Please Unplease Me: A Review of Laura Frost’s The Problem With Pleasure

First, I want to get a bad joke out of the way: it seems cruelly apt to review a scholarly text titled The Problem With Pleasure: Modernism and Its Discontents (Columbia UP 2013), especially one, while passionate and provocative, that may preclude pleasure for the casual reader. To be expected from a scholarly text, hence the bad joke, but Frost’s study of the vicissitudes of modernist unpleasure performs its argument quite well — The arrays of Unpleasure found in this book do delight and prod the reader in its investigations of everything from stalwart modernist topoi to perfume and farts. Frost’s mission, in her own words, is to “present the interwar debate about pleasure and the rise of unpleasure … as a new way of defining literary modernism more capaciously” (14). Frost wants to collapse the schism between the two divergent interwar poles of “high” and “low” culture and their shared mission to re-stabilize the shocked and distended interwar subject. Frost’s contribution to her field isn’t quite revolutionary, but the methods in which she ties the affect of text and media on the body is pressing and important, and carries weight outside the academy. For it is not simply that the “high” modernists wanted its world to repudiate fast & easy entertainment to engage with the post-World War One space. Rather, they wanted their readers to engage with pleasure in a different key — unpleasure. Seeing the beginnings of literary modernism with the more inclusive Unpleasure rather than Eliotian disdain or Poundian militancy allows us to see how literary modernists not only critiqued vernacular entertainment, but how  Jean Rhys, James Joyce and Aldous Huxley were themselves subject to mass cultural motifs in their own texts.  “High” and “low” culture were not as mutually exclusive as previously thought, Frost asserts, and the interwar period set the stage for our current moment of pleasure, cultural division, and technological innovation considerably more than we think.

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Summer Reading List: Tales of Romance

Summer lovin’: have a blast. You don’t have to read harlequin schlock to get romantically fulfilled on the beach this year.

Why not start with an overlooked, under-read classic from American Renaissance master Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Blithedale Romance is a fictionalized account of Hawthorne’s time on Brooke Farm–here called Blithedale–an attempt at a utopian commune founded by artists and free-thinkers. Free lovin’, amorous passions, and, uh, farming. Great stuff–and romance is right in the title.

For lighter yet still substantial fare, check out Lara Vapnyar’s Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love, a delicious collection of snack-sized short stories (please, please, please forgive this awful extended metaphor). Sly, smart, and occasionally sexy, Vapnyar’s tales of dislocated immigrants continue to linger on the palate long after they’ve been digested (sorry!). The recipe section at the end is the sweetest dessert (ok, I swear I’m done now).

If you like your love stories rougher around the edges, check out Charles Bukowski’s only masterpiece, Women. This rambling novel follows alter-ego Henry Chinaski’s late-in-life successful turn with the ladies. Ugly, unforgiving, honest, and hilarious, Women is one of my favorite books. Also, unlike Henry Miller’s Tropic books, you’ll actually finish this one.

We finally read Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre last summer, and believe it or not, the book is pretty great. Truly a romantic classic, but also a fine comment on gender, class, and social mores in general. And if you like it, check out Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, which tackles the back-story of a certain crazy lady in the attic who didn’t exactly get a voice in Jane Eyre.

Finally, if you want to get very specific, don’t hesitate to search the Romantic Circles website. Plenty of resources and lots of electronic texts: your source for all things Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, and more. Good stuff.