What is your main area of academic research?
18th century French lit specialising in Libertine literature and the period’s theatre.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on what looks like a very boring play by Voltaire called La Prude, it’s about a woman who pretends to be a prude and she’s actually very sexually voracious, and what’s interesting is that there’s a transvestite figure in there. Marjorie Garber says that when there is a transvestite they’re not the problem, they point to a fracture elsewhere, so I’m trying to figure out what the transvestite is doing, there’s a problem somewhere else. So I’m working on a play about false prudes, false genders.
How early on in your academic career did you focus in on your specialist area?
It was the fourth year as an undergraduate. I actually found a book, this is such a metaphor, I found a book on my mother’s bookshelf on the Marquis de Sade and I thought this looks really interesting. And I remember, someone at Cambridge was doing a talk, where I did my undergrad, someone was offering a course on Sade and I was the only one who turned up. We still meet up on occasion actually.
Your work has often focused on rehabilitating Libertine texts that may be considered as ‘low culture’, do you think academia in general places too much emphasis on supposed ‘high culture?’
Not anymore. In fact, I think that there might be a tendency towards forgetting the canon in the name of broadening out. In the aim of giving voice to minority voices. What I find interesting is how those minority voices take up the canon, rework it, and deploy it to other ends that you wouldn’t expect. So actually I think you need the great canonical works and the perceived minor works in dialogue with each other. It makes for better research, it makes for better teaching.
How much has your research been divided between the two?
My PhD was on Sade’s theatre. Sade is now taken seriously as a great writer, but no one takes his plays seriously. So it’s like OK let’s look at some elements of his work that haven’t been looked at, and make that valid. I work a lot on Voltaire, the biggest figure of the 18th century, certainly in France, possibly across Europe. A figurehead of the Enlightenment. But I look at his plays. He was very well known in his own period for his plays but now that aspect of his work is totally forgotten.
What do you enjoy reading outside of your areas of research?
Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the best fucking book I’ve read in ages. Fan-bloody-tastic. It’s great. In fact, I was just harassing someone at the bookshop about it this weekend. She was also reading it. It’s really good. It’s about a psychotic family and the entire family’s been wiped out. And as a plug for my colleague’s work, Catherine Dousteyssier-Khoze’s new novel La logique de l’amanite, that’s also about a killer in the family, it’s very good.
Do you get much time to read?
I’ve decided to turn my phone off so I have time to read.
So no social media?
No. Not on Facebook, I’ve never been on Facebook. I’m too old. I’ve got nothing to say. I’m not opposed to social media, I think when my translation of Sade comes out I’ll go on Twitter more.
You didn’t mention Sade when we talked about what you’re working on, are you anticipating it to be a big seller? How did the project come about? (Dr Wynn is currently translating the highly controversial 120 Days of Sodom for Penguin World Classics)
Yeah, I hope so. It’s a collaboration with Will McMorran from Queen Mary, he’s great. We sent a proposal to the head of the division at Penguin, and they got back within three hours saying yes. Which, I’m told, is the fastest they’ve ever heard. Then we took a year longer than we thought we would translating the book. It should be coming out next year. And we think it’s going to be big. It would be interesting to know if it’s going to be controversial or not. Given that it deals with such dark material and problematic material, how will that land? A new book I’m reading is called Trigger Warning: Is the fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech? It looks at the increasing, well the perception that universities are increasingly becoming a place where students want safety, and confirmation, and consensus. And actually what you want is debate and robust discussion and contestation, so what place does very difficult material have in a university when people say oh we want trigger warnings, oh we don’t want to deal with difficult material. So it will be interesting to see how this book, in a culture of perceived increased sensitivity, what will happen.
A lot of your research, particularly in Libertinage, focuses on erotic or explicit texts. Is it a difficult subject to teach?
It’s hard, no pun intended, but it’s hard studying sex stuff with students. I’m the one giggling at the front. Students don’t want to talk out. I can imagine, it’s extremely difficult talking about sex in front of your peers let alone your module convenor. It’s agonising, well it’s agonising for a bit and then you kind of go oh for god’s sake it’s not a big deal.
So why teach it?
Precisely because it’s agonising. Because if it’s agonising that means it’s disruptive, it’s problematic, and those subjects take you to questions about libertine individuality, selfhood, power, gender, politics. I think I’m done with sex stuff now, I think I want to move on to other questions. It’ll still be related to questions of selfhood and subjectivity, but moving away from the libertine angle to things like identity fraud in the 18th century.
So are you going to stop running your Libertinage module?
Yeah, I think so. I found some police records in Paris, there were some people who were locked up in the Bastille for impersonating other people so there was this woman who claimed to be the duchess of some distant place in Germany, and it turned out she was the daughter of a barman from Alsace-Lorraine. And she passed herself off as a duchess, and she got the diamonds and she got the coach and someone said you know “oi it’s Brenda from Luneville”. So she’s busted. And there were others: there was a supposed Arabian prince, there’s a man who claims to be able to contact the dead, you know that kind of fraud, so all these questions of identity fraud, so I think that’s my next project, I’ll maybe do a module on that – somehow!
For the libertinage module, is it a conscious decision to include the more explicit material in your 4th-year module rather than 2nd-year?
Well the only complaint I had was about teaching a political by Sade. It's included in La Philosophie dans le boudoir. We look at it in 2nd year, and there was some debate amongst students as to whether that was appropriate to teach at university. That was fascinating because there was a belief that I would leave that problematic material unchallenged. But of course, we take that material, which gets you to think critically about the French Revolution.
It gets you to think about the assumptions behind the Revolution, its ambiguities, and you know university is not here to be a safe ride, and it just confirms the idea that people who don’t do literature are unblinking and think that books are just there to be a nice cushion to our lives. There’s a lot of material that I work on that I don’t think is “good”. It’s by looking at the literature that you can get a better sense of the society as a whole, you can get an idea of what its needs were, what its neuroses were, you can get a better sense of it that way.
Do you think that the arts are undervalued in the university system?
No, not at Durham.
No, I think you can see that culture has been taken and used to add something to cities that they didn’t have before. If you look at Newcastle and Gateshead, look at the Baltic and the Sage, and Workplace, in Gateshead, for me the best gallery outside London. What they do for the local community, local artists, it’s terrific. So I don’t think that culturally we dismiss the arts. I was at the Royal Academy this weekend, there were queues around the block for Ai Weiwei. So no I don’t think the Arts are dismissed.
I do think the Arts are becoming increasingly instrumentalised, why study the arts? And you can’t just reply – “why not?” The Arts have to justify themselves, you know reading books doesn’t save babies from leukaemia, so you’ve got to say what do they bring to the world. And what they bring, precisely, is: contestation, critical thinking, reassessing received opinions.
To instrumentalise language studies, you know language studies get you good jobs, my partner speaks three other languages and got a very good job precisely on the basis of speaking those languages. I think language studies as a discipline needs to figure out what we do, what we do well, what we do better than other disciplines. A friend of mine, who is at another university now, says that we do everything English does but better, because we’re like the Ginger Rogers to their Fred Astaire, everything they can do we can do backwards and in high heels.
What do you enjoy about working at Durham?
The students. You’ve got to have the input from the students. The lecturer can have passion, and I think that’s very important, but the students have to do the work.
I have to say, I know you’re in my final year, and I’m not saying this because it’s being recorded, this is the best final year I’ve ever had. Absolutely fantastic. The dissertation students are brilliant. They come in they’ve done the reading, they’ve got the spikiness, they’ve got the punchiness. Fantastic students.
What advice would you give to Durham MLAC students?
Read more. Read better. Be intellectually curious. When you hear of someone saying oh this is an interesting filmmaker, track her stuff down and see it. Because, and this is kind of the value of getting old, you think, gosh I had those four years at university to do whatever I want, well relatively, whatever I want, so you can spend the next few weeks looking at interesting Japanese cinema, or 17th century French, or Russian poems. You think oh god just do it. See what it’s like. Be intellectually curious. Go for it.
What do you think about the introduction of the compulsory dissertation?
Brilliant. Entirely for it. It gets students, these are kind of clichéd Blairite words, but you take ownership of something, you make it your own, it’s your passion. I don’t think it should be for academics to say to students this is your subject, the student has to find it and if he or she can’t, well it’s your responsibility. You find a subject you love, you go for it. And when else are you going to write 8,000 or 12,500 words on, I don’t know, manga, or humour in Sade?
I think what we want to show, is that you do languages to gain access to cultures, that language learning isn’t just about verb tables, that with this dissertation, you can access stuff that you’d never have seen otherwise, and that’s why I think the dissertation is fantastic. It’s also to be able to go to a job interview and say, I’ve read that many books, and produced a report that big, look at what I can do, and I can do it in another language. Any employer would want that.
Do you have any advice for students wishing to pursue postgraduate education or even a career in academia?
I hated my MA. Hated it. I remember sitting in an MA session thinking - that’s it I’m giving up - never doing this again. It was a really boring seminar. But my PhD was amazing. You choose the right PhD supervisor, it’s transformative. If you’re intellectually curious, do it. Pursuing an academic career? It’s hard. It makes me think of acting, so you get loads of really talented actors coming out of their training and they’ve got to go for audition after audition and there’ll always be someone getting the role ahead of you. It’s exceptionally competitive. But, and you know, I get more and more sentimental as I get older - there’s nothing more satisfying. It’s such a satisfying job. To be able to get up and say this is what I’m researching today, this is what I’m studying. And I know it sounds puke-worthy but when you have great students? It makes all the difference. And I haven’t met any total shits at Durham. No, I haven’t honestly, they haven’t come my way, or maybe they keep quiet, or they just don’t turn up for class.
And finally, what’s your favourite essay question you’ve ever set?
Oh, well there’s two. “‘No romance without finance,’ (G. Guthrie) Discuss with reference to Manon Lescaut.” And people said oh as Guthrie has argued and I’m like wait a minute I’m talking about Gwen Guthrie the singer, early 80s electro. Then there was another one like that like “‘Love is a Battlefield’. Discuss with reference to Andromaque.”
I love a good song lyric, put a song lyric in your dissertation and I’ll probably give you a first, well if it’s Morrissey, Kate Bush or The Supremes I definitely would. You probably shouldn’t put that in the interview….