Following the announcement that Director of the Shapiro Writing Center Amy Bloom will be stepping down, Distinguished Writer in Residence Merve Emre was recently named the director for the coming year, at which point the center will be changing its name to the Shapiro Center for Creative Writing and Criticism. As a published nonfiction author and contributing writer for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, and other such prestigious publications, Emre intends to revive the literary scene on campus and incorporate literary criticism into the course catalog. In addition to teaching and serving as director, Emre will continue to work on a book that draws inspiration from her Fall 2023 course “Love and Other Useless Pursuits” WRCT304), which focused on the literary history of love. Emre also would love to create a criticism major or minor at the University in the future.
Intrigued by Emre’s unique field and recent appointment, The Argus sat down with her to discuss criticism, the Shapiro Center, and so much more.
The Argus: You were born in Turkey, have been a professor at Oxford University and McGill University, and traveled all around the world for your career. What drew you to Middletown and to Wesleyan University?
Merve Emre: I’ve been in a lot of different kinds of research institutions. And one of the things that I have come to discover is that small liberal arts colleges are probably the institutions that are best positioned to respond to what commonly goes by the name “the crisis of the humanities” right now. I think that it is really incredible to be at a university that is led by a president who has a very clear commitment to [a] humanist education. And I’ve said this elsewhere, but I think Michael Roth [’78] is really one of the last university presidents with a personality and with a serious intellectual understanding of the purpose and the function of the arts and humanities.
I should also say my husband [Christian Hart Nakarado] is an assistant professor of art history and fine arts at Wesleyan. One of the things that we often talk about is how Wesleyan students have a really different commitment to craft—to learning how to make things and how to do things—than the students that we’ve encountered at other universities. And part of what I’m thinking about with criticism and creative writing is the idea that these two things could bring craft and knowledge together. The process of writing a work of criticism is not only about figuring out what judgment you want to issue or what argument you want to make, but how to construct an object that is beautiful.
A: How does the Writing Center currently support students? How do you believe it could support students, as the future director?
ME: One thing I should point out is that I was a distinguished writer-in-residence this past year and a half, so I had a year to observe the workings of the Center. And I think that there are two things that the Center does currently that are extremely important: the first is academic writing, which is intended to help students with their coursework, and the other is creative writing, which is what Amy Bloom was spearheading.
What I would like to do is to bring a third term in this relationship between academic writing and creative writing. That term is criticism. Criticism is what I write at The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. It is the genre that I think many students and many people in the world write and can write, whether they know that they’re doing it or not. So for instance, every time someone writes a review on Goodreads or on Yelp, what they are performing is an act of criticism. And the more the technological forms that we have for performing those acts of criticism have proliferated, the more important I think it is to try to set some parameters for how it is that we should perform criticism.
And I think that this is fundamentally different from the kind of writing that you are doing in, for instance, an English class, or a theater class where you are writing an interpretive essay whose only goal is to teach you how to think for that class. And so what the Shapiro Center for Creative Writing and Criticism can do in the future is teach students how to produce acts of criticism that are both theoretically rigorous and aesthetically inventive.
A: You are teaching two classes on literary criticism next year. Would you mind giving quick descriptions?
ME: “The Critic and Her Publics” (COL305) is a long history of criticism, beginning in the 17th century up to the present, and it’s linked to the inaugural Shapiro Center Speaker Series. That is a year-long series in which I am bringing 13 female-identifying writers and critics who write for the New York Times, The New Yorker, The Guardian, and the London Review of Books— basically every major publication that you can imagine—who are academics, freelance critics, journalists, and podcasters. They are coming here to talk about what the function of criticism is in the present time.
And this is linked to the class, in part, because when you look at the history of criticism from the 17th century to the present, you really have to get into the early 20th century before you run into a single woman critic. So that choice of pronoun is very deliberate to illuminate something about both the history and the present function and performance of criticism. That’s one course.
The other course is called “Practical Criticism” (COL267) .And if you’ve looked at the course description, you know that it’s reproducing an experiment I.A. Richards ran when he was a professor at Cambridge in the early 1920s, an experiment where he would give his students a poem without giving them the title of that poem, the author, the date of its publication, or any other kind of context around it. He would then have them write what he described as a protocol, where they would judge the poem. So they would ascertain whether they thought it was a good or bad poem, a successful or unsuccessful one, and why. And then they would provide an interpretation of it. The book that he produced about the experience is really the cornerstone of the method that most English classes use in order to teach what they teach, which is close reading.
And I’m curious what we would learn if we updated that list of poets that draw poems from a more diverse group across all of the different axes that you and I can think of—gender, race, sexuality, nationality, etc. But also what would happen if we gave students a slightly more robust framework for how it is that we judge things? Anything—not just a poem—but a novel, a play, a painting, a meme, an outfit, anything that can be judged. And so the class is going to combine the distribution of these anonymized poems and judgments of them. I am using I.A. Richards’s old format protocols, with a kind of theoretical crash course in the theory of the judgment of taste.
This is such a hyper-charged moment for conversations about identity and its relationship to art: who has the right to write about what? I’m curious what happens to those discourses if you actually take away really obvious identity markers. So, if you don’t tell people the name of the poet, and you don’t tell them anything about their biographical context or their historical context, or the date in which they were writing, what happens to those discourses of identity and aesthetics? Are they still present but in a kind of mutated form? That would be extremely interesting, I think, to discover, and for me, at least, to write about.
A: You mentioned the intersection of knowledge and craft when evaluating cultural objects. How do you incorporate this craft and knowledge together in your writing process?
ME: I think it works differently depending on what genre you’re talking about. So the way it works in something like “The Personality Brokers” [Emre’s published book], which is a work of history, cultural criticism, and biography is different from the way that it works when I’m writing a 5000-word essay for The New Yorker. I think that one place where it always comes together is in the research process.
I am a sociologist of literature, a historian of literature, and a lot of my work is deeply archival. My academic training taught me how to use archives in one particular way, how to use archives in order to buttress the larger historical claims that you make in a work of literary history. But my work as a nonfiction writer and as a critic has taught me that you can use your art in different kinds of ways. You can use them to tell stories from certain kinds of angles. I think if you don’t have that kind of training, often you don’t even know where to look for interesting materials.
A: What is your favorite work that you have crafted?
ME: I did a really long piece on Elizabeth Hardwick, who was one of the founders of The New York Review of Books. It’s about criticism, and it’s constructing an idealized model of who the critic is, or what she should do. And I think that that’s my favorite piece because it helped me think through a lot of the things I’ve already been telling you. Hardwick is a good model for that.
She was somebody who went to graduate school, but dropped out after her third year because she realized she didn’t want to write academic scholarship—she didn’t want to work in a misogynistic environment. Their misogyny took on kinds of petty bureaucratic guises, and I think she thought that was bullshit. And so she became probably the best and most important literary critic of the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s.
A: Other than the New Yorker piece, are there any other current projects you’re working on?
ME: I taught a class last term called “Love and Other Useless Pursuits.” That is also the title of the book that I’m working on. It is a very long literary history of love, and the class was a sort of blueprint for it. One of the things that I did was that after each seminar we met for three hours a week on Tuesdays. After each seminar meeting, I would go home, and I would write the students a long email, about 2000-2500 words. In the email, I would narrate the discussion that we had in the seminar as if it were a kind of story, where the students were characters making contributions and comments, and the class had an arc. Each session started somewhere and developed a sort of tension around the objects that we were studying. And by the end of the class, that tension had been, if not resolved, then at least complicated and primed us for the next class and the next object that we were talking about. So those notes are now the basis of the book. And it was really a wonderful exercise. I’ve never done that before. And now I will always do it.
A: How do you see your role as a professor fit into your position as an accomplished literary critic?
ME: I think that the relationship between teaching and criticism is such an intimate one. I think that when you’re writing criticism, what you’re not doing is writing scholarship. Scholarship is for a very distinct audience and an audience that has the same credentials that you do. An audience, you can assume, is working with a shared knowledge base. Criticism is like teaching insofar as you are talking to people who might have very, very, very little familiarity with the object under consideration.
A: What improvements or additions would you like to see as the new director of the Shapiro Writing Center?
ME: What I would really like to do is to form a minor, or maybe even a major, in criticism, because I think it is something distinct. And I think it can be a discipline unto itself. And I think it would be a discipline that wouldn’t create these kinds of false dichotomies between composition, creativity, and the knowledge of literature, but one that would integrate all of those things. The writing produced for English classes or for [College of Letters] classes, I think, for very good reasons, doesn’t bear any obvious relationship to the kinds of essays that might be published outside of a university.
Criticism carves out a space in a university where the kinds of skills that are taught, of close reading and of slow, measured thinking, are skills that are not necessarily essential outside of the University.
A: Anything that you would like to add?
ME: One of the things I’m extremely excited about is that we’ve already set up an internship at The New York Review of Books for a Wesleyan student. And that seems to me like a really wonderful example of how you can take the kinds of skills that students will learn at the Center and bring it to a literary magazine that is really the premier intellectual magazine in the world right now.
Carolyn Neugarten can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org