From ClarissaBlogs, we draw three major conclusions:

  • Complex literary texts, such as Clarissa, can provide rich sites of analysis and a robust perspective on the power of narrative in self construction; these are issues of continuing relevance to composition and rhetoric.
  • Textual analysis is important in understanding how both print and digital genres work.
  • Students can benefit by learning analytic methods that allow them to engage deeply and specifically with complex texts.

The Value of Reading and Analyzing a Novel Such as Clarissa

In focusing on Clarissa as one of our primary texts, we focus on a book that foregrounds writing. Indeed, one might argue that nothing “really happens” in Clarissa except writing. The book consists of nothing but letters, and many of the letters deal with their own acts of production or reception (including writing letters, reading letters, hiding letters, intercepting letters, describing letters, etc.). So, in one sense, Clarissa is a special case. It is a literary text that is about composition. Nevertheless, it is most certainly a literary text, and may be not only the longest but also one of the most complex ever written. Clarissa provides an extraordinarily detailed and intensely subtle consideration of how writing works. It invites and illustrates the power of textual analysis.

It is unlikely Clarissa as a novel will ever be repeated. Richardson (1748/1985) used the epistolary form to solve many of the problems of representation—particularly how to portray consciousness—that the new genre of the novel had yet to deal with; it would not be until Henry James that novel readers would see anything close to the detailed exploration of consciousness Richardson (1748/1985) provided. Further, many of Richardson’s (1748/1985) narrative strategies reappear, in similar and different ways, in the blog, as well as micro-blogs such as text-message, Twitter, and Facebook status-update novels. Though not all such digital texts are structured the same way, many are written, as was Clarissa, as an ongoing narrative of a person’s life.

Examining an extraordinarily ambitious, high-culture literary text and a range of non-professional blogs, we came to a more robust understanding of how narrative and writing contribute to a sense of self. This understanding would not have been possible had we read only Clarissa or only blogs. It was in their juxtaposition that our real argument was born.

The Benefits of Textual Analysis

Textual analysis has long been an important tool for rhetoric and composition, helping us understand how texts work to communicate and persuade— what Bazerman and Paradis (1991) called “textual dynamics.” We argue that such analysis remains vital not just for complex print texts but also for new digital genres such as blogs. For us, textual analysis, drawn from a variety of disciplines, offered systematic ways to interrogate how textual features of written texts construct and communicate narratives that result in new definitions of the self.

Of course, blogs are more than writing; they can employ images, links, tags, and other tools to narrate a self. And we include reference to these tools (as well as consideration of Richardson’s publishing techniques) in our analysis. But the heart of the texts we have chosen to examine use writing as the predominant form of semiosis. If we are to understand how these texts create meaning and communicate it to others, we need to understand how they work, not simply in the abstract, but in their own particular specificities. Textual analysis, of the sort we have performed here, has been the means by which our argument grew.

Offering Students Spaces to Make Connections To Texts They Read

ClarissaBlogs began in a graduate seminar. What differentiated this class from most of the other literature or composition classes the instructor has taught was the degree of participant engagement with complex texts. The productivity of this engagement was primarily because of the participants’ abilities, but reflexive response also seemed to be promoted by the juxtaposition of print and digital genres and by the blog itself.

One of the most surprising consequences of this class was the ways in which we, as participants, felt empowered to respond to Clarissa. While the blog responses at first (and often continued to) read like academic “response papers,” they increasingly communicated the kind of affective response (feelings of sadness, happiness, worry, frustration, even hatred) not usually performed in classrooms. The affordances of the blog seemed partially responsible—the immediacy of responses it allowed, the sense of a reading community it evoked, the informality it promoted. These affective responses often became the skeleton of our more formal academic responses, such as those included in the four-part section on “Epistolary Novels and Blogs” and the analyses of contemporary blogs in “Blogs We Follow.”

Although Clarissa is a very long novel, we practiced “slow reading,” primarily by selecting those aspects of the novel we thought most relevant to our concerns. In this sense, “slow reading” is, itself, a form of interpretation and analysis. Choosing a letter and making it into a blog entry, along with responding to these entries, became the most significant way into the novel for each of us. The blogs of Clarissa and Lovelace—as we constructed and responded to them—thus afforded a unique kind of space for engagement, interpretation, and argument.

This engagement with Clarissa was furthered by relating the novel to the kinds of texts we might read outside the classroom, that is, the blogs we chose to analyze. The hybrid juxtaposition of Clarissa and the blogs we followed allowed us to make new connections not only between novels and blogs, but also in terms of our our own construction of narrative identity. ClarissaBlogs tells the story of us as readers as much as it does the stories narrated in Clarissa and in blogs, and it is in the composition of ClarissaBlogs that we (as we both show and tell) were able to develop and instantiate our argument.


We wish to acknowledge the many people who helped in the construction of ClarissaBlogs. First we thank Dr. Glynis Ridley, Chair of English at the University of Louisville, who helped us situate Clarissa in 18th-century reading practices. (Any errors, of course, remain our own.)  We also thank Dr. Cindy Selfe, who read an early version of this webtext, and offered her usual enthusiasm and suggestions. We are also grateful to the reviewers at Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy who read this project with great care and attention, and who offered multiple suggestions for improvement.  Thanks also to Meghan Hancock, who was a participant in the seminar and whose responses to the letters are included in the final version.

About Us

Debra Journet is Professor of English and University Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Louisville. Her scholarship centers on narrative theory in relation to evolutionary biology, composition research methods, and new digital genres. With Cheryl Ball and Ryan Trauman, she is editor of The New Work of Composing, winner of the 2013 Computers and Composition Book of the Year award.

Steve Cohen is a PhD student in rhetoric and composition at the University of Louisville. His research interests are at the intersection of narrative theory, identity, and disability studies. He is currently working as Assistant Director of Composition and teaching Business Writing.

Rachel Gramer is a PhD student in rhetoric and composition at the University of Louisville. Her research interests are rhetorical genre studies, discourse analysis, and the rhetorics of crisis in public education. Her current teaching interests lie in the intersections of pedagogy, technology, and professional development aimed at writing instruction.

Megan Faver Hartline is a PhD student in rhetoric and composition at the University of Louisville. Her research interests include community literacy, public discourse, and the circulation (and mapping) of texts and ideas. You can find her further thoughts on these subjects on Twitter.

Keri Mathis is a PhD student in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Louisville. Her research involves analyzing women’s letterwriting produced during the English Renaissance and tracing the ways that shifts in media (particularly the shift from manuscript to print) affect how texts are produced, interpreted, and circulated.

Tony O’Keeffe is Professor Emeritus of English at Bellarmine University. His continuing research interests include multimodal textuality and autobiographical theory.

Kendra Sheehan is a lecturer for classical and modern Languages and a doctoral student in Humanities at the University of Louisville. Her research interests involve the intersections of popular culture, literature, and religion, with a special interest in Japan.

Jessica Winck is a PhD student in Rhetoric and Composition at University of Louisville. Her research interests include literacy studies, rhetorical theory, and discourses about student writers and writing.