Friday, May 30, 2014

My Amazon review of Sally Bushell's TEXT AS PROCESS

This is the review that a journal editor commissioned and then rejected in a vituperative email which questioned my character and my sanity.  She had expected merely a puff piece that would be flattering to Bushell and to Jack Stillinger. As I said in a previous post, I suffered a few minutes from the onslaught then said to myself, "AMAZON!" Much, much better to have it on Amazon than in a journal with a circulation of 200 or 300!

3.0 out of 5 stars An Attempt to Grapple with a Tough Book, February 7, 2010
This review is from: Text as Process: Creative Composition in Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Dickinson (Hardcover)
Sally Bushell's first book was a re-reading of Wordsworth's The Excursion. Her new book, Text as Process, is much more ambitious. The "first study of this kind," she says, Text as Process "presents a methodology for the study of draft materials. In terms of future use it aims to provide a way of responding to textual process that can be widely used, disputed, and enlarged, forming the basis of a new subdiscipline" (2). Deeply attentive to German and French "advances" in textual theory, she "attempts to articulate a distinctive Anglo-American model" (6). She makes three claims for uniqueness. First (6), she will "provide a universal methodology with larger application than for the three poets used as case studies here" and will "provide a firm basis for an Anglo-American 'genetic' criticism underpinned by a philosophical account of the nature of process." Second (7), her book "compares European and Anglo-American editorial principles and draws on French genetic criticism as an underpinning for Anglo-American studies in a way that has not previously been undertaken." Third (7), a "claim for the book's originality lies in its self-conscious hermeneutical practice when analyzing draft materials."

Textual scholars and theorists will make up an attentive audience for much of Text as Process. In addition, the descriptions of the manuscripts of Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Dickinson will surely draw in some part of the "larger readership" Bushell hopes for. I suspect, however, that few enthusiasts for one of these writers will make it into other parts of the book. This book will be tough going even for the textual specialist and will be quite intimidating to the general reader. Bushell writes in a style that will almost surely put off much of the audience she hopes to gain. No one will call Text as Process user-friendly.

I've had to struggle with the prose, even though I have strong incentive to comprehend the book because Bushell names Jack Stillinger and me as "the two Anglo-American scholars whose work seems most to anticipate this study." Here she is referring to two books by Stillinger, Multiple Authorship and the Myth of Solitary Genius (1991) and Coleridge and Textual Instability (1994) and to my Flawed Texts and Verbal Icons (1984). Her citing my book gives me license to "dispute" and "enlarge" as I discuss how we differ and how she represents my stances. Stillinger in 1991 declared that I was the "most extreme theorist of textual primitivism to date"--so extreme that I sounded "very much like the Wordsworthian primitivists." (See 77-79 for Bushell's take on the Cornell Wordsworth and for her alliance with Stillinger.) Stillinger had drawn the differences clearly: "Parker's basic premise, that 'genuine art is coherent' (23), seems extremely dubious."

My first main objection is that Bushell does not wrestle long enough or strenuously enough with arguments from any Anglo-American theorist who disagrees with her--that is, anyone who argues against James Thorpe, Jerome McGann, and Jack Stillinger. Bushell cites my book but never once tests it by applying some part of it to a problem she is facing. She cites me as predecessor but does not deal with my ideas. What Bushell says about Flawed Texts and Verbal Icons exposes a persistent evasiveness that weakens the book. Quite early (17) she says that she has already "discussed in the introduction" my method for responding to New Criticism. No, no: back in the introduction she had in fact asserted that I treated the author "in a remarkably judgmental way" then (rather than developing a discussion) a dozen lines later she circled around to declare that I could "be extremely judgmental of both authors and critics" (4). This sentence is her evidence of my being judgmental: "If writers fail to achieve their full intentions during composition, they are even more likely to damage parts of what they had achieved when they belatedly alter a text."

Real living writers understand what I was saying in Flawed Texts and Verbal Icons. Here is a note I received in 2006 from James Hime, a mystery writer, an Edgar finalist, author most recently of Where Armadillos Go to Die: "Your book is more frightening to a writer than anything written by Stephen King or Thomas Harris. Anyone who has struggled with the urge to do what is required to get published, or to satisfy an agent's or editor's power lust, knows how easy it is to succumb to a 'you-must-destroy-the-village-in-order-to-save-it' proposition from the devil. When haunted by the thought that the manuscript that lies moldering under the bed may never see the light of day, any outrage or betrayal seems possible, indeed, justifiable. After reading Flawed Texts and Verbal Icons I looked in the mirror and said, on behalf of all writers, 'Guilty as charged.'" Yes, I was judgmental (and funny about it, downright sympathetic, I had thought), but I was absolutely right. Bushell cited me but did not engage the issues.

Bushell simply does not discuss my position, and discussion is needed. I based what I said on my examination of how famous writers of American fiction behaved. My evidence showed that writers would agree to almost anything as long as they did not have to try to involve themselves deeply in a book they thought they had finished. Bushell does not acknowledge that a book called Text as Process ought to deal seriously with the author's intention during the creative process, the phase when a writer is actively working on something and trying to complete it. Michael Hancher's "Three Kinds of Intention" achieved an undeserved fame when G. Thomas Tanselle sanctioned its categories in Studies in Bibliography. On 248 Bushell quotes my arguments against Hancher (although removing my italics from "during"): "Hershel Parker also engages with Hancher but criticizes him for not allowing for a fully active intention within composition: 'Hancher can accommodate the period before the composition, the moment of completion, and the indefinite period afterwards; but during--the ongoing creative process itself--has no place in his theory.'" (My next sentence reads: "For all practical purposes he does not seem to believe there is any such thing as the creative process.") What does Bushell's "but" mean? I engage Hancher "but criticize him." "But" makes it clear that Bushell has shut the valves of her attention just when she most needs to be alert to the possible value of my point. No more than Hancher does she want to focus on what the writer does during the creative process. Perhaps her removal of my italics is subliminal, but (or "and") significant.

When she quotes me Bushell repeatedly deflects attention from what I say or else she gets what I say askew: "Parker almost always focuses on the text immediately before publication or in its development around the act of publication, with authorial intentionality 'built into the words of a literary work during the process of composition'" (3). I thought I was rarely concerned with the text immediately before publication; rather, I was concerned with the text during the process of composition and with the text as the writer completes it. The wording "its development around the act of publication" is alien to my way of thinking. It sounds as if Bushell has so internalized (by way of McGann and Stillinger) the Thorpe notion of the socialized text (the text as the result of whatever anyone did to it after it left the author's hands) that she cannot focus long on what I really say. Her own fixation is on publication and mine is on composition. Bushell seems very uncomfortable dealing with the idea of anything going on during a "creative process" and drops it like, well, a savage thought.

Bushell finds it impossible to talk seriously about an end ever coming to the creative process. The title of her section "Dickinson's Anti-Telos" is susceptible of different readings, but she is saying that Dickinson is "'anti-teleological'"--opposed to endings or completion (179). Her unwillingness to imagine the writer engaged in completing a literary work comes out in her word choices (181): "Closely related to the writer's ability, or willingness, to bring a work to a single fixed state must be the question of creative judgment." Here Bushell is talking about the writer's creative judgment as if it were wholly rational, and she talks as if for every writer there is "a judgment of completion and a judgment of readiness for public reception."

My second main objection is that while Bushell works through French and German textual theory and at least cites Anglo-American textualists, she does not work with evidence from some other fields at all. She ought to have looked at what scientists have discovered about the creative process. She ignores a great and highly relevant book, Albert Rothenberg's The Emerging Goddess: The Creative Process in Art, Science, and Other Fields (1979). We need all the help we can get from people who study the way the human mind works in the act of creating literature. Bushell ought to have paid attention also to cognitive psychologists such as James J. Gibson and Eleanor J. Gibson, particularly his The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems (1966). Ulric Neisser's Memory Observed (1982) is another marvelous book she might have consulted, and he has done more recent work. I think now that a book called Text as Process which does not draw on wise work in related fields such as aesthetics, creativity, cognition, and memory, and which does not grapple with objections to the Thorpe-McGann-Stillinger line of textual theory, cannot become the sort of model that Bushell wants her book to be. I look forward to seeing Bushell grapple with textual tangles and communicate vividly about them, in prose more accessible to a wide range of lovers of literature.

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