My detailed curriculum vitae can be found here.
From 1990 until 1998, most of my research and publications focused on intersections between historical and fictional writing in 19th-century Britain, especially on the ways different genres reflect or question gendered assumptions about plots, narratives, history, and agency. The major result of this work was my book, Gender, Genre, and Victorian Historical Writing (Garland, 1998).
After my book’s publication I began work on a new project drawing together contemporary theorizing about fiction and ethics and Victorian theorizing about the novel. The assumption that art not only should but inevitably did have a social and moral function was typical of Victorian aesthetic theories and especially typical, as far as we can tell, of Victorian theories of the novel. However, though there are some early studies of what John Olmsted (1979) calls “The Victorian Art of Fiction,” no current work offers a synthesized account of Victorian theories of fiction drawing on explicit statements across a range of sources rather than what can be inferred from the practice of a small number of novelists or a few high-profile ‘sage’ thinkers. Moreover, no current studies integrate discussion of Victorian critical practice with the growing body of recent scholarship on intersections between literature and moral philosophy—indeed, most 20th- and 21st-century ethical critics distance themselves, often quite explicitly, from their 19th-century predecessors, typically on the grounds that Victorian literary analysis is characterized by didacticism and prescriptive moralism. My literary-historical goal has been to enrich our understanding of just how Victorian critics actually talk about the ethics of the novel; my larger interest is in seeing how listening to them might change, perhaps even improve, our own critical conversation about the moral role and effects of different kinds of fiction. I think we all (not just academics) need to become ethical critics; my overall research plan is motivated by my conviction that literary study, and particularly the study of fiction, can have a special role to play in answering the central question of moral philosophy (“How should I live my life?”) as well as guiding us in the seemingly narrower question “How should I judge what I read?” These are questions the Victorians, for better and for worse, were unafraid either to ask or to link together–in their fiction as well as their criticism. My most recent publications–the essay “The Soul of Art: Victorian Ethical Criticism,” published in English Studies in Canada, and the essay “The Moral Life of Middlemarch: Martha Nussbaum and George Eliot’s Philosophical Fiction,” published in Philosophy and Literature, address some of the more theoretical issues I have been considering. My forthcoming anthology The Victorian Art of Fiction: 19th-Century Essays on the Novel (available from Broadview April 30 2009) makes available some of the important primary materials considered in this ongoing project.
A more recent extension of my thinking about ethical criticism is my interest in bridging the divide between academic criticism and the broader sphere of reading and critical inquiry. I have been pursuing questions about the differences between academic and public criticism (in aim as well as method) in the conventional academic way, through research, but also, in a more hands-on way, through blogging.
My most recent research picks up some specific aspects of my work on the ethics of George Eliot’s fiction in a new context: the novels of the Anglo-Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif. Often referred to as the “Egyptian George Eliot,” Soueif alludes often to Eliot’s novels in her own work. In the Eye of the Sun, for instance, takes its epigraph from Middlemarch. I have argued in a recent conference paper that in that novel, Soueif’s invocation of Middlemarch helps move us towards a literary version of what she has called the ‘mezza terra,’ or middle ground, refusing oppositions between English and Egyptian, or colonial and postcolonial, perspectives. I have written about Soueif’s fiction in an essay for Open Letters Monthly, “A Novelist in Tahrir Square.”
Updated January 12, 2012.