Behind the Text. Besides the Text.

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Writers of books are always being asked how they deal with reviews (meaning how they deal with bad reviews). Some writers say they never read reviews. Some say they have their spouse read and then summarize them (how, I suppose, depends on the degree of well-intentioned cruelty in their marriage).

I read reviews of my books like a bride opening the oven on her first soufflé -- the oven door slightly cracked, eyes averted -- expecting a smoking ruin.

It's even weirder when a writer's book becomes a textbook. Then the autopsy never ends.

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Right now, architecture students at USC are term-papering a book of mine. So are English undergraduates at Macalester College in Minnesota and American Studies students at the University of Derby in the English midlands and Rutgers in New Jersey. Students of Popular Culture Journalism (which seems to be an online course) are blogging their reactions to it. The book is assigned reading in a course on American immigration at the Freie Universität Berlin and a course on land-use policies at Princeton. Film students at CalArts are deconstructing a book of mine into scenes (good luck to them).

That book has been taught in a freshman survey course at Harvard and in high school social study classes and to graduate students in planning at Yale. I once gave a talk about it to third graders at the school down the block from city hall.

I can't know what these students think of a book published before most of them entered grammar school. I wouldn't want to know. Mallarmé was right: only after the writer disappears does the text come into itself. It enters into language generally and ceases to be writer's personal speech.

Right now, that book ("Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir") is part of a much larger conversation about the place of "place" in contemporary western culture. Professor Neil Campbell of the University of Derby and others have reflected the book through a kind of phenomenology they call Critical Regionalism. I don't pretend to know more much about the ideas behind CR; I'm not good on theory.

This summary of one aspect of CR from Campbell's Critical Regionalism site is helpfully not about theory:

We need to notice, feel, acknowledge, and value all that is around us and that we already experience but often forget or disregard or diminish. The grand sweep of landscape from which myths of nation, region and self have so often been formed do not tell the whole story or even a fraction of it. It is through the "intensities in things" close at hand that we might become more "attuned" to the world all around us, connecting the local to the global not through abstraction and distance, but rather through inter-relation and specificity.

That works for me. I'm going to change the title on my business cards. I'm going to call myself a Critical Regionalist.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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