- ASECS at 50:Interview with Susan S. Lanser
Many of us know Susan S. Lanser for her groundbreaking contributions to narratology, eighteenth-century studies, and queer & feminist theory. Amongst her many professional honors, she served as president of ASECS from 2017 to 2018 and is the 2020 recipient of the Wayne C. Booth Lifetime Achievement Award for contributions to narrative studies. Now Professor Emerita of Comparative Literature, English, and Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Brandeis, Lanser has also taught at the University of Maryland and Georgetown. She has produced several monographs and several more edited collections along with countless articles. Some of her influential works include: "Toward a Feminist Narratology" (1986), "Feminist Criticism, 'The Yellow Wallpaper,' and the Politics of Color in America" (1989), Fictions of Authority: Women Writers and Narrative Voice (Cornell, 1992), "The Novel Body Politic" (2005), "Of Closed Doors and Open Hatches" (2012), and The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic, 1565–1830 (Chicago, 2014).
For me, The Sexuality of History is a crowning moment in Lanser's ca-reer—mostly because of its impulse to do away with the notion of the closet. Lan-ser's sapphic history reveals an inspiring truth that resounds throughout the entire body of her work: those voices we have elided as repressed, closeted, or silenced have actually been there all along—out in the open platforms of history. They are the forces that have shaped modernity and literary form. The issue lies in their reception. What changes history are the readers who bear witness (or fail to bear witness) to the diverse ideologies and ontologies voicing themselves on the page.
At stake here is how we read literature and textual documents. For Lanser, reading is part and parcel to history-making from her earlier work on culturally-embedded [End Page 351] point of view and feminist narratology to her more recent work on modernity and the sapphic. In her recent PMLA article, "Aging with Austen," Lanser addresses how we read the same texts differently across the decades depending on the cultural impulses and trends of the moment: "Reading over time, in this sense, may well mean using newer critical rubrics to hang on to old literary loves" (655). In this, she argues that interpretive communities shape, and even control, the ways that literary critics read. Reflecting on her career to date, Lanser writes: "A quiet thread through some of the scholarship I've produced since my late fifties asks whether novels have any effect in fomenting social change . . . (657)" For me, this thread is not so quiet. Rather, Lanser's oeuvre persistently points to the powers of reading, suggesting that how we read influences history. The implication serves as a warning to emergent generations of literary critics that the past is never far from our present. Ideology is always in the making and yet never divided from the historical nuances of literary form. In both her scholarship and her leadership, Lanser asks us to consider those voices that are yet unheard, to read between the lines in order to find a history constituted by diverse ethnicities, sexualities, and genders.
What does ASECS mean to you?
Ideally, ASECS enables sociability in the most active eighteenth-century sense of the term, which puts conversation at its core. I experience the annual meeting as a space of intellectual, professional and personal exchange that makes me better at how I think and what I do. It offers a forum for taking our collective pulse: for reflecting on the state of the field and the profession, for trying out new ideas and responding to the new ideas of our colleagues, for testing theories and discovering scholarly resources. Innovative projects often emerge from both formal sessions and informal conversations; co-authorships and co-editorships get started; plans for panels emerge in conversations that transpire from one year to the next. Research tells us that the most generative intellectual situation is not that of the scholar working in isolation but the sparking that takes place in a pair or a group. At its best, then, ASECS offers me—and I hope, most of...