The Importance of Being Interesting

ilIn this guest post, Oliver Tearle, editor of the Interesting Literature blog, explains how and why literary research can be made interesting to a wider audience.

D. H. Lawrence was fond of climbing mulberry trees in the nude to stimulate his imagination. Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group once convinced the Royal Navy they were a group of Abyssinian princes by donning fake beards and painting their faces black. George Eliot was the first person to make reference to ‘pop’ music. These are just three of the things I’ve discovered in the last year, since I embarked on a project to find the interesting side of literature. I did this partly because of that perennial question, or invitation, which preoccupies (and haunts) many a PhD student and academic researcher: “Tell us about your research…”

Increasingly in Higher Education, academics are being encouraged to communicate their research to a wider audience beyond academia. In many ways, this is nothing new, but the growing importance of “impact” in measuring the efficacy of research, and the idea of “accountability” – whereby academic research should recognisably yield some cultural and financial return on the money invested in it – have helped to bring the issue to the forefront of many discussions within academia. As it currently stands, ‘impact’ forms only 20% of the big research assessment currently underway – REF 2014 – but early signs suggest that impact is likely to make up a considerably larger percentage of the next REF assessment in another six years’ time. What is “impact”? It’s hard to say exactly: frequently cited examples include museum exhibitions and performances, public lectures and talks, and media appearances – activities which entail your research reaching the public in some way. All of these activities are loosely connected by the issue of “public engagement.”

“And this is why I started thinking about D. H. Lawrence climbing trees in the nude”

But in the online age, there are many other options open to the researcher. After all, not everyone can get a spot on BBC Radio 4 to talk about their research into medieval madrigals or their work on Thomas Hardy’s “lesser novels.” Setting up your own blog is one excellent way to gain valuable experience in public engagement: a blog can be a space to record and promote your academic activities, or it can take the form of an online forum which is centred on some issue of your research which acts as a way of bringing together scholars working in a similar area. Another way to bring your research to a wider audience in the digital age is through providing guest blogs for other sites. And this is why I started thinking about D. H. Lawrence climbing trees in the nude.

One of the most common problems I have faced with my own research is: how do I make this interesting to a non-academic audience? Of course I know why it’s interesting, but as anyone who’s stood at the front of a lecture theatre will agree, knowing something and communicating that something to other people are two different things. Another question: how do I pitch it right, so I don’t alienate the non-specialist but, at the same time, don’t over-simplify or ‘dumb down’ the essence of my work?

I decided to test the online waters, first by setting up a Twitter feed, @InterestingLit, and then by establishing a WordPress site where I could publish longer posts on some aspect of literature. But instead of making the focus of the blog and Twitter feed my own specific field of research, I decided to keep the focus on ‘literature in general’ instead. This is because I wanted to attract anyone interested in literature, not just people interested in modernism or dystopian fiction (two of my own research interests). It’s also true that academics are often called upon to teach on team-taught modules that lie outside their immediate area of research. So I thought that such a project might force me to seek out the interesting aspects of other areas of literature, not just those that fall within my research interests. Twitter has proved, in many ways, the perfect platform for such an experiment: many academics and researchers now use Twitter to promote their own work and connect with others, but there are also many literature enthusiasts who aren’t in academia but who take an interest in the work being carried out by researchers and critics. (I know this because of the many non-academic fans of ‘weird fiction’ and Gothic horror I have found on Twitter who have expressed an interest in my own research.) Twitter also forces you to be brief, of course, meaning there’s no room for specialist jargon, waffle, or lengthy explanations. I soon discovered a large community of literature fans on Twitter who responded to the facts, quotations, and links I posted on my feed.

“factoids may be trivia but they have helped to attract visitors to my blog”

These can be very short and sweet. Robin Hood didn’t live in Sherwood Forest. Sherlock Holmes didn’t make any deductions. Evelyn Waugh’s wife’s name was Evelyn, and Evelyn wasn’t his own first name. Victor Hugo liked to write naked to help cure him of writer’s block. Such factoids (a word coined by Norman Mailer in his 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe: itself a little literary factoid) may be ‘trivia’ but they have helped to attract attention to my Twitter feed, and this means more visitors to my blog. I started getting followed by people and organisations I knew and respected: the Oxford English Dictionary, the Poetry Foundation, playwrights, critics, columnists … even the people behind the television series QI and one of the Eggheads. Heartened by this growing interest in my endeavour, I started to blog more frequently. My blog now receives over 3,000 hits a week. I am attracting guest blog posts from academic researchers from all over the world, including high-profile writers such as Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells, who are keen to share their research with a wider audience in the form of short posts on a public forum. That means I can offer specialist posts from researchers working in fields I don’t intimately know myself (modern vampire literature, eighteenth-century women’s poetry) but also more general, non-specialist posts by myself, which share the interesting things I – the non-expert – have discovered while reading around in these different areas of literature.

A guest blog can be a great way to gain practice in doing several things: communicating your research succinctly and engagingly to the public (which could be useful for such future research activities as public lecturing, media appearances, and working with public institutions such as museums and theatres); highlighting what is particularly relevant about your research (often this is also the aspect that would most appeal to the general public, since it points up its links with universal concerns, whether social, cultural, or political); and thinking about how to make a subject interesting for students, which can be particularly useful when you’re writing that undergraduate lecture in which you have to distil years of doctoral research on the late Victorian Gothic into one fifty-minute introductory lecture on Jekyll and Hyde. Of course, it’s important to continue to acknowledge one essential truth of academic research: namely, that it is not always apparent at the outset why a particular project might be relevant or valuable. Such a thing is only discovered by praxis, by carrying out the work and seeing what it yields. But in principle these initial research questions are interesting in themselves, and worth sharing with people beyond the walls of academe.

I’m sometimes tempted to fall into the trap of envying academics who work in other disciplines – how easy it must be to make your work in engineering have “impact” if it leads to the building of a stronger bridge, or a faster car, or a safer building! But those of us who work in the humanities, and particularly in the area of literature, have a gift we shouldn’t overlook: our subject is already of interest to millions of people around the world. What we need to do is show this community of readers why our work is interesting, and that goes hand in hand with why it might prove relevant and beneficial to the wider world.

65 thoughts on “The Importance of Being Interesting

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  1. For years I was in biology research, and unless I was *really* glossing over the details and making sweeping generalizations, it didn’t make it any easier to connect with the public and help them see the relevance of what I was doing. The minutiae involved in any deep research is just not so accessible. But sometimes it was an offhand comment like – “I need to keep fewer than 4 mice to a cage, or they’ll fight” – that would be enough relatable detail for a non-scientist friend to be able to understand how many little details I had to keep track of to study immunology in a model organism.
    Now that I’m in a different field (ed tech) and I’ve started keeping a blog, I’m learning that it’s pretty unpredictable what will capture the interest of our layman followers. For some people it’s the technical details, for others it’s the “where do you get your ideas” question. I love the “Interesting Literature” blog – I’m learning a lot from it both as a lit lover and as a new blogger.


    1. I think that’s a superb point – you can never second-guess what people may find interesting. That’s part of the problem with ‘interestingness’ – but also, I suppose, what makes it exciting – that it is so very subjective. I’ve found this with the Interesting Literature blog – some of my readers like to discuss interpretations of texts (whether value judgments, unravelling meaning, and the like), while others like the factual side. It reminds me of why I like seminar teaching so much: you’ll get students wanting to air their opinion about George Eliot, but also those who’ll pipe up when you ask them where the word ‘sinister’ comes from. It’s a rich, rich world!

      Thanks for your very kind comments about my blog, by the way – if you ever want to discuss blogging matters, do feel free to get in touch. It’d be nice to talk with others in a similar boat.


  2. Art and literature unlike other disciplines where proof is called for, both deal with elusive and unpredictable specimen called man.His cure for writer’s block is different as his attitude to life is. For literature is reflection of his attitudes to life, his times. I found keeping a blog to share my passion for man and his literature. Man interest have fallen by the wayside but literature still interests partly because it brings that excitement of reading books alive once again.As Oscar Wilde spoke about Balzac, ‘A steady course of Balzac reduces our friends to shadows…who would care to go out to an evening party to meet Tomkins a friend of one’s boyhood’. Literature makes Tomkins more to the point and rounded, as finished as a sculpture piece. An interesting article.


    1. Absolutely, I agree.. It’s keeping that delicate balance between ‘selling out’ and ‘alienating everyone outside of the field’. That’s where I think short, digestible details come in – a fact, a quotation, an interesting anecdote. Then, once you’ve reassured people that you’ve gauged your audience and are serious about making your work intelligible, you can go into more depth with it.


  3. I follow the blog Interesting Literature for many of the reasons suggested in this article. I do have a graduate in English, but I’ve enjoyed literature since I was a child. I have many friends in other fields such as engineering who enjoy literature because it broadens their understanding of the world beyond their narrow discipline.


    1. Thank you Marie Ann, as always. What kind words – it’s really heartening to know I’m doing something right with the blog! I appreciate the support and feedback greatly. I like that term ‘broadening one’s understanding’ – I may have to use that…


      1. Oh, please do use that phrase 🙂 I also have a graduate degree in social work (and have met quite a few English majors who did the same). I found that my education in literature was wonderful preparation for broadening my understanding of the human condition. You can reach back to Dickens and see many of the same social conditions he described still present in too many of our impoverished communities. Literature helped me be less surprised by what I saw and heard when working directly with people who were suffering, and also helped me to “think outside the box” when developing avenues for helping people. And, of course, writing is a wonderful therapeutic device.


  4. I am an English teacher, so I really appreciate this!~ It is always a challenge to keep things interesting for high schoolers. I have definitely found that factoids work well for kids…they like the random bits of information about the writers. The kids seem to embrace literature a little more when they understand the context it was written in and a bit of the life of the author! Looking forward to following you here and seeing what bits of interests I can pilfer and use in my classroom!


    1. Thanks, Kate – and although I’ve not taught English in schools (I’d be useless, I think), I can understand how, even more so than with university students, offering a handhold, or a way in, is of the utmost importance. Sometimes it can just be one quirky fact about a writer, something that makes Henry James and Dickens seem less like demigods and more the human beings they were. If you haven’t already, do take a look at my blog, and feel free to use any such facts or stories you find there! I’m always interested to hear how the material goes down in a teaching context…


      1. I will definitely use it as a resource. Thanks so much! The little factoids about Emily Dickinson and Charlotte Perkins Gilman are some of their favorite back-stories! It has opened up some good discussions, especially when they see that so many writers were a little troubled or suicidal or came to ruin. Thanks for your research!


  5. As a teacher of the humanities I think this is an interesting idea. I am constantly trying to find ways to ensure students realize the importance of art, literature, and music. Just like you, I know it is interesting, but how to convince young people? They need to see the application to real life. Quirky, interesting stories about the authors, composers, and artists help students to connect in a real way. Thanks for the reminder.


    1. I agree. I think it’s about striking a delicate balance, where you can communicate the quirkier and interesting sides of a subject as a good ‘way in’ for students, without it demeaning or reducing the subject to ‘mere trivia’. But unusual facts and stories can be a useful overture to the heavier, deeper, more complicated issues and discussions, and can ensure that fewer students are left behind at the outset (whether owing to lack of interest or lack of initial understanding, or both).


  6. Reblogged this on Mandyevebarnett's Blog and commented:
    Today’s word is Boor – definition: a rude or unmannerly person – as we all have numerous stories regarding call center phone calls, inept retail staff and those work colleagues that just need strangling, I thought I would go the opposite route. Enjoy this post.


  7. I found this extremely interesting. I love the mystery and that is why I read things that take me to what if and why books. Sherlock, Poe, Moto, Chan and Erle Stanley are on my left hand. My right varies due to my mood. Factoids are tricky: Sherlock made deductions only from his checking book, it was Watson who spurred him on. He was a depressed and addicted hulk of a human being. Robin Hood gave to the poor as a means of holding them in his grip. It became his paid army of agents who hid him on a moments notice and feed him in the forest. You can slant any hero and find that there is so truth to it. Remember when the legend is better than the truth believe the legend. (The man who shot Liberty Valence)


    1. Indeed, John Ford had a point there – though one always wants to make it clear where hard fact ends and legend begins. Sometimes the truth is less celebrated or known, and therefore becomes more interesting than the (widely known) legend…


      1. It was indeed good old Henry James who said that ‘the only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel without incurring the accusation of being arbitrary, is that it be interesting.’ (Notice his trademark mid-sentence digression, it always makes me smile to myself). It was in his 1884 essay ‘The Art of Fiction’ in response to Walter Besant’s essay of the same year and title. James argued against Besant’s call for rules and regulations to govern fiction as he believed these would restrict the writer. It’s very apt in light of this blog entry. I’m very fond of your idea to share all sorts of literature and not become ‘fenced in’ by modernism or the Victorians, for example.


  8. I am an aspiring academic and I just started blogging. I’m glad to see that academics are using Twitter and blogging sites as outreach tools…I’m excited to do some more digging and read other people’s work. Thanks for the reassurance about blogging.


  9. Reblogged this on Shark Dreams and commented:
    Really interesting post on the importance of reaching a larger audience with your literary research. I am so often torn between the necessity for writing and for direct action, and this piece helped me start to realize how the two might be linked together.


  10. “Sherlock Holmes didn’t make any deductions.”
    I love it. I can’t tell you how many times my husband (phil prof.) screams at the TV when we watch Sherlock, “IN-duction!”

    Interesting post. I shy away from Twitter, but perhaps I should reconsider it for exactly the reasons you give—it forces us to be brief. I suppose I should do it in baby steps…I’m still getting used to the idea of blog-length writing!


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