This article was originally published during my time as guest-blogger for the International Gothic Association’s postgraduate blog, on 5 Oct. 2012. Back then I was a postgrad working in the field of Gothic Studies; the article was written for my peers. I’ve made some amendments to the article, some of which are minor (punctuation, capitalization), others less so. This amended version is a better expression of what I was trying to say five years ago. The basic argument remains unchanged and is, I think, still relevant.
My copy of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories contains a ‘reading group guide’, a list of questions designed to stimulate discussion. When I first read the list one question in particular stood out:
‘How is this story [“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”] influenced by the gothic literary tradition that preceded it, and how – in its setting, mood, plot, and message – does it embrace the gothic itself?’
‘Embrace the gothic’! Those words gave me cause to wince when reading the question. Fred Botting has written that ‘if Gothic works tend to repeat a number of stock formulas, so does its criticism’ (5). Suspecting this phrase to be one such cliché I decided to google it, to confirm whether or not this was the case. Performing that search delivered 24, 900 results. [Note: in 2017, the same search produced 345, 000 results.] Make of that what you will.
Initially, I was surprised to find that most of the links that came up were not academic in nature. A few were, but not many. That might have something to do with how search engines operate, prioritising commercial interests. Because most of the links were blatantly commercial, consumer-oriented and… strange.
‘Perhaps you embrace the gothic. Perhaps you’re an aspiring med student. Either way this mug is sure to make a statement.’
‘All immersed in the spirit of the times long foregone, Antwerp, Bruges and Ghent embrace the Gothic element at its most elegant…’
‘Embrace the Gothic trend this season with our fab Autumn/Winter new arrivals.’
‘Scotland’s premier chain of fun pubs has everything you need to enjoy your big night and you may wish to embrace the Gothic surroundings as your hen night theme…’
(Unfortunately, this site has since disappeared – but rest assured, there are others advertising ‘gothic’ hen nights across the country!)
In so far as the phrase is simply a rhetorical flourish (just as things are always ‘inexorably’ or ‘inextricably intertwined’, and never just ‘intertwined’) it hardly seems worth fussing over. But I think the phrase can also be read as being symptomatic of a larger problem. Simply showing that writers ‘embrace the gothic’, and embracing that perceived embrace, threatens to encourage an uncritical stance of ‘Gothic for Gothic’s sake’. As Alexandra Warwick has argued, it seems ‘unproductive to work towards identifying [a text] as Gothic, or identifying Gothic elements in an act of critical closure’ (7). There must always be more to what we do, and more to Gothic Studies as a field of research, than simply pointing at things and calling them ‘gothic’. I already have friends and family who do that for me, who take great delight in teasing me by pointing something out and asking ‘is that gothic?’
When I first googled this pet-peeve stock-phrase I came across many people (again, mostly from outside academe) who used it for self-promotional purposes. This was never more starkly apparent than in the example of two people who talked of ‘embracing the gothic’ on their dating website profiles. Though we may not like to think of it in mercenary terms, we [Gothic scholars] also use and propagate the gothic, however incidental that might seem when compared to our academic aims, to promote ourselves. Gothic criticism may be a niche market, but it is a market, and I have a sneaking suspicion that any academic texts on supernatural, anti-realist (heck, even realist) fiction now stand a much better chance of being published, purchased and read if their authors and publishers can claim a connection to ‘the Gothic’, however tenuous. But investing so much in a single term, and allowing that term to override so many others commonly encountered under the banner of Gothic Studies – terror, horror, the uncanny, macabre, phantasmagoria, the weird, fantastic, supernatural, grotesque, etc., etc. – has created a monster. Gothic Studies, like the B-movie Blob, has become an increasingly homogenous and homogenizing discourse, expanding to absorb everything in its path.
I think it’s safe to say that ‘Gothic Studies’ denotes a far broader field than its name suggests, and that much of the work that goes on within it is no longer strictly beholden to any afore-mentioned ‘gothic literary tradition’. And increasingly I find myself reading articles that, I can’t help thinking, would benefit from not having to constantly refer to this vague and amorphous thing we call ‘the Gothic’ – articles where you could score out the word ‘gothic’ and still, I think, have a paper that fell within Gothic Studies’ broad remit. Perhaps, instead of celebrating the act of ‘embracing’ the gothic, the centre that cannot hold, we should loosen our grip on it, to regain some necessary critical distance.
Botting, Fred, ed. The Gothic. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2001.
Irving, Washington. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories. New York, NY: The Modern Library, 2001.
Warwick, Alexandra. ‘Feeling Gothicky?’ Gothic Studies 9.1 (2007): 5-15.