Reflection by Carolyn Dever
We live in an existential moment for the humanities. Those of us whose scholarly and pedagogical home is literary studies find ourselves regularly on an uncomfortable hook, our toes dangling just above the hungry maw of imputed irrelevance: Enrollments? Funding? The future of the monograph? Digital methodologies, love them or leave them? The meanings and implications of diversity? Creeping vocationalism? Institutional corporatization? The casualization of academic labor—oh bloody hell, the casualization of our own academic labor, and that of our students, colleagues, friends?
At a time when we’ve been called to justify our professional existence across all these questions and more, we’ve shown a tendency to claim exceptionalism: to stake out literary studies as rarefied, as demanding a unique expertise. We tend to write in a way that’s accessible only to a narrow band of experts. We habitually defend what we do as “more than”—more than just teaching writing, more than just correcting grammar. You know the drill: fill in your own favorite example of how our profession is routinely trivialized, or how we imagine it is.
The claim to exceptionalism is surely understandable, from a psychological perspective: it’s defensive. If the professional study of literature is not a sophisticated, rarefied practice of expertise, how on earth can we literary critics justify our serious scholarly practice, much less our existence?
As Elaine Auyoung’s luminous new book demonstrates (with an admirably light touch), we can do so by witnessing, embracing, and advancing praxes of inclusivity and collaboration built in to reading itself.
Auyoung’s model system is the nineteenth-century realist novel. She is focused primarily on several British novelists (Austen, Dickens, Eliot), as well as Tolstoy. Her scholarly question involves the phenomenological effects of realism: how did these writers create fictional worlds that feel real—that generate a powerful “reality effect”—to their readers, across nations, centuries, and identities?
Auyoung argues that novelists deploy distinctive techniques for managing readers’ participation in the fictional worlds they have created. And in turn, they depend on their readers’ embodied knowledge of lived experience to produce a text’s reality effects. The writer and the reader collaborate to create conditions for the affective experience of “realism.”
Auyoung writes: “What if we understood the claim that novels seem to ‘come alive’ not as a distraction from more important forms of engagement with literary texts, but rather as an effect whose persistence suggests that producing it is fundamental to the craft of fiction? What if we saw the absence of a sophisticated vocabulary for talking about literary experience not as a sign that it cannot or need not be examined in a serious way, but rather as evidence of how desperately we need more effective methods for investigating it?” (1-2).
I understand Auyoung’s model as inclusive because she’s attuned to readerly perception, not as “unsophisticated” but as an important cue to understand how novelists create meaning. I understand Auyoung’s paradigm as a template for collaboration because she grants both readers and writers agency in creating the reality effects of fictional worlds.
In When Fiction Feels Real, Auyoung has produced a deeply serious, scholarly consideration of a set of questions that are important to our field. In both her lucid writing style and the very framing of her inquiry, she reflects the ethic of inclusion and collaboration she describes. Auyoung explains her approach this way: “This book offers readers and critics a sharper set of tools for thinking about effects that are central to literary experience but remain on the periphery of literary studies, such as how the words of a novel can seem to evoke immediate sensory experiences and how fictional persons can continue to endure in a reader’s mind long after a story has faded” (2).
These are important questions. And in offering better tools to readers and critics alike, Auyoung models a mode of partnership that is hopeful and helpful for the future of literary studies.