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Holding Court: Petra S. McGillen

Photograph of Petra McGillen
Photograph of Petra McGillen

In this week's edition, we speak with Petra S. McGillen, Assistant Professor of German Studies. In her book 'The Fontane Workshop: Manufacturing Realism in the Industrial Age of Print', McGillen analyzes a wealth of unexplored archival evidence, including a collection of the Theodor Fontane's 67 extant notebooks, along with an array of other 'paper tools,' such as cardboard boxes, envelopes, and slips.  With this evidence, McGillen demonstrates how Fontane compiled his realist prose works.

What is your book about?

Question: How was nineteenth-century realist literature created? Answer: with a stack of newspapers, a pair of scissors, a pot of paste, and a small army of helpers! At least, this is how Theodor Fontane, Germany’s best-known novelist in the realist vein, did it. The book reconstructs his creative process, showing how he “remixed” his writings from newspapers and other popular-cultural sources under conditions of early mass media.

Where did you get your idea(s) for this book?

It all started with a lucky find in graduate school. Randomly, I stumbled upon a footnote that mentioned Theodor Fontane’s notebooks. In Germany, Fontane is as well-known as Goethe or Kafka, and I was stunned that I had never heard about his notebooks before. I followed up and realized that not much had been published about these intriguing little media of writing (in part because they were held at an archive in former East Germany and had not been freely available to scholars until the German Reunification). As soon as I could, I traveled to Germany to explore the notebooks for real—and was hooked. They were difficult to read but also extremely fascinating because they provided access to Fontane’s paper cosmos and all aspects of his authorship, containing both traces of the drafting process and of the business side of being a freelance writer. From there, the topic quickly mushroomed—I discovered more and more “paper tools” that Fontane used, such as strange, homemade envelopes with which he loosely organized his manuscripts, and began to wonder what the relationship of these tools was to the media-historical setting in which Fontane and his peers worked. Once I understood that he worked in a media landscape that in some ways resembles our own, and that he became creative by means of copying (or cutting) and pasting, it clicked with me that I had to portray him as a remix artist, because that is the most appropriate way of capturing what his creative process was all about.

What does research look like for you? What element of research could you not live without?

My research involves heavy-duty archival work, so one element I could not live without are manuscripts, notebooks, drafts, and other such sources! Doing archival research always reminds me of doing a puzzle: at first, what’s in the box looks like a total jumble, but as you turn the pieces over and scrutinize each one more closely, you begin to figure out how they connect, and slowly but surely, the full picture emerges. It requires a lot of stamina, or what Germans call Sitzfleisch (literally, “flesh to sit on”, but it's meant more in the sense of perseverance and the ability to sit still on one's backside for a long time), but the feeling of discovery when you begin to make those connections is thrilling.

What do you think the library of the future will look like?

With more and more books, journals, and archival sources getting digitized, the library of the future will for sure shrink in physical space but expand drastically in the number of titles and items that can be accessed. On the one hand, I find this push toward digitization exciting because it will yield a whole range of new opportunities. On the other hand, I think this development will come at a cost. Libraries have never just been spaces for the storage of books; they have always also been sites where readers interact (with texts and with each other), where one can breathe and smell books, where one might meet one’s future spouse, and where one might make the unexpected, serendipitous finds that are such a vital part of research. All of this would be lost if we reduced ourselves to “digital only” models. I’m therefore hoping that the library of the future will leave room for both—the opportunities that the library as a virtual hub affords and the opportunities that arise from bringing people and books into the same place. Also, stepping into an expansive reading room that is filled to the ceiling with books feels inspiring; it takes my breath away every time. By comparison, entering an online portal feels “meh” at best.

What advice would you give to an aspiring scholar or writer?

Figure out what your most productive hours of the day are and be protective of them. Turn off your email. Spread a bucket of glue on your chair, sit down, and do not get up until you have written at least two pages.

And finally, what do you read for fun? 

The last novel that I read for fun was Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann. It’s a wild and creative take on the genre of the historical novel and tells the life of Till Eulenspiegel, a German prankster who is the protagonist of a famous early sixteenth-century chapbook. In Kehlmann's version, he makes the decision never to die, which makes for a fabulous and very entertaining narrative. Recently, I started plowing through Brian Merchant’s The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone. So far, I’ve been enjoying it tremendously. Merchant is great at disentangling the many strands that came together to make the iPhone possible and completely busts the lone-inventor myth that to this day surrounds Steve Jobs. I actually meant to read it for fun, but I find myself taking notes all the time because I really want to teach a media history class on this topic.

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