Statement on Research
In my scholarship and teaching, I have focused on modern British literature and twentieth- and twenty-first century women’s literature and on feminist theory, especially the history of feminist theory. I have a long-standing interest in the empathic dynamics of the reader/text transaction, which grows out of my application of Heinz Kohut’s psychoanalytic theory to the study of literature in my book The Empathic Reader. As I show the relevance of Kohut’s self psychology to the study of literature in The Empathic Reader--in works by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Mann, Doris Lessing, and Virginia Woolf, among others--I offer insight into the empathic dynamics of the reading and critical processes by revealing the strange power texts have to implicate readers in their unfolding dramas. My essay on the “politics of empathy” in Christa Wolf’s The Quest for Christa T., which applies Kohut to a reading of Wolf’s novel,will appear in a forthcoming issue of Selbstpsychologie, the European self-psychology journal. More recently, I have turned to the study of emotions in literature, shame in literature, and trauma and narrative. I have published essays and books chapters on a variety of authors, including Dorothy Allison, Margaret Atwood, Saul Bellow, Emily Dickinson, Ted Hughes, Franz Kafka, Toni Morrison, Edwin Muir, George Orwell, Richard Russo, and Christa Wolf, and I have also written books and articles on three authors that I routinely teach: Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, and Jamaica Kincaid.
Described variously as “Canada’s literary superstar,” as the “best known feminist novelist writing in English,” and as “one of the most important literary chroniclers of our time,” Margaret Atwood is an international bestseller and a canonized writer whose works have attracted intense academic interest, giving rise to a flourishing and international “Atwood industry” among literary critics. In Brutal Choreographies: Oppositional Strategies and Narrative Design in the Novels of Margaret Atwood, I make use of both feminist and psychoanalytic theory as I investigate the psychological and political concerns expressed in Atwood’s fiction, and I also show, through an analysis of the critical conversations surrounding Atwood’s fiction, that Atwood’s novels have the power to disturb and compel readers while calling attention to their preoccupation with form and design. Since the publication of Brutal Choreographies, I have published book chapters and essays on Atwood, including an essay on Atwood’s invocation of third-wave “power feminism” in The Robber Bride; on Atwood’s borrowing from a popular genre, the confessional memoir, in The Blind Assassin; and on Atwood’s satiric vision of a bioengineered and posthuman future in Oryx and Crake. I am also the volume editor for two forthcoming critical collections on Atwood: Critical Insights: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (Salem Press), and Margaret Atwood: The Robber Bride, The Blind Assassin, and Oryx and Crake (Continuum Press). Like Atwood, Nobel-prize winning author Toni Morrison is a literary superstar, an international bestseller, and a canonized writer whose novels have attracted intense interest among academic critics. In Quiet As It's Kept: Shame, Trauma, and Race in the Novels of Toni Morrison, I draw on the recent work of shame theorists and trauma investigators as I provide a frank and sustained look at issues of race, class, color, and caste in Morrison’s fiction. Elaborating on the kind of analysis I did in my earlier books, The Empathic Reader and Brutal Choreographies, I also explain critic-readers’ emotional involvement with Morrison’s fiction as I show how critic-readers act out both trauma- and shame-specific roles as they respond to Morrison’s troubled—and troubling—characters. And finally, in Jamaica Kincaid: Writing Memory, Writing Back to the Mother, I focus attention on the aspect of Kincaid that many critics find so enigmatic—what has been called the “mother mystery” that lies at the heart of her work. As I provide a sustained analysis of the psychological and affective dynamics of Kincaid’s work and investigate the complex ways that fantasies about the family and culture shape the construction of Kincaid’s autobiographical self and writer’s identity, I also discuss the reparative function of Kincaid’s writings, showing how Kincaid, through her on-going self-narration, becomes the self-authored “Jamaica Kincaid” and thus fashions for herself a literary life and storied writer’s identity that she finds livable.
The analysis of shame—often called the “master emotion” and described as the “most body-centered of all affects”—also informs my recent work on “body shame” in my forthcoming book, Embodied Shame: Uncovering Female Shame in Recent Women’s Writings. In Embodied Shame,I provide an analysis of representative works by contemporary women authors that deal with what I call embodied female shame—shame about the self and body—as I examine a series of coming-of-age narratives and also works that detail the plight of the anorexic and the obese woman, the plain and the ugly woman, the elderly woman, and the disfigured and disabled woman. Even as they uncover the cultural manipulation of women apparent in worrisome images of female bodies as defective, or spoiled, or damaged, or dirtied, the authors I investigate—Alice Munro, Dorothy Allison, Marita Golden, Edwidge Danticat, Naomi Wolf, Jenefer Shute, Anita Brookner, Doris Lessing, Fay Weldon, Margaret Laurence, May Sarton, Lucy Grealy and Nancy Mairs, among others—also seek a remedy to the shame that binds so many women in our contemporary culture of appearances.