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Bad Writing: Responses to Early Gothic Fiction and the Cultivation of Emotional Taste

  • Author(s): Mathews, Elizabeth Jean;
  • Advisor(s): Gross, Daniel M;
  • et al.

“Bad Writing: Responses to Early Gothic Fiction and the Cultivation of Emotional Taste” analyzes portrayals of emotion in early gothic fiction, using the particular features of these portrayals to explain variations in reception. Focusing on eighteenth-century British gothic works that have been harshly criticized either in their day or in ours, I discuss Eliza Parsons’s Castle of Wolfenbach, Matthew Lewis’s Monk, Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, and Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, novels whose tumultuous reception histories especially beg questions about how and why readers judge and feel differently about literature. For instance, early reviewers of Udolpho express sorrow and terror in response to what they describe as the novel’s well-wrought scenes, but a recent Goodreads reviewer writes that she would like to slap its heroine. I consider these kinds of responses to be a function of what I call “emotional taste,” and I propose explanations for differences in emotional taste by closely analyzing how the novels construct affective experiences using tools with variable associations. In doing so, I attend to the way formal, linguistic, and mechanical features gain or lose emotional relevance depending on a reader’s historical positioning and attitude toward the text. I argue that because the craft of gothic fiction carries complex histories of emotional relation within and beyond the text, when critics judge the writing of these novels as good or bad, their judgments reveal less about the quality of the writing and more about the affective norms of literary and critical expression that inform the judgment. In turn, when critics argue that certain kinds of reading are good or bad, they draw attention to the ways these affective norms are in flux. Using a broad range of responses from professional and amateur critics, I demonstrate how the emotional rhetoric and conventions of diverse critiques, when put in conversation with the details of the text, can offer new perspectives on the novels and on the practices of literary criticism themselves.

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