Jodie Medd, Lesbian Scandal and the Culture of Modernism (Cambridge University Press, 2012)
Full disclosure: this book was provided to me free of charge by Amazon Vine.
I follow the world of poetry more than the world of non-fiction, so maybe I’m oversensitized to this sort of thing. But at least once a week, an article comes across my desk that laments the death of modern poetry, usually because it’s inaccessible or unreadable or some other buzzword that translates to “we don’t feel like taking the time to teach students how to read it”. I never see them about academic non-fiction, but it seems to me one could make the same argument; I’ve read dissertations, vast tracts of verbiage written by people who haven’t seen the outside of the University in their entire adult lives (A. J. Greimas’ notorious Structural Semantics comes to mind), books I needed to keep two dictionaries within reach at all times in order to even comprehend. You think poetry is unreadable?
That’s the sort of thing I expected when picking up Jodie Medd’s Lesbian Scandal and the Culture of Modernism; one look at the press releasing the book and I figured I was headed into murky territory indeed. But I was surprised by this book, about as much as I can be surprised by a piece of academic non-fiction these days. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a book that is structured like Foucault, but reads like Jared Diamond. And that’s what I’m going to focus on here; you can look at the title and figure out whether the subject matter is going to be interesting to you (another wonderful holdover from the old days of non-fiction!), you don’t need to read a review for that. I’ll just note in passing that if you’re a fan of pre-WW2 literature, and even if you’re not (Virginia Woolf is the subject of Chapter Four, despite its centering on Radclyffe Hall and the obscenity trial over The Well of Loneliness and, well, to be frank, I don’t think the woman could write two words together without making them sound as godawfully wrong as possible side-by-side), you’re going to find something to sink your teeth into here.
It’s the teeth-sinking that’s got me half in the bag for this book. You can actually sit down with the silly thing and read it! Without reference tomes! Medd—consciously, I thought throughout—sat down to write a piece of academic non-fiction that cleaved as much as possible to the conventions of popular non-fiction. Yes, there’s lit-crit jargon; you can’t write a lit-crit book and get away from specialized language (though let’s face it, if you can’t figure out what a signifier and a signified are from the context, you probably shouldn’t be reading Carl Zimmer, nuther). But Medd keeps it to a minimum, spending as much of her time as possible talking in layman’s terms. To say the least, it’s a refreshing change of pace. (Unfortunately, it seems she couldn’t do anything about the academic non-fiction price tag, however.)
In other words: if you’re not used to the wild, untamed world of academic non-fiction, this is actually a really, really good starting point, though unless you’re independently wealthy you’ll probably want to see if your local library has a copy. Jodie Medd has written a book that I hope becomes the new standard for academic non-fiction—it’s a book that attempts readability, and succeeds. ****