Tag Archives: book club

Having My Cake and Eating It Too: A Reply to the MagMods Book Club

The final installment of the MagMods Book Club reading of Playing Smart comes from the author herself, Catherine Keyser, assistant professor of English at the University of South Carolina.  It has been a tremendous pleasure hosting this book club reading and we are deeply grateful to all the participants but Catherine in particular, who exhibited such grace and fortitude from start to finish.



I’d like to begin my remarks on a personal note rather than a scholarly one.  It was a simultaneously humbling and inspiring experience to read such thoughtful and eloquent posts from the book club participants responding to Playing Smart.  The generosity of these intellectual explorations, the contextualization and conceptualization of magazine culture and humor that each contributor shared, is an embarrassment of riches.  I offer my deepest thanks, not only for your feedback on my work but also for the delightful experience of reading your blog posts—each one witty, expert, and provocative.

The seven posts fell into three major categories that I will tackle here (though there is much more that I could say and write about in reply to such rich posts): the humor and style of these smart writers and how (or whether) they produce cultural critique; the challenge of defining a periodical context; and the role of irony in modern and contemporary media. Continue reading

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Reading Catherine Keyser’s Playing Smart

The seventh installment of the MagMods book club reading of Catherine Keyser’s Playing Smart comes from Robert Scholes, Research Professor of Modern Culture and Media and Professor Emeritus of English, Comparative Literature, and Modern Culture and Media at Brown University.  Along with making major contributions to the study of Joyce, narrative, structuralism, and modernism, Professor Scholes is one of the leading figures in modern periodical studies.  He is the founder and director of  the Modernist Journals Project, the co-author with Sean Latham of the influential 2006 PMLA article “The Rise of Periodical Studies,” and the co-author with Cliff Wulfman of the invaluable book Modernism in the Magazines (2010).

I liked Catherine Keyser’s book a lot, because I learned a lot from it–both about writers I knew pretty well, like Mary McCarthy and about others I should have known more about but didn’t, like Dawn Powell.  I am not sure, however, that, if pressed, I could neatly summarize the thesis of the book as a whole: something about smartness as a two-edged weapon for women, I suppose, enabling them and wounding them at the same time. What I learned, however, beyond the elegant close readings of a variety of texts, was something about the way that magazine culture worked from the twenties through the sixties. This book doesn’t just read magazines, it reads the way magazines play roles in the lives and in the fictions of the writers that are discussed. The smart magazine–whether socially, culturally, or politically smart–mattered in that world. I don’t know if any print medium matters that much in our own day, though I rather think television has largely replaced the magazine, now, and digital social networks may be getting ready to challenge television. What I wonder, then, is whether smartness is tied to that world. It seems less visible in our own. I suspect that smartness and the magazines of modernism are tightly linked–a message and a medium that belonged together, so that we really need to understand one to understand the other. Anyway, I am grateful to Catherine Keyser for what she has taught me and for what she has led me to think about, as I read her book over the last couple of weeks.

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

Defining the ‘Smart Magazine’ in Catherine Keyser’s Playing Smart

The fifth installment of the MagMods book club reading of Catherine Keyser’s Playing Smart comes from David Earle, Assistant Professor of Transatlantic Modernism and Print Culture at the University of West Florida.  He is the author of Recovering Modernism: Pulps, Paperbacks, and the Prejudice of Form, about the popular publishing of modernist literature, and All Man!: Hemingway, 1950s Men’s Magazines, and the Masculine Persona, which uses Hemingway and 1950s men’s  magazines to explore hyper-masculinity after the second world war. Earle has published on topics as diverse as James Joyce use of the symbol of absinthe in Ulysses for the James Joyce Quarterly, and a history of pulp magazines for The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines. He is currently researching images of femininity in the popular periodicals of the 1920s and 30s.

Catherine Keyser fights three long overdue battles in Playing Smart. First, an examination of popular women writers in 1920s and 30s New York; second, how the tone and performance of “Smartness” troubled gender roles; and, finally, how the Smart Magazines worry the traditional categories of high-brow and modernism. These battles aren’t mutually exclusive but belong to the ongoing revisionist war of new modernist studies. Keyser’s book joins the ranks of recent studies of the middle-brow that force our attention away from the masculine and restrictive traditions of modernism to the larger unexamined mass of literary production. Continue reading

Reading Catherine Keyser’s Playing Smart: Turn, Turn, Turn, Magic Wheel

Installment 4 of the MagMods Book Club comes from Verna Kale, a Lecturer in English at Hampden-Sydney College and a Research Associate on the Hemingway Letters Project (and thus no stranger to the concept of author-as-celebrity).  Her article on girl reporters, sex appeal, and professionalism, “The Girl Reporter Gets Her Man: The Threat and Promise of Marriage in His Girl Friday and Brenda Starr: Reporter,” is forthcoming from the Journal of Popular Culture and is part of a larger book project on women war correspondents (1845-1945).

One of the side effects of studying periodical culture is the realization that, while names have changed, political rhetoric stays largely the same. In Chapter Four of Playing Smart, “The Indestructible Glamour Girl: Dawn Powell, Celebrity, and Counterpublics,” Catherine Keyser quotes a passage from novelist and short story writer Dawn Powell’s 1943 journal criticizing conservative Time Inc. publisher and Congresswoman Clare Booth Luce: “There is almost no fighting the success of combined wealth, looks, chic, and aggressiveness.” The qualities Powell names might as well be the recipe for Sarah Palin’s success today. Continue reading

Reading Catherine Keyser’s Playing Smart: The Limits of Irony?

The third installment of the MagMods book club comes from Michael Rozendal, Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Language at the University of San Francisco.  His research focuses on the overlap between modernist and proletarian writers in the print culture of the 1930s.  His recent work has  focused on the institutionalization of these radicalisms in the late thirties and has incorporated teaching about the literary subcultures of San Francisco.

It has been a pleasure to read Catherine Keyser’s exploration of the development of smart interwar magazines as a liberating yet deeply problematic cultural formation.  She explores the ways that this gendered nexus of wit and physical polish, independence and conspicuous consumption offers increasingly public spaces for writers like Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, and other figures who have been largely dismissed from canonical narratives for falling too far into the popular.  Keyser’s account of these authors’ self-awareness at this crux of often conservative gender roles and personal celebrity is striking, but for this post I am most interested in exploring the later developments of the thirties/early forties that she explores in her chapter on Mary McCarthy.  In what ways is the thirties a horizon to smartness?  Is it the waning of the promise of liberation through urbane performance?  Is it the hardening of gendered hierarchies in the magazines? Is it the shift from the flapper to the gun Moll that David Earle sketched at the MSA? Is it the dispersal of irony as a general postmodern stance (as Daniel nods toward in his post)?  Is it the institutionalization of the “middlebrow” magazines? Continue reading

Beyond Calisthenics with Words: Reading Catherine Keyser’s Playing Smart: New York Women Writers and Modern Magazine Culture

Our second installment of the MagMods Bookclub reading of Catherine Keyser’s Playing Smart comes from Eurie Dahn, Assistant Professor of English at the College of Saint Rose.  Professor Dahn specializes in modernist literature, African-American literature, and the places where they intersect.  Some of these places include the periodicals and discussions of manners and respectability.  Her current research project, “Race and the Sociological Imagination: Jean Toomer and Robert E. Park,” examines the discourse of social change as it emerges from Harlem Renaissance literature and American sociology during the 1920s.

In examining the smart culture of New York City in the 1920s and 1930s, Catherine Keyser argues for the networks that existed between women writers who wrote for, appeared in, criticized, advocated for, and consumed the magazines.  By placing Dorothy Parker in relation to someone like Harlem Renaissance writer Jessie Fauset, Keyser asks us to pay attention to the strategies that these writers engaged in to negotiate a magazine culture that both subjected them to limiting gender roles and gave them the medium to criticize these expectations.  Accounts of the periodical culture of the early twentieth century tend to focus on the role of men (with some notable exceptions, of course), particularly in terms of strong editorial presences, and Keyser’s book works to reveal the pleasures and political strategies of women writers among and outside of these magazines.  It also moves away from simply discussing modernists and their little magazines to focusing on the middlebrow magazine culture that criticized but also intersected with modernism.  These shifts – of gender and of brows – are invaluable. Continue reading