Author Archives: robhurd

Tradition and Cynicism in Catherine Keyser’s Playing Smart

The sixth installment of the MagMods book club reading of Catherine Keyser’s Playing Smart comes from Robert Hurd, Associate Professor of English at Anne Arundel Community College. He has published on Flaubert and Seinfeld in New Literary History and Joyce and primitivism in The James Joyce Quarterly. His current book project is a study of literary notebooks as a genre, with a special focus on the modernist period.


One of the great strengths of Catherine Keyser’s Playing Smart lies in its delicate balance of close readings of unjustly neglected texts with its working out of a theory of feminist critique from within commodity culture. While taking in Keyser’s careful theoretical development of humor-as-critique in the introduction, I was struck by Keyser’s brief mention of Lauren Berlant who “warns against feminist overreadings that reflect the critic’s desire to find political resistance and then obscure complicity and compromise in middlebrow texts” (9). Berlant’s warning resonated with my own thoughts: who reads humor by women writers in a middlebrow periodical as powerful critique? Is it the 21st century scholar with her or his own transformative political “desire” (or in Keyser’s quote from Michael Warner’s definition of counterpublics as “spaces of circulation in which it is hoped that the poesis of scene making will be transformative, not merely replicative” I would draw attention to the notion of the critic’s hope (italics mine))? Did the actual readers of Vanity Fair or the other “smarts” read it as such a critique and is there evidence that it indeed had a transformative impact on its readership? And does it matter if even the writers themselves saw it this way or not? Continue reading