Public Thinker: Merve Emre Throws a Party for Different Readers

“One way to think about the act of annotating is that you are that meddlesome party gossip, telling the reader how to draw connections between the different parts of the text.”

To call Merve Emre an associate professor of English at Oxford is only to name one of many identities. A Turkish American polymath who is a contributing writer at the New Yorker, Emre has written on topics ranging from the institutions that shaped the Cold War­–era reception of US literature (in her 2017 book, Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America) to the history of the Myers-Briggs test (2018’s The Personality Brokers). She has also experimented with genres ranging from general-audience essays (The Atlantic, the New York Times Magazine) to multi-author projects (The Ferrante Letters, with Sarah Chihaya, Katherine Hill, and Jill Richards, which came out in 2019).

Her latest publication is something different again: a new edition of an often-edited novel. As someone who’s always been interested in literary intermediaries—abridgers, censors, transcribers, cataloguers—I jumped at the chance to ask Merve Emre about the challenges of this latest role. We talked on Zoom in September.

Leah Price (LP): I was not surprised when I heard that you were working on Mrs. Dalloway. But I was puzzled when it turned out that what you were working on was not a monograph or an article or the kind of essay of which you’re written so many, but an edition. It’s a constraining genre; there are many kinds of things that literary critics like to do that you can’t do in an edition. It’s almost like a fixed poetic form that has, for better and worse, its own rules.

Why did you choose to engage with this text through an edition? What did you learn from doing an edition that you wouldn’t have learned in some other scholarly genre?


Merve Emre (ME): One of the things I really like about doing an edition is that it gives you the opportunity to be many kinds of reader at once. There is a promiscuity to the types of readerly identities that you can take on, which is less available when you are writing an article or possibly even a monograph. In those forms, there needs to be a consistency of approach, a consistency of argument, and often, due to the constraints of time and space, you can proffer only a single argument, maybe two, to your reader.

The beauty of doing an annotated edition was that I could inhabit many different kinds of scholarly and nonscholarly personae, more or less in tandem. One of those personae is the attentive historicist reader, who is working throughout the introduction and the annotations to put the novel in its proper sociohistorical context.

Another is the appreciative interpreter, who is doing what most annotators do not: seizing on particular sentences, passages, aesthetic constructs like character, and offering the reader mini lectures on those segments or fragments of text.

Finally, there is the creative reader: the reader who is interested in creating some continuity between the voice that authors the novel and the voice that one encounters in the annotations. You see this most clearly when I’m talking about background characters one glimpses throughout the novel, characters whose names appear as decorative artifacts. For instance, in the name of the timepiece shop that Clarissa walks by, “Dent & Co.” Or in “Rumpelmayer,” the name of the confectioner whose employees are coming to take the doors off their hinges. It became an opportunity to extend Woolf’s own project of creating character by constructing mini biographies of the unobtrusive, not-even-rising-to-the-status-of-minor characters who populate the novel.

So those are just some examples of the different kinds of reader that I thought doing an annotated edition allowed me to inhabit. But that’s only the first answer.


LP: Go for the second answer.


ME: The second and just more pragmatic answer is that I started doing this in March 2020, when schools shut down and my children were at home.

I’m a writer who really needs an open eight hours in order to work on a book. At that time, I realized that I could not work on the academic monograph that I was trying to finish. But I didn’t only want to write articles. This was the perfect project for the time constraints of taking care of children during lockdown. One can annotate in snatches of two or three hours, whereas I have trouble writing substantive chapters in two- or three-hour increments. That’s another reason why I thought doing the work of annotation during this time felt like a good way to direct what had become a limited set of resources.


LP: It’s interesting that you explain editing as a response to domestic work. Because, sometimes, universities (more on my side of the Atlantic than on your side) tend to frame editing as a feminized service work. It’s caring for the text, cleaning it up, setting the table for the real literary-critical event.

Obviously, you and I are skeptical of both the value judgement attached to that domestic work and the value judgement attached to that editorial work. Yet one of the interesting things for me about seeing a scholar with your public profile engaging in what has sometimes been defined as the “dirty work” or the “grunt work” of academia is that you are lending it prestige.


ME: I have become interested in a slightly different capacity in the history of editing and its relationship to the discipline of philology. When I started annotating Mrs. Dalloway, the other thing I was also doing was beginning a chapter on the disciplinary history of philology and its various manifestations in the present. And one of the things that chapter argues is that the remnants of philological work—like editing, the authentication of textual editions, the creation of an authentic text, translation—have become feminized enterprises, and that, as feminized enterprises, they are increasingly performed by contingent laborers, in institutions that sit outside of departments and divisions. And one of the things that was interesting to me about Mrs. Dalloway, in particular, is that the novel itself is so explicit about the kinds of feminized parallels between the work of authoring a text and the work of organizing a party.

So there’s a sense in which this was actually the perfect novel to make visible that feminized dimension of the philological practice of choosing an edition, editing it, cleaning it up, prettifying it. And it was also a perfect opportunity to think about the different ways that that practice could be done. My goal was not to confront the reader with a boring, scholarly series of footnotes pointing him or her to places and dates. Instead, I wanted to help to create a new text and a new mode of interacting with that text, on the margins of what we think of as “the real literary-critical event.”

The beauty of doing an annotated edition was that I could inhabit many different kinds of scholarly and nonscholarly personae, more or less in tandem.

LP: This is not an Oxford world’s classic, it’s not a paperback reprint that gets assigned chiefly in college classrooms. One of the most puzzling and fascinating things about this is the physical object. It hovers uneasily on the border: Is it big and heavy and hardback and squared-off because it is a textbook for use in the classroom? Or is it big and heavy and hardback and squared off, because it is a coffee table book?

The cover is, if you’ll pardon the cliché, Instagrammable. And, looking at the layout of the book, I was torn between seeing it as something like a double-columned newspaper or a double-columned textbook, or as a website with sidebars, or as something like what people in Virginia Woolf’s youth referred to as a grangerized or extraillustrated book, meaning a book that has been disbound and cut open and then interleaved with illustrations to turn it into a scrapbook.

Can you say something about how you were trying to redefine what a scholarly edition is and for which of those promiscuous readerly identities it is designed?


ME: What exactly is the genre of this book? Is it a scholarly edition, is it a coffee table book? When I was putting it together, my thought was that it could be both of those things and more. That it could show us how those genre categories are insufficient or can be transcended to offer the reader something like an education: a pleasurable education, both historic and aesthetic, within the covers of a single book object.

When I was putting it together—in collaboration with the amazing designers at Norton—we were thinking very carefully about how you can create a single book that does the work of many other kinds of books. So, the genre question, I’m afraid, is not an easily answerable one. But that is the point of this edition.


B-Sides: Virginia Woolf’s “Flush”

By Debra Gettelman


LP: At the start, you talked about creating an occasion for yourself to inhabit a promiscuity of different readerly identities. So that it’s not simply that you’re writing for a multitude for different kinds of readers, but, rather, that you are laying out for each reader a bundle or a braid of different kinds of reading experience. And I love your metaphor of the edition as a party—an antidote to the idea of a critical edition as dull assigned reading.

I especially love the parallel that seems to be implicit in what you’re saying, between your decision to transcribe the text with your own hands—your own fingers—rather than outsourcing that work. And in the first line of the novel, Mrs. Dalloway says she’ll buy the flowers herself: the novel opens with the mistress of the house deciding not to delegate to servants a kind of work that is both aesthetic and manual. So, one direction in which we might take that is your argument about the value of different kinds—or, rather, different combinations—of scholarly labor. This series, after all, is called Public Thinker; it encourages guests to talk about the relation between their more inside-baseball scholarly writing and their more general-audience writing.

Part of what I love about this edition is that you’re disentangling the question of narrow versus wide audience from the question of assigned reading versus pleasure reading. And there’s the additional twist that an edition like this is likely to reach not only more readers than a scholarly monograph ever will, but possibly more readers than some of your general-audience writing.


ME: For very good reasons, we tend to think of ourselves as writing to an already known audience—to an audience whose preferences or desires are known, but also who ascribe to certain professional norms of what reading and writing ought to look like.

For the last year or so particularly—as I write more and more about older or relatively unknown authors in places like the New Yorker or the New York Review of Books—I have felt a little bit hubristic about my ability to instantiate my own audience. I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant at all. I don’t mean to imply that I don’t care about the received preferences or norms of audiences, or that they don’t matter. Instead, I’m saying that I think there is more space for creating, or cultivating, readers who are interested in literary objects and in ways of reading them that academics might think of as discipline specific, or as strictly academic. This book, and its exploding form is, in part, part of that larger project that I think of myself and my work as participating in.


LP: It’s a happy thought that you have formulated, about the emergent nature of audiences—that they aren’t waiting out there for us to address them: we, or you, shape them and call them into being in the act of writing. And that seems especially crucial for this particular edition because, looking at the list in the front of the book of other annotated editions from Norton, the others are almost without exception books that are associated, at least in part, with younger readers.

The first of these editions was Martin Gardner’s wonderful annotated edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. And then we had The Wizard of Oz, Huckleberry Finn, A Christmas Carol, Sherlock Holmes, Fairy Tales, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. The Secret Garden, The Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan, Frankenstein.

Mrs. Dalloway is in some ways a strange addition to that list. Virginia Woolf famously called Middlemarch the only English novel for grownup people. And Woolf herself tends to get thought of as a difficult writer, a writer for adults—not a writer of books, like so many of the other Norton critical editions, that are read either by children or by adults who are regressing into some form of passive readerly pleasure.

Can you talk about what you did to make the difficulty of this novel a source of pleasure, rather than (or as well as) a source of frustration for your readers?


ME: There is a childish delight, even for the most sophisticated readers among us, in opening a novel like Mrs. Dalloway and having the opportunity to place Woolf’s words alongside the extraordinarily vivid splashes of color that we get from painters like Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.

To that I would add that there’s also an obvious and enduring fixation with Bloomsbury as a coterie, and the magic of its social history. Part of the visual dimension of the book is pulling together the photographs from Woolf’s album of people like John Maynard Keynes and his wife, Lydia Lopokova, of T. S. Eliot and his wife, Vivienne—there’s a rather extraordinary picture of her scolding him that I quite like—of Leonard and Virginia Woolf in Sussex. Bloomsbury, and what it has come to represent for both English and American readers, means that a transportive sense of wonder can be marshalled for a novel like Mrs. Dalloway. That’s one answer to the question of why this novel might actually be coextensive with the kinds of delights that the other annotated editions present, even if it isn’t a novel for children.

The question of how to make a difficult book like Mrs. Dalloway accessible is a different and equally interesting one. Part of the process of making it friendlier to a reader—to a reader who perhaps hadn’t encountered it before, or if they had, had encountered it with some frustration in an English literature class or in a composition class—involved reading Woolf’s notes and manuscripts and realizing how meticulous she was about planning the novel. You see how thoughtful she was about stitching the novel together—how deeply she thought through its “philosophy of life,” as Leonard puts it; its theory of character construction; its politics; its understanding of the ethical relationship between its characters. This unlocks parts of the text that might have seemed to frustrate any attempts at understanding, let alone interpretation.

This is a novel that benefits from having another voice in your head as you are reading it. To go back to the metaphor that we both used of the edition as a party: one of the things I like most about parties, and one of the things I miss most about parties, is encountering someone who will explain to you who the other strangers in the room are. Do you know what I mean? The thrill of stumbling into the party gossip, who will tell you how it is that the other guests are related to one another, and what the tensions between them might be, and what the dramatic possibilities are for the rest of the night.

One way to think about the act of annotating is that you are that meddlesome party gossip, telling the reader how to draw connections between the different parts of the text—the different guests at the party you have shown up to empty handed.

LP: One final question picking up on what you said about individuality. What feels like a very long time ago now—almost exactly two years ago—you interviewed me about my then-new book What We Talk About When We Talk About Books. During that interview, you revealed that the Library of Congress call numbers of the books you had written were your tattoos. One way of asking whether you think of an edition as a different project than a monograph would be to ask: Do you, or will you ever, have the call number of this volume as a tattoo?


ME: Yes, I will get the tattoo. But this is a complicated question for me. I also annotated and introduced a second edition of Mrs. Dalloway for a series that Norton puts out called the Norton Library: fairly cheap paperback editions, retailing for less than $10 apiece, that are designed for introductory classes—and, particularly, introductory classes at institutions where one would not want to ask students to spend, say, $25 or $40 on a Norton Critical edition.

I was joking with a friend that I would get the call number for the annotated Mrs. Dalloway tattooed, but I would not get the Norton Library edition. The latter has no images, its introduction is much more streamlined and reads much more like the standard introduction to a critical text. The footnotes are all in the back, and they have been standardized so that they cannot be stitched together narratively the way many of the footnotes in this edition can be. The particular combination of intellectual insights and appreciative or affectionate attention that has been paid to the novel in the annotated version is simply not present in that other edition.

Talking about this with you helps me see why it is that I wanted to get a call number for this edition tattooed but not the other one. Because this edition does feel like it is a new object; an object unto itself; an object that must be considered separately from other versions of the novel; an object I do not feel embarrassed about claiming as my own. Whereas, the other edition is a novel by Virginia Woolf, and I would feel like a fraud getting that one tattooed on my ribs. So, yes, this edition will go on there as soon as the tattoo parlor opens back up. [Laughs]


LP: And since you began by talking about the constraints of time and space, there may be another good reason not to get both tattooed: simply that, at the rate you’re going, you may run out of skin before you run out of ideas.


ME: Well, I have another side of my ribs, so once I exhaust the left side, I suppose we can always go on to the right.


LP: Like the two halves of a pagespread—


ME: Separated by the spine. icon

Featured Image: Merve Emre. Photograph courtesy of Merve Emre.