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Twitter and the Biographies of the Future

2 March 2020 - Dr Clare Hutton has just completed a visiting fellowship at the Trinity Long Room Hub in association with Trinity’s School of English. While she is currently working on a project looking at the central role of women in the writing of Joyce’s Ulysses, she is also interested in how we might write future biographies about contemporary writers, many of whom talk to their audiences on Twitter.

Merging digital methods with her expertise in book history and literature, she hopes that new research can pave the way for writing the author biographies of the future and providing a unique insight into contemporary literary readership.

In Loughborough University, Dr Hutton is a Senior Lecturer in English and the lead of a new partnership with the Booker Prize Foundation to encourage first year students to read the books on the Booker Prize list and host a Big Booker Read event each year on campus.

Their most recent event was with Irish author Anne Enright. Going back almost 100 years to the publication of Ulysses, Dr Hutton’s current project asks what makes a great piece of literature?

The women behind Ulysses

According to Dr Hutton, in the case of Ulysses, it’s the “practical and psychological labour” of four women behind the scenes who were central to the completion of the epic novel. Describing her work as “a bit of feminist redress”, she said that these women carve out a readership and provide the financial support for Joyce that, without which, we may not be celebrating the centenary of the novel in 2022.   

Clare Hutton and Eve Patten

Dr Clare Hutton and Professor Eve Patten at the Trinity Long Room Hub

The women, who are all associated in different ways with the book trade, “play undeniably formative roles in helping Joyce”, Dr Hutton says.  

Her research which will be the focus of an exhibition in the Harry Ransom Center in Texas around the centenary of Ulysses, which is fitting considering that two women were instrumental to facilitating the readership of Ulysses in the United States, at a time when Joyce had never been to the US. Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, were the editors of the Little Review, an American Journal in which Ulysses was serialised. Dr Hutton explains that Anderson and Heap found Joyce’s work to be morally risky and innovative, without however having any knowledge of him or his cultural milieu. “They really put themselves on the line for Ulysses at a very early stage in the history of the book when Joyce hasn’t even finished it. He has no idea where it’s going to take him."

if they hadn’t been so strenuous in their support for Joyce, he would’ve lost his way

Countering the common portrayal of Joyce as the “genius, hand-writing the manuscript”, she argues that “if they hadn’t been so strenuous in their support for Joyce, he would’ve lost his way. The sort of support that is given to something like that is very formative for propelling people onwards.”

The Little ReviewConsidering that Joyce’s family had been displaced, and he was living in Zurich, the financial support that he received from another woman, Harriet Shaw Weaver, the British editor of The Egoist, is also notable. As Dr Hutton explains, “without the financial support Joyce would simply not be able to keep on writing.”

Sylvia Beach is another American woman who’s known as the first publisher of Ulysses in Paris. “She turns her small book shop and lending library in the streets of Paris into a publisher in order to publish the first edition of Ulysses. Weaver can’t publish it in London because of the risks associated with obscenity and the Little Review editors have been dragged through an obscenity trial in the US due to one of the chapters in the book.”

In the Little Review Joyce is also privy to how the readers are perceiving his work, something which was very difficult to capture at the time, Dr Hutton says. In the reader-critic column of this periodical, people are writing in to say how much they like Ulysses. This is a further encouragement for him to keep going and finish the book, and is something Dr Hutton explored in her recent monograph, Serial Encounters: Ulysses and the Little Review.

Fast-forward to 2020 and Dr Hutton’s new research is looking at a very different reader-author relationship, playing out mostly on social media and platforms such as Twitter.

Digital literary history

“How are we going to write literary history in the future?”, Dr Hutton asks as part of her new research 'Literary History Since Web 2.0' examining the social impacts of digital on literary history and the multiplicity of new sources.

“We’ve got really lively conversation going on about contemporary books. If you take Sally Rooney’s Normal People, you will find hundreds and hundreds of people saying what they like about that book or what they hate about that book”, comments Dr Hutton.

That authors and biographers can now gain this level of insight into what ordinary readers think of a particular book, is incredibly useful for literary research, Dr Hutton says. Major contemporary authors are also tweeting and engaging with readers online, which could be a rich resource for authorial biography. The problem is, however, posts on social media can be particularly ephemeral. How can researchers capture posts that are older than a month, or harvest this information?

Dr Hutton says that this is where she needs the help of computer scientists and social scientists and the methods developed through the field of Digital Humanities, in looking at ways of data mining and data scraping.

“Digital humanities has been really active in finding the methods, but the adoption of those methods by mainstream humanities scholars has been quite patchy. What I’m trying to do with this project is bring the two things together and try and create a bit more contact between traditional literary scholarship and the new methodologies of digital humanities.”

During her fellowship at the Trinity Long Room Hub, Dr Hutton has been introduced to the work of Trinity’s Centre for Digital Humanities and has been developing an application for funding for this project. As part of this, she hopes to collaborate with Professor Eve Patten in Trinity’s School of English.

Listen to Dr Clare Hutton’s recent Fellow in Focus at the Trinity Long Room Hub in conversation with Professor Eve Patten. Click here or listen below:

The Trinity Centre for Digital Humanities was launched in 2016 and is based in the Trinity Long Room Hub. Find out more here.

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