar,” while Arjun Appadurai and many people in anthropology and history were involved in the “ethnohistory workshop.” Both seminars engaged some of the newest theoretical writing. In some ways, I was retrained by my colleagues in the American Civilization department and in these theory seminars. I began to read everything that was discussed in the seminars and drew on them for the work that I continued to do with popular romances. Penn was a place where there was a great deal of interdisciplinary work and cross-disciplinary fertilization. The people who attended the semiotics seminar were not all literary people, but came from the Annenberg School of Communication, from Spanish and French, from anthropology, from history and even from the various social-science departments. I think the diverse kinds of questioning this produced had an enormous impact on my work.
It was at this moment that I discovered reader response theory. I first picked up Wolfgang Iser, then discovered Stanley Fish, and then realized that, although they were asking interesting questions, they were not asking about what I called “real readers.” Of course, now I would call that category into question—it’s not easy to say simply what a real reader is. It was at this point though that I realized these theoretical approaches could be brought together with the questions that preoccupied my departmental colleagues, about what actually happens when people engage with various kinds of popular forms.
It was that conjunction that pushed me to inquire into how women actually read romances. My first effort was to write to people in the publishing industry and to travel to New York to find out what editors knew about romance readers. They were perfectly happy to have me come up there and talk to them, but they didn’t know very much. They claimed that what they did was “seat-of-the-pants publishing”; we have our own ideas, they told me, but we don’t do market research, and we can’t really tell you who reads these books. In 1980, this was still largely true. I was about to conclude that I couldn’t really study actual readers when one of those editors sent me a copy of an article that had appeared in a publishers’ newsletter, about the woman who eventually became Dot Evans. She worked at a mall bookstore and would advise people about good romances and bad romances. I wrote to her and said I’d love to talk. When she replied that she would be happy to, I really began Reading the Romance.
JW: I think first jobs are underestimated. If you read the sociology of professionalism, graduate school is a key moment, which of course is true, but I also think that first jobs can be as important as grad school.
JR: Yes, I think that’s right. Penn was a second graduate school for me, really, and I like to say that I got much of my education there.
JW: You mention in the new introduction to Reading the Romance that you were not aware of British cultural studies when you first wrote it. How would you see the book in relation to British cultural studies?
JR: I did not know of a field called “cultural studies.” I had encountered Stuart Hall, and even some early work by Pierre Bourdieu, because Russ Nye read everything. His own books were really social and cultural histories—The Unembarrassed Muse is really a compendium of information about popular literature and culture in the United States from 1750 on up to the 20th century. Still, he read any theoretical work he encountered. It was Russ who introduced me to both Hall’s and Bourdieu’s early work. When I look back on this now, it seems clear that these two writers had an enormous influence on me. At the same time, though, I think similar sorts of questions were beginning to be asked by many of us. Lots of people were asking a set of questions that older disciplinary practices couldn’t address. It’s a peculiar kind of historical convergence. I certainly would go so far as to say that I invented something similar to what was invented at Birmingham. I think a set of historical conditions moved the people at Birmingham in certain ways and those influences, being felt by many, moved me and others in similar directions.
There was a weird moment when I started teaching some of my early work for Reading the Romance and a graduate student who had studied at Birmingham informed me that I was doing cultural studies. I remember wondering what that was. Patrick—his name was Patrick Hagopian—had the Open University reader for Stuart Hall’s class.
JW: Really? Was it a photocopied packet?
JR: Yes, and I started reading it very carefully.
JW: What year was that?
JR: Well, Reading the Romance was about to be published, so it must have been ‘82 or ‘83. Right after that, I was introduced to Larry Grossberg as a result of a conference at USC at the Annenberg School of Communications there. Through him and his colleagues at Illinois I was introduced to cultural studies in the U.S. At that point, I read more of the Birmingham work and then a lot of the work that had influenced them.
JW: I’m curious about where you’d locate your politics. British cultural studies, especially in the beginning, was very much under the banner of Marxism. It’s obvious you believe there’s a political efficacy of texts, but it’s hard to see your approach as Marxist, and it does not talk especially about class.
JR: I think that’s true to a certain extent. I was struggling to address theoretical discourses at a moment where things were changing very quickly. I had not been trained in Marxist theory. Rather, I was most deeply influenced both personally and intellectually by feminism. Reading the Romance engages a set of questions that were specific to feminist discourse and the women’s movement. At that point I had not really engaged Marx or questions of class. I think one of the best reviews of Reading the Romance was done by Lauren Berlant, who pointed out that I hadn’t adequately engaged with the way romance reading was classed. I thought she was completely right. Still, despite the book’s failure to address class, I don’t think that amounts to it being apolitical.
JW: Part of the criticism might relate to the cultural studies debate about the political efficacy of consumption about whether there is an efficacy to consumption and whether consumers exercise political power through their choices.
JR: I suppose it relates to that but that also seems too simple, because it reduces what I think of as a very complex social event to either an act of ideological domination or an act of resistance. Reading has all kinds of significances attached to it, and one wouldn’t want to reduce the act of reading to the paradigm of consumption, which is this idea of simple ingestion. What I was trying to do was to articulate and give voice to a temporal process of reading where various kinds of desires and various kinds of ideas were raised that spoke indirectly about the conditions of women’s personal lives. Romance reading, it seemed to me, could be understood as a form of behavior that was taking up a very complex position toward patriarchy. So I was trying to disentangle a very complex event or interaction. I was trying to disentangle the threads that were woven together to produce certain subjective effects, because it seemed to me that if you could disentangle them you might identify a place of intervention, a place for conversation with someone in order to have an ability to promote the possibility of change.
JW: I want to ask you a question about method. Your method seems like a kind of cultural ethnography. How did you go about talking to the people you study?
JR: Well, you learn a lot of things on the job! I read a great deal on ethnomethodology. When I decided I needed to attempt to do ethnographic work, I read everything I could get my hands on to get a sense of what the problems might be. I constructed my own interview protocols and questions and used them to begin talking. But I learned very quickly—and this is something a beginning anthropology student knows how to identify—that there comes a moment when you realize you are asking the wrong questions. People look at you utterly perplexed. Then you know. At one point I kept asking, “What do romances ‘do’ better than other books available today?” I was thinking this was a question about the text itself, about the plot, characters or the story’s effects. I would get answers I couldn’t quite understand. Romance readers I was talking to would say to me, “Oh! It’s because I get so absorbed and no one bothers me.” I realized after a while that it was the role of that act of reading within their daily lives that was most important to them. That’s when I began to realize that the actual situation and act of reading had to be attended to first. Later I came around to the question of what the relationship was between the situation of reading and the actual text being read. There had to be some connection, although at first it wasn’t clear to me what that was. Still, they were reading romances rather than westerns, so it seemed important to connect the nature of the story to their need for privacy, nurturance and attention.
I learned quickly that there is a kind of tacking back-and-forth between the set of preconceptions and assumptions you go into the field with, and what you actually hear. Oftentimes, your informants are talking past you, because you’re coming from a very different position. Anthropologists write about this as the moment of translation or cultural contact, where you brush up against something that is really quite different, and you must try to adjust in order to hear.
JW: How many people did you talk to? It wasn’t a large-scale sociological survey but a smaller sampling?
JR: No, it wasn’t. Nor was it a true ethnography. I was very careful to call these ethnographic-like interviews. I was not living in the community, which would have made it a different study entirely. I only talked to about 40 people. I talked most extensively with my principal informant, Dorothy Evans. So it was a very small group.
JW: Is there any advice that you’d give to people who want to do this kind of project?
JR: I guess it would be: listen. You have to learn how to listen.
JW: How do you train yourself to listen?
JR: That’s a really good question. I’m not sure. Some people are better at it than others. I’m not sure why. It is a kind of imaginative practice, I think, because you have to try to throw yourself out of your own situation and imagine what the world would look like for a statement to be true. Perhaps the people who are better at it are those who enjoy the possibility of imagining themselves as other than they are.
Part of the reason I may have done this project or been captivated by ethnography was that I had a troubled and diffident relationship towards Penn. Having come from a non-Ivy League background, I could see things about the world I had fallen into, and I think a way of doing ethnography with these more familiar middlebrow people was getting back to a world that was more familiar to me.
JW: You went to Michigan State as an undergrad, and then you moved to Stony Brook for a year for an MA, and then you went back to Michigan State for your PhD. When you went to Michigan State for grad school, what were you intending to do?
JR: To make sense of that, I think I need to go back to my undergraduate years. I first studied with Russel Nye during my sophomore year. I had come out of a very middlebrow background and loved books and reading. I thought of myself as an English major, but didn’t aspire to a professional identity or position. I thought I was going to write as a journalist. In that sophomore year, I took Russ’s class on realism and naturalism, which met three days a week. He was working on The Unembarrassed Muse at that time and offered a special session that you could attend on Thursdays, where he would talk about the popular culture contemporaneous with literary realism and naturalism. I attended those sessions and was transfixed; I was not just transfixed by the subject matter but by his investment in the subject matter. I remember thinking, “You can actually aspire to this as a job. You might think of yourself as a teacher, as a professor even.” It sounds silly and naïve, but that really was the moment when I thought about a different future.
Russ became a kind of mentor to me even as an undergraduate. Eventually, I wrote a senior honors thesis that developed out of that class. I was fascinated by Dreiser—especially his relationship to popular culture—so I wrote an honors thesis on the novel An American Tragedy. I researched the local newspaper accounts of the trial that American Tragedy was based upon. Dreiser was reading those and drawing on them in the novel. I was interested in how he changed the facts of the case, how he altered some of the newspaper accounts to render the class differences more exaggerated. In that case, I was interested in class and class mobility, though I didn’t have a sophisticated enough vocabulary to discuss it.
So I went back to work with Russ because he was very encouraging. He was quite driven by ideas, but he wasn’t self-consciously training us to take up research positions in top-tier institutions. He was training people to be teachers who loved the material they were teaching. He was a voracious reader himself and passed on everything he knew. He was legendary for leaving notes, clippings and citations in his colleagues’ and students’ mailboxes almost every other day. In that way, he literally passed on his passion to all of us.
JW: Do you do that for your students?
JR: No, I don’t know how he had the time to do what he did. It was a different historical moment, perhaps, in terms of the life of the university. He certainly didn’t have to contend with email or with endless amounts of administrative tasks.
JW: I can see how it was an accident, something that you didn’t plan, but on the other hand, as A Feeling for Books makes clear, you were a reader, which is probably why a lot of people end up in English departments. How did you get the job at Penn?
JR: It was pretty strange. This is what I’ve been told: the department had a job in popular culture, and they were very interested in me because I was Russel Nye’s student. They knew him—he had been president of the American Studies Association and had won a Pulitzer Prize for one of his books. Because he was so eminent, they were willing to consider me. The department first offered the job to a person from another Ivy League school who was doing business history. When he declined, they turned to me. When I accepted, I had little idea of what I was getting into. I learned very quickly that Penn was a very different kind of environment.
JW: I can see how it could be both a blessing and a curse. It’s a job some people might envy, but one that must have had a lot of pressure.
JR: That’s true. It was pressured, but it also enabled me to learn a great deal. In fact, I think I was able to do Reading the Romance, because I didn’t know any better. I hadn’t been professionally disciplined too rigidly; I hadn’t been taught how to be cautious. I was intellectually excited by the new questions the department was asking of me, questions coming out of different disciplinary backgrounds about the meaning of social actions, about the idea of culture. At the same time I was listening to people talking about meaning, reading and interpretation from many different perspectives. I found this incredibly exhilarating. Because I hadn’t been taught to be cautious, I brought them together and was able to produce something that spoke to a lot of questions being raised at the time.
JW: It’s an interesting lesson as opposed to the usual professional advice.
JR: Yes. Although I can now see how all my work bears the marks of literary disciplinarity, I also feel that I didn’t internalize certain kinds of graduate school discipline.
JW: You were at Penn from ‘77 to ‘89. When we were talking earlier, you had mentioned that your tenure case was a little checkered.
JR: Yes, it was dicey, because Penn organized its tenure committee by discipline. There was a humanities panel and a social science panel, and because my manuscript was on popular literature it was not considered literary. Also, because I had done interviews, my case was assigned to the social science panel. Of course I didn’t know any of this first-hand at the time, but later I was told it was given to the social science panel. They sent the manuscript, as of course they would, to social scientists, who said this sample is not carefully constructed, this is not objective enough, this is not social science. And of course it wasn’t social science in that sense, so I was turned down for tenure.
Because I had a unanimous vote in my department, it was a shock to everyone, including me. I don’t think it proved personally devastating, though, partly because I was about to have a child and was really focused on that, so I was able to get through it. It’s another way in which your friendships and connections matter. The manuscript had not been printed yet (it was in the process of being produced at UNC Press), and I was told that, if there is new information, you can be brought up again the next year. My department was very interested in doing this. One of my letter writers was Jane Tompkins, whom I had met when I was giving early papers from Reading the Romance. She was working on what would become Sensational Designs, and we became friends because we were both interested in popular literature. At a certain point when I told Jane the story, I got up the courage to say, “When this is finally published, do you think you could get Stanley [Fish] to read it?” She said she’d try. And so Stanley did read it and, as I understand it, he then wrote a letter, they brought the case back up again in the fall, and that’s how it got through. Things were changing very quickly, so people were willing to make an argument for popular literature being taken seriously.
JW: It’s interesting that, in a way, your spending time on the culture of romances was your own opposition to Penn, similar to the way in which you argue that women read romances in opposition to their situations.
JR: In a way. What’s funny is that I had never read romances. The reason I wrote about the gothic in my dissertation was because I was part of a consciousness-raising group and was beginning to read the first works of feminist literary theory. I had just read Elaine Showalter’s book when I was trying to figure out what I was going to do for my dissertation. I was thinking that I would like to read some of this new feminist literary criticism, and thought, well, if I do gothic and if I do romances, I’ll have to engage with feminism.
JW: You moved to Duke in 1989. What has your Duke experience been like? It was famous for being the hotbed of theory during the Fish years, and what some people don’t recognize is that the English department is separate from the Literature Program, where you are. How did you end up at Duke?
JR: At the time, I was talking to people at Hopkins. Mary Poovey was there, and we were friends and interested in each others’ work. Then I got a call from Annabel Paterson telling me that Duke had a position in feminist theory or feminist studies in the Literature Program, and they wondered if I would come down. I remember telling Annabel, “I really like my job at Penn and I have no reason to move,” but she persuaded me that, “Unless you can categorically say you would never come, you should at least come and give a talk and check us out.” I went and it was very exciting. It was kind of amazing and weird to be giving a paper and have people like Stanley Fish and Jane Tompkins and Fred Jameson and Frank Lentricchia in the audience. It was incredibly intimidating and scary. I did not expect to be offered the job. They actually had a long list of people they were considering. Out of the blue, Fred called me and offered me the job. I did go through a period of indecision and couldn’t really decide what to do. I was probably seduced by the image of it all.
I have to say there was a moment when people said to me, “Well, I assume you want a joint appointment with Literature and English.” But having been in an American Studies department where people are pulled in many directions when they have joint appointments, I said, “No, why would I?” So I went to Literature, and I was the first person in Literature with a full-time appointment. Lit functioned for me in many ways as Penn did; it was an incredibly exciting place to be. Fred Jameson ran a program that was intellectually serious. Lit has always been about ideas. So I scrambled once again to learn a new bibliography and to engage with it. I’ve been very lucky because I have landed in very interesting places.
JW: I want to ask about A Feeling for Books. I can see how it extends from Reading the Romance because it is also about books and reading, and part an ethnographic study of the Book-of-the-Month Club. And it continues your focus on less-than-elite literature. Did you start it when you went to Duke or before that, when you had visited New York publishers?
JR: I started it at Penn. When I finished Reading the Romance, I wrote an article that appeared in Daedalus about the idea of variable literacies. I was interested in the idea that there are different strategies and modes for reading. Because I wasn’t trained as a social scientist, though, I didn’t know how to do real statistical work, where I would look at a random sample of readers to try to figure out how and what people read. So I started to think about how I might be able to approximate this. I had been a member of the Book-of-the-Month Club in graduate school, and I knew that it sent out quite serious fiction, a lot of middlebrow fiction, a lot of self-help books, cookbooks, all sorts of things. I was interested in how people read cookbooks or popular fiction versus literature, so I thought it would be interesting to look into the Book-of-the-Month Club. At that point I read another essay in Daedalus, written by the then-chairman, Al Silverman, about the Book-of-the-Month Club. It sounded as if they had lots of records, so I wrote to them and said, “I would like to talk to you about whether it is possible to study your readers.”
My letter was given to a man who ultimately became one of my chief interviewees, Bill Zinsser. I traveled to New York and talked to him. He was very interested in academics and academic writing, so we struck up a friendship and it developed from there. He had written a lot about writing himself, and he’s a wonderful person to talk to. The project just became a wonderful project for me, because I talked endlessly to Bill and his colleagues about reading. But now I can see, and I think by the time I was actually writing it I could see, that it really had become a very personal book that was the product of this strange trajectory moving from a middlebrow love for reading and love for books into a kind of academic, professionalized relationship to letters. I was trying to understand what that relationship was, and I think I became captivated by the editors’ story because they were being corporately absorbed by Time Warner and thus were telling a narrative about what they were losing in order to become part of this media giant.
What they were losing was their older relationship to letters. I think that story resonated for me because my entry into academic life, at that moment, didn’t always feel like a gain; it felt like a loss, too. I had lost a certain relationship to narrative; I had lost this relationship to captivation. So in some ways it’s a very nostalgic book. At that moment, I wasn’t able to understand fully the ways in which I had in fact become an academic and to see that as a positive gain. I now see it as a little narcissistic maybe, as sort of a narrative about myself through the objective correlative of the Book-of-the-Month Club.
JW: I’ve used a phrase, “the new belletrism,” about the turn in academic writing to memoir or “personal criticism,” that some of your colleagues at Duke have done. I mean it more as a neutral descriptor than pejorative—as an effort to return to (or reach) the crossover publishing niche of belle lettres. In some ways A Feeling for Books is your memoir, although actually I would probably describe it more as your crossover book.
JR: I wasn’t that self-conscious about it, I’m afraid. I was not part of the famous writing group at Duke. I knew Cathy [Davidson] and I knew they were doing that kind of writing, but I thought that what I was doing was continuing in the vain of ethnography. I was deeply influenced by George Marcus and Michael Fisher and cultural anthropology’s self-critical turn. I was more influenced, at least consciously, by the turn in ethnography to be self-reflexive and to position the ethnographer as a writer and was trying to be methodologically self-conscious about my relationship to my data.
There was a strange moment when I was working at the Book-of-the-Month Club, reading a catalogue from the 1950s, when I realized I had read all those books. That was when I realized that I’d been educated by middlebrow culture. They were the books that had been given to me during a year that I had to stay out of school, at fourteen. I had a back operation for a very bad case of scoliosis. I had two spinal fusions and was in a body cast for more than 12 months, from my knees to my neck. Because I couldn’t go to school, my teachers came to my house and the librarian sent me boxes of books to read. When I read those books, what I was reading were Book-of-the-Month Club selections.
The thing I was trying to give an account of in A Feeling for Books was the idea that this reading history had probably given me a habitus. Now, whether I was participating in some larger return to a belletrism, I don’t know. That certainly isn’t how I was thinking about it at the time. For me, it was more in the context of the autobiographical turn in anthropology.
JW: I can see how it describes the process through which we come to be readers, and even if it’s a personal account it tells a cultural history. In a way it amalgamates the two genres.
JR: It was an attempt to try and talk about a moment of cultural contact. There was the middlebrow world of letters that had educated me, and then there was the academic, wholly professionalized world of intellectual letters. I was trying to render a kind of split consciousness and to acknowledge that I’m not simply an academic historian or literary theorist, but rather I’ve been someone trained to do those things who is also utterly sympathetic to middlebrow narrativity and a storytelling preoccupation with the lives of individuals.
I can understand why people might say, “It’s too much about her.” What I was trying to do—and this may have been a mistake—was to mine my recollection of what it was like to be immersed in those books, in order to get some of the texture and substance of middlebrow reading that I couldn’t get by talking to the editors. They exhibited all the caution that one finds when one does something called “studying up.” They knew what an academic was, they knew what an interview was, and they knew what was going to happen with the information they were giving me, so they were very cautious about what they said. Because of that, it seemed necessary to think carefully about and to draw on my own experiences reading Book-of-the-Month Club books.
JW: I want to shift gears and ask what you think of the field of American Studies. You were president of the American Studies Association a few years ago and talked about the field in your presidential address. How do you see your work relating to American Studies, and what do you think are the prospects for the field?
JR: American Studies is a really interesting field. I wrote a somewhat contentious presidential address, “What’s in a Name?” that was very controversial and produced a lot of objections. At the time, I didn’t quite understand why. I was trying to take the measure of a particular moment when American Studies encountered postcolonial theory and the critique of nationalism. What occurred to me was the way in which American Studies as a field, despite being structured by a nationalist orientation, had a secondary, more subversive paradigm and a history of taking up a critical position vis-à-vis dominant American culture. I thought the engagement with postcolonial thinking would enable those of us in the field to uncover some of the field’s most fundamental assumptions. I was hopeful that this would enable us to rethink the paradigm that dictated that we always began first with the U.S. and its concerns.
I was simply trying to say something about where I thought the field was going, by drawing on the work of others. Apparently, though, it made a lot of people angry. It took me a long while to figure out what they were so angry about, because it seemed to me that the critique of the embedded nationalism in the field, despite that secondary tradition, was still pretty accurate. I think I didn’t do a good job of acknowledging that, despite its nationalist orientation, American Studies was a capacious field that included a great deal of critical work. There was quite a bit of American Studies work that wasn’t simply about what it meant to be American. Actually, the field had nurtured a great deal of work that didn’t fit other disciplines. Still, I feel that the nationalist paradigm is part of the infrastructure of the field that’s very hard to dispense with.
JW: There are criticisms from people like Don Pease about the way the field was created by people in Nye’s generation, who highlighted the American renaissance, which tended towards the belief in American exceptionalism.
JR: I think that the field did tend towards that, but there was an alternate tradition. Michael Denning has given a fabulous account of how American Studies had a radical tradition, before the term itself appeared, in his book The Cultural Front. Still, the institutionalized field of American Studies was deeply bound up with American exceptionalism. Nationalism is embedded in the field even though the field also legitimates the study of things that other fields would have seen as insignificant. I remember one of the first American Studies conferences I went to, where I was astounded to hear a paper on car customizing. At the time, of course, no one studied car customizers in literature or even in history for that matter. But because American Studies warranted the value of everything American, it could see the vitality of car customizing among a particular group of Americans.
JW: How do you see yourself in relation to the New Americanists—to Pease and Walter Benn Michaels? In a way, you are in that generation of Americanists, but you’re probably more in a feminist cohort.
JR: I haven’t been associated with that group but I certainly was reading them and feeling sympathetic to their project. I was impressed by Don’s work, by Amy Kaplan’s work, by Priscilla Wald’s work. I don’t think whoever makes these groups would necessarily include me in the New Americanists, but I feel a sort of comradeship with them.
JW: They’re still based to a large extent in literature, whereas it seems to me you’ve gone on your own path toward anthropology or sociology.
JR: Yes, that’s really where I think I am now: I’m finally interested in everyday life. The reason I turned to reading was that sort of activity goes on everywhere in everyday life. I’m less interested in texts and textuality than I am in how people engage those things on a day-to-day basis. Because of that I also have an interest in subjectivity and in the way subjectivity is both produced and reproduced—in the way it marks both agency and a kind of subjection. And I have a kind of political conscience most deeply affected by feminism and by the question of how women and men change, adjust and adapt to patriarchy. That’s my best understanding of myself. You can’t always understand the things that are producing you, and I would be the first to admit that my self-understanding is not always as transparent as I’d like.
JW: You don’t seem to shy from self-correction or revision.
JR: It is something that doesn’t frighten me. Maybe that comes from the willingness to listen. Even though I was in honors classes at Michigan State, most of my classes had 50 people or more in them. I’m not exaggerating one bit when I say I actually spoke once in four years of classes! I was really very timid and unsure of my capacity to speak in those situations, so I think I learned to listen. I couldn’t really speak at Stony Brook either; I felt as if I was in an environment where “theory” was beginning to be spoken, and I was again intimidated.
I decided to teach high school for a while, and it was really there that I learned something about the classroom that I felt was absolutely wonderful. I taught at Cabrini High School in New York. I think it also had something to do with my move into American Studies. It was a college prep school, originally oriented toward Irish Catholic kids from the Inwood neighborhood. In the ‘60s and early ‘70s, the neighborhood was changing. We taught mostly recent immigrants from Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Most of our students were Spanish speakers; English was their second language. We were still teaching the standard high school American literature curriculum, and our students were very interested in what the idea of “America” meant. Still, when they read something like “Bartleby the Scrivener” or The Scarlet Letter, they couldn’t make much sense of it. It had little to do with their lives of the moment. My colleagues and I began to scrap that literary curriculum and tried to teach them about the contemporary United States. We were trying to come up with something like cultural studies, really. We were engaging with people with different histories and trying to make sense (for them) of what it was about the United States that made the idea of “the American” a desire in many peoples’ minds. When I left Cabrini, I decided to do my work in American Studies. It was a really important period for me.
JW: The project that you’re working on now—you gave a talk on it yesterday and mentioned that you’re still in the early stages of figuring it out—is about girls. How did you come to do it? Do you have a title for it yet?
JR: Most of the time I simply call it the “girls project.” But the more formal working title is “Girls’ Indigenous Cultural Production.” I got into this for complicated reasons. I’d been observing girls for years because I had a young daughter and became very interested in the material culture marketed to girls. I was also interested in the changing attitudes that girls have towards their bodies, towards sexuality, at a moment of significant historical change. At the same time, because I was teaching classes in cultural studies, I was doing a lot of work on consumption and production. I was bothered by the fact that people only write about girls as consumers; they really don’t write about girls as producers.
I came across the work of a young scholar named Mary Celeste Kearney who was working on a book called Producing Girls. She was interested in what girls actually create. That resonated so much with my understanding of my daughter and her friends. They were constantly making things—collages, diaries, scrapbooks—and those things were usually ignored or devalued. At the time that I was thinking about these issues, I happened across a collection of zines because a friend of my daughter’s had gotten very involved in riot grrl culture. One summer, we were visiting her family and she gave me her zine collection. Of course, they’re highly miscellaneous forms, almost a bricolage or a cut-and-paste scrapbook. I could hear the writers’ cutting and pasting, ventriloquizing bits and pieces of the culture that they are immersed in. They drew on things they heard on television, things they heard from their parents and things they heard from women’s magazines.
What was most interesting to me was how this highlighted the nexus between production and consumption. I began to wonder actively, how are girls discursively constituted at the intersection between consumption and production? I began to wonder, how would you study this moment? I’m very interested in the multiple things that girls create from the bits and pieces of culture around them. I’d love to look at zines; I’d like to look at room decorations; I’d like to look at scrapbooks. It occurs to me that I could really write about girls’ friendship networks as a cultural form as well. There is a tremendous literature on girls’ friendships and women’s friendships; they’re understood mostly socially and psychologically, but I think friendship is a cultural form and one of the things that girls and women have actually helped to create. I’m looking for a method that will enable me to bring these things together.