Merve Emre is associate professor of English at the University of Oxford. She is the author of Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), The Ferrante Letters (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019), and The Personality Brokers (Doubleday: New York, 2018), which was selected as one of the best books of 2018 by the New York Times, the Economist, NPR, CBC, and the Spectator, and has been adapted for CNN/HBO Max as the documentary feature film Persona. She is the editor of Once and Future Feminist (Cambridge: MIT, 2018), The Annotated Mrs. Dalloway (New York: Liveright, 2021), and The Norton Modern Library Mrs. Dalloway (New York: Norton, 2021).
Her essays and criticism have appeared in publications ranging from The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, and the London Review of Books to American Literature, American Literary History, and Modernism/modernity. In 2019, she was awarded a Philip Leverhulme Prize, and her work has been supported by the Whiting Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Leverhulme Trust, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Quebec, and the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin, where she is a fellow from 2020-2021. She is finishing a book titled Post-Discipline: Literature, Professionalism, and the Crisis of the Humanities (under contract with the University of Chicago Press)and starting two books: Woman: The History of an Idea (under contract with Doubleday US / Harper Collins UK) and an essay collection called Weird Love.
Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America
Literature departments are staffed by, and tend to be focused on turning out, "good" readers attentive to nuance, aware of history, interested in literary texts as self-contained works. But the vast majority of readers are, to use Merve Emre's tongue-in-cheek term, "bad" readers. They read fiction and poetry to be moved, distracted, instructed, improved, engaged as citizens. How should we think about those readers, and what should we make of the structures, well outside the academy, that generate them? We should, Emre argues, think of such readers not as non-literary but as paraliterary thriving outside the institutions we take as central to the literary world. She traces this phenomenon to the postwar period, when literature played a key role in the rise of American power. At the same time as American universities were producing good readers by the hundreds, many more thousands of bad readers were learning elsewhere to be disciplined public communicators, whether in diplomatic and ambassadorial missions, private and public cultural exchange programs, multinational corporations, or global activist groups. As we grapple with literature's diminished role in the public sphere, Paraliterary suggests a new way to think about literature, its audience, and its potential, one that looks at the civic institutions that have long engaged readers ignored by the academy.