Hywel Dix answered some questions for us about his new book The Late-Career Novelist: Career Construction Theory, Authors and Autofiction.
How would you describe your book in one sentence?
The Late-Career Novelist is the first major study of the often-neglected later works by major, established contemporary writers.
What drew to you writing about this subject?
Like much research it started by accident: during the course of my own reading of contemporary fiction I noticed that the later-works of many contemporary writers seem to have lots of things in common. For example, they are often metafictive in a very particular way, foregrounding one or more characters who are themselves either writers or artists, or at least some kind of storyteller. Plus, in many cases, authors in the late stages of their careers seem to write about themes, events or ideas that they have already portrayed earlier in their careers, but from a new perspective. It is as if by inserting the figure of an author or narrator into their own fictional work, they are adding a newly self-conscious and self-reflective avatar of themselves to material that they have already produced.
How long have you been researching it? How did you come to study it?
It has been a big project. Realising that lots of literary careers go through comparable stages in this way led me to research the concept of a career as such, and this in turn is how I ‘discovered’ the field known as Career Construction Theory – which is really a sub-branch of psychology – and which was enormously useful in helping me to conceptualise the different components of an authorial career from a theoretical point of view.
What does your book focus on that hasn’t been explored elsewhere?
To my knowledge, this is the first critical study to apply Career Construction Theory to literary research and to discussion of authorial careers. (Although interestingly, as a branch of psychology, CCT is distantly related to psychoanalysis, which most certainly HAS been thoroughly and effectively applied to literary research in all sorts of ways.) In fact, the more I read about Career Construction Theory, the more I was struck by the disparity between how quick literary scholars have been to embrace psychoanalysis compared to their neglect of Career Construction Theory. I was interested in finding out why this should be.
What is really interesting is the method employed by Career Construction Theory: once upon a time, career counselors would mainly have relied on psychometric testing, computerized aptitude tests and various other forms of statistical data to try and advise their clients on suitable choices of careers. Career Construction Theory transforms this approach by combining it with a qualitative, narrative-based method: In effect, its practitioners ask their clients to see themselves as authors of their own life stories, as well as the main protagonists in those stories, in order to help them write the next chapter in that life story (which means entering a new stage of their career by making new vocational decision based on the critical self-awareness that arises by seeing themselves in their own stories.)
Since Career Construction Theory treats all clients who have entered a period of career uncertainty as metaphorical ‘authors’ of their own career narratives, I thought it would be really interesting to apply this method to a category of people whose careers are already literally authors. In other words, in my study, the mainly metaphorical concept of authorship that I found in Career Construction Theory is rendered strangely literal and is even given a physical, mechanical aspect by identifying the different stages of a career that contemporary writers go through. This is turn enabled me to focus particularly on the oft-overlooked late stages and late works. But I should also say that ‘late’ here is not an effect of biological age: I define ‘lateness’ as a relational construct, defined by its alignment with what has come before. In this sense, somebody could be a ‘late’ author at a relatively young age if they have already achieved a certain degree of success; or they could be a ‘new’ author at an advanced age.
What initially drew you to Literary Studies?
I have studied English at BA, MA and PhD level so I guess it is my life. As university academics, rightly or wrongly we often find ourselves under pressure to demonstrate the vocational benefit to our students of studying a subject like literature at university. I don’t wholly agree with this approach myself: I think studying literature is rich and enriching for its own sake, and many of our students would say the same. However, in the marketised environment of education that I just mentioned, it is sometimes necessary to remind ourselves of the professional skills and vocational benefit our students might gain from studying something like English Literature, given that it is not an obviously vocational ‘subject’ and given also that the job market is ever more competitive. In this sense, a research project like mine that elicits the career components of literary study is bound to be beneficial because in addition to thinking about literature for its own sake, it also has this outward-looking, vocational focus on professional behaviours in careers after graduation.
Which Bloomsbury Lit Studies books have you read? Which are your favorites, and why?
I have read Ethics and Desire in the Wake of Postmodernism by Graham Matthews, and Chance and the Modern British Novel by Julia Jordan in the course of my research. Each of these speak – in quite distinct and separate ways – to some of the same concerns that I was interested in when I started looking at ideas of literary careers, vocations, callings and so on. What is especially interesting is that career choices do not simply have to be about selecting a job or company to work for; or a profession to work in. Matthews’s study clearly shows that there is an important ethical dimension to professional decisions that can also correctly be called vocational. I am also interested in the fact that – as Jordan shows – attitudes to thinks like fate, fortune, chance and luck have a discernible and changing history: how people have thought about these things has tended to be different in different periods and societies. In our own, the role of blind fate – and the related notion of pre-destination – is increasingly being rejected altogether, especially by women writers, who are more interested in portraying worlds where their protagonists make their own decisions and so determine their own fates.
Hywel Dix is Principal Lecturer in English and Communication at Bournemouth University, UK. His previous books include Postmodern Fiction and the Break-Up of Britain (Bloomsbury, 2010).