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Laura Miller's NYT critique re cads and dads in Scott

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  • Joseph Carroll
    This is in response to Laura Miller s New York Times article criticizing the Kruger/Fisher/Jobling article on cads and dads in the fiction of Sir Walter Scott.
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 1, 2004
      This is in response to Laura Miller’s New York Times article criticizing the Kruger/Fisher/Jobling article on cads and dads in the fiction of Sir Walter Scott.


                  There isn’t much in the way of serious criticism in Miller’s commentary.  She relies less on substantive critique than on a simple rhetorical device: that of speaking in a tone of jocose mockery and hoping that weak-minded readers will assume that she has good reasons for adopting that tone.

      Miller’s one main point is that “culture manages its own kind of self-perpetuation.”  The implication, not explicitly stated, is that once a literary tradition gets started, it just keeps going.  The starting need not be accounted for—the fact that Scott was once fashionable is taken simply as a given—and the fact that something once started is itself tacitly taken as a sufficient causal explanation for its continuation.  There is a near absence of causal thinking in this set of assumptions.

      Miller thus avoids the real and interesting questions that should be raised by the emergence of any literary tradition: what is the source of initial popularity?  And what is the source for the continuation of a tradition?

                  The fact that Margaret Mitchell and others make use of a pattern of characterization similar to that in Scott is no evidence that the pattern has no biological basis.  If anything, the likelihood would go the other way.  A pattern that was restricted to some local cultural wrinkle or arbitrary fashion would not have such staying power or be the source for such immensely successful romances.

                  The Kruger/Fisher/Jobling study examined the response of modern women to Scott’s heroes.  The response of these women is not decisive evidence for the “instinctive” appeal of Scott’s characterizations, but it is evidence nonetheless, and sneering at it does not constitute an alternative explanatory hypothesis.

      If the dad/cad hypothesis is strongly supported by experimental evidence other than that of literary responses, the burden of proof would lie on those who deny its adaptive significance—not on those who correlate literary responses with the other experimental evidence. 

                  Miller observes that modern romance novels flatter women with the fantasy that they can take a cad and turn him into a dad--getting thrilling sex from a man while he also changes diapers and meditates gently on the blessings of the quiet life within a nurturing community.  This is hardly surprising.  It’s the sort of thing one would anticipate romance novels would do--play to cheap fantasies, elide incompatibilities, blend antithetical needs into one pleasant illusion.  Light journalism plays a similar game, so I suppose we could say that such journalism bears a relation to serious critical commentary about like that which romance novels bear to serious literature.


      Joseph Carroll
      English Department
      University of Missouri-St. Louis
      St. Louis, MO 63121
      (314) 516-5543
      (314) 516-5781
      9038 Old Bonhomme Rd.
      St. Louis, MO 63132
      (314) 432-5583
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