A Novel Idea

A recent issue of Diacritics took a look at Jonathan Culler's 2015 book Theory of the Lyric, which examined the Western lyric tradition. Elizabeth S. Anker, a colleague of Culler's at Cornell University, guest edited the issue, which grew out of the 2017 conference "Theorizing the Lyric: The World Novel" she organized with Grant Farred at Cornell. 

Jonathan Culler

Jonathan Culler

The issue features a half-dozen essays, including one by Culler, the Class of 1916 Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Cornell. Anker joined us for a Q&A about putting together the issue and what it means to honor a colleague in this fashion.

What is it like turning conference proceedings into a journal issue?

Journal issues that emerge from conference proceedings can in fact be particularly lively and effective conversations. Contributors have the opportunity to share an initial version of their essays in conference paper format, which they thereafter expand into an essay-length draft. Naturally, the questions and other dialogue that unfold over the course of the conference will shape those essays’ final form and substance. That added stage also affords the editors an extra chance to guide the specific debates and issues that each individual essay addresses. What often results is that the ensuing volume can feel like an exceptionally tightly integrated and unified conversation. The conference guarantees that the separate pieces are talking not only to one another but also to a single, coherent set of inquiries and themes. 

Of course, small conferences also foster a sense of community. That experience of interpersonal investment can itself inject the resulting essays with a heightened level of engagement and focus. Plus, for me, these sorts of small conference-based forums are some of the most rewarding components of academic life. Some of my fondest memories in the academy include exactly the kind of event that gave rise to this special issue. To share one’s in-process ideas with a group of smart people equally dedicated to a similar set of problems: it doesn’t get any better.

How do you hope the essays in this issue fuel further analysis of Culler's works?

One hallmark of an influential book can reside with the unexpected applications it elicits. Field-making scholarship is often widely exportable in all sorts of directions that the author couldn’t possibly have foreseen. Our goal in the special issue was precisely to extend Culler’s insights about lyric poetry to an arena he did not actively have in mind when writing the book: to novel studies. Throughout the project, the unexpected synergies between Culler’s arguments and live debates about the novel were exhilarating and multiple—too many to keep track of! Moreover, each contributor in this special issue seized on a different dimension of Culler’s claims, leveraging them to decipher a different set of debates about the novel and its literary history. I have no doubt that readers of Culler’s book for years and years to come will have a similar experience, finding within it deep reservoirs of insight into a range of varying questions.

What did you learn in putting the issue together?

Diacritics CoverI learned an enormous amount from each of the different contributors, along with the review process. Each of the essays naturally approaches the broad topic of the special issue from a very different angle, and that dialogue itself has greatly informed my own thinking about those questions. Moreover, the two very different syntheses that Culler and Ian Balfour offer on the collection are thrilling. I feel so incredibly fortunate to have such smart, perceptive, and influential thinkers engage closely with my own ideas. In addition, the review process (and very generous anonymous readers of the four essays) raised a number of questions about the essays that I’m still wrestling with, and I should mention that Diane Brown at Diacritics was also amazing to work with. 

When I initially began collaborating with Grant Farred on this project, I expected that it would be relatively self-contained, and I didn’t foresee it directly bearing on the other articles and books I’m currently writing. However, exactly the opposite has proven to be true. For instance, I’ve found that one of my current books makes a number of arguments about the role of “poetics” in political theory, and for such reasons do I anticipate that the special issue will continue to be a point of reference within my own intellectual trajectory. Of course, these many intellectual waves that I continue to notice are, first and foremost, a tribute to the importance of Culler’s book! 

What was it like to showcase the work of a Cornell colleague in this issue?

It was unbelievably gratifying to think closely and at length about Culler’s work. So I really can’t imagine a more gratifying way of engaging with a colleague! Too often, departmental life becomes so busy that we aren’t even aware of what exactly our colleagues are working on, and occasions like this are a reminder of why I became an academic.

Moreover, it was especially meaningful to devote energy to celebrating a career like Culler’s. Culler spent almost his entire career at Cornell, and he has been central to the life of not only the English but also the Comparative Literature and Romance Studies departments. He’s also one of those rare scholars who is both a hugely influential thinker and a talented administrator. So I remain dazzled by these multiple facets of Culler’s career and everything he has accomplished. The chance to commemorate that legacy was therefore incredibly rewarding. In addition, that experience has often led me to reflect on things like the value of the humanities, the sorts of contributions I hope to offer, and the reasons professional service can be (rather than disconnected from) the lifeblood of intellectual life.