Review: Catherine Spooner’s ‘Post-Millennial Gothic: Comedy, Romance and the Rise of Happy Gothic’

As with my previous review, I have some feelings to get out first about this book. I liked it a lot and I’m somewhat anxious about reviewing a book written by my potential PhD supervisor. I don’t want to be insulting or crass and I don’t want to be a suck up because these reviews (and this whole blog to some extent) is supposed to be an extended exercise that keeps my academic brain going. Also, it would be helpful to have a journal of ideas and thoughts I can refer to when filling out funding forms and doing the PhD. Okay, anxious/emotive bit done with, let’s try and be more critical.

Spooner’s Post-Millenial Gothic is a short text (a little over 100 pages) that works to challenge a lot of established paradigms within Gothic criticism. The main arguments it engages with is that A) Gothic is exhausted and doomed to endless repetitions that are constantly of lesser quality than ‘proper Gothic’ and B) Gothic is sad. By exploring Gothic in a literary and cultural sense alongside Goth as a subculture, Spooner works to present an argument that Gothic can be happy and celebratory. Consequently, this view also revitalises Gothic to some degree, countering point A and demonstrating point B.

Spooner has a clear level of expertise within this text. The extended sections on fashion and clothing are exemplar of this. Perceiving Gothic fashions through a positive lens is decidedly refreshing, and Spooner could easily have focused on this for all the chapters in the text, but she goes one step beyond this and treads ground she is not as familiar with. This is not a bad thing. Often, these sections are written as well because Spooner is clearly aware of her own critical and culturally contextual limitations. By pressing into new areas with a solid sense of her own limitations, Post-Millennial Gothic is so precise in breaking new ground that is effectively circumvents those usual weaknesses of academic texts of overreaching. For example, there is a brief section on drag. Spooner utilises her knowledge and research of vampires, fashion and camp to discuss drag and its done incredible effectively. There’s no attempt to suggest that this section is ‘right’, and it invites other scholars to dissect it (and other sections) in greater detail. It focuses on the referential nature of vampires, and draws comparison between Gothic referential tendencies and drag’s own referential tendencies. It’s a good scholarly approach to present something you have little familiarity, express interest, generate some insight using your existing knowledge and research, and then basically say ‘this is what I think, and it fits well from what I can gather into my current research [this book], but I think other scholars might be better equipped to discuss this at greater length.’ The text is also highly readable with Spooner being sparing on needlessly academic language, which is a big plus for any piece of scholarly material in my opinion.

Unfortunately, I can’t just say this was a fab book with lots of great lines of argument, because that would be no good for a proper review. This is a slim text that is packed with ideas and points for greater discussion. I get a sense there was a lot on the cutting room floor with Post-Millennial Gothic. And not to make this sound like a cop out, but the reason its good is also a point of weakness in the text. It could be easily argued that it is too full of points of discussion, meaning that some points are not discussed in enough detail. There’s an entire chapter dedicated to Burton, using his work as a prime example of Gothic visuality, and how narrative is delivered largely through visuals. That’s a comprehensive chapter. Then the chapter on the Whimsical Macabre, which is also a good chapter, jumps through a lot of different examples. I’m not sure if I like the mixture of extended case studies (Burton) and then something more theoretical that moves through a lot of examples. It might be something that reads worse than it is, I don’t know.

I also don’t like to use of Columbine and Sophie Lancaster’s murder as events that catalysed happy Gothic. That’s a personal dislike. I’m not a fan of the ‘massive event triggers equally massive cultural shift’ argument. It’s one of those notions that sounds good on paper, but can be very slippery to handle well and easily torn down. It’s a personal dislike of mine and probably nothing more than that to be honest.

My final point of criticism is that Spooner identifies an erasure of ‘women’s culture’ in existing (and principally male) academic Gothic criticism. Spooner states this right at the start of the text. It’s a valid point, but I don’t remember seeing it highlighted again throughout the text. There might be an assumption that lifestyle tv, fashion, twilight and so on are ‘women’s culture’ and so it is implicit throughout Post-Millennial Gothic. A little more signposting would have helped (I can also be incredible thick when reading, so I might just not have noticed it.)

Overall though, I think this is an excellent piece of work. It knows exactly what it is talking about, and isn’t afraid to say ‘I don’t know enough right now, but this is interesting’ when it doesn’t. I got a lot from this book (all the quotes are typed up on a separate document) and it has given me a lot to think about. It is packed with ideas and I think Spooner knows exactly what she is doing when it comes to demarcating this sub-field. She has carefully left room for other scholars to perform more in depth work on certain aspects of Happy Gothic, whilst providing multiple points of reference for those same scholars. It is as if Spooner has designed the Happy Gothic workshop. In the display cabinets (just roll with this metaphor) is the extended work she has done (e.g. the Burton chapter). Then, we are presented with the tools (imagine a camp file or a whimsical macabre lathe… I’ll stop now) and shown the basics of using them. Then, readers are invited to go off and make something of their own with the tools invented. I think the next phase of Happy Gothic research would be a collection of essays that can go into greater detail on some of the approaches put forward by Spooner in Post-Millennial Gothic.

The point is it’s a good book as an example of academic practice and as academic criticism.

TLDR

What I liked?

The section on drag. The chapter on whimsical macabre. The solid work done to present this ‘Happy Gothic’ (sub)cultural moment. Its readable. The good academic practice of inviting discussion from other scholars to improve, argue, and ultimately build research into Happy Gothic.

What I didn’t like?

The use of Columbine. The mix of extended case studies for certain chapters and smaller examples for other chapters. That some sections could probably have had more space given to them to breathe (again, that ‘there was a lot on the cutting room floor’ vibe was there when I was reading it.)

What I learnt?

Happy Gothic can be understood through multiple critical lenses, and probably benefits an interdisciplinary approach. Good academic practice when writing extended work. A whole lot more that won’t fit into a TLDR mini-section tbh.

 

Up next, I’m currently reading Paulina Palmer’s The Queer Uncanny, so that’ll turn up in a few weeks. I oughtto write an extended post that is my thoughts on something draggy at some point though. I should do that before another review. We’ll see.

Review: Marjorie Garber’s ‘Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety’

Right, let’s get the emotive bit out of the way before I get to the critical bit. I hated this book when I read it. I hate it now. I hate it for taking up 3 months of my life. It is an awful piece of writing. Okay, that’ll probably trickle throughout the review, but I’ll keep it as critical as possible. Also, my total lack of output for the last… several months is down to suddenly being made full time, and preparing for conferences. The next review is Catherine Spooner’s Post-millenial Gothic, which is a good piece of academic work.

Marjorie Garber’s Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety has a promising title for anyone interested in any form of cross-dressing. It’s a title that promises intimating something comprehensive, perhaps the book has been designed as an introductory text that won’t attempt grab at too many grand statements. It even has a nice pun.

Then, on opening the thing, alarm bells start ringing. You see it’s from 1992. Anyone who has ventured into the humanities academic texts of the 80s and 90s knows this isn’t a good sign. I’m not saying these texts are bad, but they mark a very culturally specific moment in Humanities scholarship. It is marked by texts like Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and Edward Said’s Orientalism. These are not bad texts. They are defining texts of many contemporary disciplines. They are, however, profoundly inaccessible. Humanities scholarship at this point decided it was going to write in an overly complex, comma heavy style. I have my own thoughts about this moment. They mainly situate this writing style as a kind of cultural anxiety that the topics being discussed need to be dressed up to be accepted by the established academe. It would make sense, considering the big academic texts (e.g. Orientalism) broached that entirely new and apparently ‘improper’ area of criticism: (very very) broadly, cultural studies. I think the writing style came from anxiety about new subject matter being ‘improper’ and was then popularised because these texts were also ground breaking. Vested Interests sits itself towards the end of the this period, where the writing style is firmly established, popular, and the dominant critical format.

The second alarm bell is that this person take a psychoanalytic approach. I am not in favour of this approach. Psychoanalysis has its place, but its grand unifying-ness makes it both easy to implement, and easy to get wrong. Garber falls into the latter often. The text overly applies this theory, as well as a crude attempt at being Derridean, in addition to its overly complicated writing style, to be totally inaccessible, and mostly incorrect. In terms of broad strokes, Garber uses the critical equivalent of a paint roller. In her own words, Garber ‘began this book by noting how frequently the phenomenon of cross-dressing, or transvestism, is looked through rather than at in critical and cultural analyses—how often, indeed how insistently, cultural observers have tried to make it mean something, anything, other than itself.’ To do this, Garber looks at every instance of cross-dressing she can think of: cross-dressing, transvestism, transgenderism (transsexualism in the book), drag, film, musicals, military shows. There are trips to the ‘Orient’, and time travel adventures to Early modern theatre. In all these examples, there is supposed to be this attempt to look at cross-dressing, rather than using it to an end. Garber does not do this. She does not focus on the cultural specificity of these instances of cross-dressing, working to collapse them into an archetypal ‘transvestite’ figure. In Vested Interests, cross-dressing in military shows serves the same purpose as drag and Harlem ball culture, which are the same as cross-dressing in Oriental cinema. Garber then collapses this further to fit this into a psychoanalytic lens. At this point, I’d also like to point out that Garber specialises in Early modern theatre, particularly Shakespeare. Yet, she has the audacity to lay claim to every instance of cross-dressing she can think of. There is no sense of self-awareness, no insistence that certain things are beyond the scope of her understanding (and judging by the bibliography, the scope of the research performed for this book.) There’s not even anything as simple as ‘I don’t really know much about this, and I will leave this area for other, better suited, scholars, but from what I can interpret, I think it’s really interesting.’ Or some similarly convoluted sentence admitting a lack of knowledge. It genuinely worries me how scholars can possibly be confident in their absolute knowledge of a field, just because no one has written directly on it.

Vested Interests is a hugely problematic text. It is mildly homophobic in places, has tended towards racism in others, and seemed to rely on a reader’s lack of knowledge to get away with certain theorisations of evidence. I remember the text referring to Marsha P. Johnson as a transvestite, and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence as some kind of performing troupe. The former is a gross misunderstanding of Marsha, who was a trans-woman and drag queen. The latter is a decidedly tactical use of language and reliance on a reader’s lack of knowledge. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were at no point simply a performing troupe. They have always (as far as my knowledge of them extends anyway) been an activist and charity drag organisation. Anyone using them as an example would know that context. I am somewhat astounded that such poor academic practice could be published, but perhaps that’s because of my own historical and contextual viewpoint.

With all that said, there are some positives to glean from this text. It is an influential text on cross-dressing, and it’s 390 pages of A4. There are a few select points of quality scholarship, once you’ve panned through all the silt. Its breadth is both a blessing and a curse in that way. If it was approached differently, with some statements admitting lack of total knowledge, whole swaths of text might have been viewed in a better light. And if anything, Vested Interests is a prime example of what not to do when producing academic scholarship.

Which brings me smoothly back to the title. At the point of entry, this seemed like a good title. When closing page 390, there is a glaring issue with it. It’s the word ‘anxiety’. It’s singular. Finishing the text, I realised this should have been my first warning signal. Cross-dressing, in all its culturally specific forms, with all the ways of approaching it, only enacts one cultural ‘anxiety’. On the front of the book is that attempt to collapse a highly varied medium that can only be fully understood within cultural contexts (plural) into a singular ‘anxiety’. Cross-dressing, for Garber, is the universal ‘third’, outside of, transgressing, and violating all binaries. It is singular, and enacts a singular ‘anxiety’, which expresses the book’s desire to collapse and reduce.

TLDR

What I liked?

There is an attempt to shed light on cross-dressing. There is an attempt to theorise it. There’s some solid stuff in there if you are willing to wade through the rest.

What I learnt?

There are some films, journal articles, and books I ought to follow up. What not to do when writing academic material. To keep it nuanced and specific.

What I didn’t like?

The breadth of material is too wide, and it’s obvious where Garber’s strengths and weaknesses lie. The Shakespeare was significantly more solid than the Orientalism. The needlessly complex language use. The overly complicated sentences. The grand sweeping statements, and attempt at grand unifying theories. They are bad. They go against the very intent of the book to look ‘at’ rather than ‘through’ cross-dressing by ignoring historical and (sub)cultural specificity. The bad academic practice of selectively ignoring facets of the material being discussed (e.g. the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence).

Book Review: Ardel Haefele-Thomas’ ‘Queer Others in Victorian Gothic’

 

In my PhD preparation, I ought to be reading academic textbooks. As there’s a literature review part of the PhD thesis (as far as I’m aware anyway), it makes sense that I review academic textbooks that I read. Then, I’ve got a neat log of my thoughts on the field I’m delving into. So this is that.

Queer Others in Victorian Gothic is the first textbook I picked up because it seemed like it would begin to plug some gaps in my knowledge. Specifically, I have no trouble finding drag queens to analyse using a Gothic critical toolkit, but it’s considerably harder finding texts (mainly books) that contain some semblance of drag. I approached this book with a specific desire to begin finding other texts to explore and to simultaneously delve more greatly into the field of queer Gothic. I wasn’t expecting miracles, as from my MA, I’ve found a sharp lack on critical material about drag specifically (especially in literary criticism), so queer gothic that emphasises otherness and transformation seemed like a good enough launch point. I am not intending to review this book too greatly, as my main criterion at the moment is “did it help me?”; beyond that I’m currently fairly easy to please (once I have more developed and nuanced opinions on queer gothic, that will likely change). Anyway…

Positives:

I found this textbook to be a well-written and concise starting point for understanding Queerness in Victorian Gothic. As an utter newbie to this area, I didn’t feel condescended to by the author’s tone; it was written with reasonable details through its case-study chapter structure. Additionally, points didn’t feel laboured, and on the whole the text didn’t outstay its welcome. It said what is wanted to say (more or less) within a fairly tidy 147 pages. I felt like it was a good starting point, which is what I was looking for.

with regard to drag, it was again a good start. Like all the other textbooks I read on my MA, there is this tendency to kind of skirt around the word ‘drag’, or to get *this* close to it, to indirectly talk about drag, but to never quite step into that realm. On the one hand, this is great, because nobody is writing about it, so I still have a valid PhD topic. On the other hand, it’s really annoying because it isn’t going that tiny bit far enough for me and my research.

Negatives (for me):

My main critique of the text comes from its desire to explore the intersections of Gothic, Queer, and Postcolonial theory. Overall, I found there to be a general tendency to lean more towards the intersection of postcolonialism and the Gothic, rather than comfortably sit at the intersection of all three areas. Conversely, when talking about queer Gothic, there was little mention of postcolonial elements. This isn’t strictly a bad thing, as these discussions were well-written and felt well-handled, but the very outset of the textbook stated its position at the intersection of all three, which I (possibly naively) assumed meant a consistent discussion of queer postcolonial Gothic. When it did align all three areas, there was a tendency to get listy, which in my opinion, is never a good thing.

This may have been down to the case study structure, as the chosen texts seemed to have lean more into postcolonial Gothic or Queer Gothic rather than sit comfortably at the intersection of these areas. It may also be because Queer and Postcolonialism are enormous topic areas, and cleanly intersecting them at the Gothic is a very large task that couldn’t be done in 147 pages (a potential publishing restriction as Queer Others in Victorian Gothic is part of The University of Wales Press’ ‘Gothic Literary Studies’ series), so it makes sense to lean more towards Queer or PoCo theoretical applications to Victorian Gothic. This is not to mention a further intersection as this text works to focus on bodies and embodiment (the post-colon part of the title is Transgressing Monstrosity).

With regard to drag, my criticisms aren’t unique to this text at all: there’s a constant skirting around this area (whether conscious or not, I cannot yet determine); I hate this persistent use of ‘drag’, ‘cross-dressing’, ‘transvestite’, and occasionally ‘transgender’ and ‘genderqueer’ as relatively interchangeable and synonymous terms. When I get to do my PhD, I am setting out clear discrepancies between these terms mostly out of necessity, somewhat out of annoyance and this peeve of mine.

Overall:

did it help me?

Yes, I believe this text has been a good start in positioning me in queer gothic. I have some useful quotations gathered from it, some academic texts to follow up, and some primary fiction to follow up as well.

Did I learn anything?

Again, yes. Specifically, I learnt that if I’m going to perform “drag readings” on Victorian Gothic texts, there’s a lot of coded language to signify queer things to other queers. And I learnt some stuff about queer Gothic, a drag ball in Manchester in 1880… and that reading the whole book is (unfortunately) useful. I’d only intended to read two chapters, but  seeing it was only 147 pages, thought I might as well read the whole thing, and the most useful chapters were the ones I had no intention of reading.

 

Basically, a good start for me.

 

Follow up from it:

Elizabeth Gaskell – ‘The Grey Woman’

Vernon Lees – ‘Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady’

M. Brock – From Wollstonecraft to Stoker: Essays on Gothic and Victorian Sensation Fiction

R. Collins – ‘Marian’s Moustache: bearded ladies, ladies, hermaphrodites, and intersexual collage in The Woman in White

E. Showalter – Speaking of Gender

R. B. Anolik(? Goddamn, I hate my shit handwriting) – Horrifying Sex: Essays on Sexual Difference in Gothic Literature

Leslie Feinberg – Transgender Warriors

Foucault (UGH WHY, but fine I’ll do it) – The History of Sexuality

Marjorie Garber – Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (!!!!!!GOLD!!!!!!)

Judith Halbestam – Skin Shows

– In a Queer Time and Place

Kelly Hurley – The Gothic Body: Sexuality, Materialism, and Degeneration at the Fin de Siecle

M. Duberman – A Queer World: The Center for Gay and Lesbian Studies Reader

Susan J. Nasarette – The Shape of Fear: Horror and the Fin de Siecle Culture of Decadence

R. Fantina – Straight Writ Queer: Non-normative Expressions of Heterosexuality in Literature

M. Eliason and B. Beemyn – Queer Studies: A Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Anthology