Interview with Literary Critic & Writer, Robert T. Tally Jr.

Photo: Robert T. Tally Jr.

Photo: Robert T. Tally Jr.

Brief Biography:

Robert T. Tally Jr. is an associate professor of English at Texas State University. He is the author of Fredric Jameson: The Project of Dialectical Criticism (2014); Poe and the Subversion of American Literature (2014); Spatiality (2013); Utopia in the Age of Globalization (2013); Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel (2011); and Melville, Mapping and Globalization (2009). The translator of Bertrand Westphal’s Geocriticism, Tally is the editor of Geocritical Explorations (2011); Kurt Vonnegut: Critical Insights (2013); Literary Cartographies (2014); and The Geocritical Legacies of Edward W. Said (2015). He also serves as the general editor of the Palgrave Macmillan book series Geocriticism and Spatial Literary Studies.

Geosi Gyasi: You studied philosophy and also received your J.D from the Duke Law School. My question is, when did you enter the world of literature?

Robert T. Tally: Even as a child, I was always interested in literature, broadly conceived, and I was especially interested in writers and topics that crossed disciplinary boundaries or blended literature, philosophy, history, politics, the arts and other fields. Hence, Marx (who also studied law), Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Faulkner, Sartre, and Foucault were among my favorite authors. Between college and law school, I received my M.A. in literature and Ph.D. in cultural and critical studies from the University of Pittsburgh, whose English Department supported a range of transdisciplinary fields of research. Technically, I “returned” to literature only in 2007, but I’d never lost interest in these matters. I am grateful to be in a position—i.e., as a literature professor—that allows me to pursue these varied interests in my teaching, research, and professional service.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you think it is difficult to survive financially as a writer?

Robert T. Tally: Yes, well nigh impossible, I would think. I know that there are those who manage, but many need to have multiple jobs or other sources of income. As an academic, I write, but it is only part of my overall duties. Writing is a requirement, as well as a pleasure and sometimes a burden, but it remains part of a larger professional formation that includes teaching, mentoring, advising, organizing, service, and other work. I think it would be difficult for me to survive solely as a writer.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell me more about your work on literary cartography and spatiality studies?

Robert T. Tally: That’s probably a long story, but I’ll try to be brief. I’ve long been interested in the relationship between space or place and literature, again broadly conceived so as to include historical, political, and other kinds of writing. Partly, this was geographical, looking at the connections between narrative and place; but it was also more abstractly spatial, such as looking at the ways in which knowledge or information is organized in terms of proximity, distance, graphs, charts, and so forth. As an undergraduate, I focused my attention on the ways that political and epistemological orders were established in relation to space. (Foucault and Deleuze became especially important influences, in this regard.) But I was also increasingly interested in narrative or storytelling, and intrigued by the ways that writers figuratively “mapped” the worlds depicted in their stories, through both descriptive and narrative means. The work of Fredric Jameson, and particularly his notion of cognitive mapping, helped me to connect up these diverse, sometimes antagonistic, lines of thought. This work ultimately resulted in the formulation of what I call literary cartography, which became the basis for my dissertation (on Herman Melville). Drawing on these theorists, as well as on work by geographers, urbanists, historians, literary critics, and others, I spent more time looking at the interrelations among space, place, mapping, and narrative, which led me to pursue spatiality studies in a somewhat ecumenical way. That is, I was less interested in pinning down the precise method or style that could be called geocriticism, literary geography, the spatial humanities, or something else, and more interested in exploring the various ways that spatially-oriented approaches can make possible innovative criticism and scholarship.

A lot of my efforts recently have been devoted to this overall project. As part of this work, I wrote an introductory study, Spatiality, which appears in Routledge’s “New Critical Idiom” series. Additionally, I translated Bertrand Westphal’s Geocriticism, organized several conference panels on the subject, edited a special issue of Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture on spatial literary studies, as well as four collections of essays (Geocritical Explorations, Literary Cartographies, The Geocritical Legacies of Edward W. Said, and Ecocriticism and Geocriticism [co-edited with Christine M. Battista]), and I founded and edit the Palgrave Macmillan book series, Geocriticism and Spatial Literary Studies. I am presently putting together two other essay-collections, The Routledge Handbook of Space and Literature and Teaching Space, Place, and Literature (part of the MLA’s “Options for Teaching” series), and I am working on a study of the spatial imagination in modern literature.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you get involved as an editor with Spatial Literary Studies?

Robert T. Tally: Do you mean the Reconstruction special issue? Reconstruction is a fascinating and innovative online quarterly journal, and it normally publishes three special issues per year, plus an “open topic” issue. I proposed Spatial Literary Studies as a special topic, and the editors enthusiastically supported my idea. Indeed, the response to my initial call for papers yielded so many excellent proposals and essays that we agreed not only to make a larger than normal single issue (17 articles, instead of 6-to-8), but also to include a section in the following issue devoted to the problem of place, included five more articles. On the whole, this was an amazing project, one that reveals the diversity, energy, and intensity of work being done in spatial literary studies today.

http://reconstruction.eserver.org/Issues/143/Tally.shtml

http://reconstruction.eserver.org/Issues/144/Tally.shtml

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me about your role at Geocriticism and Spatial Literary Studies?

Robert T. Tally: Following the success of Westphal’s Geocriticism: Real and Fictional Spaces (2011), my collection Geocritical Explorations: Space, Place, and Mapping in Literary and Cultural Studies (2011), and other titles, my editor at Palgrave Macmillan invited me to propose a book series on the subject, for which I would serve as general editor. Although I myself embrace the term “geocriticism” in my own work, I wanted to make sure that the series reflected the diverse variety of current research and writing in these areas, so I opted for this broader title. Working with Palgrave Macmillan, I have tried to promote the series, generally spreading the word, soliciting proposals and manuscripts, then coordinating the review-process, editing, and eventual publication. This started in 2013, and we now have published or forthcoming ten volumes (and counting!) in the series. We regularly receive inquiries, proposals, and manuscripts from scholars all over the world, and I am very excited about the quality and range of work published. I think that the series will continue to get better as more periods, genres, methods, and languages are represented.

Available on Amazon

Available on Amazon

Geosi Gyasi: Do you belong to any group of writers?

Robert T. Tally: Well, not exactly, although I benefit from associations with fellow writers, whether in connection with professional service, membership in organizations, or more informally. For instance, I serve on the executive committee of the MLA’s division on literary criticism and on editorial advisory boards of journals, and organizations like the Marxist Literary Group, the Society for Utopian Studies, the Poe Studies Association, and various other groups provide a community of scholars with shared interests. My department and university includes a number of terrific scholars with whom I can discuss matters related to my own work, and the internet makes possible more connections than I would’ve imagined. In this sense, I think a community of writers emerges from these various ensembles, even if a particular “group” is not formally established.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me a little about your book, “Fredric Jameson: The Project of Dialectical Criticism”?

Robert T. Tally: Fredric Jameson: The Project of Dialectical Criticism was conceived as an introductory study of the work of this important literary critic and theorist. It appears in Pluto Press’s excellent “Marxism and Culture” series, and I’m pleased that my study is the first in the series that was devoted to a single-author, mainly because Jameson’s own cultural criticism is expansive and far-reaching, so it seems appropriate that a “Marxism and Culture” book be devoted to him. Jameson was my own teacher when I was an undergraduate, and his work has been especially helpful to me in my scholarship, so this study was a labor of love, in many ways. However, it was also extremely difficult, since Jameson’s complex, elegant theories are not well suited to summary, and since he has been so prodigiously productive, having published more than 22 books (not to mention hundreds of articles) over some 55 years. I decided to arrange my study chronologically, focusing primarily on Jameson’s books, from Sartre: The Origins of a Style (1961) to Representing Capital (2011); this allowed me to register the subtle transformations in his cultural criticism while underscoring the remarkable continuity of his overall project. For example, I wanted to show how his early investigations of Sartre, Adorno, Lukács, Benjamin and others continued to inform his celebrated theories of the political unconscious, postmodernism, the geopolitical aesthetic, ontologies of the present, archaeologies of the future, and so on. Above all, I wanted to show how this amazing body of work—drawing upon seemingly old-fashioned theories as well as apparently avant-garde criticism—remained not only relevant but crucial for literary and cultural criticism today. Jameson has published two books, with several more forthcoming, since my study appeared, but I hope my book can serve as a helpful introduction and “user’s guide” to Jameson’s own writings.

Geosi Gyasi: What kinds of books do you mostly read?

Robert T. Tally: That’s difficult to say, since my interests remain—as they did when I was younger—all over the place. I have been reading a lot of work related to spatial literary studies; for instance, right now I’m reading through the contributions to Deep Maps and Spatial Narratives, a collection edited by David Bodenhamer, John Corrigan, and Trevor Harris. I’ve been doing more work on questions of fantasy, partly for a book I am writing on Tolkien, so I have been studying research on fantasy as a genre and a discursive mode. As a book reviewer, I have recently read Caren Irr’s The Geopolitical Novel, Phillip E. Wegner’s Shockwaves of Possibility, Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle’s Cartographies of the Absolute, and Susan Naramore Mahar’s Deep Map Country. I’m rereading Foucault in preparation for a course I’m teaching, and I frequently check in on research related to my teaching, especially in nineteenth-century U.S. and European literature. Of course, I read novels most of all, and I have been dividing time between novels related to my courses and novels “for fun.” But then, the blessing (and the curse) of being a literature professor is that any works read “for fun” can easily, perhaps necessarily, become substance for one’s teaching and research. Now that I teach “fantasy,” even that genre offers little escape!

Geosi Gyasi: What is the inspiration behind your book, “Utopia in the Age of Globalization: Space, Representation, and the World-System”?

Robert T. Tally: Utopia in the Age of Globalization represents the crystallization of some of my previously amorphous or scattered thoughts on the question of utopia. It’s a brief book, focusing especially on the utopian theories of Marcuse and Jameson, without attempting to engage a lot of other important utopian thinkers out there. (Bloch, especially, seems to me to be a notably absent figure.) Following from those theorists, I marvel at the persistence of the utopian impulse in an era that seems, at first, so ill-suited for it, the dystopian present. Famously, the two great earlier “moments” of utopia in Western Civilization were responses to radical spatiotemporal upheavals in their societies, from the aftermath of the “discovery” of the New World in Thomas More’s time to the transformative effects of industrialization in Edward Bellamy’s or William Morris’s late nineteenth-century. Utopias went from being places (or non-places) in space to moments in time, or perhaps out of time, the telos of historical development. In the late twentieth-century, in contrast, utopia is not to be found in distant space or time, but experienced as a desire to make sense of the hic et nunc. I argue that utopia in the age of globalization is primarily an attempt to map the world system, which is at once all-too-real and beyond realistic representation, maintain itself as a sort of fantastic or figurative presence. In a sense, the utopian impulse underlies literary cartography. That’s how I came to utopian studies, in fact. I realized that the apparently realistic attempt to map the complex, perhaps unrepresentative spaces of the present world system required fantastic or utopian means. Hence, the work on utopia (and fantasy) comes directly out of the earlier, but ongoing, work on literary cartography.

Geosi Gyasi: As an associate professor of English at Texas State University, how do you find time to write?

Robert T. Tally: That’s a good question! I wish I were able to practice what I preach more consistently, which is to try to write every day. My goal is to produce 500 words a day—word-counts being superior to time since the latter can so easily be wasted—but I rarely make it. I do try, however, and I’ve found that I need to use nights and weekends a good bit. Deadlines are our friends, and I get more work done as a given deadline approaches. In general, though, it’s a matter of chipping away at things. The point is, you’re always going to be busy, so you cannot wait until some time when you’re not busy or when you “have time” to write. That won’t happen. Thus, you make time. But also that means, for me at least, dealing with multiple projects—multiple writing projects, but also teaching, writing, service, and other—concurrently. A little here, a little there; moving things around according to when they’re due. China Miéville has called this “temporal triage”: that’s pretty much the way to do it.

Available on Amazon

Available on Amazon

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a favorite among all the books you’ve written?

Robert T. Tally: I think it varies, depending on my mood. I certainly like the fact that Spatiality is doing its job, helping students and critics get a sense of spatial literary studies; it seems to be my best-selling book, and I think it works well in fulfilling its intended purpose. The Fredric Jameson book gave me a lot of satisfaction, partly because I was able to read or reread almost all of Jameson’s work as part of the process. I think that the study of Vonnegut, Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel, turned out quite well, since I focused on a particular problem (Vonnegut’s untimely modernism) and did not try to cover everything. Poe and the Subversion of American Literature took me the longest and caused me the most consternation, and I probably had more concerns about it than any of the others, but then it received the Choice Outstanding Academic Title designation, so what do I know? The fact is, when I’m writing, I always feel that the work is unsatisfactory, and I usually get in a pretty bad mood about it. Later, when it’s finished—or, especially, when the proofs come or its published—I start to think, “Hey, this isn’t so bad.” But in the moment of composition, I’m normally unhappy with my work.

One of the nice things about all the editing I have been doing is that I can appreciate these collective projects more. I enjoy bringing different authors and essays together, and I especially like seeing new and emerging scholars produce these fascinating articles based on their research. In a sense, then, I think my favorite books might be the edited collections, including Kurt Vonnegut: Critical Insights, in addition to the geocritical ones. It is nice to see the different essays all coming together to form a whole, which then can be used by others students and critics, and so on.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you know who reads your books?

Robert T. Tally: The most wonderful people in the world, of course! Actually, I don’t always know, and academic books sales (generally pretty low) don’t really tell the whole story; the primary market is libraries, after all. My books are generally intended for an audience of fellow literature professors, graduate students, and perhaps advanced undergraduates interested in these matters. I believe the books are making their way into the hands of these readers, and I am encouraged by the feedback I have received from students. Sites like “academia.edu” keep track of searches, and I seem to be reaching scholars from around the world, which is gratifying. Most gratifying, of course, is when I see my work cited by others in their own writings, since I feel like I helped someone else’s research in some way. A small, but one hopes a meaningful contribution to the infinite conversation.

Geosi Gyasi: Who are your literary forebears?

Robert T. Tally: I think I would only flatter myself to name “literary forebears,” so I’ll just say that I have probably been most influenced by my own professors, many of whom are terrific writers as well. Of the very many I could mention, let me limit myself to Paul Bové, Jonathan Arac, Fredric Jameson, Toril Moi, Valentin Mudimbe, Kenneth Surin, and Rick Roderick. Their examples, as teachers, critics, thinkers, and practitioners in the humanities help to inform everything I do, whether in the classroom, in my writings, or elsewhere.

Geosi Gyasi: As a literary critic yourself, do you read reviews of your books?

Robert T. Tally: Yes, absolutely. I don’t always agree with the reviewer, of course, but I am always grateful that someone took the time to read and comment on my work. Also, I know it’s a valuable service to the profession. Book reviewers are generally underappreciated, and they deserve credit for their efforts.

Geosi Gyasi: Are you currently working on anything new?

Robert T. Tally: Yes, always. There are a lot of projects at various stages of development. I mentioned the edited collections above, and I have book projects on the spatial imagination and on Tolkien in the works. I am also drafting articles and preparing talks on genre, spatial narrative, and modernism.

Geosi Gyasi: What is your greatest challenge as a writer?

Robert T. Tally: As Melville put it in Moby-Dick, “Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!” Seriously, though, I suspect these are the main requirements, and so their absence represents the supreme challenge to a writer. Certainly, things get easier when these four elements are available in abundance.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have anything else to say to end the interview?

Robert T. Tally: Thank you for your interest in my work.

END.

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