JMD: I have been obsessed with counterfactuals and alternate histories for a long time now, and one of my key critical texts for thinking about those questions has been your superb 2007 Representations essay “Lives Unled in Realistic Fiction.” It would have been much easier for you, I’m certain, if rather than envisioning and composing this book in the writerly essayistic interpretive mode, you had simply relied upon your existing skillset and written an academic book that integrated that essay and other writing you’d done on the topic into an academic monograph. It undoubtedly would have been a very good book. Why is it you who has written this more poetic and contemplative book rather than writing the easier one and leaving the more challenging one to your alternate self in a world that is not quite this one?
AHM: A few things came together to lead me to write the book in this way. When I first started to think about unled lives—the lives that you might have led and the person you might have become if your chances or choices had been different in the past—I talked to people outside our discipline and outside the academy. Their interest was remarkable; many would start telling me their own stories. So I saw that the topic might give me a chance to write for a wider audience than I was used to. At the same time, as a writer I was restless. Academic articles had become second nature: I’d written a lot of them and, at Victorian Studies, edited many more. I wanted to see what else I could do.
My decision to attempt this mode had immediate consequences for the form of the book. I needed a form that would restrain my desire to give long close readings and split fine philosophical hairs. I’d been reading books that are constructed like mosaics—Benjamin’s Arcades Project, Barthes’ Lover’s Discourse, James Wood’s How Fiction Works,and, later, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and The Argonauts—and this form seemed promising. But I could see how it might become wearying. So, to balance the brisk movement from section to section, thought to thought, text to text, I included three longer interludes, on “The God Who Loves You,” It Happened One Night, and Atonement, which differently show how unled lives can shape an entire work.
In choosing this comparatively fragmentary form, I didn’t know what I was getting into. In a more conventional academic book, you need to figure out how to open, close, and find continuity among maybe four chapters; now I had over a hundred sections to piece together. From, say, 2016 to 2018 all I did was cut and paste.
All this makes the process sound fairly technical, and it often was. It was only late in the game that I realized that in writing this sort of book I had called on a wider set of my traits than I would have had I written in a more conventionally academic form. Whether the book succeeds or fails with a reader could depend on my emotional responsiveness, say, or the breadth of my social experience, as well as or instead of my capacities for reasoning and textual interpretation.
JMD: Another writing question. One of my favorite sentences in the book (it has the ring of a standalone aphorism) is “Sometimes I think that most of my time writing this book has been spent changing ‘I’ to ‘you’ to ‘they’ to ‘we’ and back to ‘you’” (42).
(There are some other great sentences here too: “To be mistress of Monkhams might be something!” , which made me laugh out loud; “Hardy sharpened his feelings on the steel of their contingency” ; and then when you quote that lovely Frank Bidart line from “For the AIDS Dead” where he says, “You / means I, one, you, as well as the you // inside you constantly talk to” , you bring us back round to your earlier observation about the voice and perspective of the book as a whole.)
Was it a struggle finding a voice for the book, and how did you know when you had arrived at the right one?
AHM: Yes, it was a struggle. In 2012, I came back from a year in England with a rough draft. In the seven following years I spent much of my working on structure and voice. I did develop ideas, and add texts, and I had to find a way of acknowledging the book’s limits, but its large conceptual shape was more or less complete.
I made changes to the structure of the book pretty deliberately, but changes in voice came more surreptitiously. Well, I did make some conscious decisions. I decided to use contractions. I kept a list of words and phrases I wanted to use. I listened to the rhythms of the paragraphs and sections. And, as you mention, I tinkered with pronouns for both stylistic and substantive reasons. But much of the development in voice came, as it has always come for me, through reading. A range of academic and non-academic writers encouraged me, Barthes, Nelson, William Empson, Eve Sedgwick, TJ Clark, Bernard Williams, Annie Dillard, Patricia Lockwood, Stanley Cavell . . . . The wild disparities among these writers indicates how indirect their influence was. I don’t sound like any of them. But they all made me want to write.
Listening to voice was usefully diagnostic. When my voice seemed off or uneven, I knew I had an intellectual problem or possibility, something at any rate that I didn’t understand. For instance, I worked and reworked the last paragraph of the discussion of Dennis’s poem which you mention in your next question, and I’m still not really satisfied with either the voice or the ideas there. Similarly, I know I haven’t done justice to Molly Peacock’s poem “The Choice,” and the voice in the passage where I discuss it still doesn’t feel right. So in some sense, I still don’t feel as if I’ve found the right voice.
Finally, I’m so glad you laughed at the line about Monkhams. I wasn’t sure whether to keep it in. I liked its playfulness and interpretive efficiency. We usually think of essayistic writing as thinner and more discursive than academic writing, but it can be thicker and more efficient. To have spelled out my claim here would have distracted me from my main aims, which focused on He Knew He Was Right. Using free indirect discourse to voice the feelings of Trollope’s heroine, Nora Rowley, the sentence “To be mistress of Monkhams might be something!” aimed to draw my readers close to Nora, and also to her narrator, who has been using free indirect discourse to draw his reader close to her. I mimic that novel’s narrator mimicking his character. But the sentence also alludes to Pride and Prejudice, where the narrator uses free indirect discourse to draw her reader close to Elizabeth Bennett. “To be mistress of Pemberley might be something!” Elizabeth feels. Both these comparatively poor women are reflecting on a seemingly lost opportunity to marry a wealthy, propertied man. The allusion silently observes, then, that both Trollope and Austen appeal to the inner experience of unled lives in order to study the relation of love and property. Spelling it out in this way is cumbersome and would have distracted readers. Simply making the allusion was more efficient and, for those who caught it, hopefully more enjoyable. The writerly trick was to make the allusion unobtrusive, so that readers who didn’t get it felt neither confused nor excluded.
JMD: I love what you say early in the book about the practical advantages of poems: “When they’re short, they can be quoted complete, which allows more authoritative, and so more valuable, disagreement” (8). By quoting a number of poems in your entirety, you’re inviting the reader to join you in something much more conversational and interactive than a more conventionally literary-critical book, something that to my mind has the properties of the best classroom discussion of a literary text. How has your teaching inflected and affected your writing over the years?
AHM: I especially like the way you put this. I think conversations about this topic usually address content: does graduate teaching help your research? We’re supposed to say yes. But teaching has almost never furthered my scholarship much in this way. I don’t know all the reasons for this, but one has to do with the particulars of my intellectual, institutional, and historical formation. I taught for a long time in a superb department of historically-minded faculty and graduate students, and edited a historically-minded journal, without being primarily historically-minded myself. Or, rather, not historically-minded in the ways that seemed current or available to me. In that institutional environment, then, graduate students were inspired to write in directions not my own, and most of my graduate courses and all my dissertation-directing were intended to enable that. I wrote at home, happily, but more or less privately.
So, the content of my scholarship hasn’t been much affected by my teaching. But as you suggest it has affected my manner of writing. In talking about voice earlier I focused on what I read. But teaching has been important, too. Not for my first book—I hadn’t taught enough—but for my second. Letting my seminar voice at that moment into my writing freed me up. I came to see, also, that this teacherly mode of writing, a mode I called “implicative,” had interesting intellectual justifications. Reading Cavell and J. L. Austin helped me find those justifications, but teaching did at least as much: when a seminar didn’t prompt creative responses in the students, it was painfully evident. The voice of On Not Being strays from my seminar voice, but shares its implicative mode.
JMD: I didn’t know Carl Dennis’s poem “The God Who Loves You” until you shared it in these pages. I have to confess that though I see the poem’s force––and it offers you an absolutely brilliant way in to your topic––I kind of hate it at the same time. There is a pronounced narrowness of vision––it’s all wives and careers in suburbs mildly redolent of John Updike and John Cheever and Richard Ford––and one of the ways its limits are displayed is that the forking-path moment concerns the choice of a college: that the god who loves you knows “exactly what would have happened / Had you gone to your second choice for college.” There’s something so smug and small about that being the trigger for the divergence from a life unled that is potentially “thirty points above the life you’re living / On any scale of satisfaction.” I know Dennis wants us to become aware of the power of ordinary intimacy to console us for the sense of loss we might feel when we consider a path not taken, but doesn’t the poem endorse a really narrow and depressing vision of what human life has to offer? Where is the sense of heroic yearning that I associate with fantasies of unled lives?
AHM: I kind of hate it too! The reasons I give in the book for my kind-of-hate are tonal: it sounds so complacent to me, so smug and small as you put it. But you’re absolutely right: it’s a matter of the world imagined, too. I focused on tone because it nagged at me most. That the world presented in the poem, a world comprehensively described by listings on Zillow, is anemic is clear. What was stranger was that Dennis knows he’s describing a bloodless world, and that’s what I found hard to get my head around and capture.
But your question speaks to a larger matter, one that concerns a basic choice I made, namely to develop as fully as I could the metaphor, or story-form, that attends our unled lives—to develop it from within, as it were. I announce, maybe not loudly enough, that this is what I’m doing and at other points indicate that I’m coming up against the limits of that story-form. Most importantly, the metaphor of life as a series of forked paths, which underlies unled lives as I describe them, doesn’t invite you to questions about where you started from—the circumstances of your life. Of course you can do this: why, you might ask, was I born into this bleak landscape? But the metaphor doesn’t encourage you. By contrast, the metaphor in which life is a card game more readily invites you to think about those circumstances—about the cards you were dealt. Thinking within the metaphor of the forking road in order to develop it fully, I tried to show many of its costs from that inner vantage; but I didn’t build an external critique into the heart of the book.
To put this another way, Dennis’s poem is true to the story-form I’m interested in; that form is a bourgeois, middle-class form. It is fundamentally shaped by the market, conceiving of our life as a series of chances and choices among a growing set of alternatives. I thought, early on, that it was a bourgeois middle-class male form and perhaps at some deep level it is. But I soon saw that it enabled women writers (as well as Black writers) to articulate powerful feelings, thoughts, and desires, too. Nonetheless it does so in a capitalist, market-driven world in which choice is over-rated and unevenly distributed, and chance is also unevenly distributed and feels like a bizarre affront.
JMD: I offer a tragic footnote to your comment on how “what might have been” especially presses on children who are adopted or carried by surrogacy. You write:
In the late 1990s Melissa Etheridge and her partner were looking for a sperm donor. Finally, they had to choose between two of their friends: David Crosby and Brad Pitt. Years later Etheridge told a reporter, “My teenagers now are like, ‘I could have had Brad Pitt [as a father] . . . . I could’ve been amazingly handsome.’”
One of those children died this year, at the age of 21, as a consequence of opioid addiction, a tragic recapitulation of Crosby’s own massive but ultimately successful struggle with addiction. I’m emotionally and intellectually drawn to that existentialist model––I’m thinking especially of Sartre’s Les jeux sont faits, the novel and the film––in which we repeat our mistakes even when we’re given another chance to play things out differently. Similarly it can seem at times as though thinking of our other lives is an indulgence given only to the enormously privileged: the tone of most of your musers is wistful, it doesn’t make much of a space for tragedy or sociopolitical rage and the sheer weight of inequality and the constraints it places on the living of a life. Am I reading at cross-purposes, or were these things you thought about over the years you spent working on the book?
AHM: I am sorry, first of all, to know that Beckett Cypher has died. The register at which you are responding is true to the book, and you’re right to call it existential; one thing I wanted to do was to find a way to speak satisfactorily to that level of response. This was tricky, because my words sometimes sounded empty to me (“I’m only one person”) and at other times they resonated very deeply. That you appeal to tone may be a response to this contradiction between the banal and resonant: maybe it’s through tone that existential difficulties appear most purely. In any case, it’s the level of the Sartrean model you mention, and of Nietzsche’s eternal return.
In this important way, then, you didn’t read at cross-purposes with the book but saw something I think is central about it. And you’re right to say that there is a strong tendency towards wistfulness. I include some terribly brutal texts––for instance Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “the mother,” in which there is not rage, exactly, but unsoothable anguish. But in many texts, even anguish is tempered, perhaps by the act of writing itself. A counter example to “the mother” would be Ammon’s “Easter Morning.” I love that poem, but you could say that it soothes desperate tragedy, the death of a brother, into wistfulness. Ammons’ poem, then, is a strong example of just how powerful the moderating influence of this story form can be—even the death of a child, a brother, can be softened into gentle acceptability. As I say in the book, regret is a luxury of those who’ve had chances.
Both this question and the one before it speak, I think, to a desire that the book be more politically critical of the texts I treat. That’s fair. In focusing on the existential, and in developing the story-form of unled lives from within, I focus less on pressing questions of justice. Were someone to take up the idea of unled lives and study it primarily from the outside, as it were, to elaborate more fully just how it ignores, distracts us from, or tempers sociopolitical injustices, that would be all to the good. I’d like to think that On Not Being Someone Else might make it more possible for that book to be written.
Jenny Davidson teaches in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Her most recent book is an edition of an unpublished novel written in the 1950s, The Duchess of Angus; set in 1940s San Antonio, it is now published by Trinity University Press.
Andrew H. Miller teaches in the English Department of Johns Hopkins University. He was formerly the editor of Victorian Studies, and is the author of essays that have appeared in Brick, Michigan Quarterly Review, Raritan, and elsewhere, along with the books Novels Behind Glass and The Burdens of Perfection. His most recent book is On Not Being Someone Else. Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
5 Questions with Jenny Davidson is a regular column of The Rambling Reads that features conversations with authors of recently published works. If you’ve recently published a book and would like to be interviewed, please get in touch with us.