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Novel: The Wedding Ring, or, History of Miss Sidney. In a series of letters. In three volumes. By Anynymous.
Context: In the preface, the author refers to an obsession with knowing the identity of the author in order to place the story of the novel into context. The author says that readers want to know whether the author “be of dark or fair complexion, mild or choleric disposition” or “married or single.” Readers also want to know the motives of the author and reasons for writing—whether the novel was "written by the importunity of a friend, or whether the author’s natural temper and inclination directed the choice of the subject.” This obsession with authorship to me seems contradictory to the traditional way of thinking about literature—shouldn’t we value the text based on the quality of the writing and the story?
But the author is hinting on something that was and remains to be true about literature–text is often inextricable from context. It is not just petty curiosity that drives past and present readers’ obsession with authorship. The identity of the author gives readers clues into how to read the text. In most literature classes, reading a new book often begins with a lecture or on the background information of the time, and a biography of the author.
Thinking about the relationship between text and author is even more interesting when one considers that past and present-day readers will have different reasons for wanting to know the identity. At the time of its publication, concerns over the author were probably related to credibility—was the author really a woman, what class was she, and had she written anything noteworthy before? Today, the identity of this eighteenth-century author would help us place this novel into historical context in order to analyze data and form a thesis about gender and authorship.
The traditional bibliography leaves out the complicated relationship between the author and the text that I have described above. This relationship is addressed directly in the preface, and it extends throughout the reading of the book, because as I mentioned above, the identity of the author often gives us a lens through which we read the novel.
This project is also motivated by my own musings and confusion over the obsession with gender in literature and in life. Professor Buurma mentioned in class that data analysts who are not necessarily lit scholars often use gender as an example of theses we can make about metadata. But this example is often simplistic and also—who cares??? Can’t we look at other things with all this data? Finally, the obsession with author identity/gender past and present makes me wonder— is it necessary to treat gender in such strict binary terms when analyzing literature? What do we lose and what do we gain if we move beyond that binary?
Project Plan: I plan to explore what the bibliography leaves out by exploring possible identities of the author and what we imagine the identity might tell us about the text. I like the idea of exploring these questions in a modern context. I plan to photograph students (maybe specifically student writers?) who identify as female. I want to ask them to dress as if they were trying to disguise themselves, as if they were going out in public and didn’t want to be recognized, celebrity hiding from paparazzi-style. I will ask them to write a letter, because The Wedding Ring is written in epistolary style. I imagine there will be a variety of methods of writing letters—whether it is an email, a letter on paper, a quick post-it note to a friend. I will also ask them to write the letter in a space they feel is most appropriate/natural for them to write this letter.
The collection of photographs will serve as possibilities for the author of “The Wedding Ring.” What can we discern about the possible authors even though they are wearing disguises? What do their clothes and their location for writing say about their identity? Why are they writing on a laptop as opposed to paper? What do we think they are writing?? Can we tell what they’re writing just by this appearance? I think more questions and different ways of interpreting the photos will arise once I have taken the photos.
I like leaving aspects of this project to the discretion of the students (how to dress, how they want to write the letter, where to write the letter, with whom they will write, etc.), because to me this seems more experimental, which is fun, and it represents the lack of control from both the author and the readers in the writing and reading of a novel.
I’m not sure in what format yet would be most appropriate for displaying these photos. I could make a collage, where the photos can be viewed close together, or a photo essay, which is more conducive for close scrutiny of each individual photo as well as comparison. I also need to think about whether these photos should be displayed online or if I should print them—what is at stake with materiality, especially when considering bibliography, which strives to convey the materiality/physicality of a book through formatted description?