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A Response to Mary Miller

Earlier this month, Adam had posted a note saying that Big Other was reviewed by Mary Miller in the July/August issue of the American Book Review as part of its special cluster on lit blogs. I found Miller’s account to be both problematic and unnecessarily snarky, and I had waited a bit to see if anyone was going to chime in…no one has responded thus far, so I’ve decided to take the bait.

My first (and most specific) objection to Miller’s review was her unfair and misinformed reactions to j/j hastain’s energetic posts and book reviews. Miller states:

[Some] posts made me feel like I was in a theory class and seemed out of place. For example, j/j hastain’s ‘A Proprioceptive Description (Naropa’s Violence and Community Symposium),’ begins ‘proprioception does not come from a singular or specific organ within the body, but from a sort of strange collective (the nervous system), this account will be necessarily fragmented—parts pouring from parts.’ I wasn’t sure what to make of this.

Some of j/j hastain’s other posts also turned me off. Here’s one more example of j/j’s writing: ‘I am feeling very excited to be engaging with you re this little interview in support of and co-investigation (with you) re your new book Narrative and Nest (Pre-Natal Architectures & Narrative Rituals).’ What’s j/j doing here? And why?

The term “proprioception” doesn’t strike me as particularly theoretical. It’s a simple physiological term that j/j actually defines right away. Proprioception, as j/j notes, does not come from a singular or specific organ within the body; proprioceptors, which are located within muscle or nerve tissue, respond to stimuli arising within the body…proprioception then is the body’s own sense of itself by the movement of its own tissue.

It seems that j/j is using the term as a metaphor to describe a methodology that depends on multiple, decentralized reactions. This is a far cry from dropping a term such as “interval” (which comes from Luce Irigaray) or “remnant” (which comes from Giorgio Agamben) and not explaining the extremely specialized usages of those terms. This is to say that the term “proprioception” doesn’t require any sort of specialized theoretical knowledge…one can simply look it up in the OED–by contrast, in order to fully understand what Irigaray or Agamben means, one would need much more than just a nutshell definition of “interval” or “remnant.” “Proprioception,” moreover, is a term that would be more important in a class on literary history, poetry, or post-war American literature than a class on theory. Charles Olson, of course, introduced the term to the literary community in the 1960s. The fact that Miller “wasn’t sure what to make of this” signals a lazy and dismissive reading practice, an unwillingness to look up an unfamiliar term. One certainly doesn’t need to take a seminar on theory or continental philosophy to make sense of “proprioception.”

Miller’s befuddlement with j/j’s second sentence (“I am feeling very excited to be engaging with you re this little interview”) is  befuddling in turn.  It’s quite obvious that j/j is conveying excitement and enthusiasm–which is something I look for in a literary blog post.  No theoretical obfuscation going on over here. To adapt Miller’s own questions: “What’s Miller doing here? And why?”

It’s clear that Miller wants to “fit in,” to feel the familiar comfort of a literary clique and not the more discomforting diversity of a literary community.  She doesn’t do well with what seems “out of place.”  She, in fact, shows her cards in the second paragraph of the review:

I enjoy reading bios. It’s the first thing I flip to when I get a new literary magazine in the mail. I like to see where people are from (how many are from New York City?), who thinks they’re funny, and, most importantly, who has books out and/or has been published in magazines that I want to be in. In other words, I want to see where I fit.

What is important to Miller is not literature but literary credentialization, not intellectual curiosity but a self-serving careerism, not the fruits of authorship but authorial aggrandizement.  The contemporary literary landscape is so diverse that things (writers, texts, movements) simply do not “fit” in neat and clearly delineated ways.  This is, I argue, something we should celebrate.  I’m particularly interested in writers that don’t fit into stable categories.

Ultimately, I think Big Other, as a collective enterprise, gains its strength from a radical eclecticism and not in the way it presents a doctrinaire or Procrustean attitude towards literature and culture.  See, for example, Adam’s recent meditation on Big Other, which includes references to such diverse things as Star Trek, Nirvana, Pynchon, and Caravaggio…in this way, I read Adam’s post, which is simply titled “Big Other,” as an oblique and clever response to Miller’s sense that “Big Other doesn’t have a coherent personality.”

With thirty contributing writers,  Big Other doesn’t need one.

8 thoughts on “A Response to Mary Miller

  1. hey mike, thanks for your post. i read miller’s review and it sounds like an obnoxious self-aggrandized grad that just came out fresh from school finger wagging without realizing she is exposing her own mental and literary limitations while venting against what she calls lack of coherence; no wonder she dislikes j/j who is sheer fluidity and excess. it seems to me miller is a daughter of capitalism, interested in herself only and not in discovering the potentialities literature has in engaging with difference (should i define difference here? am i being too theoretical? why am i doing this!?). looking for obviousness, smoothness, and identity in a literary blog seems very naive to me. when she finds the blog she is looking for i will certainly make sure i never read it and neither should anyone interested in constellations of knowledges, plural clashings, diversification, spontaneity, and certainly, good literature.
    a ps to the creative writing departments out there: make sure you know what you are sending out on the streets. i fear the literature they may produce not to mention the critical thinking skills we are seeing displayed.

  2. I very much appreciated the fact that Mary Miller took the time to review Big Other. That said, the impression I got from her review was that she didn’t read the site all that closely. Instead, I got the impression that she just scrolled down the main page until she found a name or two that she recognized (e.g., Leni Zumas). She didn’t make much effort to really explore the site, which is something of a shame, and I think her claims should be read in that light.

    But all of that said, I think her review was really valuable in that it shows what impression the site gives. It’s worth a lot to know how Big Other comes across to those not “in the know.” I’ve learned from numerous fiction workshops not to argue with reader impressions, even if they are the result of overly casual reading. Mary Miller’s absolutely right that the site lacks a coherent identity, especially if one is just scrolling through the more recent posts. (Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is more debatable.) Another question worth asking is, why didn’t she explore the site more thoroughly? And I have to conclude that the site doesn’t really invite that. To access older articles, you have to wade through a tremendous number of posts, or go through individual contributors. There are no subject categories, for instance, and—besides the tags (which are very inconsistent)—there really aren’t any aids to accessing the wealth of writing stored here. The site has always lived and died by the moment, which is (I think) a shame.

    But, honestly, the main argument I had with her review was with her opening line. She said Big Other is “frequently updated.” That is not correct.

    Thanks for writing this, Michael! I hope you’re well, and that your studies are going well.

    1. Adam:

      I hear you that an impression from the outside is always valuable. I did find it rather odd that such cursory and casual impressions (and I agree with you that Miller didn’t examine the site very closely) took the form of a review, which I associate with a genre that requires a bit more critical attention and deliberation. So I felt like I needed to respond with a “counter punch” (to use Thomas’ term above…(thanks, Thomas!)).

      You raise a good point about accessing older posts and articles. I actually emailed Madera not too long ago about the idea of using the LinkWithin widget…any thoughts about that? You’re right that Big Other shouldn’t live and die by the moment since there’s a load of great content in the archives here.

      And you’re certainly right that Big Other isn’t frequently updated…that’s just empirically false. My suspicion sensors were at full alert when I had read that sentence. I obviously had bigger arguments with Miller. Nevertheless, I did take seriously the issue she raised about the representation of women writers….this is something that I myself had wondered….is Big Other too much of a boy’s club? But then again I didn’t see a need for Miller to talk trash about j/j/ when in the past few months j/j has written about Joyelle McSweeney, Min Jung Oh, Olivia Cronk, Arielle Guy…a lot of interesting women writers.

      Yes, my studies have gone well, Adam–thanks for the sentiments! I hope the same for you. I actually defended my dissertation on Friday!


      1. Big Other has always had more male contributors than female, and those male contributors have always contributed more posts (not that anyone’s stopping anyone from chiming in more). But the real question, I think, is whether the site discriminates against women. Me, I don’t think it does, but if anyone thinks or knows otherwise, I’d be glad to hear from them.

        I certain;y agree with you that reviews should be more critical/thorough. Of course, you and I are both scholars :)

        As for accessing older posts, I don’t know what the best solution is. I made this guide post to address that very problem in my own writing here, and I update it every time I post:

        I’ve also linked to it from my website.

        That said, I don’t think many people ever really use it. But I use it myself, all the time. It’s the only way I can remember what I’ve written!

        But that all said, the real takeaway from Miller’s article, for me, was to force me to step back and look at how Big Other appears to those who aren’t, like you or I or John, regulars/insiders here. And I do think the site could be doing more to be presenting a more welcome face to new readers. … But isn’t this also a problem with most blogs? … But don’t we know by now that most online readers read very cursorily?

        … Maybe we could/should write a guide to Big Other, some kind of brief history. It could spell out who contributed when, with links to their individual pages, and a few sentences as to what they did here, or focused on.


        1. I like that last idea–alternately, I wonder if each contributor can have a profile that has not just biographical notes but a list of highlighted contributions (much in the manner of the guide you created)…something that’s lightly organized and/or annotated.

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