In this section, we report how our reading of Clarissa was shaped by its remediation as a blog. Some of the affordances and limitations of blogging Clarissa include:
- How collaborative writing on the blog enhanced collaborative reading strategies.
- How the blog opened up a space for affective as well as academic response.
- How the remediated Clarissa changed the act of reading, through new forms of accountability and affiliation.
- How blogging Clarissa transformed the kinds of conversations we were able to have in class meetings.
The genesis for this course was my reading of Clarissa, about 10 years ago, and my new interest in personal blogs, i.e., blogs that narrate the on-going story of someone’s life. When I first read Clarissa, I was struck by its utter novelty: the depth of its psychological insight, its innovations in form. I kept thinking hypertext, stream-of-consciousness, gender politics. I had Clarissa in the back of my mind when I started reading blogs for a project in another class I was teaching. I was particularly drawn to blogs that seemed to be structured around the on-going narrative of someone’s life. My sense that the narrative actions of a blog and the narrative actions of Clarissa were somehow analogous was strengthened when I found Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s (2007) claim that “these two factors [epistolary form and concern with personal experience] combine to suggest that blogs that are interested in the ongoing production of a personal narrative are in fact poised to become a literary form with all of the resonance and sophistication of the novel.” Were blogs poised to be “novels?” Was a novel like Clarissa a harbinger of the blog? I tried to think through these questions by speculating on the blog-like features of Clarissa and on the novelistic features of certain blogs. In particular, I looked to blogs that had thematic content similar to that of Clarissa: blogs that detailed rape or violence against women.
Alongside this attention to analogies between Clarissa and blogs was a long-standing interest in narrative theory, particularly how narrative shapes experiences or events to afford them specific meaning. In this webtext, the affordances of narrative appear most directly in the textual analyses of Clarissa and blogs. But on a more fundamental level, I also saw narrative in the acts of learning that this webtext documents. Understanding learning as a narrative means seeing the learner as an agent who is motivated towards the end: completing the novel, building an interpretation, writing a critical argument. This sense of learning as narrative resonates with Peter Brooks’s (1992) concept of “narrative desire,” or a relationship to narrative that carries us “forward, onward through the text” (p. 37). It is this idea of movement onward or toward a satisfactory ending that transforms the action of reading or learning into an embodied act of narrative desire. Narrative desire enters this webtext, then, in at least two ways. One is the mimetic narratives participants created in the remediation and analysis of Clarissa and the contemporary blog they analyzed; the other is the performative narrative they enacted as they read, analyzed, discovered, and constructed their arguments. Both narratives are central to this webtext.
One way that readership has changed since the 18th century when Clarissa was first published is the lack of a reading community. English students read texts for class and discuss them with a group, and book clubs are certainly a staple of 21st century reading practices. But something has been lost from the 18th-century practices of long-term reading as a community, of pouring over a text a chapter or two at a time as it is released serially. We rarely read texts as a group, and even when we do, it is rare for a group of people to launch an extended, long-term reading of a text. Even students and book club members generally read a book in either its entirety or in very large portions (thirds or halves at a time) before meeting to discuss it. The writers of this blog chose to read this text together over the course of a semester, but I argue that it was not through this choice but rather through the affordances of a blog that we were able to perform as a reading community and thus interact with one another and the text in new and exciting ways.
By remediating the novel as a blog, we opened a space for discussion of the text that is physically not possible in the classroom and unlikely to happen spontaneously among a group of people. The mechanism of choosing specific letters and themes to discuss each week helped those involved work through particular elements of the text, even when that specific part was not discussed in class. The process of choosing and commenting on letters helped us all engage with the text throughout the week, rather than only on Tuesday nights.
Often, class discussions revolve around academic responses to a text, but the blog allowed for both personal and academic discussion of Clarissa. We were able to discuss our frustrations with the characters, our deeply emotional responses to various characters’ deaths, and still compose arguments about specific themes or passages through the comments on each letter. This was incredibly useful and helped engage the group of readers both personally and academically, broadening our interaction with the text and with our reading community.
Remediating Clarissa as a blog changed the acts of both writing and reading for me—highlighting affordances of collaboration in digital spaces, some of which I had experienced previously (but not nearly as in-depth or for as lengthy a time as the entire read of Clarissa), and some of which were new to me as a first-semester PhD student returning to a very different version of graduate education in English than I had exited 5 years prior.
ClarissaBlogs first changed the act of writing for me through the dialogic structure of a blog. With a different student curating a volume of the novel each week, I encountered different patterns in editing and posting, and I also found letters online that I may or may not have focused on in my own reading of the novel (since there were always numerous letters and countless possible angles of approach). In short, of course, this changed what I wrote, pushing me to focus on passages in writing which may not have been the same ones I focused on while reading, and sending me running to my novel to read or re-read the context of a particular letter. Inevitably, this altered my attention to moments in the text that I might have otherwise dismissed or skimmed over, providing a richer (though more time-consuming) read. As we proceeded later in the semester, remediating Clarissa as a blog also shaped the common themes we attuned to and ultimately tagged (sometimes retrospectively), which changed the shape of our conversations and the blog itself.
Remediating Clarissa also changed the act of reading for me, through accountability and affiliation, in ways that differed from previous literature (or other) courses or shared reading experiences. Altering the traditional read(alone)-write(alone)-discuss(together) format, we read the novel on our own, then responded online to posts of selected letters, and then commented on each other’s responses before coming to class to discuss the volume face-to-face. So we were, in a sense, reading the book together, and paying close attention to the letters selected by one of our peers, and then reading and responding to each other’s thoughts and comments on these. All of this was particularly beneficial for such a lengthy work that requires so much time, attention, and careful attunement—to all 1499 pages of it.
Both the epistolary novel and the blog are inherently fluid, and thus unstable. We see these characteristics in Richardson’s Clarissa as each letter builds on previous letters, adding to the story, and causing the characters’ identities to constantly remain in flux. The reader (and writer) must similarly anticipate new additions and reassess the characters and the story as a whole as it progresses.
Terry Eagleton (1982) pointed to these shifts: “A novel today is usually a finished, seamless product; Richardson’s works, by contrast, are more usefully thought of as kits, great unwieldy containers crammed with spare parts and agreeable extras, for which the manufacturer never ceases to churn out new streamlined improvements, ingenious additions and revised instruction sheets” (p. 20). Eagleton’s (1982) analysis highlights the epistolary novel’s “unwieldy” nature that we confront as we try to read and remediate Richardson’s lengthy novel.
Eagleton’s (1982) use of the term “kit” further implies that the epistolary novel (unlike more modern novels) is unstable and perhaps constantly in progress—very much like the narratives of blogs. In our class, we documented these similarities as we remediated Clarissa in this blog project. We noted that the blog’s reverse chronological order, similar to the epistolary novel, requires a constant reassessment of the story, as each post (and each user’s comments, for that matter) build(s) on the previous story. The fluidity of the blog’s story could perhaps be seen as a result of it similarly functioning as a “kit” for the writer to build something better, something more seamless and improved.
This fluidity of Clarissa and of the blog medium similarly allows for constant refiguring and reassessment, thus leaving more room for discovery for both the reader and the writer as the story progresses. For example, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick (2007) suggested, the constant building of the character in relation to the day’s or moment’s events compels and requires readers to constantly reassess the character. Elaborating on this point, Fitzpatrick quoted Steve Himmer (2004) who claimed that “as one day’s posts build on points raised or refuted in a previous day’s, readers must actively engage in the ‘discovery’ of the author” (p. 169). Fitzpatrick also described the “instability” (p. 180) of the blog, a term I think that became especially important to our class’s discussion of the blog and the epistolary novel—as both compel us to continue reading as we try to make sense of the content and of the characters performing the various writing roles.
Immersed in the scholarship of rhetoric and composition for the past several years, I began this seminar on Clarissa feeling out of practice in the study of literature. I admit to having some reservations about reading this 1500-page novel as a re-initiation into that study, so it came as a surprise when I found myself so invested in Clarissa’s world. This investment was partly a result of the fact that Clarissa is an unexpectedly engrossing novel. But the investment was also heightened because the ways we read and wrote about the novel helped us tap into a set of reading and writing practices that deepened our reading and enabled us to reshape and write back to the novel. This semester-long project afforded us several insights that relate to our field’s goal to make greater connections between our work as scholars and our work with undergraduate as well as graduate students.
As part of studying the novel, remediating Clarissa provided us with reading and writing practices that are more conventional in blogs than in academic writing and discourse. We read individually during the week, then we read the novel as excerpted by the members of the seminar, according to what was most remarkable or salient in that particular volume’s letters. Similarly, one’s personal blog represents a narrative construction of one’s life and identity while readers recognize that a larger, more complex narrative occurs off the interface. The members of our seminar came to appreciate the narrative construction of Clarissa that took shape on the blog. We soon realized that we were able to adopt blog conventions around response in our reading of the text. By commenting on individual letters as if on a blog, we collapsed barriers that typically exist across time and between readers and writers.
We were also invited to become part of Clarissa’s life. In fact, as readers we seemed as likely to respond in order to vent our private thoughts and frustrations while reading the novel as we were to engage in deep, critical analyses of individual passages, or of Richardson’s rendering of Clarissa’s struggles. In this sense we moved between the personal and the academic—categories that the blog asked us to challenge. Since the space of the blog permitted a rich variety of responses to the novel, the boundaries of academic and personal writing blurred. Though our responses to the letters developed from our years as readers and writers in the academy, the blog invited us to value ourselves as readers who responded affectively to Clarissa’s life and death. As a result, our embodied responses to the novel (whether we cried or expressed anger or grief) became available—and were validated—as academic responses.
For me, the most obvious affordances in blogging Clarissa are the affordances of digital communication; space and time worked differently in the experience we shared than they do in other graduate seminars I’ve participated in.
In terms of space, the blogging moved the story out of the novel. Moving the narrative into another space allowed for a different kind of focus on what was significant. We spent a good deal of time talking about similarities between “letters” and “blogs,” but choosing what out of the novel to include, which chunks of letters were most “bloggy,” underscored not only that there may be significant differences between the audience(s) for blogs, letters, and novels, but also helped us as a group of readers to hone in on what a particular letter in the novel would be most productive to think about. What things would we take with us when we moved, and what might be left behind? Answering that question collectively helped us to arrive at what we all saw as central concerns for this particular reading—questions of narrative, identity, and authority. All of which the blog worked toward answering as a collective, rather than individual document.
That the document was produced outside of the space of the classroom I think is also important, because it changed the way time works in a seminar as well. John Steinbeck remarks in East of Eden that “Eventlessness has no posts to drape duration on. From nothing to nothing is no time at all.” The long space between weekly seminar meetings can be productive in terms of reading and thinking, but the more frequent interactions we had through the blog made for a more continuous conversation that was helpful for me in sustaining thoughtful engagement through some of the longer, less “eventful” passages in the novel; frequently, blog posts during the week encouraged me to go back and re-examine passages that seemed “eventless” to me. Productive discussion with a group of engaged readers was enhanced by the blog’s ability to carry on that conversation outside of the weekly time slot of our seminar. The constant contact and re-thinking made for a reading experience that was fuller.
Clarissa as a novel forces a great deal of attention on time: each of the letters carries a time stamp and part of the fun of reading it is parsing out the timeline in the separate streams of letters. Our conversations focused often on the volume of writing Clarissa and Lovelace were capable of producing in a day; we often wondered how they had time to do anything else! In this sense, I think, producing the blog was a kind of parallel to what was happening in the novel. The daily or sometimes even hourly composition of our blog posts and responses, and waiting to see what others comments might be, helped us think back through the kind of constant written communication that comprises Clarissa.
Other members of our class have already commented smartly on what we all gained—as readers and writers—in re-mediating Richardson’s Clarissa into a blog-like structure, working as readers and writers within the blog that was the class itself, reading and responding to important theoretical essays on the nature of blogs, and then bringing all of that creative and analytical work to bear during our weekly meetings. I’d like to comment more narrowly on the three kinds of immediacy we seem to have experienced in our actual reading of and involvement with the novel, in blogging about that experience, and in the in-person conversations enabled by the classroom situation.
That Clarissa was felt by all of us with a surprising immediacy is confirmed by the vivid emotional nature of many of our comments on the novel—and I imagine such strong reactions were a surprise to most of us, given the medium through which Richardson chooses to tell the novel’s story: letters. But Richardson’s genius in creating deep and nuanced voices for every correspondent involved in the story’s telling brought that story to life with startling vividness and reality. And so the story’s own inherent drama comes through very powerfully. But, as the title of my piece is meant to remind, everything in the novel is obviously mediated by the language of fiction (one we’re all experienced in engaging) and by a particular historical form (the epistolary novel, with which we’re far less experienced). Recognizing those means by which Richardson draws us in so powerfully is helpful in drawing the contrasts—rather than the connections—between novel and blog.
As a blog, Clarissa loses many traditional literary qualities associated with a print novel. For instance, the dramatic scenes Lovelace writes in Letter 214 move from being written like a play in print to resembling an Instant Messaging conversation in an electronic blog. That is to say, the letters that appear so formal in print become casual and modern in an electronic medium such as the blog.
Further, the idea of editions, as found in printed texts, is lost as Clarissa becomes a blog. Clarissa‘s author, Samuel Richardson, made changes through various editions that were based in part on his engagement and correspondence with his audience. As a blog, Clarissa would have the potential to be similarly changed and edited, but its original format may be lost with revisions unless each draft was saved and uploaded separately or cached in an online database. Only in later editions can a print author make changes or revisions based on audience response. Richardson was a printer and publisher who had the unique rights to change and print his work at will. Today it is much harder for an author to make numerous editions of a work without consent of a publisher or even his literary agent.
In a blog post, one can easily edit and make changes, whereas with a hand-written letter (of the sort contained in Clarissa) one must start over or leave a visible marker of mistakes, such as scratched out words or the use of white-out. Also, a letter cannot be changed, “deleted,” or called back once it has been sent to its recipient. A blog post, however, can be easily posted and deleted before anyone reads it, or can even be set to “private” so that it’s available to only a select few. While blogs can be “written” in different fonts, the fonts are not necessarily unique to the blog and are quite standard to many word processors. Letters, on the other hand, can display handwriting unique to the individual. Blogs can provide links and images to things that a blogger likes, but letters can have drawings by the same hand that wrote the letter. Then again, a blog can upload images of letters complete with the blogger’s handwriting. The voice present in the blog can tell the readers when something is rushed or written in an emotional moment, and so on. Hand-written letters can also show these emotions and hurriedness at first glance based on the handwriting alone.