Unlike most English professors, I watch a lot of Fox News. Silently, assiduously, three times a week, for exactly thirty minutes. This is, as you may have guessed, courtesy of my gym, which has chosen to stream Fox News on one television screen and CNN on the other. This juxtaposition of the famously fair and balanced network with the notoriously fake news site was, in 2016, still simple viewing: on the left screen, Hillary was a great candidate, while on the right screen, Hillary was a lying deleter of emails. A single political discourse, two different forms of commentary.
Now, however, in 2017, my gym routine has become more difficult. Take last week: on CNN, Russia was scandalously embroiled in U.S. elections; on Fox News, there was a scandal unfolding about Ivanka Trump’s dress. As an educated professional confident in my grasp of contemporary politics, I nearly fell off my elliptical. How had I missed this? Was the dress blue? Would the President be impeached?
The dress in question had bows on the sleeves, which one commentator had criticized as inappropriately girly. I had, just barely, caught the great sleeveless scandal of June 2017, in which Ivanka’s arms violated established White House dress codes: I had not, despite my daily news reading, caught the decorated sleeves scandal of July 2017.
TL;DR: Ivanka Trump wears dresses with a variety of sleeves.
I mention this incident, not only to broadcast my commitment to low impact cardiovascular activities, but to explain how literary studies may need to be reworked for the U.S. in 2017. Our field has generally agreed about the centrality of two things:
1. The ongoing importance of close reading
2. The significance of discourse analysis
Are these, however, still true in 2017?
There is now arguably a U.S. discourse around sleeves, and there is certainly plenty of semantic richness and cultural history. Discussing the dresses of Presidentially proximate women has been, in the States, a well-established pastime. The problem is not that such discussions are trivial distractions – or as we now call it, covfefe – but that close analysis and discourse networks may be irrelevant. Comments on sleeves are simple statements, and thus more suitable for surface reading than for seeking their analytic depths. They gain their significance, not as part of an interlocking network of discursive enunciations: there are no longer two sides to every story, but rather seemingly disconnected, serially delivered anecdotes in at least two different takes on every happening.
TL;DR: Please, no manifestoes for “sleeve reading.”
I could have–and probably should have–spent my sleeve-study time reading more about the Russia investigation. Certainly, in the established genre of legislative testimony, one can still rely upon literary studies skills. We can debate what it means when the President of the United States says to the Director of the FBI, “I hope you can let this go.” Can hope count as a directive, or is it too ephemeral to constitute a criminal action?
But I didn’t finish reading James Comey’s testimony. As the kids say, “TL;DR”: it was too long, so I didn’t read. And, in any case, like most English professors in the United States, I’m already affiliated to one of the nation’s two political teams (“Go Donkeys!”). Keeping up with the latest political developments is now, for better or worse, an amusing, affiliative hobby.
The TL;DR of my response to Comey may be akin to the TL;DR of the student who stops reading Hamlet midway, confident that all major plot details have already been apprehended.
TL;DR: In the end, everyone dies.
In a year when U.S. news has become endlessly, unpredictably entertaining, reading is first a matter of selection, and only then an issue of interpretation.
Like our students, we scholars don’t always finish our reading–but unlike our students, we are professionally cultivated in the crucial tasks of deciding what to read and how to read it. We don’t close read everything (and we distant read even less): sometimes we underline, but often we skim, and more often than we wish to admit, we say we’re going to read something and never get around to it. Our personal lists of things left unread get larger with every day of close and careful reading.
It is only in the classroom, today, that we insist that each text must be read carefully, closely, and completely. Many of us already utilize a tacit ICYMI (“in case you missed it”) mode for class discussions: outlining the plot, noting the major arguments, getting all students on the same page whether or not they finished the reading. We might better equip our students if we openly discussed TL;DR instead, thereby acknowledging not only the great unread but the existence of a wide variety of reading modes, always working in concert with our cherished close reading.
We can bring TL;DR into the classroom as a research method: a means of determining, as we already do, what is worth reading, and how it should be read.
TL;DR: I’m very interested in what you didn’t read.
(Yes, I could have written this without mentioning Ivanka – but I just want you to think about TL;DR, not experience it upon encountering my piece.)
Featured image credit: Ivanka Trump by Marc Levin. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.