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There’s another reason for her bemusement. She’s on Bond Street, the terrain of a subject she’s been thinking about extensively all year: Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. This summer, Emre’s annotated version of Woolf’s seminal 1925 novel will come out. As she moves down the storied avenue, mimicking herself for a camera crew, she is reminded that this is the location to which Mrs. Dalloway journeys at the beginning of the narrative. It’s where, you know, she gets the flowers herself.
So Emre is doing research for one book while playacting doing research for another. This kind of thing is typical for Emre, who, at 35, is already one of the most widely acclaimed literary critics at work today. An Oxford professor and a regular contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The New York Times Magazine, Emre has long straddled the academic and literary publishing worlds. Her command of these two spheres is one of her great strengths as a writer and thinker. But it is also the foundation of her predicament. To which side does she finally belong?
In November 2020, Emre and I discussed her childhood, over Zoom. She was born in Adana, Turkey, but raised in New York — first Brooklyn and then Long Island. In elementary school, her name signaled foreignness, made her an outsider. When she moved to Long Island, she was initially placed in an English-as-a-second-language class. That mistake was soon corrected: Emre “ended up becoming a kind of a TA” for her second-grade teacher. She was ambitious. When she read Matilda at the age of 7, she lamented that she wasn’t as well-read as Roald Dahl’s genius protagonist. “She’s 4!” she recalls thinking. “I’m 7 and I haven’t read Great Expectations yet!”
Books became her soul and her solace. She felt superior to her peers, and got along best with her teachers. “I was a more advanced reader in many of my classes than the other students were. And I would have teachers actually put me in charge of helping other kids learn how to read, which is a really good way to make you feel like if you’re not inhabiting the teacher position, there’s something wrong with you.”
She says this with a laugh that comes from years of unlearning that early connection between intelligence and isolation. But many of her driving interests stem from these experiences. A major theme of Emre’s work has become the cultivation of communities. “I was always looking for models of how I should be reading,” she says.
Virginia Woolf, Emre tells me, was a writer she read early. No surprise there, of course. What is surprising is that reading Woolf didn’t make Emre want to become a novelist. The thought never entered her mind. “I was always interested in being a critic. I loved writing essays. I thought it was so amazing and special to get the opportunity to write a critical essay about a piece of literature. English classes were like unicorns, just too good to be true.”
Of course, Emre is an academic. She studied international relations at Harvard and earned a Ph.D. in English from Yale, where her first book, Paraliterary (University of Chicago Press, 2017), originated as her doctoral thesis. She describes Paraliterary as “sociology of higher education.” What especially fascinates her are the extra-collegiate institutions that also taught people uses of literature. As she puts it in Paraliterary, “the midcentury United States witnessed a dramatic shift away from reading literature in elite academic institutions and toward institutions that stressed literature’s communicative public value in a rapidly internationalizing world.” These include study-abroad programs, the military, scientific communities, and public lectures — all of which have been ignored by literary critics as legitimate sources of literary methodology. “It once was a truth universally acknowledged,” she writes in the book’s conclusion, “that among a professional class of literary critics, there were good ways and bad ways to read a work of literature.” Literary critics, she says, must “broaden our critical methods” by reconsidering what kinds of reading and analysis they support.
Paraliterary evinces a deep skepticism of literary academe, particularly its exclusion of “bad readers” from its hallowed consideration and its reluctance to develop new techniques — to amend its definition of “good reading” — so that it can account “for literature’s capaciousness and capacity in the world.” Literature is much larger than the niche institutions that claim authority over it, and Emre calls for an “outward expansion” that “think[s] big and bigger, so that the core of a thing called literature is no longer merely what people in literature departments do.” True to her word, Emre participated in a literary project that encapsulates this ambition: The Ferrante Letters: An Experiment in Collective Criticism (Columbia University Press, 2020).
The Ferrante Letters is at once an anthology of disparate voices and the communal achievement of something like a singular voice.
Co-written with Sarah Chihaya, an assistant professor at Princeton; Katherine Hill, a novelist and assistant professor at Adelphi University, and Jill Richards, an assistant professor at Yale, The Ferrante Letters is in large part comprised of letters between the four authors on their experiences reading the Neapolitan quartet of novels by Elena Ferrante. The letters are much less formal than academic criticism usually is, although, inescapably given the authors, still informed by the conventions of the academy. The Ferrante Letters is at once an anthology of disparate voices and the communal achievement of something like a singular voice.
Emre herself is currently on leave in Berlin, where she is a fellow at Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin working on a companion to Paraliterary. The new project, Post-Discipline: Literature, Professionalism, and the Crisis of the Humanities, which will be published by the University of Chicago Press in 2022, looks at how business, medical, and law schools teach literature — as a tool for students to apply to their respective professional careers.
Emre’s academic bona fides, in other words, are not in doubt — so I can understand why she sees herself as an academic. What I understand less is why she doesn’t also see herself as a writer, or a stylist, or even an artist. In her nonacademic criticism, she does something that in academic writing is mostly unnecessary: write like a teacher. “I feel like sometimes the essays I write are actually much closer to the way I operate pedagogically,” she says, “like when I’m giving a lecture on a novel.”
If the assertion that scholarly writing is less pedagogic than its nonacademic counterpart sounds backward, consider their respective audiences. “Most academic writing,” Emre says, “will give you the important concept or give you the important terms, and then assume that the reader at whom the book is directed knows enough to place it in the larger argument.” Its arguments require elucidation and evidentiary support, of course, but, because it is directed at peers, colleagues, and fellow scholars, it needn’t rehash what they already know.
“To me,” Emre says, “one of the most frustrating things about so much of literary criticism today in academia is that there’s the sense that you have to pick your methodological camp. There is this specialization along methodological lines that I find deeply unsatisfying.”
In general-audience criticism, on the other hand, “you can think historically, you can use close reading, you can use personal anecdote, you can be artful, you can tell a story while also making an argument. And none of those things needs to detract from one another — they can all be totally syncretic, and add up to something that, yes, might be crowded and might be fast, but I think approximates what it’s like to be in a reader’s mind.”
In her New Yorker and New York Review of Books essays, Emre crafts a facsimile of her experiences with novels. Her prose bounces playfully and then sticks its landing with weighted exactitude. Here, for instance, is the opening of her essay on Leonora Carrington, published in The New Yorker in December:
When asked to describe the circumstances of her birth, the Surrealist painter and writer Leonora Carrington liked to tell people that she had not been born; she had been made. One melancholy day, her mother, bloated by chocolate truffles, oyster purée, and cold pheasant, feeling fat and listless and undesirable, had lain on top of a machine. The machine was a marvellous contraption, designed to extract hundreds of gallons of semen from animals — pigs, cockerels, stallions, urchins, bats, ducks — and, one can imagine, bring its user to the most spectacular orgasm, turning her whole sad, sick being inside out and upside down. From this communion of human, animal, and machine, Leonora was conceived. When she emerged, on April 6, 1917, England shook.
One of the books Emre reviews in the essay is Carrington’s 1974 novel The Hearing Trumpet (reprinted by New York Review Books, 2021), which ends, as Emre put it to me, “with all the governments in the world falling apart, and all modern infrastructure just collapsing, and a bunch of women and animals taking over the earth.” This paragraph’s unfurling litany of bizarre images and its delightfully weird replacement of the standard biographical introduction with fantasy and myth nicely exemplify Carrington’s Surrealist sensibilities.
Since Emre believes that good criticism should be pedagogic, she unpacks, in the next paragraph, the themes in her lede:
The success of a creation story hangs on how richly it seeds the life to come. Carrington’s encompasses all the elements of her life and her art. There is her decadence and indelicate sense of fancy; her fascination with animals and with bodies, both otherworldly and profane. Above all, there is her high-spirited, baroque sense of humor, mating the artificial to the natural, and recalling Henri Bergson’s claim that the essence of comedy is the image of “something mechanical encrusted upon the living.”
Over the last few years, essays like this have elevated Emre’s status as a critic. But her work as an academic has also found increasing success. Beyond her position as an associate professor at Oxford and her fellowship in Berlin, she was a 2019 recipient of the Philip Leverhulme Prize, which is worth £100,000. Her work, as well as her passions, are being pulled in two directions.
The Personality Brokers typifies this tension. The ostensible narrative focuses on Katharine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, the mother-daughter duo who created what is now known as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (the names were flipped so that when the test was referred to as an acronym, a common euphemism for defecation, BM, would be avoided). In the introduction, Emre writes about how the Educational Testing Service, the first publisher of the MBTI, denied her access to their archives because of “sensitive information” held therein. They even sent an employee to surveil her, an absurd reaction made especially comedic by the fact that Emre was at the time seven months pregnant. Even sillier is the way that Emre discovered that she had a spy. He tweeted it out: “Today I’m creeping on a pregnant lady as part of my job.”
“One of the most frustrating things about so much of literary criticism today in academia is that there’s the sense that you have to pick your methodological camp.”
From the story of Briggs and Briggs Myers, Emre takes detours through the work of thinkers and theorists like Michel Foucault, Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, Hannah Arendt, and Jeremy Bentham. And there are more literal detours, too — for example, to a research institute at the University of California at Berkeley, where Truman Capote, Kenneth Burke, and Jessamyn West, among many others, took part in a weeklong personality-research experiment. (An administrator on the verge of junking an old file cabinet went through the contents of the cabinet with Emre via FaceTime.)
The book sold well and is now the inspiration for the documentary Persona, directed by Tim Travers Hawkins. The film takes Emre’s work as an occasion to pose large questions about the ethics of personality testing in employment placement — and to take a hard look at the biases marring those practices. As The Personality Brokers explores, this kind of assessment even found its way into university admissions, beginning with the University of California at Berkeley in the early ’50s. Persona brings that history to the present day, exposing systematic prejudice disguised as algorithmic efficiency.
“One of the things that makes me feel melancholy,” Emre says, “is that the type of pedagogic work I want to do through writing feels more sustaining these days when done in nonacademic forms … But I also feel like there are certain types of questions that get asked and answered better within academic writing than in nonacademic writing.”
After graduating from Harvard with a degree in international relations, Emre’s first job was as a management consultant at Bain & Company. Emre left Bain for graduate school. Before Yale, she had little notion of literature as a calling; in fact, she characterizes her decision to apply to grad school as “very uneducated”: “I had taken a lot of English classes when I was an undergraduate. And they made me very happy. And I wanted to keep reproducing that experience. And I didn’t really think about what that meant, professionally, or even really what it meant intellectually; I simply liked the feeling of talking to other people about novels.” In graduate school, Emre found her people.
Grad school, though, is a temporary situation, a construct not easily recreated in real life. But Emre believes it provides a valuable model. “It’s very fashionable to hate graduate school right now,” she says. “And I’m not trying to say that isn’t justified. But for me, it presents a very partial picture of what the possibilities of that intellectual community are, and the kind of work that can be produced in it. I feel committed to restoring the other half of the story. A lot of the projects that I’ve taken on since then, particularly The Ferrante Letters, are about trying to figure out how to bring friendship into intellectual community.”
Emre’s most immediate community — her husband, Christian, and their two sons, Aydin and Altan, — struck me as close-knit. I watched as Emre walked her laptop around their home, asking her kids, “Does everyone have clothes on?” (An answer came offscreen from Christian: “No.”)
Today Emre sees the world through a lens of literature, and communicates through that lens. There is no better representation of this than “Critical Love Studies,” an essay she published last May in the Los Angeles Review of Books. “Criticism allows us to make sense of something,” she writes, “a fact, a feeling, an art form — by orienting it to a set of beliefs about the world.” The subject of this piece is Sam See, one of her advisers at Yale, who changed Emre’s life. “Sam was just the most generous and attentive reader of your work,” she tells me. “He taught me how to read other people’s work, even if you don’t like it, with the kind of attention and the spirit of communion that it deserves.”
“He was someone who was capable of fully believing in you as a thinker,” Emre says. “And also someone who felt comfortable telling you when what you were writing, or how you were thinking, was not meeting a certain standard that he had set for it.” “I’m not your cheerleader,” Emre recalls him writing in one email.
See died in 2013, a loss that traumatized Emre and stunned the Yale community, especially the English department. “He really, really believed in people,” she says. “And I think that’s rare. I’ve had very few relationships with people where someone just unconditionally believes in you.” Her voice breaks.
The community Emre found at Yale — and would try to recreate afterward — was personified by See. “There are days when I still really miss him,” she acknowledges. “And days when I just want to talk to him about something.” His passion gave Emre something she’s never quite found anywhere else: “The way that Sam believed in people is the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to a kind of secular faith. It was just complete. And it was sincere.”
In “Critical Love Studies,” she examines a question central to an essay of See’s called “Bersani in Love,” an exploration of the career of the literary critic and queer theorist Leo Bersani. The question is: “What does criticism desire?” For See, “criticism was a form of ‘published romance’ between reader and writer.” As she moves through this “rangy, wild, breakneck piece,” Emre is “stunned to discover his thoughts hiding in plain sight among my own.”
“For Sam,” she writes, “what criticism desired was not knowledge but community.” “Critical Love Studies” is unusual for Emre — one of the rare instances in which she delves into her own emotional history. “I sometimes wonder,” she tells me, “if part of the job of the critic is to make intellectual care visible.”