Senior English literature majors gathered in the Alumni Room Monday and Tuesday from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. to present their capstone research. These presentations constitute Literature Symposium, an event that fulfills the Oral Competency requirement of the major, without which seniors cannot graduate with a degree in English literature. Each year’s seminar forms itself around a theme, such as “Noir,” “Animal Gothic,” and “The Literary Vampire.” The theme this winter, “Pulp,” strayed far from the traditional literary canon which majors become so familiar with.
Pulp fiction is a body of fiction dealing with lurid or sensational subjects, often printed on rough, low-quality paper manufactured from wood pulp — a definition which itself provides the title sequence to the 1994 film “Pulp Fiction.” Pulp, then, opens up a space in which mass popular culture may come to interact with literary theory and it is for this precise space that Associate Professor of English Emily Anderson chose “Pulp” as the subject of her seminar.
“In all honesty, I focused on ‘pulp’ because I wanted to teach ‘Sin City’ with some noir, but also because looking at the history of popular fiction would give students a chance to work from a variety of theoretical perspectives,” Anderson said. “So we were able, at the Symposium, to hear papers on heteronormativity in lesbian pulp fiction, for example, along with papers on Victorian narrative strategies and Colonialist religious symbolism.”
Reaction to the theme from students was varied. Upon its announcement in early October, senior Ashley Wolfgang tweeted, “SENIOR SEM THEME IS PULP FICTION. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” Senior Joe Rogers, however, felt differently.
“I really didn’t want to do it. I was so like, ‘Can we please not do this class,’” Rogers said. “It was like, ‘I have to take a class on bad literature.’ And I think that’s what I associated with pulp was bad literature, and I went into it with that perception of it.”
Rogers’ perspective, however, changed over the course of the class, as he began to recognize that pulp’s condition as “bad literature” perhaps created interesting possibilities for the genre.
“There’s this artistry to being a non-artist, to being an accessible artist … If you look at women writers, there’s this own space they’re creating, and they realize, ‘I don’t have access to that, and I’m not trying to have access to that,’” Rogers said. “By speaking to their own experience as it is by not entering another space, they act as everyone, as saying, ‘This is where I’m coming from, this is my experience,’ and that experience is more universal than writing under a pseudonym, and trying to occupy a space that isn’t your own.”
Senior Kayla Kennedy agreed that pulp has the potential to provide a voice to the oppressed.
“I think one thing that was really interesting to me is noting how widely accessible and widely consumed pulp is. These are books that people are reading when they’re written. They’re very much a product of their time and being consumed by products of that same time. And so in that way it’s very interesting to take a much more person-centric view and apply that as opposed to a more theoretical view that I think excludes the fact that real conscious people are reading these books written by real conscious people.”
Kennedy’s presentation focused on how important accurate portrayals of the oppressed become in a genre that widely disseminates their voices which is, moreover, the only avenue through which their voices may be heard.
The 22 Symposium presentations were divided into six themed panels. After the speakers in each panel presented, the panels were required to field questions from peers and English faculty in attendance.
For Rogers, these questions were a chance to move outside the confines of his paper and its argument.
“When you’re talking to someone else, there’s the question of response,” Rogers said. “I can do that in a paper, but it’s posing a lot of questions and responding the same way, and I have to make it a unified whole. But there’s so much outside of that, and I can address everything that I have to leave out in the periphery in a conversation that I can’t in the paper.”
Post-Symposium, each senior wishing to graduate with a degree in English literature is tasked with the process of lengthening their presentations into article-length papers of 20 to 30 pages, which will likely take into consideration the questions fielded during Symposium.