Bootstrapping Across Dystopia: Autofiction, Autotheory, Autoeverything with Merve Emre & Anna Kornbluh

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Mark Twain began compiling his autobiography in 1905. He described it as a “systemless system” resting on three motives. Writing, especially free-writing, was, to him, intensely therapeutic. Autobiographical writing was also, for “the most famous man on earth,” as Robertus Love called Twain upon his death, a concession to the emergent voyeuristic lust for celebrity gossip which had been mobilized by the explosion of mass media during the 19th century. Twain knew, as few writers before him could have, that there would be an enduring market for his private ramblings, regardless of how self-indulgent, meandering, and scandalous he chose to make them. Finally, the least well-known motive behind Twain’s autobiographical method was his intention to create a practically inexhaustible archive of unpublished material in which his books could be paratextually wrapped, thus preserving their copyrights according to the law of his day, and creating income for his surviving children and grandchildren.

Twain had prophesized that his would become “a model for all future autobiographies.” It seems he was right. In the century from the preparation of the autobiography to its publication, personal narrative has become customary in every literary genre. In this new episode of The American Vandal Podcast, Matt Seybold speaks with two decorated literary critics and theorists who aren’t so thrilled about this trend. 

Merve Emre is Associate Professor of English at the University of Oxford. She is the author of Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America (U. Chicago, 2017), The Ferrante Letters (Columbia UP, 2019), and The Personality Brokers (Doubleday, 2018), which informs the HBOMax documentary Persona. She is the editor of Once and Future Feminist (MIT, 2018), The Annotated Mrs. Dalloway (Liveright, 2021), and The Norton Library Mrs. Dalloway (Norton, 2021). She is also a contributing writer at The New Yorker. In 2021, she was awarded the Robert B. Silvers Prize for Literary Criticism and the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle. In 2022, she is serving as one of the judges of the International Booker Prize. [Twitter: @mervatim]

Anna Kornbluh is Professor of English at University of Illinois Chicago. Her research and teaching interests center on Victorian literature and Critical Theory, with a special emphasis in formalism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, and theory of the novel. She is the author of The Order of Forms: Realism, Formalism, & Social Space (University of Chicago 2019), Marxist Film Theory & Fight Club (Bloomsbury “Film Theory in Practice” series, 2019), and Realizing Capital: Financial & Psychic Economies in Victorian Form (Fordham UP 2014). Her current book project, “Immediacy or, The Style of Too Late Capitalism,” concerns impersonality, objectivity, mediation, and abstraction as residual faculties of the literary in privatized urgent times. She is the founding facilitator of two scholarly cooperatives: V21 Collective and InterCcECT. [Twitter: @V21collective]

This season also includes special theme music, “Work Song” by Dan Reeder, courtesy of the artist and Oh Boy Records. Please check out Dan Reeder’s extraordinary catalog of music on Apple & Spotify. [Twitter: @DanReeder]

“The World’s Work” is hosted by Matt Seybold, who is executive produce of The American Vandal Podcast and resident scholar at the Center For Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College. [Twitter: @MEASeybold]

Episode Bibliography:

James Baldwin, “Stranger In The Village” (Harper’s, October 1953)

Melinda Cooper, “Family Capitalism & The Small Business Insurrection” (Dissent, Winter 2022)

T. S. Eliot, “Tradition & The Individual Talent” (The Egoist, 1919)

Merve Emre, “Patricia Lockwood’s First Novel Reaches For The Sublime, Online.” (New York Times, 2.16.2021)

Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism (Zero Books, 2009)

John Guillory, from “On The Uses & Abuses of Literary Scholarship For Life” (Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, 10.11.2021)

Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Duke UP, 1989)

Heidi Julavits, “Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Touch of Evil” (New York Times, 9.28.2021)

Anna Kornbluh, “Climate Realism, Capitalist & Otherwise” (Mediations, Spring 2020)

Anna Kornbluh, “Immediacy: On Style Lately” (UIC Institute For The Humanities Faculty Fellow Lecture, 2.17.2021)

Leigh Claire La Berge & Alison Shonkwiler, Reading Capitalist Realism (U Iowa P, 2014)

Patricia Lockwood, No One Is Talking About This (Riverhead, 2021)

Georg Lukács, The Theory of The Novel (1916)

Anna Kornbluh, Marxist Film Theory & Fight Club (Bloomsbury, 2019)

Annabel Kim, “Autofiction Infiltrated: Anna Garréta’s Pas un jour (PMLA, May 2018)

Karl Ove Knausgaard, The Morning Star (Penguin Random House, 2021)

Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts (Graywolf, 2016)

Kim Stanley Robinson, Ministry For The Future (Orbit, 2020)

Matt Seybold, “Death at Christmastime: Mark Twain & The Music of Merciful Release” (CMTS, 12.23.2020)

Matt Seybold, “Neoliberal Rationality in The Old Gilded Age” (CMTS, 10.5.2018)

Jia Tolentino, “The Personal-Essay Boom Is Over” (The New Yorker, 5.18.2017)

Mark Twain, Autobiography of Mark Twain (U. California P, 2010-2015)

Christy Vannoy, “A Personal Essay By A Personal Essay” (McSweeney’s, 3.10.2010)

Virginia Woolf, “The Decay of Essay Writing” (1905)

The World’s Work was a business-friendly publication which Mark Twain sometimes satirized and these episodes feature conversations about the past, present, and potential future of work.