Off the Cuff: Jim Collins, Professor of English, Film, TV, Theatre


Photo Courtesy of Stacey Stewart

Jim Collins, professor of film, television and theatre and concurrent professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, spoke Thursday at Oberlin.

Adam Gittin, News Editor

Jim Collins is acting dean for the arts, a professor of film, television and theatre and concurrent professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, where he teaches courses on postmodernism, media theory and digital culture. He is the author of Uncommon Cultures: Popular Culture and Postmodernism, Architecture of Excess: Cultural Life in the Information Age and most recently Bring on the Books for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture. His next book in progress is called Playlist Culture. On Thursday, he came to campus and gave a talk titled “How Reading Matters in a Digital Age: BuzzFeed Books, David Bowie’s Library, and the Pleasures of eLiterary Culture.”

Today it seems that many people engage with media primarily for entertainment purposes. How can we move beyond what we like or dislike in a particular piece of media and get at what we can learn from it instead?

It used to be that when we were talking about popular culture in an intellectual context, there was a lot of resistance. There was the sense that, first of all, popular text or entertainment wasn’t worthy of that kind of scrutiny, that that should be reserved for top-shelf literature.

As time wore on, I’ve found that you can talk about film classics or literary masterpieces in the classroom, and as soon as you started talking to students about what they were really watching or reading, they had very smart observations. They weren’t just saying, “I like it,” or “I didn’t like it.” I just had this great conversation over lunch about graphic novels, about television serials, about the relationship between different types of narrative. What would it have been like if Dune was a television show instead of a failed motion two-hour film?

What I was struck by in this informal conversation was the really fascinating insights about narrativity that the students had. Do certain kinds of stories work better as two hour film or as a 60-hour television series? If that was the case, how do we make those kinds of judgments?

What are some of the strategies we use while reading “high-tier” literature that we can apply to other types of media we consume?

For something like The Great Gatsby, it’s probably read by a greater percentage of the American public than many other books. It’s really due to the fact that people are expected to read that in high school. They’re supposed to engage in close analysis, which is still the most favored method of analysis when we’re talking about literary masterpieces within a high school and greater academic context. You appreciate the style, you appreciate the point-of-view structure, and there are many things to be learned from that close analysis. And you can apply close analysis to popular text. But then you have to talk about how, since the borders of the text aren’t set … you have these endlessly fluid narrative borders. Then you have to start asking different kinds of questions. You have to go beyond close analysis and ask: what drives or animates this particular retelling of the story? For which audience is that being conceived? How is it changing the narrative in terms of making it meet the needs of a particular audience?

A lot of print media is dying out and being transferred online. How do you feel that e-readers have affected print culture and the culture of reading more generally?

If we’re talking about eliterary culture, which is literary experiences online, then we really have to think outside the box of the either/or. And unfortunately, a lot of the debate about e-readers is always set in terms of either you read the wood-pulp version of the book or you read the ebook, and which one is better. I think that’s really shortsighted, because it ends up being so much of an either/or. The argument that ebooks, because they’re on a digital device, automatically lead to a reading within a state of distractibility — where you can always get distracted and go and check your email or something like that — is really oversimplified. What we find is that with John Green fans, for instance, they might be reading The Fault in Our Stars in a traditional book format or they might be reading it as an ebook, but they’ll probably be going to YouTube to watch the Vlogbrothers videos and they’ll probably be going to Tumblr to look at John Green’s page.

In principle, it’s easier than ever before for people to get their work into the world — click a button and it’s up on the internet. But does that ease of distribution and access come with its own set of problems?

People are always going to worry that the ease is going to lead to a diminishing of standards. The common complaint you hear is that sure, there’s a lot of fanfiction out there and fanfiction sites, and it’s very easy for practically anyone to write a fanfiction; all you need to do is grab characters from a favorite book or film and go to town with creating your own further adventures. That qualitative argument in itself involves some problems. For example, if you’ve got a hundred different novels about Darcy, are any of them going to be as good as Jane Austen’s? It depends on what you mean by good. There’s certainly the appeal of trying to update Jane Austen; there’s The Jane Austen Book Club, for instance, which had a great deal of appeal, because the whole point of that book is how Jane Austen speaks to us within a contemporary context. Is it as well written as the original novels? Probably not. But does that mean it doesn’t continue to enrich those books, and continue to demonstrate the relevance of those books?

Switching gears here — how do you take an idea and then transform that into a research topic or a book?

Usually it starts with something I’m really intrigued by. Like with the topic of BuzzFeed Books. I was really intrigued by BuzzFeed Books as so deep in the heart of digital culture; they make no claims about literary pedigree; they are certainly something that is otherwise in the realm of the poppiest of pop culture, and yet [they are] deeply committed to the value of literary reading. BuzzFeed Books are saying, “These are the books you should read. These are the books your boyfriend should read. These are the books that if you read Harry Potter you should read. Or if you liked these books in high school or didn’t like these books in high school, this is what you should read instead.” I was so intrigued by that idea that is so far away from the classroom and academy. It’s smack-dab in the heart of digital popular culture where you would least expect to find a deep commitment to literary reading — there it was.

One of the best features they did recently was on David Bowie’s library, Why David Bowie’s library itself became such a topic of discussion. David Bowie is not someone who I would think of as a great literary figure. On the other hand, he was a voracious reader, and what do we do with that? I start with something that I’m intrigued by, and say, “OK, well, what does that suggest about literary value or about the conversation about why literary reading remains so important, even within the range of all different sorts of digital entertainment?”