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  • Why Do I (Feel That I) Have to Read Like That?A Graduate Student's Perspective
  • Greg Bechtel (bio)

As a publication-Hungry graduate student, my first reaction upon being invited to contribute to this forum was, "Yes! Of course!" As a self-doubting grad student, my second reaction was more along the lines of, "Hey wait a second. Am I really qualified to do this?" At this point, the anxiety set in, corollary to the fabled impostor syndrome that afflicts all phd students. After all, anxiety is the bread and butter of graduate student existence: anxiety over papers, marks, candidacy exams, the eventual job market—and of course one mustn't forget the transcendent signifier itself, the looming absence of the as-yet-unwritten dissertation. However, it occurred to me in a moment of desperation-slash-inspiration that one topic upon which I could confidently hold forth was precisely this anxiety of which I speak. For contextual examples, then, I shall use myself, in all my anxiety-ridden glory.

I am writing my dissertation on contemporary Canadian fantasy, which is a wonderfully marginal and non-canonical topic. On the one hand, this marginality could be considered advantageous, because we all "know" that the high/low cultural divide has gone the way of the dodo, and in a postmodern, poststructural, postimperial era, the margins are definitely the place to be if you want to get in on the [End Page 4] action. However, things can get a little dicey out on these particular margins, particularly when it comes to ruminating over the Canadian ness of Canadian popular genres. Here, I tend to agree with Geoff Ryman, a Canadian sf writer who argues that "Nobody in their right minds wants a national identity. Canadians are lucky they don't have one" (1). Yet in spite of my own distinctly anti-nationalist leanings, I find myself strangely compelled to return to questions of Canadian-ness (that is, of "nation" and "period") in formulating my project. And upon asking myself the question "Why do I (feel that I) have to read like that?" the answers expose a veritable laundry list of graduate student anxieties.

Because I Want to Get a Job (Employment Anxieties)

The simplest answer is quite practical: When I graduate, I want to be employable, and I have seen no job postings for Canadian positions specializing in fantasy, speculative fiction, or even popular genres.1 On an abstract, theoretical level, following Benedict Anderson's lead, we as a discipline seem to enjoy deconstructing essentialized narratives of nation almost as much as we do those of race, ideology, and gender. However, on a more concrete administrative level, English department hiring practices are still largely informed by the underlying categories of nation and period. Thus, to apply for existing job postings, I would be wisest to market myself as a Canadianist, possibly with a sub-specialization in contemporary literature and/or popular genres. Of course, this is an oversimplification. As the most obvious alternative, I could jump ship from the nation-and-period crew to instead market myself as a specialist in some form of contemporary theory. In this case, selecting a theoretical camp shouldn't present a problem, since we all "know" that one cannot read literature without (at least implicitly) espousing some sort of literary theory—even if that theory is something as simple (and typically invisible) as arbitrarily defining the properties of Great Literature and appointing oneself the de facto arbiter, purveyor, and gatekeeper of Literary Quality.

However, although the humanist (a.k.a. imperialist) canon of great books has faded away in favour of a sort of textual multiculturalism (or perhaps multi-perspective-ism), a new form of canonicity reappears in the [End Page 5] very same theory camps that most vehemently eschew canons in general. In this context, I find myself faced with a relatively limited set of respectable and accepted (that is, canonical) theoretical frameworks, bound to decide if I want to position myself as a postcolonialist, a poststructuralist, a practitioner of queer theory, or perhaps a cultural studies scholar. Unfortunately, I cannot in good conscience represent myself as any of these things. Rather, I have discovered...


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