GEMS in portraits: Andrew Bricker

This week, I sat down with Andrew Bricker to talk about his research, his work at UGent and his forthcoming book about satire and defamation law; we ended up talking a lot about our shared astonishment at Belgian traffic behaviour and the things we have come to love about Ghent. As an assistant professor in English Literature, Andrew is an expert on satire from the early modern period, but his interests extend to material culture and cognitive approaches to reading. After having studied and worked in Toronto, Prague, Stanford, Montreal and Vancouver, Andrew finally settled in Ghent last year. Now he is sharing his excitement about “old books” with Flemish students (“who are really great, but don’t talk very much – yet when they do talk they have very interesting things to say!”), working on his book Libel and Lampoon: Satire in the Courts, 1670-1792, and learning Dutch (which goes “heel goed!”) while exploring Belgium on his bike on the weekends. 

How did your interests in your research arise?

“I got into early modern and eighteenth-century literature when I was at the University of Toronto and a new professor, Simon Dickie, who happened to work on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literature, was hired. He needed a research assistant and hired me, and I thought it was going to be absolutely boring – ‘whatever he works on, it’s just going to be old books’. But, he was researching this really interesting project: a revisionist history of the eighteenth century in which he rethought the big narratives we have about sentimentality. He worked with a lot of primary materials, so as his research assistant I got to see a lot of things that you never see in the classroom: I was not only reading Richardson’s Pamela, I was reading Richardson’s Pamela alongside poems about throwing dwarfs down the stairs. So I came to see the eighteenth century as this really interesting period full of strange contradictions that I wanted to study.”

“During my PhD at Stanford, I was drawn to satire. I had this question, something I didn’t really understand. A lot of eighteenth-century satire is really cruel, and I wanted to know if there were some official or unstated rules that governed what you could or could not say about someone in print or in a satire. I started looking for a way to access those rules by examining the evidence, hoping to catch a glimpse of those rules. Because I thought that the law might be an important factor, I investigated the rich history of defamation laws and press regulations in the eighteenth century. This ended up being the heart of the project.”

Do you consider your research to be interdisciplinary?

“Yes. More specifically, my research is largely based on the reciprocal relationship between law and literature. One of the things that I try to do, for example in my book, is to show not only that the law was influencing the language and physical forms of satire, but also that satirical practices themselves shaped the law. For me, interdisciplinary research should study relationships that go in both directions rather than taking a research model from one field and applying it to another. My hope is that by showing this reciprocal relationship in my research, I’m contributing not only to historical and theoretical discussions about satire and literature, but also to discussions about legal history and legal theory. I try to approach all of my research from an interdisciplinary perspective. I have some kind of question I want to answer, or problem I want to solve; and, usually, approaching this from only one perspective is never enough.”

Have you ever experienced a Eureka moment in your research?

“Whenever I’ve had a moment in which I discovered what I wanted to say about something, it has usually taken a lot of thinking about the topic and writing about it again, and again, and again. I find that if I work on a problem long enough, I often discover not the answer that I was looking for, but the question I should have been asking. And this is also what I encourage my students to do: not to look for the answer they want, but for the question they can’t answer. That will actually produce something much more interesting.”

“For instance, the first article I published was about naming practices in eighteenth-century satire. There was this old argument that satirists took the letters out of the names of their victims (so ‘J__ S__’ instead of ‘John Smith’, which I call ‘gutted names’) to avoid being sued for libel or defamation. This seemed to me a very reasonable explanation, but when I read through old libel cases I realized that the courts rejected such defences. In fact, judges said that the missing letters could just be filled in in court, meaning that gutted names were not a valid defence at all. To the courts it didn’t matter whether the person was named or not; what mattered was whether the person could be identified and that the satire did actually say something defamatory. So if gutting names was not a legal defence, why did they do it? That is as close as I have come to a Eureka moment, I think. For months I had looked at cases and could not figure out what the question was that I was asking, which turned out to be: why do satirists and their printers and booksellers gut victims’ names, if not for legal reasons? And the answer I came to was not a legal explanation; instead, this practice was a way to engage readers with the text, as a kind of game, a puzzle to be solved with allusions to both persons and other literary works. It was a kind of superficial, pseudo-ethical activity that would almost always lead to the revelation of who the victim was.”

What is the most inspiring (literary) study you have ever read?

“One of the studies that I have found most inspiring is Dorrit Cohn’s The Distinction of Fiction. I have always had an interest in narratology and I find her approach to narrative theory a little less abstract. I find most classical narratology a bit too dense and theoretical, works that use broad schema to explain how narratives work, but Cohn, instead of working from big schema, tends to take an individuated problem and then try to explore and explain it. I find her writing very accessible and at the same time extremely intelligent. Even in my own writing, which only occasionally focuses on narrative theory, I find myself thinking about Cohn as a model: as a scholar who knows how to clearly define a problem, before offering an intriguing and easy to understand answer.”

And the most recent one?

“There is this book by William Sherman, called Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England, that I love. It’s about books in renaissance England, specifically about what kinds of evidence you can deduce about how readers used books, by looking at copies of books that have been marked up by contemporary hands. And even though it is about renaissance readers, I find it very inspiring for thinking about eighteenth-century readers, specifically in the sense that, when we have evidence of reading, even if this evidence is of a different type and from different periods, we can use similar methods to interpret it. I find this book extremely useful as an object to think with, even though my current research is about readers from sometimes two centuries later. I find that looking at your own research through studies of different subjects sometimes produces new forms of attention for your own topic. By reading something different once in a while, it might just change the way you think about this thing you thought you knew so well.”

By Renée Vulto

About the image: The Lawyers Answer to the Country Parson’s good Advice to My Lord Keeper © British Library Board (General Reference Collection 1493.a.6)