Active Readership: Media, Public, Community Roundtable @ MLA 2021

For this MLA Convention 2021 the MLA Committee on Scholarly Editions invites everyone to this roundtable discussion about active reading widely construed: within literary circles and within the media, public, and communities. The topic is inspired by recent discoveries of interactive engagement over time, from Milton’s annotations on a Shakespeare First Folio and T.S. Eliot’s recently-released posthumous comments (Statement) on Emily Hale’s letters to blog (Emily Hale Archive blog) and media commentary on both, as well as more creative relationships, e.g., between Instagram poets and their followers/readers (see Berens).

Presider, Michelle R. Warren (current CSE member)

OrganizerKatherine D. Harris (past CSE member)

Each panelist will provide a very brief (5 min) overview of their position. Dr. Warren will then offer a guided discussion that includes audience queries and commentary.

Micah Bateman: “To Quote Goodreads: Online Reader Agency”

My contribution to the MLA roundtable on active readership will draw from my own studies of the “future of reading” on social media as well as from new media scholars such as José van Dijck to call for a tempered and multifarious approach to active reading in the age of social media, similar to van Dijck’s call for a balanced approach to new media user agency. For, circulations of quotations—what scholars once might have taken as evidence of reception—are largely informed by the self-echoing corporate infrastructures of web media. Goodreads, for one, indexes quotations by mood, style, occasion, and topic so that users can find and deploy them to their social networks without having to read the text from which they may or may not derive. Auto-tweet buttons from these Goodreads pages make such deployments easier and also embed links back to Goodreads, where users can purchase books by the (mis)quoted authors from Goodreads’ parent company, Amazon. In other words, what Simone Murray would like to call “online reading formations,” or acts of active, networked reading, may merely be indexical self-styling conditioned by the relationship between web platforms and online retail. I adapt new media studies’ debates about user agency to the future of reading, suggesting along the way that attention to infrastructures may challenge ideas of reading agency and the active reader.

Bio: Micah Bateman is a Ph.D. candidate and Andrew W. Mellon fellow at the University of Texas at Austin. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as well as of the University of Iowa’s School of Library and Information Science, he combines concerns from poetry and poetics with social media analytics and the history of the book to examine the political flows of poetry citations online. Early results are forthcoming in ecibs: Communications of the International Brecht Society. Other scholarly work is forthcoming in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review and an edited volume of oceanic studies from Routledge.

Kathi Inman Berens: “The Datafied Reader: Readers-as-Data in Social Comments Posted to Instagram Poetry”

Today’s proliferation of reading data – reader reviews in Goodreads and Amazon; likes, comments and reposts on Instagram, Tumblr and Wattpad; fanfiction tagging taxonomies — situate media companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook and even Barnes and Noble as mediators at the center of reading experience. They quantify reading and hoard data; Amazon doesn’t share sales metrics with industry monitor NPD Decision Key [formerly known as BookScan], and instead offers dynamically- and internally-generated “bestseller rankings.” Data-shedding and hoarding is an essential part of the digital publishing ecosystem. The most valuable data, such as reader completion rates, is locked away as trade secrets. That data fuels competition with Amazon’s ostensible customers, book publishers. Amazon has sixteen imprints as of March 2020. Meanwhile, social media data is withheld even from United States Senate regulatory oversight (New Knowledge Group 2018).

I propose a “new kind of ‘reader response,’ where algorithms are agentic. The human reader is ‘read’ by behavioral targeting algorithms, parsed for commercial susceptibility, and served new information or ads designed to entice transaction, even if that transaction is only a click” (Berens, 2019a). I renovate “reader response criticism,” updating it to the context of contemporary book publishing digital-born Instagram poetry, using data and data aporia to account for today’s “interpretive communities” (Fish, 1980). Amazon, Google, and Facebook are now inextricable from many digital reading experiences. This talk sketches an answer to the question of how and why to read the datafied reader as material and cultural phenomenon. 

Bio: Kathi Inman Berens, Associate Professor of Book Publishing and Digital Humanities at Portland State University’s English Department, works on contemporary book publishing and e-literature. She is co-editor of the Electronic Literature Collection Volume 4 (forthcoming 2022), and was the 2014-15 U.S. Fulbright Scholar of Digital Culture to Norway. Her essays have appeared in Digital Humanities Quarterly, three volumes of the Debates in Digital Humanities series, electronic book review, and other venues. 

Laura Estill: “Commonplaces and Reading Communities”

This contribution seeks to explore one thread of the history of active readership: commonplacing and extracting. Commonplacing is a longstanding tradition (often linked to humanist thought) where readers would write down phrases or passages (sententiae) that contained proverbial wisdom. These adages were written to be taken out of their original contexts; indeed, in early modern print and manuscript, they were sometimes marked with gnomic pointers—including commonplace markers, italics, or manicules—that indicated these were words and ideas to be communally shared. Commonplace books were often passed among friends: different people would add new commonplaces to these communal volumes and would also copy passages into their own personal manuscripts. 

In this roundtable contribution, I turn to how we, as scholars, research commonplaces and extracts. I argue that the increasing amounts of digitized text coupled with the use digital tools has changed the kinds of claims we can make about these practices. I look at the types of claims that are facilitated by digital projects such as CELM: The Catalogue of English Literary Manuscripts, Commonplace Cultures, The Reading Experience Database, and my own DEx: A Database of Dramatic Extracts (co-edited with Beatrice Montedoro). Ultimately, the claims we make about historic practices of active reading as registered in commonplace books and miscellanies are circumscribed by the survival rate of manuscripts, the kinds of text we choose to digitize, and the algorithms we apply to these corpora.

Bio: Laura Estill is a Canada Research Chair and Associate Professor of English at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia.  Her monograph (Dramatic Extracts in Seventeenth-Century English Manuscripts: Watching, Reading, Changing Plays, 2015) and co-edited collections (Early Modern Studies after the Digital Turn, 2016 and Early British Drama in Manuscript, 2019) explore reception history. Her work has appeared in Shakespeare Quarterly, Papers of the Bibliographical Society of AmericaDigital Humanities Quarterly, and other venues. 

Kathrin Kaiser: “(Inter-)active reading: The potential of interactive fiction for language development”

Interactive fiction (IF), so far a niche-domain mainly inhabited by enthusiasts of adventure and role playing games, offers great potential for active and engaged reading, giving readers an opportunity to make relevant and meaningful choices, and actively influence the story-line. These mechanics create a sense of agency that encourages exploration of the fictional world. Readers become agents who critically engage with the story matter, guided by implicit and explicit feedback mechanisms. 

In light of these benefits, IF provides an excellent platform for language learning, immersing readers in narrative scenarios that model interactions with real-world relevance in culturally meaningful contexts. Within these scenarios, readers can actively engage with essential language structures, but also with pragmatic domains of language use, social protocol, and most importantly, the conceptual and knowledge systems shared by a language community. 

Moreover, within the context of IF, it is easy to imagine pushing the boundaries between reading and writing even further. Leveraging low-threshold, open source software tools for IF such as Twine (, interactive readers can become interactive writers. A narrative voice, borrowed from IF, may guide the reader/writer through the storytelling process, navigating through a series of decisions to define and embellish various story aspects and their mechanics, including character development, narrative development, and world building, thus shaking the limits of IF readers’ ‘perceived agency,’ and engaging them in a creative writing process.

Bio: Kathrin Kaiser has worked in language pedagogy for the past decade, developing game-based activities to support language learning. Her research focuses on educational technologies and the design of story-based language applications to support the revival of indigenous languages. She started a Phd program at the University of Queensland in January 2020 to investigate the potential of interactive fiction for language learning, and develop tools for the community-driven design of interactive learning solutions.

Illya Nokhrin: “Whose voice is it anyway? Readers, writers, and the collaborative construction of modernist voices”

What role do readers play in the creation of a writer’s “own voice?” How do readers’ interpretations of texts influence authors’ reputations and vice-versa? Focusing on readers’ and reviewers’ responses to Virginia Woolf’s fifth novel, The Waves, my paper argues that the creation of authors’ voices always involves collaboration between readers and writers. Authors create texts that have a narrow or wide range of interpretive possibilities, encouraging readers to either follow a predetermined reading path or inviting readers to make up their own minds about the issues addressed by the text. Readers, in turn, respond to a text’s interpretive possibilities, at times misreading the text and misconstruing its author. As a text with a particularly wide interpretive range, The Waves provides an interesting case study in how readers’ interpretations of texts lead them to different understandings of those texts’ authors. Examining readers’ disagreements about The Waves, my paper analyzes how differences in readers’ textual interpretations resulted in disparate constructions of Woolf as an author and led to shifts in Woolf’s literary reputation. I then consider how to critically engage with interpretations of The Waves that seem to misread Woolf’s text. Finally, I discuss how reading modernist reviews can help us to think of Woolf and her texts in new ways. 

Bio: Illya Nokhrin is a PhD candidate in English literature at the University of Toronto. He is also a research assistant at the Records of Early English Drama (REED) and at the Modernist Archives Publishing Project (MAPP). His research focuses on the presentation of modernist authors’ “own voices” to the British public at the turn of the twentieth century, arguing that modernist authorship was always a collaborative process between authors, publishers, and readers.

Cecily Raynor: “From Analogue to Digital Readership Networks:  Reading Cultures in Chilean and Argentine Newspapers”

Newspapers in Latin America have long served as sites for the dissemination of literary content. Ángel Rama, the late Uruguayan literary and cultural critic, argues that newspapers played a fundamental role in the creation of Latin America’s literary culture in his exploration, The Lettered City (1984). Indeed, national newspapers have historically shaped the public imaginary, Argentin’as La Nación and the revistas gauchescas reaching newly-literate populations in critical ways as a print medium as early as the late 19th century. At the same time, Latin American newspapers in both print and digital forms have long reinforced canonical and hegemonic conceptions of literature, fortifying the idea of the cultivated reader of a particular socioeconomic class. In this presentation, I examine readership practices in Latin American newspapers from the late 19th century to the present day, exploring both the analogue and digital versions of the aforementioned La Nación and the Arts and Culture section of Chilean newspaper La Tercera, In doing so, I explore how the digital life of literary content might provide space for interactive readership networks and the emergence of alternative, peripheral, youthful and or non-traditional digital publics. Online readership metrics show that alternative voices emerge, while also highlighting certain power dynamics that are replicated in analogue and digital trends, as observed in web traffic patterns. Thus, I explore how the digital editions of these newspapers at times reconfigure and challenge, and on other occasions reinforce offline relationships between readers and literary content in national newspapers. 

Bio: Cecily Raynor is an Assistant Professor of Hispanic Studies and Digital Humanities at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, where she teaches courses on contemporary Latin American literature and digital culture. Dr. Raynor is currently working on two under-contract books, a monograph on spatial practices in contemporary Latin American literature, and an edited volume on digital culture in Latin America. Her research examines contemporary Latin American literature and cultural production in analogue and digital forms. 


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